The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Undercover Operations

UndercoverIt’s unbelievable that the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme is getting so close to the end of our utterly unsettling journey. Thanks as ever to our tour leader Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, without whom I’m sure we’d all be wandering aimlessly around, completely lost. Today we’ve arrived at Uborough Junction, where the police have a very important headquarters. They use this out-of-the-way place to plan special operations and prepare an elite group of officers for some of the cases they’ll be investigating. Since we’re a group of crime fiction fans, the administration at Uborough Junction has graciously agreed to give us a brief tour of the public areas of their headquarters. We’re all excited about that and everyone’s planning a list of questions to ask. While they’re doing that, I’ll share my contribution for this week: undercover operations.

The police often plan undercover operations, and I’m sure that you could list a large number of crime fiction novels where characters go undercover for one reason or another. It’s a common theme actually, but the reality is that undercover operations can be very dangerous. In fact, they even turn out deadly sometimes. If someone’s cover is blown, those who trusted that person are not likely to deal kindly with the matter. Let’s just take a look at a few examples from crime fiction and you’ll see what I mean.

In John Dickson Carr’s Death-Watch, Dr. Gideon Fell is faced with a very puzzling crime. A seemingly homeless man has been stabbed to death in the home of clockmaker Johannes Carver, who has opened his home to boarders. But very soon the case gets much more complex than a ‘boarding-house row.’ The dead man turns out to be a police officer, Detective Ames, who’d been undercover and had come to the boarding house to arrest one of its residents in connection with an earlier case of shoplifting. As you might expect from a Carr novel, this case is full of twists and turns and strange events, and the truth depends on keeping track of the various characters. But as Fell fans know, he’s good at sorting out those ‘impossible’ mysteries.

Also not very lucky in an undercover operation is a special agent called Hanbury, whom we learn about in Agatha Christie’s The Clocks. Hanbury is deeply involved in the arrest of a spy named Larkin and is on the trail of some of the other spies with whom Larkin worked. But then, Hanbury’s killed in a not-so-accidental hit-and-run incident and another agent, Colin Lamb, follows up on the one clue Hanbury left behind. That clue leads him to Wilbraham Crescent, a neighborhood in the town of Crowdean. He’s walking along the road there when a typist named Sheila Webb rushes out of one of the houses screaming that she’s found a dead man there. Lamb goes into the house and finds that she was right. The dead man isn’t Lamb’s quarry but it does draw him into a murder case that he thinks might be interesting to his father’s friend Hercule Poirot. He’s right about Poirot’s interest and between them, they find out who the dead man is, and who killed him. They also find out how that murder is related to the spy ring Lamb is investigating.

In Tony Hillerman’s The Sinister Pig, Navajo Tribal Police officer Jim Chee investigates the death of an unidentified man whose body is found near the Jicarilla Apache natural gas field. The FBI takes jurisdiction uncomfortably quickly for Chee’s taste, claiming that the man died in a tragic hunting accident. But Chee doesn’t think that’s the case. So he looks into the matter more closely. He finds that the dead man may have been working undercover investigating the alleged theft of millions of dollars from the Indian Tribal royalty trust. If he was, there are several people who might not take kindly to someone they trusted ‘selling out’ on them. In the meantime, former Navajo Tribal Police officer Bernie Manuelito is now working for the US Border Patrol. In the course of her job, she finds some suspicious activity going on at a New Mexico ranch. When it becomes clear that somebody knows she’s been overly interested in the ranch, Manuelito finds herself in real danger. The key turns out to be the connection between the ranch activities and the story behind the dead man.

In Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, Stockholm police detective Martin Beck and his team set up an undercover operation to catch the person who killed twenty-seven-year-old Roseanna McGraw, an American visitor to Sweden who was murdered during a cruise. Her body is dredged up from Lake Vättern and at first she can’t even be identified, let alone matched with a killer. But little by little Martin Beck and his team put together the pieces of her life and establish what she was doing in Sweden. After a long time of eliminating leads that go nowhere, the team finally narrows down the possible suspects to one person. The only problem is getting the murderer to confess. For that, the team decides to send one of its members undercover. Detective Sonja Hansson is asked to undertake the extremely dangerous task of getting to know the killer. She’s made aware of the dangers, but agrees to her part in the plan. Now of course, the team has to catch the killer before their team-mate becomes the next victim. Among other things, this novel shows just how tense and nerve-wracking undercover operations can be.

In Jill Edmondson’s Blood and Groom, Christine Arvisais hires Toronto PI Sasha Jackson to find out who killed her former fiancé Gordon Hanes, who was murdered shortly after the two broke off their engagement. What’s odd about this case is that he was murdered on what was supposed to be the couple’s wedding day. The gossip has always been that Arvisais is guilty, but she claims she’s innocent and wants to clear her name. Jackson isn’t impressed with her new client, but a fee is a fee, so she starts work on the case. She finds that Arvisais wasn’t the only person who had a motive to kill Hanes. There are family issues, money issues and other motives too. And it’s entirely possible that Arivisais could have hired someone to commit the murder. So Jackson has her work as the saying goes, cut out for her. At one point, Jackson wants to interview the wedding planner who had arranged the details of the Arvisais/Hanes wedding. To get the answers she wants, she goes undercover posing as a bride-to-be. To make the picture complete, she persuades a fellow member of the band she sings with to pose as her fiancé. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that the ‘undercover operation’ doesn’t prove fatal for Jackson, but it is funny.

Also funny is an undercover operation that Mma. Precious Ramotswe undertakes in Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Alice Busang hires Mma. Ramotswe to find out if her husband Kremlin is cheating on her. Mma. Ramotswe knows that if she asks him directly, he’ll just lie about it all if he is cheating. So she decides on another approach. She goes to the nightclub he frequents and waits for him to make a move. When he does, she manages to get a picture of them kissing as photographic evidence that he goes after other women. Needless to say, when Alice Busang sees the evidence, she is not best pleased…

As you can see, undercover operations are not always deadly. But they are always very dangerous. Now, I believe it’s time to go for that tour. But before we do, perhaps I could ask you a favour? You see, there’s this group I’ve been wanting to know more about and if I had an ‘inside person…’ 😉   


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Jill Edmondson, John Dickson Carr, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Tony Hillerman

28 responses to “The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Undercover Operations

  1. Fascinating Margot – I just finished reading JIGSAW, a middle-period entry in the 87th Precinct series by Ed McBain, in which Arthur Brown goes undercover – when it was filmed for as part of the COLUMBO series it had Peter Falk done a whole bunch of disguises which was fun but very silly and did definitely detract from the mystique from the show, which i guess is always one of the perils of messing with a formula!

    • Sergio – Oh, I think I remember that episode. When I first saw it I didn’t realise that it was taken from an 87th Precinct novel. In hindsight, yes, the disguise bit was silly. But I managed to be forgiving…

      • Very much a mood hing, isn’t it? But in a way that’s precisely the point – one gets used to disguises as part of GAD plotting, as in a lot of Philip Macdonald’s books for instance, but ‘under cover’ is very different and a distinction that I’m glsd you made in your post

        • Sergio – Mood – that’s just it. And yes, there is a distinction between disguises and undercover. They may co-exist in a novel but they aren’t the same are they?

  2. Margot: Ironically I was starting a post on Death of a Swagman by Arthur Upfield for my entry later this week in the CFA meme when I read your post. Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte, in Death of a Swagman, goes undercover in rural New South Wales. The undercover status worked well.

    It worked less well in a modern mystery series. In The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson, the Sheriff, Walt Longmire, goes undercover in a neighbouring county.

    I thought it worked well for Bony, coming from Queensland, to a state far from his home. It was not credible for me for Sheriff Walt to be undercover so close to his home county. In rural areas you know lots of people in the surrounding area. Where people in large urban centres may have limited contacts outside their area of the city it is not feasible to send someone undercover, especially with the prominence of the Sheriff, to a nearby community. It is a certainty you will be greeted by name.

    • Bill – Oh, that’s such timing isn’t it that we were sort of working on the same thing without realising it. I coulnd’t agree more about the ‘credibility gap,’ either. It would be well-night impossible to really get away with a complete undercover operation that close t home. Not in a rural area like that. But it is more credible in the case of Death of a Swagman. Hadn’t thought about it that way, but you have a well-taken point. Thanks for making me think about it.

  3. One of my favourite sections in all of Sayers comes when Miss Climpson goes undercover to get hold of an important will, in Strong Poison. She pretends to be a medium, and the book explains in detail how she fakes various manifestations. And another of her team goes to work in the chief suspect’s office and finds out important detail – she pretends to mess up her typing so she can stay on late and snoop. And of course Wimsey himself goes to work in an advertising agency in Murder Must Advertise….

    • Moira – Those two ‘undercover’ sections of Strong Poison are fantastic, aren’t they? Well-written, taut, but at the same time you see the humour in them. And I almost mentioned Murder Must Advertise. Since I didn’t make space for it in my post, I’m glad you filled in that gap.

  4. A great post on a subject dear to my heart. As you know, my PI Jayne Keeney enjoys a bit of undercover work; it appeals to her thwarted thespian ambitions.

    I suspect there’s a degree of role-playing appeal in all undercover operations, even the dangerous ones. In the same way that wearing a mask makes us less self-conscious, undercover operations allow characters to push the usual boundaries, to explore a different persona.

    • Angela – Oh, well put! You really do have a well-taken point about the way undercover operations can free us in a way that being our ‘normal selves’ (if there is such a thing) really can’t. And what I love about your Jayne Keeney is that she comes up with very clever ideas for undercover setups very quickly. She’s inventive that way and I like the way she thinks on her feet. Hey, folks, there is a great bit in The Dying Beach in which Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel do a highly effective undercover operation. I can’t say more without it getting too closer to spoiler-land, but it’s inspired. And thanks, Angela, for the kind words.

  5. How you remember all these premises never ceases to amaze me.

  6. I read more undercover plots with the spy stuff but still pertains the mystery aspect. 🙂

    • Scott – There are some great spy novels with the undercover operation motif aren’t there? In fact it’s funny; I decided not to even focus on the spy novels for just that reason – there are too many.

  7. As Scott said, I see this more with spy stories. Charles McCarry’s first book in his Paul Christopher series involves a group of acquaintances going on a trip with a Sudanese prince who is delivering a Cadillac to his father. Sounds fantastical. And funny, but the results are not so funny. Some of the group are undercover spies, and most of the group are not what they pretend to be. Like most spy stories, very complex and sometimes confusing.

    • Tracy – That does sound complex. And it sounds like exactly the sort of novel where undercover operations just make things even more complex – and dangerous. I think it’s interesting how on the surface, a plot can seem very straightforward (e.g. a simple trip to deliver a car), but in reality be quite different.

  8. Of your examples I’ve only read Roseanna, and that particular undercover operation sticks in my head because it was pretty shocking to me. I think it shocked the team for a great deal of time afterwards too.

    • Rebecca – I felt the same way about that operation. It’s pretty dramatic and I do think it stays with the team. It’s part of the ‘team history’ that adds to their dynamic.

  9. Brilliant! I was wondering how you were going to handle U… 🙂 Love it!

  10. I’d have mentioned “espionage” too but I saw that Scott and Tracy already had. My idea of a perfect stakeout or surveillance would be two cops sitting in a car in front of a hotel or an apartment building and the suspect gives them the slip by escaping through the backdoor. I hope I never write a mystery with undercover operations!

    • Prashant – Undercover operations can be complex and difficult to write. Not only does the author have to tell the story of the operation itself, but also the author has to keep both the ‘surface story’ and the ‘undercover story’ flowing. It’s complicated.

  11. I think half of the people in the Weatherman were undercover FBI agents. Almost every radical group is heavily infiltrated. I am sure there is a good novel about this out there.

    • Patti – There are a lot of novels out there about groups of all kinds that are infiltrated either by government or rival/enemy group agents. It is a common theme and when it’s done well, it can be compelling.

  12. kathy d.

    I immediately think of Tana French’s The Likeness where a police woman who looks like a young student who has died adopts her mannerisms and hair and clothing style and “infiltrates” the house in rural Ireland where she lived with other students. It’s quite an interesting book.
    This is a good plot line in many books.
    I’m sure V.I. Warshawski has done this –what hasn’t she done? She’s too bold and feisty not to have gone undercover — for herself — to learn information.

    • Kathy – The Likeness is indeed a different kind of take on the ‘going undercover’ plot point. I’m glad you mentioned it; as you say there are some very interesting aspects to it. And I think being feisty – or at least having a certain amount of steadiness of nerves – is an important trait for people who go undercover…

  13. Oh yeah, that The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. where Mma. Ramotswe uses herself as bait to see if the husband is cheating … was FUNNY! I understand why Alice Busang was not happy when she saw the evidence! 🙂

    On 8/25/13, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…

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