Hello, and welcome to my 2019 A to Z Challenge! This year, I am giving you my personal list of Golden Age Mystery Tropes. Particularly clue-tropes, and also those tropes that an experienced mystery reader finds herself using to solve the mystery without reference to the actual clues.
However, today’s trope is going to be a bit different. This one is more in the nature of a warning, one which all storybook murderers of the Golden Age would do well to heed. So, if you are a fictional character, and are about to commit a homicide, do read on!
Null and Void
“I am,” said Mr. Sneer, the once-famous actor, “absolutely desolated at the loss of my horrid old great-aunt. I shall,” he said, weeping with sincerity, “especially miss her shrill demands, her sudden cold rages, and her uncomfortably penetrating observations upon my character.” He smiled bravely. “Her money will, of course, be a fragrant reminder to me of her. I shall treasure it always.”
Crowner applauded briefly. “Yes yes yes. I’m sure it would be a comfort to you. Would be,” he repeated with emphasis.
Mr. Sneer smiled his touching smile. “Oh, but it will. It will. It is a melancholy fact that, though my great-aunt often talked of changing her will, she never did so. And so the will she made in my favour when I was but a golden-haired little orphan still stands.”
“The actual melancholy fact, from your point of view,” said Crowner, “is that, four years after she wrote that will, she secretly married her butler, Sneakfork. The marriage remained a secret, for the lady we will continue for convenience to call Miss Sneer was too proud to admit she’d married a servant. He continued to serve as butler in his wife’s house until his death ten years ago. An odd arrangement, but who am I to judge? Perhaps they were happy. Perhaps they were not. Impossible to say.”
“…was rendered null and void by your great-aunt’s marriage. And, as she never wrote a new will…”
Mr. Sneer had turned quite pale. For a moment he fought to speak, but words would not come.
“Yes,” Crowner continued, almost gently, “I am afraid, Mr. Sneer, that you have killed your great-aunt in vain. Even were you not shortly to hang for her murder, even were your guilt never suspected, you would never have gotten her money.”
Murderer, heed the warning contained in the example of Mr. Sneer! Before you poison your great-aunt’s curry (or coffee), do take the elementary precaution of a visit to Somerset House. I am no expert on actual law, past or present, but I can tell you at once that, under the laws of the Golden Age of detective fiction, a marriage renders all wills written before said marriage null and void.
I know what you are thinking, my murdering friend of fiction. “Surely” –I can hear you say it quite distinctly– “Surely, no-one would have married a crusty old tyrant like great-aunt Sophie. Besides, she has many cats.” I say to you that the old were once young, and that cats are no guarantee of spinsterhood. Ask yourself: have I ever seen a cat–even several cats–in the household of a married couple? I think you will find, my dear old prospective murderer, that the answer is yes. People like cats.
Really, my friend, ask yourself a couple of basic questions before you murder great-aunt Sophie. Has the trusted family solicitor displayed any strange anxiety that a new will be drafted? Has he hinted to you that it is in your best interests–for reasons he cannot reveal–that this be done at once? Are there any strange gaps in Sophie’s history–a period of months or years during which the family lost sight of her? Does the old girl wear a locket round her neck that she has never allowed anyone to handle? Is there a locked drawer somewhere in her house, smelling faintly of lavender, suitable for storing marriage certificates and love letters? Is she either unexpectedly soft-hearted or unwarrantably severe when sitting in judgment upon the love affairs of others? All of this may indicate a secret marriage in your great-aunt’s past–and that marriage may mean that the will you place so much reliance upon is no good to you.
Do keep this in mind, my bloodthirsty friend! And don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Have you encountered this trope (if it is a trope!) in anything you’ve read? What do you think of it? Is it, in fact, a trope? If it is an actual fact in law (or if, at any rate, it used to be a fact), can it still be considered a trope? I think so, but it is a bit tricky. Do you think so? Leave a comment!