Like most of us, real and fictional detectives have to deal with new policies and initiatives that come down from ‘the top.’ So do other fictional kinds of sleuths such as attorneys, academics and so on. If you’ve ever been in a meeting like the one in the ‘photo, where new policies are announced, you know what I mean. Sometimes those policies can be beneficial to the people who have to implement them. Sometimes, that’s not the case. And when it isn’t, it’s often because those policies and initiatives don’t come from the people who are most directly affected by them. But whether they do or don’t work to everyone’s benefit, they’re a part of many people’s lives. And in crime fiction, they can add some interesting tension to a story.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Chief Inspector Japp investigates the murder of Henry Morley, a dentist who was found shot in his surgery. Morley happens to be Hercule Poirot’s dentist and in fact, Poirot had an appointment there on the morning of the shooting, so Japp is interested in Poirot’s input. This is a case of special interest too, because one of Morley’s other patients is Alistair Blunt, a powerful banker with plenty of (especially political) enemies. So there’s every chance that someone shot Morley in an attempt to get at Blunt. Japp and Poirot have just begun looking into this case when the news comes that one of Morley’s patients has disappeared. Then another is found dead of what seems to be an overdose of anaesthetic. Japp and Poirot are working on the case when all of a sudden word comes down from Japp’s superiors that this case is to be left alone. As you can imagine, Japp is not best pleased, but it’s Scotland Yard’s policy to make Home Office requests a priority. And this time, the Home Office has specifically requested that the case be left alone for security reasons. Japp’s hands, as the saying goes, are tied, but Poirot’s are not, so he continues the investigation and finds out who shot Morley and why.
In Ian Rankin’s Resurrection Men, DI John Rebus finds himself caught up in a new initiative for helping detectives like himself who have trouble working in groups and with authority figures. He and his team are investigating the murder of Edinburgh art dealer Edward Marber, and the case isn’t going very well. During a tense meeting about it, Rebus throws a mug of cold tea in the direction of DCS Gill Templar, who’s leading the meeting. It’s decided that he should be a part of this new initiative, so he’s remanded along with some other detectives to Tulliallan Police College. Rebus of course isn’t happy about this, not least because he can’t do anything to solve the Marber case if he’s off on this new program. But he isn’t given any choice. What’s more, he’s given a special assignment to carry out while he’s there (no spoilers). As an exercise in team-building, the ‘Resurrection Men’ as they’re called are given a ‘cold case’ to solve, the murder of gangster Rico Lomax. As Rebus is working on this case, he’s also working privately with DS Siobhan Clarke on the Marber case. In the end, it turns out that these murders are connected.
Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett has to learn several skills when she takes over the leadership of the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. One of those skills is how to cope with her own and others’ frustration at initiatives and policies that may seem good ‘on paper,’ but don’t work well in practice. For example, ACC Lauren Self has passed down the constabulary’s new healthy eating Initiative, which limits the kind of food that’s available on the premises. All the food served at meetings and events is to be organic, and it’s to be nutritious. In the abstract, it’s a good idea to eat healthy food. And in the abstract, it makes sense to support healthy eating at the institutional level. But in practice, it’s a failure. In both The Cipher Garden and The Serpent Pool, there are examples of detectives who find their own ways of circumventing this initiative. Here, for instance, is what Scarlett’s friend and colleague Fern Larter says about it (from The Serpent Pool):
‘I’m pig-sick of the ACC’s healthy eating initiative. I refuse to spend the rest of my life worrying about clogged arteries.’
It’s an interesting thread of tension that also adds some humanity to Edwards’ characters.
Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun series takes place in 1970s Laos, at a time when the then-new communist government had made profound changes in the way things were done. This of course entailed a raft of new initiatives, policies and so forth that were enacted to further the government’s goals. And as Laos’ chief medical examiner, Dr. Siri has to deal with a lot of them. As we learn in The Coroner’s Lunch, for instance, the government has set up a new program for getting municipal and other community projects completed. Villagers ‘volunteer’ to dig canals, paint youth centres and the like. Since everyone is expected to work at regular jobs throughout the week and often on Saturdays too, this ‘volunteer’ work takes place on Sundays. Those who don’t participate come to the notice of authorities, and this can have its own policy-based consequences. So although Dr. Siri is not happy about being wakened early on his only ‘day off’ to dig an irrigation canal, he knows the risks of not going along. And this leads to another initiative mentioned in this novel. Those who don’t comply with ‘handed-down’ initiatives are sent to another part of Laos for ‘re-education.’ Dr. Siri ofen finds himself at odds with the government policies that affect his life. But he also finds ways to get around them.
There is a tense, serious and thought-provoking discussion of the effects of initiatives and policies in Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. In that novel, Tasmania Police Sergeant John White is stabbed to death while he and probationer Lucy Howard are investigating a break-in. Since the victim is a fellow police officer and a well-respected one too, the cops are determined to punish the culprit. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who comes from a poor area of Hobart. Since Darren is part Aboriginal, this investigation is strictly circumscribed by recent initiatives put into place in order to ensure that Aborginal citizens’ rights are protected. There are also policies in place that are intended to protect juveniles. On the one hand, there are good reasons for those initiatives and good reasons to codify what police can and cannot do. On the other hand, as the novel plays out, we also see that these policies don’t always have the intended effects. What’s more, Erskine explores the reaction of the ‘regular cops’ to having to comply with policies that were ‘handed down’ from people who aren’t on regular police duty.
In Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night, social worker Simran Singh is asked to help with a terrible case that the State of Punjab is facing. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal has been arrested for poisoning thirteen members of her family, and stabbing several of them. She also allegedly set fire to the family home. The case is complicated by the fact that there are signs Durga was bound and raped. It’s also complicated by the fact that Durga hasn’t spoken since the crime took place. It’s believed that if Simran can get Durga to talk about what happened that terrible night, the police will get closer to the truth. One of many, many hurdles that Simran encounters is the fact that Durga is currently being held in a prison instead of in a more appropriate juvenile home. But recent reports of corruption and more at the juvenile home led to a raid and a new policy about the place. So Durga has had to be accommodated with a makeshift ‘solitary confinement’ setup at the prison.
And that’s the thing about some initiatives and polices, especially if they’re ‘handed down’ from people who don’t have to implement or live with them. They may seem like real solutions in the abstract, and sometimes they are. But in reality it doesn’t always work out that way.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Red Lorry Yellow Lorry’s (The Lorries’) This Today.