One of the many skills that real and fictional sleuths needs is the ability to improvise. Even when the police are assigned to a case and get some background information, they don’t always know exactly where a case will lead them. And private investigators and fictional amateur sleuths don’t have the force of law behind them. So they can’t count on getting information because people are not legally required to give it to them. Besides, it can get dangerous for a sleuth, and improvising can be very helpful at those times. Those moments where the sleuth has to improvise have a way too of drawing the reader in. If the sleuth is at all appealing, the reader wants the sleuth to get away with that improvisation. Those moments can be funny, too.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d), Miss Marple has been ill, and although she’s been recovering nicely her doctor has insisted that she have a live-in nurse. So Miss Marple has engaged Miss Knight. The only problem is that Miss Knight is condescending and overbearing and Miss Marple does not care much for being treated like a child. One day she decides to take a walk and visit the new council development that’s been built in St. Mary Mead. She knows she needs to keep Miss Knight occupied enough not to get in the way of her plans, invents a long list of errands for Miss Knight. That improvisation gets Miss Knight out of the way long enough for Miss Marple to slip out of the house and go for her walk. Of course she doesn’t know at the time that her exploration will lead her into the mystery of the death of one of the development’s residents Heather Badcock…
In Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is on trial for the murder of her former lover Philip Boyes. She had motive and she had arsenic in her possession so the case against her is very strong. But Lord Peter Wimsey, who attends the trial, has fallen in love with Vane and is determined to clear her name so that he can marry her. He gets his opportunity when the jury cannot agree on a verdict and begins to investigate. He discovers that more than one person might have had a motive to murder Boyes. Wimsey believes that an important clue in the case might be found in the office of attorney Norman Urquhart. So through his friend Katherine Climpson he arranges for one of her employees Joan Murchison to get a job at the law office so she can do some undercover work. She’s never alone in the office though so looking for clues is difficult. One day though,she gets the opportunity. She pretends that she has to stay late to fix some mistakes she’s made. When the office manager Mr. Pond leaves, she begins to rifle the office and most importantly, finds a clue. But then she hears Mr. Pond coming back. So she improvises and pretends she’s seen a mouse and is looking for it. She’s convincing enough that Pond believes her and actually helps her put back the mess she made. And Wimsey gets the clue he needs to find out why and by whom Philip Boyes was murdered.
And then there’s Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police officer Jim Chee, who has to improvise more than once. In The Ghostway he‘s trying to find a missing teenager Margaret Billy Sosi. He’s also trying to solve the murder of one of Sosi’s distant kin Albert Gorman. Chee tracks Sosi to the outskirts of Las Angeles, where he discovers that Gorman’s killer has already found out where Sosi is. This puts the girl in great danger and Chee has to think fast as he watches her get into the killer’s van. So he pretends to be very drunk and stumbles over to the van, making himself as obvious as he can. The killer thinks Chee is ‘just another drunken Indian’ and that act allows Chee to buy Sosi the time she needs to get out of danger. No slouch herself when it comes to improvising, Sosi plays along with Chee and actually ends up saving his life.
In Kerry Greenwood’s Trick or Treat, her sleuth Corinna Chapman gets drawn into a case of sudden death when a young man jumps from a nearby roof after ingesting LSD. The police suspect the drug was in some bakery goods, so Chapman is questioned about the matter. She can vouch for her time, her employees and her bakery so it’s not long before the police change the focus of their investigation to Best Fresh, a new competitor. When Best Fresh’s baker Vincent Wyatt finds out that he’s suspected, he barricades himself in the bakery and takes a hostage. The police are hoping that Chapman will be able to get Wyatt talking, baker-to-baker, and she agrees to at least try. She’s never met Wyatt but she’s able to improvise, get him talking and free his hostage without anyone getting hurt. And hostage negotiation is not something Chapman’s done before.
Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover has to improvise too. She’s a retired schoolteacher who writes a regular column for the Bradley Bugle, the newspaper that serves the small town of Bradley, North Carolina. In Pretty is as Pretty Dies, she goes to her local church one day for what she thinks will be a meeting of a women’s group her son has ‘volunteered’ her to join. Instead, she finds the body of Parke Stockard, a beautiful and successful but malicious real estate developer. Myrtle decides to investigate the murder, mostly to show her son that she’s not ready to be put out to pasture just yet so to speak. She finds out who the killer is and confronts that person. That puts Myrtle in danger since the killer is younger and stronger than she is. But Myrtle doesn’t let that stop her for long; she may be elderly but she’s still mentally agile. She uses her cane to stop the killer long enough to keep from becoming a victim herself.
And then there’s Angela Savage’s sleuth, PI Jayne Keeney, an Australian who lives and works in Bangkok. In Behind the Night Bazaar Keeney gets involved in two murders when she decides to visit her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse in Chiang Mai. First, Did’s partner Nou is brutally murdered. Then Didi himself is killed in what police claim was the results of resisting arrest and threatening the police. Keeney is sure that’s not what happened and that Didi was murdered for a purpose. So she decides to find out who killed both men and why. The answer seems to be related to the Kitten Club, a gentlemen’s club in a very bad part of town. Keeney knows that if she goes there under her own identity she’ll be in real danger. Besides, she doesn’t want it known that she’s investigating these deaths. So she improvises. She finds conservative clothes and a large cross and pretends to be a nun. It’s a clever idea and gets her close enough to the club to begin to find out the truth about what happened to her friend and his partner.
Improvising of course can’t be done too often or it pushes the limits of credibility (how many tricks can a sleuth really be expected to have up the sleeve?). But it can add interest, draw the reader in and even inject a touch of humour into a story. Which improvisations have you liked the most?
On Another Note…
Speaking of improvising…. Don’t forget I’ll be posting a set of your 50-word mysteries, better known as Dribbles. I’m really looking forward to it. Do please give it a go and send your Dribbles to me at margotkinberg(dot)gmail(dot)com this week. I’ll put them all together and next weekend I’ll post them. C’mon, play along! It’s fun! Here are a few examples that might help you get started. Thanks very much to those of you who’ve already contributed! They’re great!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Why Should I Worry?