It’s surprising how much of what we do and how we react is based on our assumptions – on what ‘everybody knows’ is true. ‘We all know,’ for example, what people like the biker in the ‘photo are like, right? ‘We all know,’ don’t we that a muffin has fewer calories than a doughnut does.** Right? Right? Wrong And that’s the thing about ‘what everybody knows.’ Most of it’s based on assumptions that may or may not be true at all. But those assumptions govern a lot of what we do, say and think and it can be hard to confront them. Those kinds of assumptions are such an important part of the way people think that we shouldn’t be surprised that they turn up a lot in crime fiction too. And sometimes they can have serious, even tragic consequences.
For instance, in G.K. Chesterton’s short story The Honour of Israel Gow, Father Paul Brown travels to Glengyle Castle in Glasgow, where Archibald Ogilvie, Earl of Glengyle has recently died. Glengyle lived alone except for his groundskeeper/house servant/personal assistant Israel Gow. Gow is an eccentric who, it seems, knows a lot more than he’s saying about his master’s death. ‘Everybody knows’ that Gow is deaf and perhaps ‘not in his right mind.’ ‘Everybody knows’ he may even practice some form of witchcraft or devil worship. But what ‘everybody knows’ turns out to be quite flawed, as Father Brown is able to show. When he puts the pieces of Glengyle’s death together, we learn that things are not what we assume them to be.
We also see the powerful role that ‘what everybody knows’ can play in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect). In that novel, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to solve the sixteen-year-old murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. ‘Everybody knows’ that Crale’s wife Caroline was the jealous type who could be violent. ‘Everybody knows’ that she killed her husband because of his affair with Elsa Greer, whose portrait he was painting at the time of his death. In fact, ‘everybody knows’ a lot about what happened on the day of the murder – until Poirot looks into the case more deeply. He starts with the assumption that if Caroline Crale was not guilty, somebody else was and interviews all five of the people who were ‘on the scene’ on the day of the murder. Those interviews, plus what Poirot learns from everyone’s written account, show that ‘what everybody knows’ about Caroline Crale and about the day of her husband’s murder is very skewed and wrong.
In Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black, DI Jimmy Perez investigates the murder of Catherine Ross, who’d moved not long before to Ravenswick, Shetland. At first there doesn’t seem to be much of a need for an investigation. ‘Everybody knows’ that eccentric loner Magnus Tait is probably the killer. He doesn’t have many visitors, let alone friends. He was probably the last person to see Catherine Ross alive, though. And ‘everybody knows’ that he is probably responsible for the disappearance of another girl Catriona Bryce several years earlier. No physical evidence really connects Tait with Catherine Ross’ murder but ‘everybody knows’ he is guilty. The more Perez looks into the case though, the more he begins to question what ‘everybody knows.’ So despite pressure to wrap the case up, Perez continues the investigation and in the end he finds out who really killed Catherine Ross and why.
There’s a very clear example of the damage people can do when they believe what ‘everybody knows’ in Wendy James’ The Mistake. Jodie Evans Garrow has what most people would call a very good life. Her husband Angus is a successful attorney who’s being suggested as the right candidate to be the next mayor. Her two children are healthy and doing well enough in school and Jodie herself is what most people would call content. Then her daughter Hannah gets into an accident and is taken to a Sydney hospital – as it turns out, a hospital that Jodie knows all two well. Years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child Ella Mary at that hospital. When a nurse who was there at the time remembers Jodie, she asks what happened to the baby. Jodie claims the baby was given up for adoption, and that’s when the real trouble begins. There turns out to be no record of the adoption, and it’s not long before people begin to ask private and then very public questions about Jodie. Before long, ‘everybody knows’ that she deliberately killed the baby. ‘Everybody knows’ that she’s mentally unstable and a lot of other things about her too. Even her family begins to wonder if ‘what everybody knows’ might be right. Only one person, Jodie’s friend Bridget ‘Bridie’ Sullivan, is really interested in what actually happened, rather than ‘what everybody knows’ happened. And as we find out the truth, we learn that ‘what everybody knows’ can’t always be trusted.
In Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money we meet Max Quinlan, an Australian ex-cop who’s taken up the business of finding missing people. He’s hired by Madeleine Avery to find her brother Charles, who seems to have disappeared. She’s willing to pay top money, so Quinlan agrees to take the case and travels to Bangkok, the last place Avery was known to have lived. That’s when he discovers the murdered body of Robert Lee, Avery’s business partner. Avery himself has disappeared but clues that Quinlan finds suggests that Avery has gone to Cambodia. Quinlan follows the trail there and takes with him a host of assumptions about Cambodia, its people and the tactics he should take to track Avery down. He’s wrong on just about all counts. It’s not until he lets go of ‘what everybody knows’ about Cambodia that he’s able to find out what happened to Charles Avery. What makes this story especially interesting is that Max Quinlan isn’t the stereotypical ‘White person with a racial bias against Asians.’ He’s half-Vietnamese himself, and he’s lived and worked in Bangkok before, so he thinks he knows how to operate in Cambodia. It’s a fascinating portrait of a character who has to confront what he always ‘knew’ about a place and its people.
‘Everybody knows’ what former prisoners are like, right? That’s exactly the set of assumptions addressed in Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos. In that story, a woman has recently been released from prison after serving a murder sentence. She’s given a place to live not far from a local day care facility, and settles in with her beloved pit bull Sully. She cultivates the ‘tough lesbian’ image, complete with tattoos, because ‘everybody knows’ what they’re like and leaves her alone, and that’s exactly what she wants. Then one day, she gets a complaint from the local Council because Sully is a member of a restricted breed. She’s forced to give Sully up and plans the revenge she’ll take on the woman who lodged the complaint. Throughout this story we see several examples of what ‘everybody knows’ and how very wrong that can be. And as we get to know the protagonist, we find out that there’s much more to her than what everybody thinks.
And that’s the thing about believing things that ‘everybody knows.’ Everybody isn’t always right.
** A Starbuck’s Apple Bran muffin has 380 calories. A Krispy Kreme original glazed donut has 200 calories. Of course there are differences among brands and varieties of muffins and donuts, but still… And you thought this blog was just about crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Careless Talking.