We all have to deal with irritants in our jobs. They take time away from what we’d really like to be doing (or should be doing), and they can be time-consuming. Even when they’re not, they can certainly be frustrating. But they are part of the job, and as the saying goes, they come with the territory.
There are plenty of these irritants in crime fiction, and they can serve some useful purposes. They can add to character development, context, and sometimes, even the plot. Like anything else, they’re best used in moderation, so as not to distract from the plot. But when handled deftly, they can add to a story.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), we are introduced to Dr. John Christow, a successful Harley Street specialist. As the story begins, he’s finishing up his last bit of work for the week before taking a weekend trip to the country home of some friends, Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. It’s not that he doesn’t want to help people who are genuinely ill, but he’s tired, a bit fed up, and eager to get on with the weekend:
‘It took him a quarter of an hour to deal with Mrs. Forrester. Once again it was easy money. Once again he listened, asked questions, reassured, sympathized, infused something of his own healing energy. Once more he wrote out a prescription for an expensive proprietary.’
His patient leaves, satisfied that all will be well. But she’s only been an irritant to Christow, who is eager to get away. I can say without spoiling the story that this particular annoying patient isn’t the reason for Christow’s murder two days later. But it does give a glimpse of his perspective on his patients.
Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring features academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn. The main plot of the novel concerns the murder of a colleague, Reed Gallagher. Kilbourn gets involved in the investigation from the beginning, since she knows Gallagher’s widow. At the same time, she is concerned about a student, Kellee Savage, who is emotionally fragile to begin with, and who’s been making accusations against another student. Then, Kellee disappears. Kilbourn learns that she was last seen in a bar, and asks several of the students about what happened. It turns out Kellee made a recording of what was said there, and that one of Kilbourn’s students expressed some vehement opinions:
‘‘If I’d known Kilbourn was such a bitch about not letting people express their own opinions, I wouldn’t have taken her…course. You know what she gave me on my last paper? Fifty-eight percent! Just because I didn’t use secondary sources! I showed that paper to my boyfriend and a lot of other people. Everybody says I should’ve got an A.’’
Anyone who’s had a student like this will be familiar with the sort of trouble and annoyance such a person can create.
Kathryn Fox’s Anya Crichton is a New South Wales-based pathologist and forensic physician. When we first meet her in Malicious Intent, she works with her friend, DS Kate Farrer, to link a series of deaths. All of the victims turn out to have had traces of asbestos in their lungs; so, besides finding out the truth about the deaths, Crichton also sees the urgent need to track down the source of asbestos. In the meantime, she has to get on with the rest of her life. And part of what she does is give university lectures and work with students. Here’s a scene from one of her lectures:
‘Put the word ‘forensic’ in a lecture’s title and it pretty much guaranteed a full house. Anya introduced the day’s topic and a croaky voice from the back row interrupted.
‘Excuse me, but will this be in the exams?’
The most predictable question had taken all but thirty seconds to be asked.’
Again, anyone who’s ever worked with students will be familiar with this sort of person…
Police, of course, have their nuisances, too. There are plenty of people who will claim to see things they haven’t seen, or confess to crimes they didn’t commit, for any number of reasons. There are also those who take up police time with what most people would call trivial things that aren’t really the business of the police. There are other annoyances, too. Of course, the police have to follow up on these leads, because one of them could be valuable. And it’s not good for the police’s public image to be seen as ignoring citizens. It’s a difficult balance to strike.
We see a bit of this in Andrea Camilleri’s Wings of the Sphinx. The central plot of the novel concerns a young woman whose body is found near a landfill not far from Vigàta. It’s a complicated case, and Inspector Salvo Montalbano is trying to focus his energies on solving it. But in the meantime, he’s been assigned another case. Wealthy businessman Arturo Picarella has disappeared in what his wife, Ciccina, says was an abduction. At first, that’s what the case looked like, and Montalbano and his team took it seriously. But it turns out to have been quite different. The only problem is that Signora Picarella, who carries weight with the Commissioner, won’t let the matter rest, and creates a fair amount of annoyance for Montalbano.
Among other things they do to solve cases, the police often have to give press briefings. The members of the top brass use them for their own political purposes, and journalists use them to do their jobs. Sometimes those public updates and calls for information can be extremely useful. We all know stories of people who’ve contacted police with vital information after they saw a news story. And the police know that avoiding the press can create more problems than it solves. But for a lot of police investigators, dealing with press briefings is a real nuisance. Briefings take up their time, are often fraught with politics, and tend to result in a lot of extra ‘sightings of criminals’ and strong public sentiment. All of those can complicate police work. Still, they’re a necessary part of solving a major crime. We see this in a lot of crime fiction. I’m thinking, for instance, of several of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander stories, and of Jørn Lier Horst’s William Wisting novels. In both series (and lots of others, too numerous to mention), there are plenty of scenes where the investigator has to make time for press briefings. Neither Wallander nor Wisting really likes them. But each knows it comes with the job.
And that’s the thing about those irritations. They’re part of the job, and they come with the proverbial territory. We may not like them, but they can add a layer of realism to a crime novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Masketta Man’s Flying Good.