Thursday, December 16, 2010

Hiding in Plain Sight

In real life and in crime fiction, detectives know that the criminal probably doesn’t want to be caught. So as they go about investigating, they pay attention to all sorts of little pieces of evidence that may point to the guilty person. And a lot of times, that’s a good thing; most criminals these days know enough not to leave fingerprints or other blatant evidence, so often those little clues are the only evidence the detective has. But sometimes, paying attention to minutiae can blind sleuths to clues there are right there in front of them, so to speak. Some clues hide in plain sight, you might say, until the sleuth or someone else notices the clue and figures out what it means. Clever authors do that, too at times; they leave blatant clues, but coax the reader to follow along with the sleuth as he or she misses those clues. That can be a really effective strategy, so long as it doesn’t make the sleuth appear unbelievably incompetent.

Arthur Conan Doyle used those kinds of clues more than once in his Sherlock Holmes stories. For instance, in The Adventure of the Abbey Grange, Sir Eustace Brackenstall is murdered in what looks like a robbery gone wrong. At first, the notorious Randall gang is suspected of the crime; they’ve been at work in the area lately, and they have a history of break-ins and thefts. But Inspector Stanley Hopkins notices a few odd things about the murder, so he asks Holmes to investigate. Holmes agrees and examines the case. He finds that one clue – a knot – is a clear pointer to the killer, and in the end, he induces the killer to make a confession.

We see another case of clues hiding in plain sight in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In that novel, wealthy retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd is stabbed on night in his study. His stepson Captain Ralph Paton is suspected of the crime and with good reason. He’s been desperate for money and he had a quarrel with Ackroyd about his finances. What’s worse is that Paton seems to have disappeared. Paton’s fiancée Flora Ackroyd doesn’t believe he’s guilty so she asks Poirot to investigate. When he gets to the Ackroyd residence and begins to look into the matter, he discovers that a piece of furniture in the study has been moved slightly out of place. That fact proves to be very important, but at first, the police don’t pay a lot of attention to it. In the end, that clue gives Poirot a piece of evidence he needs to figure out who the killer is.

In Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Hercule Poirot is traveling by air from Paris to London. One of his fellow passengers is Madame Giselle, a well-known French moneylender. Towards the end of the trip, Madame Giselle dies of what seems at first like heart failure. And that makes sense, too; there was a wasp flying around the cabin and a puncture wound on her body suggests that she was stung. Soon enough, though, that theory is proved wrong and it’s clear that Madame Giselle was deliberately poisoned. The only suspects are the other passengers who were in the same cabin during the flight, so Poirot and Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp sift through the clues to find out which one of them killed Madame Giselle. There are in this case two blatant clues – right there for the observant reader. Poirot notes one of them right away, but has trouble figuring out why the passenger who has the clue would have a motive for murder. Once Poirot answers that question, he also makes sense of the other obvious clue and finds out who the murderer is.

In Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, Stocholm homicide detective Martin Beck and his team are called in when the body of an unidentified young woman is dredged up from Lake Vättern. Eventually, the team discovers that the victim is twenty-seven-year-old Roseanna McGraw, an American tourist who was on a cruise when she died. For months the team works fruitlessly to find out who would have wanted to kill the victim and why. It’s not until Beck figures out that there’s one clue that’s been there the whole time that the police have never really investigated. Once they get to work on that clue, they’re able to narrow down the list of people who could have killed Roseanna McGraw and find the murder.

Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers also includes a very blatant clue. That’s the story of the brutal murders of Lunnarp farmer Johannes Lövgren and his wife, Maria. Early one morning, Ystad police detective Kurt Wallander and his team are called to the grisly scene of the murder and very soon are given an obvious clue to the killer. The clue, though, is something you could say they don’t want to believe, so although they follow it up, they also look everywhere else they can for the murderer. In fact at one point, the team is so bent on that clue meaning nothing that the detectives focus their efforts on someone else - someone everyone wants to believe is guilty. In the end, though, the most obvious clue turns out to be the one the detectives should have followed in the first place, despite all the pressure to look elsewhere.

Schoolteacher Janek Mitter leaves a very clear clue to his killer’s identity in Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye. Mitter has been convicted of murdering his wife Eva Ringmar, but he can’t remember much at all about the night of the murder. It’s assumed his memory’s been clouded because he was very drunk on the night of the killing but because he doesn’t remember anything, he’s confined to a mental institution instead of a prison. During his stay there, Mitter’s memory slowly begins to return. At one point, he recovers the piece of memory that tells him who his wife’s killer was and leaves a blatant clue to the criminal. But then Mitter himself is brutally murdered. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team, who investigated Eva Ringmar’s death, now have another murder to contend with and even though the murders aren’t identical, the team members are sure that the same person committed both crimes. They begin to look into the lives of both victims and finally, after two months of sifting through clues and tracking down leads, they find the killer. The whole time, they’ve missed a very obvious clue that, had they seen it, would have told them right away who the killer was.

In Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, retired schoolteacher Myrtle Clover takes it on herself to investigate the murder of real estate developer Parke Stockard. There are plenty of suspects, too, since Stockard was both malicious and greedy. Although Myrtle’s son, police chief Red Clover, doesn’t want his elderly mother to put herself in danger by getting involved in the case, she starts searching for the killer anyway. Without knowing it, the killer gives her a very obvious clue right away. But Myrtle doesn’t notice at the time that she’s been given such a blatant clue, and it’s not until later that she figures out what the clue meant. When she does, it becomes an important piece of evidence.

There are almost always clues to a killer’s identity, and wise sleuths know that sometimes, something that looks like an obvious clue really is a clue. But even the best detectives miss the blatant clues at times. I’ve only had space to mention a few of those obvious clues. Which ones have I missed that you’ve noticed? ;-).

21 comments:

  1. Oh, I can't think of any examples but my favorite writer (Agatha Christie) was so good at leaving clues behind that seemed obvious but she put them there just to fool us. I loved it when she did that. Writers, especially mystery writers, have to be careful at what they leave behind. Great post.
    CD

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  2. Try 'Landscape With Dead Dons' by Robert Robinson for a truly audacious placement of an obvious clue.

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  3. Clarissa - Thank you :-) I agree with you completely. Christie really was a genius at leaving clues, some of which were obvious but "red herrings," and some of which were obvious and real clues. I try to learn from the way she did that because you're absolutely right; authors do have to be careful about how they leave clues.



    IM - Thank you very much for that suggestion. I haven't read that one, but it sounds intriguing just from that one comment...

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  4. Well, when you ask for blatant clues that are overlooked, I suppose the best example is Poe´s good old "The Purloined Letter". I copied him a few years ago when I hid an important photo in - a photo album.

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  5. Dorte - Oh, yes, of course! The Purloined Letter is the perfect example of a clue hidden in an obvious place! Thank you for adding that one. I think that's quite clever, too, to hide a 'photo in a 'photo album. Very ingenious!

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  6. I can't think of any examples, but these are some of the best books to read. They involve the reader and keep you guessing right along with the sleuth. Thanks for another great post.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

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  7. Mason - You're very kind :-). And I agree with you; when there's a clue hiding in plain sight, the reader has to be especially attentive and alert, and that makes the story that much more engaging.

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  8. I loved it when it turned out Abbie Hoffman was hiding in my husband's hometown. A town of 1000, I might add.

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  9. Patti - He was? Oh, how cool!! Oh, and you know what? Small world, but years later, he lived in New Hope, Pennsylvania and frequently shopped at a drugstore my husband managed there.

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  10. Roger Ackroyd came to mind just as I read your first few sentences! Love that twist!

    I remember reading one where the villain focused on a golf bag as the detective searched the room leading the detective to believe a clue was in the bag. It was a distraction from the real clue. Can't remember the book though.

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  11. Jemi - Isn't that a great twist in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd? It remains one of my Christie favourites.

    I'm not sure which book you're thinking of, but you reminded me of another Christie story, this one a short story called Murder in the Mews. In that story, a briefcase and a golf bag play important roles, and there's an interesting obvious clue that it's easy to miss if you're not paying attention...

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  12. There is a Poirot story where the missing will which led to the killer was found because a bunch of curios were rearranged. The details elude me, but there was something of the nature.

    I just finished Gallows View (and THANK YOU for introducing me to Banks), and loved the clue of the ship that was still intact. (Loved the end of the book too- about the difference between someone who commits a crime and someone who is EVIL, but that's a different thing).

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  13. Clues are my favorite parts of mysteries...but hardest for me to write! Thanks so much for the mention. I do like clues that mean nothing when they're revealed, but mean something later when the sleuth has more info--easier to conceal the clue. :)

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  14. Rayna - I'm so glad that you really liked Gallows View. Robinson is a fine writer and yes, the clue of the ship figures in that novel.

    About that Poirot novel: might you be thinking of The Mysterious Affair at Styles? In that novel, Poirot and Hastings solve the poisoning murder of Emily Inglethorp. Ast one point in the novel, Poirot rearranges some curios on a mantelpiece and that is a clue to what happened to an incriminating note that connects with a missing will. I'm not sure if that's the one you mean or not, but it struck me when I read your comment.



    Elizabeth - Oh, my pleasure. And you're right; it's not easy to write clues. They have to be clear enough that they don't cheat the reader, but not so obvious as to ruin the mystery and make the book boring. You really did a great job with that clue in Pretty is....; it's exactly the right balance. And yes, I like clues that mean nothing...at first.

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  15. Interesting post. I love Agatha Christie for her clues.

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  16. Glynis - Thanks :-). Christie did do clues quite well, didn't she?

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  17. I'm another huge Christie fan; the woman was a genius at hiding clues in plain sight! I've always found this tricky to do; when it's your story and you know all the clues, I find they stick out like sore thumbs. It's another reason a fresh pair of eyes are invaluable.

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  18. Elspeth - Oh, you are so right about the value of other people reading one's work; that's one reason I am so eternally grateful to my beta-readers. And yes, Christie was incredibly skilled at placing clues right there - right in front of the reader - without giving away the whole story. I've learned so much about doing that just from reading her work.

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  19. I've always loved the big clue in Murder on the Orient Express--the fact that the multiple stab wounds in the body varied in depth and placement which eventually pointed to multiple murderers.

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  20. Patricia - Oh, that is a good obvious clue, isn't it? One thing I like about it is that it's right there: it's scientific and obvious. And yet it's not seen for what it really is until later.

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  21. It was indeed "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" - amazing how you make sense of my incoherent ramblings and vague descriptions. That was the story that immediately came to mind, but there are so many more - Dame Christie knew a thing or two about laying out clues that you could find if you chose to.

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