Detectives know that it’s not enough to just ask questions of witnesses and suspects. After all, people lie, or they don’t remember things accurately, or they find it convenient not to mention certain things. So detectives sometimes engage in surveillance. That might involve watching a certain place to see who comes and goes. Or it might involve following a certain person or people. Surveillance is time-consuming and it can be tedious, especially if there are a long periods of inactivity. But it’s a part of many real-life investigations. And it’s a part of crime fiction too. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.
Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that he frequently does surveillance. That’s part of the reason for which he keeps somewhat odd hours. Dr. Watson does his share of surveillance too. In one instance, The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist, Violet Smith hires Holmes to help her solve an odd mystery. She is employed as a piano teacher at Chiltern Grange and lives there during the week. On Fridays she goes to London to visit her mother and on Monday mornings she returns to Chiltern Grange. All goes well enough until one Friday when Violet notices that a man is following her as she rides her bicycle to the train station. On Monday when she returns, the same man follows her from the station towards Chiltern Grange. The man doesn’t get close enough to be physically threatening but Violet is understandably worried. Watson travels to the Chiltern Grange area and takes up a stakeout near the part of the road where Violet has reported seeing this strange man. Sure enough, she is telling the truth. He and Holmes look more closely into the matter and find out that Violet is in a great deal more danger than she might have thought. Surveillance plays a key role in this story.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot generally eschews surveillance, preferring to use his ‘little grey cells’ to solve cases. Besides, as he will admit, he doesn’t have the resources to be everywhere at once. So as a rule, he leaves surveillance to others. Yet it still crops up in Christie’s work. For instance in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Marie Morisot, who does business as Madame Giselle, is on a flight from Paris to London. During the flight she suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on the flight, one of whom is Hercule Poirot. He works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who killed Madame Giselle and why. One of the other passengers is London hair stylist’s assistant Jane Grey. She’s not a very likely suspect but of course, being mixed up in a murder case does impact her. One evening she and another passenger Norman Gale are having dinner when they notice that yet another passenger is at the same restaurant. He is detective novelist Mr. Clancy, whom the police already suspect (after all, we know that mystery novelists are quite suspicious ;-) ). On impulse Grey and Gale decide to follow Mr. Clancy and see where he goes after he finishes his meal. It’s a funny set of scenes as they practice the art of discreetly following someone. And Mr. Clancy certainly acts suspiciously…
Sue Grafton’s PI Kinsey Millhone occasionally does investigative work for California Fidelity Insurance Company, in exchange for which she has the use of office space in their suite. One of the sub-plots of A is for Alibi concerns a California Fidelity case that Millhone takes on. Marcia Threadgill is claiming disability related to a fall, and the insurance company wants Millhone to follow up on that claim. The idea is that Millhone will ‘rubber stamp’ the insurance company’s approval of the payout. So Millhone follows Threadgill, takes ‘photos and observes her carefully. What she finds is that Threadgill is committing insurance fraud. The original claim was credible enough for the company to be prepared to pay; it takes surveillance to prove that it was fraudulent.
Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series features Mma. Precious Ramotswe, a private detective who does her share of surveillance in her way. But in The Good Husband of Zebra Drive it’s her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni who does the surveillance. Much as he loves his work as the owner of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, he’s been looking for something a little different to do from time to time. He gets his chance when a new client Faith Botumile wants to hire Mma. Ramotswe’s agency. She believes that her husband has been unfaithful and wants to know who the other woman is. Mma. Ramotswe happens to be out when Mma. Botumile arrives, and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni takes down the information. Since he is the one who had the first contact with the client, Mma. Ramotswe thinks it makes sense for him to follow up on the case. Mma. Botumile is rude, harshly critical and unpleasant, and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni can well understand how the husband of a woman like her might stray. But she is a client so he takes up working on the case. Part of his task is following Mr. Botumile to find out what he does after work. So Mr. J.L.B. Matakoni does that, and turns up some surprising results.
It isn’t just private investigators who conduct surveillance. The police do their share of it too. Let me just give two examples. In one plot thread of Jane Casey’s The Burning, DC Maeve Kerrigan and her colleagues at the Met are on the trail of a killer whom the press has dubbed the Burning Man because he tries to destroy his victims’ bodies with fire. At one point the police catch a man they think is the murderer, but then another body is discovered. So they have to start over again. After more time goes by with no real leads, it’s decided to set up a surveillance operation in a local park – the sort of place that has so far appealed to the killer. Kerrigan joins one of the surveillance teams and everyone settles in for a long night. With one of the cops serving as ‘bait,’ everyone watches and waits. It’s a really interesting depiction of how cold, uncomfortable and frustrating surveillance can be. And how dangerous it can be. It’s little wonder that the cops don’t generally set up large-scale surveillance operations on a whim.
In Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear, New South Wales Police Detective Ella Marconi and her team investigate the murder of Paul Fowler. He’s tossing a football around with a few friends one afternoon when he’s shot. Part of the process of finding out who killed Fowler is talking to everyone in his life, including his ex-wife Trina. The police duly interview her, but although she talks to them, it’s soon clear that she’s hiding something. It could be something relatively innocent, but the police can’t risk the chance. And Trina is good at keeping her own counsel. So it’s decided to follow her, to find out where she goes and whom she sees, and to follow up on any of her ‘phone calls. That surveillance proves to be very useful in solving the Fowler case.
And that’s the thing about surveillance. It can be frustrating and time-consuming, even with modern CCTV cameras. But it can also yield important information. These are only a few examples (I know, I know, fans of Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin, Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather). Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from They Might Be Giants’ Working Undercover For the Man.