Thursday, February 11, 2010

Strange Brew* ...Unusual Motives for Murder

Recently, I had an interesting exchange of comments with Norman at Crime Scraps about motives for murder. As Norman pointed out, two of the most common motives that drive people to kill are money – well, gain of some kind – and sex or love (or both). There really aren’t that many other common motives in real life. There is, of course, fear, and there is revenge, too. But in general, motives for murder fall into just a few major categories. Sometimes, though, the motive for a murder turns out to be unusual, both in real life and in crime fiction. I’m not talking here of mass murders that are committed because the killer is completely insane, although there are certainly plenty of novels with that theme. I’m talking more about motives that really don’t fit neatly into any of those “ordinary” categories.

There’s are some very interesting and unusual motives for murder in several of Agatha Christie’s novels; I’ll just mention a few. One is Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts). In that novel, Hercule Poirot investigates the poisoning murder of Stephen Babbington, a beloved clergyman. At first, no-one can imagine why anyone would want to kill an elderly clergyman with no fortune to leave and no enemies. When another death occurs, though, and then another, Poirot connects the murders and realizes that the murder of Stephen Babbington had a very unusual motive, almost unique to the personality of the killer. In fact, Poirot says it’s one of the most unusual motives he’s encountered.

There’s another unusual motive in Dead Man’s Mirror, a short story that appears in Christie’s Murder in the Mews collection. That’s the story of the shooting death of Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore, a wealthy and very eccentric patriarch who’s convinced that his family and its lineage are more important than anything else and that, as patriarch, he can arrange everyone’s life as he wishes. Sir Gervase becomes convinced that he’s being cheated, and summons Hercule Poirot to find out who’s responsible. Poirot arrives just before dinner, but before the family can sit down to eat, Sir Gervase is found locked in his study, shot to death, supposedly the victim of suicide. It’s not long before Poirot realizes the death was a murder. What’s really interesting, though, is that the motive for the murder isn’t gain for the murderer, or revenge against Sir Gervase, really. It’s not even fear or jealousy, but something quite different – the murder is committed to protect, not the murderer, but someone else.

The motive for the murder of Dr. John Christow in Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours) is also unusual. Christow and his wife, Gerda, visit the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell for a week-end. The house-party also includes several Angkatell cousins who are staying for the week-end as well. Hercule Poiriot, who’s taken a nearby cottage, is invited to the Angkatells’ for Sunday lunch. When he arrives, he comes upon a scene that he thinks has been staged for his “benefit;” Christow’s body is lying by the pool. Very quickly, Poirot realizes that this murder is real, and he and the police begin to investigate to find out who the killer is. As it turns out, the killer has an unusual motive for shooting Christow; shattered illusions.

There’s a very similar motive behind the shooting of “King” Bendigo in Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead. Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, are brought to Bendigo Island, a private island owned by munitions tycoon “King” Bendigo. Living on the island with Bendigo are his brothers, Abel and Judah, and his wife, Karla. The Queens’ commission is to find out who’s been sending Bendigo threatening letters. One night, Bendigo and his wife are in his private office, which is hermetically sealed. All of a sudden, Bendigo is shot. It seems like an “impossible crime,” since a thorough search reveals no gun, no powder residue and no holes bored through walls of the door. The only apparent suspect is Bendigo’s brother, Judah, who’d threatened Bendigo and actually had a gun. However, that gun wasn’t loaded and besides, Queen was with Judah Bendigo the entire evening and can vouch for the fact that Judah Bendigo didn’t shoot his brother. Queen’s search for the truth leads him back to Bendigo’s hometown of Wrightsville, a small New England town. As he uncovers Bendigo’s past, Queen also uncovers the motive for the shooting and for the shocking events at the end of the novel. Again, this motive has to do with shattered illusions.

Zoe Ferraris’ Finding Nouf also features an unusual motive for murder. The Shrawis, a wealthy Saudi family, call in Palestinian desert guide Nayir al-Sharqi when their sixteen-year-old daughter Nouf disappears just before her wedding. When Nouf is later found dead, Sharqi begins to retrace her last days to find out who would have wanted to kill her and why. What he finds is that Nouf’s death isn’t at all the typical motive of greed, fear or revenge, really. This motive has more to do with the social and religious structure of Saudi life than with anything else.

There’s also a very curious motive for murder in one of Robin Cook’s early novels, Blindsight. That’s the novel in which his sleuth, Laurie Montgomery, makes her first appearance. As a medical examiner for New York, Laurie finds an unusual number of cocaine-related deaths among young, wealthy urban professionals. As she searches for the truth behind those murders, she traces the deaths to Paul Cerrino, a local mobster. He’s got a very strange motive for wanting the victims dead, and it has nothing to do with his “usual” gangland activities. Instead, it has to do with surgery he himself has had, and the ophthalmologist who treated him.

We also see a very strange motive in Deborah Crombie’s In A Dark House. In that novel, Scotland Yard detectives Duncan Kincaid and his lover and former partner, Gemma James, investigate several seemingly disparate crimes that are all related. An abandoned warehouse situated near a women’s shelter in the Southwark section of London burns to the ground. The fire is bad enough, but then, the body of a young woman is found in the remains of the fire. She’s burned beyond recognition, and the police aren’t able to identify her at first. When Kincaid and James establish who the dead woman is, they connect her to other young women who have disappeared recently, and to the women’s shelter. What is both fascinating and macabre is the motive for the fire; it’s not for insurance money, revenge, hiding a body, or any of the other “usual” motives for a fire. It’s not even the work of a crazed maniac who enjoys killing people. Rather, the motive lies in an obsession that the arsonist has.

An unexpected motive also lies behind the events in Rita Mae Brown’s Murder at Monticello. An archeological excavation is being done of a former slave’s cottage on grounds of Monticello, the home of U.S. President Thomas Jefferson. When the team and its leader, Kimball Haynes, discover a skeleton hidden in the cottage, their find rocks the tiny town of Crozet, Virginia. The discovery of the skeleton threatens to reveal some dark secrets that some of the townspeople had kept hidden. Then, Kimball Haynes is shot. Now, the town’s postmistress, Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, gets interested in the case and does her own investigation, to the chagrin of Sheriff Rick Shaw and Deputy Cynthia Cooper. They’ve been friends with Harry for a long time and they know that her curiosity gets her into trouble. When Harry, Shaw and Cooper finally unravel the mystery of Kimball Haynes’ death, they find that the motive is rather unusual; it’s not really fear, or gain, love or revenge. Rather, it has
to do with deep-seated assumptions and the need to keep up appearances.

In most crime novels, the motive for murder often comes down to gain of some kind, fear, revenge or love and sex. In a way, those more “usual” motives make sense, since they reflect real life. On the other hand, both in real life and in mystery novels, there are those motives that are not at all “usual.” In crime fiction, they can keep the reader’s interest, challenge the sleuth and add layers of interest and suspense.

Do you enjoy those “odd” motives? Which are your favorite “unusual” motives?


*Note - This part of the title of this post is also the title of a song by Cream.

19 comments:

  1. As usual, your post is well-researched and extends my TBR list by a dozen! And you have finished all your paragraphs with cliff-hangers--sign of a true mystery writer!

    Love it and will add it to my Sunday Foreign Post Roundup!

    Michele
    SouthernCityMysteries

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  2. Oh! I didn't answer the question! My favorite motives are those personal to the killer--in their head it makes sense, but may not to others. True psychopaths and the like. Just plain killing for gain doesn't really interest me.

    Michele
    SouthernCityMysteries

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  3. Ok--One more from me! This is the first time I have EVER made someone's top commenter list and I wanted to say YIPPEE! I finally get what that little gadget is about! Love it! Thanks. (Done, last comment, promise!)

    Michele

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  4. I'm a Deborah Crombie fan, and loved "Dark House." Great motive there.

    Although money is the most frequent motive for murder (or drugs), there's only so often I want to use it as a motive in fiction. It seems to point a beacon at the suspect who would stand to gain.

    Awesome job on my blog for 2/11!

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  5. Michele - Thank you : ). I'm flattered, and I really appreciate your putting my post in your roundup : ). I agree with you, too, that motives that mean something to the killer are absolutely compelling. They're the ones that make the reader really understand the characters better, too, and find them interesting.

    I'm glad, too, that you've stopped by often enough to make my Top Commentator list; it means a lot to me that you've got that much interest in my blog. Isn't that gadget great?? And feel free to comment as much as you wish : ).


    Elizabeth - Thank you! : ) And more to the point, thanks for letting me "camp" in your "living room." I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and I had such a good time "meeting" your reagular readers. I made some new friends, too, thanks to you.

    I agree with you about Cambrio. She does, in my opinion, such a good job at characterization and building up tension. And yes, that motive is something, isn't it? I agree that money is a terrific motive once in a while, but it is too easy to point the finger at the real killer. It does make a great "red herring," though, doesn't it? It's one of those ingredients that I think should be used carefully in a novel - not too liberally...

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  6. Very clever post. Yes, it' true, people murder for all sorts of reasons. Glad you pointed out those books. Loved them and it brought me back.

    ann

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  7. Ann - Thank you : ). I'm glad I reminded you of old favorites - aren't they the best? It really is ineresting, too, when the motive for a murder turns out to be out of the ordinary. That can be very compelling.

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  8. I learned long ago that most motives in murder come down to "lust, love or lucre". Other motives are interesting, but most are some variation of these three.

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  9. Elspeth - I like your alliteration : ). You do make a point, too, about the kinds of motives that drive most murders. There really aren't that many different things that lead people to kill. Other kinds of motives can be intriguing, but most people kill for one of those Big Three motives.

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  10. Great post. This is one of my favourite crime fiction topics. I would add to your list: 'The Secret Hangman' and to some extent 'Skeleton Hill' by Peter Lovesey, and the marvellous 'Death Walks in Eastrepps' by Francis Beeding.

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  11. Martin - Thank you : ). I actually intended to add Skeleton Hill, but I haven't read it yet, so I didn't feel I could mention it intelligently. Folks, here is Martin's fine review of Skeleton Hill, which is now on my TBR :).

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  12. Outstanding post, as usual, Margot! You give us so much to think about, an amazing list of books, and you guide us through them so well! Motives intrigue me, as they did when I was a cop (and always will -- it never goes away) and continue to intrigue me as a writer. The motive in the true crime memoir I'm writing is a tricky one, and whenever I tell people the story, it's what they stumble on, and I realize how my work is cut out for me. It is unusual, I will say that!

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  13. I adore motives that, when revealed at the end, turn the reader's expectations upside down. Margot, you are amazing! Thank you for this significant contribution - on a daily basis - to the mystery reader's world. We love it!

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  14. Kathleen - Thank you : )I'm sure that you have lots of absolutely fascinating stories to tell from your days as a police officer. I'll bet you've seen all kinds of motives, and all kinds of crimes. I am so eager to read your book, too - the more I hear about it, the more eager I am to get my hands on a copy!


    Bobbi - Awwww, thank you : ). You are more than kind - you really are : ). I agreee with you, too, that motives that turn out to be extremely different from what one expected are fascinating, aren't they? It's such an effective way to surprise the reader.

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  15. Very well-researched post, as ever, Margot. I remember reading that Deborah Crombie book, but feeling it was not one of her best. I think that "follow the money" is a pretty believable motive from the reader's point of view, and when it all falls out in the end that money was the motive, we accept it. Passion is a harder one to convey realistically (to me, murders of passion are morel likely to be impulsive than planned, and hence easier to solve - but I am sure there are many counter-examples!). However, crime fiction is so popular (both now and when some of these books in your post were written) that authors are being forced to think up ever more convoluted and inventive plots to keep their readers guessing. I have to say, the "crazed madperson" solution does crop up rather a lot but is the most difficult to pull off believably. Too often a killer turns out to be absolutely raving bonkers but has successfully convinced everyone, including professional/experienced detectives, that he or she is completely normal for most of the novel.....

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  16. Maxine - Thanks : ). You've put your finger on a key to making a "mad person" motive believable and engaging; making the killer seem perfectly normal throughout the book. That really is hard to pull off, as you say, and I have to admit, it's not a theme/motive that I would probably be good at writing.

    You're right, too, that it is challenging to think of a decently engaging motive and surprises to keep readers turning pages. There's nothing like strong characters and a believable plot; those are essential. But yes, there's also that element of unexpectedness that today's mystery fans want. And I think, too, that today's mystery fans are more sophisticated, too, and don't want "stock" characters or warmed-over themes. Quite a challenge for those of us who write for them ; ).

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  17. Yes, I think it is getting harder and harder to be a mystery author! The readers are on too sharp a learning curve ;-)

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  18. Maxine - ...and it's a good thing, too. Keeps writers "on their toes," and, I think, in all honesty, it makes for better books.

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  19. This site is super. I've been looking for information on Motives for Murder. Your site will be bookmarked for future reference.

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