Category Archives: Agatha Christie

Pass the Biscuits, Please*

Food DescriptionsAn interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about the way food descriptions and meals fit into crime fiction. By the way, if Clothes in Books isn’t on your blog roll, you’re missing out. It’s the place for great discussions on clothes, popular culture, and what it all says about us in fiction. On the one hand, the kind of food we eat, the amount, and so on says a lot about us. So food can be used as a very effective way to develop characters. And because food is so culturally contextual, a meal can also provide cultural background too.

On the other hand, too much description of anything, food or otherwise, can overburden a story and take away from the main plot. In this, as in just about anything else in a novel, it seems that there needs to be a balance.

There are plenty of meals described in Agatha Christie’s novels and short stories. I’ll just mention one example. In Cards on the Table, the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana invites eight people to a dinner party. Four are sleuths; four are people Shaitana believes have gotten away with murder. Here’s a bit of the description of the dinner:
 

‘Poirot’s prognostication was amply justified. The dinner was delicious and its serving perfection. Subdued light, polished wood, the blue gleam of Irish glass.’
 

Interestingly enough, there’s no real discussion of the actual food. In this case, the conversation is more important. During the meal, Mr. Shaitana throws out hints about getting away with murder. One of his guests takes what he says too much to heart, and during after-dinner bridge, Mr. Shaitana is stabbed. There are only four suspects: the four people playing bridge in the room in which he was killed. So the four sleuths look into their backgrounds to find out who the killer is.  Of course, Poirot being the gourmand that he is, there are also mentions of food in the stories that feature him. But they tend not to be particularly descriptive.  In Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, Poirot travels to London on the famous Orient Express train. At one point, he and M. Bouc, who is a director of the Compagnie Internationale des  Wagon Lits, are having lunch:
 

‘Poirot sat down and soon found himself in the favoured position of being at the table which was served first and with the choicest morsels. The food, too, was unusually good.
It was not till they were eating a delicate cream cheese that M. Bouc allowed his attention to wander to matters other than nourishment.’
 

Those matters soon turn deadly when fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed.

Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series takes place in the Périgord, a region that particularly prides itself on its gastronomic culture. Bruno is the Chief of Police in the small town of St. Denis, and although he cares about his job and takes it very seriously, he certainly doesn’t forget to eat. In Bruno, Chief of Police, for instance, he works with Isabelle Perrault of the Police Nationale to solve the murder of Hamid Mustafa al-Bakr. At one point, they have a dinner picnic:
 

‘The fish were just right…She saw thin slivers of garlic that he had placed inside the belly of the trout, and he handed her half a lemon to squeeze onto the pink-white flesh, and a small side plate with potato salad studded with tiny lardons of bacon.’
 

They also have baguettes with pâté, Champagne, and some rosé. In this series, that careful attention to food really reflects the culture of the Périgord and adds to the sense of place.

Food is also an important part of life for Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano. Fans of this series will know that the novels have lots of description of delicious food. Here, for instance, is just one snippet from The Snack Thief, in which, among other things, Montalbano investigates the murder of Aurelio Lapècora, who is stabbed to death in the elevator of his apartment building. At one point, he takes a lunch break. Here’s a description of the hake he orders:
 

‘Then, eight pieces of hake arrived, enough to feed four people. They were crying out their joy – the pieces of hake, that is – at having been cooked the way God had meant them to be. One whiff was enough to convey the dish’s perfection, achieved by the right amount of breadcrumbs and the delicate balance between the anchovies and the whisked egg.’
 

Although there is quite a lot of food discussed in this series, Camilleri doesn’t go on about it for any real length of time. In this case, the food descriptions add some depth to Montalbano’s food-loving character, and they give a sense of the local culture.

It’s the same thing with Tarquin Hall’s stories featuring Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. Puri is sometimes nicknamed ‘Chubby,’ and part of the reason for that nickname is that he loves food. As he goes about his business, Hall gives readers an interesting look at the sort of food that’s popular in Delhi. Here, for instance, is a bit of a description of a meal that Puri’s wife Rumpi cooks (from The Case of the Missing Servant):
 

‘Rumpi was busy in the kitchen chopping onions and tomatoes for the bhindi. When the ingredients were ready, she added them to the already frying pods and stirred. Next, she started cooking the rotis on a round tava, expertly holding them over a naked flame so they puffed up with hot air like balloons and became nice and soft…
Presently Rumpi served him some kadi chawal, bhindi and a couple of rotis. He helped himself to the plate of sliced tomato, cucumber and red onion, over which a little chat masala had been sprinkled…’   
 

With less than a paragraph, really, Hall uses this meal to give some interesting cultural insights as well as set a homey scene. And for those who don’t know the terms, there’s a glossary in the back of the novel (at least in my edition). The real focus of these novels is the cases Puri and his team investigate; but Hall also manages to weave in some powerful food descriptions.

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant is half-Ukrainian. And although he identifies himself as Canadian, rather than Ukrainian, he enjoys traditional Ukrainian cooking. In A Flight of Aquavit, for instance, his mother Kay pays him a visit. They have their ups and downs and awkward moments, but he’s well-fed:
 

‘I comforted myself with the ultimate in Ukrainian comfort food – pierogies lightly fried in butter, garlic and onion and drowned in a rich, creamy sauce of mushrooms and dill.’  
 

Bidulka doesn’t take up page after page to describe food in this series; yet, the descriptions he does provide give character depth and an interesting cultural context to the stories.

And of course, no discussion of food descriptions in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. He is a dedicated devotee of fine food. He can be (and often is) brusque, even rude. But he knows the value of his chef Fritz Brenner, and he appreciates a properly done meal. There are many books, as Wolfe fans know, in which Fritz’ creations are mentioned, and others that include other delicious meals (Too Many Cooks comes immediately to my mind). And yet, despite the fact that Wolfe is a connoisseur of fine food, Stout keeps the focus in his stories on the plots and the characters.

And that’s the thing about descriptions of food and meals. They can provide a rich layer of character depth and cultural background. But they are best served in moderate portions. Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bobbie Genry’s Ode to Billie Joe.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Anthony Bidulka, Martin Walker, Tarquin Hall

And I Have My Say and I Draw Conclusions*

Conclusions and EvidenceMost of us make sense of what we see and draw conclusions from it without even being aware of what we’re doing. For instance, suppose you don’t see your car keys where you usually leave them. You look out the window and your car’s still there, so you conclude that no-one stole your car, and your keys must be in the house somewhere. Then you use evidence (e.g. what rooms you were in the last time you had your keys, which trousers you were wearing), and usually, you track them down. You may not be consciously aware that you’re drawing conclusions as you go, but you are.

Evidence and conclusions play huge roles in crime fiction for obvious reasons. Skilled sleuths pay attention to the evidence and use it as best they can to draw reasonable conclusions. Even more skilled sleuths know that evidence can be faked, so they look for more than just what’s obvious. And one of the biggest mistakes sleuths make is to draw conclusions that are too hasty, because they haven’t paid attention to the evidence.

The way sleuths draw conclusions is central to court cases too, since evidence is key to either prosecuting or defending an accused person. ‘S/he did it – I know it!’ simply isn’t enough for a conviction. And there are a lot of crime novels where original investigators didn’t do a good job with the evidence, so the case is re-opened.

Using that connection between evidence and conclusions as a plot point can be risky. A sleuth who doesn’t pay attention to the evidence or who draws all of the wrong conclusions can come off as bumbling, and that’s off-putting. On the other hand, a sleuth who never has to puzzle over what conclusions to draw can come off as not very credible.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is one of the most famous fictional users of evidence to draw conclusions and make deductions. Here, for instance, is his commentary on Dr. Watson when they first meet in A Study in Scarlet:
 

‘I knew you came from Afghanistan. From long habit the train of thoughts ran so swiftly through my mind, that I arrived at the conclusion without being conscious of intermediate steps. There were such steps, however. The train of reasoning ran, ‘Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.’ The whole train of thought did not occupy a second. I then remarked that you came from Afghanistan, and you were astonished.’
 

In fact, Holmes and his creator had little patience for sudden flashes of intuition.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is very interested in psychology, and draws conclusions from psychological evidence as well as physical evidence. And it’s interesting to see how he draws conclusions when the physical and psychological evidence are at odds. That’s what happens, for instance in Dead Man’s Mirror. Poirot is summoned to the home of Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore, who believes he’s being cheated by someone in his inner circle. Very shortly after Poirot arrives, Chevenix-Gore is dead, apparently by suicide (there’s even a suicide note). And at first, that’s what everyone believes, since the physical evidence (locked study door, etc.) suggest it. But to Poirot, someone as self-important as Gervase Chevenix-Gore would simply not believe that the world could get along without him. He wouldn’t commit suicide. So Poirot looks more carefully at the physical evidence and discovers that there are some pieces that don’t add up to suicide either. And that’s how he draws the conclusion that Chevenix-Gore was murdered.

In Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest is part of a team that investigates the murder of geologist/prospector Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins. He was stabbed in his hut not very long after a drunken pub quarrel with John ‘Wireless’ Petherbridge. And the obvious evidence is very strong that Wireless is the killer. So Tempest’s boss Bruce Cockburn draws the very reasonable conclusion that Wireless is the man they want, and is ready to wrap up the case quickly. Tempest notices other evidence though – evidence from nature – and begins to suspect that Wireless may be innocent. So she begins to ask questions. In this novel, there’s an interesting debate between the evidence that comes from things such as bloodstains, wounds and so on, and the evidence that’s more psychological and intuitive. And as it turns out, depending on just the one or the other leads to the wrong conclusions. Fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte will know that he too relies on ‘the Book of the Bush’ – evidence from nature – to draw conclusions, and that he often looks beyond the actual physical evidence that he sees.

Sometimes, it’s hard to draw solid conclusions at first, because a fictional death looks so much like a suicide or accident. For example, in Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel are taking a much-needed getaway break at Krabi, on the Thai coast. During their visit, they take a tour that’s led by a guide named Pla. That personal connection is one reason why both are very upset when they learn that Pla’s body has been found washed up in a cave. They decide to take a few extra days to see if they can find out what happened to her. The police report suggests that the victim died by accident or perhaps committed suicide by drowning. It’s not an unreasonable conclusion, and there isn’t very much physical evidence to suggest otherwise. But Keeney isn’t so sure. For one thing, she knows that Pla was an expert swimmer. So although it’s not impossible, an accident is unlikely. And nothing she learns suggests that Pla was despondent enough to kill herself. So Keeney starts asking questions. In the end, she finds that the truth is very different to what it seems on the surface. But at the same time, it’s easy to see why the police would draw the conclusions they did. If you don’t pay attention to those small bits of evidence, it’s very hard to work out whether someone drowned by accident, suicide or murder.

In Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss, Göteborg police inspector Irene Huss and the other members of the Violent Crimes Unit are faced with a puzzling case. Successful entrepreneur Richard von Knecht jumps from the balcony of the penthouse where he and his wife Sylvia live. At first the case looks very much like a suicide. It’s a reasonable conclusion, and anyone might have a hidden motive for that. But the police pay attention to other pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise. For one thing, the victim had acrophobia. If he was going to kill himself, it seems odd that he’d have chosen that method. For another, there is some forensic evidence that points to murder. So the team has to look at this case in an entirely new way.

And that’s the thing about drawing crime-fictional conclusions. It’s natural and human to draw conclusions from what we see. That’s how we make sense of our world. And those details and pieces of evidence that sleuths see are critical to drawing conclusions. That’s not always as easy to do as it seems, but the way sleuths go from details/evidence to conclusions is an important part of an investigation.

ps. Just to see how this works, what conclusions do you draw from the evidence in the ‘photo? ;-)

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Helene Tursten

It’s Curtain Time and Away We Go!*

Stage AdaptationsIn Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings run into several difficulties and obstacles as they work to solve the murder of wealthy Miss Emily Arundell. One evening, Hastings suggests that they take a break from the case and go to a play, and Poirot enthusiastically agrees. The evening goes well enough, except that Hastings admits he’s made one mistake: taking Poirot to a crook play.
 

‘There is one piece of advice I offer to all my readers. Never take a soldier to a military play, a sailor to a naval play, a Scotsman to a Scottish play, a detective to a thriller – and an actor to any play whatsoever!’
 

And yet, crime fiction fans do enjoy going to mystery/thriller plays. Sometimes they’re adaptations of novels or short stories. Sometimes they’re originally written as plays. Other times they’re ‘audience participation’ plays. In any case, they’re popular.

Adapting a story for the different media (print, film, theatre) isn’t always easy. But there’ve been many stories that have made their way from print to stage (or vice versa). And it’s interesting to see how they’re adapted. Here are just a few examples.

Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger is the story of Ellen and Robert Bunting, a couple who spent several years ‘in service,’ and have now retired. As a way to earn income, they’ve opened their home to lodgers, but so far, haven’t been overly successful. Then, a mysterious stranger who calls himself Mr. Sleuth takes a room. He’s a little odd; but at first it seems like a fine arrangement. He’s quiet, pays promptly, and so on. Bit by bit though, the Buntings begin to suspect that something might be very wrong. Could Mr. Sleuth somehow be connected to a series of murders committed by a man who calls himself The Avenger? On the one hand, the Buntings depend on the income from their lodger. On the other, if he does have something to do with the Avenger killings, they should inform the police. It’s an interesting psychological study which was adapted for the stage in 1916 as Who is He?

Edgar Wallace adapted his own novel The Gaunt Stranger as a play that he called The Ringer. He later edited the original novel and re-released it with the same name as the play. In the story, Henry Arthur Milton, who calls himself ‘The Ringer,’ is a vigilante who’s gone into hiding in Australia. Then he learns that his sister Gwenda has been found dead, and returns to London to avenge her. He targets the man he blames; and of course, Scotland Yard can’t support ‘vigilante justice,’ so they’ll have to find The Ringer before he can take justice into his own hands. The major problem is, he’s very good at disguising himself – so good that no-one knows what he looks like. You can find out lots more about this story in a really interesting post by Sergio at Tipping My Fedora. And you’ll want that excellent blog on your blog roll anyway – it’s the source for classic crime novels and film adaptations.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories have been adapted for the stage. The Mousetrap, for instance, has been running continuously since 1952. It had its origin in a short story (which was based on a radio play!) called Three Blind Mice. There’s also The Yellow Iris, which began as a short story in which Rosemary Barton dies of cyanide poisoning during a dinner party. It’s believed her death is suicide, but her widower George says otherwise. A year later, he stages another dinner party with the same people to see if he can catch the killer. Interestingly enough, Christie also developed this into the novel Sparkling Cyanide, ‘though she changed both the sleuth and the murderer.

James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice is the story of Frank Chambers and Cora Papadakis, who meet when Frank, who’s a drifter, ends up working in the diner owned by Cora and her husband Nick.  Frank and Cora begin an affair that ends up having disastrous results when they decide to get rid of Nick. Originally, this was written as a short novel, but it’s been adapted several times for film, and twice (that I’m aware of) for the stage: in 2005 in London’s West End, and in 2008 in Moscow.

And then there’s Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon, the last Lord Peter Wimsey novel she completed. In the novel, Wimsey and Harriet Vane have finally married. But trouble starts when they travel to Tallboys, the country home Wimsey’s bought for his bride, and they place they intend to spend their honeymoon. When the body of the house’s former owner is found in the basement, the wedding couple have a new mystery to solve. This story had its origins in a 1936 play that Sayers co-wrote, and was later adapted as a full-length novel.

Ruth Rendell’s An Unkindness of Ravens is the thirteenth in her Reg Wexford series. In the novel, Wexford agrees to look into the disappearance of Rodney Williams. At first he’s not overly concerned about the man. All indications are that he’d run off with another woman – not exactly ‘upstanding,’ but not really a police matter. Then, Williams’ suitcase and car are found. Later, his body is discovered. Then there’s another stabbing. It’s now clear that this is more than just a case of a man who treated his wife badly. While not as well-known as some other stage adaptations are, this novel has been adapted as a play.

And I don’t think I could do a post about crime novels and the theatre without mentioning Ngaio Marsh, whose career was so heavily influenced by her work on and behind the stage. Many of her stories feature plays, stage settings and so on.

There’s just something about seeing a crime story played out on the stage. There are some nuances that it’s much harder to get across in print than ‘live.’ So it’s little wonder that so many crime novels either had their start as plays or have been adapted for that media. Which ones have you enjoyed?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Cole Porter’s Another Op’nin’ Another Show.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Edgar Wallace, James M. Cain, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Ngaio Marsh, Ruth Rendell

As They Would Mingle With the Good People We Meet*

Social SkillsIn today’s world of social media and electronic communication, we can be in contact instantly with people all over the world. I think most of us would agree that that can be a very good thing. But there are also some studies that raise the question of what happens to people’s face-to-face social skills when they focus a lot on social media. And any crime fiction fan can tell you that social skills – the ability to mingle with different kinds of people – are very important for sleuths.

The social skills one needs to make appropriate eye contact, ‘read’ people’s expressions and so on allow the sleuth to find out valuable information. What’s more, those social skills give the sleuth the background to make sense of what people say (and don’t say) and what their non-verbals mean. It’s harder for people with few social skills to work those things out, even if they are highly intelligent.

There are some fictional sleuths who are very effective ‘minglers.’ They’re good at getting people to talk to them and they’re good at making sense of people’s non-verbals. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is one of them. To most of the English people with whom he interacts, Poirot is most emphatically a foreigner. But he has the ability to mix and mingle with all sorts of different kinds of people, including people from different social classes. We see that for instance in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air). In that novel, Poirot travels by air from Paris to London. One of his fellow passengers is Marie Morisot, a French moneylender who goes by the name of Madame Giselle. When she is poisoned en route, Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who the killer is. He interacts with several different kinds of people during that investigation, including Madame Giselle’s maid Elise Grandier and Venetia Kerr, who is ‘well born.’ He has a knack of getting the various characters to talk to him, and the skills to ‘read’ what they say. And that information helps him get to the truth. I know, I know, fans of Death on the Nile.

Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte has solid social skills too. He is a member of the Queensland Police, so he’s sent to a wide variety of different places, and has to interview all sorts of people in the course of his work. Since Bony is bi-cultural (half Aboriginal/half White), he frequently works with both Whites and Aboriginal people as he investigates. And he has the skills to get people to talk to him no matter their background. In stories such as The Bone is Pointed and The Bushman Who Came Back, he gets ranch hands to trust him at the same time as he mingles effectively with Aboriginal people who give him information. And in some stories, he gets children to trust him, too (Death of a Swagman is an example of that). Bony certainly depends on what he calls ‘the Book of the Bush’ – clues in nature – to help him solve crimes. But he also depends on his social skills. I’m not sure he’d be able to find out as much just using a social media application…

Social skills are important in the PI business, but they aren’t a ‘strong suit’ for Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. That’s where Archie Goodwin comes in. He does do a lot of the ‘legwork’ for Wolfe. But he also does his share of mingling with other people and getting a sense of them. Wolfe doesn’t always like to admit it, but he depends on Goodwin’s social skills, since he himself is almost never willing to use tact or diplomacy. It’s part of what makes that pair a formidable team. Wolfe has the brilliance (‘though Goodwin is no mental slouch) and Goodwin has the ‘people skills.’

Journalists often find that the better their social skills, the more information they get. Certainly that’s true for Lilian Jackson Braun’s James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. After a career in big-city news reporting, he’s ended up in Pickax, a small town in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ He’s got a way of getting all kinds of people to talk to him; and even though he prefers to live alone, he’s got solid social skills. Part of his local appeal comes from his fame as a newspaper columnist. But people do naturally seem to trust him and he’s good at ‘reading’ them, for the most part. And that’s how he often gets people to confide in him.

And then there’s Teresa Solana’s Barcelona PI Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez. Borja and his brother Eduard are in many ways a study in contrasts, although they’re fraternal twins. Where his brother is more reserved, Borja is outgoing, even gregarious at times. He mixes with all sorts of people, and his social skills are considerable. Those skills are often key to getting new clients for the business. For instance, in A Not So Perfect Crime, Borja uses his ability with people to engage Lluís Font, a Member of the Parliament of Catalonia, as a client. Font believes that his wife Lília is unfaithful, and he wants the brothers to find out if that’s true. They take the case and for a week, they follow her movements and find out what they can about her. But there is no evidence that she’s seeing anyone. Then one evening, she is poisoned. Now Font is the prime suspect in her murder. He asks the Martínez brothers to continue working for him and clear his name. Although they’ve never worked a murder case before, they take this one, and it’s soon clear that more than one person might have had a motive. Throughout the novel, there are situations that Borja manages to negotiate because of his social skills.

There are certainly famous fictional sleuths who are not, as the saying goes, good with people. But for a sleuth to get information, it’s useful to have the kinds of social skills needed to make people feel comfortable. It does make one wonder what will happen to fictional detectives as social media and electronic devices continue to be really popular.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Marley’s No Woman No Cry.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Upfield, Lilian Jackson Braun, Rex Stout, Teresa Solana

I Found an Old Letter*

Old LettersIn today’s world of email, texting and social media, many people don’t write letters any more. But there was a time, and it wasn’t too many decades ago, when letters were the main form of communication, even for people who lived in the same town. And they were absolutely critical for those who lived at any distance.

Old letters can be treasure troves for historians, genealogists and anthropologists, among other professionals. They convey the story of an era at a very personal level. They can also be rich resources for those who are looking into their own family’s history. If you’ve ever gotten to read a letter that one of your great-greats wrote, you know what I mean. So it’s little wonder that old letters play important roles in crime fiction too. There are many, many examples; I just have space for a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, Elinor Carlisle is charged with the poisoning murder of Mary Gerrard. There’s good reason to suspect her too. For one thing, Elinor’s former fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman is infatuated with Mary; in fact, his feelings for Mary are an important part of what broke the couple up. For another thing, Elinor’s wealthy Aunt Laura Welman was planning to leave at least part of her considerable fortune to Mary, of whom she’d become quite fond. She might even have cut Elinor out of the will completely if enough time had gone by. But local GP Peter Lord wants Elinor’s name cleared. He’s fallen in love with her and is determined to see her acquitted. So he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot agrees and looks into the matter. He finds that in this case, past relationships and interactions have everything to do with Mary’s murder. And an old letter has an important role to play. I know, I know, fans of Five Little Pigs

The real action in Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo begins when a body surfaces in a bog near the Lake District town of Fellhead. It’s not long before talk begins to spread that the body is that of Fletcher Christian, of H.M.S. Bounty fame. The story is that Christian did not die on Pitcairn Island, as has always been supposed. Instead, he made his way back to his native Lake District. If that’s the case, then what would be more likely than that he would have re-connected with his longtime friend William Wordsworth? And if he did, then it’s likely Wordsworth would have written about it. Wordsworth scholar Jane Gresham is hoping exactly that. There’ve been stories for quite some time about an unpublished Wordsworth manuscript; the appearance of what could be Christian’s body lends credence to them. So Gresham travels to Fellhead, which is home to her, to try to trace the manuscript, if there is one. She’s up against several obstacles, since she’s by no means the only one desperate to get that manuscript. Besides that, even if she does find it, she’ll need to persuade whoever has it to give it up. Then, one of the people whom Gresham interviews about the manuscript suddenly dies. Then there’s another death. Now it looks as though Gresham may be mixed up in a case of multiple murder. Woven throughout this story is a series of old letters bearing on the case. And in fact, those old letters play a role in finding out the truth about what happened to the manuscript.

Steve Robinson’s In the Blood introduces readers to genealogist Jefferson Tayte. Successful Boston businessman Walter Sloane hires Tayte to trace his wife’s ancestry and Tayte beings work on the project. The trail leads to the Fairborne family. One branch of that family settled in the American South. The other went to England with a group of Loyalists in 1783. Tayte follows that lead to England to find out what happened to those Fairbornes. In the process of searching for the truth, he makes the surprising discovery that some members of the family seem to have disappeared, with no records of their deaths. As Tayte is looking into that mystery, Amy Fallon has a mystery of her own to solve. Her husband Gabriel died two years ago when he was lost in a storm. Just before his death, he told Amy that he’d discovered a secret about their house. He never got the chance to tell her what it was though. Now, construction on the home has revealed a hidden staircase and basement. In that room, Amy’s discovered a very old writing box containing a love letter. That letter proves to be crucial to figuring out the truth about the Fairborne family.

In L.R. Wright’s The Suspect, RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg is up against a challenging case. Eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke has been murdered, and there don’t seem at first to be many clues. The murder was reported by eighty-year-old George Wilcox, who says he stopped by Burke’s home, only to find him dead. Alberg isn’t convinced by this, but he has no real evidence, and there seems no motive. And yet, the more he learns about the case, the more convinced he is that Wilcox is the murderer. As it turns out, a group of old letters is the key to this mystery, and plays an important role in it.

Sometimes, old letters have value because they were written to or by someone who’s become famous. That’s the case in Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters. Meredith Winterbottom lives with her two sisters Eleanor Harper and Peg Blythe in a unique part of London called Jerusalem Lane. A big development company wants to buy up Jerusalem Lane to make a shopping and entertainment district, but Meredith refuses. Then one day she is found dead. DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla investigate the death, which looks at first like a suicide. But Kolla’s not so sure. So she begins to look into the matter more closely. There’s no lack of suspects, either. The victim was the only resident of Jerusalem Lane who didn’t agree to sell up to the development company, and her unwillingness was costing money and holding up the plans. Just as interesting is the fact that the three sisters are great-granddaughters of Karl Marx, who lived in the Jerusalem Lane area for a time. They’ve got a collection of old notes and letters that could potentially be very valuable. And as Kolla and Brock get closer to the truth, we see the role that those old letters play in this case.

And then there’s Dawn Harris’ Letter From a Dead Man, which takes place in 1793. Lady Drusilla lives on the Isle of Wight with her Aunt Thirza and cousin Lucie. Lucie is set to marry Giles Saxborough, whose father Cuthbert is Lady Drusilla’s godfather. Everything changes one day when Cuthbert Saxborough dies in what looks like a terrible riding accident.  Lady Drusilla thinks it’s very odd, since her godfather was an expert horseman. But she’s soon distracted by a suspected case of smuggling. Then, tragedy strikes again when Giles’ brother Thomas and his son Tom are killed in a yachting accident. Two accidents are too many for Lady Drusilla, who begins to investigate more thoroughly. As it turns out, the truth about the murders has to do with the past, and some important clues are to be found in some letters that have been kept for sentimental reasons…

And that’s the thing about actual letters. Much more often than emails, they’re kept for all sorts of reasons. And they can provide rich information on a place and time, a family, a person, or a murder.

 

 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Comsat Angels’ Not a Word.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Barry Maitland, Dawn Harris, L.R. Wright, Steve Robinson, Val McDermid