In many crime novels (‘though certainly not all of them), the perpetrator confesses to the crime. It’s not always a full-length story of the crime, but it’s clear that the killer admits what has happened. If you stop and think about it, though, this raises a question. Why would a killer confess? In some cases, it’s guilt. After all, most of us are not accustomed to taking a life, and the guilt can be tremendous.
But there are other reasons, too, for which a fictional killer might confess. And weaving that moment into a story can be tricky. It has to be believable (there are plenty of people who wouldn’t admit what they’d done, because the consequences of telling the truth are drastic). It also has to be done in a way that’s not melodramatic. But when it’s done right, it can be an effective way to let the reader know what really happened.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the mysterious deaths of Enoch Drebber and Joseph Stangerson. Both victims were Americans who’d come to London; in fact, Stangerson was Drebber’s secretary. The clues to the murders are strange – the word rache written in blood, and a ring, among other things – and they baffle the police. But Holmes puts the pieces of the puzzle together. The murderer is confronted, and, instead of fighting or continuing to claim innocence, admits what has happened. The reason in this case is a fatal heart condition which will end the killer’s life in a matter of weeks. Here’s what the murderer says:
‘…I should like to leave some account of the business behind me. I don’t want to be remembered as a common cut-throat.’
As fans of this story know, this killer isn’t a common thug at all.
There are killers who confess because they’re glad of what they’ve done. For instance, the victim in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder) is Simeon Lee. He’s the unpleasant, tyrannical patriarch of the Lee family, and no-one enjoys his company. But, when he decides he wants the family to gather at Gorston Hall, the family home, for Christmas, no-one dares refuse the invitation. He’s both very wealthy and very vindictive. On Christmas Eve, Lee is murdered in his private room. Hercule Poirot is staying nearby, and is persuaded to work with the police to find the killer. When he does, he confronts that person with his theory of what happened. While Poirot’s view is logical and accounts for everything, he doesn’t really have the conclusive proof that courts prefer as evidence. But the killer confesses anyway, saying,
‘God rot his soul in Hell! I’m glad I did it!’
In this case, the killer may understand what the consequences for murder are. But for that person, it’s worth it. We also see a proud – if that’s the word – confession in Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies.
The main plot of Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring concerns the killing of journalism professor Reed Gallagher. For Bowen’s sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn, Gallagher was a colleague. What’s more, she knows his widow. So, she gets drawn into the investigation of his murder. The solution to the mystery is related to another mystery concerning one of Kilbourn’s students, and it turns out to be a complicated case. In the end, Kilbourn discovers who the murderer is, and the two have an extremely tense scene in an elevator. In this case, the killer confesses in part because Kilbourn sees no choice but to keep that person talking – otherwise her own life will be in danger. So, she finds ways to manipulate the conversation so that the murderer will get caught up in it. And that’s exactly what happens. As the conversation continues, we also see that there’s a sense of wanting to justify what happened – to explain the killer’s side of the story.
There’s an interesting twist on the killer’s choice to confess in Jane Casey’s The Burning. DC Maeve Kerrigan of the Met has been working on the investigation of a killer who tries to incinerate his victims. The press has dubbed this murderer the Burning Man, and there’s a lot of pressure on the Met to catch the criminal. Then, the body of Rebecca Haworth is discovered. On the surface, it looks like the work of the Burning Man. But Kerrigan notices a few differences between this case and the other murders. It might be that the killer has changed tactics. It could also be a ‘copycat’ killer. Kerrigan very much wants to stay on the Burning Man case, but she’s assigned to focus on the Haworth case, even if this wasn’t a victim of the Burning Man, to show that the Met isn’t being lax. In the end, we learn who Haworth’s killer is. This murderer chooses to explain what happened in a letter, not to Kerrigan, nor to the police as a group, but to another character. Here’s a bit of what the letter says:
‘I want you to understand because I want to know you have had your eyes opened to what you really are…You thought you were the dangerous one, but you don’t know what dangerous is.’
It’s an interesting approach to sharing with readers what really was behind the murder.
Peter May’s The Blackhouse features an interesting final confrontation between Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ MacLeod and a murderer. MacLeod has been seconded to the Isle of Lewis to help investigate the murder of Angel Macritchie. This killing resembles another case that Macleod is working, so it could be the same killer. For MacLeod, this is a homecoming, since he grew up on Lewis. It’s awkward, though, because there are a lot of old, unresolved issues. What’s more, it’s difficult for MacLeod to interview, and consider as suspects, people he’s known all his life. Still, he goes about his job; and, in the end, he finds the killer. When he does, it becomes clear that the murderer has nothing to lose by confessing. In fact, it’s not spoiling the story to say that the whole point of the confession is so that MacLeod will know exactly what happened and why.
There are, of course, plenty of other reasons why a murderer confesses, even knowing that it will lead to a long jail term or, possibly, execution. It might be pride, guilt, setting the record straight, or something else. And including the confession can add an interesting layer of character development and tension to a crime novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lene Marlin’s Never to Know.