In crime fiction, both sleuths and criminals sometimes find themselves in difficult situations. When they do, it can take a bit of ingenuity to get out of those ‘tough spots.’ So a little ingenuity is a valuable skill, whether you’re the one breaking the law or the one catching the lawbreaker. One challenge with those great little flashes of ingenuity is that they can stretch credibility too far. So the author who’s going to include them has to be careful not to push things too far. But within limits, those little moments can really add to the story. If you’ve ever caught yourself thinking, ‘That was clever!’ while reading about one of those bits of ingenuity, you know exactly what I mean.
Everyone’s got his or her own favourite ‘ingenious moments’ in crime fiction. One of mine appears in Alrthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia. The King of Bohemia is planning to get married, but there’s one cloud hanging over the festivities. The king’s former lover Irene Adler has a compromising photograph of them, and he is concerned about the scandal that could come from that. So he hires Sherlock Holmes to get the ‘photo back from Adler. Holmes agrees, but he finds out that his quarry is more than a match for him. The way in which Irene Adler escapes, leaving another ‘photo for him instead of the one he wants, is a very clever bit of ingenuity.
In Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask, Charles Moray returns to England after having been away for a few months. He goes to his family home one night only to find to his shock that it’s been taken over by a gang of criminals led by a man known only as Grey Mask. When Moray sees that his former fiancée Margaret Langton may be mixed up with the gang, he’s even more upset. At the suggestion of a friend, Moray visits Maude Silver, who agrees to look into the matter. The criminal gang and Grey Mask turn out to be connected to the case of a contested will in which eighteen-year-old Margot Standing may inherit a fortune. But when Moray starts to get closer to finding out who Grey Mask really is, he and Margaret Langton get into danger; at one point, they’re even trapped in a cellar. But Langton thinks of a very clever way to get out. She tears up a note into some small pieces and leaves the pieces as a sort of trail. In the end, that’s how the two are found and freed.
Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers gets the chance to show how ingenious she can be in The Penguin Pool Murder. Miss Withers is a schoolteacher who’s brought her class to the New York Aquarium for a field trip. While they’re there, a thief tries to steal Miss Withers’ handbag. Not one to take such a thing lightly, she thinks quickly and uses her umbrella to trip the thief, which allows the museum security guard and later, the police, to step in. As if that weren’t enough excitement, Miss Withers and her class are also witnesses when the body of a man slides, seemingly from nowhere, into the penguin tank. Police detective Oscar Piper is called in and the investigation begins. The dead man turns out to be stockbroker Gerald Lester, and as Piper starts to look into the case, he finds that there are several suspects. For one thing, Lester’s wife Gwen was at the Aquarium at the time of the murder – and so was her lover Philip Seymour. Then there’s the fact that several of Lester’s business clients have been wiped out by the recent stock market crash (The novel was published in 1931). So several of them might have a good reason for wanting to kill him. There are other possibilities too. The evidence begins to point very strongly to both Gwen Lester and at one point Piper has no choice but to arrest her. The only problem is that it’ll create a media circus, and Piper isn’t entirely convinced of her guilt. But Miss Withers thinks of a way to keep both the media and Piper’s superiors at bay. She switches clothes with Gwen Lester and distracts the media while Piper quietly takes Gwen to the police station. It’s quite ingenious, especially since it’s got to be done within just a few moments. Oh, and don’t worry; I didn’t give away spoilers. The case doesn’t end with that arrest…
Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee has to think quickly in several of his cases. In The Ghostway, he’s been assigned to find sixteen-year-old Margaret Billy Sosi, who’s left the boarding school she was attending. Chee suspects that her disappearance may have something to do with another case he’s working: the murder of Albert Gorman. Gorman is a Los Angeles Navajo who relocated to the Reservation only to end up dead not long afterwards. Chee follows both Sosi and the Gorman trail to the outskirts of Los Angeles, where he spots Gorman’s killer about to grab Sosi. Thinking quickly, Chee pretends to be very drunk and lurches up to the killer’s van. That distracts the killer long enough for Sosi to avoid being abducted. What’s interesting too is that Chee also uses the fact that he and Sosi speak Navajo, whereas the killer does not. Don’t tell me that knowing other languages isn’t useful.
Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher thinks quickly more than once in Cocaine Blues. She’s just returned from London to her native Melbourne at the request of an acquaintance Colonel Harper and his wife. They are concerned about their daughter Lydia, who’s been in very poor health lately. And they suspect that their son-in-law might be just shady enough to want Lydia out of the way. So they’ve asked Fisher to look into matters. When she gets to Melbourne, Fisher soon discovers which social circles Lydia moves in, and makes the young woman’s acquaintance. It’s not long before she discovers that there’s an illegal cocaine ring operating in the area and one night, she and her friend Bert Johnson are reconnoitering a pharmacy that seems to be at the hub of the trade. That’s when a group of thugs makes an appearance. They’re going after Sasha de Lisse, a man Fisher knows, and she and Bert decide to follow them and see where they take him. When they are spotted by the thugs, Fisher and Johnson think quickly and pretend to be lovers until the gang leaves. Then they’re able to follow up and find out more about who’s behind the cocaine ring.
In Steve Robinson’s In the Blood, wealthy Boston business executive Walter Sloane hires genealogist Jefferson Tayte to trace his wife’s ancestry. His plan is to give the family tree to her as a birthday gift. Tayte accepts the job and finds that one branch of the family, headed by James Fairborne, returned to England in 1783 with a group of Royalists. Sloane sends Tayte to England to follow up on that branch of the family, and Tayte starts his search on the other side of the ocean. That’s where he discovers that Fairborne’s wife Eleanor and their three children seem to disappear from history. In fact, less than two years later, James Fairborne married again. So Tayte follows up on the mystery of what happened to the Fairborne family. In the process, he meets Amy Fallon, who lives in a home called Ferryman’s Cottage. In the basement of the house she discovers a very old writing box that turns out to be related to Tayte’s case. It’s not long though before both learn that someone wants very much to keep the Fairborne family history a secret. That means getting the box and its contents, so both Tayte and Fallon are in grave danger. At one point Fallon is abducted by launch, but her good friend Tom Laity, who’s an expert fisherman, sees what’s happened and follows the launch. When he thinks the coast is clear he finds out where Amy has been hidden, but then he’s attacked. He recovers temporarily and in a flash of ingenuity, uses a fishing line he has on his boat to leave a ‘water trail.’ Tayte is later able to follow that trail and find Amy.
It’s risky to use those flashes of ingenuity. They can stretch credibility very much too far, and they can pull the reader out of a story. But when they fall out naturally from the plot, they can also add to the pace of a story, and keep the reader interested. What do you think? Do you like those little bits of cleverness? Or do you think they’re too hard to believe? If you’re a writer, how do you use them?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Pete Townshend.