All 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.