Category Archives: Riley Adams

I See Flags, I Hear Bells*

IPageantsn many small towns (and actually, some not-very-small towns!), pageants are a way to bring people together, to provide entertainment and to show off local (and sometimes not-so-local) talent. It can all be a lot of fun and it does bring in business. But if you think about it, pageants can also bring trouble. There’s conflict and jealousy among participants and of course, there’s the fact that all sorts of people are brought together. Yes, the pageant is a terrific context for a murder mystery isn’t it?

It’s really little wonder there are several examples of this sort of context in the genre. I only have space in this blog for a few examples. I’m sure you’ll be able to fill in the gaps I’ve left.

In Victor Whitechurch’s Murder at the Pageant, Sir Henry Lynwood and his guests at Frimley Manor hold a costume pageant in aid of a local hospital. Their plan is to re-enact Queen Anne’s 1705 visit to the manor. The pageant itself goes well, and those involved return later to the manor house, where they enjoy a festive dinner. Later that night, one of the tenants on the property Jasper Hurst is killed. Just before he dies, two people are seen taking him away in the sedan chair that was used in the pageant. Captain Roger Bristow, who wrote the pageant and has arranged the event, works with the police to find out who killed Hurst and why. As it turns out, Hurst’s death is connected with the theft of a necklace belonging to the pageant’s ‘leading lady.’

Christianna Brand’s Death of Jezebel begins when Johnny Wise finds out that his girlfriend Perpetua Kirk has been unfaithful to him with Earl Anderson. What’s more, Wise didn’t discover this on his own; he was told by the cruel and malicious Isabel Drew. Brokenhearted over the loss of his love, Wise commits suicide. Seven years later, a medieval pageant is planned for Elysian Hall, in London. It’s to be converted into a model medieval village, where the event is going to take place. Isabel Drew is to play the lead role in the pageant. Against this backdrop, she, Anderson and Kirk have been getting threatening notes in which they are warned they’ll be killed. The murderer makes good that threat during the pageant when Isabel is strangled in public view and thrown from the tower constructed for the event. Inspector Charlesworth (whom fans will remember from Death in High Heels) and Inspector Cockrill (he of Green For Danger fame) work together to find out who committed the crime. Along with the pageant setting, this is one of those Golden-Age ‘impossible but not impossible’ crimes.

H.R.F Keating is perhaps best known for his mysteries featuring Inspector Ganesh Ghote. But he also wrote a standalone called Is Skin Deep, Is Fatal. In that novel, night-club owner Fay Curtis dies, apparently of suicide. Shortly before her death, she sent a note to pageant promoter Teddy Pariss, who is putting together a Miss Valentine beauty pageant. During rehearsals, Pariss is stabbed to death. Among other things, the note suggests to Superintendent Ironside that the two deaths might be connected. If so, then perhaps Fay Curtis’ death was not suicide. Ironside works with PC Peter Lassiter and DC Jack Spratt to find out who’s behind the deaths. It turns out that there are plenty of suspects too. As you might guess, the pageant has brought together some very competitive suspects. There’s also the fact that several of the people involved are keeping their own secrets…

David Roberts’ Sweet Sorrow is the last in his historical series featuring journalist Verity Browne and Lord Edward Corinth. At this point in the series (It’s 1939), the two have married, and have set up house at The Old Vicarage, in the village of Rodwell, Sussex. They’re hoping to have a peaceful summer, but that’s not at all what happens. Byron Gates, a London-based poet-turned detective novelist has moved with his daughter Ada and step-daughter Jean to Rodwell to escape imminent bombing in the big city. Gates has discovered that Virginia Woolf and some of her group are living in the area and he wants to join that circle. His children put on a pageant for the locals, based on the history of King Charles I and his beheading. Shortly after the pageant, Gates is found dead, beheaded just like King Charles. Cornish is pressed into service to help investigate, and it’s not long before more than one possibility is raised. Was Gates murdered because of suspected traitorous political loyalties? Was he killed for a personal reason? Cornish and Browne work together to find out the truth in this case.

And then there’s Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig’s) Hickory Smoked Homicide. In that novel, we meet Tristan Pembroke, a malicious and self-important beauty pageant coach. She has no qualms about ruining the chances of anyone who gets in the way of the pageant contestants she mentors. And she’s managed to alienate just about everyone she meets with her rude and arrogant manner. One night, she hosts a benefit art auction. By the time the evening’s over, Tristan’s been murdered. Restaurant owner Lulu Taylor discovers the body and starts to ask questions. When it turns out that her own daughter-in-law Sara is a suspect, she’s even more determined to find out who the killer really is. Besides the mystery itself, we also get a look in this novel at how much pressure is involved in beauty pageants, even those intended for younger girls.

In Shelly Reuben’s The Boys of Sabbath Street, the small town of Calendar is getting ready for its annual Founders Day celebration. There’ll be music, shows, food, and more. Maggie Wakeling, assistant and PR representative for Mayor Artemus Ackerman, has a lot of planning to do to get ready. Then, there’s a fire on Sabbath Street. It soon comes out that this was a possible case of arson. Fire Marshal George Copeland is investigating when there’s another fire. And another. Now it looks as though an arsonist is at work, and Wakeling and Copeland work together to find out who that person is. Along with the obvious pressure to stop the fires, there’s additional stress because of the upcoming festivities. Founders Day represents an important PR opportunity for Calendar, and if it’s ruined, that could have real consequences for local businesses.

And that’s the thing about pageants and other such events. They’re often stressful and for those involved, the stakes are very high. It’s no wonder at all that we see them pop up in crime fiction as often as we do. These are just a few examples. Over to you.

Many thaks to Moira at Clothes in Books for the inspiration for this post. Do yourself a big favour and go visit her blog. Stay awhile; you’ll learn a lot about fashion, popular culture, and how it all impacts us. And you’ll read some terrific book reviews.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Sondheim’s A Parade in Town.

14 Comments

Filed under Christianna Brand, David Roberts, Elizabeth Spann Craig, H.R.F. Keating, Riley Adams, Shelly Reuben, Victor Whitechurch

Sketch the Trees and the Daffodils*

ArtMany people love art just for its own sake. They visit museums and if they have enough money, they have their own art collections. But art can also be very valuable. People who see art as a financial investment may even collect it for that reason. And of course, something that’s worth a lot of money is also a very attractive target for theft and (in the case of art) forgery. Little wonder the art business is such a popular context for crime fiction. Anything worth that much money is bound to attract crime. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), the family of patriarch Richard Abernethie gathers for his funeral and the reading of his will. When his youngest sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered, everyone hushes her up at first, and even she takes back what she said. But the next day, Cora herself is killed. Now the family attorney Mr. Entwhistle begins to believe that perhaps she was right, and in any case he wants to know who killed her.  So he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. There are several suspects too, since everyone in the family benefited from both Abernethie’s death and that of his sister. As Poirot traces Cora’s last days and weeks, he learns that she was an enthusiastic (if not particularly skilled) painter who kept hoping to find a masterpiece when she picked up various paintings at estate and bargain sales. That’s how she made the acquaintance of art expert Alexander Guthrie, who, as it turns out, plays a role in the outcome of this story.

Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Roderick Alleyn is married to artist Agatha Troy, so the art world is a frequent context in her novels. And sometimes the art world can be dangerous. In A Clutch of Constables, for instance, Troy decides to take a much-needed getaway cruise on the Zodiac. But it doesn’t turn out to be the restful trip she wants. First, one of the passengers is left behind when the boat leaves the dock, and is later found murdered. Then, during the trip, another passenger is drowned, and quite probably not by accident. Meanwhile, Troy learns that an international art forger known only as Jampot may be along for the cruise, and may have had something to do with the deaths. She tells the story to her husband in the form of a series of letters that he later uses in a class he’s teaching.

It’s well-known that just before and during World War II, the Nazis ‘safeguarded’ large fortunes of art. Some of it has been returned to the families that rightfully own it; much hasn’t. That valuable art figures into the plot of several novels. One of them is Bartholomew Gill’s McGarr and the PM of Belgrave Square. Garda Chief Superintendent Peter McGarr and his assistant O’Shaugnessy investigate the shooting death of Dublin art and antiques dealer William Craig. In the process, they look into Craig’s business dealings as well as his personal life, and they find more than one suspect. Then it’s discovered that one of the paintings in Craig’s inventory is missing. This opens up other possibilities for the murder, one of which leads back to Nazi art theft during World War II. In the end, and with help from his wife Noreen, who works in her family’s art gallery, McGarr finds out the truth about Craig’s murder.

That theme of looted art from the Nazi era is also at the core of Aaron Elkins’ Loot. Boston art historian/expert Ben Revere gets a call one day from pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky, a casual friend. Pawlovsky’s just gotten a painting he thinks may be valuable and he wants Revere’s opinion on it. Revere agrees and visits the shop. There he is shocked to find that the painting is likely an extremely valuable Velázquez. He wants to check out some facts though, and promises to return to the shop once he’s done so. When he does return after a few hours, he finds that Pawlovsky’s been murdered. Revere feels some responsibility for the killing; he believes he should have insisted that Pawlovsky not keep such a valuable piece of art in his shop. So he decides to try to trace the painting, hoping it will lead him to the killer. It turns out that the painting is one of a truckload of ‘safeguarded’ pieces of art that disappeared during World War II.  Revere travels to Europe and slowly finds out how the painting got from the back of the truck to a pawn shop. In that end, that trail also leads to the killer.

Art theft is also at the heart of Ian Rankin’s Doors Open. Wealthy Mike Mackenzie is a little bored with his life and wants to put some excitement back into it. One of his friends is banker Allan Cruikshank, with whom he shares a love of art. Together with art professor Robert Gissing, and with help from local gangster Chib Calloway, the group concocts a very daring scheme. They want to rob the National Gallery of Scotland and replace some of its extremely valuable holdings with forgeries that will be created by one of Gissing’s art students, who’s usually known as ‘Westie.’ The group chooses the gallery’s Doors Open day for the robbery. On that day, the gallery will open its warehouse and some other private areas to the public, and it seems like the perfect opportunity for the robbery. Everything goes off well enough, but the group soon learns that just stealing valuable art isn’t all there is to benefiting from it…

Because art is valuable, there are also plenty of crime stories that involve art auctions, whether for gain or charity. For instance, Gail Bowen’s The Gifted has as one of its plot threads a charity art auction that’s intended to benefit the Racette-Hunter Centre, a community development project. Bowen’s sleuth Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her husband Zack are both excited and concerned when two pieces of their daughter Taylor’s work are chosen to be auctioned. Taylor is an unusually gifted artist, but she is also only fourteen, and her parents are concerned about the major changes that this kind of notice will bring to her life. Taylor shares one piece of her work with her parents, but no-one has seen the other. On the night of the auction, she reveals that other painting and that work has drastic consequences for more than one person.

A charity art auction is the setting for a murder in Riley Adams’ (AKA  Elizabeth Spann Craig) Hickory Smoked Homicide. Socialite and beauty pageant coach Tristan Pembroke puts together a charity art auction and dinner. Underneath that beneficent exterior though, she’s actually a malicious and spiteful person. So when she’s murdered at the auction, there are several suspects. Lulu Taylor, who owns and runs Aunt Pat’s Barbecue, gets involved in the investigation because her daughter-in-law Sara is high on the list of candidates. Lulu wants to clear Sara’s name, so she starts to ask questions. The art itself isn’t the reason for this murder, but I can say without spoiling the story that a particular painting plays a role in the mystery.

All of this just shows that art is more than something people love for its own sake. It’s a very valuable commodity. Little wonder there are so many crime novels that involve art theft and forgery. Which ones have you enjoyed?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Don McLean’s Vincent (Starry, Starry Night).

24 Comments

Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Bartholomew Gill, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Ngaio Marsh, Riley Adams

Let’s Make a Difference People*

Charity FundraisingWriters notice things about human nature; that’s how believable characters come to life. The writer can take a given trait and make it work in any number of ways in a story, too. Just as an example, let’s consider a trait that I admire in people – human generosity. Many people are happy to donate their time, talent or money for a good cause or to help each other. That’s one aspect of human nature that gives me cause for hope. I think we need it and I think we’re better as a species when we nurture it. 

If we look at some of the ways crime fiction authors explore this trait, we see how it can be used to further a story, too, even if the story is about murder. It’s really a matter of tapping into something humans do and are in real life and using that to serve the story. Exploitative? Maybe a little. But that’s part of the way the author adds credibility to characters. 

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d), famous actress Marina Gregg and her husband Justin Rudd have purchased Gossington Hall in St. Mary Mead. In part to win over the locals, the new owners decide to carry on the Gossington Hall tradition of an annual charity fête. Nobody could be happier about this than Heather Badcock, who is a fan of Marina Gregg’s, and is very excited to see her idol. On the day of the fête, everyone gathers at Gossington Hall to support a good cause and of course, to see the house, the grounds, and their famous owners. Heather gets the chance to actually speak to Marina Gregg and she’s delighted. But soon afterwards she gets terribly ill and later dies from what turns out to be a poisoned drink. At first it’s believed that Marina Gregg was the intended victim and there are certainly suspects if that’s the case. But soon enough, we learn that Heather was the intended victim all along. Miss Marple and her friend Dolly Bantry work together to find out who killed the victim and why. 

Rex Stout’s Champagne For One features another charity event, this time a dinner/dance to benefit the women of Grantham Hall, a home for unwed mothers and their babies. Part of the agenda for this annual event is that some of these young ladies will be introduced to life among ‘the better classes’ and perhaps even meet young men. It’s been hosted for quite a while by wealthy socialite Louise Robilotti, and this year’s dinner/dance promises to be as much of a success as the others have been. A very reluctant Archie Goodwin is persuaded to take a friend’s place at the event, so he’s on the scene when one of the guests Faith Usher suddenly dies of cyanide poisoning. Goodwin was told earlier in the evening that Faith had brought cyanide with her, and had planned to commit suicide. So there’s every reason at first to believe that she carried out her threat. Goodwin doesn’t believe it though. So despite a great deal of pressure to leave the case alone, Goodwin begins to ask questions. In this case, we see how the busy setting of a charity event can be an effective setting for a murder. And it’s also interesting to see how this benefit is perceived by the young women themselves. 

In Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold), we meet CC de Poitiers, who’s become famous as a lifestyle guru. In her personal life though, she’s abusive and unpleasant, so she quickly alienates everyone when she moves with her family to the rural Québec town of Three Pines not long before Christmas. The local custom is an annual holiday pancake breakfast and curling match event in aid of the local hospital and de Poitiers and her family attend. During the curling match, she suddenly dies of what turns out to be electrocution. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team investigate the case, and they soon discover that there are several people who could have wanted the victim dead. Before they find out who the killer is, the team members will have to find out how the murderer got to the victim in full view of everyone at the event. Penny explores the human desire to help others and be charitable in other ways too in this novel, but I don’t want to give away spoilers. 

Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Hickory Smoked Homicide also features an important benefit event. This time it’s a charity dinner and art auction hosted by socialite and beauty-pageant coach Tristan Pembroke. She may be hosting a benefit event, but Tristan is certainly not a kind, generous person. She’s malicious and vindictive, and the event certainly isn’t motivated by genuine altruism. Still, a lot of people show up for the dinner and art auction. One of the featured artists is Sara Taylor, who’s had a serious argument with Tristan about one particular painting. When Sara’s mother-in-law Lulu discovers Tristan’s body during the big event, both she and Sara come under suspicion. In order to clear their names, Lulu looks into the case to find out who else would have wanted to commit the murder, and it turns out that there are several possibilities. The human tendency to want to give to and help others plays a role in this story (no spoilers) that goes beyond just the benefit, and it’s interesting to see how it’s worked in. 

A high-profile charity art auction forms an important element in Gail Bowen’s The Gifted. In one plot thread of this novel, former academic and political expert Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her attorney husband Zack are involved with the Racette-Hunter Centre. That’s a community building intended as the central focus of a redevelopment project for North Regina. As a part of this effort, fundraising Chair Lauren Treadgold and her husband Vince have planned a gilt-edged fundraising art auction. Joanne and Zack’s fourteen-year-old daughter Taylor has had two of her paintings chosen for the auction. On the one hand, this is a real coup for Taylor, who is both truly gifted and truly passionate about her art. On the other, her parents are concerned. They don’t want her to grow up too fast, and the recognition that she’ll get as a result of the auction will, as one character says, ‘change everything’ for Taylor. Still, Taylor’s work is included in the auction. Her parents have seen one of her pieces, but not the other. On the night of the big event, the other piece of art is revealed, and that has drastic consequences for many of the people involved. 

Of course, not all charity and fundraising events end that way. For instance, in Alexander McCall Smith’s The Full Cupboard of Life, local orphanage director Mma. Silvia Potokwane plans a benefit event in aid of the orphanage. One of the things that will be featured is a parachute jump. Mma. Potokwane has a way of getting people to do what she wants, so against his better judgement, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni agrees to do the parachute jump. After all, it’s for a very good cause. The closer the event gets though, the more uncertain he is about going through with the jump. Still, he doesn’t want to let Mma. Potokwane down. Finally, with help from Mma. Precious Ramotswe, he comes up with a solution. One of his assistants is persuaded to take his place. The assistant is all too happy to get his name in the paper and get some attention (mostly from girls). Mma. Potokwane will get the funds the orphanage needs. And Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni won’t have to actually do the parachute jump himself.

The trait of being willing to give to others and be generous is an important way that we keep moving on. I’m glad it’s part of who we are as humans. It’s also a fascinating trait to explore in crime fiction. I’ve only mentioned a few examples here. I’ll bet you can think of lots more than I ever could.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Los Lonely Boys’ Believe

20 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Louise Penny, Rex Stout, Riley Adams

Sometimes You Want to Go Where Everybody Knows Your Name*

Local RestaurantsJust about every town seems to have places where the local people gather. And in cities, different neighbourhoods have their own little cafés or restaurants that attract ‘regulars.’ If you have one of those places near you, then you know how they can add to the richness of an area. They can be good places to catch up on the gossip and meet up with friends. In crime fiction, they’re useful in a number of other ways too. They’re good places to show not tell something about the sleuth’s personal life. They’re also good places for the sleuth to hear things that can be helpful in a given investigation. And for the author, they can be very useful for bringing characters together without it seeming too contrived.

One of best-known of these crime-fictional cafés is Rosie’s, which is a regular haunt for Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. The food at Rosie’s would never be confused with gourmet cooking. But for one thing, Millhone is not really particular about her food, and she’d rather eat out than cook. And the atmosphere at Rosie’s is informal and relaxed, which also suits Millhone. Here’s what she says about the place in A is for Alibi:

 

‘The place appeals to me for a couple of reasons. Not only is it close to my home but it is never attractive to tourists, which means that most of the time it’s half-empty and perfect for private conversations. Then, too, Rosie’s cooking is inventive, a sort of devil-may-care cuisine with a Hungarian twist.’

 

Millhone sometimes meets clients there, but even when she doesn’t, the scenes at Rosie’s show the reader an interesting side of Millhone’s character.

Also a relaxed and informal local watering hole is the Busy Bee Café, one of the haunts of Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire. The Bee, as it’s often called, is one of the social hubs of Durant, Wyoming, and Longmire often hears helpful gossip when he’s there. It’s also a good place to meet up with people. The Bee also provides the food for anyone who happens to be in the county jail. Here’s the way it’s described in Death Without Company:

 

‘The Busy Bee was in a small, concrete-block building that clung to the banks of Clear Creek through the tenacity of its owner and the strength of its biscuits and spiced gravy. Dorothy Caldwell had owned and operated the Bee since Christ had been a cowboy. I [Longmire] ate there frequently and, due to its proximity to the jail, so had our infrequent lodgers.’

 

The food at the Bee is ‘down home’ comfort food, and Dorothy Caldwell is very accommodating about putting takeaway meals together if Longmire is going out of town. Longmire also knows that if someone calls him while he’s eating there, Dorothy will put the call through. It’s that kind of place.

Another very appealing local gathering place (at least to me) is Colourful Mary’s, a regular stop for Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant. Quant is a Saskatoon PI who, because he’s not a cop, often relies on local networks to get information that he needs for his cases. And Colourful Mary’s draws many of Saskatoon’s local residents. Here’s how it’s described in Amuse Bouche:

 

‘Colourful Mary’s is Saskatoon’s only publicly admitted gay-run restaurant, but over the years it has developed a wide range of loyal clientele…Marushka cooks like everyone’s mother, most notably her own. In addition to some rather standard fare for the less adventurous, Marushka always adds one or two Ukrainian delicacies to the daily menu…I like Colourful Mary’s…You feel cared for but not smothered. I’m also addicted to Marushka’s cooking.’

 

Colourful Mary’s may be a little more upmarket than the Busy Bee is, but it’s a comfortable, welcoming place. And Quant gets very useful information there at times.

Many of Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache novels take place in the small Québec town of Three Pines. Three Pines may be small, but it’s got Olivier’s Bistro. In Still Life the bistro is referred to as

 

‘…the Central Station of Three Pines,’

 

and that’s an accurate description. The Bistro/ B & B is owned by Olivier Brulé and his partner Gabriel Dubeau, and as Gamache learns early in this series, it is in many ways the heart, soul and social hub of Three Pines. Gamache and his team certainly learn as much from the time they spend there as they do interviewing witnesses. And of course, the food is delicious.

One of Kerry Greenwood’s series features Corinna Chapman, a baker who lives and works in a large Melbourne building called Insula. One of the businesses in the same building is Café Delicious, run by the Pandamus family. It’s a comfortable sort of place that’s popular with several of the building’s regulars. For instance, Chapman’s assistant Jason Wallace frequently does justice to the food there. Here’s what Chapman says about it in Heavenly Pleasures:

 

‘There is always good money to be made at Café Delicious by betting how long it is going to take my thin scrap of a Jason to eat his way through three eggs (fried), three sausages, three rashers of bacon, two grilled tomatoes, a stack of toast and two hash browns or potato pancakes, depending on whether Grandma Pandamus or the Hungarian relief cook Kristina is dishing out the food. His record is three minutes…’

 

Of course, Jason is a teenager. But still…

And then there’s Rusterman’s Restaurant, which Rex Stout fans will know is one of the few restaurants Nero Wolfe visits, and just about the only one he visits with any regularity. And even then it’s only for an occasional meal. And with a chef like Fritz Brenner in his employ, why should Wolfe go out to eat? His willingness to eat at Rusterman’s should tell readers something about the quality of the food there.

There are also several series, including Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Memphis Barbecue series, that are based around local haunts. In those cafés and restaurants, we get to meet the ‘regulars’ in the series, and the settings are effective ways for the authors to get the sleuth involved in cases.

 

Now if you’ll excuse me, all of this talk about local haunts and places to eat have got me feeling a bit hungry. Think I’ll go down the street and see who’s at the café…

Happy Weekend, everyone!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo’s Where Everybody Knows Your Name.

16 Comments

Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Craig Johnson, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Kerry Greenwood, Louise Penny, Rex Stout, Riley Adams, Sue Grafton

So Shed Those Dowdy Feathers and Fly a Little Bit*

New LooksAn interesting guest post at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about what happens when people who generally don’t pay much attention to their appearance are transformed by a new look. We get very, very accustomed to the way people in our lives look and dress, and when that changes, we see them in a whole new way. There are plenty of examples of this sort of thing in crime fiction; let me just share a few.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we meet Katherine Grey. She’s spent the last ten years as a paid companion, and people got quite accustomed to her wearing ‘sensible’ shoes and clothes. Then Katherine’s employer dies, leaving her considerable fortune to her former companion. When she learns how much money she’s going to inherit, Katherine decides to do two things. One is to have some good clothes.

 

‘Her first action was to visit the establishment of a famous dressmaker.
A slim, elderly Frenchwoman, rather like a dreaming duchess, received her, and Katherine spoke with a certain naiveté.
‘I want, if I may, to put myself in your hands. I have been very poor all my life and know nothing about clothes, but now I have come into some money and want to look really well dressed.’’

 

Needless to say, the dressmaker is delighted and helps her client to choose a becoming wardrobe. Shortly afterwards, Katherine takes the famous Blue Train to Nice to stay with a distant cousin Lady Rosalie Tamplin and her family. On the way she gets mixed up in a murder case when a fellow passenger Ruth Van Aldin Kettering is strangled.

A new look proves to be more sinister in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. The family settles in and at first all goes well. Then, Joanna and her friend Bobbie Markowe begin to suspect that something frightening is going on in Stepford. There isn’t much to go on at first; it’s a quiet town with good schools and low taxes. But something is definitely not normal (if there is such a thing) about the people who live there, especially the women. After a certain amount of time, they seem to change drastically. Here’s a description of one of the women before that change:

 

‘She was short and heavy-bottomed, in a blue Snoopy sweatshirt and jeans and sandals. Her mouth was big, with unusually white teeth, and she had blue take-in-everything eyes and short dark tufty hair. And small hands and dirty toes.’ 

 

And here’s the ‘after’ description:

 

‘She looked the way she had on Sunday-beautiful, her hair done, her face made  up. And she was wearing some kind of padded high-uplift bra under her green sweater, and a hip-whittling girdle under the brown pleated skirt.’ 

 

The closer Joanna gets to the truth about what’s really going on in Stepford, the more danger there is for her.

In Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess, writer Erica Falck has returned to her home town of Fjällbacka after her parents’ deaths so she can go through their things and sort them all out. While she’s there, a former friend Alexandra ‘Alex’ Wijkner is found dead in what looks at first like a suicide. But very soon it’s proved that she was murdered. In part to deal with her grief at the loss of a friend she hadn’t really seen in twenty-five years, Erica decides to write Alex’s biography. In that way she begins to ask questions about how and why she was killed. In the meantime the police, mostly in the form of Patrik Hedström, investigate the death officially. Patrik and Erica are drawn to each other and we learn that they’ve always liked one another; it’s just that the timing was never really right for either to pursue a relationship. One night Erica invites Patrik over for a home-cooked meal. Usually, she is a very casual dresser who doesn’t take a lot of pains with her appearance. But not tonight:

 

‘The first dilemma had arisen…when, like her favorite literary heroine Bridget Jones, she was faced with the decision of which panties to choose. Should she wear a beautiful, lace-trimmed thong, for the slim eventuality that she and Patrik ended up in bed? Or should she put on the substantial and terribly ugly panties with the extra support for tummy and backside, which would increase her chances that they might end up in bed at all? A hard choice, but…she decided after much deliberation on the support variety. Over them she would wear pantyhose with a tummy-flattening panel. In other words, the heavy artillery…

After another look at the pile on the bed, she pulled out from the bottom the first outfit she had tried on. Black was slimming, and the classic, knee-length dress in a Jackie Kennedy style was flattering to the figure. A pair of pearl earrings and a wristwatch would be her only jewelry, and she let her hair fall loosely over her shoulders.

 

Erica’s change in appearance makes quite an impression on Patrik and I don’t think it’s spoiling the novel to say that the two of them begin a relationship.

Kerry Greenwood’s accountant-turned-baker Corinna Chapman isn’t usually one to take a lot of pains with her appearance either. But in Earthly Delights, she makes an exception. In one of the plot threads, there’ve been several deaths of heroin junkies in the area of Melbourne where Chapman has her bakery. In fact, there’s a near-death practically on her doorstep. Together with her lover Daniel Cohen, Chapman looks into what’s been happening. The clues lead to a Goth club called Blood Lines, and Chapman and Cohen decide to attend. They’ll need to be dressed appropriately though or they won’t be admitted, so Chapman turns to her friend Pat, who goes by the professional name of Mistress Dread. Normally, Chapman doesn’t go to a lot of effort in dressing. For her, it’s usually trackies and sweatshirt for baking, and a blouse and trousers for dealing with the bakery’s customers. Here’s how she transforms herself for the visit to Blood Lines:

 

‘She [Mistress Dread] flung it over my head with a practised hand and it settled on me…The dress was a full-skirted number with built-in black petticoats, slashed sleeves and a neckline which could be mistaken for a waist it was so deep. It was a gorgeous shade between venous and arterial blood and as I moved I rustled in the most entrancing fashion. Then she slipped a black leather corset over the dress and began lacing it at the front…’

 

With a few final touches, Chapman’s transformation is complete and she feels gorgeous with her new look. She also finds that it gets her and Cohen easily admitted into Blood Lines, where they find out the truth about the heroin deaths.

Willam Ryan’s Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka usually doesn’t worry too much about the way she looks. She wears her police uniform when on duty, and when off duty she wears utilitarian clothes. But as The Twelfth Department begins, she needs to change her look. She and her boss Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev are on the trail of a criminal and have tracked him to a park. In order not to reveal that she’s a cop, Slivka dresses up a bit:

 

‘Slivka was…wearing a pretty white dress, her short blond hair looking almost golden in the dappled sunshine. Her lips might be a little thin and her expression grave, but she was a good-looking woman and he [Korolev] watched men’s heads turn one after the other to follow her procession through the park. He wondered if they’d be so keen if they knew the hand resting nonchalantly inside her open purse was wrapped around the butt of a service-issue revolver.’

 

The new look works perfectly too as their target is taken completely by surprise. 

Of course sometimes, a transformation can work the other way too. Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Cherry Hayes usually wears rather flamboyant clothes, especially considering that she’s – erm – no longer twenty. But she goes for a different look in Hickory Smoked Homicide. Cherry’s friend Lulu Taylor is investigating the murder of Tristan Pembroke. One of the suspects is Lulu’s own daughter-in-law Sara. Lulu’s sure Sara isn’t guilty so she determines to clear her name. That’s where Cherry comes in. Lulu’s fairly certain that the owner of her ‘regular’ dress shop may know more than she’s saying about the murder. So she and Cherry visit the shop under the guise of finding a new look for Cherry. Here’s what Cherry uses as a ‘cover story.’

 

‘I’m done with shopping at the Hipster Honey, with all their trashy clothing. With my newfound need to spend my spare time in church, I really need a whole new wardrobe – of floral dresses. Just like Lulu.’

 

This is especially funny because usually, Cherry makes fun of Lulu’s wardrobe.

It is interesting what a big difference a change in appearance can make. Thanks to Colm Redmond for the inspiration. And now, may I suggest you pay a visit to Clothes in Books? It’s the place to shop for interesting discussions about fashion and culture in books of all kinds.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Springfield and Jim Dale’s Georgy Girl, made popular by the Seekers.

20 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Camilla Läckberg, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ira Levin, Kerry Greenwood, Riley Adams, William Ryan