But I Simply Cannot Do it Alone*

Working With OthersThere are many skills that are important to doing well in any career. It’s important to know how to do the job, of course, but it goes beyond that. People also need a constellation of social and personal skills and dispositions (like truthfulness, consistency and conscientiousness). One of the most important of these is the ability to work with others. In fact, not working well with others is often cited among the top reasons employees are terminated, not promoted, or not hired in the first place.

It’s easy to understand why being able to work with others is so important. Nobody has all of the answers or all of the information needed to solve a problem. We depend on each other. And in real life, when it comes to solving crimes, it’s even more important. Police officers’ lives may quite literally depend on being able to work with their partners and with others on the force.

Not everyone is good at working with others, though. Although it’s certainly a skill that can be learned or improved, it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. And it’s interesting to see what happens in crime fiction when someone isn’t good at working with others.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of a retired business magnate. Since Ackroyd was murdered in his home, the various members of the household come under their share of suspicion. One of those members is the parlourmaid, Ursula Bourne. She does her job well, but she’s not friends with others, and doesn’t join in. In fact, one character calls it ‘unnatural’ that she doesn’t seem to have any desire to be a part of the group. And another character considers her ‘odd;’ she’s respectful on the surface, but doesn’t have the same response to authority as the other staff members do. That doesn’t, of course, mean that she’s the killer in this case. But it does show that not working well with others raises proverbial ‘red flags.’

Any fan of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus novels can tell you that Rebus has his challenges when it comes to working with others, especially authority figures. He certainly doesn’t ‘go along to get along,’ particularly if he thinks that what’s being done is wrong. And that gets him in big trouble in Resurrection Men. Rebus and his team are working on the case of Edward Marber, a murdered Edinburgh art dealer. The investigation isn’t going particularly well, and everyone’s nerves are frayed. One morning, DCS Gill Templer holds a meeting about the case, which Rebus attends. He’s fed up with the idea of yet another round of interviews, telephone calls and the like, which he sees as a useless waste of time. He mutters something under his breath, but Templer hears it. Their confrontation escalates until Rebus throws a mug of cold tea. That’s enough to get him assigned to Tulliallan Police College for last-chance training with other police officers who also have trouble working with others. They’re given a cold case to investigate, the idea being that they’ll learn to work as a team. But that doesn’t stop Rebus’ interest in the Marber case.

In Louise Penny’s Still Life, the first of her Armand Gamache novels, the Sûreté du Québec investigates the murder of former schoolteacher Jane Neal. The newest member of the investigation team is Yvette Nichol, and she is determined to prove herself. The problem is, though, that she’s not good at working with others. Right from the start, she is unwilling to listen and learn. She does things her own way, regardless of what others think. On the one hand, she is intelligent, and her ideas are not all wrong. On the other, she is immature as a detective, and has an awful lot to learn. Her ‘rookie mistakes’ cost the team more than once. At one point, Gamache’s second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, talks to his boss about how much trouble Nichol is causing. In response, Gamache tries to talk to her, to help her see how important it is to work with the team, to listen and learn from more experienced detectives, and to do as she’s asked without arrogance. It doesn’t work. In fact, Nichol blames Gamache for her failures, and the team for her difficulties working with them. It all ends up with her being removed from the investigation, and that has its own consequences. And in this novel, we also see that not working well with others is sometimes as hard on the person who can’t work as a team member as it is on the rest of the team.

Kate Ellis’ The Merchant’s House introduces DS (later DI) Wesley Peterson. He and his wife Pam have recently moved from London to Tradmouth, so he can take up his duties with the local CID. He and his team, led by DI Gerry Heffernan, are soon faced with the puzzling case of a young woman whose body is discovered at Little Tradmouth Head. Even more disturbing is the disappearance of young Jonathon Berrisford from the yard of the cottage where he and his mother Elaine are staying. As the team begins its work, Peterson learns a bit about why there was an open position in the Tradmouth CID. His predecessor was DS Harry Marchbank, who’d also come from London. It seems Marchbank was difficult to work with, and frankly, a racist. Here’s what one colleague says:
‘‘There was always an atmosphere. If Harry hadn’t got out when he did, I reckon Heffernan would’ve got him transferred.’’

Peterson is certainly not perfect. But he does work well with the team, and soon learns to fit in.

And then there’s Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Carl Mørck, whom we meet first in Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes). Mørck isn’t exactly easy to work with under the best of circumstances, and these are hardly good circumstances. He’s recovering physically and mentally from a line-of-duty shooting situation in which one colleague was murdered and another left with paralysis. When he returns to the job, Mørck is so impossible to work with that complaints are made to his boss, Marcus Jacobsen. At first, Jacobsen wants to give Mørck a little more time. But there’s a lot of pressure on him to do something. Then, he comes up with what he thinks will be the perfect solution. The Danish government and the media have been pressuring the police to solve certain crimes that have ‘gone cold.’ So Jacobsen puts Mørck in charge of a new department – ‘Department Q’ – that will focus solely on such crimes. The new department is only there to serve political purposes, so in actual terms, it doesn’t exist. But Mørck and his assistant Hafez al-Assad (who’s actually been hired as a custodian) get to work. Mørck is inclined not to do much, but Assad notices an interesting case – the five-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynggaard. Together, Mørck and Assad start to ask questions about the case, and slowly discover that she may not have died as everyone thought. And if she’s still alive, she may be in grave danger.

In that case, not working well with others leads to a whole new opportunity. But that’s not the way it usually happens. In general, working well with others is an essential professional skill. And there are definitely consequences for people who can’t do that.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebb’s I Can’t Do it Alone.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Kate Ellis, Louise Penny

39 responses to “But I Simply Cannot Do it Alone*

  1. Heartafire

    I love your articles…informative and entertaining. I for one, like to work alone.
    The idea of collaboration fills me with dread. Dunno why!

    • Thank you, Heartafire – that’s very kind of you 🙂 – And you’re not alone about disliking collaboration. A lot of people prefer to work alone, even if they aren’t by nature introverted. For some, working on a team comes naturally. For others, it’s a skill that has to be learned one painful step at a time.

      • Heartafire

        I collaborated a few times, I was very stressed, nearly blocked. I like to write alone. 😀

        • To me, Heartafire, writing is different to other kinds of collaboration. So I know what you mean. It’s really difficult to write something with someone else.

  2. Fan though I am of Rebus and a few others who have problems with teamwork and authority, on the whole I prefer teamplayers in fiction, especially police officers. I guess because it seems so unlikely to me that mavericks would really be tolerated in a modern police force, so my credibility is too stretched even before we get to the plot. One of the things I like about Rebus is how we saw him learn to adapt to the new-style policing over time and tone down his maverick tendencies accordingly – mostly.

    • That’s one thing I like about that series, too, FictionFan. Rebus can see which way the proverbial wind is blowing, and he knows he has to adapt. It’s part of his evolution as a character, and I think that adds to the series. And in the main, I think characters who can work on a team are more credible than those who can’t. As you say, in a real police force, teamwork can quite literally mean the difference between life and death. People who can’t work with others put everyone at risk in those situations. So the maverick really can’t be tolerated for very long.

  3. A.M. Pietroschek

    Remembering other entries of your blog I just had to wonder how ‘Adrian Monk’ would make it as a team-player.

    The topic is interesting, though I have the suspicion that a team, crime fiction-wise, has the benefit of offering readers a broader spectrum of impressions and personalities to identify or sympathize with.

    Louise Penny’s Still Life describes a phenomena I find pretty common, as the modern definition of confident, independent women may not be flawless.

  4. Janet Fearnley

    Monk (similar to Sherlock Holmes in ‘Elementary’) are Mavericks due to specific problems they have but still ‘work for the team’, with their support, to solve the case. Yvette was unable to do this, even when she tried, and, as you described Margot, was dealt with by Gamanche – I think this characters issue(s) stopped her from positively contributing by contrast Isobel becomes the new ‘chief’ upon Gamanches retirement because she is, amongst other things, a team player and understands how very important the points that you make are, Margot. As you know I am an admirer of Louise Penny’s books and her characterisation is one of the reasons – whether of the flawed or not so flawed.

    • I agree completely, Janet, about both Isobel and Yvette. You make a very interesting comparison/contrast between the two, also. In one case, you have the person who’s young and needs maturing, but is a team player. So when the time comes and she’s ready, she can take over the leadership of the team. On the other hand, you have the other, who is also young and who has things to learn, but who isn’t able to learn that important teamwork skill. We can see how that difference impacts them both, too – quite a lot. I’m really glad you brought that point up. No doubt about it, Penny does excellent characters, doesn’t she? And yes, both Monk and Sherlock Holmes have their specific issues. But they are aware that they depend on others who depend on them. So in their ways, they can still be a part of a team, if in a different way.

  5. Janet Fearnley

    Oh and I also meant to say what another excellent post, thanks Margot – always interesting and thought provoking. 😀

  6. mudpuddle

    when i was younger, the “cowboy” archetype – the strong man who, alone, faced insuperable odds – had more less permeated all american culture. i think over the years it has become attenuated to the point that partnership is now valued more than previously. a number of reasons: financial hardship, increased population, the “us and them” psychology created, i think, by the rise of gigantic corporate businesses…

    • That’s very interesting, Mudpuddle. I hadn’t thought of the ‘cowboy’ archetype as I was writing this, but I see exactly what you mean. We don’t see that sort of character so much any more, and you could very well be right that that idea of working as a team has supplanted it (or at least, as you say, attenuated it). Thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

  7. I have got to read more by Kate Ellis. I have read The Merchant’s House, but I never read anymore in the series.

  8. Margot: Defence counsel do not fit well in firms. It is rare to find a group of defence lawyers working together. O.J.’s Dream Team was an exception in real life. In both fiction and real life defence attorneys work alone. In recent crime fiction Sebastian Rudd, in Rogue Lawyer, by John Grisham is an extreme example of the lone defender.

    • That is really interesting, Bill. I hadn’t thought deeply about the legal fiction (and real-life legal cases) I know about when I was writing this post. But as I think about them now, I certainly see your point. Fictional lawyers such as Rudd, or Scott Turow’s Sandy Stern, etc… really do tend to work alone. They benefit from social skills, so they can get information they need. But you’re right, they defend their clients alone. That’s really fascinating – thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

  9. Actually, as an HR and leadership development consultant in my ‘real’ life, I have to admit I’m sometimes annoyed at the portrayal of the maverick, brilliant loner in crime fiction or films. It’s an attractive myth, perhaps an escapist one, that we like to believe that as individuals we can are indispensable or can make SO much difference. Bu the truth is so much real police work depends on teamwork, on connecting seemingly disparate dots. I think events such as those in Brussels, the increase of cross-border crime and the big drug seizures across Europe have shown that it’s no longer just a matter of being able to work in a small team, but even the ability to work with virtual and cross-cultural teams.

    Yes, it’s not always easy negotiating things in a team, and sometimes it does waste time, but on the whole the results tend to be better. And it might help if shows like ‘The Apprentice’ or police dramas or even corporations started really appreciating and rewarding teamworking skills, instead of just paying them lip service.

    Anyway, sorry about going off on one, it’s one of my favourite rants, I’ll get off my high horse now…

    • No need for apologies, Marina Sofia. You make a really important and well-taken point. In many cases, the job simply cannot be done by one person alone. And I’m glad you brought up case of Brussels, as well as issues such as cross-border crime. There you have situations where you do need teams of people, each with a different expertise and a different perspective. Without the sharing of information and without working together, you’re not going to get the results that you need. It’s not always easy to work on a team; as you say, there can be delays and frustration as the team negotiates everything. But teamwork skills are essential in just about every field.

  10. Margot, in context of the theme of this post, I think conflict of interest has an important bearing on a case, especially if one is compromised in the investigation and stands to gain (not to mention saving his skin) by a coverup. I’m thinking of a crooked policeman, as in the film “L.A. Confidential.” It adds layers of suspense to the story. In the end it also reaffirms your faith in law enforcers, because the good guys always win.

    • That’s an interesting point, Prashant – thank you. Teamwork can indeed lead to a coverup, and in fiction, that can add to the suspense. And it shows that, like everything else, teamwork isn’t perfect. And thanks for mentioning L.A. Confidential. It’s a good example of what you meant.

  11. I think the archetypal policeman who works as a lone maverick has really had his day with the importance of collaboration being ever more important and different skills used such as data analysis & tech teams etc. needed in so many crimes it has to be rare that one person could solve the crime while preserving the evidence required to take it to trial?

    • Oh, I agree, Cleo. If you think about it, prosecuting someone for a crime requires considerable evidence. One person can’t possibly collect enough of it. What’s more, people are biased by nature. So it would be hard to make a case that the prosecution found objective and incontrovertible evidence if only one person collected it. If crime fiction is to emulate real life, then it makes sense to reflect those things, I think. So yes, the ‘maverick cop who can’t work with a team’ may indeed slowly become a thing of the past.

  12. The odd-person in crime novels, especially when paired with a super-sleuth with extraordinary abilities, gives us a person with whom we can more completely identify and sympathize; the odd-person is the reader’s doppelganger at some very important levels. For example, I can relate to Dr. Watson even when I cannot measure up to Holmes.

    • That’s an interesting point, Tim, for which thanks. And one thing that good stories really need is at least one character with whom the reader can identify. As you say, a lot of people don’t necessarily feel they would be anything like Holmes. But lots of people could identify with Watson.

  13. This is such an interesting topic, Margot. On one hand, if detectives don’t work together, they’re sunk. On the other, there’s been so many loner types that I’ve loved in crime fiction. The first person that comes to mind is Jordan Dane’s FBI Agent Ryker. He’s such a deep thinker that he can’t possibly work with anyone else. He reminded me of Will from Silence of the Lambs.

    • Now, that’s an interesting comparison, Sue. And there certainly are sleuths like those two, who don’t really work at their best when they work on a team. They are fascinating characters, and I’ve met people who remind me of them. At the same time, I think it’s much more realistic to show the need for teamwork. Some protagonists may be better at it than others, but I think all of them need to learn to work on a team to at least some extent.

  14. It occurs to me that in the mythology one of the characteristics of the classic private detective, either cosy or hard-boiled, is the very inability to work with others, at least in a bureaucratic context, a variant of the the ‘cowboy’ archetype, perhaps. Thus often they have a past as working on the police force or D.A.’s office, before being dismissed.
    Myself, I like to work alone: a writer’s professional hazard – and prerogative…:-)

    • That’s the thing about writing, isn’t it, Bryan? I know there are some incredibly successful writing duos, who work well together and learn from each other and so on. But I think plenty of writers agree with you about working alone. And you make an interesting point about the classic noir PI, who doesn’t do well on a team, and who is a loner by nature. You draw an interesting analogy to the 'cowboy' myth, too. In real life, cowpokes needed (still do) to work together as a team. But the legend of the lone cowboy lives on.

  15. Did you ever read Joyce Porter’s Dover novels? They were very funny, and Inspector Dover was the most hideous character, and most definitely NOT a team player. I think he must have been the most unpopular man in town.

    • Oh, yes, the Dover mysteries!!! Hadn’t thought about them for a while, Moira, so thanks! You’re quite right, too. Dover is not a ‘team player’ by nature, and his colleagues do not like him at all. Pity for them he’s good at what he does…

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