Do you believe in luck? Sometimes, things just seem to fall into place neatly, and other times, all sorts of unexpected large and small disasters happen. Some people put those events down to good or bad luck; others prefer to believe that we make our own fortunes and that good and bad events happen when we plan or don’t plan well. If you think about it, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has a point when he says that murderers are the ultimate gamblers, since they gamble with their own lives. You could say a murderer has to believe in a certain amount of luck; after all, even if a murder has been carefully planned, things can still go wrong.
The murderer in Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table counts on luck. In that novel, the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana invites Poirot and three other sleuths (including detective story author Ariadne Oliver) to an unusual dinner party. Shaitana has also invited four other guests who, or so he claims, have gotten away with murder. Poirot warns Shaitana against putting a murderer “on guard,” but Shaitana insists. On the night of the dinner party, all of the guests play bridge after the meal. The four sleuths play in one room, and the four other guests play in the other. While everyone is playing, someone stabs Mr. Shaitana, who’s been sitting in the same room as the people he claims are murderers. Poirot and the other sleuths then look into the past histories of each of those guests, and what each was doing on the night of Shaitana’s death, to find out who killed Shaitana. Poirot comments on the fact that the murderer had to count on luck; the murderer had to depend on no-one looking up at the time Mr. Shaitana was actually being stabbed. In fact, the murderer’s luck holds, and although there are three people in the same room as the murderer at the time of the killing, no-one sees the murder.
The murderer in Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise depends on luck too. Late one afternoon, copywriter Victor Dean is heading down a spiral staircase at Pym’s Publicity, Ltd., a highly respectable advertising agency. All of a sudden, he tumbles down the stairs to his death. Even though Dean is actually seen going to the stairs and walking down the staircase, no-one sees that Dean was really murdered. In fact, the only clue (at first) that Dean was murdered is that he left a half-finished letter behind in which he claims that someone at the agency is using the agency for illegal purposes. The agency management hires Lord Peter Wimsey to find out the truth about Dean’s death, and Wimsey goes undercover as Dean’s replacement. It turns out that Dean had found out that another employee was using the company’s advertising to set up meetings between a drugs ring and local drug dealers, and was blackmailing that employee. It’s an audacious move to kill Dean in the middle of the afternoon when people are at the office, but the killer counts on no-one paying close attention – and is lucky enough for a time that no-one does.
In Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Last Rituals, a certain amount of luck, if you want to call it that, also plays a role in the murder of Harald Guntlieb, a German student studying in Iceland. When Guntlieb is found strangled, with strange symbols carved into his body and his eyes missing, his former friend Hugi Thórisson is arrested for the crime. The wealthy Guntlieb family doesn’t believe in Thórisson’s guilt, so they hire Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir to investigate, and they send their financial representative, Matthew Reich, to work with her. As Thóra and Matthew slowly find out what happened on the night of the murder, they find that more than one person might have wanted to kill Guntlieb. It turns out that Guntlieb was murdered in a common room in a campus building; anyone with an ID could have passed by. The murderer’s luck holds, though, and no-one sees who killed Guntlieb. It’s not until Thóra and Matthew have put the pieces together that the murderer really admits what happened.
Of course, luck or fortune can go against a murderer, too. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s 4:50 from Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!), a murderer plans what seems to be the perfect crime: a strangling murder on a train, with no-one to see what’s happened. And in fact, the murder seems to go off without a hitch, at least at first. The killing occurs, the body is disposed of, and the killer walks free. But the murderer has one piece of very bad luck right from the beginning. Elspeth McGillicuddy is traveling on a train going in the opposite direction, and sees the murder. She doesn’t see the culprit, but she knows that someone was killed. The police don’t believe her at first, since there is no body and no-one has reported a missing person. But Mrs. McGilluddy’s friend Jane Marple believes her, and before long, the two of them figure out what probably happened to the body. With help from Lucy Eylesbarrow, a professional housekeeper, Miss Marple finds out who the victim was and who the murderer is.
In James Yaffee’s A Nice Murder for Mom, Dave, a former Bronx police officer, works with the Mesa Grande, Colorado Public Defender’s office to find out who killed Stuart Bellamy. Bellamy is an arrogant, pompous professor in the English Department at Mesa Grande College. One night, he’s killed by a blow to the head. Mike Russo, another member of the department and a competitor for tenure, is arrested and charged with the murder. There’s evidence against him, too, since tracks from his car were found near Bellamy’s house and he can’t account for his time satisfactorily. Besides, he’s even threatened Bellamy. Ann Swenson, Mesa Grande’s Public Defender, asks Dave to investigate, because she thinks that Russo may not be guilty. Dave begins to look into the case and finds that more than one person had a reason to want Bellamy dead. In a piece of good luck for the Dave, the murderer has left something behind – something that Russo couldn’t have left. This provides an important clue that leads to the killer.
The police can’t depend on luck, of course, when they investigate a case. They need to get reliable evidence that will be admissible in court. But sometimes, luck does seem to work for sleuths and helps them solve a case. For example, in Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly, Commissario Brunetti and Ispettore Vianello investigate the death of Georgio Tassini, who works nights at a local glass-blowing factory. Tassini has claimed that the glass factories in the area are responsible for quite a lot of illegal toxic waste dumping, and in fact, he blames them for his own daughter’s serious special needs. Late one night, he’s killed in what looks at first like a tragic accident. Through careful police work, Brunetti and Vianello figure out what probably happened. However, they also benefit greatly from a piece of luck that helps them get conclusive evidence against the killer. A conversation with Foa, Brunetti’s “regular” police boat pilot, reveals that the boat company has changed its policy for collecting tickets, to make it harder for people to get away with not paying the fare. Tassini’s murderer has had the bad luck to get caught by this new policy, and the evidence from it gives Brunetti and Vianello the evidence they need to catch the culprit.
It’s never a good idea to really depend on luck; it can be awfully capricious. But somehow, luck seems to play a role both in committing crimes and in solving them. What do you think? Do you think it’s too contrived when luck plays a part in a mystery? Which novels have you enjoyed where there’s a piece of luck involved?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Frank Loesser's Luck Be a Lady.