It Only Takes a Moment*

TIme PhenomenaIt’s surprising how hard it can be to gauge time. Sometimes something seems to go on forever, but only lasts a few moments or less. So it can be difficult to guess how much time has gone by, especially when one’s under stress. Any investigator will tell you that that can make witness statements notoriously inaccurate. But that ‘bending’ of time does seem like a real phenomenon. And we certainly see it in crime fiction. There are dozens of examples; I’ll just offer a few.

In Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase, Rachel Innes plans to spend the summer at Sunnyside, a beautiful country house she’s rented. With her will be her grown nephew Halsey and his sister Gertrude. At first, all goes well enough, but soon, some strange things begin to happen. It all begins with odd noises and a few other eerie events. But it takes a deadly turn one night when Arnold Anderson, son of the owner of Sunnyside, is shot. Piecing together what happened isn’t easy. The shooting wakes Rachel up, and it only takes her a few moments to give the alarm. But that’s all that’s needed for the shooter to escape. It’s one of those cases where one might think that something ought to take a lot longer than it does. The fear that’s only natural when one hears a shot doesn’t help matters.

There’s an interesting question of how long something takes in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In that novel, Hercule Poirot has retired (or so he thinks) to the village of King’s Abbot. He’s drawn into an investigation, though, when Flora Ackroyd asks him to help clear her fiancé Ralph Paton of suspicion of murder. Flora’s uncle, Roger Ackroyd, has been stabbed, and all of the evidence points to Paton. Flora is convinced he is innocent, though, and Poirot agrees to at least look into the matter. One of the questions is, of course, when the murder occurred (and by extension, who had the opportunity at that time). As the police work to establish exactly what happened and exactly what everyone was doing, it becomes clear just how very little time it actually takes to go into a room, stab someone, plant evidence and leave. It really only takes a very few minutes. And in this case, that means that more than one person could have had the chance to commit the crime.

Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas finds Saskatoon PI Russell Quant hired to go on a cruise. Wealthy and influential Charity Wiser claims that one of her family members is trying to kill her, and she wants to know which one. Her idea is that if Quant gets to know the various suspects, he’ll be able to ‘vet’ them and figure out who the would-be assassin is. To that end, she has Quant accompany the family on a cruise on her private ship The Dorothy. Quant’s not overly impressed with Charity Wiser, but he’s also not one to turn down a fee and a luxury cruise. The trip starts and little by little, Quant gets the chance to interact with several members of the Wiser clan. He still hasn’t established who the culprit is when The Dorothy makes a stop in Tunis. Several of the passengers, Quant among them, go ashore for some shopping and a chance to soak up the local culture. The time comes to return to the yacht, and Charity can’t be found. After only a few minutes of searching for her, Quant discovers that he’s lost in the shopping medina, among a maze of winding alleys and shops. He finally finds his client, but not in time to prevent an attack on her that lasts only a minute or two, but seems longer. She manages to get away relatively unscathed, but that’s hardly the end of Quant’s adventures. And the whole thing only takes moments.

It only takes a few moments for thirteen-year-old Katie Pine to disappear in Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow.  One September day, she and two friends go to a traveling fair near their home at Algonquin Bay. They try out a few of the booths, and Katie decides she wants to win a large stuffed panda at the bowling pins game. Her friends take a few minutes to go have their fortunes told. By the time they come back, Katie has disappeared. No-one saw her leave, and no-one has seen her since. Five months later, her body is found in an abandoned mine shaft on Windigo Island. John Cardinal, of the Algonquin Bay Police, was assigned to the case, so he’s especially upset to find Katie was murdered. He re-opens the case and works to trace her last movements. It’s disconcerting to know how little time it takes for a young girl to go missing from a large, crowded fair.

And then there’s Christine Poulson’s Murder is Academic. One afternoon, Cassandra James, who is in the English Literature Department at St. Ethelreda’s College, Cambridge, goes to the home of Department Head Margaret Joplin. Her plan is to pick up some student exam papers and then be on her way. When she gets there, though, she notices to her shock that the student papers are scattered all over, with many of them in Joplin’s swimming pool. James’ first thoughts are about the terrible consequences of such careless handling of the papers. Student degrees are at stake, and so is the career of whoever is responsible if the exam papers are permanently lost. All of these thoughts seem to take some time, but really,

‘All of this flashed through my mind in the time it took me to run in through the conservatory door and bellow for Margaret.’

As it turns out, there’s a very good reason the exam papers are everywhere and Joplin is nowhere to be found. She’s drowned in the pool. At first it looks like a terrible accident; she hit her head, then fell into the pool. But James soon comes to suspect something more…

It may seem as though something is lasting forever, but it’s surprising how often it lasts only a minute or two. That sense of time passing more slowly than it really does is part of the reason it’s sometimes so hard to pin down when things happen and how long they take. Ask anyone who’s investigated a crime.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jerry Herman.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Christine Poulson, Giles Blunt, Mary Roberts Rinehart

14 responses to “It Only Takes a Moment*

  1. You choose the most interesting subjects, Margot. Yes, I’ve seen this many times. Invalid witness statements can add so much to the plot, throwing the detective off-course. Katia Lief’s One Cold Night comes to mind.

    • Thanks, Sue :-). And you’re right about invalid witness statements. We don’t always have a clear sense of how long something lasts or takes, especially if we’re under stress. So witnesses and crime victims are definitely impacted. And it does make for a fascinating plot point in a crime novel.

  2. Forty Words For Sorrow sounds like a great read Margot – so many ”
    if only” moments here

  3. Margot: I have not seen it used in crime fiction but elite athletes, when playing at their very best, will talk about a play or series of plays slowing down for them. Their skill and experience combine to let them see a play unfold in a mental form of slow motion though it is happening in seconds. Quarterbacks will talk about knowing from the snap of the ball exactly where a receiver will be and that they have the time to throw it to that spot before the pass rushers can reach him. Sometimes referred to as being in the zone it does not happen often or for sustained periods but it is real to the athletes.

    • I’ve heard of that phenomenon too, Bill. It’s really interesting the way time seems to ‘telescope’ for them. It’s interesting how little time it really takes for an athletic play to happen, too. Hockey greats pass the puck along, and they know where their team mates will be so they can get it to the right place. It may feel like everything is slowing down, but the actual play takes less than a second.

  4. Margot, I recall one or two scenes, in Perry Mason novels I think, where the lawyer is waiting for detective Paul Drake to burst into the courtroom with that final bit or scrap of evidence which eventually helps him prove his client’s innocence. Time is so much of the essence in such cases, and we have seen it in the movies too.

    • Oh, yes, Prashant, I know exactly what you mean. Those moments as everyone’s waiting for that last piece of evidence may feel like they’re taking forever (and they certainly add to the tension). But it’s really only a moment or two.

  5. Margot, a truly intriguing post. Time can play such a factor in a story (and real life) in so many various ways. Some stories have the hero trying to make it to a critical spot by a certain time to save a life adding suspense and tension to the plot.

    • Thank you, Mason. And thanks for adding in that other way of looking at this question. It’s quite true that if the protagonist is rushing to get to a place, the author can use that sense of ‘This is going to take forever!’ to build tension. I’m glad you filled in that gap.

  6. Col

    My weekend days seem to go faster than my working ones. That’s a crime!

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