Any good detective knows that, when it comes to murder, no-one is above suspicion. And yet, sometimes, people are reluctant to believe that members of certain groups would commit a crime like murder. For some people, it’s social class (‘Oh surely not him! He’s a gentleman!’). For others, it’s profession (‘It couldn’t be her! She’s a minister!’). For other people, it’s other factors. Those prejudices can make it hard for the police to investigate, although savvy crime fiction fans know that anyone might commit murder.
In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot is on the famous Orient Express train, returning to London after working on a case. On the second night of the journey, fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is murdered. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on the same coach, so the list of suspects is finite. Two of them are Count Rudolph Andrenyi, a Hungarian diplomat, and his wife, Elena. M. Bouc, a friend of Poirot’s, and a director of the train company, is very reluctant to trouble the Andrenyis. They have diplomatic passports, so they can, conceivably, decline to have their bags searched. What’s more, Bouc doesn’t want to cause ‘trouble’ by imposing on important people (he feels the same way about Princess Dragomiroff, another suspect). But Poirot convinces Bouc to let him go ahead with the searches and questioning. It’s an interesting example of how ‘importance’ can protect a suspect.
Anne Perry’s The Face of a Stranger is the first of her William Monk series. The novels are set in Victorian times, and Monk is a police detective. In this novel, he wakes up in a hospital, with no memory of who he is or how he got there. As Monk slowly improves, he starts to take up his duties again. He’s asked to investigate the murder of a ‘blueblood,’ Joscelin Grey, who was killed in his own home. The popular theory is that it was a burglary gone wrong, but the police haven’t caught the person responsible. There’s a lot of pressure, too, because the Grey family is of very high social standing, and quite powerful. And therein lies a problem. Part of Monk’s duty as a police detective is to interview the family members. But the Greys, particularly the family matriarch, are dead set against the police ‘harassing’ them. After all, no-one of that social standing, from a family like the Greys, would do something so sordid as killing someone! There are other leads, too, though, and gradually, Monk and his assistant, John Evans, find out the truth about the murder.
Social class also protects suspects in Kalpana Swaminthan’s Greenlight. In that novel, the Mumbai slum of Kandewadi is rocked when children begin to disappear and are later found dead. At first, not a lot of attention is paid to the case, because, after all, it’s ‘just slum kids.’ But finally, there’s enough media attention on the case that the police are pressured to make an arrest. Inspector Savio is put in charge of the investigation, and he turns to his mentor, former Mumbai police detective Lalli, for help. Lalli gets to know the people involved in the case, and little by little, she and her niece, Sita, work with Savio to find out the truth. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that the case runs into obstacles more than once because wealth and high social status insulate some characters.
Above Suspicion is Lynda La Plante’s first novel featuring Anna Travis. She’s recently been promoted to Detective Sergeant, and has joined the Murder Squad at Queen’s Park, London. Very soon, she’s involved in investigating the death of seventeen-year-old Melissa Stephens. In some ways, this murder resembles the murders of six other women who died in similar circumstances. But there are enough differences that it might be a different killer. The evidence points to Alan Daniels, and that presents a major challenge. He is a beloved TV actor who’s set to make a name for himself in films, too. He’s wealthy, too, and that’s a hurdle of its own. And it is possible that he is innocent, so the team cannot assume otherwise. As the novel goes on, the Murder Squad puts the pieces together and finds out the truth. And we see how challenging it can be to investigate a person who’s ‘insulated.’
Vaseem Kahn’s The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star gives the reader a look at the world of Bollywood wealth and privilege. Former police inspector Ashwin Chopra now runs the Baby Ganesha private investigation agency. He also serves as caretaker for a baby elephant, Ganesha, that he inherited. One day, he gets a visit from famous Bollywood star Bijli Verma. She is upset and worried that her son, Vikram, who is also a famous star, has disappeared. Convinced that something has happened to him, she hires Chopra to find out what happened to her son. Chopra agrees, and soon finds himself interviewing some of Bollywood’s famous luminaries. He has to be careful, because some of these people are powerful and may not take kindly to being involved in a case like this. What’s more, Chopra is not with the police any longer, so no-one is compelled to talk to him. He perseveres, though, and gradually finds out what happened to Vikram Verma. And, yes, Ganesha the elephant figures in the plot.
Factors such as wealth, social standing, fame, etc., can sometimes seem to insulate people from being suspected of crime. But as any crime fiction fan knows, anyone can commit a crime. So the wise sleuth never eliminates a suspect out of hand…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Everybody Loves You Now.