As this is posted, it’s 70 years since Elizabeth Short’s body was discovered in Leimert Park, Los Angeles. This still-unsolved murder case got a great deal of public attention at the time, and it’s not hard to see why. A young, attractive woman, found brutally murdered, would be sure to attract interest, especially when the killer was not found. It was a sensational killing, and the press dubbed Short ‘The Black Dahlia.’ Since the murder, there’ve been any number of theories about the killing, and dozens of people have confessed, or have pointed the police towards someone. No leads have held up to scrutiny, though.
There’ve been other murders that have gotten that sort of hype, both in real life and in crime fiction. Sometimes it’s because it’s a particularly gruesome killing. Other times it’s because the victim is famous, or wealthy, or particularly appealing.
We see this, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. Famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall travels to the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Accompanying her are her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, and her stepdaughter, Linda. Not long after the family’s arrival, Arlena engages in a not-too-carefully hidden affair with another (married) guest, Patrick Redfern. It’s the talk of the hotel, and when Arlena is found strangled one day, the killing becomes a public sensation. At first, the police suspect Marshall of killing his wife. But it’s soon shown that he couldn’t have committed the crime. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel, and he works with the police to find out who the real killer is. Even though he’s been cleared of suspicion, Marshall is still subject to a lot of scrutiny, and it’s very hard for him. I see you, fans of The ABC Murders.
Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town takes Queen to the small New England town of Wrightsville. He’s arranged to stay in a guest house on the property of wealthy social leaders John and Hermione ‘Hermy’ Wright. Queen gets drawn into the family’s private affairs when Jim Haight, former fiancé of the Wrights’ youngest daughter, Nora, comes back to town after leaving three years earlier. Against all advice, Nora rekindles her romance with Jim, and the two marry. Then, some letters emerge that suggest that Jim is planning to kill Nora. Nora doesn’t believe it, and the two settle in together. Matters get even more complicated when Jim’s unpleasant sister, Rosemary, comes for an extended visit. On New Year’s Eve, Rosemary drinks a cocktail that turns out to be poisoned. The police investigate and immediately, the case becomes a public sensation. It involves the most important family in town and it’s a lurid murder case. So, naturally, everyone has something to say about it. When Jim is arrested for the murder (the theory is that the cocktail was intended for Nora), almost no-one believes his claims of innocence. Queen does, though, and it’s interesting to see how his investigation is impacted by the publicity surrounding the murder.
Jane Casey’s The Burning introduces readers to Met PC Maeve Kerrigan. She’s been working with a team investigating a series of murders where the killer tries to incinerate his victims. The press has dubbed the murderer the Burning Man, and the murders have gotten quite a lot of media and public attention. In part, that’s because there’s a series of killings. In part, it’s because of the fires. In any case, the Met is getting an awful lot of pressure to catch the killer, and that doesn’t make anyone’s job easy. Then comes the murder of Rebecca Haworth. At first, her death looks like another Burning Man killing. But certain aspects of the murder are different enough that Kerrigan isn’t sure it’s the same killer. She wants to stay on the team investigating the Burning Man killings, but her boss has other ideas. If Haworth’s murder is a Burning Man killing, then any progress in solving it is progress towards solving the other murders. If it’s a ‘copycat’ killer, then the Met will come under heavy criticism for neglecting it if leads aren’t pursued. So, Kerrigan is assigned to follow up on the Haworth murder. Among other things, it’s an interesting look at how a case’s level of publicity can impact police decision-making.
In Tarrquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, we learn of Dr. Suresh Jha, founder of the Delhi Institute for Research and Education (D.I.R.E.). His mission, and that of the institute he founded, is to debunk fake spiritualists – people he calls ‘the godmen.’ One morning, Jha attends a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club. During the meeting, so say witnesses, the goddess Kali appears, and stabs Jha. As you can imagine, the press and public make much of this, and many people say that Jha was killed because he was leading people towards becoming infidels. News commentators everywhere have their say, and the incident leads to an upsurge in attendance at shrines, and other worship. Delhi PI, whose client Jha once was, is not convinced this death has a supernatural explanation. He takes an interest in the case, and decides to investigate. As he and his team look into the matter, it’s very interesting to see the role that the case’s publicity plays.
Nelson Brunanski’s Frost Bite is the second of his novels to feature John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. Bart and his wife, Rosie, life in the small Saskatchewan town of Crooked Lake. They own Stuart Lake Lodge, a fly-fishing lodge in the northern part of the province. Most of the time, life for the Bartowskis doesn’t involve a lot of press or publicity. But that changes when Bart finds the body of Lionel Morrison under a pile of wheat at the Crooked Lake Wheat Pool elevator. For one thing, Morrison was a well-known, well-connected agribusiness CEO; as a ‘heavy hitter,’ his death would naturally get attention. And this is no ordinary death. So, there’s soon a media ‘feeding frenzy’ and the case gets a lot of public attention. Bart’s already connected to the case, since he found the body. And the victim had recently spent some time at Stuart Lake Lodge. So, even though Bart’s really not one to covet media attention, he gets drawn into this investigation.
And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. When Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam, were murdered, the most likely suspect was Angela’s brother, Connor Bligh. In fact, he’s been in prison for years for the murders. But now, little hints have suggested that he might be innocent. If so, this could be the case to solidify Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne’s place at the top of her field. So, she starts to look into the matter. And, as she does, she finds herself getting closer than is safe to it. Among other things, it’s a really clear look at how publicity affects those involved in a murder.
There are plenty of other examples, too, of fictional cases that get a lot of public attention (you’re right, fans of Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry). And it’s interesting to consider which sorts of cases do get that sort of publicity, and which don’t. I wonder what that says about us…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebbs’ Roxie.