One of the main characteristics of crime fiction is that, well, there’s a crime. Very often there is more than one crime and in a lot of crime fiction, that crime is murder. Sometimes, though, in some mystery novels, the crime and its investigation almost seem to take a “back seat” to another feature of the novel, such as its setting or the characters involved. That doesn’t mean that the crime is ignored, but other facets of the novel capture our attention more.
Agatha Christie’snovels are for the most part driven by the crime(s) and the investigation. And yet, there are some in which the mystery is less important (although of course, it’s very much there). For instance, in The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife Gerda are invited for a week-end at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Also in that house party will be several other members of the Angkatell family. As the novel begins, we see the preparations for this weekend and several conversations that give us backstory about the family and its relationships. The Christows and the other guests arrive at the Angkatell house and settle in, and we see their interactions. On the Sunday afternoon, Hercule Poirot, who’s taken a nearby cottage, is invited for lunch. When he arrives, he’s much annoyed to find that the Angkatells seem to have provided an “amusement” for him: there’s a body lying by the pool and what looks to be the murderer standing over it. All too soon, though, Poirot realises that this is real; John Christow has been shot. Inspector Grange is called in and Poirot assists in the investigation. Of course witnesses are interviewed, clues are found, and in the end, the murderer is revealed. But in this novel, the story is as much about the Angkatell family and their relationships as it is about anything else.
The same is true of Marian Babson’s Untimely Guest. That’s the story of a large Irish Catholic family and what happens to the family when one of its members returns after a long absence. This family, led by a matriarch known only as Mam, gathers when eldest daughter Bridget “Bridie” returns to the family after ten years of living in a convent. Another sister DeeDee has also returned. She left the family after her divorce from Terence, and is now bringing her new fiancé James to meet everyone. Needless to say, there’s a lot of tension when everyone gets together. One of the big reasons for it is that Mam has never accepted DeeDee’s divorce, and still sees Terence as DeeDee’s husband. Terence sees it that way, too. Mam has also not accepted the fact that Bridie is no longer in the convent; she believes that her daughter will go back to her religious life. The tension and underlying resentments in the family surface one night when everyone has gathered at Mam’s house. At one point, James and Terence are having a loud argument and everyone rushes up the stairs. So everyone’s “on the scene” when DeeDee takes a fatal fall down the stairs. At first, James is the only one who believes that DeeDee didn’t die by accident. And in the end, with help from DeeDee’s brother Kevin and Kevin’s wife Eleanor, he is proven right. What’s interesting about this novel is that although there is a murder, and we do find out what happened, the main focus of the story is on the family itself, its dysfunction and the effect of denial on everyone.
Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel is also an interesting case of a murder mystery where the crime and its investigation are arguably not as central as other aspects of the story. In that novel, New York City detective Elijah “Lije” Baley is assigned to investigate a particularly delicate case. Noted scientist Dr. Roj Nemennuh Sarton has just been murdered and Police Commissioner Julius Enderby wants Baley to take the case. This case has serious political implications because in the futuristic New York where the novel is set, humans are divided into two adversarial groups. One group, the Earthmen, are descended from humans who never left the planet. The other, the Spacers (of whom Sarton was one), are descended from people who did leave the planet. The two groups have completely different outlooks on life, including the use of robots. Spacers rely on them as partners; Earthmen fear them. In order to keep this investigation from unleashing violence between Earthmen and Spacers, Baley is assigned a partner, R. Daneel Olivaw. He’s not happy about it, but his dislike turns to dismay when he learns that Olivaw is a robot. Despite the delicate nature of the case and Baley’s dislike of Olivaw, the two begin to work together to solve it. They do, in fact, find out who killed Sarton and why, and the novel shows that process. But perhaps more important is the look that the novel gives at what life on Earth might be like in the distant future. Much attention is devoted to living arrangements, food, work life and so on. There’s also a detailed look at prejudice. Those elements of the novel are so important that you might say the mystery takes a “back seat” to them, although it’s certainly there.
That also happens in several of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie novels. Dalhousie is a philosopher and edits the Journal of Applied Ethics, so several of the novels focus on larger philosophical and ethical issues. There are certainly mysteries, but they are not always the main focus of the novels. For instance, in The Right Attitude to Rain, Dalhousie gets a visit from her American cousin Mimi McKnight and Mimi’s husband. During the course of that visit, Dalhousie gets a chance to meet the McKnights’ friends Tom Bruce, also an American, and his new fiancée Angie. Both Dalhousie and Mimi McKnight have the strong feeling that there’s tension between the couple; at one point, Tom even tells Dalhousie about a troubling incident in which he nearly fell from a cliff, and Angie did nothing to help him. The McKnights’ visit ends and they return to the U.S. Shortly afterwards, Dalhousie gets a letter from her cousin that includes the awful news that Tom Bruce’s home burned down, and Bruce himself barely escaped alive. It’s possible that Angie started the fire. It’s possible that Tom Bruce himself did. In the end, although Dalhousie has a theory of what happened, and does take some action, we don’t know exactly what happened. In that sense, this story is much more about the characters and their interactions than it is about the mystery surrounding Tom and Angie.
In Mark Haddon’sThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, we meet fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone. He has autism, although he’s high-functioning, so he doesn’t see the world in the way that most of us do. When he discovers the body of a neighbour’s dog one day, he decides to find out who killed the animal and why. He wants to be a detective just like Sherlock Holmes. Although he’s limited by his difficulty with social interactions, Christopher Boone is a smart boy, and eventually, he does find out the truth about the dog. He also finds out an important truth about his family that changes everything for him. And it’s really that story – of Christopher and his family – that’s more important than anything. The interactions that Christopher has with his family members, neighbours, and other people are as much the focus of this story as anything else is. So is Christopher’s own growth.
Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is the story of the murder of seventy-five-year-old Amanda O’Toole. When she’s found dead, Detective Luton is assigned to find out the truth about her murder. The most likely suspect is O’Toole’s neighbour, sixty-five-year-old Jennifer White. But Luton’s investigation of White is hampered by the fact that White has dementia and is slowly losing her grip on what most of us think of as reality. Still, Luton is convinced that White knows all about the crime and may in fact have committed it. This novel is told from Jennifer White’s perspective, and we see the events through her increasingly hazy and detached eyes. And that is the central focus of the story really. We learn about her life and personal history, the way she sees things, what her relationship with O’Toole was and the history between the two families. We also see a stark portrait of someone who is slipping gradually away. Yes, we find out who killed O’Toole and why, but in the end, that’s not as important in a way as the story of Jennifer White’s experience with dementia is.
And then there’s Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, which tells the story of Larry Ott and Silas Jones. Ott’s the town loner of Chabot, Mississippi, who’s always been considered a little strange, especially since the night 25 years earlier when he took Cindy Walker out on a date, and she never came back. Everyone’s always thought him guilty of murder although he was never arrested or tried. Now, another girl, Tina Rutherford, has gone missing and all eyes, so to speak, are on Larry Ott. In fact, it’s so much assumed that he’s guilty that he’s attacked and shot. Jones is the town constable. He lived in Chabot as a child and at the time, became close friends with Ott. But the two had a rupture in their friendship. Jones moved north and went to university. Now he’s back and he has a disappearance and a severe wounding to solve. He also has to face his own past and the past he shared with Ott. This novel is about the disappearances of Cindy Walker and Tina Rutherford. But really, it’s about Ott and Jones; it’s about racism and small-town politics. It’s bout dealing with one’s personal past, too. The crimes are there and it’s not that they don’t matter. But those other elements figure in very strongly.
There are other crime fiction novels like that, too, where the crime itself is there, but really, our attention’s on something else. Do you enjoy novels with that approach, or do you prefer crime fiction where the crime “does the driving?”
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Drew Davis’ Drive.