Have you ever faced the sort of dilemma where neither choice was really a good one? Sometimes these are called ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situations. If you have, then you know how stressful it can be to have to choose what to do. But those dilemmas happen quite a lot in real life. And they can add suspense and character depth to a crime novel. That’s why we see them in crime fiction as often as we do.
For example, in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, General Guy Sternwood hires Los Angeles-based PI Philip Marlowe to help him stop an extortionist. Book dealer Arthur Geiger has sent Sternwood a blackmail letter that makes reference to Sternwood’s daughter Carmen, and as you can imagine, Sternwood wants Geiger stopped. Marlowe agrees to work the case and goes to visit Geiger. When he finds Geiger though, it’s too late; his quarry’s just been murdered. What’s more, Carmen Sternwood is a witness. She’s either been drugged or has had a mental breakdown, so she can’t really tell Marlowe what happened, but she saw it all. Now Marlowe faces a difficult choice. His obligation to Sternwood is complete; Geiger won’t be a problem any more. On the other hand, Carmen Sternwood faces the very real possibility that the police will arrest her on suspicion of murder. If Marlowe washes his hands of the case, he is free of the disagreeable Sternwood family, but leaves Carmen in grave danger. If he helps Carmen, she may be spared, but he’ll get even more entangled in the Sternwood family drama and more trouble. Marlowe decides to help Carmen…
In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik have hit a rough spot in their marriage. Still, as far as Eva is concerned, she has the sort of life she’s always wanted: husband, son Axel, house with the white picket fence, etc. Then she discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful. Now she faces a difficult choice. If she stays with Henrik, of course, she has to live with his infidelity and learn to cope. But she still has her settled, suburban life and the home remains stable for Axel. If she leaves Henrik, her dreams of that life are shattered, and so is Axel’s world. But she no longer has to live with an unfaithful partner. Eva decides to take her own kind of revenge, and that decision leads to some terrible unexpected consequences.
Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit features brothers Mason and Gates Hunt, who grew up in Patrick County, Virginia. They’ve had a difficult start to life, being the sons of an alcoholic, abusive father. But they’ve made it to young adulthood. Mason has taken advantage of every opportunity and is now in law school. Gates has squandered his considerable athletic ability and now lives on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments and money from his mother Sadie Grace. One day, Gates gets into an argument with his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. The fight’s temporarily put ‘on hold,’ but later that night, the Hunt brothers are on their way home from a night out when they encounter Thompson again. The fight starts anew and before anyone really knows what’s happening, Gates has shot his rival. Out of filial duty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime and life goes on for both brothers. Then, years later, Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking and convicted. He asks his brother, now a commonwealth prosecutor, to help get him out of jail. Mason refuses. Gates threatens that if Mason doesn’t help him, he’ll implicate him in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. This presents Mason with a true ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation. If he goes along with his brother, he’ll be responsible for freeing a criminal and violating the ethical requirements of his job. If he doesn’t, he’ll be under indictment for a murder he didn’t commit. Mason’s decision not to arrange for his brother’s release puts him up against an incredibly difficult legal challenge.
In Gail Bowen’s The Gifted, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her attorney husband Zack face a very challenging dilemma. Their fourteen-year-old daughter Taylor is a gifted artist who is passionate about her work. Two of her pieces are selected for inclusion in a high-profile art auction that will benefit a redevelopment project for the community of North Regina. If Taylor’s parents allow her to be a part of the auction, this will change everything for her. On the one hand, that will be a very good thing, as it will pave the way for Taylor to pursue her art. There will be scholarships and all sorts of other support for her. She’ll also get important recognition. On the other hand, Taylor is still a child. Her parents want to her to have as much of a normal childhood, whatever that actually is, as possible given her talent. Still, they don’t want to deny Taylor opportunities, so they somewhat reluctantly allow her to participate. That decision has dramatic unforeseen consequences when Taylor’s work is revealed at the auction.
Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack features Buenos Airies police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano. Early one morning, he’s called to a crime scene, where he finds two bodies dumped by a riverbank. They bear the hallmarks of an Army ‘hit.’ This is late 1970s Argentina, when it’s extremely dangerous to say or do anything that might be interpreted as questioning the military-ruled government. So Lescano knows better than to raise comment about those bodies. But he finds a third body, too. This one is of moneylender and pawnbroker Elías Biterman. Someone’s gone to some trouble to make his death look like another Army ‘hit,’ but Lescano doesn’t think it is. He’s not a medical expert though, so he seeks help from his friend Dr. Fusili, who is a medical examiner. Fusili now faces a terrible choice. If he helps Lescano, he’s putting his own life in jeopardy. Certainly he’ll lose his job. On the other hand, if he doesn’t help Lescano, he’s betraying a friend. He’ll keep his position and perhaps even enhance his reputation, but he’ll be sacrificing his friendship and possibly sentencing Lescano to death. When Fusili decides to help Lescano, that choice puts him grave danger, but it gives Lescano badly needed support.
Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne faces a very difficult decision in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. She’s hit a sort of plateau in her career, and she knows that there are plenty of hungry journalists out there who are all too eager to grab headlines and ratings. So she needs the story that will secure her place at the top of the proverbial tree. Then she hears of just such a story. Connor Bligh has been in prison for years for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. Only their daughter Katy survived because she wasn’t at home at the time of the killings. There are now hints that Bligh might be innocent and that’s what he himself claims. If he is, that’s exactly the story Thorne needs. However, there are plenty of people, Katy among them, who swear that Bligh is guilty and whose lives will be upended if Thorne goes after this story. Whichever choice Thorne makes, she’s taking risks. When she ultimately decides to pursue the story, she finds herself getting much closer to it than a professional normally should. Her choice has serious consequences for a lot of people.
It’s never easy to know what to do about a dilemma, especially when neither choice is really an outright positive one. But that tension makes for a real layer of interest in crime novels. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne’s I Won’t Back Down.