As you may know, I love traditional detective fiction aka murder mysteries. You can get mysteries where there’s no murder, but if the stakes aren’t high, my attention isn’t grabbed. And if you’re here, reading this, the chances are, you probably like them too!
In the old Golden Age of detective fiction, there is generally a Countess clutching her pearls, casting disapproving looks at the corpse leaking blood onto her Aubusson carpet, and declaring that surely the perpetrator is some stranger, some tramp or wandering vagabond. ‘It can’t possibly be one of us.’
For me, the thrill of these books is the certain knowledge that, yes, it is most definitely one of ‘us’. One of these characters, outwardly so genteel, so polite, offering around the drinks decanter, or standing when a lady comes into the room, or smiling pleasantly and asking after the vicar’s marrows, it’s one of them. Most of them have known each other for years and see each other almost every day out walking the dog or playing tennis, or at drinks parties or dinner parties, at bridge evenings and coffee mornings. (Because this is the life of villagers of that era, we feel.)
Like the suspects now before us, we too would like to believe that those around us are just like us, and thereby comes the assumption that no one ‘like us’ could possibly do something so sordid as to kill another person. Because such an action implies loss of self-control, unacceptable levels of emotion, and of course, a denial of the never-say-die attitude that instils us with hope for a better tomorrow. Or if not better, then at least no worse.
So when someone—let’s call him Major Wainwright—is found underneath the billiard table with his head bashed in or a hat pin piercing his eye to skewer his brain, we automatically think, no one I know could possibly commit such an act. Therefore, it could only have been done by someone ‘not from here’. Here endeth the first act of our little fiction.
Sorry about that graphic image, by the way, that fictional situation got really bad, really fast, didn’t it? I’ve been reading Agatha Christie this week, in case you’re wondering. And while I’ve got you here, I’ve no idea why it’s always a major. I can only assume that a warrant officer or a corporal just doesn’t have the same ring?
But when we look at those cast members or story characters around us, we suddenly think, how well do we really know them? This is what writers sometimes call the second act world of the ‘unknown’ or the ‘new world’, where we suddenly see everyone as different and unknowable.
Let’s look at this bunch of weirdos and oddballs.
Take the major’s wife, for example. She’s known for her knitting circles and good works. As is the vicar’s wife, busily visiting the elderly and infirm, taking care of the vulnerable.
Then there’s the vicar himself. Does he really need to spend so much time shut away in his office muttering scriptures or Latin phrases to himself? What’s he really doing in there?
What about Miss Simmons, the village busybody, who knows everyone and everyone’s history. They say she has a heart of gold, but is she really over that old romance? After all, she’s never married, does she still carry a torch for that certain someone? these country villages seem to always have a nosy old woman. (Often that’s me.)
What about the village doctor—I bet he knows a secret or two.
Then there are the rest who can change from story to story, as required: there might be a visiting artist, or an aunt from another village, or perhaps a daughter just returned from university to care for an elderly father who once threatened the organist with his walking stick. And of course we have the organist himself. But don’t stop there, there’s the butler, the maid… oh all sorts of people. Maybe a weekending couple, he is ‘something in the city’ and she is a famous model, renowned for her torrid affairs before she settled down to marry a man twenty years older than herself. then there might be a gay couple, known locally as ‘artistic’, (that was euphemism my mum used for a couple of gay men we knew when I was a child in the early 60s) in those unenlightened days, they may have been viewed with suspicion.
But in spite of all these people with their secret backgrounds, their secrets thoughts, ideas and attitudes, we still keep coming back to the same thing: surely no one I know would commit such a vicious crime?
But how well do I really know them? As I watch them gathered around the corpse, their various emotions—triumph, relief, satisfaction, fear, horror, dismay, anger, sorrow—fleetingly appearing on their faces, I’m forced to admit it feels as though I am in a room filled with strangers.
It’s the job of acts 2 and 3 to unmask all their carefully concealed pains and plans and desires to arrive at the truth. Any one of them could be the killer…
And for readers of mysteries, that’s the beauty of it!