Where would crime fiction be without the ingenious hiding place? All sorts of valuable things are hidden throughout the genre: wills, letters, jewels, even a horse (more on that shortly). And a garden-variety hiding place (in a drawer or behind a picture) isn’t nearly as interesting as something more ingenious. Of course, an ingenious hiding place still has to be believable, or crime fiction fans won’t ‘buy’ it. Even with that, though, there’s plenty of leeway for some interesting hiding places, and lots of authors have made use of thtem. Here are a few examples.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson travel to Dartmoor to investigate the disappearance of a famous racehorse Silver Blaze (See? Here’s the one about the horse), and the murder of the horse’s trainer, John Straker. Inspector Tobias Gregory has arrested London bookmaker Fitzroy Simpson, and he did have motive, since he has a lot at stake in an upcoming race that Silver Blaze is scheduled to run. But there are pieces of evidence that suggest that Simpson is not the killer. And for all his imperfections as a detective (at least, that’s how Holmes sees it), he doesn’t want an innocent man convicted. So he’s asked Holmes to look into the matter. Silver Blaze is, of course, missing. So along with solving Straker’s murder, Holmes and Watson have to also find out where Silver Blaze is hidden. It’s really quite an ingenious place, actually. I know, I know, fans of The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.
Agatha Christie used clever hiding places in several of her stories. For example, in Death on the Nile, Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race investigate the murder of Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, who was shot on the second night of a honeymoon cruise of the Nile. The most likely suspect is her former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, but it’s soon proven that she could not have committed the murder. So Poirot and Race have to re-think their ideas. In the meantime, it’s been noticed that some valuable pearls belonging to the victim have disappeared. Besides their intrinsic value, their theft could possibly have been a motive for murder. So a search is undertaken for them. It turns out that they’ve been hidden in a very interesting place. I know, I know, fans of The Man in the Brown Suit, and The Case of the Missing Will.
Ellery Queen’s short story The Adventure of the One-Penny Black presents another really interesting hiding place. In that story, Queen and Sergeant Velie investigate the disappearance of a very rare stamp called a one-penny black – one of a valuable pair. It’s gone missing from the collection of avid philatelists Friedrich and Albert Ulm, who are particularly anxious about it, because it’s got Queen Victoria’s signature on it. Of course, there are dozens of places where one might hide a stamp. But Queen makes some deductions and, after being pulled off the trail briefly, finds out what happened to that stamp. It turns out to have been a very clever hiding place.
Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone begins with the execution-style shooting of an unidentified Senegalese immigrant. One day, he’s laying out his wares in one of Venice’s open-air markets when he is murdered. It all happens so fast that no-one really sees the killer or the actual incident. What’s worse, no-one knows the victim. To most people he’s ‘just another immigrant,’ with no real identity. And he doesn’t have any identification. That’s going to make it difficult to find out who he was and who wanted to kill him. Still, Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello persist; eventually they trace the man to the house that he shared with several other immigrants. That presents another challenge. For obvious reasons, the other people with whom the victim lived do not trust the police. What’s more, there’s a language barrier. Still, Brunetti and Vianello manage to learn a few things about the man, and they find out which room in the house he was using. As they search through his things, they discover a box of salt. Buried inside the salt is a cache of diamonds. Now the case takes on a whole new meaning. As it turns out, the victim’s death is connected to arms trafficking and to ‘conflict diamonds.’
And then there’s Steve Robinson’s In the Blood. Wealthy Boston businessman Walter Sloane hires genealogist Jefferson Tayte for a special family search. He wants Tayte to trace his wife’s ancestry as a gift to her, and Tayte takes the commission. He traces the family all the way back to her first American-born ancestor William Fairborne. That line died out; however, another branch of the family continued. In 1783, so Tayte learns, Fairborne’s brother James took his family to England with a group of Loyalists. Sloan wants Tayte to pursue this line, so Tayte makes the trip to Cornwall, where the modern-day Fairbornes live. Almost immediately he faces several challenges. One is that there are no records of Fairborne’s wife and children after his arrival. There’s only a record of another marriage two years later. So what happened to the Fairbornes? Another is that the modern Fairborne family is not interested in helping him. They have a lot of social status and local ‘clout,’ too, so very few other people are willing to give Tayte any information. One day, by chance, he meets Amy Fallon, who is working on a mystery of her own. Two years earlier, her husband Gabriel died at sea in a storm. Before he died, he told Amy that he’d found out a secret, but never got the chance to tell her what he’d discovered. Since then, though, construction on their home, Ferryman Cottage, has revealed a hidden staircase that leads to a secret room beneath the house. In that room, Fallon has discovered an antique writing box. That writing box turns out to contain an important clue to Tayte’s mystery.
There are, of course, dozens of other mysteries that feature ingenious and unusual hiding places for papers, wills, jewels, and a lot of other things too. Which ones do you like best?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson.