Category Archives: Margaret Maron

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

I Can See Clearly Now*

The Big RevealIn many crime fiction novels there’s a point in the story where we learn who the criminal (usually the murderer) is. Of course, a lot of crime fiction fans try to figure it out from the very beginning, but there’s often a point where the killer is named. That point’s sometimes referred to as the big reveal. It’s a crucial point in a story too for a few reasons. The obvious one of course is that that’s where the reader learns the answer to a central question in the story. If that point in the novel doesn’t mesh with the rest of the story, or if the criminal isn’t believable, the reader can get pulled out of the novel and be left frustrated and disappointed. Another reason the big reveal is important is that the circumstances surrounding it can add to the suspense in a novel. That can keep the reader engaged.

In a lot (but certainly not all) of classic and Golden Age crime fiction, the sleuth gathers the suspects together and names the killer. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is particularly fond of showing off that way – even he admits that about himself. But Miss Marple has her own ‘big reveal’ moments too. In 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!)for instance, Miss Marple’s friend Elspeth McGillicuddy witnesses the murder of an unknown woman while en route by train to St. Mary Mead. The only problem is that there is no evidence for what Mrs. McGillicuddy says that she saw. No body is discovered and no-one has reported a missing person who fits the description of the victim. So almost no-one is inclined to believe Mrs. McGillicuddy – except Miss Marple. She deduces that the body must be on the grounds of Rutherford Hall, home of the Crackenthorpe family, and with help from her friend Lucy Eyelesbarrow, she finds out she’s right. When the body is discovered, the police get involved and all of the members of the Crackenthorpe family come under suspicion. At the end of the novel, Lucy arranges for Miss Marple and Mrs. McGillicuddy to come to tea at Rutherford Hall. That’s when Miss Marple catches the killer through a clever trick in front of the suspects. It works, too.

Margaret Maron’s Sigrid Harald uses a variation on this technique in One Coffee With. She and her assistant Detective Tilden are assigned to investigate the poisoning murder of Riley Quinn, deputy chair of the Art Department at New York’s Vanderlyn University. In the process of the investigation Harald and Tilden learn a lot about the inner workings of the department, including its rivalries and the cold reality of funding issues. It turns out that many of the department members had a motive for murder. So did some of the students. But bit by bit, Harald and Tilden find out who the killer is. Towards the end of the novel Harald makes an arrangement with another character and together they lure the killer out of hiding as the expression goes. That’s when the reader finds out for sure who murdered Quinn and why. Then Harald goes on to explain how the clues led her to the truth.

Of course, not all authors use that plot point of gathering a group of suspects together for the big reveal. In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle for instance, Inspector Richard Queen investigates the murder of noted fashion designer Sheila Grey and of course his son Ellery gets involved too. The first most likely suspect is wealthy businessman Ashton McKell, with whom Grey’d been involved. When McKell is cleared of suspicion, his wife Lutetia becomes a suspect and then so does his son Dane. There are other suspects too. Grey left a cryptic clue though, and the killer has unwittingly left a ‘calling card.’ When Ellery discovers this ‘calling card,’ he’s able to identify the killer. In this novel we learn who the killer is as the Queens confront that person. That is, it’s not a dramatic reveal in front of a circle of stunned faces. Rather, it’s a more personal encounter.

That’s what happens in Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black too. In that novel, sixteen-year-old Catherine Ross is found murdered in a field not far from the home of local misfit Magnus Tait. Tait’s the most obvious suspect since he saw the girl on the day she was killed, and since he was implicated in the disappearance of a young girl several years earlier. But Inspector Jimmy Perez doesn’t think it’s that simple and he is proven right. To find Catherine’s killer, Perez has to look into all of the relationships among the residents of Ravenswick, Shetland, where Catherine lived. Bit by bit he uncovers the complex network of relationships and history. He also learns quite a lot about Catherine’s personality along the way. In the end he deduces who the killer is and confronts that person. And in keeping with the nature of this novel, that confrontation isn’t an overly-dramatic scene involving a car chase or gun battle. It has its own drama, but that drama is more psychological and that’s an effective fit with the novel.

Sometimes authors don’t use a big reveal as such. They may include a confrontation between sleuth and criminal but that’s not when the killer’s identity is revealed. Instead, those authors show how the sleuth finds out who the criminal is. In other words the reveal comes as the sleuth figures out what really happened.

We see that for instance in Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City. Reykjavík police inspector Erlendur and his team are called to the scene when the body of a seemingly inoffensive elderly man named Holberg is discovered. At first there doesn’t seem much motive for murder. Holberg wasn’t wealthy and the place hadn’t been robbed, so money doesn’t seem to be involved. And Holberg didn’t have any obvious enemies either. But as the team gets to know more about the victim, we learn that Holberg was hiding a dark past. He’d been accused of several rapes, although he’d never been convicted. So it becomes quite possible that one of his victims chose to take revenge. Bit by bit Erlendur and team find out who the killer is and that’s how we learn that person’s identity. At the end of the novel, Erlendur confronts the killer with what he knows, so there is a scene between them. There’s a great deal of psychological tension in that scene too. But it’s not the stereotypical ‘big reveal.’

Some authors don’t really include a confrontation between sleuth and criminal in their reveal. That doesn’t mean the reveal can’t be highly effective though. For instance in Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly, Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello investigate the suspicious death of Giorgio Tassini, night watchman at a local glass-blowing factory. Before his death Tassini had claimed that the glass-blowing industry was illegally dumping toxic waste. So there are several suspects including the local factory owners and their powerful supporters. Little by little Brunetti and Vianello find out who killed Tassini and that’s revealed in a more understated way. In that sense, there isn’t a big dramatic reveal. Brunetti never actually hauls the criminal away in handcuffs. But the reader knows who the killer is and at the very end of the novel, Brunetti gets the one piece of evidence he needs to make sure the killer faces consequences.

The big reveal can be dramatic or subtle. It can involve a violent confrontation or none at all. The best ones though have in common that they make sense given the characters and the kind of novel. Which big reveals have you liked best?



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Johnny Nash song.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Arnaldur Indriðason, Donna Leon, Ellery Queen, Margaret Maron

In The Spotlight: Margaret Maron’s One Coffee With

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Although Margaret Maron isn’t as well known as some of her fellow American authors, she’s contributed quite a lot to the genre. Her Judge Deborah Knott series has been very well regarded and she hasn’t confined herself to just that series. She’s also the author of several standalones and of the Sigrid Harald series, which was actually her first mystery series. Let’s take a look at Margaret Maron’s work today and turn the spotlight on the first in her Sigrid Harald series, One Coffee With.

Vanderlyn College is a member of New York’s City College of New York system and boasts among other things a successful Department of Art. Late one morning, the department secretary Sandy Kepler goes to the college’s cafeteria to bring back coffee for several department members. When she returns the department office becomes its usual hub of activity as students and faculty go in and out of it between classes. One by one the various faculty members take their coffee and return to their work. Shortly afterward deputy department chair Riley Quinn dies of what turns out to be potassium dichromate poisoning. NYPD Lieutenant Sigrid Harald and her assistant Detective Tildon are assigned to investigate the case and they begin to interview all of the students, faculty and staff members who were in or near the office at the time of the murder.

It’s not long before the detectives learn that Riley Quinn had made a number of enemies, some of whom he didn’t even know he had, so there are plenty of suspects. The first and most likely is Mike Szabo who works for the college’s Buildings and Grounds department. Szabo was heard to threaten Quinn just before his death and it’s later discovered that he had a good reason for hating the victim. Quinn’s widow Doris is set to inherit quite a lot at his death; unusually for an academic, Quinn had money to leave. And Doris Quinn has hardly been a faithful wife. There are also Quinn’s departmental colleagues, each of whom, as we discover, has a motive. And then there’s graduate student Harley Harris, who is convinced that the department has conspired to prevent him from graduating.

There is also the possibility that the coffee was never intended for Quinn in the first place, but was intended for Department Chair Oscar Nauman. So Harald and Tildon have to consider Nauman as not only a suspect but also an intended victim. Bit by bit the two detectives uncover the jealousies, politics and hidden secrets of the department. They also find out some secrets about Quinn’s life too and in the end, they are able to unravel the truth about who killed Riley Quinn and why.

This is an academic mystery, so we get a good look at college life before the modern age of technology (the book was published in 1981). Of course some things have changed radically but others (i.e. departmental rivalries, politics, and the scrambling for funding) have not. We also get a good look at the world of art from a few perspectives (no pun intended – promise). This department is sharply divided between those who create art and those who are art theorists, historians and critics. It’s a very interesting debate and as Harald and Tildon interview the witnesses and learn about the department we hear the different sides of that debate.

The mystery itself is reminiscent of the Golden Age in some ways. There’s a tray of coffees and at a busy time, someone slips poison into one of them and no-one actually sees it happen. The task of the police is to unravel the various stories and trace back the poisoned coffee to find out who actually tampered with it. Readers who enjoy that scenario – the intellectual puzzle – will be pleased. There’s an array of possible suspects, each with a motive, and the police unmask the killer and motive at the end. That said though, Maron ‘plays fair’ with the reader. Each suspect’s motive is believable and Harald and Tildon look closely at each. But there are clues all along for the observant reader. The solution comes down to timing and to what’s sometimes called ‘the psychological moment’ – that moment when everyone’s attention is diverted so that no-one really notices what’s actually happening.

The character of Sigrid Harald is also an element that runs through this novel. She is the daughter of a successful and very attractive photojournalist and a New York police officer who was murdered in the line of duty. Unlike her parents Harald is not particularly extroverted or classically attractive. Yet there is an appeal to her. Part of that appeal is that she isn’t emotionally crippled by her father’s murder. Yes it affects her, sometimes more than she admits, but she doesn’t let it obsess her. Harald is single and sometimes feels ‘on the outside looking in’ because she knows she’s not conventionally beautiful and outgoing. But at the same time she does her job without feeling particularly interested in a relationship.

It’s also interesting to note her attitude about being a woman in what was until that time very much a man’s job. In the early 1980’s it wasn’t nearly as common as it is now for women to be in positions of authority in the police, and certainly not as on-the-line detectives. But Harald doesn’t beat the proverbial feminist drum. In fact at one point a magazine reporter convinces an extremely reluctant Harald to consent to an interview. The one thing she most definitely does not want to do is answer questions about what it’s like for ‘us girls’ to ‘do a man’s work.’ To Harald, investigating is just simply doing her job. She’s not trying to prove anything; she’s just solving crimes.

Another interesting character is Vanderyln College’s Chair of the Department of Art Oscar Nauman. He’s capable, extremely knowledgeable and not overly effusive. He recognises the pragmatic value of getting along with the college’s administration but he’s really not a toady. He’s a little enigmatic but not annoyingly so and it’s believable that he and Harald would take an interest in each other. Nauman has a way of taking control of situations without being obviously manipulative, and we can see how at the same time as Harald is independent and wants to stay that way, she also finds herself somehow falling in with Nauman’s plans without really knowing how that happened. It’s an interesting relationship actually.

One Coffee With is a classic-style academic mystery set in a more modern era. It features some characters that anyone familiar with academe will recognise and offers an interesting intellectual ‘whodunit’ kind of puzzle. Oh, and one more note: readers who dislike violence and gore will be pleased. There isn’t much in this novel. The pace is measured but not slow, and the solution is believable although not obvious unless you’re paying close attention. But what’s your view? Have you read One Coffee With? What elements do you see in it?



Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday 8 October/Tuesday 9 October – The Sins of the Fathers – Lawrence Block

Monday 15 October/Tuesday 16 October – Raven Black – Ann Cleeves

Monday 22 October/Tuesday 23 October – Dying to Sin – Stephen Booth


Filed under Margaret Maron

I’m Gonna Reach*

I haven’t tried it yet (‘though I may at some point in the future) but I know of several crime fiction authors who have more than one series. Sometimes the protagonists in those series aren’t very similar at all. Other times they’re more similar. Sometimes the settings are similar and sometimes less so. It’s an interesting question really (at least to me): how much should an author “branch out” and create very different protagonists and settings. Doing so can risk losing readers who are loyal to a particular series. But not doing so can mean that readers miss out on a terrific new series and character. It’s not an easy question and it involves among other things the way authors brand themselves.

For example, in some ways, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple novels are similar, but in many ways they’re quite different. And of course Poirot and Miss Marple are very different characters. Where Poirot is a professional detective, Miss Marple is an amateur. Poirot travels among the highest social circles whereas Miss Marple doesn’t spend as much time among the “upper crust.” Miss Marple rarely leaves her village of St. Mary Mead for long, whereas Poirot travels frequently. There are stark differences in their personalities too as well as other differences in terms of plots, regular characters and so on. One could add here too that both of those series are different to Christie’s series featuring Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Christie kept all three series going throughout her writing life and her fans have strong loyalties to one or another of her sleuths.

Even more different are Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie and Mma. Precious Ramotswe. Dalhousie is an Edinburgh philosopher and editor of the Journal of Applied Ethics. Mma. Ramotswe lives and works in Botswana, where she owns the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. In some ways these two series have some similarities; both give the reader a strong sense of place and context, and both are slower-moving series. While the Isabel Dalhousie series is a bit more so, both series are almost philosophical in nature rather than action-oriented. And yet the two protagonists are very, very different people. They’ve had quite different life experiences and interact with people in different ways.

You could say the same thing about M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth series. Raisin is the owner of a Cotswolds private detective agency. Macbeth is the constable of Lochdubh, Scotland. Both series offer a strong sense of place and some interesting and quirky characters. But the two protagonists are quite different. Where Raisin wants to solve mysteries, Macbeth would rather go fishing. Macbeth fits in very comfortably in his surroundings and often uses his depth of knowledge about the locals to help solve cases. It’s not that Raisin has no friends but, well, she tends to be cranky and not easy to get on with so she doesn’t have a comfortable fit with as many people as Macbeth does. There are other differences between the series too so that Beaton fans often have a preferences for one or the other.

And then there’s Martin Edwards’ Harry Devlin and Daniel Kind/Hannah Scarlett series. These two series feature very different settings and kinds of people. Harry Devlin is a Liverpool attorney whose cases often take him into some of the not-so-nice areas of the city. He’s a bit of a ‘down and outer’ himself, so he can sympathise with some of the people he encounters. On the other hand Daniel Kind is an Oxford historian who’s enjoyed some professional success, and Scarlett is a DCI with the Cumbria Constabulary. In background, temperament and outlook these sleuths are quite different. But the differences between the series don’t end there. The Kind/Scarlett series takes place in the Lakes District, a very different setting to Liverpool. And the cases the sleuths investigate are therefore also quite different. Moreover, since Scarlett heads the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review team, the cases in the Lake District series are more closely linked to cases from the past than are the cases in the Liverpool series.

There are other authors too, such as Margaret Maron, Ann Cleeves and Val McDermid, who’ve written different kinds of series with very different kinds of protagonists. Branching out like that can win an author new fans and can allow the author to experiment.

Many authors choose to create multiple series that are a little more similar. And that makes sense. Fans of one series have a good sense of what sort of series the new one will be, so they’re more likely to stay loyal to the author. The author has an easier time of branding too. For instance, Elizabeth Spann Craig is the author of not one, not two, but three cosy series. Under her own name she writes the Myrtle Clover series that takes place in Bradley, North Carolina and the Southern Quilting Mystery series featuring former art dealer Beatrice Coleman that takes place in Dappled Hills, North Carolina. As Riley Adams she writes the Memphis Barbecue series featuring restaurateur Lulu Taylor. In some ways, these series are different. For instance the Memphis Barbecue series takes place in a large city while the others do not. And the protagonists have different sorts of personalities, job histories and backstories. But all three protagonists are educated Southern women who’ve finished raising their children and are in the second halves of their lives. They’re all amateur sleuths, and each of them is in her own way very family-oriented.

James Lee Burke is perhaps best-known for his Dave Robicheaux series and rightly so. But he’s also written a series featuring former attorney and now Texas sheriff Hackberry Holland. Fans of the Robicheaux series know that Robicheaux is a Louisiana cop, so in the sense of setting, the two series are different. There are also differences in the kinds of cases Robicheaux and Holland investigate.  But there are some real similarities between them too. Both protagonists deal with the trauma and stress of having seen combat during war. They are both widowers as well and have to cope with that loss. Both series feature not just the solving of crimes but, if I might put it this way, a search for redemption. Both Robicheaux and Hackberry are very flawed characters and in doing their jobs, they’re trying to live with themselves. And then there’s of course Burke’s memorable writing style…

What’s your take on multiple series? What about series such as Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Jesse Stone series, or Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher and Corinna Chapman series, where there are some real differences but also some underlying similarities? Do you prefer an author’s multiple series to have a lot of similarities? If an author whose work you like branches out into something completely different, are you disposed to like that change? If you’re a writer, how far out are you willing to branch?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Gorka’s Branching Out.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Ann Cleeves, Elzabeth Spann Craig, James Lee Burke, Kerry Greenwood, M.C. Beaton, Margaret Maron, Martin Edwards, Riley Adams, Robert B. Parker, Val McDermid

You Got Me Wrapped Around Your Finger*

Have you ever known someone with the kind of magnetic, even charming personality that could get people to do things, even things they would ordinarily refuse to do? I’m not talking here of someone who’s manipulative or bossy or even overtly persuasive. Nor do I mean an evil person who ensnares an innocent person. Rather, I mean people with the ability to wrap others round their finger as the saying goes. It’s a very useful trait and if you’ve ever felt the “pull” of someone like that, you know that it doesn’t depend on looks or power, really. It’s just a kind of magnetism that people seem to either have or not have.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we meet Lady Lucy Angkatell. She and her husband Sir Henry invite a group of relations and friends for a week-end that turns into disaster. One of the guests Dr. John Christow is shot on the Sunday afternoon, and at first the case looks very clear-cut. But it’s not long before Inspector Grange runs into a serious complication that makes it clear this case is not as simple as it seems. Hercule Poirot has taken a cottage nearby and he works with Inspector Grange to investigate. Lady Lucy has that kind of magnetic charm and appeal that makes people do things she wants. In fact, here is what Sir Henry says about her to one of the guests Midge Hardcastle:


“‘She gets away with things. She always has.’ He smiled. ‘She’s flouted the traditions of Government House – she’s played merry hell with precedence at dinner parties (and that, Midge, is a black crime!). She’s put deadly enemies next to each other at the dinner table and run riot over the colour question. And instead of raising one big almighty row and setting everyone at loggerheads and bringing disgrace on the British Raj – I’m damned if she hasn’t gotten away with it.’” 


Poirot himself feels the effect of that magnetism when Lady Lucy visits him and asks him to leave the case alone. He very much wants to stop investigating simply because she’s asked him to do so. But in the end he does find out the truth about John Christow’s murder.

Margaret Maron’s One Coffee With introduces us to N.Y.P.D.’s Lieutenant Sigrid Harald. Harald is sent to Vanderlyn College when a murder is reported. Professor Riley Quinn, deputy chair of the Art Department has died after drinking coffee that was poisoned with potassium dichromate.  Harald and her assistant Detective Tildon soon discover that most of the people in the department had very good motives for murder. Quinn had alienated most of them, had backstabbed some of them and was in the way, so to speak, of others. And there’s also the matter of Quinn’s wife Doris, who inherits quite a lot at Quinn’s death and who is not exactly faithful to him in any case. In the course of the investigation Harald meets Department Chair Oscar Nauman. At first Nauman is a suspect and that’s how Harald treats him. She interviews him, checks his alibi and so on. But something about Nauman is especially magnetic and Harald feels that pull. He has a way of getting Harald to warm up to him despite the fact that he’s presumptuous. It’s hard too to explain Nauman’s magnetism. He’s not unusually attractive, really wealthy or particularly powerful. But he does have a knack for having his way without being bossy or threatening.

In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarr get officially involved in the disappearance of Andreas Winther when his mother Runi reports him missing. At first not much is done with the case; after all, there are any number of reasons a young man might go off for a few days without letting his mother know where he’s gone. But when several days go by with no word from the missing Andreas, Sejer and his team begin to investigate. The person most likely to know something about Andreas’ whereabouts is his best friend Sivert “Zipp” Skorpe. The two young men were together on the last day Andreas was seen and Zipp even admits that Andreas must have disappeared shortly after they parted company on that day. But he refuses to tell the investigators everything that happened. In the end though, Sejer and his team discover the truth about what happened to Andreas and how that relates to other events in the story. As the novel progresses we see the kind of magnetism Andreas has and how it draws his friend Zipp in. Among other things this novel really is an interesting look at the psychology of how people can wrap others round their fingers.

One of Kerry Greenwood’s series features Melbourne baker Corinna Chapman. Chapman lives and works in a Roman-style building called Insula and in the course of this series we meet many of the other residents of that building. One of them is Meroe, a Wiccan who owns a shop called the Sibyl’s Cave. Meroe is not particularly loud or overly strong. She doesn’t yell or usually threaten. She’s not wealthy or power-hungry either. In fact she very much dislikes witchcraft being used to gain power or hurt others. But Meroe has an undeniable presence and the ability to get other people to do what she wants. She can take control of situations in ways that others simply do not resist and everyone respects her. For instance, in Devil’s Food, Chapman is faced with two problems. One is that someone has been selling poisoned tea, calling it weight-loss tea. When two other residents of Insula are sickened by the tea it’s Meroe who competently takes over and makes sure they get better. And when the culprit is caught, Meroe is the one who dictates what the consequences will be. And no-one disputes her.

Robert Crais’ Joe Pike also has the ability to get people to do what he wants. In his case it’s partly because he has the self-assurance that comes from being a decorated Marine and a mercenary. But his magnetism doesn’t come from brandishing weapons and yelling threats. In fact he’s not particularly talkative and as we learn throughout the series, he’s not a cartoonish gun-toter. He’s deeper than that and has a strength of character that makes his PI business partner Elvis Cole co-operate without reserve. And Elvis Cole is not one to blindly do what people tell him to do. There’s just something about Pike, as the saying goes, that makes people do what he wants.

And then there’s Teresa Solana’s Barcelona PI Josep “Borja” Martínez. He’s not particularly wealthy or unusually attractive. And yet, he’s juggling two mistresses, one of whom is both rich and generous. He has the ability to persuade clients to hire him and can ingratiate himself with just about anyone. He also has the ability to get his brother Eduard to do all sorts of things that Eduard would never do on his own. For instance, in A Not So Perfect Crime Borja gets his brother to help him remove a valuable painting from their client’s office and hide it in Eduard’s own home. Borja isn’t what you’d call unusually talkative but he does have what some people call the gift of gab. He’s able to get people “on his side” even when they normally wouldn’t be.

That’s the thing about people who can wrap others round their fingers. They have the knack of getting others to do exactly what they want without threatening, bossing or toadying either. It’s just an ability they have to get their own way that I find fascinating.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Cranberries’ Linger.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Karin Fossum, Kerry Greenwood, Margaret Maron, Robert Crais, Teresa Solana