His Formulas to Them Are Hazy*

inventionsAs this is posted, today marks the 13th anniversary of the launch of Facebook. At first, it was just supposed to be a way for people on campuses to be connected to one another. But, as we all know, it’s grown to be much, much more than that. Whoda thunk?

But that’s the thing about inventions. No matter what you think of Facebook, it’s a phenomenal success in a lot of ways. And there are plenty of other inventions that started small and have ended up being extremely successful. Just look at crime fiction, though, and you’ll see that they can also be fraught with danger.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s play Black Coffee, we are introduced to Sir Claud Amory, a renowned physicist. Sir Claud has developed a secret atomic formula for the Ministry of Defence. That formula is worth a great deal of money, so Amory’s fear that someone in his family may be trying to steal it is not irrational. He asks Hercule Poirot to travel to his home, Abbot’s Cleve, and investigate. Poirot and Captain Hastings oblige, with their plan being to spend the weekend at Amory’s home. On the night of Poirot’s arrival (but before he and Hastings get to Abbot’s Cleve), Sir Claud gathers the members of his family in the library and announces that he knows someone has stolen his formula, and that he knows the thief is in the room. He goes on to say that that person will have one opportunity to return the formula. The lights will be turned off for one minute, during which time the thief is to put the formula on the library table, and there will be no repercussions. The formula does re-appear when the lights go off, and it’s that moment that Poirot and Hastings come on the scene. At first, it seems their services are not needed. But then, Sir Claud is found dead of poison. In the commotion following that discovery, the formula disappears again. Now, Poirot and Hastings have to find a killer and the missing formula.

Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit introduces readers to the family of French émigré Grimaud Désanat. He owned a piece of forested land that now has become valuable and important. That’s because the trees on it are necessary to maintain a specialty wood production factory which is owned by Luke Latham and Frank Ogden. The factory is especially successful because of a patented process that was developed by Ogden. But the factory is facing a problem: it needs more of the right kind of tree. As it happens, Ogden is married to Désanat’s widow, Irene. She claims that she inherited the forest in question from her first husband, and that his wish was that it not be logged for twenty years. But the business can’t wait that long. So, she, Latham, and Ogden decide to hold a séance and contact Désanat, to get his permission to go ahead with the logging. So, they gather several people to participate. Late on the night of the séance, Irene is found murdered. Whether her death has a supernatural explanation (which some people believe) or not, it’s frightening. Now, the guests have to discover the truth about the murder, before someone else dies.

In Richard and Frances Lockridge’s The Norths Meet Murder, Jerry and Pamela North are planning to have a cocktail party in the empty Greenwich Village apartment upstairs from their own. It’s been vacant for some time, and they don’t believe their landlady, Mrs. Buano, will object. Plans go ahead for the party, but everything changes when the Norths discover a dead body in the bathtub of the empty apartment. The dead man turns out to be attorney Stanley Brent, and Lieutenant William Weigand of the Homicide Bureau investigates his murder. The Norths themselves come under some suspicion (after all, they discovered the body). But there are several other suspects, too, including an inventor named Louis Berex. It seems that he’s patented some small, but important inventions in the field of wireless and cable pictures, and is now working on some inventions related to television. He might very well have been desperate for money to continue his work – money he might expect through his relationship with the victim’s widow, Claire. It’s a complicated case, though, and Weigand has to sift through several people’s past histories and alibis to get to the truth.

Stefan Tegenfalk’s trilogy features Walter Gröhn and Jonna de Brugge of the Stockholm County Police. In Anger Mode, the first of the novels, a series of brutal murders is committed, each by someone who works in some capacity for the justice system. What’s strangest about these murders is that the killers have absolutely no memory of committing the crimes. As the investigation goes on, we see that the killings are connected to a new invention – a ‘wonder drug’ if you will – that has far-reaching consequences. It’s an interesting look at the ways in which what seems like a very useful new invention can be used for the wrong purposes.

And then there’s Geoffrey Robert’s The Alo Release. In that story, legendary environmental activist Jay Duggan has been working for a Los Angeles-based environmental watchdog group called the Millbrook Foundation. The group is especially concerned about Vestco, a large company that’s about to release a new seed covering. The company claims that this innovation will increase food production and do much to alleviate world hunger. But the Millbrook people are suspicious of those claims, as are many other people. And there is great concern about the possible negative consequences of releasing the seed coating. With only nine days to go until the release, there’s nothing Millbrook can do to prevent it. Partly in disgust, Duggan decides to retire and return to his native New Zealand. He invites two colleagues, Science Director Dr. Catherine ‘Cat’ Taylor, and IT director Matthew Liddell, to join him in New Zealand for a visit before they return to work. Both accept the invitation and the trip is planned. The three are en route when the body of one of Vestco’s employees is found in his office. What Duggan, Taylor and Liddell don’t know is that they’ve been framed for the crime, and are now considered fugitives. When they land in Auckland, they’ll have to find out who the real killer is, and evade the police, in order to clear their names. And that’s to say nothing of trying to stop the release of the seed covering.

You never know where small inventions might lead. Some of them, such as Facebook, can be incredibly successful. But, as crime fiction shows us, the path can be very dangerous.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Hollies’ Mad Professor Blyth.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Frances Lockridge, Geoffrey Robert, Hake Talbot, Richard Lockridge, Stefan Tegenfalk

20 responses to “His Formulas to Them Are Hazy*

  1. Tim

    Another Agatha Christie novel that I’ve not read! Damn! I’ll never catch up with you.

  2. The first of Peter May’s China Thrillers, The Firemaker, was to do with a conspiracy surrounding genetic modification of rice – at the time of writing there was a lot of worry about genetic modification, and May used that to develop a plot about science gone wrong and unscrupulous people doing unscrupulous things. This is all a little vague since it’s many years since I read it, long before I began reviewing so I only remember the broadest outline… 😉

    • Oh, but that’s a great example of what I had in mind with this post, FictionFan. And I admit, I’m less familiar with the China Thrillers than I am with some of May’s other words. Time I remedied that, methinks. And, yes, the whole question of genetic modification is still an issue. I’ll bet that one’s an interesting one…

  3. reading the title, makes me to get excited in reading your post..creative ink..

  4. Margot, I wonder if there’s a crime fiction out there which uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the lot to solve a mystery. I can imagine a PI using just his phone to crack a case. It’d be dreadfully boring for the reader, though.

    • You have a point, Prashant, about using just the telephone. As to social media, there are a lot of crime novels where the sleuth uses Facebook, etc. to find out information such as who the victims’ friends were, that sort of thing. And sometimes social media gives clues as to where the victim was right before death, and so on. I think all of that is, in real life, very helpful to the police when they are solving crime.

  5. Fascinating piece. It must be quite a challenge for an author to use an invention as a plot device, you have to make it sound authentic and yet different……

    • Thank you, BookerTalk. You do have a well-taken point about integrating an invention. Besides that, there’s also the issue of knowing enough about potential inventions to make something sound plausible. That takes work, too.

  6. The internet and social media have provided an easy way for stalkers to find and follow people..lots of opportunities for scary plots!

    • That’s quite true, Pat! And with all of the social media out there, there are all sorts of ways for predators and other online criminals to operate. That can make for a very compelling plot…

  7. After reading your posts, I realise that though I read mysteries, I need to look at it in a wider perspective. I mean ,,,,with a lot of depth…

  8. tracybham

    Some interesting books featured in this post, Margot. The Norths Meet Murder sounds like fun.

  9. I actually admire the way Christie never bothers with too much detail about whatever invention is key to the plot: she just says ‘they are important’, and we accept that – the submarine plans, the new process, the Bruce-Partington Plans. And then we get on with the twists and adventures. Fine by me.

    • You certainly can’t say that Christie pretended at special, specific knowledge she didn’t have, Moira. The plot was always the thing for her, and I appreciate that, too. Plans, formulae, whatever…the point was the plot, and how the characters are drawn into the story.

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