One of the most common reasons that there’s a murder in crime fiction is that there’s something about either the victim or the murderer that drives the killing. And one of the more interesting of those “somethings” is that either the victim or the killer is leading a double life. I don’t mean a stolen identity. Rather, I mean a person who is hiding a secret life. That’s sometimes challenging to do well in crime fiction. After all, in real life it would be difficult (‘though certainly not impossible) to hide a secret life from one’s loved ones. But it happens, and when it’s done well, that plot point can add to a novel.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, Hercule Poirot is asked to help investigate a series of terrible events at Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school. One night, games mistress Grace Springer is shot in the school’s new Sports Pavilion. The police begin their investigation but it’s no sooner underway when there’s a kidnapping. And then another death. Julia Upjohn is a pupil at the school who slowly puts together a big part of the puzzle. When she does, she visits Hercule Poirot, who happens to know a friend of her mother’s. Julia tells Poirot about what’s going on at Meadowbank and he travels to the school to solve the mystery. Poirot finds out that someone at the school has been leading a secret life and that Grace Springer found out about part of that life. In the end, Poirot ties in her murder with the other events at the school and with a revolution in a Middle Eastern country and a stolen cache of jewels.
In Michael Crichton’s A Case of Need, which he wrote as Jeffery Hudson, we meet pathologist John Berry, who works at Boston’s Memorial Hospital. One day he gets a call from his friend obstetrician/gynecologist Arthur Lee. Lee has been arrested on charges that he conducted an illegal botched abortion (the book was written in 1968 when abortion was illegal in the U.S.). It’s also alleged that this abortion caused the death of Karen Randall. Lee claims that he is innocent and that he’s being framed in part because he is an Asian-American. Berry agrees to ask questions and looks into the matter. He finds that Karen Randall had a private life that was very different to the public life she led as the daughter of one of Boston Memorial’s most powerful surgeons. The Randall family wants more than anything to avoid a scandal, but Berry persists. He discovers that it was Karen Randell’s secret life that in large part led to her death.
There’s also a case of living secret lives in Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel. In that novel, Amsterdam’s Inspector Van der Valk is sent to the small Dutch town of Zwinderen. Someone’s been sending a series of threatening anonymous blackmailing letters to several of Zwinderen’s townsfolk. The letters have resulted in two suicides and one complete mental breakdown. So Van der Valk is asked to get to the bottom of the matter and find out who is responsible for the letters. Since the locals do not trust outsiders, Van der Valk gues under the guise of conducting a Ministry of the Interior study. He and his wife Arlette settle into the town and begin asking questions. As he gets to know the town’s residents better, Van der Valk finds that they’re really not guilty of the terrible conduct of which the letters accuse them, but they are so afraid of being ostracised by the town that they don’t even want any hints about them to come out. Van der Valk also finds that there is one person in town who does have what you could call a secret life. And he discovers that there is a dark secret in town – more important and more deadly than any of the “immoral conduct” alleged in the letters.
We also see double lives in Margaret Truman’s Murder at the FBI. FBI agent Chris Saksis and her partner and lover Ross Lizenby are assigned to the murder of fellow agent George Pritchard. Pritchard’s body was found by the rifle range at FBI headquarters in Washington, and at first, it’s believed that he was the victim of a terrorist group whose membership he was about to reveal. But there are other possibilities, too. One, for instance, is that his bitter ex-wife murdered him. There are also people at the top of the FBI administration who had a reason to want Pritchard dead. The closer Saksis gets to the truth, the more questions are raised about Pritchard and what he might have known. In the end, Saksis learns that someone was leading a double life and it’s that secret life that cost Pritchard his life.
Helene Tursten’s The Glass Devil also features secret lives. Göteborg detective Irene Huss and her team are assigned a bizarre case. Schoolteacher Jacob Schyttelius has not been seen in a few days and it’s not like him to simply not come to work. The school principal asks his cousin Sven Andersson, who is Huss’ boss, to look into the matter. When Andersson and Huss arrive at the summer cottage where Schyttelius has been staying, they find that he’s been shot to death. Then later that evening Schyttelius’ parents are murdered, too. Huss and the team begin to look into the lives of the Schyttelius family to see why anyone would want to murder them. The more they get to know the family and the better they get to know the people in the family’s life, the more secrets they learn. And in the end, it turns out that the family was killed because of secret lives people were leading.
And then there’s Niki Rowe, whose murder is at the heart of Donna Malane’s Surrender. A year before the events in the story, Niki was stabbed, and although the police are sure they know who killed her, they could never bring charges. Now, James Patrick “Snow” Wilson, the man the police think is guilty, has been stabbed in the same way. Niki’s sister Diane Rowe is a missing person’s expert who’s often worked with the police. In fact, she used to be married to police officer Sean Callum. Callum tells Rowe that before his death Wilson confessed to the murder and said that he was paid to kill Niki Rowe. When Diane finds that Wilson has been murdered she decides to find out who killed him, as it may lead her to the person who ordered her sister’s murder. Her search for answers leads her to find out more about Niki’s life. She’d always known that Niki was an exotic dancer, but the truth is that Niki had a secret life that included all sorts of “customer service” for clients. The more Diane learns about her sister’s secret life, the more she learns that Niki was more complicated than anyone had known. As it turns out, that complexity is the reason that she was killed.
Secret and double lives aren’t easy to write as it’s hard to make it believable that a person would have a double life without some loved one knowing about it. But when they’re done well, secret lives can add an interesting layer to a novel. Which novels featuring secret lives have you enjoyed?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Half a Mile Away.