Virgil’s Aeneid includes the famous story of the Trojan Horse, and the way in which the Greeks used subterfuge (and a false ‘gift’) to best their enemies from Troy. In it, there are lines that have been passed down to become the proverb, ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts’ – a warning not to trust one’s enemies, even if they ‘bear gifts.’
And it’s interesting to see how often untrustworthy gifts show up in crime fiction. If you think about it, it’s almost a trope: the flowers from a stranger that turn out to be deadly; the mysterious package left on a doorstep, etc. There’s only space for a few examples in this one post. But I’m sure you’ll be able to think of many more than I could, anyway.
Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone begins with the theft of a valuable diamond, called the moonstone, from the Palace of Seringaptam. The diamond is said to be cursed, so that evil will befall anyone who takes it from its place. But Sir John Herncastle doesn’t let that stop him, and actually commits murder to get the jewel. Later, we learn that he’s had a falling out with his sister, Lady Julia Verinder, and is not welcome in the Verinder home. When he dies, he bequeaths the diamond to his niece, Rachel, to be given to her on her eighteenth birthday. His wishes are duly carried out, and it’s not long before all sorts of misfortunes happen to the family, beginning with the disappearance of the moonstone on the night Rachel receives it. Then, there’s a suicide. Other trouble follows. Sergeant Richard Cuff investigations, and slowly puts the pieces of the puzzle together.
In Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy, Hercule Poirot attends a sherry party hosted by famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. Among the guests is the local vicar, Reverend Stephen Babbington. During the party, Babbington suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Not long afterwards, there’s another, similar, murder. This time, the victim is Harley Street specialist Dr. Bartholomew Strange. Poirot investigates the two murders as connected events, since many of the same people were at both occasions. He’s working on those two cases when there’s a third murder. The weapon is a gift box of poisoned chocolates, delivered to Margaret de Rushbridger, a patient at Strange’s sanatorium. Now Poirot has to connect her death to the two others.
Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case tells the story of another dangerous gift. In that novel, we are introduced to the Crimes Circle. Run by journalist and amateur sleuth Roger Sheringham, it’s a discussion club where members try to solve difficult crimes. And one day, DCI Moresby brings the group an interesting one. It seems that well-known chocolatier Mason & Sons has come out with a new variety of chocolates. In order to build interest and boost sales, the company sent complimentary boxes of the new chocolates to well-known, influential people, one of whom is Sir Eustace Pennefeather. He himself doesn’t eat chocolate, so he passed the gift on to a fellow club member, Graham Bendix. Bendix, in turn, shared the candy with his wife Joan. Now, Joan is dead, and her husband badly sickened. Analysis shows that the chocolates were poisoned. So the question before the club is: who is the killer? And that, of course, entails the question: who was the intended victim?
Not all gifts are as attractive and welcome as chocolates and diamonds. In Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, for instance, we are introduced to nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill. Her father, Leander, recently died of a heart attack. Laurel, though, is convinced that this wasn’t a natural death. She believes his heart attack was brought on after he began receiving a series of macabre ‘gifts,’ What’s more, she thinks they may be related to her father’s business, since his partner, Roger Priam, has also been receiving ‘gifts.’ She asks Ellery Queen to investigate; and at first, he’s reluctant. But he is intrigued by the puzzle of what this all may mean. So he looks into the matter. In the end, and after Priam is nearly killed, Queen pieces together what actually happened. It turns out that these ‘gifts’ have everything to do with the men’s pasts.
And then there’s Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Said Cheese. In that novel, a bouquet of flowers is delivered to The New Pickax Hotel. They’re a gift for a mysterious guest named Ona Dolman. She doesn’t happen to be in her room when they arrive, and that turns out to be a good thing for her. A bomb hidden in the flowers detonates, causing severe damage to the hotel and killing a chambermaid. Journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran takes an interest in the case – an interest that’s piqued when Ona goes missing. Now Qwilleran works with Pickax Police Chief Andrew Brodie to find out who the murderer is, and what’s happened to his intended victim.
As you can see, crime fiction includes some very clear examples of gifts from dangerous people. I think that should serve as a warning to us all. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I hear a knock at the door; I think I’ve just gotten a package.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong’s Smiling Faces Sometimes.