Out of Luck, Falling Through the Cracks*

Falling Through the CracksIn Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of wealthy and beautiful Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, who is shot on the second night of a honeymoon cruise of the Nile. The next day, her maid Louise Bourget is also found murdered. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that the maid wasn’t exactly a friendly, warm and loving person. So in one sense, we see why fellow passenger Mr. Ferguson calls her ‘a domestic parasite,’ making the point that her death and that of her mistress are no great losses. On the other hand, here’s what another passenger Cornelia Robson says:

 

‘I don’t know about the French maid, but I expect somebody was fond of her somewhere…’

 

She makes the case that everyone matters, and every death is a blow. And in a really important sense that’s true. Yet, if you look the way murders are publicised and investigated, there’s an argument that some deaths matter more than others. Certainly some deaths get more press and higher priority than others do. We can talk about things such as race, class, and even profession as we look at why this is. We can also talk about factors such as limits on police budgets and time, the media’s obsession with the ‘next lurid thing’ and the public’s interest. Whatever the explanation is, it seems to be the case that some murders – some victims – don’t get the attention that others do.  They ‘fall through the cracks.’ We see it in real life and it’s certainly woven through crime fiction.

A lot of people think that’s not fair. They have a point. But in fiction anyway, to have a victim who doesn’t seem much missed and who doesn’t get a lot of ‘press’ can mean an interesting layer of tension, an added kind of mystery, and an opportunity to discuss social issues.

We see that for instance in Michael Connelly’s The Black Echo. In that novel, the body of a man is found stuffed into a drainpipe. At first it looks like the accidental overdose of a junkie and nobody’s much interested in it. After all, who cares about ‘just another dead junkie?’ But LAPD cop Harry Bosch knows who the victim is: he’s Billy Meadows, who, like Bosch, was a ‘tunnel rat’ during the Viet Nam war. His job (and Bosch’s) was to find and destroy the Viet Cong’s underground bunkers. Bosch wants to find out what happened to his former friend, so he looks into the case. He finds that it’s related to a planned multimillion dollar bank robbery. Of course, Bosch’s fans know that he’s just that way about investigating murder. As he puts it:

 

‘‘Everybody counts or nobody counts.’
‘Explain it.’
‘Just what I said. Everybody counts or nobody counts. That’s it. It means I bust my a** to make a case whether it’s a prostitute or the mayor’s wife. That’s my rule.’’

 

And a lot of people would say that’s what makes him a good cop.

Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti has faced more than one case where nobody seemed to care much about the victim. In Blood From a Stone for instance, the police are called to the scene when an unknown Senegalese immigrant is shot in an open-air market. Nobody is really interested in the murder. The victim was ‘only’ a vu comprà, an illegal immigrant. One of ‘them’ more or less doesn’t seem to make a difference. But Brunetti follows up on the case and discovers that the man had a cache of valuable gems. That’s how Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello connect the murder to arms trafficking and ‘conflict diamonds.’

Elizabeth George’s With No One as Witness also takes a look at deaths that fall through the proverbial cracks. In that novel, there’s been a series of three murders of young boys. The police have investigated but they haven’t made a lot of progress and the media hasn’t paid a lot of attention to the murders. Then another body is discovered. Unlike the previous victims, this one was White. All of a sudden the media starts to pay attention to the crime and it gets a lot of press. What’s worse, there’s now talk that the police are only paying attention to this newest crime because the victim is White. So for a number of reasons, Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers and their team go back over the previous deaths that nobody cared much about before. This is an interesting case of murders that don’t seem to matter a whole lot until something happens that makes them matter if I can put it that way.

A similar sort of thing happens in Ruth Rendell’s Simisola. Inspector Reg Wexford and his team are investigating the disappearance of twenty-two-year-old Melanie Akande as well as the murder of Annette Bystock. The two cases seemed to be linked by the local Employment Bureau, which was Annette Bystock’s employer and the last place where anyone remembers seeing Melanie Akande. Then the body of a young woman is found in a local wood. At first, Wexford is certain the victim is Melanie. He’s wrong. It turns out that the victim is someone else entirely – someone whose death was never really noticed. When we find out who that person is, we also find out how her death ‘fell through the cracks.’

And then there’s Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective, which features Edinburgh Ph.D. candidate Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill. He’s studying oceanography and has become somewhat of an expert on the way tides and currents work. That’s how he gets interested in the body of an unknown young woman that’s been found in the sea. Nobody reported her missing, and nobody seems to care very much about her. Certainly there’s not a hue and cry.  It turns out that there’s a reason for that. The girl’s name is Preeti and that she’s from a village in India. She and her friend Basanti were among several girls who became part of the dhanda – India’s sex trade. The idea was that their families would be paid money in exchange for the girls’ services and that after a certain amount of time, the girls would return to their villages. Basanti and Preeti were taken to Scotland where they were separated and since that time, Basanti has been searching for her friend. When she discovers that McGill may have helpful information, she seeks him out. With the information Basanti provides and his own expertise, McGill is able to trace Preeti’s body back to the people who brought her to Scotland and who later killed her. One of the things we see in this novel is that the people responsible for Preeti’s death took advantage of the fact that nobody would pay much attention to it.

And that’s the thing. In very important ways, everyone’s death matters. That belief is part of what keeps us human. But the harsh reality is that some deaths do ‘fall through the cracks.’ Crime fiction doesn’t gives us a real answer as to how to deal with that, but there’s no doubt it shows us the problem.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ Out in the Cold.

20 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Elizabeth George, Mark Douglas-Home, Michael Connelly, Ruth Rendell

20 responses to “Out of Luck, Falling Through the Cracks*

  1. One of my favourite Agatha Christie books is Moving Finger: but there is one bit I really don’t like – right at the end one character says ‘so it’s really all ended well hasn’t it?’ and the narrator says (words to the effect of): ‘not so well for poor dead X, I thought, but then I remembered that she hadn’t been very nice to her young man.’ I hope it was an unedited aberration on AC’s part!

  2. I LOVE Death on the Nile! What a great post! Yes everyone matters, and everyone is a suspect.

    • Michael – You put that very well. Everyone does matter and that has two implications in crime fiction. All crimes are worth investigating, and everyone ‘counts’ as a suspect. Nicely said! And I really like Death on the Nile too.

  3. I always think part of the secret of Christie is that she doesn’t allow you to care too much about the victim – it keeps them light. The emphasis is always much more on the suspects, about whom we do care. I always think of Christie as not quite real world – more like a crime PG Wodehouse, where the sun always shines and in the end, everything’s OK again. I never really put her books in the realism category. And although she is a bit casual about bumping off servants, she cheerfully disposes of aristos too… ;)

    • FictionFan – Well, that’s true enough. Christie is no respecter of class when it comes to victims or killers for the matter of that. Certainly her work isn’t as dark in terms of how things pan out as some more modern authors are. Her novels aren’t light in the sense of being comedic, but they are light in the sense of things sorting themselves out. I wonder if that’s a bit of why so many people find her work enjoyable to read? You get the sense that all will end up OK, whereas as we know, in the real world, that’s not what happens.

  4. It is always shocking in a book when a sympathetic character gets knocked off as you really prefer it to be the least liked individual, which is what Christie usually does so well. Indeed it can seem callous when an author gets rid of someone you like – I do feel the book needs to have earned the right to do that otherwise it just leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Fascinating theme Margot – thanks.

    • Sergio – I like the way you put that. We do get invested in characters, especially if they’re well-drawn. So when a character we’ve come to like is killed, it can feel like a personal loss and I agree, leave a bad taste in the mouth. But on the other hand, when we don’t like a character (and you’re right; Christie does that quite well) we don’t have the same investment in that person, so the death doesn’t cut deeply. So looking at it that way, I suppose you could say some deaths matter more to readers than others do…

  5. I prefer to read crime fiction with fewer deaths; one or two should suffice. Too many corpses can spoil a good mystery. I don’t see how multiple victims can take the reader into a blind alley and I don’t know if it’d work as a ploy to lead the reader astray.

    I was intrigued by your example of “The Sea Detective” by Mark Douglas-Home, an author I haven’t read, and the reference to “dhanda,” which is a loose Hindi term for any small, usually cheap, business or entrepreneurship. A roadside tobacco seller, tea vendor, hawker or foodstall owner are doing “dhanda.” Conversely, it can also be applied to black market and smuggling, driving a taxi or autorickshaw, prostitution, or the local shop. It is often used to describe how business or “dhanda” did on a particular day.

    • Prashant – First, thanks for explaining in more detail what dhanda means. I didn’t know that. It’s a very versatile word isn’t it?
       
      You also make a well-taken point about the number of bodies in a crime fiction novel. In one sense, I think the ‘right’ number of murders depends on the story. In another, though, I agree completely that a story isn’t necessarily improved by a lot of deaths.

  6. Some great quotes there. Crime fiction seems to be littered with conversations between police officers (and the general public or higher officials) about which victims matter. I remember in Deon Meyer’s Thirteen Hours the resentment that Benny Griessel’s team feel when the search for the missing teenager goes up a notch simply because she is American. If it had been a South African, especially a black one, the case would have been simply routine.

    • Marina Sofia – There really are a lot of discussions aren’t there of how to prioritise a case and of which victims we should care about. And I’m glad that you mentioned Thirteen Hours too. Not only do I like Deon Meyer’s work, but also, it’s a great example of how some victims get more attention than others do. Little wonder there’s resentment in that case…

  7. As a reader, I find it interesting when a sleuth adopts a special interest in a case that “isn’t as important” as others. In the end, the sleuth always seems to find a reason that he/she finds it important…frequently because of philosophical views that all life is equally valuable (a philosophy which I love hearing from crime-weary detectives!)

    • Elizabeth – Oh, I know exactly what you mean. It is nice to hear that message that everyone matters, especially from sleuths who are jaded. And it does add to the plot I think when the sleuth discovers a reason why people should care about the victim. There’s another layer of tension there.

  8. Although he’s not a victim, you post makes me think of Camilla Lackberg’s Mellberg. You think no-one will love him and yet that clearly isn’t the case as the series progresses.

    • Sarah – Mellberg really is an interesting character isn’t he? I really like the way he’s evolved over the series. As you say, not someone you’d think anyone could care about at first, but things don’t stay that way.

  9. I recently read Kwei Quartey’s “Children of the Streets,” in which no one but Darko Dawson and their own friends care about missing street children in Acra (Ghana). In fact, almost no one cares about the ones who aren’t missing. That made it difficult to read, yet also gave me another reason to pull for Darko!

    • Karen – Oh, I’ve heard that is a very well-written book, if difficult to read. Thank you for reminding me to put that on my TBR. It’s so heartbreaking to know how many children there are out there who really don’t seem to matter for anyone…

  10. Very interesting post and comments, Margot. Prashant’s explanation of dhanda was enlightening, and The Sea Detective sounds like an interesting book. I think Ruth Rendell’s Simisola was one of the Inspector Wexford books that I missed. I will have to read it.

    • Tracy – Thanks – I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and I always learn so much from everyone’s comments. I recommend Simisola very highly actually. It’s not easy to read, but well worth the effort. And The Sea Detective really is an interesting, if unusual, book.

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