Monday, January 18, 2010

Hidden Motives...

In real life and in crime fiction, most murderers try to hide what they’ve done. They may arrange an alibi, try to frame another likely suspect, or make the death look like an accident or suicide. All of those strategies can be effective, of course, and there are many examples of them in crime fiction. Another strategy that the murderer can use is to “hide” behind someone else’s motive – in other words, use a false motive. Suppose, for instance, that an ambitious executive finds out that a co-worker is in line for a coveted and important promotion, and decides to make the decision easier by killing her rival. Now, suppose that executive knows that her rival’s been unfaithful to his wife, and that the wife knows about it. What better “disguise” for the murder than to make it seem that the motive for the murder is personal jealousy instead of greed? If the “disguise” is successful, the police will immediately suspect the wife (or the mistress) and concentrate their efforts on the victim’s personal life. That distraction gives the real murderer time to “cover her tracks.”

False motives play a role in lots of crime fiction. After all, if the police are looking for a killer who, say, hated the victim, they won’t look for a killer who has a financial motive. For instance, in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, Philip Boyes dies of what looks at first like acute gastric illness. When it’s proven to be arsenic poisoning, Boyes’ former fiancée, Harriet Vane, is arrested and tried for his murder. The motive seems to be anger and revenge, since Harriet and Philip had quarreled, and Harriet was resentful about Phillip’s treatment of her. The police don’t seriously explore other motives until Harriet’s trial, when Miss Amanda Climpson, who’s on the jury, suspects that Harriet may be innocent. Her doubts lead to a hung jury, and Harriet is given another trial. Lord Peter Wimsey, who attended Harriet’s trial, is also convinced that she’s innocent, and determines to clear her name. He’s especially motivated because he’s fallen in love with Harriet. Wimsey and his confederates start to investigate Boyes’ death. What they find is that Boyes was killed for an entirely different motive. The killer had planned Boyes’ death for some time, and took advantage of Harriet’s more obvious motive to “hide” the real motive.

There’s a similar “hidden motive” in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d (AKA The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side). In that novel, Marina Gregg, a famous film actress, has decided to buy Gossington Hall in St. Mary Mead. To celebrate the re-opening of Gossington Hall, Marina hosts a cocktail party to which the locals are invited. One of them, Heather Badcock, is a dedicated fan of Marina Gregg’s, and is all too eager to speak to her idol. She’s even more flattered when Marina gives her her own cocktail. Shortly afterwards, Heather dies of what turns out to be poison. At first, it seems clear that Heather got the cocktail by mistake, and that it was meant for Marina. That’s a logical conclusion, as Marina has her share of enemies. One of them is Lola Brewster, a film rival. That false motive of professional jealousy leads the police astray for a short time as they look into whether Lola could have had the opportunity to poison the drink. It then becomes clear that Heather Badcock was deliberately poisoned, and once again, the killer “hides” behind a false motive as the police look into Heather Badcock’s personal life. With help from several locals, Miss Marple is able to put together the clues and find out the real motive for the death of Heather Badcock. Here
is a fine review of The Mirror Crack’d by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading.

There’s another example of a hidden motive in Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), in which Hercule Poirot investigates the shooting death of his dentist, Mr. Morley. At first, the police concentrate on Morley’s personal life, but they find no real motive. Morley was a bachelor, with no huge fortune to leave, and no unsavory past. After another death and a disappearance, Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp begins to suspect that the real target was Alistair Blunt, a powerful banker who was also one of Morley’s patients. Blunt’s certainly got plenty of enemies; he’s politically very powerful, and more than one group would like to get him out of the way. When the Home Office gets involved in the investigation, Japp is sure that all of the events in the story are connected to Blunt’s role in politics, banking and government. It’s not until Poirot puts the pieces of the puzzle together that we find out otherwise. The deaths are connected, but not for the motive we think at first. As it turns out, the killer has a more personal motive for the murders.

That’s also true in Liza Marklund’s The Bomber, in which Annika Bengtzon investigates the death of Christina Furhage, who heads the committee that is organizing the Stockholm Olympics. Bengtzon’s involvement begins when she’s sent to Victoria Stadium to report on a bombing there. At first, the police investigate the bombing as a terrorist attack, and try to find out which group might have been responsible. Soon, though, Annika realizes that there might have been a personal reason for killing Furhage, despite her supposedly blameless life. The more she investigates, the more she realizes that Furhage’s past has been kept a deliberate secret, and that her killer has “hidden” behind a more public motive.

We also see that kind of “disguised” motive in Tony Hillerman’s A Thief of Time. Anthropologist Eleanor Friedman-Bernal disappears while on a dig in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon. Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn is assigned to find her if he can. In the meantime, Jim Chee, also of the Navajo Tribal Police, is assigned to find a stolen backhoe. Both men’s quests lead them to illegal digging in the Anasazi ruins of the canyon. At first, it seems that Friedman-Bernal’s disappeared because of what looks like her involvement in the illegal excavation. That motive seems even more likely when two other corpses turn up, each of them also connected with the canyon. There are plenty of suspects, too, including locals who resent any interference with the canyon, rich collectors who don’t want to be connected with illegal digging, and other unethical diggers. In the end, though, it turns out that Eleanor Friedman-Bernal’s disappearance is caused by a more personal motive.

Emma Lathen’s Murder to Go also has an interesting hidden motive. When Chicken Tonight, a fast-food company, adds a new recipe to its repertoire, the franchisees are excited about the increased sales. They’ve all got a stake in the company’s success, so they eagerly launch the new product. Then, to everyone’s horror, customers begin to sicken and die. The illnesses are all traced to one particular shipment of the recipe, and one particular warehouse. Soon enough, the police learn that deliveries from the warehouse had been made by Clyde Sweeney, a shady character whom nobody liked very much. At first, it seems that Sweeney’s poisoned the chicken out of spite, but before long, it becomes clear that Sweeney was paid by someone else – the real killer. That’s even more apparent when Sweeney’s found murdered. Now the police are looking for someone with a grudge against Chicken Tonight. Finally, Sloan Guaranty Bank vice president John Putnam Thatcher finds out the real motive for the poisonings. As it turns out, the murders have nothing to do with spite.

One of the most interesting novels featuring a hidden motive is Ian Rankin’s Exit Music, in which Inspector John Rebus and Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke investigate the murder of Alexander Todorov, a dissident Russian poet. As the novel begins, Todorov’s body is found in one of Edinburgh’s dangerous neighborhoods. When Rebus and Clarke arrive at the scene, it looks at first as though Todorov was the victim of a brutal mugging - likely enough in that neighborhood. As they look further into the case, though, it soon becomes clear that his death might have been deliberate. Todorov’s poetry and political views have angered several local Russian émigrés, many of whom have a great deal of money and power that they’re anxious to protect. One’s even been overheard saying he wanted Todorov dead. To make matters worse, Rebus’ old nemesis, Gerry Cafferty, seems to have ties to that group of Russians, and Rebus doesn’t put murder past Cafferty. Now it looks as though Todorov’s been murdered for political or business motives. As it turns out, though, the real motive for Alexander Todorov’s death has nothing to do with politics, money or business connections. It’s actually a very surprising twist.

Some crime fiction readers are not fans of these “hidden” motives. It can be seen as not, “playing fair.” Others, though, enjoy that extra twist. Where do you stand? Do you enjoy looking for a “hidden” motive, or do you think “hidden” motives are too distracting?


  1. It depends. How hidden is hidden? Is it alluded to even slightly? Is it there if I dig enough? Or, is it one of those nasty tales that it's so hidden it doesn't even exist until the penultimate page? I always admired "The Mirror Crack'd" because the motive was so artfully hidden. It's there, but the reader must pay attention. Fair play, in my opinion.


  2. Elspeth - I know exactly what you mean. If the reader can figure out the motive if s/he pays attention and follows the clues, then a hidden motive adds an interesting twist to a novel. If the motive is so deeply hidden that there is no way the reader can possibly find the motive, then that's not, as you say, fair play.

  3. I'm with Elspeth. If it's fair, it works for me. If there are subtle clues to the true motive, I'm delighted! I love being surprised. :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder
    Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen

  4. Elizabeth - I like being surprised, too. Then, when the mystery's been well-written, I can look back and say, "of course X was the murderer! I should have known it! It was there all the time!"

  5. I like the photo, money and sex are the two most potent motives for murder, although revenge seems to play a big part in Hakan Nesser's early books.

  6. Norman - Thanks for the kind words; I was rather pleased with that 'photo, myself : ). You're right; money and sex are extremely strong motives, and they're awfully popular in crime fiction. As you say, Nesser focuses sometimes on revenge. So does Christie in a few of her novels. So does Carol O'Connell in some of her work. Hard to figure out how to capture the concept of revenge pictorially, though... ; )

  7. "Follow the money" is usually a good tip in crime fiction - quite often the detective is on a completely different track for most of the book, then when the money comes into it, all is revealed.
    Revenge is intersting. Personally I think that to get the best revenge, you don't need to kill someone - you can dream up some awful punishment that is almost worse than death. The ancient Greeks had that down to a T.