Category Archives: Agatha Christie

We Were Just Young and Restless and Bored

Have you ever gotten so busy that you almost wish you could be bored? You might even think what a luxury it is to have enough time for boredom. But, before you get too envious of those who are bored, keep in mind that it has its own challenges.

If you look at crime fiction, you see all sorts of negative consequences that come from being bored. Boredom, especially among young people, can get one into serious trouble. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean. I know you’ll think of lots more than I could.

In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, we are introduced to two young men, Andreas Winthur and Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. They are best friends; in fact, you could say that they’re each other’s only real friend. They are also bored with life, and without much purpose. Their search for something to do gets them into trouble more than once. And, on one fateful day, it has terrible consequences. Andreas and Zipp spend the day together. Later, Andreas disappears. His mother, Runi, is worried about him, so she goes to the police. At first, Inspector Konrad Sejer isn’t overly concerned. After all, Andreas isn’t a young child. But when more time goes by, and he hasn’t returned, Sejer and his assistant, Jacob Skarre, start investigating. Naturally, one of their first interviewees is Zipp. But he’s not much help. Zipp says he and Andreas parted company before Andreas disappeared. Sejer is sure that Zipp knows more than he’s telling, but it’s not going to be easy to find out the truth.

Wendy James’ The Lost Girls is the story of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. In 1978, she gets permission to spend some of the summer at the home of her Aunt Barbara and Uncle Doug Griffin, near Sydney. Angela, her cousin, Mick, and Mick’s friends, are a little bored, with no school, no sport contests, and so on. So, they spend a lot of time playing pinball at a local drugstore. One day, the group goes to the drugstore as usual, but Angela doesn’t come back. She is later found dead, with a scarf over her head. The police investigate, and they focus their attention on Mick and his friends, but they can’t find any evidence of wrongdoing. Then, a few months later, another young girl is found dead, again with a scarf around her head. The theory now is that someone is targeting young girls, and people do worry. The press even dubs the killer, the ‘Sydney Strangler.’ No more killings are reported, though, and the murders are never solved. Years later, filmmaker Erin Fury decides to do a documentary on families who’ve lost a loved one to murder, and she approaches the Griffin family. They eventually agree to be interviewed, and we slowly learn what really happened to Angela.

In Pascal Garnier’s How’s the Pain?, we meet twenty-one-year-old Bernard Ferrand. There’s not much for him in the small town in which he lives, and he’s bored and restless. Then, he meets professional assassin Simon Marechall. And it turns out that he’s got something Marechall needs: a driver license. Marechall needs a driver to take him to Cap d’Agde, on the French coast, where he wants to do one more job before he retires. Bernard isn’t doing anything else with his life, and he is bored. So, he agrees to serve as driver, and the two plan their trip. But Bernard doesn’t know what his new boss does for a living. By the time he finds out, it’s too late, and things start to spin out of control.

Of course, it’s not just young people who get bored with their lives. In Ian Rankin’s Doors Open, for example, wealthy Mike Mackenzie has gotten bored with his life, and he’s looking for some excitement. He and his banker friend, Allan Cruikshank, share a love of art. So, together with art professor Gissing, and with help from local gangster Chib Calloway, Mackenzie and Cruikshank devise a plot. They want to rob the National Gallery of Scotland, and replace some of its valuable holdings with forged art. They choose the gallery’s Doors Open day, when the public gets to view the warehouses and other ‘behind the scenes’ places associated with the museum. The robbery goes off as planned, but the group soon learns that there’s more to benefiting from art then just stealing it…

Sometimes, of course, boredom has more positive consequences. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock, Poirot’s frighteningly efficient secretary, Miss Lemon, brings him an unusual problem. Her sister, Mrs. Hubbard, manages a hostel for students where some perplexing things have been happening. Odd things have been disappearing, and there seems no explanation for what’s going on. Here are Poirot’s thoughts on the matter:
 

‘Hercule Poirot was silent for a minute and a half.
Did he wish to embroil himself in the troubles of Miss Lemon’s sister and the passions and grievances of a polyglot Hostel? …
He did not admit to himself that he had been rather bored of late and that the very triviality of the business attracted him.’
 

Poirot agrees to look into the case, and it turns out that this is much more serious than someone stealing things for fun.

As you can see, boredom has all sorts of consequences. Some of them can be positive, as boredom can spur us on to find new ways to be productive. But other times, boredom can lead to disastrous consequences. There are all sorts of examples in crime fiction; which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger’s Night Moves.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin, Karin Fossum, Pascal Garnier, Wendy James

After All This Time You’re Still Asking Questions*

Even after a jury renders its verdict, that doesn’t mean a case goes away. The real truth about some cases doesn’t always come out, which means there are lingering questions about its outcome. We’ve certainly seen that in real life. For example, in 1892, Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Borden was acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother. And there are several theories as to who was really responsible. But at the same time, plenty of people continued to believe she was guilty. And there are historians who think the same thing.

The same questions come up in crime fiction, and it’s interesting to see the roles they can play in the genre. Those lingering questions can be the basis for a legal appeal. Or, they can prompt Cold Case teams to look into the case again. Sleuths, too, can be drawn into cases because of those questions.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, famous painter Amyas Crale is poisoned one afternoon. His wife, Caroline, is the main suspect, and she certainly has motive. She is tried for the crime, and is defended by a very skilled lawyer. But she’s found guilty and sent to prison, where she dies a year later. Most people don’t question the jury’s verdict, either. But years later, the Crales’ daughter, Carla, does. She believes that her mother was innocent, and she questions the outcome of the trial. She hires Hercule Poirot to take the case and find out who the real killer is. Slowly, he learns that there were a few questions at the time, but even those who thought Caroline Crale might be innocent faced one major challenge: if it wasn’t Caroline, then who else had a motive? Poirot gets written accounts of the murder from the people who were there at the time; he interviews them, too. That information leads him to the truth about the murder.

In Reginald Hill’s Recalled to Life, Superintendent Andy Dalziel returns to a 1963 case – the murder of Pamela Westrup. At the time, Cissy Kohler was arrested, tried, and convicted in connection with the crime. But there were always some questions about whether she was guilty. Now, she’s been released from prison, and the questions continue to mount. There’s talk that she was innocent, but that the investigator in charge of the case, Wally Tallentire, hid evidence that would have supported her case. Dalziel is sure that’s not true, though, and it’s no small matter that Tallentire was his mentor, so he has a personal stake in the case. Dalziel goes back over the events in questions, and slowly gets to the truth about the Westrup murder.

Michael Robotham’s Lost features the case of seven-year-old Mickey Carlyle. Three years earlier, Mickey went missing. Everyone thinks that she was abducted and killed by a paedophile named Harold Wavell. In fact, Wavell was arrested, tried and imprisoned for the crime. But there are still questions about the case. Was Wavell really guilty? If not, what happened to the child?  Detective Inspector (DI) Vincent Ruiz is looking into the case, when he is badly injured. After the injury, he has little memory of what happened. But, with help from psychologist Joe O’Loughlin, Ruiz slowly begins to recover his memories of the case. Once he does, he is able to find out the truth about Mickey.

Paddy Richardson’s Wellington-based journalist Rebecca Thorne learns of lingering questions about a case in Traces of Red. Connor Bligh has been in prison for years for murdering his sister, Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. Only their daughter, Katy, survived, because she wasn’t home at the time of the murders. There are lingering questions about the case, though. Was Bligh really guilty? There is some evidence that suggests he might be innocent. If he is, then this could be the story to ensure Thorne’s place at the top of New Zealand journalism. She starts looking into the case again and finds herself getting much closer to it than even she thinks is wise. In the end, she learns the truth, but it’s definitely at a cost.

In Sue Younger’s Days Are Like Grass, pediatric surgeon Claire Bowerman returns from London to her native Auckland with her partner, Yossi Shalev, and her daughter, Roimata ‘Roi.’ She’s not particularly eager to make the trip, but it’s important to Yossi, so she goes along with the plan. There’s a good reason, too, for which Claire doesn’t want to go back to Auckland. In 1970, her father, Patrick, was arrested and imprisoned in connection with the disappearance of seventeen-year-old Kathryn Phillips. There was never enough evidence to make a conviction stick, so he didn’t remain in prison. But there are still plenty of people who think he’s guilty. And there are a lot of questions about the trial and about the disappearance. Still, Claire goes back to Auckland with her family. Then, she gets involved in a very high-profile case. A two-year-old in her care is diagnosed with a tumour. His parents object to any surgery on religious grounds, and this puts them squarely up against the hospital. It’s a difficult matter, and it puts Claire in exactly the situation she didn’t want: under the proverbial microscope. Her father’s case is made much of in the media, and all of the questions surrounding it are dragged out again.

There are certain cases like that, though – cases where there’s been an arrest, and possibly a trial and conviction, but there are still questions. Such situations can make for interesting plot lines in a crime novel. And in real life, those cases can make for much speculation.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Goldfinger’s Anything.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Michael Robotham, Paddy Richardson, Reginald Hill, Sue Younger

I’m a Sergeant Out of Perrineville Barracks Number 8

It’s interesting how people’s views of the police can vary. That’s true even if you consider just law-abiding people (after all, those who have a habit of breaking the law aren’t likely to welcome the police). People’s views of the police are affected by lots of factors (social class, culture, whether there are police officers in the family, and so on.

One attitude is expressed neatly in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow. In that novel, Hercule Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find out who shot Dr. John Christow. The victim and his wife, Gerda, were weekend guests at the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell when Christow was shot. So, naturally, Grange and his men want to talk to all of the members of the household. Here’s what the cook, Mrs. Medway, says when one of the kitchen maids tells the police something she saw:
 

‘‘It’s common to be mixed up with the police, and don’t you forget it.’’
 

The belief is that respectable people, regardless of their social class, do not get involved in crime. Many people still have a little of that assumption.

Also inherent in Mrs. Medway’s remark is the belief that the ‘better class’ of people wouldn’t have anything to do with crime. We see that also in Anne Perry’s Face of a Stranger, which takes place in Victorian London. In it, Inspector William Monk searches for the killer of a ‘blueblood’ named Joscelin Grey, who was found killed in his own home. As you might imagine, Monk wants to talk to the members of Grey’s family, to see if any of them might be able to shed light on the matter. Immediately, it’s made clear to him that no-one in a family like the Greys could possibly, in any way all, be mixed up with a sordid crime. He’s better off, he’s told, going after the ‘riffraff’ who committed the crime, then bothering a socially prominent family. Interestingly, in the novel, the police are treated as not very different from tradespeople – certainly not people to be obeyed automatically.

Many people, of course, respect the police, and see them as people to turn to in time of need. There are hundreds of crime novels in which people depend on the police to solve a family member’s murder, or to find a missing loved one. One example is Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine. In one plot line of the novel, Benny Frayle is devastated when her friend, financial advisor Dennis Brinkley, is killed. On the surface, he died in a tragic accident in the room where he kept his collection of ancient weapons. Benny doesn’t believe this death was an accident, though. So, she goes to the police to ask them to take another look at the case. Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby hears her out, and duly looks over the reports from the initial investigation. He doesn’t see any cause for concern, though. The officers involved did their jobs efficiently and professionally, and they found no reason to call this death anything but an accident. But Benny insists otherwise. Then, there’s another death. A self-styled medium named Ava Garrett dies of what turns out to be poison. Her murder comes shortly after she holds a séance in which she mentions details of Brinkley’s death that she couldn’t have known. Now, Barnaby is convinced that the two deaths are murders, and are related. So, he and his team look into the cases carefully, and find the link between the cases.

There are also plenty of people who don’t want to be involved with the police more than absolutely necessary. Sometimes it’s because they’re afraid of the consequences if they do have anything to do with the police. Sometimes it’s because they distrust authority. Sometimes they see the police as interfering. We see this sort of attitude in Peter May’s The Blackhouse. In that novel, we meet Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod, an Edinburgh police detective who’s been seconded to the Isle of Lewis to help solve a murder that’s very similar to one he’s already investigating. It’s believed that, if the two murders were committed by the same person, then it makes sense to share information. For MacLeod, this is a homecoming, since he was brought up on the Isle of Lewis. But he had his own reasons for leaving, and he isn’t especially thrilled to be back. Woven into the story is the local people’s natural distrust for ‘the polis.’ That’s also quite evident in William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, which sees Glasgow Inspector Jack Laidlaw investigating the murder of a young woman who went missing after a night at a disco.

For some people, their view of the police is impacted by negative experiences they’ve had. In other words, the police themselves are the problem. We see that in Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road, for example. In it, Constable Paul ‘Hirsch’ Hirschhausen has just been stationed in Tiverton, in rural South Australia. His new assignment is a punishment for ‘whistleblowing’ during an Internal Affairs investigation in Adelaide, so as it is, he’s not particularly popular with his new colleagues. Then, the body of fifteen-year-old Melia Donovan is found by the side of Bitter Wash Road. As Hirsch looks into the case, he learns that several of the local people don’t want to cooperate with him. They assume that he’s in league with the other local police, and they have very good reason not to trust those police. Little by little, though, Hirsch finds out the truth. There are plenty of other novels, too, where people don’t talk to the police, because they know that the police are not to be trusted.

It’s interesting to see how many different views there are of the police. They’re impacted by a lot of different factors, too. And that means that a crime writer has a lot of flexibility when it comes to how the police will be regarded in a novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Highway Patrolman.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anne Perry, Caroline Graham, Garry Disher, Peter May, William McIlvanney

To the Backroom, the Alley, or the Trusty Woods*

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are discussing what they would want for ‘the perfect crime.’ Poirot asks:
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‘‘If you could order a crime as one orders a dinner, what would you choose.’’
 
He and Hastings discuss the sort of crime (murder, of course!). Then, Hastings says,
 

‘‘Scene of the crime – well, what’s wrong with the good old library? Nothing like it for atmosphere.’’ 
 

Hastings has a point. Libraries can be very atmospheric places for scenes of crime or for discovering a body. And Christie uses the library to that effect, too, right, fans of The Body in the Library? When Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife, Dolly, learn that the body of a young woman has been found in their library, they’re drawn into a strange case of multiple murder.

Of course, the library is by no means the only atmospheric place for a murder scene, or for leaving a body. The place the author chooses depends a lot on the story, the characters, and so on. And that place can add quite a lot of atmosphere, even creepiness, to a story.

For instance, if you’ve ever walked down a street at night, and happened to peek down an alley, you know how eerie that sort of place can be. And, in Martin Edwards’ All the Lonely People, that’s where the body of Liverpool attorney Harry Devlin’s ex-wife, Liz, is found. A few days before her death, she unexpectedly visits Devlin, and he hopes this means she might want to reconcile with him. That’s not her purpose, though. She says that she’s escaping her current lover, Mick Coghlin, and needs a place to stay for a few days. Devlin agrees, but the next night, she is stabbed. Devlin knows he isn’t guilty, but of course, he’s an obvious ‘person of interest.’ Along with wanting to clear his name, he wants to find out who killed Liz. So, he starts to ask questions. He finds that Liz’ life was a lot more complicated than he’d thought, and there are several possible suspects for her murder. There are plenty of other novels, too, in which bodies are found in alleys behind buildings, or between two buildings.

Woods can also be eerie, atmospheric places to find a body. For instance, in Martha Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace, the body of Dora Binns is found in a wood near the village of Littlebourne. Inspector Richard Jury has to cancel his holiday plans and travel to Littlebourne to investigate. He and his friend, Melrose Plant, discover that the victim’s death is connected to a robbery, some missing jewels, and an attack on another resident of LIttlebourne. Fans of Ruth Rendell’s Simisola will know that the body of a young woman is found in wood near the town of Kingsmarkham. At first, Inspector Reg Wexford thinks it’s the body of Melanie Akande, who’s been missing for several days. It’s a different young woman, though, so now, Wexford and his team have two major cases on their hands.

Moors are also wild, often desolate places that can be very atmospheric places for murders and bodies. And Belinda Bauer makes use of that setting in Blacklands. That’s the story of twelve-year-old Steven Lamb, who lives with his working-class family in the Exmoor town of Shipcott. The family is haunted by the nineteen-year-old disappearance of Steven’s uncle, Billy Peters. It was always suspected that he was abducted and killed by a man named Arnold Avery, who’s currently in prison for other child murders. Steven has been searching for Billy’s body on the moor, hoping that finding it will help his family. But he has no idea exactly where the body is. Then, he gets the idea of contacting Avery to find out from him where Uncle Billy’s body is. He takes the chance and writes, and he and Avery start a correspondence that turns into a very dangerous game of cat-and-mouse.

Minette Walters’ The Ice House makes use of another very atmospheric sort of place for a body. In the novel, Chief Inspector George Walsh is assigned an eerie case. A gardener has discovered the decomposed body of a man in the ice house of remote Streech Grange. That’s the property of Phoebe Maybury, who lives there with two friends, Anne Cattrell and Diana Goode. Ten years ago, Phoebe’s husband, David, went missing, and never returned. Walsh investigated at the time, but there were no clues as to where the man might have gone. Now, it appears Maybury’s body might have been found. But there’s a question as to whether the body is Maybury’s. If it is, then one of the three women living at Streech Grange is very possibly guilty of murdering him. If it’s not, then who is the man? And is one of the women guilty?

There are plenty of other atmospheric, even creepy, places authors use as murder scenes or as places to ‘dump’ a body. And when those places are chosen well, they can add quite a lot of tension to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger’s Night Moves.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Belinda Bauer, Martha Grimes, Martin Edwards, Minette Walters, Ruth Rendell

Why Are There Always So Many Other Things to Do?*

One of the things that writing requires is discipline. Sticking with a project, not letting yourself get too distracted, and seeing it through, are all difficult to do. That’s especially true with today’s social media and instant accessibility through email, text, and so on.

And then there’s the fact that a lot of writers do their writing at home. So, there’s always laundry, bills, pets, gardening, and all sorts of other things to pull the attention away from that manuscript. Trust me. Am I right, authors?

It’s that way in crime fiction, too. Writers try to make time to write, and when they’re on deadline, that’s even more important. And, yet, they do get pulled away from the manuscript, especially when there’s a murder investigation. Don’t believe me? Here are a few examples.

Agatha Christie’s Ariadne Oliver is a detective story writer. She’s well-enough known and popular enough that her publisher knows her books will sell. But that doesn’t mean she has no pressure to write. She does get distracted, though. For instance, in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, she’s working on an adaptation of one of her novels for the stage when she gets drawn into a case that Hercule Poirot is investigating – and that ends up impacting her, too. Of course, Mrs. Oliver doesn’t welcome all distractions. Late in the novel, Poirot telephones her for a very important reason. She, however, sees it another way:
 

‘‘Have you got to ring me up just now? I’ve thought of the most wonderful idea for a murder in a draper’s shop…’’
 

She’s not happy to be interrupted, but what she tells Poirot helps to solve the case. Of course, fans of Mrs. Oliver know that sometimes, she welcomes distractions…

In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Queen takes some time away in the small New England town of Wrightsville. He’s there to get some writing done, and he’s looking forward to some peace and quiet while he stays in a guest house owned by John and Hermione ‘Hermy’ Wright. But soon enough, he gets distracted by family drama among the Wrights. It seems that their youngest daughter, Nora, had been engaged to a young man named Jim Haight. He jilted her, though, and left town abruptly. Now, Haight’s back, and everyone hopes that Nora will give him short shrift. Instead, to everyone’s shock, she takes up with him again and, in fact, they marry. Then, evidence comes up that Haight may be planning to kill his bride for her money. Queen isn’t sure that’s true, but there’s no denying the evidence. Then, on New Year’s Eve, Haight’s sister Rosemary, who’s been staying with the family, dies after drinking a poisoned cocktail. The assumption is that Haight is the murderer, and that the cocktail was intended for Nora. Haight is duly arrested and put on trial. The only people who question his guilt are Queen, and Nora’s sister, Pat. Together, the two look for the real truth behind Rosemary’s death. Queen fans will know that this isn’t the only time when Queen is pulled away from his writing…

Lilian Jackson Braun’s James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran is a newspaper journalist (he’s written a book, too). As a result of an odd series of events, he ended up in the small town of Pickax, in rural Moose County. Now, he does a twice-weekly column, Straight From the Qwill Pen, for the local paper. He’s become somewhat of a celebrity in the area, too. Like most journalists, Qwill is naturally curious. And he follows up when he thinks there might be a good story in something that’s happening. Since he’s in the newspaper business, he understands about deadlines, and he does his best to keep them. But, because he’s curious, he often gets involved in murder investigations. And sometimes, that distracts him from filing his stories promptly. In more than one novel, he rushes to the newspaper office with his copy just in the nick of time (much of this series was written before it was common to email copy).

Linwood Barclay’s Zack Walker is a science fiction author whom we meet in Bad Move. He’s worried about his family’s safety, living as they do in a big city. So, he persuades his wife, Sarah, to go along with his plan to move to a new suburban development, Valley Forest Estates. Along with the increased safety, Walker is looking forward to having more space, and hopefully more time, for writing. And that’s what he’s working on when he starts to get distracted. First, there are some problems with the new house the family has bought. So, Walker goes to Valley Forest’s sales office to lodge complaints and requests for service. While he’s there, he witnesses an argument between one of the company’s sales executives, and a local environmentalist named Samuel Spender. Then, later on the same day, Walker finds Spender’s body near a local creek. Before he knows it, Walker’s drawn into a web of murder and intrigue in his quiet, suburban development, and drawn away from his writing.

And then there’s Lynda Wilcox’s Verity Long, whom we meet in Strictly Murder. Long isn’t, strictly speaking, a writer, herself. She’s PA to successful crime writer Kathleen ‘KD’ Davenport. While Davenport is popular and sells well, that doesn’t mean she can be heedless of deadlines and commitments to her publisher. So, Long has to do her job, too. And her job is mostly to find and research old unsolved crime cases that Davenport can use as inspiration for her work. But Long does get distracted from her research at times, especially when she stumbles across cases of modern-day murder.

See what I mean? Writers really need to have focus and discipline. Otherwise they get distracted by all sorts of things, including murder. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to work on my novel. Oh, wait, there’s that laundry to do. And shouldn’t I be looking over this month’s bills? And there’s that meeting later on…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s Distractions.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Linwood Barclay, Lynda Wilcox