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Here is the basic problem with the murder mystery.

Unless you have a police procedural, where the crime is fairly obvious and the perpetrator is hidden only because you’ve going to have to pick him out of a sea of anonymous faces, then the perpetator must be doing something to deliberately complicated the detection of the crime and of his relationship to it.

That was a very long sentence.

Here’s the thing.  In real life, murderers do indeed attempt to cover their tracks, but they rarely do it by erecting an elaborate scheme that covers several days or weeks and involves much of anything more complicated than an attempt at an alibi.

And most of the time, they don’t even do that. 

It’s not just that people usually kill on the spur of the moment, although they do.  Even those murderers who plan their murders tend not to do so by constructing whole plotline and narrative arcs.  They rearrange a few things.  They leave an extra voice mail message somewhere.  They buy their poison three states over so they hope, even in the day of the Internet, not to get found out doing it. 

What they don’t do is to commit two other murders, each of people with alliterative names (Anna Arkin, Betty Brown) and leave an ABC train schedule pamphlet on each one, so that by the time they get around to the real murder, of Charlie Chesterton, the police will think it’s just the third in a serial murder case. 

That’s a real plot,by the way, from somebody else’s book, and if you don’t know it I’m not going to tell you.   But I could come up with a dozen more, mostly from what we now call the “golden age” of detective novels.

Back then, though, neither the writers nor the readers thought it necessary for the book to justify the elaborate murder scheme.  Elaborate murder schemes were taken for granted.  Of course our middle class adventurer would send a letter to the family of the woman whose money he hopes to marry, pretending to be from their long lost sister in law, then kill the wife who won’t give him a divorce by strangling her and throwing her body off a train onto the property of that self same family, which he wants to do because he goes there often and will have a chance to hide the corpse.

That was a very, very long sentence, but you get my point. 

It’s not that readers mind elaborate murder plots of that kind.   If they did, Agatha Christie wouldn’t still have most of her work in print.  The problem is that these days, readers want to know why the murderer has gone through all that trouble.

There is always the basic reason, which is that the murderer is hoping to escape detection.  He doesn’t want to be suspected, and he certainly doesn’t want to be arrested and convicted. 

Realistically, though, most murderers know they will be suspected.  People almost always murder people they’re close to, or have something to gain from.  The police also tend to suspect the husband or the wife or the boyfriend or the girlfriend or the immediate family first.   Once the police suspect, they tend to have less trouble than you’d think finding.

Someone who is going to construct an elaborate scheme in a murder has to have a good reason for going about his project in a complicated way.  And there are such reasons.  In some cases, the prospective murderer is so screamingly the obvious suspect, and there are so few other people on whom the crime can be pinned, that extra care will have to be taken if he isn’t to be carted off to jail within half an hour after the body is found.

In other cases, even mere suspicion can cause trouble–with career, with family, with the insurance money.  Insurance companies don’t have to prove that  you killed your wife in order to deny you the benefit on her policy.  They’re happy to have you sue them for it if you think you can get away with it without ending up in jail.

In most cases, I think the real “reason” for such elaborate plots–and certainly the reason for them when they occur in real life–has more to do with the personality of the murderer than it does with the requirements of getting away with the murder.

I keep being struck by how much crime is simple.  And I mean high-level crime here, not your average street mugging.  If there’s anything to be taken away from the Bernie Madoff books I was reading, for instance, it’s that Bernie was not a genius.  He didn’t construct some elaborate financial fraud.  He just ran a garden variety Ponzi scheme that grew like Topsy. 

The same is true of the case of Frederick and Rosemary West, who were the big news in England as we left to come home to the States in 1994.  The Wests had a house in Gloucester.  Fred  West was known to do a lot of home improvements, especially in his basement.  For twenty years–note the time period;  twenty years–the two of them would kidnap girls waiting for the bus on the corner of their block, rape and murder them while taping the whole thing, and then bury the bodies in the basement under a ton of cement “improvements.”

In both cases, the crimes were simple and easy to see if you were looking, it’s just that very few people were looking.  A couple of dozen girls went missing from that bus stop over the course of two decades, and as far as I can tell, the Gloucester constabulary didn’t have a clue.  Analyst after analyst tried to point out that Bernie Madoff was committing some kind of fraud–and I’m not talking about company whistleblowers; I’m talking about guys in the regulatory agencies and the stock analyst companies–and they might as well have been talking to their cats.

In a detective story, though, the writer cannot be that obvious.  If she is, her readers are disgusted with her, and she gets forty e-mails a day complaining that it was simple to figure it all out in the third chapter. 

Which leaves us with the elaborate knots, which need to be unravelled, like the Gordian knot.

Of course, the only person who ever was supposed to have untied the Gordian know was Alexander the Great–and he did it by hacking it in half with his sword.

Written by janeh

January 10th, 2010 at 6:04 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Clues'

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  1. I like a nicely convoluted plot, so I’m definitely in the category of people who treat mystery novels like puzzles. I still almost never leave a book unfinished, and the most recent one I did leave unfinished got sent back prematurely to the library because the author was going on and on about the romantic problems of a couple of friends of the couple I think were the protagonists until I got bored and impatient. I rarely read ‘pure’ romance novels any more, and have little interest in the trials of a newly recovered alcoholic having his first ‘serious’ romance…and anyway, from the blurb I was expecting a mystery.

    To a certain extent, mystery can be added through point of view. A lot of girls and young women go missing. There might well be no reason for the neighbours, much less the police, to be suspicious about the area around a particular bus stop unless they knew people were murdered there. Which they didn’t – no bodies, and a lot of girls who might or might not have been at that bus stop and who might or might not be dead. Actually, I think Fred didn’t limit his killing to girls at the bus stop, but I think the point remains that patterns that are obvious in retrospect probably aren’t at the time. Lots of men (from what I hear) invite or hire a couple of prostitutes to a party. One of them murdered some of them and fed them to his pigs, but until that was discovered, he was just another loser who liked socializing with prostitutes and other street women.

    Most crimes, though, don’t have enough possible solutions to provide the necessary red herrings for an entire book. You’re right about that.


    11 Jan 10 at 12:59 pm

  2. Yes, it’s true. Your average murder is a LOT less complicated even than a Rex Stout novella. It’s also true that your average courtship doesn’t look much like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, and relatively few historical battles and adventures reach a good level of tragedy or melodrama.

    Of course, there are exceptions. John Dickson Carr was once provoked enough to have Dr Gideon Fell list several quite historical locked room mysteries, the romance of Valentine and Florence Baker couldn’t be sold as a Thea Devine, and Thermopolae and Waterloo are only acceptable because they actually happened. (The Battle of Barnet may not be acceptable even though it did happen–much too improbable.)

    But if my primary concern as a reader was that the story fit the statistical norm, I wouldn’t even read true crime, which tends to be selective, and go straight to some sort of statistical abstract.

    So why don’t we? Logically, because one reads fiction for other reasons than its close resemblance to newspaper reporting. I might be seeking drama, romance or even an intellectual challenge in a purer form than these normally exist in real life. Even “non-fiction” writers leave things out, and sometimes merge minor characters. Does anyone remember “thirtysomething?” “Like life, but with better writers?” The fiction writer tells the story, and makes sense of it as well.

    So where does reality set in?

    First, in plausibility: the “willing suspension of disbelief” or “true, even if it didn’t happen” requires that people act in ways we find comprehensible and consistent under the specified circumstances, and that we can imagine the circumstances. “People seldom do that” is not a valid objection to novelistic behavior. “Pay McKenna wouldn’t do that” is.

    Second, in inner truth. The story of the Gordian Knot comes to us two ways: in both, the knot is in a rope securing a cart or chariot to a tree. In one, he who is to be the ruler of Asia must untie the knot, and Alexander cheated. I prefer the other, in which it was said that he who is to rule Asia must ride away in the chariot. Others concentrated on the knot. Alexander understood the broader problem.

    And like Alexander, the good detective fiction writer makes the important point or points, not getting bogged down in a phantom statistical norm, but providing a clear intellectual puzzle–or writing on greed, grief, envy or vengeance. A REALLY great writer does both. Forget statistics, and remember Nero Wolfe: “Once the truth is known, the facts are easy to establish.”


    11 Jan 10 at 6:40 pm

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