Thursday, October 29, 2009

No! It couldn't be....

Whenever there’s a murder, it follows that someone must have committed it. In many murders, there’s a limited number of people with the motive and the opportunity to kill the victim, so suspicion generally falls on a small group of people. In real life, realizing that someone one knows, even likes and trusts, could be a murderer can have profound effects on a person’s life and relationships with others. It can lead to an erosion of trust, and even paranoia. That growing feeling that nobody can be trusted can also lend an interesting and very suspenseful layer to crime fiction.

In some mystery novels, just as in real life, the first reaction to that “cloud of suspicion” is denial. Rather than accept the truth that someone among one’s friends/relatives/co-workers could be guilty of murder, characters roundly deny the possibility and blame “an outsider.” For example, in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a charwoman, allegedly by her lodger. When Poirot starts asking questions, he finds almost uniform resentment of his “nosing around.” Everyone assumes that either the lodger is, indeed, guilty, or that the murder was committed by a vagrant.

The characters in Rita Mae Brown’s Rest in Pieces react in a similar way when pieces of a body are discovered on the farm of Blair Bainbridge, a newcomer to the small town of Crozet, Virginia. Everyone is suspicious of Bainbridge. They don’t know him and besides, the body was found on his farm. Most importantly, no-one wants to believe that any of the town’s long-time residents could be guilty of murder. When Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen begins to investigate the murder, that denial is so strong that it never occurs to some of the residents of Crozet that Bainbridge might be innocent. “Harry’s” interest in the case is taken for attraction to Bainbridge, rather than interest in convicting the right person.

We also see this denial in Louise Penny’s Still Life, in which Jane Neal, an artist living in Three Pines, a tiny town south of Montréal, is killed in what looks like a tragic hunting accident. Most of the residents of Three Pines are unwilling to believe that any one of them is a murderer, especially since Neal was well-liked in the town. Many of them say that Neal has to have been the victim of an accident. It’s not until Inspector Armand Gamache begins to probe the secrets beneath the calm surface of the town that he finds out what really happened to Jane Neal.

Another, equally suspenseful way that characters deal with the reality of suspicion is to band together and protect each other. Then, of course, the sleuth has to penetrate this shield of defense and get to the truth. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (AKA Murder on the Calais Coach). That story centers on the murder of a wealthy American businessman who’s murdered on a luxury train while en route to Paris. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on the same coach, and as Hercule Poirot investigates the murder, he finds that all of the suspects protect each other. Each one denies that any of the others could be guilty, and all of the suspects blame a stranger from the victim’s past, who seems to have snuck onto the train and then escaped through the victim’s open window. Poirot has to penetrate this solid mutual support in order to find out who the murderer is.

We see a similar kind of banding together in Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, the first novel in which Queen visits Wrightsville, a small New England town. He’s there to take a much-needed rest and do some writing, so he rents a house from Wrights, the town social leaders. The house had been intended as a wedding gift for Nora Wright and her fiancé, Jim Haight, but after Jim disappeared and the wedding was called off, the house remained empty. Shortly after Queen moves in, Jim unexpectedly returns, and he and Nora resume their relationship. Then, on New Year’s Eve, Jim’s obnoxious sister Rosemary, who’s come for a long visit, is murdered by a poisoned cocktail. Everyone believes that the cocktail was intended for Nora, since apparently, Jim had threatened her life and stood to gain a large inheritance if she died. Jim is soon arrested for murder and the members of the Wright family, together with the rest of the town, stand together against Jim. No-one even considers any other suspects, and with one exception, the Wright family resents Queen’s investigation into the possibility that Jim may be innocent. As Queen uncovers the truth about the Wright family, it’s clear that Jim was far from the only one with a motive for murder.

One of the most interesting (and real-life) ways that mystery novels address this “cloud of suspicion” is when the various characters begin to suspect each other. Once it’s clear that one of a group of people must have killed the victim, the result is of the erosion of any trust the suspects have of each other. This often results in the suspects accusing each other of the crime.

We see this buildup of suspicion in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal). That novel begins with a group of family members returning from the funeral of the family patriarch, Richard Abernethie. During the gathering, his youngest sister, Cora Lansquenet, hints strongly that Richard was murdered. When Cora herself is brutally murdered the following day, the surviving family members begin to think that Cora might have been right. The family attorney calls in Poirot to investigate the two deaths. What’s interesting about this novel is the way the different family members begin to suspect one another. In fact, one of the family members, Richard Abernethie’s niece Rosamund, even asks the others outright who they think committed the murder. Family members who really hadn’t thought much about each other begin to look at one another as possible murderers, and this change keeps the reader absorbed.

Perhaps Christie’s most brilliant use of this growing suspicion and paranoia is in And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians). In that story, ten people are invited for a stay on an island, only to discover they’ve been lured there under pretense. As, one by one, the guests on the island are killed, the survivors begin to realize that one of them is a murderer. Christie uses point-of-view changes very effectively in this novel to show how growing suspicion and paranoia can affect characters. In this novel, no-one trusts anyone, and that makes for a truly suspenseful atmosphere.

I take a similar approach in my Joel Williams novels. For instance, in Publish or Perish, Nick Merrill, a graduate student who’s just won a prestigious fellowship, is murdered just after the two women in his life find out about each other, and on the day he finds out his mentor has stolen his work. There is no shortage of suspects, and each of them is only too happy to cast suspicion on the others.

The gathering clouds of suspicion and the way that characters deal with that suspicion and distrust can be truly compelling. It’s especially compelling when you realize that any character in a mystery novel may be pointing “the finger of suspicion” at someone else to hide the fact that she or he is the real murderer. A group of people could band together because they are accomplices. Or a group of people could deny that a death is a murder because they know that it really was a murder.

How do your favorite authors deal with suspicion? Do you prefer novels where suspects accuse each other? Where they band together?


  1. Wonderful thought-provoking post, Margot!

    No one is loyal forever because self-preservation is inevitably going to kick in at some point. Mr. Smith is going to admit he wasn't with Miss Jones when it starts to look nasty for Miss Jones. Anyone with a perfect alibi is suspicious; my thinking being anyone who goes to that much trouble has something to hide.

    Ah, the brilliance of "And Then There Were None!"


  2. Elspeth - You and I have the same thought process about suspects! Anyone whose alibi is too perfect is definitely suspicious!

    You also make a well-taken point about self-preservation. When someone has to choose between avoiding prosecution (or at least arrest) or protecting someone else, there is often no real choice. Self-preservation is just too strong a force. That tendency to turn on others to protect oneself can add a really intriguing layer to a good mystery.

    And yes, And Then There Were None is, indeed, brilliant.