As I’ve often mentioned on this blog, most criminals aren’t eager to be caught. And there’s not always enough evidence to bring charges against someone. So, at least in crime fiction, the sleuth sometimes has to use some creativity to get the criminal to confess.
There are limits to what fictional police sleuths can do. For instance, entrapment – enticing someone to commit a crime she or he would not otherwise commit – is not allowed. And there’s a very fine line between a ‘sting’ operation (which is permissible) and entrapment. And even if the sleuth is not a cop, there’s still the credibility factor. Still, sleuths can be innovative, and sometimes have to be.
In Ellery Queen’s The Roman Hat mystery, for instance, Inspector Richard Queen investigates the poisoning death of an attorney, Monte Field, who was also a blackmailer. He was killed in a theatre, so it’s hard a first to narrow down the list of people who could have committed the crime. And, even when the Queens do work out who was responsible, they don’t have the sort of evidence needed to pursue the case. So, they devise a ruse that, today, might be considered entrapment. They entice the killer into attempting another murder in the same way, using the same poison.
Fans of Agatha Christie will know that, more than once, her sleuths find creative ways to catch killers, even without a lot of evidence. For instance, in The Moving Finger, Miss Marple helps to solve the mystery of who’s been writing a series of vicious anonymous letters to the residents of the small town of Lymstock. Several of the villagers take those letters very seriously; there’s even a suicide (or was it a suicide?) associated with one of them. Then, there’s an obvious murder. Miss Marple works out who the killer is, but there’s not a lot of proof. So, she sets up what you might call a trap, and ‘baits’ it with another character, to flush the killer out. Fans of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series will know that Beck and his team use a rather similar sort of ‘trap’ in Roseanna. They know who the killer of twenty-seven-year-old Roseanna McGraw is, but they don’t have the proof they need. So, they lure the killer into trying for another victim. And it works.
Lawrence Sanders’ The Anderson Tapes introduces readers to John ‘Duke’ Anderson. He’s recently been released from prison, and has a legitimate job working in a print factory. But, then, he gets a chance to visit an exclusive Manhattan apartment building. Impressed by the luxury he sees, Anderson can’t resist the opportunity to set up a heist – and not just of one apartment, either. His scheme is to rob the whole building. For that, he’s going to need some help. So, he contacts several people he knows to get supplies, a getaway truck, and so on. What he doesn’t know is that the FBI and various other agencies have been interested in several of Anderson’s contacts for some time. And they know full well that those criminals are not going to be easy to catch. In order to get the proof they need, these agencies have gotten clearance for wiretapping and other surveillance. They’re hoping this will get the evidence they need to convince the people they’ve targeted. So, much of what Anderson says to these people is recorded. The question is: will they learn of Anderson’s scheme before he and his team have the chance to pull it off?
In Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Mma Precious Ramotswe gets a new client, Happy Bapetse. Like other members of her culture, Happy has been taught that caring for elderly relatives, especially parents, is her responsibility. So, when a man shows up at her home claiming to be her father, Happy welcomes him and starts to take care of him. But she slowly begins to suspect that the man is not her father at all, but someone who wants to take advantage of the fact that she’s done well in life. So, she goes to Mma Ramotswe to get some help. Mma Ramotswe soon sees that she isn’t going to get this man to admit his scam. So, she sets up a ruse that forces his hand, as the saying goes. And it works.
And then there’s Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands. In it, twelve-year-old Steven Lamb takes a very risky decision. His family has been devastated for a long time by the loss of his uncle, Billy Peters, who went missing nineteen years earlier. Steven wants his family to heal, and he believes that finding his uncle’s body, assuming he’s dead, will at least allow his family to start that process. It was always assumed that a man named Arnold Avery, who’s currently in prison for another child murder, killed Billy. So, Steven decides to write to Avery, and try to find out from him whether he killed Uncle Billy, and if so, where the body is buried. It’s a very daring ploy, since Avery has never admitted to that murder. And it begins a dangerous game of ‘cat and mouse’ between the two. And the stakes get higher as time goes on.
It can be very risky to try to get a criminal to admit wrongdoing, especially if it’s a serious crime like murder. But, few criminals are eager to tell what they’ve done. So, sometimes, a fictional sleuth has to come up with a different approach to getting the truth.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Love and Money’s Axis of Love.