Category Archives: Elizabeth Spann Craig

Let’s Make a Difference People*

Charity FundraisingWriters notice things about human nature; that’s how believable characters come to life. The writer can take a given trait and make it work in any number of ways in a story, too. Just as an example, let’s consider a trait that I admire in people – human generosity. Many people are happy to donate their time, talent or money for a good cause or to help each other. That’s one aspect of human nature that gives me cause for hope. I think we need it and I think we’re better as a species when we nurture it. 

If we look at some of the ways crime fiction authors explore this trait, we see how it can be used to further a story, too, even if the story is about murder. It’s really a matter of tapping into something humans do and are in real life and using that to serve the story. Exploitative? Maybe a little. But that’s part of the way the author adds credibility to characters. 

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d), famous actress Marina Gregg and her husband Justin Rudd have purchased Gossington Hall in St. Mary Mead. In part to win over the locals, the new owners decide to carry on the Gossington Hall tradition of an annual charity fête. Nobody could be happier about this than Heather Badcock, who is a fan of Marina Gregg’s, and is very excited to see her idol. On the day of the fête, everyone gathers at Gossington Hall to support a good cause and of course, to see the house, the grounds, and their famous owners. Heather gets the chance to actually speak to Marina Gregg and she’s delighted. But soon afterwards she gets terribly ill and later dies from what turns out to be a poisoned drink. At first it’s believed that Marina Gregg was the intended victim and there are certainly suspects if that’s the case. But soon enough, we learn that Heather was the intended victim all along. Miss Marple and her friend Dolly Bantry work together to find out who killed the victim and why. 

Rex Stout’s Champagne For One features another charity event, this time a dinner/dance to benefit the women of Grantham Hall, a home for unwed mothers and their babies. Part of the agenda for this annual event is that some of these young ladies will be introduced to life among ‘the better classes’ and perhaps even meet young men. It’s been hosted for quite a while by wealthy socialite Louise Robilotti, and this year’s dinner/dance promises to be as much of a success as the others have been. A very reluctant Archie Goodwin is persuaded to take a friend’s place at the event, so he’s on the scene when one of the guests Faith Usher suddenly dies of cyanide poisoning. Goodwin was told earlier in the evening that Faith had brought cyanide with her, and had planned to commit suicide. So there’s every reason at first to believe that she carried out her threat. Goodwin doesn’t believe it though. So despite a great deal of pressure to leave the case alone, Goodwin begins to ask questions. In this case, we see how the busy setting of a charity event can be an effective setting for a murder. And it’s also interesting to see how this benefit is perceived by the young women themselves. 

In Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold), we meet CC de Poitiers, who’s become famous as a lifestyle guru. In her personal life though, she’s abusive and unpleasant, so she quickly alienates everyone when she moves with her family to the rural Québec town of Three Pines not long before Christmas. The local custom is an annual holiday pancake breakfast and curling match event in aid of the local hospital and de Poitiers and her family attend. During the curling match, she suddenly dies of what turns out to be electrocution. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team investigate the case, and they soon discover that there are several people who could have wanted the victim dead. Before they find out who the killer is, the team members will have to find out how the murderer got to the victim in full view of everyone at the event. Penny explores the human desire to help others and be charitable in other ways too in this novel, but I don’t want to give away spoilers. 

Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Hickory Smoked Homicide also features an important benefit event. This time it’s a charity dinner and art auction hosted by socialite and beauty-pageant coach Tristan Pembroke. She may be hosting a benefit event, but Tristan is certainly not a kind, generous person. She’s malicious and vindictive, and the event certainly isn’t motivated by genuine altruism. Still, a lot of people show up for the dinner and art auction. One of the featured artists is Sara Taylor, who’s had a serious argument with Tristan about one particular painting. When Sara’s mother-in-law Lulu discovers Tristan’s body during the big event, both she and Sara come under suspicion. In order to clear their names, Lulu looks into the case to find out who else would have wanted to commit the murder, and it turns out that there are several possibilities. The human tendency to want to give to and help others plays a role in this story (no spoilers) that goes beyond just the benefit, and it’s interesting to see how it’s worked in. 

A high-profile charity art auction forms an important element in Gail Bowen’s The Gifted. In one plot thread of this novel, former academic and political expert Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her attorney husband Zack are involved with the Racette-Hunter Centre. That’s a community building intended as the central focus of a redevelopment project for North Regina. As a part of this effort, fundraising Chair Lauren Treadgold and her husband Vince have planned a gilt-edged fundraising art auction. Joanne and Zack’s fourteen-year-old daughter Taylor has had two of her paintings chosen for the auction. On the one hand, this is a real coup for Taylor, who is both truly gifted and truly passionate about her art. On the other, her parents are concerned. They don’t want her to grow up too fast, and the recognition that she’ll get as a result of the auction will, as one character says, ‘change everything’ for Taylor. Still, Taylor’s work is included in the auction. Her parents have seen one of her pieces, but not the other. On the night of the big event, the other piece of art is revealed, and that has drastic consequences for many of the people involved. 

Of course, not all charity and fundraising events end that way. For instance, in Alexander McCall Smith’s The Full Cupboard of Life, local orphanage director Mma. Silvia Potokwane plans a benefit event in aid of the orphanage. One of the things that will be featured is a parachute jump. Mma. Potokwane has a way of getting people to do what she wants, so against his better judgement, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni agrees to do the parachute jump. After all, it’s for a very good cause. The closer the event gets though, the more uncertain he is about going through with the jump. Still, he doesn’t want to let Mma. Potokwane down. Finally, with help from Mma. Precious Ramotswe, he comes up with a solution. One of his assistants is persuaded to take his place. The assistant is all too happy to get his name in the paper and get some attention (mostly from girls). Mma. Potokwane will get the funds the orphanage needs. And Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni won’t have to actually do the parachute jump himself.

The trait of being willing to give to others and be generous is an important way that we keep moving on. I’m glad it’s part of who we are as humans. It’s also a fascinating trait to explore in crime fiction. I’ve only mentioned a few examples here. I’ll bet you can think of lots more than I ever could.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Los Lonely Boys’ Believe

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Louise Penny, Rex Stout, Riley Adams

I’m in a Playground in My Mind*

Fictional Places that Seem RealI’m going to let you in on a little secret if I may. It’s not always easy to create an entirely fictional place when you write. On the one hand, creating a fictional setting means that you don’t have to verify street names, local landmarks and the like. You can locate buildings, parks, streets and so on anywhere you like. And there’s no end to the possibilities for the kinds of characters you create.

But on the other hand, a completely fictional setting still has to be credible. Even readers who live in the region where the fictional town or city is located have to believe the place could really exist. The climate, the kinds of businesses, the pastimes and the character types have to ring true or readers won’t be drawn into the story. And if you write a series set in that fictional place, it has to change and evolve as the series goes on. That happens to real-life places. Buildings go up and are torn down. People move in and out. Businesses open, close and change. A fictional setting has to reflect that evolution if it’s to be believed.

Some authors have created fictional settings that are so authentic that people have believed they actually exist. For example, Agatha Christie created St. Mary Mead, the home of Katherine Grey in The Mystery of the Blue Train and later of course the home of Miss Jane Marple. Interesting that in a village like that, the two women never meet. Still, St. Mary Mead is a very credible kind of English village with a cast of ‘regular’ characters who fit in there. There’s the vicar Leonard Clement and his wife Griselda, there’s Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly, and there are others too. St. Mary Mead also changes as time goes by, as you would expect. That’s one of the themes for instance in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d). In that novel, council housing and other social changes have come to the village, and some residents aren’t too happy about them. Miss Marple takes the changes in stride but it’s clear that the village is evolving as real places do.

K.C. Constantine’s Mario Balzic series takes place in fictional Rocksburg, Pennsylvania. It’s a mining town in the western part of Pennsylvania and most of the characters there fit right in. Chief of Police Balzic for instance reflects the Polish-American and Italian-American influences in that region and the town residents tend to be working-class ‘regular folks.’ It’s a fictional town but the series reflects the culture, economy, character types and climate of that area. Trust me. To my knowledge (but please, correct me if I’m mistaken), Rocksburg is completely fictional. But it might be a real place for its authenticity.

That’s also true of Ruth Rendell’s Kingsmarkham. Fans of her Inspector Reg Wexford series will know that most of the novels in it take place in this fictional town. It isn’t a real place, but it’s certainly authentic. In novels such as Road Rage and Simisola, we see the town adapt (or not) to social and other changes. The cast of ‘regulars’ is authentic; so are details such as climate, kinds of businesses and physical setting. Fans of the series will tell you that to them, Kingsmarkham might very well be an actual place. In fact, it’s said that Rendell once had to remind a reader that she created the place when that reader questioned her about it. I don’t have all of the details but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it were true. Kingsmarkham is very genuine.

So is Three Pines, the rural Québec creation of Louise Penny.  As fans of this series will know, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec spends his share of time there. Beginning with Still Life, readers have gotten to know many of the locals very well. Gamache doesn’t live there, but he’s become one of them in his way. The place is authentic. It fits in with the region and it develops and evolves as the series goes on. Buildings change hands, people come and go, and there’s a cast of recurring characters that adds much to the authenticity of this fictional place. The climate and culture are also realistic. I would guess that plenty of people have done an Internet search for Three Pines, thinking they would find it on an actual map. Here’s what Penny says about the place:

 

‘I love Three Pines. I created it because I would want to live there.’

 

It may not be on maps, but it’s a believable town.

We could also say that about Vigàta, the fictional home of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano. Vigàta is located in Sicily and is based on Camilleri’s home town of Porto Empedocle. It’s not a real place, but it’s quite authentic. The trattorias, the buildings, the local culture and the character types ring very true, and that’s not just because it’s inspired by a real place. Camilleri creates an authentic sense of setting with the subtle and not-so-subtle details that make a place genuine.

There are other series too that are set in fictional towns based on real places. For example, Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski series is set in Crooked Lake, Saskatchewan. That town is based on a real place, Wakaw, Saskatchewan. Robert B. Parker’s Paradise, Massachusetts is the home of his Jesse Stone series. Paradise is loosely based on Swamscott, Massachusetts. And fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series will know that Durant, Wyoming, the setting for those novels, is based on an actual place, Buffalo, Wyoming.

Plenty of cosy mystery series are also set in fictional places that feel quite real. Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series is like that. It’s set mostly in Pickax, a small town in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ And Elizabeth Spann Craig’s got two series set in fictional towns in North Carolina. But those places seem genuine. They’re populated with believable characters, the places evolve as the series goes on, and the culture and climate reflect the region.

Now if you’ll excuse me, the Tilton Sentinel’s newest edition is out and I want to catch up on the news. :wink:  While I’m gone, feel free to share the fictional places that seem very real to you.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss’ Playground in My Mind.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Craig Johnson, Elizabeth Spann Craig, K.C. Constantine, Lilian Jackson Braun, Louise Penny, Nelson Brunanski, Robert B. Parker, Ruth Rendell

Sometimes You Want to Go Where Everybody Knows Your Name*

Local RestaurantsJust about every town seems to have places where the local people gather. And in cities, different neighbourhoods have their own little cafés or restaurants that attract ‘regulars.’ If you have one of those places near you, then you know how they can add to the richness of an area. They can be good places to catch up on the gossip and meet up with friends. In crime fiction, they’re useful in a number of other ways too. They’re good places to show not tell something about the sleuth’s personal life. They’re also good places for the sleuth to hear things that can be helpful in a given investigation. And for the author, they can be very useful for bringing characters together without it seeming too contrived.

One of best-known of these crime-fictional cafés is Rosie’s, which is a regular haunt for Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. The food at Rosie’s would never be confused with gourmet cooking. But for one thing, Millhone is not really particular about her food, and she’d rather eat out than cook. And the atmosphere at Rosie’s is informal and relaxed, which also suits Millhone. Here’s what she says about the place in A is for Alibi:

 

‘The place appeals to me for a couple of reasons. Not only is it close to my home but it is never attractive to tourists, which means that most of the time it’s half-empty and perfect for private conversations. Then, too, Rosie’s cooking is inventive, a sort of devil-may-care cuisine with a Hungarian twist.’

 

Millhone sometimes meets clients there, but even when she doesn’t, the scenes at Rosie’s show the reader an interesting side of Millhone’s character.

Also a relaxed and informal local watering hole is the Busy Bee Café, one of the haunts of Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire. The Bee, as it’s often called, is one of the social hubs of Durant, Wyoming, and Longmire often hears helpful gossip when he’s there. It’s also a good place to meet up with people. The Bee also provides the food for anyone who happens to be in the county jail. Here’s the way it’s described in Death Without Company:

 

‘The Busy Bee was in a small, concrete-block building that clung to the banks of Clear Creek through the tenacity of its owner and the strength of its biscuits and spiced gravy. Dorothy Caldwell had owned and operated the Bee since Christ had been a cowboy. I [Longmire] ate there frequently and, due to its proximity to the jail, so had our infrequent lodgers.’

 

The food at the Bee is ‘down home’ comfort food, and Dorothy Caldwell is very accommodating about putting takeaway meals together if Longmire is going out of town. Longmire also knows that if someone calls him while he’s eating there, Dorothy will put the call through. It’s that kind of place.

Another very appealing local gathering place (at least to me) is Colourful Mary’s, a regular stop for Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant. Quant is a Saskatoon PI who, because he’s not a cop, often relies on local networks to get information that he needs for his cases. And Colourful Mary’s draws many of Saskatoon’s local residents. Here’s how it’s described in Amuse Bouche:

 

‘Colourful Mary’s is Saskatoon’s only publicly admitted gay-run restaurant, but over the years it has developed a wide range of loyal clientele…Marushka cooks like everyone’s mother, most notably her own. In addition to some rather standard fare for the less adventurous, Marushka always adds one or two Ukrainian delicacies to the daily menu…I like Colourful Mary’s…You feel cared for but not smothered. I’m also addicted to Marushka’s cooking.’

 

Colourful Mary’s may be a little more upmarket than the Busy Bee is, but it’s a comfortable, welcoming place. And Quant gets very useful information there at times.

Many of Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache novels take place in the small Québec town of Three Pines. Three Pines may be small, but it’s got Olivier’s Bistro. In Still Life the bistro is referred to as

 

‘…the Central Station of Three Pines,’

 

and that’s an accurate description. The Bistro/ B & B is owned by Olivier Brulé and his partner Gabriel Dubeau, and as Gamache learns early in this series, it is in many ways the heart, soul and social hub of Three Pines. Gamache and his team certainly learn as much from the time they spend there as they do interviewing witnesses. And of course, the food is delicious.

One of Kerry Greenwood’s series features Corinna Chapman, a baker who lives and works in a large Melbourne building called Insula. One of the businesses in the same building is Café Delicious, run by the Pandamus family. It’s a comfortable sort of place that’s popular with several of the building’s regulars. For instance, Chapman’s assistant Jason Wallace frequently does justice to the food there. Here’s what Chapman says about it in Heavenly Pleasures:

 

‘There is always good money to be made at Café Delicious by betting how long it is going to take my thin scrap of a Jason to eat his way through three eggs (fried), three sausages, three rashers of bacon, two grilled tomatoes, a stack of toast and two hash browns or potato pancakes, depending on whether Grandma Pandamus or the Hungarian relief cook Kristina is dishing out the food. His record is three minutes…’

 

Of course, Jason is a teenager. But still…

And then there’s Rusterman’s Restaurant, which Rex Stout fans will know is one of the few restaurants Nero Wolfe visits, and just about the only one he visits with any regularity. And even then it’s only for an occasional meal. And with a chef like Fritz Brenner in his employ, why should Wolfe go out to eat? His willingness to eat at Rusterman’s should tell readers something about the quality of the food there.

There are also several series, including Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Memphis Barbecue series, that are based around local haunts. In those cafés and restaurants, we get to meet the ‘regulars’ in the series, and the settings are effective ways for the authors to get the sleuth involved in cases.

 

Now if you’ll excuse me, all of this talk about local haunts and places to eat have got me feeling a bit hungry. Think I’ll go down the street and see who’s at the café…

Happy Weekend, everyone!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo’s Where Everybody Knows Your Name.

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Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Craig Johnson, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Kerry Greenwood, Louise Penny, Rex Stout, Riley Adams, Sue Grafton

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

So Shed Those Dowdy Feathers and Fly a Little Bit*

New LooksAn interesting guest post at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about what happens when people who generally don’t pay much attention to their appearance are transformed by a new look. We get very, very accustomed to the way people in our lives look and dress, and when that changes, we see them in a whole new way. There are plenty of examples of this sort of thing in crime fiction; let me just share a few.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we meet Katherine Grey. She’s spent the last ten years as a paid companion, and people got quite accustomed to her wearing ‘sensible’ shoes and clothes. Then Katherine’s employer dies, leaving her considerable fortune to her former companion. When she learns how much money she’s going to inherit, Katherine decides to do two things. One is to have some good clothes.

 

‘Her first action was to visit the establishment of a famous dressmaker.
A slim, elderly Frenchwoman, rather like a dreaming duchess, received her, and Katherine spoke with a certain naiveté.
‘I want, if I may, to put myself in your hands. I have been very poor all my life and know nothing about clothes, but now I have come into some money and want to look really well dressed.’’

 

Needless to say, the dressmaker is delighted and helps her client to choose a becoming wardrobe. Shortly afterwards, Katherine takes the famous Blue Train to Nice to stay with a distant cousin Lady Rosalie Tamplin and her family. On the way she gets mixed up in a murder case when a fellow passenger Ruth Van Aldin Kettering is strangled.

A new look proves to be more sinister in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. The family settles in and at first all goes well. Then, Joanna and her friend Bobbie Markowe begin to suspect that something frightening is going on in Stepford. There isn’t much to go on at first; it’s a quiet town with good schools and low taxes. But something is definitely not normal (if there is such a thing) about the people who live there, especially the women. After a certain amount of time, they seem to change drastically. Here’s a description of one of the women before that change:

 

‘She was short and heavy-bottomed, in a blue Snoopy sweatshirt and jeans and sandals. Her mouth was big, with unusually white teeth, and she had blue take-in-everything eyes and short dark tufty hair. And small hands and dirty toes.’ 

 

And here’s the ‘after’ description:

 

‘She looked the way she had on Sunday-beautiful, her hair done, her face made  up. And she was wearing some kind of padded high-uplift bra under her green sweater, and a hip-whittling girdle under the brown pleated skirt.’ 

 

The closer Joanna gets to the truth about what’s really going on in Stepford, the more danger there is for her.

In Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess, writer Erica Falck has returned to her home town of Fjällbacka after her parents’ deaths so she can go through their things and sort them all out. While she’s there, a former friend Alexandra ‘Alex’ Wijkner is found dead in what looks at first like a suicide. But very soon it’s proved that she was murdered. In part to deal with her grief at the loss of a friend she hadn’t really seen in twenty-five years, Erica decides to write Alex’s biography. In that way she begins to ask questions about how and why she was killed. In the meantime the police, mostly in the form of Patrik Hedström, investigate the death officially. Patrik and Erica are drawn to each other and we learn that they’ve always liked one another; it’s just that the timing was never really right for either to pursue a relationship. One night Erica invites Patrik over for a home-cooked meal. Usually, she is a very casual dresser who doesn’t take a lot of pains with her appearance. But not tonight:

 

‘The first dilemma had arisen…when, like her favorite literary heroine Bridget Jones, she was faced with the decision of which panties to choose. Should she wear a beautiful, lace-trimmed thong, for the slim eventuality that she and Patrik ended up in bed? Or should she put on the substantial and terribly ugly panties with the extra support for tummy and backside, which would increase her chances that they might end up in bed at all? A hard choice, but…she decided after much deliberation on the support variety. Over them she would wear pantyhose with a tummy-flattening panel. In other words, the heavy artillery…

After another look at the pile on the bed, she pulled out from the bottom the first outfit she had tried on. Black was slimming, and the classic, knee-length dress in a Jackie Kennedy style was flattering to the figure. A pair of pearl earrings and a wristwatch would be her only jewelry, and she let her hair fall loosely over her shoulders.

 

Erica’s change in appearance makes quite an impression on Patrik and I don’t think it’s spoiling the novel to say that the two of them begin a relationship.

Kerry Greenwood’s accountant-turned-baker Corinna Chapman isn’t usually one to take a lot of pains with her appearance either. But in Earthly Delights, she makes an exception. In one of the plot threads, there’ve been several deaths of heroin junkies in the area of Melbourne where Chapman has her bakery. In fact, there’s a near-death practically on her doorstep. Together with her lover Daniel Cohen, Chapman looks into what’s been happening. The clues lead to a Goth club called Blood Lines, and Chapman and Cohen decide to attend. They’ll need to be dressed appropriately though or they won’t be admitted, so Chapman turns to her friend Pat, who goes by the professional name of Mistress Dread. Normally, Chapman doesn’t go to a lot of effort in dressing. For her, it’s usually trackies and sweatshirt for baking, and a blouse and trousers for dealing with the bakery’s customers. Here’s how she transforms herself for the visit to Blood Lines:

 

‘She [Mistress Dread] flung it over my head with a practised hand and it settled on me…The dress was a full-skirted number with built-in black petticoats, slashed sleeves and a neckline which could be mistaken for a waist it was so deep. It was a gorgeous shade between venous and arterial blood and as I moved I rustled in the most entrancing fashion. Then she slipped a black leather corset over the dress and began lacing it at the front…’

 

With a few final touches, Chapman’s transformation is complete and she feels gorgeous with her new look. She also finds that it gets her and Cohen easily admitted into Blood Lines, where they find out the truth about the heroin deaths.

Willam Ryan’s Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka usually doesn’t worry too much about the way she looks. She wears her police uniform when on duty, and when off duty she wears utilitarian clothes. But as The Twelfth Department begins, she needs to change her look. She and her boss Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev are on the trail of a criminal and have tracked him to a park. In order not to reveal that she’s a cop, Slivka dresses up a bit:

 

‘Slivka was…wearing a pretty white dress, her short blond hair looking almost golden in the dappled sunshine. Her lips might be a little thin and her expression grave, but she was a good-looking woman and he [Korolev] watched men’s heads turn one after the other to follow her procession through the park. He wondered if they’d be so keen if they knew the hand resting nonchalantly inside her open purse was wrapped around the butt of a service-issue revolver.’

 

The new look works perfectly too as their target is taken completely by surprise. 

Of course sometimes, a transformation can work the other way too. Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Cherry Hayes usually wears rather flamboyant clothes, especially considering that she’s – erm – no longer twenty. But she goes for a different look in Hickory Smoked Homicide. Cherry’s friend Lulu Taylor is investigating the murder of Tristan Pembroke. One of the suspects is Lulu’s own daughter-in-law Sara. Lulu’s sure Sara isn’t guilty so she determines to clear her name. That’s where Cherry comes in. Lulu’s fairly certain that the owner of her ‘regular’ dress shop may know more than she’s saying about the murder. So she and Cherry visit the shop under the guise of finding a new look for Cherry. Here’s what Cherry uses as a ‘cover story.’

 

‘I’m done with shopping at the Hipster Honey, with all their trashy clothing. With my newfound need to spend my spare time in church, I really need a whole new wardrobe – of floral dresses. Just like Lulu.’

 

This is especially funny because usually, Cherry makes fun of Lulu’s wardrobe.

It is interesting what a big difference a change in appearance can make. Thanks to Colm Redmond for the inspiration. And now, may I suggest you pay a visit to Clothes in Books? It’s the place to shop for interesting discussions about fashion and culture in books of all kinds.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Springfield and Jim Dale’s Georgy Girl, made popular by the Seekers.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Camilla Läckberg, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ira Levin, Kerry Greenwood, Riley Adams, William Ryan