Category Archives: Roger Smith

And He Walked the Length of His Days Under African Skies*

Nelson MandelaI had the opportunity to travel to South Africa in 2000, just a few years after the end of Apartheid and the transfer of power to a democratically-elected government. Of course, no country is perfect, and any crime fiction fan can tell you that some violent things happen in South Africa. Want more on this? Try the work of Deon Meyer, Jassy Mackenzie, Malla Nunn or Roger Smith. Also check out AfricaScreams, which is an excellent blog site devoted to crime fiction from that part of the world.

But that wasn’t the impression of South Africa I got from my trip. I’m not naïve enough to think that one visit makes me an expert – hardly. And I know that there’s a lot I didn’t see. But here is what I did experience. I saw one of the most physically beautiful countries I’ve visited. I met kind, hospitable and friendly people, too – of all sorts of racial backgrounds. One day for instance, I got to talking with a fellow delegate to the conference I was attending. She invited me to join her family at the bungalow where they were staying, and everyone welcomed me, a stranger from thousands of miles away.

I also experienced real conversation about South Africa’s history and its future. No-one denied the pain of Apartheid; there was quite a lot of openness about those years, even among people who had everything to gain by avoiding the topic. And the discussion about South Africa’s problems was real and frank. But at the same time, I sensed a common purpose in the dialogue among everyone, and a determination to go forward rather than let old wounds fester.

That hope, that willingness to try to work together, and that recognition of what a lovely country South Africa is and can be was inspired by the example and the work of Nelson Mandela. Many other people, whose names I don’t unfortunately know, worked hard and sacrificed much (including, for some, their lives) for the cause of social equity. And there are many real and serious issues that face the country, as they do all countries. But Mandela’s work, example, leadership and personal commitment showed us all what is possible. I know I saw it when I was there.

Nelson Mandela gave the world a vision of what can be when we have the heart and the strength to work together without bitterness. Thank you, South Africa, for lending him to the world. He will be sorely missed.
 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Under African Skies.

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Filed under Deon Meyer, Jassy Mackenzie, Malla Nunn, Roger Smith

They’ve Found a Tourist Attraction*

TourismWhere I live, the tourist season has well and truly begun. You’d think that Southern California would get more tourism during the Northern Hemisphere winter but that’s not what happens. There are a lot of visitors here of course from colder climates, but there are also many, many people who come here to escape the heat and humidity of a Midwest or Deep South summer. Tourism is an important part of our economy, so keeping the tourists happy matters. But honestly, it’s not always fun having tourists around. If you’re a local, try getting to work on the unusually-crowded roadways, or getting a table in one of the nicer restaurants, or finding a parking space, or finding a place on the beach. That’s not to mention the way some tourists (‘though certainly not all!) treat the area and the locals. If you live in a place with tourist attractions, you know precisely what I mean.

A well-written (as ever) review at Fair Dinkum Crime (the place for everything about Australian crime fiction) is what actually got me to thinking about tourism. I’ll wait while you go check out the review. And while you’re at it, do follow Fair Dinkum Crime. There’s no better source for what’s new in Aussie crime fiction. The review was written by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading, which blog you’ll also want to follow if you’re not already – simply a superb crime fiction review blog.

The review itself doesn’t focus a lot on tourism, but it did trigger my thinking. Tourists are important for a lot of different economies, but they’re not always welcome (and sometimes, for very, very good reasons). This makes for some interesting tension, and that of course means it’s a great theme for crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death for instance, we meet a group of tourists including the Boynton family. Family matriarch Mrs. Boynton is a tyrannical mental sadist who’s had her family members cowed for years. When she suddenly dies during a sightseeing trip to Petra, her family is finally freed of her presence and can start over. At first her death is put down to heart failure, but Colonel Carbury isn’t entirely satisfied. So he asks Hercule Poirot, who’s in the area on an excursion of his own, to investigate. Poirot agrees and looks into the family dynamics as well as Mrs. Boynton’s personal history. As he does so, we get to know the rest of the people on this journey and it’s interesting to see the ‘tourist dynamics.’ For instance, there’s the demanding and particular Lady Westholme MP and her companion Miss Pierce. In Lady Westholme’s opinions and views, we see the stereotypical ‘nightmare’ tourist who expects everything to be a certain way, preferably just like home. There are also the members of the Boynton family and family friend Jefferson Cope, who are enthralled by what they see. And then there’s Mahmoud, the local who is in charge of guiding the tourists. In his opinions we see the resentment of some locals for tourists. This whole thread adds an interesting layer to this plot.

Sometimes being a tourist can put you in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s what happens in Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone. One morning an unknown Senegalese immigrant is shot, execution-style, in a Venice open-air market while he’s setting out his wares. The killers are professionals so they’ve ensured that they won’t be remembered. And yet, Commissario Guido Brunetti knows that the more people he talks to, the more likely it is that someone will have seen something. Keeping track of the numerous tourists in the area isn’t his responsibility but this case is different. American tourists Drs. Fred and Martha Crowley were present when the victim was murdered, and so were a few other members of their tour group. So Brunetti interviews them as part of his investigation. Their input doesn’t immediately solve the crime, but it does help. And in their conversations we see how the police have to strike a balance when dealing with, especially, international tourists. On the one hand, Brunetti needs to solve the crime. On the other, these tourists are foreigners from a wealthy country and there is every financial reason to encourage more tourism. So treating them well is essential. For the Americans’ part, they want to get on with their trip and their itinerary did not include a police case. Still, they do want to help and they know that any piece of information might be valuable.

The trouble that tourists can cause is a major theme in Carl Hiaasen’s Tourist Season. Skip Wiley is the leader of Las Noches de Diciembre (The Nights of December), a Florida eco-terrorist group. Wiley is upset at the loss of Florida’s natural beauty and blames the tourist industry. So he and his gang set out to do whatever is necessary to stop more tourists from coming to Florida. ‘Whatever is necessary’ will end up involving kidnapping, murder and later, dynamite. The first victim is B.D. ‘Sparky’ Harper, head of Greater Miami’s Chamber of Commerce. At first, the police think the killer is Ernesto Cabal. Cabal is a small-time burglar who was caught driving Harper’s stolen car. He says he’s not guilty, and Brian Keyes, who’s hired by the Public Defender’s office to help on the case, believes him. Keyes’ search for the people who are really behind the murder and other bizarre events in the story will mix him up with, among others, obdurate police officers, a very hungry pet crocodile named Pavlov, and an Orange Bowl beauty queen who hates the ‘beauty pageant scene.’

There’s a thoughtful and honest (‘though not really positive) view of the tourist/local relationship in Vicki Delany’s Winter of Secrets. Wealthy Jason Wyatt-Yarmouth, his sister Wendy and several of their equally-moneyed friends have booked a skiing holiday in Trafalgar, British Columbia. One evening, the well-appointed SUV the group has rented plunges into the Upper Kootenay River, taking Wyatt-Yarmouth and his best friend Ewan Williams with it. Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith and Sergeant John Winters begin to look into the deaths. Forensic results show that Wyatt-Yarmouth died as a result of the plunge into the river. But Williams had been dead for several hours before the accident. What’s more, he shows signs of blunt force trauma to the head. So the police investigate his death as a murder. As they examine the lives of the victims, they find some complicated relationships among them and their friends and family members. They also find that there was considerable friction between them and some of the locals (saying more would give some important things away). In a related sub-plot, Jason and Wendy Wyatt-Yarmouth’s parents arrive to claim their son’s body. In their reactions to the town, the police and the locals, we see why tourists are so often resented. The fact that he was a tourist is not the reason Ewan Wililams was killed. But it does play a role in the novel and so does the underlying tension between the tourists and the locals.

In Roger Smith’s Dust Devils, we meet sixteen-year-old Sonto, who usually goes by her English name Sunday. She has been promised in marriage to locally powerful Zulu leader Inja Mazibuko. Sunday has her own very personal reasons for not wanting to marry Inja, but her aunt has benefited financially from this arrangement, and forces Sunday to go through with the wedding plans. As the wedding day approaches, Inja heads back to Zululand after carrying out some ‘business’ in the Cape Town area. He is in the pocket of the minister of justice and has just committed four murders to help protect his ‘patron.’ Mazibuko has framed former journalist Robert Dell for three of the murders, but Dell has escaped from prison with help from his father Bobby Goodbread. Now the two of them are also heading to Zululand to catch Inja. When they get to Zululand, their paths cross with Inja’s and with Sunday’s as they try to find Inja and Sunday tries to avoid her fate. So how does tourism play into this novel? Sunday works at an ‘authentic Zulu village’ which has been set up for tourists. Her job is to be ‘one of the villagers’ and serve the visitors. In fact there’s one humourous scene in which she is wearing her ‘authentic’ Zulu dress – and has an MP3 player too.

And then there’s Angela Savage’s The Half Child. In that novel, Bangkok PI Jayne Keeney is hired by Jim Delbeck to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. According to police reports, she fell (or jumped, or was pushed) from he roof of the Pattaya hotel where she was living. The police believe Maryanne committed suicide but Delbeck doesn’t think so. So Keeney agrees to travel to Pattaya and find out the truth. One of the people whose help she enlists is Police Major General Wichit. As head of Bangkok’s Tourist Police, Wichit has to deal with all sorts of tourists. Although he understands all too well the importance of tourism for the economy (and his job!), he also doesn’t have much respect for tourists who do stupid things that lead to them getting scammed:

 

‘…his toughest challenge was not to laugh in the face of reports made by exasperated farangs [foreigners]. How they’d paid a large sum of money for a handful of Burmese rubies that turned out to be red glass…How they’d played a friendly game of cards with a fellow who said he worked as a croupier at the casino, only to be robbed of all their traveller’s cheques. How they’d exchanged money with an agent outside the currency exchange only to come away with a wad of ‘Hell Bank Notes’ – fake money the Chinese burned at funerals – sandwiched in between a few baht. It never ceased to surprise Wichit how people kept falling for the same old tricks.’

 

Wichit feels the same combination of resentment at some tourists and acknowledgement of their importance that all of us do who have to deal with tourists.

What about you? Do you live where there’s a lot of tourism? Is there friction between tourists and locals? Which novels have you enjoyed that deal with this?

Thanks, Bernadette, for the inspiration.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chris de Burgh’s Tourist Attraction.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Carl Hiaasen, Donna Leon, Roger Smith, Vicki Delany

‘Cause Nothing’s Going Right and Everything’s a Mess*

NoirFor the past seventy years or so, noir has been an important part of the world of crime fiction. Today it’s considered a significant sub-genre; a quick glance at blogs, online and traditional literary magazines and of course, new crime fiction titles is all it takes to see that noir is a force to be reckoned with in the genre.  Noir fiction is by its nature bleak and sometimes very depressing. And noir deals with the ugly, the dirty and the unpleasant. So why do we read it? What is it about noir that appeals to readers? Of course, we choose what to read for a whole constellation of reasons. But here’s my thinking about what makes noir a part of so many people’s reading diets.

As I mentioned, noir is dirty and gritty and sometimes unpleasant. It turns over rocks and takes a look at what’s under them. And that’s just what some people like about it. Because it’s unflinching, noir addresses issues that aren’t as easy to address in other sub-genres. For example, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me is the story of Central City, Texas deputy sheriff Lou Ford. Ford is well-enough liked, although no-one would exactly call him scintillating. But Ford is carrying a dark secret which comes out slowly as the novel moves on. First, local prostitute Joyce Lakeland is brutally beaten. Then there’s a murder. As we follow along in this investigation, we find out that Ford is not the nice, if a bit dull, guy that everyone thought he was. In fact, he himself refers to this as ‘the sickness.’ So on that level Thompson takes an unflinching look at mental illness. This novel also explores prostitution and domestic violence as well as the ugly reality of the effect of violence and murder on a small town. The story takes up difficult and challenging issues.

So does Roger Smith’s Dust Devils. Former journalist Robert Dell, his wife Rosie and their two children are taking a drive one afternoon when their car is ambushed not far from Cape Town and sent over an embankment. Dell survives but the other members of his family are killed. Soon he’s accused of the murder and imprisoned. He’s been framed, but at first he doesn’t know why or by whom. His father Bobby Goodbread engineers his escape and together the two go in search of the person who killed Dell’s wife and children and framed him. This novel addresses several difficult but very real issues that would be hard to treat honestly in another kind of novel. For instance, one of the themes in the story is the reality of race relations in modern South Africa. That’s a complex and sometimes unpleasant topic. So are corruption and nepotism, which are also treated in this novel.

In Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage, Dublin police detective Bob Tidey is part of the team that’s investigating the murder of Emmet Sweetman, a crooked banker who made a fortune during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years. At the same time, Vincent Naylor, a young thug who’s recently gotten out of prison, is planning his own master stroke – an armoured car robbery. Drawn into both of these cases is Maura Cody, a former nun who has her own history. As Kerrigan tells the story of these three people, he also explores some unpleasant issues that it would be hard to do justice to without some grit. In the story behind Emmet Sweetman’s murder we see how greed and poor planning played roles in the Irish financial collapse of 2008 and how that collapse started a chain reaction of real misery. In the story of Maura Cody we learn of the wrenching horror of some of the abuses some Irish priests and nuns committed. This too is an ugly issue that would be hard to address in a different kind of novel.

But it’s not just the fact that noir explores difficult issues that makes it appealing. It does so in an honest way – no sugarcoating or glossing over the truth. And that realism resonates with a lot of readers. For example, Megan Abbott’s Die a Little is the story of Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. She is devoted to her brother Bill, so she is quite concerned when he marries Alice Steele, a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant. For Bill’s sake Lora tries to get along with her new sister-in-law but bit by bit she discovers some unsettling things about Alice. The more she learns, the more Lora has to face the fact that at the same time as she’s repulsed by Alice’s seamy world, she’s also drawn to it. Then there’s a murder. Lora wants to find out just how involved Alice may have been in this killing so, telling herself she’s doing so to protect her brother, she begins to ask questions. As she slowly finds out the truth, readers get a very realistic picture of 1950’s Hollywood. Underneath the glitter there really was a lot of abuse, corruption and other ugliness and Abbott doesn’t gloss over that. Nor does she make light of what can happen when one person becomes obsessed with another person.

The tragedy of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia cannot be overstated. Andrew Nette takes a very realistic look at the devastation left behind in Ghost Money. Madeline Avery hires Australian former cop Max Quinlan to find her brother Charles. His last known address is in Bangkok so Quinlan starts there. When he arrives he finds the body of Avery’s business partner Robert Lee. He also finds evidence that Lee has fled to Cambodia. So Quinlan’s next stop is Phnom Penh. There, he learns that Avery may have been involved in some shady business deals and could have made some very nasty people angry. As Quinlan traces Avery to northern Cambodia, he discovers the brutal reality of life in Cambodia. War, mistrust, greed, corruption and prejudice have all taken heavy tolls and Nette doesn’t sugarcoat any of it. But (and this is just my opinion, so feel free to differ with me if you do), not to be realistic about these issues would mean not doing them justice.

That sense of authenticity adds a layer of suspense to Karin Alvtegen’s work as well. In Betrayal, she looks at the ugly reality of lies. Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik have been happy enough until Eva discovers that her husband has been unfaithful. Blaming him entirely for their marital problems, she makes a fateful choice that doesn’t seem like a problem at first. Then she finds out who Henrik’s lover is. That prompts Eva to a course of action that also has a tragic consequence. As things begin to spin out of control, Alvtegen shows us honestly what happens to a marriage when the people in it lie to each other and to themselves.

Noir is unvarnished, gritty and sometimes really ugly. But it looks at important issues that are hard to address in any other way. And it does so in an honest way. I know I haven’t mentioned all of the noir greats, but they’ve added to the genre. What do you think? Do you read noir? Why? What’s its appeal for you? If you write noir, what draws you to it?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Avril Lavigne’s I’m With You.

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Filed under Andrew Nette, Gene Kerrigan, Jim Thompson, Karin Alvtegen, Megan Abbott, Roger Smith

Where Did Our Love Go?*

TrustI got an email today from an acquaintance. The email contained a link and invited me to click on it. I didn’t click on the link because the email looked suspiciously like spam. Sure enough, a short time later I got another email from the same person, who explained that the email account had been hacked and that link was a ‘hack’ link. I didn’t automatically assume the email was legitimate because I’ve learned not to implicitly trust email. After all, are there really that many incredibly wealthy people out there who have died and named me their sole heir? If you’ve ever gotten spam like that, you know what I mean.

What’s interesting is that people didn’t used to be that way about email. We used to open it, read it and act on it, often without thinking. Today we’ve learned to be a lot less trusting because too many people have taken advantage of that trust. And that example of email is really just one of many that show that we may not trust as much as we did in the past. Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery got me thinking about this very issue in an interesting comment exchange. Before I go on about it, I’ll wait a moment while you go check out her excellent crime fiction blog and follow it if you’re not. G’head – you’ll be glad you did.

Back now? Thanks. If you look at classic and Golden Age detective fiction for instance, you see quite a few examples of trust that today we would likely not consider. For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes relies for information on a group of young street boys he calls the Baker Street Irregulars. They’re led by a boy named Wiggins who is their liaison with Holmes. Holmes trusts them with surveillance, messages and other assignments and they provide him a great deal of useful information. But if you think about it for a moment, and put it into today’s terms, consider how much trust that involves. He really doesn’t know these boys (except perhaps Wiggins). But he trusts that they won’t gang up on him and rob him. He trusts that they won’t extort him or commit other crimes. Could we say the same of our feelings about today’s ‘street kids?’

Let’s look for instance at Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa and group of young people he encounters in December Heat. In that novel, a fellow cop Vieira is implicated when his girlfriend Lucimar, who calls herself Magali, is killed. Vieira was very drunk on the night of the murder, so he doesn’t remember much about what happened. And his belt was found in Magali’s apartment. What’s more, his wallet and police ID have gone missing. He asks his friend Espinosa to look into the crime and help clear his name. As Espinosa starts looking into the case, he begins to try to trace the wallet. As it turns out, a street boy took it when it fell out of Vieira’s pocket. But trying to find out anything from the ‘street kids’ of Rio de Janeiro is not a simple matter. They know from bitter experience not to trust cops. Ever. They also know that anyone at any time could steal the little they have. And Espinosa is no fool either. He knows how dangerous gangs of young people can be. The story of how he gradually approaches these young people and slowly gets the information he needs is an interesting sub-plot in this novel and it reflects how much less trust is depicted here than in the Conan Doyle stories.

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, beautiful and wealthy Linnet Doyle is on a honeymoon cruise of the Nile with her new husband Simon. One of the other passengers is her American trustee Andrew Pennington. Now that Linnet is married, all of the considerable wealth she’s inherited comes to her directly and Pennington has brought along a raft of papers related to this.  Simon trusts Pennington and is happy to have Linnet sign whatever papers are put in front of her and his attitude may not be unusual for the times. But Linnet wants to read each document carefully before she signs it. What’s interesting here is that her attitude is considered unusually sound, especially for a woman. Today of course, we are all encouraged to read carefully anything we sign before we do so.  In fact I’d bet that many of us wonder at people who sign papers without knowing what they’re signing. In this novel, Linett’s caution turns out to be well-founded as Pennington becomes a suspect when she is murdered. Hercule Poirot, who is on the same cruise and investigates the murder, hears the story of those papers and it alerts him to the possibility that Pennington may have been mishandling his client’s money.

In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, PI Jayne Keeney travels from Bangkok, where she lives and works, to the small town of Pattaya to investigate the death of Maryanne Delbeck. Maryanne was a volunteer at an orphanage/child care facility when she allegedly committed suicide. But her father Jim doesn’t think his daughter killed herself and hires Keeney to find out the truth. One of Keeney’s useful contacts in this case is the head of the Bangkok Tourist Police Major General Wichit. His job is to make Bangkok appealing and safe for tourists but instead of getting shocked at the stories they tell him, he gets frustrated with them for what he sees as their gullibility. For instance, they exchange money outside an official currency exchange booth instead of being wary of strange offers. Then they find that the ‘currency’ they’ve bought is worthless fake money. In fact, Wichit,

 

‘…almost longed for his countrymen to show a little more ingenuity in the scams they pulled.’

 

The central plot threads in this novel aren’t focused on the idea that we trust less now than we used to do. But throughout the story, attitudes such as Wichit’s are common. Instead of a lot of sympathy for those who are swindled, there’s a general feeling that everyone ought to know that you can’t trust anyone, so people shouldn’t fall for scam artists.

In Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet Mervyn Bunter are stranded near the village of Fenchurch St. Paul in East Anglia. The Two men head towards the village where they’re rescued by Rector Theodore Venables. Not only does he bring them in out of the cold but he offers them lodging while their car is repaired. While they’re there, Lady Thorpe, the local squire’s wife, dies of influenza and Wimsey and Bunter stay on for her funeral. Six months later, they hear from Venables again when Lady Thorpe’s husband Sir Henry dies. The gravediggers were preparing for the funeral when they found another corpse in the place prepared for Sir Henry. Venables asks Wimsey to return and investigate and Wimsey agrees. It turns out that the unknown dead man is connected to a long-ago jewel robbery. Although Venables’ generosity is laudable and Wimsey turns out to be a ‘safe bet,’ letting two unknown men into your home for the night is something a lot of us might think twice about today.

And in Roger Smith’s Dust Devils we see a completely different attitude. In that novel, Robert Dell is riding with his wife Rosie and their two children when they are ambushed and their car sent off the road into a gorge. Dell survives and tries to flag down help. And in fact it’s not long before another car comes along. But the family in this car doesn’t stop to help. It’s not because the driver is a ‘bad person’ or unfeeling. But there are too many stories of innocent drivers being carjacked or worse when they stop to help a supposedly stranded person. Dell manages to get back to Cape Town though, only to find himself accused of killing his family members. He’s ‘railroaded’ into prison and thinks that his fate is sealed. Then, unexpectedly, his father Bobby Goodbread, from whom he’s been estranged for years, arranges his escape. Each for different reasons, Dell and Goodbread go in search of the person who killed Dell’s wife and children.

So, are we less trusting today than we were? Possibly. If so, there could be a number of reasons why. It may be that where one lives (safe area vs an area where a lot of crime has been reported, for instance) plays a role. Or it could be that although there’ve always been scams and worse, we’re better informed now. Media and technology have seen to that. Most of us have heard horror stories of financial scams. We’ve read about ways that criminals have found to catch their victims unaware. If we trust less it could be that the stories of what happens when we trust too much have gotten round better. But what do you think about this? Do you think we’re less trusting? Do you think it depends? On what? If we are less trusting, is that just as well? Or have we maybe become too hardened?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I just got an email from the Nigerian Lottery Commission saying I’ve just won millions and millions of dollars!  Lucky lucky me! All I have to do is respond with my bank account details so my winnings can be promptly deposited into my account…    ;-)

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by the great Motown writing team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland, Jr and made famous by The Supremes.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Roger Smith

But It’s Superficial and It’s Only Skin Deep*

Behind the ScenesIf you’ve ever been to a resort, or even an upmarket club or restaurant, you know that everything there is carefully designed to cater to guests. It looks like it all happens by magic but the fact is that a lot goes on behind the scenes. And sometimes the real story comes from the people who make it all happen. The more you see that, the more you understand how little guests and tourists really see unless they look for it. There’s sometimes a real rift between the people who stay at resorts and go to those upmarket places and the people who make them ‘tick.’ That rift, and what really goes on ‘behind the scenes’ in such places, can make for interesting layers in a novel. And let’s face it; murder at a fancy place can have its own sort of ‘story appeal.’ Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery, Miss Marple’s nephew Raymond West arranges for his aunt to take a much-needed holiday at the Golden Palm Hotel in the West Indies. She’s not been there long when she meets Major Palgrave, who tells her the story of a man who was married twice and lost both of his wives, allegedly to suicide. Major Palgrave thinks the women were murdered, though. He doesn’t get the chance to explain why to Miss Marple but she remembers the conversation. When Major Palgrave is found dead the next morning, Miss Marple suspects that someone at the resort is connected with the case Major Palgrave described, and doesn’t want the truth to come out. The people who work ‘behind the scenes’ at this luxury resort have useful information about the case; in fact one of them ends up as a victim because of what she discovers. And it’s those ‘behind the scenes’ people and events that provide the key clues to the older mystery and to the other deaths in this novel.

In Rex Stout’s Too Many Cooks, Nero Wolfe is reluctantly persuaded to travel from his beloved New York brownstone to the posh Kanawha Spa in West Virginia. He’s been invited to deliver the keynote address to Les Quinze Maîtres, a meeting of the fifteen greatest chefs in the world, and against his better judgement he and Archie Goodwin make the trip. One evening, someone stabs one of the master chefs Phillip Laszio. At first, fellow chef Jerome Berin is suspected, but Wolfe doesn’t think he’s guilty. So even though he didn’t want to get involved in the investigation to begin with, he begins to look into the case. Some of the most important clues in this case come from waitstaff and others who work ‘behind the scenes.’ And it’s interesting to see their perceptions of what happens at the spa as opposed to the guests’ perceptions.

Judson Philips wrote a wide range of crime fiction, some of it under the name Hugh Pentecost. Under that pen name he created the Pierre Chambrun series. Chambrun is the manager of New York’s Beaumont Hotel, which caters mostly to the rich and famous. Part of the reason that the hotel is so successful is that everyone who works there knows that the first rule of business is that the guests must not be inconvenienced. So on the surface it looks as though the hotel works almost by magic. But it doesn’t. Chambrun makes it his business to know everything about the guests, and he knows all of his staff members very well too. He uses what he knows to make sure that guests get the ‘royal treatment’ for which they’ve paid. This series is told from the point of view of the hotel’s public relations director Mark Haskell, and that’s an interesting choice of storyteller. Through Haskell’s eyes we get to see how this luxury hotel ‘ticks,’ and we ‘meet’ people that the tourists don’t always get to see. For instance, in The Shape of Fear, Chambrun investigates the murder of long-time resident Murray Cardew. As he looks into the case, we see how people such as chambermaids, bartenders, bellhops and so on turn out to be very useful sources of information.

As anyone who’s been to Venice knows, there are a lot of upmarket places that are designed for tourists. But it’s what goes on behind that façade that interests Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti. For instance, Blood From a Stone begins at an open-air market that caters to tourists. One of the men selling handbags there has just laid out his wares for the day’s business when he’s shot execution-style. Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello investigate the case, and it turns out to be a more difficult investigation than they thought. For one thing, the victim is an unidentified Senegalese immigrant. So finding out who he was and why he was in the city proves to be a challenge. Brunetti and Vianello do find out where the man lived though, and when they get there, they discover a side of life in Venice that the tourists never see – the life of poor illegal immigrants. They also discover that this particular immigrant had a cache of diamonds. It turns out that the man’s death is connected to the diamonds and to arms trafficking.

In Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s My Soul to Take, Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir gets an odd case. Her client Jónas Júlíusson is the owner of an upmarket spa and resort. He wants to sue the former owners of the land on which he’s built his property because he believes the land is haunted. His claim is that the former owners knew that but didn’t tell him. Thóra doesn’t believe in ghosts but she is interested in the fee. Besides, a trip to an upmarket spa isn’t exactly an unwelcome idea. So she takes the case and travels to the spa. Not long after her arrival, the body of fellow guest Birna Hálldorsdóttir is discovered on a beach not far from the resort. Some of the aspects of the murder make Thóra wonder whether it’s related to the stories she’s heard about the land being haunted. She gets even more involved in the murder when her client is accused of the crime and asks her to defend him. As she looks into the case, Thóra discovers that it’s connected to a long-ago disappearance. She also finds that she gets a lot of useful information from receptionists and other staff members who make the resort ‘tick along.’  Through them she hears stories that the ‘regular’ tourists don’t get to know.

We also see that in Roger Smith’s Dust Devils. In that novel, we meet Sonto, who usually goes by her English name Sunday. She lives in Zululand and works at a ‘traditional Zulu village’ designed for tourists. Her boss Xolani, who uses the name Richard, guides the visitors through the village and takes them through ‘traditional ceremonies’ where they think they see what life is like in that area. They don’t. To the tourists, Sunday is a nameless, practically faceless member of the staff that makes the tour run smoothly. But of course Sunday is much more than that. In one of three main plot threads in this story, she is engaged to marry a powerful chieftain Inja Mazibuko. Mazibuko is a killer who’s firmly in the pocket of the minister of finance, so he can get away with whatever he wants, and he’s proven himself useful to the minister on some ‘delicate matters.’ When Sunday sees that she cannot avoid marrying this man (and she has some very personal reasons not to want to do so), she decides to take her fate in her own hands and do whatever she needs to do to get away. Her life is depicted starkly in this novel and it’s a behind-the-scenes life that the tourists don’t get to see.

So the next time you get the chance to stay at an upmarket place or go to an upmarket club or restaurant, remember that it’s not only the posh surface that matters. It’s often those ‘behind the façade’ stories that prove to be the most interesting. Little wonder they work well in crime fiction.

 

ps. The ‘photo is of Las Vegas’ New York, New York resort. Yes, almost all of that ‘photo is of the same hotel/casino. Like a lot of other upmarket places in Las Vegas, it’s what goes on behind that façade that’s really interesting.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ Do it Again.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Hugh Pentecost, Judson Philips, Rex Stout, Roger Smith, Yrsa Sigurdardóttir