Shades of Grey Wherever I Go*

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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, James Craig, Karin Fossum, Kerry Greenwood, Y.A. Erskine

20 responses to “Shades of Grey Wherever I Go*

  1. Whoo hoo!! I’m just thrilled to finally find I’ve read one of the books on your blog! You’d never think I loved crime fiction with the amount of books I come across on here and say I haven’t read 🙂

    James Craig! I’m just reading the next one on as well. A very different ending for that killer indeed.

    • Rebecca – Let’s face it; there are just too many good books out there for anyone to read them all. There’s no way to do that. And yes, the ending to Never Apologise, Never Explain is indeed different. It works though in my opinion.

  2. kathy d.

    Good topic. This issue often causes consternation or puzzlement on the reader’s part, and it often leads us to think of larger issues than one murder. As readers, we know there are no easy solutions.
    Angela Savage examines various solutions to the child trafficking issue, yet her book raises the social issues at play in what is a global crisis — and a growing one. The characters discuss it and agree that to simply arrest the guilty parties won’t stop others from taking their places — although I’d like to see all who partake in or profit from this child abuse go to jail for decades. But there are social reasons for it, which this author doesn’t shy away from mentioning.
    Then there’s A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller, which raises the hard-core drug trade, for which there are no easy solutions either, in an area economically devastated, with high unemployment, low-wage, dead-end jobs, foreclosures, etc. Although the main culprits are caught for the murders, the social issues are still there, and others will simply step in to continue selling and buying drugs.

    • Kathy – Thank you 🙂 – And I’m glad you mentioned the social realities that are often a part of the larger picture of things like the hard drug trade, child trafficking and so on. Yes of course we need to stop the traffickers and so on. But as you say, just arresting people who are guilty is not going to make the larger problem go away. It will stop certain people for a certain amount of time. But until we look at the larger issues, some of these problems are going to be persistent.

  3. Margot: In The Suspect by L.R. Wright the author creates a killer who is a sympathetic character. Unlike most mysteries I found myself wavering on whether I wanted him caught and punished.

    Scott Turow is the master in legal mysteries (Presumed Innocent and Innocent) on ambiguity with regard to Rusty Sabich. Is he guily of murder of not in each mystery? Turow highlights a core element of Anglo / American / Canadian justice. A not guilty verdict is not proof of innocence. The principle of reasonable doubt holds that where there is ambiguity a person cannot be convicted.

    • Bill – You are right about Scott Turow. Those issues of reasonable doubt and guilt are crucial in his stories. Legal mysteries are very effective tools too for discussing the question of what we really mean by justice. What really is the best solution even when we know for a fact whether someone is guilty? Is it ‘lock ’em up and throw away the key?’ Or are there better solutions in certain cases? There’s nothing like a good legal mystery to explore those issues.

  4. Agree with Bill that the legal thriller is one good way to examine these issues of “grey”….for example Defending Jacob by William Landay is left, if not exactly ambiguous, with the dilemma faced by family when a court case does not “get it right” – or does it? Another type of example is when the “criminal” is someone who was treated really badly (often when a child) and is seeking revenge – it is sometimes hard not to sympathise. An example is in Frozen Moment by Camilla Ceder, and is a theme in most of Camilla Lackberg’s books.

    • Maxine – Thanks for mentioning Defending Jacob, a novel I’d thought about mentioning and then ended up not doing. You’re very good at filling in the gaps I leave. And yes there is also the theme of someone who as you say, was treated horribly and strikes back. It is a theme in Camilla Läckberg’s books and I think she does an effective job of making one sympathise with the person responsible even as one acknowledges that murder is wrong and has consequences. I think Läckberg handles those ‘grey areas’ quite well.

  5. I’m currently reading The Complaints by Ian Rankin and it’s a story about the internal affairs department going in to investigate a fellow officer accused of a crime. However, in this story, the culprits are not coming to justice the way you would think. I actually really find the story fascinating. The whole concept of ‘grey areas’ is touched on in this book.

    • Clarissa – Oh, The Complaints really is a good example of the kind of thing I had in mind when I wrote this post. Rankin really explores the whole notion of what we consider ‘justice’ in that novel. He also does so in his short story Not Provan in which his Inspector Rebus finds an interesting way to ensure that a criminal doesn’t get away with a crime. And no he doesn’t do it with violence. It’s really interesting.

  6. There are a couple of AC books where if you don’t sympathise with the killer you don’t feel that sorry for the victim – I’m thinking of Appointment with Death or to a lesser extent The Mysterious..Styles. I do prefer books where the murderer is caught and there isn’t too much ambiguity over the killing which isn’t to say I don’t appreciate that there are ‘shades of grey’ in most crimes.

    • Sarah – You’ve a good point about both Appointment With Death and The Mysterious Affair at Styles. In both of those novels Christie builds sympathy for the murderer (especially in the former). And in Appointment with Death she makes make one wonder whether justice – whatever that really is – is served if the killer goes to prison. I know what you mean about the feeling of closure and order if you will that we can get when the killer’s caught and the crime is clear-cut. As you say, there’s a lot of ‘grey’ in most crimes so it’s seldom that easy…

  7. I love the gray area. Maybe it is the therapist or the Buddhist in me but I don’t put much value in the notion of evil. So I like it when the writer really takes the time to explore why someone has done what is the worst thing a human can do – kill another. I always remember with fascination how Lord Peter Wimsey was tormented when he had sent someone to their death – realizing the terrible paradox in his work. In the second mystery that I’ve been working on I really want a good person to have done the deed but man oh man I’ve been troubled with it. Thanks, as always, for your well-thought out essays on the world of crime.

    • Jan – Oh, I’m so glad you brought up Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon! You’re spot on about Wimsey’s sense of guilt and more when he contemplates the fact that basically, he’s responsible for someone’s execution even if it is a murderer. Good point! There’s another novel too where he deals with a similar personal demon but but no spoilers. I can really imagine the difficulty you’ve had creating a character who’s a good person but still commits murder. That’s a really difficult one! And yet as you say, the notions of good, evil, justice, right and wrong are not that clear-cut. Not in real life and thus we have those ‘grey areas’ in crime fiction too. And… thanks for the kind words 🙂

  8. Reblogged this on Angela Savage and commented:
    Another terrific post from Margot Kinberg, in which she includes Behind the Night Bazaar among crime fiction novels that raise questions about how justice might best be served. I am particularly excited to have someone pick up on this aspect of my first book, as it was a major challenge for me to write an ending that was both credible and not entirely without redemption.

  9. Pingback: Hard Labour starts to pay off | Angela Savage

  10. kathy d.

    There are motives that are understandable, as in The Suspect. What about a parent who goes off the rails, if someone who abused her child is found not guilty of crimes? This happened in a real case in California; a woman shot the man who abused her son; he’d been found not guilty. Unfortunately, she went to jail and her son fell apart, ending up in jail himself after his mother died of cancer in jail. All too awful, but a parent’s motives in this situation can be understood.

    • Kathy – That very sad story you mention is exactly the kind of thing I had in mind when I wrote this post. There are some cases where one really has to wonder whether jail was the most appropriate sentence. Of course we can’t have a society where people are free to shoot each other with no consequences, but as you say, sometimes the motives are understandable.

  11. kathy d.

    No, can’t have that, but there is “justifiable homicide,” and defense of oneself is usually accepted, but defense of one’s child could be, too. I saw two women on a TV show; both had caught their “spouses” or :”partners” abusing their young daughters and shot them in the act, so to speak. One woman was acquitted by the jury. The other was sentenced to 30 years in jail, but studied law, found support and got out after five years, aiming to help other women in similar situations. Or there are women who were themselves abused and just can’t take it any more. Or, as in some mysteries, perhaps in real life, someone finds a Nazi war criminal who got away and is living well, one who committed horrible acts: is killing him justifiable? We can all disagree on this. But I could understand it.
    We all have values about what we’d do on a jury in these cases.
    And then we ask going back further, was killing Nazi collaborators or those who told the Germans where people were hiding justifiable? It was a war. I’d say it was. People in the various Resistance Movements had to do it to stay alive.
    All just showing how complicated are these acts, why the law has different charges and punishments — or should have. In some states, it’s very rigid, and in others not.

    • Kathy – You’ve outlined some really good examples of cases where the circumstances aren’t clear cut. In those kinds of cases, you can’t always say that a traditional prison sentence is the right answer. Those cases make for difficult and challenging court cases – and compelling crime fiction.

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