We don’t always get a warning ahead of time when we’re going to be faced with a challenge. So one of those really helpful skills is the ability to think creatively and act quickly in a difficult situation. Sometimes it’s called “thinking on one’s feet.” In real life, people who can do that often get out of trouble faster, and in crime fiction, the ability to think quickly and act creatively can be a real asset as well. Lots of crime fiction characters do that, too, and sometimes, they come up with very innovative ways to solve problems.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!), Elspeth McGillicuddy is paying a visit to her friend Miss Marple. While she’s en route, the train she’s in is passed up by another train going in the same direction on a different track. Mrs. McGillicuddy happens to glance through the window of the other train and sees a murder. At first, no-one believes her except Miss Marple. There’s been no body discovered, nor has anyone reported a missing person. Miss Marple guesses that the body must have been thrown from the train. So she looks at some maps and figures out where the body must be – at Rutherford Hall, the property of Luther Crackenthorpe. Miss Marple persuades her friend Lucy Eyelesbarrow, who’s a much-in-demand professional housekeeper, to do some sleuthing, and Lucy takes a position at Rutherford Hall. She knows that she can’t just be seen wandering around the grounds, so in a solid example of “thinking on one’s feet,” she claims to be out practicing golf while she looks for the body. In the end, she discovers the victim’s body and this allows the local police and Scotland Yard to begin an investigation. Miss Marple herself thinks quickly as she formulates a plan to catch the killer.
There’s another example of “thinking on one’s feet” in Dicey Deere’s The Irish Village Murder. In that novel, professional interpreter Torrey Tunet has just returned to the Irish village of Ballynagh, her European “home base” when she discovers that her friend Megan O'Faolain may be involved in the shooting death of Megan’s employer and lover, historian John Gwathney. O'Faolain is a logical suspect, too; she’s set to inherit Gwathney’s fortune and she’s rumoured to have taken up recently with a new love, local potter Liam Caffey. Tunet doesn’t believe her friend is guilty, and she begins to investigate. The stakes get higher when it looks as though O'Faolain may go to prison for the crime. Tunet discovers who the real murderer is, but she knows that a simple accusation isn’t enough. Besides, the murderer has done a fairly good job of “hiding” the motive and the evidence. So, with very little time to spare, Tunet comes up with a plan to get the evidence she needs to catch the killer. With the help of a local teen she’s befriended, she finds the hiding place where the evidence is, gets what she needs and clears her friend’s name.
In Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo, we meet more than one person with that ability to think quickly and act creatively. Jane Gresham is a post-doctoral teaching fellow and Wordsworth scholar who suspects that Wordsworth may have left behind an as-yet undiscovered manuscript. When an unidentified body is found in a bog near Gresham’s home in the Lake District, she can’t resist the opportunity to see whether the body might be that of Fletcher Christian, who was a great friend of Wordsworth and whose story might be told in that undiscovered manuscript. Gresham travels to the Lake District and begins to try to track down the manuscript. What she doesn’t know at first is that Tenille Cole, a young teen whom Gresham befriended in London, has also traveled to the Lake District. Tenille is trying to escape the police, who think she may be mixed up in a murder. We see Tenille’s quick-wittedness and ability to “think on her feet” as she disguises herself, makes her way north, finds Jane Gresham and later, tries to help Gresham on her quest for the manuscript. Gresham’s search gets complicated when there’s first one, then another, and then another death. Now, the police in more than one place begin to wonder whether she’s got something to do with the deaths. Each in a different way, Jane Gresham and Tenille Cole work to find out who’s responsible for the deaths and to find the manuscript, if there is one. When Gresham discovers who the killer is, she, too, has to be quick-witted and think fast to save her own life.
And then there’s Myrtle Clover, whom we meet in Elizabeth Spann Criag’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies. She’s a retired schoolteacher who is not ready to be “put out to pasture,” despite the best efforts of her son, the local police chief, to get her to “settle down and retire.” So when the body of real estate developer Parke Stockard is discovered in a local church, Myrtle Clover decides to investigate. Her son tries to keep her out of trouble and away from the case, but she is not dissuaded. Throughout the novel, Myrtle uses her wits more than once to find out information and put the pieces of the puzzle together. In the end, she finds out who the killer is, and when she confronts the killer, she gets in real danger. But even though Myrtle’s in her eighties and her body isn’t what it was, she can think quickly. She uses her cane to temporarily disable the killer and buys herself just enough time to avoid becoming the next victim.
Lindy Cameron’s Redback features Bryn Gideon, commander of a crack retrieval team known as Redback. Redback gets involved in stopping an international terrorist plot when the team rescues a group of hostages who’d been attending a conference on Laui Island in the Pacific. As the team is helping the hostages escape, one of them, Dr. Jana Rossi, is overtaken by a member of the rebel group who took the hostages. Rossi is in mortal danger, but Gideon, who’s been looking out for her, thinks and acts quickly. She kills Rossi’s attacker just in the nick of time. That’s not the only time, either, when both Gideon and Rossi have to “think on their feet.” That ability to sum up a situation, make a quick decision and act in response is of inestimable help to both women throughout the novel.
Of course, these are by no means the only examples of crime fiction stories where a character has to think fast and act creatively. The ability to “think on one’s feet” is also very important to PIs such as Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski and other sleuths, such as Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum. But what do you think? How good are your favourite sleuths at “thinking on their feet?”
P.S. Did you notice something about today’s post? No worries; I’ll give you a minute to glance at it again………
Yup, each character and author I’ve mentioned has something in common. Today is International Women’s Day – let’s hear it for the ladies!