As this is posted, it’s 219 years since the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. That stone unlocked the meaning of several Egyptian hieroglyphics and allowed linguists and historians to interpret them. It proved to be a key to understanding a lot about the culture and the people.
Thinking about the Rosetta Stone has got me thinking about keys to crime-fictional mysteries. I’m not, strictly speaking, talking about encrypted messages or codes. A crime-fictional ‘Rosetta Stone’ could be something as simple as a list or a diary page. Whatever it is, it shows the sleuth how the pieces of a mystery fit together.
For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Five Orange Pips, John Openshaw brings a strange case to Sherlock Holmes. It seems that Openshaw’s Uncle Elias, with whom he lived, was found dead in a pool on his estate. Prior to his death, there’d been a strange series of events that began when he received an envelope containing five orange pips. Now, the victim’s brother, John, has also received five orange pips. He’s terrified, but he won’t go to the police about it. As it turns out, a page from a diary proves to be the key to unlocking the meaning of the pips. Once Holmes knows that meaning, he’s able to solve the mystery.
In John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, it’s a poem that holds the key to the mystery of the death of Martin Starberth. For two generations, Starberth men served as Governors of Chatterham Prison. The prison is now in disuse, but Starberth men still follow an old ritual connected to is. Each Starberth male spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. While there, he opens the safe that’s in the room, and follows the instructions written on a piece of paper kept in that safe. When it’s Martin Starberth’s turn, he agrees to go through with the ritual, even though he’s reluctant. He dies of what looks like a tragic fall, but Dr. Gideon Fell isn’t sure the death was an accident. Once Fell understands what the old poem means, he’s able to find out who killed Starberth and why.
The focus of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is the murder of Samuel Ratchett, a wealthy American businessman who is stabbed on the second night of a three-day trip across Europe on the famous Orient Express train. The only possible suspects are the other people in the same carriage, so Hercule Poirot, who’s on the train as well, concentrates his efforts on them. One important question, of course, is what the motive might be. Who would want to kill Ratchett? The key to this mystery turns out to be a note that the killer never intended to be found. Once Poirot understands what the note says and what it means, he’s able to discover the motive for the killing. And that leads him to the truth about Ratchett’s murder.
Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil begins when Laurel Hill asks Queen to help her find out who’s responsible for the death of her father, Leander. It seems that Leander Hill died of a heart attack after receiving a series of macabre ‘gifts.’ His business partner, Roger Priam, has also been receiving ‘packages.’ Laurel is convinced that her father’s heart attack was deliberately triggered, and she wants Queen to find out why and by whom. Queen’s reluctant at first; he’s trying to get some writing done. But he is intrigued by the puzzle. So, he agrees to look into the matter. The motive for everything lies in the past. And, once Queen is able to unlock the meaning of the ‘gifts,’ he’s able to find out why Hill and Priam have been targeted. He also discovers who’s behind everything that’s happened.
There’s also Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal. In that novel, high school principal Hilary VanBrook is directing a local production of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. On the night of the final performance of the play, VanBrook is found dead in his car on the property of journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. Qwill (who is Braun’s protagonist) works with local police chief Andrew Brodie to find out who killed VanBrook and why. And it turns out that there are several suspects. VanBrook had plenty of enemies, and it’s not going to be easy to narrow it all down. One important key to solving the mystery turns up when Qwill pays a visit to VanBrook’s personal library. In it, there’s a hollowed-out book that contains a list of other books, some of which have red dots next to the titles. The meaning of that list and those red dots turns out to be essential to finding out who killed VanBrook.
There are, of course, plenty of other crime novels in which there’s a list, a diary entry, or something else that holds the key to understanding a mystery. Once the sleuth finds that key, the pieces of the puzzle start to come together. These are only a few examples; I know you’ll think of more.
ps. I know I’ve shown this ‘photo before, but I thought it was worth sharing again. What a privilege it was to see the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marillion’s Tumble Down the Years.