And it Seems That I’ve Arrived at a Battleground Just by Chance*

Unrelated MurdersSome crime fiction authors are quite skilled at tying together seemingly disparate cases. In those novels, the plot threads may seem separate at first, but they have a common origin (e.g. the same person committed two apparently distinct murders; or murder A was committed because the victim knew about Murder B). There are some cases though, where the sleuth is pursuing one case and runs into another, unrelated case on the way. It’s not easy to pull that kind of story off credibly. After all, the ‘long arm of coincidence’ can take away from a novel. And it’s important in a story like this to follow more than one plot thread effectively. But when it’s done well, it can be realistic. After all, the rest of life doesn’t stop when real-life cases are being investigated. Other things happen at the same time. Let me just share a few examples of stories like this to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s The Clocks, special agent Colin Lamb is in the town of Crowdean following up on the investigation into an alleged spy ring. His search leads him to a quiet neighbourhood called Wilbraham Crescent. He’s walking along the street there when a young woman Sheila Webb rushes out of one of the houses screaming that there’s a dead man inside. Lamb helps Webb settle herself and goes into the house to see for himself what’s there. When he discovers that she was right about there being a body in the house, he calls the police and the investigation into the man’s death begins. The case has enough strangeness about it that Lamb thinks it will interest his father’s friend Hercule Poirot, so he tells Poirot about it. Poirot is indeed interested and with his help, Lamb and Inspector Richard Hardcastle find out who the dead man was and who killed him. That murder doesn’t have anything to do really with the spy ring case (which, by the way, Lamb also solves). It’s really proximity as you might say that brings the two cases together.

In Andrea Camilleri’s The Terra Cotta Dog, Inspector Salvo Montalbano gets an unusual request. Small-time crime boss Gegè Gullotta, who also happens to be a friend of Montalbano’s, has a message for him. Powerful crime leader Gaetano ‘Tano the Greek’ Bennici wants a meeting, and he wanted Gullotta to arrange it. Things get even more unusual when Montalbano meets with Bennici. It turns out that Bennici wants to be arrested. He has reasons of his own and Montalbano decides to oblige. Information that Bennici gives him leads Montalbano to an illegal cache of arms that’s hidden in a cave. And that’s when Montalbano stumbles onto a fifty-year-old mystery. The remains of two young lovers are in a separate part of the cave, together with a life-sized terra-cotta dog seemingly watching over them. Montalbano can’t resist the urge to find out who the two people were and why and by whom they were murdered.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, we are introduced to Eva Wirenström-Berg. She and her husband Henrik have what Eva thinks is a stable marriage, and they’re the loving parents of six-year-old Axel. Then, Eva finds out to her shock that Henrik has been unfaithful. Not only is this is of course a devastating personal betrayal, but it also shatters Eva’s dream of the perfect suburban family life. When she finds out who Henrik’s lover is, she decides to take a form of revenge against them both. At the same time, we follow the story of Jonas Hansson, who has his own sorrow to bear. He’s the product of a very unhappy childhood, but he found real solace in his fiancée Anna. Then one night she nearly drowned in a fall from a local pier. Since then she’s been in a coma and Jonas has faithfully visited her every day to take care of her. One night he and Eva happen to meet in a pub. That’s when things begin to spiral out of control for both of them, and the choices they both make have tragic consequences. Eva may not be an ‘official’ sleuth, but this is a fascinating example of a person who’s working on one set of problems and comes upon an entirely different set…

Christopher Brookmyre’s Quite Ugly One Morning is the story of journalist Jack Parlabane. He was in Los Angeles pursuing leads on a major case of greed and corruption at high levels when some very nasty people made it unwise for him to stay. So Parlabane has returned to his home in Edinburgh where he’s hoping he’ll be able to carry on his investigation from a distance. One morning he wakes up with a terrible hangover. He soon hears a loud commotion in the building where he lives so he stumbles out of his flat to see what’s going on. That’s when it occurs to him that he’s locked himself out. He does remember that he left his window open though, so he’s hoping that if the people in the downstairs flat will let him, he can crawl through there up to his open window. When he gets to the downstairs flat though, he finds a brutally murdered man. It turns out that Parlabane has come upon a very ugly crime scene that will have implications in high places. Not wanting to call attention to himself, he tries to get through the flat quietly and sneak out the window, but DC Jenny Dalziel gets there before he can escape. At first she makes the obvious inference, but when Parlabane convinces her that he isn’t the murderer, they find they can be of help to each other. As it turns out, Parlabane was working on one case of greed and corruption and accidentally stumbled on another, major story.

And then there’s Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Diggers Rest Hotel. In that novel, Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin is sent to Wodonga to help the local police catch a motorcycle gang that’s been committing a series of robberies. The robberies have turned violent with the most recent incident at a local railway station; in that case, the paymaster was injured. So there’s a lot of pressure now to solve these robberies before anyone else gets hurt or worse. While he’s in Wodonga working on the motorcycle gang case, Berlin gets drawn into another. The body of sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee is found in an alley. At first, it seems that the motorcycle gang must be responsible for her death. But when Berlin finds out that’s not the case, he has to start all over to find out who would have wanted to kill Jenny and why. In this instance, one case happens to put Berlin at the right place at the right time to work on another.

And that’s the way it happens sometimes. Unrelated cases like that are not easy to write. But when they’re done well we can get a realistic picture of how life sometimes puts detectives working on one case right in the path of another.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marshall Crenshaw’s Lesson Number One.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Christopher Brookmyre, Geoffrey McGeachin, Karin Alvtegen

12 responses to “And it Seems That I’ve Arrived at a Battleground Just by Chance*

  1. This knitting together of two seemingly unconnected investigations can make for some excellent novels, Margot. Recently, I read Miles Burton’s “The Secret of High Eldersham,” which seems to fall into this category. The police are working on two seemingly unrelated cases – the murder of a small-town pubkeeper triggers an investigation (carried out primarily by amateurs) into a small town’s secret revival of witchcraft. At the same time, local police are concerned over an uptick in the trade in illegal drugs. The two investigations will, eventually, run into each other. Burton – Cecil John Street – was a fine writer, too much ignored these days.

    • Les – I always think it’s interesting, if sad, how some highly talented writers do sort of fade into obscurity. And in those cases, it has nothing at all to do with the author’s talent. It just…happens. And you’re right that it’s a shame when it does.
      I agree with you too that tying together seemingly disparate cases can add a great deal to a plot. And The Secret of High Eldersham sounds like a terrific example of that.

  2. With police procedurals of course that approach is probably the order of the day but I like it when it works in a whodunit where it is much harder to do. Christie’s ABC Murders is a classic example cases that are seemingly connected ultimately prove to random but without cheating!

    • Sergio – It is much harder to pull off in an whodunit isn’t it? But yes, Christie does a brilliant job of it in The ABC Murders. But then, I think that’s a very well-done story on many levels.

  3. I’m torn – it’s usually good for the plot when two lines connect up, but totally unconvincing! Christie was a past mistress at it, and you just had to learn to go with it in her books I think. She liked those last moments when you think it’s all been solved, but there’s a last revelation about one of the characters… I do enjoy those moments!

    • Moira – Those moments are great, aren’t they? And you’re right; if two unconnected plot lines are not done well, it can be unconvincing. It’s not easy to do that well although I agree that Christie did it brilliantly.

  4. kathy d.

    I enjoy it when two seemingly disparate crimes — or perhaps one cold case and one new one — end up interrelated. If an author can pull this off well, it’s a plot device I like. But it has to be well come.
    Another thing that is interesting is when two cases seem to overlap, but in the final analysis, they don’t.
    Great plot devices. Very often Donna Leon’s commissario, Guido Brunetti, hears of one case and relates it to another case or event, and in my opinion, she pulls this off quite well.

    • Kathy – I think she does, too. And it is interesting isn’t it when the sleuth thinks two cases are related when really, they’re not. It’s also really interesting when done well if the sleuth is working on seemingly quite distinct cases, but they turn out to be related. As you say, it has to be done well, but it can work.

  5. Col

    Most fiction contains a level of contrivance or coincidence, it just depends how much subtlety is employed presenting it, as to whether I climb on board.

    • Col – I know what you mean. If it’s handled well, I’m willing to believe that a sleuth would be working on one case and find another. But if it’s handled too clumsily or obviously then I don’t like it much.

  6. Some very good points made here in the comments. Sometimes it is hard to believe the tying together of cases, on the other hand it is all fiction anyway so it is up to the author to make it feel right.

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