One 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).