Most of us have a self-protective instinct. That’s why we step off the street quickly when a car’s coming along. It’s why we often feel much more alert and on our guard when we’re walking alone at night, or at a cash machine, or somewhere else where there might be danger. But self-protectiveness can go beyond those very basic instincts. People also try to protect themselves when they’ve done something wrong (e.g., people who drive away quickly when they’ve dented another car). And they try to protect themselves from possible trouble later (e.g., keeping meeting notes or a ‘paper/electronic trail’ of some kind to document a conversation).
Because it’s such a common human impulse, it’s not surprising that self-protectiveness plays an important role in crime fiction. Sometimes, it’s the motive for a murder. But even when it’s not, it can make for an interesting plot point or sub-plot.
In Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), for instance, Sir Charles Cartwright hosts a cocktail party. During the party, one of the guests, the Reverend Stephen Babbington, suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be nicotine poisoning. Hercule Poirot is in attendance, and Cartwright asks him to look into the matter. Not very long afterwards, there’s another, similar murder. Famous nerve specialist Dr. Bartholomew Strange is poisoned with nicotine at a dinner party at his Yorkshire home. Then, one of his patients dies, also of nicotine poisoning. It’s not an easy case, and Poirot doesn’t work out what happened until he understands the point of all three murders. In the end, he finds that the killer committed the crimes as an act of self-protection.
You might argue that self-protection is also behind the murder of copywriter Victor Dean in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise. One afternoon, he falls to his death while he’s at work at Pym’s Publicity, Ltd. At first, it’s taken as an accident. But Dean left behind a half-finished letter in which he accused someone (without naming names) of using company resources for illegal purposes. As it turns out, he was blackmailing that individual. The company directors do not want a scandal, or to call in the police. So, they ask Lord Peter Wimsey to investigate. He goes undercover at the firm as Dean’s replacement and gets to know who’s who. Little by little, he finds out the truth behind the murder. And we learn that Dean was killed out of the murderer’s sense of self-protection.
In Blair Denham’s Sold, we meet Gary ‘Gazza’ Braswell. As the novel begins, he’s a car salesman at an upmarket place on the Gold Coast. He’s good at his job, and he makes a decent living. But he makes the mistake of borrowing money from a dangerous illegal loan shark. He gets the chance to cover himself when a wealthy Russian developer buys several cars from him, with enough commission on the sales to pay off his debt. But it’s not going to be that easy. The loan shark decides that, because he was slow to pay, Braswell will have to go to Bali with a load of drugs and come back with the money. Braswell does the best he can to get out of the situation, trying to cover himself more than once. But matters only go from bad to worse, and he attracts the attention of less-than scrupulous property developers, the Australian Federal Police (AFP), and others. As the time for his trip to Bali gets closer, he works out a plan to outwit everyone and cover himself. It’s not going to be easy, though, and if it doesn’t work, he and his wife Maddie will very likely not stay alive. In this novel, a few ‘cover yourself’ decisions lead to some very bad places.
Joseph Wambaugh’s The Choirboys shows how the instinct to protect oneself can play out on the job. The novel begins with a shooting in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park. Several police officers were involved, and the Internal Affairs team is going to have to sort out what happened and exactly who did what. As they begin their work, they learn that the officers are all members of a group called the Choirboys. They’re called that because they get together in the park after their shift to vent, drink, smoke, and sometimes keep company with a couple of cocktail waitresses who occasionally join the group. They call those evenings ‘choir practice.’ As the Internal Affairs people sift through the shooting incident, we learn more about these police officers, and about the events that led up to the shooting. One of their most important codes is that they protect themselves and each other. They cover up for themselves and their fellow officers, and this plays an important role in the way the novel plays out.
And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers. In one plot thread, Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne is working on a story about dubious land developer Denny Graham. It seems that he has a history of wooing clients with promises of idyllic retirement properties, and then sells them on his scheme with lavish cocktail parties and glowing testimonials. Then, when they’ve invested, they find that he’s swindled them. Very few people are willing to speak out, because Graham is both wealthy and influential. Besides, it’s a terrible embarrassment to admit you’ve been cheated. Still, Thorne gets a few people to agree to talk to her. When it comes down to it, though, several of her interviewees suddenly change their minds and won’t talk. She’s sure that Graham is involved in covering himself to avoid prosecution, and wants to pursue the story. But her boss asks her to do another story, on the upcoming 30th anniversary of the South African Springbok’s 1981 rugby tour of New Zealand. It was a pivotal event, and people still talk about it. But Thorne isn’t sure there’s a new story angle there. And she doesn’t want to lose her chance to go after Denny Graham. Still, she does what she’s asked to do, and uncovers a long-hidden murder.
Most people want to protect themselves. And that can lead to a lot of things, from keeping a ‘paper trail’ to murder. It can also make for a solid layer in a crime novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Hovvdy’s Thru.