But it Worked*

Unconventional SolutionsThere are some situations where conventional solutions won’t solve problems. In fact, they may do more harm than good. So, sometimes, the best solution is something that seems counterintuitive. It’s certainly true in real life, and we see those sorts of solutions in crime fiction, too.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, for example, Hercule Poirot is on the world-famous Orient Express train, en route to London. On the second night of the journey, fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is murdered. At the request of one of the train company’s directors, M. Bouc, Poirot investigates the murder. He finds out who killed Ratchett and why; but as fans of this novel will know, he doesn’t take a conventional approach to the case or its solution.

That’s also true of Dr. Duca Lamberti, whom we meet in Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus. As the story begins, Lamberti has recently been released from prison after serving time for participating in euthanasia. He is hired by wealthy Milanese engineer Pietro Auseri for an unusual task. Auseri is very concerned about his son, Davide, who’s been drinking excessively, despite having gone for treatment. The young man is extremely depressed, too, and has been for quite some time. Auseri wants Lamberti to take over Davide’s care, and help him get past his drinking and depression. Lamberti isn’t quite sure how he’ll be able to help; but, not having any other prospects at the moment, he agrees. One of the first very unconventional things he does is that he doesn’t bar Davide from drinking. Instead, he insists that the young man drink only wine. It’s an odd decision, but it works. Little by little, Davide starts to trust Lamberti, and he does cut down on his drinking. Then, the reason for his depression comes out. He believes he’s responsible for the death of Alberta Radelli, who was believed to have committed suicide a year earlier. Lamberti believes that the only way to free Davide from his personal ghosts is to look into the case himself. So, he does. And in the end, he finds quite a different explanation for Alberta’s death.

In Karin Fossum’s He Who Fears the Wolf, Oslo police detective Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skaar investigate the murder of Holldis Horn. She lived alone in a remote area, so it’s not easy to get witnesses. But the evidence suggests that a troubled and mentally ill young man named Erkki Johrma (who, by the way, has gone missing) is responsible. The case isn’t as simple as that, though, and Sejer and Skaar have to penetrate several tissues of lies and misunderstandings to get to the truth. What’s very interesting is the approach Sejer takes when they find out who really killed the victim and why. It’s not a conventional choice; but, as Sejer sees it, to do things in the usual way would cause more harm than good.

In one plot thread of Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest is faced with a difficult situation. She happens to be in the small town of Bluebush when Merv Todd, who owns the local electronics store, rushes out of his shop, complaining that someone’s stolen a valuable iPod. It doesn’t take long for Emily to discover that the thief is fifteen-year-old Danny Brambles. She’s known him and his family for a long time, and she knows that he’s not a violent or malicious person. If she takes him into custody, he faces prosecution; and a jail term will do him much more harm than good. On the other hand, she can’t simply ignore the theft. So she arranges to return the stolen iPod to the store in exchange for Danny doing some extra work for him. That solves the immediate problem, but she’s still worried about Danny, fearing that he may start to get into real trouble. She’s proven right when Danny gets arrested for murder – a murder he says he didn’t commit. Emily knows he’s right. She also has come to believe that he’s in danger. So she solves both problems in an unconventional way: she has Danny join his grandparents’ people on a trip out into the bush. It isn’t a perfect solution by any means, but Emily believes it might keep Danny safe.

There’s an interesting debate about solutions to problems in Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar. In that novel, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney is looking into the murder of her good friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse, who was killed in a police raid. The police explanation is that he was the prime suspect in the murder of his partner Nou, and posed an imminent threat to the officers who’d come to arrest him. But Keeney suspects that’s not true, and is determined to clear Didi’s name. In the process, she meets Australian Federal Police (AFP) officer Mark D’Angelo. He’s there as part of a special task force that’s investigating the child trafficking and sex trades. He and his team have tracked down some of those involved in the trade, and are preparing to make an arrest. But Keeney knows that simply arresting those particular people won’t stop the trade. In fact, in ways, it may make matters worse. So she finds her own, unconventional, way to do something about the situation. As she does so, she also clears her friend’s name.

And then there’s Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night, which introduces Delhi-based social worker Simran Singh. In this novel, she travels to her home town of Jullundar, in the state of Punjab, to help with an unusual case. Thirteen members of the wealthy and well-connected Atwal family have been poisoned, and some of them stabbed. What is more, the family home has been burned. The only person who knows what happened that night is fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal. The evidence isn’t clear whether she was victim or perpetrator that night; and since that time, she’s barely spoken. The idea is that if Simran can get the girl to talk about what happened, the police will know the facts of the case. Simran agrees and tries to work with Durga, but at first it’s not very successful. Little by little, though, Simran learns more about Durga and her family. It turns out there is much more here than a young girl who ‘snapped.’ The obvious solution – lock the young criminal up – isn’t going to solve anything here, and in fact, will probably make everything worse. So Simran comes up with another solution. It may not be conventional, but it works.

And that’s the thing about unconventional solutions to problems. They may seem unproductive, even wrong, on the surface. But sometimes, the conventional approach causes more harm than good. So, another way of solving things turns out to be more successful.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone’s Making Things Up Again. You’ll want to note carefully, if you don’t know this song, that it’s not in the least bit ‘family listening.’ Neither is the show from whence it comes. But if you listen (or perhaps, know it already), it fits.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Giorgio Scerbanenco, Karin Fossum

21 responses to “But it Worked*

  1. One of the best examples of this that comes to mind, Margot, is the problem faced by DI Napoleon Bonaparte in Arthur Upfield’s The New Shoe (a.k.a. The Clue of the New Shoe. The body of a man is discovered, shot to death, inside a lighthouse. There are no clues, but Bony is not to be defeated. He succeeds in discovering the identity of the dead man – and the more he learns, the more he realizes that a traditional solution to the mystery will not serve the ends of justice and could ruin several lives. The way in which he gets out of this predicament requires him to embrace a most unusual alternative solution – rather as Poirot does in Murder on the Orient Express. It’s one of my favorite Bony books.

    • Thanks, as ever, Les, for reminding us of that great series. Bony really does have an innovative way of dealing with such problems, and that’s a terrific example. Little wonder you like it so much, and you’ve nudged me to re-read it, for which thanks.

  2. Counting my blessings and wishing you more. Hope you enjoy the New Year in store. Have a joyous New Year, my dear friend!With love Maxima

  3. This post immediately made me think of one of my favorite novels, Bait & Switch by Larry Brooks. The lengths the protagonist went to “save” himself would never be considered conventional. Also, the note about the song title is intriguing. I’ll have to check it out.

    • The song is one from the show The Book of Mormon, Sue, and it’s probably best understood in that context. If you do look it up, I’ll be interested in what you think of it. And thanks for mentioning Bait and Switch. Now you’ve intrigued me…

  4. Margot what a great post – love Poirot’s solution and I think my willpower hat may slip a little as Witness the Night sounds very appealing!

    • Thank you, Cleo. And I know all about that willpower hat (or is it a ‘won’t power’ hat? 😉 ). I’m already noticing several books (including some on your excellent blog) that I want. About Witness the Night, it’s an excellent book. It’s dark and unsettling. But it’s a powerful story, in my opinion.

  5. Patti Abbott

    Have a wonderful New Year, Margot. Love that Fossum book.

  6. Nice post and interesting information, Margot, At least three authors you mention here I need to read, especially Adrian Hyland. Just in case I am not around on the computer tomorrow, Happy Happy New Year to you and your family. I am already ready for 2016.

  7. Speaking of unconventional methods – I love Vargas’ Adamsberg and his reliance on gut instinct or musing about the various eccentricities of his investigative team. He does sometimes seem to have a fixed idea about who the perpetrator is or how the crimes got done, but he gets there in the end.

    • Yes he does, indeed, Marina Sofia. He is hardly conventional in the ways he goes about solving crime. Neither, of course, is his team. But as you say, it’s successful in the end.

  8. Col

    Not read any of the examples in your post, though I think I have Angela Savage’s book waiting. The Hyland book also interests me.

    • Adrian Hyland is an extremely talented author, Col. I really do recommend his books, and hope you get the chance to read them. Angela Savage is also very talented, and her series is one of my tops. IF you get the opportunity, both are more than worth the time.

  9. Kathy D.

    I have read the books by Hyland, Savage and Desai. All are excellent — interesting, unusual and full of important social issues. Agree that the solutions are creative and do work.

  10. When it comes to unconventional endings and different attitudes to how justice is done I always have to mention Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes. Can’t say any more, but anyone who has read it knows what I mean…

  11. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…1/6/16 | Traci Krites

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