If You Help Us Solve This Crime*

Armchair DetectionThere is something about, especially, unsolved crimes that gets people’s interest. I’m talking here more of the intellectual challenge of solving a mystery than of anything else, and it seems to come up whenever there’s a difficult case in the news. People talk about it, and all kinds of people try to solve the case. Sometimes their ideas are helpful to the police; sometimes the police find them a nuisance.

It shouldn’t be surprising that we see that interest in crime fiction, too. People can’t help being curious, so it makes sense that they would want to put their hands in, so to speak, when there’s an investigation.

Agatha Christie’s The Thirteen Problems certainly reflects that tendency. This is a collection of short stories, loosely tied together by an overarching context. A group of people meet each Tuesday night. At each meeting, one person tells the story of a crime, and the rest of the group tries to solve the case. It’s an interesting example of ‘armchair detection.’ Of course, Miss Marple is one of the members of this club, so as you can imagine, the cases get solved. I know, I know, fans of The ABC Murders.

There’s a similar kind of, if you will, detection club in Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case. Journalist Roger Sheringham runs the Crimes Circle, a discussion group for those interested in crimes and their solutions. When DCI Moresby is invited to address the club, he presents the members with a difficult case. Famous chocolatiers Mason & Sons have come out with a new variety of chocolates. To help spread the word (and, of course, generate sales), they send a courtesy box of the new chocolates to a variety of influential people. One of them is Sir Eustace Pennefather. Since Pennefather himself doesn’t eat chocolate, he gives the box to an acquaintance, Graham Bendix. Bendix, in turn, gives it to his wife. Joan. Hours after they have some of the chocolate, Joan dies of what turns out to be poison. Her husband, too, is poisoned, but survives. So the question before the club becomes: who poisoned the chocolates and why? And who was the intended victim?

There’s a different take on this sort of group in Georges Simenon’s Maigret and the Yellow Dog. Inspector Jules Maigret is called to the seaside town of Concarneau to investigate the attempted murder of prominent wine dealer Monsieur Mostaguen. It seems that Mostaguen was on his way home from the Admiral Hotel when he stopped to light a cigar. The night was windy, so he stepped into the shelter of a doorway. Someone on the other side of the door shot him while he was trying to light his cigar. Maigret and his assistant Leroy take up temporary residence at the Admiral, where it’s been Mostaguen’s custom to spend a great deal of time with a small group of friends: Dr. Michoux, newspaper editor Jean Servières, and Monsieur le Pommerat. On the very night they meet Maigret, the whole group is sickened by a bottle of wine that someone has poisoned. Now it’s clear that someone is targeting the group; and, of course, it’s in their interest to find out who it is. As you can imagine, the investigation becomes the main topic of discussion for this group.

Jodie Evans Garrow finds herself in the middle of a hotly-debated case in Wendy James’ The Mistake. At the beginning of the novel, Jodie has what most people would call a near-perfect life. She’s got good looks and good health, she’s married to a successful attorney, and she’s the mother of two healthy children. Disaster strikes when word gets out that years ago, she had another child. Not even her husband knows about this birth. Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but there are no formal adoption records. Soon, questions begin to arise. Where is the child? If she’s alive, what’s happened to her? If not, did Jodie have something to do with her death? Both privately and very publicly, people argue about whether Jodie is innocent or a murderer. One night, she’s invited to join a book club discussion group. Delighted at this show of kindness, Jodie attends. To her dismay, though, the group is discussing the famous Lindy Chamberlain case (did Lindy Chamberlain kill her baby, or did she not?), and wants Jodie there more as a specimen than a person. It’s an unsettling example of the negative consequences of people trying to solve cases.

Things are just as unsettling in Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. Joanna Lindsay and her partner, Alistair Robertson, travel from her native Scotland to his home in Victoria with their nine-week-old son, Noah. The idea of the move is that Alistair will be in a better position to get custody of his teenaged daughter Chloe, who lives in Victoria with her mother. On the way from the airport in Melbourne to Alistair’s home town, the couple face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of baby Noah. A massive search is undertaken, but the baby isn’t found. At first, the Australian media is very sympathetic, and several different people set up ‘Find Baby Noah’ websites and online pages where there’s plenty of discussion and attempts to unravel the mystery. You might even say it’s a case of an international group trying to solve the case. Little by little, though, questions begin to arise about the parents, particularly Joanna. And it isn’t long before suspicion soon falls on her. Among other things, this novel shows how today’s technology has made it possible for people to be in these crime-solving, even if they live on different continents.

There are all kinds of real-life and fictional cases where people try to get involved in solving a crime. There’s even an Ellery Queen short story (The Adventure of the African Traveler) in which  Queen is teaching a university class, and some of his students form a sort of ‘detection group’ to solve a  murder. These are just a few examples. Over to you.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Kinks’ Missing Persons.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Ellery Queen, Georges Simenon, Helen Fitzgerald, Wendy James

26 responses to “If You Help Us Solve This Crime*

  1. A timely post Margot – here in the UK there has been an arrest made on a twenty plus year old murder which someone else was tried for. The cold case team put out some information on a TV program we have called Crimewatch and it seems as though it may have paid off. Reading fiction I like to solve a mystery and your examples are, as always great – I do love it when we see how the media either control or follow the ‘people’s’ view on a crime, as they did in The Cry.

    • Oh, I find that fascinating, too, Cleo. And it’s certainly there in The Cry, isn’t it? Your comment about that twenty-year-old case is really interesting, too. It shows how people really do want to be a part of criminal investigations. Of course, it doesn’t always work well, but I can see why Crimewatch and other, similar, programs do as well as they do.

  2. For many years, Isaac Asimov wrote a series of short stories (many of which have been anthologized) about a group called The Black Widowers. Each story follows the same pattern: the group meets regularly for dinner. The members – all male – enjoy fine food and good conversation. One member brings a guest. At the conclusion of the meal, the guest agrees to be questioned by the group – beginning with this question: how do you justify your existence? It will become apparent that the guest has a mystery in need of solving. The members of the club will discuss the problem and attempt to find the solution. But – in every case – it will be the club’s waiter, Henry, who will come up with the solution. It was a wonderful concept, with witty and clever stories; the fictional club members were thinly-disguised portraits of mystery and science fiction authors, and the series continued until Asimov’s death in 1992. I think all the collections are currently out-of-print, though I see a lot of used books listed via Amazon. If you haven’t read them, I strongly recommend them.

    • Thank you for the suggestion, Les. Asimov is perhaps best known for his work in the field of science and science fiction. But as you show here, he also wrote some really interesting mysteries. Certainly the Black Widowers show that interest in solving crimes that I think is present in a lot of people. But then, that was one of Asimov’s talents: the ability to use common, human characters to tell his stories. Didn’t matter that they’re often science fiction. They are, first and foremost, stories about people.

  3. A.M. Pietroschek

    Let me thank you for the help on getting back unto the track first. Thanks, the short stories by Agatha Christie were unknown to me, and I may find some in Project Gutenberg.

    Inspector Maigret isn’t unknown to me, but the German-French TV adaptation showed an aching, old man who was exhausted most of the way, and still a formidable investigator and crime-solver.

    On the Black Widowers I took-up some inspiration, but, with no need to solve real murders, a group of crime fiction authors teaming-up for a challenge alike it actually demands compatible skill-level. The reader-benefit would be that wanted topics, in example those voted for by the readers, would be made transparent with the best of their favorite authors talents…


    • In my opinion, the Maigret novels have more depth and richness to them than do the TV shows. But that’s just my opinion, André. And as to Christie, she did write some fine short stories, I think.

      • A.M. Pietroschek

        I trust your evaluation on Maigret, as I hoped so myself. I just got ‘The Secret Adversary – EPUB – by Agatha Christie’ via Project Gutenberg btw. There is a free ‘Icecream Epub Reader’ which seems easy & reliable to me. Just in case you like to check.

  4. Can’t think of any fictional examples, but yes, it’s always intriguing when a case catches the media and public attention. There have been a couple of cases in the last few years where people have been tried and found guilty in the court of public opinion and then been proved to have nothing to do with the case. The biggest one is probably the Madeleine McCann case where everyone had an opinion as to who was or wasn’t guilty – arguments used to get very heated with people working out elaborate scenarios complete with made-up timelines and motivations. Fascinating (and rather unpleasant sometimes) to watch it happen – unfortunately the case remains unsolved, as I’m sure you know.

    • The Madeleine McCann case is so sad, isn’t it, FictionFan? I feel awful for the people who loved her. I think just getting the answers might help. Perhaps that’s part of the reason so many people have chimed in with their own accounts of what happened and who’s responsible. Among other things, there’s the desire to work out the puzzle. As you say, that’s not the only case where are aren’t any real answers, but it certainly has gotten a lot of people putting in their opinions, and I can see why. And you’re right about the media; it’s always fascinating to watch the cases they latch onto, and the ways in which they treat them.

  5. Margot: In real life a group of Canadians banded together and were able to free the boxer, Hurricane Carter, after he had been imprisoned for many years. Without their efforts to prove his innocence he may have spent the rest of his life in jail.

  6. It seems we do try to get involved in solving real cases from time to time making it plausible that it would appear in the books we read. But then I think it’s the books we read that causes us to want to get involved in cases. 🙂 Either way, a fascinating post Margot.

    • Thank you, Mason. And you know, maybe people who read crime fiction do tend to want to get involved in detection. There are actually a couple of novels with that as their theme…hmm…thanks for the ‘food for thought,’ Mason. 🙂

  7. Loved the Poisoned Chocolate case. And thanks to Les for reminding me of the Isamov series, which I enjoyed so much.

  8. I was just reviewing one of Michigan’s worst murders in history. Originally I thought about writing a true crime novel, but once I got into the case I realized how many armchair detectives are involved. The number is staggering, everyone consumed with the murder of a prominent family that happened in the late 1970’s. It’s interesting to see, though, how many different killers these armchair detectives come up with. I suppose all crime writers could be classified as armchair detectives, too, in a sense.

    • Well, that’s true, come to think of it, Sue. That may be part of why crime writers write. As far as other ‘armchair detectives’ go, I think they’re especially a factor in very public, horrible cases that make a lot of news. Even more so, I’d suspect, if the case isn’t solved promptly I think people really want to come up with answers.

  9. Margot, you have got an interesting line-up of authors and books. I’m particularly intrigued by Anthony Berkeley’s “The Poisoned Chocolates Case.”

    • Thank you, Prashant. I think you would like The Poisoned Chocolates Case. It’s one of those stories where everyone posts a different sort of solution to the crime, so that the reader is invited to work out which solution is the right one.

  10. Wonderful just reading the comments in response to your piece Margot. Thanks so much.

  11. I love any book about cold cases, and groupthink can be a key part of solving them. But detective groups particularly remind me of children’s books – here in the UK we had Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Five Find Outers and Dog – they could apparently solve anything, often to the annoyance of the local policeman!

    • Oh, yes, of course, Moira! Who could forget the Enid Blyton teams! What great examples of teams of people ‘on the case.’ I’m so glad you mentioned them, as they are a staple of children’s crime fiction.

  12. I have never cared for amateur sleuth stories, although there are always exceptions. None of these books sounds like my cup of tea, although I may end up reading them sometime.

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