Thursday, January 27, 2011

Don't Pass Me By*

One of the things that takes up detectives' time when they're solving murders is following up on leads. The wise detective knows not to overlook a lead because sometimes, the very source you'd discount or the little piece of evidence you think means nothing is the key to the whole case. It's the same in crime fiction; sometimes, detectives (and readers!) discount clues or sources of information, only to find out they're critical to the case.

For instance, many people discount what children say. They're immature, they don't have adult perspective and they don't always understand exactly what they're seeing. And yet, children can sometimes be valuable sources of information. For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes frequently relies on the Baker Street Irregulars, a group of young boys who serve as Holmes' "eyes and ears." No-one pays much attention to these boys, so they're free to explore, to listen, to watch and to find out all sorts of very useful information. Holmes has quite a lot of faith in the information they bring him.

Several of Agatha Christie's novels include children as very valuable sources of information, too. For instance, in
The Clocks, Special Agent Colin Lamb is in the Wilbraham Crescent neighbourhood of the town of Crowdean. He's tracking down a lead on a major spy ring and he believes he's coming close to his quarry. Then, a young woman rushes out of a house screaming that there's a dead man in the house. Lamb assists her and is soon drawn into the investigation of the man's murder. On the surface, the case seems very complicated; the owner of the house doesn't know the victim, and four clocks (none of which belongs to the owner of the house) have been found in the room with the dead man. Lamb takes the case to his father's friend Hercule Poirot and challenges him to solve the murder. One of the suggestions Poirot makes is that Lamb talk to everyone in the neighbourhood and find out what he can through conversation. By chance, Lamb meets ten-year-old Geraldine Brown, whom he sees looking out of the window of her flat, right across the street from where the murder occurred. Geraldine's been laid up with a broken leg, and as it turns out, she saw something very important, but nobody really paid attention to her until Lamb did. Geraldine Brown's information helps Poirot put this case together.

In Belinda Bauer's
Blacklands, we meet the Peters family. Eighteen years earlier, Gloria Peters's son Billy had disappeared and was presumed killed. Although nothing was ever proven, it's commonly believed that convicted killer Arnold Avery killed Billy Peters as he had six other victims. Billy's disappearance has wreaked havoc on his family, and his twelve-year-old nephew Steven decides to do something about it. At first, Steven's easy to discount; he's young, he's been bullied, and he's what most people would think of as a little strange. And his family is so involved in their own grief, you might say, that they don't really take notice of how Billy's disappearance has affected his nephew. And yet, it's Steven who conceives an idea to find out what really happened to his Uncle Billy. Carefully disguising his identity, Steven begins a correspondence with Avery to see if he can get Avery to reveal what happened to his uncle. The two begin a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse as Avery works to manipulate the boy and as Steven works to find out what's happened to his uncle. In the end, this supposedly insignificant boy turns out to be central to his family's ability to move on.

It's not just what children say and do that's sometimes discounted, though. In many cultures, what the sick and elderly say is also sometimes pushed aside, even though it may be important. For instance, in Agatha Christie's T
he ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot and the police are working frantically to solve a series of killings that seems to be the work of a serial killer. The third victim is retired throat specialist Sir Carmichael Clarke. His widow is very ill with cancer and regularly kept under sedation for pain. Most people don't pay a great deal of attention to what she says. However, it turns out that she's got an important perspective and vital information to provide. Poirot, who's learned not to discount what anyone tells him, arranges to interview Lady Clarke, and learns some surprising and important information from her. In the end, her perspective and the information she tells him help to catch the killer.

There's a similar situation in
Martin Edwards' The Serpent Pool, in which DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team investigate the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. The death was originally thought to be suicide, but Hannah has never quite believed that, so she and her team re-open the case. As she searches for answers, she spends time with Daphne Friend, Bethany's infirm mother. Daphne isn't in good health and at times, she's not "all there." However, she's got much keener insight into her daughter than people know, and Scarlett listens to what she has to say. It turns out that Daphne Friend is able to offer a very helpful perspective on her daughter that plays a role in guiding Scarlett and her team to the truth about Bethany Friend's death.

Chris Well's Nursing a Grudge, the Candlewick Retirement Community is facing closure and all of the residents have been informed that they need to make other living arrangements. In the midst of the upset over the closure, resident George Kent dies suddenly after attending a clandestine chili party. Earl Walker, another resident at the community, begins to believe that Kent was murdered. He slowly uncovers motives, too, as Kent was a bully and a blackmailer. But Kent was elderly and in frail health, so no-one wants to believe Walker at first. He's discounted by several people, including the director of the community. However, Walker pursues the case and he and two friends of his are eventually able to prove that George Kent was murdered. Then, when it's finally established that Kent was killed, one of Walker's friends is accused of the murder. Now, Walker has to find the real killer in order to clear his friend.

In Donna Leon's
Through a Glass, Darkly, Commissario Brunetti and Ispettore Vianello are investigating the death of Giorgio Tassini, who worked nights at a glass-blowing factory. It looks at first as though his death was a terrible accident. However, Tassini had accused the glass-blowing industry of illegal handling of toxic waste. In fact, he blamed that waste for his own daughter's host of special needs. It's not long before Brunetti and Vianello figure out that Tassini was murdered. Brunetti finds out who the killer is, but doesn't have the direct evidence he needs to bring the murderer to justice. Then, a casual conversation with his "regular" boatman Paolo Foa gives Brunetti exactly and precisely the information he needs. The casual comments of a boatman wouldn't necessarily have figured into the policemen's investigation but Brunetti's willingness to listen to what Foa says turns out to be exactly the right decision.

Real-life and fictional detectives learn not to discount any good source for a lead. It may take more time but if you've ever thought, "If only I'd paid attention to what ___ said, I'd've figured it out!" you know how important it is not to discount anything.

Thanks to
Rayna Iyer for making me think about how even little, seemingly unimportant things can blossom. That was the inspiration for this post.

: The title of this post is the title of a Beatles song.


  1. Another great topic! I think I put some of that into my novels. In fact, in the novel I'm editing after my current one, a small clue is overlooked until later and it prevents the case from going forward. Thank you, Rayna and thanks, Margot!

  2. Clarissa - Why, thank you :-). Oh, you've whetted my appetite :-). It's interesting, at least to me, the way people's input is considered important or not important and we make assumptions about what they have to say based on that.

  3. One of the things I like about Tony Hillerman's novels is that Jim Chee respects and listens to the elders of his people. Another great post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  4. Mason - Thanks :-). I like that about him, too, actually. He pays attention to what everyone says and doesn't discount what someone tells him because that someone's elderly.

  5. Its fun to place seemingly unimportant things in a book. Little clues that can explode later. The reader sees them, forgets about them, then as an event takes off later in the book they remember the clue you planted earlier. I do this a few times in my book. It allows the case to be broken wide open.

  6. Stephen - You put that very, very well. Little comments people make or small things that happen seem very insignificant at the time but then later, as you say, it turns out that those clues mean everything. It's fun to match wits with the reader that way :-).

  7. Very interesting examples, Margot. I do love your posts.
    I enjoyed Through a Glass, Darkly and Blacklands a lot from this particular perspective. And The Serpent Pool of course. Michael Connelly's last book, The Reversal, was a moving account (in its main climactic section) about a child's witnessing of her sister's abduction and the effect it had had on her whole life - Harry and Michael eventually provide her with someone to listen to her, many years later.
    Best wishes

  8. Maxine - How kind you are :-) *Blush*. And thank you!! for mentioning The Reversal. I think you're spot-on that that climactic scene really shows how the view of a child (even though of course, years have passed since then) can be so key to a story. But then, as I'm sure you know, I'm a Connelly/Bosch/Haller fan... Still, even objectively, I think Connelly uses that "child's-eye-view" quite effectively there.

  9. The devil's in the details.

    Marvelous, thought-provoking post, Margot. You deliver time after time; no wonder your follower number keeps going up and up!

  10. Elspeth - How very kind of you *Deep blush*, especially coming from one whose blog is as good as yours is.

    And you put that quite well, too. It's the details, whether it's a person or a little clue, that really make or break a case. Sharing those with the reader (so as to "play fair") without being too obvious is a tricky balancing act...

  11. Excellent point!

    I believe I was a good observer when I was a child, and my daughters definitely are. So nothing annoys us more than when writers treat children as if they are stupid, or whenever writers include children without having a fair idea of what they can and know at a certain age. If you have no clue, just don´t try to fake it! I am sure I have mentioned my pet peeve before: writers who think adults are twice as large as children of 8-10 years.

    If I am in doubt, I always discuss scenes with my daughters - their memories seem to be better than mine somehow :D

  12. Dorte - Thank you :-). And you bring up a very important point. Children are unique. They change and grow as they age, and they do not think the way adults do. They aren't "little adults," nor are they complete idiots. I think it takes a deft hand to create believable child characters. In fact, I confess that I haven't tried my hand at it (yet) - well, at least not in my Joel Williams series. You're quite right that it's much better not to include child characters unless one's got a solid sense of what children think and know at certain ages.

    And you're not the only one whose children have better memories than yours *sigh*. ;-)

  13. What a wonderful post, Margot. There are people we ignore, but they turn out to be the best observers. Kids are the best, because they have so few prejudices and preconceived notions. And the Irregulars is a great example of that.

    And I am really touched that a random post sparked this. THANK YOU for adding new dimensions to my lilies.

  14. Rayna - No need to thank me; your lilies are breathtaking and love the inspiration I got from them :-).

    I agree with you, too, about kids' perspectives. They really have terrific points of view. They have many fewer preconceived notions than adults do, and they get right to the heart of the matter very quickly - no fuss about it. They notice little details, too. And the Baker Street Irregulars are just great that way :-).