The Future’s Not Ours to See*

PredictionsIn John Burdett’s Bangkok 8, we meet Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a member of the Royal Thai Police. He is also a devout Buddhist, and uses that spiritual background as a ‘yardstick’ to measure his own conduct. In this novel, he investigates when a man he and his partner Pichai Apiradee have been following is murdered. When Pichai himself is killed, Sonchai determines that he’ll avenge his friend’s death. Many police in similar circumstances might feel a sense of guilt that they didn’t do more to prevent their partners’ deaths. But not Sonchai. Here is what he thinks:

The African American Marine in the grey Mercedes will soon die of bites from Naja siamensis, but we don’t know that yet, Pichai and I (the future is impenetrable, says the Buddha).’

To Sonchai, there is no way he could have known what would happen, because he doesn’t believe in the ability to predict the future.

But a lot of people do, or at least would like to. It’s certainly empowering to think that you can know what the future will hold. That’s in part why so many people visit fortune-tellers and tarot card readers, and believe firmly in what they say. So it’s not surprising that we see all sorts of examples of predictions, pseudo-predictions, fortune-telling and so on in crime fiction. Here are just a few instances.

Agatha Christie deals with this question of predicting the future in several of her stories. For example, in the short story The Gipsy, we meet Dickie Carpenter and his friend McFarlane. Carpenter has always had a sort of fear of gipsies, and one night, he tells McFarlane why. As a child, he had troubling dreams about gipsies, and a few real-life encounters too. Now, Carpenter needs an operation, but he’s been warned against it by a nurse who looks oddly like a gipsy herself. When he dies ‘on the table,’ McFarlane determines to find out more about the nurse who warned his friend. When he does, he also finds out an eerie truth about himself. Interestingly, at the same time as Christie acknowledges the strength of people’s belief in predicting the future, she doesn’t seem to take that ability on faith. In Dead Man’s Folly for instance, one character, Peggy Legge, takes part in a fête at Nasse House in Nassecomb. Her role will be as a fortune teller, and she dresses the part, setting up a tent where people can go and ‘hear their futures.’ It’s clear from her comments and those of the other people planning the event that everyone knows it’s just a gimmick. She doesn’t believe she can really tell what will happen, and neither does anyone else. She certainly doesn’t predict what really does occur: the murder of a young girl who was also taking part in the festivities.

In Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes, New York Homicide Bureau Detective Tom Shawn is taking a walk late one night when he encounters a young woman, Jean Reid, preparing to jump off a bridge to her death. He manages to save her and takes her to a local all-night diner, where she tells him her story. She is the daughter of wealthy and successful Harlan Reid, with whom she’s had a good life until recently. Not long ago, Reid took a business trip to California and had planned to return on a certain flight. The housemaid warned Jean that he shouldn’t take the flight and sure enough, it crashed with no survivors. But her father had been warned as well, and changed his plans. When he returns, the two of them work to find out how the housemaid knew about the crash beforehand. It turns out she knows Jeremiah Tompkins, who is cursed as he sees it with being able to predict the future. Bit by bit, Harlan Reid begins to trust completely in all of what Tompkins says, visiting him more and more frequently. And each of those predictions turns out to be true. Then Tompkins tells Reid that he will die at midnight on a certain night. The prediction has devastated Reid and driven his daughter to attempt suicide. Now Shawn works with her to see if they can prevent the death, assuming it’s really going to happen.

P.D. James introduces her sleuth Adam Dalgliesh in Cover Her Face. In that novel, Dalgliesh investigates the murder of Sally Jupp, a housemaid who worked for Simon and Eleanor Maxie. It’s not spoiling the story to say that Sally really wasn’t who she seemed to be. It’s also not spoiling anything to point out that Sally wasn’t exactly a nice, beloved person. So there are several suspects for Dalgliesh to consider. One of the interesting characters in this novel is the Maxies’ daughter Deborah Riscoe. Although she’s not really set up as a psychic in the novel, she does make some cryptic predictions that seem to come true. And although Dalgliesh isn’t one to believe in predicting the future, there is a hint that that doesn’t dim his interest in Deborah…

Alan Bradley’s young sleuth Flavia de Luce is not particularly gullible, although being a pre-teen, she is sometimes naïve. When she attends a local church fête in A Red Herring Without Mustard, she visits a fortune-teller who’s set up a tent there. As she listens to what the woman says, she becomes torn. On the one hand, she’s sure that some kind of gimmickry is involved. On the other,

‘…I couldn’t let skepticism spoil even half a chance at having a few words with my dead mother.’

The fortune-teller is later found murdered, and Flavia is determined to find out who the killer is.

Many, many people believe that there is no such thing as the ability to predict the future. Harry Houdini made it a life goal to unmask charlatans who swindled people by pretending that they could. And more recently, master illusionists Penn Jillette and Raymond Teller have taken up the same cause. But that doesn’t stop people trying to find out what the future has in store for them. And no matter where you fall on the ‘belief spectrum,’ you can’t deny that it’s a powerful motivator. Little wonder we see it so often in crime fiction. Which examples have I forgotten to include?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jay Livingston and Ray Evans’ Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be).


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Cornell Woolrich, John Burdett, P.D. James

22 responses to “The Future’s Not Ours to See*

  1. Lovely title and lovely song. Reminds me of my childhood. I would like to read Bangkok 8 and Night Has a Thousand Eyes someday. I have had the John Burdett book for years but never read it.

    • Tracy – I like that song, too. As far as the Burdett series goes, what I like about it is that it’s not ‘run of the mill.’ And yet, it’s credible. I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  2. Thanks, Margot. Really fascinating subject. Colin Cotterill’s books featuring Dr Siri Paiboun in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic make a lot of use of fortune-telling and the supernatural in general to good effect. And I seem to remember that fortune-telling plays a interesting role in Josephine Tey’s A Shilling for Candles. And there’s the ouija board in Christie’s The Sittaford Mystery. She was rather keen on seances as plot devices, too.

    • Keishon

      Agree with Christine about Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri series. I’ll have to dig out the Sittaford Mystery. Great post Margot. On a more personal note: I’m not that curious about the future. That kind of stuff freaks me out. OT: The Red Violin was an excellent movie that featured a fortune teller in a significant role. Have you seen it or heard of it? Highly recommend it.

      • Keishon – A lot of people agree with you about knowing the future. Many are simply content to deal with what comes when it does. And I agree with Christine about the Dr. Siri novels too. About the film? I’ve heard of it but not (yet) seen it. It now goes on my ‘to view’ list.

    • She was, indeed, Christine. I often wonder about her fascination with ouija boards, fortune-telling and the like. She doesn’t seem to have been fanciful herself; perhaps it was the interest in general that late Victorians had with such things? Hard to say. Also glad you mentioned the Dr. Siri series. I really like the look at Laos that series offers, and yes, it does wander in and out of the supernatural. Yet, it’s not hard to follow along and get drawn in, even if one is a strictly pragmatic person.

  3. Fortune tellers and seances were frequent features in a lot of Golden Age/”traditional” mysteries, Margot. Let me mention two, very briefly, from books we’ve talked about here before.

    In Dorothy Bowers’s “Fear and Miss Betony,” the elderly protagonist, Miss Emma Betony, is trying to uncover the source of a deep-seated sense of fear at a girls’ school and former nursing home. A lot of the residents seem to be involved with a charismatic fortune teller, The Great Ambrosio, who makes some alarming and rather frightening predictions to Miss Betony about her future – and seems to know a great deal about her.

    The entire plot of Hake Talbot’s “Rim of the Pit” revolves around a seance, set up to try to persuade a dead man to permit his former partners to continue their foresting operations on land he had controlled. We learn a great deal about seances – and the tricks fortune tellers may use to “reveal” past truths and “predict” the future.

    • You’re quite right of course, Les, about GA/classic crime fiction’s use of fortune-telling. And the examples you’ve mentioned are well-written instances of that. I find it fascinating that those generations found fortune-telling and other ‘prediction’ plot devices so irresistible. Perhaps that’s the topic for another post…

  4. I love séances in books, and as a couple of us have said, Dame Agatha knew how to use them to good effect! I would also add that Christine Poulson, commenting above, has a splendid séance in her book Murder is Academic.

    • Yes she does indeed, Moira! It’s well-drawn, clever and funny, but what’s wonderful is that it’s not ridiculous. So glad you filled in that gaping hole. And yes, Dame Christie wove that interest beautifully into her work.

  5. Finally, I guessed the title song without having to look at the answer. Yes! 😀

  6. Josephine Tey’s book A Shilling for Candles is one Golden Age example,though I’d have to admit that it’s not one of her better books. Among the many seance detective novels, i have a soft spot for Christie’s A Sittaford Mystery, which is very enjoyable.

    • Martin – The Sittaford Mystery is a good ‘un; thank you for filling in that gap. I think it’s quite well-done. Haven’t thought about A Shilling For Candles in too long. It may not be Tey’s best, but it’s a good example of what I had in mind with this post, so thanks.

  7. Patti Abbott

    Always interesting to see how a belief in an ability to see the future seems to come and go. Right now you don’t see too much of it. But I went to a fortune teller in my youth and played with a Ouija board.

  8. I love Miss Climpson in ‘Strong Poison’. A charlatan, of course, but all in a good cause.

    • Oh, she’s a great character, Sarah! Thanks for reminding me of her. As you say, a charlatan, but on the proverbial side of the angels. And she is resourceful.

  9. Col

    I really need to try and get to Burdett and Bradley’s books, hopefully this year!

  10. Hi Margot, Great post. Thanks for mentioning Night has a Thousand Eyes. I’ve not read the novel, alas, and they say the movie version is pretty good. As far as predicting the future, once again I invoke Chandler and the oily character of Jules Amthor in Farewell, My Lovely. I don’t know that he actually claimed to predict the future but he was in the same general neighborhood, passing himself off as a ‘psychic consultant.’

    • …And he’s a great character, Bryan! I’m glad you mentioned him. I’ve always thought it interesting how Chandler addressed so many issues, character types and so on in his work. I think that’s a bit of what makes his stories enduring. And I hope you do get the chance to read Night…. If you do, I’d be interested in what you think of it.

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