In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall is murdered during a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Hercule Poirot is staying at the hotel, too, and he works with the police to find out who the killer is. At one point, they’re interviewing Mrs. Castle, who owns and manages the establishment. Here’s what she says about the murder:
‘‘But it does so reflect upon an establishment…When Ay think of the noisy gaping crowds…they will no doubt come and point from the shore.’ She shuddered.’
She’s got a point. In real life and in crime fiction, violent crime, especially murder, stirs up a lot of public interest. And that’s part of the odd dual nature of people’s reaction to crime. On the one hand, murder and other serious crime is horrible. If you’ve ever actually seen a violent crime, or been involved in one, you don’t need me to convince you of that. If you haven’t, then trust me. There is nothing entertaining about a serious crime.
And yet, many news sources (often, but not always, tabloids) make fortunes reporting on such stories. People want to read about crime. The more lurid the details, the better. We may want to keep serious crime at a distance, but many people still find it fascinating. It may be the same instinct that draws people to slow down and stare when they see a serious accident on the side of a road.
That duality (‘Keep it away from me! But I want all the details.’) shows up in plenty of crime fiction. There won’t be space in this one post to give more than a few examples. I know you’ll have plenty more than I could offer, anyway.
In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we are introduced to the Garrow family. Angus Garrow is a successful lawyer whose name is being brought up as the next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. His wife, Jodie, is intelligent, attractive, and involved in the community, and his children are healthy and doing well enough in school. Everything changes when his daughter, Hannah, is rushed to a Sydney hospital after an accident. It turns out to be the same hospital in which Jodie gave birth to another child years earlier – a child she’s never told anyone about, not even Angus. A nurse there remembers Jodie, and asks about the child. Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but the overcurious nurse can’t find any official records of the adoption. Now, questions start to come up, first privately, and then quite publicly. Where is the child? If the child is dead, did Jodie have something to do with it? People all over become fascinated with the case, and everyone puts in an opinion. Before long, Jodie becomes a social pariah, but she’s still obsessed, too, with media stories about her. At the same time as people are horrified by the thought that she might have killed her baby, they’re utterly drawn into the case.
In Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs, police detective William Wisting and his team are faced with a disturbing case. A left foot in a training shoe has washed ashore near the Norwegian town of Stavern. That’s news enough in itself, but then another foot appears. And another. Oddly enough, though, no bodies have been discovered. There’s all sorts of speculation about what might be going on, and some of the local residents are concerned that these murders, if that’s what they are, might be the work of a serial killer. The police know that some people are worried for their safety. And, of course, they don’t want wild and inaccurate speculation to get in the way of their investigation. At the same time, taking advantage of the media interest (of which there is a great deal) might reach someone who has valuable information to share. So, the police give a few press conferences. And it’s interesting to see how the public’s fascination with a strange set of crimes is mixed with shock and horror at such crimes striking so close to home.
The focus of Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry is Joanna Lindsay and her partner, Alistair Robertson. When they travel from Scotland, where they’ve been living, to Alistair’s home in Victoria, they think that the long, miserable flight is the worst of their troubles. But during the drive from the airport at Melbourne to their destination, their worst nightmare comes true: the loss of their nine-week-old son, Noah. A massive search is launched, and there’s all sorts of ‘armchair detection’ about what might have happened to the baby. Then talk starts that perhaps the couple, especially Joanna, is involved. There’s an awful lot of public interest and speculation, which makes life miserable for Alistair and Joanna. And when the stories start circulating that they are responsible, matters get even worse. People are horrified by what’s happened, but at the same time, they are fascinated, and can’t get enough about the story.
We also see this fascination/repugnance in Peter James’s Not Dead Yet. In one plot thread, Brighton and Hove Superintendent Roy Grace and his team are investigating a bizarre murder. The torso of an unknown man has been discovered in a disused chicken coop. There’s not much to go on, and the victim had no identification with him. The police want to find out who the man was, so they take advantage of the public’s interest in a lurid crime like this. Grace sends two of his team members to appear on a true-crime TV show called Crimewatch. Neither really, truly, wants to do the show. But they both understand how important it is to identify a crime victim. So, they do the show. And it’s interesting to see how TV shows like that get large audiences and, sometimes, good results.
And that’s the case in a lot of investigations. The public is fascinated by lurid crimes. At the same time, we know how horrible murder is. It’s an interesting duality, and it can add to a crime novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Don Henley’s Dirty Laundry.