I’m in Hiding*

Going into HidingThere are a lot of crime novels and thrillers where one or another character goes on the run, hoping not to be caught. That plot element can be suspenseful and effective if it’s done well. But here’s the thing: it’s not so easy to go on the run and into hiding. There are all kinds of considerations and obstacles that people who don’t want to be found have to face. I’m hardly a sophisticated expert on these matters, but here are a few examples from crime fiction that show how many things need to be taken into account.


In today’s world, there are banking machines just about everywhere. So you’d think it would be easy to access your money. But of course it’s not that simple. In Peter James’ Not Dead Yet, for instance, Superintendent Roy Grace of the Brighton and Hove police uses the realities of today’s banking to catch a killer. In one plot thread, he and his team slowly trace the murderer of an unidentified man whose torso is found in an abandoned chicken coop. They connect that murder to threats against the life of visiting superstar Gaia Lafayette. And one of the ways they track this murderer is through video taken at bank machines. That, plus banking information that they get, allows them to find out exactly who the killer is.

Given the detailed information you need to provide to open a current/checking or savings account, it would be difficult to even use a bank to manage your money – not, that is, if you plan to ‘disappear.’ Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander has the computer and other skills one needs to pull off financial wizardry, but most people don’t. So people who go on the run have to find ways to get their hands on cash, and ways to keep it safe.


Travel and Documentation

Another obstacle to staying out of sight, so to speak, is getting documentation. In most countries, for instance, you can’t book an airline ticket without identification. And in today’s world of enhanced security, you sometimes have to go through more than one level of identity check. Modern hotels nearly always require a credit card (and often ID too) before you can check in. So unless you know where to go, or can stay in someone’s home – someone who keeps quiet – it’s not that difficult to track your whereabouts. There are of course people who are in the business of creating false documentation. But they aren’t charities, and it can take time to do the job right. That’s not to mention that they don’t exactly trumpet their services. So there’s a certain amount of effort, and sometimes quite an expense, involved in getting identification.

Some fictional characters, such as Anthony Bidulka’s Adam Saint, work for agencies and institutions that can provide them with documentation. When we first meet him in When the Saints Go Marching In, Saint works for the Canadian Disaster Recovery Agency (CDRA). His job is to travel to wherever there is a disaster that impacts Canada, Canadians, or Canadian interests. He is often provided with money and travel documents as a part of his job. And we see the same sort of thing in thrillers that involve British Intelligence, CIA, FBI or other agencies.

The reality is though that unless you work for that sort of agency, or are supported by a witness protection program of some sort, it’s difficult to travel anywhere far, or find a place to live, without authentic documentation. Just as an example, in Katherine Howell’s Violent Exposure, Ella Marconi of the New South Wales Police works with her team to investigate the murder of greenhouse owner Suzanne Crawford. Her husband Connor is the most likely suspect, not least because he and his wife were involved in a domestic dispute the day before her murder. The police want very much to talk to Connor, but he’s disappeared. Checks of his banking records, registration and so on reveal absolutely nothing; it’s as though he never existed. But this is the 21st Century, so the police finally do come up with the information they need. And I can say without spoiling the story that they do so through electronic records searching and co-operation with authorities from another country. Even crossing borders doesn’t necessarily mean a person couldn’t ever be found.



Just about every legitimate employer asks for an identification number or its equivalent before hiring. Some run criminal background checks as well. Part of the reason for that is so that the employer can keep accurate payroll records. Another part is so that the employer doesn’t run afoul of government regulations. So unless you’ve got authentic identification, it’s difficult to find the kind of employment a lot of people think of when they think of a job or a career.

If you don’t want your whereabouts known, you’d need to find the sort of employment where you get paid in cash, with few questions asked. There are such employers out there, but you have to know where to go. Or, you have to have the sort of occupation that Malcolm Mackay’s Callum MacLean, whom we first meet in The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, has. MacLean is a professional killer. He works independently, and does the jobs for which he’s hired in an efficient, ‘clean’ way. As you can imagine, he’s paid in cash, and he buys what he needs with cash.

But perhaps you’d rather not earn your living by killing people. In former times, a person might be hired on for cash. For instance, Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte often investigates in cases where people such as ranch hands come into town, are paid in cash, and move on when the work is done. And there are still some jobs like that. But you have to be willing to take on all sorts of different work, and you have to work among people who don’t ask a lot of questions. That’s not as easy to do as you might think.

Given the realities of today’s world, it’s awfully hard to realistically go into hiding or stay on the run for long. It can be done, and I’m sure you can think of novels where it happens. But it takes planning and effort. Plot lines featuring people who are ‘off the grid’ are most engaging when they take into account what would really need to happen in order for someone to be very difficult to find.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pearl Jam’s In Hiding.


Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Upfield, Katherine Howell, Malcolm Mackay, Peter James, Stieg Larsson

21 responses to “I’m in Hiding*

  1. And yet there are real-life stories of people who did go into hiding (after 9/11 for instance, or a boating accident) and started completely new lives. I always wonder how they managed that.

    • If I may… Usually those people use an underground outfit that shifts you from house to house, as is the case with abused spouses. I’m sure Margot could give you examples of that in crime fiction as well. 🙂

    • You’re absolutely right, of course, Marina Sofia. There are people who’ve done that, even in today’s world. I wonder how they do that, too, actually. It wasn’t as difficult years ago, but now you’d think there’d be a lot more challenges.

  2. Very true, and these days just coloring your hair is not enough, either. With facial recognition software it does you no good. And, if you dye your hair and then kill someone the authorities can now test for not only that your hair has been dyed but what brand you used.

    • Well said, Sue. There is sophisticated equipment available for testing everything, including hair dye, makeup and so on. If you put a lot of time, money and effort into it, you can ‘fade away,’ but with all of that technology out there, it’s harder than ever.

  3. I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of Thomas Perry’s Jane Whitefield series: she is someone who helps deserving people to disappear. The books can be quite violent, but I really liked the details of how she works on leaving no traces and creating new ID.

    • Moira – You’re absolutely right about the Perry series. In fact, you’ve given me a most welcome nudge to get more familiar with it (I don’t know it the way I wish I did). It really is interesting to see how you can ‘re-create’ a person, so to speak.

  4. I’m not sure it is quite as difficult as all that to hide away if you want to though I can’t think of any books off the top of my head where it is done well. But I think if you pick your place you can probably manage it. Perhaps not in New York or Los Angeles but in small town USA or many other parts of the world facial recognition software and all the rest are not routinely used or available (it’s REALLY expensive to have all that stuff on hand). I know in the industry I work in it’s still a big issue – people using counterfeit credentials and assumed identities – there are more incidents than you’d like to imagine.

    • Bernadette – You have a well-taken point. How easily you can go into hiding depends in part on where you live. If you live in a place with all of the ‘bells and whistles,’ it’s easier to be found out. But there are plenty of places that don’t have those things, as you say. And if you’re motivated, you’ll be able to get the faked credentials you need, and you’ll pick a place where you can fit in.

  5. I’ve just read Jane Robbins book about the Spilsbury and the case of the Brides in the Bath and the thing that struck me most is that it would be incredibly difficult in this day and age for someone to behave as the real-life murderer did marrying different women and renting rooms with nobody knowing exactly who he was. These days you need proof of address to join a library let alone marry someone and take board and lodgings! These days you’d have to go to some great lengths (and need some outside help) to truly disappear.

    • Cleo – I think it is a lot harder in these days to get away with certain things like that. Your comment’s making me think of the real-life story of William Pierce and the 1855 gold robbery. Of course, the truth about that robbery and the novels about it differ – sometimes quite dramatically – but in all of them, it’s easier for the thieves simply because there weren’t the systems in place for identification and so on that there are today.

  6. Like Marina Sofia, it’s always puzzled me how people manage to disappear after events like 9/11. It’s sometimes hard enough to do things like open a bank account even with genuine identification! I once worked for a security company who took over 3 months to verify my background before allowing me to start work. If only I’d read your advice – I could just have become a professional hitman and avoided all that… 😉

    • FictionFan – 😆 At any rate, you’d have saved yourself the time and trouble of going through a background check! As Bernadette says, you can disappear if you want to do that. But it really is hard, especially in areas with CCTV, solid electronic telecommunication and modern banking. It takes time, effort, and ‘street smarts,’ and you do have to know where to go and whom to see. It’s hard to do that on a whim.

  7. Pingback: Gimme Shelter* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

  8. Col

    Can’t beat a bit of Pearl Jam or Malcolm Mackay. I do need to read some more from Thomas Perry also!

  9. I have been want to read some Thomas Perry novels also, and I thought of the Jane Whitefield series when I read this.

  10. I confess I’m a little skeptical of plot lines that feature on-the-run (not necessarily witness protection, spies, and so on) characters that miraculously get supplied new, eminently fake, credit cards, bank accounts, social security numbers, etc. The person doing the supplying is usually a very eccentric forgery wizard, slightly shady and sometimes equally off the grid, and the story conveniently doesn’t go too much into the mechanics of the how the new documentation is produced. One has to wonder how often this can happen in real life.

    • Bryan – That’s an interesting point. I think it certainly is possible to get those forged papers, etc. if one knows where to go and what to do. But I too require some convincing before I ‘buy into’ a plot line that uses that point. Of course, in some stories the whole point is suspension of disbelief, but still, I do like plot lines that have a ring of authenticity to at least some extent.

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