And With This Cat, it’s Curiosity*

CuriosityI’ll bet you know the feeling. You’re walking by someone’s door and see a notice on it. What does the notice say? Or you see a piece of paper someone’s dropped. Only take a second to read it. Perhaps you’re visiting someone’s house and see a drawer half-opened. No harm in peeking in for just a second, right?

Of course, most of us wouldn’t dream of, say, opening someone’s handbag and going through it, or looking through someone’s computer files. But humans are curious by nature as a rule. So it’s perfectly understandable that we sometimes have the urge to just have a peek, even we don’t follow through on it.

That curiosity is a very common plot point in crime fiction for a number of reasons. One is that it’s realistic. People do get curious. Another is that it can be a very effective premise for a story. Whether it’s looking through a drawer, overhearing a conversation, or something else, curiosity is a very useful to set up a motive for murder.

Agatha Christie used that plot point in several of her stories. For example, in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny to investigate the murder of a seemingly inoffensive charwoman. Everyone thinks that her lodger, James Bentley, is responsible, but Superintendent Spence has begun to think otherwise; hence Poirot’s presence. It’s not long before Poirot discovers that,

‘‘Of course she snooped a bit. Had a look at one’s letters and all that.’’

That curiosity turned out to be fatal for Mrs. McGinty, when she found out something it wasn’t safe for her to know. I see you, fans of Hickory, Dickory Dock.

Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone is the story of the well-off and well-educated Coverdale family. George and Jacqueline Coverdale are in need of a housekeeper, and they quickly settle on Eunice Parchman. Unfortunately, Jacqueline hasn’t done the research she should, because Eunice is hiding a secret. Still, all goes well enough at first, and Eunice settles into her job. Then, George’s daughter Melinda happens to be home from university when she accidentally discovers Eunice’s secret. It’s not that she goes through handbags or drawers, but her curiosity helps her to put two and two together as the saying goes. And that spells disaster for the family.

In one plot thread of Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue, Inspector John Rebus and his team investigate the death of Allan ‘Mitch’ Mitchison, an Aberdeen-based oil worker. At first, there doesn’t seem to be much reason for him to have been murdered. But as Rebus traces the victim’s last days and weeks, he learns that Mitch had found out some secrets it wasn’t safe for him to know. And when powerful, wealthy people don’t want others to know things, they have ways of making their wishes known…

Chris Grabenstein’s Hell Hole is the story of the murder of Corporal Shareef Smith, who’s recently returned from service in Iraq. His body is discovered in the men’s room of a highway rest stop, apparently a successful suicide. But Sea Haven, New Jersey police officer Danny Boyle isn’t so sure, and he convinces his boss John Ceepak to ask some questions. Smith’s commanding officer wants the case solved quickly; in fact, he’d rather mete out ‘vigilante’ justice. But Ceepak convinces him to wait for 24 hours before taking matters into his own hands. Ceepak and Boyle’s search for the truth pit them against some very influential people who are determined to keep some secrets that Smith had found out.

In Martin EdwardsThe Serpent Pool, Cumbria Constabulary DCI Hannah Scarlett and her team re-open the case of the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. That death turns out to be connected to two more recent deaths. And all three turn out to be related to some work that Oxford historian Daniel Kind is doing on Thomas De Quincey. In one sub-plot of this novel, Scarlett is going through a rough patch with her partner, rare book dealer Marc Amos. Matters aren’t helped when she accidentally leaves her telephone at home one day. Amos can’t resist the opportunity to just have a peek at her texts, and sees one from Kind. That discovery doesn’t solve the murders, but it plays its role in what happens in the story.

And then there’s Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall. Television star Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford has been planning to leave TV behind and open an antiques business with her mother, Iris. Everything changes, though, when she gets a call from Iris. It seems that Iris has changed her mind about the business, and has abruptly moved to the village of Little Dipperton, Devon. She’s purchased the carriage house on the estate of Honeychurch Hall, and plans to stay. Shocked at this news, Stanford goes to Little Dipperton right away. There, she finds that her mother’s broken one of her hands in a car accident. So Stanford decides to stay and help out, at least until her mother can manage on her own again. In one plot thread of this novel, Stanford discovers a locked door in the cottage. Then, she finds the key to it:

‘I knew it was wrong, but I just had to find out what was behind that locked door.’

When she opens the door, Sanford discovers some things about her mother than she never knew. And what she learns gives her a whole new perspective on the mother she thought she knew.

And that’s the thing about just opening that door a crack, or having a quick look at that letter. You never know what you’ll find…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Little River Band’s Curiosity (Killed the Cat).


Filed under Agatha Christie, Chris Grabenstein, Hannah Dennison, Ian Rankin, Martin Edwards, Ruth Rendell

20 responses to “And With This Cat, it’s Curiosity*

  1. I confess. I do it. I sneak peeks. Thankfully it has not led me into danger!

  2. This is such a great tool for mystery writers to use for protagonists to uncover clues to solve a crime. Nosiness serves an amateur sleuth well.

  3. Col

    I’m always curious when I see people reading in public – on trains or in waiting rooms or coffee bars – I need to covertly try and see what they are immersed in. I’m not always successful as you can’t be too obvious!

    • I know just what you mean, Col! I always get curious about what other people are reading, too. As you say, it’s off-putting if you’re too obvious, but on the other hand, it’s not always easy to see what people are reading if you aren’t. Especially if they’re reading on an e-reader…

  4. tracybham

    I think it is healthy to have curiosity about others but I guess it can be overdone too. I need to continue reading through both Ian Rankin’s and Martin Edwards’ books.

  5. Really like this article about our curiosity. The two sentences you gave stand out.

  6. Thinking about this almost accidental snooping, I can think of lots of examples in books, it is a great way for the amateur sleuth to find out more – these days of course it isn’t just our eyes that can pique our curiosity – overheard phone calls which are now often made in public can reveal so much even though you can only hear one side of the conversation!

    • Oh, they certainly can, Cleo. I think people often aren’t aware of how much they’re revealing when they have those public telephone conversations. You’re right, too, that accidental snooping can be a really effective tool to drive a plot, especially for the amateur sleuth.

  7. Margot: Flavia de Luce is an all time championship snooper who is completely comfortable using her age of 11 as a justification/excuse/apology/cover-up for her intelligence operations.

  8. My mother is a champion snooper – can never resist a peek (which caused problems when I was a teenager and kept a diary, as you can imagine). She would be an obvious victim in a crime novel – the one who finds out too much after an initial murder and blabs something in front of the wrong person.

    • Oh, I can only imagine what when you were a teenager, Marina Sofia! And yes, when it comes to crime novels, characters who do that are definitely marked people. You just know they’re not going to make it.

  9. Margot, like Col, I like to see what other people are reading while commuting to and from work. If it’s books then I’m pretty shameless about it. Am I missing something? Do I need to read that book? Talking about curiosity in novels, I’m a bit on the edge whenever the protagonist, especially a woman, enters an empty house to investigate and then she hears the door creaking open. You want to warn her but you know you can’t — too late! I also like the situation where a mysterious stranger rings the doorbell and before you can slam the door shut, he has his foot in it.

    • Oh, those are both really suspenseful situations, aren’t they, Prashant? I get drawn into stories by things like that, too. And like you, I am really curious about what other people read. As you say, you can learn all sorts of things about new books that are out there, or authors you should try.

  10. Kathy D.

    Curiosity, the mark of a sleuth. If detectives weren’t curious, often about every detail of a murder investigation, they wouldn’t get anywhere.

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