But You Were Just Too Clever By Half*

Too CleverIf you read enough crime fiction, you learn a few lessons. One of them is that there is danger in being very clever and observant. Characters who notice things and put the proverbial two and two together tend to come upon truths that aren’t safe for them to know. And that tends to make fictional characters very vulnerable.

Of course, a certain amount of cleverness is important; otherwise fictional sleuths couldn’t easily find out the truth about a murder. But how often does a character become a victim because s/he found out a secret the killer was keeping? Or because s/he knows about another murder? It happens a lot in the genre.

Agatha Christie used this plot point in several of her novels and stories. For example, in Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the stabbing death of Lord Edgware. His wife, famous actress Jane Wilkinson, is the most likely suspect. She wanted to divorce him so that she could marry someone else – a divorce he would not grant. And what’s more, she even threatened his life publicly. To make matters worse, the butler and Edgware’s secretary both say that someone who looked like her, and gave her name, came to the house just before the killing. But she has a solid alibi. Twelve people are prepared to testify that on the night of the murder, she was at a dinner party in another part of London, so she couldn’t possibly have been the killer. Poirot, Hastings, and Chief Inspector Japp are trying to reconcile the two sets of evidence when there’s another death. And another. One of the other victims is up-and-coming actor Donald Ross. As it turns out, he’d noticed one small thing, which got him to wondering too much and coming too close to the truth.

In Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, we are introduced to Nicholas Quinn, the only Deaf member of the Oxford Foreign Exams Syndicate. This group is responsible for administering and managing exams given in other countries that follow the British educational system. One afternoon, Quinn dies of what turns out to be poison. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis look into the case, and soon learn that the members of the Syndicate all had things to hide. One by one, each member’s secret comes out, and Morse and Lewis have to work out which of those secrets was deadly for Quinn. It turns out that he found out more about the Syndicate and the lives of its members than it was safe for him to know, and paid a very high price for it.

One of the most chilling examples of being too clever is Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. The wealthy and well-educated Coverdale family is in need of a new housekeeper. So Jacqueline Coverdale goes in search of a suitable person. She soon hires Eunice Parchman for the job, and at first, things are all right. But Eunice has a secret that she’s determined will not come out. One day, and quite by accident, one of the Coverdales finds out Eunice’s secret. That unwitting discovery ends up in tragedy.

Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly introduces readers to Giorgio Tassini, who works as a night watchman at one of Venice’s glass-blowing factories. He is convinced that the factories are illegally disposing of toxic waste, and poisoning Venice’ water. In fact, he blames them for the fact that his daughter was born with special needs. One morning, Tassini is discovered dead at the factory where he works. Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello investigate, and at first, it seems this death was a terrible accident. But it’s not long before murder is suspected. So the detectives look into the allegations that Tassini had made, to see whether they might have led to his murder. As it turns out, Tassini had learned more than was safe for him to know. And that cleverness, if you want to call it that, cost him his life.

We see that sort of consequence in Shona (now writing as S.G.) MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. In that novel, which takes place in 17th Century Banff, Seaton is undermaster at a local grammar school. One morning, the body of local apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davison, is discovered in Seaton’s classroom. He’s died of poison, and soon enough, music master Charles Thom is arrested and imprisoned for the crime. Thom says he’s innocent, and asks his friend Seaton to help. Seaton reluctantly agrees, and begins to ask questions. One possibility is that Davidson was murdered because of his political leanings. Banff is staunchly Protestant, and there was talk Davidson might have been a spy for Catholic King Philip of Spain. But there are other possibilities, too. And in the end, Seaton finds that Davidson had innocently observed something that gave him more information than was safe for him to have. That knowledge cost him his life.

Many whodunits, cosy and otherwise, include (at least) a second death, where the victim’s killed because of finding out too much about the first murder in the novel. That’s the case in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, the first in her Myrtle Clover series. Myrtle is a retired English teacher who’s not yet ready to be put out to pasture, as the saying goes. Her son Red, who’s the local Chief of Police, sees things otherwise, and ‘volunteers’ his mother to work at the local church. When Myrtle goes to the church, she discovers the body of Parke Stockard. Determined to prove that she’s not ready to be put aside yet, Myrtle decides to investigate. And there are plenty of suspects, too. The victim was both malicious and scheming, and had made enemies all over the small North Carolina town where she’d recently moved. Then there’s another death. One of the members of the church, Kitty Kirk, is killed. As it turns out, she had noticed something about the murderer that would have made it too easy for her to work out what happened to Parke Stockard.

See what I mean? All you have to do is look at crime fiction to conclude that maybe it’s best not to be too observant and clever. At the very least you live longer…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Long Blondes’ Too Clever by Half.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Donna Leon, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ruth Rendell, S.G. MacLean, Shona MacLean

27 responses to “But You Were Just Too Clever By Half*

  1. Your post had me smiling, Margot. I think because I read so many murder mysteries that I see too much of things. Add that fact to being a journalist for 30+ years and I just have to ask questions. Even when something is explained, I tend to want to think outside the box and questions well what if this or what if that.

    Thoughts in Progress
    and MC Book Tours

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Mason. And I can well imagine that your background in journalism has honed your curiosity, so that it’s hard not to ask questions. You make a good point, too, about reading a lot of crime fiction. I think that that sort of thinking goes along with it – almost an occupational hazard. 🙂

  2. Great subject Margot. I’ve definitely done the old ‘second victim knew too much/saw something,’ in my books. It’s a classic if used appropriately. Some great examples here and yet more for the TBR list 😉

    • Thanks, D.S. And yes, you do that quite well in your Blake Heatherington stories. As you say, when it’s done effectively, that plot point can be a real winner.

  3. Whew, a wealth of information, Margot (as usual). I know I’ve read several books with similar circumstances, but I’m coming up empty right now. Oh, wait! In Deadly Ruse (my Mac mystery #2) a college student who’s involved in a drug ring goes missing (permanently) because he knows too much and the “Big Guys” aren’t taking any chances on loose tongues. In fact, a couple of more bodies drop for the same reason. Very good post, thanks!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Michael – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. It sounds as though you use this plot point in your own work, so you know very well how useful it can be in moving a story forward. And it’s believable, too. People really do killed because they know too much.

  4. Tim

    In a very early “crime fiction” — Oedipus the King — Oedipus is just too clever; when he searches for the truth, he makes a tragic error. Sometimes ignorance is better than knowledge.

  5. I always think of Agatha Christie as the best user of this plot point – her poor little maids so often seemed to see something they didn’t know they’d seen or didn’t understand, with the unfortunate result that they would end up as second victim. Or occasionally they would see a blackmail opportunity, with equally fatal consequences! Being a Christie maid always seemed like a dangerous occupation…

    • Quite true, FictionFan! They always seem to see something, hear something, or sometimes get a bit greedy. And yet, Christie did such a good job of not giving away the killer even though she used that plot point as often as she did. You’d always know the maid was in trouble, but not from which person.

  6. A very fun post Margot. So as writers of crime fiction, we should also be careful not to observe too much….it may follow us home!

  7. Col

    I’ll read the Rendell book one day!

  8. kathyd

    How many crime fiction murders occur because someone knows too much about a crime, a family secret or was a witness to a horrendous act?
    And then it’s difficult for detectives to uncover the murder’s motive because this is often hard to figure out. But Hercule Poirot seems to uncover a lot of these type of murders.

    • You’re right, Kathy. Many, many crime-fictional murders happen because someone saw something, knew something, etc. And yes, Hercule Poirot does seem to find a lot of this sort of murder. I think Christie did that plot point well.

  9. It really was a Christie trope wasn’t it? Another favourite for her and others was someone looking over another character’s shoulder – they have noticed something, recognized someone? You know they’re not long for this world, and will be gone before they can say what it is they saw. (But never trust Christie – no spoilers, but Margot I know you’ll know which one I mean, where the look over the shoulder isn’t what it seems.)

    • Oh, yes, I know which one you mean, Moira. And you’re right; that look-over-the-shoulder trope really is a Christie hallmark. She did that quite well. As you say, you can’t trust what she means by it, which is what made her so successful at using it, I think.

  10. Thanks so much for the mention! And yes…a useful trope for cozy mystery writers, for sure!

    • Always happy to mention your work, Elizabeth 🙂 – And you’re right – that murder-of-someone-who-knows-too-much trope really works in the cosy mystery setting.

  11. Hahahahaha! You’ll definitely live longer. I really need to read one of Elizabeth’s books. They all sound so good.

  12. Keishon

    I loved the Ruth Rendell’s book. The first sentence gives her secret away. I think what most disturbed me about her secret was how she was willing to go to keep it a secret. And I have to mention that the author brilliantly told this story even though the reader knows from page one what happened.

    As for crimes being done to protect a secret, I haven’t read too many of those but they do end up being great surprises. There was a Fred Vargas I read, my first one by her actually, The Three Evangelists where the villain hid in plain site and harbored the worst secret of all – hate. Good book.

    • It is, indeed, Keishon. Folks, if you’ve not read The Three Evangelists, you may want to see what you think of it. And you’re right about A Judgement in Stone. It’s a tribute to Rendell’s skill as a writer that readers are drawn in from the very beginning, even though they know what’s going to happen and why. It’s a classic, in my opinion.

  13. tracybham

    I have got to read more of Donna Leon’s series. That is another author I read one book by and then stopped, but with intentions to read more.

  14. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…8/29/16 – Where Worlds Collide

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