I Am an Innocent Man*

Web - InnocentsAll sorts of people are affected when there’s a crime, especially a crime like murder. And sometimes the people caught up in the investigation are completely innocent. Perhaps they were at a certain place at a certain time. Or perhaps they had the bad fortune to be friends with/married to/doing business with a murder victim or a suspect. In those kinds of cases, even people who are innocent may be drawn into a case of murder. They may be questioned by the police, have their things searched or worse. That can happen in real life, and if it’s done believably, it can add an interesting thread of suspense and tension to a crime story.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Hilton Cubitt, a respectable ‘country squire’ type who’s very concerned about his wife Elsie. Elsie is originally from Chicago, where she made some very dubious associations. But as she tells her husband, she has nothing of which she need be personally ashamed. Now it seems as though one of those associates has found her. She’s been receiving cryptic messages and won’t tell her husband what they mean. Whatever else they mean, they seem to present danger to her, and Cubitt wants to help his wife if he can. Then one night there’s a tragedy. Cubitt is murdered and his wife left badly wounded. Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate and discover the connection between that night and the cryptic clues. Throughout this adventure readers can sense that Cubitt is an innocent person caught up in something dangerous. That fact adds suspense to the story.

The focus of Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death) is a hostel for students. It’s managed by Mrs. Hubbard, the sister of Hercule Poirot’s super-efficient secretary Felicity Lemon. Lately Mrs. Hubbard has been concerned about some odd events that have taken place at the hostel, including some strange petty thefts. Poirot agrees to look into the matter and goes to the hostel for dinner and to get the proverbial lay of the land. While he’s there, one of the residents Celia Austin admits to being responsible for several of the thefts. The matter then seems to be settled until two nights later when Celia is murdered. Now Poirot and Inspector Sharpe do a thorough investigation to find out who wanted to kill Celia and why. They discover  the truth, but not before there are two other murders. Throughout this novel, we learn that some of the residents are hiding things. Others though are perfectly innocent and are shocked at what’s happening. That sense of being innocently drawn into something horrible adds real tension to this story.

We also see this in Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn. Martin Canning is a mystery novelist who’s always led a more or less safe life. Even his novels avoid gore and a lot of violence. His literary agent convinces him to participate in an upcoming Arts Festival in Edinburgh and Canning makes preparations. He’s waiting to buy tickets to an afternoon show when he witnesses a car accident. A blue Honda hits a silver Peugeot being driven by Paul Bradley. The Honda driver gets out of his vehicle and he and Bradley quarrel. Then the Honda driver brandishes a bat. Now Bradley’s life is in danger and without thinking about it, Canning throws his computer case at the Honda driver. The case knocks the driver down and saves Bradley’s life. Canning insists on accompanying Bradley to a local hospital to be sure he’s all right and that’s when the real trouble begins. It turns out Canning has innocently gotten himself mixed up in a case of fraud, theft and multiple murders. Part of the suspense in this novel comes as we see how Canning gets ever more deeply drawn into a case he had little to do with at first.

That’s also what happens in Carl Hiaasen’s Lucky You. Features writer Tom Krone is assigned to do an in-depth story on JoLayne Lucks, who has just won US$14 million. Her plan is to use her winnings to buy a piece of Florida land and keep it as a reserve – safe from the hands of some greedy developers who’ve had their eyes on it. It’s a terrific human interest story and it’s supposed to be a straightforward one too. But everything changes when a group of neo-Nazis steals JoLayne’s winning ticket. Their plan is to use the money to fund an armed militia. Krone just wants to get his story, but he’s soon drawn into JoLayne’s plot to get the ticket back. And then there are the developers who are also very much interested in the fate of that ticket. It’s an example to show that you never know where a story will lead.

Katherine Howell’s Violent Exposure is the story of the murder of Suzanne Crawford. Paramedics Carly Martens and Aidan Simpson are called to the Crawford home in a case of what seems to be domestic violence. Suzanne doesn’t want to press charges against her husband Connor though, and she insists that she’s going to be fine. The paramedics can’t really compel her to take any other action so they leave. The next day Suzanne is murdered. New South Wales Police detectives Ella Marconi and Dennis Orchard are assigned to the case. As you would imagine, they want to talk to Connor Crawford, but he’s gone missing. One possibility for getting information is a local volunteer organisation called Streetlights. This group works with at-risk young people, helping them to find work, set goals and stay out of trouble. A few of the young people involved in Streetlights worked in the nursery that the Crawfords owned. So Marconi and Orchard hope that one of those young people will be able to give them some information about the couple. One of these young people is Emil Page. Just as the cops start to focus on him though, Emil disappears too. As it turns out, Emil has been more or less innocently drawn into this case of murder, He may not be exactly ‘the boy next door,’ but he’s gotten involved in this case unwittingly.

And then there’s Stewart Macintosh, whom we meet in Malcolm Mackay’s  The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. He’s at a club called Heavenly one night when he meets an attractive young woman Zara Cope. She came to the club with her partner Lewis Winter. As the evening goes on, Winter gets more and more drunk and Stewart and Zara get more and more friendly. He sees no reason to object when Zara invites him back to her house ‘for drinks,’ and helps her steer Winter into a cab, into the house and upstairs to bed. Then he and Zara get on with their own plans for the night. That’s when the door bursts open and two professional hit men burst in. One goes upstairs and shoots Winter; the other guards Stewart and Zara. When they’re done their work they leave. Now panicked, Stewart sees that he’s gotten himself into something very much more than he’d imagined. But he’s attracted to Zara and when she asks him to keep something for her for a short while, he finds it impossible to refuse her. That’s how he gets drawn into a case of gangland ‘patch wars,’ drug dealing and murder-for-hire. He may not be exactly a ‘choir boy,’ but Stewart is a basically innocent guy who’s gotten himself into a serious mess.

And that’s how it often happens. A basically innocent person meets someone at a club, or works with someone, or sees something and before you know it, is drawn into a deadly situation. It’s hard to write such characters credibly. There has to be an authentic reason for the character to be pulled into the case. But when it’s done well it can add a really interesting layer of suspense to a story.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Carl Hiaasen, Kate Atkinson, Katherine Howell, Malcolm Mackay

35 responses to “I Am an Innocent Man*

  1. Well said Margot. It’s a real skill to weave a web of misdirection and a believable innocent bystander is often a key ingredient.

    • D.S. – Thanks. Misdirection is a skill, especially if you’re going to try to misdirect savvy crime fiction readers. An authentic, believable innocent person can add to that misdirection but only if that person is well-crafted.

  2. Slightly different, but the title brings it in: in Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence, the main character witnessed something vital without realizing it, then disappears off for a couple of years. When he gets back he is horrified to find that he could have given a convicted murderer an alibi… so he tries to put things right, with dramatic consequences.

    • Moira – I’ve always liked that one quite a lot. Some terrific characters in it and of course I like the mystery. And it is interesting how the possibility that someone in that family isn’t innocent changes everything. Thanks for mentioning it.

  3. The cast of suspects was much clearer in the Golden Age novel, I think. Christie often made the point that the innocent suspects would suffer if the guilty one was never caught. Crooked House springs to mind in that context, where Sophia felt she couldn’t agree to marry Charles unless the murder was cleared up.

    • FictionFan – Now, that’s a very good point. And your comment about Crooked House reminds me of Five Little Pigs. In that novel Carla Lemarchant doesn’t want to get married to her fiancé until the question of who killed her father is settled. I think that cloud of doubt really is brought out in Christie’s work.

  4. Margot: Zack Walter, in Bad Move by Linwood Barclay, takes his wife’s purse from an unattended shopping cart as a warning to her. Unfortunately, it is not his wife’s purse. Complications and bodies follow.

    • Bill – Oh, that is such a good example! And what’s interesting and ironic about that novel is that his main purpose in moving his family from the city to the suburb where the story takes place is safety. He thinks everyone will be safer in their new home. Of course, that’s not how it all works out.

  5. Col

    I’m glad you read Mackay’s book. Did you enjoy it overall? Loved it myself, but I would hazard it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Hiaasen needs a re-read soon – something to lighten mood while the weather is still a bit grim.

    • Col – I did indeed read Mackay’s novel. I liked the writing style and the pacing but no, I must confess I wasn’t in love with it. Mackay’s quite talented though. And I always think Hiaasen’s worth a re-read. 🙂

      • Col

        Interesting to hear. Almost written and presented in a dead-pan, robotic manner where most of the emotion is suppressed and removed. I think Rob felt the same as you when he reviewed it. I loved it, but understand why others didn’t.

  6. Thanks for a really interesting and informative post Margot. Lots to think about here and I shall pay more attention to the ‘bye-standers’ in future when reading and writing. I have obviously noticed them when reading – often they are the victims of what they know, who they know; victims by association if you like. This has made me really think about the spouses and associates of those about whom I write. Thanks so much.

    • Jane – Glad you enjoyed the post. You make a very well-taken point that quite often innocent people end up being victims. Sometimes they’re killed too because of what/who they know. Other times it’s more a matter of the awful stress that comes with being involved in a murder investigation. I think that happens in real life and I know it happens in crime fiction.

      • Exactly. The fall-out from crime can be far and wide. The recent spell of child murders comes to mind. A parent kills their child, the other parent is immediately under suspicion of collaborating, knowing or even for their ignorance of the crime. Grand parents, friends and extended family are all in the spotlight and under the microscope whilst the crime is being detected, investigated and then the prosecution put together. It must be terrible to be under so much pressure and close scrutiny. Once the crime has been solved and the person responsible punished the family, friends and close relations (spouse etc) still spend their lives in the glare of the public and under a possible cloud; ‘there’s no smoke without fire,’ ‘there’s none so blind as those who will not see,’ and so the punishment continues of the innocent victims.

        • Jane – You’re so right about how that pattern is played out. So very often it’s the innocent relatives, friends and so on who have to deal with intrusive media, interrogation and their own personal trauma. Even after the person who’s guilty has been caught that doesn’t change that aspect of the matter. A murder is almost never just between the victim and the killer.

  7. I replied to this just now but now I cannot find it. There’s a word thief about. I shall go away and come up with the same reply all over again – but a little later now.

    • No worries, Jane – that’s happened to me too. I’m sure your comment was well worth reading.

      • I cannot believe that when I hit reply it didn’t go…no sign that it didn’t mind you. Oh well. I am sure you know basically that I think the Press make victims of the killers and the victims become the subject of close scrutiny as if deserving/inviting their end. Some never shake this off and spend the rest of their lives hiding from a crime committed against them or their loved ones. Whilst the killer, does the time and moves on more often than not. Or something along those lines….

        • Jane – You have such a well-taken point. Sometimes the media creates more victims from the group of friends and relatives of the person who’s been killed. And yes, I’ve seen stories where the killer is painted as a victim. Interesting how stories are treated in the media regardless of what has actually happened.

        • Sad but true Margot. Also sometimes the police arrest a person and everything points to them. Usually a loner, male, lives with Mum and is a bit eccentric. They are crucified and convicted in the Press, only later to be found innocent before even getting to court. Their lives are ruined forever. Because everyone has bought into their being guilty, the stigmas never really goes. No smoke without fire hangs over them whatever is proven and whoever is found guilty later. Very sad situation.

        • You’re quite right, Jane. People jump to conclusions and allow themselves to be misled. I’ve read novels with characters like that too. Both are really sad situations. Just goes to show that you shouldn’t judge without knowing all of the facts.

        • Some tragic consequences over here.

  8. In “Hell Is Too Crowded” by Jack Higgins (Harry Patterson), hero Matthew Brady is framed for the murder of a French woman whom he tried to help. He just happened to be at the wrong place and at the wrong time. This was the rare occasion when Higgins, one of my favourite authors, wrote a murder mystery. He usually writes spy and war thrillers. And “An Innocent Man” is a wonderful song. I listen to it often. Thank you, Ms Kinberg.

    • Prashant – Ah, I like your taste in music. 🙂 – And thank you for mentioning Hell is Too Crowded. That’s a Higgins that I’ve not read. It’s a terrific example of the kind of situation that can arise when an innocent person gets mixed up in murder. And like Brady, it can simply be a case of someone wanting to help another person.

  9. Intriguing post, Margot. That ‘innocent person’ is always a fascinating character because there are times you wonder if they really are innocent or not. To me, that adds even more depth to the story.

    • Mason – Oh that’s quite true. Until you know how a story works out, you don’t always know who is really innocent and who isn’t. And even if the seemingly innocent person doesn’t actually commit a crime, s/he sometimes knows a lot more than s/he’s saying.

  10. I have only read one of these, Margot (the Kate Atkinson book). The others sound great and I look forward to reading them all someday.

    • Tracy – I think it takes a lot of talent to create a believable innocent character who still gets caught up in crime. Atkinson does it quite well in One Good Turn. I hope if you read the others you’ll enjoy them.

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