I Was Thinking About Something Else I Must Admit*

UnexpectedCluesWe usually think of detectives as solving cases by tirelessly tracking down clues and solving crimes by putting them together. And detectives do indeed work very hard as they’re looking for clues. But sometimes, clues and important leads come not from the hard work that sleuths do but from chance remarks or observations that happen when the sleuth is thinking of something else. And the wise detective is open to those things and fits them, sometimes subconsciously, into the puzzle. When that puzzle piece falls into place we can see how detectives work on cases even when they’re not working on cases, if I can put it that way.

In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies for instance, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the stabbing death of the 4th Baron Edgware. All of the evidence points to his wife, actress Jane Wilkinson. But at the time of the murder, she claims she was attending a dinner party in another part of London, and all of the other people at the party are prepared to swear that she was there.  So Poirot and the police have to look for the killer elsewhere. And given that Lord Edgware was a very unpleasant person, there’s no lack of suspects. Then there’s another death. And another. Poirot is sure the deaths are connected, and so they are, but at first, he doesn’t know how, nor can he figure out exactly who the killer is. He has a lot of the clues, but they don’t really fit into place. Then one night he and Hastings go to the theatre to take his mind off the case. On the way out of the theatre afterwards, Poirot overhears a remark that gives him the key to the whole case. And when he follows up on the idea that the comment gives him and finds out who is behind the events in the story.

Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers is the story of the murders of Johannes and Maria Lövgren, who lived on a farm not far from Ystad. At first it looks like a robbery gone wrong, but the murders were a lot more brutal than would be expected from a robber who panicked and killed. Nothing of value has been stolen, and the couple wasn’t wealthy anyway. So although Inspector Kurt Wallander isn’t convinced that this was a chance murder, there isn’t much to go on at first. The Lövgrens didn’t have any known enemies or a fortune to leave a desperate relative, so there doesn’t seem to be a personal motive for the murder either. The only clue that the police have to go on is that Maria Lövgren said the word foreign just before she died. There’s a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment at the moment, so if the killer is a foreigner, there are likely to be real repercussions and in fact, when the news of that dying word gets to the media, it does spawn a backlash. Wallander and his team have to deal with that as well as with the original case that doesn’t seem to be getting far. Bit by bit the team finds out about the victims’ lives, and that gives them some leads. But they really can’t put the pieces together. Then a chance but crucial clue gives Wallander a vital piece of the puzzle and after months of effort, he and the team find out who killed the Lövgrens and why. Since that clue comes up while Wallander is thinking of something else, it’s interesting to see how he fits it into that puzzle.

In Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, it’s not the police but someone else who makes sense from what you might call a casual but important clue. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team have been working on the case of the murder of Eva Ringmar, whose body was found in her bathtub. Her husband Janek Mitter is the most likely suspect; he was in the home at the time of the murder and he was so drunk that he has little memory at all of what happened. He’s arrested, tried and convicted, but since he doesn’t remember the murder, he’s remanded to a mental institution instead of a regular prison. But he’s always claimed that he was innocent, and Van Veeteren has had doubts about the case. Then, bit by bit, Mitter’s memory returns. Before he can tell anyone what really happened though, he himself is killed. Now Van Veeteren and the team know that Mitter was telling the truth, and they re-open the Ringmar case. Bit by bit the team gets a picture of what Eva Ringmar was like, and they slowly figure out who the killer might be. But one person they want to talk to seems to have disappeared. Without that person the case can’t really move along. And then a hotel night clerk who’s subconsciously been following the case gets a piece of information. Without doing so consciously, he puts together that information and what he’s heard about the case. And that gives Van Veeteren and the team just what they need.

Karin Fossum’s He Who Fears the Wolf  tells the story of the murder of Halldis Horn, whose body is found in the front yard of her home. There isn’t much evidence as to who’s responsible, since the victim lived alone in a remote area. But there are witnesses who claim that the killer is Errki Johrma, a mentally ill young man who was seen in the area. Inspector Konrad Sejer wants to interview Johrma, but he’s disappeared. The police get a few pieces of evidence from the crime scene, but not enough to really pursue a case. Then the team gets involved in investigating a bank robbery. In this instance, it’s more than just trying to retrieve the money; this robber has taken a hostage. So the police have to move as quickly as they possibly can to try to make sure no harm comes to the hostage. The team is looking at the bank’s surveillance footage when one of them notices something about it that gives a vital clue to the Halldis Horn murder. That’s the first real key that those two events are related, and it starts to point the team in the right direction.

And then there’s James Craig’s Never Apologise, Never Explain. Charing Cross Station Inspector John Carlyle and his assistant Joe Szyskowski are called to the scene when Agatha Mills’ bludgeoned body is discovered in her home not far from the British Museum. Her husband Henry is the first suspect, but he claims that he was sleeping and didn’t hear anything. What’s more, he claims that his wife had enemies who were out to get her and that they are responsible. As you might expect, the police don’t believe Mills and he is promptly arrested. At first the crime seems to be solved, but Carlyle isn’t really completely sure. The police haven’t turned up any motive for Mills to kill his wife, but if he didn’t, there seems to be no good lead to the person who did. Then, Carlyle happens to see a homeless person digging through the rubbish near the Mills home. From that casual encounter, when he wasn’t even ‘officially’ looking for evidence, Carlyle gets a vital clue that puts him on the beginning of the right trail.

It’s interesting how we sometimes get our best ideas and the best clues for dealing with what we face in life when we’re not really actively looking for them. The same’s true of detectives. These are only a few examples; I’ll bet you can think of lots more…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Waifs’ Attention. 


Filed under Agatha Christie, Håkan Nesser, Henning Mankell, James Craig, Karin Fossum

12 responses to “I Was Thinking About Something Else I Must Admit*

  1. Margot, as I’m sure you already know, a great many traditional puzzle-type mysteries, before, during and after the “Golden Age,” turn upon this kind of chance clue (usually given fairly to the reader as well as to the detective!). In John Dickson Carr’s “The Three Coffins,” Dr. Gideon Fell finds the key to solving two seemingly impossible murders when he overhears – and interprets – the sound of nearby church bells. And in my favorite Ellery Queen mystery, the novella “The Lamp of God,” in which Ellery is faced with the apparent disappearance of an entire house overnight, he finds the solution in a properly interpreted – and accidentally discovered – clue that he happens to observe. Such clues often play a key role in the author’s misdirection of the reader – and, as a general rule, I miss them until the detective points them out near the end…sigh…

    • Les – Oh, you’ve given such good examples of the way that GA novels use those observations and events that happen when we’re not really thinking about them. Both The Three Coffins and The Lamp of God make those clues even more believable because they aren’t contrived. They simply happen to be there, and the sleuth notices them. And in the best novels, the reader knows they’re there, too and it’s left to the reader to make sense of them too. Not, of course, that I always do make the right sense of them..*sigh*

  2. I’m so glad you raised this Margot – the other day I was thinking about Poirot in One Two Buckle My Shoe. Towards the end, he is in church singing the psalm, and the wording (something about snares) gives him the clue he needs to solve the crime. Now Christie in general plays fair with these matters, a clue is a clue and is generally satisfying. But this one I have never understood: HOW did this help him solve the crime? What was the sudden breakthrough? It was not a real clue! I object! Thoughts?

    • Moira – I’ve got to agree that the psalm isn’t a direct clue in the way that we see, say, in After the Funeral, where Poirot gets very real clues from things he sees and hears. So I see your point about Christie not ‘playing fair’ with those lyrics. I can easily see where the song makes him think of snares and traps and that someone may have set one for him. That’s a logical thought that I can well imagine Poirot having. I wasn’t overly happy with the next leap though – who is laying that snare. There are one or two good clues that narrow down the list, if I can put it that way, but I agree that Christie isn’t at her best here in terms of ‘in plain sight’ clues that are fair, but that you don’t see.

  3. There is something always satirsying about the moment when the great detective smacks his forehad after hearing a chance remakr and says “but of course – I have been a fool” – if only life were like that for us mere mortals – speaking of superior people, Just to let you know that I nominated you for a WordPress Family Award – thanks for all the fine blogging Margot – makes all the difference!

    • Sergio – How very kind of you – thank you! That means a lot to me. And you’re right that there’s nothing like that moment when the detective hears that remark or sees that clue and realises what the truth has been all along. As you say, would that it were that easy for us in real life…

  4. It’s hard for a writer to do this because we’re supposed to give the reader all of the info the protagonist has, but we don’t want to have the reader figuring it out before our sleuth does. I love those twists as a reader if they take me by surprise but not if they are predictable.

    • Pat – You have a well-taken point. There’s an important balance between giving the reader enough information to ‘play fair,’ and giving the reader so much information that there’s no surprise – no plot. It’s tricky isn’t it? Like you, I enjoy those moments when the sleuth uses an unexpected clue that just puts it all together. But if it’s not done well, you’re right; it’s either contrived or predictable.

  5. It is true, as mentioned above, that this type of occurrence doesn’t allow the reader to have all the clues early on. But I am sure this method of getting to a solution is very realistic and the way that most crimes get solved.

    • Tracy – I have the feeling you’re probably right. A lot of crimes probably do get solved when the sleuth is open and alert and is able to make sense of those unexpected clues.

  6. I suspect a few of real life murders are solved by a chance tip-off and crime fiction reflects this. I love it when Hastings sparks an idea for Poirot and solves the case!

    • Sarah – Oh, I love that too. And I also like the fact that Poirot is wiling to admit it when Hastings makes those illuminating comments. You’re probably quite right that a lot of murders really are solved that way – by something the detective sees or hears when s/he isn’t looking for it specifically.

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