Friday, October 9, 2009

Caught in the Web

In the murder mystery world, there are actually two kinds of victims. There are, of course, murder victims. The sleuth investigates their deaths, and that investigation is often the center of a good mystery novel. There is, however, another kind of victim: the innocent person who’s suspected of a crime. In a sense, that person is the murderer’s victim, too; he or she is, effectively, caught in the murderer's web. The “innocent victim of circumstance” adds an interesting layer to a mystery novel, and when it’s done well, builds suspense effectively.

Sometimes, the “other victim” comes directly to the sleuth for help. That’s what happens in Ellery Queen’s Ten Days’ Wonder. That novel begins with Howard Van Horn, son of a wealthy family, waking up from a blackout, wounded and covered in blood that’s not his own. Terrified of what he might have done, Van Horn seeks out an old friend, Ellery Queen, to help him figure out what happened during his attack of amnesia. Queen and Van Horn realize that the mystery leads back to Van Horn’s hometown of Wrightsville (also featured in several other Ellery Queen novels). Once the two get to Wrightsville, they stay with Van Horn’s father, millionaire Dietrich Van Horn. During the stay, Van Horn has other blackouts during which other crimes occur, and it seems clear that Van Horn is guilty of them – or is he? That’s one key to a well-written “innocent victim of circumstances” mystery. The reader isn’t sure – really sure – of the character’s innocence, at least at first. In this novel’s case, it’s not until the very end (which, by the way, contains a very well-written twist) that Queen really finds out the truth and stops the murderer.

Margaret Truman’s Murder at the Kennedy Center is similar in that the sleuth (in this case, a Georgetown Law professor) is asked by friends to get involved in a case. MacKenzie “Mac” Smith is at a glittering event in support of Senator Ken Ewald’s bid for the presidency of the United States on the night that Andrea Feldman, one of Ewald’s staff, is murdered. Smith is drawn into the case when his dog finds her body, and even further when Ewald asks Smith to clear his son, Paul, who’s been accused of the murder. As Smith probes into Andrea’s personal life, he finds out that Paul had a motive for Andrea’s murder; so did several other people, including Paul’s wife and both of his parents. The closer Smith gets to the truth, the more he realizes that there was a lot more behind Andrea Feldman’s death than adultery.

One of the most famous and well-written mysteries centered on an “innocent victim” is Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, in which Lord Peter Wimsey gets involved in the case of Harriet Vane, mostly because of his assistant, Miss Climpson. In that novel, Harriet Vane, a mystery novelist, is accused of poisoning her ex- fiancé, Phillip Boyes. There’s plenty of evidence against her; for one thing, she’s been experimenting with different poisons for the plot of her new novel. She’s also hurt and humiliated at being publicly shamed by Boyes, who persuaded her to live with him without getting married. She also seems to be the only person who had an opportunity to poison Boyes. Wimsey’s assistant, Miss Climpson, is on the jury at Harriet’s trial, and persaudes most of the rest of the jury that it’s possible that someone else killed Boyes. With a hung jury, the judge has no choice but to declare a mistrial. With a great deal of help from Miss Climpson, Lord Peter finds out the truth behind Boyes’ death and in the process, falls in love with Harriet Vane.

What makes these novels all the more suspenseful is that in each case, the accused person – the “other victim” – has likable qualities. We sympathize with their ordeals. We want them to be cleared of the crime. That’s not always the case, though. In some cases, the accused isn’t likeable at all.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot is drawn into the murder of a charwoman when her lodger, James Bentley, is convicted of having murdered her. He’s a shy, unsociable character with few friends. The villagers of Broadhinney, where the murder is committed, are only too glad to see Bentley convicted, and many resent Poirot’s interference in the case. Even Poirot doesn’t find Bentley appealing. The suspense in this novel doesn’t come from sympathy for the character; rather, Christie uses the “ticking clock” approach. Bentley is about to be hanged for the murder and Poirot is determined to see that an innocent man, however unappealing, doesn’t hang.

In Tony Hillerman’s Coyote Waits, we also meet a very unappealing “victim of circumstances,” Ashie Pinto. Pinto is accused of shooting Officer Jim Chee’s friend, Delbert Nez. Pinto is an alcoholic with few redeeming qualities, and Chee assumes that he’s committed the murder. When Chee’s sometimes-girlfriend, Janet Pete, is sent to defend Pinto, Chee assumes that she’ll do what’s required of her, but that Pinto will be convicted and sentenced. The suspense quickly builds when Pete makes it clear that she intends a vigorous defense and that, in fact, she assumes that Pinto is innocent. Chee begins to investigate because he believes he might have prevented the murder. He’s joined by Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn when it turns out that the accused man is related to Leaphorn’s wife, Emma. In this novel, it’s not such much that Pinto is likable (he’s not), but the strong feeling that he’s being railroaded by the justice system that makes us want him cleared.

Perhaps the most engrossing mysteries are mysteries where the reader isn’t sure whether the “other victim” is innocent or guilty. In those mysteries, there’s just enough doubt to keep the reader guessing and turning pages. Agatha Christie does this quite well in Sad Cypress. In that novel, Elinor Carlisle is accused of murdering her wealthy aunt’s protégée, Mary Gerrard. Elinor has good motive, too; her fiancé, Roderick Welman, is infatuated with Mary and Elinor discovers her own capacity for jealousy when she finds out about his feelings. When she’s charged with the murder, a local doctor, Peter Lord, who’s in love with Elinor, asks Hercule Poirot to clear her. Throughout the novel, the evidence against Elinor mounts until the reader isn’t sure at times whether Poirot will clear her name or whether, in a twist, she’ll turn out to be guilty.

Christie keeps the reader guessing in Third Girl, too, In that novel, a young woman goes to see Poirot, claiming she may have committed a murder and at first, asking for his help in finding out the truth. She quickly decides that Poirot is, “too old,” and leaves without giving her name. With help from his friend, novelist Ariadne Oliver, Poirot figures out who the girl is and begins to find out as much as he can about her. As he looks into the girl’s background, Poirot finds that there’s more to her story than an hysterical woman with an overactive imagination. The more Poirot uncovers, the more the reader is left wondering whether Norma Restarick is the unfortunate victim of a larger conspiracy or a mentally unbalanced killer. There’s just enough evidence to make the reader wonder whether Norma isn’t as guilty as she thinks she is, but there’s also plenty of evidence to suggest that she’s innocent.

What are your favorite “other victim” mysteries? What draws you to them? Is it the extra suspense? A likable “innocent victim of circumstance?” Something else?


  1. I am staggered at the depth of your posts Margot. They always give me so much to think about.

  2. Kerrie - What a very kind thing to say! Thanks so much : ). I'm glad that you find things worth reading in my posts as I always do in yours. Cheers!

  3. Wonderful post!

    I like innocent (or maybe not so innocent) victims. One, they give us a good excuse for getting an amateur sleuth into the investigation (if they come to our sleuth for help) and two because they give the reader a good reason to want the crime solved (if we don't really care about the murder victim all that much.)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. Elizabeth -
    You're absolutely right! "Innocent victims" give the author a way to involve the sleuth. What I like even better is the second point you make: if the murder victim isn't appealing, having an unjustly-accused character who is appealing keeps the reader involved and caring about the outcome. It also adds depth, reality and an interesting variation on the "good victim," "bad murderer," "hero sleuth" formula. Thanks for your thoughts.

  5. Another thought-provoking post, Margot. I like plots that have some grey characters rather than just black and white. I find murder victims that are dripping with evil rather dull. Far, far better, in my opinion to have a very human victim and a killer that isn't mentally ill or obsessed but to whom murder was the only option available. I am fascinated with the ripple effects of the situation. No realistic character lives in isolation.


  6. Elspeth - So well-put! One of the things I like best about "other victim" mysteries is that usually, no-one in them is either wholly innocent or wholly guilty. I'm thinking of, especially, the character who's accused of the murder but isn't guilty of it. In the best novels, that doesn't mean that he or she isn't guilty of something else....

  7. An exceptionally interesting post - thanks. I would mention Ordeal by Innocence, in which Christie tackles this important theme head on.

  8. Thanks for the kind words, Martin - much appreciated. Also thanks for the reminder of Ordeal by Innocence . You're absolutely right, of course, that it treats the topic as one of its major themes.