Take These Tables, Take These Chairs*

FurnitureYou can tell a lot about people by their furniture. People who can afford to do so usually buy furniture that suits their tastes; so, for instance, minimalists will tend to have spare furniture with very clean lines. Those who like a particular style (e.g. rustic, art deco, Victorian, Colonial) will choose that sort of furniture if they can. And those who like creating and refinishing furniture will reflect that in their choices. You can also tell some things about people’s economic situations by their furniture too. Because of the way furniture reflects the owner, it’s an interesting way for an author to give characters some depth without too much narrative. For the same kind of reason, it’s worth it to a sleuth (real or fictional) to pay attention to witnesses’ and suspects’ furnishings.

There’s another reason too: furniture can sometimes hold some valuable clues to a case. That’s part of the reason that detectives do thorough searches of furniture. You never know what you’ll find. Let me just give you a few examples of what I mean.

Agatha Christie uses this plot point in several of her stories. In Third Girl for instance, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from a young woman who seems both troubled and interested in hiring him. In fact, she says she may have committed a murder. All of a sudden though, she changes her mind and says that he’s too old. Then she leaves without giving her name. When Poirot shares what happened with his friend, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, he learns that the woman’s name is Norma Restarick. With Mrs. Oliver’s help he finds out where Norma’s family lives, and tries to find her. But by that time, she’s disappeared. Now, Poirot and Mrs. Oliver are faced with the tasks of following up on the possibility of a murder and of finding Norma. At one point, Mrs. Oliver visits the London building where Norma shares a flat with two other young women. She finds that removal men are taking furniture out of another flat where the resident apparently committed suicide. A piece of paper falls out of a desk drawer, and Mrs. Oliver picks it up. That paper turns out to be an important clue in this case. There’s another Christie story in which the location of a piece of furniture turns out to matter quite a lot…

In Harry Mulheim’s short story The Dusty Drawer, we meet botany professor Norman Logan. He knows that William Tritt, one of the tellers at his bank, has cheated him out of money. But he has no way to prove it, and Tritt has such a sterling reputation at the bank that Logan knows no-one would believe his story. One day he’s sitting at a table in the bank, waiting to cash in a bond. That’s when he discovers that the table has a half-hidden drawer. A little experimentation shows Logan that the drawer is never used; most people likely don’t even know it’s there. That drawer gives him the perfect idea for getting back at Tritt, and he carries out his plan. It turns out that the plan works perfectly, and all because of a stuck, hard-to-find drawer…

Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair is the story of Gilbert Hand, who works for a small publishing firm. He’s recently lost his wife Rachel in a terrible shipboard accident and is dealing with the grief and loss that you might expect. Partly at his doctor’s suggestion, Hand sells the home he and Rachel shared and moves to London. There he takes a room in a respectable, quiet hotel, hoping to settle in and find some peace. Instead he finds something quite different. The room he’s been given has a davenport with a storage area that Hand wants to use. When he opens it though, he discovers a bundle of silk wrapped around a long coil of dark hair. Very curious about his find, Hand starts to ask some questions. He learns that the last occupant of the room was a man named Freddie Doyle. Once he learns the man’s name, Hand decides to find out more about him. In the meantime, Doyle returns to the room, saying he ‘left something behind.’ Hand knows what it is, but finds ways to prevent Doyle from getting the coil of hair back. As the story goes on, Hand becomes more and more obsessed with Doyle, and is convinced that there’s some sort of eerie chess game going on between them. The more deeply involved he gets in this ‘chess match,’ the more his life starts to fall apart as he becomes determined to ‘win’ over Doyle.

In Helene Tursten’s The Glass Devil, GΓΆteborg police detective Irene Huss and her team investigate the murders of schoolteacher Jacob Schyttelius and his parents. The parents are shot in their home, and their son is shot in the family’s summer cottage. At first it looks as though a group of Satanists might be responsible, and that’s logical since the elder Schyttelius was a minister. But there are enough inconsistencies with that theory that the police have to reconsider it. Another possibility is that someone has a vendetta against the Schyttelius family. If that’s the case, then Jacob’s sister Rebecka, who now lives in London, may be in danger. So Huss travels to London to try to ensure her safety and learn as much as possible from her. Rebecka, though, is in a fragile mental and emotional state and can’t be much help. Despite that, the team gradually puts the pieces of the puzzle together. And one important source of information is a cupboard hidden inside a wall at the summer cottage. Perhaps a wall isn’t, strictly speaking, furniture, but this one’s used quite cleverly.

One of Timothy Hallinan’s protagonists is ex-pat American travel writer Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty. Rafferty lives in Bangkok, where he’s gotten the reputation for being able to find people who don’t want to be found. That’s why, in A Nail Through the Heart, Clarissa Ulrich wants to hire him. She’s visiting from Australia, hoping to find her Uncle Claus. She’s always felt close to him, but hasn’t heard from him in a few months, and now she’s worried. So she wants Rafferty to track him down. As you’d expect, Rafferty goes to Claus Ulrich’s apartment to see if he can find any clues as to the man’s whereabouts. At first search he doesn’t find much – certainly not anything that would indicate where the man is. He does find a possible lead though, because Ulrich’s maid has disappeared too. Perhaps by tracking her, he’ll find the key to the mystery. That trail leads Rafferty to the other main plot thread: the search for a man who allegedly took something from an enigmatic elderly lady named Madame Wing. But still Rafferty can’t find Ulrich. So he returns to the apartment, hoping he’ll find something he overlooked the first time. This time his efforts are rewarded. He forcibly opens a filing cabinet that turns out to hold a vital clue.

One of the characters in Peter James’ Not Dead Yet is Anna Galicia, who is utterly obsessed with entertainment superstar Gaia Lafayette. Anna is thrilled when the news comes out that her idol will be coming to Brighton and Hove to do a film called The King’s Mistress. Anna’s obsession is reflected in the way her home is furnished:
 

‘She sat in the gilded, white velour upholstered armchair that was an exact copy of the one she had seen Gaia lounging back in, in a Hello! magazine feature on her Central Park West Apartment. Anna had had the replica made by a firm in Brighton, so that she could lounge back exactly the same way Gaia did, unlit cigarette gripped louchely between her forefinger and middle finger.’
 

Anna isn’t the only one obsessed with Gaia. When the superstar’s life is threatened, Brighton and Hove authorities decide that she’ll need extra protection during her stay in the area, so Superintendent Roy Grace is asked to provide enhanced security and do whatever is possible to ensure her safety. Grace isn’t any too thrilled about this task, since he’s already involved in other cases, including the bizarre discovery of an unidentified torso in an unused chicken coop. But orders are orders, as the saying goes, and Grace takes up his new responsibility. Gaia’s visit to Brighton and Hove turns to be much more dangerous than anyone imagined.

Desks, sofas, beds, cabinets and so on may not always exactly solve mysteries. But they can give sleuths a lot of information about the people involved in them. And sometimes, they contain valuable clues…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Go-Betweens’ Second-Hand Furniture.

30 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Charlotte Jay, Harry Mulheim, Helene Tursten, Peter James, Timothy Hallinan

30 responses to “Take These Tables, Take These Chairs*

  1. I think if you had to pick one piece of mystery furniture it would have to be the desk – secret compartments, half-hidden documents, that missing will, blotting paper to try to read that compromising letter. I think in Christie’s Roger Ackroyd there’s something about the positioning of the desk, or a piece of equipment on it…? I know there is a room plan showing where each piece of furniture is: now that’s a proper GA mystery….

    • Moira – You have a very good memory! Yes, indeed, in Christie’s Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the positioning of a table matters. And there are indeed diagrams. As you say, a real GA mystery. And you’ve got a well-taken point about desks. All sorts of mysteries there, whether it’s will, hidden letters, false passports or other things. Nothing like it, and it’s not surprising that sleuths search desks thorougly when the investigate.

  2. Wow, Margot – only you could think of such a small but very telling detail in crime fiction as furniture… and have the examples to back it up! I’m impressed. I can’t think of examples off the top of my head, but may come back later, after careful reflection (and research).

    • Marina Sofia – Thank you :-). I think that furniture is really interesting as a reflection of who we are. Not that I’m an expert at all – couldn’t be farther from it. But I do think it tells a lot about us.

  3. Furniture can be an excellent window into the mind of the character!

  4. Well, I had to search Wikipedia to remind me which of the stories it was in, but I’ll nominate the bookcase in Holmes’ ‘Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez’ when he proved conclusively that cigarettes can be bad for a murderer’s health…

  5. I just saw that “Third Girl” on television. Having Poirot come to life as a VISUAL… well the environment [furniture is emphasized! πŸ™‚

    Clever point, Margot.

    • There’s definitely something about seeing a story filmed. You can get a much better visual image of a scene that way. And yes, the furniture matters… Thanks for the kind words.

  6. My furniture says : Dog friendly home. πŸ™‚

  7. How intriguing! I’ve just started Phantom by Jo Nesbo so I’m going to look out for furniture related breakthroughs!

  8. I have very fond memories of the early Ellery Queen challenge, THE CHINESE ORANGE MYSTERY in which a disorganised room is the key to a locked room mystery – must read it again as I am a bit fussy on it though! Thanks Margot.

    • Sergio – Glad you brought that one up. It’s a good example of what the sleuth (and the reader!) can learn from the way a room is put together. I’m very glad you filled in that gap.

  9. Agatha Christie is very good at depicting rooms and houses, I feel. I not only can imagine Poirot’s flat but alos Miss Marple’s house and garden. Wonderful.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Sarah. In fact, at one point I had a paragraph about that in this post. Christie did such a terrific job of showing the kind of people Poirot and Miss Marple are just through their furnishings. But the post was getting too long, so I didn’t include that in the end. I’m glad you did.

  10. Col

    Definitely a writer’s imagination at work here, who could possibly conceive of a blog post connected to crime fiction concerning furniture? πŸ™‚

  11. It is interesting how often furniture is used in crime fiction. Often clues are hidden in picture frames. Not exactly furniture, but a good place to secret things. I only thought of this example because that happens in Enigma by Robert Harris, which I read this month.

    • Tracy – Oh, pictures are great places for clues, letters, and lots of other crime-fictional things. Sometimes, pictures themselves are clues, and that can be interesting too. And thanks for mentioning Enigma. I hope you’ll post a full-on review of it.

  12. Kathy D.

    The desk drawer in Henrietta Who? provides a very important clue in this case of murder and identity by Catherine Aird, a charming writer.
    The condition of furniture can tell a lot about a character. For example, in Sycamore Row by John Grisham, attorney Jake Brigance lives in a small house with his family, with beaten up old furniture. He can’t afford new furniture, but his family is content. This issue reflects several things about Brigance: that he has integrity and takes cases to help people, not to make big bucks, the he prioritizes people before wealth and that he hasn’t financially recovered from a terrible attack on his former house in Grisham’s first book A Time to Kill.
    I’m always suspicious of characters with big, beautiful homes and a lot of expensive furniture. How did they acquire it? Did they break laws, exploit people, steal, etc.?
    Now, V.I. Warshawski, Sara Paretsky’s detective, has dog-friendly furniture, too, which makes her more likeable, in my opinion.

    • Kathy – Those are some good examples of the way furniture reflects the kind of person who owns it. Your mention of dog-friendly furniture reminds me of Lilian Jackson Braun’s James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran, who is owned by two Siamese. His furniture is cat-friendly; he even has a room in his house just for his cats. And you’re right; sometimes, battered furniture means that its owner has other priorities than new furniture..

  13. Margot – Another great post on an important aspect of the crime novel. Once again I think of the case of Raymond Chandler. Though I can’t think of specific examples, as I recall he used furniture to suggest ostentation, as well as corruption and decay.

    • Bryan – He does indeed. Chandler was great at evoking a sense of wealth and, yes, ostentation. He also used furnishings to depict social/psychological distance as well as power, in my opinion. And thanks for the kind words.

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