Saturday, November 6, 2010

All I Wanted Was an Ordinary Life*

Most people would rather not be drawn into a murder investigation. There are statements, lots of questions and a lot of inconvenience. That’s especially true for witnesses who actually discover the body of the victim or see the crime. There’s also the “shock factor.” Murder is a horrible thing, and being involved in a murder investigation, however briefly, can be stressful and traumatic. So most people, given the chance, would avoid getting involved. But you’d be surprised at the ordinary, everyday things that can get people drawn into a murder investigation. A quick look at crime fiction shows that even the most mundane sorts of things can end up getting one involved in murder.

Taking Public Transportation

Millions of people commute every day on trains, buses or trams and don’t think anything of it. But it’s amazing how often this gets people involved in murder cases. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, Anne Beddingfield is waiting at Hyde Park Corner’s tube station when she notices a man who’s waiting on the same platform. Then, without warning, the man notices something or someone who frightens him, steps backwards and falls beneath an oncoming train. Anne’s horrified, but at the same time fascinated. When the man’s body is pulled from the train tracks back up onto the platform, Anne notices a piece of paper that’s fluttered out of the dead man’s pocket. She picks up the paper inconspicuously and tries to decipher the cryptic message written on it. Before she knows it, Anne Beddingfield is involved in a high-stakes adventure that includes international intrigue, stolen jewels and murder.

In Luiz Alfredo García-Roza's Alone in the Crowd, a group of people are waiting at a bus stop a block away from Rio de Janeiro’s 12th Precinct police station. Most of them are going through their regular routines and not paying any attention. They’re suddenly drawn into an investigation when Laura Sales Ribeiro falls – or is pushed – in front of an oncoming bus. Inspector Espinosa of the 12th Precinct is informed of Dona Laureta’s death – and of the surprising fact that just half an hour before her death, Dona Laureta had actually visited the station, asking to speak to him. At the time, Espinosa’d been in a meeting and couldn’t see anyone, and Dona Laureta had told the receptionist that she’d come back shortly and talk to the inspector then. Now, Espinosa is intrigued by Dona Laureta’s death, and he and his team begin to retrace her steps to try to find out what she’d have wanted to tell him. Espinosa’s search for answers leads him to Hugo Breno, a teller at Rio de Janeiro’s Caixa Econômica Federal – and to Espinosa’s own past.

Being at Work

We may get angry at co-workers or bosses, but those of us who aren’t private investigators or police detectives don’t expect to get involved in a murder investigation while we’re at work. Yet that’s just what happens in plenty of crime fiction. For example, in Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise, we get an inside look at the employees of Pym’s Publicity, Ltd., a most respectable advertising agency. One afternoon, copywriter Victor Dean falls to his death down a spiral staircase. At first, his death is passed off as a terrible accident. But Dean left behind him a half-finished letter in which he insinuated that a fellow employee has been using company resources for illegal purposes. So the company’s top managers decide to look into the matter. They’re too concerned about the company’s reputation to call in the police, so they engage Lord Peter Wimsey to investigate. He goes undercover at the agency and finds out that one of the employees has been using company advertising to arrange meetings between a powerful drugs ring and local dealers. Now, all of the employees are caught up in a murder investigation as Wimsey works to find out which employee is guilty.

In Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly, the employees of Giovanni De Cal’s Venice glass factory find themselves unexpectedly caught up in a murder investigation when the body of Giorgio Tassini is found near one of the company’s furnaces early one morning. Tassini worked nights at the factory, and at first, his death is believed to be an accident. Soon, though, Brunetti and Ispettore Vianello discover that Tassini was murdered. There’s motive, too, since Tassini was a vocal critic of the local glass factories’ unsafe and illegal disposal of toxic waste. Now, everyone in the company is involved as the detectives investigate the murder.

Walking the Dog

What could be more safe and innocent than walking the family dog? And yet, it’s surprising how many witnesses are drawn into an investigation because of what their dog has found. Just ask Colonel Jerome, whom we meet in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders. Early one morning, he takes his dog for a walk along the beach near Bexhill. The dog discovers the strangled body of twenty-three-year-old Elizabeth “Betty” Barnard. Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings get involved in the investigation because this death seems to be the work of a serial killer who sends Poirot cryptic warning letters before each murder, and leaves an ABC railway guide near each body. In the end, and after two more deaths, Poirot is able to figure out who the killer is and what ties the victims’ lives together.

And then there’s Mackenzie “Mac” Smith, a Georgetown University Law School professor whom we meet in Margaret Truman’s Murder at the Kennedy Center. He’s walking his dog late one night when the dog finds the body of Andrea Feldman. Feldman was a staffer for Senator Ken Ewald, who’s making a bid for the presidency of the United States. As it turns out, Smith is a friend of the Ewald family, so when Paul Ewald, the senator’s son, is arrested for the murder, the Ewald family asks Smith to take over the defense. He agrees and begins looking into the matter. Smith’s investigation leads to several hidden secrets, dirty politics and power hunger.

Eating at a Restaurant

Most people think of a meal at a pub or restaurant as a relaxing way to enjoy oneself. But even going to a restaurant can catch people up in the web of murder. For instance, in Philip R. Craig’s A Vineyard Killing, the E. and E Deli on Martha’s Vineyard is busy with the lunchtime crowd. Then, Donald and Paul Fox and Brad Hillborough enter the restaurant. The Fox brothers own Saberfox, a very unpopular real estate development company; Hillborough is Donald Fox’s assistant. Just as the three men leave the restaurant, a shot rings out and Paul Fox crumples to the ground. He escapes death only because he happened to be wearing a bulletproof vest. Now, the police begin an investigation that involves everyone who was at the restaurant, including J.W. Jackson, a local fisherman and part-time private investigator, who’s Craig’s sleuth. Jackson soon finds that several local people had a strong motive to want Paul and Donald Fox out of the way.

And then there are the patrons of Aunt Pat’s Barbecue, whom we meet in Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Delicious and Suspicious. Aunt Pat’s is popular and has a very loyal following, so it’s crowded one afternoon when Rebecca Adrian, food scout for the Cooking Channel, visits. She’s in Memphis to find out which restaurant has the best barbecue in town. Aunt Pat’s is one of the finalists, so everyone’s excited and determined to make her meal perfect. Shortly afterwards, Rebecca Adrian dies of what turns out to be poison. The restaurant was busy, so no-one paid much attention to what anyone was doing. That means that just about everyone in the restaurant is caught up in the investigation. Lulu Taylor, the restaurant’s owner, knows that her family members and staff are under suspicion, so she decides to find out who killed Adrian.

Relaxing at Home

With all of the risk involved in even everyday things, maybe it’s best just to stay home. Surely that couldn’t involve anyone in a murder. Or could it? In Dorothy Sayers’ Whose Body?, architect Alfred Thipps finds the body of an unknown man in his bathtub. Soon enough, he’s accused of the murder. But his employer, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, doesn’t think Thipps is guilty. So she asks her son, Lord Peter Wimsey, to investigate. He agrees and soon finds that this case is much more complicated than it seems on the surface. In fact, the dead body in Thipps’ bathtub is connected with the disappearance of well-known financier Sir Reuben Levy, although not in the way you might think.

And in Elizabeth Ferrars’ Something Wicked, retired professor Andrew Basnett thinks he’s going to have a quiet, even relaxing winter staying at the cottage of his nephew Peter Dilly. When he arrives in the village of Godlingham, he soon settles in and is welcomed by the locals. Then he begins to hear local gossip about his wealthy neighbour Pauline Hewison, who’s said to have murdered her husband Charles in order to prevent him from giving most of his fortune to underwrite Newsome’s, a school run by his brother Henry. Basnett’s curious about the case and intrigued by the enigmatic Pauline Hewison. So he begins to ask some questions and look into the stories he’s heard. Then one day, he gets a call from Henry Hewison, who tells Basnett he’s found something new about the death that he wants to share with Basnett. They agree to meet at Basnett’s home but when Basnett arrives, he finds Hewitt’s body in his living room. Even at home, Basnett’s caught up in the murder investigation.

Let’s face it; murder happens in lots of different places. Crime fiction shows us that even doing everyday things like commuting, eating at a restaurant or just being at home doesn’t mean you can’t get caught up in murder. You can even get caught up in a murder investigation by reading blog posts…

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Amy Macdonald’s An Ordinary Life


  1. Fascinating, Margot! In a novel I read recently, Operation Napoleon by Arnaldur Indrason, the main protagonist is enjoying a quite, domesticated evening in at the start of the novel. A knock at the door, she sees what she thinks are two Jehovah's witnesses --- opens the door to tell them to go away -- cue mayhem that continues to the novel's end.

    I like it when there is a domestic upheaveal to a novel, or as you point out, when a normal routine is disrupted. Not a perfect example, but this happens to Swedish commuters in Frozen Tracks by Ake Edwardson (Gotenberg), and again to the same (different city, Uppsala) in Kjell Eriksson's "Princess of Burundi".

  2. Maxine - Thank you :-). I truly wish I were as well-read in Scandinavian crime fiction as you are. You've got a wonderful knowledge of that area of crime fiction! I haven't yet read Operation Napoleon (it's on my far-too-long TBR list), but that's precisely the sort of scenario I had in mind. It adds such a jolt to a novel, doesn't it, when a character is going about her or his business peacefully and calmly, and all of a sudden, everything's disrupted. I think it adds to a novel's tension.

    In fact, your examples make me think of a Peter Robinson novel, Gallows View that begins with a character getting ready to go to bed. All of a sudden, she's interrupted by a voyeur. It adds such a jolt that this peaceful home scene is interrupted that way, and I think that lends tension to the story. Thanks for reminding me of that :-).

  3. OK ... thank you very much. I will now go mundanely pour my cup of tea and watch over my shoulder. Appreciate that ... I do ... LOL


    Jacqui Jacoby
    Twitter: JaxJacoby

  4. Jax - LOL! Always glad to help keep a fellow author safe ;-). Watch out as you put that cup in the sink, too... ;-).

  5. No wonder I am still alive- I did not read a single blog post all week. I only used a lot of public transportation, had innumerable cups of (bad) coffee in various offices, and on one memorable day had two official lunches because I had managed to double book. None of it was usual, so I am still alive.

    Great post, Margot, and I really missed your daily wisdom.

  6. Rayna - Thank you :-), and thank you so much for the kind, kind words. You're far too nice to me.

    It sounds as though you had quite a week, too! I'm sorry to hear about the bad coffee and the other disruptions to your week, but as you say, good came out of it :-). I hope you get a chance to relax today before next week starts all over again.

  7. Wonderful post!
    Though I seldom comment I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog, Margot!
    Can't wait for your deconstruction seminar of Murder on the Orient Express at Savvy Authors in December!

  8. A great blog post, Margot. It's been quite some time since I did not let you know how much I do enjoy reading your blog. Thanks for being there.

  9. Christine - Thank you :-). I'm so glad you enjoyed this post and you are enjoying the blog. And I'm very much looking forward to the workshop, too (thanks for mentioning it :-)).

    José Ignacio - Thanks so much for the kind remarks :-). I very much enjoy reading your blog , too, and I learn a lot from it.

  10. I often like these ordinary settings better because they induce a much more "but for the grace of God..." feeling than the crazy jumping out of airplane or using the special CIA/MI6-created weapon thrillers. Those are fun to read, too, but you don't put them down and think, "I hope that never happens to me!"

  11. Karen - You've put your finger on a really important way that in which readers connect with a novel. If a reader can put her or himself into the story and imagine what it would be like to be in that situation, this engages the reader. That can build tension and interest. As you say, novels that are less "everyday" can be exciting, but sometimes they don't elicit that personal investment.

  12. Taking Public Transportation - AC does use the train a lot to see murders. Murder on the Orient Express. 4:50 to Paddington. Maybe she spent a lot of time on the trains.

    Being at Work - I love this one as well, because there are so many reasons you might want to murder a co-worker. Jealousy, revenge, wanting to move up in the company. I should use this one in a future book.

    Walking the Dog - It is funny how many people find dead bodies while walking the dog. Or how many people get murdered while walking the dog. There was an Caroline Graham novel where a man witnessed a murder and then got murdered while walking his dog. Place of Safety? I think that's the one.

    Eating at a Restaurant - I can't think of anything for this one.

    Relaxing at Home -I read a Val McDermid book "The Grave Tattoo" where people were being "bumped off" in their homes.

    Great post.


  13. Clarissa - Thanks:-) Perhaps you're right about Agatha Christie traveling on a train a lot; many of her novels involve train rides, don't they?

    And you're right about stories that take place at work. I sort of used that context in Publish or Perish, although the murder scene wasn't the workplace. There are, though, so many motives for murder that are based on the workplace, aren't there?

    And thanks for mentioning Caroline Graham's A Place of Safety. Right you are that in that novel, Charlie Leathers sees a murder, and then later, he's killed, too. I love my dogs, but I look over my shoulder while I'm walking them ;-).

    And thanks for mentioning The Grave Tattoo. I've read McDermid, but not that one. I'll have to repair that egregious lapse...

  14. Another wonderful post and love the ending. :) I just finished Elaine Viet's An Uplifting Murder where mystery shopper Josie Marcus finds a body in the mall restroom. Even shopping can get you involved in a murder. I enjoy your take on the various ways people can get involved without ever thinking they will.

    Thoughts in Progress

  15. Mason - Thanks :-). I was kind of proud of that ending, myself ;-). And you're right; people can get involved in murder even in places and at times that they couldn't have imagined. Folks, do check out Mason's review of An Uplifting Murder.

  16. Great post. I LOVED the ABCs Murders! Such a great premise :)

    I just came from Mason's and I agree the book fits your post perfectly and sounds like a fun read!!

  17. Hmm .... my comment didn't post. Anyway, Murder happens! I like the ingenious ways the bad guys find to reach their victims who may not necessarily be easily accessible. One mark of a good author is the ingenuity and creativenss in which the killer is able to reach their victims. How they get in and get out.

  18. Jemi - Thank you :-) Isn't The ABC Murders a terrific read? Agatha Christie uses so many effective strategies, doesn't she, to get and keep the reader's interest.

    And I'm glad you thought An Uplifting Murder fit well with this post; I did, too. Good timing, and I promise; Mason and I didn't get in touch beforehand ;-).

    Stephen - Isn't it annoying when comments don't come through? Thanks for re-commenting. And yes, murder happens. You're right that a skilled author finds ways for the villain to reach the victim without drawing attention to it at first. That's what happens, for instance, in Agatha Christie's One, Two, Buckle my Shoe, where someonne kills dentist Henry Morley while he's preparing his equipment for a patient. Really a clever premise.