Tuesday, April 19, 2011

From a Whisper to a Scream*

There are some murders, both real and fictional, that make headlines. Either they’re particularly brutal, or there are multiple murders, or there’s something bizarre about either the victim(s) or the murderer(s), or something else captures the public’s attention. A lot of murders, though, are not dramatic and don’t cause a media frenzy. They are quiet murders that may not make the news, but are none the less devastating for that. In crime fiction, quiet murder stories generally don’t move at a very fast pace, but they can be compelling as we look into the lives of ordinary people who live in what seems like ordinary circumstances – but who kill or are killed.

For example, Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client) is what you might call a quiet murder. Miss Emily Arundell is a wealthy elderly lady who’s all too well-aware that her relations are eager for whatever they will inherit from her. And yet, they’re fond of her and she herself has a strong sense of family loyalty. But then, Miss Arundell has a fall down the stairs during a week-end when all of her relations are visiting. At first it seems like an accident, but Miss Arundell is not so sure. So she writes a letter to Hercule Poirot, asking for his help on a very delicate matter. She doesn’t specify what the matter is, but the letter intrigues Poirot. So does the fact that he doesn’t receive it until two months after Miss Arundell wrote it. Poirot and Captain Hastings visit Miss Arundell’s home in the village of Market Basing, but by the time they get there, it’s too late. Miss Arundell has died of liver failure. Poirot isn’t deterred by this, and begins to ask questions about Miss Arundell’s life and death. What he soon discovers is that Miss Arundell was murdered, and that more than one person had good reason for wanting her dead. In the end, this turns out to be a quiet murder that doesn’t really cause a media sensation, but is still devastating.

Marian Babson’s Untimely Guest is also the story of what you’d call a quiet murder. That novel tells the story of a large, dysfunctional Irish Catholic family headed by a matriarch known only as Mam. Mam’s son Kevin and his wife Eleanor are getting ready for the return of Mam’s eldest daughter Bridget “Bridie” who’s been living in a convent for the last ten years. Also returning to the family home is Kevin’s sister DeeDee, who’s bringing along her fiancé James. And then there’s Kevin’s brother Patrick and his wife Carmel who, like Eleanor, is Protestant and therefore, somewhat of an “outsider.” Rounding out the family is Kevin’s sister Veronica, who has never married and stays in the family home to take care of Mam. When everyone returns to the family home, all of the ingredients are there for serious family strife. First, Dee Dee’s ex-husband Terence still believes he and DeeDee are lawfully married – and Mam agrees with him. It doesn’t help matters that no-one has told Mam that Bridie has come home to stay; Mam had her heart set on Bridie’s becoming a nun, and wouldn’t accept her daughter’s leaving the convent. One night while the family has gathered at Mam’s home, there’s a serious argument between James and Terence. Everyone rushes upstairs to see what’s going on and before anyone really realises what’s happened, DeeDee has fallen down the stairs to her death. James is convinced she was murdered, but no-one else will admit the possibility. Soon enough, though, both Eleanor and Kevin begin to suspect that James is right. Dee-Dee’s murder is also a quiet murder that doesn’t call a lot of attention to itself but still wreaks personal havoc.

So does the murder in Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell’s A Dark-Adapted Eye. In that novel, journalist Daniel Stewart has uncovered a very dark chapter in the history of the ultra-respectable Longley family. The Longley family has always worked hard to maintain its image as a loving, caring, middle-class family. And yet, years earlier, Vera Longley Hilliard was arrested, tried and hung for murder, and now Stewart wants to do a story on the terrible sequence of events. So he asks Vera Hilliard’s niece Faith Longley Severn, to help him do the story. She agrees and as she works with Stewart to piece together the past, she also has to face some dark truths about her family. This murder isn’t a case of a serial killer blazing a trail through the national headlines. Instead, it’s murder committed out of quiet, desperate motives.

The same thing is true of To Fear a Painted Devil, also by Ruth Rendell. Tamsin and Patrick Selby play hosts at an outdoor party to celebrate Tamsin’s twenty-seventh birthday. Several local friends and neighbours from the small community of Linchester are invited and the party is going well. Then, a group of wasps begins to annoy the partygoers. Patrick climbs up a ladder to get rid of the nests and is badly stung. He’s soon very ill and a few days later, he dies. At first, Dr. Max Greenleaf, who attended the party and has been caring for Patrick Selby, thinks his patient died of a severe allergic reaction to the stings. Soon, though, Greenleaf begins to suspect that Patrick Selby was murdered. Very reluctantly, he begins to ask questions about Selby’s death and soon, it becomes clear that more than one person might have wanted to kill the victim. All is not as it seems between Patrick and Tamsin Selby; nor is all as it seems in their tiny, quiet community.

In Peter Robinson’s Past Reason Hated, DC Susan Gay is the only member of Eastvale’s CID on duty one evening just before Christmas when a call comes in that there’s been a murder at Oakwood Mews. Anxious to prove herself, Gay decides to begin the investigation herself rather than disturb her boss, DI Alan Banks, who’s at a Christmas party. The victim is Caroline Hartley, a young woman with a mysterious past who’s an eager member of the local dramatic society. She’s been brutally stabbed to death in her own home, and Banks and Gay begin the work of finding out who had a motive for murder. As they learn more about the victim, Banks and Gay discover that she had several secrets. For one thing, she’d run away as a teenager from an unpleasant home life and it’s discovered that she had a child that no-one knew about. And then there’s her reputation as a flirt amongst her fellow thespians. There’s also her relationship with her housemate and partner Veronica Shildon, which may or may not be all that it seems. In this novel, the more we get to know about Caroline Hartley, the more suspects there seem to be. In the end, Banks and Gay discover that this murder is also a quiet, desperate murder rather than a murder committed, say, for gain or out of fear.

And then there’s Ann Cleeves’ The Crow Trap. In that novel, three young women, Rachael, Anne and Grace, are using Baikie's Cottage in the North Pennines as the base for an environmental study they are conducting. When Rachael, the team’s leader, arrives at the cottage, though, she makes a horrifying discovery: the body of her friend and the cottage’s owner Bella Furness, who has apparently committed suicide. Rachael doesn’t believe that Bella could have committed suicide though, and when there’s another death, it’s clear that much more is going on. DI Vera Stanhope, who debuts in this novel, investigates and finds that in order to get to the truth behind these quiet murders, she’s going to have to penetrate a number of hidden secrets.

Quiet murders may not generate a lot of headlines, and the novels describing them don’t always move at a fast pace. But they can be utterly absorbing and the slow buildup of tension as the murders are investigated can be very suspenseful. But what’s your view? Do you enjoy quiet murders, or do you prefer faster-paced murder mysteries?




*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an Elvis Costello song.

15 comments:

  1. Quiet murders are often the best. A Dark-Adapted Eye is a wonderful, ambiguous novel (one of those I have to reread once in a while), and The Crow Trap is another fine story.

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  2. Dorte - I really like that adjective you used - ambiguous. I think one of the real appeals of A Dark-Adapted Eye is that the answers are not handed to the reader, so that there's plenty to think about. And I agree with you; when a quiet murder novel is done well, it can be utterly engrossing and unforgettable.

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  3. I love the slower pace and deeper characterization that's sometimes present in quieter mysteries. Great examples here, Margot!

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  4. Elizabeth - Thanks :-). And you're so right about the deeper characters that one sees in quieter mysteries. That's one advantage, to me anyway, of that type of story as opposed to a thriller or even a faster-paced "louder" mystery.

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  5. Margot always comes up with great examples and recommendations for so many authors we might otherwise miss.

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  6. John - Thank you so much :-). That's awfully kind of you!

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  7. I agree that "the murder that appears not to have been one" is a very good staple of crime fiction. Camilla Lackberg's latest, The Gallows Bird, features an apparent accident that turns out to have been anything but, and more..... Also Michael Ridpath, in 66 degrees North, set in Iceland, writes about an apparent suicide by drowning that happened a year ago - the police are investigating a different crime but the truth about the old one is the key to the solution. Very good.

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  8. Maxine - Thanks for your suggestions. I know I liked Ridpath's Where the Shadows Lie, and I've been wondering whether 66 Degrees North was also good. I'm going to have to read that one. And Gallows Bird is another great example of the quiet murder that may even slip by as an accident because it doesn't call attention to itself - at first.

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  9. I think pacing is one of the draws to UK crime fiction and cozies. I know that there are times in the novels where the plot advances slowly or we spend moments with the MCs away from the mystery and I like that. It's also why I prefer to read series because when you start to know the characters and their lives, you don't want the relationships to end.

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  10. A Dark-Adapted Eye is one of my very favorites. And yes, I prefer quiet murders where the motive is hard to sort out.

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  11. Clarissa - I like it, too, when there are some quiet moments, so to speak, where we get to see the main characters doing things other than just working on the mystery at hand. It makes them more human, I think. And yes, that's one of the appeals of series, too. When they're well-written, we get to know the characters well and we see them develop.



    Patti - Oh, most definitely, A Dark-Adapted Eye is a terrific novel. Folks, do give it a try if you haven't read it. And those quiet murders with not-so-apparent motives can be the most engrossing...

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  12. I'd never thought of a murder as loud or quiet - thanks, Margot! Can we have an echoing murder? 'Cause I think that's what I've written.

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  13. Elspeth - Oh, I really like that term - an echoing murder! It ties the past and present together and it refers beautifully to the implications of murder. Nicely said!! And it's whetting my appetite more than ever for your book!

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  14. Slower pace murders can draw you in and the build up holds you in suspense until the killer is revealed.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

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  15. Mason - That is definitely one of the great things about the slower pace of a lot of quiet murders. That slow buildup draws the reader in and doesn't let go...

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