If you’ve ever owned a car; gone on a trip; bought, sold or rented a home; or used the services of a bank, you’ve engaged in government bureaucratic ‘red tape.’ That sort of paperwork is actually a part of many transactions – too many for me to list here – that most of us go through, often without thinking about it.
On the one hand, ‘red tape’ can be frustrating, expensive, and time-consuming. On the other, it also protects a person in a lot of ways. For instance, home inspection reports are an important part of buying a home. They’re part of the lengthy process of making the purchase because they protect both buyer and seller. And the police and other law enforcement professionals use documentation to solve crimes. That’s how they trace money, find out who was driving a certain car, and so on. It’s also how they find people. So, it’s no wonder that we see that sort of ‘red tape’ in crime fiction.
For example, in Freeman Wills Crofts’ The Cask, the Bullfinch has just docked in London after a trip from Rouen. When her cargo is unloaded, the body of a woman is discovered in one of the casks. Since she has no identification, the police can’t determine who she is at first. But the cask was shipped from Paris, so there’s a possibility that the woman is French. Inspector Burnley of Scotland Yard is in charge of the case, and he travels to Paris to see if he can trace the woman. He finds out that her name was Annette Boirac, and that she was married to the director of a manufacturing company. The husband claims he was out of town at the time she was killed, and there’s evidence to support him. But, of course, spouses are always suspects, so Burnley considers the husband a ‘person of interest.’ There are other possibilities, though, and Burnley has to follow the trail of paperwork and ‘red tape’ to find out where the cask was at each stage in its journey. Once he traces the cask, he’s able to put together what happened to the victim.
Several of Agatha Christie’s stories make reference to documentation like passports. For instance, in Sad Cypress, the date of a stamp on a passport gives Hercule Poirot useful information as he tries to solve the poisoning murder of Mary Gerrard. And in Murder on the Orient Express, a passport gives Poirot an important clue as to who stabbed Samuel Ratchett during a three-day journey on the famous Orient Express train. There’s also a mention of the frustration of ‘red tape’ in Taken at the Flood. In that novel, Hercule Poirot gets involved with the Cloade family when family patriarch Gordon Cloade is killed without leaving a will. This pits his family against his widow, Rosaleen, and ends up in more than one death. One of the family members, Rowley Cloade, is trying to make a living as a farmer, and one of his challenges is handling the government paperwork involved. In one scene, he visits a cousin, Jeremy Cloade, for some help in getting through it. Admittedly, that particular visit, and Rowley’s frustration at the paperwork, aren’t a major part of the novel. But they do play roles, and Poirot uses the information he gets about that visit to good advantage.
Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee is a Chinese Canadian living in Toronto. She’s a forensic accountant who works for a Hong Kong company that helps people who’ve been swindled and are desperate to get their money back. For those people, the police are not an option, and the company Lee works for is a last resort. She is very good at tracing money, and often makes use of the ‘red tape’ involved in transferring funds, especially when they are moved to an offshore account. In several of the Ava Lee novels, we see how banks use ‘red tape’ to protect themselves and their customers. And we see how forensic accountants like Lee use that information to ‘follow the money.’
In Dave Butler’s Full Curl, we are introduced to Jenny Willson, a game warden in Canada’s Banff National Park. When she discovers that poaching is going on in the park, she is determined to find out who is responsible. She traces the incidents to those involved, but soon finds out that there are some very highly placed people among them. There are plenty of wealthy collectors who don’t ask questions, and plenty of hunters happy to provide trophies for a price. If Willson is to stop the poaching, she’s going to have to risk going up against some wealthy and dangerous individuals. One of the elements in the novel is the paperwork and ‘red tape’ that’s involved when goods of any kind are transported across national borders. As Willson follows that paperwork to find out how the poaching ring works, she discovers that it may be connected with other illegal transportation, including drugs. In the end, that ‘red tape’ provides Willson useful information that helps her solve the case.
Of course, ‘red tape’ can go too far. Sometimes things are held up for years for that reason (Right, fans of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House?). But there are creative ways to face that challenge. Consider, for instance, Andrea Camlleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano, who lives and works in Sicily. Over the years, he’s found that bureaucracy and ‘red tape’ sometimes make it too difficult to solve a case and get the answers he needs. And he’s not alone. The culture has gotten around that difficulty, though, by developing an unofficial system of trading information, ‘pulling strings,’ and cultivating friendships with the ‘right’ people. It’s easier than the paperwork.
And that’s the thing. Paperwork and other ‘red tape’ can be frustrating, costly, and more. But police and other detectives rely on that trail to help them get answers. Like just about anything else, it’s a proverbial double-edged sword.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Moody Blues’ In the Beginning.