Some Folks are Born, Silver Spoon in Hand*

famous-people-public-and-privateA lot of us get tired of hearing about the doings of famous people. That’s understandable, when you consider the ways the media treats stories about celebrities. The truth is, famous people are, first and foremost, people. And sometimes stories about that side of them can be interesting, especially if they’re done well. Readers can certainly connect to a famous person if they see that person as, well, real.

The thing about famous people is that, like the rest of us, they often have family and friends. They have pasts, too, and often their own secrets. All of that can make for an interesting context for a crime novel, providing that the famous character is depicted as an authentic person.

We see the human side of famous actress Marina Gregg in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d). In that novel, Marina and her husband have just purchased Gossington Hall, in the village of St. Mary Mead. They decide to continue the tradition of an annual charity fête at the hall, and open their new home to the public. One of those most excited about this is Heather Badcock, who is one of Marina Gregg’s biggest fans. She goes to the big event, and actually gets the chance to meet her idol. Shortly afterwards, Heather becomes ill and then dies of what turns out to be poison. At first, it’s believed that the intended victim was Marina, and there are certainly are those who wish her harm in both her professional and personal lives. But Miss Marple deduces that Heather was actually meant to be the victim all along. With some help from her friend, Dolly Bantry, Miss Marple works out who would have wanted to kill Heather and why. As the novel goes on, we learn about the real person behind the famous Marina Gregg, and that side of her plays its role in the story.

In Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts, we are introduced to famous actors Blythe Stuart and John Royle. They had a very public, very stormy romance that finally ended. Each married someone else and each now has an adult child. Magna Studios wants to do a biopic on the couple, and Ellery Queen’s working on the screenplay. No-one thinks that the two actors will consent to do the film, but to everyone’s surprise, they agree. What’s more, they re-kindle their romance and even decide to get married. Rather than let this sudden change of plans get in the way of the film, the studio decides to make the most of it and give the couple a Hollywood-style wedding. It’s to take place on an airstrip, and is to be followed by the couple and their children taking off for their honeymoon trip. The wedding comes off as planned, and the plane duly takes off. But when it lands, both newlyweds are dead of what turns out to be poison. Their children are the likely suspects, but each of them claims to be innocent. Queen investigates, and discovers that the truth can be found by seeing the couple as actual people, rather than as celebrities.

Josephine Tey’s The Man in the Queue begins as a group of people are waiting outside the Woofington Theatre to see the final performance of Didn’t You Know?, starring famous actress Ray Marcabel. The doors finally open and the crowd moves in. In the confusion, no-one notices at first that there’s been a stabbing and a man is dead. Inspector Alan Grant investigates; and, of course, one of his first questions is the man’s identity. It turns out that the victim was small-time bookmaker Albert Sorrell. At first, it looks very much as though Sorrell’s roommate is guilty. Even Grant is convinced of this at first. But he soon begins to wonder whether he has the right man. So he goes back to the beginning of the case to find out the truth. And as he does, he learns more about the real person behind the famous Ray Marcabel, and that plays a part (pun intended) in the mystery.

Robert Crais’ Los Angeles-based PI Elvis Cole has had his share of encounters with famous people, and has learned what some of them are like behind their public personas. That’s what happens, for instance, in Lullaby Town. Famous director Peter Alan Nelson hires Cole to track down his ex-wife Karen Shipley, mostly so that Nelson will have a chance at a relationship with his twelve-year-old son, Toby. At first, Cole is reluctant to take the case, since it’s very likely that Karen doesn’t want to be found. But Nelson insists, saying that he really wants to be a father to his son. So Cole finally relents and starts asking questions. It doesn’t take him long to trace Karen and Toby to a small Connecticut town, but that’s only the start of Cole’s problems. It seems that Karen’s gotten mixed up with the Mob. She wants to get free of that connection, but that’s much easier said than done. Cole decides that he’ll have a better chance of getting Karen to talk to her ex-husband if she stays alive; and for that, he’ll need help from his PI partner, Joe Pike. In this novel, we don’t just see Nelson as a famous director; we see the human side of him, too.

Kalpana Swaminatham’s The Page Three Murders features a Mumbai house party being hosted by Dr. Hilla Driver, who’s just inherited a very upmarket home and wants to have a sort of housewarming. She also wants to celebrate the upcoming birthday of her niece, Ramona. So she arranges an elegant, ‘foodie’ weekend, with her chef, Tarok Ghosh, in charge of planning and preparing the menu. Several famous people are invited, including a model, a famous writer, a critic, an activist, and a socialite and her husband. All of them have both public and private personas. And it turns out that Ghosh has found out a lot about these guests’ personal lives. In fact, he drops hints about what he knows, and that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. The next day, he’s found murdered. One of the house guests, Lalli, is a former police detective who immediately starts investigating. When there’s another murder, she knows she doesn’t have much time to catch the killer. Among other things, the novel gives an interesting look at the lives of Mumbai’s famous people when they’re not in front of cameras, as the saying goes.

And then there’s Peter James’ Not Dead Yet. Brighton and Hove Police Superintdent Roy Grace gets a new assignment when superstar Gaia Lafayette plans to come to town. She’s originally from Brighton, and is coming back to do a film. There’s already been an attempt on her life, and Grace and his team are expected to do what they can to provide security for her and her young son. In the meantime, they’re already investigating a murder, and there’s the usual work that police do, the team has quite a lot going on. But ‘no’ isn’t an option, so Grace and his team get to work to protect the star. As they do, we get to know a bit about what Gaia is like as a person – behind the cameras.

And that’s the thing. Major stars are just people, like the rest of us, despite their seemingly gilded lives. Seeing them as real people can be interesting.


ps. The ‘photo is of John Fogerty (on the right, holding a guitar) and his son Shane (to the left, also with a guitar). It’s a nice look at a famous person as just a person with a family.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Creedance Clearwater Revival’s Fortunate Son.



Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Josephine Tey, Kalpana Swaminathan, Peter James, Robert Crais

26 responses to “Some Folks are Born, Silver Spoon in Hand*

  1. I have read of Josephine Tey’s books twice, but not it looks like I can reread The Man in the Queue again, because I don’t remember much about it. And I do plan to read Lullaby Town by Crais sometime because I have read the two books before it in the series. Can’t think of any examples to add.

    • I know what you mean, Tracy, about re-reading. There are so many books I ought to re-read. But the truth is, I’m happy when I have time to read something in the first place, let alone again…

  2. Heartafire

    great post Margot!

  3. A.M. Pietroschek

    Most celebrities are mere junkie-scum unless some industry backs them up. For crime fiction such is a splendid well of options, as motives of passion, monetary motives, and fierce competition ALL happen to be routine behind a business-for-the-people facade.

    Further all of the ‘pros’ (professionals as opposed by one-hit wonders) have above average social skills, and learned to keep their calm before cameras.

    You did a nice curve around the globe with your chosen book examples. A pleasure checking your blog, Margot.

    • You are right, Andrè. Many people who are in the public eye learn to keep whatever is going on in their private lives separate. And it’s true that that difference between public and private life can make for a solid context for a crime novel.

  4. Very interesting post, Margot. It seems like I’ve seen a movie based on Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts. Sounds like a great read anyway, so off to Amazon I go! 🙂

  5. Interesting subject! Yes, I suppose the very fact of being famous means there might be things in the past you wouldn’t want people to know about – maybe things that wouldn’t matter so much to non-famous people. I’m glad I’m a nobody! 😉

    • Ha! So am I, FictionFan! Once you are famous, many people feel they’ve a right to know everything about you, no matter what. It’s much easier to be simply of no interest.

  6. Col

    I did like that Crais book Margot. Time to revisit the Elvis Cole series I think.

  7. An interesting post, Margot. We sometimes forget famous people are ‘real’ underneath it all and most have lots of problems.

  8. Margot, I could kick myself for not picking up even one Peter James novel at the Books by Weight exhibition I visited not once, but twice. I have heard some good things about his work, especially his Roy Grace series that you mentioned above.

    • That’s the thing about those book events, Prashant. There are so many books to choose from, and it’s hard to think of all of the authors one wants to read. If you do get a chance to read Peter James, I think you might like his work.

  9. I haven’t read many mysteries where celebrities play a huge role. You’ve intrigued me.

  10. I’ve had Death Unscripted paperback for over a year now. Thank you for reminding me. This dynamic definitely plays a role, according the author.

  11. Keishon

    The only celebrity featured in my reading of mysteries (and my memory is faulty) is the two books set in New Orleans by Penelope Williamson, “Mortal Sins” and “Wages of Sins.” The detective’s girlfriend was a Hollywood movie star who had someone stalking her. One of the downsides of being a celebrity for sure. That was one a subplot not the major one. She only wrote two books in the series and the last one ended in a cliffhanger. Hope she finishes the series someday. They were really good and atmospheric.

    • Thanks, Keishon! That’s an author I’ve not yet tried. The books sound really interesting, though, and I do love an atmospheric read. Hmm…..I ought to explore this!

  12. Keishon

    You should! 🙂

  13. kathy d

    Lula Landry, wealthy supermodel, is murdered in J.K. Rowling’s first Cormoran Strike book, “The Cuckoo’s Calling.” Then the mystery is about whodunnit.

  14. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…10/11/16 – Where Genres Collide

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