In many crime novels (especially, but not always, whodunits), the reader is invited to match wits with the author, so to speak, and work out the solution before it’s revealed. And after enough time, most crime fiction fans are adept at picking up on the clues they need to get to the truth.
But sometimes, it’s not that easy. Not all clues – even important clues – are obvious. And some authors choose those very subtle clues. Of course, making a clue too subtle runs the risk of not ‘playing fair’ with the reader. Still, when it’s done well, a subtle clue can slip by even a seasoned crime fiction fan (e.g. ‘How did I not see that?’). Recently, a fascinating post by Brad at Ahsweetmysteryblog got me thinking about those sorts of clues.
In G.K. Chesterton’s The Invisible Man, for example, private investigator Hercule Flambeau gets an unusual case. Isidore Smythe has been murdered in his own home. However, his home has only one door – the front door. The way the building is constructed, no-one could have got out a window and escaped. And no-one saw anyone coming or going at the time of the murder. So, the question is: how could someone have got in, committed the murder, and got out again, without being seen? Flambeau gets help from his friend, Father Brown, who gets to the truth about this case. What’s interesting is that, all along, there’s a subtle clue as to who is responsible. It’s right there, but not obvious.
Agatha Christie used those subtle clues quite often in her work. Just as one example, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot retires (or so he thinks) to the village of King’s Abbot. He’s drawn into a case, though, when wealthy manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd is murdered in his study. There are several possible suspects, but the most likely one is Ackroyd’s stepson, Captain Ralph Paton. Paton’s fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, wants to clear his name, and asks Poirot to investigate. At the time this book was published, Christie was accused of not ‘playing fair.’ But, if you read carefully, the clues are all there. Everything that’s needed to solve the mystery is there. That said, though, I won’t deny that I was taken in the first time I read this one.
In Georgette Heyer’s A Blunt Instrument, Sergeant Hemingway and Superintendent Hannasyde investigate when wealthy businessman Ernest Fletcher is found bludgeoned in his study. They’ve got plenty of suspects, too. For instance, Abraham Budd bought and sold stocks for the victim, and hasn’t been exactly aboveboard about it. If Fletcher found out, Budd might easily have felt the need to kill him. Charlie Carpenter has a history of blackmailing and a police record. He also could be responsible. So could Helen or John North, who live near the Fletcher home. They have their own motives, and they live close enough to have committed the crime without being seen. Then, there’s the victim’s nephew, Neville Fletcher, who has financial problems and who benefits from his uncle’s will. Any one of these people could have committed the crime, and Hemingway and Hannasyde have to work through a tissue of lies and evasions to find out who did. As it turns out, there’s a very good and important clue to the solution. But it’s subtle – something you could easily be excused for not noticing. And it took me a while to catch on to it.
It took me a bit of time to catch on to the important clue in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, too. In that novel, retired teacher Myrtle Clover is ‘volunteered’ by her son to join a women’s group at the local church. She’s none too happy about this, as she is not ready to be ‘put out to pasture,’ and ‘managed.’ Still, her son, local police chief Red Clover, wants his mother to take her ease and step back from life, the way older people are supposed to do. When Myrtle grumpily goes to the church to meet with the group, she discovers the body of local real estate developer Parke Stockard. Determined to show that she’s not so easily put aside, Myrtle decides to find out who the killer is. And there are several suspects, too, since the victim had managed to alienate just about everyone in town. Interestingly, there is one clear, but subtle clue. If you pay attention, it’s there. But it’s not really obvious, and I missed it at first.
And then there’s Zoë Sharp’s Killer Instinct, which introduces her sleuth, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox. In one plot thread, Fox gets a job working security at the New Adelphi, a trendy nightclub. She soon begins to suspect that more is going on there than just serving drinks, playing music, and making sure that drunks don’t make life miserable for everyone. As the story goes on, she slowly gets clues as to what’s happening at the club. But it doesn’t become really clear to her until closer to the end of the novel. That’s when she makes sense of some comments she’s heard and is able to put all the pieces together.
And that’s the way it is with well-placed, subtle clues. When they’re done well, even veteran crime fiction readers can miss them. But they’re still right there. Thanks, Brad, for the inspiration. Now, folks, may I suggest your next blog stop be Brad’s fine blog. Rich discussion of crime fiction awaits you there!
ps. Oh, the ‘photo? Can you see who’s responsible for cutting down on the bug population? You can’t? The clue’s right there!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joss Stone’s Clean Water.