Very Strange*

Odd ThingsPeople tend to like things to make sense. When something is in a very odd place or doesn’t look as it normally does, we want to know why. And sometimes that feeling of ‘That’s funny, what’s that doing there?’ can get our curiosity roused. In fact, here’s what Isaac Asimov had to say on the subject:
‘The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny…”

It’s just as true in criminal investigation as it is in science, really. When something just doesn’t make sense or fit in, that’s often an important clue that something is going on. And in crime fiction, that often means a murder. Those odd things that just don’t make sense can also be important leads, too, so sleuths learn to pay attention to them.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, for instance, Commissioner Peterson breaks up a scuffle between a couple of local thugs and their would-be victim. The man they were targeting runs off, dropping a hat and a goose as he goes. Peterson picks up the goose and hat and goes on his way. He gives the goose to his wife, but when she starts to prepare it for cooking, she sees that there’s a jewel stuck in its craw. That’s, of course, a very odd place for a jewel to end up, and Peterson can’t make sense of it. So he takes it and the hat to Sherlock Holmes. Holmes makes quite a few deductions from the hat, and eventually, traces the gem back to its original source. The case isn’t quite as complicated as it sounds, but it all starts with one of those ‘That’s funny!’ moments.

Agatha Christie made use of those moments in several of her stories. In fact, Hercule Poirot often mentions how important it is that any theory of a crime account for every piece of the puzzle, however small. In Evil Under the Sun, for instance, notorious actress Arlena Stuart Marshall is strangled during a holiday she and her husband Kenneth are having at the Jolly Roger Hotel. For several reasons, Kenneth Marshall is an obvious suspect at first. But it’s proven that he couldn’t have committed the crime. So Poirot and the police have to look elsewhere. One of the important clues to the murder comes from something simple, but odd: a mid-morning bath. Anyone might take a bath, but oddly enough, no-one admits to it this time. It’s one of those funny things that don’t make sense. But it does once the puzzle is solved.

In Catherine Aird’s The Religious Body, we are introduced to the residents of the Convent of St. Anselm. One morning, Sister Mary Saint Anne seems to be missing from her bed at wake-up call. A search is made, and her body is soon discovered on the floor of the basement. At first it looks as though she had a tragic fall down the stairs. Soon enough, though, it becomes clear that she was murdered. Berebury Inspector C.D. Sloan and his assistant, Constable William Crosby, begin the investigation. One of the funny things they discover is that the victim’s spectacles are missing. She wouldn’t likely have left her room, let alone go around the convent, without them. They aren’t anywhere near the body, and they aren’t among her possessions. Nor does anyone else at the convent have them. The question of where they are points the detectives into a very interesting direction…

Fans of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series will know that all sorts of funny things happen in those novels. Just to give one example, in The Chalk Circle Man, Adamsberg and his team have a very odd case on their hands. Someone has been using blue chalk to draw circles on the pavement in different parts of Paris. What are those circles doing there? And why are such odd things found in some of them? It seems like the work of some mentally ill person. But then one day, a new circle is found – with a body in it. Now what seems like something just a little weird is a case of murder. As Adamsberg and his team work to find out who the killer is, there are two more murders. And it all starts with a funny circle of blue chalk.

Sometimes it’s just a very small thing that rouses curiosity. That’s what happens in Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall.  Early one morning, Gurdial Singh is making his morning rounds, delivering copies of the Globe and Mail to his customers in Market Place Tower, one of Toronto’s exclusive addresses. One of his ‘regulars’ is popular radio host Kevin Brace. When Singh gets to Brace’s condominium, he notices something odd right away: the door is partway open. Curious, he knocks on the door. When Brace comes to the door, he says,
‘I killed her, Mr. Singh…I killed her.’

And he says nothing else. Singh goes in and, as he later tells police, he discovers the body of Brace’s common-law wife Katherine Torn in one of the bathtubs. The ensuing investigation turns out to be complicated and difficult, but Detective Ari Greene and his team eventually get to the truth. And it all really starts because of Singh’s sense of ‘That’s funny’ when he sees the door partly open.

Those moments really do get people curious, and sometimes it’s impossible to resist trying to find out why something is in an odd place, or something that ought to be there isn’t. It’s in our nature to want those odd things to make sense. And those little oddities can add much to a crime novel.

ps. The ‘photo is of a scarf I saw on a walk the other day. What was it doing there? How did it get there? There are, of course, a number of different possible explanations. But still…that’s funny.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Penny Lane.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Catherine Aird, Fred Vargas, Isaac Asimov, Robert Rotenberg

24 responses to “Very Strange*

  1. I cannot think of a specific example now, which I write up to aging gray cells, but when I consider crime fiction, I realize that singularities v. patterns become the challenges for the readers. In other words, is something odd or is it part of a pattern? Or is there something odd about the pattern? Or is the singularity not odd at all but part of a pattern that we did not recognize? etc…etc…etc… I challenge your readers/followers to come up with the specific examples. Well?

    • Oh, now that’s an intriguing question, Tim! How can we tell whether something is a singularity or a pattern. And, if it’s a pattern, what does that pattern mean? Well, folks, what say you?

  2. The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle is the only Sherlock Holmes story I have read, I look forward to reading more of them. I found The Chalk Circle Man by Vargas to be strange, and I did not like it much. But then I read the next one and liked it a lot.

    • That’s interesting, isn’t it, Tracy, how two books by the same author can affect people quite differently. I’m glad you enjoyed the other Vargas you read more. And I do recommend reading some of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries. If for no other reason than the fact that those stories are the basis for a lot of modern crime fiction, they’re worth reading.

  3. Col

    Not familiar with any of your examples, Margot, an interesting post though.

  4. Another interesting post where I’m sure I have examples to add but my poor brain is too tired…

  5. This post also reminds of symbolism in crime fiction. Did the author use this or that to give us a hint? Or are we reading too much into it? In regard to your post, the first book that comes to mind is One Cold Night by Katia Lief, where a mother senses that her daughter is in danger before there’s any real evidence of wrongdoing.

    • That’s an interesting question in and of itself, Sue. Authors do sometimes use things to make a point or give a hint. And sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Thanks, too, for mentioning One Cold Night. I’ve heard of that one, but haven’t (yet) read it. It’s an interesting premise…

  6. I enjoyed this post. In my experience, the germ of many an idea for a crime story comes from a ‘that’s funny’ moment — your coloured scarf in the gutter being a great example.

    • Thanks, Angela. And you’re absolutely right about those inspirations for crime stories. That’s happened to me a few times. Among other things, I’ve been inspired by a trainer left abandoned on the grass, a door left ajar, and a pile of rolled-up carpet. It’s why I think writers need to be observant. It can be very inspirational.

  7. Margot: I thought of The Blue Cross by G.K. Chesterton in which Father Brown while walking with the master criminal, Flambeau, provides a trail through covert bizarre actions for the police to follow himself and Flambeau. The clever priest outwits the great criminal.

    • Oh, I’m glad you mentioned that one, Bill. Certainly the things that Fr. Brown does could be classified as odd things, where people could easily say, ‘That’s funny!’ Folks, if you haven’t read that Fr. Brown story, it’s worth a read.

  8. I know you’ve already given a Holmes example but the one that springs to mind is ‘the curious incident of the dog in the night-time’ in Silver Blaze. The difference between the great detective and the ordinary mortal is noticing the strange things in the first place. And perhaps that’s the difference between crime writers and ordinary mortals too…

    • Silver Blaze is a really good example of the way those little things can be important. I’m glad you mentioned it, FictionFan. And it does show how sleuths notice those things. As to crime writers, never let it be said that we are normal… 😉

  9. Margot, I know what you mean. Sleuths are often surprised when they suddenly discover something that wasn’t there the first time. My favourite is when the body is moved and that often gives the game away. You have cited some good examples most of which are new to me.

    • Thank you, Prashant. And you’re right about that discovery that the body has been moved. That’s oven an important clue as to who committed the crime, or at least where and when it was committed.

  10. Kathy D.

    So much doesn’t look exactly right in crime fiction. A room looks out of order, drawers not exactly pushed in all the way, papers arranged differently, things are missing. What happened? Starts a lot of investigations.
    Sherlock Holmes was the forerunner of detectives who observe every detail and see what is askew.
    And Fred Vargas, as was mentioned, is a write of fantastic scenarios that are not only askew but downright wild: 17 legs sticking up in a cemetery, a “wolfman” who kills peasant farmers, a man who speaks backwards, murders committed by a Medieval “ghost” army. One cannot help but be pulled in by these plot devices.
    I just read Sue Grafton’s latest book “X.” Yes, I admit it. I needed a light read with escapism. However, Kinsey Millhone walks into her office and sees everything out of place and worse; it leads her to investigate whodunnit.

    • You’re quite right, Kathy, that a lot of crime fiction involves things not being where they belong. It may be a room that’s been tossed, or a missing paper, or something else. And yes, Vargas certainly includes a lot of odd things and occurrences in her novels, doesn’t she?

  11. I’m a terror for looking out for things in odd places. Hubby says it is my curious nature as he never sees anything until I’ve pointed it out.

  12. I’m sure you know the short story by Harry Kemelman: The Nine Mile Walk. It’s a setpiece: someone overhears a casual sentence spoken by a passerby – nothing special, just about making a long walk in the rain. But he thinks there’s something odd about it, and reconstructs a whole elaborate scenario from it. It’s a tour de force!

    • Oh, yes, of course, Moira! Thank you! I do indeed know the story, and it is a classic, isn’t it? I love it. And it certainly is an example of one of those ‘that’s funny’ things that has very far-reaching consequences.

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