If you look around your home, even casually, I’ll bet there’ll be photographs. Most people keep photographs of friends and loved ones as reminders. And even in today’s digital world, people still like ‘real’ photographs. They’re even used in home memorial shrines in some cultures. That’s why, except for within certain cultures (e.g. the Amish), it’s very unusual to find a home without any.
In crime fiction, just as in real life, photographs say a lot about a person. So, for the detective, they can provide really useful information. And there are dozens of crime novels in which a photograph provides a vital clue. It’s just as telling, though, when there are no photographs. That, too, says a lot about a person.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Hercule Poirot is on a plane from Paris to London. During the flight, one of the other passengers suddenly collapses and dies. When it becomes clear that she was poisoned, Chief Inspector Japp is assigned to the case. Since Poirot was on the flight, he gets involved in the investigation. It turns out that the deceased was a French moneylender who did business under the name of Madame Giselle. A moneylender might make all sorts of enemies, so it’s possible that she was killed by someone she knew professionally. But she also had a private life, and that might be the key to the murder. So, Poirot visits her home. He’s surprised to find that there are no photographs of a spouse or children. It’s as though Madame Giselle had no personal life at all. While the lack of photographs doesn’t tell Poirot who the killer is, it does suggest something about the victim’s personality.
Rex Stout’s The Father Hunt is the story of Amy Denovo. She is working for Lily Rowan, Archie Goodwin’s sometimes love interest. After meeting Archie, Amy tells him that she must find out who her father is, and that she wants to hire Nero Wolfe to get answers. It seems that Amy’s mother, Elinor, was killed by a hit-and-run driver three months ago, so she can’t answer any questions. In any case, she was quite mysterious herself. In fact, there are no photographs of her in her apartment or anywhere else. The only pictures of her were candids taken without her knowledge. Not surprisingly, even her name is an alias. Now, Wolfe and his team are going to have to find out who Elinor Denovo really was if they’re going to find out who killed her, and who Amy’s father might be.
Arnaldur Indriðason’s Outrage finds Inspector Erlendur takes some time off for a hiking holiday. So his associate, Elínborg, leads the investigation when the body of a young man named Runolfur is found in his apartment in Thingholt. There aren’t that many clues, other than evidence that a woman was in the apartment. Oddly enough, there are also no photographs or artwork. So Elínborg doesn’t have much to guide her. The one thing she does learn is that Runolfur had a high level of rohypnol in his system. It’s also soon established that he had some connections to drug dealers. Elínborg and her team talk to the other people living in the building, and try to find out more about the dead man’s friends, possible partners, and other associates. It takes some time, but in the end, Elínborg is able to put together the pieces and find out who would have wanted to kill the victim and why.
J.P. Delaney’s The Girl Before features a beautiful house with a striking minimalist design, designed by famous architect Edward Monkford. He is also the owner of the house, and he chooses its occupants. A young woman named Jane takes an interest in the place and applies for it, hoping for a fresh start in life. She gets the home, but is subject to some very strict guidelines, including no pictures, no potted plants, and no books (no books!). It’s a very strange agreement, but she takes the place. She also finds herself interested in Monkford, and he in her. It’s not long, though, before she finds that about a year earlier, a woman named Emma, and her partner Simon, had lived in the house. It seems that Emma died there, and that there’s more to this house, and its owner, than it seemed. There are some unusual parallels between the young women’s lives, and as Jane learns more, we see how even the nicest place can hold dark secrets.
And then there’s Diane Jeffrey’s He Will Find You. In it, Kaitlyn Best has a one-night stand with her former crush Alex. Within a very short time, they’ve started a relationship, and soon marry. Then, Kaitlyn discovers that she’s pregnant. As any dedicated crime fiction fan could imagine, it’s a situation that’s too good to be true. Kaitlyn is hoping for a happy life with Alex and their daughter, but Alex begins to change. Soon enough, Kaitlyn learns that Alex is not who he seems to be. For example, he’s told her he has two other children, Poppy and Violet, from other relationships. But he has no photographs of them in the house. He doesn’t seem to contact them, either. There could be a reasonable explanation for that, but it’s unsettling. Now, Kaitlyn begins to be afraid for herself and for her daughter.
Sometimes the absence of something, including photographs, tells as much as anything else could. These are just a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ringo Starr’s Photograph.
8 thoughts on “But All I’ve Got Is a Photograph*”
No books? Gasp! Must be a psycho’s house. 😉
Yeah, that was one of my thoughts, too, Sue! If you ever do read that one, I’ll be interested in what you think of the way the author developed that character, and the reasons for all those rules.
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No books??? Mind you, sometimes I can see the appeal of that as I shift piles of books around constantly in the vain hope that somehow that will create extra space… 😉
Haha! I feel the same way, FictionFan! I’ve found it doesn’t matter how many neat little stacks or shelves of books you arrange, though. It’s still the same number of books… Still, I’d rather have that challenge than no books. Can’t fathom that.
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Interesting theme, Margot. Whatever happened to the clue hidden behind a photo frame? It’s usually a scrap of paper, half a map or photograph, indecipherable words and symbols, but I guess it was all too common back then. Did Agatha Christie ever use this element in any of her mysteries?
Thanks, Prashant. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And you’re right that paper stuck behind photographs, or clues written on their backs, are really important in a lot of classic crime fiction. As far as Agatha Christie goes, there’s a clue written on a photograph in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. Can’t say more for fear of spoilers, but it’s there.
Brain freeze, I’m sure I’ve read something where a photograph unlocks a mystery a detective is investigating. Can I think of it? Not today…grrr
You’re always welcome here, Col, whether the brain’s awake or frozen. Mine freezes up, too, at times…