If you read enough crime fiction, you learn a few lessons. One of them is that there is danger in being very clever and observant. Characters who notice things and put the proverbial two and two together tend to come upon truths that aren’t safe for them to know. And that tends to make fictional characters very vulnerable.
Of course, a certain amount of cleverness is important; otherwise fictional sleuths couldn’t easily find out the truth about a murder. But how often does a character become a victim because s/he found out a secret the killer was keeping? Or because s/he knows about another murder? It happens a lot in the genre.
Agatha Christie used this plot point in several of her novels and stories. For example, in Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the stabbing death of Lord Edgware. His wife, famous actress Jane Wilkinson, is the most likely suspect. She wanted to divorce him so that she could marry someone else – a divorce he would not grant. And what’s more, she even threatened his life publicly. To make matters worse, the butler and Edgware’s secretary both say that someone who looked like her, and gave her name, came to the house just before the killing. But she has a solid alibi. Twelve people are prepared to testify that on the night of the murder, she was at a dinner party in another part of London, so she couldn’t possibly have been the killer. Poirot, Hastings, and Chief Inspector Japp are trying to reconcile the two sets of evidence when there’s another death. And another. One of the other victims is up-and-coming actor Donald Ross. As it turns out, he’d noticed one small thing, which got him to wondering too much and coming too close to the truth.
In Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, we are introduced to Nicholas Quinn, the only Deaf member of the Oxford Foreign Exams Syndicate. This group is responsible for administering and managing exams given in other countries that follow the British educational system. One afternoon, Quinn dies of what turns out to be poison. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis look into the case, and soon learn that the members of the Syndicate all had things to hide. One by one, each member’s secret comes out, and Morse and Lewis have to work out which of those secrets was deadly for Quinn. It turns out that he found out more about the Syndicate and the lives of its members than it was safe for him to know, and paid a very high price for it.
One of the most chilling examples of being too clever is Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. The wealthy and well-educated Coverdale family is in need of a new housekeeper. So Jacqueline Coverdale goes in search of a suitable person. She soon hires Eunice Parchman for the job, and at first, things are all right. But Eunice has a secret that she’s determined will not come out. One day, and quite by accident, one of the Coverdales finds out Eunice’s secret. That unwitting discovery ends up in tragedy.
Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly introduces readers to Giorgio Tassini, who works as a night watchman at one of Venice’s glass-blowing factories. He is convinced that the factories are illegally disposing of toxic waste, and poisoning Venice’ water. In fact, he blames them for the fact that his daughter was born with special needs. One morning, Tassini is discovered dead at the factory where he works. Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello investigate, and at first, it seems this death was a terrible accident. But it’s not long before murder is suspected. So the detectives look into the allegations that Tassini had made, to see whether they might have led to his murder. As it turns out, Tassini had learned more than was safe for him to know. And that cleverness, if you want to call it that, cost him his life.
We see that sort of consequence in Shona (now writing as S.G.) MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. In that novel, which takes place in 17th Century Banff, Seaton is undermaster at a local grammar school. One morning, the body of local apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davison, is discovered in Seaton’s classroom. He’s died of poison, and soon enough, music master Charles Thom is arrested and imprisoned for the crime. Thom says he’s innocent, and asks his friend Seaton to help. Seaton reluctantly agrees, and begins to ask questions. One possibility is that Davidson was murdered because of his political leanings. Banff is staunchly Protestant, and there was talk Davidson might have been a spy for Catholic King Philip of Spain. But there are other possibilities, too. And in the end, Seaton finds that Davidson had innocently observed something that gave him more information than was safe for him to have. That knowledge cost him his life.
Many whodunits, cosy and otherwise, include (at least) a second death, where the victim’s killed because of finding out too much about the first murder in the novel. That’s the case in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, the first in her Myrtle Clover series. Myrtle is a retired English teacher who’s not yet ready to be put out to pasture, as the saying goes. Her son Red, who’s the local Chief of Police, sees things otherwise, and ‘volunteers’ his mother to work at the local church. When Myrtle goes to the church, she discovers the body of Parke Stockard. Determined to prove that she’s not ready to be put aside yet, Myrtle decides to investigate. And there are plenty of suspects, too. The victim was both malicious and scheming, and had made enemies all over the small North Carolina town where she’d recently moved. Then there’s another death. One of the members of the church, Kitty Kirk, is killed. As it turns out, she had noticed something about the murderer that would have made it too easy for her to work out what happened to Parke Stockard.
See what I mean? All you have to do is look at crime fiction to conclude that maybe it’s best not to be too observant and clever. At the very least you live longer…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Long Blondes’ Too Clever by Half.