In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot works with Chef Inspector Jap to solve three murders that turn out to be related. At one point, he says this to one of the characters:
‘‘…I am sorry…for the things which I shall have to do so soon.’’
Here, Poirot is referring to the fact that he’s going to be responsible for the arrest of the murderer, a person whom he would much prefer not to see in prison. He does what he feels he has to do (identify the killer), but he’s quite conflicted about it. And Christie fans know that this isn’t the only case where Poirot has mixed feelings about letting the law take its course.
There are other novels, too, where the sleuth is conflicted about naming the murderer. On the one hand, murder is a serious crime. On the other, it’s not always quite so simple as, ‘You killed someone. Therefore, you must go to prison.’ And sometimes, fictional sleuths feel the complexity of a case. Little wonder, then, that they have mixed emotions about certain cases.
For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes is called in when the body of Enoch Drebber is discovered. Drebber was a visitor to London, originally from the US, so he doesn’t have a circle of friends and family in London who might benefit from his death. There are some strange elements to this case, and police detective Tobias Gregson wants Holmes’ input. At first, there’s a question of whether Drebber’s secretary, Joseph Stangerson, might be the murderer. But then, Stangerson himself is murdered. Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate to find out who might have wanted to kill both men. The answer lies in the men’s past, and on the one hand, Holmes has the intellectual satisfaction that comes from knowing the truth about the case. On the other hand, though, he has sympathy for the killer. As Conan Doyle fans can tell you, this isn’t the only case in which Holmes is torn between the interests of the law, and the particular situation of the murderer and/or victim. He may be dedicated to the logical and the scientific, but that doesn’t mean he’s oblivious to the humans with whom he interacts.
Neither is Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire. He’s the sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming, and based in the small town of Durant. He knows most of the people in the area, and they know him, too. For Longmire, justice isn’t a simple concept. We see that in The Cold Dish, when he and his team investigate the murder of Cody Pritchard. There’s not a lot of evidence, but Longmire begins the work. Then, Jacob Esper is found dead. Now, Longmire starts to suspect that these two young men were killed because of their involvement in a gang-rape two years earlier. He begins to wonder whether members of the victim’s family might have decided to exact revenge (for which he, personally, wouldn’t blame them). As the investigation continues, Longmire gets closer and closer to the truth. And when he finds out who the killer really is, he’s very conflicted about it. It’s a difficult situation for him, and Johnson doesn’t gloss over that.
Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Diggers Rest Hotel introduces readers to Melbourne-based police detective Charlie Berlin. It’s 1947, and Berlin has recently returned to Melbourne from service in World War II. He’s seconded to Wodonga to help solve a series of thefts committed by a motorcycle gang. The latest theft, which took place at a railroad station, involved injury to the paymaster, so there’s a great deal of pressure to get the case solved. Then, the body of sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee is found in an alley. At first, it looks as though the motorcycle gang committed the murder. But Berlin soon learns that that group had nothing to do with the killing. Now, he has to deal with two separate cases. When he gets to the truth about them, Berlin finds himself very conflicted. I don’t want to say more, for fear of spoilers, but the Berlin really is torn by what he finds.
So is RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg, whom we meet in L.R. Wright’s The Suspect. As that novel begins, eighty-year-old George Wilcox has just murdered eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. He leaves the scene of the crime, then returns to his home. Later, he goes back to Burke’s house and calls the police to report the murder. Alberg begins the investigation by trying to trace the victim’s last day. At first, there’s talk that an itinerant fish salesman who visits the various homes in the area might be responsible. But that doesn’t seem likely. The only other viable suspect – and the one who interests Alberg – is Wilcox. But there doesn’t seem to be any motive. Alberg learns that the two men have known each other for a long time. They didn’t like each other, but that’s not a motive for a murder. Little by little, Alberg gets to the truth. And when he does, he’s very conflicted about what to do.
And that’s the thing. Sleuths are human. They know that situations are often not ‘black and white’ when it comes to who kills, and why someone might take a life. And yet, they also know that murder laws are there for a reason. That means that they are sometimes conflicted about a case. And that tension can add a great deal to a character and to a plot.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rolling Stones’ Mixed Emotions.