Category Archives: Rex Stout

It’s Not Too Short, It’s Not Too Long*

NovellasThey’re not quite long enough to count as novels. But at the same time, they’re not really short stories either. I’m talking of course of novellas. Novellas are really interesting forms of the crime fiction genre, and it takes some skill to do them well. The author doesn’t have the room for character development that’s possible in a novel. At the same time though, the pace and timing of a novella aren’t the same as they are in short stories. Not every author does novellas of course, but for those who do, novellas can give readers an interesting insight into that author’s work.

Some of Agatha Christie’s stories are arguably novellas. One, for instance, is Dead Man’s Mirror. Hercule Poirot is summoned (there really is no other good word for it) to Hamborough Close, the home of the Chevenix-Gore family. Family patriarch Gervase Chevenix-Gore has come to believe that someone may be cheating him and he doesn’t want the police involved, since he suspects it’s a family member. Poirot arrives at Hamborough Close just as the family gathers for dinner. Then it’s discovered that Sir Gervase has been shot in his study. All of the evidence suggests it was a suicide, but Poirot isn’t sure of that. So he looks more closely into the case. He discovers that someone found a very clever way to make a murder look like suicide.

Ellery Queen’s The Lamp of God is one of those ‘impossible but not really’ mysteries. Queen gets a call from an attorney friend Thorne, who wants Queen to meet him at New York’s Pier 54. Queen agrees, mostly for friendship’s sake, and duly arrives at the pier. Together, they meet Alice Mayhew, a young heiress who’s just disembarked and whose life may be in danger. They escort her to the Mayhew family home on Long Island. There, they discover that the main house isn’t habitable, so everyone gets as comfortable as possible in the smaller house next door. The next morning, the larger house seems to have completely disappeared, along with any evidence that it ever existed. As if that weren’t enough, some strange and disturbing things happen that convince Queen that there is a real threat here. He doesn’t have a lot of time to get to the truth about the case, but in the end, we learn what happened to the big house and why Alice Mayhew is in peril.

Fans of Rex Stout’s work will know that he wrote several novellas. One of them is Disguise For Murder (AKA The Affair of the Twisted Scarf). In that story, Nero Wolfe is reluctantly persuaded to host the Manhattan Flower Club and display some of his prize orchids. During the event, Archie Goodwin sneaks to his office for some much-needed peace and quiet – and a drink. That’s when he gets a visit from a young woman calling herself Cynthia Brown. She claims that one of the other guests is a murderer, and that that person is likely aware that she knows about the killing. If so, then she’s in danger, and she wants Wolfe’s help. Goodwin is finally convinced that she might be telling the truth. But by the time he finds Wolfe and talks him into meeting this client, she’s been strangled. Now Wolfe and Goodwin have to find out which of the guests is responsible.

Robert Colby’s No Experience Necessary begins with an unusual employment advertisement. Glenn Hadlock has recently been released from San Quentin, and his job prospects are limited. So when he sees an advertisement for a bodyguard/escort position, he can’t resist applying. The benefits and pay are appealing, and he’s qualified for the work, so he shows up at the appointed place and time. He discovers that his prospective employer is wealthy Victor Scofield, who is disabled and therefore needs a chauffeur/escort/bodyguard for his beautiful young wife Eileen. Hadlock is duly hired and it’s made clear to him that his loyalty is to Scofield, who pays his salary, and that his relationship with Eileen must be strictly professional. Hadlock’s happy enough with that arrangement and at first, all goes well. But slowly (Oh, come on, you saw this coming, didn’t you?) Hadlock learns that this position is a lot more dangerous than he thought it was…

D.S. Nelson’s first two Blake Heatherington mysteries, Hats Off to Murder and One For the Rook, are both novellas. In them we are introduced to Heatherington, who is a milliner by profession. The business has been in his family for generations, and he himself takes great pride in his work. He has a true ability to match each client with exactly the right hat. He’s observant, he has compassion, and he’s intelligent and a quick study. So he’s exactly the right choice when, in Hats Off to Murder, new client Delilah Delibes asks him to help her find her mother, who’s disappeared. That search leads to a case of multiple murder, and establishes Heatherington and Delibes as friends. In One For the Rook, Heatherington gets involved in murder much closer to home, when he discovers the body of a neighbour Peter Kürbis in among his prize pumpkins. At first the police consider Heatherington as a suspect, especially since it was one of his own pumpkins that seems to have been the murder weapon. But then there’s another murder. Now Heatherington works with his new friend to find out who the killer is.

Pascal Garnier also made regular use of the novella format (e.g. The Panda Theory; How’s the Pain?). The Front Seat Passenger, for instance, is the story of Fabien Delorme, who is informed that his wife Sylvie has died in a car accident. Although their marriage hadn’t been happy for some time, he still feels her loss. But worse than that, he learns that she was not alone in the car; she was with her lover Martial Arnoult. That hurt to Delorme’s pride is almost worse than losing his wife, and he finds himself thinking of the man. When he discovers that Arnoult left a widow Martine, Delorme begins to become obsessed with her. He finds out where she lives, contrives to meet her, and soon is involved in a relationship with her. That obsession has all sorts of tragic consequences for several people…

Novellas can be tricky to write. The author needs to provide enough character development and plot to sustain the story. At the same time though, the author needs to ‘telescope’ some of the action and limit the number of characters, as one does in shorter fiction. When they’re done well though, novellas can serve as an interesting introduction to an author’s work. And they’re a nice change of pace if one’s been reading longer books.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you read novellas? If you’re a writer, have you experimented with the novella format?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Allan Sherman’s An Average Song. (I know, I rarely do novelty songs, but this just…fit).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, D.S. Nelson, Ellery Queen, Pascal Garnier, Rex Stout, Robert Colby

I Couldn’t Sleep at All Last Night*

Sleep DeprivationIt’s been well supported by research that we need a certain amount of sleep every night. Each of us is a little different with respect to exactly how much sleep we need, but sleep is essential for all of us. The effects of sleep deprivation can be extremely serious, especially if it goes on for any period of time. You know what it’s like – how you feel the next day – if you go even one night without sleeping well. Consequences from distractibility to fatal crashes can result from not sleeping enough.

And yet, if you look at some crime fiction, you notice something: sometimes the protagonists get very little sleep. Of course, a plot that had too much information on how many hours the detective slept would be, well, sleep-inducing. But it’s unrealistic (at least it is for me) to expect that a sleuth could be at her or his best without enough sleep. And readers are not likely to get and stay engaged in a story if the characters aren’t believable.

There are ways to be realistic about how much sleep people need in a crime novel without going on too much about it. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot certainly stays up late now and again. For instance in the short story The Incredible Theft, he’s wakened very late (or very early, depending on your view) to help recover some important and very secret plans for a new air bomber. But in general, he goes to bed at what most people would call a normal hour, and he doesn’t generally see clients before ten or eleven o’clock in the morning. Getting enough restful sleep matters enough to him that in the stories where he doesn’t, Christie makes it clear that it bothers him (e.g. Murder on the Orient Express and Mrs. McGinty’s Dead). Poirot certainly has his share of eccentricities, but needing enough sleep isn’t one of them.

We could say much the same thing about Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. Like Poirot, Wolfe absolutely has his quirks. Fans will know about his unwillingness to leave his home, his rigid schedule for seeing clients (or not being disturbed) and so on. And yet, he has what doctors would probably call a very healthy attitude towards sleep. He doesn’t want to be disturbed at night, and he doesn’t see clients in the morning until he’s had enough rest. And then there are of course his famous yellow silk pyjamas… In the novels and stories where his sleep’s interrupted, Wolfe gets even crankier than usual, and that’s a very realistic reaction. Not having enough sleep really does affect one’s disposition. And yet, Stout doesn’t go on and on about Wolfe’s sleeping habits. They’re woven into the stories as a part of his personality.

That’s also true of Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman stories. Chapman is a Melbourne baker whose weekday begins early. Very early. In order to get her bread ready to open the story on time, she gets up at four o’clock, and she’s not happy about it:

 

‘Four am contains, in my experience, many things. Darkness, cold, solitude, gloom, despair, madness.’ 

 

Because she gets up that early, Chapman also tends to go to bed earlier than she would if she woke later. Except on some weekends, she doesn’t tend to stay up until the ‘wee hours.’ Greenwood doesn’t belabour the point, but Chapman has a sensible attitude towards her sleeping schedule. She’s by no means lazy, but she wakes up early, so she doesn’t stay up excessively late. And those occasional naps are most welcome.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve places a very high priority on her family life. Besides being a political scientist and academic, she’s the mother of three grown children and a daughter Taylor who’s now a teenager. She’s got plenty to keep her life full, and that doesn’t include the times when she investigates a murder or other mystery. And yet, she has what doctors would probably agree is a healthy attitude towards getting enough rest. Sometimes she stays up late or gets up early, but in general, she understands how important it is to sleep enough. And while Bowen doesn’t go on and on about it, we see that balance evident throughout the novels.

Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges also has what most of us would call a sensible attitude towards getting enough sleep. Certainly he works hard on his cases, and sometimes they do come back to haunt him, if I can put it that way. He has his own sadness and ‘baggage’ too, as we all do. But Bruno doesn’t generally stay awake all night trying to follow up leads. He doesn’t as a rule spend nights at the police station either. In part that’s because he knows that that’s not going to be a productive way to spend his time. But it’s also because he has what a lot of people would say is a healthy attitude towards the work/life balance. Enough sleep is essential to doing one’s work well and having any kind of a positive life.

And then there’s Frankie Y. Bailey’s Detective Hannah McCabe. When we meet her in The Red Queen Dies, she and her police partner Mike Baxter investigate the murder of Broadway superstar Vivian Jessup. This murder turns out to be connected with two other murders, and the case is complex and difficult. Leads don’t always pan out and sometimes the case demands extra hours and so on. But McCabe makes time as a rule to get her sleep. She doesn’t generally go to sleep at three o’clock only to get up again two hours later.

It can be challenging for an author to create an interesting story that moves at a solid pace without losing sight of the things that make characters human. And one of those things is getting enough rest and the very real effects when we don’t. Do you notice this kind of thing when you read? If you’re a writer, do your characters get enough sleep? I’m serious. If not, how do you show the effects? Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s been a long day. Time I turned in…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ritche Adams and Malou Rene’s Tossin’ and Turnin’.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Frankie Y. Bailey, Gail Bowen, Kerry Greenwood, Martin Walker, Rex Stout

Home, Where My Thought’s Escaping*

HomebodiesPlenty of crime-fictional characters travel in the course of their work. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, for instance, doesn’t really have a settled place to live. And although Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot likes his home at Whitehaven Mansions, he also travels quite a bit. Fans will know that he solves some of his more famous cases away from home.

But there are some characters who are homebodies. They prefer not to travel, and the comforts of home are far more appealing to them than a luxurious hotel. If you’re a homebody yourself, you know exactly what that’s like. There are plenty of them in crime fiction, too. Here are just a few examples; I’m sure your list will be much longer than mine could be.

Christie’s Miss Marple is rather a homebody. She does travel now and again, but she prefers life in her home in St. Mary Mead. In A Caribbean Mystery, for instance, she’s had a bout with illness, so her generous nephew has arranged for her to stay at the Golden Palm Hotel in the West Indies. On the one hand, Miss Marple knows her nephew is trying to help, and she’s grateful that he cares about her. But on the other, life at the Golden Palm means:

 

‘Everything the same every day – never anything happening. Not like St. Mary Mead where something was always happening.’

 

Miss Marple seems happiest in her own surroundings.

Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe will know that Wolfe is very much of a homebody. He’s got his New York City brownstone house set up the way he wants it, complete with orchid room and elevator. He has a world-class live-in chef, an orchid expert and of course, Archie Goodwin right there. So Wolfe sees very little reason to leave his home. Besides, as Goodwin puts it in Too Many Cooks,

 

‘He [Wolfe] hated  things that moved, and was fond of arguing that nine times out of ten, the places that people were on their way to were no improvement whatever on those they were coming from.’  

 

Fortunately, the Wolfe/Goodwin team is successful enough that Wolfe can afford to have anything he needs and most things he wants come to him, rather than the other way round.

There’s an extreme example of a homebody in some of Ellery Queen’s adventures. She is Paula Paris, a famous and very popular Hollywood gossip columnist. We first meet her in The Four of Hearts, when Ellery Queen is looking for some background information on a case. Famous actors Blythe Stuart and John Royle had a stormy relationship for years, but surprised everyone by re-kindling their romance and even marrying. When they are both poisoned, Queen investigates. Paris is the hub for all sorts of information about Hollywood, and she knows everyone who is anyone. What’s interesting though is that she never leaves her home. She is agoraphobic, so going anywhere is out of the question from her point of view. Instead, people come to her. And of course, she makes effective use of the telephone. In the process of the investigation, Queen and Paris begin a friendship that later blossoms into a romance.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe isn’t agoraphobic, but she prefers life in her quiet home on Zebra Drive to just about anything else. She chose her home carefully, and even after she marries, she and her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni live there with their two adopted children. Mma. Ramotswe sometimes travels, but never really very far, and she’s always happy to return to her house and the familiarity of her detective agency office on Tlokweng Road. Mma. Ramotswe finds, too, that she doesn’t have to travel very far to get new clients. Her reputation as the owner of Botswana’s only female-run detective agency has spread, and people often seek her out.

Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move tells the story of science fiction writer Zack Walker and his family. Walker isn’t a coward, but he is concerned about safety. So he’s excited about the family’s planned move to a home in Valley Forest Estates. Life in this suburban community will be less expensive than life in the city, so Walker will be able to write full-time. And he’s convinced his family will be safer in the suburbs. Walker isn’t a ‘do-it-yourself’ sort of person, but he does like being a homebody. Everything changes though when he goes to the development’s sales office to complain about needed repairs to his home. While he’s there, he witnesses an argument between one of the Valley Forest Estates executives and local environmental activist Samuel Spender. Later, Walker finds Spender’s body in a creek, and that’s the beginning of his involvement in a web of fraud, theft and murder. The irony in this novel is that every time Walker tries to get free of this case so he can return to his homebody writing life, he gets in deeper…

Nelson Brunanski’s Small-Town Saskatchewan mysteries feature fishing-lodge owner John ‘Bart’ Bartowski and his wife Rosie. Their lives focus on their home in the small town of Crooked Lake, and on their fishing lodge in the northern part of the province. They’re certainly aware of life outside their own town, but they have no burning desire to be jet-setters. They like their comfortable home life. And that’s what makes it so difficult for Bart when he gets mixed up in murder investigations. On the one hand, he has no desire to upend his life or that of his wife. On the other, he is a devoted and loyal friend, so he finds himself getting involved whether he wants to or not. Still, at heart, Bart likes the comforts of home.

And so do a lot of other crime-fictional characters. Which ones do you like best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon & Garfunkel’s Homeward Bound.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Ellery Queen, Lee Child, Linwood Barclay, Nelson Brunanski, Rex Stout

That’s Where the Big Bands Used to Come and Play*

Dance HallsAmong many other things, crime fiction shows us how society changes over time. It also gives readers a look at really interesting social phenomena. For instance, from the turn of the last century until the 1960s, the dance hall was an important fixture in the social life of many communities. Before the nightclub was introduced, dance halls were the places people went to on a Friday or Saturday night. Some dance halls were of course seedy and dangerous. Others were more respectable places where young people could meet. Either way, they were places where a diverse group of people got together, where romance blossomed, where liquor was sometimes served and conflicts sometimes erupted. Yes, they were perfect contexts for a mystery. Here are a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s short story The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife, Maria Packington is fed up with her life and with her husband George, who has been paying far more attention to his secretary than business requires. At the end of her tether, she answers a cryptic personal ad:

 

Are you happy? If not, consult Mr. Parker Pyne, 17 Richmond Street.

 

Intrigued, she does just that. Pyne takes her case and that’s how she meets Claude Luttrell. Luttrell is pleasant, attractive and debonair. The two begin to go out to meals and to dance halls. For George’s part, he’s pleased that Maria is much less grumpy and jealous, and hopes that means she’ll leave him freer to pursue his own interests. Then one night, the Packingtons and their respective escorts end up at the same dance hall, The Red Admiral. That evening changes everything.

Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin series will know that Goodwin and his sometimes-girlfriend Lily Rowan go out dancing in several of the stories. In Death of a Dude for instance, Rowan has invited Goodwin to be part of a house party at her ranch in rural Montana. Goodwin plans to return to New York after a short holiday, but his plans change when Philip Brodell is shot and Lily’s ranch manager Roger Dunning is accused of the murder. Lily is quite sure he’s innocent, and she wants an initially-reluctant Goodwin to investigate. He doesn’t feel quite at home in this rural atmosphere, but this is Lily Rown, so he agrees. He also writes to Nero Wolfe explaining what’s happened and why he won’t be back to New York until much later than he’d thought. Wolfe takes an interest in the case; in fact, this is one of the few Rex Stout stories in which Wolfe leaves his famous New York brownstone in the course of an investigation. He travels to Montana where he and Goodwin find out who shot Brodell and why. And part of the answer lies at Woodrow ‘Woody’ Stephanian’s Hall of Culture, which serves as a Saturday night dance hall, and where Goodwin and Lily go out more than once.

In Kerry Greenwood’s The Green Mill Murder,  Phryne Fisher and her date Charles Freeman are dancing at the Green Mill, a popular upmarket dance hall. A dance marathon has just ended when one of the contestants Bernard Stevens slumps to the floor, stabbed to death. Phyrne gets involved in the investigation, but before she can get very far, Charles Freeeman disappears. His mother hires Phryne to find him, and what she discovers leads back to Freeman’s past and to the end of World War I. It’s also tied in with the solution of the mystery.

And then there’s Victoria Thompson’s Murder on St. Mark’s Place. New York City midwife Sarah Brandt is called to the home of one of her patients Agnes Otto, who is due at any time to give birth to her third child. Thinking she’s been called to assist at the delivery, Brandt arrives to find that Agnes’ sister Gerda has been beaten to death and her body found in an alley. Gerda had recently come from Germany to live with her sister and start a new life. She was working at a shirt factory and so far as anyone knew, didn’t have any enemies. Agnes is sure that the police won’t bother investigating the murder of a poor German immigrant, and that’s what upsets her the most. Brandt agrees to contact Detective Sergeant Frank Malloy, whom she knows from another case, and ask his help. Together she and Malloy begin to look into the matter. It turns out that Gerda spent her fair share of time at Harmony Hall, a rather disreputable dance hall. They soon learn that several girls, known as Charity Girls, went to the dance hall to get the things in life that they couldn’t begin to afford on their own. In exchange for ‘services rendered,’ they could get clothes, good meals, and so on. It turns out that Harmony Hall is key to finding out what really happened to Gerda.

Vicki Delany’s Klondike Mystery series takes place at the end of the last century in Yukon Territory, and features Fiona MacGillivray, owner of Dawson’s Savoy Dance Hall. At that time, Dawson is a gold-rush boom town, and many different people from all over the world have come to make their fortunes. The Savoy is of course one of the social hubs in the area, so Fiona and her son Angus often find themselves involved when there are conflicts and of course, murders. For example, in Gold Digger, the first novel of the series, the stage at Savoy is the scene of a murder when American news reporter Jack Ireland is killed. There’s no lack of suspects either, since he’d managed to make plenty of enemies even in the short time he’d been in Dawson. Since Fiona herself falls under suspicion, she works to find out who the killer really is.

Now that nightclubs have more or less replaced them, we don’t really see dance halls any more. But they were an important part of social history for many cultures. And they can be very effective settings for crime novels.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Kinks’ Come Dancing.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Kerry Greenwood, Rex Stout, Vicki Delany, Victoria Thompson

Now My Belly’s Full of Fancy Food and Wine*

Dinner PartiesRecently, Moira at Clothes in Books had a very interesting piece in The Guardian book blog about how very wrong fictional dinner parties can go. And they certainly can. Let me give you a moment to go check out her terrific article

Back now? Right, dinner parties. It’s little wonder that they’re popular plot points in novels, really. There are all sorts of different personalities, opportunities for conflict, character histories, and lots more for the author to use to build tension. And in crime fiction, they’re great settings for a murder. You’d think that with everyone in the same room, it’d be hard to get away with something like murder, but it does happen. Here are just a few examples.

In Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley, we meet a young academician Wyatt Petrie, who’s invited several guests for a  weekend house party at Black Dudley, a remote old property that’s been in the family for generations. One of the guests is Dr. George Abbershaw. Through his eyes, we get a look at the other guests at dinner on the first night. There’s already a sense of tension, but the dinner goes off as planned. After dinner, everyone goes into the drawing room, where there is on display a large dagger. Petrie tells his guests the story of the dagger and of a ritual game in which the lights are turned out and the dagger is passed round. The last one to hold it is the loser, so the goal is to get rid of it as quickly as possible. Several of the guests want to play the game so finally it’s decided to go ahead. Late that night, Abbershaw is wakened and asked to attend to Petrie’s Uncle Gordon Coombe, who has apparently died of heart failure. It turns out that the real cause is stabbing, and Abbershaw works with Albert Campion, who is also part of the house-party, to find out who the killer is.

Agatha Christie made use of dinner parties as contexts for several of her stories. I’ll just mention two of them. In Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), famous specialist Dr. Bartholomew Strange is poisoned at a dinner party at his home in Yorkshire. This murder bears several resemblances to an earlier death, that of the Reverend Stephen Babbington. He was killed by the same poison during a cocktail party. Hercule Poirot attended that party and is persuaded (not that that takes much effort… ) to look into Strange’s murder. He finds that several of the same people were at both events. Now Poirot has to figure out which of the people who were there on both occasions had a reason to kill both men. He’s just gotten started when there’s yet another murder. In the end, we find the three murders connected, but not in the way you might think. Christie uses the ‘murder at a dinner party’ again in the short story Yellow Iris. In the story, Rosemary Barton dies of poisoned wine during a dinner party with her husband, her sister Iris and five other people. It’s thought to be a suicide at first, but then anonymous notes suggest otherwise. So a year later, her widower George re-stages the dinner, with the idea that he’ll be able to determine who the killer is. At that dinner, there’s another death. Christie wrote a different version of this story and expanded it to create Sparkling Cyanide, and the two stories have different sleuths and even different murderers. I invite you to read each and see which you think works better.

Rex Stout’s Champagne For One also involves murder at a dinner party. In that novel, Archie Goodwin is persuaded to attend a dinner/dance being held at the home of wealthy socialite Louise Robilotti. The dinner is an annual event intended as a benefit for Grantham House, a home for unwed mothers. Each year some of the Grantham House residents are invited to the dinner to get a close-up look at how ‘the right sort of people’ live, and it’s hoped that some may even meet young men. One of the guests at this year’s dinner is Faith Usher, who, by more than one account, has cyanide in her purse and plans to use it during the evening. Sure enough, Faith dies during the evening and at first, everyone believes that she followed through on her plan. Goodwin isn’t sure that’s true, though, and wants to investigate. He’s up against considerable odds though, as his hostess has lots of social ‘clout’ and no desire to be mixed up in a police case. Nero Wolfe supports Goodwin though, and together they find out what really happened. Given Wolfe’s love of fine food, it shouldn’t be surprising that this is only one of several Wolfe stories that involve death at a dinner. Wolfe fans will no doubt be able to add considerably to this list.

Dave Roberts’ Sweet Poison, which takes place in 1935, features Lord Edward Corinth and journalist Verity Brown. Corinth is a ‘blue blood,’ but a younger son, with all that that implies. One evening, he’s on his way to dinner at his older brother Gerald (current Duke of Mersham). By chance he encounters journalist Verity Browne and, mostly because of car trouble, she goes with him to the dinner. They arrive late – in fact, just after one of the guests Sir Alistair Craig dies of poison. Corinth and Browne work together (‘though not always amicably) to find out who had a motive for murder. They find in fact that more than one person wanted the victim dead.

In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders, political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn is preparing for her daughter Mieka’s formal engagement to her boyfriend Greg Harris. The plan is a large engagement party/weekend at the home of Harris’ mother. The tension gets ratcheted up even before the party with the arrival at the Kilbourn home of Christy Sinclair. She is the ex-girlfriend of Kilbourn’s older son Peter, and Kilbourn had thought Peter was well-rid of the girl. Instead, Christy joins the group for the trip to the Harris home, and even hints along the way that she and Peter may be getting back together. At the party, tragedy strikes when Christy dies in what looks like a successful suicide attempt. As it turns out though, her death was no accident, and Kilbourn gets involved in the investigation. As she discovers, this death is closely related to Christy’s past and to other deaths that have occurred recently.

And then there’s Herman Koch’s The Dinner. This one is a clear example of how the context of a dinner can be used effectively to build tension. In this novel, two couples, Paul and Claire Lohman and Paul’s older brother Serge and his wife Babette meet for dinner at an exclusive Amsterdam restaurant. As the dinner progresses, we get to know the couples and their families better, and we see how deeply dysfunctional they are. We also learn that they’ve all been keeping a terrible secret, which is actually the reason for the get-together. As each course is served, we learn more and more about what’s happened in the families and about their histories. The novel is a very dark portrait of a dinner party, but it’s an innovative use of the context.

And dinner parties can be highly effective contexts for murder mysteries. There’s tension, there’s a group of disparate personalities, and of course, there’s delicious food and drink. Which ‘dinner party’ murder mysteries have stayed with you?

 

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Somewhere Along the Line.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dave Roberts, Gail Bowen, Herman Koch, Margery Allingham, Rex Stout