Classic and Golden Age crime fiction includes quite a few ‘gentleman detectives’ such as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. And it can be expensive to hire them. Poirot even admits a few times that his work does not come cheaply. Fans know that he is also sometimes compelled to investigate by compassion, but still, hiring him can be costly.
And, yet, it’s not just the wealthy who are in need of an advocate. Sometimes those without any money get themselves into legal trouble or need a PI. Crime fiction also includes plenty of characters who help those without a lot of money or ‘clout – even if they’re not required to take such cases pro bono. And those stories (and characters) can be at least as compelling.
One of the most famous such characters is John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. He is a self-described ‘salvage consultant’ whose specialty is helping those who have had money or property stolen from them and have nowhere else to turn. McGee’s needs are relatively few, and he’s not greedy. His arrangement with his clients is usually that he will work on their behalf to get back what was taken from them. In return, he claims half of the value of that money or property. On the one hand, it sounds like a lot. On the other, his clients know that they have no chance of recovering their property without help. McGee is straightforward, good at what he does, and willing to help even destitute and desperate clients. So, in general, the arrangement works well for all. It helps, too, that he has a compassionate side, and feels a need to get justice for those who have no other chance of getting it.
Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder has also been known to work on behalf of those who have nowhere else to turn. For example, in Eight Million Ways to Die, he meets Kim Dakkinen, a sex worker who wants to get out of the business, and free of her pimp. She’s going to need help, and for that, she turns to Scudder. He agrees to do what he can to protect her, but it isn’t successful. Kim is found brutally murdered, and Scudder feels a sense of responsibility. His first thought is that Kim’s pimp, an enigmatic man who calls himself Chance, is the killer. But Chance claims to be innocent, and, in fact, hires Scudder to find out who the real killer is. And it turns out that Kim’s death is more than a case of punishing a sex worker for trying to leave the business.
In Martin Edwards’ All the Lonely People, we are introduced to Liverpool lawyer Harry Devlin. He works for a seedy firm, and does most of his business representing sex workers, drug users, and down-and-out people who don’t have much hope of getting legal help. In the process, he’s become familiar with the city’s underside, and that turns out to be useful to him. For instance, in I Remember You, Devlin becomes suspicious when a fire destroys the shop of tattooist Finar Rogan. Then, a bomb goes off under Rogan’s car. It’s clear now that someone wants to kill him. As Devlin himself thinks:
‘He knew the folly of becoming too closely involved with his clients and their misfortunes, yet it was a mistake he could never help making.’
It’s that fascination for his clients, and his determination to do the right thing, that makes Devlin a formidable ally.
Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski has a strong social conscience. More than once, that means that she works on behalf of those who can’t pay (or who can only pay a little). For instance, in Burn Marks, a visit from Warshawski’s Aunt Elena alerts her to a fire that took place in the seedy SRO hotel where her aunt lives. It’s a run-down place, occupied mostly by people who can’t afford anything better. Although Aunt Elena’s unexpected visit triggers Warshawski’s interest in the case, it’s her concern for the well-being of the people who live in the building that keeps her involved. And that interest turns out to be dangerous, as she goes up against well-placed developers and ‘backroom politics.’
Several of John Grisham’s protagonists take on the cases of those who have nowhere else to turn. In The Client, for instance, we are introduced to Memphis attorney Regina ‘Reggie’ Love. She gets involved in a very dangerous case when she meets eleven-year-old Mark Sway. He and his brother Ricky were sneaking a cigarette when they witnessed a suicide. That death is connected to another notorious murder and a missing body. Ricky was deeply affected and is in a sort of catatonic state. Mark is smart enough to know that the two boys are in real trouble. So, when he meets Love, he wants her help. The Sway boys and their mother can’t afford a lawyer, but Love wants to keep the boys safe, so she charges the family one dollar for her services. By getting involved in this case, Love goes up against some very dangerous people, including Mafia thugs and highly-placed people who are connected to the Mob. The Sway family fares little better, since the Mafia is convinced that Mark knows more than he is saying. And Love fears that the FBI won’t be of much help protecting the family. So, she will have to do what she can to keep the family as safe as possible. Fans of Grisham’s Gray Mountain will know that it also features a lawyer who works for those who don’t have much of a voice of their own.
Of course, lawyers, PIs and other professional investigators have to earn a living. But that doesn’t always mean that they don’t work on behalf of those who are ‘down and out.’ And it’s interesting to see how this theme comes through in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water.