Whenever the police are faced with multiple murders, especially similar sorts of murders, they try to look for links among the victims. There’s almost always some connection among the victims, and if the police can find that link, they can often also find the killer. So, part of investigating multiple murders is tracing the victims’ last days and weeks to see if there’s a common thread.
We see that part of a police investigation in lots of crime fiction – more than there is space for me mention here. But a few examples should suffice to show how the sleuth goes about trying to find those links. And sometimes, they are surprising.
In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, for instance, Hercule Poirot begins to receive a series of cryptic notes, warning him of murders that will occur, and giving the name of the town where the killing will take place. Not long after each letter, there is a murder, and a body discovered, in the town the killer has mentioned. An ABC railway guide is discovered near each body, but that clue isn’t very helpful. And nothing else, other than the letters to Poirot, seems to link the victims. They didn’t know each other, they didn’t live in the same place or go to the same school. It creates a very difficult puzzle for Poirot and the police. In the end, though, Poirot discovers what really links the murders. Once he does, he knows who committed them.
Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Soul Murders features her sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn. In the novel, Kilbourn’s daughter, Mieka, discovers the body of Bernice Morin in a city trash bin. At first, the police think that Bernice was killed by someone the police have dubbed the ‘Little Flower’ killer. But then, there’s another tragedy. Theresa Desjalier, the former girlfriend of Kilbourn’s son, Peter, dies in what looks like a drowning accident. That death turns out to be murder, though, and it’s linked to Bernice’s murder, as well as to other incidents in the novel. Once Kilbourn discovers what links everything, she’s able to get to the root of some very dark truths.
In Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs, Chief Inspector William Wisting and his team are faced with a baffling case. A left foot clad in a training shoe has washed ashore near the Norwegian town of Stevern. Very soon afterwards, another foot is discovered. Then another. Very soon, all sorts of wild speculations start to circulate, including the possibility that a psychopathic serial killer is stalking the area. There are other possibilities, too, none of which put the local residents at ease. The police try to link the deaths by searching missing person reports. They discover that three of the four missing people were connected with a local elder care facility. The fourth lived in a house that belonged to another resident who died just before the others went missing. It’s soon clear that these people are somehow linked to the missing feet, and Wisting and his team work to find out what, exactly, is the history behind these deaths.
Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House is the story of a series of deaths, and the link among them. The first is of successful real-estate broker Hans Vannerberg. The second is of a prostitute named Ann-Kristin Widell. Then, Lise-Lott Nilsson, a working-class homemaker, is murdered. Stockholm Chief Inspector Conny Sjöberg and his team believe that the murders might be linked; but on the surface, the victims have nothing in common. Then, it comes out that all of the victims were forty-four years old. That doesn’t seem to make sense as a motive or link, but Sjöberg has to start somewhere. Gradually, the victim’s lives are traced, and the team members discover what links them. And that leads to the killer.
In D.S. Nelson’s Model For Murder, retired milliner Blake Heatherington gets involved in a bizarre series of murders in the village of Tuesbury. First, newsagent Harold Slater is murdered. Then, Mr. Davies, the greengrocer; James Dockerty, the local bookie; Albert Pane, the baker; and Mr. Rawlinson, the butcher, are also killed. None of the victims seemed to have enemies, and none had a fortune to leave. So, at first, there doesn’t seem to be any motive. And, although all of the victims had local businesses, there wasn’t anything else that really linked them. Is it possible that someone is targeting the village? It doesn’t seem likely, since other business owners are not killed. What’s more, these killings do not seem haphazard. Tuesbury takes great pride in its miniature ‘model village.’ But someone seems to be defacing it. Before each murder, a cross is marked on the miniature of that victim’s business on the model village. And the statuette representing each victim goes missing. Heatherington is sure that something links those victims, and he slowly begins to put the pieces together. Oh, and I have it good authority that Blake Heatherington will be back in another mystery…
Medical thrillers such as Michael Palmer’s and Robin Cook’s often feature plots that focus on finding a link among medical cases. And that makes sense, since that’s what real-life medical experts do when they’re trying to find and stop outbreaks of illness. If the sleuth can find out what the victims of an illness have in common (e.g. where they ate, where they stayed), then the cause of the illness is easier to identify, and other deaths might be prevented. And if the deaths are deliberate, then the person responsible can be caught.
Finding the link or links among a set of victims can be difficult. And sometimes, the real link isn’t apparent right away. But it can be the key to solving the mystery when the sleuth is looking into multiple deaths.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Alarm’s Tell Me.