If you read enough crime fiction, you might wonder why so many people make agreements or get mixed up with people they would otherwise never consider. ‘Wouldn’t a person have more sense than that?’ you might ask. But sometimes people feel they have no choice but to make a ‘deal with the devil’ as the saying goes. And when a person feels caught between a rock and a hard place (yet another saying!), there sometimes feels no way out of this kind of arrangement. Those ‘deals with the devil’ certainly happen in real life, and they can add a suspenseful and intriguing layer to a crime novel. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.
In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) we meet Cecily Horbury. She is married to Stephen, Lord Horbury who is very anxious to protect both his family home and his family name. What Cecily hasn’t told her husband is that she’s gotten far too fond of gambling and is now in debt. Rather than ask her husband for yet more money (thereby generating some very awkward questions) she makes a ‘deal with the devil’ and borrows money from Madame Giselle, a French moneylender who uses private, potentially scandalous, information about her clients as ‘collateral’ for loans. At first all goes well. But then, Cecily begins to lose heavily at gambling and is unable to pay back what she owes. She gets out of her situation, or so she thinks, when Madame Giselle suddenly dies of what looks like heart failure while en route between Paris and London. But when it’s proven that she was poisoned, the police look among the passengers for the killer. Since Cecily was on the same flight, she becomes a prime suspect. Hercule Poirot, who was also on that flight, works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who murdered Madame Giselle. It turns out that Cecily Horbury is only one of several suspects.
Walter Mosley’s A Red Death is the story of a ‘deal with the devil’ between Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins and the FBI. Rawlins gets a letter from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent Reginald Lawrence stating that he owes thousands of dollars in back taxes to the government. The letter threatens Rawlins with jail if he doesn’t pay what he owes. Just when Rawlins thinks he has no option but to serve time in prison, a way out appears. He is contacted by FBI agent Darryl Craxton, who offers to make Rawlins’ tax problems go away if he’ll do something in return. Craxton wants to bring down suspected communist Chaim Wenzler (this novel takes place during the ‘Red Scare’ era of the early 1950s). His plan is for Rawlins to get close to Wenzler by volunteering at the First African Baptist Church where Wenzler also volunteers. Then, Rawlins will be in a position to gather the information the FBI needs to get Wenzler. Rawlins has no desire to get involved in what he sees as a very ‘dirty’ game. But he also sees no other option. So he reluctantly agrees to the arrangement. He begins to do volunteer work and slowly builds a relationship with Wenzler. In the process he finds that he actually likes his target and doesn’t want to sacrifice him. Now he’s torn between the arrangement that he know he can’t break and his growing liking for Wenzler. That’s when two murders are committed at the church and Rawlins finds that he’s a suspect. Not only does he have to resolve his dilemma, but also, he has to try to clear his name and find out who the killer is before he’s arrested.
In James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos, New Iberia police officer Dave Robicheaux is recovering from a line-of-duty incident in which he was shot by a prisoner Jimmie Lee Boggs. His partner Lester Benoit was killed in the same incident. Just when he’s beginning to really heal, Robicheaux gets a visit from an old friend Minos Dautrieve, who now works for a US government anti-drug task force. This task force wants to bring down New Orleans drug smuggler and crime boss Tony Cardo and Dautrieve wants Robicheaux’s help. The plan is that Robicheaux will go undercover as a cop who’s ‘gone dirty’ and get as close to Cardo as he can. Then he’ll be in a position to give information to the government. Robicheaux is not interested in being a government ‘tool.’ Besides, he doesn’t trust that he’ll be protected if something goes wrong. But Dautrieve sweetens the proverbial pot with an irresistible (to Robicheaux) offer. This arrangement will allow Robicheaux to go after Jimmie Lee Boggs, who’s been associating with Cardo’s people. Robicheaux finally agrees and puts the plan in action. It’s not long though before he finds Cardo a much more complicated and even sympathetic character than he thought. He also finds that he was right about the government’s trustworthiness when it comes to protecting him. Now he has to stay alive, catch Boggs, and do the best he can to keep his ‘handlers’ satisfied without giving Cardo away.
Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone makes his own kind of ‘deal with the devil’ in Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip. Or perhaps he’s the ‘devil…’ Perrone is a marine biologist (at least nominally) but isn’t exactly getting wealthy. Then he gets an offer from Samuel Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut, who owns a large commercial farm in Florida’s Everglades. Hammernut’s company is guilty of polluting the Everglades with toxic waste, but he has no desire to face off against environmentalists or the government. So he hires Perrone to make sure that the mandatory water samples drawn near the Hammernut farm show no pollution. Perrone is happy to comply since he has very little conscience and is eager for the money he’ll get. Then his wife Joey begins to suspect what he’s doing. In order to keep Joey from going to the authorities, Perrone takes her on a cruise of the Everglades and pushes her overboard. The only hitch to his plan is that Joey doesn’t die. She survives and finds a way to strike back at her husband by making him believe that someone saw him try to kill her. As Perrone becomes more and more unstable, Hammernut begins to trust him less and less. Now Perrone has the police, an angry Hammernut and a vengeful not-dead wife on his hands…
Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town introduces us to famous Hollywood director Peter Alan Nelson. Nelson has decided that he wants to track down his ex-wife Karen Shipley, who left him several years earlier and seems to have disappeared. With her she took their son Toby who’s now twelve. Nelson wants a relationship with his son and hires PI Elvis Cole to find the boy and his mother. Cole is reluctant; after all, Karen may have had very good reasons for not wanting to be found. But in the end he agrees and tracks Karen to a quiet Connecticut town where she is vice-president of a local bank. Before long, Cole is threatened by some very nasty thugs who want him to leave Karen Shipley alone. When he confronts her, she tells him her story: as a newly single mother, she had very little money, but she wanted to make a life for herself and Toby. So she made a ‘deal with the devil’ and agreed to co-operate with the Mafia in a money laundering scheme. Now she can’t get free of them. Together with his partner Joe Pike, Cole tracks down the Mafiosos who are threatening him (and Karen) and plans a way to stop them. In the process, he also re-unites Nelson with his son.
There’s a truly heartbreaking example of a ‘deal with the devil’ in Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective. As the novel begins, we meet Preeti and Basanti, two teens from India’s Bedia group. They are both attractive and their families are financially desperate. So the two girls become part of the dhanda – India’s sex trade. The plan is that they’ll work as prostitutes, saving their money and sending everything they can back to their families. When they’ve gotten their families financially secure, the girls will leave the trade. This ‘deal with the devil’ comes at a devastating cost when the girls are spirited off to Scotland. The people who paid their families turn out to be abusive and worse. The two girls are separated and when Basanti manages to escape from the place where she’s being held, she tries to find Preeti. Her frantic search leads her to the home of Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill, an Edinburgh Ph.D. student in oceanography. McGill has his own worries. For one thing he’s in trouble with the authorities for his way of calling attention to climate change. For another, he’s trying to solve the mystery of his grandfather’s disappearance on a sea voyage many years earlier. The two stories are woven together when Basanti learns that McGill may hold the key to her finding out what happened to her friend. She’s proven to be right when he uses his knowledge of oceanography and his connections in the field to track down the people who brought the girls to Scotland, and find out what happened to Preeti.
‘Deals with the devil’ may seem like bad ideas. And objectively speaking, it’s easy to say that one shouldn’t make them. But for people in certain cases those kinds of arrangements may seem to be the only way out of a terrible situation. And they can make for compelling plot points in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Glenn Frey’s Smuggler’s Blues.