Most people see a big difference between little peccadillos and larger crimes. Certainly, the law does. Some things, like speeding, are technically illegal, but a lot of people do them with no sense of remorse. There are other little ‘sins’ like that, too. It’s not a good idea to speed too much, or to bring that stapler home from the office. But those are things people do.
Those little things can get people into difficult situations, though. Just look at some examples from crime fiction, and you’ll see what I mean. There are plenty of cases where a character starts out by doing something questionable and ends up drawn into something more.
In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, we are introduced to Edna Sweetiman. She’s not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, as the saying goes. And she’s gotten herself into a bit of a mess. She’s been meeting a married man – one whom her parents have strictly forbidden her to see. But their disapproval doesn’t stop her. One night, she’s waiting by a corner (their meeting-place) when she happens to see a woman go into a nearby house. That in itself doesn’t mean very much to Edna. But then, the news breaks that the owner of the house, Laura Upward, has been murdered. Now, Edna’s evidence could be essential. But she doesn’t want to admit to anyone, least of all her father, what she was doing. Still, as her mother says, she saw what she saw, and must report it. With a little help, Edna finally does just that. It turns out that this murder is related to an earlier one that Hercule Poirot is investigating. And, although Edna’s evidence isn’t the ‘smoking gun,’ it’s a clue worth having.
In Minette Walters’ The Breaker, brothers Paul and Daniel Spender are doing some exploring near Chapman’s Pool on the Dorset coast. They’ve – ahem – borrowed their father’s very expensive binoculars for the trip; after all, what harm could it do? As they’re using the binoculars to look around, they see the body of a woman. They end up breaking those costly binoculars, but at the moment, that doesn’t matter. They give the alarm, and, soon, Police Constable (PC) Nick Ingram takes over. It turns out that the dead woman is identified as Kate Sumner, whose husband, William, reported her missing. Ingram works with Detective Inspector (DI) John Galbraith, WPC (Woman Police Constable) Sandra Griffiths, and Superintendent Carpenter to find out who killed the victim and why. As it turns out, there are only three viable suspects: William Sumner; Stephen Harding, a sexually-obsessed actor with whom Kate flirted more than once; and, Harding’s room-mate, teacher Tony Bridges. It’s interesting to see how a small peccadillo like taking the binoculars gets the Spender boys tangled up in a murder case.
Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor knows all too well how big a little incident like a speeding violation can become. In The Guards, we learn that Taylor used to be a member of the Garda Síochána. He was assigned to set up a speed trap on a particular part of the motorway. It wasn’t a difficult job, but it was cold, and Taylor had more coffee laced with brandy than he should have had. Then he caught a speeder, and everything spiraled out of control. It turned out that the car’s passenger was a Teachta Dála (TD), a member of the lower house of the Irish Parliament. The car had government plates (thus, the assumption that the driver wouldn’t get cited). Taylor was having none of it, though, and ended up punching the TD. That incident cost him his job, and now, Taylor is an unofficial PI. A simple speed trap changed everything for Taylor.
Barbara Neely’s sleuth, Blanche White, makes her debut in Blanche on the Lam. As the novel begins, she has just been sentenced to jail time for writing bad checks. Not that writing a bad check is to be condoned, but, as White reasons, it was only two checks. And she had to do something to make ends meet. She is a professional housekeeper, so she’s not wealthy to begin with. And now that she’s more or less raising her sister’s two children, money doesn’t go far. That’s the main reason, as a matter of fact, for which White desperately wants to avoid jail. How can she take care of the children from behind bars? So, she tricks the prison matron who’s guarding her, and she makes an escape. Then, she takes a temporary housekeeping job, to try to say out of sight, so to speak. And that’s how she gets drawn into a case of murder. The smallish matter of a couple of bad checks ends up pulling her into a serious case.
And then there’s Jesse Milford, whom we meet in Michael Connelly’s The Overlook. He made the trip from his native Canada to Los Angeles to try to ‘make it’ in the music world. Milford’s obsessed with superstar entertainer Madonna, and he tries to sneak onto her property to get an autograph or some other memento to send home. Trespassing isn’t to be encouraged, but what Milford thought of as a minor matter quickly escalates. While he’s on Madonna’s property, he happens to witness the murder of physicist Stanley Kent. When L.A.P.D. detective Harry Bosch learns that Milford was a witness, he decides to find out everything Milford knows. As it is, Milford’s facing charges of trespassing. So he can use all of the help Bosch can give. And Bosch needs Milford’s information. So, he persuades Milford that it’s in his interest for them to work together.
And that’s the thing about this minor ‘sins.’ Things like speeding, writing a bad check, and so on, are not good ideas. But they’re usually relatively small matters. You never know, though, where those small things might lead…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jandek’s Don’t Get Too Upset.