Category Archives: Agatha Christie

I Wanted to Tell You My Story*

Tapping Prior KnowledgeThere’s a great deal of research that shows that we learn and remember by associating new information with what we already know. If that research is correct (and I’ve yet to read anything that disproves it), then we build mental representations of things, concepts, and so on by adding new things we learn to our prior knowledge.

If you think of it from the other direction, so to speak, it works like this. When we do something or encounter something new, we tap what we already know to make sense of it and work with it. That’s why, for instance, when you buy a new car, you often get used to driving it quickly. You tap your background knowledge about where everything is in a car and use that to learn where your new car’s features are.

Writers have known this and made use of it for a very long time. How often have you heard the expression, ‘Write what you know.’? Of course, this doesn’t mean the author never ‘stretches,’ or uses some imagination. Lots of female authors write male main characters for instance (I do that, myself). The opposite happens as well. And many authors write about experiences they’ve never had. But if you look closely, you find that those authors also do plenty of research first. That’s the body of knowledge on which they build their stories.

It is said that Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was inspired by Dr. Joseph Bell, for whom Conan Doyle clerked for a time. Fans of the Holmes stories will know that Holmes is not a medical doctor as Bell was. And Conan Doyle was not a private investigator. In that sense, Conan Doyle didn’t tap his own background to create his stories. But he did tap his knowledge of Bell and his observations of the way Bell went about his work. And he used his medical background to lend authenticity to the character of Dr. Watson. Through Holmes, Conan Doyle gave voice to what he had learned about science. He also gave voice to what he had learned about the other detective fiction available at the time. To him, it was inadequate because the protagonists didn’t use any deduction to solve their cases; their solutions were too intuitive and therefore, not credible.

Agatha Christie frequently tapped her own knowledge and experiences for her stories. She worked in a hospital dispensary for a time, and was thoroughly familiar with the properties of different chemicals. She was also thoroughly familiar with the way the medical system worked. That knowledge is obvious in her work. Many of her stories feature murder by poison. And it shouldn’t be surprising that plenty of her characters are doctors, nurses or other medical professionals. Fans will know that not all of them are exactly what you’d call sympathetic characters. But Christie’s work as a whole shows the ways in which she tapped her professional background. She tapped her personal experiences, too. Several of her stories feature archaeology and archaeologists; her marriage to an archaeologist proved a rich resource. So did her experience living in the Middle East. It’s even said that Christie was once on a train that was snowbound for a brief time. She later used that experience as an inspiration for Murder on the Orient Express.

There are many other authors, too, who tap their professional experiences when they write. I know I do (one of my protagonists is in higher education, as I’ve been for most of my adult life). Lawyers such as John Grisham, Scott Turow and Martin Edwards have created attorneys as their main characters. Katherine Howell spent several years as a paramedic. She uses that background in all of her Ella Marconi novels. Marconi herself isn’t a paramedic; she’s a police detective. But every novel also includes first-responder characters.

Authors often tap other kinds of experiences that they’ve had, too. For instance, David Whish-Wilson has a lot of experience working with prison populations. In Line of Sight and in Zero at the Bone, there are several incarcerated or formerly-incarcerated characters who reflect that experience. Oh, and, Mr. Whish-Wilson, if you’re reading this, I hope we’ll see more of your Frank Swann in the future. Angela Savage is Australian, but has lived in Southeast Asia, too. She taps that experience in her Jayne Keeney novels. Like her creator, Keeney is Australian, but she lives in Bangkok, and her cases take her to different parts of Thailand.

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, authors also go beyond their experiences. They may imagine what it’s like to be a certain kind of person. Or they encounter or read about a certain place or person – something new to them – and think ‘That would make for a great story!’ Crime writers, for instance, have, by and large, not committed murder. Well, at least I haven’t. So in that sense, people who write murder mysteries have to put themselves in the position of someone who would. That requires imagination, too. And research.

But that said, there’s an awful lot of tapping of prior knowledge that happens among authors. That includes their professional experience, their personal stories, and what they read. In fact, that’s one reason for which it makes so much sense for writers to do a lot of reading. Want to know more about the value of reading if you’re a writer? Check out Rebecca Bradley’s great post on this topic. And while you’re at it, have a look at her excellent blog.

It’s not too hard to show how authors use their own experiences when they write, and tap their prior knowledge. And if you’re a writer, I’d love to read your thoughts on how you make use of your own experiences.  But here’s the thing. Readers do not have the same backgrounds and prior knowledge as authors do. Readers are all individuals. They come from different backgrounds, have different experiences and so on. So how does an author encourage readers to tap their own backgrounds and make some meaning from the stories they read?

Let’s put the question another way. How do authors invite readers to really engage with stories? That’ll be the stuff of my post tomorrow, when we’ll flip this topic of tapping prior knowledge the other way.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Verve’s Stormy Clouds.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, David Whish-Wilson, John Grisham, Katherine Howell, Martin Edwards, Rebecca Bradley, Scott Turow

It’s All About the Same Thing Underneath the Disguise*

Same Underlying Plot, Different BookIn Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, Hercue Poirot works with Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race, and detective story writer Ariadne Oliver to solve the stabbing death of the enigmatic Mr. Shaitana. There are only four suspects, and each one could have committed the crime. What’s more, each one has, or so Shaitana hinted, killed before. The sleuths look into the background of all of the suspects to see what kind of murders they committed, and whether those crimes bear the same hallmarks they see in the Shaitana case. When Mrs. Oliver says that she wouldn’t commit the same kind of murder twice, here’s the conversation that ensues:
 

‘‘Don’t you ever write the same plot twice running?’ asked Battle.
‘The Lotus Murder,’ murmured Poirot. ‘The Clue of the Candle Wax.’
Mrs. Oliver turned on him, her eyes beaming appreciation.
‘That’s clever of you – that’s really clever of you. Because of course those two are exactly the same plot, but nobody else has seen it.’’
 

And she’s not the only author to use plot points, or even entire plots, that have been used before.

The fact is, there aren’t that many plausible reasons to commit murder. So if you look beyond the outer trappings of setting and so on, you’ll see a lot of books that bear similarities to other books, even if you might not think so at first. Moira at Clothes in Books got me thinking about this, and I’m glad she did. It’s an interesting topic, so I am grateful for the inspiration.

Some books’ similarities are quite clear, because they have such a similar context. For example, Ngaio Marsh’s Enter a Murderer and Caroline Graham’s Death of a Hollow Man both feature on-stage murders during the performance of a play. And in both cases, the sleuth has to look among the people who had access to the stage props to find out who would have been able to commit the crime. There are some differences (e.g. in one, the death looks like a suicide, but in the other, it’s a more obvious murder). But the underlying nature of the plot is strikingly similar.

Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair is the story of Gilbert Hand, who has recently moved to a very respectable London hotel. He’s settling into his room when he discovers that the ottoman he wants to use as a storage space has something hidden in it. Hand pulls out the silk-wrapped package and discovers a coil of long dark hair. He begins to wonder about the person who owned that hair, and it’s not long before he discovers that that person is Freddie Doyle. When Doyle tries to reclaim the hair, Hand refuses. Now he begins to be obsessed with Doyle, and that obsession leads to tragedy. It might not seem on the surface that this would bear a lot of resemblance to Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, which features a Pasadena schoolteacher named Lora King, and her relationship with her new sister-in-law Alice. But underneath the very obvious differences, there are some real similarities. Like Gilbert Hand, Lora King makes some unsettling discoveries about a person (in this case, Alice). And, like Hand, King finds herself becoming obsessed. She is both repelled by and drawn to Alice in the same way that Hand finds himself both repelled by and drawn to Doyle. And in both these novels, disaster strikes. Of course there are important differences between the books. Those differences set them apart and make each a unique read, with different characters and so on. But the core of the plot in the two books is very similar.

That’s also true of James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos and Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. One takes place in modern-day Louisiana; the other takes place in 1950’s Los Angeles. One features a police detective, and the other an amateur/soon-to-be PI. And the books focus on different kinds of contexts, too (a New Orleans crime syndicate v a Black church and the people who volunteer there). Different kinds of people are murdered, too. But underneath those major differences, we see some very strong similarities. In both cases, the sleuths are pressured by government authorities to bring down someone regarded as a ‘bad guy.’ In both novels, the sleuths are reluctant to do so, but are persuaded. And both sleuths face a serious internal struggle when they find themselves sympathetic towards the person they’re supposed to be targeting. These aren’t by any means alike. Each author has a unique way of telling the story, of developing the characters, and of resolving the story’s conflicts. But the underlying cores are quite similar.

They are in Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City and Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, too. These stories are unlike each other in many ways. They take place in different settings, feature different kinds of murder victims and murderers, and ‘star’ very different kinds of sleuths. You might not think of them as having anything in common. And yet, they do. In each case, we have a sleuth who has to find out why someone who seems innocent enough on the surface would be targeted. We also have some very, very ugly past history that plays an important role. And the solution for each case has to do with the past coming back, if you will. Saying more would bring me closer than I like to spoiler territory. But if you’ve read both books, you’ll know what I mean.

Betty Webb’s Desert Wives and William Ryan’s The Twelfth Department might not seem to be similar stories at all. And in a lot of ways, they are not. One features a PI; the other ‘starts’ a police detective. They take place in very different time periods (the former takes place is a modern-day story; the latter takes place in pre-World War II Moscow), and the murder victims are very different sorts of characters. But look closely and you’ll see these stories have more in common than you might think. Both involve penetrating a closed community; in one case it’s a compound owned by a fundamentalist sect, and in the other a group of scientists working on a top-secret project. And in each instance, the original murder – the reason the sleuths look into things – hides a much deeper, uglier truth.

There are many more examples of crime novels that tell similar ‘core stories,’ even though they are quite different. And if you think about it, that’s logical, considering that there are only so many credible reasons for murder, and only so many believable kinds of plots. What’s your view on this? Have you ever had that sense of déjà vu as you see that two quite dissimilar novels actually have a lot in common?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. And speaking of inspiration, may I suggest your next blog stop by Clothes in Books. It’s a rich resources of fine book reviews and informative discussion of clothes, popular culture, and what it all tells us about ourselves. I learn every time I visit.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joe Walsh’s Over and Over.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Betty Webb, Caroline Graham, Charlotte Jay, James Lee Burke, Megan Abbott, Ngaio Marsh, Timothy Hallinan, Walter Mosley, William Ryan

Hanging Tough, Staying Hungry*

EntrepreneursIt takes a lot of courage and bold planning to start up one’s own business. The odds are against success, and even if a person does launch a successful company, there’s a heavy cost in terms of time and personal life. But people open their own businesses all the time, trusting that they’ll do well and their companies will flourish.

Crime fiction is full of PIs who’ve take the risk to set up shop for themselves. Mentioning them on this post would be too easy. But there are plenty of other entrepreneurs in genre. Sometimes they do well, and sometimes…not well at all. Either way, people who start their own businesses can make for very interesting characters.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal) we meet Susan Banks. She has dreams of opening up her own beauty salon, and the business acumen and bold planning that are needed to start one’s own company. But she and her husband Greg don’t have the money to stake such a venture. We learn as the story goes on that she approached her wealthy uncle Richard Abernethie, but he refused to help. When Abernethie dies, apparently of natural causes, his family gathers for the funeral. At the gathering, his youngest sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that he was murdered. At first no-one takes her seriously. But when she herself is killed the next day, everyone begins to believe that she might have been right. The family attorney Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and he agrees. Susan immediately becomes ‘a person of interest’ because of her determination to have her own business – and because she has now inherited the money she needs to open her salon. It doesn’t help her case that she can’t really prove her whereabouts on either occasion. But as Poirot and Mr. Entwhistle find out, there are several suspects in this case…

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve discovers the same entrepreneurial spirit in her daughter Mieka. Like many parents, Joanne wants to see her daughter go to university and get a good education. And at first, that’s what Mieka does. But by the end of the first year, she’s made other plans. She decides to open her own catering business. In one story arc in this series, we see how Mieka has to convince her mother that the business can be successful. She does what new business owners have to do: study the market, look for an opening, decide on one’s talents and interests, and put together a business plan. It takes some time for Joanne to get used to the idea, but Mieka makes a go of it. Later, she uses the same initiative to develop a playground, UpSlideDown. Mieka has faults, as we all do, but she doesn’t lack in courage or bold planning.

There are several ‘regulars’ in Lilian Jackson Braun’s series featuring features journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. Throughout most of the series, he lives and works in a small town, where readers get to know many of the other people who live there. One of those people is Lori Bamba. She starts out as Qwill’s part-time secretary, who also happens to be quite gifted with cats. So he depends a lot on her as he gets used to having his own two Siamese. As the series goes on, Lori and her husband Nick get involved in several new business ventures. One, for instance, is the Domino Inn, which we learn about in The Cat Who Came to Breakfast. It’s located on Breakfast Island/AKA Pear Island, Grand Island, and Providence Island, a holiday/fishing community with a certain tourist appeal. Lori and Nick are concerned about some strange incidents that look like sabotage, so Qwill arranges a stay at the Domino to look into the matter. What he finds goes much deeper and is much more dangerous that someone playing nasty pranks. The Bambas don’t always succeed in their ventures, but they have energy and resilience – and creative ideas.

In Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series, we meet another entrepreneur, Rose. Originally from a small village in the country, she ended up in Bangkok, where she became a bar girl. She’s no longer in that business any more, and has started up a new apartment-cleaning company of her own. There’s plenty of competition, and Rose isn’t exactly wealthy. But she has a lot of courage. And what’s interesting about her company is that all of her employees are former bar girls who’ve had enough of that life and want to get out of it.

Walter Mosley’s Fear of the Dark is in great part the story of Paris Minton. A year before the events in the story, he opened the Florence Avenue Used Bookshop, hoping to run a peaceful business. He’s not at all what you’d call bold or a person of initiative. But he does love books, and just wanted a place where he could make a living and indulge his passtion. And for a year, he’s done all right for himself. Then his cousin Ulysses S. Grant IV ‘Useless’ pays him a visit. At first, Minton doesn’t even want to let his cousin in; Useless has been nothing but trouble, sometimes very bad trouble, all his life. But eventually Minton yields. Useless asks him for a place to stay, but Minton refuses. At first, Minton doesn’t think much of it – until Useless disappears and Minton’s aunt asks him to track Useless down. For that, Minton turns to his friend Fearless Jones, who’s the kind of person you want on your side in a fight. Jones and Minton go looking for Useless, and find instead a complicated blackmail scheme and some very dangerous people who are also looking for Useless…

And then there’s Carl Hiaasen’s Nature Girl. In one plot thread of that novel, we meet Sammy Tigertail, who was born Chad McQueen. He is half White/half Seminole, and not sure where he fits in with either community. He sets up his own new business offering airboat rides through the Florida Everglades. When his first client dies of a heart attack during the trip, Sammy decides that this business is not going to be successful, especially if enough tourists hear that his client died. So he heads deep into the wilderness and ends up in Dismal Key. That happens to be the place where Honey Santana is leading Boyd Shreave on a kayak trip that could turn out to be disastrous for him. She’s getting back at Boyd for verbal abuse during a telemarketing call he made. There are other characters in pursuit of both of them, so Sammy hardly gets the peace and quiet he feels he needs after his venture failed. This is a Hiaasen novel, so as you can imagine, all of the characters’ lives intersect in some unusual ways.

Not all business ventures are quite that adventurous. But all new businesses need courage, a lot of time, a lot of faith, and some luck. Money doesn’t hurt, either. Which fictional ones have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Carl Hiaasen, Gail Bowen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Timothy Hallinan, Walter Mosley

Welcome to Tonight’s Presentation*

Giving LecturesSooner or later, most of us are faced with the prospect of giving a lecture or presentation. It might be something as simple as sharing some information at a business meeting; or it might be a formal academic lecture. No matter what kind of presentation it is, there’s a lot to consider. There’s the matter of tailoring one’s talk to one’s audience. And there’s the not-at-all trivial matter of making the presentation interesting to that audience. Some people are naturally more extroverted than others, so one also has to consider the delivery. In particular, if you’re not a natural extrovert, how do you make your voice, your mannerisms and so on more interesting than whatever games members of your audience may be playing on their telephones? It’s also important to find ways to deal with the natural nervousness that can go along with giving lectures and presentations. Some people’s careers involve lots of presentations, so they’re accustomed to having all eyes on them, even if it’s not something they enjoy. Others, however, get extremely anxious in front of a group. Finally, there’s the matter of logistics. Power Point or video? What about the audio? Is there WiFi in the room you’ll be using if you need that? If not, how will you adjust? Handouts or no? How much time do you have? Are you going to leave time for questions and comments? You get the idea.

Despite all that, people give presentations all the time. So it’s little wonder we see them throughout crime fiction. Some characters handle them more easily than others. There’s an interesting mention of a presentation, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly. In that novel, Ariadne Oliver has been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt as an attraction for an upcoming fête at Nasse House, the property of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. Mrs. Oliver has a strange feeling there’s more to this than just an attraction, so she asks Hercule Poirot to visit, and see what he thinks. Mrs. Oliver’s worst fears come true on the day of the fête, when fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker is strangled. On the surface of it, there seems no motive for the murder, but Poirot and Mrs. Oliver discover that the victim had a way of finding out other people’s secrets, and that she might have found out more than was safe for her to know. At one point, Poirot has a telephone conversation with Mrs. Oliver. His first question is whether it’s a good time to talk:
 

‘It’s splendid that you’ve rung me up,’ she said. ‘I was just going out to give a talk on How I Write My Books. Now I can get my secretary to ring up and say I am unavoidably detained.”
 

Mrs. Oliver is pleased to get out of this obligation because she feels there’s not much interesting about writing books:
 

‘What I mean is, first you’ve got to think of something, and when you’ve thought of it you’ve got to force yourself to sit down and write it. That’s all. It would have taken me just three minutes to explain that, and then the Talk would have been ended and everyone would have been very fed up.’’
 

It’s much better, from her perspective, to work on the case at hand.

The real action in Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes begins when Miss Lucy Pym, who’s gained some renown as a psychologist, is invited to Leys, an exclusive physical training school for young women run by her old friend Henrietta Hedge. Miss Pym is scheduled to give a lecture on psychology to the Leym students.  She’s there for several days and is getting to know the students when word comes that a well-known school has a job vacancy. Everyone thinks that Mary Innes will be selected; instead, the choice is Barbara Rouse. There are already some questions about Barbara; she’s behaved in an odd and secretive way. But this infuriates everyone. Then, Barbara is badly wounded in what looks like a terrible accident. Later, she dies of her injuries. Now Miss Pym has to use her observation and her knowledge of psychology to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Kathryn Fox’s Malicious Intent introduces Anya Crichton, a New South Wales-based pathologist. She’s recently opened her own freelance office, and sometimes gives lectures at the local university. Here are her thoughts about preparing her lectures:
 

‘Put the word ‘forensic’ in a lecture’s title and it pretty much guaranteed a full house.’
 

Of course, university lectures don’t always go over the way one thinks they will. Trust me. Here, for instance, is the first question Crichton is asked:
 

‘‘Excuse me, but will this be in the exams?’’
 

Every educator will be able to relate to that. All thoughts of successful lecturing are put to one side, though, when Crichton’s friend, DS Kate Farrer, asks her to take a look at an unusual death. It turns out to be just the tip of the proverbial iceberg as the two end up pitting themselves against a very dangerous force.

Martin Edwards’ Daniel Kind is an Oxford historian who became something of a celebrity. He’s gotten ‘burned out’ on it, though, and has taken a cottage in the Lake District. There, he works with DCI Hannah Scarlett as she and her Cold Case Review Team look into unsolved cases that still resonate. His work with Scarlett doesn’t mean that Kind has lost interest in his own field, though. He continues to do research and give presentations and lectures. In fact, in The Serpent Pool, he’s just returned from the US, where he spent several months giving a series of guest lectures. While he enjoyed the experience, he’s glad to back in the Lakes. And it turns out to be none too soon, as Scarlett and her team are faced with a six-year-old case of drowning that turns out not to be suicide, as was originally thought. That death, and two other, recent, deaths turn out to be related to Kind’s current research topic.

And then there’s Philip Kerr’s The Lady From Zagreb, which features his PI sleuth Bernie Gunther. The story takes place in 1956, but in it, Gunther remembers the Germany of 1942, when Gunther, who hated the Nazis, was drawn against his will into a Nazi plot. The goal was to get famous actress Dalia Dresner to return to making Nazi propaganda films. To defy the Nazis was not possible, but Gunther found a way to navigate the waters, so to speak. In one plot thread of this novel, the Germans have arranged an international crime conference; and General Arthur Nebe, who’s in charge of it all, wants Gunther to be speak at the conference. As you can imagine, Gunther is loath to do so:
 

‘‘My idea of public speaking is to shout for a beer from the back of the bar.’’
 

But Nebe has no other real option, and Gunther is not in a position to refuse. The conference makes for an interesting plot point in the novel.

Giving lectures and presentations is second nature to some. To others, it’s an onerous task best avoided if at all possible. But no matter how we feel about it, most of us have that experience sooner or later. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go through my Power Point slides and make sure my video works….

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sublime’s What’s Really Goin’ Wrong.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Kathryn Fox, Martin Edwards, Phhilip Kerr

Hide it in a Hiding Place Where No One Ever Goes*

Ingenious Hiding PlacesWhere would crime fiction be without the ingenious hiding place? All sorts of valuable things are hidden throughout the genre: wills, letters, jewels, even a horse (more on that shortly). And a garden-variety hiding place (in a drawer or behind a picture) isn’t nearly as interesting as something more ingenious. Of course, an ingenious hiding place still has to be believable, or crime fiction fans won’t ‘buy’ it. Even with that, though, there’s plenty of leeway for some interesting hiding places, and lots of authors have made use of thtem. Here are a few examples.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson travel to Dartmoor to investigate the disappearance of a famous racehorse Silver Blaze (See? Here’s the one about the horse), and the murder of the horse’s trainer, John Straker. Inspector Tobias Gregory has arrested London bookmaker Fitzroy Simpson, and he did have motive, since he has a lot at stake in an upcoming race that Silver Blaze is scheduled to run. But there are pieces of evidence that suggest that Simpson is not the killer. And for all his imperfections as a detective (at least, that’s how Holmes sees it), he doesn’t want an innocent man convicted. So he’s asked Holmes to look into the matter. Silver Blaze is, of course, missing. So along with solving Straker’s murder, Holmes and Watson have to also find out where Silver Blaze is hidden. It’s really quite an ingenious place, actually. I know, I know, fans of The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.

Agatha Christie used clever hiding places in several of her stories. For example, in Death on the Nile, Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race investigate the murder of Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, who was shot on the second night of a honeymoon cruise of the Nile. The most likely suspect is her former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, but it’s soon proven that she could not have committed the murder. So Poirot and Race have to re-think their ideas. In the meantime, it’s been noticed that some valuable pearls belonging to the victim have disappeared. Besides their intrinsic value, their theft could possibly have been a motive for murder. So a search is undertaken for them. It turns out that they’ve been hidden in a very interesting place. I know, I know, fans of The Man in the Brown Suit, and The Case of the Missing Will.

Ellery Queen’s short story The Adventure of the One-Penny Black presents another really interesting hiding place. In that story, Queen and Sergeant Velie investigate the disappearance of a very rare stamp called a one-penny black – one of a valuable pair. It’s gone missing from the collection of avid philatelists Friedrich and Albert Ulm, who are particularly anxious about it, because it’s got Queen Victoria’s signature on it. Of course, there are dozens of places where one might hide a stamp. But Queen makes some deductions and, after being pulled off the trail briefly, finds out what happened to that stamp. It turns out to have been a very clever hiding place.

Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone begins with the execution-style shooting of an unidentified Senegalese immigrant. One day, he’s laying out his wares in one of Venice’s open-air markets when he is murdered. It all happens so fast that no-one really sees the killer or the actual incident. What’s worse, no-one knows the victim. To most people he’s ‘just another immigrant,’ with no real identity. And he doesn’t have any identification. That’s going to make it difficult to find out who he was and who wanted to kill him. Still, Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello persist; eventually they trace the man to the house that he shared with several other immigrants. That presents another challenge. For obvious reasons, the other people with whom the victim lived do not trust the police. What’s more, there’s a language barrier. Still, Brunetti and Vianello manage to learn a few things about the man, and they find out which room in the house he was using. As they search through his things, they discover a box of salt. Buried inside the salt is a cache of diamonds. Now the case takes on a whole new meaning. As it turns out, the victim’s death is connected to arms trafficking and to ‘conflict diamonds.’

And then there’s Steve Robinson’s In the Blood. Wealthy Boston businessman Walter Sloane hires genealogist Jefferson Tayte for a special family search. He wants Tayte to trace his wife’s ancestry as a gift to her, and Tayte takes the commission. He traces the family all the way back to her first American-born ancestor William Fairborne. That line died out; however, another branch of the family continued. In 1783, so Tayte learns, Fairborne’s brother James took his family to England with a group of Loyalists. Sloan wants Tayte to pursue this line, so Tayte makes the trip to Cornwall, where the modern-day Fairbornes live. Almost immediately he faces several challenges. One is that there are no records of Fairborne’s wife and children after his arrival. There’s only a record of another marriage two years later. So what happened to the Fairbornes?  Another is that the modern Fairborne family is not interested in helping him. They have a lot of social status and local ‘clout,’ too, so very few other people are willing to give Tayte any information. One day, by chance, he meets Amy Fallon, who is working on a mystery of her own. Two years earlier, her husband Gabriel died at sea in a storm. Before he died, he told Amy that he’d found out a secret, but never got the chance to tell her what he’d discovered. Since then, though, construction on their home, Ferryman Cottage, has revealed a hidden staircase that leads to a secret room beneath the house. In that room, Fallon has discovered an antique writing box. That writing box turns out to contain an important clue to Tayte’s mystery.

There are, of course, dozens of other mysteries that feature ingenious and unusual hiding places for papers, wills, jewels, and a lot of other things too. Which ones do you like best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Donna Leon, Ellery Queen, Steve Robinson