It’s not easy to investigate a murder, even for police and professional PIs, who’ve signed up to do that work and who have some training. It’s even more so for people who haven’t and don’t. Some people – at least fictional characters – investigate because they’re implicated, or because someone they care about is implicated. There are other people though, who get into investigation because they really don’t have anything else in their lives. So they don’t have much to lose, even if they get into danger.
Characters who don’t have a lot to lose sometimes take chances that others wouldn’t. And if that’s not handled well in a story, it can pull the reader out. But these characters also can bring a certain perseverance and focus to a case because they’re not risking families, successful businesses and the like. There are a lot of characters like that in crime fiction. Here are just a few.
When we first meet him in The Sins of the Fathers, Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder has very little to lose, at least from his perspective. He’s a former New York police officer who left the force after a tragic accident in which a seven-year-old girl was shot as Scudder was going after some thieves who’d killed a bartender. As the series begins, Scudder doesn’t have a home life, or even very much of a place to live. He doesn’t have a steady job, either. So he doesn’t have a lot to lose when successful business executive Cale Hanniford asks his help. Hanniford’s estranged twenty-four-year-old daughter Wendy has recently been murdered, and he wants to know the kind of person she’d become. The police have arrested the victim’s roommate Richard Vanderpoel, and there is a great deal of evidence against him. So Hanniford doesn’t want Scudder to solve the crime. He simply wants to know what sort of life his daughter had, and what would have led to her murder. Scudder agrees to at least ask some questions, and begins following leads. The trail leads to the past for both the victim and the alleged killer, and as Scudder looks into the matter, he finds the pattern that has led to the killing.
In Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus, we meet Dr. Duca Lamberti. He’s recently been released from prison, where he served a sentence for euthanasia. He can no longer work as a doctor, so he has nothing much to lose when Pietro Auseri offers to hire him. Auseri’s son Davide has been in a deep depression for almost a year, and can’t seem to stop drinking, despite some time spent in treatment. Lamberti isn’t sure what he can do that professional treatment can’t, but he agrees to take on Davide’s case. Little by little, he gets to know Davide, and learns the reason for the young man’s depression and drinking. Davide blames himself for the death of Alberta Radelli, whose body was found outside of Milan a year earlier. He says that he met her by chance and offered her a ride and a day in Florence. They had an enjoyable day, but when he prepared to return with her to Milan, she begged him to take her with him – to help her escape Milan. He refused, she threatened suicide, and not long afterwards, her body was discovered. Lamberti believes that the only way to free Davide of his demons is to find out the truth about the young woman’s death. With little to lose, that’s exactly what he sets out to do.
Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins also gets drawn into investigating in large part because he doesn’t have much; therefore, he has very little to lose. In Devil in a Blue Dress, we learn that he worked at a wartime factory (this series takes place just after World War II). When the war ended, the factory downsized and he became redundant. When DeWitt Albright needs someone to find a young woman named Daphne Monet, Rawlins sees no real reason not to agree. And he’s well-suited for the task. He knows Los Angeles well, and, being Black, he can ‘blend in’ in the local Black community, which is where the missing woman was last seen. This case draws Rawlins into a web of fraud and murder; it also begins to establish his reputation as someone who can find people and get things done.
Fans of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum will know that she had nothing much to lose when she got started investigating. When Plum discovered that her husband was unfaithful, she got a divorce and took a job in a department store to pay the bills. Then, the department store made cuts in its staff, and Plum was laid off. With no real alternative, Plum took a job at her cousin’s bail bond company. She was supposed to work as a file clerk – a nice ‘safe’ job – but instead, ended up as a bounty hunter. It’s not exactly the job her family dreamed of for her, but it’s certainly never dull.
In Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow), we meet Smilla Jaspersen, a half Inuit/half Danish mathematician and scientist. Although she grew up in Greenland, she now lives in Copenhagen. She has no close ties to anyone, and not very much to lose personally. So she’s got nothing to hold her back, so to speak, when she decides to ask questions about the death of ten-year-old Isaiah Christiansen. He, too, was a Greenlander, and lived in the same building as Jaspersen. One day, so the police say, he was playing on the roof of the building and had a tragic fall that killed him. Jaspersen is drawn to the roof where the accident occurred, and when she looks at it, she notices some things about the snow that aren’t consistent with an accidental fall. The trail leads back to Greenland, and as Jespersen looks into what happened there, she finds that this case is much more than a young boy who fell from a roof.
When we first meet Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor in The Guards, he’s been removed from the Garda Síochána for excessive drinking, which led to an incident involving unprofessional conduct with a speeder. Taylor has some friends, and people he knows, but no really close ties. He doesn’t have much to lose when he decides to hang out his shingle as a PI in Galway. He doesn’t have the money for a posh office or a staff, so he uses his local, Grogan’s, as an office. That’s where Anne Henderson finds him when she goes in search of someone to learn the truth about the death of her daughter Sarah. The police called it suicide, but she knows better. Taylor takes the case and ends up involved in a coverup, multiple killings and more.
Some people make the choice to become professional detectives. But for others, the choice to look into a crime (or crimes) happens because they have no real alternatives and not much to lose by investigating. These are just a few examples (I know, I know, fans of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee). Which ones occur to you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Citizen King’s Better Days (And the Bottom Drops Out). I almost chose a line from Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster’s Me and Bobby McGee; both songs are good matches for the topic, I think.