One of the reasons a lot of people read crime fiction is the appeal of what I’ll call putting things back in order. When there’s a crime such as murder, we want the ‘bad guy’ caught and we want that person to answer for what happened. Of course, we all know that real life doesn’t work that way, and plenty of people commit crimes for which they don’t pay. And there are many readers who enjoy that sort of hard-nosed, realistic look at crime.
But a lot of people like a sense of order restored when the person responsible for a crime is caught. That’s why it rankles so much, both in real life and in crime fiction, when a murderer gets away with the crime. Any fan of police procedurals can tell you that it haunts fictional police officers when they don’t catch a murderer. And there are plenty of crime plots that involve someone going back to set things right and catch a ‘bad guy’ who got away with it the first time.
Agatha Christie addressed this in more than one of her stories. For instance, in And Then There Were None, ten people are invited to spend time on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. Each accepts for different reasons, and they make their way to the island. When they arrive, they learn that their host isn’t there yet. Still, they make themselves comfortable and settle in. After dinner that first night, everyone is shocked when each person there is accused of causing the death of at least one other person. Shortly after that, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, there’s another death. Soon, it’s clear that someone has lured these people to the island and is murdering them. And it’s not spoiling the story to say that part of the reason is that they have all committed crimes for which they weren’t caught. I see you, fans of Murder on the Orient Express.
Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden begins with the murder of landscaper Warren Howe. At the time, his wife, Tina, is suspected of the murder, but the police don’t have enough evidence to prosecute, so the case isn’t solved. Ten years later, anonymous notes suggest that Tina was guilty, and has gotten away with the crime. Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Hannah Scarlett of the Cumbria Constabulary is the head of that constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. When the team learns of these accusations, they re-open the case. If Tina Howe did get away with murder, Scarlett and her team want to right that wrong. Even if someone else is guilty, it still means that the killer got away with the crime. And that’s part of the motivation for looking into it again.
In Michael Connelly’s Echo Park, we learn that LAPD detective Harry Bosch once investigated the disappearance of Marie Gesto, who went missing after leaving a Hollywood-area grocery store. At the time, Bosch had a suspect in mind, but didn’t have the evidence he needed to pursue the case. Now, years later, Raynard Waits is in custody for two other brutal murders. He’s guilty of those and is facing execution. So, he offers to trade information about other murders to the police in exchange for commuting his sentence to life in prison. One of the cases Waits includes is the Gesto case. Since Bosch originally investigated that disappearance, he works with Waits to find out the truth about that case. It haunts him that he didn’t catch the criminal when he first had the chance, and he doesn’t like the idea of someone getting away with murder.
Neither does Tito Ihaka, the Auckland police detective who features in Paul Thomas’ series. In Death on Demand, we learn that, five years earlier, Ihaka was investigating a successful business executive, Christopher Lilywhite, for the contract murder of his wife. Ihaka believed that Lilywhite was responsible, but Lilywhite is a powerful man, so he avoided prosecution. For his part, Ihaka was exiled to another, small-town, setting. Now, Lilywhite wants to talk to Ihaka. So, Ihaka is persuaded to go back to Auckland and find out what the man wants. Part of what motivates him is that he didn’t want Lilywhite to get away with murder. It turns out that Lilywhite has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and wants a conversation with Ihaka before he dies. He tells Ihaka that he did, indeed, pay to have his wife killed. What’s more, he believes that that killer is still out there, and is committing other murders. When Lilywhite dies the next day, Ihaka is sure that the timing is no accident, and goes after the killer.
And then there’s Nathan Blackwell’s The Sound of Her Voice. Auckland police detective Matt Buchanan has been on the police force for a long time – enough to have developed PTSD from some of what he’s seen. He struggles to maintain a balance in life, and he keeps on with the job. A big part of the reason for that is the case of Samantha Coates. She went missing in 1999 and was never found. The police weren’t able to get a viable suspect, either, which means to Buchanan that there’s a killer out there who’s never been caught. He wants to find out who that person is, and get some closure for the family (and, truth be told, for himself). In the meantime, other cases come up, and Buchanan works them. Then, there are some fresh leads in the Samantha Coates case. Buchanan feels he has no choice but to follow them up. He finds that they lead to very dark places, and that several of his cases may be linked.
Many people want the sense of ‘justice done’ and closure that come from catching someone who’s committed a crime. It’s not that simple, of course, but a lot of people want to feel that order has been restored. Little wonder that’s such a strong part of many crime novels.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Negative Space’s When We Collide.