The other day (and no, this is not going to be one of my made-up stories; this really happened), I got a rude shock. Someone I knew (‘though not very well) was arrested. This person isn’t a friend or family member and hadn’t committed a crime against me or anyone in my family. So in that sense I didn’t feel betrayal or devastation. But still, seeing someone I’d known being led away in handcuffs was unsettling. It shouldn’t have been, I suppose. The truth is anyone can commit a crime. In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death) Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of Celia Austin. Just about everyone in the student hostel where she lives turns out to be a suspect and at one point in the novel Poirot is discussing the various motives with Inspector Sharpe, who’s officially investigating the case. Sharpe is astounded by the number of suspects and says,
‘‘For heaven’s sake, Poirot. You are making my head spin! Is nobody incapable of murder?’
‘I have often wondered,” said Hercule Poirot.’’
And yet, we are still sometimes badly shocked (yes, even crime fiction fans who you’d think wouldn’t be) when someone we’ve known turns out to be a criminal. As someone said to me about the arrest I witnessed, ‘You think you know someone…’ We build mental images of people we know, and most of the time those images do not include ‘this person has committed a crime.’
Crime fiction authors make use of people’s habit of building mental pictures. In the ‘whodunit’ kind of mystery, one way in which the author challenges the reader is by making the criminal turn out to be someone it would be hard to picture as a criminal. Of course there is a risk to this sort of plot point. A killer who’s too far out of the realm of possibility can stretch the story’s credibility too far. But if it’s done well, a killer who ‘doesn’t seem like a criminal’ can give a story an interesting twist.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal), the Abernethie family gathers when patriarch Richard Abernethie suddenly dies. During that gathering Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet says he was murdered. At first no-one believes her; Cora herself asks everyone to forget that she said anything. But privately everyone begins to wonder whether Cora might have been right. And when she herself is brutally murdered the next day, it seems clear that she was. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to look into the case and Poirot agrees. He finds that each of Abernethie’s relations could have had a motive for murdering him – and Cora. In the end, everyone (except Poirot of course) is shocked to find out who the killer really is. And part of the reason for that shock is that they couldn’t imagine that person being a criminal.
In Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, New York City homicide detective Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley gets a very difficult case. In the futuristic New York where he lives there are two main groups of people. The Earthmen are descendents of people who’ve always lived on Earth and built a world for themselves. The Spacers are also human, but they are descendents of those who explored space. The two groups have very different lives and perspectives, and relations between them are strained even at the best of times. Against this backdrop Baley is assigned to investigate the murder of noted Spacer Dr. Roj Nemennuh Sarton. Many Spacers suspect that an Earthman is responsible for the murder so Baley is asked to work with a Spacer partner R. Daneel Olivaw. The thing is that Olivaw is a positronic robot, and if there’s any group that Earthmen fear and hate more than they do Spacers it’s robots. So Baley and Olivaw have to break through several cultural and social barriers as they investigate. In the end, the killer turns out to be someone most people would not have guessed would commit murder.
That’s also true in Martha Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace. In that novel, Inspector Richard Jury is called away from a planned holiday to investigate a murder. A finger bone has been discovered in the village of Littlebourne and when the rest of the body is also found, it’s clear that this was not a natural death. The victim turns out to be Cora Binns, who had worked for a London temporary services agency. She’d been on her way to an interview in Littlebourne but never made it. And this isn’t the only unsettling thing to happen in the village. One of the residents, sixteen-year-old Katie O’Brien, was brutally attacked in a London underground station. It turns out that these events are tied to a robbery a year or so before the events in the novel. And the person behind all of what happens is someone the village’s residents wouldn’t have guessed would be ‘the criminal type.’
Colin Dexter’s The Remorseful Day is the story of the murder of a nurse Yvonne Harrison. She had an unusual and complicated private life and a dysfunctional family. But when she is first killed the police can’t find any concrete evidence that implicates anyone. So the case goes ‘cold.’ Then two years later, the police receive an anonymous tip that Harry Repp, who’s just been released from prison on burglary charges, is guilty of Harrison’s murder. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are assigned to re-open the Harrison case and they begin asking questions. But Morse seems oddly reluctant to pursue the investigation. Then Lewis makes a discovery that suggests the shocking reason for Morse’s apparent apathy about the case. But this is after all Colin Dexter so things are not what they seem. When the real truth about Yvonne Harrison’s murder comes out, the killer turns out to be someone one wouldn’t have imagined as a criminal.
In Craig Johnson’s The Cold Dish, Sheriff Walt Longmire and his deputy Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti investigate the murder of a local young man Cody Pritchard. Then a few days later, Pritchard’s friend Jacob Esper is murdered. Although there isn’t much evidence to go on, Longmire believes that he knows what’s behind these killings. A few years earlier, Pritchard, Esper and Esper’s brother George were convicted of gang-raping then-sixteen-year-old Melissa Little Bird. Longmire and his team suspect that one of Melissa’s friends or family members could be taking revenge. But this case is not quite as clear-cut as it seems. In the end, the killer turns out to be someone a lot of people wouldn’t have suspected of the murders.
You think you know someone…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The Stranger.