As any reader of crime fiction will know, committing and getting away (or not) with murder are two staples of the genre. One of the big jobs of a crime novelist is to plot out crimes – not always, but often, a murder – that will be interesting and uncertain right up until the end. Sometimes we know early on who the murderer is, and catching them is half the fun of the read. Sometimes the identity of the murderer is a genuine mystery right up until the very end.
Yet the vast majority of the time, we always know who the murderer is by the end, and they usually get their comeuppance, whether of the legal variety or something else entirely. It’s one of the most satisfying moments of any crime novel: the resolution.
Which leads us to a question – is there such a thing as the perfect murder?
The first problem is defining what we mean by the perfect murder. Do we mean a murder where we know who the murderer is but they’re just unable to be caught for whatever reason? Or do we mean a death that isn’t even treated as suspicious because the murderer has been so artful? In terms of crime fiction, we’re probably talking about the former. After all, if there hasn’t been a murder that we can identify as such, the mystery isn’t there.
There are always ways of subverting ‘rules’ like this, of course, but the perfect murder in crime fiction is probably somewhat different to what might be termed a perfect murder in real life.
And, as you would probably expect, there is disagreement over whether or not there is such a thing as the perfect murder. This article offers an interesting read on the subject: in it, the crime novelist PD James talks about how she would go about committing the perfect murder. The novelist Patricia Cornwell makes something of a counter argument using the case of Jack the Ripper, saying that even though the murders have been unsolved for more than a century, the modern development of forensic science can help to uncover his mistakes.
This raises another point: is it harder to commit a ‘perfect’ (unsolvable) murder now than it was in the past? Maybe. The sheer range and ability of technology – whether we’re talking about DNA testing or CCTV cameras capturing everyone’s movements – means it’s much harder to do things undetected than it was, say, a hundred years ago and if you’re writing a modern crime novel, this is something you’ll probably need to consider.
But maybe the debate over whether it’s possible to commit a perfect murder isn’t all that relevant anyway. In real life, the question is a job for lawyers, judges and the police, and if anyone ever has committed the perfect murder… well, they’re not exactly shouting about it, are they? So perhaps we can never really know.
In the world of crime fiction, however, things are slightly different. A murderer might get away with their crime, but if we didn’t at least know their identity (or have enough clues to put things together for ourselves) at the end, we might feel a little bit cheated. In crime fiction, the murder doesn’t necessarily have to be tied up all neat and tidy at the end of the book, but whatever the ending is has to be satisfying.
So, perhaps we can say that there might not be such a thing as the perfect murder – but there is such a thing as the perfect murder novel. What do you think?