Better Beware, be Canny and Careful*

Reading crime fiction offers a lot more than just engaging, suspenseful stories and a chance to escape for a while. Crime fiction readers can also learn a lot of important safety lessons. Don’t believe me? It’s true. Just consider what happens to crime-fictional characters when they don’t follow basic do’s and don’ts that every crime fiction fan knows. Here are just a few to show you what I mean; I’m sure you can think of lots more.

I. If you’re wealthy, be sure to be generous.

Let’s start with this easy one. Any fan of crime fiction can tell you that one sure way to become a murder victim is to be wealthy, but not share. Just ask Emily Arundell, who features in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client). Well, you could ask her if she were alive. But early in the novel, she is murdered. She actually suspected that one of her family might be trying to kill her, and wrote a letter to Hercule Poirot, asking for his help. But by the time he got there, it was too late. Now, he and Captain Hastings investigate, and they find out that more than one of Miss Arundell’s relatives were desperate enough for money to kill her.

As a corollary to this, you also want to be kind and loving to your relatives if you’re wealthy. In Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas, wealthy heiress Charity Wiser finds out that being unkind to your potential heirs is a dangerous thing to do. In fact, she sends her granddaughter to Saskatoon PI Russell Quant because she suspects one of her family members wants to kill her. Quant takes the case and ends up involved in the doings of a dysfunctional family headed by a rich, but widely disliked, woman.

II. Ignorance really can be bliss.

Any fan of crime fiction can tell you that it’s not safe to be too curious. It’s not even safe to stumble on something that it’s best not to know. That’s what happens in Tony Hillerman’s Sacred Clowns. In the novel, Navajo Tribal (now Nation) Police Sergeant Jim Chee gets a new case. Delmar Kanitewa has gone missing from the boarding school he attends. Chee also learns that one of the teachers, Erick Dorsey, was recently murdered. It’s possible that Delmar knows something about Dorsey’s death. If so, the boy could be in serious danger. So, it’s important that Chee find him as soon as possible. As it turns out, more than one murder in this novel comes down to people knowing more than it’s safe to know.

I’m sure you can think of many other novels in which characters find out things they have no business knowing. It’s really not safe. So please, go about your business and don’t ask too many questions.

III. Abandoned places are abandoned for a reason. Avoid them!

Oh, it might be fun to explore that old barn, or that disused warehouse, or the house that nobody’s lived in for years. But crime fiction fans know that’s a really good way to either find a dead body or become one. For example, in Peter May’s The Blackhouse, which takes place on the Isle of Lewis, two young people slip off to an abandoned boat shed for some time alone. Instead, they find the body of Angel Macritchie. That, of course, is enough to take the romance out of their date. The police are alerted, and it turns out that Macritchie’s death is similar to another murder in Edinburgh. So Edinburgh police officer Finn Macleod is seconded to the Isle of Lewis to help in that investigation. He’s originally from the island, although he hasn’t been back in years (and with good reason). So, as he investigates Macritchie’s death, he also has to face his own past. And all because two young people had to visit that boat shed.

IV. The more perfect a place seems, the more dangerous it probably is.

Oh, the houses may be beautiful, the people friendly, and the living easy. But beware. Something could very well be lurking just beneath the surface. Just consider Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows, for instance. That novel takes place mostly in the late 1990s in the ultra-exclusive community of Cascade Heights Country Club, usually called the Heights. It’s about 30 miles from Buenos Aires, but it might as well be on a different planet from the way most people live. Only the very wealthy can afford to live there, and even they are carefully vetted before being allowed to move in. Residents have an exclusive golf club, among many other amenities, and they’re not really subject to ‘regular’ law enforcement. Instead, a committee formed by club members maintains the community. Houses are showplaces, and families can afford the best private schools, restaurants, and so on. But beneath this idyllic surface, there’s trouble. The economic woes  of the time work their way into the Heights, and people begin to find it more difficult to maintain the lifestyle that’s expected of them. As time goes on, conditions worsen, until tragedy strikes one night at the home of El Tano Scaglia and his wife Teresa. It turns out this perfect community is far from it. And it’s not the only one (right, fans of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives?).

So, next time you see that perfect-looking community with the beautiful houses and the friendly people, keep going. You’re better off that way. I’m just saying…

V. Think with your brain, not with your…. just think with your brain. 

Ah, yes, romance can be wonderful. And falling in love can be one of life’s real treasures. But be careful. That love affair can take you down all sorts of paths you don’t want to travel. That’s what happens with Walter Huff, whom we meet in James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. He’s an insurance salesman who drops in to visit a client, H.S. Nirdlinger. Instead, he meets the man’s wife, Phyllis. They get to talking and he soon finds himself attracted to her. Phyllis does nothing to discourage Huff, and before long, they’re having an affair. She then tells him that she wants to kill her husband. She wants to take out an accident policy, so that she can inherit when he dies. By the time he hears of her plan, Huff is so besotted with Phyllis that he goes along with it. He even writes up the double indemnity policy she requests. And when the day of the murder comes, he’s the one who carries out the plan. He soon sees, though, that he has actually committed a murder, and that unnerves him. Matters soon spiral out of control, and the end is tragedy.

You see what I mean? Crime fiction fans can keep themselves safe by following a few simple rules from stories. And please, please, charge your phone and fill your tank before you go anywhere. You’re welcome.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Sixteen Going on Seventeen.