Friday, March 18, 2011

You're Playing So Cool, Obeying Every Rule*

We all have to deal with rules and policies. Many policies are there for good reasons, too. For instance, many stores have a policy of checking customers’ identification when they use credit cards. That ID check makes sense, as it’s intended to prevent card theft and fraud. But policies can also get in the way of getting things done efficiently and effectively, especially if the person who’s enforcing the policy is inflexible about it. If you’ve ever gone up against a stony-faced bureaucrat or an intransigent sales clerk, you know exactly what I mean. Detectives have to deal with policies and those who carry them out all the time, whether it’s in real life or in crime fiction. Some of those policies are very helpful to the sleuth; many sleuths, though, are much more focused on getting the case solved than they are on following policy. It’s not that they’re against policies (well, perhaps some of them are ;-) ). It’s more that they see solving the case as the highest priority. For most sleuths, not catching the “bad guy” has far greater consequences than does breaking a particular policy. That conflict between the need to solve a case and the need to work within “the system” can make for an interesting level of tension in a crime fiction story. And it’s interesting to see the tactics the sleuth uses for getting around policy when it’s needed.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d), Miss Marple is under doctor’s orders to rest, stay at home and in general do very little, especially since a recent attack of bronchitis. Her nephew Raymond West has hired a live-in nurse, Miss Knight, to take care of Miss Marple and enforce the doctor’s orders. Miss Marple, though, has other ideas. She has no intention of being confined to her home if she feels well enough to go out. And yet she knows all too well that the doctor and Miss Knight want her to stay where she is. So Miss Marple finds an interesting way to get around this policy. She invents a long list of errands for Miss Knight one day, and while the nurse is gone, Miss Marple goes out. While she’s out, she meets Heather Badcock, who lives in the new council housing in the village. When Heather suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison, Miss Marple decides to find out who killed the victim and why. Her ingenious ways of getting around the ever-vigilant Miss Knight add a light touch to this novel.

Miss Marple also goes up against policy in 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw). In that novel, Miss Marple’s friend Elspeth McGillicuddy witnesses a murder on a train. The only problem is, no body is discovered, and no-one’s been reported missing. So the police are not willing to make any kind of investigation. In fact, they’re not really inclined to believe that there even was a murder. Both women are frustrated with this policy although they both understand why the police don’t want to investigate if there is no case. Miss Marple thinks of an ingenious way around the policy. She deduces where the body must be – on the property of Luther Crackenthorpe – and gets her friend Lucy Eyelesbarrow to take a position there. When Lucy discovers the body, Miss Marple is able to give the police the evidence they need to show that there is a murder to investigate.

The world of academe is full of policies. Trust me. And Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe run up against them in An Advancement of Learning. In that novel, a woman’s body is discovered on the campus of Holm Coultredge College. Dalziel and Pascoe are called in to find out who the dead woman is and how and why she died. As they try to get to the truth of the matter, they run up against all sorts of policies and academic bureaucracy. They do find out, though, that the victim is Alison Girling, former College President. As they try to trace her last movements, they run up against more policy and bureaucracy. Miss Girling was said to have died in a freak avalanche while she was out of the country on holiday, and getting accurate information about her travel, her flight plans and so on means that both Dalziel and Pascoe face off against quite a lot of policies. Dalziel in particular deals with policy in a “head-on collision” way. But Pascoe himself isn’t averse to confronting bureaucrats when the need arises. In the end, the two of them find out who wanted to kill Alison Girling and why.

Airline policies become a challenge to Professor Jake Landau in John Alexander Graham’s Something in the Air. Landau is traveling with his friend Martin Ross from Boston to New York when a bomb goes off in the plane. Ross is killed; Landau is wounded but survives. When he recovers, Landau decides to find out what happened to his friend. Almost immediately he runs up against airlines’ policies of not divulging any information. Since he’s a civilian, he also runs up against the same challenge when he tries to get information from law enforcement officials. When Landau continues to try to find out who and what is behind the bombing, he ends up risking his own life.

Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest is not one to blindly follow policy – especially if she knows (or thinks she knows) that a policy is wrong. For instance, in Gunshot Road, Tempest is temporarily under the command of Bruce Cockburn. Cockburn’s team is sent to Green Swamp Well when the body of Albert Ozolins is found in his shack. The most logical explanation for Ozolins’ death is that he was murdered in a drunken quarrel with John “Wireless” Petherbridge. There’s evidence, too. The two men were seen and heard quarrelling. Besides, Wireless was found in a drunken stupor in the same cabin. So Cockburn is satisfied that Wireless is guilty. Tempest doesn’t think the explanation is that easy, though, and decides to do a little investigation of her own. That’s strictly against policy, though, and for good reason. It’s dangerous to investigate a murder on one’s own, and there is police procedure to follow. Cockburn directly orders Tempest not to investigate; not surprisingly, she doesn’t obey. That decision gets Tempest into a great deal of trouble and danger – and leads her to the solution of the case.

Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas “Vish” Puri has to cope with quite a lot of bureaucratic policy when he takes the case of successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal in The Case of the Missing Servant. Kasliwal has been accused of murdering a family servant, Mary Murmu. There is evidence against him and the police would like nothing better than to make an example of Kasliwal in order to prove that the law applies to everyone, even the rich and powerful. Kasliwal is arrested with a great deal of fanfare and is immediately wrapped in layers of policy. Puri is now up against obdurate clerks and police and politicians with their own agendas. Puri actually has an interesting way of dealing with the policies he has to confront. He uses his most authoritative manner and basically bullies the clerks into giving him the information he wants. Once he’s gathered what he needs, he’s able to persuade the police who’ve arrested Kasliwal that they’ve got the wrong man. Among other things, this novel is actually a very interesting look at complicated sets of policies and the inventive ways people have of getting round them.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe also finds herself up against policy in The Kalahari Typing School for Men. She’s trying to locate the former landlady of a client who wants to make amends for a wrong that he did years ago. She discovers that the landlady has become a widow and that her husband was a government worker. So she goes to the bureau that handles the pension the widow gets. At first, the clerk she speaks to refuses to give her any information. Mma. Ramotswe uses the clerk’s rules against him, though, and invents a rule that allows her to have the information she wants. It’s a funny and clever way to get around a policy.

And then there are policies that some sleuths completely ignore. For instance, Martin Edwards’ Hannah Scarlett and Fern Larter are none too happy about their boss Lauren Self’s new Healthy Eating Initiative, although neither is against being healthy. In The Serpent Pool, Scarlett and Larter work together to solve the six-year-old murder of Bethany Friend and the more recent murders of George Saffell and Stuart Wagg. The two are friends anyway and meet more than once to discuss the case and to catch up socially. Several of those conversations take place over meals that are most definitely not a part of the Healthy Eating Iniative, and that adds a humourous touch to the novel.

How do your favourite sleuths balance the need to have some kind of order (and therefore, policy) with the need to quickly and efficiently solve cases?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kenny Loggins' Footloose.


  1. Actually, I'm surprised University policies haven't been the motivation behind more murders. I know I've been sorely tempted from time to time to wreck vengeance on those who have drawn up the latest taradiddle designed, or so it seems, specifically to make my job a thousand times more difficult to do.

  2. Annie - Oh, that is hilarious! And you are so, so right, too. So many University policies seem to get precisely and exactly in the way of doing one's job well. My students tell me that it's no easier on them, either. Even policies that are "supposed to" be helpful.... aren't.

  3. Fine examples, and my review book of today is another great example of bending the rules a bit. As I mentions, Bruno doesn´t care much about the ´laws of Brussel´. Another funny example is how they get round driving home when they have had one glass too many.

  4. Dorte - Oh, thanks for mentioning Bruno, Chief of Police. I confess I haven't read that novel yet, but from your excellent review of it, it seems like a perfect example of what I mean. It's now on my TBR list (as if I needed anything else to add to that list... ;-) ).

  5. I think what's fun about much of detective fiction is that most bend the rules. I'm sure Marple and Poirot and Wimsey would not be able to assist the police like they do. Writers are always looking for ways to bend the rules without getting caught. Great post.

  6. Clarissa - You know, I hadn't thought about it like that, but you're quite right. Writers really do look for ways to bend the rules, don't they? And I agree with you that it's a lot of fun to see how detectives deal with policies and rules in crime fiction. Sometimes, they are helped by those rules. Other times they have to bend them.

  7. If I ever stoop to murder it will be about insane rules and regulations! But I will keep meditating so I don't fall prey to my passions. Most of my favourite sleuths are rule benders - that's why I like 'em!

  8. Jan - LOL! I know just exactly what you mean! Rules and regulations can drive even the most pacifist among us to fantasies of violence. It's interesting, too, isn't it, how many sleuths are also good at either avoiding policies, breaking them or finding some other way around them. I like them for that, too.

  9. Just the other day I had another visit by the Health and Safety reps to our office to discuss the serious issue of our breach of policy - we have stacked boxes 4-high when the policy clearly states they are to be 3-high only. Shocking I know. What made me laugh was that as the regulation-wielding bozos were droning on I could hear the radio news in the background and they announced that workers at the crippled nuclear plant in Japan were being told to go back to work after being briefly evacuated - I couldn't help but think that surely there were more important breaches of workplace safety going on elsewhere on the planet.

    I do like crime fiction protagonists who bend (even break) the rules which is I think part of the attraction of private detectives like V.I. Warshawski and Kinsey Millhone - rule breakers both

  10. Bernadette - I truly admire your willingness to come clean and blow the whistle on that unspeakable box-stacking practice. How could you and your team even think of such a thing? ;-)

    Actually, your experience is exactly the kind of thing I had in mind when I first thought of this post. Yes of course boxes stacked to the ceiling would be a risk. But there is such a thing as flexibility. And in crime fiction, when those policies, rules and so on are not applied flexibly, criminals may not be caught. Sleuths who know that are willing to break the rules if they have to, and I like that about Millhone and Warshawski myself.

  11. I'm reading Sara Paretsky's Body Work right now and Warshawski is bending rules like crazy, and it isn't making her the most popular P.I. in Chicago.

    For intransigence, I don't think anyone can beat the employees of the Dept. of Motor Vehicles.

  12. Barbara - Oh, how right you are! Departments of Motor Vehicles have developed intransigence to a fine art. You don't want to hear my rant. You really do not.

    I agree with you, too, about Warshawski. To her, getting the job done is a lot more important than rules and policy are, and I have to say I really respect that about her. Thanks for mentioning one of the great rule-breakers :-).