It’s a Bedside Mystery*

Crime Fictional Crime Fiction FansYou probably already know this, but there are a lot of crime fiction fans out there. What’s interesting, too, is that there are plenty of fictional crime fiction fans, too. That makes sense if you think about it, because the most talented crime writers are also avid readers. And many of them read crime fiction. So it’s only logical that their interest in the genre would find its way into their writing.

In Edumnd Crispin’s The Case of the Golden Fly, for instance, we are introduced to Oxford academic Dr. Gervase Fen. In that novel, journalist Nigel Blake returns to Oxford to do a story on Robert Warner’s new play Metromaina. He’s also there because, quite frankly, he’s an admirer of Helen Haskell, who has a part in the play. While he’s at Oxford, Blake visits his former mentor Fen. So he’s on hand when Yseut Haskell (Helen’s half-sister and a star in her own right) is shot. The case is a difficult one, since she was alone at the time, and no-one was seen leaving or entering her room. But Fen works out how the murder was done. Here’s what he says as he works out the answer:

‘Lord, Lord what a fool I’ve been! ‘And yes – it fits – absolutely characteristic. Heaven grant Gideon Fell never becomes privy to my lunacy; I should never hear the end of it.’’

That’s, of course, a reference to John Dickson Carr’s sleuth, Dr. Gideon Fell. It’s an interesting example of how crime-fictional detectives work their way into other crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, noted American archaeologist Eric Leidner hires a nurse, Amy Leatheran, to help look after his wife, Louise. Louise has been having difficulty with anxiety, and Nurse Leatheran is hoping to help ease her nerves. She soon discovers that her patient has been seeing faces at windows, and hearing hands tapping. It may be just a symptom, so to speak, but Louise is convinced that someone is trying to kill her. What’s more, she knows who: her first husband, Frederick Bosner, who was thought to be dead for many years. Nurse Leatheran isn’t convinced that’s the case, until one afternoon when Louise is murdered in her room. Hercule Poirot is in the area, and is persuaded to investigate the murder. On the afternoon of the killing, Nurse Leatheran is in her own room, resting:

‘I was reading Death in a Nursing Home – really a most exciting story… When I put the book down at last (it was the red-headed parlourmaid, and I’d never suspected her once!) and looked at my watch I was quite surprised to find it was twenty minutes to three!’

Fans of both Christie and Ngaio Marsh will know that this snippet is a veiled reference to Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder. And no, Christie doesn’t give away the real killer in that novel.

Patricia Stoltey’s Sylvia Thorn is a retired Florida judge. She’s also a crime fiction reader. In The Prairie Grass Murders, her brother, Willie Grisseljon, is visiting their home town in Illinois. While he’s there, he discovers the body of an unknown man on the property the Grisslejon family used to own. When Willie reports the murder, he’s locked up as a vagrant and ordered to have a psychiatric evaluation. He calls his sister, and Sylvia travels to Illinois to arrange for his release. But when they go to the site where he found the body, there’s no sign that the body was ever there. Now, Willie is determined to prove he’s not crazy, that there was a murder. He and Sylvia get to the truth about the case, and Sylvia returns to Florida. But her troubles aren’t over…  At one point, she’s looking forward to taking a break from the events of this mystery:
‘…I could spend a few more hours on the balcony with my book and a glass of wine. If I finished the [Sue] Grafton paperback, I’d start right in on the latest Park Ranger adventures of [Nevada Barr’s] Anna Pigeon. Escapist reading at its best.’

Even a fictional sleuth enjoys spending time with…a fictional sleuth.

Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney also enjoys crime fiction. In Behind the Night Bazaar, she travels from Bangkok, where she’s based, to Chiang Mai, to visit her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. Both are bibliophiles, but they have different tastes. So some of their time is spent trying to ‘convert’ each other with different sorts of crime fiction. Everything changes, though, when Didi’s partner Nou is killed. When Didi himself is killed (allegedly while he was resisting arrest for Nou’s murder), Keeney decides to clear his name. And in The Half Child, we learn that Keeney’s love of crime fiction leads her to a particular bookshop – and to Rajiv Patel, who is helping his uncle run the shop. Patel becomes her partner in business and in life. See where a love of crime fiction can take you?

And then there’s Rodeo Grace Garnet, whom we meet in C.B. McKenzie’s Bad Country. He’s a former rodeo star who now does occasional PI work. That’s how he meets Katherine Rocha, who wants him to find out the truth about the death of her teenage grandson, Samuel. According to the police reports, he was possibly shot, and knocked off a bridge; and his grandmother wants to know who’s responsible. So Garnet starts asking questions. At one point, he’s planning a bit of a ‘road trip.’ Here’s part of what he packs:
‘…his camera, eavesdropping and recording gear, binoculars, pepper spray, a sap, a Tony Hillerman…’

That choice seems particularly appropriate, since this novel takes place in the same Southwest region of the US that features in many of Hillerman’s novels.

There are plenty of other examples of fictional sleuths who read about fictional sleuths (am I right, fans of James W. Fuerst’s Huge?). It’s not surprising, considering the popularity of the genre, and considering that crime writers often read the work of other crime writers. Which fictional crime fiction fans have stayed with you?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tavares’ Whodunit.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, C.B. McKenzie, Edmund Crispin, James W. Fuerst, John Dickson Carr, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Stoltey

25 responses to “It’s a Bedside Mystery*

  1. What’s nice about the Fen stories is that Crispin often drops himself into the story in a metafictional kind of way. They’re some of my favourite detective stories!

  2. Pingback: It’s a Bedside Mystery* | picardykatt's Blog

  3. Thanks for kind mention, Margot. Sylvia Thorn and I appreciate it a bunch. Sylvia also loves Craig Johnson and William Kent Krueger (just to show she’s not a crime sleuth sexist). 😀

  4. Well, Margot, there’s always Carolyn Hart’s “Death on Demand” series, with mystery bookseller Annie Darling and her friends who frequently don’t seem able to get through more than a page or two without referring to one or more other fictional detectives and/or their authors! 😉

    That brings up a related field, doesn’t it – the number of mysteries in which bookstores and book dealers play central roles? That dates back at least to Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop – probably another target for one of your excellent posts.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Less – and the inspiration. I really do need to do a bookshop-related post. You’re right, too, of course, about the Carolyn Hart series. Plenty of fictional sleuths and other characters there! I appreciate the reminder.

  5. Tim

    I am again aware of being ignorant. You always mention so many different authors and books, you cite so much detail, and you leave me scratching my head and wondering, “How does she know and remember so much?” Well, at least if I use your blog as a source for my reading list, I might someday be less ignorant. In fact, in my most recent posting at Solitary Praxis, I announce my reasons for my return to reading crime fiction. Onward!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Tim. You know much more in terms of literature than I do. I think we all have our areas of expertise. And it’s good to know what your thoughts are about Solitary Praxis. Blogs have a way of evolving over time, don’t they?

  6. Keishon

    Great post and may add a couple of writers that come to mind:

    Irish author Ken Bruen often cites/quotes dialogue or scenes from eminent writers all the time. That’s how I get a few of my recommendations. He was obviously a big fan of Ed McBain thereby making his fictional detective DS Brant (in Blitz and other books in that series) a big big fan of his police procedural.

    Colin Cotterill’s series amateur sleuth Dr. Siri loves the series featuring Maigret by Georges Simenon (who at the time I’d never even heard of).

    I love it when authors admire/cite other authors and mention them in their own work. Readers like me go looking for them.

    • Thanks, Keishon. And thanks very much for suggesting both Bruen and Cotterill. Both of them are talented writers and those series are quite well-done. And you’re right; other fictional sleuths do work their way into those stories, don’t they? I like it, too, when authors do that. It’s an extra touch of creativity, I think.

  7. I can’t add any crime fiction examples, but Bertie Wooster was rarely without a good mystery novel by his side, although with all the hoohah in his life he rarely got to read more than few pages at a time. And of course Catherine Morland in ‘Northanger Abbey’ had spent far too much of her time reading ‘horrid novels’, leaving her expecting corpses behind every piece of furniture… 😉

    • Haha! Yes, she did, indeed, FictioinFan. And you know, there’s nothing wrong with mentioning Bertie Wooster, either. After all, Agatha Christie was a fan of Wodehouse…

  8. I seem to make a habit of this, Margot: I’ve just written a short story where the heroine is depicted reading novels by Sue Grafton and (Australian) Cath Ferla — though neither novelist is named — and she has a poodle called Sherlock.

    I know, I know, a poodle should be called Poirot…

  9. Fascinating theme and examples, Margot. I haven’t read a lot of Agatha Christie but I think she was well tuned into what her contemporaries wrote. If I’m not mistaken she has even injected P.G. Wodehouse’s humour into a mystery or two.

  10. kathyd

    I enjoy it when Salvo Montalbano mentions that he reads books by Leonardo Sciascia and by Andrea Camilleri, his own creator! He also runs into the actor who plays him in the TV series.

  11. Col

    Keishon beat me to the punch with Bruen. I’m looking forward to Bad Country when I get there.

  12. I love it when the author mentions a character reading a crime novel. You’ve just given me a fantastic idea for a short story. Thank you!

  13. tracybham

    What an interesting topic, Margot. I often notice fictional detectives who read mystery series that actually exist, but those reading / talking about fictional mystery novels is a new one on me.

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