Saturday, January 15, 2011

I'm a Sensation*

Murders, especially high-profile murders, get a lot of attention. People sometimes seem to be ghoulishly fascinated by the crime, and sometimes, this kind of murder brings out strong feelings. In real life and in crime fiction, the result of this can be that the murder and the tragedy that results from it are exploited. Sometimes it's the media that exploits the crime - to sell more papers or more advertising. But it's not always the media. As crime fiction shows us, there are plenty of forces all too happy to exploit crime.

We see examples of this in some of Agatha Christie's novels. For instance, in
Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Hercule Poirot is traveling from Paris to London by air. On the same flight is well-known French moneylender Madame Giselle. By the end of the flight, Madame Giselle is dead of what looks at first like heart failure. Soon, though, it's established that she was poisoned. The only suspects are the other passengers on the flight and Poirot works with Inspector James "Jimmy" Japp to find out which of them committed the crime. Madame Giselle was well-known, and several of the other passengers are "society people," so the case soon becomes a media sensation. One of the interesting things about this novel is the way in which the different characters react to being "in the spotlight." One of them is Jane Grey, a London hairdresser's assistant. After the case makes the newspapers, a friend of one of her customers makes the connection between Jane and the murder and asks her about it. Then another customer wants to hear the story. Soon, she's the darling of the establishment and is asked time after time to tell her story. Although she herself is sick to death of it, she exploits it. She asks her boss for a raise, pointing out the increase in business at the salon. She gets it, too. Another passenger on the flight, businessman James Ryder, also exploits the tragedy. He sells his story to a few newspapers and is able to raise enough money to keep his business afloat.

In Christie's
The Mystery of the Blue Train, we meet Katherine Grey, long-time companion to Mrs. Harfield. When Mrs. Harfield dies, it's discovered that she left her considerable fortune to her companion, and Katherine Grey becomes a very wealthy woman almost overnight. Soon enough, a distant cousin, Viscountess Rosalie Tamplin, hears of Katherine's good fortune and invites her cousin for a visit to her home in Nice. Katherine knows right away that Lady Tamplin has ulterior motives, but she decides to go anyway. During the trip to Nice, Katherine Grey meets Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, who's traveling to Hyères to meet her lover, Count Armand de la Roche. When Ruth is found strangled, Katherine gets involved in the mystery. So does Hercule Poirot, who's on the same train. Throughout this novel, we see how the friendly, generous, but calculating Lady Tamplin tries to exploit Katherine, first for her newfound wealth and then for the sensational value of being mixed up in a murder case. Katherine's up to the challenge, though, and we see how she fends off her cousin's attempt to exploit her.

In Margaret Truman's
Murder at the Kennedy Center, we see the exploitation of a tragedy for political reasons. Andrea Feldman is a member of the staff of Senator Ken Ewald, who's making a bid for the U.S. presidency. One night, she's shot during a fund-raising event. Georgetown University law professor Mackensie "Mac" Smith finds the body and before he knows it, he's drawn into the case. He's an old friend of the Ewald family and when Ewald's son Paul is accused of the murder, he agrees to act for the defense. Paul Ewald was having an affair with Andrea Feldman, but it's soon clear that this murder was more than a lover's quarrel gone horribly wrong, or a cheating spouse about to be unmasked. As Smith looks into the case, he finds that there are several forces only too happy to exploit the tragedy of Andrea Feldman's death. For instance, there are Ewald's rivals for the presidency. Both of them would be glad to have his campaign derailed. And then there are a deposed Panamanian dictator and an evangelical minister with a number of devoted followers; Ewald's politics and agenda would thwart both of their ambitions. So they also want to exploit Andrea Feldman's death for their own purposes. As Smith searches for the killer, we see how the politics of exploitation can work.

We also see that in Elizabeth George's
Deception on His Mind. Haytham Querashi is a recently-arrived Pakistani immigrant to Balford-le-Nez, on the Essex coast. His plan was to marry Sahlah Malik, whose father is a successful businessman in the area. There are already tensions in the area between the English community and the Pakistani community, and when Querashi is found murdered, those tensions reach the proverbial boiling point. Groups on both sides try to exploit the murder, too. A Pakistani activist group claims that the murder is a hate crime, and begins to use the killing to push its own agenda. Meanwhile, the English residents use the crime to justify their own feelings about the Pakistani community. Sergeant Barbara Havers gets involved in the investigation of the murder when one of her mentors is assigned to work the case. It turns out that the crime is both simpler and more complex than a "typical" (if there is such a thing) hate crime.

Henning Mankell's
Faceless Killers also takes up the topic of how a tragedy is sometimes exploited. One morning, Ystad detective Kurt Wallander and his team are called to the scene of the brutal murders of Johannes Lövgren and his wife Maria. When the team arrives, Johannes is already dead but Maria is still alive. She survives long enough to say the word "foreign," and that sets off a firestorm of controversy. There's an anti-immigration sentiment in the community, and several people who are eager to exploit this tragedy to push their anti-immigration agenda forward. As they investigate the murders, Wallander and his team have to contend with that exploitation as well as the pressure to solve the killings.

There's also a discussion of exploitation in Tim Comstock's
Reunion in Carmel. Will Kempton and his children moved from New Jersey to Carmel, California after the death of Kempton's wife. The children have settled in and Kempton himself is enjoying his job as Carmel's chief of police. Everything changes when nineteen-year-old Brady Carson is found brutally murdered. As Kempton and his hastily-assembled team begin their investigation, there's another murder. Now, it looks as though a vicious killer is at work in Carmel. Since Carmel depends heavily on tourism for its income, there's a lot of pressure to solve these crimes as soon as possible. As if that weren't enough, Mayor Elliott Randolph, who hired Kempton in the first place, is up for re-election against Ronald Barth. Barth is a sleazy operator who quickly exploits the murders to gain every political advantage that he can. He makes it clear that Randolph's poor management of the city and Kempton's ineptitude at his job are the reasons the killer has been able to strike more than once. So not only is Kempton up against a dangerous murderer, but he's also fighting to save his job. In the end, Kempton finds that the key to the murders lies in his own past.

There are a lot of other crime fiction novels where the tragedy of a murder is exploited for advantages. Sadly, that happens often enough in real life, too…

In Memoriam

This post is dedicated to the memories of those who lost their lives in the tragic shootings in Tuscon, Arizona on 8 January. My thoughts and wishes for peace and healing go out to their families, along with my fervent hope that their grief will not be exploited.

The title of this post is a line from the Who's


  1. Yes, what happened in Arizona is really tragic. I hope their grief will not be exploited. I watched a little bit of the President's speech.

    Have a great weekend.

  2. Clarissa - I saw President Obama's speech, too. It'll be really interesting to see what happens now, but whatever does happen, I hope those families are left in peace...

    Enjoy the weekend, yourself.

  3. Another great post. It's events like in Arizona that sometimes makes me wish I had nothing to do with journalism. There have been so many tragic moments exploited in the name of news. I understand the story should be told but I sometimes wonder if by taking it so far, does it give some other unstable person a spark of an idea how to become famous. We sometimes get so caught up in the story that we forget this is real life not make-believe. Sure we want to know every detail, but what if roles were reverse how would we want it told then. Sharing your hope that the families will be left in peace.

    Thoughts in Progress

  4. Mason - Thanks for the kind words, and thanks for your perspective as a journalist. I think you're quite right that people do get caught up in a story and want to know everything. No wonder it's easy for a tragedy to be exploited. And then, if you add to that the politicians and others who have vested interests, it's not hard to see why sometimes, grief and tragedy are exploited. I hope that will not be the case this time...

  5. I concur with all the Arizona statements. Interesting that some crime fiction authors take some of these cases and incorporate them into their novels, for example Elizabeth George, one of whose books you discuss here, in her most recent novel bases the main plot on the Jamie Bulger case, a dreadful and widely reported (sadly sensationally in some quarters of the media) case in the UK.

  6. Maxine - It is interesting, isn't it, that some authors weave those cases (I read about Jamie Bulger - truly horrible) into their novels. For some reason, those cases capture readers' interest and yes, it is sad that they are sensationalised. I've never, thankfully, been personally touched by that kind of tragedy, but I know people who have been. What I've heard is that they want to pick up their pieces as best they can without feeling exploited.

  7. I recently read (on your reccomendation, of course), Murder at the Kennedy Centre, and it is a perfect example of the genre.

    And the entire Tuscon incident is so sad, isn't it?