We all take risks from time to time. If you’ve ever speeded up at a yellow light, betting that you’ll get through the intersection before the light changes to red, you know what I mean. At that moment, the advantages of getting through the intersection quickly will outweigh the risk that you’ll be in an accident. People take small (and sometimes very big) risks because they believe the payoff will be worth those risks. It’s done all the time in real life, and of course, in crime fiction, too.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Hercule Poirot investigates the poisoning murder of his benefactor, Emily Inglethorp. There are several suspects, as every member of her household could have had a motive to kill her. And it’s not easy to eliminate the various ‘people of interest.’ It turns out to be a complex case, and even after Poirot has worked out who the killer is, he needs to find a way to bring the killer to justice. To do that he takes a very calculated risk. His idea could very well fall apart. Or it could mean that the murderer will be arrested. It’s a very clever plan, but it is also, in a way, a gamble.
Jane Casey’s The Burning introduces her series protagonist Maeve Kerrigan. In the novel, Kerrigan has recently joined the Met, and wants to make good. So she wants to be a part of the team investigating a killer the police and press have dubbed the Burning Man. He’s given that name because he tries to incinerate the bodies of his victims. The media and the public are impatient for the Burning Man to be caught, and are putting a lot of pressure on the police. In one plot thread of this story, Kerrigan joins a stakeout at a park where the police believe the killer might be found. It’s decided that an undercover operative named Katy Mayford will act as ‘bait’ to draw the killer out. The plan is risky; after all, something could happen to Mayford. Or, the killer might not show up. Or the killer might guess that Mayford is a police officer and leave without committing a crime. But it’s decided that the advantages outweigh the risks, and the police teams go ahead with their plan. It’s an interesting look at the risks police officers face when they go after killers.
Many fictional attorneys take calculated risks for their clients. In Gianrico Carofiglio’s Involuntary Witness, for instance, Bari attorney Guido Guerrieri gets a new and difficult case. A Senegalese immigrant named Abdou Thiam has been arrested and imprisoned for the abduction and murder of nine-year-old Francesco Rubino. Thiam claims that he is innocent, but that he doesn’t expect justice, since he is an immigrant. Guerrieri takes the case and commits to doing everything he can for Thiam. He’s up against considerable odds, too. There is evidence against the defendant, and he admits to knowing the victim. Then, Guerrieri comes up with a legal strategy. It’s risky, and if it doesn’t work, he’ll most likely lose his case. But it’s the best chance he and Thiam have, so he tries it. It’s an interesting look at how lawyers decide which strategies they’ll choose. We also see that sort of calculated risk-taking in other legal novels, such as Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller novels, and Paul Levine’s Solomon and Lord novels.
Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands introduces twelve-year-old Steven Lamb. He lives with his mother Lettie, his Nan, Gloria, and his younger brother, Davie, in a small town in Exmoor. In many ways, it’s a ‘normal’ working-class family. But this family has a tragic past. Nineteen years earlier, Gloria’s son (and Lettie’s brother) Billy Peters went missing and was never found. Not even a body was recovered. Steven knows that his uncle’s disappearance devastated his family, and he wants to do what he can to help them. So, he devises a plan. He’s found out that a man named Arnold Avery is likely responsible for what happened. Avery’s in prison on another set of charges, so Steven decides to write to him and try to find out what happened to his uncle. It’s a big risk, but Steven takes it, hoping that the payoff will be a family that can heal. To his surprise, Avery writes back, and there soon begins a dangerous game of ‘cat and mouse’ between them.
And then there’s Paul Cleave’s A Killer Harvest. When Christchurch Detective Inspector (DI) Mitchell Logan is killed in the line of duty, his wife Michelle, and sixteen-year-old son Joshua, are devastated. But something good may come out of this tragedy. Joshua’s been blind since birth and has become accustomed to not seeing. But Dr. Toni Coleman has developed a surgical procedure for transplanting eyes. And Mitchell Logan’s eyes will very likely be a good match for his son. It’s a very risky procedure, and it could very likely not be successful. And there are other surgical risks (e.g., infection). But it’s decided that the benefits of surgery far outweigh the risks, so Michelle and Joshua go ahead with the transplant. At first, all seems well. There are no complications from the surgery, and Joshua slowly begins to be able to see again. But then, he begins to see things that don’t make sense. And some of them are very dark things.
And that’s the thing about calculated risks. We take them, we hope for the best, and sometimes things go well. But they could just as easily fall apart, and there are times when they do. Little wonder they can add so much rich suspense to a story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Christie Lee.