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.