‘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.