Do This, Don’t Do That, Can’t You Read the Sign*

Why do people sometimes touch a banister or bench, even though the sign says, ‘Wet Paint?’ What is it about a sign that says, ‘Keep Off the Grass’ that draws people to go on that very grass? Sometimes it’s convenience. A path across grass might be the shortest route to get wherever one’s going. Sometimes it’s frustration (e.g., rattling on a door when the shop sign clearly says ‘Closed.’). There are other reasons, too. Whatever the reason, plenty of people ignore warnings. Sometimes, that can get them into trouble, but it still happens. It happens in crime fiction, too.

At the beginning of Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds, for instance, a group of people are boarding a plane from Paris to London. One of the passengers is Lady Cicely Horbury. She settles into her seat, as does her seatmate, the Honourable Venetia Kerr. Almost immediately, both women take out cigarettes and light them (something that would be hard to imagine today!). A steward warns both of them that there’s no smoking. Cicely Horbury is self-entitled enough to be angry at being thwarted like that, and it’s an interesting look at her personality. That sense of self-entitlement comes back to haunt her when she gets mixed up in the poisoning death of another passenger. Marie Marisot, who operates a moneylending business under the name Madame Giselle, is poisoned on the flight, and all of the other passengers in the cabin become suspects – including Hercule Poirot, who’s on that same plane. Naturally he wants his own name cleared, and he takes on the investigation.

In Susan Walter’s Good as Dead, we are introduced to Andy and Libby, who live in an expensive home in an exclusive community. Andy is a former investigative reporter whose dream is to be a successful screenwriter. He’s drawn into an interesting mystery when Holly Kendrick and her daughter Savannah move in across the street. He senses there’s a mystery about them, and there is. Holly’s husband Gabriel was killed in a hit-and-run incident, and the driver, who’s very wealthy, has given them a multi-million-dollar home and a luxurious life in exchange for their silence. Andy slowly works to find out about them. But he also has another goal. He wants to get his screenplay into as many hands as he can, so he’s delighted when he actually gets the chance to meet with famous Hollywood producer Jack Kimball. For a number of reasons, he’s a little behind schedule, and he knows Kimball won’t wait. But parking his car is going to be a problem. Here’s his solution:

‘I parked illegally, in a spot reserved for “Vanpool Only,” willing to risk that I might get towed. Then I ran.’

It’s not spoiling the story to say that he’s lucky – that time. It’s interesting how desperation will drive people to ignore signs and warnings.

In Michael Campling’s A Study in Stone, we are introduced to Dan Corrigan, who’s burnt out from his hectic London job. He’s taking some time to recuperate in the small Devonshire town of Embervale. One day, he meets former teacher Alan Hargreaves. The two of them are having coffee at a café one day when the owner shows them a tablet with a strange inscription. In spite of himself, Corrigan is intrigued. He decides to decode the inscription, and Hargreaves becomes interested, too. The inscription leads to an old piece of WW I history, and the two men decide to explore that further. They visit a local historical site, Knightsbridge House. While they’re there, they discover an interesting clue, but Dan starts asking a few too many questions, and it’s made clear that they should leave. They’re walking around the grounds when Dan looks at the map they were given:

‘He held the leaflet out to Alan, jabbing his finger at the simplified map of the estate. “That whole area is marked as private. It ought to be worth a look.”’

As it turns out, their explorations lead to some dark truths about the history of the town.

In Angela Savage’s The Half-Child, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney gets a new case. Maryanne Delbeck fell (or jumped, or was pushed) from the roof of the Pattaya building where she was living. The police report put the tragedy down to suicide, but Maryanne’s father Jim doesn’t believe that’s true. He wants Keeney to find out what really happened to Maryanne. The trail leads in a few directions, one of which is Bangkok’s nightclub scene. Keeney’s there one evening (and playing pool very well), when she gets too much attention from one of the other patrons of the bar she’s visiting. The bar has a show, and the dancers have a private room for changing. Keeney suspects she might be safe there, and slips in, much to the surprise of the dancers. She convinces them to hide her just before the man she’s avoiding comes there, looking for her. It’s an interesting case of two people going to an ‘off-limits’ place for two different reasons.

 And then there’s Hideo Yokoyama’s Six Four. Mikami Yoshinobu is a former police detective who now works for the police in their Media Relations department. It’s his task to inform the press of police investigations, and to ensure that the press doesn’t reveal details that would endanger an investigation or the people involved in it. Mikami is forced to revisit an old kidnapping/murder case in which the police failed to catch a kidnapper, even after the family paid a high ransom. It’s a blot on the police’s record, and everyone’s tried to live it down. But it becomes highly relevant when the police commissioner decides to visit from Tokyo and pay respects to the bereaved family. As Mikami looks through the old case, he finds an anomaly that leads him to uncover some dark truths about the police. At one point, he wants to visit the police department’s station captain urgently. He bursts through the main doors of the office, and even though he’s told more than once that he can’t go in, he pushes one of his bosses aside and goes in anyway. Admittedly there’s not an official sign to keep him out. But there might as well be; Mikami flouts the rule that governs what’s supposed to be done because he sees the urgency of what he needs.

And that’s an important reason why people sometimes don’t heed signs like ‘No Parking,’ or ‘Do Not Enter.’ Sometimes it’s self-entitlement, too, or the need to test a limit. Whatever the reason, those signs don’t always work. But I still suggest you not sit on a bench if there’s a ‘Wet Paint’ sign on it.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Five Man Electrical Band’s Signs.