Category Archives: Ira Levin

They Show You Photographs of How Your Life Should Be*

IllusionsWe all know of course that life isn’t perfect. But the illusion that it could be is very appealing. That illusion of a perfect setting/life/society/etc. can be very powerful. It’s what sells all sorts of products from ‘the perfect getaway holiday’ to ‘the perfect hairstyle’ to just about anything else. Just look at the ‘photo, for instance. It’s a picture of the famous Las Vegas Strip, where nearly everything is a carefully-crafted illusion of perfection. That ideal of perfection is also arguably part of what drives people to keep up appearances (e.g. ‘Yes, I have the perfect family.’)

But as I say, life doesn’t work that way. Before you know it, that perfect pair of shoes gets a scratch in it, or new people move onto the perfect street and start throwing loud parties and leaving trash everywhere. Those reminders that nothing’s perfect can be hard to take, because the illusion that it could be is so easy to accept. And that can add quite a lot of tension and suspense to a crime novel. I’m sure you’ll be able to think of many more examples than I could. Here are a few to get started…

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, Linnet Ridgeway seems to have it all. She’s beautiful, wealthy and intelligent. And she’s accustomed to getting what she wants. She’s not deliberately spiteful or destructive, but she is used to arranging her life in exactly the way she decides. As the novel begins, for instance, she’s working on creating the perfect home at Wode Hall, which she’s recently purchased and is having renovated. She’s even trying to tear down a group of local cottages and relocate the people who live in them so that she can have the perfect view. When she meets Simon Doyle, who is engaged to marry her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, she finds herself attracted to him and before long, he too is part of the perfect world she’s trying to create. She and Simon marry and take a cruise of the Nile as part of their honeymoon trip. On the second night of the cruise, Linnet finds out tragically that the world won’t always work her way when she’s shot. The most likely suspect is Jackie, who is also on the cruise. But it’s soon proven that she could not possibly be the murderer. So Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race, who are also aboard, have to search elsewhere for the killer. Interestingly, Poirot tries to warn Linnet that the world cannot be ‘made to order,’ but Linnet doesn’t listen…

The search for the perfect place to live motivates Walter and Joanna Eberhart and their children to move to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. The move seems successful and the family slowly settles in. At first, Stepford seems like an idyllic place to live: good schools, low taxes, friendly people and so on. But Joanna’s friend Bobbie Markowe begins to suspect that something dangerous may be going on in Stepford. At first Joanna doesn’t agree, and having just moved there, she’s not overly eager to sell their new house and move again. But after a time, she starts to believe that Bobbie may be right. The closer she gets to the truth, the more she sees that there is no such thing as the perfect place to live. Even beautiful small towns can have their dark secrets.

Glenn Hadlock thinks he’s found the perfect job in Robert Colby’s novella No Experience Necessary. He answers an employment advertisement for a bodyguard/escort position and finds that his prospective employer is wealthy Victor Scofield, who is disabled and in need of a chauffeur/escort for his wife Eileen. The pay and benefits are excellent, and Hadlock accepts right away when the job is offered to him. At first it seems like an ideal situation for him. Scofield is not exactly a pleasant person, but he is fair and generous, and Hadlock gets a nice place to live, a good wardrobe and plenty of spending money. He also gets to spend time with Eileen Scofield, and that becomes a serious problem when he finds himself attracted to her. Scofield has told Hadlock that his relationship with Eileen must be strictly professional. As Hadlock finds that employment condition harder and hard to accept, he also finds that his perfect job arrangement…isn’t.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little introduces us to Alice Steele, a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant. She works hard to create the illusion that she’s the perfect girlfriend, and then the perfect wife, to police officer Bill King. And she succeeds too, at least at first. She’s beautiful, smart, witty, and friendly. Her parties are perfectly arranged, the food is always beautifully presented and delicious, and she and Bill are the most popular hosts among their group of friends. But Bill’s sister Lora gradually begins to suspect that Alice is not the person she seems to be. First it’s a matter of little inconsistencies in what Alice says about herself. Then Lora begins to wonder just what kind of secrets Alice has. The more she learns about Alice’s life, the more she is at the same time repelled by and drawn to it. And she’s a little worried for Bill, to whom she’s always felt close. To her, Bill is too eager to believe that Alice is the perfect wife that he thinks she is. Then there’s a tragic murder, and Lora thinks Alice may be involved in it. If so, this could be dangerous for Bill. So Lora has to decide how she’ll go about finding out the truth and what she’ll do when she does find out.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, we meet Eva Wirenström-Berg, her husband Henrik and their son Axel. Eva has worked very hard to create the perfect home, complete with white picket fence, and the perfect family life. She’s arranged everything as best she can to make everything idyllic. But of course, life isn’t that way. One day Eva finds out that Henrik has been unfaithful. She knew he’d been unhappy for a while (ironically, a lot of that had to do with her own attempts to make everything perfect). But this discovery devastates her. One night she goes out to a pub, where she meets Jonas Hansson, who has his own troubles. That meeting soon leads to both of their lives spinning out of control. And (again ironically), the more they try to make things perfect, the less perfect things get.

Qiu Xiaolong addresses the issue of the ‘perfect society’ in Enigma of China. In that novel, Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police is assigned to investigate what seems to be a straightforward case of suicide. Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, had come under investigation for corruption. It’s widely believed he killed himself rather than go through the humiliation that a full investigation plus trial and imprisonment would bring. But Chen isn’t completely sure this was a suicide and in any case, his job as a detective is to investigate fully. So he and his assistant Detective Yu look more deeply into the case. It turns out that the original allegations of corruption came from an Internet ‘grass roots’ group that posted some of the evidence. The Chinese government doesn’t want such groups to post, as that would put the lie to the illusion of a harmonious society that the government wants to create. At the same time, the government used that very group’s evidence against Zhou. It’s a very delicate situation, and in the novel there are several interesting discussions of the way the Internet is now used both for dissent and for factual information, since the official government outlets support only the appearance of societal stability and harmony.

People do want to believe illusions at times, because they can be so appealing. But sometimes, the cost of creating and maintaining an illusion can be awfully high. Maybe it’s just better to acknowledge that life’s not perfect…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s The Grand Illusion.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ira Levin, Karin Alvtegen, Megan Abbott, Qiu Xiaolong, Robert Colby

So Shed Those Dowdy Feathers and Fly a Little Bit*

New LooksAn interesting guest post at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about what happens when people who generally don’t pay much attention to their appearance are transformed by a new look. We get very, very accustomed to the way people in our lives look and dress, and when that changes, we see them in a whole new way. There are plenty of examples of this sort of thing in crime fiction; let me just share a few.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we meet Katherine Grey. She’s spent the last ten years as a paid companion, and people got quite accustomed to her wearing ‘sensible’ shoes and clothes. Then Katherine’s employer dies, leaving her considerable fortune to her former companion. When she learns how much money she’s going to inherit, Katherine decides to do two things. One is to have some good clothes.

 

‘Her first action was to visit the establishment of a famous dressmaker.
A slim, elderly Frenchwoman, rather like a dreaming duchess, received her, and Katherine spoke with a certain naiveté.
‘I want, if I may, to put myself in your hands. I have been very poor all my life and know nothing about clothes, but now I have come into some money and want to look really well dressed.’’

 

Needless to say, the dressmaker is delighted and helps her client to choose a becoming wardrobe. Shortly afterwards, Katherine takes the famous Blue Train to Nice to stay with a distant cousin Lady Rosalie Tamplin and her family. On the way she gets mixed up in a murder case when a fellow passenger Ruth Van Aldin Kettering is strangled.

A new look proves to be more sinister in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. The family settles in and at first all goes well. Then, Joanna and her friend Bobbie Markowe begin to suspect that something frightening is going on in Stepford. There isn’t much to go on at first; it’s a quiet town with good schools and low taxes. But something is definitely not normal (if there is such a thing) about the people who live there, especially the women. After a certain amount of time, they seem to change drastically. Here’s a description of one of the women before that change:

 

‘She was short and heavy-bottomed, in a blue Snoopy sweatshirt and jeans and sandals. Her mouth was big, with unusually white teeth, and she had blue take-in-everything eyes and short dark tufty hair. And small hands and dirty toes.’ 

 

And here’s the ‘after’ description:

 

‘She looked the way she had on Sunday-beautiful, her hair done, her face made  up. And she was wearing some kind of padded high-uplift bra under her green sweater, and a hip-whittling girdle under the brown pleated skirt.’ 

 

The closer Joanna gets to the truth about what’s really going on in Stepford, the more danger there is for her.

In Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess, writer Erica Falck has returned to her home town of Fjällbacka after her parents’ deaths so she can go through their things and sort them all out. While she’s there, a former friend Alexandra ‘Alex’ Wijkner is found dead in what looks at first like a suicide. But very soon it’s proved that she was murdered. In part to deal with her grief at the loss of a friend she hadn’t really seen in twenty-five years, Erica decides to write Alex’s biography. In that way she begins to ask questions about how and why she was killed. In the meantime the police, mostly in the form of Patrik Hedström, investigate the death officially. Patrik and Erica are drawn to each other and we learn that they’ve always liked one another; it’s just that the timing was never really right for either to pursue a relationship. One night Erica invites Patrik over for a home-cooked meal. Usually, she is a very casual dresser who doesn’t take a lot of pains with her appearance. But not tonight:

 

‘The first dilemma had arisen…when, like her favorite literary heroine Bridget Jones, she was faced with the decision of which panties to choose. Should she wear a beautiful, lace-trimmed thong, for the slim eventuality that she and Patrik ended up in bed? Or should she put on the substantial and terribly ugly panties with the extra support for tummy and backside, which would increase her chances that they might end up in bed at all? A hard choice, but…she decided after much deliberation on the support variety. Over them she would wear pantyhose with a tummy-flattening panel. In other words, the heavy artillery…

After another look at the pile on the bed, she pulled out from the bottom the first outfit she had tried on. Black was slimming, and the classic, knee-length dress in a Jackie Kennedy style was flattering to the figure. A pair of pearl earrings and a wristwatch would be her only jewelry, and she let her hair fall loosely over her shoulders.

 

Erica’s change in appearance makes quite an impression on Patrik and I don’t think it’s spoiling the novel to say that the two of them begin a relationship.

Kerry Greenwood’s accountant-turned-baker Corinna Chapman isn’t usually one to take a lot of pains with her appearance either. But in Earthly Delights, she makes an exception. In one of the plot threads, there’ve been several deaths of heroin junkies in the area of Melbourne where Chapman has her bakery. In fact, there’s a near-death practically on her doorstep. Together with her lover Daniel Cohen, Chapman looks into what’s been happening. The clues lead to a Goth club called Blood Lines, and Chapman and Cohen decide to attend. They’ll need to be dressed appropriately though or they won’t be admitted, so Chapman turns to her friend Pat, who goes by the professional name of Mistress Dread. Normally, Chapman doesn’t go to a lot of effort in dressing. For her, it’s usually trackies and sweatshirt for baking, and a blouse and trousers for dealing with the bakery’s customers. Here’s how she transforms herself for the visit to Blood Lines:

 

‘She [Mistress Dread] flung it over my head with a practised hand and it settled on me…The dress was a full-skirted number with built-in black petticoats, slashed sleeves and a neckline which could be mistaken for a waist it was so deep. It was a gorgeous shade between venous and arterial blood and as I moved I rustled in the most entrancing fashion. Then she slipped a black leather corset over the dress and began lacing it at the front…’

 

With a few final touches, Chapman’s transformation is complete and she feels gorgeous with her new look. She also finds that it gets her and Cohen easily admitted into Blood Lines, where they find out the truth about the heroin deaths.

Willam Ryan’s Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka usually doesn’t worry too much about the way she looks. She wears her police uniform when on duty, and when off duty she wears utilitarian clothes. But as The Twelfth Department begins, she needs to change her look. She and her boss Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev are on the trail of a criminal and have tracked him to a park. In order not to reveal that she’s a cop, Slivka dresses up a bit:

 

‘Slivka was…wearing a pretty white dress, her short blond hair looking almost golden in the dappled sunshine. Her lips might be a little thin and her expression grave, but she was a good-looking woman and he [Korolev] watched men’s heads turn one after the other to follow her procession through the park. He wondered if they’d be so keen if they knew the hand resting nonchalantly inside her open purse was wrapped around the butt of a service-issue revolver.’

 

The new look works perfectly too as their target is taken completely by surprise. 

Of course sometimes, a transformation can work the other way too. Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Cherry Hayes usually wears rather flamboyant clothes, especially considering that she’s – erm – no longer twenty. But she goes for a different look in Hickory Smoked Homicide. Cherry’s friend Lulu Taylor is investigating the murder of Tristan Pembroke. One of the suspects is Lulu’s own daughter-in-law Sara. Lulu’s sure Sara isn’t guilty so she determines to clear her name. That’s where Cherry comes in. Lulu’s fairly certain that the owner of her ‘regular’ dress shop may know more than she’s saying about the murder. So she and Cherry visit the shop under the guise of finding a new look for Cherry. Here’s what Cherry uses as a ‘cover story.’

 

‘I’m done with shopping at the Hipster Honey, with all their trashy clothing. With my newfound need to spend my spare time in church, I really need a whole new wardrobe – of floral dresses. Just like Lulu.’

 

This is especially funny because usually, Cherry makes fun of Lulu’s wardrobe.

It is interesting what a big difference a change in appearance can make. Thanks to Colm Redmond for the inspiration. And now, may I suggest you pay a visit to Clothes in Books? It’s the place to shop for interesting discussions about fashion and culture in books of all kinds.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Springfield and Jim Dale’s Georgy Girl, made popular by the Seekers.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Camilla Läckberg, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ira Levin, Kerry Greenwood, Riley Adams, William Ryan

It’s All About an Image to Uphold*

ImageWe all know that image sells. If a company doesn’t look financially sound, or if it seems to engage in shady business practices, it won’t attract investors. If a retirement community isn’t presented as lovely, safe and affordable, with easy-maintenance homes, it’s more difficult to get people to turn over their savings to buy in. And when a company’s image is tarnished, the result can be disastrous. So most companies, whether large or small, care a great deal about their public image. Since the stakes are very high, it’s not surprising that people are willing to go to great lengths to build and preserve an image. Just a quick look at crime fiction should give you the idea.

Company image figures strongly in Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise. Copywriter Victor Dean dies from what looks like an accidental fall down a flight of stairs at the offices of Pym’s Publicity, Ltd., where he works. He left behind a partially-written letter though in which he alleged that someone at the company has been using company resources for illegal purposes. The company management is extremely concerned for Pym’s reputation, so it’s decided to hire Lord Peter Wimsey to go undercover at the company and investigate. This he does, posing as Dean’s replacement. He soon discovers that Dean was right: a company employee has been using company advertisements to arrange meets between local drug dealers and a dangerous drugs ring. Dean had found out who the guilty person was and was engaging in some blackmail – not a habit very conducive to long life. Now Wimsey is faced with tracking down the killer and going up against some ruthless people who don’t want their trafficking to be stopped.

In Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their two children are lured from their New York City home to the suburban community of Stepford, Connecticut. The town presents itself as a wholesome, friendly place to live, with low taxes and good schools. At first, everything goes well; the children make new friends and settle in at school, and Walter gets used to the commute to his office. Joanna’s content too, and even resumes her interest in photography. Then, slowly little things begin to suggest that Stepford is not what it seems. Together with her friend Bobbi Markowe, Joanna becomes suspicious that something terrible is going on in the town, and the two women are proven all too right…

Emma Lathen’s Murder to Go features a look at the fast-food industry; to be specific, a company called Chicken Tonight. The company’s leadership and franchisees are all excited about the newest Chicken Tonight recipe Chicken Mexicali. It’s launched with great fanfare and quickly becomes popular. The timing works very well too because there is talk that Chicken Tonight may merge with Southeastern Insurance. Anything that makes the company look good boosts its ‘clout’ in this merger, so everyone’s pleased about the successful debut of the new recipe. Then, everything changes. Several people are sickened after eating Chicken Mexicali. One customer even dies. Now the company’s reputation is in jeopardy, so every effort is made to find out what happened. Suspicion falls on former delivery truck driver Clyde Sweeney, who likely poisoned the new recipe before it was shipped out of the warehouse. But when Sweeney disappears and is found dead, it’s clear that someone else is behind the sabotage and murder. Sloan Guaranty Bank is brokering the merger, so vice president John Putnam Thatcher gets involved in the investigation. He finds out that Sweeney was a pawn for someone who wanted to ruin Chicken Tonight’s image.

Jean-Pierre Alaux and Nöel Balen’s Treachery in Bordeaux is the story of Château Les Moniales Haut-Brion, the last vineyard actually in Bordeaux. To his shock, owner Denis Maissepain finds that four barrels of the estate wine have been contaminated with brettanomyces, which is a yeast-like spore that can ruin wine. It’s also contagious, so Maissepain has a serious problem on his hands. His winery’s image is now at stake; after all, who’s going to promote or recommend bad wine? So he asks renowned oenologist and vintner Benjamin Cooker for help. Cooker knows that Maissepain is both thoroughly knowledgeable and painstaking, so he would have taken every precaution to protect his wine. That means that someone else has likely sabotaged the wine and Cooker determines to find out who it was. He and his new assistant Virgile Lanssien look into the matter. With help from biological testing expert Alexandrine de la Palussière, they find out exactly how the wine was contaminated. That helps them figure out who was responsible.

The reputation of a children’s home is at stake in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. Jim Delbeck hires Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. She was a volunteer at New Life Children’s Centre in Pattaya when she fell (or jumped, or was pushed) from the roof of the building where she lived. There is no obvious reason why Maryanne should have been murdered, but her father is sure she didn’t commit suicide as the police report indicated. So Keeney decides to look a little more deeply into what’s going on at the children’s home since Maryanne’s death could have been connected with her work there. New Life prepares Thai babies who’ve been abandoned or relinquished for new lives with adoptive families. Its reputation is therefore extremely important to director Frank Harding and to the Thai government. So Keeney has to be very careful as she looks into what’s going on there. And it turns out she’s wise to be cautious, as there’s more going on at New Life than most people know…

In Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers, journalist Rebecca Thorne is investigating dubious property developer Denny Graham, who’s cheated several people out of their savings. His scam has been selling them images of ‘dream properties’ and luxurious retirement. He uses so-called testimonials, gorgeous ‘photos and videos and well-catered ‘selling evenings’ to present his clients with the image of the perfect life. And a lot of people have believed him to their detriment. Thorne uncovers stories of people who’ve lost all of their life savings, or who’ve had to scale down their lifestyle dramatically just to get by. She’s in the middle of preparing this exposé when her boss asks her to switch her focus to the upcoming 30th anniversary of the protests against the Springboks’ 1981 rugby tour of New Zealand – ‘The Tour,’ as it’s called. That tour created quite a lot of controversy and had a real impact on New Zealand, so Thorne is asked to find a new angle on the story. Thorne doesn’t want to let the Denny Graham story go, since she’s afraid of losing some of her sources. But she does as her boss asks. That’s when she uncovers an unsolved murder that happened during one of the protests…

Image is everything when you’re selling. So it’s little wonder that many companies will do whatever they have to do to create and sell their image. And that theme can make for an interesting plot point in a novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doobie Brothers’ 45th Floor.

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Filed under Angela Savage, Dorothy Sayers, Emma Lathen, Ira Levin, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Nöel Balen, Paddy Richardson

There Ain’t Nobody That Spies Like Us*

EspionageNot long ago I got a request to take a look at spy/espionage crime fiction and I can see why there’s such an interest in it.  Well-written spy thrillers have lots of suspense and tension, and there’s plenty of room for the author to add in plot twists. Some spy novels sacrifice rich and well-developed characters for the sake of a fast-moving plot and plenty of action. But the best espionage fiction shows us the human side of the characters involved. And it’s interesting how even novels that aren’t generally thought of as ‘spy fiction’ actually could be labelled that way, and several authors who aren’t usually thought of as ‘spy novel’ authors have written novels like that.

Spy fiction has been around for quite a long time. Arthur Conan Doyle’s last Sherlock Holmes story His Last Bow features an espionage plot. In that story, which takes place just before World War I, Holmes and Watson investigate a German émigré named Van Bork. Van Bork has quietly been gathering information on the British government for a few years and plans to turn over what he has gotten to his own government. Holmes and Watson come up with a brilliant plan to stop Van Bork before he can do any damage and the end of this story is really (in my opinion) quite effective.

Agatha Christie mentions spies and spying quite frequently in her stories, even those that don’t focus on espionage. And fans of her Tommy and Tuppence Beresford novels will know that they’ve dabbled in espionage more than once. In N or M? for instance, the Beresfords are middle-aged and considered too old for regular active espionage duty. But then, Tommy gets a new mission. A British agent has discovered that a pair of German spies has landed in England and that one of them is likely staying at the Sans Souci, a hotel/guest residence in Leahampton. Tommy is asked to go to the Sans Souci and find out whether one of the other guests is the spy. This mission doesn’t include Tuppence, but of course, that doesn’t stop her. When Tommy arrives at the Sans Souci, she’s already there under the name of Mrs. Blenkensop. The Beresfords work to find out who the spy is and soon find that they’re in quite a bit of danger themselves. In the end, a chance discovery in an unexpected (and therefore, quite effective) hiding place puts the Beresfords on the right trail.

The Cold War between the US, the UK and their allies, and the USSR and its allies lasted for decades and gave rise to some of the best-known spy/espionage thrillers. Authors such as Robert Ludlum have created memorable spy novels that have the Cold War as their backdrop. Perhaps the best-known (and in my opinion, one of the most talented) of these authors is John le Carré. He’s written (among others) several novels featuring British agent George Smiley. Two that stand out (at least for me; your mileage, as the saying goes, may vary) are Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Tinker, Tailor… is the first of the Smiley novels. In it, George Smiley has been forced into early retirement and a new crop of agents has gotten into power. Everything changes though when it’s learned that a Soviet mole has penetrated the highest levels of British Intelligence. It’s soon clear to Smiley that his old nemesis Karla, a mysterious Soviet spy leader, is behind this breach of British security and he goes back on the job to catch the mole and stop Karla. Smiley plays a smaller role in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. In that story British agent Alec Leamas is recalled from East Germany when several of his team members are killed on his watch. Then, when his best agent is killed, he’s asked to take on one last assignment: the murder of Hans Dieter Mundt, who’s responsible for the killings. Want to know more about le Carré? Sure you do. Check out a superb post on his work at Mrs. Peabody Investigates, an excellent crime fiction review-and-news blog that richly deserves a place on any crime fiction fan’s blog roll.

The Cold War isn’t the only backdrop for spy thrillers. After the end of World War II, there was a great deal of speculation about Nazi plots to re-establish themselves as a world power, and plenty of spy fiction deals with that prospect. For instance, there’s Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil, in which Yakov Liebermann, a Nazi-hunter, discovers a frightening plan to re-create the Third Reich. And there’s Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File in which journalist Peter Miller happens to be covering the suicide of Holocaust survivor Solomon Tauber. A diary he finds eventually leads to a top-secret worldwide organisation dedicated to re-establishing a Nazi regime.

There are also plenty of spy/secret agent stories in which the ‘targets’ aren’t just Cold War or Nazi enemies but different sorts of international criminals and crime rings. For instance, Victor Banis’ The Man From C.A.M.P. introduces us to LA secret agent Jackie Holmes. In the first of those stories, Holmes works with an agent from the US Department of the Treasury to catch a gang of counterfeiters. And there’s Len Deighton’s ‘Harry Palmer,’ whom we meet in The Ipcress File. In that novel, ‘Palmer’ and his colleagues in a special department known as WOOC(P) investigate the case of several scientists who’ve disappeared. There’s also Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon, who works for a special Israeli Intelligence department called The Office. He’s gone after international arms traffickers, terrorists, and other groups as well.

Spies and spy novels come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, as the saying goes. For instance, there’s Dorothy Gilman’s Emily Pollifax, who in The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax decides to give up her middle-class suburban widhowhood and become a CIA agent. As an elderly ‘grandmotherly’ type, she hardly looks like a spy, but she’s quite resourceful and gets quite good at her job.

And of course, no discussion of spy thrillers or espionage stories would be complete without a mention of Ian Fleming’s Bond. James Bond. Dashing and ever-resourceful, Bond epitomises the fantasy intelligence agent. The Bond novels and films were many people’s first introduction to spy fiction.

Feel free to differ with me if you do, but in my opinion, the best espionage thrillers are those that develop the characters of the people involved. They do have action and suspense. There might even be a gun battle or explosion or two. And there’s that little matter of the escapism they offer. But they are also stories about believable people. What do you think? Do you read spy fiction? What about it appeals to you? If you dislike it, what about it puts you off? I promise; I won’t blow your cover…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s Spies Like Us.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Daniel Silva, Dorothy Gilman, Ian Fleming, Ira Levin, John le Carré, Len Deighton, Robert Ludlum, Victor Banis

It’s an Illusion, It’s a Game*

Penn and TellerHave you ever been to a magic show? I mean a really well-done show. We all know going into a show that the magician really cannot, for instance, turn water into coins. But a talented magician can make the audience believe even if it’s just for a moment that a handkerchief turned into flowers. Magicians use misdirection and other strategies to create illusions. And when they do it well, it takes all of one’s effort to remember that it isn’t real.

We see that same use of strategy to create illusion in crime fiction. I’m not referring here to things like faking an alibi. Rather, I mean strategies that make people believe that something they think they see is true, while the reality is something entirely different. And when you get people to think that something is true, they are often convinced – even to the point of testifying in court – that they are right. And that fact of human life can be useful to criminals.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of the 4th Baron Edgware. Edgware’s wife Jane Wilkinson is the most likely suspect. It’s well-known that she wanted a divorce from her husband so that she could marry again. She’s even approached Poirot to try to convince Edgware to withdraw his objection to the divorce. What’s more, she was heard to threaten her husband. And she was admitted to the house on the night of the murder. So at first, Chief Inspector James ‘Jimmy’ Japp believes that he’s got his culprit. But on the night of the murder Jane Wilkinson went to a dinner party in another part of London. Twelve people, including the host, are willing to swear in court that she was at the party. So Poirot, Hastings and Japp have to look elsewhere for the killer. And they find plenty of suspects too, as Edgware was an extremely unpleasant person. In the end Poirot finds out who the killer is and we get a first-class lesson in the power of illusion.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives introduces us to attorney Walter Eberhart, his wife Joanna and their two children Pete and Kim. The Eberharts decide to move from New York to the beautiful and quiet town of Stepford, Connecticut and at first all goes well. They are warmly welcomed and the children soon settle into school and start to make friends. But soon, Joanna begins to think that something odd is going on in Stepfored. She and her new friend Bobbie Markowe ask a few questions, but they don’t get clear answers. Besides, there is no obvious danger to them or their families. Then, disturbing things begin to happen and Joanna becomes more and more convinced that Stepford’s beauty, peace and quiet are illusions. She begins to believe that something truly sinister is going on in town. It turns out that she’s right.

We also see the use of illusion strategies in Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move Science fiction writer Zack Walker, his journalist wife Sarah and their children Angie and Paul move to a beautiful new housing development called Valley Forest Estates. Zack is hoping that the lower cost of living in the suburbs will mean that he can write full-time, and he’s utterly convinced that life in the suburbs will be safer than it is in the city where they lived before the move. But little by little, his illusion of the ‘perfect suburban life’ is shattered. First, the house itself has all sorts of structural and other problems and Zack can’t seem to get anyone in authority to respond to his requests for maintenance. Then he discovers the body of Samuel Spender, a local environmental activist, in a creek. Then there’s another murder. Little by little Zack discovers that the development has mostly been a carefully orchestrated illusion designed to cover up some nasty goings-on. It’s not until Zack puts aside his belief that life is safer in the suburbs that he’s really able to see what’s happening.

Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine also includes the use of illusion to cover up a crime. Mallory Lawson and his wife Kate move to the village of Forbes Abbot when Mallory’s wealthy Aunt Carey dies. Aunt Carey has left her home and much of her fortune to Mallory and his family on the condition that her former companion Benny Frayle will always have a home. Mallory and Kate are happy to agree to that and everyone settles into the new arrangement. Then, the Lawsons’ financial advisor Dennis Brinkley is killed in what looks like a very tragic accident. But Benny thinks it was murder and tries to get the police to investigate. No-one takes very much notice of her allegation until there’s another death. Self-styled medium Ava Garret is leading a séance one day; during the event she says some things about the murder that she couldn’t possibly know. Not long afterwards she’s poisoned. Now Inspector Tom Barnaby and his team re-open the Dennis Brinkley case and slowly link it to Ava Garret’s murder. In a sad irony, Ava’s determination to maintain the illusion that she is psychic costs her her life as the murderer uses what you could call an illusion against her.

There’s an effective use of illusion in Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s Toffee’s Christmas too. In that short story, an author of romance novels who calls herself Toffee Brown moves to the small Yorkshire village of Knavesborough. As she tells the local vicar’s daughter Rhapsody Gershwin, Toffee came to the village to get some rest. Although she’s very eccentric and rather put out at not being identified as the world-famous writer she is, Toffee becomes a part of village life and settles in. Then one day, Rhapsody and her sister Psalmonella discover Toffee’s body in the cottage she’s taken. Rhapsody’s fiancé local constable Archibald ‘Archie’ Primrose begins to investigate and in the process they learn what Toffee’s real identity was. That doesn’t bring them much closer to finding the murderer though. It’s not until Rhapsody discovers that another character has created an illusion that she and her fiancé catch the killer.

Betty Webb’s Desert Wives is mostly set in the compound of a polygamous sect called Purity. The sect has been run by Brother Solomon Royal until he is murdered. Private investigator Lena Jones goes undercover to join Purity and find out who killed Royal when her client Esther Corbett is accused of the crime. Esther had a good motive for the murder too, as Royal had been planning to marry Esther’s thirteen-year-old daughter Rebecca. Jones settles into Purity and begins to ask questions about Royal’s murder. What she finds is that Purity is hiding some truly ugly secrets. There’s been a very carefully-designed illusion of Purity as being a peaceful, happy group of people who help each other, meet the group’s needs in a self-sufficient way and raise the group’s children together. But the reality is far, far different. Jones discovers domestic abuse, child molestation, and intermarriage leading to some serious birth defects. She also discovers financial wrongdoing. In fact, the reality underneath the illusion of Purity is so awful that Jones finds it hard to focus on her main reason for being there. But she does discover who killed Solomon Royal and why.

The thing about well-crafted illusions is that they can be very convincing. And in crime fiction that ability to create a reality that isn’t there can be very useful to criminals. Of course, sleuths can create illusions too; maybe I’ll address that in another post…

 

ps.  The photos are of Penn Jillette and Raymond Teller, who make up the hugely popular and successful magician duo Penn and Teller. Not only are they dedicated to debunking fraudulent psychics and other fakes, but they are truly gifted illusionists themselves. Oh, and they’re as pleasant in person as you could wish for, despite their great success.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Genesis’ Abacab.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Betty Webb, Caroline Graham, Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen, Ira Levin, Linwood Barclay