Category Archives: Martin Edwards

An Englishman’s Way of Speaking Absolutely Classifies Him*

Adjusting LanguageThere’s an interesting theory of language that suggests that we adjust the way we speak in order to identify with a particular group. If this theory (it’s called Speech Accommodation Theory, or SAT) is correct, people often do that because they’re members of that group, and feel a connection. Or they want to be accepted into the group, so they adjust their language to express solidarity. If you’ve noticed that you change your way of speaking depending on the group of people you’re with, you know from your own experience how this works.

It happens in crime fiction, too, and it’s an interesting way for authors to show not tell, as the saying goes, what a character is like. It’s also an effective way for a fictional sleuth to ‘fit in.’ Let me just offer a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot takes the Orient Express train through Europe back to London to deal with some new developments in a case he’s working. On the second night of the journey, one of his fellow passengers, Samuel Ratchett, is stabbed. M. Bouc, who’s one of the travel company’s directors, is also on board the train and asks Poirot to find out who the killer is. Poirot agrees and begins to look into the case. The only possible suspects are the other passengers in the same car as as the victim, so Poirot concentrates his efforts there. It turns out that this murder has everything to do with a past incident. One of the interesting elements in this novel is the way language is adjusted in order to give a certain impression. If you’ve read the novel, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, and you do read it at some point, keep in mind that not everything is the way it sounds…

Arthur Upfield’s Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte is a member of the Queensland Police. He’s in the interesting position of being a part of two cultural communities, since his father was White and his mother belonged to one of the Aboriginal groups. He actually identifies himself in two different ways, and in more than one novel there are references to his dual identity. Bony adjusts his language and his cultural ways to suit the needs of situations in which he finds himself. When he’s with other Aborigines, he uses their language and their ways. When he’s with Whites, he speaks standard Australian English. What’s more, he’s even able to adjust his dialect if it’s necessary. This language adjustment is an authentic reflection of Bony’s own identity; it’s also a way for him to put people enough at their ease that they’re more willing to talk to him than they might otherwise be.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a Navajo Tribal Police officer, and a member of the Navajo Nation. He uses English quite a lot of the time, but he also speaks Navajo, and uses it to express his kinship with that group. Even when he’s speaking in English, if the person he’s talking to is Navajo, you’ll find that Navajo words, phrases and cultural references are sprinkled into what he says. And sometimes, he completely code switches to Navajo when he’s speaking to a fellow Navajo. Chee is a cop, so part of the reason he adjusts his speech as he does is to make others feel comfortable enough to tell him what he wants to know. In other words, it’s a deliberate adjustment made for a specific purpose. But he adjusts his speech that way in more casual moments too, so there’s a good argument that he also does it to belong – to be a part of his community.

One of Martin Edwards’ series features Harry Devlin, a Liverpool attorney who works with a somewhat down-and-out firm. Although he’s educated and uses standard British English, Devlin can easily adjust his speech to the Scouser variety of English that’s common in the Liverpool area. And he finds that that’s to his advantage in All The Lonely People. In that novel, Devlin is surprised to say the least when his estranged wife Liz comes back into his life, asking if she can stay with him for a bit. Devlin accepts, hoping that this may mean she is interested in a reconciliation. Two nights later, Liz is stabbed and her body found in an alley. Devlin is determined to find out who killed her, and it’s in his pragmatic interest anyway, since that will clear his own name. So he starts to ask questions. The trail leads through some of Liverpool’s poorer and more dangerous areas, and Devlin knows that he’s not likely to be trusted, to say the least, if he uses his own way of speaking. So he adjusts his speech and adopts
 

‘…a congested Scouse accent…’
 

when he talks to some of those he meets. That change doesn’t solve Liz’ murder, but it does mark Devlin as ‘one of us,’ in some people’s eyes, and that gets him information he probably wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is a proud francophone Québécois, as are several members of the police with whom he works on his cases. And it’s very interesting to see how they interact when they’re speaking with other francophones as opposed to when they’re speaking with native speakers of English. For instance, in Still Life, Gamache and his team go to the small town of Three Pines to investigate the murder of former school teacher Jane Neal. Here’s a snippet of what happens when he speaks to a local police officer Agent Robert Lemieux. Lemieux was first on the scene, and secured the area, so his input about what and whom he saw is important:
 

“Bien sûr! I saw that man over there [indicating a possible witness]. An Anglais, I suspected, by his clothes and his pallor. The English, I have noticed, have weak stomachs.’…
It had also been Lemieux’s experience that the English had no clothes sense, and this man in his plaid flannel shirt could not possibly be francophone.’

 

Lemieux identifies closely with fellow francophones, so he adjusts his language (and his comments!) to express solidarity with them. Fans of this series will know that as a rule, things are different when the team members are speaking with anglophones.

One of Anya Lipska’s protagonists is Januscz ‘Janek’ Kiszka, a Polish immigrant who now lives in London. Kiszka speaks fluent English, and when he interacts with native speakers of that language (such as Lipska’s other protagonist DC Natalie Kershaw), he uses English. He sometimes misses Poland, but he’s comfortable enough in England. However, he’s culturally and linguistically Polish, and uses that language to identify with other Poles. Even when he’s speaking English with fellow Poles, he uses Polish expressions and makes Polish cultural references. He adjusts his language in great part to express solidarity with people from his own background. Kiszka’s ability to adjust his language to fit in is part of why he’s got a reputation in his own community as a ‘fixer.’ He helps his fellow Poles to get things done, to arrange paperwork, to negotiate life in London and so on. And that’s why Kershaw also finds his input useful. In Where the Devil Can’t Go and Death Can’t Take a Joke, she investigates cases that reach into the Polish community. Kiszka is a member of that group and provides valuable insights.

We may not consciously be aware of it, but we do adjust the way we speak, and there’s a solid argument that we do so at least in part to identify with a particular group (or to identify ourselves as not belonging to a given group). So it’s little wonder that we see these language adjustments in crime fiction too. Which ones have stood out in your mind?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Overture/Why Can’t the English.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Arthur Upfield, Louise Penny, Martin Edwards, Tony Hillerman

Watcha Gonna Do When They Come For You*

PoliceProceduralsFor many people, there’s something fascinating about what police do, and how they go about their jobs. Perhaps it’s the huge number of cop shows on TV, or perhaps it’s the image of the cop making things safe and putting the ‘bad guys’ away, so to speak. Or it could be the chance to get a look ‘behind the scenes’ of a unique setting. Perhaps it’s something else. Whatever it is, police procedurals have become a popular staple in crime fiction.

Interestingly enough, the police procedural as we think about it now is newer than some of the other sub-genres in crime fiction. For example, the private detective novel has been around since the days of Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. But that makes sense. Modern police forces weren’t really put together until the 19th Century and it took even longer for them to become the kinds of police forces we think of today. If you want to know more about 19th Century police forces, check out K.B. Owen’s terrific blog/website. She’s an expert on the era.

Certainly there’ve been police officers mentioned in many classic/Golden Age novels. There Agatha Christie’s Chief Inspector Japp, there’s Stuart Palmer’s Oscar Piper and there’s Josephine Tey’s Alan Grant, to name just three. There’s also of course Ellery Queen’s Inspector Richard Queen, and Rex Stout’s Inspector Cramer. But the police procedural novel as we think of it now really started a bit later.

There isn’t universal agreement about which book counts as the first police procedural, but Lawrence Treat’s 1945 novel V as in Victim is often brought up. This is just my opinion, so feel free to differ if you do, but for my money, the series that that really established the police procedural as a sub-genre was Evan Hunter/Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels. Beginning with 1956’s Cop Hater, the series went on for decades, almost until Hunter’s death. In that series, we see quite a lot more of life at a police station/precinct than we’d seen in previous kinds of crime novels. What’s more, this series doesn’t just follow one cop going after one criminal or criminal gang. There’s an ensemble cast in this series, and we follow not just the individual cases they investigate, but also their personal lives. The 87th Precinct series has had a profound influence on the genre in general and of course on the police procedural.

Another set of groundbreaking police procedurals is Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s ten-book Martin Beck series. Those novels follow Stockholm-based Martin Beck and his police colleagues as they investigate murders, robberies, and more. They also highlight a variety of social issues such as unequal distribution of wealth, corruption and other issues. Like the 87th Precinct series, this one also addresses the personal lives of the characters. For many people, the Martin Beck series is the quintessential police procedural series.

In the last few decades, the police procedural as a sub-genre has gotten very diverse as it’s been taken in new directions. For instance, some police procedurals still feature an ensemble cast of characters. Fans of Fred Vargas’ Inspector Adamsberg series and Arnaldur Indriðason’s Inspector Erlendur series, for instance, will know that those novels follow the lives of several of the characters, both in and outside working hours. So does Frédérique Molay’s Nico Sirksy series (I hope more of them will be translated into English soon).

Other series focus more on one or a few cops. For instance, in Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, the spotlight is mostly on Bosch. We certainly learn about other characters, and there are several story arcs involving them. But the primary emphasis is on Bosch. You could say the same thing about Karin Fossum’s Konrad Sejer series. We do learn about other characters, but the focus in that series is on Sejer’s professional and personal life. Another example of this is Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series. While there are story arcs and scenes involving other characters, it’s Rebus who’s the ‘star of the show.’

One major development in the police procedural series is that it’s gone worldwide. And that means that the different series have taken on the distinctive atmosphere of their settings. I’m thinking for instance of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip’s David ‘Kubu’ Bengu series, which takes place in Botswana and which they write as Michael Stanley. There’s also Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen Cao series, and Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series. And that’s just to name three of the many police procedural series that are seasoned by their cultures.

Another development is the diversity in the kinds of people who feature in police procedural series. Women, for instance, are quite frequently police protagonists now. That’s what we see in Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi series, Martin Edwards’ Lake District series and Anya Lipska’s Natalie Kershaw/Janusz Kiszka series. Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan series is another example. That increasing diversity shows up in other ways too. There are gay cops, disabled cops and cops with all sorts of eccentricities.

Despite all of this variety, though, you could argue that there are still some basic things that define a police procedural series. One is that it focuses on police stations, bases or precincts and the people who work there. There are often sub-plots and story arcs that show us the cop’s off-duty life, but there is an emphasis on the investigation and on life as a police officer. Another, at least to me, is that the police procedural features a certain kind of investigation style that involves interpreting evidence, interviewing witnesses and suspects and so on. In that sense it’s quite different to the amateur sleuth, who doesn’t have the power of the law, or the PI sleuth, who goes about investigations in yet another way. Police culture, policies and the like have a strong impact on the way cops go about their jobs, and that makes their investigations distinctive.

What do you think? If you read police procedurals, what is their appeal to you? Which ones do you like the best (I know I’ve only mentioned a few of them) What, to you, makes a police procedural series a good one? If they put you off, why? If you write police procedurals, what made you choose that sub-genre?

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is line from Inner Circle’s Bad Boys.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Arnaldur Indriðason, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ed McBain, Edgar Allan Poe, Ellery Queen, Evan Hunter, Frédérique Molay, Fred Vargas, Ian Rankin, Jane Casey, Josephine Tey, K.B. Owen, Karin Fossum, Katherine Howell, Lawrence Treat, Louise Penny, Maj Sjöwall, Martin Edwards, Michael Connelly, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Per Wahlöö, Qiu Xiaolong, Stanley Trollip, Stuart Palmer

Every Picture Tells a Story*

DiagramsHow do you remember best? Is it easiest for you to make sense of something if you see it in pictures and other graphics? In words? If you hear it? Some other way? When someone gives you directions to get to a place, do you prefer a map or a list of steps to take? Research shows fairly conclusively (at least to me) that we all learn differently and we all have different preferences for how we like to remember things.

Given that’s true, it makes a lot of sense that we have different preferences for remembering what we experience in books. To me that’s one of the advantages for instance of audio books. People who remember easily what they hear can enjoy a story in a format that works really well for them.

It’s also one of the arguments for including diagrams and maps in a novel. I’ve mentioned this before on this blog, but a recent interesting comment exchange with Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan has got me thinking about it again. By the way, if you’re not familiar with Bill’s blog, you’ll want to check it out. It’s a rich resource for Canadian crime fiction as well as crime fiction from other parts of the world. And Bill provides lots of insights into lawyers, legal novels and legal work.

Bill made the excellent point that it would be nice to have diagrams in contemporary novels, and that makes sense. Several modern novels have plots that focus on a particular incident or place. There are others where the plot (or at least part of it) hinges on where certain things or places are in relation to others.  For those novels, it can be very helpful to have a map or diagram. That way, the reader can get a stronger mental image of what’s happening in the story.

Some modern novels do have maps and diagrams. Martin Edwards’ The Hanging Wood, for instance, takes place mostly in and around a part of the Lake District called The Hanging Wood where Orla Payne and her brother Callum grew up. Twenty years ago Callum disappeared. Now Orla wants to find out the truth about what happened to him. She calls DCI Hannah Scarlett of the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team, but the call doesn’t go well. Then Orla commits suicide (or is it?). Partly out of a sense of guilt about not taking Orla’s call more seriously, Scarlett and her team re-open the disappearance case. Accompanying this novel is a map of the area and it’s very helpful as the reader works out what happened to Callum and Orla Payne, and how the different characters’ lives intersect.

Any reader of classic/Golden Age crime fiction will know that many of those novels contain diagrams and maps. For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Hilton Cubitt. Cubitt’s concerned about his wife Elsie, who’s been getting some strange cryptic letters. She won’t tell him what they’re about, but since they come from America, Cubitt suspects they may have something to do with his wife’s past (she was born and brought up there). Then similar cryptic messages appear in chalk on the Cubitts’ property and now Elsie is terrified. One night Cubitt is shot and his wife injured. Holmes uses the cryptic coded messages to lure the killer out of hiding and find out the truth. Diagrams of the messages are provided for the reader and that adds to the interest in the story. It also allows cryptographers the chance to hone their skills.

Agatha Christie uses them in several of her stories. I’ll just give one example. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Poirot comes out of what he thought would be retirement to the village of King’s Abbot when retired magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study. His stepson Ralph Paton is the most likely suspect, and the evidence supports that theory. But Paton’s fiancée Flora is convinced that he is innocent. So she asks Poirot to investigate. He agrees and looks into the crime. This novel includes a diagram of the Ackroyd property Fernly Park and one of Akcroyd’s study. Those diagrams are very helpful in understanding the sequence of events on the night of the murder.

Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly also contains a very useful diagram. In that novel, a group of theatre people come to Oxford for a series of performances of Richard Warner’s new play Metromania. Everyone settles in and rehearsals and other preparations start in earnest. Then one night, one of the actresses Yseute Haskell dies in what looks like a shooting suicide. She was alone in her room at the time, and no-one saw anybody enter or leave that room. What’s more, evidence shows that she wasn’t shot from a very great distance. But there are suggestions that this might have been murder. And there are plenty of people who had a motive. Sir Gervase Fen, Oxford Professor of English Language and Literature, takes an interest in the case. He works with his friend Chief Constable Sir Richard Freeman and with Nigel Blake, whom he used to mentor, to find out who the killer is. In this case the diagram is of the building in which the murder occurred. And it proves to be quite helpful if the reader follows along carefully…

Several of the Ellery Queen mysteries make effective use of diagrams. For instance, in The French Powder Mystery, Queen and his father Inspector Richard Queen investigate a strange shooting death. One day one of the employees at French’s Department Store prepares to demonstrate some furniture and accessories displayed in the main shop window. One of those pieces of furniture is a bed that folds out from the wall. When the employee opens the bed, she is horrified to discover the body of Winifred French, wife of the store’s owner Cyrus French. It’s soon shown though that she was shot in her husband’s private office/apartment on the sixth floor of the building and her body brought to the display window. As the Queens look into this case, they find that timing and placement matter a great deal in solving the mystery. And to help the reader along, there’s a diagram of parts of the building. There’s also a diagram of Cyrus French’s private suite of rooms.

There are lots of other examples of classic/Golden Age novels with diagrams. And of course there are some modern novels that have them, too. A lot of people think they can be very helpful. Do you? When you read a novel with a map or diagram, do you consult it? If you’re a writer, what are your thoughts about including tools like diagrams?

 

Thanks, Bill, for the inspiration!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Rod Stewart and Ron Wood.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edmund Crispin, Ellery Queen, Martin Edwards

Never Heard Nothin’ but Bad Things About Him*

FatherhoodNot long ago I did a post about bad mothers in crime fiction. There are plenty of them in the genre. But never let it be said that I am sexist; there are plenty of equally dysfunctional fathers in crime fiction too. Now, in real life and in crime fiction, the majority of fathers love their children deeply. They would do anything to protect them and they would never dream of causing them harm. But there are some truly awful fictional fathers out there – the kind that will make you dads feel much, much better about your own parenting, even if you’ve made mistakes, as we all do. Let me just give a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday for Murder and Murder for Christmas) we meet Simeon Lee. He’s an unpleasant and tyrannical patriarch who made a considerable amount of money in the mining industry. He invites the members of his family to spend Christmas at the family home Gorston Hall and although no-one wants to go, no-one dares to refuse. As everyone arrives and Lee interacts with his guests, we see what a deeply dysfunctional and abusive person he is, and how that’s affected everyone. On Christmas Eve, Lee is murdered in his private room. Hercule Poirot is spending the holiday nearby and when news of the murder gets out, he works with Superintendent Sugden to find out who killed Simeon Lee and why. The better Poirot gets to know the Lee family and the kind of person the victim was, the more motives he sees for murder.

We also meet a dysfunctional father in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. General Guy Sternwood hires private investigator Philip Marlowe to stop book dealer Arthur Geiger from blackmailing him. Geiger had sent Sternwood an extortion letter that mentioned Sternwood’s daughter Carmen, and Sternwood wants the man to leave the family alone. By the time Marlowe tracks Geiger down though, it’s too late. Geiger has been killed and it seems that Carmen Sternwood is a witness. Marlowe doesn’t want her mixed up in the case and does his best to protect her. With Geiger dead, Marlowe thinks he’s done with the Sternwoods but when their chauffer is found dead of an apparent suicide, everything changes. Throughout this novel, we can see how dysfunctional the Sternwood family is, and Guy Sternwood bears quite a share of the responsibility for that. He’s aware of that too, as we see when he says this about Carmen and her sister:

 

‘Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat. Neither have I. No Sternwood ever had.’ 

 

It’s certainly not the story of a caring father who raises his daughters with love.

Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden begins with the murder of landscaper Warren Howe. At first the police suspect his wife Tina. That makes sense too as Howe was abusive and adulterous. What’s more, he was a very dysfunctional father to their children. The police can’t get the evidence they need to arrest Tina though, and the case is left to go cold. Ten years later, anonymous notes suggest that Tina really was the killer. So DCI Hannah Scarlett, who’s recently been named to head the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team, decides to re-open the case. As the team slowly sifts through the case, they discover that Tina might be the murderer, but so might several other people as well. One important key to this case comes from Oxford historian Daniel Kind. He’s trying to make sense of the curious shape of the garden at the cottage he’s recently taken, and discovers that the landscaping company who did the garden was Howe’s employer. As the threads of the case come together we see how past incidents have affected an entire group of people.

In one plot thread of James Craig’s Never Apologise, Never Explain, Inspector John Carlyle of Charing Cross Station gets a request from an acquaintance. Amelia Jacobs is a former prostitute who now works as maid for Sam Laidlaw, who’s still in the business. Jacobs is worried about local gangster Michael Hagger, the father of her employer’s son Jake. She thinks Hagger is a threat and wants Carlyle to warn him to stay away from Laidlaw and their son. Carlyle agrees and makes plans to do so. But he’s busy on another case, so by the time he turns his attention to Hagger it’s too late. Hagger has disappeared and so has Jake. Now Carlyle has to find them before something terrible happens to Jake – if it hasn’t already. I won’t spoil the book for those who haven’t read it yet, but I can say this. Hagger is far from a loving, caring and supportive father.

And then there’s Annie Hauxwell’s In Her Blood. In that novel, London investigator Catherine Berlin has been building a case against loan shark Archie Doyle. One day one of her informants, who goes by the name Juliet Bravo, is found dead in Limehouse Basin. Berlin feels that she put ‘Juliet’ at risk, so she feels a sense of responsibility for the young woman’s death. She decides to look into the matter and see if she can find out who’s responsible. But then she’s suspended for not following protocol in the process of dealing with her informant. This means she no longer has official access to any information about the murder. As if that’s not enough, Berlin faces a personal crisis. She is a registered heroin addict who’s been getting her supplies from Dr. George Lazenby under the registered addicts program. When she goes to Lazenby’s office for her regular appointment one afternoon, she discovers that he’s been murdered, and she becomes a suspect. With only seven days’ supply of heroin left, Berlin will have to find a new supplier before she goes into withdrawal and is no longer able to pursue either case. But she believes Archie Doyle may be the key to the whole thing. As we learn more about Doyle, we see that he is more complex than just a loan-sharking thug. He has a complicated family life and fairly awful fathering has been a big part of it. It’s a thread that runs through this novel.

There are lots of other cases too of truly dysfunctional, bad fathers. I won’t mention some of them because it’d give away spoilers. But I’ll bet you have a few examples of your own to share. And even these few examples should be enough to satisfy all of you fathers that you’re doing a pretty fine job.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong’s Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone. Listen to both versions – by The Undisputed Truth and The Temptations – and decide which one you like better.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Annie Hauxwell, James Craig, Martin Edwards, Raymond Chandler

But You Hid Behind Your Poison Pen and His Pride*

PoisonPen Letters‘Poison pen’ letters have been around for a very long time. Sometimes they’re sent out of spite or malice. Other times the purpose is bullying or blackmail. And sometimes they’re a reflection of the sender’s fragile mental health. Whatever motivates them, they can be distressing and frightening for the person who gets them. And sometimes they represent a real threat. They’re also interesting clues and ‘red herrings’ in crime fiction too. There are lots of examples from the genre; here are just a few.

Agatha Christie uses ‘poison pen’ letters quite frequently in her stories and novels; I’ll just mention one. In The Moving Finger, siblings Jerry and Joanna Burton have just moved from London to the village of Lymestock so that Jerry can recover from wartime injuries. They’ve just settled in when they receive a vicious anonymous letter claiming that they’re lovers rather than brother and sister. The letter seems like a crank, but it leaves as the saying goes a nasty taste. Then, the Burtons discover that they’re not the only ones to have gotten nasty letters. Several of the other residents of Lymestock have also been victims. Soon, the letters spark ugly rumours throughout the village. Then, things turn tragic. First, a ‘poison pen’ letter to the wife of the local solicitor results in a suicide. Then there’s another death. The police investigate, but vicar’s wife Mrs. Dane Calthrop has another idea. She asks Miss Marple to look into the matter. Miss Marple is thoroughly familiar with village life. What’s more, she’s intelligent, observant and good at making meaning from the local gossip. Miss Marple starts asking questions, and finds out the truth about the letters and the deaths.

In Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is invited to return to her alma mater Shrewsbury College for its annual Gaudy Dinner and festivities. At first, she’s not inclined to go, as she’s not sure what her reception will be. She has, after all, achieved a certain notoriety after being tried for murder (See Strong Poison for the details on that). But at the request of an old friend, she finally decides to participate. When she gets to Shrewsbury she’s pleasantly surprised at the warm welcome she’s given, and is glad she attended. Then trouble starts. First, Harriet finds an anonymous note accusing her of murder. Then she gets a letter from the dean of her college, saying that there have been other incidents, including vandalism, going on at the college. The college authorities don’t want a scandal, so the dean asks Harriet to return to Shrewsbury and investigate quietly rather than call in the police. Harriet agrees and goes back to the college under the guise of doing research for a book. What she finds, with help from Lord Peter Wimsey, is that the events at Shrewsbury are all connected with something that happened in the past, and that one person has not forgotten…

Inspector Van der Valk of the Amsterdam police faces a bizarre case of ‘poison pen’ letters in Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel. There’s been a spate of such letters in the small town of Zwinderen, and the police have gotten concerned. Normally not much attention is paid to one or just a few such letters, but this is a bit different. Two of the letters have resulted in suicide and one in a complete mental breakdown. The local police haven’t been able to make much headway, mostly because the people of Zwinderen are close-mouthed and unwilling to talk about anything that might have led to the letters being sent. So Van der Valk is sent to find out who is behind the letters. It’s an interesting case of a small community where everyone knows everyone’s business and public reputation is all-important. Still, Van der Valk slowly gets to the truth about who’s been sending the letters and why. He also makes another completely unexpected, discovery that’s related to wartime crimes.

Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden also features ‘poison pen’ letters. Ten years before the events in the novel, landscaper Warren Howe was murdered one afternoon with his own scythe. At the time, the police thought that his wife Tina was guilty, and she had good reason. Howe was an abusive alcoholic who wouldn’t leave other women alone. But the police couldn’t get conclusive evidence, so they couldn’t pursue the case. The whole business gets brought up again when a series of anonymous notes, including one to the Cumbria Constabulary, suggests that Tina really was guilty of the murder. DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team re-open the case and begin another investigation. In the meantime, Oxford historian Daniel Kind is researching the history of the oddly-shaped garden of the cottage he’s recently taken. As it turns out, it was laid out by the same company that employed Warren Howe. Each in a different way, Scarlett and Kind look into the history of the area and find that it’s closely linked with the murder.

Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Quilt or Innocence introduces us to Beatrice Coleman, who’s recently retired from Atlanta to Dappled Hills, North Carolina. She’s moved there to be closer to her daughter Piper and to enjoy some long-awaited relaxation and reading time. Soon enough Beatrice finds that social life in Dappled Hills revolves around quilting. So, somewhat reluctantly (since she doesn’t know a lot about quilting), she joins the Village Quilters. When one of its members is murdered, she starts asking questions. Then she gets a threatening letter. And then another. Now it looks as though someone is targeting the quilters, especially when Beatrice and another quilter are attacked. It’s a scary experience for Beatrice, especially since she lives alone. But she gets to the truth about the letters, the murder and the attacks.

Today’s Internet technology means that nasty letters, comments and the like can be posted from just about anywhere. Sometimes they’re done anonymously and sometimes it’s easier to find out who sends them. Either way, they’re at least as unsettling as traditional letters. We see a bit of that in Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. In that novel, Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson have come from Scotland to Melbourne with their nine-week-old son Noah. For Alistair it’s a homecoming, but Joanna has never been to Australia. They’re on their way to Alistair’s family’s home when the unimaginable happens: the loss of Noah. When news of the missing baby gets out, the entire Australian media gets to work and the case generates a frenzy of interest. There are all sorts of appeals for help, charity benefits and the like. But little by little, questions begin to be raised about the event. Those questions start people wondering whether one or both of Noah’s parents might have had something to do with his disappearance. Now there are websites and blog posts set up that vilify, especially, Joanna. It’s an interesting case of how a story can generate passionate public opinion and how modern technology allows people to express that opinion in all kinds of terms. It’s also interesting to compare the ‘poison pen’ comments, tweets and blog posts with the reality of what actually did happen to Noah.

‘Poison pen’ letters, notes, tweets and comments are unsettling and sometimes frightening, especially when you don’t know who’s responsible. They can generate a lot of tension and certainly add levels of suspense to a crime story. These are just a few instances. Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from REO Speedwagon’s In Your Letter.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Helen Fitzgerald, Martin Edwards, Nicolas Freeling