I’m Just Trying to Warn You *
As this is posted, it’s the day after the Ides of March, the day Julius Caesar was assassinated. It’s said that he was warned to ‘beware the Ides of March.’ If he was, he’d hardly be the only one who was warned about coming danger. There are plenty of examples in crime fiction, as well as in real life, of warnings. Some of them are heeded, and some not. Either way, warnings can add tension and sometimes foreshadowing to a story.
Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes begins as New York police detective Tom Shawn meets an heiress named Jean Reid. She’s on the point of suicide because her father Harlan is convinced that he will die soon. It all started when Harlan Reid took a business trip. The housemaid warned Jean that if her father returned on the date he intended, he would be killed. As it turned out, he took a different flight, but the flight he had planned to take actually did crash, killing all aboard. Through the housemaid, Reid met a man named Jeremiah Tompkins who, it seems, can tell the future. Now, Reid visits Tomkins regularly. The problem is that Tompkins has predicted Reid’s death on a certain day at midnight. Shawn tries to help the Reid family as best he can, and it’s interesting to see what happens when people take warnings like this one to heart.
In Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, for example, Hercule Poirot is approached by the very enigmatic Mr. Shaitana. They have a conversation during which Shaitana invites Poirot to a dinner party. He hints that there will be people there who have gotten away with murder, and Poirot warns him that a murderer is dangerous. Shaitana doesn’t take the warning seriously, though. Sure enough, on the evening of the dinner party, Shaitana is murdered. The only possible suspects are the four people Shaitana believed to be guilty of murder. Poirot works with three other sleuths who were also at the dinner to find out who the murderer is. And it turns out that all of them have something to hide.
James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity is the story of insurance sales representative Walter Huff. One day, he finds himself near the home of one of his clients, H.R. Nirdlinger, and decides to pay the man a visit to see if he can get a policy renewal. Nirdlinger isn’t home, but his wife Phyllis is. She and Huff get to talking and before long, he’s attracted to her. She does nothing to discourage him, either. Soon enough, he’s involved with her. Phyllis has in mind a plan to kill her husband for his insurance money, and Huff falls in with her. He writes the double-indemnity insurance policy she wants, and the two plan and carry out the murder. In the meantime, Huff has met Phyllis’ stepdaughter Lola, who warns him against Phyllis. Lola believes that Phyllis is dangerous and that things can only go badly for Huff. By then, though, Huff’s in too deep, and he’s too besotted to end the relationship. As it turns out, things have a very tragic ending. Perhaps Huff should have listened to Lola…
Mick Herron’s Down Cemetery Road introduces readers to Sarah Tucker. As the story begins, she’s a bit at loose ends. Her marriage is failing, and she doesn’t really have a career to fulfil her. Then one evening, a bomb goes off in a home not far from hers. Sarah learns that the owners, Thomas Singleton and his wife Maddie, were killed, but there’s no word on what happened to their four-year-old daughter Dinah. Sarah’s concerned about the girl, so she starts to ask some questions. She doesn’t get any answers, though, and in fact, she’s given short shrift. So, she decides to hire a private detective, Joe Silvermann, who is one half of Oxford Investigations. Joe agrees to find out what he can. After he does a bit of digging, he warns Sarah to leave the case alone. He says it’s dangerous and leads to some high places. But Sarah insists that she wants answers. So, Joe keeps digging – until he’s found dead. Drugs are planted in his office, and it’s made out that he was a dealer, and Sarah a customer. Now, Sarah’s not just in trouble with people who don’t want her investigating, she’s in potential trouble with the law.
Hideo Yokoyama’s Six Four is the story of Mikami Yoshinobu, a former police detective who now works as Media Relations Director for the police department. In one plot thread of the story, Mikami is informed that the police commissioner is coming from Tokyo to pay a visit to the family of Amamiya Shoko, who was abducted and found dead fourteen years earlier in a case that was never solved. Mikami was not deeply involved in that case, but he was a small part of the effort to find the girl, so he remembers it well. As he and his team start to get ready for the visit, he finds himself asking questions about what really happened, and why the police authorities are suddenly putting renewed effort into this case. The more questions he asks, the unpleasantness he discovers. He’s warned more than once, including by well-meaning people, that he could be in danger, and that if he wants to keep his job, he should just accept the official story of what happened, and let it go. But Mikami can’t do that with integrity, so he keeps digging. And in the end, we learn the truth about that case.
Sometimes people listen carefully to warnings, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes those warnings are very well-intended and it’s wise to heed them. Other times they’re meant as scare tactics. Either way, they can add an interesting layer of suspense to a crime novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eric Clapton’s Next Time You See Her.