Thursday, May 20, 2010

Nobody's Perfect, Mister, Nobody's Clean*

Is there such a thing as an innocent murder victim? Well, in a sense, nearly every murder victim is innocent. Unless the victim is killed in self-defense, then the murderer is the criminal and the victim is innocent. If you look more closely, though, it’s not so simple as that. There are certainly some innocent victims of real-life and fictional murders. In crime fiction, when those stories are done well, the victims’ very innocence can make readers sympathize and connect with the victim, and engage in the story all the more for it. On the other hand, some murder victims aren’t that innocent, even if they’re not despicable ogres. Readers can also get drawn into those stories when they’re done well. Victims who aren’t so innocent are more complex, and that can be very interesting. It’s often quite realistic, too.

Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links gives an interesting example of a murder victim who’s not entirely innocent. In that novel, Paul Renauld, a Canadian émigré to France, writes a letter to Hercule Poirot, begging him to come to Merlinville because Renauld feels his life is in danger. Poirot and Hastings go to France, but by the time they get to the Renauld home, it’s too late. Paul Renauld’s been stabbed to death. Renauld’s wife tells the police and Poirot a story of masked men who broke into the house and then killed her husband, but it’s not very long before that story is called into question. As Poirot looks into the case further, he discovers that there’s more to Paul Renauld’s history than it seems on the surface. While Renauld is certainly no monster, he’s not exactly innocent, either. That complexity adds to the interest in this story.

We also see an interesting no-so-innocent victim in The ABC Murders. Hercule Poirot is drawn into the investigation of several deaths which only seem connected by a set of cryptic notes that Poirot receives before each death. Also an ABC railway guide is found near each body. The police look into the background of each victim to find out whether there’s anything that might connect the deaths, and we find out more about each victim as the investigation goes on. The second victim is Betty Barnard, a young waitress who works at a local café, and whose strangled body is found on a beach early one morning. When Hastings and Poirot ask Betty’s sister, Megan, about Betty’s past, Megan says that Betty was, “…an unmitigated little ass.” It turns out that, while not promiscuous, Betty Barnard was a flirt who very much enjoyed flattery, attention, and being taken out on dates, even by married men. That doesn’t really turn out to be the reason that Betty was killed, but she’s a clear example of a murder victim who’s not exactly innocent.

And then there’s Victor Dean, a copywriter for Pym’s Publicity, Ltd. He’s the murder victim in Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise. Dean’s killed by a fall down a spiral staircase, and at first, his death is called an accident. However, he left behind a half-finished letter in which he hinted that someone at the company had been involved in illegal dealings, so the company managers become very concerned for the company’s reputation. Lord Peter Wimsey is called in to investigate, and he goes undercover as a new copywriter to find out the truth about Dean’s death and his allegations. It turns out that Dean wasn’t quite as innocent as it seems. He’d found out that someone at the company was mixed up with a dangerous drugs gang and was using company advertisements to set up meetings between the gang and local drug dealers. When Dean discovered who this employee was, he turned to blackmail. In the end, that’s more or less the reason he was killed.

Margaret Truman’s Murder at the Kennedy Center also tells the story of a not-so-innocent victim. Andrea Feldman is a member of the staff of Senator Ken Ewald, who’s making a bid for the presidency of the United States. One night, after a glittering fund-raising event at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center, Andrea Feldman is shot. Georgetown University law professor Mackensie “Mac” Smith is walking his dog late that night, finds the body, and reports it to the police. Smith is soon drawn into the case even more deeply when Senator Ewald calls him, asking him to defend his son, Paul Ewald, who’s been accused of the shooting. Paul Ewald is a likely suspect, too, since he was having an affair with Andrea, and she might have threatened to reveal their relationship. Ewald and his staff are worried that if news of the affair and the accusations get out, his campaign for the presidency will be over. So he asks Smith to clear his son’s name as quietly as possible. Smith’s reluctant, but agrees. The deeper he digs into Andrea Feldman’s background, the less innocent she turns out to be. For one thing, she wasn’t just having an affair with Paul Ewald. For another, she was involved in some rather underhanded political dealings for financial gain. While she wasn’t a monster, Andrea Feldman was not innocent, and that, in fact, was part of the reason she was killed.

That’s also the case in Colin Dexter’s Death Is Now My Neighbor. In that novel, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the shooting death of Geoffrey Owens. Owens is a journalist who has a talent for digging up unpleasant truths about people’s pasts. When he’s murdered, Morse and Lewis connect his death to the retirement of Sir Clixby Bream, Master of Lonsdale College, Oxford. When Bream decides to retire, the two most likely candidates for his replacement are Julian Storrs and Denis Cornford. Each of them is married to a woman who very much wants to be the Lady of Lonsford College, and all four have secrets. When Owens is shot, it seems clear that he found out more than he should have known. What’s interesting about this particular murder is that, while Owens is no evil blackmailer, he is also far from innocent.

In Dicey Deere’s The Irish Village Murder, we learn of the death of John Gwathney, a successful author and historian. One evening, Gwathney is shot at his home, Gwathney Hall, in the Irish village of Ballynagh. The most likely suspect is his housekeeper, Megan O’Faolain. For one thing, Gwathney left most of his estate to Megan. There’s also the fact that it turns out Megan and John Gwathney had also been lovers. More recently, she’s been linked romantically with a local potter, Liam Caffey. So there’s also every chance that she shot Gwathney to be free of him, and take up with Caffey without losing the fortune she was due to inherit. One of the few people who don’t think Megan O’Faolain is guilty is her friend, translator Torrey Tunet. Tunet is an American who’s taken a cottage in Ballynagh as a convenient “jumping-off point” for her work in Europe. Tunet decides to investigate the case, since she believes that Megan is innocent. In the process of finding out who really killed Gwathney, Tunet discovers he wasn’t exactly an innocent victim. Gwathney had been abusing his housekeeper, and had also become addicted to drugs. While Gwathney’s personal failings aren’t the reason he’s killed, they do serve to show that victims are not always innocent.

There are several haunting novels where the very suspense comes because the victim was innocent. But it can be just as engaging and absorbing if the victim isn’t entirely innocent. What makes novels like this even more interesting is when the victim is also not entirely a monster. What’s your view? Which are your favorite novels where the victim turns out to be far from innocent?

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel's The Great Wall of China.


  1. That's why I think serial killer novels are so wonderful. Because often the victims are random and innocent. We relate to the victim in that it could be us and we always view ourselves (for the most part) as innocent. Great thought-provoking blog.


  2. Clarissa - Thank you : ). You make an interesting point. When there's a serial killer on the loose, and the story is well-done and original, we do feel a sense of identification with the victims. They could be us, so we can see ourselves "in their shoes." That can be an effective way to get the reader to engage with a novel.

  3. It's an interesting question, isn't it? Nobody deserves being murdered (;-) ) but some victims are less easy to feel sorry for than others. I agree with Clarissa that "random" victims are a staple of serial killer novels which is probably one reason I don't read them. One aspect of this is vigilantism, perhaps more common in movies, when someone is so awful that we really don't mind if they are killed, or actually even want them to suffer. This is very uncomfortable. (eg "that" scene in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). When a victim is a nice person, it can be very sad knowing they are going to be killed or have been killed at the start of the book and we gradually find out more about them. (no examples in case of spoilers!)

  4. Maxine - You put that quite well; there are victims we find it hard to feel sorry for, and others we feel very sorry for, even though murder is a violent thing to happen no matter who the victim is. You know, it's funny that when I put this post together, I hadn't been thinking about vigilantism, but you make a well-taken point. When victims are that hateful, we don't mind them being killed. But wanting to see them suffer really is different ("that scene" in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a hard one...). And yes, the nicer the victim, and the better we know them, the sadder it is when we know they're going to die. In one way, that's what makes it a bit easier when the victim wasn't exactly innocent...

  5. I think this is the reason I so love a cozy mystery - almost always the person killed is a 'bad guy' and I don't have to feel badly about it. :<)

  6. Nan - You make a well-taken point. it can be lots more fun to read a mystery when the victim's not a very nice person. Much less guilt about it ; ).

  7. The Swedish crime writer Hakan Nesser created sympathetic murderers, who victims probably deserved their fate, in two of his first four Van Veeteren books.
    At last year's Crime Fest he promised nastier murderers in the later Van Veeterens I just hope they are translated soon.

  8. Norman - Thanks for bringing up Nesser. I confess I'm less familiar with the Van Veeteren books, but from what I've heard, those really are good examples of what I mean. Now, we shall see what Nesser does next : ).