Thursday, March 24, 2011

Wait a Minute Mr. Postman*

With today’s easy electronic communication, many people use Email, texts and social networking sites to stay in contact. For a lot of us, writing a handwritten letter as a way of communicating is getting to be a thing of the past. And yet, letters are such powerful tools. For those who are interested in history, letters are a very important way of touching the past: people’s life stories are told that way. If you’ve ever gotten or written a love letter, you know how haunting a letter can be. And of course, threatening letters and “poison pen” letters can be truly unsettling. Letters can be kept, mulled over, and returned to again and again when we’re nostalgic. And for centuries they were people’s only connection to those who lived at any kind of distance. Even today, we eagerly open the mail if there’s an invitation, an acceptance/rejection letter or a royalty cheque (or maybe that’s just what I do ;-)). As important as letters have been to people, it’s no wonder that they also figure quite a lot in crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, for instance, a letter plays an important role in catching the killer of George Alfred St. Vincent Marsh, 4th Baron Edgware. One night, he’s stabbed and his wife, actress Jane Wilkinson, is the obvious suspect. She wants a divorce so that she can marry the Duke of Merton, and she’s made public threats against her husband. Someone looking exactly like her and giving her name was seen at the family home just before Edgware’s death, too. The only problem with the case against Jane Wilkinson is that she was seen by twelve people at a dinner party in another part of London at the time of the murder. Poirot works with Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp to find out who killed Lord Edgware. It turns out that there’s more than one suspect. Then, there’s another death. When it turns out that this death, too, was a murder, Poirot begins the work of finding out how the killings are related. One of the most important clues he gets comes from a letter that the second victim has written. When Poirot gets that clue, he’s able to figure out who the killer is. The end of this novel, too, is focused on a letter that the killer writes to Poirot after the case is closed. It’s an eerie portrait of a “completely conscienceless” murderer.

In Christie’s The Moving Finger, a series of anonymous letters rocks the small town of Lymington, to which brother and sister Jerry and Joanna Burton move from London. They’re looking forward to a quiet, restful life so that Jerry can recover from war wounds. Then, they receive a “poison pen” letter claiming that they are not siblings, but lovers. Other letters are sent to other residents as well, and one of the letters drives its recipient to suicide. Then there’s another death. Scotland Yard’s Inspector Graves is sent in to investigate and at first, he seems to be making out a case against the local doctor’s sister. But it’s not as simple as that, and soon the vicar’s wife, Mrs. Dane Calthrop, tells Miss Marple about the case and Miss Marple starts her own investigation. As it turns out, the letters were written to cover up a murder and to disguise the murderer’s motive. When Miss Marple figures out what that motive was, she’s able to find out who the killer was.

Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger begins with a series of letters. Postman Joseph Higgins is making his rounds, and as he flips through his letters, we meet six other people who are about to become involved in a case of murder. Each one of these individuals has accepted the opportunity to work in one capacity or other at Heron’s Park military hospital. Before long, they’re all settled into their work. Then one day, Higgins himself is brought to the hospital with a fractured femur. It’s not a particularly serious injury, and it’s expected that he’ll recover quickly. Tragically, Higgins dies while in surgery, and Inspector Cockrill of the Kent County Police is sent in to do what seems at first like a routine investigation. Soon, though, the possibility is raised that Higgins might have been murdered. His wife certainly suspects it. Then, at a party one night, another character has too much to drink and blurts out that Higgins was murdered, claiming even to know how it was done. Later that night, that character is killed. Now Cockrill has a murder investigation on his hands. He finds that the killer had an unusual motive for murder – a motive with which the reader can actually sympathise.

Ngaio Marsh uses an interesting strategy based on letters to tell the story in A Clutch of Constables. DCI Roderick Alleyn lectures to his students about an interesting case that happened on a river cruise. Through flashbacks, we learn that Alleyn has had the details of the case mostly from letters his wife Agatha Troy has written to him. Alleyn is out of the country on another case, so Troy’s decided to take a river cruise. Among the other cruise passengers are some unusual characters, one of whom may be an international criminal known as “Jampot.” Alleyn learns about the cruise, the crime, and “Jampot” through Troy’s letters, and it’s a fascinating way to give the reader information.

Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands also features letters. Eighteen years ago, Gloria Peters’ son Billy disappeared and was presumed murdered by convicted killer Arnold Avery. Billy’s disappearance has devastated his family, so his twelve-year-old nephew Stephen decides to do something about it. He finds out how to contact Arnold Avery and begins to write to him to see if he can trick Avery into revealing what happened to his uncle. For his part, Avery tries to manipulate Stephen as well. The two begin a very dangerous game of cat-and-mouse through letters and the closer they get to their goals, the more dangerous the situation becomes.

Letters also play an important role in Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo. Wordsworth scholar Jane Gresham is eking out a living as a post-doctoral teaching assistant. She’s suspected for a long time that Wordsworth might have left behind an unpublished manuscript based on stories told by Fletcher Christian of Bounty fame. The two men were friends and if the rumours Jane had always heard are true, Christian didn’t die on Pitcairn Island, but made his way back to his native Lake District. If that’s true, then it makes sense to Jane that he would have told his story to his friend and that Wordsworth would have written about it. When a long-dead body surfaces in a Lake District bog, Jane suspects it could be Christian’s body. If so, Jane could be right about the manuscript. Such a discovery would ensure a successful career for her (not to mention financial gain) so she travels to her native Fellhead in the Lake District to see if the manuscript exists. She’s guided well by some old letters that indicate who might have the manuscript and it’s not long before she’s on its trail. Then, a death occurs. And another. It soon seems that every lead Jane Gresham explores ends in death and the police begin to wonder if greed and reputation have driven her to commit murder. Now Jane has to clear her own name as she continues to try to find the missing manuscript.

Håkan Nesser uses letters in his novels as well. For instance, in Mind’s Eye, Jurgen Mitter is tried and convicted for the murder of his wife Eva Ringmar. He’s the most natural suspect since he was in the house at the time of the death and although he claims innocence, there is no proof that anyone else was in the house that night. Mitter was very drunk at the time of the murder and because he can’t remember many details of it, he’s remanded to a mental institution instead of prison. The case against Mitter seems clear, but Inspector Van Veeteren begins to wonder whether Mitter might actually be innocent. So he and his team begin to look into the case. In the meantime, Mitter slowly begins to recover his memory. At one point, he remembers who else was at the house on the night of the murder and writes a letter to that person. Shortly thereafter, he himself is killed. Now Van Veeteren and his team begin to probe the case thoroughly. Once the team hears that Mitter had written a letter, the team tries to trace it. The letter turns out to be an important connection that links the killer to the crime.

Even in today’s electronic world, letters still hold a fascination. But what do you think? Do letters intrigue you? Or have you “gone digital?” Which novels have you enjoyed where letters are important?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Marvelettes' Please Mr. Postman.


  1. I must admit I write very few letters Margot. The exception is Christmas but even then it is a card with a "newsletter"

  2. Kerrie - I actually don't write many letters, either. I write "Thank You" letters for formal occasions, but honestly, that's about it for me.

  3. I have noticed a lot of books have started writing electronic messages. For example, in Val McDermid's latest book Fever in the Bone, the officers were often texting each other and online chat room transcripts have been published. I understand the need to keep up with technology but reading the modern acronyms are sometimes tiresome. Perhaps I'm just getting old.

  4. Clarissa - Interesting point! I hadn't thought about that, but you're right about Fever of the Bone. And there are other novels, too, where there's a lot of electronic conversation that uses text language. It's a difficult balance: texting is the language a lot of people speak. On the other hand, not everyone does. I don't think it's a question of age. I think it's a question of how one's used to communicating.

  5. I'm sorry to say I don't write as many letters as I once did. I think letters do hold a bit of mystery about them. I have to agree with Clarissa, I'm not fond of reading text messages in writings either.

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. Mason - There is a certain mystique about letters, isn't there? But for all that, I don't write as many letters as I used to, either. It's just too easy and quick to keep in touch electronically. I wonder what our descendants will make of the a lot of people write now. Most likely some new way of communicating will come along...

  7. I miss real letters. E-mail is a better way for me to stay in touch with some of the people I love, like my husband's cousin in Italy and a niece in Maine who is always very busy, but I do love receiving a real letter. Writing a present day mystery, one cannot really include letters and that's a shame.

  8. Barbara - I know what you mean. There's a certain kind of charm and mystique about a letter - even a commonplace kind of letter. Email and text may be more convenient, but for many people, they don't have the warm appeal.

    You make an interesting point, too, that in today's kind of mystery, it would be much more natural and realistic to have people use EMail than paper letters...

  9. I miss letters. I used to get them...but now I probably get one a year or fewer.

  10. Elizabeth - I don't get letters, either - I mean, except for bills and such. I'm old enough, too, to easily remember the world before the Internet and Email, when everyone communicated with letters. Now, when people ask my address, I assume they mean my Email address, not my postal address...