In many crime novels (especially whodunits), there’s a victim (sometimes more than one) and a set of suspects. And the sleuth investigates the different subjects in terms of their motives, alibis, and so on. There’s often more to it than that, but that’s the basic structure.
Sometimes, there are a lot of suspects, too (e.g. everyone who went in and out of a building during a given day). But sometimes, there are only a few suspects. On the one hand, that makes the sleuth’s job easier. There are fewer people to consider, and fewer sets of alibis and motives to check. On the other, it can be a challenge for the author to make a story really interesting if there are only a few suspects. It’s not easy to do well, but when it is, having only a few suspects can make for an interesting approach to storytelling.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, an enigmatic man named Mr. Shaitana invites eight people to dinner. Four of them are renowned sleuths. The other four are people that Shaitana hints have gotten away with at least one murder. After dinner, the group settles in to play bridge. The four sleuths are in one room; the four other guests are in another. By the end of the evening, Mr. Shaitana has been stabbed. He was in the same room as the four people he’d accused of being murderers. No-one else entered or left the room, so those people are the only possible suspects. Poirot is among the sleuths who were invited to dinner, so he works with the other three (Colonel Race, Superintendent Battle, and Ariadne Oliver) to find out who the killer is. In this case, the story has to do with the backgrounds of these four suspects, so each one’s history is told, probably in more detail than might be the case if there were more suspects.
There’s also a limited number of suspects in Ellery Queen’s The Last Woman in his Life. In this novel, Queen is invited for a getaway weekend at the property of wealthy jet setter John Levering Benedict III. He’ll be staying at Benedict’s guest house, so he can get some writing done. Queen settles in, and begins what he hopes will be a peaceful, productive stay. It’s not to be, though. Benedict also has other guests who are staying at his house: his three ex-wives, his attorney, and his attorney’s secretary. Needless to say, this makes for quite a lot of tension, and Queen does his best to avoid the house. Then one night, he gets a frantic call from Benedict, who says that he’s been murdered. He’s not able to get the name of the killer out, but Queen rushes over right away. By the time he gets there, Benedict is dead of blunt force trauma. The only clues are an evening gown, a pair of gloves, and a wig. Each item belongs to a different person, so Queen has to work out how each item got there, and who the real killer is.
In Minette Walters’ The Breaker, PC Nick Ingram is the first called to the scene when the body of Kate Sumner is found near Chapman’s Pool on the Dorset Coast. Not long afterwards, her toddler daughter, Hannah, is found wandering alone in the nearby town. Ingram works with DI John Galbraith, WPC Griffiths and Superintendent Carpenter to find out who killed the victim and why. They soon find that there are really only three possible suspects. One is the victim’s husband, William Sumner. Then there’s Stephen Harding, an actor whom she’d flirted with more than once. There’s also Harding’s roommate, a teacher named Tony Bridges. In this case, solving the murder isn’t really a matter of knocking on a lot of doors or sifting through dozens of mug shots. It’s a matter of examining the relationships that the victim had with each man, and then working out which one was the killer. In this case, the victim’s past, and her psychology, play important roles in the story.
There’s a limited number of suspects in Domingo Villar’s Death on a Galician Shore, too. In that novel, Vigo police inspector Leo Caldas, and his assistant, Rafael Estevez, investigate the death of a fisherman named Justo Castelo. At first, it looks as though he committed suicide by drowning. But little clues suggest otherwise to Caldas, and he decides to look more closely into the matter. On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much motive. Castelo lived a very quiet life and didn’t have a list of enemies. In fact, Caldas and Estevez can really only find two former friends: another fisherman named José Arias, and Marcos Valverde, who no longer fishes but has remained in the area and become a successful businessman. As the sleuths continue to dig, they find out that all three men (Castelo, Arias and Valverde) were on a fishing boat one night in 1996 when a terrible storm came up and the captain, Antonio Sousa, was lost. That tragedy seems to have had a powerful effect on the survivors, and Caldas think it may have played a role in Castelo’s death. In this case, the men’s histories turn out to be important to the novel, and they’re explored in a bit of depth, since there are so few ‘people of interest.’
In Aditya Sudarshan’s A Nice Quiet Holiday, Justice Harish Shinde and his law clerk, Anant, travel from Delhi to the town of Bhairavgarh, in the Indian state of Rajasthan, for a two-week holiday. They’re looking forward to escaping the intense Delhi heat, and to some relaxation. While there, they’ll be the guests of Shikhar Pant, an old friend of the judge’s. Pant has also invited a few other guests: Ronit and Kamini Mittal, who run an NGO; Pravin Anand and Anand’s son Avinash; and Dr. Davendra Nath and his daughter Mallika and sons Ashwin and Nikhil. Also present is Pant’s cousin, Kailish. One afternoon, Kailish is found stabbed in his cousin’s library. Inspector Patel is called in and begins to investigate. I can say without spoiling the story that the Nath children are not suspects. So, really, Patel doesn’t have a large pool of suspects: Pant, the Mittals, the Anands, and Dr. Nath. The judge and Anant get to know the various suspects; and, in the end, they find out who killed the victim and why. It’s an interesting modern-day country house sort of murder with just a few suspects.
It’s not always easy to pull of an engaging mystery with just three or four suspects. When it works, though, it can be an effective approach to building tension and to character development. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Noel Gay, Douglas Ferber, and L. Arthur Rose’s Me and My Girl.