Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Question of Murder

By Beth Terrell

When I was a freshman in college, my father died. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say he was killed. He talked to his parents on the phone, assured them he would be able to help repair their roof the following summer, and called my younger brother and sister to say he would be picking them up that weekend. Then he went into his bedroom and put a bullet through his brain.

That’s the official story.

The unofficial story is that…well, let’s just say there are questions.

His new wife began to tell unlikely stories. How he had been cleaning his gun and it had somehow gone off implausibly next to his temple. How he had tried to kill her once, but she, 95 pounds soaking wet, had wrenched the gun away from him and subdued him. How he had tried to shoot himself once before and missed, resulting in a long thin scratch across the dome of his head. How, because of this false alarm, she had failed to recognize the seriousness of his wound and called her brother (a local policeman) to help her clean up the mess—and, I have been told, wash off the gun—before calling 911.

Never mind that if he had wanted to kill her, she would probably be dead. Never mind that, when I had asked him about the scratch, he had said he got it passing under a low branch while hunting in the nearby woods. And never mind that he had a hole in his head the size of a hockey puck. Of course any rational human being would have scrubbed down the scene before calling for an ambulance.

Then we learned that her ex-husband was being indicted on drug charges and that she was slated to be a witness in that trial. We learned that he had told a colleague he was planning to divorce her. My grandparents claimed to have hired a private detective, who was told by police, “He’s already dead, and we need her for this trial, so just back off.”

There was more, rumors and half-rumors. How much is true? How much is wishful thinking? Twenty years removed from the event, I will probably never know. First, there is a fear that, if he was murdered, my stepmother or one of her relatives will come and kill me to keep me from raising these questions. Second, I’m not sure I really want to know. There is a certain comfort in believing that my father did not kill himself.

It was only recently that I made the connection between my father’s death and my choice of genre. In mysteries, there is no uncertainty. The detective, however flawed, is valiant, brave, and dedicated to Truth. He (or she) is both protector and avenger. He unravels the mystery and brings the villain to justice.

I have heard it said that the mystery is the equivalent of the modern morality play. Evil may triumph for a brief time, but in the end, justice prevails and the world is put to rights. There is great comfort in that.


Chester Campbell said...

An intriguing story, Beth. You need to get Jared McKean on the job.


Jaden Terrell said...

I've thought about it. Being told to back off would only make him dig deeper.

Unknown said...

Beth, without having had the ordeal you were through, I came to the same conclusion that we mystery writers want to make the world right.

Never stop searching.

Jaden Terrell said...

Thank you, Mastermarketeer. Someone once asked me why I read "that kind of book," and I was a little taken aback. I thought about it, and I realized that the good guy wins, almost every time. (And on those rare occasions when the villain escapes, I know it's because he's going to return in a future book, where he will finally be caught.)

Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter is an exception, but that's one reason why I didn't like the book HANNIBAL. Lecter makes an interesting villain, but he is not a hero. I thought Harris betrayed his protagonist terribly in that book. I've heard he wrote it for spite, and that was the impression I got when I read it.

Leigh Lundin said...

Beth, I referred to your article in Criminal Brief today: