Tuesday, May 4, 2010

For a Fee I'm Happy to be Your Backdoor Man*

In real life, and in crime fiction, it’s hard to commit a murder without there being something to connect victim and killer. Sometimes that something is forensic or other direct evidence. Other times, it’s more circumstantial evidence (e.g. the victim and murderer were known to have quarreled). It’s often those connections that help the detective catch the criminal. Most murderers, though, don’t want to get caught; that’s where the paid killer comes in. Sometimes, a murderer is hired because the real culprit is a very obvious suspect and wants an alibi. Other times, the real criminal doesn’t want to be “too close” to the murder. Either way, the hired “hit man” plays a sometimes very interesting role in crime fiction.

Agatha Christie’s novels don’t typically use the “hired assassin” motif, but there are a few examples that do. For instance, in The Man in the Brown Suit, we meet Anne Beddingfield, a young woman who becomes an orphan when her professor father dies. Anne is eager for a life of adventure, so she happily accepts an offer from her father’s solicitor to come and live with him and his family in London. Anne soon gets more than she bargained for when one day, she witnesses a terrible tube station accident. A man falls to his death on the tracks after staggering back in horror at something he’s seen. Anne finds a cryptic note dropped from the man’s pocket, and, quite accidentally, finds out that it refers to a ship that’s sailing for Cape Town. Impulsively, she books passage on the ship and is soon swept up in an adventure involving the dead man, a beautiful and mysterious dancer who’s been murdered in a vacant house, and a fortune in missing diamonds. All of these are, in turn, connected to a mysterious man known only as “The Colonel.” When The Colonel finds out that Anne has been learning more than she should about his activities, he hires some thugs to trap Anne, who escapes them. Then, one of the thugs is hired to kill Anne, and nearly succeeds. In the end, Anne finds out who The Colonel is, and how he is connected with the diamonds and the murders.

In two of Robin Cook’s novels, we meet Kurt Hermann. Hermann is the head of security for the Wingate Clinic, which is run by Drs. Spencer Wingate and Paul Saunders. In Shock, Harvard graduate students Deborah Cochrane and Joanna Meissner go to the Wingate Clinic when they find out that the clinic is offering forty-five thousand dollars to women who are willing to donate their eggs for infertile couples. The two women go through the procedure and are duly paid. They then take a long holiday in Italy. When they return, they want to find out whether their eggs have been used, but the clinic is less than helpful. So they assume different identities and get jobs there. They soon realize that some very unethical and illegal practices are going on at the clinic. When Hermann finds out about their search for information, he alerts his bosses, who ask him to deal with the matter. Hermann takes them at their word, and Cochrane and Meissner only narrowly escape with their lives. Because of the Wingate’s practices, Wingate and Saunders are forced to leave the U.S., and they move their clinic to the Bahamas.

That’s where the clinic is located when Drs. Daniel Lowell and Stephanie D’Agostino decide to use the clinic for a controversial stem cell procedure in Seizure. U.S. Senator Ashley Butler is a vocal and strong opponent of this kind of procedure and in fact, he’s sponsoring a bill to outlaw it. Then, he is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Fearing this will cost him his bid for the presidency of the U.S., Butler quietly negotiates with Lowell to have the procedure done. When everyone arrives at the Wingate, D’Agostino and Lowell begin to realize that there are still some dangerous and unethical practices going on there. When Kurt Hermann gets wind of their curiosity, he again lets his bosses know. They give him carte blanche to “take care of the problem,” and it isn’t long before Lowell and D’Agostino are in real danger of being killed before they can complete the procedure.

In Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Jim Chee, one of Hillerman’s sleuths, finds himself matching wits with a paid assassin. Eric Vaggan is a white supremacist who’s also a trained killer. He’s hired when the Los Angeles police and the FBI uncover an auto theft ring. One of the people involved in uncovering the criminal activity is Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo. Gorman returns to the Navajo Reservation for safety. Chee gets involved in this case when he’s asked to help the FBI locate Gorman. When he and the FBI agent assigned to the case find out where Gorman’s been hiding, they find they’re too late; Gorman’s been killed. Chee’s then asked to find Margaret Billy Sosi, a Navajo teenager who’s distantly related to Gorman, and who’s disappeared from the school she attended. Chee believes her disappearance is related to Gorman’s murder, and investigates them as related cases. He tracks Sosi to Los Angeles, where Vaggan has also found out about her. In Los Angeles and later, back on the Reservation, Chee faces off against Vaggan as he tries to find out the truth about Gorman’s death and to find and protect Margaret Billy Sosi.

Leif Davidsen’s The Serbian Dane also tells the story of a paid assassin. Sara Santanda is an Iranian author who’s under a fatwa, or death threat. She decides to come out of hiding in London and make a public appearance, and chooses Copenhagen for the purpose. Her plan is to give an interview to Lise Carlsen of the newspaper Politiken. The Danish government assigns Per Toftlund the responsibility for Santanda’s safety while she is in Denmark. Facing off against Toftlund and his team is Vuk, a Bosnian Serb who’s been living in Denmark and even seems culturally Danish. The story is alternatively told from Carlsen’s, Toftlund’s and Vuk’s perspectives. I confess I haven’t read this novel yet; it just seemed too good an example of how paid assassins are integrated into crime fiction not to mention it. You can find excellent reviews of The Serbian Dane by Norman at
Crime Scraps , Karen at Euro Crime and Bernadette at Reactions to Reading. Maxine at Petrona has also posted some interesting information about the novel.

There’s also some interesting crime fiction in which the protagonist is an assassin. That’s the case with Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series. Allon is an art restorer by vocation, but was recruited by a secret Israeli Intelligence organization called The Office to help avenge the murders of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics. After a car bomb nearly ended the lives of his wife and son, Allon left The Office. However, he’s been brought back on several occasions for particularly difficult operations in which his expertise is needed. For example, in Moscow Rules, his target is a wealthy and very dangerous Russian oligarch who’s behind a large arms-trafficking conspiracy.

John Locke’s new series, we meet Donovan Creed. Creed is a former CIA assassin, who now takes on special assignments from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Creed’s got expensive tastes, so he moonlights as a paid assassin. For example, in Saving Rachel, Creed is hired by Sam Case, a wealthy and shady computer expert who’s developed a program that can hide money for people who don’t want questions asked about how much money they have. One day, gangsters kidnap Case and force him to choose between his wife, Rachel, and his girlfriend, Karen – and that’s just the beginning. As Case’s life comes apart more and more quickly, he decides that the only solution is to hire Donovan Creed to get rid of his enemies. All is not as it seems, though, and before Case knows it, he’s no longer sure of anything, and he’s in more danger than he could have imagined.

Crime fiction plots that involve hit-men and paid assassins can be suspenseful, and for those who enjoy thrillers, they’re often quite exciting. One risk in these novels, though, is that the characters of the assassins can become cliché. So can the plots. For such novels to be really engrossing, the assassin needs to be a really interesting character, and the plot needs to make sense. What do you think? Does crime fiction that includes paid assassins seem too cliché and overdone to you? If not, which are your favorite reads?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from AC/DC’s
Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.


  1. Ooooo, thanks for putting me on to The Man In The Brown Suit! I love Christie's early adventures, and I am getting ready to write a pastiche of serials from the period next year.

  2. Daring Novelist - Oh, my pleasure : ). It's a very interesting novel. Admittedly, it's not her best, but never mind; it's still a good story. I think you'll like it.

  3. The books featuring paid assassins makes the reader questions a number of things. Will the assassin goes through with it, who's paying them and will they just take the money and run. Always a thought provoking post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  4. Mason - Thanks : ). You're right; when there's a paid assassin, this can raise lots of interesting questions. One thing I thought of was, just how loyal is the assassin? Could that assassin then target the person who hired her or him? Those are absorbing questions...

  5. My over active imagination tends to make me look warily at strangers for a few days after reading a hired assassin book such as The Serbian Dane that I just finished (thanks for the mention by the way).

    You're right though that the type of character can become very clichéd - I seem to have read a LOT of (mostly bad) clones of Forsyth's Jackal character. I think that's why I enjoyed the character in The Serbian Dane as he seemed quite realistic in the way he had arrived at his 'profession'. In some ways he his similar to Gabriel Allon in that he is not just in it for the money and his circumstances do make you stop and think about what you would have done had your life been of a similarly tragic nature. I will happily read a book with that kind of theme but the ones where it is all just about money and killing people in ever-ickyer ways are not really my kind of thing.

  6. I meant to add Margot a few weeks ago I got a free ticket to see AC/DC on their farewell (?) tour of their home country - it was louder than I remember it all being 25 years ago but jolly good all the same and they certainly belted out the song from which your post takes its title.

  7. Bernadette - It's interesting that you would mention the Jackal character. Sometimes it seems that when a character like that makes a hit (and may even be well-drawn), lots of other people rush to copy the character. As you say, when hit-man characters are just doing it for the money, and there's nothing interesting about them, they do become "flat" and wooden. Not my thing, either.

    I find characters like Allon more compelling (and I'm sure I will find Vuk from The Serbian Dane more compelling, too). You learn what makes them "tick," and you can imagine yourself in the same circumstances. Characters like that are more 3-dimensional and even though they're killers, they're people we can, dare I say, care about.

    And it's my pleasure to mention your excellent blog.

  8. Bernadette - Just saw your p.s. - Wish I could have been at that concert. My husband saw them many years ago when they were the opening band for some other band. Very loud, but fun!

  9. I've enjoyed the Gabriel Allon novels - in my house they are known as "Kills with Impunity Boy Books". Usually I'm not a fan of this type of fiction, as I prefer to discover why normal people would be driven to commit such an act rather than this is what someone does for a living. That said, however, experiencing Gabriel's balancing act of logic over why he does or doesn't feel guilt about his killings makes for interesting reading.

  10. Elspeth - Oh, I had to laugh at your description of Gabriel Allon! That title is just perfect for him! I agree with you, actually, that it's interesting to follow his logic about killing, and his way of justifying what he does. I think that's fascinating. On the other hand, I can't really see myself in that business.... And very few authors do a good job of depicting an assassin who's got appeal.

  11. I think every type of murder has been overdone and the hired killer is no exception. However, if done right, it can be wonderful. I believe in the States, if you hire a killer, both you and the killer are up for Murder One, that makes it more exciting.


  12. Clarissa - LOL! I have to agree with you; any type of murder can be cliche, because the key is doing the story and characters well, and that doesn't always happen. You've got a good point, too, that it can add to the excitement if both the hired "gun" and the "employer" are liable for Murder One charges if caught. It gives them more incentive not to get caught, and it gives the sleuth more incentive to catch them.

  13. Do you happen to read The New Yorker? I just this morning began an article on this very situation written by Janet Malcolm!

  14. Nan - thanks so much for that tip. I've read the New Yorker, but not lately. I'll search for that article : ).

  15. It's the May 3 issue. Article called Iphigenia in Forest Hills. I'm just on the second page. It is very long!

  16. Nan - Thanks for the lead. I saw some references to it after your comment, and I'll definitely read it.