Just a Few People That Both of Us Know*

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.


Filed under Aditya Sudarshan, Agatha Christie, Domingo Villar, Ellery Queen, Minette Walters

12 responses to “Just a Few People That Both of Us Know*

  1. Great topic, Margot! I grew up preferring a house stuffed with suspects! My first two “grown-up” whodunits were And Then There Were None (ten suspects) and Murder on the Orient Express (thirteen suspects!!!) Now that I actually AM a grown-up, I can really appreciate the skill that goes into crafting a genuinely suspenseful mystery with only a few suspects.

    As a result, I like Cards on the Table more and more each time I re-read it, but where I think Christie excels at this is Five Little Pigs: each character is distinct and fully formed, and Christie eschews her usual love of surprise twists for a solution that is not only logical but emotionally devastating.

    John Dickson Carr’s canon is stuffed with mysteries dealing with only three or four suspects; it’s something he had a true gift for, since even with such a small cast, he could surprise you! And I love Queen’s The Murderer Is a Fox, which contains a very small cast; so does Ten Days Wonder.

    I’ll stop talking now! 🙂

    • Have your say, Brad – it’s interesting! And you’re quite right about Carr’s work. He was very good at creating surprises, even if there was just a small group of suspects. And thanks for mentioning the Queen stories, too; both are great examples of what I had in mind with this post.

      About Christie, I almost went with Five Little Pigs, but in the end, went with Cards on the Table.But I agree with you that the former has a terrific use of just a few major characters. And it’s interesting how Christie provides the suspects’ backstories and narratives in an honest way, but a way that really does take you in. And, yes, a powerful end! Thanks for the kind words.

  2. It’s a difficult balance – too many suspects and some of them tend never to get fully developed, too few and sometimes it becomes too easy to spot the villain. But a small number who are given strong motives and individual stories can be very effective when done well…

    • You put that very well, FictionFan. When you have a small number of suspects who each have strong individual stories and, as you say, motives, you have the makings of a solid piece of suspense. I think too many suspects can be tiring for the reader, as it can be difficult to tell them all apart and keep track of their motives. I’m not entirely sure what that ‘magic number’ is, and I think it depends to an extent on the story. But it’s there…

  3. I do like those stories where an author successfully pulls off a plot around only a few suspects and I really appreciate the skill that goes into this format. Good to see Minette Walters featured here, I do miss her crime novels.

    • I do, too, Cleo. Such a talent at building psychological suspense. And I agree that it certainly takes skill to be able to pull off a plot like that that also keeps the reader really engaged throughout the story. It’s not easy.

  4. Col

    Walters is an author I’ve been toying with giving a go, but haven’t settled on one of her books – any recommendations? (Apologies nothing to really add to your current debate! 😦 )

  5. Margot: I could not think of books with 3-4 suspects. I did think of several of the books of P.D. James such as Death in Holy Orders or The Lighthouse or The Private Patient in which there were few suspects but they were 5-9 possible murderers if I recall the books correctly.

    • I think you’re right, Bill. My guess is, it’s probably less common to have just 3-4 suspects in a novel. I don’t think it’s easy to pull that sort of novel off, and still have a really engaging story.

  6. Christianna Brand, in her Green for Danger, does a great job of tightening the circle so everyone at the hospital knows that the murderer must be one of a small group of drs and nurses. They become very isolated, and the tension rise… it’s brilliantly done.

    • It really is, Moira, and I’m very glad you mentioned that one. I meant to, myself, but then didn’t. Thanks for filling in the gap. It really is such a classic example of that small group of suspects.

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