A few of Agatha Christie’s novels give the reader a sense of the time it takes to gather evidence, sift through the clues and so on. For example, in Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot pays a visit to Nasse House, the home of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. He’s there at the request of Ariadne Oliver. Oliver has prepared a Murder Hunt (along the lines of a scavenger hunt) for an upcoming fête at the Stubbs property, but she suspects there may be more going on than preparations for a fête. Oliver’s instinct proves tragically correct when fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who’s playing the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt, is actually killed. On the same day, Lady Hattie Stubbs disappears. The investigation into both cases takes some time to complete. The murder and disappearance occur in early summer, but Poirot doesn’t put the final touches on the case until late autumn. A good portion of that time is spent searching for Lady Stubbs, and that’s realistic; the process of finding a missing person can take a lot of time.
We also get a look at the amount of time it can take to solve a case in Christie’s The ABC Murders. In that novel, Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate several murders that seem to be the work of a serial killer. The first murder takes place on 21 June, and despite the fact that Poirot receives a cryptic note warning him of the murder, the killing is not prevented. The body of Alice Ascher is found in the sweetshop she kept. The next month, Betty Barnard’s body is found on the beach near the town in which she lived and worked. Then two other bodies are found, each a month apart. Before each murder, Poirot gets a warning note. Near each body is an ABC railway guide. Throughout the summer and into the early autumn, Poirot and Hastings work with the local police and Scotland Yard to find out who the killer is and stop the murders. It takes quite a lot of time for the police to investigate the leads and for Poirot to put the pieces of the puzzle together, and we get a sense of this in the novel. Finally, Poirot gets the clues he needs and is able to catch the killer. It’s not a quick process, though.
Neither is the process of finding out the truth about the mysterious corpse in Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors. Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet Bunter run into car trouble one New Year’s Eve near the village of Fenchurch St. Paul. The two men are kindly taken in by the Rector of Fenchurch. Wimsey is able to repay the kindness the next day, when he replaces William “Will” Thoday, who’s fallen ill, as one of the church’s bellringers. A few months later, an urgent letter recalls Wimsey to Fenchurch when an unexpected corpse is found in the grave of Lady Thorpe, wife of the local squire. Wimsey returns to the village to help unravel the mystery of who the dead man is and how he came to be there. Over the course of the next several months, Wimsey investigates the history of the Thorpe family, especially a robbery that occurred there twenty years earlier. In the end, Wimsey is able to connect that robbery with the mysterious body found in the grave. The process isn’t a quick one, though, and it’s nearly a year later before the case is finally put to rest.
In Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, we follow the investigation into the murder of Roseanna McGraw, an American from Nebraska who was killed while she was visiting Sweden on a cruise. Her body is discovered on 8 July during a dredge operation in Lake Vättern. At first, no-one can identify her. After a time, though, when it’s clear that Roseanna was not Swedish, she is identified when the police in her home town of Lincoln, Nebraska, match the description they have of a missing woman with that of the unidentified woman found in the lake. Even after Roseanna’s body is identified, though, it takes months before the police are able to narrow down the suspects, establish who could have killed the victim, and figured out the motive. And it takes time after that for Martin Beck and the rest of the investigating team to find a way to catch the killer. In fact, it’s January of the following year before the police can close the file on the case.
And then there’s the investigation that Mikael Blomqvist and Lisbeth Salander undertake in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. One Friday in November, eighty-two-year-old wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger receives a mysterious birthday gift – a pressed flower. The only problem is, the sender, his grand-niece Harriet Vanger, disappeared nearly forty years earlier. Vanger wants to get to the truth behind the mysterious flowers he’s been receiving on each birthday. So he hires investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist to find out what really happened to Harriet Vanger. Blomqvist isn’t in much of a position to refuse; he’s just lost a libel case against industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström, and his publication Millennium is in dire financial condition. So Blomqvist accepts Vanger’s financial support. He’s also motivated because Vanger has promised to help him get the evidence he needs to bring Wennerström down. Blomqvist and his researcher Lisbeth Salander are given a year to find out the truth, under the guise of writing a history of the Vanger family. Over the next year, they discover intrigue, very dark secrets and a great deal of corruption. It isn’t until the following November that Blomqvist and Salander finish putting the pieces of this puzzle together.
Inspector Morse is faced with a long investigation in Colin Dexter’s The Way Through the Woods. Swedish tourist Karin Eriksson disappeared in Wytham Woods and was reported missing when she never showed up at her destination in Wales. Inspector Johnson has been on the case for a year, and although Karin Eriksson’s rucksack’s been found, there’s been no body discovered, nor any word from the young woman. The case is currently at a standstill since no new clues have been discovered. Inspector Morse is reluctantly taking a holiday at Lyme Regis when he reads an interesting article in the Times about the disappearance. Apparently, the Times’ literary critic Howard Phillipson has been called in to help the police interpret a cryptic, poetic message from someone who seems to know what happened to Karin Eriksson. Morse is intrigued, and Superintendent Strange is just as well pleased, since he’s getting pressure to put Morse on the case. Morse and Lewis take over the investigation, much to Inspector Johnson’s chagrin, and the two sleuths look into the disappearance. What they find is a surprising mystery that forces them to retrace Karin Eriksson’s life to find out what happened to her.
There are plenty of other crime fiction novels, too, where the reader gets a strong sense of the length of time that an investigation can take. Do you enjoy those novels? Or do you prefer novels that “telescope” an investigation? If you’re a writer, how do you handle the balance between an authentic depiction of the time an investigation takes and the need to keep the reader turning pages?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Beatles song.