You’re Not the Only One With Mixed Emotions*

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot works with Chef Inspector Jap to solve three murders that turn out to be related. At one point, he says this to one of the characters:

‘‘…I am sorry…for the things which I shall have to do so soon.’’

Here, Poirot is referring to the fact that he’s going to be responsible for the arrest of the murderer, a person whom he would much prefer not to see in prison. He does what he feels he has to do (identify the killer), but he’s quite conflicted about it. And Christie fans know that this isn’t the only case where Poirot has mixed feelings about letting the law take its course.

There are other novels, too, where the sleuth is conflicted about naming the murderer. On the one hand, murder is a serious crime. On the other, it’s not always quite so simple as, ‘You killed someone. Therefore, you must go to prison.’ And sometimes, fictional sleuths feel the complexity of a case. Little wonder, then, that they have mixed emotions about certain cases.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes is called in when the body of Enoch Drebber is discovered. Drebber was a visitor to London, originally from the US, so he doesn’t have a circle of friends and family in London who might benefit from his death. There are some strange elements to this case, and police detective Tobias Gregson wants Holmes’ input. At first, there’s a question of whether Drebber’s secretary, Joseph Stangerson, might be the murderer. But then, Stangerson himself is murdered. Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate to find out who might have wanted to kill both men. The answer lies in the men’s past, and on the one hand, Holmes has the intellectual satisfaction that comes from knowing the truth about the case. On the other hand, though, he has sympathy for the killer. As Conan Doyle fans can tell you, this isn’t the only case in which Holmes is torn between the interests of the law, and the particular situation of the murderer and/or victim. He may be dedicated to the logical and the scientific, but that doesn’t mean he’s oblivious to the humans with whom he interacts.

Neither is Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire. He’s the sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming, and based in the small town of Durant. He knows most of the people in the area, and they know him, too. For Longmire, justice isn’t a simple concept. We see that in The Cold Dish, when he and his team investigate the murder of Cody Pritchard. There’s not a lot of evidence, but Longmire begins the work. Then, Jacob Esper is found dead. Now, Longmire starts to suspect that these two young men were killed because of their involvement in a gang-rape two years earlier. He begins to wonder whether members of the victim’s family might have decided to exact revenge (for which he, personally, wouldn’t blame them). As the investigation continues, Longmire gets closer and closer to the truth. And when he finds out who the killer really is, he’s very conflicted about it. It’s a difficult situation for him, and Johnson doesn’t gloss over that.

Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Diggers Rest Hotel introduces readers to Melbourne-based police detective Charlie Berlin. It’s 1947, and Berlin has recently returned to Melbourne from service in World War II. He’s seconded to Wodonga to help solve a series of thefts committed by a motorcycle gang. The latest theft, which took place at a railroad station, involved injury to the paymaster, so there’s a great deal of pressure to get the case solved. Then, the body of sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee is found in an alley. At first, it looks as though the motorcycle gang committed the murder. But Berlin soon learns that that group had nothing to do with the killing. Now, he has to deal with two separate cases. When he gets to the truth about them, Berlin finds himself very conflicted. I don’t want to say more, for fear of spoilers, but the Berlin really is torn by what he finds.

So is RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg, whom we meet in L.R. Wright’s The Suspect. As that novel begins, eighty-year-old George Wilcox has just murdered eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. He leaves the scene of the crime, then returns to his home. Later, he goes back to Burke’s house and calls the police to report the murder. Alberg begins the investigation by trying to trace the victim’s last day. At first, there’s talk that an itinerant fish salesman who visits the various homes in the area might be responsible. But that doesn’t seem likely. The only other viable suspect – and the one who interests Alberg – is Wilcox. But there doesn’t seem to be any motive. Alberg learns that the two men have known each other for a long time. They didn’t like each other, but that’s not a motive for a murder. Little by little, Alberg gets to the truth. And when he does, he’s very conflicted about what to do.

And that’s the thing. Sleuths are human. They know that situations are often not ‘black and white’ when it comes to who kills, and why someone might take a life. And yet, they also know that murder laws are there for a reason. That means that they are sometimes conflicted about a case. And that tension can add a great deal to a character and to a plot.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rolling Stones’ Mixed Emotions.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Craig Johnson, Geoffrey McGeachin, L.R. Wright

28 responses to “You’re Not the Only One With Mixed Emotions*

  1. I always love when there’s a bit of moral ambiguity in a crime novel – I feel it makes it more thought-provoking than a simple murdered-him-for-money type of plot. The one I reviewed today, Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee, has that kind of thing. I can’t really go into detail for fear of spoilers, but in the end the motive for the murders makes the whole question of who is most guilty quite murky…

  2. Great topic, Margot! Even some of the classic authors were drawn to this moral quandary, and modern writers embrace it. We were just talking about Elizabeth George, and her first novel, A Great Deliverance, deals with this beautifully. So do Ellery Queen’s first two Wrightsville mysteries, in slightly different but no less intriguing ways.

    You’re inspiring a post in me!!! 🙂

    • Thanks for the kind words, Brad. And you make a well-taken point about both George and those Wrightsville mysteries. I think moral quandaries make for thoughtful stories that draw the reader in. Perhaps that’s why they’re a big part of what writers are doing these days? In any case, I look forward to your post; I’m privileged to feel a part of it! 🙂

  3. I think Agatha Christie really did push the boundaries of the expected when she made Poirot conflicted about revealing the murderer. These also tend to be my favourites of her novels.

    • I think she did, too, Cleo. And I think that’s part of what makes those novels strong. We see Poirot as a more layered person (as we all are, really). And that was a bold move on Christie’s part. I like those novels a lot, myself.

  4. Alex

    I’m another fan of the moral ambiguity aspect of a good crime novel, because it can add so much more depth to the situation, as well as the characters. It brings both closer to what would happen, I imagine, in real life.

    Oh, and I am so glad you chose a Walt Longmire example, Margot. I love this character and books. He perfectly exemplifies the point you’re trying to make.

    • I like the Walt Longmire character, too, Alex. And Johnson does such an effective job, doesn’t he, of conveying atmosphere and context. It’s good to hear you like that series. You have a point, too, about the way moral ambiguity can make a story seem more real – more lifelike. I think that has a way of inviting the reader in.

      • Alex

        Sad to say we would rather there was no moral ambiguity, but true to life? It makes a story all the more believable, as we all know, nothing is really black and white, or even shades of, Margot. Oh, and Johnson is excellent. I love to “know” a place through an authors use of description and atmosphere. I have to say, Joe Lansdale does it well and to effect too.

        • Thanks, Alex. I’ll explore both. And you’re absolutely right about moral ambiguity. Life isn’t black and white, or even nearly so. There’s a lot more to it than that, isn’t there?

  5. Bill Selnes

    Margot: As I was reading your post I was thinking of The Suspect. Burke was not a man who deserved killing but Wilcox is such a compelling character. I read the book hoping he would escape arrest.

    He reminded me of a quote from Gail Bowen’s book, Sleuth, in which she sets out how to write mysteries. Out of her 17 killers only 3 were sociopaths. Of the rest:

    “They are ordinary people who find themselves in circumstances that, in their minds, justify the taking of a human life.”

    • I agree with you, Bill, that Wilcox is a compelling character. He’s written in such a way that it’s not hard to be on his side. And thanks for sharing that quote from Sleuth. If anyone’s in a position to write such a book, it’s Gail Bowen. And she explains very effectively the kind of person who takes a life in many of her book. Folks, do read Bill’s first post on that book. It’s an interesting post, and Sleuth sounds like an excellent read.

  6. Spade & Dagger

    Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer has a morally ambiguous murderer – they feel they are carrying out ‘mercy’ killings, but there is also an element of power play going on with the murderer taking control in a medical setting. We also get the unusual angle of the thoughts of one of the victims as they realise they have been targeted & attempt to ‘escape’.

    • I really like Belinda Bauer’s work, Spade & Dagger, so I’m glad you mentioned Rubbernecker. And it’s a good example of the sort of morally ambiguous murderer I had in mind with this post, so thanks.

  7. Very interesting, Margot 🙂 I was also reminded of another Sherlock Holmes story, the Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, in which Holmes decides against getting the culprit arrested…

    • Thanks for the kind words, Regulus98 🙂 – And that’s a good example of the sort of story in which the sleuth has mixed feelings about finding and catching the killer. Thanks for mentioning it!

  8. Col

    Wasn’t there a bit of conflict between Kenzie and Gennaro in Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone over what they discovered and whether to upset the proverbial apple cart?

    • That’s quite true, Col. There was conflict there, and it’s a really fascinating example of those sorts of mixed emotions about what the sleuth discovers. Thanks; I hadn’t thought of that one, and should have.

  9. This is my year to read The Diggers Rest Hotel AND A Study in Scarlet.

    • I can recommend both, Tracy. Admittedly, they’re not very similar. But McGeachin is a very talented writer; I think you’ll like The Diggers Rest Hotel very much. And, of course, A Study in Scarlet is a classic piece of crime fiction.

  10. Great post, Margot. Every time I read one of your posts, I think, “Man, I should reread all those Agatha Christie novels I read thirty years ago.” Haven’t done it yet, though, too much other stuff to read. The moral ambiguity of crimes is a great test of a character, I think. I just finished the first Lucas Davenport novel by John Sandford, and it was less the crimes (though those were despicable) and more how Davenport chose to go about catching and punishing the bad guy. So it happens on both sides of the case. Have a great weekend!

    • Thanks for mentioning the Sandford, Julie. That’s the thing about characters, isn’t it? There can be ambiguous characters and situations on both sides, as you point out. And those situations and characters invite us to think about what we might do, and how complex a situation might be. To me, those cases are the interesting ones. And about Agatha Christie? Trust me, I know all about not having the time you’d like to read everything. But when you do get time, Christie is always worth re-reading, I think.

  11. On the whole, Poirot and Miss Marple are very focused and unconflicted about catching the criminals – Poirot says he ‘disapproves of murder.’ So, as you point out, that make it all the more striking on those rare occasions when he show some sympathy and understanding – Death on the Nile, Murder on the Orient Express are two more examples.

    • Yes, they are, Moira, and I’m glad you brought them up. If you want to think about it this way, perhaps they’re the exceptions that prove the rule? It is interesting how Poirot behaves when his inner sense of what is right conflicts with a particular case. I rather like that dilemma, to be honest…

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