In reality, of course, a will and testament is almost never read out loud, at least anymore. This likely has to do with the improvement of literacy rates; according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the literacy rate rose from 80% in 1879 to 99.4% in 1970, and has hovered around that percentage ever since. But the suspense of gathering family members who may or may not loathe one another and carry grudges is like catnip for readers and writers alike. Chaos often ensues, because without some kind of drama, the Reading of the Will wouldn’t create the tension necessary to have a mystery.
So what role do wills, testaments, and final requests have in mystery novels? The answer is, when they are present, a far-reaching one. For purposes of discussion, I’m going to categorize all three together as “W&T” unless specifically noted. There are several ways a W&T can be a potent plot device in this genre, whether it is present or missing.
When a W&T is missing, it creates a mystery in and of itself. Where is it? Did someone steal it? Did the deceased person have one at all? If not, why not? Will a certain character or characters benefit from there not being a W&T? The hunt for a missing will is a plot device that often cascades into puzzle-type mysteries, such as in Agatha Christie’s short story, “The Case of the Missing Will.” Here, the inimitable Inspector Poirot is asked to help Violet Marsh use her wits to fulfill the requirements of her uncle Andrew’s first W&T: to find the second, more recent W&T before a month is up, or she gets nothing.
When a W&T is present, even more questions arise. Mysteries, like all writing to some degree, are about exploring the human psyche, and that exploration is made more complicated when the human in question is deceased. W&Ts can also serve as a rapprochement from beyond the grave; while not typically considered a mystery, George Elliot’s Middlemarch is a perfect example that centers around the question of how Edward Casaubon — mild-mannered and seemingly decent in life — comes to write a spiteful and vindictive W&T. Fairy tales (and history) are full of patriarchs who leave everything to their second, etc., wives, ignoring their first wives and their progeny (Henry VIII, I’m looking at you…), or expecting a sister/brother/step parent to care for a niephlet/stepchild with love, only to create a Cinderella or Jane Eyre-like protagonist instead.
The W&T trope itself can also be employed as an “unseen host,” as in Agatha Christie’s most famous work, And Then There Were None, wherein an unnamed host gathers a group of people on a remote island for mysterious purposes. It’s also the plot of the cinematic masterpiece, Clue.
Even a benevolent W&T can cause mayhem in a mystery novel. No matter how forthright or well-intentioned, the dearly departed will always leave behind questions that cannot be answered by the source. This is especially true when the W&T is a bearer of previously undisclosed truth, often in the form of a long lost child, sibling, or other relative.
Interestingly, there are no stories that I can find where the dramatic tension of the story surrounds the creation of a will. That is, the will itself is a plot device that drives action; the creation of the document itself is, to be honest, not that interesting. What is interesting is the humanity that comes to the surface when a deceased person’s wishes clash with the expectations of the living. It might be interesting to read a subversion of the W&T device in which the writing thereof is what creates the tension, as opposed to the existence of the document itself.
As a trope, the W&T is a reminder that people have been attempting to leave their marks on successive generations for as long as there have been, well, people. I stumbled across a fascinating article by Elizabeth Stone, wherein she states that while psychological literature surrounding wills and testaments is sparse, there are plenty of examples in fiction about how people react to the contents of a will. The power to speak from beyond the grave is sadly not as common as some of us might like it to be out in the real world, but in leaving a will, a person is guaranteed the last word — at least regarding their own possessions. And that makes for a great mystery.
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