Category Archives: Andrea Camilleri

Come See About Me*

Character DetailsI’m very honoured and excited that Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…  has been awarded the Very Inspiring Blog Award by Moira at Clothes in Books and by Rebecca Bradley. This means a lot to me, especially since those two blogs are a rich source of inspiration for me. Do please visit them and have a look round. They are both worthy of prominent places on any crime fiction fan’s blog roll.

7-things

One of the things that come with this award is the request to share seven things about yourself. I’m not going to do that, as I’ve already overloaded this blog with things about me. And besides, this is a blog about crime fiction, not about me. But these generous awards have got me thinking about fictional characters, and how much we learn about them.

It’s a delicate balance for an author, deciding how much to share about the characters in a novel. On the one hand, characters who are too ‘flat’ simply aren’t interesting. They don’t ‘feel’ like real people and that’s off-putting. On the other hand, is it really important that a given character once slipped and fell in mud during a rainstorm? Depending on the story, probably not.

And that’s what’s arguably the most important factor in sharing information about characters: relevance to the story. Character information that matters to the story is important. So is information that makes a character distinctive and human. If it’s not as relevant, perhaps it doesn’t need to be there. Let me if I may give you a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie is not generally as well known for depth of character as she is for other aspects of writing. But in some of her novels, she does provide some rounded, ‘fleshed-out’ characters. Five Little Pigs is one of them. In that novel, famous painter Amyas Crale is poisoned one afternoon. The most likely suspect, and for very good reason, is his wife Caroline. She is duly arrested, tried and convicted, and dies a year later in prison. Sixteen years later, the Crales’ daughter Carla asks Poirot to re-investigate the case. Carla is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants her name cleared. Poirot takes up the challenge and interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ on the day of the murder. He also gets written accounts from each of them. From that information he figures out who really killed Crale and why. One of those people is Cecilia Williams, who was governess to Caroline Crale’s half-sister Angela Warren at the time of the murder. One fact about Miss Williams is that she is an ardent feminist. Her feminism and resentment of most men comes through in quite a lot of what she says and the way she behaves. It’s important to the story, too, as it gives her a possible motive for murder. Crale was having an affair when he was murdered, and didn’t do much to hide the fact, and Miss Williams thought that her employer was deeply wronged. Christie doesn’t tell us everything about Miss Williams. We don’t know for instance whether she has a good head for heights; it doesn’t matter to the story. But her feminism is important, so we learn about it.

We don’t know every detail about the childhood of Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano. We don’t know for instance which teachers he liked best and which ones he really disliked. That isn’t really important to understanding his character and motivations. But we do know that one of his school friends was Gegè Gullatto. This is important because it explains the relationship the two men have now. Gullatto is a local crime boss and drug dealer who has several ‘business operations.’ Since they’re on opposite sides of the law, you’d think that he and Montalbano would regularly come into conflict. But that’s not what happens. They have a long history, and each respects the other. Besides, co-operating from time to time is helpful to both. For Gullatto’s part, he knows that as long as he keeps his ‘enterprises’ more or less under control, the police won’t give him a hard time. And Montalbano knows that he can depend on Gullatto to make sure that his employees don’t cause real trouble, and Gullatto is often a source of helpful information about what’s happening in the underworld.

You could say a similar sort of thing about Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti. We don’t know all of the details of his childhood. We don’t know which toys he liked best or who his very first girlfriend was. But we do know that his father was in the glass-blowing industry. That information helps us understand the way Brunetti goes about investigating the death of a glass-blowing factory night watchman in Through a Glass, Darkly. Giorgio Tassini dies one night while he’s on duty at the factory that employs him. At first it looks like a terrible accident, but there’s soon reason to believe that he was murdered. And that’s not far-fetched, since he’d been very vocal about toxic waste dumping on the part of the glass blowing industry. As Brunetti and his team investigate, we see how he uses what he knows about the industry, and how his memories of his father’s work play a role in his thinking.

In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn is preparing for her daughter Mieka’s engagement party. The party will be a weekend-long affair, hosted by Lorraine Harris, the mother of Mieka’s fiancé Greg. Matters get complicated when Christy Sinclair, the ex-girlfriend of Kilbourn’s son Peter, comes back in the family’s life and travels to the Harris home with the family. Christy has several issues to deal with, and Kilbourn had thought that Peter was well rid of her. But that doesn’t seem to be the case; in fact, she even says that she and Peter will be getting back together. Then one night during the party, Christy dies in a boating incident. At first the death looks like suicide. But it turns out that this was a case of murder, and that it’s connected with other recent deaths. We don’t learn every detail about Christy Sinclair. We don’t know which bands she likes best or what size shoe she wears. Those details aren’t really key to this mystery. But we do know that her home town is Blue Heron Point, and that matters a great deal. Bowen tells us the things we need to know about this character without ‘overload.’

Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas begins when wealthy heiress and business executive Charity Wiser hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who is trying to kill her. She suspects that it’s one of her family members, but she doesn’t know which one. Quant agrees to take the case and joins the family for a cruise. The idea is that he’ll ‘vet’ the various members of the family and then tell his client who’s guilty. The cruise turns out to be disastrous, with more than one death. In the end though, Quant finds out the truth about what’s been going on. As the novel goes on, we get to know several of the members of the Wiser family. We don’t know every detail about each one; that would be ‘information overload.’ But what does matter is that as Charity’s grand-daughter Flora puts it, the family is not, ‘physically adventurous.’ That’s important because it plays a role in the resentment the family feels towards Charity, who’s spent years putting together family holidays designed not to appeal to them (e.g. white-water rafting, cattle-herding at a dude ranch, and Formula One driving). The members of the family have only gone along with these plans because they’re all desperate for their share of the Wiser fortune. That piece of information about the family, and the fact that Charity takes advantage of it, matter to this plot.

And in the end, that’s arguably the key to what the author decides to share with readers. Some details about characters matter if they’re important to the plot – if they move it along or add to it. Others help make a character distinctive, and that adds to a story too. Sometimes it’s hard to choose which details serve those purposes and which don’t, but when an author gets it right, it makes for memorable characters.

 

Thanks, Moira and Rebecca.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Lamont Dozier and Brian and Eddie Holland, made popular by the Supremes.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Anthony Bidulka, Donna Leon, Gail Bowen

Knowing They’re Happy and They’re Safe*

Octopus' GardenJuly’s a really popular month to take a holiday, whether it’s a summer holiday or a winter break. For many people, holidays mean a stay at a second home or renting a cottage, cabin or small house, perhaps at the seaside or in the mountains. Those peaceful getaways can be relaxing and enjoyable. But don’t be taken in by those brochures and online ‘photos of lovely holiday sites. Before you pack your bags, remember that sometimes, those places aren’t at all the peaceful, relaxing sanctuaries they seem to be. Don’t believe me? Here are some examples from crime fiction that may open your eyes.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours) Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage not far from The Hollow, the country home of Sir George and Lady Lucy Angkatell. When the Angkatells invite him to join them for lunch one Sunday, Poirot is happy to accept; after all the Angkatells are important people.  When he arrives, he’s escorted outdoors to the terrace where he finds what he thinks is a tableau arranged for his ‘amusement.’ One of the Angkatells’ other guests Dr. John Christow has been shot and his killer is standing near him holding the gun. Within seconds Poirot comes to see that this murder is all too real and that things aren’t what they seem at first glance. Inspector Bland is called to the scene and he and Poirot work to find out who killed Christow and why. And Poirot thought a weekend cottage would be restful!

Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon sees Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane finally married and off to honeymoon at Tallboys, the country home that Wimsey has bought for his bride. To their surprise, when they get to Tallboys, they find that the place is closed up and no preparations have been made for their arrival. What’s worse, they discover the body of the house’s former owner William Noakes in the cellar. This certainly isn’t the peaceful, relaxing trip that the couple had planned, but they get involved in investigating Noakes’ death. In the end, they discover who the killer is, but it certainly brings Wimsey no real pleasure at all to send the guilty party off to what he knows will be execution.

In Andrea Camilleri’s August Heat, Inspector Salvo Montalbano has plans to escape the heat of Vigàta, but ends Octopus'Gardenup having to remain ‘on duty.’ His lover Livia Burlando joins him, with the idea that she’ll stay at a rented beach house with some friends and their son. Montalbano will spend as much time with them as he can. It sounds like a good plan, but things don’t work out that way. First, it turns out that the beach house is infested with rats. Then, the body of a young girl is found in the cellar. She is identified as Catarina ‘Rina’ Morreale, who’s been missing for some time. So instead of the relaxing time they’d hoped to have, neither Montalbano nor Livia has a peaceful experience…

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn and her family enjoy getting away as much as anyone else does. But they frequently find that not even the most peaceful holiday cottage is free of crime. In The Last Good Day, for example, she accepts an invitation from a friend Kevin Hynde to spend some time at his summer cottage on Lawyers’ Bay, about an hour from Regina. Laywers’ Bay is an exclusive community, with the cottages owned by a powerful law firm Falconer Shreve, so it’s rare that ‘outsiders’ get invitations. At first the trip goes well. Then one night, one of the firm’s partners Chris Altieri has too much to drink and reveals quite a lot to Kilbourn. The next day he’s found dead when his MGB is discovered in the bay. Since Kilbourn was the last to really interact with the victim, she gets drawn into the investigation. Of course, on the positive side, she also gets drawn into a relationship with the firm’s senior partner Zack Shreve…

Holidays

Jørn Lier Horst’s Closed For Winter takes readers to the Norway’s holiday community in Vestfold. The summer season is over and most of the holiday visitors have gone home. But Ove Bakkerud has a different plan. He’s had a difficult time of it lately, so he decides to spend a quiet weekend at his summer home, although the season’s long over. To his shock, he finds that burglars have ransacked his place. What’s worse, he discovers the body of an unknown man in the cottage next door. Inspector William Wisting and his team investigate, and they find a connection between what’s happened in Vestfold to events in Lithuania. The whole matter is made a little unsettling for Wisting because his journalist daughter Lise lives in a cottage not far from the murder scene. As you can imagine, this doesn’t turn out to be a case of a burglary ending in murder…

And then there’s Pascal Garnier’s Front Seat Passenger, in which plenty of the action takes place at supposedly restful getaway locations.  When his wife Sylvie dies in a car accident, Fabien Delorme learns that she was not alone. In fact, she was with her lover Martial Arnoult, who also died in the accident. After his initial shock at Sylvie’s death and the knowledge that she had a lover, Delorme decides to seek out Arnoult’s widow Martine, with the vague idea that

 

‘That man stole my wife; I’m going to steal his.’

 

He begins to stalk her and actually starts an affair with her during a holiday in Majorca. That’s where he also gets to know Martine’s friend and frequent companion Madeleine. After they return from Majorca, Madeleine invites Delorme to join her and Martine at her country home for a weekend. He agrees, but suffice it to say that things do not go at all according to Delorme’s plan.

See what I mean? Those lovely ‘photos online and in the brochures don’t tell you everything about those holiday homes, do they? So if you are planning a trip to one of those places, do be careful. You never know what can happen. Maybe it’s just better to stay in town.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Octopus’ Garden.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Dorothy Sayers, Gail Bowen, Jørn Lier Horst, Pascal Garnier

We Just Saw It From a Different Point of View*

PerspectivesonCultureWhile I was in Madrid I had several interesting conversations with José Ignacio at The Game’s Afoot. One of them was about the differences between books written by authors who are members of the cultures they write about, and books written by authors who aren’t. One the one hand, someone who’s not a member of a given culture can offer a distinctive perspective on that culture. On the other, a member of a culture has an intimate knowledge of that culture’s subtleties and nuances. So the reader can really get an ‘insider’s view.’

The diversity of crime fiction lets us use both perspectives, and that in turn gives us a better understanding of the places and cultures that are discussed in the genre. Let me just offer a few examples to show you what I mean. I know you’ll have many more to offer.

Ruth Rendell is English. Her novels under her own name and as Barbara Vine reflect her background; she is very much a member of the culture that’s featured in her work. Whether it’s her Inspector Wexford novels or one of her other works, we really get the ‘insider view’ on her culture. The same could be said of course of many other English authors. By contrast, Martha Grimes is American, although most of her Inspector Richard Jury novels take place in England. Like any two authors, these two have different writing styles and that’s clear in their novels. But beyond that, there’s an interesting question of the way they write about England. One has the intimate knowledge of the ‘insider.’ The other has the distinctive perspective of someone from a different culture.

We also see a contrast in crime fiction that takes place in Spain (and this is what José Ignacio and I spoke of in our conversation). In recent decades, there’ve been several Spanish authors who have given readers an ‘insider’s’ look at life in different parts of Spain. Authors such as Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, who wrote the Pepe Carvalho series, and more recently Domingo Villar (the Inspector Leo Caldas series) and Teresa Solana (the Martínez brothers PI series) have portrayed Spanish life from a ‘local’s’ point of view if I may put it that way. There’ve also been many novels set in Spain that weren’t written by Spanish authors. For instance, Roderic Jeffries (the Inspector Enrique Álvarez series) is English. And Jason Webster, author of the Chief Inspector Max Cámara series, is Anglo-American. There are lots of other such examples too. These authors do vary in their writing styles of course. But you could also argue that there is a difference in perspective between novels about Spain written by Spaniards, and novels about Spain that are written by members of other cultures.

Both H.R.F. Keating and Tarquin Hall have written series that take place in India. Keating’s of course features Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay police force. Hall’s sleuth is Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. Neither author was born in India, so you could argue that these series are written from the perspective of people who aren’t members of a given culture. On the other hand, Kishwar Desai is Indian. Her Simran Singh series has an ‘insider’ perspective because she is a member of one of India’s cultures. When it comes to India, one could make the point that because the British were in India for a long time, they became members of one Indian culture – the Anglo-Indian culture. And there are still close ties on many levels between India and the UK. But there is arguably a difference between books about India written by, say, English authors and those written by members of one of India’s original cultures.

The Chinese detective story has a long history, and many Chinese crime fiction stories haven’t been translated into other languages. But there are authors such as A Yi, Qiu Xiaolong and Diane Wei Liang, whose novels have been translated. Through those authors’ perspectives, readers get an ‘insider look’ at life in Beijing, Shanghai and other places in China. There have also of course been crime fiction stories set in China that aren’t written by Chinese authors. For instance, there’s Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee series, which is set in China’s northwest. Shamini Flint’s A Calamitous Chinese Killing takes place mostly in Beijing. So does Catherine Sampson’s The Pool of Unease. And of course plenty of authors have had their protagonists visit China, even if the novel wasn’t set there. Those novels also depict life in China, but many people would say the authors have a different perspective, since they are not native members of any of the Chinese cultures.

Thai author Tew Bunnag has given readers a unique perspective on life in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand. Admittedly he doesn’t exclusively write crime fiction, but through his stories we get an ‘insider’ look at the country. Many other authors, such as John Burdett, Andrew Grant, Timothy Hallinan and Angela Savage, also write about Thailand. Their perspectives are different because they aren’t members of that culture, but that’s just what makes those perspectives valuable. We get a broad look at the country from both points of view, if you will.

And that’s the beauty of the diversity in the genre. There’s room enough for both perspectives. These are just a few examples. Lots of other countries and cultures have been portrayed in crime fiction both by members and by non-members. My guess is that you’d be able to contribute a much longer list than I would.

How do you feel about this issue? Do you see a difference between novels written by members of a culture, and novels that aren’t? Writing style aside, for instance, do you see a difference between the work of Donna Leon and that of Andrea Camilleri, both of whom write about Italy? Do you see a difference between the portrayal of South Africa in the work of Malla Nunn, who is Australian, and its portrayal in the work of Deon Meyer, who is South African?  If you do see such a difference, do you find it off-putting?

And then there’s perhaps a more difficult question. How do you feel about the way your own culture is portrayed in crime fiction? Does it bother you when it’s portrayed by someone who’s not a member (assuming of course that the writer is accurate)?

If you’re a writer, do you write about another culture? If you do, what drew you to it?

 

ps  The ‘photo is of a sculpture by Joan Miró, which now makes its home in Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía,

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue.

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Filed under A Yi, Andrea Camilleri, Andrew Grant, Angela Savage, Barbara Vine, Catherine Sampson, Deon Meyer, Diane Wei Liang, Domingo Villar, Donna Leon, H.R.F. Keating, Jason Webster, John Burdett, Kishwar Desai, Malla Nunn, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Martha Grimes, Qiu Xiaolong, Robert Van Gulik, Roderic Jeffries, Ruth Rendell, Shamini Flint, Tarquin Hall, Teresa Solana, Tew Bunnag, Timothy Hallinan

They Put a Parking Lot On a Piece of Land*

ParkingLotsOne of the major developments of the last century has been the ever-increasing popularity of cars. I don’t have to tell you how the auto has changed our lives. The thing about cars, though, is that you have to have a place to put them while you’re working, shopping, doing personal business, or out enjoying yourself. And that means parking garages and cark parks/parking lots. Such places are very handy for drivers. They’re also, if you think about it, very effective places for a murder or for leaving a body.

Most of the time, we don’t pay much attention to the people and cars around us when we park. We stop the car and lock it and go about our business. So who’s to say how long a particular car is in a particular place? Or whether there’s someone in the car? And people don’t usually pay a lot of attention to individuals coming or going through a parking area. Even with CCTV cameras in a lot of today’s parking garages, it’s sometimes hard to tell who goes where and does what. And in outdoor parking areas it’s even more difficult. Little wonder we see so many crime-fictional incidents of people being murdered and bodies found in such places. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Colin Dexter’s Last Bus to Woodstock, two women are waiting to catch a bus. When it becomes clear that there won’t be another bus any time soon, one of them, Sylvia Kaye, takes the risk of hitchhiking. Later that night her body is found in the parking area outside a pub. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the murder, beginning with the task of identifying the body. Then, they look into her relationships and past history to see who would have wanted to kill her. The other task is to trace her last movements. And as it turns out, those interactions and those last movements are crucial to solving the case.

Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water features an informal but notorious parking area called The Pasture, located near the Sicilian town of Vigàta. It’s a meeting place for prostitutes and their clients and for small-time drug dealers and their customers. Managed by Gegè Gullotta, The police generally leave The Pasture alone; in return, Gullotta more or less keeps order in the place and makes sure that his ‘business enterprises’ don’t cause trouble. Early one morning, the body of up-and-coming politician Silvio Luparello is discovered in a car at The Pasture and Inspector Salvo Montalbano is called to the scene. The official theory is that Luparello died of a heart attack at a very inopportune time and place. But Montalbano suspects that it might have been something more. So he’s given grudging permission to take two days and investigate the case more thoroughly. One of the challenges he faces is that the body was discovered in an easily-accessible parking area, where nobody really noticed who came and went.

Parking places play a role in Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, too. Danny McKillop has recently been released from prison after serving time for a drink driving incident in which citizen activist Anne Jeppeson was killed. One night he leaves a message for Jack Irish, the attorney who defended him. Irish doesn’t pick up the message until later and even then, doesn’t take it seriously at first. Then McKillop leaves more urgent messages and this time, Irish pays attention. By the time he takes heed though, it’s too late: McKillop’s been shot in a hotel carpark. Irish feels a real sense of responsibility here. In the first place, he believes that he should have paid closer attention to the messages McKillop left him. And more than that, Irish knows he did a miserable job of defending McKillop in the drink driving case. At the time, Irish was in the depths of mourning the loss of his wife Isabel, who was shot in a parking garage by a deranged client. So at the time of McKillop’s case, Irish was spending far too much time drinking and far too little time working on behalf of his client. Now he decides to make as much right as possible and find out who shot McKillop and why. 

Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s The Silence of the Rain begins with a murder in a parking garage. Rio de Janeiro business executive Ricardo de Carvalho is found shot in the parking garage he uses. His body is left in his car and his wallet, briefcase and money have been taken. At first it looks as though someone was waiting for him in or near his car, with the idea of robbing him. And that’s not impossible given that the parking garage is dark, with lots of places to hide. Inspector Espinosa begins the routine work of tracking down the killer and it’s not long before he comes to suspect that this might not be a ‘typical’ robbery/murder. In the end, he finds out that he’s quite correct.

In Philip Margolin’s  Executive Privilege, Washington-area cop-turned-PI Dana Cutler gets a new client and a new assignment. Attorney Dale Perry wants Cutler to shadow Charlotte Walsh and report where she goes, whom she sees and what she does. Cutler agrees and prepares for her surveillance. One night, Walsh drives to a mall and leaves her car in its parking lot. She’s picked up by the driver of another car and taken to a secluded house in a remote area. Cutler follows and discovers to her shock that Walsh has come to the house to meet U.S. President Christopher Farrington. She starts taking ‘photos, but is discovered and barely gets away. The next morning, Cutler learns that Walsh was murdered after she got back to her car. What’s more, some very powerful and nasty people know that she has photographic evidence of the victim’s meeting with the president, and those people are after her. What started out as a straightforward surveillance case draws Cutler into a very dangerous and high-level conspiracy.

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s The Nesting Dolls. Academic and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her attorney husband Zack attend a concert at their daughter Taylor’s high school. As they’re leaving the performance, a woman approaches Taylor’s friend Isobel and gives her a baby. A note with the baby makes it clear that the woman, whose name is Abby Michaels, wants to give up the child and wants Isobel’s mother Delia to have full custody of him. It’s a complicated situation and a search is made for Abby, but she seems to have disappeared. Later, her body is found in her car in a parking lot behind a jeweler’s/pawn shop. The key to the murder lies, as it often does, in the past and in the network of relationships in the victim’s life.

See what I mean? A good parking spot may seem like a godsend, but do look around carefully as you get in and out of your car. You never know what can happen. I’ve given a few examples. Now it’s your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ Come Dancing.

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Filed under Andrea Camilleri, Colin Dexter, Gail Bowen, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Peter Temple, Philip Margolin

Dressing Up in Costumes, Playing Silly Games*

Childhood GamesDid you play games when you were a child? Perhaps you rode your bicycle, or played card games or board games, or perhaps Hide-and-Seek or Treasure Hunt. Children’s games are a big part of young people’s learning. They inspire creativity and they can be good exercise. They can be a lot of fun, too. They can also play important roles in crime fiction novels. Let me just give you a few examples to show you what I mean.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories make use of children’s games. One of them is Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts). Hercule Poirot has been invited to a cocktail party at the home of famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. Not long after the party gets underway, one of the guests Reverend Stephen Babbington suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. There doesn’t seem to be any motive for the murder but at the same time, there seems no reason Babbington should have taken his own life. The investigation into that death is ongoing when there’s another death. This time, medical specialist Sir Bartholomew Strange is killed, again by poison, at his Yorkshire home. Then there’s another death. Poirot gets an important clue about this case from a child’s card game Happy Families and a comment made about it by one of the witnesses to both Babbington’s and Strange’s deaths. I know, I know, fans of Christie’s Hallowe’en Party

D.H. Lawrence’s short story The Rocking-Horse Winner is admittedly more psychological suspense than crime fiction. In that story, we are introduced to a family that manages to keep up decent social appearances. Yet,

 

‘There was never enough money. The mother had a small income, and the father had a small income, but not nearly enough for the social position which they had to keep up.’

 

The children are aware of the situation and one of them, Paul, decides to find a clue to what the family can do about getting more money. He finds the answer by riding his rocking-horse. He tells his family that he’s ridden his rocking-horse to the place he wanted to go, where he’d find the secret to money. Everyone thinks that’s a little strange. There are also a few raised eyebrows about Paul’s interest in riding a rocking-horse when he’s a little too old for that. Paul persists though, and he begins to come up with names of winning horses in real-life races. In fact, his rocking-horse rides start to produce an unexpected amount of money for the family. But they lead to tragedy, too…

In Arthur Upfield’s Death of a Swagman, Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte goes undercover as a stockman in the town of Merino, in rural New South Wales. He’s in the area to investigate the murder of another stockman George Kendall. In order not to alert the murderer, Bony arranges to have himself arrested for vagrancy. He’s given ten days’ jail time and the job of painting the police station. In that guise, he starts to ask questions and look around. Then there’s another death that at first looks like a suicide. Bony, though, is sure that it’s murder. As he investigates, Bony finds that the two deaths are, as you might suspect, related. One of the clues that lead him to the killer is a set of innocent-looking games of Noughts and Crosses (Tic-Tac-Toe), just like the games you might have played as a child.

Or perhaps you preferred to ride your bicycle instead of playing at cards or games. A yellow bicycle proves to be an important clue in Karin Fossum’s Black Seconds. In that novel, nine-year-old Ida Joner decides to ride her brand-new yellow bicycle to Laila’s Kiosk for a magazine and some sweets. The trip is only expected to take a short while, so when Ida doesn’t come back, her mother Helga starts to be anxious. She becomes frightened when she calls the shop a few hours later only to find that Ida never made it there. Now faced with every parent’s worst nightmare, Helga begins a more thorough search for her daughter. She calls everyone, including her sister Ruth, to find out if anyone’s seen Ida. No-one has. Finally, the police are called and Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre begin a professional search. If Ida was abducted, one possible suspect is Emil Johannes, an odd sort of man who never speaks to anyone. He won’t say whether he’s seen the girl or not, but he’s the classic ‘weird guy’ everyone suspects when this sort of thing happens. Sejer is interested in anything Johannes can tell him, but it turns out that this case isn’t nearly as simple as it seems on the surface. One interesting clue turns out to be Ida’s bicycle.

Gail Bowen’s The Nesting Dolls sees political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her family involved in a very difficult custody case. Shortly before Christmas, Kilbourn and her husband Zack are attending a holiday concert performance at their daughter Taylor’s high school. They’re leaving the event when an unknown young woman approaches Taylor’s friend Isobel and gives her a baby. Not many hours later, the woman is found raped and murdered, her body left in her car. The question of the baby’s identity becomes very important, since someone will need to take custody of him. So one plot thread concerns identifying the dead woman and the baby. Another of course is the question of who killed the victim and why. An important clue to both mysteries is found in a set of Russian nesting dolls that take on a particular meaning for one character in the story.

And then there’s Andrea Camilleri’s Treasure Hunt. Vigàta Police Inspector Salvo Montalbano makes the news during a very strange case that involves him climbing up a building. The case is bizarre enough, but what is even stranger is what follows it. Soon afterwards, Montalbano receives a cryptic note that contains a very bad poem and an invitation to take part in a game of Treasure Hunt. It’s an odd note but seems harmless enough. It doesn’t turn out to be that way though. Instead of a childish game of Treasure Hunt, this is a dangerous battle of wits between Montalbano and a very unusual killer.

Childhood games can be a lot of fun, and can teach children all sorts of thinking and strategy skills. They can be good exercise too, and most people would say they’re better than being addicted to television or video games. But as crime fiction shows us, they can take on a whole new meaning…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Peter Gabriel’s Games Without Frontiers.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Arthur Upfield, D.H. Lawrence, Gail Bowen, Karin Fossum