Consulting Detectives and the Police

(In this post I’m going to consider the relationship between a consulting detective and the police, from the perspective of writing about them. Nothing in this post is meant as literary criticism of any examples which are considered.)

In most murder mysteries, the police are investigating the murder, which presents the writer the problem of what the relationship between the police and the detective will be. Authors have chosen all over the spectrum, from the police seeking out the help of the consulting detective to the police actively trying to deter the consulting detective. (This has even been true of murder mysteries in which the main detective is the police! In that case it takes the form of his superiors respecting him to his superiors assigning him elsewhere and forbidding him from investigating.)

Authors will also change things up. In The Cadfael Chronicles stories, Sheriff Gilbert Prestcote is mildly antagonistic to Cadfael, whereas his successor Hugh Beringar is a good friend of Cadfael’s and though competent himself, values Cadfael’s opinion highly (it would probably be more accurate to say because he is competent himself). In Murder, She Wrote the different locations for the murder allowed them to try out the entire spectrum, though for some reason the Cabot Cove sheriffs tended to be more on the skeptical side. Perhaps the actors in question were just better at scowling than they were at smiling. Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot had excellent reputations and friends in high places which tended to make the police friendly for them. Dorothy L. Sayers solved this with Lord Peter Wimsey by making the police deferential to his title of nobility. Philo Vance was a long-time friend of the district attorney. That’s only a small sampling and it’s all over the place. Clearly anything will work, but it leaves the question of which is best?

Of course, to even ask the question that way is to highlight that the real question is what sort of stories do the points on the curve allow you to tell? It’s always easiest to start at the extremes. If the police are highly antagonistic to the detective—e.g. the detective is the prime suspect and there is an arrest warrant out for the detective—this tends to be more conducive to stories with a lot of action/suspense. In the examples I can think of (The Fugitive and Minority Report come to mind) most of the focus is on whether the detective will be caught before he can prove he didn’t do it. This also tends to raise the stakes by having an innocent person in danger of being punished for a crime they didn’t commit.

On the other end of the spectrum, the police enthusiastically ask for the detective’s help and will do anything the detectives tells them to. Some episodes of Murder, She Wrote come to mind. Some of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories come close to it as well. Come to think of it, so do a few of the Sherlock Holmes stories. The stakes tend to be lower—though not always; Lord Peter had police cooperation in Strong Poison but Harriet Vane was on trial for a crime she didn’t commit—and most of the action tends to be the actual investigation. This tends to open up more space for theorizing and collaboration. Unless it’s an ongoing murder story—where live characters keep turning into dead bodies—these stories are more likely to have a slower pace and focus more on dialog than action.

(It is of course possible to change locations on this spectrum throughout the story. A detective, once cleared, can be welcomed by the police. A detective who had full access can turn into a suspect (this is especially easy to do if there are ongoing murders). A story can start more in the middle and once the detective proves useful, they can become more welcome. Etc.)

I think that my own preference is for the friendlier side of the spectrum. I enjoy collaboration more than I do conflict. Conflict can certainly be interesting, and is often easier to make interesting than collaboration, but I think that collaboration done well has a greater potential for interest. Individuals are interesting, but people are more themselves in community. Of course, it must be a true community. False community obliterates the individual for the sake of the group, while real community brings each individual to the fullness of themselves, respecting each one’s unique virtues. (As a technical note, I mean their unique natural virtues. Moral virtues are—in an ideal world, at least—not distinct between people. All men should be perfectly honest, but each one’s identical perfect honesty will have a different natural content because they know different things.)

A friendly relationship between the police and a consulting detective is not easy to pull off, however, especially if one is striving for realism. There is something of a natural antagonism between a consulting detective and the police, and further there is a natural reticence the police will have in sharing information which is not public. Still, the police will certainly consult outside experts, and police departments have been known to consult psychics for help. In The Dean Died Over Winter Break the relationship was probably more neutral than welcoming, but the police were reasonably friendly. Still, the information mostly flowed from the detectives to the police, and not the other way around. In the circumstance, it seemed the most natural thing.

One of the more plausible ways of insinuating the consulting detective with the police involves the police being short on resources. Resource shortages have a number of effects on people, most of them tending to increase flexibility. People with too few resources tend to see the upsides of shortcuts and other sorts of flexibility more clearly than do people with enough resources to get everything done. They tend to be less worried about possible downsides, because the downsides compare to the downside of simply not getting their work done. Moreover, the people who are responsible for the short-staffing cannot credibly threaten to replace the overworked person with someone else. Finding people willing to be overworked is not easy, and in any event finding new people for a job is both difficult and expensive. Worse for the person responsible for the short-staffing, since overworked people often make mistakes and don’t get everything done, disciplinary issues will have come up before, and the overworked person will probably have gotten used to the toothlessness of any threats made. Thus by the time the consulting detective comes around, offering to take some of the work off of the overworked police detective’s shoulders, the upside will be all the more obvious while the downsides will already be known to be minimal. And since the worst case is that the overworked person finally stops being overworked, the downsides will seem especially minimal.

Also viable for making police collaboration with the consulting detective plausible is for the forensic evidence to be scant. Really it’s not just the forensic evidence, but all of the evidence in which the police are the best at obtaining: cell phone records, bank records, the sort of evidence for which warrants are generally attainable, etc. If the police don’t really know anything of value, they have very little to lose in a relationship with the consulting detective. The flip side of the fairly impressive powers to subpoena phone records, etc. is that they are bound by rules which private citizens are not. Moreover the police are bound to enforce all rules, though of course in practice they don’t always do so, but this makes the police scary since in the modern age virtually everyone is guilty of some crime or other. We have so many laws its impossible to know what they all are, and some of them run counter to common sense (especially copyright laws). Children and pets offer all sorts of judgement-based ways in which the police could make a person’s life miserable even if they haven’t technically broken any laws; a great many people are rightfully wary about anyone as powerful as the police. None of this applies to a consulting detective, who has no power and is therefore relatively safe. Further, with no superiors to whom a person can complain, a consulting detective is in a less vulnerable position if they take liberties with people who have valuable information (providing those liberties are within the law).

There are of course plenty of other ways for a consulting detective to get along with the police. Friends and relatives on the police force have been used innumerable times. If a consulting detective is likable a police detective might simply take a liking to them. Having a mutual friend and helping the consulting detective for the sake of the friend is certainly possible, as is there being someone in authority over the police who wants the consulting detective working on the case.  My memory might be deceiving me, but I think I’ve even seen it work for the consulting detective to—in effect—blackmail the police detective into sharing information. Since precedent is a powerful thing, I’ve also seen it done to bootstrap the consulting detective into a relationship with the police by some means which would only work once—a relative of the deceased having (politically expensive to use) power over the police, for example—which leaves the police eager to work with the detective again. I think that the choice of these techniques, if one wants to go this way, is going to depend on the detectives. In the case of my detectives—The Franciscan Brothers of Investigation—the choice varies with who it was that called the brothers in. In The Dean Died Over Winter Break, since it was the university president, this acted as something of a middle ground. The police were neutral, but they were not hostile, while the university president’s authority gave them full cooperation with the university staff, which was probably more valuable to them. In future mysteries, it’s likely to be different based on who is asking for help.

Intelligent Murder Mystery Suspects

I’ve recently watched the episodes in the thirteenth and final series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, starring David Suchet. It included Curtain, which of course must be the last episode, but it had several episodes which differed very greatly from their source material. In particular, The Big Four and The Labours of Hercules.

The former was described by the screenwriter as an unadaptable mess, which it certainly seems to be looking at the plot summary. It is basically a spy thriller with dozens of characters set throughout Europe, which is not very viable for a TV show, even if it is nearly two hours long. The one which really interests me, though, is The Labours of Hercules. The original is a collection of twelve unrelated short stories, which the screenwriter turned into a single long-form mystery by taking one of the stories as the central one and using several of the other stories as the red herrings which one expects in a Christie novel. At this point, I should warn you that this post will include spoilers. You have been warned.

Given what a challenging prospect that is, the writer did a good job, but there were problems in the story which I do not think were avoidable for structural reasons. As everyone knows, a murder mystery must have suspects, with the plural being imperative. Every man having free will, anyone who was anywhere near the victim is a suspect, which is why an isolated setting—a mansion, a private island, etc.—is so interesting. Unless the author is cheating, the suspect list is known at the outset. When doing this, the author must be very careful to make all of the suspects believable suspects. That’s a universal criteria, but a murder in the middle of a city means that we see a great deal less of the suspects, so each one has far greater scope for unseen action, including accomplices we don’t know about yet, than people in an isolated setting.

The episode, The Labours of Hercules, was set in a hotel on the top of a mountain in Switzerland, with the funicular train that is their only link to the outside world having been shut down by an avalanche. Short of a ship in the middle of the Atlantic ocean or an aeroplane in the sky, it’s about as isolated as it is possible to get.

The central mystery, though Poirot stumbles onto it almost by accident, is the identity of a psychopathic killer and thief called Marrascaud. The mystery was set up in the beginning where Marrascaud managed to kill several people and steal several valuable items—one of them a large painting—from a crowded building, with disguised policemen and Poirot himself protecting them. From this we know that Marrascaud is a genius on a level with Poirot, and this forms the central problem once we get to the hotel.

As has been observed in countless murder mysteries, the best place to hide a leaf is in a forest; to hide a genius one must really put them amongst other geniuses, but the characters at the hotel were taken from other stories and thus had qualities appropriate to those stories, none of which involved unique genius. In this case, the beautiful daughter of Poirot’s former love interest who is fascinated with criminology stands out almost like a sore thumb; the only other person who comes close is the Countess Rossakoff, her mother, but it was very clearly established in the previous episode where we met the Countess that the character is not a murderer. Marrascaud kills for the pleasure of it, brutally, which is not something one degenerates to in old age. It is true that one can be cruel vicariously, through underlings, in old age, but it does not make sense as a personality change to go from an honorable thief to a psychopath who delights in killing.

An interest in criminology is also something of a red flag in a suspect. Though everything has by this time been used as a false flag in detective fiction, none the less the similarity of the violent nature of both crime and law enforcement is unavoidable. As the saying goes, the main thing which distinguishes a sheep dog from a wolf is who it bites. None of the other guests seemed sufficiently… canine.

I think that this is the reason why Conan Doyle put Moriarty as the mastermind, behind the scenes. The proxy of an evil genius need only be of ordinary intelligence, which makes it far easier for him to blend in. Indeed, executing a plan which requires greater intelligence than he himself possesses serves as a form of camouflage for the immediate villain. Still, as bumbling accomplices have long shown, it is best to choose someone intelligent enough to understand the plan once it has been created; an accomplice who can understand only his part and not what it fits into will make mistakes that will prove the undoing of both.

I think that fact is why some villains have tried to manipulate their accomplice into helping without realizing it; if done well the mistakes of the unwitting accomplice actually hide the involvement of the mastermind. I suspect that this is the ideal strategy for the criminal mastermind; it is the safest type of plan if a brilliant detective shows up. If done extremely skillfully, it is possible to conceal that there even is a brilliant plan at work; the brilliance can be disguised as coincidence.

Of course, mysteries can go the other way—the more realistic way—where the detective must make sense of genuine coincidences. The problem with writing this sort of mystery is that it is extremely difficult to pull off without the detective himself getting lucky. And while a comedic detective—Inspector Clouseau, for example, or taking the idea of a detective very loosely, Maxwell Smart—can stumble onto all of his solutions, it’s not entertaining if a serious detective does that. Though, I should mention that this is why Jessica Fletcher almost invariably figures out the solution of most episodes by chance. In order to make Murder, She Wrote accessible to a general audience, the writers would tend to throw in enough clues that one should be able to figure out the solution before Jessica does. Since Jessica does have to figure out the mystery, something must make her realize the solution, and because we the audience are supposed to already get it, it can’t be the last piece of critical evidence, but nor can it be slam-dunk evidence, because then you couldn’t feel smart during the reveal. So it’s usually something silly somebody says, and then Jessica says, “Wait, say that again? Of course! That’s it!” That’s not literally every episode, but it is basically a structural requirement imposed by the show’s relationship with its audience.

The solution to the mystery depending on figuring out coincidence without the detective merely getting lucky is typically easiest to pull off through exhaustive leg-work—checking every chemist’s shop in a 30 mile radius, that sort of thing. This is why that sort of mystery is most common when the detective is a public detective (i.e. a member of the police) rather than a private detective, or at least when the police and the detective are working together, rather than separately. And even then, Sherlock Holmes had his Baker Street irregulars.

The other approach, which is a compromise that keeps things closer to a  detective the reader can relate to, is for the detective to have something to go upon which through intelligence, knowledge, and wisdom allows him to rank coincidental possibilities according to an order they are likely to have happened, and to be right according to a Poisson distribution (basically, they usually get an answer by their third try to verify a coincidence, sometimes it takes a lot of tries, and because no one has infinite effort to give, sometimes they don’t get an answer). Fundamentally this is still the detective getting lucky, but it is a way for the detective to earn his luck. Since the detective doesn’t create the clues but only discovers them, that’s the best he can do in any case.