Baby, We Were Born to Run*

On The RunOne of the differences between crime fiction of years gone by and modern crime fiction is arguably that it’s much more difficult today to go ‘on the run’ and into hiding. With today’s technology and the heightened security of the past couple of decades, it’s a lot harder to ‘cover one’s tracks.’ And a crime fiction author who wants to write a believable portrayal of someone who’s ‘on the run’ has to take today’s technology into account or the story loses credibility. That said though, it can really add a layer of suspense to a story when a character’s in hiding.

During most of the time that Agatha Christie was writing it was fairly easy to live life ‘on the run.’ And we see that sort of character in more than one of her novels. For example, in Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide…), the Cloade family is rocked when wealthy patriarch Gordon Cloade unexpectedly marries later in life. Tragically, he’s killed in a wartime bomb blast before he has the opportunity to change his will and provide for his family as he’d always promised he’d do. So now, Cloade’s young widow Rosaleen is set to inherit everything. Then a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden comes to the village of Warmsley Vale where the Cloades live. He hints that Rosaleen Cloade’s first husband Robert Underhay didn’t die as was believed. ‘Arden’ also hints that he either is Underhay or knows where the man is. His story is possible too since Underhay had once said that he might fake his own death and return as someone else. If that’s true then Rosaleen Cloade can’t inherit her husband’s fortune, so the Cloade family has a strong interest in finding out whether Robert Underhay is still alive. It’s very interesting to see how difficult that was to prove in that day and in fact, there’s quite a lot of doubt as to whether Rosaleen can or cannot inherit. Then ‘Arden’ is killed. And then there are two other deaths. Two of the Cloade family members contact Hercule Poirot, and he investigates the deaths. And it’s very interesting to see how everyone learns who ‘Arden’ is. No spoilers, but it doesn’t depend on things like DNA sampling, ‘phone records or credit card purchases.

There’s another look at being ‘on the run’ in Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar. In that novel Dr. Sponti, headmaster of Laguna Perdida School, hires PI Lew Archer to find seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman, who’s run away from the school. Sponti wants Tom found before his wealthy parents find out he’s missing, but by the time he discusses the case with Archer it’s too late: Tom’s father Ralph Hillman has already been contacted by people claiming to be kidnappers. They say they’ve got Tom and are demanding ransom. Hillman hires Archer to find his son and Archerd begins to investigate. It’s not long though before he discovers that all is not as it seems in this case. For one thing the Hillmans are not nearly as co-operative as you’d expect frantic parents of a missing boy to be. For another, it soon appears that Tom may have joined his kidnappers willingly. So Archer begins to dig deeper – much deeper than the Hillmans want him to dig. In the process he finds that the people who’ve allegedly kidnapped Tom Hillman are ‘on the run’ and living under other names. Archer has to go through a more complex process than is necessary today. He contacts friends and acquaintances who can give him automobile license plate information, former employment information and so on but it’s not a simple process. In the end though Archer tracks the people he wants. He’s too late to prevent another murder but he’s not to late to find out the truth about Tom Hillman.

Today of course there are many ways to track what a person goes and what that person does. So it’s much easier to find someone who’s ‘on the run’ than it was. Not to say of course that no-one can ever stay in hiding. We’ve all read news stories where that’s happened. But savvy crime writers know that today’s police and PIs can and do use technology quite effectively to find someone.

For instance, in Philip Margolin’s Executive Privilege, PI Dana Cutlre has to go ‘on the run’ after a case she accepts turns very dangerous. She’s hired to follow nineteen-year-old Charlotte Walsh and report what the girl does, where she goes and whom she sees. Cutler thinks the job is straightforward and even a little boring until the night she traces Walsh to a secluded safe house where Walsh meets with U.S. president Christopher Farrington. When Walsh is murdered later that night, some very ruthless people want all of the surveillance information Cutler has. She goes ‘on the run,’ determined to stay alive until she finds out what exactly it is that she’s discovered. One thing that adds to the tension in this novel is the chase between Culter and the people who are after her. Cutler is a former cop and now a PI, so she is no slouch at evasion and self-protection. But the people who want to find her have all sorts of resources and a lot of money. It’s interesting to see how both ‘sides’ use telephone records, video surveillance and other modern technology to track each other.

The killer in Jill Edmondson’s Blood and Groom also finds that it’s very hard to be ‘on the run’ in today’s world. Toronto P.I. Sasha Jackson is hired by Christine Arvisais to find out who murdered her fiancé Gordon Hanes. The two had broken up before their planned wedding day but Arvisais says that she’s been accused of killing Hanes. As much as anything else she wants to clear her name. So Jackson starts work on the case. Then she gets word of another murder that has some similarities. And then there’s another. It turns out that the murders are related. In order to find out who the killer is, Jackson uses several strategies to track that person down. In the process, she finds out that the murderer is hiding from an earlier crime. With today’s technology though, it’s possible even for a person without official status (e.g. not a cop) to track someone’s past history.

In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders, Saskatchewan political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn gets drawn into a case that involves several people who are ‘on the run’ from their pasts. One of them is Christy Sinclair, the ex-girlfriend of Kilbourn’s son Peter. When she unexpectedly comes back on the scene, Kilbourn is less than happy about it. But Kilbourn accepts Christy back into the family circle. Then Christy is tragically killed in what seems to be a boating accident. It’s soon discovered though that her death might not have been an accident and instead, may be related to a series of other deaths. It turns out that one key to this mystery is the past from which Christy Sinclair was running. As Kilbourn investigates, we see that even though Sinclair changed her name, moved, and took other measures to hide her past, Kilbourn’s still able to find out the truth about her.

We also see that in T.J. Cooke’s Kiss and Tell, in which London attorney Jill Shadow gets drawn into a web of drugs smuggling, politics, a lot of money and murder when she takes the case of Bella Kiss. Shadow’s client’s been arrested for bringing illegal drugs into the U.K. She admits doing so, but won’t tell Shadow who paid or coerced her to smuggle. In fact she says little at all and it’s soon clear that she’s protecting someone. It’s also clear that she’s very much afraid for her life. So Shadow begins to dig a little deeper. Then she hears of a murder that may be related to the case. Then there’s another murder. Now Shadow has to go into hiding herself because she’s gotten too close to the truth. In this novel we see how Shadow and the police use resources such as telephone records, financial transaction and so on to find out important information about the pasts of several characters. We also see the lengths to which Shadow has to go to stay safe while she’s ‘on the run.’  As each side tries to outwit the other, we see that it’s not really easy to be ‘on the run.’

That doesn’t mean that it can’t happen though. And part of the suspense in a crime novel with this plot point is the ‘game of chess’ between the person who’s ‘on the run’ and the people who doing the searching. But I suppose that’s been a part of good fiction for a long time (I’m thinking of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables). I know I haven’t mentioned even a small percentage of the well-written crime fiction in which characters are ‘on the run.’ Your turn.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Jill Edmondson, Philip Margolin, Ross Macdonald, T.J. Cooke

20 responses to “Baby, We Were Born to Run*

  1. Nice post, Margot! I’ve made a few notes, so when I want to, um, disappear, I’ll know what to do!

  2. It is interesting how much technology has changed how a mystery is written if set in current times. I have not read the Thomas Perry series about Jane Whitefield, who hides people, and I am interested in how she does that. Of course the first one was published in 1995, but there are recent ones. And I think the Pronzini nameless detective series (37 novels from 1971 to 2012) evolves over time, although I haven’t read the later ones.

    • Tracy – Oh, I need to read that Perry series too! I’ve heard good things about it. And you’re right; it really is interesting to see how technology for hiding and finding people changes isn’t it? Thanks for those suggestions.

  3. Technology has completely redefined what you can do it a novel, especially a crime fiction novel. Very tempting to set in before 1985 and avoid all of it. I am meaning to read the latest Thomas Perry which sits waiting for me.

    • Patti – It’s hard to blame you for not wanting to even get involved in how and to what extent to integrate technology in your writing. I think about that a lot as I write, that’s for sure. One doesn’t want to be ‘behind the times’ but technology changes so fast it’s hard to keep up without dating one’s work.

  4. I would add my vote to the Perry’s Jane Whitefield series as an excellent “people on the run” series. It’s excellent.

  5. Margot: Warning! Start with the first Jane Whitefield but make sure you have time to keep reading or some other part of your life will suffer. I have not been as excited about some of the later books but the early books were exceptional.

    In the Arthur Upfield books of Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte which take place in a less techonological era there are often aborigine trackers who use their exceptional skills to follow “people on the run”.

    On running from your past the post World War I sleuths John Madden (Rennie Airth), Ian Rutledge (Charles Todd), Bess Crawford (Charles Todd) and Maisie Dobbs (Jacqueline Winspear) are all running, with little success, from their wartime experiences. Rutledge cannot even escape in his head with Hamish, the spirit of the deceased corporal he executed, lurking in his mind.

    • Bill – I know what you mean about series like that. I’ll definitely plunge in when I’ve got some time to see a story through. And I”m glad you brought up Upfield’s Bony series. It’s an excellent reminder that one doesn’t need sophisticated technology to find people who are hiding if one his really well-developed tracking skills.
      And right you are about Rutledge, Crawford and Dobbs. All three of them have gone through real trauma and their wartime experiences have really scarred them. So yes indeed they are running from their pasts. That shows that running doesn’t just have to be physical.

  6. An interesting post that brings many thoughts to mind in writing modern day crime fiction. In the UK there are about 200,000 missing people a year for police to investigate. And they’re people reported missing, not people on the run from police (though some could be).

    One way to essily hamper an investigation as well in today’s climate are government budget cuts. Are all the investigative tests etc necessary and proportionate due to the cost implications. All things that can easily be used to hamper that determined investigator.

    I think watching CSI programmes actually gives the reading public a warped view of what police can actually do.

    • Rebecca – Thank you – And you’ve brought up a whole other fascinating issue – people who are reported missing. So the police have to be concerned not just with those who have been known to commit a crime and are therefore ‘on the run,’ but also with those who’ve disappeared for other reasons. And if you add to that the budget cuts you mention, you’re quite right that that could get in the way of even the most dogged investigator. I ought to think about that whole issue of budget cuts anyway, as it’s a very real aspect of criminal investigation. Even people who aren’t in the police (e.g. PI’s) have to consider how much it costs to pursue a case.
      And don’t get me started about how realistic shows like CSI aren’t…

  7. Thanks Margot – I am always fascinated by stories of peopel who try to live ‘off the grid’ and as you say, it is getting harder and harder. I did like the premise of the Linwood Barclaiy novel NO TIME FOR GOODBYE from this point of view as it managed to do this fairly convincingly (unlike the final part which revealed the criminal which felt like every other TV-Movie you have ever seen),

    • Sergio – Oh, I”m glad you mentioned No Time for Goodbye. That’s one I’d meant so say something about and just forgot about. Thanks for being there to fill in that hole. I agree with you about the ending (and I like Barclay’s work as a rule) but yes, that ‘on the run’ aspect is handled very effectively in that one.

  8. Not crime fiction but one of my favourite books on this these is Anne Tyler’s ‘Ladder of Years’ about a woman who one day just leaves her family. It is a beautifully written book (I am a big fan of Tyler’s).

  9. Great blog, Margot. It’s a fascinating topic – well, to anyone who writes crime and wants someone to disappear in realistic 21st century terms.One way that people sometimes disappear (for real) is when everyone who might care about them thinks they’re safe with someone else. Rarer in these days of email comms and so on, but cases crop up now and then.

    • Penny – Thanks very much – I appreciate the kind words. You’ve a very good point too about that strategy of telling everyone one’s with someone else. That can delay concerns for a little time, and if someone really does want to go into hiding realistically, that’s a good way to do it. As you say, it’s a bit harder to pull off than it used to be, but it certainly can happen.

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