There 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.