‘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.