Most of us would probably agree that breaking into someone’s home is a crime. That’s for instance one reason why police aren’t allowed to enter someone’s home unless that person invites them in or they have a warrant. In most places, evidence they get from illegal activity such as breaking and entering isn’t admissible in court anyway, so many cops don’t do that. Licensed private investigators are also limited in the searches they’re allowed to make. And having had my home broken into twice (this was years ago – not in the home I live in now), I can say that it’s a very good thing there are laws against breaking and entering. And yet, despite the fact that B & E is illegal with good reason, that doesn’t always stop sleuths from doing it at least sometimes. It’s not easy to write such a scene convincingly because as I say, real-life police officers who break and enter face serious consequences for it and so do PIs. But when it is written well, a B & E scene can add some tension to a plot.
For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, Sherlock Holmes’ new client Lady Eva Brackwell is being blackmailed by Charles Augustus Milverton. He has some compromising letters she wrote and has threatened to send them to her fiancé unless she pays a very large sum of money. Holmes has nothing but contempt for Milverton, so he has no qualms about planning a way to get those letters. He learns the layout of the Milverton home and one night he and Watson break into the home to find the letters. They do get them but not before another of Milverton’s victims finds her own way of getting compromising evidence back from him.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot isn’t above B & E when he needs to make use of that strategy. In Christie’s short story The Adventure of the Cheap Flat, Captain Hastings learns of a young couple named Robinson who seem to have pulled off a fait accompli. They’ve found a nice flat at a very low rent in a nice part of London. When Hastings mentions the matter to Poirot, Poirot begins to wonder whether there’s something more going on here than just a very good piece of luck. So he takes a flat in the same building as the Robinsons’ new home. Poirot soon learns that the Robinsons have been made pawns in a plot that involves international crime and jewel theft. But he knows very well that the people involved in the plot are not going to stand by meekly and let the police arrest them. So he and Hastings break into the flat late one night and find the evidence that they need to lure and then catch the criminals.
In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, science fiction writer Zack Walker moves with his journalist wife Sarah and their two children to Valley Forest Estates. Walker is convinced that the city where they had been living is no longer safe and wants to give his family a safe, secure suburban place to live. The family hasn’t been in their new home long when Walker begins to notice some things that are wrong with the house they’ve bought. So he goes to Valley Forest’s sales office to complain and arrange for some repairs. That’s when he witnesses an argument between a Valley Forest sales executive and local environmental activist Samuel Spender. When Walker later finds Spender’s body in a nearby creek he knows that something must be very wrong at Valley Forest. Not long after that, Walker and his wife are doing some shopping when he spies a purse that he thinks belongs to Sarah. It doesn’t, so now Walker has to find a way to return the purse – which has quite a lot of money in it – to its owner Stefanie Knight, who works in the Valley Forest sales office. He goes to her home intending to return the purse but no-one comes to the door. Walker gets into the home only to find Knight’s body. Despite his best efforts to keep out of dangerous situations, Walker finds himself more and more mixed up in what turns out to be a case of greed and corruption leading to murder.
There’s a funny example of B & E in Donna Malane’s Surrender. Missing Person’s expert Diane Rowe finds out from her cop ex-husband Sean Callum that James Patrick ‘Snow’ Wilson has been found stabbed to death. That murder has special meaning for Rowe. A year earlier her sister Niki was murdered and everyone, including Callum, has always believed that Snow was guilty. In fact just before his death Snow admitted his guilt and said that he was paid to murder Niki. Rowe thinks that if she can find out who paid Snow, she’ll find out the truth behind her sister’s murder so she begins to investigate. She happens to be passing near the house Snow shared with his sisters when she decides on impulse to go in and see if she can find any clues as to who else was involved in her sister’s killing. She breaks in through a window only to be stopped cold by a deftly-wielded cricket bat. It turns out the house wasn’t as empty as it seemed and Snow’s sisters caught Rowe red-handed as the saying goes. When she explains why she was there, the Wilson sisters suggest that they might be able to help each other. They want to find their brother’s killer as much as Rowe wants to find her sister’s killer. So they decide to exchange what turns out to be useful information.
Paddy Richardson’s Stephanie Anderson, whom we meet in Hunting Blind, isn’t the ‘typical’ (if there is such a thing) ‘B & E type.’ She’s a beginning psychiatrist who’s lived a very careful life for the last several years. Then she begins to work with a new patient Elizabeth Clark who has a tragic past. Years earlier Clark’s sister Gracie was abducted and no trace of her was ever found. This story resonates deeply with Anderson, whose own younger sister Gemma was abducted seventeen years earlier. Anderson decides to lay her own ghosts to rest and find out who was responsible for both abductions. So she makes the journey from Dunedin where she lives and works to Wanaka where she grew up. Along the way she gets more and more information on the person who wreaked so much havoc on her life. She wants to get proof of this person’s culpability but can’t easily find hard evidence. So one day she decides on impulse to break into that person’s home and look for the evidence she needs. It’s a very tense scene and I don’t think it’s giving away spoilers to say that Richardson shows us what it’s like to get into someone’s home when one’s absolutely not supposed to be there.
There’s an interesting case of breaking into one’s own home – well, in a way – in Patricia Stoltey’s The Prairie Grass Murders. Sylvia Thorn is a Florida judge who gets an upsetting call from her brother Willie Grisseljon. Willie was visiting the family’s former home in Illinois when he discovered the half-buried body of a man in a field not far from the house. When he tried to alert the police, he was arrested for vagrancy. So Thorn travels to Illinois to arrange for her brother’s release. Once that’s accomplished, she’s ready to leave but Willie wants to return to where he found the body. When they get there, they find that the body has disappeared and the ground nearby has been disturbed as if to hide evidence. It also turns out that the dead man may be a local businessman who’s gone missing. Thorn and Grisseljon get drawn into a case of corruption and greed tied to murder. At one point Thorn goes to her old family house which is now a focal point for those behind the crimes. She breaks in and ends up trapped in a hideaway under the house when the ‘bad guys’ discover that she’s been there.
Of course any B & E scene has to be done carefully. Real-life cops and PIs know they’re not supposed to just sneak into people’s homes, so it would stretch credibility too far to have them do that on a whim. But when it’s done deftly, a B & E scene can add an interesting layer of tension to a story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Beatles song.