Plastic Tubes and Pots and Pans*

People invent all sorts of ingenious devices. Some of them become hits, and their inventors do quite well. Others don’t. Either way, it’s really interesting to think about that aspect of human curiosity and innovation.

There are plenty of such devices in fiction, too, even outside of steampunk and other science fiction. And, when you think about it, that makes sense. Inventions and innovations are part of what moves us along as a society. Certainly, you see this in crime fiction.

In Rex Stout’s Fer de Lance, for instance, Peter Barstow, President of Holland University, dies suddenly during a golf game. At first, his death is put down to a stroke. But it’s soon clear that he was poisoned. And the weapon was a specially-designed golf club. Matters get murkier when Carlo Maffei, who designed the club, goes missing and is later found dead. When Maffei’s sister, Maria, becomes concerned about her brother’s disappearance, she hires Nero Wolfe to look into the matter, and he and Archie Goodwin get started. They find that, as you’d expect, Maffei’s and Barstow’s deaths are connected. And it’s all related to past history.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Flora Ackroyd asks for Hercule Poirot’s help when her uncle is stabbed in his study. The most likely suspect in the murder is Flora’s fiancé, Captain Ralph Paton. It seems that Paton, who was Ackroyd’s stepson, had quarreled with Ackroyd about money. What’s more, he went missing on the night of the murder, and hasn’t been seen since. Flora is convinced that Paton is innocent, and wants Poirot to clear his name. Poirot agrees and begins to look into the matter. He finds that Paton is by no means the only possible suspect; in fact, everyone concerned in the case is hiding something. In the end, he finds out who killed Ackroyd. It turns out that the murderer used an ingenious little innovation to try to escape detection.

In Aaron Elkins’ Fellowship of Fear, we are introduced to academician and physical anthropologist Gideon Oliver. He’s been invited to give a series of guest lectures over two months at the United States Overseas College (USOC), which serves those who are stationed at US military bases in Europe. Things begin to go wrong very soon, though. First, he’s attacked in his hotel room by two thugs who are apparently looking for something. Then, he’s drawn into a web of espionage and counter-espionage when Tom Marks and Hilaire Delvaux, who work for NATO, ask for his help. They suspect that the USSR (the novel was published in 1982) is trying to steal something, but they don’t know what. They want Oliver to keep them informed, and let them know of any unusual occurrences. Without much choice in the matter, he agrees. And he soon finds himself the target of some ruthless people. It’s not spoiling the story to say that there’s one scene in which an ingeniously-altered umbrella is used as a murder weapon.

While Fellowship of Fear isn’t really a spy thriller, it gives a hint about how very effectively that sub-genre uses inventions and innovations. Fans of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, for instance will know that Bond has access to any number of devices that protect him, or that can be used as weapons. For some fans, that’s part of the appeal, really. And that’s by no means the only example.

Will Thomas’ Fatal Enquiry features his sleuths, London private enquiry agents Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewellyn. In the novel, which takes place in the late Victorian Era, Barker gets a visit from Scotland Yard Inspector Terence Pool. It seems that a certain Sebastian Nightwine has been granted diplomatic immunity, and is soon to arrive in London. Nightwine has expressed concerns for his safety, and wants assurances of protection. He’s even specifically mentioned Barker, so Poole wants Barker’s promise that he will have no contact with Nightwine. It turns out that Barker was responsible for Nightwine’s having to leave England in the first place, as he’d discovered several of his crimes. Now the British government wants Nightwine’s help; hence, his return to London. Barker is convinced that Nightwine has plans of his own, which will probably involve crime. So, he’s going to have to find a way to thwart his nemesis, although he’s forbidden to have any contact with him. Then, there’s a murder, for which Barker is framed. Now, he and Llewellyn are on the run from the police and from Nightwine. And they still have a murder to solve. As it happens, Nightwine is a brilliant scientist. So, throughout the novel, there are all sorts of devices that play roles. I can’t say more without coming too close to spoiling the story, but it’s interesting to see how those innovations are woven into the novel.

There are also novels, such as Charles Stross’ Rule 34, and Frankie Y. Bailey’s The Red Queen Dies, that take place in a slightly altered near-future. In a sense, you might argue that they’re science fiction, or at least akin to it. But the settings and contexts are very real-world, and life in those novels closely resembles what we’re accustomed to seeing. That said, though, there are some innovations that we don’t yet have, and it’s interesting to see how those authors weave ingenious devices and new innovations into their plots.

It’s arguably human nature to want to innovate, so it shouldn’t be surprising that there are all sorts of inventions out there. Some of them are far-fetched, and not particularly practicable. But some are exciting and turn out to be wildly popular. Little wonder we see such things in crime fiction.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Oingo Boingo’s Weird Science.


Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Charles Stross, Frankie Y. Bailey, Ian Fleming, Rex Stout, Will Thomas

16 responses to “Plastic Tubes and Pots and Pans*

  1. I did not realize so many mysteries included inventions in the story line.Of course I remember the one in Fer-de-Lance, but I have either forgotten or never read the others. I will have to be on the lookout for those.

    • You know, it’s funny, Tracy. I didn’t really think about it deeply, either, until I started putting this post together. It is really interesting, isn’t it, how many there are.

  2. In these days of rapid technological advances, it’s a brave author who creates futuristic gadgets for his/her characters, though I always enjoy comparing them to what actually happens. William Shatner’s “Tek” books are sci-fi of sorts, but really they’re crime thrillers set in the future, but oddly with very ’80s and ’90s style futuristic technology. My personal favourite is that video phones have been invented, but not cell phones, so people still have to go to booths to make video calls… probably seemed like a great idea when the books were written!

    • Oh, yes, I remember the ‘Tek’ series, FictionFan. That’s actually a very interesting blend, isn’t it, of sci-fi and crime thriller. Even the way legal tender is exchanged is interesting. And, yes, those video booths are great. It’s funny, too, that you’d mention the way interesting gadgets are designed vs what actually happens. Asimov, for instance, predicted (at least at one point) larger and larger computers, rather than the move towards smaller ones. And I’m still waiting for jet-pack I was promised! 😉

  3. Margot: Paul Goldstein in his book, A Patent Lie, created a legal thriller around a court case over the patent of an AIDS vaccine. The issue was not in the innovation but in who was first in the lab.

  4. Col

    I’m going to give in and try and read Christie’s Roger Ackroyd book later this year!

  5. When you really think about (which I hadn’t until your post), inventions and crime fiction go hand and hand. There’s all the mystery surrounding the invention, the opportunity for it to be stolen, huge sums of money to be made, not to mention the frame an invention could bring. Why wouldn’t murder and mayhem be wrapped up in it. Margot, you do have a way of getting us to see books in a whole new light. Thanks for that. 🙂

    • That’s kind of you, Mason – thanks. 🙂 And you’re right about inventions. They can, indeed, involve money, prestige, and more. So there are sometimes high stakes. Little wonder that they make such good contexts for crime novels.

  6. Such an interesting post, Margot. I loved the idea 🙂

  7. While reading I couldn’t help but think of the book-adaptation The Martian with Matt Damon. Although not a crime thriller, it fits with this post. After the movie aired, botanists developed a way to grow potatoes in space in much of the same way as used in the book/film. It’s awesome how one writer’s imagination perpetuated a viable way for astronauts to survive in space if trouble ensues. Makes me wonder how many other wacky inventions are realized this way.

    • Oh, I agree completely, Sue. I thought that development was fantastic, and I’m glad you mentioned The Martian, even if it isn’t crime fiction. It shows how those little inventions can make all the difference in the world. Thanks!

  8. It’s interesting that sound recording has come on so much in the past 100 years – it was such an innovation, and now modern day readers can get a bit impatient that it takes GA detectives so long to work out that hearing someone typing – talking – singing through a door doesn’t necessarily establish an alibi! And in books of the 1950s, where television is a fairly recent development, it’s not always clear whether a character who was broadcasting MUST have been in the studio right then: much of the output was live, but recordings were coming in…

    • That’s quite true, Moira. There’s been so much development over the last years, hasn’t there? It’s easy for modern readers to forget that, but it’s really true.

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