In 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.