But You Hid Behind Your Poison Pen and His Pride*

PoisonPen Letters‘Poison pen’ letters have been around for a very long time. Sometimes they’re sent out of spite or malice. Other times the purpose is bullying or blackmail. And sometimes they’re a reflection of the sender’s fragile mental health. Whatever motivates them, they can be distressing and frightening for the person who gets them. And sometimes they represent a real threat. They’re also interesting clues and ‘red herrings’ in crime fiction too. There are lots of examples from the genre; here are just a few.

Agatha Christie uses ‘poison pen’ letters quite frequently in her stories and novels; I’ll just mention one. In The Moving Finger, siblings Jerry and Joanna Burton have just moved from London to the village of Lymestock so that Jerry can recover from wartime injuries. They’ve just settled in when they receive a vicious anonymous letter claiming that they’re lovers rather than brother and sister. The letter seems like a crank, but it leaves as the saying goes a nasty taste. Then, the Burtons discover that they’re not the only ones to have gotten nasty letters. Several of the other residents of Lymestock have also been victims. Soon, the letters spark ugly rumours throughout the village. Then, things turn tragic. First, a ‘poison pen’ letter to the wife of the local solicitor results in a suicide. Then there’s another death. The police investigate, but vicar’s wife Mrs. Dane Calthrop has another idea. She asks Miss Marple to look into the matter. Miss Marple is thoroughly familiar with village life. What’s more, she’s intelligent, observant and good at making meaning from the local gossip. Miss Marple starts asking questions, and finds out the truth about the letters and the deaths.

In Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is invited to return to her alma mater Shrewsbury College for its annual Gaudy Dinner and festivities. At first, she’s not inclined to go, as she’s not sure what her reception will be. She has, after all, achieved a certain notoriety after being tried for murder (See Strong Poison for the details on that). But at the request of an old friend, she finally decides to participate. When she gets to Shrewsbury she’s pleasantly surprised at the warm welcome she’s given, and is glad she attended. Then trouble starts. First, Harriet finds an anonymous note accusing her of murder. Then she gets a letter from the dean of her college, saying that there have been other incidents, including vandalism, going on at the college. The college authorities don’t want a scandal, so the dean asks Harriet to return to Shrewsbury and investigate quietly rather than call in the police. Harriet agrees and goes back to the college under the guise of doing research for a book. What she finds, with help from Lord Peter Wimsey, is that the events at Shrewsbury are all connected with something that happened in the past, and that one person has not forgotten…

Inspector Van der Valk of the Amsterdam police faces a bizarre case of ‘poison pen’ letters in Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel. There’s been a spate of such letters in the small town of Zwinderen, and the police have gotten concerned. Normally not much attention is paid to one or just a few such letters, but this is a bit different. Two of the letters have resulted in suicide and one in a complete mental breakdown. The local police haven’t been able to make much headway, mostly because the people of Zwinderen are close-mouthed and unwilling to talk about anything that might have led to the letters being sent. So Van der Valk is sent to find out who is behind the letters. It’s an interesting case of a small community where everyone knows everyone’s business and public reputation is all-important. Still, Van der Valk slowly gets to the truth about who’s been sending the letters and why. He also makes another completely unexpected, discovery that’s related to wartime crimes.

Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden also features ‘poison pen’ letters. Ten years before the events in the novel, landscaper Warren Howe was murdered one afternoon with his own scythe. At the time, the police thought that his wife Tina was guilty, and she had good reason. Howe was an abusive alcoholic who wouldn’t leave other women alone. But the police couldn’t get conclusive evidence, so they couldn’t pursue the case. The whole business gets brought up again when a series of anonymous notes, including one to the Cumbria Constabulary, suggests that Tina really was guilty of the murder. DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team re-open the case and begin another investigation. In the meantime, Oxford historian Daniel Kind is researching the history of the oddly-shaped garden of the cottage he’s recently taken. As it turns out, it was laid out by the same company that employed Warren Howe. Each in a different way, Scarlett and Kind look into the history of the area and find that it’s closely linked with the murder.

Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Quilt or Innocence introduces us to Beatrice Coleman, who’s recently retired from Atlanta to Dappled Hills, North Carolina. She’s moved there to be closer to her daughter Piper and to enjoy some long-awaited relaxation and reading time. Soon enough Beatrice finds that social life in Dappled Hills revolves around quilting. So, somewhat reluctantly (since she doesn’t know a lot about quilting), she joins the Village Quilters. When one of its members is murdered, she starts asking questions. Then she gets a threatening letter. And then another. Now it looks as though someone is targeting the quilters, especially when Beatrice and another quilter are attacked. It’s a scary experience for Beatrice, especially since she lives alone. But she gets to the truth about the letters, the murder and the attacks.

Today’s Internet technology means that nasty letters, comments and the like can be posted from just about anywhere. Sometimes they’re done anonymously and sometimes it’s easier to find out who sends them. Either way, they’re at least as unsettling as traditional letters. We see a bit of that in Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. In that novel, Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson have come from Scotland to Melbourne with their nine-week-old son Noah. For Alistair it’s a homecoming, but Joanna has never been to Australia. They’re on their way to Alistair’s family’s home when the unimaginable happens: the loss of Noah. When news of the missing baby gets out, the entire Australian media gets to work and the case generates a frenzy of interest. There are all sorts of appeals for help, charity benefits and the like. But little by little, questions begin to be raised about the event. Those questions start people wondering whether one or both of Noah’s parents might have had something to do with his disappearance. Now there are websites and blog posts set up that vilify, especially, Joanna. It’s an interesting case of how a story can generate passionate public opinion and how modern technology allows people to express that opinion in all kinds of terms. It’s also interesting to compare the ‘poison pen’ comments, tweets and blog posts with the reality of what actually did happen to Noah.

‘Poison pen’ letters, notes, tweets and comments are unsettling and sometimes frightening, especially when you don’t know who’s responsible. They can generate a lot of tension and certainly add levels of suspense to a crime story. These are just a few instances. Your turn.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from REO Speedwagon’s In Your Letter.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Helen Fitzgerald, Martin Edwards, Nicolas Freeling

32 responses to “But You Hid Behind Your Poison Pen and His Pride*

  1. Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry reminds me of a real story of a family whose baby was taken by a dingo and the woman was accused of murdering the child. I always wondered why the mother and not the father was sentenced.
    You might want to read it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lindy_Chamberlain-Creighton

    I truly appreciate your research.

    • Carol – Thanks for sharing that link. The Lindy Chamberlain story gripped Australia (and other places in the world too), and it still resonates. In fact there are several Australian novels I’ve read (The Cry being one and Wendy James’ The Mistake being another) that make reference to that novel. I’m grateful you’ve provided readers with the link to read up on the story. And I’m glad you like what you find here.

    • With people over 35 you can still generate a “did Lindy do it or not” discussion here…30+ years later. In fact I have a family member who still swears blind she’s guilty.

  2. I recently read Charles Palliser’s Rustication, a Victorian Gothic pastiche featuring anonymous letters in a small village – as is so often the case in crime fiction, they weren’t quite what they seemed. However I disliked the extremely strong language in the letters – it wasn’t really in keeping with the rest of the book, which I enjoyed very much, it seemed unnecessary. (I remember you didn’t like the sound of the animal attacks in the book – we’ll be putting everyone off it between us, when it IS a good read!)

    • Moira – Oh, yes! I remember your excellent review of Rustication. Interesting isn’t it how sometimes salty language fits in with a story and sometimes it doesn’t. To me, that’s the key to whether it pulls me out of a story (hence: annoys me) or not. And you’re quite right; I didn’t like the sound of the animal attacks. Still, a good story is a good story. That, to me, is part of what makes it a challenge to discuss a book on one’s blog. On the one hand one wants to be honest about things that may be an issue for readers, or things one didn’t like oneself. On the other, one doesn’t want to deter readers who might be wavering if a book is really a good book.

  3. Great post. There’s so much you can do with a poison pen as a plot tool. And don’t forget ‘Coming Home For Christmas’ ;o)

  4. I couldn’t think of another specific example, Margot, but I think Agatha Christie used this mystery element in at least one Miss Marple novel. Now that’s going to bug me until I remember the rest of the story.

    • Pat – I know what you mean about something staying just outside one’s memory. Miss Marple’s main encounter with ‘poison pen’ letters is in The Moving Finger, but there are lots of other stories in which Christie uses that element.

  5. Margot: In Flight of Aquavit by Anthony Bidulka a closeted accountant is threatened with exposure and Russell Quant goes into action. Fear of being “outed” is a theme in many mysteries involving gay men.

    • Bill – Right you are of course about Flight of Aquavit. I’m glad you filled in that gap that I left. Even Quant gets warned to stay away from that case and as you say, it’s a good example of the way lots of gay men are afraid of being outed.

  6. I’ve seen some scary “poison pen” type posts on Face Book sometimes. A form of stalking really. I’d hate to be on the receiving end of one.


    • Donna – I’d hate that too. And you have a good point that Facebook, Twitter and other social networks allow for people to be stalked and harassed in ways that didn’t used to be possible. It’s really frightening.

  7. Col

    What’s with the photographic memory? I ought to be able to recall some examples…….but it’s a blank (more caffeine needed?)…..hopefully I’ll read Gaudy Night this year.

    • Col – Gaudy Night is a terrific example of Dorothy Sayers’ work. I hope that if you do get the chance to read it, you’ll enjoy it. And I’m always in favour of caffeine ingestion before anything that requires thought. Like opening a door or pushing the ‘start’ button on a computer.

  8. Moving Finger is my favourite of all Christie’s novels, I think. I love Mrs Dane Calthrop’s description of Miss Marple as an ‘expert in wickedness’, and the whole ‘no smoke without fire’ thing really shows how damaging rumours can be even when they’re completely untrue.

    The Cry is slowly making it’s way to the top of the TBR… 🙂

    • FictionFan – Oh, I like The Moving Finger very much too. Such a good look at what happens when people start to believe gossip, and why they would. That ‘no smoke without fire…’ saying really is dangerous isn’t it? And I like the way Miss Marple is described, too – accurate and clever.
      And I do hope you’ll enjoy The Cry when it gets to the top of your TBR. In my opinion there’s a lot of great work with atmosphere, unreliable (or perhaps not?) narrators, and solid pacing and writing style. And the whole question of what people are led to believe and what really happened is fascinating.

  9. I started a story where that was the theme last year. I disliked the woman so much I never finished it. There is something so vile about this sort of thing.

    • Patti – It is awfully vile isn’t it? I think it’s cowardly, too. I don’t blame you for deciding you disliked your character too much to write more about her. And if you didn’t find her worth writing about, readers probably wouldn’t have found her interesting either.

  10. THE Moving Finger will be coming up soonish in my Agatha Christie reads. Can’t think of any examples, but I agree, makes a great theme for a book. You wonder what motivates a person to do that.

    • Tracy – I think about that too sometimes. It could be any number of things, but I always think it’s so sneaky and cowardly if I can put it that way. I hope you’ll like The Moving Finger. Christie may not be famous for rich, deep characters, but I do like the ones in that novel.

  11. Thanks for another thought-provoking post. I *think* I’m right in saying that here in the UK it’s still a criminal offence to send poison-pen letters… although of course the authorities have to work out who the anonymous sender is first!

    • Tess – Thanks – glad you enjoyed the post. I think it’s illegal to do that in the U.S. too, although I’m not sure of the details. As you say though, first one has to find out who the guilty one is…

  12. Margot – Another great topic. Bill pre-empted me somewhat: one of my favorite subgenres of the poisoned pen letter is the blackmail letter. And again these often provide clues and/or red herrings. One that comes to mind is the elegantly phrased blackmail letter which Raven’s client receives in Benson’s Cain’s Wife.

    • Bryan – Thank you. And you’re right that the blackmail letter can add quite a lot to a novel in terms of tension, conflict, clues and as you say, ‘red herrings.’ I’m also glad you’ve mentioned Cain’s Wife; I must find a copy of that and re-read it.

  13. I love both ‘Moving Finger’ and ‘Gaudy Night’. I’ve never thought about it before, but in some respects, poison pen letters were the forerunners of the internet trolls we get now. Same behaviour, different methods!

    • Sarah – That’s exactly the same way I feel about today’s Internet trolls. They’re keeping up the ‘poison pen’ tradition and the anonymity of the Internet allows them to ‘hide’ in the same way that a typed unsigned letter used to allow.

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