To an extent, most of us are creatures of habit. We leave our keys in the same place all the time. We walk the dog or feed the cat at the same time. We usually take the same route to work. Or we order the same thing for lunch most of the time. Those routines can be comforting, and can free our minds up to deal with other things. And they help us not lose keys, handbags and so on.
We may not even be aware of our routines, but they figure in our lives. And they can be very useful for fictional criminals. Learning someone’s habits is a good way to find out when that person is vulnerable. For the detective, finding out people’s habits can also be useful. It’s a good way to learn who might have been in contact with a victim. And when a person goes missing, the first thing detectives do is find out where that person would likely be in the habit of going. Finding out people’s habits is also a way for the detective to find possible witnesses to a crime (e.g. Who’s in the habit of walking their dogs at the time the victim was seen going towards…). There are a lot of examples of the way habits are used in crime fiction, both by sleuths and by criminals. Here are just a few examples.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Violet Smith. She’s been hired as a live-in piano teacher at Chiltern Grange. The arrangement is that she spends the week there, and weekends with her mother in London. So, every Friday, she bicycles from Chiltern Grange to the train station. Every Monday she returns by the same route. And therein lies the problem. As Violet tells the story, she’s been followed lately by a man on a bicycle. He doesn’t allow himself to get close enough to her so she can get a good look at him. And he hasn’t approached her or spoken to her. But he knows her habits. She’s now quite concerned, and wants Holmes to investigate. This he agrees to do, and he and Dr. Watson look into the matter. It turns out that Violet Smith’s routine is key to this story.
So are the routines of Bob, the terrier who features in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client). Bob shares his home with Miss Emily Arundell, a wealthy woman with plenty of financially desperate relatives. During one holiday, they come to visit her. She’s not at all naïve enough to think they’re visiting because they love spending time with her, but she makes it clear that they’ll get everything when she dies, and that they’ll have to wait until then. Late one night, Miss Arundell has a dangerous fall down a flight of stairs. At first, it’s put down to a terrible accident caused by Bob’s habit of leaving his toy ball at the top of the stairs. Everyone thinks Miss Arundell slipped on the ball and fell. But once the initial shock wears off and she has time to think things through, Miss Arundell is no longer quite so sure that that’s what happened. Now she begins to believe that someone is trying to kill her. So she writes to Hercule Poirot. By the time he gets the letter, though, it’s too late: Miss Arundell has died of what seems to be liver failure. It turns out, though, that she’s been poisoned. Now Poirot works to find out who the killer is. And there are several possibilities. I can say without spoiling the story, though, that it’s not Bob the terrier.
In Donald Westlake’s The Hot Rock, we are introduced to John Dortmunder, who’s recently been released from prison. He learns through a friend that there’s a heist in the works that might interest him. The target this time is a valuable gem called the Balabomo Emerald, which is part of an exhibition being shown at New York’s Coliseum. And the client is Major Patrick Iko, the UN Ambassador from Talabwo. There’s a lot of money to be had if Dortmunder and his team can get the emerald, so they make their plans carefully. Part of that process is studying the habits of the staff, the guards, and the visitors. This heist isn’t going to be easy, because as you can imagine, the jewel is heavily guarded. But after a time, they learn those habits, and put together their plan. Needless to say, it doesn’t exactly go as planned…
In Kate Rhodes’ Crossbones Yard, we are introduced to psychologist Alice Quentin. DCI Don Burns asks her to help evaluate a soon-to-be-released prison inmate named Morris Cley to determine if he’ll be a danger to society. She believes that he won’t, and says as much to Burns, so Cley is released. That night, during her usual run through London, she discovers a body that’s been dumped at an old cemetery. Burns believes that this murder may be related to a series of other murders from several years ago, and that Cley is the key. But he seems to have disappeared. Now Burns asks Quentin to help profile and try to identify the killer. In the meantime, though, she starts getting disturbing notes that suggest that someone has learned about her habits (in particular, her habit of going running) and is stalking her. If that person is the killer, Quentin is in real danger. So she’ll have to try to find the killer in order to keep safe herself.
Because people do have habits and routines, it’s sometimes quite noticeable when they don’t follow them. For example, in Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall, we follow Gurdial Singh one morning as he’s doing his rounds delivering the Globe and Mail to his Toronto customers. One of his stops is the exclusive Market Place Tower condominiums, where he always stops at the home of famous radio personality Kevin Brace. And every morning, Brace is there, waiting for the paper, with a mug of tea and a moment or two of conversation. This morning, though, Brace isn’t at the door, as is his habit. Singh is immediately concerned, and wonders for a moment what to do. He finally drops the paper as loudly as he can at the door, so that hopefully Brace will hear him. After a while, Brace appears, and it’s soon clear that something terrible has happened. And it has. Brace’s common-law wife Katherine Thorn has been killed. Detective Ari Greene and his team investigate, and find that this case is not at all ‘open and shut.’
Most of us have our little routines and habits. They make things comfortable and predictable, and that can be a good thing. And they can turn out to be very useful in a crime novel, too.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s Another Day.