One of the qualities that just about every sleuth needs is a certain dogged determination. It’s not easy to uncover the truth about a murder, especially if the case has “gone cold,” but the most successful sleuths don’t give up. While they’re working a case, sleuths may run into all sorts of obstacles (and I’m not even referring here to the physical dangers), but a successful sleuth perseveres. In fact that doggedness seems to be common to nearly all of the best fictional sleuths.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder, we meet newlyweds Gwenda and Giles Reed. They’re looking for just the right home and Gwenda thinks she’s found exactly what she’s looking for in a house in Dilmouth. The Reeds make the purchase and at first all’s well. But then Gwenda begins to have a disturbing sense of déjà vu about the house. She has frightening visions of a dead woman lying on the floor in the hallway of the house. What’s more, she seems to know things about the house that she couldn’t know if she hadn’t been there before. Gwenda begins to think she may be having a mental breakdown so she’s glad to get away for a bit and accept an invitation from her distant relation Miss Marple. She tells Miss Marple what’s been happening and Miss Marple is sympathetic. Then one night, they attend a theatre performance and Gwenda has a bizarre reaction to one of the scenes in the play. Now Miss Marple is absolutely sure that something is going on at Dilmouth and that Gwenda isn’t losing touch with reality. So she and Gwenda begin to ask questions. Gwenda also begins to look more deeply into her own memories. There’s nothing much to go on at first, only Gwenda’s somewhat fuzzy memory. But she and Miss Marple don’t give up and they uncover some ugly secrets from the past, including murder. As it turns out, a murder was committed in the Reed’s home and Gwenda actually witnessed it. Once Miss Marple puts the clues together, Gwenda learns what actually happened and is able to get some peace of mind.
Agatha Christie actually takes up this theme of crimes from the past in other novels too, such as Murder on the Orient Express, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Ordeal by Innocence, A Caribbean Mystery and Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect). In all of those cases there’s a lot of pressure to leave the past alone, but that doesn’t stop the sleuth from finding out the truth.
One of the most dogged of crime fictional detectives is Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. He takes on whatever challenges he has to take on in order to solve cases. In his view, “Everybody counts or nobody counts.” We see that in a lot of the novels featuring him. One of those is Echo Park. That’s in part the story of the disappearance of Marie Gesto. One day, she walked out of a Hollywood supermarket and never got home. Bosch was assigned this case and actually had a suspect in mind. But he couldn’t get the evidence he needed so the case wasn’t pursued. At the time there was a clue that led to the person responsible for Marie Gesto’s disappearance. Bosch missed it though and couldn’t track down the real criminal. Now, several years later, Raynard Waits is in custody for two other brutal murders. Clear evidence has been found in his car so there’s not much chance of him getting away with those murders. He wants to make a deal with the police in exchange for avoiding the death penalty. His offer is to trade information on other cases, including the Gesto case, for his life. Since Bosch handled the Gesto case, he wants to work with Waits to resolve that case and give himself and her family some peace. Despite his having to face the fact that he made mistakes in the original investigation, and his having to work with Waits, Bosch follows through and finds out the truth.
Arnaldur Indriðason’s Inspector Erlendur has to muster that same determination in Hypothermia. In that novel, he gets interested in the case of María, who apparently hung herself in a fit of despondency after the death of her mother Leonóra, with whom she’d been very close. Erlendur doesn’t think this case is quite as simple as a straightforward suicide though (if there is such thing) and begins to ask questions. Straight away he runs into a proverbial wall of resistance since most people assume that she killed herself and aren’t willing to think beyond that. At the same time Erlendur re-opens another set of cases. Years earlier a young man Davíd disappeared and was never found. His father has been visiting the police station annually since his son’s disappearance but the police have never found hard evidence as to what happened. Now, that father tells Erlendur that he hasn’t much longer to live so Erlendur decides to give the case another examination. That’s when he discovers that a young university student named Gudrún disappeared at the same time, again with no body being found nor any clues as to what happened to her. In both of these cases, there’s very little evidence, and it’s hard going at first. But Erlendur is nothing if not determined so bit by bit he gets to the truth about what happened to these two young people. In the end he’s able to get some resolution and give the families involved some peace.
In Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s My Soul to Take, Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is hired by upmarket spa owner Jónas Júlíusson to take a very odd case. He claims that the land on which his spa is built is haunted and that its former owners knew that and never told him. Thóra doesn’t believe in ghosts, but she does want the fee and the idea of a stay at a spa is appealing. So she travels to the spa and begins looking into the case. She’s not there very long when the body of fellow spa guest Birna Hálldorsdóttir is found on a beach not far from the spa. When it turns out that Thóra’s client was having an affair with the victim, he becomes the prime suspect and asks Thóra to defend him. In the process of finding out who really killed the victim, Thóra and her lover Matthew Reich discover some very old secrets, including a missing child, that several people want to keep hidden. In the end, they discover who the murderer is and how that death relates to a long-ago disappearance. That discovery finally gives some peace to the people involved.
Doggedness serves Paddy Richardson’s Stephanie Anderson very well in Hunting Blind. Anderson is finishing her program in psychiatry in Dunedin when one of her patients Elizabeth Clark tells her a haunting story. Clark’s younger sister Gracie was abducted years ago and no trace of her – not even a body – has ever been found. Since that time Clark has had a number of psychological and other problems that culminated in a mental breakdown. When Anderson hears this story, it triggers a particularly eerie memory of her own. Seventeen years earlier Anderson’s own younger sister Gemma was abducted and no trace of her was ever found either. That disappearance devastated Anderson’s family and since that time they haven’t really had any peace although they’ve more or less moved on with their lives. So Anderson decides to track down the person who abducted Gemma and Gracie. Along the way, she encounters resistance from her family members, who want her to just leave the case alone. She also faces the challenge of dealing with her own personal demons. And of course, the person who abducted the girls doesn’t want to be caught, so she also faces the challenge of connecting that person to the crimes. She doesn’t give up though and in the end, she is able to find the person responsible and in the process, brings herself and her family some of the peace they desperately need.
Doggedness and determination really are important qualities for a sleuth, especially when there’s little evidence or a case has “gone cold.” Those qualities pay off, you might say, in terms of giving the sleuth and those affected by a crime some peace.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Etan Patz, who disappeared on 25 May 1979 when he was six years old. It appears that now, after 33 years, his abductor may have been caught. Whatever the outcome of this latest development, I am glad that people didn’t give up on it and I wish his parents the peace they deserve.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a U2 song.