Most of us don’t expect to be murdered. We have a group of people that we love and trust in our lives, and can’t imagine that any one of them would hurt us. And, while we all read of tragedies where innocent people are killed, they catch our attention because they are the glaring exception to the norm. We see that element quite often in well-written crime fiction, and it adds an element of realism to the story; we can understand why someone might have no idea that his or her friends and family may include a murderer. That naiveté about others and their intentions can also add a compelling layer of suspense to a mystery novel. That sense of watching a character walk into a trap can be compelling. If you’ve ever wanted to warn a character that he or she’s in danger, you know what I mean.
In some mystery novels, ironically enough, the victim’s vulnerability comes from power. He or she can’t imagine that anyone would dare to be a threat. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death, in which Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of Mrs. Elmer Boynton, a tyrannical matriarch. Mrs. Boynton has achieved absolute power over her daughter, her two stepsons and her stepdaughter. In fact, she has such a powerful personality that she doesn’t see how very petty a dictator she is, nor how vulnerable she is. When she and her family go on an excursion to the Middle East, she has no idea that she’s in danger. It’s her very control over the family that leaves her open to being a victim.
The same is true in another Christie story, Dead Man’s Mirror, a short story included in the collection Murder in the Mews. In that story, Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore is a wealthy “blueblood” who really believes in his own family’s superiority over almost all other families. He’s the patriarch of that family, and in that role, he believes that he can manipulate the lives of everyone around him; what others think really isn’t important. When he suspects that he may be being cheated, he writes to Hercule Poirot, summoning him to investigate (which summons naturally irritates Poirot, who is not himself without ego). On the evening of Poirot’s arrival at the Chevenix-Gore estate, Sir Gervase apparently shoots himself just before dinner. It soon becomes clear, though, that Chevenix-Gore was murdered. His assumptions of authority and control have made him vulnerable.
We see that same vulnerability in Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden. In the prologue to that novel, landscaper Warren Howe is approached by a figure wearing a hooded jacket. He soon recognizes the person but, because he feels powerful, he doesn’t realize the danger that faces him. He brushes the other person off, refusing to get involved in conversation. In fact, he uses an almost mocking tone. It’s not until he sees his assailant brandishing a scythe that Howe is frightened, but even then, he says, “You’ll never do it.” Howe is soon proved wrong, and his murdered body is later found in one of the trenches he’s been digging. As the novel moves on, we learn that Howe was an unpleasant adulterer who dominated and abused his family. He was also able to dominate the many women with whom he had affairs; they were drawn to him despite his personality. Howe’s sense of power and lack of concern for others led him to believe that he had nothing to fear.
In many mystery novels, it’s the victim’s naiveté that makes him or her vulnerable. In those stories, the victim’s trust in family, friends and colleagues makes him or her blind to danger. Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress is an example. In that novel, Poirot is called in to investigate the poisoning murder of Mary Gerrard, protégée of wealthy Laura Welman. Mrs. Welman’s taken an interest in Mary’s welfare and provided her an education “above her station.” That in itself leads to some local resentment. Along with that, Mrs. Welman’s nephew, Roderick “Roddy” Welman has become infatuated with Mary. That fascination with Mary has stirred intense jealousy in Roddy’s fiancée, Elinor Carlise, who is charged with Mary’s murder. Throughout the novel, Mary seems completely unaware of the danger surrounding her. In fact, when two other characters mention the fact that Roddy Welman is interested in her, Mary is convinced that it couldn’t really be true. In the end, it’s Mary’s trust in the people around her that make her easy prey for her killer.
In Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Wasn’t There, we also see an example of misplaced trust. A group of residents of Pickax, the fictional town where many of Braun’s novels take place, prepare to go on a tour of Scotland. The tour begins smoothly enough, but then the tour’s leader, Irma Hasselrich, suddenly dies. Then, the tour bus driver disappears along with a suitcase that contained valuable jewels. Jim Qwilleran, Braun’s sleuth, begins to believe that Irma’s death was not accidental and starts to look into what really happened. It turns out that Irma’s past has played a role in her death, and that she put too much trust in the people around her.
That also happens in my own Joel Williams series. In both Publish or Perish and B-Very Flat, the victims have a certain naiveté. In Publish or Perish, graduate student Nick Merrill isn’t aware of the lengths to which some people will go to get what they want and further their careers. In B-Very Flat, undergraduate violin virtuosa Serena Brinkman isn’t aware that some of the people closest to her are the least trustworthy. In both cases, the victims’ trust in the people who surround them makes them very vulnerable.
In many of Robin Cook’s novels, we also see victims whose trust makes them vulnerable. Cook’s novels frequently center around a group of unexplained deaths. Those deaths often turn out to be murders. What’s particularly suspenseful about the way that Cook’s best novels handle this is that it’s almost second nature for a patient to trust his or her doctor. Patients put themselves under a doctor’s care and go to the hospital with the expectation that they’ll get the best care possible. Certainly patients don’t expect to be victimized by the people whom they trust to help them get well. It’s that sense of being betrayed by someone one has trusted that makes some of Cook’s novels especially suspenseful.
Cook actually adds another twist to this idea of trust making one vulnerable. In several novels, the sleuth is made vulnerable, too, because of misplaced trust. For example, in Godplayer, Dr. Cassandra “Cassi” Kingsley and her friend, Dr. Robert Seibert, try to make sense of a series of unexplained deaths following what’s supposed to be routine heart surgery. Gradually, Cassi realizes that the murder is someone she’s previously trusted, and Cook builds the suspense very effectively as Cassi slowly finds that her trust is misplaced. In the end, the killer turns on Cassi, and very nearly kills her, too. The same thing happens in Cook’s Contagion. In that novel, Dr. Jack Stapleton and Dr. Laurie Montgomery try to find out what’s behind a series of deaths that are related to a particularly virulent strain of influenza. The closer Jack gets to the truth, the more danger there is for him, but he doesn’t realize it until he’s trapped by the killer. In this case the murderer turns out to be someone Jack thought that he could trust.
There are, of course, many other examples of novels where the victim faces danger from someone she or he has trusted the most. When the plot’s well done and the characters believable, it can add a compelling level of suspense if the victim (or the sleuth) is unaware of the threat to her or his life. That sense of walking into a trap keeps the reader involved and makes the characters realistic. Of course, too much naiveté isn’t authentic, and can actually take away from the plot, so, like almost everything else about good crime fiction, it comes down to a balance between naiveté and shrewd judgment.
What do you think? Do you like mystery novels where the victim (or the sleuth) walks into a trap? Or do you think that’s too hard to believe?