Agatha’s Ark: Animals in Classic Crime Fiction

Today I thought I would share with you the talk I gave last week at Paignton Zoo for the International Agatha Christie Festival, as I know some have been interested in accessing the talk, not having been able to attend the talk in person. Enjoy!

Good morning everyone. Thank you all for coming. Just before I begin my talk I have been asked to give some safety announcements, to ensure you and other visitors have an enjoyable time at the zoo.

No. 1 – Please don’t leave your corpses in the pelican’s lake. Not only does this create extra work for the cleaning staff, but it also gets in the way of the pelicans’ regular regatta races. A similar problem occurred in the New York Aquarium’s penguin pool, back in the 1930s. Some of you may have read about the incident in Stuart Palmer’s The Penguin Pool Murder (1931).

No. 2 – For those of you keen to see the pythons, please bear in mind they are non-venomous, so you will be unable to take any venom home with you as a keepsake or as a means of bumping off a loved one. This is just as well as pulling off that type of murder is far from easy as George can tell you from Freeman Wills Crofts’ Antidote to Murder (1938).

No. 3 – Equally you can’t borrow any of the Asiatic lions for a similar reason. You could of course buy a lion of your own like the MP in Berkeley Gray’s Conquest After Midnight (1957), and pretend you are interested in starting a zoo. Then one night you can let your lion loose down the same path your enemy will take an evening stroll. Once the lion has eliminated your foe, you can claim that the lion mysteriously escaped and that it was all an unforeseeable accident. Or maybe not, I think the police might be a bit suspicious.

No. 4 – Conversely, if you happen to be a prospective murder victim, the zoo can assure you that you can’t be pushed into a bear pit, as they don’t have one. If only the protagonist in John Franklin Bardin’s Devil Takes the Blue Tail Fly (1948) had been near Paignton Zoo rather than Central Park’s Zoo, they might have fared better.

No. 5 – Arguments can happen at any time, be it with a business rival or someone you are going to end up marrying, but, if possible, please can you avoid having them in the reptile nursery. A sharp word can easily descend into fighting and smashed glass and reptiles at liberty to roam is never a good combination as Sir Henry Merrivale can attest to in Carter Dickson’s He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944).

Finally, No. 6 – No taking pot shots at the flamingos, not even for a practical joke. The zoo in Bombay in the 1960s suffered the loss of four flamingos this way. Thankfully, H. R. F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote was able to find out the identity of the perpetrator in Inspector Ghote Players a Joker (1969).

With those notices out of the way we can now proceed with the rest of the talk, and I plan to share with you some of the ways in which animals have made themselves at home with classic crime writers and in the mysteries their owners created, and who better to start with than the Queen of Crime herself, Agatha Christie.

When it comes to the cat versus dog debate, it is fair to say that Christie was decidedly on the side of the canine. Her first dog was a four-month-old Yorkshire terrier, whom she received as a present on her 5th birthday. She recalls that ‘it was the most shattering thing that ever happened to’ her, so much so that she was unable to speak. His official name was George Washington, but Christie always called him Tony. However, Christie’s most well-known canine pet was her wire-haired terrier Peter, (pictured on the left), who was the dedicatee of Dumb Witness (1937), in which she describes him as the ‘most faithful of friends and dearest of companions.’ Those who have read the book will also know of Peter’s fictional counterpart within the story, which I will touch upon later. In the 1970s another of Christie’s dogs would make its way into her work, as her Manchester terrier Bingo, (pictured on the right), was the inspiration for Hannibal, the pet of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford in Postern of Fate (1973). The dog in the middle is believed to be James, a Sealyham terrier, originally belonging to Christie’s friend Carlo Fisher. Fisher left the dog with Christie when she went to work in an ammunition factory during WW2 and James used to go with Christie to the dispensary she worked at and would sit under the shelves. Yet Christie’s affinity with dogs seemed to go deeper than just enjoying their company, as at one point in her autobiography she reflects that:

‘if the theory of reincarnation is right, I must have been a dog. I have a great many of the dog’s habits. If anybody is undertaking anything or going anywhere I always want to be taken with them and do it too.’

Christie was not alone in her love of dogs, as you can see from the photographs on the screen. Christianna Brand was also a canine fan, placing her dachshund Dumptsi first in her dedication for Heads You Lose (1941), as well as providing it with its own counterpart in the story, Aziz – a black dachshund who is included in the list of murderous personae, as a tongue in cheek fifth columnist suspect. Suffice to say the role is something of a comic one.

Far well less known, is pulp and occasional mystery writer James Norman, who wrote a trilogy of mysteries set in China. His love of dogs led him into training many as retrievers for duck hunting and in the years before his death he was researching a gourmet dog cookbook, which planned to feature recipes for dogs and stories about celebrities and their canine companions. James tested out the recipes on his last dog, Chuco, who apparently enjoyed escargot. Family and friends also recalled James’ way of putting off disliked dinner guests from returning. His tactic was to get his dogs to lick clean the dirty dishes from the meal and then put them back in the pantry, as the horrified guests looked on. Naturally he washed the dishes once the guests had left, no doubt in a hurry!

Members of the audience who prefer cats to dogs need not fear that they will be overlooked as there was also a substantial body of mystery writers who were feline devotees, some of whom are pictured on the screen. Going back to when crime fiction was in its infancy, Charles Dickens had a favourite cat named Bob and after his death, Dickens had one of Bob’s paws stuffed and attached to a letter opener. Whilst in the 1930s, one cat made their mark on magician and budding mystery novelist, Clayton Rawson. It is reputed that the completion of his first novel, Death from a Top Hat (1938), was delayed because Rawson kept having to remove the family cat from the models he had designed to test out the mechanics of the murders committed in the book.

If you have been to Witham, in Essex, you might have seen this statue of Dorothy L. Sayers, erected opposite her home, the cat of which is suggested to be modelled on Sayers’ pet feline Blitz.

Another of her favourites was said to be her white cat, Timothy and after his death she wrote a poem in memory of him entitled ‘For Timothy, in the Coinherence.’ In 1943 Sayers wrote the poem, ‘War Cat,’ in which the narrator apologies to her cat for the poor food she can give him due to wartime restrictions and there is a comic interlude at the denouement in which the cat decidedly gets the better end of the deal. Additionally, Sayers often incorporated cats into her Christmas card designs and in 1947 she had privately printed an 8-page Christmas pamphlet called A Cat’s Christmas Carol.

Incidentally, aside from being a keen cat lover, Dorothy L. Sayers also responded to the London Zoological Society’s fundraising appeal, made during WW2, for people to “adopt” animals from the Regent Park Zoo. Sayers chose two porcupines who she named Stickley and Prickly.

Cats were also a big part of Patricia Moyes’ life, a crime writer who also wrote non-fiction titles on cats, such as How to Talk to Cats (1978) and After All They’re Only Cats (1973), which provides a tour of Europe through the eyes of a Siamese cat. Moreover, her second husband only accepted a new job in Washington in the 1970s, on the condition that they could bring ‘their boat, wine cellar and cats.’ When she moved to the Caribbean, Moyes campaigned to have the feral cats where she lived neutered and inoculated.

Moyes was not the only crime writer to branch into non-fiction writing about felines as Frances and Richard Lockridge, who usually had at least two cats, at any one time, also published Cats and People (1950). This title covered the history of the cat, their behaviours and human attitudes towards felines. Cats feature a lot in the fiction written by the Lockridges, particularly their Mr and Mrs North mystery series. For instance, in Murder in a Hurry (1950), the artist commissioned to draw illustrations of the Norths’ cats, stumbles across murder in a pet shop, discovering the body stuffed in a dog cage. Whilst in The Judge is Reserved (1961), it is possible that the unpleasant murder victim was killed due to their role of being a cat show judge. The Lockridges also wrote several children’s books where cats take centre stage.

Some mystery novelists though went for more unusual pets. Charles Dickens is known for his fondness of ravens, owning several pet ones which were all named Grip. The first of these was so beloved that Dickens included it in his novel Barnaby Rudge.  Meanwhile over in the USA, Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of the Perry Mason novels, had for a time a rescue pet coyote named Bravo. He and his second wife discovered Bravo as a cub, whilst out walking and cared for him at their home. He became a popular figure and Raymond Chandler, who often visited Erle at his ranch, would ask after him in his letters. When Bravo grew older he went back to the wild, although he returned to the ranch regularly. However, it was his lack of fear around humans which was his undoing as one day he was shot by illegal hunters trespassing on Gardner’s property.

However, another American mystery writer, who arguably was better known for her choice of unusual pet, was Craig Rice. She was a massive fan of snakes as you can see in this photo taken in 1949 for an article in Sketch, and it was captioned: ‘mummy and brood get together over a’ manuscript.

This note of humour is also found in another piece from 1949 in the Australian magazine PIX. They too labelled her snakes as her friends and children, with one photograph showing her jokingly putting one to bed. The humour though in this piece was perhaps a little more venomous, as it refers to the negative affect her pets had on her social life and even suggests that ‘the latest of a string of husbands,’ left ‘because her mystery stories gave him the creeps.’

From the times of Augustus Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, a great detective has always been in want of a sidekick, and it is also inevitable that writers would start choosing an animal to be their sleuth’s assistant.

One of the earliest and most unusual examples comes from the annals of Sexton Blake. In 1901, the magazine Union Jack serialised Griff the Man-Tracker, the only story in which Blake’s ape-like assistant appears. Where Griff came from is never mentioned, but to safeguard himself from Britain’s inclement climate, Griff uses a respirator to breathe, and the weather is no doubt one of the reasons Griff is always so well wrapped up. It would be another four years until the Blake series provided its detective with another animal sidekick.

Pedro the bloodhound first appeared in The Dog Detective, again serialised by the Union Jack in 1905. He was a gift from a grateful client, who was going abroad and did not want to take the animal with him. Not so Sexton Blake, who took Pedro on many cases outside of the UK, to places such as Africa and Brazil, which was a wise decision given the number of times Pedro saved Blake and others from leopards, lions, jaguars, and panthers. Aside from doing rescue work, Pedro would also be used for tracking individuals and delivering messages. He appears most often in pre-WW1 Blake stories, falling out of favour with some of the later Sexton Blake writers in the 1920s.

Other canine assistants naturally followed. Two notable examples were penned by American authors, Baynard Kendrick and Norbert Davis. In 1937 Kendrick published his first Duncan Maclain mystery, The last Express, and the series sleuth is based upon Kendrick’s experiences in London during WW1. He was so impressed by the observational skills of a blind soldier he encountered there that he made his own detective, Maclain, an ex-intelligence officer who was blinded during that same conflict. Maclain was a private investigator, who starred in 15 mysteries between 1937 and 1961, and he is aided in his work by two German shepherds who act as his guide and protection dogs.

Whilst Doan, Norbert Davis’ private investigator, is not blind, he is certainly indebted to his partner, Carstairs, a giant Great Dane. The pair only feature in three stories, the first being The Mouse in the Mountain (1943) and their working relationship is quickly established. Doan may have won Carstairs through gambling, but he is convinced that his dog looks down upon him and not just literally. Carstairs is presented as a pooch with airs and graces and he thoroughly disapproves of Doan’s drinking. He has a pedigree after all! He will obey commands, but Carstairs is not without personal autonomy. Any attempts to discipline or torment him will result in him knocking you over and sitting on you. His great size understandably generates some of the comedy in this series, given his unnerving effect on other characters.

Due to their more independent nature cats were chosen far less frequently for the role of detecting assistant. However, one example can be found in the hotel set mystery, Crime in Kensington (1933) by Christopher St John Sprigg, in which a hotel resident successfully deploys their feline named Socrates, as a sniffer cat and he manages to locate a gloved hand – without a body… Interestingly, sniffer cats have become more prevalent in recent times in professional contexts around the world. Moreover, in D. B. Olsen’s feline themed mystery, Cats Don’t Smile (1945), Rachel Murdock’s cat, Samantha, twice provides a distraction, which enables her owner to leave a location undetected, having been up to some questionable nocturnal sleuthing and when it comes to the finale, Samantha proves that felines are just as prepared to come to their owner’s aid, as dogs are.  

Mystery fiction in the first half of the 20th century was a time of great creativity and innovation, and one strand of this fecundity can be found in the way classic crime writers utilised animals as clues and at times red herrings.

In order for a detective to solve a crime, they need to know that one has taken place, and in the case of a murder, they need to be able to find the body. This is where animals can become very useful. At a basic level this might simply be the detective hearing the animal crying or calling out, which leads them to the corpse, such as in Palle Rosenkrantz’s Amy’s Cat (1907), also known as The Man in the Cellar, and in Nancy Rutledge’s Blood on the Cat (1946). In the former the accidental sleuths are made aware there is a hidden passageway because they hear a cat calling from inside it, which the murderer unfortunately left trapped in there. And in the second book, despite the cat having blood on it, which indicates a killing has taken place, it is in fact the victim’s dog whose howls reveal where the body has been taken to. More unusually, in Robert Van Gulik’s The Monkey and the Tiger (1965), Judge Dee is put on the trail of a murder when a gibbon drops an emerald ring near to him at breakfast.

However, animals are not only good at indicating where a dead body is, but also where live ones are, an example of which can be found in Agatha Christie’s short story, ‘The Cracker: Part 2,’ (1929) as Tommy Beresford enables his rescuers to know where he is being held captive, by surreptitiously pouring valerian outside the door, knowing that it will attract all the cats from the alley to that location.

Animals as witnesses to a crime are one of ways they can be used as clues. Whilst they might have seen who committed the crime, detectives can, however, find it tricky to retrieve and interpret these clues, as the information is not always given verbally, and even then it can be ambiguous. This can be seen in the occasional trend of mystery writers including parrots as the sole or primary witness to a murder. One of the earliest examples is Earl Derr Biggers’ The Chinese Parrot, which was published in 1926. In this story there is an Australian Grey parrot named Tony, who late one night calls out for help, fearing murder and being shot. Yet it is quickly realised that he is in no danger himself, but that he often enjoys repeating dialogue he has heard. So who recently has he heard crying for help? He never gets to reveal the answer, as he is soon eliminated with arsenic added to his food bowl.

Following on from Biggers’ tale is Anne Austin’s The Avenging Parrot, which came out four years later. In this tale Emma Hogarth, confined to her room due to ill health, is murdered in front of her parrot. She had trained her parrot to call out for help from the police, yet this is to no avail and does not prevent her demise. However, the parrot, in the presence of the detective working on the case, repeats the phrase ‘a bad penny,’ which gives the policeman the idea that someone from the victim’s past may have unpleasantly turned up. This is an ambiguous clue as it could refer to more than one suspect, and the fact the parrot might have spoken in place of his owner at one point, opens the possibility of the time of death being obscured. However, things become even more complex in Erle Stanley Gardner’s 1939 novel, The Case of the Perjured Parrot. In this story Perry Mason is faced with solving a murder set at a mountain cabin. A pet parrot appears to be the only witness, and the killer did in fact leave food and water behind for it. However, it then emerges that the parrot in question is not the one which belonged to the murder victim but is a substitute.  Furthermore, when the original parrot, Casanova is found, he damningly, for one suspect, keeps repeating: ‘Put down that gun, Helen! Don’t shoot […] you’ve shot me.’  But naturally things are not what they appear. Parrots as witnesses may seem farfetched, but in 2017 an African Grey parrot helped to convict a woman of murder in Michigan, reportedly repeating her victim, her husband’s, last words. The parrot was not admitted as evidence though at the trial.

Parrots were not the only birds used to assist sleuths in classic crime, as in 1933 Mignon G. Eberhart published The White Cockatoo. This mystery is set at a French hotel during a period of bad winter weather. An engineer on holiday ends up embroiled in rescuing a fellow guest from a conspiracy to defraud her of her inheritance and on several occasions he is helped by the eponymous white cockatoo, Pucci, not that Pucci thinks much of him. Pucci’s support covers different possible stages of your typical accidental sleuth’s investigation:

  1. Preventing the lead detective from becoming too involved with a very suspicious and most likely antagonistic female suspect. At the critical moment the engineer says: ‘Madame is more than kind. Madame is also beautiful. The cockatoo is eating fringe off the chair.’ Pucci’s peculiar eating habits are perceived as ‘heaven-inspired’.
  2. The sidekick embarrassing the lead detective by exposing one of their sleuthing stratagems. Pucci has something of an impish sense of humour and reveals that the engineer already has a box of matches in his pocket, which means that his request for one from a suspect, is shown to be a ruse to make the man talk.
  3. The sidekick saving the investigation through uncovering a crucial clue. Pucci has his moment of glory at the end of the book when he reveals the hiding place of an important object.

It was in the short story ‘The Adventure of Silver Blaze’ (1892) that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first introduced that famous phrase of ‘the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.’ The fact the dog did not call out was the telling clue that led Sherlock Holmes to unravel the mystery of who stole the racehorse and future mystery writers also made use of this type of clue. A faithful rendering of it can be found in Rex Stout’s In the Best of Families (1950), which revolves around a murder which takes place at a Doberman breeder’s home. However, it is in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness that we find a more creative deployment of this clue type. Initially, it is assumed that Bob, Emily Arundell’s dog, had left his ball on the stairs, leading to her falling one night. Yet it is Poirot, who realises that Bob could not have done so, since he was outside, meaning a human hand must have placed it there instead. The TV adaptation featuring David Suchet expands Bob’s role further, having him actively show Poirot this point, amongst others. Camera shots are also taken from Bob’s perspective, which reflects the passages in the novel in which Christie transcribes Bob’s barks into their possible English meaning.

Canine behaviour also aids the solving of a mystery in G. K. Chesterton’s ‘The Oracle of the Dog’ (1926). Again, this is an example of how an animal’s behaviour forms an ambiguous clue. The behaviour of a dog is considered important in the story, but the tricky part for the characters is deciding what the behaviour means and arguably causes something of a red herring. One character believes that because the dog barked at the lawyer that means they must have murdered Colonel Druce in the summer house. After all the lawyer was seen in the vicinity of the summer house and the dog happened to bark ominously around the time the killing must have taken place. Father Brown though is not taken in by this superstitious nonsense and is equally not convinced by the idea that the secretary did the deed because the dog growled at him. Nevertheless, the dog does help Father Brown solve the crime, once the red herring behaviours have been discounted, as naturally Father Brown, with his psychological expertise, knows which canine actions to give significance to.

However, animal clues can also provide more scientific evidence which indicates where a crime was committed. In H. C. Bailey’s Reggie Fortune short story, ‘The Yellow Slug,’ (1935) the trail of a cellar slug’s slime on the victim’s skirt, proves that the body had been moved after death to where it was then found by the police. The weather conditions and the lack of a slime trail anywhere else at the crime scene supports Fortune’s theory. From there finding the original location leads to the uncovering of the true culprits. This story, and Chesterton’s, can be found in the recent short story anthology Guilty Creatures (2021), which has been printed by the British Library earlier this year. Another of the British Library’s anthologies, Deep Waters (2019), contains another mystery with a similar type of clue. In Michael Innes’ ‘Death by Water,’ (1975) the presence of a tropical fish in the victim’s pocket proves that they were drowned in a pond and not in the sea, as originally assumed. Animals can also be a helpful aid in figuring out how a crime has been committed, which Miss Marple discovers in A Murder is Announced (1950), when the antics of a mischievous cat shows her how a murder was done.  

The making and breaking of alibis is fundamental in many classic crime novels. If a wrongfully accused suspect can prove that they could not have done the crime, then all is well. But for the guilty, a broken alibi is likely to lead to arrest, and animals have been used by various writers in their suspects’ alibis. In The Case of the Careless Kitten (1945), Erle Stanley Gardner uses a cat’s natural behaviours to prove that a witness’ testimony is a lie because the cat was found lying on the wrong bed. The female members of the jury quickly grasp what this new information implies, unlike the prosecution. Another alibi busted by a cat can be found in Stanley Hopkins Jr’s Murder by Inches (1943). Taking their cat to a vet on the night of the murder, due to poisoning, provides the killer with a seemingly unbreakable alibi. But this is broken when our amateur sleuths see the colour of the fur of the cat’s recently born kittens. The unusually marked fur shows that the cat in question could not have been at the vets because she could only have got pregnant that night, as that is the only night the sleuth’s tom cat with distinctive markings, escaped his home. Conversely, an alibi is proven in Ethel Lina White’s short story ‘White Cap,’ (1942) because the accused woman wore the eponymous hat, which was stolen by a passing eagle. Its retrieval proves her alibi of walking in that area. Cats also crop up when it comes to uncovering someone’s real identity, as bizarrely in Dorothy Cameron Disney’s 1943 novel, Crimson Friday, a missing woman’s identity is found through tracing her cats’ earlier careers as performers.

Classic crime fiction writers can have something of a reputation for deploying extravagant methods for eliminating their chosen victims and it is not uncommon for animals to be involved one way or another. This is a reputation which developed even at the time such works were being published and in 1949 Arthur Baer incorporated this idea into his spoof article for the Pittsburgh Sun-Times, ‘Getting Away with Murder.’

As you can see, in one of his tongue in cheek murder methods, ‘Fun on Halloween,’ Baer devises a method in which someone hypnotises a woman to go apple bobbing in a crocodile pool.

With this ridiculous murder method the killer merely has to create an opportunity for the animal in question to fulfil their carnivorous instincts, but in the realms of mystery fiction, more can be required, such as when the would-be murderer needs their victim to die through ingesting a creature or through absorbing some kind of poison created or transmitted by an animal.

For instance, Christie uses pus from a cat’s ear to remove one of her characters in Murder Is Easy (1938). Nevertheless, not every creative method is successful, as in one classic crime title, one killer tries to bump off their victims by placing live termites inside their medicinal capsules. However, apart from a painful stomach hours later, once the termite was released, this was not what ultimately killed them.

The murderer in John Rhode’s The Ellerby Case (1927) nearly has better luck in poisoning Dr Priestley. Dr Priestley, in this tale, is breeding and training hedgehogs and the killer removes one of them and paints their spines with curare and green paint. Now you would think that the sleuth, upon seeing such an odd-looking hedgehog might think twice before picking it up. However, Dr Priestley’s curiosity very much gets the better of him and it is due to his shrewder assistant that his sleuthing career was not cut short.

Locked room and impossible crime mysteries have also made use of the possibilities animals offer when it comes to seemingly unexplainable poisonings. In such stories the wings of moths have been poisoned so that when they fly around a lamp the heat activates the poison, killing the person in the room, with the moth having of course exited before that point. A similar murder scheme has also been played out by daubing a cat’s claws with snake poison, which is transmitted to the victim when they are scratched by the feline. A key aspect of these plans, and what gives them the appearance of being impossible crimes, is that the agent of death is removed or leaves the area of its own accord. Sea wasps dropped into baths and scorpions unleashed in night clubs are two other bizarre ways this type of murder has been committed in fiction.

Yet poison is not the only way animals have been incorporated into murder methods devised by mystery writers. A safe kind of murder to commit is one in which the victim’s death appears to be an accident. Deer shooting parties are a risky activity to take part in when you are in the way of someone else inheriting a title or a large fortune, as proven in Henry Wade’s Heir Presumptive (1935). The same goes for duck shooting, as June Wright’s Duck Season Death (2015) attests to. However, one of the commonest animals to be involved in a staged accident is the horse. Faked and engineered riding accidents abound in mystery fiction. Sometimes a horse is genuinely spooked so it will throw its rider, whilst on other occasions the spooking of a horse is used to mask the real murder method. Christie plays around with both options in Endless Night (1967) and in a Miss Marple short story which was published for the first time in 2011, ‘The Caretaker’s Wife.’

Every criminal needs an opportune moment to commit their crime and animals often find themselves being used to create such an opportunity. In Elizabeth Ferrars’ Hunt the Tortoise (1950), a pet tortoise is hidden in order to get everyone searching the local area at night to locate it, reducing everyone’s chance of a solid alibi and giving the murderer time to kill. Whilst in Ursula Curtiss’ The Menace Within (1979), a palomino horse is let loose to make someone leave their home unattended. A pesky wasps’ nest is also a golden opportunity for murder, given the way poison is required to deal with it, and Christie does not miss the chance of using it in the fittingly named Poirot short story ‘Wasps’ Nest’ (1928).

If you can’t make your murder look like an accident, then finding an effective way of disposing of the body is the next best thing and here too animals have been put to good use. In Ken Kessler’s short story ‘The Worm in the Root,’ (1946) Sandy Graham finds someone has hidden the corpse of his uncle in his worm bed, the killer no doubt hoping that the worms would accelerate the decomposition process. However, an example with sinister real-life consequences can be found in Arthur Upfield’s The Sands of Windee (1931), which is set on a fictional sheep station in New South Wales, Australia.

1n 1929 Arthur Upfield, employed as one of the many fence boundary riders on the Western Australia rabbit-proof fence, was working on his second Napoleon Bonaparte mystery. He wanted it to be a perfect murder in which there is no corpse for the sleuth to discover. But alighting upon the right method was causing him difficulties, so he asked the advice of one of his work colleagues, George Ritchie. It was Ritchie who came up with the idea, suggesting that the killer burns a large animal such as a kangaroo along with the human body. From there the murderer would sift out any pieces of metal from the ashes, dissolve them in acid and crush any bones left into dust, leaving the wind to do the rest. Little did Ritchie realise he had just devised the way three men’s bodies would be disposed of…

Upfield felt the method was too efficient, and so discussion grew amongst their other associates, including Snowy Rowles and a few months later in December he left the camel station they were all at, in the company of James Ryan and George Lloyd. They were never seen alive again. Rowles used various excuses for why these men were not around and seemingly got away with their murders. But in May 1930 he decided to strike again, this time choosing Louis Carron as his victim. His disappearance was noted sooner due to him being a regular letter writer and it was then that the absence of Ryan and Lloyd was noticed. Being aware of the plot details of Upfield’s The Sands of Windee, the local police hunted for Carron’s body and managed to find some remains. In particular what was Rowles’ undoing was the fact he forgot to complete the process, leaving a tell-tale ring behind. No trace of Ryan and Lloyd’s bodies could be found, so Rowles was only tried for the murder of Carron. Found guilty of this charge, he was hung in 1932, but Upfield was called upon to give evidence at the trial, to show that Rowles was aware of the method intended for his novel. This case was made into the film Three Acts of Murder in 2009.

At this juncture a would-be murderer might be wondering what they can do if they can neither make their killing look like an accident nor thoroughly dispose of the body. In that case the answer might be to make an animal the scapegoat. Killers from the pages of classic crime fiction certainly gave this option a good go. Examples can be found in:

  • Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Grinning Gorilla (1958);
  • Elspeth Huxley’s Murder on Safari (1938) in which a lion is made a scapegoat;
  • Alan Melville’s Death of Anton (1936), which sees the murderer leaving Anton’s body within the tiger cage at a travelling circus and
  • Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (1935), where the guilty party tries to give the impression that Madame Giselle died due to a wasp sting.

Gladys Mitchell’s Dead Men’s Morris (1936) is interesting in that it features a murder plot which has a double scapegoating effect. Initially it is assumed that the objectionable pig farmer called Simith was killed by a herd of local boars. After all his wounds look like those that could be made by an enraged pig. This amongst other things, also turns attention to the one person on the farm who could handle and control these potentially volatile animals.

Experience of working with animals can be quite an asset if you are planning a murder, as it opens up the possibility of training an animal to do the job for you. Once again classic crime gives the prospective killer some interesting ideas to consider. One of the earliest and most famous examples comes from the Sherlock Holmes canon, in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), in which the criminal utilises the local legend of a dangerous hound to his advantage. Having acquired a mastiff crossed with a bloodhound, the killer then paints its fur with a phosphorus substance to give it a supernatural look as it roams the moors. Most importantly though the culprit starves the dog to make it more aggressive and trains it to be attracted to the scent of their chosen victim. It is an iconic plot which has graced the silver and small screen and it is a setup later crime writers have been inspired by. One very creative example comes from Dolores Hitchens in her novel Terror in the Darkness (1953), which sees an unfortunate heroine stranded through vehicle issues on an isolated country lane. Added to which Hitchens tells us that a ‘dog seemed to materialise instantly out of the night, a yellow phantom filling the middle of the road […] He slashed past the window she was lowering and she caught his hoarse growl and the snap of his teeth not five inches from her face.’ This is probably the moment she wishes automatic windows had been invented… Nevertheless, Hitchens’ story is no carbon copy of Doyle’s and instead she complicates notions of responsibility and makes us question how involved dogs and humans are, in the soon to be committed murder.

Dogs are not the only animal which can be trained to kill and in Brandon Bird’s Hawk Watch (1954), a murderer trains an eagle to kill a woman’s father. The eagle is trained using white furry objects and the victim in question had copious white hair. The amateur sleuth, photographer Charles Gratton, is also attacked, having been given a coat with a furry white hood to wear, but survives.

Bees are another creature whom classic crime writers have turned to when planning a mystery with an unusual murder method. As early as 1924, writers, such as Anthony Wynne, were employing the aggressive cyprian bee to finish off their fictional victims. H. F. Heard also used this modus operandi in A Taste For Honey (1942), yet interestingly despite both authors using bees, the way their killers manoeuvre their victims into being bumped off, vary.

Whilst animals can be trained to kill, other criminals have taught them to commit different crimes such as stealing. Curiosity can be a motivating factor for animals to do this such as in 1905 when an elephant at the London Zoological Gardens swallowed a visitor’s bag, which contained a purse, money, scissors, a knife and a handkerchief. On other occasions sometimes the desire for a particular object can encourage animals to steal. Back in 1958 such an example made the news as on the 11th January the BBC had a slot about the epidemic of tits pecking the tops off milk bottles. However, in 1894 it is a grey parrot who is trained to steal in Arthur Morrison’s story, ‘The Lenton Croft Robberies,’ (1894) featuring his series sleuth Martin Hewitt. Investigators are baffled by the robberies which are effectively locked room ones, but eventually they realise how the true culprit trained his parrot to enter the upper-level rooms via open windows in order to steal the valuables. What confused the police the most was the fact there was a matchstick left behind each time, yet it transpires that the match had been put inside the parrot’s beak to keep it quiet before it committed its theft.

In addition, animals have also been put to use when a criminal needs a place to hide an illegal or stolen item. In Christie’s ‘The Capture of Cerberus,’ a short story from her collection The Labours of Hercules (1947), cocaine is hidden inside a dog’s mouth, and I am sure many are familiar with where one thief decides to hide a priceless gemstone in Conan Doyle’s ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ (1892). However, a less well-known story is H. G. Well’s ‘A Deal in Ostriches,’ first published in 1894, which turns Doyle’s premise on its head. In this tale a wealthy man claims that one of the five ostriches on board the ship he is travelling on has swallowed an expensive diamond from his turban. Yet the problem is he does not know which bird took it. He refuses to buy the birds but is determined his diamond will be returned to him. The legal implications of the case are discussed avidly on the boat and one passenger called Potter decides to take advantage of the situation wiring the owner of the birds to purchase them all. From there this passenger auctions them on the ship but stipulates that the birds may not be slaughtered until they have been disembarked at London. The sting in the story arrives at the end when it is revealed that a con has occurred, placing grave doubt upon the idea that any of ostriches swallowed the diamond.

When it comes to solving a crime, the detective and reader, are always on the lookout for a motive. During my research for this talk animals were often involved in criminal motives in two ways. The first of these is that age old motive of monetary gain with the removal or elimination of an animal leading to ill-gotten profits. This is true of life as it is in fiction as in 1909 for example, the Lancashire Evening Post records the theft of 50 animals and birds from the St Petersburg Zoological Gardens and zoo employees were accused of selling them privately. The stolen creatures included monkeys, elks, orangutans and exotic birds. A similar case was also reported at Bellevue Zoological Gardens in 1939. Two ex-employees stole two alligators, but unfortunately, due to the thefts taking place in January, the creatures died of exposure.

However, things turn out better for Samantha the cat in D. B. Olsen’s The Cat Saw Murder (1939), the first of the Rachel Murdock mysteries. The cat belonged to Rachel’s now deceased sister and in her will she left her fortune to Samantha. Rachel receives some money from this trust to care for her but will not get her share of the fortune until Samantha dies. The money is also to be shared with Rachel’s other sister and their niece. But early in the book it appears that someone is not prepared to wait for Samantha to die of natural causes and attempts are made to finish her off. Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of Silver Blaze’ also has a financial angle as racehorse Silver Blaze is kidnapped in order to fix an upcoming racing event.

Revenge is another common factor in animal related motives in crime fiction. In 1945 Marguerite Silverman, a qualified vet, penned the mystery The Vet It Was That Died, and one of the possible suspects for the murder of vet Reginald Thorpe, that Chief Inspector Adrian has to consider is the kennel nursemaid, a woman who is distraught by the way her boss treats his animal clients. The detective has to decide whether her distress caused her to enact a murderous revenge.

Revenge is also cited as the motive in Ngaio Marsh’s TV play Evil Liver which was written for Granada Television, and it aired in 1975. Evil Liver is a court room mystery and the jury was comprised of real-life members from the studio audience. Standing trial is Miss Freebody and the prosecution contend that after her cat was killed by her neighbour’s dog, she poisoned the liver sent to her neighbour’s house. This leads to the demise of the dog, but her neighbour, Major Ecclestone, thinks he was the real target. The trial concludes in a dramatic fashion, yet nevertheless the show does not conclusively reveal who is the guilty party, merely the jury’s verdict.

To close this talk I will leave you with an interesting curio from Mercury Mystery Book magazine. In 1956 Paul Steiner published a piece in their magazine listing some of the more unusual ways animals have led to divorce. I’ll leave you to decide which of these scenarios would cause you to leave your spouse:

  • ‘A Detroit man suing for divorce complained in court that his wife gave him dry peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, while her dog ate club steak.’
  • In Florida ‘a husband sued for divorce when his wife insisted on keeping eight pet parrots to which she knew he was allergic.’
  • ‘A Michigan man sought a divorce because his wife was raising a crocodile in the bathtub.’
  • In California a ‘woman won a divorce when she testified that her husband not only refused to keep the house warm enough for her pet rat but criticised it for overeating.’

Thank you for listening. Are there any questions?

15 comments

  1. This is excellent! I really enjoyed reading it and I hope it’s audience did as well. So much knowledge and or research! It must have taken ages to prepare – I hope it gets some outings at other organisations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it. It took quite a few weeks to put together and before that there was a great deal of reading to do. It would be nice to deliver the talk again elsewhere, and given the amount of material available, it would be easy to swap some bits with different examples.

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  2. Wonderful and excellently researched as always. I enjoyed this immensely and also found a few further entries for my cats and books page; I have linked quite a few of your enjoyable reviews and posts on it already.

    For your weapons section, I also recommend a short story from my part of the world–Shajurur Kanta/The Quill of the Porcupine by Sharadindu Bandhyopadhyaya (tr. Sreejata Guha–the story collection is Menagerie and Other Byomkesh Bakshi Mysteries, Penguin, 2006) which as the name suggests has a porcupine quill as the weapon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • ooh a porcupine quill as a murder weapon! I have read one story by that writer I think in the anthology Foreign Bodies, but did not know there was a full book of them in English. Thank you for the heads up!
      Glad I was able to add more titles to your cat page.

      Liked by 1 person

      • There are two volumes published by Penguin–Menagerie and Other Stories, and Picture Imperfect and Other Stories. A third The Rhythm of the Riddles is a children’s collection– three stories with a different translator.

        Another one by the same author I remembered involves tarantula venom in a story which roughly translates to Tarantula Juice in its title. Only I can’t remember if there is an english translation of that one. I’ve seen a tv adaptation but not read the tarantula story.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you enjoyed it. Thank you for the information you provided on one of the Olsen titles. I am surprised I mentioned any titles you hadn’t read or at least owned. I just picture your house as having all the GAD books really!!

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  3. I found this very informative and interesting. Your enthusiasm informed and enlivened the large amount of research which obviously lay behind the talk.

    Thank you.

    Eric Bruce

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I really enjoyed this, Kate, and wish I had been there. You’ve reminded me of a Patricia Highsmith story, ‘What the Cat Dragged in.’ What he drags in are four fingers attached to part of a hand.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. […] Apologies for the delay in putting this post together. The Classic Crime Advent Calendars are a go-go, so there has not been much spare time. (FYI there are only three days left to get one of these calendars at the early bird price). I only managed seven reads last month, which was partially due to my giving a talk at the Agatha Christie Festival, which you can read a transcript of here. […]

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