Making Mischief Used to Make My Day*

mischief‘I didn’t mean any real harm.’ ‘We were only having a bit of fun.’ I’m sure you’ve heard things like this when people make mischief. And sometimes mischief is really just that: a relatively harmless prank that’s no more than annoying. You might even laugh about it (much) later. But sometimes mischief gets out of control. And when that happens, there can be real consequences.

Mischief can be an interesting plot thread in a mystery novel. It can show a little bit about characters, or even be used to misdirect in a whodunit sort of story. Once in a while it can provide some comic relief, too, depending on the sort of mischief it is. In whatever way the author uses mischief-making, it can add a layer to a story.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to investigate the sixteen-year-old murder by poison of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time, everyone thought the killer was Crale’s wife (and Carla’s mother) Caroline. She had plenty of motive, and there was enough evidence to convict her. She died in prison a year later, but Carla has always believed her mother was innocent. Poirot agrees to take the case, and interviews the five people who were present at the time of the murder. He also gets each person’s written account of the murder, and of the days leading up to it. One of those people is Carla’s aunt (and Caroline’s half-sister), Angela Warren, who lived with the Crales. At the time of the murder, she was fifteen years old, and about to be sent away to boarding school. She had an ongoing conflict with Crale about that and other things, and wasn’t above playing tricks on him. Among those tricks was putting things into his drinks. In one case, she put valerian (which has a very unpleasant taste) into his beer. And that habit makes her a possible suspect…

Peter Robinson’s Gallows View introduces readers to DCI Alan Banks. In this novel, he and his family have recently moved to the small Yorkshire town of Eastvale. And they’re not long there before Banks has to face several challenges. One of them is a voyeur who’s making life miserable for the local women. Another is a series of home invasions. Then there’s a murder. Mixed up in some of this is Trevor Sharp, a young teenager who doesn’t really fit in in school. When he gets involved with textbook-case juvenile delinquent Mick Webster, trouble soon begins. What starts out as just having some fun goes very, very wrong.

In Louise Penny’s Still Life, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is assigned to investigate the death of Jane Neal. She is a beloved former teacher who lives in the small Québec town of Three Pines. Early one Thanksgiving morning, she’s killed in what looks like a terrible hunting accident. But Gamache comes to wonder whether her death really was an accident, and begins to look into the case. As he does, he and his team get to know her background and her relationships with the other residents of Three Pines. That’s how they learn about one incident in particular. It seems that three local boys had recently played a cruel prank on bistro/B&B owners Olivier Brulé and his partner Gabriel Dubeau. Jane saw what happened and called out two of the boys by name. They might have only been making some mischief, but the incident puts them squarely in the spotlight when it comes to motives for murder.

Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle features Andreas Winthur and his best (really, only) friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. They’re not really by nature cruel or malicious. What they are is bored young people looking for some fun. One day, they’re spending time together as they usually do. As the day goes on, what starts out as ‘just some fun’ turns out very differently. At the end of it, Andreas disappears. His mother, Runi, gets concerned when he doesn’t come home, and goes to the police about it. But Oslo police detective Konrad Sejer isn’t overly worried. When more time passes, though, he begins to think something might have happened to Andreas, and looks into the matter more closely. Soon enough, he meets Zipp and asks him about what happened on that fateful day. But Zipp says as little as possible. It’s not spoiling the story to say that Zipp hasn’t killed Andreas. But he certainly knows more than he tells Sejer, at least at first. And as the story goes on, we see how far a little mischief can end up going…

Of course, not all mischief turns out so horribly. Fans of Alan Bradley’s historical (1950s) series featuring Flavia de Luce can tell you that she isn’t above making mischief. Flavia is the youngest of three sisters. Suffice it to say that the three of them certainly have their conflicts. Flavia’s two older sisters, Ophelia ‘Feely’ and Daphne ‘Daffy,’ consider her a nuisance at best, and sometimes play some very mean tricks on her. But Flavia isn’t without her resources. She’s a very skilled chemist, and uses that to her advantage. For instance, in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, she schemes to tamper with a lipstick belonging to one of her sisters. She distils the irritant in poison ivy, and puts it on the lipstick, hoping to make her sister miserable. And that bit of mischief has its own consequences.

Most mischief does, though. Playing what seems like a harmless prank can end up in laughter. But it can also have serious consequences. But don’t take my word for it. Crime fiction’ll show you.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Super Furry Animals’ Bad Behaviour.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Karin Fossum, Louise Penny, Peter Robinson

24 responses to “Making Mischief Used to Make My Day*

  1. Great post, Margot! Five Little Pigs is a great example of incorporating a child’s mischief as a central part of the plot. Ellery Wueen employed the same idea in one of his most intriguing novels (no spoilers),

    • Thanks, Bryan. And yes, indeed, the ‘Queen team’ did a great job with that idea, I think. I’m glad you brought that up, as I couldn’t think of a good way to do so without spoilers.

  2. That’s what comes of posting on my phone! I meant Queen! And I meant to add that Christie doubles down on Angela’s mischief a few years later (you know which novel I mean) and creates a classic!

  3. You’re so right. It happens in fiction all the time, but it also happens in the real world as well. When I was prosecuting I can’t tell you the number of criminal cases that began as a prank with kids or young(er) adults and adults of all ages getting into mischief — mischief that gets out of hand or out of control. Then you have the people who commit additional crimes to cover up the original mischief and before long they are standing in front of a criminal court judge who’s about to sentence them. Enjoyed your post.

    Melissa Sugar

    • Thanks, Melissa, for the kind words. And thanks for sharing your experience and insight. I can only imagine the cases you saw where someone was just ‘having fun,’ or playing a prank, but it went very, very wrong. And, as you say, once people are in danger of getting caught, a common reaction is to do something to cover that up – regardless of whether that coverup is going to get them in more trouble. Mischief can have real consequences.

  4. I remember that Agatha Christie novel although it is years since I read it – Melissa’s comment also makes an awful lot of sense for real life examples too. A splendid post as always Margot.

    • Thank you, Cleo. And Melissa’s comment really does make a lot of sense. I can really see how what’s supposed to be ‘just some fun’ can quickly get out of control.And I thought Christie used the ‘harmless prank’ plot point really effectively.

  5. As you mentioned, it’s a great way to misdirect readers, along with other useful roles in a mystery. Thanks for this!

  6. Great post, Margot. As I began reading I started thinking about Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce character. I just finished Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d and Flavia does indeed like her mischief from time to time.

  7. Interesting crime fiction theme, Margot. I will be checking out Alan Bradley’s historical series, especially for the 1950s setting.

  8. I know not enough about crime fiction to think of a sensible comment today. The prank in _Still Life_ was so very disturbing. But I think there is something — sort of prankish — in Arnaldur Indridason’s _Voices_, but that might be my faulty memory. That’s the limit of my contribution. So, I will — as always — enjoy your posting and sit here gob-smacked about the range and depth of your reading experiences and knowledge.

  9. I can definitely see how pranks in fiction can be very useful to the plot. In real life, they don’t appeal to me.

  10. Col

    Another interesting post Margot. I’m struggling to recall any examples I may have encountered in my own reading.

  11. kathyd

    Aha, a certain type of deliberate prank is the theme here. I’m sure Montalbano’s questura has played pranks on Catarella. He’s just too gullible.
    I wonder if pranks are played on the police when strange crime scenes are left, i.e., the legs sticking straight up in Fred Vargas’ An Uncertain Place. It seemed as if a lot of pranks were played in that book, and some others by Vargas seem like pranks: The Chalk Circle Man. Even This Night’s Foul Work has a lot of quirky clues.
    Now, couldn’t Carl Hiassen’s books be considered full of pranks from start to finish?

    • Hiassen certainly includes pranks in his books, Kathy. And it’s interesting you’d mention police pranks. There’s one in Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood – or at least there’s a mention of it. It’s played on a then-new recruit, just to see if he could ‘take a joke.’ And as it turns out, that prank doesn’t end horribly. But, of course, some of them do.

  12. Mischief can cause all sorts of problem, like you said here. When it gets out of hand, it can really add a nice layer to a character and make them feel more real…for example, a character who just can’t help themselves. Excellent post as always, Margot.

    • Thanks, Sue. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. You’re right, too: mischief can add a really interesting layer to a fictional character. And in crime fiction, it can add a plot thread, too.

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