Category Archives: John Dickson Carr

And She Only Reveals What She Wants You to See*

Sleuths' ThoughtsOne of the major developments we’ve seen in crime fiction over the years has arguably been the move from the sleuth as a third person – as someone whose thoughts we don’t always know – to the sleuth as the first person. Of course, not all modern crime novels are written in the first person. But in many of them, the reader is privy to what’s going on in the sleuth’s mind. And that makes sense, since today’s crime fiction fans want their characters, by and large, to be well-developed.

But as those who’ve read classic and Golden Age crime fiction know, that hasn’t always been the style. Here are just a few examples; I know that those of you who’ve read classic and Golden Age detective fiction will be able to provide lots more than I could.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is (at least to me) an interesting case in point. He does let us know how he deduces things. He also occasionally gives his opinion about one thing or another. For instance, we know that he’s not much of a fan of the police (with one or two exceptions). But as a rule, readers aren’t privy to what he’s really thinking. Rather, we learn about Holmes ‘from the outside,’ mostly through Dr. Watson. On the one hand, this invites the reader to get caught up in the mystery and try to get to the solution of a case. On the other hand, we can often only speculate on what Holmes really thinks about it all. He keeps the cards, as the saying goes, close to his chest.

The same might be said of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. We get a sense from things that he says that he has a philosophical side. And we also learn some of his views about religion and about what it means to be a good person. There are a few other things we learn about his thought processes too. But readers don’t really ‘get into his head.’ The Father Brown stories don’t, for instance, follow him home at night as he makes tea and thinks about whatever case he’s involved in at the moment. Readers also don’t learn what his opinions are about a given case. That’s not generally revealed until close to the end of the story, as Father Brown explains how he came to certain conclusions.

That’s also often the case with Patricia Wentworth’s Maude Silver. Readers follow along of course as Miss Silver meets new clients, discusses their cases and so on. We know a bit about Miss Silver’s background (former governess turned private investigator), and we know something of her methods too. But readers don’t know what she’s thinking as she puts the pieces of the puzzle together, so to speak. She has her ways of ‘saving the day,’ but we don’t know what she thinks about it all, except for what she says. In other words, readers don’t ‘get in her head.’

Several of Christianna Brand’s novels feature Inspector Cockrill of the Kent Police. He’s a police detective, so in that sense, we know the way he goes about solving crimes. He talks to witnesses and suspects, observes the evidence and so on. In fact, sometimes Brand lets the reader in on the main clues that Cockrill notices. Readers are also privy to certain thoughts Cockrill has (from Green For Danger):
 

‘Cockrill had been waiting for something, but not for this.’
 

But we don’t always know what he’s thinking as he investigates. The stories are told more or less ‘from the outside.’

And then there’s John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell. We know a few things about his personal life, and we do learn how he draws the conclusions he draws. He explains himself, so that the reader can see how he came to suspect the killer. But readers aren’t really privy to what he’s thinking as the case develops. We don’t ‘get in his head’ as he looks through the clues and listens to what people say, either. In fact, we don’t always know what he thinks of the various people with whom he interacts.

Agatha Christie lets us in on a few of Hercule Poirot’s and Miss Marple’s thoughts. For instance, readers know how Miss Marple feels about being ‘looked after’ by Miss Knight in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Cracked). If you haven’t read that one, you can, I am sure, imagine how she might feel with an overzealous paid nurse/companion watching everything she does, eats, and so on. Readers are privy to Poirot’s feelings about things too. For example, we know Poirot is not fond of then-modern standards for beauty and dress. In several stories, Christie lets us in on his thinking about that topic. Poirot also often lets clues drop when he notices something. But he is notoriously close-mouthed about the theories he develops and his views about a given case. He says that it’s because he may be wrong and doesn’t want to influence anyone else’s thinking. But that strategy also serves to invite the reader to match wits with him.

One really can’t say that anything is true of all classic/Golden Age mysteries (or any other sub-genre, for the matter of that). There are well-written modern mysteries that don’t let readers in on much of the sleuth’s thinking. And there are well-written mysteries from earlier times in which we do know much of what the sleuth is thinking. That said though, as a general pattern, we see more crime fiction now where we ‘get into the sleuth’s head.’

A possible reason for that might be the larger, more general distinction between plot-driven and character-driven stories. Another might be the increasing interest over the years in psychology and psychological plot threads. There could well be other reasons too.

What do you think about all this? Do you see this pattern? If you do, do you have a preference as to whether you know what the sleuth’s thinking is? If you’re a writer, how do you decide how much to tell the reader about the sleuth’s thoughts?
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christianna Brand, G.K. Chesterton, John Dickson Carr, Patricia Wentworth

I Won’t Back Down*

DaresMost of us don’t want to appear weak in front of others. That’s arguably why people often don’t tell their troubles to a lot of people or admit their mistakes. That desire to appear strong and brave is also part of the reason people take dares and bets. Backing out of a dare or challenge can be seen as cowardly, so people go through with sometimes foolish and dangerous dares and bets to avoid that label. I’m sure you’ve seen it in real life, and that plot point runs through crime fiction too.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist, we are introduced to Violet Smith, who’s taken a position as piano teacher/governness at Chiltern Grange. During the week, she stays there. At the weekend, she goes to London to visit her mother. Lately, she’s noticed that a strange man on a bicycle has been following her on the way to and from the train station. He’s never threatened her or even spoken to her. But she’s beginning to worry for her safety. She’s also curious about who the man is and what he wants. So she engages Sherlock Holmes to get to the bottom of the mystery. He and Dr. Watson investigate, and they soon find that Violet Smith is in great danger. Unbeknownst to her, she’s a pawn in a very high-stakes game, as the saying goes. And it all started because of the need to appear strong and not back down from a challenge, in this case, a card game.

John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook is the first in his Gideon Fell series. In this novel, Tad Rampole has recently been graduated from university, and has come to England at the suggestion of his mentor, who knows Fell. Rampole is on the way to Chatterham, where Fell lives, when he meets Dorothy Starberth. He’s smitten with her, so he takes a special interest when Fell tells him about the mysterious history of the Starberth family. For two generations, the Starberths were Governers of the now-disused Chatterham Prison. Even though the prison has been abandoned for a hundred years, the Starberths are still associated with it through a family ritual. Each Starberth heir spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. During the evening, the heir opens the safe in the room and follows the instructions inside it. Now it’s the turn of Dorothy’s brother Martin. He’s not particularly eager to take on this challenge; the Starberth heirs have a habit of dying suddenly and violently. But he doesn’t want to back down and appear a coward. So he goes along with the ritual. During the night he stays in the prison, Martin Starberth dies of what looks like a tragic accident. But Fell is able to prove that the death was quite purposeful.

Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death) features a group of residents who live in a hostel for students. The hostel is managed by Mrs. Hubbard, whose sister Felicity Lemon is, as fans will know, Hercule Poirot’s frighteningly competent secretary. Mrs. Hubbard’s concerned about a series of odd and seemingly meaningless petty thefts going on at the hostel, so Miss Lemon asks her employer to look into the matter. This he agrees to do, and he pays a visit to the hostel. That evening, one of the residents Celia Austin confesses to the thefts, so it seems that the matter is settled. But when she dies two nights later, it’s clear that there’s more going on here than thievery. Poirot and Inspector Sharpe establish that Celia was murdered, and begin to investigate. As they do, they discover that just about everyone in the hostel is hiding something. One of the things they find out, for instance, is that a few of the residents got involved in what seemed like a harmless bet. They were joking around about being able to commit murder without being caught. Jokes led to a bet, which led to poisons being in the hostel at the time of Celia Austin’s death. And no, that’s not a spoiler, ‘though it may seem to be…

Catherine Aird’s The Religious Body is the story of the murder of Sister Mary St. Anne, who was a part of the community at the Convent of St. Anselm. When her body is discovered at the foot of the convent’s basement stairs, Berebury Police Inspector C.D. Sloan and his assistant Constable William Crosby investigate. Their first interest is of course, the network of relationshps at the convent, and they interview all of the people who live and work there. But they don’t neglect other possibilities. For example, there’s Sister Anne’s family. Also, close to the convent is an Agricultural Institute. It wouldn’t seem that anyone there would have a reason to kill Sister Anne, but on Guy Fawkes day, some of the students follow the college’s tradition of burning a guy. This time, though, the guy is dressed in a nun’s habit and what turn out to be Sister Anne’s spectacles. So it’s very clear that someone at the school was at the convent. Sloan and Crosby find that that element of the mystery has to do with a prank and some students’ desire to take on a challenge.

And then there’s Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black. On New Year’s Eve, Sally Henry and Catherine Ross are on their way home from a party when they pass by the house of Magnus Tait, who’s generally regarded as a misfit and a strange person. Catherine dares her friend to knock on the door and although she’s reluctant, Sally doesn’t want to appear cowardly. So she agrees and the two go to the house. Tait invites them in, and finds himself accused of murder when Catherine is killed a few days later. Inspector Jimmy Perez is assigned to the case and interviews the people in Catherine’s life, including Tait. There is evidence against him, but Tait claims that he’s innocent, and Perez comes to believe him. It’s interesting in this novel to see how that simple dare gets Tait mixed up in the girls’ lives.

Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s short story Trick or Treat begins as a young boy goes up to the door of Crow House, which has a creepy reputation. He’s been dared to knock on the door and of course, he doesn’t want to back down, so he knocks. When he’s admitted, he finds a trick he couldn’t have imagined…

Most of don’t want to seem weak, so it’s only natural not to want to back down from dares, bets and challenges. But as crime fiction shows us, it might just be safer all round to risk that…

ps. Oh, the ‘photo? Go ahead, pick a card. Dare ya! You’re not afraid, are you???
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of song by Tom Petty.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Arthur Conan Doyle, Catherine Aird, Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen, 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.

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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.

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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).

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