What Took You So Long?*

If you watch enough crime-fictional television and films, you might get the impression that crimes can be solved, and investigations finished, in a very short time. And, of course, there are some cases where that happens. Much of the time, though, investigations take more time – sometimes a great deal more time – in real life than they do on television and in films.

So, what takes the police so long to solve a murder? Most police detectives are dedicated to their work, and they want crimes solved. So, in the vast majority of cases, it’s not because the police either don’t care or are incompetent. And detectives know that the first 24-48 hours after a crime like murder is reported are critical, so there’s a lot of pressure to get answers quickly. There are any number of reasons that pressure doesn’t always yield an answer, and crime fiction covers many of them. Space only permits a few here, but you’ll get the idea.

Sometimes, there are questions the police don’t think to ask, and directions they don’t think to take. For instance, in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes), Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck and his assistant, Hafez al-Assad, re-investigate the five-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynggaard. At the time, the theory was that she had gone overboard in a tragic ferry accident. There was no reason to believe otherwise, and no evidence from the ferry that anything else happened. So, the police didn’t carefully follow up. But now, there are little pieces of evidence to suggest that she may still be alive. If that’s the case, then there may not be much time left to find her. In one scene in the novel, Mørck gets very angry at the detective who first investigated, and it’s understandable why he does. But at the same time, the police have limited resources. They can’t look into every single possibility and use all personnel to do so. That scene reflects the delicate balance between following up on leads with due diligence, and acknowledging the reality of limited time and staff.

There’s a similar sort of dilemma in Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine. When financial advisor Dennis Brinkley is killed in his home, it looks very much like a tragic accident. The victim’s body was found by one of the medieval war machines he collected, and it seems that the machine malfunctioned. But Brinkley’s friend, Benny Frayle, doesn’t think so. She goes to visit Inspector Tom Barnaby to ask him to look into the matter again. He duly goes through the reports from the investigating officers, and does a bit of follow-up, but everything shows that they were careful and painstaking, and did their jobs effectively. So, he sees no reason to invest resources to go over the case again. Then, there’s another death. This time, the victim is a self-styled medium who actually described things about the murder scene that she couldn’t have known beforehand. Now, Barnaby sees that there’s more to Brinkman’s death than it seems, and he does re-open that case. It turns out that these two murders are just as closely linked as they seem.

When the police investigate a murder, they often have to rely on experts such as medical examiners and forensics teams. Those people (unlike what’s on the television), almost always have plenty of cases on their hands. So, there is sometimes a delay in getting results. Fans of Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series, for instance, know that Brunetti relies on the expertise of medical examiner Dr. Ettore Rizzardi. And his trust is not misplaced. But Rizzardi’s a busy person. He doesn’t just deal with Brunetti’s cases. There are plenty of deaths that aren’t necessarily murders, but that Rizzardi needs to look into as part of his work. And it’s interesting to see how the two men have to find a balance between Bunetti’s desire for quick answers, and the realities of Rizzardi’s work.

There’s also the fact that smaller and less affluent police departments may not have access to a state-of-the-art forensics laboratory. That means samples need to be sent out, tested, and so on. And that process can take weeks or more. There’s an interesting look at how that can work in P.D. James’ Death of an Expert Witness. That novel’s focus is Hoggett’s Laboratory, in East Anglia. The lab provides forensics and other specialty testing in cases of un-natural death. So, when there is a murder, both the police and defending counsel rely on the lab. It’s a busy, high-stress work environment. For one thing, there are a lot of cases, and results are expected quickly. For another, evidence has to be handled in very specific ways. Tests can take days or longer, depending on how busy the lab is and what the tests are. Commander Adam Dalgleish and Detective Inspector (DI) John Massingham explore the inner workings of the lab when Dr. Edwin Lorrimer, one of the senior staff, is murdered. Admittedly, this novel was first published in 1977. Testing, technology, and much more have changed dramatically since then. But there’s still forensic testing, it still takes time, and it’s still conducted at busy labs that can’t devote themselves to one case at a time.

There are also plenty of cases where there’s not much evidence. So, it’s hard to find clear clues that point to the killer. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders. A series of murders keeps Hercule Poirot, Chief Inspector Japp, and several local police departments busy for an entire summer. They don’t catch the killer after the first murder, or the second, or the third. And it’s not because there’s not a team trying to solve the case. But, the killer is very careful. There aren’t fingerprints, and the only clue left at each scene is an ABC railway guide – the kind you can buy in hundreds of places. So, there’s no way to trace them. The other clue – cryptic warnings sent to Poirot – isn’t helpful at first, either. The paper isn’t remarkable, there aren’t unique stamps, and the writer typed the notes, so there’s no handwriting clue. It’s a difficult case, and even though Poirot solves it, it’s not hard to see why it takes so long.

And that’s the thing. Police cases can take a lot longer than people want them to take. The police don’t generally like that any more than other people do. Admittedly, it’s not easy to acknowledge those very realistic delays in a crime novel, and still keep it interesting. But it’s a fact of police life.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Phil Collins’ I Missed Again.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Donna Leon, Jussi Adler-Olsen, P.D. James

14 responses to “What Took You So Long?*

  1. It became quite a feature of contemporary crime fiction that those investigating the murder had to constantly justify to their superiors why they hadn’t solved the case – even more hazardous when the media start pointing fingers. I love that you included The ABC Murders from an earlier time which unusually showed that while the police are scratching their heads more lives may be lost…

    • Thanks, Cleo. I’m glad you enjoyed that reference to The ABC Murders. it is interesting how many contemporary crime writers focus on that pressure the police sometimes get from their superiors to get answers. Of course, those superiors want to look good to their bosses and the media, but still… I hadn’t thought deeply about that before, but you’re right. I need to do a post on that some time – thanks for the inspiration!

  2. Even in TV series i prefer those murder investigations that take the whole season to solve.
    I watched quite a lot of true crime shows, and some cases did indeed took years to solve.
    It’s quite fascinating. I like the books you mentioned!

    • Thank you, Norrie. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. You’re right that those shows that focus on one investigation for an entire season (or mini-series, etc..) are fascinating – and more realistic. I’m thinking, for instance, of The Killing. I hadn’t thought about true crime shows when I was putting this post together, but you have a strong point. Thanks for adding that perspective.

  3. That’s the fun part about writing a novel, or for a TV show, where you have a limited number of pages, and or a set time-slot to solve a case. Unlike in real life where we all know, everything takes what feels like, forever.

    With TV and novels, the author has to find the balance between what’s believable and writing a credible story, within their own constraints of the medium, and what a reader/viewer expects by the end: results and a conclusion.

    Another intriguing look at reality verses what we read, Margot.

    • Thanks, Alex. You make a well-taken point about that balance an author has to strike. Most readers don’t want to stay with a novel that takes as long to read as some real-life murders take to solve. And yet, not acknowledging that fact may make a book less realistic. Some authors face this challenge by mentioning in chapters that it’s ‘a year later,’ or ‘two months later,’ etc.. I think that’s one way to approach it that can work.

  4. On the whole I prefer the approach in fiction that concentrates everything down to a short space of time even if it’s not altogether realistic. But then I’m not a major stickler for realism in crime fiction – I want credibility, yes, but that’s a different thing. Sometimes I feel books can get bogged down in showing the painstaking work that is involved in a real investigation at the expense of keeping the plot moving.

    • You’ve got a well-taken point, FictionFan. ‘Credible’ doesn’t always have to mean completely realistic. And there is always the risk, as you say, that a story gets bogged down in too many details. The major question, I think, needs to be: does something serve the plot? If it does, well and good. If not, I think there are ways for the author to acknowledge the reality of how long DNA tests take, for instance, without going through each bit of the process.

  5. Col

    I’ve not read many books where the investigation is prolonged over months and months really. A bit like TV shows or films, most seem to be done and dusted in a condensed time frame.

    • I think a lot of books do it that way, Col. It tends to make for a more engaging plot and a book of reasonable length. It may not always be exactly realistic to do it that way, but it often makes for a tighter, more absorbing, plot.

  6. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this interesting post from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog with a discussion on the length of time taken by crime investigations

  7. I particularly enjoy crime novels where the detective or sleuth investigates a old case, looking for new evidence, re-interviewing the witnesses. I think it happens a lot more often in books than in real life, but that doesn’t affect my enjoyment!

    • I like that plot point an awful lot, too, Moira. There’s something about it that draws me in. In fact, one TV show that I always used to watch and enjoy was a US show called Cold Case. It was set in Philadelphia, and featured a team of sleuths who would re-open cold cases. I was really drawn into that show.

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