Thursday, November 26, 2009

Walking Into a Trap

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?


  1. Oh, I definitely think people are clueless. I'm one of them. To me, it's completely realistic. On the other side of the coin is the hardened victim who thinks they can outsmart or outmaneuver the killer and underestimate the risk.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. When the victim (or sleuth) walks into a trap, that's usually when I, as a reader, start saying, "No, no don't go there or do that" and can't read quick enough to see what happens next. It makes them human (even though they are just make-believe).

  3. Elizabeth - I know exactly what you mean. I, too, would probably never suspect someone in my "inner circle." I think there are many people like us who find the naive victim completely believable. You're right, too, about the victim who's too savvy for his or her own good. A few of the characters in Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None are like that. They're smart, experienced people who've been in danger and who think that they'll be able to handle the risk. Of course, they're wrong...

    Mason - That's just what's so compelling about someone walking into a trap! It makes the reader get involved and almost want to call out to warn about the danger. I've found myself doing the same thing. When you care enough about characters to wonder what's going to happen to them, you know those characters are realistic and the story well-written. The more human and believable the characters, the more caught up we get in the story.

  4. I love the idea of someone's arrogance or ego making them vulnerable. I hadn't thought of it in those terms before but, as you mention, we see it often in both the victim and the investigator. Stories where the doctor turns out to be the bad guy are very suspenseful. I think the fact that they hold such power over life and death yet are highly trusted makes it especially creepy. "Malice Aforethought" (1931) by Frances Iles is another example of the victim falling prey to someone who is both close to her (her husband) and a person of trust (a doctor). Thanks, Margot. I see the turkey didn't slow you down a bit!

  5. Bobbi - You've got a very well-taken point. Since doctors have so much power, it is doubly eerie when that power makes the patient extra-vulnerable. I haven't liked every Robin Cook novel I've read, but that's one thread through them that keeps me reading. Thanks, also, for the tip about Malice Aforethought. I'd heard of the book, but I haven't read it. It sounds as though the plot is exactly the kind of thing I was thinking of when I posted this. I'm going to have to look for that one... And yes, turkey or no turkey, I guess I'm addicted to blogging : ).

  6. Another fascinating post, Margot! The relationship of the victim to the murderer is always interesting; is it casual? Long-standing? Business? Personal? Motive also plays a primary role; the victim may be evil personified (very boring) or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time (also boring, but tragic). People in positions of power don't have a monopoly on morals, or the lack thereof. A President may hate, but so can a garbageman. Being a doctor doesn't mean you lose your ability to feel jealousy. I've found it interesting that people feel the murderer holding a 'better' job makes the crime more tragic. What does this say about society? Having more schooling is expected to alter human nature? This strikes me as somewhat unrealistic.


  7. Elspeth - You make some really fascinating points! You're right that it's really interesting to think about the victim/murderer relationship. That, in itself, can make for a compelling part of the plot, especially as it's often that relationship that leads to the murder. You also make a well-taken point that there is no relationship between status and ethics/morals. We can all point to examples of people in very high status positions who've committed (or arranged for ) murders, and people in low status positions who've done some very noble things. It really is an interesting commentary on the way people think when we imagine that some people "would never do such a thing" because of their social status. Thanks for making me think!

  8. Agreed, as ever, a most interesting post. I like novels such as those you describe, where someone is in a powerful position and unaware and/or uncaring of the effect they are having and how vulnerable that makes them.

    I think this is specially interesting in crime fiction when the powerful person is someone in a position of authority and trust, in particular, when that person is in the police force. Peter Temple is an author who very well explores many issues of corruption and crime in these kinds of quarters.

    One example I like is Jo Nesbo's "trilogy within the series" about Harry Hole, that is, The Devil's Star, Redbreast (such a sad book....really sad) and Nemesis. These novels explore a character who is a policeperson and in a position of power, so surprises the victims as they have no suspicions....and also, this person is very arrogant in their power, so is rendered vulnerable to the people who are underestimated. These Harry Hole books are not entirely successful in some ways, but in this particular way I think they work very well. (Their strongest point is the character of Harry himself, a classical man of strong inner sense of timeless righteousness who is out of step with modern policing, aka Harry Bosch and many others.)

  9. Maxine - Thanks for bringing up Jo Nesbo's work. I have to admit to being not as familiar with the Harry Hole series as I would like, but I find Hole's character absolutely fascinating. I'll have to look for that trilogy.

    I think one of the most interesting aspects about the powerful person who's vulnerable is that she or he almost puts blinders on. I don't know if that happens because of overconfidence or not, but I've seen it in real life, and it really does make for fascinating plots, as you say. What I also like is the person who has been underestimated, who turns out to have more power than anyone thought and who ends up turning on the more powerful person. That psychology is fascinating.

  10. Margot, I too am a tremendous fan of Jo Nesbo and enjoyed the "trilogy' [3] Redbreast, [4] Nemesis and [5] Devil's Star. They were published and read by me in the incorrect order [5] [3] [4], but that at least did have the advantage of at least knowing the outcome and fate of that arrogant police person. I could not have waited for each book to be published in order as I was so incensed by him and I would have had to have learned Norwegian!
    Harry Hole is just a little different from your average, depressed Scandinavian police detective with a drink problem, and Jo Nesbo's clever plots, translated superbly by the charming Don Bartlett, are a real treat.

  11. Norman - That's one of Harry Hole's appeals; he's not "typical." That adds another dimension to his character and makes it that much more interesting. And when you combine an interesting detective with well-crafted plots, as Nesbo does, the result's almost always excellent.

    I'm glad you mentioned translation, too. There are many subtle nuances in writing (and speaking, for that matter) that add to a plot; if they're not there - if the translator doesn't find a way to capture them - the story can fall flat.

  12. Second attempt! I so often remember to copy, but I forgot last time and this- Blogger crashed again! Anyway, I love legal thrillers, if it is done well I think you can't beat a good trial. I think my favourite author in this regard is Philip Margolian, whom I love. When I was a teenager I devoured Earle Stanley Garnder of course, where the climax of each book was always a good trial with a twist. Latterly, Scott Turow and Richard North Patterson started out writing darn good "trial" novels - unfortunately both authors have drifted into doorstop mode since then, but they used to be excellent. John Grisham writes an excellent trial though is weak on plot (eg Pelican Brief, ouch!). I think trials are great to read because they provide the author with the opportunity to show the same event from lots of different viewpoints, to provide a twist, and (sometimes!) show justice being done.

  13. Apologies, Margot. The above commment belongs to the next post, not this one (have reposted there). Getting a bit tangled up with Blogger!

  14. Maxine - not a problem at all : ). I've responded to your comment on the other post.