I Started a Joke*
As this is posted, it’s April Fool’s Day, a time when a lot of people play practical jokes and pranks (so be careful where you sit, what you eat or drink, and whether you believe something someone tells you…). People pull pranks for a number of reasons. Sometimes it’s spite; sometimes it’s to see whether someone can ‘take a joke.’ Sometimes it’s even a sort of initiation. Whatever the reason, pranks have a long history, and we certainly see them in crime fiction. It makes sense, too, when you think about how many ways a prank can go wrong…
In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to find out who killed her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. He was poisoned one afternoon sixteen years earlier, and his wife Caroline was arrested, tried, and convicted for the crime. She had motive, too, as her husband was having a not-very-well-disguised affair with another woman. Carla is convinced her mother was innocent, though, and wants Poirot to find out what really happened. Poirot speaks to all five of the people who were present at the time of the murder, and he gets written accounts from each. One of those people is Angela Warren, Caroline Crale’s half-sister, who was fifteen at the time of the killing. It turns out that she had played pranks on Crale before, and on the morning of the murder, she’d put valerian into his drink. But does that mean she killed her brother-in-law? It’s one of the many clues that Poirot has to sift through to get to the truth.
In Louise Penny’s Still Life, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec investigates when beloved former teacher Jane Neal is found dead on Thanksgiving. She was well-liked and respected in the small town of Three Pines, and on the surface, it looks as though she died as the result of a horrible accident. But Gamache has questions, and he starts to pursue the case. One thing he learns is that, not long before, a small group of boys had played a nasty, homophobic prank on Gabriel ‘Gabri’ Dubeau and his partner Olivier Brulé. Jane Neal saw what happened and called the boys out by name. That angered the boys, and it makes them suspects, but does it mean that they or their families killed her? It’s an example of the way a prank can get a person in quite a lot of trouble.
Peter James’ Roy Grace series begins with Dead Simple. In the novel, Grace is faced with a strange and frightening case when Michael Harrison goes missing on the night before his planned wedding to Ashley Harper. He’s gone out with some friends for his ‘stag do,’ and as a prank, they bury him in a coffin with a breathing tube, a bottle of whiskey, and a pornographic magazine. Their intention is to free him after a while, but they’re involved in a car crash that kills two of them and incapacitates the third. When Harrison doesn’t show up for his wedding, the police get involved, and it’s a race against time to find out what’s happened to the groom. There’s more to this mystery, though, than a case of a stag prank gone wrong. It turns out that Grace has to unpack a web of lies and past histories to find out the truth.
In Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police goes to the scene of a reported home invasion. With him goes probationer Lucy Howard. Tragically, White is murdered while investigating, and all of his colleagues are devastated. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, and soon enough, the police want to catch him. It won’t be easy, though, because Rowley is a minor who is part Aboriginal. So, the media and public will be watching very carefully everything the police do. As the various members of White’s team grieve, one of them, Cameron ‘Cam’ Walsh, remembers a prank that White had played on him to see if he could take a joke. It wasn’t harmful, just a bit embarrassing, and now Walsh remembers it fondly. As the novel goes on, we see all other ways, too, in which White’s death has impacted the people he knew.
There’s also K.B. Owen’s Dangerous and Unseemly, the first in her Concordia Wells series. Concordia is a teacher at Hartford Women’s College in Connecticut. It’s the very end of the 19th Century, and ‘ladies’ are expected to behave ‘appropriately.’ That does not include getting involved in something as sordid as murder, but that’s exactly what Concordia does. She is supervising the school’s upcoming production of Macbeth, and doing the best she can, although she hadn’t planned to be in charge of the show. While she’s trying to put the show together, the school falls victim to some malicious pranks. There’s even a bit of arson. That’s bad enough, but when the school’s Bursar does in an apparent case of suicide, Concordia knows that something more than pranks is going on. Against her better judgement, she starts asking questions, and she finds herself in a great deal of danger.
A lot of people think that pranks are fun. Whether you do or not, there’s no doubt they’re popular. And crime fiction shows us that they can also be dangerous…
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Bee Gees song.