In most countries, murder is one of the worst crimes a person can commit. It is a serious crime, and despite what you read in crime fiction, most people aren’t murderers. That’s why, in crime fiction, there has to be a believable motive for murder. Otherwise, readers may find it hard to believe that someone would go that far. There are, of course, motives such as greed or fear that underlie some murders. But is there ever a good reason to kill (other than defending oneself or one’s family)? To put it another way, are there cases where a person does the wrong thing (murder, for instance) for the right reasons?
In Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask, we are introduced to Margaret Langton, who works in a shop. Four years earlier, she and her then-fiancé Charles Moray broke off their engagement and went their separate ways. Now, Moray has returned to England, and visits his family home. He finds to his dismay that it’s being used as a hideout for a criminal gang led by a man called Grey Mask. What’s worse, Margaret is mixed up with the gang, though not for the reasons you might think. She’s gotten involved in some wrongdoing, but for what we might call the right reasons. When he learns the truth, Moray decides to find out the truth about Grey Mask and the gang’s plan and see if he can help Margaret to break free of their influence.
Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Show features successful banker Alistair Blunt. He’s extremely influential, so, given the current political climate, he’s also a target. One day, his dentist, Henry Morley, is shot. At first, the police think Blunt was the real target. Chief Inspector Japp, who’s investigating, finds out that Hercule Poirot was at the dentist’s office on the day of the murder, so he asks for Poirot’s assistance. While the most obvious motive seems to be political, it’s not quite as simple as that. Poirot finds out that there might be personal reasons for the murder, too. Then, there’s another murder. And a disappearance. Now, Poirot has several related cases on his hand. And in the end, although Poirot fans know he does not approve of murder, he can understand the killer’s point of view in this case. He even has some sympathy for the murderer. That doesn’t stop him pursuing the investigation, though.
In Kazuhiro Kiuchi’s Shield of Straw, we meet Takaoki Ninagawa, one of the wealthiest people in Japan. His money hasn’t protected him from tragedy, though. One day, his beloved granddaughter Chia disappears, and is later found raped and murdered. Ninagawa learns that the killer is thirty-two-year-old Kunihide Kiyomaru, who has since fled Tokyo. Rather than let the law take its course, Ninagawa places an advertisement in all of the news outlets and on social media. In it, he offers a one billion yen reward to anyone who is proven to have killed Kiyumaru. Soon enough, thousands of people have seen the advertisement and are tempted by rich reward. Kiyumaru himself learns about the advertisement and decides to turn himself in to the police, rather than be murdered for a bounty. He’ll need to be brought from Fukoka to Tokyo, alive if at all possible. For that, Special Police Kazuki Mekari of the Tokyo Municipal Police is sent to Fukoka with a team. Their job is to take custody of Kiyumaru, and keep him from being murdered before he stands trial. It’s not going to be easy, though. There are many people who would take a life for a billion yen, and that could very well include the police escort. So Mekari has his work cut out for him as the saying goes. In this case, we can argue that vigilantism is wrong, as is inciting to murder. But we can also understand Ninagawa’s despair and anger.
There’s a similar plot point in Kanae Minato’s Confessions. As the story begins, middle school teacher and single mother Yūko Moriguchi addresses her class. She tells the students that she knows two of them are responsible for the recent death of her four-year-old daughter Manami. She has no faith that the Japanese justice system will appropriately punish the killers, because they are juveniles. So, she has made her own plans. She doesn’t specify what she’s going to do, but her intention is not lost on her students. After making her speech, she dismisses the class and leaves her position. Before long, things begin to spin out of control, especially for three particular students. Eventually, their families are impacted as well, and in the end, we learn what Yūko’s plan was, and how she carries it out. That plan is, by most people’s reckoning, wrong and illegal (and other things, too – no spoilers). But we can also understand Yūko’s grief and anger, and her concern that the murders will get away with what they’ve done.
And then there’s Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, a fictional account of one of the last people to be executed for murder in Iceland. Agnes Magnúsdóttir and two other people have been convicted of killing Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson. Now, they’re waiting for their execution date. It’s believed that Agnes will be the better for spending time with an ‘upstanding’ family, so she is sent to live with District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife, Margrét, and their two daughters, Steina and Lauga. That family will benefit from her work around the house and farm, and she will benefit from the influence of a ‘good Christian family.’ As time goes by, she gets to know the family a bit, and they get to know her, and we see that this case is more complex than it seems on the surface. In the end, we can understand what motivated the murders, even as most of us agree that murder is wrong.
And that’s the thing about some killings. Most people believe that taking a life is wrong. But sometimes, the reasons for doing it make sense, and we can see that it’s the wrong thing for what might be the right reasons (or at least, understandable reasons). These are just a few examples. Over to you.
NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Prologue: Work Song.