One of the terrible realities of murder is the devastating effect it has on those who are left to pick up the pieces after the killing. When anyone dies, that death leaves a hole in the lives of those who knew and loved that person. That’s as true for the families and friends of murder victims as it is for anyone else. That’s why well-written crime fiction neither glorifies murder nor minimises its effect on those left behind. Of course, some fine crime fiction novels don’t focus as much on that element as they do on other aspects of a murder and its investigation. But the best crime fiction acknowledges the reality of coping with the sudden and violent death of a loved one.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from Carla Lemarchant, who wants him to take on an unusual case. Sixteen years earlier, Carla’s father, famous painter Amyas Crale, was poisoned one afternoon; her mother Caroline was convicted of the murder and died in prison a year later. Carla is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants Poirot to clear Caroline’s name. Poirot agrees and begins to look into the case. The five people who were “on the spot” on the day of the murder are all still alive, and Poirot asks each one to write out an account of what happened. He also interviews each person. From those accounts and interviews, Poirot is able to deduce who really killed Amyas Crale and why. One of the really interesting elements of this novel is the effect that Amyas Crale’s death has had on those left behind. Crale’s wife, for instance, became a shadow of the strong person she was. His mistress Elsa Greer has become hardened; Christie likens her to what Juliet might be like had she lived on after Romeo’s death – she’s “frozen,” in a way. Crale’s friend Meredith Blake is still haunted by memories of that time; in some ways, they are more real to him than the intervening years have been. And Carla Lemarchant doesn’t feel she can really go on in her own adult life until she gets resolution and closure in this murder. In the end, Poirot is able to provide that for her.
In Christie’s Death on the Nile, beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is shot on the second night of a honeymoon cruise up the Nile. Poirot is on the same cruise and he and Colonel Race investigate the murder. Two other murders follow, and one point, one of the passengers says that
“They’re no loss.”
That’s when passenger Cornelia Robson points out clearly the loss that’s suffered when someone’s murdered:
“I didn’t like ____ much, but her daughter was ever so fond of her and she’s all broken up over her mother’s death. I don’t know much about ____, but I expect somebody was fond of her somewhere and as for Linnet Doyle – well apart from everything else she was just lovely!…And when anything beautiful’s dead, it’s a loss to the world. So there!”
It really points out the effect of a death on those still living.
Lauren Hill is devastated by her father Leander Hill’s death in Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil. Leander Hill died of a heart attack, but Lauren is convinced it was caused deliberately, and that her father was murdered. Ellery Queen has taken a temporary home in the area so that he can get some writing done, and Lauren asks him to investigate. At first, Queen’s reluctant, but the mystery intrigues him. Before Hill’s death, he received cryptic warnings in the form of macabre “presents” and now, his business partner Roger Priam is receiving them, too. Queen finds that the “gifts” are a coded warning, and he uses that code to solve the mystery of Hill’s death. Throughout this novel, Lauren Hill is driven by the need to find out what happened to her father; we can see that his loss has been traumatic for her and it’s interesting to see how she channels that into wanting to solve his murder.
One of the most powerful looks (at least in my opinion, so feel free to differ with me if you do) at what murder can do to a family is Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands. That’s the story of the Peters family. Eighteen years before the novel begins, Gloria Peters lost her son Billy when he disappeared and was presumed killed. It’s believed that his killer is Arnold Avery, a convicted murderer who’s currently in prison. The Peters family has been devastated by Billy’s loss, and has found it impossible to really begin to heal. Then, Billy’s nephew Steven decides to take matters into his own hands. He begins to write letters to Avery, hoping that he’ll be able to get Avery to admit that he killed Billy Peters and tell where the body is. For his part, Avery has his own agenda, so he responds to Steven’s letters and tries to manipulate the boy. The two get involved in a dangerous game of manipulation and each manoeuvre raises the stakes for both. It’s really clear in this story how the loss of Billy Peters has wreaked havoc on his family, and how that sense of loss drives Steven.
Karen Osborn’s The River Road also offers a compelling look at what happens to those left behind after a tragic loss. In that novel, we meet brothers David and Michael Sanderson and Kay Richards, who’s lived next door to the Sanderson brothers for years. The three have been inseparable since childhood and now as young adults, Kay and David are in a relationship. One night while all three are home from college for a break, they go out and end up, drunk and under the influence of drugs, on the French King Bridge near their Connecticut homes. David climbs up on the edge of the bridge and says that he’s going to jump off and swim for shore. He invites Kay to join him and promises they’ll jump off and swim over together. Kay finds David irresistible, so before she knows it, she’s up on the edge, too. Then, in one horrible moment, David’s in the water, drowning. His loss tears his family apart and devastates Kay. What’s worse is that it soon comes out that Kay might have pushed David into the water. If so, she’s guilty of at least manslaughter. Now Kay has to deal not just with her grief and loss, but also with the prospect of a murder trial. This novel explores what David’s death does to both his and Kay’s family by sharing the story from several different perspectives, and it’s also a fascinating portrait of what suspicion, doubt, guilt and secrets can do to relationships.
Alan Orloff’s Diamonds for the Dead also shows how a death (including deaths from murder) affects those left behind. Josh Handleman returns from San Francisco, where he’s been living, to his family’s home in Northern Virginia when his father Abe dies from a fall down a flight of stairs. At first, the death is put down to a terrible accident. But then, Abe Handleman’s best friend Lev Yurishenko tells Josh that Abe was murdered. Josh has enough to deal with; he’s sorting out his feelings for his father, he’s coping with his sense of loss and he’s making funeral arrangements. Besides, he can’t imagine why anyone would want to kill his beloved father. But then, Josh is settling his father’s affairs and finds out that his father was much wealthier than anyone suspected. Josh also finds that his father had a cache of valuable diamonds – and they’re missing. Now, Josh begins to believe that Yurishenko might have been right, and goes on the trail of the diamonds and his father’s killer. Throughout the novel, we follow not just the mystery, but also the way Josh deals with his sense of loss.
Of course, fictional sleuths are also sometimes devastated by this kind of searing personal loss. But I’m not giving examples here; I don’t want to give away spoilers.
When someone dies, including through murder, those left behind are often shattered. Well-written novels acknowledge that, even if they don’t dwell on it. That’s part of what makes such novels believable and absorbing.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Evanescence’s My Immortal.