Category Archives: Deborah Crombie

When We’re Together, My Co-Star and Me*

Two ProtagonistsA lot of crime novels feature one sleuth. Of course, if that one sleuth is at all believable, she or he gets information and sometimes help from other people, but really, there’s one main protagonist. Some authors though have chosen to develop two protagonists. I’m not talking here of pairings such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Rather, I’m talking of dual protagonists whose stories develop almost independently even though the characters are working on the same case or set of cases. It’s not easy to create that kind of partnership without confusing the reader or belabouring the story. But when it’s done well, a plot or series that involves two protagonists with separate but related stories can add a layer of depth and interest and can make for some interesting story arcs too.

Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series is like that. There are several instances in the series where the two pursue different lines of investigation. In Recalled to Life for instance, Cissy Kohler has recently been released from prison after serving time for involvement in the 1963 murder of Pamela Westrop. At the time of her arrest, Ralph Mickledore was also arrested, tried and imprisoned for the murder. Now there are suggestions that Cissy Kohler was innocent and that Dalziel’s old mentor Wally Tallentire, who pursued the case, knew about it and hid that knowledge. Deputy Chief Constable Geoff Hiller is leading an investigation into those allegations, much to Dalziel’s anger. Dalziel doesn’t believe that Tallentire did anything wrong and he resents the questions about his mentor’s character. So he takes another look at the case, mostly to prove that his mentor was ‘clean.’ His new investigation takes him to the US to follow up with an important witness. Meanwhile, Pascoe stays behind and serves as a liaison between Hiller’s team and the CID. In that way, the two sleuths work more or less on the same case, but they do so separately, and we get their two different perspectives.

Martin Edwards’ Lake District series also features two separate protagonists. One is DCI Hannah Scarlett, who heads the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. The other is Oxford historian Daniel Kind. Although their two stories are related to the same cases, they often investigate different angles of the case in different ways. For instance, in The Serpent Pool, Scarlett and her team are re-investigating the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. They find that it’s connected to two more recent murders, so Scarlett’s angle on this case is the police business of finding out who the murderer is and how the three murders are connected. Meanwhile Kind is doing research into the life and work of Thomas De Quincy. He’s interested in De Quincey and has been invited to give a presentation at a festival to be held in honour of De Quincey. Although Kind doesn’t investigate the murders, not even unofficially, his research proves to be crucial to solving the case.

Margaret Coel’s Vicky Holden and Father John O’Malley are also dual protagonists in the same series. They both work on the Arapaho people’s Wind River Reservation; Holden is a lawyer and a member of the Arapaho Nation. O’Malley is a Jesuit priest attached to the local St. Francis Mission. They know each other of course, and develop a deep friendship, but they don’t really work cases together in the way that, say, cop partners do. In The Eagle Catcher for instance, Arapaho tribal chair Harvey Castle is murdered at a powwow. His nephew Anthony is arrested for the crime, and with good reason. But O’Malley doesn’t think that he’s guilty. His angle on this case is to look into the history of the Arapaho people – a history that he knew Castle was compiling and that could provide a key to the murder. For Holden’s part, she agrees to defend Anthony Castle and starts putting together his case. She and O’Malley share information, but they have different perspectives and the story is told from their two different perspectives.

The same thing is true of Martha Grimes’ Richard Jurly/Melrose Plant series. They compare notes and are friends, but they often work separately. For instance, in The Anodyne Necklace, Inspector Jury is called to the village of Littlebourne when a human finger and later a body are discovered. Both turn out to belong to Cora Binns, a temporary secretary who’d come to Littlebourne for an interview. Jury puts the machinery of the law into motion and begins to interview the villagers as well as Cora’s family and neighbours. At the same time Melrose Plant goes to Littlebourne in the guise of wanting to buy some property there. He talks to several of the locals and learns that there was a robbery in the village about a year before Cora was killed. He and Jury also learn that another resident Katie O’Brien was attacked in a London underground station and is now in a coma. Although each man works on his own angle, Jury and Plant share what they learn and little by little, they find out that the murder of Cora Binns is related to the robbery and to the attack on Katie O’Brien.

And then there’s Elly Griffiths’ series featuring North Norfolk University archaeologist Ruth Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson. On the one hand, they share information; they’ve even had a romantic relationship. But they often go their separate ways when they’re investigating. For example, in The Janus Stone, Galloway is called in when a headless child’s skeleton is discovered beneath the ruins of the Sacred Heart Children’s Home when a new posh apartment building is put up on the same site. Galloway’s expertise is needed to determine how old the bones are. When it turns out that they are not ancient, the police begin to investigate. Nelson discovers that two children disappeared from the children’s home at about the time that the bones would have been buried. To find out the truth about the missing children and whether that case is related to the remains that have been found, Nelson interviews retired priest Father Hennessey, who was in charge of the children’s home at the time of the disappearances. Meanwhile Galloway is on a team that’s excavating Roman ruins in the area. Her team’s finds turn out to have an important connection to the case that Nelson’s investigating. They work together in that sense, but each of them pursues leads separately and the story is told from both of their perspectives.

Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs also includes two protagonists who work separately even though they co-operate and share information. In that novel, Chief Inspector William Wisting and his team investigate the bizarre appearance of a group of feet that wash up near the Norwegian town of Stavern.  The rest of the bodies can’t be found though, so there’s a lot of speculation about what has happened. There’s even talk that a particularly crazed serial killer may be responsible. Wisting and his team begin their search for answers with a look at missing person cases. They find that several of the people reported missing have either lived in or worked at the same old-age care home. That home and the long-time association among some of the residents prove to be important clues. In the meantime, Wisting’s daughter Line is also in Stavern. She’s a journalist working on a story about former prison inmates who’ve now been released. The point she wants to make is that prison does more harm than good. As she meets with her interviewees, she too finds out important information that turns out to be related to the case her father is working. The two stories are told separately and from both perspectives. And yet, they relate to the same case.

Other authors such as Deborah Crombie have done a similar thing. Katherine Howell’s got a particularly interesting approach to the dual-protagonist motif. Her series features Detective Ella Marconi of the New South Wales police. But her novels also feature other protagonists, usually paramedics and each novel focuses on a different one. It’s an innovative way to integrate other protagonists into a series.

What do you think? Do you find that having two separate protagonists with two different points of view confusing? Does it add to your enjoyment of a novel?  If you’re a writer, have you experimented with two protagonists?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Tears’ Co-Star.


Filed under Deborah Crombie, Elly Griffiths, Jørn Lier Horst, Katherine Howell, Margaret Coel, Martha Grimes, Reginald Hill

Lean on Me When You’re Not Strong*

Millions of people volunteer their time and energy to help those in need. And the best kinds of volunteers are the ones who don’t make a big fuss about it. They see a need and without judging or asking anything in return, they try to meet that need. I won’t go on and on about the different causes for which they work. There is far too long a list of urgent needs out there for me to do that. Suffice it to say though that volunteers have a huge impact. Certainly they do in real life; I’ll bet you volunteer yourself and if you do, you know what a difference the work you do makes. That’s why you do it. There are many, many volunteer and volunteer groups in crime fiction too.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles for example, Captain Hastings is recovering from a wartime injury. He accepts an invitation to visit an old friend John Cavendish while he heals up, and is looking forward to a pleasant stay. Instead, Hastings is drawn into a case of murder when Cavendish’s stepmother Emily Inglethorp is poisoned. By chance Hastings discovers that another old friend Hercule Poirot is staying in the nearby village and asks him to investigate. Poirot agrees, not least because Emily Inglethorp was his benefactor.  As the novel goes along we learn that several members of the family do their share of volunteering, mostly in aid of the war effort. Cavendish, for instance drills with the local volunteer militia. His wife Mary volunteers as what would later be known as a Land Girl. And Emily Inglethorp plays quite a key role in all sorts of local charity groups. Although this fact of their lives isn’t the motive for the murder, it’s an interesting perspective on their lives.

Deborah Crombie’s In a Dark House introduces us to Helping Hands, a group dedicated to helping abused women and their children find safe places to go and make plans for their lives once they get there. One night, a warehouse fire in Southwark is reported by a resident at Helping Hands, and Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his lover DI Gemma James go to the shelter to interview the person who called in the fire.  There they meet Kath Warren, the director. What makes this fire of special interest is that the body of an unidentified woman was found in the remains. It seems that the shelter may be more than casually related when it turns out that Laura Novak, a member of its board of directors, has disappeared and could be the fire victim. There are three other equally strong possibilities though and Kincaid and James investigate all of them as they work to figure out who set the fire and who the dead woman is. I don’t think it’s spoiling this novel to say that the Helping Hands group didn’t engineer the fire or Novak’s disappearance. But we do get some interesting insight into the workings of a volunteer group, its leadership and the way such groups are viewed.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman volunteers with the Melbourne Soup Run, a mobile soup kitchen that serves Melbourne’s street people. She’s a baker so she provides bread; she also takes her turn going on the run with other volunteers who travel from one part of the city to another. At each stop the Soup Run gives out coffee and tea, food, some medicines and other supplies like blankets and clothes. Chapman is quite matter-of-fact about her volunteer work. She doesn’t talk much about it; she just rolls up her sleeves as the saying goes and does what needs to be done. The Soup Run is overseen by the indefatigable Sister Mary, one of Melbourne’s strongest advocates for those in need. Sister Mary has a remarkable skill at getting people to part with their time, their money, their donations, their official permission, whatever is necessary to get the job done. And she’s one of the few people Chapman co-operates with nearly automatically. The Soup Run proves useful to Chapman too, in a few mysteries. For instance, in Devil’s Food, Chapman’s father seems to have disappeared. Through the Soup Run she makes contact with other Melbourne volunteer groups and services and is able to find out what happened to him. The Soup Run is also a source of clues in Earthy Delights, in which she helps to solve the mystery of a series of junkie overdose deaths.

In Peg Brantley’s Red Tide we meet volunteer guide dog handler Jamie Taylor. By day she’s a Colorado bank loan professional. She also trains and handles Gretchen, Socrates ‘Socks’ and McKenzie, who are search-and-rescue dogs. When the need arises Taylor and her dogs go on search and rescue missions. That’s how they get involved in an eerie discovery. Convicted serial killer Leopold Bonzer has told the FBI where he buried his victims and Taylor and her dogs are sent to that remote field. They find the bodies but they also find bodies that Bonzer could not have buried there. Now it looks as though a ‘copycat killer’ is using the same field. Each in a different way, Taylor, her sister Jacqueline ‘Jax’ and FBI Agent Nick Grant investigate to find out who this new killer is and how that relates to a tragedy in Taylor’s own past. Among other things, this is an interesting look at the way search-and-rescue operations are carried out and how dogs are used in the process.

And then there’s Nina Borg, whom we first meet in Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ The Boy in the Suitcase. Nina is a nurse at Ellen’s Place, a shelter and service provider for refugees. She’s also volunteered in several different world ‘danger zones’ and takes her work in service to others very seriously. But one day she gets a very unusual case. Her friend Karin asks her to go to the Copenhagen train station and pick up a suitcase. She does so only to discover that it contains a little boy. He’s dazed and drugged, but he is alive. So she tries as best she can to find out who he is. Her first call is to Karin, but Karen seems to have disappeared. Now Nina has to find out for herself who the boy is and get him to safety. In doing so she finds herself up against some ruthless people who want that child. Meanwhile, we meet Sigita Ramoskiene, the Lithuanian mother of three-year-old Mikas, who has been abducted. As she frantically searches for her son, we learn that he is the child Nina found. Each in her own way the two women work to find out why Mikas was abducted and return him safely.

Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer features Catherine Monsigny, who’s recently become an attorney. She has a full-time job at the law office of Maître Renaud, but she also volunteers her time to an association that works with undocumented immigrants who get into legal trouble. Her purpose in doing the volunteer work is mostly to get experience. That’s how she learns of the case of Myriam Villetreix, originally from Gabon, who’s been arrested and charged with the murder of her wealthy husband Gaston. The case has been getting a lot of media attention and if Catherine gets her boss’ permission to defend Myriam, it could launch her career. She gets that permission and begins to look into the case only to find that it’s more complicated than it seems on the surface. There is evidence against her client and there is motive. What’s more, this trial takes place not far from where Catherine’s mother was murdered when she was a tiny child. No-one was ever arrested for the crime and the memory of that day has haunted her since then. Being in the area spurs Catherine to try to find out who killed her mother while she is also searching for the truth about the murder of Gaston Villetreix.

There are of course many other crime fiction novels that feature volunteers, and quite frankly, I’m glad they get ‘air time.’ It’s easy enough to click a link and donate money. It’s not so easy to give up your time and your mental and physical energy. But volunteers do it all the time in a million different ways, and without going on about it. They deserve our respect and gratitude. Mostly, they deserve to have us join their company.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bill Withers’ Lean on Me.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Deborah Crombie, Kerry Greenwood, Lene Kaaberbøl, Peg Brantley, Sylvie Granotier

‘Cause These Words Are My Diary Screaming Out Loud*

Writers have to keep a certain amount of detachment from their work. There are a few good reasons for that. First, not everyone is going to like what one writes. That can be hard enough to deal with when one doesn’t feel a personal attachment to one’s work. Add to that too much attachment, and rejection and criticism cut even more deeply.  And sometimes writers have to cut out scenes, characters, plot points and more simply to make the story better. A writer who is too attached may find it too hard to make the kinds of changes that sometimes need to be made to improve a story. So I’m saying that writers are best off not being attached to what they write, right?

Wrong. Have you ever read a novel where the plot had a solid structure, the characters were believable and so on, but the novel just didn’t do much for you? So have I. Part of that is of course personal taste, mood and other factors like that. But sometimes it’s because there’s not a lot of ‘spark’ to the story. How did that happen? One reason may be that the author was a little too detached. If the author doesn’t care about the characters and what happens to them, why should the reader?  So there’s a lot to be said for caring – really caring – about what happens in the stories one writes. I don’t just mean caring in the sense of wanting to tell a good story in a professional way. I mean caring about the people in the story, and being invested in the outcome.

To give an example of what I mean, I had an email from a crime fiction author whose work I greatly admire. Among other things, she mentioned having very mixed feelings about the ending of one of her novels. She genuinely felt sympathy for the killer and found it difficult to let go of that. And you know what? That feeling came through in the novel and made it that much more effective. Yes, the reader cares very much for the victims and those left behind – I know that I did – but there’s also the sense that the killer is multi-dimensional too. Talk about your book with ‘spark!’

Of course, it’s one thing to say that a crime writer should balance caring about the characters and the outcome with enough detachment to improve the story as needed. It’s quite another to strike that balance. In one interview for instance, James Lee Burke said that for him, stories begin


‘…with a feeling of concern, of a dilemma of some kind.’


And in the same interview, Burke explains why he chooses to write his stories in the first person:


‘Using a first-person narrator is simply a matter of hearing the voice inside yourself. The character is already in the author, I think.’


Fans of Burke’s work will tell you that that personal investment in his stories comes through as we get to know the characters and follow the plots.

Ian Rankin has expressed a rather similar point of view. In one interview he explains why he likes the writing process.


‘I can’t think of anything better than that, and it keeps you well balanced because all the s*** inside your head goes on paper. I think we’d be troublesome individuals if we didn’t get all that s***t out our systems.’


I can’t say conclusively of course but my guess is that that personal connection between writer and work is part of what gives Rankin’s novels the level of interest that they have. The ‘spark’ that many people feel when they read Rankin’s work may be related to that connection.

Here’s how Ann Cleeves put it when she was asked about whether she personally identifies with the characters she created for Raven Black:


‘I identify with all my characters when I write them, even, or perhaps especially, the less attractive ones. Writing’s a bit like acting, I think. You have to believe you’re the person you’re writing, stand in their shoes and get inside their head.’


She’s got a well-taken point. And fans of Cleeves’ Shetland Quartet and Vera Stanhope series will tell you that those characters truly come alive in the series.

When Deborah Crombie was asked how she feels about her protagonists Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his partner Inspector Gemma James, here’s how she responded:


‘I miss them when I’m in between books doing research. I always want to be back with them, back in their lives.’


What’s even more interesting is her final comment in this interview:


‘About 95 percent of my e-mail is about Duncan and Gemma and what’s going to happen with them. Obviously something hits the reader about them as much as it does me.’ 


Crombie says it better than I could have.

Of course there is much to be said – and it’s very important – for a certain amount of detachment as a writer. One’s got to be open to revisions and edits, to others’ really good ideas and so on. And the quality of a story is closely related to the willingness of the author to work at making it better. But if the author doesn’t care about the characters and doesn’t get invested in the story at all, it shows. If you’ve ever read a ‘cookie cutter’ story you know precisely what I mean.

I find myself needing to strike that balance in my own writing and I’d love to hear what you think about it. Readers: can you sense it when a writer doesn’t seem to be invested in her or his work? Writers: how close do you get to your characters? How do you balance that need to invest yourself with the need to be detached enough to write a polished story?

Now if you’ll excuse me I need a drink and a good cry. Joel Williams just discovered the body of a very decent character in the latest chapter of what I’m writing and I am none too happy about that!




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Anna Nalick’s Breathe (2 AM).


Filed under Ann Cleeves, Deborah Crombie, Ian Rankin, James Lee Burke

The Flames Were Everywhere*

I live in wildfire country. Where I live, no matter what time of year it is one can’t be careless with flame. Ever. But that’s especially true during the Santa Ana season, which begins more or less next week and ends usually in December. For those of you who don’t know what Santa Ana season is, it’s the time of year when winds blow off the Nevada/Eastern California deserts bringing with them extremely dry and hot weather. Santa Ana season turns the part of Southern California where I live into a tinderbox. Want to know what it’s like when there’s a wildfire nearby? Imagine sitting with your spouse or partner, discussing exactly what each of you will take with you if you’re given the 10-minute evacuation order. Imagine going out to your car in the morning and finding it heavily sprinkled with ashes that used to be a housing development to the east. Imagine the sky you’re accustomed to turning coppery red and grey and looking like a post-apocalyptic film. And then there’s the matter of trying to get your dogs outside when they’re smart enough to know how dangerous it is out there. It’s not pretty. Trust me. And that is why I have the utmost respect, admiration and appreciation for firefighters.

Firefighters will do anything it takes, including giving up their own lives, to try to keep other people safe. They go into situations that the rest of us couldn’t possibly imagine. They have helped keep my home and my family safe more than once. You can’t find words to express the kind of gratitude I owe the brave men and women who steer us all through wildfire season. And they don’t go about bragging either. To them it’s simply doing their jobs. There are lots and lots of accounts of real-life firefighters whose bravery is remarkable. For example, there are the London firefighters whose incredible courage kept that city going during World War II. There are also the firefighters who risked and lost their lives during the 11 September, 2001 attacks in New York City and Washington DC. There are many, many others too.

There are also fictional firefighters who’ve shown us just a little of what it’s like to fight fires. For example, in Deborah Crombie’s In a Dark House we meet firefighter Rose Kearny, who’s called with her team to the scene of a fire in a Southwark warehouse owned by MP Michael Yarwood. As the firefighters are going through the building they discover the body of an unidentified woman. So Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his team are called in to investigate. With help from Kincaid’s partner DI Gemma James, Kincaid discovers that the woman could be one of four women who’ve gone missing. As they’re trying to find out which of the women is the victim, there’s another fire. And another. Rose Kearny finds a link between the fires and when she shares it with Kincaid he’s able to find out what’s behind this rash of arson crimes. This novel includes a compelling look at the way firefighters do their jobs, the camaraderie they have and the way they depend on each other when there is a fire.

We also see that in Nevada Barr’s Firestorm. In that novel, U.S. National Park Service Ranger Anna Pigeon has been sent to Northern California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park. A wildfire – the Jackville Fire – has broken out and Pigeon is serving as a medic. She’s been assigned to a spike camp, a small temporary camp set up as close to the fire area as safety allows. At first, weather predictions are for cold weather and snow to move in so it looks as though the team will be able to leave the area. Pigeon and a few others stay behind to help a firefighter with a broken leg and that’s when a freak thunderstorm changes everything. Winds rise and a firestorm sweeps through. Everyone dives for cover in their shelters and when the storm has passed the firefighters check on each other. That’s when the body of firefighter Len Nims is found with a knife in his back. Now, Pigeon has to find out who the murderer is while at the same time taking care of the exhausted and wounded firefighters.

Oh, and even though it’s not crime fiction, if you want to get a real sense of what firefighters go through and what they do and what it’s like to go through a wildfire or bush fire read Adrian Hyland’s Kinglake-350. That’s the story of Black Saturday, 7 February of 2009, when a firestorm swept through the Australian state of Victoria. Even if you don’t think you’ll be interested in that event and those people, read it. It’s that much worth it. Really. Promise.

Sometimes a wildfire or bush fire isn’t the main theme of a novel but even then, fires can add tension to a story and the people who fight them can serve as very well-drawn characters. For example, Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Smelled a Rat takes place just before the first major snowstorm of the year in Moose County, “400 miles north of nowhere.” Everyone is eager for the snow season because it’s been a very dry summer and autumn and there’ve been several fires. Then there’s a rash of fires at local mineshafts and the already-overworked fire crew has to work even harder to keep the area as safe as possible. Newspaper columnist Jim “Qwill” Qwilleran takes an interest in the local fires not just because of the danger to his community but because they’re of interest as a news topic. Then one of the locals is killed and his place of business destroyed. It’s now clear that an arsonist is at work and Qwill works with Police Chief Andrew Brodie to find out who the murderer is and what’s behind the arson.

In Peter Temple’s Truth, Victoria Inspector Stephen Villani and his team investigate the murder of an unidentified young woman whose body is found in a posh penthouse in the elegant Presilio building. At the same time they’re investigating the murders of three drug dealers whose bodies are found in another part of the Melbourne area. In both cases, some very powerful people do not want Villani and his team to find out the truth about the murders.  Woven throughout this novel is the fact that Victoria is under siege from bush fires. Although the fires themselves and those who fight them are not the main focus of this novel’s plot they add a very effective layer of tension. And in a point of interest, Temple refers to the Kinglake fires (see above) in this novel; it provides another perspective on what happened during that terrible time.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch lives in the Los Angeles area so as you can imagine, wildfires are part of his life. The Black Ice for instance begins with a  terrible wildfire not very far from Bosch’s home:


“The smoke carried up from the Cahuenga Pass and flattened beneath a layer of cool crossing air. From where Harry Bosch watched, the smoke looked like a gray anvil rising up the pass. The late afternoon sun gave the gray a pinkish tint at its highest point, tapering down to deepest black at its root, which was a brushfire moving up the hillside on the east side of the cut… nine houses were already gone on one street and those on the next street were in the path. The fire was moving toward the open hillsides of Griffith Park, where it might make a run for hours before being controlled.”


This novel doesn’t deal specifically with that fire. But that snippet should give you just a hint of what wildfire season is like in the part of Southern California where I live. And it does add a layer of realism and suspense to the novel.

I like my crime fiction to be realistic and honest. I do. And I know that firefighters are human beings like we all are and they have their imperfections and “bad apples” in the group. But I am always especially pleased when fictional firefighters are depicted sympathetically. I owe too many of the real ones too much not to feel that way.


On Another Note…


This post is dedicated to the very brave men and women who work at the station you see in the ‘photo and in all fire stations. I have seen those people after days on the fire line, their bodies exhausted, their faces covered with grime that used to be homes, having seen things that would put me in a mental institution. And yet they still go back. My family and I quite literally owe them our lives. What more can I say?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway).


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Deborah Crombie, Lilian Jackson Braun, Michael Connelly, Nevada Barr, Peter Temple

We Don’t Sneak Around or Step on Toes*

Detectives learn very quickly that it’s almost as important to avoid “stepping on people’s toes” – breaking the unwritten rules about working with others – as it is to do the other work involved in solving a case. That’s especially true for detectives who work in a bureaucracy such as a police department or the FBI, and even more so when departments have to co-operate during investigations. But even amateur sleuths know that if they antagonise too many people, they won’t get the answers that they want. And even though we may secretly enjoy it when a sleuth “steps on people’s toes” to get to the answers, we also know that in reality, that doesn’t get the detective very far. So authors have to strike a balance with their characters. On one hand, characters who are too willing to “step on people’s toes” aren’t believable, especially if there are no consequences. Characters who aren’t willing to take that risk aren’t as interesting and are probably less likely to solve cases.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot achieves that balance fairly well most of the time. In more than one of his cases, he starts by suggesting his client go to the police first. For instance, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, he is approached by Flora Ackroyd, whose uncle Roger has been stabbed. She is very much concerned because her fiancé Captain Ralph Paton is the prime suspect in this murder and is very likely to be arrested. When she asks Poirot to find the murderer, he says,


“‘But the police will do that, will they not?’
‘They might make a mistake. They are on their way to make a mistake now, I think. Please, M. Poirot, won’t you help us?’”


Poirot agrees to help and finds that there was more than one person with a motive to kill Ackroyd. Along the way, he works with Insepctor Raglan and his boss Chief Constable Colonel Melrose, who’s in charge of the case. At first, Melrose is loathe to involve Poirot, but then, Poirot says,


“‘I must beg, that in the case of my being able to contribute something to the solution of the mystery, my name may not be mentioned.’ Inspector Raglan’s face lightened a little.” 


Poirot has hit on Melrose’s concern, and once he makes it clear he won’t “step on anyone’s toes,” Melrose is willing to involve Poirot.

In several of Tony Hillerman’s novels, the Navajo Tribal Police have to work with the FBI. For instance, in The Dark Wind, the FBI is investigating drugs trafficking on the Big Reservation. So they send an agent out to look into the matter. At the same time, Jim Chee is investigating vandalism to a local water tower. One night, he’s witness to a plane crash that is connected to the drugs case and this puts Chee’s boss Captain Largo into a delicate position. He has no particular love for the FBI. At the same time, he knows that the cases in his territory won’t be solved if he loses a good man like Chee. Matters get even more delicate when FBI Agent Johnson all but accuses Chee of being involved in the drugs ring. So Largo works to avoid “stepping on toes” as much as possible. He reassures Chee that he’s under no suspicion. Then he manages to get Chee and Johnson to look into the case co-operatively – not an easy task. In the end, Chee figures out how the vandalism, the plane crash, the drugs ring and a murdered man all fit together.

Sometimes, the toes one has to avoid are in one’s own department or agency. That’s what happens in Margaret Truman’s Murder at the FBI. In that novel, FBI agent Chris Saksis and her partner and lover Ross Lizenby are faced with a very difficult case. Fellow agent George Pritchard is found murdered at the rifle range at the FBI building. One possibility is that Pritchard was murdered by a terrorist group whose membership he was about to make public. That’s the “official” FBI theory and it’s credible, too. So there is a lot of pressure on Saksis to pursue it. But soon, other kinds of evidence suggest that Pritchard’s death had to do with some ugly secrets at the agency itself. Saksis doesn’t want to believe that the agency she loves – and she does – could harbour the kind of secrets she unearths, and she’s not happy about “stepping on toes” to get to the truth (although she’s certainly no weakling about it). This conflict actually adds an interesting layer of tension to this novel as Saksis finds out what really happened to Pritchard and why.

In Deborah Crombie’s In a Dark House, firefighter Rose Kearny has to face the challenge of “stepping on toes” when she discovers the body of an unknown woman in a warehouse that’s gone up in flames. Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his team begin the process of trying to find out who the woman was and what she was doing in the warehouse. Then, there’s another fire. And another. In the meantime, it becomes clear that the woman could be one of four area women who seem to have disappeared. With help from his partner Gemma James, Kincaid discovers what has happened to the women and who the dead woman in the warehouse is. Meanwhile, Rose Kearny discovers a pattern to the fires that could be the key to finding out who is setting them and why. The problem is that she has to deal with fitting in with the other firefighters, who have only just begun to accept that a woman can fight fires as well as a man. She has no desire to lose their respect or for the matter of that, “step on the toes” of her supervisor. So she finds another way to get the pattern she has found to Kincaid. That information provides him with crucial information he needs to catch the arsonist.

And then there’s Copenhagen detective Carl Mørck, whom we meet in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes). Mørck is recovering from an on-duty shooting incident in which one of his fellow officers was murdered and another left with paralysis. He’s slowly returning to duty, but he is still dealing with what happened. In fact, he becomes so difficult to work with that he “steps on toes” throughout the department. The other members of the team simply don’t want to work with him any more. But Mørck is a good cop, and the department doesn’t want to risk the media fallout if a cop who was wounded in the line of duty is shuttled out of a job. So he is “promoted” to the head of a newly-created department, “Department Q.” Its purpose is to pursue cases of “special interest.” Mørck is given an assistant Hafez al-Assad and settles in to what he thinks will be a do-nothing job, which suits him just fine. Then Assad calls his attention to the case of Merete Lynggaard, a political “rising star” who disappeared five years ago and is believed drowned in a ferry accident. Bit by bit, little pieces of evidence suggest that she’s not dead. So Mørck and Assad begin to re-investigate. That in itself is enough to “step on toes,” and Mørck’s manner doesn’t help matters much. But together, the two find out what really happened to Merete Lynggaard.

There’s an especially strong depiction of the issue of “stepping on people’s toes” in William Ryan’s series featuring Moscow CID captain Alexei Korolev. Korolev is a member of the police force in 1930’s Stalinist Moscow – a time when it’s very dangerous to make any kind of enemies, even of one’s neighbours. Everyone is warned about “counterrevolutionaries,” and the feared NKVD is only too happy to believe allegations against a citizen. In The Holy Thief, Korolev investigates the murder of a woman whose body is found in a former church. He’s begun the process of asking questions when another body is found. And then another. Korolev is just trying to do his job, but this case has ties to the NKVD and to the equally-notorious Moscow Thieves. It’s not trivial, either, that if Korolev doesn’t find the killer, that will be considered a “black mark” against him and could lead to disastrous consequences. So he has to try to find out who the killer is and what the motive is without “stepping on toes.” In The Darkening Field, the second Korolev novel, he is sent to Odessa to investigate the supposed suicide of an actress who was filming on location there. It’s soon clear that she was murdered, and Korolev is assigned to find out who the murderer is as quietly as possible. The victim, though, had ties to high-level Party members. As if that weren’t enough, her death might also be related to suspected terrorist activity. So Korolev has to tread very, very lightly if he expects to find out what’s behind her murder without paying a serious price himself.

“Stepping on toes” is a very real part of investigations, so it can add a note of realism as well as tension to a novel. But it is such an integral part of crime fiction stories that if it’s not done well, it can also become clichéd. When done well, though, it’s a solid part of a plot.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dave Mason’s What Do We Got Here?


Filed under Agatha Christie, Deborah Crombie, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Margaret Truman, Tony Hillerman, William Ryan