Patterns of Behavior Sometimes Seem Unfair*

People often have patterns to the way they act. For instance, if you see some graffiti on a wall, your first guess is that the culprit is that kid down the street who’s gotten caught spray painting before. It’s possible someone else is responsible, but, as the expression goes, the smart money is on the kid with the pattern of ‘tagging.’

Police often use patterns when they’re investigating crime. That’s why they keep records of the sorts of crimes that have been committed, and some background on the criminal(s). That way, they can narrow down the suspect list. It doesn’t always prove to be accurate; there are plenty of cases where someone who’s committed crimes before is innocent of one particular crime. But it’s often a starting place, both in real life and in crime fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, Hercule Poirot is on a train trip to Nice  when he gets drawn in to a murder investigation. Fellow passenger Ruth Van Aldin Kettering has been strangled and her body found in her compartment. It comes out that she had with her a valuable ruby necklace that’s now missing. And it turns out that she was having a relationship with Comte Armand de la Roche, a man who has a history of seducing women and then swindling them out of money and valuables. So, naturally, the Comte de la Roche becomes a very likely suspect in the murder. He claims innocence, but Poirot and the police certainly look very closely at him in this case. And part of the reason is his history.

In one plot line of Fred Vargas’ Ghost Riders of Ordebec, Paris Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and his team investigate a car fire that took the life of Antoine Clermont-Brasseur. The victim was wealthy and well-connected, so there’s a lot of pressure to solve the crime quickly. One possible suspect is a local firebug named Momo. He’s got a history of arson convictions, and the police are eager to show that they’ve caught their man. He could have committed the crime, too. But Momo claims he’s innocent. Gradually, Adamsberg comes to believe him. He also feels, though, that Momo won’t get a fair hearing. So, he comes up with an alternative plan. It’s not conventional, but it does work, and it allows the police team to find out who the real killer is.

In T.J. Cooke’s Defending Elton, solicitor Jim Harwood gets a new case. A mysterious young woman named Sarena Gunasekera has been found dead at the bottom of a cliff at Beachy Head, near Eastbourne. The evidence suggests that a young man named Elton Spears is responsible. He has a pattern of inappropriate (‘though not violent) contact with women, and he’s troubled in other ways, too. This looks like the sort of crime that someone with his history might commit, and he’s soon arrested. Harwood knows Spears, as he’s worked with him before. He doesn’t want to see Spears railroaded by the court system, so he agrees to take the case. Together with barrister Harry Douglas, Harwood starts the work of defending his client. As the story goes on, we learn more about the victim, and we find that Elton Spears isn’t the only one who might have had a reason for killing her.

Damien Seaman’s The Killing of Emma Gross is based on the 1929 murder of a Düsseldorf prostitute. At the time of the murder, Peter Kürten was arrested for the crime, and, in fact, confessed to it. But there was never direct evidence against him. He was, however, guilty of other sexual assaults and murders. That history was enough to put him in the spotlight and get him convicted. He later recanted his confession, but he was executed in 1931. Emma Gross’ real killer was never found. In this fictional retelling, Düsseldorf Detective Inspector (DI) Thomas Klein is investigating a series of killings. It’s clear that Kürten is guilty of most of them. But Emma Gross’ murder is just different enough that it’s possible that someone else is responsible. Klein wants to find out the truth, so he pursues the case. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how Kürten’s patterns and history impact the way he’s perceived.

And then there’s Beauregard ‘Beau’ Smith, whom we meet in Colin Conway’s Cozy Up trilogy. Smith is a former member of Satan’s Dawgs, a motorcycle gang. As the gang’s ‘bookkeeper,’ his job was to ‘take care of’ people who had incurred the gang’s anger. He was good at it, too. When he was caught, Smith agreed to enter the US Witness Protection Program in exchange for telling everything he knew about the gang. In each novel in this trilogy, he’s given a new name and a new location. And in each one, at least one murder occurs. Smith is the first suspect in these cases, chiefly because he has committed crimes before – he has a history and a pattern of being a criminal. And it’s sometimes difficult for him to convince others that that doesn’t mean he committed the crime at hand. It’s an interesting thread that runs through the trilogy.

But the way Smith is treated isn’t surprising. People do have patterns and history to the way they act. That includes criminals. So it makes sense that those patterns would come up if there’s a similar crime. These are just a few examples. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Devo’s Patterns.