Any good lawyer will tell you that defending clients sometimes means looking for loopholes and technicalities of law. And skilled police detectives know that they won’t as likely get a successful prosecution unless everything is carefully done ‘by the book.’ Loopholes can also be used to catch criminals.
Because they’re so important to the real-life criminal investigation process, it’s little wonder that loopholes and technicalities play a role in crime fiction, too. Whether it’s in the courtroom, in gathering evidence, or something else, loopholes can make a big difference. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of others.
In Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Hercule Poirot is living in the village of Styles St. Mary. He is drawn into a murder investigation when Emily Inglethorp is poisoned. Poirot is especially determined to catch the killer here, because Mrs. Inglethorp was responsible for helping him escape wartime (WW I) Belgium and sponsoring him in England. When he works out who the killer probably is, Poirot is faced with a particular loophole that the killer is planning to use. And once he knows what that technicality is, Poirot is able to use it against the murderer.
In David Dodge’s Death and Taxes, we are introduced to George MacLeod, a San Francisco tax accountant. He’s been very successful, and a big part of the reason for that is that he’s skilled at finding all sorts of loopholes to save his clients money. One day, he gets a new client, Marian Wolff. She wants him to help her avoid charges of tax evasion, and get a tax refund, although she hasn’t filed the necessary paperwork. She offers MacLeod an irresistibly high fee if he’ll take on the job, and he agrees. But it’s going to be a major challenge. So, MacLeod asks his business partner, James ‘Whit’ Whitney, to come back early from a trip to Santa Cruz and help in this client’s case. Whit comes back as asked, but by the time he gets there, MacLeod’s been shot. Now, Whit is going to have to figure out who killed his partner if he’s going to stay alive himself.
In John D. MacDonald’s Pale Gray For Guilt, ‘salvage expert’ Travis McGee gets involved in the case when an old friend, Tush Bannon, is killed. Before his death, Bannon was under a great deal of pressure to sell his small marina/motel business to make way for a large new development. He resisted, and his opponents did everything they could to ‘convince’ him. Now, he’s dead, and McGee wants to know why. The trail leads to land speculator Preston LaFrance, and high-powered businessman Gary Santo. Both of these men are highly skilled at taking advantage of all of the legal technicalities and loopholes that will allow them to do what they want to do. So, McGee’s up against formidable opponents. But he has his economist friend Meyer on his side, and together, the two of them come up with their own scheme…
There’s a different sort of loophole in C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. Jack McGuane and his wife, Melissa, are, among other things, the loving adoptive parents of baby Angelina. Everything in their lives is working until one day, McGuane gets a shattering call from the adoption agency trough which they adopted Angelina. It seems that her biological father, Garrett Moreland, never waived his parental rights. And now, he wants to exercise them. At first, it seems like just a horrible mix-up. But it isn’t. Moreland really does want to take advantage of that loophole. What’s worse, his father is a powerful judge who is in full support of what his son is doing. Together, the Morelands visit the McGuanes. They start by asking for Angelina, and soon move to trying to bribe the McGuanes. They even offer to pay for another adoption. But the McGuanes are unwilling to give up their daughter. Soon enough, Judge Moreland uses his position to get what he and Garrett want. He issues a court order requiring the McGuanes to surrender Angelina within twenty-one days. They refuse and resolve to do whatever it takes to keep their child. That decision leads to all sorts of consequences that neither had anticipated.
And then there’s Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case. Caspar Leinen is a newly-qualified Berlin lawyer who’s taking his turn on standby duty for legal aid when he gets a new case. It seems that Fabrizio Collini, who’s lived quietly in Germany for many years, went to the Hotel Adlon, found the suite occupied by Jean-Baptiste Meyer, and shot him. This isn’t going to be an easy case for Leinen. For one thing, there is no question of Collini’s guilt. He even admits as much himself. For another, Collini does nothing to defend himself. In fact, he even says he doesn’t want a lawyer. But German law requires that all persons accused of crimes have legal representation. So, Leinen gets to work. As a part of his research, he goes back into history, and to finer points of the law. There, he finds a technicality of German law that he is able to use.
Loopholes may be small and obscure. But they can make all the difference in a court case or an investigation. It’s interesting to see how fictional sleuths (and criminals) use them.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from UB40’s Everything is Better Now.