If You Knew Why I Do It*
Most people would probably agree that the most engaging stories have interesting characters. And in crime fiction, that can include the murderer. To find the character of the murderer interesting doesn’t mean we condone the killing at the core of the plot. But if the murderer is a layered character who keeps our attention, it’s easier to understand the murder, and it can make for a more absorbing story.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, we are introduced to Linnet Ridgeway Doyle. She seems to have it all: money, intelligence, and beauty. But, on the second night of her honeymoon trip on the Nile, she is murdered. Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise, and he works to find out who is responsible. As it turns out, he develops sympathy for the murderer even though he does not condone what that person did. And as the story goes on, readers get to know that person, and it’s clear that the killer is not a unidimensional character. There are layers and depths, and Christie shows that as the novel plays out.
Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold) takes place during the Christmas season. Famous life coach CC de Poitiers has recently moved with her husband and teenage daughter to the small Québec town of Three Pines. Almost immediately, she alienates a number of people and it’s not long before she is roundly disliked. On Boxing Day, she attends a traditional Boxing Day curling match and, as the match is in progress, she is murdered. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache investigates the killing, and he soon finds that there are a number of suspects. It’s not an easy case, but in the end, Gamache and his team find out the truth. And it turns out the murderer is an interesting person with more depth and nuances than you might think.
We know the murderer in L.R. Wright’s The Suspect from the beginning of the story. As the novel opens, eighty-year-old George Wilcox has just killed eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg investigates the murder and, after a few false starts, begins to suspect that Wilcox is the killer, or at least knows a lot more than he’s said about the case. The more time goes by, the more suspicious Alberg is of Wilcox, but he’s faced with one major problem: motive. There is no reason why Wilcox should have killed Burke. The two men didn’t get along, but that’s not really a reason to kill someone. And Wilcox doesn’t have a reputation as an unhinged, potentially dangerous person. As the story goes on, we learn more about Wilcox, and we learn how he and Burke know each other, what their stories are, and why one killed the other. And we (and Alberg) find out that Wilcox is an interesting character with depth and history.
Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red features Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne. She wants to cement her place at the top of New Zealand television journalism, but she knows there are a lot of hungry new arrivals eager to claim the top spot. So, she’s hoping for the story to make her reputation She thinks she’s found that story in the case of Connor Bligh. He’s been in prison for years for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan, and their son Sam. Only their daughter Katy survived, because she wasn’t home at the time of the murders. Many people have assumed that Bligh is guilty, but there are also little pieces of evidence that he may be innocent. If he is, then it’s the story of a career for Thorne. So, she starts asking questions and looking for any information she can get. As she finds out more and more about Bligh, about his history, and about the murders, Thorne ends up getting much closer to the story than is wise. And we learn who really killed the Dickson family and why. The murderer turns out to be an interesting character with some appealing qualities – not at all a unidimensional ‘bad guy.’
And then there’s Keigo Higashino’s Malice. One night, best-selling novelist Kunihiko Hidaka is found murdered in his home. His wife Rie and his best friend Osamu Nonoguchi discover the body, so when Inspector Kyoichiro Kaga begins his investigations, those two people are of particular interest. But there are two major hurdles in this case. The first is that both suspects have alibis that hold up to scrutiny, so this seems to be a sort of a ’locked room’ case. The other challenge is that there seems to be no motive for the murder. It’s not until Kaga really begins to look into the victim’s past that he learns what Hidaka was like, and this gives him what he needs to work out who the killer is. Then the challenge becomes how to prove his case.
It isn’t easy to create a murderer who is an interesting character. After all, murder is a horrible thing, and it’s hard to have sympathy for someone who commits that crime. But there are some fictional murderers who have depths and nuances that keep readers’ interest. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s The Last Supper.