Category Archives: H.R.F. Keating

We Just Saw It From a Different Point of View*

PerspectivesonCultureWhile I was in Madrid I had several interesting conversations with José Ignacio at The Game’s Afoot. One of them was about the differences between books written by authors who are members of the cultures they write about, and books written by authors who aren’t. One the one hand, someone who’s not a member of a given culture can offer a distinctive perspective on that culture. On the other, a member of a culture has an intimate knowledge of that culture’s subtleties and nuances. So the reader can really get an ‘insider’s view.’

The diversity of crime fiction lets us use both perspectives, and that in turn gives us a better understanding of the places and cultures that are discussed in the genre. Let me just offer a few examples to show you what I mean. I know you’ll have many more to offer.

Ruth Rendell is English. Her novels under her own name and as Barbara Vine reflect her background; she is very much a member of the culture that’s featured in her work. Whether it’s her Inspector Wexford novels or one of her other works, we really get the ‘insider view’ on her culture. The same could be said of course of many other English authors. By contrast, Martha Grimes is American, although most of her Inspector Richard Jury novels take place in England. Like any two authors, these two have different writing styles and that’s clear in their novels. But beyond that, there’s an interesting question of the way they write about England. One has the intimate knowledge of the ‘insider.’ The other has the distinctive perspective of someone from a different culture.

We also see a contrast in crime fiction that takes place in Spain (and this is what José Ignacio and I spoke of in our conversation). In recent decades, there’ve been several Spanish authors who have given readers an ‘insider’s’ look at life in different parts of Spain. Authors such as Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, who wrote the Pepe Carvalho series, and more recently Domingo Villar (the Inspector Leo Caldas series) and Teresa Solana (the Martínez brothers PI series) have portrayed Spanish life from a ‘local’s’ point of view if I may put it that way. There’ve also been many novels set in Spain that weren’t written by Spanish authors. For instance, Roderic Jeffries (the Inspector Enrique Álvarez series) is English. And Jason Webster, author of the Chief Inspector Max Cámara series, is Anglo-American. There are lots of other such examples too. These authors do vary in their writing styles of course. But you could also argue that there is a difference in perspective between novels about Spain written by Spaniards, and novels about Spain that are written by members of other cultures.

Both H.R.F. Keating and Tarquin Hall have written series that take place in India. Keating’s of course features Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay police force. Hall’s sleuth is Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. Neither author was born in India, so you could argue that these series are written from the perspective of people who aren’t members of a given culture. On the other hand, Kishwar Desai is Indian. Her Simran Singh series has an ‘insider’ perspective because she is a member of one of India’s cultures. When it comes to India, one could make the point that because the British were in India for a long time, they became members of one Indian culture – the Anglo-Indian culture. And there are still close ties on many levels between India and the UK. But there is arguably a difference between books about India written by, say, English authors and those written by members of one of India’s original cultures.

The Chinese detective story has a long history, and many Chinese crime fiction stories haven’t been translated into other languages. But there are authors such as A Yi, Qiu Xiaolong and Diane Wei Liang, whose novels have been translated. Through those authors’ perspectives, readers get an ‘insider look’ at life in Beijing, Shanghai and other places in China. There have also of course been crime fiction stories set in China that aren’t written by Chinese authors. For instance, there’s Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee series, which is set in China’s northwest. Shamini Flint’s A Calamitous Chinese Killing takes place mostly in Beijing. So does Catherine Sampson’s The Pool of Unease. And of course plenty of authors have had their protagonists visit China, even if the novel wasn’t set there. Those novels also depict life in China, but many people would say the authors have a different perspective, since they are not native members of any of the Chinese cultures.

Thai author Tew Bunnag has given readers a unique perspective on life in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand. Admittedly he doesn’t exclusively write crime fiction, but through his stories we get an ‘insider’ look at the country. Many other authors, such as John Burdett, Andrew Grant, Timothy Hallinan and Angela Savage, also write about Thailand. Their perspectives are different because they aren’t members of that culture, but that’s just what makes those perspectives valuable. We get a broad look at the country from both points of view, if you will.

And that’s the beauty of the diversity in the genre. There’s room enough for both perspectives. These are just a few examples. Lots of other countries and cultures have been portrayed in crime fiction both by members and by non-members. My guess is that you’d be able to contribute a much longer list than I would.

How do you feel about this issue? Do you see a difference between novels written by members of a culture, and novels that aren’t? Writing style aside, for instance, do you see a difference between the work of Donna Leon and that of Andrea Camilleri, both of whom write about Italy? Do you see a difference between the portrayal of South Africa in the work of Malla Nunn, who is Australian, and its portrayal in the work of Deon Meyer, who is South African?  If you do see such a difference, do you find it off-putting?

And then there’s perhaps a more difficult question. How do you feel about the way your own culture is portrayed in crime fiction? Does it bother you when it’s portrayed by someone who’s not a member (assuming of course that the writer is accurate)?

If you’re a writer, do you write about another culture? If you do, what drew you to it?

 

ps  The ‘photo is of a sculpture by Joan Miró, which now makes its home in Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía,

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue.

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Filed under A Yi, Andrea Camilleri, Andrew Grant, Angela Savage, Barbara Vine, Catherine Sampson, Deon Meyer, Diane Wei Liang, Domingo Villar, Donna Leon, H.R.F. Keating, Jason Webster, John Burdett, Kishwar Desai, Malla Nunn, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Martha Grimes, Qiu Xiaolong, Robert Van Gulik, Roderic Jeffries, Ruth Rendell, Shamini Flint, Tarquin Hall, Teresa Solana, Tew Bunnag, Timothy Hallinan

What a Tale My Thoughts Could Tell*

Stream of ConsciousnessOne of the devices that authors use to tell stories is stream of consciousness. It’s a fairly useful device, as it’s handy for building a story’s background and adding character depth, among other things. Stream of consciousness can also provide valuable point-of-view depth as well. Of course, like any other tool, it can be over-used or used clumsily. But when it’s handled effectively, it can add to a story.

Stream of consciousness certainly shows up in crime fiction, just as it does in any other genre. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean. I’m quite sure you can think of lots more.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell invite a group of guests to their home for the weekend. Among the guests are Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife Gerda. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot by the swimming pool. Hercule Poirot, who has taken a cottage nearby, has been invited for lunch. When he arrives, he thinks at first that it’s all some sort of macabre tableau set up for his ‘benefit.’ He soon sees that it’s all too real though, and works with Inspector Bland to find out who killed Christow and why. Christie uses stream of consciousness in several places in this novel. For instance, as the Christows are preparing to leave for the weekend, we follow Christiow’s line of thinking as he sees his last patients before the trip. We also follow Gerda’s line of thinking as she and their two children wait for him to join them for lunch. Those stream-of-consciousness moments give readers a look at their past history and backstory as well as their personalities.

There’s also stream of consciousness in Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal. Eva Wirenström-Berg’s dream of the ‘white picket fence’ life is shattered when she discovers that her husband Henrik has been unfaithful. After her initial shock passes, she is determined to find out who the other woman is, and when she does, she makes her own plans for revenge. One night she happens to go to a pub when she meets Jonas Hansson, who is facing his own tragic issues. That meeting has terrible unforeseen consequences as life starts to spin out of control. In several places in the novel, we follow Eva’s line of thinking as she discovers Henrik’s affair, makes her plans and so on. We also follow Henrik’s line of thinking as we learn what led to his infidelity. And we follow Jonas Hansson’s thoughts as he meets Eva. In this case, the stream of consciousness gives insight into each character’s motivations and lets the reader see the events that happen from each one’s point of view.

Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind makes use of stream of consciousness too, mostly from the point of view of Stephanie Anderson. She is a newly-minted psychiatrist who lives and works in Dunedin. One day she has a breakthrough with a patient Elisabeth Clark. Years earlier, her younger sister Gracie was abducted and never found. Not even a body was recovered. She’s still dealing with the trauma of what happened, and it touches a nerve for Anderson. Seventeen years earlier, her own younger sister Gemma was also abducted, again with no trace of her ever found. Anderson decides to use the information she has about Gemma’s abduction and the information she gets from her patient to find out who caused such devastation in their families. She journeys from Dunedin to her home town at Wanaka to solve the mystery and lay her own ghosts to rest. As she does so, we follow her thoughts and internal monologue. And that stream of consciousness gives insight into her character, into the effect Gemma’s abduction has had on her, and into the way she slowly begins to heal.

Y.A. Erskine uses stream of consciousness in part to give backstory in The Brotherhood. When Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police is murdered one morning, an entire group of people is deeply affected by the incident. As his fellow officers pursue the case, we see the events from the perspectives of several of the people in his life, including the other officer who was there; White’s former lover; his wife; and his protégé. Their thoughts give the reader helpful information about White and about their history with him.

Herman Koch’s The Dinner also includes stream of consciousness. Paul Lohman, his successful politician brother Serge, and their wives Claire and Babette meet for dinner at an exclusive Amsterdam restaurant. Within the context of the dinner, we learn about the family dynamics and about the awful secrets that some members of that family are hiding. The story moves through the courses of the dinner and as each course is served, we learn a little more about what those secrets are and what the family is really like. The story is told from the point of view of Paul Lohman, and Koch uses stream of consciousness to give the reader insights in to his character and into the family’s backstory.

Fans of H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ganesh Ghote will know that those novels often include stream of consciousness. For example, in Inspector Ghote Breaks an Egg, Ghote is sent to a small village to uncover the truth about the death of an eminent politician’s first wife. Ghote faces several challenges here. One is that the death happened fifteen years ago, so finding evidence will be difficult. Another is that any such investigation is delicate because of the power of the people involved. What’s more, a local holy man seems dead set against any investigation into the events. In fact, he’s fasting, and very publicly, until the investigation is stopped. But Ghote has been given his orders, so he goes to the village in the guise of an egg-seller, and works to uncover the truth. Throughout this novel, stream of consciousness shows the reader Ghote’s deductions, his character and personality, and his way of arriving at the truth.

And that’s the thing about stream of consciousness. On the one hand, if it’s mis-handled, it can be tedious and can take away from the pace of a crime novel. On the other, when used effectively, it can lend a story character depth and can provide important background information.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you enjoy stream of consciousness in crime fiction, or do you find it off-putting? If you’re a writer, do you use that device?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gordon Lightfoot’s If You Could Read My Mind.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, H.R.F. Keating, Herman Koch, Karin Alvtegen, Paddy Richardson, Y.A. Erskine

I’m Going Back to the Start*

PrequelsSome fictional detectives become so popular that we don’t want to let them go, even when the series clearly ends. And let’s be pragmatic: if a publishing company sees financial mileage in a detective, it’s natural to want to create more stories about that sleuth. The same is true of filmmakers. Authors too are not blind to the value on many levels of continuing to write about a particular detective. So it shouldn’t be surprising that publishing companies, filmmakers and authors have turned to prequels.

It makes sense, really. Fans are interested in knowing more about their beloved sleuths. There’s definitely a market out there too. And a well-written story is a well-written story.

On other hand, to a lot of fans, the stories are the stories. Prequels, especially if the author isn’t the character’s original creator, just aren’t the same as the ‘real’ stories. And it can be annoying for readers who prefer to enjoy a series in order if a prequel pops up. This really isn’t a settled question and I suppose that’s what makes it an interesting one.

At the end of its run, H.R.F. Keating wrote a prequel to his popular Ganesh Ghote series. Inspector Ghote’s First Case takes readers back to the beginning, when Bombay Police Inspector Ghote had just been promoted to that rank. In the novel, his boss Sir Rustom Engineer asks Ghote to travel from Bombay to Mahableshwar to investigate the suicide of Iris Dawkins. Her widower Robert Dawkins wants to know what drove his wife to suicide and he’s a friend of Engineer’s. So Ghote makes the trip despite the fact that his wife Protima is about to give birth to their first child. When he gets to Mahableshwar, Ghote asks routine questions about what happened. Gradually he begins to suspect that Iris Dawkins didn’t commit suicide. If she was murdered of course, the obvious questions are why and by whom? So Ghote begins the process of looking into the victim’s background and relationships to see who would have wanted to kill her and why.

Liza Marklund wrote Studio Sex (AKA Studio 69) as a prequel to her novel The Bomber. In the prequel, Annika Bengtzon has just started her career as a crime reporter. She’s working as a summer hire for Kvellspressen. When the body of a young woman is found in Stockholm’s Kronoberg Park, Bengtzon is eager to join the media ‘feeding frenzy,’ hoping that her angle on the story will give her a good chance at a full-time job. The body is identified as that of nineteen-year-old Hanna Josefin Liljeberg and at first the case seems straightforward enough as Bengtzon slowly starts to find out bits and pieces about the victim’s life. But before long Bengtzon discovers that she’s been misled about the case and that someone is trying very hard to discredit her. In the end, the case is connected to a coverup that leads to highly-placed people in the Swedish government.

Sometimes a prequel is only a prequel for those who read translated editions of a series. That’s because some series are translated out of order, as in the case of Jo Nesbø’s very popular Harry Hole series. The Bat is the first in that series, originally published in 1997. But it wasn’t translated until 2012, so for English-speaking readers, you really could call it a prequel as we get to know the Harry that came before The Redbreast. In The Bat, Hole travels to Sydney to help investigate the murder of Inger Holter, a Norwegian woman whose body’s been found in Gap Park. It shouldn’t surprise fans of this series that Hole soon makes a connection between Inger’s death and other murders. It’s an interesting example of how some of the ‘vintage Harry Hole’ trademarks have their origins.

There’ve also been hints that Arnaldur Indriðason may write a prequel to his very popular and well-regarded Inspector Erlendur series. It’ll be very interesting to see if that actually happens.

Not all prequels are written by the characters’ original creators. For instance, there’s Spade and Archer, which chronicles the meeting of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Miles Archer. In this novel, Spade hangs out his shingle in San Francsico soon begins getting all sorts of clients. He’s working on a case when he happens to run into Archer, who, we learn, moved in on Spade’s girlfriend Ivy. The two of them develop an interesting partnership that turns official as the book goes on. This novel was written by Joe Gores, with the support and consent of the Hammett estate, and lots of people think it’s an excellent story.

Television and film executives have not been blind to the possibilities of prequels. Two series that have become quite popular are Endeavor and The Young Montalbano. Endeavor tells the story of the young man who would later become Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. With Shaun Evans in the title role, the series began with five episodes that were popular enough that a second series was commissioned.

The Young Montalbano chronicles the early career of Andrea Camilleri’s popular sleuth Salvo Montalbano. Starring Michele Riondino, we learn how Montalbano got started as a cop, and we follow his first cases. The first series of The Young Montalbano was successful enough that a second series has been planned. Both this one and Endeavor were scheduled to start filming their second series in late 2013, so it’ll be interesting to see what the new episodes are like.

Prequels can give readers a chance to really get to know their beloved sleuths better. And the potential for financial success with prequels is undeniable. Besides, they can make for interesting stories. But for lots of people, prequels just aren’t the same as the originals, and they aren’t keen on them.

What about you? Do you like prequels? If you’re a writer, would you do a prequel for your protagonist?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Coldplay’s The Scientist.

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Filed under Andrea Camilleri, Arnaldur Indriðason, Colin Dexter, Dashiell Hammett, H.R.F. Keating, Jo Nesbø, Joe Gores, Liza Marklund

Walkin’ the Tightrope Between Wrong and Right*

TightropesIn real life and in crime fiction, detectives sometimes get put into some morally very ambiguous situations. In those cases, there’s no easy answer as to what the right thing is to do. And no matter which choice the detective makes there’s some moral consequence if you like to put it that way. It can be very difficult for a sleuth to walk that proverbial tightrope without giving up on doing the right thing. Situations like that can be challenging, but in fiction, they can also show that the sleuth is human and therefore, more believable.

One of Lawrence Block’s sleuths is former NYPD cop Matthew Scudder. Scudder left the NYPD after the tragic accidental shooting of a young girl Estrellita Rivera. One the one hand, this was a ‘clean’ shooting in the sense that Scudder had targeted two armed thieves who murdered a bartender. On the other of course, the child was innocent. Scudder copes with the ‘tightrope’ of what counts as doing the right thing throughout the series, and it has the effect of making him less judgemental about others. Here for instance is what he says about it to one of the other characters in The Sins of the Fathers:

 

‘Ah, and what about you, Mr. Scudder? Are you a force for good or evil? I’m sure you’ve asked yourself that question.’
‘Now and then.’
‘And how do you answer it?’
‘Ambivalently.’

 

It’s an interesting reflection on what counts as right and wrong.

Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen gets into morally ambiguous situations more than once. In Ratking, for instance, he’s been seconded from Rome to Perugia to work with the Perugia Questura on a kidnapping. Wealthy business leader Ruggerio Miletti has been abducted and the little progress has been made on the case. As Zen soon finds out, none of the people involved is exactly a model citizen. He’s got to work his way past a dysfunctional and corrupt family, equally corrupt police and government officials and of course, the people behind the abduction. Zen does find out who’s behind the events in the story but in order to catch the culprit, he has to do some things that are morally ambivalent. For him, getting to the truth is worth the difficult choices he makes. And he knows that if he ‘plays dirty,’ his opponents ‘play dirtier.’

Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari introduces readers to bodyguard-for-hire Martin Lemmer. Emma la Roux has recently discovered that her brother Jacobus, whom she thought dead for many years, may very well be alive. She hires Lemmer to protect her on a trip from Cape Town to the Lowveld to find out if Jacobus is alive and if he is, what happened to him. For his own personal reasons, Lemmer keeps a very tight rein on himself. He’s not a drinker and he works hard to manage his anger. For him, the right thing to do is to stay in control of the situation and protect his client. Then, he and Emma are attacked and Emma is left badly wounded. Once she’s safely under medical supervision, Lemmer goes on a morally ambiguous search for the people behind the attack. On a professional level, he wants to respect his commitment to keeping his client safe and he feels guilty that he hasn’t been able to do that. On a personal level, there is vengeance involved. In that part of the novel Lemmer walks a proverbial tightrope as he tries to balance those motives with his determination to manage himself.

There’s an interesting case of walking a moral tightrope in Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Diggers Rest Hotel, which takes place in 1947. Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin has recently returned to Australia after spending time in a European POW camp. He’s settling into life again when he’s seconded to Wodonga to help the local police catch a motorcycle gang that’s been committing a series of robberies. Their latest heist ended up in serious injury to a railway paymaster, so there’s increased pressure to catch those responsible. Berlin settles into the Diggers Rest Hotel and begins investigating. Then, the body of sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee is found in an alley. At first there’s a possibility that her death might be connected to the robberies. But when Berlin finds out that’s not true, he sees that he really has two cases on his hands. When Berlin learns exactly what’s behind the robberies, he is faced with a very difficult choice. Both options have consequences and Berlin has to decide which one is really, when it comes down to it, the right thing to do.

David Whish-Wilson also deals with this question of what the right thing is to do in Line of Sight. It’s 1975, and Perth brothel owner Ruby Devine has been murdered and her body left in her car. Superintendent Frank Swann’s been away from Perth for seven years, but he returns when he hears of Ruby’s death. Although they were on opposite sides of the law they were friends, and Swann wants to know what happened to her. The official theory is that Ruby’s partner Jacky White is responsible, but Jacky claims she’s innocent and Swann believes her. Besides, the investigation has been conducted by certain members of the police force who can’t be trusted. They’re members of the ‘purple circle’ of corrupt and bullying cops, and no-one wants to risk getting on their wrong side. What exactly counts as the right thing to do isn’t always clear as Swann investigates, but what is clear to him is that murdering Ruby Devine was wrong. Swann isn’t exactly an ‘end justifies the means’ kind of cop, so it’s interesting to see how he makes his choices as the story goes on.

And then there’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau, whom we meet in Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine. He and his assistant Detective Yu Guangming investigate when the body of national model worker Guan Hongying is found in Baili Canal near Shangahi. On the one hand, there is pressure of course to make an arrest and punish the wrongdoer, especially since the victim was a celebrity and was held up as a role model. On the other hand, because of her status, she was involved with some very important people whom it would not be a good idea to embarrass. So this case has to be pursued very, very carefully. That’s especially true when Chen and Yu discover who the killer probably is. In order to bring the killer to justice, Chen has to make some difficult choices. On the one hand, he is committed to finding out who killed the victim and catching that person. On the other, he’ll have to do some things that he considers morally questionable at best. That aspect of the novel adds an interesting layer to the story.

There’s also of course H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay Police. He feels very keenly the need to do the right thing and because he’s reflective, ‘the right thing’ isn’t always clear to him. In The Iciest Sin for instance, Ghote is uncomfortable because he’s been assigned to find out if Dolly Daruwala is an extortionist. To do that, he ends up hiding in her apartment (not exactly a moral thing to do for Ghote). That’s how he witnesses her murder. And that event draws Ghote into a case of blackmail, extortion and of course, the murder. It also forces on him some very morally ambiguous choices.

Not all cases are straightforward. Some of them involve some extremely difficult choices and morally ambiguous decisions. Negotiating those choices without losing one’s ‘moral compass’ is a challenge for real-life detectives and it can add a solid layer of interest to a novel. I know I’ve only mentioned a few examples here. Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stevie Ray Vaughan and Doyle Bramhall’s Tightrope.

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Filed under David Whish-Wilson, Deon Meyer, Geoffrey McGeachin, H.R.F. Keating, Lawrence Block, Michael Dibdin, Qiu Xiaolong

You Tried to Reconstruct the Crime Scene With a Handful of Clues*

ReconstructionPolice detectives and other sleuths use a lot of different strategies and techniques for solving cases. And of course, each case is a bit different and requires a different approach. One of the approaches detectives take is reconstructing the crime. By that I don’t mean just going to the crime scene. I mean replaying the events of a crime, sometimes with the suspects and witnesses reprising their roles. It’s a staple of classic and Golden Age crime fiction, but you even see it in some modern novels. 

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has said more than once that it’s possible to solve a crime by simply sitting in one’s chair and thinking. But he’s not averse to going to the scene of a crime and reconstructing the events of it. For example, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study one evening. In the Golden Age tradition, there are several suspects, each of whom had the motive and opportunity. But the most likely suspect is Ackroyd’s stepson Captain Ralph Paton, who had a serious quarrel with Ackroyd over money, and who disappeared shortly after the murder. Paton’s fiancée Flora Ackroyd is convinced that he’s innocent and wants to clear his name. So she asks Poirot to investigate. At one point, after learning that Flora went to her uncle’s study to say goodnight just before he was murdered, Poirot asks Flora and family butler Parker to replay that incident:

 

‘‘One moment,’ cried Poirot, raising his hand and seemingly very excited. ‘We must have everything in order. Just as it occurred. It is a little method of mine.’
‘A foreign custom, sir,’ said Parker. ‘Reconstruction of the crime they call it, do they not?’ He was quite imperturbable as he stood there politely waiting on Poirot’s orders.
‘Ah! he knows something, the good Parker,’ cried Poirot. ‘He has read of these things. Now, I beg you, let us have everything of the most exact. You came from the outer hall – so. Mademoiselle was – where?’
‘Here’ said Flora, taking up her stand just outside the study door.
‘Quite right, sir,’ said Parker.
‘I had just closed the door,’ continued Flora.
‘Yes, miss.’ agreed Parker. ‘Your hand was still on the handle as it is now.’
‘Then allez,’ said Poirot. ‘Play me the little comedy.’’

 

As we learn, Poirot has a very specific reason for wanting to reconstruct this scene. 

In Ngaio Marsh’s Death in Ecstasy, journalist Nigel Bathgate is feeling restless one rainy evening and on impulse, visits a local religious group House of the Sacred Flame. While he’s there, he witnesses an unusual ceremony. At the height of it, one of the participants Cara Quayne suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison that’s been placed in a chalice used in the ceremony. The only likely suspects in the case are the other participants and their religious leader Jasper Garnette. Bathgate calls in his friend Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn and Alleyn puts the machinery of law in motion. One of the questions raised is how anyone could have poisoned the chalice from which the victim drank. So Alleyn has several of his people, including Inspector Fox and Bathgate, take the places of the worshipers to reconstruct the murder. That exercise shows Alleyn how the crime could have been committed without anyone seeing. And in the end, it helps him to figure out who would have wanted to kill the victim. 

Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger is in part the story of the murder of a postman Joseph Higgins. He accidentally breaks a leg and is taken to Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for wartime military use. During what’s supposed to be a routine operation, Higgins suddenly dies. At first his death is put down to tragic accident and Inspector Cockrill is assigned to handle the investigation and routine paperwork. But Cockrill isn’t satisfied that Higgins died accidentally, and Higgins’ widow insists that he was murdered. So Cockrill begins a more thorough investigation. Then another patient, also with a fracture, is scheduled for surgery. One of the medical staff Esther Sanson has gotten very attached to this particular patient and is worried about what will happen to him. Cockrill assures her that he’ll be attending the surgery so that he can see that all goes well. The surgery turns out to be very close to a complete reconstruction of Higgins’ murder, since this patient also nearly dies on the table. Cockrill is able to see exactly what happens in surgery and he uses that knowledge to find out who killed Higgins and why. 

In Rex Stout’s Champagne For One, Archie Goodwin is persuaded to take a friend’s place at a dinner dance hosted by powerful socialite Louise Robilotti. The not-very-hidden agenda is that the evening will provide an opportunity for some of the young women of Grantham House, a home for unwed mothers and their babies. It’s hoped that by mixing with members of the ‘better class,’ these women will learn how that class does things, and perhaps even meet young men. During the evening, one of the Grantham House guests tells Goodwin that another guest Faith Usher has brought cyanide with her and intends to use it to commit suicide. Later, Faith does in fact die of cyanide poisoning and everyone is convinced that she followed through on her threat. But Goodwin isn’t. So despite a great deal of pressure to let the case go, Goodwin and Nero Wolfe investigate. Part of that investigation is a reconstruction of the last few moments of Faith Usher’s life. In typical Wolfe style, he has several people who were there come to the famous brownstone, where things are laid out the way they were on the fatal evening. The reconstruction is very helpful in showing exactly how the victim was poisoned. 

Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay police force uses reconstruction of the crime in H.R.F. Keating”s Inspector Ghote’s First Case. He’s just been promoted to the rank of Inspector when he gets an odd assignment. Sir Rustom Engineer, head of the Crime Branch of the police force, asks Ghote to do him a personal favour. He’s had a letter from an old friend Robert Dawkins, whose wife Iris recently committed suicide. Dawkins wants to know why she would have taken her life, and Engineer asks Ghote to go to Mahableshwar and investigate. Ghote isn’t happy about leaving his wife Protima, who’s about to give birth to their first child, but he doesn’t feel he has a choice. So he travels from Bombay to Mahableshwar to look into the case. It’s not long before Ghote begins to suspect that Iris Dawkins was murdered. If she was, the question of course is who killed her? Finding the answer to that question is difficult, since no-one very much wants to cooperate with Ghote. But in the end he finds out the truth. And part of what leads him to the answer is a reconstruction of the crime. He goes to Dawkins’ home and quite literally walks through each step of the crime, taking different people’s roles as he goes. It’s a very interesting approach to finding out whodunit. 

And then there’s Margaret Maron’s One Coffee With, the first of her NYPD Lieutenant Sigrid Harald series. Harald and her assistant Detective Tilden are called to Vanderlyn College when the Art Department’s deputy department chair Riley Quinn is poisoned. Quinn had made his share of enemies in and out of the department, so there’s no lack of suspects. And part of the process of investigating this crime is looking into each suspect’s background and tracing each suspect’s movements. But that doesn’t completely answer the question of how the killer managed to poison Quinn. The poison was administered in a cup of coffee that department secretary Sandy Kepler brought from the cafeteria back to the department’s main office. That cup was among others that were left together within easy reach of a number of people. Because there were several people in the office at the time the poison was put into the coffee, Harald and Tilden decide to reconstruct the crime to see where everyone was and who could have put the poison into the coffee cup. That reconstruction makes it possible for Harald to see exactly how the deed was done. 

And that’s really the main purpose of reconstruction. Reenacting a crime can help the sleuth to see clearly how one or another person could commit a crime without being noticed. These are only a few examples (I know, I know, Sherlock Holmes fans), but hopefully they’ll help you reconstruct what I mean.

 
 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Stephen Bruton’s Dogs May Bark.  

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christianna Brand, H.R.F. Keating, Margaret Maron, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout