But Don’t You Step on My Blue Suede Shoes*

ShoesNot long ago, Moira at Clothes in Books wrote a very interesting piece for the Guardian book blog about shoes in literature. Footwear really does say a lot about us, which is why it plays such a prominent role in crime fiction. Before I go any further about that, let me invite you to check out Clothes in Books – a treasure trove of insights about shoes, clothes, culture and what it all says about us in fiction.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes always learns quite a lot from what people wear, and that includes their shoes. In A Scandal in Bohemia, for instance, Holmes and Watson haven’t seen much of each other lately, but here is what Holmes says:

 

‘How do I know that you have been getting yourself very wet lately, and that you have a most clumsy and careless servant girl?’ 

 

The answer to that question is shoes. Holmes can tell by slit marks on the inside of Watson’s left shoe that mud was scraped from it by someone very careless. Simplicity itself, as Holmes says. Granted, the focus of this particular mystery isn’t Watson’s shoes, but it’s an interesting example of the way Holmes uses evidence that he finds in footwear.

So does Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Although he generally isn’t one to look for things like cigarette ash and footprints, he does use physical clues at times. Just as one example, in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Poirot is leaving the office of his dentist Henry Morley when he sees a woman getting out of a taxi. She’s wearing a pair of shoes with buckles on them and accidentally tears off one of the buckles. In a rather funny scene, Poirot returns the buckle to her and she goes into the office while he goes on his own way. Poirot learns later that Morley has been shot and works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who the killer is. And part of that process is interviewing all of the people who visited the dentist on the fatal day. One of those people is Miss Mabelle Sainsbury Seale, the owner of the shoe with the torn-off buckle. Not long after that interview, there’s another death. And then Miss Sainsbury Seale disappears. It’s clear now that there’s more going on here than the murder of one dentist. In the end, Poirot and Japp find out the truth, and one important clue comes from that torn-off shoe buckle.

Christie fans will know that Poirot himself would never consider worn-down or broken shoes. He much prefers his polished, pointed-toe, patent leather shoes. He even wears them at times when something more comfortable would be much more appropriate. But as he puts it, he likes to be soigné.

Arthur Upfield’s Death of a Swagman sees Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte traveling to the small town of Merino to investigate the murder of stockman George Kendall. Bony is working on that case when there’s another death. Itinerant worker John Way seems to have committed suicide in the same isolated hut where Kendall’s body was found. This is a complex and carefully-planned series of events, but Bony finds out who’s behind them and what the motive is. And one of the things that help him get to the truth is a particular kind of footwear.

Shoes also figure in Faye Kellerman’s The Ritual Bath. LAPD Detective Peter Decker is investigating a series of rapes committed by a man dubbed the Foothill Rapist. So far he and his partner Marge Dunn haven’t had a lot of luck. Then comes the news that there’s been a rape at a secluded yeshiva – an Orthodox Jewish community and place of learning. At first Decker and Dunn think that this rape has also been committed by the Foothill Rapist. But there are some differences between this incident and the others. One of them is shoes. The other victims were all wearing high-heeled shoes, but this victim was wearing sandals. It’s not conclusive evidence that this is a different culprit, but it does make Decker wonder. Then, there’s a brutal murder at the same yeshiva. Now it’s clear that something is going on there that’s likely quite separate from the Foothill Rapist cases. Decker works with Dunn and with Rina Lazarus, who lives at the yeshiva, to find out what’s behind the events there.

Footwear plays a very important role in Johan Theorin’s Echoes From the Dead. Retired sea captain Gerlof Davidsson has lived on the island of Øland all of his life, and knows most of its residents and a lot of its secrets. One day, he gets a shocking package – a sandal belonging to his grandson Jens. Jens was wearing those sandals when he disappeared twenty years earlier, and no trace of him has ever been found. His mother Julia was so distraught at his disappearance that she left the island, planning never to return. When she finds out about the sandal, she reluctantly returns to Øland to help find out the truth about Jens. As Julia and her father face the past, we learn how the island’s history and secrets people have been keeping still have an effect.

Chief Inspector William Wisting of the Stavern, Norway police has to deal with a grisly collection of shoes in Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs. The main action in that novel begins with a left foot clad in a training shoe washes up on the beach. Soon after that, another left foot, also wearing a shoe, is discovered. And then another. The media and the public come up with all sorts of theories, including the possibility that some kind of twisted serial killer is at work. Wisting and his team know that the more quickly they figure out who the feet belonged to, the more likely it is that they’ll solve this case. So they go back through the records of missing persons. They discover that list of people missing could very well be related to the case of the shoes and feet that have been discovered. Bit by bit, the team ties the two major threads of the case together.

Shoes are very important to Mma. Grace Makutsi, Associate Detective in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. In fact, in a few of the novels, they even speak to her. And in Blue Shoes and Happiness, she learns the importance of buying shoes that are not just attractive, but comfortable too. One day she and her boss, Mma. Precious Ramotswe, are out together when she sees a beautiful pair of blue shoes with red linings. They’re elegant, but not particularly practical, and Mma. Ramotswe doesn’t think they’ll be comfortable. But she knows that Mma. Makutsi loves shoes. So she doesn’t say too much when the purchase is made. But when Mma. Makutsi wears them to work the next day, it’s obvious that she’s uncomfortable:

 

‘…there were some pairs of shoes that would never be broken in. Shoes that were too small were usually too small for a reason: they were intended for people with small feet.’

 

Mma. Makutsi runs into more shoe trouble in The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, when she wears a pair of dressy shoes to a job placement agency. She and Mma. Ramotswe have had a serious difference and she’s looking around for a new position. On her way back from what turns out to be a difficult time at the agency, Mma. Makutsi breaks the heel of her shoe. It’s not a good day for her.

Fans of Anne Zouroudi’s enigmatic sleuth Hermes Diaktoros will know that he always wears white sneakers which he takes great pains to keep pristine. Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh has the same footwear preference.  And that’s the thing about shoes. We all have our own preferences and unique way of walking in our shoes. In that way, they are arguably nearly as individual as people are. Little wonder they matter so much in crime fiction.

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carl Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes. Listen to his version and Elvis Presley’s version and decide which one you like better.

23 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Anne Zouroudi, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Faye Kellerman, Jørn Lier Horst, Johan Theorin

23 responses to “But Don’t You Step on My Blue Suede Shoes*

  1. Thanks Margot, proud to have inspired such a post, and what a great collection of footwear you have assembled. I recently re-read Christianna Brand’s Death in High Heels – though that’s more a reference to the modish dress shop where the characters work, rather than specific detail of shoes. IN one of Josephine Tey’s novels, there is something missing (from a suitcase) I think, and no-one can think exactly what it could be of that exact size and shape. Well you can guess what it is – but it’s relevant in quite an unexpected way, revealing something very unlikely about one of the characters. That’s all I can say!

    • Moira – It’s a pleasure to mention your blog, and I do appreciate the inspiration. Thanks for mentioning Death in High Heels, too. You did a great post on that novel. And the title is perfect for this post even if shoes are not its main theme. Oh, and as to the Tey novel? I’m so glad you filled in that gap. I almost mentioned it but was hard-put to come up with a way to discuss it without giving too much away. You did that quite well.

  2. There’s another of Upfield’s Napoleon Bonaparte books worth mentioning in this regard, Margot – “The Clue of the New Shoe.” That said, I can’t for the life of me remember the details, at least as far as they regard shoes, but, as I recall, it’s an excellent entry in the series. (Apologies: packing our house to move next month, and VIRTUALLY ALL MY MYSTERIES AND MYSTERY REFERENCE BOOKS HAVE BEEN PACKED!)

    • Les – Ugh! Moves are such a pain, aren’t they? I hope yours isn’t too fraught with problems and that you settle in smoothly. I’m sorry to say that The Clue of the New Shoe one of the Bony novels I haven’t (yet) read, so I can’t be too much help. But I do love the title. And it reminds me of an Ellery Queen mystery, The Dutch Shoe Mystery. Shoes leave their prints all over crime fiction.

  3. I can’t even remember most plots after a week or so, so I have no specific memories of shoes in books. But, thanks to Moira, I do pay more attention to clothes in mysteries.

  4. Speaking of Holmes, shoes, or rather boots, play a crucial role in Hound of the Baskervilles too of course and ever since that opening chapter to The Big Sleep, I always wanted a pair of brogues just like Marlowe’s! Thanks Margot.

    • Sergio – Those brogues are terrific, aren’t they? I can see why you’d want a pair. And thanks for the reminder of that first chapter of The Hound of the Baskervilles. A classic use of footwear!

  5. Margot: I digress abit from crime fiction.

    When I think of shoes and fiction I visualize the brilliant red stillettos of The Devil Wears Prada.

    In the WW II real life book, Sledge Patrol, Ib Poulsen, walked 230 miles in Greenland in winter weather in 11 days wearing improvised shoes made from sacking.

    • Bill – Oh, I liked that artwork/’photo for The Devil Wears Prada, too. And the film had some good aspects to it.
       
      Thanks too for mentioning Sledge Patrol. Those stories of survival despite the odds are so absorbing. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to walk that long in that weather without real footwear.

  6. I had never really thought about shoes in mysteries, but you make a great point. Sometimes the most normal item a person is familiar with can be their undoing.

    • Mason – You put that really well. Our normal, everyday items tell so much about us don’t they? And if one’s trying to hide something, that can indeed be one’s undoing.

  7. I do love my shoes. One of the theme songs in my life might as well be Kirsty MacColl’s ‘In These Shoes?’…
    And yet I can’t remember any additional instances of shoes in crime fiction: you and Moira seem to have covered everything between you. Do you know that after reading about Hermes Diaktoros, I made a concerted effort to find a white polish to keep my own summer shoes pristine? (Not as easy as it sounds).

    • Marina Sofia – Interesting isn’t it how fictional characters can inspire us to try things. I didn’t know how difficult it is to find white polish; that makes it all the more interesting that Diaktoros values it (and his white shoes) so much.
       
      And as far as shoes in one’s personal life go, my daughter introduced me to a potentially addictive website where you can buy all sorts of shoes, from the most casual of trainers and sandals to the most elegant of evening shoes. All of the offerings are designer or ‘name’ brands, and all at really good prices. It’s hard to resist…

  8. Pingback: In Your Easter Bonnet With All the Frills Upon It* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

  9. Margot – How could Poirot be anything but soigné? :-)
    The sounds shoes make can also figure in the mystery setting. I remember a scene in a Ludlum thriller where the assassin – in this scene he was the hunted – could recognize if it was his would-be killer who was following him by his gait and the sound of the shoes he was wearing.
    Also, somewhat related: those pulp cover artists of the 40s and 50s just loved depicting femmes fatales in high heels!
    Finally, Sergio’s comment about brogues reminded me of the black brogues Orson Welles was wearing when Harry Lime make his unforgettable entrance in The Third Man.

    • Bryan – Oh, how right you are about Orson Welles! I’ll admit I wasn’t thinking about that scene when I first wrote this post, but yes, the shoes added to that entrance.
       
      And that’s an interesting point too about the sound of shoes. I can think of a couple of mysteries actually where people are listening for the sound of feet and can tell by that sound who’s coming.
       
      And about femmes fatales? They just somehow do ‘go with’ high heels, don’t they? That reminds me of a few crime novels I’ve read where a female character changes her appearance to give that impression and of course, stepladder-height heels are a part of the look.

  10. kathy d.

    In the truth is stranger than fiction category, a woman in the U.S. was convicted a few weeks of killing her spouse with a 5 1/2″ stiletto heel.
    Yes, shoes are important. Often in movies a perpetrator is hiding behind a curtain or in a closet, and the tell-tale shoes are showing — and, the jig is up; he/she is caught.
    My first reading of Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone series was of Edwin of the Iron Shoes. In fact, this was the first book in the successful series, which I faithfully followed until very recently.

    • Kathy – Oh, yes! I’ve been reading about that case with the stiletto heel murder. That is a crazy story isn’t it? And you’re right about the shoes in films. Thanks also for mentioning Edward of the Iron Shoes. That was a great introduction to an excellent series and yes, shoes do figure in that one. I’m glad you filled in that gap.

  11. So glad you mentioned Lier Horst’s Dreads and Theorin’s Echoes from the Dead. In both, death is portrayed sympathetically despite the grim subject matter.

    • Sarah – You’re quite right about the way death is portrayed in those novels. I hadn’t thought about that, but both authors do that quite well. Interesting point! I’m sure there are other books where that happens too. I’ll have to think about that…

  12. Col

    Can’t recall noticing this aspect or theme in my reading TBH. Perhaps I need to pay more attention when reading, or read different books!

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s