Many crime novels feature more than one murder. And if you think about it, this makes sense. For one thing, there’s an argument that once you’ve crossed the line and taken a life, it’s easier to do it again. Here, for instance, is what the murderer in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile says about it:
‘It’s so dreadfully easy – killing people. And you begin to feel that it doesn’t matter!’
This fictional killer even acknowledges that it could happen again.
There’s also the fact that second murders in novels can be very effective plot devices. Second murders can add to the suspense and keep the reader engaged. They can also make for effective plot twists (e.g. the most likely suspect in a fictional murder becomes a victim).
Like just about any other element in a novel, second murders have to be handled carefully. They have to fall out logically from the plot (i.e. not be included just for shock value). Timing matters, too. If the second murder happens too abruptly, it can jar the reader. If too much time goes by, the reader’s interest lags. There has to be a logical reason for the second murder as well. After all, most of us are not habitual killers, so something credible has to drive a character to that act.
Perhaps the most frequent motive for the second murder is to keep the second victim quiet. Most murderers don’t want to be caught, and if they suspect that someone knows what they’ve done, it’s easy to believe they’d kill to prevent that person from speaking out. That’s what happens in Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger. Postman Joseph Higgins is admitted to Heron Park Hospital for a fractured femur. It’s supposed to be a routine operation; tragically, though, he dies during the procedure. At first it’s put down to a terrible accident, and Inspector Cockrill begins what’s expected to be a routine investigation. But Higgins’ widow is convinced he was murdered. Cockrill takes her very seriously when there’s a second death. This time, it’s a nurse, Sister Marion Bates, whose body is found only hours after she blurted out that she knew Higgins was killed, and by whom. There are, of course, myriad other stories where the killer strikes more than once to keep someone from going to the police.
Sometimes, killers strike more than once because their first victim is accidental. For example, in Colin Dexter’s Death is Now My Neighbor, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are assigned to investigate the shooting death of physiotherapist Rachel James. They don’t make much progress on the case at first, since there seems no obvious motive. Then, journalist Geoffrey Owens, who lives near the first victim, is murdered. Now it looks as though someone may have a grudge against the people who live in that particular area. But Morse and Lewis soon find differently. As it turns out, Owens was the intended victim the whole time; Rachel James was murdered accidentally.
There are also fictional cases where the murderer has more than one target. There’s a second victim (or more) because that’s part of the killer’s plan. That’s what happens in Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House. Stockholm DCI Conny Sjöberg and his team are called in when the body of realtor Hans Vannerberg is discovered in the kitchen of a temporarily-unoccupied home. The homeowner, Ingrid Olssen, claims not to know the victim, and in any case couldn’t have killed him. So the team has to look elsewhere for the murderer. Then there’s another killing, this time of a prostitute who’s murdered in her seedy apartment. There’s another murder, too. In this novel, the second murder happens because the killer targeted a particular group of people.
There are also fictional cases where the murderer kills more than one person so as to ‘hide’ one particular death. The idea here is that that one murder will point more or less directly to the killer. It won’t be so easy to find the real murderer if there are several victims. That’s a plot point, for instance, in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman. In one story thread, a gunman holds up a public transit bus and shoots eight people. At first it seems that a madman has struck. But it’s not that simple. It turns out that one victim, a cop named Åke Stenström, was investigating the murder of a prostitute on his own, and that someone doesn’t want that case solved. Homicide detective Martin Beck and his team learn that in this instance, the killer really only had one target. The other deaths were used, if I may put it this way, as a disguise. There’s an Agatha Christie novel too that has that premise.
Sometimes, the fictional second murder is committed because the killer is after something that isn’t obtained after the first murder. In Aaron Elkins’ Loot, for instance, art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere gets involved in the case of a valuable Velázquez that was ‘safeguarded’ by the Nazis during World War II. When it turns up, decades later, in a Boston pawnshop, the store’s owner is murdered for it. Revere was a friend of the victim’s, and hopes that if he can trace the painting from the time it disappeared during the war, he can find out who the murderer is. As it turns out, more than one person is killed for this valuable artwork.
There are also plenty of cases where there are (at least) two murders that are committed by different people. I won’t give authors and titles, so as to avoid spoilers. But here’s one example. I read a novel where A kills B. Then C (who is in love with B) finds out that A is the murderer and kills that person. That sort of plot is tricky, because it’s a bit more of a challenge to keep everything coherent and keep the focus on the main plot. But it does happen in real life, and it does in crime fiction too.
You’ll notice I’m not mentioning any of the many novels where the second murder indicates a serial killer. It’s not that those stories can’t be well-written. There are certainly high-quality ‘serial killer’ novels out there. But there are also a great many that, well, aren’t of high quality. And in real life, the true serial killer – the psychopath or sociopath – is comparatively rare.
Whatever the motive for a second fictional murder, it has to be credible if the story is to hold up. It also has to fall out naturally from the plot (i.e. not be included merely for interest). When the author does that though, a second murder can add to a story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jarvis Cocker’s I Will Kill Again.