When the police investigate a crime, they usually try to focus their attention on a few suspects – people most likely to have committed the crime. One of the ‘red flags’ the police look for is a criminal record: does a suspect have a history of breaking the law? If so, that person is even more suspicious. But does having committed a crime in the pastmean that a person is guilty of crime again? Sometimes, yes, it does. A burglar who has committed a home invasion could very easily commit another. But it’s not a hard and fast rule. There are real and fictional people who’ve committed crime before, but who aren’t guilty of a particular crime.
In fact, Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table is all about people who’ve committed crimes in the past. In that novel, an eccentric man called Mr. Shaitana invites Hercule Poirot to a dinner party. Also present are three other sleuths: Colonel Race, Superintendent Battle, and Ariadne Oliver. Along with those sleuths are four other people. During the meal, Shaitana hints that all of those other people have committed murder and gotten away with it. Later, during a game of Bridge, Shaitana is stabbed. The only suspects are the four people Shaitana referred to in his hints. One of them committed his murder; the other three are innocent, even though they’ve quite probably committed murder in the past. Poirot works with the other three sleuths to find out which one is guilty of killing Shaitana. That’s a well-taken point, fans of Death on the Nile.
In Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black, Inspector Jimmy Perez investigates the New Year’s Eve murder of Catherine Ross, whose body is discovered in a field. As Perez begins to trace the victim’s movements, he finds that she and a friend had visited the home of Magnus Tait not long before she was murdered. They were following the local custom of stopping into people’s homes to wish them well in the new year and share a toast. The two girls left Tait’s home after a short visit. Naturally, Tait becomes a ‘person of interest,’ and Perez looks more deeply into his background. It turns out that Tait is known locally as a strange loner, which doesn’t help his case. Worse than that, he’s suspected of having committed a murder years earlier, when a young local girl disappeared. It’s never been proven, but ‘everyone knows’ he’s guilty. Even Perez sees the connection, and begins to suspect Tait, too. But is Tait guilty? Regardless of what might have happened years earlier, does that mean he committed this crime?
Colin Conway’s Cozy Up… series is about Beauregard ‘Beau’ Smith, a man who’s committed more than one murder. He’s a former member of a motorcycle gang, Satan’s Dawgs, and his role in the gang was ‘accountant:’ the person who was responsible for ‘taking care of’ anyone the gang decided had to go. Smith agreed to testify against the gang in exchange for membership in the US’ federal Witness Protection Program, and he’s been given a new identity and a new location. But trouble seems to follow Smith. In his first placement, he ends up having to leave quickly when the motorcycle gang finds out where he is. In his next placement, he is accused of a murder when a body turns up in the vintage record store he’s managing. When it turns out to be the body of a business rival, Smith is even more suspect, especially when his past comes to light. But just because he’s committed murder before doesn’t mean he’s guilty this time.
In Tove Alsterdal’s We Know You Remember, we are introduced to police detective Eira Sjödin, who’s recently returned to her hometown of Kramfors after living and working in Stockholm for a time. She investigates when the body of Sven Hagström is found in his home. When it comes out that his son, Olof, is in the area, suspicion naturally falls oh him. For one thing, and it’s a major point, Olof Hagström is awidely believed to be guilty of the murder of Lina Stavred, who went missing years earlier. Everyone assumes that he’s involved somehow in this murder, too. The police certainly consider him a major suspect. But is he really guilty? And if he’s not, who is? Sjödin finds that there is more than one possibility when it comes to this case, and she discovers that it connects with her own family’s history, too.
And then there’s Sascha Rothchild’s Blood Sugar. Ruby Simon is a successful Miami psychologist. She’s got friends, a good life, and a loving husband, Jason. But Ruby is hiding secrets. As the story opens, she’s being interrogated by a Miami police detective who’s investigating her husband’s death. The police suspect her right away for a few reasons. For one thing, spouses are usually suspected, since just about anything can happen within a marriage. For another thing, Ruby stands to inherit at Jason’s death. It’s not spoiling the story to say that she didn’t kill Jason. But she is guilty of three other deaths. And as the interrogation continues, and we get to know more about Ruby, we find out the stories of those other deaths, and how they’re woven into her own story. It’s a very interesting case of someone who may have committed crime before, but who’s not guilty this time.
And that’s the thing about a criminal history. People often want to believe that someone who’s committed a crime before will do it again. That can sometimes be the case, but it’s not always true.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man.
10 thoughts on “The Accused is an Innocent Man*”
So interesting, Margot – it’s easy to go for the obvious suspect, but the best writers often twist our expectations to make the least likely guilty. Some of the most tension-inducing books, though, are those when you think or know the so called guilty party is innocent, and it’s a case of whether they’ll be reprived in time. There was a recent BLCC with this premise, and I was on tenterhooks all the way through!
Thanks, KBR – I’m glad you found the post interesting. I agree, too, about writers taking advantage of readers’ expectations. That often makes for the most interesting reading! And yes, there’s nothing like a story where you know the main suspect is innocent, and the goal is to save that person if possible. That really can be the most suspenseful of plot lines!
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It’s that phrase ‘Everybody knows’ that you see so often with an unsolved historical crime. ‘Everybody knows’ so and so did the deed. It brings to mind Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin a story of segregation 25 years ago in MIssissippi, an unsolved case of a missing girl, and a similar case in the present day. ‘Everybody knew’ who’d done the deed of course… Superb book and the kind of book with a strong historical setting that I really enjoy.
Oh, it is an excellent book, isn’t it, Cath, and I’m very glad that you mentioned it. It’s such a good example of the ‘everyone knows’ mindset that you mention. It’s true, too, that people often do make the assumption that someone’s guilty because ‘everyone knows it, rather than because it’s actually true.
Yes, it’s one of my all time favourite books. It’s odd because I was only looking at Franklin’s work a few days ago on Goodreads and thinking I should read something else by him. How or why I was doing that I can’t even remember now, LOL, but several of them sounded excellent.
By the way, Innocent Man by Billy Joel is one of favourite songs. I remember playing it to death when it first came out. His Uptown Girl likewise. Such a talented man.
Oh, he is talented, Cath! I’ve been a devoted fan for decades (seen him in concert, I think, eight times, the whole thing). And I agree, An Innocent Man and Uptown Girl are fabulous songs. Trust me, you don’t want me to go on and on and on about my Billy Joel mania. But it’s there…
And about Tom Franklin, it’s interesting the timing, isn’t it? I was just thinking not long ago I should revist Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. It’s that sort of a book, I think.
That Cozy Up series by Colin Conway sounds very good, I would like to try it. Just what I need, another series.
I like the series, Tracy. It’s got some interesting plot lines, and the Beau Smith character develops nicely over time.
Margot, I do like Conway’s Cozy Up series, and some of his other work as well. Nice to see him getting a bit of attention!
Great to see you, Col – you’ve been missed! And yes, I agree about Conway. He’s underrated, and deserves attention.