Category Archives: Peter Robinson

I Feel Like Letting My Freak Flag Fly*

Living Other LivesIf you pay attention in Las Vegas casinos, restaurants, shops and so on, you see an interesting phenomenon: lots of people dress and act in ways that they probably wouldn’t at home. I’ve seen Elvis impersonators, people walking around wearing balloon hats, people dressed in costumes, and people wearing scanty, spangled clothes that I doubt very much they’d wear to work. Nobody seems to mind very much; after all, as I’ve been told more than once, ‘It’s Vegas.’

For many people, visiting places such as Los Vegas gives them an opportunity to live out fantasies in ways they can’t do in their regular lives. I don’t mean just sexual fantasies although of course, that happens too. Rather, I mean adopting a persona that one can’t ‘wear’ at home. Not being a psychologist, I don’t know exactly why people sometimes feel the need to do that, but it seems to be a human need, for at least some people. You sure see it in Los Vegas, and you see it in crime fiction.

For instance, In Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, we are introduced to Anne Beddingfeld. She’s recently lost her professor father and now finds herself as the saying goes alone in the world. She decides that, since there’s nothing much holding her in London, she’ll have some adventure in her life:

 

‘I wound a black garment tightly round me, leaving my arms and shoulders bare. Then I brushed back my hair and pulled it well down over my ears again. I put a lot of powder on my face, so that the skin seemed even whiter than usual. I fished about until I found some lip salve, and I put oceans of it on my lips. Finally I draped a red ribbon over my bare shoulder, stuck a scarlet feather in my hair, and placed a cigarette in one corner of my mouth. The effect pleased me very much.’

 

Anne finds that ‘wearing a new self’ is more dangerous than she thought. One day she witnesses a terrible Tube accident in which a man is killed. She ends up with a piece of paper he had, which turns out to mention the upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. On impulse she books passage, deciding to live out what it’s like to be an adventuress. That choice gets her mixed up in murder, international intrigue and jewel theft.

Peter Robinson’s Bad Boys also touches on this theme. DI Alan Banks is away on holiday. So when Juliet Doyle comes to the police station to make a report, it’s Annie Cabot who takes the information. Juliet has found out that her daughter Erin has a gun. The gun belongs to Erin’s boyfriend Jaff, who is most definitely not the kind of person people want their children to date. As it turns out, Banks’ daughter Tracy is Erin’s best friend, and she knows exactly the kind of person Jaff is. When Jaff invites Tracy to run off with him, she’s excited at first. This will give her the chance to be someone she simply can’t be at home. But the excitement soon fades off when things start to spin completely out of control. Banks comes home from his holiday to find that a colleague’s been shot, there’s been a fatal accident, and his daughter has been taken hostage. Not the sort of homecoming one would wish for…

Jodie Garrow’s daughter Hannah wants to break free and be someone new in Wendy James’ The Mistake. She’s recently recovered from an accident that left her injured (that’s a story of wanting to break free in itself). But all is not well with Hannah’s family. She learns to her shock that her mother Jodie had a child several years before she, Hannah, was born – a child Jodie’s never mentioned to anyone. What’s more, there are rumours that Jodie herself may be responsible for the baby’s disappearance. Hannah’s never really felt completely comfortable with the quiet, middle-class life her family leads, and when her mother becomes a social outcast things are even worse. Then, Hannah learns something else that upsets her even more. She decides to ‘put on’ the life she fantasises about: a life moving around with her boyfriend, with no other ties. She imagines herself as a free spirit, and that’s the life she tries to ‘wear.’ So she runs off with her boyfriend only to find that an unsettled life with no boundaries isn’t exactly what she thought it would be. This sub-plot of wanting to be someone else is an interesting thread through the novel.

In Kerry Greenwood’s Earthly Delights, accountant-turned-baker Corinna Chapman helps to solve a few mysteries. One has to do with the deaths of several local junkies. Another is the question of who’s been sending threatening notes to several residents of the building where Chapman lives and has her bakery. There’s been vandalism to the building, too and Chapman and her lover Daniel Cohen look into the matter. The key to the deaths of the junkies seems to be a Goth club called Blood Lines. Getting into the club isn’t easy though, so if they’re going to see what’s going on there and figure out what connects it with the deaths, Chapman and Cohen will have to play roles. Chapman’s friend Pat, who goes by the name of Mistress Dread, owns a leather shop and creates the perfect Goth dominatrix outfit for her. That night, Chapman and Cohen go to Blood Lines and Chapman gets the chance to experiment in ways she doesn’t get to do in her regular life.

Jill Edmondson’s The Lies Have It has as a backdrop Toronto’s fetish club scene. In that novel, PI Sasha Jackson agrees to help her friend Jessica tend bar at Bound For Glory, a fetish club that’s planning a big event. When one of the club members Ian Dooley is murdered, Jackson gets involved in investigating the death. To do that, she gets to know some of the members and some of the things that go on ‘behind the scenes’ at Bound For Glory. In the meantime, she’s also working on another case: the disappearance of runaway teen Marcy Edquist. In this novel, it’s interesting to see how lawyers, accountants, doctors, and others who live what most people would consider ‘ordinary’ lives use the opportunity to live out some of their fantasies through the club.

Experimenting with another ‘self’ gives people the chance to do things they couldn’t normally do. Even wear a feathered costume. As you can see though, it doesn’t always go as planned…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Almost Cut My Hair.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Jill Edmondson, Kerry Greenwood, Peter Robinson, Wendy James

He Met a Girl Out There With a Tattoo Too*

TattoosIn the past few decades, tattoos have become more and more ‘mainstream.’ Of course as we’ll see, they’ve been around for a very long time, but it wasn’t really until more recent years that a lot of ‘regular’ people have been getting them. One of the things about tattoos is that they can be distinctive. Whether you like them or you don’t, they can give very clear clues as to a person’s identity, so it’s no wonder that when someone goes missing, one of the first things the police ask is whether that person has a tattoo or some other distinguishing mark. That’s also the case when someone is attacked; the cops almost always ask whether the assailant had a tattoo. Because tattoos have been woven into our culture for quite some time, it’s no surprise that we see them quite a lot in crime fiction. And sometimes they can be very useful.

For instance, a few of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories hinge on Sherlock Holmes’ knowledge of tattoos. In The Red-Headed League, we meet Mr. Jabez Wilson, a pawn-shop owner who’s had some odd things happen to him. He decided to earn a little extra money by responding to an advertisement for an open position. The job, as he found out, involved copying the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and it was easy enough. Then one day he found his new employer’s business had abruptly closed. He wants Holmes to find out what’s going on, and Holmes is intrigued enough to agree. It turns out that Wilson has been used by a group of thieves who wanted to use his shop as a base for digging a tunnel into a nearby bank. In the scene where we meet Wilson, Holmes notes that Wilson has been in China. He knows that by the look of a tattoo just above Wilson’s wrist – it’s made in a way that Holmes knows is distinctively Chinese. There are other stories too (I’m thinking, for instance of The ‘Gloria Scott’) in which Holmes’ knowledge of tattoos comes in handy.

In Michael Connelly’s 9 Dragons, liquor store owner John Li is shot and LAPD cops Harry Bosch and Ignacio Ferras are called to the scene. Li’s wife doesn’t speak English, and Bosch and Ferras are not thoroughly familiar with the Chinese culture of that part of Los Angeles. So Detective David Chu, who’s associated with the LAPD’s Asian Gangs Unit (AGU) is called in to assist. He proves to be very useful in helping Bosch and Ferras make sense of the culture and of the payments that Li had been making to a member of a triad – a ‘protection’ group. When Bosch shows Chu a video of one of Li’s payoffs to the triad member, Chu notices something else about the man: a tattoo. The tattoo gives Chu some interesting information that leads the police to suspect that Li might have been shot by a member of a particular triad with connections in Hong Kong. Then everything changes when Bosch gets a call from his daughter Maddie, who lives in Hong Kong. She says she’s been kidnapped and Bosch is sure that it has something to do with his current investigation. He goes as quickly as he can to search for his daughter. In the end, Bosch finds out what happened to John Li and to Maddie, and how the two are connected.

Inspector Salvo Montalbano makes effective use of a tattoo for identification in Andrea Camilleri’s The Wings of the Sphinx. A young woman is found dead near a local landfill. She has no clothes or other identification, so no-one knows who she is. The only identifying feature that’s really distinctive about her is the tattoo of a sphinx moth on her left shoulder. Montalbano doesn’t recognise the tattoo, but he asks his friend Nicolò Zito, who works for Vigatà’s Free Channel, to help. Zito broadcasts the picture of the tattoo and before long, Montalbano and his team are able to link the victim to a group of young Eastern European women who’d come to Sicily to find jobs. He also links the case to corruption in a social service agency and to some odd thefts.

Peter Lovesey’s Bath CID chief Peter Diamond has a similar challenge in The Tooth Tattoo. The body of a young woman is found in a canal in Bath. Oddly enough, there’s a sense of déjà vu for Diamond; he and his partner Paloma Kean have recently been in Vienna where they saw a memorial to another young woman who was also killed and dumped in a canal. Both were Japanese music students, too. The second victim – the one found in Bath – has only one identifying feature: the tattoo of a musical note on one of her teeth. It’s also discovered that she was a fanatic ‘groupie’ of Staccati, a string quartet. Bit by bit, Diamond and his team trace the relationship between the string quartet and its mysterious history and the deaths of the two victims.

In Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos, we learn that tattoos can also tell stories. This one is about a woman who’s recently been released from prison after serving time for murder. She and her dog Sully are settled into an apartment not far from a child care facility where one day, she gets into an argument with one of the parents. When a complaint is later lodged against her for keeping a restricted-breed animal (Sully is a pit bull), the woman blames her antagonist at the child care facility and plots her revenge. As she does so, we learn exactly what happened that sent her to prison. We also learn what the meaning is of her teardrop tattoos.

Peter Robinson’s Cold Is the Grave is the story of what happens to Emily Riddle, daughter of Chief Constable Jeremiah ‘Jimmy’ Riddle. Emily has left home, and her parents become alarmed when her younger brother Benjamin discovers pornographic ‘photos of her on a website. Riddle is now desperate to find his daughter and he asks DCI Alan Banks to help. The idea is that if Banks goes as a civilian, he’ll draw less attention to a personal matter that Riddle wants very much to stay private. Riddle and Banks have had a rancourous relationship in the past, but Banks is a father too. So he reluctantly agrees to look into the matter. Banks’ search for Emily takes him into some very seamy parts of London and one of the things that helps him find out what happened to her is the fact that in the ‘photos Benjamin saw, she has a spider tattoo.

And that’s the thing about tattoos. They can be very helpful in identifying a person. So they often cut down on the time it takes to find out who an unknown victim is. And they can be very interesting personal statements. That’s part of why sleuths such as Robinson’s Annie Cabbot and Patricia Stoltey’s Sylvia Thorn have them. No wonder we see them in crime fiction.

Oh, did you notice one very famous tattooed sleuth I didn’t mention? Oh, come on –  too easy! ;-)

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Petty’s Into the Great Wide Open.

   

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Filed under Andrea Camilleri, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Michael Connelly, Patricia Stoltey, Peter Lovesey, Peter Robinson

Vacation, All I Ever Wanted*

VacationThe problem with being a talented crime-fictional sleuth is that it’s very hard sometimes to ‘get away from it all.’ Even if you want to take a break and escape for a holiday, you don’t always manage it. Of course, there are some sleuths who are so addicted to their work that they don’t ever really want to take a break. But there are also plenty of sleuths who do plan holidays – well, at least they try. But they’ve become so indispensable that they never really do manage to get away for long. 

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, Hercule Poirot is taking a holiday cruise of the Nile. At first he hopes to have a nice, relaxing break, but then there’s a murder. Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, who’s on the same cruise with her new husband Simon, is shot on the second night. Poirot works with Colonel Race, who’s also aboard, to find out who the killer is, and the ship’s staff is only too happy to have them take charge of the investigation. The most obvious suspect is Linnet’s former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, whose fiancé Simon was before he met Linnet. But although Jackie is on the cruise, her time is accounted for by reliable witnesses, so she can’t have committed the crime. Poirot and Race will have to look elsewhere for the criminal and they’re just beginning to do that when there’s another murder. Now instead of a holiday, Poirot faces a complex multiple murder. Interestingly, although Poirot does enjoy several holidays in the series that features him, he never really seems to mind interrupting them to solve crimes…

That’s not quite as true for DCI Richard Jury in Martha Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace. In that novel, Jury is packing his things in preparation for a getaway weekend in Northamptonshire when he gets a call from his boss Superintendent Racer. Racer’s just gotten word that a human finger has been discovered at Littlebourne. When Jury protests that he’s not on call, Racer says that there is no other option since the two other DCIs on the rota are ill. So, very unwillingly, Jury changes his plans. He goes to Littlebourne where he finds that the finger belonged to Cora Binns, a secretary who worked for a temporary services agency and who’d gone to Littlebourne for an interview. She never made it, so now Jury works with Melrose Plant to find out who killed the victim and why. They find that her death is connected to a robbery and another death in the past, and to a vicious attack on another of Littleourne’s residents.

Ellery Queen also doesn’t always want to be disturbed, as we learn in The Origin of Evil. He’s taken a house in the Hollywood Hills so he can have some peace and quiet to write. But then, nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill pays him a visit. Her father Leander has recently died of a heart attack, but she is convinced his heart attack was deliberately brought on by a killer. In the weeks before his death, Hill received several macabre ‘gifts’ from an unknown person – gifts that made him increasingly upset. At first, Queen refuses to have anything to do with the gifts or with Laurel. He wants to have some time to write. But then, he finds out that Hill’s business partner Roger Priam has also been receiving cryptic warning ‘gifts.’ Laurel’s refusal to take ‘no’ for an answer finally convinces Queen to look into the mystery and before he knows it, he’s deeply involved. It turns out that Hill’s death and later, an attack on Priam’s life, has everything to do with the two men’s past.

DCI Alan Banks is away on holiday in Peter Robinson’s All the Colours of Darkness when a case of murder cuts his trip short. The body of Mark Hardcastle, a set and costume designer for the Eastvale Amateur Dramatic Society, has been found hanged in a local woods. It looks at first as though he’s committed suicide but then, Hardcastle’s partner Laurence Silbert is found murdered. DI Annie Cabot has begun the investigation but she knows that

 

‘…something big like this, you let the boss know immediately, or things have a nasty habit of coming back at you.’

 

Superintendent Catherine Gervaise takes the decision to call Banks back from his holiday and he and Cabot find out that there was much more going on in Silbert’s life than anyone knew. Far from being the murder/suicide that it seems on the surface, this case involves intrigue and espionage. And that’s not the only time either that Banks is called back from a holiday.

In Donna Leon’s A Question of Belief, Commissario Guido Brunetti is eager to escape the heat of August in Venice. He and his family are planning a trip to the mountains and everyone’s excited. While they’re on the train though, Brunetti gets a call from his colleague Glaudia Griffoni. It seems that Araldo Fontana, a clerk at the local courthouse – the Tribunale di Venezia – has been bludgeoned in the courtyard of the apartment building where he lives. On the surface of it, the killing looks like a mugging gone horribly wrong. But Fontana had been working for a certain Judge Coltellini, who may have been taking bribes from wealthy defendants in exchange for delaying their trials interminably. If Fontana knew about that, he might have been killed for that knowledge. And there’s the fact that he has some personal secrets too. Since this case is looking to be a lot more complicated than it first seems, Brunetti gets off the train, switches to a train back to Venice, and gets to work on the Fontana case. Perhaps this goes to show the down side of having a mobile ‘phone…

And then there’s Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors. In that novel, Australian Federal Police (AFP) Inspector Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen is taking some time off to recover from the events detailed in Dead Set. He’s even toying with the idea of not coming back, but finishing his Ph.D. instead. But his AFP colleagues have a different idea. Former Gough Whitlam government official Alec Dennet and his editor Lorraine Starck are found murdered at a writer’s retreat where they were working on Dennet’s memoirs. There are all kinds of possibilities for suspects too, since Dennet might have been planning to reveal quite a bit about some highly-placed individuals. This looks to be a very high-profile case and Chen’s colleagues want him on it. He reluctantly agrees and slowly finds himself drawn into what really happened to Dennet and Starck.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter whether a sleuth is officially ‘on leave’ or ‘on holiday.’ Sleuths who are good at their jobs will invariably be called back ‘on duty’ whether they want to or not. I know I’ve only mentioned a few examples here. Which gaps have I left?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Go-Go’s Vacation.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Ellery Queen, Kel Robertson, Martha Grimes, Peter Robinson

We Figured it Out!*

Figuring out the killerThe other day I had an interesting comment exchange with Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery. Our exchange was about crime novels in which the reader can identify the killer before the author reveals who that person is. Sometimes that happens, but it doesn’t always mean that we stop enjoying the novel. There is, after all, more to a crime novel than just the whodunit aspect (not that that doesn’t matter of course). If you’ve ever really enjoyed a crime novel even though you spotted the ‘bad guy’ before the author revealed all, you know what I mean. Not all of us identify the murderer in the same novels, so I can only speak for the novels where it’s happened to me. But in those novels, there were other things that held my interest even though I’d worked out who the killer was, and that’s what kept me reading. Here are a few examples to show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) is the story of the murder of Marie Morisot. a French moneylender who does business as Madame Giselle. One day while on a flight from Paris to London, Madame Giselle suddenly dies of what turns out to have been poison. The only possible suspects are the other passengers so Hercule Poirot, who was on the same flight, works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out which of the passengers is the killer. I don’t want to give away spoilers, so I won’t say what tipped me off to the killer, but I will say I figured out who it was before the answer was revealed. But a few things kept my interest throughout the novel. One was the motive, which I’ll admit I didn’t work out for myself; the motive is believable but it’s not obvious right away. Neither is the exact method of murder. This isn’t really an ‘impossible murder’ but it takes some figuring out, and I stayed along for the ride, so to speak, to find out how exactly the thing was accomplished.

In Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, Lord Peter Wimsey attends the murder trial of mystery novelist Harriet Vane, who is accused of having poisoned her former lover Philip Boyes. There is evidence against her too. She had arsenic in her possession, the two had quarreled, and she was the last person known to give Boyes anything to eat or drink. So the prosecution thinks it has an ‘airtight’ case. But the jury can’t agree on a verdict, so she is given another trial. Wimsey has fallen in love with Vane, so he determines to clear her name during the month before her new trial. Little by little and with help from some friends and his valet Mervyn Bunter, Wimsey traces Boyes’ last days and weeks. In the end, he’s able to work out who really killed the victim and why. I admit I was able to identify the murderer before Wimsey did. But there’s more than just ‘whodunit’ in this novel. There’s the sub-plot of Wimsey’s interest in Harriet Vane, and her reaction to it. There are also some well-drawn characters in the story that keep readers (well, this one anyway) interested. For instance, there’s Katherine Climpson, who owns a temporary services agency. She and her employees prove to be very helpful to Wimsey; they’re quick-thinking, capable and interesting. There’s also a thread of humour throughout the novel. So at least for me, working out the killer’s identity didn’t stop me enjoying the novel.

Peter Robinson’s A Dedicated Man introduces us to Harry Steadman, an archaeologist who left his position at Leeds University when he inherited enough money to set him up for life. His passion is the Roman ruins in Yorkshire, so he and his wife Emma moved there to allow him to excavate them. One day, Steadman is found bludgeoned. DCI Alan Banks and his team begin the investigation with a close look at Steadman’s personal and professional lives. As they do so, they discover that there are several possible suspects, including people in Steadman’s professional circle as well as his friends. Then, sixteen-year-old Sally Lumb disappears and is later found dead. It turns out that Sally knew more than was safe for her to know about the murder of Harry Steadman, and when she put what she thought was the final piece of the puzzle together, she ended up paying with her life. I’ll confess I worked out who was behind the murders, but that didn’t stop me staying involved in that story. That’s in part because at first I didn’t know how the whole thing had been accomplished. I was really interested also in untangling the complicated set of relationships that we learn about in this novel. They all play a role in what happens, and they kept me wanting to know more.

And then there’s H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote’s First Case. In that novel, Ganesh Ghote has just been promoted from Assistant Inspector to Inspector in the Bombay (now Mumbai) police force. No sooner does he receive word of his new status than he is summoned to the office of Sir Rustom Engineer, who heads the Bombay police’s Crime Branch. Engineer wants Ghote to travel to Mahableshwar to follow up on a request from an old friend Robert Dawkins. Dawkins’ wife Iris recently committed suicide and Dawkins wants to know what led up to it. Ghote’s wife Protima is about to give birth to their first child, but he doesn’t see how he can refuse this request, so he reluctantly makes the trip. When he gets to Mahableshwar, he makes contact with Dawkins and his household staff, as well as with some of the people in Iris’ past. Soon enough Ghote begins to believe that Iris Dawkins was murdered. Although the local police are unwilling to upset someone with as much power as Dawkins has, Ghote persists and in the end, he finds out that he was right about Iris’ death. Part of the appeal in this story comes from the well-crafted setting, so even though I worked out who the killer was, I stayed engaged on that score. What’s more, although I had guessed who committed the crime, I wasn’t sure how that person managed to create an alibi. So I followed along eagerly as Ghote solved that part of the puzzle.

Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly takes Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello into Venice’s glass-blowing industry. Giorgio Tassini is night watchman at Giovanni de Cal’s glass-blowing factory; late one night he is killed in what looks like a terrible accident. But Tassini had been quite vocal in his belief that that factory and others are guilty of illegal toxic waste dumping. In fact, he blames that waste for his own daughter’s disabilities. So Brunetti and Vianello have to consider the possibility that he was murdered. They begin their investigation with Tassini’s colleagues and bosses and soon find that more than one person could have had a motive for murder. I did work out who the killer was but the suspects in this case have alibis, and it was hard to break the killer’s. I didn’t feel too badly about that though, as Brunetti doesn’t break it either at first. And even if I had worked that one out, Leon’s depiction of Venice, and her portrayal of Brunetti’s family life are ‘draws’ for me. So are the ‘regular’ characters such as Signorina Elettra Zorzi, assistant to Brunetti’s boss, and one of the very interesting characters in this series. I had no trouble remaining engaged in this one even though I had guessed the ‘whodunit’ part.

Of course, your reading experience will be different to mine. Have you worked out whodunit before the author told you? Does that put you off a story? I’d be really interested in your input on this one. If you’re a writer, what do you add to your stories to keep readers turning/clicking pages even if they do figure out whodunit?

Thanks, Tracy, for the inspiration. Folks, I encourage you to add Bitter Tea and Mystery to your blog roll. It’s an excellent source of thoughtful and informed crime fiction reviews.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Adler & Jerry Ross’ Seven-And-A-Half-Cents.

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Filed under Donna Leon, Dorothy Sayers, H.R.F. Keating, Peter Robinson

Now I’m Going Outside to Have an Ice Cold Beer in the Shade*

BeerThe weekend is upon us, and a lot of people like to take some time during the weekend to sit back and relax with a beer. Some beers are meant to warm you up while you’re sitting by the fire during the winter, and others are meant to cool you down on a blistering hot summer afternoon. Either way, beer has been a part of human culture for thousands of years.  Beer is an integral part of ‘pub life,’ sport, and just spending time relaxing, whether in front of the TV or with family or friends. With beer being that much woven into so many people’s lives, it’s only natural that it’d be a part of crime fiction too.

In fact, beer plays a critical role in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect). Poirot is hired by Carla Lemarchant to investigate the sixteen-year-old murder of her father Amyas Crale, who was a famous painter. His wife Caroline was convicted of the crime and died in prison, but Carla is convinced her mother was innocent. Poirot agrees to take the case and begins to put together what actually happened on the day Crale was murdered. Police reports show that he was poisoned by coniine which was put into his beer, so one of the questions Poirot has to answer is: who would have had access to the poison and the beer, and who (besides his wife) had the motive for murder. To find those answers, Poirot interviews all five of the people who were there on the day of the murder. He also has each of them write out a personal account of what happened that day and in the days leading up to the murder. From that information he’s able to deduce who the killer is and what the motive really was.

Having a beer (or a few) together often sets up the atmosphere for the sharing of information and that’s important for a sleuth too. There’s an example of it in Peter Robinson’s A Dedicated Man. Archaeologist Harry Steadman has come into an inheritance, so he’s left his position at Leeds University and moved with his wife Emma to Helmthorpe to excavate the Roman ruins in the area. He’s almost finished getting the necessary permissions when he’s found bludgeoned to death. DI Alan Banks and his team begin the investigation, starting of course with Steadman’s family and friends. Steadman was in the area longer than Banks has been, so he’s going to need some background on the family, their interactions and so on. For that he turns to a local, Sergeant Weaver, who knows everyone. There’s an interesting scene in this novel that takes place in The Bridge, which was Steadman’s local. In that scene, over a couple of beers, Weaver tells Banks what was locally known about the Steadmans, who Steadman’s usual drinking partners were, and other useful pieces of ‘off the record’ information that turn out to be very helpful in solving the case.

Fans of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse will know that he is quite fond of his pint. For him, beer often serves as a ‘liquid lunch,’ and he does his best thinking (or so he believes) when he’s got a beer in front of him. There are a lot of examples in the Morse novels; I’ll just mention one. In The Way Through the Woods, Morse and Lewis have taken over the investigation of a ‘cold case,’ the disappearance of Swedish tourist Karin Eriksson, who was on her way to Wales when she went missing in Wytham Woods. Her rucksack has been found but she hasn’t. One person who may know more than he has said is David Michaels, head forester at Wytham. So Morse and Lewis take a special interest in him and at one point they find him having a beer at the White Hart:

 

‘’Am I a suspect?’ asked Michaels with a wan smile…
‘Yes,’ said Morse simply, draining his beer. ‘Another?’
‘Why not? I’d better make the most of things.’’

 

Of course, as Morse fans also know, the case isn’t quite that simple…

Peter Temple’s Jack Irish enjoys his beer, too. At the beginning of Black Tide for instance, he’s just returned to Melbourne after being gone for two weeks on a difficult case. He’s eager for a beer and some relaxation:

 

‘No phone call to my sister, Rosa, lasts less then half an hour, and from the canyons of Fitzroy, the beer was calling.’

 

On the way to The Prince, he stops by Charlie Taub’s woodworking shop where he occasionally works. Here’s a little of their conversation:

 

‘‘I gather you missed me a lot then.’ [Irish]
Another snort. ‘ What I miss, I miss someone finishes little jobs I give him. Like little tables. Day’s work for a man who actually works.’
‘Finished tomorrow,’ I said. ‘Good as done. Now, time for a beer.’’

 

The two make their way to the Prince, where Irish’s father’s football friends spend their time and in that pub, the beer is as much a part of the atmosphere and the setting as the football talk is. And it’s a good thing Irish takes this time to relax because he’s soon caught up in the case of the disappearance of Gary Connors, who might have made off with sixty thousand dollars of Irish’s father’s money…

Very often having a few beers is a way to ‘let off steam’ after a bad day. So there are plenty of scenes in crime novels where detectives do just that. In Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, for instance, Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police is stabbed one morning as he and probationer Lucy Howard are investigating a housebreaking. White was popular, and seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, the main suspect, has a long police record and a bad reputation. So the cops are only too happy when Rowley’s arrested at the end of the day. The murder and the investigation have taken a heavy toll on all of the team members, so they decide to go out after shift to the Ocean Queen. As they share a few rounds, they’re able to start letting everything sink in. There’s a sense of shared pain and camaraderie and the feeling of letting go, just a bit, of what happened. That’s when another patron, who’s watching television coverage of the murder and arrest, begins making disparaging comments about the police. Constable Cameron ‘Cam’ Walsh, who looked up to White as a mentor, can take no more and a beer-fueled fight follows. The juxtaposition of those two scenes really shows that having a beer (or two, or more) can be a proverbial double-edged sword.

That said though, sitting back with a beer is a really natural reaction to a bad day, or a good day, or time with friends, or time alone. It’s been a popular drink for thousands of years, and I’ll bet it’ll continue to be for a long time to come.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a nice stout just waiting for me. Happy Weekend!

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Peter Robinson, Peter Temple, Y.A. Erskine