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?