Michael Connelly has said, “I was once told that the best crime novels are not about how a detective works on a case; they are about how a case works on a detective.” He’s got a very well-taken point. Crime fiction fans certainly want to know how a detective goes about solving a case. But they also want to see that the detective is a human being who’s affected by the work – sometimes changed by it. A believable sleuth doesn’t go easily sailing through something as horrible as murder without being affected by it and in a really absorbing mystery, the case draws the detective in and works on the detective as much as it does the reader.
Connelly should know all about this. His Harry Bosch novels are just that sort of crime fiction. For example, in The Black Ice, Bosch learns by chance of the death of fellow L.A.P.D. officer Calexico “Cal” Moore. At first the death is considered a suicide, and the word from “on high” is that Moore had “gone dirty” and killed himself as a result. But Bosch isn’t sure that it’s quite that simple. So he starts asking questions and investigating even when he’s told flat-out to leave it alone. He’s even given a set of eight other cases and a nearly-impossible deadline to keep him distracted from the Moore case. But the Moore case has gotten to Bosch. And when one of his other cases proves to have a connection to the Moore case, Bosch acts on his suspicions. He follows up on the Moore case all the way to the heart of a Mexican drugs gang and to Moore’s boyhood in a border town in Mexico. Throughout the novel we can see how Bosch is consumed by the case. It does work on him – and the reader. And when Bosch finds out the truth about Moore’s death, we see how that affects him, too. And yet, Connelly isn’t melodramatic; rather, the case consumes him in a more subtle and therefore more believable way.
Bosch isn’t the only one to be deeply affected by a case. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, for instance, has what Christie calls a very bourgeois attitude to murder: he does not approve of it. He’s even said so himself. And in many of the novels featuring him, he puts the value of human life above anything and delivers all sorts of murderers to justice. And yet there are some cases that affect him so deeply that he doesn’t quite see things like that. In One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Poirot works with Chief Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp to find out who shot seemingly inoffensive dentist Henry Morley. They’re just asking questions about that murder when one of Morley’s patients disappears. And then another dies of a seemingly accidental overdose of anasthaetic. It takes time and a lot of effort, but Poirot tracks down the killer and the motive, as well as the truth behind the other events in the story. However, it’s clear that this case has affected him. He has a real sympathy for the killer and when the killer makes the case to be let free, Poirot struggles with it. But in the end, he does what he has to do. As he says to another character in the novel,
“Sometimes…I do not like the things that I have to do.”
There is even at least one novel in which Poirot is so deeply affected by a case that he lets the killer go. But no spoilers here!
There’s an excellent example of a case working on a sleuth in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, the first of their Martin Beck series. When the body of an unknown woman is dredged up from Lake Vättern, Martin Beck and his team are sent to help the local police find out who the woman is and who killed her. It takes quite a long time, but they finally discover that the woman is twenty-seven-year-old Roseanna McGraw, an American who was touring Sweden when she was killed. Once the team discovers who the woman was, they plunge more deeply into the case and as time wears on, we can see how Martin Beck is affected by this woman. You might even say he’s haunted by her and challenged to find her killer. In the end, and after patient police work, Martin Beck and his team track down the person who murdered Roseanna McGraw and it’s clear when that happens how much this case has affected the sleuths.
Ruth Rendell’s Reg Wexford is very much worked on by a case in Simisola. One day, Wexford gets a call from his doctor, who’s worried about his daughter. Dr. Akande’s daughter Melanie has apparently disappeared from the Employment Service Job Center (EJS), where she had an appointment with a job counselor. She kept her appointment but never made it home. At first, Wexford thinks that Melanie Akande may have simply gone off somewhere; she’s a young adult with her own life. But then, Annette Bystock, the job counselor with whom Melanie Akande met, is found murdered in her bed. Now it looks as though something more is going on than a young woman taking off to “do her own thing.” Then, the body of an unknown woman is found in a local woods. At first Wexford thinks it’s Melanie Akande’s body. It’s not, though, and this adds another dimension to this case. Throughout this novel, we see how these related cases work on Wexford, affect his thinking and make him re-evaluate himself.
Simon Lelic’s Rupture (AKA A Thousand Cuts) is another example of a novel where the case works on the sleuth. In that story, newly-hired history teacher Samuel Szajkowski walks into a crowded auditorium one hot day and shoots a fellow teacher and three students before turning the gun on himself. DI Lucia May has assigned to follow up on this tragedy. She’s expected to get interviews with witnesses and “rubber stamp” the official explanation for the murders, which is that Szajkowski simply “snapped.” But as May begins to talk to the people at the school, she realises that it isn’t as simple as that. The more she learns about the case, the more she sees that the school has a strong culture of bullying and that it’s that culture, as much as anything else, that’s behind what happened on that terrible day. May is affected by what she learns about the school; it’s eerily reminiscent of her own workplace environment, in which she’s having to battle to get any respect at all for what she does. In the end, we can see clearly how she’s been affected by this particular set of shootings.
Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett is also affected by the cases she works. In The Cipher Garden, for instance, she and her Cold Case Review team re-open the investigation into the ten-year-old murder of landscaper Warren Howe. At first, his wife Tina seemed the most likely suspect, and she had good reason, too. Howe was an abusive and adulterous alcoholic. But Tina Howe had an alibi, so at the time of Howe’s murder, the police couldn’t make an arrest. Now, anonymous notes suggest that Tina Howe really was guilty. As Scarlett and her team look into the case, they learn more and more about the Howe family and what they learn affects Scarlett deeply. So does what the team learns about the history of the town, and some of the secrets that are being kept there. In the end, Scarlett and her team find out who really killed Warren Howe and it’s easy to see how deeply she’s been affected by this case.
There are lots of other novels, too, where the case works on the detective as much as the detective works on the case. I’ve only had space for a few. What do you think? Do you agree with Connelly? If you’re a writer, how do your cases work on your sleuth?
Thanks very much to Bernadette at Reactions to Reading (and to one of her fine commentators) for the excellent comment exchange that inspired this. Oh, and thanks to Michael Connelly, too.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s I Go to Extremes.