When most people think of crime novels, they think of a story with a mystery (usually about a murder or series of murders) and the sleuth who solves the case. And a lot of crime novels have that form. But not all of them have that pattern. There are even crime stories that arguably don’t have a sleuth. In that sort of novel, there may be references to ‘the police,’ or a mention of one or another police officer. But those characters don’t really figure into the story.
It’s not easy to write that sort of story since traditionally, the suspense in a crime story is built as the sleuth solves the case. But when it’s done well, crime stories without sleuths can have their own kind of suspense. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll be able to think of lots more than I could.
One very suspenseful story that has no sleuth is Frederic Brown’s short story Don’t Look Behind You. The narrator tells the history of a printer named Justin, a suave man named Harley, and what happens when they get involved with some very dubious people. There are certainly crimes involved, but the suspense isn’t built through solving them. Instead, it’s built through the way in which the narrator addresses the reader.
There’s also no sleuth in Robert Pollock’s Loophole: or, How to Rob a Bank. Architect Stephen Booker is made redundant by his company. At first, he thinks he’ll find a new job quickly; he is, after all, a professional. But time goes on and he finds nothing. He finally settles for a job driving a cab at night, so he can continue looking for a ‘real job’ during the day. One evening, he picks up a passenger who turns out to be professional thief Mike Daniels. Over time and several cab rides, they get to know each other, and they learn that they may be able to help each other. Daniels and his team are planning a major heist: the robbery of the City Savings Deposit Bank. In order for their logistics to work, they need help from an architect, and Booker may be just the man for the job. For his part, Booker is desperate for money, and after some misgivings about turning to crime, falls in with Daniels’ team. The group has every detail ready, and at first it looks as though the robbery will go off as planned. But then a sudden storm comes up and changes everything…
Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger begins when the police inform Fabien Delorme that his wife Sylvie has been killed in a car accident. Their marriage hadn’t been a loving one for some time, but he still feels her loss. What’s worse than that though is that he learns that she was not alone when she died. Sylvie had taken a lover Martial Arnoult, who was with her at the time of the crash and who also died. When Delorme learns that Arnoult left behind a widow Martine, he determines to find out about her. He soon becomes obsessed with Martine and begins a relationship with her. And that’s when things begin to spin completely out of control.
In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we are introduced to former school principal Thea Farmer. As the story begins, she’s left her position and had a dream home built for herself in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. But bad luck and poor financial planning have changed everything. Now Thea has to settle for the smaller house next door, which she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ To make matters worse, her perfect home is purchased by Frank Campbell and Elllice Charringon, whom Thea heartily dislikes (she calls them ‘the invaders.’). After a short time, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with him and Ellice. At first, Thea is prepared to dislike her, too. Instead, she discovers that the girl has real promise as a writer, and even forms a kind of awkward friendship with her. So when she begins to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate living environment for Kim, Thea gets very concerned. The police won’t do much about it without clear evidence, so Thea makes her own plans to deal with the situation. This novel does refer to the police, but there really isn’t a sleuth. Rather, the suspense is built as we learn, little by little, about Thea, about the new arrivals, and about what happens when Thea decides to take matters into her own hands.
Kanae Minato’s Confessions is the story of middle school teacher and single mother Yūko Moriguchi. When her only child, four-year-old Manami, dies, it looks at first like a tragic accidental drowning. But Yūko knows that Manami was murdered; what’s more, she knows who is responsible. In fact, the novel begins with a speech she makes to her class in which she makes it clear that she knows who killed her daughter. She doesn’t trust the juvenile justice system to punish the culprits appropriately, so she’s made her own plans for justice. And as the story goes on, we follow the lives of her students, and we learn what her plan was. The tension in this novel is built as life spirals downwards for several characters, and as we learn what, exactly, was behind the original murder.
And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman is one of the most promising students that secondary-school teacher Ilsa Klein has had. And Serena seems to be really interested in further education. Then, everything changes. Serena stops coming to class regularly; and when she is there, she doesn’t participate. Ilsa takes her concerns to the school counselor, and a visit is duly made to the Freeman family. When that effort is rebuffed, there’s not much more that Ilsa can do, although she is still worried. Then, Serena disappears. Three weeks later her sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington to the family home in Alexandra to look for Serena. This novel doesn’t really cast Lynnie (or anyone else, for the matter of that) in the role of sleuth. Rather, the suspense and interest are built as we learn the truth about Serena and about some of the other characters. It’s that slow reveal, rather than a sleuth solving a mystery, that keeps the reader engaged.
It can be a challenge to build and maintain interest if the author tells a crime story without a sleuth. But in the right hands, it can work well. What are your thoughts on this? Does a story need to have a sleuth for you to ‘plunge in?’ If you’re a writer, have you ever tried your hand at a crime story without a sleuth?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The Great Wall of China.