I Won’t Do That*

Codes and Crossing LinesOne thing that crime fiction shows us is the complexity of human nature. We see just a part of that complexity when we think about people’s personal ‘codes of conduct.’ Just about everyone seems to have a code, too, even criminals. We all have lines that we don’t cross. And it’s interesting to look at how those codes differ and how they play out in crime novels. They can add richness to a character, and a layer of interest to a story.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories feature such codes. For example, in Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot is en route to London on the famous Orient Express. On the second night of the journey, one of his fellow passengers, American businessman Samuel Ratchett, is stabbed to death. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on the same coach, so Poirot concentrates on them. And that’s one of the interesting things about this case. The murderer doesn’t want other people on the train to be suspected and perhaps arrested. There’s another aspect of this case, too, that shows the codes of conduct people can have, even if we might not agree with it. Mentioning it would spoil the story for those who don’t know it, but it adds an interesting layer to the story, as well as an interesting topic for discussion.

In William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, Glasgow DI Jack Laidlaw and his team are investigating the rape and murder of eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawson. Laidlaw knows that very few people will be willing to talk to him about what they might have witnessed. So he and DC Brian Harkness take another approach. They go to visit John Rhodes, who is unofficially in charge of the part of Glasgow where the murder occurred. Rhodes didn’t get to the top by being pleasant and easygoing. He’s a hard man who has no compunctions about using violence, even murder if it comes to that. But he draws the line at involving women and children. To him, the murder of Jennifer Lawson has crossed a line that goes against his code. And on that score, he agrees to find out what he can about anyone who might have witnessed the crime.

One of the ‘regulars’ in Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano series is his old school friend Gegè Gullotta. Gullotta is a small-time drug dealer and local crime leader. He runs a notorious area outside the town of Vigàta called The Pasture. It’s a place for sex workers to meet their clients and drug deals to be made. Gullotta is a criminal who doesn’t hesitate to profit from his ‘enterprises. But he has a code. He doesn’t involve children in his deals, and he doesn’t condone violent crimes like rape and murder. In fact, he works to make sure that what happens in The Pasture doesn’t cause trouble for those who don’t want to be involved in what goes on there.

Sophie Littlefield’s Stella Hardesty runs a sewing supply store in rural Prosper, Missouri. On the surface, she seems harmless enough. But she also has a ‘side business.’ Having once been a victim of domestic abuse herself, Hardesty is determined that no other woman or child will have to endure what she endured. So, when survivors of domestic abuse ask for her help, she obliges. Her first step is to pay a very unpleasant visit to the abuser. If that isn’t enough to make him mend his ways, she visits again. And this visit is even more unpleasant. Few of her ‘parolees’ need more warning than that. What Hardesty does is criminal, according to the law. She can be quite violent. But she does have a code. Except in the few cases where she has to defend herself, she doesn’t kill. And she doesn’t target just anyone. Although it may not always seem like it, there are lines that she doesn’t cross.

There’s a different sort of code in Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road. Constable Paul ‘Hirsch’ Hirschhausen has just been stationed in Tiverton, in rural South Australia. He was more or less exiled from Adelaide because he got the reputation as a ‘whistleblower’ in an internal investigation. When the body of fifteen-year-old Melia Donovan is discovered by the side of Bitter Wash Road, Hirsch gets involved in the investigation. Along with finding Melia’s killer, he has to deal with the very deeply held police code that you don’t ‘do the dirty’ on a fellow officer. Police will forgive each other a lot of things, but reporting each other is the line most of them won’t cross. On the one hand, that makes sense when you need to trust other officers with your life. On the other, it means a lot of unethical and illegal activity doesn’t get reported. It’s a double-edged sword, as the saying goes, but it’s a very firm line for a lot of police. And it makes for a really interesting topic for discussion.

There are a lot of other example of characters, including criminals, who have their own personal codes. Each one’s a little different, and each one can make for interesting dilemmas and tension in stories. Those codes, and those lines that aren’t crossed, also make for layers of character depth.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jim Steinman’s I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That).


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Garry Disher, Sophie Littlefield, William McIlvanney

21 responses to “I Won’t Do That*

  1. Pingback: I Won’t Do That* | Toni Kennedy : A Writing Life

  2. Yes, it’s interesting how these codes can develop independently of the rules of an organisation and sometimes in conflict with them. Not only the police – the medical profession is always notorious for covering up each other’s mistakes, in fiction at least. A kind of ‘them and us’ situation. Personal codes are interesting too – The Maltese Falcon is a good example of a book where the plot turns on where Sam Spade will draw his own personal line…

    • Yes, indeed, FictionFan. The Maltese Falcon is a great example of the way personal codes impact a plot; thanks for filling in that gap. You make a well-taken point about the medical profession, too. They do tend to cover up one another’s mistakes in fiction. Makes me wonder sometimes how often it goes on in real life… And the medical profession isn’t the only one where those codes come into conflict with established codes. I think that can make for a really interesting bit of tension in a story if it’s not done in an ‘over the top’ sort of way.

  3. Col

    Margot, another interesting post thanks. Laidlaw I know all about, Disher’s Bitter Wash Road I’m looking forward to!

  4. In Mel Sherratt’s books, particularly the Allie Shenton series,the criminal’s personal codes as well as those of the people living on the nearby estate to create tension (even though they may not have any criminal tendencies!)

    • That’s exactly the kind of thing I had in mind, Cleo. And a good reminder for me to read Mel Sherratt’s work, for which thanks. That difference in personal codes can be a really effective way to create tension, can’t they?

  5. Margot, as Col notes, this is another interesting insight into crime fiction. Little but important details in a narrative that I often overlook.

  6. I was going to say Maltese Falcon too, but Fiction Fan got in first!
    I love that Jim Steinman song, but then I love all his songs…

  7. One detective with a very personal set of rules is Australian DI Napoleon Bonaparte, in the books by Arthur Upfield. As the child of a Caucasian father and an Aborigine mother, Bony has set rigid rules for himself – one of which is that he will never allow himself to fail at “resolving” a case even if that means (as it frequently does) ignoring orders from his bosses. In some of the books, that rule causes great pain for Bony as well, as he struggles to balance that need for perfection with the sympathy he feels for those caught up in his investigation. As Upfield puts it, “It was Napoleon Bonapare, a detective inspector, a tiger-cat that once on the trail never gives up…the man who had never yet failed to finalize an investigation. That was the trap that closed about Bony…the man of courage sufficient to conquer all those disabilities imposed by his ancestry, the man whose infinite patience was equalled by limitless sympathy.”

    • That’s quite true, Les. Bony has his own personal code, doesn’t he? And in several of the novels, he follows that as opposed to what the law might, on the surface, dictate. He sees all sides of a situation, and it gives him a real perspective. Thanks for mentioning him.

  8. What a wonderful little essay. You’re right about Poirot and the Orient Express, but I won’t say more and spoil things for others. Thanks for offering me such a great sampler of other books that I now want to devour. Now, though, I must return to my own newly titled and revised blog for a little fine tuning; of course, the title sort of tips my hand about the focus and my fondness for a certain crime writer.

    • Thanks very much, R.T., for the kind words. I’m very glad to know that you’ve got your blog up and going again. I’m very much looking forward to learning from you as you get everything off the ground. Thanks for letting us all know the link.

  9. Marianne Wheelaghan

    Hi Margot, thanks for a thoughtful read and introducing to me to two new fictional sleuths/detectives – Constable Paul ‘Hirsch’ Hirschhausen and Stella Hardesty!

  10. FictionFan sort of got there first. However – I think it’s interesting that the American private detective from the classic era has a code he lives by, whether it’s articulated or no. I don’t see this aspect emphasized as much in contemporary crime fiction: maybe because there are so many variants of sleuths these days and some have codes and some don’t.
    Also commentators don’t make as big a deal as to personal codes when the sleuth appears in a cosy mystery. Maybe the nature of the cosy creates fewer existential situations where the protagonist has to apply a code(?)
    I’m glad you mention the villains too : perhaps even more interesting are the cases where the bad guy has his own kind of code.

    • I think the ‘bad guy’ with a code is an interesting character, too, Bryan. To me, it hints at the multidimensionality of most of us. And it makes those characters more ‘fleshed out.’ You make a solid point about cosy mysteries, too. I’d guess there are certainly some cases where the sleuth has to apply a code, but perhaps that’s not as much the focus of a cosy? You’re right, too, about modern crime fiction protagonists. They certainly come in all shapes and sizes now, and that diversity includes their codes.

  11. Two authors here that I haven’t tried and want to. Littlefield and McIlvanney. And I have some of their books on my shelves or on my husbands, so I hope I can get to them soon.

    • I hope you’ll get the chance to try Littlefield and McIlvanney, Tracy. I think both have talent. They’ve written very, very different kinds of books, but both are worth reading, in my opinion.

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