A scientist returns from a trip to find a colleague in his house and wearing his dressing gown. The colleague confesses his affair with the scientist's wife, and, begging for mercy, trips on a rug, hits his head, and dies. The scientist does not phone the police. Instead, thanks to some conveniently incriminating evidence he happens to have, he frames another man for murder. "What he was about to do could not be undone. He would be putting his innocence behind him. He dipped the head of the hammer in the puddle of blood, smeared the handle, and set it aside to dry." And I, assuming that the rest of the story would act as a slowly tightening noose around the scientist's neck, closed the book.
Eventually I picked it up again, and I'm glad I did, because the rest of Ian McEwan's novel Solarturned out to be not at all what I expected. Do I need to insert a spoiler alert if I'm about to tell you that nothing happens? (If so, stop reading now.) The scientist, Michael Beard, goes on with his life, evincing little remorse for his actions. The next decade has its ups and downs, but it's not the sort of lockstep march to Beard's comeuppance that I feared.
To be clear, Solar is not a standard whodunit. It's a book of many interesting ideas, but perhaps its most intriguing quality is the way it subverts the reader's assumption that no crime can go unpunished, that justice must be served. Why are we so sure that a character will be caught in his attempt to frame another person for a crime? Maybe because we live in a culture where moral ambiguity often seems more threatening than violence itself, and where much of our art tells us that good triumphs over evil, even if real life suggests otherwise.
In the 1930s, Hollywood's Hays Code specifically forbade sympathetic depictions of criminals and killers. Over the years, criminals became more shaded, even likable, characters, but the moral order remained intact. If a criminal is not punished by law, the universe makes sure he gets his karmic payback, such as the "accidental" death of the killer in The Lovely Bones, dispatched by a conveniently falling icicle. TV series such as CSI, Forensic Files, and even Housereinforce the idea that no mystery need go unsolved; every corpse answers the secret of its death. Can a wound from a fall be made to look like a blow from a hammer, an accidental death be construed as a murder? In real life, maybe so. According to the laws of popular culture, no way.
More troubling is the notion that a man can perpetrate such a deception without consequence. The need for a black-and-white ethical order may be especially acute in American culture. (McEwan is British.) Americans can be obsessive in their quest for punishment—every decade sees a new "trial of the century": the Lindbergh kidnapping, O.J., etc. Ethical lapses (Tiger Woods) receive equally serious attention in the court of public opinion: guilty parties must pay—they can't get away with it. But sometimes people do get away with it. Crime without punishment may have disastrous results in the real world, but it makes for pretty good fiction.