With today’s easy access to television and the Internet, there’ve been a lot of changes in what people do for pastimes. And of course, those technologies can be both informative and entertaining (Erm – you’re reading this blog at the moment, right? ) But every once in a while it can be fun to turn off the television, close down the Internet browser and play some games. Some games (Scrabble for instance) are board games; others are card games. Either way those games can be really enjoyable. And in the days before television dominated so many people’s lives, it was almost a matter of course that one would learn to play bridge or other “parlour games.” Because of the enduring popularity of games, it’s no wonder we see a lot of them in crime fiction. A scene where people are playing a game is not only realistic but it also gives the author the chance to drop clues and “red herrings” and set the scene for further action in the story. It’s also a good way for the author to engineer the passing along of information to the sleuth.
Agatha Christie’s novels include lots of references to such games, especially bridge. I’ll just mention one that makes especially effective use of that game. In Cards on the Table, the enigmatic Mr. Shaitana invites Hercule Poirot and three other sleuths (Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race and detective novelist Ariadne Oliver) for dinner and bridge to follow. Poirot accepts the invitation although he has some concerns. The other four guests at this dinner are all people whom Shaitana hints have gotten away with murder. After dinner, the two groups of guests settle down to play bridge. Shaitana doesn’t play bridge, but he spends the evening in the room where one of the groups is playing cards. At some point in the evening, one of the card-players stabs Shaitana. The four sleuths discover his death as they’re leaving, and immediately begin to investigate. The only possible suspects are the other four bridge players, so the sleuths look into each one’s past to find out whose secret was worth killing Shaitana to keep. One of the clues Poirot uses to find the killer is the set of bridge scores.
In Ngaio Marsh’s Death and the Dancing Footman, we meet another eccentric wealthy man Jonathan Royal. For his own strange amusement he invites a group of seven houseguests for the week-end; what’s particularly strange about that is that Royal knows these guests do not get along with each other. His goal is to provoke them and see how they provoke each other. In fact, he’s invited playwright Aubrey Mandrake to join the group as the objective observer of what happens. One of the week-end amusements is a game of Charter, a Scrabble-like word game. Some people play it well; others don’t. Marsh uses that game and the note-pads that come with the game to show the different temperaments of the guests and to provide clues. They come in very handy later when one of the guests William Compline is bludgeoned with one of Royal’s artifacts. As Inspector Alleyn looks into this murder, he finds that Compline’s complicated family relationships mean that more than one person could have killed him.
Arthur Porges’ short story Horse-Collar Homicide shows how dangerous it can be to play games. Wealthy and tyrannical Leonard Lakewood has invited his family members for a night of games, which includes the strange game of “grinning through a horse-collar.” The game is played by stringing up an old horse-collar so that it hangs at about the height of a human face. Competitors put their faces through the collar and try to make the other players laugh. The winner is the player whose facial expression gets the most laughs. When it’s Lakewood’s turn he suddenly dies of what looks like a stroke. But pathologist Dr. Joel Hoffman isn’t sure that’s what happened as there’s some forensic evidence that’s not consistent with stroke. So he begins to ask questions. He finds that just about everyone in Lakewood’s family had a strong motive for murder.
Even the surging popularity of television in the last fifty years doesn’t mean that people have stopped playing board and card games. For instance, in P.D. James’ The Skull Beneath the Skin, Sir George Ralston hires private detective Cordelia Grey to go with his wife, actress Clarissa Lisle, on a week-end trip to the Isle of Courcy, owned by wealthy Ambrose Corringe. Lisle is to take part in a Victorian-dress play The Duchess of Malfi, to be held at Castle Courcy. Ralston is worried about his wife because she’s been receiving vague threats, and he wants to spare her not only danger but also anxiety. Grey agrees to the job and she and Lisle go to the island. Shortly before the performance though, Lisle is murdered. Grey feels a sense of responsibility since she was supposed to protect her client’s wife from just such a threat. So she investigates the death. Then there’s a drowning. Now Grey has to find out what connects the two deaths. In this novel there’s an interesting scene not long before Clarissa Lisle is murdered, in which she’s playing Scrabble with her host. Although it’s not key to the solution, it does provide an insight into her character.
Sometimes what used to be called “parlour games” can serve as an alibi, too. That’s what happens in Ruth Rendell’s Murder Being Once Done. In that novel, Inspector Reg Wexford’s been given doctor’s orders to take some time away from the job and rest. So he goes to visit his nephew Howard Fortune, who’s a superintendent with the Met. When a young woman’s body is found in Kenbourne Vale Cemetary, Wexford can’t resist asking questions, especially when it turns out that the victim was using an assumed name. As Fortune and his team look into the case, Wexford participates more or less informally and finds out that the chief suspect is Brian Gregson, who was seen with the victim more than once. Gregson is given an alibi by one of his associates Harry Slade, who turns out to be more than willing to say whatever is needed to cover for his friends. In fact, Slade claims that another suspect was at Slade’s home playing Monopoly with Slade, his fiancée and his mother at the time of the murder. When it’s shown that Harry Slade’s word cannot be trusted, Wexford and Fortune take another look at the alibis they’ve been given and in the end, they find out who the young woman really was and why and by whom she was killed.
Games can also be an effective context for getting and giving clues, gossip and other information that helps move the plot along. That’s how Riley Adams (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) uses the dice game of Bunko in Hickory Smoked Homicide. In that novel, beauty pageant coach Tristan Pembroke is murdered one night at a benefit auction held at her house. The most obvious suspect is Sara Taylor, a local artist who had a violent argument with the victim on the night of the auction. Sara’s mother-in-law Lulu Taylor, who owns the popular restaurant Aunt Pat’s Barbecue, is sure that her daughter-in-law is innocent and looks into the murder. She knows the value of listening to gossip and makes a point of doing just that when a group of her friends gather for a regular game night of food, wine and Bunko. During the evening she hears some valuable gossip that helps her unravel the mystery.
So the next time you get bored with what’s on television and your eyes are glazed from too much time online, you may want to try some “parlour games.” You never know what’ll happen.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an Alan Parsons Project song.