An interesting comment exchange with Bryan, who blogs at The Vagrant Mood, has reminded me of how much fictional (and real) sleuths can learn from those service people we don’t always notice. People such as receptionists, secretaries, delivery people and so on can be extremely helpful when the police are trying to establish someone’s whereabouts or the course of events. And wise detectives know not to ignore those folks.
Agatha Christie’s stories frequently include clues, or at least information, from such people. For instance, in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot goes to see his dentist, Henry Morley. Later Chief Inspector Japp visits Poirot, and tells him that Morley has been shot. Poirot and Japp begin the investigation, with their focus on those who were in the surgery at the time of the murder. For that information, they turn to Morley’s houseboy Alfred Biggs. One of his duties is to escort patients and other visitors from the reception area to the dentist, so he knows who’s arrived and who wasn’t there. He may not be able to pronounce the names correctly, but Alfred has more information about this case than anyone really knows at first.
In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Cad, Lochdubh constable Hamish Macbeth investigates the shooting death of Captain Peter Bartlett. He was one of several houseguests staying with Colonel Haliburton-Smythe and his wife for a weekend party. Early one morning, he went out hunting for grouse, but was murdered instead. Macbeth happens to be on the scene when Bartlett’s body is discovered, because he wanted to speak to the Haliburton-Smythe’s daughter Priscilla, with whom he has an on-again/off-again romance. He starts asking questions, and, despite interference from DCI Blair, he’s able to prove that Bartlett’s death was no accident. As he tries to find out who was responsible, Macbeth relies on help from the Haliburton-Smythes’ maid Jessie, who has a particular liking for him. And in one funny scene, she proves resourceful, too. Macbeth doesn’t want Blair to know that he’s still at the Haliburton-Smythes after being more or less dismissed.
‘Hamish had not left. He had had no lunch and wanted to see if he could manage to get some tea and scones. He had slid quietly down behind a large sofa by the window and was sitting on a small stool.
Jessie, the maid, had a soft spot for Hamish. She quietly handed him down a plate of scones and tea when Jenkins [the butler] wasn’t looking.’
Jessie may be a little ‘dizzy,’ but she can be very helpful.
Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow introduces readers to Smilla Jaspersen, a half Inuit/half Danish Greenlander who’s now living in Copenhagen. As the novel begins, she’s attending a funeral for Isaiah Christiensen, a boy who lived in the same building, and who had what looks like a tragic fall from its roof. Jaspersen feels a bond with Isaiah, since he too is a Greenlander. So she’s drawn to the roof where the accident took place. While she’s there, she sees signs in the snow that suggest this was no accident. So she starts asking questions. The trail leads to the Cryolite Corporation of Denmark, and to a bookkeeper, Elsa Lübing, who worked there. When she discovers that Lübing was promoted directly from bookkeeper to head accountant, she knows that the woman probably has very useful information. And so it turns out to be. In the end, Jaspersen links Isaiah Christiansen’s death with some events in her own land.
Emily Brightwell’s long-running Victorian-era series features Mrs. Jeffries, who serves as housekeeper for Inspector Gerald Witherspoon. As housekeeper, she’s not officially entitled to give her opinion on the cases that Witherspoon investigates. But he often finds himself discussing them with her; and, in her own way, she offers insight that proves very helpful. She doesn’t do it alone, though. She in turn relies on her staff (cook, housemaids, footman, driver, and so on). These staff members are the ones who deal with delivery people, shopkeepers and others who see and know things that their ‘betters’ might not. And most of them would rather not talk to the police. So Mrs. Jeffries’ staff is tailor-made to find out information.
Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack takes place in 1970’s Argentina, a very dangerous time to live in Buenos Aires. Through it all, Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano does his job as a police officer the best he can. One morning, he’s called out to a riverbank, where he’s been told two bodies were dumped. When he gets there, though, there are actually three. Two of them bear the hallmarks of an Army-style execution, and in the times in which he lives, Lescano knows better than to ask questions about them. The third body, though, is a little different. The victim is successful pawnbroker Elías Biterman, who doesn’t seem to have been killed in the ‘regular’ way. So Lescano begins what turns out to be an extremely dangerous investigation. Most people don’t want to help, since it could get them killed. But a few people do. One of them is Marcelo, who works as a court office boy. He finds some important, incriminating information, and manages to get it to Lescano. It’s a dangerous and brave thing to do, and it makes a major difference in this case.
And then there’s Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit. In that novel, successful accountant Daniel Guest hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to catch and stop a blackmailer. Guest is married and ‘settled,’ but he’s had a few secret trysts with men; apparently someone’s found out about them and is now prepared to go public. The trail leads to the Persephone Theatre, so Quant visits the place, hoping to get some information on the actors who work there. He encounters a receptionist, Rebecca, whom he has to persuade to part with some information. When he finally does,
‘She lethargically opened a drawer that must have weighed several tonnes given the effort she expended to do so and pulled out just the documents I was looking for.’
Then, he has to convince her to let him have a look at the actors’ résumés. It’s not easy, but he finally manages to get Rebecca to collect the information he wants. It’s a funny scene, but it also shows that receptionists can be both help and hindrance for the sleuth.
And it’s not just receptionists. Secretaries, delivery drivers, domestic staff, hotel chambermaids, and other service staff can all be extremely useful resources. Sleuths ignore them at their peril.
Now, may I suggest your next blog stop be The Vagrant Mood? It’s a great resource for reviews, and you can also treat yourself to Bryan’s historical mystery series. One features actress Kay Francis; the other ‘stars’ 1940’s British Secret Service agent Peter Warlock.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s Be Our Guest.