Friday, April 29, 2011

"Unwritten Rules"

Every social group, whether it’s a company, an organization, a club, or even an informal group of friends, has a set of “unwritten rules” that members generally follow. They aren’t “official” rules, but they are socially enforced. Some of those rules make good sense. For instance, without “unwritten rules” about forming queues, there’d be a lot of chaos when more than one person wants the same thing at the same time. And most “unwritten rules” have a certain amount of sense to them. The problem is, of course, that they can be carried too far when they’re blindly followed. There are times when “unwritten rules” end up causing a lot of harm. A quick look at crime fiction shows the kind of thing I mean.

For instance, one “unwritten rule” has traditionally been that people in certain social positions, or in positions of power, should be given special treatment; hence the stereotypical, “Do you know who I am?” And yet, as we all know, privilege, position and power are often used as “masks” for all sorts of illegal activity – including murder. That’s why Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is no respecter of position. For example, in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Poirot is on a flight from Paris to London when one of his fellow passengers, French moneylender Madame Giselle, suddenly dies of what looks like heart failure. It’s soon proven that she was murdered, though, and the police and Poirot begin to investigate. Some of the other passengers have a very high social position, but Poirot doesn’t let that stop him. Neither does Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp, who’s assigned to the case. In fact, when the passengers on the ill-fated flight arrive in London, they’re asked to remain on board until the police arrive. Japp arrives and immediately, Lady Cecily Horbury tries to use her social position:

“I am Lady Horbury. I consider it absolutely outrageous that I should be detained in this manner!”

Her protest isn’t successful, though, and she soon becomes as much of a suspect as everyone else on the plane. In the end, Poirot unearths several secrets that the passengers are keeping (including one of Lady Horbury’s) and finds out which passenger is hiding the fact of murder.

In Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot is on the world famous Orient Express train on his way to London. On the second night of the journey, fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed to death. Poirot works with a doctor who’s also on the train, and with M. Bouc, a director of the travel company that owns the train, to find out who the killer is. Several of the passengers are of very high social position; two of them, in fact, are entitled to diplomatic immunity. But that doesn’t stop Poirot (although it does make M. Bouc a little hesitant). Poirot is willing to “bend” that “unwritten rule” about social position, and finds out who murdered Ratchett and why.

Among police, one of the strongest of the “unwritten rules” is that fellow officers stick together and protect each other. That rule makes a lot of sense; police officers depend on one another, sometimes for their lives. So it’s very important that they know they can trust each other. The problem comes, of course, when “sticking together” means covering up crimes. For example, in Stephen J. Cannell’s The Tin Collectors, L.A.P.D. homicide officer Shane Scully runs up against that “unwritten rule” when he gets a frantic call from Barbara Molar, wife of Scully’s former partner Ray Molar. Molar’s been beating his wife and she calls Scully for help. Scully arrives to try to help, and Molar shoots at him. Molar’s bullet misses; Scully’s self-defense bullet does not. At first, Scully thinks that he’ll be subjected to an I.A.D. (Internal Affairs Division) hearing to be sure that his was a “clean hit,” and that he didn’t act illegally. Before he knows it, though, Scully’s accused of murder and theft and is treated as a pariah. He soon sees that he’s being set up by some “higher-ups” in the L.A.P.D. who are covering for each other. Now Scully has to find a killer and clear his own name before he becomes the next victim.

Fans of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and Ian Rankin’s John Rebus know that those two characters often have to go up against that “unwritten rule” that police officers stick together, no matter what. In several of their novels, Connelly and Rankin treat the topic of what happens when being able to trust another officer is taken too far.

And then there’s the FBI. One of its “unwritten rules” is “Don’t embarrass the Bureau.” Every agent quickly learns that nothing that could potentially hurt the Bureau is to be made public, no matter what the scandal might be. In Margaret Truman’s Murder at the FBI, Special Agent Christine Saksis learns how far some people will go to follow that rule. She and her partner and lover Ross Lizenby are assigned to investigate the death of fellow agent George Pritchard when his body is discovered one day at the FBI’s shooting range. At first, Saksis and Lizenby get the message that the agency wants a thorough investigation so that there is no appearance of a cover-up. The more Saksis learns about Pritchard, though, the more convinced she is that a cover-up is exactly what the FBI does want. That’s made especially clear when the FBI announces that Pritchard was murdered by terrorists – something Saksis knows is not true. Gradually, and at the risk of her reputation, and later her life, Saksis learns the truth about what happened to Pritchard and how his murder relates to that “unwritten rule. “

Truman’s Murder in the House looks at another “unwritten rule” – quid pro quo. U.S. Congressman Paul Latham is about to be named Secretary of State when he’s murdered. Georgetown School of Law professor Mackensie “Mac” Smith had agreed to represent Latham at his confirmation hearings, so he gets involved in the investigation of Latham’s murder. As he learns more about Latham, he finds that Latham had been friends for years with successful businessman Warren Brazier. Brazier’s made a name for himself in breaking open new Russian markets and in pushing hard in Washington for favourable legislation. As Smith explores Latham’s and Brazier’s dealings, we learn a lot about how politicians and business executives do favours for each other, how influence is peddled and what happens when people try to break the “unwritten rule” of “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.”

In Pablo De Santis' The Paris Enigma, Sigmundo Salvatrio learns a lot about “unwritten rules.” He’s a shoemaker’s son who is accepted, much to his delight, into Buenos Aires’ Academy for Detectives, run by world-famous sleuth Renato Craig. Craig is a co-founder of an international group of renowned detectives, known as The Twelve, who will be exhibiting at the Paris World’s Fair. When Craig is taken ill, he sends Salvatrio to Paris in his place. Salvatrio is one of several assistants to the illustrious detectives, and a series of “unwritten rules” governs their behaviour. One, for instance, is that assistants do not speak at meetings of the detectives unless they are addressed. Another is that assistants do not speak ill of their mentors, nor reveal anything they have learned. Salvatrio finds that he has to break many of these “unwritten rules” when one of The Twelve is murdered. Then there’s another murder. Now, Salvatrio works with the other co-founder of The Twelve, Viktor Arkazy, to find out who the killer is, and in the process, he learns about the power of “unwritten rules.”

Most of us follow a lot of “unwritten rules” without even thinking about it. And that’s usually a good thing. But sometimes, following those “rules” can lead to disaster.


  1. This reminds me of Barbara Fister's novel in which the detective has had to quit the police force because she "told" on some of her colleagues, and found that none of her partners would support her in dangerous situations. (In the Wind?

    In a different context, the book I've just read, Intuition by Allegra Goodman, is about what happens when a scientist "breaks the unwritten rules" and reports a colleague who she suspects of making up his results. (Highly recommended.)

  2. Maxine - Thank you so much for that recommendation. Folks, please do read Maxine's fine review of Intuition. It's certainly been added to my TBR!

    Oh, and right you are about In the Wind, Maxine. A fine story about what happens when someone goes against the "unwritten rules," even when those rules are dangerous or destructive.

  3. Great examples here, Margot. I remember a few mysteries where the detectives don't treat their wealthy/titled suspects differently, but then are asked by their superiors to do so. Definitely puts them in a spot!

  4. Elizabeth - Thanks :-). And I think you're right; there are several examples like that, where the sleuth is supposed to treat some suspects differently (or pretend they're not suspects) but doesn't. Nice layer tension, I think...

  5. You touched on some interesting examples Margot. I thought of Stephen J. Cannell's Shane Scully as I began reading. I also thought about how Jim Chee is sometimes treated by other law enforcement officers because he is Navajo. It's as if he isn't of their standing even though he is a law enforcement officer.


  6. Mason - Oh, I think Jim Chee is a fine example of the "unwritten rule" that "real police forces" such as the FBI are of higher status than those "other" forces such as the Navajo Tribal Police. I like that example :-).

  7. I love using the unwritten rule of 'police sticking together' in my books and then breaking it. It's important. In real life, there are competition and rivalry in the police force and many times, they don't get along. In my current novel, they often compete to solve crimes first.
    Great post.