The Mysterious Affair of Styles ;-)

StylesWhether you’re getting ready to pull out your spring wardrobe or plan your fall wardrobe, clothes can be important. So it’s a good time for…

 

…a quiz!! Oh come on! Don’t tell me you expected to escape without a quiz! ;-)

 

Most of us have something distinctive about our style of dress. And as a dedicated crime fiction fan, you know all about your favourite sleuths’ clothing styles, don’t you? Or do you? Take this handy quiz and find out. Match each question with the correct answer. Then submit your answers. When you’re done, you’ll be able to review your answers to see which ones you got correct.

 

Ready? Open the dresser drawer to begin – if you dare ;-)

Dresserdrawer

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She’s a Highly Specialized Key Component of Operational Unity*

SecretariesSecretaries and office assistants are often essential to the success of just about any business. The more competent they are, the better the business runs. If you’ve ever had either a very competent or a very incompetent one, you know what I mean.

We see secretaries quite a lot in crime fiction too. Where would Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot be without his secretary Felicity Lemon? Where would Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason be without Della Street? And where would Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti be without Signorina Elettra Zorzi?

The thing about competent secretaries is that very often, they know a lot more about what goes on in a firm than you’d think. And that can make them very vulnerable. There are plenty of examples of this in the genre; here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s The Clocks, we meet Sheila Webb, who works for the Cavendish Secretarial and Typewriting Bureau in the town of Crowdean. One afternoon she is sent to Wilbraham Crescent, where her services have been specially requested. When she arrives at the house, she finds that there’s a dead man in the sitting room. Badly shaken, she rushes out of the house – straight into the arms of Colin Lamb, a special agent who’s in the area working on a case of his own. There are some odd things about this particular crime, so Lamb thinks it will interest his father’s friend Hercule Poirot. Poirot and Lamb, together with DI Richard ‘Dick’ Hardcastle, are looking into what happened when there’s another murder. Now Sheila Webb is mixed up in much more than she thinks…

In Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, PI Nick Charles and his wife Nora are visiting New York City when Nick gets reluctantly drawn into a case. Businessman Claude Wynant seems to have disappeared, and his daughter Dorothy wants to track him down. At first, Nick is unwilling to get involved, but the next morning there’s a shocking new development. Wynant’s secretary Julia Wolf is found murdered. There are several suspects, too, including Wynant himself. Even Nick falls under suspicion, since the Wynant family members, Wynant’s business associates and other suspects seem to use Nick and Nora’s home as a gathering place. In the end, Nick untangles the web of secrets and lies and finds out who killed Julia Wolf and why.

Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s  The Silence of the Rain begins with the death of Richard Carvalho, an executive at the mineral exploration company Planalto Minerações. His body is found in his car, apparently killed by a thief who stole his briefcase and wallet. Inspector Espinosa of the Rio de Janeiro police is called to the scene and begins the investigation. One of the people he wants to interview is Carvalho’s secretary Dona Rose Chaves Benevides. But that turns out to be much more difficult than you’d think. First she’s out sick; then she abruptly disappears. It’s now clear that this death is much more than a case of a robbery gone wrong.

Margaret Maron’s  One Coffee With is the first in her series featuring NYPD Lieutenant Sigrid Harald. In this novel, murder strikes Vanderlyn College’s Department of Art. One morning, department secretary Sandy Kepler goes to the college cafeteria to get coffee for the various faculty members with whom she works. She puts the tray of cups on the top of a filing cabinet and soon, various people come into the department office to get their coffee. Not long afterwards, deputy department chair Riley Quinn dies of what turns out to be poisoning by potassium dichromate. As Harald and her team investigate, they learn that more than one person had a very good reason to poison the victim. Even Sandy herself is a suspect. At the very least, she’s now mixed up in a murder case, just when she was hoping to get her life settled.

In Qiu Xiaolong’s The Enigma of China, Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police finds himself in an extremely difficult situation. He is a rising cadre in the Party with a bright future. He’s also a very well-respected detective, with a reputation for being ethical. So the Party is eager to have him as a consultant when Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, apparently commits suicide. Zhou became the subject of a Party investigation when evidence that he was corrupt was spread on the Internet. He had been placed in extra-legal detention and was at a secure hotel when he apparently hanged himself. That explanation makes sense considering Zhou was a high-level official who was about to be severely punished. Chen comes under a great deal of pressure to sign off on the suicide explanation, but he isn’t quite convinced. As he investigates, Chen finds that his role as a cop comes up against the realities that he discovers, and he has to make some difficult choices. One of the people he interviews is Zhou’s former secretary Fang Fang. She had a very responsible position and could have been privy to quite a lot of information. Even if she knows nothing about her boss’ fate, she may very well be helpful. That’s especially true given that she was also, by all accounts, Zhou’s ‘little secretary,’ which implies that she did more than just make his appointments and manage his office. As Chen interacts with Fang, we see just how vulnerable this case makes her. The same powerful people who want this case handled in a certain way are just as interested in keeping Fang quiet…

And that’s the thing about being a secretary/assistant. You often get to know a lot about what goes where you work. So when there’s shady business or worse, you get mixed up in it, no matter how innocent you are (or aren’t). These are just a few examples. Over to you.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Frank Loesser’s A Secretary is Not a Toy.

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Just One Look, That’s All it Took*

Rose1Not long ago, I read an interesting post from D.S. Nelson about things that it’s best not to say to pregnant women. The post is both witty and spot-on – well-written and well worth a read. And it inspired me to think about the issue from a different perspective: the adoptive family. Adoptive mothers don’t get the pointed remarks about cravings and the well-meant advice about childbirth that pregnant mothers do. But people still have points of view about it. Trust me. And I’ll get to some of the things it’s best not to say to an adoptive parent later in this post.

Adoption hasn’t always been regarded as positively as it is now. In Agatha Christie’s short story Dead Man’s Mirror for instance, we are introduced to the Chevenix-Gore family. It’s an old, proud and distinguished family, and no-one is more conscious of that than the present patriarch Gervase Ghevenix-Gore. He is obsessed with family name and reputation, so when he suspects that someone is cheating him, perhaps someone in his family, the last thing he wants is to make it a public matter. So he summons Hercule Poirot (who is not to keen on being ‘summoned!’) to the family home to investigate. On the night of Poirot’s arrival, Chevenix-Gore is shot in what looks at first like a suicide. No-one really believes that, but there doesn’t seem a way that anyone else could have shot him. Poirot investigates and discovers that this crime isn’t as ‘impossible’ as it seems. One of the suspects in the case is the victim’s adopted daughter Ruth. She’s been told very little about the adoption, and in fact refers to herself as ‘only adopted.’ While the fact that Ruth is adopted isn’t exactly what you’d call scandalous, it’s certainly not discussed frankly as adoption is now.

There’s a very interesting and sometimes intimate portrait of an adoptive family in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Mma. Precious Ramotswe owns Botswana’s only female-owned-and-run private investigation business, and the series of course features the various cases that she and her associate Mma. Grace Makutsi take. The series also shares Mma. Ramotswe’s home life with her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. Early in the series, after the couple’s engagement but before their marriage, he takes on the responsibility for two orphaned children Motholeli and her brother Puso. Mma. Ramotswe is very surprised at first, since he didn’t discuss the matter with her first. But she knows that he can give the children a good home. The four of them become a solid family as the series goes on, and Mma. Ramotswe and her husband gain at least as much from the family bonds as do their children. And that’s the way it works in most adoptive situations. Trust me.

There’s also an interesting look at an adoptive family in Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series. Rafferty is a Bangkok-based ex-pat American travel writer. He’s got a knack for solving problems and finding people who don’t want to be found, so he’s a good choice if you’re looking for a PI. Rafferty has a personal life too. He is married to Rose, a former bar girl who now owns her own apartment cleaning business. And he and Rose have an adopted daughter Miaow, a former street child. This series actually shows a few things about adoption. One is that in many cases (certainly not all!) the people who work for adoption agencies do want children to find healthy and loving homes with parents who will care for them and love them. Another is that because of that, the adoption process can be time-consuming and sometimes frustrating. There are background checks, home visits, financial solvency checks and more. Trust me. There is no such thing as privacy if you’re a prospective adoptive parent. Still, the ‘vetting’ process makes sense if the goal is ensure the safety and well-being of each child.

Everyone has to make a lot of adjustments when there’s an adoption. Just ask Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her husband Zack. They are the adoptive parents of Taylor, a gifted artist whose mother was murdered when she was very young. Taylor is bright and loving, and she has developed strong bonds with her adoptive family. But she has her own issues to deal with, and it’s not always easy to be around her. Her parents too have their share of ‘baggage,’ as we all do. They have a good marriage and they love each other, but things don’t always go smoothly. And Joanne has three adult children from her first marriage; that presents another level of complexity. But through it all, the commitment that the Shreves have made to Taylor and vice versa is obvious. The ‘family’ story arcs in this series really show, among other things, what adoption means on an everyday basis.

Adoption can be a complex process, especially if it’s handled legally and ethically, even when the biological parents have died. It’s even more so when one or both is alive. Add in the fact of international adoption and you have a very complicated situation. We get a look at that in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. In that novel, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney takes on a new client Jim Delbeck. His daughter Maryanne died in Pattaya after a fall (or jump, or push) from the roof of the building where she was living. The official police report says that the death was a suicide, but Delbeck doesn’t believe that. Keeney travels to Pattaya and begins to look into the victim’s life there. She discovers that Maryanne was a volunteer at New Life Children’s Centre, an agency that prepares adoptable Thai babies for life with international adoptive parents. There’s more going on at New Life than it seems on the surface, and Keeney finds that out too. She also learns what, exactly, happened to Maryanne and why. In the course of the novel, we follow the story of one baby named Kob. When he is made available for adoption, he’s matched with an American couple who are absolutely joyful about the news. Honestly, there’s nothing like that ‘phone call. It’s…indescribable. One of the plot threads concerns their trip to Thailand to get their new son, and Keeney’s involvement in that process.

Adoption is a unique way of building a family. It brings with it all the joys of any other kind of parenthood, and some of its own. It brings with it different kinds of complexities and different kinds of issues. Just ask any adoptive parent…

And now, here are

 

Five Things Not To Say To An Adoptive Mother

 

  • How much did it cost? Really? You’d ask something that personal? You don’t even know me!! The only people I don’t mind asking that question are prospective adoptive couples whom I know and who are trying to plan their future. Anyone else, please kindly mind your own business.

  • Are you going to tell him/her? (AKA Does s/he know?) Of course we told our daughter she’s adopted! It’s as much a part of her identity as her physical appearance is. I especially mind this question if it’s asked in a hushed, anxious voice, as though discussing some sort of illness. Adoption is not an illness.

  • Why did you have to adopt? Is there something wrong with adoption? This question always implies (to me anyway) that adoption is some sort of ‘second-class’ parenthood – a fallback position. Our daughter is not second-class. And neither are we.

  • Oh, well, at least you didn’t have to deal with labour pains and delivery. You had it easy. Easy? EASY? OK, all respect (and I’m being quite serious) to those who give birth. It’s painful, sometimes lengthy, and sometimes risky. And pregnancy has its own challenges. But adoption is not easy. Not if you do it ethically. It’s nerve-wracking, it’s complicated, it’s time-consuming, it’s sometimes heartbreaking and you get no privacy. It can be very expensive, too, and all kinds of people who don’t really know you (some who’ve never even met you) get to judge you. The adoption process and the birth process are different. Neither is easy. But both end in the joy of having children. Please, let’s leave it at that.

 

And finally… my least favourite question:

  • What do you know about his/her real mother? Excuse me? I know her very well, thank you. I see her in the glass every time I look into it. Who do you think sits up with my child at night? Takes my child to the doctor? Insists that schoolwork be done and friends be appropriate? Listens to my child’s dreams and fears? Knows my child’s favourite films and books? I won’t go on. You get the idea. I really dislike this question. I really do.

 

So please, next time you talk to an adoptive parent, think about what you’re saying. Especially if that parent is a crime writer ;-) –  Thanks, D.S., for the inspiration.

 

 
 

ps. The ‘photo is the first look we ever got at our daughter, when we were matched with her. She was three months old when that was taken. One look was all it took…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Doris Troy and Gregory Carroll’s Just One Look.

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In The Spotlight: Christine Poulson’s Murder is Academic

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. For many people, there’s just something about the academic setting that lends itself particularly well to a crime novel. First there’s the physical setting, often lovely and full of history. Then, there’s the fact that university campuses bring together all sorts of diverse people with their own backgrounds, conflicts and so on. There’s also the fact of campus politics, which often have a role to play in university life. Put these together and you have quite a context for a murder mystery. Let’s take a closer look at one today. Let’s turn the spotlight on Christie Poulson’s Murder is Academic (AKA Dead Letters)

The novel begins with the death of Margaret Joplin, head of the English Literature Department at St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge. Her colleague Cassandra James finds the body in the swimming pool when she goes to Joplin’s home to collect some final exam papers. At first, it looks as though the death was a terrible accident. But it’s not long before certain hints begin to suggest otherwise.

One possibility is that Joplin committed suicide. There doesn’t seem to be much motive, though, and James doesn’t really believe it. If it was murder, James now has to face the possibility that someone she knows could be a killer.  And soon enough, it’s clear that the killer may be targeting her. As she gets to know more about her former boss, James sees that there’s more than one suspect. For one thing, Joplin had a complicated personal life. For another, there’s reason to believe someone from the department might have been responsible.

In the meantime, James has other matters on her mind. She’s been named Acting Head of the English Literature Department, which means increased administrative responsibility. It also means she will be responsible for getting the department ready for the next Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The department’s funding depends critically on how successful it is at passing the exercise. It will be James’ responsibility to get everyone’s scholarship, including her own, up-to-date and impressive-looking.

As if that’s not enough, she discovers that she’s pregnant. She loves her partner (and the baby’s father) Stephen Lawton, but neither was ready for such a major change and permanent commitment. The pregnancy puts everything into a different light.

It also makes James more vulnerable as she tries to get everyone ready for the RAE and find out who killed Margaret Joplin before the killer gets to her first. In the end, and after another tragedy, James finds out the truth about how everything is connected. She also finds out some other surprising truths.

This is an academic mystery, so we get a close look at what life is like at a Cambridge college. There are papers to read and mark, plenty of campus politics and the inevitable student issues. And there is the never-ending pressure to publish, as well as the jockeying for funding. Life at Cambridge is certainly far from peaceful, even when there aren’t murders.

For all that, the novel also shows us the positive side of the academic life. There is a sense of camaraderie in the department, although everyone is shaken by the events in the novel. And of course there’s the beautiful Cambridge setting. There’s also the enjoyment these scholars get from their own literary interests. It may not be easy to be in academe, but these characters couldn’t really imagine not living the academic life.

And characters are an important element in this novel. First, there’s Cassandra James. An expert in Victorian literature, she’s independent and intelligent, and she enjoys what she does, despite its stresses. She isn’t overly keen to become a sleuth. At the same time, though, she feels the need to deal with her own sense of grief and loss at her boss’ death. There’s also the fact that discovering the body was a very traumatic experience for her. Part of looking for answers arguably has to do with her need to get closure for herself. As the novel moves on, and it’s clear that someone could very well be targeting her, we also see that James is as vulnerable as any of us would be, all the more so as her pregnancy progresses. She doesn’t take implausible chances, but at the same time, she wants to go on with her life and not give in to her fears.

There are other interesting characters in the novel as well. For instance, there’s Alison Stirling, the department’s specialist in 16th and 17th Century literature. And there’s Adien Frazer, the department’s newest hire, who has an Edwardian kind of look about him, and a real appeal for the female (and some of the male) students. There’s also her colleague Merfyn, who’s interested in séances and believes that he’s been channeling Arthur Conan Doyle as he writes. Each of them has a share of eccentricities, if you want to call it that, but they all contribute to the department. And they all contribute to the sense of atmosphere in the novel. Also, without spoiling the story, I can say that some of the situations involving them add some solid humour to it.

The mystery itself is a ‘whodunit,’ and when we learn the answer to that question, the ‘whydunit’ part is logical. And James discovers what really happened in a way that fits both her background and expertise, and the university setting. It’s also worth noting here that, while this isn’t a really light novel, there is a minimum of violence. The tension and suspense in the novel (and they certainly are there) are more psychological than they are dependent upon violence.

Murder is Academic is a uniquely ‘university’ academic mystery, with a distinctive Cambridge setting and characters who will be familiar to those who know the university context. It features a protagonist who fits into that context, and a close and sometimes wryly humourous look at life in the world of higher education. But what’s your view? Have you read Murder is Academic? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 

 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday 28 July/Tuesday 29 July – The Collini Case – Ferdinand von Schirach

Monday 4 August/Tuesday 5 August – The Anatomy of Death – Felicity Young

Monday 11 August/Tuesday 12 August – Salvation of a Saint – Keigo Hagashino

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Millions of Hearts Were Lifted, Proud of the Human Race*

Moon LandingWhen you read a lot of crime fiction, it’s easy to get caught up in how awful human beings can be to each other. After all, crime fiction is about, well, crime – mostly murder. Some fictional characters are horrible people.  And yet, human beings are also capable of truly remarkable achievement. That may sound odd, coming from someone who writes crime stories. Don’t believe me? A quick look at crime fiction shows us it’s true.

There are some gifted musical artists in crime fiction – the kind that can lift one up to great heights. For instance, Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory introduces us to Gideon Davies, a world-class violinist whose work is transcendent. He’s passionate about his music, which is why he’s so devastated when one night, he finds that he can’t play. His search for answers leads him back to his family’s past, the dynamics among its members, and the awful effect of the death of his younger sister many years earlier.

Some people achieve greatness in their acting. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death. Seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Ginny’ Boynton has real potential as an actress, but no-one really knows it at first. Her mother is a tyrant – a ‘mental sadist,’ as Hercule Poirot puts it – who has the entire family completely cowed. When she is murdered during a sightseeing trip to Petra, Colonel Carbury asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Once he discovers who killed Mrs. Boynton and why, Ginny is finally free to pursue her acting career, and her ability is transcendent.

And then there are other characters who transcend human limits through their art. In Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve series for instance, we meet Joanne’s daughter Taylor. She is a gifted artist who, even at the young age of fourteen, is already poised for real greatness in her career. Her passion for what she does is evident in the books that feature her, and her parents have to balance their desire to nurture that potential with their equally strong desire to give Taylor a ‘normal’ childhood.

Some people find great achievement in medicine and science. In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), for instance, we are introduced to Dr. John Christow. He’s a Harley Street specialist who is passionate about medical science. His goal is to find a cure for Ridgeway’s Disease, and he’s made some real inroads into the process. Tragically, he is shot one weekend while he’s staying at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage in the area, and he works with Inspector Grange to find out who killed Christow and why.

I’m sure that you could list many more books in which we see how much greatness people can achieve. In just about every endeavor, we see examples of people who prove that we can go far above and beyond the kind of human frailty that’s so often the focus of crime novels.

And it’s not just in crime novels that we see that kind of achievement. As I post this, it’s the 45th anniversary of 1969_moon_landingone of humankind’s greatest achievements, the first landing on the Moon.

Do you remember that incredible moment? If you do, then you know what excitement there was all over the world. Those famous lines ‘Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,’ and ‘That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind’ still resonate after more than four decades. They are a reminder that when we put our energy and minds to a task, we are capable of just about anything.

That Moon landing took years of hard work, dedication, failure and recouping lost ground on the part of a lot of people. And that’s another thing that made this achievement so spectacular. Thousands of people worked together to make it possible. And it depended on the previous work of many others. Before then, and since then, people gave their lives in the pursuit of human greatness. There were long lists of mistakes, some of them tragic. We still have a long way to go. But at that moment, when Apollo 11 touched down on the Moon and those astronauts walked on it, we were reminded of what people can achieve.

Whether it’s in the fields of science, politics, law, social justice, education, the arts or something else, it’s a good thing to look to the Moon and stars sometimes, and imagine what is possible. Humans are capable of unimaginable ferocity, even evil. But we are also capable of equally unimaginable greatness. I know. I’ve seen it. It may be naïve of me, but I still believe in it.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Byrds’ Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins.

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