Cultivating Clues

Clues are seeds the author cultivates in the reader.

Some seeds start tiny and grow throughout the story, blooming at just the right moment. Others turn into weeds meant to distract the reader from the truth.

There’s always that scene in mysteries where the author initially plants seeds, usually buried in a detailed description of the crime scene and/or murder victim. There’s enough of a spotlight on said scene that the reader knows there’s a key clue being sewn.

So, Mysteristas, let’s put on our sleuthing hats and play a little game!

Below is a passage from The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie, which I happened to have read recently. Hidden in the passage is a key detail that later helps Miss Marple crack the case. Can you spot the clue?

Her thin body was dressed in a backless evening dress of white spangled satin. The face was heavily made-up, the powder standing out grotesquely on its blue swollen surface, the mascara of the lashes lying thickly on the distorted cheeks, the scarlet of the lips looking like a gash. The fingernails were enameled in a deep blood-red and so were the toenails in their cheap silver sandal shoes. It was a cheap, tawdry, flamboyant figure—most incongruous in the solid old-fashioned comfort of Colonel Bantry’s library.

Do you see it? Probably not, unless you’re some sort of Sherlockian mastermind, but how about after one more scene where the seed starts sprouting…

“Doesn’t it remind you of anything?”

For Miss Marple had attained fame by her ability to link up trivial village happenings with graver problems in such a way as to throw light upon the latter.

“No,” said Miss Marple thoughtfully, “I can’t say that it does—not at the moment. I was reminded a little of Mrs. Chetty’s youngest—Edie, you know—but I think that was just because this poor girl bit her nails and her front teeth stuck out a little. Nothing more than that. And, of course,” went on Miss Marple, pursuing the parallel further, “Edie was fond of what I call cheap finery, too.”

“You mean her dress?” said Miss Bantry.

“Yes, a very tawdry satin—poor quality.”

 We’re slowly honing in on the important clue, but there are still some pesky weeds to sort through…

“See, it’s a fingernail. Her fingernail! I’m going to label it Fingernail of the Murdered Woman and take it back to school. It’s a good souvenir, don’t you think?”

“Where did you get it?” asked Miss Marple.

“Well, it was a bit of luck, really. Because, of course, I didn’t know she was going to be murdered then. It was before dinner last night. Ruby caught her nail in Josie’s shawl and it tore it. Mums cut if off for her and gave it to me and said put it in the wastepaper basket, and I meant to, but I put it in my pocket instead, and this morning I remembered and looked to see if it was still there and it was, so now I’ve got it as a souvenir.”

Ah, now the flower—er clue—is starting to take shape! And one final scene:

“But, of course, really, in my mind, I knew. You couldn’t get away, could you, from those bitten nails?” [said Miss Marple]

“Nails?” said Sir Henry. “But she tore her nail and cut the others.”

“Nonsense,” said Miss Marple. “Bitten nails and close cut nails are quite different! Nobody could mistake them who knew anything about girl’s nails—very ugly, bitten nails, as I always tell the girls in my class. Those nails, you see, were a fact. And they could only mean one thing. The body in Colonel Bantry’s library wasn’t Ruby Keene at all.”

The fingernails! We’re directed to the murder victim’s fingernails from the get-go, and then the seed sprouts and continues growing throughout the story. References are continually made to those nails, but it takes time, and a brilliant storyteller, for us to realize how the puzzle fits together. 

When were you able to figure out which clue was important? Do you make note of the initial scene where clues are sewn?

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Author: Kate Lansing

I write mysteries, YA novels, and short fiction. I also read A LOT, travel as much as possible, and take way too many pictures of my cat.

8 thoughts on “Cultivating Clues”

  1. Agatha Christie was a pro at planting these kinds of clues. I think that’s why some people accused her of cheating – they didn’t pay enough attention.

    I’ve read this story many times – but the first time, I didn’t hone in on the nails until quite late in the story, maybe the third time they were mentioned.

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  2. Christie was a master at clues, and she’s a great one to study to see how they develop. I had to see how the story develops before I can guess which detail is the important clue. Great example, Kate!

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