Category Archives: Caroline Graham

How on Earth Did I Get so Jaded*

HurriedChildhoodDuring the 1980′s, Tufts University Professor David Elkind wrote a groundbreaking book The Hurried Child. In it, he made the powerful argument that many of today’s children are put under an untenable amount of pressure to grow up too quickly. One example of this pressure (and we’ve all seen this I think) is media hype that presents children as ‘little adults’ and sometimes even sexualises them. Another is the tendency (although this certainly isn’t the case all the time) for parents, especially single parents, to treat their children more as confidants than as children. All of this, Elkind argues, can do real damage to children, and serves to rob them of those crucial years of childhood development. The book’s been through several editions and is still widely read, which suggests among other things that these problems haven’t gone away.

It’s not always easy to clearly define the boundary between responsibility that helps a child develop important skills, and responsibility and pressure that isn’t appropriate for children. I think we’d all agree that it’s beneficial for young people to learn to, say, be responsible for their schoolwork or their spending money. But, Elkind argues, pre-teens aren’t ready for adult pressure such as sexual attention, and they’re not served well by the enormous pressure that’s sometimes put on them to ‘be the best,’ such as you sometimes see at sport events. There are plenty of children too who are expected to help provide family income and this, Elkind argues, also hurries children.

This issue crosses socioeconomic lines too. Whether or not you agree with each of Elkind’s arguments (and I do recommend the book), it really does seem that many children in all social classes are pressured to grow up quickly. It’s true in real life, and we see that plot thread in crime fiction too.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes relies on a group of such children: the Baker Street Irregulars. Led by a boy named Wiggins, they’re a group of street children who help him with his investigations. They know London very, very well, and can often observe and get information without calling attention to themselves, so they’re quite useful to Holmes. Conan Doyle doesn’t portray them as living very unhappy lives, but it’s interesting to see how even in this more ‘clean scrubbed’ picture of pressured childhood, the boys respond very positively to Holmes’ leadership and interest in them.

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River tells the story of London bargeman William Thornhill. In 1806, when he’s caught stealing a load of wood, he, his wife Sal and their children are transported to Australia. There, they do their best to make lives for themselves. Thornhill comes to love the land he’s moved to, and therein lies the problem. Other people of course have been living on that land for millennia, and there are real cultural and other conflicts between the new arrivals and the people who’ve always been there. Thornhill would like to resolve matters peacefully, but that view is by no means uninanimous, so some terrible crimes are committed. The first part of this novel tells of Thornhill’s early life in London. Born to a very poor family, he soon learns that the family will not survive if the children don’t do as much as they can, as early as they can, to earn money. In that society, it’s taken in a matter-of-fact way, and allowing children to actually be children is a luxury that the poor simply cannot afford.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, DCI Tom Barnaby and his assistant Gavin Troy look into the murder of financial advisor Dennis Brinkman. At first Brinkman’s death was thought to be a terrible accident, as his body was found under one of the ancient machines he collected. But his friend Benny Frayle is sure that he was killed, and won’t rest until his death is investigated. At first Barnaby and Troy aren’t convinced that this is a murder, but then there’s another death. Self-styled medium Ava Garrett dies of poison after a séance in which she saiid things about Brinkman’s murder that only the killer would be likely to know. Now Barnaby and Troy are faced with two murder cases. In one of the sub-plots of this story, we meet Ava Garrett’s pre-teen daughter Karen, who has had to grow up far too fast. They live in a not-too-well-kept council house along with Ava’s lodger Roy Priest, who’s also seen too much for his nineteen years. Ava is not a physically abusive parent, but she is self-absorbed and irresponsible. So it’s left to Karen and, when he can help out, Roy, to do the ‘adult work’ of managing the household. That’s not the reason for the murders, but it’s a clear example of a hurried child.

We also see one in Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory. Gideon Davies has always had a rare musical ability and has become a world class violinist. One terrifying day though, he finds that he can’t play note. So he begins to work with a psychotherapist to get to the bottom of his musical block. In the meantime, his mother Eugenie is killed one night in what looks like a hit-and-run accident. But as Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers soon learn, this was no accident. As the novel goes on, we see how that death is related to Gideon’s inability to play, and how both are related to a long-ago family tragedy. Part of the novel shows what the Davies family has been like, and how Gideon was pressured from a very early age to grow up because of his musical ability. And that pressure has a lot to do with the kind of person Gideon is now.

Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series, which takes place mostly in Bangkok, features American ex-pat Rafferty, a travel writer who is also fairly good at finding people who don’t want to be found. He’s married to Rose, a former bar girl, now the owner of an aparment cleaning company, who herself had to grow up too fast. He’s also in the process of adopting Miaow, a former street child who’s seen more during her childhood than anyone should have to see in a lifetime. Being forced to grow up too fast has had a profound effect on Rose and on Miaow and through them, on Rafferty. Although he does his best to provide a good life for both, there’s a hardness to them, especially Miaow, that comes from not having had the chance to be a child.

In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we are introduced to fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. She is academically gifted, and her dreams go far beyond the limits of her home in Alexandria, on New Zealand’s South Island. Her teacher, Ilsa Klein, has high hopes for her as well, and considers her a very promising student. Then everything begins to fall apart. Serena stops coming to class regularly, and when she is there, she doesn’t participate. It’s clear that something is wrong, and Ilsa wants to help, so she alerts the social welfare authorities. That turns out to be a mistake, as Serena’s mother is deeply resentful of that ‘interference.’ Then Serena disappears. Her sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington, where she lives, back to Alexandria to help in the search. To her it’s shocking that three weeks have gone by and nothing has been done to find Serena. As the story moves along, we see that Serena has had to grow up too fast, and so have her siblings. In part it’s because of the family’s dysfunction; in part it’s because of the family’s socioeconomic situation. There are other factors too. And they play a role in the events that happen in the novel.

There are a lot of other crime novels in which we meet children who are forced to grow up before they’re ready. It’s very hard on them, and certainly doesn’t aid in helping them to become fulfilled, productive adults. There’s an eloquent commentary on it in Denise Mina’s Garnethill, which takes place in Glasgow. In this scene, protagonist Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell is visiting her friend Leslie. Here’s what Leslie has to say about a neighbour’s child:
 

‘‘That’s wee Magsie,’ said Leslie. ‘She’s three and a half. Aren’t ye, wee teuchie?’
Wee Magsie kept her skirt over her face and giggled shyly, rocking from side to side.
‘Yes,’ said the biggest girl, who could only have been seven. ‘I’m her big sister and I’ve to look after her today.’…
‘See that?’ said Leslie. ‘They’re wee mammies before they stop being kids.’’

 

Which novels with hurried children have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Caroline Graham, Denise Mina, Elizabeth George, Kate Grenville, Paddy Richardson, Timothy Hallinan

Won’t You Listen to Me Now*

Police CarNot long ago, I was on a bus where I saw a sign encouraging riders to report suspicious activity. ‘If You See Something, Say Something’ was the tag. And most police do want to know about suspicious activity; they want citizens to feel comfortable reporting crime.

But the police have limited resources and finite amounts of time to investigate. This means they have to establish priorities. So, for instance, more resources would be devoted to a report of a murder than to a report of a purse-snatching. The police want both crimes solved, but they can’t do it all at once. Besides, there are people who report suspicious activity or even crimes when there isn’t really a crime involved, and the police don’t want to waste time and resources on so-called wild goose chases. What’s more, if the police really are satisfied that everything possible is being or has been done, they’re not likely to keep going over a case.

That’s part of the reason for which the police sometimes don’t follow up carefully, at least at first, on everything that gets reported to them. That happens in real life, and it also happens in crime fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddingtion (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!), Elspeth McGillicuddy takes a train to visit her friend Jane Marple. At one point, another train going in the same direction passes by and Mrs. McGillicuddy happens to look in the window of the other train. To her shock, she sees a woman being strangled. Of course she summons the conductor and the railway authorities, but there is no sign of a murder. There’s no body, and no-one has reported a missing person who fits the victim’s description. When Mrs. McGillicuddy arrives at Miss Marple’s home, she tells her friend what happened and Miss Marple insists on going to the police. They duly take down the information, but they don’t do much about it since there is no evidence that anything happened. In fact, the suggestion is made that perhaps Mrs. McGillicuddy imagined or dreamt something. Neither woman is happy at all about this dismissal, so Miss Marple takes matters into her own hands. She takes a ride on the same train and deduces where the body would be if it was thrown from the train. And that’s how she settles on Rutherford Hall as the likely place. With help from professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow, Miss Marple shows that there was indeed a body and therefore, a murder. She also finds out who the murderer is.

In Carolyn Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, the body of financial advisor Dennis Brinkley is discovered in his home. The police respond quickly and an investigation is made. The evidence suggests that Brinkley was killed accidentally by one of the antique war machines he collected. Nothing suggests anything else. But Brinkley’s friend Benny Frayle doesn’t believe Brinkley’s death was an accident. So she goes to the Causton police station to ask for a further investigation. DCI Tom Barnaby agrees to at least look into the matter, mostly because Benny seems so distraught. And he does re-read the original reports. But nothing seems out of order and it’s clear that investigating officer DS Gresham was scrupulous. Besides, Benny is eccentric and was a good friend of the deceased: her views are not likely to be objective. There seems to be nothing further to investigate and Barnaby sends Benny Frayle a note to that effect. Then there’s another murder that could be connected to the first death. Now Barnaby and DS Gavin Troy re-open the Brinkley case, and in the end, they find that Benny was right: Dennis Brinkley was murdered.

In Karin Fossum’s When The Devil Holds the Candle, Runi Winther pays a visit to the police. She’s concerned because her son Andreas hasn’t been home for the last few days. It’s not that Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer is unfeeling or not willing to listen to citizens. Neither of those things is true. But as he tells Runi, there are many reasons that a young man might take off for a few days without telling anyone where he’s going – especially not his mother. Sejer encourages his visitor to patient for a bit, and he reassures her that her son will most likely be in touch very soon. More time goes by though, and Andreas Winther is still missing. Now Sejer too begins to wonder what’s happened, so he and his assistant Jacob Skarre start to ask questions. One person who is of immediate interest is Andreas’ best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. So Sejer has several conversations with Zipp. As it turns out, Zipp knows more than he says at first. No, he didn’t kill his friend. But he does have some important information about the mystery.

In Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Alone in the Crowd, Dona Laureta Sales Ribeiro goes to the local police station one afternoon and asks to see the chief. As it happens, Inspector Espinosa is in a long meeting, so the receptionist invites her to either wait or speak to Espinosa’s assistant Detective Welber. Dona Laureta doesn’t stress that the matter is urgent, and she won’t speak to anyone else but Espinosa. So the receptionist doesn’t interrupt the chief. On the one hand, nobody pays an awful lot of attention to Dona Laureta or to the matter that brought her to the station. On the other, it isn’t a case of laziness or refusal to listen to a citizen. Dona Laureta herself even says that she’ll come back later and leaves. Before she can return though, she falls, or is pushed, under a bus. The death is put down to a tragic accident at first. But when Espinosa finds out that this victim actually came to see him, he takes an interest in the case. Then there’s another death. This time the victim is Dona Adélia Marques, a friend of Dona Laureta’s. Now Espinosa and his team take an urgent interest in both cases and as it turns out, the deaths are related.

And then there’s Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, the second of his Delhi-based Vish Puri series. In one plot thread of that novel, Puri’s wife Rumpi and his mother Mummy-ji attend a kitty party. Each guest adds money to the kitty at the beginning of the party. Later, one guest’s name is drawn and that person wins the money in the kitty. On this day though, robbers break in and steal the money. Mummy-ji is not one to ‘go quietly,’ and she finds a creative way to get hard evidence against the thief. When she tries to tell the police about it, though, they are dismissive and even joke to each other about her:

 

‘Seems Miss Mar-pel is here.’

 

Mummy-ji doesn’t give up though, and in the end, she and Rumpi find out who the thief is.

In most cases, it’s not that the police don’t want to solve crimes or hear what citizens have to say. But they are often overworked and understaffed. And sometimes, people who come to the police station aren’t (or at least don’t seem) credible. But as crime fiction shows, sometimes it pays to pay attention.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Tarney’s Hold On, recorded by Barbara Dickson.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Karin Fossum, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Tarquin Hall

When the Sun Comes Up on a Sleepy Little Town*

Small TownLook at any picture postcard and you’ll see that the image of the village or small town is supposed to be peaceful, quiet and inviting. But beneath the surface of small-town hospitality and pleasantness can lurk an awful lot of nastiness. In a way that’s not surprising. After all, people in small towns tend to know each other well. That means all sorts of resentments can build up. And small towns and villages can be insular – outsiders not welcome at all. Add to that the history that small-towners can have together and it can make for a very effective context for a murder. There are many examples of the ‘creepy small town’ sort of crime novel. I’ll just give a few of them here.

Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger takes place in the village of Lymestock. Jerry Burton and his sister Joanna have recently moved there so that Jerry can recover from a wartime injury. They’re not there long when they receive a vicious anonymous note that suggests that the Burtons are not siblings, but lovers. Soon, they discover that they’re not the only victims. Several other villagers have gotten awful anonymous notes, and soon, some very ugly rumours begin. Then, a letter to the local solicitor’s wife results in a suicide. Then there’s another death. The police investigate, but the local vicar’s wife thinks Miss Marple will be far better suited to find out what really happened. Miss Marple is very familiar with village histories, animosities and so on, and is in a good position to make sense of what she hears. It turns out the network of relationships among the villagers has a lot to do with the letters and the deaths.

Central City, Texas is the setting for Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. It’s a quiet, peaceful town on the surface, but there’s a lot going on underneath that bucolic tranquility. When a local prostitute Joyce Lakeland is badly beaten, deputy sheriff Lou Ford investigates. He’s what most folks think of as the ‘nice but dull,’ plodding sort, but he’s not stupid. And he’s hiding something most people don’t know about – something he calls ‘the sickness.’ He’s looking into the attack on Joyce Lakeland when there’s a murder. Now it’s clear that something sinister is going on in the town and that things are not nearly as peaceful and pleasant as it seems.

Caroline Graham wrote seven Inspector Barnaby novels, but as anyone who’s watched Midsomer Murders knows, those few novels inspired a television series that’s been on the air since 1997. In the novels, Graham takes a look at the hidden lives of villagers and the sometimes ugly things beneath the surface of an ‘ordinary English village.’ In The Killings at Badger’s Drift for instance, Emily Simpson suddenly dies of what looks on the surface like a heart attack. But her friend Lucy Bellringer thinks otherwise. In fact, Miss Bellringer is so insistent that this is a case of murder that the police make an investigation. It turns out that the victim was poisoned with hemlock. As Inspector Tom Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy investigate, they discover that there is a lot going on beneath the surface of the quiet village of Badger’s Drift, and that Miss Simpson found out more about it than was safe for her to know.

Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin takes place in the Peak District near the village of Rakedale. A skeleton is discovered at Pity Wood Farm not far from the village, and DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper begin the investigation. Then another skeleton is found, and the investigation moves into high gear. The current owner of the farm is Manchester attorney Aaron Goodwin, but he bought the land for development and doesn’t know much about the farm or the area. So Fry and Cooper try to get information about the farm’s former owners, brothers Derek and Raymond Sutton. Derek Sutton has died, but Raymond Sutton is still alive and in a nursing home. He claims to know nothing about the bodies and in fact, forensic evidence suggests that the remains were buried after Sutton sold the farm. As a part of the investigation, Fry and Cooper try to talk to the people who live in the area, but the Rakedale villagers are not interested in talking to outsiders, especially if they’re police. In fact there’s a very telling scene in which Fry goes into the local to try to get some answers. It’s very clear that Rakedale keeps itself to itself as the saying goes. That insularity adds a layer of tension to the novel, and so does the set of old traditions, beliefs and superstitions that the detectives uncover as they find out the truth about the deaths.

In P.J. Parrish’s Dead of Winter, police detective Louis Kincaid takes a new job in the small town of Loon Lake, Michigan. Loon Lake is popular with hunters, anglers, and those who like ice fishing, so there are lots of ‘getaway’ cottages and homes in the area. But the town itself is small and on the surface of it very peaceful. Soon after he arrives, Kincaid discovers that he was hired to replace Officer Thomas Pryce, who was recently murdered in his own home. Kincaid has some questions about the official police theory, and his boss Brian Gibraltar gives him permission to pursue the investigation. Bit by bit, Kincaid finds that Pryce was keeping some secrets; finding out what they are will be critical to solving his murder. But there are several other people in this supposedly peaceful community who also aren’t telling everything they know. So Kincaid doesn’t get much help on the case, even from people in whose interest you would think it would be to find the killer. Along with Kincaid’s sense of increasing isolation as he investigates, there’s also a sense of lingering racism in this community. Certainly anyone who’s ‘different’ is considered odd. That atmosphere adds a layer of tension to this story.

And then there’s Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, which features the lives of the residents of Chabot, Mississippi. After twenty-five years of absence, Silas Jones returns to Chabot to serve as its constable. Soon, he finds himself investigating the disappearance of Tina Rutherford. Everyone assumes that local ‘oddball’ Larry Ott is responsible and in fact, he’s attacked in his own home by a vigilante. Ott’s the most likely suspect because years earlier, he took Cindy Walker out on the only date he’s ever had, and she never returned. No-one could prove what happened to her, but everyone thinks Ott’s guilty of murdering her. Jones finds that as he investigates the Tina Rutherford case, he also has to face the town’s (and his own) past and find out what really happened to Cindy Walker.

There are other series too that uncover the hidden layers of nastiness in small towns and villages. For instance, Ellery Queen visits the small town of Wrightsville in three Queen novels: Calamity Town, Ten Days Wonder and The King is Dead. There’s also Rebecca Tope’s Thea Osborne series, and Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder series. There are also lots of small-town series for those who prefer cosy mysteries. Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Southern Quilting series is just one example. Who said small towns are the safest places to live??? ;-)

Thanks to Keishon at Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog for the inspiration. Go pay that terrific blog a visit; you’ll find some excellent crime fiction reviews there.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doobie Brothers’ China Grove.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ellery Queen, Jim Thompson, Linda Castillo, P.J. Parrish, Rebecca Tope, Stephen Booth, Tom Franklin

But Will You Always Stay Someone Else’s Dream of Who You Are?*

ProdigiesWe all have talents and abilities. Some people though have a very special gift, be it extraordinary intelligence, musical ability, artistic ability or something else. Sometimes that gift shows up very early in life and when it does, families have to decide what they’ll do about it. We may envy people with those special kinds of gifts, but their lives are not always easy. In fact, sometimes it’s even more difficult for them than it is for ‘the rest of us.’ Certainly that’s true in real life, and when you look at what have often been called child prodigies in crime fiction, you see some of the challenges they and their families face.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we meet Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his family. Christow has two children, Terence and Zena. Terence is a very interesting twelve-year-old child. He’s a turning into a science prodigy and is always interested in, especially, chemistry. This can be difficult for both him and his mother Gerda. Gerda loves her children, but she finds Terence hard to raise because she can’t keep up with him intellectually. It scares her a little. One weekend, Gerda and John Christow are invited to visit Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell at their country home. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has taken a cottage nearby, and was invited to lunch. He arrives just in time to see the murder scene, which he thinks at first is a tableau in very bad taste. When he realises that the murder really happened, he immediately begins to take notice of the people there, and he and Inspector Grange work to find out which of them killed the victim. One of the sadder aspects of this novel is Terence’s reaction to the murder. He wants to know exactly what happened to his father and why, and no-one will respect him enough to tell him the truth.

In Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory, Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers look into the history of the Davies family. One night, Eugenie Davis is killed in what looks like a tragic hit-and-run accident. It’s no accident though, and soon enough Lynley and Havers are trying to discover who killed the victim and why. At the same time, Eugenie’s son twenty-eight-year-old Gideon Davies is facing a crisis of his own. He is a world-class violinist, who has been a prodigy nearly all his life. One night, to his shock, he finds that he can’t play. Terrified, he visits a psychologist to try to find out what is blocking his ability. It turns out that both Gideon’s mental block and his mother’s death are related to a long-ago tragedy. Twenty years earlier, Gideon’s sister Sonia was drowned. Her then-nanny Katja Wolff was arrested and imprisoned in connection with the death. She’s recently been released from prison and that event plays a role in the novel too.

Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine introduces us to self-styled medium Ava Garrett. She’s wanted to be famous all her life, but has never been anything but mediocre at best. She puts on quite a show though, and is invited to lead séances from time to time. One day she is leading a gathering when she begins to make pronouncements about the recent tragic death of financial consultant Dennis Brinkley. Brinkley’s friend Benny Frayle is convinced that he was murdered, so she’s quite excited that this medium is saying the same thing. Benny tries to get Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby to believe this is a case of murder, but so far, he believes the police report, which puts the death down to accident. Later on the evening of the séance, Ava Garrett dies of what turns out to be poison. Now Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy have two untimely deaths on their hands, and they finally investigate Brinkley’s death more thoroughly. As it turns out, the deaths are related and both have to do with one of the most common motives of all: greed. In all of this, the character of Ava Garrett’s daughter Karen proves to be important. Karen is shy and quiet, but she is an unusual child and we find that she has particular gifts of her own that play a role in the story.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn also has experience with a child who has special gifts. She is a political scientist and academic who with her attorney husband Zack Shreve is raising a truly gifted artist in their daughter Taylor. Murder at the Mendel gives readers the story of how Taylor came into Kilbourn’s life and why Kilbourn adopted her. Since the time she was a very young girl Taylor has been sensitive to and fascinated by art, and has created some world-class work. Her ability isn’t the reason for the murders Kilbourn investigates. But it plays its role in a few cases and it does complicate the family’s life. When Kilbourn marries attorney Zack Shreve later in the series, the two of them face the daunting task of nurturing Taylor’s extraordinary ability without sacrificing her childhood. Part of the appeal of this series is in the way Bowen weaves that domestic side of Kilbourn and Shreve’s lives into the larger plots of her novels.

Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red tells the story of Connor Bligh and his sister Angela Dickson. Bligh is a brilliant child – quite gifted intellectually. But he is not supported either at home or at school. Time goes on and Bligh finally gets a chance to excel. He moves on in his career and although he has setbacks he can at least use his gifts. Then the unthinkable happens. One awful night, Angela, her husband Rowan and their son Sam are brutally murdered. Only their daughter Katy survives because she’s not home at the time of the attacks. There’s evidence against Bligh and he is arrested, charged and convicted. But there are little hints that Bligh may be innocent. If he is, then he’s been in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and the real killer is on the loose. That’s just the kind of story that Wellington television journalist Rebecca Thorne is looking for, so she begins to ask questions. As she starts to search for the truth, Thorne finds that there is a possibility that Bligh may be telling the truth when he claims he isn’t guilty. Thorne’s search for answers gets her much closer to the case than is wise, but it gives readers a fascinating portrait of a character whose gifts have not been supported.

And then there’s Jean-Pierre Alaux and Nöel Balen’s Treachery in Bordeaux. Noted oenologist and vintner Benjamin Cooker gets a new assistant Virgile Lanssien.  Lansssien has some things to learn, but he is extremely gifted when it comes to wines and wine making. So he makes a very effective partner for Cooker when the two are asked to solve a crime. Someone has sabotaged four barrels of vintner Denis Maissepain’s wine. He is worried for his vineyard’s reputation, so he wants to find out who is responsible and stop that person. Lanssien may be young, but he is gifted, and Cooker learns that he can be relied upon as they investigate.

It’s not easy to be what people sometimes call a prodigy. Especially when one’s a child, it’s all too easy to have one’s skills exploited with no support for the rest of one’s life. Prodigies don’t have easy lives, but they are fascinating, and they can make for interesting fictional characters.

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Elizabeth George, Gail Bowen, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Nöel Balen, Paddy Richardson

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Props

PropsThe Crime Fiction Alphabet meme is moving along steadily on our perilous journey through the alphabet. Thanks as ever to our tour guide Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for handling all of the details of the trip so well. Everyone’s excited because we’ve arrived at Pborough, where there is a lovely old theatre. We’ll be seeing one of their productions later, so we’re all looking forward to that. Right now everyone else is having a look around our hotel, so I’ll take a moment to share my contribution for this week:  props.

Most theatre productions use props of one kind or another and that’s all to the good. Props can make a production that much more realistic. But on the other hand they can also be very dangerous. Just a quick look at crime fiction should suffice to show what I mean.

Ngaio Marsh had a theatre background and many of her novels reflect that interest. They also reflect her knowledge of how much damage a prop can do. In Enter a Murderer for example, Scotland Yard Inspector Roderick Alleyn is attending the Unicorn Theatre’s production of The Rat and the Beaver. During the play, one of the actors Arthur Surbonadier is shot with a prop gun that’s been tampered with and left loaded. Since he’s ‘on the scene,’ Alleyn begins the investigation right away. The most likely suspect is fellow actor Felix Gardner, who’d gotten the lead role that Surbonadier thought was his. The two had had a serious quarrel and Surbonadier actually threatened Gardner. But as Alleyn soon learned, there is plenty of intrigue in this production and more than one person had a reason to want Arthur Surbonadier dead.

In James Yaffe’s Mom Doth Murder Sleep, murder strikes the Mesa Grande, Colorado’s amateur theatre group. The acting troupe has planned a production of The Scottish Play, and casting, rehearsals and so on have gone ahead. One of the cast members is Roger Meyer, who works with the local Public Defender’s office. On opening night, former Hollywood actor/producer Martin Osborn, who has the lead in the play, is stabbed onstage. It isn’t long before Sally Michaels, who is playing Lady Macbeth, is arrested for the crime. She had good reason to kill, too, since Osborn had recently ended a relationship he was having with her. There’s other evidence too against her. When Meyer’s boss Dave tells his mother about the case though, Mom’s not so sure that Sally really is guilty. So Dave looks more deeply into the acting troupe and its history and finds that more than one person had a good reason to want to kill Martin Osborn.

Caroline Graham’s Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby has to look into a case of murder with a prop in Death of a Hollow Man. The Causton Amateur Dramatic Society has chosen to do Amadeus. Barnaby’s wife Joyce has been given a minor role and his future son-in-law Nicholas Bradley has the role of Mozart. So Barnaby attends the opening-night production. All’s going well enough until the dramatic scene during which Antonio Salieri tries to commit suicide. Esslyn Carmichael, who’s playing Salieri, picks up what he thinks is a blunted prop knife only to find out too late that the knife was all too real. Now, Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy look into the relationships among the cast members and into Carmichael’s history to try to find out who wanted to kill him. As it turns out, more than one person had both the opportunity and the motive.

Simon Brett’s series featuring actor Charles Paris includes quite a lot of on-stage mayhem. Paris isn’t exactly a household word, and his agent is not particularly competent. So Paris spends his share of time in small roles for small-town productions. In between those roles, he does what he can to ‘fill in the gaps.’ In So Much Blood for instance, Paris gets the opportunity to fill in at the Edinburgh Festival with a one-man show of Thomas Hood’s work. Another play has fallen through, and this is a chance for Paris to get some exposure and some work. His agent warns him not to take the job, but Paris accepts anyway. While he’s there, he attends the performance of a play called Mary, Queen of Sots, a satire being put on by the Derby University Dramatic Society. During the performance, one of the actors Willy Mariello, is stabbed with what’s supposed to be a prop knife. At first it’s thought that his death is a tragic accident. But Paris doesn’t think so and he can’t resist trying to find out what really happened.

There’s also Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House, in which John May and Arthur Bryant of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) investigate several murders and a disappearance at the Palace Theatre. The theatre is planning a production of Orpheus, and rehearsals have begun. Then, one of the dancers Tanya Capistrania is killed and her feet removed. May and Bryant are looking into this case when there’s another tragedy. Charles Senechal, who has the role of Jupiter, is called by a piece of scenery in what looks like a terrible accident. Then there’s another death, and a disappearance. Now it looks very much as though someone is trying to stop the production, and the PCU works to find out who it is.

Of course, sometimes props can save lives. Just ask Kate Carpenter, whom we first meet in Deborah Nicholson’s House Report. Carpenter is House Manager for Calgary’s Foothills Stage Network (FSN). One night, during FSN’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, the body of Peter Reynolds is found in the men’s washroom. One possible suspect is Reynolds’ ex-wife Gladys, who works as an usher at the theatre. Gladys asks Carpenter to help clear her name, and against her better judgement, Carpenter agrees to at least ask some questions. Soon, the evidence begins to point to Carpenter’s lover Norman ‘Cam’ Caminksi, so Carpenter becomes even more vested in finding out the truth. The closer she gets to the real killer, the more danger she finds for herself. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that at one point, she’s in very grave danger indeed, but  she’s saved by the judicious use of a piece of property. In the end, Carpenter and her assistant Graham find out who the killer is and what the motive was.

As you can see, props are an important part of crime-fictional murders. Looks like it’s almost time to see the play. Would you like to go backstage before it begins??? ;-)

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Filed under Caroline Graham, Christopher Fowler, Deborah Nicholson, James Yaffe, Ngaio Marsh, Simon Brett