I Feel Inventive*

Simple DevicesThe ‘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).


Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Cathy Ace, Rex Stout, Robert Van Gulik

27 responses to “I Feel Inventive*

  1. Margot, great post. Sometimes it’s the simple things that are overlooked because they do seem too simple. I can’t think of any examples at the moment but I do recall either in books and/or shows where a matchbook has been used to start fires or explosions after the criminal has left the area thus allowing them to be seen some place else at the time the incident occurred.

    • Thanks, Mason. You’re right, too, about that little trick with matches. It’s a simple but quite effective way to help establish an alibi or destroy evidence.

  2. Ooh, a friend has just offered me one of those portable chargers, Margot – a brilliant innovation!

    On the subject of simple tools, I love what Phryne Fisher often manages to achieve with hairpins, hatpins and make up mirrors. That we should all be so well-equipped…

    • Lucky you, Angela! It is brilliant, and I am very much looking forward to using mine. And thanks for reminding me of how adept Phryne Fisher is at innovating with pins, mirrors and so on. Perhaps there was something to those feminine looks of that era…

  3. My husband has been wanting one of those portable chargers. He goes back and forth but I am sure he will get one eventually.

    I do love Fer de Lance and Wolfe figuring out how the crime occurred.

  4. Col

    At least one of the phone networks supplies them for free over here if you have your contract with them.

  5. Reblogged this on Ms M's Bookshelf and commented:
    This blog is written by Australian mystery novelist I’ve been following for some time now. She’s writing here about ingenious gadgets used in a variety of mystery books including Agatha Christie and Aaron Elkins. I think you’ll enjoy my Sunday Reblog!

  6. As I was reading this I immediate thought about a paper clip. It’s funny that you mention that at the end. I’ve also read about Scotch tape across the crack in the door, a piece of string placed in the door jam, and some very inventive ways of using every day objects. Your portable charger sounds fantastic. I have USB ports in my SUV and use them all the time, but once I leave my vehicle I’m cooked. Your device sounds much nicer.

    • Paper clips are so useful, Sue, aren’t they? So is duct tape, adhesive tape, and string. You never know when that stuff’s going to come in handy. And I do have to say I like my portable charger. I can imagine it’ll be very, very handy.

  7. Kathy D.

    Very inventive post. Let’s add glue and rubber bands to the list of low-tech items that can be used in crimes. After all, a rubber band can be used to make a sling-shot (how old-fashioned, but still useful). Glue, especially crazy glue could glue fingers together or someone’s extremity to a pole or worse.
    Also, clues can be glued or tacked onto a bulletin board, a wall, a tree, virtually anything.
    Since I’m a Luddite, I still use file folders, cabinets, staplers, paper clips and rubber bands in my daily life. And pieces of paper and pads of paper for notes and reminders — and a real, hand-held day planner!!!
    I wish I didn’t as my tons of files would be reduced substantially, but that’s the way it goes here, file cabinets and bins all over.
    Now, a file cabinet can also be lethal. So can a bookcase. A relative’s friend was seriously injured when a bookcase fell on him. I imagine a full file cabinet can do the same.
    So, murder weapons come in all shapes and sizes. And a title of such a book or story could be: Fatal Files or The Case of the Fatal File Cabinet or The Brutal Bookcase or The Case of the Murderous Bookcase.
    I believe Nero Wolf solved “The Rubber Band” case.

    • You’re absolutely right, Kathy, that the humble band or tube of glue can turn out to have all sorts of uses. And you know, I hadn’t thought about file cabinets, but they can be very useful too, and not just for storage. There’s just something about those small, ordinary, everyday things that makes them versatile and very handy. You’ve a good memory, too: Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe does, indeed, solve The Rubber Band case…

  8. …or a skeleton key to break into a house, or a copper wire to open a car door, or a pair of binoculars to spy on someone, or a stone flung away to misguide a pursuer… Those were amateurish but pretty inventive tools too, Margot.

    My daughter has a portable charger and she finds it useful; except you have to make sure the charger is charged!

    • That’s the thing about those portable chargers, Prashant. They’re only useful if they’re charged! You’re right too about the many uses of copper wire, binoculars, and small stones. Nail files have lots of different kinds of uses, too. You just need a little creativity, and it’s amazing what those humble little things can do.

  9. In Georgette Heyer’s No wind of Blame there’s a very complex mechanism to carry out a murder in odd circumstances – someone is crossing a bridge I think – and give someone else an alibi. I enjoyed the book but lost interest in the ‘impossible crime’ details. Golden Age writers did like strange mechanical means for murder and alibis….

    • They really did, Moira. Some of those mechanics are interesting and clever, but they can get tiresome too, I think. You make a really well-taken point there. And thanks for mentioning the Heyer. Some of her crime novels are quite nicely done.

  10. Kathy D.

    My gosh, when one thinks about it, there are a slew of items in one’s home that could be deadly! Even anything electric; someone could throw an electric anything in a full bathtub.
    Even a pen could be misused.
    A friend used to carry the biggest hairpin I ever saw in her handbag for self-defense. Apparently, that’s common in some neighborhoods.
    Better hide everything!

    • You know, Kathy, you have a point. Dozens and dozens of different everyday household objects could be easily used to open doors, serve as a weapon, and lots more, too. It’s all a matter of the ingenuity you need to figure out how to use those things.

  11. I always marvel at the ingenious methods used to kill and some of them really are very inventive. The frozen leg of lamb for example, used to bludgeon someone to death, it’s then defrosted, roasted and consumed. No traces on the remaining bone! The icicle dagger, melted way before you can blink and eye. Oh the imagination runs riot.

    • There are any number ingenious ways you can use everyday objects like icicles and frozen mean, aren’t there, Jane? And simple things like paper clips and elastic bands can be so incredibly useful. As you say, the imagination runs riot!

      • Oh elastic bands, the mind boggles. You are right, you don’t need guns, knives or nylon stockings…far too obvious and traceable. I am doing a Forensics course at the moment – Identifying the Dead (bones in a shallow grave) and finding cause of death and will be interested to know, eventually, how the victim died. None of the items we came up with I imagine. 🙂

        • That sounds like a really interesting course, Jane! And I’m sure that it’ll help you as a writer. I always respect it when writers ‘do their homework’ and create realistic stories. And it will be interesting to see what the causes of death in question actually turn out to be. As you say, the humble elastic band has many uses… 😉

        • I am having a ball. It is so interesting and taxing too. Yes I hope it give me a better understanding of how a crime scene is worked and why and who is involved…so many people with different but important roles. I am off the the morgue next week. Deep joy!

        • Ah, trust a crime writer to say, ‘Deep joy!’ over the plan to visit a morgue… 😉

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