An interesting comment exchange with Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery has got me thinking about the difference between planned murders and what you might call spontaneous murders. Different countries have different legal customs and precedents, but in general, people see a difference between a murder that occurs in ‘the heat of the moment’ and one that the killer has pre-planned. Those different kinds of murders are treated differently in real-life courts and in crime fiction it’s often easier to have some sympathy for a killer who’s committed a spontaneous ‘heat of the moment’ murderer than for a killer who has carefully planned the victim’s death. There’s something colder, more calculating and even eerier in a pre-planned murder.
We see of course both kinds of murders all through crime fiction, going back to its beginnings, and authors do treat the different kinds of criminals differently. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band, for instance, Holmes and Watson investigate the mysterious death of Julia Stoner. Before she died, Julia had been hearing strange noises in the middle of the night and said some very odd things just before her death. Now Helen is hearing the same weird noises and worries that the same person may be trying to kill her. It turns out that she’s right; someone is trying to murder her. Holmes and Watson find out who the killer is and we can see that Holmes has absolutely no compassion or sympathy for that person. In part that’s because the murder of Julia Stoner and the attempted murder of Helen Stoner have both been carefully planned. This murderer wanted from the outset to kill the two women.
On the other hand, in The Adventure of the Abbey Grange, Holmes encounters a different sort of killer. When Sir Eustace Brackenstall is murdered in his home, it looks very much like a robbery gone wrong. And in fact, the notorious Randall gang has been in the area, so the police think they are responsible. Inspector Stanley Hopkins asks Holmes to look over the case and Holmes agrees. It’s soon clear that the Randall gang was nowhere near the Abbey Grange on the night of the murder. A piece of evidence that Holmes finds at the scene puts him on the right path to find out who the killer is. He lures that person to a meeting, and the culprit explains what happened. It turns out that this murder has nothing to do with theft and everything to do with Sir Eustace’s past and that of his wife Lady Mary. In this case, the murder was an unintentional ‘heat of the moment’ kind of murder and Holmes duly shows compassion for the killer. In fact, he even bows out of the case, explaining that he’s already given Hopkins an ‘excellent hint,’ and it’s up to Hopkins to take advantage of it.
Agatha Christite’s novels show us those two different kinds of murders as well. In Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), French moneylender Marie Morisot, who does business as Madame Giselle, suddenly dies while on a flight from Paris to London. It’s soon revealed that she’s been poisoned and that the only possible suspects are her fellow passengers. So Hercule Poirot, who was on that flight, works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who the killer is. When we learn the truth about the murder we find that it was carefully planned. And we can see also that Poirot has no sympathy at all for the killer, whom he regards as cold-blooded.
And yet The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours) is a different sort of murder. In that novel, Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife Gerda are spending a weekend at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage nearby and is invited for lunch on the Sunday. He arrives just in time to see what he thinks is a scene set up for his ‘entertainment.’ Christow has been shot and is lying by the pool; his killer is standing near the body holding the weapon. Very soon though, Poirot sees that this isn’t a tableau; it’s really happened. He and Inspector Grange investigate and discover that this isn’t nearly as simple a case as it seems. When we learn the truth about what happened to Christow, we see that it’s not really a case of a cold, calculated pre-planned murder. Certainly the killer isn’t dispassionate about it and Poirot shows, in his way, some compassion. Of course, there are several Christie novels where the lines are a little more blurred, and some where there is more than one kind of killing. But no spoilers here…
In Andrea Camilleri’s The Dance of the Seagull, Vigàta Inspector Salvo Montalbano goes up against a killer who has planned in advance. It all starts when his teammate Giuseppe Fazio goes missing while investigating a case. When it becomes clear that Fazio has really disappeared and may be in grave danger Montalbano and his team work frantically to find their colleague. To do this, they’ll have to investigate the case he was looking into, which involves smuggling, corruption and the Mob. Then, one of Fazio’s contacts turns up dead and the team has to take on that case as well. In this instance, the killer has planned ahead. This is one of those cases too in which Montalbano has absolutely no compassion for the killer, and the reader is not invited to have any either.
By contrast, there’s Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back, in which Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate the murder of fifteen-year-old Annie Holland. Her body was found by a tarn not far from her village. There are no signs of sexual assault, so that doesn’t seem to be the motive. What’s more, there is every sign that Annie knew and trusted her murderer, but she was well-liked at school and in her village. So on the surface, there seems to be no reason for the murder. Little by little, though, Sejer and Skarre uncover a connection between Annie’s death and a tragic event eight months earlier. And that proves to be the key to solving the crime. When we learn the truth about those events, we see that Annie’s death was not a calculated, pre-planned killing. Fossum invites the reader to see the murderer with some sympathy and in part that’s because this isn’t one of those dispassionate murders. It’s actually very sad…
That’s a sharp contrast to the killer in Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s A Window in Copacabana. Three Rio de Janeiro cops have been killed, and at first everyone thinks that it’s someone with a sort of vendetta against the police. But then, one of the officers’ mistresses is killed. And another disappears. And another is killed. Now it seems that this is more than just someone who is out to ‘get’ cops. Inspector Espinosa and a carefully-chosen team look into the case and find that the person behind everything is both ruthless and calculating. And Garcia-Roza treats that person exactly that way. There really is no sympathy when all’s said and done for this killer.
There are plenty of fictional killers too who may not be very nice people – they may even do some nasty things – but who do not kill in a premeditated way. That is, they commit crimes, but never intended to kill, at least at first. Saying a lot more about that would give away spoilers, which I don’t want to do. But if you’ve read or written about that kind of killer, you know what I mean.
There seems to be something in human nature that sees the difference between taking a life either to defend oneself or in an unintentional ‘heat of the moment’ situation, and planning and plotting to kill. They are different sorts of crimes and readers and crime writers do tend to treat those criminals differently.
Now, may I suggest your next stop on your blog round should be Tracy’s Bitter Tea and Mystery. It’s an excellent crime fiction review site. Thanks, Tracy, for the inspiration!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Asia’s Heat of the Moment.