It can be hard to not boggle at some of the behaviour we see around us. A pandemic has not exactly sharpened people’s abilities in making sensible decisions. Yet when we turn to crime fiction we find we don’t have a monopoly on making questionable choices. So instead of crunching numbers and giving varying statistics on my reading this year, (I imagine they will only depress me), I have decided to share with you some of the “lessons” I’ve gleamed from my 2020 reads.
Some categories may seem to have not much relevance, due to ongoing current restrictions. However, given how long some of us have gone without going to or hosting parties, as well as going on holiday, we might well have forgotten some of the basic do’s and don’ts by the time we can again…
Social Events and Recreational Activities
Moving to a new area can be exciting, but also a challenging time when you don’t know anyone. Hobby groups are a great way to make new friends but remember when you’re new to a group don’t show off or overly criticise others. Also if your dog has become something of a local nuisance, local opinion can quickly turn against you. If dog proofing the garden is not a viable option, then you may have to consider moving again. This might seem like an overreaction but if Edna Alice, in Henrietta Clandon’s Good by Stealth (1936) had followed this advice then she might have avoided a spell in prison…
Sea bathing, for those barmy enough to tolerate UK temperatures, is apparently an invigorating activity, or so I am told. However, it might be more dangerous than you think as participating in such an activity provides a would-be murderer with the ideal situation to make your death look accidental. It has been something of a popular choice in my reading this year, including: Deadly Primrose (2020) by Suzette A Hill, Death of His Uncle (1939) by C. H. B. Kitchin and The Death Wish (1934) by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding.
If you are planning on hosting a social gathering of family and friends, think twice before inviting anyone you think might want to bump you off. Whilst you see it as a way of keeping an eye on them, in reality you’re just helping them out, especially if you are inviting them to a remote country house which is liable to be cut off by snow. The primary victim in Virginia Rath’s Death at Dayton’s Folly (1935) found this out the hard way.
Hosts should also bear in mind that organising a party, with antagonistic guests, when a blackout is scheduled, is not really a good idea. Again you’re rather helping any potential killer out, which was the case in Juanita Sheridan’s What Dark Secret (1943). Nor should you pull any pranks on your guests involving experimental drugs. For the malicious at heart this might seem like a hilarious idea, but it’s a joke which can very much boomerang and in a fatal manner too. Claudia Bethune in Helen McCloy’s The Deadly Truth (1943) probably wishes she had not acted contrary to this advice.
One final thought for party guests from Elizabeth Ferrars’ Enough to Kill a Horse (1955): If no one else is eating the food because it tastes wrong, don’t keep eating it.
Going on Holiday
If you are staying at a hotel always double check the room number before entering, to make sure you have got the right one. This is trickier to do when you’ve over imbibed, so you may need to have a designated person for this task. Equally to be on the safe side check the bed for any unwanted corpses, before snuggling under the duvet. You might think this is being over cautious but Sue in Richard Shattuck’s The Wedding Guest Sat on a Stone (1940) certainly didn’t find the experience on her wedding night a laughing matter…
The more socially popular among us may be accustomed to getting holiday invitations. But I think my reading this year suggests that not all invitations should be accepted. Holidays on yachts are a big no no. All kinds of problems can occur with the yacht, let alone the fact your host might have some mischievous social experiment planned. This occurs in Panic Party (1934) by Anthony Berkeley and once again we have a host who wishes he stuck to holidaying in Bournemouth. Always be wary of holiday hosts who have no definite destination in mind. It could be a sign of poor planning or they might have a more devious idea in mind.
Another kind of holiday invite which should be automatically declined is one to a remote island, particularly if the host owns it, you barely know the host, and if you have a bad feeling about them. Ignoring all the warning signs mentioned above is unlikely to end well and you could find yourself in the same matter of life and death pickle that Georgia in Ethel Lina White’s Step in the Dark (1938), found herself in. At the very least if you insist on going to such an island do not go unaccompanied with your small children.
Perhaps after these last two pieces of advice you have decided you will organise your own holiday. Not a bad idea, but there are still some important things you should remember…
- Don’t pick a politically volatile locale for your holiday destination. (The Elephant Never Forgets (1937) by Ethel Lina White)
- Make sure you don’t run out of money or lack the relevant documents for getting home again, if the situation turns nasty. (The Elephant Never Forgets).
- Do not take in your luggage any kind of weapon or archaeological find. John Enstead in Maria Lang’s No More Murders (1951) complains about the way his daughter and son in law keep on bumping into murder and only agrees to go on holiday with them if they promise no murders will occur. Fair enough, yet ironically he brings along an Egyptian knife, to prank his daughter with, and it is this knife which is later used by a murderer.
- It is nice to take a memento home with you, and the temptation to do so may be greater if you happen to be light fingered like Felix Freer in Frog in the Throat (1980) by Elizabeth Ferrars. But be careful in what you decide to take home. The wrong choice may incriminate you in a local murder…
- Be wary of those you help on holiday. Rescuing people from the sea is all well and good, and I don’t want to encourage people to ignore struggling swimmers, but you should careful your grateful swimmer does not attach themselves to you for the rest of the holiday. Everything may start out fun and happy, but Sudden Fear (1948) by Edna Sherry shows how such positive beginnings can turn incredibly sour.
My final piece of holiday advice comes from Sheridan’s What Dark Secret: Don’t fall asleep on the beach. This is a classic holiday error, which can be very painful and is best avoided.
Falling in love and finding the one can be tricky. There are so many pitfalls for the unwary. Who knew that your ability to play bridge could affect your love life? Charles Venables in Christopher St John Sprigg’s Crime in Kensington (1933) certainly found this to be the case.
If flirting is not something which comes naturally to you, take heart, as fictional characters can also be quite awkward in this department. A good example of this can be found in White’s Step in the Dark, between the nincompoop Georgia and the obviously villainous Count Gustav. When courting Georgia, the Count tells her about his home:
‘I want to make you envious. And then, perhaps, I can persuade you to stay with me. Stay for a very long time.’
Now this is not a bad start in the flirting stakes, even if it is somewhat materialistic. Yet I can’t help but feel Georgia dampens the mood somewhat with her reply:
‘Tell me about the cost of installing the heating system. I live in the wilds, too.’
Yep nothing develops a romantic relationship better than a fun discussion about someone’s central heating. Nevertheless, the pair somehow get to the point of sharing a kiss and to consolidate this romantic moment we get Georgia’s stilted reply of ‘what a startling technique…’ From their flirting alone the reader should be able to deduce that their relationship is not going to end well…
Creating a dating profile is another way to find a mate, but you should only do so if you are genuinely looking for love. If you and your friends are just a bit bored and want a laugh, then maybe you should try something else… like bingo. People’s feelings can get hurt and not all of them will respond sensibly. This is very much the case in Doris Miles Disney’s Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate (1970).
Not every relationship stands the test of time, yet that does not necessarily mean that person leaves your life for ever. Once more you should be on your guard. If your ex-husband decides to invite you to a dinner party, along with his fiancée, his mistress and his current wife, then just say no. It is not going to be the most convivial of evenings and there is also a reasonable chance that your host wants to kill you. If you don’t believe me read Follow as the Night (1950) by Patricia McGerr.
Moreover, if someone has broken up with you be careful what lies you tell afterwards to save face. They may only be small, white, lies, but even these ones have the capacity to snowball and can make you look more foolish than if you had just told the truth. I should also add at this point that if you don’t follow this advice and end up in an awkward situation then it is still not a good idea to respond in the way Dee Morris does in The Little Lie (1968) by Jean Potts. Anyone who has read the book will know what I mean!
Not every relationship is a healthy one and being the recipient of hero worship can be problematic; you never know what the other person might do to get your attention. However, if this situation occurs then facing it head on is perhaps the wiser course of action, rather than sticking your head in the sand like the proverbial ostrich, which is corroborated by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Obstinate Murderer (1938).
Finally, if you have had a tiff with your spouse or family member, and plan to change your will don’t tell them about this until you have done the deed. An early warning of your intentions, as shown in Sherry’s Sudden Fear and Elizabeth Ferrars’ Root of All Evil (1984), only plants sinister ideas in their minds.
P. S. If your friend has mentioned they are going to kill their stepfather, you should probably tell someone about it. (A Little Less Than Kind (1964) by Charlotte Armstrong)
Not much of my mystery fiction reading has been set in the workplace this year, but Pat Flower’s Shadow Show (1976) demonstrates the following principle well: If malpractice at work occurs do not let the guilty party know you know. Get evidence first and then report them to the appropriate body. You will save yourself a lot of pain, stress and hassle in the long run.
When starting a new job make sure you have the correct outfit, know how to fulfil the role’s tasks competently and don’t rub your colleagues up the wrong up. Taking baths at any hour you please, whilst working as a maid, is not a good way to get on the right side of your new employer, as can be seen in The Black Paw (1944) by Conyth Little.
What not to do at night
Whilst it is said that most accidents happen in the home, I would add that a lot of murders in mystery fiction occur at night. So this is a time during which you should be extra vigilant and avoid doing any of the following:
- Going out at night, alone, in response to a mysterious phone call. (The Case of the Famished Parson (1949) by George Bellairs)
- Wandering around at night at a country house party. This type of conduct is liable to be misinterpreted, which is evidenced in The Dangerfield Talisman (1926) by J J Connington
- Agreeing to meet someone alone, outside at night. (Fatal Shadows (1933) by Dorothy Cole Meade)
Miscellaneous Dos and Don’ts
Here are few other pieces of advice which didn’t really fit into any of the above categories…
Transport: Avoid using the top deck of a bus. It may seem like a safe option, but some killers are cunning. (Murder En Route (1930) by Brian Flynn)
Fashion: Wear Velcro shoes, rather than ones with shoelaces. This reduces the number of ways you can get killed. (The Billiard Room Mystery (1927) by Brian Flynn)
Possessions: Make sure you don’t lose your umbrella. This may seem a rather random piece of advice, however, if you are anything like Leonidas Witherall from Alice Tilton’s File for Record (1943), then the chances are that a lost umbrella will be all it takes for you to end up in a highly incriminating situation.
Communication: Don’t withhold important information from the authorities, even if your mother says to. It may cost your own life or others and if you happen to be in a mystery novel then you will also really frustrate the reader. (Murder Takes the Veil (1950) by Margaret Ann Hubbard)
What advice has your mystery fiction reading given you this year?