Sunday, August 15, 2010

Luck Be a Lady Tonight*

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.


  1. Luck or serendipity? Having the solving of a murder depend out straight out luck can be annoying, but then in real life, luck often plays a part in where we get to and what we find out. I don't mind if luck plays a part when you can see the detective is angling that way anyhow and it confirms a suspicion. An example is Ngaio Marsh's The Nursing Home Murder, where a lucky reaction by another player helps Alleyn realise the key to the case, but he'd already had his suspicions.
    I'd be really annoyed if straight out luck at the end of a novel solved the crime. It would be like having a whole new character you hadn't even been introduced to be announced as the murderer!

    From the Killer's perspective a bit of luck can add to the adrenaline rush of doing. Yes I'm taking a risk being caught out, but hell, I did it, what a rush!

  2. Vanda - I like your choice of the word serendipity. When it's just simple dumb luck that leads to a solution, then yes, it can be really annoying. It's almost as though the sleuth didn't use her or his wits at all. That's a let-down, at least to me. But yes, if the sleuth has suspicions anyway, and then a piece of luck confirms them? That can work quite well. I like your Ngaio Marsh example (actually, I'm very glad that you include her books when you comment - wasn't she just a wonderful writer?). I also thought of Tony Hillerman's The Ghostway, where Jim Chee has suspicions about a guy he's tracking down, and a lucky conversation with some residents of a nursing home confirms what he thinks. That sort of luck really does happen in real life, and can work well in a novel.

    I think you're right, too, that a bit of luck probably does add to the rush if you're the murderer. The chance of being nicked and having got away with it has got to add to that rush. I wonder if that's why some murderers then get cocky and forget that things could have gone the other way...

  3. A bit of luck thrown in here and there can be realistic, but too much luck would be unbelievable for me. These are all good examples. As always, you've stirred my imagination.

    Thoughts in Progress

  4. Mason - Why thank you : ). All writers love to hear that : ). And you're right; a little piece of luck here and there could certainly happen in real life. Too much, though, and it starts to seem contrived.

  5. I think if the mystery is solved with luck, that's very hard for the reader to stomach. I hate when that happens. It makes the detectives look incompetent and stupid. However, if the witness to the murder happens to be in the right place at the wrong time or if the murderer takes chances to kill when they feel it necessary, that's interesting.

    Great post.


  6. Interesting that in THE ABC MURDERS Christie actually describes the plot for Mr Shaitana's murder Margot. Poirot outlines it for Hastings

  7. I like it when a lucky occurrence helps the sleuth who really already suspects the solution to the crime. After all, luck usually hasn't been with them the whole rest of the book, since the killer is still on the loose--it's nice to have a stroke of luck near the long as the sleuth has already basically figured things out but needs proof, etc.

  8. Clarissa - I know what you mean. In fact, when I was writing this post, that's exactly what I was thinking; the sleuth looks incompetent if it's luck that solves the crime. On the other hand, little bits of good fortune (such as a witness happening to see something)can work well. and to an extent, really, all killers take chances...

    Kerrie - I always thought that was interesting, too, that Poirot describes the "perfect" sort of murder to Hastings in Cards on the Table - and it's the plot for Cards on the Table. If my sources are right, too, they were published in the same year. Really interesting...

    Elizabeth - Oh, I agree. It's so much better if the sleuth already has suspicions of who's committed a crime. Then some luck can work into the plot rather well. And, as you say, it makes sense, too, since they haven't yet been lucky enough to catch the criminal. But if the sleuth relies completely on luck, I don't like that nearly as much. I like sleuths to be able to figure things out.

  9. Luck in small doses, I think. Or what appears to be luck isn't. You need some "luck" to pull it off.

  10. Patti - Well-put! I think that's just it. A dash of luck that might happen to anyone can help a story along. Too much, to me, makes a story less credible.

  11. Nice post, Margot! Wasn't it Chandler who said of Busman's Honeymoon that a murderer who depends so much on Providence is in the wrong business?

  12. Martin - Thank you : )! And yes, I think you have that right about Chandler. Wise murderers do not depend on Providence; they try to plan. If luck helps them, so much the better. Same goes for sleuths, I think.

  13. I agree with everyone that luck can be annoying to the reader if it intrudes too much on the plot in the ways described. It's good when as a reader one is dreading an "over-coincidental" or lucky plot, but one gradually realises that the author is fooling you, and there's a prosaic explanation lurking there which is revealed later.

  14. Maxine - Oh, I know exactly what you mean. "Pure luck," so to speak, really can be off-putting, since it's just too neat and easy. But yes, if the reader can get fooled into thinking something was lucky, but it wasn't, then yes, that's engaging. Agatha Christie does that more than once in her novels, and she's far from the only one.