Police detectives are nothing if not human. And that means they have preferences, biases and so on, just like everyone else. And sometimes, that means they start getting too close to a case. They may develop relationships with the people involved, and that can cloud their judgement.
There are plenty of examples of that risk in crime fiction, but it’s not easy to do well. For one thing, real-life police know that they need to keep their distance from their investigations. Otherwise, they can’t do their jobs well. For another thing, if the ‘too-close-for-comfort’ plot isn’t done carefully, it can come across as clichéd. But there are cases where it’s done very effectively, and it can add an interesting layer of tension and character development.
In Colin Dexter’s The Daughters of Cain, for instance, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the murder of former Oxford don Felix McClure. The most likely suspect is McClure’s former scout Ted Brooks. But everything changes when he goes missing and is later found dead. As Morse and Lewis look into the case, Morse finds himself attracted to one of the ‘people of interest,’ a prostitute who calls herself Ellie Smith. It seems that McClure was one of her clients, and there are other factors, too, that link her to the crimes. Ellie seems to reciprocate Morse’s feelings, and that makes investigating the murders more of a challenge for Morse. But it also adds a layer of interest to both characters.
Reginald Hill’s Recalled to Life features a slightly different sort of closeness. Cissy Kohler has been released from prison after serving a long sentence for the 1963 murder of Pamela Westrup. There’s a great deal of gossip that she was innocent all along. Worse, the talk is that the investigating officer, Wally Tallentire, knew she was innocent and deliberately squelched that evidence. Tallentire was a mentor to Superintendent Andy Dalziel, so when Dalziel learns of these stories, he is determined to clear his mentor’s name. He feels all the more strongly about it when he learns that the whole case, including Tallentire’s conduct, is being reviewed. Dalziel isn’t one for the niceties of policy, so he re-investigates, even though the case involves an old friend.
Old friends also figure into Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos, the first of his Marseilles trilogy. Marseilles cop Fabio Montale learns that an old friend named Manu has been murdered. That fact shouldn’t be surprising, since Manu had gotten deeply involved in the criminal underworld. Still, it leaves Montale shaken. Then, another friend, Pierre ‘Ugo’ Ugolini, returns to avenge Manu’s death and is himself killed. Now Montale is determined to stay loyal to those friendships and find out who killed Manu and Ugo. He gets uncomfortably close to that case, and to another case he’s working. But he finds out the truth.
We are introduced to Swati Kaushal’s police detective Niki Marwah in Drop Dead. That novel’s focus is the murder of Rakesh ‘Rak’ Mehta, President and CEO of Indigo Books India, Ltd. He arranged a retreat for his senior staff at the luxurious Lotus Resort in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. But on the second morning of the retreat, his body is discovered in a valley not far from the resort. Marwah and her team are called in, and begin the investigation. One person who may be connected to the case is Ram Mathur, who owns a restaurant not very far from the resort. It turns out that he used to be close friends with the victim; so on the one hand, he is a ‘person of interest.’ On the other, Marwah likes him, and feels a sort of attraction to him. It’s not spoiling the story to say that she maintains her professionalism. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t feel the conflict.
Seán Haldane’s’ The Devil’s Making begins as Chad Hobbes arrives in 1868 Victoria, BC. He’s just received his degree in Jurisprudence from Oxford, and, armed with a letter of recommendation, is given a job as a constable. The work isn’t that taxing at first. But then, a group of Tsimshian Indians discovers the mutilated body of Richard McCrory. At first, the case looks quite straightforward. McCrory had been involved with Lukswaas, a Tsimshian woman whose partner Wiladzap is one of the group’s leaders. So he’s the natural choice for suspicion. Wiladzap, though, denies being the killer, and Lukswaas supports him. In order to appear to be doing their jobs, the police have to ask some perfunctory questions, and that task falls to Hobbes. But the more questions he asks, the more doubt he has that Wiladzap is guilty. And the more he learns about the Tsimshian people, and about Lukswaas, the closer he gets to the case. It becomes very risky for him, as this is the Victorian Era, a time of very different attitudes towards indigenous people.
There’s a particularly painful instance of getting too close to a case in Wendy James The Lost Girls. In 1978, fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan disappears during a summer visit to her Aunt Barbara and Uncle Doug Griffin, and their children, Mick and Jane. Not very long after the disappearance, her body is discovered with a scarf wrapped around her head. At first, the police look to the family, but nothing comes of it. They have to be very careful, too, because Doug Griffin is a copper. The theory changes a few months later when another young girl, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor, is found dead, with a scarf tied around her neck. Now the police begin to believe that a serial killer, whom the press dub the Sydney Strangler, is at work. The case is never solved, though. Years later, journalist Erin Fury is making a documentary about families that have survived the murder of one of their members. She interviews the Griffin family as a part of that project; and, slowly but surely, we learn what really happened to the two victims. One thread that runs through the story is what it’s like for a cop when a family member is the victim. On the one hand, the case is better solved with objectivity. On the other, who can blame a police officer for going all-out to find the killer of a family member?
And then there’s John Hart’s The Last Child. When twelve-year-old Alyssa Merrimon disappears, Detective Clyde Hunt does everything he possibly can to find her and catch the guilty person. But no real leads come up. Still, he keeps trying. So does Alyssa’s twin brother Johnny. A year later, another young girl goes missing. There’s a possibility that the two cases are linked, and Hunt is hoping that by putting all his resources into finding the other girl, he’ll also find out the truth about Alyssa Merrimon. Meanwhile, Johnny has his own plans for finding out what happened to his sister. Throughout the novel, real questions are raised about Hunt’s ability to be objective, and to tend to his other police duties. Those questions put him very much on the edge, and cause more than one person to doubt his ability to do the job.
And that’s the thing about getting too close to a case when you’re a police detective. Police officers are human beings, so it’s not hard to understand how they could lose their objectivity. But it is very, very risky. The same’s true of members of other professionals, such as attorneys. But that’s the stuff of another post.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jerry Bock, Larry Holofcener, and George David Weiss.