Ev’rything Was So Well Organized*

Organized and Planned MurdersIn Arthur Upfield’s Death of a Swagman, Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte travels to the small town of Merino to investigate the murder of stockman George Kendall, whose body is found in an isolated hut. Bony’s working on that case when another body is found. This time it’s a transient worker John Way, who seems to have committed suicide. It’s a strange case, but Bony puts the pieces together. At one point, he’s talking to Sergeant Richard Marshall about the sort of murder case this is:


‘Very often the crime of murder is the effect of thought extended over a lengthy period. In other words, the actual act of a crime is the effect of long and careful planning, following an idea which has become an obsession.’


It’s an interesting point. There are of course plenty of real-life and fictional murders that are ‘heat of the moment’ type killings. But there are also lots of very calculated murders too. And those murders can be chilling. We can understand how someone might kill in the heat of rage or fear, for instance. But a planned, carefully orchestrated murder is a different sort of thing. But as you already know, there are people who commit such murders and they show up in crime fiction just as they do in real life.

Agatha Christie wrote about such murders in several of her works. I’ll just mention one. In The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot works with Scotland Yard and the local police to solve a series of murders. The only things that seem to link all of the killings is that Poirot receives a cryptic warning before each one, and that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. On the surface of it, the crimes look like the work of a deranged serial killer. But as Poirot discovers, these crimes are far more calculated than that.

In Anthondy Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas, wealthy meat company heiress Charity Wiser believes that someone in her family is trying to kill her. She hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who the would-be murderer is. Her idea is that Quant will join the family on a cruise so that he can sleuth each member. Quant agrees and everyone boards the ship. As Quant gets to know the different people in the Wiser clan, he finds out that beneath the ‘happy family’ surface there’s a lot of tension, resentment and dysfunction. In the course of the cruise there are two attempts at murder. Then there’s a successful murder. Quant finds that behind everything that happens, there’s cold calculation and careful planning.

Private detective Dandelion ‘Dandy’ Gilver finds the same thing in Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains. She gets a letter from Walburga ‘Lollie’ Balfour, claiming that her husband Philip ‘Pip’ is trying to kill her and asking Dandy’s help. The only problem is, Lollie doesn’t want Pip to find out she’s hired a detective. So, Dandy goes to the Balfour home under the guise of a maid seeking a job. Using the name Fanny Rossiter, Dandy settles into her new position. Late on the night of Fanny’s arrival, Pip is stabbed. Superintendent Hardy takes the case and after Dandy explains who she is and why she’s there, he starts to listen to what she has to say. Besides, as a member of the staff, Dandy’s in a good position to hear things that might not be said in Hardy’s presence. Slowly Dandy finds out the truth about who really killed Pip and why, and it turns out that this has been a very carefully calculated and planned murder. There was nothing spontaneous about it.

There’s nothing spontaneous about the murder of Reginald Hart in Chris Grabenstein’s Tilt a Whirl either. Sea Haven, New Jersey police officer John Ceepak and summer hire Danny Boyle are faced with an ugly killing when Hart is shot early one morning. His daughter Ashley is the only apparent witness. Her description of the killer matches a local vagrant nicknamed ‘Squeegee’ so a search is made for him. But there are other possibilities. For one thing, Hart made his money through (often) illegal and (usually) unethical property acquisition. More than one person has good cause to hate him for that. And then there’s his personal life. It could also be that one or another of Hart’s dubious ‘business associates’ hired Squeegee to kill him. Ceepak and Boyle are busy following up leads when Ashley is kidnapped. Now there’s an even greater sense of urgency to solve this case and track down the killer before anything happens to Ashley. In the end, Ceepack and Boyle discover that this was a very carefully orchestrated crime.

The main plot in Katherine Howell’s Violent Exposure is the murder of Suzanne Crawford. She is killed the day after a domestic dispute with her husband Connor, so the first theory is that he murdered her. But Connor has disappeared. So New South Wales police detective Ella Marconi and her partner Dennis Orchard have two mysteries to solve. They soon discover a third: Connor Crawford seems to have no personal history. Background checks on him reveal nothing. Then Emil Page, a teen volunteer who worked at the Crawfords’ nursery, also disappears. If they’re going to find Connor and Emil, Marconi and her team will have to work quickly. They discover that those disappearances are related to the Crawfords’ complicated personal histories, and that everything that’s happened was carefully planned. Suzanne’s murder was far from a ‘heat of the moment’ case of tragic domestic violence.

There’s a very interesting case of a calculated crime in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing. Dr. Suresh Jha is stabbed one morning while he is attending a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club. According to many witnesses, the goddess Kali appears at the meeting and murders Jha in retribution for his campaign to expose religious chicanery. Jha was determined to stop people from mindlessly believing in so-called ‘spiritual leaders’ who take advantage of the need for spiritual connection. In fact, he was the founder and head of the Delhi Institute for Rationalism and Education (D.I.R.E.). So for a lot of people, murder by goddess is not a far-fetched explanation for Jha’s death. But private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri is not convinced. He takes an interest in the case since Jha is a former client, and he begins to ask questions. In the end, he and his team find that the Suresh Jha case is not what it seems on the surface. Certainly it’s not a case of a goddess suddenly killing someone in the heat of anger.

Although a lot of murders are committed without much planning, there are plenty also that are carefully orchestrated. Those calculated murders are perhaps even creepier than the other kind. I’ve only had space here to mention a few. Which ones have you thought were well-written?



*NOTE: The title of this post is line from Billy Joel’s James.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Upfield, Catriona McPherson, Chris Grabenstein, Katherine Howell, Tarquin Hall

43 responses to “Ev’rything Was So Well Organized*

  1. I liked Christie’s Towards Zero for that – one of the opening scenes shows the murderer (unidentified of course) carefully plannig the whole crime, and I think it was one of her best plotted books – of course a bit unlikely, but so well-worked out, a really satisfying solution.

    • Moira – A well-taken point! I like that about that novel too. And what’s especially clever is that you get that information but still get drawn into the story if I can put it that way. As you say, quite satisfying.

  2. Marianne Wheelaghan

    Great post, as always. Thanks 🙂 One of may favourite gripping stories is We Have Always Lived in The Castle by Shirley Jackson. The protagonist, Merricat ,is rather vulnerable and naive but also calculating, which makes her all the more interesting and sinister!

    • Marianne – Thanks for the kind words. And I’m so glad you mentioned Shirley Jackson. She was so very skilled at creating characters such as Merricat – sinister and yet human enough that you could actually believe her as real. And as you say, that makes her all the more sinister (and fascinating). I’ve also always liked Jackson’s writing style, so I’m glad you filled in that gap.

  3. Fun post, Margot! I have to say that I prefer the planned kind of murder to the spontaneous ones in the mystery fiction I read, because I like when the detective is matching wits with the murderer, and the murderer thinks he’s too smart to get caught.

    I enjoyed the Dandy Gilver book; it was a lot of fun! I’m reminded now that I need to go back and read the rest of them! I started with “The Treatment of Bloodstains” because I’d just met Catriona at Malice when this book came out (and she signed it – always a thrill).

    • Kathy – Lucky you to have had the chance to meet Catriona – that must have been a good experience. And to get your copy signed too – very nice. You have a good point too about the detective matching wits with the killer. There is definitely something suspenseful about knowing that the murder has planned everything and isn’t just trying to cover up the crime (although of course people who kill spontaneously do that too). It’s just a different sort of suspense.
      You bring up an interesting point about murderers thinking they’re too clever to be caught. I think you have to have a certain amount of faith in your ability to be clever if you’re going to try to get away with murder, especially with a planned murder.

  4. Fascinating Margot – I would certainly include Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Judge and His Hangman and The Pledge among those where a long-harboured obsession motors the story.

  5. Many classic mysteries from the Golden Age work through conspiracies and carefully laid-out plots, Margot. There’s Dorothy L. Sayers’ “Whose Body,” the first Peter Wimsey book, for example, in which two odd incidents – the disappearance of a financier and the seemingly unrelated discovery of an unidentified body (NOT the financier’s) turn out to be related as part of an intricate murder plot.

    • Les – You’re quite right about the structure of a lot of classic mysteries. And Whose Body? is definitely a prime example. The focus at that time was on those kinds of plot intricacies, and some novels really have them in spades. I’m thinking of some of John Dickson Carr’s novels, too…

      • Oh, absolutely. In many of Carr’s novels, even when the reader begins to see a careful plot in action, Carr usually finds ways to shift the ground under the reader’s feet (or eyes, anyway) and reveal an even-more-carefully plotted case. “And So To Murder” – one of my latest Carr (as Carter Dickson) re-reads – certainly works that way!

        • Les – And that was part of Carr’s genius. Each layer reveals more careful plotting and calculation. And it doesn’t feel too cumbersome, especially when Carr’s at the top of his form.

  6. I never can remember plots that well, but I enjoyed reading the examples here.

    • Tracy – I always think it’s interesting to think about what aspects of a story we remember and which ones we don’t. That’s post-worthy in and of itself, so thanks.

  7. Like KB Owen, I prefer this type of planned murder – it usually means there’s a mystery to solve rather than a thriller-type chase, which is quite often the end result of a spontaneous murder. And although you’ve come up with lots of modern examples, I still tend to think of the planned murder as being more part of the Golden Age style – or at least in the tradition of the Golden Age, perhaps.

    • FictionFan – You two aren’t alone. A lot of people prefer this more carefully-planned kind of murder. And it’s interesting that you associate with the Golden Age/classic tradition. I do too although there are a lot of modern examples, as you say. I think it was during that period that the orchestrated kind of fictional crime was really developed. So perhaps even modern novels that have that plot point are rooted, if I may put it that way, in that tradtion.

  8. Margot – I’m with K.B. in that I prefer the carefully orchestrated murder, One of my favorites from AC is Lord Edgeware, which is a devilishly clever, very much planned murder. Across the Atlantic, there’s the old standby, James M. Cain’s novel, and even more so, the movie Double Indemnity, the murder the result of careful planning. Then there’s also the Lt. Columbo stories, of the usually thought out variety. However, woe to the villain who underestimate the tenacious, sometimes brilliant, detective!

    • Bryan – Oh, Lord Edgware Dies is such a perfect example of a carefully planned murder isn’t it? Fiendishly clever but as you say, no match for a tenacious, intuitive detective. And Double Indemnity is a great example too – classic noir story along with everything else, I think. Thanks for mentioning these.

  9. May I add one more, Margot? Speaking of modern mystery writers who excel at this kind of careful plotting, let me mention Paul C. Doherty’s forthcoming (July 1 in US) “Candle-Flame.” Set in 14th century London, it concerns a series of impossible murders – including the massacre of seven people in a locked, bolted and inaccessible tower. If you want a modern example of a carefully plotted and executed (pun intentional) murder scheme, I recommend this one very highly.

    • Les – You are more than welcome to add as many examples as you want. And that one sounds like a good ‘un. I like historical mysteries and this one sounds like a solid example of a carefully plotted murder. I’ll have to look out for it.

  10. kathy d.

    In thinking about this topic, I think that I like the really complicated, planned murders, rather than the crimes of passion committed on the spot — although those get complicated, too, as culprits try to cover their tracks with lies, doctored evidence, scapegoating other characters. So there is a lot to the latter types of murders, too.
    When Nero Wolfe figures out whodunnit it, she sifts through a lot of evidence, talks to many suspects (as does Hercule Poirot), and then usually points to a well-planned crime, often for money.
    Or maybe there is a family secret, which has been hidden for years, and then another murder is committed to keep that quiet.
    Crimes to cover up evidence of crimes do include premeditation, and those can be fun to unravel.
    Now, I’d like to purchase a John Dickson Carr book for someone who likes locked-room mysteries. Is there a best one? Or a few of the best ones?
    All ideas appreciated.

    • Kathy – As far as Carr goes, you may want to try The Three Coffins or The Judas Window. But actually almost all of his novels are well done.
      And you make an interesting point that spontaneous crimes can get awfully complicated too. That’s especially the case when someone is frantically trying to cover up her or his tracks, you’re right about that. The plotted ones really do have interesting layers to them.

    • Kathy, a few that are (I think) pretty readily available:
      “The Judas Window” (Written as Carter Dickson)
      “Hag’s Nook”
      “He Who Whispers” (I know there’s an ebook version; not sure about paper)
      “The Three Coffins” – my favorite; known as “The Hollow Man” in the UK; out of print but there should be a lot of easy-to-find copies around
      “The Case of the Constant Suicides”

      I don’t think you can go wrong with any of those.

  11. kathy d.

    Thank you. I see used copies around the blogosphere, but can’t do that for a gift! So I’ll keep looking.

  12. I was pleased to see you mention Tilt a Whirl by Chris Grabenstein. Chris is also a talented author of books for young readers.

  13. Col

    Tempted to try something by Arthur Upfield – are some better than others?

  14. I’m with you–the calculated crimes are the really eerie ones. I think of “And Then There Were None.”

  15. kathy d.

    OK, the suspense is over. I got The Judas Window, which I found new at Amazon. I tried The Three Coffins, but found only used copies or what I’d call collectors’ items for a small ransom.
    I now have to find these to read myself!

  16. I enjoy a well planned murder. To follow both attacker/planner and team out to catch them, can be quite thrilling. I hold back from jumping a few pages to find out the result and that adds to the tension. 🙂

  17. I wonder how easy it is to plan a murder these days. Everything is traceable nowadays. You would rally have to just rely on your imagination to commit the perfect murder these days.

    • Sarah – Oh, that’s a very well-taken point. With modern detection methods and technology it’s very hard to hide anything. One has to make very, very careful preparations and take so much into account. A carefully planned murder really would be hard to pull off.

  18. Pingback: Ah, Yes, I Remember it Well* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

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