Plenty of fictional murders are what you might call personal. That is, the victim is killed because she or he is specifically targeted. For instance, a blackmailer is killed by the person being blackmailed. Or a person is killed for insurance money, or because that person knows too much about something. Or there’s a ‘revenge’ murder.
There are some fictional killings, though, there aren’t personal. Oh, and before I go on, I’m not talking of serial killers or paid assassins here. Rather, I’m talking about murders that lead to some other goal. To use an idiom, these murders are the ‘broken eggs’ that lead to the omelette. It’s a bit tricky to write a murder like this; after all, taking a life is a drastic thing to do, and it’s not credible to think someone would commit a murder without a strong, probably personal motive. But it can work when it’s done well.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), a group of people attend a cocktail party at the home of famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. During the party, one of the guests, Reverend Stephen Babbington, suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be nicotine poisoning. Hercule Poirot is also at the party, and he investigates. There seems to be no motive for the murder, as Babbington wasn’t rich and hadn’t made any enemies. Then, there’s another, similar murder at a cocktail party at the home of Dr. Bartholomew Strange. Later, one of Strange’s patients dies, also of nicotine poisoning. As Poirot discovers, the three murders are linked, and here’s what the murderer says about it:
‘I regret their deaths, but it was necessary!’
To that person, the killings being referred to are incidental – a means to an end, if I can put it that way. I know, fans of The ABC Murders.
We also see that a bit in Colin Dexter’s Death is Now My Neighbour. In the novel, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the murder of physiotherapist Rachel James, who is shot through her kitchen window one morning. There’s no obvious motive for the murder, so it’s difficult to follow the trail. Then there’s another murder in a home not far from where Rachel James lived. It might be that someone is stalking those particular streets, but that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening. As they look into the case, Morse and Lewis find that Rachel James’ death wasn’t personal. It wasn’t a case of hate, or jealousy, or revenge, or… And that makes her killing harder to solve.
Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men is in part the story of the murder of wealthy Rowland Sinclair. When he is killed one night, Inspector Biquet takes the case. As you’d imagine, he’s very much interested in the whereabouts of Sinclair’s family members at the time of the murder. But Sinclair’s nephews Wilfred and Rowland ‘Rowly’ are soon proven to be innocent. Suspicion then falls on the housekeeper, Mrs. Donnelly. She claims to be innocent, but some of what she says suggests that the victim might have been targeted by a far-right group. So, Rowly decides to try to clear Mrs. Donnelly’s name and find out whether this group is responsible. He infiltrates the group to learn what he can. That’s a dangerous undertaking, as this group will not exactly be understanding if they find out he’s not a real member. What’s more, there are some leftist groups who will not stop at murder if they think he’s joined a reactionary group. And this novel takes place in 1932, a time of real political strife. Rowly takes these risks though, and finds out that his uncle’s death was not a personal sort of murder.
William Ryan’s The Twelfth Department is the third in his historical (late 1930s) series featuring Captain Alexei Korolev of the Moscow CID. In the novel, Korolev and his assistant Nadezhda Slivka are assigned to investigate the murder of noted scientist Boris Azarov. This case has to be handled very delicately, as Azarov’s work was considered top secret. But Korolev and Slivka get to work. Then there’s another murder, this time of someone the police considered a suspect. Now, Korolev and Slivka have to go back to the beginning to find out what’s behind these deaths. They find that this isn’t a case of personal murders. Those deaths are part of something larger, if I can put it that way.
And then there’s Mark Billingham Their Little Secret. One of the main characters in the novel is Conrad Simpkin, who’s made a career out of preying on women who have enough money to interest him, and who are foolish enough to let him borrow/’invest’/use their money. He’s a very skilled manipulator. He doesn’t target one or another woman for personal reasons; to him, they are marks – a means to an end. His victims don’t see it that way, though. In fact, one of them, Philippa Goodwin, commits suicide. That’s when DI Tom Thorne and DI Nicola Tanner get involved. Thorne blames Conrad for this death, and wants to go after him. But soon enough, he finds that this same man may be mixed up in two other murders. Among other things, the novel shows what it’s like when deaths are seen as necessary, but not personal.
There are other plenty of other novels where ‘impersonal’ murders happen. It’s not easy to make such a plot credible, but when it’s done well, it’s an interesting plot point. These are just a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from David Barrett and Bill Clift’s The Omelette Song.
10 thoughts on “Oh, You’ve Got to Break an Egg to Make an Omelette*”
I always feel this type of murder is crueller, and they often don’t work as well for me since I’m a fan of murder victims being unpleasant people so I don’t have to feel too sorry for them. But when it’s handled well, it can definitely add something, and also make the crime more difficult to solve.
I’m so excited to see you get white eggs! Are they hen’s eggs? We used to get white ones over here with just an occasional accidental brown one, so everyone used to always treat the brown ones as special though they tasted exactly the same. So the chicken farmers started feeding their hens with something – corn, maybe – that makes all their eggs brown and now they’re not special at all, and I haven’t seen a white egg in years! Haha, sorry for the digression… 😀
No need for apologies, FictionFan. 🙂 I’ve always thought it interesting that people treat white eggs and brown eggs as though they taste different. For me, they don’t. But there you go; when something isn’t easily available, people think it’s exclusive or special, or something. Anyway, these are, indeed, hen’s eggs, by the way.
You make an interesting point about the sort of murder that an impersonal murder is. I can see how you think it feels crueler. If someone murders the evil, miserly, rich relation, there’s a sense of ‘s/he had it coming anyway.’ We don’t feel as invested in that character. If the victim is the unwitting pawn in a game of some sort, or murdered accidentally, etc., we feel much worse about it all. Or at least I do.
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I love how you find little nuggets of gold in crime fiction, Margot. And I agree. This type of murder would be trickier to pull off. Cozies aren’t my preferred genre, but plenty of readers love them. I’m reminded of the old Lifetime series, Mystery Woman. Do you remember that show?
I do remember that series, Sue! Thanks for the reminder of it. And thanks for the kind words. You’re right, I think, that it’s a bit difficult to pull off the sort of murder we’re talking about here.It means being really careful with the motive and showing the characters’ complexities – not always easy to do.
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Yes those casual deaths – a distraction or a death – are always quite discomforting for the reader aren’t they? At least if you are going to get murdered it should be for a good, personal reason!
Sorry, that should say ‘a distraction or a mistake’
No worries – I knew what you meant, Moira.
I like the way you put that, Moira! It can be hard for the reader when the murder isn’t for a personal reason. Perhaps it’s because it’s harder to accept that it’s happened?
I like this trope and think I prefer it to planned murders when x kills y because of z. I like crime fiction that focuses on criminals or outlaws, heists, robberies, general criminality and very often there are “accidental” deaths or fallout/collateral damage in the pursuit of the prize if you like. That works well for me, though very often the victim can be given lesser attention.
That’s an interesting point, Col. This particular setup really can work well if the main characters are outside the law in some way. It somehow fits that sort of premise better, if that makes any sense. You’re right about the victim, too, although if the story is well written, somehow that can work, too.