Today (or yesterday depending on when you read this) is tax day in the US and it’s got me thinking about how important government employees are to getting things done. When you renew your driver license, pay your taxes, get married, go through a period of unemployment or in many cases go to the doctor, you’re dealing with government employees. Sometimes it’s not a pleasant experience but a professional, efficient government worker can make all the difference in the world. A lot of what we take for granted happens because of the work of everyday government employees who don’t get a lot of press and who often get little respect. But if you look at crime fiction, you see how important they are. After all, detectives get a lot of information from government records such as marriages, transfer of property and so on. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.
In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot’s dentist Henry Morley is shot one day in his surgery. At first there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason for the murder, as Morley didn’t have a large fortune to leave, hadn’t made a lot of enemies and wasn’t powerful. Then, one of Morley’s patients disappears and another dies of what looks like an accidental overdose of anaesthetic. Chief Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp is assigned to the case because it may be related to the fact that Morley was also dentist to a very powerful banker Alistair Blunt, who could very easily have been the real target of the murderer. This opens up a whole new field of enquiry and soon the murder seems to be the work of a political fanatic who wanted to get rid of Blunt. But it’s neither as simple nor as complicated as that. In the end Poirot finds out just the information he needs from a registry office near Oxford – a marriage certificate. That clue shows Poirot the motive for the murder. There are other Christie novels too in which marriage certificates, tax reports and so on provide important clues.
In Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, it’s the NHS (National Health Service) that provides Inspector Alan Banks with a clue he needs. In that novel, Banks and his family have recently moved from London to the Yorkshire town of Eastvale. He’s settling in and getting used to the job when there’s a spate of peeping incidents. No-one (so far) has been attacked or raped, but the incidents have made the women of Eastvale miserable and frightened. There’s also been a series of break-ins. Then, there’s a murder that may be related to the break-ins. Banks and his team work with psychologist Dr. Jenny Fuller to find out who in Eastvale is the voyeur. The team also looks for ties between those cases and the break-ins and murder. The breakthrough comes when Banks learns that one of the perpetrators has a case of STD. Once he discovers that, Banks uses what he learns from the NHS clinic where the suspect was treated to catch the criminal.
Robin Cook’s Outbreak features a government worker Dr. Marissa Blumenthal, who works for the Centers for Disease Control. She’s sent to Los Angeles when there’s a terrifying outbreak of what turns out to be the deadly Ebola virus. She and the team she works with contain the virus in Los Angeles, but then there’s another outbreak in St. Louis. Then there’s an outbreak in Phoenix. Now Blumenthal begins to suspect that these are very deliberate attacks. It turns out that Blumenthal is right. Her main clue as to who’s behind the outbreaks and what the motive is comes from the State House in Atlanta. A helpful clerk gives Blumenthal vital information about a particular set of public records having to do with business incorporation that leads Blumenthal to the truth about the Ebola outbreaks.
Many times, private detectives use public records kept by government employees to trace people. That’s what happens in Robert Crais’s Lullaby Town. Private investigator Elvis Cole and his partner Joe Pike are hired by noted Hollywood director Peter Alan Nelson. Nelson was married several years earlier to Karen Shipley, with whom he had a son Toby. When the couple divorced, Shipley and her son basically disappeared. Now Nelson wants to find and get to know his son. Cole isn’t sure about taking the case at first; sometimes people disappear because they do not want to be found. In the end, though, he reluctantly agrees. He traces Karen Shipley to a small Connecticut town, only to find that she’s gotten mixed up in a bad situation of her own. At one point, Cole is trying to find out what Shipley’s hiding, so he follows her and finds out that she’s met up with a mysterious person. Cole decides to find out who the other person is:
“I called the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles from a pay phone at a Shell station just off the interstate and said, ‘This is foot patrol Officer Willis Sweetwell, badge number five-oh-seven-two-four. I need wants and warrants on New York plate sierra-romeo-golf-six-six-one. And gimme the registration on that, too.’ They either go for it or they don’t.
There was a little pause, then a guy with a deep voice said, ‘Wait one.’ Score for the Jack Webb.
The deep voice came back on and told me there were neither wants nor warrants on six-six-one, and that it was registered to the Lucerno Meat Company at 7511 Grand Avenue in lower Manhattan.
I said, ‘You don’t have an individual on that?’
‘Nope. Looks like a company car.’
I said, ‘Thanks for the help, buddy. Have a good day.’ Cops like to say ‘buddy.’”
That’s how Cole finds out that Karen Shipley has gotten mixed up with the Mob. When he confronts Shipley with what he’s found out, she admits to having gotten “hooked into” working with the Mob. She wants out, so to speak, but is afraid for herself and mostly for her son if she leaves. Cole agrees to do what he can to help and now he’s tangling not just with a case of a broken relationship but with a Mob war.
In Ruth Rendell’s Simisola, a local government employment bureau proves central to a disappearance and two murders. Twenty-two-year-old Melanie Akande goes missing after an appointment at the bureau and her father Dr. Raymond Akande is worried about her. He asks Inspector Reg Wexford, who is one of his patients, to look into the matter and Wexford agrees. Not long after he starts asking questions, the strangled body of Annette Bystock, with whom Melanie had her appointment, is found. It soon seems clear that the cases are connected and since the two met at the employment bureau, Wexford and his team concentrate a lot of effort there. The members of the staff at the bureau are all affected by Bystock’s murder and some of them try very hard to help. Then, the body of a young woman is found in a nearby wood. At first Wexford is convinced that the body is Melanie Akande’s. But when it turns out to be that of another young woman, Wexford gets an object lesson in prejudice and preconceived notions. In the end, everything is tied in some way to the employment bureau and Rendell provides an interesting perspective on that intersection of government employees and those whose taxes help to pay their wages.
In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School for Men, Mma. Precious Ramotswe gets an unusual request from successful civil engineer Mr. Molofelo. Long ago when he was a student, he stole a radio from his kind landlords the Tsolamosese family. He also got his then-girlfriend Tebogo Bathopi pregnant, and did nearly nothing to help her. Now, after several years, Mr. Molofelo wants to make things right, so he asks Mma. Ramotswe to track down the Tsolamosese family and Tebogo Bathopi so he can make amends. Mma. Ramotswe agrees and begins her search. She finds out that Rra. Tsolamosese, who has since died, was a government employee and that his widow draws his pension. That gives Mma. Ramotswe the idea to go to the pension office and find out the widow’s address. When she gets there though, she finds that the government clerk will not give her the information she needs, citing regulations and confidentiality. Here’s how Mma. Ramotswe responds:
“‘But that is not the rule,’ said Mma. Ramotswe. ‘…The rule says that you must not give the name of a pensioner. It says nothing about the address.’
The clerk shook his head. ‘I do not think you can be right, Mma. I am the one who knows the rules. You are the public.’
‘Yes, Rra. I am sure that you are very good when it comes to rules…But sometimes, when one has to know so many rules, one can get them mixed up. You are thinking of Rule 25. This rule is really Rule 24(b), subsection (i)…The rule that deals with addresses is Rule 18, which has now been cancelled.’”
In that way, Mma. Ramotswe uses government regulations – the clerk’s own tool – against him, so to speak and gets the information she needs to find Mma. Tsolamosese.
Government employees, whether they’re clerks, postal workers, NHS health practitioners or tax auditors, can make getting things done unpleasant, but they are critical to getting those things accomplished. They’re also very important when you’re trying to find out information. Ask any fictional sleuth. And I’m sure there are plenty of public employees who’d like some of the public they have to deal with to be the victims of a murder mystery…
NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Tax Man.