In a lot of murder cases (both real and fictional), it’s very clear that the victim was murdered. But that’s not always true. And it does make a difference whether a death is a case of murder or suicide. For one thing, if it really was a suicide, the police and forensics experts establish that fact, and many times, no-one is prosecuted. Matters are quite different of course, in a case of murder. Plenty of crime stories hinge on the question of whether a death was murder or suicide, just because of those differences.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s novella Murder in the Mews, Chief Inspector Japp asks for Hercule Poirot’s input on the death of Barbara Allen. Her roommate, Jane Plenderleith, found her dead, apparently of a suicide. But a few details suggest that it might have been a murder. And if it was, there are suspects. For one thing, it turns out that the victim was being blackmailed. For another, she was engaged to be married. There could be all sorts of reasons for trouble between a couple. And there’s her roommate. The two seemed to have a good relationship, but with roommates, who knows? In the end, Poirot finds out what really happened to the victim, and it’s an interesting look at the murder/suicide question.
Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor series begins with The Guards. In it, former Garda Jack Taylor has set up a private investigation service in Galway. His ‘office’ is the local pub, and he’s hoping that word of mouth will build up his business. One day, he gets a visit from Ann Henderson, who wants Taylor to find out the truth about the death of her daughter, Sarah. It seems that Sarah recently died of what the police are calling suicide. There’s evidence, too, to support that claim. But Ann doesn’t believe her daughter would have taken her own life. Taylor takes the case and begins to ask some questions. It’s not going to be easy. For one thing, Taylor didn’t leave the Garda on exactly good terms, so there aren’t many who’ll help him. For another, Sarah’s death may be related to the deaths of some other young girls, and this case has the potential to reach some very high places. Still, Taylor keeps on with the case, and, in the end, he finds out what happened to Sarah.
Laura Joh Rowland’s Shinjū takes place in 1687, in what is now Tokyo. Sano Ichirō is a yoriki, a senior investigator and police officer. He gets assigned to investigate the deaths of two people whose bodies were found in the Sumida River. One is Niu Yukiko, a ‘well born’ young woman. The other is an artist named Noriyoshi. There’s a note found with the bodies that indicates that this is a Shinjū, a double suicide. That’s not uncommon in a situation like this, where two people from very different social groups fall in love, knowing that they can never be together. In fact, that’s the official line that Sano is expected to take. The Niu family in particular is wealthy and powerful, and Sano’s boss has no desire to see them upset; he wants this handled quietly and quickly. Sano begins asking some questions and soon comes to the conclusion that these deaths were not suicide. With what he’s discovered, Sano knows that he can’t leave this case as is, and just call it suicide, so he pursues the truth. It’s going to be a difficult journey, because there’s pressure from the Niu family as well as Sano’s superiors to stop looking into the matter. And that’s not to mention that it soon becomes clear that someone is willing to kill rather than have the truth come out…
Modern Tokyo is the setting for Keigo Higashino’s Salvation of a Saint. In it, successful business executive Yoshitaka Mashabi dies, apparently of arsenous poisoning. Detective Kusanagi is assigned to the case, along with Junior Detective Kishitani and Junior Detective Kaoru Utsumi. At the time, Yoshitaka’s wife, Ayane Mita, is out of town, so it doesn’t seem possible that she killed her husband. And there’s no good evidence that anyone else was there. So, one very likely possibility is that this is a case of suicide. If so, it’ll be written off as a tragedy, but not a murder investigation. Soon, though, evidence begins to suggest that this could, in fact, be murder. The question then is: how and why did the killer commit the crime? No-one else was in the house, and there really aren’t obvious motives. It’s a challenging case, and for help, the team turns to Tokyo physics professor Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa. His expertise helps the team work out what really happened to Yoshitaka Mashabi.
And then there’s Michael Connelly’s The Drop. LAPD cop Harry Bosch is now in the Open-Unsolved Cases department, where he and his police partner, David Chu, work on two cases. One of them is the death of George Irving, the son of Bosch’s nemesis, Irvin Irving. It seems that the victim took a room in an upmarket hotel and jumped from the balcony in a case of suicide. All of the evidence seems to show that that’s what happened. But Irving wants the case thoroughly investigated, and he wants Bosch to do the work. He and Bosch have a longstanding acrimonious relationship, but he knows that Bosch is a good cop who will find out the truth. Bosch and Chu look into the case, and they do find some evidence that this might be a murder. At the same time, the evidence is not conclusive. So the two detectives pursue the case, and the question of whether this was a suicide or a murder forms an important part of the plot.
There are deaths that look as though they are suicide (but may not be). It’s an important fact to establish, too, as the two manners of death have very different implications. And it’s always interesting to see how crime writers explore that question. Which examples have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kara Clark and David Walker’s Murder or Suicide.