And I’m Tangled Up in You*

ComplicatedRelationshipsWhen we think of fictional sleuths and criminals, it’s easy to think in terms of an adversarial relationship. The criminal kills and the sleuth’s job is to catch that criminal and see that the killer is brought to justice. But very often even in real life, the sleuth/criminal relationship isn’t that simple. Sometimes the sleuth has a good reason to be sympathetic towards the criminal. Sometimes the sleuth even has a personal relationship with the criminal. When that sort of thing happens it can lead to real complications in the traditional catch/arrest/try/convict procedure. In stories that sort of complication can add to the tension and suspense. Certainly it can make for an absorbing plot thread.

We see that for instance in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. Beautiful, wealthy and successful Linnet Doyle and her husband Simon are on a honeymoon cruise of the Nile. When Linnet is shot on the second night of the cruise, suspicion falls immediately on her former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, who’d been engaged to Simon before he met Linnet. But Jackie can be proven not to be the murderer, so Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same cruise, has to look elsewhere for the killer. He finds out who the murderer is and that causes him difficulty because as he puts it, he has much sympathy for that person. Here is a bit of the conversation he and the killer have:


‘‘Don’t mind so much, Monsieur Poirot. About me, I mean. You do mind, don’t you?’


And this comes from a detective who says more than once that he does not approve of murder. Thanks Moira for this inspiration. Your comment put me in mind of this topic.

There’s another kind of complex relationship between sleuth and killer in Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel. The people of the futuristic Earth depicted in this novel are more or less divided between two groups. One group, the Spacers, is descended from humans who explored space and then returned. The other group, the Earthmen, is descended from humans who did not explore space – who remained on Earth. The two groups have different cultures and values and they dislike and distrust each other for a variety of reasons. When noted Spacer Dr. Roj Nemennuh Sarton is murdered, Spacers begin to suspect that an Earthman is responsible. New York police commissioner Julius Enderby assigns Earthman Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley to the case. Not only does Enderby think Baley is a skilled sleuth, but he also wants to choose an Earthman as proof that this investigation will be transparent. As a further gesture, Enderby assigns Baley a Spacer partner R. Daneel Olivaw. And this in itself poses complications. Olivaw is a positronic robot and if there’s anything Earthmen dislike and distrust more than Spacers it’s robots. Still, Baley and Olivaw begin to work together on the case. They discover who killed Sarton and when they do, Baley has to deal with the fact that he already has a relationship with that person. So in that sense he feels quite conflicted about pursuing what most people think of as justice.

Craig Johnson’s Absaroka County, Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire faces a conflict about a murderer too in The Cold Dish. Two years before this novel begins, three local boys were convicted of gang-raping sixteen-year-old Melissa Little Bird. They’ve just recently been released from prison when one of them, Cody Pritchard, is found murdered. Then there’s another death. It seems logical that someone in Melissa’s family is taking revenge for what happened to her so Longmire and his team look into the backgrounds and alibis of Melissa’s friends and relations. They don’t make a lot of progress at first but slowly, Longmire puts the pieces of the puzzle together. When he discovers who the killer is he finds it extremely difficult because he already knows that person (after all, the town Longmire lives is one of those small towns where everyone knows everyone). At the end of the novel especially we see how difficult it is for Longmire to deal with the identity of the killer.

In Karin Fossum’s He Who Fears the Wolf, Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate the murder of Halldis Horn. She lived alone in a somewhat remote area, so when her body is discovered, there aren’t many witnesses who can give a lot of information. But the information the investigation team does get suggests that a young mentally ill man named Errki Johrma is probably responsible. The only problem is that he seems to have disappeared so Sejer can’t interview him. At the same time, Sejer and Skarre are also investigating a bank robbery and hostage-taking situation. These two events are related, and as Sejer and Skarre unravel what really happened, Sejer develops a kind of relationship with the person who turns out to be the killer. He learns about that person and what he learns makes him quite conflicted about what to do in terms of pursuing this case.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn is also conflicted when she discovers the truth about a series of killings in A Colder Kind of Death. Kilbourn is in the process of healing after the murder of her husband Ian. But all of the progress she’s made is threatened when the man convicted of the crime Kevin Tarpley is shot in the yard of the prison where he’s serving his sentence. Then Tarpley’s wife Maureen, who was present on the night of Ian Kilbourn’s murder, is also killed. Joanne falls under a certain amount of suspicion since she had every motive for murder. So partly in order to clear her name, she looks into both killings. What she discovers – and part of what makes this case very difficult – is that she knows the killer and has a history with that person. That complexity doesn’t stop her from acknowledging what happened but when that person confesses we can see that this is not a simple case of finding out who committed a crime and getting that person convicted of it.

And then there’s Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer. In that novel, newly-minted attorney Catherine Monsigny gets what she hopes will be her chance at a major case. Myriam Villetreix has been arrested for and charged with the murder of her wealthy husband Gaston. She claims innocence but there is evidence against her. She wants Monsigny to defend her and when Monsigny’s boss gives approval, the process begins. The murder of Gaston Villetreix took place not far from where a tragedy in Monsigny’s own life occurred. When she was a toddler, Monsigny’s mother Violet was murdered. Monsigny was present but was too young to remember very much at all. She wants to lay those ghosts to rest so to speak, but she doesn’t have a lot of reliable information about her mother’s murder. So while she’s in that area preparing for the trial of Myriam Villetreix, she also looks more deeply into the truth about her mother’s death. When she discovers that truth, we see how complicated the relationship between Monsigny and her mother’s killer is. That fact adds an interesting twist to this story.

Sometimes it’s cathartic to think of sleuths as the ‘good guys’ who catch ‘the bad guys,’ put them in jail and restore order. But in both real life and crime fiction, the relationship between sleuths and killers isn’t that clear-cut. And sometimes it can get downright complicated…

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Howie Day’s Collide.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Craig Johnson, Gail Bowen, Isaac Asimov, Karin Fossum, Sylvie Granotier

30 responses to “And I’m Tangled Up in You*

  1. In ‘Murder at the Say’ and ‘The Abominable Man’, you get the feeling that Martin Beck has some sympathy with the murderers despite the heinous crimes. Reflecting the authors’ views I think.

    • Sarah – Oh, most definitely. I got the feeling anyway that Beck sees the larger forces that lead to the murders and yes I agree completely that his views reflect those of the authors.

  2. Sorry that should have been ‘Savoy’!

  3. Oh, I love it. I recently started watching a series on TV called Luther (based on the books) and in the first episode, a female killer is caught but enough evidence can not be found to arrest her. So, they have to leave the case unsolved. However, the killer falls for Luther, the head detective, and in further episodes, they help each other. Awesome premise.

    • Clarissa – That is a fascinating premise. And it really reflects the way sleuth and killer can develop a fairly complicated relationship. There are lots of novels where there’s a spark like that and when it’s done well it can add to a novel.

      • Further to Clarissa’s comment, if you haven’t seen Luther yet, Margot, please put it on your list. Brilliant, atmospheric, and the relationship Clarissa mentions is riveting – helped by having such charismatic actors in the roles.

  4. In a fair number of “Golden Age” mysteries, there’s some kind of relationship between detective and killer that leads to some fairly ambiguous or even sad endings. A couple of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Peter Wimsey novels end that way – think of the ending of “Murder Must Advertise,” where Wimsey in essence lets the killer choose a different way out, or Wimsey’s agonizing over the death sentence for the murderer in “Busman’s Honeymoon.” Pretty sobering stuff, and, of course, Sayers wrote it all very powerfully.

    • Less – Funny you’d mention Sayers’ work. I was thinking of Busman’s Honeymoon as I was preparing this post. You’re right that the way she depicts the relationship between Wimsey and the killers he catches is sobering and sometimes quite moving.

  5. You make me think of the ending of Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes – it’s one of the most unbalancing in Golden Age crime fiction. Can’t really say too much without spoilering, but I can still remember the shock waves I felt with the final pages and final sentences… I’m not sure sleuth/killer ‘sympathy’ would be the right way to describe it, but Miss Pym does establish very real relationships at the Training College, including with two very important characters…
    And, I am honoured to feel I have inspired one of your posts!

    • Moira – Thanks not just for the inspiration but also for the suggestion of Miss Pym Disposes. Tey created some electric moments and you’ve certainly highlighted one of them. You’ve also reminded me that I’ve not read that one in such a long time – too long!- that I should really re-read it.

  6. Margot: The relationships between police / lawyers / judges / victims in Scott Turow’s books, Presumed Innocent and Innocent, are as complex as any I have read in crime fiction. There are no black and white relationships.

    At the other end of the spectrum are the latest mysteries of Michael Connelly. There is zero connection between Harry Bosch and the killers of recent books.

    After going back and forth in my mind on which I like best I concluded each approach can work well.

    • Bill – You are quite right about the Scott Turow novels. There really is a complex relationship between killer and victim in Presumed Innocent and Innocent. That to me is part of what makes those novels work – the suspense and tension that come from that fact. And although Connelly certainly has created mysteries where Bosch, Jack McEvoy or Mickey Haller does have a relationship with the victim, you’re right that it hasn’t happened lately. As you say, it can work either way if it’s well-crafted.

  7. Relationships can be complex in any genre. Good post Margot.


  8. I think when the “good guys” tangle up with the “bad guys,” for whatever justifiable reasons, the term they use is “being compromised,” at least in spy fiction I have read. One does recall stories, in books and films, of detectives being taken off cases because they were “too close” to the suspects they were supposed to bring to justice. This must be a tricky subject for a crime-fiction writer. You have given some very fine examples of the nature of relationships between fictional sleuths and criminals.

    • Prashant – Thank you – And you’ve added an interesting point. At some point in real-life (and some fictional) investigations, a sleuth is taken off a case if it appears that s/he is too close to a suspect or in some other way compromised. The line between ‘too close’ and ‘not too close’ isn’t a clear one but that does happen. And yes, handling that aspect of the sleuth/criminal dynamic isn’t easy for the writer but it can make for an interesting layer of suspense and tension.

  9. Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse also seems to have a penchant for criminally inclined ladies, and I seem to remember Dalziel also being rather sympathetic to a potential criminal in one of the books. And of course Hercule Poirot also has a bit of a wobble in Murder on the Orient Express, doesn’t he? It is an interesting, ambiguous situation, and I think, if well handled, it makes the detectives seem more human and humane. After all… ‘there but for the grace of…’.

    • Marina Sofia – I’m glad you mentioned Morse. You’re absolutely right that he develops complicated feelings for some of the people involved in his cases. I’m thinking in particular of The Daughters of Cain, but that’s far from the only novel in which that happens. And yes, a couple of times Dalziel does that too. And of course, Murder on the Orient Express is a perfect example of how a sleuth can know that crimes such as murders are wrong but still have sympathy for – and even friendship with – the people who commit them. Sleuths who can do that do come across as more humane don’t they? And it makes sense that a sleuth might know just how fine the line is between him/her and the criminal.

  10. Someone may have mentioned this but I guess the most egregious use of the relationship happened in the real story IN COLD BLOOD. Capote became so obsessed with Perry (can’t remember the name) that he began to see him as innocent and shaped it that way.

    • Patti – Oh, yes indeed!!! In Cold Blood is a stark and fascinating example of the way relationships with killers can get awfully complicated. That story is definitely affected by the fact that Capote thought Perry Smith to be innocent. I honestly think the only way to really know the whole story is to read several accounts of it…

  11. Margot : another great post on an interesting topic. There are lots of mystery writing blogs out there but yours is the best : brilliant ideas expressed brilliantly. Thanks.

  12. That’s one of the things that makes small town mysteries so appealing. When the sleuth or cop knows the suspects, it adds another layer to the story that isn’t present in most big city mysteries. For instance, St. Mary Mead, for me, is a more entertaining setting than New York City.

    • Pat – You have a very well-taken point. Small towns allow for a really interesting network of relationships that just don’t exist in large cities. In those situations, there’s an added layer of suspense since as you say the sleuth knows the suspects, who know each other and so on. And I like St. Mary Mead for that reason too.

  13. So I am thinking… I don’t have much to say on this topic. Then I remember that I recently read your book, Publish or Perish, and it is an example of this… sort of? Joel Williams is a professor, the crime takes place at the university. So he could easily be acquainted with the killer through his work. Sort of like the relationships in a small town.

    I enjoyed your book. I am behind on my reviews, but will be writing a post on it soon.

    • Tracy – Thank you 🙂 – you’ve made my week. I’m very glad you enjoyed the book. And you’re right about university campuses. They are small communities and many times people on them know each other. Gail Bowen’s novels reflect that fact too as her Joanne Kilbourn works on a campus. It’s one thing I actually like about that setting.

  14. Hi Margot : Following up on Clarissa’s comment, I was wondering, are there many mystery novels where the detective falls for the murderer and has to decide whether to let the murderer go free or turn him/her in. Lord Peter and Harriet Vane maybe, but as I remember she was just a suspect and he always believed in her innocence anyway. With Poirot : Jane Wilkinson in Lord Edgware, possibly, a little bit, and that Russian Countess, Roskova or something like that. I haven’t read all the stories in which she appears but did Poirot let her get away in any of them? Anyway it’s an interesting variant on ‘getting too close’ to the killer theme but it doesn’t seem to have been done that much. Thanks.

    • Bryan – That’s a very interesting question! Without giving away spoilers it’s very hard to directly answer your question. I will say this though. There are most definitely stories where the sleuth falls for the person who turns out to be the murderer. It’s an interesting plot point but it’s challenging. For one thing, the reader has to believe that the sleuth would fall for someone who is a killer. That attraction has to be credible. For another thing there has to be a balance between that developing relationship and the actual murder plot. There are also lots of mysteries (and Strong Poison is most definitely one of them) where the sleuth falls for a suspect who is unjustly accused. That can work well as it gives the sleuth a motive for clearing the suspect’s name.

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