An apology. And (finally) The Killer Speaks

Since this whole covid thing hit, I’ve noticed I’ve become quite–erm–well, doolally is what my mother would have called it. I’ve gone a bit forgetful and dopey. And the most recent example of this is when, two weeks ago, I posted a blog entitled ‘More killer words’, and I actually said:

‘I mentioned a while ago (I’ve already forgotten when it was…) that one of the best parts of a murder mystery is when the killer is ‘on-stage’ and speaks.’

Well it’s taken me until last weekend to figure out where I said that, and it was in my subscriber newsletter – so no, I never did start that conversation here on my blog. On the blog we had the sequel but not the prequel, if you see what I mean. Sorry about that! So now, without further ado, I bring you the original (horribly long, feel free to completely ignore it) The Killer Speaks:

You know how, at the end of a murder mystery, they assemble all the suspects, and the police, and the investigator—whether an official officer of the law or an amateur sleuth, or even a paid private eye—tells everyone how the crime was done? I love that bit.

On the one hand, it bugs me that it’s done at all in fiction, because clearly, in real life the police don’t bring all the suspects to Great Aunt Madge’s house and, when everyone is sitting comfortably, begin to recount the case from the very beginning, filling in each step with a bit of evidence or some superhuman deductive reasoning. And usually I hate it when things in books aren’t done ‘right’.

But I love that big reveal, and the complacency of the investigator, having everyone there to listen to his/her theories. I love the ego of it, the pomp, the ‘you will all listen to me’ arrogance, and so even though I strive to make my own stories more or less believable, I sometimes just give in and go with that wonderful sense of occasion.

I’m not an expert on the Golden Age of murder mystery writing, but I am very familiar with some of the well-known authors of that time, notably Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth, and I have read quite a bit by some of their contemporaries: Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Georgette Heyer. And I’m pretty sure it was this bunch who created the concept of this kind of finale. Or perhaps if we go a little further back, we will find Sherlock Holmes setting this up as the ultimate in wrap-ups, or Wilkie Collins’s Sergeant Cuff. I’m not clear where it began. I just know I love it.

We so often read of Poirot standing in front of a group of rather irritable, seated suspects whilst he expounds, his manner a cross between hectoring and lecturing. Miss Marple, by dint of her age, is usually seated, sometimes knitting, and has a far more hesitant, apologetic style, and is so self-deprecating. Both Poirot and Marple suffer from moral outrage: a murder is an affront and will not be tolerated mainly on the grounds of moral integrity rather than the unbiased basis of the law.

I enjoy ‘listening’ as they bring their case. But then comes the point I love the most.

The killer speaks.

Because this is the reason we hang onto Poirot’s thoughts for so long. We want to hear (read, I mean really) the killer say in her or his own words, WHY they did it. Yes, we do need to know how. And where, and with what weapon, we want to know about motives and alibis, but oh so often, the abiding desire in us is to know WHY. Why did they do such a terrible, irremediable thing?

We are often told that anyone could kill given the right circumstances and sufficient motive. Many of us doubtless would say, ‘No, I would never, could never kill. I can’t even bring myself to kill a woodlouse or a spider.’

I have asked myself if I could kill. I have killed bugs and beasties, generally by accident or out of sheer clumsiness. But I’ve never—as far as I’m aware—killed anything bigger than a bee. Unless you count calling the rat man. That I suppose is more like being an accessory, or conspiring to kill… From the rat’s point of view, they’d probably say I was a murderer. To me it’s different. I suppose murderers always say that.

But if it was a case of happening upon a person who was deliberately harming someone else, and I saw a way to stop it, what would I do? I’d like to think I’d never turn my back on someone in desperate need. But how far would I go?

So I think that’s why we—all of us avid crime fiction fans—enjoy getting to the pinnacle of a mystery, following the clues, deducing and pondering, and hanging onto every word to find out ‘the who’ and ‘the why’ behind the whole thing. As the killer shifts in his or her seat, the spotlight shifts to them, and this is their big moment. The chance to explain their WHY. We hold our breath, not daring to make a sound in case we miss a word. They lean forward, look us in the eye, they clear their throat, and they speak…

Which book finale have you read which gave you the biggest buzz? Do you prefer your killer to go down denying and fighting, or do you prefer your books to end with a kind of proud and well-bred admission of the truth?

Get in touch! Let me know what you think!

In the meantime, in case you haven’t read it–you won’t need to now you know who the killer is–you can click here to go to one of my own ‘big moments’ when the killer speaks. This is taken from my novel The Last Perfect Summer of Richard Dawlish: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 4. And it absolutely does contain a ton of SPOILERS.

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More Killer words

I mentioned a while ago (I’ve already forgotten when it was…) that one of the best parts of a murder mystery is when the killer is ‘on-stage’ and speaks. It’s the highlight of the story for me–their moment of crowing glory or abject defeat. This is the moment when we the audience have already heard the detective’s wild accusations or seen their insurmountable proof. Then, turning to the perpetrator, the audience holds their collective breath. And then the killer speaks…

After The Funeral by Agatha Christie is one of my top ten of her books. I just love the way, right from the start, the reader is deceived. (I’ve tried to do this without spoilers, but there’s only so much I can do and still make my point!)

Here is an extract of the denouement. Poirot has been outlining his case. Then the killer remarks:

‘No, one doesn’t bother to look at a mere companion-help… A drudge, a domestic drudge! Almost a servant. but go on, M Poirot. Go on with this fantastic piece of nonsense!’

So Poirot does go on.. and it’s too late now for the killer to save him/herself. I love it when the killer challenges the detective in a rather snarky way–we know they are about to get their comeuppance. Of course Poirot has more up his sleeve. When it comes, it is, of course, irrefutable. The murderer realises they’ve given themselves away irretrievably, but if they can’t have their way, then nothing else much matters:

‘You don’t know how boring it is to listening to somebody going on about the same things, hour after hour, day after day… Pretending to be interested… And nothing to look forward to…’

All too often, the murderer has a side-kick who is apt to be thrown under the bus at the final moment, for their ineptitude. Side-kicks are notorious for saying the wrong thing to the detective in the final showdown:

‘…darling, it’s not true. You could never kill anyone, I know you couldn’t…it’s that horrible girl you married. She’s been telling lies about you….’ said the side-kick in Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery, only for the villain to turn on them and snarl:

‘For God’s sake, you damned bitch… shut up, can’t you? D’you want to get me hanged? Shut up, I tell you. Shut that big, ugly mouth of yours.’

Life’s tough for a side-kick. The murderer will always be centre-stage, their vanity demands it.

What about the ending of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – a controversial book in its day, one of my favourites, and still hugely popular. Here, after revealing the murderer, Poirot says to him/her:

‘It would be most unwise on your part to attempt to silence me as you silenced M. Ackroyd. That kind of business does not succeed against Hercule Poirot, you understand.’

To which the murderer responds, with a characteristic touch of vanity:

‘My dear Poirot,’ I said, smiling a little, ‘whatever else I may be, I am not a fool.’

It is important for him/her to be appreciated and treated with respect, even though they are a cold-blooded killer. At least for the reader, justice is served–or about to be–whilst for the killer, their dignity is more important than their life.

The best ‘killer speaks’ moment is when the murderer is unable to maintain their aplomb and with terrifying and self-condemning rage, they launch themselves at the detective–for whom this is usually all in a day’s work–and the game is most definitely, and fatally, up. This is that moment in Evil Under The Sun – my number one Agatha Christie novel:

‘Poirot said: ‘You will be interested to hear that both you and (……) were easily recognised and picked out by the Surrey police… They identified you both…’

(…..) had risen. His handsome face was transformed, suffused with blood, blind with rage. It was the face of a killer–of a tiger. He yelled:

‘You damned interfering murdering lousy little worm!’

He hurled himself forward, his fingers stretching and curling, his voice raving curses, as he fastened his fingers around Hercule Poirot’s throat…’

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a satisfying conclusion! The murderer must have his or her moment in the spotlight, to explain their motivation. It’s all very well to know how they did something, and of course, vital to know who committed the crime, but if you don’t know why – it’s one of those puzzles that can never be put to rest.

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