When a murder is investigated, the police or other detectives interview witnesses. One of the problems they face, both in real life and in crime fiction, is that murder can happen so quickly that witnesses sometimes don’t see things accurately. In what seems like the blink of an eye, everything changes and someone’s dead. It’s almost ironic how people’s lives are changed forever by something that happens within seconds. Murderers sometimes use this, too; not only does it give them the advantage that the victim’s unprepared, but also, it’s a good “cover” if the murderer can’t hide the body or kill the victim in some private place.
Agatha Christie makes the point about how quickly murder can happen in a few of her novels. For instance, in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of Madame Giselle, a well-known French moneylender who’s poisoned while en route from Paris to London on an airplane. At first, it looks as though Madame Giselle died of heart failure due to a wasp sting. Soon enough, though, it’s established that she was actually murdered by a poisoned thorn. The only possible suspects are Madame Giselle’s fellow passengers (including Poirot himself!), but no-one saw anyone firing a dart at the victim. Poirot discovers that several of the passengers on the plane might have had a reason for killing Madame Giselle; she used private information about her clients as “loan security,” and wasn’t afraid to make that private information public if her client didn’t pay her back. In the end, Poirot finds that the murderer committed the crime so quickly and unobtrusively that, even with a cabin full of witnesses, no-one saw what happened. The speed with which the murder was committed is part of what protects the murderer – at first.
The murderer also takes advantage of how quickly a crime can be committed in Christie’s Appointment With Death. That’s the story of the very dysfunctional Boynton family. Mrs. Boynton is a tyrant who’s kept her family cowed for years. Then the family takes a tour through the Middle East. On the tour, the members of the family are confronted by their isolation and entrapment, and, each in a different way, they resolve to free themselves. The family’s journey takes everyone to the ancient city of Petra. On the first afternoon after they arrive, Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies. At first, her death is put down to heart trouble. But Colonel Carbury, who’s in charge of the investigation, isn’t satisfied. So he asks Hercule Poirot, who’s also traveling in the Middle East, to investigate. Poirot agrees, and it’s not long before he finds that several people on the tour of Petra had a motive to kill Mrs. Boynton. As it turns out, Mrs. Boynton was killed so quickly that even though there’s an eyewitness, no-one knows at first who killed her. Again the fact that the murder happened quickly is part of what “hides” the murderer.
Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill also has an example of a killing that happens “in the blink of an eye.” That’s the story of William Decker, a con-man who’s trying to “go straight.” One day, he walks into a bar where Spillane’s sleuth, Mike Hammer, is having a drink. Oddly enough, he brings his toddler son into the bar with him. After two quick drinks, Decker leaves the bar and, before Hammer even really knows what’s happened, Decker’s been shot by a drive-by killer. Hammer runs out of the bar, but he only has time enough to get a shot off at one of the people in the car before the car runs Decker down and then speeds away. It turns out that Decker’s financial desperation forced him to get mixed up with an unsavory gang and agree to do a break-in job. At first, it’s thought that he was murdered because he bungled the job. In the end, though, Hammer finds out that Decker was killed for quite a different reason.
In Marian Babson’s Untimely Guest, we meet Eleanor and Kevin, who are members of a large, dysfunctional Irish Catholic family. The matriarch of the family, known only as Mam, is an oppressive tyrant who lives in the family home and is taken care of by her daughter, Veronica. Her two sons, Patrick and Kevin, have married “outside of the faith,” but otherwise are often under Mam’s thumb, so to speak. Mam’s two other daughters, Bridget “Bridie” and DeeDee, are not. DeeDee has scandalized Mam by divorcing her husband, Terence, and getting engaged to another man, James. Bridie has left the convent Mam had wanted her to join, and has returned to the family village after a ten-year absence. When DeeDee and James also return to the family home, all the ingredients are there for a serious family dispute, and it soon happens. One night, after a particularly heated argument, James and Terence both go upstairs in the family home. Soon, everyone hears a loud thump and rushes upstairs. So almost all of the family members are there when DeeDee falls down the stairs to her death. At first, everyone thinks the death was a horrible accident. But James insists that DeeDee was murdered. The trouble is, her fall down the stairs happened so quickly that no-one really saw what happened. Slowly, though, Eleanor and Carmel, especially, begin to suspect that perhaps James is right. At the end of the book, and after a climactic scene, the murderer confesses and we really know for sure who pushed DeeDee down the stairs.
Michael Ridpath’s The Predator also focuses on a murder that happens in what seems like the blink of an eye. Chris Szczypiorski and Lenka Nemeckova become friends when they meet at a training program for Wall Street’s Bloomfield Weiss. They form a bond with some of the other trainees, and the group becomes very close-knit. One night, after a drunken celebration on a boat ends in tragedy, the group covers the incident up. Everyone moves on, and Chris and Lenka form a fund management company. Ten years later, Lenka is visiting Chris while she’s on a business trip to Prague. In fact, they’re together when Lenka is brutally attacked and killed. Chris is there, but the attack happens so fast that he’s helpless to protect his friend. Chris resolves to find out who killed Lenka, but in doing that, he’s putting himself in danger, because as he finds out, the attack on Lenka is related to the tragic boat trip of ten years earlier.
Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello investigate the murder of an illegal Senegalese immigrant in Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone. The dead man is one of thousands of illegal immigrants, the vu comprá, who sell their wares on the streets. One day, the victim is at his accustomed place when, before anyone really sees anything, he’s shot. There’s a crowd of people around, but the murder has happened so fast that no-one really noticed very much. So at first, Brunetti and Vianello don’t have much information to help them find the murderer. Eventually, though, they’re able to trace the dead man to the room he lived in, and they find a cache of stolen diamonds there. That’s when the two men realize that this murder was not a random shooting. One of the interesting things in this novel is Brunetti’s initial conversations with people who were in the area at the time of the shooting. It’s a fascinating glimpse at the way witnesses can simply not see what happened because everything can happen so quickly.
Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit also shows us how quickly murder can change everyone’s life. Mason and Gates Hunt are the sons of an abusive alcoholic. Beyond that, they have nearly nothing in common. Mason makes the most of his opportunities and becomes a lawyer. Gates, on the other hand, trades on his looks and high school athleticism. He lives on his girlfriend’s Welfare money and on money his mother gives him. One day, Gates Hunt has an argument with Wayne Thompson, his rival for his girlfriend. Thompson leaves, but later, the Hunt brothers encounter Thompson again. Gates and Thompson get into an angry argument and, too quickly for Mason to stop him, Gates pulls out a gun and shoots Thompson. Out of a sense of family duty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime and life goes on for the Hunt brothers. Then, years later, Gates Hunt is convicted of cocaine trafficking. He pleads with his brother, now a successful commonwealth attorney, to get him out of jail, but Mason refuses. That’s when Gates Hunt blackmails his brother, claiming that he’ll accuse Mason of the shooting of Wayne Thompson if Mason doesn’t help him. Mason still refuses and the family is torn apart when Mason is indicted for murder on Gates’ testimony. Now, Mason will have to work to clear his name and keep Gates from doing any further harm to the family.
It’s easy to forget how quickly someone can take a life, and how easy it is for witnesses to be mistaken because of that. But crime fiction is full of examples of how fast a murder can happen; which novels have you enjoyed?