‘Of course I could give you advice…, though I don’t know why anyone ever wants advice. They never take it.’
That’s a good point, really. People are often free with advice, although it’s frequently not heeded. For that reason alone (because it’s human and natural), it’s easy to identify with advice-giving in a crime novel, especially when the sleuth is about to do something ill-advised. On the other hand, a sleuth who always gets advice and never listens to it stops being interesting. Quickly. And characters who mind other people’s business too much are annoying. That’s to say nothing of the way investigations work in real life (e.g. would a cop really take advice from an amateur? That would take some believing.). But when it’s done credibly, getting and sometimes even heeding advice can a sleuth more human.
For instance, Christie’s Ariadne Oliver is not one to do as she’s told as a rule. And her independence is part of what makes her appealing as a character. But we see a very believable example of her taking advice in Hallowe’en Party. Poirot travels to Woodleigh Common at Mrs. Oliver’s request to find out who murdered thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds. The girl is found drowned at a party not many hours after boasting that she once saw a murder. So it’s fairly clear that she was probably killed by someone who feels threatened. Poirot finds out the history of the area and discovers which incident Joyce could have seen. As he does so, he realises an important fact that shows him that one of the villagers is in real danger. So he tells Mrs. Oliver to take that person to her home in London for safety. Here’s a bit of the conversation Mrs. Oliver has about it with the friend she’s been visiting in the village:
‘Anyway, you needn’t run away today, need you?’
‘Yes, I need to, I’ve been told to,’ said Mrs. Oliver.
‘Who’s told you – your housekeeper?’
‘No,’ said Mrs. Oliver. ‘Somebody else. One of the few people I obey.’
It’s actually a very tense scene and it’s a good thing that Mrs. Oliver listens to Poirot’s advice. It makes sense that she would too given he’s the experienced private investigator and they’re friends.
It’s also believable that a cop would listen to another cop’s advice, especially if the two officers trust each other. And that’s what we see in the relationship between Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren and Intendant Münster. As the series featuring these sleuths begins, Van Veeteren is Münster’s boss, but as fans will know, he leaves the police force to take part ownership in a bookshop. And yet Münster is still grateful for his advice. In The Unlucky Lottery (AKA Münster’s Case), Münster and his team investigate the stabbing murder of Waldemar Leverkuhn. An obvious motive doesn’t come to light quickly but then the police find out that Leverkuhn and some of his friends went in together on a lottery ticket – and won. They’d gone out to celebrate just before Leverkuhn was killed, so the police now have a new angle on this case. But that’s not entirely satisfactory either. Münster is by no means incompetent, but he’s glad for the advice and input he gets when he tells Van Veeteren about the case. And when Van Veeteren lets Münster know he’s on the wrong track, Münster heeds his advice and looks elsewhere for the killer.
We see another example of a cop giving another cop advice in Louise Penny’s Still Life. That’s the story of former schoolteacher Jane Neal, who’s killed in what looks like a tragic hunting accident. Sûreté Inspector Armand Gamache and his team travel to the small town of Three Pines to do what they think will be perfunctory work on the case. But when Gamache begins to suspect that the victim was murdered, the team’s investigation stops being routine. Assigned to Gamache’s team for the first time is Agent Yvette Nichol. She turns out to be a poor choice for the team as she is arrogant, smug and unwilling to learn. Gamache’s second-in-command Jean-Guy Beauvoir advises Gamache to get rid of Nichol as quickly as he can. Gamache likes and trusts Beauvoir so although he’s the boss, he listens to what Beauvoir has to say. At first Gamache tries to coach and counsel Nichol, but when that’s unsuccessful, he follows Beauvoir’s advice and cuts Nichol from the team.
Readers can also believe that sleuths might heed their spouses’ advice and there are a lot of examples of that. Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti, for instance, is married to Paola Falier, who is not only an educated professor of English, but also a genuine ‘blueblood.’ Brunetti values her input and benefits from it. For instance, in Blood From a Stone, he and Ispettore Vianello investigate the execution-style shooting of an unknown Senegalese immigrant. It takes some doing, but the detectives find out where the man lived and search his room. To their surprise, they discover a cache of diamonds that turn out to be ‘blood diamonds’ used to fund a military conflict Brunetti and Vianello also find that the diamonds are connected to an illegal arms trafficking ring. But in order to get all of the answers, Brunetti wants to know the diamonds’ origin. That’s where Paola’s advice is very helpful. She advises Brunetti of an expert he might contact about a small wooden head he finds among the dead man’s possessions. Her view is that that information may help him locate the source of the diamonds. He takes her advice, although somewhat reluctantly, and is able to trace the diamonds.
It’s also quite believable that sleuths might listen to advice from friends. That’s what we see in Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool. DCi Hannah Scarlett and DCI Fern Larter are not just colleagues but also good friends. They find themselves working both ends of the same case when Scarlett re-opens the investigation into the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. That death was always put down to suicide, but Scarlett isn’t convinced. Larter and her team are working two recent murder cases that turn out to be related to the Bethany Friend case. So on a professional level, the two women give each other information and advice. But because they are also friends, Larter knows about Scarlett’s rocky relationship with her partner Marc Amos. She also knows – well, suspects – that Scarlett is attracted to Oxford historian Daniel Kind, who helps in this investigation. At the end of the novel, she gives Scarlett advice about that matter and it’s interesting to see that while Scarlett doesn’t immediately agree with her friend, what Larter says makes an impression.
Too often, crime fiction novels have scenes where someone tells the sleuth not to pursue a case or a particular suspect. And too often, sleuths take un-necessary risks because they don’t listen to advice. Sometimes it’s nice when a novel includes a believable use of advice. Well, I think authors ought to do that, anyway.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The Great Wall of China.