You Thought You Were Clever*

If there’s anything that crime fiction should teach us, it’s that very few people are as clever as they think they are. Whether a character tries to double-cross a partner in crime, evade detection, or something else, there aren’t that many characters who get away with it.

Of course, there are exceptions (right, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia?). But, in the main, it’s just not safe to try to be overly clever. And we see that all through the genre.

For instance, at the beginning of Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, we are introduced to a dancer who calls herself Nadina. From the beginning, we learn that she is planning to double-cross a man called the Colonel, for whom she’s worked. It’s not spoiling the story to say that, not long afterwards, Nadina is found dead in an empty house. Her death is soon connected with the mysterious death of a man at an underground station. And both deaths turn out to be related to jewel thefts and international intrigue. Anne Bedingfield gets caught up in this web when she witnesses the tragedy at the station. She happens to find a piece of paper that fell out of the dead man’s pocket, and works out that the message on it refers to the upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. Impulsively, Anne books passage on the ship, and gets more adventure than she’d planned. It turns out that the two victims weren’t nearly as clever as they thought they were.

Neither is Lewis Winter, whom we meet in Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. He’s a small-time drug dealer who’s trying to make a name for himself in the Glasgow underworld. And he’s caught the attention of Peter Jamieson and his right-hand man, John Young. That’s going to be a big problem, because Jamieson is a ‘rising star’ in the criminal world, and has a lot more power than Winter thinks. And Winter isn’t nearly as clever as he thinks he is. Still, Jamieson and Young don’t want an upstart like Winter getting any credibility, so they hire Callum MacLean to take care of their problem. He’s got the skills and the reputation to do the job, and soon puts things into motion. Things don’t go exactly according to plan. Still, I can say that Winter’s belief that he’s cleverer than Jamieson and Young turns out to have disastrous consequences.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Enigma of China concerns the death of Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee. The real action starts when an online watchdog group targets him. They’ve been working to expose corruption at all levels of government, and they’ve found evidence that he may be guilty. On the one hand, the Party leaders distrust this group and the members of it distrust the Party. On the other hand, the Party needs the information that the group provides in order to monitor its highly placed members. In this case, Zhou isn’t as clever as he thinks he is, because the government finds out the information that the watchdog group has. Zhou is promptly arrested, and held over for trial. One morning, he’s discovered dead in his hotel room, apparently of a suicide. At least that’s what the government wants on the police report. Chief Inspector Chen Cao, who is well aware of the government’s power, is at first prepared to ‘rubber-stamp’ the official explanation for Zhou’s death. But he notices a few things that aren’t consistent with suicide. So, very carefully and very quietly, he and his assistant, Yu Guangming, look into the matter. And they find that this death was very much a murder.

In Patricia Melo’s The Body Snatcher, we are introduced to an unnamed narrator who makes a startling discovery one day. He witnesses a small plane crash into a river near the Brazilian town of Corumbá, not far from the Bolivian border. He rushes to the scene, but he’s too late to save the pilot. But he’s not too late to find and take a backpack and a watch from the dead man. When he gets home, he’s startled to find that the backpack is full of cocaine. Instead of reporting the matter to the police, the narrator decides to sell the cocaine, just this one time, and make some money so that he and his girlfriend, Sulamita, can start a new life together. So, he partners with his friend, Moacir, who lives nearby and who seems to know all the right people for this sort of transaction. Soon enough, the two have made the connection they need. And that’s when the trouble really starts. It turns out that the dead pilot was involved with the drug dealers Moacir’s met; and they are none too happy at what they see as a double-cross. After all, that was their cocaine. Now, the narrator and Moacir, who aren’t nearly as clever as they thought they were, will have to come up with a large amount of money, very quickly, if they’re going to stay alive. The narrator comes up with a plan, but it just gets them deeper and deeper into trouble. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to try to be too clever…

And then there’s Ray Berard’s Inside the Black Horse, which takes place in a small New Zealand town on the North Island. The real action in the story begins when Pio Morgan decides he’s going to rob the Black Horse Bar and Casino. Morgan’s in debt to a vicious local pot grower who’s duped him. He’s been given a ‘friendly warning’ to pay up. Quickly. He feels completely trapped, and decides that the best way to get a lot of money very quickly is to commit a robbery. The Black Horse offers off-course betting services, so there’s sometimes quite a lot of money in the place, and that’s why Pio has targeted it. But he’s chosen a bad day. Local drugs courier Rangi Wells happens to be in the pub at the time, and his drugs deal is interrupted; that’s going to have serious consequences. The robbery goes badly wrong and there’s a murder. What’s more, the pub’s owner, Toni Bourke, is out a great deal of money, and the off-track betting authorities and police are very interested in what happened. So is Toni’s insurance company, Now, Pio is on the run from the drugs dealer he owes, the police, and the insurance company. And it’s all because he thought he might be able to outwit them.

As these quick examples show, it’s never a good idea to try to be too clever. Sooner or later, it’s bound to catch up. Which examples have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Long Blondes’ Too Clever by Half.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Malcolm Mackay, Patricia Melo, Qiu Xiaolong, Ray Berard

29 responses to “You Thought You Were Clever*

  1. Of course, in the alternative, sleuths are almost always clever, measuring up to their own confidence and our expectations. I cannot think of a not so clever sleuth. Can you?

    • Interesting question, Tim. My first thought is Catherine Aird’s Constable Crosby, who’s not exactly known for being clever. He’s the bane of his boss, Inspector Sloane’s, existence on that score. What do the rest of you folks think?

  2. Pingback: You Thought You Were Clever* | picardykatt's Blog

  3. In answer to your question in the comment above, I just read Dangerous Davies, the Last Detective by Leslie Thomas. In that book, Davies is a detective who seems to bumble through his cases, and seems to only get cases when no one else is available.

  4. I dare say that we, as reader, are very very lucky that people in novels think they are cleverer than they think 😉

    Really like the idea for all these books. I had never really realised before that what really moves the story (especially mysteries?) is what goes wrong.

    • I like the way you put that, Jazzfeathers. It’s quite true: a story moves along as plot complications develop. And you’re right about characters in novels. When people in novels think they’re cleverer than they are, all sort of plot threads can follow on… 😉

  5. Vijayalakshmi Harish

    One that immediately comes to mind is a character in Kalpana Swaminathan’s The Monochrome Madonna. To say more would be to give away spoilers. And of course there is the antagonist in the Sherlock Holmes story The Musgrave Ritual.

    • Thanks, Vijayalakshmi, for mentioning Kalpana Swaminathan’s work. I really like her Lalli series, and that’s a good example of a character who’s not quite so clever. I’m glad you filled in that blank. And The Musgrave Ritual is a fine example, too, of what happens when characters aren’t quite as clever as they think they are.

  6. Col

    I love it when you bring Malcolm Mackay’s books into the conversation – highly recommended! Melo and Berard are on the stacks.

  7. Margot: I have enjoyed all the Qiu Xiaolong mysteries featuring Inspector Chen. If there is a theme to the series it is that Chen succeeds by being both smarter and humbler than the villains. It is clear from the books that to succeed in the China of today it takes a gifted and subtle mind. Current China combines a violent police state with a free wheeling economy.

    • I think you put that very well, Bill. Chen really does have to be both cleverer and humbler than the culprits, and that’s not an easy thing to do. And I think Qiu really captures the essence of modern China effectively in his books. I enjoy them, too.

  8. Margot, you’ve provided some terrific examples of books with this theme post. I thought “The Man in the Brown Suit” was a very well-crafted story and showed Christie’s genius at plotting.

  9. Part of the appeal of Columbo was that the villians always thought they were cleverer than him. There was a class aspect to that, too.

  10. Often the secondary cop is not clever at all. That gives the primary sleuth lots of chances to exhibit his/her skills. Although if they move to the forefront (say like Lewis) they seem to acquire more intelligence.

    • That’s a really interesting observation, Patti. Certainly I agree that Lewis gets more skills and confidence, and seems wiser as the series goes on. And you see that very clearly in the TV series.

  11. I’ll have to use television again to give the first example that popped into my mind. The season of Fargo that just ended had four different characters who weren’t nearly as clever as they thought they were. The story didn’t end well for any of them. It would be good if more folks in real life understood how this works. 😀

  12. Margot, your post reminds me of a short story I read just the other day by the Coles – G.D.H. and Margaret Cole, who wrote British Golden Age mysteries. It’s an “impossible crime” story, with a clever solution, but the culprit fails because he (or she) is convinced of his (or her) cleverness. Wrongly so, alas. The story, appropriately, is called “Too Clever by Half.” That could, I suspect, be said of most of the murderers who come up with ingenious schemes to get rid of their victims!

    • I would say so, Les! And thank you very much for that suggestion. I sometimes think short stories don’t get enough attention, honestly. Some of them, though, are really quite well written, and that sounds like one of them.

  13. When I saw that headline I thought it was going to be one of the famous Margot quizzes! That’s one means by which we can be sure not to get ideas about how clever we are….

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