Most people would rather not be killed. I know, that’s a painfully obvious point to make, but it has implications if you’re a fictional murderer. Among other things, it means that you have to pick your time. It’s easiest to commit the crime if the victim is already vulnerable, or at the very least, unsuspecting. For the author, that’s not always easy to pull off in a believable way, but there are plenty of examples of how this can work. Here are a few of them, to show you what I mean.
In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, we are introduced to powerful banker Alistair Blunt. He’s made more than his share of enemies, and he’s generally a careful person, partly for that reason. One day, he goes to see his dentist, Henry Morley, because of a toothache. Later, Morley is found shot in his surgery. And one real possibility is that the intended victim was Blunt himself. After all, people are quite vulnerable when they’re in the dentist’s chair. Chief Inspector Japp’s been told by his superiors to make this case a priority, since Blunt is considered important for national security. Then, there’s another death. A patient of Morley’s dies from a suspected overdose of drugs. When Japp finds out that Hercule Poirot was also at Morley’s office on the day of the murder, he contacts Poirot, and the two work together to find out the truth behind the two murders.
Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger takes place mostly at Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for military (WWII) use. One day, a postman named Joseph Higgins is brought to the hospital with a broken femur. It’s considered a straightforward operation, and he’s brought in for surgery. Tragically, Higgins dies during the procedure. Inspector Cockrill of the Kent Police is brought in to ‘rubber-stamp’ the report of accidental death. Higgins’ wife, though, does not accept that explanation. She says that Higgins was murdered. Then, one of the hospital nurses has too much to drink at a party, and blurts out that she knows Higgins was murdered, and she knows how it was accomplished. Later that night, she, too, is killed. Now, Cockrill is sure this is a case of murder, and puts the focus of his search on the people who were present when Higgins died. It certainly shows how vulnerable people can be during surgery. Right, fans of Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder?
One plot thread of Ruth Rendell’s Simisola concerns the murder of Annette Bystock. She works at the local Employment Bureau, trying to match available jobs with unemployed people who can fill them. One day, she’s found murdered in her bed. Inspector Reg Wexford and his team begin to trace her last days, and discover that, shortly before she was murdered, she had an appointment with a young woman named Melanie Akande. Melanie has since gone missing, and Wexford and the team wonder whether the two incidents are related. And so they turn out to be, only not in the obvious way. It turns out that, on the day she died, Annette had stayed home from work because she was ill. Her vulnerability, and the fact that she was unsuspecting, made her easy prey for the killer.
In Zoran Drvenkar’s You, we are introduced to a character called the Traveler. His part of the story begins in 1995, during a terrible snowstorm that’s blocked the road between Bad Hersfeld and Eisenach. Many vehicles are stranded on the road, and even emergency vehicles can’t get through because of the snow. Everyone in that traffic mess is extremely vulnerable, and not just because of the snow and the cold. With everyone stuck, the Traveler has plenty of ready-made victims. He works his way along the line of cars, leaving twenty-six people dead by the time the road is cleared. He’s able to make his escape, and as the story goes on, we see what happens to him in the ensuing years.
And then there’s Max Kinning’s Baptism. In that novel, we meet George Wakeham, a London Underground driver. Early one morning, three hostage-takers break into his home, capturing his wife and children. Wakeham is told that his only chance of saving his family is to do exactly what their captors say. Then, they give him a mobile ‘phone and tell him to follow precisely the instructions they give him. This Wakeham agrees to do (what choice does he have?). He’s told to go to his job as usual, and take his place driving his usual train. What he doesn’t know at first is that the hostage-takers have boarded the train as well, and they have his family with them. Wakeham starts his route as usual, but before long, one of the hostage-takers joins him in the cab. He’s soon told to stop the train, and it’s only then that he sees what his enemies really wanted from him. The train is now stopped in an underground tunnel with over 400 very vulnerable people aboard. Word of the captured train gets out, and Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Ed Mallory is assigned to contact the hostage-takers, find out what they want, and free the passengers. It’s not going to be easy, though, as this is a group of fanatics with a very specific purpose in mind. As Mallory tries to find out what he can, Wakeham tries to save his own life and those of his family members.
There are lots of other examples, too, of stories where the murderer (or would-be murderer) tries to choose a time when the victim will be especially vulnerable. It can add real tension to a story, and it makes sense. It’s easiest to target a victim who’s at a disadvantage.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Secondhand Serenade’s Vulnerable.