One Step Up and Two Steps Back*

Two Steps BackThere are some criminal investigations that move along in a straightforward way. They may not go very quickly but they move along. Others though are hampered by all sorts of snags and challenges. In those investigations it’s very often a case of ‘two steps forward and one step back.’ In crime fiction, either sort of investigation can make for a good story depending on how it’s handled. Straightforward investigations can have a solid pace and plenty of suspense. But investigations that are hampered can be realistic and those hurdles to overcome can add conflict and interest to a novel.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The A.B.C. Murders, Hercule Poirot gets drawn into the investigation of a series of murders that begins with the killing of an elderly shopkeeper Alice Ascher. The victim’s husband is the most likely suspect. The two had been estranged for a long time and he had a well-known habit of trying to get money from her. But when the second victim, twenty-three-year-old Betty Barnard, is found, the case doesn’t seem so simple. And then there’s another murder. And another. Before each murder Poirot gets a cryptic note warning him of when and where the next murder will be. But even that doesn’t help the investigation at first. None of the murders gives Poirot or the police much in the way of clues so the investigation stalls. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that all of the murders occur during the summer holiday season when there are crowds of tourists that make it easy for the murderer to disappear amongst them. Finally there’s a break in the case and Poirot finds out who the murderer is and what the motive is. But not before the case is stalled several times.

Some investigations are hampered by powerful players who don’t want the case solved. We see that for instance in Michael Connelly’s Angels Flight. In that novel, Harry Bosch investigates the murder of Howard Elias, a prominent attorney who’s gone up against the L.A.P.D. in several cases. Elias recently took on the case of Michael Harris, who was convicted of the rape and murder of twelve-year-old Stacey Kincaid. Harris has since said that the police coerced (and that’s putting it kindly) his confession and that he’s not guilty. Before Elias can present Harris’ case at trial though, he’s found shot. The more closely Bosch looks into the Elias shooting, the clearer it is that Michael Harris was telling the truth; he did not kill Stacey Kincaid. So now Bosch has to find out not only who shot Howard Elias but who Stacey’s real killer is. To do that, Bosch has to go up against the powerful L.A.P.D. top brass, who don’t want stories of their mishandling of the case being made public. Bosch is also hampered by some highly-placed people who don’t want the truth about Stacey Kincaid’s murder to come out. But he doesn’t let those ‘backward steps’ stop him and in the end, he learns who’s behind both killings.

In James Craig’s Never Apologise, Never Explain, London police inspector John Carlyle and his assistant Joe Szyskowski are called to the scene of the murder of Agatha Mills. The victim, who lived quietly with her husband Henry, wasn’t wealthy or powerful. With a lack of other kinds of motives, the police focus on Henry Mills as the most likely suspect. He insists he’s innocent though and that Agatha had political enemies. At first the police don’t believe him but then Carlyle gets a very important clue that shows Mills was telling the truth. So Caryle and Szyskowski look into the matter more deeply. They find that Agatha Mills’ murder is tied up with international relations and politics so that finding out the truth will be very difficult. And some important and highly-connected people do not want the facts about the murder to come out. So the detectives face all sorts of setbacks as they work their way to the truth.

Of course, there are lots of other things that can set an investigation back. For instance, sometimes key witnesses or other people involved in a case simply won’t tell what they know. There are a lot of reasons that might happen. When it does it can set a case back. For instance, Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle sees Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer investigating the disappearance of Andreas Winther. He hasn’t been home for a few days and his mother Runi has gotten concerned about him. At first the police don’t do much because it’s not that uncommon for a young man to go off for a few days without telling his mother about it. But when more time goes by with no sign of Andreas, Sejer begins to ask questions. Winther was last seen with his friend Sivert “Zipp” Skorpe, and from the moment Sejer meets Zipp, he’s sure that the boy knows more than he’s saying. But none of his efforts to get Zipp to talk are successful. Zipp has his own reasons for not telling everything he knows (and no; without spoilers I can tell you that Zipp did not kill Winther). The case is set back in this novel by the fact that people who could tell Sejer what he wants to know – won’t.

Sometimes an investigation is set back because the police follow up on the wrong leads, either because they’ve been lied to or because they don’t make the right deductions from the evidence. It takes skill to do that well; if it’s not handled deftly the investigator can look inept. But it does happen. For instance in Ian Rankin’s Exit Music, Inspector John Rebus and his  team investigate what looks like a mugging gone wrong. Russian dissident poet Alexander Todorov has been killed and his body found in a very bad section of Edinburgh. But Rebus doesn’t think it’s quite as simple as a case of mugging. Then there’s another murder that may be related, so Rebus continues to ask questions. It turns out that Todorov had attracted the attention of some powerful Russian businessmen, émigrés to Edinburgh, who didn’t like his politics. It also turns out that those people might have been closely associated with Rebus’ old nemesis ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty, a local crime boss. Following up on those possibilities leads Rebus in exactly the wrong direction – and sets the case back – until he finally gets the clue he needs to put him on the right path.

We also see that sort of plot device – following up on wrong leads – in several of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse stories. Very often Morse makes brilliant deductions about the cases he works, but they don’t always lead him in the right direction at first. In my opinion (so feel free to disagree if you do), Dexter handles those (mis)leads quite effectively. It’s hard to have the sleuth follow the wrong path without making that sleuth look bumbling.

There are also cases in which the investigation is set back when the prime suspect becomes a victim. That’s actually a common plot point in crime fiction so it has to be handled carefully or it becomes cliché. But when it’s done well it can be effective. For instance in Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate the death of Eva Ringmar, whose body is found in her bathtub. Her husband Janek Mitter is the chief suspect. Not only had they had difficulties recently, but he was very drunk on the night of the murder and can’t account for himself. In fact he doesn’t remember much at all about that night. So nobody believes he’s innocent. In fact he’s tried for and convicted of the murder. But even at the trial Van Veeteren wonders whether Mitter might be telling the truth. Because Mitter remembers nothing about his wife’s murder, he’s placed in a mental institution instead of a conventional prison. Then he’s murdered himself. Now the case, which seemed to have been solved, takes on a completely new cast and Van Veeteren and his team have to start all over. They find the key to both murders in Eva Ringmar’s past.

There’s an innovative approach to integrating ‘one step back’ into an investigation in Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, in which political science expert and academic Joanne Kilbourn investigates the murder of her friend rising political star Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. Boychuk is poisoned during a public speech and at first there are no strong leads, although the murder happened in full view of the audience. As a way of dealing with her grief Kilbourn decides to write a biography of Boychuk. In the process of learning about his life she finds that there was a side to her friend that no-one knew. And it turns out that the key to the murder is in Boychuk’s past. Not long after the investigation begins, Kilbourn contracts a mysterious illness that leaves her weakened and unable to eat very much. Although there are times when she feels better, the illness begins to take its toll and more than once she has to make up lost ground as the saying goes.

Having a case go ‘one step back’ is realistic and can add to the tension in a story. It can also be tiresome if it’s done too often or not effectively. What about you? Do you think this kind of plot point works? If you’re a writer, do you use this as a way to add tension and suspense to your stories?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s One Step Up.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Gail Bowen, Håkan Nesser, Ian Rankin, James Craig, Karin Fossum, Michael Connelly

10 responses to “One Step Up and Two Steps Back*

  1. Another interesting post, Margot. I think mysteries about so-called “cold cases” are good examples of those setbacks – particularly when a case apparently becomes cold because of the bungling of the detectives who initially handled it. Quite a number of Arthur Upfield’s books about Australian Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte start off that way – there has been a murder, often in the Outback or elsewhere on the fringes of civilization. The initial police detective, usually sent out from the city, with no concept of how to handle an investigation outside a big city, has managed to put off all potential witnesses and miss any clues, and the case has gone cold for weeks or even months. Enter Bony, who must pick up the threads and get the real investigation going again. I think it’s a legitimate use of the “one step forward, two steps back” device.

    • Les – You have a well-taken point about the ‘cold case’ as a form of the ‘two steps forward, one back’ plot device. In fact, I think cold cases themselves are really interesting. When they’re done well they allow the author a lot of flexibility and give the reader two mysteries to solve in a way. Who committed the original crime and how did the case get overlooked/bungled/forgotten/whatever?
      You’re right too that several of Arthur Upfield’s ‘Bony’ cases are like that. They are cases that were either mishandled or simply not given the right attention. And yet for the most part, the stories are all fresh. The reader doesn’t get the feeling that ‘this has all been done before.

  2. That’s really interesting Margot, thanks. In a lot of Colin Dexter and in many of the later Ellery Queen books you often get the sense of the plot having to completely restart when new evidence appears. I agree that Dexter does it well – LAST SEEN WEARING is a great example where the sheer intellectual enjoyment of puzzle solving stops you feeling you have potentially wasted time on the wrong theory / suspect. On the other hand, Queen’s A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE, which still pulls off at least one truly remarkable narrative coup in its opening and closing pages, does tend to show the strain of having to upset the apple cart of make the investigation begin a new because you feel that Ellery has been too much of a dunce at times.

    • Sergio – Nice to know I’m not the only one who feels that way about that Queen. I wonder if it’s because we know he’s brilliant and shouldn’t be stumped like that and have to start over. And I’ve always loved Last Seen Wearing, so I’m really glad you mentioned that one. Among other things I like the very end of that one quite a lot. It’s very affecting, at least to me.

      • I agree completely about the ending, which is basically quite sad as well as potentially frustrating for some readers. Little wonder they overhauled it so completely for the TV version, which however I think is equally good in its almost completely different way (I have no problem keeping the two separate).

        • Sergio – I think that’s an important key – seeing the book and television stories as different entities. If one does that then yes, they’re both very well done.

  3. I lose patience sometimes with long completely false trails. In Strong Poison – and as you know, I’m a big Sayers fan – Wimsey sends all the policeman in London looking for a needle in a haystack: a packet of white powder left in a pub on the night of the murder. And by a miracle they find it. But then… That whole strand really annoys me, years after I first read it, even though I do like the book…

    • Moira – I know you’re a Sayers fan; I really like her work very much too. But I agree completely with you. That strand of the plot didn’t add to the story. I like the rest of the book well enough though that I’ve forgiven her…

  4. A very interesting post Margot and I hadn’t really thought about this before. I suppose any complex plot involves a certain amount of two steps forward etc and I don’t mind it in a novel. In the Martin Beck books, you often get the sense of the police taking wrong turns until the solution is reached. It reflects the practicalities of real policing I suppose.

    • Sarah – Thank you – And you’re right about the Martin Beck series. In those novels the police frequently have to stop-and-start as they follow up wrong leads and so on. And that’s one of the thing I like about that series; it’s realistic and practical. We get the sense that this is the way life really is for a cop.

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