In many crime novels, the focus is on one main case. There may be sub-plots related to the case, but the novel really features one major investigation. But there is some crime fiction where several cases come under investigation. A few have completely separate plot lines.
It takes a deft hand to do that sort of novel well, as it can be difficult to follow separate plot lines through effectively. And it can be tricky for the reader to keep the plot lines straight. But when it’s done well, this approach can add some richness to a story. What’s more, if you think about modern police precincts, for instance, it’s realistic. The police don’t usually have just one case going, and most PIs don’t, either.
Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee stories often take this format. For instance, in The Chinese Maze Murders, Judge Dee has been newly appointed as District Magistrate for Lan-fang, on China’s northwestern border. He soon discovers that the area is more or less run by a local tyrant Chien Mow, who expects Dee to serve as his puppet. This Dee will not do, so the first order of business is finding a way to best Chien Mow. With that completed, Dee takes on three major cases. One concerns a former blacksmith named Fang, whose daughter White Orchid has gone missing. Another has to do with a cryptic message left to the widow of the late Governor Yoo. She was told that if she was ever in need, she should bring the scroll with the message to the magistrate, who would help her interpret it. In the third case, retired general Ding Hoo-gwo has been murdered. His son, Ding Yee, has accused Woo Fang, Commander of the Board of Military Affairs, of the crime. But Woo says he’s innocent. So Judge Dee investigates this ‘locked room’ mystery to see who is responsible.
Fans of ‘ensemble’ police series such as Ed McBain’s 87the Precinct novels, Dell Shannon’s Luis Mendoza series, or Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series will know that these often feature more than one case at a time. For instance, in Vargas’ The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, Adamsberg travels to the small town of Ordebec to investigate a series of strange events and a disappearance. At the same time, his team back in Paris is investigating the murder of the wealthy and well-connected Antoine Clermont-Brasseur. He was burned, along with his car, and the official theory is that a local arsonist named Momo is responsible, but he claims that he’s innocent. And Adamsberg is inclined to believe him. So along with solving the mysterious occurrences in Ordebec, Adamsberg and his team also look into Clermont-Brasseur’s death.
Tarquin Hall’s Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri and his team frequently have more than one case going at the same time. Much of their day-to-day business involves ‘vetting’ potential spouses for families who want to be sure their son or daughter is marrying the right person. So, for example, in The Case of the Missing Servant, Puri takes on the case of an attorney, Ajay Kasliwal, who’s been accused of rape and murder. But at the same time, he’s looking into the background of Ramesh Goel for the family of Goel’s intended bride Vimi Singla. He’s also investigating Mahinder Gupta at the behest of Brigadier Kapoor, whose granddaughter Tisca is planning to marry Gupta. These cases aren’t closely related to each other; they’re separate plot threads. But Hall explores all three. Fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe series will know that those novels, too, follow several cases, rather than just one mystery at a time.
Sometimes, authors explore separate plot threads even when the story doesn’t include an ensemble police or PI team. For example, Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective has two distinct plot threads. Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill is an Edinburgh oceanographer and Ph.D. student whose specialty is tides and wave motion. He’s using his expertise to find out the truth about his grandfather Uilliem, who disappeared during a sea voyage years earlier. The trail leads to ilean Isagaich Mor, Great Fishing Island, where his grandparents met, and where they lived until Uilliem’s disappearance. At the same time, readers follow the story of Preeti and Basanti, members of India’s Bedia group. They’ve agreed to become part of the sex trade for a few years, so that their families can earn money. They’re sent to Scotland where they’re separated. After a time, Basanti escapes from the people who brought her to Scotland, and goes looking for her friend. That’s how she finds McGill, who has expertise she thinks can help her find out what happened to Preeti. While both of these plot lines involve McGill, they are separate stories, really.
So are the two stories in Donna Malane’s Surrender. Diane Rowe is a Wellington-based missing person’s expert whose sister Niki was murdered a year before the events in this novel. When Rowe learns that James Patrick ‘Snow’ Wilson has been murdered in the same way, she wants to find out more. Not long before Snow was murdered, he confessed to having murdered Niki, and having been paid for it. Rowe reasons that if she finds out who hired Snow, she’ll learn who killed her sister. So one plot line in this novel is her search for the truth about Niki’s death. The other concerns a missing person case for which she’s been hired. Some human remains have been found in the Rimutaka State Forest, and Inspector Frank McFay wants Rowe to find out whose they are. These cases don’t really intermix, beyond the fact that Rowe investigates both. But they are both followed to their conclusions.
And that’s the thing about crime novels where more than one major plot thread is explored. When it’s done effectively, both (or all) stories are followed, so that the reader has a sense of conclusion. It’s not always easy to manage, but it can work quite well.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steeleye Span’s A Calling-On Song.