Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Getting Leads From Unexpected Sources...

One of the reasons that police investigations can take a long time is that the police have to follow all sorts of leads that they get. Wise detectives know that they can get valuable information from lots of different sources, so they don’t neglect a lead, no matter how unlikely it seems or how unreliable the witness appears. In crime fiction, too, leads can come from very unlikely sources, including people that you wouldn’t expect. So the savvy crime fiction reader knows to pay attention to what everybody says and not discount it, even if the person is old, very young, forgetful, uneducated or for some other reason seems unreliable.

There are a few examples of the unlikely lead in Agatha Christie’s The Clocks. In that novel, Special Services operative Colin Lamb is on the trail of a spy ring that seems to be operating in the town of Crowdean. He’s walking around a particular development in the town one day when a young woman named Sheila Webb rushes out of one of the houses screaming that there’s a dead man inside. Lamb calms Sheila down and goes inside to see for himself. Sure enough, a man is lying dead on the sitting-room floor. Colin is soon drawn into the investigation of the man’s murder. It’s an unusual kind of case, so Colin visits his father’s friend Hercule Poirot and challenges him to solve it. Poirot agrees, and works with Lamb to make sense of the evidence and what witnesses say. The police make door-to-door inquires about the murders, and one of the people they interview is Mrs. Hemming, who live next door to the house where the dead man was found. Mrs. Hemming is an odd sort of woman whose only interest in life is her seventeen cats. She doesn’t really know anyone else who lives nearby, and seems quite vague in her responses. In fact, she’s just the sort of witness who seems absolutely useless. But she says one very illuminating thing when she’s told that the dead man didn’t live in the house where he was found:

”He came there to be murdered. How odd.”

As it turns out, that’s exactly what happened, and that small lead helps Poirot figure out how the murder occurred. Sheila Webb works for a typewriting service, which is where we meet Edna Brent, another typist and a very unlikely source for a lead. She’s rather dim-witted, slow in thinking and not particularly intuitive. But she notices something that proves to be a very important lead in the case, and when Poirot finds out what she noticed, he’s got a critical piece of the puzzle.

There’s also an unlikely witness in Christie’s The ABC Murders, in which Poirot and Hastings work with the police to solve a group of murders that seem to be the work of a serial killer. The police and Poirot interview members of the families that have been affected by the murders to try to find a common thread. One of the interviews they conduct is with Lady Clarke, widow of Sir Carmichael Clarke, one of the murder victims. Lady Clarke is not only getting elderly, but she is ill and is kept on morphia and other painkillers quite frequently. She seems to be the sort of witness whose testimony you couldn’t really rely on, but she provides a few valuable leads, one of which helps Poirot understand why the murders happened.

Tony Hillerman’s sleuths Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn often get clues from what you might think of as unlikely kinds of witnesses. For one thing, they are both members of the Navajo Nation, a culture which teaches great respect for the elderly. So when they’re investigating cases, they listen to what elderly witnesses tell them. For instance, in The Ghostway, Chee is investigating the murder of Albert Gorman, a transplanted Los Angeles Navajo. His search for Gorman’s killer leads Chee to Los Angeles and a suspected auto-theft ring. He locates Gorman’s former Los Angeles home and at first, isn’t able to get much information about him. But he finds that there is a retirement home more or less across the street and decides to see if any of the residents can tell him anything. As it turns out, Chee gets several valuable leads from the people he interviews there, despite the fact that one of them has a form of dementia and none of them is in very good health.

Chee and Leaphorn also pay attention to other unlikely witnesses, because on the Navajo Reservation, people hear gossip and know about each other’s doings. For instance, in A Thief of Time, Leaphorn and Chee investigate the disappearance of Eleanor Friedman-Bernal, an anthropologist who was researching the Anasazi ruins in Chaco Canyon. They’re able to get some very useful leads about her from Allen and Sue Luna, the children of National Park Service ranger Bob Luna. Many people don’t think of children as reliable witnesses but the Luna children notice what happens in the area where they live, and their family lives near Friedman-Bernal. So Allen and Sue are able to give Leaphorn helpful information about her disappearance. Leaphorn and Chee use that lead to track down the missing woman and find out how she is connected to some violent deaths on the Reservation.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, we meet Ava Garrett, who claims to be a medium, and leads séances and other spiritual events. Many people think of her as a charlatan and in fact, she’s not well-educated or what anyone would really call reliable. But when financial advisor Dennis Brinkley is murdered in the village of Forbes Abbey, she has valuable information about the killing. In fact, the leads she has are so important that she, too, becomes a victim. Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy investigate both deaths and eventually are able to make the connections between them. As they’re looking into the deaths, we also meet Ava’s daughter Karen and her lodger, Roy Priest. Both of them are also what you might think of as unreliable. Karen’s a child, and Roy is what many people would call a wrong ‘un. He’s never had a real home, he doesn’t have a very steady job, and he’s dirty, scruffy and uneducated. He also has a habit of lying to get out of situations. But he and Karen both give Barnaby and Troy important leads in the murders.

And then there’s Crazy Dan, whom we meet in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies. He lives in a ramshackle place out in the country near Bradley, North Carolina. His home is falling down and he’s unkempt and disheveled. He behaves a little strangely and his conversation is far from what you’d call “normal.” In other words, he’s earned his nickname. But when retired schoolteacher Myrtle Clover investigates the murder of Parke Stockard, Crazy Dan provides an interesting clue to her death. Parke is a beautiful but thoroughly malicious real estate developer who’s managed to alienate just about everybody in town so when she’s killed, there are plenty of suspects. Myrtle Clover visits Crazy Dan and his equally-strange sister Wanda as she tries to narrow down the list of possible killers. Myrtle is put off by their odd behavior, hovel-like home and strange use of language, but she also knows that anyone can be a useful witness. As it turns out, Crazy Dan is able to give Myrtle a useful clue.

Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors also features some unlikely witnesses with interesting leads. Australian Federal Police officer Bradman “Brad” Chen reluctantly agrees to investigate the brutal murders of former politician Alec Dennet and editor Lorraine Starck. Both were staying at Uriarra, a writers’ retreated founded by Alfred Jackson and maintained by his family. Dennet was writing his memoirs at the time of the murders and it’s widely suspected that he was going to reveal some embarrassing secrets about the Whitlam government, of which he was a part. Also living at the retreat are Miss Dorothy Paton and Miss Frances Brey, both of whom are in their eighties. Miss Paton is blind, and Miss Brey has just recovered from knee surgery. Both of them give statements to the police at the time of the murders, but because of their age and their physical conditions, it’s not thought that they have a lot to offer. And yet, when Chen interviews them, he finds them both much more aware than you’d think. In fact, they give him valuable leads to the motive for the murders.

There are also some unlikely sources for leads in Chris Well’s Nursing a Grudge. That’s the story of Earl Walker, a retired bus driver who lost the use of his legs during a shooting incident that ended his career. Walker’s been living at the Candlewick Retirement Community since the death of his wife, Barbara, but he hasn’t very much involved in events there. Then, fellow resident George Kent suddenly dies. At first, everyone thinks he died from natural causes; he was elderly and not in good health. But it’s not long before Walker begins to suspect that Kent was murdered. There are several suspects, too, since Kent was a bully and a blackmailer whom the other residents disliked and feared. When Walker tries to alert both the Director of the community and the police, though, he’s not taken seriously. Neither are the pieces of information that the other residents have to offer. Since they’re elderly, and many are in poor health or have disabilities, they’re not considered very reliable witnesses. And yet, it’s from those very witnesses that Walker gets the clues he needs to find out who killed George Kent.

There are, of course, lots of other stories in which an unlikely or unreliable witness has some valuable information that leads to the killer; I’ve only mentioned a few. Which ones have you enjoyed?


  1. Patti - Oh, and I think you'll like him, too. His Smoke and Mirrors won Australia's Ned Kelly Award in 2009 (not that an award necessarily means a great novel, nor that lack of an award means a clunker, but still). It's fast-moving, funny and well-written novel with a real sense of Australia.

  2. I remember an AC novel where it was the dog that helped solve the murder. I can't remember what the name of it was... but another great post will get back to you on what dates I have available. Perhaps in a week or two?


  3. Clarissa - Oh, yes! There are at least two Agatha Christie novels where a dog proves helpful. One is Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), in which Poirot investigates the murder of Miss Emily Arundell. In that novel, Bob the terrier, who is Miss Arundell's dog, gives Poirot a useful couple of clues. The other is Postern of Fate,in which Tommy and Tuppence Beresford solve a decades-old mystery in their new town of Hollowquay. In that story, their brave dog Hannibal proves to be very helpful in solving the murder.

    And I'll look forward to hearing from you about possible dates.

  4. Closet Confidential- a cozy I read recently- it was a witness who nobody even thought of interviewing who had the pieces of the mystery in her hands.

    Thank you for another great post.

  5. Rayna - You're very kind :-). And that Mary Jane Maffini book sounds like a very good example of exactly what I mean. Every once in a while, there is a witness who has important information - if only someone would ask...

  6. It's always fun when the author takes an unusual character and makes them the key to solving the crime. To me it just goes to show that everyone is important. Another great post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  7. Mason - Thank you :-). And you put that very well, too: in a well-written crime fiction novel, every character has a purpose. Admittedly, some are minor characters whose purpose is to establish setting, etc. But when an author uses an unexpected character to give important information, that adds to the character's importance.

  8. I think the most unlikely/unreliable witness I recall is in Loreili's Secret by Carolyn Parkhurst. In fact, Margot, if you have not read it you might like it as it is all about a dog -- who may or may not have the secret to the case. It is by no means a "cosy", though, it is a sad and very enjoyable novel. Quite unusual.

  9. Maxine - Thanks for the recommendation. I'd heard of this one, but I confess I haven't read it yet. It seems like a very interesting read, and now you've mentioned it, I'll start looking for it. It's always, I think, a delicate matter when an author integrates animals. Sometimes (and Parkhurst seems to fall in this category) it works quite well. Other times...... Folks, Lorelei's Secret is also published as The Dogs of Babel.

  10. I'm not the biggest fan of this type of witness, mainly because it always strikes me as amazingly coincidental that someone saw or heard something absolutely vital, but never volunteered the information. That said, however, handled skillfully it can work; but I prefer for someone to say something seemingly innocuous which turns out to be anything but. Sometimes people don't know what they know (if you understand what I mean).

  11. Elspeth - I sure do understand exactly what you mean, and I agree. That's the beauty of the unexpected lead. Someone's ramblings actually contain something vital. If the sleuth catches it, s/he gets an important clue. If not..... That kind of witness can also add an interesting "zip" to the story if the witness is a little (or even very) offbeat.

  12. I love that you mentioned Elizabeth's book. I love Myrtle Clover, and the rest of the characters are excellent as well.


  13. Patricia - Oh, I agree completely! Myrtle is just a terrific protagonist, and the rest of the characters are well-drawn, too.