Trying to Make Some Sense of it All*
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.