Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Morbid Curiosity...

Murder is a frightening and traumatic thing to happen. And yet, it also holds a morbid interest for many people. That’s one reason for which murders make headlines. Instead of being horrified by a killing, there are people who are fascinated by murder in the same way that many drivers slow down and stare when they pass the scene of a roadside accident. Usually (although not always) police and other detectives, both real and in crime fiction, don’t feel that way about murders; they’ve seen too many and they know how terrible murder can be. But there are plenty of people who have what you might call an almost ghoulish interest.

We meet several people like that in Agatha Christie’s novels. For instance, in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Hercule Poirot works with Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp and the French authorities to find the murderer of French moneylender Madame Giselle. She’s poisoned while on a flight from Paris to London, so the only suspects are her fellow passengers. Several of the suspects have strong motives, too, since they owed Madame Giselle money. One of the passengers, Jane Grey, is a hairdresser’s assistant in a London shop. Once the newspapers get hold of the story of Madame Giselle’s death, Jane becomes extremely popular at the shop because all of the customers want to be served by “the girl who was mixed up in that murder.” They all want all of the details, to the point where Jane demands (and gets!) a raise because of all of the new business she’s brought to the shop.

In Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, we meet Marlene Tucker, a young girl guide. She’s chosen to play the part of the victim when a Murder Hunt, patterned like a Scavenger Hunt, is planned for a local fête. Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s fictional mystery writer, planned the Murder Hunt and has invited Hercule Poirot to give out the prizes – and to look into Oliver’s suspicions that something more is going on than just a fête. Poirot agrees, and visits Nasse House, where the fête will be held. When Marlene Tucker meets Poirot, she’s fascinated by the fact that he’s investigated murders and asks him several questions about the murders he’s seen. Marlene’s keen interest in murders becomes sadly ironic when she’s strangled during the fête. Poirot and Inspector Bland look into the death and they find that Marlene’s curiosity wasn’t limited to interest in killings. She knew too much about someone’s secrets and was killed because of it.

And then there’s Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, in which mystery novelist Harriet Vane is accused of poisoning her former lover Philip Boyes. She’s arrested and tried for the crime, and there’s some compelling evidence against her, too. However, Miss Amanda Climpson, who’s sitting on the jury, doesn’t believe that Harriet is guilty. Her demurral gives Harriet a new trial and Lord Peter Wimsey the time he needs to clear Harriet’s name. Wimsey, who’s fallen in love with Harriet, uncovers the truth about the murder, but Harriet gains quite a lot of notoriety, and the murder itself is the object of a lot of morbid curiosity.

In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, the town of Wrightsville is full of almost ghoulish curiosity about the wealthy Wright family, the town leaders. John F. and Hermione “Hermy” Wright’s youngest daughter Nora was to have been married to Jim Haight. Right before the marriage, though, Jim disappeared. Three years later and with little explanation, Haight returns and he and Nora resume their relationship. By the end of the year, they’re married. Then, Jim’s unpleasant sister Rosemary comes to stay with the couple. Soon, she’s alienated practically the entire town, and everyone hopes that she’ll leave. Instead, she prepares to settle in permanently. As though that’s not enough, Nora Wright becomes ill; in fact, she suffers two bouts of illness that cause all sorts of gossip. Then, on New Year’s Eve, Rosemary Haight is killed by a poisoned cocktail. It’s assumed that the cocktail was meant for Nora, and everyone begins to take a morbid interest in the investigation. Jim Haight is soon arrested for murder, since the police have uncovered evidence that he might have been planning to kill his wife to inherit her fortune. The town’s curiosity reaches the point where family members don’t feel comfortable going around in the town, and everyone assumes that Jim Haight is guilty. In fact, the only people who believe in Haight’s innocence are his sister-in-law, Lola Wright and Ellery Queen, who’s staying in the Wrights’ guesthouse. In the end, Queen is able to show what really happened to Rosemary Haight, but the case causes no end of morbid curiousity.

In Dicey Deere’s The Irish Village Murder, interpreter Torrey Tunet is drawn into a murder investigation when wealthy scholar John Gwathney is shot at his home near the Irish village of Ballynagh. Torrey’s friend Megan O’Faolain is suspected of committing the crime. She was Gwathney’s housekeeper as well as his lover, and stands to inherit a great deal of his fortune. Torrey doesn’t believe her friend is guilty of the murder, and she begins to ask some questions, to the consternation of the local chief, Inspector O’Hare. As O’Hare begins to investigate the crime, the villagers take a ghoulish interest in the murder. They test out possible theories at the local pub and they rehash the backgrounds of all of the interested parties. It’s partly that gossip and interest in the murder that gives Torrey Tunet some useful information that she uses to find out who really killed John Gwathney.

We see a similar morbid fascination with murder in Martha Grimes’ The Man With a Load of Mischief, the first pairing of Inspector Richard Jury and aristocrat Melrose Plant. In that novel, the bodies of Rufus Ainsley and William Small are found at two different pubs in the village of Long Piddlington. The villagers all have their theories about why the two men were killed and who killed them. For instance, Melrose Plant’s insufferable Aunt Agatha is convinced at first that there’s a psychotic killer on the loose. Oliver Darrington’s theory is that the killer is someone with a grudge against Long Piddlington, and wants to discredit the town. Melrose Plant has his own theory that the men who were killed were not strangers to Long Piddlington, and that someone in the town killed them. These theories are batted around in the locals, the market and other places as Inspector Richard Jury undertakes the investigation. In the end, Jury and Plant find out who in Long Piddlington would have wanted a pair of visitors dead and why.

We also see an example of morbid curiosity in Ruth Rendell’s The Secret House of Death. Louise and Bob North live in the London suburb of Matchdown Park. There’s a lot of gossip about Louise North because nearly every day after Bob leaves for work, Louise gets a visit from central heating salesman Bernard Heller. In fact, one of the only people in town who aren’t ghoulishly curious about Louise North is Susan Townsend. She doesn’t get involved in the local gossip. Then, one day, she gets a call from Louise, inviting her for a cup of coffee. Susan Heller dead in each other’s arms. As the police investigate the death, Susan and Louise’s widower, Bob, find themselves drawn to each other. Also drawn to Susan is David Chatfield, a friend and colleague of Bernard Heller. Bit by bit, Susan and David, each in a different way, put the pieces of the puzzle together, and uncover the mystery of what happened at the North home.

There’s just something about a murder that seems to arouse people’s ghoulish interest. We see it in real life, and we see it in crime fiction. I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know why, but it’s a fascinating phenomenon. Why do you think this is so? What books have you enjoyed that have this theme of morbid curiosity?


  1. I reread The Secret House of Death not long ago, and just like the first time, I was so impressed by Rendell´s ability to cheat her readers.

    But then I think several ´ordinary people´ would think you and I show a ghoulish interest in murder. I can´t even mention food or mushrooms on Facebook, before my friends begin to whisper ´poison´. LOL

  2. Dorte - LOL! I hadn't thought of that so much, but yes, we crime fiction writers do get rather ghoulish, don't we? I know that when I pass a balcony, I sometimes think, "I wonder if that's high enough so that a fall from it would be fatal?" I think it's an occupational hazard.

    And I agree; Rendell really is quite good at leading her readers straight down the proverbial garden path...

  3. It's funny because I was talking to my friend about this subject yesterday. Remember my friend who is constantly faced with kidnapping? Well, I asked her how she deals with it and now she says living with the danger has now become "normal" and it's true. When I first moved to Mexico, seeing dead people on the newspaper bothered me, now it's like, "Oh, another dead guy." See dead people no longer bother me. I guess it's exciting at first but eventually... that's why mysteries have changed over time, they've become more gruesome for sure.


  4. I remember "Dead Man's Folly!" Thanks for the reminder of it. Great book, and a perfect example.

    Murder IS interesting, isn't it? :)

  5. Clarisssa - Oh, what an interesting perspective! Thank you : ). And yes, I do remember the friend you were mentioning. You're absolutely right, too, that over time, people do become if not inured, then at least not as shocked by murders, kidnappings and the like. So perhaps as horror abates, it's replaced by curiosity. Interesting.... Great food for thought!

    Elizabeth - Oh, yes it is interesting. Or maybe I just think so because I'm a mystery writer. I must do a post on thinking like a mystery writer; thank you for that inspiration : ). And yeah, Dead Man's Folly is a great book : ).

  6. That is so true, morbid fascination is something we all have.
    I started writing a romance and it has ended up with murder and death in it. I look back at my original notes and wonder when it crept in without me noticing. It must be the morbid side of my brain taking over. :)

  7. It may be a case of "There but for the grace of God...". It's the same reason people slow down when there's been a car accident. Ghoulish fascination.

  8. Glynis - LOL! Perhaps you're right; we authors have a morbid fascination with life, too. I think, though, that an interest in the seamier, if you will, side of life is part of what makes a story interesting. So I'll bet your novel is engrossing.

    Elspeth - I hadn't thought of that, but you could very well be right. Perhaps it is a sense of relief that it's not us.... as you say, ghoulish fascination with what we've been spared.