In a good crime fiction novel, especially one in which there’s a murder, there’s a certain sense of justice when the ‘bad guy’ is caught. There’s something to be said for a novel in which we get that sense that order will be restored and the culprit will go to prison. But the fact is it’s not always that easy. As crime fiction shows us, sometimes the best outcome (or the least harmful outcome) doesn’t involve prison at all. In these novels there’s a real question of what justice actually is, and the sleuth has to decide what the best outcome in a situation is. This sort of novel encourages one to question one’s assumptions, and it also allows for a real layer of interest. There are a lot of novels that raise this kind of question; space only allows me to mention a few of them.
One of the classic explorations of a case that’s not exactly ‘black and white’ is Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. In that novel wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett is stabbed on the second night of a three-day journey across Europe on the famous Orient Express train. Hercule Poirot is traveling by the same train and he agrees to investigate so that the solution to the crime can be given to the police at the end of the journey. It soon turns out that the only people who could have killed Ratchett are the other passengers in the same coach. Poirot learns that Ratchett’s murder has to do with his past history and when he finds out who really killed Ratchett he presents his theory to the suspects. He also presents an alternative theory and it’s interesting to see how the concepts of justice and the right thing to do play out in the story.
Karin Fossum’s novels often deal with cases that have no easy solution. One of these is the murder of Halldis Horn, whom we meet in He Who Fears the Wolf. She’s been living alone in a remote area since the death of her husband so she does just about everything for herself. One morning she’s out chopping wood in the front of her home when she is killed. When her body is discovered Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate. The victim didn’t have any obvious enemies but witness reports and other evidence suggest that the murderer is Erkki Johrma, a mentally ill young man who spends quite a lot of time alone in the woods not far from the victim’s home. Sejer wants to interview Johrma but the young man has disappeared and no-one seems to know his whereabouts. Then there’s a bank robbery. The robber is Morten Garp, who calls himself Morgan, and he’s taken a hostage. So Sejer, Skarre and their team have to try to find Garp and his hostage before the hostage is killed. As you might expect, this case is related to the murder of Halldis Horn and when Sejer finds out who the murderer really is, he is faced with a dilemma. If he follows the usual procedures, nothing really gets fixed and there could be some very negative consequences. At the same time, Sejer doesn’t want murderers to get away with crime any more than anyone else does. In the end though, Sejer finds a solution that has a solid chance of being successful.
Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood is the story of the life and death of Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police. One morning he and probationer Lucy Howard are called to the scene of a burglary and White is stabbed. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in and out of trouble with the law for most of his life. The story of the murder is told from a variety of different perspectives including Rowley’s own and as we learn about him, John White, and the day of the murder, we also learn that the justice system is not as clear-cut as it seems. If Rowley is guilty, is prison the best place for him? If it’s not, what is the best solution? There are some fascinating discussions in this novel about what the right thing to do is, and what justice really means in this case.
In Kerry Greenwood’s Devil’s Food, Baker and amateur sleuth Corinna Chapman gets involved in a case of poisoning when a new product being touted as weight loss tea turns out to be dangerous. Two of Chapman’s employees are poisoned after they drink the tea and Chapman of course wants to know who is responsible. She also wants to prevent anyone else from being poisoned. So she and her lover Daniel Cohen and her friend and neighbour Meroe look into the matter to find out who’s selling poisoned tea and why. When they find out who’s responsible and why, they face a dilemma. Going through the ‘usual channels’ isn’t going to solve anything. But this is a case of poisoning and can’t just be let go. Meroe finds a workable solution acknowledges what happened while at the same time acknowledging that a long prison term isn’t going to help matters.
And then there’s James Craig’s Never Apologise, Never Explain. London police inspector John Carlyle from Charing Cross Station and his assistant Joe Szyskowski are called to the scene of the murder of Agatha Mills. At first they think the case is straightforward: her husband Henry says he was asleep at the time of the murder and doesn’t know what happened. Not having much of an alibi, Henry Mills becomes the most likely suspect. He claims though that his wife was killed by political enemies out to get her. That explanation isn’t accepted and Mills is soon charged with the crime. But then Carlyle gets an important piece of evidence that supports Henry Mills’ innocence. Now he takes an entirely new look at the crime and digs deeper into Agatha Mills’ past and her associations. The trail leads to the Chilean Embassy and bit by bit Carlyle discovers the truth about Agatha Mills’ murder as well as some subsequent events in the novel. The question is though, what’s the best solution? Agatha Mills was murdered and her killer should, so most people would say, be brought to justice. But the consequences of doing that could be very negative. A way is found to resolve the dilemma and although not everyone would agree it’s a good solution, it does serve the purpose.
There’s a very difficult set of dilemmas in Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar. In that novel we meet ex-pat Australian private investigator Jayne Keeney, who lives and works in Bangkok. After a difficult case, she decides to take a break and visit her good friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse, who lives in Chiang Mai. Then late one night de Montpasse’s partner Nou is brutally murdered outside a club. Then, shortly thereafter, de Montpasse himself is shot. The official police report is that he was Nou’s murderer and was shot while resisting arrest. But Keeney is sure things didn’t happen that way. She decides to do her own investigation and find out who would have wanted to kill both men, even though she is told in no uncertain terms to leave it all alone. Keeney slowly finds a trail that leads to Chiang Mai’s sex trade and to child trafficking. She also discovers that Australian Federal Police officer Mark d’Angelo is also investigating the Thai child trafficking trade. The two have very different views about what the best solution is for catching the murderer and dealing with the traffickers. That debate brings out all the complexity of the issues involved in this murder case and acknowledges that just catching a murderer may have very negative consequences in the long run. Keeney hits on a strategy that not everyone will agree with, but that does turn out to be a workable solution.
And that’s the thing about some real-life and crime-fictional murders. Even if they are solved, simply sending the criminal off to prison may not be the best solution in the long run. At the same time, most people would agree that murderers should face consequences for what they do. It makes for a fascinating debate and a solid layer of interest in a crime novel. There are many more novels out there that address this kind of issue than I could ever mention in one blog post. Which ones have you enjoyed? If you’re a writer, how do you tackle this ‘grey area?’
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Shades of Grey.