Don’t Know What it Means*

 Many real-life murders (I don’t have any evidence, but my gut feeling tells me most real-life murders) are committed with weapons that are either convenient or that don’t require special training. In other words, the murder weapon itself isn’t specially chosen to kill a particular victim. That’s not always the case, though. Sometimes the weapon is symbolic in some way. Among many other things, that’s the reason that detectives consider the weapon that was chosen.

There are also plenty of symbolic weapons in crime fiction, too. And they can tell the investigator quite a lot about the victim and the killer. Symbolic weapons can also add interest to a story.

Agatha Christie uses a very symbolic weapon in Murder on the Orient Express. In that novel, Samuel Ratchett is on the famous Orient Express train, on his way across Europe. On the second night of the three-day journey, he is stabbed in his compartment. Hercule Poirot is on board the same train, and he is persuaded to investigate, so that the culprit can be found before the train crosses the next international border. The only possible suspects are the other people in the same coach, so Poirot takes a hand in interviewing all of them, and in putting the puzzle together. He finds that the weapon is symbolic, and tells a lot about both the victim and the killer.

Full Dark House is the first of Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May/PCU novels. Arthur Bryant and John May have been in the Met’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) since 1940, when the unit was established. Its purpose is to investigate unusual crimes that haven’t been solved. Now, Bryant is writing his memoirs. In the process, he turns up some shocking new findings related to the PCU’s first case. Shortly after that, a bomb blast destroys the PCU’s offices, taking Bryant with it. Grieving for his lost friend, May decides to follow up on the case Bryant was researching. The book then goes back to 1940, and the Palace Theatre. Tanya Capistrania is a dancer who’s just landed a solo part in the upcoming production of Orpheus. When she’s found dead with her feet removed, it looks like good fit for the newly fledged PCU. Other deaths follow, and it looks very much like someone is trying to shut down the theatre. As the novel follows this first investigation, we also see how the modern-day May returns to the evidence to see if he can find out the truth about the case. As it turns out, there is symbolism to the murders.

John Burdett’s Bangkok 8 introduces his protagonist, Sonchai Jitplecheep, a member of the Royal Thai Police, and a devout Buddhist. As the story begins, Sonchai and his police partner, Pichai Apiradee, are on surveillance, following a black Mercedes. By the time they catch up to the car, they find that the driver is dead – killed by poisonous snakes. In fact, one of them bites Pinchai, leaving him mortally wounded. Sonchai wants to find out who is responsible for his friend’s death, so he is especially motivated find learn who killed the driver. The dead man, William Bradley, was a U.S. Marine, so Sonchai works with FBI Special Agent Kimberly Jones to get to the truth about Bradley’s murder (and Sonchai’s). It turns out that this murder is not the sort of murder it seems on the surface. And the murder weapon plays a role in that.

In Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool, Detective Chief Inspector Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team investigate the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. Everyone’s always thought that she committed suicide, but Scarlett has never fully believed that explanation. As the squad looks more deeply into the case, they find that this murder is connected to two other, more recent murders. And all three murder weapons are very carefully chosen, even symbolic. Once the team understands what’s behind those choices, they start to make sense of the case.

And then there’s in Håkan Östlundh’s The Intruder. Malin Andersson, her husband, Henrik Kjellander, and their two children, Ellen and Axel, are returning to their home on Fårö after a two-month absence. When they get to the house, they discover that it’s in a terrible mess. There’s trash everywhere, and several dishes and utensils are missing. The family had rented their home to short-term tenants while they were away, so at first, it looks like the work of the people who were staying in the house. Then, Malin finds a mutilated family photograph. It’s very deliberately done, and in a way that makes it clear that it’s a specific, personal attack. Now Malin’s frightened, and she calls in the police. Gotland police detectives Fredrik Broman and Sara Oskarsson begin the work of finding out who might have a grudge against one or more members of the family. Then, other, frightening, things begin to happen, and it becomes clear that they’re going to have to work fast if they’re to find out who has targeted the family before someone is killed. Admittedly, the damaged photograph isn’t a murder weapon. But it is very symbolic.

Symbolic weapons can convey a lot of information about the victim and the perpetrator. And, when used in crime novels, they can add interest and innovation to a story, too. These are a few examples. Over to you.

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by the Tedeschi Trucks Band.

 


8 thoughts on “Don’t Know What it Means*

  1. Empty head today, Margot I’m afraid. Thanks for the reminder of Burdett and Edwards, just two authors of many I’ve been ignoring for too long.

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    1. No worries, Col. And I do like the work of both Burdett and Edwards very much. They’re very different sorts of stories, but both are excellent, in my opinion. I hope you’ll like them when you get to them.

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  2. I remember when I read Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room and discovered the murder weapon was a mutton-bone! It seemed so uniquely odd that I was sure it must symbolise something. Imagine my disappointment on discovering it was simply a name for a kind of cosh – I still think it would have been better if it had been a real mutton-bone… 😉

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    1. Thanks, Richard. I really like the PCU series, too. It’s got such interesting plots, and the characters develop over time, in my opinion. And, yes, I think Full Dark House was very well done!

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