Have you ever been to a magic show? I mean a really well-done show. We all know going into a show that the magician really cannot, for instance, turn water into coins. But a talented magician can make the audience believe even if it’s just for a moment that a handkerchief turned into flowers. Magicians use misdirection and other strategies to create illusions. And when they do it well, it takes all of one’s effort to remember that it isn’t real.
We see that same use of strategy to create illusion in crime fiction. I’m not referring here to things like faking an alibi. Rather, I mean strategies that make people believe that something they think they see is true, while the reality is something entirely different. And when you get people to think that something is true, they are often convinced – even to the point of testifying in court – that they are right. And that fact of human life can be useful to criminals.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of the 4th Baron Edgware. Edgware’s wife Jane Wilkinson is the most likely suspect. It’s well-known that she wanted a divorce from her husband so that she could marry again. She’s even approached Poirot to try to convince Edgware to withdraw his objection to the divorce. What’s more, she was heard to threaten her husband. And she was admitted to the house on the night of the murder. So at first, Chief Inspector James ‘Jimmy’ Japp believes that he’s got his culprit. But on the night of the murder Jane Wilkinson went to a dinner party in another part of London. Twelve people, including the host, are willing to swear in court that she was at the party. So Poirot, Hastings and Japp have to look elsewhere for the killer. And they find plenty of suspects too, as Edgware was an extremely unpleasant person. In the end Poirot finds out who the killer is and we get a first-class lesson in the power of illusion.
Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives introduces us to attorney Walter Eberhart, his wife Joanna and their two children Pete and Kim. The Eberharts decide to move from New York to the beautiful and quiet town of Stepford, Connecticut and at first all goes well. They are warmly welcomed and the children soon settle into school and start to make friends. But soon, Joanna begins to think that something odd is going on in Stepfored. She and her new friend Bobbie Markowe ask a few questions, but they don’t get clear answers. Besides, there is no obvious danger to them or their families. Then, disturbing things begin to happen and Joanna becomes more and more convinced that Stepford’s beauty, peace and quiet are illusions. She begins to believe that something truly sinister is going on in town. It turns out that she’s right.
We also see the use of illusion strategies in Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move Science fiction writer Zack Walker, his journalist wife Sarah and their children Angie and Paul move to a beautiful new housing development called Valley Forest Estates. Zack is hoping that the lower cost of living in the suburbs will mean that he can write full-time, and he’s utterly convinced that life in the suburbs will be safer than it is in the city where they lived before the move. But little by little, his illusion of the ‘perfect suburban life’ is shattered. First, the house itself has all sorts of structural and other problems and Zack can’t seem to get anyone in authority to respond to his requests for maintenance. Then he discovers the body of Samuel Spender, a local environmental activist, in a creek. Then there’s another murder. Little by little Zack discovers that the development has mostly been a carefully orchestrated illusion designed to cover up some nasty goings-on. It’s not until Zack puts aside his belief that life is safer in the suburbs that he’s really able to see what’s happening.
Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine also includes the use of illusion to cover up a crime. Mallory Lawson and his wife Kate move to the village of Forbes Abbot when Mallory’s wealthy Aunt Carey dies. Aunt Carey has left her home and much of her fortune to Mallory and his family on the condition that her former companion Benny Frayle will always have a home. Mallory and Kate are happy to agree to that and everyone settles into the new arrangement. Then, the Lawsons’ financial advisor Dennis Brinkley is killed in what looks like a very tragic accident. But Benny thinks it was murder and tries to get the police to investigate. No-one takes very much notice of her allegation until there’s another death. Self-styled medium Ava Garret is leading a séance one day; during the event she says some things about the murder that she couldn’t possibly know. Not long afterwards she’s poisoned. Now Inspector Tom Barnaby and his team re-open the Dennis Brinkley case and slowly link it to Ava Garret’s murder. In a sad irony, Ava’s determination to maintain the illusion that she is psychic costs her her life as the murderer uses what you could call an illusion against her.
There’s an effective use of illusion in Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s Toffee’s Christmas too. In that short story, an author of romance novels who calls herself Toffee Brown moves to the small Yorkshire village of Knavesborough. As she tells the local vicar’s daughter Rhapsody Gershwin, Toffee came to the village to get some rest. Although she’s very eccentric and rather put out at not being identified as the world-famous writer she is, Toffee becomes a part of village life and settles in. Then one day, Rhapsody and her sister Psalmonella discover Toffee’s body in the cottage she’s taken. Rhapsody’s fiancé local constable Archibald ‘Archie’ Primrose begins to investigate and in the process they learn what Toffee’s real identity was. That doesn’t bring them much closer to finding the murderer though. It’s not until Rhapsody discovers that another character has created an illusion that she and her fiancé catch the killer.
Betty Webb’s Desert Wives is mostly set in the compound of a polygamous sect called Purity. The sect has been run by Brother Solomon Royal until he is murdered. Private investigator Lena Jones goes undercover to join Purity and find out who killed Royal when her client Esther Corbett is accused of the crime. Esther had a good motive for the murder too, as Royal had been planning to marry Esther’s thirteen-year-old daughter Rebecca. Jones settles into Purity and begins to ask questions about Royal’s murder. What she finds is that Purity is hiding some truly ugly secrets. There’s been a very carefully-designed illusion of Purity as being a peaceful, happy group of people who help each other, meet the group’s needs in a self-sufficient way and raise the group’s children together. But the reality is far, far different. Jones discovers domestic abuse, child molestation, and intermarriage leading to some serious birth defects. She also discovers financial wrongdoing. In fact, the reality underneath the illusion of Purity is so awful that Jones finds it hard to focus on her main reason for being there. But she does discover who killed Solomon Royal and why.
The thing about well-crafted illusions is that they can be very convincing. And in crime fiction that ability to create a reality that isn’t there can be very useful to criminals. Of course, sleuths can create illusions too; maybe I’ll address that in another post…
ps. The photos are of Penn Jillette and Raymond Teller, who make up the hugely popular and successful magician duo Penn and Teller. Not only are they dedicated to debunking fraudulent psychics and other fakes, but they are truly gifted illusionists themselves. Oh, and they’re as pleasant in person as you could wish for, despite their great success.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Genesis’ Abacab.