Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

Who really killed The General’s Daughter?

Plotting a coverup

In this piece I discuss the resolution of the plot of The General’s Daughter by Nelson DeMille. The discussion gives away significant details, including the identity of the killer. It’s intended for people who have already read the book.

To write, as I intend to, about Nelson DeMille’s 1992 mystery novel, The General’s Daughter, without discussing its sexual politics might seem almost wilfully to miss the point. In the novel, a female military cadet is gang-raped by a group of her fellow-soldiers while on a training exercise. The rapists are not identified and the crime is hushed up with the complicity of the victim’s father, a senior officer who later becomes a decorated hero in the first Gulf War. The daughter of course experiences her father’s actions as a fundamental betrayal. As a captain in the army, she joins Psy Ops and begins to wage psychological warfare against her father, the general, as revenge for his treachery against her. It is her murder, some ten years after the rape, which kicks off the plot.

The captain’s method of undermining her father is to seduce and (as more than one character puts it) “corrupt” the officers under his command. The novel makes some assumptions and some explicit arguments about female sexual agency and the madonna-whore dichotomy which are certainly questionable and which demand detailed discussion. This demand, insistent though it is, is one that I shall try to ignore. Instead, I want to talk about the resolution of the plot, an area in which the novelist and his work are on much firmer ground. I don’t think DeMille has the sensitivity required to write about gang rape, though I am full of admiration for his skill as a plotter. As a result, reading The General’s Daughter is a very mixed experience.

The novel is unusual in my experience in being a murder mystery in which the person who in the end is unmasked as the killer is just a scapegoat. The actual murderer is identified only by implication. I’m prompted to write this piece by the fact that almost everybody to whom I’ve spoken about the plot, some of them very perceptive readers indeed, has failed to notice that its resolution is deceptive. I can’t think of another mystery story which is content to keep a high proportion of its readers in the dark about the fundamental question: whodunnit?

The story is told as a first-person narrative by Paul Brenner, a warrant officer with the Army CID. He is not an entirely reliable narrator, particularly when it comes to his own motives and aims. He tells the story of a cover-up, the aim of which is to prevent the consequences of a previous cover-up from coming out.

When Colonel Hellmann criticizes him for not having anticipated that Bill Kent might shoot himself, Paul responds that, not only did he anticipate it, he encouraged it. In fact, he originally suggested suicide to Kent much earlier. It is clear that Paul’s priority has been to spare the army scandal and embarrassment. This is why he did a deal with the police chief, Burt Yardley, to destroy the contents of Ann Campbell’s basement, and encouraged Colonel Fowler to suppress the evidence that he and Mrs Fowler had been at the scene of the murder.

So, what kind of scandal is he trying to protect the army from? For a start, we should remind ourselves that Bill Kent doesn’t admit the murder. In fact, he says that Ann Campbell was already dead when he got to her. In itself, this isn’t particularly persuasive. He might well admit to things which were bound to cost him his career, his liberty and his marriage, yet stop short of acknowledging his most shameful behaviour. But the fact is that Kent was facing, as Paul puts it (Chapter 36), “at least fifteen years in Leavenworth for gross dereliction of duty, misconduct, concealing the facts of a crime, sodomy, rape, and other violations of the punitive articles contained in the Uniform Code of Military Justice.” Not to mention public disgrace. Bill had plenty of reason to shoot himself even if he wasn’t guilty of the murder.

So, if Bill Kent was just the convenient scapegoat, who actually killed Ann Campbell? Colonel Moore, the psychologist, thought it was obviously the general himself. He was “the enemy” against whom Ann had been waging psychological warfare. Paul and Cynthia maintain that the general “can’t” be the killer but not because there is evidence to clear him — there isn’t! He “can’t” be guilty because he would be politically unacceptable as a perpetrator. Bill Kent is much more suitable — always provided that he isn’t alive to face trial.

The evidence which suggests that Kent was in close proximity to Ann Campbell’s body rests on an analysis of the shoeprints at the scene. There is one crucial set of footwear that the investigators don’t have and therefore can’t eliminate: the general’s. When General Campbell tells Paul and Cynthia about his presence at the scene, he first says he went right up to where Ann was staked out and tried to free her but the stakes were hammered into the ground and he didn’t have the means to cut the ropes. Very soon afterwards, he admits that this was not true: he didn’t get close to where his daughter was lying but he and she had a vicious shouting match from a distance.

Paul doesn’t ask for the General’s shoes or boots. His excuse for this is that you can’t treat a general — particularly not a grief-stricken one — as an ordinary suspect. But this isn’t at all convincing. Paul is the investigator who has insisted on interviewing the general’s wife, who is also grief-stricken. He had also pursued the victim’s medical records from ten years before. More to the point, it would be possible to couch the request in tactful terms: it was essential to the investigation to make sense of the chaos of footprints between the body and the road. Since General Campbell’s footwear had certainly contributed to that mess, there were legitimate, unexceptionable reasons why the investigators should have asked for that footwear.

The fact that Paul didn’t ask implies two things: first, he thought there was a real possibility that the general had got close enough to where his daughter was staked out to kill her; and second, that if this was true, Paul didn’t want to know!

What this indicates is that, like Colonel Moore, Paul believed that Ann Campbell had actually been murdered by her father. Paul was a smart guy — I think he was right about this. (For what it’s worth, I also think that Cynthia and Karl shared his belief.)

As a footnote, I’d like to suggest that Bill Kent isn’t the only one on whom Paul did a “head number”. If the CID man successfully suggested suicide to Kent, might it not also be the case that he planted the idea of flight in the mind of Dalbert Elkins, by repeatedly telling him that he’d “kill” Dalbert if he were to run? Paul has previously told us that Karl Hellmann is counter-suggestible, so I don’t imagine that Karl is the only person that Paul has tried to manipulate in this way. And as Hellmann himself notes, Dalbert is not exactly smart. He’ll most likely get caught. And if he does, the army will still have his voluntary confession but will no longer be bound by the immunity deal that Paul struck with him before “encouraging” him to flee.