When I Looked It Wasn’t There*

In real life and in a lot of crime fiction (especially whodunits and howdunits), the sleuth depends on evidence that’s discovered. It may be footprints, a paper or electronic ‘trail,’ or something else. But sometimes, it’s just as important to consider the evidence that isn’t there. That, too, can give the sleuth important information, or even solve a case.

One of the most famous examples of this lack of evidence comes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Silver Blaze. In that story, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the disappearance of a famous racehorse, Silver Blaze, and the death of his trainer, John Straker. London bookmaker Fitzroy Simpson is considered the most likely suspect; the theory is that he abducted the horse to rig the race. But there are pieces of evidence that also point elsewhere. For example, there’s the clue of what the stable dog did on the night the horse went missing. Scotland Yard’s Tobias Gregory points out that,

‘The dog did nothing in the night-time.’ 

And that, says Holmes, is precisely what’s interesting about the case. The dog would have been expected to bark but did nothing. And that fact points Holmes in the right direction.

The real action in Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts) begins when famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright hosts a cocktail party. He invites several people, including the Reverend Stephen Babbington and his wife. During the party, Babbington suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. There seems to be no motive for the murder, as Babbington had no enemies, and certainly no fortune to leave. There’s nothing in his past, either, that would suggest him as a victim. Then, there’s another murder. And another. Hercule Poirot gets involved in the case, in part because he was present at the cocktail party. He learns that what one of the witnesses can’t tell him is just as important as what any of the witnesses can tell him.

In Lawrence Block’s first Matthew Scudder novel, The Sins of the Father, Scudder gets a visit from successful executive Cale Hanniford. It seems that Hanniford’s daughter, Wendy, has recently been murdered. The police have arrested her roommate, Richard Vanderpoel, for the crime, and they have overwhelming evidence against him. In fact, Hanniford’s not even asking Scudder to find the murderer. Rather, he wants to know more about Wendy’s life. He and his daughter had been estranged, and he wants to know the sort of person she was, and what led to her death. It’s a strange request, but Scudder agrees to ask some questions. One of his stops is to visit Vanderpoel in prison. He meets with the young man but can’t get much information from him. Then, unexpectedly, Vanderpoel commits suicide. The police think it’s a case of remorse, but Scudder isn’t so sure of that. So, he keeps asking questions. And it turns out that what Vanderpoel didn’t or couldn’t say is at least as important as what he did say.

Chris Grabenstein’s Tilt a Whirl introduces readers to Sea Haven, New Jersey, police officer Danny Boyle. In this novel, he’s a ‘summer cop’ – not a full-time member of the police force. One day, he and his boss, John Ceepak, are eating breakfast at a local restaurant when they are interrupted by a tragedy. Twelve-year-old Ashley Hart stumbles up the street, screaming incoherently about her father. Ceepak and Boyle manage to get her to calm down a bit, and she tells them what happened. She and her father, billionaire Reginald Hart, were on the Turtle-Twirl Tilt-a-Whirl ride at the local amusement park. While they were there, a strange man with a gun shot her father and ran off. The girl’s description matches a local homeless man nicknamed Squeegee. He sometimes works at a local car wash, but he hasn’t been there lately, so a search is made for him. There are other possibilities, though, and Ceepak and Boyle follow up a number of leads. They do get to the truth about the murder, but not until they make sense of some evidence that wasn’t there…

And then there’s Robin Blake’s The Hidden Man. In that historical (1742) novel, attorney and town Coroner Titus Cragg and his friend, Dr. Luke Fidelis, investigate the murder of local pawnbroker and would-be banker Philip Pimbo. On the surface, it looks very much like a case of suicide. But Fidelis isn’t so sure that’s the case, and Cragg is inclined to believe him. If it was murder, there are certainly suspects. The killer could be a member of Pimbo’s household. There’s also the fact that not long before his death, Pimbo had backed a ship called The Fortunate Isle. A few weeks before Pimbo’s death, his business partner, Zadok Moon, launched a claim against the company that insured the ship, saying that the ship and all its cargo were lost. Craig tries to track down Moon to get more information about this claim, but Moon has gone missing. This, too, might be a murder. If it is, there’s a chance that it could be related to Pimbo’s business dealings. It’s a difficult case, and Cragg and Fidelis don’t get all the answers until they learn about some evidence that they should have had access to, but wasn’t there.

Sometimes those pieces of evidence, or witnesses, or other aspects of a case that should be there, but aren’t, really are important. In fact, they can be at the heart of the solution to a mystery. These are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of others.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Moody Blues’ The Day We Meet Again.




Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Chris Grabenstein, Lawrence Block, Robin Blake

14 responses to “When I Looked It Wasn’t There*

  1. The greatest that comes to mind is from A Murder Is Announced: poor Amy Murgatroyd’s last words before she dies, “She wasn’t there.” One small sentence . . . and as Miss Marple proves, it’s all in how she said it that counts!

    • Oh, Brad, that’s a fabulous example! I love it. And it’s exactly the sort of clue that Christie did so well. In that one, the nuance is everything, isn’t it? I’m very glad you mentioned it. And I have to admit, I like Amy Murgatroyd’s character.

  2. Keishon

    This post brings to mind The Girl on the Train for some reason. A mixed bag for me reading-wise.

    The missing pieces to the plot in that book was glaringly obvious. Intentional or not, it annoyed me. I call such things plot contrivances.

    Of course, outside of your examples I’m at a loss naming stories that worked for me using this type of trope.

    • Interesting you’d bring up The Girl on the Train, Keishon. You’re by no means the only one who gets annoyed by obvious plot points. For me, anyway, when that happens to me, I get the feeling of being obviously manipulated, and that doesn’t appeal to me.

  3. Can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, but I do like this kind of plot point when it’s done well. The dog in the night is deservedly a classic!

    • I think so, too, FictionFan! It’s done very, very well, I think. There was no way I could not mention it. And if it’s done well, I think it can be awfully effective in a story.

  4. Col

    Struggling for examples as well. I have the Grabenstein book on the pile somewhere, thanks for the reminder.

  5. Christie again for me! In The Moving Finger, the maid is murdered because she has thought over the events of the afternoon of a previous death, and she has realized that something important didn’t happen….

    • Exactly, Moira. A really good example of what I had in mind here, so thank you for filling in that gap. Amazing how Christie used so many different sorts of strategies, isn’t it?

  6. Kathy D.

    Definitely, the dog not barking is a clue as to a murderer. This has been used in other books as well. What did not happen is an interesting plot device. It didn’t do much for me in The Girl on the Train, an irksome book altogether, in my opinion. The movie was better.
    I guess whatever draws in readers and interests them is what matters in a mystery.

    • You’ve got a well-taken point, Kathy. If readers are drawn into a story and engaged, that’s the key. A story just won’t work if the reader is not engaged, will it? And you’re right about the dog not barking; that’s an important ‘clue that wasn’t there,’ and, as you say, it’s been used more than once.

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