Category Archives: Ellery Queen

Give Thanks For Your Protection*

Private SecurityThe police can’t be everywhere at once. What’s more, they are civil servants. This means that their duty is to protect the public, not the interests of a particular company or person. So, companies and people have often turned to private security and protection firms to fill that gap. For instance, banks, malls, gated communities and so on often hire security companies. People hire personal bodyguards too. And that’s to say nothing of the many people who sign up for home security systems.

With all of this interest in private security companies, it’s not surprising that we see them represented in crime fiction. There are a lot of examples of course; I know you’ll think of many more than I could. But here are a few to show you what I mean.

In Ellery Queen’s The French Powder Mystery, New York City Police Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery investigate when the body of Winifred French is discovered in the shop window of French’s Department Store. The victim was the wife of the store’s owner Cyrus French, and the evidence soon shows that she was shot on the store’s premises. So the Queens focus their attention on the French family and the store employees. It turns out that beneath the respectable surfaces of the family and the store lie several secrets. For one thing, Winifred French was having an affair with one of the members of the store’s board of directors. For another, it turns out that the store was being used to connect drug dealers and drug buyers. There are other things going on, too. So there are several possible suspects. One of the characters who figures in the story is William Crouther, the store detective. It’s his job to supervise the store’s security staff, monitor customers and so on. Because the murder happened in the store, the Queens depend on information he provides to establish the store’s security procedures and work out who would have been able to commit the murder.

Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly gives readers a look inside Venice’s glass blowing industry. In that novel, Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello investigate when Giorgio Tassini is killed. Tassini was night watchman/guard at a glass blowing factory owned by Giovanni De Cal, and at first, his death is put down to tragic accident. But some things about the death don’t seem consistent with that explanation, so Brunetti and Vianello look a little more deeply into the case. Tassini was an outspoken critic of the way the glass blowing industry disposes of its waste, and there are plenty of people who wanted him to keep quiet about it. There are other reasons too why someone might have wanted to kill him. Among other things it shows how vulnerable a night watchman can be.

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost begins in 1984, with the opening of the Green Oaks Shopping Center. Ten-year-old Kate Meaney is especially interested in the mall, because she is a budding detective who thinks that malls are very likely places to detect crime. Kate spends a lot of time at the mall observing possible criminals and watching for suspicious activity. Her grandmother Ivy, though, thinks she’d be better off going away to school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate doesn’t want to go, but her friend Adrian Palmer finally persuades her, promising to accompany her for moral support. They board the bus to the school together, but only Adrian returns. Despite a massive search for Kate, she’s never found. Everyone blames Adrian for her disappearance although he claims he’s innocent. Matters get so bad for him that he leaves town, vowing not to return. Twenty years later, his younger sister Lisa is working as the assistant manager for Your Music, one of the stores in Green Oaks. One night she meets Kurt, a mall security guard. They strike up a sort of friendship and soon, Kurt tells her about something unusual that’s been going on at the mall. Lately, the security cameras have been showing the image of a young girl with a backpack – a girl who looks just like Kate. Each in a different way, Lisa and Kurt go back to the past, so to speak, and we learn the real truth about what happened to Kate.

One plot thread of Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage concerns Vincent Naylor, a young man who’s recently been released from prison. He certainly doesn’t want to go back, so he decides he’s only going to take another risk if the prize is really worth having. He, his brother Noel, his girlfriend Michelle Flood, and some friends plan a coup that will set them up financially. They’re going after Protectica, a security company that transports money among banks and other firms. After careful preparations, the team targets a specific truck and goes through with the heist. The robbery itself goes off well enough, but then things begin to fall apart. In the end, they turn tragic, and Naylor decides to have his revenge for what happened.

Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer takes place in a dystopic future. Climate change and wars have created millions of refugees, and that’s only made life more difficult for Helsinki residents. The few police are overwhelmed with cases and can’t get to most of them. Even something as seemingly simple as buying food has become a struggle. This near-anarchy has led to the rise of a lot of private security companies that are hired to protect companies or individuals. Those who can afford it are therefore somewhat safe. Even the security companies are no guarantee, but they fill the vacuum left by the dwindling police force. In the midst of this chaos, poet Tapani Lehtinen discovers that his journalist wife Johanna is missing. He knows the police won’t be of much help, so he decides to find her himself. He begins with the story she was working on when she disappeared: the case of a man calling himself The Healer. The Healer blames certain corporations for the destruction of the environment and seems to have been targeting some of their executives for murder. Lehtinen believes that if he can find out who The Healer is, he’ll get closer to finding his wife. In this novel it’s interesting to see how people turn to private companies when they no longer feel safe in the hands of police.

We also see that in Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari, in which we are introduced to personal bodyguard-for-hire Martin Lemmer. He’s employed by a company called Body Armour, which provides personal protection services. Emma le Roux hires Lemmer to accompany her from Capetown to the Lowveld in search of her brother Jacobus. It’s always been believed that Jacobus was killed years earlier in a skirmish with poachers while he was working at Kruger National Park. But Emma has come to believe that he may be alive. Lemmer goes along on the trip and soon discovers that his client is likely in very grave danger. There are some extremely dangerous people who do not want the truth about Jacobus le Roux to come out. But Emma is determined to find out what really happened to her brother and by now, Lemmer would like to know too. So they continue on the search. Then, they are both attacked and Emma is gravely injured. Lemmer is now determined to find out who’s responsible, so he follows the trail on his own. He discovers that the truth has to do with greed, corruption and ugly environmental and sociopolitical realities.

Private security companies have been on the scene for a long time, although they’ve changed the way they operate and the tools they use. These are just a few instances where we see them in crime fiction. Over to you.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from UB40’s Watchdogs.

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Filed under Antti Tuomainen, Catherine O'Flynn, Deon Meyer, Donna Leon, Ellery Queen, Gene Kerrigan

I Remember How Things Used to Be*

Crime Fiction StaplesAn interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about certain kinds of characters we don’t see very often any more in crime fiction. As society has changed, so have our values and the way we see social structure. And it makes sense that those changes would be reflected in crime fiction too. Here are just a few examples of the kinds of characters we used to see a lot in classic/Golden Age crime fiction, but not so much any more.
 

The Ne’er-Do-Well Son

You know the sort of character, I’m sure. He’s the kind who’s been shipped around to different jobs and places because he just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. He may be a pleasant enough person, but certainly causes plenty of worry to the family. There are a lot of them in crime fiction; I’ll just mention one. In Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder For Christmas and A Holiday For Murder), we are introduced to the Lee family. Patriarch Simeon Lee is an unpleasant tyrant, but he’s very wealthy. So when he invites the members of his family to gather at the family home Gorston Hall for Christmas, no-one dares refuse. One of his sons is Harry Lee, who’s been all over the world and managed to run out of money wherever he is. He can be charming, but he’s irresponsible. So when word comes that he’ll be at the family gathering, his brother Albert takes real issue with it. But all thoughts of that feud are pushed aside when Simeon Lee is brutally murdered. Hercule Poirot is in the area spending the Christmas holiday with a friend, so he is persuaded to help in the investigation. It proves to be an interesting case of history catching up with the victim…
 

The Ward/Protector Dynamic

In the years before women were free to own property and so on, they were often hard-put to survive on their own. But sometimes, a young woman was left orphaned; or, for some reason, her parents were unable to care for her. In these situations, one solution was to be taken in by a well-off family as a ward. The idea was that the young woman’s ‘protector’ would see to her being taken care of until she found a husband. There are lots of instances of wards throughout literature in general and in crime fiction too. One of them is Esther Summerson, whom we meet in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. Esther is an orphan who’s been raised thus far by a very unpleasant woman she refers to as her godmother. Wealthy John Jarndyce takes an interest in the girl and wants to help her. So he takes her into his home, nominally to serve as companion to a distant relative Ada Clare. Really, though, she’s his ward. All three are connected to a very old Jarndyce family dispute over a will that’s been going round the Court of Chancery for generations. Even though the feud is a holdover from a very long time ago, it still impacts the family, with murder and intrigue being the result.
 

The Devoted Factotum

The factotum may have a title such as butler, driver or something similar. But really, that person does all sorts of jobs. He (it usually is a ‘he’) has his employer’s complete trust, and is usually intensely loyal to that employer and the employer’s family. There are dozens of crime-fictional characters like that. One of them is Simon Brandon, who figures in the Charles Todd writing duo’s Bess Crawford series. Crawford is a WWI nurse whose family is well-served by Brandon. Brandon is nominally the family’s driver, but he is much, much more as well. He takes care of business, he travels on behalf of the family, and so on. He served with Crawford’s father in the military, and is devoted the family’s well-being. He takes it upon himself to look after Crawford as best he can, and she trusts him. He’s no toady, but at the same time, he has a strong loyalty to the Crawfords. I know, I know, fans of Dorothy Sayers’ Mervyn Bunter and Kerry Greenwood’s Dot Williams …
 

The ‘Maiden Aunt’

There are a lot of women who don’t marry and have children – there always have been. They used to be placed in the category of ‘spinster’ or ‘maiden aunt,’ and we see them all throughout crime fiction. Perhaps the most famous is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, who has neither husband nor children, but does have plenty of nephews, nieces and other relatives. There are other crime-fictional ‘maiden aunts’ as well. For example, in Earl Der Biggs’ The House Without a Key, we are introduced to Miss Minerva Winterslip, who comes from a ‘blueblood’ Boston family. She travels to Hawai’i for a six-week visit to some cousins, and ten months later, she’s still there. Her nephew John Quincy Winterslip goes to Hawai’i to try to convince his aunt to come back to Boston and pick up her life again there, but instead, he gets drawn into a case of murder. When a family cousin Dan Winterslip is murdered, John Quincy works with the police, including Detective Charlie Chan, to find out who the killer is. Throughout this novel, Minerva Winterslip is portrayed as unusually independent and quite content to chart her own course as the saying goes. She may be just a bit eccentric, but she’s certainly not bizarre.
 

The Paid Companion

Paid companions are arguably a fixture in classic and Golden Age crime fiction. They’re usually women, and quite often they’re from modest backgrounds, or from ‘good’ birth but modest economic means. They’re hired by wealthy employers to take care of some light tasks (such as correspondence, some errands, light housework and so on). They also accompany their employers to certain events and in general, serve as, well, companions. Sometimes they’re treated well; sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re terrific people; sometimes they’re not. But they’re woven into the fabric of that era. One fictional companion is Violet ‘Vi’ Day, whom we meet in Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth. As the novel begins, she’s sharing rooms with Kerrie Shawn, who dreams of Hollywood stardom but so far, hasn’t had much success. The two are scraping by when they learn to their shock that Kerrie has inherited a fortune. Elderly shipping/industrial magnate Cadmus Cole has died at sea, and Kerrie is one of only two living relatives. Cole’s will specifies that Kerrie and the other heiress Margo Cole must share Cole’s home on the Hudson for a year before they can inherit. Kerrie insists that Vi share her fortune and become her secretary/companion. Everyone moves into the Cole house, and as you can imagine, there’s discord between Kerrie and Margo. When Margo is shot, Kerrie becomes the prime suspect. Since Ellery Queen and his new PI partner Beau Rummell were the firm Cole hired to find his relatives, they investigate the murder and find out who really killed Margo and why. Vi believes in her friend and employer and stays loyal to her throughout. I know, I know, fans of Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral.

There are of course other ‘staple characters’ in classic/Golden Age crime fiction. Which ones have resonated with you?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration! Folks, do go visit Moira’s excellent blog on clothes, popular culture, and what it all says about us in literature. You’ll be inspired too.

ps.  I took the ‘photo above, but it’s really a ‘photo of a ‘photo. Credit really goes to Alana Newhouse’s beautifully illustrated A Living Lens, where I found the original. It just seemed to fit the topic…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lou Reed’s I Remember You.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, Charles Todd, Dorothy Sayers, Earl Der Biggs, Ellery Queen, Kerry Greenwood

It’s Not Too Short, It’s Not Too Long*

NovellasThey’re not quite long enough to count as novels. But at the same time, they’re not really short stories either. I’m talking of course of novellas. Novellas are really interesting forms of the crime fiction genre, and it takes some skill to do them well. The author doesn’t have the room for character development that’s possible in a novel. At the same time though, the pace and timing of a novella aren’t the same as they are in short stories. Not every author does novellas of course, but for those who do, novellas can give readers an interesting insight into that author’s work.

Some of Agatha Christie’s stories are arguably novellas. One, for instance, is Dead Man’s Mirror. Hercule Poirot is summoned (there really is no other good word for it) to Hamborough Close, the home of the Chevenix-Gore family. Family patriarch Gervase Chevenix-Gore has come to believe that someone may be cheating him and he doesn’t want the police involved, since he suspects it’s a family member. Poirot arrives at Hamborough Close just as the family gathers for dinner. Then it’s discovered that Sir Gervase has been shot in his study. All of the evidence suggests it was a suicide, but Poirot isn’t sure of that. So he looks more closely into the case. He discovers that someone found a very clever way to make a murder look like suicide.

Ellery Queen’s The Lamp of God is one of those ‘impossible but not really’ mysteries. Queen gets a call from an attorney friend Thorne, who wants Queen to meet him at New York’s Pier 54. Queen agrees, mostly for friendship’s sake, and duly arrives at the pier. Together, they meet Alice Mayhew, a young heiress who’s just disembarked and whose life may be in danger. They escort her to the Mayhew family home on Long Island. There, they discover that the main house isn’t habitable, so everyone gets as comfortable as possible in the smaller house next door. The next morning, the larger house seems to have completely disappeared, along with any evidence that it ever existed. As if that weren’t enough, some strange and disturbing things happen that convince Queen that there is a real threat here. He doesn’t have a lot of time to get to the truth about the case, but in the end, we learn what happened to the big house and why Alice Mayhew is in peril.

Fans of Rex Stout’s work will know that he wrote several novellas. One of them is Disguise For Murder (AKA The Affair of the Twisted Scarf). In that story, Nero Wolfe is reluctantly persuaded to host the Manhattan Flower Club and display some of his prize orchids. During the event, Archie Goodwin sneaks to his office for some much-needed peace and quiet – and a drink. That’s when he gets a visit from a young woman calling herself Cynthia Brown. She claims that one of the other guests is a murderer, and that that person is likely aware that she knows about the killing. If so, then she’s in danger, and she wants Wolfe’s help. Goodwin is finally convinced that she might be telling the truth. But by the time he finds Wolfe and talks him into meeting this client, she’s been strangled. Now Wolfe and Goodwin have to find out which of the guests is responsible.

Robert Colby’s No Experience Necessary begins with an unusual employment advertisement. Glenn Hadlock has recently been released from San Quentin, and his job prospects are limited. So when he sees an advertisement for a bodyguard/escort position, he can’t resist applying. The benefits and pay are appealing, and he’s qualified for the work, so he shows up at the appointed place and time. He discovers that his prospective employer is wealthy Victor Scofield, who is disabled and therefore needs a chauffeur/escort/bodyguard for his beautiful young wife Eileen. Hadlock is duly hired and it’s made clear to him that his loyalty is to Scofield, who pays his salary, and that his relationship with Eileen must be strictly professional. Hadlock’s happy enough with that arrangement and at first, all goes well. But slowly (Oh, come on, you saw this coming, didn’t you?) Hadlock learns that this position is a lot more dangerous than he thought it was…

D.S. Nelson’s first two Blake Heatherington mysteries, Hats Off to Murder and One For the Rook, are both novellas. In them we are introduced to Heatherington, who is a milliner by profession. The business has been in his family for generations, and he himself takes great pride in his work. He has a true ability to match each client with exactly the right hat. He’s observant, he has compassion, and he’s intelligent and a quick study. So he’s exactly the right choice when, in Hats Off to Murder, new client Delilah Delibes asks him to help her find her mother, who’s disappeared. That search leads to a case of multiple murder, and establishes Heatherington and Delibes as friends. In One For the Rook, Heatherington gets involved in murder much closer to home, when he discovers the body of a neighbour Peter Kürbis in among his prize pumpkins. At first the police consider Heatherington as a suspect, especially since it was one of his own pumpkins that seems to have been the murder weapon. But then there’s another murder. Now Heatherington works with his new friend to find out who the killer is.

Pascal Garnier also made regular use of the novella format (e.g. The Panda Theory; How’s the Pain?). The Front Seat Passenger, for instance, is the story of Fabien Delorme, who is informed that his wife Sylvie has died in a car accident. Although their marriage hadn’t been happy for some time, he still feels her loss. But worse than that, he learns that she was not alone in the car; she was with her lover Martial Arnoult. That hurt to Delorme’s pride is almost worse than losing his wife, and he finds himself thinking of the man. When he discovers that Arnoult left a widow Martine, Delorme begins to become obsessed with her. He finds out where she lives, contrives to meet her, and soon is involved in a relationship with her. That obsession has all sorts of tragic consequences for several people…

Novellas can be tricky to write. The author needs to provide enough character development and plot to sustain the story. At the same time though, the author needs to ‘telescope’ some of the action and limit the number of characters, as one does in shorter fiction. When they’re done well though, novellas can serve as an interesting introduction to an author’s work. And they’re a nice change of pace if one’s been reading longer books.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you read novellas? If you’re a writer, have you experimented with the novella format?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Allan Sherman’s An Average Song. (I know, I rarely do novelty songs, but this just…fit).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, D.S. Nelson, Ellery Queen, Pascal Garnier, Rex Stout, Robert Colby

It All Keeps Adding Up, I Think I’m Cracking Up*

BuildupofPressureI’m sure you’ve heard of the old expression, ‘It’s always the quiet ones…’ As any crime fiction fan can tell you, there are all kinds of murderers, both loud and quiet. But even though it’s really not true, not even in fiction, there is this lingering idea of the murderer as the ‘the quiet type.’

Perhaps one reason might be that very often, those who are relatively quiet and unassuming tend to be taken for granted. Sometimes, this can mean that the pressures of life that can get to any of us build up without anyone taking notice. And then the proverbial kettle boils over.

Crime writers sometimes use this strategy – of the pressure building up and up – to add suspense to a novel or to shed light on why a character might commit murder. It’s got to be done thoughtfully of course; otherwise there’s the risk of characters who don’t act credibly. But when it is done with care, that quiet character who is more and more pressured can add a lot to a novel. Here are just a few examples.

Agatha Christie used that sort of character in several of her stories. It’s difficult to choose one without giving away spoilers, but here goes. In Appointment With Death, the Boynton family is on a sightseeing tour of the Middle East. The family is headed by tyrannical matriarch Mrs. Boynton, who has made a life of keeping every other member cowed. One afternoon, during a family visit to Petra, Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies of what looks like heart failure. But even though the explanation makes sense (Mrs. Boynton was getting on in years and not in good health), Colonel Carbury isn’t completely convinced it’s a natural death. Hercule Poirot is also in the area, so he agrees to look into the matter. As he interviews the various family members and fellow sightseers, we see just how much pressure Mrs. Boynton put on everyone. Christie gives us a sense of the buildup of pressure too, right from the beginning of the novel. In fact, the first sentence is:
 

‘You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?’
 

It turns out to have been spoken by one of the suspects, and shows how desperate all of them had become.

In Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead, Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery are summoned – that’s really the best word for it – to Bendigo Island, a private island owned by munitions magnate Kane ‘King’ Bendigo. It turns out that there have been threats on Bendigo’s life and, although he himself doesn’t take them seriously, others do. And Bendigo’s safety matters greatly, since his business is seen as pivotal to the world’s balance of power. The Queens are asked to find out who has threatened Bendigo’s life and stop that person. The island is a heavily-guarded private place, so there aren’t many suspects. The most likely are Bendigo’s two brothers Abel and Judah, and his wife Karla, so Ellery Queen begins there. Right away we sense the dysfunction in the relationships among those living on the island, and we also see how ‘King’ Bendigo earned his nickname. While he’s not sadistic or cruel, he is very much in charge, and doesn’t tolerate the least resistance to his wishes. It seems that Bendigo is well-enough protected, but one night, he’s in his hermetically-sealed study with Karla when he is shot. Badly wounded, he’s given immediate treatment. It’s now clear that someone really does intend to kill him. But the Queens’ first question is: how did the would-be killer manage it? The study was sealed shut; there was no gun anywhere in it; and it can be proven that neither Karla nor her husband fired a gun. Judah Bendigo is a likely suspect, since he bitterly resented his brother. What’s more, both of his brothers are contemptuous of him and exclude him from all business decisions. The only problem is that Judah was with Queen at the time of the shooting. He has an iron-clad alibi, as the saying goes. So Queen is faced with an ‘impossible-but-not-really’ mystery as he tries to figure out who shot King Bendigo. The trail leads him to the Bendigo brothers’ home town of Wrightsville, where he finds out some surprising truths about the family. The more he learns, the more we see how pressure building up can have grave consequences.

We also see that in P.D. James’ A Taste For Death. Met Commander Adam Dalgliesh, DCI John Massingham and DI Kate Miskin have been named as a special investigative team with a focus on crimes of special interest – crimes that are likely to generate a lot of media attention. Such a crime is the murder of Crown Minister Paul Berowne, whose body is found in a local church one morning. Along with his body is the body of a tramp Harry Mack. Part of the job of investigating the murder is, of course, looking into the lives of Berowne’s family members and others living in the house. One of them is Evelyn Matlock. The Berowne family took her in after her father was convicted of murder; since then she’s become the family housekeeper as well personal assistant to family matriarch Lady Ursula Berowne. The family isn’t abusive to her, but at the same time, she’s never been treated as an equal. As the novel goes on, we see how the stress of her situation has impacted her. In fact, when the investigating team finds out who killed Paul Berowne and Harry Mack, here’s what Evelyn has to say:
 

‘This place isn’t a home…And you think of no one but yourselves. Do this, Mattie, fetch that, Mattie, run my bath, Mattie. I do have a name. I’m not a cat or a dog. I’m not a household pet.’
 

Part of the way James builds suspense in this story is by hinting at this pressure early on and showing readers how it’s slowly built up over time.

Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery is the story of the murder of Waldemar Leverkuhn. He and some of his friends have gone in together on the purchase of a lottery ticket. Much to their joy, the ticket is a winner, so the group of them go out to celebrate. Later that night Leverkuhn is stabbed to death in his own bed. Intendant Münster of the Mardaam police leads the investigation into this murder, and he and his team naturally begin with the victim’s family and friends. Also considered are of course the other residents of the building where the Leverkuhns live. There are several motives, too. For one thing, Leverkuhn’s death means that his fellow lottery winners each get more money. And then there’s the family itself. While there’ve been no ‘official’ reports of problems, there are always secrets in a family. There are also the other people who live in the building, who may have had their own reasons for wanting Leverkuhn dead. Bit by bit, the investigating team follows up leads and slowly discovers the truth. It turns out that the slow building up of pressure has played an important role in this story.

It does in Shelly Reuben’s The Boys of Sabbath Street too. Artemus Ackerman, mayor of the small city of Calendar, wants the town to have a museum of magic. The idea is that it’ll bring in tourists and therefore, more revenue. The plan is to convert the old Baldwin Theater for the purpose, and Ackerman has hopes that he can get the funding he needs for the project. Then, there’s a fire on the same street as the site of the proposed museum. No-one’s killed, but the property destruction worries everyone. Matters get worse when there’s another fire. And another. Now it’s clear that an arsonist is at work. Ackerman’s assistant and publicist Maggie Wakeling works with Fire Marshal George Copeland to find and stop the arsonist before there’s any more damage or any loss of life. When they find out who that person is, we discover that the slow buildup of stress has had a lot to do with the events in the story.

It isn’t always ‘the quiet ones’ who commit crime. But the slow buildup of stress and trouble can have all sorts of terrible consequences. These are a few examples. Your turn.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Green Day’s Basket Case.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Håkan Nesser, P.D. James, Shelly Reuben

I Didn’t Get a Chance to Defend Myself*

ArrestedWhen the police investigate a crime, they have to follow the evidence wherever it leads. But evidence doesn’t always immediately point to the actual criminal. Sometimes that means that an innocent person is arrested or even convicted. It happens in real life, and that plot point adds tension and suspense to a crime novel too. It’s incredibly hard on a person to be arrested for a crime, especialy for those who aren’t accustomed to the justice/prison system. That stress can affect one deeply, and that can add to a crime story too, in terms of character development and suspense.

Agatha Christie deals with this issue in several of her novels. In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, James Bentley is arrested, tried and convicted in connection with the murder of his landlady. He isn’t a particularly pleasant, friendly person, so he doesn’t have many supporters. But Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence, who gathered the evidence in the case, believes Bentley may be innocent. So he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot agrees and goes to the village of Broadhinny, where the murder took place. It’s not long before he learns that there are several other possibilities; Mrs. McGinty was the kind of person who found out things about people, and she’d found out something it wasn’t safe for her to know. As the novel goes on, we see how the experience of being wrongly accused of a crime has affected Bentley. He is convinced that no-one cares what happens to him, and certain that he won’t get a fair deal, as the saying goes. Christie doesn’t discuss too much what happens to Bentley when the real murderer is caught, although in Hallowe’en Party it’s mentioned that he’s gotten married. It’s not hard to imagine though that re-integrating himself into everyday life can’t have been easy. (I know, I know, fans of Ordeal by Innocence and Sad Cypress).

Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder introduces readers to Howard Van Horn, son of wealthy business magnate Dietrich Van Horn. He’s been troubled lately by blackouts during which he has no idea what happens. He becomes especially frightened one day when he wakes up covered in blood. Sure that he’s done something terrible, he visits his old college friend Ellery Queen and asks his help. Queen agrees and thogether, the two men try to piece together what’s happened. The trail leads to Van Horn’s home town of Wrightsville, where his father and stepmother Sally live. While they’re there, there’s another blackout incident. This time, Sally Van Horn is killed. Howard is accused and becomes convinced that he is guilty. And the experience of being the focus of a murder investigation (and believing he is a killer) takes a terrible toll on him. Although Queen finds out the truth about the case, that doesn’t really change much for his former friend. Queen fans will know that this plot point – the terrible experience of being arrested when one’s innocent – is also a part of Calamity Town.

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson is arrested for the rape of Mayella Ewell. Since Robinson is Black and Ewell is White, this is a particularly emotionally-charged case. Robinson claims he’s not guilty, but almost no-one believes him. Prominent attorney Atticus Finch takes the case and begins to look into what really happened. As he does, we see how difficult it is for Robinson. Finch finds out the truth, but that doesn’t mean that life becomes perfect again. It’s not hard to imagine the difficulties Robinson has in getting back to something like a normal life after his experiences.

Shona (now writing as S.G.) MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton includes a similar plot point. Alexander Seaton is the undermaster of a grammar school in 17th Century Banff, Scotland. He gets drawn into a criminal investigation when the body of apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson is found in Seaton’s classroom at the school. Local music master Charles Thom, who is a friend of Seaton’s, was Davidson’s romantic rival, so he’s the immediate most likely suspect. He’s quickly arrested and imprisoned, although he claims he’s innocent. When Seaton visits his friend in prison, Thom asks Seaton’s help. He claims again that he’s innocent and asks Seaton to clear his name. Seaton reluctantly agrees and begins to ask some questions. Little by little, he finds out that this case is more complicated than it seemed on the surface, and that plenty of other people could have wanted to kill Davidson. As the novel goes on, we also see how difficult it is for Charles Thom to languish in prison, with no really effective way to defend himself.

And then there’s Chris Grabenstein’s Tilt a Whirl. One morning, Sea Haven, New Jersey police officer John Ceepak is having breakfast at a restaurant with summer cop Danny Boyle. While they’re eating, twelve-year-old Ashley Hart stumbles up the street screaming incoherently. Ceepak and Boyle manage to calm the girl enough to tell them what’s wrong. She and her father, wealthy developer Reginald Hart, were taking a morning ride on the Turtle Tilt a Whirl, a ride at the town’s amusement park. Then, Ashely tells the police, a strange man with a gun shot her father and then ran off. When the police go to the scene, they see Hart’s body and the evidence Ashley described. The trail soon leads to a local homeless man nicknamed ‘Squeegee’ because he sometimes works at a car wash business. He’s disappeared, though, so tracing him won’t be easy. Ceepak and Boyle finally track ‘Squeegee’ down, and it does seem as though he could be guilty. But as Ceepak points out, that’s only one possibility. The police do find out who killed Hart and why, but in the meantime, it’s very hard on ‘Squeegee,’ who can’t really do much to defend himself.

There’s also Nelson Brunanski’s Crooked Lake. John ‘Bart’ Bartowski and his wife Rosie own a fishing lodge in northern Saskatchewan. They live further south, in a small town called Crooked Lake, where everyone knows everyone. Because the town is so small, Bart learns about it very quickly when his friend Nick Taylor is fired from his job as head greenskeeper at the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. Needless to say, Taylor’s furious about it, particularly since he doesn’t believe he’s done anything to deserve being separated. He blames Board of Directors member Harvey Kristoff, so he’s the natural suspect when Kristoff’s body is found later that day on the grounds of the golf course. The police are called in, and they follow the trail of evidence where it naturally leads – straight to Taylor. He’s soon arrested and charged. But he claims that he’s innocent, and his attorney Frank Hendrickson believes him. Bart doesn’t want to believe Taylor’s guilty either, so he’s only too happy to help clear his name. As it turns out, Taylor’s by no means the only one with a motive for muder, and Bart finds out who the real killer is. But it’s clear throughout the novel that being charged with murder is very hard on Nick Taylor. It doesn’t help matters that Crooked Lake is a small town, so everyone knows him and knows about his arrest.

The process of being arrested and charged with something as serious as murder takes a major toll on a person. Even knowing one’s innocent doesn’t always help much. It can add suspense and substance to a crime novel plot when the author acknowledges that.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Buddy Guy and George Buddy’s Innocent Man.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Chris Grabenstein, Ellery Queen, Harper Lee, Nelson Brunanski, S.G. MacLean, Shona MacLean