When professionals investigate a crime, they’re supposed to keep an open mind – as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot puts it, to ‘suspect everybody’ – until there’s a reason to go after one particular suspect. But that’s a whole lot easier to say than it is to do. For one thing, detectives are human. They have prejudices and biases as we all do. So it can be difficult to be objective about suspects. That’s especially true if a suspect has a history with a detective.
It doesn’t often go as far as Inspector Javert’s pursuit of Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Still, there are plenty of examples of crime novels where the sleuth fixates on one suspect or theory, for whatever reason. And this can lead the sleuth right down the proverbial garden path. Even when the sleuth happens to be right, that sort of obsession can add an interesting layer of tension to a story, and a layer of character development. There are a lot of examples of this kind of fixation in crime fiction. I’ll just mention a few of them.
In Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the murder of Paul Renauld, a Canadian émigré to France. Renauld wrote to Poirot, saying that his life was in danger and asking for Poirot’s help. But by the time Poirot and Hastings got to Renauld’s home, it was too late. Now Poirot feels that he owes it to his client and his client’s widow to find out what happened. Also investigating the case is Inspector Giraud of the Sûreté. To put it mildly, Poirot and Giraud are not compatible. Most of that is because Giraud has become fixated on one theory of the murder. And in fact, I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that he arrests the victim’s son Jack as a part of that theory. He is so obsessed with Jack Renauld that he doesn’t listen to what Poirot has to say about the matter until it’s almost too late.
In Reginald Hill’s Recalled to Life, Cissy Kohler is released from prison after serving a long sentence for the 1963 murder of Pamela Westrup. There’s a lot of not-very-flattering talk that she was innocent, and that the investigating officer, Wally Tallentire, know that. In fact, so goes the gossip, he tampered with evidence to ensure she’d be imprisoned. Tallentire has since died, but Superintendent Andy Dalziel, whom Tallantire mentored, is sure that his boss behaved appropriately. He’s just as certain that Cissy Kohler was guilty. So he re-opens the case in his own way and goes into the events again. It’s mostly to clear his mentor’s name, but he also wants to show, once and for all, that Cissy Kohler was a killer.
In Geraldine Evans’ Dead Before Morning, DI Joe Rafferty and DS Dafyd Llewellyn of the Elmhurst CID, Essex, investigate the murder of a young woman whose body is found on the grounds of the exclusive Elmhurst Sanatorium. As you can imagine, they look closely into the backgrounds and doings of the people who live and work there. So one of their ‘people of interest’ is the hospital’s owner, Dr. Anthony Melville-Briggs. Rafferty takes an instant dislike to Melville-Briggs, and it’s not hard to see why. Melville-Briggs is arrogant, insufferable, malicious, a serial adulterer and more. Nonetheless, as Llewellyn points out, there are other possibilities. When the victim is identified as a sex worker named Linda Wilks, the duo begin looking into her contacts with clients, her family, and other people she knew. But Rafferty is certain – too certain, if you ask Llewellyn – that the man they want is Melville-Briggs. That fixation plays its role in the way the investigation proceeds, and it adds an interesting layer of character.
Peter James’ Superintendent Roy Grace of the Brighton and Hove CID falls prey to the same sort of fixation in Not Dead Yet. In one plot line of that novel, Grace learns that Amis Smallbone has just been released from prison. In Grace’s opinion, Smallbone is,
‘…the nastiest and most malevolent piece of vermin he had ever dealt with.’
So he’s not too pleased to hear the news. One day, Grace’s partner Cleo Morey finds that her car has been sabotaged and a taunting sign painted on it. Grace is certain Smallbone is responsible, and wastes no time tracking the man down. When he finds him, let’s say that Grace wastes no time following up on his assumption. His certainty that Smallbone is the vandal blinds Grace to any other possibility.
And then there’s DS Bev Morriss, whom we first meet in Maureen Carter’s Working Girls. In that novel, she and her team investigate the murder of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas. It turns out that Michelle was a sex worker whose pimp was a man named Charlie Hawes. There are all kinds of stories about him, so Morriss is prepared to dislike him already. And when she finally gets the chance to meet him, she is even more certain that he is the murderer. In fact, she determines to do whatever she needs to do to get him. Her fixation on Hawes as the killer means that she’s not as open to other suspects as she might otherwise be, and it affects the investigation.
Of course, no discussion of this kind of fixation would really be complete without a mention of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus and his fixation with Morris Gerald ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty. As fans will know, Cafferty is an Edinburgh crime boss who’s been a thorn in Rebus’ side for a long time. And every chance he gets, Rebus is all too happy to go after his nemesis. It sometimes leads him in the wrong direction (no spoilers here), but it always adds a layer of tension to the novels.
Sometimes police can have that sort of fixation about one of their own. For example, in Brian Stoddart’s 1920’s-era A Madras Miasma, Superintendent Christian Le Fanu and his assistant Muhammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah investigate the murder of Jane Carstairs. One morning her body is discovered in the Buckingham Canal in Madras (now Chennai). Le Fanu and Habi get to work on the investigation, and are almost immediately hampered by Madras Commissioner of Police Arthur Jepson. Jepson dislikes and distrusts Le Fanu for several reasons, not least of which is that he thinks Le Fanu is ‘too soft’ on Indians. So he takes every opportunity to sabotage the investigation and make things difficult for Le Fanu and Habi.
Everyone has biases and strong beliefs. When they get in the way of objectivity, they can hamper, and even ruin, police investigations. Still, they can add an interesting layer of conflict to a story or series.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Stars.