Sunday, December 26, 2010

Why'd You Have to Go and Make Things so Complicated?*

Since most murderers don’t want to get caught, they do all sorts of things to throw the sleuth “off the scent.” Sometimes they frame another person for the crime. Sometimes they provide such airtight alibis for themselves that they’re nearly impossible to break. There are other strategies, too, that murderers use. One of them is to make a very simple crime look much more complicated than it really is. The more complex a crime seems, the harder it is to connect it to the criminal.

There’s a very clear example of a simple crime that looks complicated in Agatha Christie’s The Clocks. Sheila Webb is a typist for the Cavendish Secretarial and Typewriting Bureau in the town of Crowdean. One day, she gets an assignment to go the home of Miss Millicent Pebmarsh, who lives in Wilbraham Crescent. She’s told that if Miss Pebmarsh isn’t home, to go into the house and wait for her. Sheila dutifully goes to Miss Pebmarsh’s home, and when no-one comes to the door, she goes into the room in which she’s been told to wait – only to find the body of an unidentified man on the floor. Terrified at what she’s seen, Sheila runs out of the house screaming, and nearly collapses into the arms of Colin Lamb, a member of the Secret Service who’s in Wilbraham Crescent on his own mission. Lamb soon gets involved in the crime himself when he goes inside to see what happened. His friend Inspector Richard “Dick” Hardcastle leads the team of investigators and begins to search for the dead man’s identity and for his killer. What’s odd about this crime is that in the room where the dead man is found are four clocks, each set for 4:13. None of the clocks, it turns out, belongs to Miss Pebmarsh, so they must have been put there by the killer. Then, one of the clocks mysteriously disappears. This, plus the fact that the dead man’s identity remains elusive, complicates the crime quite a bit. Lamb is intrigued by the complications in the murder and he thinks his father’s friend Hercule Poirot will be, too. So Lamb tells Poirot about the crime and challenges him to solve it without leaving his chair, as Poirot has claimed it’s possible to do. As it turns out, the crime is really a very simple one, “dressed up,” you might say, in lots of complications.

In Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), Poirot is spending the week-end at a getaway cottage he’s taken. He’s invited for lunch on the Sunday at the nearby country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. When he arrives, he’s dismayed to see what looks like a tableau created for his benefit; a dead man is lying next to the swimming pool, and woman is standing nearby, holding a gun. Within a few seconds, Poirot sees that the man really is on the point of death, and has, indeed, just been shot. He is successful Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow, who was invited with his wife Gerda to spend the week-end with the Angkatells. Inspector Grange is called to the scene and at first, it seems like a very simple case: Christow was shot and his wife was standing near him holding the gun. But very soon, the case turns very complicated when the gun Gerda Christow was holding turns out not to be the gun used in the murder. Now, Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find the actual murder weapon, sift through the clues and discover who really did kill John Christow and why. In the end, the murder isn’t complicated, but the murderer has arranged it to look that way.

Harriet Vane and later Lord Peter Wimsey investigate what looks like a very complicated murder in Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase. Vane is taking a hiking holiday near the village of Wolvercombe. Her holiday turns into a murder investigation when she comes upon the body of a dead man lying by the sea. He turns out to be Paul Alexis, a professional dancer at the nearby hotel. At first, his murder seems to be very complicated. It’s even believed that he might have been mixed up in a Russian political plot, since that’s his background. It turns out, though, that Alexis’ murder was much simpler than it seems on the surface. Vane and Wimsey find out that the killer used trickery to make Alexis’ killing seem much more complex than it was. The real motive turns out to be quite simple, and when that motive is discovered, so is the killer.

In Colin Dexter’s The Jewel That Was Ours, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the murder of Dr. Theodore Kemp, curator of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. His murder and the motive behind it are actually straightforward. However, the case is made quite complicated by the theft of the Wolvercote Tongue, part of an Anglo-Saxon belt buckle that was to be donated to the Ashmolean by Laura and Eddie Stratton. That theft occurs the day before Kemp’s murder, and Morse and Lewis believe the two events are connected. And so they are. Once Morse figures out exactly why Kemp was murdered, he’s able to find out who the killer is. Once he does that, Morse and Lewis are able to connect the circumstances of the theft of the Wolvercote Tongue with the circumstances of Kemp’s murder and tie the pieces of the case together.

Ian Rankin’s Exit Music also tells the story of a very simple murder that seems a lot more complicated than it really is. Russian dissident poet Alexander Todorov is brutally murdered in what looks like a mugging gone terribly wrong. Soon enough, though, it’s clear that he was deliberately murdered. As Inspector John Rebus and Sergeant Siobhan Clarke and their team begin to look into the case, they find that there’s a group of wealthy and powerful Russian émigrés in Edinburgh who are only too pleased to have Todorov out of the way. One of them, Sergei Andropov, even went so far as to say he wanted Todorov dead. Further digging leads Rebus and Clarke to a connection between Andropov and local crime boss Morris Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty. Now the murder seems to be more and more complicated, especially when local recording engineer Charles Riordan is killed and his studio burned – shortly after a recording session with Todorov. A chance clue puts Rebus on the right path, though, and he discovers that Todorov’s murder was really a very simple crime all along. The murderer took advantage of the police’s belief that it was complicated.

There’s also an example of a simple crime that looks complicated in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Last Rituals. German student Harald Guntlieb is studying Medieval History in Reykjavík when he’s murdered. There are strange markings on his body, and his eyes have been removed. At first, the police believe that Guntlieb’s former friend Hugi Thórisson is responsible, but Guntlieb’s family doesn’t think he’s the murderer. So they hire Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir to investigate the case and find out who really killed their son. They also send their family banker Matthew Reich to Iceland to work with Thóra. As they examine the evidence and get to know the people in Harald Guntlieb’s life, the case at first seems very complicated. It seems, in fact, to be closely connected with old stories of witchcraft and “witch hunts.” In the end, though, the murder turns out to be much simpler than it seems and the motive is quite straightforward. The killer made use of some other events to make the crime look more complicated than it really was.

“Dressing up” a simple crime to make it seem hopelessly complex can be a very effective strategy to keep the sleuth (and the reader) guessing. But it’s not easy to do well, since it can make a plot convoluted. What do you think? Which mysteries have you enjoyed where the murder seemed a lot more complicated than it really was?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Avril Lavigne's Complicated.


  1. The Clocks is one of my favorites because in its simplicity you look for complications.

  2. Mary - Oh, you put that absolutely beautifully! That's one of the things that really appeals to me about that novel, too. You expect the motive, etc., to be much more complex than it really is...

  3. The Hollow is really my favourite story of this kind- simple murder really, but everyone conspires to confuse the detective.

    Great choice of topic, Margot, and the more I read about it, the more Exit Music gets on my TBR list.

  4. No title comes to mind, but I do enjoy it when a simple murder gets to be so confusing due to the red herrings the killer provides. Last Rituals sounds intriguing.

    Thoughts in Progress

  5. Rayna - You put that so very well! The Hollow really is a simple murder, committed for a very straightforward reason. And yet, Poirot, Grange and Grange's men are completely thrown off the scent and no-one in the family co-operates. It's an interesting case of Poirot having to figure out he's been led on before he gets to the truth.

    And I think you would like Exit Music. It's the last of the Inspector Rebus novels, so the character has a lot of backstory. Still, I think readers can enjoy it even without having read all of the others. In my opinion, it's one of Rankin's better ones.

    Mason - Oh, I highly recommend Last Rituals. It's a good mystery (i.e. not too easy to figure out), it's got some interesting and well-rounded characters, and there are dashes of homour sprinkled throughout. There's a little bit of an "Ewww..." factor at the beginning, but even that isn't out of hand, nor does it get too, too horribly gory. I really like this series :-).

    You're right, too: it adds to the interest in a story and makes it more intriguing if a crime that's really quite simple seems to be complicated, either because of "red herrings," or because of simple twists of events that make the case look more complicated than it is.

  6. Hi Margot .. gosh .. lots of premeditated murders .. when I read a Who Dunnit I'll have to come here and get your thoughts first! Thanks .. dressing up takes on a whole new meaning .. Hilary

  7. Hilary - I like the way you put that; "dressing up" really does take on a whole new meaning when a murderer is trying to cover up his or her crime. And you're right that a lot of premeditated fictional murders that are quite simple, really are made to look very complicated...

  8. Hi Margot - good topic! I also am aware that as writers we can have our detectives complicate things by ascribing meaning to events or clues that have none. I've seen it at work when we do murder mysteries at hotels - the guests will decide something is fishy when it isn't. Of course as the writers we know what is important but the readers and detectives don't.

  9. Jan - Oh, good point! Sometimes the sleuth thinks something's important when it's not, and that can lead him or her straight down the proverbial garden path. Your "hotel mysteries" sounds like lots of fun! I'll bet they're very popular :-).

  10. You comment on this novel a lot but Agatha Christie's ABC murder, the murderer went to great lengths to disguise the murder. He made it so complicated the simple solution took time to solve.

  11. Clarissa - Right you are! The ABC Murders is a terrific example of a simple murder that the murderer turns into a very complicated one. I'm glad you brought this one up; I was going to, myself, but as you say, I mention it a lot. Still, it is a classic example...