Friday, January 15, 2010

When the Sleuth Takes a Life

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?


  1. The Hollow situation reminds me a bit of Lord Peter in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club.

  2. Whenever Christie set it up, it always gave me chills (good ones.) She wrote that scenario so well.

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  3. This is a very interesting question. When I first started reading the post I absolutely thought first of Lord Peter Wimsey and the case you discussed - his ambivalence and utter agony at having to decide that someone's life is over. I like my mysteries to be layered and if our protagonists have decided to be police detectives then they must grapple with the fact that they may have to kill someone at some point in their career. It adds an interesting layer if the author addresses this issue.

  4. Nan - Thanks for the reminder of The Unpleasantness..... There are similarities, aren't there?

    Elizabeth - Absolutely! Christie was a genius at setting up situations where the killer took "the easy way out," and yes, it's always surprising and pleasantly creepy.

  5. Jan - You thought of Lord Peter, too? I was prepping this post, that was the first example that occurred to me : ). I very much like the way you put that - "It adds an interesting layer if the author addresses this issue." You're absolutely right that people who decide to be sleuths know - or learn - that they are going to be in situations where they may have to kill. It makes the sleuth's character more compelling, and makes the story more interesting if that's somehow integrated into the story.

  6. I think it is a bit melodramtaic but at the same time that's kind of why you read ficiton and not real news reports. You want it to end dramatically and death will do that as long as it is handled well.
    Thanks again for a really interesting discussion.

  7. Cassandra - How kind of you : ). Very nicely-made point, too. Sometimes, we read fiction because it *is* different from real life. So if something happens that adds to the drama, it can work if, as you say, it's handled well. That, I think, is the key.

  8. I think it has a lot to do with how the story is told. If told in the right manner, a sleuth "committing" a murder can be believable. It has to be set so that is the only choice.

  9. Mason - That's an interesting point! We don't want to think of the sleuth as a killer. So if the sleuth does have to take a life, or be responsible for the taking of a life, the context has to be such that there really is no other option. That allows us to fit the killing into our perception of the sleuth.

  10. Well, I don´t think it happens often in real life (at least not in Denmark), and it shouldn´t be used often in crime fiction, but once in a while it can serve as ´variation´.

  11. Dorte - I agree that using the plot tool of having the sleuth kill can be overdone very easily. When it does happen in real life, it's a serious matter that doesn't happen capriciously. So if it's used in crime fiction, it's probably most effective when used in small doses.

  12. At the moment the BBC in the UK is showing series 2 of "Wallender" in which the story has been changed so that Wallender kills a man (a criminal) in Faceless Killers (1st episode) and so spends most of episode 2 (The Man Who Smiled) in a terrible state of depression and angst over his deed.

    I think it is relatively common in crime fiction for the detective to shoot a criminal, often at the final unmasking. Of the books I have just read, I think this happens in the majority of them. This does not always lead to a crisis of conscience.

    There is an interesting variant on this theme in Caro Ramsey's first novel. (I think it may be called Absolution but I am not sure. It is definitely her first novel.)

  13. Mazine - I wish I had access to that BBC series! Where I live, it's not easy to find (except for the older BBC series, and even they are on only very occasionally here).

    You've got an interesting point about whether or not killing a criminal leads to a crisis of conscience. In some cases (that's why I mentioned Sayers' Busman's Honeymoon) it does. But there are also many cases where the sleuth knows that the alternative would be much worse, so s/he doesn't spend a lot of energy being upset about it for long.

    And you're right, by the way. Ramsay's debut is called Absolution. I have to admit I haven't read it yet, but it sounds compelling. Bernadette from Reactions to Reading reviews it here.

  14. Thanks, Margot. I have mixed feelings about Absolution and I didn't review it. The twist at the end is certainly unusual, but it did feel as if it took quite a while to get there, via a route that did not entirely hang together. However, the book is well written and has some very good elements to it.

  15. Maxine - Thanks for your insights about the book. Bernadette's review also points out some of the weaknesses of this novel. Sounds like it's a mix of solid points and weak ones, as many debuts are...