That’s Her Handwriting*

Handwriting is a distinctive trait. Even twins don’t have identical handwriting. That’s one reason handwriting used to be such an important aspect of criminal investigations such as forgery and fraud. It still matters, of course, even in this age of emails and electronic signatures. In fact, one basis on which a will might be contested is forgery. So, handwriting experts can still be quite valuable in an investigation (although, of course, they don’t always agree!). Handwriting is tricky, too. Take a look at the way you write a quick note to yourself as opposed to the way you might leave a note for someone else, and I’ll bet you’ll notice a difference. Mood, purpose, and more affect handwriting. As uncertain as handwriting evidence can be, it still matters, both in real life and in crime fiction.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Reigate Squire, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are visiting a friend of Watson’s so that Holmes may have a rest. Instead of resting, though, Holmes is irresistibly drawn to the mystery of the murder of William Kirwan, coachman at the nearby home of the Cunningham family. What really attracts Holmes’ attention is a piece of paper found in the dead man’s hand with a few words written on it. The rest of the paper has been torn out of his hand, and Holmes deduces that, if he can find the rest of the note, he’ll be able to find the killer. The note proves to be vital, too, and not just because of the words on it. Holmes notices important things about the handwriting that lead him to the truth about the murder.

One plot thread of R. Austin Freeman’s The Mystery of 31 New Inn concerns the will of Jeffrey Blackwell. He had made a will that specified that his fortune should go to his nephew Stephen. The will was perfectly legal and appropriately signed and witnessed. Oddly enough, he then made another will that was almost identical in nature, also signed and witnessed. The only difference between the two wills was a slight difference in the words used. That difference has meant that Stephen Blackwell is not going to inherit anything. Blackwell and his attorney have exhausted their options, so as a last-ditch effort, they visit medico-legal consultant Dr. John Thorndyke. Thorndyke and his assistant, Dr. Christopher Jervis, begin to look into the case, and their first step is to work out whether the handwriting on the new will is really that of Jeffrey Blackmore. The answer to that question, and to the question of who actually wrote the will, proves vital to that case, and to another case the two are working.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, we are introduced to the family of wealthy Emily Inglethorp. Her stepson John Cavendish has invited his friend Captain Hastings for a visit. so Hastings is present when Mrs. Inglethorp suddenly dies. It turns out that she was poisoned, but the family does not want the police to be involved. As it happens, Hastings has discovered that his old friend Hercule Poirot is living in the nearby village, so he offers to ask Poirot to investigate. When the family gives permission, Hastings seeks out Poirot, who agrees to look into the matter. One of the main lines of inquiry is to trace the poison. If it can be discovered who bought the poison, then perhaps the killer can be found. It’s traced to a local chemist, but there is still a question of who actually made the purchase. For that, Poirot and Hastings consult the chemist’s register of who purchased poison, since a signature on the register is required. The question of whose handwriting it is, and who actually purchased the poison, becomes essential to the story.

Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle is the story of famous clothing designer Sheila Grey. Late one night, she is shot in her posh New York apartment. Inspector Richard Queen investigates the death, and of course, his son Ellery partners with him. It soon comes out that the victim was in a relationship with wealthy businessman Ashton McKell, so he becomes a suspect. So does his wife Lutetia since it’s shown that she knew about that relationship. As it turns out, their son Dane also knew about the relationship, so he also becomes a ‘person of interest.’ And the three McKells are not the only possible suspects. At one point, the police think they have their killer; even Queen doesn’t see at first how it could have been anyone else. But then, Queen makes sense of an important clue that has to do with handwriting vs printing. And that gives him the information he needs to solve the case.

Although handwriting analysis is by no means an exact science, it’s still helpful, and handwriting specialists are sometimes sought out in cases where their expertise is needed. There’s even a series, Sheila Lowe’s Claudia Rose novels, that features a forensic handwriting analyst. It’s easy to forget, in this age of digital signatures, emails, and .pdfs, that handwriting can be very important. Little wonder it plays a role in crime fiction. Of course, if one’s handwriting is as illegible as mine is, I don’t know what sense an expert might make of it…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Go-Betweens’ Part Company.