Thursday, March 25, 2010

Still Waters...

In any murder mystery, whether it’s real or fictional, the object is to find out who committed the crime. Usually, the police find the killer by questioning witnesses, tracing the victim’s background, examining evidence, and so on. In crime fiction, that happens, too. Even when a fictional sleuth isn’t on the police force, he or she often finds the killer through a combination of evidence, things that witnesses and suspects say and don’t say, and deduction. Sometimes, though, the sleuth finds out that someone besides the killer already knows all about the crime. It might be that someone witnessed the crime and is keeping that secret. Or it may be that someone knows the history of the victim and the killer well enough to know what must have happened, even if that someone didn’t see the crime. In either case, very often, people who do know all about the crime don’t tell what they know, either because they’re protecting the criminal or because they’re afraid of becoming the next victim. When that happens, the sleuth has to find a way to get the person who knows all about the crime to tell what happened. That’s not always easy, and of course, if the person who knows what happened admitted it right away, there wouldn’t be much of a plot. So it also takes a certain skill to integrate that kind of witness into a crime novel.

We meet this kind of witness – the one who knows all about the crime – in a few Agatha Christie novels. For instance, in The Hollow, Hercule Poirot is invited to lunch by Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell, who own a home near Poirot’s week-end cottage. When he arrives for lunch, Poirot sees what he thinks is a tableau staged for his benefit – a dead man lying by the pool. After a moment, Poirot realizes that the scene is real, and that the man’s just been shot. Since Poirot has been a witness, he gets involved in the investigation. It seems that Dr. John Christow, successful Harley Street specialist, was spending the week-end with the Angkatells, along with his wife, Gerda. Just before Poirot arrived, Christow was murdered, and now Inspector Grange and Poirot work to find out who shot Christow and why. Before very long, Poirot realizes that the Angkatells know exactly who shot Christow, and are deliberately leading him and the police astray. In the end, Poirot discovers the killer, and finds out that the Angkatells have hidden what they knew to protect the murderer.

There’s a similar motive for keeping silent in Dead Man’s Folly. In that novel, Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s fictional mystery novelist, has been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt game for a fête to be held at Nasse House, which belongs to Sir George Stubbs and his wife, Hattie. Competitors will be given a list of clues, a backstory and a set of suspects, and will have to follow the clues to find out who committed the murder and why. On the day of the fête, Marlene Tucker, a local teenager who’d been chosen to play the part of the victim, is strangled. Hercule Poirot’s been visiting at Nasse House, ostensibly to give the prize to the Murder Hunt winner, but really because Mrs. Oliver suspects something’s wrong about the house and the Murder Hunt, and asked Poirot to find out what he could. When Poirot discovers who killed Marlene Tucker, he realizes that one of the characters knew all along who the murderer is, and hasn’t said anything because that character is protecting the killer. In fact, we get confirmation of that at the end of the story, when Poirot confronts the character who knows all about the crime.

There’s also an example of a witness who knows everything in several of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. In The Adventure of the Dancing Men, for instance, Hilton Cubitt asks Holmes to help solve the mystery of some strange, cryptic messages that his wife, Elsie, has been receiving. Elsie won’t say anything about them, but Cubitt knows that they are frightening her. The messages seem to get more threatening as Holmes works to figure out the code used in them. Matters come to a head one day when Both Hilton and Elsie Cubitt are shot. Hilton Cubitt dies from his wound, but Elsie will recover. By then, Holmes has figured out who threatened Elsie Cubitt and why, and who killed her husband. He uses his knowledge of the code to lure the killer into a police trap, and the killer confesses. All along, Elsie Cubitt’s known exactly who was responsible for everything, because it all has to do with her own past. She didn’t say anything, though, because she didn’t want to smear the Cubitt family name.

Sometimes, a character doesn’t admit knowing about a crime because he or she doesn’t want to believe that the killer was guilty, or can’t imagine why the killer would have committed the crime – at least at first. That’s what happens in Shona MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. Set in 17th Century Scotland, this is the story of the murder of Patrick Davidson, apprentice to Edward Arbuthnott, the local apothecary. Early one morning, Davidson is found dead of poisoning in the schoolroom of Alexander Seaton, a disgraced minister who’s been relegated to the role of schoolmaster. The most likely suspect is Charles Thom, a close friend of Seaton’s. Thom and Davidson had been rivals for Arbuthnott's daughter, Marion, so everyone concludes that Thom’s the culprit. When Seaton visits Thom in prison, Thom begs his friend to help clear his name, and Seaton promises to do so. As he investigates, Seaton finds his way blocked by local officialdom, his own disgraced reputation and the secrets that so many people are keeping. In the end, Seaton discovers that one of the characters has figured out who murdered Davidson, but said nothing. At first, that reticence was out of disbelief that the killer would have committed the crime, as it seemed there was no motive. Later, the reticence has more to do with fear.

Sometimes, a character knows all about a murder, but doesn’t say anything because of fear that the killer will strike again. That’s the case in Sam Hilliard’s The Last Track. Fourteen-year-old Sean Jackson is visiting a Montana dude ranch. When he sees a murder committed, Jackson runs away. When he’s reported missing, Detective Lisbeth McCarthy needs someone with solid wilderness experience to try to find Sean before he’s killed in an accident or the killer finds him. Sean’s asthmatic, too, so there’s also a fear that he could have an asthma attack before he’s found. McCarthy calls on Mike Brody, a former Special Forces operative who’s now an extreme adventure tour guide, to find the boy before the killer does. Brody’s got experience at tracking, too, so he sets out to find Sean Jackson. As it turns out, the murder that Jackson witnessed leads to a drugs ring, a conspiracy, and corruption, and Brody finds out almost too late that the killer will stop at nothing to keep those secrets.

At times, a character who knows all about a murder keeps silence out of a sense of self-preservation – not wanting to lose a job, a marriage, etc.. That’s what happens in Thomas Scortia and Frank Robinson’s The Nightmare Factor. Scottish transplant Calvin Doohan is a doctor with the World Health Organization. He gets involved with the local San Francisco Public Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control when an outbreak of what seems like an especially virulent strain of influenza threatens a large part of the population. The death toll rises as Doohan works to find out what’s behind this seeming epidemic. He soon comes to the frightening conclusion that it’s been deliberately started. Now, Doohan works even more frantically to isolate the cause and the source of the epidemic to try to prevent even more deaths. In the end, he finds out who’s behind the deaths. He also learns that one of the other characters he works with has known the truth all along. That person hasn’t said anything because of loyalty to the killer and because of not wanting to jeopardize a good life.

Whether it’s to shield someone, preserve one’s own life (sometimes literally) or for some other reason, some characters keep silent rather than tell what they know. That can add suspense to a story, as the reader tries to figure out who may know the whole story. It can, though, be a bit unrealistic if the reader has to wonder why a character wouldn’t tell who the murderer was. What’s your view? Do you enjoy this scenario? Which novels have you enjoyed where a character knows the truth the whole time – but doesn’t tell?


  1. Great post as usual. I just wanted to say that I believe Ariadne Oliver is one of the best names I've ever read. It took me months to figure out it was read air-e-add-knee. I swore if I ever had a girl, I'd name her that.

    Still no girl.

    I love to write my mysteries with the witness knowing things and keeping back. You're right, it does add to the novel.


  2. To me, it's only believable if it's a spouse, child, parent, etc. that the character realizes is the killer. Or else if the character justifies the murder because it was a revenge-killing, etc.

    Otherwise...why *wouldn't* you turn a murderer in? Hmm...unless you were being blackmailed or something like that.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  3. Ann - I like the name Ariadne, too. It's unique and it's got, well, personality.

    I agree that when a witness knows the whole story but isn't telling, you've got a whole new dimension to a story. The raeder has that extra challenge, and there's lots of opportunity for adding interesting twists.

    ELizabeth - That's a very good point. You've got to have a very believable raeson not to turn a killer in. You're right that if it's a parent, child, spouse, etc., there's something there. It makes sense to protect someone one loves, or who's a member of one's family. Blackmail, well, that's something, too. It's got to be done skillfully, though...

  4. What if the witness doesn't tell the police who the killer is because they are the ones doing the blackmail? They hold evidence over the killer's head for money or power. There's also the fact that if they tell who the killer is, they are implicating themselves in someway (at the wrong place with the wrong person). Those make interesting plots.

  5. Mason - That's quite true! If a character is blackmailing the killer, s/he wouldn't tell the police about the murder. As you say, that's self-incriminating. Besides, it means the blackmailer loses that income. However....that puts the blackmailer at quite a high risk. In Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile, and E.X. Ferrars' Something Wicked, among many other novels, someone finds out who the killer is and blackmails the killer. It doesn't work out well for either blackmailer, really.

  6. A very good post, Margot! I enjoy "the still waters" in which trouble bubbles. I, too, like Elizabeth, think that it's only believable if it's a spouse, child, parent, etc. that the character realizes is the killer.

  7. Christine - Thank you : ). Well-written mysteries are believable. It's not really believable that someone would know whom a killer is and not report it unless, as you and Elizabeth say, the killer is someone the character loves, or is someone the character dreads or is blackmailing. An author would have to work hard to convince me of any other scenario.

  8. The self-incrimination mentioned previously doesn't have to be blackmail. The silent witness could have been committing his/her own crime while witnessing the murder. Lawrence Block successfully uses this exact premise in his "Burglar" series, and David Baldacci's "Absolute Power" is also predicated on this element.

    Tony Hillerman uses familial witness-silence often in his novels. Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are often confronted with reluctant witnesses who are members of the extended Navajo family.

    Another nice post, Margot. Thanks tons, and keep 'em comin', please!

  9. Bob - Why, thank you; that's very kind : ). And thank you very much for mentioning Hillerman's excellent depiction of that familial connection! You're absolutely right that Chee and Leaphorn often face the challenge of getting witnesses to give information that they have. You've made me think of a very strong scene in The Dark Wind, where Jim Chee is trying to find Joseph Musket, a known drug dealer, because Musket may be connected to two deaths. Chee visits Musket's mother, Fannie Musket, who is at first completely unwilling to tell him anything about her son's whereabouts. In the end, she does give Chee helpful information, but it's a really clear example of what you mean. Thanks for the reminder :).

  10. Keeping quiet about vital information can build suspense very effectively, I think, but only if it's really plausible and not contrived. Not an easy trick to pull off, especially for a modern day readership.

  11. Martin - You are so right about that! It really is difficult to make it plausible that someone(other than the killer, of course) would know all about a murder and say nothing. And I agree that today's readers are far less forgiving of contrivance than readers in the past. It certainly keeps crime fiction authors on their mettle : ).

  12. Martin has a good point that some plots which were plausible in the 1930s are not necessarily credible today. So like Elizabeth, I think a modern witness who keeps quiet about something as important as murder should either be a close relative, or someone who cannot imagine this person killed anyone.

  13. Dorte - I like the way you put that. There has to be a credible reason why a witness wouldn't tell the authorities if she or he knew who committed a murder. The fact that the killer is a close relative is believable and, as you said, the witness may not be able to believe that the murderer actually committed the crime; after all, denail is a powerful force. Otherwise, yes, it can seem very contrived, especially to today's savvy reader.