Looks Like Another Suicide*

Faked SuicidesOne way in which real and fictional murderers may try to hide their crimes is by setting the scene to make it look as though the victim committed suicide. After all, we never really know what’s in someone’s mind, so it’s plausible that someone might commit suicide without giving a hint of suicidal thinking. That certainly happens in real life, and thanks to Carol at Reading, Writing and Riesling, I’ve been thinking about how it can happen in crime fiction too.

Agatha Christie used that plot point in several of her stories. In Dead Man’s Mirror, for instance, Hercule Poirot receives a summons from Gervase Chevenix-Gore to the family home at Hamborough Close. Chevenix-Gore believes that someone in his family may be cheating him, and he doesn’t want to call in the police. Poirot is none too happy about being summoned in such an autocratic way, but he goes. Shortly after Poirot’s arrival, Chevenix-Gore is killed, apparently the result of suicide. And several signs point to just that explanation. But Poirot has already concluded that the victim was most assuredly not the kind of person who would kill himself. So he investigates further and finds that someone set the scene up to look like suicide.

Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus begins when Milan-based Dr. Luca Lamberti is hired by wealthy engineer Pietro Auseri to help with Auseri’s son Davide. It seems that Davide has developed a severe depression coupled with a serious drinking problem. Nothing seems to have helped, and now Auseri simply doesn’t know what to do next. Lamberti agrees to at least meet Davide and see if he can be of assistance. After a time, he learns the reason for Davide’s troubles. A year earlier, Davide met a young woman, Alberta Radelli. After spending a day out of town together, Alberta begged Davide not to take her back to Milan. In fact, she threatened suicide if he did, and tried to persuade him to take her along wherever he was going. Davide refused. Not long afterwards, Alberta’s body was discovered in a field outside Milan, an apparent victim of suicide. Now Davide blames himself for her death. Lamberti comes to believe that the only way to help his patient is to find out what really happened to Alberta. So he begins to look into the matter. Davide soon takes an interest too. In the end, Lamberti discovers that Alberta did not commit suicide; she’d gotten involved in a very dangerous business with some very dangerous people, and paid the price.

Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss introduces Göteborg Inspector Irene Huss. She is part of the Violent Crimes Unit supervised by Sven Andersson. When the team hears of the death of wealthy businessman Richard von Knecht, they go into action. The victim apparently committed suicide by jumping from the balcony of his upmarket penthouse. But soon enough, forensic and other evidence suggests that von Knecht was murdered. What’s more, he didn’t seem despondent enough to have taken his own life. What’s more, von Knecht was afraid of heights. If he’d decided to commit suicide, he wouldn’t likely have used that means to do so. Now that it seems clear von Knecht was murdered, Huss and her team look more closely at the people in the victim’s life to see who would have had a motive to kill him. It turns out that there’s more than one possibility.

Domingo Villar’s Death on a Galician Shore begins with the discovery of the body of local fisherman Justo Castelo. At first it looks as though Castelo committed suicide; and he kept to himself so successfully that no-one really knows whether he had a motive. But little pieces of evidence suggest to Vigo Inspector Leo Caldas that perhaps Castelo was murdered. So Caldas and his team begin to look a little more closely into the victim’s life. They find that his death is related to a tragic incident in the past.

Suicide by drowning also seems to be the verdict in Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool. DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team have re-opened the six-year-old case of the death of Bethany Friend. Scarlett isn’t entirely satisfied that the victim committed suicide. For one thing, she didn’t seem to have a motive. For another, she was very much afraid of drowning; so, even if she had decided to kill herself, Scarlett doubts she’d have chosen that method. As the team finds out more, Scarlett comes to believe that this death may be related to two more recent deaths. And so it proves to be. The three deaths have a link that Oxford historian Daniel Kind helps to discover.

And then there’s Katherine Howell’s Web of Deceit. One morning, Sydney paramedics Jane Koutofides and Alex Churchill go to the scene of a one-auto crash. The driver, Marko Meixner, refuses to let them take him to a local hospital at first. In fact, he says that he is in danger and they will be, too, if they spend any time with him. Koutofides thinks Meixner needs a psychiatric evaluation, so when she and Churchill finally get their patient to the nearest hospital, she requests a workup. But Meixner leaves before that can be done. Later that day, he is killed in what looks like a suicide when he falls under a commuter train. In fact, he’d attempted suicide before. But when New South Wales Police Inspector Ella Marconi learns what Meixner said to the paramedics, she begins to wonder whether this was a case of murder. So she and her police partner Murray Shakespeare look more closely at the case. They find that Meixner’s murder was engineered.

There are a lot of other cases, too, of fictional murders ‘dressed’ as suicides. Which ones have stayed with you? Thanks to Carol for the inspiration! Now, may I suggest your next blog stop be her excellent Reading, Writing and Riesling? You’ll be rewarded with great book reviews (with a focus on Australian writers) as well as terrific recipes and stunning ‘photos.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Close to the Borderline.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Domingo Villar, Giorgio Scerbanenco, Helene Tursten, Katherine Howell, Martin Edwards

30 responses to “Looks Like Another Suicide*

  1. Yes, a really popular gambit Margot. One of my favourites is the Carter Dickson HE WOULDN’T KILL PATIENCE, in which the title right away tells us that a murder is being passed off as suicide as ‘Patience’ is the name of a pet snake that the dead person is said to have killed when they apparently committed suicide by gas, something they would never have done.

  2. Col

    Just finished a book where the second murder was tagged suicide by the authorities in a hurry to close the case quickly and avoid bad publicity for the area with the tourist season approaching. Obviously that doesn’t sit well with the cop shunted off to the sidelines – S. C. Harker’s Binnacle Bay – an interesting small town mystery.

    • Oh, that’s eerie, Col! Great minds and all that, I suppose. 😉 Glad you thought Binnacle Bay interesting. I’ll be keen to read your review of it when you get to it.

  3. Honestly, I’d be really surprised if a suicide in a crime novel DIDN’T turn out to be murder – that would be a good twist….

  4. There are so many of these, it’s hard to know where to begin. Certainly a couple of Anthony Berkeley’s best novels use that ploy. In The Silk Stocking Murders, it takes several deaths of young women who apparently used their own stockings to hang themselves to convince police that the deaths weren’t really suicides. On the other hand, in Jumping Jenny, we have Berkeley’s detective, Roger Sheringham, trying to convince the police of the opposite – that a murder was really a suicide.

    And, of course, there’s Rex Stout’s Champagne for One where it is obvious to almost everyone that a young woman committed suicide by poisoning her own drink. The exception is Archie Goodwin, who insists that he was watching her the whole time and she couldn’t have put anything into her own drink…

    So many examples, so little time! 😉

    • You’re quite right, Les. There are so many examples of this plot point in crime fiction. And you’ve mentioned some terrific instances from classic/GA crime fiction.
      One if the things I really like about these is that both authors use such clever ways to work the plot point in.

  5. Cheers Margot 🙂 A recent read leaps to mind – After The Crash -Michel Bussi – this has a double twist with pike sort of thing 🙂 It starts with you reading a suicide note being written…

  6. Margot: Your post was timely with my recent reading of None So Blind by Barbara Fradkin. After being released over 20 years into a murder sentence James Rosten apparently commits suicide. The theory falls apart partly because of a letter written by Rosten before he died.

    Scott Turow brilliantly left readers wondering in Innocent whether Rusty Sabich had killed his wife or was it suicide or an accident. The lingering image is Sabich sitting 24 hours beside his wife after waking to find her dead beside him in bed.

    • Oh, yes, Bill! I remember your terrific review of None so Blind. I’m glad you mentioned it here, as it sounds like a great example of what I had in mind with this post. And you’re quite right about Innocent, too. I think Turow handles that question (accident, suicide or murder) very effectively in that novel. And that image really is powerful.

  7. I tend to really enjoy these as long as they don’t go on for too long. Great examples here!

    • Thanks, Elizabeth 🙂 – And I agree completely about length. It’s best if the ‘Is it suicide?’ aspect isn’t drawn out. Otherwise, it makes the sleuth look incopmetent.

  8. In Agatha Christie’s ‘The Moving Finger’, Mrs Symmington is thought to have committed suicide, but the suicide note she has apparently left behind gives the clue that it was actually murder. And I thought the image of the dead woman in Camilla Lackberg’s ‘The Ice Princess’ was a vivid one – a young woman with her wrists slit, frozen into her own bathtub – of course, on investigation it also turned out not to be suicide…

    • Oh, they’re both such great examples, FictionFan. Christie really was good at that plot point, using it in a number of creative ways. And I thought it was also beautifully handled in The Ice Princess. Terrific imagery, as you say, and a solid use of the trope.

  9. I’m drawing a blank on this one. I know I just read one of Karen Slaughter’s novels not too long ago, where the victim’s death was first ruled suicide, but the title escapes me. Nonetheless, great topic as usual, Margot.

  10. I recently read Johnny Under Ground by Patricia Moyes which employs that plot device.

  11. The YA crime novel, How To Fall by Jane Casey starts with the suspicious death of a young girl. Not exactly suicide, more thought to be accident, a fall from a cliff, but there is talk of suicide. I thought it was a great change from the usual ‘adult’ crime.

    • Oh, yes, Rebecca, that was a very effective use of murder disguised as something else. And you’re right; some characters do think the victim committed suicide. Casey did, I thought, a fine job of developing the characters in that novel. It’s a good example to show that YA novels can also be enjoyed by adults.

  12. Margot, some fine examples of murders disguised as suicides here. I want to read Katherine Howell’s “Web of Deceit.” It sounds like a book I’d enjoy.

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