The ‘photo you see is of an ingenious little device I was given recently: a portable charger. I’m going to find it quite useful when I go ‘on the road,’ where it may be a long time between power sources. It’s a terrific example of the way in which technology has freed us up to create all sorts of ingenious devices. Any fan of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, for instance, can tell you about clever technology that hides weapons.
But you don’t really need high-tech devices. There are all sorts of clever ways to use everyday things in the world of crime fiction. And they don’t need batteries or microchips. Here are just a few examples. I’ll be interested in the ones that you think of, too.
In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness, we are introduced to wealthy, elderly, Emily Arundell. She’s quite well aware that her relatives are more than eager to get their share of her money. One weekend, her two nieces and nephew pay her a visit, during which it’s made clear to her that there’s a limit to how long they’re willing to wait for their inheritance. During that visit, Miss Arundell wakes up in the middle of the night, as is her custom, and decides to go downstairs. She’s tripped up, though, and falls down the staircase. Her injuries aren’t fatal, but they do leave her certain that someone’s trying to kill her. She writes to Hercule Poirot, asking for his help in the matter, but by the time he gets the letter, it’s too late: Miss Arundell has since died of what seems on the surface to be liver failure. Still, Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate, since to Poirot, Miss Arundell is still a client. As you can imagine, he and Hastings go back to the fall down the stairs. At first, it was put down to Miss Arundell stepping on her terrier’s toy ball that was left at the top of the stairs. But Poirot discovers something much more clever and ingenious: a string stretched across the stair and nailed in place. It’s not high-tech, it doesn’t require a lot of knowledge, but it very nearly succeeds. I know, I know, fans of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas)
Several of Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee stories involve ingenious, yet very simple (i.e. not high-tech) kinds of devices. For example, in one plot thread of The Chinese Maze Murders, Judge Dee is faced with the case of retired general Ding Hoo-gwo. He was murdered one day in his library, apparently with no-one around. His son Ding Yee believes that Woo Feng, Commander of the Board of Military Affairs, is responsible. But Woo says that he is innocent. And in any case, this is a ‘locked room’ sort of mystery, so that it’d be very hard to prove that Woo had the opportunity. One of the questions Dee has to face here is how the victim was actually killed. Without spoiling the story, I can say that the answer lies in the very clever use of an ordinary object. Fans of Rex Stout’s Fer de Lance will know that the clever manipulation of an everyday sort of object is also responsible for the murder in that novel.
In Cathy Ace’s The Corpse With the Silver Tongue, academician and criminologist Caitlin ‘Cait’ Morgan is visiting Nice to give a scholarly presentation on behalf of a colleague who’s been sidelined by an accident. During her trip, she happens to encounter an old acquaintance and former employer, Alistair Townsend. She doesn’t want much to do with him; but before she knows it, she’s agreed to come to a birthday party Townsend is having for his wife Tamsin. During the party, Townsend collapses and dies. At the same time, some of the guests become sickened. At first, it’s all put down to tainted escargot. It’s not long, though, before it’s proved that Townsend died of digitalis poisoning. The police begin their investigation, starting with the party guests and moving to anyone else who might have been in a position (and had a motive) to poison the food. Morgan becomes a ‘person of interest’ for several reasons. In order to clear her name, and be able to return to her ‘home base’ in Vancouver, she begins to ask some questions of her own. As it turns out, a clever use of a fairly ordinary set of objects plays a pivotal role in the way the murder was accomplished.
Of course, it’s not just criminals who create ingenious, low-tech devices. Lots of sleuths do the same. If you’ve read enough crime fiction, you’ll know that there are plenty of stories in which hairpins and, later, credit cards are used to pick locks. Hercule Poirot even uses his moustache-curling tongs and a wire from a hatbox in an ingenious way in Murder on the Orient Express.
Fictional characters also often use clever devices as evidence that someone’s been in their homes or hotel rooms. For example, in Aaron Elkins’ Fellowship of Fear, cultural anthropologist Gideon Oliver travels to Europe to give a series of guest lectures. His trip turns into much more and ends up with him getting involved in a web of espionage and murder. As you can imagine, there are some nasty people after him, who seem to want something he has. At first, he doesn’t even know what it is that anyone would want. But he certainly knows that he’s in danger. So he decides to protect himself:
‘Somebody was in his room.
The quarter inch segment of paper clip on the worn hallway carpet caught his eye the moment he reached the top of the stairs….
Since coming to the BOQ, he’d stuck a piece of paper clip or matchstick or cardboard between the door and jamb every time he’d left his room. For three days it had been in its hidden place every time he’d returned. Now it glinted at him like a tiny, malignant exclamation point on the threshold of his room.’
That little ingenious device helps to protect Oliver’s life.
It’s very useful to have modern high-tech things like portable chargers. I love mine and intend to use it. But never underestimate the power of the humble paper clip or piece of string…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Pretenders’ Brass in Pocket (I’m Special).