There’s No Use Sitting on the Fence When You Know it All Makes Sense*

ThemesSometimes one of the most important clues in a murder case – the thing that really ties the case together – is a common theme, such as a poem, a song or something of that nature. Once the sleuth figures out what that common theme is, it’s easier to find out what’s behind the murder or set of murders. Those themes often point to the killer too. I’m not talking here about cryptic codes and ciphers. Rather, I mean motifs that give clues as to what the criminal is thinking and where s/he may strike next. Let me offer just a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I have in mind.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Musgrave Ritual, Sherlock Holmes tells Watson of an early case of his – a case brought to him by an old university friend Reginald Musgrave. Some strange things were going on at the Musgrave family home of Hurlstone. Brunton the butler and second housemaid Rachel Howells went missing. Nothing was stolen, so theft didn’t seem to be the motive for their leaving. According to what Musgrave told Holmes, the only odd thing he’d noticed before their disappearance was that he’d caught Brunton going through some family papers. So, Holmes tells Watson, he went with his friend to Hurlstone. It turns out that an old family ritual that involved the repetition of a short verse is the theme that explains everything. Once Holmes figures out what the verse means, he finds out the truth about Brunton and Rachel Howells.

Agatha Christie used themes like that in more than one of her stories. In And then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians) for instance, ten people are invited for a stay on Indian Island off the Devon coast. They no sooner arrive and settle in than each is accused of having been responsible for at least one death. Then, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Late that night there’s another death. Now it’s clear that someone has lured them all to Indian Island and is planning to kill them. So the survivors will have to find out which of them is the killer if they’re to stay alive. In this case, the theme is the old poem Ten Little Indians, a copy of which is in each person’s room. Of course, knowing that theme doesn’t necessarily mean anyone will be spared… (I know, I know, fans of A Pocket Full of Rye and The ABC Murders…).

John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook is the story of American Tad Rampole’s visit to England and the home of Dr. Gideon Fell. It’s also the story of the Starberth family. Two generations of the Starberth family were Governors of the now-disused Chatterham Prison. Although the prison hasn’t been in use for a hundred years, the Starbeth family still has an odd connection to the place. Each male heir has to spend the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the Governor’s Room at the old prison. To prove he’s been there, he must open the safe in the room and follow the instructions that are there. Now it’s the turn of Martin Starberth. Rampole is especially interested when Fell tells him this story, because Rampole has fallen in love with Martin’s sister Dorothy. So he and Fell watch and wait on the night of Martin’s birthday. The next morning, Martin’s body is found. He apparently fell over the balcony attached to the Governor’s Room, but it’s soon clear that he was murdered. The only problem is that no-one was seen going to or from the prison that night. There are rumours that he fell victim to a family curse, but the real solution is more prosaic than that. The only clue to it though is a poem that Anthony Starberth wrote many years earlier. Once Fell makes sense of the poem, he’s able to find out who the killer is.

In Elly Griffiths’ The Crossing Places, forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway gets involved in a police investigation when a set of old bones is discovered in North Norfolk. DCI Harry Nelson thinks they may be the bones of Lucy Downey, a girl who went missing ten years ago, but Galloway is able to show they are much older than that. Then Nelson comes to Galloway again with a related request. He’s been receiving strange letters, most likely from the person who abducted Lucy. The letters also make veiled reference to anther girl Scarlet Henderson who recently disappeared. Nelson thinks that if Galloway can help him make sense of the letters, they’ll give him a clue as to who’s behind the abductions. Galloway is able to help with some of the quotes and references used in the letters and although they don’t specifically point to one person, they do point to the kind of knowledge the abductor would have. The letters show that there is a theme to part of what has happened, and that leads to some of the answers Nelson needs.  

Time is a theme in Jeffery Deaver’s The Cold Moon. In this novel, Lincoln Rhyme and his partner Amelia Sachs are on the trail of a serial killer known as The Watchmaker who is meticulous and obsessed with time. In fact, The Watchmaker leaves clocks at each of his crime scenes. Rhyme is able to use this theme of time to find out who the killer is, but now he’s under pressure to stop The Watchmaker before he’s able to strike again. He’s also discovered that The Watchmaker intends to strike again (yes, pun intended) in just a few hours…

Poetry proves to be a theme in Cat Connor’s Killerbyte. New Zealand ex-pat and FBI operative Gabrielle ‘Ellie’ Conway is the co-moderator of a poetry chat room called Cobwebs. One night chat room member Carter McLaren turns up at Ellie’s house to threaten her after being banned from the room. He’s arrested, but later his body is discovered in Conway’s car. Then another chat room member is killed. And another. There’s even a suggestion that Conway herself is responsible. So in order to clear her name and find out who’s targeting the chat room, Conway and her co-moderator and lover Cormack ‘Mack’ Connelly try to track the killer down. They don’t have much to go on at first, since the killer is very good at leaving no traces. But the killer does leave notes at each crime scene with lines of poetry. That poetry theme begins to tie the crimes together and once Conway and Connelly make sense of it, they get important information. The poems, plus a chance clue, put them on the right track.

Sometimes the most important clue to a murderer is a theme such as a song, poetry, time or something else. That theme gives a clue as to what the killer is thinking, and it can be very helpful in putting the sleuth on the right track.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stealers Wheel’s Waltz (You Know it Makes Sense).


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Cat Connor, Elly Griffiths, Jeffery Deaver, John Dickson Carr

18 responses to “There’s No Use Sitting on the Fence When You Know it All Makes Sense*

  1. Another terrific blog Margot. Thank you for writing so often. I always look forward to you popping up in my inbox. I’m coming to the last third of my next thriller and when my brain goes a little dead, I look you up for inspiration. Not that I don’t know where it’s going! Perish the thought.
    All good wishes to you.

    • Harry – Thank you so much for the kind words. I appreciate that you took the time to write them. I wish you well as you get your novel done. I know what you mean about feeling brain-dead, too. Hang in there!

  2. There’s a one-off book called Landscape with Dead Dons by Robert Robinson (who was a well-known broadcasting personality in the UK) and there’s a poem in that which turns out to be crucial to the solution. Cannot say more without spoilering, but it is an extremely clever device….

    • Moira – Oh, I love the title of that one! Sometimes those one-offs are really very good, and I’m glad you found this one is. And it sounds like just exactly the kind of story I had in mind when I wrote this post. Thanks.

  3. Once again, you’ve hit on a fascinating subject, Margot. Let me offer two examples from classic mysteries.

    One of the best – and most unusual – Ellery Queen novels is “Cat of Many Tails.” It was written in 1949, and it’s about a series of murders (long before the phrase “serial killer” was even coined). New York is terrified by the seemingly unrelated murders of victim after victim – the only pattern seems to be that each is murdered with a colored silk cord. It is only when Ellery Queen finally uncovers the pattern behind the murders – which does, indeed, involve those cords – that he is able to track down the killer.

    On a much lighter note, there’s Edmund Crispin’s “The Moving Toyshop,” and the multiple clues therein which are based on a particular type of poem; his detective, Gervase Fen, needs to understand those poems and understand the clues they provide before he can unravel this mystery,.

    Another great topic for discussion! Thanks, Margot.

    • Les – Thanks for the kind words. And thanks for those excellent suggestions! You always have such terrific suggestions. Your mention of Cat of Many Tails reminds me of another Queen mystery, which I almost used. That one, too, involves a particular pattern that gives Queen the clue he needs to solve a murder. I know that’s vague but if I say more, it’ll be too close to spoiler-ville. And of course, The Moving Toyshop is a fine illustration too. Trust you for that.

  4. Your mind is a thing of beauty
    I could not admire it more
    Each day brings another topic
    And not a one is a bore.

    • Patti – Your kind words have brightened the season
      I’m wearing a Cheshire-cat grin
      Your visits are part of the reason
      I love the crimefic world I’m in.

      Thanks 🙂

  5. Sleuthing through the blogs, I am stumbled upon your marvelous offering. Thanks for giving readers like me such a wonderful place to visit. I will be back often.

  6. Margot: In the Calling by Inger Ash Wolfe there are a series of murders of terminally ill people with post-death mutilations. Police Chief Hazel Micallef seeks to determine the meaning behind the deaths and post death rituals.

    Inspector Chen in Red Mandarin Dress by Qiu Xiaolong cannot solve murders of young women unless he can figure out why each has been dressed in a torn red mandarin dress after being killed.

    • Bill – Those are great examples of the sort of thing I had in mind when I wrote this post. Once Chen knows the meaning of the rad mandarin dress, the connection is more clear. And the same thing is true of the rituals in The Calling. They show what’s in the killer’s mind.

  7. I *love* these types of cases and have often thought I’d like to take a stab at it…never have, but I’d like to! It just adds such a nice, puzzling layer to the story.

    • Elizabeth – I’ve wondered too about trying that sort of plot! So far, so no, but maybe at some point I will. As you say, it does add a good layer of interest to a story I think.

  8. Very interesting post and the examples in the post and the comments are great. And I love Patti’s poem and your answering poem. Very clever.

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