An interesting comment exchange (Thanks, Maxine and Barbara!) has got me thinking about one of the most common myths about murderers – that they are loners with few friends. It really is an unfortunate misconception because there are lots and lots of introverted people who don’t murder; many in fact are sleuths. There are also plenty of outgoing, extroverted people with lots of friends who do murder. Just a quick look at crime fiction will show you what I mean.
In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Superintendent Spence asks Hercule Poirot to investigate the murder of a charwoman who it seemed at the time was killed by her unpleasant lodger James Bentley. Spence doesn’t think Bentley is guilty but he’s been assigned to another investigation so he can’t go back over the case. Poirot agrees to look into the matter and travels to Mrs. McGinty’s village of Broadhinny. When he begins to examine the case he finds that several of the village’s residents have been keeping secrets. Mrs. McGinty found out more about one of those residents than it was safe for her to know and that’s why she was killed. What’s interesting about this mystery in terms of this post is that Bentley is a loner. He doesn’t have a lot of friends (he actually claims to have none at all) and he’s not comfortable socially. That predisposes a lot of people to believe he’s guilty. In fact, though, I don’t think it’s giving away spoilers to say that Spence is right to question Bentley’s guilt.
In Margaret Yorke’s Speak For the Dead, we meet Gordon Matthews, who’s recently been released from prison where he served a sentence for manslaughter in the death of his wife Anne. When Anne’s father Oliver Randall hears that Matthews has been released he’s worried that Matthews will try to get custody of the two children he had with Anne and who are now living with Randall and his wife. So Randall hires private investigator Michael West to find Matthews and see how and where he’s living and whether he poses a danger to the two children. West discovers that Matthews has married again, this time to Carrie Foster. West also finds that Gordon Matthews is not the person he’s made himself out to be. At the time of his trial for Anne’s murder, Matthews claimed that she was a promiscuous alcoholic shrew and that on the day of her death, they had an argument that went too far and that’s why he killed her. But West finds that those stories about Anne are most likely not true. In fact, Matthews has told a lot of people a lot of lies about a lot of things. But he’s personable and persuasive, so he’s gotten away with it. The closer West gets to the truth about Gordon Matthews, the more danger he sees for Matthews’ new wife Carrie. In this novel, Gordon Matthews may be outgoing and may have the ability to draw people to him, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t committed murder and wouldn’t do so again.
In Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, fledgling psychiatrist Stephanie Anderson has been assigned to work with a new patient Elizabeth Clark. At first Clark won’t even speak, but very slowly and with a few setbacks she tells Anderson her story. Several years earlier Clark’s younger sister Gracie disappeared and despite a major search effort, she was never found. There wasn’t even a body. This story eerily resembles Anderson’s own personal history. Seventeen years earlier, Anderson’s younger sister Gemma disappeared, also with no trace. Anderson wants to lay her ghosts to rest so against her better professional judgement, she gets as much information as she can from Clark. Then, she decides to search for the person responsible for Gracie’s and Gemma’s disappearances. The more she learns the more Anderson is pointed in the direction of one particular person. That person is friendly, outgoing and on the surface definitely not the type people fear and it’s interesting to see how that quality of getting on easily with lots of people has served the perpetrator very well.
There are also many fictional sleuths who are loners, or at least who don’t have a large social circle and lots of friends. For instance, there’s Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa. Espinosa is a cop in Rio de Janeiro, which means he gets involved in all sorts of cases, some of them quite ugly. He’s dedicated to his job, but that’s not really the entire reason he’s not married. He certainly has relationships. He has lunch and dinner with acquaintances and lovers. And he certainly has the social skills he needs to function easily. But Espinosa isn’t what you would call a gregarious, outgoing kind of cop. He’s gotten quite used to being a bachelor and it most ways it suits him.
Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson is also a fairly introverted person. She has a few close friends such as her grandparents’ neighbour Sivving Fjallborg. And she certainly can get on with people when she needs to do so. In fact, in Until They Wrath be Past, it’s her ability to get people to open up to her that allows her to find out the real story behind the murders of seventeen-year-old Wilma Persson and her boyfriend Simon Kyrö. The two young people are murdered one day while they are diving in Lake Vittangijärvi to explore the ruins of a plane that went down there during World War II. When Persson’s body surfaces the following spring, Inspector Anna-Maria Mella and her team investigate the murders. With Martinsson’s help they trace the murders to long-ago events in the area and to the way World War II affected some of the families in the area. Despite Martinsson’s ability to function around people, she is a loner. She is not interested in a large crowd of friends or a big family. She treasures her time alone and sometimes seems more comfortable with animals than with people.
And then there’s Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee. He’s a member of the Navajo Tribal Police and also a member of the Navajo Nation. It’s not the custom of the Navajo people to live in large groups as people do in cities. So Chee is accustomed to spending time alone or with very few people. He’s certainly got the social skills he needs to work with others. He has some friends and throughout the course of the series that features him he has three important relationships, the last of which ends in marriage. But Chee is by nature an introvert who doesn’t spend a lot of time surrounded by friends. He is content with his own company.
There are a lot of other examples of sleuths and other protagonists who aren’t necessarily extroverts. There are just as many examples of fictional murderers who are (I’ve actually had to be careful about that in this post so as not to give away spoilers). So really, I think we need to scotch that rumour about “the quiet ones” or “the loners” giving all the trouble, OK? Thank you.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Men At Work’s Who Can it Be Now?.