When 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?’
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.