Walkin’ the Tightrope Between Wrong and Right*

TightropesIn real life and in crime fiction, detectives sometimes get put into some morally very ambiguous situations. In those cases, there’s no easy answer as to what the right thing is to do. And no matter which choice the detective makes there’s some moral consequence if you like to put it that way. It can be very difficult for a sleuth to walk that proverbial tightrope without giving up on doing the right thing. Situations like that can be challenging, but in fiction, they can also show that the sleuth is human and therefore, more believable.

One of Lawrence Block’s sleuths is former NYPD cop Matthew Scudder. Scudder left the NYPD after the tragic accidental shooting of a young girl Estrellita Rivera. One the one hand, this was a ‘clean’ shooting in the sense that Scudder had targeted two armed thieves who murdered a bartender. On the other of course, the child was innocent. Scudder copes with the ‘tightrope’ of what counts as doing the right thing throughout the series, and it has the effect of making him less judgemental about others. Here for instance is what he says about it to one of the other characters in The Sins of the Fathers:


‘Ah, and what about you, Mr. Scudder? Are you a force for good or evil? I’m sure you’ve asked yourself that question.’
‘Now and then.’
‘And how do you answer it?’


It’s an interesting reflection on what counts as right and wrong.

Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen gets into morally ambiguous situations more than once. In Ratking, for instance, he’s been seconded from Rome to Perugia to work with the Perugia Questura on a kidnapping. Wealthy business leader Ruggerio Miletti has been abducted and the little progress has been made on the case. As Zen soon finds out, none of the people involved is exactly a model citizen. He’s got to work his way past a dysfunctional and corrupt family, equally corrupt police and government officials and of course, the people behind the abduction. Zen does find out who’s behind the events in the story but in order to catch the culprit, he has to do some things that are morally ambivalent. For him, getting to the truth is worth the difficult choices he makes. And he knows that if he ‘plays dirty,’ his opponents ‘play dirtier.’

Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari introduces readers to bodyguard-for-hire Martin Lemmer. Emma la Roux has recently discovered that her brother Jacobus, whom she thought dead for many years, may very well be alive. She hires Lemmer to protect her on a trip from Cape Town to the Lowveld to find out if Jacobus is alive and if he is, what happened to him. For his own personal reasons, Lemmer keeps a very tight rein on himself. He’s not a drinker and he works hard to manage his anger. For him, the right thing to do is to stay in control of the situation and protect his client. Then, he and Emma are attacked and Emma is left badly wounded. Once she’s safely under medical supervision, Lemmer goes on a morally ambiguous search for the people behind the attack. On a professional level, he wants to respect his commitment to keeping his client safe and he feels guilty that he hasn’t been able to do that. On a personal level, there is vengeance involved. In that part of the novel Lemmer walks a proverbial tightrope as he tries to balance those motives with his determination to manage himself.

There’s an interesting case of walking a moral tightrope in Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Diggers Rest Hotel, which takes place in 1947. Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin has recently returned to Australia after spending time in a European POW camp. He’s settling into life again when he’s seconded to Wodonga to help the local police catch a motorcycle gang that’s been committing a series of robberies. Their latest heist ended up in serious injury to a railway paymaster, so there’s increased pressure to catch those responsible. Berlin settles into the Diggers Rest Hotel and begins investigating. Then, the body of sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee is found in an alley. At first there’s a possibility that her death might be connected to the robberies. But when Berlin finds out that’s not true, he sees that he really has two cases on his hands. When Berlin learns exactly what’s behind the robberies, he is faced with a very difficult choice. Both options have consequences and Berlin has to decide which one is really, when it comes down to it, the right thing to do.

David Whish-Wilson also deals with this question of what the right thing is to do in Line of Sight. It’s 1975, and Perth brothel owner Ruby Devine has been murdered and her body left in her car. Superintendent Frank Swann’s been away from Perth for seven years, but he returns when he hears of Ruby’s death. Although they were on opposite sides of the law they were friends, and Swann wants to know what happened to her. The official theory is that Ruby’s partner Jacky White is responsible, but Jacky claims she’s innocent and Swann believes her. Besides, the investigation has been conducted by certain members of the police force who can’t be trusted. They’re members of the ‘purple circle’ of corrupt and bullying cops, and no-one wants to risk getting on their wrong side. What exactly counts as the right thing to do isn’t always clear as Swann investigates, but what is clear to him is that murdering Ruby Devine was wrong. Swann isn’t exactly an ‘end justifies the means’ kind of cop, so it’s interesting to see how he makes his choices as the story goes on.

And then there’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau, whom we meet in Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine. He and his assistant Detective Yu Guangming investigate when the body of national model worker Guan Hongying is found in Baili Canal near Shangahi. On the one hand, there is pressure of course to make an arrest and punish the wrongdoer, especially since the victim was a celebrity and was held up as a role model. On the other hand, because of her status, she was involved with some very important people whom it would not be a good idea to embarrass. So this case has to be pursued very, very carefully. That’s especially true when Chen and Yu discover who the killer probably is. In order to bring the killer to justice, Chen has to make some difficult choices. On the one hand, he is committed to finding out who killed the victim and catching that person. On the other, he’ll have to do some things that he considers morally questionable at best. That aspect of the novel adds an interesting layer to the story.

There’s also of course H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay Police. He feels very keenly the need to do the right thing and because he’s reflective, ‘the right thing’ isn’t always clear to him. In The Iciest Sin for instance, Ghote is uncomfortable because he’s been assigned to find out if Dolly Daruwala is an extortionist. To do that, he ends up hiding in her apartment (not exactly a moral thing to do for Ghote). That’s how he witnesses her murder. And that event draws Ghote into a case of blackmail, extortion and of course, the murder. It also forces on him some very morally ambiguous choices.

Not all cases are straightforward. Some of them involve some extremely difficult choices and morally ambiguous decisions. Negotiating those choices without losing one’s ‘moral compass’ is a challenge for real-life detectives and it can add a solid layer of interest to a novel. I know I’ve only mentioned a few examples here. Your turn.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stevie Ray Vaughan and Doyle Bramhall’s Tightrope.


Filed under David Whish-Wilson, Deon Meyer, Geoffrey McGeachin, H.R.F. Keating, Lawrence Block, Michael Dibdin, Qiu Xiaolong

22 responses to “Walkin’ the Tightrope Between Wrong and Right*

  1. Used to be a big fan f the Scudder books way back and should renew this – and I love reading all about these Australian mysteries – thanks Margot, all very exciting!

    • Sergio – Glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for the kind words. Actually it’s been a bit since I read Block. There is always so much other good reading out there *sigh.* I do like the Matthew Scudder character. And about the Australian crime fiction I mentioned? All highly recommended when you get the chance to read it.

  2. You never cease to amaze me with your research…it’s always so very interesting. Thanks.

  3. Margot, you’ve hit on one of my favourite themes in crime fiction: moral ambiguity. It’s a theme I associate particularly strongly with the noir tradition: writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet, whose ‘heroes’, Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade, think nothing of knocking ‘broads’ about in the course of pursuing justice.

    I just thus morning finished a terrific read that fits into your theme: in 1991’s Birth Marks, by Sarah Dunant, PI Hannah Wolfe faces a moral dilemma when she solves her case but can’t prove it. It’s a terrific read with a noirish ending that appealed to me.

    • Angela – Oh, now you’ve given me something to look for; Birth Marks sounds like an interesting read. And you’re quite right about some of the characters created by Hammett and Chandler. On the one hand, as you say, they do some things that most people would find morally reprehensible. On the other hand, to them, it all means they find out the truth. You can say that’s ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ but neither category really captures the complexity of the situation. Perhaps that’s part of the appeal of noir. It explores those questions of moral ambiguity and reminds us that things are not really always simple.

  4. That is an interesting topic, Margot, and you have listed several books I hope to get to this year. Looking forward the the McGeachin book, and the one by David Whish-Wilson. I have several of the books by Qiu Xiaolong and want to finally start that series this year.

    • Tracy – Thanks for the kind words. I’m quite certain you won’t be disappointed in the Qiu series. And I do hope you get the chance to read both the McGeachin and the Whish-Wilson. Both are, in my mind, excellent novels.

  5. I always think the moral dilemma at the end of Dennis Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone is one of the best: everyone who reads it (or sees the film) must be left wanting to give an opinion, to argue it out…. It really isn’t obvious what is right and what is wrong.

    • Moira – Yes, yes, yes!! That’s a classic example. What is the best decision in that case? Not clear at all. Folks, if you haven’t read it, do read Gone Baby Gone.

  6. Col

    Great post, some of the examples I’ve read and about 4 I have on the pile waiting. I was reminded of a book I read before Christmas – By Their Rules. There’s an undercover officer planted within a criminal gang, who has to walk a fine line between breaking the law to retain trust and credibility within the gang, yet can’t fully participate in the activities of the crims.

  7. Great post Margot, as it’s a dilemma I ponder all the time re Frank Swann, weighing up the stories needs, the consequences of the choices characters make (which of course aren’t often clear at the time of writing) and what’s true to both the character and the world they inhabit.

    • David – Thanks for the kind words. I think any time you’re creating a character with some depth, you have to work out how that person might respond to the choices that face them. And as you say, you also have to think about what the story needs. To me, there’s a balance there too between adding a layer of interest/suspense to a story and keeping it believable.

  8. This is another one of those elements that I think adds a bit of realism to a book. What also came to mind were those mysteries where the killer is let off the hook by the sleuth/police…the killers had done awful things, but had been let go because of the victim. Never sure how I felt about those, but it did add that realism.

    • Elizabeth – Oh, you’ve brought up a really interesting point. In those novels (where the sleuth lets the killer go) there’s important moral ambivalence. On the one hand, the killer took a life. The right thing to do is therefore to bring the killer to justice. But on the other hand, what about the motive? The victim? Is it always the right thing to do to send the killer to prison? Not an easy question is it? But yes, that plot line can add realism to a story.

  9. I think “breaking and entering” shows up frequently in P.I. novels. I remember one sleuth hiding above the ceiling tiles when she was almost discovered prowling around in an office.

    • Pat – You have a well-taken point. I can think of several PI novels where the sleuth breaks in to get information. I hadn’t thought about that but it does happen a lot.

  10. I have a book by David Whish-Wilson on my shelf to read. Another book I need to get around to reading.

    • Sarah – Whish-Wilson is quite talented I think. ANd I know all too well about needing to get round reading books. There’s never enough time to read everything you want to read.

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