Look At Me, I’m Falling Off Of a Cliff Now*

CliffsThe thing about crime-fictional murders is that they work best if they’re realistic. I don’t just mean credible in terms of motive (‘though that’s certainly important!). I also mean credible in terms of things such as the weapon that the killer uses. It’s important for credibility that the author choose a weapon and other circumstances that are believable given the killer’s size, gender, age and the like.

Enter the cliff. If you’ve ever taken a walk on a cliff, or driven on a narrow, mountainous road, then you know that cliffs can be very dangerous places. And that’s exactly why they can be useful for the crime writer. Besides, a push off a cliff doesn’t require a great deal of special skill or extra strength. And, pushes off cliffs can serve as useful ‘disguises’ for other kinds of murders. So they offer a lot of possibilities for the crime writer. Little wonder that we see pushes off cliffs in a lot of crime novels.

Agatha Christie uses the cliff motif in more than one of her stories. In the short story The Edge, for instance, we are introduced to Clare Halliwell, a ‘pillar of the community’ in the village of Daymer’s End. She’s been friends with Gerald Lee for a very long time; in fact, Clare thinks their relationship is more than friendship. But then, Gerald shocks her by marrying Vivien Harper. Vivien is not particularly well-liked in the village; still, Clare tries to get on with her at first. It doesn’t work out well, though, and Clare finds herself disliking Vivien more and more. Then, she accidentally finds out that Vivien is having an affair.  Now, she’s faced with a dilemma: should she tell Gerald what she knows about his wife? Vivien begs Clare not to tell, and it’s interesting to see how Clare gradually comes to enjoy having Vivien in her power. The tension mounts between the two women, and it ends in tragedy, and a fall from a cliff. But the real question is: what, exactly, caused the fall? You’re absolutely right, fans of The Boomerang Clue (AKA Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?).

In Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery, journalist and newspaper correspondent Roger Sheringham gets a new commission. His employer, The Daily Courier, wants him to travel to Ludmouth Bay in Hampshire to report on the investigation into the death of Elise Vane, whose body has been found at the bottom of a cliff. At first, her death looked like an accident, but soon enough, evidence comes to light that suggests she was murdered. Sheringham’s assignment is to investigate that possibility. That’s how he meets Inspector Moresby, who’s investigating the death. Between them, Sheringham and Moresby discover that the victim was a very unpleasant person who’d made her share of enemies. As it turns out, more than one person had a strong motive for killing her.

Elizabeth Daly’s Unexpected Night also involves a cliff. In that novel, rare book expert Henry Gamadge is staying at Ocean House, a resort in Ford’s Beach, Maine. While he’s there, Eleanor Cowdean and her children, Amberly and Alma, come to the resort as well. With them is Amberly’s tutor, Hugh Sanderson. Amberly is set to inherit a large fortune when he turns 21. But there’s a very good chance that he won’t, as he has a very serious heart condition. He’s insisted on coming along, though, and everyone settles in on the night of their arrival, which also happens to be his birthday. The next morning, Amberly is found dead at the bottom of a cliff. The first explanation is that he died of heart failure. And that makes sense, given his poor health. But if that’s what happened, what was he doing at a cliff in the middle of the night? And in whose interest was it that he should die just after inheriting a large amount of money? Gamadge works with police detective Mitchell to find out the truth behind his death.

Anne Zouroudi’s The Messenger of Athens introduces her sleuth, Hermes Diaktoros. He’s a rather enigmatic detective who travels from Athens to the island of Thiminos after Irini Asimakopoulos falls, or jumps, or is pushed, off a cliff. The local police believe this death was an accident, and they don’t want any further investigation into it. But Diaktoros turns up some evidence that calls that into question. As he looks into the matter more deeply, he learns more of the history, both of the victim and of the other people on the island. As it turns out, the island’s culture, and the intersecting relationships among its residents, have everything to do with what really happened to Irini Asimakopoulos.

In T.J. Cooke’s Defending Elton, solicitor Jim Harwood gets a difficult case. The body of Sarena Gunasekera has been found at the bottom of a cliff at Beachy Head near Eastbourne. The police soon settle on a suspect, Elton Spears. He’s a mentally ill young man who actually has a history of inappropriate contact with a young woman. And he was in the area at the time of the murder. So there’s every possibility that he’s responsible for the crime. Harwood has worked with Spears before, and takes his case. Together with barrister Harry Douglas, Harwood prepares to defend his client. In this novel, we know the truth about the victim’s death from the beginning of the story; the question is whether the person responsible will get away with the crime.

Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead tells the story of the death of Christopher Drayton, who dies from a fall (or was it a jump? Or a push?) from Scarborough (Ontario) bluffs. Under normal circumstances, this would be a matter for local police, or Ontario Provincial Police. But this isn’t an ordinary case. There is a good chance that Drayton was really Dražen Krstić, a notorious war criminal who was responsible for many deaths during the Bosnian War. If he was, this raises important questions about how a war criminal managed to get permission to live in Canada. What’s more, if he was Krstić, this changes the whole complexion of the case. So it’s given to Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty of the Community Policing Section (CPS) of the Canadian federal government. This group is concerned with investigating bigotry, hate crimes, and other community relations issues, so it’s a good fit for this case. As Khattak and Getty look into the matter, they find that there are several angles to this death, and more than one possible explanation.

See what I mean? Cliffs are not exactly the safest places to be. But they are very handy for crime writers. They can provide a straightforward means to an end for the murderer, and an effective way to ‘hide’ a murder that was committed in another way.  I see you, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Final Problem…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Offspring’s I Choose.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anne Zouroudi, Anthony Berkeley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Elizabeth Daly, T.J. Cooke

34 responses to “Look At Me, I’m Falling Off Of a Cliff Now*

  1. PD James was asked whether there was such a thing as a perfect crime and she said pushing someone off a cliff was probably as close to it as it gets… Great examples here!

    • Thank you, Marina Sofia 🙂 – And I think P.D. James was right. It can be awfully hard to find out the truth about a crime if all you have is a body at the bottom of a cliff.

  2. I am thinking of BROADCHURCH where the cliff played a big part.

  3. Yes, I’ve always felt that if someone were to suggest a quick stroll along a cliffpath, I would look at them askance…

    Jane Casey’s Young Adult crime novel, How to Fall, involves a did-she-fall-or-was-she-pushed scenario, and there’s a nice little story in Martin Edwards’ Resorting to Murder anthology, Holiday Task by Leo Bruce, where a car plunges over a cliff – but if it was murder, how was it done?

    • You’re right, FictionFan. An invitation on a cliffpath walk should always be considered quite warily… And thank you for reminding me of How to Fall. I like Casey’s Jess Tennant character; and, in that particular novel, a cliff is certainly used to effect! Great suggestion of Resorting to Murder. I always like to sprinkle at least a few short stories into these posts.

  4. kathyd

    Let’s throw Virginia Duigan’s book “The Precipice” into the mix. A cliff is definitely a murder weapon.

  5. kathyd

    No one knows who did what to whom in that book. Could be anyone.

  6. Falls, in general, are favorites for cozy writers…they can help us eliminate too much forensic investigation and too much explanation of the body. If a victim fell off a cliff…well, we know what killed him. 🙂

    • Exactly, Elizabeth! 🙂 That’s part of what makes a fall/push so convenient for a mystery author! And yes, that’s especially true for cosy authors, who probably don’t want to focus their work too much on forensic details and so on. I think it gives the author lots more possibility for suspects, too.

  7. Tim

    Five words: Reichenbach Falls and Sherlock Holmes!

  8. I’ve always thought this would be a thoroughly unpleasant way to die so I can’t imagine anyone actually jumping on purpose. If I were a policeman, I would always suspect murder first.

  9. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    Great post by Margot Kinberg. Check it out!

  10. Another entertaining and interesting post, Margot. Ideas, ideas . . . now where can I find a cliff in the Florida panhandle? Hmm . . .

    • Well, that would be an issue, Michael. My guess is, Britton Hill wouldn’t quite cut it. Fortunately, you’re a very creative writer, so I’m sure you could think of something. And after all, there are things like tall buildings…

  11. Margot, I thought of Holmes too but the others are terrific examples of “murder off the cliff.” Does Josephine Bell’s “Fall Over Cliff” have anything to do with this them. I have only heard of the title.

  12. I call this MO the honeymooner’s special. LOL

  13. The book that sprang to mind when I started reading this post was The League of Frightened Men by Rex Stout. One of the deaths that is investigated in that book was a fall from a cliff, which is assumed to be accidental but could have been murder.

  14. kathyd

    Yes, the Nero Wolfe book is a good example of the falling off a cliff as murder weapon.
    I”d like to mention that even though there aren’t cliffs in Florida, there are crocodiles. In the last two weeks, two of these critters have been found eating human remains. So, that may be the “perfect” murder method there. No clues left after a gator is finished.

  15. Col

    Great post. Not read any of your examples or come across it myself. A few “falls” from buildings and a couple of people pushed off a ship is the closest!

  16. She Died a Lady by John Dickson Carr has an extraordinarily complex plot – even for Carr – and a cliff edge does feature. I cannot possibly explain the circumstances further than this: footprints lead up to the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean, and none return. But of course that’s not the half of it… I’ve read the book twice, and love it, but I still couldn’t logically explain the plot…

    • That’s Carr for you, isn’t it, Moira? Untangling those plot complications is an occupational hazard of reading his work, I sometimes think… And that’s a really effective example of exactly what I had in mind with this post. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  17. They would make an excellent murder weapon. Fictionally speaking, of course.

  18. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…6/20/16 – Where Worlds Collide

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s