Monday, October 12, 2009

Getting Away With Murder?

Well-written mystery novels can be quite cathartic. There’s a murder or other crime, the sleuth investigates, the mystery is solved and the criminal is brought to justice. We often feel a sense of intellectual satisfaction when all is revealed, and it can be satisfying on another level when the murderer – the “bad guy” – is caught. At some level, we want “good” rewarded and “bad” punished. However, as we all know, life isn’t really that simple; really well-written mysteries aren’t always that simple, either. When the characters are well-written and multi-dimensional, we can even sympathize with the murderer. Sometimes, we even hope the murderer gets away with the crime. Making the murderer a sympathetic character isn’t easy, but when it’s done well, it adds a fascinating twist to the mystery, and lends a deeper dimension to the story.

Some authors make the murderer sympathetic by making the murder victim unlikable. A famous example of this is Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. In that novel, Hercule Poirot solves the murder of a wealthy American businessman aboard the luxurious Orient Express. When we find out who the victim is, and what his background is, it’s easy to see why someone might hate him. Christie heightens this as Poirot finds out about the other passengers on that train, and their connections with the dead man. We find that the other passengers are likable characters, each of whom had a good reason to want the dead man killed. By the end of the novel, we feel such sympathy that we don’t want the murderer brought to justice.

James Yaffe’s A Nice Murder for Mom also has a fairly unlikable victim. In that novel, a pompous, blue-blood professor is murdered shortly after he receives tenure at Mesa Grande College, in Mesa Grande, Colorado. When a colleague who was passed over for tenure is accused of the murder, he turns to his friend Dave, a former Brooklyn, NY police officer who’s recently moved to Mesa Grande, for help in uncovering the truth. As Dave learns more about Bellamy, he finds that Bellamy bullied and humiliated students, was abrasive to colleagues and was not above political intrigue to get ahead. By the time Dave (with help from his mother) figures out who murdered Bellamy, the reader understands why someone would have wanted to kill him. What adds to the interest in this novel is that the murderer turns out to be a sympathetic character. As we learn about the murderer, we see why and how the murder happened, and we want the murderer to “get away with it.”

There’s a similar effect of unlikable victim and sympathetic murderer in Colin Dexter’s The Daughters of Cain. In that novel, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are investigating the death of Dr. Felix McClure, a retired Oxford don. Their search for the killer leads to Ted Brooks, his former scout. As Morse and Lewis look into the events surrounding McClure’s death, they find that Brooks is a drug dealer and an abusive husband and stepfather whom McClure was about to expose. When Brooks disappears and is later found dead, it’s easy to be glad that Brooks has “gotten his.” As Morse and Lewis find out more about Brooks’ life and relationships, it’s clear that he ruined more than one life. Later, when the truth about his and McClure’s deaths is revealed, we have real sympathy for the murderer.

It’s also easy to sympathize with the murderer in Georges Simenon’s Maigret and the Wine Merchant, in which Maigret investigates the murder of Oscar Chabut, a wealthy wine merchant. Neither Chabut’s wife nor his mistress are in the least upset about his death, and Maigret soon finds that Chabut is a compulsive womanizer and a ruthless businessman who’s made a long list of personal and professional enemies. As Maigret works through the many suspects, he soon finds that nearly everyone had a very good reason to hate or fear Chabut. When Maigret determines who the murderer is, the reader almost doesn’t want the murderer punished. For one thing, Chabut has treated everyone in his life so shabbily that it’s easy to feel he’s gotten his just deserts. For another, the person who turns out to be the murderer is a very sympathetic character. We can really see why this person would feel driven to kill Chabut.

While Chabut is an unpleasant character, not all victims of sympathetic murderers are unlikable. Some authors are able to make readers like the murderer even when the victim isn’t at all unpleasant. For instance, in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders), Agatha Christie makes both the murderer and the murderer’s victim sympathetic. In that novel, Poirot investigates the shooting murder of his dentist, only to find that that death is connected with the death of a wealthy Greek businessman and a middle-aged, rather eccentric woman who suddenly disappears shortly after the dentist’s murder. In this case, it isn’t that the murder victim is unlikable – he’s not. Rather, it’s the kind of person the murderer is, and the murderer’s reasons for committing the crime that make Poirot feel a real reluctance to identify the guilty person.

The same is true of Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, in which Poirot interrupts a journey through Syria to investigate the murder of Louise Leidner, wife of noted archeologist Eric Leidner. Louise Leidner is a complicated character; she is kind, but at the same time utterly self-absorbed. She inspires admiration among some of the expedition’s team members, and spite and jealousy among others, but no-one feels neutral about her. Interestingly enough, many of the characters, including the murderer, are very sympathetic, likable people. In fact, the person who turns out to be the murderer is presented as so sympathetic that, at the end of the novel, Amy Leatheran, a nurse from whose viewpoint the story is told, says this: “I can’t help but pity _____. I know____ was a murderer… but it doesn’t seem to make any difference.”

It takes a very skilled writer to make readers care about a murderer – someone who’s taken a life deliberately – in a positive light. That’s especially true if the victim is also someone the reader can like.

Have you ever wanted the murderer to “get away with it?” In which novels (No spoilers, please)?


  1. "It takes a very skilled writer to make readers care about a murderer – someone who’s taken a life deliberately – in a positive light. That’s especially true if the victim is also someone the reader can like. "

    Please, please, please I hope I'm able to be a very skilled writer, because what you've written is true about my WIP. Now I'm very nervous. I'm certainly no Agatha Christie, or Elizabeth George.

    Oh dear, again.


  2. Elspeth - I have every confidence - truly, I do - that you'll be able to make me care about your murderer. You shouldn't be Agatha Christie or Elizabeth George. You should be Elspeth Antonelli, and Elspeth Antonelli is a talented writer in her own right. Not to worry! I can't wait to read your WIP!

  3. I'm fascinated by novels where I'm pulling for the bad guy. It goes against my very well-developed sense of order (I've decided most mystery writers are big fans of Justice with a capital j. I'm outraged by even litterers and people who cut in lines!) But I've definitely found myself pulling for a murderer before. My memory is horrible, but I think there was a Martha Grimes case where I did...involving the murder of a child?

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. Elizabeth - You have a really interesting point about mystery authors having strong senses of Justice. I've never read a study about it, but it wouldn't surprise me. That's why it's especially intriguing when a writer creates a sympathetic murderer... I haven't read as much Martha Grimes as I'd like, so I could be quite wrong, but are you thinking of Winds of Change? Please set me straight if I'm wrong...

  5. I think so. I just checked Amazon and it sounds like the one I'm thinking of. My memory is so bad these days that I could probably reread books several times and never remember the ending. I guess I'm getting my money's worth. :)

  6. LOL, Elizabeth! I feel the same way about my own memory. Fortunately, I don't have to remember what I've written; I just have to remember to save it :).

  7. I can't help but root for Dexter. He murders the people who murder serially.

  8. Oh, I agree with you, Patti! In cases like that, one roots for the murderer because the victim needs to be stopped. Thanks for the reminder.