And in the Middle of Negotiations You Break Down*

NegotiationsIf you think about it, just about every relationship we have involves at least some negotiation. It can be as simple as ‘What should we do about dinner?’ or as complex as, ‘Under what terms will your country establish a treaty with ours?’ A lot of people associate negotiation with adversarial relationships and of course sometimes that happens. But negotiation isn’t always bitter and angry. It’s really just the search for common ground. Negotiation is an important part of communication and it certainly plays a role in real-life and crime-fictional investigations. There’s negotiation among different agencies involved. There’s negotiation in an investigation team to determine who will do what and which direction the investigation will take. And when it comes to prosecution of crime there’s a great deal of negotiation among the opposing counsels and the judge or equivalent and that’s just scratching the proverbial surface of legal negotiation. We see this quite a lot in crime fiction, so I couldn’t possibly mention all of the examples of it in this post. I know I’ll be leaving a lot out, so do add your own examples.

We see a few different kinds of negotiation in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders. In that novel, Hercule Poirot works with Scotland Yard and local police to solve a series of murders that look like the work of a psychopath. That co-operation in itself involves negotiation in terms of who actually follows up on what and who will be involved in which part of the investigation. The killings begin with the murder of an elderly shopkeeper/newsagent. Her husband is the most likely suspect but Poirot received a cryptic warning before the killing that’s unlikely the work of the chief suspect. The police are just getting to work on that murder when Poirot receives another letter. Then there’s another death. And a third. At one point, Franklin Clarke, brother of the third victim, suggests that a group of friends and relations – ‘interested parties’ – of all three murder victims work together to try to come up with a strategy to catch the killer or at least a clue as to who that person is. In the conversations the group has, we see them negotiate what is important and what isn’t, and what should be done. Those conversations turn out to be very useful to Poirot as he eventually ties the murders together and finds out who the killer is.

In Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, we meet DI Alan Banks, who in this novel has recently moved to the Yorkshire town of Eastvale. He’s arrived in time to face some unpleasant situations. First, there’s been a series of house-breakings that have many of the residents worried. Also a voyeur has been making the lives of several of Eastvale’s women miserable and frightening. Then there’s a murder. As Banks and his team work to find out what’s behind all of these incidents, we see a lot of negotiation going on. For instance, Banks is in charge of the investigation so technically he’s the one who should direct it. However, he’s an ‘incomer,’ having recently moved from London. He knows that the locals don’t entirely trust him and he knows that he doesn’t know the histories of the people in the area. For that he has to depend on his second-in-command Sergeant Hatchley, who’s a local. So the direction the investigation takes involves negotiation between the two. It’s not always peaceful but it’s productive. As another thread in this story, local feminist Dorothy Wycombe has made a very public set of complaints that the police are sexist and are not doing all they can to catch the voyeur. Banks knows that to dismiss her entirely will lead to a media furor he doesn’t need. Besides, he agrees that the peeping is wrong and must be stopped. On the other hand, it’s clear that she doesn’t have a real appreciation for the time, money and staff required to do what she wants done. Working matters out with her (and they never exactly do become friends) takes a lot of negotiation.

Stefan Tegenfalk’s Project Nirvana begins with the deaths of four German scientists. German police authorities believe that Swedish national Leo Brageler may be involved in the deaths, but there isn’t a clear motive. So they request help from the Swedish National Bureau of Investigation (NBI). The NBI works with police detectives Walter Gröhn and Jonna de Brugge of Stockholm County CID and their team to track down Brageler and get some answers. All of this communication among law-enforcement entities involves quite a lot of negotiation. There’s the question of who gets access to what information, who does exactly what and who has jurisdiction. Then matters get even more complicated. Brageler and another possible suspect (also a Swedish national) disappear. And, the Swedish Security Service (SÄPO) starts to take a serious interest in the case. Then there’s a frightening hostage situation – another instance in which negotiation plays a major role. All of these events are related, and they’re tied to something much bigger than someone killing a few scientists.

And of course, hostage negotiation is a very important thread running through other crime fiction too. In fact, it’s a major part of Max Kinning’s Baptism. London Underground train driver George Wakeham is a former musician and writer who always wanted to make a real impact on society. That hasn’t happened though and he’s currently driving for the Northern Line. One morning his predictable life is shattered when three strangers invade his home and capture his wife and children. His family’s only chance, so Wakeham is told, is to do exactly as the hostage-takers say. He’s given a mobile ‘phone and told to go to his job as usual and follow all instructions as they are telephoned to him. Wakeham does so and soon finds out what the people who’ve taken his family want. They want to capture everyone on his train – about 400 people – and they need his driving skills to get the train into the tunnel where they intend to trap everyone aboard it. DCI Ed Mallory, who is a skilled hostage negotiator, is called in to find out exactly why the hostage-takers have captured these people and what exactly they want. Part of the tension in this novel comes from the interactions among Mallory, Wakeham and Tommy Denning, who’s leading the hostage-takers. Another source of tension in this novel is the negotiation between Mallory, who has one view of what ought to be done, and his superiors, who have another. In the end, that negotiation is part of what leads to the way Mallory and his team deal with this crisis.

And then there’s the negotiation that PI Jayne Keeney conducts in Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar. Keeney lives and works in Bangkok, but travels north to Chiang Mai to visit her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. Then de Montpasse’s partner Nou is murdered. Shortly afterwards de Montpasse himself is shot. The official report is that de Montpasse killed his partner and then violently resisted arrest when the police came to confront him with the evidence. Keeney is certain that’s not true though and begins to look into the matter. She soon learns that these two murders are tied in with a truly ugly case of corruption, child trafficking and the Thai sex trade. Keeney knows that she can’t stop the corruption and sex trade single-handedly, much as she would like to. The one thing she does want though is for de Montpasse’s name to be cleared. He wasn’t a murderer and she wants that to be made public. Once she finds out the real truth behind the murders, she feels she’s in a position to negotiate. I don’t think it’s giving away spoilers to say that her exchanges with the people who are on ‘the other side of the table’ in this case show how negotiation works in the real world.

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned the many fine legal mysteries and thrillers that involve negotiation among parties. That’s in part because there are so many of them; that would be a post in and of itself. But I do want to at least mention that negotiation is a critical part of these novels, as it is in real-life legal cases.

Most of know that almost any interaction with another person involves at least a little negotiation. Sometimes it’s low-stakes; sometimes it’s high-stakes. Always it’s interesting and it can add a solid level of tension to a crime novel.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ You Never Give Me Your Money.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Max Kinnings, Peter Robinson, Stefan Tegenfalk

24 responses to “And in the Middle of Negotiations You Break Down*

  1. A great post, Margot, with lots of suggestions for me. When I think of negotiations, I think of everyday getting along with family members, etc. But you are right, life is full of negotiations at every level. One of my favorite movies is The Negotiator with Samuel L. Johnson and Kevin Spacey.

    I have read the Peter Robinson book, but all the others sound very attractive. I went back and read your spotlight on Stefan Tegenfalk’s Project Nirvana. Too many books to add to my want list.

    • Tracy – Thanks for the kind words. I know all too well what you mean about there being too many good books and too little time to read all of them. I’ll never, I’m sure, come close to reading all of the books I want to read.
      Thanks for mentioning The Negotiator. I almost always like Kevin Spacey (I thought he did brilliant work for instance in The Usual Suspects). And the film is a terrific example of negotiation taking a major role in a story.

  2. In a great many “traditional” mysteries, Margot – the kind with amateur detectives working at least to some degree with the police – negotiation over the role of the amateur was/is critical. For example, in Stuart Palmer’s books about schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers mostly from the 1930s, Hildy is constantly working with – or around – New York City homicide detective Oscar Piper. Hey, Hildy and Oscar ALMOST get married at the end of the first book, but, luckily, came to their senses. In 1932’s “Murder on Wheels,” for example, both are working on a seemingly impossible murder. While they share some information, they challenge each other to see which will reach the correct solution first. Their rivalry adds spice to these excellent mysteries.

    • Les – Your example of the Hildy and Oscar mysteries really makes your point brilliantly. There are a lot of amateur detective mysteries like that where the amateur and the cops have to negotiate what roles they’ll play. As you say, it can be a rivalry (friendly or otherwise) or it can be a bitterly antagonistic relationship. I’ve read novels like that too. But I agree completely that in the most authentic novels there is a sense that there’s a bit a jockeying for position if you want to call it that. There’s at the very least some sort of negotiation of everyone’s role.

  3. Skywatcher

    Anthony Price’s novels follow an interesting path between spy thrillers and crime novels,with each story starting when some mysterious death or strange event takes place. The main character, Dr David Audley, is in charge of a certain department of the intelligence services. However, his group is only one of many, and he must co-exist with these others. In THE ALAMUT AMBUSH he must work with them to discover who murdered a departmental technician. However, he cannot let them know everything that he knows or suspects, as he fears that they will interfere with his investigations. He is involved in a game where the way he negotiates with his allies is as important as the way he deals with his enemies, and those negotiations can be almost harder to do because they are his allies.

    • Skywatcher – What a great example of exactly the kind of negotiation I had in mind when I wrote this post. Very often different intelligence/law enforcement departments have to work together like that and you’ve raised a very good question about it. How much information does any one person (or department) in such an investigation reveal? I’ll have to think about that one. As you say, negotiating with people ‘on the same side’ is just as important (and sometimes just as tricky!) as negotiating with people ‘on the other side.’

  4. Margot: I am actually surprised more crime writers do not explore legal negotiations in their work. I realize trials are generally more dramatic than plea bargains but I think negotiations can be intriguing. Michael Connelly in his books involving Mickey Haller does show lawyers constantly making deals. Your post has prompted me to think more about the issue such that I am going to put together a post on the subject. There is more I want to say than will fit in a comment.

    • Bill – I know what you mean about the way novels treat legal proceedings. As you say, trials are exciting but really, plea negotiations are interesting and can add tension to a novel. As you say, Connelly treats the topic and so do a few other authors but honestly not as many as I would think either. I very much look forward to your post on the topic. You are much more informed about plea negotiating than I am.

  5. What kismet. For the past few days I’ve been thinking about the idea of obstruction in framing a writing exercise. It seems like in novels, obstructions are what make things interesting…This is pretty similar to your idea: great minds think alike!

    • Khanh – They do indeed! And you’re right too about obstructions. Whenever a character has to face a challenge whether it’s a negotiation or something else, that adds interest to the story. It can also add depth to a character. I’ll look forward to your writing exercise on the topic.

  6. kathy d.

    Oh, negotiations, part of one’s daily life. Good that Bill will write a blog post on this topic as it applies to the criminal justice system. It’s true that courtroom scenes provide a lot of drama — and often snappy, crisp verbal repartee, one of my favorite elements in crime fiction. It has been since as a teenager I watched and read of Perry Mason’s cases.
    One book that involves very skillful negotations, and carried out well by women characters took place in Stephen White’s The Siege. It was almost a stand-alone but featured one of White’s long-time characters, police officer Sam Purdy.
    But, ah, life, how much of it isn’t negotiated once others are involved? Even what to watch on TV on the day of the Super Bowl takes negotiations if some are football fans and some aren’t, alhough I think I know who wins in most cases. I’ll be watching Montalbano TV episodes.

    • Kathy – You’re right about how much negotiation there is in real life. What to watch on TV, where to eat and all of things are negotiations. And lots of times they run smoothly enough that we don’t think of them as negotiation. But they are.
      I’m so glad you mentioned Stephen White. I haven’t read his work just lately and I do like some of his characters including Sam Purdy. I must re-acquaint myself with him.
      And I’m really looking forward to Bill’s post too. I’ll bet plea negotiations are fascinating and I’d like to know more about them.

  7. I like mysteries where the chief investigator is surrounded by regular characters, and negotiations become part of the story. Gladys Mitchell has Laura, and members of her family, and Laura’s husband the policeman. Lord Peter Wimsey has his brother-in-law, and Miss Climpson and the agency, and I suppose Harriet too to some extent.

    • Moira – I agree completely about the way it adds to a story when there are ‘regular’ characters who add layers of interest and who offer different points of view to that of the main sleuth. As you say that allows for interesting negotiation of meaning among other things. And you’ve given some excellent examples, for which thanks.

  8. I’m always fascinated by stories involving hostage negotiators. The men and women who do those jobs in real life are amazing, but I always wonder what kind of toll it takes on personal lives. It must be a super high stress job.

    Once again you’ve mentioned books I haven’t read but definitely want on my TBR list (which has once again grown out of control). Thanks for another intriguing post, Margot.

    • Pat – That’s very kind of you – thanks. And I don’t even want to think about my ridiculously huge TBR… You make an interesting point about real-life hostage negotiators. They have such amazing skills but as you say, dealing with those terrible situations must indeed take a serious toll on them. I wonder how they cope. I doubt I could.

  9. kathy d.

    A factoid: Stephen White is signing off on his Alan Gregory series with a two-book ending. Line of Fire is now out, the first one in his wrap-up. He’s going on to write other books. There is a Q&A at his website about this.
    Oh, negotiations. I recently saw a friend negotiate the weekend schedule with his partner. Oh, what a good job he did. Poor negotiation skills in a relationship, family or not, can be quite destructive.
    Which books feature Gladys Mitchell, if I could ask.

    • Kathy – Thanks for the news about Stephen White’s Alan Gregory series. And yes indeed being able to negotiate is an important skills. As to Gladys Mitchell, her series featured Dame Beatrice Lestrange – 66 books in all.

      • Margot, I think you mean Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley – Mrs. Bradley, criminologist and psychiatrist, who appeared in 66 of Mitchell’s books. For some reason, Mitchell really didn’t catch on in the US during her lifetime, but a fair number of her books are now available here – some from the Rue Morgue Press, others as ebooks. She’s a marvelous character, even if her looks are distinctly reptilian… 😉

  10. kathy d.

    Oh, Mrs. Bradley. PBS had a series featuring her with the wonderful Diana Riggs playing her.

    • Kathy – Diana Rigg is indeed a great actor. And I liked it a lot that she hosted PBS’s Mystery series.

      • On radio 4, they’re repeating the Mrs Bradley mysteries with Mary Wimbush as the main character. She has got such a cackling laugh, bringing out the ‘witch-like’ properties which I don’t think you get with Diana Rigg, who nevertheless was excellent.

        • Sarah – I’m glad Radio 4 is broadcasting those stories. Interesting isn’t it how different actors bring different qualities to a character? Rigg brings some thigns, Wimbush brings others to the Mrs. Bradley series. Hmmm….that’s a really interesting thing to think about – thanks.

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