It’s a Losing Proposition But One You Can’t Refuse*

DealWiththeDevilIf you read enough crime fiction, you might wonder why so many people make agreements or get mixed up with people they would otherwise never consider. ‘Wouldn’t a person have more sense than that?’ you might ask. But sometimes people feel they have no choice but to make a ‘deal with the devil’ as the saying goes. And when a person feels caught between a rock and a hard place (yet another saying!), there sometimes feels no way out of this kind of arrangement. Those ‘deals with the devil’ certainly happen in real life, and they can add a suspenseful and intriguing layer to a crime novel. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) we meet Cecily Horbury. She is married to Stephen, Lord Horbury who is very anxious to protect both his family home and his family name. What Cecily hasn’t told her husband is that she’s gotten far too fond of gambling and is now in debt. Rather than ask her husband for yet more money (thereby generating some very awkward questions) she makes a ‘deal with the devil’ and borrows money from Madame Giselle, a French moneylender who uses private, potentially scandalous, information about her clients as ‘collateral’ for loans. At first all goes well. But then, Cecily begins to lose heavily at gambling and is unable to pay back what she owes. She gets out of her situation, or so she thinks, when Madame Giselle suddenly dies of what looks like heart failure while en route between Paris and London. But when it’s proven that she was poisoned, the police look among the passengers for the killer. Since Cecily was on the same flight, she becomes a prime suspect. Hercule Poirot, who was also on that flight, works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who murdered Madame Giselle. It turns out that Cecily Horbury is only one of several suspects.

Walter Mosley’s A Red Death is the story of a ‘deal with the devil’ between Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins and the FBI. Rawlins gets a letter from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent Reginald Lawrence stating that he owes thousands of dollars in back taxes to the government. The letter threatens Rawlins with jail if he doesn’t pay what he owes. Just when Rawlins thinks he has no option but to serve time in prison, a way out appears. He is contacted by FBI agent Darryl Craxton, who offers to make Rawlins’ tax problems go away if he’ll do something in return. Craxton wants to bring down suspected communist Chaim Wenzler (this novel takes place during the ‘Red Scare’ era of the early 1950s). His plan is for Rawlins to get close to Wenzler by volunteering at the First African Baptist Church where Wenzler also volunteers. Then, Rawlins will be in a position to gather the information the FBI needs to get Wenzler. Rawlins has no desire to get involved in what he sees as a very ‘dirty’ game. But he also sees no other option. So he reluctantly agrees to the arrangement. He begins to do volunteer work and slowly builds a relationship with Wenzler. In the process he finds that he actually likes his target and doesn’t want to sacrifice him. Now he’s torn between the arrangement that he know he can’t break and his growing liking for Wenzler. That’s when two murders are committed at the church and Rawlins finds that he’s a suspect. Not only does he have to resolve his dilemma, but also, he has to try to clear his name and find out who the killer is before he’s arrested.

In James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos, New Iberia police officer Dave Robicheaux is recovering from a line-of-duty incident in which he was shot by a prisoner Jimmie Lee Boggs. His partner Lester Benoit was killed in the same incident. Just when he’s beginning to really heal, Robicheaux gets a visit from an old friend Minos Dautrieve, who now works for a US government anti-drug task force. This task force wants to bring down New Orleans drug smuggler and crime boss Tony Cardo and Dautrieve wants Robicheaux’s help. The plan is that Robicheaux will go undercover as a cop who’s ‘gone dirty’ and get as close to Cardo as he can. Then he’ll be in a position to give information to the government. Robicheaux is not interested in being a government ‘tool.’ Besides, he doesn’t trust that he’ll be protected if something goes wrong. But Dautrieve sweetens the proverbial pot with an irresistible (to Robicheaux) offer. This arrangement will allow Robicheaux to go after Jimmie Lee Boggs, who’s been associating with Cardo’s people. Robicheaux finally agrees and puts the plan in action. It’s not long though before he finds Cardo a much more complicated and even sympathetic character than he thought. He also finds that he was right about the government’s trustworthiness when it comes to protecting him. Now he has to stay alive, catch Boggs, and do the best he can to keep his ‘handlers’ satisfied without giving Cardo away.

Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone makes his own kind of ‘deal with the devil’ in Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip. Or perhaps he’s the ‘devil…’  Perrone is a marine biologist (at least nominally) but isn’t exactly getting wealthy. Then he gets an offer from Samuel Johnson ‘Red’  Hammernut, who owns a large commercial farm in Florida’s Everglades. Hammernut’s company is guilty of polluting the Everglades with toxic waste, but he has no desire to face off against environmentalists or the government. So he hires Perrone to make sure that the mandatory water samples drawn near the Hammernut farm show no pollution. Perrone is happy to comply since he has very little conscience and is eager for the money he’ll get. Then his wife Joey begins to suspect what he’s doing. In order to keep Joey from going to the authorities, Perrone takes her on a cruise of the Everglades and pushes her overboard. The only hitch to his plan is that Joey doesn’t die. She survives and finds a way to strike back at her husband by making him believe that someone saw him try to kill her. As Perrone becomes more and more unstable, Hammernut begins to trust him less and less. Now Perrone has the police, an angry Hammernut and a vengeful not-dead wife on his hands…

Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town introduces us to famous Hollywood director Peter Alan Nelson. Nelson has decided that he wants to track down his ex-wife Karen Shipley, who left him several years earlier and seems to have disappeared. With her she took their son Toby who’s now twelve. Nelson wants a relationship with his son and hires PI Elvis Cole to find the boy and his mother. Cole is reluctant; after all, Karen may have had very good reasons for not wanting to be found. But in the end he agrees and tracks Karen to a quiet Connecticut town where she is vice-president of a local bank. Before long, Cole is threatened by some very nasty thugs who want him to leave Karen Shipley alone. When he confronts her, she tells him her story: as a newly single mother, she had very little money, but she wanted to make a life for herself and Toby. So she made a ‘deal with the devil’ and agreed to co-operate with the Mafia in a money laundering scheme. Now she can’t get free of them. Together with his partner Joe Pike, Cole tracks down the Mafiosos who are threatening him (and Karen) and plans a way to stop them. In the process, he also re-unites Nelson with his son.

There’s a truly heartbreaking example of a ‘deal with the devil’ in Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective. As the novel begins, we meet Preeti and Basanti, two teens from India’s Bedia group. They are both attractive and their families are financially desperate. So the two girls become part of the dhanda – India’s sex trade. The plan is that they’ll work as prostitutes, saving their money and sending everything they can back to their families. When they’ve gotten their families financially secure, the girls will leave the trade. This ‘deal with the devil’ comes at a devastating cost when the girls are spirited off to Scotland. The people who paid their families turn out to be abusive and worse. The two girls are separated and when Basanti manages to escape from the place where she’s being held, she tries to find Preeti. Her frantic search leads her to the home of Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill, an Edinburgh Ph.D. student in oceanography. McGill has his own worries. For one thing he’s in trouble with the authorities for his way of calling attention to climate change. For another, he’s trying to solve the mystery of his grandfather’s disappearance on a sea voyage many years earlier. The two stories are woven together when Basanti learns that McGill may hold the key to her finding out what happened to her friend. She’s proven to be right when he uses his knowledge of oceanography and his connections in the field to track down the people who brought the girls to Scotland, and find out what happened to Preeti.

‘Deals with the devil’ may seem like bad ideas. And objectively speaking, it’s easy to say that one shouldn’t make them. But for people in certain cases those kinds of arrangements may seem to be the only way out of a terrible situation. And they can make for compelling plot points in crime fiction.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Glenn Frey’s Smuggler’s Blues.


Filed under Carl Hiaasen, James Lee Burke, Mark Douglas-Home, Robert Crais, Walter Mosley

14 responses to “It’s a Losing Proposition But One You Can’t Refuse*

  1. Another fascinating topic for this post, Margot. The one that leaps to my mind is Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith. Two men meet completely casually: each has a person in his life who is making things difficult. Suppose they were each to kill the other’s problem person…. surely no-one could suspect? But then, suppose you thought this was just a drunken stupid late-night conversation… and the other person made good on his half, and is now expecting you to do the same. It’s not my favourite book, but as a concept/setup it takes some beating….

    • Moira – Oh, that one is an absolute classic in terms of the psychological aspects, the suspense, the whole thing. Such a terrific novel and you’re absolutely right that it’s a perfect example of what I had in mind for this post. Guy Haines does indeed make a ‘deal with the devil’ in that story… Thanks for the kind words and for filling in that gap.

  2. Margot: In The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau Sister Joanna Stafford is a Dominican novice in the 1530’s. Her father, Sir Richard Stafford, is in the Tower because he hastened the death of a woman being burned at the stake. The Bishop of Winchester offers to her that If she will return to her abbey at Dartford and search for and find an ancient crown hidden there he will spare the life of her father. Unwilling to martyr her father she agrees to the proposal.

    • Bill – You always have such excellent examples; they make my posts better. This is exactly the kind of ‘deal with the devil’ that can add tension to a story. And in this case there’s the added layer of Sister Joanna’s relationship with her father. Thanks for filling in the gap.

  3. I see someone beat me to STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. And you remind me I must try Carl Hiaasen,

    • Patti – I think Strangers on a Train is such a fine classic! And I hope you’ll get the chance to try Hiaasen; he’s so good at mixing in real wit with his stories.

  4. I often have to suspend by disbelief when reading crime fiction but, as you say, sometimes people are left with no choice. In AC’s ‘Sleeping Murder’ I find it strange that the doctor responds to Gwenda’s advert when he is the killer. But I suppose he has no choice as he wants to find out what they want.

    • Sarah – Now that is a great example of someone who does something improbable but for a reason one could actually believe. The doctor of course doesn’t want to give anything away, but at the same time he does need to stay informed. I can think of a couple of other Christie novels too where that sort of thing happens – where the killer works with the sleuth in a way you wouldn’t think is plausible. But it is.

  5. Great examples, Margot.
    I never thought of DEATH IN THE CLOUDS from that angle before..Perhaps because I’m always paying attention to Poirot. The killer in this particular book also is ‘in’ on the investigation – a very sympathetic sort.

    LULLABY TOWN is another good example. This is a book that I re-read all the time most especially for the wonderful characterizations and the last quarter of the book which is thrilling in ways that I always get caught up in no matter how many times I’ve read the book. Need I add that I love Elvis and Joe?

    I’ve never heard of THE SEA DETECTIVE, but it sounds like something I would enjoy reading. I’m adding it to the Master List – as I laughingly call it. The Walter Mosley books is another title that sounds interesting.

    Whenever you give in to blackmail you’re always making a deal with the devil. Luckily that’s a trope that never grows tiresome. Ellery Queen’s excellent THE ROMAN HAT MYSTERY is another of those ‘blackmail deal with the devil’ stories.

    In Ngaio Marsh’s WHEN IN ROME, there is a particularly unpleasant form of blackmail involving a brilliant best selling novelist who is, perhaps, not so brilliant in figuring out he is being set up. Roderick Alleyn to the rescue.

    Another thought-provoking post, Margot.

    • Yvette – Thanks very much for the kind words. And I can’t blame you one tiny bit for your feelings about Cole and Pike. They’re such a great pairing. Now, personally I prefer the ones in which Cole ‘stars,’ but that may be just my own taste. Thanks too for mentioning the way blackmailing can get a person involved in a ‘deal with the devil.’ The Roman Hat Mystery is a great example of that. You’re also making me think of another Ellery Queen in which (at least I think) Queen makes a ‘deal with the devil,’ but saying which one would spoil it. Oh, and yes indeed, When in Rome is a great blackmailing story. Thank you for filling in the gaps.

  6. Then there’s The Maltese Falcon. But – does Spade really make a ‘deal’ with the Fat Man and Joel Cairo, et al., or is he just playing them?
    Also, a variation on the idea – does Chandler’s Marlowe in his way make deals with the devil every time he accepts money from his wealthy but irretrievably corrupt clients whose only virtue is that they can pay his fee.

    • Bryan – Oh, those are such good questions! Now, my personal ‘read’ is that Spade is in a lot more control than it seems. But I like Sam Spade so I could be wrong about that. As to Marlowe? I think that’s part of the tension of his character; he’s not stupid or unobservant, so he knows very well what kind of clients hire him. But there are those fees…

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