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My Favourite Planet > Blogs > Edwin Drood's Column > February 2014
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18 February 2014
Polite story revisited
In September 2012, I posted this article on the Al Hilli killings in Annecy. At the time I wished to present various ways in which the case could be approached: by a fictional detective, by an adept of conspiracy theories, by a sociologist or by an armchair sleuth working on logic alone. I had no inside track, nothing to go on beyond the newspaper reports available to anyone else, but somehow all my theories turned up later in the various channels pursued by the French and UK police.

Now, two years later, there is movement in the case. It seems that the investigators in Annecy, who are now ready to put a name and a face on a possible local suspect, share my theory about the firearm as not being “quite the thing”. As I insisted at the time, this was more like someone “acting” a professional killer than the real deal. It seems I may have been right in that respect and possibly in others, too.

That’s why I’ve asked my editor to repost the original article with this preface attached, so that my readers can revisit a “classic Drood” that may turn out to have been (and this is by no means the first time) eerily prescient.

Polite story
Originally published on
Edwin Drood's Column, 11 September 2012

Edwin dwells on the awfulness of crime in the real world,
compared to even the bloodiest violence in detective fiction.
Why do people still think they can get away with murder?

Where is Lord Peter when you need him? The sheer awfulness of the vicious crime committed in a forest near Annecy is enough to dampen the ardour of any but the most seasoned bloodhound. Wimsey would grit his teeth, screw in his monocle and get down to the business of minutely investigating the scene, establishing the victims’ and perpetrators movements, reconstructing the crime itself, laying bare its motive and discovering the identity of the criminal who carried out such a brutal killing, either on his own account or for the account of some third party.

Polite story revisited at the Mysterious Edwin Drood's Column
The fictional version
In the latter case, the second half of the book would lead us inexorably to the skilled yet crapulous villain who could plot and command such a crime. Finally we would have him before us, the ruthless captain of industry determined to stifle a competitor’s idea before it could be developed by executing its key researcher, or the family doctor leading a double life whose patient had seen too much, or the gangland boss who insisted on a little more respect, please.

This shrouded instigator, once apprehended, would either go meek as a lamb – or even shamelessly – to the gallows in the company of his bespattered henchman (causing a night of agony to his Lordship, who suffers greatly from the grim responsibility of causing further death, however merited) or, just prior to being “taken up” by the law, would choose the coward’s exit and jam a shotgun into his mouth even as constables are breaking down his door ... Two hundred pages of excitement and razor-sharp wit, followed by a cathartic flood of relief. I close the book and plan to read it again sometime, less for the story, which I now know, than for Miss Sayer’s brilliant prose and uncluttered mind.

Pity it’s not like that and probably never was. The bumbling Policeman Plod so beloved of pre-war fiction and his keen, yet equally baffled superior from “the Yard” were far more effective in reality. A deal of fine detecting was done in the tense and heady years between the wars. Neither was the official force of those days any more likely than they would be now to relinquish so much as an inch of their coveted turf merely to indulge some toff with a hobby. Uncle Haviland, whom some in my family claim was an inspiration to Sayers in creating her noble detective (though how this could be as they were barely contemporary, I do not know), has nothing but respect for the tenacious and cynical professionals from London and their more humble, fustian-clad provincial colleagues. “Don’t be fooled by all that – ‘ere, ‘ere, wot’s goewin on ‘ere – business, Edwin. There’s more between Plod’s ears than you could shake a stick at. Looking a bit dim and exuding bovine patience is all part of the training. You’re more likely to reveal something significant, simply by trying to show how clever you are, if you think your interlocutor is a dunce.”
The real-world version
However, I’m beginning to doubt Haviland’s veracity in the present case. Nearly a week has now passed without any particular advance other than shake up the victim’s neighbourhood with a bombscare and to contradict the “two shooter” theory with a “one gun” theory. But then the French police, with Cartesian precision, nonetheless pointed out that there could still have been two shooters. We are left to imagine them gleefully taking turns at it.

The case certainly presents the kind of puzzles Wimsey would have loved to get his long teeth into. Why was the family up in the forest if they were not dressed for walking? Why did the gunman (or men), whose precision seems otherwise grimly professional, leave the area strewn with cartridge cases? Why did he let the elder girl (assuming he knew nothing of the concealed little one) live to testify? Why waste five shots on the cyclist? Why was the motor still running if the al-Hillis, according to a local witness, had already been there for about an hour?

However, beyond these technical questions, perhaps the most interesting aspects of this case are sociological. The media were quick to develop three theories:

• Mr al-Hilli is an Iraqi, so there could be an Arab secret service or terrorist link

• Mr al-Hilli has become estranged from his brother over inheritance issues, therefore there could be a financial motive for murder

• Mr al-Hilli works in a high-tech sector (the communications satellite industry) and could therefore be a target for foreign operatives within the industry or foreign government services, or even UK services!

It seems that because Mr al-Hilli is from the orient, and therefore not quite pukka sahib, this undermines his genuine victim status ... it allows us to be suspicious of him, his family and his movements. In the mind of Joe Public he ceases to be an innocent tourist and becomes a man with an agenda, maybe, or at least a past.
The Droodian slant, part one
Unfortunately, there are a number of open questions, at least to me – though neither the police nor the press have mentioned them so far – which tend to render this vague veil of rather iffy suspicion somewhat denser. Could Mr al-Hilli have been on a mission and using his family as camouflage? In support of this rather far-fetched theory – which Lord Peter would at least research, even if he were to discard it later, for fictional detectives love a good red-herring – here are the aspects which strike me as odd:

• The family was travelling with Mrs al-Hilli’s mother, whom the eldest child could not even identify. Would you go on a family camping holiday (of all things) in France with your mother in law, particularly if she were a stranger to your kids rather than a live-in member of the domestic unit?

• If Mr al-Hilli was alone in the front of the car, why was his wife not sitting with him? If he was not alone, who had recently been sitting there, his seven-year-old daughter, maybe? If so, why was she now outside the car and the door closed? Could she have got out, leaving space for someone else to sit in the front and have a quiet chat with Mr al-Hilli while the car idled away to keep them all cool? I’m assuming this was the reason for the idling engine, and not that they were about to pull away because a) the elder daughter was still outside the car and b) the youngest (aged 4) was not in a child seat, a fact no one seems to have regarded as significant, but which probably saved her life.

Or did it? Because, if the comfortably-seated, soon-to-be killer, dissatisfied with the conversation, stepped calmly out of the car and opened fire, then he clearly must have been aware that the little one was in the back of the car!  Indeed, anyone who had done his homework on the al-Hilli’s, and this is a telling point, must have known they had two daughters.
The Droodian slant, part two
So if our killer is a) someone expected by Mr al-Hilli, someone who has even spent at least a few minutes with him in the car, then he knows there are two kids for sure. And if he was b) expected to sit in the vacant front seat but instead opened fire immediately, then how, in a heightened state of attack alertness, could he miss seeing the movement of the little girl scrambling under her mother’s skirts? I am assuming the car’s windows were not tinted, because the killer succeeded in putting two bullets in every head but those of the invisible (or absent) children.

The latent Mycroft slumbering in me simply cannot get past the fact that the 7 year-old was outside the car and the door closed. A wounded child, shot in the shoulder, might well try to get out of the vehicle, but would surely not politely close the door behind her in the midst of a hail of bullets! Neither would a potential killer politely close the car door before opening fire ... whether he was previously in the car and got out or had just arrived on the scene and started shooting at once.

The police have apparently discounted the possibility that the cyclist may have been the intended victim because he arrived on the scene after the al-Hilli’s BMW was already there and was executed while trying to get away. But something keeps nagging me about all this. Mr al-Hilli’s neighbours say he was a very helpful and handy bloke to have around, a very DIY and roll your sleeves up kind of guy. He really doesn’t seem at all like a spymaster or international racketeer. He’s just a nice man with a top job and two sweet kids who likes to holiday in France and thought that camping would be good for the little ones. That morning they had even gone out apple picking.
And now, something completely different
Imagine a local man with a grudge against the cyclist (I don’t know what kind of a grudge. Maybe he fired him from his job, maybe he mows his lawn on a Sunday, maybe he fancies his wife ... who knows, after all, he’s French). This man’s careful observation of the intended victim has convinced him that he should, at this very moment, be puffing up the mountain road. Now our local man treasures an aging East Block automatic which takes non-standard ammo (7.65mm, rather than 7.0 or 9) and with which he is quite competent. He has been waiting for some time now in his 4x4, with his weapon, which is equipped with a silencer and two fully-loaded, extended capacity 13-shot magazines, having made sure to arrive early enough to stake out the area. He will later leave by a feeder road that goes directly to the autoroute.

Now the al-Hilli family shows up (I discount the builder’s testimony as to the time; builders are notoriously vague about schedules). They are also on their way to the autoroute, but have taken this road because it is scenic. Mum-in-law doesn’t often get a holiday and hardly knows the kids, so it’s all part of making it nice for her. Mr al-Hilli pulls over, just after passing a couple of cyclists, because his daughters forgot to have a pee when they left the campsite. The eldest, who is sitting next to him – so that mummy can chat with her mum – gets out first.

Our local man has not paid any particular attention to the family as individuals, except as a possible nuisance to his foolproof plan. But now, as he sees his target approaching on the curve below, he knows he has no time left. He realizes these people could mess up the whole thing. Then he has a great idea. It’s an idea that even a master criminal would be proud of. Shift the focus of the investigation completely away from France and his own region and get rid of the pesky witnesses too. Brilliant!
The ultimate red herring
Without the slightest compunction, our man leaves his 4x4 and walks calmly over to the unsuspecting family waiting in the BMW estate. Mr al-Hilli has closed the passenger door because the air-conditioning is running. The killer executes the three family members he can see, starting with the driver so that he can’t drive away (after all, the motor is running). As her daddy is shot, the littlest girl (who is out of her booster seat because she’s going to have a wee when her sister gets back) dives instinctively down and hides under mummy’s skirts. Through the shattered driver’s side window, the gunman stands too high to see the child’s movement, he steps back to have a good sight line to execute the two women. His method is to immobilize with shots to the body, then go for the head.

Now he can see his real target coming up the hill. Yes, his weapon is silenced, but he must get a move on, nonetheless. As the cyclist enters the zone our man moves to put the car between them and prepares to open fire for the third time. The cyclist sees the smashed windows and the bodies. He slows down to see if he can help, then sees the gunman, panics and tries to get away, but is brought down with three shots to the body. Our man then strolls over and puts another two in his head, just as he did for the al-Hilli family. He’s read somewhere that people sometimes survive a single gunshot head wound, but never two.

Just as he’s ready to leave the scene, the seven-year old reappears from the bushes. The small “phutt, phutt” sounds and the heavy crunching sound of punctured car-glass may have alerted her that something is strange, but not enough to make her run away. She sees her daddy slumped over the wheel with a fearful wound and starts to scream. Our man never wanted to kill a kid, but he fires anyway, two shots to immobilize her as usual. The first shot hits her in the shoulder. The force of the medium-calibre bullet is so great that little body is hurled to the ground and the second shot misses (the police will surely find it in the undergrowth if they search long enough). In falling she cracks her skull and lies still. Our man thinks he’s killed her, yet still walks over to deliver his trademark shots to the head.

But he’s already used both magazines, all 26 shots. The police say 25, because that’s how many cartridge cases they’ve counted. What they haven’t figured yet is that the twenty sixth is still in the chamber: this kind of weapon only rejects a cartridge when the slide delivers a new one. Frustrated and getting nervous, our man runs back to his vehicle and drives quickly away. He knows there will be others on the scene soon. It’s a tourist area and much loved by cyclists. He would have liked to have cleared up the cartridge cases. That’s what the pros do. Too bad, no time left for him to complete the job and no more radically different interpretations left for your favourite armchair sleuth ...

© Edwin Drood, September 2012

The story continues ... >

Illustration by Arthur Hopkins, from the story Kit - A memory. The Graphic, 1883.
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