Given a certain event on the 14th of this month, it will come as no surprise to you that the Tuesday Night Bloggers decided to look at the theme of love (and murder!) in crime fiction over the next few weeks. Love can help us become better versions of ourselves and go the extra mile but in certain forms can also bring out the worst in us and this is something crime fiction so very often reflects on. So for this week I am looking at what is done by suspects and the guilty parties in the name of love.
Spoiler Alert: This post largely looks at the way love motivates crimes so therefore is fairly spoiler-ific. Therefore all texts discussed are in bold to help readers skip over paragraphs pertaining to books they have not read. Agatha Christie is the main author looked at, but there are also references to works by John Dickson Carr, Nicholas Blake, Manning Coles, John Stephen Strange, Frances Iles, Dorothy L Sayers, Harriet Rutland, Gladys Mitchell, Wilkie Collins and Robert Van Gulik.
Possessive love and revenge (due to having lost someone you love), are in my opinion two of the biggest interlinking motivators behind murders in mystery fiction. With possessive love, this is often shown as occurring between couples who have split up such as in Carr’s It Walks By Night (1930) and Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia (1936), but Christie herself has also used it in different relationship setups such as between parent and child (Nemesis (1971)) and brother and sister (Sleeping Murder (1976)). In all of the cases mentioned it is because the killer has feared losing or has lost pride of place in their victim’s affections that they turn to murder, thinking if I can’t have them, then no one else will. It is therefore easy to see how possessive love can then turn into revenge, especially when the killer frames the person who had seemingly taken precedence in the victim’s affections. The best example of a mystery combining both revenge and possessive love has to be Christie’s Towards Zero (1944), since Christie hides the identity of the darkly minded murderer behind impeccably respectable facades, as well as hiding a despicable crime of revenge within what seems like an ordinary murder for money case.
Not all revenge motivated murders are due to possessive love though, as there are countless mysteries where someone has become a killer because their victim was implicated in the loss of someone the killer loved very much. Whilst this theme has probably been overused and become almost clichéd in some ways, if used well it can give a story greater emotional impact, which is certainly the case in Manning Coles’ A Drink to Yesterday (1940) and Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die (1938). Murder on the Orient Express (1934) is probably one of the most famous examples of a revenge based murder mystery, highlighting many of the advantages of using revenge in a mystery story. Revenge ‘provide[s] a host of suspects’ (Anderson, 1999: 386) for killing a person and with a variety of reasons. Although the murderers in this book are primarily killing Ratchett because he killed a kidnapped child called Daisy, the ways the murderers are connected to this earlier crime is multifarious, giving them slightly different reasons for being involved in the revenge. This story also indicates that revenge based murders often come about because ‘the law cannot or did not punish’ an earlier crime and therefore revenge can be used as a tool to complicate notions of justice, which happens in this book as Poirot allows the killers to go unpunished. Finally with revenge motivated crimes, the revenge itself may not occur until years later, either due to lack of opportunity or awareness of who is responsible for the earlier crime/loss (see Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1962)) or because a later event becomes the final tipping point.
New Love or murdering to be freed from an old partner in order to be available for a new one is also another significant motivator for fictional murder. An example which immediately sprung to mind for me was Francis Iles’ inverted mystery, Malice Aforethought (1931) and uses this murder motivation in a novel and refreshing way. Like so many features of mystery fiction this is one that can be overused and once recognised by the reader, simplify the mystery it is used in. John Stephen Strange’s Deadly Beloved (1952) is one such mystery where you really don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple to figure out which way the book is going to go.
When looking at Christie’s work as a whole it interested me that possessive love and revenge based murder occurred a lot more in her later works, (which incidentally are more influenced by Jacobean tragedy,) than it did with her earlier ones. Just focusing on the Miss Marple novels, the earlier ones contain crimes mostly motivated by the killer(s) having a new love interest and often still wanting to keep the money from the older relationship, such as The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) and The Moving Finger (1942). Love and money also go hand in hand with the crimes perpetrated in The Body in the Library (1942). That is not to say that new love and money don’t surface in later Miss Marple novels, but I felt it telling that in the last four of these cases, three of them involve revenge and possessive love and move away from younger characters murdering for money and new partners.
Up to this point I’ve just been looking mostly at killers acting in isolation, but whilst pondering this month’s theme it also came to mind that there are also quite a few mysteries where criminals, who are in love, work together in bumping another person off. Using such a device in a mystery plot helps to mystify the crime in my opinion, as very often the writer either makes both suspects seem too obvious to be the real killers, (see Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage), or they hide the collaborative connection between the suspects, such as in Christie’s Evil Under the Sun (1941). There is of course another well-loved and well-known Christie title which involves couple criminals in collaboration, but I am saving a look at that for a later post. Such criminal collaboration is also often used in conjunction with crimes motivated by new love, as it makes an evident reason for two people to want to commit a crime together. Not all writers mystify their collaborative murders and instead use them as an opportunity for exploring relationships and human psychology, such as Dorothy L Sayers The Documents in the Case (1930); (a novel I remember really enjoying, but other people don’t seem to like as much). Relating to character psychology something I also enjoy about collaborative crimes (apart from their ability to fox me) is the reaction from the killers when they are finally exposed, whether they are resigned to their fate, take a few moments to express their love or just turn on each other and blame the other person for them being caught.
It almost seems fitting in a way to look at unrequited love near the end of my post, as so very often murderers motivated by such love are characters who on the surface seem rather dowdy and invariably get overlooked or pitied, by readers and characters alike. As with possessive and revengeful love, unrequited love when used well can add a dark and sinister tone to a mystery, to do this day Harriet Rutland’s Blue Murder (1942) has one of the most chilling endings I have ever read. I also think such killers can have a bit of a surprise factor due to their being overlooked or underestimated, which is certainly proven in Gladys Mitchell’s Speedy Death (1929) where unrequited love and a need for attention leads a killer to feign a disability for years (a feature which also hides the fact they are the killer).
So far this post has looked at the bad things which can come from love and its many variegations, but I decided to end on a slightly more cheerier note, as it also interested me how more self-sacrificial love could help mystify and clarify a murder. One of the easiest ways for love to muddy the waters of an investigation is when a character withholds information from the police in order to protect someone they love from being wrongfully arrested or dragged into a scandal. A famous instance of the former can be found in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868) (a book I still need to get around to reading) and also shows how the withholding of information can lead to the withholder being unfairly suspected of the crime. So in a way it can be seen a self-sacrificing, though ill-conceived, love. It is not surprising that the detectives in such works get rather irked by this hiding of information, due to the damage and chaos it causes. An idea which intrigued me was one written by Susan Docherty who in The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing (1999) says that ‘the detective plot typically arrests romance: Rational exploration and private feeling cannot coexist’ (Docherty, 1999: 95). This idea intrigued me as I hadn’t really considered before the way a need for privacy within a couple, is in battle with or antithetical towards the mission of a detective, to uncover information in order to reveal the truth of a crime. Dorothy L Sayers’ Cloud of Witnesses (1926) is a good example of this. Self-sacrifice though does not always end as happily as it does in the mysteries already mentioned. The detective, if there is one, cannot always save those who act sacrificially. Three examples which I think show this point well are Christie’s Five Little Pigs (1942), where self-sacrifice although identified, is wrongfully interpreted; Francis Iles’ Before the Fact (1932), where self-sacrifice definitely seems questionable and Robert Van Gulik’s The Chinese Nail Murders (1961), where the self-sacrifice (resulting in death), saves the detective from a similar fate and enables them to prove their case. It is not surprising that all three of these works are emotionally charged and goes to go to show that love has a very important place in mystery fiction (despite what S. S. Van Dine may say).