If You Only Knew*

OmnicientReaderSome crime writers build suspense in their novels by making the reader privy to information that the sleuth doesn’t yet have. The reader knows something’s going to happen, or knows a certain fact, but the sleuth hasn’t worked it out yet. On the one hand, that approach can add tension and invite the reader to find out how the sleuth will handle whatever it is she or he doesn’t yet know. It can also make for interesting perspectives on other characters. On the other hand, if it’s not done effectively, that strategy can make the sleuth seem incompetent, especially if it’s information you’d expect the sleuth ought to have or try to get. That said though, it’s used in a number of crime novels. Here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence asks Hercule Poirot to look into the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was murdered by her lodger James Bentley. There’s evidence against Bentley, and in fact he was convicted of the crime and is soon to be executed. But even though Spence himself collected the evidence, he’s begun to think that perhaps Bentley isn’t guilty. Poirot agrees to investigate and travels to the village of Broadhinny, where the murder takes place. He soon discovers that Mrs. McGinty had found out something about one of the villagers that it wasn’t safe for her to know. There are several suspects too; Broadhinny is full of ‘very nice people,’ but they all have their secrets. Then, there’s another murder. Now Poirot has to find out how the two deaths are connected, if they are. At one point, there’s a conversation between Edna Sweetiman and her mother, who runs the local post office. It turns out that Edna saw something on the night of the second murder. Poirot isn’t privy to that piece of information, but it’s a very interesting clue.

Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle is the story of the disappearance of Andreas Winther. One day, he meets up with his best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe as usual. By the end of that day, Andreas has disappeared. His mother Runi is concerned, and goes to the police. At first, Oslo police detective Konrad Sejer isn’t too worried. There are many legitimate reasons why a young man might take off for a few days without telling his mother. But when time passes and he still doesn’t return, Sejer begins to share Runi Winther’s fears. He starts to ask questions and interview people, beginning with Zipp. By this time in the novel, readers know much more about what happened to Andreas than Sejer does. Fossum uses that fact to build tension as Sejer tries to find out everything Zipp knows. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that Zipp didn’t kill his friend. But there is a lot that he knows, and that adds a thread of suspense to the interviews between Sejer and Zipp. Sejer of course is convinced that Zipp knows more than he is telling, and he’s determined to get the truth. For his part, Zipp has his reasons for not sharing everything that he knows.

T.J. Cooke takes a slightly different approach in Defending Elton. The body of an enigmatic young woman Sarena Gunasekera is found at the bottom of a cliff at Beachy Head near Eastbourne. In a very short time it’s established that she was stabbed to death and her body thrown over the cliff. Soon enough, the police have a suspect: Elton Spears. Spears is a mentally troubled young man who’s had brushes with the law before. He’s not particularly likeable and there’s evidence against him. But his solicitor Jim Harwood knows Spears, and takes on his case. This isn’t a traditional ‘whodunit’ kind of novel. Rather, the reader knows who the killer is early in the novel. The suspense in this novel comes from the question of whether the murderer will get away with the crime. In a way too the suspense comes from the question of motive. It’s not clear at first why the victim was killed; that’s revealed as the story evolves.

Several of the novels in Peter James’ Superintendent Roy Grace series also take the approach of giving the reader more information than the sleuth has. For instance, in Dead Simple, Grace and his team launch a major search when Michael Harrison disappears just days before his wedding to Ashley Harper. All the police know at first is that Harrison had gone out with some friends for a ‘stag night.’ Later that evening, their borrowed SUV was hit by another car, killing nearly everyone on board. Only one man survived that crash, but he is in a coma and dies without regaining consciousness. Harrison’s best friend and best-man-to-be Mark Warren was out of town on business and wasn’t with the group, so he doesn’t add much to Grace’s store of knowledge. Neither does Ashley, who says that she didn’t know what sort of prank the groom’s friends were planning. The reader is privy from the first few pages to what happened to Harrison. As the novel goes on, the reader also learns several things about some of the characters that Grace doesn’t know, at least at first. So part of the suspense in the novel lies in whether and how quickly Grace and his team can get that information.

In James Craig’s Never Apologise, Never Explain, John Carlyle of Charing Cross Station, and his assistant Joe Szyskowski are called to the scene when Henry Mills discovers the murdered body of his wife Agatha. There are no signs of home invasion, and nothing is missing. So the police make the logical deduction that Mills is responsible. His account of the killing is that his wife had enemies who were out to get her, but that’s a very thin alibi and he’s soon arrested and imprisoned. However, it’s not long before Carlyle finds a piece of evidence that adds considerable weight to Henry Mills’ story. So he and his team begin to look into the victim’s background to see who might have wanted to kill her. In the meantime, the reader has already learned, in a general sense, the answer to that question. We are given important background information that Carlyle doesn’t yet have. So part of the suspense in this novel is the ‘cat and mouse’ game between Carlyle and the person involved in the murder.

Gene Kerrigan uses a similar approach to building suspense in The Rage. Dublin DS Bob Tidey and Detective Garda Rose Cheney investigate when banker Emmet Sweetman is murdered in the hallway of his own home. Little by little they learn that Sweetman had been involved in some dubious ‘business transactions’ during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years. When the ‘boom years’ ended, Sweetman was in debt to some very nasty people who wanted their money back. In the meantime, we follow the story of Vincent Naylor, who’s recently been released from prison. He meets up again with his brother Noel and his girlfriend Michelle Flood, along with some other trusted friends. Together they plan a major heist: the armed robbery of a cash transfer vehicle. Their target is Protectica, a security company that moves cash among banks and businesses in the area. Tidey doesn’t know about these plans, and he doesn’t know at first that the group do in fact steal the money. But then everything falls apart for the thieves, and Vincent Naylor decides to take his own kind of revenge. Tidey doesn’t know that either at first, and Kerrigan builds tension as the reader learns about the robbery and its aftermath from the thieves’ point of view and, later, from Tidey’s.

Sleuths can’t know everything, so it’s logical that there would be some things they wouldn’t be privy to, at least at first. And it can work very effectively to have the reader know more than the sleuth, at least at first. That way the reader gets a broad perspective on a given story. At the same time, this approach needs to be handled carefully so that the detective isn’t made out to be too incompetent for credibility. What are your thoughts on this strategy? Do you enjoy novels where you know more than the sleuth does, at least at first?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Arlo Guthrie’s Someday.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Gene Kerrigan, James Craig, Karin Fossum, Peter James, T.J. Cooke

Ah, But I Was So Much Older Then, I’m Younger Than That Now*

OlderPerspectivesHave you ever noticed how your perspective on things changes as you get older? For instance, if you visit a home that you lived in as a child, you may see that it’s a lot smaller than you remember. You remember that house with a child’s perspective, but now you see it with a different set of eyes. That different way of looking at things is arguably part of the reason for which our memories can be so unreliable.

We see that plot point quite a lot in crime fiction, and that makes sense. Not only is it realistic, but also, it allows the author to add to the suspense of a story. And in the case of ‘whodunit’ crime novels, it allows for all sorts of ‘red herrings’ and proverbial wrong turns. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll be able to think of many others.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to solve a sixteen-year-old case. Her father, famous artist Amyas Crale, was poisoned one afternoon during a painting session. At the time, Crale’s wife (and Carla’s mother) Caroline was arrested, charged and convicted, and with good reason. For one thing, there was physical evidence against her. For another, she had a motive, as her husband was having an affair with the subject of his painting Elsa Greer. But Carla is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants Poirot to find out the truth. This he agrees to do, and he interviews all five of the people who were ‘on the scene’ at the time of the murder. He also asks for Carla’s own memories. In two cases, Carla’s and that of her Aunt Angela Warren, the memories of that time are those of children. Carla was five, and Angela Warren was fifteen when Crale was murdered. And it’s interesting to see how their perceptions of things have changed. There are two incidents in particular that didn’t make sense to a younger mind, but now make a lot of sense. The difference in perspective isn’t the solution to the mystery, but it explains several things and adds an interesting layer to the story (I know, I know, fans of Sleeping Murder).

Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind begins in 1988, at a lakeside school picnic at Wanaka. The members of the Anderson family, including fourteen-year-old Stephanie, her younger brothers Jonny and Liam, and her four-year-old sister Gemma, are there with many other local people. During the picnic, Gemma disappears. The police are called in and there’s a thorough search. But no trace of Gemma turns up – not even a body. The family tries to move on as best they can, and seventeen years go by. Now Stephanie is a fledgling psychiatrist who lives and works in Dunedin. One day she hears a haunting story from a patient Elisabeth Clark. Years earlier, her sister Gracie was abducted, and no trace of her was found. This story is so much like Stephanie’s own that, as the saying goes, it won’t leave her alone. Against her better professional judgement, she decides to find out who was responsible for causing so much devastation to these two families. She takes a leave of absence from her work and begins to search for the truth. The trail leads her back to Wanaka and in the end, she does find out who abducted both girls. Throughout the novel we see the way Stephanie viewed everything as a fourteen-year-old versus the way she looks at life now.

In Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case, we meet Caspar Leinen, a young attorney who is just beginning his career. One day his name comes up on the legal aid rota and he gets a call from the local examining magistrate. Fabrizio Collini, an Italian immigrant to Germany, has been arrested for murder. It seems that he went to Berlin’s Hotel Adlon, headed for the suite occupied by Jean-Baptiste Meyer, and shot the man. Collini says that he committed the crime and doesn’t want a lawyer. But German law requires that he be represented. So Leinen prepares to handle the case as best he can. Collini doesn’t do much to defend himself, which means that Leinen will have to take on a lot of the work. He digs into the backgrounds of both men and finds some surprising truths. He also finds a little-known point of German law on which the whole case will ride. In the course of the novel, we also get to know Leinen’s own history, and that plays a role in the story’s events too. It’s interesting to see how his perspective as a boy and teenager changes as he reflects on the same events with adult eyes.

Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer also deals with the different perspectives that we acquire as adults. Catherine Monsigny is a beginning attorney who gets her chance at a major case when she is asked to defend Myriam Villetreix against a murder charge. She has been accused of poisoning her wealthy husband Gaston, but claims to be innocent. And as Monsigny looks into the case, she sees that there are other possibilities. In the meantime, she comes up against a tragedy from her own past. When she was three years old, she was a witness to the murder of her mother Violet. Her memories are understandably very sketchy, but some things have stayed with her. As it happens, the Villetreix murder happened not very far from the scene of the long-ago murder, and the location haunts Monsigny. In the course of the novel she learns who killed her mother and why. As she does so, we see that her adult perspective, and some discoveries she makes, helps her to see certain events and people in a very different light.

There’s also Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything. In that novel, thirteen-year-old Lizzie Hood and her friend Evie Verver are inseparable. Then one terrible day, Evie doesn’t come home from school. The later it gets, the more worried Evie’s family becomes, and they ask Lizzie to tell them anything she may know that could help. But Lizzie can’t be of much assistance, not to the family and not to the police when they talk to her later. She wants to know what happened to Evie, though, and in her own way, begins to search for the truth. She finds that many of her memories don’t reflect what really happened. And since it’s the adult Lizzie who narrates the story, we also see how her perspective on everything has changed since she was thirteen.

And then there’s Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. That story really begins in 1978, when fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan disappears and is later found strangled. This tragedy devastates her parents, the aunt and uncle with whom she was staying when it happened, and her cousins Mick and Jane. At first the police thought that someone in the family might be responsible. But then not many months later, another girl, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor, was also found strangled. Everyone began to believe that these deaths were the work of a serial killer dubbed the Sydney Strangler. The cases were never solved, and years went by. Now, more than thirty years later, journalist Erin Fury is doing a documentary on the effect of tragedies like this on the families involved. She interviews both Jane and Mick, along with Jane’s husband Rob, who also knew Angela. As the novel goes on, we see how these characters viewed Angela and the circumstances surrounding her death. We also see how different some of their youthful perspectives are to what really happened and to the adult perspectives they now develop on everything.

And that’s the thing about looking back. On the one hand, there are some very clear memories we have that are actually quite accurate. On the other hand, when we look back, we often do so with our childhood perspective. It’s not until we really think about things with adult maturity that we really understand them. I’ve only brought up a few examples here. Which books with this plot point have stayed with you?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s My Back Pages.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ferdinand von Schirach, Megan Abbott, Paddy Richardson, Sylvie Granotier, Wendy James

In The Spotlight: Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall

>In the Spotlight: Tarquin Hall's The Case of the Missing ServantHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. For many readers, there’s nothing quite like the English ‘country house’ mystery. Of course these days, people don’t generally live the way they did during the Golden Age years of crime writing. So modern-day ‘country house’ mysteries have to have a more contemporary feel to them if they’re going to be realistic. Let’s take a look today at how that’s accomplished. Let’s turn the spotlight on Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall.

Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford is the star of a TV series Fakes & Treasures, but has decided to quit the show and get out of the public eye and away from media scrutiny of everything she does. Her plan is to go into the antique business with her mother Iris, who’s starting life over again after being widowed. But a telephone call from Iris changes everything.

Iris tells Kat that she’s decided not to go into business and instead, has bought the carriage house on the estate of Honeychurch Hall in Little Dipperton, Devon. Kat’s shocked at this sudden change of plans and concerned about her mother. So she drives to Devon to find out for herself whether her mother’s all right. When she gets there she finds that the carriage house is in sad need of repairs, and that her mother has broken one of her hands in a car accident. So she decides to stay and look after things until her mother’s hand is healed.

Soon enough, Kat gets to know some of the locals. First, there’s the rather eccentric Honeychurch family itself. Currently headed by the very unusual Lady Edith, the Honeychurches have, as many ‘country families’ do, a long history. At the moment, Lady Edith and her son Rupert live in Honeychurch Hall with Rupert’s wife Lavinia and their son Harry. There’s also the butler Cropper and the housekeeper Vera Pugsley, as well as Harry’s Russian nanny Gayla Tarasova. There are other local residents too.

Then, some strange things begin happening. For one thing, Kat discovers that someone is sabotaging her mother’s attempts to settle into her new home. And then there’s the matter of a unique and valuable antique snuff box – one of a collection belonging to Lady Edith – that’s stolen. Then, Gayla disappears. Not long afterwards, Vera Pugsley is found dead.

Cropper’s grandson DI Shawn Cropper investigates the disappearance and murder. But Kat’s worried about Iris, so she asks her own questions. And the more she discovers, the more she learns how little she really knows about her mother. Bit by bit, and each in a different way, Kat and Shawn work to find out what really happened to Gayla and who killed Vera and why. It turns out that the history of the Honeychurch family and Honeychurch Hall plays an important role in the case.

One of the important elements in this novel is the setting. Honeychurch Hall is a traditional large country estate that’s partly maintained, partly sold off, and full of history. Since Little Dipperton is not exactly a bustling metropolis, the novel also has a sense of small town ‘country’ life. Everyone knows everyone, and the history of all of the local families is common property. People such as Kat Stanford are regarded as ‘outsiders,’ so it takes a bit of time for her to get to know that history.

Along with the setting, there are several characters who play important roles in the novel. First of course are Kat and Iris. Kat, from whose point of view the story is told, is at a bit of a crossroads in her life. She’s tired of constantly being the target of the media, and eager for the change that going full-time into the antiques business offers. She’s in a relationship with David Wynne, who’s married, and getting a little tired of waiting for him to sort out his life. And yet, you couldn’t really call her self-pitying. Readers who dislike self-obsessed, heavy-drinking sleuths will be pleased. Iris isn’t particularly self-pitying either. She’s grieving the loss of her husband (and Kat’s father) Frank, but moving on with her life. One of the sub-plots of this novel is the way Kat and Iris have to re-negotiate their relationship. Iris has to accept the fact that Kat is very much her own person. For her part, Kat learns all kinds of things about her mother that she never knew. So she has to change her conception of her mother.

That said though, this isn’t a ‘family drama.’ The mystery itself – who killed Vera and what happened to Gayla – is the main plot point of the novel. And Kat and Shawn find out the truth in a plausible way. There’s an undercurrent of suspense too as it becomes clear that someone local is not what it seems on the surface.

The novel isn’t a bleak, dark read though. There is plenty of wit, both in the characters’ personalities and in some events that happen. For instance, several exchanges between Kat and her mother are full of the frustration – and humour – of real life interactions between adult children and their parents. And some of the characters are just eccentric enough to add wit to the story. For instance, the youngest Honeychurch – Harry – is obsessed with a WWI hero named James ‘Biggles’ Bigglesworth. He spends quite a lot of time living out what he sees as his hero’s life, and some of the scenes involving him are funny. Then there’s the sort of ‘culture clash’ as Kat makes the adjustment from London life to the country.

Murder at Honeychurch Hall is a ‘country’ house’ mystery with all of the trappings of the modern age (including Google and GPS navigation). It connects the past history of the place and some of the characters with the present mystery, and features a TV presenter who had no idea what she was getting into when she decided to step in and help her mother. But what’s your view? Have you read Murder at Honeychurch Hall? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 6 October/Tuesday 7 October – Ice Run – Steve Hamilton

Monday 13 October/Tuesday 14 October – Bitter River – Julia Keller

Monday 20 October/Tuesday 21 October – Night Has a Thousand Eyes – Cornell Woolrich


Filed under Hannah Dennison, Murder at Honeychurch Hall

The Wayback Machine ;-)

TheHistoryQuizIt’s September, so young people everywhere are back in school for Fall or Spring classes, including History class. And that’s put me in mind of…

…a quiz!!! Don’t even start! I’m not the one who brought you to this blog today, am I? Hmmm??? ;-)


Have you ever wished you could just go back in time? The great thing about crime fiction is that it lets you. And as a dedicated crime fiction fan, you know all of your historical novels and authors, don’t you? Or do you? Take this handy quiz and find out. Match each question with the correct answer. At the end of the quiz, submit your answers to see how well you have done. You can also go through your answers and see which ones you got correct.


Ready? Join Mr. Peabody and Sherman in the Wayback Machine… if you dare… ;-)




Filed under Uncategorized

How is the World Treating You?*

UpdatesI’m very proud and honoured that crime writer Sue Coletta has been kind enough to give Confessions of a Mystery Novelist… this fabulous One Lovely Blog Award!

Isn’t it lovely?


Sue is the author of A Strangled Rose, Timber Point and Silent Betrayal. She’s also the author of a number of short stories and a member of Sisters in Crime. Her blog’s got all sorts of interesting information on crime fiction, writing in general, and real-life stories and facts to support crime writing research. You don’t want to miss that blog, so check it out.

Now, this award comes with a request to share seven things about myself. I could tell you everything about me, but then, well… ;-)

So instead, here are a few updates on what I’m doing with my writing, my work and my reading:

  • It Took Me Years to Write, Will You Take a Look (The Beatles (from Paperback Writer)) – I’m still working on getting the third novel in my Joel Williams series published. If you’re a writer, you’ll grok (I can’t help it; I love that word!) what it’s like to send your work out, have it rejected, review it, and send it out again. In the meantime…

  • I Look and I Write My Book (Billy Joel (from Blonde Over Blue)) – I’m working on another novel, not in the Joel Williams series. I’m not sure if it will ever go beyond standalone, which it is for now, but who knows? It’s a sort of police procedural that takes place in one of Philadelphia’s suburban communities. I’m also revising the 4th Joel Williams novel.

  • Money, It’s a Hit (Pink Floyd (from Money)) – I’ve had an article on marketing for fiction authors published in the Journal of Marketing and Management. I’m quite chuffed about that; it’s a fine journal and the business side of writing is one of those things that authors don’t always like to think about…but should.

  • Get Into a Car and Drive (Joe Jackson (from Steppin’ Out)) – I’ll be presenting at the Clute Institute’s 2014 International Education Conference (5-8 October) in Las Vegas. My topic will be integrating crime and mystery fiction into the educational content areas. Shortly after that…

  • I’m Leavin’ on a Jet Plane (John Denver (from Leavin’ on a Jet Plane)) – This time, I’ll be heading to Denver where I’ll be presenting at the 44th Annual Meeting of the International Society for Exploring Teaching and Learning (15-18 October). There I’ll be giving a workshop on using crime and mystery fiction to support students’ writing development.

  • I’m Just Beginning to See (The Moody Blues (from Tuesday Afternoon)) – I’ve just started reading Kate Rhodes’ Crossbones Yard. We’ll be discussing that novel in the Online Crime Book Club, moderated by Rebecca Bradley. The club meets Wednesday 15 October, 8pm GMT. You’re welcome to hang with the cool kids and join us!

  • You Probably Don’t Want to Hear Advice From Someone Else (Billy Joel (from You’re Only Human (Second Wind))) – …but I’m going to give it to you anyway. I’ve recently finished reading David Whish-Wilson’s Zero at the Bone (it took me far too long to get to it!!). My advice? Read it. It’s the second in his Frank Swann series that takes place in late-1970’s Perth, and in my opinion, it’s terrific. It’s a gritty, sometimes very hard-edged story with lots of well-drawn atmosphere and fine characters. Do yourself a favour if you haven’t and read the first Frank Swann novel Line of Sight, too.

So there you have it. Seven things going on in my life at the moment. I’m supposed to pass along this award to other bloggers, but the fact is, I love all of the blogs I visit. So instead, here’s what I’ll do. You see that blog roll on my sidebar? Yes, that one. Choose some that you’ve never visited, or haven’t visited in a while. Go say, ‘Hello.’ Tell ‘em Margot sent you.

Thank you, Sue!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Haggart and Johnny Burke’s What’s New?


Filed under Uncategorized