Detectives With Special Privileges

One of the problems that detectives investigating complicated murders have is that there is all sorts of evidence that probably exists which it would be convenient for them to have which they don’t. It would be great to have a recording of every phone call every suspect made, for example. Better still would be 24/7 surveillance footage of all suspects. Of course, these would make for very boring detective stories, so no detectives have these.

There is an intermediate case, though, which is the police; the police have broad powers to obtain evidence which ordinary people cannot use. Police can get phone records, they have a network of people to track the movements of an individual, they can compel banks to give them bank records, etc. Sometimes the detective has these advantages because he is a police detective; sometimes he has these advantages because he has a friend on the police force. Perhaps one of the more creative examples was Lord Peter Wimsey, who was able to obtain all sorts of privileges because of his prefix.

There is a curious interaction of these special privileges with the fair play principle. Of course, strictly interpreted any such privilege is fair play if the reader is given the same privilege by being given the information that the detective is, but in another sense this violates part of the spirit of fair play because it takes from the reader the possibility of imagining himself doing what the detective did, under similar circumstances.

This is, for all its flaws, one of the great triumphs of Encyclopedia Brown. His proofs are often pedantic or trivial, and occasionally factually incorrect, but they are all proofs that anyone who has read a lot of non-fiction books could make. The glory of Encyclopedia Brown is that, allowing for the fact that in real life no one would go to the Brown Detective Agency, anyone who reads the books could open their own Brown Detective Agency and make a go of it.

I should also note that I think that this is one reason why some detectives resort to criminal means (more generally, things unavailable to the police) to obtain evidence. This is, essentially, a sort of special privilege for the detective. I suspect this is one of the reasons why I think that such behavior—and, in a sense, lying to witnesses to obtain their testimony—is not as good as the alternative. By doing things which the reader cannot or should not do, the detective gains special privileges which help to explain his special success.

I do not think that there is anything wrong with a detective with special privileges—there have been many great ones—but I think that the great detective without special privileges is a difficult ideal worth being aimed at, at least.

11 thoughts on “Detectives With Special Privileges

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    I thought Lord Peter Wimsey’s most important Special Privilege was his wealth. 😉

    Of course, he also had a good relationship with Scotland Yard.

    But yes, his title meant that doors would be more likely open to him that would have been closed if he was just “Mr. Peter Wimsey”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hah! Yes, his wealth helped, but a lot of Lord Peter being very rich was just for fun. Granted, if he had to work 28 hours a day in a coal mine his scope for detection would have been greatly reduced. That said, were he still a Lord, he could have been quite a bit less wealthy and would have still have been able to solve crimes.

      On the other hand, if he wasn’t a friend of the commissioner of police, nor a friend of the great Barrister whose name escapes me at the moment, he wouldn’t have been able to get things like the exhumation of a body to find that there was poison in it, nor access to the prisoner Vane to help solve her case. There were a lot of cases where people opened their doors and answered his questions because of his title. It’s not that easy to tell a Lord to stick his nose into his own business.


      1. Mary

        But that would have been less fun.

        Lord Peter’s large income… I deliberately gave him… After all it cost me nothing and at the time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet. When I had no money to pay my bus fare I presented him with a Daimler double-six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence, and when I felt dull I let him drive it. I can heartily recommend this inexpensive way of furnishing to all who are discontented with their incomes. It relieves the mind and does no harm to anybody.


          1. Mary


            I will note that he mentioned at one point that the land’s about worthless, but an ancestor wisely invested. As a consequence, not only Lord Peter but Denver and Lady Mary are rich. Lady Mary in fact had her money tied up in a trust for her children which gives her exactly as much money as her husband is earning, to avoid conflict.


            1. Yes, Lady Mary’s arrangement was a very neat solution to the problem. Sayers was never explicit, but I did get the impression that Lord Peter was significantly richer than his brother through having used his brains to instead his own wealth considerably. Certainly his nephew (Lord Saint-George) seemed to regard Peter as wealthy in comparison to himself and his father.


              1. Mary

                Saint-George seemed to regard his uncle as a softer touch than his father. He may have a point. Lord Peter at one point says that Denver keeps Saint-George ridiculously short of money considering his expectations.


                1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

                  Still, Gaudy Night had a scene where it was obvious that he was very concerned about how his uncle would react to his latest mis-adventures.

                  On the other hand, Peter knew his nephew well enough to know that he wouldn’t abuse the trust he showed his nephew.

                  IE Saint-George was given access to Lord Peter’s money in order that he pay off the debts he owed and Lord Peter knew that Saint-George would not use his uncle’s money beyond that.


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