Spare Him His Life From This Monstrosity*

It’s easy to understand how people might want to clear their own names if they’re mixed up in a crime, especially a crime such as murder. It’s also easy enough to understand why, for instance, attorneys work to defend their clients and clear their names. That makes sense both in real life and in crime fiction.

But there are also cases in crime fiction where someone else steps in to try to clear another person of a crime. And there are many reasons to do that. It might be that the suspect is a friend or loved one. Or it might be the sleuth him or herself who doesn’t believe a suspect is guilty. There are other reasons, too. This plot point gives an author some interesting possibilities for character and plot development, as well as for adding in tension. There are plenty of examples – far more than I can mention in one post. Here are just a few.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery introduces readers to Alice Turner. When her fiancé, James McCarthy, is arrested for murdering his father, she goes to Inspector Lestrade to ask him to review the case.  She is convinced that McCarthy is innocent, and wants his name cleared. There’s plenty of evidence against McCarthy, but Lestrade presents the case to Sherlock Holmes, who asks Dr. Watson to help him look into it. In this case, it’s not just Alice Turner’s love for her fiancé that drives her. She is convinced that he wouldn’t be capable of committing murder. And Holmes’ investigation proves that she was right.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to investigate the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. Crale’s wife (and Carla’s mother) Caroline was arrested, tried, and convicted in the matter, and there was plenty of evidence against her.  But Carla doesn’t think she was guilty. And it’s not just because of any sentimental attachment Carla has to her mother. She firmly believes her mother was innocent of murder, and she wants Poirot to investigate. He agrees, and then interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ at the time of the murder. He also gets written accounts from each of those people. In the end, he discovers that Carla was right: someone else killed Amyas Crale.  Christie uses this plot point in other stories, too, right, fans of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead?

Lord Peter Wimsey has a very strong motive for wanting to clear Harriet Vane’s name in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison: he’s fallen in love with her. Vane is arrested and tried for the poisoning murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. There is evidence against her, too. But the jury can’t reach a verdict, so the judge declares that there will be a new trial. Wimsey, who attended the first trial, is determined to ask Vane to marry him. But he’ll have to clear her name first. So, he decides to investigate the murder. With the help of some friends, he’s able to find out who really killed Boyes and why.

In Giorgio Scerbanenco’s  A Private Venus, we meet Dr. Duca Lamberti. He’s recently been released from prison, where he was serving a sentence for euthanasia. One evening, wealthy engineer Pietro Auseri offers Lamberti a proposition. It seems that Auseri’s son, Davide, has been drinking heavily, despite going for treatment. Auseri’s concerned for Davide and wants Lamberti to help. Lamberti’s not sure how much good he can do, but he agrees to at least try. After a b it, he discovers the reason for Davide’s drinking and depression. It seems that a year earlier, Davide met a young woman named Alberta Radelli. They had a pleasant day together in Florence, and at the end of it, Alberta asked Davide to take her with him. He refused, and she threatened suicide. Not long afterwards, she was found dead in a field outside Milan. Davide’s convinced he is responsible for Alberta’s death. Lamberti believes that the best way to help Davide is to find out what really happened to Alberta, so he begins to ask questions. It’s not long before he turns up the distinct possibility that Alberta was murdered. So, Lamberti works to find out who killed the victim, so he can clear Davide of his sense of guilt.

In Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, it’s actually the police detective who decides to clear a suspect’s name. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team gathered the evidence that implicated Janek Mitter for the murder of his wife, Eva Ringmar. Mitter claims that he is innocent, but he was so drunk on the night of the murder that he has no memory of what happened, nor of who else might have committed the crime. So, he is tried and convicted. Van Veeteren has begun to have his doubts about MItter’s guilt, so he goes over the case again. He’s hoping to be able to clear Mitter’s name and find out who the killer is. Then, Mitter himself is murdered. Now Van Veeteren and his team redouble their efforts to find out the truth.

And then there’s Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Last Rituals. Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir gets a telephone call from Germany, from Amelia Guntlieb. Her son, Harald, was studying at the university in Reykjavík when he was murdered. The police think they have the right suspect in Harald Guntlieb’s friend, Hugi Thórisson. But Amelia Guntlieb doesn’t believe he killed her son. She wants Thóra to defend Hugi and find out who the real killer was. It’s an unusual request, but the fee is irresistible. So, Thóra and the Guntlieb family banker, Matthew Reich, work together to find out the truth about this case.

There are many other cases, both real and fictional, where someone asks for a suspect’s name to be cleared. These are only a few. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Giorgio Scerbanenco, Håkan Nesser, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

20 responses to “Spare Him His Life From This Monstrosity*

  1. This reminds me of another Agatha Christie, Mrs McGinty’s Dead. Superintendent Spence isn’t satisfied that Mrs McGinty’s lodger, James Bentley, who has been convicted and is to be executed for the crime, is really guilty. He is worried that a innocent man might be hanged and asks Poirot to take a look.

  2. In today’s news there was a piece about a poison pen letter writer in Littlehampton in the 1920s (a book is being published about the case) there is a lot of interesting stuff but the one which chimes with this post is the (eventually) proven letter writer put it about that she had decided to investigate the crime herself having been on the receiving end of many of the letters- obviously to cast aspersions elsewhere… I’m now speculating whether Agatha Christie remembered this well-reported crime when writing The Moving Finger

    • Oh, that’s really interesting, Cleo! I wonder, too! And I’ll be really interested when that book comes out. And, yes, that can be a very effective strategy, to appear to be a victim oneself, so as to misdirect suspicion. Very clever trick, and it makes sense that Christie would have read about it and perhaps been inspired by it. Thanks for telling the story.

    • Spade & Dagger

      AC certainly noticed & reused various types of murders that were reported in the press (they are in an interesting book I’m reading called ‘A is for Arsenic – The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup) – so there’s a good possibility she noticed the poison pen case too 🙂

  3. steve kasmire

    the genuine reason, perhaps, is to revivify a belief in your own perspicacity. If you’ve been fooled into thinking some familiar innocent, or unable to commit such a crime, then how can you ever be sure of your own judgements going forward? How can you be sure of your spouse, or your neighbour? How many times have you been fooled in the past? Has the same person misled you in some personal aspect? Their guilt impinges upon your own validation, and life

    • That’s a very well-taken point, Steve. The minute you acknowledge that someone you know, perhaps love, could murder, that makes you question your own thought processes. That’s unsettling enough. Add to that the possibility that no-one you know can be trusted, and you’ve got an untenable situation.

  4. Margot: Your post is timely. I am reading Conan Doyle – Detective by Peter Costello. It goes into the author’s detecting efforts both to clear the wrongfully accused and to find the guilty. I had read a book some years ago on two of his cases. This book shows through much of his life he was engaged in solving real life crimes.

    • That sounds like a very interesting book, Bill. It’s easy to forget that Conan Doyle was as interested in real life in crime as his most famous creation was. And it’s especially fascinating to know that his focus was clearing the wrongfully accused. I hope you’ll post a review when you’ve finished the book.

  5. Col

    Pretty sure I’ve read this trope before, usually a journalist taking up the cause in the hope of a big scoop, as much as proving someone’s innocence. eg –
    Michael Connelly’s The Scarecrow with Jack McEvoy – not that I can remember too much about it.

    • That’s a good example of what I had in mind with this post, Col. Thanks. And you’re right; it’s not uncommon to have a fictional journalist who thinks someone’s innocent and goes deeper into the case. It’s a scoop for the journalist and can make for a suspenseful story. Now you’ve got me in mind of Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red which has that as its core.

  6. Patti Abbott

    Immediately thought of Anne Perry who changed her name after her childhood crime.

  7. Anthony Gilbert’s Clock in the Hatbox is an interesting one: the protagonist is on a jury, and is convinced the woman on trial (whom he already knows) is innocent. So he sets off to prove that. The smart reader can see that he maybe has a fancy for her, but there’s a lot more to it than that….

    • Oh, that’s a good example of what I had in mind with this post, Moira – thank you. It’s interesting how often characters (and I suspect, real-life people, too) have a very strong feeling that a person is/n’t guilty. And that seems to be true whether they’re right or not.

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