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.