There’s Nowhere Left to Turn*

Most of the time, the first reaction people have to a crime is to go to the police. After all, they’re supposed to solve crimes and help victims. But for some people, going to the police isn’t an option. For others it’s a matter of money: they can’t afford to pay a private investigator, or they know the police won’t investigate because they’re poor and ‘don’t matter.’ There may be any one of a number of reasons for that desperation, but the end result is someone who has nowhere to go to get justice – or at least to find answers. Crime writers sometimes use that ‘Nowhere else to go’ plot point to add a layer of tension to a novel.

Fans of John D. MacDonald, for instance, know that his Travis McGee works almost exclusively with clients who have nowhere else to turn. He is a self-described ‘salvage consultant’ whose specialty is getting back property or money that’s been taken from his clients. They can’t go to the police (or, the police choose not to investigate), and without McGee’s help, they’ll get nothing. Most of them are poor or close to it, so hiring an attorney isn’t usually a viable option. And the return of their money or property means a lot. McGee’s fee is half of the value of whatever the client has lost, and for his clients, that’s a bargain.

Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee is a Toronto-based forensic accountant. In several novels in the series, she woks for Chow Tung, who owns a Hong Kong company that recovers stolen money. The company is a little ‘off the beaten path,’ and often gets clients by word of mouth. These are generally people who’ve been swindled out of large amounts of money. They haven’t been able to get recourse anywhere, and are desperate to get their money back. Lee is very good at what she does, so she’s often able to trace the stolen funds and find out what’s happened to them and who has them.

There’s also Kalpana Swaminathan’s Lalli, a retired Mumbai police detective who still helps out with certain cases. For example, the main plot point of Greenlight is a series of ugly child abductions and murders in a slum called Kandewadi. At first, not a lot is done to get justice for the families. After all, it’s ‘only a slum.’ But then, the press gets wind of what’s going on, and puts pressure on the police to do something. So, Inspector Savio is assigned to the case. It’s a complex mystery, and he turns to Lalli for help. One of the points Swaminathan makes in this novel is that for the very poor, there is often little or no recourse when crime occurs. The police don’t always bother with a murder in a slum, and those who live there can’t afford to hire a detective or a good lawyer. For those people, there is sometimes nowhere to turn.

As Vaseem Khan’s The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra begins, Inspector Ashwin Chopra is about to retire from the Mumbai police on medical grounds (he had a heart attack). He’s going to his office on his last day when he sees a woman outside the building, demanding justice for her son. He learns a little more about the case and gets interested. It seems that the woman is the mother of Santosh Achrekar, who was found drowned in a sewage creek. Nothing is being done about the death, in part because the victim had high levels of alcohol in his system (so his death was likely accidental), and in part because the family isn’t wealthy or connected. With nowhere else to go, the woman tells Chopra her story, and he decides to investigate. He has no official status now, but he does have a determination to find out the truth. And he has a baby elephant, Ganesha, that he has inherited from his uncle. As it turns out, Ganesha plays his role in the novel.

And then there’s Surendar Mohan Pathak’s The Colaba Conspiracy, which features Jeet Singh. He’s a former lockbreaker/safecracker who has decided to ‘go straight,’ and now owns a Mumbai key-making kiosk. One day, he is contacted by an old acquaintance from the criminal underworld, who offers him a considerable sum if he’ll do a job. Singh refuses; he really does want to stay out of trouble. Everything changes, though, when he gets a visit from his former lover Sushmita. Her husband, wealthy industrialist Pursumal Changulani, died in what looked at first like a carjacking gone wrong. But soon, it was established that this was murder. Sushmita is suspected of hiring paid killers to commit the crime, and she certainly had a motive (she was set to inherit a fortune). She claims she’s innocent, but that she doesn’t have the money to hire a lawyer to help clear her name. She’s desperate to prove that she’s not guilty, and feels she has nowhere to go but Singh. He’s not sure how he can help, but he agrees to try to get Sushmita the money she needs. He gets in touch with his underworld contact, and agrees to take a job. Before he knows it, Singh is trying to evade the police as well as some unpleasant people who do not want him to find out who killed Changulani.

Sometimes, whether or not it’s actually true, people feel they have nowhere to turn. That desperation and anxiety can add some real suspense to a crime novel. These are just a few examples. Over to you.

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Brad Schultz’s Telescope.

 

Published by Margot Kinberg

I'm a mystery novelist and professor who loves to read, write, and talk about crime fiction.

6 thoughts on “There’s Nowhere Left to Turn*

  1. An intriguing bunch of books today! I’m just about to write my review for a vintage crime novel, The Spoilt Kill by Mary Kelly, which sort of falls into this category although not because the client is short of funds or desperate. It takes place in a prestigious pottery factory where somehow the designs have been leaking out before they go through production, so that counterfeiters are able to hit the market as soon as a new line is launched. The leaking isn’t really a crime and anyway the factory owner doesn’t want the publicity a police investigation would bring, so he hires a private detective. Which is handy, because it means he’s already on site when a body turns up in the wet clay…

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    1. Talk about intriguing, FictionFan! That plot certainly has my attention. And you make an interesting point about not wanting bad publicity. That’s the case in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise, too, and it does lead to desperation of a kind. That’s why they hire Lord Peter Wimsey to figure out the truth behind some blackmail and other unseemly things going on a Pym’s Publicity. I look forward to your review of The Spoilt Kill!

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  2. It’s a great way to introduce a private investigator isnt it – the police won’t/can’e help me. Or too long ago, like Christie’s Five Little Pigs…

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    1. That’s a good example, Moira. And, yes, it can be a very effective way to draw in a PI, a friend who’s an ex-cop, etc…

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  3. I ought to get back to the Travis McGee series, Margot I’ve not picked one up for a year or two. And I’ve been meaning to try something by Ian Hamilton as well. I’m struggling for my own examples for the theme. Pretty sure I’ve read a few things where when the police weren’t investigating enthusiastically, a victim or family has gone to the press ie a crusading journalist type who does the digging on their behalf in pursuit of the truth and a story.

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    1. I’ve read that sort of scenario, too, Col. It’s actually not a bad premise on which to base a story, because it allows the amateur detective (the journalist or whatever) to get involved in the case. And I know what you mean about the Travis McGee series; it’s been a while since I read one of them, too, and I should. I like Ian Hamilton’s work; his Ava Lee is a strong character.

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