In real life and in crime fiction, when there’s a murder, there’s often a major suspect. Sometimes, that suspect is even arrested. Even when the suspect isn’t arrested, it’s often after that person becomes, “a person of interest” in a case that the sleuth is called in to clear the suspect’s name. It may be easy or it may be more difficult, but many well-written crime fiction plots center around a person who’s suspected of a crime, and the sleuth’s attempt to clear that person of suspicion.
That sort of plot can be especially suspenseful if it’s the sleuth him or herself who’s suspected of the crime. That’s the case in Simon Brett’s What Bloody Man is That? In that novel, down-and-out-actor Charles Paris tries to begin his comeback by joining a provincial repertory company in their production of Macbeth. Also in the cast is Warnock Belvedere, an obnoxious actor who, in one way or another, has managed to make enemies of nearly everyone in the cast, including Paris. One night after rehearsal, Paris drinks too much, falls asleep and gets locked in the theater. He wakes up the next morning to find that Belevedere’s been poisoned, and he’s a major suspect. He had a motive to kill Bevedere and his drinking hasn’t made him popular. Now, Paris has to sift through everyone else’s alibis and find out who really killed Belvedere in order to keep himself out of prison.
Lee Child’s drifter, Jack Reacher, faces a similar situation in The Killing Floor. Reacher has decided to visit tiny Margrave, Georgia, to find out more about Blind Blake, a blues musician who was supposed to have died in Margrave. Almost no sooner does Reacher arrive in town when he finds himself under arrest for a murder he didn’t commit. Now Reacher has to look into the town’s history and some very dark secrets that some of the townspeople are keeping in order to clear his name. With help from a local police officer, Officer Roscoe, Reacher finds that some very powerful local people have conspired to hide several secrets – including murder.
Sisters Libby and Bertie Simmons have to clear their names in Isis Crawford’s A Catered Christmas. The story starts off innocently enough when the Simmons sisters, who own and run A Little Taste of Heaven, a catering and bake shop, get the opportunity to compete in a televised cooking show, The Hortense Calabash Cooking Show. They realize there’s going to be stiff competition, but things turn deadly when one of the show’s ovens blows up, killing the show’s host, Hortense Calabash. Hortense Calabash was heartily disliked, and all the competitors – including the Simmons sisters – had reason to kill her. So, in order to clear their names, the sisters investigate to find out who the real murderer is.
That’s also the reason that Agatha Raison investigates the murder of Geraldine Jankers in M.C. Beaton’s Love, Lies and Liquor. Agatha’s been persuaded to spend a holiday with her ex-husband, at Snoth-on-Sea, a resort town he knew as a child. The town, and the Palace Hotel, where he’s booked rooms for them, have become seedy shadows of their former selves over the years, and Agatha is eager to leave. James persuades her to stay for a day or so until he can make other arrangements for a holiday. That’s just long enough for Agatha to become a suspect in a murder. One night at dinner, she gets into an argument with Geraldien Jankers and James gets into a fight with Geraldine’s son. Later, Geraldine is found strangled on the beach – with Agatha’s scarf. Agatha is soon arrested for murder and it’s not until she’s able to prove that she couldn’t have committed the crime that the police free her to leave Snoth. By then, though, she’s intrigued, and wants to solve the crime. Besides, she may not be an official suspect, but the police don’t trust her and don’t like her very much, and Agatha wants to prove conclusively that she isn’t guilty of any complicity in the crime. So she and her team of detectives investigate the murder to find the real killer.
Sometimes, we get absorbed in a “clearing the name” mystery because the suspect is such a likable person that we don’t want her or him to be guilty. We cheer the sleuth on as he or she investigates. That’s the case in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), in which Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of famous painter Amyas Crale. Crale’s wife, Caroline, was tried and convicted for his murder, and died in prison. Fifteen years after her death, their daughter, Carla Lemarchant, asks Poirot to investigate the murder and clear her mother’s name, even though she’s dead. To do so, Poirot gets the perspective of each of the five people who were on the scene the day of the murder. Each of them has a different perspective on Caroline, and it’s through their stories that Poirot finds out who really killed Amyas Crale. Caroline Crale herself isn’t a purely likable character, although we sympathize with her. However, her daughter, Carla, is. We want Carla to be right. We want her mother cleared of murder, because that’s what Carla wants. It’s in part that sympathy that keeps the reader’s interest.
We also very much like the character of Harriet Vane, who’s arrested and tried for murder in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison. She’s suspected of having killed her lover, Philip Boyes, and goes on trial for her life. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial and finds her so sympathetic that he actually falls in love with her. He determines to clear her name and sets out to find out who the real killer is, so that he can prove her innocent. As Lord Peter and his friend, Amanda Climpson, investigate the murder, they find that more than one person had a motive to kill Philp Boyes.
There’s also an interesting level of suspense created when the sleuth has to clear an unpleasant person’s name. Hercule Poirot does that in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. In that novel, Superintendent Spence asks Poirot to investigate the murder of a village charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger, James Bentley. Poirot is singularly unimpressed with Bentley, who’s unprepossessing, to say the least. He’s made almost no friends, and Poirot himself is sorely tempted to let the case go once he meets Bentley. Bentley himself doesn’t even seem to want Poirot’s help. Yet, Poirot doesn’t want to see an innocent man convicted of murder, even an unlikable man. So he visits the village of Broadhinney and investigates the murder. In the end, he’s able to clear Bentley’s name.
In Coyote Waits,Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee, faces a similar challenge in the case of the murder of his friend, Delbert Nez. Nez is on a routine investigation for vandalism when he’s murdered. When Chee arrives at the scene, he finds Ashie Pinto, a local alcoholic with a bad reputation and a worse temper, with the murder weapon. Right away, Chee assumes that Pinto is Nez’ killer, and arrests him. Janet Pete, a Washington-based lawyer with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is sent to defend Pinto, and she runs up against Chee’s strong prejudice against his unpleasant suspect. When Pete refuses to make a deal with the prosecutors to avoid a trial, Chee realizes that Pinto might be “railroaded” in a system that doesn’t offer much to poor, alcoholic, unfriendly defendants. So Chee begins to investigate more deeply. What he finds is that Nez’ death is connected to a larger case involving a a hidden fortune and a valuable historical discovery.
In my own Dying to See You, when Craig Peterson, an up-and-coming professor of criminal justice is murdered, one of his research partners, Jered Carr, is suspected of the murder. There’s good reason, too. As it turns out, Peterson’s been having an affair with Carr’s wife. Carr, though, insists that he’s not guilty and asks the third member of the research team, former police officer-turned-professor Joel Williams, to find the real killer and clear Carr’s name.
Mystery novels that feature suspects whose names need to be cleared can have an interesting layer of suspense, especially if the suspect is the sleuth. Even if it isn’t, we get involved. We cheer for the sympathetic victim-of-circumstances. Or we get involved because we find the suspect unpleasant; that, in itself, can be compelling. Do you like plots where someone’s name needs to be cleared? Or do you prefer plots where there is no clear suspect?