Filling Out Forms, Standing in Line*

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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Hamilton, James M. Cain, Megan Abbott, Rebecca Cantrell

23 responses to “Filling Out Forms, Standing in Line*

  1. Great timing Margot we were only discussing today about the need for certain forms to be accompanied by proof of address when nowadays many utilities are sent via email… it is almost as if life doesn’t always keep up.
    Of course the item we should all have is our birth certificate, or adoption papers which trips Jodie up in The Mistake by Wendy James when one can’t be traced for the baby which she says was privately adopted.

    • Oh, that’s such a good example, Cleo! I’m so glad you filled in that gap, as I didn’t have the space to mention it. You’re quite right, too, that something as basic as a birth certificate/adoption certificate means a great deal. It’s important in the novel (folks, do read it if you haven’t), and it’s important in life.

      It’s interesting, too, about proof of address. In many places in the US, you need that for a lot of things, even though, as you say, so much is done online.

  2. I’m looking forward to the day when we all get microchipped at birth, like pets do, and then we can just get info scanned into us as we go through life. Then I’d never have to remember all those passwords and codewords. Recently my cable TV had a problem and they demanded to know my “personal word” to prove I was who I said I was – not only did I not remember the word, I had no recollection of ever having had one! So after a bit of back and forth, they gave me another one – not totally sure what the point of all that was, really. But I’m totally sure I won’t remember it the next time, either… 😉

    • Your story reminds me of the cable company we have, FictionFan! They, too, require a password associated with the account. And that goes for even the most trivial question. In many ways, perhaps it’d be a good idea to be chipped with all of that information. But then, it’d be a bit too easy to find out things like the books we read, the Internet searches we do, and so on. And when you’re a crime writer, you go to some pretty eyebrow-raising places. Chips could be problematic… 😉

  3. Col

    The book I’m reading at the minute features someone who was placed on the Death Master File, held by the SSA. The problem was they weren’t dead! It’s nigh on impossible to undead yourself and you try living when you don’t exist.

    • Oh, that’s absolutely fascinating, Col! I’m intrigued by the premise. And, you make a really interesting point about trying to get normal things accomplished when there is no record of you. Fascinating! I’ll be interested in your review of that one when you’ve finished it.

  4. Sometimes paperwork does seem to be the root of all evil so it fits naturally with crime fiction. I couldn’t believe all the paperwork I had to go through this week just to open a simple saving account. The more modern we get, the more complex our forms get. Great post, Margot.

    • Thank you, Mason. And you’re absolutely right about paperwork. It really is so deeply woven into our modern lives. I’m glad you were able to get your account opened, but I can only imagine the paperwork involved. It’s that way no matter what sort of banking thing you want to do.

  5. Margot, thanks for highlighting James M. Cain’s “Double Indemnity” — I still have to read that one. On a related note, we stand in queues for just about everything. Not counting transport, like a bus or an autorickshaw, we can pay our way through and get our work done for most other stuff. Fortunately, a lot of services are now online, which saves time, reduces physical exertion, and lower corruption.

    • I hope you’ll enjoy Double Indemnity when you get to it, Prashant. I think it’s a classic noir story. And you have a point about doing things online when possible. It is easier on one’s time and one’s physical comfort. And, I hadn’t thought about it, but you’re right; I can see how there’d be less chance of corruption that way.

  6. Hmm, not to get political here, but compare the crux of this post with today’s controversial voter ID topic. If we have to show six of one and a half dozen of another proofs that we are who we are, why all the screaming and protests of a simple voter ID with the person’s photo and signature on it? Just wondering. 🙂

    • You’re quite right, Michael, that the question of what voters should present when they vote is political. It’s also quite controversial. It’s interesting how paperwork manages to find its way into just about everything we do.

  7. And there were we thinking that with the onset of the computer and the information super highway, paper would become obsolete (so we were led to believe) and everything would be on computers. Well, it is, but we have our stuff on paper too, which when the computer plays silly beggars, is just as well.

  8. kathy d

    But without paperwork where would a lot of our favorite thrillers have been? So many times detectives are going to City Halls to look up records, and to County Clerks’ offices to look up deeds and other documents? How often have birth certificates been central to uncovering an identity?
    And how many times have Departments of Motor Vehicles been contacted to find drivers’ licenses? And they’re crucial to so many investigations.
    Nowadays detectives, especially police, access DMV records via computer but often this information is vital.
    And then there’s Elettra Zorzi who works magic at the computers in the Venice questura to find financial information which leads to Commissario
    Guido Brunetti solving a murder?

    • You’re quite right, Kathy, about the value of paperwork and other details when it comes to police work. All sorts of records become really important when sleuths are investigating. You never know when the date of a particular transaction, or the name on someone’s birth certificate, will matter greatly in a case.

  9. kathy d

    And who is the holder of the deed? Who owns that building which houses a business or a family?
    And also medical records are important, too. And coroners’ reports.

  10. I love the idea of coming at Double Indemnity via the paperwork!
    I had a problem with my credit card company doing a security check: they said to me ‘tell us the name of the hotel you stayed in last month’. I told them that I definitely positively had not staying in, or paid money to, any hotel in the period mentioned. I was absolutely certain of that, but they told me I had failed the security check. Well, long story short, in the UK there is a chain of shops called Hotel du Chocolat, but the credit card operatives didn’t recognize the difference.
    As for what I was paying for in the Hotel du Chocolat – mmm, can’t quite remember? Vegetables or a healthy shake perhaps? Or – must have been a GIFT for others, something like that…

    • 😆 I can’t imagine what you’d have been purchasing from the Hotel du Chocolat, Moira. Must have been one of those ‘Stay Fit and Live!’ sorts of treats? And I do think it’s interesting that your credit card company had that mixup. It reminds me of the time I looked over my own record of purchases, and saw an unfamiliar company name. I called up my credit card company and it took us ten minutes of speculating before we established that it was a fuel purchase! It’s just that the company name wasn’t one of the well-known companies. Caused me a bit of consternation and then embarrassment, I can tell you.

      And thanks for the kind words!

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