Tuesday, June 22, 2010

If I Go There Will Be Trouble...And If I Stay It Will Be Double*

There’s an old saying in crime lore that the murderer always returns to the scene of the crime. You wouldn’t think that would make sense, since you’d think that a murderer would want to get as far away from the murder scene as possible and stay away. But there are some reasons why a murderer might come back, and we see that just as much in crime fiction as in real life.

One reason a murderer might want to come back to the scene of the crime is that there’s evidence at the scene that might incriminate the murderer. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. When Hercule Poirot decides to retire to the English village of King’s Abbott, he looks forward (or thinks he does) to a quiet life of growing vegetable marrows and living in the country. Soon enough, though, he’s called back into service when Roger Ackroyd, a wealthy retired manufacturing tycoon, is stabbed one night in his study. All evidence points to his adopted son, Captain Ralph Paton, who was desperate for money and who, in fact, quarreled with his father about money. Paton’s fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, doesn’t believe that he’s guilty, and asks Poirot to investigate. As Poirot slowly gathers information about the night of the murder, he figures out that an important piece of incriminating evidence was left behind in the study. Once he figures out what that evidence is, Poirot is able to figure out who the murderer is and why the murderer wanted the evidence.

In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle, there’s also an example of the murderer returning to the scene of the crime because of incriminating evidence. Sheila Grey is a well-known and popular fashion designer who’s also got somewhat of a notorious reputation, although she’s always discreet. At the beginning of the story, she’s seeing Ashton McKell, a wealthy businessman who lives in the same apartment building. When McKell’s son, Dane, finds out, he’s determined to punish both his father and Sheila by making her fall in love with him. Sure enough, he and Sheila are soon having an affair. One night, Sheila is shot. Inspector Richard Queen is assigned to the case, and his son, Ellery, gets involved as well. At first, Ashton McKell is suspected of the crime. When he’s cleared, his wife Lutetia and his son Dane are suspected, each in turn. It turns out, though, that Sheila left behind an interesting clue to her murderer. When the murderer finds out what the clue was, there’s no choice but to return to the scene of the crime and tamper with it. It’s not until Ellery Queen discovers the evidence – and that it was tampered with – that he’s able to identify Sheila Grey’s killer.

In Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon, Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane have finally married. They’re planning a honeymoon trip to Tallboys, a Hertfordshire farmhouse that Wimsey has bought for his bride. When they arrive, though, they find that nothing’s ready for them. Soon enough, they find out why. The former owner of Tallboys, William Noakes, has been killed and his body left in the basement. Now, instead of taking a peaceful honeymoon, Lord Peter and Harriet begin to investigate a murder. There is incriminating evidence against the murderer, and the murderer is aware of this. So the murderer arranges to return to the scene of the crime and remove the evidence in a perfectly natural way. As a matter of fact, it’s not until later that Harriet puts the pieces together, so to speak, and figures out how that the murderer had returned, and how the evidence was removed.

Sometimes, the murderer returns to the scene of the crime, so to speak, to see how the investigation is going. The idea here is that if the police come to suspect the murderer, the guilty party will find out and be able to do something about it. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders. In that novel, Hercule Poirot begins to receive a series of cryptic warning notes that crimes are going to be committed. After each note, a body is found, and nearby, an ABC railway guide. The police think they’ve got a serial killer on their hands, and soon, everyone is on the lookout for the killer. It turns out that these murders aren’t the work of a madman at all, but of a very sane killer with a very pragmatic reason for killing. What’s interesting is that the murderer finds a clever way to keep informed about the way suspicions are running. At first, even Poirot isn’t aware of what the murderer is really trying to accomplish. In the end, though, Poirot finds out who the murderer is, and why the crimes were committed.

In Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, the killer also comes back to the scene of the crime to see how suspicions are going. That’s the story of the death of Parke Stockard, a beautiful but malicious and nasty real estate developer. Since her arrival in the small town of Bradley, North Carolina, she’s managed to alienate everyone in town. So there’s no lack of suspects when she’s found dead of a blow to the head in the local church. Myrtle Clover, a retired schoolteacher who’s far from being ready to really retire, discovers the body when she comes to the church for a meeting of a women’s group. Myrtle’s determined to prove to everyone, especially her son, Bradley’s police chief, that she’s not ready to be “put out to pasture,” so she decides to investigate the murder, much to her son’s chagrin. In this story, the murderer finds a perfectly legitimate way to be at the scene of the crime, and follows along with the investigation, thinking all is well – until Myrtle figures out who’s committed the crime.

There are murderers, too, who are simply drawn to the scene of their crimes. It may be for psychological or “obsession” reasons, or something else. But these killers feel a compulsion to return. For instance, in Simon Beckett’s Whispers of the Dead, forensic anthropologist David Hunter is visiting Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Laboratory. While he’s there, a decomposed body is found in a nearby cabin. Hunter joins the team of people who are investigating, and soon gets drawn into what seems to be the work of a serial killer. As more bodies appear, the team begins to work frantically to try to find out who’s committing the murders. Then, the killer strikes close to home, so to speak, and now the team is desperate to solve these crimes. As it turns out, this killer is obsessed. It’s that particular obsession that keeps the killer near the scene of the crimes, and when Hunter finds out what’s driving the killer, he’s able to find out who’s committed these crimes.

Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool also focuses on a murderer who returns to the scene of the crime. DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team are investigating the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. At the same time, the Cumbria Constabulary is investigating two other, recent deaths. George Saffell, a book collector, and Stuart Wagg, a successful lawyer, have each been killed, and in oddly brutal ways. Scarlett begins to believe that those deaths are connected to the murder she’s investigating, and she and her friend, Fern Larter, who’s also with the constabulary, pool their resources. With help from Oxford historian Daniel Kind, Scarlett discovers the link among the deaths, and is able to figure out who the murderer is. When she does find the killer, one of the interesting questions is why the murderer of Bethany Friend has returned to the village where the death occurred. There’s really no logical reason, and it would have been safer for the murderer not to do so. But it turns out that the murderer is obsessed, and it’s that compulsion that has driven the killer back to the scene of the crimes.

Sometimes, of course, murderers can’t leave the scene of the crime because to do so would call attention to them, or because circumstances make it impossible for them to leave. That’s the case in Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly. Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Vianello investigate the murder of Giorgio Tassini, who works at a local glass factory. Tassini belives that the glass factory industry’s custom of carelessly disposing of toxic waste has caused his daughter’s death, so he is trying to call attention to their practices to stop them. When he’s found dead one morning, there are several suspects. Brunetti and Vianello sift through the evidence and “side issues” and find out who killed Tassini. Through all of this, the murderer returns to the scene of the crime, not because of incriminating evidence, curiosity or obsession, but because the killer really has no choice. To flee would cause too many questions.

What do you think? Do murderers in the novels you read return to the scene of the crime?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Clash's Should I Stay or Should I Go?.


  1. I haven't noticed that they do, particularly. I enjoyed how you used classic and contemporary mysteries to bring across the points. I've watched Tim Hutton do a great Archie Goodwin to Nero Wolfe, but never read the books! I shall now. I read Pretty is as Pretty Dies and quite liked it. I've subscribed. Thanks!

  2. I've been told that burglars return when the items stolen have been replaced. Seems hard to believe.

  3. It's often the psychology of the murderer that he wants to know. And I love that it's often their downfall. I think arsonist too are ones that like to return... if only to watch their handiwork.


  4. Livestartled - Thanks so much, and thanks for subscribing. That's very kind of you : ). I agree that Pretty... is a terrific book. I'm glad you enjoyed it, too. I don't honestly know how often murderers return to the scene of the crime, but it's an interesting possibility....

    Patti - It does seem hard to believe. Except that, when my husband and I were brand-newlyweds (read: broke), we were broken into twice within four months. Same people? Maybe. After the second incident, we moved...

    Clarissa - I hadn't thought about arsonists, but you've a very good point. Some of them do like to admire what they've done. And yes, I think the very psychology that drives murderers to want to know what's going on can also get them caught. It's a very interesting twist, and can add to a murder plot, too.

  5. I think murderers are drawn back to the scene of the crime sometimes in their only way to laugh at the police. It's like they are saying, "I'm here but you don't even know it." Sometimes they go back to make sure they have cleared everything up too. Great post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. Mason - Thank you : ). I think you've hit on two very important reasons that murderers come back to the scene of the crime. Murderers often think they've got the best of the police, so it makes sense that they'd want to get their "digs" in. And it makes sense, too, that they'd want to check to be sure everything is "clean." I think that's also a reason that some murderers kill again - to "tie up a loose end."

  7. Thanks for the mention, Margot! I do think the murderers have several different reasons to return to a crime scene. I also enjoy it when they attend funerals (another good place for them to check in with the investigation and listen for any gossip). And you're right...they frequently go to crime scenes to tie up loose ends--and they might kill again for that reason, too.

  8. Elizabeth - Oh, there's no doubt that funerals are good places for murderers to find out what people are saying, what the police think about the crime, etc. So it's no surprise that they go there. I think police investigators go to funerals for the same reason, sometimes - to hear what people are saying.

    ...and it's my pleasure to mention your terrific books: ).

  9. Only stupid people return to the scene of the crime. Unless you have a wormhole to get in and out undetected.

    Stephen Tremp

  10. Stephen - I think most people would agree that it makes no sense to go back to the scene of the crime. Unless, that is, you know you left something incriminating there. Or you don't know if you left something there, but you think you might have. Or you hated the murder victim and are proud of your work. Or you are desperate to find out if you're suspected... A lot of those reasons may seem illogical, so I think you're right; it does seem foolhardy at best to return to the scene of the crime. It happens, though, because to the murderer, the reasons can seem overwhelming.

  11. I think there are many reasons to 'return to the scene' - some by choice, some not. If the murderer is a member of the victim's close circle, then they're going to be around - to suddenly disappear would be like waving a big flag. If they're not a member, then they might concoct a reason to be near, simply to feed their sense of accomplishment. Or, like in many classic mysteries - if they're on a ship, or in a snowbound house they stay because they have to.

    As to Patti's comment about burglars coming back (and your own awful experience) I can tell you what I learned when I was involved (briefly) in the insurance industry - it's because the thieves wait until things have been replaced and then come back and take them again. It happens more times than you would believe.

  12. A real life case of the murderer returning to the scene was the Jack Unterweger case. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Unterweger

    He returned to the scene became the key journalist covering his murders and interviewed the police chief!

  13. Elspeth - I agree completely; there are lots of good reasons that a murderer might come back to the scene of a crime. And if the author does her or his work deftly, those reasons can add to the tension in a story, especially if the murder feels forced to stay near the scene (or return to it).

    And thanks for the insights about burglars. I hadn't known that, although I suppose it makes sense. Well, we decided not to wait and see if they'd come back yet again...

    Norman - Thanks for that interesting link! What a fascinating story! Truth really can be stranger than fiction. What I find especially interesting is the technicality under which he was still considered innocent at the time of his death...

  14. Yes, that's a great link of Norman's! I have not read any books recently in which the murderer returns to the scene of the crime (I think) - but I do think that "unfairly accused" people sometimes do that to try to prove themselves innocent... not always successfully.
    You would thing murderers would have learned by now, wouldn't you?! A bit like going into a dangerous situation with no back up, etc.....

  15. Maxine - I hadn't thought of unfairly accused people returning to the scene of the crime, but that makes absolute sense! It's got to be traumatizing to be under suspicion of murder, so it makes sense to want to do just about anything to allay suspicion.

    I had to laugh when I read your comment about murderers learning not to go back to the scene of the crime. It is like going in without backup. And yet, they do it...