Pass the Biscuits, Please*

Food DescriptionsAn interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about the way food descriptions and meals fit into crime fiction. By the way, if Clothes in Books isn’t on your blog roll, you’re missing out. It’s the place for great discussions on clothes, popular culture, and what it all says about us in fiction. On the one hand, the kind of food we eat, the amount, and so on says a lot about us. So food can be used as a very effective way to develop characters. And because food is so culturally contextual, a meal can also provide cultural background too.

On the other hand, too much description of anything, food or otherwise, can overburden a story and take away from the main plot. In this, as in just about anything else in a novel, it seems that there needs to be a balance.

There are plenty of meals described in Agatha Christie’s novels and short stories. I’ll just mention one example. In Cards on the Table, the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana invites eight people to a dinner party. Four are sleuths; four are people Shaitana believes have gotten away with murder. Here’s a bit of the description of the dinner:
 

‘Poirot’s prognostication was amply justified. The dinner was delicious and its serving perfection. Subdued light, polished wood, the blue gleam of Irish glass.’
 

Interestingly enough, there’s no real discussion of the actual food. In this case, the conversation is more important. During the meal, Mr. Shaitana throws out hints about getting away with murder. One of his guests takes what he says too much to heart, and during after-dinner bridge, Mr. Shaitana is stabbed. There are only four suspects: the four people playing bridge in the room in which he was killed. So the four sleuths look into their backgrounds to find out who the killer is.  Of course, Poirot being the gourmand that he is, there are also mentions of food in the stories that feature him. But they tend not to be particularly descriptive.  In Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, Poirot travels to London on the famous Orient Express train. At one point, he and M. Bouc, who is a director of the Compagnie Internationale des  Wagon Lits, are having lunch:
 

‘Poirot sat down and soon found himself in the favoured position of being at the table which was served first and with the choicest morsels. The food, too, was unusually good.
It was not till they were eating a delicate cream cheese that M. Bouc allowed his attention to wander to matters other than nourishment.’
 

Those matters soon turn deadly when fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed.

Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series takes place in the Périgord, a region that particularly prides itself on its gastronomic culture. Bruno is the Chief of Police in the small town of St. Denis, and although he cares about his job and takes it very seriously, he certainly doesn’t forget to eat. In Bruno, Chief of Police, for instance, he works with Isabelle Perrault of the Police Nationale to solve the murder of Hamid Mustafa al-Bakr. At one point, they have a dinner picnic:
 

‘The fish were just right…She saw thin slivers of garlic that he had placed inside the belly of the trout, and he handed her half a lemon to squeeze onto the pink-white flesh, and a small side plate with potato salad studded with tiny lardons of bacon.’
 

They also have baguettes with pâté, Champagne, and some rosé. In this series, that careful attention to food really reflects the culture of the Périgord and adds to the sense of place.

Food is also an important part of life for Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano. Fans of this series will know that the novels have lots of description of delicious food. Here, for instance, is just one snippet from The Snack Thief, in which, among other things, Montalbano investigates the murder of Aurelio Lapècora, who is stabbed to death in the elevator of his apartment building. At one point, he takes a lunch break. Here’s a description of the hake he orders:
 

‘Then, eight pieces of hake arrived, enough to feed four people. They were crying out their joy – the pieces of hake, that is – at having been cooked the way God had meant them to be. One whiff was enough to convey the dish’s perfection, achieved by the right amount of breadcrumbs and the delicate balance between the anchovies and the whisked egg.’
 

Although there is quite a lot of food discussed in this series, Camilleri doesn’t go on about it for any real length of time. In this case, the food descriptions add some depth to Montalbano’s food-loving character, and they give a sense of the local culture.

It’s the same thing with Tarquin Hall’s stories featuring Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. Puri is sometimes nicknamed ‘Chubby,’ and part of the reason for that nickname is that he loves food. As he goes about his business, Hall gives readers an interesting look at the sort of food that’s popular in Delhi. Here, for instance, is a bit of a description of a meal that Puri’s wife Rumpi cooks (from The Case of the Missing Servant):
 

‘Rumpi was busy in the kitchen chopping onions and tomatoes for the bhindi. When the ingredients were ready, she added them to the already frying pods and stirred. Next, she started cooking the rotis on a round tava, expertly holding them over a naked flame so they puffed up with hot air like balloons and became nice and soft…
Presently Rumpi served him some kadi chawal, bhindi and a couple of rotis. He helped himself to the plate of sliced tomato, cucumber and red onion, over which a little chat masala had been sprinkled…’   
 

With less than a paragraph, really, Hall uses this meal to give some interesting cultural insights as well as set a homey scene. And for those who don’t know the terms, there’s a glossary in the back of the novel (at least in my edition). The real focus of these novels is the cases Puri and his team investigate; but Hall also manages to weave in some powerful food descriptions.

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant is half-Ukrainian. And although he identifies himself as Canadian, rather than Ukrainian, he enjoys traditional Ukrainian cooking. In A Flight of Aquavit, for instance, his mother Kay pays him a visit. They have their ups and downs and awkward moments, but he’s well-fed:
 

‘I comforted myself with the ultimate in Ukrainian comfort food – pierogies lightly fried in butter, garlic and onion and drowned in a rich, creamy sauce of mushrooms and dill.’  
 

Bidulka doesn’t take up page after page to describe food in this series; yet, the descriptions he does provide give character depth and an interesting cultural context to the stories.

And of course, no discussion of food descriptions in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. He is a dedicated devotee of fine food. He can be (and often is) brusque, even rude. But he knows the value of his chef Fritz Brenner, and he appreciates a properly done meal. There are many books, as Wolfe fans know, in which Fritz’ creations are mentioned, and others that include other delicious meals (Too Many Cooks comes immediately to my mind). And yet, despite the fact that Wolfe is a connoisseur of fine food, Stout keeps the focus in his stories on the plots and the characters.

And that’s the thing about descriptions of food and meals. They can provide a rich layer of character depth and cultural background. But they are best served in moderate portions. Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bobbie Genry’s Ode to Billie Joe.

25 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Anthony Bidulka, Martin Walker, Tarquin Hall

Gimme Shelter*

SheltersIt’s arguably not as easy to go ‘off the grid’ as it once was, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post. But if you know where to go and what to do, and you have the money and motivation, you can do it. Sometimes, though, it’s not as easy as just disappearing, even if you want (or need) to do that. For example, those dealing with domestic abuse (usually, but not always, women and children) may simply not have access to money, a car and so on. So they need to rely on shelters or on groups of ‘safe houses.’ Sometimes they’re helped by individuals too.

Shelters and other similar places have been around more or less since the 1970s; before then, someone who had to escape had very, very few choices. Even today it can be awfully difficult, but there are shelters and other places that can help to protect survivors of abuse. They’re certainly out there in real life, and they are in crime fiction too.

Deborah Crombie’s In a Dark House features Helping Hands, a Southwark women’s shelter. One night, there’s a fire in a warehouse next door to Helping Hands, and one of its residents reports the incident. The body of an unidentified woman is found among the ashes, and Superintendent Duncan Kincaid begins the investigation. At the same time, Kincaid’s partner, DI Gemma James, gets a call from the Reverend Winnie Montfort. One of Montfort’s congregants is missing, and she may be the unidentified woman. There are other possibilities though. One of them is Laura Novak, who works at Guy’s Hospital, and who is also on the Board of Directors at Helping Hands. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that the shelter and the people who live and work there do figure into this mystery.

Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy features Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell. In the second novel Exile, she has a job at Place of Safety, a women’s shelter. There, she meets Ann Harris, who is one of the shelter’s residents. Then, Ann disappears. On the one hand, the residents are under no obligation to tell the staff where they go and what they do. On the other, it’s always a cause for concern when residents go missing, because it could easily mean they’ve returned to an abusive situation. So Mauri does worry about Ann’s well-being. Still, there’s nothing to indicate a problem until two weeks later, when Ann’s body is found in the Thames. Mauri immediately suspects that Ann’s husband Jimmy killed her. But Jimmy’s cousin Louise, who runs the shelter, thinks he’s innocent. So she and Mauri start to ask questions about what really happened.

When we first meet Zoë Sharp’s Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox in Killer Instinct, she’s left the armed forces for reasons she would rather not discuss. But she’s found a way to fit back into civilian life:
 

‘I’ve been holding self-defence at the Shelseley Lodge Women’s Refuge for the last couple of years.’
 

On the whole, she finds the work satisfying, and the shelter provides her a place to teach her classes in exchange for not charging its residents any tuition. One night, she goes with a friend to a karaoke night event at the newly remodeled Adelphi Club. During the evening, she gets into a fight with another patron Susie Hollins. When Susie is later found murdered, the police are naturally very interested in Charlie. If she’s going to clear her name, she’s going to have to find out who the killer is, and all of the possibilities are dangerous…

In Sara Paretsky’s Tunnel Vision, her PI sleuth V.I. Warshawski is the lone holdout against the powerful Culpepper brothers, who own the Chicago building where she has her office, and who want to sell it. To add to that stress, one night, she finds a homeless woman and her children living in the building’s basement. She’s trying to find a solution for this family when her most important client asks her to help him find a community service placement for his son, who’s been arrested for computer hacking.  Warshawski finds a place for the boy at Home Free, a homeless advocacy group. Then, Deirdre Messenger, who sits on Home Free’s Board of Directors, is murdered and her body left in Warshawski’s office. Warshawski knew the victim, since both were volunteers at Arcadia House, a women’s refuge. So even if the body hadn’t been found in her office, she’d have taken an interest. She starts asking questions and ends up uncovering some very dirty domestic abuse secrets in some very high places.

Of course, there are plenty of individuals who help those who need to escape, even if they’re not affiliated with a particular group. In Betty Webb’s Desert Wives, for instance, private investigator Lena Jones works with her PI partner Jimmy Sisiwan to rescue thirteen-year-old Rebecca Corbett from Purity, a polygamous sect. Rebecca’s father Abel has rejoined the sect after some time away, and has agreed that Rebecca will marry the group’s leader Solomon Royal. Rebecca’s mother Esther, who’s divorced from Abel, wants Rebecca to be returned to her. So Jones and Sisiwan track Rebecca down and rescue her. In the process, Jones sees that Royal has been shot and is badly wounded. Still, she thinks that since neither she nor Rebecca had anything to do with the incident, they’ll be fine. But shortly after Rebecca and Esther are re-united, Jones learns that Royal has died. Now Esther is a suspect in his murder and will very likely be extradited from Arizona to Utah to face trial. So Jones infiltrates Purity to find out who really killed the victim. As she gets to know the area, she discovers that what’s going on at Purity is much more than just teenage girls being forced to marry (as if that weren’t bad enough!). But she also learns of a few individuals who have helped some of the women and children escape. And that makes a big difference.

Domestic abuse shelters and refuges are important ‘safety nets’ for those trapped in abusive situations. So it’s little wonder they show up in crime fiction, too. And in real life, they can use all the help they can get. Just as an example, if you’re looking for a new home for books you no longer want to keep, why not consider such a shelter? A good book can provide a badly needed balm when someone’s in such a situation. Your time, your donations and your advocacy when funding’s being debated are also good ways to help.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Rolling Stones song.

24 Comments

Filed under Betty Webb, Deborah Crombie, Denise Mina, Sara Paretsky, Zoë Sharp

I’m in Hiding*

Going into HidingThere are a lot of crime novels and thrillers where one or another character goes on the run, hoping not to be caught. That plot element can be suspenseful and effective if it’s done well. But here’s the thing: it’s not so easy to go on the run and into hiding. There are all kinds of considerations and obstacles that people who don’t want to be found have to face. I’m hardly a sophisticated expert on these matters, but here are a few examples from crime fiction that show how many things need to be taken into account.
 

Money

In today’s world, there are banking machines just about everywhere. So you’d think it would be easy to access your money. But of course it’s not that simple. In Peter James’ Not Dead Yet, for instance, Superintendent Roy Grace of the Brighton and Hove police uses the realities of today’s banking to catch a killer. In one plot thread, he and his team slowly trace the murderer of an unidentified man whose torso is found in an abandoned chicken coop. They connect that murder to threats against the life of visiting superstar Gaia Lafayette. And one of the ways they track this murderer is through video taken at bank machines. That, plus banking information that they get, allows them to find out exactly who the killer is.

Given the detailed information you need to provide to open a current/checking or savings account, it would be difficult to even use a bank to manage your money – not, that is, if you plan to ‘disappear.’ Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander has the computer and other skills one needs to pull off financial wizardry, but most people don’t. So people who go on the run have to find ways to get their hands on cash, and ways to keep it safe.

 

Travel and Documentation

Another obstacle to staying out of sight, so to speak, is getting documentation. In most countries, for instance, you can’t book an airline ticket without identification. And in today’s world of enhanced security, you sometimes have to go through more than one level of identity check. Modern hotels nearly always require a credit card (and often ID too) before you can check in. So unless you know where to go, or can stay in someone’s home – someone who keeps quiet – it’s not that difficult to track your whereabouts. There are of course people who are in the business of creating false documentation. But they aren’t charities, and it can take time to do the job right. That’s not to mention that they don’t exactly trumpet their services. So there’s a certain amount of effort, and sometimes quite an expense, involved in getting identification.

Some fictional characters, such as Anthony Bidulka’s Adam Saint, work for agencies and institutions that can provide them with documentation. When we first meet him in When the Saints Go Marching In, Saint works for the Canadian Disaster Recovery Agency (CDRA). His job is to travel to wherever there is a disaster that impacts Canada, Canadians, or Canadian interests. He is often provided with money and travel documents as a part of his job. And we see the same sort of thing in thrillers that involve British Intelligence, CIA, FBI or other agencies.

The reality is though that unless you work for that sort of agency, or are supported by a witness protection program of some sort, it’s difficult to travel anywhere far, or find a place to live, without authentic documentation. Just as an example, in Katherine Howell’s Violent Exposure, Ella Marconi of the New South Wales Police works with her team to investigate the murder of greenhouse owner Suzanne Crawford. Her husband Connor is the most likely suspect, not least because he and his wife were involved in a domestic dispute the day before her murder. The police want very much to talk to Connor, but he’s disappeared. Checks of his banking records, registration and so on reveal absolutely nothing; it’s as though he never existed. But this is the 21st Century, so the police finally do come up with the information they need. And I can say without spoiling the story that they do so through electronic records searching and co-operation with authorities from another country. Even crossing borders doesn’t necessarily mean a person couldn’t ever be found.

 

Employment

Just about every legitimate employer asks for an identification number or its equivalent before hiring. Some run criminal background checks as well. Part of the reason for that is so that the employer can keep accurate payroll records. Another part is so that the employer doesn’t run afoul of government regulations. So unless you’ve got authentic identification, it’s difficult to find the kind of employment a lot of people think of when they think of a job or a career.

If you don’t want your whereabouts known, you’d need to find the sort of employment where you get paid in cash, with few questions asked. There are such employers out there, but you have to know where to go. Or, you have to have the sort of occupation that Malcolm Mackay’s Callum MacLean, whom we first meet in The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, has. MacLean is a professional killer. He works independently, and does the jobs for which he’s hired in an efficient, ‘clean’ way. As you can imagine, he’s paid in cash, and he buys what he needs with cash.

But perhaps you’d rather not earn your living by killing people. In former times, a person might be hired on for cash. For instance, Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte often investigates in cases where people such as ranch hands come into town, are paid in cash, and move on when the work is done. And there are still some jobs like that. But you have to be willing to take on all sorts of different work, and you have to work among people who don’t ask a lot of questions. That’s not as easy to do as you might think.

Given the realities of today’s world, it’s awfully hard to realistically go into hiding or stay on the run for long. It can be done, and I’m sure you can think of novels where it happens. But it takes planning and effort. Plot lines featuring people who are ‘off the grid’ are most engaging when they take into account what would really need to happen in order for someone to be very difficult to find.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pearl Jam’s In Hiding.

17 Comments

Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Upfield, Katherine Howell, Malcolm Mackay, Peter James, Stieg Larsson

And I Have My Say and I Draw Conclusions*

Conclusions and EvidenceMost of us make sense of what we see and draw conclusions from it without even being aware of what we’re doing. For instance, suppose you don’t see your car keys where you usually leave them. You look out the window and your car’s still there, so you conclude that no-one stole your car, and your keys must be in the house somewhere. Then you use evidence (e.g. what rooms you were in the last time you had your keys, which trousers you were wearing), and usually, you track them down. You may not be consciously aware that you’re drawing conclusions as you go, but you are.

Evidence and conclusions play huge roles in crime fiction for obvious reasons. Skilled sleuths pay attention to the evidence and use it as best they can to draw reasonable conclusions. Even more skilled sleuths know that evidence can be faked, so they look for more than just what’s obvious. And one of the biggest mistakes sleuths make is to draw conclusions that are too hasty, because they haven’t paid attention to the evidence.

The way sleuths draw conclusions is central to court cases too, since evidence is key to either prosecuting or defending an accused person. ‘S/he did it – I know it!’ simply isn’t enough for a conviction. And there are a lot of crime novels where original investigators didn’t do a good job with the evidence, so the case is re-opened.

Using that connection between evidence and conclusions as a plot point can be risky. A sleuth who doesn’t pay attention to the evidence or who draws all of the wrong conclusions can come off as bumbling, and that’s off-putting. On the other hand, a sleuth who never has to puzzle over what conclusions to draw can come off as not very credible.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is one of the most famous fictional users of evidence to draw conclusions and make deductions. Here, for instance, is his commentary on Dr. Watson when they first meet in A Study in Scarlet:
 

‘I knew you came from Afghanistan. From long habit the train of thoughts ran so swiftly through my mind, that I arrived at the conclusion without being conscious of intermediate steps. There were such steps, however. The train of reasoning ran, ‘Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.’ The whole train of thought did not occupy a second. I then remarked that you came from Afghanistan, and you were astonished.’
 

In fact, Holmes and his creator had little patience for sudden flashes of intuition.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is very interested in psychology, and draws conclusions from psychological evidence as well as physical evidence. And it’s interesting to see how he draws conclusions when the physical and psychological evidence are at odds. That’s what happens, for instance in Dead Man’s Mirror. Poirot is summoned to the home of Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore, who believes he’s being cheated by someone in his inner circle. Very shortly after Poirot arrives, Chevenix-Gore is dead, apparently by suicide (there’s even a suicide note). And at first, that’s what everyone believes, since the physical evidence (locked study door, etc.) suggest it. But to Poirot, someone as self-important as Gervase Chevenix-Gore would simply not believe that the world could get along without him. He wouldn’t commit suicide. So Poirot looks more carefully at the physical evidence and discovers that there are some pieces that don’t add up to suicide either. And that’s how he draws the conclusion that Chevenix-Gore was murdered.

In Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest is part of a team that investigates the murder of geologist/prospector Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins. He was stabbed in his hut not very long after a drunken pub quarrel with John ‘Wireless’ Petherbridge. And the obvious evidence is very strong that Wireless is the killer. So Tempest’s boss Bruce Cockburn draws the very reasonable conclusion that Wireless is the man they want, and is ready to wrap up the case quickly. Tempest notices other evidence though – evidence from nature – and begins to suspect that Wireless may be innocent. So she begins to ask questions. In this novel, there’s an interesting debate between the evidence that comes from things such as bloodstains, wounds and so on, and the evidence that’s more psychological and intuitive. And as it turns out, depending on just the one or the other leads to the wrong conclusions. Fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte will know that he too relies on ‘the Book of the Bush’ – evidence from nature – to draw conclusions, and that he often looks beyond the actual physical evidence that he sees.

Sometimes, it’s hard to draw solid conclusions at first, because a fictional death looks so much like a suicide or accident. For example, in Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel are taking a much-needed getaway break at Krabi, on the Thai coast. During their visit, they take a tour that’s led by a guide named Pla. That personal connection is one reason why both are very upset when they learn that Pla’s body has been found washed up in a cave. They decide to take a few extra days to see if they can find out what happened to her. The police report suggests that the victim died by accident or perhaps committed suicide by drowning. It’s not an unreasonable conclusion, and there isn’t very much physical evidence to suggest otherwise. But Keeney isn’t so sure. For one thing, she knows that Pla was an expert swimmer. So although it’s not impossible, an accident is unlikely. And nothing she learns suggests that Pla was despondent enough to kill herself. So Keeney starts asking questions. In the end, she finds that the truth is very different to what it seems on the surface. But at the same time, it’s easy to see why the police would draw the conclusions they did. If you don’t pay attention to those small bits of evidence, it’s very hard to work out whether someone drowned by accident, suicide or murder.

In Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss, Göteborg police inspector Irene Huss and the other members of the Violent Crimes Unit are faced with a puzzling case. Successful entrepreneur Richard von Knecht jumps from the balcony of the penthouse where he and his wife Sylvia live. At first the case looks very much like a suicide. It’s a reasonable conclusion, and anyone might have a hidden motive for that. But the police pay attention to other pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise. For one thing, the victim had acrophobia. If he was going to kill himself, it seems odd that he’d have chosen that method. For another, there is some forensic evidence that points to murder. So the team has to look at this case in an entirely new way.

And that’s the thing about drawing crime-fictional conclusions. It’s natural and human to draw conclusions from what we see. That’s how we make sense of our world. And those details and pieces of evidence that sleuths see are critical to drawing conclusions. That’s not always as easy to do as it seems, but the way sleuths go from details/evidence to conclusions is an important part of an investigation.

ps. Just to see how this works, what conclusions do you draw from the evidence in the ‘photo? ;-)

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Blonde Over Blue.

28 Comments

Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Helene Tursten

It’s Curtain Time and Away We Go!*

Stage AdaptationsIn Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings run into several difficulties and obstacles as they work to solve the murder of wealthy Miss Emily Arundell. One evening, Hastings suggests that they take a break from the case and go to a play, and Poirot enthusiastically agrees. The evening goes well enough, except that Hastings admits he’s made one mistake: taking Poirot to a crook play.
 

‘There is one piece of advice I offer to all my readers. Never take a soldier to a military play, a sailor to a naval play, a Scotsman to a Scottish play, a detective to a thriller – and an actor to any play whatsoever!’
 

And yet, crime fiction fans do enjoy going to mystery/thriller plays. Sometimes they’re adaptations of novels or short stories. Sometimes they’re originally written as plays. Other times they’re ‘audience participation’ plays. In any case, they’re popular.

Adapting a story for the different media (print, film, theatre) isn’t always easy. But there’ve been many stories that have made their way from print to stage (or vice versa). And it’s interesting to see how they’re adapted. Here are just a few examples.

Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger is the story of Ellen and Robert Bunting, a couple who spent several years ‘in service,’ and have now retired. As a way to earn income, they’ve opened their home to lodgers, but so far, haven’t been overly successful. Then, a mysterious stranger who calls himself Mr. Sleuth takes a room. He’s a little odd; but at first it seems like a fine arrangement. He’s quiet, pays promptly, and so on. Bit by bit though, the Buntings begin to suspect that something might be very wrong. Could Mr. Sleuth somehow be connected to a series of murders committed by a man who calls himself The Avenger? On the one hand, the Buntings depend on the income from their lodger. On the other, if he does have something to do with the Avenger killings, they should inform the police. It’s an interesting psychological study which was adapted for the stage in 1916 as Who is He?

Edgar Wallace adapted his own novel The Gaunt Stranger as a play that he called The Ringer. He later edited the original novel and re-released it with the same name as the play. In the story, Henry Arthur Milton, who calls himself ‘The Ringer,’ is a vigilante who’s gone into hiding in Australia. Then he learns that his sister Gwenda has been found dead, and returns to London to avenge her. He targets the man he blames; and of course, Scotland Yard can’t support ‘vigilante justice,’ so they’ll have to find The Ringer before he can take justice into his own hands. The major problem is, he’s very good at disguising himself – so good that no-one knows what he looks like. You can find out lots more about this story in a really interesting post by Sergio at Tipping My Fedora. And you’ll want that excellent blog on your blog roll anyway – it’s the source for classic crime novels and film adaptations.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories have been adapted for the stage. The Mousetrap, for instance, has been running continuously since 1952. It had its origin in a short story (which was based on a radio play!) called Three Blind Mice. There’s also The Yellow Iris, which began as a short story in which Rosemary Barton dies of cyanide poisoning during a dinner party. It’s believed her death is suicide, but her widower George says otherwise. A year later, he stages another dinner party with the same people to see if he can catch the killer. Interestingly enough, Christie also developed this into the novel Sparkling Cyanide, ‘though she changed both the sleuth and the murderer.

James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice is the story of Frank Chambers and Cora Papadakis, who meet when Frank, who’s a drifter, ends up working in the diner owned by Cora and her husband Nick.  Frank and Cora begin an affair that ends up having disastrous results when they decide to get rid of Nick. Originally, this was written as a short novel, but it’s been adapted several times for film, and twice (that I’m aware of) for the stage: in 2005 in London’s West End, and in 2008 in Moscow.

And then there’s Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon, the last Lord Peter Wimsey novel she completed. In the novel, Wimsey and Harriet Vane have finally married. But trouble starts when they travel to Tallboys, the country home Wimsey’s bought for his bride, and they place they intend to spend their honeymoon. When the body of the house’s former owner is found in the basement, the wedding couple have a new mystery to solve. This story had its origins in a 1936 play that Sayers co-wrote, and was later adapted as a full-length novel.

Ruth Rendell’s An Unkindness of Ravens is the thirteenth in her Reg Wexford series. In the novel, Wexford agrees to look into the disappearance of Rodney Williams. At first he’s not overly concerned about the man. All indications are that he’d run off with another woman – not exactly ‘upstanding,’ but not really a police matter. Then, Williams’ suitcase and car are found. Later, his body is discovered. Then there’s another stabbing. It’s now clear that this is more than just a case of a man who treated his wife badly. While not as well-known as some other stage adaptations are, this novel has been adapted as a play.

And I don’t think I could do a post about crime novels and the theatre without mentioning Ngaio Marsh, whose career was so heavily influenced by her work on and behind the stage. Many of her stories feature plays, stage settings and so on.

There’s just something about seeing a crime story played out on the stage. There are some nuances that it’s much harder to get across in print than ‘live.’ So it’s little wonder that so many crime novels either had their start as plays or have been adapted for that media. Which ones have you enjoyed?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Cole Porter’s Another Op’nin’ Another Show.

28 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Edgar Wallace, James M. Cain, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Ngaio Marsh, Ruth Rendell