Monday, December 28, 2009

"Crimes of Passion"

In real life, and in crime fiction, murders (that is, killings that are neither accidents nor cases of self-defense) fall into two very general categories (those with legal knowledge, please pardon my glossing over the details; I’m not a legal expert). There’s the premeditated murder and there’s the crime passional or the “crime of passion.” “Crimes of passion” are murders that are committed in sudden anger or under extreme provocation. The key factor that makes them different from premeditated murder is that the killer doesn’t intend to kill. Most of us can’t imagine committing carefully-planned, premeditated murder. If we can even conceive of killing, it’s more likely to be the "crime of passion." That’s arguably why it can be easier to identify with a killer who commits that kind of crime; we can understand how the murder could have happened.

We can see that kind of crime in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide), in which Hercule Poirot visits the small, quiet village of Warmsley Vale to investigate the murder of a stranger who calls himself Enoch Arden. At first, the crime looks like a premeditated murder. There are several suspects, too, as a large fortune is at stake. What Poirot finds, though, is that this was a crime of sudden anger. In fact, there’s an interesting argument in the novel about whether the crime is actually a crime or an accident.

Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden begins with a "crime of passion." Landscaper Warren Howe is murdered with his own scythe and his body dumped in a trench that he dug. At first, everyone thinks his wife, Tina, committed the crime, and she had good reason. Howe was an unfaithful and abusive husband. As it turns out, the case isn’t that simple, as there are plenty of other people who had a motive to kill Howe, and Tina had an alibi for the murder. What’s interesting about this murder is that the killer doesn’t start out ready to kill. Rather, the killer reacts to Howe’s behavior and responses when the murderer confronts him.

James Yaffe’s A Nice Murder for Mom has another example of a “crime of passion.” In that novel, Stuart Bellamy, a pompous and much-disliked English professor at Mesa Grande College, is killed by a blow to the head one night while he’s on the ‘phone with a colleague. Mike Russo, another colleague of Bellamy’s, is charged with the murder, and he’s got a motive. He was passed over for tenure in favor of Bellamy. Former New York City police officer Dave, who’s recently taken a job as an investigator in the small Colorado town where the college is located, is asked to find out what really happened to Bellamy. Dave discovers that this murder was what you might call a textbook case of the murder that’s committed in “the heat of the moment.”

So is the murder of Janet Pisula, a community college student whose death is the subject of K.C. Constantine’s The Blank Page. Janet is a quiet, shy student who, it would seem, is not the type of girl to get herself killed. When she’s found strangled with her own brassiere, Rockland, Pennsylvania police chief Mario Balzic investigates her death. When he uncovers the truth about Janet’s life and her murder, we find out that Janet’s death is a very interesting case of a “crime of passion.”

Robert B. Parker’s High Profile is also an interesting case of a “crime of passion.” Paradise, Massachusetts police chief Jesse Stone is called in to find out who shot and hung Walton Weeks, a well-known radio commentator, newspaper columnist and author. Stone’s just beginning this investigation when the body of Weeks’ pregnant mistress, Carey Longley, is found in a dumpster. There’s no shortage of suspects; Weeks has several ex-wives, and at the time of his death, he was married. All of those women have a good reason to kill him. So does Weeks’ bodyguard. There’s also the fact that Weeks was a controversial public figure who inspired both fanatic devotion and equally fanatic hatred. As Stone works through the various secrets, clues and alibis, he discovers that Weeks’ murder was most definitely a “crime of passion.”

Murders committed in the “heat of the moment” are often treated with more lenience than are premeditated murders. So it’s not uncommon for a killer to try to ‘hide” behind a “crime of passion.” Moreover, different kinds of motives are often associated with premeditated murder and “crimes of passion,” so coldly-planned killings are also sometimes “disguised” to hide the real murderer.

There are several examples of that kind of crime in Agatha Christie’s work; I’ll just mention two of them. In Death on the Nile, beautiful, wealthy Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is shot during her honeymoon cruise up the Nile. Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same cruise, investigates the murder with help from Colonel Race. At first, the killing looks exactly like a “crime of passion.” Linnet’s just married the former fiancé of her best friend, Jacqueline de Bellefort. The gun turns out to be Jacqueline’s, and Jacqueline’s even told Poirot that she’d like to shoot Linnet. As it turns out, though, this crime isn’t at all what it seems on the surface.

Neither is the strangling murder of Arlena Stuart Marshall in Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. In that novel, Arlena, her husband Kenneth, and her stepdaughter, Linda, are on a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel, off the Devon coast. Also there, among other guests, are young Patrick Redfern and his wife, Christine. At first, Arlena’s death looks like a “typical” crime passional. She and Patrick Redfern have been having an affair, and both of their spouses seem to know about it. As Poirot digs deeper, though, he finds out that there are other possible motives for Arlena’s murder, and that this is a coldly-planned death. He even comments that this murder seems too “slick” to be a crime committed by a one-time murderer in a moment of fury.

Michael Connelly’s The Brass Verdict is also an interesting case of what looks like a “crime of passion.” Los Angeles attorney Mickey Haller is left a sheaf of cases when a colleague, Jerry Vincent, is murdered. One of them is the case of Walter Elliot, a film studio executive who’s charged with murdering his wife and her lover. The fact that Elliot’s wife had a very generous prenuptial agreement is only one piece of the strong case against him. Detective Harry Bosch is investigating the death of Jerry Vincent, and he thinks that it may be connected to the Elliot case. He and Mickey Haller cross paths more than once, because of the two cases, and they form an alliance after a fashion. What starts out as a “crime of passion” turns out to be much more, and Haller finds out that both murders are related to a larger conspiracy.

We see another example of a killer “hiding” behind a “crime of passion” in Susanne Alleyn’s Game of Patience, which takes place in the Paris of post-Revolution France. Police agent Aristide Ravel is called in to find the murder of Louis Saint-Ange and his lover, Célie Montereau. Few people mourn Saint-Ange, who was a blackmailer and extortionist. In fact, it’s quite possible that Célie was one of his victims. That’s what her friend Rosalie Clément claims. Rosalie also tells the police that Célie’s fiancé, Philippe Aubry, killed both victims in a burst of fury at Saint-Ange for blackmailing and Célie because she was unfaithful (and pregnant). It’s not long, though, before Ravel discovers that these killings were quite deliberate and planned, and that nearly everyone involved in the case knows is keeping at least one secret.

In another historical mystery, Elliott Roosevelt’s Murder in the Lincoln Bedroom, there’s another instance of what looks like a “crime of passion” – but isn’t. Paul Weyrich, a top advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt, is found in the Lincoln Bedroom - murdered by a blow to the back of the head. At first, it seems to be a crime passionel; Weyrich was having an affair with his secretary, Julie Finch, and refused to marry her. The case isn’t as simple as that, though, as Eleanor Roosevelt soon discovers. With an important conference coming up at the White House, she knows that this murder is going to have to be solved before the conference starts if her husband’s administration is going to avoid a lot of embarrassing publicity. So she decides to solve the case herself, with the help of a friend, Washington, D.C. detective Ed Kennelly. What they find is that Weyrich’s death is part of a larger plot to kill the president.

What’s your opinion? Do you enjoy the “crime of passion” plot? Or do you think it’s not engaging enough? Do you prefer the premeditated kind of murder? Which are your favorite “crime of passion” novels?


  1. I love your photos Margot! I think if I were to commit a murder it would have to be in a fit of passion - I can't imagine carrying it out any other way. Do you think people committing a crime of passion have at times thought of murder as a possible solution?

  2. Kerrie - Thanks : ). I enjoy taking those 'photos, too, although I think they make my husband nervous ; ). You've asked a really interesting question, too. Like you, I cannot imagine myself killing except to defend my family or in a fit of passion. I think there is a line that most of us just don't cross. Those who do have been pushed there, so I think they may well have imagined what it would be like if XXX would only die, and then what it would be like if they killed XXX. I could be quite wrong, though, and it's just such a fascinating question to ponder! Thanks...

  3. Margot thanks for the lovely things you said about Crime Scraps. You have embarrassed me and the pressure is on to keep posting interesting items.

  4. I do especially like the mysteries where we THINK it's a crime of passion, but then discover the crime was planned out to LOOK that way.

    I've written it the other way around, too, in my first book. I had a murder that appeared to be planned, which was actually a crime of passion.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  5. Norman - Not to worry; I think you're up to the challenge :).

    Elizabeth - It *is* interesting and fun when a crime looks like a preplanned crime or a crime of passion and it turns out to be the opposite. That keeps the sleuth busy and the reader guessing. It's a good reminder, too, that things are not always what they seem.

    I haven't read A Dyeing Shame: Death at the Beauty Box yet, but I do love your Myrtle Clover; I'll have to get that one : ).

  6. As bad as it sounds, it depends on what mood I'm in when I'm reading as to planned or crime of passion. I enjoy reading both. It is always interesting when the crime turns out not to be what you thought it was all along.

  7. Mason - I don't think it's bad at all that one's mood affects one's view of a book. That's one of the best things about the huge variety in the crime fiction world; there's always a good book that can match one's mood. And I've found that if I start a book and just am not in the mood, I can always go back to it at another time. And it is interesting, isn't it, when you think a book has one kind of crime, but it turns out to be another... I admire authors who can do that.

  8. I also loved that nicely creepy photo. I think you have found the right blend this time (or perhaps you really did strike someone ...?)

    I think the crime of passion is the most realistic crime statistically, but if all crime writers aimed at realism solely, we wouldn´t get many murder mysteries, would we? Theft and burglary, perhaps, and the occasional husband beating his wife, but not many truly exciting crime stories.

    So please, crime fiction writers, give us a variety of motives and plots, not too much social realism :D

  9. Dorte - Thanks for your comments about the 'photo : ). Don't worry, I'm only violent when I write ; ).

    You do make a good point, too, about how much social realism there should be in crime fiction. On one hand, as you say, crimes of passion are probably lots more common than are premeditated, carefully-plotted murders. So it's easy for us to identify with the characters, and we can logically and even emotionally see how a crime of passion could be committed. On the other hand, one reason we read fiction is to step back from the real world. We don't always want stories that are exactly like real life. Perhaps you put it best in your comment about my 'photo - it's all about the right blend...

  10. What I find interesting is the generally accepted concept that a crime of passion is somehow more forgivable than a pre-meditated murder. After all, the perpetrator was upset, the poor thing. Under normal circumstances they would never do this awful did, but that nasty victim just pushed all the right buttons. Okay. Interesting. I would suggest that although most of us can get pushed into actions we wouldn't normally contemplate in the heat of fired up emotions, we don't usually pick up a crow bar (to use the image you thoughtfully provided!) To my mind, a person who acts in the heat of passion is just as dangerous as a person who coldly calculates the how and when.


  11. Elspeth - You raise (as always!) such a very interesting and important point. There's certainly a strong argument that we're more likely to forgive a crime of passion than we are a coldly-calculated murder. A glance through crime fiction shows that bias, too. But, as Hercule Poirot points out in several Agatha Christie novels, the actual choice to take a human life is a crime, regardless of who the victim and perpetrator are. That's why Poirot is wont to say that he does not approve of murder. Really, really interesting philosophical and ethical question! Are there degrees of guilt when it comes to ommitting murder?? I don't know that there is one "right" answer to your question, which makes it all the more compelling. Thanks for making me think : ).

  12. Thanks for another outstanding post, Margot. You raise such interesting topics and provide so many examples! I have quite a challenge in the book I'm writing, which centers around an unsolved hatchet murder, one I heard about from my armchair detective grandmother when I was a child. I believe it was a "crime of passion."
    Your commenters bring up some great points, too!
    As a police officer for 21 years, I heard of many motives; some are extremely frightening ('I wanted to see what it was like to kill someone', and too many domestic violence cases, and even one of the most extreme, the Suffolk Sniper, who wanted to shoot people so that he could eventually shoot his ex-girlfriend to make her appear to be one of the random victims!), and so many are senseless (children, innocent victims shot in a drive-by, mistaken identity, etc)'s scary.

  13. Kathleen - Thanks for the kind words ; ). And thanks for your so-very-helpful real-life insights on the kinds of murders people commit. For me, it's hard to "get my mind" around killing people to see what it's like. It really is scary to conceive of the kinds of reasons people really have for kiiling, and I truly appreciate your reality-check perspective on this. When I read your comment about the Suffolk Sniper, it reminded me of an Agatha Christie mystery. I don't want to name the book, because I don't want to ruin anyone's enjoyment, but the motive is similar (i.e. to "hide" a particular murder among others). Frightening and fascinating in a morbid way...

    I really do look forward to your book, by the way.