Thursday, July 22, 2010

Uncovering Some Crime Fiction Truths...

There are a lot of beliefs about how, why and by whom a crime is committed. Some of those beliefs have been around for so long that they’re simply accepted. The thing is, though, that some of those beliefs are simply not true. Smart sleuths know which of those beliefs have some support, and which are simply myths, and they often use that knowledge when they’re developing their theories about who committed a crime. Still, those beliefs – myths, if you prefer – persist, and sometimes serve to “hide” a murderer, both in real life and in crime fiction. So let’s take a look at just a few of them.

The most risk comes from strangers.

This belief, that murders are often committed by strangers, is controversial. That’s because there are cases where people murder complete strangers, and those sad cases get a lot of media coverage. And of course, it’s always wise to teach children to be on their guard with people they don’t know. But the reality is that the vast majority of murders are committed by someone the victim knows. Possibly the reason this belief about strangers persists is that it’s hard to accept that someone we know – possibly even love – can be a murderer. But the truth is, there is almost always a connection between the victim and the murderer, and finding that connection is usually the way that the detective finds out who committed a murder. We see that in real life and in crime fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot pays a visit to Nasse House, a country home owned by Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. He’s been invited to a fête, ostensibly to give away the prizes for a Murder Hunt (a kind of scavenger hunt) organized by detective story author Ariadne Oliver. In reality, Oliver thinks something more than just a fête may be going on, and has asked Poirot to investigate. Sure enough, on the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who was playing the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt, is strangled. There seems to be no reason she should have been killed; she wasn’t wealthy and hadn’t made any obvious enemies. So everyone thinks that a psychopathic killer must have gotten onto the grounds of Nasse House and killed her. Poirot suspects otherwise, though, and so does Inspector Bland, who’s investigating the case. As it turns out, they’re right; like most murder victims, Marlene was killed by someone she knew.

Money talks.

Do the wealthy and powerful really live in a different, safer world? In some ways, they do. Those with money can afford, for instance, the best, most expensive lawyers if they get involved in legal trouble. For instance, in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, we meet Hans-Erik Wennerström, a wealthy and powerful Swedish industrialist. At the beginning of the novel, Wennerström uses his wealth and power to win a libel lawsuit against Mikael Blomkvist, publisher of Millennium magazine. Blomkvist is now faced with financial ruin and the closing of his magazine, so he accepts a commission from Henrik Vanger to find out what happened to Vanger’s grand-niece, Harriet. In exchange, Vanger agrees to give Blomkvist financial support as well as the evidence he needs to bring down Wennerström. It’s a very interesting study of the difference that power and money can make.

That said, though, money doesn’t necessarily ensure safety. For example, in Jassy Mackenzie’s Random Violence, we’re introduced to Annette Botha, a wealthy South African accounts manager. When she’s murdered outside her gated home one night, it’s assumed at first that she was the victim of a robbery. But it’s soon clear that Annette Botha was killed for a different reason. Superintendent David Patel is under a great deal of pressure, from the public, from Annette’s widower, and from his superior, to solve the case. So he asks his former mentor’s daughter, Jade de Jong, for help. Jade is a private investigator who’s recently returned to Johannesburg after a ten-year absence. She’s got her own agenda, but she agrees to help David solve the case. As the investigation continues, we get the sense in this novel that sometimes, the wealthy are very vulnerable. There’s a proliferation of heavily gated fences, expensive (but sometimes futile) alarm systems and other protection. All of those efforts at security convey a sense of powerlessness that we don’t usually associate with the wealthy.

Crime is an urban problem.

One of the prevailing myths about murders is that most of them take place in cities. Of course there are murders in cities, both in real life and in crime fiction. For instance, Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series, and Dell Shannon’s Luis Mendoza series focus on crimes in urban areas. So do many of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels. There are lots of other examples, too. But the truth is, a murder can happen just about anywhere.

For example, many of M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth novels take place in and around rural Lochdubh, Scotland. In Death of a Maid, for instance, Constable Macbeth wins the cleaning services of Mavis Gillespie, a local maid, in a lottery. He’s not at all happy with her work, and when he finds out that she stole a letter of his, he prepares to fire her. But by the time he gets to that point, it’s too late. Mavis Gillespie’s been killed by a blow to the head. As Macbeth tries to sort out what happened, he finds out that several of the villagers had a reason to want to kill Mrs. Gillespie. She had a bad habit of finding out people’s personal secrets and blackmailing them. So now, Macbeth has to figure out whose secret was dangerous enough to make it worth murder.

Martin Edwards’ Lake District series takes place in and around local small towns and villages. In those novels, murders occur in mostly rural areas. For instance, in The Arsenic Labyrinth, DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team investigate the ten-year-old disappearance of Emma Bestwick. When Guy Koenig, a con man who’s recently been released from prison, offers information about where Emma’s body can be found, Scarlett and her team re-open the case. They search for the body in a series of tunnels known locally as the Arsenic Labyrinth and find not one, but two bodies: Emma’s and another body, fifty years older. With help from Oxford historian Daniel Kind, Scarlett uncovers the reason for Emma’s murder, and finds the surprising connection between the two deaths.

There are many, many other murder mysteries that take place in villages and remote areas, too – far too many to list here. Suffice it to say that murder is not just an urban crime.

Murder will out.

There’s a persistent myth that murderers get caught and pay for their crimes. This one probably appeals to the side of us that wants the “bad guy” to pay. And in countless crime fiction novels (I won’t even attempt a list), the guilty person is caught and punished. But the truth is that in real life, and in crime fiction, murderers do sometimes get away with their crimes, for at least a time. There’s an Agatha Christie novel, for instance, in which Poirot’s sympathy, if you will, for the killer and his distaste for the victim lead him to let a murder go unpunished (No title here; I don’t want to give away spoilers).

In Thomas Scortia and Frank Robinson’s The Nightmare Factor, Dr. Calvin Doohan, who’s working for the World Health Organization, solves the mystery of a series of unexplained deaths from what looks like a virulent strain of influenza. Doohan finds out that the deaths were deliberately caused, and slowly (and at great risk) tracks down the killer. Doohan finds out who’s responsible, but because of the international political situation, and issues of power, he’s not able to see that the killer is arrested. The nightmare deaths end, but this murderer isn’t jailed for the crimes. The ending, in fact, leaves us in some doubt as to what will happen to the killer, but certainly the person behind the deaths isn’t really what you’d call caught and publicly exposed.

There are plenty of other myths and beliefs about murder that I haven’t had space to mention here. Which ones have you found are just not true?


  1. Great truth uncovering! :) The myth that strangers pose more risk is particularly striking--I think it's also true in real life that victims of murder do know the perpetrator. And, for crime fiction, it makes the story so much more interesting to have the killer be known to the victim.

  2. Great post, Margot. People say that most murders happen after dark - I wonder if that is true? A popular fictional murder scenario is when someone has been out late and is walking home alone, or similar....are there any figures on this?

  3. Elizabeth - Thanks :) I think you're right that, in real-life murders, victims do usually know their killers. That reality probably helps the police narrow down the list of people who could have committed a crime. In crime fiction, it is so much more interesting when the victim and killer know each other and there's some sort of connection. It's even more interesting when the police have to find that connection : ).

  4. Maxine - Thank you : ). You're right, too. There is that belief that murder is more likely after dark. I just read somewhere that more carjackings occur after dark. So do rapes and some other violent crimes. And of course, where alcohol fuels crime, that's more likely, too, after dark. No reason murder shouldn't be the same way. I'll have to see if there are some numbers on that one.

  5. How about "THE EVIDENCE DOESN'T LIE"? The popularity of the CSI series, Bones, et al. makes this a crime truism, but I wonder. In today's world, we accept the exactitude and specificity of DNA results out-of-hand; yet past science accepted the sun's revolution around the earth in the same way (just ask Galileo!). And even if DNA science is as reliable as we're led to believe, there's a tendency to trust that the evidence gatherers and lab technicians aren't capable of error. Likewise, the detectives' proficiency is based upon "getting the crime off the books"; and, as sworn officers of the law, they couldn't possibly be avaricious or have other ulterior motives. Right?

  6. Bob - Oh, you have such a good point about that truism! DNA and other forensic evidence can be accurate. On the other hand, it can be misleading, mishandled or just plain...wrong. As you say, those who handle and analyze such evidence are human. They can make mistakes. And there is, indeed, so much pressure to get a case solved that it is logical that things would be rushed and thus, again, wrong. Thanks for that very well-taken point.

  7. Another excellent, thought-provoking post, Margot! In real life, a victim could simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don't think this would go over very well in crime fiction, unless this was one of many victims and all the others had a common thread.

  8. Elspeth - Why thank you : ). You put that very well. In crime fiction, we want things to make sense and tie together. There's something appealing when everything is, well, logical. It's not that way in real life always. Still, I think it is much more common when there's a victim/murderer link...

  9. We do want to think all cops are honest and innocent people never go to jail, but we have a sad local case where a man spent ten years in prison before DNA testing got him released (and a huge financial settlement). Now the cop who withheld evidence has been indicted. The real murderer, whoever it is, has never been charged.

  10. Patricia - I'm so sorry to hear of that local case. It's so sad that that kind of thing happens, isn't it? But as you've made clear, it does. The murderer doesn't always get caught, evidence doesn't always tell it all, and sometimes, cops aren't on the "side of the angels." Still, as you say, we want to believe better...