Category Archives: Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Mushrooms

MushrooomsMmmm… the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme has made quite a lot of progress on our treacherous trek through the letters. My thanks as ever to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for such a well-oganised and enjoyable (if dangerous…) trip. Today we’re stopping at M & Co., the world-famous restaurant. Our table isn’t ready yet, so while we’re waiting, I’ll share my contribution for this stop: mushrooms.

Mushrooms can be delicious additions to a lot of different dishes, but as most people know, some varieties are deadly, And that of course makes mushrooms a very effective murder weapon. After all, you can’t easily prove that such a killing was deliberate; the various kinds of mushrooms can be difficult to sort out. And it doesn’t take a lot of technical knowledge, strength or skill to use deadly mushrooms. No wonder they show up all the time in crime fiction.

For instance, in 4:50 From Paddington, Elspeth McGillicuddy is on a train on her way to visit her friend Miss Marple. When another train passes in the same direction, Mrs. McGillicuddy glances through the other train’s window just in time to witness a woman being strangled. At first no-one believes her because a body isn’t discovered on the train. But Miss Marple does, and deduces that the body must be on the property of Rutherford Hall, which is owned by Luther Crackenthorpe and his family. So Miss Marple fixes it up so that her friend Lucy Eyelesbarrow gets a position there as housekeeper, with the understanding that Lucy will search for the body. When she does find the body the police are called in and begin to investigate. Shortly afterwards, everyone gets sick at lunch one day and the mushrooms that Lucy included in the meal are blamed. Then, one of the family members dies. Now it’s clear that someone wants to wreak havoc on the Crackenthorpe family. With help from Lucy’s observant eyes and ears, Miss Marple figures out who the killer is and how that death is related to the death of the unknown woman on the train.

In Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s The Cosy Knave, murder and poisoning come to the small town of Knavesborough. Small-town-boy-made-good Mark Baldwin, who now calls himself Marco Bellini, returns to Knavesborough after having lived abroad for many years. He throws a housewarming party at which Rose Walnut-Whip becomes ill. Not long afterwards she is found stabbed. Constable Archibald ‘Archie’ Penrose ends up investigating the murder and he and his fiancée Rhapsody Gershwin look into the case. They soon find that more than one person wanted to murder the victim. They’re working on the investigation when another villager Jack Warburton is murdered. His body is discovered by avid mushroom collector Arnold Kickinbottom. Kickinbottom also had a motive for murdering Rose Walnut-Whip and he is most definitely a suspect in this second death too, having (perhaps too conveniently) found the body. Then Kickinbottom himself is poisoned by mushrooms. Perhaps the poisoning was a clever way to throw suspicion from himself, or perhaps there’s a serial killer loose in Knavesborough…

Ariana Franklin’s The Serpent’s Tale is the story of the murder of Rosamund Clifford, mistress of King Henry II. When someone feeds Rosamund poisoned mushrooms, the case threatens to cause a major upheaval for the country, especially since there is talk that Queen Eleanor may have been responsible. If she is guilty, the result could be a civil war. The king summons Adelia Aguilar, a doctor and ‘mistress of the art of death’ to find out what really happened to his mistress. She will have to tread very lightly though, since this murder has so many important political ramifications.

Mushrooms also wreak havoc in Julie Smith’s short story Project Mushroom. Katherine is a botanist who’s hired to work on a public-relations project to promote California’s mushroom industry. Project head Martin Larson is infuriating enough that everyone on the project wants to kill him. The longer Katherine works with the team the more she sees how he drives everyone else mad. One night there’s to be a banquet to celebrate the group’s work and call attention to the project. All of the dishes at the banquet contain different varieties of mushrooms. That’s where Larson learns what happens when you aren’t good to the people who work with you. The next morning, the headlines are full of the news of his death, and with all of the mushrooms served at the dinner, the police believe that he must have died from accidental mushroom poisoning. But Katherine knows better…

Dance troupe manager Victor Owens finds out a similar thing in Kaitlyn Dunnett’s Scone Cold Dead. Owens is the leader of a Scottish dancing troupe that has decided to go on tour. Former member Liss Macrimmon find out about the tour and invites the group to make a stop in her adopted town of Moosetookalook, Maine, to which she retired after an injury. One night she throws a party for the dance troupe at which different Scottish foods will be featured. Shortly after the party, Owens dies of anaphylaxis brought on by eating a scone filled with mushrooms, to which Owens was violently allergic. Liss soon comes under suspicion since she threw the party and since she was no friend of Owens. But Owens was an obnoxious person who alienated just about everyone and who sexually harassed more than one person. So as Liss tries to clear her own name, she finds plenty of possible ‘replacement suspects.’

See what I mean? Mushrooms can be nasty things if they’re not carefully chosen and properly handled and cooked. But when done right, they really are delicious, don’t you think? Oh, I’ve just been told that our table is ready. Care to join us??? ;-)

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ariana Franklin, Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen, Julie Smith, Kaitlyn Dunnett

It’s an Illusion, It’s a Game*

Penn and TellerHave you ever been to a magic show? I mean a really well-done show. We all know going into a show that the magician really cannot, for instance, turn water into coins. But a talented magician can make the audience believe even if it’s just for a moment that a handkerchief turned into flowers. Magicians use misdirection and other strategies to create illusions. And when they do it well, it takes all of one’s effort to remember that it isn’t real.

We see that same use of strategy to create illusion in crime fiction. I’m not referring here to things like faking an alibi. Rather, I mean strategies that make people believe that something they think they see is true, while the reality is something entirely different. And when you get people to think that something is true, they are often convinced – even to the point of testifying in court – that they are right. And that fact of human life can be useful to criminals.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of the 4th Baron Edgware. Edgware’s wife Jane Wilkinson is the most likely suspect. It’s well-known that she wanted a divorce from her husband so that she could marry again. She’s even approached Poirot to try to convince Edgware to withdraw his objection to the divorce. What’s more, she was heard to threaten her husband. And she was admitted to the house on the night of the murder. So at first, Chief Inspector James ‘Jimmy’ Japp believes that he’s got his culprit. But on the night of the murder Jane Wilkinson went to a dinner party in another part of London. Twelve people, including the host, are willing to swear in court that she was at the party. So Poirot, Hastings and Japp have to look elsewhere for the killer. And they find plenty of suspects too, as Edgware was an extremely unpleasant person. In the end Poirot finds out who the killer is and we get a first-class lesson in the power of illusion.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives introduces us to attorney Walter Eberhart, his wife Joanna and their two children Pete and Kim. The Eberharts decide to move from New York to the beautiful and quiet town of Stepford, Connecticut and at first all goes well. They are warmly welcomed and the children soon settle into school and start to make friends. But soon, Joanna begins to think that something odd is going on in Stepfored. She and her new friend Bobbie Markowe ask a few questions, but they don’t get clear answers. Besides, there is no obvious danger to them or their families. Then, disturbing things begin to happen and Joanna becomes more and more convinced that Stepford’s beauty, peace and quiet are illusions. She begins to believe that something truly sinister is going on in town. It turns out that she’s right.

We also see the use of illusion strategies in Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move Science fiction writer Zack Walker, his journalist wife Sarah and their children Angie and Paul move to a beautiful new housing development called Valley Forest Estates. Zack is hoping that the lower cost of living in the suburbs will mean that he can write full-time, and he’s utterly convinced that life in the suburbs will be safer than it is in the city where they lived before the move. But little by little, his illusion of the ‘perfect suburban life’ is shattered. First, the house itself has all sorts of structural and other problems and Zack can’t seem to get anyone in authority to respond to his requests for maintenance. Then he discovers the body of Samuel Spender, a local environmental activist, in a creek. Then there’s another murder. Little by little Zack discovers that the development has mostly been a carefully orchestrated illusion designed to cover up some nasty goings-on. It’s not until Zack puts aside his belief that life is safer in the suburbs that he’s really able to see what’s happening.

Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine also includes the use of illusion to cover up a crime. Mallory Lawson and his wife Kate move to the village of Forbes Abbot when Mallory’s wealthy Aunt Carey dies. Aunt Carey has left her home and much of her fortune to Mallory and his family on the condition that her former companion Benny Frayle will always have a home. Mallory and Kate are happy to agree to that and everyone settles into the new arrangement. Then, the Lawsons’ financial advisor Dennis Brinkley is killed in what looks like a very tragic accident. But Benny thinks it was murder and tries to get the police to investigate. No-one takes very much notice of her allegation until there’s another death. Self-styled medium Ava Garret is leading a séance one day; during the event she says some things about the murder that she couldn’t possibly know. Not long afterwards she’s poisoned. Now Inspector Tom Barnaby and his team re-open the Dennis Brinkley case and slowly link it to Ava Garret’s murder. In a sad irony, Ava’s determination to maintain the illusion that she is psychic costs her her life as the murderer uses what you could call an illusion against her.

There’s an effective use of illusion in Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s Toffee’s Christmas too. In that short story, an author of romance novels who calls herself Toffee Brown moves to the small Yorkshire village of Knavesborough. As she tells the local vicar’s daughter Rhapsody Gershwin, Toffee came to the village to get some rest. Although she’s very eccentric and rather put out at not being identified as the world-famous writer she is, Toffee becomes a part of village life and settles in. Then one day, Rhapsody and her sister Psalmonella discover Toffee’s body in the cottage she’s taken. Rhapsody’s fiancé local constable Archibald ‘Archie’ Primrose begins to investigate and in the process they learn what Toffee’s real identity was. That doesn’t bring them much closer to finding the murderer though. It’s not until Rhapsody discovers that another character has created an illusion that she and her fiancé catch the killer.

Betty Webb’s Desert Wives is mostly set in the compound of a polygamous sect called Purity. The sect has been run by Brother Solomon Royal until he is murdered. Private investigator Lena Jones goes undercover to join Purity and find out who killed Royal when her client Esther Corbett is accused of the crime. Esther had a good motive for the murder too, as Royal had been planning to marry Esther’s thirteen-year-old daughter Rebecca. Jones settles into Purity and begins to ask questions about Royal’s murder. What she finds is that Purity is hiding some truly ugly secrets. There’s been a very carefully-designed illusion of Purity as being a peaceful, happy group of people who help each other, meet the group’s needs in a self-sufficient way and raise the group’s children together. But the reality is far, far different. Jones discovers domestic abuse, child molestation, and intermarriage leading to some serious birth defects. She also discovers financial wrongdoing. In fact, the reality underneath the illusion of Purity is so awful that Jones finds it hard to focus on her main reason for being there. But she does discover who killed Solomon Royal and why.

The thing about well-crafted illusions is that they can be very convincing. And in crime fiction that ability to create a reality that isn’t there can be very useful to criminals. Of course, sleuths can create illusions too; maybe I’ll address that in another post…

 

ps.  The photos are of Penn Jillette and Raymond Teller, who make up the hugely popular and successful magician duo Penn and Teller. Not only are they dedicated to debunking fraudulent psychics and other fakes, but they are truly gifted illusionists themselves. Oh, and they’re as pleasant in person as you could wish for, despite their great success.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Genesis’ Abacab.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Betty Webb, Caroline Graham, Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen, Ira Levin, Linwood Barclay

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s Rhapsody Gershwin

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction meme continues its perilous journey and although there are dangers aplenty, we’re all fine. For now. ;-)  Thanks as always to our leader Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for the expert guidance. Today we’re at the Hotel G. While everyone’s unpacking and checking email, let me offer my contribution for this stop – Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s  Rhapsody Gershwin.

Rhapsody Gershwin is a librarian in the small Yorkshire town of Knavesborough. She’s curious and she’s a skilled researcher. Those qualities are part of what make her so helpful to her fiancé, Constable Archibald “Archie” Penrose. You wouldn’t think a lot of things happen in a small place like Knavesborough, but there’s quite a collection of unusual – even eccentric – characters there, and as it’s a small town, there’s also a lot of gossip. There’s also plenty of spite – and murder. Since Rhapsody is the daughter of Vicar George Gershwin, she hears all of the local talk. She and her two sisters Psalmonella and Harmonia live with their father while she and Archie are saving up money to start their lives together.

Rhapsody may be a small-town vicar’s daughter, but that doesn’t mean she’s completely naïve. One of the appealing things about her character is that she’s able to get people to talk to her without them suspecting that they’re saying too much. For example, in The Cosy Knave, she and Archie look into the murder of retired teacher Rose Walnut-Whip. Rose was among other things a member of the local knitting club. When another member of the club Mildred Kickinbottom is attacked, Rhapsody decides to talk to some of the members of the club to find out if anyone in the group is responsible for the killing and the attack. Here is a bit of her conversation with Mildred:

 

“Mildred’s face brightened…. ‘So you have come to pick my brains, Miss Gershwin?’
‘I have indeed, Mildred. Eh, you don’t mind, do you?’ She was sure the other woman was thrilled, but there was no need to indicate she thought Mildred was a real gossip.
‘Oh, no, not when it is you, Miss Gershwin. It’s almost like helping the police with information, isn’t it?’ she asked….
It took some time and another plate of biscuits to worm everything out of Mildred.”

 

Rhapsody uses her friendly manner to make people feel comfortable around her without them really being aware that she’s putting the pieces of a puzzle together.

That friendly manner isn’t entirely a front, though. Rhapsody has real compassion for those who are in pain, although she’s not mawkish about it. That also makes her character appealing. For instance, one of the residents of Knavesborough is Annabella Kickinbottom, daughter of Mildred Kickinbottom and her husband Arnold. Arnold and Mildred spend most of their time fighting with each other and it’s very hard on their daughter. At one point in The Cosy Knave Rhapsody is visiting the local estate where Annabella works as a maid. She’s looking for a particular clue and wants Annabella’s help. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t care about Annabella herself. At first, Annabella suspects that Rhapsody is only going to pump her for information, but she’s proven wrong. Here is a bit of their conversation.

 

“‘What you mean is that you want to play sleuth, don’t you?’
‘Why is it that nobody believes my good intentions when I want to be helpful?’ She kept an eye at Annabella who was slicing a loaf very inexpertly. ‘Let me do this, and you can fry the bacon and the sausages.’
‘Well, at least you are not after my Dad, are you?’ Annabella tried to keep her cool façade, but the first egg slipped out of her hand and onto the tiled floor.
‘No, I’m not.’…
‘I told mum she should leave him. But my parents will never leave each other. Their main interest in life is to pick at each other.’…
‘That’s so sad. But you must try to break away and form a better life for yourself, Annabella.’”

 

Gradually Annabella feels a little comforted and she gives Rhapsody the information she needs. Rhapsody’s status as the vicar’s daughter means that people expect her to be kind. But she genuinely is. That doesn’t mean she’s gullible though, and that combination makes her an interesting character.

Another appealing aspect of Rhapsody’s character is that she knows she’s an amateur. She doesn’t pretend to be professional, and she knows the limits of what she’s allowed to do. Whenever she finds out important information, she passes it on to her fiancé and the two make sense of the clues together. That’s much more realistic than the stereotypical amateur sleuth who is blocked at every turn by the police but solves cases anyway.

Rhapsody has a sense of humour, too, which makes her both authentic and interesting. For instance, in Toffee’s Christmas, a short story that appears in Candied Crime, Knavesborough gets a new resident – the enigmatic Toffee Brown. For the first few weeks, no-one pays much attention to the newcomer. Then she makes a major change to her hair colour. One day, Rhapsody and her sister Psalmonella happen to be shopping in the local market when they see Toffee:

 

“‘Isn’t that Miss. Brown?’ Psalmonella nudged her sister.
‘No it can’t…Dear me, I’m afraid you’re right. Do you think she was caught up in a duel between a couple of graffiti painters?’ Rhapsody bit her lip to keep herself from laughing out loud. “

 

When Toffee Brown is mysteriously killed, it’s Rhapsody’s literary knowledge and her powers of observation that provide the important clues about who killed the victim and why.

Rhapsody Gershwin is a bright, interesting, sometimes funny and always fun character. If I moved into Knavesborough, I’ll bet she’d be among the first to greet me and I’d like that. She’d be a good friend. If you haven’t yet “met” her, I hope you will.

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Filed under Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen, Rhapsody Gershwin

You Know I Think It’s Time to Give This Game a Ride*

The Major League Baseball season has started, the National Hockey League playoffs have started and the National Basketball League playoffs will be starting in a couple of weeks. And even though the Summer Olympic Games in London won’t be held until the end of July, there’s quite a lot of fervor already as final preparations are made and all of the athletes get into their best physical condition. Sport is a really important part of lots of people’s lives even if they don’t participate themselves. If you’ve ever had to get through a traffic jam because of people leaving or going to a game, you know what I mean. If you arrange your schedule to watch your favourite team play, you know what I mean. We see that interest in sport in real life of course, and we see it in crime fiction, too. And no, I don’t just mean sleuths such as Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar and Dick Francis’ Sid Halley, who are former professional athletes. Sport’s woven all through the genre.

For instance, you wouldn’t think of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot as a lover of sport, and really he isn’t. But in The Mystery of the Blue Train, he uses tennis matches as a very good opportunity to follow up on leads in the murder of Ruth Van Aldin Kettering. She was traveling on the famed Blue Train to meet her lover when she was strangled. At first the motive seems to be a jewel theft, since a very valuable ruby necklace she had was stolen. But Poirot soon discovers that it’s more complicated than that and he looks into the case at the request of Ruth’s father Rufus Van Aldin. Several of the important people from whom Poirot thinks he can get clues are attending a tennis match, so Poirot goes, too. And it turns out he gets some interesting and useful information there, too.

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey shows himself to be quite the cricket player in Murder Must Advertise. In that novel, Wimsey goes undercover at Pym’s Publicity, Ltd. when one of their copywriters Victor Dean is killed one afternoon when he’s at work. At first Dean’s death looks like a tragic accident (he fell down a flight of stairs), but he left behind a half-finished note alleging that someone at the company has been using company resources for illegal purposes. Pym’s management wants to get to the bottom of the matter and hires Wimsey for the purpose. Wimsey soon finds that someone in the company was using the company’s advertising resources to set up meetings between a drugs gang and a group of local dealers. Dean found out about it and was blackmailing that person, and that’s the reason he was killed. In his guise as new copywriter Death Bredon, Wimsey finds out who the killer was. He also ends up playing for the company cricket team and it’s at that match that the climactic scenes of the novel happen.

Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski follows sport closely and particularly likes the Chicago Cubs baseball team. In Indemnity Only, for instance, Warshawski is tracking down a young woman Anita Hill who seems to have disappeared. In the process of looking for the missing woman, she goes to the home of Anita’s boyfriend Pete Thayer only to find he’s been killed. Now Warshawski gets involved in a case involving insurance fraud, union thugs, and another murder. But she’s not too busy to listen to her beloved Cubs on the car radio as she drives, and we listen to the progress of the game, too. Warshawski is also a former basketball player and in Blood Shot (AKA Toxic Shock) she attends a reunion of her former team. That’s when Caroline Dijak, the organiser of the reunion, asks Warshawski’s help. Dijak wants to find her father, whom she never knew. Warshawski agrees, but then, the body of another friend is found in Dead Stick Pond. Now Warshawski has two cases, each involving friends of hers, to solve.

Peter Temple’s Jack Irish is a Fitzroy supporter and the son of a former Fitzroy player, so he spends his share of time with some of this father’s old football friends at the Prince of Prussia. In Bad Debts, Irish has just finished one case and is started on the case of the mysterious murder of Danny McKillop, a former client. He stops in at the pub and several of its usual denizens ask where he’s been.

 

“‘I had to go to Sydney,’ I said. ‘Work.’…
‘What kind of work does a man have in Sydney on Satdee arvo?’ said Norm O’Neill in a tone of amazement. These men would no more consider being away from Melbourne on a Saturday in the football season than they would consider enrolling in personal development courses.”  

 

Irish also follows horse racing, and a sub-plot of this novel involves a case of racing and betting arrangements.

Helene Tursten’s sleuth Inspector Irene Huss is a former European woman’s champion in judo and is still involved. She teaches a judo class and her daughter Katarina has inherited her interest. Huss doesn’t solve her cases by using judo, but she does use it to stay in shape, clear her mind and focus when she needs to. Her workouts at the dojo and her interest in judo are woven through the novels rather than becoming a separate plot in and of themselves.

And then there’s Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s The Cosy Knave. In that novel, retired teacher Rose Walnut-Whip is murdered during a football match between England and Germany. Everyone has gathered to watch the match on television at the home of grocer Tuxford Wensleydale and the noise from the match is so loud and people’s attention is so fixed on what’s happening in the game that they pay no attention to what has happened to Rose until it’s too late. Constable Archibald Penrose isn’t accustomed to having to deal with murder cases, but his boss Chief Inspector Alexander Mars-Wrigley is far too interested in the outcome of the match to pay a lot of attention to the investigation. So with the help of his fiancée Rhapsody Gershwin, Penrose has to put the pieces of the puzzle together himself.

Even when sport isn’t a major theme of a novel, it’s often woven into a story in subtle ways. In many, many crime novels, characters watch ball games on television (or attend them), they talk about their favourite teams and so forth. Sport is a very important part of life for many people, so it makes sense that it’s a part of stories, too. Just to show you what I mean, here’s a bit I particularly like from Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors, which isn’t even about sport. In that novel, Australian Federal Police Officer Bradman “Brad” Chen is taking a leave of absence from work. He’s lured back to investigate the murders of former politician Alec Dennet and the editor of his memoirs Lorraine Starke. This is the conversation that takes place just after Chen has been persuaded to come back to work and help investigate this case:

 

Welcome back,’ said Talkative. “let’s go and talk post-mortems.’
‘Nah, I’ll come back tomorrow,’ I said, ‘to read my way through things.’
‘Dr. Nick will be shattered, not seeing you.’
‘He’s a South Sydney supporter,’ I said. ‘They’re used to heartbreak.’”

 

See what I mean about sport?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Fogarty’s Centerfield.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dick Francis, Dorothy Sayers, Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen, Harlan Coben, Helene Tursten, Kel Robertson, Peter Temple, Sara Peretsky

Sweet Virginia Cigarette Burning in My Hand*

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, one of the fascinating things about crime fiction is the way that it shows us our changing values. As time goes on and social attitudes change, we sometimes see them in crime fiction, too. For instance, I got an excellent suggestion from author and blogger Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen to think about how smoking is portrayed in crime fiction and how that’s changed. That’s a really interesting topic, actually, and gave me some welcome “food for thought.”

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlcok Holmes mysteries, both Holmes and Watson are smokers. Holmes usually smokes a pipe, but he and Watson smoke cigarettes, too. In fact, cigarette stubs and ends provide important clues in more than one of the Holmes adventures. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance, Holmes uses his knowledge of Watson’s brand of cigarettes to trace his friend. Watson has made a trip to Baskerville Hall to do the “legwork” of investigating a mysterious curse that seems to lie on the family. The most recent death, that of Sir Charles Baskerville, seems to be from a heart attack but a family friend Mr. Mortimer believes in the curse. He is afraid that the next heir Sir Henry Baskerville will fall prey to the curse. Holmes sends Watson to report back to him and Watson gets in deeper than he thought, as the saying goes. He’s afraid that Holmes won’t know what’s happened, but he’s reckoned without Holmes’ deductive abilities. What’s interesting in the Conan Doyle stories is that although several of the male characters smoke, we don’t see women smoking at all.

That all changes in Agatha Christie’s writing. In many, many of her works, both men and women smoke regularly. In fact, it’s unusual for an adult not to smoke. And although Poirot (a smoker himself) is frequently known to say that one can solve a crime just by thinking, he does make use of cigarettes and their residue sometimes. That’s what happens in the short story Murder in the Mews, in which he finds out the truth behind the shooting death of Barbara Allen. She seems to have committed suicide, but a few clues suggest otherwise. Poirot and Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp look into the case and it’s actually the evidence from a tray full of cigarette butts that gives Poirot one of his famous “little ideas.”

And then there’s Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise. In that novel, copywriter Victor Dean has taken a fatal fall down a staircase at his place of employment, Pym’s Publicity, Ltd. His death would be put down as an accident but for the fact that he left behind him a half-finished letter in which he intimated that someone in the company was participating in illegal activities. The company managers hire Lord Peter Wimsey to go undercover at Pym’s to find out the truth about Dean’s death. Wimsey does so in the guise of Dean’s replacement. As a part of his “cover,” Wimsey designs a new ad campaign for Whifflet cigarettes. It turns out to be a stunning success, and it also provides an interesting look at the way smoking was viewed at that time. It was considered socially acceptable for men and women to smoke, and lots of people did. In fact, it was simply assumed that people would smoke.

In the last fifty years, we’ve found out a lot about the health effects of smoking, and that’s brought about some interesting changes in the way it’s depicted in crime fiction. Oh, crime fictional characters still smoke. For instance, more of the characters in Denise Mina’s Garnethill smoke than don’t smoke. But it’s clear that times have changed. It’s not taken for granted any more.

For instance, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s sleuth is Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. Thóra  doesn’t smoke and wants the office she shares with her law partner to be smoke-free. Much to her chagrin, their secretary Bella doesn’t share their views about smoking. It makes for more than one conflict between them when Thóra catches Bella smoking at work, or when the evidence is clear that she has been smoking. Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone isn’t a smoker either, although she’s not sanctimonious about it. There are many, many other sleuths, too, who aren’t smokers.

What’s also an interesting development in recent decades is some sleuths’ decision to stop smoking. Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus and Lilian Jackson Braun’s Jim Qwilleran all stop smoking in the course of the series that feature them. In Surrender, Donna Malane’s Diane Rowe is quitting smoking, too. She’s picked a bad time to do so, and she slips more than once in the novel. But quitting is her goal. And there are other sleuths in the same situation.

One question we could ask is: with all that we now know about smoking, why do so many characters in crime fiction still smoke? Because a lot of them do, depending on which sub-genre you read. One possible explanation is that a lot of the interactions among characters take place in circumstances where smokers are likely to light up: in bars, after meals and so on. There’s also the fact that police investigations are stressful. Smokers tend to light up more often under stress than when the stress level is lower. So during a murder investigation it makes sense that one would see more smoking.

That said though, there has been a change in attitudes towards smoking in crime fiction. Many sleuths are non-smokers, and there are plenty of novels in which none of the characters, even the minor characters, lights up. But I’m interested in your views on this. Do you see a different attitude towards smoking in today’s crime fiction than in, say Golden Age crime fiction? Does it matter to you whether a protagonist smokes? If you’re a writer, does your sleuth smoke? Do his or her family and friends?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Somewhere Along the Line.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Colin Dexter, Denise Mina, Donna Malane, Dorothy Sayers, Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen, Ian Rankin, Lilian Jackson Braun, Yrsa Sigurdardóttir