Thursday, April 15, 2010

"Cat's Paws"

Many murders, both in real life and in crime fiction, are planned and committed by just one person. Either the killer is holding a grudge, or hopes for some kind of gain from the killing, or kills in the heat of passion. Sometimes, though, the killer chooses a “cat’s paw” – an unwitting accomplice whom the killer uses as a tool to accomplish her or his purpose. On one hand, taking advantage of a “cat’s paw” allows the killer to “hide” behind someone else. On the other hand, most people don’t take kindly to being duped, especially if they’ve helped to cover a murder. This often means that the “cat’s paw” is a potential threat to the killer. Despite that risk, “cat’s paws” can be very useful, and there are certainly plenty of them in crime fiction.

Several of Agatha Christie’s novels feature the use of a “cat’s paw.” For example, in Thirteen at Dinner (AKA Lord Edgware Dies), Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of the 4th Baron Edgware. Edgware’s wife, actress Jane Wilkinson, is the prime suspect. She’s eager to free herself so that she can marry the Duke of Merton. In fact, she asked Poirot to help her persuade Edgware to give her a divorce. She was also overheard saying that if she couldn’t get free of her husband, she’d have to “go round in a taxi and bump him off myself.” Also, on the night of the murder, someone looking exactly like Jane Wilkinson, and giving her name, came to see Edgware just before he was killed. The only problem with the case against Jane Wilkinson is that she claims she was attending a dinner party on the night in question. The host, the staff, and the other guests are all prepared to swear that she was there, too. So it seems that someone else must have killed Edgware. In the end, Poirot finds out who murdered Edgware and why; he also finds out that the killer has used two “cat’s paws” to accomplish that purpose.

There’s another fine example of a “cat’s paw” in Christie’s Third Girl. In that novel, Poirot gets a visit from a young woman, Norma Restarick, who says that she may have committed a murder. Before Poirot can even get her name, much less the details of the alleged crime, she leaves, saying that after all, he’s too old. With the help of his friend, detective story author Ariadne Oliver, Poirot finds out Norma Restarick’s identity and he and Oliver begin to try to find out if a murder was committed, and whether Norma was involved in the crime. After some searching, Poirot and Oliver discover that there was, indeed, an unexpected death. They’re just putting the pieces of that puzzle together when another murder occurs, and Norma Restarick is found next to the body, holding the murder weapon. In the end, Poirot finds out (with help from Oliver) who the murderer of both victims is. He’s also able to show that the murderer used Norma Restarick as a dupe in both cases.

In Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, where we meet another “cat’s paw,” Queen takes a small house near Hollywood. His intention is to focus on his writing, but that plan is soon scuttled when he gets a visit from Lauren Hill. She’s recently lost her adoptive father, Leander Hill, to a heart attack, and is convinced that his death was deliberate. When Queen asks her for details, Lauren tells him that before his death, her father had received the gruesome gift of a dead dog, together with a cryptic note that more was to come. She also tells Queen that her father’s business partner, Roger Priam, has also been receiving strange gifts, although she knows less about those. When Queen approaches Priam about what’s been happening, he’s sharply rebuffed. Priam wants to handle his own problems, and is not interested in any help from Queen. Priam continues to receive notes and frightening packages, and then one day, he has a narrow escape from death. Despite Priam’s refusal to co-operate, Queen finds out who’s responsible for Leander Hill’s death and for the attack on Roger Priam. It turns out that the real killer has made very clever use of a “cat’s paw” in engineering everything – such clever use, in fact, that even Queen doesn’t have the proof he needs to get the police involved. So, in the end, Queen chooses a very inventive way of keeping tabs on the murderer.

We also see a very clear example of a “cat’s paw” in Emma Lathen’s Murder to Go. Clyde Sweeney is a ne’er do well who’s gotten a job as a delivery driver for Chicken Tonight, a fast food franchise poised for real success. Chicken Tonight is also poised for a merger with Southeastern Insurance. Sweeney is bribed to poison some of the ingredients that he’s transporting from Chicken Tonight’s warehouse to some of its stores, and several customers are sickened. One of them even dies. When Sweeney flees after the death, everyone assumes that he’s solely responsible for the crimes. The real truth is quite different, though, as Sloan Guaranty Bank senior vice president John Putnam Thatcher finds out. The Sloan has a vested interest in Chicken Tonight and the merger, so Thatcher’s been asked to vet both companies; what he finds is that someone else used Sweeney as a dupe in order to scuttle the merger and ruin Chicken Tonight.

Appropriately enough, there’s also a “cat’s paw” plot in Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Said Cheese. A mysterious woman who calls herself Ona Dolman has moved into the small town of Pickax, “400 miles north of nowhere,” and is staying at the local hotel. Everyone speculates about her, but no-one really knows who she is or why she’s there. One day, a stranger delivers flowers to the hotel for Ona, but the flowers contain a bomb. The resulting blast kills Anne Marie Toms, one of the chambermaids, and wounds two other people. Then, Ona Dolman, for whom the bomb was intended, suddenly leaves town. Jim Qwilleran, columnist for the Moose County Something, and Braun’s sleuth, has a newsman’s curiosity about the bombing and the arrival and disappearance of Ona Dolman. Before he can put the pieces together, though, there’s another death, this time what looks like an armed robbery. Gradually, Qwilleran connects the events, and they seem to center around Aubrey Scotten, a local beekeeper who also makes his own honey. Scotten’s truck was seen at the hotel on the day of the bombing, and it turns out that it was Scotten who delivered the flowers. Scotten’s role seems even clearer when Victor Greer, a tourist who’s visiting the area to do some fishing, is found in a cabin on Scotten’s property, stung to death. What Qwilleran discovers is that Greer’s death is also connected to the other deaths, and that Aubrey Scotten has been used as a “cat’s paw” by the murderer.

Ross McDonald tells the story of a “cat’s paw” in his short story, The Singing Pigeon. His sleuth, Lew Archer, has just crossed the border from Mexico into the U.S. when he stops for the night at the Siesta Motel, a small, off-the-beaten-path inn. At first, the manager seems unwilling to give Archer a room. He’s finally persuaded and Archer settles in for the night. The next morning, he hears a young woman screaming and sees that she’s got blood on one of her hands. The matter is quickly hushed up, and Archer is all but asked to leave the motel. He checks out, but soon finds an abandoned car in which he sees a dead man – with a towel from the hotel wrapped around him. Archer returns to the hotel and begins to investigate the death. While he’s trying to find out what happens, the young woman disappears. Archer believes that her disappearance is related to the murder, and goes in search of her. What he finds is that the murdered man and the young woman’s disappearance were connected to a group of mobsters, and that a hotel employee has been used as a “cat’s paw” to kill the man.

Stories that involve “cat’s paws” can be tricky because it can be difficult to believe that someone would allow her or himself to be used. Yet, it happens, and when it’s well-written, the “cat’s paw” strategy can add layers of interest and plot twists to a story. Do you enjoy mysteries that use this plot point? Which ones have you especially liked?


  1. Another informative post - I had never heard of the term "Cat's Paws" - again, it seems as if Agatha Christie is an expert at this. I can't think of a specific example, but I enjoyed reading yours!

  2. I agree if the author does it right, involving "cat paws" can make for a very intriguing plot. This is especially true if the author gives the impression that the person being used also has a reason or at least a hint of a reason to want the victim killed. Another great post that gets you thinking.

    Thoughts in Progress

  3. Margot: again food for thought! Thank you!

    I just had to look up cat's paw: "Cat's paw is a phrase derived from La Fontaine's fable, "The Monkey and the Cat", referring to one used unwittingly by another to accomplish his own purposes. In the story, a monkey convinces an unwitting cat to pull chestnuts from a hot fire. As the cat scoops the chestnuts from the fire one by one, burning his paw in the process, the monkey eagerly gobbles them up, leaving none for the cat."


  4. Book Mole - Thank you : ). The more I think about Agatha Christie's writing, the more I realize how skilled she was at so many things. I've often thought that Christie at her weakest was better than many people are at their strongest.

    Mason - I agree; if the person who's being used as a dupe also has a reason (or may have a reason) to murder the victim, that really can add an interesting twist to the plot. I like the way you think : ).

    Christine - Very kind of you : ). Thanks, too, very much, for sharing that fable. I always think it's really, really interesting to learn where expressions come from, and that's an interesting one.

  5. The unwitting accomplice - very useful and very dangerous. The killer must be willing to take the risk that the unwitting doesn't turn to knowing, or be willing (or planning) to also rid themselves of this person when that does occur.

    Your post is wonderful as always, Margot, but you had me with that lovely picture of the cat's paw. I want that kitty! You can never have too many cats. It's just true. Accept it and move beyond it.

  6. Elspeth - LOL! That particular sweet little set of paws belongs to Valen, who owns a good friend of mine, and who was kind enough to model for me : ). I'll tell him he's got a new fan; I'm sure he'll be pleased. Not surprised. Just pleased ; ).

    You're right, too, about the risks one takes with an unwitting accomplice. One never knows when the accmoplice will "get wise" and devise her or his own plan (which could be quite risky for the murderer). And some accomplices, een if they don't mean to, just bungle things. That can be dangerous, too. Still, they do make for an interesting plot when they're well-written.

  7. My comment is only tangentially on-topic (if at all), but where would mystery/crime novelists be without the animal kingdom? We have cat's paws and red herrings. A spy might be a fly on the wall to hear the stool pigeon rat out the mole so he can ferret out the copycat killer. Of course the stool pigeon, who's really a wolf in sheep's clothing, won't talk turkey and clams up because he doesn't want to be out-foxed into being the scapegoat.

    Sorry. Sometimes I'm just a birdbrained ass!

  8. Bob - LOL! It may be off-topic, but your point is very well-taken, actually. I really enjoyed your example phrases, too! : ). It's so odd you would mention those phrases, because we use them without even thinking. Hmmm...fodder for another post, methinks : ). Thank you.