But it Don’t Take No Detective*

StoriesWithoutSleuthsWhen most people think of crime novels, they think of a story with a mystery (usually about a murder or series of murders) and the sleuth who solves the case. And a lot of crime novels have that form. But not all of them have that pattern. There are even crime stories that arguably don’t have a sleuth. In that sort of novel, there may be references to ‘the police,’ or a mention of one or another police officer. But those characters don’t really figure into the story.

It’s not easy to write that sort of story since traditionally, the suspense in a crime story is built as the sleuth solves the case. But when it’s done well, crime stories without sleuths can have their own kind of suspense. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll be able to think of lots more than I could.

One very suspenseful story that has no sleuth is Frederic Brown’s short story Don’t Look Behind You. The narrator tells the history of a printer named Justin, a suave man named Harley, and what happens when they get involved with some very dubious people. There are certainly crimes involved, but the suspense isn’t built through solving them. Instead, it’s built through the way in which the narrator addresses the reader.

There’s also no sleuth in Robert Pollock’s Loophole: or, How to Rob a Bank. Architect Stephen Booker is made redundant by his company. At first, he thinks he’ll find a new job quickly; he is, after all, a professional. But time goes on and he finds nothing. He finally settles for a job driving a cab at night, so he can continue looking for a ‘real job’ during the day. One evening, he picks up a passenger who turns out to be professional thief Mike Daniels. Over time and several cab rides, they get to know each other, and they learn that they may be able to help each other. Daniels and his team are planning a major heist: the robbery of the City Savings Deposit Bank. In order for their logistics to work, they need help from an architect, and Booker may be just the man for the job. For his part, Booker is desperate for money, and after some misgivings about turning to crime, falls in with Daniels’ team. The group has every detail ready, and at first it looks as though the robbery will go off as planned. But then a sudden storm comes up and changes everything…

Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger begins when the police inform Fabien Delorme that his wife Sylvie has been killed in a car accident. Their marriage hadn’t been a loving one for some time, but he still feels her loss. What’s worse than that though is that he learns that she was not alone when she died. Sylvie had taken a lover Martial Arnoult, who was with her at the time of the crash and who also died. When Delorme learns that Arnoult left behind a widow Martine, he determines to find out about her. He soon becomes obsessed with Martine and begins a relationship with her. And that’s when things begin to spin completely out of control.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we are introduced to former school principal Thea Farmer. As the story begins, she’s left her position and had a dream home built for herself in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. But bad luck and poor financial planning have changed everything. Now Thea has to settle for the smaller house next door, which she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ To make matters worse, her perfect home is purchased by Frank Campbell and Elllice Charringon, whom Thea heartily dislikes (she calls them ‘the invaders.’). After a short time, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with him and Ellice. At first, Thea is prepared to dislike her, too. Instead, she discovers that the girl has real promise as a writer, and even forms a kind of awkward friendship with her. So when she begins to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate living environment for Kim, Thea gets very concerned. The police won’t do much about it without clear evidence, so Thea makes her own plans to deal with the situation. This novel does refer to the police, but there really isn’t a sleuth. Rather, the suspense is built as we learn, little by little, about Thea, about the new arrivals, and about what happens when Thea decides to take matters into her own hands.

Kanae Minato’s Confessions is the story of middle school teacher and single mother Yūko Moriguchi. When her only child, four-year-old Manami, dies, it looks at first like a tragic accidental drowning. But Yūko knows that Manami was murdered; what’s more, she knows who is responsible. In fact, the novel begins with a speech she makes to her class in which she makes it clear that she knows who killed her daughter. She doesn’t trust the juvenile justice system to punish the culprits appropriately, so she’s made her own plans for justice. And as the story goes on, we follow the lives of her students, and we learn what her plan was. The tension in this novel is built as life spirals downwards for several characters, and as we learn what, exactly, was behind the original murder.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman is one of the most promising students that secondary-school teacher Ilsa Klein has had. And Serena seems to be really interested in further education. Then, everything changes. Serena stops coming to class regularly; and when she is there, she doesn’t participate. Ilsa takes her concerns to the school counselor, and a visit is duly made to the Freeman family. When that effort is rebuffed, there’s not much more that Ilsa can do, although she is still worried. Then, Serena disappears. Three weeks later her sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington to the family home in Alexandra to look for Serena. This novel doesn’t really cast Lynnie (or anyone else, for the matter of that) in the role of sleuth. Rather, the suspense and interest are built as we learn the truth about Serena and about some of the other characters. It’s that slow reveal, rather than a sleuth solving a mystery, that keeps the reader engaged.

It can be a challenge to build and maintain interest if the author tells a crime story without a sleuth. But in the right hands, it can work well. What are your thoughts on this? Does a story need to have a sleuth for you to ‘plunge in?’ If you’re a writer, have you ever tried your hand at a crime story without a sleuth?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The Great Wall of China.


Filed under Frederic Brown, Kanae Minato, Paddy Richardson, Pascal Garnier, Robert Pollock, Virginia Duigan

31 responses to “But it Don’t Take No Detective*

  1. One of my favorite mysteries follows this pattern, I think, Margot: Fear and Miss Betony, by Dorothy Bowers (another Rue Morgue Press find). An aging and rather lonely woman, Emma Betony, receives a call from a former pupil, Grace Aram, who now runs a struggling girls’ school in a former nursing home. The school has had a number of puzzling events, including a possible poisoning, and Grace wants Miss Betony to do some investigating. Miss Betony – who is by no means an investigator – finds a baffling and overwhelming sense of fear among just about everyone at the school/nursing home. Very little is as it seems – including Miss Betony’s role in events. The book does end with a police follow-up investigation – but only after Miss Betony discovers what really is motivating the forces that seem to be closing all around her. It’s a brilliant book.

    • That’s a really interesting example, Les, and I’m glad you’ve mentioned it. You’ve got a case, and some strange events. But at the same time, as you say, there’s not really a sleuth who looks into the case. Well, not in the sense that we think of sleuths investigating. Whenever you mention these sorts of books, it makes me grateful for the work Rue Morgue is doing in bringing them back for new readers.

  2. The psychological thrillers which seem to be making a come-back nowadays (although I’d argue they never really went away) seem to be all about building tension without having a traditional investigator (or, at least, not an investigator as the main character). I enjoy them, but after a few in a row, I always enjoy coming back to the more typical detective genre. Each one has its attractions.

    • I’m the same way, Marina Sofia. I enjoy both kinds of stories, but the variety is better than either is alone. And you make an interesting point about whether those psychological thrillers ever really went away. I’ll have to think about that – it’s got real merit.

  3. Keishon

    It would take exceptional writing to write a crime novel without a detective or sleuth but it can be done. Sure. Think I just thought of one, Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source. Well, maybe not but the main protagonist’s sister goes missing so he travels down to Huntington Beach to find her and gets more than he bargains for. I thought the author did a great job in throwing in suspenseful scenes concerning the missing sister while also going into the culture of surfing in California. Terriffic novel.

    • Oh, that’s interesting, Keishon! And the surfing culture is unique and a very effective context for a suspenseful novel. I think that sort of novel can definitely make for a novel that keeps the reader engaged without actually having an ‘official’ sleuth.

  4. The books that Ruth Rendell writes as ‘Barbara Vine’ are to me a good example where this approach certainly pays off. On the other hand, it is a very different sort of pleasure, both liberating and potentially less satisfying – but that is also perhaps the difference between a one-off and a series with continuing characters – thanks for the food for thought Margot.

    • You make a very good point, Sergio. With a series, I suspect it would be much harder to have stories without sleuths. But with one-offs, you can do that. And Vine certainly does it well, doesn’t she?

  5. An interesting post and this is more common in psychological thrillers. Once again you have pointed me towards a book I’ve not heard of, Confessions, sounds like a great read.

    • I think you’re right, Cleo, that this approach is a lot more common in psychological thrillers than it is in other kinds of books. I recommend Confessions, actually. It’s not an easy book to read; in fact, it’s quite dark. But it’s a fascinating example of Japanese crime fiction I think.

  6. Interesting! I’d have said I prefer police procedurals, but now you’ve made me think of it, several of my favourite books of last year didn’t have a sleuth, or at most only in the distant background. ‘Summer House with Swimming Pool’ by Herman Koch, Liane Moriarty’s ‘Little Lies’ and ‘A Pleasure and a Calling’ by Phil Hogan all fall into that category. It takes a lot of skill to pull it off though, since there’s no ‘comfort zone’ of familiar characters or background story arc to keep the reader onside, so it’s safe to say some of my least favourite books of last year also were this type of book…

    • Oh, FictionFan, you’ve mentioned some great examples of books that are really effective without a sleuth. And you’ve also made me think of Koch’s earlier novel The Dinner. That one doesn’t have a sleuth either. I think it worked well there too. As you say, it can also fail miserably. So it is a risk. But I respect an author who takes that chance and pulls it off.

  7. I can feel a challenge hiding here.

  8. I always think it’s interesting that Agatha Christie said the favourite of her books was Crooked House. She created two of the most famous sleuths of the 20th Century in Poirot and Marple, and had a few other ‘regulars’ to hand (Tommy& Tuppence, Battle, Race), but still she chose one of the few of her books to have no investigator at all….

  9. I usually look out for a sleuth but it can be fun without them. Crooked House is also my favourite AC novel.

    • It’s a great read, isn’t it, Sarah? I think most of us are accustomed to a sleuth in our stories; but as you say, it can still be a great story without one.

  10. Recently read No Name Lane – in this 2 journalists do the sleuthing.

  11. Col

    I’ve probably read a few books where there’s a falling out among criminals and issues get resolved without involving the police, for obvious reasons. Garnier’s book was great. I also recently bought LOOPHOLE after you recommended it to me…..what are you like? 🙂 At least it’s short!

    • Bwahahahaha 😉 I do hope you’ll enjoy Loophole, Col. It is indeed a short novel, and I think it’s a good story too. Those ‘falling out among thieves’ plot points can definitely keep the tension and interest high, even if there is no sleuth.

  12. No, I’ve never tried writing a story without a sleuth, but it sounds interesting. Actually, I’ve never one, either. “In the right hands” is key here I think. There are some authors who can pull off just about anything. Interesting topic. Glad Elizabeth listed it on Twitterific links. I must have missed it.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s