“The Whys of Murder” by Sharon Hunt

Sharon Hunt is a widely published food writer who also wrote for many literary magazines before turning to crime fiction. Her first story for EQMM, 2015’s “The Water Was Rising,” earned nominations for two prestigious best-short-story awards, Canada’s Arthur Ellis and the International Thriller Award. Her second EQMM story appears in our upcoming July/August 2017 issue and it will be followed soon by a third suspenseful Hunt tale. This is the Ontario author’s second post for this site (see “Fleshing Out Mysteries”). In it she talks about one of the great suspense writers who influenced her fiction.—Janet Hutchings

In fiction as in life, most people have a reason for killing or, at least, that’s what I believe. Often, their reasons to murder are most foul (with apologies to Miss Marple who sniffed out a Murder Most Foul in the movie of the same name), with power and greed chief among them. Other times, the reasons for committing the ultimate sin are more nuanced—fear the most common among these. Jealousy rears its head too, as ably demonstrated by Cain when he got the whole business of murder rolling by killing his brother.

People rarely murder for no reason and perhaps that’s why, when we read of such anomalies, they disturb us the most, since we have a deeply ingrained need to know what leads people to kill other people.

Perhaps, too, it is this need to know that turns some of us into mystery writers, providing a safe way to try and work out the whys of murder.

One of my favorite writers (and among the best) is Ruth Rendell who, too, was very interested in the whys of murder. She also showed great empathy for her characters and the terrible predicaments she placed them in, no doubt fueled by the acknowledgement that “I was imbued from a very early age with a sense of doom.”

When she died in 2015, it felt a bit like a death in the family for me, although I never met her. I did correspond briefly with her when I was younger though, writing her a fan letter and saying how much I wanted to be a writer, like she was. Generously, she wrote back, encouraging me to be a writer, like myself.

I discovered Ruth Rendell’s novels during a 1970s summer when, bored and without much empathy for my mother whom I lived to annoy when I was in my mid-teens, I filched a novel from the stack she was reading—the next in line to be devoured by her voracious appetite for mysteries—and plopped myself on a lounge chair in the back garden, waiting for her to demand its return.

When she didn’t demand the book back, I became intrigued by what seemed to me a cheesy cover, showing a purple lipstick dripping down the side of the tube. Under the title, From Doon With Death, was a further lure to open the book: “She was a prim and proper wife—until her death revealed a dark secret. . . .”

My mother was a “prim and proper wife” which made me curious to find out how any such woman’s death could reveal a “dark secret.”

Soon, I was hooked, and settled in for a summer of dark secrets and death with a writer for whom nothing in her fiction was what it appeared to be.

Ruth Rendell (and also as Barbara Vine) wrote more than 50 novels and seven books of short stories. Although the Vine novels are darker than their Wexford cousins, none are safe, instead delving into why after why.

In addition to novels replete with murderers and the constant Inspector Wexford, there were also Ruth Rendell’s short stories, many of which were published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

As much as I loved her novels—which I’ve read and reread over the years—I am devoted to her short stories, which have given me an education in what a mystery or suspense short story can be.

One of her finest, “The Fever Tree,” has a seemingly simple plot—an errant husband returns to his wife intent on making their marriage work and takes her on a vacation in Africa—but the story is anything but simple, with old grudges and regrets fueling things from the start. Although both spouses have agreed to give their marriage a good try again, and move on from his affair, each quickly falls back into familiar irksome habits that get more and more reckless.

The story’s ending couldn’t have been any different I realized after rereading it and paying closer attention to the clues masterly embedded along the way, although the ending surprised me the first time I read “The Fever Tree.” Still, how wonderful, I thought, to be so wrong the first time but see the ending for what it was, after a more careful reading, perfect.

That’s what I want to do, I realized, surprise people with a perfect ending.

“The Fever Tree” and other Ruth Rendell short stories have taught me how important that perfect ending is but equally, the importance of all the details leading up to it. Her short stories also reaffirmed for me that the dynamics at play between ‘nearest and dearest’ family members are sometimes the most dangerous and can result in a lifetime of trying to work out the whys of murder.

“I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t write,” she once said.

I feel the same and have her to thank, in part, for that, too.

 

 

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