Take Out the Papers and the Trash*

clutterMost of us have been taught (well, I have, anyway) that it’s important to be tidy and keep things where they belong. And there is logic to that. If your things are tidy and in their proper places, you’re less likely to lose them. And for a lot of people, there is something reassuring, even restful, about an uncluttered room.

But the reality of keeping things tidy isn’t always fun. And sometimes it’s not logical if you think about it. After all, why put something away if you know you’re going to be using it again very soon? So there are plenty of people, both real and fictional, who don’t exactly keep their things neat and uncluttered. And that can add an interesting layer of character depth in a novel.

For instance, consider Mr. Clancy, the detective story novelist we meet in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air). He’s on a flight from Paris to London when one of his fellow passengers Marie Morisot suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Unfortunately for Mr. Clancy, he’s been doing research on similar kinds of poisons, so Chief Inspector Japp takes a particular interest in him. Hercule Poirot was on the same flight, so he works with Japp to find out who killed the victim and why. Since the only possible suspects are her fellow passengers, Poirot pays Mr. Clancy a visit:

‘The room…was in a state of chaos. There were papers strewn about, cardboard files, bananas, bottles of beer, open books, sofa cushions, a trombone, miscellaneous china, etchings, and a bewildering assortment of fountain pens.’

Those familiar with Poirot’s own habit of neatness can probably imagine his reaction…

In Colin Dexter’s The Daughters of Cain, we meet Eleanor ‘Ellie’ Smith, a prostitute who gets involved in a murder case when one of her clients Dr. Felix McClure is murdered. At first, his former scout Ted Brooks is suspected of the killing, since McClure had found out he was dealing drugs on campus, and was about to reveal it. But then Brooks disappears and is later found dead. So now Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis have two murders to investigate. Ellie Smith is definitely a ‘person of interest’ as the saying goes, so Morse interviews her. He also finds himself attracted to her, and the feeling is mutual. Each is keenly aware that she’s a suspect in a murder case that he’s investigating, and that makes things awkward. Here’s a bit of what Dexter has to say about Ellie’s rooms:

‘The young woman turned back the grubby top-sheet on the narrow bed, kicked a pair of knickers out of sight behind the shabby settee, poured out two glasses of red wine…and was sitting on the bed, swallowing the last mouthful of a Mars bar, when the first knock sounded softly on the door.’

There’s a lot to like about Ellie as a character, but tidiness is not one of her personality traits.

In Minette Walters’ The Breaker, PC Nick Ingram investigates when the body of Kate Sumner is found on the beach near Chapman’s Pool in Dorset. At the same time, her almost-three-year-old daughter Hannah is found wandering around in the nearby town of Poole, and WPC Sandra Griffiths works to find out where the child’s family is and why she’s wandering around all alone. Ingram and Griffiths work with DI John Galbraith and Superintendent Carpenter to put the pieces of the puzzle together. They narrow down the list of suspects to three people: the victim’s husband William Sumner; schoolteacher Tony Bridges; and Bridges’ roommate Stephen Harding. At one point the police visit the home that Bridges and Harding share:

‘The house gave the impression of multiple occupancy with a couple of bicycles leaning against the wall at the end of the corridor, and assorted clothes lying in heaps about the furniture and floor. Dozens of empty lager cans had been tossed into an old beer crate in a corner – left over…from a long-dead party – and overflowing ashtrays reeked into the atmosphere.’

The untidiness isn’t the reason for the murder, but it’s an interesting look at these two characters.

Gail Bowen’s Murder at the Mendel introduces readers to artist Sally Love. She is a former frined of Bowen’s sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn. So when the news comes that some of Love’s work will be exhibited at the Mendel Gallery, Kilbourn decides to see the show and perhaps even renew her friendship with the artist if that’s possible. At one point, Kilbourn visits the house/studio where Love is living:

‘There were canvases stacked against the wall and a trestle table with brushes and boxes of pencils and rags and lengths of wood and steel that looked like rulers but were unmarked. In the corner farthest from the window were a hot plate, a couple of open suitcases and a sleeping bag.’

Kilbourn gets involved in a murder investigation when the gallery’s owner is murdered and Sally becomes a suspect.

Christopher Fowler’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) series featuring Arthur Bryant and John May begins with Full Dark House. In that novel, the PCU is devastated when a bomb blast goes off, destroying its office. Shortly before the blast, Bryant was working on his memoirs, including a discussion of the PCU’s first case. May suspects that the blast may have something to do with that first case, so he decides to take another look at it. In the process, he reminisces about his first meeting with Bryant in 1940. At the time, he was new on the job, just transferred to the PCU. Bryant had already been working there. May’s first impression of Bryant’s office is one of chaos, and Bryant himself is a bit eccentric:

Peculiar Crimes Unit, isn’t it frightful?’ I think their perception of the word ‘peculiar’ and mine differ somewhat. I’ve got some bumph here you can read through.’ He rooted around among his papers, sending several overstuffed folders to the floor, but failed to locate anything specific.’

Bryant may not be an orderly, tidy, conventional thinker. But as fans of this series know, he’s brilliant and he and May make a good team.

And then there’s Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Ashes to Dust. An excavation at the Westmann Islands reveals a set of bodies in the basement of one of the houses. The bodies were buried there during a devastating volcano eruption in 1973 and hadn’t been disturbed since then. At the time of the eruption, Markús Magnússon was living in that house. He was only a teenager, but it is possible he might know something about the murders. Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir agrees to represent him, and tries to find anything that might exonerate him. At first Markús says his childhood sweetheart Alda Thorgeirsdóttir can corroborate his story that he knew nothing about the killings. But soon after the bodies are discovered, she herself dies. The police call her death a suicide, but whether or not it is, this means that Thóra will have look into the case more closely to find out what really happened on the day of the eruption. She and her secretary Bella travel to the Westmann Islands to talk to people who were there at the time. One of them is Kjartan Helgason, the harbourmaster for the island where the explosion occurred. Thóra and Bella visit him at his office to see what he recalls from that day:

‘It seemed to Thóra from the piles and scraps of paper covering the room that the man’s accomplishments were scarcely exemplary, despite his view of the sea. ‘I live by the sea, too, and I know the feeling,’ she said, lifting a strange-looking device from the nearest chair. ‘Can I put this somewhere else?’ she asked, looking around to find a secure place…’
‘Just throw it on the floor,’ replied Kjarten as he took his own seat.’

Kjarten may know a great deal about the eruption, and Thóra wants to learn as much as she can. But his surroundings certainly don’t bode very well for her search for the truth.

Untidiness doesn’t always reflect a cluttered mind. And lots of very interesting characters don’t exactly dust every day. And sometimes that clutter can tell a lot about a person, whether real or fictional. Which ‘cluttery characters’ have stayed with you?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s Yakety Yak.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Christopher Fowler, Colin Dexter, Gail Bowen, Minette Walters, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

24 responses to “Take Out the Papers and the Trash*

  1. I once read (I don’t know where) that often people with cluttered desks have less cluttered minds. Not sure why. Perhaps those that can’t stand clutter (like me) have too much to think about and so avoid cluttered surroundings. Either way, enjoyed your post. I’ve read AC’s book Death in the Clouds and remember the scene in the room. I really don’t like to read books where the main characters live in clutter. It’s distracting.

    • Clarissa – I know what you mean about main characters and clutter. It is distracting and if it’s mentioned too often it gets trite, too. I’ve also heard that people who have cluttered desks often have very ordered minds. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I know I like my workspace neat and orderly. I don’t think I want to know what that says about me….

  2. I can’t think of cluttered characters offhand, but I really do want to start Fowlers Peculiar Crimes Unit series!

  3. I suspect we have a negative view of clutter. At least now we can hide it somewhere in the file directories.
    I wonder whether it’s a cluttered mind that allows the detective to come up with the pattern from a random association of facts that solves the crime.

    • Peter – Interesting question! If the detective’s mind doesn’t allow for random facts to fit together, solving crimes wouldn’t be as easy. Great ‘food for thought.’ It’s true too that with modern computers, it’s harder for people to see ‘office clutter.’

  4. Kathy D.

    Oh, gosh, I don’t think I mind detectives who work in clutter, as long as my work spaces are not cluttered. Somehow, it amuses me if sleuths are dealing with stuff everywhere — important, no doubt. And there may be a clue in the midst of it all.
    Didn’t Sherlock Holmes have all kinds of stuff around?
    And then there are contemporary detectives who may have neat homes, but who use their cars as their office and they’re messy. Maybe that’s Mickey Haller who used his car for awhile as an office.
    I’m trying to think of messy sleuths and I know there are some, but I can’t remember them.
    My attitude is if the piles are neat, they can stay. But there are many. I think this is a habit from my parents.

    • Kathy – I know what you mean. It does make for a funny scene if there are piles of things everywhere, and there’s a clue among them. You have a good memory about Sherlock Holmes, too. That’s a man who used to keep tobacco in the toe of a slipper. And you’re right; Mickey Haller does start out by using his car as an office. You can still leave a lot of clutter in a car, but there’s less space for ‘clutter build-up’ than there is in an office…

  5. I love the way you come up with such great examples for your topics! I can only add the obvious point that Hercule Poirot is desperately tidy, and likes everything symmetrical and lined up – while Ariadne Oliver is quite the opposite, we gather, especially when she is working: papers everywhere, apples rolling around, pencils in her hair…. Two different approaches.

    • Moira – Thank you. And those two have very different approaches indeed. In face, I almost used Ariadne Oliver as an example here, but I didn’t. I’m glad you did.

  6. I am happy to read it especially when you said Untidiness does not reflect a cluttered mind…I like things strewn around…

    Shalet Jimmy

    • Shalet – For some people, it’s definitely better to have things everywhere. They enjoy the untidiness and work well within it. And it doesn’t mean their minds are cluttered at all.

  7. You make a great point, one often forgotten by writers. I just used this technique in MARRED and it added greatly to show one of the characters was suffering from depression.

  8. Kathy D.

    I like things put away, but I also like neat piles. The key to organizing is to have a lot of file cabinets or other drawers or containers and shelves. And file folders.
    However, I find that when one has a deadline, all chaos breaks loose and papers pile up everywhere.

    • Kathy – Now, that’s a good point. The more of a rush one’s in, the less neat and tidy one often is. I think that does play a role. And you’re right, too about folders and cabinets and so on. Storage space like that can mean less clutter.

  9. Col

    I enjoyed the Fowler book you mentioned. I’ll have to try another one from the series soon.

  10. I remember PD James writing about a house’s squalor in A Taste for Death. Just a few lines that sum up how awful a place can be.

  11. Thank you for the examples of messiness. They are all different in style and offer some great suggestions on how to describe untidiness. Super post. 🙂

  12. I am on the messy side myself. Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Ashes to Dust sounds very interesting. I need to read some of that author’s books.

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