Not 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 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.