The Crime Readers' Association

J C BriggsMurder and Its Motives by Jean Briggs

2nd October 2015


Somewhere recently, I read of a detective who advised his subordinate, young and keen, to disregard motive. Concentrate on the evidence, he insisted, and we’ll get our man – or woman, presumably. He wasn’t interested in the why, just the what, where and who.

There is, of course, plenty of incontrovertible evidence for the modern detective. The murderer must leave a trace: blood, saliva, a single hair, a fragment of cloth, a thread of cotton from his or her jeans, a leaf, the imprint of a trainer, the mark left by a nose pressed on a window pane. All these can be examined in the laboratory with its shining equipment: the computers, lasers, spectral comparators, DNA sequencers, high speed cameras.
But, the detective story would be dull indeed if there were no chase, no red herrings, no mistaken suspects to increase tension and suspense: no rejected wife or child, no spurned lover, no resentful friend or business partner , no mysterious stranger seen by a curious neighbour, and, no agonising over the question: why? In Ruth Rendell’s mystery The Rottweiler, even the murderer doesn’t know why he kills. He wants to know – so does the reader. It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery, and Ruth Rendell racks up the suspense. Neither he nor the reader knows if he will murder again.

For murder is fascinating to the reader – the never ceasing flow of detective stories proves that. It may be that readers of a scientific bent are fascinated by the methods of DNA analysis, tests on bodily fluids, or the complex investigation of computer searches and emails, but since the murderer is a human being and is made of flesh and blood as we are, then what prompts him or her to that final, dreadful act will still be a source of interest, horror, perhaps, even terror.

Of his characters Charles Dickens asked always: what’s his motive? In an essay on capital punishment, he identified four motives: rage, revenge, gain, and elimination. Of the last he writes of murders committed ‘for the removal of an object dangerous to the murderer’s peace – murders done to sweep out of the way a dreaded or detested object. At the bottom of this class of murders there is a slow, corroding, growing hate.’ It is the novelist’s work to show that burning hatred at work in the mind of the killer.

In her 1928 book, Murder and Its Motives, the writer on crime, F. Tennyson Jesse, identifies six motives: gain, revenge, elimination, jealousy, the lust of killing and murder for conviction. She argues that one of these will be the dominating motive so that jealousy, for example, will be the dominating factor in the elimination of a rival in love. The desire to eliminate, she analyses in less dramatic terms than Dickens, but she identifies, as he does, that elimination is about self. In Dickens the self desires the elimination of ‘a dreaded or detested object’; in F. Tennyson Jesse elimination is required by the murderer who wishes to remove ‘someone who is inconveniencing the potential murderer by his presence and conduct.’ She cites the case of Henry Wainwright who she says murdered his mistress, Harriet Lane, to preserve his respectability. Wainwright owned a successful brush-making business and lectured on temperance, an altogether seemingly upstanding Victorian. However, the mistress needed more money than he could afford and she threatened to tell his wife if he couldn’t pay up – she became the ‘detested object’ to be swept away. Consumed by a growing hatred of Harriet, and recognising that she had become an inconvenience, Wainwright shot her, dismembered her body, and buried her in his warehouse.

Attributing motive is a means of identifying suspects if, as in a Victorian murder mystery, forensic evidence is in short supply. Murder is a story and the opening chapter of the dreadful narrative takes place in the past where the fateful meeting of victim and murderer leads to that corroding hatred. It may be a birth, a death, or a marriage, a love affair, a business matter – murder begins, perhaps, in love or friendship, but it ends in such detestation that the poison is dropped in the glass, the knife slices through an innocent heart, the hands tighten round a slender neck or the victim trembles before the pointing gun. And the murderer steps out into the dark to become a hunted creature.

Before the 1960s, the hunting down of the murderer usually led to the gallows. Dickens watched the hanging of Mr and Mrs Manning in November 1849 at Horsemonger Gaol. Their motive in killing Patrick O’Connor, Mrs Manning’s former lover, was simple – it was for his money, for gain. F. Tennyson Jesse cites six more murderers to match her six motives: William Palmer, the multiple poisoner: for gain; Constance Kent, a sixteen year old girl: for revenge; the two ruthless Querangal women who wanted to eliminate their inconvenient husbands; Mrs Pearcey who killed her lover’s wife and child out of jealousy; Neil Cream who had a lust for killing, and Felice Orsini who attempted to assassinate Emperor Napoleon III and killed eight people in the cause for a united Italy. Four were executed. Constance Kent was acquitted, but, in 1865, confessed to the murder of her four year old stepbrother in 1860. There was insufficient evidence to convict the Querangals.

F. Tennyson Jesse explains that ‘true’ murder for elimination occurs because the victim’s continued existence is an inconvenience or danger to the killer. In my first case for Dickens and Jones, this is the motive. Patience Brooke’s very existence threatens the prosperity of the murderer. However, because Charles Dickens is investigating, she becomes more than just F. Tennyson Jesse’s inconvenience. She becomes the ‘detested object’ of the murderer’s corrosive hatred. She must be swept away.

I had plenty of motives left for my second case. Which should I choose? Rage, revenge, jealousy, lust of killing, or murder for conviction? I am not prepared to say. But someone had a reason for killing an innocent boy. There is little physical evidence – the sketch of a mask on an old door and a beautifully embroidered shawl found in a graveyard. The hunt is on for a mysterious stranger seen by a curious neighbour. Or is it the young man leading a double life?

And when another killing takes place, Charles Dickens wants to know: What’s his motive?

JEAN BRIGGS  taught English and Drama in various schools, from Hong Kong to Lancashire. She enjoyed writing plays, especially spoof murder mysteries: A is for Arsenic, B is for Bludgeon, C is for Cyanide were all set in ridiculously clichéd country houses, featuring sinister butlers and half-mad aristocrats poisoning or bashing their way to inheritances. A Lesson in Murder saw the slaughter of half a staff room by a lunatic former pupil bent on revenge –naturally, that went down very well with the pupils. The highest point of her career as a playwright came with a performance of a reduced Hamlet in the presence of The Queen – not an ideal choice, she thought afterwards – almost the entire court of Denmark slaughtered.

Then Jean retired and moved to a cottage in Cumbria. Her players were gone – and her audience. She missed the teaching and writing. What next? A novel, perhaps? It was 2012, the bicentenary of Charles Dickens. Time to re-read him and to discover his articles on the police in his magazine Household Words. An idea was born – suppose Dickens was involved in a murder case? As far as Jean knew, he wasn’t, but he had portrayed murder and he had created detectives: the private detective Nadgett in Martin Chuzzlewit and Inspector Bucket in Bleak House. Dickens explores the psychology of the murderer; he understands human nature; he constructs a narrative; he has imagination, and he knows the streets of London – surely these would make him a skilful investigator. He admired the police so she invented a partner for him, a professional policeman from Bow Street.The idea was worth a try. She wrote the first of the Dickens and Jones mysteries: The Murder of Patience Brooke which is to be published by The History Press in August 2014.The next two cases: Hungerford Stairs and Murder by Ghostlight are finished and another is on the way. D is now, of course, for Dickens!


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