#444: The Criminous Alphabet – A is for…Alibi [Part 1 of 2]

A is for

Okay, let’s get into it:

Or, if you prefer:

Suppose these two, knowing of each other’s position, had conspired together to commit the crime which would relieve the necessities of both? In some way not yet clear they had lured Sir William to the boathouse, met him there, committed the murder, and arranged the matter of the boat to create the impression of accident. In case suspicion should be aroused, each had worked out a false but ingenious alibi.

The Ponson Case (1921) by Freeman Wills Crofts

Where there are criminals and crime, there is typically an alibi.  Not always, it’s true — we shall get to that in due course — but the scope represented by the alibi problem is pretty vast, and I thought it might be interesting to provoke a discussion by looking at a few of the options.  This shall, of course, be far from exhaustive, so let’s see what comes out of it all, eh?  I’m as excited as you are.

Essentially, the criminal alibi can be achieved through one of two broad categories: either working alone, or in conspiracy (deliberately or otherwise) with one or more other people.  For the purposes of this post it need not necessarily be taken as guaranteed that the existence of an alibi confirms that party’s guilt as we’d be veering far too close to spoilers, but we shall broadly assume that the alibi itself is most interesting where it exists as a falsehood and thus requires the creation of a situation which did not in fact occur.  There’s a philosophical point here, I’m sure, but let’s move on before things get too bogged down (need to sustain that excitement you’re feeling, after all).

Category the First:
The Lone Criminal

A frequently repeated aphorism in GAD is the idea that a suspect who has no need of an alibi is usually unlikely to have one.  Consequently, the smart criminal keeps it simple and claims to have been at the movies or out for a long walk on which they met no-one at a time and for a period that comfortably covers the possible range of times in which the crime was committed, or — to keep things very simple — to have been in reading a book, or to have gone to bed early that night.  While this tends to elicit not the most scintillating of detection processes, there’s a joy in the simplicity of trying to catch someone out in such an unadorned lie that can produce some very nifty plots indeed (I’ll refrain from mentioning them because, well, spoilers).

I’d consider it fairly safe to say that this idea is often exploited most fully in the inverted form of mystery, where the reader knows who the killer is up front and is taken through the process by which they select their victim and commit the crime, often relying on a relatively simple alibi because of the complexity of the crime in itself.  And this is one of the cases in which it has been very cannily deployed, though unfortunately giving rise to an idea so superb that is became somewhat over-used and predictable.  I refer, of course, to the trick of making you look so hard for the flaw in the simple and irrefutable alibi of “But I was at home alone all night, detective” the frequently the ‘big surprise’ is that the criminal we have been following did not actually commit the crime…and, of course, the first two or three times this is a surprise, but suddenly everyone thought it would be brilliantly original and, well, it got a little careworn (indeed, there’s one book I consider a classic of this subgenre but for the belaboured way that this is so obviously what is being worked towards for the shock ending…and written by someone who really, really should have known better).

Nevertheless, what I shall heretofore call the Level One Alibi has produced some brilliant moments of detection, often in the way we have revealed to us a simple assumption that we did not know was false purely because we’ve never thought to examine it in any detail.  This, I’d wager, is where a show like Columbo made such compelling television.

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Genius at Work

As a youngster, when you could turn on the TV of a Saturday afternoon and virtually guarantee that an episode of Columbo you’d never seen before would be on one of the four channels, I failed to appreciated the merits of the ‘howcatchem’ genre, but as I grew up, and as I found my way into contemporary crime and thriller fiction where detection was secondary to incident, it slowly dawned on me the sheer intelligence at play in how your expectations were subverted not just by Peter Falk’s mac-wearing, unassuming detective, but also by the nature of irrefutable physical evidence in showing up a falsity assumed true to (for the killer) tragic effect.  The advantage was, of course, that you sat there knowing they’d be caught, and you had to figure out the flaw in their plan, even though you’d often overlook it.  Columbo saw its fair share of criminal conspiracy, for sure, but I recall cases being resolved by the brilliance of a telephone’s dialling tone sounding different when you hung up on someone to when they hung up on you, or the cigarettes when smoked draw tar through the filter, leaving an unmistakable mark, but when simply lit and left to burn down — to give the impression of having been smoked — this mark did not appear.

What this brings home to me now is that a Level One Alibi has its strength and its weakness in the same box: yes, it’s simplicity makes it difficult to break, but when broken is remains broken, and no amount of hasty construction can make it stand upright again.

From a fictional perspective, the advantage of a Level One Alibi is that its relative simplicity can be inverted in some very interesting ways.  Take for instance Through a Glass, Darkly (1951) by Helen McCloy.  The essential conceit of the book is that Faustina Crayle is able to astrally project herself across the country to commit crimes while also being in full view of people hundreds of miles away.  The network diagram of all these sub-branches will get complicated pretty quickly, but this is essentially the Level One Alibi inverted because while she’s committing crimes elsewhere she can claim to be (in one instance) sitting out in a field painting and she actually is sitting out in a field painting.  To a similar extent, the person responsible for the impossible shooting in John Dickson Carr’s The Man Who Could Not Shudder (1940) is equally alibi’d because at the time of said shooting they are doing exactly what they claim to be doing, with witnesses to vouch for them.  The simplicity of such an inversion, of course, is that you cannot catch someone committing a crime if they’re not actually the person to commit it — itself an inversion of the ‘surprise’ the inverted mystery milked to desiccation, but nevertheless a distinction worth making.

To invoke Carr is, naturally, to throw a quick glance at the mechanical device which sits at the heart of many low quality (and some high quality) impossible crimes, the discovery of which is often sufficient to pin the blame on the guilty party who was in the room next door while their trained venomous snake slithered down a bell-rope, or who set up a chandelier on some sort of pulley system so it would fall and knock the victim out of the window and then quietly rewind itself back into the ceiling (I still don’t think I fully understood what was going on in that story).  Equally here we can mention the poisoned cigarette passed to the unsuspecting shill who smokes it later, or the capsule encased in wax which the victim swallows and, once stomach acids have gone to work, dies when a significant distance from their killer.  Such time delay tricks are undoubtedly valid, don’t get the impression that I’m dismissing them as the worst kind of laziness, and they exist as a legitimate arm of the “But I wasn’t anywhere near him…” tranche of Level One considerations, but they can be dispatched with relatively quickly.

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“Okay, get on with it, then.”

I’d suggest that for the lone criminal the next independent step of Elsewhere Alibi exists when others are lulled unwittingly into conspiracy, perhaps placing us at the centre of a Venn diagram in which the Level One Alibi and the time delay trick cross over.  I’ll pick two examples of this where I can be reasonably safe in not spoiling anyone’s enjoyment of something, and shall then wave my hand vaguely in the direction of a few other cases to preserve the surprise.

The first I can safely refer to — because I’m about 96% sure you’ll spot the guilty party the second they appear on the scene — is The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage (1943) by Enid Blyton.  Here our criminal is able to burn down the eponymous cottage and appear to be elsewhere at the time due to unwittingly roping in someone else who takes inference from an action they themselves perform which gives the guilty party an alibi.  While thankfully one step up from “She phoned me and said she was at the office” when in fact ‘she’ is around the corner in a phone box and about to kill someone — take note, Death in Paradise — it’s that degree of someone being told something was true and, as a result of an independent action, having no reason to doubt the veracity of this claim.

This is therefore a distinct case away from the Level One Alibi, and co-opts in the examples discussed above, because it is no longer merely a case of providing one damning piece of evidence — the good faith testimony of an (as far as they’re concerned) independent and neutral party must also be proved false.  And simply breaking down that additional support of the alibi is made trickier by the fact that the person involved is telling the truth.  This, I’d wager, is not so far away from “the dummy-figure alibi” that S.S. van Dine railed against in the last of his 20 rules, and a perfectly valid and intelligent use of the scope of a false alibi.  To be honest, given the detail Wright went into in some of those rules I’ve never quite got his opposition to this and find it interesting that he simply offered is as a fait accompli that we’d understand his point.  Sure, it can be used cheaply — “But you didn’t shoot me, for I had propped a dummy up in my chair…!” — but equally it can be used to brilliant effect.

To sidetrack a moment, there is definite hoary element in a subcategory here wherein “someone is apparently killed but then they turn out to be the killer” — the independent testimony  coming from people who genuinely believe that person to be dead, usually in a stage-managed viewing of the “murder” — but equally it’s a matter of managing your expectations.  Typically these sorts of tricks are deployed in conspiracy — see the Scream films, or a rather popular book a lot of you possibly find jumping to mind at the moment — when the precise idea is to lead to that misapprehension.  Perhaps I’m missing something in van Dine’s objection, but the lack of precision could also account for this.

ss-van-dine-3

Citation needed.

To jump back to television, an early episode of Jonathan Creek sees a man shot and physical evidence found at the scene pointing to an ex-lover.  Her Level One Alibi — “But I was at home watching television all night!” — is taken as the purest hogwash until a video emerges of her at home on the evening in question (she has a stalker…this is all constructed much more smoothly than I make it sound here) and confirms her story.  The ironclad nature of this, and the manner of physical evidence linking her to the crime, are obviously at odds with each other, and yet in one of these instances a piece of perfect misdirection as been smuggled past you because of what one character is able to swear is absolutely true.  I mention this for two reasons: firstly because I love (the first four seasons of) Jonathan Creek, and secondly because the essential fallacy is itself exposed with another fallacy relying on one person providing evidence they know to be true while another then twists that to their own ends, and it’s the only instance I can call to mind where the manner of the deception is used fairly in unveiling said deception.  Detection-ception!

Wow, okay, clearly I didn’t realise how much there was to write about here, since I imagined I’d get lone criminals and criminal conspiracies into about 1500 words, and I’ve not even finished with the solitary criminal and we’re already over 2100 words at this point.  Category the Second shall have to wait until next week, but I’d like to mention one more case now purely so that it’s not a loose end in my mind.  Your patience is appreciated.

I have elsewhere talked about the use of distinctive clothing in identifying a criminal, and must just return to that here as briefly as my natural arrogance will allow.  In much the same way that the Scream films — through conspiracy, so I apologise for the fact that they’re also going to be mentioned a lot next week — established the ‘innocence’ of someone who later turned out to be the killer by having someone show up in that distinctive “killer’s costume” at the same time as the actual killer, so a lone killer may establish what turns out to be a time-delayed alibi by establishing the existence of such garb as that worn by the killer and, having committed their murder (or, well, it needn’t just be murder) allowing themselves to be seen while someone else apparently commits the crime.  This can be accomplished in a number of ways, including dressing up the corpse, inviting someone along to a ‘costume party’ or…well, there’s a particularly brilliant one I don’t want to spoil because it’s very distinctive.  You may have read it and know what I mean, you may have read it and not have a clue what I’m talking about, either way, my lips are sealed.  And my fingers are…not…typing.

Of course, the costume may simply be the set-dressing of the murder, including using the body to lock a door following a murder as a manner of providing the killer with an alibi, and — in a book I’ve talked about on this blog in the last, oh, let’s leave it vague and say several months — even the creation of an entirely false person to disguise a suicide and so alibi the corpse from it’s own murder.  All of this is arguably valid as a subsection of this subsection (man, I’m gonna need a map…) because of the inferences drawn in misleading others to genuinely observe a situation which they are unaware has been hocussed and thus swear on the validity of the alibi’d guilty person.

And — whew, even in my breakneck swerve into this topic there’s even more to cover — I haven’t even gotten to the variety of ways one may commit a murder in a locked room as outline by Carr in chapter 17 of The Hollow Man (1935), but, well, great though those methods are — and interesting as they are from the perspective of how to alibi oneself without the need to consciously involve others, there’s little to be gained from merely parroting them here, and I’ve taken up enough of your valuable time as it is.

So, well, woof, I did not expect that to go on so long, and we’ll get to criminals working in consort next week.  In the meantime, any thoughts you’re able to untangle from the melee above are always welcome…!

8 thoughts on “#444: The Criminous Alphabet – A is for…Alibi [Part 1 of 2]

    • I did miss this — apologies, September is a busy month — and really appreciate you passing it on. Very cool, love these breakdowns of “here are the possibilities…”. Someone should produce an Adey-esque collection of just these lists…

  1. JJ – Speaking of alibis provided by “honest witnesses,” I always marvel at Marlene Dietrich’s testimony against Tyrone Power in Billy Wilder’s film version of WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. If you listen to it carefully, you’ll see that EVERYTHING SHE SAYS IS THE TRUTH, but she does so knowing full well that she won’t be believed. Brilliant!

    • I have still never seen the Billy Wilder version, so I’ll have to take your word for it, but I understand it’s considered to be fabulous and that several people are now aghast at the prospect of my having experienced it. Welp, there goes all my carefully-constructed credibility…

  2. Another success!
    I’ve haven’t really encountered alibi problems that much in my reading’s of GAD. Agatha Christie has probably provided the most, and JDC produced a brilliant one in TPGC but that’s really it.
    I do however love mysteries with co-conspirators, so I’ll be eagerly awaiting your next post.

    • The biggest difficulty I had with this one was referring to things without spoiling them too much (or, indeed, spoiling them fully without revealing which they were…). but it’s always good fun to pick apart a genre trope like this.

      I now have a horrible fear that I’ve somewhat spent all my inspiration on this post and will have nothing when it comes to writing the one for next week. Ah, the eternal conflict of trying to do something well… 🙂

  3. Hmm, you raised so many interesting points that I’m struggling to comment. I’m tempted to flood you with all of the alibis that really threw me, but that’s hard to do without spoilers. It did get me thinking though – although I tend to focus on the how and the who of a solution, there’s a certain sweetness when it is the alibi that plays a key to the misdirection. That kind of seems like an obvious statement, because of course the alibi is a key to most any misdirection, but I’m thinking of some Carr or Christie novels where the alibi is exceptionally clever.

    Of course, this also has me thinking about the books where the killer doesn’t really have an alibi at all. It looks like that’s a topic that you’ll be getting to eventually, but it did strike me that I can think of a number of cases where the alibi for the killer never even really comes up due to their role in the story. I’d never really considered that.

    I’m thinking I’m going to be enjoying your ABC series more than I anticipated. It’s interesting how just focusing on a particular element of these mysteries can open up so many patterns and counter-patterns. What’s funny is that the two topics that you’ve done so far are incredibly obvious, and yet after each read I’m sitting there in a daze with my mind doing loops.

    • No-alibi killers is something I intend to talk about next week, yeah, because it’s always interesting to reflect on how some crimes are deliberately constructed (be that internally or externally) on the predicate of “no alibi required”. It’s a bold move to simpy throw the suspects in and…well, look, I’ll get into it next Tuesday.

      I’m delighted to think that someone thinks they’re going to enjoy these posts, but “more than anticipated”? I have a mental image now of you clicking on the link with a self-abnegating sigh and a sort of “okay, let’s get this crap over with…” roll of the eyes…but I’m delighted to have exceeded your expectations. So, uh, thanks? 🤣

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