Saturday, February 5, 2011

I'm a Fool to do Your Dirty Work*

We all end up doing things we don't want to do. We may be persuaded, paid, threatened or "guilted" into doing things that go "against the grain" for us, or it may just be "a favour for a friend." Either way, we've probably all been in the situation of being pressured to do things we didn't feel good about doing. That pressure to do someone else's "dirty work" can add an interesting layer to a crime fiction story. First, it's realistic. Most of us understand that feeling and can identify with it. Second, it can add tension and suspense. It's also an interesting motivation.

For example, in Agatha Christie's The Clocks, Special Services agent Colin Lamb is in the town of Crowdean on the trail of a spy ring. He gets caught up in a murder investigation when he quite literally bumps into a young woman who's rushed out of a house screaming that there's a dead man in the house. Lamb goes in the house to see for himself and sure enough, there's an unidentified dead man inside. The murder seems like a complicated one with all sorts of strange clues, so Lamb takes the case to his father's friend Hercule Poirot and challenges him to solve it. Poirot takes up the challenge and begins to sort through the case. Matters are made even more complex when another character in the story agrees to "do a favour for a friend." When that character finds out that the "favour" was actually "dirty work" done to hide a murderer, there's another death. In the end, Poirot and Lamb work together, each in his own way, to find out who the killer is and it turns out to be, as Poirot says, "a very simple crime."

In Christie's Hickory Dickory Death (AKA Hickory Dickory Dock), Poirot's frighteningly efficient secretary Miss Felicity Lemon asks him to help her sister Mrs. Hubbard get to the bottom of a strange series of thefts at the student hostel she manages. Poirot agrees and pays a visit to the hostel. On the night of Poirot's visit, Celia Austin, who's one of the residents, says that she's been responsible for most of the thefts. At first, it seems that the matter has been cleared up, although Poirot still feels there are some things left unexplained. Then, two nights later, Celia dies of what looks like suicide. It's soon proven to be murder, though, and now Poirot and Inspector Sharpe look into the lives of the hostel residents to see who would have wanted to murder Celia and why. It turns out that Celia knew too much about someone's doings, and, as the saying goes, signed her own death warrant by revealing what she knew to the killer. Later in the novel, we discover that someone at the hostel has known all along who killed Celia, but felt that there was no choice but to do some "dirty work" for the murderer. After another death, though, that character (who'd never banked on murder, anyway) no longer chooses to stand in with the killer and tells all.

Emma Lathen's Murder to Go features some "dirty work" by Clyde Sweeney, a disgruntled delivery truck driver who works for Chicken Tonight, a fast-food restaurant company. Chicken Tonight's franchisees are excited at the premiere of its newest recipe, Chicken Mexicali, and the dish is launched with fanfare. The timing is good, too, since there's a pending merger between Chicken Tonight and Southeastern Insurance. Then, several customers are sickened after eating the new offering; one even dies. It's soon discovered that Sweeney may have poisoned the ingredients before transporting them from the warehouse to the franchise restaurants. The case seems settled until Sweeney disappears and is later found killed. John Putnam Thatcher, vice president for Sloan Guaranty Bank (the company brokering the merger) investigates what's been happening since it will likely affect the merger. What he finds is that Sweeney was doing "dirty work" for someone who wanted to scuttle the merger.

Janet Pisula pays the ultimate price for getting someone to do her "dirty work" in K.C. Constantine's The Blank Page. She's a shy, quiet student who's found strangled in the room she's taken at a rooming-house near the local community college. At first, there seems to be no reason for her to have been killed. She had, so it seems, no enemies; in fact, no-one really knew her well at all, including her house-mates. She was so shy that she almost never spoke up in class and certainly hadn't attracted any attention. Because Janet Pisula was the kind of quiet, retiring person she was, it takes Rockford Police Chief Mario Balzic quite a while to find out enough about her background to discover why she would have been killed. In the end, he learns that she'd paid someone to do some "dirty work" for her at the cost of her life.

In Martin Clark's The Legal Limit, we meet successful Patrick County, Virginia commonwealth attorney Mason Hunt. He and his brother Gates have in common that they were raised by a violent alcoholic father and a mother who tried her best but was frequently victimised herself. Gates tried to protect his brother as best he could, but both brothers were frequently abused. The two brothers make completely different kinds of choices: Mason takes every opportunity he can get, goes to college on a scholarship, and becomes a successful attorney; Gates, on the other hand, wastes his athletic ability and lives on petty drug dealing, his girlfriend's Welfare check and money he gets from his mother. One afternoon, Gates Hunt gets into an argument with romantic rival Wayne Thompson. Wayne leaves after a shouting match, but later that night, the Hunt brothers encounter Thompson again. Before anyone really knows what's happened, Gates Hunt has shot Thompson. Mason Hunt's sense of filial loyalty leads him to do some "dirty work" for his brother; he covers up the shooting and life goes on for both brothers. Years later, Gates is arrested and convicted of cocaine trafficking. He begs his brother to get him out of prison but Mason refuses. When he learns of his brother's decision, Gates accuses Mason of the long-ago shooting of Wayne Thompson and now, Mason faces an indictment for a murder he didn't commit.

Sometimes, of course, sleuths have to do others' "dirty work," too. For instance, in Rhys Bowen's Evanly Bodies, Constable Evan Evans is named to a new Major Incident Team, which is part of an initiative designed to get police from different geographic areas to work together. Evans' team, under the leadership of DI Bragg, is called into action immediately when the body of Martin Rodgers is found. Then a second death occurs, and a third. Now, the team has to try to find out the link between the three victims. By chance, Evans discovers what that link is and sets up a plan to catch the killer. The only problem is, there are very good reasons to feel sympathy for the murderer, and when Evans discovers the real truth about the killings, the last thing he really wants is to imprison the culprit. But Bragg wants the case wrapped up in order to give the new initiative credibility. Besides, as Bragg points out, the team's job is to catch criminals, not interpret the law. So Evans ends up having to do the "dirty work" of being a part of the arrest.

Walter Mosley's A Red Death also involves some "dirty work." Former airplane mechanic Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins has settled into a post-World War II life in the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles. All's well until he gets a letter from the Internal Revenue Service claiming that he owes thousands of dollars in back taxes - money he can't pay - and threatening jail unless he pays immediately. Rawlins assumes that he'll end up in jail for a long time; then, he's contacted by an FBI agent who offers him a deal. In exchange for taking care of Rawlins' tax problems, the FBI wants Rawlins to help bring down someone they believe is a Communist. Rawlins isn't comfortable with the idea, but he's even less comfortable with the idea of going to jail. So he reluctantly agrees to "get close to" the FBI's target. The better he gets to know the target, though, the more complicated the situation gets. Rawlins has a lot of sympathy for the man and feels that he's betraying a friendship by continuing to spy on him. Besides, a few attempts on his own life, plus three other deaths, convinces Rawlins that he's become a target himself. In the end, Rawlins figures out what's really going on and who's behind all of the events.

Having to do someone else's "dirty work" can add a solid layer of suspense and interest to a novel. But what's your view? Have you enjoyed novels that feature this theme? Which ones?

: The title of this post is a line from Steely Dan's Dirty Work.


  1. Great examples! Getting others to do the dirty work is a terrific technique! :)

  2. This was a really interesting post. I don't mind a bit of dirty work myself. It can definitely add an extra element of suspense.
    I write in the mystery/thriller genrre too. So glad to have found you!

  3. Jemi - Thanks :-). I like that strategy, too, and it can really build suspense.

    Michelle - Thank you :-). It's nice to meet a fellow mystery author. And I agree completely; using a bit of "dirty work" can add interest and suspense to a novel whether it's the sleuth or someone else who's doing the work.

  4. That extra twist of getting others to do the dirty work and drawing the reader in to wanting them to, adds great suspense. Another wonderful post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  5. Mason - Thank you :-). I think that extra layer can add to a story, too. It's interesting to me to learn what the hold is over someone that gets that person to do someone else's "dirty work."

  6. Oh wow, those are some great examples of dirty work. I try not to make the underlings do the dirty work but I know my MCs hate it. Sometimes the best stories are when you're forced to do the dirty work even if it goes against what you feel is right.

  7. Clarissa - Oh, thank you :-). And yes, it can make for an excellent story, can't it, when a character is forced to do someone else's "dirty work" and it leads to an ethical dilemma. As long as that sub-plot doesn't take over the central plot, it can really add to the suspense, too.

  8. Personally I do not like stories where someone else is made to do the dirty work. But then I do not like people being manipulated, and this is a supreme example of manipulation.
    Great examples all of them, as usual.

  9. Rayna - Why, thank you :-). You know, I like your use of the term "manipulation;" that's really exactly what it is. Getting someone else to do one's "dirty work" is manipulation. I'm not fond of manipulation, either; to me, it's taking advantage of someone.