Saturday, January 2, 2010

It's all in the timing...

Most of us don’t want to die. Of course, that’s a very obvious point to make, but it’s got real implications for murderers, both in real life and in crime fiction. If people feel threatened, they tend to protect themselves, so it’s much harder to get away with killing them. It’s also much harder for a murderer to avoid getting caught if the victim has a chance to scream out, call the police or in some other way raise the alarm. So if a murderer is going to be successful, he or she has to pick the perfect time. The perfect moment for a killer is when everyone’s attention is somewhere else – what Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot calls “the psychological moment” – and when the victim can be caught off-guard. That requires careful planning and perfect timing.

Agatha Christie manages this neatly in several of her novels; I’ll just mention three of them here. In And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians), ten people are lured to Indian Island, off the Devon Coast. Once they arrive, it becomes clear that they’ve been brought there for some reason other than what anyone believed. After dinner on the first night of their visit, everyone’s having a drink when a mysterious, disembodied voice begins accusing each guest of taking at least one life. That’s the psychological moment that rivets everyone’s attention, so no-one notices when poison is slipped into the drink of Anthony Marsden, one of the guests. He, too, is taken completely by surprise and dies suddenly. Even after more deaths occur, so that everyone is “on guard,” the killer who’s brought them there is able to find ways to create those psychological moments. Here is an excellent review of And Then There Were None by Dorte at DJs Krimiblog.

In The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot investigates a series of murders that are seemingly connected only by two things: a warning note sent to him before each killing; and an ABC railway guide placed near each body. After three murders have been committed, everyone in the seaside resorts where the murders have occurred is on guard. Nevertheless, one afternoon, a fourth killing takes place. This is the murder of George Earlsfield, a barber who’s stabbed while attending a movie. Earlsfield’s caught off-guard because he’s in the middle of watching the film. Besides, he’s not expecting to be killed. Also, the killer waits until the movie’s rather melodramatic end, when everyone’s focusing on the action in the film, to strike. No-one notices the stabbing or the killer’s exit.

Even more audacious is the murder of Madame Giselle in Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air). Madame Giselle is a French moneylender who’s in an airplane en route from Paris to London. During the flight, she’s struck in the neck with a poisoned thorn and dies before she can cry out. No-one else in the cabin notices anything, mostly because of an important psychological moment that’s created by the killer. Even Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same flight, is unaware that a crime has been committed. Moreover, Madame Giselle is not suspicious of the killer; her guard is down, and so she becomes a victim. There is, actually, an interesting discussion in this novel about psychological moments.

We also see an example of an unsuspicious victim and a psychological moment in Colin Cotterill’s The Coroner’s Lunch, in which Dr. Siri Paiboun, Laos’ newly-appointed chief medical examiner, takes up his duties. One afternoon, Mrs. Nitnoy, the wife of a highly-placed government official, is attending a luncheon banquet and meeting of the Women’s Union. During the banquet, she suddenly dies. Her husband, Comrade Kham, claims that her death was probably caused by spoiled food. Dr. Siri soon becomes suspicious, though, and begins to investigate her death more closely, much to the consternation of the ruling bureaucrats. In this case, the psychological moment that “hides” the murder is the occasion of the luncheon and the round of speeches that are a part of the meeting. No-one notices the actual poisoning. Here is an excellent review of The Coroner’s Lunch by Maxine at Petrona.

There’s a fascinating psychological moment in Tony Hillerman’s Sacred Clowns. That novel begins with a ritual ceremony of the Tano Indians. Jim Chee, one of Hillerman’s sleuths, is attending the ceremony with his Hopi friend, Cowboy Dashee. Chee’s there not only to watch the ceremony, but also to find Delmar Kanitewa, a half-Navajo teen who’s disappeared from his school. One of the participants in the ritual is Kanitewa’s uncle, Francis Sayesva. There’s a large crowd watching the ceremony, but everyone’s paying attention to the dancers, so no-one notices when Sayesva is bludgeoned to death directly after his part in the ritual. Even Jim Chee doesn’t notice at first, because he’s chasing Delmar Kanitewa. Sayesva’s death occurs only days after the murder of Eric Dorsey, a teacher at Delmar Kanitewa’s school, so now Chee is determined to find the missing teenager and discover what the connection is between the two murders.

The killer in Emma Latham’s Going for the Gold also takes advantage of a psychological moment. The novel takes place at the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, New York. John Putnam Thatcher, a vice-president at the Sloan Guaranty Bank, is attending the games in part to oversee the Lake Placid branches of the bank, since it’s been chosen as the official bank for the games. He’s among the large crowd watching the ski-jump trials when Yves Bisson, a top competitor on the French team, is cut down by a sniper’s bullet while he’s in the middle of a jump. Everyone’s been so intent on watching the skiers that no-one has noticed the killer slipping away, taking aim, or escaping afterwards. It’s not until Thatcher has helped make the connection between Bisson’s murder and a massive counterfeit/theft scheme that Bisson’s killer is caught.

In Caroline Graham’s Death of a Hollow Man, a killer takes advantage of the hustle-and-bustle of the preparations for a stage performance. In that novel, Inspector Tom Barnaby and his wife, Joyce, are attending the Causton Amateur Dramatic Society’s performance of Amadeus. Esslyn Carmichael, who’s playing Salieri in the play, is onstage for his climactic “suicide” scene. To everyone’s horror, someone has switched the prop knife that Carmichael was supposed to use for a real one, and he dies onstage. No-one has noticed that the prop knife was real, because everyone’s attention was focused on getting ready for the performance. There are plenty of suspects, too; Carmichael has a bitter ex-wife and an unfaithful second wife whose lover dislikes Carmichael. Carmichael was also planning to take over as director of the Society, so Harold Winstanley, the current director, also has a motive. It doesn’t help matters that Esslyn’s been having an affair with Winstanley’s wife. Barnaby and Sergeant Troy have to sift through everyone’s secrets and alibis in order to find out who the murderer is.

Charlotte MacLeod’s The Withdrawing Room also focuses on an audacious use of people’s attention. Sarah Kelling has had to open up her beloved home to boarders in order to make ends meet. One of them, Augustus Quiffen, soon alienates everyone in the boarding house. He’s nosy and obnoxious, so no-one is really upset when he falls under a subway one day and dies. At first, everyone thinks it’s an accident, but that’s only because no-one was paying attention. The other people at the subway station are preoccupied and they’re paying attention to the oncoming train, not to any fellow passengers. Then, a street person named Mary Smith goes to the boarding house claiming she saw someone push Quiffen under the subway. Just as Sarah is getting used to this death, Mr. Harter, another boarder, is murdered one night on his way back to the boarding house. At first, the police think it’s a case of a mugging/robbery gone wrong. It’s not long, though, before Sarah Kelling and her friend and boarder Max Bittersohn realize that the two deaths are connected.

It takes boldness, planning, and perfect timing to use a psychological moment effectively. What do you think? Do you like novels that feature that “psychological moment?” Or do you find it hard to believe that others would be so inattentive?


  1. You know, I'm so inattentive and foggy all the time, that I find it completely believable. :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Elizabeth - I had to laugh when I read your comment. I think there are, actually, a lot of people who are inattentive enough that they miss things. And even when people are alert, if there's something to distract them, the murderer gets his or her chance...

  3. Margot, I think sometimes people don't want to believe what is right in front of their eyes. As you have so cleverly pointed out authors use this in crime fiction and it actually happens in real life.

  4. Norman - I think you're quite right. The old saying is that no-one is as blind as the one who won't see, and that certainly applies here. Many people just don't want to believe someone would kill someone, and especially not right in front of others. Thus, this kind of murderer gets away with the crime - at first...

  5. Thanks so much for mentioning my review, Margot, that is so kind.

    A moment such as you describe occurs in Ann Cleeves's The Crow Trap, at a garden party. Unfortunately, like Elizabeth, I'm a bit hazy as to the details.

    On knowing one is to die, I have just finished a "nasty" (in a good sense!) little book called Captured, by Neil Cross, in which the protagonist has a brain tumour diagnosed on p 1 and is told he only has a few weeks to live. What he then not that nice (to put it mildly) - how much of it to do with his repressed anger at his time running out, and how much to do with the clinical effects of the illness, I don't know.

    I think that sleight of hand such as you describe is good when done properly. I think it may be harder to achieve in a book (relying on the imagination of the reader) than on a film - especially when in a film the director can always resort to a visual flashback to show the viewer how the "trick" was done.

  6. I agree with Uriah. Some people just don't want to see (or believe) what's right in front of them.

  7. Maxine - That's a very, very interesting point: film-makers can rely on the visual to expain a deception, but authors can't. And, of course, too much prose, even to explain something, can be burdensome in a book. It takes skill to "pull off" a sleight-of-hand effectively. You're right, though, that Cleeves does it quite well in The Crow Trap. Folks, Maxine's terrific review of The Crow Trap is here. Dorte at DJ's Krimiblog also reviewed this book. Her fine review is here. And Cathy at Kittling: Books has a very nice review here . You can tell that I very much wish I'd mentioned this book in my original post : ).

    Thanks, also, for mentioning the Neil Cross book. I haven't read that one, but it sounds like a very, very interesting study in what moves a person to murder and how we're affected by a "death sentence."

    Mason - You put that quite well: some people do not want to believe what's right in front of them. It may be because it's too horrible or unbelievable to contemplate, or it may be for some other reason, but people very often don't see what they don't want to see.

  8. You've written yet another thought-provoking post, Margot! How do you do it? Are there special vitamins involved? (if so, please pass the knowledge along...there's a dear)

    Timing is everything; especially in murder. If you're brave enough to murder in a crowded room, then you'd better be a master at the art of misdirection. Slipping poison into someone's drink isn't as easy as it seems, not to mention you'd better have chosen a poison that's odorless and tasteless (unless of course, your victim is drinking something with an overwhelming flavor). Fizzing would also be unfortunate, not to mention the sad fact that you will have little time to mix the poison in, so it better be able to mix itself.

    My goodness, I seem to have thought about this a great deal. That's somewhat troubling...

    Moving on...

    Getting your victim alone is the best strategy, there are no pesky eye witnesses. However, as you say, it had best be a method that's quick to avoid trouble-causing screams or 911 calls. Killing someone in their sleep seems to be a popular method. One is able to stab at leisure, as long as that first hit is fatal.

    How can you tell I write mysteries???


  9. Elspeth - Thank you : ). I honestly don't have a mysterious bottle of vitamins. If I did, I'd gladly share. And then I'd patent it and grow obscenely rich ; ).

    You really do highlight very effectively some of the things that have to work "just right" if a murderer is going to use a pscyhological moment. The murderer does, indeed, have to choose a weapon that's silent and un-noticeable, or a moment when s/he can be sure that no-one will pay attention. Then, there's the question of how to keep the victim silent. As you say, murdering a victim who's asleep or drugged is pretty effective. Finally, the murderer has to arrange not to be caught with the weapon, whatever it is, or to have left prints on anything. So much planning involved!!

    Hmm....yes, you can always tell when someone's a mystery writer ; ).