If you have any storage space at all, my guess is that you use it. Most of us tend to accumulate all kinds of things for various reasons. You may have sentimental reasons for keeping something, or you may keep things because you think they’re beautiful. Or because they may come in handy someday and you never know. Or it may be a question of books, in which case there is no question. Books deserve good homes.
Whatever the reason, we do seem to accumulate things. Sometimes those things can reveal a lot about a person. So, it’s no surprise that, when police investigate a murder, they take a look at people’s things. If nothing else, it’s a way to get to know the victim a bit. Little wonder, then, that we see this happen in crime fiction, too. And it can reveal a lot about the victim and other characters.
It’s precisely the lack of such accumulated things that gets Hercule Poirot wondering in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds. In that novel, Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who killed a French moneylender who went by the name of Madame Giselle. She was poisoned on board a flight from Paris to London, so the only possible suspects are the other people in the cabin. Poirot thinks he may learn more about the motives people may have had for murder by getting to know the victim. So, he visits her Paris home. To his surprise, there are almost no personal items. No photographs, mementos, personal letters, boxes of books, or anything else that might give him information. That in itself interests Poirot, and he determines to find out why the victim seemed to want no connection of any kind with her past. The lack of accumulated things doesn’t solve the mystery, but it gives real insight into Madame Giselle’s history and character.
Things are completely different In Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Went Into the Closet. Journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran and his two Siamese cats are preparing for the winter, which can get severe in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ Their home isn’t suitable for winter living, so they’re going to spend it at the former home of Euphonia Gage, who lived in a large house in the middle of town. She’s now moved to a senior living facility in Florida, so the house is available. They settle in, and Qwill can’t resist doing a little exploring in the old house. It’s full of closets that are full of accumulated things, and he and the cats find that interesting enough. Then, Euphonia Gage dies, apparently of suicide. It’s not long, though, before that’s called into question. She was in good health, very much enjoying life, and had no financial problems. Then there’s another death, which could very well be related to hers. Now, Quill suspects that something more sinister is going on, and so it is. And some of the keys to the mystery are in the junk left behind in the house.
As L.R. Wright’s The Suspect begins, eighty-year-old George Wilcox has just killed eight-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. We know from the beginning who the killer and victim are, but we are not told the motive. Wilcox leaves the scene of the crime and returns home. Later, he notifies the police, and RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg investigates. Sechelt, British Colombia, is a small town, so it’s not long before everyone knows what’s happened, and everyone starts to speculate about who killed Burke and why. Alberg starts to put the clues together, and before very long, he suspects Wilcox. What he doesn’t know is the motive. The two men didn’t like each other much, but that’s hardly a reason to kill someone. And there’s no real evidence to connect Wilcox to the crime. Bit by bit, as Alberg tries to get the evidence and information he needs, we learn more about the history between victim and killer, and the motive is slowly revealed. And Alberg finds the evidence for it among some accumulated ‘stuff.’
In R.J. Harlick’s Death’s Golden Whisper, we are introduced to Meg Harris. She’s inherited a house and land at Three Deer Point in Outaouais, in Western Québec, from her Great-Aunt Agatha, and has settled in. Aunt Agatha had always enjoyed a good relationship with the Miskigan people of the area, and Meg has worked to do the same. So, Miskigan Band Chief Eric Odjik turns to her for help. There’s a good possibility of gold on Whisper Island, which lies near Deer Point. A company called CanacGold wants to mine the island. And there are plenty of Miskigan who don’t want the island mined, for various reasons. The simplest way to keep the company off the island is to prove that it is someone’s property, and that someone may be Meg. If it can be shown that Whisper Island belonged to Aunt Agatha, then Meg gets to decide what will happen to the island. And she doesn’t want CanacGold to mine, so she’s only too happy to agree to help. In one plot thread of this novel, she goes through Aunt Agatha’s things to try to find any paperwork that may indicate who owns the island. Her search leads her to some surprising family truths. In the meantime, Meg’s friend and employee, Marie Whiteduck, goes missing. Later, Marie’s abusive husband, Louis, is found dead. Meg gets caught up in this investigation, and we see that it’s connected to the controversy over Whisper Island.
Not everyone accumulates a lot, though. Take John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitplecheep. He is a member of the Royal Thai Police, who lives and works in Bangkok. He’s also a devout Buddhist and tries to be attached as little as possible to possessions. He lives in one room, which doesn’t have a television. And, although he has the clothes he needs and some other things, he hasn’t accumulated much of anything. He has a very different perspective on the value of owning things.
For a lot of us, though, it’s amazing how many things we tend to accumulate without even being aware of it. That is, until we get ready to move house…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alice BrightSky’s Box of Me.