Category Archives: Gail Bowen

Come See About Me*

Character DetailsI’m very honoured and excited that Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…  has been awarded the Very Inspiring Blog Award by Moira at Clothes in Books and by Rebecca Bradley. This means a lot to me, especially since those two blogs are a rich source of inspiration for me. Do please visit them and have a look round. They are both worthy of prominent places on any crime fiction fan’s blog roll.

7-things

One of the things that come with this award is the request to share seven things about yourself. I’m not going to do that, as I’ve already overloaded this blog with things about me. And besides, this is a blog about crime fiction, not about me. But these generous awards have got me thinking about fictional characters, and how much we learn about them.

It’s a delicate balance for an author, deciding how much to share about the characters in a novel. On the one hand, characters who are too ‘flat’ simply aren’t interesting. They don’t ‘feel’ like real people and that’s off-putting. On the other hand, is it really important that a given character once slipped and fell in mud during a rainstorm? Depending on the story, probably not.

And that’s what’s arguably the most important factor in sharing information about characters: relevance to the story. Character information that matters to the story is important. So is information that makes a character distinctive and human. If it’s not as relevant, perhaps it doesn’t need to be there. Let me if I may give you a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie is not generally as well known for depth of character as she is for other aspects of writing. But in some of her novels, she does provide some rounded, ‘fleshed-out’ characters. Five Little Pigs is one of them. In that novel, famous painter Amyas Crale is poisoned one afternoon. The most likely suspect, and for very good reason, is his wife Caroline. She is duly arrested, tried and convicted, and dies a year later in prison. Sixteen years later, the Crales’ daughter Carla asks Poirot to re-investigate the case. Carla is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants her name cleared. Poirot takes up the challenge and interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ on the day of the murder. He also gets written accounts from each of them. From that information he figures out who really killed Crale and why. One of those people is Cecilia Williams, who was governess to Caroline Crale’s half-sister Angela Warren at the time of the murder. One fact about Miss Williams is that she is an ardent feminist. Her feminism and resentment of most men comes through in quite a lot of what she says and the way she behaves. It’s important to the story, too, as it gives her a possible motive for murder. Crale was having an affair when he was murdered, and didn’t do much to hide the fact, and Miss Williams thought that her employer was deeply wronged. Christie doesn’t tell us everything about Miss Williams. We don’t know for instance whether she has a good head for heights; it doesn’t matter to the story. But her feminism is important, so we learn about it.

We don’t know every detail about the childhood of Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano. We don’t know for instance which teachers he liked best and which ones he really disliked. That isn’t really important to understanding his character and motivations. But we do know that one of his school friends was Gegè Gullatto. This is important because it explains the relationship the two men have now. Gullatto is a local crime boss and drug dealer who has several ‘business operations.’ Since they’re on opposite sides of the law, you’d think that he and Montalbano would regularly come into conflict. But that’s not what happens. They have a long history, and each respects the other. Besides, co-operating from time to time is helpful to both. For Gullatto’s part, he knows that as long as he keeps his ‘enterprises’ more or less under control, the police won’t give him a hard time. And Montalbano knows that he can depend on Gullatto to make sure that his employees don’t cause real trouble, and Gullatto is often a source of helpful information about what’s happening in the underworld.

You could say a similar sort of thing about Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti. We don’t know all of the details of his childhood. We don’t know which toys he liked best or who his very first girlfriend was. But we do know that his father was in the glass-blowing industry. That information helps us understand the way Brunetti goes about investigating the death of a glass-blowing factory night watchman in Through a Glass, Darkly. Giorgio Tassini dies one night while he’s on duty at the factory that employs him. At first it looks like a terrible accident, but there’s soon reason to believe that he was murdered. And that’s not far-fetched, since he’d been very vocal about toxic waste dumping on the part of the glass blowing industry. As Brunetti and his team investigate, we see how he uses what he knows about the industry, and how his memories of his father’s work play a role in his thinking.

In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn is preparing for her daughter Mieka’s engagement party. The party will be a weekend-long affair, hosted by Lorraine Harris, the mother of Mieka’s fiancé Greg. Matters get complicated when Christy Sinclair, the ex-girlfriend of Kilbourn’s son Peter, comes back in the family’s life and travels to the Harris home with the family. Christy has several issues to deal with, and Kilbourn had thought that Peter was well rid of her. But that doesn’t seem to be the case; in fact, she even says that she and Peter will be getting back together. Then one night during the party, Christy dies in a boating incident. At first the death looks like suicide. But it turns out that this was a case of murder, and that it’s connected with other recent deaths. We don’t learn every detail about Christy Sinclair. We don’t know which bands she likes best or what size shoe she wears. Those details aren’t really key to this mystery. But we do know that her home town is Blue Heron Point, and that matters a great deal. Bowen tells us the things we need to know about this character without ‘overload.’

Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas begins when wealthy heiress and business executive Charity Wiser hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who is trying to kill her. She suspects that it’s one of her family members, but she doesn’t know which one. Quant agrees to take the case and joins the family for a cruise. The idea is that he’ll ‘vet’ the various members of the family and then tell his client who’s guilty. The cruise turns out to be disastrous, with more than one death. In the end though, Quant finds out the truth about what’s been going on. As the novel goes on, we get to know several of the members of the Wiser family. We don’t know every detail about each one; that would be ‘information overload.’ But what does matter is that as Charity’s grand-daughter Flora puts it, the family is not, ‘physically adventurous.’ That’s important because it plays a role in the resentment the family feels towards Charity, who’s spent years putting together family holidays designed not to appeal to them (e.g. white-water rafting, cattle-herding at a dude ranch, and Formula One driving). The members of the family have only gone along with these plans because they’re all desperate for their share of the Wiser fortune. That piece of information about the family, and the fact that Charity takes advantage of it, matter to this plot.

And in the end, that’s arguably the key to what the author decides to share with readers. Some details about characters matter if they’re important to the plot – if they move it along or add to it. Others help make a character distinctive, and that adds to a story too. Sometimes it’s hard to choose which details serve those purposes and which don’t, but when an author gets it right, it makes for memorable characters.

 

Thanks, Moira and Rebecca.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Lamont Dozier and Brian and Eddie Holland, made popular by the Supremes.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Anthony Bidulka, Donna Leon, Gail Bowen

Just One Look, That’s All it Took*

Rose1Not long ago, I read an interesting post from D.S. Nelson about things that it’s best not to say to pregnant women. The post is both witty and spot-on – well-written and well worth a read. And it inspired me to think about the issue from a different perspective: the adoptive family. Adoptive mothers don’t get the pointed remarks about cravings and the well-meant advice about childbirth that pregnant mothers do. But people still have points of view about it. Trust me. And I’ll get to some of the things it’s best not to say to an adoptive parent later in this post.

Adoption hasn’t always been regarded as positively as it is now. In Agatha Christie’s short story Dead Man’s Mirror for instance, we are introduced to the Chevenix-Gore family. It’s an old, proud and distinguished family, and no-one is more conscious of that than the present patriarch Gervase Ghevenix-Gore. He is obsessed with family name and reputation, so when he suspects that someone is cheating him, perhaps someone in his family, the last thing he wants is to make it a public matter. So he summons Hercule Poirot (who is not to keen on being ‘summoned!’) to the family home to investigate. On the night of Poirot’s arrival, Chevenix-Gore is shot in what looks at first like a suicide. No-one really believes that, but there doesn’t seem a way that anyone else could have shot him. Poirot investigates and discovers that this crime isn’t as ‘impossible’ as it seems. One of the suspects in the case is the victim’s adopted daughter Ruth. She’s been told very little about the adoption, and in fact refers to herself as ‘only adopted.’ While the fact that Ruth is adopted isn’t exactly what you’d call scandalous, it’s certainly not discussed frankly as adoption is now.

There’s a very interesting and sometimes intimate portrait of an adoptive family in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Mma. Precious Ramotswe owns Botswana’s only female-owned-and-run private investigation business, and the series of course features the various cases that she and her associate Mma. Grace Makutsi take. The series also shares Mma. Ramotswe’s home life with her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. Early in the series, after the couple’s engagement but before their marriage, he takes on the responsibility for two orphaned children Motholeli and her brother Puso. Mma. Ramotswe is very surprised at first, since he didn’t discuss the matter with her first. But she knows that he can give the children a good home. The four of them become a solid family as the series goes on, and Mma. Ramotswe and her husband gain at least as much from the family bonds as do their children. And that’s the way it works in most adoptive situations. Trust me.

There’s also an interesting look at an adoptive family in Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series. Rafferty is a Bangkok-based ex-pat American travel writer. He’s got a knack for solving problems and finding people who don’t want to be found, so he’s a good choice if you’re looking for a PI. Rafferty has a personal life too. He is married to Rose, a former bar girl who now owns her own apartment cleaning business. And he and Rose have an adopted daughter Miaow, a former street child. This series actually shows a few things about adoption. One is that in many cases (certainly not all!) the people who work for adoption agencies do want children to find healthy and loving homes with parents who will care for them and love them. Another is that because of that, the adoption process can be time-consuming and sometimes frustrating. There are background checks, home visits, financial solvency checks and more. Trust me. There is no such thing as privacy if you’re a prospective adoptive parent. Still, the ‘vetting’ process makes sense if the goal is ensure the safety and well-being of each child.

Everyone has to make a lot of adjustments when there’s an adoption. Just ask Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her husband Zack. They are the adoptive parents of Taylor, a gifted artist whose mother was murdered when she was very young. Taylor is bright and loving, and she has developed strong bonds with her adoptive family. But she has her own issues to deal with, and it’s not always easy to be around her. Her parents too have their share of ‘baggage,’ as we all do. They have a good marriage and they love each other, but things don’t always go smoothly. And Joanne has three adult children from her first marriage; that presents another level of complexity. But through it all, the commitment that the Shreves have made to Taylor and vice versa is obvious. The ‘family’ story arcs in this series really show, among other things, what adoption means on an everyday basis.

Adoption can be a complex process, especially if it’s handled legally and ethically, even when the biological parents have died. It’s even more so when one or both is alive. Add in the fact of international adoption and you have a very complicated situation. We get a look at that in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. In that novel, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney takes on a new client Jim Delbeck. His daughter Maryanne died in Pattaya after a fall (or jump, or push) from the roof of the building where she was living. The official police report says that the death was a suicide, but Delbeck doesn’t believe that. Keeney travels to Pattaya and begins to look into the victim’s life there. She discovers that Maryanne was a volunteer at New Life Children’s Centre, an agency that prepares adoptable Thai babies for life with international adoptive parents. There’s more going on at New Life than it seems on the surface, and Keeney finds that out too. She also learns what, exactly, happened to Maryanne and why. In the course of the novel, we follow the story of one baby named Kob. When he is made available for adoption, he’s matched with an American couple who are absolutely joyful about the news. Honestly, there’s nothing like that ‘phone call. It’s…indescribable. One of the plot threads concerns their trip to Thailand to get their new son, and Keeney’s involvement in that process.

Adoption is a unique way of building a family. It brings with it all the joys of any other kind of parenthood, and some of its own. It brings with it different kinds of complexities and different kinds of issues. Just ask any adoptive parent…

And now, here are

 

Five Things Not To Say To An Adoptive Mother

 

  • How much did it cost? Really? You’d ask something that personal? You don’t even know me!! The only people I don’t mind asking that question are prospective adoptive couples whom I know and who are trying to plan their future. Anyone else, please kindly mind your own business.

  • Are you going to tell him/her? (AKA Does s/he know?) Of course we told our daughter she’s adopted! It’s as much a part of her identity as her physical appearance is. I especially mind this question if it’s asked in a hushed, anxious voice, as though discussing some sort of illness. Adoption is not an illness.

  • Why did you have to adopt? Is there something wrong with adoption? This question always implies (to me anyway) that adoption is some sort of ‘second-class’ parenthood – a fallback position. Our daughter is not second-class. And neither are we.

  • Oh, well, at least you didn’t have to deal with labour pains and delivery. You had it easy. Easy? EASY? OK, all respect (and I’m being quite serious) to those who give birth. It’s painful, sometimes lengthy, and sometimes risky. And pregnancy has its own challenges. But adoption is not easy. Not if you do it ethically. It’s nerve-wracking, it’s complicated, it’s time-consuming, it’s sometimes heartbreaking and you get no privacy. It can be very expensive, too, and all kinds of people who don’t really know you (some who’ve never even met you) get to judge you. The adoption process and the birth process are different. Neither is easy. But both end in the joy of having children. Please, let’s leave it at that.

 

And finally… my least favourite question:

  • What do you know about his/her real mother? Excuse me? I know her very well, thank you. I see her in the glass every time I look into it. Who do you think sits up with my child at night? Takes my child to the doctor? Insists that schoolwork be done and friends be appropriate? Listens to my child’s dreams and fears? Knows my child’s favourite films and books? I won’t go on. You get the idea. I really dislike this question. I really do.

 

So please, next time you talk to an adoptive parent, think about what you’re saying. Especially if that parent is a crime writer ;-) –  Thanks, D.S., for the inspiration.

 

 
 

ps. The ‘photo is the first look we ever got at our daughter, when we were matched with her. She was three months old when that was taken. One look was all it took…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Doris Troy and Gregory Carroll’s Just One Look.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Gail Bowen, Timothy Hallinan

Millions of Hearts Were Lifted, Proud of the Human Race*

Moon LandingWhen you read a lot of crime fiction, it’s easy to get caught up in how awful human beings can be to each other. After all, crime fiction is about, well, crime – mostly murder. Some fictional characters are horrible people.  And yet, human beings are also capable of truly remarkable achievement. That may sound odd, coming from someone who writes crime stories. Don’t believe me? A quick look at crime fiction shows us it’s true.

There are some gifted musical artists in crime fiction – the kind that can lift one up to great heights. For instance, Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory introduces us to Gideon Davies, a world-class violinist whose work is transcendent. He’s passionate about his music, which is why he’s so devastated when one night, he finds that he can’t play. His search for answers leads him back to his family’s past, the dynamics among its members, and the awful effect of the death of his younger sister many years earlier.

Some people achieve greatness in their acting. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death. Seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Ginny’ Boynton has real potential as an actress, but no-one really knows it at first. Her mother is a tyrant – a ‘mental sadist,’ as Hercule Poirot puts it – who has the entire family completely cowed. When she is murdered during a sightseeing trip to Petra, Colonel Carbury asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Once he discovers who killed Mrs. Boynton and why, Ginny is finally free to pursue her acting career, and her ability is transcendent.

And then there are other characters who transcend human limits through their art. In Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve series for instance, we meet Joanne’s daughter Taylor. She is a gifted artist who, even at the young age of fourteen, is already poised for real greatness in her career. Her passion for what she does is evident in the books that feature her, and her parents have to balance their desire to nurture that potential with their equally strong desire to give Taylor a ‘normal’ childhood.

Some people find great achievement in medicine and science. In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), for instance, we are introduced to Dr. John Christow. He’s a Harley Street specialist who is passionate about medical science. His goal is to find a cure for Ridgeway’s Disease, and he’s made some real inroads into the process. Tragically, he is shot one weekend while he’s staying at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage in the area, and he works with Inspector Grange to find out who killed Christow and why.

I’m sure that you could list many more books in which we see how much greatness people can achieve. In just about every endeavor, we see examples of people who prove that we can go far above and beyond the kind of human frailty that’s so often the focus of crime novels.

And it’s not just in crime novels that we see that kind of achievement. As I post this, it’s the 45th anniversary of 1969_moon_landingone of humankind’s greatest achievements, the first landing on the Moon.

Do you remember that incredible moment? If you do, then you know what excitement there was all over the world. Those famous lines ‘Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,’ and ‘That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind’ still resonate after more than four decades. They are a reminder that when we put our energy and minds to a task, we are capable of just about anything.

That Moon landing took years of hard work, dedication, failure and recouping lost ground on the part of a lot of people. And that’s another thing that made this achievement so spectacular. Thousands of people worked together to make it possible. And it depended on the previous work of many others. Before then, and since then, people gave their lives in the pursuit of human greatness. There were long lists of mistakes, some of them tragic. We still have a long way to go. But at that moment, when Apollo 11 touched down on the Moon and those astronauts walked on it, we were reminded of what people can achieve.

Whether it’s in the fields of science, politics, law, social justice, education, the arts or something else, it’s a good thing to look to the Moon and stars sometimes, and imagine what is possible. Humans are capable of unimaginable ferocity, even evil. But we are also capable of equally unimaginable greatness. I know. I’ve seen it. It may be naïve of me, but I still believe in it.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Byrds’ Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George, Gail Bowen

There Ain’t No Easy Way Out*

HardChoicesHave you ever faced the sort of dilemma where neither choice was really a good one? Sometimes these are called ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situations. If you have, then you know how stressful it can be to have to choose what to do. But those dilemmas happen quite a lot in real life. And they can add suspense and character depth to a crime novel. That’s why we see them in crime fiction as often as we do.

For example, in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, General Guy Sternwood hires Los Angeles-based PI Philip Marlowe to help him stop an extortionist. Book dealer Arthur Geiger has sent Sternwood a blackmail letter that makes reference to Sternwood’s daughter Carmen, and as you can imagine, Sternwood wants Geiger stopped. Marlowe agrees to work the case and goes to visit Geiger. When he finds Geiger though, it’s too late; his quarry’s just been murdered. What’s more, Carmen Sternwood is a witness. She’s either been drugged or has had a mental breakdown, so she can’t really tell Marlowe what happened, but she saw it all. Now Marlowe faces a difficult choice. His obligation to Sternwood is complete; Geiger won’t be a problem any more. On the other hand, Carmen Sternwood faces the very real possibility that the police will arrest her on suspicion of murder. If Marlowe washes his hands of the case, he is free of the disagreeable Sternwood family, but leaves Carmen in grave danger. If he helps Carmen, she may be spared, but he’ll get even more entangled in the Sternwood family drama and more trouble. Marlowe decides to help Carmen…

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik have hit a rough spot in their marriage. Still, as far as Eva is concerned, she has the sort of life she’s always wanted: husband, son Axel, house with the white picket fence, etc. Then she discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful. Now she faces a difficult choice. If she stays with Henrik, of course, she has to live with his infidelity and learn to cope. But she still has her settled, suburban life and the home remains stable for Axel. If she leaves Henrik, her dreams of that life are shattered, and so is Axel’s world. But she no longer has to live with an unfaithful partner. Eva decides to take her own kind of revenge, and that decision leads to some terrible unexpected consequences.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit features brothers Mason and Gates Hunt, who grew up in Patrick County, Virginia. They’ve had a difficult start to life, being the sons of an alcoholic, abusive father. But they’ve made it to young adulthood. Mason has taken advantage of every opportunity and is now in law school. Gates has squandered his considerable athletic ability and now lives on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments and money from his mother Sadie Grace. One day, Gates gets into an argument with his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. The fight’s temporarily put ‘on hold,’ but later that night, the Hunt brothers are on their way home from a night out when they encounter Thompson again. The fight starts anew and before anyone really knows what’s happening, Gates has shot his rival. Out of filial duty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime and life goes on for both brothers. Then, years later, Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking and convicted. He asks his brother, now a commonwealth prosecutor, to help get him out of jail. Mason refuses. Gates threatens that if Mason doesn’t help him, he’ll implicate him in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. This presents Mason with a true ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation. If he goes along with his brother, he’ll be responsible for freeing a criminal and violating the ethical requirements of his job. If he doesn’t, he’ll be under indictment for a murder he didn’t commit. Mason’s decision not to arrange for his brother’s release puts him up against an incredibly difficult legal challenge.

In Gail Bowen’s The Gifted, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her attorney husband Zack face a very challenging dilemma. Their fourteen-year-old daughter Taylor is a gifted artist who is passionate about her work. Two of her pieces are selected for inclusion in a high-profile art auction that will benefit a redevelopment project for the community of North Regina. If Taylor’s parents allow her to be a part of the auction, this will change everything for her. On the one hand, that will be a very good thing, as it will pave the way for Taylor to pursue her art. There will be scholarships and all sorts of other support for her. She’ll also get important recognition. On the other hand, Taylor is still a child. Her parents want to her to have as much of a normal childhood, whatever that actually is, as possible given her talent. Still, they don’t want to deny Taylor opportunities, so they somewhat reluctantly allow her to participate. That decision has dramatic unforeseen consequences when Taylor’s work is revealed at the auction.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack features Buenos Airies police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano. Early one morning, he’s called to a crime scene, where he finds two bodies dumped by a riverbank. They bear the hallmarks of an Army ‘hit.’ This is late 1970s Argentina, when it’s extremely dangerous to say or do anything that might be interpreted as questioning the military-ruled government. So Lescano knows better than to raise comment about those bodies. But he finds a third body, too. This one is of moneylender and pawnbroker Elías Biterman. Someone’s gone to some trouble to make his death look like another Army ‘hit,’ but Lescano doesn’t think it is. He’s not a medical expert though, so he seeks help from his friend Dr. Fusili, who is a medical examiner. Fusili now faces a terrible choice. If he helps Lescano, he’s putting his own life in jeopardy. Certainly he’ll lose his job. On the other hand, if he doesn’t help Lescano, he’s betraying a friend. He’ll keep his position and perhaps even enhance his reputation, but he’ll be sacrificing his friendship and possibly sentencing Lescano to death. When Fusili decides to help Lescano, that choice puts him grave danger, but it gives Lescano badly needed support.

Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne faces a very difficult decision in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. She’s hit a sort of plateau in her career, and she knows that there are plenty of hungry journalists out there who are all too eager to grab headlines and ratings. So she needs the story that will secure her place at the top of the proverbial tree. Then she hears of just such a story. Connor Bligh has been in prison for years for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. Only their daughter Katy survived because she wasn’t at home at the time of the killings. There are now hints that Bligh might be innocent and that’s what he himself claims. If he is, that’s exactly the story Thorne needs. However, there are plenty of people, Katy among them, who swear that Bligh is guilty and whose lives will be upended if Thorne goes after this story. Whichever choice Thorne makes, she’s taking risks. When she ultimately decides to pursue the story, she finds herself getting much closer to it than a professional normally should. Her choice has serious consequences for a lot of people.

It’s never easy to know what to do about a dilemma, especially when neither choice is really an outright positive one. But that tension makes for a real layer of interest in crime novels. Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne’s I Won’t Back Down.

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Filed under Ernesto Mallo, Gail Bowen, Karin Alvtegen, Martin Clark, Paddy Richardson, Raymond Chandler

Now My Belly’s Full of Fancy Food and Wine*

Dinner PartiesRecently, Moira at Clothes in Books had a very interesting piece in The Guardian book blog about how very wrong fictional dinner parties can go. And they certainly can. Let me give you a moment to go check out her terrific article

Back now? Right, dinner parties. It’s little wonder that they’re popular plot points in novels, really. There are all sorts of different personalities, opportunities for conflict, character histories, and lots more for the author to use to build tension. And in crime fiction, they’re great settings for a murder. You’d think that with everyone in the same room, it’d be hard to get away with something like murder, but it does happen. Here are just a few examples.

In Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley, we meet a young academician Wyatt Petrie, who’s invited several guests for a  weekend house party at Black Dudley, a remote old property that’s been in the family for generations. One of the guests is Dr. George Abbershaw. Through his eyes, we get a look at the other guests at dinner on the first night. There’s already a sense of tension, but the dinner goes off as planned. After dinner, everyone goes into the drawing room, where there is on display a large dagger. Petrie tells his guests the story of the dagger and of a ritual game in which the lights are turned out and the dagger is passed round. The last one to hold it is the loser, so the goal is to get rid of it as quickly as possible. Several of the guests want to play the game so finally it’s decided to go ahead. Late that night, Abbershaw is wakened and asked to attend to Petrie’s Uncle Gordon Coombe, who has apparently died of heart failure. It turns out that the real cause is stabbing, and Abbershaw works with Albert Campion, who is also part of the house-party, to find out who the killer is.

Agatha Christie made use of dinner parties as contexts for several of her stories. I’ll just mention two of them. In Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), famous specialist Dr. Bartholomew Strange is poisoned at a dinner party at his home in Yorkshire. This murder bears several resemblances to an earlier death, that of the Reverend Stephen Babbington. He was killed by the same poison during a cocktail party. Hercule Poirot attended that party and is persuaded (not that that takes much effort… ) to look into Strange’s murder. He finds that several of the same people were at both events. Now Poirot has to figure out which of the people who were there on both occasions had a reason to kill both men. He’s just gotten started when there’s yet another murder. In the end, we find the three murders connected, but not in the way you might think. Christie uses the ‘murder at a dinner party’ again in the short story Yellow Iris. In the story, Rosemary Barton dies of poisoned wine during a dinner party with her husband, her sister Iris and five other people. It’s thought to be a suicide at first, but then anonymous notes suggest otherwise. So a year later, her widower George re-stages the dinner, with the idea that he’ll be able to determine who the killer is. At that dinner, there’s another death. Christie wrote a different version of this story and expanded it to create Sparkling Cyanide, and the two stories have different sleuths and even different murderers. I invite you to read each and see which you think works better.

Rex Stout’s Champagne For One also involves murder at a dinner party. In that novel, Archie Goodwin is persuaded to attend a dinner/dance being held at the home of wealthy socialite Louise Robilotti. The dinner is an annual event intended as a benefit for Grantham House, a home for unwed mothers. Each year some of the Grantham House residents are invited to the dinner to get a close-up look at how ‘the right sort of people’ live, and it’s hoped that some may even meet young men. One of the guests at this year’s dinner is Faith Usher, who, by more than one account, has cyanide in her purse and plans to use it during the evening. Sure enough, Faith dies during the evening and at first, everyone believes that she followed through on her plan. Goodwin isn’t sure that’s true, though, and wants to investigate. He’s up against considerable odds though, as his hostess has lots of social ‘clout’ and no desire to be mixed up in a police case. Nero Wolfe supports Goodwin though, and together they find out what really happened. Given Wolfe’s love of fine food, it shouldn’t be surprising that this is only one of several Wolfe stories that involve death at a dinner. Wolfe fans will no doubt be able to add considerably to this list.

Dave Roberts’ Sweet Poison, which takes place in 1935, features Lord Edward Corinth and journalist Verity Brown. Corinth is a ‘blue blood,’ but a younger son, with all that that implies. One evening, he’s on his way to dinner at his older brother Gerald (current Duke of Mersham). By chance he encounters journalist Verity Browne and, mostly because of car trouble, she goes with him to the dinner. They arrive late – in fact, just after one of the guests Sir Alistair Craig dies of poison. Corinth and Browne work together (‘though not always amicably) to find out who had a motive for murder. They find in fact that more than one person wanted the victim dead.

In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders, political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn is preparing for her daughter Mieka’s formal engagement to her boyfriend Greg Harris. The plan is a large engagement party/weekend at the home of Harris’ mother. The tension gets ratcheted up even before the party with the arrival at the Kilbourn home of Christy Sinclair. She is the ex-girlfriend of Kilbourn’s older son Peter, and Kilbourn had thought Peter was well-rid of the girl. Instead, Christy joins the group for the trip to the Harris home, and even hints along the way that she and Peter may be getting back together. At the party, tragedy strikes when Christy dies in what looks like a successful suicide attempt. As it turns out though, her death was no accident, and Kilbourn gets involved in the investigation. As she discovers, this death is closely related to Christy’s past and to other deaths that have occurred recently.

And then there’s Herman Koch’s The Dinner. This one is a clear example of how the context of a dinner can be used effectively to build tension. In this novel, two couples, Paul and Claire Lohman and Paul’s older brother Serge and his wife Babette meet for dinner at an exclusive Amsterdam restaurant. As the dinner progresses, we get to know the couples and their families better, and we see how deeply dysfunctional they are. We also learn that they’ve all been keeping a terrible secret, which is actually the reason for the get-together. As each course is served, we learn more and more about what’s happened in the families and about their histories. The novel is a very dark portrait of a dinner party, but it’s an innovative use of the context.

And dinner parties can be highly effective contexts for murder mysteries. There’s tension, there’s a group of disparate personalities, and of course, there’s delicious food and drink. Which ‘dinner party’ murder mysteries have stayed with you?

 

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Somewhere Along the Line.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dave Roberts, Gail Bowen, Herman Koch, Margery Allingham, Rex Stout