Where would the world of crime fiction be without the alibi? Alibis can range from the very specific forensic kind of detail (e.g. a person who was not physically tall enough to fire a gun from a specific angle) to the more nebulous (e.g. ‘I had no motive to kill him – hardly knew the guy’). Of course, not all modern crime fiction novels really feature alibis because they’re different sorts of crime novels. But a lot of crime fiction still puts an emphasis on sorting through alibis. I’m not a cop, but my guess is that checking alibis is probably one of the most time-consuming parts of any investigation. So it makes sense that they’d play a major role in crime fiction too.
Golden Age and classic detective fiction places quite a lot of emphasis on people’s alibis and very often, those alibis are what I’d call physical alibis. For instance, a person couldn’t have committed a crime because she or he was in a different place at the time of the murder. In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), Hercule Poirot is persuaded to look into the death of wealthy entrepreneur Richard Abernethie. At first his death is put down to natural causes, but when his younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered, everyone begins to wonder whether she was right. That seems even more likely when she herself is murdered the next day. The family lawyer Mr. Entwhistle does a little checking on his own to find out what everyone was doing on the day of Cora Lansquenet’s murder and in true Golden Age fashion, each suspect accounts for her or his time – and most of them aren’t telling the entire truth. In the end Poirot finds out the truth about both deaths and gets the various suspects to tell him what they were actually doing at the relevant times. Alibis feature in a lot of other Christie novels, too, of course.
One of the most interesting treatments of the alibi (at least in my opinion, so please feel free to differ with me if you do) is in Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train). In that novel, Guy Haines takes a cross-country train journey to visit his estranged wife Miriam. Also on the train is Charles Anthony Bruno, who has an insufferable father. The two fall into conversation, as fellow passengers sometimes do, and as the journey continues, each shares his unhappy personal life. Then Bruno suggests that each man should commit if you will the other man’s murder. That way, each man will have what Bruno thinks of as a watertight psychological alibi: no motive. Why would the police investigate a total stranger who has no motive? At first Haines thinks that Bruno isn’t serious. But then, Bruno kills Miriam. He insists that Haines follow through with his side of the bargain and kill Bruno’s father. Haines refuses, but then Bruno makes it clear that he doesn’t have much choice. Haines finally reluctantly agrees and commits the murder. And that’s when the real trouble begins… In this novel, we see how the concept of the alibi has broadened and evolved to include psychological alibis.
Modern novels still focus on alibis, both physical and psychological. For instance, in Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery (AKA Münster’s Case), Intendant Münster and his team investigate the stabbing death of Waldemar Leverkuhn. Leverkuhn is a seemingly inoffensive elderly man who went in with some friends on a lottery ticket. To everyone’s surprise, they win and go out to celebrate. By the time Leverkuhn’s wife Marie-Louise gets home a few hours later, he’s been brutally murdered in his bed. Once the crime is reported, the police start to investigate, beginning with Leverkuhn’s widow and with the other people who live in that apartment building. As the team talks to the various residents, we learn what each person’s alibi was. The team also talks to Leverkuhn’s children, who are grown and no longer live with their parents. They, too, give alibis that have to be checked. When it’s discovered that Leverkuhn and his friends won the lottery, those friends are also interviewed and their alibis checked. That process of getting and looking into alibis is an important part of this novel. As each alibi is discussed, we also get an increasingly clearer picture of the kind of person Leverkuhn was and that’s an important factor in the mystery too.
Amateur sleuths don’t have the force of law behind them, so it can be more of a challenge to find out what people’s alibis were. But even in those situations, alibis can play a very important role. For instance, Riley Adams (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) makes very effective use of alibis and alibi checking in her Memphis Barbecue series. In Hickory Smoked Homicide for instance, restaurant owner Lulu Taylor investigates the murder of Tristan Pembroke, an arrogant and malicious beauty pageant coach. Tristan is murdered during a large charity auction at her home, and because quite a few people attend the event, it’s not easy to tell who was exactly where when the murder was committed. Lulu wants to find the real killer because her daughter-in-law Sara is the prime suspect and she wants to clear Sara’s name. Lulu isn’t a cop, so she has to get people to give her their alibis in a less direct way. She uses a ‘chattier’ approach to find out where people say they were and it turns out to be effective. Bit by bit she finds out whose alibi is faked, and discovers who the killer is.
Lynda Wilcox’s Verity Long has to use her wits to learn and check alibis in Strictly Murder. She is the personal assistant to famous mystery novelist Kathleen Davenport; among other things her job is to find promising true crime stories so that Davenport can adapt them and use their essentials for her crime plots. In her personal life Long is looking for a new place, and as a potential home buyer she goes with a house agent one day to visit a candidate home. That’s when she discovers the body of television celebrity Jaynee Johnson. As the person who found the body, Long comes under her share of suspicion although she has no motive. So partly for that reason she decides to investigate. As the story evolves she has to talk to Johnson’s co-star, her producer, her agent and other people who might have wanted to kill Johnson. And from all of these people Long manages to get alibis. Slowly she puts the pieces of the puzzle together but not before the murderer finds out she’s investigating and targets her. In this novel, finding out where everyone was and how everyone really felt about the victim plays an important role in solving the mystery.
And that’s the thing about alibis. They can be faked or real, and they can be physical or psychological. They take all forms and the detective has to follow all of them up sometimes to find out who the killer is. But they have to be written with care. Plots that involve very complicated alibis can confuse or at least put off the reader. What about you? Do you pay a lot of attention to alibis when you read? If you’re a crime writer, what’s your strategy for integrating everyone’s alibi?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eric Clapton’s No Alibis.