In real life and in crime fiction, detectives sometimes get put into some morally very ambiguous situations. In those cases, there’s no easy answer as to what the right thing is to do. And no matter which choice the detective makes there’s some moral consequence if you like to put it that way. It can be very difficult for a sleuth to walk that proverbial tightrope without giving up on doing the right thing. Situations like that can be challenging, but in fiction, they can also show that the sleuth is human and therefore, more believable.
One of Lawrence Block’s sleuths is former NYPD cop Matthew Scudder. Scudder left the NYPD after the tragic accidental shooting of a young girl Estrellita Rivera. One the one hand, this was a ‘clean’ shooting in the sense that Scudder had targeted two armed thieves who murdered a bartender. On the other of course, the child was innocent. Scudder copes with the ‘tightrope’ of what counts as doing the right thing throughout the series, and it has the effect of making him less judgemental about others. Here for instance is what he says about it to one of the other characters in The Sins of the Fathers:
‘Ah, and what about you, Mr. Scudder? Are you a force for good or evil? I’m sure you’ve asked yourself that question.’
‘Now and then.’
‘And how do you answer it?’
It’s an interesting reflection on what counts as right and wrong.
Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen gets into morally ambiguous situations more than once. In Ratking, for instance, he’s been seconded from Rome to Perugia to work with the Perugia Questura on a kidnapping. Wealthy business leader Ruggerio Miletti has been abducted and the little progress has been made on the case. As Zen soon finds out, none of the people involved is exactly a model citizen. He’s got to work his way past a dysfunctional and corrupt family, equally corrupt police and government officials and of course, the people behind the abduction. Zen does find out who’s behind the events in the story but in order to catch the culprit, he has to do some things that are morally ambivalent. For him, getting to the truth is worth the difficult choices he makes. And he knows that if he ‘plays dirty,’ his opponents ‘play dirtier.’
Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari introduces readers to bodyguard-for-hire Martin Lemmer. Emma la Roux has recently discovered that her brother Jacobus, whom she thought dead for many years, may very well be alive. She hires Lemmer to protect her on a trip from Cape Town to the Lowveld to find out if Jacobus is alive and if he is, what happened to him. For his own personal reasons, Lemmer keeps a very tight rein on himself. He’s not a drinker and he works hard to manage his anger. For him, the right thing to do is to stay in control of the situation and protect his client. Then, he and Emma are attacked and Emma is left badly wounded. Once she’s safely under medical supervision, Lemmer goes on a morally ambiguous search for the people behind the attack. On a professional level, he wants to respect his commitment to keeping his client safe and he feels guilty that he hasn’t been able to do that. On a personal level, there is vengeance involved. In that part of the novel Lemmer walks a proverbial tightrope as he tries to balance those motives with his determination to manage himself.
There’s an interesting case of walking a moral tightrope in Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Diggers Rest Hotel, which takes place in 1947. Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin has recently returned to Australia after spending time in a European POW camp. He’s settling into life again when he’s seconded to Wodonga to help the local police catch a motorcycle gang that’s been committing a series of robberies. Their latest heist ended up in serious injury to a railway paymaster, so there’s increased pressure to catch those responsible. Berlin settles into the Diggers Rest Hotel and begins investigating. Then, the body of sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee is found in an alley. At first there’s a possibility that her death might be connected to the robberies. But when Berlin finds out that’s not true, he sees that he really has two cases on his hands. When Berlin learns exactly what’s behind the robberies, he is faced with a very difficult choice. Both options have consequences and Berlin has to decide which one is really, when it comes down to it, the right thing to do.
David Whish-Wilson also deals with this question of what the right thing is to do in Line of Sight. It’s 1975, and Perth brothel owner Ruby Devine has been murdered and her body left in her car. Superintendent Frank Swann’s been away from Perth for seven years, but he returns when he hears of Ruby’s death. Although they were on opposite sides of the law they were friends, and Swann wants to know what happened to her. The official theory is that Ruby’s partner Jacky White is responsible, but Jacky claims she’s innocent and Swann believes her. Besides, the investigation has been conducted by certain members of the police force who can’t be trusted. They’re members of the ‘purple circle’ of corrupt and bullying cops, and no-one wants to risk getting on their wrong side. What exactly counts as the right thing to do isn’t always clear as Swann investigates, but what is clear to him is that murdering Ruby Devine was wrong. Swann isn’t exactly an ‘end justifies the means’ kind of cop, so it’s interesting to see how he makes his choices as the story goes on.
And then there’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau, whom we meet in Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine. He and his assistant Detective Yu Guangming investigate when the body of national model worker Guan Hongying is found in Baili Canal near Shangahi. On the one hand, there is pressure of course to make an arrest and punish the wrongdoer, especially since the victim was a celebrity and was held up as a role model. On the other hand, because of her status, she was involved with some very important people whom it would not be a good idea to embarrass. So this case has to be pursued very, very carefully. That’s especially true when Chen and Yu discover who the killer probably is. In order to bring the killer to justice, Chen has to make some difficult choices. On the one hand, he is committed to finding out who killed the victim and catching that person. On the other, he’ll have to do some things that he considers morally questionable at best. That aspect of the novel adds an interesting layer to the story.
There’s also of course H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay Police. He feels very keenly the need to do the right thing and because he’s reflective, ‘the right thing’ isn’t always clear to him. In The Iciest Sin for instance, Ghote is uncomfortable because he’s been assigned to find out if Dolly Daruwala is an extortionist. To do that, he ends up hiding in her apartment (not exactly a moral thing to do for Ghote). That’s how he witnesses her murder. And that event draws Ghote into a case of blackmail, extortion and of course, the murder. It also forces on him some very morally ambiguous choices.
Not all cases are straightforward. Some of them involve some extremely difficult choices and morally ambiguous decisions. Negotiating those choices without losing one’s ‘moral compass’ is a challenge for real-life detectives and it can add a solid layer of interest to a novel. I know I’ve only mentioned a few examples here. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stevie Ray Vaughan and Doyle Bramhall’s Tightrope.