Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A Little Knowledge Can Be a Dangerous Thing...

Most people would probably say that they want to know what’s going on in the world around them. Commuters find out where the traffic tie-ups are so they can find another route to work. Travelers want to know what the weather is like so they can pack accordingly and be prepared in case there’s a travel delay. Politicians and their handlers want to know what the latest poll results are, so that they can tailor their messages. Those are just a few examples of the many things most people would want to know. But is knowledge always such a good thing? Not in crime fiction. Very often in crime fiction, people get killed because of what they know.

That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death). Hercule Poirot’s frighteningly efficient secretary, Miss Lemon, asks her boss to help her sister, Mrs. Hubbard, find out what’s behind a series of bizarre thefts at the student hostel she manages. Poirot agrees and visits the hostel. As he looks into the matter, he finds that the thefts are, in a way, a side issue that hides several very dangerous secrets. As it turns out, one of the residents in the hostel has found out too much about what’s really going on there, and she pays for her knowledge with her life.

The murder of Mr. Shaitana in Christie’s Cards on the Table is another example of someone who dies because of what that person knows. Mr. Shaitana is a very eccentric collector of rare things. One night, Hercule Poirot and three other sleuths are invited to a dinner at Mr. Shaitana’s home to meet his most unusual “collection:” a group of murderers who’ve gotten away with their crimes. After dinner, the four murderers play bridge while Mr. Shaitana sits by the fire. The four sleuths play in another room. By the end of the evening, one of the murderers has stabbed Mr. Shaitana to prevent him from revealing what he knows.

We also see the theme of murder because of what someone knows in several of Tony Hillerman’s novels. For instance, in Dance Hall of the Dead, Ernesto Cata, a Zuñi teenager, is found murdered, and his best friend, Navajo teenager George Bowlegs, has gone missing. Bowlegs’ disappearance marks him as a likely suspect for Cata’s murder, so Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn is assigned to bring him in. When Bowlegs is later found, also dead, it’s clear that much more to these deaths than an adolescent feud. In the end, Leaphorn and Jim Chee, Hillerman’s other protagonist, find out that both boys were killed because of what they’d found out about the killer.

Beautiful, twelve-year-old Marilyn Watson is also killed in Hugh Pentecost’s The Fourteen Dilemma because of what she’s found out. Marilyn and her family have won an all-expenses-paid trip to New York’s posh Beaumont Hotel. They arrive in grand style and are soon settled into their suite on the exclusive 14h floor. The next day, Marilyn gets curious and wanders off. When she doesn’t return, her parents become alarmed and alert the hotel management. When Marilyn is later found dead, her body stuffed in a trash can, Hotel Manager Pierre Chambrun and his assistant, Public Relations Director Mark Haskell, help the police to find out who killed Marilyn. What they find is that Marilyn was killed because of a dangerous secret she’d discovered about another resident of the 14th floor.

Too much knowledge is also the reason that Nicholas Quinn is murdered in Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn. Quinn is a newly-appointed member of Oxford’s Foreign Examination Syndicate , which oversees exams given to students living in foreign countries with a British education tradition. Quinn knows far too much about goings-on within the Syndicate, and one day, he pays for his knowledge with his life when he’s poisoned. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis then have to uncover all of the dirty secrets that the Syndicate has been hiding to find out which member killed Quinn.

Very often, second murders in novels are committed because the victim knows too much about the first murder. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, in which Poirot investigates the death of a charwoman whom everyone believes was killed by her unpleasant lodger. Hercule Poirot is asked to investigate when the arresting police officer, Superintendent Spence, begins to believe he might have arrested the wrong person. Poirot finds out that Mrs. McGinty’s death is connected with a past murder and arranges to get four ‘photos that are related to past crimes. One of the residents of the village where Mrs. McGinty lived recognizes one of the ‘photos, but decides to play a “lone hand,” instead of going to the police. That’s when the killer realizes that someone’s put the pieces together and strikes again.

A similar thing happens in my own Publish or Perish, in which graduate student Nick Merrill is murdered. Former police detective-turned-professor Joel Williams gets interested in Nick’s death, and finds plenty of suspects. For one thing, Nick is involved with two women who’ve just found out about each other. He’s also just won a coveted fellowship, much to the chagrin of a bitterly ambitious rival. There’s also the fact that he’s just found out that his mentor has stolen credit for a piece of educational software that Nick designed and tested. And then there’s the Department Chair, who just wants Nick and his problems to go away. Another character is also suspicious about what happened to Nick and starts to ask too many questions. Before long, another death occurs.

Sometimes, sleuths get involved in cases in order to protect a potential victim who knows too much. That’s the case in James Lee Burke’s Rain Gods. In that novel, troubled Iraq War veteran Pete Flores and his girlfriend, Vickie Gaddes, are on the run because of what Pete knows about the murders of nine Thai women near a small Texas border town. When the bodies are discovered, Sheriff Hackberry “Hack” Holland sets out to find the murderer. As he unravels the mystery, he finds that the deaths are connected to mobsters displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina and a serial killer named Preacher Jack Collins. Because the killings are believed to be mob-related, the FBI and other government agencies get involved, too, and soon, all of these forces seem to be looking for Pete and Vickie. Hack soon finds that he’ll have to find the killer quickly if he’s to save Pete and his fiancée.

As I’ve mentioned more than once on this blog, sleuths can get into danger, too, and that’s especially true once they know too much about a case. That’s why Louis Markowitz dies in Carol O’Connell’s Mallory’s Oracle. Markowitz is investigating what seems to be a string of serial killings of elderly women. When Markowitz’ body is found near that of the third victim, police officer Kathy Mallory, Markowitz’ adopted daughter, is determined to find the killer. She works with Sergeant Riker, Markowitz’ former partner, to find out what Markowitz knew and catch the killer before there’s another death.

Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast also features a case of a sleuth who knows too much. In that novel, Harry Hole and his partner, Ellen Gjelten, are investigating a Neo-Nazi group and its connections to an illegal arms trafficking ring. As they continue their investigation, they find that this modern-day arms-trafficking case is connected to some dark secrets that have their roots in World War II. When Ellen learns some important information about the case, she becomes the target of the killer who’s behind both threads of the plot.

Crime fiction really teaches one that ignorance is bliss….. ; ). Which are your favorite novels where someone knows too much?

On Another Note……….

Just a quick word to let all of you know that B-Very Flat has been released : ). If you’re interested, click the link to the right….
My sincere thanks to all of you for your support of my writing.


  1. I love stories where the sleuth becomes the target because the villain can feel them closing in - they know too much. Sometimes the sleuth doesn't know she is closing in until she gets that warning or close brush with death.
    Congratulations on the release of B-Very Flat. I'm looking forward to reading it, Margot!!

  2. Bobbi - Thanks so very much : ). I hope you'll enjoy it. I knew what you mean, too, about the sleuth learning too much. It adds to the suspense, I think, when the sleuth finds out an important clue, but doesn't realize that the villain knows it, too, and is preparing to strike. That scenario keeps the reader really interested.

  3. Congratulations on the release. I can't remember if I told you earlier or not, but I love the cover. Very catchy, drawing your eye in to see more.

    I agree with Bobbi. I enjoy the stories where the sleuth gets close and becomes the target. It's especially interesting in cases where they are getting close, but think all along it's someone else to right at the end and the final clue drops in place.

  4. Congratulations, Margot! The cover is wonderful, too!

    Secrets and who-knows-what are my favorites! Puts everyone in danger from the killer.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  5. Mason - Thanks : ). Anad I'm glad you like the cover. I do, too, actually, and it's nice to know that other people do. You're right, too, that it certainly adds to the suspense of a novel when the sleuth is close to the truth, but as you say, thinks that it's someone else. That's the kind of plot that keeps the reader deeply involved.

    Elizabeth - Thanks : ). I don't get to have gnomes on my cover ; ), but I do like it. I agree that plots where people find out secrets about the murder are especially intriguing. You know, too, that they're going to be in danger from the killer because of what they know, and that builds up the tension and suspense. I really like that scenario, too.

  6. Wow! Just a small note at the end of your post? That is fabulous, Margot! Congratulations on the release of B-Very Flat!!

  7. CCP - Thank you so much for your kind words and encouragement - Much appreciated : ). I must admit I'm excited about it!

  8. Congratulations! That is great news indeed.

  9. Dorte - Mange tak! I'm excited, too : )

  10. In Dick Francis's novels you always have the situation about 10 pages before the end where his sleuth is put in mortal danger because he's coming to close to nabbing the bad guy. Good fun to read, but nasty for the poor guy in question!

    I like situations where someone doesn't realize they know something vital and so become a risk to the murderer. Who would care that Great Aunt Freda now takes lemon instead of milk in her tea? Innocuous knowledge, right? Not if the murderer's alibi is that he/she was having tea with Freda and mentioned she still takes milk in her tea.

    Congrats, of course, on the release of your second book. I'm green with envy. But also, very proud of you! Well, well done.

  11. Elspeth - Thank you : )! I have to admit, I'm really excited. We shall see if readers are happy with it....

    You are so right, too, that little innocuous bits of knowledge can put someome at risk if that knowledge threatens the murderer. I've read books, for instance, where A sees B at a plce near the scene of the crime, thus destroying B's alibi. A, though, has no idea that B wasn't supposed to be there, and now, A's at risk.

    And thanks for mentioning the great Dick Francis. That's thr trouble with blogs; there's only so much space one has to mention authors and novels....