There 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.