People tend to like things to make sense. When something is in a very odd place or doesn’t look as it normally does, we want to know why. And sometimes that feeling of ‘That’s funny, what’s that doing there?’ can get our curiosity roused. In fact, here’s what Isaac Asimov had to say on the subject:
‘The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny…”
It’s just as true in criminal investigation as it is in science, really. When something just doesn’t make sense or fit in, that’s often an important clue that something is going on. And in crime fiction, that often means a murder. Those odd things that just don’t make sense can also be important leads, too, so sleuths learn to pay attention to them.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, for instance, Commissioner Peterson breaks up a scuffle between a couple of local thugs and their would-be victim. The man they were targeting runs off, dropping a hat and a goose as he goes. Peterson picks up the goose and hat and goes on his way. He gives the goose to his wife, but when she starts to prepare it for cooking, she sees that there’s a jewel stuck in its craw. That’s, of course, a very odd place for a jewel to end up, and Peterson can’t make sense of it. So he takes it and the hat to Sherlock Holmes. Holmes makes quite a few deductions from the hat, and eventually, traces the gem back to its original source. The case isn’t quite as complicated as it sounds, but it all starts with one of those ‘That’s funny!’ moments.
Agatha Christie made use of those moments in several of her stories. In fact, Hercule Poirot often mentions how important it is that any theory of a crime account for every piece of the puzzle, however small. In Evil Under the Sun, for instance, notorious actress Arlena Stuart Marshall is strangled during a holiday she and her husband Kenneth are having at the Jolly Roger Hotel. For several reasons, Kenneth Marshall is an obvious suspect at first. But it’s proven that he couldn’t have committed the crime. So Poirot and the police have to look elsewhere. One of the important clues to the murder comes from something simple, but odd: a mid-morning bath. Anyone might take a bath, but oddly enough, no-one admits to it this time. It’s one of those funny things that don’t make sense. But it does once the puzzle is solved.
In Catherine Aird’s The Religious Body, we are introduced to the residents of the Convent of St. Anselm. One morning, Sister Mary Saint Anne seems to be missing from her bed at wake-up call. A search is made, and her body is soon discovered on the floor of the basement. At first it looks as though she had a tragic fall down the stairs. Soon enough, though, it becomes clear that she was murdered. Berebury Inspector C.D. Sloan and his assistant, Constable William Crosby, begin the investigation. One of the funny things they discover is that the victim’s spectacles are missing. She wouldn’t likely have left her room, let alone go around the convent, without them. They aren’t anywhere near the body, and they aren’t among her possessions. Nor does anyone else at the convent have them. The question of where they are points the detectives into a very interesting direction…
Fans of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series will know that all sorts of funny things happen in those novels. Just to give one example, in The Chalk Circle Man, Adamsberg and his team have a very odd case on their hands. Someone has been using blue chalk to draw circles on the pavement in different parts of Paris. What are those circles doing there? And why are such odd things found in some of them? It seems like the work of some mentally ill person. But then one day, a new circle is found – with a body in it. Now what seems like something just a little weird is a case of murder. As Adamsberg and his team work to find out who the killer is, there are two more murders. And it all starts with a funny circle of blue chalk.
Sometimes it’s just a very small thing that rouses curiosity. That’s what happens in Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall. Early one morning, Gurdial Singh is making his morning rounds, delivering copies of the Globe and Mail to his customers in Market Place Tower, one of Toronto’s exclusive addresses. One of his ‘regulars’ is popular radio host Kevin Brace. When Singh gets to Brace’s condominium, he notices something odd right away: the door is partway open. Curious, he knocks on the door. When Brace comes to the door, he says,
‘I killed her, Mr. Singh…I killed her.’
And he says nothing else. Singh goes in and, as he later tells police, he discovers the body of Brace’s common-law wife Katherine Torn in one of the bathtubs. The ensuing investigation turns out to be complicated and difficult, but Detective Ari Greene and his team eventually get to the truth. And it all really starts because of Singh’s sense of ‘That’s funny’ when he sees the door partly open.
Those moments really do get people curious, and sometimes it’s impossible to resist trying to find out why something is in an odd place, or something that ought to be there isn’t. It’s in our nature to want those odd things to make sense. And those little oddities can add much to a crime novel.
ps. The ‘photo is of a scarf I saw on a walk the other day. What was it doing there? How did it get there? There are, of course, a number of different possible explanations. But still…that’s funny.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Penny Lane.