Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Mishaps and "Curve Balls"

An interesting post from Michele at Southern City Mysteries got me thinking about how often we have to adapt to things that happen to us. I’m not talking here about the terrible tragedies that can, sadly, occur in anyone’s life. I’m talking more of smaller, occasionally frustrating, things that throw us off course, so to speak. We’ve all had days where we walked out to the car only to find a flat tire. Or we’re caught in a long traffic jam. Or a coat tears, right on the way out the door. I’m sure you could all give me as many examples as I could ever offer. Those mishaps – those “curve balls” certainly happen often enough in real life, and it can add life, some humor, interest and a real dose of reality when they also happen in crime fiction. Sleuths have to be especially adaptable when “curve balls” happen, because otherwise, it’s too easy to get caught up and lose sight of the investigation. If a sleuth doesn’t learn to adapt, s/he isn’t going to be very successful.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is not exactly fond of having to adapt; he’s quite meticulous and orderly. But that doesn’t mean he can’t adapt when he has to do so. For instance, in the short story, The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge, which appears in Poirot Investigates, Poirot has come down with influenza. He’s convalescing when he and Hastings get a visit from Roger Havering, who’s come from Derbyshire to ask Poirot’s help. Havering’s uncle, Harrington Pace, has been shot, and Havering’s wife, Zoe, has asked him to bring a detective to help solve the murder. Poirot finds himself unable to investigate because of his illness, so he sends Hastings in his stead. Havering’s not convinced at first that Hastings can be of help, but he agrees. When Havering and Hastings get to Derbyshire, they find Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp in charge of the murder investigation. At first, it appears that the murder was committed by an unknown man from Pace’s past. However, once Hastings cables Poirot information about what the witnesses say, and what’s known about the murder, Poirot guesses that the real truth of the murder is quite different. In a series of cables, he gives Hastings instructions, and in the end, is able to point Japp towards the real murderer.

Several mishaps come up in Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. In that novel, Hercule Poirot is approached by an old acquaintance, Superintendent Spence. Spence was assigned to the case of the murder of Mrs. McGinty, a village charwoman. All of the evidence pointed to her lodger, James Bentley, but Spence has become convinced that, despite appearances, Bentley is innocent. So Spence asks Poirot to investigate. Poirot agrees and goes to the village of Broadhinny, where he stays at a Guest House belonging to Maureen Summerhayes. The guest house is badly managed, the furniture is uncomfortable, and the doors and windows don’t really shut all the way. So Poirot has to adapt to more than one serious inconvenience while he’s there. It’s not just Poirot who has mishaps, either. His hostess, Maureen Summerhayes, has to deal with perpetual disorganization, sick animals, late bills and lots more. Those domestic scenes lend interesting comic relief to the novel. So does the presence of fictional detective story author Ariadne Oliver, who’s in town to work with local playwright Robin Upward on an adaptation of one of her novels into book form. The first time Oliver appears in the novel, she has a mishap with a bag of apples that splits, spilling the contents all over the road. Then, she notices she’s sat on her hat. Those mishaps lend sympathy to her character, and a touch of reality.

In Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth, Queen has agreed to lend his name and some expertise to a new detective agency. Beau Rummell, the son of an old colleague of Inspector Richard Queen, has decided to go into business and wants Queen’s name to add cachet and credibility to the enterprise. No sooner does the agency open when the partners get their first client, Cadmus Cole. Cole is a very eccentric millionaire who’s spent most of his adulthood at sea. He hires the agency on retainer, claiming that they’ll know what their case is when the time comes. The retainer is quite large, so Queen and Rummell agree. Soon afterwards, Queen is struck by appendicitis, and unable to work. So, when word comes of Cadmus Cole’s death, Queen has to adapt to learning all of the information about the case at secondhand, so to speak. It turns out that Cole wants the agency to locate his only relatives. One, Kerrie Shawn, is an aspiring Hollywood actress. The other, Margo Cole, has spent most of her life in France. With Queen unable to work, he sends Rummell to Hollywood to find Kerrie Shawn, and uses his recuperating time to track down Margo Cole through a series of telephone calls, letters and cables. Both young women are located, and move into Cole’s home in Tarrytown – a condition of his will. Immediately, the two young women take a dislike to each other. Then, Margo Cole is shot. Kerrie, who’s now set to inherit everything, is the natural suspect, but Rummell’s fallen in love with her, and is determined to clear her name. So with Queen’s help, he sets out to solve the murder.

Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum runs into frequent mishaps while she’s on her cases. Plum is a bounty hunter who works for the bail bond agency run by her cousin, Vincent Plum. However, she’d never intended to become a bounty hunter, so she’s not exactly the most skilled agent in the business. Plum has a habit of crashing cars, falling off ladders and getting waylaid, among other misadventures. Still, she’s adaptable, thinks quickly and works with a team of dependable people. So she’s able to cope with what happens to her and find out the truth behind her cases. In this series, Plum’s habitual mishaps add an interesting comic element to the stories.

The same is true in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s novels about Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. Thóra is a single mother of two children, sixteen-year-old Gylfi and six-year-old Sóley. Helping them manage their lives, as well as manage her own, makes for plenty of “curve balls” such as being late to pick Sóley up from school, forgetting keys, and other annoyances. And in My Soul to Take, Thóra has to cope with a real family “curve ball.” She’s investigating a brutal murder at a spa resort owned by a client who’s accused of the crime. While she’s at the resort, Thóra plans for her children to stay with their father. Thóra ‘s son Gylfi, though, has other plans, and when he finds out Thóra has to extend her stay at the resort, he decides he’s had enough. So he hijacks the family vehicle and takes his sister and his girlfriend, Sigga, with him. Now, as though the investigation weren’t enough, Thóra has to cope with tracking down her children and the vehicle, listening to her ex-husband’s recriminations and all of this while appearing to be completely professional and working on the case at hand. Of course it’s frightening for a parent, and we do feel that, but Thóra’s misadventures with her children also add welcome humor to these novels.

Sometimes, it’s a “curve ball” that gets a sleuth involved in a case in the first place. For instance, Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors begins with a car accident. Late on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, Lord Peter Wimsey and his assistant, Mervyn Bunter, travel too quickly across a bridge and crash on the other side of it. Unable to do anything about the car themselves, they begin to look for the nearest town where they can get help and get the car repaired. They end up in the village of Fenchurch Saint Paul, where they find that one of the church’s bellringers has taken ill and can’t do the traditional bellringing for New Year’s Eve. So Wimsey takes his place. The next morning, the squire’s wife dies. After the funeral, Wimsey and Bunter take their leave. Some months later, the squire himself dies, but when the grave is opened to place his body next to that of his wife, another corpse is found there. Lord Peter returns to investigate, and finds out that the mysterious body is connected with a case of stolen jewels, and with the ringning of the church bells.

In Colin Dexter’s The Wench is Dead, Inspector Morse has been sidelined with a bleeding ulcer. On doctor’s orders to rest, he’s in the hospital, and comes upon a book in the hospital’s library. The book deals with the 1859 death of Joanna Franks, whose body was found in the Oxford Canal. Two men were convicted and hung for the murder, but after reading through the book, Morse begins to believe that they were innocent. So Morse, never an easy patient, uses his convalescence to solve the case himself. It’s a very interesting blend of past and present as we slowly learn what really happened to Joanna Franks.

And then there’s the story of Sigmundo Salvatrio, whom we meet in Pablo de Santis’ The Paris Enigma. He’s learning to be a detective at the Buenos Aires detective academy run by the great Argentine detective, Renato Craig. Craig is planning to attend a gathering of world-famous detectives at the Paris World’s Fair, since he co-founded the group. After a traumatic incident, though, Craig becomes ill and unable to attend, so he sends Salvatrio in his place. It’s that mishap that gets Salvatrio involved in investigating the murder of Louis Dabron, a Paris detective who’s a member of the group of detectives that Craig founded.

Mishaps and “curve balls” both large and small happen to everyone, so we can identify with sleuths when they, too, have to adapt to those mishaps. Which novels have you enjoyed where the sleuth had to deal with a “curve ball?”


  1. 'Curve balls' do happen in everyday life. Reading about Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum made me think of Anne George and the delightful murder mysteries she wrote about two sisters. Sister and Mouse are always running into mishaps and curve balls and that's why their mysteries are so funny, but at the same time the mishaps did help sometimes. Enjoyed your post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Mason - Thank you : ) And thanks for reminding me of the Southern Sister mysteries; they are funny, aren't they? And yes, some of it definitely has to do with the fact that they deal with a lot of mishaps. Those are great examples, too, of how mishaps can help solve mysteries. I'm glad you brought these stories up.

  3. I love it when characters are placed in situations out of their norms. I love seeing them squirm and having to adjust and often coming out stronger characters. I'm really into character based novels that focus on this... especially mysteries.


  4. Clarissa - Oh, me, too! That's the thing that can be the most interesting: when characters have to go through situations and become stronger for it. They can be engrossing.