The main point of a well-written crime novel is usually to tell the story of a crime or crimes and the investigation that follows. There are of course myriad ways to go about telling that story, but when you get down to it, that’s at the core of most crime novels. But sometimes, other things about the novel – little incidents, minor characters, even a particular description – make a real impact on the reader too. An interesting comment exchange with Moira at Clothes in Books got me to thinking about those smaller flourishes that can add ‘flesh’ to a novel. It can be tricky to put them in because of course there’s the risk of taking away the focus from the plot and main characters. There’s also the risk of making the novel unwieldy. But when they’re done well, those flourishes and extra touches can stay in our minds and make a novel even more memorable. Of course, everyone’s different, but here are a few of those extra touches that have made an impact on me, to give you an idea of what I mean.
In Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d), Miss Marple takes a walk one day to explore St. Mary Mead’s new council housing. That’s where she meets Heather Badcock, who lives in one of the new houses with her husband Arthur. Heather is very much an admirer of famous actress Marina Gregg, so she is especially excited that Marina and her husband Jason Rudd have bought Gossington Hall and will be hosting a charity fête there. On the day of the fête, Heather gets to meet her idol, who is kind enough to spend a few moments with her. Shortly afterwards, Heather sickens and dies of what turns out to be a poisoned cocktail. At first, the theory is that Marina Gregg was the intended victim and Heather took the poisoned cocktail by mistake. If that’s true, there are certainly suspects. But soon enough, it turns out that Heather was the target all along, Now Miss Marple works with her friend Dolly Bantry to find out who would have wanted to murder Heather Badcock and why. At the beginning of the novel, Miss Marple is recovering from a bout with illness and her nephew Raymond West has arranged for Miss Knight to stay with her. Miss Knight is well-intentioned, but she’s condescending and overprotective, and Miss Marple feels more than a little smothered. Her successful ruse to get rid of Miss Knight for a morning so she can go out exploring is a minor, but memorable scene in this novel. It’s funny and readers can sympathise with Miss Marple’s wish to be treated as a competent, capable adult.
In her comment, Moira mentioned Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. In that novel we meet wealthy and well-educated George and Jaqueline Coverdale, who share their home with George’s daughter Melinda and Jacqueline’s son Giles. The Coverdales hire a new housekeeper Eunice Parchman. At first, all goes well enough, although the family does think that Parchman is a little eccentric. The truth is though that Eunice Parchman is hiding a secret. She is determined not to let anyone find out that secret and practically pathological in her fear that someone will. When one of the family members accidentally finds out what the housekeeper has been hiding, the family is doomed, ‘though everyone is tragically unaware of it at the time. One of the minor characters in the novel is Jonathan Dexter, who is in a relationship with Melinda Coverdale. Dexter doesn’t play a critical role in the novel, but his reaction when he finds out what happens to the Coverdale family is memorable. It’s not dramatic, but it stays with the reader.
Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water begins in a notorious area of the Sicilian town of Vigatà called The Pasture. The Pasture is a meeting place for prostitutes and very small-time drug dealers and their clients. One morning, two workers who are paid to clean up The Pasture make a ghastly discovery. The body of powerful businessman and politician Silvio Luparello is in a car left abandoned the night before. Inspector Salvo Montalbano and his team are called in to investigate the death. On the surface of it, it looks as though Luparello died of heart failure. But Montalbano is not completely convinced, and requests two extra days to investigate. He soon finds that among Luparello’s family members, political allies and enemies, and business contacts there are several suspects. In the process of this investigation, Montalbano has an interview with Baldassare ‘Saro’ Montaperto, one of the clean-up workers who discovered the body. Saro has a secret to hide, and although it is relevant to the story, it’s not a major point. He’s more or less a minor character, but he is memorable. Saro and his wife earn very little money, but they have a sick son who needs special treatment. Saro’s desperation, a decisions he takes because of it, and Montalbano’s response stay with the reader (well, this one anyway).
In Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, Aboriginal Community Police Office (ACPO) Emily Tempest is called with the rest of her team to the scene of the murder of Albert ‘Doc Ozolins. The case looks on the surface like a drunken quarrel gone horribly wrong, and that’s where Tempest’s boss Bruce Cockburn wants to leave matters. In fact, John ‘Wireless’ Petherbridge, who’d had the quarrel with Ozolins, is arrested for the murder and there’s evidence against him. But Tempest is fairly sure that Wireless isn’t guilty. So she starts asking questions. It turns out that she was right. Ozolins had uncovered something that threatens some powerful people who want the case left alone. In the course of her investigation, Tempest talks to Ozolins’ brother Wishy, who gives her some interesting and important background information. While she’s there, she meets Wishy’s daughter Simone ‘Simmie.’ Simmie isn’t a major character in the novel, nor is she instrumental in solving the case. But she and Tempest discover they have in common a love for Emily Dickinson’s poetry and they forge a sort of bond. Simmie and Tempest’s interactions with her may be minor parts of the novel, but they are memorable.
And then there’s James Craig’s Never Apologise, Never Explain. Inspector John Carlyle from Charing Cross Station is called to the scene when Henry Mills reports the murder of his wife Agatha. Mills claims he was asleep at the time of the murder, and doesn’t know who killed his wife. He does say though that she had political enemies who wanted her dead. At first, neither Carlyle nor his assistant Joe Szyskowski believes Mills. In fact he’s arrested for the crime. But then Carlyle gets a clue that suggests very strongly that Henry Mills was right. So he begins searching into Agatha Mills’ past to find out how she would have made dangerous political enemies. In the meantime, Carlyle is working on another case as well, this one informally. One of Carlye’s acquaintances is Amelia Jacobs, a former prostitute who now keeps house and cleans for Sam Laidlaw, who’s still ‘in the business.’ Amelia is concerned because of Michael Hagger, a local gangster who’s the father of Sam’s son Jake. She believes Hagger may take Jake and she wants Carlyle to warn Hagger to stay away from Sam and their son. By the time he tries to contact Hagger though, it’s too late; Hagger has snatched Jake and disappeared. Now Carlyle will have to track them both through London’s underworld and try to find Jake before it’s too late. There’s a small scene during which Carlyle has a conversation with Amelia and Sam at their home, and it stays with the reader. It’s not essential to solving the mystery but it is memorable in its quiet way. It also shows the friendship between the two women – again, not key to the plot, but it adds to the story.
And that’s the thing about those well-done extra flourishes. They may not be important plot points or provide key clues to a mystery. But they add to a story and they are often the things we remember. Which of those little extra touches do you remember from your reading?
Now, let me suggest that your next blog-round stop should be Moira’s wonderful Clothes in Books. Talk about extra touches that can make a story memorable… Moira has an expert eye for the way what we wear defines a character, an era, and a novel. Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration for this post!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Nik Kershaw’s The Bell.