Too Close For Comfort*

Too CLose For ComfortPolice 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.


Filed under Colin Dexter, Jean-Claude Izzo, John Hart, Reginald Hill, Seán Haldane, Swati Kaushal, Wendy James

36 responses to “Too Close For Comfort*

  1. So very interesting Margot and food for thought when writing a relationship into a story. Morse was forever with his eye on the ladies. Dalziel too, and even if they seemed to be too close and involved at times, they always managed to draw back in time to save their reputations and objectivity. Even if both had had a good bashing first. It makes them both very human.

    • Thanks, Jane. And you’re right about Dalziel and Morse. On the one hand, they certainly do enjoy the company of ladies, even those involved in whatever crime they’re investigating. On the other, each knows the risks of getting too closely involved in a case. And they manage to avoid going too far over the line. As you say, it adds interest to their characters, and makes them more human.

  2. Interesting post, Margot. I could see it being easy for an investigating officer to get too involved in a case if a child is involved. That would be hard not to pull on your heart strings and draw you in. Like Jane said, definitely food for thought.

    Thoughts in Progress
    and MC Book Tours

    • Thanks, Mason. And you’re absolutely right about the involvement of a child in a case. I think that element would draw any police detective into a case very deeply, and that has risks. Still, I can’t imagine not risking getting that involved.

  3. This is always a great theme because it helps humanise detectives what can sometimes seem too idealised – the recent novel POST MORTEM by Kate London is really good on this.

  4. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    Can a detective get too close to a case? Mystery writer/blogger Margot Kinberg says . . .

  5. This post reminds me of a real case that just happened. A female undercover officer fell in love with the drug dealer her team was investigating. She tipped him off and blew months of investigation. When the department put her on leave pending an investigation, she quit. They are now pursuing criminal charges against her.

  6. Tim

    This might not be the same thing, but Poirot’s personal feelings and professional ethics come into conflict in _The Murder on the Orient Express_. Sometimes being a professional sleuth can be damned hard, especially when the definition of justice complicates everything.

  7. A.M. Pietroschek

    Reblogged this on Bum's Landing Memorial – Andrè Michael Pietroschek at and commented:
    Suits the mood which made me write ‘Lone Star Shining’.

  8. Always interesting to see a police detective trying to maintain a professional distance but finding him/herself getting personally involved. Both Morse and Dalziel are serial offenders, though usually professional enough to stop it getting in the way of justice. Recently I read Douglas Skelton’s excellent ‘Open Wounds’, one strand of which is about an undercover cop who begins to develop personal feelings for the gang member she’s investigating. It’s not the main plot line, but it’s handled believably and adds interest. And in Belinda Bauer’s ‘The Shut Eye’ DCI Marvel feels a personal connection to a missing child, bringing him into conflict with his superiors when they decide it’s time to stop actively investigating the case.

    • I agree, FictionFan: Morse and Dalziel manage to keep themselves just this side of professional, even when they do feel themselves starting to care, and it’s interesting to see how they do it. To me, anyway, that takes some finesse on the part of the author. Thanks, too, for reminding me of Open Wounds. I have that one on my wish list, and am looking forward to reading it (just don’t tell my TBR, will you? There’s an angel). As for The Shut Eye, I think that’s one of Bauer’s really nicely done novels, and your point about Marvel adds to it.

  9. Margot: I think Armand Gamache (Louise Penny) is on the fine line of “too close” in almost every mystery as he settles in at the B & B and shares meals at the bistro and visits with the residents of Three Pines who are sometimes suspects in his investigations. Over two books one resident was first convicted of and then cleared of murder.

    • You have a very good point, Bill. Gamache does develop relationships with the residents of Three Pines, and sometimes he does get to that fine line of ‘too close.’ We see that in a few instances, and the example you bring up shows it clearly.

  10. kathyd

    It seems to me I’ve read a lot of books where the police get too close to the suspects or victims in an investigation or are too personally involved to the point that it affects their lives.
    In Eva Dolan’s Twice-Told Tales, a police officer gets too involved with a suspect. In Kati Heikkapelto’s The Hummingbird and The Defenseless, the detectives get very close to young people, one a victim, the other a witness.
    Peter May’s excellent Lewis Trilogy has Finley MacLeod very involved with suspects because he’s known them for years.
    And Salvo Montalbano has been known to get too close to women suspects and witnesses. He can’t help himself. He gets infatuated easily. But when the time comes to arrest them, he does it.
    And so does Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon.

    • You’re right, Kathy, that plenty of fictional detectives get too close to cases. And it’s always interesting to see how they manage those feelings. You’ve given some excellent examples, too, of different sorts of detectives who are faced with that dilemma. You’ve filled in some important gaps, so thanks.

  11. If you were watching “The Night Of” recently, you’d see a good case of this. The young female attorney gets sucked into a strange sort of sexual relationship with the kid who’s incarcerated and on trial for murdering a girl he picked up in his cab. The attorney is shown kissing him in his cell, and even gets sucked into smuggling drugs for him in her crotch!
    She, of course, gets fired, and probably disbarred!
    But that’s too close for comfort, in any case!

  12. Margot, I must check out Swati Kaushal’s fiction. Thanks for introducing me to yet another Indian author — the irony of it! In many ways police detectives are like doctors, always hesitant, always afraid, to get too close or familiar with people and their cases. And yet, that’s often the assurance that people need from both professionals, that we’re here for you.

    • I do hope you’ll enjoy Swati Kaushal’s work if you get the chance to read it, Prashant. She really is quite talented, and her stories have (well, at least for me, a real sense of authenticity). And you’re right about that sort of conflict professionals sometimes have. On the one hand, as you say, they can’t get too close for a lot of good reasons. On the other, sometimes people do need that closeness. Or, at least, they need to feel that their situations matter.

  13. You have two of my favourites here Margot; Morse and Dalziel and I have a copy of Lost Girls on my TBR which I must read – it sounds like a good one!

    • Dalziel and Morse are great characters, aren’t they, Cleo? And I am glad you have a copy of The Lost Girls. I think it’s really well-written, and that you’ll enjoy it.

  14. I think it makes for a good plotline, but most of those fictional cops should be fired for unprofessional behaviour!

    • I know exactly what you mean, Moira! And I think that difference between a good plot line and real life means that the author has to create such a story very carefully.

  15. Col

    A few there I need to get to – Izzo and Reginald Hill for starters!

  16. I don’t like it when policemen get personally involved in a case or continue to work a case where they have a personal connection, but they happen (in fiction at least) a lot. I read several books by Batya Gur that I liked a lot, but one I disliked because the detective, Michael Ohayon, stayed on a case that he was very involved in. It was definitely unprofessional behavior.

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