One of the sad realities of death is that someone has to go through the dead person’s things and make decisions about what to do with them. Very often (not always!), that task falls to a family member. And that means there’s an added emotional layer to the task.
That sort of clearing out can add an interesting sense of tension to a crime story. For one thing, one never knows what one might find in that sort of clearing-out. And that opens up plenty of possibilities for plot points. For another thing, people may feel all sorts of different ways about someone’s death. That can add character development and suspense.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, we are introduced to Mary Gerrard. She is the daughter of the lodgekeeper at Hunterbury, the home of Laura Welman. Mary’s father has recently died, and she needs to clean out the home and his things and decide what to do with them. The local district nurse, Jessie Hopkins, helps in the task, and the two have a very interesting conversation, during which Mary learns some surprising things about her father and her own past. Not long afterwards, Mary herself dies of what turns out to be poison. Laura Welman’s niece, Elinor Carlisle, is the most likely suspect for several reasons. In fact, she is arrested and tried for the crime. The local GP, Peter Lord, has fallen in love with Elinor, and wants her name to be cleared. So, he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the case. Poirot finds that Mary’s death has everything to do with the past.
Vera Caspary’s Laura begins as the body of successful advertising executive Laura Hunt is discovered in her apartment. Lieutenant Mark McPherson of the NYPD is assigned to the case and starts the investigation. As McPherson learns more about the victim, and spends time in her apartment, he slowly builds a picture of what she was like. He feels a real connection with her as he goes through her things. As more time goes by, he finds himself falling in love with her memory. Then, everything changes. It turns out that the body in the apartment is not Laura’s, but a woman named Diane Redfern, who had Laura’s permission to stay in the apartment while Laura was out of town. Now, the investigation changes completely, and McPherson has to start all over again. Even Laura becomes a suspect…
In Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess, we are introduced to Erica Falck, a writer who’s just returned from Stockholm to her home town of Fjällbacka. Her parents have both died, and now she has the sad task of going through her parents’ things and deciding what to do about their house. It’s difficult for her, but she wants to get the project underway. Then, everything changes. The body of a former friend, Alexandra “Alex” Wijkner, is discovered in her own bathtub. At first, it looks as though it might be a suicide. But soon enough, it’s determined that she was murdered. Erica hasn’t had much contact with Alex for many years, and she’s curious about the woman her friend became. And she wants to find out who the killer is. So, she starts asking questions. And she discovers that Alex was keeping some very dark secrets from her past, and that has everything to do with her murder.
In R.J. Harlick’s Death’s Golden Whisper, we meet Meg Harris, who’s just left a destructive relationship, and has moved to Three Deer Point in Outaouais, in Western Québec. She inherited the property from her Great-Aunt Agatha and is now going through the house and Aunt Agatha’s things. Meg knows that Aunt Agatha always had a good relationship with the Miskigan people who live in the area, and she’s tried to carry on that tradition. So far, she’s succeeded. That’s why Miskigan Band Chief Eric Odjik trusts her enough to ask for her help. There are stories that a local small island, Whisper Island, has gold on it. A company called CanacGold wants to drill there to see if it’s true. And there are some Miskigan who want the trilling, because it means more jobs and income. But most of the Miskigan want the island preserved. They can’t prove that it’s their land, though, so there’s a good chance that CanacGold will get the drilling rights. The only way to avoid that is if the land actually belongs to someone. That ‘someone’ might be Meg, since Whisper Island may be part of the property she inherited. Eric asks Meg to see if she can find any evidence of that, and Meg agrees. Before long, she’s caught up in a land rights dispute, a disappearance, and murder.
And then there’s Graeme Macrae Burnet’s The Accident on the A35. That novel begins as an attorney named Bertrand Barthelme drives his car off the A35 and into a tree. Georges Gorski, local chief of police, investigates the death, and that includes speaking with Barthelme’s widow, Lucette, and son, Raymond. Lucette says that her husband was at dinner in town and would have no reason to be on the A35. She wants his death investigated more closely, and Gorski plans to do just that. In the meantime, Raymond wants to know more about his father, as the two were never close. So, he begins to go through his father’s things. One day, he finds a clue, and that leads him on his own personal journey.
The task of going through the things of someone who’s died can be very difficult. But it can add to a crime novel, especially if that clearing-out yields some clues. When it’s done well, it can be very effective.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marie-Lynn Hammond’s Bits of String.