I Want to Find Out, I Want to Find Out Now*

wanting-to-learn-moreAn interesting post from Tim at Beyond 221B Baker Street has got me thinking about context. Every book is written within a sociocultural and historical context, and that is often reflected in the book. As I’ve been reflecting on that, it’s got me thinking about the way people’s curiosity can be aroused when they read. To put it another way, sometimes, we read books (or, at least, I do) that make us curious about the context, and wanting to read more.

Everyone gets curious about different things, of course, but I suspect I’m not the only one who’s read a book and then wanted to know more about something. It might be details about an incident, an era, or something else. Whatever it is, the author’s presented it in a way that makes you want to know more. As I say, everyone’s different, but here are a few things I’ve wanted to know more about because of the crime fiction I’ve read.

As Agatha Christie fans know, her second husband was an archaeologist, and she accompanied him to the Middle East. Several of her stories are set there, including Appointment With Death. That story’s focus is the Boynton family, a group of Americans who are on an extended trip through the Middle East. One of their stops is a trip to the famous red city of Petra. On the second afternoon of their visit, Mrs. Boynton dies of what looks like a heart attack. Colonel Carbury isn’t satisfied, though. He asks Hercule Poirot, who’s in the area, to investigate, and Poirot agrees. Even ardent Christie fans admit that this isn’t her best. But it does have an interesting setting – Petra – and I got curious about that. So, I did a little reading on the place. Am I an expert? Not even close. Not at all. But I did learn some interesting things, and it’s because the book piqued my curiosity.

After I read Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors, I got interested in Australia’s 1972-75 Gough Whitlam government. Here’s why. In the novel, Australian Federal Police (AFP) officer Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen and his team investigate two murders. One victim is Alec Dennet, who was a member of the Whitlam government, and is now writing his memoirs. The other is Dennet’s editor, Lorraine Starke. The two were killed at Uriarra, a Canberra-area writers’ retreat. One very good possibility is that Dennet was killed because of what might be written in his upcoming book. There are plenty of people in some high places who wouldn’t want what he had to say to come out. So, Chen and his team pursue that lead. Robertson gives some interesting information about the Whitlam government – enough to leave me wanting to know more. So, I looked up a few things. I couldn’t quote you anything like chapter and verse on the ins and outs of that government, nor all of the details of the events that brought it down. But I found the reading I did do fascinating.

Simon Beckett’s Whispers of the Dead takes place mostly at Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Laboratory, also known as The Body Farm. Anthropologist David Hunter wants some time away from London to recover from the events of Written in Bone. So, he decides to go to Tennessee to do some research and catch up with his former mentor, Tom Liebermann. When the lab receives word of a decomposed body found at a cabin not far from the lab, Hunter is persuaded to get involved in the investigation. And that leads to a complex and difficult case. After I read this novel, I got interested in The Body Farm and what it does. It’s actually a fascinating place where a great deal of forensic and other scientific research is conducted. So, I did a bit of reading. It certainly got the crime writer in me very interested.

As fans of Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano series can tell you, many of his books have been translated into English by Stephen Sartarelli. His translations go beyond simply expressing Camilleri’s stories in another language (as though that weren’t enough). He also adds notes and commentaries to the novels, to give readers background information on everything from history, to the origins of certain sayings, and much more. Several times, I’ve found myself reading a little more about one or another topic Sartarelli’s mentioned. I always find them interesting, and they add context to the series.

Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series takes place in the early 1920s, during the last years of the British Raj, in Madras (today’s Chennai). Le Fanu is assisted by the very capable Sergeant Muhammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah. I knew a little about those years before I started reading this series. But some of the information Stoddart provides made me curious to learn more. So, I did a bit of reading on the topic, and I’m glad I did. I learned things that I wouldn’t otherwise have known, and (I hope) I have a better perspective on that period of time.

Those are just a few books and series that have gotten me curious to learn more. The things that pique your interest are bound to be different. Which novels and series have inspired you to find out more?

Thanks, Tim, for the inspiration. Folks, do check out Tim’s blog. It’s a fascinating place for rich discussion about crime fiction and other literature.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Grateful Dead’s Caution (Do Not Step On Tracks).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Brian Stoddart, Kel Robertson, Simon Beckett

The Other Side of You*

multipleseriesMany crime fiction authors write more than one series. There are a lot of reasons for doing that, too. For instance, the author may want to ‘start fresh’ if a series has gone on for a while. Or, the author may want to experiment and try something new. Sometimes, if an author’s first series has done well, a publisher may request that the author start another series. Whatever the reason, the choice to have more than one series raises a question: how to generate interest in what may be a lesser-known series.

In some cases, both (or, at times, all three) of an author’s series are well-known. For instance, one of Elly Griffith’s series features Ruth Galloway, a forensic archaeologist who teaches at North Norfolk University. Her expertise is frequently tapped by the police, mostly in the form of Harry Nelson. Griffiths fans will know that she also has another series, the Max Mephisto novels. These novels are set in the 1950’s, and feature Mephisto, who is a magician by profession. Both series are highly regarded. In this case, you might argue that Griffiths’ success with the Ruth Galloway series meant that there was an audience likely to be interested in the Max Mephisto series.

Robert B. Parker first gained a reputation with his Spenser novels, which he wrote between the mid-1970s and 2013. In fact, he may be best known for those novels. But he also wrote other series. Beginning in the late 1990s, he wrote a series featuring Police Chief Jesse Stone, and another featuring PI Sunny Randall. He even took the risk of having Stone and Randall join forces, both personally and professionally. Those series may be less well-known than the Spenser novels, but they are well-regarded.

Beginning in 1970, Reginald Hill became best-known for his series featuring Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant (later DI) Peter Pascoe. As fans can tell you, the series ran for decades, and was successfully adapted for television. Starting in 1993, Hill created another protagonist, small-time PI Joe Sixsmith. He’s quite a different character to Dalziel (and to Pascoe). He’s an unassuming former lathe operator who also sings in a choir. Among other differences, this series isn’t as gritty as the Dalziel/Pascoe series can be. It’s also likely not as well known. But it’s certainly got fans.

That’s also the case for Kerry Greenwood. Her Phryne Fisher series takes place in Melbourne in the late 1920s, and features socialite Phryne Fisher, who becomes a ‘lady detective.’ Phryne is wealthy, elegant, and has access to the highest social circles. She’s quite independent and free-thinking, too. Greenwood’s other series, which began in 2004, is a contemporary series, also based in Melbourne, that features accountant-turned baker Corinna Chapman. Like Phryne, Corinna is independent and intelligent. But this is a very different series. Chapman is very much ‘the rest of us’ in appearance and income. Like most people, she has bills to pay, and doesn’t live in a sumptuous mansion. Both series feature regular casts of characters, and tend to be less violent and gritty than dark, noir novels are.

If you’ve read any of James Lee Burke’s work, my guess is that you probably read from his Dave Robicheaux series. That series features New Iberia, Louisiana police detective Robicheaux, and is one of the best-regarded series in American crime fiction. It’s a long-running series, and has gotten all sorts of acclaim. But it’s not Burke’s only series. He’s also written a series that feature the different members of the Holland family. This series is written as a set of standalone books that feature the different members of the Holland family. For instance, there’s Texas sheriff Hackberry Holland and his cousin Billy Bob Holland (who is a former Texas Ranger and now an attorney). Their grandfather was another lawman, also named Hackberry Holland. There’s also Weldon Avery Holland. He is another of the original Hackberry Holland’s grandsons. Several of the Holland family novels are historical, and are almost as much saga as they are crime novels. In fact, some question whether some of them are crime novels. In that sense, they’re quite different to the Robicheaux stories.

Fans of Ann Cleeves’ work can tell you that she’s done the Jimmy Perez Shetland novels, as well as the Vera Stanhope novels. These series are set in different parts of the UK, and feature different protagonists with different backstories. Both are very well regarded, and both have been adapted for television. But, before either of those series was published, Cleeves wrote another series featuring Inspector Ramsay of the Northumberland Police. She also wrote a series, beginning in the late 1980s, featuring retired Home Office investigator George Palmer-Jones and his wife, Molly.

And then there’s Vicki Delany, who writes the Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith series, a contemporary police procedural series set mostly in British Columbia. She’s also written historical crime fiction featuring saloon and dance hall owner Fiona MacGillivray. That series takes place at the end of the 19th Century, in Dawson, Yukon Territory. Delany has also just started a new series. This one takes place in Rudolph, NY, and is a lighter series featuring shop owner Merry Wilkinson.

There are, of course, other authors, such as Elizabeth Spann Craig, who write multiple series. Sometimes, those series are equally well-known. Other times, one series is much better known than the other.

Now, here’s the question. If you’ve really enjoyed an author’s work in one series, does that prompt you to go back and look for another series by that author? Does it depend on whether the two series are concurrent? Or on whether they’re similar (e.g. both cosy series)? I’d really like your opinion on this. Please vote, if you wish, in the poll below. I’ll let it run for a week, and then we’ll talk about it again.
 

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a title of the song by the Mighty Lemon Drops.

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Filed under Ann Cleeves, Elizabeth Spann Craig, James Lee Burke, Kerry Greenwood, Reginald Hill, Robert B. Parker, Vicki Delany

How Can I Be Sure?*

suspicion-growingAuthors use a lot of different tools for building suspense. One of them is a slowly-growing sense that someone you thought you knew well could be a murderer. If you think about it, that’s an unsettling, even frightening, feeling. Even if you don’t think you’re an intended victim, it’s still a scary thought. And you can’t bring up the topic very easily, either. You may be wrong, in which case you’ve ruptured a relationship, possibly permanently. Or, you could be right, in which case voicing your suspicions could put you in danger.

That sort of suspense can add a lot to a crime story, and there are lots of examples of it. Space only permits me a few, but I know you’ll come up with lots more. Oh, and you’ll notice that there won’t be any domestic noir titles mentioned. Too easy.

Agatha Christie used that approach to building suspense in several of her stories. For instance, in Hickory, Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory, Dickory Death), Hercule Poirot’s normally unflappable secretary, Felicity Lemon, asks for his help. Her sister, Mrs. Hubbard, has gotten concerned about a spate of petty thefts and other strange occurrences at the student hostel she manages. Partly as a courtesy to Miss Lemon, Poirot agrees to look into the matter, and visits the hostel. On the night he goes there, one of the residents, Celia Austin, admits to several of the thefts. At first, that seems to settle the matter. But when Celia herself dies two nights later, it’s clear that there’s more going on than just some petty thefts. It’s soon proven that she was murdered, and Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find the killer. As the novel goes on, several of the residents are made very uneasy by the idea that one of them could be a murderer, and it impacts them. Then, there’s another murder. And another. That almost-claustrophobic feeling of being trapped with someone wo’s dangerous adds tension to this story. I see you, fans of And Then There Were None.

There’s also Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit, in which a group of people attend a very creepy séance. The purpose of it is to contact Grimaud Désanat, who died several years earlier. He left behind a successful wood processing business, but the land he owned has now been thoroughly logged. His widow, Irene, and his business partners, believe in spiritualism. So, they decide to use a séance to get his permission to develop a piece of land that he had said must be left unlogged for 20 years. The séance is eerie enough, but matters get far more frightening when Irene is killed later that night. If it wasn’t Désanat (and there are several people present who don’t believe in ghosts), then it had to have been someone in the group. That possibility is as frightening as a haunting, and adds to the suspense of the novel.

In Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s A Window in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro Inspector Espinosa faces a similar kind of growing suspicion. Three police officers are killed in quick succession. At first, it looks very much like the work of someone who’s got a vendetta against the police. But then, the mistress of one of the victims is killed. Then the mistress of another victim dies. And the third victim’s mistress goes into hiding to avoid the same fate. It’s now clear that this isn’t a case of a person who just wants to kill police officers. Something else ties these victims together, and that something could very well be corruption. Now, Espinosa and his hand-picked team have to be very careful. One or more of the cops with whom they work could be involved in the same corruption, or could be a killer. That feeling that one of their own might be a killer adds a solid layer of suspense to this novel.

Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring finds her sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, investigating the murder of a university colleague. The body of Reed Gallagher is found in a seedy hotel, and at first it looks as though he was killed as a result of some sort of double life he was leading. But it’s not as simple as that. As the case goes on, Kilbourn learns that there are several possible leads. Unfortunately for her, one of them is her friend and temporary office-mate, Ed Mariani. On the one hand, Kilbourn knows that just about anyone is capable of murder, given the right circumstances. She’s not so naïve as to believe that Mariani couldn’t possibly be the killer. On the other hand, he is a friend. She’s been to his home, attended meetings with him, and currently shares an office teapot with him. It’s a really awkward and unsettling situation for her, and that adds to the suspense in the story.

And then there’s Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me?  Yvonne Mulhern has recently moved with her husband, Gerry, from London to Dublin. The move represents an excellent career opportunity for Gerry, but it’s all much more difficult for Yvonne, who is a brand-new first-time mum. With no friends or family in Dublin, she soon turns to Netmammy, an online forum of other mothers. In the group, Yvonne finds the solidarity and support she’s been missing, and all goes well at first. Then, one of the group’s members goes missing. Yvonne gets concerned; although she’s never meet the woman, she considers her a friend. In the meantime, Sergeant Claire Boyle, herself a mum-to-be, is faced with a difficult case. A woman’s body has been found in an abandoned apartment. When Yvonne hears about this, she begins to wonder whether the dead woman is her missing online friend. If so, that could mean that someone in the forum is not who she seems to be. And that possibility adds quite a lot of tension to this story.

And I don’t think I could discuss this topic without mentioning Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 film, Shadow of Doubt. In that film, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Newton is excited to learn that her uncle, Charlie Oakley, will be coming for a visit. All goes well at first. But everything changes as Charlie slowly comes to suspect that Uncle Charlie may in fact be a murderer.

When it’s done well, that slow building up of suspicion can be very suspenseful. It’s also realistic, if you think about it. I’ve only had space for a few examples. Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Gail Bowen, Hake Talbot, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Sinéad Crowley

Crime Fiction News Break


 

Links You’ll Want

Laurie R. King Literary Salon

Big Little Lies comes to HBO

The Wolfe Pack

A Deadly Orientation

D.S. Nelson 

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In The Spotlight: Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit

>In The Spotlight: Rex Stout's Fer de LanceHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There’s something about the sort of ‘impossible’ mystery, especially the Golden Age version of that sort of story. Add to that the context of an eerie house and lodge, and a group of disparate people staying there, and you have the elements of a creepy Golden Age story. Let’s take a look at that sort of novel today, and turn the spotlight on Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit. By the way, it’s worth noting that this is one of only two mysteries Talbot wrote.

The story takes place during a rural New England winter, mostly on a property known as Cabrioun, and the lodge associated with it. The property used to be owned by French émigré Grimaud Désanat. However, he and a companion, Walter Querns, died during a hunting trip some years ago. Désanat’s widow, Irene, now owns the property, and a fortune. Also living there is her current husband, Frank Ogden, and Désanat’s daughter, Seré, whom the Ogdens have adopted, and who’s gone by the name Sherry Ogden most of her life.

The Ogdens own a business with a family friend, Luke Latham. He has a factory that does specialty wood production. The factory gets its logs from forest land that Irene Ogden inherited from her first husband. It uses a specially-patented process developed by Irene’s current husband, Frank. All’s gone well until recently. Now, the proper sort of wood isn’t available any more, and the business may run out. The only solution is a piece of land known as Onawa, which does have the right sort of trees. Irene claims she inherited that land from Désanat, whose wish was that it not be logged for twenty years. The business can’t wait that long, so Irene and Latham have come up with a solution: hold a séance to contact Désanat, and ask his permission to go ahead and log the Onawa.

It’s not as far-fetched as it seems for those two. They both believe in spiritualism, as does Frank; Irene, in fact, is a medium. So, plans go ahead for the séance. That night, a group of people gather. There are, of course, Irene, Frank, and Sherry Ogden. There are also Luke Latham and his nephew, Jeff. Jeff’s new girlfriend, Barbara Daventry, is there as well. Professor Peyton Ambler, who is by profession an anthropologist, has also come, as has Svetozar Vok. Vok is a well-known stage magician who’s taken to debunking fake spiritualists, so he has quite an interest in this event. Taking part in it all, and serving as the sleuth, is itinerant gambler Rogan Kincaid, who knows the Lathams.

The séance takes place, and is a truly eerie experience. It frightens several of the participants, and there are incidents that seem to be otherworldly. Most of them are later explained when Irene is unmasked as a fake. Still, there are some things left unexplained.

Later that night, Irene is murdered in her room. Now the house party is thoroughly frightened. Either her death has a supernatural explanation (scary enough for those who believe in such things), or one of them is a murderer (scary for everyone). Cut off by bad weather, the group tries to find out who killed Irene Ogden, and what can account for some very strange, unsettling events.

This is a Golden Age sort of story in many respects. There’s the disparate house party, the truly creepy house and lodge, and the slow reveal of several different motives as the story goes on. I don’t want to say more, for fear of spoilers, but several of the characters’ pasts play roles in the story, and some of the reveals prove to be important. We also have the final explanation that Kincaid lays out (after another murder).

This is also very much an ‘impossible, but not really’ sort of story. For one thing, there seems no way for the murderer to have escaped Irene Ogden’s room. And yet, her body is found alone. And what explains the occurrences at the séance? Irene’s machinations don’t answer all of the questions. And there are other things that don’t seem possible – but apparently have happened. A few of the characters put it down to the spirit of Grimaud Désanat, who never loved his wife, and now wants to avenge his death on her. But others seek a more prosaic solution, as impossible as that seems. Readers who enjoy intricate, complex ‘locked room’ puzzles will appreciate this.

The story is also of its time in the attitudes of some of the characters. For example, one of the characters, Madore Trudeau, is the property caretaker. He’s half First Nations, and is not portrayed respectfully. There also other ‘isms,’ including sexism. On the one hand, those were the attitudes of the day. On the other, readers who object to those ‘isms’ will notice them.

One of the other important elements in the novels is its eerie atmosphere. The house is creepy, and bad winter weather has made any trip outdoors dangerous. The séance is thoroughly unsettling, even for people who don’t believe in spiritualism. And some of the characters, including the enigmatic Vok, as well as Désanat himself, are portrayed in almost sinister ways. Flickering candles, mysterious sounds, unexplained voices, it’s that sort of story. That said, though, Vok, Kincaid, and a few others do not believe in the supernatural. So, there’s an interesting debate about whether there are supernatural explanations for things.

Rim of the Pit is an intricate, ‘impossible’ sort of Golden Age mystery that takes place in a very creepy atmosphere. It features characters who all have connections in some way to Grimaud Désanat or his widow, and who all have something they don’t want to reveal at first. And it really does have an eerie séance, even if you don’t believe in ghosts. But what’s your view? Have you read Rim of the Pit? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 12 December/Tuesday, 13 December – Cop Town – Karin Slaughter

Monday, 19 December/Tuesday, 20 December – We Are the Hanged Man – Douglas Lindsay

Monday, 26 December/Tuesday, 27 December – The Masala Murder – Madhumita Bhattacharya

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Filed under Hake Talbot, Rim of the Pit