Sunday, December 5, 2010

Brown Paper Packages Tied Up With String*

It’s the time of year when lots of people are thinking about gifts. Like most other people, I like gifts, but crime fiction has taught me to be very cautious about them. You never where even a simple gift can lead.

Just ask Rachel Verinder, whom we meet in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. She’s an heiress who, on her eighteenth birthday, receives an exquisite yellow diamond called the Moonstone from her uncle John Herncastle. At first, she’s delighted. But soon she finds that that Moonstone brings a lot of trouble to her and her family. The jewel is said to be cursed and bring disaster on whoever takes it from its rightful place and that her uncle seems to have done. The curse seems to be true, too. First, the stone is stolen on the very night it’s given to Rachel. Then, Roseanna Spearman, second housemaid in the Verinder home, disappears and is later found to have committed suicide. As if that’s not enough, the Moonstone makes for some serious complications in Rachel Verinder’s love life. The stone is certainly not the wonderful gift Rachel thought it was.

You could say the same thing of the Heart of Fire. That’s a priceless ruby that wealthy businessman Rufus Van Aldin gives to his daughter Ruth in Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train. Van Aldin uses all of his connections to buy the stone for Ruth, and gives it her as a gift. She’s very excited about it, and in fact, takes it with her on a trip to meet Count Armand de la Roche at Hyères. While she’s en route on the famous Blue Train, Ruth is strangled and the ruby necklace that contained the Heart of Fire is stolen. Hercule Poirot has been traveling by the same train on his way to Nice, and Van Aldin asks him to investigate Ruth’s murder. Poirot agrees and finds out that there are plenty of suspects. It turns out that the Count is a scoundrel who’s known for stealing money and jewels from the women he dates. And then there’s Ruth’s husband, Derek Kettering. He’s desperate for money, and if Ruth divorces him, as she’s been contemplating doing, he’ll be penniless. There’s also Derek Kettering’s mistress, the enigmatic dancer Mirelle. There are other suspects, too. In the end, the Heart of Fire lives up to its reputation as a cursed stone.

So perhaps jewels aren’t the safest gifts to give. There are other options, of course, like a box of candy. But those, too, can be terribly dangerous. For one thing, they are not good for one’s diet. For another, they can be risky. We find that out in Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts). In that novel, Poirot works with Mr. Satterthwaite, Hermione “Egg” Lytton Gore and famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright to find out who poisoned beloved clergyman Stephen Babbington. At first, there seems no motive; Babbington had no fortune and no enemies. When another murder occurs, though, it seems the two deaths must be connected. And then, a box of chocolates is sent as a gift to Margaret de Rushbridger, a patient in a rest home for those with mental illness. Shortly afterwards, she suddenly dies of poison. Poirot is convinced that her death, too, is connected to the case and so it turns out to be. That poisoned box of chocolates turns out to have been a deadly gift.

Well, then, food doesn’t seem to be such a good idea for a gift, either. But even avoiding those kinds of gifts doesn’t guarantee safety. For instance, in Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, successful jewelry dealer Roger Priam receives a series of strange gifts, one of them an alligator-leather wallet. Under most circumstances that would be a handsome and welcome persent But Priam isn’t happy about it. That’s because it’s a cryptic, grim message from a killer. Ellery Queen gets involved in the case of these strange gifts when Lauren Hill, the daughter of Priam’s business partner, asks him to investigate. Leander Hill, Lauren’s father, died of a heart attack shortly after he, too, began receiving bizarre and macabre “gifts” and Lauren is convinced that her father was murdered. Priam is unwilling to have Queen investigate, but despite Priam’s resistance, Queen finds out who is responsible for Hill’s death and the threats to Priam. The wallet and the other packages turn out to be reminders of both men’s pasts – and warnings of what’s to come.

What about framed artwork? Surely that’s a nice gift to give? Not if you ask Henrik Vanger, the rich Swedish industrialist we meet in Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. He’s been receiving annual gifts of framed dried flowers as birthday presents from his grand-niece Harriet. The only problem is that Harriet disappeared almost forty years ago. Vanger is sufficiently upset by the latest gift that he decides to do something about it. He hires investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist to stay for a year at the Vanger family home under the guise of writing a history of the family. In reality, Blomqvist and his research assistant Lisbeth Salander have been hired to find out what really happened to Harriet Vanger. In exchange, Vanger offers financial help for Blomqvist’s struggling publication Millennium. He also offers to help Blomqvist get the evidence he needs to bring down Hans-Erik Wennerström, who successfully sued Blomqvist in a trumped-up libel case. Blomqvist agrees to the terms and he and Salander begin their investigation. What they find is a nest of dark family secrets and high-level corruption. It turns out those framed dried flowers weren’t so innocent.

Of course, not all gifts are that dangerous. For instance, in Caroline Graham’s A Place of Safety, Inspector Tom Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy are investigating the disappearance and supposed death of Carlotta Ryan, a troubled young teen who was staying with the curate of Ferne Bassett and his wife. Shortly after that incident, local scoundrel Charlie Leathers is found garroted. The two sleuths find that both incidents are related to some secrets hidden beneath the peaceful surface of the village. Besides the investigation, Barnaby is also getting ready for another birthday. Unbeknownst to him, his daughter Cully is also getting ready for the birthday, and she and her boyfriend Nic manage to surprise even sharp-eyed Tom Barnaby with a new lawn mower. The gift isn’t really a central part of the plot of this novel, but it’s a special moment and really shows how important Tom Barnaby and his daughter are to each other.

In Ian Rankin’s Exit Music, there’s another example of a meaningful gift, Inspector Rebus is just days from retirement, cleaning up some of his last cases, so to speak, when Russian dissident poet Alexander Todorov is brutally murdered in what looks like a mugging gone wrong. Soon enough, it’s clear that Todorov was deliberately killed, and Rebus and Siobhan Clarke and their team begin to investigate the case. It seems that several powerful Russian émigrés have not been happy with Todorov’s political views and one of them even mentioned wanting him dead. As if that’s not enough, local Edinburgh crime boss “Big Ger” Cafferty may very well be mixed up with the Russians, and it’s possible that he played a role in Todorov’s murder. The team finally unravels the case, and on the occasion of his retirement, Clarke gives Rebus a “mix” CD of some of his favourite music. It’s a significant moment in an important personal and professional relationship.

One of the most touching gifts (OK, this is my opinion, so feel free to disagree) is given to Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse in The Daughters of Cain. In that novel, Morse and Lewis investigate the murder of former Oxford don Felix McClure. McClure’s former scout Ted Brooks is the most likely suspect. But he disappears and is later found dead. So Morse and Lewis have to re-think the case. Among the many suspects is Ellie Smith, a prostitute who’s got connections to both dead men. She and Morse are attracted to each other despite the fact that she’s a suspect in the murders. In the end, Ellie Smith disappears, but not before giving Morse a “goodbye” gift – an elegant silver hip flask. It’s eloquent and it means a lot to Morse.

As you can see, though, gifts can be deadly. Maybe it’s better just to make an honourary donation… ;-).

Then again, one of the best gifts to give is a book. Books open the mind and there are so many books that you’re bound to find something for just about everyone. And if you do choose to give a book, you’ll also be gladdening the hearts of hard-working authors everywhere ;-).

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rogers' and Oscar Hammerstein's My Favorite Things.


  1. I love deadly gifts! Especially the ones that come in mystery book form. If someone wants to give me a rare diamond or jewel like the Pink Panther, I'll take my chances. But, it's true, curses on things are there for a reason... riches corrupt. Great post...again.

  2. Clarissa - I have to say, there's something about the mystique of something like the Pink Panther, isn't there? But as you say, riches corrupt, and that's quite probably what's behind some of the curses on those famous jewels. But they can make for great plots :-).

  3. Michael Connelly's Terry McCaleb got the gift of a new heart in 'Blood Work.' It had a few strings attached.

  4. Poor Morse never was lucky in love, was he? I'd forgotten about that gift until you reminded me, but it was really touching.

    And books do make great gifts! It's my gift of choice this year. :)

  5. Vanda - Oh, yes of course!! Thanks for that reminder! And you're quite right; there were a few strings attached to that gift...

    Elizabeth - You're right; Morse never was able to figure out his love life. I think that's almost an essential part of his character, though. Still, I liked the idea of him and Ellie...

    And of course, there is nothing like a good book as a gift. :-).

  6. I'll take a dangerous gift if it sparkles! I'll take my chances with jewels. :)

    What a great twist on the season! You really made this post work. And I love the insight into these books. I hadn't thought of them this way before.


  7. Michele - Why, thank you :-). And there's no doubt about it - shiny sparkly things can be irresistibly alluring, can't they?

  8. Gifts are a wonderful way for an writer to illustrate how a character feels about another character; although if it's a poisoned pie, the emotion is rather obvious. For myself, I admit I'd be a tad suspicious if I opened my front door and saw a large wooden horse; but books are always welcome!

  9. Elspeth - Oh, you are so right about wooden horses! You know, your comment made me think about an Agatha Christie novel (no spoilers) in which a horse provides Poirot with a clue about a murder.

    You're right, too, that gifts tell us a lot about characters, what they like/dislike, how they feel about other characters, and lots more. Well-taken point!!!

  10. A relevant post for the season.

    It is but natural that gifts play an important role in many a mystery novels. They are a very convenient mode of communication between the culprit and other characters. While remaining anonymous; the bad guy can influence a number of people and events through them.

    It's also interesting to note that most of those who receive such suspicious gifts usually open them.I think a wrapped gift appeals to the basic human curiosity in a very compelling manner.

    Gifting books can be a great idea given the recipient is worthy of it!

  11. Amey - You really make a very important point here. It's human nature, isn't it, to open up a wrapped package. Even when someone's not the recipient, s/he still wants the package to be opened. Humans are by nature curious, and I think that's so evident when it comes to packages.

    And of course, villains take advantage of that when they use that tool to "get to" other characters. The same is true, I think, of letters. I didn't go into the topic of letters, because it's a topic all to itself. But we're just as curious about them as we are about packages, and villains use them, too.

    And yes, books truly are a terrific gift idea!

  12. You are right- " Humans are by nature curious".

    Also, the balance between caution and curiosity usually tilts in favour of curiosity, as most of us are habituated to a safe environment. We usually do not expect 'nasty surprises'.

    Writing about letters and mysteries will result in one of the longest "posts" ever. :)

    I have an off topic request,too. Reading the name of Mr. Satterthwaite in your post reminded me of the Final story from "The Mysterious Mr. Quin". It would be great to know your take on it. :)

  13. Amey - LOL! I like your play on words about "posts." ;-). Thanks for asking about Mr. Satterthwaite. I'll definitely put that last story on my "Spotlight" list!

  14. The only reason I never want to be a character in a mystery novel is because I can never resist a box of chocolates, and if someone sends them, they have to be poisoned!

    The gift I like best is the snuff box that Sherlock Holmes received which was supposed to make him ill, and he pretended it did indeed do so, and use that to trap the villian. Can't for the life of me remember the details, though.

  15. Rayna - LOL! I would find it hard to resist a box of chocolates, too! That's a good reason not to be a character in a mystery novel ;-).

    Were you thinking of The Adventure of the Dying Detective? That's the one where Holmes feigns illness because he wants to trap a killer into admitting what he's done. The killer has sent Holmes a beautiful ivory box with a sliding lid, and the box has been rigged so as to pass on a rare illness to Holmes. Of course, Holmes is too clever not to be very wary of any package he receives, and he sets a clever trap for the killer. A great story, and I wish I'd included it in this post. Thank you for adding it :-).

  16. I always give books to the kids in the family. Turning kids on to reading is a gift that lasts a long, long time.