When there’s a murder or other tragedy, the police often start their investigation with the victim’s family members, and that’s as it should be. But most people also have at least one good friend – someone who actually may know more about the victim than the family does. The wise sleuth finds out who the victim’s closest friend is and gets to know that person.
In crime fiction, those friendships can serve the story in several ways. They can add layers of character development, for one thing. For another, in whodunits, at least, the loyal friend can provide clues. Sometimes, it’s even the loyal friend who pushes the investigation along.
In one plot thread of Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, for instance, Hercule Poirot investigates the death of Carlotta Adams. She’s an American entertainer famous for her one-actor shows. One morning, her maid finds her dead of an apparent overdose of sleeping medication. But Poirot has good reason to think that she was murdered. One of the people he gets to know is Carlotta’s friend, a milliner named Jenny Driver. She’s as upset as anyone about Carlotta’s death, and is happy to help Poirot. One of the things she makes clear is that Carlotta wasn’t in the habit of taking drugs, even to help her sleep. This is one of several pieces of information that Poirot uses to get to the truth.
Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar begins as Southern California PI Lew Archer is called to Laguna Perdida, a special school for ‘troubled teens.’ Dr. Sponti, who runs the school, is worried because one of the students, Tom Hillman, has gone missing. Sponti wants the boy found as soon (and as quietly) as possible, and he hires Archer to investigate. They’re talking in Sponti’s office when Tom’s father, Ralph Hillman, bursts in, saying that Tom has been kidnapped, and that his abductors want ransom money. Archer goes back to the Hillman residence and begins to work with Tom’s parents to find out where he might be. It’s not a clear-cut case of abduction-for-money, though. In fact, there’s even evidence that Tom may have left of his own accord. The Hillmans seem strangely uncooperative, but Archer starts to work on the case. In the course of the investigation, he meets Tom’s good friend, Stella Carlson. You might even say that she’s his girlfriend, but it’s as much a friendship as anything else. When she learns that Archer is looking for Tom, and that he suspects more is going on than a ‘typical’ abduction, she turns out to be very helpful, and she’s determined to do what she can to find her friend.
John Alexander Graham’s Something in the Air begins as Professor Jacob ‘Jake’ Landau and his good friend and attorney, Martin Ross, board a plane from Boston to New York. The two have been handling the details of Landau’s divorce from his ex-wife, Kitty, and both will be glad to get back to Boston and be done with the process. Before the flight can land, a bomb goes off, killing six people, including Ross. Landau is injured, but he survives. Because he was on the flight, and because Ross was his friend, Landau wants to know the truth about the bombing. But he gets no help from the airline. So, he starts to ask his own questions. The police theory is that a man named Varga planted the bomb. He was killed after an incident in which he stole a suitcase from the plane, and the police believe that he placed a fake suitcase – the one with the bomb – at that time. So, as far as the official investigation goes, it’s believed that the crime has been solved. But Landau isn’t satisfied. Out of loyalty to his friend, he keeps asking questions, and ends up getting himself into real danger.
Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry also begins on a flight. This one’s between Scotland and Melbourne, so it’s a very long haul. That’s especially the case for Loanna Lindsay and her partner, Alistair Robertson, because they have with them their nine-week-old infant, Noah. It’s a miserable flight, and it’s not made any easier by Noah’s nonstop crying. Everyone’s nerves snap, but the flight lands safely in Melbourne. Then, the couple begin the long drive from the airport to their destination, Alistair’s home town. Along the way, they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of baby Noah. There’s a massive search, but no trace of the baby is found. There’s a huge public push to find him, but no evidence turns up. Then, there begin to be suggestions that the couple, especially Joanna, might know more than they are saying about the baby’s fate. Soon, there’s a backlash against her. Through it all, and as the search for the truth about Noah, continues, Joanna relies on her best friend, Kirsty McNicol. She stands by Joanna, runs errands for her, serves as a ‘go-between’ when it’s necessary, and so on. She is fiercely loyal to Joanna, and her character adds to the story.
And then there’s Jason Choi, whom we meet in Rob Kitchin’s Stiffed. His good friend is Irish ex-pat Tadh Maguire. One morning, Maguire wakes up after a night of drinking when he hears his girlfriend, Kate, screaming. He opens his eyes to find that, instead of Kate, there’s a dead man next to him. The body turns out to belong to Tony Marino, ‘right hand man’ to a crime boss named Also Pirelli. Maguire has no doubt about what will happen to him if Pirelli hears that his lieutenant was found dead in his bedroom. He doesn’t want to call the police, because he knows he’ll be suspected of the murder. So, he decides he’s going to need to hide the body. And for that, he relies on his good friend Choi. And Choi turns out to be very helpful, even after there’s another death, and an abduction. That’s the sort of loyal friend we all need…
Whether an author wants to use such a friendship to provide clues, add to the plot, or even drive the plot, such characters can make a lot of difference in a story. Which ones have you liked?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rembrandts’ I’ll Be There For You.