Saturday, June 30, 2018

Eye on Crime

Objects are often important to a mystery story. If a murder is committed, the culprit is likely to utilize an object, that is, a murder weapon, to accomplish their goal. A button left at the crime scene could prove as evidence to the identity of the murderer. Or perhaps the disappearance of an object that should be there will become the focus of an investigation, leading the question of why a certain object was so important it had to be removed. An object is thus usually a clue, something that links it to the solution of the mystery (which could be a murder, but it could be any enigmatic happening).  An object might tell you who committed a certain crime, or how it was done, or perhaps why it was done.

Today I'd like to take a short look at a very specific type of object that you might sometimes see as a physical clue in mystery fiction: glasses. Glasses are objects many of us use daily (I do too), and both due to the properties of these personal items, you see them utilized in various ways in mystery fiction. I'll take a look at some of the applications of glasses, and contact lenses, in mystery fiction as a little case study to see how objects can be used in mystery fiction (and I'll of course stay away from specific story spoilers).

The first application that comes to mind is perhaps the least interesting one, as it's not really convincing in any way. Glasses often feature as part of a disguise, because for some reason, some people are suddenly unable to recognize someone if they wear glasses. The most infamous example of this is not from a mystery story of course, but from the world of comics: for some reason people are unable to recognize that Clark Kent looks awfully a lot like Superman without his glasses. Glasses (frames) can of course change the impression of a face somewhat, but to the point of no recognition?  For some reason, Conan is also able to fool the people around him with glasses in Detective Conan. After a run-in with a mysterious criminal organization, high school student detective Shinichi's body was shrunken to that of a six-year old, but he manages to fool his childhood friend Ran (and her father) by taking on the fake name of Edogawa Conan, and by wearing a pair of his father's old glasses. Ran sorta notices the similarities between Conan and the face of her best friend she has known since kindergarten, but for some reason the glasses still manage to fool her. It might be interesting to note that Conan's glasses were upgraded by Dr. Agasa with all kinds of technological gadgets, allowing him to trace a set of markers with the built-in radar in the original comics, while the movies even have Conan wearing bulletproof glasses or glasses with an infrared binocular function. Another example of a detective using glasses to change her look is Houshou Reiko from Higashigawa Tokuya's Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de series: Reiko is not only a rookie police detective, but unknown to her colleagues, she's also the insanely rich heiress of the Houshou Group, an economic superforce. She too wears non-prescribed glasses when she's working, as a semi-disguise, but also because she thinks it makes her look intelligent.

Contact lenses are of course more interesting as a disguise, as color contacts allow people to change the color of their eyes. The plot twist that someone was hiding their blood relation to someone else using color contacts is actually relatively common and also more believable than simply the notion of glasses changing someone's face that dramatically.

Glasses and lenses are also usable as murder weapons, though I have to admit I haven't seen much of these stories. I imagine there's a locked room murder mystery out there somewhere where a fire was mysteriously started in a locked room killing someone inside, where at the end it is revealed the sun started the fire through a pair of farsighted glasses. Glasses are also something that are handled often by their wearers, so a bit of poison smeared on the arms of a frame seems like a likely idea for a story. Lenses are of course a bit easier to imagine as murder weapons, as it's an object you stick in your eye: I have seen stories where the culprit tampered with the contact lens solution so the victim would cause a traffic accident.

Now I come to glasses and lenses as physical clues, and it is in this role you usually see these items appear in mystery stories. To start with the simplest example: leaving your reading glasses behind at the crime scene is probably something you want to avoid as a murderer. This can of course also be extended into a deeper clue by turning the notion around: the simple version is saying the murderer was at the crime scene because their reading glasses were found there. Say the murderer did retrieve their reading glasses later, one could build a story that revolves around proving the reading glasses were at the crime scene, and thus proving the murderer was there. I can think of an episode of a certain mystery show for example that used this idea. In this case, the clue is rather direct, as it revolves around the physical presence of personal glasses. Lenses are the same story of course: a struggle might lead to a fallen lens, which can be traced directly to the wearer because of the prescription and other forensic clues. I'd say that fingerprints of the victim left on the glasses of the culprit, or the other way around, would also fall under this first category.

Another simple application is the absence of glasses/lenses: if the culprit lost their glasses or lenses during the crime, it could render them unable to perform certain actions, say for example driving a car or reading the small print. This too is a basic clue based on glasses/lenses, and one you see often.

If one goes one step further however, you arrive at what I find the most interesting application of the object "glasses" in a mystery story. Here it is not clear at first that glasses (or lenses) are in any connected to the crime: in fact these stories are about the culprit actively hiding the fact glasses were involved. An example: the body lies on the rough wooden floor of the room, with all the drinkware and bottles removed from the bar and broken on the carpet. What has happened is that the culprit broke their glasses during their struggle with the victim, with fragments scattered all over the floor. Prescribed glasses are of course very personal items, as one could check out the strength of the glasses, so the culprit wouldn't want to leave the fragments lying around. Because the flooring is so rough, some of the fragments have even fallen between the cracks. Unable to get them, the culprit decided to hide their glass fragments among other glass fragments: hence the broken glassware and bottles. This is just a basic example and a simple variation would be a culprit who decided to use the vacuum cleaner to clean a certain spot in an otherwise dirty room. But this core plot thus invites the reader to 1) pay attention to the oddities of the crime scene (the broken glassware/clean spot), 2) deduce the motive why this action was taken (to hide glass fragments) and 3) connect the glasses to the culprit.

This notion of wanting to hide the glasses making it necessary to take another action is something I often see in glasses/lenses-related mystery story. With lenses, I can think of stories where the culprit had to take certain actions to find the lenses they dropped, which is course easier said than done. Imagine a murder taking place inside a sandbox. If later in the story the reader discovers a strainer was stolen from a nearby home with an open kitchen window, one could come to the conclusion it was used to find the lens. Lenses are perhaps even more difficult to locate than glass fragments,so culprits wanting to hide/find their lenses usually lead to interesting crime scenes, where the action taken to find them usually leads to a very enigmatic crime scene. These kind of stories are the most fun to read/watch, as they go one step further, having you first deduce what the actions were the culprit took, why they were taken, what the implications of those reasons are and finally, to what clue they directly connect.

I have only looked at a few basic applications of glasses and lenses as clues in mystery fiction, but the basic ideas behind these applications also work for other physical clues of course. Glasses and lenses however are items many of us use every single day, without giving them much thought, and that is what makes them interesting props for a mystery story, especially if their role is hidden at first, challenging the reader to first arrive at the idea that that thing on their face might actually be important. I can think of a few other, specific usages of glasses in mystery fiction, but I'll refrain from mentioning them because of spoilers, but it's surprising how many examples of an ordinary object being used in mystery fiction come to mind once you think about it. I doubt this post will turn into a series about all kinds of objects, but I hope this post has given a peek at how physical clues can be developed in mystery fiction.

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