It’s hard for people to pay attention to everything. It’s even harder when the message is something one doesn’t want to hear. But those messages can matter greatly. And in crime fiction, those warnings can serve as very important clues. They can also provide interesting character development.
Agatha Christie uses that strategy in several of her stories. For instance, in Lord Edgware Dies, famous actress Jane Wilkinson asks Hercule Poirot to convince her husband, Lord Edgware, to give her a divorce, so that she can marry the Duke of Merton. Poirot reluctantly agrees, and he and Captain Hastings pay a visit to Edgware. Surprisingly, their host tells them that he has already withdrawn his objection. At first it seems that the matter is settled. But later that night, Edgware is stabbed. The most likely suspect is his wife, but she says that she was at a dinner party in another part of London at the time, and twelve people are ready swear that she was there. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have to look elsewhere for the killer. As it turns out, one of the other characters gives Poirot a warning that turns out to be an important clue to the killer.
James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity features insurance sales representative Walter Huff. He happens to be in Hollywoodland one day when he finds himself near the home of one of his policyholders, H.S. Nirdlinger. He decides to stop in, and see if he can get a policy renewal. Nirdlinger’s not home, but his wife, Phyllis, is. She and Huff have a conversation, and Huff is soon very much attracted to her. She does nothing to discourage him, and before long, they’re having an affair. Phyllis tells Huff that she wants to kill her husband; she wants to take out an accident policy first, so that she can inherit. Huff is so besotted with her by this time that he falls in with her plan, and even writes the policy she needs. The murder goes off as planned, but now Huff sees that he will have to do everything he can to protect Phyllis, so that he can also protect himself. Then, he meets her stepdaughter, Lola, and they form a friendship. Lola tries to warn Huff what her stepmother is like, and he gradually learns more and more about Phyllis from her. But by then, Huff’s in too deep, and things soon spin out of control…
Along similar lines, in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Los Angeles PI Philip Marlowe gets a new client in General Guy Sternwood. It seems that a book dealer named Arthur Geiger sent an extortion letter in which he referenced Sternwood’s daughter, Carmen. Now, Sternwood wants Marlowe to find Geiger and stop him. Marlowe agrees, but by the time he tracks the man down, Geiger’s been murdered. And Carmen is a witness, although she’s either too dazed or drugged to be able to say what happened. At first, it would seem that that solves the Sternwoods’ problem. But not long afterwards, their chauffer is found dead. Now, Marlowe finds himself drawn into the family’s web again. Interestingly enough, Sternwood himself gives Marlowe a cryptic warning about himself and his daughters:
‘‘Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat. Neither have I. No Sternwood ever had.’’
That doesn’t give Marlowe all the answers. But it is an important clue to the sort of people he’s dealing with in this case. And that plays its role in the story.
Cara Black’s Murder in the Marais introduces readers to Paris PI Aimée Leduc. In it, Leduc and her business partner, René Friant, are drawn into a murder investigation. It starts when a man named Soli Hecht hires them on behalf of a local synagogue, Temple Emanuel. He wants them to decrypt a code he gives her, and take her results by hand to a congregant named Lili Stein. By the time Leduc gets there, though, Lili Stein has been murdered. Leduc takes an interest in the case, and Inspector Mobier, who’s an old friend of her father’s, concedes that she might have useful information. So, the two agree to work together. This isn’t going to be an easy case, though, and it’s soon clear that it may be related to the past, during and immediately after the Nazis’ World War II occupation of France. One character warns/advises Leduc,
‘‘…no-one wants the past dug up.’’
And it’s true that there plenty of people in this novel who don’t want Leduc to go digging around in the past. She doesn’t give up, though, and ends up finding out the truth. It’s at a cost, though…
Sometimes, the sleuth tries to do the warning or send the message. That’s what happens, for instance, in Alexander McCall Smith’s The Full Cupboard of Life. In one plot thread, we meet Mma Holonga, who owns a successful chain of hair salons. As a wealthy and good-looking woman, she’s attracted her share of attention, and is ready to choose a husband. She’s narrowed her list to four candidates, and wants Mma Precious Ramotswe to ‘vet’ them, so that she can choose the best. It’s an unusual sort of request, but Mma Ramotswe accedes. One of these candidates is Mopedi Bobologo, a well-regarded teacher who also runs House of Hope, a home for troubled girls. On the surface, he seems very pleasant and steady, if perhaps a bit dull. But Mma Ramotswe learns that he is, in fact, very ambitious, and is likely trying to marry Mma Holonga for her money. Mma Ramotswe tells her client this, in attempt to warn her about the man. But when she does, Mma Holonga has a surprising reaction.
Warnings like that can be used in several different ways, of course, depending on the author’s purpose and the characters. However the author decides to use those warning messages, it’s probably wise for the reader to pay attention. Unless, of course, it’s a ‘red herring…’
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steely Dan’s My Old School.