Why’s Everybody Always Pickin’ On Me?*

An interesting post from writer Carol Balawyder has got me thinking about fictional writers. In the post, she reviews Olga Núñez Miret’s Escaping Psychiatry: Beginnings. I’ll admit I’ve not read this novella, but one plot point in the story really got my attention. In it, the protagonist gets involved in a court case where a writer has been accused of murder.

Now, the real-life writers I know – even the crime writers – are very nice people who wouldn’t consider committing murder. And, yet, there are plenty of crime novels where a writer is accused. Perhaps it’s just that writers have a (completely unfounded!) bad reputation. Whatever the reason, there are several examples of this plot point, and I’m not sure I like it!

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), for instance, a detective novelist named Mr. Clancy is on a flight from Paris to London. One of his fellow passengers, Marie Morisot, dies during the flight of what looks at first to be an allergic reaction to a wasp sting. But that’s soon proved not to be true. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight, and he works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who the real criminal is. The only possible suspects are the other people in the plane’s cabin, so Mr. Clancy becomes a ‘person of interest.’ In fact, two other passengers who interest themselves in the case actually follow Mr. Clancy one evening to see whether he does anything suspicious. Mr. Clancy is, perhaps, not the neatest of housekeepers, and he does get – erm – distracted. But that’s hardly a reason to suspect that he’s a killer.

Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die introduces mystery novelist Frank Cairnes. He is devastated when his son, Martin ‘Martie,’ is killed by a hit-and-run driver. In fact, his diary begins with the sentence,

‘I am going to kill a man.’

His plan is to find out who was driving the car that killed Martie and exact retribution. Little by little, he learns that a man named George Rattery was probably responsible. So, he finds an ‘in’ to the Rattery home and makes his plans. His idea is to drown Rattery during a boat trip. But that doesn’t happen, and the two go back to shore. Later that day, Rattery dies of poisoning, and it’s clear that the poisoning had been planned in advance. Cairnes is suspected, but, as he tells PI Nigel Strangeways, why would he poison a man he’d already planned to drown? And why try to drown a man he was going to poison? Strangeways takes the case and, in the end, finds out who the real killer is.

Mystery novelist Harriet Vane makes her first appearance in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison. She’s been arrested for murdering her former lover, Philip Boyes, and there is evidence against her. She was the last person known to have seen the victim, and they had quarreled. As the novel begins, she’s on trial for the crime. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial and finds himself smitten with the defendant. In fact, he resolves to clear her name, so that he can marry her. He gets his chance when the jury cannot reach a verdict. The new trial is scheduled for a month later, so Lord Peter has to work quickly to find out who the real killer is. His faith in a writer is reassuring.

In Caroline Graham’s Written in Blood, the members of the Midsomer Worthy Writers Circle is trying to decide whom they’ll invite to speak at their next meeting. After a lot of discussion, it’s decided to invite successful author Max Jennings. One of the members of the group, Gerald Hadleigh, has a history with Jennings, so he’s elected to write Jennings and invite him. Hadleigh has good reason not to want Jennings to accept, since their history has been unpleasant. But he doesn’t want the group to know about that, so he reluctantly writes the letter. To his consternation, Jennings agrees to speak to the group. Late on the night of Jennings’ visit, Hadleigh is murdered. Inspector Tom Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy investigate, and they look into all of the group members’ relationships to find out who would want to kill Hadleigh.

And it’s not just fictional detective story writers who have to cope with this bias. In Peter May’s Coffin Road, for instance, a man stumbles ashore on the Isle of Harris. He has no idea who he is or what he’s doing there. He soon learns, though, that he is a writer who’s apparently been living on the island for the last eighteen months, working on a book about a local Hebrides mystery: the 1900 disappearance of three lighthouse keepers. In his effort to fill in the missing blanks, so to speak, the writer tries to trace his movements from the time he lost his memory. What he finds, though, is a dead man. Now, there’s a terrible possibility that he’s committed a murder. Detective Sergeant (DS) Gunn investigates, and discovers a link between the lighthouse keepers’ disappearance, the dead man, and an Edinburgh teen who becomes convinced that her father (who is supposed to have committed suicide) is still alive. Just because you’re writing about a place doesn’t mean you’ve killed someone, does it?

You see what I mean? Writers are very nice people. I don’t know a single one who would commit murder. And, yet, they keep coming up as suspects in crime novels. One has to wonder about the bias…

Thanks, Carol, for the inspiration. Folks, do visit Carol’s fine blog. And check out her writing. You won’t be sorry.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s Charlie Brown.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Dorothy L. Sayers, Nicholas Blake, Peter May

27 responses to “Why’s Everybody Always Pickin’ On Me?*

  1. Margot: Your post set me to thinking about Another Margaret by Janice MacDonald. In that book the sleuth, Randy Craig, is working on a Master’s thesis concerning elusive Alberta writer, Margaret Ahlers, when Ahlers releases a new book that is, to the horror of the academics crime rather than literary fiction. When Ahlers’ death is mysteriously announced there is abundant speculation on what happened.

    Now I appreciate writers are nice people but Another Margaret contains a writer’s motivation for murder. Randy’s thesis is plagiarized. While she restrains her fury there may be other writers who would …..

    • You have a point, Bill. That’s an excellent example of what might motivate a writer to be, well, not so nice. I actually thought of that book when I was writing this post, but in the end, I didn’t include it. I’m very glad that you did. I mean, what writer would want to be a victim of plagiarism? That’d be enough for anyone to take matters farther than they ought to be. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  2. Col

    I’ve had a book on my shelf since the early 90s – A Time of War (Vietnam War fiction) by author Michael Peterson. Early 2000s he was convicted of murdering his wife, subsequently reduced on appeal (years later) to manslaughter, I believe.

  3. Margot, your post reminds me of a Murder She Wrote episode. I believe it was a friend of Jessica’s that was a writer and turned out to be a murderer. But then the series began with her publisher being convicted of murder, so go figure. Fun post!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Mason. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And thanks for mentioning those episodes; I’d forgotten about them. See? Writers even become suspects on television!

  4. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this great post from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog on the topic of writers being suspected of murder in crime fiction.

  5. I must read Peter May’s crime-fiction. I often come across his novels at the book exhibitions I frequent.

  6. The title of the post made me smile! I recognized it immediately from one of my parents’ old 45s that I used to play when I was a kid!

    I’m not sure I’ve read ‘Written in Blood.” Love her books so I’ll check this one out!

    • I think you’d like Written in Blood, Elizabeth. And I like Grahams work quite a lot, too. About the song? There’s just something about it, isn’t there? Even decades later, it’s still fun!

  7. I kind of understand why writers get positioned as murders in books, after all we know that they are good at plotting… Seriously though you’ve shown it is more common than I thought – Perhaps we need to rank murderers by profession – are writers higher up the list than butlers?

    • Haha! That’s an interesting question, Cleo! We all know about butlers, don’t we… It is interesting, actually to think about what our opinion is of different professions. Talented writers can plot, as you say, so I suppose there’s a reason for them to be suspect. But, honestly, the ones I know wouldn’t dream of anything like murder. At least not that they’d admit. 😉

  8. Nothing personal, you understand, but I wouldn’t trust a crime writer as far as I could throw her! Seems to me they never look at a person without plotting how to do away with them. I bet that butler – you know, the one who always “did it” – was probably an aspiring crime writer in his leisure time…

  9. Margot, thank you so much for the link to my blog and I am happy that my post inspired you for this post! 🙂

  10. Kathy D.

    Great topic. I think Columbo had a few TV episodes with writers as murderers. Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling has a book with an editor as murderer, jealous of writers.
    Peter May is a great writer. Even better than Coffin Road is his trilogy set on the island of Harris/Lewis in the Hebrides. Wish more books were coming with Finley MacLeod. Read one after the other and googled photos of the island.

    • I agree, Kathy: Peter May is very talented. And his books really do have a sense of place about them. And I hadn’t thought about TV shows, but you’re right; there was an episode of Columbo where a writer was the killer. And then there are editors, too…

  11. Kathy D.

    Isn’t this song about Charlie Brown who moans, “Why is everybody always picking on me?” Part of the wonderful pantheon of old rhythm and blues and rock and roll from the old days.

  12. Kathy D.

    Yes. I could listen to old rhythm and blues all day. Nothing like those harmonies — and the bass!

  13. I did like the use of the detective novelist Mr. Clancy in Death in the Clouds, Margot. And that was such a good book overall.

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