We’ve all heard the expression ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’ But the truth is that we often do make snap judgements about people based on the way they speak, dress and behave. The impressions people make on us matter too. Very often people treat others in certain ways and have certain expectations because of ‘surface’ things such as dress and behaviour. Any litigator for instance will tell you that things such as dress, speech and so on can make all the difference when one’s testifying in a court case. But good sleuths know that there is almost always more to people than what we see on the surface. And good sleuths can’t afford to be misled by a ‘surface impression.’
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy, Hercule Poirot is invited to a cocktail party given at the home of famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. Shortly after the party begins, one of the guests Reverend Stephen Babbington dies of what turns out to be poison. Since Poirot was ‘on the scene’ at the time the crime was committed he works with Cartwright and two guests, Hermione ‘Egg’ Lytton Gore and Mr. Satterthwaite to find out who the murderer is. Not long after they begin asking questions there’s another murder, this time at the Yorkshire home of Harley Street specialist Dr. Bartholomew Strange. This murder is quite similar to the first, even to the people who were present at both occasions, so it’s soon clear there’s a limited pool of suspects. One of them is Oliver Manders, who works at a law office. He’s a little cocky and gives the annoying impression of rudeness and jadedness. But as we learn in the novel he’s really not like that. The fact is he’s insecure and immature. In fact with Poirot’s help he turns out to have a useful role in the novel and one could argue a very important one at the end.
In Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back we are introduced to eighteen-year-old Halvor Muntz. He gets drawn into a case of murder when his fifteen-year-old girlfriend Annie Holland is killed. Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate and on the surface of it Muntz is a very likely suspect. He’s a rather aimless young man although he does have a job at an ice cream factory. He has a violent past and although he’s neither sullen nor surly, he doesn’t present himself particularly well when Sejer and Skarre first speak to him. He also doesn’t have an ironclad provable alibi for the time of the murder. But there’s a lot more to Muntz than meets the eye and as the novel goes on we learn more about him. In fact, he is as determined to find out who killed Annie as the police are and ends up doing his own sleuthing. That sleuthing provides some very useful information and as Muntz investigates we see that he’s quite different to what he seems to be on the surface.
The same is true of Jackie Desjarlais, whom we meet in Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders. Political Science professor Joanne Kilbourn is preparing for her daughter Mieka’s upcoming wedding when Mieka discovers the body of seventeen-year-old Bernice Morin in a garbage can. Mieka knew the girl slightly so she feels the blow personally. Plans go ahead for a posh engagement party weekend at the home of Mieka’s future in-laws though, and Kilbourn prepares to bring her family to the event. Her son Pete is planning to meet them when they arrive. Matters get complicated when Pete’s former girlfriend Christy Sinclair comes back into the family picture and announces she and Pete are back together. Kilbourn was glad when the two broke up because Christy has a history of lying and manipulating Pete. She’s not even been honest about her name, which is really Theresa Desjarlais. She’s also a very needy person and Kilbourn thought Pete was well rid of her. But Theresa wants to go with the family to the engagement weekend. In order to keep the peace Kilbourn alters her plans and Theresa joins the family on the trip. On the night of the party Theresa tells Pete she’s going canoeing and drowns in the local lake. At first the explanation for her death is suicide. But it’s more complicated than that; Kilbourn finds that there is a connection between her death and that of Bernice Morin. Then there’s another death. Very slowly Kilbourn starts to put the pieces of the puzzle together and traces everything back to Theresa’s growing-up years at Blue Heron Point. There she meets Theresa’s brother Jackie, who’s become an eccentric alcoholic whom no-one takes seriously. Kilbourn gets to know him a bit though and he soon proves that he goes much deeper than anyone thinks. In the end, Jackie Desjarlais plays a crucial part in solving the murders and in helping Kilbourn personally.
We also see a character who’s more than he appears in Stan Jones White Sky Black Ice. Alaska State Trooper Nathan Active happens to be at the Chukchi, Alaska police station one morning when the body of George Clinton is found near a local bar. At first the death looks very much like a suicide, which is sadly not uncommon in that area. But police chief Jim Silver isn’t completely convinced of that and when he begins to learn more about the case neither is Active. Then another local Aaron Stone tells his wife he’s going hunting and never returns. Active goes in search of him only to find that he too is dead, again an apparent suicide. Active begins to try to connect the two deaths and finds out that a very unlikely person turns out to be a useful resource. Kinnuk Wilson is a local marijuana dealer whom the cops tolerate because
‘One, anybody who could get people to smoke pot rather than guzzle booze was doing everybody a favor in the eyes of the Chukchi law-enforcement establishment. And two, Kinnuk Wilson liked to talk to cops.’
Wilson is also an alcoholic who uses the proceeds from his ‘business’ to buy beer. He’s not a particularly prepossessing person. And yet Wilson knows a lot about what goes on in town and in the surrounding areas. And once Active gets beneath the surface so to speak, he finds Wilson to be an extremely valuable resource; in fact it’s partly what Wilson tells him that helps Active solve the murders.
Catherine O’Flynn What Was Lost is the story of the disappearance of ten-year-old Kate Meaney. When we first meet her in 1984 she’s opened her own detective agency Falcon Investigations. She spends a lot of time at the newly-opened Green Oaks Shopping Center where she’s sure there’ll be plenty of crime. Kate doesn’t have a host of friends but that’s not a problem for her. One of those friends is twenty-two-year-old Adrian Palmer who helps to run his father’s newsagent shop. Palmer is a non-conformist who loves music and he and Kate understand each other. But no-one else really does. He has the reputation of not quite ‘fitting in’ and not really having any concrete goals. Certainly he’s not what you’d call a ‘pillar of the community.’ Kate’s relatively contented life is turned upside down when her grandmother Ivy, with whom she lives, decides that Kate would be better off going away to school. Ivy makes arrangements for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive school Redspoon. Kate’s unwilling to go at first but Palmer convinces her to at least take the exams, even volunteering to go with her to the school. She finally agrees and the two take a bus to Redspoon, but Kate never returns. A thorough search is made but there’s no sign of Kate – not even a body. There’s soon talk that Palmer is responsible for her disappearance; he’s definitely the police’s favourite suspect. He claims he’s innocent but apart from Kate, no-one’s ever seen what he’s like beneath the surface. Things get so bad that he ends up leaving town, swearing he’ll never return. Twenty years later his sister Lisa is the assistant manager at Your Music, one of the stores at Green Oaks. One night she makes the acquaintance of Kurt, a mall security guard. Together the two of them begin to suspect that the riddle of Kate Meaney’s disappearance may be solvable and each in a different way, they start to ask questions. In the end we learn what really happened to Kate Meaney and we learn what Adrian Palmer was really like beneath the surface.
And then there’s Sylvie Granotier The Paris Lawyer. In that novel, fledgling Paris attorney Catherine Monsigny gets the chance to prove herself and build her reputation when she defends Myriam Villetreix, who’s been arrested for poisoning her wealthy husband Gaston. When Catherine meets Myriam, she’s not overly impressed with the woman, who seems wilted by prison life. She seems to do little to help her own case and Catherine is worried about the impression she’ll make when her case is heard. It seems odd too since she learns through other interviews and papers in the case file that Myriam had been a lively woman who seemed to energise her husband. As time goes on she continues to coach Myriam on the kind of impression she needs to make. But as it turns out, there’s more to this case than it seems. Was Myriam framed for murder? Did she really kill her husband? I don’t think it’s giving away spoilers to say that people’s tendency to make judgements plays a major role in this plot.
It does in a lot of other crime fiction plots too – many more than there is room for in this post. Little wonder too as it’s a useful device for adding twists and turns to a mystery.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rebelution’s Good Vibes.