Most of us want to keep at least some things private, and most of us allow others their privacy, too. But sometimes, by accident, we find out something we’re not meant to know. That can be awkward and embarrassing all around. In crime fiction, it can also lead to some dangerous places. But even when it doesn’t, those awkward moments can make for interesting plot points or even comic relief.
In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to re-investigate the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time, Crale’s wife Caroline was suspected. In fact, she was arrested, tried, and convicted in the matter, and died in prison a year later. But Carla believes her mother was innocent, and wants to prove it. Poirot interviews the people who were present at the time of the killing and in the days leading up to it. He also has each witness write a personal account of the events. From that information, he works out who the killer really was. One of the witnesses is Caroline’s half-sister Angela Warren, who was a teenager at the time of the murder. She recounts a story in which she accidentally saw Caroline leaving Philip Blake’s room. It didn’t register with her at the time, but she never forgot that it happened. And that raises some interesting questions about Blake’s motive.
Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle is the story of the McKell family. Successful businessman Ashton McKell is involved with famous dress designer Sheila Grey. When his son Dane finds out about it, there’s real awkwardness and anger between father and son. Dane determines to meet this ‘other woman’ in his father’s life, and unexpectedly finds himself attracted to her. The two begin a relationship, but then, Sheila is murdered. Inspector Richard Queen is assigned to the case and, naturally, his soon Ellery takes an interest. As the investigation continues, the Queens learn of the McKell family’s relationship with the victim. Both McKell men fall under suspicion, as does Ashton Mckell’s wife, Lutetia. It’s a difficult case, and it’s not solved until Ellery Queen makes sense of cryptic clue that Sheila left behind.
Sometimes, finding out someone else’s private business can be very dangerous – even deadly. That’s what we find in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. The wealthy and educated Coverdale family decides to hire a new housekeeper. Eunice Parchman applies for the position and is quickly hired. The Coverdales don’t take the time to thoroughly vet their new employee, but things go well enough at first. But Eunice is hiding a secret – something she doesn’t want anyone to know. As long as no-one in the family finds out that secret, there’s no problem. But then, a member of the family accidentally learns what it is. That’s enough to seal the family’s death warrant, and it leads to disaster for everyone.
An accidental discovery leads to disaster in Beryl Bainbridge’s Harriet Said, too. As that novel begins, it’s summer in a quiet Lancashire coastal village, and the unnamed narrator (a thirteen-year-old girl) is waiting for her friend Harriet to return from a trip to Wales. A bit at loose ends, the narrator strikes up a friendship with Peter Biggs. He’s an unhappily married, middle-aged man at loose ends himself. The narrator begins to feel the first stirrings of hormones, but dares not do anything about it until Harriet comes back. When she returns. Harriet claims that the narrator is too emotionally close to the situation, and that they should observe Biggs objectively, and record their observations as they have other experiences. The narrator reluctantly agrees, and the two girls start to spy on the Biggs home. One night they’re watching Biggs when they see something private – something they should not have seen. The girls revise their plans, and everything takes a horrible and tragic turn.
Of course, accidentally finding out something private doesn’t always have tragic results. For instance, Peter Temple’s Bad Debts introduces Melbourne-based sometimes-attorney and PI Jack Irish. He’s good at finding people who don’t want to be found, and that’s what he’s doing as the novel begins. He’s been hired by a debt collection agency to track down a man named Eddie Dollery. He finds the man, and when he does, he makes an interesting discovery:
‘…black underwear, some of it leather, and red suspender belts.’
He also finds several ladies’ uniforms from different occupations. Irish takes it in stride, but it’s an awkward moment. Later, he has a conversation with the man who hired him:
‘’What’s on the premises?’
Wooten laughed again. ‘That’s one of the habits.’’
Irish’s attention soon turns to the case that’s the main focus of the novel: the murder of a former client. But this makes for an interesting beginning to the novel.
Sometimes people find out things, even if they weren’t snooping or prying. And when that happens, it can be awkward, embarrassing – or worse. However they end up, such moments can add a layer to a crime novel. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Mighty Lemon Drops’ Out of Hand.