Friday, April 23, 2010

"I just put that in to make it harder." - Putting Sleuths and Readers on Their Mettle

Well-written crime fiction doesn’t require a particular kind of murder or murderer. There are all sorts of weapons, motives and killers within the genre. What’s nice about that is that there’s likely a murder mystery for nearly every taste. That said, though, there are some things that seem to make for more successful murders. By that I mean cases that aren’t easy to solve, so that both the reader and sleuth are put to the test, if you will. That kind of murder makes for a more engaging novel. After all, if it’s too easy to catch the murderer, there isn’t much of a plot. So, what makes for the kind of murder that keeps readers turning pages and sleuths on their mettle? Here are just a few ideas:

Apparent Lack of Motive

One of the first things that police, both fictional and real, look for when there’s a murder is a motive. Those people who had a reason to want the victim dead tend to naturally come under suspicion. So one way that murderers stump sleuths, at least for a while, is to seem to have no motive. That’s the challenge Hercule Poirot faces in Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts). In that story, Stephen Babbington, a beloved local clergyman, is invited, together with his wife, to a cocktail party hosted by Sir Charles Cartwright. Also at the party are Hercule Poirot and Mr. Satterthwaite. Shortly after his arrival, Babbington accepts a cocktail and within moments, has fallen over, poisoned to death. Sir Charles, Mr. Sattherthwaite, and Hermione “Egg” Lytton Gore (another guest at the party) decide to figure out what happened to Babbington. Later, they include Poirot in their number. The biggest challenge to all of them is that there seems to be no motive for Babbington’s murder. He wasn’t wealthy, didn’t have enemies, and didn’t seem to have any secrets in his past. While the group is investigating, another, similar murder occurs. Then, there’s another death. It’s not until Poirot is able to figure out what links the three deaths that he also discovers what the motive for Babbington’s murder was. Then, he’s able to find the killer.

The killer doesn’t seem to have a motive in Colin Dexter’s The Jewel That Was Ours, either. In that novel, a group of American tourists are visiting some historic English cities, among them Oxford. One of them, Laura Stratton, has with her a valuable jewel, the Wolvercote Tongue, part of an Anglo-Saxon belt buckle. The rest of the belt buckle is on display at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, and Laura and her husband, Eddie, are planning to donate the Wolvercote Tongue to the museum in a media “event.” On the day the tourists arrive in Oxford, Laura suddenly dies, and the Wolvercote Tongue is stolen. Then, the next afternoon, Theodore Kemp, curator of the Ashmolean, is found brutally murdered. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis, who’ve been assigned to the theft, believe that the theft is related to Kemp’s murder, and investigate the events together. Morse and Lewis search for the killer among those who had a motive to murder Kemp, and there are several suspects. The problem, though, is that none of them committed the murder. The real killer doesn’t at first seem to have a motive at all. Only after Morse finds out about the killer’s connection to Kemp is he able to figure out who killed Kemp and why.

Letting Well Enough Alone

As Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot says in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal),

“The very simple minded have often the genius to commit an uncomplicated crime and then leave it alone.”

What he means by this is that a simple, uncomplicated murder doesn’t always give the sleuth a lot of infomration about the killer. When the killer gets afraid of being found out and kills again, or tampers with the crime scene, or in some other way tries to “muddy the waters,” this tells the sleuth more about the killer. The more the sleuth learns, the closer she or he gets to the killer. That “keep it simple” approach works quite well – at least for a time – in Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours). Dr. John Christow, a successful Harley Street doctor, is visiting his friends, Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell for a week-end in the country. On Sunday afternoon of that week-end, Hercule Poirot, who’s been invited to the Angkatells for lunch, arrives only to find that Christow’s just been shot. Inspector Grange is called in to investigate, and he asks for Poirot’s help, since Poirot was “on the scene.” At first, both men are stumped, not because the crime is complicated – it isn’t. Rather, the killer has committed the crime and left it alone. In this case, the killer is helped because most of the other people staying with the Angkatells know who killed Christow and don’t say anything. Still, it’s a solid example of the value of leaving a simple crime alone.

We also see that in Ian Rankin’s Exit Music. Alexander Todorov is a dissdent Russian poet whose work has alienated a number of people, including an elite group of powerful Russian businessmen who’ve emigrated to Edinburgh. When Todorov is found murdered in an unsavory part of town, the killing looks at first like a mugging gone horribly wrong. Soon, though, Inspector Rebus and Detective Sergeant Clarke come to suspect that Todorov’s murder is related to his political views, especially when Charles Riordan, a recording expert who’d been working with Todorov, is killed and his studio burnt to the ground. What’s interesting about Todorov’s murder, though, is that it’s not really that complicated at all. In the end, it’s a very simple murder comiitted for a very simple reason. Once Rebus and Clarke get past the “side issues,” and sub-plots, they find that the killer’s been able to “hide” by leaving a simple murder alone.

Successfully Framing Someone Else

This is a little tricker in crime fiction, because there’s always the risk of making the sleuth look incompetent. When it’s done well, though, the frame-up keeps readers engaged, often because of the suspense related to an innocent person’s being charged with a crime. Very often, there’s the “ticking clock,” too, that adds to the supense.

There are several good examples of frame-ups in crime fiction; one of them is Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, in which Lord Peter Wimsey meets and falls in love with novelist Harriet Vane. She’s been charged with the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes, and there’s evidence against her, too. For one thing, they’d quarrelled recently. Also, Harriet Vane had arsenic in her possession. She’d been experimenting with it for a novel she was writing. Finally, the last thing that Philip Boyes had to eat or drink before he died was a cup of coffee that Harriet Vane gave him. So her arrest and trial make sense. In fact, only one member of the jury, Wimsey’s friend Amanda Climpson, isn’t convinced of Harriet’s guilt. It’s her demur that causes a mistrial and allows Harriet a new trial. Wimsey determines to clear Harriet Vane’s name and sets out to do just that. In the end, Wimsey finds out who the real killer is in time to exonerate the woman he loves.

There’s a chilling example of the frame-up in Jeffrely Deaver’s The Broken Window. Lincoln Rhyme, retired forensic expert and Deaver’s sleuth, gets a surprise visit from Judy Rhyme, the wife of his estranged cousin, Arthur. Judy’s come to ask Lincoln’s help, because her husband has been charged with rape and murder. There’s plenty of forensic evidence against him, too; in fact, the case against him seems airtight. Despite this, Lincoln and his protégée and lover, Amelia Sachs, agree to investigate. What they find is that the Arthur Rhyme case is only the latest in a series of rape/murder cases where there seems to be conclusive evidence against someone who claims to be innocent. As Rhyme and Sachs get closer to finding out who’s behind the crimes, the criminal also finds out who they are, and it’s soon a proverbial race against time as Rhymes and Sachs try to stop the criminal before the murderer strikes at them.

Making a Murder Look Like an Accident

This strategy puts readers and the sleuth on their mettle because there may, at first, be no evidence that there was even a crime. Unless it can be proven that a crime was committed, there can’t be a thorough police investigation, and certainly not an arrest. So the sleuth is often challenged by a crime that looks like an accident. For example, in Louise Penny’s Still Life, Jane Neal is out one morning on a woodland trail near the small Québec town of Three Pines. With a flurry of arrows, she’s killed in what looks at first like a horrible bow-hunting accident. In fact, that’s what Inspector Armand Gamache thinks at first when he’s called to the scene. Soon, though, he begins to believe that Jane Neal was murdered, and the more he investigates, the more he realizes that some people in this supposedly peaceful town are keeping some very dark secrets.

In Charlotte MacLeod’s The Withdrawing Room, there’s also an example of what looks like an accident – at least at first. Sarah Kelling has had to open her Boston brownstone to lodgers. She soon assembles a motley crew of eccentric boarders, including Augustus Quiffen. It’s not long before Quiffen earns everyone’s hearty dislike. He’s obnoxious, overly inquisitive and complaining. One day, Quiffen has a fatal fall under a subway, and the police think it’s an accident. The next day, though, Sarah has a visit from a woman who calls herself Mary Smith. She tells Sarah that she saw someone push Quiffen under the subway. She didn’t get a good look at the criminal, though, and there’s no real proof that this was a murder. It’s not until Sarah and her friend and lodger, art expert Max Bittersohn, look more closely into Quiffen’s life and death that they realize that Quiffen’s death was not an accident.

There are other things that can make a murder all the more challenging for the sleuth and the reader to solve. I’ve only had space to mention a few. Which strategies put you most on your mettle?


  1. I think one of the strategies I enjoy most is when someone is framed such as in The Broken Window. When the person is framed it makes the reader doubt them a little, you're not sure if they are telling the truth or not. You can also be convinced that they are indeed being framed and at the last second find out, they are really the killer.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Mason - I like novels, too, where someone's framed - or might be framed. You put your finger on a very interesting twist, too; sometimes. a person claims s/he's being framed but really is the murderer. And if it's done well, it does leave the reader wondering just how much of what a character says is the truth.

  3. Just for a second I thought that I didn´t like ´framing someone else´, but as Strong Poison is such a wonderful story, I don´t know if I really mean it. It is just that these murderers are so despicable, but then one enjoys seeing them caught in the end so why not ...

    Conclusion: I probably like all the tricks of the trade when the story is well planned.

  4. Dorte - LOL! I know what you mean about murderers who frame someone else. Framing an innocent person really is a low, low thing to do. But, as you say, it's even more enjoyable in the end when murderers like that are found out. You put your finger on something really important, too: any of those tricks can be succesful if the story's well-written. That's they key, isn't it? And any of them can seem contrived, and can fall flat, if the story isn't well-done.

    ps As you know, Strong Poison gets my vote, too : ).

  5. I hate seeing someone framed. I find it so hard to keep going when someone innocent is being hounded. Oh, I miss John Thaw playing Morse.

  6. Patti - I miss John Thaw, too! He was Morse to a lot of people, and although I'd formed my own view of what Morse was like before I saw Thaw, he really did own that role.

    I agree with you, too; it's very hard to see an innocent person hounded. On one hand, it's cathartic when the guilty person gets caught. On the other, though, it's very hard to think of what the innocent person is going through.