In Agatha Christie’s The Clocks, Sheila Webb comes upon the body of an unidentified dead man when she arrives at the home of Millicent Pebmarsh to do what she thinks is a secretarial job. Sheila’s been sent there by the typewriting and secretarial service where she works, but when she arrives at Miss Pebmarsh’s home, instead of a job, she finds a dead body. She screams and runs out of the house – straight into the arms of Colin Lamb, a Secret Service operative who’s in the neighbourhood on a case of his own. Lamb does his best to help Sheila, and then he calls the police. Since the crime is not a straightforward one, Lamb also takes it to his father’s friend Hercule Poirot and challenges him to solve it. On the surface of it, Sheila reacts as you might expect, especially for a young woman of the time during which this novel was written. But what Lamb and the police don’t know is that Sheila hasn’t really rushed blindly out of the room. She’s recognised something in the room and taken it, because she doesn’t want to be mixed up in this crime. Of course, she doesn’t tell Lamb or the police about what she’s taken, either, and although that doesn’t prevent the crime from being solved, it does complicate matters.
James Bentley’s crime scene behaviour gets him into trouble in Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. Bentley lodges with Mrs. McGinty, a charwoman in the small village of Broadhinny. He’s an unprepossessing young man who’s lost his job at a real estate firm and can’t seem to find another. He’s not particularly popular and doesn’t have many friends. One evening, he comes home from a walk to find the body of his landlady in her parlour. He’s sickened and frightened by the sight, but is even more afraid of being mixed up in the crime. So he tells no-one about it. This gives Mrs. McGinty’s murderer the time needed to frame Bentley neatly for the crime. In fact, Bentley is arrested, tried and convicted. He’s scheduled to be executed for the murder, but Superintendent Spence, who conducted the investigation, doesn’t think Bentley’s guilty. So he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the case. Poirot agrees and travels to Broadhinny. He begins to learn about the people who live there, including James Bentley, and it’s not long before he establishes that more than one person had a reason to want Mrs. McGinty dead. One of the interesting things about this novel is that Bentley’s decision to pretend he didn’t discover the body is really believable – it’s quite consistent with his character. It’s also one of the reasons that Hercule Poirot believes that Bentley’s been set up.
In Ngaio Marsh’s Tied up in Tinsel, Agatha Troy has been commissioned to do a painting of Hilary Bill-Tasman over the Christmas holidays, so she travels to Halbards, the family home, to do the work. While she’s there, several other houseguests arrive for the holiday. Among them are Bill-Tasman’s uncle Fleaton “Uncle Flea” Forrester, his wife Bedelia “Aunt Bed” and their servant Alfred Moult. Uncle Flea has agreed to dress up as a Druid for Christmas and distribute gifts to the local children. But when he suddenly falls ill, Moult agrees to take his place. After the party, though, Moult disappears and is later found dead. Moult’s body is actually discovered by some members of Bill-Tasman’s staff of servants. However, they’re all afraid of being connected with the murder since they all have criminal pasts and since none of them really got along with Moult. So at first, none of them admits to knowing anything about Moult’s disappearance or his death. It’s not until Inspector Roderick Alleyn, Troy’s husband, points out the consequences to them if they don’t tell the truth that any of them admits to having found the body. Their unwillingness to “come clean” makes the case harder all around.
Fourteen-year-old Sean Jackson finds himself in real danger when he comes upon a murder in Sam Hilliard’s The Last Track. Jackson is staying at Montana’s Pine Woods dude ranch when one day, he sees the murder of David St. John. Terrified that the killer will come after him, too, Jackson runs off instead of alerting the police. The problem is that the dude ranch is surrounded by rough and dangerous terrain. In fact, Sean’s at just as much risk from the country and the elements as he is from the killer. It doesn’t help matters that he’s an asthmatic. When it’s clear that the boy is missing from Pine Woods, detective Lisbeth McCarthy asks Mike Brody to help find him. Brody is a former Special Forces operative who now co-owns S&B Outfitters, an extreme adventure tour company. Brody has his own reasons for being willing to track Sean, so he gets involved in the case. Now it’s a race against time and the elements as Brody tries to find Sean Jackson before the killer does.
Paul and Daniel Spender don’t want to tell the police about the body they discover in Minette Walters’ The Breaker. The two brothers are out one morning exploring near Chapman’s Pool on the Dorset Coast. They’ve taken their father’s expensive Zeiss binoculars with them without getting permission, and Paul’s looking through them when he sees the nude body of thirty-one-year-old Kate Sumner on the beach. By accident, the binoculars are dropped from the cliff the boys are on, and break. The Spender boys are terrified that they’ll get into big trouble about the binoculars, so they don’t want to tell the police that they’ve seen a dead body. Paul in particular also doesn’t want to admit that he was fascinated by the victim's nudity. They do tell their story, though, to Stephen Harding, an actor who’s staying in the area and who is the first adult the boys see after they’ve dropped the binoculars. Harding persuades them to tell the local constable what’s happened, and when PC Nick Ingram comes on the scene, the Spender brothers tell him their story. It’s interesting to see how Ingram is able to get past the boys’ fear of getting in trouble so he can get the story from them. In the end, their story gives Ingram a small piece of the puzzle needed to find out who killed Kate Sumner.
In Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s My Soul to Take, Bergur Ketilsson is taking a walk one evening; he prefers evening walks outside to sitting at home with his wife Rósa, with whom he’s no longer really in love. During his walk, Bergur comes upon the raped and murdered body of Birna Hálldorsdóttir, an architect who’s staying at a local spa resort. The police are alerted and begin an investigation. Staying at the same resort is Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, who’s been hired by the resort’s owner Jónas Júlíusson to help him press a lawsuit against the land’s former owners. Jónas believes the land is haunted and wants to sue the former owners for not telling him about the haunting before they sold him the property. When it turns out that Jónas was having an affair with Birna, the police become interested in him as a suspect, and Thóra looks into the case to try to clear her client of suspicion. In the course of her investigation, Thóra finds out that Bergur Ketilsson didn’t tell the police everything he knew when he discovered Birna’s body. He was having an affair with her, too, and didn’t want it to be discovered. It turns out, too, that Bergur’s reluctance to immediately tell the police and admit everything he knows seriously hampers the investigation. In the end, though Thóra is able to get to the truth about Birna’s death and two other deaths.
Discovering a murder is stressful, even traumatic, whether or not one knows the victim. It’s even more so when one knows the victim or has something to hide. So even if someone’s not the killer, it’s not always one’s first instinct to tell the police. That decision can add a layer of complication to an investigation – and a layer of interest to a novel. Which novels have you enjoyed where this happens?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Who’s 1921.