I Had to Go Down to the Post Office*

As this is posted, it’s the birthday of the United States Post Office. Of course, there’ve been postal services for hundreds of years; and, even with today’s easy access to email and texts, the postal service is still important.

It certainly matters in crime fiction. I’m sure we could all think of crime novels where the plot hinges on a letter (or the absence of one). But it’s not just letters themselves.

For one thing, there’s the letter carrier. They can be interesting characters in and of themselves. There is, for instance, a G.K. Chesterton short story (no titles – I don’t want to give away too much) in which a postman figures strongly into the plot

And there’s Joseph Higgins, whom we meet in Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger. He’s a postman who, at the beginning of the novel, delivers a series of letters to different characters. The letters are all from Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for wartime (WW II) military use. Each recipient is informed that she or he will be assigned there. Shortly after their work begins, Higgins is brought into the hospital with a broken femur. The operation he needs is routine, but it still involves surgery. Tragically, Higgins dies on the table in what’s put down to a terrible accident. His widow doesn’t think so, though, and says as much to Inspector Cockrill, who goes to the hospital to do the routine paperwork. Not long afterwards, one of the nurses who was present at the operation has too much to drink at a party and blurts out that she knows Higgins was murdered, and she knows how it was done. That night, she, too, is killed. Now, Cockrill has a major case on his hands, and it’s going to take finesse to find out which of the other characters is the killer.

Sometimes, the post office itself becomes a part of crime novel. That’s the case in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. James Bentley has been convicted, and is due to be executed soon, for the murder of his landlady. There’s evidence against him, and Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence should be satisfied with the outcome of the trial. It was he, after all, who gathered the evidence. But he’s begun to think that perhaps Bentley wasn’t guilty. And Spence doesn’t want to see a man die for a crime he didn’t commit. He asks Hercule Poirot to look into the case and see if there’s something that might have been missed, and Poirot agrees. He travels to the village of Broadhinny, where the murder occurred, and begins to get to know the residents. One of the gathering places in that village is the local shop, which also serves as the post office. When Poirot stops in to the shop, he meets its proprietor, Mrs. Sweetiman, who provides him with useful background information and a very important clue.

There’s a funny scene at a post office in Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors. Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet, Mervyn Bunter, are stranded in the East Anglia village of Fenchurch Saint Paul when Wimsey’s car gets into an accident. Vicar Theodore Venables rescues the two men, and lets them stay at the rectory until the car can be repaired. When the car is ready, Wimsey and Bunter leave, only to return a few months later when an unexpected corpse is found in a grave belonging to the local squire, Sir Henry Thorpe. At the vicar’s request, Wimsey looks into the matter. He and Bunter discover that there is a letter in the post office for the dead man, and they decide that it may provide clues. So, Bunter goes into the post office to try to get the letter if he can. Bunter invents a story for the postmistress to the effect that he’s looking for a letter sent to his chauffer, indicating Wimsey, who’s waiting outside in the car. Bunter soon returns to the car:

“What’s up?’
‘Better move on quickly, my lord,’ said Bunter, ‘because, while the manoeuvre has been attended with a measure of success, it is possible that I have robbed His Majesty’s Mails by obtaining a postal packet under false pretenses.’…
‘Bunter,’ said his lordship, ‘I warn you that I am growing dangerous. Will you say at once, yes or no, did you get that letter?’
‘Yes, my lord, I did. I said, of course, that since the letter for my chauffer was there, I would take it to him, adding some facetious observations to the effect that he must have made a conquest while we were travelling abroad and that he was a great man for the ladies. We were quite merry on the subject, my lord.’
‘Oh, where you?’
‘Yes, my lord. At the same time, I said, it was extremely vexatious that my own letter should have gone astray….and in the end I went away, after remarking that the postal system in this country was very undependable and that I should certainly write to the Times about it.”

Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen lives in the tiny town of Crozet, Virginia. At the beginning of the series, she serves as the village’s postmistress, so she sees nearly everyone at least a few times a week. It’s the sort of place where people tend to come to the post office to pick up their mail, so it serves as a social gathering place as much as anything else. And that means that Harry knows everyone, and everyone knows her. It also means that she often gets to hear the local gossip. As ‘plugged in’ as Harry is, it’s not surprising that she gets involved when there’s a murder. And sometimes, the post itself provides clues (I’m thinking, for instance, of Wish You Were Here).

People use email, texts, online bill paying, and social media so often these days, that we may not think about how important post offices and delivery people really are. But they are. Especially when you’re waiting for that paper book you’ve ordered…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Lucksmiths’ Don’t Come With Me.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Christianna Brand, Dorothy L. Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, Rita Mae Brown

15 responses to “I Had to Go Down to the Post Office*

  1. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    From Mystery Writer/Blogger Margot Kinberg—-

  2. Interesting post (as usual), Margot. In one of my novels, the purposeful failure to deliver a letter has life-changing consequences for an entire family, both immediate and for many years to come. What a cruel, selfish act can do to have such dire effect on others!

    • Oh, that sounds like a really interesting premise for a story, Michael! You’re right, too. That is a selfish act, and it sounds as though it turns out to be very cruel, too. Haunting…

  3. Sometimes, it isn’t a letter in the postal service but something else written and delivered: Consider Judgement in Stone when Eunice’s illiteracy prevents her from recognizing and disposing of a written clue that was left behind. Hmmmm.

    • Well, that’s quite true, Tim. Sometimes packages or other things that are delivered can, indeed, figure strongly into a story. Thanks for the reminder of that classic novel, too.

  4. The only addition I have here is that gorgeous series of commemorative Agatha Christie stamps recently issued by Royal Mail in the UK.
    They are beautiful and very informative, a design triumph and a lovely tribute to such a well-known British export.

    • Those stamps are beautiful, Marina Sofia! Thanks for sharing that. I’m so glad that Christie has gotten that recognition. She certainly contributed an awful lot to the UK and the rest of us.

  5. I loved that opening to Green for Danger – such a great way to introduce all the suspects while neatly linking them to the soon-to-be victim. If memory serves me right, the second murder in Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger was provoked over the matter of delivery of a letter, one of the many anonymous letters that were going round the village…

    • Your memory is excellent, FictionFan. That’s what happens, and it’s certainly a great example of how letters can be woven into a good crime novel. I agree with you, too, about Green For Danger. That opening gives some interesting backstory on the characters without ‘information dump,’ and it ties them into the plot neatly.

  6. Oh, Margot. You always give me pause to reconsider how I’ve looked at a book and see it in a different light. What about postage stamps themselves with some being so rare they can cause a mystery (and a murder or two). Great post.

    • Thank you, Mason. That’s very kind of you. And you’re right about stamps themselves. They can be very valuable, and that can certainly be a good background for a crime story. Ellery Queen’s The Adventure of the One-Penny Black has that theme, and I’m glad you reminded me of it.

  7. Col

    God bless the US Postal Service. I lost count of how many books they sent my way when I needed a dose of US crime fiction, before the advent of the e-book!

  8. At the end of Pocketful of Rye, Christie’s Miss Marple receives a delayed and misplaced letter which contains many details of the crime she has just solved, confirming her in her conclusions. If only she’d got it earlier! She mightn’t have needed to do so much busybodying.
    And of course the post office often doubled as the village shop, source of so much gossip, swapped information, and speculation…The postmistress always knows everything – and often controlled the telephones and telegrams in the neighbourhood too.

    • Oh, yes, indeed, Moira! The village shop/post office was such an important gathering place, wasn’t it? and there were so many things passed along there. If you were the postmistress/store owner, you knew everything. As you say, that person had a lot to do, too, with who learned what. Plenty of power!

      And thanks for mentioning A Pocketful of Rye. That letter does tell all, doesn’t it? But, of course, if Miss Marple had had the letter earlier, it wouldn’t have made for a very interesting plot. Well, perhaps Christie could have made it a good ‘un, but I’m sure I couldn’t!

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