Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Truth About Some Crime Fiction Myths...

Crime fiction has become an important part of popular culture as well as literary culture. Because of that, there are a number of myths associated with it. They say that many myths have at least a little of their basis in reality (although I’m not sure of that, myself), so it’s interesting to think about crime fiction myths. How many of them really hold up when you look at examples from the genre?

The butler did it!

This one’s been a staple for a long time. In fact, Mr. Confessions of a Mystery Novelist likes to joke that the butler always commits the crime. Of course, in crime fiction novels where there isn’t a butler, it’s not relevant. There are a few very shady butlers in the genre, though.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot is investigating the stabbing death of retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd. Among the suspects is Ackroyd’s butler, Parker. The reason is that Parker has a bad habit of blackmailing. In fact, on the night of Ackroyd’s death, Parker eavesdrops on a conversation between Ackroyd and his physician (and the story’s narrator), Dr. James Sheppard. The two are talking about a local widow, Mrs. Ferrars, who’s been blackmailed because she poisoned her husband. Parker hears the word, “blackmail” and thinks he might as well have a share, too. This is just one of several “side issues” that Poirot has to untangle as he gets to the truth about who killed Ackroyd and why.

And interestingly enough, there is an Agatha Christie novel in which the butler is guilty – well, in way. I won’t name the title, so as not to spoil anyone’s fun. But it’s the one instance where the butler really does commit the crime. Sort of.

In Ngaio Marsh’s Tied Up in Tinsel, we meet all sorts of shady staff members. Hilary Bill-Tasmin is a well-to-do antiques dealer. He’s convinced that criminals can be rehabilitated through honest work, so his home is completely staffed with former criminals. One Christmas, Bill-Tasmin commissions Agatha Troy to paint his portrait and stay for the holiday. During her visit, Bill-Tasmin throws a Christmas party for the locals, at which his uncle, F. Fleaton Forrester, is scheduled to dress up as a Druid and deliver gifts to the children. At the last moment, “Uncle Flea” is taken ill and can’t do the job, so his servant, Alfred Moult, takes his place. Shortly after the gifts are delivered, Moult disappears and is later found dead. Sir Roderick Alleyn, Troy’s husband and Marsh’s sleuth, investigates the murder. At first, it seems that one of the staff must have committed the crime; after all, they’re all criminals, anyway. It turns out, though, that the case is more complex than that, and Bill-Tasmin’s “well-born” houseguests have their own secrets to hide.

It’s always the quiet ones…

This myth’s been around for a long time, too. What’s interesting about it is its longevity, since crime fiction has shown again and again that there are many different kinds of murderers. Some murderers, of course, are quiet and unassuming. For instance, in Simon Beckett’s Whispers of the Dead, forensic anthropologist David Hunter finds himself up against a serial killer when he travels to Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropological Research Laboratory to do some research and take a break from London. When a decomposed body is found not far from the lab, Hunter joins the team looking into the murder. Then, more bodies turn up, and it’s soon clear that a serial murderer is at work. As it turns out, the murderer is a rather unassuming person who doesn’t make threats, attract a whole lot of attention, or seem unbalanced.

On the other hand, not all murderers are like that. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger, James Bentley. Superintendent Spence, who collected the evidence in the case, comes to believe that Bentley was innocent and asks Poirot to look into the case. In this novel, he and Spence have a discussion about different kinds of murderers, and what’s interesting is that the murderer turns out to be not at all the stereotypical quiet person. The murderer is actually quite affable.

The murderer in Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine isn’t really what you’d call quiet or unassuming, either. When wealthy Carey Lawson dies, her financial consultant, Dennis Brinkley, is charged with executing her will. Much of her fortune goes to her nephew Mallory Lawson and his family, on condition that they move into her home and take on her former companion, Benny Frayle, who’s also a friend of Brinkley’s. The Lawsons move in and all is well until the day when Benny Frayle goes to visit Brinkley and finds him, dead, underneath one of the antique torture devices he collects. Benny is sure that Binkley was murdered, even though the local police think his death was an accident, so she goes to the Causton CID to ask the police to investigate. At first, no-one (even Inspector Barnaby) is interested in pursuing the case. Finally, though, Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy look into the matter. They find that Brinkley was murdered, and that there are several suspects; they also find that the murderer isn’t the timid, shy, retiring “type” so often cast as the killer.

It’s always the one you least suspect.

This myth is a bit trickier, at least in well-written novels. One on hand, high-quality crime fiction keeps the reader thinking and guessing. So the murderer is often not the obvious suspect. For example, in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, novelist Harriet Vane is the prime suspect in the poisoning death of her former lover, Philip Boyes. She had arsenic in her possession, she and Boyes had quarreled, and the last thing Boyes had to eat or drink before his death was a cup of coffee that Harriet Vane gave him. In fact, Harriet Vane is such a likely suspect that she’s arrested and tried for Boyes’ murder. At her trial, Lord Peter Wimsey becomes infatuated with her and resolves to clear her of suspicion. He gets the time he needs when his friend Miss Amanda Climpson, who’s on the jury, refuses to condemn Harriet and forces a new trial. In the end, Wimsey finds out who really killed Boyes and why, and is able to free Harriet Vane.

In Philip R. Craig’s A Vineyard Killing, part-time investigator J.W. Jackson and the Martha’s Vineyard police are faced with a few very likely suspects in the attempted murder of Paul Fox, one of the principals of Saberfox, a very shady real estate development company. One of the obvious suspects is local resident Dodie Donawa, who’s refused to sell her land to Saberfox, despite all of the company’s blandishments and threats. When Jackson is able to help prove that Dodie Donawa couldn’t have been the culprit, attention turns to John Reilley, an itinerant construction worker with a hidden past. Reilley is dating Dodie, so he has an obvious motive as well as several possible hidden motives. As it turns out (and after another death), Jackson discovers that the real criminal is someone else – someone who’s not obvious.

On the other hand, crime fiction fans want authors to “play fair.” They want a sporting chance to find the clues and figure out the murderer, so in well-written crime fiction, the person who turns out to be the murderer is a genuine suspect. By that I mean that there are clues that lead the alert reader to the murderer. So even if the murderer isn’t obvious, she or he is a viable suspect.

“Elementary, my dear Watson.”

I just couldn’t resist this one ; ). The myth that Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes said this has been passed along for generations. The reality is, though, that Holmes never said this. The closest he comes is in The Adventure of the Crooked Man, in which Holmes investigates the strange death of Colonel James Barclay. One night, Holmes comes to see Watson to ask him to take part in closing the Barclay case. Almost as soon as he arrives, Holmes mentions that Watson must have a lot of patients. Watson doesn’t know how Holmes knows this; here’s Holmes’ reply:

"Elementary," said he. "It is one of those instances where the reasoner can produce an effect which seems remarkable to his neighbour, because the latter has missed the one little point which is the basis of the deduction.

There are, of course, other crime fiction myths – more than I have room for in one post. Which are your favorites?


  1. The Christie novel that you mention but don't name is one I like, too. I think Catherine Aird may have a murderous butler, too, but I can't recall in which book, so no spoiler!

  2. Martin - That is a good Christie story.. As for the Catherine Aird novel, I confess I haven't read her work in a while, but I think you're right; there is a villainous butler in one of her books...

  3. I saw a writing prompt once that suggested having all the suspects, the victim and the detective as butlers.

  4. Chairmaine - Oh, that's funny! Thanks for sharing. Hmm...that must have generated some interesting writing, too.

  5. The butler did it is a classic plot that can be fun. As a reader, you know it's going to be the butler but at the same time you tell yourself "no, can't be the butler."

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. Mason - That can be fun, when a reader knows who the killer is, but then says, "No, it can't be..." And of course, "The butler did it," is definitely a classic; it's been done on stage and screen (and in books) in a serious and farcial way.

  7. I think there IS a book where everyone is a butler - I wish I could remember the name - there is some kind of butler's convention or something at a hotel in England and there is a murder - I recall reading it years and years ago (before I started keeping any kind of record) and it was fun - very tongue-in-cheek.

    I find that these myths tend to be perpetrated by people who aren't fans of the genre. I have one friend who said for years that I must be bored reading the same old few plots over and over again because it's always the one you least suspect. About 2 years ago I gave him 3 whodunnits to read and said he could tease me forever if he worked out the culprit before the end but if he didn't he had to stop teasing me about my preferred genre. Not only did he not work it out but he's now a convert to the genre and gives me recommendations on new crime fiction to read :)

  8. Margot I have an award for you here

  9. Bernadette - LOL! I need to use your strategy to convert more readers. Oh, that is really clever. And now you have another wonderful resource for new books. So it's worked out for both of you : ). Your point is quite well-taken, too; those myths and others like them are probably often passed along by people who aren't fans. Although, why anyone wouldn't want to be a crime fiction simply escapes me ; ).

    I'm going to poke around and try to figure out the title of that book you mentioned, where everyone is a butler. It sounds funny, and I'd love to track it down.

    Kerrie - Thank you very much! I'm really honored, and I'm definitely taking it in the spirit in which you intend it : ).

  10. Elizabeth - Thank you : )! I really appreciate it.

  11. 'The Butler did it'
    blame it on Cluedo too

  12. Ee Leen - Oh, you are so right! In fact, it's funny that you would mention that. I almost used a 'photo of our copy of that game as the 'photo for this post, but at the last minute decided against it. There are lots of myths about crime fiction in that game, especially "stock characters." I'm going to have to look at that in another blog post, I think : ).

  13. Taking advantage of the myth of 'the butler did it', I actually killed off the butler in one of my games - great fun. Another myth - from the movies, not a book - "Play it again, Sam" is never actually said in CASABLANCA. The line as spoken is: "Play it once, Sam. For old times' sake."

    Another wonderful post, Margot. How DO you do it? I'm dripping with envy.

  14. Elspeth - Why thank you! My secret? Coffee. Lots of it. And I think it's hysterically funny that you kill off a butler in one of your games. What a great twist! Thanks, too, for the reminder of the real line from Casablanca - a truly great American film. It is funny, isn't it, how those lines become part of our culture, even when characters don't actually say them? I'm thinking of a line from Shakespeare's Macbeth. In the scene I'm thinking of, Macbeth is facing off against Macduff; he says the Shakespeare version of "Bring it on," by saying, "Lay on, Macduff," but it's often been quoted as, "Lead on, Macduff," which has an entirely different meaning.

  15. Thanks so much for this wonderful post. I'm new to your blog, and blogging in general. I can hardly believe that the butler is not guilty more often. Maybe that myth came from television mystery shows.

  16. JL - Welcome, and thanks for the kind words : ). It's interesting, isn't it, how often that myth is spread around and it certainly could come from television. I know that television and movies have perpetuated a lot of other myths about crime fiction...

  17. I was particularly drawn to: "It's always the one you least suspect." I remember being the greatest detective in the world when it came to the old black-and-white Perry Mason series. My method was simple: The person who was on-camera the least when the suspects were shown in the climactic courtroom scene was the guilty party. It always worked!

  18. Bob - LOL! I remember that old series, too. And you're right; it did always work out to be the person who got the least "camera time" in the courtroom. I often wonder how much effect television and other media have had on people's myths and beliefs about crime fiction. Probably quite a bit.