Sometimes, detectives have to make some very difficult and morally ambiguous kinds of choices. They’re the kinds of decisions that may haunt the sleuth, and when it happens in fiction we may not agree with what the sleuth chooses to do. But those choices do happen in real life, and they can add a fascinating layer of tension to a story. What’s more, they can add depth to a character. Those difficult decisions can also make a book memorable as the reader thinks about what happened (e.g. ‘Would I have done the same thing?’). There are a lot of examples of this kind of decision in crime fiction and this post only gives me room for a few. So I’ll rely on you folks to fill in the gaps I leave.
As Agatha Christie fans know, Hercule Poirot does not approve of murder. And yet in more than one story he’s faced with morally ambiguous choices about the killer. And in one novel in particular, he helps cover up a murder. But rather than identify that novel, I’ll use One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death). Poirot’s dentist Henry Morley is shot one day during his surgery hours. Scotland Yard gets involved because one of Morley’s patients is wealthy and powerful banker Alistair Blunt, and it’s very likely that Morley’s killer was actually trying to get at Blunt. So Chief Inspector Japp is assigned to investigate and one of his first visits is to Poirot. The two men are just starting to ask questions when one of Morley’s patients dies of complications from an overdose of anaesthetic. Then another patient disappears. Poirot solves the murders and figures out what’s behind the events in the story, but then he’s faced with a difficult choice. On the one hand, he has sympathy for the killer. On the other, his view is that every life matters and that the murderer must answer for having taken lives. It’s not a really easy choice for Poirot, who even mentions that there are times when he doesn’t like what he has to do.
Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins faces several difficult situations and morally ambiguous choices in A Red Death. Rawlins gets a letter from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent Reginald Lawrence. The letter claims that Rawlins owes thousands of dollars in back taxes – money he can’t possibly come up with – and threatens him with prison if he doesn’t pay. Rawlins is mentally preparing himself to go to prison when he gets a chance to solve his problem. FBI agent Darryl Craxton contacts Mosley and offers him a deal. If Mosley will help the FBI bring down suspected communist Chaim Wenzler, Craxton will make Rawlins’ tax troubles go away. The idea is that Rawlins will volunteer at the First African Baptist Church, where Wenzler is also a volunteer, and get close to Wenzler. Then he’ll get the information the FBI wants. At first the choice doesn’t seem difficult; Rawlins doesn’t even know Wenzler and he does want to avoid prison. But then he gets to know his quarry and the two become friends. Then, there are two murders on the church property, and Rawlins becomes a suspect. Now he’ll have to figure out what to do about Wenzler at the same time as he’s trying to find out who the real murderer is and clear his name. The decisions Rawlins makes about the case might not be what someone else might do, but they make for layers of interest and of suspense. And they make him human.
In Craig Johnson’s The Cold Dish, Sheriff Walt Longmire has to deal with a few difficult decisions. A dead man is found on public land not far from Durant, Wyoming. The victim turns out to be Cody Pritchard, who was recently released from prison after serving a short sentence for taking part in the gang-rape of Melissa Little Bird. A lot of people were incensed that Pritchard and three other young men who were with him got such light sentences and when one of those other young men is also killed, Longmire suspects that this is a set of vengeance murders. On the one hand, Longmire has a lot of sympathy for the killer. On the other, the killings are adding to the tensions in the area and Longmire knows that could get out of hand. Besides, he’s sworn to uphold the law, which does not include vigilante murders. So he has to go after the killer. When he finds out who it is, he’s faced with an even more difficult situation…
So is Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn in A Killing Spring. In that novel, one of Kilbourn’s university colleagues Reed Gallagher is murdered and his body found in a very seedy rooming house. Kilbourn gets involved in the investigation in part because she knows Gallagher’s widow; in fact it’s Kilbourn who goes along with the police to break the news. As the search for answers goes on, it becomes clear that more than one person might have wanted to kill Gallagher. What’s very difficult for Kilbourn is that one of those suspects is her friend and colleague Ed Mariani. In fact, she witnessed what looks like a serious argument between them not long before Gallagher was killed. On the one hand, Kilbourn wants to see Gallagher’s murderer caught. And at this point in the series, she’s dating Regina police inspector Alex Kequahtooway, who’s been assigned to the case. On the other, Mariani is a trusted colleague and a friend, and Kilbourn doesn’t want to believe he is a killer. Besides, there’s the question of personal loyalty. She’s faced with a difficult and morally ambiguous choice here that adds to the story.
In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we meet Jodie Evans Garrow who lives with her attorney husband Angus and her two children Hannah and Tom in the small New South Wales town of Arding. All is going well for the family until Hannah is injured in an accident and is rushed to a Sydney hospital. It’s the same hospital where years before, Jodie gave birth to another child Elsa Mary – a child she never even mentioned to her husband. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie from that first visit and asks her what happened to the baby. Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but when the nurse gets curious and does a little research, she can’t find any adoption records. Before long, questions start to be asked about what happened to the baby. If she’s alive, where is she? If she’s not alive, why not? Did Jodie somehow have something to do with the baby’s disappearance? As the story spins out of control, Jodie becomes a social pariah. And in the end, what happened years ago has profound effects on Jodie’s family now. We find out what happened to the baby and as we learn, there are a series of difficult choices Jodie has made. Some of them readers would agree with, and some not. That moral ambiguity makes Jodie a fascinating character and adds to the depth of the story.
There’s also Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Diggers Rest Hotel. Just after World War II has ended, Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin is sent to Wodonga to help investigate a series of robberies committed by a motorcycle gang. Berlin has just started the real work on this case when the body of sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee is found in an alley. Within a short time, Berlin learns that the motorcycle gang is not responsible for the murder, so there are two separate cases to pursue. Neither is a straightforward case of ‘a bad person doing an evil thing.’ They’re both more complex than that. And in the end, when Berlin finds out the truth about the robberies, he is faced with a very difficult and morally ambiguous choice. Not everyone will agree with what he does, but it does add depth to the story and the characters and it makes the reader (well, this one anyway) think.
And that’s the thing about those difficult choices. They are hard to sort out, but they reflect real life and they can add to a story. Now it’s your turn…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dan Fogelberg’s Higher Ground.