Category Archives: Ellery Queen

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

The Times, They Are a-Changin’*

1960sTo say that the 1960s was a decade of major change is an understatement. It was a time of so many social, political, economic and other changes that some people have called those years ‘revolutionary.’ And perhaps they have a point.

Crime fiction, like other genres, tells the story of those changes and we see them reflected in many different novels, both from and about the era. Space is only going to allow for a few examples, but I’m sure you already understand what I mean.

One of the major changes that took place during the 1960s was the role of students, especially university students. Certainly students had spoken out on campuses before, but in many countries, this decade saw the rise of student protests that really resounded in ways they hadn’t before. In John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Weschler, for instance, Hewes College Classics Professor Arnold Weschler is faced with a difficult dilemma. He’s not himself particulalry political, but his brother David is. One day, Weschler is called to the office of College President Winthrop Dohrn, who wants to discuss the recent activities of a radical student group that’s come to campus. Dohrn believes that David Weschler is one of the leaders of the group. He wants Arnold to contact his brother and stop the group from causing any more trouble. The Weschler brothers have been estranged for a long time, but Arnold knows that his job may depend on his response. So he reluctantly agrees. That’s how he gets drawn into the group and gets to know the members. He even develops some sympathy for some of their views. That is, until there’s a kidnapping and then a bombing that kills Dohrn. Now Weschler has to find the killer and clear his brother’s name before he’s arrested.

During the 1960s, there was also a deep and serious questioning of ‘Establishment’ politics and economics. Many people, even those who didn’t identify themselves as Communists per se questioned the socioeconomic status quo. And there were plenty who did identify themselves as Marxists. Perhaps the best look at the leftist point of view and goals of that era can be seen in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s series featuring Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck and his team. This is only my opinion, so feel free to differ with it if you do. But for me, this series encapsulates a lot of what this set of politics embraced. Each of the ten novels in this series is about a self-contained murder mystery. But throughout the series, there’s a great deal of social critique too. There are critiques of police power, social class divisions, ‘Establishment’ corruption and other important issues with Swedish society.

Another major change in society was a change in the roles of women. Bit by bit, women had been seeking full citizenship for a long time, and had made solid strides (e.g. suffrage, working outside the home and so on). But in the US at least, women were still regarded as best-suited for ‘home and hearth.’ During the 1960s this began to be questioned more and more. And it wasn’t just a matter of wanting to work outside the home at financial parity with men (although that was certainly an issue). I’m also talking here of what you might call women’s sexual liberation. There was still very much a double standard when it came to what was expected of ‘ladies’ and what was expected of men. And women began to insist on being as much in charge of their own destinies as men were. You see that in the non-crime-fiction work of writers such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. But you also see it in crime fiction. In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle, for instance, we meet noted fashion designer Sheila Grey. She’s a well-off and successful single woman who has no desire to get married and ‘settle down.’ She puts it this way:
 

‘In fact – I’m speaking only for myself – I reject the whole concept of marriage. I’m no more capable of being happy as a housewife, or a country club gal, or a young suburban matron than I am of renouncing the world and taking the veil.’
 

Certainly she doesn’t identify herself by her ability to cook, clean, sew or look after children. She’s independent both economically and sexually. One night, she’s murdered. Inspector Richard Queen is assigned to the case and his son Ellery of course takes part in the investigation. In the end, they find that the victim’s modern way of thinking about herself and the role love should play in her life had a part in her murder.

One of the other major changes of the 1960s was the move of drug use from certain bohemian, artistic and musical circles to the mainstream. Any crime fiction fan can tell you that drugs have been associated with crime fiction for a very long time. But during these years, ‘average’ everyday people had easier access to them and their use spread. There’s a mention of that in Agatha Christie’s The Third Girl (published in 1966), in which Norma Restarick and Hercule Poirot don’t exactly get off on the proverbial right footing. She wants to hire him until she actually meets him and concludes that he’s too old to help her. For his part, Poirot isn’t at all impressed with Norma’s appearance or manner. When she disappears, though, Poirot works with detective novelist Ariadne Oliver to find out what happened to her. The trail leads to fraud and murder and real danger for Mrs. Oliver. Drugs have their role to play in this novel, and it’s interesting to note that their use has gone beyond just the ‘artsy’ set by this time.

Questions of relations between the races had been simmering for a long time. But matters came to a head during the 1960s. We see this in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Admittedly it’s about an earlier time, but it raises issues that became a major point of conflict during the ’60s. In that novel, Tom Robinson is accused of (and quickly arrested for) the rape of Mayella Ewell. Robinson claims he’s innocent, but because he’s Black and Mayella Ewell is White, he’s assumed to be guilty. Prominent local attorney Atticus Finch takes this case and goes to what you could argue are heroic lengths to prove that his client is not a rapist. Although we could hardly say that race is no longer an issue, there were some major strides forward taken during these years. In fact, Walter Mosley discusses this in Little Green, which takes place in 1967. PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is persuaded by his friend Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander to find a Black man named Little Green. Little Green disappeared after joining a hippie group, so Rawlins starts there. He discovers that a young White woman nicknamed Coco may know something about the group, so he contacts her. At one point, they meet in a local restaurant, where something happens that certainly makes Rawlins think:
 

‘…because you’re a young white woman and I’m a middle-aged black man and a waitress just took our order without even a second look.’
 

Admittedly this story takes place in Los Angeles. In a smaller town things might have been different. But the move forward in race relations was an important part of the 1960s.

Geoffrey McGeachin’s St. Kilda Blues (which takes place in 1967) also discusses many of the changes that took place during the 1960s. I’m just diving into that one, to be honest, so I’m not yet thoroughly enough versed to discuss it on this blog. But I can say this. Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin has to deal with the drug culture, the hippie movement, and other major social changes as he searches for what could be a serial killer.

There were of course many other dramatic changes in the 1960s – changes in technology, music, popular culture, cinematography and lots more. A decade that started out as looking very much like the 1950s ended up as something completely different. The times they definitely were ‘a-changin’. Which novels evoke this time for you?

ps. Just look at the two ‘photos of the Beatles and you’ll see the changes that took place during the 1960s. From ‘mop-tops’ in suits to hippies….
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Bob Dylan song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Geoffrey McGeachin, Harper Lee, John Alexander Graham, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Walter Mosley

Home, Where My Thought’s Escaping*

HomebodiesPlenty of crime-fictional characters travel in the course of their work. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, for instance, doesn’t really have a settled place to live. And although Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot likes his home at Whitehaven Mansions, he also travels quite a bit. Fans will know that he solves some of his more famous cases away from home.

But there are some characters who are homebodies. They prefer not to travel, and the comforts of home are far more appealing to them than a luxurious hotel. If you’re a homebody yourself, you know exactly what that’s like. There are plenty of them in crime fiction, too. Here are just a few examples; I’m sure your list will be much longer than mine could be.

Christie’s Miss Marple is rather a homebody. She does travel now and again, but she prefers life in her home in St. Mary Mead. In A Caribbean Mystery, for instance, she’s had a bout with illness, so her generous nephew has arranged for her to stay at the Golden Palm Hotel in the West Indies. On the one hand, Miss Marple knows her nephew is trying to help, and she’s grateful that he cares about her. But on the other, life at the Golden Palm means:

 

‘Everything the same every day – never anything happening. Not like St. Mary Mead where something was always happening.’

 

Miss Marple seems happiest in her own surroundings.

Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe will know that Wolfe is very much of a homebody. He’s got his New York City brownstone house set up the way he wants it, complete with orchid room and elevator. He has a world-class live-in chef, an orchid expert and of course, Archie Goodwin right there. So Wolfe sees very little reason to leave his home. Besides, as Goodwin puts it in Too Many Cooks,

 

‘He [Wolfe] hated  things that moved, and was fond of arguing that nine times out of ten, the places that people were on their way to were no improvement whatever on those they were coming from.’  

 

Fortunately, the Wolfe/Goodwin team is successful enough that Wolfe can afford to have anything he needs and most things he wants come to him, rather than the other way round.

There’s an extreme example of a homebody in some of Ellery Queen’s adventures. She is Paula Paris, a famous and very popular Hollywood gossip columnist. We first meet her in The Four of Hearts, when Ellery Queen is looking for some background information on a case. Famous actors Blythe Stuart and John Royle had a stormy relationship for years, but surprised everyone by re-kindling their romance and even marrying. When they are both poisoned, Queen investigates. Paris is the hub for all sorts of information about Hollywood, and she knows everyone who is anyone. What’s interesting though is that she never leaves her home. She is agoraphobic, so going anywhere is out of the question from her point of view. Instead, people come to her. And of course, she makes effective use of the telephone. In the process of the investigation, Queen and Paris begin a friendship that later blossoms into a romance.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe isn’t agoraphobic, but she prefers life in her quiet home on Zebra Drive to just about anything else. She chose her home carefully, and even after she marries, she and her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni live there with their two adopted children. Mma. Ramotswe sometimes travels, but never really very far, and she’s always happy to return to her house and the familiarity of her detective agency office on Tlokweng Road. Mma. Ramotswe finds, too, that she doesn’t have to travel very far to get new clients. Her reputation as the owner of Botswana’s only female-run detective agency has spread, and people often seek her out.

Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move tells the story of science fiction writer Zack Walker and his family. Walker isn’t a coward, but he is concerned about safety. So he’s excited about the family’s planned move to a home in Valley Forest Estates. Life in this suburban community will be less expensive than life in the city, so Walker will be able to write full-time. And he’s convinced his family will be safer in the suburbs. Walker isn’t a ‘do-it-yourself’ sort of person, but he does like being a homebody. Everything changes though when he goes to the development’s sales office to complain about needed repairs to his home. While he’s there, he witnesses an argument between one of the Valley Forest Estates executives and local environmental activist Samuel Spender. Later, Walker finds Spender’s body in a creek, and that’s the beginning of his involvement in a web of fraud, theft and murder. The irony in this novel is that every time Walker tries to get free of this case so he can return to his homebody writing life, he gets in deeper…

Nelson Brunanski’s Small-Town Saskatchewan mysteries feature fishing-lodge owner John ‘Bart’ Bartowski and his wife Rosie. Their lives focus on their home in the small town of Crooked Lake, and on their fishing lodge in the northern part of the province. They’re certainly aware of life outside their own town, but they have no burning desire to be jet-setters. They like their comfortable home life. And that’s what makes it so difficult for Bart when he gets mixed up in murder investigations. On the one hand, he has no desire to upend his life or that of his wife. On the other, he is a devoted and loyal friend, so he finds himself getting involved whether he wants to or not. Still, at heart, Bart likes the comforts of home.

And so do a lot of other crime-fictional characters. Which ones do you like best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon & Garfunkel’s Homeward Bound.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Ellery Queen, Lee Child, Linwood Barclay, Nelson Brunanski, Rex Stout

Don’t Care If It’s Chinatown or on Riverside*

NewYorkCityIf you’ve ever been to New York City, then you know that it defies easy description. It’s a city with a long and rich history, and today, it’s a mix of so many cultures and different kinds of people that the word ‘diverse’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. What’s interesting about New York, too, is that you’ll find some of the wealthiest areas of the city just a few blocks from some of the poorest. It’s an intense, fascinating place, and there are plenty of people who couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. There are famous museums, top musical artists, Broadway shows, world-class restaurants, and lots more there. Oh, and Billy Joel was born there, too.

Ahem – right – back to New York City. It shouldn’t be surprising that lots of crime fiction is set there. It’s just a natural context for a murder mystery, especially if you consider the number of real-life famous murders that have occurred there. There’s a long list of authors who’ve set their novels or series in New York. Here’s just a small smattering.

Any dedicated crime fiction fan will be able to tell you that Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series has a distinctive New York City setting. Although Wolfe does travel a few times, the vast majority of the books are set in Manhattan, where Wolfe has his famous brownstone home/office. His employee/business partner (sometimes it’s hard to tell, really) Archie Goodwin does the ‘legwork’ on Wolfe’s cases, and his travels take him all over New York. Through his eyes, we get to see many of New York’s different ‘faces,’ from ‘society’ homes and mansions to tenements, and just about everywhere in between. Want to explore Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin’s New York? Check out your options with the Wolfe Pack, the Official Nero Wolfe Society.

Fans of Evan Hunter/Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series will know that although he called his setting Isola, it’s a thinly disguised New York City. Beginning with Cop Killer, these novels focus on murders in all sorts of different New York City settings. And what’s especially interesting about this series is that it looks at crime among all socioeconomic classes, too. Because the series is enduring (it lasted from 1956 to 2005), we also get to see how the city changes through the decades, and how factors such as immigration, technology and so on have affected it.

Lawrence Block’s PI series featuring Matthew Scudder is also set in New York. Beginning with The Sins of the Fathers, the series follows Scudder as he begins life as a PI after leaving the NYPD. Since most of Scudder’s contacts are informal, we also get a look at New York’s local restaurant and bar scene. I don’t mean necessarily trendy ‘popular’ places, although New York certainly has more than its share of them. I mean the smaller places that are popular with the local people. And New York City has plenty of those, too. Scudder has clients from several different socioeconomic strata too, so this series also gives readers a look at the different kinds of lives New Yorkers have.

Margaret Maron’s Lieutenant Sigrid Harald series is also set in New York City. Harald is a member of New York City’s Police Department, so she investigates all sorts of different kinds of cases. Beginning with One Coffee With, she takes on murders at university campuses, high-priced apartment buildings, attorneys’ offices and Greenwich Village ‘arty’ places, just to name a few.

Mary Higgins Clark has set some of her novels in New York City as well. For example, While My Pretty One Sleeps features murder in the world of fashion when a client of boutique owner Meeve Kearny is murdered. Loves Music, Loves to Dance follows jewelry designer Erin Scott and decorator Darcy Scott as they move to New York to pursue their careers. Then, they place personal ads in local newspapers to do some research for a TV producer friend who’s planning a feature on the topic. The research proves fatal when Erin disappears and is later found murdered. And in I’ll Be Seeing You, reporter Meghan Collins is following up on the story of the mugging of a US senator. When he’s rushed to Manhattan’s Roosevelt Hospital, she goes along with other members of the press to learn of his condition. That’s when an ambulance team rushes in with a woman who’s just died – a woman who looks exactly like Meghan…

And then there’s S.J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series. Chin and Smith are both private investigators who sometimes partner up in their cases. Chin is a member of New York’s Chinese/Chinese-American community, so she is especially in demand for cases that require some knowledge of that culture. In China Trade for instance, she is hired to track down some rare and valuable Chinese porcelain items that were donated to a local museum. The trail leads to the Chinatown underworld of gangs and in this case, shady art dealers. While not every novel in this series features the Chinatown setting, it’s the area of New York that Chin knows best.  Readers who are interested in Chinatown can also read Henry Chang’s Jack Yu series.

There are of course many more novels and series that take place in New York. Just a few examples are Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme novels, Ellery Queen’s New York-set novels (most are, some are not), Robin Cook’s Laurie Montgomery/Jack Stapleton novels and several of Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers/Oscar Piper novels. And those are only a few examples. I’ll bet you could think of many more.

 

Now if you’ll excuse me, that’s my train. Time to head uptown…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s New York State of Mind. Really? You were surprised? ;-)

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Filed under Ed McBain, Ellery Queen, Evan Hunter, Henry Chang, Jeffery Deaver, Lawrence Block, Margaret Maron, Mary Higgins Clark, Rex Stout, Robin Cook, S.J. Rozan, Stuart Palmer

Passes on Her Painful Information*

Dying CluesIt would make murder investigations much easier if victims were able to tell the police who killed them. Of course, today’s technology means that DNA and other evidence can often provide lots of information. But it would save a great deal of work if the victims could speak. In crime fiction anyway, they sometimes actually do. One of the plot points that we see in crime fiction is the dying clue. The victim says something, is grasping something or in some other way implicates someone in the murder. That’s a tricky plot point because of course, if the sleuth understands the clue straight away, there’s not much of a plot. But if it’s done well, the dying clue can add to a story.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery, James McCarthy is arrested for the murder of his father Charles. There’s plenty of evidence against him, too. For one thing, his father objected to his choice of fiancée. For another, father and son were seen quarreling loudly just before the murder. McCarthy claims that he is innocent, and his fiancée Alice Turner believes him. She begs the police to look into the matter more closely. Inspector Lestrade thinks he has his man, but he agrees to look at the case again. He asks Sherlock Holmes to go over the evidence and Holmes and Watson investigate. When they question McCarthy, he says that his father said something just before he died. At first it sounds like the rambling of someone who’s losing consciousness. But Holmes is able to deduce that in fact, the dead man gave his son a dying clue.

Agatha Christie used dying clues in several of her stories. In Five Little Pigs, for example, Carla Lamerchant hires Hercule Poirot to find out who killed her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time, his wife Caroline was the most likely suspect and in fact, she was arrested, tried and convicted. She died a year later in prison. While she was alive, she claimed to be innocent, but never put up much of a fight to defend herself. Now, sixteen years later, her daughter wants the truth. Poirot interviews the five people who were present on the day of the murder, and also gets a written account from each one. In the end, he finds out from those accounts who killed Crale and why. Interestingly enough, he also finds that Crale left a dying clue. It wasn’t as obvious as saying or writing the killer’s name, but it’s clear from the clue that Crale was identifying his killer.

Several Ellery Queen mysteries also make use of the dying clue. To take just one instance, in The Last Woman in His Life, wealthy jet-setter John Levering Benedict III invites Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, to use his guest house for a getaway weekend. Also present for the weekend are Benedict’s three ex-wives, his attorney and his attorney’s secretary. They’re all staying at the main house, and as you can imagine, the atmosphere is ripe for murder. One night, Queen gets a frantic call from Benedict, who says he’s been killed. Queen rushes over from the guest house but by the time he gets there, it’s too late. Benedict is dead of a blow from a heavy statuette. The only physical clues are a wig, an evening gown and a pair of gloves. In the end, Queen does discover who the killer is, but it turns out that Benedict told him from the very beginning. During the telephone call, he started to tell Queen who his killer was. Had he finished, or had Queen understood the meaning of what Benedict did say, it would have led straight to the killer.

There’s no doubt as to the dying clue Maria Lövgren leaves when she and her husband Johannes are murdered in Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers. Ystad police detective Kurt Wallander and his team investigate when the Lövgrens are brutally attacked in their rural farmhouse. Johannes doesn’t survive the attack, but Maria does – barely. She’s rushed to hospital, but medical care can’t save her. Still, she lives long enough to say the word foreign. That word ignites the simmering resentment many locals feel against immigrants. Now the team is up against two murder cases, media hype and an ugly undercurrent of anti-immigration sentiment. Then there’s another murder. The team pieces together what happened, and Maria Lövgren’s dying clue has its role to play.

There’s also an interesting dying clue in Shona (now writing as S.G.) MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. Seaton is undermaster of the grammar school in 17th Century Banff, Scotland. He is shocked one morning when he hears that the body of local apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson has been discovered in his classroom. Davidson’s been poisoned and the most likely suspect is his romantic rival Charles Thom. But Thom insists that he’s innocent and asks Seaton, who’s a friend, to clear his name. Seaton has no experience in murder investigations, and he has his own reasons for not wanting to call a lot of attention to himself. But for the sake of the friendship he agrees. It turns out that someone else did indeed kill Davidson, and bit by bit, Seaton finds out who it was. Along the way, he discovers that Davidson left a dying clue, something he said just before his death. Although the clue’s not understood correctly at first, when Seaton figures out what Davidson actually said, it’s a clear pointer to the killer.

Most killers know their victims, so it makes sense that a victim who’s thinking clearly could leave a helpful dying clue. But in a lot of cases that’s not possible. And even where it is, dying clues can be garbled, misunderstood or otherwise not be as useful at the start as you’d think. And after all, how interesting would a crime novel be if the clue was clearly understood from the beginning? But in the end, dying clues can be very helpful, and they can certainly add an interesting plot point to crime fiction. Which ‘dying clue mysteries’ have you liked? If you’re a writer, do you use dying clues?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Laura.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Henning Mankell, Shona MacLean