As this is posted, it’s the birthday of famous quiz show host Alex Trebek. If you think about it, quiz shows such as Jeopardy and Mastermind are interesting examples of how much people like trivia. If you watch those shows, or you’ve ever played Trivial Pursuit or games like it, you know what I mean. And sometimes, knowing trivia can be lucrative.
Even if all you get is bragging rights, trivia can be interesting. Trivia even finds its way into crime fiction. And sometimes, it can end up being important, and not trivial at all.
Take Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, for instance. In that novel, famous American actress Jane Wilkinson comes to Poirot with an unusual (for him) sort of problem. She wants a divorce from her husband, Lord Edgware, so that she can marry again. But she says he won’t consent. Her solution is for Poirot to visit Edgware and ask him to withdraw his objection. It’s a strange request, but Poirot agrees. When he and Captain Hastings visit Edgware, though, their host tells them that he’s already written to his wife to tell her that he consents to the divorce. Confused, Poirot and Hastings leave, only to learn the next day that Edgware’s been stabbed. Jane is the most likely suspect, but there are a dozen people willing to swear that she was at a dinner party in another part of London at the time of the murder. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp, who’s assigned to the case, have to look elsewhere for the killer. In the end, a piece of trivia casually mentioned turns out to be part of the murderer’s undoing.
In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, we are introduced to Jonas Hansson. He’s got deep scars from an unhappy childhood and very dysfunctional parents. But he found solace in his fiancée, Anna. Then, Anna nearly died in a fall from a pier at a local boat club. She’s been in a coma since then, and Jonas spends as much time as he can by her side. At first, that attention impresses the staff at the hospital where Anna lives. But soon enough, we see that Jonas isn’t dealing with his life in a very healthy way. One night, he happens to be in a pub where he meets Eva Wirenström-Berg, who’s just found out that her husband, Henrik, has a mistress. Both she and Jonas make some fateful decisions that end up having tragic consequences for everyone. Interestingly enough, Jonas uses a particular set of trivia – distances between different places in Sweden – to cope with stress.
‘Alingsås to Arjeplog 1179 kilometres, Arboga to Arlanda 144, Arvidsjaur to Borlänge 787.’
He uses the ritual of repeating the distances to himself to calm down.
Trivia turns out to be useful to Saskatoon PI Russell Quant in Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit. Successful accountant Daniel Guest is being blackmailed, and he wants Quant to find out who’s responsible, and get that person to stop. He gives Quant the information he has about who the blackmailer might be, and Quant gets started. At one point, the trail leads to a local community theatre, where Quant hopes the secretary might provide him with some photographs he wants to see:
‘‘Hello, my name is Rick Astley and I’m the Artistic Director for Theatre Quant in Mission.’ I was betting she wasn’t old enough to be up on her late 1980’s teen idol trivia or informed enough about British Columbia community theatre to catch on to my clever ruse. And actually she looked pretty unimpressed with life in general regardless of the decade. I continued on, hoping my enthusiasm, if not my really bad English accent, would be contagious.”
Quant’s knowledge of musical trivia helps get him the photographs he wants, and a tiny piece of the puzzle.
Catriona McPherson’s Dandelion ‘Dandy’ Gilver series begins with Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains. In that novel, private detective Dandy Gilver gets a new client, Walburga ‘Lollie’ Balfour, who believes her husband, Philip ‘Pip,’ is trying to kill her. She doesn’t want Pip to know she’s consulted a detective, so she asks Dandy to visit her in the guise of a maid seeking a job. Dandy agrees, and takes a position under the name of Fanny Rossiter. The idea is that she’ll find out what she can, and try to protect her client. Late on the first night of ‘Fanny’s’ employment, Pip is stabbed. Dandy gets involved in the case as she tries to clear her client’s name. At one point, she comes upon the maid who discovered Pip’s body, desperately trying to get bloodstains out of her clothes. Dandy doesn’t think this maid is the killer, so she tries to be practical about it:
‘‘Apart from anything else, Miss Etheldreda, hot water sets a bloodstain so nothing will ever shift it. A cold water and salt soak is what’s needed.’’
That little bit of knowledge helps Dandy get some information she wants, and brings down the barrier between her and Etheldreda.
One of the major events in Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies is a Trivia Night event at Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. It’s intended as a fundraiser to provide the school’s classrooms with Smart Boards. Everyone’s ready for a fun event, but instead of a friendly competition in aid of a good cause, disaster strikes. The hors d’oeuvres don’t arrive, which means that people are drinking too much without anything to eat. The alcohol fuels already-simmering resentments, and the end result is tragedy. Then, the book takes readers back six months to show how the resentments built, and what led to the events of Trivia Night.
You see? Trivia isn’t just for Jeopardy or for Quiz Night at the pub. And, of course, trivia isn’t always deadly. Just ask Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. He depends on that sort of knowledge, and his knowledge of language, to do his crossword puzzles. And where would he be without those?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Squeeze’s Sunday Street.