Most of us, if asked, would say that we wouldn’t commit a crime, or abet one. And, yet, sometimes people do get drawn into a crime plot, even if they aren’t aware at first of what’s happening. It might something as simple as dropping off a package for an acquaintance, but even something that innocuous can lead to a crime.
The reality that one’s abetted a crime, however unwittingly, can hit hard. And that can add a great deal to a crime novel. Different people behave differently under those circumstances, which can add layers to a character. There’s also the tension and suspense involved as the sleuth gets closer to finding out what really happened.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds, a French moneylender, Marie Morisot, is poisoned during a flight from Paris to London. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on the same flight. Hercule Poirot is one of those passengers, and he works with Chief Inspector Japp to find the killer. In the course of the investigation, Poirot learns that the victim went to London frequently, but usually took a different flight. At first, the airline representative says that the usual flight was fully booked. But Poirot has found out that’s not true. He pushes the matter and the representative finally admits that he was paid to say the flight was booked. He’s terrified to say so at first, because he hadn’t known there would be a murder. But he tells the truth and gives Poirot some useful information.
Rex Stout’s Fer de Lance begins as Nero Wolfe gets a new client, Maria Maffei. She’s worried because her brother Carlo has gone missing. On the surface, it looks as though he stole some money and returned to the family’s home in Italy. But Maria is sure that Carlo wouldn’t do such a thing. Wolfe agrees to look into the matter, and it’s not long before Carlo is found stabbed to death. A newspaper clipping in his possession suggests a link between his death and the death of Holland University President Peter Barstow. It seems that Barstow was killed on a golf course by what turns out to be poison. It was delivered through a specially-constructed golf club that Maffei designed. He himself hadn’t known it was going to be used for murder; and, when he found out, the killer had to silence him.
In Pascal Garnier’s How’s the Pain, we meet twenty-one-year-old Bernard Ferrand. He’s a bit bored with life in his small town, and restless to do something. One day, he happens to meet Simon Marechall, and the two get to talking. Marechall discovers that Ferrand has a driving license, which is exactly what he needs. Marechall is a contract killer who’s getting ready to retire from the business, but he wants to do one last job. For that, he needs someone to drive him to the French Coast. So, without telling Ferrand his business, Marechall asks his new acquaintance to do the driving. Ferrand isn’t doing anything else with his life, so he agrees. With that choice, he becomes Marechall’s unwitting accomplice. By the time he finds that out, though, it’s too late, and matters soon spin out of control.
In one plot line of Charles Stross’ Rule 34, we are introduced to ex-con Anwar Hussein. Since his release from prison, he’s made a sort of living as an identity thief. Then, through one of his contacts, he gets an opportunity to ‘go legit.’ It seems that the newly-formed Central Asian nation of Issyk-Kulistan has decided to set up a consul in Edinburgh, and they want Hussein to fill the post. The work is very easy, the pay is decent, and, best of all, it’s work of which Hussein’s wife will approve. He takes the job; and, at first, all goes well enough. But soon, he starts to wonder about some of the things that are happening at this consul. And by the time he discovers what’s going on, he’s already drawn into a situation from which he can’t really extricate himself. It turns out that Hussein’s story is linked to several murders – murders he didn’t know about and wouldn’t have agreed to if he had.
And then there’s Jen Shieff’s The Gentlemen’s Club, which takes place in 1950s Auckland. A ship has arrived in Auckland, bringing several passengers whose stories become a part of the plot. One of those passengers is Fenella Grayson. She has with her three orphan girls, who are to be placed in Brodie House, an orphanage run by a man named Lindsay Pitcaithly. The girls are duly taken to their destination, and Fenella begins looking for work. Her mother, Rachel, is from Auckland, so she already has some contacts. She ends up working in the Grand Palais, a ‘gentlemen’s club’ that offers ‘extra services’ for those willing to pay. And that’s how she gets involved with the club’s owner, Rita Saunders. Little by little, Rita learns that something terrible is going on at Brodie House, and that Pitcaithly isn’t the person he seems to be. But he is powerful, and it’s not going to be easy to prove what’s happening. In the meantime, Fenella finds that she’s been more drawn into the situation than she thought. Now, she’ll have to make some choices about what to do.
Plenty of fictional characters knowingly – even willingly at times – get involved in crime. But there are also characters who didn’t bargain for crime, especially a crime such as murder. And it’s interesting to see how authors handle those characters.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jon Bon Jovi.