Do You Want the Real Story*

criminal-confessionsIn 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Gail Bowen, Jane Casey, Peter May

23 responses to “Do You Want the Real Story*

  1. I know you’ve mentioned a couple of other examples by Agatha Christie, Margot, but I think you really have to mention the confession of the killer at the end of And Then There Were None, which explains how this impossible crime was carried out. As the killer says, in the confession, “I have, let me confess it in all humility, a pitiful human wish that some one should know just how clever I have been…”

    Chilling? Absolutely. Essential to our understanding of what IMHO was Christie’s finest book? You betcha.

  2. I like a confession at the end so we can hear what the murderer’s motivations were first hand, but you’re right in that it has to be done well or it becomes unbelievable. No fictional samples to add, but your post reminded me of a particularly gruesome bit in Nigel McCrery’s factual history of forensics, Silent Witnesses, when he tells of one case way back before they could rely on scientific evidence, when the authorities forced a suspect to share a bed with the bodies of his supposed victims to see if guilt would produce a confession. Makes you kinda glad for DNA, doesn’t it? 😉

    • Yikes!! I didn’t know about that, FictionFan! Yes, I’d have to say that that one counts as an extreme example of getting someone to confess *shivers.* Sounds like quite a book, too. One of those interesting perspectives on that era. *Still shuddering*

  3. Love the piece from the letter. Intriguing! Makes me want to read the book to find out “the why.”

    • You might, indeed, find that part interesting, Sue. I don’t want to say anything more, as I don’t want to give away spoilers. But it’s interesting, and this is a fine series, in my opinion.

  4. Great topic Margot and a device as writers we can easily use if the evidence is simply circumstantial, a frankly when isn’t it. It’s important it’s not overused of course although inthe case of ‘Murder She Wrote’ and sometimes ‘Columbo’ the killer being hounded into a confession was all part of the fun!

    • Thank you, D.S. That’s true about TV shows such as Columbo. With that show’s structure, the confession really is part of the fun, isn’t it? In books, I think you have a well-taken point that this sort of confession can be extremely valuable if there’s not direct evidence. It can also be useful, I think, with an amateur sleuth, who doesn’t have the force of law on his or her side.

  5. I have to admit I particularly enjoy books where the killer confesses but as you say, there has to be a good motive for doing so. One of the non-fiction Victorian crimes I read earlier this year had the killer confessing so he could then be considered insane – he knew the evidence was all pointing to him but being declared insane was preferable to hanging.

    • Now, that’s a clever reason to confess, Cleo! I’m not sure I”d take the same decision, but as you say, being declared insane at least keeps one alive. And those sorts of confessions really are interesting, and can add to a story if they’re credible. I have to admit, that one’s quite a creative one!

  6. There are plenty of books in which this is not very convincing, I agree (think of a lot of late Perry Mason books). But certainly in more plausible stories it is easier to find a criminal who confesses as they didn’t spend years working it out as part of a masterplan, it just happened as is often a tragic outcome of an unforeseen act. I quite like the device John Dickson Carr and others often used, of having the murderer write a confession which would then be presented at the end.

    • I like that device, too, Sergio. And I think you have a very well-taken point about the motive behind many murders. Very often, it’s not a case of a master plan years in the making. So, as you say, the confession comes more naturally. And it’s plausible mostly because the killer didn’t think about the reality of bearing the responsibility for someone’s death.

  7. An interesting topic, Margot. I think it also adds to a story when the killer confesses to a crime only to save someone they love who is the real killer. Then the authorities have to work out which is the real killer or did they do it together. It adds intrigue if the author gives enough clues that either could have been the real killer.

    • That’s a really interesting scenario, Mason, you’re right. And that’s the sort of reason for which someone really might confess to murder: to protect a loved one. I’ve read that setup in a few books, and it can work really well. As you say, it can add intrigue.

  8. Hello, Margot! I think I have only ever come across fictional killers confessing in the movies, and especially in Bollywood films, usually in the end. I guess a murderer, real or fictional, would need a powerful knock on his/her conscience door before confessing to the crime.

    • Perhaps so, Prashant. And I think you’ve got a very well-taken point that we see those confessions in film (and on TV) quite a lot. In my opinion, that may be because they add to the drama of the story, even if it’s not always realistic.

  9. Tim

    You’ve added more good stuff for my reading list.
    Note: my impulsive carelessness led to erasure of my blog, but it has been revived with a slightly new name and address, and the initial posting is here:
    In the postscript at the bottom of the posting, a couple of questions are there as challenges to you, Margot, and your many visitors/followers. So what do you think?

    • Thanks for the kind words, Tim. Thanks, also, for sharing your blog’s new address. You raise some interesting questions about historical fiction in your post.

  10. tracybham

    I am glad someone mentioned Columbo, Margot. I always thought those confessions were unlikely but I still loved that show and watch them over and over.

  11. I should love to know what the incidence of confessions is in real life, compared with fiction! Often authors don’t bother to make it convincing, but I’ll give them a pass if it is the best way to get the solution out there in a book.

    • Oh, I’d love to know that, too, Moira! I’d suspect there are plenty of folks who confess, because of the weight of guilt, or because they know they’ve been caught. But I don’t know if there are more of them in real life than in fiction. That’s an interesting question! And you’re right: sometimes a fictional confession is the best way to show readers what happened in a story.

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