Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Blueprint for murder

Since I write sometimes about fiction I read or movies I watch, you may think my days are filled with reading and movie watching. And you'd be right. Some of them, anyway. Not having to go to a regular day job helps a lot, because I can make my own schedule.

For the past few days I've been reading my old Alfred Hitchcock anthology paperbacks. The anthologies are mostly compilations of the best from Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Richard Deming (1915-1983) is a writer I admire, and whose contribution to Alfred Hitchcock's A Hangman's Dozen is a 1956 short story, "Blackout."

A man has a slutty wife who spends his money, and drinks too much. They live close to the man's boss, who comes over to the house and drinks with the man and his wife. He suspects the boss and his wife of having an affair. The man, who goes to work at midnight, leaves his boss and his wife, drunk, at the house and goes to work. He has concocted a plot to return to the house when the adulterous couple has passed out from the liquor he has provided to them. By turning off the pilot light to a portable gas heater, he is able to kill the couple with gas, and has cleverly arranged it so a coworker will find the dead couple in the morning.

Since this is a story from an Alfred Hitchcock book, the story ends with the man apparently getting away with murder. Two things struck me as I read the story: everything went exactly as the murderer had planned, and his plan had to go off like clockwork for the plot to succeed. In real life most things don't go as well as fiction. But for the sake of the story, all of the actions he had planned to bring about a perfect murder worked down to the smallest detail. We are left at the end with the notion that police would never suspect him of killing his wife and her lover.

The second thing that struck me was that the plot seemed like if applied to real life it just might work. Nowadays with forensic science it might be harder to get away with murder, but in the case of this story, if the police didn't suspect foul play, they would accept the deaths as an accident caused by a faulty gas heater. I wondered if someone could take this story and commit a murder by going through the steps the murderer in Deming's story went through. Hmmm. In what sense, then, would this be just a harmless work of fiction, or a blueprint for murder?

I'm aware of at least one story that was the blueprint for a crime. "The Day The Children Vanished," a 1958 suspense story by Hugh Pentecost (pseudonym of author Judson Phillips) was the springboard for a crime that involved the 1976 kidnapping of 26 children from a school bus in Chowchilla, California, in a plot to hold them for ransom. The children and bus driver escaped from their underground prison and the plot was foiled. The difference with the fiction and reality is that in fiction a character can be made to do anything by the writer in service of the story, and in real life there are too many variables.

No one blamed Pentecost for causing the crime, but it gave his original story notoriety he hadn't planned.

I thought about that when I considered if someone could use "Blackout" by Richard Deming as a blueprint for murder. If you ever run across a story like that in your local newspaper, someone found dead because a pilot light went out on a heater, well, look a little closer.

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