An interesting comment exchange with crime writer and fellow blogger E. Michael Helms has got me thinking about crime-fictional situations where the sleuth is asked (or sometimes told forcefully (or worse)) not to investigate. That happens quite a lot in the genre, and it’s interesting to consider the many reasons why.
Obviously, the guilty party (or someone in league with the guilty party) wouldn’t want an investigation. I’m not really talking of those cases: the reason is patently clear. But there are other reasons, which can add a layer of interest and character development to a story.
In several of Agatha Christie’s stories, the sleuth is pressured not to investigate. For example, in Appointment With Death, Hercule Poirot is on a trip through the Middle East. Colonel Carbury asks Poirot’s help with a case he’s investigating. The Boynton family has been sightseeing in the area and took a trip to Petra. There, family matriarch Mrs. Boynton suddenly died of what looked at first like sudden heart failure. That wouldn’t be surprising, given her age and health. But it turns out that Mrs. Boynton was poisoned. Poirot starts to look into the case, and it’s not long before one of the characters asks him to let the matter go. The reason is that Mrs. Boynton was tyrannical and, as Poirot says, ‘a mental sadist.’ She kept her family so cowed that none of the members dared disagree with her on anything. It’s felt that the family have suffered enough, and that if one of them is guilty, this will just make things worse.
In A Dark-Adapted Eye, Ruth Rendell (as Barbara Vine) explores the complexities of family dynamics, among other things. The Longley family has always prided itself on being very ‘respectable.’ There’s been no scandal or cause for anyone to gossip. Then, journalist Daniel Stewart digs up a Longley family secret and decides to write a book about it. He contacts Faith Longley Severn to help him with the book, and she agrees. But it’s not going to be easy. Many years earlier, Faith’s aunt, Vera Longley Hilliard, was executed for murder. It was all kept very quiet, and no-one really wanted an investigation. To have the Longley name dragged through the mud like that would have been unthinkable. As the story goes on, we learn what really happened, and how the family dynamics played an important role in everything.
Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X offers another interesting reason people wouldn’t want a murder investigated. In that novel, Tokyo Inspector Shunpei Kusanagi investigates when Shinji Togashi is murdered. The most likely suspect is the victim’s ex-wife, Yasuko Hanaoka, and she certainly had motive. Togashi was abusive and had been harassing her again lately. But Kusanagi can’t find any real evidence to link her to the case. And she has an unbreakable alibi, so there seems no way to connect her to the murder. Kusanagi asks for help from an old college friend, Dr. Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa, a physicist who sometimes consults with the police. Yakuwa discovers that a gifted math instructor named Tetsuya Ishigami lives next door to Hanaoka. He suspects that this man knows more than he is saying about the crime, but Ishigami holds firmly to what he claims. He corroborates Hanaoka’s alibi, and does everything he can to protect her, mostly because he is in love with her. He doesn’t want the case investigated, and he does what he can to keep the police from making progress.
Sometimes fictional characters don’t want cases investigated because they’re afraid of the consequences for themselves if they are. For example, in both Maureen Carter’s Working Girls, and Harry Bingham’s Talking to the Dead, the police are investigating cases of sex workers who’ve been murdered. As you would expect, the police want to talk to the victims’ friends and co-workers to try to find out who the killer is. That makes sense, as those people might know the victims well enough to help. But in both cases, those friends and co-workers (mostly other sex workers) do not want the police to investigate. It’s not because they don’t mourn their friend. And, in an ideal world, they’d want the killer brought to justice. But it’s not an ideal world, and these sex workers are afraid for themselves if the police investigate, since they’re mixed up with some dangerous people. So, they say as little as they can get away with saying.
And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne has reached a sort of crossroads in her career. She’s well aware that there are younger, ‘hungry’ journalists out there who would be more than happy to supplant her. So, she’s looking for the story that will establish her at the top of New Zealand journalism. She thinks she finds that story when she hears of the case of Connor Bligh. He’s been in prison for years for the murders of his sister, Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. Their daughter, Katy, survived only because she wasn’t home at the time of the murders. Everyone’s assumed that Bligh was guilty, but now there are little pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise. If he is innocent, and he’s been wrongly imprisoned, this could be a major story. So, Thorne starts asking questions. Almost immediately there’s a lot of pressure on her not to investigate. Some of it comes from people who are convinced that Bligh is guilty. There are also those who don’t want people’s lives turned upside down. But Thorne persists, and finds herself getting much closer to the case than she thought – or than is good for her.
A murder investigation is a difficult, painful process, even for those who are not suspects (or criminals). So, it’s understandable that sometimes, people wouldn’t want an investigation to be carried out. This reality can add interest and tension to a story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Roland Kent LaVoie (AKA Lobo).