Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

Stay By My Side, Guide Me*

As this is posted, it would have been Grigori Rasputin’s 149th birthday (by the Gregorian calendar). Whatever else he was, Rasputin was certainly an influential person at the Romanov court. And that influence had real consequences, as you’ll know.

It’s all got me thinking about crime-fictional characters who may be (at least at first) behind the scenes, but who still wield considerable influence. Those characters can be at least as interesting as the more prominent characters. Sometimes, they turn out to be far more powerful than it seems on the surface.

For example, In Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, we are introduced to Evelyn ‘Evie’ Howard. She serves as companion/factotum/but mostly friend to wealthy Emily Inglethorp. She wields considerable influence in the household, although she generally keeps a low profile. Also living at the Inglethorp home, Styles Court, are Mrs. Inglethorp’s husband, Alfred; her two stepsons, John and Lawrence Cavendish, and John’s wife, Mary; and Mrs. Inglethorp’s ward, Cynthia Murdoch.  John Cavendish invites his old friend, Captain Hastings, for a visit, so Hastings is on hand when Mrs. Inglethorpe is poisoned one night. All of the members of the family are possible suspects, since the victim had a fortune to leave. When Hastings learns that his old friend, Hercule Poirot, is staying in the nearby village, he asks for Poirot’s help investigating, since the family doesn’t want a scandal. As Poirot and Hastings get to know the different members of the family, we learn about their relationships and some of the tensions among them. And it turns out that those relationships have a lot to do with the murder.

Ellery Queen’s Origin of Evil sees Queen staying in the Hollywood Hills, so that he can get some writing done. His plan changes when Laurel Hill asks for his help. Her father, Leander, recently died of a heart attack, but she is sure it was deliberately induced. It seems that both he and his business partner, Roger Priam, were receiving macabre ‘gifts’ that seemed meaningless on the surface, but frightened both men. Laurel claims that the packages scared her father to death. At first, Queen’s reluctant to take the case, but he is eventually persuaded. Oddly enough, Priam has no interest in finding out what or who is behind the events, but Queen persists. In the end, he finds that the mystery has its roots in both men’s pasts. He also learns that someone has been wielding quite a lot of influence, even though it’s not obvious on the surface.

In Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s A Window in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro Police Inspector Espinosa and his team are faced with a troubling case. Three other police officers have been killed, all in quick succession. At first, it looks as though this is a case of someone who has a vendetta against the police. But then, the mistress of one of the victims is murdered. Then another falls, or is pushed, from the window of her apartment. And another disappears. It’s now clear that someone was deliberately targeting this group of people, and it may be because they were involved in corruption, all too common among the police. But if so, why would the victims’ mistresses also be targeted? As Espinosa and his team investigate, we learn that someone has had a major influence on the victims and on the case. That influence plays an important role in what happens.

Philip Margolin’s Executive Privilege has two major plot threads. In one, former-cop-turned-PI Dana Cutler gets a new assignment. Wealthy and influential Washington D.C. attorney Dale Perry wants Cutler to follow nineteen-year-old Charlotte Walsh, and report where she goes, whom she sees, and what she does. At first, very little happens. Then, one night, Walsh parks her car at a local shopping mall. Then, she’s picked up by another car and driven to a remote safe house. To Cutler’s surprise, the person Walsh meets is US President Christopher Farrington. It’s clear now that this is a much bigger case than it seems on the surface, and Walsh calls her employer to back out of it. That proves impossible, though, when Walsh is found murdered the next morning. This death turns out to be linked to another murder a few years earlier, and both are related to a common experience in the victims’ pasts. Throughout this novel, someone is wielding a lot of influence behind the scenes, and it’s interesting to see how that plays out in the story.

And then there’s Shamini Flint’s A Calamitous Chinese Killing. In that novel, Singapore police detective Inspector Singh is sent to Beijing on a very delicate matter. Susan Tan is First Secretary at the Singapore Embassy in China. Recently, her son, Justin, was killed in an older, run-down part of Beijing. At first, it looks like a mugging gone wrong. But Tan believes her son was deliberately murdered, despite what the official police report says. She wants Singh to look into the matter. He’s reluctant, but he’s not in a position to refuse. When he gets to Beijing, he starts to work with former Beijing police officer Li Jun to find out the truth. It’s a challenging case, and it leads to some high places. And when we learn the truth, we also learn that someone has been behind the scenes, wielding quite a lot of power. And that person has every interest in keeping that power.

And that’s the thing about people who have a lot of influence, the way Rasputin did. They sometimes work very much behind the scenes, and they often have more power than it can seem on the surface. This can make them very interesting – and very dangerous – people.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber, Charles Hart, and Richard Stilgoe’s Little Lotte/The Mirror.