Category Archives: Agatha Christie

There’s a Pawn Shop on a Corner*

Pawn ShopsMany people have times in their lives when they’ve run low on money and need a loan. One place people go is, of course, to a bank. But a bank loan isn’t always feasible – not if you have no credit (or poor credit). Besides, banks require information that some people would rather not provide, particularly if they want to stay ‘off the grid.’ So there are plenty of people who look for other ways to raise money quickly.

One solution is the pawn shop. Pawn shops have been around for a very long time, and still provide an important service. Some are disreputable, and even dangerous. But lots of them are simply businesses, like any other small business. And they can provide important clues to detectives who are trying to form a portrait of a murder victim. After all, financial situations can be powerful motives, or at least valuable clues, as to the story behind a killing. What’s more, they can be fascinating in their own right, considering all of the interesting merchandise they may sell.

For a long time, it was a cause for deep shame (and still is, in some cases) if a wealthy family was in need of money. Such people often didn’t want to risk others knowing about their situation, so they wouldn’t go to banks for a loan. Instead, they’d go to places such as pawn shops. That’s the sort of client who might have visited the pawn shop of Jabez Wilson, whom we meet in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Red-Headed League. Wilson visits Sherlock Holmes because he’s had a very strange experience. He saw and responded to an advertisement for a job doing easy work. The only requirement was that the successful candidate must have red hair. At first, the job worked out well; Wilson was asked to copy the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which was easy enough, and he was paid. But one day, he went to work as usual only to find the doors locked and a sign announcing the disbanding of the Red-Headed League. Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate this league, and find that the whole thing was really a cover for a plot to rob a nearby bank.

In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), famous actress Jane Wilkinson asks Hercule Poirot to persuade her husband, the 4th Baron Edgware, to grant her a divorce so she can marry the Duke of Merton. Poirot reluctantly agrees to at least speak to Edgware, and he and Captain Hastings make a visit. Edgware tells them that he has no objections to a divorce; surprised by this, Poirot and Hastings pass the news on to their client. That night, Edgware is stabbed. His wife is the obvious suspect, and it doesn’t help her case that someone who looked just like her came to the house and gave her name at the door just before the murder. But Jane says she was at a party in another part of London, and there are plenty of people who will swear she was there. As Poirot, Hastings, and Chief Inspector Japp look for other suspects, they concentrate on Ronald Marsh, Edgware’s nephew and the heir to both title and fortune. It turns out that he was in real financial trouble and his uncle refused to help. When his alibi proves false, Marsh says that he was desperate for money, and that his cousin Geraldine, the victim’s daughter, gave him her pearls to pawn. The pawn shop proprietor supports Marsh, too. It’s an interesting look at the way someone might raise money quickly at that time.

Aaron Elkins’ Loot introduces us to Boston pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky. One day an unusually valuable object comes his way. Someone drops off what could be a rare painting at the shop. Pawlovsky wants a sense of how much it’s worth, so he calls his friend, art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere. Revere visits the shop and takes a look at the painting. Much to his surprise, it looks like a priceless Velázquez, one of several paintings that were ‘taken for safekeeping’ by the Nazis. Revere wants to do more research on the work, and at first, wants to take it with him. Pawlovsky refuses, even though it’s quite dangerous for him to keep something so valuable in his shop. Reluctantly, Revere agrees to do his research and come back later. When he does, he discovers Pawlovsky’s body. He feels guilty about what might be his role in the man’s death; besides, he wants to know who killed his friend. So he decides that if he can trace the painting forward, from the time the Nazis took it to the time it showed up in the shop, he can find out who the murderer is. The trail leads to Europe and some very dangerous people…

Michael Connelly’s The Black Echo is the first outing for his Harry Bosch, who’s with the LAPD. When the body of an unknown man is found in a drainpipe, it’s assumed the victim is a junkie who died of an overdose. But Bosch finds out to his shock that the dead man is Billy Meadows, a friend from Bosch’s stint in Vietnam. He looks back over the case to find out who would have wanted to kill Meadows. One of the clues that was missed in the first, cursory investigation is a pawn ticket that was in the dead man’s pocket. He traces that ticket to the pawn shop of a Mr. Obina, who has his own story to tell. His shop was broken into, and he’s been waiting for someone – anyone – to come and take a report and investigate. Bosch does what he can to get someone out there quickly; in return, Obina tells him that the bracelet corresponding to the pawn ticket was stolen in the robbery. It turns out that the theft of the bracelet is closely related to Meadows’ murder.

Private detective Dandelion ‘Dandy’ Gilver finds a pawn shop useful in Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains. Walburga ‘Lollie’ Balfour hires Gilver when she begins to suspect that her husband may be trying to kill her. Gilver takes a job at the Balfour home as a maid and begins her investigation. One night, Lollie’s husband Philip ‘Pip’ is murdered. The police take over the case, and Gilver provides what help she can. There are several possibilities when it comes to suspects, because to say the least, the victim was not popular. His will opens up other possibilities. In the process of following up leads, she decides to learn more about Phyllis, the housemaid. One day, Gilver follows Phyllis as she goes on her ‘day out.’ Surprisingly, Phyllis goes to a pawn shop. At first, Gilver thinks that Phyllis has got hold of some family treasure or other and is pawning it to line her pockets. But as it turns out, she has another reason for going…

Pawn shops can be really interesting places in and of themselves, and there are often a lot of personal stories that go with the merchandise. Little wonder they have their place in crime fiction. I’ve had my say. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Merrill’s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Catriona McPherson, Michael Connelly

It Should be Easy For a Man Who’s Strong to Say He’s Sorry or Admit When He’s Wrong*

ApologiesBeing human, we all make mistakes at times. And some of those mistakes mean we also have to make apologies. Some apologies (e.g. accidentally bumping into someone) are easy. A quick, ‘Oh, I’m sorry!’ and all’s usually well again. But other apologies are harder and take longer. They can be really awkward too. If you’ve ever had to look someone in the eye and tell that person how sorry you are, you know what I mean.

Apologies are an important part of relationships, though, and simply bringing the topic up can clear the air. They may not be the main plot point in crime fiction novels, but they can add some character depth and points of tension. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, detective story novelist Ariadne Oliver is visiting Nasse House, Nassecomb, to help with preparations for an upcoming fête. She’s been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt as one of the attractions. But she suspects something more than a fête may be going on. So she asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. When Poirot arrives, he gets to know Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs, who own Nasse House, as well as some of the locals who are helping to prepare for the big event. Among those helping out are Alec and Peggy Legge, who have taken a cottage nearby for a summer break. In one of this novel’s subplots, the Legges’ marriage is under a great deal of stress, and at one point, Peggy actually leaves. Poirot has guessed the reason for the strain, and advises Alec to go after his wife and patch things up with her. Alec agrees, and although Christie doesn’t tell us how it all works out, it’s clear he thinks that saving his marriage is worth humbling himself.

Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters is the first pairing up of DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla. In this novel, they’re investigating the sudden death of Meredith Winterbottom, who seems to have committed suicide. Kolla isn’t so sure of that, and Brock gives her the ‘green light’ to look into the matter. And it turns out that there are several reasons that someone might have wanted to kill the victim. For one thing, a developer wants to buy up all the property on Jerusalem Lane, where Meredith lived with her two sisters, and create a new shopping and entertainment district. Meredith was the lone holdout, refusing to take the developer’s offer. What’s more, she and her sisters are descendants of Karl Marx, who lived in that part of London for a time. They have some family books and papers that could be quite valuable. As if that’s not enough, her son stands to inherit the house (and the potential profit from selling it) if his mother dies. And he’s very much in need of money. For the most part, Brock and Kolla have a good working relationship. But there is an important rift between them, and Brock decides to work things out. So he visits Kolla, bearing a peace offering of flowers and a bottle of Scotch. It’s a little awkward for both of them, but I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say they patch things up.

Wendy James’ The Mistake is the story of Jodie Evans Garrow, who seems to have the perfect life. She’s healthy and good-looking, married to a successful attorney, and the mother of two healthy children. All is well until the day her daughter Hannah is involved in an accident, and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where, years ago, Jodie gave birth to another child. She’s never told anyone about that child, but a nurse at the hospital remembers her and asks about the baby. Jodie says that she give the child up for adoption, but when the overzealous nurse checks into that, she finds no formal adoption records. Jodie’s family life begins to crumble when the gossip starts about what might have happened to the baby. And when it all goes very public, Hannah begins to feel the strain of having a mother who’s become a social pariah. We do learn the truth about the baby, and Hannah learns that there is no such thing as ‘black and white’ when it comes to people. When she sees a fuller picture of her mother’s story, she knows that she owes Jodie an apology:
 

‘‘Oh, Mum,’ she’s crying, a year’s worth – a lifetime – of tears. ‘I’m so sorry. It’s been so awful. I’m sorry I’ve been such a cow. I didn’t mean to. I don’t even know why. I’m so sorry. I just want everything to be the way it was.’’
 

Everything isn’t magically wonderful again after Hannah’s apology, but we can see that,
 

‘It’s going to be okay.’
 

That apology is an important part of opening up communication between mother and daughter.

Sometimes, it’s parents who have to say they’re sorry, and that can be just as awkward. In Brian McGilloway’s The Nameless Dead, Garda Ben Devlin and his team are involved in some difficult and painful investigations that take up a lot of his time. In a sub-plot, he’s also facing a bit of trouble with his children, Penny and Shane. Penny is dealing with the physical and emotional aftermath of a trauma she suffered. Shane loves his sister, but has to cope with the understandable jealousy (and guilt over that) that he feels about all of the attention Penny’s gotten. As a way of spending some special time with Shane, Devlin offers to take the boy to a film – a ‘just us men’ sort of thing. Shane’s all excited about it, but Devlin gets caught up in a piece of the case he’s working and forgets to take Shane out. He knows he’s really hurt his son, and at a vulnerable time, too, so he makes a special effort to say how sorry he is. At first, Shane’s not having any, but I don’t think it’s spoiling the story that by the end of it, Shane forgives his father, even if he’s still not at all pleased about what happened.

Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red features Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne. She’s at a bit of a plateau in her career, and would love to find the story that will establish her at the top of her profession. That story comes in the form of Connor Bligh, who’s been in prison for several years for the murders of his sister Angela, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. Everyone assumes that Bligh really was guilty, and nothing in the records indicates that the police were anything but conscientious and careful. But little pieces of evidence also suggest that Bligh might be innocent. If he is, this could make for an explosive story. So Thorne pursues it for all she’s worth. She finds out the truth about the case, but it comes at quite a cost. And when all is said and done, she knows she needs to make some apologies:
 

‘I’m sorry. So sorry. I behaved unforgivably.’
 

In the end, we see that life will go on, and Thorne starts over. But the apologies are very hard.

They often are. But they can help heal relationships. They can also be the stuff of rich character development and even story arcs in novels.
 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Barry Maitland, Brian McGilloway, Paddy Richardson, Wendy James

And I Got a Peaceful Easy Feeling*

Peaceful MomentsEver had one of those peaceful, calm times when life seems to be going along smoothly? It’s a fact of life that those times don’t last. In a way, that fragility makes them all the more precious, and even poignant. Here’s how Jodie Garrow puts it in Wendy James’ The Mistake:
 

‘Later, when she looks back on that time – the time before it all began to change – Jodie will see that it was more than good, more than happy enough. It was idyllic.’
 

It certainly seems to be. Jodie is married to Angus, a successful attorney. She has two healthy children and a well-off lifestyle. She’s healthy herself, and attractive. That peace is shattered when Jodie’s daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and rushed to the same Sydney hospital where Jodie gave birth years before to another child. No-one –not even Angus – knows about that other child. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie tells the nurse she gave the child up for adoption. But when the over-curious nurse looks for the records, she finds nothing. Now the question is whispered, and then asked quite publicly: what happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If she’s dead, did Jodie have something to do with it? Jodie’s life spins out of control as she becomes a social pariah. In the end, we learn what happened to the baby, and you can’t really say that Jodie’s life is forever ruined. But it’s never going to be the same.

There’s a peaceful moment like that in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, too. Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is taking a honeymoon cruise of the Nile with her brand-new husband Simon. Linnet is both wealthy and beautiful, so with her marriage to Simon, she seems to have it all. There were a couple of nerve-wracking moments when she and Simon encountered her former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. But things seem to have calmed down, and Linnet is enjoying herself. She and Simon go on a sightseeing visit to a temple, where she has the chance to rest after they’ve finished the tour:
 

‘‘How lovely the sun is,” thought Linnet. ‘How warm how safe… How lovely it is to be happy… How lovely to be me me… me… Linnet. … She was half asleep, half awake, drifting in the midst of thought that was like the sand, drifting and blowing.’
 

Just a moment or two later, a boulder falls, very nearly killing Linnet. It’s frightening to think someone might have been trying to kill her. Things go from bad to worse on the cruise when she is actually murdered. Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise, and he and Colonel Race work to find out who the killer is.

In James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos, New Iberia police detective Dave Robicheaux is taking some time away to heal up after an on-duty shooting that killed his partner and left him wounded. He’s enjoying the peace and quiet of his home, the chance to fish and spend time with his daughter Alafair, and the simple pleasure of sitting on his small dock. Everything changes when he gets a visit from an old acquaintance. Minos Dautrieve is now working with the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency on a special task force. He wants Robicheaux to help the government bring down New Orleans gangster and drugs dealer Tony Cardo. At first, Robicheaux demurs. But when Dautrieve tempts him with the chance to go after a criminal he’s been wanting to catch, Robicheaux agrees. He soon finds his life getting more and more dangerous as he begins to get close to Cardo.

Cathy Ace’s The Corpse With the Silver Tongue begins when University of Vancouver criminologist and academician Caitlin ‘Cait’ Morgan gets an unexpected chance for a trip to Nice. A colleague who was supposed to deliver a paper at a conference there has been injured and can’t go. So Morgan is tapped to take his place. She’s promised a lovely few days in Nice, with only the paper presentation on her docket. One afternoon, she’s sipping wine at an outdoor café, relaxing and thinking that maybe agreeing to this trip wasn’t so bad. She’s enjoying that peaceful moment when an old acquaintance, Alistair Townsend, passes by and sees her. She’s never liked him, but gets talked into attending a birthday party he’s giving for his wife. When he suddenly collapses and dies at the party, Morgan finds that what was supposed to be a peaceful trip is anything but…

The main action in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing starts peacefully enough for Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. He’s just arrived at his office, and goes through his usual morning routine. It’s a pleasant, if a bit mundane, sort of a morning, fueled with deliciously seasoned Kashmiri tea. Then everything changes. Puri’s secretary Elizabeth Rani brings him the morning paper, which contains terrible news. Dr. Suresh Jha has been killed. Jha was a former client of Puri’s, so the PI certainly takes an interest. It seems that Jha was killed when the goddess Kali appeared and murdered him as punishment for being an unbeliever. Puri is a spiritual enough person, but he doesn’t believe in supernatural solutions to mysteries. So he begins to ask questions. And he finds that this incident isn’t at all what it seems on the surface.

And then there’s Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall. That novel begins as Gurdial Singh goes on his morning rounds delivering the Globe and Mail to his Toronto customers who live in the exclusive Market Place Tower condominiums. It’s a peaceful time of day, and Singh enjoys the routine. He’s content with his life, too, and likes where he is, if I can put it that way. Then he gets to the home of radio celebrity Kevin Brace. Singh finds the door a bit open, which is unusual enough. But when Singh knocks at the half-open door and Brace answers it, things turn much worse. Brace says only,
 

‘I killed her, Mr. Singh.’
 

Singh goes inside and discovers the body of Brace’s common-law wife Katherine Torn in one of the condominium’s bathtubs. The police are alerted and begin their investigation. It turns out to be a more complicated case than it seems on the surface, and Singh is drawn into it as an important witness.

Those peaceful, even idyllic moments are probably all the more precious because we know they end. And they can certainly add to the texture of a novel. I’ve given a few examples. Your turn.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jack Tempchin’s Peaceful, Easy Feeling.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Cathy Ace, James Lee Burke, Robert Rotenberg, Tarquin Hall, Wendy James

On the Wind That Lifts Her Perfume Through the Air*

ScentsI was recently a witness at a crime scene. I can’t say much about it, because it’s an ongoing investigation, and because I don’t want to compromise any of the people involved. I can say that thankfully, no-one died. Also, I’m grateful to say that no-one in my family or circle of friends was involved.

With that background, one of the striking things about the scene, both at the time of the incident and later, was the smell of the blood. To be candid, it’s still with me. And no, I promise this post will not be a long list of books where the smell of blood is mentioned. But I can tell you that I have more respect than I ever did for all first responders (including police) who deal with it on a regular basis. How you folks do that is more than I can imagine.

Scents don’t have to be as powerful as that of course to be memorable. In fact, it is said that our sense of smell is a lot more powerful than we may think. Smells of all kinds bring back memories (Ever catch a hint of the cologne or perfume an old flame wore? See what I mean?). They’re powerful advertisements, too; bakeries everywhere count on that. And of course, they play a role in investigations, both real and fictional.

It’s a bit harder to depict scents and their impact in fiction, but it can be done well. And some detail about scents can add to a reader’s engagement in a novel. Certainly it does in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. Wellington television journalist Rebecca Thorne thinks she’s found the story that will make her career when she learns of the case of Connor Bligh. He’s in prison for the murders of his sister Angela, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. The only member of the family who escaped was their daughter Katy, who wasn’t at home at the time of the murders. Here’s what Katy says about her arrival home that terrible day:
 

‘Then my heart started beating so hard it felt as if it would burst and I started choking. Choking and retching. It was the smell.’
 

This description is actually given several years after the murders; that’s how much of an impact the scent of the murder scene had.

Christopher Brookmyre’s Quite Ugly One Morning begins when journalist Jack Parlabane wakes up to the sound of a terrible commotion coming from the flat downstairs. He’s got an awful hangover, but he is curious about what’s going on. He leaves his own home, not thinking to bring his key along, and goes downstairs. The crime scene that awaits him (no, I won’t describe it in detail) is, to say the least, foul. The scents are enough to make Parlabane feel much, much worse, and he wants to get back to his own place as soon as he can. But without his key, he can’t do that. So he decides to go through one of the windows in the downstairs flat and climb up into the corresponding window in his own. That’s when DC Jenny Dalziel, who’s one of the investigators, catches him. And it’s how Parlabane gets involved in a crime story he couldn’t have imagined.

As I mentioned, scents can also be powerful triggers for memory. Agatha Christie uses that fact in several of her stories. For instance, in Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to investigate the sixteen-year-old murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. Crale was poisoned one afternoon, and the assumption has always been that his wife Caroline was responsible. She had motive, too, and in fact, was arrested and convicted. She died in prison, so is no longer there to defend herself; but Carla is convinced she was innocent. Poirot agrees to look into the matter, and starts by interviewing all five of the people who were ‘on the scene’ the day of the murder. He also gets written accounts from each. Then, he uses that information to establish who was guilty. One of the things that several people tell him is that the murder happened so long ago that it’s impossible to remember details. But Poirot uses strong scents in two instances to trigger memories; that information helps him greatly in solving the mystery. I know, I know, fans of After the Funeral and Murder on the Orient Express.

Of course, not all scents are unpleasant or terrible reminders. But they all have the capacity to influence us. Just ask Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman. She’s a Melbourne baker who knows the appeal of the smell of fresh-baked bread. Here’s what she says about it in Heavenly Pleasures:
 

‘The scent of fresh baked bread was dragging the famished hordes out of the cold street, where a nasty little Melbourne wind had whipped up…’
 

It’s very hard to walk past a bakery for just that reason.

Scent is also a really important part of the appeal of wine. Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen’s Benjamin Cooker could tell you all about it.  He is a winemaker and a noted oenologist, whose opinion is respected throughout the winemaking community. His expertise also makes him and his assistant Virgile Lanssien perfect choices to investigate when there is fraud, theft or worse among the members. More than once in this Winemaker Detective series, there are mentions of the way wine is made, and how that process impacts its aroma. It’s a really clear example of how much our sense of taste is affected by our sense of smell.

You may not think about it much unless perhaps you have a cold, so that you can’t smell much. But scents really are very powerful triggers, for memories and a lot else.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christopher Brookmyre, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Kerry Greenwood, Noël Balen, Paddy Richardson

Residents Are More Than Welcome*

Boarding HousesIt can be a challenge to find a place to live, especially if you don’t have much in the way of means, or if you’re not planning to be in a place long enough to purchase property. And in times past, it wasn’t considered appropriate for, especially, young ladies to live on their own. So boarding houses and homes that offer lodging had real appeal. There were a variety of them, too, ranging from seedy and dangerous to luxurious.

You don’t see boarding houses and lodging places as much as in the past, although they’re still there. And the arrangement does make sense. The homeowner gets extra income; the lodger gets less expensive accommodations and, depending on the arrangement, meals. Boarding houses also make for effective settings and contexts for crime fiction. That makes sense too, when you consider the variety of different personalities, and the conflicts that can come up.

One of the more famous lodgings in crime fiction is of course 221B Baker Street, where Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes lodges. His landlady is Mrs. Hudson, who’s gotten accustomed to his eccentric ways, although they are unusual. In fact in stories such as The Adventure of the Empty House, she is helpful to Holmes in his cases. In that particular adventure, Holmes is targeted by an associate of his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, and wants to lay a trap for the man who’s been trying to kill him. So he has a bust of himself placed in his sitting room. Then, he has Mrs. Hudson move the bust at certain intervals, so that it looks as though he’s actually there. In that way, Holmes and Dr. Watson are able to catch the would-be assassin.

Marie Belloc Lowndes The Lodger, introduces us to Ellen and Robert Bunting, who’ve retired from domestic service. They don’t have much in the way of income, and have decided to open their home to a lodger. However, Ellen Bunting is quite particular about the kind of person she’ll allow to live in her home, so their extra space has gone unused for some time. Then one day, a man who calls himself Mr. Sleuth applies for the room. He seems to be ‘a gentleman,’ and has quiet habits, so the arrangement is made and he moves in. The Buntings soon learn that Mr. Sleuth is a little eccentric, but he doesn’t cause them trouble. More to the point, he pays well and on time. In the meantime, the Buntings have been anxiously following the story of several murders that have occurred in London, all committed by a killer calling himself The Avenger. Very slowly, Ellen Bunting begins to wonder whether her lodger may in fact be The Avenger. She doesn’t want to admit it at first, because she and her husband really need the income they get from Mr. Sleuth’s residence there. But before long, she’s faced with the reality that she may be shielding a killer.

In John Dickson Carr’s Death-Watch, Dr. Gideon Fell is faced with a very strange boarding-house mystery. An apparently homeless man has been stabbed to death in the home of clockmaker Johannes Carver, who has opened his home to boarders. The victim isn’t what he seems though; instead, he is a police detective named Ames, who’d come to the boarding house to arrest one of the lodgers for a prior shoplifting incident. Of course, this is a Carr mystery, so the solution is not as simple as a thief who kills to avoid being arrested. As Fell looks into the matter, we see the different kinds of things that can happen in a boarding house…

There’s always a certain amount of risk when you open your home to boarders. So in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, no-one is shocked when James Bentley is arrested for the murder of his landlady Mrs. McGinty, who was a charwoman. Bentley didn’t fit in well in the village of Broadhinny anyway, and everyone is quick to believe that he is guilty. But Superintendent Spence, who in fact investigated the murder for the police, has come to believe that Bentley may be innocent. He’s been assigned to another case, so he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. When Poirot begins to ask questions, he soon learns that Mrs. McGinty was the kind of person who found out things about the people whose homes she cleaned. When she learned something that was too dangerous for her to know, she paid the price for it. Fans of this novel will also know that Poirot himself takes a room in a guest house called Long Meadows. It’s run by two very – erm – unsophisticated owners, Maureen and Johnnie Summerhayes. Some of the scenes that take place at Long Meadows are (at least in my opinion) really funny, just because of the difference between Poirot’s expectations and habits and the Summerhayes’ approach to running the place.

Ruth Rendell’s 13 Steps Down explores the lodging/boarding relationship as well. Mix Cellini takes rooms in a house owned by Gwendolyn Chawcer. He doesn’t find his landlady particularly appealing; she’s mentally unsound, and as we learn about her history, we see why. And the feeling of distaste is mutual, since Cellini has plenty of his own issues. He’s got a host of phobias and obsessions that make him a difficult person. But the two do need each other financially, so they make an arrangement. Cellini’s job is repairing exercise equipment; that’s how he meets supermodel Merissa Nash. He soon becomes obsessed with her, and that obsession begins to take over his life. So does his obsession with notorious killer Dr. Richard Christie…

Some of Charlotte MacLeod’s Sarah Kelling/Max Bittersohn novels have a boarding house context. As that series begins, Kelling is a widow who’s decided to open her Boston home to boarders (Bittersohn is one of those boarders). She’s a ‘blueblood,’ so she is extremely particular about the sort of boarding house she will run. Her first lodgers are each a little eccentric in their ways, but all starts well enough. Then she takes on Barnwell ‘Barney’ Augustus Quiffen. From the start, he is an annoying resident. He has a habit of complaining about everything, and demanding all sorts of extra service (and complaining again about the quality of that service). He soon succeeds in upsetting everyone, including Kelling. Then one day, he suddenly dies in what looks like a tragic fall under a subway car. The next morning, a strange woman shows up at the boarding house claiming that she witnessed what happened, and that it wasn’t an accident. And when the police begin to show up, too, asking questions, Kelling finds herself more involved in the investigation than she’d thought.

Boarding houses may not be as common as they were, but they’re still out there. And they do play interesting roles in crime fiction…

ps.  This whole topic got me thinking about B&B’s, which are (at least to me) a different kind of accommodation. A post on that is on tap for tomorrow…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Master of the House.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Dickson Carr, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Ruth Rendell