It’s Going to Take Some Time This Time*

Long Term CasesAs I mentioned yesterday, there is something to be said for the urgency of a compressed timeline in a crime novel. It can add tension to a story and it’s realistic to want as much done as possible within the first few days of an investigation. That’s when the most evidence is likely to be available, and that’s when people’s memories are likely to be freshest.

But in real life, many murder investigations take a long time. A body may be unidentified. It can take time for DNA and other forensic evidence to be processed. Witnesses and other people of interest may be hard to find or may decide to disappear. And the police may get leads that just don’t pan out. And that’s not to mention the time it takes to get background reports, financial statements, telephone records and other information. So there are plenty of murders that aren’t solved quickly. That’s just as true of crime fiction as it is of real-life murder investigations. Here are a few examples to show you what I mean.

Oh, and you’ll notice I’m more or less avoiding ‘cold cases,’ where an investigation was called off. That’s a different sort of case in my view anyway. To me it’s the stuff of a separate post.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot receives a cryptic note warning him of a crime that will take place in Andover on a certain date. The note seems like a crank letter until the body of shopkeeper Alice Ascher is discovered on the day mentioned in the note. That investigation has gotten underway when Poirot receives another note, this one a warning of a crime to take place in Bexhill. Sure enough, the body of twenty-three-year old Betty Barnard is discovered there early on the morning mentioned in that note. Then there’s another murder. One of the only things the murders seem to have in common is that before each one, Poirot receives a warning note. The other is that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. That’s not much to go on, and this particular murderer is skilled at not leaving evidence. So it takes several months for Poirot, Captain Hastings and the police to establish who the killer is.

Arthur Upfield’s The Bone is Pointed also features an investigation that takes time. Jeff Anderson goes out to work on the Karwir Ranch one morning, but only his horse returns. At first, everyone thinks his horse threw him, and that’s not a crazy idea as the horse was known to be difficult. The police are notified, but no evidence turns up of where Anderson might be. And truth be told, Anderson is not exactly the most popular person, so there’s not a lot of hue and cry raised about his absence. Still, his disappearance is a mystery and something could have happened to him. So five months later, Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte of the Queensland Police is called in to find out what happened to Anderson. In the end, as he would put it, Bony reads ‘the Book of the Bush’ and follows the evidence to find out why Anderson never came back and who is responsible for his disappearance.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna begins in July when the body of an unknown young woman is dredged from Lake Vättern. The woman doesn’t match the description of any missing person, so this case isn’t going to be solved quickly. Stockholm homicide investigator Martin Beck and his team are assigned to find out who the woman was, who killed her and why. The first step is identifying her and that takes time because she’s not Swedish. Finally, though, she is identified as Roseanna McGraw, an American who was touring Sweden when she died. Once she’s identified, the police have the task of tracing her movements and relationships to find out who might have wanted to kill her. That takes a lot of time too, particularly since the investigation is taking place in two countries. What’s more, the cruise ship she was on has long since completed its trip, so the passengers and crew have scattered. After several months, the investigators finally find a clear piece of evidence. Now they have to zero in on the killer, and that takes time too. Finally the killer is caught after the investigating team sets a trap. But all of this takes time and it’s not until early January of the next year that the investigation ends.

Giles Blunt’s Forty Words for Sorrow is also the story of a long investigation. One September day, thirteen-year-old Katie Pine disappears after school. At first it’s believed that she’s run away, since she’s gone off to stay with relatives twice before. But when she doesn’t come home or contact her mother, the police are notified. Detective John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay (Ontario) Police takes charge of the investigation, and he and his team do their jobs diligently. But no evidence of the girl turns up. Then, five months later, a body is discovered in an abandoned mine shaft on Windigo Island. The body could very likely be Katie’s so Cardinal is moved from burglaries and robberies, where he’s been working, back to homicide. When it’s established that the body is indeed Katie’s, Cardinal and Detective Lise Delorme return to the Pine case with renewed urgency and slowly find out what happened to the girl. They also discover that her death is linked to the deaths of some other young people. The pieces of the puzzle do come together, but not for several months after Katie’s disappearance.

And then there’s Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Journalist Mikael Blomqvist has recently lost a libel suit brought against him by powerful industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström. With his publication Millennium in financial difficulty, Blomqvist is prepared to listen when Henrik Vanger hires him for an unusual case. Nearly forty years earlier, Vanger’s grand-niece Harriet disappeared. At first, everyone thought she drowned. But Vanger’s been receiving arrangements of dried flowers as anonymous birthday gifts. It’s exactly the kind of gift Harriet always sent him, so Vanger thinks it’s possible that she’s alive. And if she’s not, he wants to know who would send those arrangements and why. And he’s willing to trade evidence he has against Hans-Erik Wennerström, plus financial support, for whatever Blomqvist can find out. So Blomqvist moves onto the island where the Vanger family lives under the guise of writing a history of the family. Slowly, he and his research assistant Lisbeth Salander look into the family’s background to find out what might have happened to Harriet. They also look into company records and other archives. Bit by bit it becomes clear what happened to Harriet Vanger, but it doesn’t happen quickly. The events of the story take place over the course of a full year.

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant , Delhi investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri gets a new client, successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal. The Kasliawal family had a servant Mary Murmu who went missing a few months earlier. At first, not much attention was paid to her disappearance. She was ‘just a servant,’ for one thing. For another, it isn’t crazy to believe that she might have returned to her village or run off for some other reason. Evidence has turned up though that she might have been killed. Now the police suspect Kasliwal of being responsible for raping and killing Mary and they want to make an example of him. Their not-so-hidden agenda is to prove that they are not ‘in the pockets’ of the rich and powerful. Kasliwal claims that he is innocent of any wrongdoing, and hires Puri to find out what happened to Mary and clear his name. Puri agrees and he and his team look into the case. By now, a few months have gone by, but the team slowly finds out the truth about Mary Murmu.

Sometimes it really does take quite a long time to find out the truth about a case. Gathering evidence, talking to those involved, following up on leads, all of this takes time and effort and doesn’t happen overnight. So it isn’t surprising that some fictional cases take time to solve too. I’ve only mentioned a few here; which ones do you like best?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carole King and Toni Stern’s It’s Going to Take Some Time. Some people prefer the Carole King recording of this song (I know I do). Others prefer the Carpenters’ recording. See what you think.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Upfield, Giles Blunt, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Stieg Larsson, Tarquin Hall

12 responses to “It’s Going to Take Some Time This Time*

  1. As soon as I saw what this post was about, I thought Roseanna. That investigation just seems to go on and on (very realistically). And I have read a couple of the other books you mentioned. Can’t think of anything further to add though. I guess I read a lot of books about investigations with a medium length.

    • Tracy – And there are plenty of those out there! You know it’s funny; when I first planned this post I thought Roseanna too. That’s a textbook case of a realistic look at how any number of factors can slow down an investigation even when the detectives are very good at what they do.

  2. In Robert Barnard’s Death of an Old Goat, an aging professor visiting an Australian university is knocked off. The very funny investigation gets under way, but eventually stalls – though some people have a strong suspicion about what happened. Some time passes – maybe a year? I can’t check right now. Eventually the whole case is wrapped up and resolved – in a tour de force, Barnard does this in a very brief but satisfactory description. It is an excellent book, I think one of his best. And of course – great topic Margot!

    • Moira – Thanks for the very kind words. And thanks for mentioning Death of an Old Goat. That is indeed one of those extended investigations. It does take a year, I believe (been a looooong time). And it is indeed one of Barnard’s good ‘uns. I’m glad you filled that gap in.

  3. Margot, I too thought of Roseanna – and of The Bone Is Pointed; Bony, in particular, always lectures his friends about the benefits of time, calling time the detective’s greatest friend.

    Let me add one more: Margery Allingham’s marvelous “Flowers for the Judge,” a 1936 novel featuring Albert Campion. On a beautiful morning in 1911, Tom Barnabas, a director of the publishing firm Barnabas and Company, left his London house and walked down the street. Somewhere along that street, he disappeared, before he reached the tobacconist’s shop on the corner. His disappearance was never explained – or solved. Twenty years later, another director of the firm disappears. This time, however, he will reappear – very dead. Albert Campion is convinced that there must be a tie-in to that earlier disappearance of Tom Barnabas. That, of coure, will eventually prove to be correct. It’s an excellent book (with perhaps Allingham’s most perfect ending). Highly recommended.

    • Les – Thanks very much for that Allingham suggestion. I admit to not having read all of the Campion novels, but the ones I’ve read have been very nicely done. And that one is a great example of the kind of investigation that I had in mind when I was preparing this post. And of course, it’d be hard to discuss long-term investigations without mentioning Upfield’s work.

  4. Very interesting Margot! I think uncompressing a narrative can really make it better in some cases – James Ellroy must be a bit unique in his preference for spreading his narratives over several years though!

    • Sergio – Thank you. I think an uncompressed timeline can add some richness and opportunity for character development. In that sense I can see Ellroy’s thinking. Still, as you say, some of his narratives do take place over a long time. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as the ‘right’ timeline actually. To me anyway it all depends on what best serves the story. Some stories are best served by a long timeframe, and some by a more compressed one.

  5. I’m currently reading (halfway through now) Stalkers by Paul Finch and at the start of the book the protagonist Heck, was still investigating missing persons cases he thought were connected, 2 years after he started. He now knows they are and things are more sinister. As readers we know more about what had happened to the missing women – and it’s not pretty. But yes, this is a very protracted enquiry.

    • Rebecca – It sounds like a very intense book. And I’m not surprised that the investigation is really protracted. Sometimes missing persons cases can go on for an awfully long time. I’ll be interested in your thoughts about the novel when you’ve finished it.

  6. Col

    Another great post, Margot. I’ll have to shuffle the Blunt book closer to the top of the pile. Brain freeze regarding any examples of my own.

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