One of the things that all crime fiction seems to have in common is…a crime. Most of the time (although certainly not all the time) the crime is murder. By and large, we’re brought up to believe to believe that it’s wrong to commit a crime. And admiring a crime? That’s usually not considered socially acceptable. The truth is, too, that a lot of real-life crimes are contemptible. There’s nothing much to appreciate, even intellectually. As Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has observed, murder is often crude and sometimes brutal. He even finds a lot of murder boring (although of course, he does not approve of murder, so he’s in favor of catching criminals). There are some crimes, though, that are different. I’m not talking here about criminals whom we like because they’re very sympathetic characters, or because they kill very nasty people. I’m talking here of crimes that are so clever, or criminals who are so daring that it’s hard not to respect the audacity, or the cleverness, or the wit. So in spite of ourselves, we almost want to feel a sneaking admiration for the criminal – or at least for the author at having created an interesting crime.
Arthur Conan Doyle wrote of several clever crimes. For instance, in The Adventure of the Red-Headed League, a gang of criminals sets up a phony group called The Red-Headed League, whose alleged purpose is to promote the interests and welfare of men with red hair. The real purpose of the group is to gain access to the vault of a large bank. The group does this by putting out an advertisement inviting red-headed men to apply for a lucrative and easy job. Pawnbroker Jabez Wilson becomes easy prey for the gang when he readily accepts the job. While he’s gone from his own pawn shop, the gang uses his shop to make a tunnel between his shop and the bank. Wilson isn’t really suspicious until one day he arrives for his job with the Red-Headed League and finds a sign saying that the group has disbanded. That’s when he visits Sherlock Holmes and asks him to investigate. On one hand, we’re not supposed to admire a group of bank robbers, but the plan is brilliant and it almost works.
And then there’s Irene Adler, whom even Sherlock Holmes can’t catch. In A Scandal in Bohemia, the King of Bohemia hires Holmes to track down Irene Adler because she has a compromising photograph of the two of them. The king is about to marry someone else, and wants the photograph back so that there will be no scandal about his relationship with Adler. Holmes agrees and he does find out where his quarry’s been staying. By the time he gets there, though, it’s too late. Irene Adler has escaped, taking with her the famous photograph. She leaves behind another photograph of herself, together with a note for Holmes promising that she will not use the compromising photograph against the king, and that she’s keeping it only as protection in case she ever needs it. It’s hard not to have some respect for someone who can defeat the great Sherlock Holmes.
There’s a solid example of an audacious crime in Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, Hercule Poirot is invited to a dinner party. His host is a very eccentric man, Mr. Shaitana, who has what he calls a very interesting collection. He’s referring to a group of people who’ve committed murder and gotten away with it. One night, he invites these four people to dinner; also invited are four sleuths: Poirot, Colonel Race, Superintendent Battle and detective story author Ariadne Oliver. During dinner, Shaitana drops hints about ways of committing murder. Then, while everyone is playing bridge after dinner, Shaitana is stabbed. There are only four possible suspects: the four successful murderers. So Poirot, Race, Battle and Oliver work together to find out who committed the murder. As Christie herself made note, every one of the suspects had an equally strong motive, and any one of them could have committed the crime. It’s a very daring murder and even though it’s hard to admire the criminal, one can respect the sheer audacity.
In Dorothy Sayers’ Whose Body?, architect Alfred Thipps has the bad fortune to find the body of a man in his bathtub. At first, he’s suspected of having murdered the man, but his employer, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, doesn’t believe he’s guilty. So she asks her son, Lord Peter Wimsey, to investigate. Wimsey agrees and begins to look into the matter. He finds that there’s a connection between the mysterious dead stranger and a missing financier, Sir Reuben Levy. It’s not the obvious connection, since the body doesn’t turn out to be that of Sir Reuben. But what Wimsey finds is that the murderer has been quite clever at disguising the killing and the real motive for it. It’s that cleverness, more than the murderer’s personality, motive, etc. that we can respect.
Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train tells the story of an admittedly ingenious murder plot. Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno meet while both are on a cross-country train journey. Haines is on his way to visit his estranged wife, Miriam, from whom he wants a divorce. Bruno’s on his way for a vacation in Santa Fe. The two fall into conversation and before they know it, they’ve shared their life stories. Haines confesses his dislike of his estranged wife, and Bruno shares his dislike of his father. Soon, Bruno suggests a brilliant murder plan: each man will commit, as it were, the other’s murder. He thinks that if Haines kills his father, and he kills Haines’ wife, each will have a perfect alibi. Haines is put off by the idea, and doesn’t take it seriously, but when he goes on a trip to Mexico, he finds out that Bruno was very serious about the plan, and has murdered Miriam. Now, Bruno puts pressure on Haines to honor his part of the bargain. Eventually, Haines yields to the pressure and kills Bruno’s father. Arthur Gerard, a private detective, suspects Bruno of having arranged his father’s murder, but he can’t prove anything, so at first, it seems that two perfect crimes have been committed. Things don’t work out the way Bruno planned, but this is a classic example of a supposedly foolproof murder plot.
Ian Rankin’s Doors Open is another example of a crime that we may not condone, but we can certainly respect for its brilliance and audacity. Mike Mackenzie is a very wealthy man who’s now a little bored with life, and looking for something to add spice to it. One of his friends is Allan Cruickshank, a banker and fellow art lover. Together with art professor Robert Gissing, Mackenzie and Cruickshank concoct a very daring plot. They dream of robbing the National Gallery of Scotland of some of its finest art. Gissing’s got a very talented art student, whom the group calls “Westie,” who’s a good enough forger to create entirely believable copies of any art, so no-one would even know the museum had been robbed. By chance, Mackenzie runs into an old school friend, Chib Calloway, who’s become a gangster, and Chib’s criminal expertise seems to be all the group needs to put their plan into action. The museum hosts a Doors Open Day, when visitors are allowed into parts of the museum, including the warehouse, where the public isn’t usually invited, and that’s the day chosen for the heist. The heist comes off well enough, but the thieves soon learn that the there’s much more to being a successful criminal than just pulling off a robbery.
In that sense, Doors Open is similar to an earlier novel, Robert Pollock’s Loophole. That’s the story of Mike Daniels, a professional thief, who plots with a few other crack thieves to rob the City Savings Deposit Bank. Along the way, they bring in Stephen Booker, an out-of-work architect and civil engineer who’s desperate for money. The thieves hatch an ingenious and daring plot to tunnel under the bank, and get into the vault through the underground sewer/water system. On the day of the robbery, disaster strikes, and not all of the thieves survive. However, there’s an interesting twist at the end of the story that engenders a kind of respect for the bold crime.
We’re not supposed to give kudos for an ingenious crime, but it’s hard not to, especially for a creative, bold plot. That’s sometimes how criminals have turned into almost folk heroes. What’s your view? Which ingenious plots have you most enjoyed?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel's The Ballad of Billy the Kid.