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