Category Archives: Agatha Christie

Is My Timing Right?*

TimingAn interesting post from FictionFan, at FictionFan’s Book Reviews, and the comments we exchanged, have got me thinking about timing. Many different sorts of things can affect what we think of a book we’re reading. There’s the obvious things such as plot, characters and so on. There’s also the matter of personal taste. We’re all different in the sorts of stories we enjoy.

But another, subtler, factor in how we feel about a book is arguably the timing of when we read that book. For the reader, timing can have an impact in several ways. For instance (and this is the sort of thing FictionFan and I were ‘talking’ about), if you read a book when it first comes out, it may feel fresh and new. That can add to your enjoyment of a novel. That’s especially true if the novel adds an innovation to the genre, or in some other way digresses from it. But if you read it later, after other, similar books have been released, you may feel quite different about it.

One example that comes to my mind is Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs. At the time the novel came out (1988), the psychotic-serial-killer motif wasn’t a major factor in mainstream crime fiction. That novel arguably made room in the genre for that sort of story. Since then, as I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, there’ve been many, many novels with crazed serial killers. Some are better than others. But it’s not a new and innovative theme any more. I wonder how that’s impacted readers who hadn’t previously read The Silence of the Lambs. Would they regard that novel as the trend-setter that it arguably is? Would they see it in a different way?

There’s also the sub-genre that’s recently (in the last few years) been called domestic noir. Of course, there’ve been many novels in which marriages fell apart, and people weren’t what they seemed. But novels such as Julia Crouch’s Cuckoo, S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, and Elizabeth Haynes’ Into the Darkest Corner have brought the domestic noir novel to the forefront of current crime fiction. And that raises (at least for me) the question of what today’s readers might think of books such as Margaret Yorke’s Speak For the Dead, which was published in 1988. In that novel, Gordon Matthews marries Carrie Foster, and on the surface, all starts well. But each one has a dark past. Matthews was recently released from prison for killing his first wife, Anne. The way he and his lawyers tell the story, it was a case of manslaughter, and Anne was a promiscuous, alcoholic shrew who pushed her husband too far during an argument. But is that the truth? For her part, Carrie is a former prostitute who gets back on the game a few years after they marry. As the story of their marriage, and the tragedy that follows, goes on, we see a real example of domestic noir. Would readers who’ve experienced plenty of domestic noir see this as a taut, fresh look at a marriage? Would they see it as stale?

There are other ways to look at timing, too, of course. If you’ve just finished reading a series of bleak, ‘hardboiled’ crime novels, you might be ready for something lighter. So work such as Carl Hiaasen’s or Chris Grabenstein’s might appeal. Neither author writes ‘sugar coated’ crime fiction, but there is plenty of wit in it. At another time, though, you might think those very same novels too comic, and perhaps too absurd. The same is true for cosy mysteries. If you’ve just been reading a lot of light crime fiction, you might find work like Julie Hyzy’s White House Chef series too light. On the other hand, if you’ve been reading a lot of dark crime fiction, that same series might really appeal.

Timing matters for authors, too. For instance, after the commercial success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, many other novels with a similar domestic noir theme were released. I’m sure you could list more than I could. On the one hand, the success of Gone Girl allowed those other novels more exposure than they otherwise might have had. Publishers were more willing to take a chance on them, and people were more interested in the themes. On the other hand, do readers think of those other novels as ‘me, too?’ Do they look at them with fresh eyes? This raises questions for the author. Is it a good idea to pick up on a theme that’s had some success, so as to hopefully get more exposure?  Is it a matter of ‘me, too,’ or is it a matter of ‘there’s a market for this sort of book?’ Or is it something else?

And then there’s the element of when in one’s life one reads something. Perhaps you started your crime-fictional journey with classic and Golden-Age crime fiction such as Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, or Anthony Berkeley. Since then, let’s say, you’ve branched out and gotten very interested in the modern hardboiled PI novel (Timothy Hallinan, for instance). Would you still see the work of, say, Arthur Conan Doyle in the same way if you re-read it?

There’s a strong argument that timing has an effect on what we think of what we read. Do you see that with your own reading? Do you ever go back and re-read a novel at another time, just to see if your first impression was lasting? If you’re a writer, do you think about timing when you choose your themes, contexts and so on?

Thanks, FictionFan, for the inspiration. Now, may I strongly suggest that the next stop on your blog round be FictionFan’s excellent blog. There, you’ll find fine reviews, interesting observations, and real wit. And Mr. Darcy.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Foreigner’s Hot Blooded.

21 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Carl Hiaasen, Chris Grabenstein, Elizabeth Haynes, Gillian Flynn, Julia Crouch, Julie Hyzy, Margaret Yorke, Ngaio Marsh, S.J. Watson, Thomas Harris, Timothy Hallinan

So Many Pieces Still Unsolved*

UnsolvedAs I post this, today would have been Amelia Earhart’s 119th birthday. Her life was certainly fascinating, and her career has been an inspiration to many people. But as much as that, it’s her disappearance that’s captured the public’s imagination. In 1937, she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, went missing in the area of Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean. There were on a round-the-world flight that was being followed by millions of people when they went off the radar.

There have been many theories about what happened to Earhart and Noonan. Some have held up better than others, but as far as I’m aware, there’s been no indisputable evidence of their fate. And that’s precisely what makes this disappearance so irresistibly interesting to so many people. It’s an unsolved case, and people very often find them fascinating.

There are plenty of other real-life unsolved cases, too. They’re the subject of a lot of speculation and theories. There are crime-fictional cases as well. And they capture people’s interest even when those people have no stake in what really happened. It’s human nature to be curious.

In Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, for instance, Inspector Alan Grant is laid up with a broken leg. As he’s recuperating, he happens to muse on a portrait of King Richard III. His reflection leads him to the question of whether the king was really the murderer he was made out to be. That possibility gets Grant curious about what really happened to Edward V of England and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York. Most people have always thought Richard III had them killed. But Grant begins to wonder if there’s another theory. So he looks into the matter.

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse shows a similar sort of curiosity in The Wench is Dead. In that novel, Morse is laid up with an ulcer. During his recovery, he reads a book about the 1859 discovery of the body of Joanna Franks in one of Oxford’s canals. At the time of her murder, two men were arrested, found guilty, and duly hung. But Morse isn’t sure that they really were guilty. So he can resist looking into the case again. Neither he nor Inspector Grant is officially assigned to the case in question. It’s just human nature and the desire to get answers that drives them.

Agatha Christie’s The Thirteen Problems also shows the human tendency to want questions answered and mysteries solved. The Thirteen Problems is a collection of short stories, loosely tied together by an overarching theme. A group of people meet every Tuesday evening. At each meeting, one person describes a murder case. The others try to solve the murder. And it’s interesting to see how the human wish to impose order and have things make sense plays a role. I agree with you, fans of Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case.

Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes) introduces Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck. In the novel, he’s recently returned to work after a line-of-duty shooting that left him injured, one colleague murdered and another with permanent paralysis. Never the easiest person in the world to work with, Mørck has become even more difficult since his return. So, for several reasons, he’s given a new role: head of a new department, Department Q, which is dedicated to looking at ‘cases of special interest’ – cold cases. Mørck’s first instinct is to do as little as possible, since he’s very cynical about both the department and his appointment to it. But then one case captures the interest of his assistant, Hafaz al-Assad. Five years earlier, up-and-coming politician Merete Lynggaard when missing during a ferry trip with her brother, Uffe. The theory at the time was that she went overboard and drowned. But her body has never been found. Assad is curious about the case, since some things don’t quite add up. So he persuades his boss to re-open it and look into it more deeply. And that’s when the two discover that Merete Lynggaard might still be alive. If so, she may have very little time left.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers, the second of her novels to feature Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne. The nation is getting ready for the 30th anniversary of the South Africa Springboks’ rugby tour, which was to include matches with the New Zealand All-Blacks. At the time of The Tour, as it’s often called, apartheid was in full force in South Africa, and many people protested the Springboks’ visit. Others simply wanted to see the matches. And, of course, the police were responsible for keeping order and protecting everyone’s safety. The controversial decision to let the visit go ahead led to some real ugliness. Now, Thorne’s bosses want a new angle on the 30th anniversary story. Thorne doesn’t really think there is one at first. And in any case, she’s busy with another story. But then, one small item catches her attention. During the match, two people dressed as lambs went to the games, where they danced, made fun, and entertained the crowds. Then, they stopped attending. Thorne’s curious about what happened to The Lambs. Her curiosity is piqued even more when she learns that one of them was a professional dancer who was killed one night. Now, Thorne can’t resist looking into what really happened.

And that’s the thing about human nature. And it’s part of the reason for which people still want to know what happened to Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan. I hope we learn the real truth.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Powderfinger’s Thrilloilogy.

20 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Colin Dexter, Josephine Tey, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Paddy Richardson

You Can Run a Household*

HousekeepersWouldn’t it be wonderful to have someone to manage your household? The cleaning chores would be done, the dry cleaning would be sent out and picked up, the food would be purchased, cooked, and served, and perhaps even your household accounting would be done. That’s the life people live when they have a skilled housekeeper.

A recent comment exchange with Kathy D. and with Tim at Solitary Praxis has got me thinking about the role of housekeepers in crime fiction. And housekeepers are certainly woven through the genre. It makes sense, too, when you consider that housekeepers have been part of the social and economic structure of many societies for a long time.

In days past, of course, people of means (and even plenty of people who weren’t extremely wealthy) had household staffs (cooks, maids, drivers, nannies, and so on). The housekeeper supervised those people – not always an easy job.

We see that sort of household structure in Emily Brightwell’s historical (Victorian Era) Mrs. Jeffries series. Mrs. Jeffries serves as housekeeper to Inspector Gerald Witherspoon. In that role, she supervises his cook, maids, coachman and footman. Witherspoon also finds that Mrs. Jeffries is a very helpful ‘sounding board’ when he’s on a case. What he doesn’t know is how deliberate that is on Mrs. Jeffries’ part. She has a good relationship with her employees, who serve as her ‘eyes and ears.’ So when Witherspoon is conducting an investigation, Mrs. Jeffries gets a lot of information from her staff. After all, who pays attention to a maid? Or a coachman? Those people can hear things and see things without really being noticed.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories feature housekeepers. And it’s interesting to see how their roles evolved over time as they’re portrayed in her work. For example, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published in 1926. In that novel, wealthy manufacturing magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed one night. His stepson, Captain Ralph Paton, is the most likely suspect, but he’s gone missing, so the police can’t question him. His fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, believes he’s innocent, though, and asks Hercule Poirot (who has moved to the area) to investigate. Poirot agrees, and looks into the matter. One of the ‘people of interest’ is Ackroyd’s housekeeper, Miss Russell. She’s certainly very much in charge of the staff. But she is, if you will, a victim of the social mores of the day, and has to be very careful of what she says and does. She’s also very much aware that Ackroyd could fire her at any moment.

Things changed quickly, especially after World War II. So in 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!) (published in 1957), we see quite a different role for the housekeeper. In that novel, Miss Marple works with her friend, Elspeth McGillicuddy, to find out the truth about a murder Mrs. McGillicuddy witnessed. The body ends up at Rutherford Hall, the property of Luther Crackenthorpe, so Miss Marple needs an ‘in’ to get to know the Crackenthorpe family. For that, she relies on professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow.  Lucy is very good at her job, so she’s in demand, and basically sets her own work schedule and working conditions. The Crackenthorpe family eagerly hires her, and, technically speaking, she is an employee. But there’s no question who really runs the household and is subtly in charge.

We see that also in Barbara Neely’s novels featuring professional housekeeper Blanche White. Like other skilled housekeepers, Blanche is observant and quick-thinking, and is able to multi-task. On the surface, Blanche is an employee who can be dismissed at any time. What’s more, she is black, while many of her employers are white. This in itself puts her and her employers in different social classes in many areas. And yet, fans of this series can tell you that Blanche has her own way of being much more ‘in charge’ than many of her employers may think. They depend on her in ways they’re probably not even aware of, and they go along with her wishes without noticing it.

Sometimes it can be dangerous to be a housekeeper. Just ask Vera Pugsley, whom we meet in Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall. In that novel, TV personality Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford has decided to give up the pressures and hassles of the media, and open an antiques business with her recently-widowed mother, Iris. Everything changes, though, with one telephone call from Iris. It seems she’s suddenly moved from London to Little Dipperton, Devon, and taken the former carriage house on the grounds of Honeychurch Hall, home of the Honeychurch family. This abrupt change of plans shocks Kat, and she rushes to Devon to see what’s going on. When she gets there, she discovers that her mother has injured one of her hands in a car accident, so Kat makes plans to stay on a bit until Iris is well. It’s not long before a strange series of events starts happening. First, someone seems to be sabotaging Iris’ attempts to get settled in her new home. There’s also the matter of the disappearance of the nanny that the Honeychurch family has hired. Then, there’s a theft from Honeychurch hall – a valuable antique snuff box. Then, the Honeychurch family’s housekeeper, Vera Pugsley, is murdered. Kat gets drawn into this mystery, as well as the history of the Honeychurch family.

Of course, not all housekeepers are sleuths or victims. Some are decidedly not on the side of the angels, as the saying goes. Any fan of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca can tell you that. In that story, we follow the fortunes of Maxim de Winter’s second wife as she tries to adjust to life at Manderley, the de Winter home. One major obstacle is that the place still seems permeated by the presence of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca. And the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, does nothing to dispel that presence. In fact, she works as hard as she can to manipulate, frighten, demean, and belittle the new Mrs. de Winter. Matters are made worse by the fact that Rebecca did not die naturally.  The psychological tension in the story increases as the second Mrs. de Winter slowly discovers the truth about her husband, Rebecca, and Mrs. Danvers.

And then there’s Eunice Parchman, whom we meet in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. The wealthy and well-educated Coverdale family needs a housekeeper. So Jacqueline Coverdale advertises for the position. Eunice applies, and is hired with very little ‘vetting.’ And that proves to be disastrous. It turns out that Eunice has a secret – one she is determined that no-one will discover. When a family member accidently stumbles on that secret, the result is tragedy.

See what I mean? Housekeepers are woven into crime fiction in many different ways. Thanks, Tim and Kathy D., for the inspiration. Which fictional housekeepers have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebb’s The Grass is Always Greener.

31 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Neely, Daphne du Maurier, Emily Brightwell, Hannah Dennison, Ruth Rendell

The Lady With the Lamp, You Know She Understands*

Live-in NursesWe don’t see it as much these days, but there was a time when it wasn’t uncommon for a family to hire a live-in nurse if they had a relative who needed regular medical care. For the person with health issues, it means being cared for at home, rather than a hospital. For the family, it’s much more convenient, if they have the means. Live-in nurses get to learn a lot about a family, and they add an interesting dynamic to a household. So it makes sense that they’d find their way into crime fiction, too.

Agatha Christie chose a live-in nurse as the narrator in Murder in Mesopotamia. Famous archaeologist Dr. Eric Leidner hires Nurse Amy Leatheran to help care for his wife, Louise. They’re on a dig a few hours from Baghdad, and this is the first time Louise has joined the team. She’s been having difficulty with anxiety, and reports seeing faces at windows and hearing hands tapping and so on. Leatheran’s task will be to allay her fears and help with her anxiety. At first, things go well enough, although the atmosphere is a little tense. But Leatheran soon notices friction, carefully covered up with politeness, among some of the members of the excavation team. Then, Louise confides her reasons for being afraid: she believes that her first husband, Frederick Bosner, may be planning to kill her. According to her story, they were married for a brief time, but he was killed. It might be, though, that he didn’t die; and he’s always said that she would be his and no-one else’s. At first there doesn’t seem a whole lot of merit to that story. But one afternoon, Louise is murdered. Hercule Poirot is in the area, and is persuaded to investigate. Among other things, this novel offers a look at the life of a live-in nurse of the times. Yes, indeed, fans of Appointment With Death and of The ABC Murders. Oh, and of The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side.

In Barbara Vine’s (AKA Ruth Rendell) The Minotaur, we are introduced to Kerstin Kvist, a Swedish nurse who moves to the UK to be near her lover Mark Douglas. She’s hired by the Cosway family to look after thirty-nine-year-old John Cosway, who is said to be schizophrenic. On the surface, it looks like a good arrangement for everyone. But soon after her arrival Kvist begins to suspect that something is very badly wrong. For one thing, the family still seems to live in the Victorian Era, which is strange enough. What’s more, family matriarch Mrs. Cosway has ordered that her son be kept heavily sedated. Kvist is sure that he doesn’t need to be medicated in that way. So, bit by bit, she withdraws the medication her patient is on, but doesn’t tell anyone. That decision leads to real tragedy, which is documented in the diary that Kvist keeps.

Minette Walters’ novella The Tinder Box is the story of the murders of elderly Lavinia Fanshaw, and her live-in nurse, Dorothy Jenkins. Everyone in their village of Sowerbridge is convinced that the murderer is an Irish worker named Patrick O’Riordian.  He is duly arrested, and it seems that the case will be settled. But Siobhan Levenham, who also lives in Sowerbridge, believes that Patrick is innocent. She thinks that he’s been ‘railroaded’ because of local prejudice, and wants to clear his name. But the more she learns about the accused’s past, the more she begins to wonder what really happened. Is O’Riordian guilty? If so, what went on among him, Lavinia Fanshaw and Dorothy Jenkins? As she looks for the truth, Levenham begins to question her own thought processes.

Anne Perry’s historical series features Hester Latterly, a nurse who’s recently returned from service in the Crimean War (the series takes place in Victorian London). At first, she works in a free hospital, but she is dismissed for insubordination. She treated a patient in crisis without a doctor present, something she’s not permitted to do. After that incident, Latterly takes up a career as a private nurse, working in homes where a patient is recuperating (or, at times, is chronically ill). She meets Detective William Monk (in The Face of a Stranger) through her sister-in-law, who swears by Monk’s PI skills. As the series goes on, Latterly and Monk work together on cases, and later become partners in life as well. Among other things, this series shows the life of a private nurse shortly after Florence Nightingale’s reform efforts began to make nursing a higher-status and more skilled profession.

And then there’s James Ellroy’s historical (1950’s) novel, L.A. Confidential. The novel’s focus is three L.A.P.D. officers, each of whom gets drawn into solving the case of a group of murders at the Nite Owl Café. One of these cops is Jack Vincennes, who is acting as a technical advisor for a television show called Badge of Honor. The set designer, David Mertens, has a rare form of epilepsy, and needs regular nursing attention and medication in order to function. For that, he’s hired a live-in nurse, Jerry Marsalas, to look after his needs. Marsalas also accompanies Mertens to the studio set, to be available as needed. Without spoiling the story, I can tell you that these characters play important roles in the novel.

See what I mean? Live-in nurses have all sorts of crime-fictional jobs, from classic and Golden Age novels to modern noir, and a lot of other types besides. This is just a small dose (I know, I know, fans of Charles Todd’s Bess Crawford); which ones have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Country Joe McDonald’s Lady With the Lamp.

30 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, Minette Walters, Barbara Vine, James Ellroy, Charles Todd, Anne Perry

If a Picture Paints a Thousand Words*

Cover ArtIn yesterday’s post, I mentioned the cover of David Rosenfelt’s Unleashed. As you see, it prominently features a Unleasheddog. So do several other entries into Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter series. And the novels do include dogs (Carpenter is a dog lover and owner of an animal rescue shelter). Rosenfelt, too, is heavily involved in animal rescue. So on that level, it makes sense to feature dogs on the covers. But these novels aren’t really about dogs. They aren’t cosy mysteries in which dogs find the clues, solve the mysteries, and so on. Instead, they feature a New Jersey attorney (Andy Carpenter) who does his best for his clients.

All of this has got me thinking about the messages that crime fiction fans get from the covers of their books. After all, a cover quite frequently gives a first impression of a novel. And many people believe that a cover ought to tell something about the story (without, of course, giving away spoilers).

quite-ugly-one-morning-coverSome book covers tell almost nothing about the book. Here, for instance, is the cover of my edition of Christopher Brookmyre’s Quite Ugly One Morning. All you see here is the title and Brookmyre’s name. The novel tells the story of journalist Jack Parlabane, who unwittingly stumbles onto a murder scene, and gets himself involved in a crime that leads to some high places. The cover doesn’t show any of that. On the one hand, the title and author’s name are prominent – hard to forget. On the other, would some sort of image help draw reader attention?

There are covers that give small hints as to the story. For example, A Dark and Twisted Tidethis is the cover of my edition of Sharon Bolton’s A Dark and Twisted Tide, part of her Lacey Flint series. The vaguely hints at a river, and this novel really does feature the Thames as a main setting. And the character on the cover is a reminder of Flint herself. It’s not particularly specific, though. And many people like it that way, as they don’t want hints as to the novel’s contents.

The Holy ThiefWe also see that sort of thing in this cover of my edition of William Ryan’s The Holy Thief. The cover places the reader in Stalin’s Soviet Union. And that’s where this series takes place. It features Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev, who works with his assistant, Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka. In this novel, Korolev is assigned the murder of a young woman whose body is discovered in a former church. He’s working on this case when there’s another murder. And another. These murders have ties to the dreaded NKVD as well as to the just-as-dangerous Moscow Thieves. So solving them may cause as many problems for Korolev as not solving them would. The cover doesn’t specify the church, or give other clues as to this investigation, but it does situate the reader.

There are also book covers that give more specific clues to the mystery. This, for example, is theHickory Dickory cover of my edition of Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock. That novel takes place at a hostel for students. It involves the murder of a young woman, Celia Austin, by means of poisoned coffee. And there’s a backpack/rucksack in the novel, too. So it’s easy to see why those things are represented on the cover. And of course, since Hercule Poirot is the sleuth in this story, it makes sense that he’s pictured on the cover as well. And yet, the cover doesn’t give the story away.

cop_hater_signet

The same might be said for the cover of my edition of Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, which you see here. This novel introduces the members of the 87th Precinct, in particular Steve Carella. And the focus of the story is the investigation of two murders of police officers. This cover depicts that, as well as the hints at the fact that this isn’t a light mystery.

 

What do you think about all of this? Do you pay attention to covers? Do you look for hints about what’s inside when you see a book cover? What about those situations where the cover either doesn’t match the story, or says nothing about it? If you’re a writer, how do you go about matching your story to a good cover (if you have a say in the cover)?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bread’s If.

28 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Christopher Brookmyre, David Rosenfelt, Sharon Bolton, William Ryan