Category Archives: Arthur Conan Doyle

And She Only Reveals What She Wants You to See*

Sleuths' ThoughtsOne of the major developments we’ve seen in crime fiction over the years has arguably been the move from the sleuth as a third person – as someone whose thoughts we don’t always know – to the sleuth as the first person. Of course, not all modern crime novels are written in the first person. But in many of them, the reader is privy to what’s going on in the sleuth’s mind. And that makes sense, since today’s crime fiction fans want their characters, by and large, to be well-developed.

But as those who’ve read classic and Golden Age crime fiction know, that hasn’t always been the style. Here are just a few examples; I know that those of you who’ve read classic and Golden Age detective fiction will be able to provide lots more than I could.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is (at least to me) an interesting case in point. He does let us know how he deduces things. He also occasionally gives his opinion about one thing or another. For instance, we know that he’s not much of a fan of the police (with one or two exceptions). But as a rule, readers aren’t privy to what he’s really thinking. Rather, we learn about Holmes ‘from the outside,’ mostly through Dr. Watson. On the one hand, this invites the reader to get caught up in the mystery and try to get to the solution of a case. On the other hand, we can often only speculate on what Holmes really thinks about it all. He keeps the cards, as the saying goes, close to his chest.

The same might be said of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. We get a sense from things that he says that he has a philosophical side. And we also learn some of his views about religion and about what it means to be a good person. There are a few other things we learn about his thought processes too. But readers don’t really ‘get into his head.’ The Father Brown stories don’t, for instance, follow him home at night as he makes tea and thinks about whatever case he’s involved in at the moment. Readers also don’t learn what his opinions are about a given case. That’s not generally revealed until close to the end of the story, as Father Brown explains how he came to certain conclusions.

That’s also often the case with Patricia Wentworth’s Maude Silver. Readers follow along of course as Miss Silver meets new clients, discusses their cases and so on. We know a bit about Miss Silver’s background (former governess turned private investigator), and we know something of her methods too. But readers don’t know what she’s thinking as she puts the pieces of the puzzle together, so to speak. She has her ways of ‘saving the day,’ but we don’t know what she thinks about it all, except for what she says. In other words, readers don’t ‘get in her head.’

Several of Christianna Brand’s novels feature Inspector Cockrill of the Kent Police. He’s a police detective, so in that sense, we know the way he goes about solving crimes. He talks to witnesses and suspects, observes the evidence and so on. In fact, sometimes Brand lets the reader in on the main clues that Cockrill notices. Readers are also privy to certain thoughts Cockrill has (from Green For Danger):
 

‘Cockrill had been waiting for something, but not for this.’
 

But we don’t always know what he’s thinking as he investigates. The stories are told more or less ‘from the outside.’

And then there’s John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell. We know a few things about his personal life, and we do learn how he draws the conclusions he draws. He explains himself, so that the reader can see how he came to suspect the killer. But readers aren’t really privy to what he’s thinking as the case develops. We don’t ‘get in his head’ as he looks through the clues and listens to what people say, either. In fact, we don’t always know what he thinks of the various people with whom he interacts.

Agatha Christie lets us in on a few of Hercule Poirot’s and Miss Marple’s thoughts. For instance, readers know how Miss Marple feels about being ‘looked after’ by Miss Knight in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Cracked). If you haven’t read that one, you can, I am sure, imagine how she might feel with an overzealous paid nurse/companion watching everything she does, eats, and so on. Readers are privy to Poirot’s feelings about things too. For example, we know Poirot is not fond of then-modern standards for beauty and dress. In several stories, Christie lets us in on his thinking about that topic. Poirot also often lets clues drop when he notices something. But he is notoriously close-mouthed about the theories he develops and his views about a given case. He says that it’s because he may be wrong and doesn’t want to influence anyone else’s thinking. But that strategy also serves to invite the reader to match wits with him.

One really can’t say that anything is true of all classic/Golden Age mysteries (or any other sub-genre, for the matter of that). There are well-written modern mysteries that don’t let readers in on much of the sleuth’s thinking. And there are well-written mysteries from earlier times in which we do know much of what the sleuth is thinking. That said though, as a general pattern, we see more crime fiction now where we ‘get into the sleuth’s head.’

A possible reason for that might be the larger, more general distinction between plot-driven and character-driven stories. Another might be the increasing interest over the years in psychology and psychological plot threads. There could well be other reasons too.

What do you think about all this? Do you see this pattern? If you do, do you have a preference as to whether you know what the sleuth’s thinking is? If you’re a writer, how do you decide how much to tell the reader about the sleuth’s thoughts?
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s She’s Always a Woman.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christianna Brand, G.K. Chesterton, John Dickson Carr, Patricia Wentworth

From Astrophysics to Biology*

ScienceScience and scientists have a particular way of thinking about their professions. Reputable scientists develop theories and hypotheses about the way something works. As best they can, they put those hypotheses to the test and accept what the data tell them. They don’t make too many assumptions, they don’t rely only on their own opinions, and they do their best (they are humans, after all) not to be too vested in one or another outcome. That’s how scientific research goes forward.

If you think about it, that’s exactly the kind of thinking that helps in detection too. The sleuth considers what the evidence suggests, forms a theory, tests that theory and accepts what the data say. Of course, it’s much more complicated than that, because sleuths deal with the complexity that is human life and human thinking. And that can muddy the proverbial waters considerably. Still, it’s little wonder that we see so many scientists in crime fiction.

In fact, there are so many fictional scientists out there that there’s only space in this one post for a few examples. You’ll notice, for instance, that I won’t be mentioning the myriad forensic scientists, medical examiners, pathologists, archaeologists, or physical anthropologists there are in the genre. Too easy! And too many! You’ll also notice that I won’t be mentioning the many social and psychological scientists (e.g. psychologists, educators, criminal law scientists, political scientists). Again – too many! But they’re out there.

There is, as you can imagine, quite a lot of chemistry involved in crime detection. Agatha Christie fans, for instance, will know that she had a background in chemistry, and it shows in her work. Poisoning plays a role in several of her stories, and quite often, chemistry provides the solution (yes, pun intended ;-) ) to the puzzle. Of course, Christie didn’t ignore other branches of science. In Sad Cypress, for instance, botany plays an important role in solving the murder of Mary Gerrard. Elinor Carlisle is charged with the murder, and she had motive, too. But local GP Dr. Peter Lord is smitten with her and wants her name cleared. So he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Chemistry and botany both help Poirot find out who the killer is.

Anyone who’s made wine knows that science is key to producing a delicious vintage. And no-one knows that better than Benjamin Cooker, noted oenologist and ‘star’ of Jean-Pierre Alaux and Nöel Balen’s Winemaker Detective series. Cooker is an expert on wine, so in Treachery in Bordeaux, he’s the first one Denis Massepain calls when he discovers that four barrels of his wine have been sabotaged. Massepain owns Château Les Moniales Haut-Brion, a very highly-regarded vineyard. If his winery turns out poor product, he’ll lose that all-important reputation. Cooker and his new assistant Virgile Lanssien agree to look into the matter. For help in this investigation, they turn to biologist and biological testing expert Alexandrine de la Palussière. With her expertise, they discover that the wine has been contaminated with brettanomyces, a yeast-like spore that can quickly ruin wine. What’s worse, this particular spore is highly contagious, so Massepain’s entire output is at risk. Cooker and Lanssien investigate to find out who would have wanted the winery to be ruined. And in the end, they discover the culprit.

Mining and oil drilling companies rely heavily on the work of geologists to help them take decisions about their businesses. For example, in Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins has used his background in geology for a long time both as an independent prospector and for various companies. But he has his own ideas and theories about the land, and it’s gotten him into trouble more than once. One night after a drunken quarrel at a pub, he returns to his shack, where he is found murdered. At first, the police assume the murder is the result of that quarrel. But Emily Tempest, who’s just become an Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) isn’t so sure. Her temporary boss Bruce Cockburn warns her to ‘fall in line’ with the police account, but Tempest continues to ask questions. It turns out that Ozolins’ geological knowledge was dangerous for him.

In S.J. (now writing as Sharon) Bolton’s Awakening, we are introduced to wildlife veterinarian Clara Benning. She works at a wildlife hospital, and has particular expertise with all sorts of species of snakes. Her scientific knowledge proves to be of real value when snakes begin to cause a threat to the village where she lives. First, a mother discovers a deadly adder in her child’s crib. Then, another villager dies of an adder bite. But forensics reports show that there was much more venom in his blood than would be caused by one snake. Now, ACC Matt Hoare, who also lives locally, taps Benning’s expertise to get to the truth about this case.

Keigo Higashino’s series features Tokyo physics professor Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa. In Salvation of a Saint, for instance, his knowledge proves to be extremely valuable when Junior Detective Kishitani and Junior Detective Kaoru Utsumi are faced with what looks like a suicide. Yoshitaka Mashabi seems to have killed himself with a cup of coffee laced with arsenous acid. Bit by bit though, the evidence begins to suggest that he was murdered. What the police find hard to prove is how he got the poison. They have some suspects in mind, including the victim’s wife Ayane Mita and her assistant/apprentice Hiromi Wakayama. But for different reasons, it’s not easy to show who actually committed the crime. That’s where Galileo’s expertise turns out to be useful. He is able to demonstrate exactly how the poison could have been administered and when it happened.

And then there’s Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective. This novel introduces readers to Edinburgh Ph.D. candidate Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill. He is an oceanographer and an expert in wave patterns, and wants to use those skills for personal as well as professional goals. He’s hoping to find out the truth about his grandfather Uilliam, who disappeared during a fishing trip years earlier. With his own expertise, as well as help from other oceanographers, he eventually finds out the truth. He also uses his knowledge in another case. Basanti and her friend Preeti were taken from their homes in India to Scotland as a part of the international sex trade. There, they were separated. Basanti has managed to escape the people who held her, but she hasn’t been able to find Preeti. Her search leads her to McGill, who is able to use what she remembers to find out what happened to Preeti and to go after the people who involved in Scotland’s human trafficking trade.

As you can see, natural science is a big part of crime fiction. I think Arthur Conan Doyle and his creation Sherlock Holmes would approve…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from They Might Be Giants’ Science is Real.

 

MC

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Keigo Higashino, Mark Douglas-Home, Nöel Balen, S.J. Bolton, Sharon Bolton

Beckons You to Enter His Web of Sin*

EVilConspiraciesNew information on the next in the James Bond film series is now out. Thanks very much to Tipping My Fedora for the information. Do go pay that excellent blog a visit and see for yourself how great it is!

It’s all gotten me to thinking about nasty criminal groups like the fictional SPECTRE. Thrillers are full of such groups, and even crime fiction that we don’t normally think of as ‘thriller-like’ can have them. This kind of novel doesn’t always work well for readers who like to keep their disbelief securely by their sides. But for those who are content to leave it at the door, they can add a suspenseful plot point.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes goes up against a fairly nasty criminal group in several of the stories featuring him. Led by Professor Moriarty, Holmes’ nemesis, the group is responsible for a string of murders and robberies. Matters come to a head in The Adventure of the Final Problem, in which Holmes and Watson are in enough danger from the group that they have to flee London. They end up in Switzerland where Holmes has a very famous final confrontation with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. And Holmes fans will know that Holmes’ battle with this group doesn’t really end at the falls.

Agatha Christie toyed with such groups in a few of her stories. In Passenger to Frankfurt, for instance, we meet Stafford Nye, a low-level diplomat with a very ordinary sort of life. He’s at an airport one day when a strange young woman approaches him. She claims that her life is in peril and she needs to flee the country. Then she begs Nye for his boarding pass and diplomatic credentials. At first Nye’s unwilling, but the young woman persuades him to help her. That act draws Nye into a dangerous web of international intrigue and conspiracy, to say nothing of murder. In this case, the criminal group is dedicated to the principles of Nazi-ism and bent on world domination.

In Alex Scarrow’s Last Light, the world’s supply of oil is suddenly cut off through the work of a shadowy group of businessmen with its own agenda. Life as most people know it changes abruptly and dramatically, and it affects everyone. Most especially, the story depicts the effects on Andy Sutherland, a geologist working in Iraq; his wife Jenny, who’s stranded in Manchester at a job interview; his daughter Leona, who’s at university; and his son Jake, who’s at boarding school. As the four of them struggle to re-unite, we see how powerful this conspiracy has really been .

There’s also a very nasty conspiracy in Lindy Cameron’s Redback. Team Redback is a crack Australian team of retrieval specialists. Their job is to rescue people who are ‘caught in the crossfire’ of dangerous conflicts. For example, as the novel begins, the Pacific Tourism and Enviro-Trade Conference is taking place on the island of Laui when it’s disrupted by a group of rebels. The rebels abduct the delegates, and Team Redback, led by Bryn Gideon, is called in to rescue the hostages. Then, there’s a murder. And a train explosion in Europe. And a disaster at a U.S. Military base. And other murders. The members of Team Redback know now that some larger group is behind all of these various acts of terrorism and they work to find out about the group and stop it. A big part of the answer lies in information turned up by journalist Scott Dreher. By chance he gets his hands on a copy of a new video game called Global War Tek, which is being used to recruit and train new terrorists. With that information and what they learn on their own, Team Redback finds out who is responsible for the terrorism and what the group’s goal is.

Stefan Tegenfalk’s Anger Mode features, among other things, a bizarre series of ‘rage’ murders that don’t seem to have much in the way of motive. Walter Gröhn of the Stocholm County CID and his rookie assistant Jonna de Brugge take on the investigation, but it’s soon taken out of their hands by Säpo, the Swedish intelligence agency. And as fans of Swedish crime fiction will be able to guess, Säpo has its own agenda. But Gröhn and de Brugge persist, and discover why the murders have occurred and what they have to do with a kidnapping, anti-Muslim prejudice and greed.

There’s also a sinister society at work in K.B. Owen’s Unseemly Ambition. It’s 1898 at Hartford Women’s College, where Concordia Wells teaches English. She’s busy enough with her own classes and her duties as ‘housemother’ at Willow Cottage. But then she’s saddled with a lot of the work for the school’s upcoming production of Othello. She’s also trying to stay on the right side of Dean Maynard, who has his own ideas of what’s ‘seemly’ for ladies. Trouble arises when an unknown woman claims to be the real mother of Eli, a former ‘street child’ who’s about to be adopted by Concordia’s best friend Sophie and her soon-to-be-husband, Lieutenant Aaron Chapshaw of the police. Permission is very reluctantly given for Eli to spend time with his birth mother; but not long afterwards, she is found murdered. Then, Eli disappears. Concordia is torn about getting involved in this investigation. After all, it could mean real trouble for her. But she contacts her former mentor and the two of them begin to look into the matter. It’s soon clear that some powerful and dangerous people do not want this case solved. Their reach is far and they have no compunctions about killing, so it’s going to be very risky to solve the murder and find Eli before it’s too late.

Some fictional nasty criminal groups are more believable and more dangerous than others. But when it’s done well, that plot point can add a layer of suspense to a story. And for those who don’t mind sending their disbelief packing for a bit, stories featuring large, international, evil conspiracies can be a lot of fun.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Barry, Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s Goldfinger.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Alex Scarrow, Lindy Cameron, Stefan Tegenfalk, K.B. Owen

I Needed One More Fare to Make My Night*

TaxisDepending on where you live and your lifestyle, you may or may not take taxis very often. There are some cities where taking a taxi is easier than driving your own car, even if you have one; and of course, it’s far safer to take a cab if you’re having a night out drinking than it is to drive. Taxis are the scenes of lots of personal dramas, and cab drivers see an awful lot. So it’s little wonder that cabs and cab drivers appear in a lot of crime fiction.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes is called in to help solve the murder of Enoch Drebber, an American visitor to London. At one point, Drebber’s secretary Joseph Stangerson is suspected of the murder, but then he’s killed himself. Holmes and Dr. Watson are now faced with two murders that are probably related. To get to the truth, Holmes has to follow two lines of investigation. One of them is the personal lives of the two victims. The idea there of course is to look for motive. The other is to trace their movements to see who would have had the opportunity to kill them. In the end Holmes deduces what happened and when the killer is confronted, that person admits to everything. In this novel, encounters in cabs play an important role…

Agatha Christie made use of taxis in several of her stories. In Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner) for instance, famous actress Jane Wilkinson wants to hire Hercule Poirot to convince her husband Lord Edgware to consent to a divorce. She’s fallen in love with the Duke of Merton, and wants a clean break from her current husband so she can marry again. In fact, she says that if Poirot does not help her,
 

‘I’ll have to call a taxi to go round and bump him off myself.’
 

Poirot agrees to at least talk to Edgware and when he does, he discovers that Edgware has already written to his wife agreeing to the divorce. Poirot and Captain Hastings are surprised by this, but they think that settles the matter. Then, Edgware is stabbed and Jane Wilkinson becomes the most likely suspect. A cab driver remembers taking her to the home, and what’s more, a woman giving her name was admitted to the house at the time of the murder. The only problem is that Jane says she was at a dinner party in another part of London, and there are twelve people ready to swear that she was there. So Poirot, Hastings and Chief Inspector Japp have to look elsewhere for the killer. One possibility is the victim’s nephew Ronald, who was in serious debt and who now inherits both the title and a fortune. He claims he was at the opera on the night of the murder, but a helpful taxi driver is able to prove him wrong. The cabbie actually picked him up at the opera during the intermission and took him to the house. Now the new Lord Edgware has some explaining to do…

In Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, PI Nick Charles and his wife Nora are visiting New York when he is drawn into the case of the disappearance of Claude Wynant. Wynant’s daugher is worried about her father and wants Charles to find out what happened to him. He’s just getting started on the case when Wynant’s secretary Julia Wolf is murdered. And as it turns out, Wynant himself had a motive for killing her. Now it’s more important than ever that Wynant be found. At one point on the novel, Wynant’s attorney Herbert Macaulay says that he believes Wynant is guilty, and tells of having been followed:
 

‘The quickest way to find out seemed to be by taking a taxi, so I did that and told the driver to drive east. There was too much traffic there for me to see whether this small man or anybody else took a taxi after me, so I had my driver turn south at Third, east again on Fifty-sixth, and south again on Second Avenue, and by that time I was pretty sure a yellow taxi was following me. I couldn’t see whether my small man was in it, of course; it wasn’t close enough for that. And at the next corner, when a red light stopped us, I saw Wynant. He was in a taxicab going west on Fifty-fifth Street. Naturally, that didn’t surprise me very much: we were only two blocks from Julia’s and I took it for granted she hadn’t wanted me to know he was there when I phoned and that he was now on his way over to meet me at the Plaza. He was never very punctual. So I told my driver to turn west, but at Lexington Avenue—we were half a block behind him—Wynant’s taxicab turned south.’
 

It’s an interesting example of the way taxis can be used to follow people…

In Robert Pollock’s Loophole: Or, How to Rob a Bank, out-of-work London architect Stephen Booker has been pushed to the point of financial desperation. So he takes a night job driving cab, thinking that he’ll be able to use the daytime for a proper job search. One night he picks up an unusual fare. Mike Daniels is a professional thief with a big plan. He and his team want to rob the City Savings Deposit Bank, and they’ve come up with a way to defeat the bank’s powerful security measures. But they’ll need the help of someone with some expertise and when Daniels finds out that his cab driver is an architect, he thinks he’s found his man. Over a short period of time, he wins Booker’s confidence and finally persuades him to become a part of the team. Every detail of the robbery is carefully planned, and at first it looks as thought things will go beautifully. Then a sudden storm comes up and changes everything…

Of course, cab drivers don’t really live charmed lives, as the saying goes. They’re often not paid particularly well, and customers can be awfully difficult. In Robin Cook’s Vector, we get a look at the life of Yuri Davydov, a disaffected Soviet emigre to New York. In the then-Soviet Union, he was a technician working for the Soviet biological weapons program. But he was (or so he believes) lured to the US with promises of lots of money and great success. It hasn’t worked out that way though, and Davydov has had to settle for a job as a taxi driver. He’s an easy convert for a group of skinheads who are also disenchanted with ‘the system.’ When they find out Davydov’s area of expertise, they enlist him to help them carry out their plan of revenge: a mass release of anthrax. New York City medical examiners Jack Stapleton and Lori Montgomery become aware of the plot when they investigate the death of a carpet dealer who was exposed to anthrax. Once they learn of the plot, they work to find and stop the conspirators before they can carry out their plan.

And then there’s Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. Winter is a small-time drug dealer/criminal who’s got big ambitions. He wants to climb to the top of Glasgow’s underworld and that’s got some of some powerful crime bosses upset. They decide to take care of this problem by hiring hit-man Calum McLean to murder Winter. MacLean learns his target’s routines and chooses a good night to do the job. That evening, Winter and his live-in girlfriend Zara Cope go to a nightclub called Heavenly. There Winter gets thoroughly drunk and Cope, seeing her opportunity, strikes up an acquaintance with Stewart Macintosh. They decide to spend the night together, but first, says Cope, they’ll have to get Winter home and to bed. So the two of them escort an extremely drunken Winter into a taxi and get out at the Winter/Cope home. A short time later, the interlude that the couple had planned is interrupted by McLean and his partner, who break into the house to do what they’ve been paid to do. With Cope’s help, Macintosh escapes, but information from the club’s CCTV and the memory of the cab driver allow the police to track him down, so he’s drawn into the investigation.

Taxis and taxi drivers can help establish alibis or guilt. They can also add other important information to an investigation. And as anyone who’s seen Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver can attest, drivers themselves can be fascinating, even dangerous, characters. Which taxi scenes have stayed with you?
 

Late Addition…
 

After this post was published, it occurred to me that it wasn’t complete. I couldn’t do a post about taxis in crime fiction without mentioning Kerry Greenwood’s historical Phryne Fisher series, which takes place in and around 1920’s Melbourne. Phryne’s made several friends in the course of the series, among them Bert and Cec, who are wharfies, but also have an all-purpose sort of cab service. They’re witty and well-drawn characters and if you haven’t yet ‘met’ them, I recommend it.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Harry Chapin’s Taxi.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Kerry Greenwood, Malcolm Mackay, Robert Pollock, Robin Cook

I Was Checking You Out*

Sizing People UpSleuths have to develop the skill of being be able to ‘read’ people fairly quickly. It helps the sleuth in figuring out whether to take a case, what sort of person a suspect or witness is, and so on. Of course, sleuths can be wrong about their first ‘sizing up’ too, and that’s interesting in and of itself. But wrong or right, sleuths do, over time, learn to get a sense of what a person is like just from that person’s clothes, comments, bearing and so on.

We see a lot of this in crime fiction and that makes sense. It’s only human nature for us to size people up. And for the author, it allows for ‘showing, not telling’ what a character is like. There’s not enough space in this one post to mention all of the examples out there; here are just a few.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is a master of summing people up just from what he sees of them. And in fact, sometimes he doesn’t even need to meet a person to get a great deal of information. For instance, in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Commissionaire Peterson brings an interesting mystery to Holmes and Dr. Watson. He discovered a battered hat and a goose lying where someone had dropped them after a skirmish with some hooligans. Then, when his wife cooked the goose, she discovered a valuable gem in its craw. The mystery makes little sense to Peterson, so he wants Holmes’ impressions. Here’s what Holmes says after one look at the hat:
 

”He picked it up and gazed at it in the peculiar introspective fashion which was characteristic of him. ‘It is perhaps less suggestive than it might have been,’ he remarked, ‘and yet there are a few inferences which are very distinct, and a few others which represent at least a strong balance of probability. That the man was highly intellectual is of course obvious upon the face of it, and also that he was fairly well-to-do within the last three years, although he has now fallen upon evil days. He had foresight, but has less now than formerly, pointing to a moral retrogression, which, when taken with the decline of his fortunes, seems to indicate some evil influence, probably drink, at work upon him. This may account also for the obvious fact that his wife has ceased to love him.”
 

Holmes goes on to explain how he deduced each of these facts and later in the story, we find out just how right he was.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d), Miss Marple is recovering from a bout of illness, and so has been under the too-watchful eye of hired housekeeper/nurse Miss Knight. One afternoon while Miss Knight is out doing the shopping, Miss Marple decides to take a walk. She ends up in the new council housing development where she accidentally falls and twists her ankle. She’s immediately rescued by Heather Badcock, who lives in the development with her husband Arthur. As she’s sitting in the Badcock home recovering from her fall, Miss Marple gets a chance to ‘size up’ her rescuer. And it’s not long before she’s reminded of someone else in the village with similar personality traits and a similar sort of story. And that worries Miss Marple because that person ended up dying. Sure enough, Heather Badcock dies too, of what turns out to be a poisoned cocktail. Miss Marple and her friend Dolly Bantry look into the murder and they find that the victim’s history has a lot to do with the murder. I know, I know, fans of Five Little Pigs

Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes begins when New York City police officer Tom Shawn is taking a late-night walk. He notices a small, expensive handbag lying on the ground with its contents spilled out. Just by those things he can tell that the owner is a person of a certain social class and has certain tastes. What he can’t work out yet is why those things should have been spilled in what looks like a deliberate way. Shortly afterwards, he sees a young woman getting ready to jump from a bridge. He gets to her just in time and persuades her to come away from the bridge. His first impression of her is that she is both well-off and attractive. So there seems no reason (at least on the surface) for her to attempt suicide. He takes her to an all-night diner where he finally gets her to tell her story. She is Jane Reid, and as Shawn had guessed, she comes from a wealthy background. Her life has been turned upside-down lately because she is terrified that her father, with whom she is close, is about to die. As Shawn listens to her story, he is more and more intrigued by it, and decides to do what he can to help prevent what seems to be an inevitable death.

In Peter Corris’ The Dying Trade, Sydney PI Cliff Hardy makes a none-too-flattering first summing-up of a client just from a telephone call. One day, wealthy and powerfull Bryn Gutteridge calls to basically summon Hardy to his home. Hardy isn’t impressed with Gutteridge’s manner, but a fee is a fee, so he keeps the appointment. Here’s his first reaction to meeting the man in person:
 

‘Mr. Gutteridge didn’t look like he’d be nice to work for, but I felt sure I could reach an understanding with his money.’
 

And Hardy’s first summing-up is fairly accurate. Gutteridge isn’t pleasant or particularly polite. He’s self-involved, self-entitled and obviously spoiled. But he does have a problem that he’s willing to pay to solve. His twin sister Susan is being harassed and getting threats, and he wants it to stop. Hardy takes the case and begins to ask questions, starting with Gutteridge himself. As he gets deeper into the investigation, Hardy learns that there are several people who might want to threaten Susan and target the Gutteridge family.

Sometimes, sleuths can get a somewhat accurate sense of someone, and still be wrong. That’s what happens in Martin Edwards’ The Hanging Wood. Cumbria Constabulary DCI Hannah Scarlett is head of the Cold Case Review Team; as such, she often hears of old cases, and has to decide which ones to re-open. That’s why Orla Payne calls her one day. Twenty years earlier, Orla’s brother Callum disappeared. No trace of him has been found – not even a body. And Orla wants answers and justice for her brother. Unfortunately, Orla is mentally fragile to begin with, and is drunk when she calls in, so Hannah isn’t inclined to take the case seriously at first. Still, once she hangs up the ‘phone, she begins to feel guilty for her attitude and takes a second look at the case. Then, Orla dies, apparently by suicide. Now it’s clear that something more is going on here than a drunken call about a runaway brother.

And then there’s Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Social worker Simran Singh is persuaded to travel from where she lives in Delhi to her home town in Punjab when she gets a call from an old university friend. Now Inspector General for the State of Punjab, her friend wants her to work with the police on a horrible case. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal has been arrested in connection with the poisoning murders of thirteen of her family members. Some were also stabbed. What’s more, someone set fire to the Atwal house. Durga may or may not have been involved in what happened, but the police can’t get any information from her, since she has not spoken of the tragedy since the night it occurred. It’s hoped that if Simran talks to her, she’ll be able to get the girl to open up and talk about the killings. Simran’s reluctant; at the same time though, she doesn’t want to see Durga ‘railroaded’ if she is innocent of any complicity in the killings. So she agrees to see what she can do. When she finally gets the chance to meet the girl, here’s her initial summing-up:
 

‘Durga is not pretty, but she has a healthy, pink complexion like most Punjabi girls from semi-rural India, who have been brought up on fresh milk and homegrown food. Yet, she hunches as she sits down, anxious not to be noticed. Or at least, not have any attention drawn to her. Her clothes are loose, and even though she is tall and well built, she gives an impression of frailty, further enhanced by her meek demeanour.’
 

Simran is also immediately struck by how young and vulnerable Durga is. At first, Durga doesn’t trust her at all (why should she?), but Simran knows that her best chance of finding out what really happened to the Atwal family is to get Durga to tell her.

Sleuths aren’t always correct about their first ‘sizing up’ of people they speak to, any more than any of us is. But over time, they have to learn that skill, as it often proves to be very useful…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s I Don’t Want to be Alone Any More.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Cornell Woolrich, Kishwar Desai, Martin Edwards, Peter Corris