Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Bold Moves...

If you think about it, in some ways a murder investigation is a bit like a chess match. Murderers generally don’t want to get caught, so they make all sorts of moves to avoid it. For their part, detectives want to catch criminals, so they, too, make all sorts of moves. Each side jockeys for advantage and in crime fiction that can add a layer of suspense to a novel, even if it doesn’t have a “cat and mouse” sort of plot where we know the killer from the outset. Some of the moves that both sides make are what you might call safe and cautious; for instance, the murderer is careful not to leave fingerprints, and the detective assembles as much evidence as possible before drawing conclusions about who the murderer is. But some moves that each side makes are quite bold and audacious. That, too, can add to the suspense of a novel.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot works with local police and Scotland Yard on what looks to be a set of serial murders. This particular killer makes the bold move of writing a warning note to Poirot before each murder. The notes are specific about the day and place of each murder, too. And yet, despite the direct warnings, at first Poirot and the police are not able to find out who the murderer is. It’s not until Poirot gets some important evidence after one of the killings that he figures out who the killer is and what the motive was.

There’s a very audacious murder in Christie’s Cards on the Table. In that novel, Poirot and three other sleuths (Superintendent Battle, mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver and Colonel Race) are invited to a strange dinner at the home of the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana. Also invited are four other guests, each of whom, so Mr. Shaitana tells Poirot, has gotten away with murder. During the dinner, Mr. Shaitana drops all sorts of hints about committing crimes and getting away with them. After the meal, everyone except Mr. Shaitana settles down to play bridge; the four sleuths are in one room, and the four other guests are in another. During the bridge game, one of the guests stabs Shaitana while the other three in the room are intent on their game. The four sleuths then work together to find out who the killer is. What’s interesting about it is the boldness and daring of the crime, and as the sleuths look into each suspect’s background, they find out that each one had the motive and the opportunity to commit the crime.

Of course, Christie’s sleuths make moves that are just as bold. For instance, in 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!), Miss Marple helps her friend Elspeth McGillicuddy find out who committed a murder that Mrs. McGillicuddy witnessed during a train trip. Miss Marple figures out who the murderer was with help from Lucy Eyelesbarrow, a friend of hers who goes “undercover” at the home where the body was found. But Miss Marple doesn’t have a lot of hard evidence and she knows the killer won’t simply admit to being guilty. So she makes a very bold move to get a positive identification of the murderer. In the end, that move proves to be the right one, as the killer ends up admitting the truth.

There are several very bold moves in Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil. Queen has taken a house in the Hollywood suburbs to get some peace and quiet for writing. Soon enough, though, he’s drawn into an investigation of the death of Leander Hill. Hill’s death is regarded as a natural death from a heart attack, but his daughter Lauren doesn’t believe that. So she persuades Queen to look into the matter. She tells Queen that both Hill and his business partner Roger Priam have been receiving very strange and macabre “presents” and cryptic warnings, and that it was after receipt of one of them that her father died. So Queen begins to look for the truth behind these audacious and eerie warnings. He finds out that the reason for Hill’s death and for the strange packages lies in the two men’s pasts, and eventually puts the pieces of the puzzle together. Queen himself makes a bold move when he finds out who’s really behind everything; without doing anything violent he ensures that the murderer isn’t going to get very far.

The killer in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna makes a bold move, too. During a cruise tour of Sweden, someone rapes and kills one of the passengers on a cruise ship full of passengers and staff. The victim’s body is later dredged up from Lake Vättern. Stockholm homicide inspector Martin Beck and his team are assigned to find out who the victim is and catch the murderer. Over a period of time, they discover that the victim was Roseanna McGraw, an American tourist. Finding out who killed her takes time, too, but eventually, Beck and the team deduce who the killer must be. Then, they set up a bold plan to catch the culprit. The plan involves putting one of the team members at risk, and in fact, that team member is in quite a bit of peril for a time. But in the end, the bold plan the group carries out does catch the killer.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe is a courageous person who’s not afraid to make a bold move if she has to do so. In The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Mma. Ramotswe receives a letter from Ernest Molai Pakotati, a schoolteacher whose eleven-year-old son Thobiso has disappeared. Rra. Pakotati begs Mma. Ramotswe to help find his son, since the police have not been able to discover the boy’s whereabouts. Mma. Ramotwe’s compassion, more than anything else, drives her to begin the search. She discovers what happened to the boy, but getting him back will take a bold move, because the person responsible for his disappearance has a lot of local power. Mma. Ramotswe makes such a plan, and goes, as you might say, right to the source. That plan allows her to solve the case.

In The Kalahari Typing School for Men, bold planning also allows Mma. Ramotswe to help Mr. Molofelo, a well-off civil engineer who wants to repair some wrongs done in his youth. As a young man, Molofelo got his girlfriend pregnant and did very little to help her. He also stole a radio from his kind and generous landlords. Now a brush with death has motivated Mr. Molofelo to want to make things right, so he asks Mma. Ramotswe to locate his former girlfriend and his former landlords. Mma. Ramotswe finds it a straightforward task to find Mr. Molofelo’s former love but finding his landlords

proves more difficult, especially after she finds out that the landlord himself is dead. She finally uses the fact that the landlord had been a government employee to find out where his widow’s address might be found, since she receives a government pension. The problem is that the clerk refuses to give the widow’s address to Mma. Ramotswe, citing that rules forbid it. So here’s what she does:

“‘But that is not the rule,’ said Mma. Ramotswe. ‘…The rule says that you must not give the name of a pensioner. It says nothing about the address.’

The clerk shook his head. ‘I do not think you can be right, Mma. I am the one who knows the rules. You are the public.’

‘Yes, Rra. I am sure that you are very good when it comes to rules…But sometimes, when one has to know so many rules, one can get them mixed up. You are thinking of Rule 25. This rule is really Rule 24(b), subsection (i)…The rule that deals with addresses is Rule 18, which has now been cancelled.’”

Mma. Ramotswe’s audacity at using the clerk’s own rules against him pays off. The clerk ends up feeling that he has no choice but to give her the address she needs.

There are also some bold moves in Ruth Rendell’s The Monster in the Box. Inspector Reg Wexford is greatly disturbed by the re-appearance in Kingsmarkham of Eric Targo. Years ago, Targo had been suspected of a strangling murder, but Wexford was never able to get enough evidence to pursue a conviction. Now, Targo’s back and although he’s behaving respectably enough, Wexford still suspects him. Then, Targo makes the bold move of beginning to taunt Wexford. He then becomes the chief suspect when Wexford’s new gardener Andrew Norton is killed in a way that eerily mirrors the long-ago murder that Wexford is sure Targo committed. And when Targo disappears, Wexford is determined to go after and catch him. In the end, Targo is dealt with in a very bold way.

These are just a few examples of bold moves in the “chess match” that sleuths have to play. Which crime fiction bold moves have been your favourites?


  1. One book that comes to mind is THE POSTCARD KILLERS by James Patterson. In that story the killers taunt the police by sending postcards with clues about their crimes. When the story is written well, the moves back and forth between the sleuth and the killer keep the reader guessing and wondering how and when the killer will be captured. Another thought provoking post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Mason - Thank you :-). You're quite right that in The Postcard Killers, those postcards are definitely some bold, audacious moves, aren't they? And I agree - when it's done well, it really can add to the suspense when we follow both the killer and the sleuth(s) and see which moves each makes next...

  3. Yes, cat and mouse. Some of my favorite mysteries where those where the killer did everything not to get caught. Often the killer has to work closely with the police in order to stay ahead of the game and make others look guilty to remove the guilt from them. That's my stories with serial killers are so popular. Multiple murders often happen in novels because the killer has to silence those who could out them.

  4. Clarissa - You make some really good points here! You're quite right that one strategy killers use is to find a way to ingratiate themselves with the police or other sleuths somehow. I can think of a few novels where that happens. And then of course, there's always the strategy of staying a step ahead by killing anyone who might be able to identify the killer. Both of those strategies are audacious and bold, aren't they?

  5. This is great and brings three thoughts to mind. First do we have any sleuths who actually are chess players and consciously bring those skills to their work? Second are there any books and/or writers who deliberately use chess metaphors, like the seventeenth century playwright, Thomas Middleton did, most notably in the play 'A Game at Chess' (which caused riots, by the way, and got the author imprisoned for a while). And thirdly is there ever a difference which reflects the thoughtful, analytical player from the one who like a child a taught some years ago who made all his decisions according to the patterns on the board?

  6. Annie - Oh, you ask such interesting questions! As far as sleuths who play chess goes, Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe does. So does John Dickson Carr's Dr. Gideon Fell. I'm sure there are other sleuths who do, too. I'm not sure how consciously I would say either of these men bring the game to their work, but I would say it probably affects the way they go about it.

    I didn't know that about Thomas Middleton! How interesting! Although there are occasional mentions of chess in the crime fiction I know, they are more of a direct reference to the game then metaphors. In fact in one of Agatha Christie's novels, The Big Four, a chess set and game provide an important clue to the mystery Poirot is solving. And Christie's work has been compared to chess by others.

    And there are most definitely differences in sleuthing between the one who analyzes thoughtfully and the one who follows patterns on the board. I would say that one thing that characterises a brilliant sleuth is one who can analyze the game and make an innovative move. That said though, in most of the crime fiction novels I've read, the sleuth also recognises a pattern when she or he sees one. Perhaps that comes with the experience of the veteran. You actually make a very interesting contrast here!

  7. Chess is the perfect metaphor for describing mysteries, Margot! Each player has to try to out-think the other and the killer, one would think, is always trying to plan moves three or four steps ahead of the police. And then there's the sacrificing of pieces...oh dear. And that awful realization that you made an error four moves ago and can you repair the damage? Yes indeed; a wonderful metaphor.

  8. Elspeth - Why, thank you! You're so right, too, that lots of chess strategies (and mystery stories!) involve sacrificing pieces, trying to make up for unwise moves and so on. In fact, it's that matching of wits that makes a lot of mysteries so interesting :-). And no doubt about it - it's so fascinating to see how well one side predicts and out-thinks the other... I'm glad you enjoyed the analogy.

  9. Unfortunately it is often the criminal who makes the first bold move. Keeping up with them is what makes the story. Yes, the matching of wits-like with Hannibal Lector and Clarissa was what made that book work.

  10. Patti - You know, that's a good point! Often it's the criminal who makes the first move. so the sleuth - both in real life and in fiction - has to react. There is such a thing as crime prevention but it would be difficult to solve a crime before it actually happens. Interesting point!

  11. It's so much like a chess game! And we writers are playing both sides. :)

  12. Elizabeth - Oh, you are so right! I like the way you put that :-).