Saturday, January 9, 2010

What Makes a Victim?

Despite what we read in the newspapers and online, and watch on television, most people don’t get murdered. That’s probably the reason that murders are so shocking, especially when they happen in what’s supposed to be a peaceful place. So what is it that sets a person up to become a murder victim? Sometimes, of course, people become murder victims quite innocently – they’re tragically at the wrong place at the wrong time. Or, in more lurid cases, they’re victims of serial killers. For many victims, though, it’s something about the victim that sets him or her up to die, especially in planned crimes. In crime fiction, the interest in those cases comes from figuring out what that something is, so as to figure out who the murderer is.

Some people become victims because they represent a threat to the murderer. Blackmailers who are killed by their victims fall into this category. For example, in Ellery Queen’s The Roman Hat Mystery, Queen and his father investigate the murder of Monte Field, a disreputable attorney who’s in the habit of taking blackmail money. When he’s poisoned one night at the theater, Queen and his father have to sift through the Field’s various victims to see which of them chose murder as a way to get free.

Sometimes, the victim is a threat because she or he knows too much about the killer. That’s the reason for which Celia Austin dies in Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death). Hercule Poirot’s secretary, Miss Lemon, asks him to help her sister find out what’s behind a series of strange thefts at the student hostel she runs. Poirot pays a visit to the hostel and publicly recommends that the police be called in. Two nights later, Celia Austin, a hostel resident, dies in her sleep of what looks like suicide by poison. Very soon, though, an important clue lets Poirot know that Celia was murdered. It’s not long before Poirot finds that just about everyone in the hostel is keeping a secret, and that Celia knew too much about what was going on there. It turns out that she was silenced for just that reason.

In Caroline Graham’s A Place of Safety, Charlie Leathers is silenced for a similar reason. Late one night, he’s walking his dog when he sees Anne Lawrence, the local curate’s wife, in what looks like a struggle with Carlotta Ryan, a troubled young woman who’s been living with the Lawrences. The two of them are on a bridge, and in the struggle, Carlotta goes into the water and disappears. Soon afterwards, Leathers is found garroted. No-one in the village of Ferne Basset is exactly upset that Leathers is dead; he was abusive to his wife, and had a habit of blackmail, among other vices. Inspector Barnaby and Sergeant Troy are called in to investigate, and once they penetrate the village’s apathy about Leathers’ murder, they soon find out that the quiet town of Ferne Basset is home to several dark secrets, and that Leathers knew more than he should.

Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn also centers on a victim who’s a threat to the murderer. Nicholas Quinn is the only Deaf member of the Oxford Foreign Examination Syndicate, the syndicate that prepares and grades exams from many different foreign countries with a British connection. Quinn is a controversial member of the Syndicate, as several members wanted to vote against his membership, but he’s voted in over objections. When Quinn is killed by a glass of poisoned sherry, all of the members of the Syndicate come under suspicion. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the case, finding out that most of the members of the Syndicate are hiding secrets. Since Quinn could speech-read, it turns out that he’d found out one of the members’ secrets and was planning to make it public. Quinn becomes a victim because he represents a threat to the killer.

It’s not only being a threat that sets a person up to be a victim. Sometimes, people become victims because they stand in the way of someone else’s gain. That’s exactly what happens in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client). In that novel, Hercule Poirot receives a letter from Emily Arundell, asking him to give her some advice on a delicate matter; she doesn’t give details in the letter, though. Poirot is intrigued by the letter and by the fact that he’s received it two months after she wrote it. He and Hastings visit the town of Market Basing, only to find that Emily Arundell has died. Now, Poirot is even more intrigued and he and Hastings investigate her death. They find that Miss Arundelle had several relatives, all of whom were desperate for her considerable fortune, and that that fortune was the reason for the murder.

There’s another example of murder for gain in Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase, in which Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane help the police to solve the murder of Paul Alexis, a Russian-born professional dancing partner. Harriet Vane is on a hiking holiday when she finds a man who at first looks to be asleep, but who is dead, with his throat cut. Harriet’s afraid that by the time she’s able to hike to a nearby village and use a telephone to get the police, the tide will have washed away whatever evidence there might be, so she takes a series of pictures. Later, she and Wimsey try to determine whether the death was a murder or a suicide. At first, it looks as though Alexis was the victim of a Russian political plot, but as it turns out, he’s been killed for greed – as a part of a plot to gain a fortune.

Ngaio Marsh’s Final Curtain also has an interesting example of a victim who stands in someone’s way. Roderick Alleyn’s wife, Agatha Troy, has been commissioned to paint a portrait of Sir Henry Ancred, a wealthy and famous Shakespearean actor. When Troy gets to Ancreton, the Ancred home, to begin her work, she meets Sir Henry’s large and very dysfunctional family. There’s no end of bickering, backbiting and crude practical jokes, but Troy finishes the painting. Only hours later, Sir Henry is found dead in his bed. At first, everyone thinks his death is natural, but Troy isn’t so sure. Then, Sonia Orrincourt, Sir Henry’s young and beautiful fiancée (whom everyone else in the family resents), is poisoned. Now, Sir Roderick Alleyn is called in to investigate. He and Sergeant Fox find out that both Sir Henry and his fiancée stood between the murderer and real financial gain.

There are also plenty of cases where the victim is a part of a plan. That is, a person is set up to be a victim because his or her death furthers a larger plan. That’s what happens in several spy and conspiracy thrillers, for instance. One of the more chilling examples of this kind of murder victim is in Watch For It, a short story by Joseph N. Gores. The story begins with the hospitalization of Eric Whitlach, a student radical who’s injured when a bomb he’s planted in a student cafeteria detonates early. Whitlach is taken to the hospital, from whence he’ll be taken into police custody as soon as he’s well enough. While he’s in the hospital, his friend Ross, who’s a member of a secret radical group, makes plans with the three other members of the group to deal with Whitlach’s impending arrest. The group’s plans made, Ross sneaks into the hospital and into Whitlach’s room. Eric’s happy to see Ross, since Ross is one of the very few people he trusts. He’s even happier when Ross tells him of the plan to help him escape from the hospital. As the story moves along, we learn what Ross is really doing in the hospital, though. At the end of the story, there’s a murder whose purpose is to make a statement accusing the government of holding a political prisoner and praising the heroics of members of the radical movement.

Finally, there are many, many murder mystery novels where a person becomes a murder victim because of his or her behavior towards others. In these novels, you might argue that the victim sets him- or herself up to be killed and brings death on him- or herself. In a way, you could call this karma. Myriad crime fiction novels fall into this category; I’ll just mention one. In Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden, we meet Warren Howe, an unpleasant, abusive, adulterous landscaper. He’s alienated everyone in his family and nearly everyone in his village. One day, Howe is murdered with his own scythe. At first, the police can’t get enough evidence to pursue a conviction, but ten years later, an anonymous tip causes DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team to re-open the case. It turns out that Howe’s behavior and choices have set him up to be a victim; you might argue that he brought his death on himself.

Do you think there are certain “victim types?” What sort of character do you see as the most likely victim?


  1. There are definitely "victim types." I seems to read more mysteries where the victim knew too much and the killer felt they might be exposed or the victim did threatened the killer with exposure through blackmail.

    The mysteries where the killer was just in the wrong place at the wrong time usually keep the reader guessing more. There doesn't seem to be a logical reason for the killing so it harder to connect the victim and the killer.

    Interesting post.

  2. Mason - Thanks : ). I've noticed, too, that I've read a lot of mysteries where the victim knew too much or, as you say, threatened the killer in some way. That does seem to be a popular kind of victim in crime fiction.

    You also bring up an interesting point about victims who are in the wrong place at the wrong time. I recently finished reading a book where that happened. I don't want to spoil it for anyone, so I won't mention the book's title or author, but it was a case where the victim was killed from being in the wrong place...

  3. Another great post, Margot!

    Did you take that "crime scene" photo? It's very creative!

  4. Thanks, Kathleen! And yes, I did take that. I actually take all my own photos, so thanks for the kind words : ).

  5. Crime Fiction readers will never borrow someone else's coat and hat especially if they are the same height and general appearance as you. I have read a couple of weeks ago a book in which one of several murders is of someone who was in the wrong place, at the wrong time, wearing the wrong clothes.
    There are at least two books I can remember where the perpetrator kills several people at random just to throw off the investigation.
    You say most people don't get murdered. I have certainly exceeded my ration in having met two people who were subsequently murdered [not by me I hasten to add], and a third whose mother was murdered. We keep these things a bit quiet in England to keep the tourist industry in good health.

  6. Sometimes I like reading about really obnoxious victims who "get theirs." Of course the danger is that the reader isn't sorry the victim is dead and may not care who the killer is. I think if that happens, it's good to have one of the suspects be someone that the reader wants cleared.

    Mystery Writing is Murder
    Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen

  7. Norman - That really is unusual (that you have known of so many murders among people you know. I truly am sorry to hear it. It's doubly astounding considering that, taken as a whole, that very rarely happens. Doesn't make it into the tourist brochures, does it??

    You bring up an interesting point about murderers who kill people in order to "hide" a victim; I can think of a book or two, myself, in which that happens. I wonder how often that happens in real life...

    As far as being in the wrong place/wrong time... when it comes to crime fiction, that can be such a fascinating plot, as at first, the reader is all prepared for some deep, dark motive and then gets surprised when it's something that simple. At the same time, it can be a bit of a let-down, as it just seems such a waste for an otherwise-innocent person to be killed for no reason other than happenstance. Still, some authors are able to do that sort of plot well.

  8. Elizabeth - You've got a good point; if the victim is too obnoxious, nobody wants to know whodunit. There's a tricky balance there if the victim "gets his/hers." I like your strategy of wanting to clear a particular person. There's also a strategy of making the sleuth a really interesting person, so that the reader cheers the sleuth on. I've found that grumpy octogenerians with a talent for finding out gossip and a sharp, witty way of talking work as sleuths. Oh and especially if they're former teachers.

  9. [Oh, Elizabeth just stole my comment! Well, let me reformulate it, and no one will ever notice ;O]

    If a character is a real busybody who interferes with people´s lives, trampling on their feelings, perhaps without even realizing what he/she is doing, it is quite a pleasure to await their departure.

  10. Dorte - I won't tell anyone I recognized the comment. Besides, your rewording made it uniquely yours ; ).

    I agree with your sentiment, too. When the victim brings about his or her own death through sheer obnoxiusness or worse, it is cathartic when s/he's killed. We can really see clearly the force of karma at work...

  11. Fascinating discussion, as usual (and as usual, stimulated by an excellent post). I also love the picture and others on this blog, so nice to hear you take them yourself, Margot, they are very distinctive and quirky (to borrow a "Norman" phrase!). [The word "quirky" has stimulated a few crime fiction reading discussions on its own!]

    I think that the relationship between the criminal and the victim (whether or not a murder is involved) is what for me provides the interest in the "fiction" part of the crime fiction. One reason "true crime" is so boring and sordid is that the "impulse" killing is so grim. I am not a fan of the serial killer genre as the victims are often linked by some factor that has nothing to do with a relationship with the criminal, or at least, it might do if the criminal is insanse and imagines connections where there aren't any - also uninteresting. (For example, someone who kills all the people who happened to be in a certain place at a certain time, or that have yellow hair, or that the criminal thinks mocked him, or all have a 10 year old daughter and the criminal is jealous, you name it! Yawn.) One exception to this rule that works well is the grim but very good Woman With Birthmark by Hakan Nesser. (The perpetrator did have a logical reason, though, in this case, for all the crimes.)

    Crime fiction in which you have to guess the reason for the crime, and which turns out to be a rational one is more interesting. I imagine that this is quite often either money or the need of the villain to keep a secret that the victim knows.

    I have to say that in many crime fiction books, the murder is only solved when a second one takes place. That is, the detectives are often baffled by the cleverness of the first murder (which has been carried out for one of the "gain" reasons you mention in your post), but a second (or third, etc) murder, which is carried out because the second (etc) victim either witnessed the crime or has some crucial piece of info that would reveal the identity of the killer, etc.

  12. Maxine - Thanks for the kind words, as always : ). You are dangerously good for my ego ; ). I must say that I do enjoy taking the 'photos that I put on this blog. It's a bit of a creative outlet for me.

    You are so, so right about how uninteresting - even tiresome - novels get when the killer turns out to be a serial killer with no real, personal interest in or connection to the victim(s). I confess that gore is not my favorite thing, so if there's going to be gore, it's got to be a part of a compelling plot. Killing a string of people because they are in a particular place, or are a certain height, or have a certain color on is not interesting in itself. I contrast that with books like P.D. Martin's Body Count, which also involves a multiple killer, There's a solid motive behind the killngs, though, and the killer has a connection with the victims. The sleuth, Sophie Anderson, is intersting, too. That, to me, is an example of a book that adds interest to the plot, although the premise is a multiple murderer.

    Thanks for mentioning Woman With Birthmark by the way. I haven't read it, although I've read some fine reviews of it. Here, for example, folks, is a fine review by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise . I'll have to put that one on my TBR list.

    I, too, like the kind of mystery where part of the intellectual challenge is to figure out what the connection between killer and victim is, and what it is that makes the victim vulnerable...

  13. Yes there are self-made victims. In my first book the victim is one because she, like your first example, tries to manipulate people and she does it one time to many. In the one I'm working on now, the victim is a very compelling figure who people always feel conflicted about. He too goes that one bit too far for the murderer, who is really the victim in some sense. I like your posts very much - they really make me think about what I've read and what I'm writing. Thank you!

  14. Jan - How kind of you! Thank you for the nice comment : ). It's really interesting that you speak of the murderer as a victim of sorts. I know the kind of thing you mean, too; Agatha Christie presents that kind of murderer in Appointment With Death and even more clearly in Murder on the Orient Express. You've really interested me in your writing, too, Jan; could you please Email me (or post) a link to your books if you have one? I tried to find one on your blog, but couldn't. Thanks! I'm intrigued...

  15. I would see a victim type as the one who sticks their nose into everyone's business because they are most likely to stumble onto something they shouldn't.
    Thanks for the thoughtful discussion.

  16. Cassandra - I think you have a very well-taken point. Many victims get themselves into trouble because they mind someone else's business, either deliberately or accidentally. Those are, indeed, the kind of people who find out things they shouldn't, and we all know what happens then ; ).

  17. Hi Margot - just as soon as I get one published I'll send you a link!! Thanks for the interest...

  18. Thanks, Jan : ). I'll look forward to it!