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.