Detectives learn very quickly that it’s almost as important to avoid “stepping on people’s toes” – breaking the unwritten rules about working with others – as it is to do the other work involved in solving a case. That’s especially true for detectives who work in a bureaucracy such as a police department or the FBI, and even more so when departments have to co-operate during investigations. But even amateur sleuths know that if they antagonise too many people, they won’t get the answers that they want. And even though we may secretly enjoy it when a sleuth “steps on people’s toes” to get to the answers, we also know that in reality, that doesn’t get the detective very far. So authors have to strike a balance with their characters. On one hand, characters who are too willing to “step on people’s toes” aren’t believable, especially if there are no consequences. Characters who aren’t willing to take that risk aren’t as interesting and are probably less likely to solve cases.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot achieves that balance fairly well most of the time. In more than one of his cases, he starts by suggesting his client go to the police first. For instance, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, he is approached by Flora Ackroyd, whose uncle Roger has been stabbed. She is very much concerned because her fiancé Captain Ralph Paton is the prime suspect in this murder and is very likely to be arrested. When she asks Poirot to find the murderer, he says,
“‘But the police will do that, will they not?’
‘They might make a mistake. They are on their way to make a mistake now, I think. Please, M. Poirot, won’t you help us?’”
Poirot agrees to help and finds that there was more than one person with a motive to kill Ackroyd. Along the way, he works with Insepctor Raglan and his boss Chief Constable Colonel Melrose, who’s in charge of the case. At first, Melrose is loathe to involve Poirot, but then, Poirot says,
“‘I must beg, that in the case of my being able to contribute something to the solution of the mystery, my name may not be mentioned.’ Inspector Raglan’s face lightened a little.”
Poirot has hit on Melrose’s concern, and once he makes it clear he won’t “step on anyone’s toes,” Melrose is willing to involve Poirot.
In several of Tony Hillerman’s novels, the Navajo Tribal Police have to work with the FBI. For instance, in The Dark Wind, the FBI is investigating drugs trafficking on the Big Reservation. So they send an agent out to look into the matter. At the same time, Jim Chee is investigating vandalism to a local water tower. One night, he’s witness to a plane crash that is connected to the drugs case and this puts Chee’s boss Captain Largo into a delicate position. He has no particular love for the FBI. At the same time, he knows that the cases in his territory won’t be solved if he loses a good man like Chee. Matters get even more delicate when FBI Agent Johnson all but accuses Chee of being involved in the drugs ring. So Largo works to avoid “stepping on toes” as much as possible. He reassures Chee that he’s under no suspicion. Then he manages to get Chee and Johnson to look into the case co-operatively – not an easy task. In the end, Chee figures out how the vandalism, the plane crash, the drugs ring and a murdered man all fit together.
Sometimes, the toes one has to avoid are in one’s own department or agency. That’s what happens in Margaret Truman’s Murder at the FBI. In that novel, FBI agent Chris Saksis and her partner and lover Ross Lizenby are faced with a very difficult case. Fellow agent George Pritchard is found murdered at the rifle range at the FBI building. One possibility is that Pritchard was murdered by a terrorist group whose membership he was about to make public. That’s the “official” FBI theory and it’s credible, too. So there is a lot of pressure on Saksis to pursue it. But soon, other kinds of evidence suggest that Pritchard’s death had to do with some ugly secrets at the agency itself. Saksis doesn’t want to believe that the agency she loves – and she does – could harbour the kind of secrets she unearths, and she’s not happy about “stepping on toes” to get to the truth (although she’s certainly no weakling about it). This conflict actually adds an interesting layer of tension to this novel as Saksis finds out what really happened to Pritchard and why.
In Deborah Crombie’s In a Dark House, firefighter Rose Kearny has to face the challenge of “stepping on toes” when she discovers the body of an unknown woman in a warehouse that’s gone up in flames. Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his team begin the process of trying to find out who the woman was and what she was doing in the warehouse. Then, there’s another fire. And another. In the meantime, it becomes clear that the woman could be one of four area women who seem to have disappeared. With help from his partner Gemma James, Kincaid discovers what has happened to the women and who the dead woman in the warehouse is. Meanwhile, Rose Kearny discovers a pattern to the fires that could be the key to finding out who is setting them and why. The problem is that she has to deal with fitting in with the other firefighters, who have only just begun to accept that a woman can fight fires as well as a man. She has no desire to lose their respect or for the matter of that, “step on the toes” of her supervisor. So she finds another way to get the pattern she has found to Kincaid. That information provides him with crucial information he needs to catch the arsonist.
And then there’s Copenhagen detective Carl Mørck, whom we meet in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes). Mørck is recovering from an on-duty shooting incident in which one of his fellow officers was murdered and another left with paralysis. He’s slowly returning to duty, but he is still dealing with what happened. In fact, he becomes so difficult to work with that he “steps on toes” throughout the department. The other members of the team simply don’t want to work with him any more. But Mørck is a good cop, and the department doesn’t want to risk the media fallout if a cop who was wounded in the line of duty is shuttled out of a job. So he is “promoted” to the head of a newly-created department, “Department Q.” Its purpose is to pursue cases of “special interest.” Mørck is given an assistant Hafez al-Assad and settles in to what he thinks will be a do-nothing job, which suits him just fine. Then Assad calls his attention to the case of Merete Lynggaard, a political “rising star” who disappeared five years ago and is believed drowned in a ferry accident. Bit by bit, little pieces of evidence suggest that she’s not dead. So Mørck and Assad begin to re-investigate. That in itself is enough to “step on toes,” and Mørck’s manner doesn’t help matters much. But together, the two find out what really happened to Merete Lynggaard.
There’s an especially strong depiction of the issue of “stepping on people’s toes” in William Ryan’s series featuring Moscow CID captain Alexei Korolev. Korolev is a member of the police force in 1930’s Stalinist Moscow – a time when it’s very dangerous to make any kind of enemies, even of one’s neighbours. Everyone is warned about “counterrevolutionaries,” and the feared NKVD is only too happy to believe allegations against a citizen. In The Holy Thief, Korolev investigates the murder of a woman whose body is found in a former church. He’s begun the process of asking questions when another body is found. And then another. Korolev is just trying to do his job, but this case has ties to the NKVD and to the equally-notorious Moscow Thieves. It’s not trivial, either, that if Korolev doesn’t find the killer, that will be considered a “black mark” against him and could lead to disastrous consequences. So he has to try to find out who the killer is and what the motive is without “stepping on toes.” In The Darkening Field, the second Korolev novel, he is sent to Odessa to investigate the supposed suicide of an actress who was filming on location there. It’s soon clear that she was murdered, and Korolev is assigned to find out who the murderer is as quietly as possible. The victim, though, had ties to high-level Party members. As if that weren’t enough, her death might also be related to suspected terrorist activity. So Korolev has to tread very, very lightly if he expects to find out what’s behind her murder without paying a serious price himself.
“Stepping on toes” is a very real part of investigations, so it can add a note of realism as well as tension to a novel. But it is such an integral part of crime fiction stories that if it’s not done well, it can also become clichéd. When done well, though, it’s a solid part of a plot.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dave Mason’s What Do We Got Here?