Wednesday, June 9, 2010

In The Blink Of An Eye..

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?


  1. I always enjoy your post and they never fail to get me to thinking. However, I can never seem to remember a book title no matter what. I have a brain freeze I guess.

    Great point about the murder happening in a blink of an eye. It also interesting to note that in that blink of an eye, each witness will probably recall seeing something different.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Mason - Why thank you : ). You make a well-taken point, too, that we all do remember things differently. So, in that quick flash of an instant when those quick-as-a-wink murders occur, the five witnesses, let's say, see five different crimes.

  3. Hmm... that's a good question. I always find death troublesome because it happens so fast. I watch a lot of Cold Case TV show and the sad thing about it is that you get to see the victim and then see his life. Often it surprises me how fast and senselessly they die.


  4. Clarissa - Oh, Cold Case is my favorite TV show : ). I really like it. You're right, too, about getting to see the person who's the victim, and learning about the victim's life. Then, all of a sudden, the victim is dead. It really is sad.. And yes, it really is amazing how fast death happens at times...

  5. As a witness to a breaking and entering across an alley in New York, I can testify to how fragile our recollections are.

  6. Patti - Oh, yes, you did mention having seen a B & E. Those, too, happen so very quickly that it's probably impossible to remember things really accurately...

  7. I enjoyed reading about Mrs. Boynton since she was mentioned in a book I recently read, Death on Demand by Carolyn Hart.

    "Everyone in the family kowtowed to that horrible, domineering old monster. It was just like Mrs. Boynton in Appointment With Death.

    I haven't read Appointment with Death but hope to do so before long.

  8. Nan - Isn't it really interesting how characters from one novel get mentioned in another? That cross-referencing, to me, is like a wink-and-a-nod to the mystery fan : ). Appointment With Death is arguably not the finest novel Christie ever wrote. However, it's an interesting psychological study, and it inivolves some fascinating characterization.

  9. I enjoy mysteries that have a murderer nervy enough to murder in plain sight. It's a fact no one can see everything at once, nor can one person be watching everyone all the time - after all who does? People get distracted. To murder with witnesses would take nerves of steel. It's also, usually a sign that the murder was premeditated since no one is normally walking around with a silent means of killing hidden in their pocket.

    I also enjoy when characters from one novel talk about another; I have an instance in my manuscript where it's discovered one character's bedtime reading is "Murder on the Orient Express" - which was Christie's latest in 1935. My detective comments that he has read it as well, and finds the character of Poirot rather amusing.

  10. Jose Ignacio - Why, thank you! That's very kind of you, and I appreciate it : ).

  11. Elspeth - I agree; it takes a lot of nerve, solid planning and a powerful motive to kill someone "in the blink of an eye" when there are people right there. As you say, no-one can be looking everywhere at once, but still, it's a serious risk.

    I think it's wonderful that you've got a mention of Murder on the Orient Express in your book. It makes the novel so authentic since, as you say, that novel was new at the time your story takes place. I like the cross-referencing an awful lot : ).

  12. This post reminds of the comedian Ron White's intro to one of his anecdotes: "Now I'm between 6-1 and 6-5, depending on which convenience store's door I'm walking through..." There's a plethora of detective novels that use the perceptual vagaries of witnesses and/or their brief moments of inattention to lead the reader away from the facts. One reason for this is that it occurs regularly in real life. I've seen interviews with police detectives who discuss the fact that two eyewitnesses to the same event will tell different stories. Many of Rex Stout's novels use this ploy, leaving it to Nero Wolfe to tell us what really happened. I've also seen videos of writing classes where an intruder interrupts the session and then leaves the room. The instructor then asks the students to describe the intruder's physical attributes and clothing, which leads to a wide variety of responses. My guess is that you have done this in your own classes.

  13. Bob - It's funny you would mention that exercise (of having someone come into class and then have everyone describe her or him). I actually have done that; how did you know?

    You're right that just one second (or less) of inattention is all that it takes for a crime to be committed and no-one to really have seen what happened. I think that's why the "it all happened so quickly" comment is so often made when witnesses are describing a crime. Victims have the same issue (compounded with the trauma of having been victimized, too, of course). It's a wonder that police investigators get any kind of coherent information from witnesses, I sometimes think...

    And you're right about Nero Wolfe's stories; thanks for bringing them up : ).

  14. I definitely prefer the death to happen quickly and not to be lovingly dwelt upon! I've read books where the person dies without the killer being aware of what he/she did, and others in which the person took ages to die. I think some authors use the death as a jumping off point to address whatever it is they want to write about (these are usually the mercifully quick ones), whereas others like to draw it out more.

  15. Maxine - You put that quite well. I think in a lot of high-quality crime fiction, it's not the actual death that's the focus of the story. Rather, it's the motive, or the killer, or the results of it, or the investigation, or some combination. My personal preference (and this is only my opinion) is for novels that look more at other factors than the actual death scene(s).