If you look among your things, you’ll probably see random receipts and cash slips for things. They can clutter up a pocket or handbag. And when it’s something simple like getting fuel, it may seem a waste to get a cash slip. But those little pieces of evidence can be very useful.
Anyone who’s on an expense account or who gets reimbursed can tell you that keeping receipts is important. Detectives use those pieces of information too. A cash slip, newspaper clipping or even a passport stamp can either support or refute what a witness or suspect says. So that kind of ‘paper trail’ can be of real value when the police are investigating a crime, or when a PI is looking into a case. Little wonder then that we see things like receipts and stamps all throughout crime fiction.
Agatha Christie uses these details in more than one of her novels. For instance, in Sad Cypress, Hercule Poirot investigates the poisoning murder of Mary Gerrard. The most likely suspect is Elinor Carlisle, who had more than one motive for murder. In the first place, Elinor’s fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman had become smitten with Mary, which ended their engagement. What’s more, Elinor’s very wealthy aunt, Laura Welman, had taken a great interest in Mary, and might very well have altered her will to leave Elinor out of it entirely. Local GP Peter Lord has fallen in love with Elinor and wants her name cleared. So Poirot looks into the matter more deeply. And in the case of one character, he finds that passport stamps put the lie to what that character claimed.
In Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the poisoning murder of Nicholas Quinn, the only Deaf member of Oxford’s Foreign Exams Syndicate. This group is responsible for overseeing exams given in other countries that follow the British education model. The detectives start with those closest to the victim, and soon find that several members of the Syndicate might have had a good reason to want Quinn dead. For one thing, his appointment to the Syndicate was by no means universally supported. For another, he’d learned some secrets about some of the different members. One aspect of this investigation is finding out where each person was on the afternoon of Quinn’s death. As they piece together what happened that day, Morse and Lewis find that ticket stubs from an adult cinema are very informative.
Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly is among other things, the story of the death of Giorgio Tassini, night watchman at one of Venice’s glass blowing factories. At first it all looks like a terrible accident. He’d been working independently on a glass project and the evidence suggests that an accident with the oven caused his death. But Commissario Guido Brunetti is not so sure. Tassini had been a very vocal critic of the glass blowing factories’ procedure for getting rid of toxic waste. He claimed that they were illegally dumping it, putting everyone at risk. Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello discover who is responsible for Tassini’s murder, but they’ll find it very hard to prove what they know. Then one evening, Brunetti gets exactly what he needs: a receipt from a canal boat. That piece of paper puts the lie to what the killer said to the police, and allows for an arrest.
The Michael Stanley writing duo introduces us to Botswana police detective David ‘Kubu’ Bengu in A Carrion Death. He is drawn into an investigation when the remains of an unknown man are found on the property of the rural Dale’s Camp. At first, it looks as though the man was attacked by hyenas. But soon enough, forensics tests suggest that he was murdered. Forensics experts also provide a very important clue: a cash slip found by the body. It turns out to be a receipt from the Number One Petrol Station, and for Kubu, that’s a valuable lead. When he follows up on it and finds the station, he learns that the vehicle in question was a Land Rover painted a garish shade of yellow. Such vehicles are owned by the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC). And that information puts Kubu on a trail that eventually connects someone associated with that company to this murder and to another that occurs.
There’s also Tess Gerritsen’s Vanish, which follows two major plot threads. In one, Boston medical examiner Dr. Maura Iles discovers to her shock that one of the body bags in the mortuary contains a young woman who’s still alive. Iles gives the alert, and the woman is taken to the nearby hospital. The unidentified woman recovers quickly, and rushes from her hospital room after killing a security guard. Then, she goes to the hospital’s Diagnostic Imaging Department, where she takes a group of people hostage. One of them is Boston police detective Jane Rizzoli, who’s there for a sonogram. The police, a SWAT team, and hostage negotiators now have to figure out what the hostage-taker wants, and how to rescue her captives. In the meantime, the other plot thread concerns seventeen-year-old Mila, who left her home in Belarus, lured by promises of a good job in the US and a better life. To put it mildly, things haven’t worked out as planned. The two plot threads are related, ‘though not as you might think. One of the leads that the police get on this case is a credit card receipt for a fuel purchase. That information helps them to piece together at least part of the mystery.
Receipts and odd pieces of paper might just seem like so much junk. But they can prove absolutely invaluable to detectives. They’re also very useful to attorneys on both sides of a case who want to establish a person’s whereabouts or purchases. That oft-repeated bit of advice about saving receipts is actually fairly solid…
On Another Note…
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*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Big Man on Mulberry Street.