Let’s face it; sleuthing isn’t safe or easy. It can be dirty, ugly, traumatic and extremely dangerous. It’s little wonder, then, that sleuths often get pressure from their friends, relations and colleagues not to get (or stay) in the business. That pressure can add an interesting wrinkle to a crime fiction story or series. It’s realistic (I’m sure we’ve all been given career advice at some point or other; I know I have). It’s also a source of interesting conflict in a story and that pressure can be used as a layer of interest, a sub-plot or story-across-stories, or even a major plot point of a novel.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage, we are introduced to Miss Jane Marple, who lives in the village of St. Mary Mead. She’s getting on in years and is absorbed in her garden, church activities and village life. When the very unpleasant Colonel Protheroe is shot while he’s visiting the local vicarage, it’s believed at first that this case is police business. That’s certainly what Inspector Slack feels as he begins the investigation. He is not interested in any input from an elderly spinster who should be focusing on her garden. Some of the other villagers, including vicar’s wife Griselda Clement, also think that Miss Marple should, to put it bluntly, mind her own business. But Miss Marple has a lot of experience in human nature and beneath her mild-mannered exterior she’s a keen observer with a sharp mind. Her input and her knowledge of the village prove instrumental in catching Protheroe’s murderer. Miss Marple gets pressure in other novels, too, not to push herself, not to go out investigating and so on, but fortunately for the law-abiding residents of St. Mary Mead, she doesn’t succumb to that pressure.
In a similar way, Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover gets pressure from her son Red not to investigate. Red is the Chief of Police in Bradley, North Carolina and he would rather that his mother leave police work to him and his team. It’s not that he doesn’t respect his mother’s intelligence. He does. But he doesn’t want her getting into danger. Myrtle, though, is not exactly ready to be “put out to pasture.” A retired schoolteacher, she’s got far too much energy and intelligence to spend her days knitting and watching her favourite soap opera Tomorrow’s Promise. So in Pretty is as Pretty Dies, when the body of malicious real estate developer Parke Stockard is found in a local church, Myrtle determines to find out who the killer is. Red tries his best to discourage her from getting involved in the case. In fact, he even arranges a “wild goose chase” to keep his mother out of trouble while he investigates. But that doesn’t stop Myrtle from getting to the truth of the matter and in the end, she finds out who the killer is. She also manages to let Red know exactly what she thinks of his attempts to manage her life. Ceramic gnomes are involved. That conflict between Red and his mother adds an interesting layer to this story. Oh, and speaking of Myrtle Clover… I’m very excited that Elizabeth has just released the next Myrtle Clover mystery Progressive Dinner Deadly. I’m very excited to read it!!
Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee also gets pressure about the career choice he’s made. He’s a member of the Navajo Nation and of the Navajo Tribal Police. In the early novels that feature him, Chee’s girlfriend is Mary Landon, a White teacher who’s originally from Wisconsin. They love each other but Mary wants a life much more like the life she had in Wisconsin. During the course of their relationship, Chee gets more than one opportunity to take a different job – one that would involve him leaving the Reservation. There’s a certain amount of pressure on him to do so, too, since he loves Mary. In the end, though, both realise that Chee wouldn’t be Chee if he left the Reservation and his work with the Navajo Tribal Police. That’s part of the reason their relationship ends. Interestingly, there’s a similar pressure when Chee meets Janet Pete, a half-Navajo attorney who works with Chee as a part of some cases she’s defending. The two begin a relationship but Pete discovers that she doesn’t really fit in on the Reservation. Chee considers other work, including working in Washington with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But he is too much a part of the Reservation to change careers. What’s interesting in this series is that some of the pressure not to be a part of the Navajo Tribal Police comes from Chee himself. He reflects quite often on his choice.
Henning Mankell’s police detective Kurt Wallander gets pressure, too, about his career. His father is an artist and craftsman who didn’t want Wallander to join the police, although he’s never clear about exactly why. He complains when Wallander doesn’t visit him, and is testy with him when he does. He takes every opportunity to make remarks about Wallander’s career, not seeming to realise how hard that rejection is on his son. For his part, Wallender finds it hard to appreciate his father and his choices, too. Their troubled relationship makes for a fascinating story-across-stories in this series.
And then there’s Stephanie Plum, Janet Evanovich’s bounty-hunter sleuth. Plum began working at her cousin’s bail bond company when she was laid off from the department store where she worked. The job she took was supposed to be clerical work but instead, Plum found herself working in fugitive apprehension. Although her family is grateful she has a job, most of them are not exactly happy that she’s a bounty hunter. In fact, her mother reminds her that “they’re always hiring at the button factory.” The only member of Plum’s family who really supports her career is her eccentric grandmother, Grandma Mazur. The first few novels in this series give readers an interesting look at what it’s like to get started in “the sleuthing business” when one gets pressure not to do so.
Emily Tempest, Adrian Hyland’s sleuth, also gets considerable pressure not to be a detective. In Moonlight Downs (AKA Diamond Dove), she returns to her home in the Australian Outback after years away. Shortly after her arrival, she’s caught up in the investigation of the murder of Lincoln Flinders, leader of the local Aborigine community. Flinders was a dear friend and mentor, so Temple wants to find out what happened. She’s also close friends with Flinders’ daughter Hazel. So Tempest sets out to solve the crime. Partly as a result of that investigation, Tempest gets an offer to join the newly-established Aboriginal Community Police. She’ll be working with the local “regular” police, and what excites her most as Gunshot Road begins is that after a month working in Bluebush, she’ll be able to live and work in Moonlight Downs, her own community. Hazel Flinders, though, isn’t sure this is a good idea. It’s not so much that she doesn’t think her friend can do the job, but she doesn’t trust the Bluebush police. So she puts some pressure on her friend to reconsider the idea. Tempest begins the job, though, and on the first day, gets involved in the investigation of the murder of Albert “Doc” Ozolins, a former prospector who seems to have been killed as the result of a drunken quarrel. Tempest doesn’t think that explanation answers all the questions, though, and begins to look deeper. Throughout Gunshot Road, she feels pressure not to do what she’s doing and at one point, she’s even viciously attacked. But that doesn’t stop her and at the end of the investigation, the reader gets the sense that she will settle into her work in Moonlight Downs. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s coming next for Emily Tempest…
There are many, many other examples of sleuths who get pressure from family and friends not to take on the job of investigating crime. I’ve only space here to mention a few. Which are your favourites? If you’re a writer, do you use the conflict element of “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers’ Haircut.
Yes, they really were called the Delaware Destroyers at first, although they’d changed their name to George Thorogood and the Destroyers by the time Get a Haircut was released.