Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Manner of Death

Most of the time, deaths are classified by their manner. Some deaths are accidents, some are from natural causes, some are suicides and some are homicides. In crime fiction, as in real life, murderers make use of these classifications. Once a death is ruled accidental, natural, or a suicide, the police very often don’t investigate much further, so it’s in a killer’s interest to make a death look like something other than murder. It also adds a very interesting puzzle to a murder mystery if the sleuth first has to figure out whether a death was even a murder. It can add some suspense, too, as someone tries to convince the police to investigate.

In several of Agatha Christie’s novels, we see cases where the murderer has tried to make a death look like an accident. After all, accidents might happen to anyone, and a clever killer can arrange an “accident” with enough planning. For example, in Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of Alfred St. Vincent Marsh, 4th Baron Edgware. As he looks for clues in the case, he finds out that an up-and-coming American actress, Carlotta Adams, may have important clues to the case. By the time he realizes how important her evidence may be, she’s died of an overdose of Veronal, a sleeping powder. At first, almost everyone believes that Carlotta‘s death is an accidental overdose, but Poirot soon realizes that her death is connected with that of Lord Edgware, and that she’s been murdered.

There’s a similar “disguise” for murder in Christie’s Postern of Fate, the last novel she wrote (although not the last to be published). Tommy and Tuppence Beresford have recently retired to a new home in the village of Hollowquay. As they’re unpacking and sorting, Tuppence comes across a cryptic clue to a long-ago death that occurred in the very house that the Beresfords have just bought. Tuppence becomes very curious about the clue and begins to find out more information about the death. Soon, Tommy becomes curious, too. It seems that Mary Jordan, a German maid who lived in Hollowquay many years before, died suddenly when she ate foxglove that was accidentally gathered along with other salad greens for a dinner. Her death was ruled an accident and forgotten by most people. One young boy, though, believed she’d been murdered, and it’s his clue that puts the Beresfords on the trail of a murderer.

Louise Penny’s Still Life also centers on a supposed accident. In that novel, Jane Neal, a beloved school teacher and artist, is killed one morning while she’s out on a woodland trail near Three Pines, a rural town in Qu├ębec. At first, everyone believes she’s been the victim of a tragic hunting accident. After all, she was liked by everyone and there seems to be no motive for a murder. However, Inspector Armand Gamache, who’s called in to investigate the case, soon begins to think Neal’s death was murder. As he starts to look into the death more closely, he uncovers some hidden secrets that convince him that he was right.

There’s a similar scenario in Carol O’Connell’s Shell Game, in which magician Oliver Tree is killed as he’s attempting a daring escape from four crossbows. When the trick goes horribly wrong, everyone claims that his death was accidental. Detective Sergeant Kathleen “Kathy” Mallory thinks otherwise. She begins to investigate Tree’s background, and finds that he was among a group of four magicians, all connected by a tragic death in the past. As it turns out, Tree’s death is a murder that has everything to do with that long-ago death.

Sometimes, of course, murderers make their work look like natural deaths. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), in which Hercule Poirot looks into the death of Emily Arundell, a wealthy spinster. Poirot receives a letter from Miss Arundell, asking him to contact her regarding a very delicate matter. The letter isn’t very clear about what’s worrying her, but Poirot takes it seriously, and he and Hastings visit the town of Market Basing, where Miss Arundell lives. By the time they arrive, it’s too late; Miss Arundell has been dead for nearly two months. The doctor’s put her death down as natural, since she was not in good health, anyway. However, the letter, plus news that Miss Arundell had had an accident shortly before her death, leads Poirot to believe that Miss Arundell was murdered.

A supposedly natural death also provides a “cover” in Barbara Fradkin’s Once Upon a Time, her second Inspector Green novel. An 80-year old man is found dead in an Ottawa parking lot. Since he was in poor health, at first, the coroner believes that he fell and hit his head, then succumbed to hypothermia. Inspector Green wants to believe that verdict, because he’s not much for paperwork. However, natural death doesn’t explain the deliberate-looking gash in the man’s head, so Green begins to investigate. What he finds out is that the old man’s past in World War II Poland has caught up with him. This so-called natural death is a murder that has its roots in war-torn, Nazi-occupied Poland.

In some crime fiction, the murderer tries to make the death look like a suicide. We see that in Warren Adler’s Immaculate Deception, the fourth of his Fiona FitzGerald series. FitzGerald is a homicide detective in Washington, D.C., one of the few white women on the force. She’s called to the scene when the body of Frances McGuire, a prominent congresswoman, is found in her bed after an apparent suicide by poisoning. There are signs that the death is suicide, but McGuire’s assistant claims that she was murdered. Gradually, Fiona comes to believe that McGuire was killed, too, but there’s a great deal of pressure on her to investigate the death as a suicide. As Fiona searches for the truth, she finds that politics and causes played important roles in McGuire’s death. So did a shocking incident in McGuire’s personal life.

The murderer uses suicide as a “cover” in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Mirror, too. That’s a short story that appears in Christie’s Murder in the Mews collection. In that story, Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore is the eccentric and wealthy patriarch of the “well-born” Chevenix-Gore family. He’s convinced of his family’s superiority over nearly all other families, and as the head of the family, he believes that he can manipulate others’ lives to his liking. When he becomes convinced that someone in his family may be cheating him, he writes to Poirot, requesting that Poirot investigate the matter. Poirot arrives just in time for dinner, but before dinner can be served, Sir Gervase is found in his study, shot to death. He’s scrawled the word “sorry” on a piece of paper, and since he was locked in his study, everyone believes that Sir Gervase committed suicide. Poirot, however, is soon suspicious of that explanation and, in a very neat trick, is able to prove how Sir Gervase was really killed.

There’s another neat trick in Christie’s Murder in the Mews, in the same story collection. That story concerns the death of Mrs. Barbara Allen, whose roommate, Jane Plenderleith, comes home after a week-end visit in the country to find that her friend has apparently committed suicide. The room in which she was found is locked, and her pistol is lying by her hand, where she apparently dropped it. There are other signs, though, that this might have been a murder, so Hercule Poirot is immediately skeptical of the suicide explanation. His investigation eventually leads to a very surprising explanation, in true Christie fashion.

Of course, there are many fine crime fiction novels, too, in which the murder is obvious, and the investigation is based on that assumption. Which are your favorite novels where the murder “hides” behind accident, natural death or suicide?


  1. I think when the author "hides" the murder behind accident, natural death or suicide, it makes you question the death that much more. That adds another layer to the mystery

  2. Mason - Nicely put :). You're right that when a murder is "disguised," there's one more "knot" to untangle, and that adds both to the interest and to the mystery.

  3. It can be fun when the murder is portrayed as an accidental death, long as it doesn't go on for too long. Sort of like a red doesn't need to take up too much of the investigation time. I think you did it about right with your book, Margot...nice length of time where we wondered if he'd just slipped and hit his head.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. Elizabeth - Thanks for the kind words : ). I actually thought about that as I was writing, so I'm glad it worked for you. I agree, too that it really can work well as a sort of "red herring." I like the suspense, too, when someone is *sure* the death wasn't an accident, etc., etc., but has to convince others.

  5. I agree with Elizabeth, a disguised murder can be fun, as long as it doesn't go on for too long. I also enjoy books with a plot that discovers someone's death a while ago, long thought to be innocent, in light of a present murder turns out to be murder as well.

    Disguised murders demonstrate a murderer with a brain. Instead of not leaving fingerprints or whatever they've attempted to pass the death off as natural. Sneaky. Discovering the perpetrator will take some thought, which is far more interesting than looking for someone who just picked up a gun.


  6. Elspeth - I know exactly what you mean about deaths that seem innocent at first, but later turn out to have been murder. There's such a nice twist on that in Agatha Christie's Cards on the Table. Each of four people has likely committed murder in the past, but those deaths have been passed off innocently. When the eccentric Mr. Shaitana invites those four people to dinner and drops strong hints that he knows the deaths were actually murder, one of his guests kills him. A really interesting Christie work...

  7. Isn't that funny! I just reread "Card on the Table". I found it a fascinating character study.

  8. Oh, isn't it interesting, Elspeth? On that aspect, it's one of Christie's really fine works.

  9. I watched Tell No One the film [French with subtitles] based on Harlan Coben's book last night which has nice twist on nice twist, with the murder victim, who isn't, claiming bruises were caused in a car accident.
    When it comes to crime films the French do it better than most.

  10. Norman - Thanks for sharing your reaction to the film. I haven't seen it, although the Coben book is good. It sounds as though the film was really well-done, too. That's what's so nice about a good crime fiction film; there can be so many of those twists.

  11. Funny so often your posts remind me of old favourites. A story where the murderer goes to great lengths to disguise the murder and/or divert the attention from the actual crime is Sayers´ Strong Poison. That is a plot I admire very much.

  12. Dorte - How interesting that you would mention Strong Poison, which I also like very much. Right after I uploaded this post, I thought of that book - I think our minds work in similar ways : ). You are, of course, absolutely right that one of the main points of that novel is the murderer trying to make Philip Boyes' death look like anything but what it really was. Thanks for mentioning that one.