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View Full Version : Mysteries where the detective realizes he was on the wrong side (spoilers possible)


Skald the Rhymer
12-27-2005, 11:39 PM
A while back, we were discussing The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers here on the dope. I won't rehearse the discussion -- because, frankly, I don't remember the details and I'm too lazy to look it up -- but the discussion brought to my mind an oddity about the book: by the end of it, when Peter Wimsey has solved the central murder, he wishes he'd never gotten involved; not because of what he's had to go through to solve his case, but because he thinks the murderer was, for the most part, in the right. Can anybody else think of mysteries in which this happens--in which the detective decides he or she was on the wrong side in serving his client.

The first one that comes to mind for me is Robert B. Parker's Mortal Stakes. Spenser, of course, is often apt to tell a client to go screw himself if he decides he doesn't like him; but in this case he quite deliberately screws his client...


Spenser is hired to find out of the Boston Red Sox's star pitcher, Marty Rabb, is shaving points or throwing games. In his investigation he finds that Rabb's wife, Linda, is an ex-hooker who starred in a single porn movie, and Marty is being blackmailed to prevent her public humiliation, and the guilt is killing him. Spenser ends up having to kill two of the blackmailers, but to prevent Marty's career from being ruined, he never reveals the truth to his employer and basically throws away his fee.


Any other examples?

Raguleader
12-27-2005, 11:47 PM
"Detective Story" from the Animatrix, where The detective is hired by the Agents to track down Trinity for them. He realizes just after he's found her that she's a good guy and that he has just led the bad guys straight to her, and during a shootout on a train (with a snubnosed revolver no less :D ), buys her the time she needs to jump out the window and escape.

picunurse
12-28-2005, 03:38 AM
Six (Three) Days of the Condor
Government reader goes out to pick up lunch for everyone.When he returns, they are all shot dead.
He finds it's his own boss.

Rich Mann
12-28-2005, 03:50 AM
A few Agatha Christie titles--most notably "Murder on the Orient Express" where Poirot decides the victim had it coming and opts to not pursue the (several) murderers.

Finagle
12-28-2005, 07:54 AM
Memento -- not only is the protagonist on the wrong side, he is the wrong side.

Ethilrist
12-28-2005, 08:05 AM
An episode of Moonlighting in which they were looking for Cinderella, who was on the lam from the mob.

An episode of Veronica Mars in which she was hired to find somebody who was on the lam from the Russion mob.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,
one of the detectives turns out to be a replicant, which is where they got the line in the movie, "Hey, Deckard, have you ever taken this test?" in the book, he did, and passed; the other one failed...

C K Dexter Haven
12-28-2005, 08:26 AM
(Speaking as poster, not moderator): I'm a little confused about what the specific topic is.

For instance, in THE MALTESE FALCON, when Sam Spade realizes that his client is the murderer. He does turn her in. So, is that an example where he's "on the wrong side"?

There are many many many examples of the bad guy turns out to be the detective's boss, including several of John LeCarre's spy novels.

Zsofia
12-28-2005, 09:12 AM
Well, I came in here to mention The Nine Tailors, which I read a few months ago. And then I tried to think of another one along those lines, because I know there's plenty of them, but I can't right at this very moment.

Skald the Rhymer
12-28-2005, 09:46 AM
(Speaking as poster, not moderator): I'm a little confused about what the specific topic is.

For instance, in THE MALTESE FALCON, when Sam Spade realizes that his client is the murderer. He does turn her in. So, is that an example where he's "on the wrong side"?

There are many many many examples of the bad guy turns out to be the detective's boss, including several of John LeCarre's spy novels.

Speaking as OP, I was really looking for instances in which the detective decides that the situation was better off without his involvement, not where the bad guy was the client. In the two examples I gave in my OP, for instance, Wimsey and Spenser were hired by people completely on the up and up; but by the time they had completed their assignments, they felt more sympathy for the original "bad guy" than they did for their clients (and in Spenser's case, actively worked to protect the bad guy.)

Bricker
12-28-2005, 10:09 AM
Speaking as OP, I was really looking for instances in which the detective decides that the situation was better off without his involvement, not where the bad guy was the client. In the two examples I gave in my OP, for instance, Wimsey and Spenser were hired by people completely on the up and up; but by the time they had completed their assignments, they felt more sympathy for the original "bad guy" than they did for their clients (and in Spenser's case, actively worked to protect the bad guy.)

Spenser's done that a lot.

In Chance, he works against Julius Ventura's interests after he finds Anthony Meeker. In Playmates, he ignores the point shaving by Dwayne Woodcock, even though that's what he was hired to find. In Potshot, he REALLY screws over his client after discovering she was a player in the land deal. In Hugger Mugger, he kinda-sorta goes against his client's wishes (assuming his client was the stables rather than Clive).

I bet I can come up with three or four more...

critter42
12-28-2005, 11:39 AM
There is the Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange" (http://doyle.thefreelibrary.com/The-Return-of-Sherlock-Holmes/12-1)
The "victim" is a violent and abusive man. The suspect kills the victim when he witness the man beating his wife (whom the suspect is in love with), rushes in to defend her and winds up killing the husband in the subsequent fight. Holmes determines that he is a good and upright person, holds a kangaroo court in his study with Holmes as the judge, Watson as the jury. Watson acquits him and Holmes lets him go.

Thudlow Boink
12-28-2005, 11:42 AM
I was gonna say, before reading critter42's response: aren't there some Sherlock Holmes stories where, after solving the mystery, good old Sherl decides to quietly let the matter slide rather than turning the criminal in?

Skald the Rhymer
12-28-2005, 11:49 AM
I was gonna say, before reading critter42's response: aren't there some Sherlock Holmes stories where, after solving the mystery, good old Sherl decides to quietly let the matter slide rather than turning the criminal in?

I had forgotten Holmes. I think that, by the end of the Irene Adler affair, he decided she was much more honorable than the prince who was employing him and insulted the client to his face.

RealityChuck
12-28-2005, 11:55 AM
The Conversation, has a double twist on the theme.

Gene Hackman is hired by a big corporation to bug a couple walking in the park. After hearing their conversation, he sympathizes with them, and tries to protect them from the danger they are in from the corporation. As the twist, he discovers the two were actual plotting to murder the head of the corporation -- and succeed due to his unknowing assitance.

Skald the Rhymer
12-28-2005, 11:55 AM
Spenser's done that a lot.

In Chance, he works against Julius Ventura's interests after he finds Anthony Meeker. In Playmates, he ignores the point shaving by Dwayne Woodcock, even though that's what he was hired to find. In Potshot, he REALLY screws over his client after discovering she was a player in the land deal. In Hugger Mugger, he kinda-sorta goes against his client's wishes (assuming his client was the stables rather than Clive).

I bet I can come up with three or four more...

I don't think Chance quite qualifies.


As I recall it, Spenser and Hawk finds Anthony Meeker, but when Julius' daughter Shirley gets murdered by a third party in the course of the investigation, Julius pays the duo for their time, since they decline to murder Meeker for him. But at the end of the book, once he and Hawk and caught the actual murderer, Spenser decides that Anthony is morally complicit in Shirley's rape and murder, though not legally, and tells Julius where to find Anthony. Susan thought it was quite cold of him.

ryobserver
12-28-2005, 09:31 PM
I was gonna say, before reading critter42's response: aren't there some Sherlock Holmes stories where, after solving the mystery, good old Sherl decides to quietly let the matter slide rather than turning the criminal in?

In addition to "Abbey Grange", there are "The Boscombe Valley Mystery" and "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton".

In "Boscombe Valley" the killer is already dying, and Holmes agrees to let his secret die with him. In "Milverton" Holmes and Watson actually witness the murder, while burgling the victim's house. In both stories, the victims were blackmailing their killers and were extremely unpleasant people.

There are also Holmes stories where the matter slides because it turns out no prosecutable crime was committed. One of these, which turns out to involve an extremely mean trick instead of a crime, ends with the suspect running off after Holmes threatens him with a whip.

Exapno Mapcase
12-28-2005, 10:25 PM
Not exactly a dismissal of the client, although the effect was against the client's interests. Ellery Queen.

At the end of The Murderer Is A Fox, Ellery finds that the solution he gave to the case, one that led to a huge amount of media attention and acclaim, is wrong. Not only that but it was responsible for the suicide of an innocent.

He is shattered by the realization and only the threat of a serial killer (one of the first true serial killers in mysteries) brings him into the case in his next book, 1949's Cat of Many Tails. And again, Ellery finds that the solution he gave to the case, one that led to a huge amount of media attention and acclaim, is wrong. Not only that but it was responsible for the suicide of an innocent.

I don't know of any parallel in all of the mystery literature. A psychiatrist figure finally gets him to realize that he is not god, despite his god complex, and the series goes on. But in most ways, there was never another serious Queen book after that, just explorations of ways to turn the classic mystery novel into something more and when that failed, into stunts.

But what a way to go out.

Elendil's Heir
12-30-2005, 01:23 PM
Holmes takes somewhat the same approach in that holiday-season classic, "The Blue Carbuncle," when he lets the actual thief go after deciding the thief is a nebbish who will "sin no more," and that the case against the accused thief will surely collapse when it comes to trial.

What Is Schwa
12-30-2005, 01:30 PM
Would "A Scanner Darkly" by Phillip K. Dick qualify?

SCSimmons
12-30-2005, 02:05 PM
A few Agatha Christie titles--most notably "Murder on the Orient Express" where Poirot decides the victim had it coming and opts to not pursue the (several) murderers.

'Most notably?' What about Curtain? Hmmm? (I don't know if I want to put the climax of that one even in a spoiler box ...)

ComeToTheDarkSideWeHaveCookies
12-30-2005, 07:25 PM
Though not a literary example, The Big Easy (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092654/).

Peter Morris
12-30-2005, 09:46 PM
Nite Owl in Watchmen. Rorschach disagrees.

wonky
12-31-2005, 12:45 AM
'Most notably?' What about Curtain? Hmmm? (I don't know if I want to put the climax of that one even in a spoiler box ...)

Darn it. I was going to post that one.

Leaper
12-31-2005, 12:47 AM
Not exactly a dismissal of the client, although the effect was against the client's interests. Ellery Queen.

At the end of The Murderer Is A Fox, Ellery finds that the solution he gave to the case, one that led to a huge amount of media attention and acclaim, is wrong. Not only that but it was responsible for the suicide of an innocent.

Actually, that was Ten Days' Wonder. And don't forget, Ellery had the real killer commit suicide rather than drag everything out into the open again! Although, in the title you erroneously used, he DID end up hiding the truth of the crime, because it was an accident, and revealing it would've shattered the "killer," but there you are. :)

Baldwin
12-31-2005, 09:06 AM
In another great (but little-seen) Gene Hackman movie, Night Moves, the detective
about midway through finds that everything he thought was true about the case is wrong, and he's been used as a pawn. It's too late to straighten things out, but he tries, even at the risk of his fragile reconciliation with his estranged wife. There's no happy ending, but at least you do finally get a complete picture of what was going on -- if you look carefully to see who's flying the plane at the end.

Peter Morris
12-31-2005, 09:21 AM
Angel Heart
The detective discovers that his client is Lucifer, and that the detective is both the missing person he was hired to find, AND the murderer who has been killing all those people

Exapno Mapcase
12-31-2005, 11:11 AM
Leaper, D'oh! You're right, of course. (And your spoiler accentuates Ellery's god complex!)

The whole Wrightsville set of novels was like that, though. In the first one, Calamity Town, Ellery solves the crime in a way that has to be not publicly revealed and this is repeated in The Murderer Is a Fox. That makes the reversal in Ten Day's Wonder, where the public solution is the wrong one, even more poignant.

He followed that with Double, Double, in which the solution breaks his client's heart.

Most see the first three Wrightsville books as his best work, along with Cat of Many Tails, because Queen successfully for the time managed to push the formal puzzle mystery past its bounds to reflect a more realistic vision of the effects of murder on family relations. And the whole notion of mysteries creating order in society by using reason to capture and punish the guilty is completely subverted by endings where the public is never given the whole truth, and in fact sometimes given totally false solutions.

In many ways, neither he nor anyone else could take the formal puzzle novel any farther than this, and he and Carr and Christie and that whole bunch faded away with the coming the 1950s. Today, though, when I read mysteries whose solutions depend on a twisted reading of a single line in the book I do miss the old formal puzzles, unrealistic as they might have been.

wonky
12-31-2005, 11:16 AM
The whole Wrightsville set of novels was like that, though. In the first one, Calamity Town, Ellery solves the crime in a way that has to be not publicly revealed and this is repeated in The Murderer Is a Fox.

Calamity Town is my favorite Ellery Queen. I wrote some ginormous dissertation on it at university, but for the life of me I can't remember what I was nattering on about!

astorian
12-31-2005, 11:23 AM
I didn't care much for anything Rex Stout wrote in the last 10 years or so of his life, but his last Nero Wolfe novel, "A Family Matter," fits the category.

Wolfe spends much of the novel trying to find a connection between a murder case and Richard Nixon. In reality, the murder had nothing to do with Watergate, and was committed by a longtime employee of Wolfe, a character who'd been appearing in Nero Wolfe mysteries for 40 years.

SkipMagic
12-31-2005, 11:28 AM
Angel Heart
The detective discovers that his client is Lucifer, and that the detective is both the missing person he was hired to find, AND the murderer who has been killing all those people
Damnit, that was gonna be my contribution. :p

The movie, I thought, was pretty bad, but it's worth watching as a contribution to the Faust mythos. It takes it in an original and interesting direction--even if the execution was pretty poor.

Regallag_The_Axe
12-31-2005, 12:40 PM
Another film example (and not really a mystery eityher), but in The Boondock Saints the detective
actually helps the killers get into a courthouse to kill the mafia don. Although the killers are the protagonists durring the entire movie.

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