Ludicrous plot items, particular reference to drugs




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Obviously this pub is not a drug den


One of my all-time favourite crime novels is Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L Sayers, published 1933. A few years ago, I wrote a Sayers Exam Paper for our  bloggers’ Tuesday Night Club  and I included this question:

 

1) a) Suggest up to FOUR improvements to the drug distribution system in Murder Must Advertise. You might consider the following questions: Was it feasible? How long would it take to explain it to the criminal operatives? How many different ways can you imagine in which it would go wrong? Did the authorities really collect old telephone books in the 1930s (as opposed to the subscriber putting them in the bin)?

b) Do you think Sayers made it up because it was fun to imagine, and because the clue of the wrong pub was nicely done?

[At this point I was going to insert a brief description of the scheme, but honestly, in the book it takes 2 pages of tiny type, so some hints later, and if you must you can read this below. The plan features London pubs, hence charming picture above]




I often amused myself by thinking about the villainous scheme for distributing the drugs in that book, and my absolute certainty that it was unreal, unworkable, and the most ridiculous thing I had ever read in that line. It’s been years that I’ve held that view – YEARS. And now, so unexpectedly, after all this time – A WORSE DRUG DISTRIBUTION SCHEME APPEARS ON THE HORIZON.

A short time ago I blogged on the Ellery Queen book The French Powder Mystery

SLIGHT SPOILERS FOR PLOT THOUGH NOT FOR MURDERER

 

It becomes apparent that there is a drug racket coming out of the Fifth Avenue Department Store at the centre of the book. Ellery Queen works out the process, and describes how he would explain it to the drug operative:

 

“‘Every week you are to call at the French * Book Department for a book which will contain an address. The book will be on the top shelf of the fourth tier of book-racks situated in such and such a place in the Department. The book will always be on that shelf. … Now. Every week you are to call on a different day. Eight days apart, to be exact. Except when Sunday intervenes, and then it will be nine days—from the proceeding Saturday to the following Monday. ** Let us say the morning you are due to call for the book is a Wednesday. Then the book you should pick up will be by an author whose last name begins with a WE, to correspond to the WE of Wednesday. To make identification absolutely positive, and to get you out of the Book Department as quickly as possible, so that you will not be compelled to rummage through every book on that shelf, a light pencil-mark will appear on the first two letters of the author’s name, positively identifying the proper volume. You pick up the book, look at the back liner leaf to make sure the address is there, then buy the book and walk out of the store.’ … Does that sound plausible?”

[Pause to insert your own answer to this question, and then see what the book says:]

There was a vehement chorus of assents from the three men. “It’s a devilishly ingenious scheme,” said Ellery thoughtfully, “if a little complicated. Really, though, the complications iron themselves away with the passage of time.”

 

*Slightly less difficult than it sounds: French’s is the name of the store (and the ruling family), it doesn’t mean the books are in French.

** Same: I spent some time working this out, and I think he is actually making it sound more ridiculous than it is: I was frowning over the fact that any eight consecutive days must include a Sunday, but he just means ‘if the 8th day is a Sunday then you go for the Monday’.

This is just to get an address to the operative – he still doesn’t have any drugs at the end of this rigmarole.

Now, I am not a master-criminal (no, honestly), but I could come up with ten better schemes than either of the plans in these two book. They make no sense, no sense at all.

I know they didn’t have mobile phones (the drug dealers’ friend) in those days, but I simply refuse to believe that ANY drug distribution system depends on scribbling a pencilled note in the back of a book in a department store. Or on a telephone book, or a list of pubs, or an author’s name that starts with the same letters as a day of the week, or the first letter of the first word in an advertisement.

And another question – did Sayers read the Ellery Queen before she wrote hers? Did she think ‘oh well I guess that’s how drugs rings work, I’d better think of my own version’?

And another thing: a recently republished book, Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford, from 1933, describes a young woman making her way in the book department of a large London department store (ie Selfridges). It is a charming book, full of events, but I think authors and heroine would be horrified at the idea that there was a drugs ring operating in the department... 

And while I was mulling over these two schemes, I came upon another bizarre arrangement, this time in a spy thriller of 1942, a way of sending coded messages. There’s a contortionist doing a music-hall act: part of her shtick is ‘Count the turns!’ – as she performs her moves, the audience count out loud how many she does. Then she stops and starts again. And – are you seeing this coming? – this can give an audience member a series of numbers which are a coded message. Right? The book is JB Priestley’s Black Out in Gretley, as recommended by my old mate Lissa Evans, and it is a splendidly enjoyable look at wartime Britain, but I am not convinced that the Nazi High Command was sitting in Berlin saying ‘are you sure that last turn was part of it? If it was 16 rather than 17, it would make more sense of the chemical formula’.



 

My readers have read so many books among them – please tell me your favourite unlikely plot turn or unconvincing crime plan…



Comments

  1. Death of an Airman by Christopher St. John Sprigg has a method of distribution that finds these in good company -- uttely bonkers.

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    1. Excellent news, I liked the other books I've read by him, I will attack this one. If we ever get transported back in time to the 30s (a la Dr Who) we will be able to clean up in the drugs trade as we will understand all the strange systems.

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  2. haha I loved this post! It's brilliant! These schemes are absolutely crackers!

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    1. Thanks Kate - I hope you might list your favourite Strange Plots some time, you've featured some classics on your blog before now...

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    2. That would be a good idea for a list. I tried to think of some after reading your post, but my mind was a blank, but if I noticed any I shall make a note of them.

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    3. I think you will come up with some doozies when you look back over your reading...

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  3. This is such a fabulous post, Moira! And yes, there are definitely books with unlikely/implausible drugs rings. And the ones you describe are about as implausible as it gets. The one that came to my mind is in Agatha Christie's Evil Under the Sun. Not as 'out there' at all as some of these others, but not exactly plausible, either, at least in my opinion.

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    1. Thanks Margot, and thanks for adding another one - makes you think some of these authors understood murder better than the drugs trade. And - I bet you could write a hatful of posts with strange plot devices, given your encyclopaedic reading. Can we look forward to that?

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  4. I can only think of dull schemes like "hidden in bolts of cloth headed for a fashion house" and "tins of talcum powder".

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    1. Fashion houses in crime books are hotbed, absolute hotbeds, of all kinds of crime - drugs, stolen designs, turbulent relationships, women in the same dresses. I like that in a meta-way, one of Angela Thirkell's heroines wrote very successful books about the criminal/soap opera goings on at a fashion house. Easily imagined.

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  5. Catherine Aird has a convoluted way of passing coded messages in a short story: "One Under the Eight".

    "Sailor, Take Warning" by Kelley Roos had a pretty ridiculous spy plot but I think "Mysterious affair at Styles" by Christie is the worst. The spy character is wasted in a backwater of a town which is made worse by the fact that he has qualifications to get access to really important stuff.

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    1. Will look out for your first two. And yes, that whole subplot in Styles is hilariously ridiculous. First time author throwing everything in. What could he have been spying on? The striking thing is Poirot's refusal to condemn him - 'a patriot in his own way'. Obviously that is perfectly logical, but I don't think many British readers would have been thinking that just after the war.

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    2. Do look out for them, the Roos one is actually quite good on the whole. The Aird story is forgettable but very short, and some of her other short stories are fun.

      I think Poirot's attitude would not be uncommon. Sympathy for a brave foe is hardly an unknown occurrence. (I was recently reading about the funeral of Manfred von Richthofen. He was buried with full honours by Allied airmen who probably had lost friends and colleagues to him and his squadron.)

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    3. I will certainly look out for them.

      I think many people would distinguish between a brave flier and a spy - there was a certain distaste for the idea of pretending. Fighting was one thing, but spying was dishonest!

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    5. I don't really know how spying was perceived. I am thinking of Christie's own examples of secret agents who can pretend to be Arabs in her thrillers, or Sherlock Holmes working undercover as an Irish rebel. It seems to me pretending to be someone else was an acceptable part of intelligence work. I am sure treason was seen as reprehensible, but that would be irrelevant in Styles since the spy actually is German.

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    6. I assume there is a difference between living in your own country and betraying it to the enemy - and being a foreign national reporting back. But still there was seen to be something low about any kind of spying I think at one time - eg in Erskine Childers Riddle of the Sands, it is a moral dilemma. Mind you Rudyard Kipling's Kim - Kim is definitely a spy, and that is just seen as dashing and exciting.

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    7. Kin is a counter-spy rather than a spy, surely. There's also the question of what happens when he grows up - T,N, Murari wrote a couple of sequels to Kim where Kim has grown up and the ethical aspects of what he is doing become more important.

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    8. I've not heard of the sequels, that sounds very interesting. I loved Kim when I was a child, I wonder what I would make of it now - I should re-read.

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  6. I think the very oddest spy or drugs plot used is in Gladys Mitchell's
    Adders on the Heath. I don't think anyone understands what
    is happening, with the exception of Dame Beatrice, certainly not
    me.
    Chris Wallace

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    1. Excellent thanks - I just went to look that one up, and only expensive copies available, and not on kindle, but will look out for it. I enjoy Mitchell's books on the whole, but I often have that feeling when I'm reading her. I feel I am hanging on, and keeping track of the plot, and eventually I just give in and realize I have no idea what actually happened. She is the only major crime author who regularly makes me feel that way.

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    2. It wouldn't surprise me if Mitchell herself has no idea what actually happened in her plots. I remember reading another one featuring drug smuggling as a plot device.
      It's interesting how many 1920s and 30s novels feature drug rings and drug smugglers. Drugs were only made illegal after WWI and there weren't that many drug addicts (who were mostly able to get drugs on prescription from doctors anyway) in real life, whereas from books you'd get the impression everyone in England was shooting up.

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    3. Yes to both Roger - I think the Great Gladys swept on without working too much out, I'm not convinced she could have explained half of it.

      And yes, I love the idea of a handful of people being wildly over-represented in the literature.

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  7. Oh, I'm sure I've rolled my eyes a time or three when reading about crazy schemes like that. But I have to say I love everything else about Murder Must Advertise, especially the depiction of the 1930s office world, which was exactly as I found it to be in Toronto in the 1970s (except the drug distribution scheme, though who knows...?)

    But you know, when you said, "A WORSE DRUG DISTRIBUTION SCHEME APPEARS ON THE HORIZON," I assumed you meant the inability of some jurisdictions to get their act together when it comes to organising vaccines among the population. Honestly, using phone books, Nutrax ads and pubs might be an improvement.

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    1. Oh that made me laugh so much, I hadn't thought for a moment about the current relevance. In some places (not actually where I am) it must feel that getting a pub name via a newspaper advert might be a better way of rolling it out.

      And yes I totally agree with you - the picture of office life in MMA is a wondrous thing, I have always loved it. Totally convincing, and so many aspects (with suitable changes) familiar to any office worker...

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  8. "I could come up with ten better schemes than either of the plans in these two book. They make no sense, no sense at all."

    ...hmm... on the other hand, I've heard cocaine can give people OCD --- so maybe ......

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    1. Perhaps EVERYONE involved in these plots is thinking 'I'm not sure this is sensible, but I expect they know what they are doing' and nobody is raising the issue..

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  9. Well, I know a case where the police were convinced the accused was selling drugs from his home. A team searched the house and garage for hours to no avail. Threatening to tear the house apart and allegedly offering the accused a charge of possession instead of trafficking the police learned the drugs were in a snowbank outside the back door which did not show any signs of the drugs because of a recent snowfall. When the accused was charged with trafficking a successful defence was achieved by challenging the voluntariness of the statement.

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    1. Great story Bill! The drug business really is weird, some of the strangest stories come out of it...

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  10. Not to mention the postman who tries to deliver the wrongly addressed letter over and over again... Wouldn't he just chuck it the fifth time or so there was a letter for a person who obviously does not reside at this address, and for the future return all such letters to the sender having scribbled on them "Not known at this address" (or whatever the English equivalent is)? That is most certainly what a Swedish postman would have done. I remember being very confused about this and wondering about the British postal system when I first read MMA at age 14 or so. In fact, I am still wondering, so any enlightenment on this topic would be received very gratefully.

    Not that Lord Peter's appearance as the mysterious harlequin and his diving into that fountain is particularly convincing either... But still, I have to agree: It is a wonderful book, and it is obvious that Dorothy Sayers made good use of her experience from Benson's advertising agency.

    Feeling that my students are in need of some comfort reading just now I am at present teaching a course on the history of the detective novel. I don't know how comforted the young ones are, but spending last night and this morning re-reading Strong Poison in the delicious knowledge that I was actually WORKING, was certainly highly therapeutic for me. It almost gave me qualms: Can it be morally right to accept payment for this?

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    1. If it's a genuine address with a letter box the letter will fit in, it'll be delivered, no matter what name is on it. After all, it might be to a pseudonymous writer. The people at the house can write "Not known at this address" on the letter if they want and the Post Office will look for other people with the same name in nearby houses or with similar addresses.
      If it doesn't fit in the letter box or needs to be signed for, the postman will try three times and if it isn't accepted, then return it to the sender - that applies with every letter

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    2. Yes indeed a fake letter you think only draws attention to itself, why didn't someone just accept the letter and throw it away?

      Oh Birgitta - fancy having to read Strong Poison for work! Lucky you, and your students are very lucky too.

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  11. Now - what about the business plan of the villains at the Pale Horse?

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    1. Giggle giggle yes indeed. And many plans to take over the world, and to destabilize the country... Agatha was much better when it came to proper motives and relationships. Teashops, dancing lessons, preserving incredible impersonations....

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  12. In the not very good mystery Turmoil at Brede by Seldon Truss a hairdresser's salon is a front for drug selling and other nefarious criminal doings. The owner also manages to hypnotize his clients and then later rob their homes using the information they give him. I am convinced that someoen who wrote for the 1960s Batman TV series read the book and stole the plot for the episode about Minerva with Zsa Zsa Gabor as the Guest Star Villainess who does the same thing in her salon.

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    1. Only you would know all that and make that connection John! The hypnosis plot is very good.

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  13. Yes, really all quite bonkers. There is an interesting drug smuggling plot in Josephine Bell's The Port of London Murders, written in the thirties, which I have just enjoyed. But really, are these any more implausible than so many of the murder plots in GA novels, especially dear old JDC, when it would be so much easier just to push someone off a cliff . . .

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    1. Someone else has mentioned The Port of London Murders, I will have to read it.
      Indeed, once you start examining plots too much, reality is completely destroyed. Who EVER would do a murder that way? But then this is a business plan, I think that's what's bothering me...
      The murders in Murder Most Advertise and French Powder are both unconvincing in their ways, but that doesn't bother me.

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    2. ... does that mean I should have done business studies....?

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  14. You know the pitfalls, when do you embark on the new career? Pablo Redmond or Moira Escobar has a pleasant ring to it.

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    1. A new career could be just the job. And what a cover story, being a harmless blogger..

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  15. While drug addiction was rare in the 1920s and 30s, several of the famous/infamous Bright Young Things were cocaine addicts and their arrests and attempts to go clean received a lot of (unwelcome here) publicity in the newspapers. Many of them had short and gloomy afterlives, dying sadly as Dim Middle-Aged Things.

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    1. That's all rather sad isn't it? The more I see of addictions the more awful it looks, and the more I think it's one of the major problems facing the world.

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