Category Archives: Agatha Christie

I Was Checking You Out*

Sizing People UpSleuths have to develop the skill of being be able to ‘read’ people fairly quickly. It helps the sleuth in figuring out whether to take a case, what sort of person a suspect or witness is, and so on. Of course, sleuths can be wrong about their first ‘sizing up’ too, and that’s interesting in and of itself. But wrong or right, sleuths do, over time, learn to get a sense of what a person is like just from that person’s clothes, comments, bearing and so on.

We see a lot of this in crime fiction and that makes sense. It’s only human nature for us to size people up. And for the author, it allows for ‘showing, not telling’ what a character is like. There’s not enough space in this one post to mention all of the examples out there; here are just a few.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is a master of summing people up just from what he sees of them. And in fact, sometimes he doesn’t even need to meet a person to get a great deal of information. For instance, in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Commissionaire Peterson brings an interesting mystery to Holmes and Dr. Watson. He discovered a battered hat and a goose lying where someone had dropped them after a skirmish with some hooligans. Then, when his wife cooked the goose, she discovered a valuable gem in its craw. The mystery makes little sense to Peterson, so he wants Holmes’ impressions. Here’s what Holmes says after one look at the hat:
 

”He picked it up and gazed at it in the peculiar introspective fashion which was characteristic of him. ‘It is perhaps less suggestive than it might have been,’ he remarked, ‘and yet there are a few inferences which are very distinct, and a few others which represent at least a strong balance of probability. That the man was highly intellectual is of course obvious upon the face of it, and also that he was fairly well-to-do within the last three years, although he has now fallen upon evil days. He had foresight, but has less now than formerly, pointing to a moral retrogression, which, when taken with the decline of his fortunes, seems to indicate some evil influence, probably drink, at work upon him. This may account also for the obvious fact that his wife has ceased to love him.”
 

Holmes goes on to explain how he deduced each of these facts and later in the story, we find out just how right he was.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d), Miss Marple is recovering from a bout of illness, and so has been under the too-watchful eye of hired housekeeper/nurse Miss Knight. One afternoon while Miss Knight is out doing the shopping, Miss Marple decides to take a walk. She ends up in the new council housing development where she accidentally falls and twists her ankle. She’s immediately rescued by Heather Badcock, who lives in the development with her husband Arthur. As she’s sitting in the Badcock home recovering from her fall, Miss Marple gets a chance to ‘size up’ her rescuer. And it’s not long before she’s reminded of someone else in the village with similar personality traits and a similar sort of story. And that worries Miss Marple because that person ended up dying. Sure enough, Heather Badcock dies too, of what turns out to be a poisoned cocktail. Miss Marple and her friend Dolly Bantry look into the murder and they find that the victim’s history has a lot to do with the murder. I know, I know, fans of Five Little Pigs

Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes begins when New York City police officer Tom Shawn is taking a late-night walk. He notices a small, expensive handbag lying on the ground with its contents spilled out. Just by those things he can tell that the owner is a person of a certain social class and has certain tastes. What he can’t work out yet is why those things should have been spilled in what looks like a deliberate way. Shortly afterwards, he sees a young woman getting ready to jump from a bridge. He gets to her just in time and persuades her to come away from the bridge. His first impression of her is that she is both well-off and attractive. So there seems no reason (at least on the surface) for her to attempt suicide. He takes her to an all-night diner where he finally gets her to tell her story. She is Jane Reid, and as Shawn had guessed, she comes from a wealthy background. Her life has been turned upside-down lately because she is terrified that her father, with whom she is close, is about to die. As Shawn listens to her story, he is more and more intrigued by it, and decides to do what he can to help prevent what seems to be an inevitable death.

In Peter Corris’ The Dying Trade, Sydney PI Cliff Hardy makes a none-too-flattering first summing-up of a client just from a telephone call. One day, wealthy and powerfull Bryn Gutteridge calls to basically summon Hardy to his home. Hardy isn’t impressed with Gutteridge’s manner, but a fee is a fee, so he keeps the appointment. Here’s his first reaction to meeting the man in person:
 

‘Mr. Gutteridge didn’t look like he’d be nice to work for, but I felt sure I could reach an understanding with his money.’
 

And Hardy’s first summing-up is fairly accurate. Gutteridge isn’t pleasant or particularly polite. He’s self-involved, self-entitled and obviously spoiled. But he does have a problem that he’s willing to pay to solve. His twin sister Susan is being harassed and getting threats, and he wants it to stop. Hardy takes the case and begins to ask questions, starting with Gutteridge himself. As he gets deeper into the investigation, Hardy learns that there are several people who might want to threaten Susan and target the Gutteridge family.

Sometimes, sleuths can get a somewhat accurate sense of someone, and still be wrong. That’s what happens in Martin Edwards’ The Hanging Wood. Cumbria Constabulary DCI Hannah Scarlett is head of the Cold Case Review Team; as such, she often hears of old cases, and has to decide which ones to re-open. That’s why Orla Payne calls her one day. Twenty years earlier, Orla’s brother Callum disappeared. No trace of him has been found – not even a body. And Orla wants answers and justice for her brother. Unfortunately, Orla is mentally fragile to begin with, and is drunk when she calls in, so Hannah isn’t inclined to take the case seriously at first. Still, once she hangs up the ‘phone, she begins to feel guilty for her attitude and takes a second look at the case. Then, Orla dies, apparently by suicide. Now it’s clear that something more is going on here than a drunken call about a runaway brother.

And then there’s Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Social worker Simran Singh is persuaded to travel from where she lives in Delhi to her home town in Punjab when she gets a call from an old university friend. Now Inspector General for the State of Punjab, her friend wants her to work with the police on a horrible case. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal has been arrested in connection with the poisoning murders of thirteen of her family members. Some were also stabbed. What’s more, someone set fire to the Atwal house. Durga may or may not have been involved in what happened, but the police can’t get any information from her, since she has not spoken of the tragedy since the night it occurred. It’s hoped that if Simran talks to her, she’ll be able to get the girl to open up and talk about the killings. Simran’s reluctant; at the same time though, she doesn’t want to see Durga ‘railroaded’ if she is innocent of any complicity in the killings. So she agrees to see what she can do. When she finally gets the chance to meet the girl, here’s her initial summing-up:
 

‘Durga is not pretty, but she has a healthy, pink complexion like most Punjabi girls from semi-rural India, who have been brought up on fresh milk and homegrown food. Yet, she hunches as she sits down, anxious not to be noticed. Or at least, not have any attention drawn to her. Her clothes are loose, and even though she is tall and well built, she gives an impression of frailty, further enhanced by her meek demeanour.’
 

Simran is also immediately struck by how young and vulnerable Durga is. At first, Durga doesn’t trust her at all (why should she?), but Simran knows that her best chance of finding out what really happened to the Atwal family is to get Durga to tell her.

Sleuths aren’t always correct about their first ‘sizing up’ of people they speak to, any more than any of us is. But over time, they have to learn that skill, as it often proves to be very useful…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s I Don’t Want to be Alone Any More.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Cornell Woolrich, Kishwar Desai, Martin Edwards, Peter Corris

It All Keeps Adding Up, I Think I’m Cracking Up*

BuildupofPressureI’m sure you’ve heard of the old expression, ‘It’s always the quiet ones…’ As any crime fiction fan can tell you, there are all kinds of murderers, both loud and quiet. But even though it’s really not true, not even in fiction, there is this lingering idea of the murderer as the ‘the quiet type.’

Perhaps one reason might be that very often, those who are relatively quiet and unassuming tend to be taken for granted. Sometimes, this can mean that the pressures of life that can get to any of us build up without anyone taking notice. And then the proverbial kettle boils over.

Crime writers sometimes use this strategy – of the pressure building up and up – to add suspense to a novel or to shed light on why a character might commit murder. It’s got to be done thoughtfully of course; otherwise there’s the risk of characters who don’t act credibly. But when it is done with care, that quiet character who is more and more pressured can add a lot to a novel. Here are just a few examples.

Agatha Christie used that sort of character in several of her stories. It’s difficult to choose one without giving away spoilers, but here goes. In Appointment With Death, the Boynton family is on a sightseeing tour of the Middle East. The family is headed by tyrannical matriarch Mrs. Boynton, who has made a life of keeping every other member cowed. One afternoon, during a family visit to Petra, Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies of what looks like heart failure. But even though the explanation makes sense (Mrs. Boynton was getting on in years and not in good health), Colonel Carbury isn’t completely convinced it’s a natural death. Hercule Poirot is also in the area, so he agrees to look into the matter. As he interviews the various family members and fellow sightseers, we see just how much pressure Mrs. Boynton put on everyone. Christie gives us a sense of the buildup of pressure too, right from the beginning of the novel. In fact, the first sentence is:
 

‘You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?’
 

It turns out to have been spoken by one of the suspects, and shows how desperate all of them had become.

In Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead, Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery are summoned – that’s really the best word for it – to Bendigo Island, a private island owned by munitions magnate Kane ‘King’ Bendigo. It turns out that there have been threats on Bendigo’s life and, although he himself doesn’t take them seriously, others do. And Bendigo’s safety matters greatly, since his business is seen as pivotal to the world’s balance of power. The Queens are asked to find out who has threatened Bendigo’s life and stop that person. The island is a heavily-guarded private place, so there aren’t many suspects. The most likely are Bendigo’s two brothers Abel and Judah, and his wife Karla, so Ellery Queen begins there. Right away we sense the dysfunction in the relationships among those living on the island, and we also see how ‘King’ Bendigo earned his nickname. While he’s not sadistic or cruel, he is very much in charge, and doesn’t tolerate the least resistance to his wishes. It seems that Bendigo is well-enough protected, but one night, he’s in his hermetically-sealed study with Karla when he is shot. Badly wounded, he’s given immediate treatment. It’s now clear that someone really does intend to kill him. But the Queens’ first question is: how did the would-be killer manage it? The study was sealed shut; there was no gun anywhere in it; and it can be proven that neither Karla nor her husband fired a gun. Judah Bendigo is a likely suspect, since he bitterly resented his brother. What’s more, both of his brothers are contemptuous of him and exclude him from all business decisions. The only problem is that Judah was with Queen at the time of the shooting. He has an iron-clad alibi, as the saying goes. So Queen is faced with an ‘impossible-but-not-really’ mystery as he tries to figure out who shot King Bendigo. The trail leads him to the Bendigo brothers’ home town of Wrightsville, where he finds out some surprising truths about the family. The more he learns, the more we see how pressure building up can have grave consequences.

We also see that in P.D. James’ A Taste For Death. Met Commander Adam Dalgliesh, DCI John Massingham and DI Kate Miskin have been named as a special investigative team with a focus on crimes of special interest – crimes that are likely to generate a lot of media attention. Such a crime is the murder of Crown Minister Paul Berowne, whose body is found in a local church one morning. Along with his body is the body of a tramp Harry Mack. Part of the job of investigating the murder is, of course, looking into the lives of Berowne’s family members and others living in the house. One of them is Evelyn Matlock. The Berowne family took her in after her father was convicted of murder; since then she’s become the family housekeeper as well personal assistant to family matriarch Lady Ursula Berowne. The family isn’t abusive to her, but at the same time, she’s never been treated as an equal. As the novel goes on, we see how the stress of her situation has impacted her. In fact, when the investigating team finds out who killed Paul Berowne and Harry Mack, here’s what Evelyn has to say:
 

‘This place isn’t a home…And you think of no one but yourselves. Do this, Mattie, fetch that, Mattie, run my bath, Mattie. I do have a name. I’m not a cat or a dog. I’m not a household pet.’
 

Part of the way James builds suspense in this story is by hinting at this pressure early on and showing readers how it’s slowly built up over time.

Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery is the story of the murder of Waldemar Leverkuhn. He and some of his friends have gone in together on the purchase of a lottery ticket. Much to their joy, the ticket is a winner, so the group of them go out to celebrate. Later that night Leverkuhn is stabbed to death in his own bed. Intendant Münster of the Mardaam police leads the investigation into this murder, and he and his team naturally begin with the victim’s family and friends. Also considered are of course the other residents of the building where the Leverkuhns live. There are several motives, too. For one thing, Leverkuhn’s death means that his fellow lottery winners each get more money. And then there’s the family itself. While there’ve been no ‘official’ reports of problems, there are always secrets in a family. There are also the other people who live in the building, who may have had their own reasons for wanting Leverkuhn dead. Bit by bit, the investigating team follows up leads and slowly discovers the truth. It turns out that the slow building up of pressure has played an important role in this story.

It does in Shelly Reuben’s The Boys of Sabbath Street too. Artemus Ackerman, mayor of the small city of Calendar, wants the town to have a museum of magic. The idea is that it’ll bring in tourists and therefore, more revenue. The plan is to convert the old Baldwin Theater for the purpose, and Ackerman has hopes that he can get the funding he needs for the project. Then, there’s a fire on the same street as the site of the proposed museum. No-one’s killed, but the property destruction worries everyone. Matters get worse when there’s another fire. And another. Now it’s clear that an arsonist is at work. Ackerman’s assistant and publicist Maggie Wakeling works with Fire Marshal George Copeland to find and stop the arsonist before there’s any more damage or any loss of life. When they find out who that person is, we discover that the slow buildup of stress has had a lot to do with the events in the story.

It isn’t always ‘the quiet ones’ who commit crime. But the slow buildup of stress and trouble can have all sorts of terrible consequences. These are a few examples. Your turn.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Green Day’s Basket Case.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Håkan Nesser, P.D. James, Shelly Reuben

There’s a Storm Front Coming*

ForeshadowingOne of the things that just about all crime novels have in common is that something bad happens in the novel. Often it’s murder. So crime fiction fans know before they even begin to read a novel that it’s probably going to involve something terrible.

In that sense, you wouldn’t think that foreshadowing – giving the reader a hint about bad things to come – would be a useful device for a crime writer. But the fact is, even in crime novels, foreshadowing can build suspense and tension, and can get the reader caught up in the story.

Some authors are quite straightforward. They don’t hint at danger; they let you know about it. Here for instance is the first line of Liza Marklund’s The Bomber:
 

‘The woman who was soon to die stepped cautiously out of the door and glanced around.’
 

While Marklund doesn’t tell us who the woman is or how she will die, that’s a very clear sign of what’s to come. The woman, in fact, turns out to be civic/business leader Christine Furhage, who’s played a major role in bringing the Olympic Games to Stockholm. When her body is found after a bomb blast at Olympic Village, it’s thought at first to be the work of terrorists. Crime reporter Annika Bengtzon and her team know that this is major story, so they begin to look into it. What they find is that this death has nothing to do with extremists or terrorists.

In Peter James’ Not Dead Yet, we meet superstar enertainer Gaia Lafayette:
 
‘Gaia Lafayette was unaware of the man out in the dark, in the station wagon, who had come to kill her. And she was unaware of the email he had sent. She got hate mail all the time…’
 

It turns out that the danger to the star is real. She’s just taken the leading role in an historical drama, to be filmed on her ‘home turf’ of Brighton and Hove. So she travels there with her son Roan and her entourage. Superintendent Roy Grace, who’s already involved in a difficult and brutal murder case, is told that protecting Gaia Lafayette is a priority, since no-one is interested in the bad publicity that would come to the area if anything happens to one of its most famous citizens. Grace agrees to do his best to provide protection. But he finds himself caught in a much more complicated situation than he’d imagined, where it’s not really clear what the source of the danger to his charge is. And James alerts us clearly to that danger.

Some authors foreshadow by contrasting the beginning of a story with a hint that things are about to change. That’s what Wendy James does in The Mistake.
 
‘Later, when she looks back on that time – the time before it all began to change – Jodie will see that it was more than good, more than happy enough. It was idyllic.’
 

And it is, too. Jodie Evans Garrow is the wife of successful attorney Angus Garrow, who’s being mentioned as the possible next mayor of their New South Wales town of Arding. She’s the mother of two healthy children who’ve been doing well, and life really is content. It all changes when her daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where, years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child. No-one knows about that other child, whom Jodie named Elsa Mary – not even Angus. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie claims she gave the baby up for adoption, but when the over-curious nurse looks into the matter, she can find no record of adoption. Now questions begin to be raised. What happened to the baby? If she was adopted, where is she? If not, is she alive? If she died, did Jodie have something to do with it? Now the Garrow family become pariahs, and as we slowly learn the truth about Elsa Mary, we see what happens as a family starts to come apart at the seams, so to speak.

Some crime writers use foreshadowing that’s a little more subtle. In Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas for instance, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant is hired by business magnate Charity Wiser to find out who is trying to kill her. To that end, he’s invited to join the members of her family for a cruise on her ship The Dorothy. That way, so the plan goes, he can ‘vet’ them and figure out which one of them is the would-be murderer. Here are Quant’s thoughts about the cruise:
 

‘I’m not convinced my decision would have been different otherwise, but I found myself answering in the affirmative before I’d thought the whole thing through. But really. A free Mediterranean cruise? Come on!’
 

We know, because this is a crime novel, that something bad is going to happen. In fact, several bad things, including murder, happen. Quant knows the cruise is risky too. Rather than go on and on about the possible danger, Bidulka hints at it and invites the reader to board the ship and find out what happens next.

In Aaron Elkins’ Loot, Boston art historian/expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere gets a call from an acquaintance Simeon Pawlovsky, who owns a pawn shop in the area. Pawlovsky thinks that he may have gotten his hands on a valuable painting and he wants Revere’s judgement about its worth. Revere agrees and visits the pawn shop. To his shock, he discovers that Pawlovsky is probably right. This looks to be a very valuable Velázquez that was ‘borrowed’ by the Nazis ‘for safekeeping.’ Revere wants to do more research on the painting before he can be absolutely sure, so he asks Pawlovsky to lend him the painting, saying that it’s not safe to keep something so valuable in a pawn shop. Pawlovsky refuses, which is the first hint that something is about to go very wrong. Revere agrees to be gone no more than two hours. When he returns,
 

‘I saw that Simeon hadn’t come back out front to pull the metal shutters closed, although five o’clock had come and gone.’
 

You can imagine that things take a very bad turn, as Revere discovers that Pawlovsky has been killed. Revere feels guilty about having left the man alone with such a valuable painting, and determines to find out who the killer is. It occurs to him that if he can trace what happened to the painting after the Nazis ‘secured it for safekeeping,’ he can find the killer. This he sets out to do, and it ends up bringing him danger he hadn’t imagined.

And then there’s Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, which begins in the village of Malton-under-Wode. There, we are witness to a conversation between Mr. Burnaby, the landlord of the Three Crowns, and a friend. They’re discussing Linnet Ridgeway, who’s just purchased nearby Wode Hall. Here’s what Mr. Burnaby’s friend says about Linnet:
 

‘It seems all wrong to me – her looking like that. Money and looks – it’s too much. If a girl’s as rich as that, she’s no right to be a good-looker too. And she is a good-looker…got everything, that girl has. Doesn’t seem fair.’
 

It turns out that Mr. Burnaby’s friend is right about Linnet Ridgeway. She’s beautiful, wealthy and smart, so it’s understandable that she’d turn the head of Simon Doyle, fiance of her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. When she and Simon marry, they take a cruise of the Nile as part of their honeymoon. On the second night of that cruise, Linnet is shot. Jackie’s the primary suspect, since she had a very good motive and since she’s along on the cruise. But it’s soon proved that she could not have killed the victim. So Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race, who are also aboard, have to look elsewhere for the murderer. Christie hints from the beginning that all will not go well for Linnet and although the foreshadowing is faint at first, crime fiction fans know that something is going to go very, very wrong.

And that’s the thing about foreshadowing. It can be subtle or obvious; it can happen right at the beginning of a novel or a bit further on. But however it’s used, it can build suspense and tension. Which ‘foreshadowing moments’ have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Storm Front.

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Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Liza Marklund, Peter James, Wendy James

Can’t Know the Fears That Your Elders Grew By*

Parents' SecretsLots of people think they know their parents very well. After all, people who grew up with their parents have been around them for a long time. And in some ways, children really do have a better sense of their parents than we sometimes think.

But children rarely know everything about their parents. And sometimes they learn the most surprising – even shocking – things about people they always thought they knew intimately. Crime fiction uses this plot point quite frequently, so I’ll just mention a few examples.

In Camilla Läckberg’s The Hidden Child, biographer and crime writer Erica Falck is sorting through her parents’ things after their deaths. Along with the clothing and other things she’d expected, she is shocked to discover a Nazi medal. Certainly no-one in her family had ever hinted that there was Nazi sympathy among the members. Falck wants to find out more about this possible connection, so she visits local historian Erik Frankel, who may be able to shed light on those years. Two days after her visit, Frankel is killed. Falck’s husband, police officer Patrik Hedström, investigates officially; in her own way Falck investigates too. In the end, they find out the connection between the town’s history and Frankel’s murder.

Steve Hamilton’s Ice Run begins with the death of Simon Grant, an elderly man who seems to have died of exposure not far from the Ojibway Hotel in Sault Ste. Marie (Soo), Michigan. Former police officer Alex McKnight is at the hotel with his new love interest, Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Constable Natalie Reynaud when the death happens. Oddly enough, they had a strange encounter with Grant before he died, and Grant left them an odd message: a homburg hat filled with ice and snow and a note that says I know who you are. All of this makes McKnight very curious, so when he gets news of Grant’s death, he starts to ask questions. It turns out that Simon Grant had a history with the Reynaud family, and that that history still plays an important role in people’s lives. In the end we find that there are things about Natalie’s family that have been kept secret for a long time…

In Jane Casey’s How to Fall, eighteen-year-old Jess Tennant travels with her mother Molly from London to the small town of Port Sentinel, where Molly grew up. The plan is to spend the summer there as both Molly and Jess deal with Molly’s bitter divorce from Jess’ father. Also in the offing is a reunion with Molly’s twin sister Tilly and her family. A year ago, Tilly’s daughter (and Jess’ cousin) Freya died in a terrible fall from a cliff, and everyone is still adjusting to life without her. Jess never met her cousin, so she’s curious about her. And the more she learns, the more she suspects that Freya might not have died by accident. Determined to find out the truth, Jess uncovers more than it’s safe for her to know. She also learns some very surprising things about her mother’s past – things she hadn’t suspected.

That’s also the case with Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford, whom we meet in Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall. Kat’s a TV presenter who’s had more than her share of media invasion of her privacy. So she decides she’s had enough of the TV life, and plans to go into the antiques business with her mother Iris. Iris seems open to the idea as a way to move on after the death of her beloved husband Frank. Then one day Kat gets a surprising call from her mother. Iris has purchased the carriage house on the property of Honeychurch Hall in Little Dipperton, Devon, hundreds of miles from London. Kat’s shocked at this news and concerned about her mother, so she goes immediately to Devon. When she arrives, she finds that the carriage house is in sad need of repair and that Iris has broken her hand in a car accident. So she decides to stay on for a bit to help her mother. That’s how she gets drawn into the mystery of a strange series of events. There’s sabotage, a disappearance, theft, and finally the murder of Verga Pugsley, housekeeper at Honeychurch Hall. It turns out that all of these events are related. And all of them have to do with the Honeychurch family history. As Kat uncovers the truth, she also finds out important things about her mother – things she’d never imagined.

There’s also Scott Turow’s Innocent, which concerns the death of Barbara Bernstein. Her husband, Kindle County chief appellate judge Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich, wakes up one morning to find her dead of what looks like natural causes. But before long, questions begin to arise about the case. For one thing, Sabich waited 24 hours after her death before contacting the authorities or his son Nat. For another, the toxicology report on her body shows a large dose of an anti-depressant. And then there’s the fact that Kindle County Prosecutor Tommy Molto suspects that Sabich might have been guilty of another murder twenty years earlier. This and other evidence suggests that Sabich might have killed his wife, so he is arrested and charged with murder. He asks Alejandro ‘Sandy’ Stern to defend him and the case moves to trial.The story is told in part from the perspective of Nat Sabich, who is an attorney himself. As the novel goes on, we see that Nat knows his father well. On the other hand, there are things about his father’s life that he never knew…

Wendy James’ The Lost Girls introduces us to Jane and Rob Tait and their daughter Jess. One day Jess attends a talk given by journalist Erin Fury, who’s working on a story about families who’ve survived the murder of one of their members. Jess knows that hers is one of those families; in 1978, her mother’s cousin Angela Buchanan was killed and her body discovered with a silk scarf round her neck. At first the police investigated the family, but then, another young girl Kelly McIvor was killed, and her body also found with a scarf round the neck. Since then everyone has assumed that the deaths were the work of a killer the press dubbed ‘The Sydney Strangler.’ No-one was ever arrested for the crimes, and although Jess knows the story, she doesn’t really know the details. Through her, Erin Fury gets contact information for Jane and Rob and prepares to talk to the family. As she meets with the Taits and with Jane’s brother Mick, we learn about what really happened to Angela and Kelly. And Jess finds things out about her parents that she didn’t know.

And that’s the thing about parents. Everyone has a history, including parents. It’s sometimes really surprising what we find out about them. These are only a few examples (I know, I know, fans of Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs). Over to you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Teach Your Children.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Camilla Läckberg, Hannah Dennison, Jane Casey, Scott Turow, Steve Hamilton, Wendy James

I Won’t Back Down*

DaresMost of us don’t want to appear weak in front of others. That’s arguably why people often don’t tell their troubles to a lot of people or admit their mistakes. That desire to appear strong and brave is also part of the reason people take dares and bets. Backing out of a dare or challenge can be seen as cowardly, so people go through with sometimes foolish and dangerous dares and bets to avoid that label. I’m sure you’ve seen it in real life, and that plot point runs through crime fiction too.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist, we are introduced to Violet Smith, who’s taken a position as piano teacher/governness at Chiltern Grange. During the week, she stays there. At the weekend, she goes to London to visit her mother. Lately, she’s noticed that a strange man on a bicycle has been following her on the way to and from the train station. He’s never threatened her or even spoken to her. But she’s beginning to worry for her safety. She’s also curious about who the man is and what he wants. So she engages Sherlock Holmes to get to the bottom of the mystery. He and Dr. Watson investigate, and they soon find that Violet Smith is in great danger. Unbeknownst to her, she’s a pawn in a very high-stakes game, as the saying goes. And it all started because of the need to appear strong and not back down from a challenge, in this case, a card game.

John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook is the first in his Gideon Fell series. In this novel, Tad Rampole has recently been graduated from university, and has come to England at the suggestion of his mentor, who knows Fell. Rampole is on the way to Chatterham, where Fell lives, when he meets Dorothy Starberth. He’s smitten with her, so he takes a special interest when Fell tells him about the mysterious history of the Starberth family. For two generations, the Starberths were Governers of the now-disused Chatterham Prison. Even though the prison has been abandoned for a hundred years, the Starberths are still associated with it through a family ritual. Each Starberth heir spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. During the evening, the heir opens the safe in the room and follows the instructions inside it. Now it’s the turn of Dorothy’s brother Martin. He’s not particularly eager to take on this challenge; the Starberth heirs have a habit of dying suddenly and violently. But he doesn’t want to back down and appear a coward. So he goes along with the ritual. During the night he stays in the prison, Martin Starberth dies of what looks like a tragic accident. But Fell is able to prove that the death was quite purposeful.

Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death) features a group of residents who live in a hostel for students. The hostel is managed by Mrs. Hubbard, whose sister Felicity Lemon is, as fans will know, Hercule Poirot’s frighteningly competent secretary. Mrs. Hubbard’s concerned about a series of odd and seemingly meaningless petty thefts going on at the hostel, so Miss Lemon asks her employer to look into the matter. This he agrees to do, and he pays a visit to the hostel. That evening, one of the residents Celia Austin confesses to the thefts, so it seems that the matter is settled. But when she dies two nights later, it’s clear that there’s more going on here than thievery. Poirot and Inspector Sharpe establish that Celia was murdered, and begin to investigate. As they do, they discover that just about everyone in the hostel is hiding something. One of the things they find out, for instance, is that a few of the residents got involved in what seemed like a harmless bet. They were joking around about being able to commit murder without being caught. Jokes led to a bet, which led to poisons being in the hostel at the time of Celia Austin’s death. And no, that’s not a spoiler, ‘though it may seem to be…

Catherine Aird’s The Religious Body is the story of the murder of Sister Mary St. Anne, who was a part of the community at the Convent of St. Anselm. When her body is discovered at the foot of the convent’s basement stairs, Berebury Police Inspector C.D. Sloan and his assistant Constable William Crosby investigate. Their first interest is of course, the network of relationshps at the convent, and they interview all of the people who live and work there. But they don’t neglect other possibilities. For example, there’s Sister Anne’s family. Also, close to the convent is an Agricultural Institute. It wouldn’t seem that anyone there would have a reason to kill Sister Anne, but on Guy Fawkes day, some of the students follow the college’s tradition of burning a guy. This time, though, the guy is dressed in a nun’s habit and what turn out to be Sister Anne’s spectacles. So it’s very clear that someone at the school was at the convent. Sloan and Crosby find that that element of the mystery has to do with a prank and some students’ desire to take on a challenge.

And then there’s Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black. On New Year’s Eve, Sally Henry and Catherine Ross are on their way home from a party when they pass by the house of Magnus Tait, who’s generally regarded as a misfit and a strange person. Catherine dares her friend to knock on the door and although she’s reluctant, Sally doesn’t want to appear cowardly. So she agrees and the two go to the house. Tait invites them in, and finds himself accused of murder when Catherine is killed a few days later. Inspector Jimmy Perez is assigned to the case and interviews the people in Catherine’s life, including Tait. There is evidence against him, but Tait claims that he’s innocent, and Perez comes to believe him. It’s interesting in this novel to see how that simple dare gets Tait mixed up in the girls’ lives.

Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s short story Trick or Treat begins as a young boy goes up to the door of Crow House, which has a creepy reputation. He’s been dared to knock on the door and of course, he doesn’t want to back down, so he knocks. When he’s admitted, he finds a trick he couldn’t have imagined…

Most of don’t want to seem weak, so it’s only natural not to want to back down from dares, bets and challenges. But as crime fiction shows us, it might just be safer all round to risk that…

ps. Oh, the ‘photo? Go ahead, pick a card. Dare ya! You’re not afraid, are you???
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of song by Tom Petty.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Arthur Conan Doyle, Catherine Aird, Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen, John Dickson Carr