No Smoke Without Fire*

I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying, ‘There’s no smoke without fire.’ That belief – that a story doesn’t generally start unless there’s a kernel of truth to it – is part of the reason so many people believe gossip. It’s also why, if someone is a ‘person of interest’ in a criminal investigation, it can be so hard to get rid of that stigma, even after someone else is shown to be guilty.

It may not be the most appealing quality we humans have, but that old saying can make for a very interesting layer of character development, tension, and even plot points in crime fiction. There are many examples in the genre, of course. Here are just a few; I know you’ll think of lots more.

Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone begins at the Palace of Seringaptam in 1799. During the storming of the palace, Colonel John Herncastle takes a valuable yellow diamond called the Moonstone. The story has always been that anyone who steals the diamond is cursed, and so is anyone who comes into possession of it. And plenty of people believe that story, including Herncastle. When he dies, he bequeaths the diamond to his niece, Rachel Verinder, to be given to her on her eighteenth birthday. Herncastle and his sister (and Rachel’s mother), Lady Julia Verinder, were on very bad terms, and the gossip is that the stone was given to that family as a curse. And sure enough, bad things begin to happen to the Verinder family. First, the stone itself is stolen on the evening it’s given to Rachel. Then, one of the household maids disappears and later commits suicide. People’s willingness to believe the gossip about the curse is a helpful disguise for what’s really going on. In fact, it takes Sergeant Cuff two years to trace the diamond and solve the mystery. In the end, he’s successful, and it turns out this mystery has nothing to do with a curse.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Hercule Poirot gets a new client, Carla Lemarchant. She’s become engaged to John Rattery, and on the surface, it seems that she’s got everything. She’s wealthy, intelligent, attractive, and in love. But Carla doesn’t feel she and her fiancé can marry until the mystery of her father’s death is solved. Sixteen years earlier, famous painter Amyas Crale (Carla’s father) was poisoned. At the time, his wife Caroline was believed guilty, and there was evidence against her. In fact, she was arrested, tried, and convicted. A year later, she died in prison. Carla believes that her mother was innocent and wants her named cleared. But it’s not just because she thinks someone else is the murder. It’s also because she doesn’t want the gossip about her mother’s guilt to get in the way of her marriage. Poirot agrees to look into the case and interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ at the time of the murder. He also gets written accounts from each one. And, in the end, he finds out who the killer is, and what the motive was. You’re absolutely right, fans of Crooked House.

Very often, the power of anonymous letters is partly that people think there must be some truth to them. That’s what we see, for instance, in Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel. Amsterdam police detective Piet Van Der Valk is seconded to the small town of Zwinderen to help with a strange case. Several people in town have been getting anonymous letters insinuating all sorts of things. It’s the sort of town where everyone knows everyone, so the letters have a real impact. In fact, they’ve led to two suicides and a mental breakdown. The local police haven’t made much headway. After all, if you admit you’ve had a letter, then you may be admitting that what’s in the letter is true. So, it’s hoped that Van Der Valk will be able to get some answers. He and his wife, Arlette, travel to Zwinderen, where the get to know the locals. And in the end, he finds out who’s been sending the letters and why.

In Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph, Robin Sage, Vicar of Winslough, has dinner one evening with Juliet Spence and her thirteen-year-old daughter, Maggie.  Shortly afterwards, he dies of what turns out to have been water hemlock poisoning. At first, Sage’s death is put down to a tragic accident. But Juliet is an herbalist, and it doesn’t make sense that she would have mistakenly served water hemlock to her guest. Simon St. James is staying in the area with his wife, Deborah. When he learns what happened, he begins to have some suspicions, so he asks his friend, Inspector Thomas Lynley, to look into the case. Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers learn that there are several people in Winslough who might have wanted to kill Sage. That’s not enough, though, for those who believe Juliet Spence is guilty. That ‘no smoke without fire’ attitude makes life extremely difficult for both her and Maggie.

And then there’s Jonothan Cullinane’s Red Herring. It’s 1951 in Auckland, and the dock workers – the wharfies – are preparing to go on strike. It’s in the government’s interest to prevent that strike, and some people are prepared to do whatever it takes to stop the wharfies. For their part, the wharfies are not about to back off from their demands, so the situation is ugly. Against this backdrop, PI Johnny Molloy is hired to find Francis ‘Frank’ O’Phelan, AKA Frank O’Flynn, who is believed to have committed insurance fraud. It’s soon clear that some dangerous people do not want him to find O’Flynn; they even give Molloy a very unpleasant ‘suggestion’ to drop the case. He and reporter Caitlin O’Carolan persist, though, and they get to the truth. One of the threads that runs through this novel is the anti-communist hysteria of the times. In fact, that’s used against Molloy and O’Carolan to try to stop them from finding out the truth. At that time, if there was even a hint that someone might be a leftist, that was enough to sabotage a career or worse.

And that’s the thing about that belief that there’s no smoke without fire. In real life, it can sometimes have serious consequences. In fiction, though, it can add layers of interest to a novel.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by James Hunter.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George, Jonothan Cullinane, Nicolas Freeling, Wilkie Collins

15 responses to “No Smoke Without Fire*

  1. Agatha Christie again, and anonymous letters again – in The Moving Finger the phrase ‘No smoke without fire’ is given great importance. One character even dreams about it. I’m a great admirer of Miss Marple, but she often seems to pluck her solutions out of the air: in this book she really seems to work it out with clues and an examination of phrases such as No Smoke, and I Can’t Go On….

    • I know what you mean, Moira. Still, I like her very much, too, so I find it hard to stay annoyed, if I can put it like that… And yes, indeed, The Moving Finger is a great example. I almost included that, but at the last minute, went with Five Little Pigs instead. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  2. Elizabeth Daly (one of Christie’s favorite American authors) uses the “No Smoke” plot line in The House Without the Door, one of her Henry Gamadge mysteries. Mrs. Curtis Gregson, a very rich widow, comes to Gamadge for help. She was acquitted of poisoning her husband – but the public still believes that she was guilty. She wants Gamadge to clear her name. In addition to several vicious anonymous letters, it appears that someone may now be trying to kill her. It’s an interesting twist to the “No Smoke” plot – and, this being Daly, there’s always more going on than you might think.

    • Oh, that sounds like a good one, Les. I’ve read some of the great Gamadge novels (Folks, try ’em if you haven’t!), but not this one. And it’s a great example of what I had in mind with this post, so thanks. As you say, with Daly at the helm, there’s always an interesting twist or two…

  3. Thanks for this post, Margot. It was in one of Anne George’s early “Southern Sisters Mysteries” that this plot device was used to draw me in (yes, me, a writer of near-noir and noir mysteries who enjoys cozies!). I have all of Ms. George’s mysteries (10, I believe); it’s sad that she passed during a heart operation before more were written. I’m sure most of your readers would enjoy them. 🙂

    • There’s nothing wrong with enjoying cosy mysteries, Michael, no matter what sort of stories you write yourself. And the Southern Sisters mysteries are good. Maybe one of these days, I’ll spotlight one of them. I’ve not done that yet, and I ought to. Thanks for reminding me of them.

  4. Margot: Most legal mysteries where the hero is a defence lawyer employ this technique. The lawyer represents a wrongly accused who the police / prosecutor / usually public all believe to be guilty until proven innocent. An example is The Crossing by Michael Connelly where Mickey Haller represents a former gang member charged with rape and murder.

    • You’re right, Bill, about that legal novel setup. We do see that plot point a lot in those novels. I’m glad you’ve mentioned Mickey Haller, too, as Connelly has written some good examples of this sort of story. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  5. Spade & Dagger

    The complete opposite type of mystery to ‘no smoke without fire’, is one where no one can understand why the culprit committed the crime (Jane Harper’s The Dry comes to mind here). Then it may be a case of the culprit having a secret past or the wrong culprit for whatever reason.

    • You have a good point, Spade & Dagger. As I think about it, that sort of plot lets the author build in plot twists. The police have the wrong culprit, and there’s a jolt as they have to start over. Or, they have the right culprit and you slowly learn more about that person. Or….or… It’s an interesting point, and I’m glad you mentioned it.

  6. Col

    I do like the sound of the Cullinane book and Five Little Pigs waits on the pile for a read sometime.

    • I think you’d like the Cullinane, Col. It’s well-written and has some sturdy characters in it. And I hope you’ll read Five Little Pigs at some point. Christie’s always worth a read, if you ask me.

  7. Reblogged this on Jo-Ann Carson and commented:
    I love this blog. Margot has an amazing understanding of the mystery genre . I thought I would share this post. Enjoy.

  8. Great topic, Margot! How about Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair? Public opinion has decided against the two women even before their trial for kidnapping a young woman and forcing her to be their servant.

    • Thank you, Christine. 🙂 – And thanks for that excellent example, too. It’s a fine case of the public serving as self-appointed judge, jury and executioner. I appreciate your filling in that gap.

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