I Know That I Will Kill Again*

Second MurdersMany crime novels feature more than one murder. And if you think about it, this makes sense. For one thing, there’s an argument that once you’ve crossed the line and taken a life, it’s easier to do it again. Here, for instance, is what the murderer in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile says about it:

‘It’s so dreadfully easy – killing people. And you begin to feel that it doesn’t matter!’

This fictional killer even acknowledges that it could happen again.

There’s also the fact that second murders in novels can be very effective plot devices. Second murders can add to the suspense and keep the reader engaged. They can also make for effective plot twists (e.g. the most likely suspect in a fictional murder becomes a victim).

Like just about any other element in a novel, second murders have to be handled carefully. They have to fall out logically from the plot (i.e. not be included just for shock value). Timing matters, too. If the second murder happens too abruptly, it can jar the reader. If too much time goes by, the reader’s interest lags. There has to be a logical reason for the second murder as well. After all, most of us are not habitual killers, so something credible has to drive a character to that act.

Perhaps the most frequent motive for the second murder is to keep the second victim quiet. Most murderers don’t want to be caught, and if they suspect that someone knows what they’ve done, it’s easy to believe they’d kill to prevent that person from speaking out. That’s what happens in Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger. Postman Joseph Higgins is admitted to Heron Park Hospital for a fractured femur. It’s supposed to be a routine operation; tragically, though, he dies during the procedure. At first it’s put down to a terrible accident, and Inspector Cockrill begins what’s expected to be a routine investigation. But Higgins’ widow is convinced he was murdered. Cockrill takes her very seriously when there’s a second death. This time, it’s a nurse, Sister Marion Bates, whose body is found only hours after she blurted out that she knew Higgins was killed, and by whom. There are, of course, myriad other stories where the killer strikes more than once to keep someone from going to the police.

Sometimes, killers strike more than once because their first victim is accidental. For example, in Colin Dexter’s Death is Now My Neighbor, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are assigned to investigate the shooting death of physiotherapist Rachel James. They don’t make much progress on the case at first, since there seems no obvious motive. Then, journalist Geoffrey Owens, who lives near the first victim, is murdered. Now it looks as though someone may have a grudge against the people who live in that particular area. But Morse and Lewis soon find differently. As it turns out, Owens was the intended victim the whole time; Rachel James was murdered accidentally.

There are also fictional cases where the murderer has more than one target. There’s a second victim (or more) because that’s part of the killer’s plan. That’s what happens in Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House. Stockholm DCI Conny Sjöberg and his team are called in when the body of realtor Hans Vannerberg is discovered in the kitchen of a temporarily-unoccupied home. The homeowner, Ingrid Olssen, claims not to know the victim, and in any case couldn’t have killed him. So the team has to look elsewhere for the murderer. Then there’s another killing, this time of a prostitute who’s murdered in her seedy apartment. There’s another murder, too. In this novel, the second murder happens because the killer targeted a particular group of people.

There are also fictional cases where the murderer kills more than one person so as to ‘hide’ one particular death. The idea here is that that one murder will point more or less directly to the killer. It won’t be so easy to find the real murderer if there are several victims. That’s a plot point, for instance, in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman. In one story thread, a gunman holds up a public transit bus and shoots eight people. At first it seems that a madman has struck. But it’s not that simple. It turns out that one victim, a cop named Åke Stenström, was investigating the murder of a prostitute on his own, and that someone doesn’t want that case solved. Homicide detective Martin Beck and his team learn that in this instance, the killer really only had one target. The other deaths were used, if I may put it this way, as a disguise. There’s an Agatha Christie novel too that has that premise.

Sometimes, the fictional second murder is committed because the killer is after something that isn’t obtained after the first murder. In Aaron Elkins’ Loot, for instance, art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere gets involved in the case of a valuable Velázquez that was ‘safeguarded’ by the Nazis during World War II. When it turns up, decades later, in a Boston pawnshop, the store’s owner is murdered for it. Revere was a friend of the victim’s, and hopes that if he can trace the painting from the time it disappeared during the war, he can find out who the murderer is. As it turns out, more than one person is killed for this valuable artwork.

There are also plenty of cases where there are (at least) two murders that are committed by different people. I won’t give authors and titles, so as to avoid spoilers. But here’s one example. I read a novel where A kills B. Then C (who is in love with B) finds out that A is the murderer and kills that person. That sort of plot is tricky, because it’s a bit more of a challenge to keep everything coherent and keep the focus on the main plot. But it does happen in real life, and it does in crime fiction too.

You’ll notice I’m not mentioning any of the many novels where the second murder indicates a serial killer. It’s not that those stories can’t be well-written. There are certainly high-quality ‘serial killer’ novels out there. But there are also a great many that, well, aren’t of high quality. And in real life, the true serial killer – the psychopath or sociopath – is comparatively rare.

Whatever the motive for a second fictional murder, it has to be credible if the story is to hold up. It also has to fall out naturally from the plot (i.e. not be included merely for interest). When the author does that though, a second murder can add to a story.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jarvis Cocker’s I Will Kill Again.


Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Carin Gerhardsen, Christianna Brand, Colin Dexter, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö

35 responses to “I Know That I Will Kill Again*

  1. Margot: I will disagree with the premise that it is easier to kill again having killed someone. In a lifetime of reading real life cases it is exceedingly rare for someone to kill again who is neither a serial killer nor a gang / mob member. I believe there are a couple of reasons. First, people who are not normally violent but have killed still have a reluctance to kill. Second, even an ordinary killer recognizes the risks of detection increase greatly with a subsequent killing or killings.

    I think the primary reason there are multiple killings in crime fiction is that they give the writer more plot options. I suggest it is harder to sustain a full length mystery when there is but one body.

    • Thanks, Bill, for your thoughts on this. It’s an important ‘reality check’ and a good reminder that fiction and real life are different. It’s certainly true that it’s harder to sustain a novel if there’s only one body. I’m sure we can all think of examples of excellent novels with just one murder, but it’s not easy to do that.

  2. And you’ve managed to avoid the mad serial killers’ multiple death rampages…
    Of course the Midsomer Murder series (or Inspector Barnany by Caroline Graham, upon which it’s based) always features more than one murder and it’s usually for the first reason you mentioned above: to get rid of a crucial witness. As soon as someone says, ‘I know what I’ve seen…’, you know they’re a goner!

    • Oh, yes, the Midsomer Murders! Yes, there are plenty of multiple murders in that series aren’t there, Marina Sofia? I had to laugh, too, at your last comment. As you say, there are definitely ways you can tell who’s going to be a victim, both in that series and in other crime fiction – including well-written crime fiction. ‘I know what I’ve seen…’ is definitely one of them. You wonder why any fictional character takes the risk of saying something like that…

  3. Keishon

    From Ed McBain’s The Pusher
    “There are, to be truthful, a lot of troubles with murder–but there’s one in particular.
    It gets to be a habit.”

    In “The Redeemer” by Jo Nesbo, the contract killer targets the wrong person and goes back to correct the error. I think that’s his best book but that’s me. I’d like to think that most killers don’t develop a habit to kill but I do agree that it becomes easier for them to do it again. Too many times I’ve seen on the news about people killing because they want to know what it’s like. Disgusting. There are monsters in this world who abide by no rules so who knows ultimately what people will/won’t do.

    • Keishon – That’s a great quote from The Pusher. And you’ve reminded me that I have yet to spotlight one of Jo Nesbø’s novels. Not sure why; it just hasn’t happened. I need to do that at some point.
      I’ve read too about people who kill because they want to know what it’s like. I can’t really wrap my mind around that viewpoint, but I know there are people like that. Perhaps whether someone who kills would do so again might depend on why the murder happened in the first place. Not being a psychiatrist, I couldn’t make an informed suggestion, but it could be. As you say, it’s very hard to tell exactly what a person would or wouldn’t do…

  4. Margot can I suggest you spotlight – The Son by Nesbo? I think it is his best – to date but he does have a new one out soon and maybe that will top this.

  5. Good points Margot. As I often say, life doesn’t have to make sense; fiction does 😉 I remeber there was outrage one year, when an episode of Midsommer Murders, here in the UK, didn’t have enough murders in it! We’re a blood thirsty lot here.

  6. I think…hope I’m not misstating this…that most avid readers of crime fiction *expect* more than one body in a murder mystery. But usually only two. For writers, as you mentioned, it really does help with the saggy middle of the plot and breaks up an investigation. It also provides more dead ends, red herrings, and clues. I *think* only one of my books doesn’t have a second body…editor at Penguin was adamantly against a second body in that book (and I’m not sure why…might have been that she liked that character). So I raised the victim from the dead in another draft before publication and had her merely injured. 🙂 But there *was* a second violent incident…it just didn’t result in a death. I believe there are a few of those, too…second incidents and the victim is injured, not killed.

    • I think you’re absolutely right, Elizabeth, that most readers of crime fiction have gotten used to at least two murders in a book. As you say, many crime fiction fans (myself included) don’t look for a really high ‘body count,’ unless there’s a compelling reason. But most novels do have more than one murder, so I supposed we’ve gotten accustomed to it. Interesting that your editor didn’t want that second murder in one case. Sometimes I think we do get attached to characters, and having them die in those cases can be hard. What I like about the ‘second deaths’ in your work is that they fall out naturally from the story. They’re not just there for your own purposes, if I can put it that way.

  7. A special case of the ‘one murder buried among others’ meme occurs in one of Agatha Christie’s – she covered just about every kind of second murder possible I think! In the book I’m thinking of (no names, but you will know which one I mean) the first murder is a kind of rehearsal for the 2nd….

    • Oh, I think Christie explored every kind of second murder, too, Moira! And the one to which you’re referring is particularly ingenious. Just…very well done, I thought.

  8. In Christie the second murder is quite often of some poor servant who has seen something he/she doesn’t immediately recognise the significance of. In fact, the maid in a Christie book is a bit like the ‘guy in the red uniform’ in Star Trek – you just know as soon as you meet them that they’re quite probably not long for this world…

  9. Great article. I know in real life it’s different and “sometimes” killing a second time might not occur regularly, but it happens. In fact, killing (subsequent) wives instead of divorcing them seems to be a trend I see on Dateline. My daughter always says, “Divorce her, don’t kill her!” I remind her that divorcing doesn’t remove the “problem” the way murdering his wife would. 🙂

    • Thanks for the kind words, Teresa. Real life and fiction are certainly different matters. But it is interesting the strange things that actually do go on in real life. And shows like Dateline remind us of that. Your comment about divorce and murder reminds me of Talmage Powell’s short story To Avoid a Scandal. If you ever get the chance to read it, I recommend it.

  10. Interesting, Margot. I’m thinking through the possibilities of having two murderers in a book I’m writing at the moment. It needs to be handled carefully to make it believable. An interesting post and lots of food for thought!

    • Thanks, Sarah! And you’re right; handling that second murder can be tricky. As you say, it has to be credible, and it has to be timed well. It’s definitely something that has to be planned…

  11. I totally agree, on all counts. The reason for the killing AND the timing are both crucial to “get it right”.

  12. Hi Margot – Your first example is the very one I was thinking of : the second murder to cover up the first, as you say, usually to keep the witness/sometimes blackmailer quiet. I notice that in these cases the second murder is often sloppier and has lots of mistakes because it’s improvised or done in panic. Bill sort of alludes to this in his comments about the second murder being tougher to pull off.
    And I was just thinking of Moira’s example where Dame Agatha constructs a story in which the first murder is a kind of rehearsal/feint for the second, and primary, murder.

    • You make a very interesting point, Bryan, that the second murder is often not as well-planned, etc., as the first. That could very well be that the murderer didn’t expect a second murder. And yes, Moira’s example was terrific. 🙂

  13. I found Bill’s comment interesting about real life murderers usually only kill once. It makes sense to me. Once a killer does it a 2nd time, they can no longer say it was “accidental” or in the heat of the moment. I guess that is why mystery authors have to work so hard to make the plots plausible and interesting at the same time.

    • That’s quite true, Tracy. A killer does lose the ‘heat of the moment’ or ‘accident’ excuse if there’s more than one murder. And many people probably don’t kill more than once, in part for that reason. On the one hand, readers know that what they are reading is fiction, so there’s sometimes a little suspension of disbelief. But as an author, you can’t ask for much of that. So you’re right; it’s a bit tricky to work in that second body.

  14. Pingback: Writing the Cozy Mystery: The Suspects - Elizabeth Spann Craig

  15. Chanz

    I am writing a mystery story for school, and these comments were really helpful. Thanks Margot!
    One of my favourite mystery stories is ‘ The woman in White’. It can be a little confusing and all, it’s not an actual murder but still…yeah:) Thanks again for all the help!

    • The Woman in White is a classic, Chanz. I don’t blame you for liking it so well. And I’m very glad you’re finding this blog useful. I wish you well crafting your mystery story.

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