Category Archives: Agatha Christie

Watching the Tide Roll Away*

Bodies Washed UpSince most murderers don’t want to be caught, one of their concerns is how to get rid of the bodies of their victims, leaving as little evidence of what happened as possible. That’s where bodies of water can come in very handy. It can take quite a while for a body to wash up on shore, and sometimes the body ends up someplace quite far away from where it was dumped (fans of Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, for instance, will know that that point is mentioned in that novel). What’s more, water washes away quite a lot of evidence, so it’s hard to connect a killer to the crime.

Perhaps that’s why there is so much crime fiction in which the body of at least one victim has washed up on a beach. There are many, many such novels; I’ll just mention a few. I know you’ll think of lots more.

Minette Walters’ The Breaker begins when brothers Paul and Daniel Spender decide to explore the area around Chapman’s Pool near the Dorset Coast. They’re on holiday there with their parents, and are eager for a morning excursion of their own. They discover the body of an unknown woman on the beach and give the alarm. The police, in the form of PC Nick Ingram, begin their investigation. It’s not very long before the victim is identified as Kate Sumner, whose toddler daughter Hannah has been found wandering around the nearby town of Poole. In this case, there are only three really viable suspects. One is the victim’s husband William. Another is a local teacher, Tony Bridges. There’s also Bridges’ roommate Stephen Harding. All three had reasons for wanting Kate dead and, because the body had been in the water, there’s very little evidence as to which one is responsible.

In Domingo Villar’s Death on a Galician Shore, Vigo police detective Leo Caldas and his assistant Rafael Estevez investigate the death of a fisherman, Justo Castelo. The body was discovered washed up on shore, and it’s assumed that Castelo committed suicide by drowning. But there are little pieces of evidence that suggest that he was murdered. Because the body was in the water and found washed up, though, there’s not very much that specifically suggests a particular suspect. So Caldas and Estevez look into the victim’s background to find out who might have wanted him dead. Little by little, they trace Castelo’s death to a tragic event from the past.

Jørn Lier Horst’s Chief Inspector Willing Wisting investigates a bizarre case of washed-up bodies in Dregs. The story begins with a left foot in a training shoe that washes up on the beach near the Norwegian town of Stavern. The police start investigating immediately, but they haven’t gotten very far when another foot is discovered. And then there’s another. Still, no bodies have washed up. This eerie case is of course picked up by the press and there’s fear that some mad serial killer might be on the loose. So Wisting and his team have to work quickly to find out who the victims were and how they are connected. In the end, they discover that this isn’t the work of a serial killer at all. Instead, the deaths are all connected to the area’s past.

Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective introduces readers to Edinburgh oceanographer and Ph.D. candidate Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill. He’s an expert in wave patterns, and is using his knowledge to try to find out what happened to his grandfather, who was reported lost at sea years earlier. He uses his contacts in the field to follow up on any promising leads, and has managed to identify likely spots where his grandfather might have either landed or been washed up. But there are missing pieces to this puzzle, so in one plot thread, McGill goes to Eilean Isagaich Mor, Great Fishing Island, where his grandparents lived, to try to get some answers. There he finds a much bigger mystery than a case of ‘man overboard.’ At the same time, something else has made him curious. The body of a young woman was discovered off the Argyll coast, and a friend of the victim’s wants McGill’s help in finding out what happened to the woman and who killed her. His knowledge of the way the sea moves proves very helpful in both cases.

There’s also Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach. Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel decide to take a getaway holiday at Krabi, on the Thai coast. During their visit, they are especially impressed with their tour guide Pla. So when they find out that she’s been found dead – washed up in a cove – they’re very upset about it. They agree to extend their stay a bit to see if they can find out what happened. The trouble is, though, that there’s not much evidence. The police report suggests that the victim committed suicide. But there are just enough inconsistencies that Keeney isn’t sure that’s what happened. It wouldn’t have been likely to be an accident either, since Pla was an expert swimmer. So Keeney and Patel look into the matter more deeply. In this case, one of the real difficulties is that the water has washed away any clear-cut evidence about who the killer is. It’s not even crystal-clear that this was murder. So the two sleuths have their work cut out for them, as the saying goes.

So does London investigator Catherine Berlin, whom we meet in Annie Hauxwell’s In Her Blood. She’s been working on a case involving illegal moneylending rackets run by Archie Doyle, and has gotten some useful leads from an informant who calls herself ‘Juliet Bravo.’ When ‘Juliet’s’ body is pulled out of Limehouse Basin, Berlin feels responsible for the woman’s murder. So she decides to find out who killed her. She’s up against several obstacles though. For one thing, the victim never gave her real identity. So finding out who she was will be difficult. And, since the body was in the Basin, there’s little evidence as to what really happened to her. For another, Berlin is suspended for unprofessional conduct relating the case, so she doesn’t have easy access to the reports and other details she needs. Also, she is a registered heroin addict whose legal supplier has just been killed. In a very short time, she’ll be going through withdrawal and be unable to function. So she has to work quickly to find ‘Juliet’s’ killer.

As you can see (but you already know this anyway, I’m sure), it makes sense that there are so many crime novels where the murder victim is somehow dumped into water and left to wash up. I’ve only touched on a few novels that feature this plot point (I know, I know, fans of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Roseanna). Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Otis Redding and Steve Cropper’s (Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Annie Hauxwell, Domingo Villar, Jørn Lier Horst, Maj Sjöwall, Mark Douglas-Home, Minette Walters, Per Wahlöö

Hey, What’s That Sound?*

SoundSound plays a very important role in most people’s perceptions and memories. I’ll bet, for instance, that when you hear certain songs, you’re reminded of a date or other event, a time in your life, or perhaps a person. Certain other sounds, such as a siren behind you, trigger other reactions. And a lot of scientific evidence suggests that a baby’s cry evokes all sorts of physical and emotional responses.

As important as sounds are, it makes sense that they also play important roles in crime fiction. Witnesses to a shooting are often asked, for example, how many shots they heard. And as any crime fiction fan knows, the ‘evidence of the ears’ can also be misunderstood or deliberately manipulated.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the disappearance of a famous racehorse named Silver Blaze, and the death of his trainer John Straker. The most likely suspect is London bookmaker Fitzroy Simpson; the theory is that he abducted the horse to rig the race. But there are also clues that point away from Simpson. One of them is the clue of what the stable dog did on the night that the horse went missing. Scotland Yard’s Tobias Gregory points out that,
 

‘The dog did nothing in the night-time.’
 

That, says Holmes, is exactly what is curious. His point is that if someone the dog didn’t know (e.g. Simpson) approached, the animal would have barked. Since there was no barking noise, the logical deduction is that the dog knew the person who took the horse. That turns out to be an important clue.

In Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase, we are introduced to Rachel Innes, a middle-aged ‘maiden aunt,’ who takes her grown nephew Halsey and his sister Gertrude for a summer stay at a large, rented country house called Sunnyside. The plan is for everyone to have a relaxing time away from the city. Soon after their arrival though, things begin to go very wrong. There are some odd noises that become very unsettling. The housemaid Liddy Allen thinks that the creaks, taps and other sounds mean that the house is haunted. But Rachel thinks there’s a more prosaic explanation for what’s going on, and she is later proved right. One night, everyone hears a shot coming from the card-room. When they get there, they discover the body of Arnold Anderson, son of the owner of Sunnyside. His murder turns out to be connected to the strange sounds; and those sounds are important clues to the mystery.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett. The only possible suspects are the other people in the first class coach of the famous Orient Express train. As a part of his investigation, Poirot asks each person for an account of what happened on the night of the murder. He also considers his own memories of that night. Sound plays an important role in this story; and Poirot has to sift through the various thumps, knocks, voices, bells, and so on to find out which ones are clues and which ‘red herrings.’ I know, I know, fans of Death on the Nile

In Ellery Queen’s The Last Woman in His Life, we are introduced to jet-setting playboy John Levering Benedict III. He happens to encounter Ellery Queen, and expansively invites Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, to use his guest house for a getaway weekend. The Queens accept, and duly settle in to relax. They soon discover that Benedict’s three ex-wives, his secretary, and his attorney are also spending the weekend. As you can imagine, the atmosphere is more than a little strained. That night, Queen gets a frantic call from Benedict, who says that he’s been murdered. Queen rushes over to the main house, but by the time he arrives, it’s too late: Benedict is dead of a blow to the head. The weapon is a statuette with a heavy base. The only clues are an evening gown, a wig, and a pair of gloves. Each item belongs to a different person. Now Queen has to sift through those clues and find out who the killer is. As it turns out, Benedict told him who the killer was during their telephone conversation. The problem is that Queen misinterpreted the evidence of his own ears, and it’s not until later that he makes sense of that dying statement.

Edward D. Hoch’s short story Captain Leopold Finds a Tiger takes place mostly in a small zoo run by Jack and Maggie Drummond. One morning, Maggie’s body is found in the tiger pit, and everyone assumes that the tiger is responsible. But soon enough, the evidence shows stab wounds, rather than claw wounds. Now Captain Leopold and his team have to find out who would have wanted to kill Maggie. There’s more than one suspect, too, as Leopold finds when he lifts up the proverbial lid on what’s going on at the zoo. In the end, an animal provides Leopold with the vital clue that he needs to put him on the right trail. In this story, sound, both real and manufactured, plays a vital role in what happens.

It does in Brian McGilloway’s The Nameless Dead too. In one plot thread of this novel, Garda Ben Devlin is asked to respond to a very odd case. Christine Cashell has reported hearing a baby cry in her baby monitor, and says that it’s not her son. What’s odd about this is that she and her partner do not have children. They had planned a family, but their son was stillborn. The manufacturer of the baby monitor says that sometimes monitors may pick up other crying babies if they are very near. However, no other babies live near Christine and her partner. Devlin finds that this mystery is tied in with another case he is investigating.  During the search for the body of Declan Cleary, Devlin and his team discover the body of an infant who died about the same time as Cleary probably did. At first, Devlin is told that the baby’s death cannot be investigated, since it was found in the course of work for the Commission on the Location of Victims’ Remains. This commission is charged with finding the remains of those who died during the early days of the Troubles in Ireland. Those remains are then returned to the families for burial and hopefully, for closure. The rule is that there can be no investigation or prosecution in any of the commission’s work. The reason for this is to make people feel more comfortable reporting what they may know about one or another of the Disappeared, as those who died are called. In general, Devlin respects policy, but he also wants to offer closure to the parents of the dead infant if he can. So he finds ways to look for answers. And the sounds Christine Cashell hears turn out to be important.

People may misinterpret what they hear, but sounds are still a fundamental part of how we make sense of the world. Little wonder they’re so tightly woven into crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Buffalo Springfield’s For What it’s Worth.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Brian McGilloway, Edward D. Hoch, Ellery Queen, Mary Roberts Rinehart

The Law Won*

Not all fictional coppers play ‘starring roles’ in their series. But they can still add character depth, a police perspective and sometimes tension to a plot Here’s a salute to them, with some help from Sonny Curtis’ I Fought the Law, from whence the title of this post.  Enjoy!
 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, Jonathan Kellerman, Kerry Greenwood, Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler, Rex Stout, Sara Paretsky, Stuart Palmer, Tess Gerritsen

I Leave a Big Tip With Every Receipt*

ReceiptsIf you look among your things, you’ll probably see random receipts and cash slips for things. They can clutter up a pocket or handbag. And when it’s something simple like getting fuel, it may seem a waste to get a cash slip. But those little pieces of evidence can be very useful.

Anyone who’s on an expense account or who gets reimbursed can tell you that keeping receipts is important. Detectives use those pieces of information too. A cash slip, newspaper clipping or even a passport stamp can either support or refute what a witness or suspect says. So that kind of ‘paper trail’ can be of real value when the police are investigating a crime, or when a PI is looking into a case. Little wonder then that we see things like receipts and stamps all throughout crime fiction.

Agatha Christie uses these details in more than one of her novels. For instance, in Sad Cypress, Hercule Poirot investigates the poisoning murder of Mary Gerrard. The most likely suspect is Elinor Carlisle, who had more than one motive for murder. In the first place, Elinor’s fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman had become smitten with Mary, which ended their engagement. What’s more, Elinor’s very wealthy aunt, Laura Welman, had taken a great interest in Mary, and might very well have altered her will to leave Elinor out of it entirely. Local GP Peter Lord has fallen in love with Elinor and wants her name cleared. So Poirot looks into the matter more deeply. And in the case of one character, he finds that passport stamps put the lie to what that character claimed.

In Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the poisoning murder of Nicholas Quinn, the only Deaf member of Oxford’s Foreign Exams Syndicate. This group is responsible for overseeing exams given in other countries that follow the British education model. The detectives start with those closest to the victim, and soon find that several members of the Syndicate might have had a good reason to want Quinn dead. For one thing, his appointment to the Syndicate was by no means universally supported. For another, he’d learned some secrets about some of the different members. One aspect of this investigation is finding out where each person was on the afternoon of Quinn’s death. As they piece together what happened that day, Morse and Lewis find that ticket stubs from an adult cinema are very informative.

Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly is among other things, the story of the death of Giorgio Tassini, night watchman at one of Venice’s glass blowing factories. At first it all looks like a terrible accident. He’d been working independently on a glass project and the evidence suggests that an accident with the oven caused his death. But Commissario Guido Brunetti is not so sure. Tassini had been a very vocal critic of the glass blowing factories’ procedure for getting rid of toxic waste. He claimed that they were illegally dumping it, putting everyone at risk. Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello discover who is responsible for Tassini’s murder, but they’ll find it very hard to prove what they know. Then one evening, Brunetti gets exactly what he needs: a receipt from a canal boat. That piece of paper puts the lie to what the killer said to the police, and allows for an arrest.

The Michael Stanley writing duo introduces us to Botswana police detective David ‘Kubu’ Bengu in A Carrion Death. He is drawn into an investigation when the remains of an unknown man are found on the property of the rural Dale’s Camp. At first, it looks as though the man was attacked by hyenas. But soon enough, forensics tests suggest that he was murdered. Forensics experts also provide a very important clue: a cash slip found by the body. It turns out to be a receipt from the Number One Petrol Station, and for Kubu, that’s a valuable lead. When he follows up on it and finds the station, he learns that the vehicle in question was a Land Rover painted a garish shade of yellow. Such vehicles are owned by the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC). And that information puts Kubu on a trail that eventually connects someone associated with that company to this murder and to another that occurs.

There’s also Tess Gerritsen’s Vanish, which follows two major plot threads. In one, Boston medical examiner Dr. Maura Iles discovers to her shock that one of the body bags in the mortuary contains a young woman who’s still alive. Iles gives the alert, and the woman is taken to the nearby hospital. The unidentified woman recovers quickly, and rushes from her hospital room after killing a security guard. Then, she goes to the hospital’s Diagnostic Imaging Department, where she takes a group of people hostage. One of them is Boston police detective Jane Rizzoli, who’s there for a sonogram. The police, a SWAT team, and hostage negotiators now have to figure out what the hostage-taker wants, and how to rescue her captives. In the meantime, the other plot thread concerns seventeen-year-old Mila, who left her home in Belarus, lured by promises of a good job in the US and a better life. To put it mildly, things haven’t worked out as planned. The two plot threads are related, ‘though not as you might think. One of the leads that the police get on this case is a credit card receipt for a fuel purchase. That information helps them to piece together at least part of the mystery.

Receipts and odd pieces of paper might just seem like so much junk. But they can prove absolutely invaluable to detectives. They’re also very useful to attorneys on both sides of a case who want to establish a person’s whereabouts or purchases. That oft-repeated bit of advice about saving receipts is actually fairly solid…

 

On Another Note…

There’s still time to vote for the Jo Nesbø novel you’d like to see me spotlight. If you’d like to let your voice be heard, check out my poll right here.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Big Man on Mulberry Street.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Donna Leon, Michael Stanley, Tess Gerritsen

I Heard it on My Radio*

RadioAn interesting post on podcasting from crime writer Elizabeth Spann Craig has got me thinking about broadcasting. Her excellent writing blog inspires me; it’s a must-visit for writers and anyone interested in the process of writing. Podcasts are a very new form of broadcasting, but radio has been around for a very long time. In fact, it was arguably the first real-time medium of mass communication. And even with the advent of television and the internet, radio is still a popular and powerful tool. It’s not surprising then that radio plays a role in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of dozens more than I can.

In Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are on a holiday in Cornwall. There they meet Magdala ‘Nick’ Buckley, who has a house there. Poirot soon comes to suspect that someone is trying to kill Nick, although she herself doesn’t believe him at first. Then, she has a few ‘near misses.’ Poirot doesn’t want her staying in the house by herself, so Nick invites her cousin Maggie for a few weeks. Tragically, Maggie is killed during her visit. She was wearing one of her cousin’s shawls at the time of the murder; and this obvious case of mistaken identity convinces Poirot that Nick is in imminent danger. He arranges for her to be safely cared for at a hospital, where she’s told to eat nothing from ‘outside.’ When the murderer tries to strike again, Poirot has to act quickly. In this case, a radio broadcast is key to what the killer chooses to do.

The police have their own radio frequencies; and police radio plays a role in Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice. One Christmas night, LAPD cop Harry Bosch is ‘on call,’ and has his police scanner running in the background. That’s how he hears that a body has been discovered at a seedy hotel in his district. To him, it’s surprising that no-one called him to let him know, since he’s on duty. He goes to the scene only to find that the dead man is Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore, a fellow police officer. The death bears all the hallmarks of suicide, but a few things don’t add up for Bosch. The official explanation is that Moore killed himself because he’d ‘gone dirty’ and was involved in drug smuggling. In order to protect the department’s reputation, Bosch is told to leave the case alone and accept it as a suicide (in fact, that’s why he wasn’t called). Bosch fans will know that leaving things alone is not his style, so he keeps asking questions. In the end, and after a trip to the US/Mexico border area, he finds out the complex truth behind this death.

Even with the popularity of television and the Internet, there are still plenty of successful and well-known radio celebrities. Some of them are quite controversial, too. We see an example of the rise of the ‘shock jock’ in Robert B. Parker’s High Profile. In that novel, we meet celebrity radio personality Walton Weeks. His politically-charged broadcasts have made him a host of fanatic followers and enemies; his private life has been just as full of drama. So when he is found shot and hung, Paradise, Massachusetts Police Chief Jesse Stone has his pick of suspects. For one thing, Weeks’ broadcasts had inspired strong passion on both sides, so to speak. For another, his ex-wives and his current wife all had good reason to want him out of the way. Stone is working on this case when there’s another murder. This time, the victim is Weeks’ pregnant mistress. Stone finds that there were a lot of secrets in Weeks’ life, and that those secrets turned out to be fatal.

In one plot thread of Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, we are introduced to comic Richard Mott. He’s been invited to headline a lunchtime radio comedy show, and arranges for his housemate, crime writer Martin Canning, to get tickets. On the day of the show, Canning and several other characters in the novel are waiting for the doors to open when they witness a car accident. A blue Honda hits the back of a silver Peugot driven by Paul Bradley. Both men get out of their cars and are soon arguing bitterly. Then the Honda driver wields a baseball bat and attacks Bradley. Mostly by instinct, Canning throws his computer case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. A sense of obligation drives Canning to ensure that Bradley gets safely to the nearest hospital; before he knows it, he’s far more involved than he wants to be in a case of multiple murders, fraud and theft.

Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall introduces readers to Toronto radio personality Kevin Brace. He and his common-law wife Katherine Torn are both successful, and have an upscale lifestyle which includes a home in the exclusive Market Place Tower condominiums. Everything changes one morning when Torn is found dead in one of the bathtubs. Brace is quickly arrested, and indicates that he wants to be represented by Nancy Parish. Acting for the Crown will be Albert Fernandez. While the attorneys prepare for the legal aspects of this case, Police Detective Ari Green and his team investigate the crime. One possible explanation for the seemingly airtight case against Brace is that he was framed. If that’s the case, then one likely suspect is Donald Dundas, another radio personality who stands to become a broadcasting star with Brace out of the way. And Dundas might have had his own reasons for wanting Torn dead. As the police and attorneys fallow this trail, we learn some interesting things about the modern big-city radio business.

Domingo Villar’s Leo Caldas is a detective with the Vigo police. He also has a radio call-in show. The goal of the show is closer ties between the police and the community, so callers get to ask their questions (or lodge their complaints) in direct conversations with Caldas. The show is so popular that when people are introduced to Caldas, they invariably say something like, ‘Oh, from Patrolling the Waves?’ He’s actually better known for the radio broadcast than he is for anything else.

And that just goes to show that radio still has an important impact. People do listen to audio broadcasts. These are just some instances. You’re now on the air to offer more.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Radio Ga Ga.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Domingo Villar, Kate Atkinson, Michael Connelly, Robert B. Parker, Robert Rotenberg