A lot of sleuthing is devoted to finding out the reasons for a victim’s murder, and that often involves slogging through records. And just about everyone leaves records of some kind. Some of them can be fascinating (e.g. old letters and diaries). Some of them take more perseverance (e.g. making sense of property transfers, powers of attorney, deeds, business and corporate documents). But any one of those documents could hold the key to a murder, so going through them is an important part of a murder investigation. That’s why it makes sense that we’d see plenty of record-searching in crime fiction. And as long as it’s not drawn-out so as to lose the reader’s interest, record-searching can add a realistic touch to a novel.
In Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, for instance, Hercule Poirot gets a letter from Paul Renauld, who lives with his wife Eloise and son Jack in Merlinville-sur-Mer. Renauld’s letter says that his life is being threatened, and in it, he begs Poirot to come to France and investigate. Poirot and Hastings go to Merlinville but by the time they get there it’s too late; Renauld has been stabbed on the grounds of his own villa. Together with the French authorities, Poirot and Hastings investigate the murder. One thing about the murder that strikes Poirot is that it seems familiar in some way – as though it reminds him of another case. So he goes to Paris to look up old records. His search is rewarded when he comes across a case from years earlier. The older case has some of the hallmarks of this most recent case and that gives Poirot an important clue as to why anyone would want to murder Renauld. And in the end, it’s exactly that past that leads Poirot to the killer.
Records are also helpful in Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City. In that novel Reykjavík police detective Erlendur and his team are called in when the body of Holberg, a seemingly inoffensive elderly man who lived by himself, is discovered in his own home. At first there seems no motive for the murder. Holberg was well-enough liked at work, didn’t have quarrels with neighbours, and wasn’t involved with anyone. So at first it looks as though the murder was a robbery gone wrong. But some clues suggest that there was a very personal reason for this murder, and a little digging soon brings to light what that reason might have been. Police records show that Holberg was accused of rape years earlier. No charges were filed, but this little piece of information opens up a whole new angle in the investigation. Further digging reveals that there might have been more than one accusation against him. Other records, including business ownership records and hospital records, add pieces to this puzzle. And in the end, Erlendur and his team are able to find out who killed Holberg and why.
There’s a really effective use of records in Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, in which part time lawyer/part time investigator Jack Irish investigates the murder of Danny McKillop. McKillop was once one of Irish’s clients, so when he is murdered, Irish feels a particular sense of obligation to find out the truth. Irish soon suspects that McKillop’s murder is connected to a hit-and-run incident eight years earlier that ended in the death of activist Anne Jeppeson. McKillop was convicted of the incident, but Irish learns that he was probably innocent. So Irish works with journalist Linda Hilliard to find the real killer. To do that, they look through newspaper records and public records. They also make use of a data collection company to learn the truth about property ownership, sales and corporate connections in the area. And that information is what leads Irish to the murderer.
Family records turn out to be useful in Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo. Wordsworth scholar Jane Gresham has always believed that Wordsworth left behind at least one unpublished manuscript. If she’s right, then finding that manuscript could make her career. So when she hears of the discovery of an old set of remains in a Lake District bog, she’s eager to find out if those remains belong to Fletcher Christian, as many people think. If so it would mean that Christian didn’t die on Pitcairn Island, but made it back to his Lake District home. And if that’s true, it would make perfect sense that he’d tell his longtime friend Wordsworth what really happened on the H.M.S. Bounty and that Wordsworth would write about it. So Gresham travels to the Lake District, where she herself was brought up, and begins to ask questions. Her hunt for the unpublished manuscript leads her through all sorts of records of marriages, offspring and so on and she discovers that the truth about it may lie within one family. With help from fellow scholar Dan Seabourne Gresham uses those records to try to track down the manuscript. But then one of Gresham’s interviewees dies shortly after the interview. Then there’s another death. And another. The police begin to suspect that Gresham herself may be involved in the murders so in order to clear her name and find the manuscript, Gresham tries to find the killer.
Helene Tursten’s Night Rounds is focused on a private facility, the Löwander Hospital. One night, there’s a blackout at the hospital during which one of the nurses Marianne Svärd is murdered. Then, another nurse Linda Svensson disappears. Her body is later discovered in the same place where, fifty years earlier, another nurse Tekla Olsson hung herself. Göteborg police inspector Irene Huss and her team investigate the happenings at the hospital. Part of the team’s task is to look through patient records, hospital ownership records, staff records and the like. And it’s in those records that they find an important clue as to what’s going on at the hospital.
Much of Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin takes place at Pity Wood Farm in the Peak District. When two sets of female remains are found on the property, Hampshire police are called in to investigate. DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper are assigned to look into the case. The farm had been owned for years by brothers Derek and Raymond Sutton. However, Derek Sutton has died, Raymond Sutton has moved to a nursing care facility and the property’s been sold to Manchester attorney Aaron Goodwin. So one task the members of the team have to face is finding out exactly who owned the property at the time of the young women’s deaths. That requires going through sales and property ownership records. Another task is to find out exactly who the young women were and what they were doing at the farm. That too requires going through records, this time reports of missing persons. It takes a lot of time but in the end, Fry and Cooper finds out who the young women were, what they were doing at the farm and why they were killed.
Financial records, police records, and historical records provide many of the answers to the mystery in Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs. In that novel, Stavern, Norway police inspector William Wisting and his team investigate the bizarre discovery of left feet that wash up in various places. Wisting starts the identification process by trying to link the feet to anyone who might have gone missing. Records show that most of the people who went missing at the right time to be matches for the feet were residents at the same care home. And more records searches show that the relationships among the people who’d disappeared go back to the post-World War II era. That inter-connection among the missing people proves important. So does a financial angle that is discovered in a search of banking records. In the end it’s really those searches as much as anything else that helps Wisting and the team figure out what’s behind this case.
Record searches can be a thankless task. One may search for hours or longer and not find anything. But they are important to real-life investigations and they’re an important part of the authenticity of a crime novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger’s Feel Like a Number.