Friday, January 8, 2010

"Signatures" and "Calling Cards"

It’s very difficult for a killer to commit murder without leaving some sort of “signature.” I’m not talking about forensic details such as DNA, fingerprints and so on, although certainly that kind of evidence is important. I'm also not referring to the kinds of "signatures" that many serial killers leave and that get so much media attention. Rather, I’m talking more about the kind of crime that’s committed, and the way the murder occurs. In real life, for instance, it’s difficult to strangle someone with a piece of his or her own clothing if the murderer doesn’t know the victim, unless the murderer is large enough to overpower the victim. If there are no signs of struggle, there’s no guarantee, of course, but it’s likely that the victim knew the murderer. Those kinds of hallmarks and “calling cards” give the sleuth a place to start searching for suspects in real life and in well-written crime fiction.

There’s a fascinating example of a certain kind of crime in Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway. In that novel, Jim Chee, one of Hillerman’s sleuths, is paired with an FBI agent to try to find Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who’s just returned to the reservation. Gorman’s wanted for a shooting death, and Chee’s asked to bring him in. When Chee arrives at the home where he thinks Gorman’s staying, he discovers Gorman’s body. What’s interesting is that Gorman’s body has been prepared for burial in the traditional Navajo way. At first, then, it looks as though his killer is a Navajo. But a few “wrong” details convince Chee that he’s looking for a non-Navajo who’s learned enough about Navajo customs to try to make it look like a “local” murder. In this case, the killer’s "signature" is that of an informed (but not well-enough informed) “outsider.”

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is an expert at using these “calling cards” to uncover murderers. I’ll just give three examples. In The ABC Murders, a series of murders is committed in and near some popular seaside resorts. The police and the public think it’s the work of a serial killer; in fact, the investigative team includes an expert in serial killings. But Poirot focuses on the kind of person who would be able to commit the crimes. For instance, the second murder is of Elizabeth Barnard, a young, flirtatious waitress whose strangled body is found on the beach one morning. Her tendency to flirt and enjoy men’s attention, plus the fact that she was strangled with her own belt, leads Poirot to believe that the killer has to have been someone who’s attractive to women and whom the victim would have thought interesting. That “hallmark” is part of what leads Poirot to the real killer.

Poirot uses “hallmarks” to find a killer in Evil Under the Sun, too. In that novel, Poirot is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel, off the Devon coast. So is beautiful, notorious Arlena Stuart Marshall, her husband Kenneth, and her stepdaughter Linda. Late one morning, Arlena’s strangled body is found on the beach at Pixy’s Cove, which is an islet not far from the hotel. At first, it seems that her husband might be responsible for the killing. After all, she’s been having a rather obvious affair with another guest at the hotel, and Kenneth Marshall’s account of himself doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. But certain aspects of the case convince Poirot that this wasn’t a crime of sudden anger. The timing of the crime and the fact that the killer had to know the area very well, among other things, tells Poirot that the crime was a well-planned murder by someone who’s killed before.

In Appointment with Death, Poirot investigates the murder of a tyrannical matriarch while she and her family are on a trip to Petra. At first, her death is put down to heart failure since she was elderly and the trip was physically stressful. When it turns out that she died of an overdose of digitalis, Poirot has to find out who administered it. The victim’s entire family falls under suspicion, since she’d mentally abused all of them. One aspect of the murder, though (I don’t want to give away spoilers), convinces Poirot that the crime isn’t that simple, and it’s that “hallmark” – the mark of a non-family member – that points him closer to the truth.

We also see how the sleuth uses the “hallmarks” of a killer in Emma Lathen’s Murder to Go. That’s the story of a fast-food company, Chicken Tonight, that’s gotten some recent popularity and new franchisees. Chicken Tonight’s specialty is roasted chicken in many different flavors, including brand-new Chicken Mexicali. Things are looking up for the company and its franchisees when all of a sudden, customers begin dying after eating the restaurant’s food. John Putnam Thatcher’s bank, Sloan Guaranty, has $12 million invested in the company, so he wants to find out who’s behind the poisonings before the company has to close altogether. Everyone’s relieved when suspicion falls on a disgruntled former employee, Clyde Sweeney, who has a bad reputation and access to the warehouse that’s the source of the poisoned food. Sweeney’s gone into hiding, too – just exactly what you’d expect from a guilty person. Thatcher’s not so sure, though. Sweeney is strictly small-time. Besides, this set of poisonings has been well-financed, and Sweeney wouldn’t have been able to manage that. Those “hallmarks” start Thatcher on the path to the real killer.

There’s an interesting example of how a killer leaves a “signature” in Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden. At the beginning of the novel, landscaper Warren Howe is murdered with his own scythe while he’s working. Then, his body is left in one of his own trenches. His wife, Tina, is suspected of the killing, but she’s got an alibi, and the police have no grounds for pursuing a case against her. Ten years later, DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team re-open the case on the strength of a anonymous tip. Howe was murdered by his own implement, so the “signature” here is of a killer who didn’t intend to kill – at first. Whoever killed Howe didn’t steal anything from him, so it wasn’t a robbery gone wrong, either. It’s clues like these that lead Scarlett and Oxford historian Daniel Kind to the conclusion that Howe’s murderer probably knew him and probably hadn’t started with the intention of killing him. Of course, in Howe’s case, that still leaves a wide field….

Also interesting is the “signature” of the killer in Caroline Graham’s Death of a Hollow Man. That novel is focused on the murder of Esslyn Carmichael, leading actor for the Causton Amateur Dramatic Society (CADS). One night, his troupe’s doing a performance of Amadeus; Carmichael has the role of Salieri. The climactic scene where Salieri slits his own throat goes horribly wrong when it becomes all too clear that someone’s replaced the blunted prop knife with a real one. Here, the killer has left a premeditated “signature” since it takes planning to replace a prop knife. The murder also bears the signature of either a member of the cast or the spouse of one, since it would have been noticed if “civilians” went backstage. While that still leaves Inspector Barnaby more than one suspect, it does more or less rule out a killing in sudden anger, murder by a stranger, or an accident.

Sometimes, of course, the killer fakes a “signature” to make a murder look different from the kind of murder it really is. That happens in many novels; I’ll just mention a few. In Ian Rankin’s Hide and Seek, a junkie named Ronnie McGrath is found dead in an abandoned building. At first, it looks like a simple death of a junkie, like so many others. But John Rebus doesn’t think it’s that simple; Ronnie’s girlfriend claims that Ronnie warned her to hide, and told her he was going to be killed. In this case, the killer has disguised the real “signature” of the killing to make it look like an everyday, sordid “junkie death.” There’s also a “forgery” in Exit Music. At the beginning of that novel, poet Alexander Todorov is found murdered in an unsavory neighborhood. His death has all the hallmarks of a brutal mugging, and it’s not until Rebus starts following up on the last day of Todorov’s life that it becomes clear that this murder was something quite different.

What’s your view? Do you look for the killer’s “signature” when you read crime fiction? Do you usually “read it” correctly?


  1. I enjoy stories with killer "signatures" but I don't always guess correctly who did it. That's the fun of it. If I guessed correctly all the time then it wouldn't be fun anymore.

    Murder To Go sounds interesting. I'll have to check on that one. I enjoy Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee character very much.

  2. Mason - I think you'll like Murder to Go. It's dated, but the plot is interesting and it does keep you guessing. I like the sleuth, John Putnam Thatcher, too. I'm glad you mentioned liking Jim Chee; he's a great character, isn't he?

    I agree with you, too, that ialmost as interesting when you don't recognize the killer "signature" as it is when one does : ).

  3. I stumbled onto you once a long time back through Elizabeth and Elspeth's blogs, and retraced my path again today.
    Just leaving a comment to let you know that I will be back again soon.
    And who would I hire? Poirot for sure - he was the second detective I fell in love with, and Holmes is not on your list.

  4. Rayna - Thanks so much for stopping by : ). I truly appreciate it. I happen to be very fond of Hercule Poirot, also, so I'm glad you mentioned him. You're right, too; Holmes isn't on my list. There's no particular reason for that, either; I made my list of private detectives and posted it, and by the time I'd thought to add Holmes, folks had already begun voting. THe system doesn't let me edit once there's a vote :( .

  5. I love looking for a signature...and I love red herring signatures where the killer made it appear that someone else had been the murderer.

    Mystery Writing is Murder
    Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen

  6. Elizabeth - I do exactly the same thing! Of course, I always feel a little silly when I fall for a "red herring," but it is fun to try to figure out what kind of person probably committed a crime.

  7. Hakan Nesser in Borkmann's Point and Woman with Birthmark makes his murderers sympathetic characters seeking revenge for terrible wrongs done to relatives. Leaving a signature is important in such cases because in reality the murderer wants to be caught so that the previous wrongdoing is discovered.
    I have thought that Scandinavians are good at writing crime fiction because they love herrings both red and smoked.

  8. Norman - Very true about the herrings : ). You make a well-taken point, too, about a deliberate signature. Sometimes the murderer wants to be caught; at times it's for the reason you've pointed out - the murderer wants past personal wrongs to be discovered. Other times, the murderer wants to be caught because he or she killed in order to "make a statement." In fact, your comment put me in mind of a very interesting short story by Joseph N. Gores (it's called Watch For It, in which a murder is committed to make a statement, and that's exactly the signature that the murderer leaves.

  9. Wow, Margot! Another interesting component of crime fiction that I would never have thought of. I just hope that you never get mad at me and decide to rid the world of Bobbi. They would never in a million years solve the crime; you are much too methodical. Thanks for this and for all you do.

  10. Bobbi - LOL! Don't worry - I'm only dangerous when I write ; ). Besides, do I really want the RCMP after me? I think not... Thanks so much for the kind words - I really do appreciate it.

  11. Very interesting post! I've been working with this idea quite a bit in my current wip (or the mystery one anyway ;) ). The mentor of my detective tells her that she needs to read the body and the victim to find the killer - to understand that both have a lot to tell her about the killer. I've really had an interesting time with this idea. As a reader I never try and figure out who done it - weird I'm sure but that isn't my thing.

  12. Jan - Thanks : ). You bring up an ineresting point, too. Writers have to plan ways for the crime's "signature" to be there for the sleuth, and the sleuth has to be the kind of character who either already understands how to "read" that "signature," or can learn the skill. Otherwise the novel isn't believable. It's also interesting that we can be very different readers from the kind of writers we are, isn't it? Sometimes, as a reader, I put my "writer's hat" on and think about the book from a technical point of view. Or, I try to match wits wits with the author and figure out what the victim is telling me. Other times, I sink into the story and like you, don't look too hard for the "signature."