Wednesday, April 7, 2010

This Changes Everything

Most of the time, when a crime has been committed, the police use evidence and clues they find to get an idea of who the culprit is. Very often, forensic evidence can help identify the guilty person, and even when it can’t, police and other investigators use what they learn from interviews and other sources to form a theory of who committed the crime and why. Sometimes, though, something happens, or some new evidence turns up, that proves the theory wrong. When that happens, the investigator has to start over. It’s that flexibility and willingness to think a case through again that often helps to solve a murder. In crime fiction, those events and new pieces of evidence can serve as very effective plot twists, so long as they’re believable, and so long as the reader has a fair chance at using the new information to try to solve the mystery, too.

Sometimes that new event is a second murder. The second murder in a novel can change everything if the victim was one of the suspects. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, Hercule Poriot investigates the murder of Louise Leidner, wife of noted archeologist Eric Leidner, while they are with a team on a dig in Iraq. Poirot, who’s been in the Middle East on another case, agrees to delay his return to London to look into the case. He finds that several members of the team had strong psychological motives to kill Louise Leidner. One of them is Anne Johnson, Leidner’s chief assistant. Miss Johnson has admitted she doesn’t think much of Lediner’s wife, and has even said she’s somewhat jealous of her. Also, Miss Johnson is suspected of sending a series of threatening letters to Louise. So she’s a very likely suspect for the murder – until she, herself, is killed. Then, Poirot has to re-think the case from a different angle to find out who killed Mrs. Leidner and Miss Johnson.

In Emma Lathen’s Murder to Go, we meet the franchisees of Chicken Tonight, a fast-food company that’s poised for real success with its new recipe, Chicken Mexicali. Behind the scenes, the company is considering a merger with Southeastern Insurance. John Putnam Thatcher, vice president for Sloan Guaranty Bank, is working closely with this merger, as it’s his bank that’s considering the funding. Then, some of Chicken Tonight’s customers sicken and one dies from what turns out to be poison. At first, the most likely suspect is Clyde Sweeney, a disgruntled former delivery driver with a history of instability. He’s even more attractive as a suspect when he disappears shortly after the poisonings. Then, everything changes when Sweeney is found strangled. Now, Thatcher has to re-think the case and look elsewhere to find out who wanted to sabotage Chicken Tonight and its merger.

Sometimes, everything changes because a suspect is in jail when a second murder is committed. This means that the prime suspect couldn’t have committed the murder, and often, that changes the whole case. For instance, in Shona MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, Patrick Davidson, apprentice to apothecary Edward Arbuthnott, is poisoned. The most likely suspect is the local music master, Charles Thom. Thom and Davidson were rivals for Marion Arbuthnott, the apothecary’s daughter, and Davidson certainly had plenty of opportunity to commit the murder. He’s jailed for the crime, and begs his friend, Alexander Seaton, to help clear his name and free him. Seaton agrees, and begins to investigate. Then, while Thom is still jailed, Marion Arbuthnott also dies. At first, her death is thought to be a suicide. Then, it becomes clear that she, too, was poisoned. Marion’s death all but proves that Thom isn’t the guilty party, since he was in prison at the time of the murder. Seaton continues to investigate and in the end, he finds out who killed both Patrick Davidson and Marion Arbuthnott, and why.

Of course, it’s not always another death that changes everything. Sometimes, new evidence turns up. There’s an interesting example of that in Carole Sutton’s Ferryman. In that novel, Steve Pengelly moves to the Isle of Guernsey, where he buys a beautiful thirty-foot sailboat. Angela Dupont, the woman who showed him the sailboat, asks Pengelly for a ride back to the mainland, and he’s only too happy to accommodate her. The two begin a relationship, but it soon turns out that Angela is a social climber more interested in finding a rich conquest than in a relationship. The two have a bitter argument, after which Angela disappears. She’s soon presumed murdered, and the evidence seems to point to Pengelly. There’s the matter of the argument, and of his temper. There’s also the forensic evidence, which includes blood found in Pengelly’s boat. So D.I. Alec Grimstone is sure he’s got his man in Pengelly. Pengelly is duly convicted and imprisoned. Two years later, everything changes when Angela’s body washes up in the Fal Estuary. When forensic tests show that she’s only been dead a short time, it’s clear that Steve Pengelly couldn’t have killed her. Now, Grimstone has to go back and re-think the case on the basis of this new development. In the meantime, Pengelly is released from prison and wants to forget the whole matter – until he meets Veryan Pascoe, a young woman whose sister has recently disappeared. She’s convinced that her sister’s disappearance is related to Angela Dupont’s death, and asks for Pengelly’s help. Now, Grimstone, Pengelly and Veryan Pascoe work, each in a different way, to find out what really happened to Angela Dupont.

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse frequently finds that the cases he’s working on change as he gets new evidence and finds out new things. That’s actually a strategy that Dexter uses quite effectively. For instance, in The Jewel That Was Ours, he and Sergeant Lewis are investigating the murder of Dr. Theodore Kemp, curator of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. At the same time, they’re investigating the disappearance of a valuable antiquity – the Wolvercote Tongue, which is part of an Anglo-Saxon belt buckle on display at the Ashmolean. Morse and Lewis are convinced the two crimes are related, and at one point, Morse believes he has the right criminal. There’s evidence against this suspect, and the suspect has motives for both the murder and the theft. Morse arrests the person he thinks is guilty, and refuses to listen to anything the suspect has to say. Then, Lewis calls Morse to tell his boss about some conclusive evidence he’s found that proves that Morse’s “prize” suspect isn’t guilty. Now, Morse has to completely re-think the case. In the end, he and Lewis find the connection between the murder and the robbery and are able to find out who’s responsible.

Agatha Christie’s Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp also sometimes has to deal with evidence that changes everything. For instance, in Thirteen to Dinner (AKA Lord Edgeware Dies), he and Hercule Poirot are investigating the stabbing murder of George Alfred St. Vincent Marsh, 4th Baron Edgware. The evidence seems to point conclusively to his wife, actress Jane Wilkinson. For one thing, she’s eager for a divorce so she can marry another man, but claims that her husband won’t grant her a divorce. She’s also threatened her husband. In fact, she tells Poirot that if he won’t help her get rid of her husband, she’ll have to “go round in a taxi and bump him off” herself. Finally, on the night of the murder, a woman looking exactly like her and giving her name came to visit Lord Edgware just before he was killed. Japp thinks he has a clear case against Jane Wilkinson. Everything changes, though, when Sir Montagu Corner, a patron of actors and other artists, claims that Jane Wilkinson was at a dinner party at his home on the night of the murder. He, his staff, and twelve other dinner guests are prepared to swear that she was at the dinner party at the time of the murder. Now, Japp and Poirot have to go back through all of the evidence to find out who really killed Lord Edgware and why.

When there’s surprising new evidence, another death, or some other major event that changes everything, the sleuth has to be willing to be flexible and consider other explanations for a murder. Readers, too, have to be flexible and not be too fixed on one solution to a crime. Of course, readers also have to beware that new evidence and other things that change everything are notorious for being “red herrings”…. Do you enjoy those turns of events? Are you good at figuring out which ones are real new evidence and which are “red herrings?”

On Another Note... Roll up for the Mystery Tour!!*

Please be sure to stop by tomorrow, Friday, 9 April, when I’ll be hosting special guest blogger
Alan Orloff, whose novel, Diamonds for the Dead, has just been released. Here’s the synopsis:

When Josh Handleman returns to his boyhood home to sit shiva for his estranged father, he gets the shock of his life: his frugal dad was a diamond collector worth millions. Now the gems are missing and Josh begins to suspect his father’s death might have been murder, not an accident. Hounded by grief and remorse, Josh resolves to find his dad’s diamond stash. His emotion-laden treasure hunt throws him into the middle of a feud between two stubborn old Russian Jews—and puts Josh squarely in the sights of his father’s killer.

*NOTE: The title of this note is a line from the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour.


  1. I often look for the red herrings because all good mystery writers have them. I don't always find them though.


  2. I find that Agatha Christie and Colin Dexter, in particular, are very good at introducing new twists and turns in the plot, sometimes more than once or twice during the course of the novel. I do enjoy this, and perhaps that is why these two are among my favorite crime writers. P.D. James is pretty good at twists too. Thanks for the great posts and good examples!

  3. Ann - I don't always find them either. Some authors do such a good job of making "red herrings" appealing that I fall for them....

    Book Mole - Thanks for your kind words. You are right that twists and turns were Agatha Christie's specialty. I'm a fan of both her work and Dexter's, too, and that's definitely part of the reason. P.D. James, too, is good at keeping the reader guessing...

  4. Margot, I also have a couple of awards for you at:

  5. Book Mole - Thank you : )! How kind! I am honored.

  6. The authors who can make the "red herrings" seem plausible are the best. When reading a book and you're so sure you know who the killer is right up until the end and wham, it's somebody else. Then you sit there and say now how did I miss that. That's the best.

  7. Mason - I know exactly what you mean! One of the things I like best about Agatha Christie is just that; the signs are all there, so she "plays fair" with readers. Yet time and again, I've been absolutely convinced I knew who the murderer is, only to be proven wrong. It's those authors who really keep me on my mettle whom I really admire.

  8. Thank you for providing these examples. Sometimes I can figure them out and sometimes I can't. This is something that I will keep in mind for my own writings.

  9. The "second murder" is often necessary to move the plot along, as we've discussed earlier. I like it when there is a double mystery, in that a suspect is caught (usually too early in the novel to be the actual perpetrator, unless the author is playing triple bluff) and then another crime occurs. This happens in Linda Castello's Sworn to Silence (also distinguished by having a female Amish police chief). Or a similar theme, when someone is apprehended for a series of crimes and can prove he or she was somewhere else for one of them. Does this mean he/she committed the others, or not? (This was one theme of The Last Ten Seconds, Simon Kernick's latest thriller.)

  10. Tamara - I'm the same way. Sometimes I'm able to figure out which major events are "real," so to speak, and which are "red herrings." Other times, I can't. Either way, they do keep the story moving along, don't they?

    Maxine - No doubt about it; the double mystery can really add to the suspense of a story. What I like, too, if the author handles it well, is when the crimes seem unrelated at first. That's what I liked about The Jewel That Was Ours. It was hard to see, at first, how the theft and the murder could have been committed by the same person (although of course, Morse knows they were).

    I'm glad you mentioned Sworn to Silence, too. I didn't grow up in Ohio, but the part of Pennsylvania where I grew up is also Amish country. So, although I'm not Amish, myself, I have always found that culture very interesting, and police chief Kate Burkholder's ambivalence about it is a fascinating part of her character.

    I confess I haven't read the Kernick you mentioned, but your comment reminded me of an Agatha Christie novel, The ABC Murders, in which several murders are committed. Finally, the police arrest the person they think is guiltyl However, that person has a solid alibi for one of the murders. So the question is....did that person commit that murder, despite the alibi? Or did someone else commit all of the murders...?

  11. Those blasted red herrings! Fun to write, but so tricky for readers! I've discovered too many herrings tend to smell. I don't like books that give me ten herrings for every one real clue. Mix them up, certainly - but give me a fighting chance. I'm always suspicious when the sleuth focuses on someone right away, because you know if an arrest happens 100 pages in, it can't be right since there's still plenty of the book to go. On the other hand, I've always enjoyed the television series PRIME SUSPECT and the twists and turns of the investigation. Now finished, alas.

  12. Elspeth - You're right that it's not easy for the reader when there are "red herrings" and sudden changes. It can be hard to write them, too: how much information does one give? How many "red herrings" in the "barrel," etc. As you say, readers can get some clues if they're savvy (e.g. anybody who's arrested 1/3 of the way through a book probably isn't guilty unless the author is being particularly tricky). Still, I agree that it's important to "play fair." I also agree about Prime Suspect : ).

  13. I wouldn't particularly recommend the Simon Kernick, Margot, I think he wrote it in his sleep! It is a fine exciting novel, but a tad "straight out of the mould and onto the page".

  14. Maxine - LOL! Thanks for the "heads-up." Well, then, I won't search high and low for it.