Prelude to Murder

prelude to murderIn murder mysteries, there is generally a certain amount of text between the title page and the discovery of The First Corpse.  This text usually Sets The Tone and Builds Tension.  It is also Positively Salted With Clues; this is so that The Reader will Feel Like An Idiot later.  Readers who do not Feel a Fool after reading a mystery novel tend to be unsatisfied, and this leads to Social Unrest and other Undesirable Eventualities.  Why, it may even cause a Reader to sink to such Depravity as to start reading “Realistic” Novels.  This is shocking, but it must be faced.

Now, what on earth was I saying?  Oh, of course, I was telling you about the part of a mystery novel that leads up to the discovery of The Body.  In this part of the story, people are generally engaged in making mysterious remarks, in quarreling with the Deceased-To-Be, and in laying in stocks of poison from the local Chemist.  A Good Time is had by all, as each suspect merrily lays down his or her own particular path to The Gallows.

And, as I have said, the text is Positively Salted With Clues.  Some of them are clues that The Detective will spot in time; some of them are clues that only The Reader will ever spot, since they are Genre Conventions, and thus are off-limits to all but the most Post-Modern of Detectives.

In the passage below, I have packed in all the clues, hints, intimations, etc., that I could think of.  See how many you can spot!  Also, tell me what I’ve missed.  Keep in mind that the clues in the passage below won’t all point in the same way; you are looking for clues, ominous remarks, fishy characters, and so on, in the abstract, not clues that are all part of one story.

The Festering Blisters of Bleeding Hall

The party gathered at Sir Humphrey Blister’s ancestral estate that Christmas was ill-assorted and uncongenial.  It was almost as if Sir Humphrey had selected his guests from among the relations and connections of the large Blister clan at random- or, rather, not.  Random selection might have produced a certain amount of discomfort; this gathering was redolent of malice.  All participants in every really bitter family quarrel of the last thirty years were at Bleeding Hall that Christmas.  And we Blisters are grudge-holders.  That first afternoon saw each new guest, catching sight of a hated relative, diving into an empty room and staying there, sullenly awaiting the summons to tea.

And it was at tea that Edward Blister arrived.  This was very terrible.  You see, Edward Blister had been lost at sea almost seven years ago, and we’d all thought him dead.  Edward was Sir Humphrey’s nephew, and, as Sir Humphrey was childless and the estate was entailed, Edward was also Sir Humphrey’s heir.  Edward had a small fortune of his own, and had never, so far as it was known, made a will.  He was also a ghastly little tick whom nothing save Death would ever reform.  And there he was, alive, and obviously Edward Blister in the flesh.  Edward had inherited all of the less beautiful of the Blister physical characteristics, and the combination of these various disfigurements on one face was a sort of stamp of authenticity that could not be forged.  So there Edward was, and there was poor Augustus Blister, the heir that would have been, disinherited, and crying quietly into his tea, while Maude Fitzblister, a kind of cousin, and Augustus’s fiance, glared murderously at the interloper.

At dinner, our host was provoking even for a Baronet.

“Mercer,” he crowed at his abruptly-summoned solicitor, “Since you’ve been brought down here on such short notice, we’ve had to put you in the Tower Room.  It has, I fear, bats.  A great many bats.  Ha ha!  Edward, you will have the best bedroom.  Augustus, you may sleep in the Blue Room.”  And Sir Humphrey turned his attention to his curry, which he ate greedily.

Augustus went pale.  “But Uncle- it is haunted!”

Sir Humphrey nodded abstractedly.  “Yes, yes.  Oh, yes.  Very haunted.  Dangerously haunted.  Funny thing, that.  Most ghosts nowadays don’t seem to be able to swing a battle-axe for toffee.  Letitia,” and he scowled at Lady Blister, who sat, pale and beautiful, at the other end of the table, “you will be accommodated in the stables.”

Lady Blister shivered and said nothing.  Steven Forthright, who had wooed and lost Letitia, and was still hopelessly devoted to her, leaped to his feet and told Sir Humphrey exactly what he thought of him, using a butter knife brandished in air to add emphasis to his invective.

Sir Humphrey cackled pruriently and made an alternate suggestion about the accommodation of both Mr. Forthright and Lady Blister that made us all blush.  Then he dismissed the subject with a negligent gesture.  “Mercer, pray come to my study at midnight- we’ll draft up that new will.”  And Sir Humphrey rose as if to leave us.

“Oh, and Donaldson, I’d like to see you in my study at ten.  We have,” and Sir Humphrey smiled a truly nasty smile, “accounts to settle.”

Now, I wondered, why did Donaldson turn pale at that?  The man is Sir Humphrey’s financial chap, after all- the remark sounded innocent enough.  I thought of these things, and of other matters, as I strolled along the veranda that night, enjoying the new crispness in the air that heralded a coming snowstorm.  And apparently I wasn’t the only one who liked a bit of fresh air; there, leaning up against the railing and listlessly smoking a cigarette, was Reginald Arkwright, a kind of cousin, and an old schoolmate of mine.  I reflected on those days, remembering that Arkwright had been, back then, a really excellent mimic.  I wondered if that were still the case.

“Hello Fatty,” I said.  “Just digesting, or what?”

“Thinking, Ugly, thinking.  Of this rummy gathering, and all the rummy undercurrents.”

“Oh, come!” I said, with a falsely hearty laugh.  “I admit this gathering isn’t exactly friendly, but…”

“Friendly?”  Arkwright spoke with savage intensity.  “I wouldn’t be surprised,” he continued, in a lethal hiss, “if there were murder done this night!”  And, turning on his heels, he marched off into the house.  I soon followed- and confronted in the dimness of the front hall something that made me momentarily certain that I had gone quite mad.

For two Lady Blisters seemed to be conferring there in the high-ceilinged gloom.  Two women with that distinctive pale gold hair and with Lady Blister’s slender elegance of figure shone out at me like two diamonds on a pillow of black velvet.

As I approached, I saw that one was weeping, the other reassuring.

As I came still nearer, the illusion was destroyed, for the one who was weeping cried out, in a rough country voice that was utterly unlike Lady Blister’s dulcet tones, “Oh madam- I must go to ‘er!  And Doctor Brigand says as it’s urgent, as she’s not likely to last the night.”

Lady Blister smiled beatifically.  “Of course you must go, Gladys.  There, there, now don’t cry any more- you must be a brave girl and go do your duty by your Aunt.  She is down in the village, isn’t she?”  Gladys nodded wordlessly.  “Well then- you won’t have so far to walk.  But you can’t go in those thin cotton things- we can’t have you catching a chill, you know!  Haven’t you got a better coat than that?”

Gladys indicated that she did not. 

“Then wait here,” said Lady Blister.  I was in an awkward position: the weeping girl was between me and the stairs up to my bedroom.  And I was still feeling dazed by the strangeness of that moment when I’d thought I was looking at two Lady Blisters.  I therefore stayed put, hidden in the shadows, reflecting on the odd similarity of the two women- a similarity that vanished as soon as you saw their faces.  Presently, Lady Blister returned, carrying with her the vivid peacock-blue coat that she always wore in the winter.  “Here Gladys, you may borrow this.  It is very warm.”

“But your Ladyship-“

“I insist.”

Gladys put the coat on, and ran her fingers over the elaborate gold braiding with which it was trimmed.  “Oh thank you!  Pretty, it is.”  And she headed out the door and started out along the cliff path that leads past the stables to the village of Bleeding Parva.

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I count between 12 and 16 different genre conventions, fishy circumstances, clues, etc. in this passage- how many can you find?  Comment to tell me what you’ve spotted!

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One Comment

  1. Melanie Atherton Allen

    Two examples of the kind of thing I mean:
    1) Sir Humphrey is rude to his wife in front of Mr. Forthright, who is still in love with her- this is, in a murder mystery, not a pro-survival kind of move.
    2) Arkwright is noted as an excellent mimic. Whenever you see the words “excellent mimic” attached to a character in a murder mystery, keep your eye on that character! S/he will be mimicking like mad soon, luring people to their dooms, or merely confusing people about the time of death (“he couldn’t have been dead at twelve, because at twelve I was talking to him on the phone!” – this is No Good as a clue if you have an Excellent Mimic in the vicinity)

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