When Motives Miss by a Mile

I started reading crime fiction in high school: Agatha Christie, the Swedish writing team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, John Creasey, and the comic work of Phoebe Atwood Taylor.  I wasn’t great at solving puzzles, but I was always fascinated by what would actually drive someone to murder.

phoebe atwood taylor

That fascination took a different turn when I started reviewing crime fiction for The Detroit Free Press in the 1990s and continued to do so for about a decade.  Motive now wasn’t just something to study, it had to to be convincing, it had to fit perfectly into the entire clever construction of plot–or the carefully-built edifice buckled and sometimes even collapsed.  Reading crime novels where the motive for murder or mayhem was weak made me determined to ensure that my own mysteries never fell short that way.

And because I watch a lot of crime drama on TV and crime movies, I’m often thrown when a motive just doesn’t seem believable.  Case in point.  In a recent episode of Forever, whose sleuth is a medical examiner, a ballerina’s foot was found at a theater.  She was initially presumed dead until it was forensically determined that the foot had been surgically removed so as not to kill her.  Weird, right?  The suspects narrowed down quickly to her ex-surgeon brother and all the evidence was discovered in his home.

But why?  Jealousy?  That didn’t add up.  They’d escaped Cuba together so she could have a great career and she on the point of stardom, about to be dubbed a prima ballerina (the show actually got this wrong, mistaking a prima ballerina assoluta for a prima ballerina)

prima ballerinaThere’s a good chance in crime fiction that the “least likely” suspect is the one who did it, and when she was was found alive, I couldn’t imagine why she would have had her brother do it.  But she did, and here’s the bogus motive the writers came up with: 1) she had a degenerative bone disease and 2) she had only a year to dance and so 3) she wanted to go out in glory and be remembered forever that way.

I’ve known dancers and I thought this was ludicrous.  What dancer would consent to having her foot cut off even if she wouldn’t be able to dance again?  What person would consent to such horrible mutilation and be left crippled for the rest of her life?  Nothing about the character made her seem unhinged enough to do something so radical.

Sometimes crime writers of all kinds try so hard to be original or surprising that they end up just coming off as ridiculous.  This was one of those times.  She was still able to dance and she could have danced with the title and then retired for whatever reason and remained legendary.  Now she’s a legend in a freakish way (and is missing a foot!).  Why would any dancer want to be remembered like that?

Lev Raphael’s 25th book is the Michigan bestseller Assault With a Deadly Lie.  You can read about his other mysteries at his web site.

The Novel Vanishes

Years ago my dark family novel The German Money was optioned for film.  After my initial excitement, I read successive drafts of the screenplay with a sense of loss.  My novel was disappearing page by page.

In the end, the production deal fell apart and I was relieved: If the screenplay had been made, it would not have been my book at all I was watching.

I thought of that reading the reviews of the new PBS film The Lady Vanishes.  Many compared it invidiously to the 1938 movie of the same name by Alfred Hitchcock based on The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White.

Though widely admired, his film completely subverted the book’s tone and undercut its raw emotional power.  I find it painful to watch, almost amateurishly silly, one of Hitchcock’s weakest films.

However, the novel haunts me.  Iris Carr is a spoiled socialite, alone in the world though she’s surrounded by so-called friends and suitors.  She seems shallow, but she’s aware that the life she’s living is empty and that she’s been far too lucky in life.  All that changes when she gets terribly lost on her Balkan vacation and realizes how isolated she is, and how vulnerable.

Those feelings intensify on her train ride across the Balkans to Trieste when her English seat mate disappears, Iris claims a conspiracy, and passengers call her everything from a mere nuisance to hysterical.

The new movie is splendid and frightening, and very true to the novel. But I doubt the critics who disliked it bothered to read the novel or they wouldn’t be calling this new version a “remake” of Hitchcock’s film when it’s not.  Watching The Lady Vanishes, I wished the writer adapting The German Money book had been even half as interested in capturing the essence of my book.