Hey, What’s That Sound?*

SoundSound plays a very important role in most people’s perceptions and memories. I’ll bet, for instance, that when you hear certain songs, you’re reminded of a date or other event, a time in your life, or perhaps a person. Certain other sounds, such as a siren behind you, trigger other reactions. And a lot of scientific evidence suggests that a baby’s cry evokes all sorts of physical and emotional responses.

As important as sounds are, it makes sense that they also play important roles in crime fiction. Witnesses to a shooting are often asked, for example, how many shots they heard. And as any crime fiction fan knows, the ‘evidence of the ears’ can also be misunderstood or deliberately manipulated.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the disappearance of a famous racehorse named Silver Blaze, and the death of his trainer John Straker. The most likely suspect is London bookmaker Fitzroy Simpson; the theory is that he abducted the horse to rig the race. But there are also clues that point away from Simpson. One of them is the clue of what the stable dog did on the night that the horse went missing. Scotland Yard’s Tobias Gregory points out that,

‘The dog did nothing in the night-time.’

That, says Holmes, is exactly what is curious. His point is that if someone the dog didn’t know (e.g. Simpson) approached, the animal would have barked. Since there was no barking noise, the logical deduction is that the dog knew the person who took the horse. That turns out to be an important clue.

In Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase, we are introduced to Rachel Innes, a middle-aged ‘maiden aunt,’ who takes her grown nephew Halsey and his sister Gertrude for a summer stay at a large, rented country house called Sunnyside. The plan is for everyone to have a relaxing time away from the city. Soon after their arrival though, things begin to go very wrong. There are some odd noises that become very unsettling. The housemaid Liddy Allen thinks that the creaks, taps and other sounds mean that the house is haunted. But Rachel thinks there’s a more prosaic explanation for what’s going on, and she is later proved right. One night, everyone hears a shot coming from the card-room. When they get there, they discover the body of Arnold Anderson, son of the owner of Sunnyside. His murder turns out to be connected to the strange sounds; and those sounds are important clues to the mystery.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett. The only possible suspects are the other people in the first class coach of the famous Orient Express train. As a part of his investigation, Poirot asks each person for an account of what happened on the night of the murder. He also considers his own memories of that night. Sound plays an important role in this story; and Poirot has to sift through the various thumps, knocks, voices, bells, and so on to find out which ones are clues and which ‘red herrings.’ I know, I know, fans of Death on the Nile

In Ellery Queen’s The Last Woman in His Life, we are introduced to jet-setting playboy John Levering Benedict III. He happens to encounter Ellery Queen, and expansively invites Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, to use his guest house for a getaway weekend. The Queens accept, and duly settle in to relax. They soon discover that Benedict’s three ex-wives, his secretary, and his attorney are also spending the weekend. As you can imagine, the atmosphere is more than a little strained. That night, Queen gets a frantic call from Benedict, who says that he’s been murdered. Queen rushes over to the main house, but by the time he arrives, it’s too late: Benedict is dead of a blow to the head. The weapon is a statuette with a heavy base. The only clues are an evening gown, a wig, and a pair of gloves. Each item belongs to a different person. Now Queen has to sift through those clues and find out who the killer is. As it turns out, Benedict told him who the killer was during their telephone conversation. The problem is that Queen misinterpreted the evidence of his own ears, and it’s not until later that he makes sense of that dying statement.

Edward D. Hoch’s short story Captain Leopold Finds a Tiger takes place mostly in a small zoo run by Jack and Maggie Drummond. One morning, Maggie’s body is found in the tiger pit, and everyone assumes that the tiger is responsible. But soon enough, the evidence shows stab wounds, rather than claw wounds. Now Captain Leopold and his team have to find out who would have wanted to kill Maggie. There’s more than one suspect, too, as Leopold finds when he lifts up the proverbial lid on what’s going on at the zoo. In the end, an animal provides Leopold with the vital clue that he needs to put him on the right trail. In this story, sound, both real and manufactured, plays a vital role in what happens.

It does in Brian McGilloway’s The Nameless Dead too. In one plot thread of this novel, Garda Ben Devlin is asked to respond to a very odd case. Christine Cashell has reported hearing a baby cry in her baby monitor, and says that it’s not her son. What’s odd about this is that she and her partner do not have children. They had planned a family, but their son was stillborn. The manufacturer of the baby monitor says that sometimes monitors may pick up other crying babies if they are very near. However, no other babies live near Christine and her partner. Devlin finds that this mystery is tied in with another case he is investigating.  During the search for the body of Declan Cleary, Devlin and his team discover the body of an infant who died about the same time as Cleary probably did. At first, Devlin is told that the baby’s death cannot be investigated, since it was found in the course of work for the Commission on the Location of Victims’ Remains. This commission is charged with finding the remains of those who died during the early days of the Troubles in Ireland. Those remains are then returned to the families for burial and hopefully, for closure. The rule is that there can be no investigation or prosecution in any of the commission’s work. The reason for this is to make people feel more comfortable reporting what they may know about one or another of the Disappeared, as those who died are called. In general, Devlin respects policy, but he also wants to offer closure to the parents of the dead infant if he can. So he finds ways to look for answers. And the sounds Christine Cashell hears turn out to be important.

People may misinterpret what they hear, but sounds are still a fundamental part of how we make sense of the world. Little wonder they’re so tightly woven into crime fiction.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Buffalo Springfield’s For What it’s Worth.



Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Brian McGilloway, Edward D. Hoch, Ellery Queen, Mary Roberts Rinehart

30 responses to “Hey, What’s That Sound?*

  1. I have a better auditive than visual memory, so I can remember sounds and voices much more clearly than a face. So I just have to hope that any evildoer talks to me and tells about their evil plan for world domination, so that I can then identify them to the police from a voice line-up…

    • You’re not alone, Marina Sofia. A lot of people are much better remembering sounds than remembering faces and other visual details. I’ve found that’s how some people learn best, too, interestingly enough. If you and I ever meet in person, I’ll have to remember to keep my plot for world domination to myself… 😉

  2. Great one Margot – my favourite though is to be found in Colin Dexter THE SILENT WORLD OF NICHOLAS QUINN which all plays on something being heard and misunderstood. On the other end of the spectrum of course there is the nemesis of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinst squad, the arch-cillain known as The Deaf Man!

    • Thanks, Sergio. And I’m very glad you mentioned …Nicholas Quinn. It’s a brilliant example of what happens when something is misunderstood. It’s an interesting mystery, too. And yes, the Deaf Man is a very good anchor for the opposite end of that spectrum.

  3. PS that was definitely meant to be ‘Precinct’ and ‘arch-villain’!

  4. What a fascinating post Margot, I’m often struck how certain music transports me to a totally different time and can alter my mood as a result – As always you’ve chosen some great examples, I particularly like the Brian McGilloway one as it is one of the more unusual ones.

    • Thank you, Cleo. I’ve always been amazed at the power of music to affect me, too. It really just can transport a person. And I thought McGilloway used sound very effectively in The Nameless Dead. It reminded me of a home I used to have, where the doorbell was on the same frequency as one of the homes across the street. So when either of us got a visitor, the other knew – eerie!

      • We have a problem with our doorbell and timer for cooking – embarrassing when you leave people on the doorstep cos you think your food had cooked!

        • Oh, that is an odd sort of problem, Cleo! Interesting how those devices can sometimes interact with each other that away. And I’m sure it can get awkward here and there. I know it did when we’d go to the door to see who was there, only to learn it was someone visiting across the street. I’m sure they must have thought we were the real curtain-twitching types.

  5. Col

    I really ought to read a DeafMan 87th Book!

  6. In Rex Stout’s “The Silent Speaker,” the solution to a murder case hangs on the contents of a Stenaphone, a dictating machine (anyone old enough to remember those machines?) used by a powerful executive, Cheney Boone, to record what would turn out to be an accusation against the person who would murder him. (That’s not a spoiler; Nero Wolfe spends half the book searching for that recording cylinder for precisely that reason.) When Wolfe and Archie Goodwin hear the contents of that recording cylinder…

    Wolfe sighed clear to the bottom, opened his eyes, and straigtened up.
    “Our literature needs some revision,” he declared. “For example, ‘dead men tell no tales.’ Mr. Boone is dead. Mr. Boone is silent. But he speaks.”

    • I love that quote, Les! And that is a pitch-perfect example of the way sound can be used in a very clever way in a mystery. Your comment reminds me of another GA mystery where the use of a dictating machine plays a critical role…

  7. The Brian McGilloway one sounds intriguing. I see it’s part of a series – are they better read in order, Margot?

    • It is a good series in my opinion, FictionFan. Really evocative of the place, culture and context. I think the mysteries are solid too. I personally think the series is better read in order, mostly because of some of the story arcs. But at the same time, I don’t think one gets ‘left out’ if one doesn’t read them in order. It all just makes a bit more sense if one does.

      • Haha! I just trotted off to add the first one to my Amazon wishlist – only to find it’s already there with a little note ‘recommended by Margot’! I think I’d better shove it up the priority list… 😉

  8. Fascinating post Margot. The line from Sherlock Holmes is a classic, isn’t it?

  9. Sound is our first and last sense perception. That is why it is important to talk nicely to our babies in utero and never dis those in a coma or the dying thinking they don’t hear us. I generally like to read books that remember the reader is a fully sensual being. I want to know what I should hear, see, touch, smell and feel in a scene. Just the slightest bit of any of that will transport me. Stephen King is a master at this. Thanks for a most interesting post.

    • You’re absolutely right, Jan. Studies have certainly shown that our sense of hearing begins before birth and does linger ’till the very end. And what we hear does impact us. So yes, it is important to speak kindly, even if we’re not sure the other person can hear. As to books, I agree with you; it draws one into a book to get a real sense of what things sound like, taste like, and so on. It’s more immersive that way, and I respect authors who evoke that well.

  10. Now I want to know what the baby cried was all about, and what it was that an animal at the zoo found that broke the case. Darn it. Two more books added to the pile. LOL

    • That’s the thing about sharing books we’ve read, or going to other people’s blogs, Sue. It all adds to the TBR. I consider it an occupational hazard of reading and writing crime fiction. 😉 Both of those stories are good ‘uns in my opinion; if you do get to them, I hope you’ll enjoy them.

  11. Very interesting topic, Margot. I will have to pay more attention to the use of sound in the books I am reading. When the police question neighbors about a crime, they often asked if they heard unusual sounds, but most people cannot identify what they heard. Maybe a gunshot, maybe a car backfiring.

    • That’s a good point, Tracy. And it’s an effective way for authors to misdirect if they want. What, exactly, was the noise…? I think sound can be used very effectively, but it can be tricky, since people can’t actually hear what they read. Still, when it works, it works well.

  12. Going to go with Christie again (no surprise to you) and the wonderful Five Little Pigs. Afficionados know that ‘I’ll see to her packing’ is a surprisingly important phrase – it was overheard, but what did it actually mean?

    • Ah, I thought of that one too, Moira! So glad you mentioned it! What you think you hear may or may not mean what you think it does! Great use of sound in that novel.

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