One way to get away with a crime – or leas have a good chance of it – is to frame someone else. And a very effective way to frame someone else is to convince that someone that she or he is guilty. That’s not easy to do, as you can imagine, but it can happen. And when it’s successful, a real murderer has a ready-made scapegoat.
This plot point can be difficult to pull off in crime fiction. It’s got to be done in a credible way, and most people wouldn’t easily believe that they are guilty of murder. But when it’s done effectively, it can add suspense to a story.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s Third Girl, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from a young woman who tells him that she may have committed a murder. Before she can give any details, though, she re-thinks her visit and leaves without giving her name. With the help of his friend, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, Poirot discovers that the young woman is called Norma Restarick. Poirot and Mrs. Oliver try to find Norma, but she goes missing. As they look into this case further, they discover that there really was a murder. And it turns out that more than one person had a motive for murder, and a motive to make Norma think she is guilty. But until Norma turns up, it will be difficult to find the truth about the case.
In Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder, we are introduced to Howard Van Horn. He’s been having disturbing blackouts lately, which is difficult enough. Then one morning, he wakes up with blood all over him. Terrified that he’s done something horrible, Van Horn reaches out to his old university friend, Ellery Queen, for help. Queen agrees to see what he can do, and he and Van Horn try to get to the root of what’s been going on. The trail leads to Van Horn’s home town of Wrightsville, so the two go there. They stay with Van Horn’s father, Dietrich, and his stepmother, Sally. One night, Sally is strangled. Van Horn’s had another blackout, so he is convinced he was responsible. In fact, everyone believes that except for Queen. Among other things, this story shows just how powerful a belief can be.
Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus introduces readers to Dr. Duca Lamberti. He’s recently been released from prison where he served time for euthanasia, and isn’t quite sure what he’ll do next. Then, he’s approached by a wealthy Milanese engineer, Pietro Auseri, to help solve a difficult problem. Auseri’s son, Davide, has been drinking heavily and showing signs of severe depression and despair. Nothing, not even stints in exclusive rehabilitation facilities, has helped. Lamberti isn’t sure what he can do to help, but he agrees to try. After a time, he learns the reason for Davide’s drinking. A year earlier, Davide happened to meet a young woman named Alberta Radelli. After spending a day together, she begged him to take her with him, but Davide refused. Then, she threatened suicide if he didn’t, saying that she couldn’t go back to her own life. He refused again, and they parted. Soon afterwards, her body was discovered, and the death looked very much like a suicide. Since then, Davide has blamed himself for her death, believing that he’s a murderer, even if he didn’t actually use a weapon. Lamberti believes that the only way to help Davide is to find out the truth about Alberta’s death, so he begins to look into it. And he finds that this was no suicide: someone murdered the young woman. As Davide helps Lamberti get to the truth, he slowly frees himself of his guilt.
In The Sins of the Fathers, Lawrence Block’s first Matthew Scudder novel, Scudder is approached by wealthy Cale Hanniford. His daughter, Wendy, was recently murdered, and the police have a suspect in custody. He is Richard Vanderpoel, Wendy’s roommate. At first, Scudder isn’t sure how he can help Hanniford. But then, Hanniford says that what he really wants is to learn more about Wendy, and what led up to the murder. He tells Scudder that he and Wendy were estranged for several years, so he didn’t know much about her, her friends, or her life. Now, he wants to find out about her. Scudder reluctantly agrees to ask some questions, and he goes to visit Vanderpoel in prison. His meeting with the young man isn’t successful, though, as Vanderpoel is too drugged or dazed to be coherent. He doesn’t dispute his guilt, but Scudder does begin to wonder if the facts are as clear as they seem. And it turns out that they are not. Someone else was willing to let Vanderpoel believe he committed a murder.
And then there’s David Rosenfelt’s One Dog Night. Noah Galloway believes that, just over six years before the events in the novel, he was guilty of arson and the murder of twenty-six people. He’s done his best to re-build his life since then, but has always been afraid he’d be caught. He’s especially worried about the effect on his wife, Becky, and their son. Still, life’s gone on. Then, the FBI catches up with him and arrests him. Galloway doesn’t really protest. In fact, he even says,
‘‘Take me away.’’
But he will need a lawyer to take his case. That lawyer turns out to be Andy Carpenter. For Carpenter, it’s an awkward situation. Several years earlier, Galloway was using drugs, and broke into Carpenter’s home to try to find money or valuables. At the time, Carpenter chose not to press charges; now he’s questioning the wisdom of that decision. Still, he takes Galloway’s case, and starts looking into the arson and deaths. And he discovers that Galloway was very successfully duped into thinking he is guilty.
It’s not easy to really convince people they’ve committed murder. So, if that plot point is to be used in a crime novel, it’s got to be used carefully. But when it is used effectively, it can add an interesting layer of suspense to a story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fleetwood Mac’s Jumping at Shadows.