No One Cares For You a Smidge When You’re In An Orphanage*

OrphanagesMost children are cared for by at least one of their parents. When that’s not possible, they’re sometimes cared for by grandparents or other relations. And in some cultures, it would be unthinkable for any other kind of arrangement to be made. But there are also plenty of situations where there really isn’t anyone who can care for a child, especially when both parents have died and there are no near relations. That’s one reason for which orphanages were established.

If you’ve read Charles Dickens or Charlotte Brontë, you may think of orphanages as horrible places of abuse and neglect. And some of the literary (and real) ones have been just that. But like most places, orphanages aren’t all alike, and they’re not all portrayed in the same way in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Marie Morisot suddenly dies during a flight from Paris to London. It turns out that she was murdered, and that the only possible suspects are her fellow passengers. So Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same flight, looks into each one’s background to find the killer. The victim was a well-known moneylender (she did business as Madame Giselle) who used secrets about her clients as collateral, so there are several possibilities. One is Jane Grey, a London hairstylist’s assistant who, as it turns out, was raised in an orphanage. Here’s what she has to say about it:
 

‘I don’t mean that we were the type of charity orphans who go about in scarlet bonnets and cloaks. It was quite fun, really.’
 

The mystery of who killed the victim doesn’t hinge on the fact that Jane was brought up in an orphanage. But it’s interesting to see that her experiences weren’t the melodramatic horror stories that sometimes come from such places.

There’s a very different portrait of an orphanage presented in Jonathan Kellerman’s When the Bough Breaks. In that novel, child psychologist Alex Delaware is asked to assist in the investigation of the murders of psychiatrist Morton Handler and his lover Elena Gutierrez. The lone witness to the murder is seven-year-old Melody Quinn, and her account is neither complete nor coherent. Milo Sturgis of the LAPD is hoping that his friend Delaware will be able to get Melody to open up and tell everything that she knows. In the process of trying to work with Melody, Delaware finds himself getting more and more drawn into the case. And one part of the trail leads to La Casa de los Niños, an orphanage/residential facility for children with special needs and behaviour issues. As it turns out, the murders, as well as other events in the story, have everything to do with past history. And one part of the truth lies in what’s going on at the orphanage.

One of the ‘regulars’ in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is Mma. Silvia Potokwane. She’s a good friend to Mma. Precious Ramotswe, who runs the titular agency, and she plays an important role in the local community. Mma. Potokwane runs an orphanage to which she devotes all of her energy. She is a tireless advocate for ‘her’ children, and is always looking for ways to make their lives better. She depends on Mma. Ramotswe’s husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to keep the orphanage’s machinery and appliances running, often long after they really should have given out. She also sponsors several events in aid of the orphanage. But her dedication goes beyond those administrative matters. She knows that the ideal situation for each child is a loving home, so whenever possible, that’s what she tries to arrange for each of the children in her care. In fact, she persuades Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to take in two orphans, Motholeli and her brother Puso. So when Mma. Ramotswe marries him, she actually gets a sort of ready-made family. For the children who can’t so easily find homes, Mma. Potokwane works hard to create the most loving atmosphere she can, given a limited budget and the realities of caring for a large group of children. In this series, the orphanage is presented in a very positive way, and it’s largely because of Mma. Potokwane’s efforts.

And then there’s Fred Vargas’ Seeking Whom He May Devour. In that novel, the villagers of Ventebrune and Pierrefort, in the French Alps, are unsettled when nine sheep are found with their throats slashed. Everyone thinks at first that it’s a pack of rogue wolves. But then, a sheep breeder named Suzanne Rosselin is found dead in one of her sheep pens, murdered in the same way as the sheep. It’s unlikely that this would be the work of a wolf, and some locals say a werewolf is responsible for the killings. What’s more, they think they know who’s responsible: a loner named Auguste Massart, who seems to have disappeared. Three locals decide to go after Massart and see if they can find out what exactly happened to the sheep and to Suzanne Rosselin. But they’re not particularly good at tracking and they end up contacting Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. Adamsberg travels to the French Alps to find out the truth about the mysterious events in the area, and discovers that the cause isn’t a werewolf at all. The motive goes back into the past, and what’s interesting is that as Adamsberg puts the pieces together, he discovers that one of the characters spent time in an orphanage. Here’s a bit of the conversation about it between Adamsberg and another commissaire:
 

He was in a home, a sort of state orphanage.’ [Adamsberg]
‘Iron discipline?’
‘No, it seems to have been a reasonable place…’
 

I think I can say without spoiling the story that in this case, the orphanage was a better choice than home life would have been.

That belief – that certain children have a better chance at an orphanage than they would elsewhere – also motivates Frank Harding, whom we meet in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. Harding runs the New Life Children’s Centre, located in Pattaya, Thailand. One of New Life’s goals is to match the babies and young children who live there with adoptive families. Once they are matched, volunteers prepare the little ones for their new homes by speaking English (or whatever the child’s new language will be), interacting with them and so on. When one of those volunteers, Maryanne Delbeck, suddenly dies, her father Jim wants to know why. According to the police report, she committed suicide by jumping from the roof of the building where she lived. But Delbeck is convinced that his daughter didn’t kill herself. So he hires Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney to find out what happened. Keeney agrees and goes undercover at New Life to see whether there might be a connection between the victim’s volunteer work and her death. As Keeney learns more about New Life, readers learn about the process of matching children in a orphanage with prospective adoptive parents. We also learn about the intricacies of foreign adoptions.

Orphanages may not be the ideal situation for a child. And some of them are unspeakable. But as crime fiction shows us, they’re as varied as the people who run them and live there are. Which fictional orphanages have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Charles Strouse and Martin Chamin’s Hard Knock Life.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Fred Vargas, Jonathan Kellerman

An Englishman’s Way of Speaking Absolutely Classifies Him*

Adjusting LanguageThere’s an interesting theory of language that suggests that we adjust the way we speak in order to identify with a particular group. If this theory (it’s called Speech Accommodation Theory, or SAT) is correct, people often do that because they’re members of that group, and feel a connection. Or they want to be accepted into the group, so they adjust their language to express solidarity. If you’ve noticed that you change your way of speaking depending on the group of people you’re with, you know from your own experience how this works.

It happens in crime fiction, too, and it’s an interesting way for authors to show not tell, as the saying goes, what a character is like. It’s also an effective way for a fictional sleuth to ‘fit in.’ Let me just offer a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot takes the Orient Express train through Europe back to London to deal with some new developments in a case he’s working. On the second night of the journey, one of his fellow passengers, Samuel Ratchett, is stabbed. M. Bouc, who’s one of the travel company’s directors, is also on board the train and asks Poirot to find out who the killer is. Poirot agrees and begins to look into the case. The only possible suspects are the other passengers in the same car as as the victim, so Poirot concentrates his efforts there. It turns out that this murder has everything to do with a past incident. One of the interesting elements in this novel is the way language is adjusted in order to give a certain impression. If you’ve read the novel, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, and you do read it at some point, keep in mind that not everything is the way it sounds…

Arthur Upfield’s Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte is a member of the Queensland Police. He’s in the interesting position of being a part of two cultural communities, since his father was White and his mother belonged to one of the Aboriginal groups. He actually identifies himself in two different ways, and in more than one novel there are references to his dual identity. Bony adjusts his language and his cultural ways to suit the needs of situations in which he finds himself. When he’s with other Aborigines, he uses their language and their ways. When he’s with Whites, he speaks standard Australian English. What’s more, he’s even able to adjust his dialect if it’s necessary. This language adjustment is an authentic reflection of Bony’s own identity; it’s also a way for him to put people enough at their ease that they’re more willing to talk to him than they might otherwise be.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a Navajo Tribal Police officer, and a member of the Navajo Nation. He uses English quite a lot of the time, but he also speaks Navajo, and uses it to express his kinship with that group. Even when he’s speaking in English, if the person he’s talking to is Navajo, you’ll find that Navajo words, phrases and cultural references are sprinkled into what he says. And sometimes, he completely code switches to Navajo when he’s speaking to a fellow Navajo. Chee is a cop, so part of the reason he adjusts his speech as he does is to make others feel comfortable enough to tell him what he wants to know. In other words, it’s a deliberate adjustment made for a specific purpose. But he adjusts his speech that way in more casual moments too, so there’s a good argument that he also does it to belong – to be a part of his community.

One of Martin Edwards’ series features Harry Devlin, a Liverpool attorney who works with a somewhat down-and-out firm. Although he’s educated and uses standard British English, Devlin can easily adjust his speech to the Scouser variety of English that’s common in the Liverpool area. And he finds that that’s to his advantage in All The Lonely People. In that novel, Devlin is surprised to say the least when his estranged wife Liz comes back into his life, asking if she can stay with him for a bit. Devlin accepts, hoping that this may mean she is interested in a reconciliation. Two nights later, Liz is stabbed and her body found in an alley. Devlin is determined to find out who killed her, and it’s in his pragmatic interest anyway, since that will clear his own name. So he starts to ask questions. The trail leads through some of Liverpool’s poorer and more dangerous areas, and Devlin knows that he’s not likely to be trusted, to say the least, if he uses his own way of speaking. So he adjusts his speech and adopts
 

‘…a congested Scouse accent…’
 

when he talks to some of those he meets. That change doesn’t solve Liz’ murder, but it does mark Devlin as ‘one of us,’ in some people’s eyes, and that gets him information he probably wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is a proud francophone Québécois, as are several members of the police with whom he works on his cases. And it’s very interesting to see how they interact when they’re speaking with other francophones as opposed to when they’re speaking with native speakers of English. For instance, in Still Life, Gamache and his team go to the small town of Three Pines to investigate the murder of former school teacher Jane Neal. Here’s a snippet of what happens when he speaks to a local police officer Agent Robert Lemieux. Lemieux was first on the scene, and secured the area, so his input about what and whom he saw is important:
 

“Bien sûr! I saw that man over there [indicating a possible witness]. An Anglais, I suspected, by his clothes and his pallor. The English, I have noticed, have weak stomachs.’…
It had also been Lemieux’s experience that the English had no clothes sense, and this man in his plaid flannel shirt could not possibly be francophone.’

 

Lemieux identifies closely with fellow francophones, so he adjusts his language (and his comments!) to express solidarity with them. Fans of this series will know that as a rule, things are different when the team members are speaking with anglophones.

One of Anya Lipska’s protagonists is Januscz ‘Janek’ Kiszka, a Polish immigrant who now lives in London. Kiszka speaks fluent English, and when he interacts with native speakers of that language (such as Lipska’s other protagonist DC Natalie Kershaw), he uses English. He sometimes misses Poland, but he’s comfortable enough in England. However, he’s culturally and linguistically Polish, and uses that language to identify with other Poles. Even when he’s speaking English with fellow Poles, he uses Polish expressions and makes Polish cultural references. He adjusts his language in great part to express solidarity with people from his own background. Kiszka’s ability to adjust his language to fit in is part of why he’s got a reputation in his own community as a ‘fixer.’ He helps his fellow Poles to get things done, to arrange paperwork, to negotiate life in London and so on. And that’s why Kershaw also finds his input useful. In Where the Devil Can’t Go and Death Can’t Take a Joke, she investigates cases that reach into the Polish community. Kiszka is a member of that group and provides valuable insights.

We may not consciously be aware of it, but we do adjust the way we speak, and there’s a solid argument that we do so at least in part to identify with a particular group (or to identify ourselves as not belonging to a given group). So it’s little wonder that we see these language adjustments in crime fiction too. Which ones have stood out in your mind?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Overture/Why Can’t the English.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Arthur Upfield, Louise Penny, Martin Edwards, Tony Hillerman

In The Spotlight: Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some crime novels raise very difficult and challenging moral and ethical issues even as they tell the story of a crime and its investigation. They make readers think about what they might do in a similar situation. Such a novel is Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone, so to show you what I mean, let’s turn the spotlight on that novel today.

Dorchester, Massachusetts PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro get a visit from Lionel and Beatrice McCready, who have a heartbreaking case for the detectives. Their four-year-old niece Amanda disappeared from her mother Helene’s home one night, and hasn’t been seen since then. Kenzie and Gennaro have already heard about the case; the child’s picture has been posted everywhere and the media has made much of it. There’s a large number of Boston-area police looking for the child, and the public’s been urged to pass on any information or leads to the authorities.

With all of this attention and so many police officers already working the case, Kenzie and Gennaro don’t see what more they can do. Besides, they’re recovering from a previous case and are in no rush to get involved in such a terrible situation. Chances are that even if the child is still alive, she’s already been seriously damaged psychologically, and neither detective is eager to get enmeshed in the emotional minefield of a missing child. But Beatrice McCready especially is absolutely determined to do something for Amanda and as the saying goes, she won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. So the detectives are finally persuaded to at least meet the missing girl’s mother and find out more.

From the moment they do meet her, neither detective is impressed with Helene McCready. To say the least, she’s not an attentive mother. She wasn’t at home at the time Amanda was taken; in fact, she’d left the girl alone. The more Kenzie and Gennaro learn about her, the more convinced they are that she doesn’t provide a safe, loving environment for Amanda. Still, she is the child’s mother. More than that, Beatrice reminds them that, whatever they may think of Helene, Amanda is somewhere, possibly in terrible danger, and needs all the help she can get.

Finally, and reluctantly, Kenzie and Gennaro begin to look into the case. As they start to gather the facts, it becomes clear that there are several possibilities here. For one thing, there have been other child abductions. It could be that the same people are also responsible for taking Amanda. And then there’s the fact that Helene has a drug habit. In order to support that habit and get extra money, she’s gotten mixed up with some very nasty drug dealers. And at one point it comes out that she was involved, however innocently, in a plan to double-cross them. These are people who could easily be angry enough with her to take Amanda as revenge if they thought she cheated them. It’s also possible that someone completely different – someone who isn’t yet known to the police, as the saying goes – could be responsible. And what about Helene herself? After all, there’ve been mothers before who were responsible for the deaths of their children.

Kenzie and Gennaro follow up on the leads they get, only to find that nothing is really as it seems in this case. The closer they get to the truth, the harder it is to really know who’s trustworthy, who isn’t, and who’s telling the truth. In the end though, they discover what happened to Amanda MacCready.

This novel takes place mostly in and around working-class Dorchester, and Lehane places the reader distinctly there. It’s a ‘hard luck’ sort of place with little hope or optimism. There are plenty of empty shells of buildings, sleazy bars and unemployed, hopeless people. The police who work the area have seen some unspeakable things, and there’s an atmosphere of decay in the area. Kenzie grew up there, and knows a few people who still live there. Through his eyes we get to see what life in this place is like.

This isn’t really a story about ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys.’ There is a great deal of moral ambiguity about a lot of the characters, including Kenzie and Gennaro. In several places in the novel, they’re faced with difficult choices, and there are no easy answers to some of the questions raised by the search for Amanda. In that sense, this is a difficult novel to read. Readers who like clear choices will notice this. Readers who prefer novels that can spark serious debates will be pleased.

The novel is also difficult in another way. Any story that has to do with the abduction of children and violence against them can be upsetting and disturbing, and this one is no different. Readers who are unsettled by the topic of harm coming to children will want to be aware that child abduction is a major theme in the novel. There is plenty of violence against adults too, some of it ugly. Lehane doesn’t ‘sugar coat’ the reality of child abduction cases, the reality of life in Dorchester or the kinds of people Kenzie and Gennaro encounter as they work this case.

The mystery itself – what happened to Amanda McCready – is solved by PIs. So we follow along as they interview witnesses, get the records they can and use their contacts. The case isn’t solved by intuition or a lot of coincidence. It’s also worth noting that the fact that Kenzie and Gennaro are Pis gives them an edge, since very few people in the area trust the police.

The pace and suspense level are important elements in this novel. There’s the sense of urgency that goes with the fact that a little child has gone missing, and that every moment counts when it comes to looking for her. There’s also the fact that some dangerous people are mixed up in this case. One dead PI more or less won’t matter to them at all. Kenzie and Gennario know this too, and although they’re brave, that doesn’t mean they’re not also vulnerable. Perhaps the most important layer of suspense though comes from the fact that as the novel goes on, it’s less and less clear who’s trustworthy and who’s not. It’s also less and less clear who’s right and who’s not.

Gone, Baby, Gone is the hard-edged story of the effects on everyone when a child is abducted. It’s also a look at life in a working-class/poverty stricken area. The novel raises important and challenging larger questions, and features PIs who have to make their way through a very difficult emotionally and physically draining case. But what’s your view? Have you read Gone, Baby, Gone? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday 1 September/Tuesday 2 September – A Hank of Hair – Charlotte Jay

Monday 8 September/Tuesday 9 September – Dead Simple – Peter James

Monday 15 September/Tuesday 16 September – A Beautiful Place to Die – Malla Nunn

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Filed under Dennis Lehane, Gone

The Crowd Went Crazy*

Crowd EnergyThere’s something about excitement that seems to be infectious. Think for instance about the difference between the way you feel when you get online tickets to see a favourite musician in concert, and the way you feel when you’re in line to get in, sharing that excitement with a lot of other people who are also fans. The energy level, if you want to put it that way, is fed by everyone’s enthusiasm, so that the excitement can reach almost a fever pitch. That much energy can be a real jolt of adrenaline. It can also lead to conflict and worse, as all high-energy moments can. You see that in real-life situations (e.g. fights at sporting events or concerts), and it’s definitely there in crime fiction. That kind of mass excitement can make for a real layer of tension in a story.

For instance, Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers explores the way group energy works. Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne is working on an exposé of dubious developer Denny Graham. She’s gathering her interviews and background material, and is getting ready to put her piece together. Then her boss asks her to turn her focus on the 30th anniversary of the 1981 Sprinboks tour of New Zealand – ‘The Tour,’ as it’s often called. At that time, apartheid was very much in place in South Africa, so a lot of people deeply opposed the Sprinboks’ visit. On the other hand, dedicated rugby fans (of which there were many) wanted to watch the tour matches. They were excited about the upcoming competitions and didn’t really care as much about the politics involved. The Springboks duly toured, but their visit led to a lot of ugly protests and the police reaction was sometimes violent. Thorne knows the story was important, but she believes it’s already been done enough. Still, at her boss’ request, she looks for a fresh angle on what happened and she soon finds it. In the midst of the fever-pitch excitement about the actual rugby and the equally strong passion rising from the protests, there was a murder. It was never solved, and Thorne thinks that looking into it will be the new angle she needs.

That’s not by any means the only novel in which we see that level of fever-pitch energy about a sporting event. Peter Temple’s Melbourne PI Jack Irish is a Fitzroy supporter, and whenever he stops in to his father’s old haunt The Prince of Prussia, he shares his love of the team with others. Some of his father’s old friends still go there, and football is everyone’s favourite topic of discussion. Here’s a scene for instance from Bad Debts. Irish has just returned from a trip out of town:
 

‘‘I had to go to Sydney,’ I said. ‘Work.’…
‘What kind of work does a man have in Sydney on Satdee arvo?’ said Norm O’Neill in a tone of amazement. These men would no more consider being away from Melbourne on a Saturday in the football season than they would consider enrolling in personal development courses.’

 

For most of these men, a good part of the excitement they get from football is the shared energy that comes from spending time with other Fitzroy fans.

It’s not just sport either of course that generates that kind of crowd-fed-frenzy. Film and theatre stars and events do too. In Josephine Tey’s The Man in the Queue, for example, a large crowd is waiting outside the door of the Woofington Theatre. They’re all eager fans of acting sensation Ray Macable, and they’re anxious for the start of the evening’s performance. Everyone’s excitement and shared energy builds until the doors are finally opened. Then people begin to push forward in the way that crowds do. That shared excitement is part of the reason for which no-one notices that a man waiting in the group has been stabbed. When he falls forward, dead, the police are summoned and Inspector Alan Grant takes over the investigation. One of the challenges he faces is that everyone was so excited about the play that they paid little attention to anything else going on.

Sometimes, religious or spiritual gatherings can generate that kind of shared excitement too. There are a lot of examples of this in crime fiction; I’ll just mention one. In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, we meet Dr. Suresh Jha. He is the founder and leader of the Delhi Institute for Rationalism and Education (D.I.R.E.). His mission is to expose people – he calls them the godmen – who prey on others’ need for spiritualism in order to cheat them. To do that, he and his group try to debunk every spiritual myth they can. One morning, he attends a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club. The group is going through their laughing exercises when according to witnesses the goddess Kali suddenly appears and stabs Jha. Certainly there’s evidence that he was stabbed to death. Many people say that the goddess actually did appear and killed Jha in retribution for his lack of faith. But PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri doesn’t think so. So he and his team look into the matter. They find that more than one person might have wanted the victim dead, and could have had the necessary knowledge to create the illusion that Kali was responsible. One of those suspects is Maharaj Swami, a spiritual leader who has his own ashram. Puri and his team decide to do a little undercover work to find out more about this man. One of Puri’s associates is a young woman who goes by many names, but is usually nicknamed ‘Facecream’ because she blends in anywhere. She pretends to be drawn to Swami’s spiritual message and joins the ashram as a new recruit. At the various group meetings and spiritual events, it’s easy to see how religious and spiritual fervor can spread. That excitement causes a lot of behaviour that you wouldn’t likely see if the group weren’t gathered together, all sharing the event.

Political rallies and other gatherings can also bring out this group energy that leads almost to frenzy. We see that in several crime novels. For instance, in Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men, which takes place in 1932, Rowland Sinclair and his family are some of the few wealthy and powerful people who’ve escaped the worst of the Great Depression. Their lives are drastically changed though when Sinclair’s uncle, also named Rowland, is found bludgeoned to death. At first, the police wonder if the victim’s housekeeper Mrs. Donelly might know more than she’s saying about the murder. But Rowland is sure she’s completely innocent. He decides to ask some questions and find out the truth for himself. The trail soon leads to a far-Right group called The New Guard, and their leader Colonel Eric Campbell. So Rowland goes undercover as a new recruit to this faction, hoping he can get close to Campbell and get the answers he wants. In the end, we do learn the truth about Sinclair’s death. We also see the fervor engendered by some of the New Guard’s rallies. There’s at least as much frenzy there as there is at any rock concert.

That sort of shared excitement can make people who ordinarily behave sensibly do all sorts of things, like yelling, hugging complete strangers and more. It can even make you ‘camp out’ most of the night during a near-blizzard to get tickets to an event. Wait, what? There’s something wrong with that? Hey, I got third-row centre seats to that concert! ;-)
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Who’s Sally Simpson.

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Filed under Josephine Tey, Paddy Richardson, Peter Temple, Sulari Gentill, Tarquin Hall

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.

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