Category Archives: Agatha Christie

Pack Up My Belongings, I’ve Got to Get Away*

Mobile SocietyOne of the major sociological developments of the past hundred or so years has been mobility. People no longer necessarily spend their lives within just a few miles or so of where they were born. Many people relocate because of jobs, although of course, that’s not the only motivation to move house.

This mobility has had a profound impact on communities everywhere. Places where everyone once knew everyone have become more transient. Even in big cities, residents of the same building or block once usually knew each other. That’s not so much the case any more (although of course, it does happen). For police, this change means that it’s sometimes harder to get information about crimes (e.g. ‘I don’t know who lives in that apartment,’ or ‘I’ve seen him/her, but I’ve no idea where that person works, or if that person was at home last night.’)

You see this increase in mobility a lot in crime fiction, which makes sense when you think of the genre as a reflection of society. And it’s been going on for quite some time. For instance, Agatha Christie discusses it in several of her stories, including The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d). In that novel, the village of St. Mary Mead is undergoing quite a bit of change. There’s new council housing in the area, and many people there whom Miss Marple doesn’t know. They come from different places and are changing the makeup of the village as they work, shop and send their children to school. One day, Miss Marple decides to take a walk in the new development. That’s how she meets Heather Badcock, who lives there with her husband Arthur. They’re a pleasant enough couple, and they actually are very helpful to Miss Marple when she has a fall and injures her ankle. Miss Marple discovers that Heather is a fan, to put it mildly, of film star Marina Gregg, who’s just purchased Gossington Hall with her husband Jason Rudd. Heather is more than excited when it’s announced that there will be a charity fête at the hall, as there has been in the past, and that Marina Gregg herself will preside and will meet people. On the day of the event. Heather finally gets to meet her idol. But she soon gets sick and later dies from what turns out to be a poisoned drink. At first, it seems like a case of accidentally poisoning the wrong victim, since Marina has her share of enemies, and Heather seemingly none. It turns out, though, that Heather might very well have been the intended victim all along.

Much of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series is set in the small Québec town of Three Pines. It’s got a long history, and some residents have lived there for a very long time. And we see how that history plays out in Still Life, when beloved retired teacher Jane Neal is killed on Thanksgiving. At first the death looks like a terrible accident, but Gamache and his team learn that the victim was murdered. There’s a scene in this novel in which Neal confronts a group of local boys who’ve been harassing the owners of the town’s B&B. She identifies them all by name, since she knows them. That stops them in their tracks, and also makes them suspects when she’s found dead. It also shows that Three Pines is one of those towns where people know each other. But as time goes on, people do move in and out. For example, in A Fatal Grace, celebrity and ‘life coach’ C.C. de Poitiers and her family move to town. Her background and personal life are deeply troubled, as are her relationships with everyone in town. So when she is murdered, Gamache and his team have plenty of suspects.

Rebecca Tope’s A Cotswold Killing introduces readers to professional house-sitter Thea Osborne. She’s a relatively recent widow who’s trying to make a new life for herself and is using house-sitting as a bridge to whatever comes next. Her first clients are Duntisbourne Abbots residents Clive and Jennifer Reynolds, who are taking a three-week cruise. Thea’s job will be to look after their dogs, their sheep, and their gardens as well as their house. And Clive Reynolds has provided a long and very specific list of duties. On her first night in the house, Thea thinks she hears a scream, but supposes it’s probably her imagination. The next morning, though, she finds the body of Joel Jennison in a pond on the property. The police begin to investigate; and, as she’s new in the area and was in the house at the time, Thea is one of their ‘persons of interest.’ As she begins to ask questions about the death, though, Thea finds that more than one person might have had a motive. One of the things we see in this novel is the impact of people who’ve bought homes in the area in the past few years – the ‘incomers.’ They’ve affected the housing market, the shops and services, and the social relationships in the village, and it’s interesting to see how they and the locals react to one another.

Ian Sansom’s The Case of the Missing Books shows the way that mobility can happen. Bookseller’s assistant Israel Armstrong lives in North London. His educational background is in library science, and he would like nothing more than to be curator of a prestigious library. But he knows he has to ‘start small.’ There’s nothing available locally, so when he hears of a position as librarian for Ireland’s Tumdrum and District, he applies for and accepts the job when it’s offered to him. On his arrival, Armstrong finds a sign on the library door saying that it’s closed. Thinking he’s come all this way for nothing, he tracks down the person who hired him; she tells him that the community has decided to switch to a mobile library. As Armstrong gets used to that and many other aspects of life in the area, we see what it’s like for people who don’t know an area to move in. He doesn’t know anyone at first; and although everyone’s heard of him, the locals don’t know him either, really. Along with the actual mystery (the disappearance of almost the entire library collection), this change in the community is an interesting plot thread.

Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery shows a few consequences of today’s increased mobility. Waldemar Leverkuhn and a few of his friends have gone in together on a lottery ticket. To all of their surprise, they win, and decide to go out to celebrate. Later that night, Leverkuhn is stabbed to death in his own bed. Intendant Münster and his team investigate the murder, which means they speak to the other residents of the apartment building where the victim and his wife lived. It’s interesting to see how these residents have superficial, but not very rich, information about the other people in the building. Nobody seems to know a great deal about the Leverkuhns. So the police team look into the family’s past. It turns out that the family had lived in the small town of Pampas from 1952 to 1976, but,
 

‘They moved out and disappeared. From one day to the next.’
 

They didn’t keep in contact with former residents, either. Even the family itself shows the effect of modern mobility, as the Leverkuhns’ grown children don’t live nearby.

And that’s the thing about today’s mobility. It means that people move a lot more frequently, and that family members often don’t live near one another. Those trends have had major effects on society – and on crime fiction.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bad Company’s Movin’ On.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Håkan Nesser, Ian Sansom, Louise Penny, Rebecca Tope

Is There Life After Breakfast?*

BreakfastIt’s been said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. And it’s not hard to see why people have that view. After all, breakfast gets you going in the morning. Breakfast is also a really useful meal for fiction writers.

For one thing, breakfast is a very culturally contextual meal (they all are, really). In some cultures, and contexts, a heavier breakfast is the custom. In others, one eats a light breakfast, and then a heavier lunch or dinner. What’s more, the foods that one eats for breakfast vary by culture.

Breakfast is also a very individual sort of habit. Each of us is a bit different with respect to what and how much we eat in the morning. For the writer, this means that breakfast can be a very effective way to show what a character is like, both culturally and as an individual.

Breakfast can be the setting for effective scenes, too. Those scenes can add to the tension of a story, or to the portraits of the characters. So it’s little wonder that breakfast is woven into a lot of crime fiction.

Fans of Agatha Christie will know that her Hercule Poirot is a chocolate-and-croissant sort of breakfast eater. He’s not much of a one for the traditional, larger ‘Englishman’s breakfast.’ Just that simple fact about him shows readers something of his cultural background.

Christie uses breakfast scenes quite frequently to build story contexts, too. For example, the first chapter of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is titled, Dr. Sheppard at the Breakfast Table. In it, Dr. James Sheppard, who is the local GP for the village of King’s Abbot, comes home after a very early call. His sister Caroline, who keeps house for him, joins him for a traditional eggs-and-bacon breakfast. At that time, and in that place, breakfast wasn’t a matter of grabbing a protein bar. As the two are talking, we learn about the death of one of the village’s residents, Mrs. Ferrars. That conversation sets the stage for what’s to come next in the novel – the stabbing death of retired business magnate Roger Ackroyd. There are other Christie novels, too (Dead Man’s Folly comes to my mind) in which a breakfast scene gives readers both context and character development.

Some authors use breakfast places and scenes to build a sense of local culture. That’s what Craig Johnson does in his Walt Longmire series. Longmire lives in the small town of Durant, Wyoming. He lives alone and doesn’t do a lot of cooking for himself. But he doesn’t need to, because Durant is home to the Busy Bee Café, owned and operated by Dorothy Caldwell. The Bee, as it’s called, is where the locals go for pancakes, eggs, and other ‘homestyle’ cooking. And coffee. That sort of breakfast food reflects both the small-town context for this series, and the local culture.

Breakfast choices are also very much reflections of the individual. For instance, in D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington stories, we learn that Heatherington’s breakfast preference is an almond croissant. That fits well with his lifestyle (he’s not really the ‘outdoors, strenuous exercise’ type) and his age (he’s – erm – no longer twenty). On the other hand, his detective partner Delilah Delibes, who is much younger and more energetic, prefers a fried breakfast. Not only do their breakfast conversations give readers background for the mysteries, but they also show readers a bit of what these two people are like.

There’s also Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel. As fans will know, he’s a born-and-bred Yorkshireman who enjoys his food. His personality is reflected in his breakfast choices, too. In Recalled to Life, for instance, Dalziel has gone to the US to follow up on a long-ago murder case that’s stirred up a lot of interest. In this scene, American journalist Linda Steele invites him to breakfast:
 

‘‘I’ll not quarrel with that. Can I get bacon and eggs? I don’t suppose they do black pudding.’
‘Black…what?’
‘Never mind. I like me bacon crisp enough to shave with, and me eggs like a parrot’s eye.’
Linda Steele translated the order into American and the waitress replied in kind.
‘She wants to know if you want syrup.’
‘No, thanks. Marmalade.’
‘With your eggs?’
‘With my toast! Bloody hell, you’ll be offering me kippers and custard next.’’
 

This bit not only shows Dalziel’s personality, but it also shows gives an interesting cultural perspective.

People’s breakfast choices often become a part of their daily life, too, so that it’s very hard to change them. For example, in Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden, we learn that a big change is coming to the Cumbria Constabulary:
 

‘The senior management team had insisted that the catering franchisee should wipe the Big All Day Breakfast off the menu during summer.’
 

The idea is that officers should develop healthier eating habits. But that change is certainly not universally accepted. The series features DCI Hannah Scarlett, head of the constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. In this novel, her second-in-command is Nick Lowther, who
 

‘…still preferred calorie-laden junk food that resembled an exhibit in a long-ago poisoning.’
 

Scarlett’s friend and fellow DCI Fern Larter isn’t much of a fan of the new healthy eating initiative either. In The Serpent Pool, she and Scarlett agree to meet for breakfast at the Beast Banks Breakfast Bar. Larter chooses
 

‘…eggs, bacon, sausage, baked beans, fried bread and black pudding.’
 

She’s not one to be dictated to by policies.

Breakfast choices can be influenced by generation, too. For example, Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant doesn’t eat a big breakfast as a rule. But his mother Kay sees things differently. She is a farm wife, who’s spent her adult life cooking heavy-duty farm breakfasts with a Ukrainian flair. So when she comes to stay with her son in Flight of Aquavit, there’s an interesting generation clash about what ‘counts’ as breakfast.

There are a lot of other examples, too, of the way that breakfast choices show us what characters and local cultures are like. Some people simply eat cereal (I see you, Jill Edmondson’s Sasha Jackson). Others don’t eat breakfast at all. Still others (you see this in a lot of classic/Golden Age novels) have breakfast served in bed. Sometimes small details like that add depth to characters and contexts to stories in ways that a lot of words wouldn’t. And let’s face it: breakfast resonates with most of us.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Ray Davies song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Craig Johnson, D.S. Nelson, Jill Edmondson, Martin Edwards, Reginald Hill

You’re So Scared and All Alone*

Families of the AccusedAn interesting post from Mason Canyon at Thoughts in Progress has got me thinking about the families of those accused of murder. People who are suspected of murder often have parents, children, siblings, or other relatives; those people are deeply affected by the fact that one of their own may have killed someone. Their stories can add a compelling layer to a crime novel; they can allow readers to see just how much impact such an accusation can make, whether or not it’s true.

Agatha Christie addresses this in several of her stories. For example, in Ordeal By Innocence, Rachel Argyle is murdered with a fireplace poker. The evidence points to her stepson Jacko, who is duly arrested, tried and convicted. Later, he dies in prison.  Two years later, Dr. Arthur Calgary visits the Argyle family home, Sunny Point. He’s there to give them news that he thinks ought to please them: he can conclusively prove that Jacko Argyle was not a murderer. Calgary wasn’t able to provide that evidence at the time of the murder, because he was suffering from a case of amnesia. He’s since recovered, and now wants to put things right. To his shock, the Argyle family isn’t happy at all about his return or his news. If he’s right, it means that someone else within the family circle is a murderer. I know, I know, fans of The Hollow and of Five Little Pigs.

In Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph, we meet Juliet Spence, an herbalist who lives with her thirteen-year-old daughter Maggie in the village of Winslough. One evening, Robin Sage, Vicar of Winslough, has dinner with the Spences. He dies soon after in what turns out to be a case of poisoning by water hemlock. At first it’s put down to tragic accident. But that’s not how it seems to Simon St. James, who’s staying in the area with his wife Deborah. He asks his friend, Inspector Thomas ‘Tommy’ Lynley, to look into the matter, and Lynley agrees. Maggie Spence has a particularly difficult time during this investigation. For one thing, she is of course, worried about her mother, who is now the chief suspect in a murder case. For another, she has to deal with schoolmates and others who see her as a murderer’s daughter. It’s an awful situation for her, and George makes that clear.

It’s the Garrow family who comes under fire in Wendy James’ The Mistake. Angus Garrow is a successful attorney who’s being spoken of as the possible next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. He’s from a proud, ‘blue-blood’ family, and is highly regarded in the field. Everything changes when his wife Jodie becomes a murder suspect. It all starts when their daughter Hannah is rushed to a Sydney hospital after a car accident. That hospital happens to be the same place where, years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another daughter. No-one, not even Angus, knew about this baby. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie says that she gave the infant up for adoption, but the nurse can’t find any formal adoption records. Now, some very ugly talk starts. What happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with her death? That murder accusation changes the Garrow family forever.

Nelson Brunanski’s Crooked Lake introduces readers to John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. He and his wife Rosie live in the small Saskatchewan town of Crooked Lake, and own Stuart Lake Lodge, a fishing lodge in the northern part of the province. Murder strikes Crooked Lake when the body of Harvey Kristoff is discovered on the green at the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. The police start to investigate, and it’s not long before they settle on Nick Taylor, former head greenskeeper of the course. There’s evidence against him, too. For one thing, he blames Kristoff for getting him fired from his job. For another, it turns out that his wife Wilma had an affair with Kristoff. And the murder weapon belongs to Taylor. Still, Taylor claims that he’s innocent. And his lawyer Frank Hendrickson wants to defend his client as best he can. So he asks Bart, Taylor’s oldest friend, to help. Bart isn’t at all certain that Taylor is innocent, but he does agree to do what he can. As the story goes on, we see the impact on the Taylor family of a murder accusation. It’s all made even worse by the fact that Crooked Lake’s a small town; everyone knows everyone else. Even the Bartowskis feel the strain of being ‘on the Taylors’ side.’

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri gets a new client, successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal. According to Kasliwal, he had employed a maid, Mary Murmu, in his home for a time. Then, several months ago, she went missing. New evidence has come up that suggests that she was raped and murdered, and that Kasliwal might be responsible. The media is watching this case carefully, as there’s a sense that Kasliwal will get special treatment because of his social status. The police are well aware of this, and are determined to show that they don’t toady to the rich. And that’s Kasliwal’s problem. He says that he is innocent, and doesn’t have any idea what happened to his maid. He wants Puri to find out the truth and clear his name. Puri agrees, and he and his team get to work on the case. As they look for answers, we see what happens to a family when a member is accused of murder, even if that family has high social status. It’s difficult for all of them.

The Blligh/Dickson family has a terrible time of it, too, in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. Several years ago, Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan, and their son Sam were murdered one horrific afternoon. Only their daughter Katy survived, because she wasn’t home when the killer struck. At the time, Angela’s brother Connor Bligh was suspected of the crime. The evidence against him was compelling, so he was arrested, tried and convicted. Since then, he’s been in Wellington’s Rimutaka Prison. Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne learns of this case at a crucial time for her. She’s reached a plateau in her career, and is looking for a story that will ensure her spot at the top of New Zealand journalism. So when she hears that there’s evidence Bligh may not be guilty, she’s interested. If he is innocent, this could be the story she’s been wanting. Thorne begins to re-investigate the case, and soon learns that no-one in the family really wants to help her. One reason is that they believe Bligh is guilty. But just as important is the fact that it’s been awful for them to have family members murdered, and probably by a relative. Now, they just want to get on with their lives, and not rake things up again.

It’s very hard to be accused of murder, whether or not one’s guilty. It’s at least as hard on family members. But that, too, is a reality of criminal investigation. So it’s little wonder we see it in crime fiction, too.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Renegade.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George, Nelson Brunanski, Paddy Richardson, Tarquin Hall, Wendy James

And We Had to Go Our Separate Ways*

Returning After AbsencesA lot can happen to a person, even in a short time. So when someone goes away for a while and then reappears, there’s no telling what might have happening during that absence. This scenario can be really effective in a crime novel. For one thing, those questions and that speculation can make a fictional character all the more interesting. And sometimes, what happens during those absences plays a role in a present-day story.

Fans of Agatha Christie will know that her life included a real-life disappearance and return. She went missing for eleven days at the end of 1926, and was found staying at a hotel under an assumed name. Christie herself never published the reason for her disappearance, so there’s been a lot of speculation about it. Whatever the reason, it certainly added to her mystery.

We see that plot thread in some of her work, too. For example, in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder For Christmas and A Holiday For Murder), Poirot is staying with a friend over the Christmas holiday. He gets drawn into a case of murder when Simeon Lee, who lives not very far away, is killed on Christmas Eve. There are plenty of suspects, too, as his family is gathered for the holiday. And, in classic Golden Age fashion, Lee was both wealthy and very unpleasant. One of the suspects is Lee’s son Harry, who hasn’t visited the family home in twenty years. He’s spent most of that time living in out-of-the-way places and cabling for money when he runs out. His long absence and sudden return have upset his brother Alfred, who’s always resented Harry. That thread of tension adds a layer to this novel, as does the mystery of what Harry’s been doing all these years. And the absence adds to Harry’s character.

In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, we meet Nora Wright, daughter of social leaders John F. and Hermione Wright. Three years before the events of the novel, she was planning to marry Jim Haight; he jilted her, though, and disappeared. Now he’s back, and to everyone’s consternation, he and Nora rekindle their relationship. Ellery Queen has been using a guest house on the Wright property as a writing retreat, so he’s on hand to see the impact that Haight’s return has on the family. Everyone hopes the relationship will end; instead, Nora and Jim marry. Then, Jim’s sister Rosemary comes for an extended visit. No-one likes her very much, but she seems ‘dug in’ to stay for a while. Then, on New Year’s Eve, she is killed by what turns out to be a poisoned cocktail. For several reasons, Haight is the most likely suspect, and everyone is satisfied that he’s guilty. In fact, only Queen and Nora’s sister Pat believe there could be any other explanation. Queen looks into the matter and finds out what really happened; it turns out that Haight’s absence, and what happened during that time, play a role in the mystery.

John D. MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Goodbye introduces readers to his sleuth, ‘salvage consultant’ Travis McGee. He’s the last hope for those who’ve been cheated out of money or property and want it returned. In this novel, McGee’s friend, dancer Chookie McCall, asks him to help one of the members of her dance troupe. Catherine Kerr has lost something and wants it back. The only problem is, she doesn’t know what ‘it’ is. She tells McGee that she got a visit from a man named Junior Allen, who had known her father. Allen ingratiated himself with her, and before long, they were a couple. Then Allen disappeared, only to return some months later, a great deal richer. He then took up with another woman, only to disappear again. Kerr is certain that Allen stole something of her father’s, and that that accounts for his wealth. But she has no idea what that something might be. In order to recover his client’s property, McGee will have to not only find Allen, but also trace what he was doing during his absence. And that turns out to be a very dangerous task.

Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed takes a slightly different perspective on being gone for a time and then coming back. Douglas Brodie has just returned from service in World War II, and is now trying to start his life again in London. Then he gets a call from an old Glasgow friend Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan. It seems that Donovan’s been arrested for the murder of a young boy Rory Hutchinson, and is scheduled to be executed in four weeks. Brodie doesn’t know what he can do to help, but for the sake of his friendship with Donovan, he agrees to at least ask a few questions. One of the threads that runs through this novel is the relationship between Brodie and Donovan. They grew up together, and they saw military service together. But they haven’t seen each other in a while, and neither knows what the other’s been doing. So, although Donovan claims he’s innocent, Brodie can’t know for sure, especially at first, whether he is. Even as he’s talking to people and exploring other possibilities, he isn’t convinced his old friend was framed.

And then there’s D.S. Nelson’s Model For Murder, which takes place in the village of Tuesbury. The town is rocked by a series of murders, beginning with the local newsagent, Harold Slater. Retired milliner Blake Heatherington gets drawn into the case when Slater’s partner Steve Pensthorpe asks him to investigate. At first Heatherington demurs, saying that the police are much better equipped to do the job. But his curiosity is piqued. It’s even more so when he learns of some apparent vandalism going on at the local model village Little Tuesbury. A small cross has been painted on the door of the model newsagent’s, and the figure representing Slater has disappeared. As other murders occur, the same thing happens with their model businesses and the figures that represent them. Is this a case of Voodoo, as some whisper? Or is it something more prosaic? The closer Heatherington gets to the truth, the more danger he is in of being the next victim. Throughout this novel, there’s an interesting plot thread concerning Heathington’s friendship with Rufus Blackwood. The two grew up together, but then Blackwood left the area. He returned for early retirement ten years ago, but the two haven’t really picked up their friendship. And it’s interesting to see how Blackwood’s absence plays a role in the way they relate to each other now:
 

‘Rufus Blackwood is my oldest friend, living in Tuesbury, that is; and yet I know very little of him these days. We grew up together…and we went our separate ways.’
 

It’s actually Blackwood’s commissioning of a hat from Heatherington that gets the two talking again.

And that’s what happens when people leave, or go missing, and then return. You never know what’s really happened in their lives.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s James.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, D.S. Nelson, Ellery Queen, Gordon Ferris, John D. MacDonald

I Went Down to the Chelsea Drugstore*

PharmaciesYou probably visit them without even thinking about it. Perhaps you have a cold, or need a headache remedy. If you’ve been to see a doctor, you may have a prescription. Yes, I’m talking about pharmacies. Today’s larger pharmacy chains, such as Boots, Walgreen’s, PharmaChoice and Amcal, offer a lot more than medicine, too. You can get just about anything from lotions to cereal to small appliances. At the pharmacy nearest where I live, you can even get your passport ‘photo taken.

Of course, the concept of what a pharmacy is and does is different across cultures. And those ideas have changed considerably over time. But in whatever form, pharmacies play important roles in our lives – and in our crime fiction. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie fans will know that she had a background in chemistry and pharmaceuticals. So it’s little wonder that she makes use more than once of the chemist’s and the hospital dispensary. For instance, in After the Funeral, Hercule Poirot looks into the untimely, if not unexpected, death of Richard Abernethie. When the members of Abernethie’s family gather for his funeral, his younger sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up; even she asks the family to ignore what she said. But privately, all of her relatives begin to wonder whether she’s right. The wondering turns to certainty when Cora herself is murdered the next day. One of the ‘people of interest’ in this mystery is Gregory Banks, nephew-by-marriage to both Abernethie and his sister. Banks is a chemist’s assistant who, it turns out, has a questionable history. It is said that he once offered to sell a customer poison to kill her husband. And when Poirot meets Banks, he learns that the man is psychologically very fragile. Now Poirot has to decide whether that means Banks is the killer. I know, I know, fans of Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client) and of The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

In Michael Collins’ short story Who?, we learn about Boyd Conners, a young man whose job is making deliveries from a local drugstore. One day, he suddenly dies of what seems to be a heart attack. He was in very good health, and not a drug user, so his mother is convinced that there’s something more to his death. She visits PI Dan Fortune to ask him to investigate. As Fortune begins to look into the case, he learns that there are a few possibilities. For one thing, there’s the victim’s romantic rival Roger Tatum. There’s also a local group of hoodlums who might have wanted him dead. As it turns out though, the actual killer is someone who isn’t even a suspect.

In the US, drugstores used to be more than just places to purchase aspirin. They used to be social gathering places. We see that, for instance, in John D. MacDonald’s short story The Homicidal Hiccup. Walter Maybree has purchased the local drugstore, and wants to keep it a safe ‘clean’ place for young people to meet, and for families to do their pharmacy shopping. Like many drugstores of the day, it’s got a counter where customers can get milkshakes, ice cream sundaes and other treats. The only problem for Maybree is local crime boss Johnny Howard. Howard and his gang run the town and extort ‘protection money’ from all of the businesses. As if the extortion weren’t enough, the gang wants to make Maybree’s drugstore a place for selling pornography. This Maybree refuses to do. Much to Howard’s surprise, other business owners in the area, who are fed up with the crime gang, stand by Maybree and help him protect his store. Desperate to keep his respect, Howard and his girlfriend Bonny Gerlacher devise a plan. She’ll go to the drugstore disguised as a teen. As she’s sitting at the counter, she’ll use a straw to shoot poison at Maybree, killing him and getting him out of Howard’s way. Things don’t go as expected, though, when a natural human response takes over. Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories will know that drugstores make several appearances in that series. They’re used as places to make telephone calls, have a meal, meet people and get an ice cream soda.

Kerry Greenwood’s Cocaine Blues introduces us to Phryne Fisher. Originally from Australia, she’s been living in London. One evening, an acquaintance, Colonel Harper, asks Phryne to visit his daughter Lydia, who now lives in Melbourne, and see whether she’s all right. It seems from her letters that she’s not in good health, and that her husband may be responsible for that. Phryne agrees and travels to Melbourne. In the course of finding out the truth about Lydia, she unearths a cocaine ring operating in the area. It’s not long before she discovers that the nexus of the ring is a pharmacy in a seedy part of town. So one night, she and her friend Bert Johnson visit the pharmacy to find out for themselves what’s going on there. She knows that she won’t learn anything from just going in well-dressed, and asking questions in an educated accent. So, she pretends to be a very different sort of woman:
 

‘Those pink powders for pale people,’ she finished, and held out her ten shilling note. The man nodded, and exchanged her note for a slip of pink paper, embossed with the title ‘Peterson’s pink powders for pale people’ and containing a small quantity of the requisite stuff. Phryne nodded woozily to him and found her way back to Bert.’
 

It turns out that that visit to the pharmacy provides an important clue.

And then there’s Donna Leon’s Suffer the Little Children. In one plot thread of that novel, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello has discovered that a local hospital has been in collusion with three pharmacists. Pharmacists sometimes receive a courtesy fee when they schedule their customers for appointments with specialists. Vianello has learned that three pharmacists have been scheduling ‘phantom patients’ in exchange for extra money. Vianello and his boss, Commissario Guido Brunetti, are looking into the matter when there’s a break-in at a pharmacy that adds a whole new dimension to the case.

You might not think about it much, unless you’re not feeling well or you run out of tissues. But pharmacies are an integral part of our lives, even with today’s online ordering. And they can add interesting layers to a crime story.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, John D. MacDonald, Kerry Greenwood, Michael Collins, Rex Stout