I Can’t Explain All These Sounds That I Hear*

If you’re owned by a dog, then you’ve no doubt seen that dogs will prick their ears up and attend to the faintest of sounds. Dogs get a lot of information from what they hear, actually. My canine overlords, for instance, can easily tell the difference between the sounds of a delivery van (cue: a barking fit) and a waste-disposal van (not a reason for barking). Those who are owned by cats can probably tell similar stories about the ability of their overlords to detect sound.

As humans, our hearing isn’t as sensitive as is other animals’ hearing. But what we hear can still have a real impact. Studies show, for instance, that newborn babies can distinguish between their mothers’ voices and other, similarly-pitched, female voices.

It’s not always easy to write about what we hear, but those sensory details can add a lot to a story. And in a crime novel, details of sound can provide interesting clues or misdirection, to say nothing of added atmosphere.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band, for instance, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from a new client, Helen Stoner, who has an eerie story to tell. It seems that she and her sister Julia lived at an estate called Stoke Moran. Julia had begun hearing a strange series of noises during the night, and couldn’t make much sense of them. Then, one night, she suddenly died after some cryptic final words. Now, Helen’s been hearing the same weird noises that Julia heard. She doesn’t know what they are, either, but she’s afraid that she’s about to be the next victim. She wants Holmes to find out what’s going on, and he agrees. And he soon discovers that Helen was very wise to be concerned. As it turns out, those strange noises she and Julia heard are very important clues to the mystery.

Agatha Christie used sounds as both clues and ‘red herrings.’ In Death on the Nile, for instance, a new bride, Linnet Doyle, is shot on the second night of her honeymoon cruise of the Nile. The evidence points at first to her former best friend, Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, who’s on the same cruise. After all, Linnet ended up marrying Jackie’s former fiancé. But it’s soon shown that Jackie could not have committed the crime. Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise, and he works to find out who really killed the victim. Along the way, he learns of several sounds people heard at the time in question. Some are related to the crime; some aren’t. All add to the story. I see you, fans of Murder on the Orient Express

Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X introduces readers to Tokyo physicist/mathematician Dr. Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa. In the novel, police detective Shunpei Kusanagi investigates the murder of Shinji Togashi. Kusanagi suspects the victim’s ex-wife, Yasuko Hanaoka, of the crime. But he can’t find any convincing evidence against her. So, he brings in Galileo to consult on the case. It turns out that he’s up against a formidable opponent, though, in Tetsuya Ishigami, a mathematics teacher who lives in the same building as Yasuko Hanaoka. Ishigami has fallen in love with her and would do anything to protect her. As it turns out, sound plays an important role in this story. What is heard, not heard, and so on, all figure in.

Kwei Quartey’s Wife of the Gods introduces readers to Accra-based DI Darko Dawkins. In the novel, he is seconded to the small town of Ketanu, when the body of Gladys Mensah is discovered there. She was a promising medical student, with hopes of making a real difference in her community. At first, it’s hard to say how exactly she died, and there is talk of witchcraft. But it’s soon discovered that she was strangled. Dawkins is already at a bit of a disadvantage, since he’s not from the area (although his aunt and uncle live there). But he gets to know the various people in Gladys’ life. Bit by bit, Darko works out who might have had a motive for murder, and there’s more than one possibility. One of the things that helps him is that he has a very nuanced sense of hearing. He notices very subtle changes in voices, that indicate when someone is upset, or lying, or at the very least hiding something. He’s sensitive to other sounds, too, and they give him clues along the way as to what the truth is.

And then there’s Brian McGilloway’s The Nameless Dead. In one plot thread of this case, Garda Ben Devlin is asked to investigate a very strange phenomenon. Christine Cashell has reported hearing a baby cry on her baby monitor. But she and her partner have no children. They had wanted a family, but their son was stillborn, and they haven’t yet got rid of the baby things they’d bought (hence, the monitor). Christine swears that she’s not ‘hearing things,’ but if she’s not, then how can a monitor transmit infant cries if there’s no baby? Cashell is emotionally very fragile, but Devlin doesn’t think she’s either hallucinating or lying. So, he looks into the matter further. What he finds helps him in another case he’s investigating, and shows just how important sound can be.

And it really can. Not only does the effective use of sounds help an author to ‘show not tell,’ but it also allows for clues, misdirection, atmosphere, and lots more. Wait – just a second – was that footsteps I just heard?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bill Sheffield’s Hearing Things.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Brian McGilloway, Keigo Higashino, Kwei Quartey

28 responses to “I Can’t Explain All These Sounds That I Hear*

  1. I remember that chilling baby cry in The Nameless Dead Margot, it seemed particularly cruel. I think when authors use the other senses as much as they are able, like smell and sound it instantly makes brings the scenes to life but as you say, it is quite difficult to do without it seeming obvious – I’ve just read See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt which inserts a lot of smells and tastes (and a few sounds) into the book in an effective way

    • I’m looking forward to your review of See What I Have Done, Cleo. It does sound like a good ‘un. And your comment about it shows how really important and valuable those sensory details can be. They can add much to a story when they’re carefully done. And you’re right; that baby cry in The Nameless Dead is enough to send shivers up the spine.

  2. And then there’s the absence of sound… such as the curious incident of the dog in the night-time…

    I use the cats’ as a sort of home security system – they seem to know which sounds are worrying and which aren’t much better than me, so if they just twitch and return to napping, I assume all is OK, however strange a sound might have been. But it occurs to me that no axe-wielding psychopath has yet broken in one of my back windows… I’m hoping they would find that worrrying enough to warn me, but you never know with cats… 😉

    • I just put that extra apostrophe in there to see if you were paying attention… 😉

    • 😆 No, you don’t, FictionFan. They might be in league with said psychopath if they’re unhappy with the supply of treats they’ve been getting lately. 😉 – It’s interesting, isn’t it, how pets really do have a sense of which sounds mean something dangerous and which don’t. I know my canine overlords do.

      And thanks for mentioning the absence of sound, too. That also can be an excellent clue that something is off. Funny Conan Doyle used both sorts of clues…

  3. Margot: Your post made me think of lawyers in trials. It is important to listen to how witnesses answer questions. If a lawyer is simply following a script, often looking down, nuances can be missed. It is very hard to put on paper. Appellate judges, recognizing the significance of how evidence is given, will say in judgments that they must defer to judges and juries on facts as they saw the witnesses. Good litigators will follow up on an issue because of how the witness has replied.

    In my discussion of the real life Final Appeal: Anatomy of a Frame by Colin Thatcher I spoke of a pivotal moment in the trial when the accused, Thatcher, during his evidence challenged the prosecutor. He asserts, backed up by the transcript, that he was challenging the prosecutor to repeat statements outside the courtroom where immunity did not apply. Observers perceived it as a physical challenge because of his aggressive style and personality. The words on paper cannot indicate whether or not he lost control on the witness stand when provoked.

    • I remember a href=”http://mysteriesandmore.blogspot.com/2017/03/final-appeal-anatomy-of-frame-by-colin.html”>your fine review of Final Appeal, Bill. And it’s interesting how those nuances of tone of voice really do get lost when someone’s reading a transcript of a hearing. One can read the words, or even the direction of questioning. But tone of voice is lost. And I’d bet that a good lawyer can tell the slight differences in tone when a witness who’s been telling the truth suddenly starts lying. And I’m sure that an attentive lawyer can tell those slight changes in tone that indicate that a witness is afraid, rattled, or something else. I’m really glad you brought this topic up, Bill, as I’m sure it’s an important aspect of courtroom strategy.

  4. kathy d

    I’m sure Sherlock Holmes used sound as clues, just can’t think of the particular cases.
    I think of the film, “Dial M for Murder,” when the victim hears the killer coming up the stairs and can’t do anything about it.
    Bur definitely dogs notice every sound, many we can’t hear. One thing that seems to set off all dogs is the sound of other dogs barking. It’s like they have to communicate with and/or protect their territory. I can hear dogs in my building barking when others are barking or even just in the hallway.

    • You’re right about barking, Kathy. And I’ve found that some barking really sets my dogs off – as though that particular message were vital to pass along. Other barking seems less important, and they don’t pass those barks along. There’s some subtle difference in the barking that they hear and my family and I don’t. You’re right, too, about Sherlock Holmes. There are a few cases of his where sound matters. I’m glad you brought that up. And I muss re-watch Dial M for Murder. It’s been too long…

  5. kathy d

    And just to throw in chickens’ sounds here, too. A friend has three chickens who live in a coop in her backyard. She said whenever they’re let out into the backyard, they travel together and cluck, communicating with each other about everything. It’s nonstop.
    She picks them up and pets them; when she does that, they make a sound like purring.
    Following up on that I looked up chickens’ sounds and they have 26 sounds, each one meaning something different.
    This is fascinating. In fact, one day she heard the chickens screeching in fear, and ran outside to see a hawk attacking one of them. She chased it off and the chicken was unharmed.
    But what it has to do with crime fiction I don’t know. I can’t think of one book I’ve read where chickens’ sounds are part of a plot.
    Perhaps a book set on a farm would contain a scene of chickens squawking at a predator and the farmer chasing it off. Could be.

    • I didn’t know chickens made that many different kinds of sounds, Kathy. That’s really interesting! I’m glad your friend was able to chase that hawk away. And you never know, a chicken squawking could figure into a crime plot somehow. As you say, there could be a farm involved.

  6. Col

    Interesting post, no examples here. I do need to read some more from McGilloway soon.

  7. Sound and smelss are great plot tools! I really enjoyed this one Margot, thanks for the interesting post 🙂

  8. Dame Agatha also liked us to listen closely to the spoken word, to repeat a phrase out loud perhaps, paying close attention. In Christie’s Murder is Announced, great importance comes when someone says ‘She wasn’t there.’ Which word was emphasized….? and in Five Little Pigs someone overhears ‘I’ll see to her packing’. couldn’t possibly be significant, could it? Think again…

    • You’re quite right, Moira. Christie was great at using what people think they hear others saying. And you’ve given some excellent examples there. That, to me, was part of her genius. It’s all right there if you put the pieces together. But that’s not always easy to do…

  9. What a fascinating topic, once again, Margot! I am much more of an auditive than a visual person (perhaps because I am short-sighted, so wouldn’t be able to spot a killer until they are practically brandishing the axe in front of my face). However, I live in an oldish house with lots of creaking floorboards and birds fluttering under the eaves and things going bump in the night, so I need steady nerves not to imagine things which aren’t there.
    As for what Kathy says about chicken, they are indeed good alert, and I’m surprised no one has used them yet in crime fiction. But weren’t geese used as intruder alarms in Ancient Rome at the Temple of the Vestal Virgins?

    • So glad you enjoyed the post, Marina Sofia – thank you. I think I did read that about geese, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s true. They start up at the least sound. And your description of your house reminds me of the house my family and I lived in when we lived in Illinois. It was nearly 100 years old at the time, and there were all sorts of creaks, groans, fluttery noises and so on. You did have to get used to the way the house ‘settled’ at night.

  10. This post is simply fabulous! I loved the first sentence. 🙂 I had never really thought about how sounds play such a pivotal role in crime… 🙂

  11. kathy d

    These posts are always interesting, wouldn’t miss a daily check-in.

  12. My overlords bark at everything. Well, one of them does, at least people know we have them so I think of them as a deterrent. *sighs at the noisy hound.

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