One of the first rules when there’s a crime is that the crime scene is not to be disturbed until it’s assessed. There are good reasons for that, too, as details about a crime scene can give valuable information about who the criminal is. Today’s technology allows for assessments such as DNA studies, blood analysis, and so on. But there are also basics, too, such as footprints.
Footprints can play a key role in an investigation, even today. And they certainly have in the past. They’re important in crime fiction, too. The author can use footprints to either guide the sleuth (and the reader) or misdirect.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance, footprints of what looks like a giant hound are used as evidence that Sir Charles Baskerville fell victim to a family curse. It’s said that the Baskervilles have been cursed by a phantom hound since one of their ancestors traded his soul to the Powers of Evil in return for a woman who had besotted him. Not one to believe in otherworldly solutions to mysteries, Holmes looks for another explanation for Sir Charles’ death, and he and Dr. Watson find it. And, in The Adventure of the Priory School, prints play a role when Holmes investigates the kidnapping of ten-year-old Lord Saltire from the boarding school he attends. There are several other Holmes stories, too, in which footprints and hoof prints figure into the solution.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is not one to rely on only visual evidence such as footprints. But in some stories, they do prove to be important. For example, in Dead Man’s Mirror, Poirot is summoned by Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore. That high-handedness irks Poirot, but he decides to take the case. It seems that Sir Gervase is concerned that someone in his household may be cheating him, and he wants Poirot to investigate. Poirot arrives at the Chevenix-Gore home just before dinner is announced, so he’s present when everyone gathers for the meal – everyone except Sir Gervase. Soon afterwards, it’s discovered that Sir Gervase has been shot in his study. It looks at first as though he’s committed suicide, although he’d done nothing to suggest he was contemplating taking his own life. But small pieces of evidence suggest that he was murdered. And, as Poirot investigates, he finds that some footprints offer interesting evidence in the matter. Christie uses footprints in other cases, too, right, fans of The Murder on the Links?
In Dorothy L. Sayers’ Clouds of Witness, Lord Peter Wimsey is faced with a perplexing mystery. His brother Gerald, Duke of Denver, stands accused of murdering Captain Denis Cathcart, who was fiancé to the Duke’s (and Lord Peter’s) sister, Mary. There’s good evidence against him, too. For one thing, he and Cathcart had had an argument when he found out that Cathcart was cheating at cards. For another, he was at the scene of the crime, which took place late at night. He says he was simply taking a walk, but, of course, that’s not a strong alibi. Still, the Duke claims innocence, and his brother believes that. One of the pieces of evidence in question is a set of footprints near and around the body. Are they the Duke of Denver’s? If they aren’t, then whose are they? And why is Lady Mary obviously hiding something?
It’s lack of footprints that confuses matters in John Dickson Carr’s The Problem of the Wire Cage. Frank Dorrance has become engaged to Brenda White, but he’s made it clear that he’s only marrying her for the money she will inherit. Meanwhile, he’s got a rival, Hugh Rowlands, who truly does love Brenda. One day, Frank and Brenda attend a tennis party, during which Frank manages to alienate just about everyone. After the party, Brenda discovers her fiancé’s body on the tennis court. The only footprints on the wet, sandy court belong to Frank, so there’s no way to tell who was there, or how Frank’s body came to be on the court. But, as Dr. Gideon Fell finds out, there is no lack of suspects. This is one of those ‘impossible, but not really’ novels for which Carr is famous.
There’s also Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit. In that novel, Frank and Irene Ogden hold a séance at their home. Their purpose is to contact Irene’s dead first husband, Grimaud Désanat, and ask him to approve logging on some land that he owned and wanted to keep untouched for at least twenty years. Also present are Irene’s daughter Sherry; family friend Luke Latham; his nephew, Jeff; Jeff’s girlfriend, Barbara; Professor Peyton Ambler; and Svetozar Vok, a stage magician who’s made it his mission to debunk spiritual fakery. Rogan Kincaid, an itinerant gambler who also serves as sleuth here, is also present. This plan to hold a séance isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. For one thing, Irene Ogden is a medium. For another, both her husband and Latham believe firmly in spiritualism. What’s more, there are high stakes involved. The wood that’s on the property in question is needed for the Ogden family business. The séance takes place, and it’s eerie for all concerned, including those who aren’t believers. Later that night, Irene Ogden is murdered in her room. And it seems to be an ‘impossible’ sort of crime. She was found alone in a locked room, and there are no footprints to show that anyone entered or left the room through the window. Was she killed by a vengeful spirit? If she wasn’t, then how did someone kill her and leave without leaving footprints (there’s snow on the ground, so any footprints would show clearly)?
Even today, footprints matter in crime novels. For instance, in Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood, a group of friends gather for a hen weekend. There are all sorts of relationship dynamics, past histories, and more that impact this get-together. But Clare Cavendish, the bride-to-be, has a way of attracting people and getting them to do what she wants. So, the group gets together in a remote summer home belonging to the hostess’ aunt. But is the group as alone as it seems? Why are there footprints behind the house – footprints that no-one in the group admits to leaving? And how is this related to the tragedy that later happens as the weekend goes on? That tension certainly adds to the suspense in the novel.
Footprints are important evidence, even in these days when most people know about evidence such as prints. And they’ve always played a role in the genre. Which stories have left footprints in your memory?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Tiësto.