Most of us respect and admire someone who doesn’t back down from challenges. I know I do. At the same time, it’s important to use resources carefully and choose our battles wisely. And sometimes, doing so means a carefully chosen, wise retreat.
Backing off when it’s the wisest thing to do has several advantages. It allows one to conserve (or gather) resources for a more important challenge. Sometimes it even prevents more challenges. And, it can put someone in a position to reach a larger, more important goal. That’s true in real life (as when, say, the police let a minor drug dealer off with a light ‘slap on the wrist’ in hopes of getting the ‘bigger fish.’). It’s also true in crime fiction.
In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, for instance, famous actress Jane Wilkinson asks Hercule Poirot to persuade her husband, Baron Edgware, to agree to a divorce (she’s fallen in love with the Duke of Merton and wants to marry him). Poirot and Hastings pay a visit to Edgware and are treated icily. In fact, the only thing he will tell them is that he already withdrew his objection to the divorce. When Poirot tries to ask their host a few questions, he and Hastings are unceremoniously dismissed. Poirot knows that he isn’t going to get any more information during that visit. So, instead of continuing to ask questions, he and Hastings leave quickly. Hastings sees it as a defeat; and, in a way, it is. But it also allows Poirot slightly easier access to the house to investigate when Edgware is stabbed that night. At first, the victim’s wife is the most likely suspect. But she says that she was in another part of London at a dinner party, and there are twelve other people who are willing to swear that she was there. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have to look elsewhere for a suspect.
In Megan Abbott’s historical (1950s) Die a Little, we are introduced to Pasadena, California schoolteacher Lora King. She and her brother Bill are especially close, so he wants her to be happy for him when he meets and falls in love with Alice Steele. Lora want that, too, but something about Alice makes her uneasy. Still, she tries to be nice to Alice. And, when Bill and Alice marry, it seems even more important that Lora get along with her new sister-in-law. Little by little, though, she learns things about Alice that unsettle her even more. Still, she doesn’t want to rupture her relationship with Bill; it’s not a hill she wants to die on, as the saying goes. Then, there’s a murder. And Alice might be mixed up in it. Telling herself she’s protecting her brother, Lora starts to ask questions about the death, and finds herself drawn into Alice’s life, even as she is repulsed by it.
Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack takes place in late-1970s Buenos Aires, at a time when the military government is firmly in control. No dissension of any kind is permitted, and everyone knows that the penalty for seeming disloyal is ‘disappearing,’ or worse. Against this background, Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano works as a police detective. He has to be very careful, but he does try to do his job the best he can. One morning, he’s alerted to the discovery of two dead bodies. When he arrives on the scene, he sees that they bear the hallmarks of an army ‘hit.’ He’s not willing to go up against the army – at least not at that moment. So, he simply ‘rubber stamps’ those deaths as he is supposed to do. There is, though, a third body. And this one seems a little different. Suspecting that this victim might have been murdered by someone in a separate case, Lescano begins to very carefully and very quietly ask some questions. Little by little, and one step at a time, he gets to the truth. And the outcome of this case is that more than one character has to escape the country and be willing to lose that proverbial battle in order to stay alive and, perhaps, do some good for the country elsewhere.
Alan Carter’s Nick Chester has made a similar choice. In Marlborough Man, where we meet him, he and his wife, Vanessa, and their son, Paulie, have been relocated from Sunderland, in the UK, to the Marlborough area of New Zealand’s South Island. Chester is a police detective who was involved in an undercover operation that went wrong. Rather than staying in the UK and testifying (and, possibly, losing his family and his own life in the process), Chester decided it was better to leave, at least for a time. Now, he works with the local police. In this novel, he investigates a series of murders. He also has an ongoing conflict with his UK nemesis, Sammy Pritchard. In both that conflict, and a rough patch he has in his marriage, Chester learns that there are hills not worth dying on, and that, sometimes, the bigger picture is more important.
John Mortimer’s Horace Rumpole has always known that. He’s a barrister who does his job very well, in part because he knows when to pick fights. He sometimes does so in court when conventional wisdom might suggest otherwise. But he never does so at home. Any fan of this series can tell you that Rumpole knows better than to go against his wife, Hilda, ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed.’ It’s not worth the consequences…
There are certainly times when it’s worth seeing something through to the finish. But sometimes, it’s wiser to retreat strategically, regroup, and focus on larger challenges more worth the effort. And it’s interesting to see how that plays out in crime fiction.
NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone’s Tomorrow is a Latter Day.