It’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.