A lot of murders, both real and fictional, come about because of a sort of cascade of events. Looking back later, we can point to several places where the buildup, if you will, could have been stopped, and the murder thus prevented. Of course, that wouldn’t leave very much plot for a crime novel, but it’s interesting to take a look at how sometimes small decisions can spiral out of control and result in disaster.
In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, for example, beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway seems to have it all. And it seems like a godsend to her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort when Linnet is willing to hire Jackie’s fiancé Simon Doyle as her land agent. But then Linnet finds herself attracted to Simon. Instead of turning back from that, as you might say, she pursues him and it’s not long before they’re married. Their honeymoon trip includes a trip to Egypt and a cruise of the Nile; to Linnet’s dismay, Jackie turns up at the hotel, as she has everywhere they’ve been. Linnet approaches Hercule Poirot, who’s at the same hotel, to ask him to make Jackie stop. He gently points out to her that she had the chance to prevent all this in the first place. Later, he talks to Jackie and asks her to turn back and leave the couple alone before it’s too late. Neither woman really listens to him, and Jackie goes along on the cruise. On the second night, Linnet is shot. Jackie is the first suspect, but it’s soon proven that she could not have killed the victim, so Poirot and Colonel Race have to look elsewhere for the killer. Throughout the novel, there are other examples, too, of points where people make choices that end up cascading out of control.
In Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers, Ystad Inspector Kurt Wallander and his team are faced with the brutal murders of local farmer Johannes Lövgren and his wife Maria. The victims seemed to have no enemies, and they weren’t known to be wealthy. So there seems no motive for the murders. Even a look into their family background doesn’t really reveal anything that points to the killer. There is one possibility though. Just before she died, Maria said the word foreign. A lot of people have taken this to mean that the killers were foreigners. At this point, matters could be controlled somewhat, but the media gets hold of the story and it sets a spark to the already-simmering local prejudice against immigrants. When the story gets into the news, it sets off a backlash, which has its own consequences. And as we find out later, the murder itself might have been prevented, but for someone’s choice not to let matters go.
Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal is the story of Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik. Eva very much wants the peaceful suburban lifestyle, complete with white picket fence, for herself, her husband and their son Axel. So when she discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful, Eva is devastated. At that point, she might choose to leave her husband or forgive him; many people do one of those things. Instead, she determines to find out who the other woman is. When she does, she sets in motion a chain of events that spins out of control. One night, she goes to a pub for a drink. There, she meets Jonas Hansson, a man with his own issues. She has the opportunity at that point to flirt with Jonas and make something of the evening, or to go home. Her decision to spend the night with Jonas has consequences that neither of them imagined. In this case, you could argue that a lot of what happens might have been prevented at several key points in the story.
That’s also true of Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit. Mason and Gates Hunt are siblings with a terrible background including alcoholism and abuse. Mason chooses to take advantage of every opportunity that comes his way to get out of his situation. He excels in school and gets a scholarship to law school. Gates, on the other hand, squanders his natural athletic ability and ends up living on money he gets from their mother, and from his girlfriend’s Welfare benefits. One afternoon, Gates’ romantic rival Wayne Thompson comes by, and the two get into an argument. Thompson leaves and the whole matter might have rested there. But later that night, the Hunt brothers are returning home from a night out. They run into Thomspon again and the argument starts anew. Instead of letting it all go, both men get angrier and angrier until, before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates shoots Thompson. Out of a sense of filial duty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime and time goes by. Years later, Mason is a commonwealth prosecutor. Gates has been convicted of cocaine trafficking. Gates begs his brother to get him out of prison, but this time Mason refuses. Instead of letting matters go, Gates threatens to implicate Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder unless he co-operates. Now matters spin even more out of control until Mason finds himself indicted for a murder he didn’t commit. Now he’ll have to find some way to clear his name before his brother is released from prison.
Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger makes quite a bit of use of those moments where people might turn back, but don’t. It begins when the police inform Fabien Delorme that his wife Sylvie has died in a car crash. Their marriage hadn’t been a loving one for a long time, but he still feels a sense of loss. He’s even more upset to discover that Sylvie wasn’t alone in the car. She had taken a lover, Martial Arnoult, who died in the crash as well. Instead of leaving matters alone and getting on with his life, Delorme takes an interest in Arnoult’s widow Martine. His interest soon leads to obsession and he begins to follow her. He even books a holiday in the same place on Majorca where Martine and her friend Madeleine go. Delorme’s decision to give in to his obsession has all sorts of dark and tragic consequences. And you could argue that it could all have been prevented if he had let the matter of Sylvie’s lover go and got on with the business of living.
There’s also Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second. Luke Murray is riding a bus one day when three young people get on and soon begin to bully him. At one point, another passenger, Jason Barnes, intervenes and tells the group to stop. For a short time they do. But then Luke gets off the bus, and so do the bullies. So does Jason. Instead of leaving the matter, the bullies start up again and this time the fight escalates. It goes on all the way to Jason’s yard, where he is fatally stabbed. Luke is left gravely wounded. As we follow the story, we see that there are several places where the whole thing might have been stopped, but for people’s choices. Other than Jason, the people on the bus don’t do anything to stop the bullying. The bullies don’t stop either, and neither do Jason and Luke. It’s a clear example of the consquences when things spin out of control.
And that’s what happens sometimes. One decision, one choice not to hold back or back down, and situations can go completely wrong in very tragic ways.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven.