I Ain’t Got No Crystal Ball*

Crystal BallIf you read a lot of crime fiction, you see certain patterns often enough that you can almost predict what’s going to happen in a given story. Of course, if the author’s done her or his job, you’ll still be interested – even absorbed. But even so, there are just certain things you can guess about certain characters and events. You don’t need a crystal ball to work some things out.

Space only allows for a few examples. But I’m sure you’ll be able to think of dozens more; I hope you’ll share them in the comments. Here is just a smattering:


The Blackmailer is a Marked Person

Blackmailing in any form has a way of shortening people’s life spans. On the surface, it may seem like a quick and easy way to make a fortune. But any crime fiction fan knows that a person who wants to be paid for silence usually pays a much greater price in the end.

Just ask Monte Field, the wealthy lawyer whom we meet in Ellery Queen’s The Roman Hat Mystery. One evening, Field attends a production at New York’s Roman Theatre. By the end of the performance, Field is dead of what turns out to be poison. Inspector Richard Queen takes the case and he and his son Ellery start to put the pieces of the puzzle together. As it turns out, Field’s wealth didn’t just come from representing his clients; he was also an accomplished blackmailer. As you can imagine, this makes for quite a list of suspects, several of whom were at the performance on the night Field died. So the Queens have to go over all of the events of that evening to find out which suspect could have had the opportunity to commit the murder.

Agatha Christie address the risks of being a blackmailer too. In Death on the Nile, for instance, beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is on her honeymoon trip with her new husband Simon. On the second night of their cruise of the Nile, Linnet is shot. The first and most likely suspect is her former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, whose fiancé Simon was before he met Linnet. But Jackie could not have committed the crime. So Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same cruise, has to consider other alternatives. As the story goes on, we learn that one person knows who the killer is. When that person makes the mistake of trying to get money for silence, well, I’m sure you know what the result of that is…

You could predict the same risk, too, for other people who know too much, even if they don’t blackmail. You know, the person who calls the sleuth with an important clue that can’t be discussed over the telephone. Or the person who arranges to meet the killer to confront that person. Both are dangerous things to do…


People Who Seem to ‘Have it All’ Are in Trouble

We all know that life isn’t perfect. But there are some people who seem to have ‘it all’ – money, a successful marriage, and so on. Any dedicated crime fiction fan can tell you that those people are likely in for a lot of trouble. In fact, that’s the main plot point of a lot of noir stories.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayed, for instance, we meet Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik. They’ve been married for fifteen years, and are the parents of six-year-old Axel. On the surface, they seem to have a fine suburban life. But then, disaster strikes. Eva learns to her shock and dismay that Henrik has been unfaithful. She’d suspected he wasn’t happy for some time, but had been hopeful they’d work matters out. When she learns the truth, Eva becomes determined to find out who the other woman is. As matters start to spin out of control, we see that having ‘it all’ is no guarantee of avoiding trouble. In fact, in crime fiction, quite the opposite often happens.

It certainly does in Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss. Richard von Knecht is a very successful financier with a beautiful penthouse, a circle of family and friends, and just about everything else you’d associate with ‘success.’ One day he jumps (or falls, or is pushed) to his death from the balcony of his penthouse. At first it seems to be a case of suicide, although there doesn’t appear to be any kind of logical motive. But as Göteborg Police Inspector Irene Huss and her team discover, this is no suicide. When forensic evidence shows that von Knecht was murdered, the team looks into the victim’s background and family life. As we learn more and more of the truth, we see that ‘having it all’ can cover up some very ugly things.


Don’t Expect Help From the Locals

Whenever there’s a serious crime, especially murder, the police interview people who live in the area. And it doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict that in a crime novel, at least some of the locals are going to be close-mouthed and suspicious. Sometimes it’s because they’re hiding their own embarrassing truths. Other times it’s because they know something about the crime and either don’t want to be suspected, or don’t want the killer to target them. There are other reasons, too (e.g. not trusting the police).

We see this, for instance, in Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters. Meredith Winterbottom lives with her two sisters in Jerusalem Lane, a very historic area of London. When she dies in what looks like a successful suicide attempt, DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla investigate. Kolla isn’t so sure that this was a suicide, and Brock gives her the go-ahead to look into the case. It turns out that everyone in Jerusalem Lane knows everyone else. The locals have formed a tight community and keep their own and each other’s secrets. Here’s what Kolla says about it:

‘It’s almost as if the people who live here are all frantically signaling to one another, without letting on to the people passing through on the street.’

And as it turns out, that insularity hides some interesting truths…

Thea Osborne finds much the same sort of close-mouthed insularity in Rebecca Tope’s A Cotswold Killing. Duntisbourne Abbots residents Clive and Jennifer Reynolds have hired Osborne as a house/pet sitter for the three weeks during which they’ll be away on a cruise. On the appointed day, Osborne duly arrives and gets ready to take on her responsibilities. She’s under pressure as it is, since Reynolds has given her a long and exhaustive list of things to do. Matters get worse when she hears (or does she?) a scream late that night. The next morning, Osborne discovers the body of Joel Jennison in a pond on the Reynolds property. She gives the alarm and the police are called in. It’s not long before she learns that there may be more going on in this case than it seems. Then, she discovers that the victim’s brother was killed just six months earlier. Now the question seems to be: who had a vendetta against the Jennison family? To look into the case further, Osborne’s going to need to penetrate the layer of reticence among the locals. And that’s not going to be easy…

These are just a few instances of things you can predict without a crystal ball when you read enough crime fiction. Which patterns have you discovered?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sublime’s Santeria. Not exactly a family-friendly song, but the lyric worked…


Filed under Agatha Christie, Barry Maitland, Ellery Queen, Helene Tursten, Karin Alvtegen, Rebecca Tope

17 responses to “I Ain’t Got No Crystal Ball*

  1. Well, let’s just consider two of the ways that potential victims may be discovered in Golden Age novels.

    First, if you are the elderly patriarch or matriarch of a wealthy household, preferably one who doesn’t get along with any of his/her potential heirs and who enjoys changing wills at the drop of a hat (or clause), your life expectancy will be pretty short.

    And then, after the first (or second or third) murder, we have the family member or servant who suddenly recalls having seen something suspicious. Rather than go to the nearest policeman, he or she gets on the EXTENSION(!) phone in the downstairs cupboard to call the amateur detective and tell him/her to come quickly because I know who committed this ghastly deed. Hope his/her insurance was paid up…

    • Oh, Les, those are classic examples of predictions a person can make about, well, classic/GA crime fiction. I always do wonder why house staff always seem to forget that someone could be listening in their telephone calls. And yes, it’s always best if you’re wealthy to be nice to heirs and be generous with them. To do otherwise is definitely not a recipe for a long life…

  2. This is a really interesting subject. One thing I like in particular is when an author plays with these reader expectations, and then does something quite unexpected. I recall a Robert Barnard novel, for instance, when I thought the victim was painfully obvious – and then someone else was killed: very clever.

    • Thanks, Martin; I think it’s really interesting too. I agree, too, that it’s particularly effective when an author takes advantage of those expectations to lead the reader up the proverbial garden path. You’re reminding me of at least two Agatha Christie stories that do that (there are others, too, of course).

  3. Les beat me to the punch: I immediately thought of the elderly patriarch/matriarch scenario in the Classic murder mystery, especially if he/she is unpleasant and has invited lots of relatives and not-so-well wishing friends and colleagues to the country estate for a weekend, and even more so if one of the guests is an eccentric detective who solves impossible murders … 🙂

    • No doubt about it, Bryan! The elderly patriarch/matriarch who’s both wealthy and unpleasant is not likely to have an extended life span, that’s for sure. And the more people interested in that money, the shorter the life span. You’ve got a point about that eccentric sleuth, too… 🙂

  4. Very well observed. As usual. 🙂

    Greetings and wishing you a nice and joyful weekend,

  5. Specifically with Agatha Christie, I’ve always felt that you could be confident that the two people who are just in the process of falling in love can almost automatically be scratched off the suspect list – I suspect she was an old romantic at heart. But I can’t remember if there are exceptions to that rule – bet you can though! 😉

    • You know, FictionFan, I think Christie had a romantic streak in her. In most of the cases I can think of, the couple falling in love are indeed in love. There are a couple of instances where there’s a ‘will they/won’t they’ situation where one of the two people isn’t so innocent. But in general, yes, Christie liked love to prevail, I think.

  6. There’s an occasional trope where it seems A is giving B an alibi – ‘I know you didn’t do it, B, so I’ll say you were with me’, and of course WE don’t have the same faith in B’s innocence. But then there’s an obvious flip – that gives both of them an alibi, and maybe it’s A who is the guilty party, giving himself an alibi in this apparently innocent way….
    I love this topic, and love the comments from others…

    • I’m learning a lot from the comments, too, Moira, and enjoying them a lot. I love your contribution, too, about alibis. It’s quite true that that’s used a lot, and savvy crime fiction fans know that something about the alibi will turn out to be wrong. And then there’s the trope where A gives B an alibi without planning ahead of time because A is B’s friend/partner/etc.. and knows B ‘must be innocent.’

  7. Col

    Maitland’s book is on the pile – someday soonish. No examples to add I’m afraid – not enough caffeine in the system yet!

  8. I am looking forward to reading Death on the Nile. but unfortunately I have several other books in the Poirot series to read before I get there.

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