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

A is for

Last week I talked — at great length — about the alibi in crime and detective fiction as utilised by the criminal working alone.  This week, I’ll hopefully find as much (or, depending on your feelings about last week’s post, maybe less) to say where more than one criminal is involved, and then if there’s time I’ll diverge into crimes where there is no alibi.

So, we begin with:

Category the Second:
The Criminal Conspiracy

Subsection 1: Partnership

If supplying oneself with a suitable time-delay mechanism is too much when working alone, the criminal may seek to indulge in their own bad guy team-up as a way of best providing the necessary coverage for both commission of crime and provision of alibi.

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Sometimes it turns out better than others…

The simplest, and thus perhaps hardest to break, version of this is simply having another person to stand by and insist to the detective that you — the criminal — were definitely with them, or were definitely not near the scene of the crime, when you most certainly were not with them because you were at the scene committing the crime under investigation.  It sounds cheap and easy, and therefore likely to lead to much disappointment from a narrative perspective, but this doesn’t always mean the novel is a complete write-off.  Indeed, to pick one example, the Edward Hoch-curated list of the top 15 impossible crime novels of all time — I refer you to parts one, two, and three of our podcast series on them — contains at least three cases of this very trope.  True, at least one of those uses it as an almost complete cheat, but this essentially relies on the same principle as a lone alibi: keep to a simple story, refute any accusations of lying, repeat, repeat, rinse, repeat.  If the detective has to work for their answers, it’s better for both the criminal and the reader alike.

Equally, a partner may be enticed into something without realising what they’re doing.  This could arguably be a case for last week, where we had shills who were unwittingly drawn into bearing false testimony, but here the case can very much be made distinct through a partner being party to an action that they know is false and yet is not false for the reasons they suspect.  One of the finest explorations of the GAD genre, in my opinion, hinges on the fact that the victim of a murder pretends to be dead at a time much earlier than they are actually killed by the person they think they’re in consort with — playing possum, they provide the killer with an alibi for the apparent time of their death, and then are killed when no-one suspects what is happening.  It’s been used more than once in various ways, so you may be thinking of a different book to the one I have in mind, but I’ll forbear mentioning titles for the obvious reason.

On especially inventive use of this that I’ve encountered in recent years was Antidote to Venom (1938) by Freeman Wills Crofts, wherein the scheme revolves around two men working together in order to commit a murder, but only one of them — the one we do not follow — knows the whole plan, and we must be content with knowing what George Surridge knows and then waiting to find out what he doesn’t.  In this regard, Surridge legitimately has an alibi for a murder that could not have been committed without his direct involvement, and it’s pleasing to watch the unwitting accomplice drawn into matters that he does not have the means or foreknowledge to control.

This can then be extended to all manner of novels across the width and breadth of GAD.  The Unwitting Partner Alibi has seen killers commit murders from an entirely different country to the one their victim is in, had a stooge play the corpse while the killer is elsewhere for the discovery, and even seen the unwitting victim roped in as the assistant and killed ‘accidentally’ while planning the murder they thought they were helping commit.  As a utilisation of the “You carry on, and I’ll catch up” trope, the roping in of an easily-misled stooge is probably my favourite, and one I’ll rarely fail to enjoy come the reveal.

An extension of this, then, would be the use of a partner who knows they’re bearing false witness to help rope in a third unkowing person to provide an alibi.  It spoils very little — and extend logically from the above paragraph — to reveal that frequently the person with the most solid alibi is often the guilty one.  Oftentimes, it can be that any one of a number of people could be responsible for a murder and yet only one person has an absolutely dyed-in-the-wool, 648-carat alibi, often involving the schmoozing of some person or persons of unquestionable moral fibre who would never knowingly lie…and who isn’t knowingly lying.  One example of this, which the foregoing has hopefully prepared you for, is Cut Throat (1932) by Christopher Bush, whose splendid alibi problem is unfortunately mired in all manner of obvious subsidiary matter designed to disguise the hulking False Alibi at their core.

Of course, partners mean problems, too.

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“Ooo, boy, don’t I know it!”

In the first of this series, an unfortunate and hastily-assembled erratum of phrasing led to me appearing to dismiss a whole slew of American fiction from consideration, so allow me to partially correct that now with reference to two authors whose work is perhaps well-known for the failing of their criminals’ plots: James M. Cain and Jim Thompson.

Jim Thompson is, for me, the King of Wishful Thinking — his criminals never catch a break.  And the few times that things go even moderately well, as in genre masterpiece Pop. 1280 (1964), it’s often because he has a lone criminal employing a staggeringly cunning intellect against people who would not expect so savage a being to take the form of so inoffensive a man.  His partnerships, however, are almost entirely a disaster.  Perhaps the easiest of these to discuss for the uninitiated is Nothing More Than Murder (1949), where the central issues of how to kill a man to free up a woman the protagonist believes he loves — I think there’s only one genuine love story in the whole of Thompson’s oeuvre — is already falling apart in the first line on page one.  Thompson’s men are a barrel-scraping Who’s Who of low-lifes and losers frequently following their libido through the last door out of a thankless and failed life, and watching the inverted nature of their plots collapse around them, frequently led by the nose into false alibis and failed misdirection by the women who care so little for them, is about as wonderful an experience as a trainwreck can get.

Cain, equally, brings a jaded bias to his men stuck in dead-end jobs and thinking with their smaller heads when the opportunity for some murder arises, cf. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and never more brilliantly than Double Indemnity (1943).  It may appear disingenuous here to talk about either of these books as strict alibi problems, but in the literal translation — “elsewhere” — they fail significantly on account of how far ahead of themselves these people do not plan, and their failure to consider that the plans they think they’re putting in place may not necessarily be the plans being constructed around them.  Of course, these two Cain novels were made into (three!) hugely influential noir movies, and so we should use that link as an opportunity to pay due deference here to another American author and one of the most brilliant failures of alibi-pairing of possibly all time: Strangers on a Train (1950) by Patricia Highsmith, also memorably filmed, this time by Alfred Hitchcock.

The brilliance of Highsmith’s idea is to take the alibi problem, invert it, and then spin it inside out on itself: first providing a man with an alibi he doesn’t necessarily want, and then requiring him to cater one which he does not wish to provide.  The book, of course, spins this in rather more of a Margaret Millar direction than a Freeman Wills Crofts one, but the film takes liberties with the source material that work equally well in providing the suspense Alfred Hitchcock has become somewhat known for.  And, as luck would have it, Brad expounded on the film only recently, hinting at some sort of villain team-up of our own but instead being simply one of those coincidences GAD so often thrives upon.

Okay, two more cases for the partnership, and then it’ll be trios.  I sincerely apologise, I legitimately did not imagine I’d have this much to say.

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“So long as you don’t start dancing…”

From the frustrated romance that causes so many problems for Guy Haines, we must divert into the Eternal Triangle, that common problem Ms. Christie brought us so often and with such delightful variations.  In some cases, to even name the book would be spoilerful enough, but the shade and scope Christie brought to what could have becomes a fairly overworked plot thread is testament to her fabulous creativity and the ingenious nature of the mysteries she wove at her peak (whenever you determine that to be…).  The “Man or Woman with a Spouse and a Lover” or “Man or Woman with a Lover, and Another Person” structure of the Eternal/Love Triangle is the essential flavour of the foregoing Cain and Thompson novels, but Christie and her peers put greater influence on the actions than the characters.

The smart reversal here is that it’s the motive which often has the alibi: “But he/she loves him/her,” your brain tells you, “we know this on account of Event A.  Therefore there’s no reason for him/her to commit his/her murder!”.  Well, hell.  There are two especially spectacular examples of this in Christie, both of which caught me completely by surprise for different reasons, not least on account of how the act between two people completely insulated one of them from suspicion.  And then you must contend with the likes of She Who Was No More (1952) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, wherein there’s the small matter of whether the correct person of the three has been killed after all…

Okay, we’ll wind this up with a quick mention of what I feel is an under-appreciated film which exists somewhere in the mixture of all the above: Dead Man’s Curve (1998) written and directed by Dan Rosen, and starring Matthew Lillard back when, post-Scream, it looked like he was going to have a career.  The essential plot begins as a typical inverted mystery, with two college roommates planning to kill their third roommate and so get a passing grade for the year (I can’t remember if the plan is to make it look like suicide, or if it’s just to kill him and vanish the body…it’s been a while).  It starts there, with all manner of alibi schemes worked out between the homicidal pair to account for themselves on the night of the murder…and then it swings wildly and inventively out of control in the best possible way.  There aren’t many films I’m aware of that reverse and reverse in the way this manages, but that might be on account of my general lack of an overview where films are concerned.  However, if you can find it anywhere I’d suggest that it is worthy of the time of the detection enthusiast.

Subsection 2: Trios & More

In essence, the potentialities and difficulties that arise once a criminal brings a second person into their scheme can only be multiplied with the addition of further members of any sort of conspiracy.  At this point I may well be expected to launch into a rodomontade on the many fine strengths of the alibi problems of Freeman Wills Crofts, but since I’m only a handful of books into his overall output I’ll hold off and discuss just the one, and just briefly.

The complexity of the alibis in Sir John Magill’s Last Journey (1930) really are something to behold, not least because everything can be seen come the end in three distinct yet overlapping ways: how the criminals wished it to appear, what the criminals did in order to make it appear that way, and what this means for what actually happened.  I said in my review that “[t]he plot here is a two-sided jigsaw, which once completed and inverted to find the second picture on the reverse, is then reversed again to find somehow yet another, third picture in place of the first,” and I stand by that — it’s the only case I have so far encountered where an alibi out-alibis itself.  It’s easy to see why this was such a favourite of Crofts’ among his works, because the juggling he must perform is Cirque du Soleil-standard, all upside-down on a trapeze while spinning a baby elephant on his feet while it’s on fire and the room is filled with crocodiles [side note: I have never actually seen a  Cirque du Soleil show…my imagination tells me I may be in for a disappointment].

Really, everything from here is just a scaling up, and entrenched in any such scheme is the potential for anyone to contradict or betray anyone else., and thus the peril is heightened for the criminal and the detective.  I suppose the only way around that would be to have a crime where every single suspect played a part, but I can’t even begin to imagine how something like that would work.

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“Ha ha ha.  How plainly ridiculous.”

Category the Third:
The Non-Alibi

Sometimes, the genius of an alibi problem is that there simply isn’t one.  Now, yes, we’re a total of 5,000 words into me pontificating in a not-always straight line on this topic and this seems a odd point to raise now, but let’s get it out of the way so that we can all move on next week.

The Non-Alibi, or possibly Anti-Alibi, problem is one where the guilty party does not seek to provide themselves with any alibi.  It’s an alibi problem where the issue isn’t so much where the murderer was — they’re not seeking to disguise that they were or could have been at the scene of the crime — but rather that their presence proves nothing, and the lack of “elsewhere” is all the defence they need.  Two examples spring to mind: Cards on the Table (1936) by Agatha Christie, in which one of four people playing bridge left the table at some undetermined time and killed the fifth person in the room, and Green for Danger (1943) by Christianna Brand wherein every time something mysterious happens the group of people from who the guilty person must be selected are all very voluble on the subject of just how possible it would be for each and all of them to have done said deed.

I can feel another thousand words coming on, but I’ll restrain myself to two more paragraphs in the hope of leaving the door open for some comments.  This concept of a Non-Alibi is fascinating because of how the crime must then be unpicked: Christie, of course, cheats at the end of her novel, and while I’ve been assured that Green for Danger is perfectly fair I was also told this about Fog of Doubt, a.k.a. London Particular (1952) — incidentally, another case wherein the complete absence of an alibi is furnished in most instances — and that couldn’t be further from the truth.  Conversely, see John Dickson Carr’s oft-derided Death Watch (1934) which manages to cram a huge number of people into a house where a murder occurs and also provides very little in the way of alibis and also manages to cheat in the exact opposite way.  As much as I delight in the complexities of breaking an alibi, there’s a lot to be said for these Anyonecoudladunnit plots, because managing suspicion is both very easy (just make sure everyone is super vague about what they’ve been doing) and also very, very hard to sustain (see, say, And Then There Were None (1939) by Agatha Christie as perhaps the ultimate example).

And from here we can vault into the reverse alibi — someone creating an alibi for themselves because they fear their presence may be seen as a sign of guilt, when in fact the construction of a flimsy story ends up making them look even more guilty — which is the precise converse of the Non-Alibi, but, honestly, I can tell you’re flagging and I need to go and get on with some life admin.  Maybe next week…!

Nah, next week will be something lighter.  I hope.  Thanks to anyone who managed to read all this, it’s been a lot of fun laying it out.  Anything I’ve missed, let me know below…

3 thoughts on “#447: The Criminous Alphabet – A is for…Alibi [Part 2 of 2]

    • Thanks, Sergio. I figure I mention Carr and other a lot and Thompson needs some love — his plots are often display much more complexity than he gets credited with, and he fits the criteria so why not…?!

  1. Christie, of course, cheats at the end of her novel

    Not the first time she cheated, and not the last. Amazing how she has been able to maintain such a huge reputation for almost a century now despite being the most outrageous cheat of all the major detective fiction writers.

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