In G.K. Chesterton’s short story The Invisible Man, Father Brown solves the murder of successful businessman Isadore Smythe. It’s a difficult case, because no-one was seen entering or leaving Smythe’s rooms anywhere near the time of the murder. Still, Father Brown finds out the truth. At the end of the story, there’s a scene in which the murderer and Father Brown have a conversation:
‘But Father Brown walked those snow-covered hills under the stars for many hours with a murderer, and what they said to each other will never be known.’
We don’t know for sure, but we can imagine that the killer explained the details about why and how the murder happened.
There are lots of other crime fiction stories in which the murderer explains the reasoning behind the murder. Sometimes it’s to clear the conscience; sometimes it’s to taunt the protagonist (if the murderer thinks, perhaps, that the protagonist is about to die). And sometimes it’s to justify the killing (‘OK, I did kill ___, but you have to understand why I did it, so you can see why I had no choice.’). Whatever the reason, those explanations need to be done carefully, so that they don’t come off as clichéd.
Agatha Christie included a number of such explanations in her books. Space doesn’t allow me to share each of them, so I’ll just focus on Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner). In that novel, Hercule Poirot and Inspector Japp (and of course, Captain Hastings!) investigate the murder of the 4th Baron Edgware. His wife, famous actress Jane Wilkinson, is the most obvious suspect, but she says that she was in another part of London at a dinner party at the time of the murder. And all of the other guests at that party are prepared to swear that she was there and that she didn’t leave early. So Poirot, Hastings, and Japp have to look elsewhere for the killer. In the end, Poirot finds out who the murderer is. The last bit of the story is a letter from the killer, explaining why and how everything happened. Interestingly enough, it’s not intended to clear a conscience or justify the killing, really. Everyone’s different, of course, but my view is that it’s almost a ‘see how clever I was’ sort of letter. It’s certainly one of the more unusual of explanations.
Donna Leon’s About Face is the story of successful Venice business executive Maurizio Cataldo and his wife, Franca Marinello. Count Orazio Falier is considering doing business with Cataldo, but not before making sure of the man’s background and trustworthiness. So, Falier asks his son-in-law, Commissario Guido Brunetti, to find out what he can, and Brunetti agrees. At the same time, he’s investigating the murder of the owner of a trucking company. As it turns out, that killing is related to Cataldo (‘though not in the way you might think) and to an earlier murder, so Brunetti has quite a lot to unravel. When he finally puts the puzzle together, he has an interesting conversation with a killer, during which we find out what was really behind everything. In this case, it’s more a case of, ‘I want you to understand this…’ than it is anything else, at least to me.
In Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, academician Joanne Kilbourn gets drawn into a web of mysteries and a murder when the body of a university colleague is found in a cheap, shoddy hotel room. His widow isn’t much help in tracing the murderer, and she is soon proven to have had nothing to do with what happened. So Kilbourn and her lover, Inspector Alex Kequahtooway, have to uncover the truth themselves. They find the killer, and there’s a scene in which the murderer explains what happened and why. In this case, the killer has temporarily trapped Kilbourn, so it’s more to taunt than to really confess, but Kilbourn manages to get free, and uses what the murderer has said.
Clearing the conscience plays an important role in a killer’s confession in Paul Thomas’ Death on Demand. Five years before the events in this novel, Christopher Lilywhite’s wife was murdered. Tito Ihaka of the Auckland Police always believed that Lilywhite hired a killer to do the job, and so, was guilty. It couldn’t really be proven, though, and Lilywhite is both rich and powerful. So Ihaka was exiled to Wairarapa. Now, Lilywhite wants to talk to Ihaka privately. Ihaka returns to Auckland, where Lilywhite tells him that he’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Then he confesses that he did, indeed, have his wife murdered, and that the killer is still out there, murdering other people. That information helps Ihaka to solve several seemingly unrelated murder cases.
There’s also Peter Swanson’s Rules for Perfect Murders (AKA Eight Perfect Murders). In that novel, we meet Malcolm Kershaw, the owner of the Old Devils Bookshop. The FBI, in the form of Special Agent Gwen Mulvey, becomes interested in Kershaw when a series of murders begins to eerily resemble the murders in a list of books Kershaw posted as ‘Eight Perfect Murders’ on the bookshop’s blog. It’s believed that someone is trying to impress Kershaw, or in some way draw him in, by committing these murders. Soon enough, Kershaw is working unofficially with Mulvey to find out who is emulating these fictional murders. In the end, we find out the truth. And it’s interesting to see how the killer reveals what happened and why. I can say without spoiling the story that it makes for interesting psychology.
You would think that, if people committed a murder, they’d keep quiet about it. But in many cases, both real and fictional, they don’t. There are all sorts of reasons that murderers confess, and it’s really interesting to see how it happens in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Pilate’s Dream.
12 thoughts on “I Asked Him to Say What Had Happened*”
It does have to be handled carefully or it can seem like a bit of a cheat – the author unable to find a way for the detective to prove his/her case. But as your examples show, when it’s well done it can give interesting insights into the psychology of the crime.
That’s exactly what I was thinking, FictionFan – it does feel like a bit of a cheat if it’s not well managed. I’ve read a few books where the detective admits needing a confession (because there’s no other proof), but in general, I think a confession’s more effective if it’s not used that way. And, yes, it can give an interesting insight into psychology, and what leads to a crime.
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I loved your confession examples. Some criminals need to confess, to defend their reasoning behind murder. And some want to brag! But done well it’s seamless and I don’t notice.
Thank you, Gwen – I’m very glad you enjoyed the post. You make a well-taken point about the need to justify one’s reasons for killing (e.g. ‘I had no choice,’ or ‘There was nothing else I could do…’). Of course, there are those who want to brag, too, as you say. Whatever the reasoning might be, if the author weaves it into the story effectively, it can work well.
Margot: You have provided fine examples. I thought of The Suspect by L.R. Wright. On the opening page 80 year old George Wilcox has just killed his 85 year old neighbour. He sits down on the deceased’s couch and reflects on what he has done. I was captured.
I was, too, Bill. You know, I hadn’t thought about that reflection as a confession so much, but you have a well-taken point. Wilcox lets the reader know what he’s done, and in a sense, that really is a confession. And that is an excellent novel – folks, if you haven’t read it, I recommend it. And thanks for the kind words.
Very true, Margot. It must be done with finesse, so it doesn’t come off sounding like the author is simply tying up loose ends in a nice, little bow. A few times I’ve killed the murderer before the protagonist had all the answers. It made me work harder. Highly recommend it. A challenge is always a good thing. 🙂
Yes, it is, Sue! 🙂 And I do like the idea of idea of the protagonist not always getting all of the answers. That’s the way real life is, and it can be really effective to reflect that in what we write. In fact, I think it’s just because ambiguity is part of life that it can seem too contrived if a explanation is laid out, if that makes sense.
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It’s a tightrope isn’t it! As crime fiction fans, we need that explanation or moment, even if it is not a very likely outcome in real life. It is up to the writer to make it convincing. Particularly in cases where the criminal has gone to enormous lengths to cover up, including further murders, then just needs one well-timed question to say ‘let me explain’….
You’re absolutely right, Moira; it’s all about credibility. We as readers want to understand what motivated the killer – what the explanation is. But it does have to be believable. Why would someone who’s taken great pains to hide the crime suddenly offer a full explanation? It’s definitely something the writer has to work out carefully and get right.
Thanks for the reminder of Paul Thomas and the Ihaka books, another author and series I need to get back to.
It’s a good series, in my opinion, Col. And I really like Ihaka as a character. I know what you mean, too, about series you would like to get back to reading. There are so many series I enjoy, and want to return to reading…and just don’t.