Knotty, knotty

When I decided to hang my first victim in Death by Disputation, I realized that the noose itself could be a clue, especially for the son of a sea captain like my sleuth, Thomas Clarady. Tom could preserve the knots and send them home for expert analysis. Add that to my growing plot, tick off another clue. Lovely! All I had to do was pick a noose appropriate to my villain and slide that bit of backstory in there somewhere.

knots4That task turned out to be much harder than I thought. Knots are a vastly larger topic than one might imagine in these days of zippers, Velcro, and cable ties. All sources lead quickly to the same book: Clifford W. Ashley’s The Ashley Book of Knots,(New York: Doubleday, 1944; $55 at Amazon.) This enormous volume is so popular the UT library has to keep it in the Reference section. You can’t check it out, for fear you’ll never bring it back. You can scan it, though. This is one of the 4 pages in the chapter about Nooses,  which I studied with great care.

It is a fascinating book, comprehensive, with charming illustrations and much basic wisdom tucked into the facts about knots. The charm of the work is explained by Ashley himself: “To me the simple act of tying a knot is an adventure in unlimited space.” This is absolutely the guy you want teaching you! If there’s a Curious George or Georgette on your Christmas list, you could do worse than to put this absorbing volume under the tree.

There are hundreds of specialized knots and hundreds of knots made by special sorts of persons. A forensic knot expert can tell if the tyer was right or left-handed. Knots might reveal habits like thrift or neatness. Individuals put characteristic tension into twists and can thus betray themselves by simply tying the same knot again in front of the detective. 

Every occupation had its own set of knots. Ashley shows us samples from archers to yachtsmen. Nurses tie bandages; bakers twist dough; gardeners bind plants to lattices. Knots can exhibit regional styles as well, although this doesn’t seem to be a major source of difference. I was imagining my captain examining the knots and giving a whole history of the knot-tyer, in true Sherlock Holmes fashion. “This was clearly tied by a left-handed fisherman, probably a man in his fifties, from the north coast of Norfolk.”

Alas, I found it difficult to put the wealth of information together with the needs of my story. Fisherman’s knots are not all that useful in hanging a man from the rafters. Butchers use knots strong enough to suspend a large carcass, but you can’t have a butcher anywhere near your villain. Everyone will suspect that person at once. I spent a lot of time looking at the hitches, thinking the knot tied around the bedpost might be the distinguishing knot. Too many choices! And it’s old-fashioned to have your know-it-all appear at the end of the story and trot out all the insightful analyses in one long-winded exposition. The knot is a clue, among several others, but I don’t feel I did the field of knot tying and unraveling justice. Maybe in another story.

If this intrigues you, perhaps you’d like to sign up for the basic course in forensic knot analysis at the Netherlands Forensic Academy. Or you might join the International Guild of Knot Tyers, who were very helpful when I posted a few dumb questions to their Yahoo group. There are knot sites galore on the web, like Animated Knots by Grog, which will take you to beautifully made slide shows to teach you this ancient and useful craft. Then perhaps the knots in your plots will come off without a hitch.

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