Murder In An Obvious Order

When a person wishes to inherit a title or a fortune (or both) but is several levels of inheritance removed from the object of his desire, it’s a bit strange when the ambitious person kills off the necessary people in the order of succession. It’s odd because this almost invariably means killing them in the order of most plausibly natural causes to least plausibly natural causes.

These thoughts are inspired by the Murder, She Wrote episode, It Runs in the Family, which will do as an example (note: spoilers ahead).

There’s a woman who wishes to be a viscountess, so she murders the 17th viscount, who is 87 years old, then murders the 18th viscount, who is only in his sixties. Granted, he has some sort of terminal condition where he has only a few months left to live, but the morning of the day she murders him the doctor remarks that he’s doing remarkably well and might live another twenty years. He also abandons the wheelchair he had been going around in and walks like normal. This is actually what makes her think to poison the viscount, because she could wait a few months but not a few years. Granted, she makes a lame attempt to frame Emma Magill (Jessica Fletcher’s identical cousin).

Had she killed in the opposite order, where she killed her brother-in-law while he was still merely the oldest son of a viscount, suspicion would not have fallen nearly so directly on her and would more plausibly have fallen on Emma.

This sort of long-game murder is not a foolproof protection for the murderer—or else it could not be used in murder mysteries!—but it would certainly make the murderer less likely to be suspected. There’s a lot to be said for this making the murder more difficult for the detective and thus more interesting for the reader.

One downside, from the perspective of an American writer such as myself, is that this only really works for hereditary things like titles where succession is guaranteed. Playing the long game with something like a chance to be the CEO of a company would be far riskier; boards of directors cannot be relied on to choose a particular person as CEO. Committing murder for a small chance to become the CEO of a company is much harder for the reader to believe.

On the other hand, it would be quite interesting for the murderer to execute this plan on multiple continents. For example, the current heir to the title could be killed in America, where (him not having a title yet) no one thinks that the title is a possible motive for the murder because they don’t know about it and wouldn’t think to ask about because they’re Americans. When the second murder (disguised as death from natural causes in old age) happens, it will take a quick wit or a suspicious person to connect the two occurrences, especially if they’re separated by enough time that they’re not immediately connected. On the other hand, people who commit murder so that they don’t have to wait are not widely known for their patience.

Such a story also has the benefit of being able to bring the detectives across the ocean—in either direction. Also, if an author had two sets of detectives, one in England and one in America, this could work to create a crossover. It could also be used to set up a cold-case story—someone from England could contact the American detectives about the death that happened in America a year or two ago in light of the sudden death, supposedly (but not plausibly) from a heart attack of an old man who was in robust health (or so the person writing believes). There are more than a few interesting possibilities here.

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