It Was Committed Discreetly, It Was Handled so Neatly*

Good Places for a MurderSome places are especially good choices if you’re going to commit a murder. Not of course that I’m condoning that, but it is a lot easier to cover up a murder in some places than it is in others. For instance, in Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder, Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn and Inspector Fox investigate the death of Home Secretary Sir Derek O’Callaghan, who was giving a speech when he collapsed of a ruptured appendix. He’s rushed to a nearby nursing home run by his longtime physician Sir John Phillips, where he’s operated on immediately. He survives the operation only to die shortly thereafter of an overdose of hyoscine. Alleyn and Fox soon establish that the victim was murdered, and sift through all of the events of the operation to find the killer.  It doesn’t help matters that just about everyone who was involved with O’Callaghan, including his wife, had a motive for murder. What makes everything even more difficult is that, as Alleyn puts it, an operating theatre is a very good place for a murder. Everything is routinely disinfected, replaced, put away and so on, so critical evidence is lost. Alleyn and Fox do figure out who the killer is, but he’s right about how easy it is to cover one’s tracks, so to speak, in an operating theatre.

We also see that in Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger. Postman Joseph Higgins is taken to Heron Park Hospital with a broken femur and is scheduled for what’s supposed to be a routine operation. It doesn’t turn out that way though and Higgins dies during the procedure. Inspector Cockrill comes to the hospital to make what’s supposed to be a cursory inspection and fill out some paperwork. But Higgins’ widow insists that this is a case of murder. Then one of the nurses, Sister Marion Bates, says the same thing after having too much to drink at a party. She even says that she knows how the murder was accomplished. When she herself is found dead soon afterwards, it’s clear that Cockrill has a full-scale investigation on his hands. Part of his challenge is that the operating theatre is kept scrupulously clean and therefore, free of direct evidence. Everything is carefully stowed away after a procedure, too, so it’s very difficult to tell if anything was out of place or misused.

Of course, operating theatres aren’t the only good places to commit a murder. As Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun begins, a group of people on holiday is enjoying the sun at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Hercule Poirot is among the guests and he’s been asked whether he’s there on a case. He says that he isn’t and one of the guests then says,


‘This isn’t the sort of place you’d get a body.’


Here’s Poirot’s response:


‘Let us say, you have an enemy. If you seek him out in his flat, in his office, in the street – eh bien, you must have a reason – you must account for yourself. But here at the seaside it is necessary for no one to account for himself. You are at Leathercombe Bay, why? Parbleu! it is August – one goes to the seaside in August – one is on one’s holiday. It is quite natural, you see, for you to be here and for Mr. Lane to be here and for Major Barry to be here and for Mrs. Redfern and her husband to be here. Because it is the custom in England to go to the seaside in August.’


Poirot has a point. A tourist destination is an effective place for murder. Not only can a person be at a resort without having to explain why, but also, the victim may very well be more easily accessible. And we see exactly that when Arlena Stuart Marshall is strangled. It’s hard for the police to even work out where everyone was at the time she was killed. And what’s more, it’s very difficult to prove that the killer was deliberately there to commit murder. Poirot manages it, but it’s not an easy case.

Even when one’s not on holiday, the sea is an effective place for a murder. It can be hard to prove whether a drowning death was an accident, a suicide or a murder. And even if one can prove it was murder, evidence that points to the killer is hard to get. For example, in Domingo Villar’s Death on a Galician Shore, the body of local fisherman Justo Castelo has washed up on the shore near the small Galician town of Panxón. Vigo Inspector Leo Caldas and his assistant Rafael Estevez look into the case and soon find that this was not an accident. And yet, it is very unclear whether Castelo’s drowning was suicide or murder. It’s even less clear when it comes up that his death may be related to another death several years earlier. Castelo and two other men, Marcos Valverde and José Arias, were on a fishing boat with their captain Antonio Sousa. A sudden storm came up and Sousa drowned. None of the men has really said much about that night. It’s hard to say whether Sousa was murdered, drowned accidentally, or was killed through the other men’s negligence. So it’s very hard to tell whether Castelo committed suicide out of guilt or was murdered to keep him quiet. The case is made much more challenging because the water has washed away a lot of evidence.

We also see how effective a murder spot the sea is in Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach. Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel are taking a much-needed getaway break at Krabi, on the Thai coast. While they are there, they take a tour that’s led by a young woman nicknamed Pla. When Pla’s body is later found washed up in a cave, both Keeney and Patel are very upset about it. They work out an agreement to stay in Krabi for a few extra days to find out what happened to her. The official report is that she drowned accidentally or perhaps committed suicide by drowning. Keeney doesn’t think this was an accident, since the victim was an expert swimmer. Suicide can’t be ruled out, but it’s not long before Keeney suspects that this was murder. There’s not much to go on though, because the physical evidence isn’t conclusive, and the water has done its job washing away anything that could lead directly to the killer. In this case, the waterway has been a very wise choice for the murderer. That doesn’t stop Keeney investigating though…

M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Cad shows us another kind of very effective place for a murder: a hunting setting. Colonel and Mrs. Haiburton-Smythe have invited several guests for a week-end in honour of a visit by up-and-coming playwright Henry Withering. The Halburton-Smythes are hoping for the news of an engagement between Withering and their daughter Priscilla, so they want this to be a successful event. One of their guests is Captain Peter Bartlett of the Highland Dragoons. Bartlett is a boor who drinks too much, can’t leave women alone and treats the women who do get involved with him horribly. Bartlett makes a bet with another guest Jeremy Pomfret that he can shoot a brace of grouse before Pomfret can, and the two men agree to meet the following morning for the competition. But Bartlett leaves long before the agreed-upon time. Later his body is discovered, and it looks as though he’s been killed in a tragic shooting accident. There are other hunters about (both legitimate and poachers), so there’s nothing to say that this couldn’t have been an accident. And nothing specific links the death with anyone staying at the Halburton-Smythe home. So Superintendent Blair is inclined to call this a terrible accident and leave it at that. But Constable Hamish Macbeth isn’t so sure. And in the end, he is proven to be right.

It’s not easy though, and that’s the thing about really well-chosen places for murder. They make it very hard to prove that a death was anything other than accidental or suicide. And even when it’s clear that the death is a murder, it can be almost impossible to link that killing to a particular person. I’ve only mentioned a few examples here; I’m sure you can think of lots more than I can.



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


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Christianna Brand, Domingo Villar, M.C. Beaton, Ngaio Marsh

18 responses to “It Was Committed Discreetly, It Was Handled so Neatly*

  1. Hi Margot

    G.K. Chesterton’s short story ‘The Sign of the Broken Sword’ is a great example of a cover-up. The murder is so perfect that his detective Father Brown can only really confide his deductions to his friend Flambeau. It’s basically the same trick, but in a very different context, as the one used by Edgar Allen Poe in ‘The Purloined Letter’.


    • Rich – Chesterton really wrote some fine plots didn’t he? And one of his skills, at least in my humble opinion, was the way Fr. Brown uncovers a clever cover-up that seems like something completely different. I think of it as sort of a ‘howdhedoit’ as much as a ‘whodunit.’ Thanks for filling in that gap.

  2. In Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, a young woman dies in the gymnasium where she has been practising her routine… it seems a case of carelessness, she didn’t check the safety of the equipment sufficiently. Because it’s crime fiction, we know to be suspicious, but in real life we would think it was just a sad accident…

    • Moira – Oh, that’s a terrific example of what I had in mind with this post. As you say, who’s going to be suspicious of the death of a gymnast if it’s a matter of faulty equipment? It reminds me of Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine where a man is killed by one of the ancient machines he has collected. Hard to say that’s not just a matter of a terrible accident. But of course, we know it’s more than that.

  3. Margot: In the Last Good Day by Gail Bowen there is a drowning death in the lake at Lawyer Bay where a firm of lawyers have cabins. It is hard to figure out if it was accidental or deliberate. Everyone has a reason to be at a Saskatchewan lake during our short summer.

    In The Murder Stone by Louise Penny we have Inspector Armand Gamache and his wife Reine Marie at a lake resort in Quebec. Once again all the potential suspects have reason to be at the resort.

    In a Cold White Sun by Vicki Delany set in B.C. the murder is committed on a walking trail on the edge of town. While you would think you reduce the suspects by determining who walks on the trail it is popular, surprisingly isolated place and almost everyone in town walks on the trail at some time.

    • Bill – Trust you to suggest such excellent examples from Canadian crime fiction. Right you are indeed of course about how all of these murders could just as easily be accidents or at least not deliberate murder. And as your comment makes clear, in all of these cases, even if it’s clear that the victim’s been murdered, there’s no easy way to narrow down the number of suspects. These are pitch-perfect illustrations of what I had in mind, for which thanks.

  4. kathy d.

    How about the famous Belgian detective in Murder on the Orient Express? A perfect place for a murder. Who would know the perpetrator?
    Another sea-based mystery with some history involved is Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective, a fascinating story.

    • Kathy – I thought The Sea Detective was fascinating too. And it is really hard to tease apart exactly what happened in the ‘history’ part of that novel.
      You’re right too about Murder on the Orient Express. While it’s true that the list of suspects is limited, it’s very hard to know exactly which one is guilty.

  5. Another interesting topic, Margot. The seaside does seem like a very likely place to be able to get away with murder.

    • Tracy – Thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed this. And the nice thing about the seaside is that people can be there without having to account for themselves. It makes for an effective cover for a murder.

  6. Col

    There’s been some recent cases over here regarding medical staff and deaths in hospitals – which you would kind of expect anyway. Perhaps some of it passes as natural causes.
    Plus we had GP – Harold Shipman a few years ago, GP to elderly patients, a number of whom you might expect to pass naturally..

    • Col – I read some about the Shipley case – thanks for mentioning that. It’s a solid real-life example of what I was thinking with this post. It can be quite hard to prove anything conclusive about deaths in hospitals, too. It’s quite easy to make the argument that a death was accidental or natural.

  7. Thanks for the mention, Margot. I was surprised when doing the research for The Dying Beach just how difficult it is to determine an accidental drowning from a deliberate one from a forensic point of view. Popular wisdom that says the lungs will or won’t be filled with water, depending on whether someone is dead before or after they are submerged; and likewise, that wounds will or won’t bleed in the water, depending on whether they are inflicted pre- or post-mortem. But not so. There are exceptions to all these rules.

    I’ve just today finished Dog Will Have His Day, the new novel by Fred Vargas. Someone dies by the sea in this one, too, an older woman known to go ‘winkling’, whose death among the rocks can be blamed on a fall. But a voracious dog and the tide charts tell a different story…

    • Angela – It’s always a pleasure to mention your work. And it really is interesting isn’t it what you learn from doing research. I think I’d read somewhere that it’s very hard to tell whether a drowning is or isn’t accidental, but your comment confirms it. It just goes to show you why authors need to ‘do their homework.’ As you say, there are exceptions to all of the conventional wisdom.
      Thanks also for mentioning the new Vargas, I really like her Adamsberg series, and you’ve reminded me I ought to check out the evangelists series too.

  8. In Arnaldur Indriòason’s Hyperthermia the initial “suicide” is just that. Thought to be suicide until a friend pushes the detective that her friend just wouldn’t hang herself that way and he investigates. Alone, as no one else believes it’s not straightforward suicide.

    • Rebecca – That’s a great example of what I mean. And the way that particular death happens wouldn’t, on the surface, lead a person to question anything. It’s most effective.

  9. I had a lot of fun writing a short story set in a hospice in which someone who is dying anyway is murdered. The only person to suspect is another patient . . .

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