Everyday Things*

Everyday ThingsOne of my very top crime novels** begins this way:

‘Crime was out there.’

That line makes sense, when you think about it, especially when it comes to crime fiction. Sometimes doing the most ordinary things can get a person involved in a fictional murder. One of the first things that comes to mind is, of course, the stereotype jogger or dog-walker who discovers a body. I won’t mention those examples in this post, because they’re just too easy. Besides, there are a lot of other ordinary, everyday things people do that can get them involved in a crime, whether they want to be or not.

What could be more ordinary than looking out a window when you’re on a train? People do it all the time. But it has a sinister outcome in Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!). Elspeth McGillicuddy takes a train to visit her friend Miss Marple. During the trip, another train on a parallel track catches up to and then passes the train. Mrs. McGillicuddy happens to look out the window into the windows of the other train – a very ordinary, even mundane thing to do. But this time, she sees a man strangling a woman. Almost everyone thinks that Mrs. McGillicuddy simply drifted off to sleep and dreamt the whole thing. But Miss Marple knows her friend isn’t fanciful. She does some of her own research and determines that the body was probably pushed off the train and likely landed on the grounds of Rutherford Hall. Knowing she herself doesn’t have an ‘in’ there, she gets a friend of hers, professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow, to take a position at Rutherford Hall. Sure enough, a woman’s body turns up. With Lucy’s help, Miss Marple figures out who the dead woman was, why she was killed and by whom. And all of this comes from one glance out of a window.

Looking out of a window gets Maura Cody involved in a dangerous case in Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage. Cody is a former Roman Catholic nun who’s left the convent and started again on her own. She lives a very quiet life, and certainly doesn’t look to call a lot of attention to herself. She’s not really the ‘curtain-twitching’ type, either. But when she does happen to look out of her window, she sees something that puts her in a great deal of danger. So Dublin DS Bob Tidey and Detective Garda Rose Cheney have to try to keep her safe as they look for the murderers of banker Emmet Sweetman. As it turns out, Cody is in even more danger than anyone thought. Vincent Naylor and a group that included his brother Noel planned and carried out what was supposed to be the perfect heist. It went tragically wrong, and now Naylor wants revenge. When he suspects that Cody might have seen something, he decides to get rid of his problem.

If you’re a teacher, very little is more ordinary than planning a trip with your class, especially to a local place. But in Stuart Palmer’s The Penguin Pool Murder, a class trip turns out to be anything but mundane for fourth-grade teacher Hildegarde Withers. She and her students have spent the morning visiting the New York Aquarium, and are gathering to leave. But one of the students notices that Miss Withers’ hatpin is missing. It’s finally found at the bottom of a flight of steps. But then, Miss Withers discovers that one of her students is not with the rest of the group. A search leads to the penguin pool, where the child is found watching the animals. Just then, a man’s body slides into the pool. That’s how Miss Withers gets involved in what turns out to be a case of murder.

Getting on a bus is another everyday sort of thing people do. How often have you ridden a bus without even thinking about it? But it’s not so ordinary in Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second. One day, Emma Curtis is taking a bus home from work, as she always does. It’s another regular day for her. Also on the bus is Luke Murray. At one stop, a group of young people get on the bus and begin to bully Murray. Finally, fellow rider Jason Barnes intervenes, telling the group to leave Murray alone. For a time, things quiet down. Murray gets off the bus. So do the young people who’ve been harassing him. So does Barnes. The fight starts up again and in fact escalates. It continues all the way to Barnes’ front yard, where he is fatally stabbed. Emma now finds herself involved in what has turned out to be a case of murder, and all because she took a certain bus on a certain day.

Kate Atkinson makes use of this strategy in One Good Turn. A group of people that includes mystery writer Martin Canning is waiting to purchase tickets for an afternoon comic radio show. It’s the most ordinary thing, if you think about it – waiting to buy tickets. But it’s hardly mundane this time. As the group watches, a silver Peugeot driven by Paul Bradley is hit by a Blue Toyota. Both drivers get out of their cars and start arguing. The argument gets worse; finally, the Toyota driver brandishes a baseball bat and starts to attack Bradley. Almost instinctually, Canning, who’s never done a truly brave thing in his life, hurls his computer case at the Toyota driver, stopping him and saving Bradley’s life. Canning feels a responsibility to make sure that Bradley gets the medical help he needs, so he goes with the man to a local hospital. Before he knows it, he’s drawn into a case of fraud and multiple murder. And it all started with a simple, everyday wait for tickets.

In Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, involvement in a murder case begins with a simple trip to a dumpster. Academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn gets an early-morning call from her daughter Mieka, who’s just opened a catering business. Mieka was taking some trash to the dumpster when she discovered the body of seventeen-year-old Bernice Morin. Bernice was one of Mieka’s employees, so she feels a particular sense of responsibility. At first, the murder looks like one of a series of killings that the police have dubbed ‘the Little Flower Murders.’ But as Kilbourn and her daughter ask questions, it turns out that this murder is different…

So do be careful if you wash dishes, walk the dog, look out a bus or train window, or wait for tickets at the cinema. You never know where it all might lead…



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by David Usher.

** Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. If you haven’t read it yet, I heartily recommend it.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Cath Staincliffe, Catherine O'Flynn, Gail Bowen, Gene Kerrigan, Kate Atkinson, Stuart Palmer

30 responses to “Everyday Things*

  1. And then there is Linwood Barclay’s novel ‘Trust Your Eyes’, in which someone spots a crime on Google Streetview (or its fictional equivalent). So everybody could spot it if they were looking closely – except that when the brothers start investigating it, the image disappears…

    • Oh, that’s a good one, Marina Sofia! I’m so glad you mentioned it. And checking something out via Google Streetview is the most ordinary thing in the world. Most of us have done something like that, and we don’t think anything of it. Brilliant use of an ordinary activity I think.

  2. Love the post! In Girl on the Train a crime is spotted when a commuter makes up a fictional life for a couple she sees daily. One day she sees something disturbing and investigates…

    • Thanks, Cleo! And you know, I had that book in mind as I was writing this post. But I’m waiting for all the hype about it to pass before I read it. I intend to – just haven’t yet. But I do know it’s a great example of exactly what I had in mind with this post, so I’m glad you mentioned it.

  3. Good points Margot and it is certainly really disconcerting in a Golden Age mystery – in Noir after all you expect the evreryday to turn into a nightmare (especially in a book by Woolrich) 🙂

    • Yes, indeed, Sergio. In fact I almost mentioned Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes I didn’t end up doing so, so I’m glad you did. Thanks for the kind words. 🙂

      • I really find the idea of a plausible Golden Age mystery (as in genuine ‘malice domestic’) more disturbing – I don’t want this to be able happen in real life!

        • I know what you mean, Sergio. The thought that whatever one’s reading – especially if it’s really well-written – could conceivably happen in real life really does make one uneasy. Well, this one, anyway.

  4. Margot, I think, when ordinary and innocent people get involved in a crime, it is often a case of being at the wrong place, at the wrong time. I’m glad it happens more in fiction than in real life.

    • I think you’re right, Prashant. Most people don’t get involved in crime by design. Rather, they’re doing ordinary things like getting groceries, looking out a window or riding a bus. And as you say, it’s good that that sort of thing happens more often in fiction than in real life.

  5. What a neat theme! I like that you pointed out that the beginning of that Agatha Christie story ( 4:50 from Paddington…) started out with something quite ordinary – the glance out the window. It’s a good reminder of . be careful looking out the window, you’ll never know WHAT you might see. HA And The Penguin Pool Murder — I didn’t read that story, but when I started reading your description, my mind went “Wait a minute, I KNOW this…” When you mentioned Hildegarde Withers I mentally screamed, i.e., I LOVE that film! I think it was ZaZu Pitts who played that role. She was WONDERFUL as Hildegarde. They had a few films with her playing the role. Then they had one film where another actress played Hildegarde and it just didn’t work. Pitts had it nailed down. (I got to google that, was it Pitts, etc.) So… thank you for reminding me of Hildegarde. I may look up that book at the library. And THANK YOU for the reminder of … something ordinary sometimes leads to, the bizarre… 🙂

    • You never know what the most ordinary things can lead to, really. And I’m wondering whether it was Pitts or Edna May Oliver who played Hildegarde Withers. Either way, some of those films are a lot of fun. I do recommend the books, though: in general, I think books are better than the films.

      • IT WAS EDNA MAY OLIVER! 🙂 I just doublechecked. I want to remember that name. Sticks in your head, Zasu Pitts, because of that interesting first name … but Edna was GREAT GREAT. She was in several films that … well are classics in my mind. And I will check out the book. 🙂 Well, this was all better than a cup of coffee in the morning!

  6. I’d suggest goin’ fishin’ as a way to get away from all the crime but… in Humber Boy B by Ruth Dugdall a man is sitting peacefully on the bank of a river when he sees a small boy falling or being pushed off a bridge. Diving in to try to save him, the man finds the repercussions affect the rest of his life…

    • True enough, FictionFan. You’d think fishing would be a regular sort of ordinary thing. But as you show, you never know where it can end up. And now you’ve got me thinking about the role fishing plays in crime fiction…hmmm….may have to do a post on that.

  7. Kathy D.

    That’s one of the fun things about mysteries. Regular people are going about their routine lives and they see or discover a murder — and then they’re involved unwittingly.
    As is mentioned above, Linwood Barclay is a master at this. He always writes about average people who get involved in murders and find themselves in the midst of mayhem.
    When detectives, public or private, are investigating a murder already reported, that’s one type of book. But when regular folks are caught up, it’s a different type of story and the reader is usually brought along to see the crime and investigation from their eyes — an interesting development.
    Some of the best books are written that way.

    • I know what you mean, Kathy. It’s one kind of crime novel when it’s a police sleuth or PI sleuth. But when it’s an ordinary person who gets caught up in events, that has its own special appeal as a novel. I think part of that appeal comes from wanting to find out how that person is going to deal with being involved in something as awful as murder.

  8. Kathy D.

    Yes, and with Linwood Barclay that average person goes off into a zany direction usually, and we readers enjoy it.
    Even when police do the investigating, average people can be thrown in the midst of murder investigations.
    For instance, Henrietta is a student who comes home from school to find herself in the middle of a murder mystery and has to find out who she really is in Catherine Aird’s brilliant Henrietta Who?
    In Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home, someone is killed in a couple’s backyard. What happened and why is the question for the police.
    Also, what about the person who accidentally witnesses a murder and then has to run?
    Lots of fun for us.

    • That’s true, Kathy. There are a lot of examples (and you’ve given some great ones!) of stories where the police investigate, but ordinary people are still drawn into them and involved. Barclay, especially, does do that very well.

  9. Col

    I did like the Kerrigan book Margot and will read Christie’s 4.50 one day. It was on TV this weekend, but I dozed off after half an hour – I hope the book serves me better!

  10. Kathy D.

    Uh oh. There goes that list that should not be named.

  11. There’s that very good short story – Harry Kemelman’s Nine Mile Walk. A character constructs a whole incident, protagonist and crime from a simple short sentence: ‘A nine mile walk is no joke, especially in the rain.’ It’s amazing what results from a casual conversation, an overheard sentence, and a string of inferences. You have to read it to believe it…

    • Oh, yes, Moira! I’d completely forgotten that story!! I’m so glad you reminded me of it. You’re absolutely right that it shows how a simple sentence can spiral into something you’d never have thought of at first.

  12. tracybham

    I am very glad that in real life one usually doesn’t run into crime so easily. I do have Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost and hope I can get to it soon. (But I say that about a lot of books.)

    • I’m glad of that too, Tracy. And I know exactly what you mean about meaning to get to books, and not quite being able to read them. That happens to me much more often than I’d like to admit, I must say. I’m really happy you’re planning to read What Was Lost. It’s a superb book I think.

  13. Finding a body when just going about our business of daily errands and chores would be tough to handle. I’ll hope I’ll only have that experience when reading novels and never in real life.

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