In 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.