I Know You Have Laid a Trap For Me*

Traps and StingsMost criminals don’t want to be caught. So when the police don’t have enough evidence to pursue a conviction, it can be difficult for them to get a confession from the guilty party. There are, after all, limits to what police are allowed to do to obtain a confession. That’s one reason for which police sometimes use ruses and other setups to get criminals to talk.

This is always a bit tricky for the author of a crime novel. As I say, there are limits to what police can actually do. And for authors who write about amateur sleuths, there are limits to what those sleuths can believably do. Still, if it’s credibly done, a ruse or ‘sting’ can build tension in a story, and serve as an interesting plot point.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes uses such means in several of his cases. For example, in The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate a series of strange, coded notes that have been left for Elsie Cubitt. Her husband Hilton is so worried about his wife’s panicked reactions to the notes that he’s asked Holmes to look into the matter. One challenge in this case is to decipher the notes. The other is to catch the person sending them. Before Holmes and Watson can do both, there’s a tragedy in which Cubitt is shot. Elsie is the prime suspect, but Holmes doesn’t believe she’s guilty. A few clues give him a very good idea of who is responsible for the notes, and he uses the very code in which those notes were written to ‘flush out’ the killer and solve the case.

Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table features the stabbing death of the very enigmatic Mr. Shaitana. The only possible suspects in this murder are the four people, guests at a dinner party he hosted, who were playing bridge in the same room when he died. Each claims to be innocent, of course, although each had a powerful motive and the opportunity. Hercule Poirot is among four sleuths who were also at the fateful dinner party, and he works with the other sleuths to find out who was guilty. He doesn’t really have conclusive proof, even towards the end of the story, and he knows that a confession from the criminal will be the only way to prove his case. So he uses a bit of trickery to get that person to tell what happened. It raises an interesting question of what would be permitted in real life. And that’s not the only Christie novel in which ruses are used to get confessions (I know, I know, fans of 4:50 From Paddington).

The first of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck novels, Roseanna, proves to be a very difficult case. It starts when the body of an unknown woman is pulled from Lake Vättern. She has no documentation, and there are no records of missing persons who match her description. After a great deal of time and effort, she is identified as Roseanna McGraw, an American who was on a cruise tour of Sweden. It takes another several months and a few strokes of luck to narrow down the possibilities to one prime suspect. But even then, Beck and his team know that this killer will not simply give in and submit to an arrest. So they arrange a difficult and (for one team member in particular) dangerous setup – a trap to catch the murderer. In the end, the ruse is successful, and the murderer is caught. But it raises an interesting question about cases where police go undercover to solve cases. How much danger is reasonable? More modern police procedurals show how important protecting the safety of operatives has become, and the developments in both procedure and equipment. But there is still danger.

Margaret Maron’s One Coffee With takes place mostly on the campus of Vanderlyn College, where Riley Quinn serves as deputy department chair of the Department of Art. One morning, department secretary Sandy Kepler goes as usual to the college cafeteria to bring back coffee for the members of the department. She returns with it and places the cups in their usual spot. Then there’s a buzz of activity as students and faculty go in and out of the main office where the cups are. One by one, various people get their coffee. Shortly after he takes his cup, Quinn dies of poison. NYPD Lieutenant Sigrid Harald and her assistant Detective Tildon take the case and begin the investigation. As they trace the events leading up to Quinn’s death, they find that just about everyone had motive for killing the victim. What’s more, enough people had access both the poison and to Quinn’s coffee that it’s very difficult to pin down exactly who was responsible. And even after Harald and Tildon deduce who the killer was, they haven’t enough conclusive proof to pursue the case in court. So Harald sets a trap for the killer, using one of the other suspects as ‘bait,’ if you will.

In Andrea Camilleri’s Dance of the Seagull, Vigàta Inspector Salvo Montalbano and his team investigate the disappearance of one of their own. Giuseppe Fazio was looking into a case of smuggling when he went missing, so his colleagues decide to follow the trail that he left. They believe that if they pick up where he left off, so to speak, they’ll find him. That turns out to be the right decision, as Fazio is found, wounded but alive. Getting him safely to a nearby hospital, and keeping him protected, is only part of the challenge the team faces. The other is catching the criminals he was after, especially when they end up being responsible for a brutal murder. Montalbano decides that the best way to catch the guilty party is to set up a trap, so with the help of one of the characters, that’s what he does. And in the end, he’s able to expose the murderer quite publicly.

Ruses, traps, and ‘stings’ can be very tricky. There are limits to what’s allowed and what’s feasible. They can be dangerous, and sometimes they don’t work. But they can add some interesting tension to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bic Runga’s Captured.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Arthur Conan Doyle, Maj Sjöwall, Margaret Maron, Per Wahlöö

14 responses to “I Know You Have Laid a Trap For Me*

  1. Great topic, Margot. Christie’s Peril at End House springs to mind immediately. In fact I think she was rather keen on this ploy.

    • Thank you, Christine. And yes, I agree; Christie did seem very fond of this sort of plot point. Glad you mentioned Peril at End House, too. It’s a fantastic example of the way Christie worked this sort of trap. I left a gap there, which I’m grateful you filled.

  2. This kind of trap happens frequently in the Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout. I think my favorite use of it is in The Doorbell Rang, in which Wolfe takes on the FBI. In order to do so, he must set a trap for the agency operatives – and he does so quite effectively and, I must add, entertainingly.

    • Oh, yes, indeed, Les! I like that one very much, too. And the brilliance of Stout’s way of handling it is that Wolfe and Goodwin have such terrific, human reactions to springing their traps…

  3. Col

    I do like “stings” in books, most memorable one for me was Eric Garcia’s Matchstick Men – also a film with Nicholas Cage! 🙂

  4. As. I’ve got older I dislike those endings more and more, I keep asking myself annoying questions about ‘supposing it had gone wrong?’ and ‘would that be admissible in court?’ I recently read a Ngaio Marsh book with an outrageous ending involving – oh I can’t bring myself to say it, and I suppose it might be a spoiler. It’s A Man Lay Dead, and it is bizarre.

    • Yes, Moira, I know exactly what you mean. There are some things to like about that one, but it’s not Marsh’s best, in my opinion. And it shows that the ‘setting a trap’ plot point has to be done quite deftly if it’s going to work well.

  5. Great topic, Margot. I very much enjoy the idea of using another suspect or criminal confederate as bait for the guilty party. And echoing Moira’s comment, the sting is risky, and can also go terribly wrong, though, alas, I can’t think of specific examples.

    • Thank you, Bryan. I agree that the ‘sting’ plot point can be used for both suspense and for character development. Either way, it can be interesting. You’re right too that if it isn’t done effectively, it can be disastrous.

  6. This post reminds me of the finale of Hannibal. Did you see it? It was wonderfully done. Without giving too much away, the FBI sets up The Red Dragon, using Hannibal as bait. It was incredible. There’s been so many great novels that use this “trick,” too, but it was great to see it play out on screen.

    • I didn’t see that finale, Sue, ‘though I’ve heard it was quite good. You’re absolutely right that that sort of ‘sting’ is used in a lot of books; and when it’s done well, it can be awfully effective. And yes, the on-screen effect can be powerful.

  7. I usually don’t care for traps like that, Margot, but there are always exceptions. Columbo often used traps like that, and even if they would not have worked in real life, I loved that show and did not care. I did enjoy One Coffee With also.

    • Oh, yes, Columbo! I liked that show an awful lot, Tracy. Like you, I didn’t care if there were some aspects of it that seemed a little contrived. It was still a well-done show, I think. And I think Margaret Maron wrote some solid series. Her Judge Deborah Knott series was solid, too.

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