Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. In many crime novels, part of the suspense comes from the ‘whodunit’ of a case. But not in all stories. In some, we know right from the start who the killer is and the question becomes ‘whydunit.’ In those stories, there’s also engagement as readers want to find out whether or not the sleuth will catch the killer. Such a novel is L.R. Wright’s The Suspect, so let’s turn today’s spotlight on that story.
As the novel begins, eighty-year-old George Wilcox has just killed eighty-five-year old Carlyle Burke. He leaves the scene of the crime and returns to his home. Later he goes back to Burke’s home, notifies the police that he’s discovered the body, and RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg takes the case. News of the killing spreads quickly around the small town of Sechelt, British Columbia, and there’s all sorts of speculation about what might have happened.
What Alberg can’t seem to find is any real motive for murder. Burke wasn’t wealthy or known to have anything worth stealing. He had no family either, and had made no local enemies. And Sechelt is not the kind of place gangs or thieves typically frequent; so although it’s not impossible, it’s also highly unlikely that this is that sort of murder. So Alberg tries to narrow down the possibilities by looking into the question of who visited Burke on the day he was killed. That search naturally leads him to Wilcox.
Alberg learns that Wilcox and Burke have known each other for a long time. According to Wilcox, he hadn’t seen Burke for many years though – not until Burke moved to Sechelt, where Wilcox was already living. That fact, plus some other things he discovers, make Alberg begin to suspect Wilcox, but he’s up against some challenges. For one thing, there really seems to be no motive. The two men didn’t like each other, but that’s not a reason for an otherwise peaceful, garden-loving, law-abiding elderly man to commit murder. For another, there is no real evidence that connects Wilcox to the crime. Just the fact that he reported it doesn’t mean he is guilty.
In the meantime, Alberg has other things going on in his life. He has met and begun to date local librarian Cassandra Mitchell. They like each other very much, but they aren’t yet at the point in their relationship where they tell each other everything. So Alberg doesn’t tell Mitchell all of the details about the murder investigation. For her part, Mitchell has known Wilcox for some time. He’s an avid bookworm who serves as a volunteer reader at the local hospital. She’s struck up a friendship with him and that affects her perception of the case – and of Alberg.
Alberg is good at what he does, so little by little, he gets closer to the truth about why and by whom Burke was killed. Wilcox doesn’t make the mistake of underestimating Alberg, and as he sees that he’ll likely be caught, this begins to affect him as well. In the end, and layer by layer, we learn about the past history and events that led to the murder. And we see what all three main characters do with that knowledge.
In this novel, the main question about the murder has to do with motive. So an important element is the slow reveal of the past histories of Wilcox and Burke. To say more about that aspect of it would spoil the story. But I can say that bit by bit, as we get to know each character’s past, we also see what led to the murder. Readers who like character-driven novels will appreciate this.
The plot moves along as Alberg slowly gets to the truth about the killing. But it’s not a fast-paced, thriller-like story. Readers who prefer ‘high-octane’ plots will notice this. That said though, the slow revelation of the truth adds suspense, and the plot is not without its twists.
The story is set in British Columbia’s ‘Sunshine Coast,’ a place of small towns where everyone knows everyone. There are tourists, but not a massive influx. It’s got a relaxed pace of life, and Wright depicts that:
‘The tempo of life on the Sunshine Coast is markedly slower than that of Vancouver, and its people, for the most part strung out along the shoreline, have a more direct and personal interest in the sea.’
It’s certainly not the kind of place where a deliberate murder generally occurs. And because of the sort of place it is, there’s also a network of relationships among the people there, and that plays its role too.
The story itself is not a happy one. There is sadness in the history of it, and the fact that we know who the killer is doesn’t really make things better. For all that though, there are some funny moments. For instance, Alberg’s second-in-command has just gotten a perm, and there’s more than one joke about it. There’s also the matter of Burke’s parrot. It’s going to need a new home now that its owner is dead, so it takes up temporary residence at the Sechelt police detachment. And then there’s Isabella Harbud, the detachment’s receptionist. She has a habit of cleaning Alberg’s venetian blinds with vinegar, and also placing flowering plants there:
“Every week, Isabella, you clean my venetian blinds with vinegar…And I appreciate it. It’s very nice to have clean venetian blinds. Only, Isabella, my office smells like a pickle jar. And when you add the smell from these flowers – they combine in the air and the result is nauseating.’…
‘I never thought of that,’ said Isabella. The question is, do you want clean blinds or nice, fragrant flowers that bring a whiff of summer into this joint?”
It’s a gentle kind of wit that gives insight into the culture of the place.
When we know the history behind the murder, we see that this is not a clear-cut case of ‘bad guy kills helpless victim.’ Nor is it really a clear-cut case of ‘good guy kills horrible monster.’ There is ambivalence here, and readers who prefer novels where are plenty of ‘shades of grey’ will appreciate that. There’s also an element of ‘What would you do?’
The Suspect is the slow revelation of the background of a murder. It takes place in a unique and beautiful part of Canada, and features characters who show themselves bit by bit as the story goes on. The answers aren’t clear-cut, and the story gives the reader the chance to ask, ‘What would I do?’ But what’s your view? Have you read The Suspect? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 1 December/Tuesday 2 December – Thumbprint – Friedrich Glauser
Monday 8 December/Tuesday 9 December – Vanish – Tess Gerritsen
Monday 15 December/Tuesday 16 December – The Snatch – Bill Pronzini