When the Underdog is Hungry, the Favorite Might Fall*

Avoiding and Setting TrapsSkilled sleuths have all sorts of ways of catching criminals. Sometimes, they even use the criminals’ own weapons against them. I don’t mean something as obvious as grabbing a gun from a murderer. Rather, I mean using the criminal’s own methods, tools, etc. to catch him or her. There are a lot of examples of this in crime fiction; let me share just a few to show you what I mean. 

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Hilton Cubitt. Cubitt’s concerned about his wife Elsie, who had some very dubious associations in her past. As she tells her husband, she’s done nothing of which she personally need be ashamed. But now it seems that her past has caught up with her. Lately she’s been receiving some cryptic messages that have left her terrified. She won’t explain what they mean to her husband, but it’s obvious something is very, very wrong. Holmes agrees to look into the matter and Cubitt shows him some of the coded messages Elsie’s gotten. From those, Holmes is able to crack the code; that’s how he learns that Elsie may be in real danger. Then one night, Cubitt is murdered and Elsie is badly wounded. Holmes uses the very trap that the culprit set – the code – to lure the killer out of hiding. 

Nevada Barr’s Track of the Cat introduces readers to U.S. National Park Service Ranger Anna Pigeon. She’s in the healing process after the death of her husband Zach and has accepted a posting in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park in West Texas. One day she discovers the body of fellow ranger Sheila Drury. At first, it looks as though Drury might have been killed by a mountain lion, but Pigeon hopes that isn’t’t the case. Mountain lions are endangered as it is. If word gets round that a mountain lion killed a human, there’ll be a backlash of mountain lion killings by locals who would be only too happy to see the population disappear. Then little pieces of evidence begin to suggest that Drury’s killer was human. Now Pigeon starts to ask more questions, and slowly discovers who murdered Drury. At one point, she has a confrontation with the murderer, who has laid a trap for her. But Pigeon finds a way to make that trap work in her favour.

In Michael Dibdin’s Ratking, Aurelio Zen is seconded from the Ministry of the Interior in Rome to the town of Perugia. Wealthy patriarch Ruggiero Miletti has been kidnapped, and no real progress has been made on the case. The Perugia Questura has asked for assistance and Zen is sent to provide it. It’s not long before Zen learns that there are several people who don’t want the case solved. He also learns that someone’s been reporting on his movements, telephone conversations and the like. Zen is up against some powerful opposition too. For one thing, the Miletti family doesn’t want to co-operate with the police, and isn’t happy about Zen’s ‘interference.’ For another, there are the kidnappers, who are not exactly nice people. There are also some highly-placed and influential people who want this case to go away quietly. Then Zen discovers a trap that’s been laid for him. Once he finds it, he’s able to neatly use the same trap against the culprits.

Sometimes sleuths even have to out-manoeuvre people who are on ‘the right side of the law.’ For example, in Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School For Men, a successful civil engineer Mr. Molofelo hires Mma. Precious Ramotswe to find some people from his past. He’s been re-thinking his life and would like to make amends to the family of his former landlord, and to a former girlfriend. After hearing Mr. Molofelo’s story, Mma. Ramotswe agrees and begins her search. It turns out that the landlord has died, but his widow is still alive and collecting her husband’s pension. So Mma. Ramotswe goes to the government pension office. There she encounters a self-important clerk who refuses to provide her with the widow’s address, since it is against the regulations. Here is how Mma. Ramotswe uses that ‘weapon’ – the regulations – against the clerk:



‘‘But that is not the rule,’ said Mma. Ramotswe. ‘…The rule says that you must not give the name of a pensioner. It says nothing about the address.’
The clerk shook his head. ‘I do not think you can be right, Mma. I am the one who knows the rules. You are the public.’
‘Yes, Rra. I am sure that you are very good when it comes to rules…But sometimes, when one has to know so many rules, one can get them mixed up. You are thinking of Rule 25. This rule is really Rule 24(b), subsection (i)…The rule that deals with addresses is Rule 18, which has now been cancelled.’’



The defeated clerk finally provides the information Mma. Ramotswe needs and she is able to help her client. 

Copenhagen detective Carl Mørck uses a bureaucratic ‘trap’ to his own advantage in Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes). He’s recovering from a line-of-duty shooting that left one colleague dead and another permanently disabled. The event has left Mørck even more difficult to work with than usual. In fact things get so bad that his colleagues don’t want to work with him any more. So his boss comes up with an idea. There’s been political pressure to follow up on older ‘cases of interest,’ so that the police give the impression of taking every case seriously. In order to respond to the pressure, a new department – Department Q – will be created and Mørck will be ‘promoted’ to lead it. The idea is to shunt him aside and keep him away from actual department work. But Mørck uses that new position to his advantage. In fact, he gets an assistant Hafez al-Assad, and other amenities too. And soon enough he and Assad begin work on their first case, the disappearance of an up-and-coming politician Merete Lynggaard, whom everyone thought had drowned in a ferry accident five years earlier. She may very well be alive though… 

And then there’s Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine. In that novel, Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau and his assistant Yu Guangming investigate the murder of an unknown woman whose body is discovered in the Baili Canal not far from Shanghai. The case becomes very delicate when the victim is identified as Guan Hongying. She was a national model worker and rather a celebrity in her way. So the Powers That Be want this case handled very, very carefully, especially if the killer turns out to be a Party member, or some other important person. The first official theory – that Guan may have been raped and murdered by a taxi driver – isn’t supported by some of the evidence that turns up so despite the delicacy, Chen and Yu press on with their investigation. At one point the trail begins to lead to a very influential person. And that person uses ‘clout’ to get Chen transferred to a new position as Director of Metropolitan Traffic Control. On one level it’s a promotion with several perquisites. On the other of course, it’s a trap for Chen to keep him away from the Guan case. But Chen knows that, and finds a very neat way to use his new office to solve the murder. 

Being able to use an opponent’s tools against that person takes skill and cleverness. It also makes for some interesting crime-fictional plot twists and character development. These are only a few examples. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Was (not Was)’s Anything Can Happen.


Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Michael Dibdin, Nevada Barr, Qiu Xiaolong

18 responses to “When the Underdog is Hungry, the Favorite Might Fall*

  1. Neat post, Margot! I love these sort of twists. So cool that you used a Mma. Ramotswe example. I love her!

    Have a fab weekend,

    • Thanks, Kathy, for the kind words and the good wishes. I love it too when the sleuth gets the chance to ‘turn the tables’ so to speak, like that. I think it adds to the story. Oh, and like you, I think Mma. Ramotswe is a great character. Enjoy the weekend, yourself!

  2. You have noted three authors here that I hope to read in 2014: Nevada Barr’s Track of the Cat (have had that one forever); and the books by Qiu Xiaolong and Jussi Adler-Olsen.

    • Tracy – I hope you do get the chance to read those authors’ works. I know how completely full everyone’s reading list gets, but Barr, Qiu and Adler-Olsen are talented writers and I recommend those particular books. I hope you’ll get the chance to read them.

  3. Margot: After reading your post my first thought was about a real life book, A Lawyer’s Journey by Morris Dees. In that book the long time civil rights lawyer discusses using lawsuits against racists to protect the rights of minority Americans. Many times in American history the law, especially segregation statutes, had been used against African Americans. He turned around the situation with the aid of the current laws of America.

    In the Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte series by Arthur Upfield set in Australia Bony occasionally uses his Aboriginal heritage in his cases. In The Bone is Pointed he takes a traditional form of aboriginal punishment and turns it around to solve the crime.

    • Bill – I’m very glad you mentioned Morris Dees, who is, in my opinion, an American hero. I must read that book, as I’m sure he has a lot of rich stories to tell. And thanks for filling in the gap I left by not mentioning The Bone is Pointed. Bony really is quite creative in that novel at using traditional Aborigine ways to solve the crime in that novel.

  4. In Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, Poirot asks a young woman to help him choose some stockings as a gift. It’s quite a puzzling scene at first – you know there must be a point, is he wondering if Anne Meredith has good fashion sense or what? But the point he is checking is quite different and very clever… it revolves round trust, and is a legitimate indicator as to her character.

    • Moira – Oh, that is a great scene isn’t it? And as he later says, she neatly steps over one trap she thinks he’s laid, only to fall into another… I love it!

  5. Good to see ‘The Dancing Men’ get a mention – I think it’s my favourite of all the Holmes short stories, mainly because I loved trying to work out the code for myself. Holmes at his brilliant best!

    • FictionFan – Yes, that’s a favourite story of mine too. I love the way Holmes cracks the code and I love the twist in the story as he catches the culprit. It’s a great story!

  6. What an international selection you’ve used. Wonderful. See you soon”!

  7. Margot – The title of your post for me inevitably brings to mind Lt. Columbo and his method of using the murderer’s arrogance against him ultimately to ensnare and reveal him as the murderer. This is probably not unheard of in mystery fiction though I can’t think of any examples.

    • Bryan – I always liked Columbo too, and part of the reason is exactly what you point out. He has a way of finding out the killer’s weak spot and self-importance and using it. That and his unassuming manner are terrific I think.

  8. Col

    You’ve highlighted some fine books for me to read….maybe next year, maybe later………Mercy, Ratking and Death of a Red Heroine, thanks

  9. I also love the Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot’ where Mortimer Tregennis is killed with a dose of his own poisonous gas.

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