In today’s world of email, texting and social media, many people don’t write letters any more. But there was a time, and it wasn’t too many decades ago, when letters were the main form of communication, even for people who lived in the same town. And they were absolutely critical for those who lived at any distance.
Old letters can be treasure troves for historians, genealogists and anthropologists, among other professionals. They convey the story of an era at a very personal level. They can also be rich resources for those who are looking into their own family’s history. If you’ve ever gotten to read a letter that one of your great-greats wrote, you know what I mean. So it’s little wonder that old letters play important roles in crime fiction too. There are many, many examples; I just have space for a few.
In Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, Elinor Carlisle is charged with the poisoning murder of Mary Gerrard. There’s good reason to suspect her too. For one thing, Elinor’s former fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman is infatuated with Mary; in fact, his feelings for Mary are an important part of what broke the couple up. For another thing, Elinor’s wealthy Aunt Laura Welman was planning to leave at least part of her considerable fortune to Mary, of whom she’d become quite fond. She might even have cut Elinor out of the will completely if enough time had gone by. But local GP Peter Lord wants Elinor’s name cleared. He’s fallen in love with her and is determined to see her acquitted. So he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot agrees and looks into the matter. He finds that in this case, past relationships and interactions have everything to do with Mary’s murder. And an old letter has an important role to play. I know, I know, fans of Five Little Pigs…
The real action in Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo begins when a body surfaces in a bog near the Lake District town of Fellhead. It’s not long before talk begins to spread that the body is that of Fletcher Christian, of H.M.S. Bounty fame. The story is that Christian did not die on Pitcairn Island, as has always been supposed. Instead, he made his way back to his native Lake District. If that’s the case, then what would be more likely than that he would have re-connected with his longtime friend William Wordsworth? And if he did, then it’s likely Wordsworth would have written about it. Wordsworth scholar Jane Gresham is hoping exactly that. There’ve been stories for quite some time about an unpublished Wordsworth manuscript; the appearance of what could be Christian’s body lends credence to them. So Gresham travels to Fellhead, which is home to her, to try to trace the manuscript, if there is one. She’s up against several obstacles, since she’s by no means the only one desperate to get that manuscript. Besides that, even if she does find it, she’ll need to persuade whoever has it to give it up. Then, one of the people whom Gresham interviews about the manuscript suddenly dies. Then there’s another death. Now it looks as though Gresham may be mixed up in a case of multiple murder. Woven throughout this story is a series of old letters bearing on the case. And in fact, those old letters play a role in finding out the truth about what happened to the manuscript.
Steve Robinson’s In the Blood introduces readers to genealogist Jefferson Tayte. Successful Boston businessman Walter Sloane hires Tayte to trace his wife’s ancestry and Tayte beings work on the project. The trail leads to the Fairborne family. One branch of that family settled in the American South. The other went to England with a group of Loyalists in 1783. Tayte follows that lead to England to find out what happened to those Fairbornes. In the process of searching for the truth, he makes the surprising discovery that some members of the family seem to have disappeared, with no records of their deaths. As Tayte is looking into that mystery, Amy Fallon has a mystery of her own to solve. Her husband Gabriel died two years ago when he was lost in a storm. Just before his death, he told Amy that he’d discovered a secret about their house. He never got the chance to tell her what it was though. Now, construction on the home has revealed a hidden staircase and basement. In that room, Amy’s discovered a very old writing box containing a love letter. That letter proves to be crucial to figuring out the truth about the Fairborne family.
In L.R. Wright’s The Suspect, RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg is up against a challenging case. Eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke has been murdered, and there don’t seem at first to be many clues. The murder was reported by eighty-year-old George Wilcox, who says he stopped by Burke’s home, only to find him dead. Alberg isn’t convinced by this, but he has no real evidence, and there seems no motive. And yet, the more he learns about the case, the more convinced he is that Wilcox is the murderer. As it turns out, a group of old letters is the key to this mystery, and plays an important role in it.
Sometimes, old letters have value because they were written to or by someone who’s become famous. That’s the case in Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters. Meredith Winterbottom lives with her two sisters Eleanor Harper and Peg Blythe in a unique part of London called Jerusalem Lane. A big development company wants to buy up Jerusalem Lane to make a shopping and entertainment district, but Meredith refuses. Then one day she is found dead. DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla investigate the death, which looks at first like a suicide. But Kolla’s not so sure. So she begins to look into the matter more closely. There’s no lack of suspects, either. The victim was the only resident of Jerusalem Lane who didn’t agree to sell up to the development company, and her unwillingness was costing money and holding up the plans. Just as interesting is the fact that the three sisters are great-granddaughters of Karl Marx, who lived in the Jerusalem Lane area for a time. They’ve got a collection of old notes and letters that could potentially be very valuable. And as Kolla and Brock get closer to the truth, we see the role that those old letters play in this case.
And then there’s Dawn Harris’ Letter From a Dead Man, which takes place in 1793. Lady Drusilla lives on the Isle of Wight with her Aunt Thirza and cousin Lucie. Lucie is set to marry Giles Saxborough, whose father Cuthbert is Lady Drusilla’s godfather. Everything changes one day when Cuthbert Saxborough dies in what looks like a terrible riding accident. Lady Drusilla thinks it’s very odd, since her godfather was an expert horseman. But she’s soon distracted by a suspected case of smuggling. Then, tragedy strikes again when Giles’ brother Thomas and his son Tom are killed in a yachting accident. Two accidents are too many for Lady Drusilla, who begins to investigate more thoroughly. As it turns out, the truth about the murders has to do with the past, and some important clues are to be found in some letters that have been kept for sentimental reasons…
And that’s the thing about actual letters. Much more often than emails, they’re kept for all sorts of reasons. And they can provide rich information on a place and time, a family, a person, or a murder.
NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Comsat Angels’ Not a Word.