Category Archives: Agatha Christie

You Only See What She Wants You to See*

Assumptions and ImpressionsWe humans are bombarded with so much stimuli that it’s nearly impossible to sort it all out. So, we make judgements and assumptions about people based on just a few salient cues. Sometimes those judgements are absolutely right, and sometimes they aren’t. Either way, we can’t really avoid making them, as very often we just don’t have the time to sift through all of the cues about a person at once. So we focus on one or two really salient cues, such as clothes. Lawyers know this, so some of them coach their clients as to the kind of clothes to wear when they appear in court. People use clothes to make impressions in other situations, too.

Crime-fictional sleuths, criminals and other characters know the impact of people’s overall impressions and assumptions and they take advantage of it. Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, for instance, will know that he uses changes of clothes in several stories. As one example, in The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, he adopts the clothing and manner of a workman. He’s trying to stop a blackmailer, and he knows that simply going to the man’s home and demanding the incriminating evidence isn’t going to work. So instead, he uses his ‘workman’s guise’ to strike up a friendship with a housemaid, and gets the information he needs.

Several characters in Agatha Christie’s novels use clothing and clothing styles to make exactly the impression they want. In The Mystery of the Blue Train, for instance, Katherine Grey learns that, after ten years of serving as a paid companion, she has inherited a large amount of money from her now-deceased employer. Although she’s a practical person, Katherine wants the chance to travel, and she wants to make the right impression. So she visits a famous dressmaker and orders a new wardrobe. She then decides to accept an invitation to visit a distant cousin who now lives in Nice. That visit ends up drawing her into a case of murder and theft, when a fellow passenger on the train she’s taking is killed. Katherine’s new look isn’t a disguise, as everyone knows her identity, and that she’s been a paid companion. But her clothes do give the ‘right’ impression for the Riviera. Of course, Christie fans will also know that in several stories, the killer uses a disguise, or at least different clothing, to ‘fade into the background’ or to avoid being ‘spotted.’ But no spoilers here!

Arthur Upfield’s Queensland Inspector Napoleon ‘Boney’ Bonaparte knows the value of making the right impression, and of having people make the assumptions about him that he wants. So he sometimes chooses clothes and bearing that will suit that purpose. For instance, in Death of a Swagman, he’s been called to the small town of Merino to investigate the murder of a stockman named George Kendell. Boney knows that he won’t easily find out what happened if he goes into the town wearing an official uniform and showing a badge. So, he dresses differently and arranges to get himself arrested for vagrancy. He’s given ten days’ jail time, and ordered to paint the fence at the police station. He dresses and acts the part, so at first, almost everyone assumes that he’s an itinerant stockman passing through town, hoping for a few days of work. And that’s just the impression he wants to make, so that he can get people to talk to him.

Priscilla Masters’ Martha Gunn is the coroner for Shrewsbury, so she and her team investigate whenever there is an unnatural death. And that’s exactly what they find in River Deep, when the body of a man is washed out of a basement after the River Severn overflows its banks. As the team check the missing persons records to try to identify the dead man, they learn of a disappearance that might be a match. At first it looks as though the identification is settled – until it turns out that these are two different men. Now Gunn and the team have a much more complicated case to solve. Part of the trail leads to an exclusive day spa, so Gunn decides to make an appointment and go there. In order not to be of any particular notice, she chooses very different clothes to what she usually wears, and a different way of doing her hair. This lets her craft the image she wants to craft, so that the staff at the spa make the assumptions about her that she wants: that she’s an upper-middle-class woman with money to spend, and certainly not a coroner…

As I mentioned earlier, lawyers know that the assumptions juries and judges make about their clients can matter very much. In higher profile cases, where the media is involved, there’s also the matter of a client’s public image, and the assumptions that that very public ‘court’ will make. So, some attorneys work with their clients and suggest certain kinds of dress. We see examples of this in many novels; I’ll just mention two. In both Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry and Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer, there’s a plot thread that involves a character who’s on trial. In the former, it’s Joanna Lindsay; in the latter, the defendant is Myriam Villetreix. There are many differences between the cases, but both have become very public. And in both cases, the defendant has already gotten an awful lot of negative attention in the press. It’s going to be very important for both women to make as good an impression as they can when they’re in court. So each gets advice about what to wear. And in the case of The Paris Lawyer, we learn that it’s not just clients who go through this. Myriam Villetreix’s attorney, Catherine Monsigny, wants to be taken seriously as a competent and capable attorney. So she’s quite careful about the way she dresses, too.

Of course, it’s not just clothing that causes people to make assumptions. Many, many other factors go into that split-second decision people make about what you’re like and what to assume about you. Sometimes those decisions end up being correct, and sometimes not. Either way, they’re interesting.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Cameo’s Back and Forth.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Helen Fitzgerald, Priscilla Masters, Sylvie Granotier

Hoping For the Best But Expecting the Worse*

Early AdulthoodAn interesting post from Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write has got me thinking about those early years of adulthood. It can be a stressful time as you’re trying to figure out the adult world. You’re on your own, but at the same time, not necessarily settled. You may be trying out different jobs, dating different people, and in other ways experimenting. It’s an interesting, if sometimes awfully anxious, time of life.

It certainly figures into crime fiction, and that makes quite a lot of sense. For one thing, the background atmosphere of the stress of those years can add tension to a story. For another, it’s often easy for readers to identify with those early-adulthood years. And beginning adults are often not yet settled into their lives, which allows them all sorts of encounters that are made-to-order for a crime novel.
One post is not nearly enough space to mention all of the examples of this sort of character. But here are just a few to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Third Girl, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from a young woman who tells him she may have committed a murder. But she abruptly changes her mind about engaging his services, and even admits that part of the reason is that he’s too old. Then she leaves without giving her name. Through his friend, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, Poirot learns that the young woman’s name is Norma Restarick. She’s the daughter of a successful business magnate, but she’s grown now, and living in London with two roommates, Claudia Reece-Holland and Frances Cary. Poirot and Mrs. Oliver want to follow up on what Norma said to them, but by the time they start asking after her, she’s disappeared. Her roommates say they don’t know where she is, and her family says she’s returned to London. Now Poirot and Mrs. Oliver have two mysteries to solve. One is, of course, Norma’s whereabouts. The other is the story behind the murder (if there was one). Among other things, the novel gives readers a look at the lives of young adults in London during the mid-1960s. I know, I know, fans of Hickory Dickory Dock.

Sarah Caudwell’s Hilary Tamar series features an interesting group of young people on their own. Tamar is a law professor who acts as a sort of mentor/role model to former student Timothy Shepherd, as well as to his friends, Michael Cantrip, Desmond Ragwort, Selena Jardine, and Julia Larwood. These young people do have steady jobs and promising careers. But in some ways, they’re still very young and sometimes quite vulnerable in their ways. So they turn to each other for friendship and support. And it’s interesting to see how they look to Tamar for guidance at times. The series has a light touch, but Caudwell also shows some of the anxiety that young people often feel at this time of life.

Gail Bowen’s sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, is not only an academician and political scientist, she’s a mother (and now, a grandmother). As the series moves on, Bowen follows the lives of Joanne’s children as they finish school and start their own lives. For instance, at the beginning of the series (Deadly Appearances), Joanne’s daughter Mieka has just begun her university studies. It’s a time of real transition for her, and she decides that what she really wants to do is open her own catering company. It’s not what Joanne would have wanted her to do, but Mieka is determined. And she seems to have a sense of what she may be in for, as the saying goes. As the series goes on, Mieka starts to grow into her adult roles, and it’s interesting to see how she slowly develops adult confidence and competence. It’s also interesting to see how her relationship with her mother evolves as she moves from university student to professional.

In Karin Fossum’s Bad Intentions, we are introduced to three young men, Axel Frimann, Philip Reilly and Jon Moreno. All three are more or less on their own, and just getting started with life. Jon has recently been released from a mental hospital, where he’s been dealing with severe anxiety problems. His friends think it might be a good idea if he gets the chance for some ‘down time.’ So the three decide to spend a weekend at a cabin by Dead Water Lake. Late one night, they take a moonlight boating trip on the lake, but a terrible tragedy happens, and only two young men come back. Oslo police detective Konrad Sejer, and his assistant Jacob Skarre, investigate. They know that the two young men who were there that night could probably tell them everything, but they’ll have to get them to open up. In the meantime, another body is discovered. This time, it’s the body of a teenaged boy who’s found in Glitter Lake. As Sejer and Skarre look into the cases, they discover that the two tragedies are connected. Fossum explores this time of life in some of her other novels, too.

Fans of Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series can tell you that those novels feature a cast of ‘regulars’ who share the building in which Chapman lives and has her bakery. In fact, two of them, Kylie Manners and Gossamer Judge, are employees at the bakery. These two young women are in those early years of adulthood. They live on their own, sharing an apartment, but they’re not what you’d call really settled. They’re trying to forge acting careers for themselves, so they go to plenty of auditions, and take whatever acting jobs they can get. On the one hand, they do have a certain amount of confidence. But on the other, they’re sometimes quite vulnerable. And the way they live certainly reflects both their youth and their lifestyles (this is taken from Devil’s Food):
 
‘Those girls had more makeup than a theatre company. It was everywhere, stuffed into every corner of the bathroom. I did find some soluble aspirin, some contraceptives, something called bikini line wax, that made me shudder, and a lot of miscellaneous instruments that I did not recognise.’
 

And this is a description of their kitchen:
 

‘They had a lot of dried soups and so on, all guaranteed 150% fat free (and how much sugar?). They did have real coffee and tea, and a lot of herbal teas in pretty packets featuring dragons and unicorns. And a whole box of hangover remedies…There were plenty of cups, but the dishes had not been done recently.’
 

It’s a very interesting example of the way people in those early-twenties years live their lives.

Sulari Gentill’s Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair series also shows what those early years of adulthood can be like – at least what they were like in Australia in the early 1930s. Sinclair is the third son of the wealthy Sinclair family, with his older brother Wilfrid much the more settled. Rowly is an artist, and although he doesn’t completely live the bohemian life, he has collected a motley crew of friends and acquaintances. His close friends are Elias (who’s usually called Milton, because he wants to be a poet), Edna Higgins (sculptor and sometimes-model), and Clyde Watson-Jones (also an artist). While they’re not in the very earliest stages of adulthood, these four are still not really settled. And while Rowly, at least, has money, none of the group has really created an established life. They’re an interesting mix of optimism and anxiety, and we see both their confidence and their vulnerability.

And then there’s Chad Hobbes, whom we meet in Seán Haldane’s Victorian-Era historical novel The Devil’s Making. Hobbes has just finished his degree in Jurisprudence at Oxford, and has arrived in Victoria, BC. With some help from a letter of introduction, he gets a job as a police constable, under the command of Augustus Permberton. When the body of Richard McCrory is discovered, Hobbes gets a real awakening, and not just about murder. He learns some of life’s lessons about prejudice, religion, politics and philosophy. As the novel goes on, we see how Hobbes shows that youthful blend of energy and optimism with vulnerability.

And that’s the thing about those early adult years. They can be a time of great self-involvement. They’re also a time of idealism, sometimes heartbreak, often vulnerability, and always change.

Thanks, Marina Sofia, for the inspiration. And now, folks, please give yourselves a treat and visit Marina Sofia’s excellent blog. Fine book reviews, powerful poetry, and great photography await you.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alphaville’s Forever Young.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Karin Fossum, Kerry Greenwood, Sarah Caudwell, Seán Haldane, Sulari Gentill

Curiouser and Curiouser, Sir*

Strange Noises and Odd PapersI’ll bet you’ve had the experience. You hear a funny noise, or you see an odd piece of paper stuck in a crack in the back of a drawer. You’re curious, so you decide to open up that piece of paper, or investigate that weird noise. It’s perfectly understandable, really; humans tend to be curious.

It’s interesting to see how that sort of curiosity plays out in crime fiction, too. Readers can identify with the urge to find out what’s causing that noise, or what that paper says. What’s more, plot points like that can add interest and even suspense to a novel.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Helen Stoner, who has an eerie story to tell him about the death of her sister, Julia. It seems that Julia had been hearing strange, soft whistles and other noises during the night. Other odd things were happening, too. Then, just before she suddenly died, Julia said something very cryptic to her sister. Now Helen is hearing the same weird noises. She’s worried about what might be going on, and she wants Holmes to investigate. He and Dr. Watson travel to Stoke Moran, the Stoner home, and begin the search for answers. They discover that those weird sounds are not just products of the imagination, and that their client is in real danger.

Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase begins when Rachel Innes decides to rent Sunnyside, a large country house, for a summer holiday with her nephew, Halsey, and niece, Gertrude. Very soon, some strange things begin to happen. One of those things is a series of strange banging and tapping noises. Rachel is by no means a fanciful person, and decides to investigate. But she can’t find anything that really explains the sounds. Other weird things begin to happen, too, things that frighten her family maid, Liddy Allen, so that she actually ends up leaving. Then, there’s a murder. What’s worse, both Halsey and Gertrude are implicated. Rachel is determined to clear their names, so she begins to do her own investigations. And she learns that those weird sounds are important clues to what’s been going on at the house, and to the murder.

In one plot thread of Brian McGilloway’s The Nameless Dead, Garda Ben Devlin investigates a very odd occurrence. Christine Cashell has reported hearing a baby cry on her baby monitor, but says that it’s not her son. In fact, she and her partner have no children. They’d planned a family, but their son was stillborn, and they haven’t gotten rid of the baby things they’d bought. The manufacturer of the baby monitor reports that some of the monitors may pick up the sounds of other crying babies if they are very near. But there are no babies living anywhere near Christine and her partner. Devlin looks into the matter more closely, and finds that the solution ties in with another case he’s investigating. In fact, there’s an important piece of information that comes from following up on that weird sound of an infant crying.

And it’s not just a matter of following up on odd sounds. In Agatha Christie’s Third Girl, detective story writer Ariadne Oliver is visiting a block of London flats. She’s hoping to track down a young woman named Norma Restarick, who shares a flat with two other young women. During the visit, Mrs. Oliver sees a couple of furniture movers taking a desk out of the building. As they’re putting the desk into the van, a piece of paper flutters out. Mrs. Oliver tries to give it to the men, but they ignore her. That piece of paper stuck in that desk turns out to be a very important to clue to Norma’s whereabouts, and to a murder.

Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead introduces Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty of the Community Policing Section (CPS) of Canada’s government. In that novel, they’re called in when a man named Christopher Drayton dies after a fall from Ontario’s Scarborough Bluffs. At first it doesn’t seem the kind of case, even if it is murder, that would interest the CPS. That group normally concerns itself more with hate crimes and other community-relations cases. Then readers learn the reason for the CPS’ involvement. Scraps of letters found in a drawer, and a scrap of paper found in a pocket, suggest that the victim may actually have been Dražen Krstić, a notorious war criminal who committed real atrocities during the Bosnian War. If that’s Drayton’s real identity, then this is a very delicate case. Questions will most definitely be asked about why a war criminal was allowed to live in Canada, and those questions could lead to the end of more than one career. So Khattak and Getty will have to be very careful as they investigate. It turns out that those little scraps of paper jammed into a drawer are very important.

And that’s the thing. Every once in a while, when you hear a weird noise, or you see a scrap of paper stuck somewhere, it leads to something much more than you think.

ps. Oh, the ‘photo? An odd noise in our heating/air conditioning system turned out to be coming from a scrap of paper stuck in one of the vents. You can just see it on the bottom right of the grill. The air currents made it rattle. You never know what you’ll find when you investigate those strange things.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Barenaked Ladies’ Curious.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Brian McGilloway, Mary Roberts Rinehart

It’s Only Surreal*

SurrealMost crime fiction fans want their stories to ‘feel’ real – as though the characters in them might exist, and the events happen. It takes a deft hand to introduce elements of the surreal – or at least dreamlike unreality – into a crime novel and make it work.

And yet, there are ways in which it can be done. For example, I’ll bet you’ve read crime novels where a character is drugged (either for medical reasons or for another reason) and that drug affects her or his perceptions. There are other ways, too, in which an author can introduce that sort of unreality. And it certainly can add some interest to a story when it’s done well.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral, patriarch Richard Abernethie dies suddenly, and his family members gather for his funeral. When the family members get together to hear the will, Abernethie’s younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, blurts out that her brother was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up; she herself urges the rest to pay no attention to her. But privately, everyone does start to wonder. And when Cora herself is murdered the next day, everyone becomes certain she was right. The family solicitor, Mr. Entwhistle, visits Hercule Poirot, and asks him to look into the matter. Poirot agrees, and begins to investigate. Slowly, little pieces of the puzzle start to fall together, and one night, Poirot has a very strange dream about it. The dream itself is quite surreal, as many dreams are. But it gives him the answer to the puzzle. I see you, fans of Murder in Mesopotamia.

Fred Vargas’ novels featuring Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg often have elements of surrealism in them. For example, The Chalk Circle Man begins with a very odd phenomenon: someone’s been drawing circles made of blue chalk on the pavement in different parts of Paris. Various weird objects are found in them, and there seems no explanation at all. And then comes the day when one of those ‘objects’ is a body…  In The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, Adamsberg is persuaded to travel from Paris to the small town of Ordebec at the request of Valentine Vendermot. Her daughter Lina has had a vision in which she’s seen the legendary Ghost Riders. As the story goes, they appear in the company of those who are going to die a violent death. And Lina has seen them in the company of locals she knows. She’s very disturbed by the vision, and that’s why her mother wants Adamsberg’s help. He goes to Ordebec to look into the story of the Ghost Riders, only to get caught up an odd murder investigation when one of the people Lina saw is killed. And then there’s the matter of Snowball the office cat, who is, of all things, an expert tracker… Fans of this series will tell you that all kinds of surreal things happen in it.

In Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer, we are introduced to newly-fledged lawyer Catherine Monsigny. She gets her chance for a real push to her career when Myriam Villetreix asks specifically for her. Villetreix has been arrested and charged in the murder of her wealthy husband, Gaston, and wants Monsigny (whom she met when she first came from Ghana to France) to defend her. A win in this case will open many proverbial doors, so Monsigny gets right to work to do the best job she possibly can. As it turns out, the town where the murder took place is not far from where a tragedy occurred in Monsigny’s own life. When she was a very small child, her mother was murdered, with Monsigny as the only witness. She remembers very little from that day, and what there is, is hazy at best. But as she spends time in that place, some of the pieces begin to fit together. And as the story goes on, she begins to have dreamlike, disjointed memories of the day of the murder. They are surreal, but gradually, they give her information about what really happened to her mother.

Fans of Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire series will know that he has more than one encounter with the Old Cheyenne. Some people call them ghosts; some call them visions. Still others simply think that they’re a case of Longmire’s mind ‘playing tricks,’ as the saying goes. Whatever they are, they seem to be there when Longmire especially needs their help. For instance, in The Cold Dish, they appear as Longmire is caught on a mountain in a life-threatening snowstorm. They don’t magically transport him to safety, but their presence keeps him going. Longmire is a pragmatic person, and not given to believing in ghosts. But he has come to accept the Old Cheyenne, however surreal they may seem.

In Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest and her team investigate when Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins is murdered in Green Swamp Well. At first, the death is put down to the tragic consequences of a drunken quarrel. But Tempest begins to have her doubts. So she looks into the case more thoroughly. The closer she gets to the truth, the more risk there is for her, as some very dangerous people are threatened by what she discovers. It turns out that Doc’s death had nothing to do with a drunken quarrel. At one point, Tempest has what can only be described as a surreal encounter with Andulka Jangala, about whom many stories have been told, some stranger than others. Even Tempest admits that some of the stories must be myths, rather than truth.
 

‘…but what the hell: our mob have lost so many myths along the way, I couldn’t see any harm in inventing a few new ones.’
 

He is (or was) a real person, but he’s disappeared. Tempest isn’t even sure he’s still alive, but one of her friends, Meg Branbles, says that he is. And then Tempest finds out for herself.

And then there’s Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. That novel begins in 1984, when Kate Meaney is ten years old. She dreams of being a detective, and has even launched her own agency, Falcon Investigations. She spends a lot of time at the newly-opened Green Oaks Shopping Center, looking for suspicious activity. One day, she disappears during a trip to sit entrance exams at the exclusive Redsppon School. A thorough search is undertaken, but no sign of her is found – not even a body. Twenty years later, a mall security guard named Kurt notices that the security cameras have recorded something very strange: the dreamlike image of a young girl who looks a lot like Kate did. He tries to find the child, but can’t locate her. Still, the image keeps showing up on his camera. One night, he meets Lisa Palmer, assistant manager at the mall’s music store. She remembers Kate; and, when Kurt tells her what he’s seen, the two begin an awkward sort of friendship. Each in a different way, the two go back to the past, and we learn what really happened to Kate.

Those dreamlike, surreal moments aren’t the sorts of things you’d expect to happen in real life. But when they’re well-written, those moments can add an interesting flair to a crime novel.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Innocence Mission’s Surreal.

  

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Craig Johnson, Fred Vargas, Sylvie Granotier

Sends Shivers Down My Spine*

Reactions to Taking a LifeCommitting murder isn’t easy for most people. In fact, in real life, most of us would be horrified, or at least badly affected, by having taken a life. That’s arguably one reason for which returning soldiers have so much difficulty after they’ve fought in a war. And it’s part of why stories about people who kill in a cold-blooded, unfeeling way make the news. That uncaring reaction seems so alien to most people.

There are, of course, all sorts of different types of killers in crime fiction. Some of them (a post in and of itself, actually) are hardened and unfeeling. Or they completely justify the taking of a life in some way, so that it doesn’t really affect them. But many, many killers are devastated when they take a life.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, for instance, we are introduced to Louise Leidner. She’s accompanied her husband, noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, on a dig at a site a few hours from Baghdad. One afternoon, she is bludgeoned in her room at the expedition house. Hercule Poirot is in the area, and is persuaded to take a few days and investigate the murder. It’s very unlikely (‘though not impossible) that an outsider committed the murder, so the pool of suspects is somewhat limited. Still, as Poirot learns more about the victim, he discovers that more than one person might have wanted to kill her. It’s not spoiling the story to say that murderer intended to kill. But that doesn’t mean that person was left unaffected by taking life. Here’s what the murderer says:
 

‘‘I think – really – I am rather glad  [at being found out]…I’m so tired…’’
 

Even the narrator of the story feels a sort of pity for the killer.

In James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, insurance sales representative Walter Huff meets Phyllis Nirdlinger, the wife of one of his clients. He’s immediately besotted, and she seems to reciprocate. Soon enough, they begin an affair, and she persuades him to help her plot to kill her husband for the life insurance money. He’s so much under her spell that he goes along with her plan. Then, once the deed is done, it starts to sink what he’s really done:
 

‘I knew then what I had done. I had killed a man to get a woman. I had put myself in her power, so there was one person in the world that could point a finger at me, and I would have to die.’ 
 

The problem is, of course, that he can’t confess his guilt without risking everything. There are other reasons, too, for which it won’t be as easy as it may seem to simply go to the police and tell them what he’s done. So Huff decides he’ll have to take other action.

In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle, Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery investigate the murder of fashion designer Sheila Grey. After a bit of digging, they settle on Ashton McKell as the chief suspect. He was in the victim’s apartment on the night of the murder, and was known to be in a relationship with her. When McKell’s name is cleared, both his wife, Lutetia, and his son, Dane, fall in for their share of suspicion, and there are reasonable cases against them. But the McKells aren’t the only possibilities by any means. In the end, the Queens get to the truth about the matter. And we discover that the murderer has been badly affected by killing Sheila Grey. Here’s what the killer says:
 

“…I’m sorry, I’m sorry, there’s something wrong inside me, there always has been since I was a kid. Everything went wrong.”
 

It’s clear that this person is not left untouched.

Neither is the killer in William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw. In that novel, Glasgow DI Jack Laidlaw investigates the rape and murder of eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawson. Although there’s a great deal of sympathy for the Lawson family, the case is not an easy one to solve. For one thing, the victim wasn’t mixed up with drugs or prostitution, so there is no ‘criminal involvement’ lead to follow. What’s more, nobody really knows what Jennifer did or where she went at the time of the murder. People really weren’t paying attention. So nobody can say who might have been with her. What’s more, the people who live in the area where the girl was found are not exactly fond of talking to the police. So even if someone saw something or knows something, it’s not likely to be reported. Still, Laidlaw and his team persist, and in the end, they find out the truth. In this case, the killer is consumed by guilt about the crime, and knows full well exactly how horrible a crime it was. That sense of horror and guilt play a major role in what that person does.

Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Diggers Rest Hotel introduces Melbourne copper Charlie Berlin. It’s 1947, and Berlin has recently returned from WWII service in Europe. He’s still dealing with the trauma of that experience, but is also trying to get on with his life. He’s seconded to Wodonga to help investigate a series of robberies in the area, and catch the motorcycle gang that’s responsible. Berlin’s in the middle of that investigation when the body of sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee is found in an alley. At first, there’s a suspicion that the motorcycle gang was involved, but Berlin soon learns that’s not true. So he begins to look elsewhere for the person responsible. In the end, he finds out the truth, part of which is that the killer is devastated by what’s happened. This is no case of a cold-blooded psychopath, and McGeachin makes it clear that taking lives exacts a real toll from the people who take them.

And then there’s Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach. Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel are taking some time off at Krabi. They enjoy their holiday until they find out about the death of Chanida Manakit, who went by the nickname of Pla. Miss Pla was an expert swimmer, who actually guided a tour that Keeney and Patel took, so they feel a personal sense of loss when her body washes up in a cave. It’s very hard to tell exactly how she died, but Keeney doesn’t immediately accept the police theory that this was an accident; Miss Pla was too good a swimmer for that. She and Patel agree to stay in Krabi for a few extra days to look into the matter. And when they find out the truth, we learn that Pla’s death was not a case of falling into the water and drowning. The person responsible for her death is both fearful and horrified by what’s happened, and Savage makes that clear. That horror turns out to have consequences, too.

There are of course killers who aren’t affected by taking a life. But many real-life killers are. So it makes sense that fictional ones would be, too.

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Ellery Queen, Geoffrey McGeachin, James M. Cain, William McIlvanney