Category Archives: Rita Mae Brown

Red, Red Wine, Stay Close to Me*

Vineyards

When you’re having a nice dinner or perhaps sitting in a wine bar, you may not think a lot about the work that goes into making that delicious glass of wine you’re enjoying. But it doesn’t get there by magic. Vintners take their work very seriously, and the best ones take great pride in producing memorable wines. It’s a tricky business too. An oenologist can tell you that producing great wine requires exactly the right mix of weather, grapes, fermenting, bottling and so on. It takes real dedication to make a success of a vineyard. And any number of things can happen in the process. What’s more, one bottle or batch of less-than-good wine can ruin a vineyard’s reputation. So a lot’s at stake too. But as those who enjoy wine know, a good glass of the right wine is a real treasure.

Vineyards feature quite a lot in crime fiction and that makes sense when you consider how important wine is in many cultures. I only have the space here for a few examples; I’m quite sure you can think of lots more.

Domingo Villar’s Inspector Leo Caldas lives and works in Vigo, in the Spanish region of Galicia. Galician wine has a world-class reputation for good reason. Trust me. And Caldas’ father is a part of that region’s vineyard culture. Since the death of his wife, Caldas’ father has built up the family vineyard little by little, and has gotten to the point where he’s producing some decent wine for which he has very high hopes. For him, growing grapes and making wine is not only a tribute to his late wife, but also a way to connect with the land and with growing things. To him, that’s real, if I may put it that way. And although his son is a cop and always will be, he does respect the process of wine making and when he visits the vineyard, he feels a sense of connection to his parents.

In Jill Paterson’s Once Upon a Lie, Sydney DI Alistair Fitzjohn and his assistant DS Martin Betts are seconded from their own Day Street station to the shortstaffed Kings Cross Police Station when the body of businessman Michael Rossi is discovered at a marina at Rushcutter’s Bay. There are several suspects in this murder, since a variety of people stand to benefit from Rossi’s death. One angle that the detectives pursue is Rossi’s interest in Five Oaks Winery, which has been in the family for a long time. The victim’s niece Charlotte is set to benefit from that connection and what’s more, Rossi had had real disagreements with some of the Five Oaks staff about running the vineyard. So on more than one level, the vineyard is a place of interest. The truth about the murder isn’t as simple as the tragic result of an argument, but the police do get some interesting background on the family, and readers get a look at New South Wales’ winemaking culture. When it comes to Australia’s superb wines, I can also personally vouch for South Australia’s McLaren Vale wines. Trust me.

California also produces some very well-known and highly-regarded wines. Northern California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys in particular are known for their vineyards and wine-making. And there are plenty of mystery novels and series that take a look at the Northern California wine industry. For example, there’s Michele Scott’s cosy Wine Lovers series. This series features Nikki Sands, who began to be interested in wine when she was waiting tables between acting roles. When she’s hired on at a major Napa vineyard, she has no idea how dangerous it will be.

Wine expert Edward Finstein’s Pinot Envy features Woody Robins, a ‘wine guru’ whose specialty is rare wine artifacts. Powerful grape grower Walter Pendry has heard of Robins’ reputation, and Robins is the man he wants for a case of theft. Pendry’s the owner of a very rare double magnum of wine that was once owned by Napoleon. When his prize property is stolen, he hires Robins to get the bottle back. What starts as a case of theft turns into blackmail, Mob activity and murder. This novel is about the case of course, but it also shows readers the Napa food and wine culture.

At the beginning of Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen series, her sleuth is the postmistress of the tiny town of Crozet, Virginia. She also manages her own small farm. As the series goes on, changes in the postal system mean that Harry leaves her job at the post office. But she still needs an income. So in Cat’s Eyewitnesses she decides to try her hand at winemaking. In Sour Puss, Crozet gets a visit from world-renowned oenologist Professor Vincent Forland. Harry is hoping he’ll be able to give her feedback on her grape growing and advice for making good wine. But before she can ask him, Forland disappears and is later found dead. So Harry has to look among the other winemakers in the area to find out who would have wanted to kill Forland and why.

And of course, I couldn’t discuss vineyards without mentioning Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen. Their Winemaker Detective series is only now being translated into English although it’s not a new series. Thus far two novels, Treachery in Bordeaux and Grand Cru Heist have been translated. The series features well-known and respected oenologist Benjamin Cooker and his assistant Virgile Lanssien. Between them, the two have an awful lot of expertise, which they bring to bear in Treachery in Bordeaux when a local vintner finds that some of his wine has been contaminated. In Grand Cru Heist, Cooker and Lanssien investigate when there are two murders and a theft of two priceless bottles of Grand Cru. All of these are connected with the hotel where Cooker is staying during a trip to the Loire Valley; they are also connected with his own Bordeaux region. This series gives readers an ‘inside’ look at what goes into the entire winemaking process, from growing the grapes to bottling and later selling the wine.

The process is a lot more complicated than you may think when you’re choosing whether to go with a Shiraz or a Cabernet Sauvignon with your meal. It involves a real commitment of time and effort, some ‘weather luck’ and a store of knowledge about how wine is made. And that vineyard context makes for some delicious crime fiction too. Space doesn’t permit me to mention all of the examples there are, but there are plenty of them. They range from cosy to darker, from sweet to dry, from hearty to light…. Well, you get the idea. Which vineyard-based crime fiction have you tasted?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Neil Diamond’s Red, Red Wine, made popular by UB40.

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Filed under Domingo Villar, Edward Finstein, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Jill Paterson, Michele Scott, Nöel Balen, Rita Mae Brown

It’s the Story of Your Life, You’re Moving Down the Page*

MaturingOne of the nice things about series is that the author has some room to allow the protagonist(s) to grow and mature. It’s harder in a standalone to show how a character evolves. And it makes sense that main characters would evolve and mature in some way as a series goes on. Time, experience and (hopefully) wisdom help us mature in real life and most readers want to see the same kind of growth in their fictional characters.

For instance, Dorothy Sayers’ Harriet Vane matures and evolves as Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series goes on. When we first meet Vane in Strong Poison, she’s on trial for the murder of her former lover Philip Boyes. Wimsey falls in love with her and is determined to clear her name so he can marry her. At first, Vane keeps herself at a distance from people and is unwilling to trust. She’s grateful to Wimsey but isn’t ready to really open up to him. And although she’s hardly a ‘shrinking violet,’ she does lack some self-confidence despite her success as a mystery novelist. As time goes on, she deals with the trauma of having been thought guilty of murder. She also deals with the insecurity of worrying about what others think of her. By the end of Gaudy Night, she is ready to take the risk of agreeing to marry Wimsey and we can see her mature and become a more confident person. That growth and evolution makes Vane a more well-rounded and likeable character.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee matures and evolves over time too. When we first meet him in People of Darkness, Chee investigates the murder of a man who was already dying, and its connection to a thirty-year-old oil field explosion and a stolen keepsake box. Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation, and his Navajo identity is very important to him. In fact he’s studying to be a yata’ali – a Navajo singer/healer. But Chee is also a member of the Navajo Tribal Police, and he’s quite familiar with the dominant U.S. culture in which the Navajo people live. What’s more, he’s in love with Mary Landon, a White teacher who lives and works on the Reservation. So at first Chee is torn between those two worlds. As time goes on and he matures, Chee also becomes surer of his identity and learns how to maintain his Navajo traditions and way of thinking despite the police work he does and his interactions with the FBI and other dominant-culture institutions. He evolves personally too although it costs him two serious relationships. When he meets and falls in love with fellow Navajo Tribal Police officer Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Maneulito, Chee is emotionally more mature and it makes sense that their relationship ends up being more lasting. We also see Chee’s evolution as a professional. At first, he tends to be more of a ‘go your own way’ type of investigator. But as time goes on he learns to work more smoothly within the police system, especially after he has the opportunity to do some supervisory work himself.

We also see a very human kind of growth and evolving maturity in Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen. As the series featuring her begins, Harry is postmistress for the small Virginia town of Crozet. She is also smarting from her recent divorce from local veterinarian Pharamond ‘Fair’ Haristeen. What makes this divorce doubly painful is that Harry found out her husband was unfaithful. In Wish You Were Here, Harry gets involved in the murder of local building contractor Kelly Craycroft. As she investigates, we can see that although she’s likeable, she’s too unwilling to trust others or ask for help when she needs it. And honestly, she takes more risks than it makes sense for her to do. As the series goes on though, we see her becoming more mature. She learns to accept help both on the farm she runs and in her investigations. She takes fewer really dangerous risks too. And in her personal life, she becomes less judgemental. That growth makes more a more likeable character as the series goes on.

Even though Louise Penny’s Québec police inspector Armand Gamache is fairly mature as the series featuring him begins, there’s room for him to grow too and we see that as the series moves on. In Still Life, Gamache and his team investigate the supposedly accidental killing of beloved retired schoolteacher Jane Neal. One of the sub-plots in this novel is the hint we get that Gamache is facing serious repercussions from another case. Without giving away spoilers I can say that that case becomes a story arc and as later novels tell the story of that other case, we see how Gamache becomes more settled about it and learns to face it in a more self-confident and mature way. We also see how in Still Life, A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold), The Cruelest Month and other novels in this series, Gamache faces some of his fears. For instance, he’s not especially comfortable with heights, but has to face that in Still Life. He feels haunted by a particular house (and with good reason) in the small town of Three Pines, where many of these novels take place. And yet he learns to go there and do what needs to be done. Those signs of growth make Gamache a more real character.

Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett does her share of maturing and growing too and what’s especially appealing about it is that she is still in the process. When we first meet Scarlett in The Coffin Trail, she is named to head the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review team. That’s hardly a choice position and Scarlett was actually named to it because of her performance on an earlier case. So at first she’s dealing with a sense of failure and the insecurity of being the new leader of team whose respect she has to earn. It takes time but by the time of The Hanging Wood, Scarlett has learned some leadership skills and she’s more confident as she plans strategy, supervises her team and deals with her own bosses. Scarlett also does some personal growing. Throughout most of the novels in this series she lives with book dealer Marc Amos and although they care about each other, their relationship is certainly not an easy one. Amos is hardly a perfect ‘catch;’ he has his share of insecurities, immaturity and so on. But Scarlett isn’t exactly a self-confident, mature partner either. So as the series goes on, we see how she is held back by her need to do some growing of her own. The Frozen Shroud, the next entry in this Lake District series, is due to be released in April and I for one am very much looking forward to seeing how Hannah Scarlett continues to mature as a character.

In Anthony Bidulka’s Amuse Bouche, we meet Saskatoon PI Russell Quant, who has recently opened his own agency. He’s hired in this novel to find computer entrepreneur Tom Osborn, who disappeared just before his wedding to successful businessman Harold Chavell. When Osborn later turns up dead, Chavell becomes a suspect. So Quant investigates the murder to clear his client’s name. In this novel and the next few novels, Quant isn’t in a serious relationship but in the course of the series, he gets deeply involved twice. Each of those relationships teaches him about being responsible to other people and reaching out to them. He also learns a lot through the course of this series about being aware of others’ perspectives and the realities they face. Quant does some real maturing and growing up as the series continues and it makes him a more interesting and compassionate person.

And that’s the thing about characters who evolve with a series. We see how time and experience mature them and add to their richness. And that keeps a series interesting even after several novels. I know I’ve only mentioned a few examples. Which gaps have I left?

 

ps The ‘photos are of my lovely daughter as a child and recently, with her own daughter. I am so delighted at the way she’s grown up.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Five For Fighting’s Story of Your Life.

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Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Dorothy Sayers, Louise Penny, Martin Edwards, Rita Mae Brown, Tony Hillerman

I’m In With the In Crowd*

Many people have a strong urge to belong – to be a part of the ‘in-group’ – especially if that group has a lot of status and power.  That desire to be in the ‘in-group’ is arguably part of the reason that some people become snobs, so that they only associate with ‘the right people’ and look down on others. Snobbery isn’t exactly the most attractive of traits, but it’s part of the human ‘package’ if you like to put it that way. And it’s sometimes an interesting reflection of deep-seated insecurity, and that can add some interesting layers to fictional characters.

Several of Agatha Christie’s novels include characters who are snobs. One of the more memorable is Marie Van Schuyler, whom we meet in Death on the Nile. Miss Van Schuyler is an extremely wealthy American ‘blueblood’ who takes a cruise of the Nile with her cousin Cornelia Robson and her private nurse Miss Bowers. Miss Van Schuyler is so obsessed with her social position that she refuses to speak to almost everyone else on board except her travel companions. Then one night another passenger Linnet Doyle is shot. Hercule Poirot is aboard the same cruise ship and he investigates the murder. Since Linnet Doyle was originally American Poirot asks Miss Van Schuyler whether she might have known her. Here is what she says about the very wealthy and beautiful victim:

 

‘As a family we have always prided ourselves on being exclusive…My dear mother would never have dreamed of calling upon any of the Hartz family [Linnet Doyle’s mother’s family] who, outside their wealth, were nobodies.’

 

This snobbery plays a role later in the novel too when Miss Van Schuyler discovers that another passenger is probably hiding a ‘blueblood’ identity.

There’s another interesting portrait of snobbery in Martha Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace. When a dog discovers the bone of a human finger in the village of Littlebourne, Inspector Richard Jury has to change his holiday plans and travel there to investigate. Then avid bird-watcher Ernestine Craigie discovers the rest of the body in a nearby wood. The victim turns out to be Cora Binns, who worked for a London temporary services agency and who’d come to Littlebourne for a job interview. Jury’s friend Melrose Plant, who fans will know is a ‘blueblood’ himself by birth, goes to Littlebourne and takes part in the investigation under the pretense of looking for a new house. As he and Jury look into the case, we meet several of the locals, including the local squire Sir Miles Bodenheim and his family. He, his wife and his two children are heartily disliked; in fact mystery novelist Polly Praed likes to amuse herself by inventing all sorts of different deaths for each member of that family. Part of the reason for the Bodenheim family’s unpopularity is the way they look down on the other villagers. Sir Miles in particular is a snob and it’s interesting to see how he interacts with Melrose Plant, who has actually given up his title. In this novel snobbery isn’t the reason for Cora Binns’ murder, but it adds a layer of character development and an interesting thread of tension.

Snobbery plays a part in several of Rita Mae Brown’s novels featuring Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen. Harry lives in the tiny Virginia town of Crozet, where she is postmistress as the series begins.  Later she takes up farming full-time and also dabbles in wine-making. Harry is a Virginia ‘blueblood,’ one of the FFV (First Families of Virginia). She doesn’t have a lot of money but because of her status she often gets invited to ‘the best people’s’ homes. One of those people is the Queen of Crozet Marilyn ‘Big Mim’ Sanburne, another ‘blueblood’ who is very careful about whom she associates with and where she goes. Harry is a part of Big Mim’s social circle only because of her birth and it’s interesting to see how that snobbery plays out in the series. It’s also interesting to see the contrast between Big Mim’s view on social position and Harry’s. Harry is just as eligible if you will to be a snob, but she isn’t. Her circle of friends is quite eclectic.

Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher also has a very wide and varied circle of friends despite the fact that she’s a ‘blueblood.’ But snobbery does play a role in this series. In Cocaine Blues, for instance, the first in this series, Fisher is at an exclusive dinner party in London. During the evening, someone steals a valuable necklace from Madame St. Clair. Fisher discovers the thief, and when she first tells her father, he says,

 

‘What do you mean? Good family, goes back to the Conqueror.’

 

That snobbery almost, but not quite, protects the thief. When Fisher points out the culprit, she so impresses one guest that he asks her to take on a real challenge. His daughter Lydia has moved to Australia and he and his wife are concerned about her. They believe she may be in danger and they want Fisher to find out whether their fears are justified. Not having anything in particular to keep her in London, and wanting some adventure, Fisher travels back to her Melbourne home and begins to investigate. Her social position gains her entrée into the sort of circles in which Lydia moves and eventually, she finds out the truth about Lydia and along the way uncovers a very sleazy and dangerous criminal racket.

One of the funniest (at least in my opinion) portrayals of social snobbery is in Teresa Solana’s A Not so Perfect Crime. In that novel, Barcelona brothers Eduard and Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez are hired by powerful politician Lluís Font to find out whether his wife Lídia is having an affair. What starts as a straightforward job turns out to be much more complicated when Lídia is murdered and her husband becomes the main suspect. He begs the Martínez brothers to continue working for him and find out who the real killer is and although they’ve never done a murder investigation, they agree. The novel is a murder mystery but it’s also a satirical portrait of the Barcelona rich and powerful. Here, for instance, is a bit of a description of a lunch date Lídia Font has shortly before she is murdered:

 

‘..when lunching with a lady friend, women from a certain social class first go shopping in order to appear in the restaurant laden with bags and, so much the better if they’re the exclusive designer variety. It’s a matter of quality rather than quantity. This way I’ve learned that a single Loewe or Vuitton bag beats any number from Bulevard Rosa or the Corte Inglés, that Armani and Chanel level peg, and that Zara is a no-no. That is Borja’s Bags’ Law. And it’s not the only unwritten code that reigns in particular zones of Barcelona’s upper reaches.’ 

 

Snobbery also plays a role in the way especially Borja interacts with clients. He gets expensive haircuts, has a wealthy and generous mistress, wears the best clothes and eats in the ‘right’ places. The brothers’ office has fake inner office doors and a non-existent secretary, so as to keep up this appearance of belonging in the ‘in group.’ Although this pretense is funny, it’s also a piercing look at the extent of snobbery.

Snobbery plays a very important role in Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig’s) Hickory-Smoked Homicide. In that novel, we are introduced to beauty pageant coach Tristan Pembroke. She’s wealthy, successful and extremely snobbish. So it’s no surprise that she’s made more than one enemy. One night Tristan is hosting an exclusive charity auction at her home. During the event she’s murdered. Local restaurant owner Lulu Taylor discovers the body and gets involved in the investigation when her daughter-in-law Sara is suspected of the murder.

It’s only natural to want to be a part of a group; most of us like that sense of belonging. Sometimes, though, that desire comes out as snobbishness. Not exactly an enviable human trait, but it can add some ‘spice’ to a crime novel.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy and Gene Page’s The In Crowd,  made popular by Dobie Gray.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Kerry Greenwood, Martha Grimes, Riley Adams, Rita Mae Brown, Teresa Solana

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Rita Mae Brown’s Tally Urquhart

It’s unbelievable isn’t it that the Crime Fiction Alphabet has reached the 21st stop on our dangerous tour without any casualties – well, except perhaps for those TBR lists… ;-)   I credit our tour guide Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for keeping us all safe and having a terrific time. Everyone’s checking itineraries and finding out what the amenities are on our last few stops, so I’ll take this opportunity to offer my contribution for this stop: Rita Mae Brown’s Thalia ‘Tally’ Urquhart. She’s usually referred to as Miss Tally or Aunt Tally.

Let me start by saying that Tally Urquhart is not the main sleuth in Brown’s series. The central sleuth is Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen, farmer, vine grower and former postmistress of the tiny town of Crozet, Virginia. But don’t let that fool you. Tally Urquhart is a force to be reckoned with.

She is an elderly woman, in her nineties when we first ‘meet’ her. She’s also one of Crozet’s genuine ‘blue-bloods,’ and until twenty years ago, she was the undisputed leader of Crozet society. Now, her niece Marilyn ‘Big Mim’ Sanborne is the Queen of Crozet but Tally Urquhart still commands an awful lot of respect and deference. In fact she’s one of the very few people who can put Big Mim in her place. And she’s not afraid to do so either, but more on her outspokenness in a moment.

In Cat on the Scent, in which we are introduced to Miss Tally, everyone in Crozet is getting ready for a U.S. Civil War re-enactment of the Battle of Oak Ridge. Then one of the participants county commissioner Tommy Van Allen disappears and so does his prized single-engine plane. Then another re-enactor, wealthy Sir Henry Vane-Tempest ‘H. Van,’ is shot in the back during the battle re-enactment. When Van Allen is later discovered murdered Harry looks for a connection between the two deaths. That connection may be that the two men were involved in a dispute about local land development. But it’s not so simple or so complex as that. Tally Urquhart gets involved when Tommy Van Allen’s plane is discovered in her barn, a place she rarely uses.  As she is questioned by the sheriff, we learn several things about her.

One of them is that she is a living repository of local history. Her memory and ability to tell stories makes her a very appealing character. She knows everyone in the area and she knows the history of nearly everyone’s family, so although she doesn’t solve crimes, she is a valuable resource. She has a perspective on the locals and their families that gives her insight on what people are and aren’t likely to have done. She’s intelligent too and both Harry and Sheriff Shaw know that it’s worth listening to her when it comes to who might have committed murder.

Tally is only too happy to share her perspective and that too makes her appealing. She’s plain-spoken and really doesn’t care what other people think about what she says. She’s not deliberately hurtful but she doesn’t mince words. In The Purrfect Murder for instance, Harry and Shaw investigate the stabbing death of wealthy incomer Carla Paulson. Paulson hired local architect Tazio Chappers to build a house that would be the envy of the area but things haven’t worked out well. And when Chappers is found with the murder weapon, it looks as though this is a clear-cut murder. It’s not though, and there turn out to be several suspects. One of them is building inspector Mike McElvoy. Here’s what Tally Urquhart has to say about that.

 

‘Profanity delighted Aunt Tally, who would pepper her comments with some just to see the sulfur hiss out of her niece’s bejeweled ears.
‘Balls.’ Aunt Tally lived up to her reputation.
‘Aunt Tally.’ Big Mim stared crossly at her.
‘I mean Mike McElvoy doesn’t have the balls to kill anyone.’ She sniffed. ‘Don’t trust him, though. He’s like a trombone slightly off-key, but I can’t identify what’s off, what’s weird.’’

 

Mostly because of her social position and also in part because of her age, no-one makes much of an effort to get her to be more circumspect. In fact, except for her niece, most people rather enjoy Aunt Tally’s habit of speaking her mind.

But her outspoken way of expressing herself doesn’t mean Aunt Tally is not compassionate. She speaks her mind but she’s not nasty or malicious. She’s got her own personal scars and she knows how it feels to be hurt. That layer of compassion adds to her appeal.

Miss Tally has a fascinating personal history too, and as we learn it in the course of the novels that feature her, we discover that she’s really led an interesting life, largely free of the need for social conformity that can hinder one’s horizons in a very traditional small town. For example, she flew airplanes in the early decades of flight, long before it was considered ‘respectable’ for women to fly. In fact one of the fields on her property is still exactly level because it was used for takeoffs and landings. She’s never been much of a one for conventional marriage, and in fact had more than one love affair long before it was acceptable for ‘ladies’ to do so. Even now that she’s in her nineties, she still flirts and it’s refreshing to see a character who loves life as much as she does.

Aunt Tally has a lot of energy and vitality too. She keeps up with younger dancers at evening events, she’s a smart and shrewd thinker and she accomplishes what she wants to accomplish. Her interest in embracing life makes her very appealing.

Miss Tally Urquhart is smart, wise, strong-willed and interesting. She’s got so many good stories to tell and a plain-spoken way of telling them. I hope I have her energy and interest in life if I reach my nineties. I’d love to have a drink with her and hear what she has to say.  I’ll bet I’d get some good advice.

 
 

On Another Note…
 

 

I’d like to wish all of my Canadian readers a very Happy Thanksgiving! I know I for one am very grateful for all of you. Enjoy your special day!

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Filed under Rita Mae Brown, Tally Urquhart

A Bottle of White, a Bottle of Red, Perhaps a Bottle of Rosé Instead*

For many people, wine is as much a part of a meal as any food is. For those who enjoy wine, a good glass of the right wine is one of life’s true pleasures. I’m not referring here to people who drink an awful lot; that’s an entirely different thing. Rather, I’m referring to wine – separate from other alcohol. Wine has been a symbol of joy, a token of thanks, a romantic gesture, a bond between friends, a “guest gift” and more for millennia. It’s an important part of the culture for lots of people. So it makes sense that we see it in crime fiction too.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, for instance, enjoys fine wine as much as he enjoys good food. To Poirot, the right wine complements a meal and is worth taking the time to choose carefully. In several of the novels that feature Poirot there are scenes where’s he’s enjoying a meal with the right wine and it matters to him. For instance, in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Poirot is on board an airplane en route from Paris to London when one of his fellow passengers suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. DCI James “Jimmy” Japp is assigned to the case, and Poirot works with him to find the killer. The victim is Marie Morisot, also known as Madame Giselle, a well-known French moneylender. Because of her business, there are several suspects in the murder, but since she was killed on board the aircraft, the only people who could have committed the crime are her fellow passengers. Part of the investigation is carried out in Paris, and Poirot works with M. Fournier of the Sûreté on this angle. At one point, Fournier is interrogating Madame Giselle’s household staff – unsuccessfully. He’s frustrated and so are the staff members. Here is how Poirot salvages the situation:

 

“‘Come mon vieux,’ he said. ‘The stomach calls. A simple but satisfying meal, that is what I prescribe. Let us say omelette aux champignons, sole à la Normande – a cheese of Port Salut, and with it red wine. What wine exactly?

 

That’s enough to diffuse the situation just a bit, and Poirot even manages to get some valuable information from Madame Giselle’s house staff.

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey is very knowledgeable about wine, although he isn’t arrogant about it. Still, he enjoys a good bottle of wine and his knowledge is woven into the series in several places. In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club for instance, Wimsey investigates two deaths. Old General Fentiman, a member of Wimsey’s club, has died while sitting in his customary chair at the club. His sister, wealthy Lady Dormer, also dies. In this case, the time of each one’s death is critical; if Lady Dormer dies first, the money would pass to Fentiman’s grandson. If the general dies first, the fortune passes to Ann Dorland, Lady Dormer’s distant cousin. Then it’s discovered that Fentiman was poisoned. So now, Wimsey and his friend Inspector Parker have to find out not only which victim died first but also who poisoned Fentiman. At one point, Wimsey has dinner with Ann Dorland. Here’s a bit of their conversation about the dinner:

 

“‘What do you think of the Romanée Conti?’ he asked, suddenly.
‘I don’t know much about wine. It’s good. Not sweet, like Sauterne. It’s a little – well – harsh. But it’s harsh without being thin – quite different from that horrid Chianti people always seem to drink at Chelsea parties.’
‘You’re right; it’s rather unfinished, but it has plenty of body – it’ll be a grand wine in ten years’ time. It’s 1915. Waiter, take this away and bring me a bottle of the 1908.’” 

 

Wimsey gives Ann Dorland an important piece of advice during the dinner, and Sayers also uses that meal to provide a clue to the murder.

Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen is the former postmistress of tiny Crozet, Virginia. When changes in the postal system mean the loss of the little post office she’s loved, Harry leaves the postal service and focuses on her farm. But she needs extra income.  So during the course of Cat’s Eyewitness, she takes the decision to grow grapes and see if she can make wine. Then, in Sour Puss, Crozet gets a visit from world-renowned grape and wine expert Professor Vincent Forland. He’s travelling to all of the local wineries and Harry is hoping he can give her some feedback on how to make the most of her wine-making experiences. Forland arrives and begins his tour, but he disappears and is later found murdered. Now Harry has to look among the other winemakers in the area to find out who would have wanted to kill Forland and why.

Domingo Villar’s Inspector Leo Caldas is also familiar with winemaking. As we learn in Water Blue Eyes, Caldas’ father is a Galician vintner whose vineyard is in the countryside not very far from Vigo. The two aren’t particularly close but in Death on a Galician Shore, Caldas pays a few visits to the vineyard and we can see the two men working towards some sort of relationship. In that novel, Caldas and his assistant Rafael Estevez investigate the supposed suicide of Justo Castelo, a local fisherman. At first people accept the explanation of suicide because there are some signs that point to it. But there are just as many signs that suggest that Castelo did not commit suicide. So Caldas and Estevez look into Castelo’s life. That’s when they discover that he has a haunting past that plays an important role in this mystery. There are a few instances in the novel where Caldas visits his father’s vineyard and in fact, he gets an important clue from one of those visits.  Although he isn’t what you would call a “wine snob,” Caldas enjoys white wine and that’s frequently his drink of choice.

Oh, and I should tell you if you don’t already know: Galician wine is world-class. It is on my list of Best. Wine. Evah.

Also on that list is good New Zealand wine. We learn a little about that wine in Paddy Richardsons’ Hunting Blind.  Fledgling psychiatrist Stephanie Anderson confronts her own haunted past when one of her patients Elizabeth Clark tells her a terrible story. Clark’s younger sister Gracie was abducted one night and never found. Not even a body was discovered. The family was never the same afterwards, and that’s part of the cause of Clark’s psychological problems. This story eerily mirrors Anderson’s own family history. Seventeen years earlier, her own sister Gemma was abducted; she was never found either. When she realises that both young girls could have been abducted by the same person, Anderson decides to try to find some peace for her family. She decides to find out what really happened to Gemma. So she travels from Dunedin, where she is living and practicing, to her home in Wanaka. Along the way, she meets a hunting guide named Dan, who has a sad history of his own. Dan persuades her to go on a hunting trip although she’s never done that before and although she has her own preconceptions about him. One night he invites her for dinner:

 

“‘Wine, please. White wine?’ [Anderson]
‘I can manage both colours. Types as well. So. What type of white?’
He’s grinning again. She sees he’s teasing her.
‘Pinot gris?’ Huh, I guarantee he hasn’t got that.
‘Central Otago?’
‘Uh, yes. Thanks.’
He opens a bottle, fills a glass and hands it to her. ‘I believe I’m making progress.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I hope that I’m adequately demonstrating to you that all hunters aren’t blokey yobbos.’
‘I didn’t say they were.’
‘You didn’t actually say it, no.’”

 

In several places in this novel there are some other warm scenes made all the more charming with delicious wine. Oh, trust me. It’s delicious.

Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace introduces us to Stockholm psychologist Dr. Siri Bergman, who shares part of her practice with her best friend Aina Davidson. Davidson’s friendship becomes especially important when Bergman receives a frightening “stalking” letter. Then one of Bergman’s patients dies of what looks like suicide. It’s proven to be murder though and when she becomes a suspect, Bergman is sure that someone is trying to ruin her practice and probably her life. Through it all she depends on Davisdon and it’s obvious that the two have a strong bond although they’re quite different. Bergman, who is also grieving the loss of her husband Stefan, drinks a lot more wine than she should. But in this novel, wine isn’t just a way of killing Bergman’s emotional pain. It’s also a bond between her and Davidson:

 

“Sometimes Aina stays with me instead of spending the weekend in the noisy bars of Södermalm in the company of men whose names she quickly forgets. We eat mussles cooked in wine, drink lots of cheap white wine, and talk about our patients or Aina’s guys – or about nothing in particular.”

 

In this scene, wine adds to a warm picture of a strong friendship.

Whether it’s a fine vintage or plonk, wine is an important part of life for a lot of people. Little wonder it’s so common in crime fiction. Now if you’ll excuse me, as you can see, there’s a nicely chilled bottle of Chardonnay waiting for me. Cheers! :-)

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Träff, Camilla Grebe, Domingo Villar, Dorothy Sayers, Paddy Richardson, Rita Mae Brown