For those who are interested, Wedding Flowers Will Do for a Funeral has gone into wide release, and is now available on Amazon.com. (That’s the kindle version, the paper version isn’t merged yet, and is here.)
At the time of writing the kindle edition is on a promotional sale for $0.99, but will revert to its regular price soon ($4.99 kindle, $14.99 paperback, and $29.99 hardcover).
A common enough plot device in murder mysteries is the murder being taken to be an accident or a suicide. This often follows from the murderer trying to disguise the murder as an accident or suicide; any number of things may lead to it being taken that way. The ones that I particularly have in mind, though, are the ones where the detective is unsure of whether it was murder or not.
The problem with this is one of genre—what with the story being a murder mystery, something has gone wrong if the murder isn’t actually a murder. Granted, this does come up from time to time, but such stories are almost invariably disappointing. They can be partially redeemed by the accident or suicide being disguised as murder as part of an attempted murder (framing an innocent person for the not-a-crime, or at least not-their-crime in the case of suicide). However, even this is only tenuously in the genre of murder mystery. The worst, though, is where a series of accidents served to obscure some evidence, which then led the detective to think that this was the one clue which didn’t fit. I get why such things exist—if something is never an alternative, there is no suspense—but it’s deeply unsatisfying for the detective to unravel a problem which he created. It’s not good when the best case is equivalent to the detective having stayed home and taken a nap.
Anyway, whichever way this goes, there is a further problem of genre: unless the book is in the wrong genre, we the reader know that the accident wasn’t an accident. This reminds me of something that James Cameron said in a conversation with his co-writer of Terminator 2. The quirk of the movie is that this time the terminator from the first movie is sent back in time by the human faction to protect a kid from a more advanced terminator sent back in time by the machine faction. However, this is only revealed about 20 minutes in to the movie; they shoot all of the scenes with the original terminator in an ominous way, as if he’s the bad guy. But, as Cameron pointed out, the problem is that in the leadup to the movie Arnold Schwarzenegger was doing hundreds of promotional interviews that started with, “So, Arnold, this time you play a good guy”—that is, it’s not like the audience was actually going to be fooled. So what’s the point?
And that’s a good question. I’m not sure that such pretenses really have a point. They can be a plot device to put the detective in an antagonistic position with the police—especially when the detective is himself the police, leading to the chief of police saying “you have 24 hours to prove this was murder”. They can be a plot device to put the detective in an antagonistic position with the family or other witnesses and suspects. But it just doesn’t work for the detective to be unsure that the death really was murder, because from the point of view of the audience it’s not an open question. If the detective is trying to figure out whether the death was murder, the reader is in the position of having to wait for the author to get to the good part.
Something I can’t recall ever having seen, which I think would be very interesting, would be a murder mystery in which the first “murder” was an accident but the second “murder” was a genuine murder. With the murderer hiding in the shadow of the accident which people take to be murder, he would probably be putting himself out of the reckoning because he has a forged steel alibi for the first “murder”. Only once that death was discovered to be an accident would his breakable alibi for the second murder come under real suspicion.
Given the sheer number of murder mysteries already written, I’m sure that this has actually been done. What I think is more common is a variation on it, where one person commits a murder, then a different person commits a copycat murder, hoping to hide in the first murderer’s shadow. I know I’ve seen that, at least in an episode of Numb3rs. Stretching the concept slightly, you can also see it in the Brother Cadfael story One Corpse Too Many. This is definitely an interesting plot for a murder mystery. It makes things nicely complicated. So complicated that it really can only be done in a mystery novel, not a short story. (The episode of Numb3rs, being a TV show and therefore structurally a short story, managed this with a multiplicity of murders that just made a single villain impossible and further had the solving of the individual murders happen off-screen.)
That said, I think it would be an interesting variation to have a murderer stumble onto an accidental death that he had an alibi for and set it up to be a murder, then during that investigation—or better yet, I think, once it has concluded in frustration—to commit another murder with the same modus operandi and other clues pointing to it being the same murderer.
I’m working on the what-really-happened story for the third chronicle of Brother Thomas, tentatively titled He Didn’t Drown in the Lake. (As I’ve mentioned before, I think of a murder mystery as a story-within-a-story, except that the interior story is told backwards; I write that interior story first to ensure consistency.)
I’m up to about 3,000 words so far. The murderer killed the victim and the search party is out looking for the murdered man (because he didn’t come home for hours from his short evening walk). It’s coming along well and I’m happy with it so far, but man is it a lot of work, on a per-word basis.
The reason it’s a lot of work is, of course, because it’s compressed. I’m only describing the parts that will be relevant later, and so I’m having to make a lot of decisions per sentence. To give an example, how does the search party split up? That will certainly come into play later, and having influence on suspicions. Another big one I had to decide was whether the search party found the body that night, or in the morning. That determines whether the footprints down to the lake where the body went in are easy to find, or not. The problem is, since the search party doesn’t know that this is a murder investigation, if the footprints are easy to find they will be mostly obliterated by the search party walking over them. If they’re in good condition, it will be because the search party didn’t find them—but then the body will have drifted in the lake and the spot where he went in will be hard to find. Both of these are very workable, but I have to decide which one to go with. (I’ve about 95% decided on the search party finding the footprints.)
This decision also affects the timing of the story; the police need to be called in and some suspicion of murder has to arise before the brothers can be called in. I have a preference for them to be called in sooner rather than later, since the evidence will be fresher and guests won’t have left yet, etc.
For all of the jokes about people dropping like flies wherever Jessica Fletcher went, it certainly saved a lot of time and effort over having to have an excuse for her to be called in.
One White Rose For Death is the fourth episode in the third season of Murder, She Wrote.
It’s not one of the most memorable episodes, probably because the setup of Jessica being used to help a classical performer from behind the Iron Curtain to defect while on an American tour was used in the first season (Death Takes a Curtain Call) and had the extremely memorable Major Anatole Karzof of the KGB. That said, this is a fun and interesting episode.
The plot is very different; instead of a former Russian defector and relative of the performer, who brought Jessica to the theater, being the one to help the couple, it’s a British secret agent they met at the theater, and instead of hiding out at Jessica’s house they end up hiding out at the British embassy in whatever country they’re in (most everyone has a British accent, but they hide out at the British embassy so the one country they can’t be in is Great Britain). It’s this later part that makes the episode so interesting: since the murder is committed inside of the embassy, it becomes a closed-mansion mystery.
There is the added tension from the defection story; only the brother (Franz) defected—he had been a spy for the British after the secret police murder his wife—while his sister (Gretta) was dragged along and isn’t happy about it. Then they find out that the East German secret police is holding their parents hostage. This spy-thrilleresque thread vies with the murder mystery thread to be the main plot; it keeps the tension up for the entire episode.
The murder victim gives us a clue—his dead hand clutches the titular white rose.
Jessica overheard the victim asking spy headquarters for information on a mission that had been called White Rose. Fortunately, Michael, the spy who got Jessica into this mess, knows what it was about—it was a failed mission to protect an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, ten years before. (The activist was assassinated.)
The victim was also a spy, in fact Michael had recruited him into the spying business, so he took the murder very personally. He came from a long line of stuffy bankers and his “banker’s face” made him perfect for the spy businesses. The most important thing about being a spy is to be able to pass oneself off as anything, such as a tradesman.
Fortunately for everyone, not least of all the audience, because everyone in the embassy is a suspect, the diplomat in charge of the embassy gives Jessica free run to investigate the murder. I didn’t quite follow his logic, here, but it’s always more pleasant when the detective has the right to investigate, so I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Initial investigations turn up that:
the doctor had ties to anti-apartheid activists in South Africa
the diplomat’s wife is from Rhodesia
the victim’s fingernails and eyes show “moons”. He was killed with a fast-acting poison, which Jessica takes to mean a poisoned weapon.
#3 means that the murder weapon was probably professional; not many people besides professionals carry poisoned stabbing weapons. With the white rose connection, it seems likely that the victim recognized the assassin from operation White Rose. #1 gets dismissed fairly quickly because he was on the wrong side to have assassinated the activist being protected in operation White Rose. #2 bears more investigation, which happens fairly quickly.
The diplomat and his wife come clean.
While she came from Rhodesia, she was the daughter of a light-skinned servant who had been raped by one of her white masters. She was taken from Rhodesia as a child and grew up in England; she hadn’t been near South Africa in over a decade when the assassination happened. The diplomat was stationed in Hong Kong back then. They had been secretive and not forthcoming with their alibis because they wanted to keep the wife’s background a secret due to the diplomat’s needing social standing for his job. After this is revealed Michael walks in with the news that the doctor can be ruled out too because he was in prison (for having participated in a peace march) the day that the activist was killed.
Michael declares the theory that the victim was killed because he recognized the assassin a bust. “I mean, what would a professional assassin be doing here at the embassy?” This question is the spark which gives Jessica the answer. “Unless here is not where he was supposed to be,” she replies.
At this point we can figure out who did it by simple process of elimination. There’s no way it could be the East Germans, so the only person left is the literary agent who met Jessica at the airport and accompanied her to the concert.
There’s a brief scene at the beginning where we meet the literary agent who escorts Jessica and he apologized for the person, Jeffrey, who she expected wasn’t able to meet her because he got tied up in some meeting. Jessica reveals that she just called her agency and they knew nothing about Jeffrey being on any sort of assignment. The police went to his apartment and found him strangled in bed.
The literary agent pulls out his pipe, which the secret agent grabs from him. It turns out that there was a secret stiletto blade in it, presumably poisoned. Later on, we see him arrested. Jessica complains to the British spy that the faux literary agent used her to try to get at the Prime Minister to assassinate him, and it would have worked had the British spy not brought them to the embassy at gunpoint.
The setting of this episode is really excellent. Especially when it comes to a TV show, the embassy of a reasonably rich country like Great Britain makes for a spectacular setting. It’s one of the few places where you can have an ornate, old-fashioned mansion outside of England. Even more, it’s one of the few places where you can have a sealed mansion in America that’s not on a private island. It’s a really great setting. It’s not surprising that embassies are a popular place to set a murder. Really, it’s only surprising that they’re not more popular. After all, there are a lot of embassies in the world.
The construction of this episode is interesting. The dramatic event of an East German trying to defect to the west is merely the setting for the murder. This complicates the plot and serves as an excellent distraction. Further, it does a very good job of hiding the murderer to have him brought along at gunpoint to where he would rather not be. As Chesterton put it:
A great part of the craft or trick of writing mystery stories consists in finding a convincing but misleading reason for the prominence of the criminal, over and above his legitimate business of committing the crime. Many mysteries fail merely by leaving him at loose ends in the story, with apparently nothing to do except to commit the crime. He is generally well off, or our just and equal law would probably have him arrested as a vagrant long before he was arrested as a murderer. We reach the stage of suspecting such a character by a very rapid if unconscious process of elimination. Generally we suspect him merely because he has not been suspected. The art of narrative consists in convincing the reader for a time, not only that the character might have come on the premises with no intention to commit a felony, but that the author has put him there with some intention that is not felonious.
Now, the device of the murderer having to improvise a murder because he was recognized by someone he was thrown together with by chance fulfills this criteria exceedingly well. It does so with a trade-off, of course. That trade-off is that there is exceedingly little that could point to one person instead of another as the murderer. Structurally, the murderer could be anyone since he has an entirely secret relationship to the victim. There is no alternative to examining each person in turn and arriving at the correct conclusion by a process of elimination.
The best the author can do is to eliminate all of the suspects, in which case there is some deductive work to do in figuring out which suspect should not have been eliminated. The second best one can do is what was done in this episode, where it merely seems that all of the suspects have been eliminated because there was one we never thought of.
There is a difficult question which comes up here of giving the murderer an opportunity to murder the victim. This is difficult precisely because it must be done in a way that the reader sees, but not in a way that he notices.
That was done in this episode by an exchange where the faux literary agent demanded to leave and when he was told that he was not yet free to leave no matter who in the home office he knows, he excused himself to go to the bathroom. This exchange was colorful and mildly humorous, which seemed to explain its presence. It did put him alone for a time, which gives him opportunity, but it didn’t give him much opportunity. The body is discovered about two and a half minutes later in the episode, which is close to what it would have been in the story. There’s only one scene break, and it’s Jessica going to find Gretta—they discover the body together after their conversation. This gave the faux literary agent very little time to find his man, stab him, and make his escape. Other than that very brief time, he was always in the lounge, at least as far as we can tell, and always with one or more others there with him. It was enough time, but only if he was lucky and ran into his man, alone, almost immediately.
One thing that was never explained—and possibly because this would have been difficult, never questioned—was what the victim was doing in the garden. We last saw him trying to dig up information on operation White Rose on the telephone. There’s no obvious reason for him to go into the garden. And the body was not hidden, so it pretty much had to have been killed in the garden. If the body was moved to the garden, it would have been hidden. The last thing that the faux literary agent wanted was for the body to be found. The garden was clearly large enough to hide a body such that it would take a while for people who weren’t looking for it to find it. Where it was, Gretta only found it by tripping over an extended foot. (Also, had the body been moved, the killer would presumably have removed the white rose which pointed to him.)
The final thing to discuss, I think, is the choice of killer and victim. The killer was a professional assassin and the victim a professional spy. Granted, the professional assassin murdered the victim only in order to protect himself from being recognized and not because he was being paid for it, but it still removes the murder from those ordinary motives and passions which make murder mysteries morality plays. It’s just difficult to relate to someone being able to identify one as a professional assassin when one has never killed for money.
(Also, come to think of it, how on earth did the victim recognize the killer? The activist who was killed during operation White Rose was stabbed to death, but the assassin escaped into the crowd “before anyone knew what had happened”. That’s not really the sort of circumstance under which one will get a really good look at the assassin, to recognize him 9 years later in a completely different context. And, given that the victim did recognize him, why did the victim let him get within stabbing range in the garden? He was stabbed in the chest, not in the back. A solitary garden, even in the dark, is a sub-optimal place to sneak up on a man to stab him in the chest. I suppose he could have sneaked up on the victim from behind and at the last moment the victim heard him and wheeled around, too late to defend himself.)
Overall, I think that the plotting and structure of this episode are above average for Murder, She Wrote. It’s a fun episode, though of course part of that is the setting. That said, the setting is a choice, and it was a good one. A good setting can go a long way to making a good plot easier to pull off.