In 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.’
‘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.