Friday, September 11, 2009

Public and Private Murders

Today is the eighth anniversary of the tragic deaths of over 3,000 people at the World Trade Center in New York, at the Pentagon in Washington, and on United Flight 93, which crashed in Western Pennsylvania. Besides the personal and other feelings I have about those deaths, they've made me think about two kinds of murders - public and private.

In Agatha Christie's One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders), Hercule Poirot describes the difference between a public and a private murder. A public murder is not committed because of any personal connection between murderer and victim. Instead, the murderer kills to achieve some end that has nothing to do with the victim as a person. For example, a politician who's murdered by someone who wants to further the aims of another political party is the victim of a public murder. You could argue that most of the deaths in Christie's The ABC Murders fall into this category; they are not committed because the murderer has a personal reason to kill the victims (i.e. jealousy, fear, etc.).

Several of Robin Cook's mysteries also involve public murders. For instance, in Marker, a series of deaths at Manhattan General Hospital turn out to be muders. They are public in the sense that there is no personal connection, really, between the murderer and the victims. The victims are not killed because of who they are as people. They are killed to further the murderer's end.

The other kind of murder is a private murder. In a private murder, the vicitim is killed because of who he or she is as a person. There is a personal connection between murderer and victim. It might be jealousy, fear, or something else, but the murder is committed because of the relationship between murderer and victim. Those murders are much more common among murder mysteries. There are, of course, thousands of examples, so I'll just offer a few. Although it doesn't seem that way at first, the murder in Janet Evanovich's Two For The Dough turns out to be a private murder. Colin Dexter's The Daughters of Cain is another classic example of a private murder. In fact, Dexter's Inspector Morse uncovers lots of private murders in his career. The murders in Stephen White's Manner of Death turn out to be private murders, too.

My own Joel Williams series focuses on private murders. I find the interplay of human relationships irresistably intriguing, so I write about that interplay. To me, the reasons that someone might have for killing a person he she knows - even loves - are fascinating, so I make them the focus of my novels. However, I admire people who can paint realistic pictures of those who commit public murders. It takes skill to make the reader believe that someone could kill several people that he or she doesn't even know.

What kind of murder do you prefer to read about? Which sorts of motives intrigue you - public or private?

In Memorium to those who lost their lives on 11 September, 2001.....


  1. I just love your posts Margot. They tell me so much. Are you writing a book about Agatha Christie titles? You certainly have lots of raw material in your blog posts.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Kerrie : ). Much appreciated. I hadn't thought about doing a book like that, but now that you suggest it, it's a really intriguing idea..... Hm.....Maybe I'll do that. Thanks for the inspiration : ).