In real life, and in crime fiction, there are many killers who deliberately take life – by choice. They plan their murders and they commit them by choice. There are plenty of other crimes, too, that are committed by choice. There are some interesting cases, though, where people are (or at least, feel) “sucked into” being involved in crime. That is, they’re either pressured or trapped into a crime, or they’re caught by circumstances. I’m not talking here of innocent characters who are framed by a real killer. I’m talking instead about characters who commit crimes (or are involved in them) because they’ve been trapped into it. Those cases can be fascinating; it’s interesting to see how characters deal with being caught in that way. On the other hand, those stories can stretch the limits of credibility, so those sorts of plots can fall flat if there isn’t a logical reason for which someone would be pressured or trapped into being involved in a crime.
One example of being trapped in this way comes from Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death. In that novel, wealthy, tyrannical Mrs. Boynton takes her family on a trip through the Middle East. A mental sadist, Mrs. Boynton has terrorized her family for years. During their tour, they take a few days to visit Petra. On the same excursion are several other tourists: a world-famous psychologist, Dr. Theodore Gerard; a brand-new doctor, Sarah King; an American friend of the Boynton family, Jefferson Cope; MP Lady Westholme; and Lady Westholme’s traveling companion, Miss Pierce. On the second day of their visit, Mrs. Boynton dies suddenly of what turns out to be digitalis poisoning. Hercule Poirot is called in to investigate and he finds out that it was Mrs. Boynton’s mental sadism that led directly to her murder. In the end, the killer was more or less trapped (at least in the killer’s view) into committing the crime.
In Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide), there’s another case of being trapped into involvement in a crime. Wealthy Gordon Cloade had always promised the members of his family that they would be well provided for at his death. When he suddenly and unexpectedly marries, everyone is shocked. Matters get even more complicated when Gordon dies as the result of a wartime bomb blast. His bride, Rosaleen, and her brother, David Hunter, move into Cload’s home at Furrowbank, in the village of Warmsley Vale. Conflicts soon arise, since the other members of the family had always been given to understand that they need not worry about money. Then, to make matters even more complicated, a stranger who calls himself Enoch Arden checks into a local inn, and hints that he may be Rosaleen’s long-lost husband. He tries to blackmail both sides in this conflict and one night, he’s killed. As Hercule Poirot looks into the case he finds that one person’s involvement in the case was not by choice. That person was more or less bullied into getting involved.
In Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder, we also see an example of being involved in a crime against one’s will. Howard Van Horn, an old college friend of Queen’s, has been having a series of terrifying blackouts, during which he believes he’s committed some terrible crimes. One day, he wakes up after a blackout covered in blood, and begs Queen’s help in finding out what’s been going on. Queen agrees to do what he can. His search for answers takes him to the small New England town of Wrightsville, where Van Horn’s wealthy father, Diedrich Van Horn, lives with his much-younger wife, Sally. While Queen and Van Horn are visiting, Howard has more blackouts and during one of them, Sally is murdered. Queen doesn’t believe that Howard’s guilty, and looks into the murder. What he finds out is that Howard’s been trapped into involvement with more than one crime.
There’s also an interesting case of being trapped into involvement with crime in Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill. That’s the story of William Decker, a former con man and gangster who’s decided to “go straight.” One night, Decker brings his toddler son into a bar where Mike Hammer happens to be having a drink. In tears, he leaves his son in the bar and goes outside, where he’s quickly gunned down. Hammer takes in the boy and resolves to find out who killed William Decker and why. As it turns out, Decker was a safecracker who’d gotten mixed up with a gang of local mobsters. At first, it appears that he’s been shot because he bungled a job he’d agreed to do for them. As Hammer digs deeper, though, he finds that there was more to Decker’s murder than that, and that Decker was, in a very real way, trapped into his involvement in crime.
In a slightly more humorous way, unemployed architect Stephen Booker gets economically trapped into getting involved in a bank robbery in Robert Pollock’s Loophoole, or How to Rob a Bank. Booker’s just lost his job and is frantic for money. One day, he meets professional safecracker Mike Daniels. When Daniels finds out what Booker’s profession is, he decides that Booker would be useful in a major bank robbery that Daniels and three of his cronies are planning. Booker is financially desperate, so he agrees to help, and the five plotters begin to plan the heist of the City Savings Deposit Bank. Everything is carefully planned, but on the day of the crime, things don’t work out as planned. In the end, Booker’s involvement in the crime shows that even the “straightest arrows” might get trapped into a crime.
There’s a very powerful example of getting trapped into crime in C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. Jack McGuane and his wife, Melissa, are the proud adoptive parents of beautiful baby Angelina. One day, their worlds are shattered when they find out from the adoption agency that arranged Angelina’s adoption that the biological father wants Angelina back. He never signed away his parental rights, so he’s legally entitled to pursue the case, but neither Jack nor Melissa can see why he’d want to do that. The father, eighteen-year-old Garrett Moreland, has never expressed interest in Angelina, even before she was adopted. So Jack and Melissa decide to fight the case. They find out soon enough that Garrett Moreland has “ammunition” of his own, as his father is a well-connected judge, and he has some friends from a local gang who are only too happy to get involved.The McGuanes have been given twenty-one days before they have to hand Angelina over, and Jack resolves to find out what’s behind Garrett Moreland’s determination to get Angelina back. His search for the truth leads him to confront the question: “How far would you go to prevent your child being taken away?” In the end, McGuane does things he never would have imagined just a few short weeks earlier.
There’s a similar story in Michael Gilbert’s short story, The Amateur. That’s the story of the kidnapping of David Collett, the son of a wealthy shipping magnate. Chief Inspector Hazlerigg is put on the case, and carefully makes plans to catch the kidnapper and save the boy. Collett, though, is desperate to save his son, so he does his own sleuthing. He finds out where the kidnappers are hiding, and that David is still alive. So, against Hazlerigg’s advice, he insists on being a part of the capture. Hazlerigg reluctantly gives in. In the end, Collett gets more involved in crime than he ever would have thought possible, driven by his desire to save his son.
When they’re well-done, crime novels can make us believe that someone would be trapped, tricked or forced by circumstances to get involved in crime – even to commit murder. But if the plot doesn’t make sense, those stories can fall flat. What’s your view? Do you enjoy books with the motif of being trapped into crime? Or do you think those plots are too implausible?
On Another Note...
Tomorrow (Saturday, 20 February), I'll be once again in two places at the same time. I'll be here and I'll also be guest-blogging at Mason Canyon's terrific blog, Thoughts in Progress. I'll be talking about different subgenres of crime fiction..... and offering a giveaway of a signed copy of my new book, B-Very Flat. Do please stop over!
Have no fear, though, even if you don't get a chance to stop over tomorrow; I'll be offering a giveaway competition very soon right here, so stay tuned.