You Just Call On Me, Brother, When You Need a Hand*

In these days of easy travel (well, except for the pandemic…), a person might go hundreds or thousands of miles within a day. And that can offer a lot of advantages for international business, geopolitics, and world economies. But it can be a real challenge for law enforcement. If you think about it, people can commit a crime, leave right away, and be far away – even in another country – within a short time.

That’s why modern police departments rely on cooperation and information from other police authorities, sometimes very far away. With modern technology, all sorts of information (DNA identifiers, photographs, fingerprints, arrest histories, and more) can be exchanged instantly. And even before that was possible, police departments benefited from sharing information. There are a lot of crime-fictional examples of how this collaboration works. These are just a few that occurred to me.

Martin Edwards’ Dancing For the Hangman is a fictional account of the case of Hawley Harvey Crippen, who was executed in 1910 for the murder of his wife, Cora. The book tells of Crippen’s early life, his marriage, Cora’s death, and the motives he had to kill her. It also details his plans to leave the UK with his lover, Ethel Le Neve. The two were on a ship bound for Canada when the captain discovered who Crippen was. He contacted British authorities, and Chief Inspector Walter Drew went to Canada where he met the ship on which Crippen and Le Neve were passengers. Crippen was arrested and returned to England to face trial. He might very well have succeeded in escaping if there hadn’t been helpful communication all around.

There’s an interesting use of that sort of communication in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. Famous actress Arlena Marshall takes a holiday with her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, and her stepdaughter Linda. They’re staying at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay, off the Devon Coast. It’s not a peaceful family trip, though. Arlena is carrying on a poorly hidden affair with another guest, Patrick Redfern, and that causes tension all around. One day, Arlena is found strangled on Pixy’s Cove, not far from the hotel. Hercule Poirot is staying at the hotel, and he works with the local police to find out who is responsible for the murder. Interestingly, Poirot gets some important background information from another police department that helps him establish who the killer is and what the motive might be.

Before the days of faxing, emailing, and other quick communication, detectives had to rely on letters or telephone calls to communicate with their counterparts in other places. We see a helpful example of that in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna. In it, Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck and his team investigate the murder of twenty-seven-year-old Rosanna McGraw. It takes some time to identify her, since there is no identification on her body. A search of missing person reports doesn’t help much, because the victim was not Swedish. Finally, it’s established that she was American, from Lincoln, Nebraska. Now that he has a place to start in piecing together Roseanna’s background, Martin Beck contacts Lieutenant Elmer Kafka of the Lincoln police. Martin Beck speaks some English, but there’s still a bit of a language gap. And that’s to say nothing of the poor quality of international telephone reception of the times (the mid-‘60s). Still, the two detectives exchange information and compare notes. And that set of conversations is very helpful in establishing the sort of person the victim was, and who might have wanted to kill her.

It’s much easier now to collaborate with other police and law enforcement departments, even internationally. There’s email, telephone, messaging, and more. That communication is very useful to sleuths like Cat Connor’s Ellie (Conway) Iverson. She’s an ex-pat New Zealander who now works for the FBI. As the series goes on, she moves from Special Agent to Supervising Special Agent to Special Agent in Charge. And more than once throughout the series, she works with law enforcement people in other places, including other countries, to get background information, and to get local support when ‘people of interest’ leave the area.

Paul Thomas’ Detective Sergeant Tito Ihaka does the same thing when it’s necessary. For instance, in Inside Dope, he’s involved in the investigation of a large amount of high-grade cocaine that went missing in New Zealand. More than one person’s looking for the cache, including former police officer Duane Ricketts, who heard about it while serving time in a Thai jail on drug-related charges. Ricketts goes to New Zealand to get the cocaine, and ends up mired in an international case that includes murder, drug smuggling, and more. As Ihaka goes about finding out the truth about Ricketts and about the man who told him about the cocaine, he has to communicate with people in more than one country, including Thailand. And he depends on the information he gets from those people to solve the case.

And then there’s Alan Carter’s Marlborough Man, which features police detective Nick Chester. Originally from the UK, he and his family had to leave the country after an undercover operation that went very wrong. International communication and collaboration get Chester and his family settled into the Marlborough region of New Zealand’s South Island, where he’s helping the local police. But that doesn’t mean the UK criminals he targeted have forgiven or forgotten. In one plot thread, Chester uses information he gets from more than one police force to solve a series of child abductions and murders. In another, he relies on international cooperation and collaboration when his UK enemies find out where he is and decide to go after him…

Today’s police have access to instant communication and information from all over the world. And they need it, too, as easy travel often means that a witness, suspect, or criminal could be nearly anywhere. As I say, these are just a few examples. Over to you.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bill Withers’ Lean on Me.



9 thoughts on “You Just Call On Me, Brother, When You Need a Hand*

  1. Margot: I am waiting to read a mystery where the killer is detected by being caught in the background of a zoom meeting he/she thought had ended but was actually still live.

    Electronic meetings or conference calls are a challenge in scheduling when they span all of Canada. When it is 9:00 am in British Columbia it is already 1:30 in the afternoon in Newfoundland with Quebec and Ontario being in the noon hour. (If you had to add a participant from St. Pierre & Miquelon they are at 2:00 pm). The technology has become simple but I find the organization is more complicated.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love that idea, Bill, of the killer being caught because of a Zoom meeting camera! I’ll have to write that into a story, because I can really see it happening. Thank you for the inspiration.

      As far as scheduling meetings and calls, it really is challenging, isn’t it, even within the same country. The US doesn’t have as many time zones as Canada, but if a person from Hawai’i is having a Zoom meeting with someone in California, someone in Illinois, and someone in New York, for the Hawai’i person it’s 9 AM, for the California person it’s noon, for the Illinois person it’s 2 PM, and for New York, it’s 3 PM. And to make things even more interesting… I belong to a virtual crime book club with members all over the world. The meetings are held at 8 PM UK time, which is noon for me, and 7 AM the next morning in Melbourne! It’s quite a feat to get everything set up, and I’m grateful to our facilitator, Rebecca Bradley, for taking on the responsibility.


  2. The crazy thing about ViCAP (Violent Criminal Apprehension Program) is it asks for so much information that most departments don’t have the personnel to use it effectively. Great for writers of mysteries and thrillers, not so great for the real world. Plus, the program doesn’t allow for minimal data. Meaning, an investigator must fill out and file all the forms or not use the system. Which, sadly, happens a lot more than they care to admit. Just thought I’d share. 🙂


    1. I’m really glad you did share, Sue! Thank you 🙂 ! That’s really interesting to know. It just goes to show you that even modern, up-to-date systems like ViCAP are not the answer to all problems. Even with systems like that, you need enough dedicated people who know how to use the system, and you need the system to be flexible. Otherwise, the system doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting topic! It made me think of the new Brexit deal coming into force on 1st Jan, part of which will change the flow of this kind of information between us and EU countries. I had a sudden image of dozens of crime writers tearing their hair out as they discover they have to rewrite screeds of their work in progress… 😉


    1. Ha! That’s why crime writers have got to keep up with the news, FictionFan – things are always changing, and that completely messes up what we write! 😉

      It will be very interesting to see how this sort of communication works between the UK and EU. I’m sure there’ll be a lot that doesn’t turn out to be as straightforward as it seems, and people will have to be feeling their way. I wonder what those who write political thrillers and international crime thrillers will make of the whole thing…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I enjoyed that facet of Roseanna where there were delays in the exchange of information. It added a sense of realism to the case where it dragged over many months instead of instant answers. Thanks for the reminders of Paul Thomas and Alan Carter. Thomas I’ve enjoyed before and Carter I haven’t yet had the pleasure.


    1. I do recommend Alan Carter’s work, Col. Marlborough Man is very well-written, and features a main character, Nick Chester, that I think you’d like. Its follow-up, Doom Creek, is recently out, and I am very much looking forward to reading that. As to Roseanna, I agree with you that that time delay is realistic, especially for those times before today’s easy electronic communication.


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