Category Archives: Rebecca Cantrell

I Was Listening In*

Listening InPrivacy matters to a lot of people. And that includes their conversations. It’s unsettling to imagine that anyone might be able to hear what you think is a private conversation. And yet, sometimes we don’t have as much privacy as we’d like to think we have. As uncomfortable as it may make us feel in real life, the plot point of someone listening in on a conversation can add real tension and suspense to a crime novel. There are lots of examples of this in the genre; here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal), Hercule Poirot is asked to investigate the death of family patriarch Richard Abernethie. When the members of his family gather for his funeral, his younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. At first, everyone dismisses what she’s said. Even she tells everyone not to pay attention to her. But when Cora herself is murdered the next day, everyone begins to believe that she was probably right. In the course of the story, one of the characters remembers a vital clue. When that person follows the family attorney’s instructions and telephones him about it, someone listens in on that conversation, and it has real consequences.

Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series takes place mostly in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis. At that time and in that place, having someone listen in on a private conversation was not trivial. Anything might be reported to the Nazi authorities, and the consequences of that were often hideous. In the series, Vogel is a journalist who often has to be careful of every word she says. On one level, she investigates stories that the Nazi authorities do not want reported. For instance, in A Game of Lies, she’s reporting on the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936. The authorities want to present a peaceful, pleasant face to the world. But the reality is quite different, and as Vogel gets closer to the truth, she has to be extremely careful of what she says, when and to whom. She has to be careful at another level too. The people she loves and cares about most are at as much risk as she is, and to protect them and herself, she has to avoid being listened in on by the wrong people. That plot point adds a thread of real suspense to this series.

William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series also depicts a society in which listening in on conversations is a regular occurrence. These novels take place mostly in pre-World War II Stalinist Moscow. Any conversation one has may be overheard and used as ‘ammunition’ in a denunciation. And being branded as disloyal to the Party means at the very least prison and/or banishment, with serious consequences for one’s family too. What’s more, when a person is suspected of disloyalty, the authorities have no qualms about installing listening devices to make it even easier to overhear everything. So conversations have to be conducted carefully and private conversations even more so. In this atmosphere, Captain Alexei Korolev works for the Moscow CID, where his job is to catch criminals and support the Party’s vision of a crime-free ‘worker’s paradise.’ But he is keenly aware of the power of the NKVD and other Party authorities. So when the trail leads to highly placed people, as it does in The Darkening Field (AKA The Bloody Meadow), he has to move with extreme caution. Privacy isn’t easy to obtain, and the possibility that someone may be listening in adds suspense to this series.

In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we meet secondary school teacher Ilsa Klein and her mother Gerda. They emigrated from what was then East Germany during the height of the Soviet Era. Gerda in particular remembers clearly how careful people had to be of everything they said and did. The Stasi – the secret police – had spies everywhere who reported any conversation that might be considered traitorous. And once suspected of disloyal activity, people were subjected to even more listening in. For example, telephones were bugged and tiny holes drilled in walls and ceilings so that ‘neighbours’ could overhear everything. For Gerda, New Zealand has been a welcome haven. Ilsa sees things differently because she was just a child when the family left Leipzig, but she too has settled into life on the South Island. Both women’s lives are changed when Ilsa begins to be concerned about one of her students Serena Freeman. Formerly a top achiever with academic ambitions, Serena has lost interest in school. When Ilsa decides to intervene, she finds herself drawn into something much more than she imagined. 

And then there’s Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Social worker Simran Singh has made a life for herself in Delhi and has little motivation to return to her home town of Jullundur, in the state of Punjab. But she agrees to do just that when she gets a call from a former friend who is now Inspector General for Punjab. He wants Singh’s assistance with a difficult case. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal is believed to be responsible for the deaths of thirteen members of her family, and for a fire that burned the family home. At the same time, there is some evidence that she may have been a victim herself, who just happened to survive the incident. Durga isn’t talking though, so the police can’t move on the case. It’s hoped that if Singh can get Durga to talk about what happened that night, the authorities can get to the truth. There are several influential people though who do not want certain facts about the Atwal family to come out. So Singh finds that her telephone calls are monitored and her things searched. She does find out what really happened, but she also learns that a lot of people cannot be trusted, and that her private conversations have to be planned.

Sometimes the people listening in are the supposed ‘good guys,’ who aren’t so good. In David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Fire, Perth cop Frank Swann returns to his ‘home patch’ after being away for a few years. He’s learned that a friend of his Ruby Devine has been murdered and he wants to find out what happened. He soon discovers that he’s up against ‘the purple circle,’ a group of corrupt cops who are already against him because he’s reported them for corruption. ‘The purple circle’ may have been responsible for Ruby’s death though, so Swann perseveres. In the course of his investigation, he finds that ‘the walls have ears,’ as the saying goes, and he has to be very careful what he says and to whom. And several people he talks to are reluctant to say anything for exactly the same reason. That plot point adds a solid layer of suspense to this story.

Listening in on conversations is also of course, a major plot thread in espionage fiction. There are lots of spy thrillers (you could probably list more than I could) in which the plot is moved along through bugged telephones and other listening devices. That’s why there are a lot of ‘walks in parks’ where spies discuss things they don’t want overheard.

That possibility – that a private conversation is being overheard – is a creepy one. It’s little wonder we see it so often in crime fiction.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Undertones’ Listening In.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, David Whish-Wilson, Kishwar Desai, Paddy Richardson, Rebecca Cantrell, William Ryan

I Go to Extremes*

Political ExtremismThere’s something about politics and political movements that can stir up real passion, even fanaticism. I’m not a social psychologist, but my guess is that part of the reason for that is that it’s easy to get caught up in very strong feelings when there’s a charismatic speaker and an enthusiastic crowd. And when the speaker seems to offer solutions to the problems we all face (e.g. financial concerns, safety, our children’s future) and appeals to people’s need for security, that only adds to the power of a political movement. There’s a long history of political leaders appealing to people’s need for security, their sense of injustice or their desire for a better life, whatever that may be. And frank, reasoned discussions and debates about how best to meet people’s needs are important. That’s how we make social progress.

But fanaticism is a different matter. A quick look at crime fiction is plenty to show what can happen when reason gives way to fanaticism. But of course, you already know from history how dangerous that can be.

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), we meet powerful banker Alistair Blunt. He stands for stability, caution and conservative reasoning. And that pits him against several fanatic political groups who would like to see England’s institutions dismantled and a new order begin. So when Blunt’s dentist Henry Morley is shot one day in his surgery, the Home Office takes an immediate interest. It’s believed that perhaps Blunt is the actual target, and it’s in a lot of people’s interest to keep Blunt safe. Chief Inspector Japp is assigned to investigate and one of his first conversations is with Hercule Poirot. Morley was Poirot’s dentist; in fact Poirot had an appointment at the surgery on the day of the murder. So Japp is hoping that Poirot can provide some insight. Then, there’s another death. And one of Morley’s other patients disappears. To add to this there’s another attempt on Blunt’s life. It’s now clear that there is something much larger going on than the shooting of a seemingly inoffensive dentist.

The world market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed it made people very much afraid. ‘The way things always were’ clearly wasn’t working, so it’s not surprising that many turned to sometimes fanatic political movements. That’s arguably part of why National Socialism became popular. We see that in Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke, which takes place in 1931. When Berlin-based crime reporter Hannah Vogel discovers to her shock that her brother Ernst has been killed, she decides to find out why and by whom. She can’t really call the murder to the attention of the authorities because she and Ernst lent their identification documents to Jewish friends who’d decided to leave the country. The documents haven’t been returned yet, and Vogel knows that it’s far too risky to call attention to herself if she has no papers. So she starts asking questions herself, very quietly. As she goes in search of the answers, we get a sense of just how desperate many people were at that time. There were plenty of cases of people who quite literally did not have food and sold everything, including themselves, to eat. That desperation and panic in part made people willing to listen to anyone who would help them. And we can see in this novel how political fanaticism could be successful in Germany.

Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders also takes place against a background of political fanaticism. Over the Christmas holidays of 1943, Melbourne DI Titus Lambert, Sergeant Joe Sable, and Constable Helen Lord investigate a series of brutal killings. The first two are the deaths of John Quinn and his son Xavier. Evidence from those murders suggests that they may be connected to the resurgent Australia First movement, which has adopted many of Hitler’s ideas. Because Australia is among the Allied powers, the movement has to stay very quiet, but it’s no less fanatic for that. Still, the police know they won’t get much information from members of the group unless they have an ‘in.’ So Sable agrees to go undercover as a sympathetic believer in the political extreme Right. Gradually he penetrates the group, and in that plot thread, we see some of the fears, assumptions and beliefs that can lead to political extremism.

The disparity between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ also led to the rise of the Socialist movement and ultimately, to the Russian Revolution of 1917/18. Many people found real appeal in the idea of a ‘workers’ paradise’ and the end of rule by a few wealthy and powerful people. William Ryan’s Captain Alexei Korolev series, which takes place in pre-World War II Moscow, takes a look at the fanaticism of the early decades of the Soviet Union. As we learn in the series, at first Korolev himself was a believer in socialism and was caught up in the movement that promised a full, rich life for everyone. He’s since become disillusioned with what the government has done, and he’s seen too many people he knows fall victim to political denouncers. But he’s well aware that there are many political fanatics who would be only too pleased to ‘do their share for the State’ by denouncing him. So he walks a fine line between doing his duty as a member of the Soviet State and keeping hold of his own beliefs.

There’s an interesting look at the clash between fanatics from the Right and the Left in Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men, which takes place in 1932 New South Wales. Rowland Sinclair is an artist and intellectual, which means he’s got plenty of avant-garde friends, some of whom are quite firmly on the political Left. At the same time, the Sinclair family is wealthy and established, and Sinclair’s brother Wilfred takes that status very seriously. He has no patience with his brother’s ‘disreputable’ friends and political interest. When the Sinclair brothers’ uncle is murdered, the police theory is that his housekeeper may be responsible. But Rowland is convinced that’s not true. And he wants to know who killed his uncle and why. So he starts to ask questions. There are hints that the murderer may be a member of the fanatic Right, so Sinclair decides to go undercover as a new recruit to get some answers. Now he’s at real risk. If he’s found out, his new companions will have no compunctions about killing him. And if he’s thought to be a member of the fanatic Right, his leftist associates will feel betrayed, and some of them wouldn’t hesitate to kill him either. That tension between groups of extremists adds a strong layer of suspense to this novel.

There’s also Ernesto Mallo’s Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano series, which takes place in the Argentina of the late 1970’s when a military junta was in tight control of the country. The fanaticism of the rightist rulers of the country is equaled by the fanaticism of some of the left-wing opponents of the government. And that political battle plays out as a very suspenseful background to these novels.

We see the disastrous results of political fanaticism in Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money too. Madeleine Avery hires Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan to find her brother Charles, who seems to have disappeared. Quinlan starts his search at Avery’s Bangkok home, where instead of Avery he finds the body of Avery’s business partner Robert Lee. The evidence suggests that Avery went to Cambodia, so Quinlan moves on to Phnom Penh, where he picks up the trail again. There he meets journalist’s assistant Heng Sarin, who proves to be invaluable as Quinlan discovers what really happened to Avery and why. The novel takes place approximately twenty years after the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the country is still deeply scarred by that political movement and the fanaticism that came with it. The effects have been devastating and form a powerful backdrop to the novel.

And no discussion of political fanaticism would be complete without a mention of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series. The authors’ leftist political views are clear in this series, but even so, in novels such as The Laughing Policeman and later, The Terrorists, we see the dangerous consequences of political extremism.

Even among individuals who aren’t fanatics, political movements can still bring up powerful feelings. Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn isn’t a fanatic but she does have strong political beliefs. And in The Wandering Souls Murders, she meets Keith Harris, who also has strong political beliefs – quite different to Kilbourn’s. Here’s what Harris says to Kilbourn’s daughter Taylor about it:

 

‘I work for one party, and your mother works for another party. Not much of a reason to fight, when you come right down to it.’

 

And in fact, their political differences don’t prevent Kilbourn and Harris from developing an intimate relationship. The relationship ends after a time, but each respects the other and they engage in some lively debates about what is right for Canada. The undercurrent of politics may not count as fanatical, but it adds a layer of tension to these novels.

Political differences and open, reasoned debate can help move a society forward. But it’s a lot harder to do that than it is for me to write about it because people so often feel so strongly about their politics. Still, it does make for a fascinating backdrop to a crime novel.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Billy Joel song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Nette, Ernesto Mallo, Gail Bowen, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Rebecca Cantrell, Robert Gott, Sulari Gentill, William Ryan

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime*

1930sThe world market crash of 1929 was part of what you might call a ‘perfect storm’ that lasted throughout much of the 1930s. That era – the 1930s – was marked by several movements and events, only a few of which space allows me to mention. But as we’ll see, crime fiction of and about the era reflects a lot of them.

The dire economic straits of the 1930’s comes through in several crime novels. I’ll just mention a few. Stuart Palmer’s The Penguin Pool Murder, published in 1931, introduces us to school teacher Hildegarde Withers. As the novel begins, she’s shepherding her students through the New York Aquarium when her handbag is nearly stolen. Miss Withers deters the thief, but ends up getting mixed up in a murder case when the body of stockbroker Gerald Lester is found in the penguin pool. Police Inspector Oscar Piper is called in and begins the official investigation. The Great Crash has financially wiped out many of Lester’s clients and some of them are angry and desperate enough to have committed murder. Among other things, this novel gives readers a look at how buying on margin and other common stock market customs contributed to the crash.

In Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke, which also takes place in 1931, Berlin crime reporter Hannah Vogel happens to be at a local police station when she notices a shockingly familiar ‘photo in the station’s ‘Hall of the Unknown Dead.’ Her own brother Ernst has apparently been killed. Vogel can’t do much to investigate because neither she nor Ernst has official identification documents. They lent those documents to Jewish friends so that they could leave the country. Still, Vogel is determined to find out what happened to her brother so very quietly, she begins to ask questions. As Vogel investigates, we see just how desperately poor many people were at this time. There are, for instance, lots of women who’ve turned to prostitution simply in order to eat. Many, many people have pawned anything of any value, and regular full meals are not a given. It’s a frightening time financially and that adds to the tension of this novel.

Another part of the ‘perfect storm’ of this era was the combination of natural forces, policy decisions and poor land management that led to famine in several parts of the world.  Part of Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Death of a Nightingale takes place in the Ukraine during 1934-1936. Two sisters, Olga and Oxana, are growing up under Stalin’s regime, and as we learn what happens to them, we see just how desperate people were, just for some bread. Everyone is suffering and although the official message is that everyone must make sacrifices for the State, that doesn’t quell anyone’s hunger. The sisters’ story has a long reach, as we learn when some eighty years later Natasha Doroshenko flees the Ukraine with her daughter Katerina. She takes her daughter to Denmark to escape the people who murdered her journalist husband Pavel. Things aren’t much better for her in Denmark though. First, she ends up in prison for the attempted murder of her new fiancé Michael Vestergaard. Then by chance, she overhears a conversation that convinces her that the people she tried to escape from have followed her. So she escapes police custody and goes to Coal-House Camp, a Red Cross facility that’s been looking after Katerina. Red Cross nurse Nina Borg works at the camp and knows both Natasha and her daughter. So she gets involved when Michael Vestergaard is found brutally murdered and Natasha disappears. The Ukraine famine isn’t the reason for Vestergaard’s murder (or for that matter, for Pavel Doroshenko’s). But it plays a role in the story and we see just how hungry people really were. This plot thread also gives readers a look at the rise of Josef Stalin and the purges of the era. Interested readers can also check our William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series for a look at that aspect of the 1930s.

We also see poverty in the work of Arthur Upfield, whose Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte novels depict life in Australia’s Outback and other less populated regions during the era. In several of them there’s a real struggle for life, and it’s not made any better by the racism of the day. And I can’t resist a mention of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I admit; it’s not a crime novel as such (although there is a murder in it), but it’s an authentic portrayal of the poverty of the era and the way the American Dust Bowl added to that misery. It’s an unflinching look at what happens to people when it’s sometimes hard just to find anything to eat.

Yet another part of the 1930’s ‘perfect storm’ was the rise of Nazism and the looming threat of World War II. The rising power of the Nazi party is an important theme in Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke. It’s also mentioned vaguely in a few of Agatha Christie’s works. For instance, in her short story The Kidnapped Prime Minister, Hercule Poirot gets a late-night visit from the Leader of the House of Commons and a member of the War Cabinet. Their purpose is to seek his help in finding Prime Minister David MacAdam, who’s apparently been kidnapped. World War II is just on the horizon and MacAdam was on his way to Paris to make a ‘rally the troops’ speech when he disappeared. It’s in the interest of the Nazis for England to take an appeasement approach, so there are several people both inside and outside MacAdam’s government who do not want him to give that speech. Poirot and Hastings are given one day to find MacAdam, so that he can go on as planned.

On a (slight) side note, Christie mentions the Spanish Civil War in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas). In that novel, Hercule Poirot spends the holiday with Colonel Johnson and is thereby drawn in to the murder of Simeon Lee, an unpleasant and tyrannical patriarch who lived not far away. One of the suspects in that novel is Lee’s grand-daughter Pilar Estravados, who’s half-Spanish and has come from Spain at Lee’s request to spend Christmas there. In a few of the stories she tells, we see some of the horror of the Spanish Civil War.

It shouldn’t be surprising that with all of the harshness of reality in the 1930’s, people wanted to escape. So there was also lots of attention paid to famous criminals like Al Capone. And of course, everyone followed the kidnapping of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s son. In fact Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express reflects that case. People were also fascinated by the doings of the ‘café society’ and of course, the Royal family. Several of Agatha Christie’s novels of that decade (e.g. Lord Edgware Dies), focus on the lives of the ‘glitterati.’

So do other novels. In Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts for instance, Hollywood stars Blythe Stuart and John Royle become the subject of a lot of attention, as did many stars of the day. Stuart and Royle had a very public, very stormy love affair that ended years ago. Each married someone else and each had a child. Now, Magna Studios wants to do a biopic of the two stars and surprisingly, they agree. Ellery Queen is under contract to Magna so he gets involved in writing the screenplay. To everyone’s shock, the two ex-lovers re-kindle their romance and even decide to marry. Rather than let this stop the film’s production, it’s decided to embrace the upcoming wedding and give it the full Hollywood treatment. The two marry on an airstrip and then, with their children, board the plane for their honeymoon. When the plane lands, both Stuart and Royle are dead of what turns out to be poison. At first, their children blame each other, but Ellery Queen discovers that the murder has another motive entirely. There are other novels too (e.g. Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep) that take a much more jaded look at the wealthy and powerful of the era.

The 1930s was of course a very hard time economically, politically and in other ways too. At the same time, it was an era that laid the groundwork for a lot of modern attitudes (ask anyone who had a relative who lived during the Great Depression, and you’ll see for instance how mistrust of banks still persists). It was also the height of the Golden Age, so we see a lot of the era portrayed in the crime fiction of the time, only a bit of which I’ve had space to mention here. Little wonder people still find the decade fascinating.

 

ps. The ‘photo is of my grandparents-in-law. It was taken during the early 1930s in Atlantic City, New Jersey. I know, I know, I’ve shown this ‘photo before, but I couldn’t resist it for this post.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by E.Y. Harburg and Jay Gorney.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Arthur Upfield, Dashiell Hammett, Ellery Queen, John Steinbeck, Lene Kaaberbøl, Raymond Chandler, Rebecca Cantrell, Stuart Palmer, William Ryan

And She Doesn’t Know What’s Coming But She’s Sure of What She’s Leaving Behind*

UncertaintyOne year ends and another begins, and that always brings a little uncertainty. Even if one’s optimistic about what’s going to happen next, life’s rarely a sure thing. And even if one’s pessimistic, you never know what wonderful thing’s waiting round the corner so to speak. That uncertainty brings with it some tension and so it’s not surprising that we see it a lot in crime fiction.

Agatha Christie’s work sometimes includes a bit of uncertainty and that adds to the depth of the story as well as to its interest. For example, in The Mystery of the Blue Train, Ruth Van Aldin Kettering is strangled during a trip on the famous Blue Train. She was on her way to Hyères to meet her lover, Count Armand de la Roche, when the crime occurred. The victim had with her a valuable ruby set in a necklace, and that ruby has been stolen, so the police are convinced that the motive for the murder was robbery. The count is of dubious reputation and he knew that Ruth had the ruby, so he is the most natural suspect. But the count has an alibi for the time of the murder and claims that he’s innocent. Hercule Poirot was on the same train en route to Nice, so he works with the French police to find out who the murderer is. One of the people they interview is Katherine Grey, who happened to have a long talk with the victim before the murder. She’s a former paid companion who’s just inherited quite a lot of money from her employer and has decided to take some time and travel about. Her first stop is Nice, where a distant cousin Lady Rosalie Tamplin and her daughter Lenox live. In a sub-plot of this novel, Katherine has two admirers, and there’s some uncertainty as to what she’ll do. And even at the end, we don’t know exactly what will happen to her.

Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke takes place in the Berlin of 1931. Hannah Vogel is a crime reporter for the Berliner Tageblatt. In that capacity, she’s at the local police station when she happens to look at the photographs displayed in the Hall of the Unknown Dead. To her shock and horror, Hannah sees a ‘photo of her brother Ernst among the dead. She can’t do much about it openly, because she and Ernst lent their identity documents to some Jewish friends who needed them to leave Germany. They promised to return the documents, but that hasn’t happened yet. Hannah is at real risk if anyone discovers the identity switch, so she doesn’t want to call any attention to herself. Still, she wants to find out what happened to her brother, so very quietly she begins to ask questions. Little by little she finds out that Ernst was involved with some very high-ranking members of the Nazi party, which is growing in influence. If one of them killed him, Hannah is taking grave risks by finding out the truth. Still, she persists. At the end of the novel, we do get closure in the sense that we find out who the killer is and why Ernst was murdered. But there is a great deal of uncertainty in the novel. We don’t exactly know what’s next for Hannah, as her life isn’t neatly ‘tied up in a package.’ We also sense the climate of uncertainty about Germany’s future.

In Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town, Los Angeles PI Elvis Cole is hired by famous director Peter Alan Nelson.  Years ago Nelson was married to Karen Shipley and they had a son Toby. The marriage broke up, chiefly because Nelson didn’t want family responsibilities at the time. Now Nelson wants to find his family again and re-connect with his son. At first Cole is reluctant; many, many people disappear because they do not want to be found. But he finally agrees and begins the search, which leads to a small Connecticut town. When Cole and his partner Joe Pike locate Karen, they find that she’s gotten herself mixed up with the Mafia. However unwitting her involvement was, she’s in deep now and is frightened of what will happen if she tries to break free. Cole and Pike work to help Karen rid herself of the hold the Mob has over her; in return she agrees to at least meet with her ex-husband. At the end of the story, we don’t really know what will happen with that family. In some ways, questions are answered, but there’s enough uncertainty about their future that it’s also quite realistic.

There’s also a thread of uncertainty in Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind. Stephanie Anderson is beginning her career as a psychiatrist in Dunedin. One day a patient Elisabeth Clark tells her a terrible story; Elisabeth’s younger sister Gracie was abducted several years earlier, and no traces of the child were ever found. This story is eerily similar to Stephanie’s own family history. Seventeen years earlier, her own sister Gemma was abducted. Despite a massive search, no traces of her were ever found either. Stephanie decides to lay her own personal ghosts to rest, so to speak, and goes on a search for the person responsible for causing so much pain. We find out the truth about Gracie’s and Gemma’s disappearances but there are some things that are left uncertain. For instance, Stephanie’s family has been shattered by the loss of Gemma. Knowing the truth about the case is helpful, and we can see ways in which the family is slowly trying to heal. But how far it’ll go and what will happen isn’t clear. There’s also the matter of Stephanie’s personal life. She makes a choice in her personal life but we don’t know exactly what will come of it. It’s an interesting way to end the novel and it adds to the interest.

There’s a great deal of uncertainty at the end of Anthony Bidulka’s Date With a Sheesha. In that novel, Pranav Gupta hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out the truth about the murder of his son Nayan ‘Neil.’ Neil was murdered in Dubai and the official explanation for his death is that he’d been attacked by hoodlums. But Pranav doesn’t believe it. Quant takes the case and travels to Dubai and then to Saudi Arabia, but it’s not just the case that occupies Quant. Some major changes in Quant’s personal life happen too, and as a result, we’re left with some real uncertainty at the end about what’s going to happen to him.

New years, new choices, big changes – they all bring uncertainty with them. But that’s part of what keeps life interesting, even if it does make us uneasy…

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Paddy Richardson, Rebecca Cantrell, Robert Crais

I’m In the Mood to Help You, Dude, You Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me*

benefactorsIt’s not always easy, especially for private investigators, to get started in ‘the business.’ They need to build a reputation and they need a solid financial footing. And that’s where having a benefactor or sponsor can be very handy. Benefactors provide financial support and very often they help spread the word about the sleuth, too and that can build a sleuth’s reputation and client base. There are a lot of examples of benefactors and sponsors in crime fiction, and it’s interesting to see that although they may remain in the background during an investigation, their influence can have a real impact.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot for instance is a highly successful private investigator and through the years, he’s made quite a lot of money. But it wasn’t always that way. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, we learn that he came to England as a refugee from Belgium. He and some other Belgians were sponsored by Emily Inglethorp, a wealthy benefactor to whom Poirot feels a debt. So when she is poisoned, he is only too happy to undertake the task of finding out who killed her.

There’s another benefactor in Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. That’s the story of the murder of a seemingly inoffensive charwoman. Her lodger James Bentley has been convicted of the crime, but Superintendent Spence doesn’t think Bentley is guilty. So he asks Poirot to look into the matter. Poirot agrees and travels to the village of Broadhinny where the murder occurred. It turns out that Mrs. McGinty found out more than was safe for her to know about one of Broadhinny’s residents and was killed to guarantee her silence. Several of the locals are keeping secrets and have a good motive for murder, so Poirot has his work cut out for him as the saying goes. In the meantime, Poirot’s friend detective novelist Ariadne Oliver is also in Broadhinny. She’s staying with up-and-coming playwright Robin Upward, who is adapting one of her novels for the stage. Upward is the adopted son of Laura Upward, and we soon learn that she is as much his sponsor and benefactor as she is anything else. It’s an interesting dynamic that runs through the story.

Sometimes a sleuth is also a benefactor. That’s the case with Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. Wimsey is both wealthy and titled, and he has access to the highest of social circles. He uses that privilege to sponsor a number of people including Miss Katherine Climpson, who owns and runs a temporary agency. Miss Climpson’s employees certainly do their share of typing, filing and other clerical jobs. But unbeknownst to a lot of people, they also assist when Wimsey needs some extra help on one of his cases. For instance, in Strong Poison, Wimsey needs an important clue that can be found in the office of attorney Norman Urquhart. Rather than going to the office himself and asking openly for that clue, Wimsey arranges for Joan Murchison, one of Miss Climpson’s employees, to take a clerking job at the law office. She finds the clue that Wimsey needs and is therefore an important part of solving the case Wimsey’s working on, the poisoning murder of author Phillip Boyes. In this case, there’s a mutually-beneficial relationship between the benefactor and the person he sponsors.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe’s benefactor was her beloved father Obed Ramotswe. The two were devoted to each other and it was the sale of her father’s cattle after his death that gave Mma. Ramotswe the ‘seed money’ she needed to start her own detective agency. While her father didn’t play the classic ‘sponsor’ role of referring clients and supporting her business during its early days, he did support his daughter’s education. He also looked after her in the sense of wanting to make sure she could live independently. In this case there’s an admitted fine line between being a caring parent and being a benefactor but I still think Obed Ramotswe’s worth mentioning.

A more traditional example of a benefactor is Jacqueline Winspear’s Lady Rowan Compton. She and her husband Sir Julian are one of London’s wealthy ‘better’ families during the time just before and during World War I. In Maisie Dobbs, when we meet these characters, they take into their home thirteen-year-old Maisie Dobbs as a young maid. With help from Maurice Blanche, a friend of the Comptons, Lady Rowan learns that Maisie is extremely intelligent and has a great deal of potential. So Lady Rowan decides to sponsor Maisie. She arranges for the girl’s education, including university. She also helps Maisie get started as a private investigator after World War I. Blanche serves as Maisie’s mentor and teaches her ‘the business.’ But it’s Lady Rowan who serves as Maisie’s benefactor and as the series continues, Lady Rowan refers clients, spreads the word about Maisie’s business and in other ways supports her business.

Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel is a journalist just before and during World War II. Although she earns a small amount of money for her work, it’s certainly not enough to conduct investigations. But in A Trace of Smoke she meets wealthy banker Boris Krause. Vogel had done an article on a serial rapist who attacked Krause’s daughter Trudi and that’s their first connection. But they soon develop a relationship. Among other things, Krause becomes Vogel’s benefactor when she begins to investigate the murder of her brother Ernst. That search for the truth leads Vogel into some very dangerous places, including the upper echelons of the swiftly-growing Nazi party, so Vogel has to take some serious risks. But Krause has the connections to help to help keep her safe, and he provides financial backing too. In Krause we see an interesting blend of benefactor/sponsor who also develops an intimate relationship with the sleuth.

And then there’s successful men’s clothier Anthony Gatt, who sponsors Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant. Gatt also serves as Quant’s personal mentor in a lot of ways, but in a very practical way, he supports Quant’s PI business. Gatt is extremely well connected; he knows everyone who is anyone in Saskatchewan and a lot of other places too. So he refers clients, he makes social connections for Quant, and a few times he provides a place for Quant to stay when he’s ‘on the road.’ Gatt doesn’t directly give money to Quant; his financial support is more subtle. But it’s definitely there.

Benefactors and sponsors don’t always broadcast the support they give. But it’s essential to those who have talent but not a lot of money. I’ve only mentioned a few fictional sponsors, so I’m sure I’ve left out some you like. Who are they?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s Friend Like Me.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Anthony Bidulka, Dorothy Sayers, Jacqueline Winspear, Rebecca Cantrell