When you do something often enough, or for a long enough time, you learn to spot things that are a little strange, and don’t follow the pattern you’re accustomed to seeing. For instance, I’ve been in higher education for years. It’s gotten to the point where I have a fairly good (by no means perfect!) sense of when a student’s work is not original. Why? Because I’ve read enough student writing to be able to pick up on their writing patterns. If something’s a bit ‘off,’ I notice it. In a similar way, people often begin to suspect their partners may not be faithful because they notice something ‘off’ about their partners’ patterns.
Being able to notice those patterns, and deviations from them, can be very helpful if you’re a sleuth. Those little ‘off’ things can be clues, or they can point to something bigger that’s worth investigating. And even when they aren’t, or don’t, they can be interesting bits of character development in a crime novel.
Agatha Christie’s sleuths make use of those little deviations more than once. In Evil Under the Sun, for instance, Hercule Poirot is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel, on Leathercombe Bay. He gets drawn into a murder investigation when a fellow guest, Arlena Stuart Marshall, is strangled and her body found at a cove not far from the hotel. For Poirot, any correct theory about the crime has to account for all the details surrounding it. And in this case, there are several seemingly inconsequential oddities. Why, for instance, was someone taking a bath in the middle of the morning on the day of the murder? And what does that matter, anyway? And what’s the story behind an empty bottle that nearly hit another guest on the head? And what does that have to do with the murder? It all fits in, though, and once Poirot understands how the crime really happened, he’s able to make sense of all of those odd things.
In Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley Under Ground, we meet American art enthusiast Thomas Murchison. He travels to London to see an exhibit of the work of Philip Derwatt that’s being held at the Buckmaster Gallery. Murchison is deeply knowledgeable about Derwatt’s work, and is excited to see it. And that’s exactly the problem for Tom Ripley, Highsmith’s protagonist, and his friends, Jeff Constant, Ed Banbury and Bernard Tufts. They’ve been making a tidy income by providing the gallery with ‘new’ Derwatt works (the artist died a few years earlier). Tufts forges the work, Banbury (a journalist) writes articles about Derwatt and his work, and it’s Constant’s job to photograph the paintings and advertise them. The whole scheme will fall apart if Murchison finds out that the ‘new’ Derwatt work is forged, so it’s decided that Ripley will go to London disguised as Derwatt. There, he’ll publicly identify the faked work as genuine. The disguise works well enough, but Murchison still notices small things that don’t fit the Derwatt pattern. He’s planning to go to the authorities about the matter, so Ripley invites Murchison to his home in France to discuss everything. Murchison doesn’t change his mind, though, and Ripley deals with Murchison in his own way. He solves ‘the Murchison problem,’ only to find he’s got even bigger problems now…
Peter Høeg’s Smilla Jaspersen, whom we meet in Smilla’s Sense of Snow, grew up in Greenland in her Inuit mother’s community, although she now lives in Copenhagen. So, she’s deeply knowledgeable about all sorts of patterns in snow and glaciers. That knowledge is an important part of her life. And it turns out to be very useful when one of the residents in her apartment building suddenly dies. Ten-year-old Isaiah Christiansen has fallen from the roof of the building in what the police are calling a terrible accident. Smilla finds herself drawn to the scene, and notices that little patterns in the snow don’t add up to an accidental fall. Those small oddities are enough to make her curious, so she starts to ask questions. The trail leads back to Greenland, and to a past expedition there.
Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano is an experienced police detective. He’s accustomed to patterns associated with crime. That skill turns out to be quite useful when the body of up-and-coming politician Silvio Luparello is discovered. The dead man is found in a car in a notorious part of town called The Pasture. He’s obviously had a sexual encounter, and the official explanation is that he had a heart attack as a result of it, and died. But seemingly inconsequential things don’t add up to that explanation, and Montalbano asks for a little more time to investigate. He’s grudgingly granted two days, and gets to work. It’s not long before he finds that several people could have wanted Luparello dead. Little by little, he gets to the truth about the matter, and it’s not what it seems on the surface.
And then there’s Megan Abbott’s Die a Little. In that novel, which takes place in 1950’s California, we are introduced to Pasadena teacher Lora King. When her brother, Bill, meets ‘that special someone,’ Lora wants to be happy for him. And the woman, Alice Steele, is both beautiful and smart. But there’s just something ‘off’ about her, and Lora is not impressed. Still, the romance blossoms, and Bill and Alice marry. As time goes by, Lora begins to wonder more and more about her new sister-in-law, although she tries to like her for Bill’s sake. It’s really a pattern of little things that simply don’t add up. For instance, at one point, Alice asks Lora to help her get a teaching job at the school where Lora teaches. Alice claims she has a teaching certificate, but there’s no record of it. Why not? And, if she has no background in teaching, why would she want a job as a teacher? As Lora learns more and more about Alice’s life, she finds more and more that’s ‘off.’ At the same time as she’s repulsed by what she finds, though, she’s also drawn to it. Then, there’s a murder. And Alice just might be mixed up in it. Telling herself she’s looking out for her brother, Lora begins to ask questions about the murder. And she finds that the answers are dangerous.
Those small breaks in patterns, and little ‘off’ things, might seem not to matter. And in some cases, they don’t. But sometimes, they tell a lot…
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a U2 song.