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.