I Bet You Set Me Up to Fall*

You’d think that someone who hired a PI or got the police involved in an investigation would want the mystery solved. But that’s not always the case – at least not fictionally. There are plenty of novels and stories in which a PI is hired either by the killer, or by someone who actively wants the PI to fail. There are others in which a police detective is assigned to a case with the hope/expectation that it won’t be solved.

Sometimes this happens because the guilty person wants to keep tabs on the investigation, or hopes to sabotage it by manipulating the sleuth. Sometimes it’s because a police ‘rubber stamp’ is needed to cover up corruption or worse. There are other reasons, too.

Whatever the motivation, it’s tricky to pull such a story off, because it can stretch credibility. But if it’s done carefully, such a plot point can be suspenseful as well as intriguing. And, for readers who like to ‘match wits’ against the author, it can provide a very engaging ‘match.’

A few of Agatha Christie’s novels and stories include this plot point. I won’t give titles, or even sleuths, in order to avoid spoilers. Suffice it to say that, just because a person asks one of her sleuths to solve a case, or wants a name cleared, doesn’t mean that person really wants that to happen. Sometimes the very person who does the hiring (or requesting) is the guilty one.

As Nicholas Blake, Cecil Day-Lewis wrote a long-running (1935-1968) crime fiction series featuring a poet, Nigel Strangeways, who is also a PI. Strangeways is a reflective sort of person, who considers many different possibilities when he’s on the case. And that’s a good thing, because he’s learned not to trust everyone who asks him to get involved in an investigation. Again, I won’t get more detailed because of spoilers. But Strangeways has learned the value of suspecting everyone.

One of the interesting sorts of crime plots happens when a police detective is, if you will, set up to fail – or at least to help convict the wrong person. In Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, for instance, we are introduced to New York homicide detective Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley. In the futuristic New York where he lives, the population is basically divided between Spacers and Earthmen. Spacers are the descendants of humans who explored space and then returned. They’ve embraced the idea of space travel. Earthmen, on the other hand, are the descendants of humans who remained behind, and who believe that humans will survive best if they remain on Earth. Among the many differences between the two groups is that Spacer society includes positronic robots. Earthmen hate and fear them. When noted Spacer scientist Dr. Roj Nemennuh Sarton is murdered, it’s believed that an Earthman was responsible. In order to make the investigation as balanced and transparent as possible, Baley (who is an Earthman) is assigned to investigate. He’s given a Spacer partner, R. Daneel Olivaw, who is a positronic robot. Together, the two begin to look into the matter. They find out who killed Sarton and why, but readers also learn that someone far up on the police ‘food chain’ didn’t want them to find out the truth…

That also happens in Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine. In that novel, Shanghai Inspector Chen Cao and his assistant, Detective Yu Guangming, investigate the murder of a young woman named Guan Hongying. The victim was a national model worker, and for that reason, somewhat of a celebrity. That’s reason enough to be very careful about investigating her murder. It complicates matters that she moved in some high Party circles, too, so some important people could be involved in her death. Chen and Yu begin to trace the victim’s last days and weeks, and it soon comes out that she took a taxi ride not long before she was killed. Now that the taxi driver is a possible suspect, Party officials want the investigation stopped. So, the message comes down that the taxi driver is the killer, and that’s what needs to be on the report. Chen and Yu aren’t convinced, though, and continue looking for the truth. But some very important people do their best to ensure that this case isn’t going to be really solved. On the surface, it seems that the police brass and government are endorsing the investigation. But underneath, the exact opposite is happening.

William Ryan’s Captain Alexei Korolev of the Moscow CID faces a related situation in The Twelfth Department, which takes place just before World War II. In that novel, Korolev and his assistant, Sergeant Nadezdha Slivka, are assigned to investigate the murder of noted scientist Boris Azarov. The two sleuths follow the leads and settle on a suspect. Then, that suspect is murdered. Now, they have to start again. This case is especially delicate because Azarov was working on a top-secret government project, and the NKVD has an interest in it. Another possible suspect in both murders comes to light, and Korolev and Slivka are more or less instructed to identify that suspect as the guilty party and consider the case closed. But both of them believe that person’s been set up. Together, they decide to keep investigating, and it’s soon clear that some very important people do not want the truth about this case to come out. At the same time as Korolev and Slivka have been assigned to the case, they’re also being hampered.

Fictional characters can have several reasons for hiring a PI even if they’re the killers. Fictional police detectives can be assigned to cases by the very people who have the most to lose if they’re solved. That plot point isn’t easy to do well. But in deft hands, it can be very suspenseful.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Rasmus’ Dangerous Kind.

15 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Cecil Day-Lewis, Isaac Asimov, Nicholas Blake, Qiu Xiaolong, William Ryan

15 responses to “I Bet You Set Me Up to Fall*

  1. I can think of at least one of the Agatha Christie novels you mention and even when I first read it I thought how easily that could go wrong for the author (and of course the perpetrator) I hadn’t realised quite how widespread the use was though until I read your blog as I can’t think of another example off the top of my head.

    • Oh, it really could go wrong, Cleo. And that’s why I have so much respect for authors such as Christie who do it well. And, yes, it could easily go all wrong for the perpetrator, too. After all, what if the detective finds out s/he’s being manipulated?

  2. You’re right, Margo – it’s a plot point that has been used by some of the best writers. In addition to Christie, I can think of some by Elizabeth Daly, by Rex Stout, by Dashiell Hammett to name just a few (without getting into spoiler territory). In the right hands, it can be tremendously effective.

    • I think so, too, Les. And it’s interesting how some of the big names in classic/GA crime fiction (such as the ones you mention here) have played with that one. It can be a bit tricky to pull off, but it can work quite well.

  3. Amazing. Would of never suspected the person who hired the PI. Very slick indeed.

  4. mudpuddle

    i got a thrill from the mention of Daneel Olivaw… those early Asimov novels really got me into reading… sixty some years ago… many tx…

  5. Col

    is till haven’t got to my William Ryan books, heavy sigh…

  6. I have got to get to that series by William Ryan also, Margot. My husband gave me his copies of the first two in the series a while back and I still have not tried them.

    • Highly recommended, Tracy. I think Ryan does a very effective job of evoking the times, the atmosphere, the whole thing. If you do get to them, I hope you’ll enjoy them.

  7. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 09-14-2017 | The Author Chronicles

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