What’s the Use of Wonderin’ if He’s Good or if He’s Bad*

Being arrested/accused of murder takes a real toll on people who are close to the accused. Whether or not the suspect is actually guilty, the experience tests any relationship. Of course, there are some people who trust implicitly in the accused person, even to an unhealthy extent. Those people will stand by the accused, no matter what, whether or not that person is actually a murderer.

We certainly see examples of that sort of person in real life. There are plenty of characters like that in crime fiction, too. Sometimes their faith is justified; sometimes it’s not. Either way, it can make for an interesting layer of character development. It can move a plot forward, too.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery, we are introduced to Alice Turner. She is engaged to James McCarthy, so she is devastated when he is arrested for murdering his father, Charles. There is evidence against him, too. He was seen quarreling with his father shortly before the murder, and physically appearing to threaten him. McCarthy says he left his father alive. When he returned shortly afterwards, his father was already near death. The case against McCarthy is strong, but Alice believes in him, and asks Inspector Lestrade to look at the murder again. He asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate, and Holmes agrees. He finds that the dead man’s last words give an important clue as to the murderer. In this case, Alice’s faith in her fiancé is justified.

Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress is the story of Elinor Carlisle. She’s engaged to Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman, and the two are planning their future together. Part of that plan includes Elinor’s expectation that she will inherit from her wealthy Aunt Laura. Roddy is related to Aunt Laura, too, on the other side of the family. So, regardless of which of them inherits, they seem financially secure. Then, Elinor receives an anonymous letter hinting that someone is out to get Aunt Laura’s money. She and Roddy travel to Hunterbury, the family home, to visit and, truth be told, to see if that letter is telling the truth. There, they reacquaint themselves with the lodgekeeper’s daughter, Mary Gerrard. Roddy is quickly smitten with her – to the point where he and Elinor break off their engagement. Shortly afterwards, Mary is poisoned. With at least two separate motives for murder, and the opportunity, Elinor is soon arrested and held over for trial. The local GP, Dr. Peter Lord, has fallen in love with Elinor, and wants her name cleared. He asks Hercule Poirot to do just that and makes it clear that he doesn’t care whether Elinor is really innocent or not. Poirot investigates, and finds out the truth about Mary’s death.

In Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is arrested and put on trial for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. As it happens, Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial, and finds himself falling for the accused. When the jury cannot reach a verdict in the case, Lord Peter decides to clear Harriet’s name, so that he will be free to marry her. He’s got a month in which to do it, and soon sets out investigating. He finds that there are other possible suspects in the murder, and eventually gets to the truth of what happened.

Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow begins as the body of thirteen-year-old Katie Pine is discovered in an abandoned mineshaft on Windigo Island. She’d gone missing several months earlier, and Detective John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay (Ontario) Police Department investigated that case. Now that she’s been found, it falls to him to inform her mother and look into the murder. There’s a good possibility that this abduction and murder is related to two other disappearances. Matters get even more urgent when another teenager goes missing. Cardinal works with Detective Lise Delorme to get find out the truth about these cases. An important part of the case involves an almost blind loyalty to someone, regardless of what that person has done.

And then there’s Gianrico Carofiglio’s Involuntary Witness, which introduces his sleuth, Bari attorney Guido Guerrieri. In the novel, he gets a visit from Abajaje Deheba, and with it, a new case. Deheba tells him that her partner, a Senegalese immigrant named Abdou Thiam, has been arrested and imprisoned for the abduction and murder of nine-year-old Francesco Rubino. There’s plenty of evidence against him, too. For one thing, he admits that he knew the boy. For another, he can’t reliably account for his whereabouts at the time of the crime. And there’s a witness who claims to have seen him in the area where the boy was abducted. But Deheba believes that Thiam is innocent. She wants Guerrieri to defend Thiam. Guerrieri agrees to meet with Thiam, and finds that his client says he’s innocent, but has become almost resigned to spending the rest of his life in prison. Still, he agrees to work with Guerrieri, and the two get started. It turns out that Thiam is not the only person who could have abducted and killed Francesco.

Sometimes, faith in someone who is accused of murder is justified. Sometimes it’s unhealthy – even dangerous. Either way, it’s interesting to see how that quality plays out in crime novels. These are only a few examples. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s What’s the Use of Won’drin’.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Gianrico Carofiglio, Giles Blunt

11 responses to “What’s the Use of Wonderin’ if He’s Good or if He’s Bad*

  1. Andre Michael Pietroschek

    Good one, Margot. Especially, as human ego means we all have a tendency to trust our own judgment more than some supposed warning-signs aka red flags.

    I surfed in from https://www.fanfiction.net/s/1381535/1/Retribution today, and gotta go back to finish that.

    Best wishes for you and your loved ones.

  2. It’s not a book, but we just finished binge-watching Absentia, a Prime Original, that dealt with this very topic. A missing FBI agent reappears after being abducted and presumed murdered by a serial killer. When the bodies start piling up, all the evidence points to her, and her husband (legally, even though he remarried after her alleged death) believes she could be the serial killer’s partner.

    • That’s exactly the sort of thing I had in mind with this post, Sue. I have to admit, I’ve not seen Absentia, but it sounds really intriguing. There’s a story arc in the second season/series of Happy Valley that has the same sort of loyalty. By the way, I highly recommend Happy Valley (on Netflix) if you’ve not seen it.

  3. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this post from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist Blog on the topic of wondering if a character is good or bad in crime fiction.

  4. in Anthony Gilbert’s Clock in the Hatbox, the protagonist is on a jury, and is sure the accused woman must be innocent – all very much like Lord Peter in Unnatural Death. He sets out to try to get her off the hook – and the twists an turns in the book will confound most readers…

    • I’ve heard of that one, Moira, but I have to admit I’ve not (yet) read it. It sounds like an excellent example of that sort of loyalty, if that’s the word. It fits beautifully, so thanks.

  5. Col

    Empty brain this morning, no examples – sorry. Thanks for the reminder of Blunt’s work, I’ve still not got to it yet.

  6. Not murder but the wife of the man accused of rape in Anatomy of a Scandal stands by her man… The book is about whether her faith is misplaced or not and gives a searingly accurate picture of what the entire family have to lose should this turn into more than an accusation.

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