Sound 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.