Friday, December 18, 2009

I'd never have guessed!

As I’ve often mentioned on this blog, well-written crime fiction reflects real life. That includes believable characters and believable motives. One thing about real life that seems to be true is that almost any one of us could kill, given the right circumstances. So it is in crime fiction. Even the nicest, friendliest person could be a killer. Even the most religiously observant person who seems to be a pillar of rectitude could commit a murder. That’s one thing that can make crime fiction so interesting and engaging; since anyone could be a killer, the challenge is to find out which of a set of suspects is hiding murder behind a pleasant and friendly façade, an apparent lack of motive, or a supposedly unimpeachable alibi. Sometimes, the killer is the last person you’d suspect.

Agatha Christie was particularly skilled at presenting all kinds of characters as killers, even the ones you’d never have guessed. She did this in several novels, so I’ll just mention a few of them throughout the course of this post. In Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday for Murder and Murder for Christmas), Simeon Lee, an unpleasant but wealthy patriarch, has alienated his entire family, even the son and daughter-in-law who still live in the family home. One Christmas, Lee invites everyone to spend Christmas with him. He claims he’d like to renew ties with his family. No-one believes him, but no-one dares refuse the invitation. On the night of Christmas Eve, Lee is brutally murdered, and everyone staying in the house is a suspect. Hercule Poirot, who’s staying with a friend nearby, investigates the crime. As it turns out, Lee’s murderer isn’t obvious at all, although Christie does slip clues in for the observant reader.

Apparent lack of motive “hides” the killer in John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Weschler. That’s the story of Arnold Weschler, Classics Professor at Hewes college, which has been the scene of a lot of recent student unrest, drug thefts and a kidnapping. Weschler is called to the home of the President of Hewes College and asked to do what he can to stop these disruptions; his brother David is suspected of being a ringleader in the group everyone thinks is behind the events, and the administration thinks that Weschler can get his brother to stop the group from taking any further action. Very reluctantly, Weschler cooperates. As he gets closer to the truth about these events and a subsequent bombing, he finds out that things aren’t at all what they seem to be. The real force behind everything is a person who apparently has no reason to commit the crimes – or so it seems.

Robin Cook’s Contagion is another example of an “unexpected” killer who doesn’t seem to have a motive. Cook’s sleuths Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery notice a spate of unexplained and unexpected deaths at Manhattan General Hospital. They soon trace the deaths to a particularly virulent strand of influenza, and Jack is determined to find out how the influenza was spread. He discovers that the deaths are deliberate, and that the killer’s goal was gain. What’s interesting in this novel is that the killer turns out to be someone whom Jack doesn’t suspect at all – and neither does the reader until Jack nearly becomes another victim.

A seeming lack of motive is also a façade for the killer in Murder in Mesopotamia, in which Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of Louise Leidner, the wife of noted archeologist Eric Leidner, while they are on an expedition. Since it’s fairly certain that a stranger didn’t get into the expedition house, suspicion falls on the members of the expedition party and several of their friends. As Poirot looks into everyone’s alibi, he finds out some surprising secrets about some of the members of the staff. In the end, though, the murderer turns out to be someone who’s not at all an obvious suspect. In fact, it’s not until Poirot figures out how the crime was accomplished that he realizes who the killer must have been. In this case, the murderer also hides behind what seems like an unimpeachable alibi.

Perhaps the most interesting and intellectually challenging case of “the last one you’d suspect” is in Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians). In that novel, ten people are lured by a variety of ruses to a house on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. On their first night at the house, they realize that what they have in common is that they’ve all been responsible for at least one death. Then, one by one, the guests begin to die, and the survivors realize that one of them is a killer bent on murdering the others. At the end of the story, it seems impossible that any of the people could be the killer, but, as is revealed in the last part of the novel, appearances can be very deceiving.

Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle also features a killer who turns out to be someone you wouldn’t have suspected. Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, investigate the murder of noted clothing designer Sheila Grey, who’s shot one night in her apartment. The prime suspect in the case is Sheila’s lover, wealthy Ashton McKell. His wife, Lutetia, is also suspected for a time, and his son, Dane, who was also in love with Sheila, is also a suspect. The Queens carefully sift through everyone’s alibi and through Sheila’s past, and finally believe that they’ve found the killer. At the end, though, Ellery finds one important clue that leads him to the real killer – someone one wouldn’t have suspected.

In Ngaio Marsh’s Photo Finish, there’s also a classic example of a killer who turns out to be someone who wasn’t suspected. That’s the story of coloratura soprano Isabella Sommita, renowned opera singer. “La Sommita” has been plagued by a “stalker” photographer named “Strix ,” who’s been taking unflattering pictures of her and selling them to newspapers. In order to escape “Strix,” Sommita accepts an invitation to stay at Waihoe Lodge, a home in southern New Zealand that’s owned by her lover, Sir Montague Reece. Chief Superintendent Roderick Alleyn is also invited to stay at the lodge, since his wife, Troy, has been commissioned to paint the singer. So Alleyn’s on hand when Isabella Sommita is stabbed after a performance of a very inferior opera that was written expressly for her. There are several suspects, including Strix, who followed the singer to the island; her new lover, who wrote the opera; and Sir Montague Reece. As it turns out, though, the murderer is not someone one would have expected.

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is also an interesting case of a killer who’s not suspected. Harvard professor Robert Langdon is called to the Louvre to help uncover the murderer of curator Jacques Saunière. Langdon and his companion Sophie Neuveu tie in the murder with the history of an ancient group, the Knights of the Templar, and the search for the Holy Grail. In this story, we know who the killer is, but what’s not suspected until later in the novel is the person who’s actually behind the killings. It’s a very interesting twist that adds to the suspense of the story.

One of the most interesting examples of an unexpected murderer is Who?, a short story by Michael Collins. In the story, private investigator Dan Fortune is hired by Mrs. Patrick Conners to look into the sudden death of her son, Boyd. According to his mother, Boyd came home one evening, angry over an argument he’d had. A few minutes later, he fell over, dead. Mrs. Conners is sure her son was murdered, even though the medical examiner has ruled that he had a heart attack. So Fortune agrees to look into the matter. There are several suspects, too. For one thing, Boyd has a girlfriend, Anna Kazco, whose mother doesn’t like Boyd. Then there’s Boyd’s rival for Anna, Roger Tatum. There’s also the local gang of hoodlums. In a surprising twist, though, it turns out that Boyd was murdered by someone who isn’t even a suspect.

Do you think it’s realistic that a killer could be “the least suspected person?” Do you think that’s too implausible? Which are your favorite “least suspected” novels?


  1. I think it's *hard* to write a surprise...but it sure is fun to read! After all, many of us in genre fiction have just a handful of suspects...maybe 5 or 6. We've got to at least show that they're suspects and maybe scatter out some clues and red herrings. It makes it hard to create a surprise. But I love mysteries where you *think* someone has been successfully eliminated from the pool of suspects and then they're readmitted.


  2. Elizabeth - You put your finger on the biggest challange of writing a "surprise" murderer. It's hard to do that when you've got to make all of the suspects plausible. Those who do that skillfully enough to spring a surprise on us have my admiration. You're right, too, that it's especially fun when you think you've elminated a suspect, only to find that that person's alibi has fallen apart, or that that person had a motive that nobody knew about. Very engaging.

  3. When you find a book that leads you away from the real killer only to throw them back in at the last moment, then you've found a "WOW" book. It's one of those moment when you didn't see that coming that makes the book that more enjoyable. I think they are especially fun when the author does drop clues in for the observant reader so you can look back at the end and say, "Oh, I should have caught that" or "Why didn't I notice that?"
    Very interesting post.

  4. Mason - Thanks : ). I agree with you completely, too. When the author leaves clues, but also leads the raeder steadily in another direction and then back again, that's a really abosrbing novel that's hard to put down. That's one reason I like Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot's Christmas so much; there are clues if the reader pays attention, but the killer still takes you by surprise.

  5. FYI from R.T.

  6. R.T. - Thanks so much for sharing that list! Folks, this is a thorough and comprehensive list of some excellent recommendations for mystery/crime fiction novels.

  7. The unsuspected culprit is a great trick, if it can be pulled off successfully. I haven't read that Ellery Queen, and will seek it out before long.

  8. Martin - You've got a good point; it's not always easy to pull off an unexpected murderer. Almost always, there needs to be some connection between the murderer and the victim, and even when it's a random killing, there has to be some introduction to the person who does the killing. When it works, though, it can be, as you say, a great trick.

    I think you'll like The Fourth Side of the Triangle. It's got a solid intellectual challenge and a network of fascinating family relationships. It's not a long novel, either, and I know it kept me turning pages.