And You Know it Don’t Come Easy*

Investigating FriendsOne of the difficult things about being a detective is having to investigate people you know and perhaps like very much. In larger police forces in larger places, it’s easy enough to simply pull oneself or be pulled from a case (although that certainly doesn’t always happen). But in smaller communities, it’s sometimes unavoidable. It’s very hard on the suspect or witness, and it’s no easier for the detective. That tension and awkwardness can add a layer of suspense to a story, though, and it does happen. So it’s little wonder we see this plot point in crime fiction.

Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple faces this situation at times. In novels such as The Body in the Library and The Murder at the Vicarage, it’s clear that someone who lives in or near Miss Marple’s village of St. Mary Mead is a killer. In that sort of community, at least at the time these novels were written, everyone knows everyone and that includes Miss Marple. On the surface, Miss Marple is a harmless elderly spinster whom some people dismiss easily. But under that surface she’s really not that sentimental when it comes to finding out who committed a crime. But that doesn’t mean she enjoys suspecting someone who’s lived in the village for a long time. She’s sometimes in a very awkward position when it turns out that someone she’s known has committed murder.

Vicki Delany’s Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith faces the same sort of awkwardness. She grew up in Trafalgar, British Columbia, and now serves the community as a police constable. Many of the people she interacts with watched her grow up, or went to school with her, or in some other way have known her for a long time. And that can make things difficult when she’s on a murder case. For instance, in In the Shadow of the Glacier, Smith discovers the body of developer Reginald Montgomery in an alley. It’s soon established that he was murdered, and Smith works with Sergeant John Winters to find out who the killer is. For Smith, part of the process involves interviewing suspects and witnesses that she’s known for a long time. And there are several possibilities; Montgomery was a partner in a new resort/spa that’s planned for the area. Many of the local people don’t want the resort, as they’re concerned about its effect on the environment and on the local culture. And like everyone else, Montgomery had a personal life that also needs to be explored. That aspect of the case is awkward for Smith, especially since she’s new on the job. Despite that though, Smith and Winters find out the truth about Montgomery’s murder.

In Nelson Brunanski’s Crooked Lake, we meet fishing lodge owner John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. He and his wife Rosie live in the small Saskatchewan town of Crooked Lake, where they’re raising their two children. Bart gets involved in a murder investigation when his friend Nick Taylor is accused of murder. Taylor was recently fired from his job as Head Greenskeeper at the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. When he learned of his separation, Taylor had a loud and public argument with Harvey Kristoff, who’s on the course’s Board of Directors. He believes Kristoff is behind a move to ‘railroad’ him and blames him for what’s happened. So Taylor is the most logical suspect when Kristoff is found murdered on the golf course. But Taylor claims that he’s innocent. Bart was one of the last people to speak to Taylor before the crime, so his insights are important, and Taylor’s lawyer wants his help in clearing his client’s name. Bart agrees to help, but there is evidence against his friend and that makes him uncomfortable. And matters don’t improve even after he learns things that cast real doubt on Taylor’s possible guilt. If Nick Taylor is innocent, it means someone else – quite probably someone Bart has lunch with or does business with – is guilty. That tension adds a real layer of interest to this novel as Bart goes about finding out who killed Harvey Kristoff.

Several entries in Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series take place in the small French town of St. Denis, in the Périgord. Bruno has lived there for some time, and in a town like St. Denis, everyone knows everyone anyway. He’s established solid ties with the local residents and in turn, they more or less trust him. On the one hand, that makes for strong community relations, which does make it easier to do police work. On the other, it means that sometimes Bruno has to deal with the awkwardness of interviewing witnesses and suspects he knows well and likes. We see a situation like this in Black Diamond, which begins with the closing of a local sawmill that has been in business for a long time. New pollution regulations from the EU, plus a vocal and active group of environmentalists, have meant that the factory is having to close. Bruno isn’t looking forward to the event, because it will mean job losses for the area. It’ll also mean very hard feelings since he has to protect the factory’s owner, whom he knows and with whom he has some sympathy. It doesn’t help matters that the factory owner’s chief critic is his own estranged son. As Bruno fears, the closure doesn’t end well, and it means trouble for St. Denis. So does the discovery that illegal smuggling may be undercutting the valuable local truffle trade. When one of Bruno’s good friends is murdered, it seems this death may be connected with that smuggling, since he was tracking it. But as you can imagine, it’s not that simple…

And then there’s Julia Keller’s Bitter River, which takes place mostly in the small West Virginia town of Acker’s Gap. When the body of sixteen-year-old Lucinda Trimble is pulled from Bitter River, it looks on the surface as though she drowned as the result of her car plunging into the river. But soon enough it’s proven that she was dead of strangulation before the car went in. Now it’s a murder investigation and Sheriff Nick Fogelsong has to interview people he’s known for years – people he doesn’t want to believe are guilty. For example one of the people Fogelsong has to talk to is Lucinda’s mother Maddie, with whom Fogelsong had a relationship many years earlier. Prosecuting attorney Belfa ‘Bell’ Elkins works with Fogelsong to find out who killed Lucinda and why. Elkins is from Acker’s Gap, so she too faces the uncomfortable prospect of interviewing people she’s known all her life.

And that’s the thing about working among people one knows. On the one hand, there’s a lot to be said for strong community relations. They’re important. On the other hand, that means that sometimes, the detective ends up having to investigate acquaintances and friends, even very good friends. And that can be terribly difficult. I’ve mentioned a few examples. Over to you.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ringo Starr’s It Don’t Come Easy.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Julia Keller, Martin Walker, Nelson Brunanski, Vicki Delany

14 responses to “And You Know it Don’t Come Easy*

  1. In J. J. Connington’s Golden Age mystery, “Tragedy at Ravensthorpe,” the investigation of a peculiar robbery and murder is under the supervision of the local Chief Constable, Sir Clinton Driffield. That’s awkward for Driffield, as he is quite close to members of the Chacewater family, who live at Ravensthorpe and who may or may not have had anything to do with the events there. It causes some hard feelings on both sides, as Sir Clinton makes it quite clear that his personal relations with the family will have to take a backseat to his investigation.

    • Les – As always, trust you to come up with the absolutely perfect example of a GA novel that reflects the theme I’m discussing. I appreciate it! I’ve heard of Connington’s work, but I must admit I’m not familiar with it. This one sounds like a good ‘un, though, and worth reading.

  2. When this is done well this is something I really like in crime fiction – bringing the case ‘home’ so to speak. But so often it’s used just to disguise a surprise villain by making them a friend of the investigator, which is a bit too much of a cliche now to really work any more (at least for me). Great examples as ever Margot, many thanks.

    • Sergio – You put your finger neatly one of the real issues with this kind of plot point. If it’s contrived, it really feels that way, and I lose my patience with it too. When it falls out naturally though, it can be really effective. Hard to avoid crossing that line sometimes…

  3. I love the tense, claustrophobic end of Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger. We know the guilty party must surely be one of a certain group of nurses and doctors: they are isolated from the rest of the community, but they all know each other so well, and they also know the investigating officer, Inspector Cockerill, and you get a real feel for how horrible it is going to be when they find out which of their friends is the guilty party….

    • Moira – I like that very much too about Green For Danger. That group of people has gotten to know each other quite well,l and Cockerill has gotten to know them too. So it is terribly difficult for everyone. I think that’s part of what makes the last bit so powerful.

  4. I normally like those kind of novels, but sometimes, when everyone starts suspecting everybody, it gets a bit tedious. Unless the writer is really exceptional and can pull it off. I know I am thinking of one particular novel, but which one it is, I just can’t remember. It might be Careless in Red, or maybe not.

    Speaking of Agatha Christie, The Pointing Finger is the novel that springs to mind when I think of this topic.

    • Natasha – It’s true that if everyone suspects everyone, that can go on for a bit too long and yes, it does get tedious. Then by the time you do get to find out whodunit, you’ve stopped caring. But I do think some authors handle it well. And I agree that Christie’s The Moving Finger shows how that can be done effectively.

  5. I recently re-read Death of a Hollow Man by Caroline Graham, and it makes a point of how different it is for Barnaby to be investigating people (in a theatrical group) that he has known for years. He does quite well of course. And I watched the adaptation and that aspect is handled well there too. I was so happy with that book… I liked it at least as much the 2nd time.

    • Tracy – It is a great book isn’t it? I think that’s one aspect that is handled quite effectively both in the novel and the TV adaptation. The idea that someone you’ve known for a long time – perhaps someone you like very much – could be a killer must be really difficult. But a cop still has to do a cop’s job…..

  6. Hi Margot – An interesting variant of this idea might be when the killer is a celebrity, known to the whole world, as it were, or much of it. This formula was frequently done to perfection on the Lt. Columbo TV series.

  7. Col

    I can’t think of an example myself, but it seems a bit of a hard sell. In real life, wouldn’t a conflict of interest mean an outside investigator would be brought in?

    • Col – As far as I know that’s exactly what’s supposed to happen. But it probably doesn’t always for a lot of reasons. You’re right, though; it’s got to be done well to be believable.

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