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And On To The Moriarity Problem

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Okay, before I start this, I want to warn anybody reading it that it contains a great, big, enormous SPOILER–I’m supposed to cap that–for a book called The Old Wine Shades, by Martha Grimes.

There’s simply now way for me to talk about what I want to talk about here without revealing the ending.  That said, I’ll absolutely guarantee that Robert would hate this thing if he read it, and I do know a number of you tend to read more on the level of thrillers than straight detective stories, so we may be mostly all right.

The Old Wine Shades has one of the most interesting premises I’ve seen for a murder mystery in a long time.  Detective Richard Jury, Grime’s series detective, a British police officer attached to New Scotland Yard, is sitting in a pub one night when a man comes in a starts to tell him a very odd story.  The man’s name is Harry Johnson, and the story is about a friend of his, Hugh, whose wife and nine-year-old son disappeared under very strange circumstances only a year earlier. 

Actually, it wasn’t just the wife and son, it was the wife and son and dog.  The three had been out looking at houses in Surrey, ones close to a special school for autistic children that the wife wanted to place the son in, and they just vanished into thin air.  Then, a few months later, the dog came back to the family’s flat in London. 

In the meantime, Hugh has become so distraught that he can no longer function, and checked himself in to a psychiatric facility for depression.

It’s the kind of story that probably would have gone nowhere at all under ordinary circumstances, but Jury is, at the time this starts, no so much formally on suspension, but shunted off to the sidelines while the higher ups conduct an investigation into a case in which, in order to rescure two kidnapped children, he entered a house without a warrant to retrieve them. 

It’s the sort of case that should have been cut and dried–Jury went in not only without a warrant, but without probable cause to get one.  He had a hunch. 

But his hunch was right, and two children were saved, and public opinion is not going to be on the side of “if he couldn’t get the warrant, he should have let them die,” so here he  is, sort of but not really suspended, without much of anything to do.

So Jury lets himself get interested, and goes around checking up on the story–which seems to check out.

Anyway, to get to the punch line here–it turns out, of course, that Harry Johnson set the whole thing up, targetted Jury especially because of his present professional difficulties, and has arranged everything in such a way that he cannot get arrested for what he’s done.

Which is not to kill Hugh’s wife and son–Hugh’s son died in a boating accident and his wife has gone off to stay with her father in the South of France to get over her grief–but to kill his own mistress, whom he convinced to take part in the original charade.

Whatever.  It really is a very good plot.  But it occurs to me that it’s also a good example of what I think of as Moriarity Syndrome.

The problem with Great Detectives–and for all the rhetorical understatement of Grime’s writing, Jury is a Great Detective–is that it’s difficult to find crime and criminals for him to investigate that fully exercise his talents.

I’ve gone off before now on the stupidity of actual crime and actual criminals.  Hell, even most of the people we consider to be “intelligent” criminals aren’t, they’re just people able to exploit the willful self-delusion of the authorities.  Take Bernard Madoff, whose scam, though huge, should have lasted for about a minute and a half.  It wasn’t even particularly clever.  The man just said, “I can guarantee you seventeen percent!”  And everybody just went, “Okay!”

Had anybody even thought about what Madoff was presenting, for even two seconds, they wouldn’t have touched it.  And, in fact, some people did think about it, but nobody would listen to them.

Whatever, it doesn’t take a genius to be Bernie Madoff.  We know that because Madoff isn’t a genius.  But a Great Detective needs a criminal genius as a foil to his own talents, and therein resides the problem.

Really intelligent criminals would not get caught.  At the very least, they would be very hard to catch, and they wouldn’t be caught often. 

The detective novel, however, requires that criminals be caught, at least most of the time–the detective must not only solve the crime, but bring the criminal to justice.

And you could certainly write a detective novel in which the Great Detective went up against the Crininal Genius and then solved the case and got the CG arrested, but as soon as that happens  you’ve got the problem of the next book, or the next story.

It just isn’t plausible that there are dozens of Criminal Geniuses out there.  It’s barely plausible that there are criminals smart enough to carry a Hercule Poirot plot on an ordinary day. 

So what the novelist usually does–what Grimes did with Harry Johnson–is what Doyle did with Moriarity:  the detective solves the puzzle, but is unable to bring the criminal to justice, thereby giving the criminal a chance to launch another diabolical plot for the Great Detective to solve.

In general, I don’t mind this particular chain of events.  I certainly never have minded it with Holmes.

I found myself, however, very annoyed at the Martha Grimes novel.  Harry Johnson is  not only a Criminal Genius, but quite literally insane–and I do admit to being interested in the characterization, which was good.  I know what kind of person Grimes is talking about, and I know why that kind of person is insane if the word “insanity” is to make any sense at all–but it’s not the kind of insanity that can get you a plea for trial.  But I’ve met the Harry Grimeses of this world, just not any quite as intelligent as Harry is supposed to be.

I’m  not exactly sure why I found it annoying that Harry doesn’t end up arrested.  I’ve got no problem with a continuing story over the course of a series–that is, we meet CG A in this book, then he shows up again in another book, and finally, after six or seven encounters, we have the book where he finally gets caught.

And I know nothing that would indicate to me that this is not what Grimes intends to do. 

What’s more, I’ve got no problem with detective novels where the bad guy, although discovered, just gets away.  Life is like that sometimes.  I’m not one of those people who wants my fiction to reflect some idealized world unlike the one I’m living in.

But, with all that said, this annoyed the hell out of me this time.  And I think my annoyance may be the herald of something deeper, an underlying impatience with the entire Great Detective/Criminal Genius trope, as a trope.

I think that if I were able to get what I wanted from a story about a Criminal Genius,  the detective would have to be not a Great Detective, but an average but determined plodder, a sincere, thoroughly decent Ordinary Guy.

And I think that the reason I want that is that that is what I need in the real world–in the real world, there are no Hercule Poirots, no Sherlock Holmeses, not even many Richard Juries.  There are guys who maybe managed to get through a couple of years of community college, or four years of the lowest ranked state schools, who aren’t the smartest guys in the room, but who are charged with finding and putting away the people most likely to hurt us.

Fortunately, real life criminals are also not Moriarities–or Harry Johnsons–but if a Moriarity or a Johnson came along, then none of us would be safe unless our local Average Guys could catch them.

And, I think, it would make a very good novel.

But that’s the kind of thing I think about when I’m not getting enough sleep.

Written by janeh

November 10th, 2009 at 10:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses to 'And On To The Moriarity Problem'

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  1. Well, Superman & Batman seem to handle the need for supervillains to catch by catching them, and bringing them to justice, and then in the next story, by some unexplained method, there they are again! A slight disconnect in reality renews the supervillain for another story.

    I doubt this would work with detective fiction. Readers expect at least some congruence with reality, where someone incarcerated either stays that way or there is an explanation for getting out.

    Jane says: “Really intelligent criminals would not get caught. At the very least, they would be very hard to catch, and they wouldn’t be caught often. ” I wondered if a really intelligent criminal, one who has been getting away with it on a regular basis, might not at some point get bored, feel isolated, and start playing games with the law, tempting fate, as it were. And if they didn’t find any Great Detectives on their trail, they could very well become more and more blatant in their provocation of the police, until the Ordinary Guy does indeed catch them.

    But I suspect that’s not what you’re talking about. You want the OG to catch the CG because of the OG’s efforts and methods, not because the CG was giving it away.

    Sounds like a Clint Eastwood type movie….after years and years of solid police legwork, the OG cop puts together enough evidence to nail the CG that no one else has even suspected.

    If the story isn’t already out there, I guess someone needs to write it. Know any authors?


    10 Nov 09 at 1:38 pm

  2. There are other important personal characteristics than intelligence, and one of those could be Moriarty’s downfall – strong emotion such as anger making him careless, a contempt for others that makes him mis-judge them or simply ignore them (this would be good directed at the ordinary policeman), and so on.

    Motivation would be a problem. You’d almost have to assume some kind of personality disorder, because most really bright people without some kind of serious flaw or weakness could probably get anything they wanted more safely legally. Maybe if they had a monomania of some sort…Politics would do it. Lots of bright well-educated people have gone in for political ideologies which require them to become mass murderers.

    As for ordinary detectives, there’s a British TV series called ‘The Last Detective’. I think I read one of the books it was based on, which didn’t grab me much, but I liked the TV show. Davies is just a really nice guy, not particularly tough or brilliant, walked all over by his co-workers and ex-wife, but he works out who committed the crimes.


    10 Nov 09 at 1:58 pm

  3. My interest in mysteries has always been on the development of character (including the philosophical musings of some) rather than the puzzle of the crime. I’m a fan of Martha Grimes’ books, but it has been a while since I read The Old Wine Shades. It certainly wasn’t one of my favorites. I hadn’t really considered Jury so much a great detective as an interesting man with strong observational skills.

    That said, I assume that if there are Criminal Geniuses out there – they rank that designation because they haven’t been caught. They haven’t been revealed to the public. The criminals we all recognize are those that have been caught – usually because they are basically stupid or greedy – or both. I don’t think they haven’t been caught because there are no detectives capable of catching them but because the system doesn’t allow a detective to single mindedly pursue a single criminal.

    Like Cheryl, I wonder what the motivation would be for a genius to become a criminal genius. If you are a criminal genius, do you necessarily have some flaw that makes you amoral or evil? In that case, can a similar flaw cause a genius to become a great detective? Two sides of the same coin?

    In answer to the problem of who will catch the Criminal Genius – well, presumably he will succumb to the ordinary flaws of the ordinary criminal. He will want to be known for his genius – to become known, he must reveal himself. In such a case, ordinary police work will track him down.


    10 Nov 09 at 5:13 pm

  4. There’s one such detective you’re probably already familiar with–Terry Pratchett’s Sam Vimes. As Sam puts it, he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer–in fact, he’s probably a spoon. But his absolute refusal to give up, and his integrity, allow him to succeed in the end. I can’t remember that he’s been up against any criminal geniuses, but he’s been up against conspiracies of the rich & powerful, which I think are probably even harder to bring to a successful conclusion. Besides being, I fear, more true to life than a Criminal Genius. And there’s always another group of them coming along.

    If you would like to see a very entertaining Master Criminal, take a look at Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody books which include Sethos (he’s not in all the books.) He’s hilarious, and he does have a good reason, at least in his own mind, for his villainous behavior. And for repeatedly coming up against Our Heroes. He always gets foiled, although sometimes, since he’s a Master of Disguise, the heroes don’t know it’s him that they’re foiling until after it’s all over.

    Lee B

    10 Nov 09 at 5:30 pm

  5. In the movie “Catch me if you can,” the FBI agent was a bit on the plodding side as he began the chase after Abagnale and eventually caught him. As I understand from reading a bit about it, the actual story was quite different. If I read a detective novel with this storyline–average detective catches master criminal–I would be disappointed if the hunt and the capture took place in the same book. Too much like televison. A series of books or even two books would work better for me.


    10 Nov 09 at 5:32 pm

  6. “There are guys who maybe managed to get through a couple of years of community college, or four years of the lowest ranked state schools, who aren’t the smartest guys in the room, but who are charged with finding and putting away the people most likely to hurt us.”

    Ah! You two must not have met. Jane Haddam? Sergeant Hemmingway of Scotland Yard. I believe Georgette Heyer’s comment was “good grammar school rather than second-rate public school.” He dabbles a bit in popular psychology books, which his superiors insist he doesn’t understand, and he can understand a little French–which is helpful because he doesn’t look or speak as though he ought to understand any. But he’s thorough, methodical and a good observer–and he takes good notes. I wouldn’t want to have Hemingway on my trail at all.
    Or Mike Hammer, who really does sometimes deal with criminal geniuses and conspiracies. Hemingway is the better detective, and much more likely to find evidence which can be used in court. But Mike is tough and relentless and his cases aren’t likely to end up in court anyway.
    You might also pick up RED THREADS and see how Inspector Cramer does when Nero Wolfe isn’t getting in his way. As I recall, Wolfe once observed that in nine cases in ten, Cramer “and his army” were more use than he–though he did claim that they sometimes persisted in a case only for fear that Wolfe would solve it after they gave up. Well, we all have our vanities.
    Josephine Tey mentions Superintendent Barker: “He was a plodder. But that ws the worst that could be said about him. And when he started plodding after some one, that some one usually wished he had never been born.”

    Not all the people who bring fictional criminals to justice are Great Detectives.

    On the other side of the reality line, I’d say (1) there are plenty of criminal conspiracists out there, but not many connive at jewel heists. Politics is the natural field of a genius megalomanica, and Fu Manchu seems more credible a century on than Moriarty.(2) The odds are stacked so heavily against the law in a democratic society, that it takes a genius to solve the crimes of those who are simply moderately skilled and lucky. (3) I can live with it taking a novel or two to track down a criminal, but I have no use for a series in which it doesn’t happen. The point of fiction is that it improves on perceived reality: the causation is clear, justice can be seen to be done, and the dialogue is much improved. In a realistic detective novel, the investigating officers would mumble inaudibly or obscenely–mostly about sports–suspect a murder but never have enough eivdence to make an arrest, and then go on to the next case.

    Why would I pay for such a story? The newspapers pretty well give them away.

    And many of the comic books are usually pretty good about explaining how the villain came to be loose again. It just doesn’t take a lot of panels. When you think of it, DC has banged teh drums against capital punishment as far back as I can remember, but the story arc works the other way. Locking up a supergenius homicidal maniac is a temporary solution to a permanent problem.


    10 Nov 09 at 6:06 pm

  7. I think there are some crooks who are simply excellent liars and con artists. They aren’t necessarily really smart or even moderately smart, but they lie so well it’s hard to catch them. My brother met two when he was vetting people to be foster families. Kids were abused (not sexually) in a family and the husband’s sister and husband wanted to take the kids. He interviewed them at length; nothing was wrong but “it didn’t feel right.” For the first time in his practice, he asked another person to interview them. Same result: nothing wrong, but… They assigned a bunch of therapists and social workers to the family. And after 4 months it turned out that they were also abusing the kids and had been in cahoots with the birth family. He said that people like this are really hard to catch because they lie brilliantly. They’ve spent their lives doing it and perfecting it, and they don’t give themselves away like other “non-professional” liars.

    I met someone like that a month ago. A young woman acquaintance of my dacha (country house) landlord’s granddaughter asked to live at the dacha for a couple of weeks. She seemed like a nice kid. But she constantly wanted things from me – rides into the city, a cell phone to borrow because hers broke, etc. The family eventually asked her to leave, and afterwards we discovered that she’d stolen a lot of stuff and money from me and my landlords. She wasn’t that smart – we figured out something was wrong within a week — but on the other hand, she managed to rob us all.

    Here in Russia, where a major part of the population has kind of lost its moral compass, there are well-educated, rather smart people running scams. They are fairly complex, psychologically interesting – the way they hook you – and require a lot of organization and professionalism to run. None of them is Moriarty, but they aren’t you average dumb jerk who gets caught walking down the street with a stolen TV. There are kids hacking into US banks and moving millions to offshore numbered accounts.

    There was a fabulously complicated scam when some scientists used a mainframe computer to break bank codes. I know about this because I was one of the first victims; in the course of three weeks, someone used “my card” in Manhattan to clean $10K out of my bank account. When I went in to the credit card rep in Moscow, it became clear that they didn’t think I was the victim – they thought I was the perp who had committed fraud. The main reason was that if someone had figured out how to grab the PIN codes before they were encrypted or break the bank codes, there would be thousands of cases.

    And then, six months later, there were thousands of cases. The cops here aren’t Sherlock Holmes, and they don’t have much technical support (ie, they’ve just gotten computers in the precincts). But they eventually caught the bank card guys by plodding work and some help from the credit card companies, who knew the four or fives ways this could theoretically be done. Once they eliminated a mechanical means to pull the codes (there have been cases of that, too: crooks put an attachment to an ATM that looks just like the real thing, only all it does is register your PIN and account number), they figured it had to be a mainframe that could break the code. And then they simply checked every mainframe computer in Moscow that had the potential to do the job and eventually found it.

    The crooks had a whole industry that manufactured cards with the stolen codes, an army of people taking out the limit once a week (never over the limit so no red flags went up), dozens of bank accounts where the money got sent. It involved people in something like 10 countries. You look at this stuff and think: Wow. If they went legit, they’d be Bill Gates.

    Then there’s that cop in the US who seems to have killed his two wives. Because he was a cop, he could cover his tracks really well, and as I understand it, they can’t find proof. He’s not a genius; he just applied what brains he has to the task at hand. And he lies like a rug.

    So I guess I don’t believe in a Moriarty who harnesses his brilliance in the name of crime. But I do believe in this kind of pathological liar-(borderline) sociopath with a decent brain who uses his or her intelligence to commit a crime/crimes. Cops everywhere will tell you they have a couple of these guys on their mental misery list: they know they did it (killed their wife, embezzled money, whatever), but they can’t prove it.


    11 Nov 09 at 5:05 am

  8. Scammers are really a special subset of criminals. Excepting those who actually seem to believe their scams (the people who really do believe that they know this marvellous money-making investment opportunity and put their own money into it), they often seem to operate out of a weird combination of contempt and self-ascribed virture. The mark is stupid. You can’t cheat an honest man, and anyone who falls for their scam is not merely stupid, but even more dishonest than they are – and this in scams that play on the generosity or naivete of the mark, not their greed! And yet, because of the personal touch and because of the way they often target extremely vulnerable people like the lonely elderly, they do immense damage way beyond the dollar value alone. They must be superb actors (ok, liars), as you note. We had a minor case here – a sick homeless penniless woman appealing to a clergyman’s wife for money. I think she got some, but the donor mentioned the sad case to a friend who, like the scammer, was a very longterm resident of the city. And for families who have been here for several generations, this is a very small city. The friend knew the woman, her sister, her mother, her grandparents – and knew that she and her sister had a bit of a habit of making false appeals for charity. I gather she was very convincing, though. If you’re going to do that sort of thing here, it’s really a mistake to mention that you live in one of the older (if traditionally poor) neighbourhoods, especially if you really do. Someone will know someone who knows your family.

    Not all cops make good criminals. There was one in Ontario not long ago who claimed that the mistress who was pressuring him to leave his wife died naturally, and he put her body in a barrel and deposted it in the countryside because that was what she would have wanted. I don’t think the court believed him!


    11 Nov 09 at 10:12 am

  9. In Russia the scams often play on people’s decency. Like this one: you’ve just gotten into your car. A car pulls up next to you, but a bit behind you, so you have to turn your head far to the left. The driver asks you for directions. As you give the directions, the driver’s “associate” opens the passenger door of your car and lifts your purse. It takes 20 seconds. You don’t hear or notice a thing, even though your purse is 2 inches from your right arm. I know; happened to me. (Now I lock the doors the second I get in the car and hook my purse strap in my seat belt.) There are other scams, too, that offer a deal too good to be true, and then I suppose the mark is complicit. But most of them require a fair amount of skill and organizational ability.


    11 Nov 09 at 10:53 am

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