Wednesday, October 28, 2009

You cannot touch a flower...

…without touching a star.” That Japanese proverb means that all of our actions have consequences, and everything affects everything else. It’s also a very common theme in crime fiction, where often, the story of how one event or decision affects people and other events can make for an absorbing mystery. That’s one reason that the theme is a good fit for mystery novels. Another reason is that mystery lovers tend to want things to fit together and make sense. When one action sets off a chain of other actions, the result is a logical pattern that appeals to the desire for things to make sense.

Some kinds of crime fiction approach the theme of actions, consequences and effects in a very straightforward way. One might even call it karma. A character behaves in a certain way. A killer responds by committing murder. Many, many crime fiction novels take this approach, so I’ll just mention a few here as examples. In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, a tyrannical matriarch is murdered by an overdose of digitalis while she and her family are on a trip to the famous ruins at Petra. Hercule Poirot, who’s also on a trip to the Middle East, is asked to investigate. It soon becomes clear that the murder is the direct result of the victim’s mentally sadistic behavior. In fact, the connection is so clear that we almost don’t want the murderer to get caught.

That’s also true in James Yaffe’s A Nice Murder for Mom. In that novel, Stuart Bellamy, a pompous, obnoxious professor, succeeds in alienating nearly everyone with whom he works. One night, he’s murdered by a blow to the head with a heavy paperweight. As Dave, a former Bronx policeman who’s recently moved to the area, investigates the murder, he finds that the murder has everything to do with Bellamy’s behavior and choices.

Lilian Jackson Braun takes a similar approach in The Cat Who Knew A Cardinal, in which Hilary VanBrook, a hated school principal, is shot one night while on his way home from a theater party at the home of Jim Qwilleran, Braun’s sleuth. No-one in the town of Pickax is particularly upset at VanBrook’s death. He’s overbearing, arrogant and offensive to the parents, students and teachers at the school, and to the local acting troupe whose plays he directs. So as Qwillleran starts asking questions, he gets little help from the locals. When he and Police Chief Andrew Brodie finally put the pieces of the puzzle together, they find that VanBrook’s behavior has led directly to his murder.

“Old sins cast long shadows” is another, perhaps even more interesting way that crime fiction authors approach the theme of actions and consequences. In novels that take this perspective, we see how past actions and decisions directly affect (often cause) the mystery/murder that’s under investigation. I’m not referring simply to murder mysteries that focus on people who’ve become killers because of childhood abuse. I’m really referring to mysteries where a series of past decisions or actions sets of a chain of events that result in a later murder or murders. As the novel unfolds, there are actually two mysteries to solve: the past mystery that “started it all,” and the present mystery that involves the sleuth.

One of the classic examples of this kind of novel is Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians). In that novel, a group of people are lured to an island by invitations they think are genuine. They soon find, though, that they’ve been brought there for a specific reason. On the first night, each of them is accused of being responsible for at least one death. In several cases, the deaths resulted from a choice that the accused person made. When, one by one, the people on the island are murdered, the survivors slowly realize that one of them is a murderer. It’s a gripping, suspenseful study in the ways in which our actions and choices have consequences we may not even realize.

That’s also a theme in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, in which a charwoman is killed, supposedly by her boarder. When the arresting officer begins to have doubts that that the right man was convicted, he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot visits the village of Broadhinney and meets the people whose houses Mrs. McGinty cleaned. What he finds is that Mrs. McGinty’s death is directly related to a long-forgotten murder that’s been dredged up by a tabloid newspaper. The actions and decisions that led to that old murder have come back to haunt two of the other characters; they also result in new deaths, including Mrs. McGinty’s.

Christie also treats this theme in Dead Man’s Folly (My review of the book is here), in which Poirot investigates the murder of a young teenager during an outdoor fête at the country home of Sir George Stubbs and his wife, Hattie. Poirot finds that the young girl’s death is really, in a way, the end result of a chain of events that started years ago. As Poirot discovers what’s behind the girl’s murder, he finds that past events have everything to do with the current death.

Robert Barnard deals with this same “Old sins…” theme in Murder in Mayfair. Colin Pinnock’s party has just won power, and the new Prime Minister installs Pinnock in the Department of Education and Training. His excitement fades quickly when he receives a cryptic postcard asking him “Who do you think you are?” Pinnock does some investigation into his past and finds that he may be the son of Lord John Revill, who allegedly murdered his wife and then fled, leaving behind a pregnant nanny with whom he was supposedly having an affair. As Pinnock learns more and more about these past events, he also finds that his life is in danger, and that the events of the past are behind the current threat to his life.

Another fascinating example of past and present events relating to each other is in Martin EdwardsThe Cipher Garden. This novel focuses at first on the death of Warren Howe, who’s been brutally murdered with his own scythe, and his body dumped in a landscaping trench. Although his wife, Tina, is suspected of the murder, she has an alibi, and the case isn’t solved. Years later, DCI Hannah Scarlett reopens the case when the police are among several people who receive anonymous notes naming Tina as the killer. At the same time, historian David Kind, who’s recently moved to the area, also gets interested in the case. He’s looking into the strange shape of the garden of the house he’s bought and the truth about the family who used to live there. His search for answers leads him to the landscaping company that employed Howe. As they uncover the truths about the two mysteries they’re investigating, Scarlett and Kind discover that the mysteries are related, and that past events in the village are closely tied to Howe’s death.

What’s your view? Do you prefer mysteries with a fairly straightforward, almost “karma” approach to the murder? Do you prefer mysteries where past and present mysteries are linked together? Do you find the “double mystery” too distracting?


  1. I like them all. The "old sins..." premise can be fascinating and add a deeper layer to the present day mystery. Mysteries with a 'deserving' victim can be enjoyable as well, although I'd rather read (and write) books where the motive isn't as obvious. There are some fictional victims that are so despicable I often find myself wondering how they managed to survive to the age that they did!


  2. Elspeth - You have a well-taken point about victims that are truly hateful. It's not realistic, anyway. I agree, too that when there are two, related mysteries, this can really add an interesting layer of intrigue. So long as the threads of the story are tied together so that the reader can follow them, it's fascinating.

  3. Very interesting!

    I do enjoy it when the victims 'get what's coming to them,' but then I have to have a reason to care about whodunit. Usually I still get wrapped up in the mystery by having a favorite suspect that I don't want to have done it. I'm rooting for that person to stay out of jail and hoping they weren't the perp.

    Or else I like the sleuth so much I'm following along to see how they handle the issue. Will they give the killer a pass? Will the murderer go to jail? SHOULD they?

    Cool subject!

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. Elizabeth - That's an interesting question! Do we "root for" karma or not? Sometimes, as you say, the victim's unpleasant, so one wants the murderer to get away with it. What I like about those mytseries is when you can also see the sleuth's conflict: go for the legal sense of justice (i.e. murder=jail/execuation) or go for a different sense of justice (i.e. the murder was justified because of the victim). Interesting question, and when it's done well, makes for an engrossing book. Thanks for that perspective : ).