Crime-fictional sleuths, like their real-life counterparts, use clues to link victims (usually murder victims) to the culprits. Those clues may not mean much at first, or the sleuth may not understand the meaning at first. But once the sleuth works out what a clue means, there’s sometimes a direct connection to the killer. For the author, that means the puzzle piece can’t be obvious (otherwise, of course, there’s no real plot). On the other hand, the information can’t be too cryptic, or a story loses momentum if the sleuth takes too much time to work out the meaning of that information. It’s frustrating for the reader, too. But when they’re done well, those puzzle pieces can add to a story.
In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, for instance, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of the fourth Baron Edgware, who was stabbed in his study. His wife, actress Jane Wilkinson, is the prime suspect, as she wants to marry someone else. But she claims that she was at a dinner in another part of London at the time of the murder, and there are a dozen people who are prepared to support her claim. So Poirot has to look elsewhere for the murderer. Shortly after that murder, there’s another death. American entertainer Carlotta Adams dies of what looks like an overdose of veronal. But she never took sleeping powders (or any other drugs), so it’s a very suspicious death. A small ornamental box that contained the sleeping powder turns out to be a very important piece of this puzzle. Once Poirot traces the box’s origin, he works out who murdered both victims.
Louise Penny’s Still Life introduces her main sleuth, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. In the novel, he is called to the small Québec town of Three Pines when former schoolteacher Jane Neal is killed early on Thanksgiving morning. At first, it looks like a tragic hunting accident, but soon enough, Gamache and his team suspect murder. As a part of the investigation, the team looks through the victim’s home. When they do, they discover artwork. That artwork doesn’t really tell them much at first, but when Gamache works out what it means, he finds a very important clue to the killer. And in the end, he uses that, plus what he’s learned about Jane Neal, to solve the murder.
A picture plays an important role in Håkan Östlundh’s The Intruder, too. In that novel, Malin Andersson and her husband Henrik Kjellander, with their children Ellen and Axel, return to their home on Fårö after a two-month absence. When they get to their house, they find that it’s in a terrible state. There’s trash everywhere, broken dishes, and more. At first, they think that the people who rented their home while they were gone are responsible, and they put it down to terrible tenants. But then, Malin finds a family photograph that’s been deliberately disfigured. This is clearly not the work of drunken or sloppy tenants; it’s someone who has targeted the family. Now, Malin is worried, and she and Henrik contact the police. Gotland police detectives Fredrik Broman and Sara Oskarsson look into the matter and pursue the possibility that someone has a grudge against the family. There doesn’t seem to be a reason anyone would hate any members of the family, but as the novel goes on, we find that things aren’t what they seem. It turns out that that photograph is an important piece of the puzzle.
So is a collection of mementos in Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, the first of her series featuring academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn. The story begins at a community picnic, where rising Saskatchewan politician Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is to give an important speech. He’s just beginning his talk when he suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. Joanne was a friend and political ally, so she’s particularly affected by his death. To deal with her grief, Joanne decides to write Andy’s biography. As a part of her research, she talks to his mother and gets permission to look through some of his things. The mementos she discovers aren’t at first obvious clues. But once she works out what they mean, she gets important information that points her to the killer.
Anthony Bidulka’s Going to Beautiful is the story of Toronto-based celebrity chef Jake Hardy. As the novel opens, he has it all: a highly successful career; a loving husband; and a happy, healthy grown son, Connor. Then, everything changes. One night, Jake’s husband Eddie dies from a tragic fall off the balcony of their posh condominium. The police are called in, and it’s not long before they suspect Eddie was murdered. As you might guess, Jake becomes a ‘person of interest.’ The police clear his name, but that doesn’t assuage his grief. The one helpful guide he has is that he and Eddie each wrote out a document called I’m Dead, Now What? that lists each one’s last wishes. Jake consults Eddie’s list to plan the funeral and some other things, but there’s one word that doesn’t make sense at first: Beautiful. After a time, Jake works out that Beautiful is the name of the small Saskatchewan town where Eddie grew up. In part to escape the stress and pressure, and in part to get to know more about his husband’s life, Jake and a friend travel to Beautiful. As they spend time there, they get to know Eddie’s past. They also find out the truth about his death. That list of last wishes seems like only a list at first, but in the end, it provides important information.
And that’s the thing about some clues. They may not seem like much at first. But when they’re placed well and used effectively, even small things can be very informative.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stealers Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle With You.
12 thoughts on “Trying to Make Some Sense of it All*”
Very interesting, Margot. I think for the crime writer it must be so hard to decide about physical evidence – how much of it, where to place it, how obvious to make it. I admire your skill!
Thanks, KBR! There really are several decisions an author needs to make about things like physical evidence. Too obvious and it’s off-putting. Too well-hidden and it’s not fair to the reader. Like so much else, it’s a balance, I suppose.
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I love it when some unusal item turns out to be pivotal to the enquiry, the weirder the better. That said I can’t remember anything specific right now. Have you been watching Three Pines on Prime, Margot? (I may have asked you this before!) They seem to have created quite a different atmosphere to the one I get when I read the books but it’s not bad viewing. The casting is good, although Alfred Molina is not the Gamache I would’ve envisioned.
I assume Deadly Appearances is actually set in Saskatchewan? Only I need a book set there for next month’s Read Around Canada challenge and that might fit the bill. It certainly sounds interesting.
I agree, Cath; those unusual objects can really add to a story’s appeal. As for Three Pines, I’ve not seen it, as I don’t subscribe to Prime. But I have seen short clips and the trailer, Other people I know who’ve seen it tell me much the same as you do, that it doesn’t have the same atmosphere as the books, but that the cast is good. If it comes to other services, I’ll definitely take a look!
You’re quite right; Deadly Appearances takes place distinctly in Saskatchewan, and has a true sense of the place. Gail Bowen’s series is, in my opinion, an excellent, well-written, and very Saskatchewan series, and I recommend it highly.
I loved “Still Life” and “Deadly Appearances.” Both authors handle their clues very effectively!
I think they handle their clues really well, too, Becky! Folks, if you haven’t tried Gail Bowen’s work or Louise Penny’s work, I recommend them!
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I have read the first five of Gail Bowen’s series, and I still consider Deadly Appearances the best of them. My next to read in the series is Verdict in Blood. I think her series is the best Canadian series at showcasing the setting. I know more about Saskatchewan now (plus reading Bill’s Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan). And I need to read Anthony Bidulka’s book that you featured here also.
I agree with you, Tracy, that Bowen’s series really conveys Canada very well, especially that part of Canada. So does Bill’s blog. I think Deadly Appearances is an excellent book, and I hope you’ll enjoy Verdict in Blood. One thing I like about the series is that Bowen has her characters grow and evolve over time. And I do recommend Bidulka’s Going to Beautiful. It’s an outstanding look at Saskatchewan, I think.
All about being vigilant, you never know what little piece of the puzzle has been in front of you the whole time..paying attention to detail, no matter how small is important
That’s just it exactly, Anthony. Little details can turn out to mean everything. I think sleuths tend to be observant for just that reason.