Just try getting a passport, a bank account, a lease, or a marriage license, and you’ll find out just how much paperwork there is in modern life. Admittedly, a lot of it’s online in modern times, but it’s still official ‘hoops.’ As ‘regular’ citizens, we may find that sort of ‘red tape’ annoying, but it can be very useful for police investigators who want to get background information on a person. Telephone records, for instance, can give the police valuable information on a victim (or suspect)’s communications network. Auto loan and registration information can tell police about someone’s financial situation, as well as link up an owner with, say, a car involved in a crime.
There are plenty of other examples, too. So, it’s no surprise at all that we see a lot of this sort of paperwork in crime fiction. And it’s been going on for quite some time. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood, we are introduced to Rowley Cloade. He’s a farmer who’d doing his best to cope with the major changes in farming regulations that came about after the turn of the 20th Century. As the novel begins, he’s not exactly getting wealthy, but he’s always been told that he can count on his wealthy uncle, Gordon Cloade, for financial support. Then, unexpectedly, Gordon Cloade marries; soon afterwards, he dies in a bomb blast before he can change his will to protect his family. Now, the Cloades will have to find a way to manage without that security. Then, a stranger comes to town, who hints that Cloade’s widow was already married at the time of her wedding. If so, the Cloades get the fortune, so it’s of great interest to them. When that stranger is killed, Hercule Poirot gets involved in the investigation. In one scene, Rowley goes to see his uncle Jeremy, ostensibly for help with some of the mountain of official forms he has to cope with as a farmer. That’s not really his purpose, but it’s the reason Jeremy isn’t in a very big hurry to finish his dinner and meet with his nephew. To Jeremy’s surprise, Rowley abruptly leaves. And, as it turns out, Rowley has found out something that plays an important role in the story.
Official paperwork is an important part of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. Insurance agent Walter Huff happens to be in the Hollywood Hills, when he decides to pay a visit to one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger. He’s hoping to get an agreement for a policy renewal. Nirdlinger isn’t home, but his wife, Phyllis, is. She and Huff start talking, and find themselves attracted to each other. Before long, they are involved in a relationship. Phyllis soon tells Huff that she wants to kill her husband. In fact, she wants a policy double-indemnity set up so that she’ll inherit twice the value of her husband’s life insurance in case of an accident. That involves paperwork that she can’t do, but by this time, Huff is so besotted with her that he agrees to go along with her plan. In fact, he’s the one who draws up the new policy, and participates in Nirdlinger’s murder. Huff thinks this’ll be the worst thing he has to deal with, but, as it turns out, that’s only the beginning of his troubles…
Paperwork is also critical in Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke, which takes place in 1931 Berlin, just before the Nazi rise to power. Hannah Vogel is a crime reporter who discovers by accident that her brother Ernst has been found dead. She wants very badly to find out how and why he died. She faces several challenges, though. One is the fact that, at the moment, she has no official identity documents. She and Ernst lent theirs to some Jewish friends so they could leave Germany, and those friends haven’t yet returned the papers (which they promised to do). So, she’ll have to stay out of the way of any official, and ask her questions very quietly and carefully.
In Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, we are introduced to Lora King, a Pasadena schoolteacher. When her brother, Bill, introduces her to his new girlfriend, Alice Steele, Lora’s not at all sure she likes this woman. But, for Bill’s sake, she tries to be friendly with Alice. Despite Lora’s sense of unease, Bill and Alice marry, so now, there’s even more motivation to try to work things out with Alice. But soon, Lora begins to have doubts. For example, at one point, she agrees to help Alice get a teaching job at her school. Alice has said that she has a teaching certificate, but Lora can find no record of it. And, even in the 1950s, when this novel takes place, there was plenty of ‘red tape’ involved in getting a teaching license. This, plus other little hints, make Lora very uneasy. But, at the same time as she’s repelled by Alice’s life, she’s also drawn to it. Then, there’s a murder, and Alice could be mixed up in it. Now, Lora has to decide what she’ll do about her sister-in-law, who might very well be a killer.
Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee depends quite a lot on official paperwork. She’s a Toronto-based forensic accountant who works for a Hong Kong company run by Chow Tung, a man Lee refers to as ‘Uncle.’ This company’s specialty is recovering money – sometimes a great deal of it – for people who are desperate to get that money back. Lee is in demand, because she is very good at what she does. In the process of looking for missing money, she often uses her knowledge of the sort of paperwork involved for loans, funds transfers, international transactions, and so on. Even the most accomplished thief still usually leaves a ‘paper trail.’
And that’s why that sort of bureaucracy is important, at least in crime fiction. You may grumble about all the ‘hoops’ involved in registering your home for sale, or in making a large purchase such as a car. But it all does matter. And it can all add to a crime novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Allentown.