There are a number of news articles, gatherings and other commemorations in honour of the late Elvis Presley, who died thirty-five years ago. You may think that interest is ghoulish or you may be interested yourself. Whatever your opinion of those memorials or of Presley’s music, it’s hard to deny his considerable influence. For many people he’s a legend and it’s all got me to thinking about what happens when someone famous dies. As the layers of that person’s public persona are peeled away, we often learn more and more about that person. We certainly see that in crime fiction when a famous person is murdered. The police often have to get past the victim’s public “self” to find the motive and the killer because most murders are committed by people the victim knew personally. As the detective learns about the victim’s personal life, readers see the famous person as a full human being rather than just a politician, an actor, a famous writer or something else.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun we meet famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall. She, her husband Captain Kenneth Marshall and her step-daughter Linda are taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. All seems to be going well enough but then shortly after their arrival Arlena begins to take a special interest in fellow guest Patrick Redfern. It’s not long before the other guests are gossiping about their affair. Late one morning Arlena is found strangled at Pixy’s Cove not far from the hotel. Hercule Poirot is staying at the Jolly Roger and as it happens he is possibly the last person to see the victim before her death. So he works with Colonel Weston and Inspector Colgate to find out who killed Arlena and why. The most obvious suspect is her husband but he’s got a solid alibi for the time of the murder. So the detectives take a closer look at the victim’s life to find out who else had a motive. As they do they find that the reality of Arlena’s life was quite different to her public reputation as a notorious “man-eater.”
Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts is the story of Blythe Stuart and John Royle, both famous actors. Years ago the two had a stormy but passionate romance – the kind that’s the delight of tabloid journalists. They broke up and now refuse to have anything to do with each other. Each married someone else and now has a child; Stuart’s daughter Bonnie and Royle’s son Ty have carried on their parents’ feud to the next generation. But then the top executives at Magna Studios decide to try to coax the two to co-operate on a bio-film. Ellery Queen has a contract with Magna and will be working on the screenplay. To everyone’s shock, not only do Stuart and Royle agree to do the picture, but they re-kindle their romance. The studio brass take advantage of the romance and plan a “Hollywood-style” wedding, with all of the hype that entails. The plan is for Stuart and Royle to wed on an airstrip from whence Stuart, Royle and their children are to take off for the wedding trip. When the plane lands both Stuart and Royle are dead of what turns out to be poison. At first their children blame each other but soon enough it’s proven that neither is guilty. So Queen looks more deeply into the case. As he does we learn more about Bonnie Stuart, John Royle and their backgrounds and we see sides of their lives that the public never got to see.
That’s also true of what we learn about up-and-coming politician Androu “Andy” Boychuk in Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances. Boychuk has just been selected to lead Saskatchewan’s provincial Official Opposition party and despite some misgivings there is a lot of hope that he’ll be both an able politician and a skilled leader. Then tragically Boychuk is poisoned at a picnic. Boyckuk’s close friend and campaign worker Joanne Kilbourn is devastated by his death, not least because it brings back memories of the loss of her husband Ian. In part to deal with her grief, Kilbourn decides to write a biography of Boychuk. In the process Kilbourn learns that there were sides to her good friend’s life that even his best friends didn’t know, let alone the public. The real Andy Boychuk was a much more complex person than the public really knew. She’s slowly putting these pieces together when there’s another murder. Now Kilbourn tries to find out what connects the murders and who would have wanted to kill both victims.
In Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water, the body of powerful party leader Silvio Luparello is found in a car in The Pasture, a notorious area of the Sicilian city of Vigatà. Inspector Salvo Montalbano is assigned the investigation and he is told to make it as brief and as quiet as possible. Any public discussion of the circumstances of Luparello’s death will cause embarrassment for his family and for the party so Montalbano is strongly urged to “rubber stamp” the official account of Luparello’s death – a fatal heart attack. But there are things about the case t hat don’t add up so Montalbano begins to dig deeper. As he does we find out more about Luparello’s life, his business and political connections and his family. It turns out that Luparello had several sides to him that the public really didn’t know about and readers learn the truth as the novel goes on. In the end, we find that his death was not as it appears on the surface.
Neither really is the death of famous former politician Alec Dennet in Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors. When Dennet’s body and that of his editor Lorraine Starck are found at a writer’s retreat outside of Canberra, Australian Federal Police officer Bradman “Brad” Chen is persuaded to investigate. Dennet was working on his memoirs at the time of his murder. There was a great deal of talk that he was going to reveal some secrets about his life in the 1972-75 Gough Whitlam government and there are a lot of important people who don’t want those truths told. So at first it seems likely that those memoirs are the reason for Dennet’s murder. That explanation makes even more sense when it comes out that Dennet’s manuscript is missing. It really does appear that Dennet’s public persona is the reason for his murder. But as Chen and his team look more deeply into the case and into Dennet’s life they find that matters are not as simple or as complicated as that. As the investigation goes on we learn more about his private life and that of his editor and it’s interesting how both characters become more rounded and complex.
And then there’s Teresa Solana’s A Shortcut to Paradise. In that novel famous novelist Marina Dolç attends a posh awards banquet at which she receives the coveted Golden Apple prize for her latest novel. When she returns to her hotel room after the dinner, she’s murdered. The police begin their investigation and they soon have a very likely suspect: Dolç’s top rival for the prize Amadeu Cabestany. Cabestany says that he wasn’t at the hotel at the time of the murder, but he can’t prove his claim. Still his literary agent believes him and besides, Cabestany is a gold mine for her. So she hires private investigators Josep “Pep” Martínez and his brother Eduard to find out who really killed Dolç. It’s not an easy case as Dolç was a very private person. But as the Martínez brothers look into the matter they get to know the victim through conversations with her assistant and several other people in her life. They find out that there was a real difference between the Marina Dolç that readers came to know and the real Marina Dolç. And what’s interesting is that her public persona plays a role in the reason she was killed.
When a famous person dies, especially if the death is under unusual or tragic circumstances, there’s a lot of talk about what that person was really like. There’s often a lot of peeling away of the layers of the person’s life and sometimes we even get to know a little about who that famous person was as a human. As ghoulish as that interest sometimes is, in a way it’s also arguably natural; there’s definitely a lot of curiosity about famous people.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carly Simon’s Legend in Your Own Time.