Category Archives: Arthur Upfield

But Don’t You Step on My Blue Suede Shoes*

ShoesNot long ago, Moira at Clothes in Books wrote a very interesting piece for the Guardian book blog about shoes in literature. Footwear really does say a lot about us, which is why it plays such a prominent role in crime fiction. Before I go any further about that, let me invite you to check out Clothes in Books – a treasure trove of insights about shoes, clothes, culture and what it all says about us in fiction.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes always learns quite a lot from what people wear, and that includes their shoes. In A Scandal in Bohemia, for instance, Holmes and Watson haven’t seen much of each other lately, but here is what Holmes says:

 

‘How do I know that you have been getting yourself very wet lately, and that you have a most clumsy and careless servant girl?’ 

 

The answer to that question is shoes. Holmes can tell by slit marks on the inside of Watson’s left shoe that mud was scraped from it by someone very careless. Simplicity itself, as Holmes says. Granted, the focus of this particular mystery isn’t Watson’s shoes, but it’s an interesting example of the way Holmes uses evidence that he finds in footwear.

So does Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Although he generally isn’t one to look for things like cigarette ash and footprints, he does use physical clues at times. Just as one example, in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Poirot is leaving the office of his dentist Henry Morley when he sees a woman getting out of a taxi. She’s wearing a pair of shoes with buckles on them and accidentally tears off one of the buckles. In a rather funny scene, Poirot returns the buckle to her and she goes into the office while he goes on his own way. Poirot learns later that Morley has been shot and works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who the killer is. And part of that process is interviewing all of the people who visited the dentist on the fatal day. One of those people is Miss Mabelle Sainsbury Seale, the owner of the shoe with the torn-off buckle. Not long after that interview, there’s another death. And then Miss Sainsbury Seale disappears. It’s clear now that there’s more going on here than the murder of one dentist. In the end, Poirot and Japp find out the truth, and one important clue comes from that torn-off shoe buckle.

Christie fans will know that Poirot himself would never consider worn-down or broken shoes. He much prefers his polished, pointed-toe, patent leather shoes. He even wears them at times when something more comfortable would be much more appropriate. But as he puts it, he likes to be soigné.

Arthur Upfield’s Death of a Swagman sees Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte traveling to the small town of Merino to investigate the murder of stockman George Kendall. Bony is working on that case when there’s another death. Itinerant worker John Way seems to have committed suicide in the same isolated hut where Kendall’s body was found. This is a complex and carefully-planned series of events, but Bony finds out who’s behind them and what the motive is. And one of the things that help him get to the truth is a particular kind of footwear.

Shoes also figure in Faye Kellerman’s The Ritual Bath. LAPD Detective Peter Decker is investigating a series of rapes committed by a man dubbed the Foothill Rapist. So far he and his partner Marge Dunn haven’t had a lot of luck. Then comes the news that there’s been a rape at a secluded yeshiva – an Orthodox Jewish community and place of learning. At first Decker and Dunn think that this rape has also been committed by the Foothill Rapist. But there are some differences between this incident and the others. One of them is shoes. The other victims were all wearing high-heeled shoes, but this victim was wearing sandals. It’s not conclusive evidence that this is a different culprit, but it does make Decker wonder. Then, there’s a brutal murder at the same yeshiva. Now it’s clear that something is going on there that’s likely quite separate from the Foothill Rapist cases. Decker works with Dunn and with Rina Lazarus, who lives at the yeshiva, to find out what’s behind the events there.

Footwear plays a very important role in Johan Theorin’s Echoes From the Dead. Retired sea captain Gerlof Davidsson has lived on the island of Øland all of his life, and knows most of its residents and a lot of its secrets. One day, he gets a shocking package – a sandal belonging to his grandson Jens. Jens was wearing those sandals when he disappeared twenty years earlier, and no trace of him has ever been found. His mother Julia was so distraught at his disappearance that she left the island, planning never to return. When she finds out about the sandal, she reluctantly returns to Øland to help find out the truth about Jens. As Julia and her father face the past, we learn how the island’s history and secrets people have been keeping still have an effect.

Chief Inspector William Wisting of the Stavern, Norway police has to deal with a grisly collection of shoes in Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs. The main action in that novel begins with a left foot clad in a training shoe washes up on the beach. Soon after that, another left foot, also wearing a shoe, is discovered. And then another. The media and the public come up with all sorts of theories, including the possibility that some kind of twisted serial killer is at work. Wisting and his team know that the more quickly they figure out who the feet belonged to, the more likely it is that they’ll solve this case. So they go back through the records of missing persons. They discover that list of people missing could very well be related to the case of the shoes and feet that have been discovered. Bit by bit, the team ties the two major threads of the case together.

Shoes are very important to Mma. Grace Makutsi, Associate Detective in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. In fact, in a few of the novels, they even speak to her. And in Blue Shoes and Happiness, she learns the importance of buying shoes that are not just attractive, but comfortable too. One day she and her boss, Mma. Precious Ramotswe, are out together when she sees a beautiful pair of blue shoes with red linings. They’re elegant, but not particularly practical, and Mma. Ramotswe doesn’t think they’ll be comfortable. But she knows that Mma. Makutsi loves shoes. So she doesn’t say too much when the purchase is made. But when Mma. Makutsi wears them to work the next day, it’s obvious that she’s uncomfortable:

 

‘…there were some pairs of shoes that would never be broken in. Shoes that were too small were usually too small for reason: they were intended for people with small feet.’

 

Mma. Makutsi runs into more shoe trouble in The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, when she wears a pair of dressy shoes to a job placement agency. She and Mma. Ramotswe have had a serious difference and she’s looking around for a new position. On her way back from what turns out to be a difficult time at the agency, Mma. Makutsi breaks the heel of her shoe. It’s not a good day for her.

Fans of Anne Zouroudi’s enigmatic sleuth Hermes Diaktoros will know that he always wears white sneakers which he takes great pains to keep pristine. Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh has the same footwear preference.  And that’s the thing about shoes. We all have our own preferences and unique way of walking in our shoes. In that way, they are arguably nearly as individual as people are. Little wonder they matter so much in crime fiction.

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carl Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes. Listen to his version and Elvis Presley’s version and decide which one you like better.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Anne Zouroudi, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Faye Kellerman, Jørn Lier Horst, Johan Theorin

Ev’rything Was So Well Organized*

Organized and Planned MurdersIn Arthur Upfield’s Death of a Swagman, Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte travels to the small town of Merino to investigate the murder of stockman George Kendall, whose body is found in an isolated hut. Bony’s working on that case when another body is found. This time it’s a transient worker John Way, who seems to have committed suicide. It’s a strange case, but Bony puts the pieces together. At one point, he’s talking to Sergeant Richard Marshall about the sort of murder case this is:

 

‘Very often the crime of murder is the effect of thought extended over a lengthy period. In other words, the actual act of a crime is the effect of long and careful planning, following an idea which has become an obsession.’

 

It’s an interesting point. There are of course plenty of real-life and fictional murders that are ‘heat of the moment’ type killings. But there are also lots of very calculated murders too. And those murders can be chilling. We can understand how someone might kill in the heat of rage or fear, for instance. But a planned, carefully orchestrated murder is a different sort of thing. But as you already know, there are people who commit such murders and they show up in crime fiction just as they do in real life.

Agatha Christie wrote about such murders in several of her works. I’ll just mention one. In The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot works with Scotland Yard and the local police to solve a series of murders. The only things that seem to link all of the killings is that Poirot receives a cryptic warning before each one, and that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. On the surface of it, the crimes look like the work of a deranged serial killer. But as Poirot discovers, these crimes are far more calculated than that.

In Anthondy Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas, wealthy meat company heiress Charity Wiser believes that someone in her family is trying to kill her. She hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who the would-be murderer is. Her idea is that Quant will join the family on a cruise so that he can sleuth each member. Quant agrees and everyone boards the ship. As Quant gets to know the different people in the Wiser clan, he finds out that beneath the ‘happy family’ surface there’s a lot of tension, resentment and dysfunction. In the course of the cruise there are two attempts at murder. Then there’s a successful murder. Quant finds that behind everything that happens, there’s cold calculation and careful planning.

Private detective Dandelion ‘Dandy’ Gilver finds the same thing in Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains. She gets a letter from Walburga ‘Lollie’ Balfour, claiming that her husband Philip ‘Pip’ is trying to kill her and asking Dandy’s help. The only problem is, Lollie doesn’t want Pip to find out she’s hired a detective. So, Dandy goes to the Balfour home under the guise of a maid seeking a job. Using the name Fanny Rossiter, Dandy settles into her new position. Late on the night of Fanny’s arrival, Pip is stabbed. Superintendent Hardy takes the case and after Dandy explains who she is and why she’s there, he starts to listen to what she has to say. Besides, as a member of the staff, Dandy’s in a good position to hear things that might not be said in Hardy’s presence. Slowly Dandy finds out the truth about who really killed Pip and why, and it turns out that this has been a very carefully calculated and planned murder. There was nothing spontaneous about it.

There’s nothing spontaneous about the murder of Reginald Hart in Chris Grabenstein’s Tilt a Whirl either. Sea Haven, New Jersey police officer John Ceepak and summer hire Danny Boyle are faced with an ugly killing when Hart is shot early one morning. His daughter Ashley is the only apparent witness. Her description of the killer matches a local vagrant nicknamed ‘Squeegee’ so a search is made for him. But there are other possibilities. For one thing, Hart made his money through (often) illegal and (usually) unethical property acquisition. More than one person has good cause to hate him for that. And then there’s his personal life. It could also be that one or another of Hart’s dubious ‘business associates’ hired Squeegee to kill him. Ceepak and Boyle are busy following up leads when Ashley is kidnapped. Now there’s an even greater sense of urgency to solve this case and track down the killer before anything happens to Ashley. In the end, Ceepack and Boyle discover that this was a very carefully orchestrated crime.

The main plot in Katherine Howell’s Violent Exposure is the murder of Suzanne Crawford. She is killed the day after a domestic dispute with her husband Connor, so the first theory is that he murdered her. But Connor has disappeared. So New South Wales police detective Ella Marconi and her partner Dennis Orchard have two mysteries to solve. They soon discover a third: Connor Crawford seems to have no personal history. Background checks on him reveal nothing. Then Emil Page, a teen volunteer who worked at the Crawfords’ nursery, also disappears. If they’re going to find Connor and Emil, Marconi and her team will have to work quickly. They discover that those disappearances are related to the Crawfords’ complicated personal histories, and that everything that’s happened was carefully planned. Suzanne’s murder was far from a ‘heat of the moment’ case of tragic domestic violence.

There’s a very interesting case of a calculated crime in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing. Dr. Suresh Jha is stabbed one morning while he is attending a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club. According to many witnesses, the goddess Kali appears at the meeting and murders Jha in retribution for his campaign to expose religious chicanery. Jha was determined to stop people from mindlessly believing in so-called ‘spiritual leaders’ who take advantage of the need for spiritual connection. In fact, he was the founder and head of the Delhi Institute for Rationalism and Education (D.I.R.E.). So for a lot of people, murder by goddess is not a far-fetched explanation for Jha’s death. But private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri is not convinced. He takes an interest in the case since Jha is a former client, and he begins to ask questions. In the end, he and his team find that the Suresh Jha case is not what it seems on the surface. Certainly it’s not a case of a goddess suddenly killing someone in the heat of anger.

Although a lot of murders are committed without much planning, there are plenty also that are carefully orchestrated. Those calculated murders are perhaps even creepier than the other kind. I’ve only had space here to mention a few. Which ones have you thought were well-written?

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Upfield, Catriona McPherson, Chris Grabenstein, Katherine Howell, Tarquin Hall

Got to Get Back to the Land*

Hiking and CampingMany people enjoy the feeling of ‘getting away from it all’ by taking camping and hiking trips. There is definitely something to be said for spending some time with nature, turning off the computer and the telephone and enjoying some peace. Other people camp because that’s their culture and way of life. Either way, camping can be a rich experience. But as crime fiction shows us, camping isn’t always the relaxing, peaceful experience it’s sometimes made out to be.

In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, the Boynton family tours the Middle East, making a special excursion to Petra. While they’re on their camping/hiking/sightseeing tour, family matriarch Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies of what seems to be heart failure. But Colonel Carbury isn’t satisfied, and asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. It soon turns out that Mrs. Boynton was poisoned, and Poirot interviews each of the people at the sightseeing encampment. There are plenty of suspects too, since Mrs. Boynton was a tyrant and a mental sadist who kept everyone in her family cowed. In the end Poirot establishes who the murderer is. One of the interesting clues in this murder comes from the location of each of the campers’ tents.

Dorothy Sayers’ Harriet Vane decides to take a hiking holiday in Have His Carcase. She’s just been through a traumatic time standing trial for murder (Strong Poison gives the details on that experience), and she is in need of a rest. During her hiking trip, Vane stops one afternoon for a rest and soon dozes off. When she wakes up, she finds the body of a dead man. She alerts the authorities who start the investigation. The dead man is soon identified as Paul Alexis, a professional dancer at a nearby hotel. At first it looks as though Alexis may have committed suicide, but it soon turns out that he was murdered. With help from Lord Peter Wimsey, Vane discovers who killed Alexis and why. So much for a peaceful hiking holiday…

Scott Young’s Murder in a Cold Climate introduces readers to Matthew ‘Matteesie’ Kitologitak of the RCMP. Matteesie has been asked to investigate the disappearance of a Cessna with three men aboard. He’s getting ready to do just that when he witnesses the shooting death of Native activist Morton Cavendish. It’s not long before Matteesie establishes that the two cases are related, so he changes his focus to an investigation of the murder. He’s hoping that by finding the killer, he may find the answer to what happened to the plane and the men on it. As Matteesie investigates, we get a look at the way things are done in Canada’s Far North. One fact of life there is that people go on hunting and fishing trips that can take them far from home. So they camp. In fact, it’s a popular tourist activity too. It’s not surprise then, that there are several scenes in this novel that take place at different camps. One of those scenes in fact tells us a lot about the mystery.

M.J. McGrath’s White Heat also takes place in Canada’s Far North. Edie Kiglatuk is a hunting guide with an excellent reputation. That reputation is threatened when one of her clients Felix Wagner is shot during a camping/hunting expedition. At first his death is put down to a tragic accident and Edie is given the message to just leave it alone. But then her stepson Joe commits suicide (or did he?) and there’s another death as well. Soon Edie is involved in a complicated case of murder and greed. If she’s going to clear her reputation and find out why her stepson died, she’s going to have to find the murderer. She works with Ellesmere Island police offer Derek Palliser to investigate the case. As they do so, we see how deeply camping is embedded in that culture. People go out for days or more to hunt, trap and fish and in that climate, a good campsite can mean the difference between life and death.

In Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, novice psychiatrist Stephanie Anderson takes an unexpected camping trip. One of her clients Elisabeth Clark is troubled by the disappearance years earlier of her younger sister Gracie. This story haunts Anderson, as her own sister Gemma disappeared in a similar way seventeen years earlier. Anderson decides to lay her ghosts to rest, so to speak, by finding out who was responsible for abducting the young girls. So she makes a trip from Dunedin to her family’s home in Wanaka, trying to trace the culprit as she goes. During one stop she meets a hunting guide named Dan, who invites her on a hunting and shooting trip. Anderson demurs at first, but Dan wants to prove to her that

 

‘…all hunters aren’t blokey yobbos.’

 

Finally Anderson agrees and she and Dan take a three-day camping and hiking trip. Making the trip doesn’t catch the criminal. But it does give Anderson a new kind of confidence as well as some interesting and important information. And she finds herself more interested in Dan than she’d imagined she would be.

There’s also Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series. Pigeon is a US National Park Service Ranger, so she spends quite a bit of time camping. She’s assigned to different parks for different amounts of time, so her accommodations vary. But she’s grown quite accustomed to tents, bedrolls and campfires.

There are a lot of other novels of course that feature camping trips (I know, I know, fans of Arnaldur Indriðason’s Strange Shores). And in novels such as Donna Leon’s The Girl of His Dreams, Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte series and Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest novels, we meet groups of people for whom camping is a way of life. It certainly does have a lot to offer. But – erm – do be careful…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock, made popular by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Arthur Upfield, Donna Leon, Dorothy Sayers, M.J. McGrath, Nevada Barr, Paddy Richardson, Scott Young

It’s Going to Take Some Time This Time*

Long Term CasesAs I mentioned yesterday, there is something to be said for the urgency of a compressed timeline in a crime novel. It can add tension to a story and it’s realistic to want as much done as possible within the first few days of an investigation. That’s when the most evidence is likely to be available, and that’s when people’s memories are likely to be freshest.

But in real life, many murder investigations take a long time. A body may be unidentified. It can take time for DNA and other forensic evidence to be processed. Witnesses and other people of interest may be hard to find or may decide to disappear. And the police may get leads that just don’t pan out. And that’s not to mention the time it takes to get background reports, financial statements, telephone records and other information. So there are plenty of murders that aren’t solved quickly. That’s just as true of crime fiction as it is of real-life murder investigations. Here are a few examples to show you what I mean.

Oh, and you’ll notice I’m more or less avoiding ‘cold cases,’ where an investigation was called off. That’s a different sort of case in my view anyway. To me it’s the stuff of a separate post.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot receives a cryptic note warning him of a crime that will take place in Andover on a certain date. The note seems like a crank letter until the body of shopkeeper Alice Ascher is discovered on the day mentioned in the note. That investigation has gotten underway when Poirot receives another note, this one a warning of a crime to take place in Bexhill. Sure enough, the body of twenty-three-year old Betty Barnard is discovered there early on the morning mentioned in that note. Then there’s another murder. One of the only things the murders seem to have in common is that before each one, Poirot receives a warning note. The other is that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. That’s not much to go on, and this particular murderer is skilled at not leaving evidence. So it takes several months for Poirot, Captain Hastings and the police to establish who the killer is.

Arthur Upfield’s The Bone is Pointed also features an investigation that takes time. Jeff Anderson goes out to work on the Karwir Ranch one morning, but only his horse returns. At first, everyone thinks his horse threw him, and that’s not a crazy idea as the horse was known to be difficult. The police are notified, but no evidence turns up of where Anderson might be. And truth be told, Anderson is not exactly the most popular person, so there’s not a lot of hue and cry raised about his absence. Still, his disappearance is a mystery and something could have happened to him. So five months later, Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte of the Queensland Police is called in to find out what happened to Anderson. In the end, as he would put it, Bony reads ‘the Book of the Bush’ and follows the evidence to find out why Anderson never came back and who is responsible for his disappearance.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna begins in July when the body of an unknown young woman is dredged from Lake Vättern. The woman doesn’t match the description of any missing person, so this case isn’t going to be solved quickly. Stockholm homicide investigator Martin Beck and his team are assigned to find out who the woman was, who killed her and why. The first step is identifying her and that takes time because she’s not Swedish. Finally, though, she is identified as Roseanna McGraw, an American who was touring Sweden when she died. Once she’s identified, the police have the task of tracing her movements and relationships to find out who might have wanted to kill her. That takes a lot of time too, particularly since the investigation is taking place in two countries. What’s more, the cruise ship she was on has long since completed its trip, so the passengers and crew have scattered. After several months, the investigators finally find a clear piece of evidence. Now they have to zero in on the killer, and that takes time too. Finally the killer is caught after the investigating team sets a trap. But all of this takes time and it’s not until early January of the next year that the investigation ends.

Giles Blunt’s Forty Words for Sorrow is also the story of a long investigation. One September day, thirteen-year-old Katie Pine disappears after school. At first it’s believed that she’s run away, since she’s gone off to stay with relatives twice before. But when she doesn’t come home or contact her mother, the police are notified. Detective John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay (Ontario) Police takes charge of the investigation, and he and his team do their jobs diligently. But no evidence of the girl turns up. Then, five months later, a body is discovered in an abandoned mine shaft on Windigo Island. The body could very likely be Katie’s so Cardinal is moved from burglaries and robberies, where he’s been working, back to homicide. When it’s established that the body is indeed Katie’s, Cardinal and Detective Lise Delorme return to the Pine case with renewed urgency and slowly find out what happened to the girl. They also discover that her death is linked to the deaths of some other young people. The pieces of the puzzle do come together, but not for several months after Katie’s disappearance.

And then there’s Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Journalist Mikael Blomqvist has recently lost a libel suit brought against him by powerful industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström. With his publication Millennium in financial difficulty, Blomqvist is prepared to listen when Henrik Vanger hires him for an unusual case. Nearly forty years earlier, Vanger’s grand-niece Harriet disappeared. At first, everyone thought she drowned. But Vanger’s been receiving arrangements of dried flowers as anonymous birthday gifts. It’s exactly the kind of gift Harriet always sent him, so Vanger thinks it’s possible that she’s alive. And if she’s not, he wants to know who would send those arrangements and why. And he’s willing to trade evidence he has against Hans-Erik Wennerström, plus financial support, for whatever Blomqvist can find out. So Blomqvist moves onto the island where the Vanger family lives under the guise of writing a history of the family. Slowly, he and his research assistant Lisbeth Salander look into the family’s background to find out what might have happened to Harriet. They also look into company records and other archives. Bit by bit it becomes clear what happened to Harriet Vanger, but it doesn’t happen quickly. The events of the story take place over the course of a full year.

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant , Delhi investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri gets a new client, successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal. The Kasliawal family had a servant Mary Murmu who went missing a few months earlier. At first, not much attention was paid to her disappearance. She was ‘just a servant,’ for one thing. For another, it isn’t crazy to believe that she might have returned to her village or run off for some other reason. Evidence has turned up though that she might have been killed. Now the police suspect Kasliwal of being responsible for raping and killing Mary and they want to make an example of him. Their not-so-hidden agenda is to prove that they are not ‘in the pockets’ of the rich and powerful. Kasliwal claims that he is innocent of any wrongdoing, and hires Puri to find out what happened to Mary and clear his name. Puri agrees and he and his team look into the case. By now, a few months have gone by, but the team slowly finds out the truth about Mary Murmu.

Sometimes it really does take quite a long time to find out the truth about a case. Gathering evidence, talking to those involved, following up on leads, all of this takes time and effort and doesn’t happen overnight. So it isn’t surprising that some fictional cases take time to solve too. I’ve only mentioned a few here; which ones do you like best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carole King and Toni Stern’s It’s Going to Take Some Time. Some people prefer the Carole King recording of this song (I know I do). Others prefer the Carpenters’ recording. See what you think.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Upfield, Giles Blunt, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Stieg Larsson, Tarquin Hall

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