Wednesday, July 7, 2010

'Till Death Do You Part...

Marriage is a unique bond. It brings together people from sometimes very different backgrounds into one of the most intimate relationships that there is. People marry for all sorts of different reasons, and each marriage is unique. Marriages are also often very private relationships, so that it can be very difficult to know exactly what goes on in any given marriage. Because marriage can be so complicated and is usually private, it’s not surprising that, whenever a husband or wife is murdered, the spouse is the first suspect. Spouses potentially have the most to gain from the murder, and they often have reasons for committing the crime that no-one else would guess. So when they’re investigating a murder, the police often start by ruling out the spouse. That’s just as true in crime fiction as it is in real life.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Caroline Crale is arrested, tried and convicted for the murder of her husband, famous painter Amyas Crale. Almost everyone assumes that she’s guilty, and she certainly had motive. For one thing, Amyas Crale was notoriously unfaithful, and Caroline was known as “the jealous type.” The two of them were often heard arguing loudly, and Caroline Crale was said to have threatened her husband. Also, traces of the poison that killed him were found in a perfume bottle in Caroline Crale’s room. There’s other evidence, too. A year after her trial, Caroline Crale died in prison, but she left a letter for her daughter, Carla, protesting her innocence. Sixteen years after the trial, Carla Lemarchant goes to Hercule Poirot and asks him to clear her mother’s name. Carla’s about to get married herself and wants nothing from the past to get in the way of her future happiness. Poirot agrees and begins to investigate. What he finds is that the Crale’s marriage was not what people thought it was, and that more than one person besides Caroline Crale had a reason to kill her husband.

A spouse is also the prime suspect – at least at first – in Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. Captain Kenneth Marshall is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay, off the Devon Coast. With him is his wife, beautiful and notorious actress Arlena, and his daughter Linda. One day, Arlena is found strangled at a cove not far from the hotel. Her husband is the obvious suspect. For one thing, Arlena was well-known to be having an affair with another hotel guest, Patrick Redfern. For another, Kenneth Marshall has the reputation of having a temper. Finally, his supposedly ironclad alibi isn’t as strong as he wanted everyone to believe. Marshall insists on his innocence, and Hercule Poirot, who’s staying at the hotel, works with the local police to investigate the crime. What he finds is that this crime is more complicated than simple jealousy, and that Kenneth Marshall was not the only person at the hotel with a motive for murder.

There are also Agatha Christie novels where, in fact, the spouse is the culprit. I’m not giving spoilers, though : ).

Ruth Rendell’s To Fear a Painted Devil also focuses on a murder where the spouse is the prime suspect. In that novel, Patrick and Tamsin Selby host an outdoor party to celebrate Tamsin’s twenty-seventh birthday. Several of the Selbys’ friends and acquaintances in their tiny community of Linchester are invited, and all’s going well until several people notice wasps. When Patrick tries to get rid of the wasps’ nest, he’s stung and becomes ill. A few days later, he dies. At first, everyone thinks that Selby died from a reaction to the stinging, but Dr. Max Greenleaf, who attended Selby, isn’t so sure. So, in his own, very reluctant way, he begins to ask questions. As Greenleaf himself says, he’s not the police, but he does begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together. When it’s clear that Selby was murdered, the first suspect is his wife. The Selby marriage was not a happy one, and neither Patrick nor Tamsin was fulfilled. Tamsin had the opportunity to murder her husband, and may have had her own reasons to kill him. The more Greenleaf looks into the matter, though, the more he becomes aware that there are actually several suspects in this murder, and that Tamsin may not have committed the crime.

There’s also more than one suspect involved in the murder of Kate Sumner in Minette Walters’ The Breaker. When Kate’s body washes up on the Dorset shore, she’s not identified at first. Then, her three-year-old daughter Hannah is found wandering the streets of the nearby town. Once Kate and Hannah are identified, Constable Nick Ingram and local stable owner Maggie Jenner work together to find out the truth about Kate’s death. Evidence shows that she was drugged, raped and choked before she drowned, so this seems to be a very personal murder, rather than an accidental drowning. There seem to be only three suspects in the killing: Kate’s husband, William; actor Steven Harding; and local teacher Tony Bridges. William is the prime suspect in the murder, especially after it’s established that Kate may not have been the loving wife and mother she seems to have been on the surface. As Ingram and Jenner sift through the clues and what witnesses say, they find that Kate and William’s marriage was much more complicated than it seems, and that he was far from the only person who might have wanted to kill Kate.

Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden also focuses on someone accused of murdering a spouse. Landscaper Warren Howe is brutally murdered with his own scythe while he’s out on a job one day. The most likely suspect is Howe’s wife, Tina. She has strong motive, too, as Warren Howe is abusive, unpleasant and unfaithful. Tina has an alibi, though, so the police can’t pursue the case. Ten years later, anonymous notes (including notes to the police) claim that Tina Howe really is the murderer. So DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team re-open the case and begin to look once again at the evidence. At the same time, Oxford historian Daniel Kind has taken a cottage nearby, and is trying to figure out the meaning of the strange shape of the cottage’s garden. It turns out that the garden was designed by the same landscaping firm that employed Howe, so it’s not long before we see that there’s a connection between Howe’s death and Kind’s garden. The more that Scarlett and her team (with Kind’s help) look into the case, the clearer it is that there’s more to Howe’s death than it seems on the surface.

One of the quirkier takes on this topic comes from Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip. That’s the story of marine scientist Chaz Perrone. He’s come up with a way to “doctor” water samples so that they look “innocent.” Chaz’ discovery allows agribusiness tycoon Red Hammernut to continue dumping toxic waste into Florida’s Everglades, and promises to make Chaz a tidy profit as well. When Chaz’ wife Joey discovers what her husband is up to, he decides not to risk her telling what she’s found out. Instead, he tells her he’s booked a cruise for them as an anniversary present. While they’re out on the water, Chaz throws Joey overboard. Unbeknownst to Chaz, though, Joey doesn’t die. She’s rescued by Mick Stranahan, a former investigator for the Florida State’s Attorney. Joey and Mick plot together to make Chaz’ life miserable and convince him that someone witnessed him throwing his wife overboard. As Chaz becomes more and more uneasy, his behavior gets more and more odd. He’s soon in danger not just from the police investigator who’s looking into the case, but also from Hammernut, who is not interested in putting his business at risk.

Marriage is one of the most intimate relationships that there is, so it’s no surprise that spouses are so often at risk from each other. Which novels have you enjoyed where spouses are the prime suspects?


  1. I can't think of any at the moment. But I just read Patricia Stoltey's "The Prairie Grass Murders" and am giving away two signed copies, if you'd like to check this out on my blog. I see from your blogroll that you follow Patricia.

  2. Ann - Thanks : ). I actually just left a comment on your blog. Thanks so much for hosting this giveaway!

  3. Spouses as the prime suspects in murders are always intriguing. It's especially interesting when the author leads you to believe the spouse is wrongly blamed for the murder when in the end, they did it.

    Thoughts in Progress

  4. Mason - Oh, I agree! It really is a neat plot twist when the reader is led to think the spouse is innocent when....s/he's not! I can think of a few novels I've read that do that, and the author has "gotten" me every time...

  5. I love those kinds of books--the did they/didn't they question! In real life, sadly, I think the answer is that the spouse FREQUENTLY is the perp, but I love novels that have us wondering. :)

  6. Elizabeth - I think you're probably right that in real life, spouses are often the guilty parties. That's probably part of the reason they're always suspected first. Still, when a book raises the question - was it the husband/wife? - that can make for a terrific story.

  7. I love the stories where at first, you suspect the spouse (because you just have to), then are led away from your suspicions and then slap your forehead when you get to the conclusion. There is the argument that living with anyone for a number of years will make someone contemplate evil things...

    There's a sunny thought. I'm going to go put away the knives right now.

  8. Elspeth - LOL! I loved your last comment! I often reassure my husband of 26 years that I'm only dangerous when I write ; ).

    You make a well-taken point, too, that people who've been together for a long time are bound to rub each other the wrong way. There could be any number of grudges, both large and small, that spouses could have against each other that no-one would know about. So it does make sense that the spouse is suspected. It is interesting, though, when the spouse seems completely guilty....but isn't.

  9. In real life, according to my son the prosecutor, it is almost always the spouse or someone they hired.

  10. Patti - Thanks for that dose of reality. Sadly, that's what I pretty much guessed, and it makes sense. After all, who knows one's weaknesses better than a spouse? And who has (possibly) more to gain by the death?

  11. Excellent post, Margot. I really admire the way you write so many original, fresh and fascinating posts.
    Spouses are great suspects, I agree. In many crime fiction books, the embittered detective has long been divorced by an exasperated spouse, particularly in Scandinavian. I am wondering whether Erlendur's ex-wife will do him in one day (when the author has tired of his character)?!
    Movies have a good track record of spousal issues- did you ever see The Wars of the Roses?! (Michael Douglas and Katharine Turner).

  12. Maxine - Why, thank you : ). That's awfully nice of you. And what a delicious idea! Sleuths' ex-wives going after them.... I like that! I'll bet you that IndriĆ°ason could come up with a terrific plot. And then there's Mona Wallander. And lots more. Yes, I think you have something there. I feel a post about sleuths' ex-spouses coming on......

    I did see The War of the Roses. What an unflinching look at a couple bent on destroying their relationship and, ultimately, each other. And of course, Prizzi's Honor with Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner. Interesting story there, too, about a couple who end up going after each other. You're right; the movies really do address this topic...

  13. OH, I cant think of any! I like the examples you cited though. I think usually the spouse are the first suspect and like ones where you often think they didn't do it and in the end, they did.


  14. Clarissa - Thank you : ). It's sad, isn't it, that so often, the spouse is the guilty party, whether it's in real life or crime fiction. Makes me all the more grateful to be happily married : ).