I Can Read the Writing on the Wall*

HandwritingOf the things that distinguish people from each other is their handwriting. Perhaps it’s not as unique as a fingerprint or DNA sample, but handwriting is sometimes quite distinctive. That’s why handwriting analysis plays the role it does both in real life investigation and crime fiction. And that’s why, for instance, people may print in block letters or take other measures to disguise their handwriting if they feel they need to. Of course, handwriting experts don’t always agree on whether, say, two samples of writing come from the same person, but handwriting can matter in a criminal investigation. There are an awful lot of examples of the importance of handwriting in crime fiction and only room in this post for a few, but hopefully they’ll suffice to give you a sense of what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesoptamia, famous archaeologist Eric Leidner hires a nurse Amy Leatheran to help look after his wife Louise. Louise Leidner has been having anxiety attacks, seeing faces at windows and hearing hands tapping. A short time after Leatheran arrives, her patient confides to her that she is afraid of her former husband. She’d always believed he was killed after World War I, but she’s been getting threatening notes from him. Leatheran reads the notes and at first she can’t tell much about the handwriting. But then she sees an envelope written in Louise’s handwriting and notices the striking similarities between that writing and what she saw in the letters. Is it because Louise wrote the letters? Did someone else write them and forge the handwriting? This becomes an important question when Louise is murdered. Hercule Poirot, who happens to be in the area, is persuaded to extend his stay and investigate. He finds that the letters, and their writer, play an important part in the murder.

In Elly Griffiths’ The Crossing Places, DCI Harry Nelson is investigating two abductions. One is the ten-year-old disappearance of Lucy Downey. The other is the very recent abduction of four-year-old Scarlet Henderson. Among other things, the two cases are related by the fact that Nelson receives notes, most likely from the girls’ abductor. The notes make references to ancient mythology, the Bible and certain works of literature and on the surface of it they don’t give straightforward clues. So Nelson decides to ask archaeology professor Ruth Galloway what she makes of the references, especially the references to ancient mythology. He’s hoping that she’ll be able to interpret what the notes mean. Most of the notes are word-processed, but a few are not. Galloway is helpful in terms of what the references may mean but she can’t tell much from the handwriting at first. But  those handwritten notes prove to be critical when Galloway later makes a connection between the handwriting on the notes and other handwriting she’s seen.

In Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace, Stockholm psychiatrist Siri Bergman has done her best to put her life back together after the sudden death of her beloved husband Stefan. She’s more or less functioning until she gets a letter that makes it clear she’s being stalked. That letter in and of itself doesn’t give her much information about the stalker but soon, several frightening things happen that convince her she’s been targeted. Whoever is stalking her seems determined to discredit her and ruin her reputation. Then matters worsen. The body of Sara Matteus, one of Bergman’s clients, is found in the water near Bergman’s home. A suicide note has been left behind that claims Bergman is responsible for Sara’s decision to take her own life. At first, Bergman is naturally devastated. But then it’s discovered that the handwriting isn’t Sara’s. That’s how the police determine that Sara was murdered. The murderer faked the suicide note to further discredit Bergman and to psychologically manipulate her. Now Bergman and the police have to try to track down the stalker/murderer before Bergman becomes the next victim.

There’s an interesting use of questions about handwriting in T.J. Cooke’s Kiss and Tell. London lawyer Jill Shadow agrees to take the case of Bella Kiss, who’s been arrested at Heathrow Airport for drugs smuggling. Shadow does her best to help her client but Bella refuses to reveal who has paid or coerced her to bring drugs into the country. At first, Shadow decides she’ll have to drop the case because her client seems to be obstructing her efforts. But she changes her mind and ends up involved in a complicated case involving a drugs ring overseen by some very dangerous people who have powerful connections. Shadow and her daughter Hannah are targeted too; in fact, Shadow gets a text message that threatens Hannah. That’s when it’s decided that she and Hannah should go to a safe house. But before Hannah can be safely picked up from school and brought to the safe house, she disappears. The special team that’s been investigating the drugs ring and trying to protect Shadow does all it can to find Hannah but at first there’s little success. Then Shadow gets a letter from Hannah saying among other things that she’s safe. But there are several questions about the letter. Is it really from Hannah? Is it her normal handwriting? If so, is she really safe or could she have been abducted and then coerced into writing the letter? The question of who really wrote the letter and what has happened to Hannah adds a real undercurrent of tension to this novel.

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, most people know that handwriting can be quite distinctive. That’s why forgers (a topic worthy of a separate post!) work very hard to copy handwriting, and that’s why many people who write threatening letters, ransom notes or blackmail letters often use block letters or word processors. For instance, in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Quilt or Innocence, we meet Beatrice Coleman, who has recently retired from her position in an Atlanta art gallery and moved to Dappled Hills, North Carolina. She wants to be closer to her daughter Piper and she is looking forward to the peace and quiet (or so she thinks) of retirement. In order to fit in with the local culture, Beatrice joins a quilting guild Village Quilters and begins to get to know its members. Then, one of the guild members is murdered. Beatrice begins to ask questions and very soon afterwards she starts receiving threatening notes. The notes are written in a very careful print style of writing in order to disguise the writer’s identity so at first Beatrice doesn’t know who’s threatening her. But as she keeps asking questions and finding out more about the other guild members and their backgrounds, Beatrice figures out who the note-writer is and how that person is tied in with the murder.

I know I’ve only just touched on this topic of handwriting; there’s a lot to it and when you add in things such as forgery, psychological profiling and other related topics, the issue gets even more involved. I’m going to have to write notes to myself to keep all of this in some order – that is, if I could only read my own handwriting. 😉

OK, your turn…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Kodachrome.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Träff, Camilla Grebe, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Elly Griffiths, T.J. Cooke

20 responses to “I Can Read the Writing on the Wall*

  1. Skywatcher

    One of the first crime stories that uses handwriting analysis to solve a crime must be THE REIGATE SQUIRES from the MEMOIRS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, which was way back in the 1890s. I looked at some of my old schoolbooks recently, and was rather saddened to find that I used to have beautiful handwriting. I write like a drunken crab nowadays…

    • SKywatcher – I have to say I really like your description of your handwriting, as it perfectly describes my own. Or maybe in my case it would be a drunken spider – something of the kind anyway. And yes indeed The Reigate Squires is a very good example of the use of handwriting in crime fiction. And as you say, long before most people even really thought about the distinctiveness of people’s script.

  2. Another of my favourite Christies is The Moving Finger which is about anonymous letters – in this case typed, so handwriting doesn’t apply. But I remember being very impressed by Miss Marple’s analysis of the style – she draws her conclusions from the fact that the accusations in the notes in fact are NOT very invasive or true… and then of course reaches the right answer. Clever and neat. Oh, and I must do it on my blog – Megan has that fantastic wish-fulfilment makeover scene, when Jerry whisks her off to London….

    • Moira – Oh, yes, please do that scene with Megan; I know you’ll do it brilliantly. You’re right too about the way Miss Marple uses the style of those letters to figure out the truth. And in fact, style plays a role in a few of the other novels I’ve mentioned where letters are involved. To me it’s as distinctive as handwriting. You really can associate a person with her or his writing style.

  3. Jan

    Margot! You think of the strangest and most interesting things to write about. I cannot add to this conversation but to say that I can write in entirely different handwriting styles. It is weird and of course I don’t usually write longhand anymore anyway but true dat!

    • Jan – I think that is absolutely fascinating that you can write in different sorts of handwriting! I don’t do a lot of longhand myself, but that is really amazing!

  4. Great stuff Margot – and you reminded me of an idea I once had for what I thought would be a grand edition of Wilkie Collin’s WOMAN IN WHITE, where all the various extracts from diaries and so on were shown in facsimile handwriting – this would work in any epistolary novel but in that novel especially it would be marvelous to have the personality of the rich characters also come through graphically – well, one can dream …

    • Sergio – Thank you. And I really do love your idea! How inventive! That would work particularly well with that novel but also I think with The Moonstone and some of Collins’ other novels. Such an interesting idea – thanks for sharing.

  5. Wow, Agatha Christie focused on handwriting in a lot of her mysteries. It comes into play in several ways in Murder on the Orient Express. I think I remember it more there because of watching the movie (many times).

    • Tracy – You know, handwriting does figure in a lot of Christie mysteries. Murder on the Orient Express is certainly one of them. Also Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, too, among others. It’s an interesting pattern isn’t it?

  6. kathy d.

    Surely, people’s handwriting can identify them. I only know six people with excellent handwriting, i.e., the Palmer school method that they learned decades ago. Everyone else I know has distinctive — and often unreadable — handwriting.
    However, now this isn’t too much of a clue, what with computer emails, texting, paying bills by echecking, etc.
    I had to write a letter today with my actual signature; it was shocking. I asked if email would do. It wouldn’t in this case, but what an unusual request in the age of computerization of every type of communication and commerce.

    • Kathy – It’s funny you would mention texting and emailing. Quite often that’s the way people communicate these days. So yes it’s extremely difficult to tell what a person’s handwriting is like. Just look at these comments as an example. I don’t really know what anyone’s handwriting in this group of folks looks like; yet, we communicate all the time. And my experience has been a lot like yours when it comes to the people whose handwriting I do know. I know a few people with very neat handwriting, but most of the people I know have, shall we say, more distinctive handwriting styles.

  7. Another interesting theme Margot. The event which you talk of in my book Kiss and Tell came about quite fluidly. All Hannah could do in her predicament was write a letter home, and hope that somehow it might reach her mother. She had no other means of communicating with her. It got me wondering – would Jill’s own heightened circumstance, of being kept in a safe-house, affect her judgement as to the letter’s authenticity? How does a pressure cooker situation alter your perception? Does the ‘obvious’ seem more uncertain? Surely a mother would recognise her daughter’s own handwriting? But if the tiniest doubt creeps in, you might start to question your own mind… And like you say, even if you can tentatively reach a position where you say ‘yes I’m sure’, you still then have to question the circumstances under which the letter was constructed. Was she coerced etc….

    I always hope that a plot point will come naturally, and if you’ve honed your story structure it should. It was a good moment when this cropped up. It forced me to see the event from different angles. Of course, as your ever insightful blog suggests, handwriting and its analysis have been around for many a year. In the age of digital communication perhaps its prevalence in literature might wane, but it will never disappear. Now that’s also got me thinking… can you study an email and scientifically link it to its originator, merely by analysis?

    • Tim – You make a very well-taken point about the effect of extreme stress on our judgement. As you say, whether it’s Jill’s situation in the safe house or another kind of very stressful situation, it’s bound to affect our perceptions. And in those cases, you can’t be sure of even the most seemingly obvious things (e.g. Is this or is it not your own child’s handwriting?)
      Your point about communication in the digital age is also really interesting. For instance, there’s a Caroline Graham novel in her Inspector Barnaby series in which a suicide note is written on a computer and left on the screen. So…no handwriting. Did the victim really write it? It’s entirely possible that he didn’t. And as for emails, text messages and the like, it really is hard to tell who actually wrote them. So as you say, handwriting analysis and the judgement about whether a given person wrote something still matters. But changing technology means that we may have to make more use of ‘digital prints’ such as the IP addresses of computers, etc..

      • Thanks Margot. Yes the digital age presents its own challenges, for expert witnesses and authors! I shall take a look at Caroline’s novels. They sound interesting and I’ve not read her before.

        As for emails etc, yes technology can help trace the originator, but I was wondering more whether, if that wasn’t possible, there might be tell-tale signs in the actual content of the email? Not sure if an expert witness has ever been called on that…I might dig a little…

        • Tim – That would be interesting. I know from a linguistic point of view that even in digital writing, we all have our own distinct ways of using words. However, someone who knows a person could, with effort, possibly send a note, text or something that looked a lot like that person’s style. I hope that, if you do turn up some interesting court cases on this, you’ll post about it.

  8. Handwriting and typewriting plays an important role in many Christie stories – Murder on the Orient Express and the Moving Finger are two that immediately spring to mind. And there was a Sherlock Holmes short where a girl gets typewritten notes from her stepfather.
    Those are some fantastic examples of a lovely topic (how do you think of them)? And I have to share a tangential thought I had only today. My nine year old’s handwriting looks so much like his father’s- neither is particularly legible, incidentally.
    Thank you for a great post.

    • Natasha – Thanks for your kind remarks. I think it’s absolutely fascinating that your son and his father have such similar handwriting! I sometimes think my husband and his sister have similar handwriting too. I’ve not done the research but it does make me wonder whether such things do run in families.
      And thank you (!) for reminding me A Case of Identity. Very interesting use of a note there…

  9. Like Moira I love the handwriting (or print) aspect of the plot in AC’s ‘Moving Finger’. What I’ve noticed is that how bad handwriting is now in so many adults, even my own. I think that with the advent of computers, we simply don’t write anything like we used to. It will be interesting how this develops in the future.

    • Sarah – The Moving Finger does make really effective use of writing doesn’t it. And I hadn’t thought about overall changes in handwriting but you have an interesting point. My own handwriting has always been pretty much illegible (even before the days of constant use of word processing) unless I make a real effort. But as a pattern, I’m quite certain most of us write more on computers than we do in longhand, so I wouldn’t be surprised if people don’t pay attention to their handwriting as they used to do.

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