I’d guess we all like to have at least some degree of privacy. There are just certain things that most people would agree are nobody else’s business (‘though I’ll note that what counts as ‘nobody’s business’ varies by culture). But murder changes all conceptions of privacy. Murder victims arguably have no privacy at all. The police go through their most personal papers, emails, ‘photos and other possessions. And often, people involved with the victim lose their privacy too as the police uncover leads. It’s part of what can make investigations really challenging. People may not tell all that they know simply to protect their own or the victim’s privacy. There are examples of this invasion of privacy (or is it, really?) all through crime fiction. I’ll just mention a few to show you what I mean.
In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot gets a cryptic warning note that there will be a crime in Andover. Sure enough, Alice Ascher, who keeps a small tobacconist’s shop, is found dead one evening in her shop. Next to her body is an ABC railway guide. Her estranged husband is an obvious suspect, but it’s soon clear that someone else probably committed the murder. Then Poirot gets another warning note about a murder to take place in Bexhill. When twenty-three-year-old Betty Barnard is killed there, and an ABC railway guide found near her body, it’s clear that this is more than one isolated incident. And so it proves to be. It turns out that there are two more deaths before Poirot catches the culprit. At one point, he and Hastings are going through Alice Ascher’s possessions to see if there’s any clue there as to her killer. As they go through her clothes, her underthings, and so on, it’s easy to imagine how mortified she’d probably have been if she were still alive.
In Colin Dexter’s The Remorseful Day, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are assigned to investigate the two-year-old murder of a nurse Yvonne Harrison. When she was first murdered, the police couldn’t get a clear lead on any one suspect, so the case wasn’t solved. But an anonymous tip suggests that the killer was Harry Repp, who’s recently been released from prison where he served time for burglary. Morse seems uncharacteristically apathetic about the case, so Lewis does a lot of the ‘spadework.’ It’s uncomfortable for everyone, because the victim had a very complicate private life that her family isn’t exactly eager to make public. And neither is anyone else with whom the victim was involved. And as the network of relationships among the family members is explored, we see how dysfunctional this family is. And that too is a difficult violation of privacy for everyone.
In Deborah Crombie’s In a Dark House, Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his lover and former partner Sergeant Gemma James investigate when the body of an unknown woman is found in the ruins of a warehouse fire. One of their first steps is to see if the woman matches the description of anyone who has disappeared. They narrow that list down to four possibilities, one of whom is Elaine Holland, whose roommate has reported her missing. At one point, James visits the home that Holland shared with her roommate and asks to look through her things. After she gets permission, James begins her search. As she looks through the missing woman’s most personal things, including her underthings, she learns some surprising things. Although the search doesn’t solve the mystery of who the woman in the warehouse was, it does give James an interesting lead. But that doesn’t exactly make it comfortable.
It’s even harder for Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin in Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Diggers Rest Hotel, which takes place in 1947. Berlin’s been seconded to Wodonga to help the local police catch a motorcycle gang that’s been committing a series of robberies. While Berlin is in Wodonga, the body of sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee is discovered in an alley. At first, it seems that the motorcycle gang must be responsible for this murder. But Berlin establishes that that’s not the case, so he has to look elsewhere for the killer. Now he has to look into the victim’s private life to find out who would have wanted to murder her. And that’s extremely difficult, especially for her parents, who are Chinese immigrants to Australia. They’re a traditional couple who don’t want to believe their daughter was anything but a well-behaved, hard-working ‘good girl.’ What’s more, they’re a private family and don’t want to say much to outsiders. But Berlin eventually finds out what he needs to know about the victim, and in the end, discovers how she died and why.
Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances begins with the sudden death of up-and-coming Sasksatchewan politician Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. He’s poisoned one afternoon during a speech at a community picnic. The police investigate officially, but Boychuk’s friend, political ally and occasional speechwriter Joanne Kilbourn takes an interest too. Grief-stricken over Boychuk’s death, she decides to write a biography of him, hoping that the task will help her deal with the loss. In the process, she learns a great deal about Boychuk’s personal life, including some things from his childhood. Some of what she learns is extremely private – certainly not the sort of things you’d necessarily want to share even with close friends. In the end, Kilbourn finds the truth about the murder, and it’s interesting to see how the various people she talks to react when she asks for personal information about them and about Boychuk.
Qiu Xiaolong’s Enigma of China is the story of the death of Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee. When he is found hanged in his hotel room, the official explanation is that he committed suicide because of an investigation into his illegal and unethical activities. Chief Inspector Chen Cao is assigned to the case, and the understanding is that he’ll ‘rubber stamp’ that explanation. But Chen isn’t entirely satisfied with it. As he begins to ask questions, he learns that Zhou had a private life that may have a bearing on the case. His relationship with his secretary Fang Fang may have been more than professional, so Chen wants to talk to her. But Fang has gone into hiding. It’s just as well, too, since she may be in danger too. Chen tracks her down and as he interviews her, we see that it’s quite difficult for her to discuss that very private matter. Even her parents don’t really know the truth. And Chen isn’t exactly happy to probe into her intimate life. But if he’s going to find out the truth, and keep Fang safe, that’s what he has to do.
There are a lot of other examples of the way that murder victims lose their privacy. That may help find their killers, but it can be hard on their friends and loved ones, and hard on the detective too. These are just a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ Party Line.