It’s surprisingly easy to misinterpret what you see and hear. After all, we may not see or hear accurately. Or, we may see or hear accurately enough, but not understand what’s really going on. Sometimes, those misinterpretations are funny; sometimes they’re downright embarrassing.
In crime fiction, misinterpretations can be dangerous. At the very least, they can bring their own challenges. I’m not talking here of deliberate misdirection. That’d be too easy! Rather, I’m talking about a simple misunderstanding. Here are just a few examples. I know you’ll think of more.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery concerns the murder of Charles McCarthy. His son, James, was overheard quarreling with the victim right before the murder, and he had motive, too. So, the police quickly settle on him as the chief suspect. But his fiancée, Alice Turner, is convinced that he is innocent. So, she goes to the police and asks them to re-investigate. Inspector Lestrade may have his faults, but he doesn’t want an innocent man hung. So, he asks Sherlock Holmes to look into the matter, and Holmes agrees. It turns out that a single misinterpreted phrase is an important clue to the real murderer. Once Holmes works out what that phrase meant, he finds out who the guilty person is.
In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings work with the police to find a killer who has murdered several people. Each death is prefaced by a cryptic warning note to Poirot. And, an ABC railway guide is found near each body. The second victim is Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Barnard, whose body is found on a beach early one morning. Her older sister, Megan, hears the news and, of course, immediately travels from London, where she lives and works, to Bexhill-on-Sea, where her family lives. When she gets to her parents’ home, Poirot and Hastings are already there with the police. She misinterprets their purpose and says,
‘‘I don’t think I’ve got anything to say to you. My sister was a nice, bright girl with no men friends. Good morning.’’
When Hastings explains that he’s not a reporter, she sees that she’s misunderstood, and turns out to be helpful to them.
In Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, we meet Guy Haines, who is on a cross-country rail trip to visit his estranged wife. During the journey, he meets Charles Anthony Bruno, and the two men strike up a conversation. They end up sharing their stories, and Bruno comes up with an idea. He has reason to want his father dead, and there’s no love lost between Haines and his wife. So, Bruno suggests that each commit the other’s murder. His view is, if Haines kills his father, and he kills Haines’ wife, neither has a motive, and both will get away with the crime. Haines passes off Bruno’s suggestion as a joke, or at most, idle chat, and agrees in the same spirit. But he has misinterpreted Bruno, who was actually being quite serious. That misunderstanding leads to some tragic places.
Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost features ten-year-old Kate Meaney, who wants very much to be a detective. In fact, she has her own agency, Falcon Investigations. A new mall, Green Oaks Shopping Center, has been constructed, and she decides that it’s a good place to look for suspicious people and activity. She spends quite a lot of time there, and watches what people do. And it’s interesting to see how she misinterprets those activities, considering them highly suspicious, when in fact, they’re not. Kate is perfectly content with her life, but her grandmother, Ivy, thinks she ought to go away to school. So, she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate takes the bus to the school, but she doesn’t return. A thorough search doesn’t yield any clues, either – not even a body. Twenty years later, a mall security guard named Kurt starts seeing strange images on his camera – a young girl who looks a lot like Kate. One night, he meets Lisa Palmer, who’s an assistant manager at one of the mall stores, and who knew Kate. They form an awkward sort of friendship and, each in a different way, go back to the past, and we learn what happened to Kate.
Gianrico Carofiglio’s Involuntary Witness introduces attorney Guido Guerrieri, who lives and works in Bari. He gets a new client, Abdou Thiam, who’s been arrested for the abduction and murder of nine-year-old Francesco Rubino. Thiam says that he’s innocent, but this isn’t going to be an easy case. There is evidence against him. Still, Guerrieri goes to work, and starts gathering information and speaking to witnesses. And, in the end, he finds that one misinterpretation has made a major difference in this investigation. Once he uncovers that misinterpretation, he’s able to learn more about the truth of what happened to the boy.
It’s easy to misunderstand or misinterpret what we hear and see. That’s especially true if we don’t know the real story, so to speak. It’s little wonder that these misunderstandings come up as they do in crime fiction. And it can add much to a story when that happens.
NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Eva and Magaldi/Eva, Beware of the City.