And His Future Was Doomed*

DoomedCharactersSome crime plots are structured so that the murder (or the first murder) is discovered right away. That’s got the advantage of inviting the reader’s interest from the very beginning of the story. Other plots, though, build up, at least a little, to the murder. In those stories, we get to know the victim before she or he is killed.

Once you’ve read enough crime fiction, you can even start to get a sense of who the victim is likely to be. That’s because authors frequently offer little hints, so that readers know a character is doomed. I’m not talking here of the stereotypical ‘person goes alone into basement’ sort of hint. Rather, the author sets the victim up, and the savvy crime reader can sometimes sense it.

Agatha Christie used those clues in several of her stories. For instance, in The Mystery of the Blue Train, we are introduced to Ruth Van Aldin Kettering. Daughter of an American millionaire, she is unhappily married to Derek Kettering. She decides to take the famous Blue Train to Nice for a holiday (or at least, that’s what she tells her father. Really, she has other plans). Against her father’s advice, Ruth takes with her a valuable ruby necklace that contains a famous stone, Heart of Fire. All of the personal drama in Ruth’s life, plus the fact that she has that priceless necklace, sets Ruth up neatly to be the doomed victim in this novel, and so she is. Hercule Poirot is aboard the same train, and helps to find out who killed the victim and why. You’re absolutely right, fans of Death on the Nile!

In Ellery Queen’s The Last Woman in His Life, John Levering Benedict III invites Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, for a getaway weekend. The plan is that they’ll use Benedict’s guest house as a retreat. Also present for the weekend, and staying in the main house, are Benedict’s three ex-wives, his attorney, and his attorney’s secretary. That premise sets Benedict up to be the victim in this story, and, indeed, he is. One night, Queen gets a frantic call from Benedict, who says he’s been murdered. Queen rushes over to the main house, but doesn’t get there in time. He discovers that his host has been killed by a blow to the head from a heavy statuette. The only clues to the killer are an evening gown, a wig, and a pair of gloves, each owned by a different character. Queen works through the clues and eventually learns that the victim himself all but identified the killer – if Queen had only understood what he meant.

Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly takes place mostly in the world of the Venice glass-blowing industry. Giorgio Tassini works as night watchman in a glass-blowing factory owned by powerful Giovanni del Cal. He’s claimed for some time that the factories dispose of toxic waste illegally and dangerously. In fact, he blames his daughter’s multiple special needs on that dumping. Naturally, his accusations are not popular with del Cal or the other factory owners, but in general, he’s not taken too seriously. Then one night, he dies in what looks like a terrible accident. That’s the theory that the police are expected to endorse, too. But Commissario Guido Brunetti is not so sure that this was an accident. So he and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello look into the matter more deeply. It’s not hard to tell, though, that Tassini is a doomed character…

Very often (‘though certainly not always!), when a fictional character goes missing, that person ends up being a victim. So, even though it’s hardly foolproof, crime fiction fans often take a disappearance as a clue that a particular character is not long for the world. And that’s exactly what happens in Anthony Bidulka’s Amuse Bouche. Saskatoon PI Russell Quant gets a new client in the form of wealthy businessman Harold Chavell, whose fiancé Tom Osborn has disappeared. Chavell believes that Osborn may be following the itinerary (a trip through France) that the two had planned for their honeymoon, so he asks Quant to follow the same itinerary to try to find Osborn. During the trip, Quant gets a note that says Osborn doesn’t want to be found. That’s enough for Chavell to call off the search. After Quant returns to Saskatoon, though, Osborn’s body is discovered in a local lake. Chavell, naturally enough, is suspected of the murder, and he asks Quant to find out the truth and clear his name.

As Keigo Higashino’s Salvation of a Saint begins, Yoshitaka Mashabi and his wife Ayane Mita are having a very tense conversation. They’ve been married for a year, and have no children. Now Mashabi wants to divorce his wife, since starting a family is a crucial part of his life’s plan. They can’t finish the conversation, though, because they’re expecting dinner guests. But it’s clear that the matter isn’t settled. Two days later, Mashabi is dead – killed by arsenous acid. His widow is, naturally, the most likely suspect. But it is soon proven that she wasn’t in Tokyo at the time of the death. And, since the poison was found in a cup of coffee, it’s unlikely that she could have put it there. And, as it turns out, there are other suspects. Detective Shunpei Kusanagi and his team have to first establish how the poison got into the coffee before they can settle on the person mostly likely to be the killer. For that, they get help from mathematician and physicist Dr. Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa. Once he is able to show how the poison was administered, the police figure out who murdered Mashabi. But from the very beginning of the story (a tense conversation, an awkward dinner party, etc..) it’s not hard to guess who the victim will be.

Of course, crime writers know that readers can often spot the son-to-be victim, and some manipulate those expectations. But even so, there are stories in which one can tell fairly soon who the doomed character is. All sorts of little (and sometimes not-so-little) clues are there for the spotting.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Rolling Stones’ Blinded by Love.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Donna Leon, Ellery Queen, Keigo Higashino

25 responses to “And His Future Was Doomed*

  1. One of the many things I like about Agatha Christie, and several of the other Golden Age writers too when I think about it, is that they often don’t ‘do’ the murder until the reader has had time to get to dislike the victim. It takes the ‘grief’ aspect out and leaves the book as more of a straightforward puzzle. It’s a personal preference, of course, but I much prefer that approach to the current trend of tragic innocent victims, especially children, where I feel the detection takes second place to the grief.

    • That’s really an interesting point, FictionFan. Part of knowing a character is doomed is one’s reaction to it. Too much grief and the puzzle itself can get lost in that sorrow. Those GA writers really did know how to balance that, I think. And it’s something that I think keeps Christie’s work (and that of some of her contemporaries) interesting even many decades later.

  2. One of my biggest problems with books that are whodunits is that if you figure it out early on, you have little reason to continue because they are so plot reliant. If you don’t figure it out early on, it is sometimes because the author is leading you astray. Thus I strongly prefer police procedurals or other types of crime fiction that is not reliant on the solution of a puzzle.

    • There are definitely pros and cons to all of the different kinds of sub-genres, Patti, no doubt about it. And that includes the whodunit. There’s definitely something to a novel that has more than just a puzzle to it. A lot of people think that a character-driven novel is a really good alternative, because even if the reader does figure out the whodunit part, there’s still character development to keep that reader engaged.

  3. I like mysteries where the murder happens later in the story. In those cases we may get a better general picture of the situation and the characters, or at least a different approach. Really, though, I like all types of mysteries and each has its own appeal.

    • I know what you mean, Tracy. When it’s done well, any kind of mystery can be a fine read. Different mysteries have different kinds of appeal. And the appeal of a story where the murder happens later is that we learn more about the victim and the victim’s context.

  4. Margot: In another of the Russell Quant mysteries the search for the missing person took the whole book. To say why would be a spoiler. As there are not a lot of books in the series I will not say more.

  5. What I like about the classical Agatha Christie format is that usually the least likeable person gets bumped off, the one that you feel you might have been happy to murder yourself if they had been in your life. I find quite often TV series like Midsomer Murders, Death in Paradise, Inspector Morse and so on tend to follow this style too.

    • That’s true, Marina Sofia, they do. And there is definitely something in a story where the doomed person is someone the reader is set up to dislike. It’s easier to cheer for the sleuths. And, as FictionFan notes, there’s less of a sense of grief over the loss of the victim. So the focus of the story can be on the puzzle.

  6. Col

    I’m just as happy reading crime fiction where there aren’t murders…..heists, scams, cons, robberies – where death is almost a by-product of events rather than the main raison d’etre.

  7. I actually have a preference for both reading and writing this type of book. To open a book with a body (although it’s dramatic and I’ve certainly also written this way), means a good deal of backstory on the victim later on. It’s always clear in my books who the victim will be.

    But I will say that we can only go so far with this approach. My editors at Penguin wanted a body by page 30, latest.

    • Well, that’s true, Elizabeth. Most people want the murder (or first murder) to happen before very long. I’ve written both kinds of stories, too, and it is easier in a way to build up to the murder than it is to give too much backstory later. On the other hand, as you say, there’s the dramatic impact of a murder that happens right away. Still, I generally like to build up to it.

  8. To certain extent I like when the author offers subtle clues, but when there are too many it ruins the suspense for me. There’s a delicate balance, and when it’s done well, it can really add a nice layer to a crime novel. My favorite technique is where the author offers symbolism, so after the victim is murdered you realize the mystery was right there all along.

    • I like that, too, Sue. And you’re right; there really is a delicate balance between giving the reader some hints – something to go on – and maintaining the suspense. It’s a question of how obvious the author is going to make those clues, and that’s tricky.

  9. Interesting you should choose this topic, Margot. I’m looking at writing the next Blake and I’ve noticed I do this a lot, with he first victim in the first chapter. I often have a lot of murders to fit in :-/ Perhaps that says something about me, anyway, moving swiftly on I’ve deliberately changed this with the next book and I’m not finding it easy but I think it’s good to challenge ourselves. I think I’ll put a few of the above on the TBR list as research 😉

    • I like the idea of challenging ourselves, too, D.S.. When we try new things, we grow as writers. Still, I know what a challenge it is to take a different approach for a book. I’ve done that, myself, and it’s work. I’ll bet your next Blake outing’ll be great, though! 🙂

  10. I forget which writer (might have been McBain) who said that the crime writer needs to have a dead body — “the sooner the better and the deader the better.” I agree. But I disagree with trends that include multiple bodies and gruesome serial murderers. One body will suffice.
    BTW, I’ve moved my blogging to Beyond Walden Pond. You and your many fans are, of course, invited to visit and comment often.

    • Thanks for giving us your new blog location, Tim. I’ll go visit it right away. Folks, let’s check out Tim’s new blog space. And you make a good point about the difference between a murder right away (so as to get the reader’s attention and spark interest) and a high ‘body count.’ They are most definitely different things!

  11. Pingback: And His Future Was Doomed* | The Passive Voice | A Lawyer's Thoughts on Authors, Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing

  12. You know, Margot, I’m bad at spotting the victim before he or she is actually murdered. But then, I’m equally bad at guessing who the murderer is. I have had almost no success with Agatha Christie’s novels. Anyway, the pleasure is in reading.

    • You are absolutely right, Prashant. That, indeed, is where the pleasure lies. And trust me, I’m not always good at working out who the fictional killer is, either…

  13. I particularly like Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes – for a long time it isn’t clear that there will be a murder, and when someone dies (definitely someone we can dislike) it’s at first seen as an accident. Tey really takes this trope to an extreme – it’s very cleverly done: it’s what fans love about the book, and what others dislike!

    • You make a good point, Moira. Tey really draws that out, but at the same time, it is done cleverly. In my opinion, it worked very well. But as you say, not everyone agrees!

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