Curiouser and Curiouser, Sir*

Strange Noises and Odd PapersI’ll bet you’ve had the experience. You hear a funny noise, or you see an odd piece of paper stuck in a crack in the back of a drawer. You’re curious, so you decide to open up that piece of paper, or investigate that weird noise. It’s perfectly understandable, really; humans tend to be curious.

It’s interesting to see how that sort of curiosity plays out in crime fiction, too. Readers can identify with the urge to find out what’s causing that noise, or what that paper says. What’s more, plot points like that can add interest and even suspense to a novel.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Helen Stoner, who has an eerie story to tell him about the death of her sister, Julia. It seems that Julia had been hearing strange, soft whistles and other noises during the night. Other odd things were happening, too. Then, just before she suddenly died, Julia said something very cryptic to her sister. Now Helen is hearing the same weird noises. She’s worried about what might be going on, and she wants Holmes to investigate. He and Dr. Watson travel to Stoke Moran, the Stoner home, and begin the search for answers. They discover that those weird sounds are not just products of the imagination, and that their client is in real danger.

Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase begins when Rachel Innes decides to rent Sunnyside, a large country house, for a summer holiday with her nephew, Halsey, and niece, Gertrude. Very soon, some strange things begin to happen. One of those things is a series of strange banging and tapping noises. Rachel is by no means a fanciful person, and decides to investigate. But she can’t find anything that really explains the sounds. Other weird things begin to happen, too, things that frighten her family maid, Liddy Allen, so that she actually ends up leaving. Then, there’s a murder. What’s worse, both Halsey and Gertrude are implicated. Rachel is determined to clear their names, so she begins to do her own investigations. And she learns that those weird sounds are important clues to what’s been going on at the house, and to the murder.

In one plot thread of Brian McGilloway’s The Nameless Dead, Garda Ben Devlin investigates a very odd occurrence. Christine Cashell has reported hearing a baby cry on her baby monitor, but says that it’s not her son. In fact, she and her partner have no children. They’d planned a family, but their son was stillborn, and they haven’t gotten rid of the baby things they’d bought. The manufacturer of the baby monitor reports that some of the monitors may pick up the sounds of other crying babies if they are very near. But there are no babies living anywhere near Christine and her partner. Devlin looks into the matter more closely, and finds that the solution ties in with another case he’s investigating. In fact, there’s an important piece of information that comes from following up on that weird sound of an infant crying.

And it’s not just a matter of following up on odd sounds. In Agatha Christie’s Third Girl, detective story writer Ariadne Oliver is visiting a block of London flats. She’s hoping to track down a young woman named Norma Restarick, who shares a flat with two other young women. During the visit, Mrs. Oliver sees a couple of furniture movers taking a desk out of the building. As they’re putting the desk into the van, a piece of paper flutters out. Mrs. Oliver tries to give it to the men, but they ignore her. That piece of paper stuck in that desk turns out to be a very important to clue to Norma’s whereabouts, and to a murder.

Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead introduces Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty of the Community Policing Section (CPS) of Canada’s government. In that novel, they’re called in when a man named Christopher Drayton dies after a fall from Ontario’s Scarborough Bluffs. At first it doesn’t seem the kind of case, even if it is murder, that would interest the CPS. That group normally concerns itself more with hate crimes and other community-relations cases. Then readers learn the reason for the CPS’ involvement. Scraps of letters found in a drawer, and a scrap of paper found in a pocket, suggest that the victim may actually have been Dražen Krstić, a notorious war criminal who committed real atrocities during the Bosnian War. If that’s Drayton’s real identity, then this is a very delicate case. Questions will most definitely be asked about why a war criminal was allowed to live in Canada, and those questions could lead to the end of more than one career. So Khattak and Getty will have to be very careful as they investigate. It turns out that those little scraps of paper jammed into a drawer are very important.

And that’s the thing. Every once in a while, when you hear a weird noise, or you see a scrap of paper stuck somewhere, it leads to something much more than you think.

ps. Oh, the ‘photo? An odd noise in our heating/air conditioning system turned out to be coming from a scrap of paper stuck in one of the vents. You can just see it on the bottom right of the grill. The air currents made it rattle. You never know what you’ll find when you investigate those strange things.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Barenaked Ladies’ Curious.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Brian McGilloway, Mary Roberts Rinehart

28 responses to “Curiouser and Curiouser, Sir*

  1. Oh yes as the quote goes, ‘curiosity killed the cat’ and aren’t we lucky our fictional friends are! I like the example of The Nameless Dead one that I missed by Brian McGilloway which sounds very odd indeed, I want to know where that babies cry was coming from now.

    • You’re right about that quote, Cleo. I think you might enjoy The Nameless Dead, too. It’s an interesting mix of past and present. What’s more, its main protagonist is an interesting character. If you do get the chance to read the series, I’ll be interested in what you think of it.

      • I’ve got a couple of Brian McGilloways which I must read – I think this may be one of them. I know this sort of thing happens in horror films too, and you know they shouldn’t investigate, but they do…

        • Exactly, Crimeworm! And I do hope you’ll get the chance to try some of McGilloway’s work. He’s really quite skilled, I think, especially at evoking the borderlands between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.

  2. Intuitive urges (or impulses) guiding our mind’s attention to something are indeed a lesson of life. And it made me remember the movie ‘Stir of Echoes’, where the hypnosis by some esoteric-lady results in the hypnotized discovering a murder which has gone unresolved…

    I became quite a fan of your writing style, Margot. Hopefully thousands of others will agree. Good night to you.

    • Thank you for the kind words, André. And thanks for mentioning Stir of Echos. It’s a good example of how those little things such as a paper or something else really small can make a real difference.

  3. Enjoyed reading this piece, Margot – it’s given me a couple of ideas for a short story 😄

  4. But the real question Margot is who placed that scrap of paper in the vent? And why was your home penetrated to set a piece of paper in that spot? I suspect it was placed there to distract you and your husband from the real reason they entered your home. The distraction clearly succeeded but I hope there is still time for you to determine the actual purpose of the entry. Grab your deerstalker and start deducing. The game is afoot!

    • That’s quite true, Bill! The paper is the thing. I’d hoped it might be a winning lottery ticket, or perhaps a treasure map or something. In fact, it turned out to be nothing so exciting. Shortly after I saw the paper, we had some work done on the heating/air conditioning unit, and as a part of that, the workman took the grill off of the vent. I got the paper, and found out that it was…a manufacturing tag from a small fan that had been placed back there months earlier to improve the air flow. The tag had worked its way loose and ended up against the grillwork. And I tested it; there was no disappearing ink or anything. Mystery solved.

  5. I can never resist investigating something – what would we do without all those cats who died from curiosity? In fiction and in real life. I like to think that piece of paper in your vent was perhaps some desperate message from someone or else, as Bill suggests, a distraction tactic…

    • Oh, I think you’re right, Marina Sofia! Curiosity is an important human trait, and I’m like you about it: I always have to investigate if something seems weird. The paper didn’t turn out to be a desperate message, though (although that’s an intriguing plot idea!). Rather, it was just a tag from some heating/air conditioning equipment that had worked itself loose and blown against the grillwork. Not much intrigue there, I’m afraid. But it was, I admit, fun to speculate.

  6. It was one of Knox’s rules, no preternatural or supernatural phenomenon but I myself have experience some very strange goings on which I cannot explain! I’ll save those for another day. The real talent these writers had is in creating the suspense by letting the reader believe it’s unexplainable and then explain it! 😉

    • Oh, you’re absolutely right, D.S.! Therein likes the real skill in weaving those elements, or the suggestion of them, into a story. And I think a lot of people have those kinds of experiences – the kind that are hard to explain.

  7. Strange noises can add so much suspense to a crime novel, especially when they go to “investigate.” I just read a story about a strange noise inside a dark tent in the woods. Without naming the title I can tell you the “noise” answered when asked, “Is someone here?” Spooky!

    • Oooh, that is spooky, Sue! And you’re right; those weird noises can add a lot to a crime novel if they’re done well, and if the characters behave in ways you could imagine.

  8. The Speckled Band is a masterpiece of terror and cleverness – it still gives me the shivers to think of it. Those noises…. Pieces of paper do not produce the same fear, but I do always like the scrap of paper, the lost letter, or the words on the blotter. Christie does a clever one in a short story with words that sound as though they suggest a sum of money, but don’t. I’m sure you know the one I mean…

    • Oh, yes, I know the one you mean, Moira. And she is clever about that. You’re right, too, that the odd scrap of paper or lost letter, etc., can add interest to a story. It’s a good way to explain how a character learns something or gets interested in something. I agree, too, about The Speckled Band – beautifully done, both in tone and in narrative.

  9. Margot, I have a collection of Conan Doyle’s short stories that I have been meaning to read. He was so prolific that I discover new “old” stories every now and then.

    • I know what you mean, Prashant. Even when I’ve read something before, I sometimes feel I’m rediscovering it, because Conan Doyle really was both prolific and talented.

  10. The book that I credit with starting my love of crime fiction is Enid Blyton’s ‘The Ship of Adventure’ where a treasure map is found inside a ship in a bottle – fabulous! Many years later my mother bought me my very own ship in a bottle, remembering how much I’d loved the story as a child. Sadly I’ve squinted at it every which way and there’s no map in it…

    • What? No treasure map? Ah, such a disappointment, FictionFan! Well, you did try to find one in there, at any rate. And the idea of finding a treasure map like that really does spark the kind of curiosity that I think fuels a lot of people’s interest in checking out that scrap of paper/weird noise/unusual angle of piece of furniture…

  11. A writer must be clever to get by the idea that only a fool would venture down those stairs. Yet I do it all the time. In the middle of the night, I always rise to investigate. But in a novel, it’s often a woman and it makes her look naive or stupid often. Hard to pull off unless you want that idea gotten across.

    • That’s a well-taken point, Patti. On the one hand, there are a lot of people (myself included) who’d investigate. On the other hand, just because you want to investigate that noise or paper doesn’t mean you’re a rash or stupid person. So yes, an author has a delicate line to tread, so to speak, to portray a character as reasonably intelligent and sensible, but sill curious.

  12. cedartree1

    when i worked for old weird harold, a customer bought in a toyota he said kept quitting while driving down the freeway. after multiple attempts to fix the problem, we ended up by replacing the whole wiring harness. it still happened. eventually we discovered that someone had shoved a piece of kleenex into the gas tank and when it drifted up against the internal supply tube, it shut off the gas to the carburetor and the engine quit. truly a mind bending development…

    • Oh, my goodness, Cedartree1! What a weird thing to happen. And, of course, it’s easy to see how that might make the engine quit, once you know the story. It’s one of those stories that you couldn’t make up, too!

  13. Margot, I am glad you continue to point out elements in the Sherlock Holmes stories, reminding me often that I really have to read some of them. (I did read one story in a Christmas anthology recently.)

    • Nobody has time to read everything, Tracy – I know I don’t. If/when you do get a chance to read more Conan Doyle, I’ll be really interested in what you think.

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