We Do What We Can*

One of the many reasons that readers love crime fiction is that many crime stories offer a way (at least a fictional way) to restore order after chaos. There’s a crime, it’s investigated, and it’s solved. That offers readers a sense of closure and even satisfaction. The fact is, though, that life isn’t usually that ordered (perhaps that’s why people gravitate towards crime fiction). The ‘good guys’ don’t always win, and the ‘bad guys’ don’t always face justice.

There’s plenty of crime fiction that reflects that, too. Some crime novels have endings that acknowledge that the best we can do to fight crime is just do the best we can. That truth can be unsatisfactory to some readers, but plenty of readers believe that it does reflect reality.

Agatha Christie hints at that in some of her stories. In Cat Among the Pigeons for instance, Hercule Poirot investigates murder and kidnapping at Meadowbank, an exclusive school for girls. It turns out that it’s related to international politics, valuable jewels and intrigue. On the one hand, the specific cases are solved, which offers some sense of order to the reader. On the other, it’s clear that the sort of intrigue and politics that play such a role in the novel are always going on, and always will. The best that those ‘on the side of the angels’ can do is to stop or prevent what they can. There are suggestions of this view in a few other of Christie’s stories, too, especially those where international politics and crime rings play a role.

We see a ‘do the best we can’ perspective in several of John le Carré’s novels, too. And that makes sense, since many of them feature espionage and counterespionage. Part of the reason that so many of le Carré’s characters are cynical, even jaded, is that they know that, even if they do catch a particular person, or find out the identity of a mole, it won’t stop the spying. There will continue to be espionage, murder, and more no matter what a particular agent may or may not do. The best that characters such as George Smiley can do is to do the best they can with each mission and hope they’re making at least a bit of difference. It’s little wonder that spies seldom stay idealistic for long.

The same might be said of fictional characters who work for other agencies such as the FBI. Cat Connor’s Ellie Conway Iverson, for instance, begins her career as an FBI special agent. As that series goes on, she moves up the ranks until she becomes a special agent in charge (SAC). She tries to be optimistic, but she is well aware that, for instance, terrorism will not go away just because she and her team close down one particular group. Abductions, human trafficking rings, and so on will keep happening even after a crime is solved. The best the team can do is to stop what they can, prevent what they can, and do their best. It can be frustrating, but at the same time, it is realistic.

Police also face what sometimes seems like an uphill battle. Close down one methamphetamine manufacturer, and more will take that person’s place. Arresting one murderer doesn’t prevent others. It’s a difficult fact to accept, but there is truth to it. We see that, for instance, in Karim Miské’s Arab Jazz, which takes place mostly in Paris. When the body of Laura Vignola is discovered at her apartment, Lieutenants Rachel Kupferstein and Jean Hamelot investigate. One possibility is that the murder was motivated by religious extremism. The victim came from a strictly Jehovah’s Witness family who might conceivably have killed her, since she had rejected that religion. There are ultra-orthodox Jews and Muslims in the area, too, who might have killed Laura because she wore modern Western clothing and didn’t subscribe to strong religious beliefs. There are other possibilities as well, and the police look at them also. In the end, they find out the truth behind the killing, but the ending isn’t neat and traditionally satisfactory. There is a feeling that there will always be evil. The best we can do is to do the best we can. The police are not going to solve every crime and prevent all other crimes.

There’s a sense of that in Robert Gott’s Detective Inspector (DI) Titus Lambert novels. Lambert lives and works in World War II Melbourne, Fascism is a real concern, as there are several Nazi groups in Australia (that’s one of the main themes in The Holiday Murders). There are also religious divides (we see that in The Port Fairy Murders). Against this tension, Lambert and his team are faced with some brutal cases of murder as well as an enemy determined to destroy them. They know that they can’t stop every Nazi and fascist group, even if they make arrests. They can’t prevent religious discord, either. They do their best with the resources they have, and they try to have a sense of integrity about what they do.

There are plenty of other examples, too, of crime fiction that acknowledges that all we can do is the best we can do (right, fans of William McIlhanney’s work?). In some senses, that can be disheartening. And that can put some readers off. But it also makes doing one’s best all the more important.

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Sheryl Crow.


8 thoughts on “We Do What We Can*

  1. Fascinating Margot. I love the fact that, as in real life, villains do not always get their come-uppence. My baddies don’t always get caught. If only criminals were always caught.

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    1. Thanks, Jane. Much as we might wish we could, we can’t stop all of the ‘bad guys,’ and we prevent/stop all crime. It’s always going to be there. Stories that reflect that are realistic, even if they’re not always uplifting. As you say, sometimes the villain doesn’t get caught, and it’s interesting that your work reflects that – that’s not easy to do!

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  2. While I enjoy some books with this kind of theme – McIlvanney is a great example – on the whole I prefer the individual criminal with a unique motive type of story, where when the villain is caught, it seems as if all’s right with the world again. The type of novel that deals with drug crime or people trafficking and so on is undoubtedly more realistic, but I find it quite hard to care about the culprit being caught since, as you point out, another one will simply spring up to fill the vacancy. Of course, this is the complete opposite to my reaction to real crime where I’d be much keener to see a people trafficker banged up for life than one individual who for personal reasons bumped off an unpleasant spouse or work colleague! Not that I’m in favour of that either, you understand… 😉

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    1. Oh, I understand, completely, FictionFan! 😉 And in all seriousness, I agree with you. There’s just a difference between reading about the police arresting someone for killing, say, an abusive spouse and the police arresting people traffickers. I have zero sympathy or caring for the latter. And in real life, that’s as it is, but it’s hard to sustain a story with a characters like that. I give McIllvanney a lot of credit for being about to pull it off. I think it’s easier for the reader to be drawn into a story where there are individual characters you can really care about, and, as you say, a feeling that all will be right with the world once the ‘bad guy’ is caught. In real life, it doesn’t work that way, but stil…

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  3. Interesting post Margot. It;s funny sometimes I want the world back in order at the end, sometimes I can live with imperfection. I suppose it’s how the author gets us there that counts. Le Carre, Gott, McIlvanney – all on the never diminshing TBR pile!

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    1. Thanks, Col.I agree with you that the way the plot’s resolved (or not) depends a lot on how the author presents it. In the end, I think, it’s a matter of things fitting together and falling out naturally. That consistency really makes a difference, at least to me. And I know exactly what you mean about the never-ending TBR!

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