Don’t You Know That This Hand Washes That One Too*

Networks and FavoursIn real life, things don’t always get done strictly ‘by the book. Lots of things get done more informally. So, many people find a network of friends and acquaintances to be extremely useful, especially when it comes to getting around ‘red tape.’ For example, you might have a friend who works for a technology company come over and fix your laptop. The next time your friend needs a ride to the airport or someone to mind her children while she goes to a meeting, you return the courtesy. Both of you have saved time and money and been spared annoyance. For real or fictional detectives, being ‘plugged in’ to a network of exchanging courtesies like that can be invaluable. That’s especially true if one’s a private investigator without the force of law to compel people to part with information. And that sort of network is particularly valuable in cases where it’s too dangerous, too expensive or too chaotic to go through ‘official’ channels to get things done. There are even situations where the only way to get anything done is to use one’s network. That’s certainly the case in real life, and we see it all through crime fiction, too.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we meet M. Demetrius Papopolous, a dealer in valuable gems who lives and works in Paris. There is little about the jewel trade that he doesn’t know or hasn’t heard. Hercule Poirot finds his acquaintance with Papopolous to be extremely useful when he investigates the murder of wealthy Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, who is murdered while she is aboard the famous Blue Train. The victim had with her a very valuable ruby necklace that included the famous ‘Heart of Fire’ ruby. The necklace has since been stolen and Poirot believes that if he can find out more about the necklace he’ll find out more about the murder. So he visits M. Papopolous, for whom he did a very important favour sixteen years earlier. When Papopolous is reminded of what he owes Poirot, he is willing to provide him with useful information about where the necklace came from, how it was acquired and what might have happened to it since it was stolen.

Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder often finds that quid pro quo is a very useful approach to take when he solves cases. He’s a former cop who still knows people on the force. And he still has connections that he made while he was a cop. Scudder has no problem calling on those relationships to get things done and get information. In fact, in the early Scudder novels especially, that’s how he thinks of his job as a PI. As he tells his client Cale Hanniford in The Sins of the Fathers,


‘Sometimes I do favors for people. They give me gifts.’ 


In that novel, Scudder agrees to find out about the life of Hanniford’s twenty-four-year-old daughter Wendy, who was recently murdered. The two had been estranged for some time and Hanniford wants to know what became of his daughter and what led up to her death. Scudder agrees and starts asking questions. Throughout this novel Scudder makes use of his network and of a few well-placed financial ‘inducements’ to get the job done.

That’s how Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins works too. In the first novels that feature him, he’s not a licensed PI. Instead, he is given money informally. For instance, in Devil in a Blue Dress, Rawlins’ friend, a bar owner nicknamed Joppy, introduces him to DeWitt Albright. Albright wants to find Daphne Monet, who’s recently disappeared. He doesn’t want the police involved, but he does want her found. Rawlins needs the money desperately because he’s just been laid off from the aircraft manufacturing plant where he worked. So when Joppy introduces him to Albright, Rawlins is willing to listen to what Albright has to say. He takes the job and begins his search for the missing woman. He doesn’t know it at first, but his search will get him involved in blackmail, theft and murder. It also begins his unofficial career as PI. Throughout this and the other novels featuring him, Rawlins makes use of his network. He does things for people; they return the courtesy. He gets involved in cases through that network too.

And then there’s Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther, who lives and works in World War II and post-World War II Germany. In that atmosphere it’s very hard to get things done in the usual ‘official’ way. And even if one can, most people don’t want to call attention to themselves that way. So Gunther has found that using his network, plus a few well-placed ‘gratuities,’ is essential to finding answers. In March Violets for instance, he’s hired by Hermann Six to track down a missing diamond necklace. The necklace belonged to Six’s daughter Grete, who was recently shot along with her husband Paul. Their home was burned in an effort to disguise the murders, but Six knows that they were killed deliberately. Gunther takes the job and begins to ask questions about the disappearance of the necklace as well as the two deaths. But for a number of reasons, it’s hard to get the information he wants through the usual channels. He doesn’t want to run afoul of the Nazi authorities, of whom he is no fan. He also knows that because the two victims were wealthy and well-connected, people aren’t going to be likely to say much. Finally, the people who are most likely to know about the missing necklace are probably involved in illegal trading of gems. They’re not exactly likely to boast about that. So Gunther makes extensive use of his network to find out the truth. And where his network isn’t helpful, he uses financial incentives. It’s a very pragmatic and for Gunther, a very effective way to get things done.

Police investigators aren’t supposed to pay for information (although of course, that practice goes on). But they can and do develop all sorts of useful networks of relationships that help them cut through the ‘red tape’ and help them get the job done. For instance, Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti often finds that a telephone call to a journalist acquaintance or to a family friend proves much more useful than official witness statements. And he often gets valuable help from Signorina Elettra Zorzi, his boss’ assistant. Signorina Elettra has a vast network of friends, acquaintances, former boyfriends and so on all over Venice and in other parts of Italy too. For her, finding out even the most confidential information is usually only a matter of a few telephone calls or a lunch date. Both she and Brunetti know that there’s so much ‘red tape’ and often corruption involved in going through ‘official’ channels that there isn’t much chance of getting the job done that way. So they depend on their networks.

In Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar, PI Jayne Keeney, who lives and works in Bangkok, finds that a little informal networking is very helpful in her search for the murderer of her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse and his partner Nou. The official explanation is that Did murdered Nou and was then killed himself during an armed standoff with police. But Keeney is sure that’s just a cover for what really happened. So she begins to ask questions about the murders. She finds that there’s a connection between the killings and the Thai sex trade and child trafficking trade. But the ‘players’ in this trade are wealthy and powerful, and they’re protected by local authorities. So there aren’t many people who are willing to help Keeney openly. But she finds that a few well-placed financial ‘gifts’ and the use of her network are very useful in finding the information she wants.

Those informal, sometimes cash-fueled networks can be key to solving a case. So smart sleuths know that it pays to be helpful and grant favours when they can, and get ‘plugged in’ to a solid informal network. The time will come when they’ll need that network.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebb’s When You’re Good to Mama.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Donna Leon, Lawrence Block, Philip Kerr, Walter Mosley

18 responses to “Don’t You Know That This Hand Washes That One Too*

  1. Margot: Litigators are constantly exchanging small courtesies. As an example everyone needs adjournments for reasons that are not always the strongest. If each client’s position is not compromised a favour for the future is gained by agreeing to the adjournment. You see such arrangements periodically in legal mysteries such as The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly and the Canadian ensemble series of Robert Rotenberg.

    • Bill – Thanks for sharing your insights. I would imagine that there are a lot of those little courtesies that that just make a case go more smoothly. And when a litigator is willing to to be flexible and do a favour once in wile, I’m sure that does come back to roost, so to speak, in a good way. Thanks too for mentioning The Lincoln Lawyer and the Rotenberg series. You’re right about the way those arrangements are woven into legal mysteries like that; they’re good examples of those kinds of courtesies.

  2. very nicely written article .. lovely site and Iove the charity plugs on the side . XOX keep up the wicked content

  3. Ahhh this is very interesting. I’ve been listening to an audio book of AC’s ‘Ordeal by Innocence’ and one of the characters makes the point that those who are indebted to someone can sometimes feel the ‘owing’ as a kind of burden. As human beings we don’t always like to feel we owe someone a favour and we can end up turning on the person who helped us.

    • Sarah – You have an excellent point! Sometimes owing a favour can make a person feel burdened. I think that’s especially true if the person to whom the favour is owed makes much of it and holds it over the other person. In cases like that I can certainly see why one would turn on someone like that. Interesting point.

  4. Ms. Kinberg, you touched on this aspect of crime-fiction in your last two examples. “Informers” in case of the police investigator and “contacts” in case of the private detective are critical to providing valuable leads in solving crimes. They are in it for pecuniary gains even if the work they do comes with considerable risk. Both parties stand to benefit from the relationship. I think the police informer does not have as wide a role or presence in novels as he or she does in the movies. I may be wrong, of course.

    • Prashant – You have a good memory. Yes, indeed, I’ve touched on the idea of informers and contacts before. They really are important to getting the job done if one’s a detective. Those people are part of the network that detectives have to develop if they’re going to get the information they need quickly. Interesting question you raise too about the prevalence of police informers in film and in books. I’m not sure myself whether they are more common in one than in the other but it’s an intriguing questions. Thanks for making me think.

  5. Good examples. As a reader, I enjoy reading sleuths who know how to network and work the system. 🙂 And it gives a little depth to them–there’s some history, some backstory with these other characters. Good texture for the story.

    • Elizabeth – Thank you 🙂 – You’re right too, about backstory. When we know what networks the sleuth has, we can learn a little about how the sleuth developed those networks. We also get a glimpse of his or her personality. All of that makes the character more real, I think.

  6. Such an interesting topic. I am sure this network is even more common in real life than in novels. I think of how I get people’s names for various services and it is always in a roundabout, network-like way.

    • Patti – Thanks – I agree with you too. This sort of networking probably happens a lot more often then we think. I do the same thing you do for instance; I ask around for the names of people who do various services and that’s how I connect with those people. And I’m certain real-life detectives probably do the same thing. So why not in fiction?

  7. Very interesting. I plan to read Devil in a Blue Dress soon (in 2013). I can never remember all these details from books, like you do.

    • Tracy – Oh, I hope you’ll like Devil in a Blue Dress. In my opinion, Easy Rawlins was a real innovation in the world of fictional PIs. I like that about him and I like his personality, especially given his background.

  8. kathy d.

    Good that Elettra Zorzi is here, as she does have a large network of “friends,” from whom to get information. In Beastly Things, she has connections with the finances department, which helps solve the case.
    Also, Guido Brunetti calls upon his father-in-law, Count Falier, for help at times. He knows every old family in Venice, and their relatives from businessmen to artisans.
    V.I. Warshawski calls old friends of her father’s in the police department, as he was a cop, and they help her out, often helping her get out of legal trouble herself.
    Contacts are definitely important in solving crimes.

    • Kathy – You’re quite right about Conde Falier. He certainly does have a very wide network of contacts all throughout Venice and Brunetti does find them very useful. And V.I. Warshawski does make use of her father’s old cop friends too. And since she was born and raised in Chicago, she’s developed her own network as well. Contracts really can be useful for sleuths…

  9. yes cop friends make a story more interesting and yes the sleuths need help along the way sometimes.. I really love a well written crime mystery novel..

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