There Were Incidents and Accidents*

So-Called AccidentsSome deaths are quite obviously murders. In those cases, at least in crime fiction, the killer doesn’t try to hide the fact that it was murder. Rather, the murderer may work hard at an alibi, or may work hard to prove there was no motive. But really, it’s much easier to disguise the murder as an accident if it’s possible. And sometimes, that makes it awfully difficult to prove that a death was murder.

Examples of murders made to look like accidents run all through crime fiction, possibly because it’s really credible that someone would want to cover up a murder that way. Whatever the reason, there are a lot of examples – many more than I could list in one post. But here are a few.

Agatha Christie uses the so-called accident in several of her stories. To take just one example, in Cards on the Table, Hercule Poirot is invited to a very unusual dinner. The enigmatic Mr. Shaitana gathers four sleuths (including Poirot) and four people that he hints have gotten away with murder. After the meal, everyone settles in to play bridge. During the evening, someone stabs Mr. Shaitana. The only possible suspects are the four people who were in the room at the time – the very four people Shaitana more or less accused of murder. Now the four sleuths are faced with the task of figuring out which of these equally-plausible suspects is guilty. One of them is Anne Meredith. At one point, she’d served as companion to a Mrs. Benson, who died tragically of poisoning by hat paint. Apparently, she confused the hat paint with her medicine, a very plausible accident. Or was it?

In Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow), a young boy Isaiah Christiansen tragically dies after a fall from the roof of the Copenhagen apartment building where he lives. Isaiah had befriended fellow Greenlander Smilla Jasperson, and she is upset at his death. She’s drawn to the scene of the accident, and when she gets there, she sees signs in the snow that lead her to believe that the boy’s death was not accidental. She begins to ask questions and soon discovers that some dangerous people are determined to hide the truth. She persists though, and her search for answers takes her back to her homeland, where she finds the connection between Isaiah’s death and some secrets hidden in Greenland.

Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House introduces Arthur Bryant and John May of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). The novel actually tells two stories, one of which is a recounting of the PCU’s first case. In 1940, the Palace Theatre is set to do a production of Orpheus. Then one of the dancers Tanya Capistrania dies in what some say is a freak accident. The police are investigating that death when Charles Senechal, who was to play the role of Jupiter in the production, is killed by a piece of scenery. Again it’s regarded as a terrible accident, but an accident nonetheless. Still, it’s beginning to look very much as though someone is determined to stop the production. When another death occurs, and then a disappearance, Bryant and May and their team come under intense pressure to solve the case before there are any more tragedies.

Louise Penny’s Still Life is our introduction to the small rural Québec town of Three Pines. One of its residents Jane Neal is killed during the Thanksgiving holiday in what looks like a hunting accident. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is called to the scene, and he soon finds that this death was actually a murder. The question though is who would have had a motive. The victim was a beloved former teacher whom everyone seemed to respect. Gamache and the team get to know the town, though, and some of its history. And it’s in the past that they find the motive and therefore, the killer.

In Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip, Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone thinks he’s found a great new way to make money. He’s a marine biologist (well, in name at least) who’s hired by agribusiness owner Samuel Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut. Hammernut’s company has been accused of pouring toxic waste into Florida’s Everglades, and Hammernut needs proof that his company doesn’t pollute. Perrone offers that in the form of a way he’s developed to fake the results of water testing so the water looks clean. The two begin to do business and all goes well enough at first. Then, Perrone’s wife Joey begins to suspect what’s going on, and threatens to report it. Now he needs to get rid of her, so he tells her they’re going on an anniversary cruise of the Everglades. While they’re on the trip, he pushes Joey overboard, thinking that’s the end of his problems. At first everyone, including the police, thinks it’s a terrible accident and there’s much sympathy for Perrone. What he doesn’t know though is that Joey didn’t drown, and she’s made her own plans for revenge…

And then there’s Dawn Harris’ Letter From a Dead Man. In the late 18th-Century Lady Drusilla Davenish lives on the Isle of Wight with her Aunt Thirza and Thirza’s daughter Lucie. The family is excited about Lucie’s upcoming wedding to Giles Saxborough. Everything changes though, when Giles’ father (and Lady Drusilla’s godfather) Cuthbert Saxborough dies in what looks like a tragic riding accident. But things don’t quite add up for Lady Drusilla. Her godfather was an expert horseman. It’s highly unlikely that he’d have died in that way. So she starts to ask questions. Not long afterwards, Giles’ older brother Thomas and his son Tom are both killed in what’s put down as a horrible yachting accident. But Lady Drusilla is convinced that it’s more than that. And there’s more than one possible explanation. It might be connected to a smuggling operation she’s recently discovered. Or it might be someone with a vendetta against the Saxborough family. Or it might be something else…

In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney is hired by Jim Delbeck to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. She was a volunteer at the New Life Children’s Centre in Pattaya when she fell from the roof of the building where she was living. The police report suggests it might have been suicide, but Delbeck doesn’t think so. It could also have very well been an accident. Whatever the cause, Delbeck wants to know the truth about his daughter’s death. Keeney takes the case and travels to Pattaya. As a part of her investigations, she decides to learn more about at New Life, going undercover as a volunteer. As she gets closer to the truth about Maryanne’s life and death, she finds out that some people do not want their secrets revealed…

At least in fiction, murders designed to look like accidents can serve a lot of purposes. They can give murderers effective ways to hide their crimes. They can also give the author a way to build suspense and interest. And they can allow the author the chance to lead the reader up the proverbial garden path. After all, sometimes an accident is just an accident. There are so many other examples of this plot point in crime fiction – many more than I could name. So…what gaps have I left?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Carl Hiaasen, Christopher Fowler, Dawn Harris, Louise Penny, Peter Høeg

13 responses to “There Were Incidents and Accidents*

  1. An interesting documentary I watched some years ago presented a study from Great Britain, where they asked several thousands of prison inmates how it happened they had the idea to perform their crimes in that very manner they did. The very surprising answer, at least for me, was that far beyond 90 per cent replied, that the had been intrigued by watching TV.

    Therefore incidents yes, accidents probably much, much less! 🙂

  2. A truly astonishing number of residents of English Country Homes, particularly those in the habit of drawing up new wills, seem to meet tragic and unfortunate demises in accidents, usually by apparently walking over the edge of a cliff on a foggy evening!

    • Les – That’s quite true. People with money really do need to be careful of where they go and what they do, don’t they? I think the process of changing a will must have some sort of effect, because those people do tend to meet with lots of ‘accidents.’

  3. In Robert Galbraith’s first book The Cuckoo’s Calling, everyone thinks the death of supermodel Lula Landry was suicide – but as we’re at the start of a long book featuring a private investigator, we know better! It is a standard trope, but Galbraith (better known as JK Rowling) did it well I thought, with a long leisurely investigation, talking to everyone Lula had ever met and building a picture of her and her life.

    • Moira – That’s an excellent example of what I had in mind with this post. And if the author does an effective job of building the backstory and of helping us understand the character, the fact that it’s a long investigation doesn’t present a problem. The journey’s worth it if I can put it that way.

  4. kathy d.

    I agree that Rowling aka Galbraith did a good job in The Cuckoo’s Calling, although I could have easily lived without some details and some tweaking in the last one-third of the book. However, I will read The Silkworm, tantalized as I am by the reviews at Clothes in Books.
    Where would crime fiction be without “accidental” deaths? In addition to the wealthy having an inordinate number of falls off English cliffs, there are also falls from high floors at construction sites, i.e., in Jassy MacKenzie’s book — Pale Horses, I think.
    There are also auto accidents because cars have “faulty” brakes. And a lot of people fall down stairs, too.
    I find it amazing that people actually get ideas about how to “commit the perfect crime” from TV. The whole point of the TV shows is to portray how the evidence is gathered and scrutinized, witnesses questioned, etc. — and the culprits get caught! Rarely do they get away with it on TV. That should be kind of obvious.

    • Kathy – That’s a good point; it would be hard to imagine crime fiction without ‘accidents.’ Whether it’s stairs, poison, or something else, causing an ‘accident’ can be a very effective way to cover up a crime. And about TV shows? It is interesting that people get ideas from what they see on TV even though the fictional criminal usually gets caught. Maybe it’s a case of, ‘I’ll bet I could do that better and get away with it…’

  5. Col

    I loved that Hiaasen book and read the Fowler, though I can’t recall them in as great a detail as you. Envious – of your photographic memory and the thought that there is nothing you haven’t read apparently!

  6. One of the cleverest ‘accidental’ deaths was contrived by R Austin Freeman in his mystery When Rogues Fall Out. Inspector Badger dies, apparently by accident, when he falls from a moving train. The only clue is his discarded cigar butt. It is analysed for poison but found to contain – surprise! – nothing but nicotine, as one would expect. It takes the clever Dr Thorndyke to discover that the cigar has been injected with a fatal level of level of nicotine. One puff would have knocked the man out, after which he was pushed from the train.

    So a poison disguised itself to contrive an ‘accidental’ death. Clever!

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