An interesting comment exchange with Moira at Clothes in Books and another with Sarah at Crimepieces have got me thinking about the way savvy crime fiction fans pick up on clues and patterns in crime fiction. Oh, and one other thing savvy crime fiction fans do is follow both Clothes in Books and Crimepieces. If you’re not familiar with those excellent blogs, do go pay ‘em a visit. G’head, I’ll wait.
Right. Patterns. When you read enough crime fiction, you get to the point where you can often make some fairly accurate predictions about what sort of thing will happen in a story. Some things just become fairly safe bets. Part of the reason for this is of course that crime fiction fans are intelligent and observant people. Part of it is also that certain things just seem to lead logically to certain consequences in crime fiction. If you see that pattern often enough, you get to know it and be ready for it. In a well-written story it’s not generally a problem if the reader recognises a pattern. A strong plot and well-written characters draw a reader in even if s/he can make accurate predictions about what’s going to happen.
Blunt Force Trauma and ID
This is the pattern that Moira mentioned. Her point was that when you have a novel where the victim’s had blunt force trauma to the face, there’s a pretty good chance that there’s going to be a question of the real ID of the victim. She’s right. That’s especially true in classic and Golden Age crime fiction, where DNA and other forensic evidence weren’t accessible.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot investigates the shooting murder of his dentist Henry Morley. The Home Office takes a special interest in this case since one of Morley’s other patients is well-known powerful banker Alistair Blunt, who has plenty of enemies. So it may be that Morley’s murder was an attempt to get to Blunt. But then another of Morley’s patients disappears. And another dies of an overdose of adrenaline and Novocain. Time goes on and Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp are not much closer to solving this mystery. Then, the body of a woman is discovered. Her face has been so disfigured by a bludgeon that any savvy crime fiction fan will know that ID is going to be at issue. Is it the missing patient? Is it the body of her friend, whom she visited shortly before her death? Is it someone else? The question of ID proves very important in this case.
Identity also proves very important in Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors. In that novel, Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet Mervyn Bunter are stranded on New Year’s Eve near the East Anglia village of Fenchurch St. Paul. They are rescued by Rector Theodore Venables, who takes them back to the rectory and arranges for them to stay there while their car is being repaired. While they’re in the village, the local squire’s wife Lady Thorpe dies of influenza. Wimsey and Bunter attend her funeral and then go on their way when their car is ready. A few months later Venables writes to Wimsey. Lady Thorpe’s husband Sir Henry has died, and preparations are being made for his burial next to his wife. But when the gravediggers opened the grave to prepare it, they found another corpse – an unknown man. The face of the corpse has been battered beyond recognition and the hands removed, so it’s impossible to tell who the dead man is. Venables asks Wimsey to return to Fenchurch and find out who the victim is and why the body has been buried in the Thorpe grave. Wimsey acquiesces and he and Bunter make the trip. It turns out that the unknown man’s death is related to a long-ago robbery and a stolen necklace, and that his identity was deliberately disguised.
The Fate of the Blackmailer
This was Sarah’s idea. She reminded me of an episode of Midsomer Murders in which a girl attempts to blackmail a killer when she’s seen a murder and as Sarah wisely said, we all know what happens to fictional blackmailers when they try to profit from what they know. Any crime fiction fan knows that a person who sees a murder and tries to blackmail the murderer is marked. That’s a fairly safe bet.
There’s a deliciously eerie instance of this pattern in Matthew Gant’s short story The Uses of Intelligence. Eleven-year-old twins Patty and Danny Perkins are particularly gifted intellectually and quite arrogant about it. That’s part of what makes them not exactly popular. One of the few people who like them is the local banana peddler Aristos Depopoulos. When he is killed one day by a brick, the Perkins twins decide to find out for themselves who is responsible. They trace the crime back to the culprit with very little difficulty and then decide to blackmail the killer. Well….you can figure out what happens next, I’ll bet.
A blackmailer also pays a heavy price for greed in Caroline Graham’s A Place of Safety. Charlie Leathers is out one night walking his dog when he witnesses a dramatic scene. Carlotta Ryan, a troubled teen staying with the local curate and his wife, runs out onto a stone bridge over the Misbourne. Running after her is her hostess, curate’s wife Ann Lawrence. For a short time it seems that Ann is trying to convince the girl not to jump off the bridge. Then, Charlie hears the girl tell her hostess not to push, and before he knows what’s happened, Tanya has gone over the bridge and disappeared. When she doesn’t turn up, it seems as though Ann Lawrence has committed a murder, however unintentionally. Charlie Leathers is not a nice person and it occurs to him that he could make a good living by blackmailing Ann. As you can guess, it’s not long before he’s murdered – in this case garroted. Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby and his assistant Gavin Troy investigate and find out the truth about Carlotta Ryan, Ann Lawrence and her husband, and the murder of Charlie Leathers.
Danger For the Sleuth
‘Bad guys’ are generally not stupid. And they usually don’t want to be caught. So it’s a pretty safe bet that if a sleuth goes anywhere alone during an investigation, she or he is bound to get into trouble. Smart sleuths know this and take precautions, but the safe money’s still on trouble for the sleuth.
For instance, in Donna Malane’s Surrender, missing person’s expert Diane Rowe has just learned that James ‘Snow’ Wilson has been murdered. This death has a real impact on Rowe because Snow was responsible for murdering her sister Niki a year earlier. Before his murder, Snow admitted – boasted even – that he’d been paid to kill Niki. Rowe believes that if she can find out who paid Snow, she can find out the truth about her sister’s death. So she begins to ask questions. Once word gets out that she’s looking into this case, you know that she’s going to run into trouble. And she does. But in the end (and honestly, with none of the traditional ‘damsel in distress’ stereotype), Rowe finds out who wanted her sister dead and why. And fans of Sara Paretsky’s V.I Warshawski and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone will know that those two sleuths frequently get into trouble.
This kind of danger doesn’t just happen to female sleuths. In Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant gets into trouble almost from the start when he takes the case of Daniel Guest. Guest is being blackmailed by someone who knows about his secret relationships with other men. He wants Quant to find the blackmailer and stop that person. In the course of his investigation, Quant runs into all sorts of dangers including a near-car crash, an abduction and a too-close-for-comfort encounter with a gun.
The funny thing is, in well-written crime fiction, it doesn’t really matter so much that you can make those bets. The stories are still good and they still draw the reader in. What about you? Which predictions have you learned are pretty safe bets? Thanks, Moira and Sarah for the inspiration!