Strike Up the Band ;-)

There’s nothing like listening to music to free you and make your day better. And thinking about beautiful music has me thinking about…

 

 

…a quiz!!!  Oh please!   If you don’t know by now to be  careful around here, that’s hardly my fault, is it? 😉

 

Music is important to a lot of people. That’s just as true in crime fiction as it is in real life. And, as a dedicated crime fiction fan, you know your musical sleuths and stories don’t you? Or do you? Take this handy quiz and find out. Match each question to the correct answer and see how many you get right.

 

Ready? Put the headphones on to begin… if you dare! 😉

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In The Spotlight: Jane Haddam’s Not a Creature Was Stirring

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There’s something about what a lot of people call the country house mystery. The house doesn’t always have to actually be in the countryside; but such a story usually involves a disparate group of people who have gathered, a sense of isolation, and, of course, a murder. Such a story is Jane Haddam’s Not a Creature Was Stirring, the first of her Gregor Demarkian novels, so let’s turn the spotlight on that story today.

The real action in the novel begins when Philadelphia-based former FBI agent Gregor Demarkian gets a note from the local parish priest, Father Tibor, asking him to pay the priest a visit. Father Tibor has had a very unusual request, and he’s agreed to pass it along to Demarkian. A very wealthy man named Robert Hannaford wants Demarkian to have dinner with his family on Christmas Eve. In return, he’s willing to give US$100,000 to the church. On the one hand, it’s not surprising that Hannaford would know Demarkian’s name, as he had quite a reputation before he left the Bureau. On the other, it’s an extremely odd request. Still, Demarkian agrees to go. The dinner is to be held at the family home, Engine House, in Bryn Mawr, a very wealthy suburb of Philadelphia.

When Demarkian arrives, he sees that it’s too late to find out what his host really wanted: Hannaford has been murdered. The police have already arrived, and Detective John Jackman is in charge of the investigation. He and Demarkian know each other; and, at first, he thinks that the FBI is going to take over the case, much to his chagrin. But, once Jackman’s reassured that Demarkian’s no longer with the Bureau, and has no desire for a ‘patch war,’ he decides to tap Demarkian’s expertise, and hire him as a consultant.

Because of the security at the family home, it’s highly unlikely that a stranger would have killed Hannaford. And because of a snowstorm that’s made the roads steadily more difficult to navigate, it would be hard in any case for someone to commit murder and make a quick getaway. That leaves the members of the Hannaford family, all of whom are staying in the house.

And it’s not long before Demarkian finds plenty of motive among Hannaford’s seven children. The victim disliked all of his children, and made no secret of the fact. And they disliked him just as much. In fact, the only reason most of them are spending Christmas at Engine House is that Christmas is very important to their mother, Cordelia. She’s insisted that everyone should spend the holiday in the old-fashioned way. Within a short time, Demarkian and Jackman establish that any one of the Hannaford children could be the killer. The only one who couldn’t have murdered Hannaford is Cordelia, who’s got advanced multiple sclerosis, and can’t move easily.

Then, there’s another murder. And another. Now, it looks as though someone might be trying to kill off all of the Hannafords. If so, who is it? If there are specific victims in mind, what links them? In the end, Demarkian and Jackman work out who the killer is, and what the motive is.

This is a traditional-style mystery, with a closed group of suspects, several possible motives, and secrets several of the characters are keeping. And the snow and cold give the story a ‘closed in country house murder’ atmosphere. The solution is consistent with a traditional mystery, too. I can say without spoiling the novel that it’s not a serial killer who wants to target rich people.

And rich they are. The Hannaford family is what’s known in Philadelphia as ‘old Main Line.’ People like them have been in the exclusive ‘Main Line’ suburbs of Philadelphia for hundreds of years. They have debutante balls, they go to expensive Ivy League universities, and belong to the most selective clubs in the area. As the story goes on, we get to see what that lifestyle is like. We also get to see how that sort of wealth and social standing has impacted the Hannaford children.

The story is told from a variety of points of view. So, we also get to see what those (now-grown) children and their parents are like. All of them are deeply flawed; some of them are not at all sympathetic characters. And they all have reason to dislike each other. There’s none of the family bonding that many people feel with their siblings and parents. And Hannaford himself is a tyrannical old-style patriarch. Yet, because we see their different perspectives, we also see what motivates them, and we see that, like most people, they are complex.

We also learn about Gregor Demarkian’s character. He’s a widower who still misses his wife, Elizabeth, very much. He doesn’t wallow in it, but he is marked by her death. He is of Armenian ethnic background, and lives in an Armenian area of Philadelphia. Everyone there knows everyone, and Demarkian is woven into that social fabric. In fact, there’s a funny scene during which he has dinner with Bennis Hannaford, one of the Hannaford children. They eat in a local restaurant, and word soon gets around about Demarkian’s ‘date.’

There are other ways, too, in which Haddam weaves some wry wit into the story. In one scene, for instance, one of the Hannaford sons, Teddy, is opening a Christmas gift:
 

‘The second box had gloves in it. Black leather gloves. Teddy already had six pairs…Teddy threw the gloves on the floor. They were from [his sister] Emma. Emma had given him the other six pairs.’
 

It’s not really a light novel. There’s more violence and more profanity than you usually see in light ‘frothy’ stories. But there are some darkly witty moments.

Not a Creature Was Stirring is the story of a wealthy, Main Line Philadelphia family, and the relationships among its members. It has a touch of psychology, and gives the reader a look at life behind the walled estates of the area. And it introduces a sleuth who finds that detection may be the spark he needs to start his life again. But what’s your view? Have you read Not a Creature Was Stirring? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 3 July/Tuesday, 4 July – Inspector Imanishi Investigates –  Seichō Matsumoto

Monday 10 July/Tuesday, 11 July – A Morbid Taste For Bones – Ellis Peters

Monday 17 July/Tuesday, 18 July – Talking to the Dead – Harry Bingham

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Filed under Jane Haddam, Not a Creature Was Stirring

I’m Almost Through My Memoirs*

As this is posted, it’s 70 years since the very first publication of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl in Amsterdam. As you’ll know, it’s the story of the Frank family, especially their years of hiding from the Nazis. It’s had a powerful impact on generations of readers; and is required reading in many schools. If you haven’t yet visited the Anne Frank Huis/Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, may I strongly encourage you to do so. It’s a memorable, very moving, experience.

Diaries and memoirs are fascinating ways to learn about a lifestyle, a time period, and a particular person. Even though they almost always have biases (they are written from one person’s perspective), they’re often quite informative. I’m sure you’ll be able to think of many more examples of powerful diaries and memoirs than I could. I know, fans of Agatha Christie’s autobiography.

And this form of writing certainly finds its way into crime fiction. After all, not everyone may be eager to have certain things about them published in a diary. And sometimes, diaries and memoirs are effective ways to tell a story (right, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories?).

Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is, by and large, a memoir told from the point of view of Dr. James Sheppard, who lives in the small village of Kings Abbot. The small town is rocked when retired manufacturing titan Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study one night. The most likely suspect is the victim’s stepson, Captain Ralph Paton. But Paton’s fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, insists that he’s innocent. She asks Hercule Poirot, who’s taken the house next to Sheppard’s, to clear Paton’s name, and he agrees. Christie also used the ‘memoir’ form of storytelling in Murder in Mesopotamia, which is told from the point of view of a nurse, Amy Leatheran. She’s hired by an expedition team that’s working a few hours from Baghdad, so she’s on the scene when Louise Leidner, who’s married to the team’s leader, is murdered. Poirot is in the area, and is persuaded to investigate. In both of those cases, we get an interesting perspective on the crimes, victims, and perpetrators.

In Barbara Vine’s (AKA Ruth Rendell) The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy, famous novelist Gerald Chandliss dies of a heart attack. His grief-stricken daughter, Sarah, decides to cope with her loss by writing a biography of her father, combined with a memoir of what it was like to grow up with him. The more she probes into his life, though, the more Sarah sees that he wasn’t at all the man she thought he was. His name, as it turns out, wasn’t even Gerald Chandliss. It turns out that Sarah’s planned memoir uncovers all sorts of dark secrets that she never imagined were there.

As Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House begins, Arthur Bryant, of the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) is working on his memoirs. He’s been a part of the PCU since 1940, when it was established, and certainly has plenty of stories to tell. As he’s looking through the materials he has on the PCU’s first case, Bryant makes a shocking discovery, and decides to investigate it. Shortly after Bryant starts asking questions, a bomb blast destroys the PCU offices, taking him with it. Bryant’s grieving police partner, John May, decides to find out who set the bomb. To do that, May goes back to the 1940 Palace Phantom case that Bryant was investigating when the PCU offices were destroyed. At the time, there were several bizarre accidents and deaths connected with London’s Palace Theatre and its production of Orpheus. Someone wanted very badly to shut down the production, and took several drastic measures to do just that. As May looks into the case again, he slowly picks up on the trail Bryant was following, and makes the discovery that Bryant made. And that solves the present case, as well as answering some important questions about the 1940 case.

And then there’s Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors. In that novel, Alec Dennet, who was a member of Gough Whitlam’s 1972-75 Australian government, has decided to write his memoirs. He and his editor, Lorraine Starke, are visiting Uriarra, a writer’s retreat near Canberra, so that they can focus on the work. One night, they’re both murdered. Australian Federal Police (AFP) officer Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen is reluctantly persuaded to return from a leave of absence and investigate the murders. Chen is interested anyway, since his Ph.D. work has to do with Australia’s political history. Soon, he and his team discover that the manuscript that Dennet and Starke were working on has disappeared. This opens up several possibilities when it comes to suspects. For one thing, there are still several people in high places who might be embarrassed or worse if some truths about them come out in the memoirs. For another, there are several foreign governments who are also interested in the content of that manuscript.

And that’s the thing about diaries and memoirs. They can shed fascinating light on a person, an era, or an event. And, in fiction, they can be an interesting way to tell a story. But they can also be dangerous, especially when their contents might put someone at risk.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Sondheim’s  I’m Still Here.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Barbara Vine, Christopher Fowler, Kel Robertson, Ruth Rendell

You Thought You Were Clever*

If there’s anything that crime fiction should teach us, it’s that very few people are as clever as they think they are. Whether a character tries to double-cross a partner in crime, evade detection, or something else, there aren’t that many characters who get away with it.

Of course, there are exceptions (right, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia?). But, in the main, it’s just not safe to try to be overly clever. And we see that all through the genre.

For instance, at the beginning of Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, we are introduced to a dancer who calls herself Nadina. From the beginning, we learn that she is planning to double-cross a man called the Colonel, for whom she’s worked. It’s not spoiling the story to say that, not long afterwards, Nadina is found dead in an empty house. Her death is soon connected with the mysterious death of a man at an underground station. And both deaths turn out to be related to jewel thefts and international intrigue. Anne Bedingfield gets caught up in this web when she witnesses the tragedy at the station. She happens to find a piece of paper that fell out of the dead man’s pocket, and works out that the message on it refers to the upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. Impulsively, Anne books passage on the ship, and gets more adventure than she’d planned. It turns out that the two victims weren’t nearly as clever as they thought they were.

Neither is Lewis Winter, whom we meet in Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. He’s a small-time drug dealer who’s trying to make a name for himself in the Glasgow underworld. And he’s caught the attention of Peter Jamieson and his right-hand man, John Young. That’s going to be a big problem, because Jamieson is a ‘rising star’ in the criminal world, and has a lot more power than Winter thinks. And Winter isn’t nearly as clever as he thinks he is. Still, Jamieson and Young don’t want an upstart like Winter getting any credibility, so they hire Callum MacLean to take care of their problem. He’s got the skills and the reputation to do the job, and soon puts things into motion. Things don’t go exactly according to plan. Still, I can say that Winter’s belief that he’s cleverer than Jamieson and Young turns out to have disastrous consequences.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Enigma of China concerns the death of Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee. The real action starts when an online watchdog group targets him. They’ve been working to expose corruption at all levels of government, and they’ve found evidence that he may be guilty. On the one hand, the Party leaders distrust this group and the members of it distrust the Party. On the other hand, the Party needs the information that the group provides in order to monitor its highly placed members. In this case, Zhou isn’t as clever as he thinks he is, because the government finds out the information that the watchdog group has. Zhou is promptly arrested, and held over for trial. One morning, he’s discovered dead in his hotel room, apparently of a suicide. At least that’s what the government wants on the police report. Chief Inspector Chen Cao, who is well aware of the government’s power, is at first prepared to ‘rubber-stamp’ the official explanation for Zhou’s death. But he notices a few things that aren’t consistent with suicide. So, very carefully and very quietly, he and his assistant, Yu Guangming, look into the matter. And they find that this death was very much a murder.

In Patricia Melo’s The Body Snatcher, we are introduced to an unnamed narrator who makes a startling discovery one day. He witnesses a small plane crash into a river near the Brazilian town of Corumbá, not far from the Bolivian border. He rushes to the scene, but he’s too late to save the pilot. But he’s not too late to find and take a backpack and a watch from the dead man. When he gets home, he’s startled to find that the backpack is full of cocaine. Instead of reporting the matter to the police, the narrator decides to sell the cocaine, just this one time, and make some money so that he and his girlfriend, Sulamita, can start a new life together. So, he partners with his friend, Moacir, who lives nearby and who seems to know all the right people for this sort of transaction. Soon enough, the two have made the connection they need. And that’s when the trouble really starts. It turns out that the dead pilot was involved with the drug dealers Moacir’s met; and they are none too happy at what they see as a double-cross. After all, that was their cocaine. Now, the narrator and Moacir, who aren’t nearly as clever as they thought they were, will have to come up with a large amount of money, very quickly, if they’re going to stay alive. The narrator comes up with a plan, but it just gets them deeper and deeper into trouble. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to try to be too clever…

And then there’s Ray Berard’s Inside the Black Horse, which takes place in a small New Zealand town on the North Island. The real action in the story begins when Pio Morgan decides he’s going to rob the Black Horse Bar and Casino. Morgan’s in debt to a vicious local pot grower who’s duped him. He’s been given a ‘friendly warning’ to pay up. Quickly. He feels completely trapped, and decides that the best way to get a lot of money very quickly is to commit a robbery. The Black Horse offers off-course betting services, so there’s sometimes quite a lot of money in the place, and that’s why Pio has targeted it. But he’s chosen a bad day. Local drugs courier Rangi Wells happens to be in the pub at the time, and his drugs deal is interrupted; that’s going to have serious consequences. The robbery goes badly wrong and there’s a murder. What’s more, the pub’s owner, Toni Bourke, is out a great deal of money, and the off-track betting authorities and police are very interested in what happened. So is Toni’s insurance company, Now, Pio is on the run from the drugs dealer he owes, the police, and the insurance company. And it’s all because he thought he might be able to outwit them.

As these quick examples show, it’s never a good idea to try to be too clever. Sooner or later, it’s bound to catch up. Which examples have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Long Blondes’ Too Clever by Half.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Malcolm Mackay, Patricia Melo, Qiu Xiaolong, Ray Berard

We Took Paper, Ink and Type*

In Agatha Christie’s Postern of Fate, Tuppence Beresford makes an interesting comment about reading:
 

‘‘We could all read. Me and Martin next door and Jennifer down the road and Cyril and Winifred. All of us. I don’t mean we could all spell very well but we could read anything we wanted to.’’
 

I’d imagine that’s probably true for a lot of people. There is still, unfortunately, plenty of illiteracy in the world. But, according to one study I read, just over 84% of the world’s population has at least some functional literacy.

If you’re literate, and you weren’t born into great wealth and privilege, you arguably owe at least some of that to Johannes Gutenberg. As you’ll know, he’s credited with inventing the movable-type printing press. That invention had far-reaching effects. For one thing, it made books and, therefore, written ideas, accessible to people who weren’t necessarily very wealthy. For another, it arguably contributed to the rise of the middle class. And that’s to say nothing of the printing press’ impact on the sharing of information, the development of newspapers, and so on.

And certainly, the ideas in books play an important role in crime fiction. In Postern of Fate, for instance, an important clue to a long-ago murder is found in a novel. When Tommy and Tuppence Beresford move into a new home, they find quite a collection of books. Tuppence is going through them when she notices that one of the books has been marked in an unusual way, with some words underlined. The book belonged to a boy named Alexander Parkinson, who later died. The clue,
 

‘Mary Jordan did not die naturally’
 

refers to the death of a woman during the World War I era. As the Beresfords start to look into the case, they learn that it still resonates decades later.

Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce may be a pre-teenager, but she’s already developed into a knowledgeable chemist. She’s an avid reader, too, who often finds useful information in the books she chooses. For instance, in A Red Herring Without Mustard, Flavia meets a Gypsy fortune-teller at a church fête. The experience goes very badly, and Flavia feels responsible. So, she invites the Gypsy to stay on the property of Buckshaw, where she lives with her father and two older sisters. When the Gypsy is later murdered, Flavia takes a personal interest in the case. She finds out that more than one person might have been responsible. Interestingly, it’s actually a book of history that gives Flavia a major clue to the killer.

Donna Leon’s About Face introduces readers to Franca Marinello. One night, she and her husband, Maruizio Cataldo, are invited to dinner at the home of Conte Orazio Falier and his wife, Donatella. Falier is contemplating doing business with Cataldo, and he wants to get to know the man. Also invited that evening are Falier’s daughter, Paola, and her husband, Commissario Guido Brunetti. During the meal, Brunetti finds that he and Franca Marinello have a common interest in Cicero. That interest forms a thread through the novel, and actually plays a role when Brunetti and his team investigate the murder of Stefano Ranzato, who owned a trucking company. The key to this murder, and to another murder that occurs in the novel, is Franca Marinello. And Brunetti gets some real insight from his knowledge of Cicero.

As the librarian for the Tumdrum and District Mobile Library, Ian Sansom’s Israel Armstrong loves books, and once dreamed of being a librarian at a major university, or even with the British Library. As we learn in The Case of the Missing Books, though, that’s not how things have turned out. Instead, Armstrong is hired to drive the mobile library bus, so that patrons in remote areas can access books. It’s not at all the sort of job he’d had in mind, but he’s left without much choice. So, he resolves to get started. When he tries to get the mobile library bus ready, though, he discovers that all fifteen thousand of the library’s books are missing. When Armstrong reports this to Linda Wei, who actually hired him, and who is the Deputy Head of Entertainment, Leisure and Community Services, she tells him that it’s his responsibility to find the books. After all, she points out, he is the librarian. So, Armstrong has to turn sleuth and find the books. Among other things, this series shows how important access to books is to a lot of people.

And then there’s Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe. As fans will know, Mma Ramotswe has a much-beloved copy of Clovis Anderson’s Principles of Detection. She consults it frequently, and depends on the book for all sorts of advice. For instance, in The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, Mma Ramotswe’s second cousin, Tati Monyena, is facing real trouble at the hospital where he works. It seems that there’ve been three deaths at the hospital recently. All three occurred on the same day of the week (‘though during different weeks), and all three patients were in the same bed in the Intensive Care ward when they died. It’s already been established that there were no pathogens involved, so Rra Monyena doesn’t know what might have been responsible. If the hospital’s reputation comes into question, though, this could be catastrophic. So, Mma Ramotswe agrees to look into the matter. When she goes to the hospital, she brings along Mr. Polopetsi, her newest assistant. And it turns out that that was a wise choice, since he is very familiar with the area and the people who live there. According to Clovis Anderson,
 

‘Local knowledge is like gold.’
 

It’s that sort of wisdom that Mma Ramotswe seeks, and sometimes finds, in the book.

You see? Books themselves play an important role in crime fiction. If you think about it, we likely wouldn’t even have the genre if we didn’t have easy access to books. So, perhaps it’s fair to say that we owe the genre in part to Gutenberg…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s The Printer’s Trade.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Alexander McCall Smith, Donna Leon, Ian Sansom