It Couldn’t Happen Here*
Most people don’t want to think that a crime, especially a horrible crime like murder, could happen where they live. Perhaps it comes from a need to feel safe, but most people would rather think of murder as something that ‘simply doesn’t happen’ here. It happens in other, much more dangerous places. The fact is, though, that murder can happen anywhere, in any community. The ‘can’t happen here’ attitude can present a problem for investigators. People can be loath to share information (or simply not have noticed things) because it would never occur to them that one of their own would commit a crime. Other people hide things because they need to preserve a façade of safety and security. In those cases, the murder is sometimes solved not because of the people in the community, but in spite of them.
Sometimes, it’s social class that’s believed to insulate a community. For example, in Anne Perry’s The Face of a Stranger, we are introduced to Inspector William Monk. He’s investigating the death of ‘wellborn’ Jocelin Grey when he’s injured and wakes up in a hospital with no memory of who he is. As he slowly begins to heal and to recover some memory, Monk once again takes up the investigation. Grey was killed in his own home, which wasn’t in a ‘respectable’ part of town, so the assumption is that some local thug killed Grey. But Monk doesn’t think it’s that simple. One avenue he explores is Grey’s family, and that presents a problem. The family, especially Grey’s mother, will not accept the fact that something as sordid as murder could possibly happen among ‘people like us.’ That assumption makes it almost impossible for Monk to find out what the family is really like, and who among the ‘better’ members of society might have a reason for murder.
Wealth can also offer what seems to be a safety barrier. For example, Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows gives readers an inside look at a very exclusive community about 30 miles from Buenos Aires. It’s called Cascade Heights Country Club (usually shortened to ‘the Heights.’) Only the very wealthy can afford to live there, and not even all of them are accepted. The community is gated for safety, and there are security guards who ensure that only residents and invited guests can enter the community. The feeling that nothing terrible could happen in the Heights is comforting to the people who live there, and it keeps them content. Then, Argentina’s economic difficulties of the late 1990s (when the novel takes place) find their way into this ultra-exclusive safe haven. Slowly the security that residents had always felt is eroded, and they have to cope with a changing and unsettling world. It all ends in tragedy, and a part of that is the belief that their community could be anything but perfectly safe.
Small towns often have long histories, and the people who live there usually know each other. It’s very hard for people in communities like this to believe that someone among them could be a murderer. We see that in Nelson Brunanski’s Crooked Lake. John ‘Bart’ Bartowski and his wife, Rosie, live with their two children in the small town of Crooked Lake, Saskatchewan. Everyone knows everyone, and it’s the sort of community where people help each other. They serve on the same committees, work together on special events, and so on. Trouble starts when Nick Taylor, head groundskeeper at the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course, is fired from his job. He soon learns that the man behind his firing is Harvey Kristoff, who’s on the board that fired him. Then, Harvey is murdered, and his body is discovered at the golf course. Everyone is convinced that Nick is responsible, but he insists that he’s innocent. He asks his friend Bart to help him, and Bart agrees. He doesn’t want to think his friend killed someone. At the same time, though, he knows everyone in town. If it wasn’t Nick, then it was someone else – probably someone Bart knows. And that makes it difficult for him to find out the truth.
Both Mette Ivie Harrison’s The Bishop’s Wife and Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder novels touch on another ‘insulation’ against murder: religion. In both cases, murders take place among the members of a tight-knight religious community (respectively, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the Amish community). Both sleuths find it hard to investigate, in part because people don’t want to believe that a member of their community could be responsible for murder. The members of the community know each other and rely on each other. It’s difficult to let go of that and accept that anyone might commit murder given the right circumstances.
In several of Agatha Christie’s novels, there’s an unwillingness to believe that ‘one of us’ committed a murder. For example, in Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot works with Inspector Bland to find out who murdered fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker. Her body was found on the property of Sir George Stubbs, and at first, there doesn’t seem to be a reason why anyone would kill her. At one point, Bland is talking to his assistant, P.C. Hoskins, a local man who knows everyone.
‘Who did it, Hoskins?’ he said…
‘Foreigner, if you ask me. T’wouldn’t be anyone local. The Tuckers is alright. Nice, respectable family…’
Hoskins goes on to place the Tuckers both in terms of their social standing and in terms of the sort of people they are. It’s his belief that no-one local would be the type of person to commit murder, and certainly not of one of a ‘nice family’ like the Tuckers.
And that’s what can make investigating a murder a real challenge. People simply don’t want to believe that a murder could ‘happen here.’ But as any fan of crime fiction knows, anyone might commit murder for any number of different reasons.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Schwartz’s Something Bad.