Most of us would probably say that we dislike violence, that we think corruption is wrong, and that we abhor crimes like human trafficking. And the vast majority of us do feel that way. And yet, those are the stories that often get a great deal of notice in the news. Salacious details and lurid headlines can sell papers, in the same way we know how horrible car crashes can be, but we can’t look away. That may be why stories about serial killers get so much attention, both in real life and in crime fiction, even though true serial killers are not that common. It may be why people can’t get enough of stories about high-level corruption, even though we know it’s wrong.
That ghoulish interest is certainly a part of people’s real-life reaction to crime (e.g. crowds gathering at a house where bodies are being removed). And we see it in crime fiction, too. For instance, in Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger, we meet retired domestics Ellen and Robert Bunting. Circumstances have forced them to open their home to lodgers, but Ellen is particular about the sort of person she wants as a paying guest. Once day, a man calling himself Mr. Sleuth comes to the house to ask about a room. He’s well-dressed and well-spoken, and he seems more than able to pay the rent. The Bunters offer him the room, and things go well enough at first. In the meantime, a killer who calls himself the Avenger has been murdering young women, and people are both horrified and fascinated by the details. It’s all over the papers, and groups of onlookers visit every crime scene. Over time, Ellen comes to believe that their quiet lodger may be the Avenger. Now she has to decide whether to report her suspicions (and lose the income) or say nothing (and possible leave a murderer free). Throughout the novel, Lowndes shows how people can be both repelled and fascinated by a sensational crime.
That’s also true in Martin Edwards’ Dancing For the Hangman, a fictional retelling of the case of Hawley Harvey Crippen. In 1910, Crippen was executed for the murder of his wife Cora. The prosecution claimed that Crippen had fallen in love with another woman, Ethel Le Neve, and killed his wife so that he and Ethel could be together. Edwards tells the story from Crippen’s point of view, and offers an interesting perspective on what might have happened. From the time of the discovery of Cora Crippen’s body to the time of Crippen’s execution (and since then, too, actually), the details of the case have captured people’s interest. Millions followed the story as it was reported in the papers, and crowds gathered at the prison. People were horrified by what Crippen was alleged to have done, but at the same time, took in every detail they could.
Agatha Christie included this phenomenon in several of her stories. In The ABC Murders, for instance, Hercule Poirot works with the police to solve a series of murders. The only things the murders seem to have in common are that Poirot receives a warning note before each one, and that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. The case becomes a sensation, since there are multiple murders, and reporters and the public can’t get enough of it. In some ways that’s a real hindrance to the investigation, as you can imagine. There are all sorts of ‘sightings’ of the killer, and the police have to follow up on all of them. On the other hand, publicity does keep the case in people’s minds, which encourages anyone who saw something relevant to come forward.
In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Queen is staying in a guest house belonging to John F. and Hermione ‘Hermy’ Wright, the social leaders of the small town of Wrightsville. So he’s on hand to witness some family drama when the Wrights’ daughter Nora reunites with her former fiancé Jim Haight. At one point, Haight’s sister Rosemary comes for an extended visit. When she is poisoned at a New Year’s Eve party, the police begin an investigation. Before long, it’s believed that the real target was Nora. Evidence suggests that Haight might be the killer, but Queen and Nora’s sister, Pat, aren’t sure. So they start looking for answers. Haight is duly arrested and brought to trial, and the case becomes the proverbial talk of the town. There’s strong feeling against Haight, and plenty of people would like to see him found guilty. Newspapers are full of the story, and of course there are plenty of hangers-on at the trial. It makes Queen’s work all the more difficult, and certainly makes life miserable for Jim Haight.
And then there’s Wendy James’ The Mistake. Jodie Evans Garrow has what looks like the perfect life. She’s smart, attractive, and has friends. Her husband is a successful attorney who’s being talked about as the next mayor of their small town near Sydney. She has two healthy children, and all seems to be going well. Then, her daughter is injured in an accident and is rushed to a Sydney hospital. As it happens, it’s the same hospital where, years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another daughter – one she’s never even mentioned to her husband. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie, and asks about the child. Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but the over-curious nurse can find no formal records. At first in whispers, and then quite publicly, questions start to be asked. What happened to the baby? If she is alive, where is she? If she isn’t, did Jodie have something to do with it? The story becomes big news, and everyone seems to be following it, online, in the papers, and on television. On the one hand, there’s outrage, and Jodie becomes a social pariah. On the other, people are eerily fascinated. In fact, Jodie is invited to a book club discussion where the members hope she’ll talk about what it’s like to be suspected of killing your child. That macabre interest makes Jodie’s life miserable as she and her family try to cope with what’s happened.
There are a lot of other crime novels, too, where people gawk, gossip, and speculate about a sensational story at the same time as they are appalled. It’s a strange aspect of human nature, and it can add suspense to a story. Which examples have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs’ Summer Nights.