As part of my 'Five' series, today's blog post examines some of the devious ways fictional murderers endeavour to conceal their crimes. Warning - by its nature, this post contains plot spoilers. If you're OK with that, then read on...
1. Apparent lack of motive
One way to escape detection as a murderer is to have no apparent motive. A great example is portrayed in Patricia Highsmith's 1950 thriller 'Strangers on a Train'.
Architect Guy Haines is in love and wants to marry. There's just one catch - he already has a wife. What's more, she's unfaithful. On a train journey, Guy meet Charles Bruno, a psychopath keen to kill his father. They get chatting and Bruno proposes an ingenious solution to their issues - an exchange of murders. Bruno will kill Guy's errant wife if Guy returns the favour and murders Bruno's father.
Bruno is convinced this will work because neither of them will have a motive for the murder they commit, meaning that the police will have no reason to suspect either of them. Guy's mistake is that he doesn't take Bruno seriously. However, Bruno kills Guy's wife while Guy is away in Mexico, and then informs Guy of his crime. Although shocked, Guy hesitates to turn Bruno in to the police. The longer he remains silent, though, the more he implicates himself. In the coming months, Bruno makes increasing demands to pressurise Guy into fulfilling his part of the bargain. After Bruno starts writing anonymous letters to Guy's friends and colleagues, the pressure becomes too great, and Guy murders Bruno's father.
What an ingenious idea! Of course, Bruno's plan begins to unravel once a private detective establishes a connection between Bruno and Guy - but otherwise it might have worked...
2. An unshakeable alibi
Many novels exploit the idea of an unbreakable alibi, one firmly placing the culprit elsewhere when the murder was committed. An obvious way to do this is to make the time of death appear different from what it really was. Even skilled medical examiners can’t always pinpoint the time of death exactly, after all. Let's look at Agatha Christie’s 'Evil Under the Sun' (1982).
Arlena Marshall, a famous and beautiful actress, is strangled while she, her husband Kenneth and her stepdaughter Linda are at the Jolly Roger seaside hotel. At first, it appears that no-one staying at the resort could have been responsible, but in fact the murderers have manipulated time so it provides a solid alibi for them. Until Hercule Poirot steps in to investigate...
How did they do this? Easy. One of Arlena's murderers set Linda's watch 20 minutes forward. Then she asked Linda to check the time, thus giving the guilty pair an alibi for the supposed time of the murder. Later, the same person adjusted the watch back. Simple yet clever, don't you think?
3. Death by natural causes
If you're a fictional character about to commit murder, what better way to conceal your crime than making it appear a natural death? No murder investigation, a quick burial... it has its advantages.
One of the best-known examples is Arthur Conan Doyle's 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' (1902). When Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead on the wild moorland near his home, the cause of death is pronounced a heart attack. The elderly man suffered from a weak heart and blame is placed on a family curse after the footprints of a giant hound are reportedly near the body. According to legend, a spectral hound from hell patrols the moors, ready to bring death to the men of the Baskerville family following an ancestral pact with the Devil. Can Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson protect Sir Charles's heir from meeting a similar fate?
Sir Charles's death is, of course, no accident, but murder made to look like a heart attack. Sir Charles was known to be frightened by the curse, elderly and with heart problems, something his killer used to his advantage. The murderer reckoned without Sherlock Holmes's legendary powers of deduction, though! The plot is contrived, sure, but the descriptions of the bleak moors are so incredibly atmospheric and the narrative so creepy that somehow the reader overlooks the unlikelihood of the novel's events.
4. Making murder appear an accident
Following on from the above, another popular fictional murder method involves faking an accident. I recently read Peter Høeg’s 'Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow' (1993), which demonstrates this kind of murder.
In the novel, a young boy, Isaiah Christiansen, falls to his death from the roof of the Copenhagen apartment building where he lives. Isaiah had captivated the heart of the normally rude and surly Greenlander Smilla Jasperson; he seemed the only person capable of penetrating the hard exterior she presents to the world. Distressed by his death, Smilla is drawn to the scene of the accident. When she gets there, she finds clues in the snow that lead her to believe that the boy’s death was not accidental. Thanks to her Greenland upbringing, Smilla is an expert in all matters snow and ice-related, knowledge that she brings to bear as she begins to ask questions. Before long, Smilla discovers that some dangerous people are determined to hide the truth. Her search for answers leads her back to her homeland, where she uncovers the connection between Isaiah’s death and some long-hidden secrets.
5. Making murder look like suicide
A notable example of this murder method occurs in the 2013 novel by Robert Galbraith, 'The Cuckoo's Calling'. (Robert Galbraith is the pen name of J K Rowling, famous for the Harry Potter series of novels). In the book, Cormoran Strike, a private investigator with more than a few issues of his own, is hired by John Bristow, the adopted brother of famous supermodel Lula Landry, otherwise known as 'Cuckoo'. Lula's death is the result of falling five stories from the balcony of her Mayfair apartment building and has already been ruled a suicide. John Bristow, however, suspects otherwise.
Strike is initially reluctant to take on the case, having read extensive media coverage of it. At first he's unwilling to reopen such a thoroughly investigated case. As he talks to those close to Lulu, including her security guard, personal driver, uncle, friends and designer, doubts emerge in his mind. Gradually Strike comes to realise that the circumstances of her death are more ambiguous than he imagined. Who wanted her dead, and did her personal fortune of ten million dollars provide a motive?
What fictional murder methods appeal most to you?
What kind of dastardly demises do you prefer in the novels you read? Do you like ones that are simple and perhaps more realistic, such as faking an accident or suicide, or do more complex killings float your boat? Perhaps something along the lines of the classic 'locked room' sub-genre of crime fiction, in which the murder seems impossible and has usually resulted from a contrived yet ingenious set of circumstances. Leave a comment and let me know!