Thursday, April 14, 2011

She Got Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes*

What is it about jewels that captures our imaginations? Part of it is their monetary value; some jewels are worth quite a lot of money. But part of the monetary value of jewels comes from the fact that people want them. They’ve even killed and died for them. Why? Apart from their use in industry (for instance, industrial diamonds in cutting tools), jewels have a real mystique; you could even say that there’s a certain romance associated with them. So it’s no wonder that jewels have a prominent place in crime fiction.

A valuable jewel – a yellow diamond – is the focus of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. Colonel John Herncastle steals this diamond from a palace in India and much later, bequeaths it to his niece Rachel Verinder, with instructions that she be given the jewel on her eighteenth birthday. It’s not the generous gift it seems to be on the surface, though. The jewel is said to curse anyone who takes it from its rightful place; even if the curse is not real, there is more than one unpleasant group of people after it. Soon enough, the Verinder family is struck by misfortune. First, two dangerous groups of people target the family, trying to get the jewel. Then, on the night that Rachel receives the jewel, it disappears. Shortly afterwards, second housemaid Rosanna Spearman disappears and is later found to have committed suicide. The moonstone is traced to London where it seems to have been pledged to a moneylender. Sergeant Richard Cuff is assigned to investigate the stone’s disappearance and Rosanna Spearman’s death and over the course of two years, he discovers what’s behind the dramatic events surrounding the moonstone.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Blue Carbuncle, Sherlock Holmes finds out how a valuable carbuncle ended up in the crop of a Christmas goose. Commissionaire Peterson discovers a battered hat and the goose lying in the street after their owner gets into a fight with some hooligans. Peterson’s wife discovers the jewel when she cooks the goose and Peterson brings the mystery to Holmes. Holmes uses the hat to make some deductions about its owner and it’s not long before he discovers where the goose came from. After tracing the goose back to its breeder, Holmes finds that the breeder’s brother, who’d stolen the jewel, hid it in the goose because he thought the police were after him. Not only is this an interesting story of deduction, but it also shows Holmes’ compassionate side.

Several of Agatha Christie’s novels feature jewels; I’ll just mention two of them. In The Mystery of the Blue Train, wealthy American tycoon Rufus Van Aldin purchases a valuable ruby necklace that includes a very famous ruby, Heart of Fire. He gives to his daughter Ruth as a gift, and against his advice, Ruth takes the necklace with her when she travels on the famous Blue Train, ostensibly to Nice. What Ruth hasn’t told her father is that instead of going to Nice, she is going to meet her lover, Comte Armand de la Roche, a scoundrel who preys on wealthy women. Ruth never makes it to her destination; she’s found strangled on the second morning of the journey. Hercule Poirot is aboard the same train, and he gets involved in the investigation. The most likely suspect is the Comte; he knew that Ruth had the jewels with her, and was highly motivated to get them. But the case is not as simple as that, as Poirot and the police soon discover. In the end, this case revolves around the rubies, but not exactly in the way we think. After all, this is Agatha Christie ;-).

Jewels are also at the centre of Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons. Ali Yusuf, who has just become the Sheik of Ramat, is about to be overthrown and he’s painfully aware of that fact. He knows that he may be killed at any moment, so he gives a fortune in jewels to his friend Bob Rawlinson for safekeeping. The revolution occurs just as Yusuf had predicted, and Rawlinson tries to spirit his friend out of the country. Tragically, both men are killed, but not before Rawlinson finds a safe place for the jewels. Three months later, the summer term begins at Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school. One night, newly-hired games mistress Grace Springer is shot inside the school’s brand-new Sports Pavilion. The police begin an investigation, but they haven’t gotten very far when there’s a kidnapping. And then there’s another murder. When Julia Upjohn, a student at the school, puts together an important piece of the puzzle, she goes to Hercule Poirot and asks him to help find out what’s going on at Meadowbank. In the end, Poirot finds out how the events at Meadowbank tie in with the revolution in Ramat. We also discover why Ali Yusuf was so determined to get the jewels out of Ramat even though he suspected he’d be killed.

Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors also features valuable jewels, this time emeralds. Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet Mervyn Bunter are stranded near the village of Fenchurch St. Paul on New Year’s Eve. They’re rescued by the vicar Reverend Theodore Vanables and his wife Agnes. Wimsey soon repays his host’s kindness when he agrees to ring one of the church’s bells in the place of the “regular” ringer, who’s come down with influenza. Wimsey acquits himself well, and he and Bunter prepare to leave as soon as the car is repaired. While he’s waiting, Wimsey hears a local story of a twenty-year-old theft. When Sir Henry Thorpe, the local squire, was married, a valuable emerald necklace was stolen from one of the wedding guests. The culprits were caught, but the emeralds were never found. Time’s gone by and on this New Year’s morning, Lady Thorpe dies. She’s duly buried and Wimsey and Bunter leave town after her funeral. A few months later, Venables writes to Wimsey to ask him to return. Sir Henry himself has died, and has left instructions that he be buried in his wife’s grave. When the grave is opened, the gravediggers discover the body of an unknown man already there. Venables wants Wimsey to investigate the death. Wimsey agrees and returns to Fenchurch St. Paul’s. In the end, Wimsey discovers who the man is and why he’s in the grave. He also finds out how this death relates to the missing emeralds and in the end, how the man died.

Jewels feature in more recent novels, too. For example, Colin Dexter’s The Jewel That Was Ours is the story of the theft of The Wolvercote Tongue, a piece of a valuable Anglo-Saxon belt buckle on display at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. American tourists Eddie and Laura Stratton, who own The Wolvercote Tongue, travel to Oxford with a tour group. The highlight of this stop will be Laura Stratton’s donation of the jewel to the museum. On the afternoon of their arrival, Laura Stratton suddenly dies. Then The Wolvercote Tongue disappears. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are assigned to investigate the theft. On the day after they start their search, Dr. Theodore Kemp, curator of the Ashmolean, is murdered. Morse and Lewis believe that this murder is related to the theft of The Wolvercote Tongue. They’re right, but as it turns out, the relationship is not the one we think it is.

And then there’s Martha Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace. The quiet village of Littlebourne is rocked when a human bone is unearthed by a local dog. Later, the body of a young woman is found in the nearby woods, and Inspector Richard Jury is assigned to find out who the woman is and how and why she died. In a plot point reminiscent of Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, Jury and his friend Melrose Plant hear of a burglary that happened in the village a year earlier. Lord Kennington was robbed of some valuable jewelry, including an emerald necklace. The thief was killed shortly afterwards in a hit-and-run accident, but the necklace was never recovered. And then, there’s a brutal attack in a London underground station on another resident of Littlebourne. Then there’s another murder. Slowly, Jury and Plant put together the pieces of this puzzle and find out why Littlebourne is the target of so much tragedy, and how it relates to the missing emerald necklace.

Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone shows us another tragic side of people’s obsession with jewels. Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Vianello investigate the execution-style shooting of an unidentified Senegalese man who’s illegally in Venice. Although the man has very little money and no valuables to speak of, the two sleuths discover a cache of diamonds hidden in the man’s cheap room. They discover that these stones are “conflict diamonds” or “blood diamonds” – stones that are sold to fund military conflicts. In the end, the two men find out where the diamonds came from and how they are related to an illegal arms-trafficking ring.

What’s your view? Do you feel the mystique of jewels? Which are your favourite jewel-related mysteries?

Oh, and the amethyst in the ‘photo? I don’t have many jewels. Trust me. But this one’s special; it was given to me when I spent a couple of months in Brazil many years ago.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon's Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.


  1. Don't forget Alan Orloff's Diamonds for the Dead, which I just finished reading -- the great twist in that books is that some of the missing diamonds are returned!

    Great jewel, by the way. :D

  2. Karen - Why, thank you :-). And thanks even more for reminding me of Alan's terrific book. Folks, trust me, you want to read Diamonds for the Dead if you haven't. You really do.

  3. I'm currently reading the Moonstone for book club and that was the first thing that popped into my mind. I love curses and jewels ever since I watched the film Pink Panther when I was young.

  4. Clarissa - What a coincidence in timing! The mystique of "the cursed jewel" has a real hold over a lot of people, so you are not alone. And of course, who could forget The Pink Panther...

  5. I have to say jewels don't hold any allure for me - but maybe that's because I don't have any :) I do have a couple of pieces that have sentimental value but thankfully I'm not likely to kill someone for their jewels (maybe for other reasons but not for their jewelery). I can't think of another book featuring a jewelery-related plot.

  6. Bernadette - I know what you mean about jewelery having sentimental value. The things I have that kind of value, too, much more than intrinsic value. And you know, I've never had the urge to kill anyone over jewels either. Still, I know it's been done...

  7. My nana loved jewels. Her fingers were covered in diamond rings. I don't wear any jewelery apart from a necklace now and then. Even the movie Titanic had the jewel - Heart of the Ocean.

  8. Niki - Isn't it interesting how we have those memories? When I read your comment, I thought of my own nana, who didn't wear much jewelry, and of my husband's, who did. I sometimes think it's simpler and definitely less fuss to wear little or no jewelry as you do. And thanks for reminding me of Heart of the Ocean. It was just a great "fit" with that whole plot and movie, wasn't it?

  9. The more I read about The Moonstone, the more it intrigues me. Jewels do seem to have a life of their own and can cause people to do things they might not otherwise do.

    BTW, love the amethyst. That's my birth stone.
    Thoughts in Progress

  10. Mason - Amethysts are beautiful; you're lucky it's your birthstone :-). The Moonstone is a groundbreaking and interesting story, and there are some very intriguing parts to it. I have to say, in order to get to those parts, the reader has to get past a lot of "isms," since the story was written a long time ago. Still...

  11. Jewels can bring out many people's inner crow - ooh look, sparkly! There's also the monetary status a large jewel implies which many hunger for as well. It's not a surprise jewels play a role in so many pieces of crime fiction; the hunger for what they symbolize is a basic part of human nature and let's face it, most of us enjoy how we look in the mirror when we're wearing a nice stone.

  12. Elspeth - I think you have a point - that "ooooooh, shiny!" phenomenon is so common among people, isn't it? I wonder whether it's acquisitiveness or something else..hmm... You're also right, I think, that we like that sense of richness we feel when we're wearing a stone. Whatever that mystique is, it sure shows up a lot in crime fiction!

  13. What Elspeth said! :)

    I do enjoy reading mysteries where jewelry plays a part.

  14. Elizabeth - Yes, indeed, Elspeth said that quite well, didn't she? And I think jewels add sparkle to a story, too ;-).