Category Archives: Ellery Queen

Here I’m in the Library*

LibrariesIn Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are discussing the ideal sort of crime. They quickly agree that the crime would be murder, and here’s what Hastings says about the scene of the crime:

 

‘Scene of the crime – well, what’s wrong with the good old library? Nothing like it for atmosphere.’

 

He may have a point. One of the mainstays of older homes of the well-off was always a library. It may not be as common today but the home library has left its mark on crime fiction. I’m only going to mention a few examples; I know you can think of many more than I can.

Christie herself makes effective use of a library in The Body in the Library. One morning, Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly awake to learn that the body of an unknown young woman has been found in the library of their home Gossington Hall. Neither claims to know the victim, although the police are not completely satisfied about that. Nonetheless, they investigate other possibilities too. The first thing of course is to identify the dead woman. A search of missing person’s records turns up a match with Ruby Keene, an eighteen-year-old professional dancer. There are several suspects, so the police and Miss Marple begin to sift through the possibilities. Then another body is found in a charred car belonging to the last person known to see Ruby alive. Now Miss Marple has to work to find out how the two crimes are related and who could have wanted to kill both victims.

Michael Innes introduces his Inspector Appleby in Death at the President’s Lodging. That story features the murder of Josiah Umpleby, President of St. Andrews College. When Umpleby is shot in his study (another classic setting!), Appleby is called in and begins to unravel the network of relationships among Umpleby and the other members of the college faculty. It turns out that as you might expect, those relationships were both complicated and at times tense. So more than one person might have had a motive for murder. One of the steps Appleby takes is a thorough search of the victim’s private residence, which includes a personal library. And sure enough, Appleby finds an important clue there. It doesn’t immediately solve the mystery of who killed Umpleby, but it provides some vital information.

Patricia Wentworth’s The Watersplash follows the story of Edward Random, who’s recently returned to the supposedly-peaceful village of Greenings after a family quarrel cut him out of the family fortune. The Random family has a complicated history with its share of infighting, and there’ve always been whispers that Uncle James’ will, which doesn’t mention Edward at all, was superseded by a later will in which Edward does inherit. But that will has never been found.  What’s more, Edward’s cousin Arthur has inherited under the official will, and is not willing to give up the family fortune. Then, William Jackson, who serves as one of the family under-gardeners and claims to have witnessed that new will, is found dead, apparently of an accidental drowning. Then there’s another death. Now Edward Random falls under suspicion of murder. Maude Silver had already been aware of the case (no spoilers as to how) and decides to find out the truth about the will and the murders. And the family library, which is currently being re-catalogued, is the scene of some very important action in the story. It also hides an important clue.

Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil sees Queen spending some time in Hollywood. He’s taken a house there so he can get some peace and quiet for writing. But that’s not what happens. Instead, nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill asks Queen’s help. Her father Leander Hill has recently died of a heart attack. Laurel is convinced that the heart attack was deliberately brought on by a series of macabre ‘gifts’ her father had received. He never told her what frightened him so much about them, but she does know that his business partner Roger Priam has also gotten unpleasant ‘gifts.’ Queen is reluctantly drawn into the case because the intellectual puzzle presented by those ‘gifts’ fascinates him. So he begins to get to know the people in Leander Hill’s and Roger Priam’s lives. Very slowly he makes sense of the packages they’ve received. Then one night, Priam’s library is broken into and one of the books burned. That provides an important clue, and the library itself shows an interesting aspect of Priam’s personality. Not very long after, Roger Priam is nearly killed. Although he’s been unwilling to give Queen any information up to that point, he does talk to Queen after the attempt on his life. Queen finally establishes that Leander Hill was murdered and Roger Priam nearly murdered because of a secret from their pasts.

Lilian Jackson Braun uses personal libraries in a few of her Cat Who… stories. One of them is The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal. The local community theatre group has been doing a production of Henry VIII under the direction of local high-school principal Hilary VanBrook. On the night of the final performance, his body is found in his car after an impromptu cast party at the home of journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. Qwill and local police chief Andrew Brodie look into the case and soon find that Van Brook had made more than his share of enemies. So there are several suspects. One of the important clues in the case comes from VanBrook’s personal library, and there’s an interesting scene in the novel as Qwill is looking through VanBrook’s collection. For a bibliophile like Qwill, the chance to explore a library is irresistible.

And that’s the thing about libraries. They are such atmospheric settings for murder. And even when the deed itself doesn’t take place in the library, there aren’t much better hiding places for clues. Little wonder so many mystery novels have an old family library in them. What do you think? Professor Plum, in the library, with the revolver?  ;-)

Now I’ve given a few examples, it’s your turn…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Mike + the Mechanics’ A House of Many Rooms.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Michael Innes, Patricia Wentworth

I Just Need One More Day*

One Day to Solve a CaseA recent comment exchange with Moira at Clothes in Books and Les at Classic Mysteries has got me thinking about stories in which the action takes place within 24 hours (sometimes even less).  Now, before I go on, please take a little time and visit those two top-notch blogs. Both are rich resources for bibliophiles. Go on, I’ll wait. 

Right. Compressed time spans. In most modern crime novels there’s an acknowledgement that solving a murder takes time – sometimes weeks, months or years. But in plenty of classic/Golden Age crime fiction (and in some modern novels too), the action is much more compressed. That short a timeline can add much to the suspense of a story if it’s done well. Besides, any detective will tell you that the first 24 hours after a crime are the most vital. So it’s realistic to want a crime solved quickly. There is a great deal of crime fiction with that ‘one day or less’ timeline. I only have space to mention a few examples here. 

Many of G.K. Chesterton’s short stories take place within an extremely short timeline. For instance, in The Invisible Man, successful businessman Isadore Smythe confides to an acquaintance John Angus that he’s being harassed by a former romantic rival. He’s gotten threatening letters and he feels as though he’s in danger. Angus suggests that Smythe call in professional assistance and Smythe agrees to do so. The plan is that after Angus gets some professional advice from a detective he knows, he’ll visit Smythe’s home and let him know what the detective recommends. When Angus gets to the detective’s home, he sees that Father Brown, who is a friend of the detective, is there. After Angus explains his purpose, everyone goes to Smythe’s home, only to see that he’s been murdered. No-one has been in or out of his home, so it looks like an ‘impossible mystery.’ It’s not though, and Father Brown shows, within a very short time, how it was done and by whom. 

In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, the Boynton family is on a sightseeing tour of the Middle East. They decide to take a few days and visit Petra during their stay. While they’re there, family matriarch Mrs. Boynton dies of what turns out to be a homicidal overdose of digitalis. Colonel Carbury asks Hercule Poirot, who’s staying in the area, to investigate. However, he can’t offer Poirot an awful lot of time, since he’s going to have to release anyone who’s not a suspect very quickly. Poirot determines to find out the killer within twenty-four hours and soon enough, finds more than one suspect. Mrs. Boynton was a ‘mental sadist,’ both cruel and malicious, so just about all of the people on the trip, including the members of her family, are under suspicion. Poirot interviews everyone, puts together the pieces of the puzzle and finds out who the killer is – and all within a day. 

There’s an odd case of what seems to be a disappearing house in Ellery Queen’s The Lamp of God. Queen gets a call from an attorney friend of his Thorne, who has a strange request. He wants Queen to meet him at New York’s Pier 54, and to bring a gun. He also wants Queen to pack a bag for what appears to be a short stay somewhere. Queen agrees, mostly for the sake of the friendship, and goes to the pier. There they meet Alice Mayhew, a young heiress whose financial interests Thorne wants Queen to help protect. Soon enough, Queen also understands that her life may be in danger too. When Alice arrives, the group travels to the Mayhew home in Long Island. The main house on the property isn’t habitable, so everyone gets as comfortable as possible in a smaller house next door. The next morning, the large house seems to have disappeared completely. There isn’t even any evidence that it was ever there. To make matters worse, there are all sorts of threatening undercurrents and odd occurrences in the Gothic tradition, and it’s obvious that someone means deadly business. There isn’t much time to solve this case, but Queen manages to put the pieces together. It turns out that the case hinges on a very well-conceived plot where one unexpected thing happens to change everything. 

In Timothy Fuller’s Reunion With Murder, Harvard professor Edmund ‘Jupiter’ Jones gets involved in a case of murder during a 10-year alumni reunion. Sherman North is found murdered on the Syonsett Golf Course only hours after he and some friends were celebrating their tenth reunion. One of those friends is Ed Rice, who is also a friend of Jones. In fact, Rice is slated to stand as best man at Jones’ wedding. When Rice becomes the prime suspect in North’s murder, Jones and his fiancée Betty have only twenty-four hours in which to solve the case if Rice is to attend their wedding. 

And lest you think that that compressed timeline occurs only in classic/Golden Age novels, it happens in modern novels too. Just as one example, in Chris Grabenstein’s Hell Hole, the body of Corporal Shareef Smith is found in a locked stall in the men’s washroom of a rest stop on the Garden State Parkway. It looks as though he committed suicide, and evidence indicates that he was on his way to Sea Haven, New Jersey when he did so. But if he committed suicide, why did someone ransack his car? There are other pieces of evidence too that suggest that perhaps Smith didn’t shoot himself. When it’s shown that Smith was murdered, Sergeant Dale Dixon, whose unit has just returned from Iraq, wants to carry out justice in his own way against whatever locals might have killed one of his men. But police officer John Ceepak isn’t one for vigilante justice. So he makes a bargain with Dixon. Dixon will keep himself and his unit out of the investigation for 24 hours. Now Ceepak and his partner Danny Boyle only have one day in which to find out who killed Smith and why. In the end, Ceepak and Boyle discover that Smith had found out more than it was safe to know about someone with important connections. 

There’s also Marianne Harden’s cosy novel Malicious Mischief. In that novel, twenty-four-year-old Rylie Keyes is working as chauffer for the Fountain of Youth Retirement Home. When one of the residents Otto Weiner is found suffocated while in Keyes’ care, it looks very much as though she is at best negligent and at worst a murderer. And she has a motive, since Weiner has a grudge against her. Keyes will have to solve the murder as quickly as she can in order to clear her name and keep her job. If she doesn’t, she’ll be responsible for losing the home that’s been in her family for generations. So she determines to solve the case within 24 hours. It may be overambitious, but she is set on finding out who really killed Weiner. And as it turns out, there’s no lack of suspects. Weiner was an unpleasant person to begin with, and he’s made more than one enemy. 

There are all sorts of credible reasons for which a detective may only have one day in which to solve a case. And that pace can add some interesting suspense to a novel. Which gaps have I left?

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Secondhand Serenade’s Broken.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Chris Grabenstein, Ellery Queen, G.K. Chesterton, Marianne Harden, Timothy Fuller

And Those Who Are Successful, Be Always on Your Guard*

HollywoodMany people are fascinated by movie stars. They seem to inhabit an entirely different, and much more luxurious, world than the rest of us do. When you watch them posing on the red carpet, and hear about the homes they have and so on, it’s easy to imagine that they have perfect lives. Of course, that’s not true. Any tabloid story will remind you of that. The reality is that sometimes that ‘Hollywood image’ can make a person even more vulnerable than ‘regular people’ are. Even if you couldn’t care less about movie stars, the contrast between that outer image of glamour and the sometimes tragic reality of a star’s life can be compelling. And it can make for a real source of tension and suspense in a crime novel.

For example, Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d) features famous star Marina Gregg, who’s just bought Gossington Hall in the village of St. Mary Mead. Yes, that Gossington Hall – the one that Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly own in The Body in the Library. Marina and her husband Jason Rudd want to make a good impression in the local community, so they plan a charity fête at the Hall. Many of the locals are excited about it, but none more than Heather Badcock, who is one of Marina Gregg’s biggest fans. On the day of the event, Heather is of course among the large group of people who are eager to see the house and meet its famous owner. She’s ecstatic when she gets the chance to speak to her idol, but everything changes when she suddenly becomes very ill. When Heather dies of what turns out to be poison, everyone assumes that her murder was accidental, since the drink that killed her was originally intended for Marina. That theory makes sense too, since more than one person had a motive to murder the movie star. When it’s shown that the drink was intended all along for Heather, Miss Marple and Dolly Bantry look into Heather’s past to find out who would want to murder her. Among other things, this novel shows just how vulnerable even a famous Hollywood star can be.

Blythe Stuart and John Royle find out just how vulnerable famous Hollywood stars can be in Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts. Years ago, the two had a stormy and very public affair that ended badly. Each married someone else, and each now has an adult child, but their feud never really ended. The Magna Studios executives think that the Stuart/Royle drama is bankable, so they decide to film a biopic about the couple. Ellery Queen is temporarily on retainer at Magna, and he’s tapped to work on the screenplay. Much to everyone’s surprise, both stars agree to do the film. What’s more, they re-kindle their romance and even decide to marry. It’s decided to take this decision in stride and embrace the wedding, giving it the full Hollywood treatment. The couple will be married on an airstrip and then fly off for their honeymoon. The ceremony duly takes place, and the newlyweds and their children take off. When the plane lands though, both Stuart and Royle are dead. They’ve been poisoned and at first, their children blame each other. When Queen investigates though, he finds that there’s another explanation entirely.

In Robert Crais’ Voodoo River, we meet popular Hollywood TV star Jodi Taylor. She’s an adoptee who’s in her mid-thirties and beginning to wonder about her biological heritage. She’s wondering, for instance, whether she or any children she might have are at high risk for a genetic disorder. She and her personal manager Sid Markowitz hire Elvis Cole to trace her biological parents and find out what her medical background is. They’re determined to keep this all a secret though, and Cole agrees. He travels to Louisiana, where Jodi was born. When he gets there, he finds that the legal issues involved in finding an adoptee’s biological parents are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. He runs into a local thug, a part-time investigator with his own agenda, and some murders. Oh, and a very mean snapping turtle. It turns out that Jodi is a lot more vulnerable than Cole imagined, and it’s a clear reminder that Hollywood fame is no guarantee of safety.

Certainly working on a Hollywood film set can be dangerous. Just ask production assistant Angella Barton, who’s found murdered in the vestibule of her apartment building in Michael Connelly’s Lost Light. Harry Bosch works on the case briefly, but wasn’t officially assigned to investigate. So he doesn’t follow up until four years later. He’s taken early retirement and opened his own PI office, but Angella Barton’s murder still affects him. When he finds out that the case wasn’t really solved satisfactorily, he looks into it again. This murder turns out to be related to a US$2 million robbery from the set of a film that Barton’s employer was making. It’s a stark reminder that a lot goes on behind the scenes of what seem to be magical lives.

We also see that in Peter James’ Not Dead Yet. The city of Brighton is to be the on-location site for the filming of the story of Maria Fitzherbert, mistress to King George IV. Cast in the lead role is Gaia Lafayette, an entertainment superstar who’s turned her hand to acting. LA film producer Larry Brooker is counting on this film to be a hit. He’s desperate for a winner for both financial and professional reasons and he’s hoping that Gaia’s name will be the draw he needs. Then, Gaia gets a frightening note warning her not to accept the role. Not one to back down from a challenge, she doesn’t heed it. Then there’s an attempt on her life. There’s a lot at stake with this film for Brighton, and Superintendent Roy Grace is charged with protecting Gaia while she’s filming. He certainly doesn’t wish harm to come to her, but he’s got other pressing issues. An unidentified body has been found in a disused chicken shed. And Grace’s partner Cleo is about to give birth. But when the body turns out to be connected to his other case – protecting Gaia Lafayette – Grace has to pay more attention to what he’s been asked to do.

There are of course other novels that show how vulnerable even the most successful and famous film stars can be. Maybe it’s just as well I’m not one of them…

 

Talking of Hollywood, I must say, you see the nicest people there.

 

Kerrie and Bob

 

As you can see, I had the chance to spend some time with Mysteries in Paradise’s very own Kerrie and her husband Bob, who made a stop in Los Angeles during their travels. We had a terrific time in Hollywood – it was a delight to see you both!

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ Celluloid Heroes.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Michael Connelly, Peter James, Robert Crais

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

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime*

1930sThe world market crash of 1929 was part of what you might call a ‘perfect storm’ that lasted throughout much of the 1930s. That era – the 1930s – was marked by several movements and events, only a few of which space allows me to mention. But as we’ll see, crime fiction of and about the era reflects a lot of them.

The dire economic straits of the 1930’s comes through in several crime novels. I’ll just mention a few. Stuart Palmer’s The Penguin Pool Murder, published in 1931, introduces us to school teacher Hildegarde Withers. As the novel begins, she’s shepherding her students through the New York Aquarium when her handbag is nearly stolen. Miss Withers deters the thief, but ends up getting mixed up in a murder case when the body of stockbroker Gerald Lester is found in the penguin pool. Police Inspector Oscar Piper is called in and begins the official investigation. The Great Crash has financially wiped out many of Lester’s clients and some of them are angry and desperate enough to have committed murder. Among other things, this novel gives readers a look at how buying on margin and other common stock market customs contributed to the crash.

In Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke, which also takes place in 1931, Berlin crime reporter Hannah Vogel happens to be at a local police station when she notices a shockingly familiar ‘photo in the station’s ‘Hall of the Unknown Dead.’ Her own brother Ernst has apparently been killed. Vogel can’t do much to investigate because neither she nor Ernst has official identification documents. They lent those documents to Jewish friends so that they could leave the country. Still, Vogel is determined to find out what happened to her brother so very quietly, she begins to ask questions. As Vogel investigates, we see just how desperately poor many people were at this time. There are, for instance, lots of women who’ve turned to prostitution simply in order to eat. Many, many people have pawned anything of any value, and regular full meals are not a given. It’s a frightening time financially and that adds to the tension of this novel.

Another part of the ‘perfect storm’ of this era was the combination of natural forces, policy decisions and poor land management that led to famine in several parts of the world.  Part of Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Death of a Nightingale takes place in the Ukraine during 1934-1936. Two sisters, Olga and Oxana, are growing up under Stalin’s regime, and as we learn what happens to them, we see just how desperate people were, just for some bread. Everyone is suffering and although the official message is that everyone must make sacrifices for the State, that doesn’t quell anyone’s hunger. The sisters’ story has a long reach, as we learn when some eighty years later Natasha Doroshenko flees the Ukraine with her daughter Katerina. She takes her daughter to Denmark to escape the people who murdered her journalist husband Pavel. Things aren’t much better for her in Denmark though. First, she ends up in prison for the attempted murder of her new fiancé Michael Vestergaard. Then by chance, she overhears a conversation that convinces her that the people she tried to escape from have followed her. So she escapes police custody and goes to Coal-House Camp, a Red Cross facility that’s been looking after Katerina. Red Cross nurse Nina Borg works at the camp and knows both Natasha and her daughter. So she gets involved when Michael Vestergaard is found brutally murdered and Natasha disappears. The Ukraine famine isn’t the reason for Vestergaard’s murder (or for that matter, for Pavel Doroshenko’s). But it plays a role in the story and we see just how hungry people really were. This plot thread also gives readers a look at the rise of Josef Stalin and the purges of the era. Interested readers can also check our William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series for a look at that aspect of the 1930s.

We also see poverty in the work of Arthur Upfield, whose Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte novels depict life in Australia’s Outback and other less populated regions during the era. In several of them there’s a real struggle for life, and it’s not made any better by the racism of the day. And I can’t resist a mention of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I admit; it’s not a crime novel as such (although there is a murder in it), but it’s an authentic portrayal of the poverty of the era and the way the American Dust Bowl added to that misery. It’s an unflinching look at what happens to people when it’s sometimes hard just to find anything to eat.

Yet another part of the 1930’s ‘perfect storm’ was the rise of Nazism and the looming threat of World War II. The rising power of the Nazi party is an important theme in Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke. It’s also mentioned vaguely in a few of Agatha Christie’s works. For instance, in her short story The Kidnapped Prime Minister, Hercule Poirot gets a late-night visit from the Leader of the House of Commons and a member of the War Cabinet. Their purpose is to seek his help in finding Prime Minister David MacAdam, who’s apparently been kidnapped. World War II is just on the horizon and MacAdam was on his way to Paris to make a ‘rally the troops’ speech when he disappeared. It’s in the interest of the Nazis for England to take an appeasement approach, so there are several people both inside and outside MacAdam’s government who do not want him to give that speech. Poirot and Hastings are given one day to find MacAdam, so that he can go on as planned.

On a (slight) side note, Christie mentions the Spanish Civil War in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas). In that novel, Hercule Poirot spends the holiday with Colonel Johnson and is thereby drawn in to the murder of Simeon Lee, an unpleasant and tyrannical patriarch who lived not far away. One of the suspects in that novel is Lee’s grand-daughter Pilar Estravados, who’s half-Spanish and has come from Spain at Lee’s request to spend Christmas there. In a few of the stories she tells, we see some of the horror of the Spanish Civil War.

It shouldn’t be surprising that with all of the harshness of reality in the 1930’s, people wanted to escape. So there was also lots of attention paid to famous criminals like Al Capone. And of course, everyone followed the kidnapping of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s son. In fact Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express reflects that case. People were also fascinated by the doings of the ‘café society’ and of course, the Royal family. Several of Agatha Christie’s novels of that decade (e.g. Lord Edgware Dies), focus on the lives of the ‘glitterati.’

So do other novels. In Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts for instance, Hollywood stars Blythe Stuart and John Royle become the subject of a lot of attention, as did many stars of the day. Stuart and Royle had a very public, very stormy love affair that ended years ago. Each married someone else and each had a child. Now, Magna Studios wants to do a biopic of the two stars and surprisingly, they agree. Ellery Queen is under contract to Magna so he gets involved in writing the screenplay. To everyone’s shock, the two ex-lovers re-kindle their romance and even decide to marry. Rather than let this stop the film’s production, it’s decided to embrace the upcoming wedding and give it the full Hollywood treatment. The two marry on an airstrip and then, with their children, board the plane for their honeymoon. When the plane lands, both Stuart and Royle are dead of what turns out to be poison. At first, their children blame each other, but Ellery Queen discovers that the murder has another motive entirely. There are other novels too (e.g. Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep) that take a much more jaded look at the wealthy and powerful of the era.

The 1930s was of course a very hard time economically, politically and in other ways too. At the same time, it was an era that laid the groundwork for a lot of modern attitudes (ask anyone who had a relative who lived during the Great Depression, and you’ll see for instance how mistrust of banks still persists). It was also the height of the Golden Age, so we see a lot of the era portrayed in the crime fiction of the time, only a bit of which I’ve had space to mention here. Little wonder people still find the decade fascinating.

 

ps. The ‘photo is of my grandparents-in-law. It was taken during the early 1930s in Atlantic City, New Jersey. I know, I know, I’ve shown this ‘photo before, but I couldn’t resist it for this post.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by E.Y. Harburg and Jay Gorney.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Arthur Upfield, Dashiell Hammett, Ellery Queen, John Steinbeck, Lene Kaaberbøl, Raymond Chandler, Rebecca Cantrell, Stuart Palmer, William Ryan