Wednesday, March 2, 2011

I See Trouble On The Way*

Modern psychology has taught us a lot about the way humans think and what motivates us to do what we do. But one thing the experts haven’t really been able to do is predict who’s going to commit murder. Both in real life and in crime fiction, there are just too many factors that affect a person to really predict whether that person will take a life. There are plenty of murderers who, under other circumstances, might not have killed. There are also plenty of people who haven’t killed but who might given the right situation; that’s why there isn’t such a thing as “the murdering type.” In crime fiction, the fact that we can’t always predict who’s likely to kill is probably a good thing; after all, it wouldn’t make for a very interesting mystery if we could automatically predict who the culprit was. Besides, life isn’t that predictable.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, for instance, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Charles Milverton, who’s well-known as a malicious blackmailer. Milverton’s gotten hold of some indiscreet letters written by a client of Holmes, and he wants to bargain for their return. Holmes refuses and he and Watson plan to sneak into Milverton’s house to recover the letters themselves. While they’re there, one of Milverton’s other “clients” pays him a visit and puts a permanent end to his blackmailing. It turns out to be someone whom you would never have predicted as a killer, and it’s example of how hard it is to be sure of who would or would not kill.

That’s one reason why Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot suspects everyone when he’s investigating a case. And he can imagine scenarios in which anyone might take a life. For instance, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Poirot investigates the stabbing death of retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd. Ackroyd died a very wealthy man, so there are plenty of suspects. And each of the suspects turns out to be hiding something. One very interesting thing about this crime, though, is that on the surface, you wouldn’t automatically predict that any of them would turn out to be a killer. For example, there’s Ackroyd’s niece Flora Ackroyd; she’s young, attractive, and what used to be called “well brought up.” She’s certainly not the type of person you’d imagine as a killer. Her mother, Ackroyd’s sister-in-law, is also not a person you’d imagine taking a life. She’s led a life of genteel poverty and shrinks from nastiness. Not at all the sort of person you’d think would take the drastic step of killing. Ackroyd’s housekeeper Miss Russell is a model of respectability and efficiency, and while she stands to inherit a small legacy, she’s not motivated by greed. One would hardly predict that she’d kill. And yet each of these people, and the other suspects in the novel, has a reason to kill. In the end, Poirot finds out which of them has acted on that motivation; it turns out to be a person one wouldn’t have predicted as a murderer.

There’s another case of a murderer one wouldn’t have predicted in Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal). In that novel, well-respected semi-retired attorney Mr. Entwhistle asks Poirot to look into the death of one of Entwhistle’s clients Richard Abernethie. At first, Abernethie’s death looks like a natural death. But when his family gathers for the funeral and afterwards for the reading of the will, his sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. Everyone hushes her up, and Cora herself takes back what she said. But privately, everyone wonders whether Cora was right. Abernethie did, after all, leave a large fortune, which all of his relations are desperate to have. Then, the day, Cora herself is brutally killed. Entwhistle now begins to suspect that maybe Cora was correct about her brother’s death. Poirot agrees to investigate the case, and together with Entwhistle, starts to put the pieces of the puzzle together. In the end, he finds out the truth about both deaths. What’s interesting about the murderer in this case is that it’s someone one wouldn’t have predicted would be a killer. Certainly it’s not someone with the stereotypical “unfortunate background” or homicidal tendencies.

You wouldn’t have predicted that the murderer in Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise would have taken a life. Copywriter Victor Dean was killed by a fall down the spiral staircase of his employer, Pym’s Publicity, Ltd. At first, his death was put down to a tragic accident. But he left behind an unfinished letter in which he claimed that someone at the company was involved in illegal dealings. Pym’s management is determined to retain the company’s ultra-respectable image. So they hire Lord Peter Wimsey to go undercover as Dean’s replacement and find out what, if any, truth there might be to Dean’s claim and to catch Dean’s killer. Wimsey soon makes quite a name for himself as the new copywriter; he also discovers that someone in the company was using Pym’s resources to arrange meetings between a drugs ring and local drug dealers. Dean discovered who that someone was, and was killed because he’d been blackmailing that person. Under other circumstances, one wonders whether the killer would have been driven to take Dean’s life…

The killer in Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger is also not someone you’d have predicted would take a life. Postman Joseph Higgins is wounded in a World War II bombing and brought to a military hospital near Heron’s Park. His injury isn’t serious and in fact, he’s expected to make a full recovery. Tragically, he dies. At first, his death is put down to accident, but as a matter of routine, Inspector Cockrill is sent to investigate and make a report. Soon, it becomes clear that Higgins was murdered. One night at a party, Sister Marion Bates, a nurse at the hospital, has too much to drink and blurts out that she knows who Higgins’ killer is. By the end of that night, she herself is murdered. Then, there’s a third brush with death. Cockrill discovers who the killer is, and when we do, too, we see that it’s not someone one would have thought of as a killer.

You could say the same thing about the killer in Colin Dexter’s The Jewel That Was Ours. That’s the story of the theft of The Wolvercote Tongue, part of a valuable Saxon belt buckle that was to be donated to Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. When The Wolvercote Tongue’s owner Laura Stratton suddenly dies and the jewel itself goes missing, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are put on the case. The next day, the Ashmolean’s curator Dr. Theodore Kemp is found murdered. Morse and Lewis suspect a link between the theft and the murder, and so it turns out to be. Of course, this is an Inspector Morse case, so the link isn’t an obvious one, but eventually, Morse and Lewis find out the truth. As it turns out, the killer isn’t someone you would have predicted would commit murder. When we learn about the motive, we can understand why Kemp was killed, but if you looked at the “profile” of the killer, you’d probably not have pegged that person as a murderer.

That’s also true of the killer in Chris Well's Nursing a Grudge. Retired bus driver Earl Walker now lives at the Candlewick Retirement Community. He’s never mixed much with the other residents, nor really been a part of community activities, but one day, he’s persuaded to go to a chili party with some of the other community members. Not long after the party, George Kent, who also attended, suddenly dies. At first, Kent’s death is presumed to be a natural one. He was elderly, not in the best of health, and shouldn’t have been eating chili. Soon, though, Walker begins to suspect that Kent was murdered. At first, no-one in authority believes Walker and those who do believe him aren’t talking. More than one resident had a motive to kill Kent, who was a malicious blackmailer. But then the evidence connects a friend of Walker’s to the murder, so Walker has to work fast to clear that person’s name and find the real killer. When he does, it turns out that the murderer is someone you’d never have predicted would take a life. Under other circumstances, it probably wouldn’t have happened.

Of course, there are several well-written crime novels where the killer turns out to be someone we could have predicted would be a murderer. But what makes human nature (and crime fiction) so fascinating is that you never do know for sure…




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Creedance Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising.

16 comments:

  1. What an original post, Margot! Some fascinating examples here, too. Did you ever read the short story Minority Report by Philip K Dick - classified as science fiction but the plot was about a future in which there is no crime because the police have access to people who have the power to predict crimes - so can arrest the perp before the crime is committed. It was made into a film with Tom Cruise.

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  2. Maxine - Thank you :-). Now you mention it, Minority Report is ringing a bell. I didn't see the film, but do remember the story. Even though I write murder mysteries, I sometimes wonder what it would be like with no crime, but as that story shows, sometimes it's best not to get what you wish for....

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  3. In the hands of a great writer, no one is beyond suspicion.

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  4. Patti - Oh, beautifully put :-)!! And you are quite right.

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  5. Thought provoking post! It's so much fun to read a novel where almost everyone could have done it - even when they aren't the 'right type'. Love when there are lots of suspects :)

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  6. Jemi - Thank you :-). I agree that the really engaging novels are the ones in which there are several people with good motives. It's interesting that you bring that up about the "right type" to be a murderer, too. You might not predict that someone would kill, but that doesn't mean she or he never ever would...

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  7. I do like a change of pace and think of the Columbo series (my favorite TV show of all time!!!) The first ten minutes of the show were spent showing who the murderer was and in the act of killing his victim. So we knew from the start. The show then introduced Columbo and the investigation started. But I also love a classic Whodunit!

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  8. Stephen - I used to watch Columbo all the time! And it was an interesting change of pace, wasn't it, to know who the killer was and see the "chess game" between Columbo and the killer. And a lot of the killers on that show weren't people you would have predicted would end up taking a life.

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  9. I *love* being surprised by the killer's identity. The best is when I'm certain that I know who the murderer is and then I discover it's another suspect. :)

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  10. Elizabeth - Oh, that takes a clever author, doesn't it, to make the reader predict that one person is the killer when it's really another :-). I like that, too.

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  11. That's one thing I love about AC's mysteries. Usually it's not the first person we suspect. The police are running after the bad guy with a criminal past and usually he's not the one who has done it.

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  12. Clarissa - I like that about Agatha Christie's mysteries, too. The police often think that they can predict who the killer is based on her or his past, but it often doesn't work out the way they think it will. They (and sometimes the reader) try to hard to predict what sometimes is not predictable.

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  13. This may be the reason I find the serial killer-type mysteries annoying; you know who's doing it, you're just waiting for a name and for the good guys to catch up. I far prefer to read (and write) mysteries where the identity of the killer is a surprise, because there are several candidates, all with a motive but not all with opportunity. And some motives are just more pressing than others...

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  14. Elspeth - Serial killer novels do have that drawback; you can predict right from moment one who the killer is. You know. There's not a question of whether one or another person "fits" as the killer. That said, I have to say there are some novels of that type that I've read and enjoyed. It's hard to pull that off well, though.

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  15. When there are several suspects to draw from, it's more interesting reading. You know it just has to be suspect A, but then new evidence is found and oh, now it could be suspect B. Great way to keep the reader guessing right up until the very end. Margot, another wonderful post.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

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  16. Mason - Awww...thanks! You know, I like that about a good mystery, too. When it's hard to predict just which of the characters is the killer, it challenges the reader to really think things through. It makes readers keep their wits about them ;-).

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