Category Archives: Elizabeth Spann Craig

A Mug of Suds and a Leather Strop*

Barber Shops and Beauty SalonsFor most of us, trips to the barber shop or hair stylist are part of our routines. They’re places where we put life aside for a short while and take some time for ourselves, if only for the few minutes it takes to get our hair trimmed. But if you think about it, beauty salons and barber shops are also really effective contexts for crime novels. For one thing, a lot of gossip is exchanged at such places. So they’re very good places for sleuths to ‘listen in.’ And since barbers and hair stylists hear a lot of things, they’re awfully vulnerable when someone would rather keep something a secret. What’s more, people often have their guards down, so to speak, when they get their hair cut. So a barber shop or beauty salon can also be a solid setting for a murder. Little wonder that such places are woven through crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) for instance, we meet London hairdresser’s assistant Jane Grey. After a lucky win in a lottery, Jane decides to use some of her prize for a holiday at Le Pinet. During her flight back from Paris to London, one of her fellow passengers Marie Morisot suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight, so he works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who the murderer is. Since the only possible suspects are the victim’s fellow passengers, Jane comes in for her share of questioning. And she learns that sometimes, being mixed up in a murder case gets a person quite a lot of publicity and can even be good for one’s career. Jane’s occupation isn’t the reason for the murder, but in the course of the story, readers get a look at a London beauty salon, and there are some funny moments as Jane and her colleagues encounter all sorts of different clients and deal with their irascible boss.

In Rex Stout’s novella The Cop-Killer, the Goldenrod Barber Shop, where both Archie Goodwin and his boss Nero Wolfe get their hair cut, becomes the focus of a triple murder investigation. When two women are killed by a hit-and-run driver, police detective Jake Wallen thinks he has tracked the killer to the barber shop. He’s following up on this lead when he himself is stabbed. Suspicion falls on Carl and Tina Vardas, who work at the shop and who are in the country illegally. They ask Goodwin to help them, since they know they’re likely to be deported at the very least. Goodwin agrees to at least look into the matter and he and Wolfe trace Wallen’s movements to find out who killed him and why.

Elizabeth Spann Craig’s A Dyeing Shame: Death at the Beauty Box introduces us to retired teacher Myrtle Clover. She gets her hair done at The Beauty Box, a hair salon in the small town of Bradley, North Carolina. Lately, the shop’s owner Tammy Smith has been having some very obvious problems. She’s been ruining people’s hair and drinking quite a lot. It’s very clear that something’s wrong, but Tammy’s not saying what it is. Then one night she’s stabbed in the back with a pair of shears and pushed down the stairs to the shop’s basement. There’s talk that Tammy’s niece Kat Roberts is guilty, and it’s not impossible. Kat works at the shop and everyone knows the plan was for her to take over some day. What’s more, she’s quarreled with her aunt more than once. Kat says she’s innocent though, and Myrtle believes her. It turns out that this murder has more to do with Tammy’s personal life than with her skill at styling.

In Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters, DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla investigate the death of Meredith Winterbottom, who lives in Jerusalem Lane with her two sisters. On the surface of it, the death looks like a suicide. But Kolla isn’t so sure of that and Brock agrees that she should look into the matter more closely. It turns out that there are several possibilities too. For one thing, a development company wants to buy up Jerusalem Lane to create a new shopping and entertainment complex, but the victim was holding out and refusing to sell. For another, Meredith’s son Terry stands to inherit the house in Jerusalem Lane. He’s the owner of several beauty salons in the area and has found himself in real financial trouble. The sale of the house to the developers will make a big difference. And then there’s the fact that Meredith and her sisters are descendants of Karl Marx, and have several old papers and books among their possessions. Those items are potentially worth a great deal of money. One of the leads that the detectives follow is Terry’s business situation. A little digging into his life as a salon owner turns up some not-very-above-board doings. And you thought you could trust a salon owner… ;-)

We see how vulnerable people can be at barber shops and salons in Mayra Montero’s Dancing to ‘Almendra.’ In that novel, which takes place in 1957, New York Mafia capo Umberto Anastasia is murdered in the barber shop at the Park Sheraton Hotel (If that story sounds familiar, it’s because it’s based on a real event). On the very same day, a hippopotamus escapes from the zoo in Havana. What’s interesting is that the two incidents are related. Joaquín Porrata is a young Cuban journalist who’s assigned to cover the story of the escaped hippo. When the zookeeper hints that there’s a Mob connection in both cases, Porrata senses a much bigger story. So he digs deeper and finds himself getting dangerously involved in the Cuban/American Mob scene.

And then there’s Douglas Lindsay’s Barney Thomson series. When we first meet Thomson in The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson, he’s a nondescript Glasgow barber with an unhappy marriage. The customers at the barber shop usually bypass him for the other two barbers, and few people really pay attention to him at all. He’s socially awkward and certainly not prepossessing. He’s got a morose attitude to life, and for good reason. And in his fantasies, he’d love to commit a murder or two. And, as it turns out, there’s a serial killer who wouldn’t mind lending a hand. This is a comic-noir twist on the barber shop theme, and for those who enjoy that sort of dark wit, there is a lot of humour here.

See what I mean? We may take those trips to the hair stylist or barber for granted, but you never know what can happen. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment with my stylist. Don’t want to be late, you know; she doesn’t like that…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Sondheim’s Ballad of Sweeney Todd (Prologue).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Barry Maitland, Douglas Lindsay, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Mayra Montero, Rex Stout

Sketch the Trees and the Daffodils*

ArtMany people love art just for its own sake. They visit museums and if they have enough money, they have their own art collections. But art can also be very valuable. People who see art as a financial investment may even collect it for that reason. And of course, something that’s worth a lot of money is also a very attractive target for theft and (in the case of art) forgery. Little wonder the art business is such a popular context for crime fiction. Anything worth that much money is bound to attract crime. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), the family of patriarch Richard Abernethie gathers for his funeral and the reading of his will. When his youngest sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered, everyone hushes her up at first, and even she takes back what she said. But the next day, Cora herself is killed. Now the family attorney Mr. Entwhistle begins to believe that perhaps she was right, and in any case he wants to know who killed her.  So he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. There are several suspects too, since everyone in the family benefited from both Abernethie’s death and that of his sister. As Poirot traces Cora’s last days and weeks, he learns that she was an enthusiastic (if not particularly skilled) painter who kept hoping to find a masterpiece when she picked up various paintings at estate and bargain sales. That’s how she made the acquaintance of art expert Alexander Guthrie, who, as it turns out, plays a role in the outcome of this story.

Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Roderick Alleyn is married to artist Agatha Troy, so the art world is a frequent context in her novels. And sometimes the art world can be dangerous. In A Clutch of Constables, for instance, Troy decides to take a much-needed getaway cruise on the Zodiac. But it doesn’t turn out to be the restful trip she wants. First, one of the passengers is left behind when the boat leaves the dock, and is later found murdered. Then, during the trip, another passenger is drowned, and quite probably not by accident. Meanwhile, Troy learns that an international art forger known only as Jampot may be along for the cruise, and may have had something to do with the deaths. She tells the story to her husband in the form of a series of letters that he later uses in a class he’s teaching.

It’s well-known that just before and during World War II, the Nazis ‘safeguarded’ large fortunes of art. Some of it has been returned to the families that rightfully own it; much hasn’t. That valuable art figures into the plot of several novels. One of them is Bartholomew Gill’s McGarr and the PM of Belgrave Square. Garda Chief Superintendent Peter McGarr and his assistant O’Shaugnessy investigate the shooting death of Dublin art and antiques dealer William Craig. In the process, they look into Craig’s business dealings as well as his personal life, and they find more than one suspect. Then it’s discovered that one of the paintings in Craig’s inventory is missing. This opens up other possibilities for the murder, one of which leads back to Nazi art theft during World War II. In the end, and with help from his wife Noreen, who works in her family’s art gallery, McGarr finds out the truth about Craig’s murder.

That theme of looted art from the Nazi era is also at the core of Aaron Elkins’ Loot. Boston art historian/expert Ben Revere gets a call one day from pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky, a casual friend. Pawlovsky’s just gotten a painting he thinks may be valuable and he wants Revere’s opinion on it. Revere agrees and visits the shop. There he is shocked to find that the painting is likely an extremely valuable Velázquez. He wants to check out some facts though, and promises to return to the shop once he’s done so. When he does return after a few hours, he finds that Pawlovsky’s been murdered. Revere feels some responsibility for the killing; he believes he should have insisted that Pawlovsky not keep such a valuable piece of art in his shop. So he decides to try to trace the painting, hoping it will lead him to the killer. It turns out that the painting is one of a truckload of ‘safeguarded’ pieces of art that disappeared during World War II.  Revere travels to Europe and slowly finds out how the painting got from the back of the truck to a pawn shop. In that end, that trail also leads to the killer.

Art theft is also at the heart of Ian Rankin’s Doors Open. Wealthy Mike Mackenzie is a little bored with his life and wants to put some excitement back into it. One of his friends is banker Allan Cruikshank, with whom he shares a love of art. Together with art professor Robert Gissing, and with help from local gangster Chib Calloway, the group concocts a very daring scheme. They want to rob the National Gallery of Scotland and replace some of its extremely valuable holdings with forgeries that will be created by one of Gissing’s art students, who’s usually known as ‘Westie.’ The group chooses the gallery’s Doors Open day for the robbery. On that day, the gallery will open its warehouse and some other private areas to the public, and it seems like the perfect opportunity for the robbery. Everything goes off well enough, but the group soon learns that just stealing valuable art isn’t all there is to benefiting from it…

Because art is valuable, there are also plenty of crime stories that involve art auctions, whether for gain or charity. For instance, Gail Bowen’s The Gifted has as one of its plot threads a charity art auction that’s intended to benefit the Racette-Hunter Centre, a community development project. Bowen’s sleuth Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her husband Zack are both excited and concerned when two pieces of their daughter Taylor’s work are chosen to be auctioned. Taylor is an unusually gifted artist, but she is also only fourteen, and her parents are concerned about the major changes that this kind of notice will bring to her life. Taylor shares one piece of her work with her parents, but no-one has seen the other. On the night of the auction, she reveals that other painting and that work has drastic consequences for more than one person.

A charity art auction is the setting for a murder in Riley Adams’ (AKA  Elizabeth Spann Craig) Hickory Smoked Homicide. Socialite and beauty pageant coach Tristan Pembroke puts together a charity art auction and dinner. Underneath that beneficent exterior though, she’s actually a malicious and spiteful person. So when she’s murdered at the auction, there are several suspects. Lulu Taylor, who owns and runs Aunt Pat’s Barbecue, gets involved in the investigation because her daughter-in-law Sara is high on the list of candidates. Lulu wants to clear Sara’s name, so she starts to ask questions. The art itself isn’t the reason for this murder, but I can say without spoiling the story that a particular painting plays a role in the mystery.

All of this just shows that art is more than something people love for its own sake. It’s a very valuable commodity. Little wonder there are so many crime novels that involve art theft and forgery. Which ones have you enjoyed?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Don McLean’s Vincent (Starry, Starry Night).

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Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Bartholomew Gill, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Ngaio Marsh, Riley Adams

In Your Easter Bonnet With All the Frills Upon It*

HatsYesterday I made mention of the role that footwear plays in crime fiction. Never one to leave things half-done, I thought it only right to do a ‘head to toe’ job of it and take a look today at the way hats figure into the genre.

You may think that people don’t wear hats as they did in times past. But you’d be surprised how much of a role hats play in crime fiction. For example, the character of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will probably always be associated with the deerstalker hat. And where would the genre be without the fedora?  It’s a classic ‘PI’ sort of a hat. Just check out Tipping My Fedora, a fantastic crime-fictional blog, if you don’t believe me.  And that’s to say nothing of criminals who wear balaclavas, sleuths who wear toques outdoors when it’s cold, and a lot more too.

Now, let’s get into a few specific examples to show you just how important hats are in crime fiction. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Commissionaire Peterson brings an unusual case to Sherlock Holmes. He discovered a battered hat and a goose lying in a street where their owner had dropped them after a run-in with some hooligans. Peterson’s wife cooked the goose for Christmas dinner and discovered a valuable jewel in the goose’s crop. It all makes no sense to Peterson, but Holmes finds the case interesting. Here is a bit of a conversation he has with Dr. Watson about the matter:

 

‘But you are joking. What can you gather from this old battered felt?’ …
He picked it up and gazed at it in the peculiar introspective fashion which was characteristic of him. ‘It is perhaps less suggestive than it might have been,’ he remarked, ‘and yet there are a few inferences which are very distinct, and a few others which represent at least a strong balance of probability. That the man was highly intellectual is of course obvious upon the face of it, and also that he was fairly well-to-do within the last three years, although he has now fallen upon evil days. He had foresight, but has less now than formerly, pointing to a moral retrogression, which, when taken with the decline of his fortunes, seems to indicate some evil influence, probably drink, at work upon him. This may account also for the obvious fact that his wife has ceased to love him.’ 

 

All of this from one battered felt hat. Holmes follows up by explaining how he made each deduction, and it turns out that he is correct in every detail. Those deductions help him track down the hat’s owner and solve the mystery of the jewel. 

In Ellery Queen’s The Roman Hat Mystery, successful attorney Monte Field attends a production at New York’s Roman Theatre. By the time the production is over, Field is dead of poisoning. Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery investigate the case and soon find out some important things. Field was a blackmailer, so it’s likely that whoever killed him was one of his blackmail victims. This gives the sleuths a number of possible suspects, several of whom were in the theatre the night of the murder. And yet, all of the seats around the victim were empty although the production was sold out. So it’s hard to see how anyone could have gotten close enough to poison him. And the really interesting detail is that Field’s top hat, which he wore to the show, is missing. That hat’s disappearance and its location turn out to be vital clues to the murder.

In several of Agatha Christie’s novels and stories, hats are used to help disguise a person’s identity. I won’t mention specific examples so as to avoid spoilers, but I can say that she takes full advantage of the fact that certain styles of hat can hide a person’s face.

There’s also a sort of funny hat-related scene in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. Hercule Poirot has come to the village of Broadhinny to investigate the murder of a charwoman. Everyone thinks the killer is her lodger James Bentley; in fact, he’s been convicted of the crime and is awaiting execution. But Superintendent Spence wasn’t sure of Bentley’s guilt, so he asked Poirot to look into the matter. One day, Poirot is taking a walk when he encounters detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, who is on her way by car to visit one of Broadhinny’s residents Robin Upward. Upward is a playwright who is planning to adapt one of Mrs. Oliver’s novels for the stage. Poirot and Mrs. Oliver have a moment or two of conversation, and then Mrs. Oliver says,

 

‘What have I done with my hat?’
Poirot looked into the car.
‘I think, madame, that you must have been sitting on it.’
‘It does look like it’, agreed Mrs. Oliver, surveying the wreckage. ‘Oh, well,’ she continued cheerfully, ‘I never liked it much. But I thought I might have to go to church on Sunday, and although the Archbishop has said one needn’t, I still think that the more old-fashioned clergy expect one to wear a hat.’

 

It’s an interesting look at the culture.

Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Memphis Barbecue series features Lulu Taylor, whose barbecue restaurant has been in the family for years. One of the restaurant’s regulars, and one of Lulu’s best friends, is Cherry Hayes. She is a volunteer docent at Elvis Presley’s home Graceland, and is a little eccentric. For example, she often wears a motorcycle helmet with Presley’s picture on it. Her theory is that danger could come at any time and it’s best to be prepared for it with a proper helmet.

Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh is a Sikh, and wears his turban with pride. Although he is not a strict observer of his religion, he wouldn’t be without the turban:

 

‘…his wife had once referred to his turban as his comfort blanket…’

 

It’s a very important part of his look and his identity.

And that’s the thing about hats. They can be quite distinctive and very often they reflect important parts of their owners’ personalities. Just ask D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington. As the series featuring him begins, Heatherington is a milliner whose family has been in the business for a long time. He has keen instincts about people and is skilled at matching client to hat. He’s got a thorough knowledge of hats, too of course, and the history of different kinds of hats. And in Hats Off to Murder, he makes good use of those skills and that knowledge.  It all starts with an unusual request from a new client Delilah Delibes, who is searching for her missing mother. But it ends up in some very odd incidents and two murders. Heatherington’s love for hats doesn’t end when he retires, either. He still keeps a shed that he uses as a hat workshop and a place to contemplate.

So which hat style suits you? Trilby? Homburg? Cloche? Beret? Fedora? Something else?

 

Want to know more about hats? Do visit D.S. Nelson’s fantastic site. There’s all sorts of interesting hat-related information, support for writers, and good fiction to be hat – er – had. ;-)

 

On Another Note…

 

My best wishes for a joyous and peaceful Easter to those who celebrate it. If you’ve been celebrating Passover, I hope it’s given you a sense of connection, renewal and reflection.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, D.S. Nelson, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ellery Queen, Shamini Flint

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