There is something about, especially, unsolved crimes that gets people’s interest. I’m talking here more of the intellectual challenge of solving a mystery than of anything else, and it seems to come up whenever there’s a difficult case in the news. People talk about it, and all kinds of people try to solve the case. Sometimes their ideas are helpful to the police; sometimes the police find them a nuisance.
It shouldn’t be surprising that we see that interest in crime fiction, too. People can’t help being curious, so it makes sense that they would want to put their hands in, so to speak, when there’s an investigation.
Agatha Christie’s The Thirteen Problems certainly reflects that tendency. This is a collection of short stories, loosely tied together by an overarching context. A group of people meet each Tuesday night. At each meeting, one person tells the story of a crime, and the rest of the group tries to solve the case. It’s an interesting example of ‘armchair detection.’ Of course, Miss Marple is one of the members of this club, so as you can imagine, the cases get solved. I know, I know, fans of The ABC Murders.
There’s a similar kind of, if you will, detection club in Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case. Journalist Roger Sheringham runs the Crimes Circle, a discussion group for those interested in crimes and their solutions. When DCI Moresby is invited to address the club, he presents the members with a difficult case. Famous chocolatiers Mason & Sons have come out with a new variety of chocolates. To help spread the word (and, of course, generate sales), they send a courtesy box of the new chocolates to a variety of influential people. One of them is Sir Eustace Pennefather. Since Pennefather himself doesn’t eat chocolate, he gives the box to an acquaintance, Graham Bendix. Bendix, in turn, gives it to his wife. Joan. Hours after they have some of the chocolate, Joan dies of what turns out to be poison. Her husband, too, is poisoned, but survives. So the question before the club becomes: who poisoned the chocolates and why? And who was the intended victim?
There’s a different take on this sort of group in Georges Simenon’s Maigret and the Yellow Dog. Inspector Jules Maigret is called to the seaside town of Concarneau to investigate the attempted murder of prominent wine dealer Monsieur Mostaguen. It seems that Mostaguen was on his way home from the Admiral Hotel when he stopped to light a cigar. The night was windy, so he stepped into the shelter of a doorway. Someone on the other side of the door shot him while he was trying to light his cigar. Maigret and his assistant Leroy take up temporary residence at the Admiral, where it’s been Mostaguen’s custom to spend a great deal of time with a small group of friends: Dr. Michoux, newspaper editor Jean Servières, and Monsieur le Pommerat. On the very night they meet Maigret, the whole group is sickened by a bottle of wine that someone has poisoned. Now it’s clear that someone is targeting the group; and, of course, it’s in their interest to find out who it is. As you can imagine, the investigation becomes the main topic of discussion for this group.
Jodie Evans Garrow finds herself in the middle of a hotly-debated case in Wendy James’ The Mistake. At the beginning of the novel, Jodie has what most people would call a near-perfect life. She’s got good looks and good health, she’s married to a successful attorney, and she’s the mother of two healthy children. Disaster strikes when word gets out that years ago, she had another child. Not even her husband knows about this birth. Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but there are no formal adoption records. Soon, questions begin to arise. Where is the child? If she’s alive, what’s happened to her? If not, did Jodie have something to do with her death? Both privately and very publicly, people argue about whether Jodie is innocent or a murderer. One night, she’s invited to join a book club discussion group. Delighted at this show of kindness, Jodie attends. To her dismay, though, the group is discussing the famous Lindy Chamberlain case (did Lindy Chamberlain kill her baby, or did she not?), and wants Jodie there more as a specimen than a person. It’s an unsettling example of the negative consequences of people trying to solve cases.
Things are just as unsettling in Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. Joanna Lindsay and her partner, Alistair Robertson, travel from her native Scotland to his home in Victoria with their nine-week-old son, Noah. The idea of the move is that Alistair will be in a better position to get custody of his teenaged daughter Chloe, who lives in Victoria with her mother. On the way from the airport in Melbourne to Alistair’s home town, the couple face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of baby Noah. A massive search is undertaken, but the baby isn’t found. At first, the Australian media is very sympathetic, and several different people set up ‘Find Baby Noah’ websites and online pages where there’s plenty of discussion and attempts to unravel the mystery. You might even say it’s a case of an international group trying to solve the case. Little by little, though, questions begin to arise about the parents, particularly Joanna. And it isn’t long before suspicion soon falls on her. Among other things, this novel shows how today’s technology has made it possible for people to be in these crime-solving, even if they live on different continents.
There are all kinds of real-life and fictional cases where people try to get involved in solving a crime. There’s even an Ellery Queen short story (The Adventure of the African Traveler) in which Queen is teaching a university class, and some of his students form a sort of ‘detection group’ to solve a murder. These are just a few examples. Over to you.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Kinks’ Missing Persons.