>Most people don’t want to become murder victims. Fortunately, there’s a whole body of crime fiction that can serve as a handy guide to staying safe. It’s quite similar to the wisdom that should tell a character in a horror movie not to go down to the basement alone, answer a ringing telephone, or stay in a house alone for the week-end. So, in the interest of providing useful information to all, here are a few tips, straight from crime fiction, to avoiding becoming a murder victim.
Don’t get overly curious.
All too often, crime fiction characters become victims because they know more than they should know. That’s what happens to Celia Austin in Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death). She’s a resident in a hostel for students who finds out much more than is good for her. She notices some strange goings-on at the hostel, and asks too many questions about them. In the end, her curiosity signs her death warrant, as the saying goes. Hercule Poirot’s been looking into the events at the hostel, anyway, so when Celia suddenly dies, he figures out quickly that her murder is connected with the other events at the hostel. In the end, he discovers that the hostel’s been used as a “front” for some very shady activities. Celia found out about them and paid the ultimate price.
Anne Johnson pays a similar price in Murder in Mesopotamia, in which Poirot investigates the murder of Louise Leidner, the wife of noted archeologist Eric Leidner. One afternoon, Louise Leidner is murdered in what seems like an impossible crime. No-one was seen near her room, and all of the members of the archeological team seem to be able to account for themselves during the time the murder was committed. Anne Johnson, Eric Leidner’s assistant, comes upon a discovery that gets her thinking – too much. She’s on the point of putting all of the pieces of the puzzle together when she, too, is murdered. Once he has all of the pieces of the puzzle, Poirot is able to draw the same conclusions that Miss Johnson did, and unmasks the murderer.
Be careful of the company you keep.
Getting mixed up with dangerous people is a sure way to risk being killed. That’s what happens to Wililam Decker in Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill. Decker is a former con-man who’s especially good at safecracking. He’s been trying to “go straight,” for the sake of his toddler son. He’s desperate for money, though, so he gets mixed up with a dangerous criminal gang. One day, Decker walks into a seedy bar where Mike Hammer is having a drink. He hastily downs two drinks, leaves his soon with a tearful good-bye, and walks out of the bar – straight into the path of a car that runs him down. For good measure, the car’s occupants also shoot him. Hammer runs out of the bar in time to shoot one of the assailants, but the man dies before he can tell Hammer who’s behind the murder of William Decker. So Hammer decides to find out for himself. At first, it seems that Decker was killed because he’d bungled a job for the gang. In the end, though, Hammer finds that Decker was killed for a different reason. In a large part, it was because he was mixed up with some dangerous people.
So is David St. James in Sam Hilliard’s The Last Track. In that novel, fourteen-year-old Sean Jackson is staying at a Montana dude ranch when he sees St. James’ murder. Afraid that the killer will come after him, Jackson runs away, into the wilderness surrounding the ranch. Detective Lisbeth McCarthy calls in former Special Forces operative Mike Brody, who now runs an extreme adventure company. She asks him to try to find Sean before the killer does, and before Sean’s asthma takes too much of a toll on him. Brody has his own personal reasons for getting involved in finding missing persons, so he agrees to the job. In the end, Brody finds that David St. James’ murder is connected with a drugs gang that has no compunctions about killing. St. James was mixed up with some very dangerous and untrustworthy people, and paid the price for it.
Attraction can be fatal.
That’s what we find in Vivian Gilbert Zabel’s Midnight. Lieutenant Martin Rogers has lost the use of his legs due to a gunshot wound. While he’s trying to recover, Rogers spends quite a lot of time on the internet. There, he meets a woman he knows only as Midnight. The two strike up a friendship and before he knows it, Rogers is in love with Midnight, despite the fact that he knows very little about her. He soon figures out, though, that Midnight may not be what she seems, and he tells Assistant District Attorney Lisa Harris and two of his colleagues about his fears. They set up a “sting” operation to catch Midnight, but she proves more difficult to catch than anyone thought. Then, Rogers becomes a target himself as he and his team work to stop Midnight before anyone dies.
There’s also what you might call a fatal attraction in Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle. In that novel, Sheila Grey, a famous designer, is having an affair with wealthy Ashton McKell, who lives in her apartment building. When McKell’s son, Dane, finds out his father’s having an affair, he resolves to meet the “other woman.” Before long, he’s fallen in love with her, too, and the two begin a relationship. Then, one night, Sheila Grey is shot. The case is given to Inspector Richard Queen, so his son gets involved, too. At first, it seems that Ashton McKell is guilty; however, he’s soon cleared. Then, first his wife, and then his son are suspected. In the end, Ellery Queen uses a cryptic set of clues that Sheila Grey used in her work to find out who really murdered her.
If you’re rich, be generous.
That’s a lesson that Charles Arundell tries to give his Aunt Emily in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client). Emily Arundell is a wealthy spinster whose relations are all desperate for money. One of them, her nephew Charles, warns Miss Arundell that if she doesn’t open the purse strings a bit, she’s liable to be killed. Miss Arundell brushes her nephew off, saying that she can take care of herself. Charles is proved right when Miss Arundell suddenly dies. At first, her death is put down to natural causes; she wasn’t in good health, anyway. But before she died, Miss Arundell sent a letter to Hercule Poirot, asking his help on a delicate matter that she never specified. By the time he and Hastings get to the town of Market Basing, Miss Arundell has died, but Poirot suspects that Miss Arundell did not die naturally. In the end, Poirot finds out which of Miss Arundell’s cash-strapped relations murdered her.
And then there’s Ngaio Marsh’s Gabriel “Uncle G” Lord Wutherwood, wealthy head of the Lamprey clan, the victim in A Surfeit of Lampreys. His younger brother, Lord Charles Lamprey, has an extremely irresponsible (and eccentric) family, and things have gotten to the point where the family is facing ruin. So Lord Charles asks his brother for financial help. Uncle G is tired of coming to the rescue, and refuses any more help. He and his brother have an argument, and shortly thereafter, Uncle G is murdered. Inspector Roderick Alleyn, who’s called in to investigate, has to sift through everyone’s alibi and find out which of Lord Wutherwood’s greedy family members killed him.
Be nice to people.
In crime fiction, it just doesn’t pay to be nasty to people. That’s the lesson that old Simeon Lee learns too late in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday for Murder and Murder for Christmas). Lee is an unpleasant tyrant who decides one Christmas to invite all of his relations to spend the holiday at the family home. No-one wants to accept the invitation, but no-one dares refuse it. On Christmas Eve, Lee is brutally murdered. Hercule Poirot is staying nearby at the home of a friend and agrees to look into the case. He finds that nearly every one of Lee’s relations had a good reason to want to kill him. As it turns out, Lee was killed out of revenge.
In Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, we meet Parke Stockard, another unpleasant person who pays the price for her nastiness. Parke is a real estate developer who also contributes to the Bradley, North Carolina Bradley Bugle. She hasn’t been in Bradley very long, but she’s been there long enough to upset just about everyone with her high-handed arrogance, her greed and her tendency to use gossip she learns to her advantage. One morning, Myrtle Clover, a retired schoolteacher, goes to the local church to attend a meeting. When she gets there, she finds Parke’s body. Myrtle decides to find out what happened to Parke, if only to prove that she’s not ready to be put out to pasture just yet. She’s got lots of suspects to choose from, too, since Parke succeeded in alienating everyone in town. And in the end, Myrtle finds that Parke’s obnoxious personality led directly to her death.
Stay away from lonely, secluded places.
Lonely roads, abandoned warehouses and other secluded spots have a way of attracting bodies. I mentioned this in a recent post, so I won’t belabor it here. But it would have been helpful if Jake Goldstein and Frank Douglas, whom we meet in Mark Richard Zubro’s Another Dead Teenager, had learned that lesson. Goldstein and Douglas are star high school athletes, well-liked at school, and from well-off families. They seem to be living “the teenage dream.” One day, both boys are found brutally murdered. Goldstein’s body is found in an abandoned warehouse, and Douglas’ body is found in an empty parking garage. At first, there seems no reason for the murders. Soon enough, though Detectives Paul Turner and Buck Fenwick discover some unusual things about the boys that leads them to wonder how much the boys are hiding. Then, another brutal murder occurs, and it’s soon clear that there’s a serial killer at work. Now, Turner and Fenwick have to work “against the clock” to find the killer before there’s another death. Hopefully, these suggestions will prove useful. Of course, if everyone took precautions, there wouldn’t be as many fictional murders. Then where would crime novelists be? ; )
Do you have any additions to this handy guide?
My thanks to Maxine at Petrona for the inspiration for this post : ).