Thursday, January 13, 2011

I Like the Scenery*

The scene of the crime is a critical part of any criminal investigation, whether it's real-life or fictional. That's where there is often evidence of the killer. And even if the killer does a good job of covering his or her tracks, so to speak, the scene often gives detectives very helpful clues about who the killer is. Of course, scenes of crime can be artfully arranged - almost theatrical. Sometimes killers do that to disguise important evidence. Other times, a carefully arranged crime scene is symbolic. In either case, the wise detective knows that crime scenes can be extremely informative - or deceptive.

In Arthur Conan Doyle's
The Adventure of the Abbey Grange, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are called to the scene of the bludgeoning death of Sir Eustace Brackenstall. Lady Mary Brackenstall is wounded, but not gravely, and tells the story of burglars who broke into the house, so at first, the crime looks like a robbery gone wrong. And the notorious Randall gang had been operating recently in the area, so they're suspected of being responsible. However, Holmes notices a few things about this staged scene that don't make sense to him, and he pursues those clues. For instance, if the crime scene really was a burglary, why wasn't the whole house ransacked? There are other hints, too, that this wasn't an ordinary burglary. As it turns out, Brackenstall was killed for quite another reason; burglary had nothing to do with the killing. Once Holmes is able to get beyond the deception at the crime scene, he deduces who the killer is.

There's also a staged crime scene in Agatha Christie's
The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours). In that novel, Harley Street specialist John Christow and his wife Gerda are spending the week-end at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Hercule Poirot's staying in the area and has been invited for lunch on the Sunday afternoon. When he arrives, he's taken outdoors to the terrace by the swimming pool, only to find that a murder scene seems to have been concocted for him. There's John Christow's body lying by the pool, and the apparent murderer standing near the body holding the weapon. At first, Poirot is more than a little annoyed at what he thinks is someone's idea of entertainment. Within a second or two, though, he realises that the crime scene is very real. Christow has just been shot, and soon dies. When Inspector Grange and his team are called to the scene, they think they've got the killer; after all, both the killer and weapon were right there. But soon, Poirot discovers that the crime scene was carefully arranged to mislead. It's only when he figures out who would have staged the crime scene and why that he really knows who killed Christow.

In Christie's
The Body in the Library, the flamboyantly-dressed body of eighteen-year-old Ruby Keene is found in the library of Gossington Hall, the home of Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly. There was no connection between Ruby and either the Colonel or his wife. However, local gossip being what it is, Dolly Bantry is concerned that very unpleasant rumours will start to spread about her husband. Besides, she doesn't want either her husband or herself to be implicated in the murder. So she asks her neighbour Miss Marple to investigate. When Miss Marple and Colonel Melchett, the official investigator, look into the case, they find that things aren't nearly as straightforward as it seems. In the end, we learn that Ruby Keene's elaborate clothes and makeup, and the place where her body was found, are all part of a staged scene planned to deceive.

Deception's also the reason for an artistically-staged crime scene in Christianna Brand's
Green For Danger. Postman Joseph Higgins is brought into the military hospital at Heron's Park when he's wounded in a World War II air raid attack. Higgins' injury isn't life-threatening, but he needs an operation. When Higgins unexpectedly dies on the operating table, everyone thinks it's a tragic accident, including Inspector Cockrill, who's sent to investigate. Then, there begin to be hints that Higgins might have been murdered. One night at a party, Nurse Marion Bates, who's had too much to drink, blurts out that she knows Higgins was killed and by whom, and that she's got proof. Later that night, her body is found on an operating table, carefully dressed in a surgical gown, mask, gloves and large boots. She's been stabbed twice. Now it's clear that there's a murderer on the loose, and the crime scene looks as though Bates' killing is ritualistic - the work of a psychopath. Cockrill discovers, though, that this staged scene was deliberately set to hide a vital clue to the killer.

There's a very unusual staged crime scene in Minette Walters'
The Scold's Bridle. In that novel, the body of old Mathilda Gillespie is found in her bathtub with her wrists slashed. Deliberately arranged on her head is a "scold's bridle," a medieval device with tongue clamps that was used to punish nagging women. At first, her death is put down to a bizarre suicide, since she'd been suffering for a long time with several ailments. But when it's revealed that she has willed her fortune to her doctor Sarah Blakeney, it begins to look as though Mathilda Gillespie was murdered, and Sarah Blakeney is the prime suspect. In order to clear her own name, Sarah begins to look into the case and ask questions. When she finds Mathilda Gillespie's diaries, she reads them and it's there that she begins to find answers. Sarah finds that the truth about the murder lies in Mathilda Gillespie's past.

Sometimes, a crime scene is staged for symbolic reasons, too. For instance, in P.D. Martin's
Fan Mail, FBI agent Sophie Anderson has just transferred to the FBI's Los Angeles field office. She's not there long when the body of bestselling crime novelist Loretta Black is found. The body is posed in a gruesome imitation of the crime scene in Black's latest release. Black's assistant contacts Anderson, asking her to help find out who the murderer is. Anderson begins to investigate, but then, another crime novelist's body is found, also posed theatrically. Then another crime novelist goes missing. Now, Anderson knows that she's up against a vicious serial killer. The only clue to these killings is a set of frightening fan letters sent to each victim before the killings. So Anderson and the L.A.P.D. have to use those letters - and Anderson's gift of psychic visions that get her "into the heads" of killers - to find out who the murderer is.

In Rob Kitchin's
The Rule Book, Superintendent Colm McEvoy of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation has to make sense of a carefully arranged set of crime scenes. He's called out to investigate when the brutally-murdered body of a young woman is found. Also at the crime scene is the first chapter of a book that seems to be a self-help guide for serial killers who want to commit the perfect set of crimes. The killer has also carefully placed six business cards, indicating that there will be other murders. Then another body is discovered. And another. It's soon clear that these killings are the work of a serial murderer and that each crime scene has been carefully and symbolically staged. McEvoy and his team race "against the clock" to make sense the crime scenes and the evidence before the killer strikes again.

Not all crime scenes are artistically arranged, of course. But a carefully-orchestrated crime scene can be an effective way to lead the detective - and the unwary reader - astray. Which carefully-arranged fictional crime scenes have gotten your attention the most?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel's Where's the Orchestra?


  1. I loved "Murder After Hours" and "Scold's Bridle"--great examples! I thought it added an extra element to the story...what are the killer's trying to say? I've got some staging in my Memphis 3 book that I just turned in that was fun to do.

  2. Elizabeth - Oh, I agree completely! In both of those novels, part of the challenge is, "What is the message the killer wants to send?" Once we get that message, we understand...

    And you've now made me more eager than ever (as though I weren't already!) to read your next Memphis BBQ novel, so I can get to #3 when it comes out :-). Ummm... just how fast can you write??? ;-).

  3. Because my novels deal a lot with serial killers and serial killers often stage the crime scene very deliberately, I pay a great deal of attention to the scene of the crime. When readers read my story, they should pay attention to why objects are placed where they are if they are not normally there. Or they should pay attention to how the body is laid out or how the murder weapon is arranged.

  4. Clarissa - I was hoping that you'd make a comment, just for that reason You write the kind of mystery where the scene of the crime matters an awful lot. Folks, do keep your eyes open for when Clarissa's series comes out; it'll be terrific :-).

  5. I find Ngaio Marsh's crime scenes rather interesting. They are often related to the performing arts - a concert, a dance, or a play, and are sometimes rather dramatic, but always make for a good read.

  6. Book Mole - Most definitely. Ngaio Marsh's novels certainly do make use of a lot of performing-arts settings. They do get a little dramatic now and again, but I like her novels very much.

  7. Jo Nesbo at 'The Devil's Star' makes also an effective use of crime scenes, which seems to be connected with serial killers most of times.

  8. Though I enjoyed The Body in the Library, I am not sure modern writers would get away with the same thing (no spoilers, you probably know what I mean).

    I think the scene of crime is very important, though, and in one of my Danish manuscripts I enjoyed having my protagonist crawling around in a bedroom. She finds a green dress and a pair of very clean nylon stockings - but where are the shoes? Finally she succeeds in convincing the police that something is wrong.

  9. José Ignacio - Oh, thanks for bringing up The Devil's Star. Yes, it certainly does make powerful use of crime scenes. I meant to mention that, but I didn't, so I am glad you did.

    Dorte - I think you're probably right about modern crime writers getting away with what Christie does in The Body in the Library And yes, I do know what you mean...

    Your manuscript has intrigued me. What aboutthe shoes? That sounds really interesting! Scenes of crimes really can be very important and they're good places to leave all sorts of clues and "red herrings."

  10. Isn't it fascinating how important the scene of the crime can be? In some books it's almost irrelevant and yet in others it's vital. I've always thought as a writer, you have to give your readers *something* at the scene of the crime - even if they discover later all you left them was a red herring! You've really got me thinking, Margot, thanks.

  11. Elspeth - Thinking??! On a Friday?! Sorry about that ;-). Seriously, though, you do have a solid point. It's important to give readers something at the crime scene. In fact, in my work in progress, there's a very important clue at the crime scene, but nobody pays attention to it until my stalwart sleuth notices something...Wonder if anyone else'll notice it...

  12. No titles come to mind, but I like what Elspeth said about writers giving the readers 'something' at the scene of the crime even if it is a red herring. With all of the crime dramas on TV, I think as readers we've come to look for some type of clue at the scene, a little hint of the killer or what's to come next. Great post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  13. Mason - Thanks :-). And you raise a really interesting point about television crime dramas. I think it really is true that television has accustomed us to expect something at the crime scene. That's the claim to fame of shows like CSI and its spinoffs. I'd bet a lot of our reading habits have been affected by television. Hm......I feel a post coming on...:-).

  14. When I read the introduction, the first three examples I thought of were the first three you quoted. They are all such perfect cases of "staging a scene". And that is one type of crime that I really enjoy reading.

    The one other example that comes to mind which is of how staging ended up confusting is Study in Scarlett. After all the effort put into figuring out Rache, it turned out he didn't even know what the word meant!

    Great examples. And I see my TBR list growing