Found the Killer, Lost the Murderer

This trope describes situations in which a character has been seeking the culprit in a murder for a long, long time (in a television context, usually at least a season's worth of episodes). The character finally locates the murderer, only to find that it was a hired hit. They know who pulled the trigger, but they need to learn who hired the assassin.

Then, before the killer can be questioned, he's taken out of the scene: he escapes custody, or is killed trying to escape, or bites down on a Cyanide Pill, or otherwise arranges things so that the murder still goes essentially unsolved, despite the killer's discovery. Particularly common is for them to give in, say, "His Name Is..." and then a sniper pops his head... sometimes right off his shoulders.

Might be expanded to any form of unsolved mystery, and indeed non-criminal mysteries as well.

A subtrope of Yank the Dog's Chain, as it allows them to tease the audience with resolution ("This week, we find the identity of Leonard's father's murderer!") while at the same time preserving the tension of the unresolved mystery ("...but not why!"). This also makes it a subtrope of Failure Is the Only Option, with the twist being that they succeed in going one rung up the ladder rather than all the way to the top.

Unmarked spoilers follow.


Anime and Manga

Comic Books
  • The Pre-Crisis Batman, long after he finally tracked down the murderer of his parents, Joe Chill, discovered that Chill was actually an assassin hired by the mobster Lew Moxon who wanted revenge on Thomas Wayne for getting him arrested. Batman reopened the case to hunt his parents' true murderer down, a discovery that was especially galling considering Robin pointed out that by leaving him alive, Bruce was manipulated to be Moxon's alibi since a 10 year old could not be expected to know that a simple stick-up gone murderous was more than it seemed.

  • Inverted in Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun. Lije catches the murderer, but deliberately lets the killer go free.
  • Averted in Tom Clancy's Red Rabbit. Jack Ryan catches an Eastern Bloc assassin moments before an attempt on the Pope's life, but fails to realize that there was a hired gun until he opens fire. In this case the assassin in hauled off, while the gunman is found dead in a car later on.

Live-Action Television
  • This happens four times in Castle. The first time, Castle and Beckett find the man who murdered Beckett's mother and find that he's a hired killer, but Beckett has to shoot him in order to get Castle out of a hostage situation. The second time, Beckett manages to capture another hired killer, a sniper, who was hired by the same person(s) who ordered her mother's murder. This sniper is still alive by the end of the episode, but indicates with a stone-faced glare that he'll never inform on his clients. The third time involves a key person involved(really, really complicated) with her mother's murder- Police Captain Montgomery! She gets to talk to him uninterrupted, and he knows who the mastermind behind the conspiracy is, but refuses to say the name anyway, saying that the mastermind is so rich and powerful that giving her his name would get her killed as certainly as if he'd shot her himself. He dies minutes later. And Beckett is shot during his funeral, making it a Senseless Sacrifice. Or not so senseless, as the sniper broke into Montgomery's house looking for info on Beckett's protector; she's able to confront him, but fails at defeating him. He puts Beckett's protector in the hospital, then tries to find the incriminating files hanging over his boss's head...only to be killed by a booby trap on them. This destroyed the files...but after sifting through them, they figure out who the boss was...but they can't touch him because he's a high-ranking Senator.
    • Not entirely senseless. Montgomery took some really bad men down with him, and Beckett has much better chances of surviving that single gunshot than surviving a close encounter with a car full of hitmen.
  • This also occurred twice in Monk, with the identity of Monk's wife's killer:
    • First, in season 2, Dale the Whale gives Monk the name of the man who built the bomb that killed Trudy. This man (Warrick Tennyson) cannot name the man who hired him, but he mentions that the man had six fingers. Nearly four seasons later, we learn the Six-Fingered Man's name (Frank Nunn), but he too was only a hired hit-man. It's not until the final episode that the real murderer's identity is revealed.
    • With the Tie-In Novel Mr. Monk Is Miserable a variant happens, in that there is no hired killer, but a young woman who is stabbed as she is about to talk to Monk and Natalie was killed simply because she knew the identity of a skull Monk found in the Parisian catacombs.
  • Continuing the trend of single-word titles, Life season one ends with the capture of the man who really killed Crews's business partner and said partner's wife and family. But the Man Behind the Man gets to him in prison, so Crews still doesn't know why they were killed. It was so he would make a Face Heel Turn and become the new commander of the evil forces.
  • This happens routinely in Burn Notice. Every time Michael spends half a season tracking someone down, they suddenly die.

Video Games
  • Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Justice for All has a complete Inversion during case 4 in which the this trope is turned around. At first the killing seems like a straight forward murder. It however turns out the one who did the actual killing was a hired assassin. The one who hired the killing however is the one who eventually gets caught, while the one who did the actual deed is never give his just deserts.