In The Spotlight: Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase

In The Spotlight A-LHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Mary Roberts Rinehart had a profound influence on modern suspense fiction. In fact, she’s believed to have created the ‘Had I but known’ style of crime novel. Let’s take a look at how that style of novel works; let’s turn today’s spotlight on The Circular Staircase, one of her best-known stories.

Rachel Innes is a middle-aged spinster who’s decided to take a summer holiday at Sunnyside, a large country house she’s rented from Paul Anderson, president of Traders’ Bank. With her are her grown nephew Halsey and his sister Gertrude, whom she’s raised since their father (and her brother) died. Also in attendance is the family maid Liddy Allen.

Very soon after their arrival, some strange things begin to happen. First, there seems to be an odd shadow of someone lurking near the house. Then, there are strange noises and other disturbing events. It’s unnerving, but Rachel determines to stay in the house.

Then, very late one night, a shot is heard. Everyone rushes to the card-room where they find the body of Paul Anderson’s son Arnold. The police are informed, and the next day they begin their investigation. Suspicion soon falls on Halsey and his friend Jack Bailey. They were in the house on the night of the murder, but left suddenly, right about the time Armstrong was probably killed. When Halsey returns, he claims that neither he nor Bailey knew about the murder until later. But at the same time, he won’t account for his absence. And it’s clear that Gertrude knows more than she’s saying about what happened.

With both her nephew and her niece implicated, Rachel determines to clear their names. It’s not easy because for their own reasons, neither Halsey nor Gertrude will be frank with their aunt. Then, the Armstrong’s butler Thomas Johnson, who’s been helping out in the house, suddenly dies. He didn’t have a very strong heart; but at the same time, he wasn’t ill. Liddy is convinced that his death and the other frightening events at the house have a supernatural explanation. But Rachel looks for a more prosaic explanation.

Then it comes out that there’s been a theft of money and valuable securities from Traders’ Bank. And there’s more eerie evidence that someone desperately wants something that’s at Sunnyside. What’s more, there’s a great deal of pressure on Rachel (from more than one source) to leave Sunnyside immediately. This she refuses to do until she solves the mystery and clears her family’s name. In the end, we find out who shot Arnold Armstrong, and how that’s connected to the frightening events at Sunnyside.

This is, as I mentioned, a textbook example of the ‘Had I but known’ style of novel, and Rinehart uses foreshadowing of that kind from the very beginning. Here, for instance, are Rachel’s thoughts when she and Liddy first discuss leaving Sunnyside (right after the first strange events):
 

‘And so we sat there until morning, wondering if the candle would last until dawn, and arranging what trains we could take back to town. If we had only stuck to that decision and gone back before it was too late!’
 

True to form, Rachel doesn’t reveal what disasters will actually occur.

Rinehart also builds tension through the setting. Sunnyside is a large, potentially beautiful country home that’s perfect for a summer getaway. But it’s also older, and Rinehart depicts it as a truly creepy place – one with a lot of secrets.
 

‘From where I stood I could not see beyond the door, but I saw [police detective] Mr. Jamieson’s face change and heard him mutter something, then he bolted down the stairs, three at a time. When my knees had stopped shaking, I moved forward, slowly, nervously, until I had a partial view of what was beyond the door. It seemed at first to be a closet, empty. Then I went close and examined it, to stop with a shudder. Where the floor should have been was black void and darkness, from which came the indescribable, damp smell of the cellars.’
 

There are eerie trunk rooms, dank basements, scary laundry chutes, and of course, a circular staircase. This is one of those novels where the house almost has a personality of its own.

The mystery itself is complex and follows several story threads. I can say without spoiling the novel that besides murder and theft, it involves blackmail, issues of identity, secret relationships, and threatened young love, among other things. And just about everyone keeps at least something back.

As with many ‘Had I but known’ stories, this one is narrated by the protagonist. So we learn quite a lot about the character of Rachel Innes. She’s practical and pragmatic – hardly the type to quake with fear. She is also wealthy and of high social standing; and in her interactions with other characters, we see the social attitudes and divisions of the times. She is often high-handed and sometimes brusque to the point of rudeness as she deals with servants and others not of her class. That said though, she is devoted to her niece and nephew, and she shows compassion and generosity more than once. She also has a wry kind of wit. Here’s how she describes herself after her niece and nephew have finished their schooling and returned home to educate her in modern ways (before the events of the story really begin):
 

‘The additions to my education made me a properly equipped maiden aunt, and by spring I was quite tractable.’
 

She can also be sarcastic in her views about others. In short, she’s an intelligent, opinionated, strong-willed representative of her gender and social class.

It’s also worth noting that her comments and attitudes (and those of others in the novel) at times reflect the ugly racism of those times. Readers who dislike racial stereotypes and racist remarks will notice this. They are offensive by today’s standards, but they are probably authentic depictions of that era.

The Circular Staircase is a clear representative of the ‘Had I but known’ suspense novel. It features a strongly-depicted protagonist, several inter-related mysteries, and a very eerie setting. But what’s your view? Have you read The Circular Staircase? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday 6 April/Tuesday 7 April – Old City Hall – Robert Rotenberg

Monday 13 April/Tuesday 14 April – The Corpse With the Silver Tongue – Cathy Ace

Monday 20 April/Tuesday 21 April – The Hanging Shed – Gordon Ferris

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Filed under Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Circular Staircase

It’s Late in the Evening*

LateNightPlenty of real and fictional crime happens in broad daylight. But most people associate crime with night. We’re more vulnerable at night; and, since a lot of people are at home then, public areas are less populated. So there’s no safety in numbers, so to speak. And those places that are late-night magnets (clubs, bars and pubs, etc.) have their own dangers.

It’s not surprising when you think about it that a lot of fictional crime takes place at night. There are far too many examples of this for me to include in this one post. I’m sure you’ll be able to add more than I could think of, anyway.

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, for instance, Hercule Poirot is taking a cruise of the Nile. Also on the cruise are Simon Doyle and his bride Linnet Ridgeway Doyle. On the second night of the cruise, Linnet is shot. The first theory is that her former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort is the killer. She certainly had motive, as she and Simon were engaged before he met Linnet. But it’s soon proven that Jackie couldn’t have committed the murder, so Poirot has to consider all of the other passengers. One important part of this investigation is finding out exactly what everyone was doing on the night of the murder. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that the ship was quite active, even late at night. I know, I know, fans of Murder on the Orient Express.

In John Bude’s The Cornish Coast Murder, Reverend Dodd, vicar of St. Michael’s-on-the-Cliff, is having dinner with his friend Dr. Pendrill. Their pleasant evening is interrupted when Pendrill is summoned to Greylings, the home of the Tregarthan family. Family patriarch Julius Tregarthan has been shot in his sitting room. Inspector Bigswell and his team are called in and begin to investigate. Interestingly, they find that three shots were fired through the open sitting-room window. Each shot came from a slightly different angle. What’s more, some money is missing from Tregarthan’s wallet. One of the tasks the police face is finding out exactly what all of those involved in the case were doing at the time of the murder. Matters aren’t made any easier by the fact that most of the people concerned were coming or going from somewhere. Although the investigation itself doesn’t occur only at night, a lot of the activity the police (and the vicar) look into does.

Karin Fossum’s Bad Intentions concerns three young men: Axel Frimann, Philip Reilly and Jon Moreno. Jon has recently been released from a mental hospital after a bout with severe anxiety problems, and it’s thought that some relaxation and a change of scenery will do him good. He and the other two take a cabin for a weekend at Dead Water Lake, and all starts out well enough. Late one night, the three young men go out on the lake in a boat. Only two come back. Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jakob Skarre investigate, and try to get as much information as they can from the two survivors. In the meantime, the body of a teenager is found in Glitter Lake. So Sejer and Skarre take on that case as well. As it turns out, the tragedies are connected and in both instances, finding out the truth means tracing a series of events that happened late at night. I know, I know, fans of Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride).

Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar introduces readers to Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney. After a particularly difficult case, she decides to take a break and visit her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse in Chiang Mai. Late one night, Didi’s partner Nou is murdered outside a club. Not long after that, Didi himself is shot. The official police account is that Didi murdered Nou; when the police came to arrest him, Didi turned dangerous, leaving the officers no choice but to shoot him. Keeney doesn’t believe any of this, and determines to clear her friend’s name. The trail leads to the Thai sex trade and to child trafficking. And a lot of both the criminal activity and Keeney’s investigation take place late at night. That makes sense, too, since that’s when many Thai bars and clubs do most of their business.

Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter features one very memorable night. Callum MacLean is a Glasgow-based freelance professional killer. He’s got a good reputation, so he’s an obvious choice when Peter Jamieson needs to ‘solve a problem.’ Jamieson is a ‘rising star’ in the criminal underworld. He’s noticed that small-time dealer and criminal Lewis Winter has been trying to make his own name. If he succeeds, this will cause real problems for Jamieson and his right-hand man John Young. So they hire MacLean to deal with Winter. One night, Winter and his girlfriend Zara Cope go to a club called Heavenly. Winter has far too much to drink, which doesn’t particularly bother Cope, since she’s having quite a good time with the evening’s ‘conquest’ Stewart Macintosh. She and Macintosh decide to take Winter home and spend the rest of the night together, since Winter will be oblivious anyway. They go ahead with their plan, and that’s when Maclean and his partner put their own plan into action.

And then there’s Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover. She’s a retired teacher who has regular bouts with insomnia. So she often goes for late-night walks, and seems to do her best thinking when everyone else is sleeping. In Pretty is as Pretty Dies, she investigates the murder of malicious real estate developer Parke Stockard, and it’s not an easy case. So one night, she decides to go down to the lake behind her house and sit for a while to think things out. She’s doing exactly that when she’s shoved from behind and almost drowns in the lake. Fortunately, the man next door Miles Bradford sees her distress before it’s too late and rescues her. For both of them, that’s more than enough for one night’s work.

There’s just something about those late-night hours that lends itself to crime. I know I’ve only touched on a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eric Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight.

EricClapton

Happy Birthday, Mr. Clapton!!

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Elizabeth Spann Craig, John Bude, Karin Fossum, Malcolm Mackay

Sometimes I Don’t Speak Right*

Difficult InterviewsInterviews with witnesses and suspects are critical to any investigation. Certainly those people can lie or be wrong; still, what they say and don’t say often provides important information about a case. Some witnesses (and suspects too) are particularly challenging to interview. They may have mental or emotional limitations that make it hard to reach them; and it may be difficult to make sense of what they say. Sleuths have to be especially careful in those cases, and use all of their interviewing skills to get the information they need.

In crime fiction, this challenge can add a layer of interest and suspense to a story. It’s got to be done carefully, or the witness/suspect can seem more of a ‘curiosity object’ than a real human being. But in deft hands, such a plot point can add some depth to a novel.

Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders has a few interesting examples of this sort of interview. In that novel, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate a series of killings. The only things the murders seem to have in common is that Poirot receives a cryptic warning note before each death, and that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. In the course of the investigation, Poirot interviews Lady Clarke, who is the widow of the third victim, retired throat specialist Sir Carmichael Clarke. She has cancer, and is kept under sedation most of the time because of the pain. This means that arranging a conversation with her requires planning, so that she can remain lucid during the interview. When Poirot speaks with her, she does ‘drift off’ at times. But she also has moments of clarity; and she says some things that turn out to be very helpful.

Interviewing children nearly always requires delicacy and care. That’s especially true in the case of seven-year-old Melody Quinn, whom we meet in Jonathan Kellerman’s When the Bough Breaks. Melody is the only witness to the murders of psychiatrist Morton Handler and his lover Elena Gutierrez, so LAPD detective Milo Sturgis wants to find out what she knows. But she’s not always coherent, and Sturgis is sure there’s more she could tell the police. He asks his friend, child psychologist Alex Delaware, for help. Delaware is reluctant at first; but in the end he agrees to at least speak to the child. When he does, he discovers that she’s heavily medicated with Ritalin and other drugs intended for children with ADHD. After considerable effort, Delaware convinces her mother Bonita to allow him to reduce her daughter’s medication so he can communicate with her. When he does, the child starts having nightmares and showing other symptoms of distress, so neither Bonita nor Melody’s doctor allow him any more access to her. But what she says during their short time together turns out to be significant.

In Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn takes an interest in the murder of a colleague Reed Gallagher, who headed the School of Journalism. One of Gallagher’s students, Kellee Savage, may have important information about the murder. As she’s also in one of Kilbourn’s classes, the two talk about the death. But Kellee has psychological and emotional conditions; and it’s not easy to interact with her. So at first, Kilbourn doesn’t take seriously some of the things Kellee says. Then one night, Kellee disappears. As the investigation goes on, Kilbourn learns that Kellee had some valuable knowledge about Gallagher’s death.

Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is the story of Chicago surgeon Dr. Jennifer White. She’s been diagnosed with dementia, and has had to leave her profession. But as the story begins, she still has many more good days than bad days. One night, the woman next door, Amanda O’Toole, is murdered. Her body has been mutilated in a skilled way that only a surgeon would be likely to know, so police detective Luton naturally takes an interest in White. And as she investigates, Luton finds more and more reason to think White is guilty. But at the same time, the evidence doesn’t completely add up; there are enough inconsistencies that it’s also quite possible White is innocent. But she is gradually slipping away from coherent thinking, so Luton finds it very hard to interact with her at times. In the end we discover what really happened to the victim, and it’s interesting to see how Luton goes about finding out the truth.

Martin EdwardsThe Hanging Wood introduces readers to Orla Payne, a troubled young woman who is haunted by the disappearance of her brother Callum twenty years earlier. Everyone’s always thought their uncle had something to do with what happened, but Orla’s never really believed that. Still, Callum hasn’t returned and his body was never discovered. Orla wants the case re-opened, so she calls the Cumbria Constabulary to ask DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team to look into it. But she is drunk when she calls, and emotionally very fragile in any case, so Scarlett finds it difficult to talk to her. Then Orla dies, apparently a suicide. Now Scarlett feels guilty for not having worked harder to communicate with Orla, and commits herself to finding out the truth about Callum’s disappearance.

There’s a very interesting case of a witness/suspect with limitations in T.J. Cooke’s Defending Elton. The body of a mysterious young woman Sarena Gunasekera is found at the bottom of a cliff at Beachy Head, near Eastbourne. There’s good reason to believe that Elton Spears is responsible for her death. For one thing, he’d already been in trouble with the law before for inappropriate contact with young girls. For another, he was known to be in that area at the time of the murder. Solicitor Jim Harwood knows Spears, and takes on his case. Working with this client isn’t easy though. Spears is a mentally troubled man who isn’t always coherent. He can’t do much to defend himself; he can’t even really explain his movements on the night in question. But Harwood wants to clear Spears’ name, so he and barrister Harry Douglas, who will defend the case in court, work to prove the young man innocent.

In real life, police and attorneys (and other investigators) sometimes have to work with witnesses or suspects who can’t be coherent and don’t seem reliable. And yet, those people can sometimes have important insights and valuable clues. So part of the task of solving a case is to find ways to reach those witnesses and suspects. That plot point can add a real layer of suspense to a crime story, too.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from War’s Why Can’t We Be Friends?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Gail Bowen, Jonathan Kellerman, Martin Edwards, T.J. Cooke

All in the Family ;-)

Family PhotosEaster and Passover will soon be upon us. Whether you celebrate one, the other, both, or neither, you know it’s a time for family gatherings. And that puts me in mind of…
 
 

…a quiz!  I don’t want to hear it! You know you always need to come here prepared! ;-)

We’re all deeply affected by the families we grew up in, and the ones we create. Crime-fictional sleuths are no different. And as a dedicated crime fiction fan, you know all about those sleuths’ parents, siblings and so on, don’t you? Or do you? Take this handy quiz and find out. Match each question to the correct answer. At the end of the quiz, submit your answers and see how well you have done. You can also go back and check your answers to see which ones you got correct.
 

Note: To those of you who tried to take the quiz and weren’t able to access it, I’m truly sorry. I know that’s frustrating. I believe all is well now, so please give it a go!
 

Ready? Open the family ‘photo album to begin…if you dare!  ;-)

 

FamilyPhotoAlbum

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At the Watering Holes of the Well-to-Do*

Exclusive ClubsAgatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide…) begins at the Coronation Club during a World War II air raid. Major Porter is reading a newspaper item which he discusses with Hercule Poirot. The item concerns the death of wealthy Gordon Cloade, who’s been killed in a bomb blast. Cloade leaves behind a young widow Rosaleen, as well as several relatives. And therein lies the problem. He’d always made it clear to his family that he would take care of them financially, so they’ve never gone without. But he died without making a will. Now Rosaleen is entitled to everything, and that fact leads to acrimony and worse. Major Porter plays a role later in the novel, and at one point Poirot has a conversation with him:
 

‘Poirot guessed that for Major Porter, retired Army officer, life was lived very near the bone. Taxation and increased cost of living struck hardest at the old war-horses.
Some things, he guessed, Major Porter would cling to until the end. His club subscription, for instance.’ 
 

Major Porter’s attitude towards his club isn’t uncommon. There’s something about belonging to an exclusive club that makes members feel special – even superior. Little wonder there are so many of them.

Exclusive clubs can also serve as effective contexts for crime fiction. Who knows what might go on among members, and clubs offer all sorts of options for the author. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Dorothy Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Lord Peter Wimsey investigates a death that occurs at his own Bellona Club. Old General Fentiman has passed away while sitting in his customary chair at the club. His sister, wealthy Lady Dormer, has also passed away. What’s important in this instance is the timing of the deaths. If Lady Dormer dies first, the family fortune passes to Fentiman’s grandson. If Fentiman dies first, the money goes to Lady Dormer’s distant cousin Ann Dorland. When it’s discovered that Fentiman was poisoned, Wimsey looks into the matter. And with so much money involved, there’s a lot at stake. Here’s Fentiman’s grandson’s amusing commentary on the club:
 

‘Place always reminds me of that old thing in Punch, you know—‘Waiter, take away Lord Whatsisname, he’s been dead two days.’ Look at Old Ormsby there, snoring like a hippopotamus. Look at my revered grandpa — dodders in here at ten every morning, collects the Morning Post and the armchair by the fire, and becomes part of the furniture till the evening. Poor old devil. Suppose I’ll be like that one of these days.’
 

Still, neither Fentiman would give up his club subscription

Several of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories feature exclusive clubs. For instance, in Gambit, Wolfe and Archie Goodwin investigate when Paul Jerin is poisoned. It seems that he did magic stunts and other party tricks, and was also quite skilled at chess. Matthew Blount, a member of the exclusive Gambit Chess Club, had played against Jerin a few times and the idea was born of a kind of competition at the club. Jerin would sit in one room, blindfolded, and play twelve simultaneous chess matches against other members of the club, who would sit in other rooms. Moves would be communicated by messenger. At first everything went well enough. But then Jerin suddenly died from what has turned out to be poisoned hot chocolate. Since it was Blount who brought Jerin the chocolate, he’s the most likely suspect. But his daughter Sally is convinced he’s innocent. So she hires Wolfe and Goodwin to find out the truth.

In H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote’s First Case, Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay Police has just been promoted to the rank of Inspector. He’s delighted with that, and with the prospect of becoming a father (his wife Protima is due to give birth very soon). Then his boss Sir Rustom Engineer assigns him to a delicate case. Iris Dawkins has apparently committed suicide; her widower wants to know why. Since Engineer is an old friend of Dawkins’, he’s promised to have someone look into the matter. So Ghote goes to Mahableshwar, where Dawkins lives. Ghote begins by tracing the victim’s last days and weeks, and it’s not long before he comes to believe that she was murdered. Part of the trail leads to the Mahableshwar Club, so Ghote pays more than one visit there:
 

‘Smoking Room. Inside, at once evident, the aroma from many past years of cigars, pipes and cigarettes lingering unmistakably. But yes, in the far corner a human being. Must be, even if he is holding up the broad pages of the Times of India.’
 

The story has a clear depiction of the Anglo-Indian club.

Of course, there are plenty of modern clubs too, as we see in Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows, which takes place mostly in the late 1990’s. The setting for most of the novel is the ultra-exclusive Cascade Heights Country Club, located about thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Potential members/residents are thoroughly vetted before being admitted, and everything that happens within the community is monitored and managed by its Commission. From the physical design of the area to the ID cards that are provided to members, it’s all specially designed to keep the outside world at bay. And those who live there are desperate to maintain their status as accepted members in good standing. So when the financial troubles of late-1990s Argentina find their way into the club, residents begin to worry about keeping up their privileged lives. As those problems worsen, it gets harder and harder to do that. The desperation to remain a part of this exclusive club ultimately leads to tragedy.

But that’s how important being a part of a very exclusive club is to some people. That feeling of being ‘set apart,’ superior and privileged can be intoxicating. And the club setting can make for a very solid crime setting.
 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Peron’s Latest Flame.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Claudia Piñeiro, Dorothy Sayers, H.R.F Keating, Rex Stout