Category Archives: 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

Don’t Care If It’s Chinatown or on Riverside*

NewYorkCityIf you’ve ever been to New York City, then you know that it defies easy description. It’s a city with a long and rich history, and today, it’s a mix of so many cultures and different kinds of people that the word ‘diverse’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. What’s interesting about New York, too, is that you’ll find some of the wealthiest areas of the city just a few blocks from some of the poorest. It’s an intense, fascinating place, and there are plenty of people who couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. There are famous museums, top musical artists, Broadway shows, world-class restaurants, and lots more there. Oh, and Billy Joel was born there, too.

Ahem – right – back to New York City. It shouldn’t be surprising that lots of crime fiction is set there. It’s just a natural context for a murder mystery, especially if you consider the number of real-life famous murders that have occurred there. There’s a long list of authors who’ve set their novels or series in New York. Here’s just a small smattering.

Any dedicated crime fiction fan will be able to tell you that Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series has a distinctive New York City setting. Although Wolfe does travel a few times, the vast majority of the books are set in Manhattan, where Wolfe has his famous brownstone home/office. His employee/business partner (sometimes it’s hard to tell, really) Archie Goodwin does the ‘legwork’ on Wolfe’s cases, and his travels take him all over New York. Through his eyes, we get to see many of New York’s different ‘faces,’ from ‘society’ homes and mansions to tenements, and just about everywhere in between. Want to explore Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin’s New York? Check out your options with the Wolfe Pack, the Official Nero Wolfe Society.

Fans of Evan Hunter/Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series will know that although he called his setting Isola, it’s a thinly disguised New York City. Beginning with Cop Killer, these novels focus on murders in all sorts of different New York City settings. And what’s especially interesting about this series is that it looks at crime among all socioeconomic classes, too. Because the series is enduring (it lasted from 1956 to 2005), we also get to see how the city changes through the decades, and how factors such as immigration, technology and so on have affected it.

Lawrence Block’s PI series featuring Matthew Scudder is also set in New York. Beginning with The Sins of the Fathers, the series follows Scudder as he begins life as a PI after leaving the NYPD. Since most of Scudder’s contacts are informal, we also get a look at New York’s local restaurant and bar scene. I don’t mean necessarily trendy ‘popular’ places, although New York certainly has more than its share of them. I mean the smaller places that are popular with the local people. And New York City has plenty of those, too. Scudder has clients from several different socioeconomic strata too, so this series also gives readers a look at the different kinds of lives New Yorkers have.

Margaret Maron’s Lieutenant Sigrid Harald series is also set in New York City. Harald is a member of New York City’s Police Department, so she investigates all sorts of different kinds of cases. Beginning with One Coffee With, she takes on murders at university campuses, high-priced apartment buildings, attorneys’ offices and Greenwich Village ‘arty’ places, just to name a few.

Mary Higgins Clark has set some of her novels in New York City as well. For example, While My Pretty One Sleeps features murder in the world of fashion when a client of boutique owner Meeve Kearny is murdered. Loves Music, Loves to Dance follows jewelry designer Erin Scott and decorator Darcy Scott as they move to New York to pursue their careers. Then, they place personal ads in local newspapers to do some research for a TV producer friend who’s planning a feature on the topic. The research proves fatal when Erin disappears and is later found murdered. And in I’ll Be Seeing You, reporter Meghan Collins is following up on the story of the mugging of a US senator. When he’s rushed to Manhattan’s Roosevelt Hospital, she goes along with other members of the press to learn of his condition. That’s when an ambulance team rushes in with a woman who’s just died – a woman who looks exactly like Meghan…

And then there’s S.J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series. Chin and Smith are both private investigators who sometimes partner up in their cases. Chin is a member of New York’s Chinese/Chinese-American community, so she is especially in demand for cases that require some knowledge of that culture. In China Trade for instance, she is hired to track down some rare and valuable Chinese porcelain items that were donated to a local museum. The trail leads to the Chinatown underworld of gangs and in this case, shady art dealers. While not every novel in this series features the Chinatown setting, it’s the area of New York that Chin knows best.  Readers who are interested in Chinatown can also read Henry Chang’s Jack Yu series.

There are of course many more novels and series that take place in New York. Just a few examples are Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme novels, Ellery Queen’s New York-set novels (most are, some are not), Robin Cook’s Laurie Montgomery/Jack Stapleton novels and several of Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers/Oscar Piper novels. And those are only a few examples. I’ll bet you could think of many more.

 

Now if you’ll excuse me, that’s my train. Time to head uptown…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s New York State of Mind. Really? You were surprised? ;-)

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Filed under Ed McBain, Ellery Queen, Evan Hunter, Henry Chang, Jeffery Deaver, Lawrence Block, Margaret Maron, Mary Higgins Clark, Rex Stout, Robin Cook, S.J. Rozan, Stuart Palmer

We Dress Our Days in Silken Robes*

SpasIf you’ve ever wanted a getaway day at a spa, you’re not alone. Day spas and resort spas are popular places to unwind and relax. And they offer all sorts of health and beauty treatments that people swear really make a difference. But if you think that spas are all peaceful and healthy, then perhaps you’re not a fan of crime fiction. Because plenty of crime fiction takes place in spas and spa-type resorts.

In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), for instance, Hercule Poirot investigates a series of odd thefts and other goings-on at a student hostel. Poirot visits the place one evening and gets to meet some of the people who live there. When he recommends calling in the police, one of the residents Celia Austin confesses to several of the thefts. At first it looks as though the matter is solved. But two nights later, Celia dies of what turns out to be poison. Now Poirot and Inspector Sharpe are faced with a case of murder. It turns out that there’s more going on at the hostel than it seems on the surface. One part of the trail leads to Sabrina Fair, a salon and spa that’s owned in part by one of the hostel’s residents, so the police pay the place a visit. That trip doesn’t solve the murder or explain everything. But there is a clue there, and that visit gives readers a look at the inner workings of a spa.

Even though Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe rarely leaves his home, he makes an exception in Too Many Cooks. Wolfe has been invited to give the keynote address to Les Quinze Maîtres, a meeting of the world’s fifteen greatest chefs. The meeting is to take place at the exclusive Kanawha Spa in West Virginia, and Wolfe reluctantly allows himself to be persuaded to make the trip with Archie Goodwin. One evening, master chef Phillip Laszio is stabbed. Suspicion falls on another master chef Jerome Berin. But Wolfe doesn’t think he’s guilty. So despite all his determination to keep out of the matter, Wolfe and Archie Goodwin look into the case. Throughout the story, we see how an upmarket resort works, and how much work is put into making things look…effortless.

An upmarket spa is the setting for Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s My Soul to Take, and it isn’t a very restful one. Spa owner Jónas Júlíusson has hired Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir to represent him in a lawsuit he’s pursuing. He wants to sue the former owners of the land on which his spa is built, because he claims the land is haunted and the former owners never told him about it. Thóra doesn’t believe in ghosts, but she is interested in the fee. Besides, a stay in a posh spa is appealing. So she agrees to take the case. While she’s there, the body of another spa guest Birna Hálldorsdóttir is discovered on a beach not far from the resort. It doesn’t take much police investigation to learn that there was a relationship between the victim and Jónas Júlíusson. So he becomes a suspect in her killing. Now he asks Thóra to continue to continue to represent him, this time in the murder case. She agrees and looks into the death more closely. It turns out that several people in the area are keeping some dark secrets from the past, and that they have everything to do with the victim’s death.

In River Deep, Priscilla Masters introduces us to Shrewsbury Coroner Martha Gunn. As Coroner, she is responsible for investigating cases of sudden and violent deaths, homicides and deaths that occur in prison. So she and her team take the case when the body of an unknown man floats out of a basement after the Severn overflows its banks. The owner of the house James Humphreys claims not to know the dead man, and there seems no connection between the two. So the team will have to dig deeper into this case. At one point, Gunn decides to follow up on a particular lead. The person she wants to see works at a very upmarket spa, and Gunn wouldn’t mind taking a one-day break. But this person might recognise her as the coroner, so Gunn uses a carefully chosen outfit and some washable hair tint and a different sort of hairdo. That disguise is enough to let Gunn go to the spa and pursue that lead, although she’s nervous about being caught out. And her spa trip is luxurious, if risky.

Jill Edmondson’s Toronto PI Sasha Jackson pays a visit to a spa in Blood and Groom. Christine Arvisais hires Jackson to find out who killed her former fiancé Gordon Hanes. She tells Jackson that Hanes’ family and friends blame her for the murder, but she’s innocent and wants to clear her name. Jackson takes the case and starts looking into the victim’s background and other connections. In doing so she finds that there’s more than one suspect. But she doesn’t automatically take her client’s innocence for granted. So she looks into Arvisais’ background too. Health and beauty spas are perfect places to find out gossip about people, so Jackson treats herself to a day at the same spa that Arvisais and her mother use. While she’s there she learns something that puts her client into an entirely different light. It doesn’t solve the murder, but it’s an important piece of information.

And then there’s Anthony Bidulka’s Sundowner Ubuntu. In that novel, Clara Ridge hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find her son Matthew, whom she hasn’t seen in twenty years. Quant wants to begin locally, but learns that the trail leads to the Chobe Lodge spa in South Africa, where Matthew’s boyfriend Kevan is a masseur. At first Quant’s reluctant to take a potentially dangerous trip like that. Among other concerns, he wonders whether the South African police might be better equipped to handle the matter. But his client insists and is willing to pay, so he he makes his plans. It turns out that Quant’s first instincts are right; this is a dangerous trip and the Chobe Lodge spa is anything but a restful place to relax in the proverbial lap of luxury. And when Quant finds out the truth about Matthew’s disappearance, the case takes on a whole new dimension.

See what I mean? Spas can be refreshing and relaxing. They can pamper clients as few other places can, and lots of people find them irresistible. But safe? Erm….not always. So if your weekend plans include a stay at a spa, do be careful won’t you? You never know what could happen… ;-)

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s I’ve Loved These Days.  

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Jill Edmondson, Priscilla Masters, Rex Stout

A Mug of Suds and a Leather Strop*

Barber Shops and Beauty SalonsFor most of us, trips to the barber shop or hair stylist are part of our routines. They’re places where we put life aside for a short while and take some time for ourselves, if only for the few minutes it takes to get our hair trimmed. But if you think about it, beauty salons and barber shops are also really effective contexts for crime novels. For one thing, a lot of gossip is exchanged at such places. So they’re very good places for sleuths to ‘listen in.’ And since barbers and hair stylists hear a lot of things, they’re awfully vulnerable when someone would rather keep something a secret. What’s more, people often have their guards down, so to speak, when they get their hair cut. So a barber shop or beauty salon can also be a solid setting for a murder. Little wonder that such places are woven through crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) for instance, we meet London hairdresser’s assistant Jane Grey. After a lucky win in a lottery, Jane decides to use some of her prize for a holiday at Le Pinet. During her flight back from Paris to London, one of her fellow passengers Marie Morisot suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight, so he works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who the murderer is. Since the only possible suspects are the victim’s fellow passengers, Jane comes in for her share of questioning. And she learns that sometimes, being mixed up in a murder case gets a person quite a lot of publicity and can even be good for one’s career. Jane’s occupation isn’t the reason for the murder, but in the course of the story, readers get a look at a London beauty salon, and there are some funny moments as Jane and her colleagues encounter all sorts of different clients and deal with their irascible boss.

In Rex Stout’s novella The Cop-Killer, the Goldenrod Barber Shop, where both Archie Goodwin and his boss Nero Wolfe get their hair cut, becomes the focus of a triple murder investigation. When two women are killed by a hit-and-run driver, police detective Jake Wallen thinks he has tracked the killer to the barber shop. He’s following up on this lead when he himself is stabbed. Suspicion falls on Carl and Tina Vardas, who work at the shop and who are in the country illegally. They ask Goodwin to help them, since they know they’re likely to be deported at the very least. Goodwin agrees to at least look into the matter and he and Wolfe trace Wallen’s movements to find out who killed him and why.

Elizabeth Spann Craig’s A Dyeing Shame: Death at the Beauty Box introduces us to retired teacher Myrtle Clover. She gets her hair done at The Beauty Box, a hair salon in the small town of Bradley, North Carolina. Lately, the shop’s owner Tammy Smith has been having some very obvious problems. She’s been ruining people’s hair and drinking quite a lot. It’s very clear that something’s wrong, but Tammy’s not saying what it is. Then one night she’s stabbed in the back with a pair of shears and pushed down the stairs to the shop’s basement. There’s talk that Tammy’s niece Kat Roberts is guilty, and it’s not impossible. Kat works at the shop and everyone knows the plan was for her to take over some day. What’s more, she’s quarreled with her aunt more than once. Kat says she’s innocent though, and Myrtle believes her. It turns out that this murder has more to do with Tammy’s personal life than with her skill at styling.

In Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters, DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla investigate the death of Meredith Winterbottom, who lives in Jerusalem Lane with her two sisters. On the surface of it, the death looks like a suicide. But Kolla isn’t so sure of that and Brock agrees that she should look into the matter more closely. It turns out that there are several possibilities too. For one thing, a development company wants to buy up Jerusalem Lane to create a new shopping and entertainment complex, but the victim was holding out and refusing to sell. For another, Meredith’s son Terry stands to inherit the house in Jerusalem Lane. He’s the owner of several beauty salons in the area and has found himself in real financial trouble. The sale of the house to the developers will make a big difference. And then there’s the fact that Meredith and her sisters are descendants of Karl Marx, and have several old papers and books among their possessions. Those items are potentially worth a great deal of money. One of the leads that the detectives follow is Terry’s business situation. A little digging into his life as a salon owner turns up some not-very-above-board doings. And you thought you could trust a salon owner… ;-)

We see how vulnerable people can be at barber shops and salons in Mayra Montero’s Dancing to ‘Almendra.’ In that novel, which takes place in 1957, New York Mafia capo Umberto Anastasia is murdered in the barber shop at the Park Sheraton Hotel (If that story sounds familiar, it’s because it’s based on a real event). On the very same day, a hippopotamus escapes from the zoo in Havana. What’s interesting is that the two incidents are related. Joaquín Porrata is a young Cuban journalist who’s assigned to cover the story of the escaped hippo. When the zookeeper hints that there’s a Mob connection in both cases, Porrata senses a much bigger story. So he digs deeper and finds himself getting dangerously involved in the Cuban/American Mob scene.

And then there’s Douglas Lindsay’s Barney Thomson series. When we first meet Thomson in The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson, he’s a nondescript Glasgow barber with an unhappy marriage. The customers at the barber shop usually bypass him for the other two barbers, and few people really pay attention to him at all. He’s socially awkward and certainly not prepossessing. He’s got a morose attitude to life, and for good reason. And in his fantasies, he’d love to commit a murder or two. And, as it turns out, there’s a serial killer who wouldn’t mind lending a hand. This is a comic-noir twist on the barber shop theme, and for those who enjoy that sort of dark wit, there is a lot of humour here.

See what I mean? We may take those trips to the hair stylist or barber for granted, but you never know what can happen. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment with my stylist. Don’t want to be late, you know; she doesn’t like that…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Sondheim’s Ballad of Sweeney Todd (Prologue).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Barry Maitland, Douglas Lindsay, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Mayra Montero, Rex Stout