Where the Gin is Cold, But the Piano’s Hot*

SpeakeasiesFrom 1919 until 1933, the transportation, sale, import and export of alcoholic beverages was illegal in the United States. But Prohibition certainly didn’t stop people drinking. And it certainly didn’t stop people selling alcohol to those who wanted to drink it.

One sort of place where people went to drink was the speakeasy. Speakeasies were illegal (although in some places, police looked the other way for a ‘consideration’). For a lot of people, that added to their appeal. So did the music and dancing that were often a part of the speakeasy experience. People who wanted to go to speakeasies often needed to have memberships, know a password, or in some other way be ‘vetted.’ It was a way of making sure that the police didn’t raid. So in that sense, speakeasies could be selective places.

If you think about it, the speakeasy atmosphere is tailor-made for a crime novel. All sorts of people frequented speakeasies, many of them from not exactly upstanding or law-abiding. Add to that the sometimes-racy entertainment, the alcohol, and the conflicts that could arise in such places, and you’ve got a very effective context for a murder mystery. So it’s little wonder there are lots of speakeasies in crime fiction.

Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, for instance, begins in a New York City speakeasy. PI Nick Charles and his wife Nora, who live in San Francisco, are visiting New York City just before Christmas. Nick’s having a drink at a speakeasy when a woman approaches him. She is Dorothy Wynant, daughter of successful executive Clyde Wynant. She’s concerned because he seems to have gone missing, and she wants Nick to find him. Nick knows Wynant, but he’s reluctant to get involved. Then, Wynant’s attorney persuades Nick that this is a serious matter. And the next day, Wynant’s secretary, Julia Wolfe, is found dead. So Nick and Nora start asking questions. To say that they’re not teetotalers is an understatement, so there are several scenes in the novel that take place in speakeasies.

Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night, which takes place in 1926, tells the story of Joe Coughlin. He’s had a very proper Boston upbringing, but he’s gotten involved in organized crime, and now intends to climb his way to the top. Because it’s during the time of Prohibition, organized crime leaders often get involved in smuggling and delivering alcohol to speakeasies, and Coughlin does his share of that. In fact, the novel begins when Coughlin and a partner hit a gambling room behind a speakeasy that belongs to a rival gang leader. That plays a major role in what happens later in the novel, as Coughlin moves to Florida and gets involved in rum-running and other operations. Among other things, this novel shows the often-close connections between speakeasies and organized crime.

So does Elmore Leonard’s The Hot Kid, which takes place mostly in early-1930s Oklahoma. That novel introduces readers to Jack Belmont, who’s always been a kind of ‘wrong ‘un,’ and now has dreams of being an outlaw like Pretty Boy Floyd, only bigger and more powerful. The novel also introduces Deputy U.S. Marshal Carlos ‘Carl’ Webster, a lawman who is determined to put gangsters like Belmont behind bars. For Belmont, the speakeasy isn’t just a place where you go for a drink, or a source of income. It’s a place where a criminal can lie low for a while if necessary. Webster knows that speakeasies are places to get information about what’s happening in the underworld, so he finds them useful too, in a different way. It’s an interesting look at the way the speakeasy fit into social life at the time.

Of course, not all speakeasies were seedy and ‘low rent.’ There were plenty of speakeasies that catered to wealthier people. We see that, for instance, in Jeffrey Stone’s Play Him Again. In that novel, we meet Matt ‘Hud’ Hudson, a rum-runner who makes his living selling smuggled alcohol to Hollywood luminaries for their parties, and to the speakeasies that those people frequent. When Hud’s friend and business partner Danny is murdered, Hud decides to find out who’s responsible and have his revenge. And there are several possibilities, too. For one thing, a rival gang has moved in and tried to take over some of the local speakeasies and other criminal operations. They’d be only too happy to have Danny and Hud out of the way. For another, there are the people with whom Danny and Hud do business. Some of those people wouldn’t hesitate to kill if they saw the need. The trail leads through speakeasies, film studios, smugglers’ boats and high-class parties.  

And then there’s Ellen Mansoor Collier’s Jazz Age series. Beginning with Flappers, Flasks, and Foul Play, the series features Galveston society reporter Jasmine ‘Jazz’ Cross. She wants to make her mark as a ‘real’ reporter, but that’s difficult for a woman at that time and in that place. Jazz’ brother Sammy owns a speakeasy called the Oasis, and that’s where Jazz gets her chance at a real story. One night, successful banker Horace Andres suddenly collapses at the club, and later dies. Jazz has the opportunity for a real story, but she’ll have to find out who the killer is without alerting the police to the fact that her brother owns an illegal business.

And that’s the thing about speakeasies. They were illegal. And that meant that all sorts of things might happen there, and the police frequently couldn’t get involved. That’s part of the reason they make such interesting contexts for crime novels. Well, that and the great music of the age.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebb’s All That Jazz.

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Filed under Dashiell Hammett, Dennis Lehane, Elmore Leonard, Jeffrey Stone

In The Spotlight: Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies

>In The Spotlight: Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's Last RitualsHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. One of the more popular and appealing contexts for a crime novel is the small town where everyone knows everyone, and where things are only idyllic on the surface. Such places can hide dark secrets, and that offers lots of possibility for suspense and tension. Let’s take a look at that sort of novel today, and turn the spotlight on Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies.

As the story begins, it’s Trivia Night at Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The event is intended as both a fun evening and a fundraiser for the school, so that Smart Boards can be provided for the classrooms. The hors d’oeuvres don’t arrive on time, and everyone drinks more than is judicious with no food to go along with it. The alcohol fuels conflicts, and the evening ends tragically. The police begin an investigation, and we begin to learn a bit about the people involved.

The novel then takes the reader back six months, and tells what happened in Piriwee Beach that led to the events of Trivia Night. As the story unfolds, we follow the lives of three families, all of whom have children enrolled in Piriwee Public’s Kindergarten class.

One family consists of Madeline Mackenzie, her second husband Ed, and their children Fred and Chloe. There’s also Madeline’s daughter, Abigail, whose father, Nathan, has recently remarried. Another family is the White family: Perry, his wife Celeste, and their twin sons Max and Josh. The third is Jane Chapman and her son, Ziggy. All three families are in different socioeconomic situations, have different sorts of dynamics and so on. But each has at least one child in the same class. And soon, Madeline, Celeste, and Jane become friends.

Trouble begins for Jane when one of the most influential ‘school mums,’ Renata Klein, accuses Ziggy of bullying her daughter Amabella. Ziggy claims that he’s not responsible, but Renata has a lot of sway, and before long, most people believe her. Celeste and Madeline don’t, though, so one plot thread of this novel follows the escalating conflict between the ‘Renata camp,’ and the ‘Jane//Madeline/Celeste’ camp.

In the meantime, each woman is facing other challenges. Madeline’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Abigail, has decided to move in with her father and his new wife, Bonnie (who, incidentally, also have a child in the Kindergarten). Jane has to cope with the outright hostility she faces at the school, not to mention the fact that several of Ziggy’s classmates are being told to avoid him, and that they’re not allowed to play with him. And Celeste has her own home-front issues.

The school-related and personal plot threads come together one fateful night. All of the simmering tension comes to a boil, so to speak, and the result is a tragedy. Each of the three families is profoundly affected, and is going to have to find a way to deal with what happens.

One of the important elements in this novel is the difference between image and reality. On the surface, Celeste and Perry White are the king and queen of the school, and their sons two young princes. They’re extremely wealthy, and Celeste has to work to ensure she doesn’t make other people feel uncomfortable around so much money. They’re a good-looking family, too, whom a lot of people envy. But we learn that there’s a high price to pay for that sort of life. Madeline is smart, tough, and very much her own person, whom more than one person envies for her independence. She’s happily married, too. But she’s hardly perfect, and has her own sadness to hide. When Madeline and Celeste take Jane under their wings, they see her as vulnerable and shy. And she is. But there’s a lot about Jane that they don’t know at first.

As we learn more and more about the different characters, we see how their lives are much more intertwined than they imagined. Those inter-relationships are also an element of this novel. And the context (a small town) is consistent with that element. Everyone is connected in some way to everyone else. And when anything happens, gossip about it, however untrue, spreads very quickly.

Another element in the story is the school setting. There’s a definite social structure within the school, and anyone who’s ever been closely involved with a school will find it familiar. There is the group of (mostly) mothers, nicknamed the Blond Bobs, who run the school’s social life. They put together events, and do much of the work of parent activism:
 

‘The Blond Bobs rule the school. If you want to be on the PTA, you have to have a blond bob…it’s like a bylaw.’
 

There are also people often called Helicopter Parents. They’re the ones who insist that their children get special consideration, and sometimes even go to the school to, as the saying goes, fight their children’s fights. Trust me, such parents exist. And there’s the pettiness, cattiness and competitiveness you’d expect in such a group. Through it all moves the teacher, Rebecca Barnes, who’s trying to do the best job she can, and doesn’t want parental politics getting in the way.

And it’s the school politics that also add some lighter moments to the story. Those who’ve spent a lot of time at schools, and have served on the PTA, or a fundraising committee, will relate to that aspect of the novel. But this isn’t a comic, ‘frothy’ novel. The reality of what’s going on is very sad at times.

For example, the element of bullying and its impact also plays an important role in the novel. Bullying is a serious issue, and it has lasting and sometimes tragic consequences. Moriarty explores the way bullying can occur, how it may be learned, who’s affected, and how different people respond to it.

Big Little Lies is the story of three families and the way their lives intersect at the beginning of one fateful school year. It explores the lies we tell ourselves and others, and shows the consequences of bullying for everyone involved. But what’s your view? Have you read Big Little Lies? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 29 August/Tuesday, 30 August – The Last Child – John Hart

Monday, 5 September/Tuesday, 6 September – The Last Act of All – Aline Templeton

Monday, 12 September/Tuesday, 13 September – Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog – Boris Akunin

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Filed under Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty

I Read New Books*

MCThere’s nothing quite like the feeling of being able to talk about a book with someone you think is going to really enjoy reading it. It’s a shared pleasure, and both people benefit. TBRs may not, but that’s another issue…

One person I very much wish were still with us to talk about books is the late Maxine Clarke, who was a true friend of crime fiction. I miss her very much and think of her often. And I know there are plenty of books that have come out recently that she would have liked.

As a way of remembering Maxine, and of sharing great crime novels, Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan had the terrific idea of a group of book bloggers sharing books they think Maxine would have liked. Ideally, everyone would take a turn throughout the year, and each review would be posted on Petrona Remembered, which is the site for terrific crime fiction. It’s set up and maintained by those of us who remember Maxine, and the real difference she made for the genre.

It’s my turn to share a find, so please, come visit me over at Petrona Remembered, where I’ll be sharing my thoughts on Wendy James’ The Lost Girls, a novel I think Maxine would have liked very much.

While you’re there, please have a look around the site. We’d love to have you contribute a review of a book you think Maxine would have enjoyed. Interested? Want to share your great find? You know you wanna!  Just email me at margotkinberg(at)gmail(dot)com, and I’ll be happy to include your review!

Here’s a little about Maxine, if you’d like to get a sense of what she was like.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Monkees’ Since You Ran Away.

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And Who’s That Deadly Piper Who Leads Them Away*

Charismatic PeopleOne of the books that’s been getting quite a lot of attention this summer is Emma Cline’s The Girls. The book tells the coming-of-age story of Evie Boyd. It’s 1969, and at the age of 14, Evie’s lost and aimless. Then, one summer, she meets a group of girls in a park, and finds herself drawn to them. In particular, she becomes obsessed with a young woman named Suzanne. For Suzanne’s sake, Evie gets involved with a charismatic man named Russell, who seems to have these young women under his spell. As the novel goes on, Evie gets more and more involved with Russell’s cult, and her obsession leads her to some very dark places. If this sounds a lot like the Charles Manson story, there’s a good reason for that. Many comparisons have been made between that real-life tragedy and The Girls.

One thing those stories show clearly is the ability that some people have to lead young people (and sometimes, the not-so-young) away from their own lives and into things they never would have imagined. That’s the charisma some people have, and it gives them a real hold over others. The Girls presents one example of this sort of character; there are many others in crime fiction.

One character with that sort of persuasive power is Michael Garfield, whom we meet in Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party. In that novel, detective-story writer Ariadne Oliver is visiting a friend, Judith Butler, in the small, commuter village of Woodleigh Common. During her visit, a young girl, Joyce Reynolds, is murdered at a Hallowe’en party that Mrs. Oliver is attending. She asks Hercule Poirot to come to Woodleigh Common and investigate. Poirot agrees and makes the trip. In the course of Poirot’s investigation, he meets Garfield, who was hired to create a garden for a wealthy widow, Mrs. Llewellyn-Smythe, who has since died. In fact, according to her will, the garden is to be maintained, with Garfield at the helm. As we get to know Garfield, we can see that he has a certain charisma – an ability to get people to do what he wants. And that’s part of why the garden he’s created is so remarkable.

In John D. MacDonald’s The Green Ripper, PI Travis McGee has found happiness with his girlfriend Gretel Howard. Then, tragically, she dies of what looks like a fatal illness. The truth is, though, that she was murdered, and her death was carefully planned. As McGee learns more about what happened to Gretel, he begins to connect her death to a Northern California cult called The Church of the Apocrypha. Under the leadership of the very charismatic Brother Persival, the members of the church believe that everything in society must be destroyed if people are to have better lives. Once McGee makes the connection between Gretel’s death and this cult, he goes undercover in the group to find out who killed Gretel. There, he learns that Brother Persival has attracted people to his group with his vivid portraits of life in the new world he wants to create. He’s got a real hold over the members of the church, and has drawn them away from what most people would consider ‘normal’ lives.

Robert Barnard’s No Place of Safety introduces readers to Ben Marchant, who runs a temporary homeless shelter in Leeds for young people. Usually called the Centre, the shelter offers young people two weeks of food and a place to sleep. Then they need to leave for two weeks before they can return. Police detective Charlie Pearce comes into contact with Marchant when he goes in search of Katy Bourne and Alan Coughlan, two teens who disappeared on the same day. Pearce finds them at the Centre, where for some reason, Marchant has allowed them to stay well beyond the two-week limit. For several reasons, Pearce decides that the best thing for these young people is to stay at the shelter for the moment. But the shelter may not be all it seems. Certainly some of the local residents are not happy with it, or with Marchant. And just who is Ben Marchant? What hold does he have, and what’s really going on there? Pearce finds that the more he learns, the more he sees that this is far from a simple and safe place for young people to stay.

And then there’s Kathryn Fox’s Malicious Intent. New South Wales D.S. Kate Farrer is faced with an odd death. A young woman, Claire Matthews, disappeared just before taking her final vows to become a nun. Now, a few months later, her body has turned up at the bottom of a cliff, the result of an apparent suicide. But some things about the case don’t add up, and Farrer wants help from her friend, pathologist/forensic physician Anya Crichton. Shortly after agreeing to see what she can do, Crichton gets a new client, who wants her to look into the death of his sister. As it turns out, the two victims have in common that there are strange fibres in their lungs. This leads Crichton to suppose that they might have been at the same place. If so, this could present a real health hazard. There’ve been other deaths, too, all of young women who were otherwise healthy, but who had similar fibres in their lungs. Each from a different angle, Crichton and Farrer try to find out who or what is behind these deaths. It turns out that someone with unusual charisma and the ability to draw people in has played a major role in what happened.

There are other novels, too, in which we see this sort of charisma. Certain people have what it takes to draw others in and lead them to do things they’d never ordinarily do (I know, fans of Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Soul Murders). Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Hooters’ Where Do the Children Go?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Emma Cline, Gail Bowen, John D. MacDonald, Kathryn Fox, Robert Barnard

And It’s Fiction Like All History*

Historical Figures as SleuthsThere’s sometimes a fine line between history and fiction. And in crime fiction, that line can become even more blurred when we look at crime fiction that features historical figures as sleuths. In some ways, it’s easy to see the appeal of such a novel or series. Readers who enjoy history, and like to read about historical figures, can see those people in new roles and new stories. On the other hand, it’s fiction. People who prefer their history to be accurate and factual aren’t necessarily best pleased to have historical figures presented as sleuths; it’s far too speculative and stretches credibility too far.

There’ve actually been several crime fiction series based on the lives of real people. It’s interesting to see how the different authors balance authenticity with the goal of telling a well-plotted murder story. It’s not an easy balance, and not everyone is a fan of such crime fiction. But when it works well, having a sleuth who actually existed can add an interesting dimension to a series. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Among other novels and series, Karen Harper has written a mystery series featuring Queen Elizabeth I as the sleuth. The series begins with The Poysen Garden, in which twenty-five-year-old Princess Elizabeth is faced with the fact that several members of the Boleyn family are being poisoned. It’s soon clear that someone is targeting her, too, and she’s going to have to find out who it is if she’s to stay alive. Many of the other novels in the series deal with court intrigue and political machinations; and they follow Elizabeth as she takes the throne and works to protect her rule.

In Daniel Friedman’s Riot Most Uncouth, nineteen-year-old Lord Byron is a student at Trinity College, Cambridge. He’s not much of a scholar, though, preferring to spend his time drinking, romancing and playing cards. Then, his butler tells him that Felicity Whippleby has been brutally murdered in her university rooms. Deciding that he’d much rather find out who killed the victim than actually attend lectures, Byron decides to search for the killer. Byron’s not treated particularly kindly in this novel, and Friedman has taken liberties with the facts about Bryon’s life. But it is interesting to speculate on what a poet like Byron might have been like as a sleuth.

Under the name Stephanie Barron, Francine Matthews has written a series featuring Jane Austen as the protagonist and sleuth. In Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor, the first of the series, Jane is visiting her friend Isobel, Countess of Scargrave. Isobel has recently married Frederick, Lord Scargrave, a man several years older than herself, and everyone thinks the match is a very good one. But soon after Jane’s arrival, Lord Scargrave becomes gravely ill and dies of what turns out to be poison. With her friend now drawn into a scandalous murder investigation, Jane decides to stay and try to find out what really happened to the victim. These novels (there are currently thirteen in the series) are written mostly as journal entries, with the stories being told in the first person. Matthews/Barron uses the sort of language and syntax that Austen used to add authenticity to the series.

There’s an interesting series featuring Eleanor Roosevelt as the protagonist and sleuth. The novels list her son, Elliott Roosevelt, as the author, and many people argue that he did, indeed, write the books. There’s other evidence that suggests the novels might have been ghost-written. Whichever is the case, the novels give readers an ‘inside look’ at the world of Washington politics during the Roosevelt years. There’s also a look at the international landscape of the times. In Murder in the Lincoln Bedroom, for instance, a secret meeting is held that includes Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and US General Dwight D.  Eisenhower. During the visit, Special Counsel to the President Paul Weyrich is murdered and his body discovered in the famous Lincoln Bedroom. Since the conference is top-secret, the murder has to be kept secret as well, so Mrs. Roosevelt has to find out who the killer is before the press and public hear about it.

There’s also Nicola Upson’s series, which ‘stars’ Josephine Tey as the protagonist. In the first novel, An Expert in Murder, set in 1934, Tey travels from Scotland to London for the final week of her play, Richard of Bordeaux. On the train, she meets a fan named Elspeth Simmons. The two get along, so it’s a serious shock when Elspeth is found dead in her compartment. It’s clear from the murder, too, that her death has something to do with Tey’s play. Then, the next day, there’s another murder. Tey has to work to find out who and what link the deaths, and why someone seems to be fixated on her play.

There’s also an interesting YA series featuring historical figures. Fireside Books has put together the Leaders and Legacies series, which feature Canada’s prime ministers as young sleuths, and tell the stories of their lives. They’re written by different authors, and take place at different times in history. One, Showdown at Bordertown, was even written by an author who was herself a teen at the time she wrote the novel. It ‘stars’ Paul Martin, who served as Prime Minister from 2003-2006, as the 12-year-old protagonist.  Thus far, to my knowledge, there are five books in this series (if someone knows better, please put me right on that!).

Books that feature real historical figures can be interesting to those who find those figures interesting. And there are lots of possibilities for plots. But there are also major risks. Those who know history very well may object to fictional accounts. And such books do require a lot of research. But they can be quite successful.

What do you think about all this? Do you read crime fiction that features real historical figures as sleuths? What about those (such as Felicity Young’s Dody McCleland series) that include real historical figures, even if they’re not the protagonist?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Unbelievable Truth’s History/Fiction.

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Filed under Caroline Woodward, Daniel Friedman, Elliott Roosevelt, Felicity Young, Francine Matthews, Jane Austen, Josephine Tey, Karen Harper, Leaders and Legacies, Nicola Upson, Stephanie Barron