Of the things that distinguish people from each other is their handwriting. Perhaps it’s not as unique as a fingerprint or DNA sample, but handwriting is sometimes quite distinctive. That’s why handwriting analysis plays the role it does both in real life investigation and crime fiction. And that’s why, for instance, people may print in block letters or take other measures to disguise their handwriting if they feel they need to. Of course, handwriting experts don’t always agree on whether, say, two samples of writing come from the same person, but handwriting can matter in a criminal investigation. There are an awful lot of examples of the importance of handwriting in crime fiction and only room in this post for a few, but hopefully they’ll suffice to give you a sense of what I mean.
In Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesoptamia, famous archaeologist Eric Leidner hires a nurse Amy Leatheran to help look after his wife Louise. Louise Leidner has been having anxiety attacks, seeing faces at windows and hearing hands tapping. A short time after Leatheran arrives, her patient confides to her that she is afraid of her former husband. She’d always believed he was killed after World War I, but she’s been getting threatening notes from him. Leatheran reads the notes and at first she can’t tell much about the handwriting. But then she sees an envelope written in Louise’s handwriting and notices the striking similarities between that writing and what she saw in the letters. Is it because Louise wrote the letters? Did someone else write them and forge the handwriting? This becomes an important question when Louise is murdered. Hercule Poirot, who happens to be in the area, is persuaded to extend his stay and investigate. He finds that the letters, and their writer, play an important part in the murder.
In Elly Griffiths’ The Crossing Places, DCI Harry Nelson is investigating two abductions. One is the ten-year-old disappearance of Lucy Downey. The other is the very recent abduction of four-year-old Scarlet Henderson. Among other things, the two cases are related by the fact that Nelson receives notes, most likely from the girls’ abductor. The notes make references to ancient mythology, the Bible and certain works of literature and on the surface of it they don’t give straightforward clues. So Nelson decides to ask archaeology professor Ruth Galloway what she makes of the references, especially the references to ancient mythology. He’s hoping that she’ll be able to interpret what the notes mean. Most of the notes are word-processed, but a few are not. Galloway is helpful in terms of what the references may mean but she can’t tell much from the handwriting at first. But those handwritten notes prove to be critical when Galloway later makes a connection between the handwriting on the notes and other handwriting she’s seen.
In Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace, Stockholm psychiatrist Siri Bergman has done her best to put her life back together after the sudden death of her beloved husband Stefan. She’s more or less functioning until she gets a letter that makes it clear she’s being stalked. That letter in and of itself doesn’t give her much information about the stalker but soon, several frightening things happen that convince her she’s been targeted. Whoever is stalking her seems determined to discredit her and ruin her reputation. Then matters worsen. The body of Sara Matteus, one of Bergman’s clients, is found in the water near Bergman’s home. A suicide note has been left behind that claims Bergman is responsible for Sara’s decision to take her own life. At first, Bergman is naturally devastated. But then it’s discovered that the handwriting isn’t Sara’s. That’s how the police determine that Sara was murdered. The murderer faked the suicide note to further discredit Bergman and to psychologically manipulate her. Now Bergman and the police have to try to track down the stalker/murderer before Bergman becomes the next victim.
There’s an interesting use of questions about handwriting in T.J. Cooke’s Kiss and Tell. London lawyer Jill Shadow agrees to take the case of Bella Kiss, who’s been arrested at Heathrow Airport for drugs smuggling. Shadow does her best to help her client but Bella refuses to reveal who has paid or coerced her to bring drugs into the country. At first, Shadow decides she’ll have to drop the case because her client seems to be obstructing her efforts. But she changes her mind and ends up involved in a complicated case involving a drugs ring overseen by some very dangerous people who have powerful connections. Shadow and her daughter Hannah are targeted too; in fact, Shadow gets a text message that threatens Hannah. That’s when it’s decided that she and Hannah should go to a safe house. But before Hannah can be safely picked up from school and brought to the safe house, she disappears. The special team that’s been investigating the drugs ring and trying to protect Shadow does all it can to find Hannah but at first there’s little success. Then Shadow gets a letter from Hannah saying among other things that she’s safe. But there are several questions about the letter. Is it really from Hannah? Is it her normal handwriting? If so, is she really safe or could she have been abducted and then coerced into writing the letter? The question of who really wrote the letter and what has happened to Hannah adds a real undercurrent of tension to this novel.
Of course, as I mentioned earlier, most people know that handwriting can be quite distinctive. That’s why forgers (a topic worthy of a separate post!) work very hard to copy handwriting, and that’s why many people who write threatening letters, ransom notes or blackmail letters often use block letters or word processors. For instance, in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Quilt or Innocence, we meet Beatrice Coleman, who has recently retired from her position in an Atlanta art gallery and moved to Dappled Hills, North Carolina. She wants to be closer to her daughter Piper and she is looking forward to the peace and quiet (or so she thinks) of retirement. In order to fit in with the local culture, Beatrice joins a quilting guild Village Quilters and begins to get to know its members. Then, one of the guild members is murdered. Beatrice begins to ask questions and very soon afterwards she starts receiving threatening notes. The notes are written in a very careful print style of writing in order to disguise the writer’s identity so at first Beatrice doesn’t know who’s threatening her. But as she keeps asking questions and finding out more about the other guild members and their backgrounds, Beatrice figures out who the note-writer is and how that person is tied in with the murder.
I know I’ve only just touched on this topic of handwriting; there’s a lot to it and when you add in things such as forgery, psychological profiling and other related topics, the issue gets even more involved. I’m going to have to write notes to myself to keep all of this in some order – that is, if I could only read my own handwriting.
OK, your turn…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Kodachrome.