A recent comment exchange with Moira at Clothes in Books and Les at Classic Mysteries has got me thinking about stories in which the action takes place within 24 hours (sometimes even less). Now, before I go on, please take a little time and visit those two top-notch blogs. Both are rich resources for bibliophiles. Go on, I’ll wait.
Right. Compressed time spans. In most modern crime novels there’s an acknowledgement that solving a murder takes time – sometimes weeks, months or years. But in plenty of classic/Golden Age crime fiction (and in some modern novels too), the action is much more compressed. That short a timeline can add much to the suspense of a story if it’s done well. Besides, any detective will tell you that the first 24 hours after a crime are the most vital. So it’s realistic to want a crime solved quickly. There is a great deal of crime fiction with that ‘one day or less’ timeline. I only have space to mention a few examples here.
Many of G.K. Chesterton’s short stories take place within an extremely short timeline. For instance, in The Invisible Man, successful businessman Isadore Smythe confides to an acquaintance John Angus that he’s being harassed by a former romantic rival. He’s gotten threatening letters and he feels as though he’s in danger. Angus suggests that Smythe call in professional assistance and Smythe agrees to do so. The plan is that after Angus gets some professional advice from a detective he knows, he’ll visit Smythe’s home and let him know what the detective recommends. When Angus gets to the detective’s home, he sees that Father Brown, who is a friend of the detective, is there. After Angus explains his purpose, everyone goes to Smythe’s home, only to see that he’s been murdered. No-one has been in or out of his home, so it looks like an ‘impossible mystery.’ It’s not though, and Father Brown shows, within a very short time, how it was done and by whom.
In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, the Boynton family is on a sightseeing tour of the Middle East. They decide to take a few days and visit Petra during their stay. While they’re there, family matriarch Mrs. Boynton dies of what turns out to be a homicidal overdose of digitalis. Colonel Carbury asks Hercule Poirot, who’s staying in the area, to investigate. However, he can’t offer Poirot an awful lot of time, since he’s going to have to release anyone who’s not a suspect very quickly. Poirot determines to find out the killer within twenty-four hours and soon enough, finds more than one suspect. Mrs. Boynton was a ‘mental sadist,’ both cruel and malicious, so just about all of the people on the trip, including the members of her family, are under suspicion. Poirot interviews everyone, puts together the pieces of the puzzle and finds out who the killer is – and all within a day.
There’s an odd case of what seems to be a disappearing house in Ellery Queen’s The Lamp of God. Queen gets a call from an attorney friend of his Thorne, who has a strange request. He wants Queen to meet him at New York’s Pier 54, and to bring a gun. He also wants Queen to pack a bag for what appears to be a short stay somewhere. Queen agrees, mostly for the sake of the friendship, and goes to the pier. There they meet Alice Mayhew, a young heiress whose financial interests Thorne wants Queen to help protect. Soon enough, Queen also understands that her life may be in danger too. When Alice arrives, the group travels to the Mayhew home in Long Island. The main house on the property isn’t habitable, so everyone gets as comfortable as possible in a smaller house next door. The next morning, the large house seems to have disappeared completely. There isn’t even any evidence that it was ever there. To make matters worse, there are all sorts of threatening undercurrents and odd occurrences in the Gothic tradition, and it’s obvious that someone means deadly business. There isn’t much time to solve this case, but Queen manages to put the pieces together. It turns out that the case hinges on a very well-conceived plot where one unexpected thing happens to change everything.
In Timothy Fuller’s Reunion With Murder, Harvard professor Edmund ‘Jupiter’ Jones gets involved in a case of murder during a 10-year alumni reunion. Sherman North is found murdered on the Syonsett Golf Course only hours after he and some friends were celebrating their tenth reunion. One of those friends is Ed Rice, who is also a friend of Jones. In fact, Rice is slated to stand as best man at Jones’ wedding. When Rice becomes the prime suspect in North’s murder, Jones and his fiancée Betty have only twenty-four hours in which to solve the case if Rice is to attend their wedding.
And lest you think that that compressed timeline occurs only in classic/Golden Age novels, it happens in modern novels too. Just as one example, in Chris Grabenstein’s Hell Hole, the body of Corporal Shareef Smith is found in a locked stall in the men’s washroom of a rest stop on the Garden State Parkway. It looks as though he committed suicide, and evidence indicates that he was on his way to Sea Haven, New Jersey when he did so. But if he committed suicide, why did someone ransack his car? There are other pieces of evidence too that suggest that perhaps Smith didn’t shoot himself. When it’s shown that Smith was murdered, Sergeant Dale Dixon, whose unit has just returned from Iraq, wants to carry out justice in his own way against whatever locals might have killed one of his men. But police officer John Ceepak isn’t one for vigilante justice. So he makes a bargain with Dixon. Dixon will keep himself and his unit out of the investigation for 24 hours. Now Ceepak and his partner Danny Boyle only have one day in which to find out who killed Smith and why. In the end, Ceepak and Boyle discover that Smith had found out more than it was safe to know about someone with important connections.
There’s also Marianne Harden’s cosy novel Malicious Mischief. In that novel, twenty-four-year-old Rylie Keyes is working as chauffer for the Fountain of Youth Retirement Home. When one of the residents Otto Weiner is found suffocated while in Keyes’ care, it looks very much as though she is at best negligent and at worst a murderer. And she has a motive, since Weiner has a grudge against her. Keyes will have to solve the murder as quickly as she can in order to clear her name and keep her job. If she doesn’t, she’ll be responsible for losing the home that’s been in her family for generations. So she determines to solve the case within 24 hours. It may be overambitious, but she is set on finding out who really killed Weiner. And as it turns out, there’s no lack of suspects. Weiner was an unpleasant person to begin with, and he’s made more than one enemy.
There are all sorts of credible reasons for which a detective may only have one day in which to solve a case. And that pace can add some interesting suspense to a novel. Which gaps have I left?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Secondhand Serenade’s Broken.