Category Archives: M.C. Beaton

Hooray and Hallelujah, You Had it Coming To Ya*

Bursting Bubbles and BalloonsMost of us don’t take pleasure in others’ misfortune. Every once in a while, though, we do like to see certain people being ‘taken down a peg.’ That’s especially true if the person being humbled is arrogant or annoyingly officious. It can be satisfying to see people like that put in their proverbial place. That’s certainly true in real life, and we see it in crime fiction too.

There’s a incident like that in Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links. Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to Merlinville-sur-Mer in France at the request of Paul Renauld. He’s written to Poirot claiming that he is in possession of a secret that some very nasty people want to know. Because of that, his life’s in danger. By the time Poirot and Hastings get to France though, it’s too late. Renauld has been stabbed and his body found by a golf course that abuts his home. The Sûreté has sent M. Giraud to solve the murder, and almost from the moment they meet, he and Poirot are at odds. Poirot is not known for his humility about his detection skills, but Giraud is far worse. He’s arrogant, rude and condescending, and Poirot soon has enough of him. It gets to the point where Poirot decides to put Giraud in his place. He bets the Inspector five hundred francs that he can solve Renauld’s murder before Giraud does. As you might expect, Poirot wins the bet, pulling Giraud down more than one peg, as the saying goes. And what does Poirot do with his winnings? He buys a model foxhound to adorn his mantel. Here’s what he says to Hastings about it:

 

‘Is he not a splendid fellow? I call him Giraud!’

 

It’s not hard to fault him for that…

I think we all have our particular favourite quote or ‘zinger’ that puts a character in her or his place. One of mine comes in Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, the first of his Van Veeteren series. Eva Ringmar has been found murdered in her bathtub. Her husband Janek Mitter is the most likely suspect, and it doesn’t help his case that he was so drunk on the night of the murder that he remembers very little about anything. He’s put on trial and cross-questioned by an officious prosecutor who quickly gets everyone annoyed. When the prosecutor asks Mitter how he knows he didn’t kill his wife (since he was so drunk), here’s what Mitter says:

 

‘I know I didn’t kill her; because I didn’t kill her. Just as I’m sure that you know you are not wearing frilly knickers today, because you aren’t. Not today.’

 

Truly an inspired response…

In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Cad, Colonel Halburton-Smythe and his wife Mary plan a weekend house party, mostly for the purpose of ‘showing off’ up-and-coming playwright Henry Withering, who’s become engaged to their daughter Priscilla. One of the guests is Captain Peter Bartlett of the Highland Dragoons. He may be ‘important,’ but he’s unpleasant, arrogant and lecherous. Needless to say he doesn’t get on well with the other guests. The weekend begins, and Bartlett makes a bet with fellow guest Jeremy Pomfret that he can bag a brace of grouse before Pomfret does. Early the next morning, Bartlett sneaks out before the agreed-upon hour, so he has more time to get his grouse. He never makes it back to the house and is later found killed, apparently the result of a terrible shooting accident. At least that’s what DCI Blair thinks. And that’s what the Haliburton-Smythes think too. But local bobby Hamish Macbeth isn’t so sure of that. Fans of this series will know that Blair is arrogant, pushy and sometimes rude, especially to Macbeth. So it’s with great pleasure that Macbeth presents Blair – in the presence of the ‘well-born’ Haliburton-Smythes and their guests – with evidence that Bartlett’s death was murder. Blair’s consternation is quite satisfying…

In Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, sometimes-attorney Jack Irish is investigating the murder of a former client Danny McKillop. That murder is very likely connected to the hit-and-run killing of citizen activist Anne Jeppeson, so Irish ends up looking into both deaths. The trail leads him to a charity group, the Safe Hands Foundation, and he goes to see one of its executives. However, the security guard is both officious and implacable and refuses at first to telephone up to announce Irish’s arrival. Here’s how Irish handles it:

 

‘Then he wanted my driver’s license.
‘I’m not trying to cash a cheque here, sonny,’ I said. ‘Just phone the man.’
Tight little smile. ‘The body corporate lays down the security proceedings.’ Flat Queensland voice. Pause. ‘Sir.’
‘This isn’t Pentridge,’ I said. ‘Didn’t they retrain you for this job? Just phone.’
He held my gaze briefly but I’d got him in one. ‘I’ll check,’ he said.’

 

Irish wastes no time whatever bursting this security guard’s proverbial bubble.

Fans of Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series will know that Brunetti is supervised by Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta. Fans will also know that Patta is self-important and arrogant, unless he’s in the company of the well-to-do and powerful, in which case he’s a toady. Whenever an investigation may lead to someone who ‘matters,’ Patta does everything he can to dissuade Brunetti from pursuing it. So it’s always especially satisfying to Brunetti when he can burst his boss’ bubble, so to speak, with irrefutable proof that someone important is guilty of murder. That’s what happens in Through a Glass, Darkly, when Giorgio Tassini is killed. Tassini is night watchman at a glass blowing factory, and at first, his death is put down to a tragic accident. But Brunetti isn’t sure that’s true, and starts to dig deeper. He discovers who the killer is, and when he finally gets the proof he needs, it gives him great pleasure to be able to

 

‘…ruin the Vice-Questore’s lunch.’ 

 

Fans of these series really can’t blame Brunetti for that attitude…

Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges is chief of police in the small French town of St. Denis, in the Périgord. The area is known for its cuisine; for centuries, residents have taken pride in the way they prepare and serve food. But since the advent of the EU and EU policies, there are new rules about the way food is to be stored, handled, prepared and served. On the one hand, the residents of St. Denis don’t want to make or eat tainted food any more than anyone else would. It’s not that they object to food safety. On the other, the EU inspectors are not local and don’t understand local traditions and customs. What’s more, they’re officious and obdurate, and they refuse to accept that the locals may have their own legitimate ways of ensuring food safety. So although Bruno is sworn to uphold the law, and is generally law-abiding himself, he does take pleasure in taking the EU inspection team down a few notches. When he learns that they’re paying a visit to St. Denis in Bruno, Chief of Police, he helps to let everyone in town know, so that code violations can be covered up. And it’s not hard for him (or the reader) to feel some sympathy for some locals who slash the tires on the inspectors’ official car. Bruno certainly doesn’t want violence, and he can’t condone breaking the law. But seeing the inspectors taken down a notch has a real appeal.

I think that’s probably a common feeling. We may not like embarrassing people publicly. And we may not condone violence. But sometimes we do get some real satisfaction when officious, arrogant people, especially if they are powerful, have their proverbial balloons burst. These are just a few examples. Which have I left out?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Matty Malcek and Johnny Mercer’s Goody Goody. This song has been recorded several times, including by Ella Fitzergald, Frankie Lymon and Chicago. Check out a few versions and see which one you like.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Håkan Nesser, M.C. Beaton, Martin Walker, Peter Temple

Another Pleasant Valley Sunday*

Village MurdersOne of the more enduring traditions in crime fiction is the ‘English village murder.’  That sort of novel features a seemingly sleepy village where everyone knows everyone’s business, and where people are (at least on the surface) shocked when murder strikes. Over time, of course, the context has been extended to include villages in many different countries. And there are lots of fictional villages that many crime fiction readers have come to love. I’ve only space to mention a few ‘village series’ here; I’m sure you’ll be able to fill in the gaps though.

Perhaps the most famous fictional village is Agatha Christie’s St. Mary Mead, the home of Miss Jane Marple. Miss Marple claims that she’s learned quite a lot about human nature, just from observing her fellow villagers. And several of the Miss Marple stories focus on life in St. Mary Mead, and on the people who live there. Beginning with The Murder at the Vicarage, readers have come to know the vicar Leonard Clement and his wife Griselda, Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly, and lots of other villages too. Interestingly, St. Mary Mead also features in Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, which is not a Miss Marple novel. In that story, we meet Katherine Grey, who’s lived in St. Mary Mead as a paid companion for ten years. Her life changes completely when she inherits a great deal of money and decides to travel. That’s how she gets mixed up in a case of theft and murder. What’s particularly of interest is that Katherine Grey and Miss Marple never meet. It’s not surprising though, since Miss Marple didn’t make her fictional debut until after the publication of The Mystery of the Blue Train.

M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth is the local bobby in the Highlands village of Lochdubh. He’s quite happy with his quiet village life, and has no burning desire to live and work anywhere else. In the course of that series, we get to know the village and its eccentric inhabitants. For instance, there’s occasional poacher Angus Macgregor, there’s village GP Dr. Brodie, and there are the Reverend and Mrs. Wellington. There’s also local news reporter Elspeth Grant, and the ‘well-born’ Priscilla Halburton-Smythe, both of whom are also love interests for Macbeth.

Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen has created the fictional Yorkshire village of Knavesborough. Her sleuth Rhapsody Gershwin is the daughter of Knavesborough’s vicar, and the fiancée of its local bobby Archie Penrose. In stories such as The Cosy Knave and Green Acres, we meet some of Knavesborough’s eccentric residents. For example there’s local mushroom enthusiast Arthur Kickinbottom and his grumpy wife Mildred; there’s Penrose’s boss and football enthusiast DI Mars-Wrigley; and there are Rhapsody’s sisters Psalmonella and Harmonia. This series features plenty of ‘village spite’ and of course, crime, but it’s also got quite a lot of wit.

Both Dicey Deere and Ian Sansom have written series that feature Irish villages. Deere’s sleuth is Torrey Tunet, an American-born translator/interpreter. She travels quite a bit for her job, but always enjoys time at her European ‘home base,’ the Irish village of Ballynagh. The local law is enforced by Inspector O’Hare, who does not appreciate Tunet’s involvement in any investigation. But although Tunet wasn’t born in Ballynagh, she’s been accepted by the locals, and finds it hard to leave matters alone when one of the friends she’s made is threatened. Readers who would rather not catch up on a long series will appreciate that this one only consists of four entries.

Sansom’s series, the Mobile Library Series, features Israel Armstrong, a ‘blow-in’ from London who’s been hired as the librarian for the Tumdrum and District Mobile Library. As we first learn in The Case of the Missing Books, his job is, on the surface, of it, hardly a dream job for a librarian. He drives the area’s rattletrap mobile library bus, which is kept stocked and running only because the law requires that a library be accessible to the locals. But the residents of Tumdrum and the surrounding area love having books available, and as the series goes on, Armstrong slowly gets to know them and vice versa. This series has a slightly more cynical edge to it, if I may put it that way, than some ‘village’ series do. It’s a funny and wry look at village life through the eyes of someone who’s very accustomed to London life.

There’s also Martin Walker’s series featuring Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges. This series takes place mostly in the French village of St. Denis, in the Périgord. Bruno is very much ‘one of us,’ as far as the other villagers are concerned. He does his job not just because it’s what he’s paid to do, but also because he knows and cares about the other people who live in St. Denis. This series often links past events and crimes to present-day mysteries. It also features, as do most ‘village’ series, a look at the lifestyle and culture of the area. This series isn’t as light as some ‘village’ series are; there are sometimes ugly crimes and motivations. But it shows the real appeal of life in a village in that part of France.

And I couldn’t imagine a post about ‘village’ murders without a mention of Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. This series’ focus is the village of Three Pines, which we first ‘visit’ in Still Life. This isn’t what you’d call a cosy ‘village series,’ although there are plenty of light moments. In some ways, it does have quite an edge. But it’s clear that life in Three Pines can be very good indeed, and the series offers readers an authentic look at its culture and lifestyle. The series includes some beloved characters too, such as bistro/B&B owners Olivier Brulé and his partner Gabriel Dubeau. There are also for instance artists Peter and Clara Morrow and poet Ruth Kemp Zardo. Among other things, this series is almost as much about those characters and the ways their lives intersect.

And that’s the thing about ‘village’ mystery series. They tell stories of crime of course. But they also show what it’s like to live in a village, and they depict the ways in which the residents’ lives are woven together. There are only a very few crime-fictional villages. Which ones do you like to ‘visit?’

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s Pleasant Valley Sunday, made famous by the Monkees.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dicey Deere, Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen, Ian Sansom, Louise Penny, M.C. Beaton, Martin Walker

It Was Committed Discreetly, It Was Handled so Neatly*

Good Places for a MurderSome places are especially good choices if you’re going to commit a murder. Not of course that I’m condoning that, but it is a lot easier to cover up a murder in some places than it is in others. For instance, in Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder, Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn and Inspector Fox investigate the death of Home Secretary Sir Derek O’Callaghan, who was giving a speech when he collapsed of a ruptured appendix. He’s rushed to a nearby nursing home run by his longtime physician Sir John Phillips, where he’s operated on immediately. He survives the operation only to die shortly thereafter of an overdose of hyoscine. Alleyn and Fox soon establish that the victim was murdered, and sift through all of the events of the operation to find the killer.  It doesn’t help matters that just about everyone who was involved with O’Callaghan, including his wife, had a motive for murder. What makes everything even more difficult is that, as Alleyn puts it, an operating theatre is a very good place for a murder. Everything is routinely disinfected, replaced, put away and so on, so critical evidence is lost. Alleyn and Fox do figure out who the killer is, but he’s right about how easy it is to cover one’s tracks, so to speak, in an operating theatre.

We also see that in Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger. Postman Joseph Higgins is taken to Heron Park Hospital with a broken femur and is scheduled for what’s supposed to be a routine operation. It doesn’t turn out that way though and Higgins dies during the procedure. Inspector Cockrill comes to the hospital to make what’s supposed to be a cursory inspection and fill out some paperwork. But Higgins’ widow insists that this is a case of murder. Then one of the nurses, Sister Marion Bates, says the same thing after having too much to drink at a party. She even says that she knows how the murder was accomplished. When she herself is found dead soon afterwards, it’s clear that Cockrill has a full-scale investigation on his hands. Part of his challenge is that the operating theatre is kept scrupulously clean and therefore, free of direct evidence. Everything is carefully stowed away after a procedure, too, so it’s very difficult to tell if anything was out of place or misused.

Of course, operating theatres aren’t the only good places to commit a murder. As Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun begins, a group of people on holiday is enjoying the sun at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Hercule Poirot is among the guests and he’s been asked whether he’s there on a case. He says that he isn’t and one of the guests then says,

 

‘This isn’t the sort of place you’d get a body.’

 

Here’s Poirot’s response:

 

‘Let us say, you have an enemy. If you seek him out in his flat, in his office, in the street – eh bien, you must have a reason – you must account for yourself. But here at the seaside it is necessary for no one to account for himself. You are at Leathercombe Bay, why? Parbleu! it is August – one goes to the seaside in August – one is on one’s holiday. It is quite natural, you see, for you to be here and for Mr. Lane to be here and for Major Barry to be here and for Mrs. Redfern and her husband to be here. Because it is the custom in England to go to the seaside in August.’

 

Poirot has a point. A tourist destination is an effective place for murder. Not only can a person be at a resort without having to explain why, but also, the victim may very well be more easily accessible. And we see exactly that when Arlena Stuart Marshall is strangled. It’s hard for the police to even work out where everyone was at the time she was killed. And what’s more, it’s very difficult to prove that the killer was deliberately there to commit murder. Poirot manages it, but it’s not an easy case.

Even when one’s not on holiday, the sea is an effective place for a murder. It can be hard to prove whether a drowning death was an accident, a suicide or a murder. And even if one can prove it was murder, evidence that points to the killer is hard to get. For example, in Domingo Villar’s Death on a Galician Shore, the body of local fisherman Justo Castelo has washed up on the shore near the small Galician town of Panxón. Vigo Inspector Leo Caldas and his assistant Rafael Estevez look into the case and soon find that this was not an accident. And yet, it is very unclear whether Castelo’s drowning was suicide or murder. It’s even less clear when it comes up that his death may be related to another death several years earlier. Castelo and two other men, Marcos Valverde and José Arias, were on a fishing boat with their captain Antonio Sousa. A sudden storm came up and Sousa drowned. None of the men has really said much about that night. It’s hard to say whether Sousa was murdered, drowned accidentally, or was killed through the other men’s negligence. So it’s very hard to tell whether Castelo committed suicide out of guilt or was murdered to keep him quiet. The case is made much more challenging because the water has washed away a lot of evidence.

We also see how effective a murder spot the sea is in Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach. Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel are taking a much-needed getaway break at Krabi, on the Thai coast. While they are there, they take a tour that’s led by a young woman nicknamed Pla. When Pla’s body is later found washed up in a cave, both Keeney and Patel are very upset about it. They work out an agreement to stay in Krabi for a few extra days to find out what happened to her. The official report is that she drowned accidentally or perhaps committed suicide by drowning. Keeney doesn’t think this was an accident, since the victim was an expert swimmer. Suicide can’t be ruled out, but it’s not long before Keeney suspects that this was murder. There’s not much to go on though, because the physical evidence isn’t conclusive, and the water has done its job washing away anything that could lead directly to the killer. In this case, the waterway has been a very wise choice for the murderer. That doesn’t stop Keeney investigating though…

M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Cad shows us another kind of very effective place for a murder: a hunting setting. Colonel and Mrs. Haiburton-Smythe have invited several guests for a week-end in honour of a visit by up-and-coming playwright Henry Withering. The Halburton-Smythes are hoping for the news of an engagement between Withering and their daughter Priscilla, so they want this to be a successful event. One of their guests is Captain Peter Bartlett of the Highland Dragoons. Bartlett is a boor who drinks too much, can’t leave women alone and treats the women who do get involved with him horribly. Bartlett makes a bet with another guest Jeremy Pomfret that he can shoot a brace of grouse before Pomfret can, and the two men agree to meet the following morning for the competition. But Bartlett leaves long before the agreed-upon time. Later his body is discovered, and it looks as though he’s been killed in a tragic shooting accident. There are other hunters about (both legitimate and poachers), so there’s nothing to say that this couldn’t have been an accident. And nothing specific links the death with anyone staying at the Halburton-Smythe home. So Superintendent Blair is inclined to call this a terrible accident and leave it at that. But Constable Hamish Macbeth isn’t so sure. And in the end, he is proven to be right.

It’s not easy though, and that’s the thing about really well-chosen places for murder. They make it very hard to prove that a death was anything other than accidental or suicide. And even when it’s clear that the death is a murder, it can be almost impossible to link that killing to a particular person. I’ve only mentioned a few examples here; I’m sure you can think of lots more than I can.

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Christianna Brand, Domingo Villar, M.C. Beaton, Ngaio Marsh

Lazy Day*

Lazy SleuthsThere is a stereotype in crime fiction of the relentless sleuth who perseveres, works all hours and so on to solve cases. And of course I’m sure you could name dozens of fictional detectives who fit that description. But there are also sleuths who are, to put it plainly, lazy. They don’t exert themselves unless they have to, and even then it can take some effort to get them going. They’re no less brilliant for that, but they certainly don’t go running after cases to solve.

This sort of detective is arguably a little tricky to write. One has to create a lazy character who is also brilliant enough to solve a complex mystery – and is still credible. That’s not as easy as it seems, but there are examples out there.

One of them is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Mycroft Holmes. He is Sherlock Holmes’ older brother and actually even more brilliant than his brother at deduction. But he rarely bestirs himself to look into cases. He spends most of his time at the Diogenes Club, which he co-founded, and certainly doesn’t go chasing after clues and shadowing suspects. Here is what Sherlock Holmes says of his brother in The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter:

 

‘He will not even go out of his way to verify his own solutions, and would rather be considered wrong than take the trouble to prove himself right.’

 

Interestingly enough, Mycroft Holmes actually does take some action in this story. A young man named Melas has been more or less kidnapped in order to serve as an interpreter for another man who speaks only Greek. This gets Melas into life-threatening danger and the Holmes brothers and Dr. Watson end up rushing to the remote location where he’s been taken in order to try to prevent tragedy.

I don’t think it’d be possible to do a post about lazy sleuths without mentioning Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. He is much more interested in his orchids, fine food and good wine than he is in solving mysteries. And as Wolfe fans will know, he almost never leaves the New York City brownstone home where he lives. Wolfe is lazy, but he is brilliant. And he’s self-aware enough to know that he is fond of good living and fine things – and that all of that costs a lot. So he’s usually willing (if reluctant) to take a case when Archie Goodwin points out the pragmatic benefits of doing so. And even when Wolfe is on a case, he doesn’t physically exert himself; he has Goodwin, Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather to do that. And he doesn’t see clients outside of very specified hours. Wolfe is definitely not one to let work get in the way of his life if I may put it like that.

Neither is Roderic Jeffries’ Inspector Enrique Alvarez, who lives and works in Mallorca. He prefers good food, a drink and his regular siesta to running himself ragged in an investigation.  In fact, that’s how his cousin Delores persuades him to take an interest in a case in Definitely Deceased. At that point in the series, Delores is keeping house for Alvarez and he has become quite fond of her cooking. Delores asks Alvarez to look into the arrest of a cousin-by-marriage Miguel Munar, who is accused of smuggling. Not only does Alvarez not want the extra work, but he has no desire to be on the wrong side of his bad-tempered boss Superintendent Salas. But Delores has a secret weapon – her cooking. When Alvarez refuses to investigate the Munar case, she punishes him with terrible food. It’s not long before he decides it’s in his interest to try to clear Munar’s name. When he does though, he finds that the one person who is in a position to corroborate Munar’s innocence has been killed. Alvarez may be innately lazy, but he is also dogged in his way and in the end, he gets to the truth about the smuggling and the murder.

There’s also Joyce Porter’s DCI Wilfred Dover of Scotland Yard. In Dover One, the first of this series, Dover and his assistant Charles MacGregor are sent to Creedshire to look into the disappearance of a housemaid Juliet Rugg. The local police haven’t found a body or evidence of murder, but if I may put it this way, if she is alive, she would be not be misidentified easily. So Creedshire’s Chief Constable Bartlett suspects foul play. Here’s what DCI Dover has to say about the assignment:

 

‘I don’t know why it is…it always seems to be me that gets landed with these jobs. You’ll see, we’ll hang around there for a couple of days and she’ll turn up again, older and wiser if you know what I mean. Holed up in Brighton, that’s where she is! And when her money runs out, the boy-friend’ll hop it and she’ll come back home.’

 

Dover is bad-tempered to begin with, and especially when he is expected to exert himself. So he doesn’t start this case in the best frame of mind. But he and MacGregor (who unlike his boss, is quite ambitious) head to Creedshire, where it turns out that there’s much more to this case than a woman running off with a boyfriend.

M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth is also lazy when it comes to his career. He is perfectly content to be the village bobby in the Highlands town of Lochdubh. In fact, he’d far rather be fishing, spending time with his dog or just relaxing than investigating crime. And in novels such as Death of a Bore, we can see that he’d rather resolve a conflict than make an arrest. In that novel, writer John Heppel has settled in Lochdubh and decided to offer a writing class. Several of the locals sign up, hoping they’ll become well-known authors. At the first class Heppel insults his students and their work. Macbeth hears about this (Lochdubh is a small village) and pays Heppel a visit with the goal of smoothing over the situation. Not only does he care about the people of Lochdubh, but also, it’s less work to offer a friendly word than to make an arrest. Heppel’s unwilling to listen to Macbeth though, and the second class is, if possible, worse than the first. When Heppel  is found dead not long after that session, Macbeth finds that more than one person had a good motive for murder.

There are of course other lazy fictional sleuths but honestly, I can’t be bothered to mention any more. Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Moody Blues song.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Joyce Porter, M.C. Beaton, Rex Stout, Roderic Jeffries

I Am a Child*

Child WitnessesAn interesting comment exchange has got me thinking about the way children observe and learn all sorts of things, even when they’re not deliberately trying to find something out.  Children are naturally curious and observant for the most part, and they make their own sense of what they see and experience. On the one hand, their immaturity and lack of experience can make them unreliable as witnesses. On the other hand though, they can be very keen observers and they can often ‘fade into the background’ so people aren’t always aware they’re there. So it makes sense for fictional (and real) sleuths to be open to listening to what children have to say.

You’ll notice as you read this post that I won’t be mentioning novels or series (e.g. Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series, or Fireside Publications’ Leaders & Legacies series) in which a child is the sleuth. To me that’s a different sort of role for a child. It’s probably post-worthy in and of itself. Instead I’ll be looking at stories where what children observe is very helpful to the sleuth.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that Holmes often makes use of the services of a group of boys called the Baker Street Irregulars. Led by Wiggins, this group of ‘street boys’ regularly prowls London’s streets and docks to find out information Holmes wants. They’re in a good position to observe, because no-one pays much attention to them. And what’s interesting is that Holmes doesn’t ask them to do much analysis of what they observe. Rather, he asks them for factual information (e.g. whether a certain ship is docked, or what time a shop actually opened as opposed to when it was supposed to open). Holmes does the deduction himself. Of course that’s characteristic of him even when working with adults. But it also happens to address the issue of children’s immaturity.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot gets information from children in more than one story. For instance, in Dead Man’s Folly, detective story novelist Ariadne Oliver asks Poirot to visit Nasse House, where she’s staying. Oliver has been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt for an upcoming fête, but she suspects that something more sinister is going on at the house. Poirot respects Mrs. Oliver’s judgement, so he agrees to look into things and travels to Nasse House. Sure enough, on the day of the big event, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker is found strangled. Poirot and Inspector Bland investigate, and of course, one of the important avenues to explore is Marlene’s background. So at one point Poirot pays a visit to her family’s home. That’s where he meets Marlene’s younger sister Marilyn. After speaking to the girls’ parents, Poirot’s getting ready to leave the house when Marilyn gets his attention:

 

‘‘Mum don’t know everything,’ she whispered.’

 

Marilyn then gives Poirot some important information about her older sister. It doesn’t solve the case, but it does help Poirot make sense of what happened.

In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Gossip, John and Heather Cartwright have opened the Lochdubh School of Casting: Salmon and Trout Fishing. They depend on summer visitors who want to learn angling, so when their new class assembles, they’re hoping that everything will turn out well. It doesn’t though. One of the participants is Jane Maxwell, gossip columnist for the London Evening Star, who’s masquerading as a society widow. Her plan is to get new fodder for her column by uncovering nasty secrets since, as she claims, everybody has a proverbial skeleton in the closet.  When she is found strangled with a fishing line, Constable Hamish Macbeth investigates. One of the other members of the class is twelve-year-old Charlie Baxter, who lives in the village. He’s had a difficult time of it in his life, and is a little hard around the edges as the saying goes. What’s more, he had more than one run-in with the victim. So besides being a witness, he’s a possible suspect. But Macbeth also learns that Charlie is observant and bright. He’s able to get some useful help from the boy, and it’s interesting to see how Charlie fits in with the rest of the group.

Minette Walters’ The Breaker begins when two boys Paul and Daniel Spender are exploring near Chapman’s Pool in Dorsetshire. They’ve ‘borrowed’ their father’s expensive binoculars and are enjoying their adventure when they see the body of a dead woman on the beach. They’re so shocked that they drop and break the binoculars, so on the one hand, they don’t want to tell anyone what they saw, because they’d have to explain themselves. On the other, they know that a dead body needs to be reported. Besides, they’re scared. They tell Stephen Harding, an actor who’s also out that morning, and he alerts the police. P.C. Nick Ingram is soon on the scene. He knows that what the boys say may be very important, but at the same time, they may not know exactly what they saw if I can put it that way. So Ingram works carefully to get as much information as he can from them. They can’t of course name the murderer, but some of the things they say turn out to be very useful.

In Gail Bowen’s Murder at the Mendel, we meet gifted artist Sally Love, her husband Stuart Lachlan and her four-year-old daughter Taylor. Years ago, Sally was a friend of academic and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, so when the Mendel Gallery plans an exhibition of her art, Kilbourn decides to attend and perhaps renew their friendship. Instead Kilbourn gets caught up in a case of multiple murders that relates to her own past. And one of the other people caught up in that case is Taylor. She’s bright, observant, and has a good memory, but she’s only four years old. So it’s not easy to get information from her without making matters worse. Her perspective is helpful though, and as the series goes on, she becomes a permanent part of Kilbourn’s life. In more than one of the novels too, she witnesses something or is a part of something and Kilbourn has to rely on what Taylor says. Like other children, Taylor doesn’t have a mature perspective; she’s a child. But she notices everything.

And that’s the thing about children as witnesses. In some ways, they aren’t reliable. But they are often observant and bright. And they have a way of going places and learning things that would be very difficult for adults to do. Little wonder they appear so often in crime fiction. What do you think?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Neil Young song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Gail Bowen, M.C. Beaton, Minette Walters