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.