Thursday, June 3, 2010

Right in Plain View...

Murderers often take great pains to “hide their tracks.” After all, most of them don’t want to be caught. So it’s up to the police or other detectives to find those sometimes-very-subtle clues that lead to the killer. The trouble with that is that sometimes, at least in crime fiction, the sleuth is looking so hard for a subtle clue that he or she overlooks an obvious clue – the clue that’s hiding, so to speak, in plain sight. Some murderers even take advantage of this, and leave clues, or even the bodies of their victims, where they think the sleuth is least likely to find it – right out in the open.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes often solves cases that the police find it hard to solve, because he’s able to make sense of a clue that’s right there for everyone to find. That’s what happens in The Boscombe Valley Mystery. James McCarthy has been arrested for the murder of his father, Charles McCarthy. There’s evidence against him, too. He and his father were seen quarrelling on the day of the murder, and he was the last person anyone saw with his father. His fiancée, Alice Turner, doesn’t believe that James McCarthy is guilty, though. So she begs Inspector Lestrade to take another look at the case. He doesn’t think there’s much to be done about it, but he asks Holmes to investigate. Holmes makes note of one clue – a significant thing that the victim said – that leads him to the real killer and clears James McCarthy’s name.

Over the years, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has learned not to overlook the obvious clue, but even he doesn’t always remember that a clue can sometimes be easy to see. For instance, in Dead Man’s Folly, Poirot visits Nasse House, the home of Sir George Stubbs and his wife, Hattie. Poirot’s been invited there ostensibly to give away the prizes for a Murder Hunt that his friend, Ariadne Oliver, has planned. The Murder Hunt is to be a kind of scavenger hunt as a part of a fête that’s to be held at the house. Poirot’s real reason for being at the fête is that Oliver thinks that there’s something going on at Nasse House. Poirot trusts her judgment and agrees to investigate. Sure enough, on the day of the fête, there’s a murder. Marlene Tucker, who was to play the part of the victim, is strangled. No-one can imagine a reason for her death. She wasn’t wealthy, she hadn’t made enemies, and she doesn’t seem to have come from a violent home. Poirot does learn, though, that Marlene Tucker was in the habit of finding out people’s secrets. That gets him thinking about whose secrets she might have known. He doesn’t discover the murderer, though, until he realizes the value of something obvious that Marlene had said to him. In fact, he’s upset that he didn’t realize the significance of it at first:

“I should have guessed. Guessed long ago. The child practically told me.”

Once Poirot realizes what he’s overlooked, he’s able to identify the murderer.

In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle, there’s also a very obvious clue to the murderer of Sheila Grey. She’s a well-known clothing designer whose fashions are all the rage. While she’s discreet, Sheila’s had many lovers. Her current lover is wealthy Ashton McKell, who lives in the same apartment building. When McKell’s son, Dane, finds out that his father has a mistress, he’s determined to find out who this woman is. When he meets her, Dane McKell becomes smitten, too, and it’s not long before he’s also involved with Sheila Grey. Then one night, she’s shot. Inspector Richard Queen is put in charge of the case, so his son, Ellery, gets involved, too. At first, their suspicions fall on Ashton McKell. When he’s cleared, suspicion moves first to his wife, Lutetia, and then his son. Then, Ellery Queen discovers a clue that’s been there all along. Sheila Grey had a particular way of identifying her killer, and once Queen figures out what that was, he’s able to figure out who really committed the murder. Of course, in true Ellery Queen style, it’s not until the end, when Queen discovers something about that clue, that he makes the right deduction.

Sometimes, fictional murderers use the obvious to “hide in plain sight.” For example, in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Poirot and Hastings investigate a series of murders. The only thing the killings have in common is that before each murder, Poirot receives a cryptic note telling him when and where the murder will take place. Also, an ABC railway guide is found beside each body. Because of these clues, it looks as though a serial killer is at work, and that’s how the police investigate the case. In fact, Scotland Yard appoints a specialist to work on these killings, because it’s thought that they are the work of a madman. The truth is, though, that the killer isn’t a madman at all, but has used the deaths as a “cover.” In other words, the killer has “hidden” a victim in plain sight, so to speak.

That’s also what happens in Ellis Peters’ One Corpse Too Many. In that novel, the ongoing civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud has resulted in a win for the king. Ninety-four of those who were loyal to the empress have been hung for treason, and it’s Cadfael’s sad responsibility to bury the dead. When he prepares to get the bodies, though, he finds that there are actually ninety-five bodies. The “extra” body belongs to an unidentified young man who was strangled and whose body was placed with the others to “hide it.” Before long, the young man, Nick Faintree, has been identified. He’s a squire for the leader of the rebels against King Stephen, and had been entrusted to help spirit the rebel leader’s treasure to safety. Now, Cadfael is determined to find out who killed him and what happened to the treasure. In the end, he discovers who the murderer was, and finds out about the betrayal that led to Faintree’s death.

In The Smoke, Tony Broadbent offers very interesting historical crime fiction about a thief who hides in plain sight, so to speak. Jehtro is a former cat burglar who saw service in the Merchant Navy during World War II. Now, in 1947 London, he’s trying to convince the world that he’s gone straight. He gets a job as a stagehand in London’s West End theatres and music halls, and does his best to get everyone thinking that he’s left his life of crime behind. The reality is, though, that Jethro is using his stagehand work as a cover. He’s really got his eye on some of London’s wealthy Belgravia and Mayfair homes, among others. Most of London’s underworld is sure that Jethro hasn’t gone straight, but because he’s right in plain view, so to speak, nothing can really be traced to him. Then, he breaks into the Russian Embassy and steals some jewels that belong to the Ambassador’s wife. Now, he comes to the attention of MI5, who wants him to break in again and retrieve a secret code for them. MI5 is not the only group interested in Jethro, either. In the end, Jethro has to play a deadly game with Secret Service members, Scotland Yard, and local gangsters, among others, if he’s going to stay alive.

On one hand, clues that hide in plain sight can be fascinating and engaging, especially if the reader looks back later and thinks, “It was there all the time!” On the other, that plot point can easily fall flat if the clue is so obvious that the sleuth would have to have noticed it – but doesn’t. The same is true of murderers where the killer “hides” the body among others. Still, if it’s done well, the “in plain sight” plot point can be effective. Have you enjoyed this kind of crime fiction? Which novels have you liked?


  1. The key is for me, you don't want to make it either too plain or to hidden. You want the readers to struggle with the answer but when it hits them, they say, "should have known."


  2. I'm sure I have enjoyed novels like this, but I can't think of a good example just now - the curse of a terrible memory. I agree with Clarissa, it is a clever thing for an author to be able to do and fool the reader so she/he thinks "aha". Sometimes it does not work, eg in a book I have just read by Peter James where there was an obvious hiding place and I as a reader was "screaming" at the police "look there" but of course they did not hear me.

  3. Clarissa - Oh, you put that so well! It's a balance, isn't it, between the clue (or the body) to be either too plain or too hidden. Either way is annoying: too easy and the reader is bored; too difficult and the reader is cheated.

    Maxine - LOL! I've had that happen, too, where I knew - before the fictional detective did - where the body/clue/etc. was, and wanted to say, "It's right over there!" and of course, could not. Sometimes that is really annoying. But I've also read books where the clue did turn out to be more obvious, and I just didn't pick up on it. Of course, neither did the detective, so I guess that's not as bad ; ).

  4. There's the tightrope every mystery writer must walk - how to hide the clues, motive, etc. and yet NOT hide it too well. I cannot stand books that reveal vital information in the sleuth's final summing up. However, you can't make it too easy, either - and the real clues are always going to jump out at the author as she rereads and polishes her newest manuscript. Thank heavens for first and second readers - not to mention editors!

  5. Elspeth - I couldn't have said it better myself. Those clues always really are blatantly there if one's an author, and it takes an angel of a beta reader to be honest (yet gentle!) enough to point it out when the clues are too obvious or too subtle. Neither is good. I don't know where I'd be without my beta readers...

    And I'm with you; I do not like it when the author reveals something vital when the sleuth tells all. Not fair, not fair, say I!

  6. Oh, I love tiny clues which give you an idea what it´s all about but you are not sure until the ending.

  7. Oh, so do I! When I read your comment, I thought of Agatha Christie's Hallowe'en Party, where we get a clue to the killer early in the book, but I at least,didn't even think about it until Poirot points it out towards the end of the novel. And it's right there the whole time.