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.