I’m Telling You, Beware*

Dangerous GiftsVirgil’s Aeneid includes the famous story of the Trojan Horse, and the way in which the Greeks used subterfuge (and a false ‘gift’) to best their enemies from Troy. In it, there are lines that have been passed down to become the proverb, ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts’ – a warning not to trust one’s enemies, even if they ‘bear gifts.’

And it’s interesting to see how often untrustworthy gifts show up in crime fiction. If you think about it, it’s almost a trope: the flowers from a stranger that turn out to be deadly; the mysterious package left on a doorstep, etc. There’s only space for a few examples in this one post. But I’m sure you’ll be able to think of many more than I could, anyway.

Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone begins with the theft of a valuable diamond, called the moonstone, from the Palace of Seringaptam. The diamond is said to be cursed, so that evil will befall anyone who takes it from its place. But Sir John Herncastle doesn’t let that stop him, and actually commits murder to get the jewel. Later, we learn that he’s had a falling out with his sister, Lady Julia Verinder, and is not welcome in the Verinder home. When he dies, he bequeaths the diamond to his niece, Rachel, to be given to her on her eighteenth birthday. His wishes are duly carried out, and it’s not long before all sorts of misfortunes happen to the family, beginning with the disappearance of the moonstone on the night Rachel receives it. Then, there’s a suicide. Other trouble follows. Sergeant Richard Cuff investigations, and slowly puts the pieces of the puzzle together.

In Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy, Hercule Poirot attends a sherry party hosted by famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. Among the guests is the local vicar, Reverend Stephen Babbington. During the party, Babbington suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Not long afterwards, there’s another, similar, murder. This time, the victim is Harley Street specialist Dr. Bartholomew Strange. Poirot investigates the two murders as connected events, since many of the same people were at both occasions. He’s working on those two cases when there’s a third murder. The weapon is a gift box of poisoned chocolates, delivered to Margaret de Rushbridger, a patient at Strange’s sanatorium. Now Poirot has to connect her death to the two others.

Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case tells the story of another dangerous gift. In that novel, we are introduced to the Crimes Circle. Run by journalist and amateur sleuth Roger Sheringham, it’s a discussion club where members try to solve difficult crimes. And one day, DCI Moresby brings the group an interesting one. It seems that well-known chocolatier Mason & Sons has come out with a new variety of chocolates. In order to build interest and boost sales, the company sent complimentary boxes of the new chocolates to well-known, influential people, one of whom is Sir Eustace Pennefeather. He himself doesn’t eat chocolate, so he passed the gift on to a fellow club member, Graham Bendix. Bendix, in turn, shared the candy with his wife Joan. Now, Joan is dead, and her husband badly sickened. Analysis shows that the chocolates were poisoned. So the question before the club is: who is the killer? And that, of course, entails the question: who was the intended victim?

Not all gifts are as attractive and welcome as chocolates and diamonds. In Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, for instance, we are introduced to nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill. Her father, Leander, recently died of a heart attack. Laurel, though, is convinced that this wasn’t a natural death. She believes his heart attack was brought on after he began receiving a series of macabre ‘gifts,’ What’s more, she thinks they may be related to her father’s business, since his partner, Roger Priam, has also been receiving ‘gifts.’ She asks Ellery Queen to investigate; and at first, he’s reluctant. But he is intrigued by the puzzle of what this all may mean. So he looks into the matter. In the end, and after Priam is nearly killed, Queen pieces together what actually happened. It turns out that these ‘gifts’ have everything to do with the men’s pasts.

And then there’s Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Said Cheese. In that novel, a bouquet of flowers is delivered to The New Pickax Hotel. They’re a gift for a mysterious guest named Ona Dolman. She doesn’t happen to be in her room when they arrive, and that turns out to be a good thing for her.  A bomb hidden in the flowers detonates, causing severe damage to the hotel and killing a chambermaid. Journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran takes an interest in the case – an interest that’s piqued when Ona goes missing.  Now Qwilleran works with Pickax Police Chief Andrew Brodie to find out who the murderer is, and what’s happened to his intended victim.

As you can see, crime fiction includes some very clear examples of gifts from dangerous people. I think that should serve as a warning to us all. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I hear a knock at the door; I think I’ve just gotten a package.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong’s Smiling Faces Sometimes.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Ellery Queen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Wilkie Collins

20 responses to “I’m Telling You, Beware*

  1. Tim

    _The Moonstone_ should be “required reading” for anyone who makes a claim to being a fan of crime, detective, and mystery fiction. Yeah, it’s that good (and that important).

    • It was definitely a ‘game changer’ in the world of crime fiction, Tim. In fact, many people argue that Sergeant Cuff is one of the genre’s first fictional police detectives. Not everyone agrees with that, but there’s no doubt of the novel’s influence.

  2. As much as I love chocolates and flowers, and I wouldn’t say no to a diamond either, I wouldn’t want any of those gifts!! Its an ingenious way to commit a crime though!

  3. I would never try candy that I did not know the origin of. But people are much more suspicious now than in the past. Poisoned candy also features in a Nero Wolf story…The Red Box.

    • That’s quite true, Tracy. There’ve been so many ‘horror stories’ that people do tend to be more cautious now. And you’re quite right, by the way, about The Red Box. I’m glad you mentioned it.

      • In the 1970s, when I was a child, I lived with my family in Los Angeles for two years. We came from New Zealand, so LA really was ‘the big smoke’ to us! Anyway, we kids loved the American tradition of trick-or-treating, which we didn’t have back in Auckland. We were warned, however, never to eat fruit or unwrapped candy, in case it had been poisoned, and disappointed to thus have to throw away some of our treats.

        • I remember those rules, too, Caron. And in fact, today’s children are still warned not to accept candy from people they don’t know, and not to eat anything unwrapped. Lots of kids do think it’s a shame, and I personally don’t know any credible stories of people who actually were poisoned by trick-or-treat candy. Still, the stories have gone round for a long time.

  4. The nastiest I can think of is the box of chocolates on Highsmith’s A DOG’S RANSOM – if you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean, If not, I’m not going there!

  5. Col

    I’ll have to look up Moonstone. I’ve not tried anything by Wilkie Collins.

  6. Such interesting stories of gifts that serve two purposes. Thanks, Margot.

  7. Haven’t read Moonstone for ages! Will have to put it back on my list. Nice topic today..beware of gifts in crime fic. 🙂

  8. Margot, Collins’ “Moonstone” has been on my mental TBR pile for several years. I have been looking for a good paper edition, though, especially since I don’t like reading the classics in ebook form. “A drink laced with cyanide” would probably be one of the most sinister and “untrustworthy gifts” in crime fiction, I think.

    • You know, Prashant, I hadn’t thought of drinks as I was planning this post, but they can certainly be gifts. And they can be deadly… If you do find a paper copy of The Moonstone, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  9. Trick or treating reminds me of taking a friend’s child with us t&t-ing in our neighbourhood. We visited our dear neighbour, an older lady who had made special Halloween cookies for the children. The visiting child was saying loudly ‘I can’t eat that! Not allowed to eat unwrapped cookies! Might be poisoned!’ I was wildly shushing her and trying to explain so as not to hurt the feelings of our lovely neighbour… I had to say firmly ‘I promise you your Mom would say it’s ok…’

    • Oh, my goodness, what a story, Moira! awkward, too! On the one hand, of course children have to be taught to be careful. On the other, here’s this dear old woman who’s gone to the effort to make those special cookies. I hope there weren’t any hurt feelings.

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