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?