Thursday, December 30, 2010

We're Caught in a Trap*

Everyone, of course, is unique. That’s what makes for such a wide diversity among people, and that’s also what makes for the most interesting characters when it comes to crime fiction. One way we really see the differences among people is in their reactions to being involved in a murder investigation. Murder is a violent and traumatic thing, so it’s bound to have a powerful effect. What’s really interesting is to see the way that different characters deal with the fact of murder.

Some crime fiction characters have an almost ghoulish interest in murder. To them, the whole thing’s exciting. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot is staying at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. While he’s there another guest, beautiful and notorious actress Arlena Stuart Marshall, is strangled. Since Poirot was quite possibly the last person to see her alive, he gets involved in the investigation. One of the other guests at the hotel is bluff, hearty Mr. Horace Blatt. On the day of the murder, he leaves on a sailing trip and doesn’t return until after the body’s been found. When he finds out about the murder, Blatt says:

“…Missed the whole blinking show. The one time that something does happen in this out-of-the-way spot, I’m not there. Just like life, that, isn’t it?”

Of course, in true Christie fasion, it’s found out that Blatt is hiding some secrets of his own, and he becomes a suspect in Arlena Marshall’s murder.

In Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington, Miss Marple gets involved in the investigation of the strangling murder of an unknown woman whose body was dumped from a train and left at Rutherford Hall, the home of the Crackenthorpe family. None of the Crackenthorpe family seems to know who the dead woman was, so Inspector Dermot Craddock has his hands full with trying to identify the dead woman and with trying to discover what connection, if any, she may have with the Crackenthorpe family. The murder affects everyone in the family differently, but the one person who seems to actually enjoy what’s going on is young Alexander Eastley, grandson of patriarch Luther Crackenthorpe. Eastley and his friend James Stoddart-West are spending the Christmas holidays at Rutherford Hall and as soon as the body is found, they’re immediately entranced. They search eagerly for clues (and actually find one) and richly enjoy the whole investigation. In fact, when Stoddart-West’s mother finds out about the murder, she’s inclined to bring her son back home right away. Neither boy will hear of it, though; they both want to stay around for all the details.

Not everyone is fascinated at being mixed up in a murder case, though. Some people react with real fear, even if they aren’t guilty of the murder. Sometimes, that’s because they’re hiding something and are afraid the police will find out about it. That’s the case with Mary and Janet Dawson, whom we meet in Shona MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. They’re both prostitutes, not something most people would boast of even in today’s world, let alone that of 17th Century Scotland, the context for this novel. So when the two sisters stumble upon a nearly dead Patrick Davidson, the local apothecary’s assistant, they don’t want to be involved. And yet, they don’t want to be cruel, either, and leave an obviously sick man. So together, they move Davidson into the nearby schoolroom of grammar school undermaster Alexander Seaton. Then they flee. When Davidson actually dies of what turns out to be poison, Seaton’s friend Charles Thom, local music master, is accused of the crime and imprisoned. He begs Seaton to clear his name, and Seaton agrees. As he slowly tries to find out who killed Davidson and why, Seaton discovers that Mary Dawson actually heard Davidson utter an important clue. When he tracks her down and finds out the clue (and later, understands what it means), he gets an important piece of the puzzle.

In Alan Orloff’s Diamonds for the Dead, Josh Handleman returns to his native Northern Virginia when his father Abe Handleman dies from a fall down a staircase. At first, Abe’s death is put down to a terrible accident. But then, Abe’s friend Lev Yurishenko tells Josh that his father was murdered. Josh doesn’t believe it at first; his father didn’t have any enemies and what’s more, he wasn’t a particularly wealthy man, so there was no-one eager for a share of any fortune. Then, Josh discovers that in fact, his father had a cache of extremely valuable diamonds that have now disappeared. It now seems clear that Abe Handleman was murdered, so Josh sets himself out to find out who killed his father and what happened to the diamonds. Through it all, the one person who seems to know more than he’s saying is Kassian, a mysterious and somewhat disreputable Russian immigrant who was staying with Abe Handleman when he died. Kassian is not only a likely suspect in the murder, but he has secrets of his own. So he’s terrified when first Josh, and then the police, begin to look into Abe’s death. In fact, in several places in the novel, he runs off rather than tell the truth about what he knows.

And then there’s Tee Beau Latioler, who gets mixed up in two murders in James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos. Tee Beau’s been accused of murdering Hippoloyte Broussard, and although he claims he was innocent, there’s enough evidence against him to send him to prison. New Iberia, Louisiana police officer Dave Robicheaux and his partner Lester Benoit are assigned to transport Latolier and Jimmie Lee Boggs, also convicted of murder, to the Angola State Penitentiary. Along the way, Boggs manages to escape and kills Benoit. He also shoots Robicheaux, leaving him for dead. Latolier knows exactly what happened, just as he knows what happened to Hippolyte Broussard, but he is terrified. So after making sure that Robicheaux is alive and will be safe until the police come, he flees to New Orleans. And he most definitely doesn’t want to be involved when Robicheaux gets the assignment to penetrate the New Orleans underworld and go after local crime boss Tony Cardo. That assignment will give Robicheaux the chance to track Boggs down, and he wants Latolier’s help for that, but Latolier wants no part of it.

Some people don’t want to be mixed up in a murder investigation because they feel their position and power should exempt them. For them, it’s almost as though murder only occurs among “common” people, not the wealthy and powerful. For example, in Hugh Pentecost’s The Fourteen Dilemma, the lucky middle-class Watson family wins an all-expenses-paid trip to New York City and a week at the very posh Hotel Beaumont. They’re soon ensconced in a luxury suite on the exclusive Fourteenth Floor. Then, beautiful twelve-year-old Marilyn Watson wanders off, and her body is later found stuffed in a trash can. Hotel manager Pierre Chambrun and public relations manager Mark Haskell work with the police and hotel security to find out who killed Marilyn Watson and why. One of the interesting things about this novel is the set of reactions of the rich and powerful people who occupy the other suites on the floor. They’re all accustomed to being spoiled, and although they all react slightly differently, and all are aware that they are suspects, there’s an underlying belief that they shouldn’t have to mixed up in something like murder. You might say that they believe their privilege should exempt them from involvement.

That’s a similar reaction to the reaction of the Vanger family in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Wealthy and powerful Henrik Vanger hires Millennium publisher Mikael Blomqvist to solve a nearly forty-year-old mystery: the disappearance of his grand-niece Harriet Vanger, who was sixteen when she went missing. Blomqvist is in desperate need of the financial backing that Vanger offers in return, and he wants information that Vanger can provide about a lawsuit that Blomqvist has just lost. So he agrees to take the case and he goes to the Vanger home, ostensibly to write a book about the history of the family. As he and his researcher Lisbeth Salander begin to investigate, they run afoul of the Vanger family, whose wealth and power have always protected them. In the end, Blomqvist and Salander find that that wealth and power have also hidden some very dark secrets.

Everyone’s got a different reaction to being involved in a murder investigation and in well-written crime fiction, different characters react differently. How do you think you’d react? How do the characters in your favourite series react to being mixed up in murder? If you’re a writer, how do your suspects react?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elvis Presley's Suspicious Minds.


  1. If we assume the victim was not someone I knew well and cared a lot for, I know I would be terribly curious. When I write, I allow at least some of my characters to feel this curiosity which in my opinion is quite natural. Not gory details or such, but knowing who committed the crime , plus how and why.

  2. People who don't read crime fiction often assume that I am morbidly curious about murders and so forth but I'm not. I don't read true crime and I don't watch all those 'catch a killer' documentaries.

    The one time where I did know of a real murder was when a person in my block of apartments was murdered in the common area of the complex and I was interviewed and had to give fingerprints. All my fellow apartment block dwellers talked about 'the case' quite a bit but I didn't really join in very much, to me it was just gossiping and though I have many many faults that is not one of them - I just don't spend a lot of time consumed with the minute details of other people's lives. I think that's why I struggle with some cosy mysteries because I would be telling those snoopy amateur sleuths to get the hell out of other people's business.

  3. Dorte - You've got an interesting point. It's probably natural for people to want to know the details about a crime. And it's funny, because I've done the same thing with a few of my characters. They're curious, too. I draw the line at morbid curiosity about gory, gross details, though.

    Bernadette - I think it's perfectly possible to love crime fiction and not be curious about real-life crime. I'm not as much one for those "to catch a killer" television specials, either.

    And it's funny; I don't blame you one bit for not being overly curious about other people's lives. I'm not, particularly, myself. I mean, some things do make me curious but yeah, minute details do not. Still, I'm not sure what I would have done if there were a murder in my own apartment building. We've had police a few times in our complex, but never at our building...

  4. As a reporter I was privy to a number of murder investigations, which (I think)helps in my fictional pursuits. I also witnessed the reaction of other people drawn into those investigations. Having seen those I'm sometimes amused by unrealistic depictions in prose and film.

  5. John - I'm sure that you're able to draw heavily on what you've seen in your journalism. People in real life just don't act the way you see on television and a lot of books. I think characters' reactions can make them more (or less) realistic, too, depending on how well the author understands how real people behave in those real situations.

  6. If I could help, I would, but apart from that, I am almost certain I would leave a crime alone. Not morbidly curious- that borders on gossip for me- and if something sounds interesting, it is more fun to speculate than to know.

    Happy New Year, Margot.

  7. Rayna - Oh, you put that really well: it's more fun to speculate than to know. Very, very interesting! And I really think there's a lot of truth to what you say, too. Some times, imagining is just more fun...

    And I think a lot of people are like you in that they are not morbidly curious. They might give information to the police if they're interviewed, but they would rather, as you say, leave a crime alone.

    ...and I wish a very Happy New Year to you and your family!

  8. I'd hate to get caught up in a real murder case - fictional crime is so much better in every way!
    Margot, I'd like to say a special thank you for all your wonderful posts and comments. I don't know how you manage to do it all, but like your other readers, I'm very glad you do. Hope you have a marvellous 2011.

  9. Martin - Many thanks for your kind words - you've made my week! And thanks for your support of what I try to do :-).

    And I agree with you 100% - fictional crime is a lot better than real crime. People always say we crime fiction writers are dangerous, but really...we're only dangerous when we write ;-).