Wednesday, November 3, 2010

You've Got Something to Hide, I Know*

Where there’s a murder, there’s a murderer. In some crime fiction, we know who that murderer is right from the beginning of the story, but in many mystery novels, we don’t. In real-life murders, the police don’t always know who the killer is right from the start, either. They examine the evidence and they look into the victim’s life to find out who’s the most likely murderer. There aren’t that many motives for murder, so experienced detectives know that some people are more likely to have killed the victim than others. That’s one way they narrow down the list of possible suspects. Crime fiction readers often do exactly the same thing. They think about likely motives and the evidence, and they decide who probably committed the crime. Smart criminals (and careful authors ;-) ) know this, so they take pains not to be suspected or to allow the real murderer to stand out from other characters. That’s easier to do if you know what makes a person a likely suspect. Which kinds of fictional or real people are most likely to be guilty?

The Husband or Wife

In real life and in crime fiction, the husband or wife is usually the prime suspect. There’s good reason for this prejudice, too. Spouses often have motives that no-one would guess. Spouses also have all sorts of opportunities to commit a murder.

We see that, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. In that novel, Hercule Poirot is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel at Leathercombe Bay. Among the other guests are famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall, her husband Kenneth Marshall and her stepdaughter Linda Marshall. One day, Arlena Marshall is found strangled at a cove not far from the hotel. Her husband Kenneth falls under suspicion immediately. First, it’s common knowledge at the hotel that Arlena was having an affair with another guest, Patrick Redfern. Also, it’s discovered that he stood to gain financially from her death. So Kenneth Marshall’s background and his alibi get a lot of attention from the police as they go about finding Arlena Marshall’s killer.

That’s also the case with William Sumner in Minette Walters’ The Breaker. One morning, the nude body of his wife, thirty-one-year-old Kate Sumner, is found on the beach near Chapman’s Pool on the Dorset coast. PC Nick Ingram is called to the scene and begins the investigation. When it turns out that the Sumners live in Hampshire, Ingram’s joined by DI John Galbraith, WPC Sandra Griffiths and Superintendent Carpenter. Together, the team examines the evidence and Kate Sumner’s background. William Sumner is one of the prime suspects in this murder. For one thing, his marriage to Kate wasn’t the happy marriage it seemed on the surface. For another, it turns out that Kate was unfaithful to her husband. Finally, Sumner’s account of his actions on the day of the murder can’t be completely verified. So the police remain interested in him as the major suspect.

We also see this kind of suspicion in Deborah Crombie’s In a Dark House. When Laura Novak, who’s on the Board of Directors of Helping Hands, a women’s shelter, disappears, her husband Tony becomes the prime suspect. Superintendent Duncan Kincaid gets involved in the investigation by chance, but it’s not long before he realises that Laura Novak’s disappearance may be related to a warehouse fire that he’s investigating. Throughout this novel, we see how Kincaid and his team continue to believe that Tony Novak may have had a hand in the events of the story.

Anyone Who Gains Financially

Money is an all-too-common motive for murder. So detectives and savvy crime fiction readers know to “follow the money” when it comes to looking for likely suspects.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the death of Miss Emily Arundell. At first, her death looks like a natural death from heart failure. However, it’s not long before it’s discovered that she was murdered. Miss Arundell had a large fortune to leave and a family of financially-desperate relations. So Poirot and the police very carefully into each suspect’s alibi as they figure out which of Miss Arundell’s relations needed money enough to kill for it.

There’s a similar set of motives in Ngaio Marsh’s A Surfeit of Lampreys (AKA Death of a Peer). When Gabriel Lord Wutherford is murdered in an elevator, Inspector Roderick Alleyn investigates the killing. He finds that Wutherford’s brother, Lord Charles Lamprey had begged his brother for money just before the murder. So Lamprey and his family members become the prime suspects in this killing. That makes sense, too, as the Lampreys are quirky and original, but completely financially irresponsible.

There are so many other novels where people with financial motives become suspects that I won’t mention them here. I’m sure that you can list more than I could.

The Unsavoury Suspect

There’s a common belief that people with criminal pasts or shady backgrounds are more likely to commit murder. So detectives naturally look to that kind of person as a suspect when they’re investigating a murder. It’s understandable too, since it’s often very hard to get past our prejudices.

That’s what happens in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Abbey Grange. In that story, Sherlock Holmes gets a note from Inspector Stanley Hopkins, asking him to help in the investigation of the death of Sir Eustace Brackenstall. Some silver and other valuables are missing, and the police assume that the notorious Randall gang is responsible. The father-and-sons gang has been operating in the area lately, and there is the matter of the missing valuables. In fact, at first, Hopkins has no doubt of the Randalls’ guilt – until they are arrested in New York the day after Sir Eustace’s murder. Now the police have to find another explanation for the murder. So Holmes and Watson investigate and find out who really killed Sir Eustace Brackenstall and why.

In Ian Rankin’s Exit Music, Inspector Rebus and his team investigate the murder of dissident poet Alexander Todorov. When Rebus finds out that local gangster and crime boss Morris “Big Ger” Cafferty may be involved in the killing, he’s only too happy to believe Cafferty guilty. For one thing, Cafferty’s got a criminal history. For another, Rebus and Cafferty have a long-standing animus. Of course, Ian Rankin being Ian Rankin, things aren’t as simple – or as complex – as that.

Someone With a Grudge

It’s only natural to feel resentful when one’s been badly hurt. Sometimes that resentment is strong enough and goes deep enough to drive a person to murder. So when detectives are investigating a murder, they frequently try to find out who might have had a grudge against the victim. Anyone who does bear a grudge comes in for suspicion.

That’s what happens, for instance, in Lorna Barrett’s Murder is Binding. Doris Gleason, who owns a rare cookbook store in Stoneham, Massachusetts, is found stabbed to death one night in her own store. The prime suspect in this murder is Tricia Miles, who owns a nearby mystery bookstore, Haven’t Got a Clue. She and Doris Gleason didn’t get along, and Doris Gleason was an unpleasant person to begin with. Tricia decides to do her own investigation to clear her name. It turns out that more than one person had a good reason to want to kill Doris Gleason.

In Colin Dexter’s The Jewel That Was Ours, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the murder of Dr. Theo Kemp, curator of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. As the enquiry goes on, Morse develops a solid case against one suspect in particular who’s got a grudge against Kemp. In fact, that suspect’s motive is so strong that Morse is convinced he has the culprit. In true Dexter style, though, the story is not as simple as that, and Morse has to accept the fact that he’s wrong. Once he gets some vital information about the other suspects, though, he and Lewis are able to solve the case.

Space doesn’t permit me to mention all of the “red flags” that detectives and savvy readers use to decide who’s the most likely suspect. There is, for instance, the suspect who’s afraid of the victim. And the jealous suspect. And the old standby, “the least likely suspect.” Perhaps it’s best to do as Hercule Poirot does and suspect everyone. What’s your strategy? What kind of person makes you most suspicious? If you’re a writer, what kind of character do you like to use as a “red herring” character?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Journey's Something to Hide.


  1. *thinking* I like to have a mixture of nasty, spiteful characters who look like obvious suspects and some who seem unlikely but whose little secrets are revealed at some point.

    As for motives, I prefer something personal - revenge, jealousy, grudge etc. Financial motives are not nearly as interesting.

  2. I don’t have a particular favorite. I like a good mixture. I love reading a book that keeps me guessing.

  3. I followed Rayna's link over here. It's nice to *meet* you!

  4. Dorte - Oh, I know what you mean. I enjoy it, too, when there are some nasties in a novel. It's fun and cathartic to write them, and it's intriguing to read them. I also like it when seemingly nice characters turn out to have nasty secrets. That kind of character is a bit harder for me to write, but I do like to try :-).

    Funny you would mention motives. Personal motives really are engaging. When they're done well, they're even haunting. They also are logical; people really do take lives out of revenge or a grudge, for instance. That's one thing that really appeals to me about some of the better psychological novels ('though not the serial-killer kind) - the personal kind of motive. I'm thinking of Minette Walters or Ruth Rendell, for instance.

    Holly - Oh, there's nothing like challenging the reader to guess. If a book isn't interesting enough to challenge the reader, it's hard for the reader to turn the next page. As long as the suspect is a reasonable suspect (i.e. not "out of the blue"), I think you're completely right.

    Laura - Nice to "meet" you, too :-). Thanks for paying Confessions of a Mystery Novelist... a visit.

  5. I love the confusion that results when one or more characters is convinced about guilt of someone and try to cover the marks to save that someone; Usually ending up as suspects themselves.

    Another interesting case is when a person is not aware of having comitted a crime (drugs etc.), and when a person falsely believes that he is guilty....Very tricky for the sleuth.

    The Moonstones by Wilkie Collins is an example of two of the three conditions that I have mentioned.

    P.S. Could you please add this book to your weekly focus list? :)

  6. Amey - Thank you for an excellent suggestion! I will most definitely put The Moonstone in the spotlight :-).

    You're right that it can add to a plot when a character thinks another is guilty and tries to cover for that person. I can think of a few Agatha Christie novels where that happens, and it adds a thread of interest.

    Your other points - about not being aware of one's guilt, or believing one's guilty when one's not - are also quite well-taken. That's when the sleuth has to sift through what suspects say and what actually could have happened in order to get to the truth. Not easy when the suspect is absolutely convinced that s/he is guilty...

  7. Oh, that's a great question! I love all the ones you listed above and I use them in my novels but basically because my stories feature serial killers often many of the suspects are just red herrings while the real culprit is never suspected.
    I love this post.


  8. Clarissa - Thank you :-). I think it can be absolutely fascinating when the real killer is some unsuspected person "hiding" behind a series of viable suspects. That can be awfully compelling and of course, it's the perfect cover for a serial killer.

  9. You have some great examples here that make reading a murder mystery enjoyable (sounds odd doesn't it). Anyway, when the author can put two or three of these examples in a story, it really keeps the reader guessing right up until the end. Those types books makes you want to read another and makes for a great series.

    Thoughts in Progress

  10. I always love the unexpected. I love murder mysteries. You do such a great job analyzing these greats. I see you featured on Rayna's blog. You deserve it!!

    I'm also here tonight to re-follow you because a glitch on my blog forced me to delete it and start a new one. Didn't lose anything except followers! Which is just as well, since most so-called followers only check in once and never return. So now I'm going through the printout I made of my “followers” and re-signing up with the ones I want to keep following/the ones I hope will keep following me. My signature link here goes to my new blog that’s almost the same name and looks the same. Ann

  11. Mason - That's one thing I really like a lot about different sorts of suspicious characters, too. It keeps the reader guessing when there are several people who are suspicious enough to be possibly guilty, and the reader has to sift through everything carefully to solve the mystery. I like that, myself :-).

    Ann - Thank you so much for the kind words, Ann :-). I do appreciate it *blush*. And thank you for re-following me. I'm so sorry you had to delete your blog and start over. Even if you didn't lose your posts, it's still a major hassle. I'll most definitely re-follow you and keep up with your doings.

  12. Meaty post! Per Dorte's comment, I have to say that I think financial motives CAN be compelling (though sometimes they aren't written that way) but they have to be tied to survival, possessiveness, jealousy, twisted greed, something that feels deeper and more awful than simple, bean-counting acquisitiveness.

  13. Clare2e - Thank you :-). You've got a well-taken point. Money, per se isn't an interesting motive. Money as a means for survival, for jealousy, or one of the other deeper-rooted motives is much more intriguing. When a financial motive is connected to something else, it's easy to see how it could drive someone to kill.

  14. Hi Margot - I dropped over from Rayna's blog :) Nice to meet you! Love your blog!

    This is a great post. I love the examples you use. I like different styles - I don't like all the books I read to follow the same pattern, so mixing it up works for me :)

  15. Jemi - Hi! Thanks for coming by; it's nice to meet you, too :-).

    And thanks for the kind words about my blog and my post. I agree with you about liking different kinds of books and plots. I like different characters to be suspected for different reasons, and I like different kinds of "likely suspects." If all books were the same, it would get pretty boring!

  16. Sometimes it's fun when a red herring suspect who fits one of your categories is cleared... and then falls under suspicion again. I think the spouse is usually the most likely suspect. :)

  17. Elizabeth - I like that, too. Just when you think a suspect's cleared, she or he is once again a possibility. That keeps the action and surprises coming :-).

    And yes, spouses are just about always the most likely suspects. So it's interesting when a spouse is suspected, but then cleared, or even better, most of the way cleared so that there's just a little doubt...

  18. I don't want to give any spoilers away from my book. But another spin is the Columbo way. The first fifteen minutes focused on the murderer doing his or her evil deed. The audience saw it. Then Columbo entered and the show progressed. Columbo was not the classic Whodunit. I think that's what made it different and stand out from the rest.

  19. Stephen - Right you are! I always liked that about Columbo, actually. We know who the criminal is, and the audience is kept engaged by seeing the battle of wits between the murderer and the detective.

    And folks, do take a look at Stephen Tremp's action/thriller novel Breakthrough.

  20. I always try to remember that almost every murder is committed because of lust, love or lucre and every variation thereof.

    Stephen's comment reminded me of "Murder She Wrote". I loved that series, but the trouble always was if you missed the first five minutes you spent the rest of the show playing catch-up.

  21. Elspeth - You make a well-taken point about the "three L's." Most murders are committed for those kinds of reasons, so it's no wonder that certain people are more likely to have killed than others.

    You're right, too, about Murder, She Wrote. Most of the time, it was hard to get your bearings with that show if you missed the first bit. Fortunately, we live in the age of DVR ;-).

  22. So often have I heard the line, "the first suspect is always the husband/ wife"- and so often is that true too in crime fiction.

    The first story that came to mind when I was reading this post was Holmes' 'Crooked Man'- that kept me guessing for a very long time.

    And Elspeth, I must remember the three Ls- so well put.

  23. Rayna - Ah, yes! The Adventure of the Crooked Man! Now that's a story where it certainly does seem that one solution is the only one possible. Until, of course, Holmes shows that something else entirely happened.

    I've heard from several cops I know that in most criminal investigations involving a married person, the spouse is the guilty party. Not always, of course, but it's usually a safe start. Sad, isn't it???

  24. I always thought it was a detective novel cliche that the first person suspected is the husband or wife. What a pity to know that it is actually true. But I guess only a husband or wife can have enough emotional control over a person to drive them to crime.