Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Thinking On Our Feet

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!


  1. Ha! This post made me giggle. I know it's another worthy piece, Margot, but with my background in the theatre, being able to 'think on your feet' was a matter of necessity. When your fellow actors drop a line or skip to the end of a scene (or gulp...the act) you'd better be able to think creatively or you're going to look a bit of a fool and *in front* of people.

    And huzzah to all the wonderful, creative women out there; and one of my biggest huzzahs is for you, Margot - I think you're truly wonderful.

  2. I did notice they were all (great) female detectives, yes, but probably only because I have been reminded of the day a couple of times.

    I think a good detective should also think OF her feet - you see, this makes me able to mention the scene where Rhapsody has to chase a suspect, - and fortunately she is wearing no-nonsense shoes ;)

  3. Elspeth - Awwww *blush* you are way too kind! Thank you. And as far as creative and thinking on one's feet go? I give a tip of my hat to you, too! You are marvellous! And you're absolutely right that being in theatre means you have no choice at all but to be able to react at a second's notice and think on your feet. I've only done the merest bit of acting (in junior high and high school - "extra" stuff). But from what I've seen you just simply don't survive in acting if you can't think that way.

    Dorte - You know, you're right about thinking of what one wears. In fact, I almost put a pair of trainers in that 'photo for that reason. A smart sleuth dresses to move quickly. And thanks to you, I now have a wonderful mental picture of Rhapsody running off at a dash. Love it!

  4. Great post. I think "What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw" is one of Agatha Christie's best.

    Elspeth's comment brought up memories for me. After 25 years in the theater, I had quite a few of those "thinking on my feet" moments. I think the worst was when the only other actor in my scene failed to show up. (The backstage monitor was out.) So I had to turn the scene into a monologue and keep the plot going. Maybe that's why I decided to turn to writing. A bit less panic-making.

  5. Ladies! What a great post. I didn't know it was women's day but I'm loving the posts relating to them. The examples you sited were wonderful because no more are women portrayed as those who scream and can't help themselves. We're good a solving crime too.

  6. Anne - Oh, what a moment that must have been when you realised you were going to have do something to keep the story going. I give you so much credit for doing that! I can completely see why you've found writing to be a little less stress-inducing than acting!

    And I agree: 4:50 From Paddington/What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw! is a terrific Christie read.

    Clarissa - Why thank you! And to be quite frank, I do get tired of women being relegated to only "victim" status or "helpless bystander" status. Not that women can't become victims or bystanders - they can. But it's nice they also can think on their feet, react, and handle a situation. And yes, there are plenty of women who are terrific at solving crimes.

  7. Ah yes! Mrs. McGillicuddy. That's one of my favorites, probably because I also saw the movie.

    Those sleuths do think on their feet. Those women! They ARE terrific, and so much fun to read. And it's so great knowing that there are real women doing just that!! Thinking on their feet and solving crimes, in some cases much better than their male counterparts. I have loved watching them recently in the BBC series called A Touch of Frost.

    A great post! Glad I came over today.
    Ann Best, Long Journey Home

  8. Anne - I'm glad you came over, too :-). You're always welcome :-). And I've always liked that particular Agatha Christie story myself :-). It's interesting you mentioned having seen the movie. I wonder whether seeing a movie version of a book makes us more likely to like the book more, as you found, or less. I'm sure it depends to some extent on how well-done the movie was.

    It is good to know, isn't it, that women sleuths and major characters do, indeed, think on their feet at least as well as the men do, and that they're no longer relegated to "second class roles." I think that's been one of the major developments in crime fiction of the last, say, 25 years.

    Glad you've enjoying A Touch of Frost. I think that's a well-done series, too.

  9. oh, I love the women sleuths! Who better than a woman for thinking on their feet?! When you have to bake valentine cookies for your child's school party on the same day that a big presentation is due and the power goes out - well! Only women have to be such multi-taskers and flexible thinkers. Really. Yay us! I want a cookie.

  10. Jan - You've got such a good point! I've certainly had days where I've got a paper/presentation deadline, dogs to take to the vet's, a daughter who needs help with schoolwork ...and a computer virus. And yes, we sure have to think on our feet, don't we? I want a cookie, too :-). And I like it that today's female sleuths are written in interesting ways so that they can think on their feet and face whatever they have to face, but at the same time, they aren't militant about it.

  11. Great post! Yes, thinking on one's feet has got to be a good trait for a sleuth. :) Thanks for including Myrtle. And Dorte made me smile...they do need to dress for thinking on their feet, too!

  12. Elizabeth - Why, thank you! And it was my pleasure to include Myrtle. I really like the way she thinks quickly and acts accordingly. She's great! And yes, Dorte's' comment made me smile, too. It's hard to run after someone if you're in high heels and formal wear ;-).

  13. Is that two right shoes?
    Thinking by the seat of your pants is a little different I think. It implies more of a leap.
    I prefer to think with my feet up. Send more oxygen to my brain.

  14. Patti - Oh, I like it :-) - two right shoes. Interesting point, too, about the leaps we have to make when we think "by the seat of our pants." That is just a little different from being able to act quickly. I think both are important to good sleuthing. But of course, thinking with one's feet up can be very useful, too. Agatha Christie's Poirot does that; he sometimes gets people really upset because he doesn't go running around doing things. And yet, he comes up with solutions...

  15. I'm thrilled to see female protagonist who can think on their feet and solve the crime. Even if they do start off by uttering a small scream at first, you know in the end they'll have put all the pieces together and found the killer. A great post. A special thanks to you on International Women's Day for providing such wonderful insights into great books.

    Thoughts in Progress

  16. Mason - Awwww *blush* thanks :-). And I agree; I like it quite a lot when the sleuth is a great sleuth who just so happens to be a woman, rather than a woman whom everyone is surprised can actually put the pieces of a puzzle together.

  17. Dorte's comment reminds me of the CSI TV shows where the female CSI's wear spike heels and cleavage down to there, skin tight skirts or pants, and perfect makeup, yet they chase "perps" and get down on their knees to comfort children and all kinds of things I couldn't possibly do dressed like that. I'll bet real investigators laugh so hard at these shows.

  18. Barbara - Sorry it took me a couple of days to respond to your comment. You make a well-taken and witty point, too! I'll bet you're right and real-life sleuths have a good laugh at how ridiculous those TV sleuths can be...

  19. Dortes' comment made me think of Caterina Zeta Jones in that movie with Sean Connery, where she strips off her evening dress to reveal a catsuit that shows off her enviable figure, but is still running in those crazy heels. Even if they are not chasing criminals all the time, I would think all those women wear sensible shoes most of the time.
    Great post (even though all I ever spoke about was shoes). And no, I did not notice all the detectives happened to be women. But then I think women do make good detectives.