Normally, a detective's job is to investigate a crime, question witnesses and suspects, and ultimately reveal the guilty party so the law can take over. However, sometimes over the course of the investigation it will turn out that the victim was unspeakably evil
, the perpetrators' motive was unquestionably good
or the reveal will cause collateral damage to innocents, such as the criminal's family
. In this case, though all the evidence points to one particular solution, the detective will never reveal this to the authorities. Instead, the detective will either feign ignorance or confect an alternative solution, sometimes going so far as to hide the most incriminating evidence
. Sometimes marks the detective as an Anti-Hero
, but if done right, it's possible for this to be written as the most moral option available to the detective. It's a classic example of someone having to choose whether To Be Lawful or Good
and picking "Good".
If the culprit isn't a Sympathetic Murderer
, expect them to be a Karma Houdini
. Particularly fiendish villains may even use this to set up a Xanatos Gambit
- either the crime goes unsolved, or the detective solves it but realises they can't reveal the solution without causing tremendous pain to the innocent. Can be an example of Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right
. Subtrope of Go and Sin No More
An Ending Trope
, so beware for spoilers.
Anime & Manga
- Subverted in Spider-Man. In The Nineties, Spider-Man repeatedly ran into an elderly cat burglar called the Black Fox, who kept feeding Spidey sob stories about how he was just a pitiful, lonely old man who was about to retire from crime anyway, etc. etc. This would inspire Peter's sympathy, and if he didn't let the Fox go right away, his story would at least distract Spidey long enough for the Fox to slip away. Inevitably, Peter would realize a moment later that he'd let the old coot fast talk him again and be furious at himself. It was a Running Gag.
- At the end of Death Wish, Lt. Ochoa figures out that Paul Kersey is the vigilante who has been killing criminals, but the District Attorney does not want the negative press that would come from prosecuting him. Because they are among the only authorities who know, they tell Paul to just get out of town, and they'll bury the evidence.
- In Chinatown, Jake Gittes lets Evelyn Mulwray take the girl and make a run for Mexico. It doesn't work though.
- Subverted in one of the endings of Clue. In this one, Wadsworth deduces that Mrs. Peacock is the killer, but since the victims were an odious blackmailer and his informants, the killer should be allowed to escape. However Wadsworth is an FBI agent in this ending, and Peacock is arrested as soon as she steps outside.
- In Sudden Impact, Inspector Harry Callahan is on the trail of a woman named Jennifer Spencer, who is hunting down and killing the men who gangraped her. At the climax of the story, one of her would-be victims holds her hostage with her own gun and Harry kills the man to save her. When the police show up to investigate, Harry shows them the gun in the man's hand and convinces them that he was responsible for all the killings.
- Charlie Chaplin film The Pilgrim features The Tramp as an escaped convict masquerading as a minister. After Charlie retrieves the money another hoodlum stole from Charlie's girlfriend, and returns it, the sheriff arrests him. The sheriff then lets Charlie escape to Mexico.
- As usual with mystery tropes, Sherlock Holmes did it first.
- Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express is the most famous example. A man let off on a technicality after kidnapping and murdering a young girl is found dead on the Orient Express, and after investigating, Poirot announces that there are two possible solutions. The first is that an unknown assassin crept onto the train, killed the man, then slipped away again. The second is that Everybody Did It - all the passengers on the train murdered him together, since they're all friends or employees of the murdered girl's family, looking for revenge. Although the first solution is full of holes, Poirot agrees to tell the police that that is what happened, since he believes that justice has been done by the murder.
- The 2010 adaptation raises some of the issues that have been associated with this solution — for one, Poirot is much more reluctant to let the killers off, because he is revolted by the crime and its motivation even though he admits that the victim had it coming like no other, and in other stories he has not let such a thing get in the way of the law. The other is that, given the circumstances he and the killers find themselves in, it would be perfectly possible for them to just kill him before the authorities arrive and pass the killer off as a third party; the book glosses over the fact that even if Poirot did want to turn them in, he wasn't in much of a position to do so anyway as the killers had him at their mercy. In the end he still lets them off and the killers agree prior to that that murdering Poirot (and the train manager, his friend) would be a Moral Event Horizon none of them are willing to cross, so the original ending still plays out, albeit with more angst.
- In The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side, it is subtly implied that the main murderer was poisoned by her husband to save her from public disgrace and prevent more murders. Miss Marple suspects this is the case, but keeps quiet.
- In Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun, Elijah Baley calls a Summation Gathering and reveals that the murder victim's neighbor, a roboticist named Jothan Leebig, was planning to subvert the Three Laws Of Robotics to create an army of Killer Robots, and had masterminded the victim's murder to keep him from interfering. Leebig commits suicide rather than being arrested, and no one notices the fact that Leebig couldn't possibly have carried out the physical deed due to his intense fear of human contact. Baley admits later that, as initially suspected, the victim's wife Gladia was the one who killed her husband, having been manipulated into it by Leebig. Since he sympathized with her circumstances, he felt she didn't deserve to be punished.
- The Finishing Stroke is an Ellery Queen novel wherein the author/detective hero is stumped by the murder for a couple of decades. When he does finally solve the case the killer, who was an older man when he committed the murder, is truly elderly and infirm. Since Ellery doesn't want to see him spend the last few years of his life in prison, he keeps his identity secret.
- In one of Georges Simenon's 13 Mystères, investigator Joseph Leborgne didn't tell the police their case was a Suicide, Not Murder Insurance Fraud.
- In "Murder Mysteries" by Neil Gaiman, a detective tells the story of his first case, in which the killer had a sympathetic motivation but paid the ultimate price. It's implied that he's telling the story at this time and in this place because the case has parallels to the murder he's currently working — and that he's decided this time to let the killer off.
- Erast Fandorin lets the Lovable Rogue Momos off in the end of Jack of Spades, mainly because he has no solid evidence against him, Momos returned everything he stole from Fandorin and his friends, and, along the way, helped him catch an Asshole Victim red-handed. He does arrest Momos' girlfriend Mimi, however, but Momos gets her out of prison in no time.
- Dorothy L. Sayers' Murder Must Advertise features an ad agency within which someone is feeding the titles ahead of time to facilitate the operations of a drug ring. The guilty party didn't know their part in in at first, and was trying to provide for their family, so Lord Peter gets them to exit in his clothes, and (presumably) be killed; protecting their reputation and hence their family. Not exactly let off, but by the standards of the time public disgrace would have been at least as bad, if not perhaps worse.
- In the O. Henry short story, "A Retrieved Reformation," a notorious safecracker is deliberately ignored by the detective who has been tracking him, even though he has just revealed himself by opening a safe, because the thief is on his way to a better life (and the safe he just opened contained a trapped and terrified little girl).
- Jonathan Creek:
- In the episode "The Scented Room", a theatre critic who gave his act a bad review and his violent wife have a priceless painting of theirs vanish from a locked room, stolen by a nanny concerned that they were distant and abusive to their son. The painting is returned, but Jonathan refuses to tell them where it went or who took it, partly because he sympathises with the culprit, and partly just to annoy the critic.
- In "Danse Macabre" meanwhile, it turns out the murder was actually an elaborate suicide. Although this means that the "murderers" were still accomplices to suicide — a crime in the UK — Jonathan doesn't turn them in to the police out of obvious sympathy. It's not clear if he turns in the stalker who stole the corpse's head for a A Love to Dismember.
- Veronica Mars: In season two, gay students are blackmailed into giving someone money or risk getting outed. When Veronica solves the mystery, she doesn't bother calling the crook out since the student in question didn't actually collect any blackmail money and was gay herself, she just wanted to be out with her girlfriend.
- An episode of Criminal Minds ("Riding the Lightning") inverted this. A woman was on death row for being a serial killer. The only murder she had admitted to was her son. The Behavioral Analysis Unit discovered the child was still alive; the woman had hid him from her husband, the real killer, and wanted to die herself so that her son would grow up not knowing he was descended from such people. The BAU let her be executed for the crime she didn't commit (but Hotch taunted the husband at his execution with a photo of his still living son).
- The Columbo episode "Forgotten Lady" has guest star Janet Leigh portraying an aging movie star who plans a comeback. Her physician husband refuses to fund it because he knows she's dying of a brain disease, and she kills him. There is some evidence that she has quickly forgotten what she did (along with other recent events), which Columbo confides to her dear friend and former co-star. She becomes distraught at Columbo's persistent investigations, and the friend confesses to the murder to soothe her. Columbo knows that she has no more than a month or so to live and assures the friend that he'll take his time disproving the false confession until she dies.
- In the Law & Order episode "Deadbeat" McCoy and Ross realize that a woman killed her child support dodging ex-husband to keep him from finding out that "his" son wasn't his. Because she's the mother of a terminally ill boy, Jack decides to indefinitely delay her prosecution.
- In one CSI: New York episode a man was killed at a local university and the forensic evidence destroyed using information gained at a lecture given by one of the cast. After discovering that the deceased was a repeat stalker that had driven one woman to suicide and followed another across multiple states despite a name change they managed to track down the stalkee-turned-killer, but while they did arrest her they made a point to tell her that without a confession there was no way to convict her on such flimsy circumstancial evidence.
- In another episode, Stella warns off a suspect who was her former foster sister, after the woman killed a man who'd molested her. Stella should have arrested her but instead tell sher she'll be back the next day to make the arrest, knowing full well the woman would probably be gone by then.
- A non-murder version occurs in The Mentalist in "Black Cherry". The sister of a victim of the week pulls a gun on some gang-bangers who she thought knew who her brother's killer was. Even though she's caught red-handed for assault by Lisbon, she's dissuaded from prosecuting her by Jane, who reminds her that if the sister goes off to prison, her brother's young son would likely end up in foster care and eventually in the very gang that the sister pulled a gun on. Eventually, Lisbon is able to talk Sarah (the ADA who wants to prosecute) out of it by playing on her brand-new motherly instincts.
- In the Grimm episode "Endangered" the Monster of the Week is a very rare Wesen who killed a farmer by accident while collecting cow ovaries for his pregnant wife. Nick not only lets them off, he basically frames the Egomaniac Hunter who was after the baby's skin.
- In the Life episode "Black Friday", the decedent is found to have coercively recruited several runaways into a criminal enterprise and pressured the female member of the group into sex at a very young age. The person who killed him is a homeless teenager protecting his young sister. Detective Crews tells the killer to claim that the dead guy accidentally fell. It works.
- Parodied in Calvin and Hobbes in one of his "Tracer Bullet" film-noir fantasies where someone broke Mom's lamp.
Calvin (as Tracer Bullet): "I had figured out who trashed the dame's living room, but since she wasn't my client any more, I felt no need to divulge the information. Besides, the culprit happened to be a buddy of mine. I closed the case."
Hobbes (holding a football): "I guess we should've played outside, huh?"
- In The BBC Radio 4 adaptation of the Violet Strange whodunnit "An Intangible Clue" by Anna Katherine Green for The Rivals, which adds Inspector Lestrade to the story, Lestrade mentions that the file on the murder of the man who killed Violet's husband was "lost", and as far as he's concerned will remain so. (None of this is in the original story.)
- In the Sherlock Holmes radio drama "The Singular Inheritance of Miss Gloria Wilson", Holmes chooses to keep silent when he realizes that a repentant and long-retired thief is about to escape police custody.