An interesting post from Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery has got me thinking about timing. In her post (which you should read) about Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love, Tracy points out that James Bond doesn’t make an appearance in that novel until later in the plot. And that’s not the only story in which we see that.
When the sleuth doesn’t come into the story until later, the author has to build interest and suspense in other ways. It might be through following other characters; or, the author may choose to focus on the buildup to the murder or other crime. There are other approaches, too. Whichever choice the author makes, the key to having the sleuth come into the story later is ensuring that there’s some way to engage the reader.
For example, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone begins with the removal of a valuable diamond called the Moonstone from a palace in India. The thief, Colonel John Herncastle, later bequeaths the stone to his niece, Rachel Verinder, as a gift for her eighteenth birthday. However, it’s not the generous bequest it may seem to be. The story is that the stone curses anyone who takes it from its rightful place, and misfortune soon befalls the Verinder family. First, the stone is stolen from Rachel on the night she receives it. Then, second housemaid Rosanna Spearman, who has her own troubled history, disappears and is later found to have committed suicide. Sergeant Cuff investigates the robbery, and, after a two-year search, traces the stone. He doesn’t make an appearance, though, until later in the novel. Before we meet Cuff, we learn the story of the stone, of the Herncastle and Verinder families and staffs, and of the curse.
In Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger, Inspector Cockrill investigates the death of postman Joseph Higgins. It seems that Higgins was taken to Heron Park Hospital, where he was operated on for a broken femur. But he died on the table in what everyone thinks is a tragic accident. In fact, Cockrill himself thinks so at first. But one night at a party, Sister Marion Bates, who is a nurse at the hospital, has too much to drink, and says that she knows Higgins was murdered, and how it was done. She herself is then killed. And Higgins’ widow had already insisted he was murdered. So Cockrill starts to ask questions and investigate more thoroughly. This story doesn’t begin with the death or with Cockrill. It starts as Higgins is making his rounds, delivering letters to the people who are later mixed up in this murder case. Slowly, we learn who they are, what brought them to Heron Park, and a bit about their histories. Cockrill doesn’t come into the story until a bit later. Instead, Brand builds engagement by introducing the other characters and showing how they all know Higgins, and what their relationships are to one another.
Agatha Christie’s The Hollow begins as a group of people plan for a weekend at The Hollow, which is the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Slowly, we get to know a little about Sir Henry and Lady Lucy. We also meet the rest of the house party. The guests are to be well-known sculptor Henrietta Savernake, Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife Gerda, and another relative, Midge Hardcastle. Also invited are relatives Edward Angkatell and David Angkatell. Christie gives background detail on all of these characters and their network of relationships (and those turn out to be very important in the story). Everyone arrives, and the weekend begins. Hercule Poirot, who’s taken a nearby cottage, is invited for lunch on the Sunday, so he doesn’t make an appearance until farther along in the story. When he does, though, he finds that Christow has been shot, and his killer is holding the weapon. At first, he thinks it’s a macabre tableau arranged for his ‘amusement.’ But it turns out to be quite real. The case seems very straightforward, and that’s how Inspector Grange looks at it. But Poirot isn’t sure. As he investigates, he finds that the case is quite different to what it seems at first glance.
And then there’s Karin Fossum’s Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride). That novel begins as we meet Gunder Jormann, who’s lived a very quiet life in the Norwegian village of Elvestad. He’s no longer young, but he’s in reasonable physical shape and he’s a steady worker. In other words, he’s a solid prospect for marriage, and that’s what he wants to do. He becomes fascinated with the idea of choosing a bride from India, and makes his plans to travel to Mumbai. All of this shocks his sister, Marie, who finds many reasons he shouldn’t go ahead with his plan. But Gundar heads to Mumbai, anyway. Soon after his arrival, he meets Poona Bai and is soon smitten. It’s not long before he proposes marriage, and she accepts. She has to take care of the details of ending her time in India, and get the necessary papers to go to Norway. So Gundar returns to Elvestad with the agreement that Poona will join him as soon as possible. On the day of her return, though, Gundar isn’t able to meet her at the airport. Marie has been in a tragic accident, and he can’t leave her. So he delegates a friend to meet Poona. But that friend and Poona miss each other. The next morning, Poona’s body is found in a field not far from Gundar’s home. Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer, and his assistant Jacob Skarre, investigate Poona’s death. But they don’t make an appearance until later in the novel. Instead, the novel’s focus at the beginning is Gundar, his trip to Mumbai, his meeting with Poona, and his relationship with Marie and with the other people of Elvestad. Fossum also gives background information on those other residents.
It can be tricky to have the sleuth make an appearance later in a crime novel, but it can be successful. Which examples of this have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tavares’ Too Late.