When we have the option, most of us have a way of imprinting our personalities on the places where we live. For instance, bibliophiles tend to devote a lot of space to their books. People who are neat, orderly types tend to leave things tidy. In real life, detectives rely on this because it gives them a portrait of a person. That can be helpful in tracking down a missing person or trying to find out why someone was killed. That’s why real and fictional cops and other investigators almost always want a look at someone’s possessions and room. It’s not just to get physical evidence (if there is any). It’s also to find out about the kind of person the victim or missing person is/was.
Agatha Christie uses that plot point in several of her stories. For instance, in Murder in Mesopotamia, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of Louise Leidner. She is the wife of noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, and has accompanied her husband and his dig team on an excavation a few hours from Baghdad. When she’s found bludgeoned in her room one afternoon, Poirot is persuaded to interrupt his travels in the area to look into the matter. It turns out that she’d been in fear for her life, and had reported hearing hands tapping at windows and seeing strange faces looking into her room. Nurse Amy Leatheran, who was hired to look after Louise, works with Poirot to find out who killed the victim and why. One important source of information for Poirot is Louise’s room. From it he learns quite a bit about her personality and her interests. That information helps him sort out what people say to him about her, so that he can distinguish who’s telling lies (or not seeing things clearly) and who’s got a solid perspective on the victim.
In Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Sergeant Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police has two related cases on his hand. One is the murder of Albert Gorman, a transplanted Los Angeles Navajo. The other is the disappearance of sixteen-year-old Margaret Billy Sosi, who hasn’t been seen since she left the residential school she attends. At one point early in the novel, Chee traces Gorman to the hogan of Ashie Begay, who is distantly related to Gorman. Chee can tell just by looking around the hogan that it is the home of a traditional Navajo who observes the ways of his people. And that’s what makes him all the more suspicious when shortly after his arrival, he finds Gorman’s body. The body is prepared for burial but not exactly in the traditional Navajo way. So it wouldn’t have been Begay who prepared the body and not likely Begay who killed Gorman. But Chee can’t ask Begay because he’s disappeared…
Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone is the story of the execution-style murder of an unknown Senegalese immigrant. He was killed one morning while he was preparing his wares for sale at an open-air market, and no-one seems to know who he was or anything about him. In fact, it takes Commissario Guido Brunetti quite a lot of time to even find out where the man lived. He finally succeeds though, and he and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello go to the house that the victim shared with several other immigrants. The room he occupied is sparsely furnished and has little in the way of ‘personal touches.’ But the two detectives can tell from it that the victim probably didn’t cook, since he had no kitchen implements. So why does he have a box of cooking salt? Brunetti also gets a clue as to the man’s nationality from a piece of a statue that he finds in the man’s room. Those small pieces of information are very helpful as Brunetti and Vianello try to find out who the man was and why anyone would want to kill him.
In Kerry Greenwood’s Devil’s Food, Melbourne baker Corinna Chapman tries to find out what could have poisoned her two employees Kylie Manners and Gossamer ‘Goss’ Judge. The two young women share an apartment in the same building where Chapman lives and works, so she’s gotten to know them rather well. One day, they both behave very oddly – in fact, so oddly that Chapman and her lover Daniel Cohen wonder if they’re using a new kind of drug. Their behaviour doesn’t resemble what Cohen has seen in other drug users though, so neither he nor Chapman can tell at first exactly what’s happened. With help from another friend Miriam Kaplan, who goes by her Wiccan name of Meroe, Chapman gets the two girls settled in their home and then goes on a hunt among their things to find out what could have poisoned them. As she does, we get to see how much their environment reflects their personalities. They’re both interested in TV careers, so there’s plenty of makeup, nail varnish and the like. Neither is much of a one for cooking or housekeeping either, and that’s clear too from Chapman’s search. Then she finds a new kind of weight loss tea in their kitchen, and she and Meroe deduce that it’s the tea that’s poisoned them. Now Chapman has to find out who gave them the poisoned tea and why.
Katherine Howell’s New South Wales police detective Ella Marconi often uses what she finds in victims’ homes and rooms to get a sense of what the victim was like. In Silent Fear for instance, she and her team are looking for the murderer of Paul Fowler. He and some of his friends were tossing a football around one afternoon when he was shot, execution-style. Of course Marconi and the team start with the victim’s ex-wife and close friends, as they’re the most likely suspects. That’s how Marconi learns that Fowler had been laid off from his job and was staying with a friend Seth Garland. When Marconi goes to their shared apartment, she finds that unlike Garland, Fowler was not a neat person. They’re very different in their personal habits. Marconi uses that to deduce that Fowler and Garland might have had a falling-out. If so, that could be a motive for murder. It doesn’t turn out to be quite that simple, but it’s interesting to see how much Marconi can guess just from a look around a room.
We also see this in Frédérique Molay’s The 7th Woman. Paris CID (La Crim’) detective Nico Sirsky and his team are faced with the brutal murder of Marie-Hélène Jory. The killer has been very careful, so there’s not much to go on at first. Then there’s another murder and this time, the killer has left a message: seven days, seven women. Now the team knows that they’re up against a dangerous enemy. At first, it’s very hard to learn anything about the killer. But in looking around each victim’s home, the team learns something about that person. And that tells them something about the killer. Just as one example, they find that one of the victims was rather sloppy. And yet, a pair of the victim’s slippers was found very neatly placed by the bed. That tells them that the killer is very neat and methodical, and gives them a start to finding out who the murderer is.
You really can find out a lot about a person just from looking at that person’s room or home. And detectives often find that information very useful. It’s helpful to authors too, as it lets the crime writer show not tell about the victim’s personality. These are only a few examples, though. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Who’s Welcome.