When most of us think of crime fiction, we think of a story in which there’s a murder or some other criminal activity and a sleuth or sleuths figure out what happened. Of course there’s a lot more to a good crime fiction novel than that but the basic idea of a crime novel is that, well, there’s a crime. Most of the time. There are some well-written crime novels though in which it’s not really clear that a crime was committed. In novels like that, the appeal is often the psychology of the people involved. The suspense lies in unwrapping if you will people’s memories and discovering what really happened. And of course there’s the suspense element of working out whether there really was a crime. Such a novel has to include very well-drawn characters though, or at least characters that keep our interest, as that’s usually the focus of this kind of story.
Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder has the flavour of this sort of novel. Giles and Gwenda Reed are newlyweds looking for their first home. For some reason Gwenda is particularly attracted to a house in Dilmouth and the couple duly buy the property and move in. Soon though, Gwenda begins to experience a disturbing sense of déjà vu although she doesn’t consciously remember being in the house before she and Giles bought it. What’s worse, she sees images of a dead woman lying in the hallway of the house. As time passes, Gwenda begins to wonder whether she’s having some sort of mental breakdown. So she’s open to the idea when her cousin Raymond West and his wife invite her for a visit. In the course of staying with the Wests she gets the chance to talk to Miss Marple, who as Christie fans know is West’s aunt. She tells Miss Marple what’s been happening and although Miss Marple doesn’t dismiss the episodes as psychosis, she does suggest that Gwenda should ‘let sleeping murders lie,’ if there even was a murder. Then one evening Gwenda has a bizarre reaction to a scene in a theatre performance. Miss Marple begins to suspect that perhaps something did happen in Dilmouth and that Gwenda may be more aware of it than she knows.
In Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water the body of Silvio Luparello is discovered in a car in a notorious part of town called The Pasture, a meeting place for prostitutes and their clients and for small-time drug dealers and their customers. Inspector Salvo Montalbano is called to the scene and begins to investigate. All indications are that Luparello died of a heart attack during a sexual encounter and there’s nothing in the forensics reports or physical evidence that refutes that theory. Luparello was a wealthy and powerful local political party leader and the discovery of his body in such a compromising situation would mean a great deal of public scandal for his family and his political allies. So there’s a lot of pressure on Montalbano to quietly fill out a ‘rubber stamp’ report and go along with the theory of death by heart attack. But a few things about the case raise questions for Montalbano and he requests some time to look into the matter. He’s given two days and we follow the investigation and in the end we find out what really happened on the night of Silvio Luparello’s death. Throughout the novel, the question of whether there really was a crime adds an interesting layer of suspense.
Karin Fossum’s Bad Intentions also raises the question of whether a crime has really been committed. Three young men Axel Frimann, Philip Reilly and Jon Moreno decide to spend a weekend at a cabin on Dead Water Lake. Jon has recently been released from a mental hospital after having severe anxiety issues and the idea is to give him a change of scenery and a chance for some fun. One night the three are out on the lake when a tragedy occurs and only two of the young men return. Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre are called in and they question the two survivors. Sejer is certain that these young men know more than they are saying but they’ve obviously decided what they will and will not say, and Sejer can’t seem to break their agreement. What’s more there’s no real evidence to move the case along. Then the body of a teenager is found in Glitter Lake and Sejer and Skarre have another investigation on their hands. As the two detectives investigate, there are real questions about whether one or both incidents involved crime. The key here is much more in the psychologies of the characters than in anything else.
There’s also an interesting question of what, if any, crime was committed in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant. Delhi private detective Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri is approached by successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal. A Kasliwal family servant Mary Murmu has disappeared, and he is suspected of having raped and killed her. Kasliwal claims that he is not guilty and doesn’t know where Mary Murmu is. He wants to hire Puri to clear his name and to find out the truth about what happened to his missing servant. Puri takes the case and begins to ask questions. Then Kasliwal is actually arrested and it’s soon clear that part of the reason is that the police don’t want to give the appearance of showing favouritism because of Kasliwal’s wealth and position. So Puri faces the task not only of finding out what happened to Mary Murmu (if anything did), but also of dealing with official resistance to a case that the police want left alone. The question of whether there really was a crime in this case isn’t answered right away and that adds to the interest in this novel.
And then there’s Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice. In that novel, we meet former school principal Thea Farmer. She had a beautiful home built for herself in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. But after making a terrible financial decision Farmer lost her money and had to sell her dream home and settle for the house next door, a house she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ Farmer is resentful when Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington purchase what she still considers ‘her’ house and move in. It’s even worse when Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim joins the couple. Bit by bit though, Farmer and Kim get to know each other and take an interest in each other. That’s when Farmer begins to suspect that there is something sinister going on in the house next door. And that’s one of the main points of suspense: is there something criminal going on? If there is, what is it? If there’s not, then what does that imply about Farmer? Matters get even more intense when Farmer is so convinced that she’s right about the family next door that she takes a decision that has disastrous consequences.
Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos also raises the question of whether a crime is really committed. In that story, a woman who’s recently been released from prison is given housing not far from a childcare centre. Her only companion (for reasons which are also a part of the story) is her pit bull Sully and she is devoted to her dog. Then one day a complaint is lodged against her for owning a dangerous animal. The woman is devastated by the complaint because it means she’ll have to give up Sully. She is certain that she knows not just who lodged it but why so she makes her own kind of plan for revenge. In the end we find that things are not what they seem, and it’s an interesting look at how our perceptions affect whether or not we think there’s been a crime.
Sometimes a story doesn’t need to have an obvious crime in order to keep readers turning pages. I’ve only mentioned a few examples; which ones have you enjoyed?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Buffalo Springfield’s For What it’s Worth.