Category Archives: Anthony Berkeley

A Box of Chocolates and a Dozen Flowers*

Valentine's Day 2014 It’s St. Valentine’s Day as I write this post. Now, traditionally, Valentine’s Day is supposed to be a day of grand romantic gestures such as flowers, candy and so on, and that’s all fine. But are you aware of how dangerous those things can be? Before you go rushing out to buy that special box of luxury chocolates or that bouquet of expensive roses, have a quick look at some crime fiction and you’ll see what I mean.




Flowers are beautiful of course, and if you watch advertisements, you’ll be convinced that nothing says ‘love’ like roses. But consider how dangerous flowers can be. In Agatha Christie’s story The Blue Geranium, a group of people including Miss Marple go to dinner at the home of Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly. During the meal, Bantry tells the story of George Pritchard, whose wife suddenly died of what seems to have been shock and fear. That’s not surprising, since she wasn’t in good physical or mental health. In fact, she began to believe that she could only be helped by psychics and seers. That’s how she fell under the influence of Zarida, Psychic Reader of the Future. Zarida specifically told Mrs. Pritchard to beware of, among other things, blue geraniums, blue primroses and blue hollyhocks. Then, mysteriously, the flowers on the wallpaper in Mrs. Pritchard’s bedroom began to turn blue. That’s when she suddenly died. Some people believed that Zarida actually predicted the future. Others blamed Pritchard for killing his wife. But Miss Marple has quite a different explanation.

In Rex Stout’s novella Door to Death, Nero Wolfe takes the drastic step of leaving his brownstone when his usual orchid expert Theodore Horstmann takes a leave of absence. Wolfe has heard of another expert Andrew Krasicki, who works for the Pitccairn family. He wrote to Krasicki asking him to fill in for Horstmann but got no response. Not willing to risk his beloved orchids, Wolfe takes Archie Goodwin with him and they make a personal visit to Krasicki. While they’re there, the body of Krasicki’s fiancée Dini Lauer is discovered behind a canvas in the Pitcairns’ greenhouse. Krasicki’s the most likely suspect since he admits that Dini visited him at the greenhouse the evening before. But he swears he’s innocent. If Wolfe is to bring Krasicki back with him to tend his orchids, he’s going to have to find out who really killed the victim. For Wolfe, that’s quite a motivation. See what trouble flowers can bring you?




It’s also traditional to give a box of candy on Valentine’s Day. Now, far be it from me to discourage you from supporting the chocolate industry. Really. I mean it. But chocolate can be very dangerous stuff.

Just ask Margaret de Rushbridger, who plays a role in Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts). She is a patient at a Yorkshire sanitarium run by eminent specialist Dr. Bartholomew Strange. One night, Strange suddenly dies of what turns out to be nicotine poisoning while he’s hosting a dinner party. Not long afterwards, Margaret de Rushbridger suddenly dies too, this time from chocolates poisoned by nicotine. As you might suspect, there is a connection, but not the one you may think. Hercule Poirot is already investigating Strange’s death and an earlier one that may be related. And in the end he links those deaths to that of Margaret de Rushbridger. See? If she’d just left the chocolates alone, she might have been fine.

And then there’s Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case. Berkeley’s sleuth Roger Sheringham runs the Crimes Circle, a discussion club for those interested in crimes and their solutions. When DCI Moresby is invited to address the clue, he presents them with a fascinating case. Well-known chocolate company Mason & Sons has come out with a new variety of chocolates. As a way of garnering interest (and of course, sales), they’ve sent boxes of chocolates out to some select influential people. One of them is Sir Eustace Pennefeather Pennefeather doesn’t eat chocolate, so he passes the candy on to a fellow member of his club Graham Bendix. Bendix in turn takes the chocolate home to share with his wife Joan. Shortly thereafter, both Bendixes are sickened. Graham recovers but Joan does not. Analysis shows that the chocolates were poisoned. Moresby lays the case before the Crimes Circle and in turn, each member presents a theory of who killed Joan Bendix and why. The answer isn’t what you’d think, but it does go to show that chocolate is risky.




Very well, then, what about a bottle of fine wine? What a lovely romantic touch, right? Not so fast. Do you know how many fictional characters have been poisoned by wine?

In Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the murder of Nicholas Quinn, the newest member of Oxford’s Foreign Examinations Syndicate. That’s a high-status position, as the Syndicate oversees all exams given in non-UK countries with a UK education tradition. One afternoon, Quinn is murdered with poisoned sherry and Morse and Lewis are soon on the case. It turns out that there are several suspects too. For one thing, Quinn was not a unanimous choice for the Syndicate, so the members who didn’t want him there are under suspicion. Then too, it turns out that some Syndicate members are keeping secrets that Quinn could easily have found out. In the end, Morse and Lewis track down the culprit, but it all might have been avoided if Quinn hadn’t had that sherry. I’m just saying…

And then there’s Arlette Montrose Banfield, who features in Emily Brightwell’s Victorian-Era historical novel  Mrs. Jeffries Forges Ahead. Arlette and her husband Lewis are welcoming guests to the Banfield family’s annual Ball. Everyone takes seats and soon the wine begins to flow. Suddenly Arlette dies of what turns out to be poisoned champagne. Inspector Gerald Witherspoon takes the case and he gets to work right away since the Banfield family are ‘people who matter.’ It took timing and daring, but someone managed to poison the victim in the full view of lots of witnesses. Witherspoon’s ever-efficient and capable housekeeper Mrs. Jeffries alerts her staff, and each in a different way, they help solve the case.

See what I mean? Those grand gestures can be deadly. Besides, they can be expensive. And anyway, there are lots of other great ways to show you care. Just ask Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman. She knows her lover Daniel Cohen truly cares about her. He brings her coffee in the morning. Bliss. And then there’s Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache. There’s no doubt his wife Reine-Marie loves him, and one of the ways she shows it is by helping him sort through his files and keep them organised. Now that’s an act of love. And of course there’s my personal choice for truly Great. Romantic. Gesture. Read Angela Savage’s The Half Child. Well, read it anyway, but there’s a great scene in it. Trust me.  You’re welcome. Always happy to help with romantic advice. ;-)




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Bird and The Bee’s My Fair Lady.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Anthony Berkeley, Colin Dexter, Emily Brightwell, Kerry Greenwood, Louise Penny, Rex Stout

I Want Candy*

ChocolateA lot of people have made a New Year’s resolution to eat healthier food and perhaps get a little more fit. We need to make those resolutions at times because let’s face it: the not-so-good-for-us food is very tempting. Take chocolate for instance. We all know that too much chocolate isn’t good for us. That doesn’t stop us though from eating it. There are dedicated lovers of chocolate everywhere. There are blogs, recipe books, restaurants and television shows devoted to the topic.  But crime fiction fans know that chocolate, like anything else, can be quite dangerous. Just a quick glance at the genre should show you what I mean.

There’s a prime example of the dangers of chocolate in Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case. Newspaper columnist and amateur sleuth Roger Sheringham runs the Crimes Circle, a discussion group for those interested in crimes and their solutions. When DCI Moresby is invited to address the club, he shares a most interesting case with them. Mason & Sons, a chocolate manufacturer, has just developed a new variety of chocolates. A box of the new chocolates is sent to Sir Eustace Pennefather as a way to spark some word-of-mouth (yes, pun intended ;-) ) advertising. Pennefather doesn’t like chocolate so he passes the box on to a fellow member of his social club Graham Bendix. Bendix shares some of the chocolate with his wife Joan and both become very ill. Although her husband survives, Joan Bendix dies of what turns out to be poison. The police haven’t been able to get any solid leads on the case. In fact, their only theory is that the Bendixes were poisoned by mistake, and the intended victim was Sir Eustace. Moresby lays the case before the Crimes Circle and each member offers a theory of the crime. Of course, Berkeley being Berkeley, things aren’t what they seem at first…

Agatha Christie fans will know that several of her stories and novels include characters who meet untimely ends because of chocolate. For example, in Three-Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), we meet Sir Bartholomew Strange, a noted specialist in nervous disorders. Strange has taken on a new patient Margaret de Rushbridger, who has come from the West Indies. One day she receives as a gift a box of chocolates. When she suddenly dies after eating some of the chocolate, it’s shown that she was poisoned by pure nicotine. Her murder is especially telling in that it comes shortly after the murder of Strange himself. Hercule Poirot is investigating that death as it is, and he’s able to link Margaret de Rushbridger’s murder with Strange’s and with one other death. I know, I know, fans of Peril at End House and, of course, The Chocolate Box (‘though perhaps M. Poirot would prefer we all forget about that one…).

In Rex Stout’s Gambit, Nero Wolfe gets a visit from Sally Blount. Her father Matthew Blount has been arrested for the poisoning murder of Paul Jerin. Jerin did magic stunts and other party tricks, and was also quite skilled at chess. According to Sally, her father and Jerin had played chess a few times and the idea came up for a sort of competition at Blount’s chess club, the Gambit Club. The idea was that Jerin would be in one room, blindfolded. Club members would be in other rooms. Jerin would play twelve games simultaneously against the various members, with each move communicated by messenger. The details were worked out and the evening began. During the course of the competition, Jerin was brought a cup of hot chocolate, which was very likely poisoned. Shortly after drinking it, he became very ill, was rushed to hospital and later died. Since Blount brought the chocolate, and since the two men knew each other, he’s the natural suspect. But Sally is convinced her father is innocent. And the more Wolfe and Archie Goodwin look into this case, the less clear-cut it becomes.

And then there’s Ruth Dudley Edwards’ second Robert Amiss mystery, The St. Valentines Day Murders. Whitehall bureaucrat Amiss is seconded for a year to the British Conservation Corporation. The job turns out to be a grim position in a bureaucratic backwater, and Amiss is understandably miserable. He soon notices that he’s hardly the only one. There’s a general air of pettiness, spite and malice, and it’s not improved by his arrival. In fact, he’s resented by several of his colleagues at first. Matters get worse when someone starts playing unpleasant practical ‘jokes.’ Still, Amiss does his best and even begins to get on with some of his colleagues. Then tragedy strikes. Boxes of chocolates are sent to several of the bureaucrats’ wives for St. Valentine’s Day. When some of the recipients die, Superintendent Milton of the Met investigates. It turns out that the chocolates were poisoned, and Milton looks to Amiss for help in finding out who killed the victims and why.

There are even crime fiction series with a chocolate theme. There’s Sally Berneathy’s Death by Chocolate series, for instance. Those novels feature Lindsay Powell, who owns Death by Chocolate, which is a sandwich-and-treat shop. And there’s Joanna Carl’s Chocoholic Mysteries, featuring Lee McKinney, business manager for TenHuis Chocolate.

Yes, there’s enough chocolate out there in crime-fiction land to satisfy any chocolate lover. Shame it can be so very dangerous. Maybe it’s just as well to keep that resolution and eat more healthfully.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just have a nibble…

Want more about chocolate? Sure ya do! Visit Janet Rudolph’s Dying For Chocolate. Yum!




*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The Strangeloves.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Joanna Carl, Rex Stout, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Sally Berneathy

Come on and Join Us in the Club*

ClubsDo you belong to a hobby or interest club, like a book club, a gardening club or perhaps a film club? With the ease of access to the Internet, our social life is going increasingly online, but there are still an awful lot of local face-to-face clubs. And any time you get a group of people together, even people with a common interest, you get disparate personalities. What’s more, each club member has a personal life with all sorts of ‘baggage,’ so it’s no wonder at all that we see a lot of clubs in crime fiction.

There’s a crime club in Agatha Christie’s collection The Thirteen Problems (AKA The Tuesday Club Murders). That set of stories is bound together by the overarching theme of a regular gathering to discuss crime. Here’s how Joyce Lemprière, one of the members, describes the club:


‘How would it be if we formed a Club? What is today? Tuesday? We will call it the Tuesday Night Club. It is to meet every week, and each member in turn is to propound a problem. Some mystery of which they have personal knowledge, and to which, of course, they know the answer.’


The group agrees to form in that way, and the stories are based in part on that group’s meetings and on the mysteries each member shares.

There’s a different sort of angle on the ‘crime club’ theme in Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case. Mason & Sons, a chocolate manufacturer, has developed a new variety of chocolates. A box of these is sent to Sir Eustace Pennefather, presumably as a gift to induce him try them and then buy the chocolates. But Pennefather is a chocolate hater, so he passes the candy on to a fellow member of his social club Graham Bendix. Bendix shares some of the chocolate with his wife Joan and both are soon taken very ill. Graham survives but his wife dies of what turns out to be poison. The police can’t get any leads or really plausible suspects, so the case hasn’t been solved. The only theory they have developed is that Joan Bendix was poisoned accidentally because the intended victim was Pennefather. That’s logical too as Pennefather had made a lot of enemies. DCI Moresby, who investigated the case, is invited as guest speaker to the Crimes Circle. That’s a discussion group for those interested in crime, run by sometime newspaper columnist and amateur sleuth Roger Sheringham. Once Moresby outlines the known facts of the case, each member of the Crimes Circle offers a theory as to who committed the crime and why. And in true ‘Golden Age’ style, Berkeley saves the truth for the end of the novel…

The Manhattan Flower Club is featured in Rex Stout’s novella Disguise for Murder (AKA The Affair of the Twisted Scarf). Nero Wolfe has been persuaded to invite the members of the club to his brownstone to see his prize orchids. Archie Goodwin is posted in the orchid room to mingle with the guests and ensure that the orchids themselves remain unharmed. It’s not Goodwin’s sort of afternoon, so at one point he sneaks out of the party to relax in his office. That’s when he gets a visit from one of the guests. She calls herself Cynthia Brown and tells Goodwin that she needs Wolfe’s help. Her story is that she recognised another guest who has committed a murder and who knows that she knows about it. She wants Wolfe to bring the murderer to justice, but to leave her out of it. Goodwin is finally persuaded to get Wolfe, but by the time they return to Goodwin’s office, the young woman’s been murdered. Now Wolfe and Goodwin have to find out which of the other guests is the killer.

There’s more horticultural mayhem in M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin and the Potted Gardener. In that novel, PI Agatha Raisin returns to her home in Carsely after a prolonged holiday only to find out that there’s a new resident Mary Fortune. The newcomer is an avid gardener and a member of the local horticultural society. She’s also got the attention of Raisin’s next-door-neighbour James Lacey, whom Raisin herself fancies. So Raisin decides to join the horticultural society although gardening is most definitely not her forte. Still, she resolves to try to do something for the upcoming Garden Open Day, when the villagers are invited to visit each other’s gardens. Raisin finds other things to occupy her on that day though, because Mary Fortune is found hung upside-down and buried head first in a gardening pot. It turns out that there are several suspects, as the victim had her share of enemies. In the end, Raisin finds that village life can breed a lot of resentment…

You wouldn’t think that book clubs would be dangerous, but they can be. In Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Progressive Dinner Deadly, retired teacher Myrtle Clover decides to try to get the local book club to read books other than ‘blockbuster’ best-sellers. Unfortunately her suggestion gets misunderstood and taken out of context so that before she knows it, the idea has morphed into a progressive dinner club. The idea of a progressive dinner is that the club members will visit each other’s homes on a given night, with each host providing one part of a meal. So the members will visit one host’s home for soup, one for the main course, another for dessert, and so on. Myrtle is not exactly a gifted cook and has no interest in a progressive dinner club. But she grumpily goes along with the plan. On the night of the club’s first dinner, the group makes a stop at the home of member Jill Caulfield. To everyone’s shock she’s been murdered by a blow to the head from a heavy pan. Her husband Cullen is the most likely suspect, but Myrtle soon finds that he’s far from the only one. Craig also writes the Southern Quilting series which features the Village Quilters, another club in which disparate personalities and histories can lead to murder.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, Jodie Evans Garrow becomes a social outcast when questions are raised about her past. She and her husband Angus were considered practically model citizens of the small town of Arding, New South Wales. In fact Angus was even being spoken of as a good candidate for the upcoming mayoral election. But then a secret from Jodie’s past comes to light. Her daughter Hannah is in an accident and is taken to the same Sydney hospital where years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and when she asks about the baby, Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption. But there turn out to be no records of that adoption and no evidence that the baby grew up. Very soon people begin to believe that Jodie might have had something to do with the baby’s disappearance and she’s ostricised. Then one day Amber, an acquaintance from the gym, invites Jodie to join her book club. Jodie’s so pleased that there’s at least one group that hasn’t shut her out that she agrees to come to the club’s meeting. That’s when she learns that she was actually invited almost as a curiosity because the group is reading a book about the Lindy Chamberlain case, another case of a mother whose baby disappeared and who has been accused of being responsible. Angry and humiliated, Jodie leaves the meeting. What she doesn’t know at the time is that one member of that book club is a friend from long ago – a friend who turns out to be Jodie’s psychological salvation.

A ladies’ bowling club is the focus of Ellen Mary Wilton’s Hysteria at the Wisteria. The Wisteria Ladies’ Bowling Club of Sydney is getting ready to play one morning when they find the body of a dead man on the green. It turns out that he has more than one connection to the club; he is the son of a former member and it seems that he was on his way to meet a current member when he was killed. The club’s vice-president Lucy Law decides to investigate the murder. I have to confess I’ve not (yet) read this one, but it was just too good an example of a club not to mention it. Want to know more? Check out this excellent review at Fair Dinkum Crime, which is the place for information and reviews relating to Australian crime fiction. It’s well worth a prominent place on any crime fiction fan’s blog roll.

Clubs like book clubs, dinner clubs and so on unite members with common interests, and they can be an important source of support. They can also be a source of tension, the clash of disparate personalities and worse. No wonder they’re great contexts for murder mysteries…


On Another Note…


Speaking of clubs, author and fellow blogger Rebecca Bradley has organised a terrific online book club, which will meet once a month. Want the details? Check them out right here. And while you’re at it, her blog is a great source of inspiration for writers, as well as a fine source for interesting book reviews.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joe Walsh’s Welcome to the Club.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Ellen Mary Wilton, Elzabeth Spann Craig, M.C. Beaton, Rex Stout, Wendy James

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Falls

FallingThe Crime Fiction Alphabet meme has gotten through the first five stops on our treacherous tour and now we’re heading to our sixth destination, the historic F Falls. Our tour guide Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise has been doing a fantastic job keeping us all together and safe; thanks, Kerrie. It’s rather opportune that we’re visiting the Falls today actually because, well, that’s my contribution for this stop: falls.

Falls from heights (buildings, cliffs, etc.) can be very dangerous. In fact they’re often fatal. In a mystery novel they’re extremely useful though. A fall can look like an accident or a suicide, so it’s relatively easy to ‘cover up’ the fact of murder. And given the right circumstances, nearly anyone can arrange for someone to have a tragic fall. A good hard push in the right place is all it takes. So it’s really no wonder we see this plot point so often in crime fiction.

One of the most famous falls in crime fiction occurs in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Final Problem. Sherlock Holmes is about to get hold of the evidence he needs to put his nemesis Professor Moriarty and Moriarty’s criminal gang into jail for a long time. But Moriarty finds out and Holmes and Watson are forced to flee England. They end up in Switzerland where Morarity manages to track Holmes to the Reichenbach Falls. In a dramatic scene, the two enemies grapple and both go over the falls. Of course, as Holmes fans know, that’s hardly the end of the great detective’s story…

There’s a tragic fall in Agatha Christie’s short story The Edge. Clare Halliwell is one of the ‘pillars of the community’ of Daymer’s End. She’s a parish worker with a reputation for being a ‘very good sort.’ Clare and Gerald Lee have been friends for a long time, and in fact, Clare thinks their relationship is more than friendly. But then Gerald shocks her by marrying Viven Harper. Viven isn’t much liked in the village but at first Clare tries to get along with her. It’s not a successful attempt though and as time goes by, Clare dislikes Vivien more and more. Then she accidentally discovers that Vivien has been having an affair. Now Clare is faced with a decision: should she tell Gerald what she knows? Vivien begs her not to, and Clare soon finds that she rather enjoys having Vivien in her power so to speak. The tension between the two women mounts, and it results in a tragic fall from a cliff. An interesting question this story raises is: what really caused the fall?

In Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery (AKA The Mystery at Lover’s Cave), writer and newspaper correspondent Roger Sheringham is preparing for a holiday with his cousin Anthony Walton when business changes his plans. Sheringham’s employer The Daily Courier wants him to go to Ludmouth Bay in Hampshire to report on the investigation into the death of Elise Vane, whose body has been found at the bottom of a cliff. There are now clues that her death was neither an accident nor suicide, so Sheringham is assigned to follow the story. That’s how he meets Inspector Moresby, who’s staying at the same inn and who is in charge of the investigation. Bit by bit, and each in a different way, the two men get to know the various people in the victim’s life, and they find that more than one of those people may have had a good motive for murder. Elise Vane was an unpleasant person with a large fortune to leave. In the end, Sheringham and Moresby find out who wanted the victim dead badly enough to actually murder her.

Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow) begins with the funeral of Isaiah Christiansen, a ten-year-old Greenlander who fell from the roof of the Copenhagen apartment building where he lived. His death has been ruled an accident and most people are quite satisfied with that. But Smilla Jaspersen, who also lives in the building and has befriended Isaiah, is not. As a half-Inuit who grew up in Greenland, she has a strong sense of snow, and she can see by the snow on the roof that someone else was involved in Isaiah’s death. So she begins to ask questions. The trail leads to an expedition that Isaiah made to Greenland with his father and the events that happened there, so Jaspersen travels to Greenland to search for answers. That’s where she finds the connection between a little-known piece of scientific research, the glaciers of Greenland, and the boy’s death.

In Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss, wealthy and powerful Swedish financier Richard von Knecht dies after a fall from the balcony of his posh penthouse. Göteborg police inspector Irene Huss and her team are called to the scene for what is supposed to be a ‘rubber stamp’ determination that von Knecht committed suicide. However there are two problems with this theory. First, as the team learns, von Knecht was not the kind of person who would have done such a drastic thing. And there had been no signs that he was unhappy enough to take his own life – and certainly not in this manner, as he was very much afraid of heights. What’s more, the forensic evidence suggests that someone else might have been present on the balcony and could have pushed von Knecht over the edge of it. As the team gets to know von Knecht’s widow, son, daughter-in-law and friends/business associates, we learn that there are several people who might very well have wanted von Knecht dead.

Maryanne Delbeck learns how dangerous falling from heights can be in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. She came to Thailand from Australia to volunteer at the New Life Children’s Centre in Pattaya. One night she is pushed, or jumps, or falls to her death from the roof of the hotel where she’s living.  The official police report is that Maryanne committed suicide but her father Jim doesn’t believe it. So he hires Bangkok PI Jayne Keeney to find out the truth about his daughter’s death. Keeney travels to Pattaya and goes undercover at the children’s centre to find out everything she can about Maryanne’s life and work. She discovers that the centre has its own secrets and that Maryanne may have known about them. What’s more, she learns that Maryanne’s life was more complicated than it seems on the surface. In the end Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel find out what really happened to Maryanne Delbeck.


See what I mean? Falls from high places aren’t always very easy to prove as murder, even if they are. And sometimes what looks like murder ends up having been an accident. Or suicide. No wonder there are so many of these unfortunate run-ins with high places in crime fiction. Now, what do you say we take a nice walk to the top of that lovely cliff to see the falls? It’s a beautiful view… ;-)


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Anthony Berkeley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Helene Tursten, Peter Høeg

Baby Lead Me On*

ManipulationI’m going to let you in on a little secret. OK, perhaps it’s not such a secret after all. Crime writers are out to manipulate readers. It’s true. Oh, I don’t mean in the negative sense of exploiting readers; that isn’t ‘playing fair’ (I’ll get back to that point in a bit). But crime writers do want readers to ‘buy into’ a story. That sort of manipulation is an important skill too. If it’s a ‘whodunit’ the author has to distract the reader from the real killer. If it’s a ‘whydunit’ the author has to get the reader to believe someone would kill for a given motive. If it’s a psychological thriller the author has to make the reader question just about everyone’s motives and trustworthiness. And all of that requires some manipulation.

Most crime fiction fans don’t mind that. If the story is well-written and there’s payoff if I can put it that way, readers are willing to let the author work some magic. When there is no payoff, or when the manipulation seems unfair or contrived, then readers tend to get cross. I know I do. The line between the manipulation that authors need to do to tell a good story and unfair manipulation is a fuzzy one. That’s not helped by the fact that every reader has a different line. But when that manipulation is both deft and fair, it can be an effective tool to draw readers into a story.

One of my favourite examples of that kind of deft manipulation is in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In that novel, Hercule Poirot has retired to the small village of King’s Abbot (or so he thinks). He’s soon drawn back into active investigation when wealthy retired manufacturing magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed. Ackroyd’s niece Flora is very much afraid her fiancé Captain Ralph Paton will be arrested for the crime since he is the most likely suspect. So she begs Poirot to find out the truth about the crime and clear Paton’s name. Christie manipulated readers’ assumptions about what clues mean and how the story is ‘supposed to’ progress so that the dénouement took readers utterly by surprise when the story was first published. In fact Christie took a lot of criticism for that. But careful readers will note that she ‘plays fair’ throughout the story. It’s a really powerful example of how manipulation can be handled brilliantly.

Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery is another case where the author manipulates unwary readers straight towards the wrong solution. Roger Sheringham is a correspondent for the Daily Courier. His plans for a holiday are upended when his employer sends him to Ludmouth Bay in Hampshire. Elise Vane was killed in a fall over a cliff and there are hints that the death may be murder. Sheringham’s assignment is to follow the case and submit articles on it. When he arrives in Hampshire Sheringham begins by talking to the various people in the victim’s life. As it turns out, Elise Vane was an unpleasant person and very few people are upset at her death. Sheringham also connects with Inspector Moresby, who’s in charge of the investigation. Sheringham and Moresby don’t team up but they do share information and in the end we learn the truth about who killed Elise Vane and why. Throughout this novel, Berkeley manipulates readers by calling attention to all of the little pieces of evidence that point to one or another suspect and disguising the real evidence.

Some authors manipulate readers by making it unclear exactly whom one can trust. There’s a brilliant example of that in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red.  Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne has reached a plateau in her career. She’s well-regarded and has a popular television show, but she’s keenly aware that there are ‘hungry’ younger journalists coming up behind her. What Thorne needs is the story that will establish her at the top of national broadcasts. She thinks she finds that story in the case of Connor Bligh. Bligh is in prison for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. Only their daughter Katy survived because she wasn’t at home at the time of the murders. Everyone assumes that Bligh is guilty. But then little hints surface that suggest he may be innocent. If he is, then he’s been wrongly imprisoned and that will be a sensational story. Thorne begins to look into the case and talk to the various people involved. She also interviews Bligh himself and encourages him to tell her his side of the story. There is certainly evidence of Bligh’s guilt, but Thorne also finds evidence that someone else is responsible. Is Bligh guilty? Is he manipulating Thorne? Are the people who want him in prison manipulating the system? Those questions of whom to trust keep the reader (well, this one anyway) deeply involved in the story.

T.J. Cooke does a similar kind of manipulation in his Kiss and Tell. London lawyer Jill Shadow is a single mother who’s worked hard to put a life together for herself and her daughter Hannah. All’s going well enough until she agrees to take the case of Bella Kiss, who’s been arrested for drugs smuggling. Bella admits she brought illegal drugs into the country, but she won’t tell who paid or coerced her to do so. She’s obviously covering up for someone and afraid of what will happen if she doesn’t. Because she isn’t very helpful in her own case, Shadow drops her as a client, but then changes her mind when she sees just how vulnerable Bella is. Bit by bit, Shadow uncovers a network that involves some very powerful and ruthless people. Then there’s a murder. That murder is connected to an earlier death and to Shadow’s client. Now, some very dangerous people are determined that Shadow won’t take her investigation any further. As the novel goes on, Cooke makes it clear that some people are not what they seem. That strategy is a very effective way to manipulate the reader into one kind of solution to the case when Cooke really has something else in mind.

Another way crime writers manipulate readers is with the use of secrets that characters keep. Readers want to know those secrets; they want to find out the truth. Slowly revealing those secrets not only adds to the tension in a novel, but also can lead the reader to care about characters. Readers often get invested in characters when they know their secrets.  Barbara Vine’s (AKA Ruth Rendell) A Dark-Adapted Eye for instance is the story of long-held secrets in the Longley family. Years ago, Vera Longley Hilliard was executed for murder. The family has done all it could to erase that part of the past and live a very respectable, middle-class life. Then journalist Daniel Stewart gets interested in the Hilliard case and wants to know more about the case and the family. So he asks Vera Hilliard’s niece Faith Longley Severn to help him put the pieces of the puzzle together. As the two interact, Severn has to come face to face with her family’s past – and with several secrets. It’s one of those secrets that actually inspired this post. We don’t know the truth about one member of the Longley family until the end of the book and that secret keeps readers invested all the way through.

Most crime fiction fans know they’re being manipulated as they read. That’s part of the game. And if that manipulation means a terrific surprise ending, interesting revelations about characters or a good match of wits between author and reader, that can add to a novel. And crime fiction fans like that. When it’s done unfairly though, so that readers don’t get important information they need, or if there’s no payoff for that manipulation, then readers get pulled out of the story.

What about you? If you’re a reader, do you mind having your thinking manipulated? What’s your line between ‘it’s all part of the game’ and ‘this is not fair?’ If you’re a writer, how do you keep on the ‘playing fair’ part of that balance?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eric Clapton’s Lead Me On.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Barbara Vine, Paddy Richardson, Ruth Rendell, T.J. Cooke