Category Archives: John Dickson Carr

For You Are the Wind Beneath My Wings*

Inspirational TeachersIf you’ve ever had a teacher who really made a positive difference in your life, you know how important that can be. In today’s world, some students spend more time with their teachers than they do with their parents, and a skilled teacher has a great deal of insight into the characters of her or his students. Sometimes those insights can be very useful, too. Let me just share a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.

Much of Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons takes place at Meadowbank, an exclusive school for girls. The school is rocked one summer by several events. First, there’s the shooting death of games mistress Grace Springer. Then there’s the kidnapping of one of the students. Then there’s another murder. Throughout all of this, the school’s headmistress Honoria Bulstrode puts the welfare of her staff and pupils above everything else as she works with the police and later, with Hercule Poirot, to find out what’s behind all of these occurrences. Part of the story is told from her perspective, and in that, we see just how devoted she is to each student. She knows her pupils, she understands their strengths and needs and she has earned their respect.

John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook introduces readers to lexicographer and amateur detective Gideon Fell. In this novel, recent university graduate Tad Rampole has been advised by his mentor to visit Fell and he makes plans to do so. On his way to Fell’s home in Chatterham, Rampole meets Dorothy Starberth and becomes smitten with her. When he finally meets Fell, he learns an interesting fact about the Starberth family. For two generations, members of the family were Governors at nearby Chatterham Prison, which has now fallen into disuse. Although the family is no longer associated with the prison, they’ve retained one custom from those years. On the night of his twenty-fifth birthday, each Starberth heir spends the night in the Governor’s Room at the abandoned prison. While there, he opens the safe in the room and follows the instructions on a note that’s there. Now it’s the turn of Dorothy Starberth’s brother Martin. His twenty-fifth birthday ends in tragedy though, when he is killed by what seems like a fall from the balcony of the Governor’s Room. Rampole has been keeping vigil with Fell, and the two of them work with Chief Constable Sir Benjamin Arnold to find out who killed the victim and why. Throughout this novel we see how Rampole’s mentor and Gideon Fell both take a personal interest in the young man. Admittedly that’s not the main plot of the story, but it’s a thread that runs through it.

In Margaret Millar’s Mermaid, twenty-two-year-old Cleo Jasper visits the law offices of Smedler, Downs, Castleberg, MacFee & Powell. As she tells junior attorney Tom Aragon, she’s there to learn about her rights. Very quickly Aragon notices that Cleo is not like other young women; in fact, she has a form of mental retardation. She’s fairly high-functioning though, and seems to be doing well. She attends Holbrook Hall, an exclusive day school for students with certain special needs. When Cleo disappears, her older brother Hilton asks Aragon to find her and persuade her to return home. Aragon is no private investigator, but he agrees to ask some questions. One of the places he visits is Holbrook Hall, where he meets Rachel Holbrook, head of the school. She has a ‘dragon lady’ reputation, but it’s clear that she knows her students well and cares about them. Through her, he learns that the teacher who knows Cleo best is Roger Lennard. At first Aragon makes the obvious inference about Lennard’s interest in Cleo, but when he finds out that Lennard’s gay, he knows he’s wrong about that. What he does learn though is that it’s been Lennard who has supported Cleo’s drive towards understanding her rights and being independent. That new way of thinking plays a major role in the rest of the events of the story.

One of the plot threads in Tony Hillerman’s Sacred Clowns concerns the murder of a high school shop teacher Eric Dorsey. Dorsey does his best to inspire his students to create things that are useful as well as aesthetically appealing. He cares about his students and is quick to encourage them. When he is murdered, there isn’t much to go on at first, but Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Sergeant Jim Chee find that his death is related to a missing teenager, a murder at an important ceremonial event, and some underhanded business dealings.

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring. Academic and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn may get exasperated with her students at times, but she is dedicated to them. We see that commitment in this novel, where Reed Gallagher, one of Kilbourn’s colleagues in the Department of Journalism is murdered. One key to the murder might be in the person of Kellee Savage, a journalism student who is also in Bowen’s class. When Kellee stops coming to class, Kilbourn gets concerned and asks around among her other students. Bit by bit she learns that Kellee had been out with some of them on the evening she disappeared. Kilbourn starts tracing the young woman’s movements and discovers that they’re closely related to Gallagher’s murder. As Kilbourn works with the students, we can see that she cares about them, wants to support them, and has high expectations for them. Here’s what one says:

 

‘Kibourn’s all right. She’s kinda like my coach – tough but generally pretty fair.’

 

It’s especially meaningful because it’s not said within Kilbourn’s earshot.

In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we meet Ilse Klein, who is a secondary school teacher. One of her most promising students is fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. Even though she’s not supposed to ‘pay favourites’ among her students, she can’t help but be delighted in Serena’s promise and her passion for learning. For her part, Serena likes Ilse also and respects her. Although she doesn’t quite put it in these terms, she gets the vital message that she has worthwhile ideas, and that she can be somebody as the saying goes. For Serena, this is the first time an adult has really taken an interest in her. Then everything changes. Serena stops caring about school, stops coming to class and stops participating when she is there. Ilse is very concerned, and at one pivotal point, reports her concerns to the school’s counselor. That decision plays a critical role in the rest of the story, and Ilse’s concern for Serena is key when Serena disappears.

There are a lot of other novels in which a dedicated and caring teacher has a real influence on a student – in a positive way. And if you’ve ever had a teacher like that, you know it happens in real life too.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jeff Silbar and Larry Henry’s Wind Beneath My Wings, made perhaps most famous by Bette Midler, although it’s been recorded by many other artists too.

30 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, John Dickson Carr, Margaret Millar, Paddy Richardson, Tony Hillerman

A Plot Begins to Take Shape*

Story ShapeNot long ago, graphic designer Maya Eilam suggested a fascinating way to look at the shape of a story – through a graphic pattern. She based her ideas on Kurt Vonnegut’s theories about archetypal story patterns (e.g. ‘boy meets girl,’ and ‘creation stories,’ among others).

I got to thinking about story patterns for certain kinds of crime fiction novels and thought it might be interesting to see what those patterns look like pictorially. Now of course, each story is a little bit different. Still, let’s take a look at some basic story patterns.

Keep in mind as you read that a) I am not a graphic designer, so the graphics are not professional; b) this is all just my take on story shapes; c) there’s only space on this post for a few examples. I’m sure that you’ll be able to think of a lot more than I could.

 

The Classic/Golden Age Novel

GA

In many (‘though certainly not all!) classic/Golden Age crime novels, we meet the characters. Then something untoward happens and then, there’s a murder. The sleuth begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together, only to have to deal with a second murder or other setback. Then the sleuth puts more pieces of the puzzle together, to arrive at a resolution. There’s very often a hint of romance in such novels too (although again, certainly not always).

That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow. The story starts as we get to know the various members of the Angkatell family. They’re preparing for a weekend gathering that will also include Harley Street specialist John Christow and his wife Gerda. The weekend begins and we see the tensions among the characters rise. Then, John Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot is staying at a nearby cottage he’s taken, and he and Inspector Grange work to find out who the killer is. At first Poirot gets to some of the truth about the murder but of course, there are setbacks. Then, Poirot finds the other pieces of the puzzle. There’s a bit of a romance angle too for two of the characters. Of course, the novel has other depths too, but you can see how it’s consistent with this pattern.

There’s also John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook. That’s the story of the murder of Martin Starberth. The Starberth family were Governors of Chatterham Prison for several generations, and it’s still the family custom for each Starberth heir to spend the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the Governor’s Room at the now-ruined prison as a sort of initiation rite. When Martin Starberth takes his turn, he’s found dead the next morning. The story is told through the eyes of Tad Rampole, an American who’s visiting Dr. Gideon Fell, who lives not far from the prison. First, we meet the characters. The tension rises as we learn the story of the Starberth family, and then Martin Starberth is killed. There are some clues to the puzzle, but there are setbacks as this seems to be one of those ‘impossible crimes.’ It isn’t of course, and Fell finds that the key to the mystery is a cryptic poem. Again, parts of the story don’t strictly follow this story shape, but in general, it fits. Oh, and there’s a romance in this novel too.

 

The Police Procedural

PP

There are of course a lot of variations on the police procedural theme. But in general, the real action in them starts when a body is discovered. Then the police interview witnesses and those who were involved with the victim. Sometimes the detective gets a clue or even several pieces of the puzzle. Then there’s often a setback as clues don’t pan out, more victims are killed, or the police detective is warned off a case for whatever reason. Then comes the break in the case. There’s also sometimes a confrontation between the detective and the criminal. Then, even if the criminal isn’t always led away in handcuffs, we know the truth about the case.

That’s what happens in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, the first of their Martin Beck series. The action in the story begins when the body of an unknown woman is pulled from a Swedish lake. After a lot of effort she is identified as Roseanna McGraw, an American who was touring Sweden when she was killed. Martin Beck and his team talk to people who might be witnesses, and there’s a parallel investigation in the victim’s hometown in Nebraska. But there are setbacks as the detectives really can’t find a viable suspect. Then there’s a major breakthrough in the case and the killer is identified. There’s a confrontation with that person and the case is solved. Of course there’s more to the novel than that, but you can see how it’s consistent with this pattern.

We also see this pattern in Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear. New South Wales police detective Ella Marconi and her team are called in when Paul Fowler is killed. He was with a group of friends tossing a football around when he suddenly collapsed. When it’s found that he was shot, the team begins to talk with the people on the scene as well as with other people in Fowler’s life. There are setbacks as several people involved in the case keep things back. There are other deaths, too. But then there’s a breakthrough, and Marconi and her team find out the truth. Again, there are other layers to this novel and there are subplots. But in many ways it’s consistent with the basic story structure.

 

The Cosy Mystery

CM

The characters in a cosy mystery are often very important. So lots of cosies start with an introduction to the characters. Then something happens that raises the tension level. Then there’s a murder. The sleuth (who’s usually an amateur, ‘though of course, not always) is drawn into the case. She or he often has a love interest or something else that brings some hope (cosies tend to be optimistic). But there are setbacks. Either the sleuth is suspected of the crime, or there’s another murder – sometimes both. However, there is support from the sleuth’s real friends and sometimes from the sleuth’s love interest. The sleuth puts the pieces of the puzzle together, sometimes having a confrontation with the killer. Then the story comes together when the case is solved. 

Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal is like that. In that novel, a local theatre group has been doing a production of Henry V under the direction of local high school principal Hilary VanBrook. On the night of the last performance, VanBrook is murdered. Since the murder was on his property, and the suspects are people he knows, Qwill investigates the case. As he does so, he gets support from his friends in town and of course there’s his love interest Polly Duncan. There are also setbacks as there is another murder. Some of the clues don’t pan out either. But in the end, Qwill finds out who killed VanBrook and why.

We also see that sort of pattern in Dicey Deere’s The Irish Village Murder. Professional translator/interpreter Torrey Tunet has just returned to her European ‘home base’ in the Irish village of Ballynagh. She’s soon drawn into a murder case when her friend Megan O’Faolain is accused of shooting noted history writer John Gwathney. Tunet doesn’t believe her friend is guilty, so she begins to ask questions. As she does so, we get to know the various characters and we also learn about Gwathney’s personal and professional lives. In the end, and with help from her lover Jaspar Shaw, Tunet finds out who really killed the victim and why. In one sense, this novel varies just a little from the overall story structure I’ve depicted; we get to know the characters after Gwathney’s body is discovered. But in most ways it’s quite consistent.

 

The Noir Novel

Noir

Noir stories are, by their nature, not happy stories about well-adjusted people, and you can see that reflected in the story structure. In many of these stories, the main character is not overly happy to begin with. Then, something happens that propels that character on a downward spiral. The character gets involved in a murder investigation in one way or another and things don’t get much better. There are setbacks that draw the main character further down. There may sometimes be some sort of possibility for optimism as the main character finds out the truth. But in the end, solving the case doesn’t make for a happy ending, and the protagonist doesn’t come out of things ahead of the proverbial game.

That’s the case with Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, which takes place in 1950’s Southern California. Lora King is a Pasadena schoolteacher whose brother Bill has just become married Alice Steele. Lora’s not happy about this. For one thing, she doesn’t know much about Alice, and something about her is disturbing. Still, she tries to make the best of things for Bill’s sake. But as Lora slowly learns out more about Alice, she sees that her new sister-in-law has a very murky past and is hiding a lot of her life. The more Lora finds out though, the more drawn into Alice’s life she becomes. Then there’s a death that turns out to be murder. Is Alice involved? If so, Bill could be in real danger. So Lora begins to investigate and finds out that she’s pulled more and more into the case. She risks everything to try to find out the truth and save Bill, and I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that knowing what really happened doesn’t make life any better.

Ken Bruen’s The Guards is also fairly consistent with this sort of story shape. Jack Taylor has recently been separated from the Garda, mostly for drinking that led to a very unprofessional encounter with a speeder. Now he’s hung out his PI shingle in Galway, and Ann Henderson hires him. Her daughter Sarah recently died in what police say was an incident of suicide. But Ann doesn’t believe that. Taylor agrees to take the case and starts asking questions. He soon finds out that he’s not going to get much help from his former Garda colleagues. And it doesn’t help matters that Sarah’s death may be connected to the deaths of some other young girls – killings that some highly placed people do not want solved. But Taylor has begun to care very much for Ann Henderson. Besides, he doesn’t much like it when obstacles are put in his way. So he persists. He even stops drinking for a time and starts to put his life together. He finds out the truth about Sarah Henderson, but it doesn’t change the sadness of this case. And it doesn’t really make life better for Taylor.

One thing about well-written novels is that there’s much more to them than just their overall shape. There is a richness of character, plot and so on that keeps the reader engaged. So a story map only goes so far in describing a given novel. What’s more, each author has an individual way of approaching story shapes and structures, and many authors play with the structure deliberately. So not every novel falls neatly within one or another structure. Still, I think it’s an interesting way to think about crime novels. Thanks to  Maya Eilam for the inspiration and to author and fellow blogger Rob Kitchin for sharing the article.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Belle and Sebastian’s Storytelling.

29 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Dicey Deere, John Dickson Carr, Katherine Howell, Ken Bruen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Maj Sjöwall, Megan Abbott, Per Wahlöö

There’s No Use Sitting on the Fence When You Know it All Makes Sense*

ThemesSometimes one of the most important clues in a murder case – the thing that really ties the case together – is a common theme, such as a poem, a song or something of that nature. Once the sleuth figures out what that common theme is, it’s easier to find out what’s behind the murder or set of murders. Those themes often point to the killer too. I’m not talking here about cryptic codes and ciphers. Rather, I mean motifs that give clues as to what the criminal is thinking and where s/he may strike next. Let me offer just a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I have in mind.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Musgrave Ritual, Sherlock Holmes tells Watson of an early case of his – a case brought to him by an old university friend Reginald Musgrave. Some strange things were going on at the Musgrave family home of Hurlstone. Brunton the butler and second housemaid Rachel Howells went missing. Nothing was stolen, so theft didn’t seem to be the motive for their leaving. According to what Musgrave told Holmes, the only odd thing he’d noticed before their disappearance was that he’d caught Brunton going through some family papers. So, Holmes tells Watson, he went with his friend to Hurlstone. It turns out that an old family ritual that involved the repetition of a short verse is the theme that explains everything. Once Holmes figures out what the verse means, he finds out the truth about Brunton and Rachel Howells.

Agatha Christie used themes like that in more than one of her stories. In And then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians) for instance, ten people are invited for a stay on Indian Island off the Devon coast. They no sooner arrive and settle in than each is accused of having been responsible for at least one death. Then, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Late that night there’s another death. Now it’s clear that someone has lured them all to Indian Island and is planning to kill them. So the survivors will have to find out which of them is the killer if they’re to stay alive. In this case, the theme is the old poem Ten Little Indians, a copy of which is in each person’s room. Of course, knowing that theme doesn’t necessarily mean anyone will be spared… (I know, I know, fans of A Pocket Full of Rye and The ABC Murders…).

John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook is the story of American Tad Rampole’s visit to England and the home of Dr. Gideon Fell. It’s also the story of the Starberth family. Two generations of the Starberth family were Governors of the now-disused Chatterham Prison. Although the prison hasn’t been in use for a hundred years, the Starbeth family still has an odd connection to the place. Each male heir has to spend the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the Governor’s Room at the old prison. To prove he’s been there, he must open the safe in the room and follow the instructions that are there. Now it’s the turn of Martin Starberth. Rampole is especially interested when Fell tells him this story, because Rampole has fallen in love with Martin’s sister Dorothy. So he and Fell watch and wait on the night of Martin’s birthday. The next morning, Martin’s body is found. He apparently fell over the balcony attached to the Governor’s Room, but it’s soon clear that he was murdered. The only problem is that no-one was seen going to or from the prison that night. There are rumours that he fell victim to a family curse, but the real solution is more prosaic than that. The only clue to it though is a poem that Anthony Starberth wrote many years earlier. Once Fell makes sense of the poem, he’s able to find out who the killer is.

In Elly Griffiths’ The Crossing Places, forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway gets involved in a police investigation when a set of old bones is discovered in North Norfolk. DCI Harry Nelson thinks they may be the bones of Lucy Downey, a girl who went missing ten years ago, but Galloway is able to show they are much older than that. Then Nelson comes to Galloway again with a related request. He’s been receiving strange letters, most likely from the person who abducted Lucy. The letters also make veiled reference to anther girl Scarlet Henderson who recently disappeared. Nelson thinks that if Galloway can help him make sense of the letters, they’ll give him a clue as to who’s behind the abductions. Galloway is able to help with some of the quotes and references used in the letters and although they don’t specifically point to one person, they do point to the kind of knowledge the abductor would have. The letters show that there is a theme to part of what has happened, and that leads to some of the answers Nelson needs.  

Time is a theme in Jeffery Deaver’s The Cold Moon. In this novel, Lincoln Rhyme and his partner Amelia Sachs are on the trail of a serial killer known as The Watchmaker who is meticulous and obsessed with time. In fact, The Watchmaker leaves clocks at each of his crime scenes. Rhyme is able to use this theme of time to find out who the killer is, but now he’s under pressure to stop The Watchmaker before he’s able to strike again. He’s also discovered that The Watchmaker intends to strike again (yes, pun intended) in just a few hours…

Poetry proves to be a theme in Cat Connor’s Killerbyte. New Zealand ex-pat and FBI operative Gabrielle ‘Ellie’ Conway is the co-moderator of a poetry chat room called Cobwebs. One night chat room member Carter McLaren turns up at Ellie’s house to threaten her after being banned from the room. He’s arrested, but later his body is discovered in Conway’s car. Then another chat room member is killed. And another. There’s even a suggestion that Conway herself is responsible. So in order to clear her name and find out who’s targeting the chat room, Conway and her co-moderator and lover Cormack ‘Mack’ Connelly try to track the killer down. They don’t have much to go on at first, since the killer is very good at leaving no traces. But the killer does leave notes at each crime scene with lines of poetry. That poetry theme begins to tie the crimes together and once Conway and Connelly make sense of it, they get important information. The poems, plus a chance clue, put them on the right track.

Sometimes the most important clue to a murderer is a theme such as a song, poetry, time or something else. That theme gives a clue as to what the killer is thinking, and it can be very helpful in putting the sleuth on the right track.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stealers Wheel’s Waltz (You Know it Makes Sense).

18 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Cat Connor, Elly Griffiths, Jeffery Deaver, John Dickson Carr

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Undercover Operations

UndercoverIt’s unbelievable that the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme is getting so close to the end of our utterly unsettling journey. Thanks as ever to our tour leader Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, without whom I’m sure we’d all be wandering aimlessly around, completely lost. Today we’ve arrived at Uborough Junction, where the police have a very important headquarters. They use this out-of-the-way place to plan special operations and prepare an elite group of officers for some of the cases they’ll be investigating. Since we’re a group of crime fiction fans, the administration at Uborough Junction has graciously agreed to give us a brief tour of the public areas of their headquarters. We’re all excited about that and everyone’s planning a list of questions to ask. While they’re doing that, I’ll share my contribution for this week: undercover operations.

The police often plan undercover operations, and I’m sure that you could list a large number of crime fiction novels where characters go undercover for one reason or another. It’s a common theme actually, but the reality is that undercover operations can be very dangerous. In fact, they even turn out deadly sometimes. If someone’s cover is blown, those who trusted that person are not likely to deal kindly with the matter. Let’s just take a look at a few examples from crime fiction and you’ll see what I mean.

In John Dickson Carr’s Death-Watch, Dr. Gideon Fell is faced with a very puzzling crime. A seemingly homeless man has been stabbed to death in the home of clockmaker Johannes Carver, who has opened his home to boarders. But very soon the case gets much more complex than a ‘boarding-house row.’ The dead man turns out to be a police officer, Detective Ames, who’d been undercover and had come to the boarding house to arrest one of its residents in connection with an earlier case of shoplifting. As you might expect from a Carr novel, this case is full of twists and turns and strange events, and the truth depends on keeping track of the various characters. But as Fell fans know, he’s good at sorting out those ‘impossible’ mysteries.

Also not very lucky in an undercover operation is a special agent called Hanbury, whom we learn about in Agatha Christie’s The Clocks. Hanbury is deeply involved in the arrest of a spy named Larkin and is on the trail of some of the other spies with whom Larkin worked. But then, Hanbury’s killed in a not-so-accidental hit-and-run incident and another agent, Colin Lamb, follows up on the one clue Hanbury left behind. That clue leads him to Wilbraham Crescent, a neighborhood in the town of Crowdean. He’s walking along the road there when a typist named Sheila Webb rushes out of one of the houses screaming that she’s found a dead man there. Lamb goes into the house and finds that she was right. The dead man isn’t Lamb’s quarry but it does draw him into a murder case that he thinks might be interesting to his father’s friend Hercule Poirot. He’s right about Poirot’s interest and between them, they find out who the dead man is, and who killed him. They also find out how that murder is related to the spy ring Lamb is investigating.

In Tony Hillerman’s The Sinister Pig, Navajo Tribal Police officer Jim Chee investigates the death of an unidentified man whose body is found near the Jicarilla Apache natural gas field. The FBI takes jurisdiction uncomfortably quickly for Chee’s taste, claiming that the man died in a tragic hunting accident. But Chee doesn’t think that’s the case. So he looks into the matter more closely. He finds that the dead man may have been working undercover investigating the alleged theft of millions of dollars from the Indian Tribal royalty trust. If he was, there are several people who might not take kindly to someone they trusted ‘selling out’ on them. In the meantime, former Navajo Tribal Police officer Bernie Manuelito is now working for the US Border Patrol. In the course of her job, she finds some suspicious activity going on at a New Mexico ranch. When it becomes clear that somebody knows she’s been overly interested in the ranch, Manuelito finds herself in real danger. The key turns out to be the connection between the ranch activities and the story behind the dead man.

In Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, Stockholm police detective Martin Beck and his team set up an undercover operation to catch the person who killed twenty-seven-year-old Roseanna McGraw, an American visitor to Sweden who was murdered during a cruise. Her body is dredged up from Lake Vättern and at first she can’t even be identified, let alone matched with a killer. But little by little Martin Beck and his team put together the pieces of her life and establish what she was doing in Sweden. After a long time of eliminating leads that go nowhere, the team finally narrows down the possible suspects to one person. The only problem is getting the murderer to confess. For that, the team decides to send one of its members undercover. Detective Sonja Hansson is asked to undertake the extremely dangerous task of getting to know the killer. She’s made aware of the dangers, but agrees to her part in the plan. Now of course, the team has to catch the killer before their team-mate becomes the next victim. Among other things, this novel shows just how tense and nerve-wracking undercover operations can be.

In Jill Edmondson’s Blood and Groom, Christine Arvisais hires Toronto PI Sasha Jackson to find out who killed her former fiancé Gordon Hanes, who was murdered shortly after the two broke off their engagement. What’s odd about this case is that he was murdered on what was supposed to be the couple’s wedding day. The gossip has always been that Arvisais is guilty, but she claims she’s innocent and wants to clear her name. Jackson isn’t impressed with her new client, but a fee is a fee, so she starts work on the case. She finds that Arvisais wasn’t the only person who had a motive to kill Hanes. There are family issues, money issues and other motives too. And it’s entirely possible that Arivisais could have hired someone to commit the murder. So Jackson has her work as the saying goes, cut out for her. At one point, Jackson wants to interview the wedding planner who had arranged the details of the Arvisais/Hanes wedding. To get the answers she wants, she goes undercover posing as a bride-to-be. To make the picture complete, she persuades a fellow member of the band she sings with to pose as her fiancé. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that the ‘undercover operation’ doesn’t prove fatal for Jackson, but it is funny.

Also funny is an undercover operation that Mma. Precious Ramotswe undertakes in Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Alice Busang hires Mma. Ramotswe to find out if her husband Kremlin is cheating on her. Mma. Ramotswe knows that if she asks him directly, he’ll just lie about it all if he is cheating. So she decides on another approach. She goes to the nightclub he frequents and waits for him to make a move. When he does, she manages to get a picture of them kissing as photographic evidence that he goes after other women. Needless to say, when Alice Busang sees the evidence, she is not best pleased…

As you can see, undercover operations are not always deadly. But they are always very dangerous. Now, I believe it’s time to go for that tour. But before we do, perhaps I could ask you a favour? You see, there’s this group I’ve been wanting to know more about and if I had an ‘inside person…’ ;-)   

28 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Jill Edmondson, John Dickson Carr, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Tony Hillerman

I See the Place Lives*

Old MainAny crime fiction fan can tell you that a good, atmospheric setting can add a lot to a novel. And a well-written post from Annette Thomson has got me thinking of the way that old buildings can be rich with history and character. Annette’s blog, by the way, is an excellent writing blog and Annette is a talented poet and writer. Check it out. Old buildings like the one Annette describes have their own stories to tell, and when they’re woven into a crime novel, this can add layers of atmosphere to a story.

There’s a building like that in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral. When wealthy family patriarch Richard Abernethie dies, his family gathers for his funeral and the reading of the will. At this gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. Everyone is quick to discount what she says and Cora herself asks everyone to forget she’s said anything. But privately, everyone wonders whether she might have been right. After all, Richard Abernethie had a fortune to leave and a family full of relations who are eager for their shares of it. When Cora herself is brutally murdered the next day it seems more and more likely that she was right. Family lawyer Mr. Entwhistle visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to investigate. As part of his search for answers, Poirot visits Enderby Hall in the guise of a representative of a foundation that wants to buy the old house. During his visit, he hears some important conversations and remarks, and gets some vital clues as to what really happened to both Richard Abernethie and Cora Lansquenet. The house itself has a rich history and we see that mostly through the eyes of the family butler Lanscombe, who’s been there for decades. As he goes about his duties we get a sense of the way an old building like this one can have memories.

There’s a very atmospheric, history-laden building featured in John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, the first in his Gideon Fell series. Tad Rampole has just completed his university studies and has decided to travel a bit. On the advice of his mentor, he seeks out Dr. Gideon Fell, who lives in Chatterham. On his way to visit Fell, Rampole meets and becomes smitten with Dorothy Starberth. When he meets Fell, Rampole hears the story of the Starberth family. Beginning with Anthony Starberth, two generations of Starberths were governors of nearby Chatterham Prison. The prison then fell into disuse and hasn’t housed any convicts for a hundred years. And yet the Starberth family still maintains a prison-related tradition. On the night of his twenty-fifth birthday each Starberth heir spends the night in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. While there, he opens the safe in the room and follows the instructions in a note left in the safe. Now it’s the turn of Dorothy Starberth’s brother Martin to follow the ritual and he duly prepares for his stay. Sometime during the night Martin Starberth dies from what looks like a fall from the balcony of the Governor’s Room. But it’s soon clear that he was murdered. As Fell, Rampole and Chief Constable Sir Benjamin Arnold investigate, we get a real sense of the rich and eerie history of the prison building. The old building adds much to the story in terms of atmosphere.

So does the Palace Theatre in Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House.  When Arthur Bryant of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) decides to write his memoirs, he makes a shocking discovery about the first case the unit solved. He’s following up on this finding when a bomb blast destroys the PCU offices and takes Bryant with it. Bryant’s police partner John May decides to find out who set the bomb. To do that, he’ll have to revisit the 1940 case that Bryant was reviewing. Through flashbacks we learn that in that case, the PCU investigates the murder of dancer Tanya Capistrania, who was part of the cast of Orpheus, which is scheduled to open at the Palace Theatre. As the team looks into what happened to the victim, preparations continue for the production, but they are marred by another murder, followed by a disappearance. It turns out that there was one question about that case that was not resolved. Bryant found out the answer to that question and when May does too, we find out how that 1940 case is connected to the modern-day blast. Throughout this novel, the Palace Theatre provides a rich, atmospheric and history-laden setting for much of what happens. Just the building itself adds much to the story.

We also see that sense of atmosphere in Patricia Stoltey’s The Desert Hedge Murders. Retired Florida circuit court judge Sylvia Thorn reluctantly agrees to accompany her mother Kristina Grisseljon’s travel club the Florida Flippers on a sightseeing and gambling tour of Laughlin, Nevada. Everyone settles in and all begins well enough. But shortly afterwards the body of a man no-one seems to know is found in the bathtub of the hotel room that two of the club members are sharing. Then one of the tour group members disappears. She is later found dead in the abandoned Lone Cactus gold mine. With help from her brother Willie and from the other members of the Florida Flippers, Sylvia finds out what the connection between the deaths is, and how they relate to some nasty secrets that someone has been hiding. One part of the story takes place in Oatman, Nevada, a ghost town near the mine. There are a few very effective scenes there, especially in the Oatman Hotel, which is full of history and character. As a matter of fact, there’s talk that a ghost haunts the hotel. The ghost town setting and the old mine really add atmosphere to this novel. Oh, and so do the burros.

And then there’s the Löwander Hospital, which features strongly in Helene Tursten’s Night Rounds. This private hospital has been in the Löwander family for a few generations and is now directed by Sverker Löwander. One night there’s a blackout at the hospital during which a nurse Marianne Svärd is killed. Another nurse Linda Svensson disappears and is later found dead. Eerily enough, her body is discovered in the same place where fifty years earlier, another nurse Thekla Olsson hung herself. Göteborg police inspector Irene Huss and her team are called in to investigate the nurses’ murders and another death that occurs. Since the three deaths all seem to be connected to the hospital in some way, the team spends its share of time there. The place is full of history and stories and that atmosphere adds to the novel.

There’s only room in this one post for a few examples of the kind of rich atmosphere and history that old buildings can add to a story (I know, I know, fans of Johan Theorin’s Öland novels). They can either provide an interesting contrast to a light story, or add a real layer of eeriness and mystery to a darker one. Which old buildings do you wish could tell you their stories? If you’re a writer, do you use old places as an inspiration?

Thanks, Annette, for the post that inspired me. And thanks, Elizabeth Spann Craig, for another post with a ‘photo of a great atmospheric Southern Gothic building. That inspired me too.

ps. The ‘photo is of Old Main, the heart of the campus of Knox College, Galesburg IL.  It is a building full of history and all sorts of stories. Among other things, the building is the site of one of the famous Lincoln/Douglas debates of 1858. Oh, and the winsome model on the steps is my daughter when she was a few months shy of her seventh birthday.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Mount Eerie’s The Place Lives.

27 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Christopher Fowler, Helene Tursten, Johan Theorin, John Dickson Carr, Patricia Stoltey