When many people think of murder mysteries, they think of stories in which there’s a murderer, at least one victim, and the sleuth. The sleuth’s job is to find and stop the murderer. We don’t generally think of sleuths as the ones who kill. In real life, though, police sometimes do take lives. In general, they don’t do so arbitrarily or capriciously, but it does happen. In crime fiction, too, sleuths sometimes end up taking lives. Almost all the time, they do so in self-defense, or to prevent the murderer from taking more lives.
Even though Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes doesn’t typically carry weapns and threaten criminals (he’s more likely to deliver the criminal to the police), he does take the life of Professor Moriarty in The Adventure of the Final Problem. In that story, Holmes is on the point of having Moriarty and his criminal gang imprisoned; Moriarty’s gang then targets Holmes, so Holms and Watson leave London for the European Continent, where Moriarty tracks Holmes to Germany’s Reichenbach Falls. In that now-famous confrontation, Holmes and Moriarty engage in a life-and-death struggle, during which they tumble over the falls, and Moriarty loses his life. Holmes doesn’t deliberately kill Moriarty; rather, he’s defending himself.
We don’t usually think of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot as “armed and dangerous,” either, but in a few of her novels, you could argue that he’s responsible for a death. For instance, in Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Poirot finds the killer of Emily Arundell, a wealthy spinster whose relatives are desperate for her fortune. When Poirot tracks the killer down, he realizes that more lives may be at risk than just Miss Arundell’s, so he lets the killer know that he’s figured out the whole case. The killer than commits suicide, and although Poirot doesn’t know for sure that that’s what the killer will do, we know that he suspects the outcome. In his mind, that “way out” is preferable to the other deaths that might have occurred.
Poirot makes a similar choice in The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), in which he discovers the murderer of wealthy Harley Street doctor John Christow. Poirot penetrates the lies and secrets that “hide” the killer, and intervenes just in time to prevent another death. Instead of the killer committing another murder, Poirot’s intervention leads the killer to commit accidental suicide. Another character asks Poirot if he knew what was going to happen; his response is that he didn’t know – he suspected. Again, he explains that this solution is tragic, but not as tragic as what might have happened had the killer lived. There are other examples in Christie’s work, too, but I don’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment.
Ellery Queen’s Ten Days’ Wonder also features a sleuth who’s responsible for a suicide. In that novel, Howard Van Horn, son of wealthy manufacturer Diedrich Van Horn, is suffering from a terrifying series of blackouts, during which he suspects that he may have been responsible for some horrible crimes. He asks Queen’s help in finding out the truth, and Queen agrees. The trail takes Queen to the small town of Wrightsville, where he meets Diedrich Van Horn, his much-younger wife, Sally, and his brother Wolfert. One night, Sally is strangled during one of Howard’s blackouts. Everyone thinks that Howard’s guilty, but Queen’s not convinced. In the end, and after another death, Queen tracks down the real killer. After confronting the killer with the knowledge he has, Queen all but tells the killer that there is one “way out,” and the killer makes that choice.
Sometimes, the sleuth goes further than just allowing the murderer to commit suicide. We see quite a few cases of sleuths who activekly kill among “hardboiled” sleuths. The classic example of this is probably Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (although he’s certainly not the only example). Hammer often gets involved in very risky cases, chiefly because he feels strongly about the case. This means he gets into danger and sometimes, kills, either because of vengeance or to protect himself. For instance, in The Big Kill, Hammer is looking for the murderer of William Decker, a reformed gambler and con man who’s been drawn into some very dirty business against his will. Decker leaves behind a very young son, and Hammer takes the boy in. In the course of his investigation, Hammer goes up against gangsters, the police, and corrupt officials who would rather Hammer stay out of the whole business. He takes more than one life as he works his way to the truth about Decker’s death.
P.D. Martin’s Body Count is an interesting example of a case where the sleuth kills. Sophie Anderson is an FBI agent whose specialty is getting “into the mind” of serial killers. She’s helped by psychic visions that allow her to think, more or less, what the killer is thinking. When a series of killings seem to mirror Sophie’s visions, she lets her friend and fellow-agent Samantha Wright know about her “gift.” In fact, those visions lead the FBI to several important leads in the case. When Sam herself becomes the killer’s target, Sophie uses her visions purposefully to catch the murderer. In the end, Sophie is faced with a kill-or-be-killed situation, and ends of taking a life. This novel, by the way, is my first “stop” (Australia) in the Global Reading Challenge, skillfully led by Dorte at DJ’s Krimiblog.
There’s also a fascinating case of a sleuth taking life in Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses, the first of his John Rebus novels. Rebus, a former member of the SAS, is now an Edinburgh policeman. He and his fellow officers are pursuing a serial killer who has abducted and brutally murdered two young girls. Then, a third girl goes missing. Now, Rebus starts receiving strange, cryptic messages from the killer, and it becomes clear that the secret to these killings lies in the killer's – and Rebus’ – past. In the end, Rebus is able to use those clues to track the killer down – and prevent the murderer from taking any more lives.
Michael Connelly’s The Concrete Blonde also tells the story of a sleuth taking a life. This time, it’s Connelly’s Harry Bosch. As the novel begins, Harry is on trial in a civil case for having killed Norman Church, who was suspected of being a serial killer known as “The Dollmaker.” Church’s family has brought a wrongful death suit against Harry for the killing, claiming that Church was not the killer. Bosch is convinced he got the right man – until another body is found. This killing seems to have all of the hallmarks of the Dollmaker killings, and the killer has sent Harry a poem that leads him to the body, just as the Dollmaker did. Now Harry’s not so sure that Church was the Dollmaker, so he re-opens the case and tries to find out whether he was wrong about Norman Church, or whether another killer has been “copying” the Dollmaker.
Harry’s ambivalence about killing is probably echoed by many sleuths who end up having to kill, even when that death means that other lives are saved. Certainly crime fiction has many other examples of sleuths who don’t want to be responsible for taking a life. One example is in Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon. Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane have finally married, and are taking what they think will be a quiet honeymoon trip to Tallboys, a Herfordshire farmhouse. When they get to Tallboys, they find the house deserted instead of ready for them, and the owner, William Noakes, dead in the basement. Now, instead of a honeymoon, they’ve got a murder investigation on their hands. In the end, they find out who killed Noakes and why. Wimsey, though, is quite troubled at sending even a murderer to the gallows. In fact, he’s so troubled that for a time, he withdraws from Harriet, putting a strain on their relationship.
Hotel manager Pierre Chambrun is just as reluctant to be responsible for a death in Hugh Pentecost’s The Fourteen Dilemma. Chambrun manages the elegant Hotel Beaumont, one of New York City’s finest hotels. The lucky Watson family has won a posh, all-expenses-paid week at the hotel and everyone’s just settling in on the ultra-exclusive fourteenth floor. Then, twelve-year-old Marilyn Watson disappears and is later found murdered and stuffed into a trash can. Chambrun and his public relations executive, Mark Haskell, work with the police to find Marilyn’s killer and in the end, they succeed. However, in the end, Chambrun is faced with a terrible dilemma when the killer tries to use hostages as a way to escape from the hotel. Chambrun’s agony at this decision is obvious.
What do you think about novels where the sleuth feels forced to kill or allow a life to be taken? Do you think that’s too melodramatic? Or do you see it as an authentic kind of dilemma for a sleuth?