Real life illusionists such as Penn and Teller (yes, that’s the duo in the ‘photo), and fictional ones such as Elly Griffiths’ Max Mephisto know something very important. People find it hard to pay attention to a lot of things at the same time. So, if you focus your audience’s attention on one thing, they’re less likely to notice something else you may be doing. It’s called misdirection, and these people are experts at it.
Misdirection is an important part of crime fiction, too. Authors use it all the time. In fact, there’s probably a book’s worth of commentary on the way crime writers manipulate readers’ attention. So do fictional characters. After all, if you’re a fictional murderer, it suits you very well if everyone’s paying attention to something else, so that you can get away with your crime.
Misdirection is a part of many of Agatha Christie’s novels and stories. I’ll just give one example. Christie fans will know there are plenty of others. In Death in the Clouds, a group of people boards a plane for a flight from Paris to London. Among them is Marie Morisot, a French moneylender who goes by the name of Madame Giselle. Just before the flight lands, one of the stewards goes around to the different passengers to give them their meal bills. That’s when he discovers that Madame Giselle is dead. At first, it looks as though she’s had a serious allergic reaction to a wasp sting (and there is a wasp on the plane). But Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same flight, notices some things that suggest she was deliberately poisoned. And so it proves to be. The only possible suspects are the other passengers, so Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out which passenger is the killer. And it turns out that the murderer used misdirection quite effectively to carry out the crime.
In Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, we are introduced to Frank Cairnes, a detective novelist who writes under the name of Felix Lane. As the story begins, he is distraught over the death of his son, Martin ‘Martie’, who was killed six months earlier in a hit-and-run incident. Cairnes decides to find and kill the man who murdered his son and sets out to learn who that person was. After a time, he establishes that the driver of the car is a man named George Rattery. So, he contrives an introduction by starting a romance with Rattery’s sister, and soon gets to know Rattery. He’s decided to kill Rattery by drowning him during a sailing trip. The only problem is that Rattery has found Cairnes’ diary, so he knows Cairnes’ plan. He tells Cairnes that if anything happens to him, the police will know who is responsible. Cairnes counters with the threat that if the police read the diary, they will also know that Rattery killed Martie. With the two men at a stalemate, they return to the Rattery home. Later that day, Rattery dies of what turns out to be poison. Cairnes contacts PI and poet Nigel Strangeways to ask for his help. He knows he’ll be suspected of murder, but he says he’s innocent. After all, he claims, why would he plan to poison a victim after already having planned to drown him? What’s more, there turn out to be several other possibilities when it comes to suspects. In the end, Strangeways finds that the killer has used misdirection to keep from being caught.
Elizabeth Peters’ Crocodile on the Sandbank introduces her sleuth, Amelia Peabody. In the novel, Miss Peabody decides to take a tour of the Middle East. When her companion falls ill and can’t join her, she fears she’ll have to cancel her trip (this story takes place in the days before it was considered appropriate for ‘proper ladies’ to travel alone). Her problems seem to be solved when she meets Evelyn Barton-Forbes. It turns out that Miss Barton-Forbes has been abandoned by her lover, and now has to make her way in the world as best she can. She’s delighted and grateful at the chance to serve as Miss Peabody’s companion, and the two set out for Egypt. That’s where they meet archaeologist brothers Radcliffe and Walter Emerson, who are working on an excavation in Amarna. Miss Peabody has an interest in ancient ruins, and is well-informed on them, so when the two women stop at the excavation site, they decide to stay on for a bit. That’s how they get drawn into a bizarre case. First, a mummy that the team has found seems to disappear. Then, villagers and other locals report that a mummy has been seen at night. Other strange and disturbing things begin to happen, and it’s now clear that someone wants the Emerson excavation to stop. If the team is to stay alive, and continue the work, they’re going to have to find out the truth. And it turns out that someone has used misdirection to get everyone frightened about the mummy, so that the real motive for what’s going on will stay hidden.
In Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, Nick and Nora Charles, who live in San Francisco are on a visit to New York City. By chance, Nick, who is a former PI, is spotted by Dorothy Wynant, the daughter of a former client. She’s worried because her father, Clyde Wynant, seems to have gone missing. Later, Nick gets a visit from Wynant’s lawyer, who thinks he’s in New York to track Wynant down. That’s not the case, but Nick seems to be getting more and more drawn in to the matter. The next day, Wynant’s secretary, Julia Wolf, is found dead. Now, Nick’s even more deeply drawn into the case. As it happens, there are several suspects in the murder, any one of whom might be guilty. Misdirection plays an important part in this story as we find out the truth about Wynant’s disappearance and his secretary’s murder.
And then there’s Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing. Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri is saddened when he finds out that a former client, Dr. Suresh Jha, has been killed. Jha was at a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club when something extraordinary happened. Witnesses say that the goddess Kali appeared, and stabbed Jha. To Kali’s devotees, this makes sense, since Jha was dedicated to science and to debunking people who used religion and spiritualism to deceive people. But Puri doesn’t think Kali really appeared and committed murder. So, he starts to ask questions. And he discovers quite a lot of misdirection as he finds out what really happened.
See what I mean? Misdirection is critical to crime fiction and crime writers. Wait a second – what was that? Look over there!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Blonde Over Blue.