Do We Even Care, It’s so Unfair*

UnfairnessCrime fiction lets us explore some really difficult realities. One of them is how very unfair it is when someone’s killed. That’s part of the grief that families and friends of victims feel – the sense that it’s just not fair. Crime writers deal with this reality in different ways, any of which can be really effective.

One way – and you see this in some classic and Golden Age fiction (and some modern mysteries too) – is to paint the victim so unsympathetically that the death doesn’t seem so unfair. That’s what Agatha Christie does in Appointment With Death. In that novel, Hercule Poirot is on a trip through the Middle East and decides to take a journey to the ancient city of Petra. When fellow tourist Mrs. Boynton dies of what turns out to be poison, Colonel Carbury asks him to investigate. As it turns out, Mrs. Boynton was an unpleasant egomaniac and a mental sadist. Every one of her family members has a very good motive for murder and they’re not the only ones. In fact, a few people ask Poirot to let the matter go because to them Mrs. Boynton got what she deserved. Of course anyone who’s familiar with Poirot knows that he’s not likely to do that…

We see a similar approach in Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig’s) Delicious and Suspicious. Aunt Pat’s Barbecue is one of the most popular restaurants in Memphis and with good reason. So everyone’s excited when The Cooking Channel’s restaurant critic Rebecca Adrian chooses Aunt Pat’s as a finalist for Best Barbecue in Memphis. When Adrian visits the restaurant the staff goes all-out to make her experience the best possible. But a few hours later Adrian dies of poison. Very soon, talk begins to go around that Adrian was poisoned by Aunt Pat’s food. The restaurant begins to lose patronage and good reputation of the Taylor family, who’ve owned Aunt Pat’s for years, comes into question. So family matriarch and restaurant owner Lulu Taylor decides to do something about it and ask some questions. She didn’t have a good impression of Adrian to begin with and she soon finds out how right she was. Adrian was calculating, malicious, arrogant and vindictive. There are plenty of people who had a good reason to want to kill her and nobody, including Taylor, exactly mourns her. Adrian’s unpleasant personality makes it a little easier to deal with the reality that death has a way of being very unfair.

Some authors take another approach to acknowledging that. They explore how very unfair death can be through characters’ reactions to it. That’s what happens for instance in Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back. The body of fifteen-year-old Annie Holland is discovered by a tarn near the village where she lived. The evidence shows that she knew her killer and put up no resistance. What’s more, she wasn’t raped, so sexual assault leading to murder isn’t the explanation for her death. Oslo investigator Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre are assigned to the case and begin to look into the matter. They find that as far as anyone knew, Annie had no enemies. She was well-liked and more or less got along well with her boyfriend Halvor Muntz, although their relationship was somewhat on-again/off-again. As the investigation goes on, we see through the reactions of two characters in particular exactly how unfair Annie’s death was. One is her father Eddie Holland. He is devastated by his daughter’s death, and barely able to function. He wants to know why it happened and make sense of it and in his grief, we see that ever-present question: why did something so wrong and unfair happen? Halvor Muntz deals with that question in a slightly different way. He knows how wrong Annie’s death was and his anger about it fuels his decision to undertake his own informal investigation. What he discovers is critical to finding out the truth about what happened to Annie.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn is, in the first several novels in that series, a widow. Her husband Ian was murdered one night while he was on his way home from a funeral he’d attended that day. In Deadly Appearances, we learn that Ian Kilbourn was killed when he stopped to offer help to two young people whose car was stranded by the side of the road. One of the young people Kevin Tarpley asked him to take them to a party. When he refused, Tarpley killed him. Tarpley’s been convicted of murder and sentenced to prison. Kilbourn’s survived as best she can and has made a life for herself and her children. But she has to revisit the horror of her husband’s murder in A Colder Kind of Death. In that novel Kilbourn hears that Tarpley has been shot during a walk in the prison yard. Then his wife Maureen, who was with her husband when he killed Ian Kilbourn, is murdered and Kilbourn herself is implicated. If she’s going to clear her name and continue her own healing, Kilbourn will have to find out the real truth about her husband’s death as well as those of his killers. Through the reactions of Kilbourn and her children, both in these novels and through the series, we see the kind of person Ian Kilbourn was, and we see just how unfair his murder was. Bowen shows the unfairness of it all through very real effects the murder has had on the family.

Angela Savage also looks at just how very unfair it can be when someone dies. In her short story The Teardrop Tattoos, we meet a woman who’s recently been released from prison where she served a sentence for murder. She’s given a place to live not far from a local day care establishment and she and her pet pit bull Sully try to start over. Then a complaint is lodged against her for keeping a restricted breed. She has no choice but to give Sully up although he’s her only friend and real source of companionship. As she plans her revenge against the woman who lodged the complaint we learn more and more of her backstory. When we learn about the murder that put her in prison in the first place, we see just how unfair a death can seem. We also see very clearly why this woman is the way she is and thinks the way she thinks.

There are a lot of other novels of course that deal with that sense of unfairness that we so often feel when there’s a death, especially a murder. One blog post isn’t nearly enough to talk about them all. Which ones linger in your mind?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Veronicas’ Heavily Broken.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Karin Fossum, Riley Adams

10 responses to “Do We Even Care, It’s so Unfair*

  1. One mystery that really stays with me, in terms of that sense of unfairness, Margot, is Rex Stout’s “Murder by the Book.” While we never meet them until after their deaths, two of the victims in that book leave a grieving parent behind trying to make sense of, or at least come to terms with, the death. Stout’s characters are not always as clearly drawn as they are in this case, and I think it really makes the novel stand out as one of the best Nero Wolfe mysteries.

    • Les – Omighosh I hadn’t thought of that novel in such a long time! Thanks for the reminder. It does have some really well-drawn and memorable characters and more than most of Stout’s novels, it gets beneath the surface if you will of the characters’ motivations.

  2. Quite right Margot – even in fiction, it is right to ask, ‘why do people have to die?’ – and as usual, the question may be more telling than any attempt at an answer could ever hope to be. If one were to use the Christie example, ORIENT EXPRESS is interesting as one where the universal dislike for the victim is contrasted equally with sympathy for the motives of the the murderers. I haven;t read anything by Savage but I really like the sound of that short story – thanks again Margot.

    • Sergio – I hope you’ll get the chance to read some of Savage’s work; she’s very talented. And you’re right too – the question of why people have to die is a central one that we ask in real life, even when it’s not a case of murder. So the question really does need to come up in crime fiction too. You make an interesting point with Murder on the Orient Express. There you have again Christie’s way of dealing with that question by making the victim unsympathetic. And she addresses the question in another way too. The victim’s death is connected to an earlier death that is so very, very unfair. It really is a fine example of the kind of thing I had in mind with this post, so I appreciate your mentioning it.

  3. Peril at End House is the first name that comes to my mind when I think about deaths sometimes seeming so pointless. Eventually, it was indeed her that was meant to die, but at the time of the murder, you feel so helpless, almost hopeless.
    Great post, and one that can go on and on.

    • Natasha – Thanks for the kind words – Peril at End House is a very good example of what I mean. That death does seem so pointless at the time it’s committed doesn’t it? And yes, the reader feels so bleak about it. Well, I did anyway.

  4. I too thought of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ when Poirot makes an exception to his usual rule of bringing a killer to justice whatever the costs. Not from a particular book, but I always find killings that are ‘one-offs’ completely pointless You know, when rather than a serial offender or a generally bad person, someone who is fully integrated into society commits a ‘one-off’ crime. I find these very perplexing and totally pointless in life and in fiction.

    • Sarah – Yes, Murder on the Orient Express shows us just how unfair and pointless a death can be. When we know about what happened we can understand why events in the book play out as they do. I know what you mean about ‘one-off’ killings too. It’s hard to understand the mindset I think of people who kill in that way.

  5. Creating apathy through a victim we shouldn’t or couldn’t care much about — if not detest outright – is an excellent vehicle. On the other hand, the added dimension of empathy for the victim tugs a chord for me.

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