I Will Never Rest*

Fixations on SuspectsWhen 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Geraldine Evans, Ian Fleming, Maureen Carter, Peter James, Reginald Hill, Victor Hugo

28 responses to “I Will Never Rest*

  1. Some great examples here Margot! Hastings’ admiration of Giraud in Murder of The links is another example of Christies’ very fine wit. I’m also reminded of The Mysterious Affair at Styles too when the ex-ladies maid fixates on one particular culprit in a web of misdirection.

  2. Col

    I particularly like the friction between Jepson and Le Fanu in Stoddart’s books. You feel Le Fanu’s frustration. Looking forward to reading Maureen Carter’s book also.

    • I think that friction adds to the series, too, Col. And yes, you can really feel how frustrating it is for Le Fanu. I think you’d like the Carter, too; I hope you will.

  3. This is a slightly different perspective to the detective but in Dear Daughter by Jane Little, the media are hot on the trail of Janie Jenkins as she tries to find out what happened to her mother after she’s released from prison for murdering her, on a technicality. The thing is she can’t remember so she doesn’t know and the press believe she did it so they’re really after her. It adds a ticking clock element to the book. Very clever.

    • That’s a really good example of that kind of relentless pursuit, Rebecca. And as you say, it’s very clever, too. It shows you, too, how the media can ‘latch onto’ one person when there’s a major crime, whatever the actual truth of the crime is.

  4. When an author makes her investigator bias in a situation where it really doesn’t fit is the only time I really dislike that layer being added. When it’s added correctly it makes the situation more realistic to me.

  5. JD Robb’s character, Lt. Eve Dallas, in Visions of Death is so fixated on a suspect that she doesn’t see the person who’s responsible. Without ruining the story (even though it’s an older book) I can say she’s fixated on one investigative trail rather than the clue that’s staring her in the face.

  6. There’s another example of this kind of thing in the Dalziel and Pascoe books too – Pascoe’s fixation with Franny Roote which runs over several of the books. It becomes even more complicated for Pascoe when Franny is instrumental in saving Pete’s daughter, leaving Pete conflicted about whether he has maybe misjudged Franny in the past…

    • Oh, I’m so glad you mentioned Franny Roote, FictionFan! I almost did, but at the last minute, I didn’t include him. Very glad you filled in the blank. What I like about that dynamic is Roote’s character. He is not at all a ‘cardboard cutout.’

  7. Really interesting, Margot. For me, a classic in this genre is Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Pledge, in which the detective’s obsession with finding the murderer of a child leads him to cross a line that he really shouldn’t have crossed. It was the basis of a fine film starring Jack Nicholson and directed by Sean Penn.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Christine. I remember hearing about that film, ‘though I didn’t see it. And the story is an excellent example of exactly what I had in mind with this post.

  8. Margot, in KILLING FLOOR, the first Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child, the former military policeman becomes an instant suspect in the murders of two men in a town he was merely passing by. Realising his mistake, the homicide detective then utilises Reacher’s expertise and power of deduction to investigate the case as well as more corpses that pile up.

  9. Patti Abbott

    Interesting case of this in my son’s office where a prosecutor whose policeman father originally pursed a case fruitlessly was able to prosecute the perpetrator from 20 years earlier. Vindicating his father was a big part of it.

  10. One of Ruth Rendell’s Wexford novels, A New Lease of Death, has a similar basic,plot idea to the Dalziel book you mention: investigating whether a long-ago conviction is safe. Wexford is absolutely sure he was right…

  11. In Colin Dexter’s books, Morse is forever running off after the wrong suspect – he often gets through two or three before settling on the right one. A cynic might wonder what makes him such a great detective… 😉

  12. A little off-topic, perhaps, but I’m fond of the nemesis trope. One of my favorites is from the TV series Law & Order. The Elizabeth/Nicole character so rankles detective Goren. What I like is that the antagonism is not merely legalistic but psychological. It also shows that some arch-villain characters are so good that we (more or less) never want them to get caught because they’re so much fun to have around in a story.

    • That’s a really interesting example, too, Bryan. She’s interesting psychologically, and she’s a match for Goren. That, to me, adds to the suspense and to the layers of interest in the plot.

  13. This is an interesting topic, Margot. In John Ball’s novel, In the Heat of the Night, the racial bias in a small Southern town causes problems for Virgil Tibbs, a black policeman who just happens to be in town when there is a murder.

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