Category Archives: Agatha Christie

At Every Occasion I’ll be Ready For the Funeral*

funeralsAn interesting comment exchange with crime and true crime writer Vicky Blake has gotten me thinking about funerals. Now, before I go on, do pay a visit to Vicky’s excellent website, and try her work. You’ll be glad you did.

Right, funerals. It’s inevitable that, in crime fiction, there’d be plenty of crime-fictional funerals. After all, in a lot of crime novels, there’s at least one murder. Police and other sleuths can find those events quite useful, actually. Most people are killed by people they know. So, attending a funeral can give the police a good idea of how people react to the death in question. And that can give them important clues.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), the family of wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie gathers for his funeral. After the actual ritual, they return to the family home at Enderby, where Abernethie’s attorney, Mr. Entwhistle, prepares to read his client’s will. At that gathering, Abernethie’s youngest sister, Cora Lansquenet, blurts out that he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up. Even she tells everyone not to pay any attention to what she’s said. But privately, people do begin to wonder. And when she herself is murdered the next day, it seems clear that she was right. Mr. Entwhistle has his own concerns, and asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. As it turns out, something at that funeral gathering provides an important clue. And so does something that’s said at a later gathering, where Abernethie’s family members decide which pieces of furniture and other belongings they want.

Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances marks the debut of her sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn. In that novel, up-and-coming politician Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is poisoned one afternoon when he’s about to make an important speech at a community picnic. He was a good friend and political ally of Joanne’s so she is devastated by his death. As a way to deal with her grief, she decides to write a biography of her friend, and starts to gather material. As she does, she slowly finds out what really happened to him and why. At one point, she accompanies Boychuk’s widow, Eve, to his funeral. There’s quite a police presence there, and it doesn’t go unnoticed. The purpose is, of course, to see who attends and how the different people react. It’s an interesting look at the way police use information they get from funerals.

The real action in Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent begins with the funeral of Carolyn Polhemus. She worked as a prosecutor for (fictional) Kindle County before she was murdered. Because of her ties with that office, it’s extremely important that the investigation into her death be handled scrupulously and transparently. So Kindle County Prosecutor Raymond Horgan assigns his best deputy prosecutor, Rožat “Rusty” Sabich, to the case. At the funeral, Sabich notes how big the police presence is, and for good reason:

‘Killing a prosecutor is only one step short of killing a cop, and Carolyn had many friends on the force…’

Attending the funeral doesn’t give Sabich (or the reader) the answer to the question of who killed Carolyn Polhemus. But it’s interesting to see how the police react to this ‘(almost) one of their own’ funeral.

In Jane Casey’s The Burning, Met DC Maeve Kerrigan. Her team is investigating the case of a killer who tries to incinerate his victims. For that reason, the press has dubbed him ‘The Burning Man,’ and there’s a lot of pressure to solve the case quickly. And Kerrigan wants to be a part of the investigation. When the body of PR professional Rebecca Haworth is discovered, it’s believed at first that she was another victim of this serial killer. But Kerrigan isn’t completely sure. There are enough differences between Haworth’s murder and the others that it could also be a case of a ‘copycat’ killing. She’s put on the Haworth case, both to prove to the public that the police aren’t neglecting other cases, and to explore that lead if this is a ‘Burning Man’ killing. As a part of looking into the murder, Kerrigan attends Haworth’s funeral. There, she meets the victim’s parents and other people close to the victim. She also witnesses something that turns out to have some significance later in the novel.

Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Finger Lickin’ Dead features her sleuth, Lulu Taylor, who owns and runs Aunt Pat’s, one of Memphis’ most popular eateries. She gets drawn into a case of murder when food critic Avery Cawthorn is murdered. One of the suspects is Lulu’s friend, Evelyn Wade, so she has a personal interest in finding out the truth about the murder. And there are plenty of possibilities, too, as Cawthorn had been merciless in his criticisms, and not exactly a ‘model citizen’ in his private life, either. Several of the people involved in the case attend his funeral, and it’s interesting to see how people’s reactions to it and one another provide clues.

And that’s the thing about funerals of murder victims. As harrowing as they are for family members, they can provide interesting opportunities for the police (or other sleuths) to find out information. These are only a few examples. Your turn.

Thanks, Vicky, for the inspiration!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Band of Horses’ The Funeral.



Filed under Agatha Christie, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Jane Casey, Riley Adams, Scott Turow, Vicky Blake

To a Land of Opportunity*

immigrationOne of a country’s great strengths is arguably the talent, energy and intelligence of those who immigrate. Fresh ideas and other perspectives add richness to a country. Of course, there is no need for me to detail how difficult immigration can be. And I think we’re all familiar with the all-too-true horror stories of immigrants who’ve been mistreated or worse. There are plenty of crime fiction novels that have that motif, too.

But there are also stories of immigrants who’ve made good lives in their new homes, where both they and their adopted countries have benefited. Those stories, too, are important. And in crime fiction, they allow for all sorts of character development and plot twists, too. They also reflect reality in our world, where it’s increasingly easy to move from one country to another.

Fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot will know that he is originally from Belgium. He came to England as a result of World War I, and quite frankly, hasn’t really looked back. There are things about life in Belgium that he no doubt misses; in general, though, he is content in his adopted home. Interestingly, apart from a few characters and remarks (I know, fans of Taken at the Flood), he’s been more or less accepted. He’s most definitely a foreigner, and treated differently sometimes for that reason. But he’s been accepted.

So has Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, who immigrated to the United States from Montenegro when he was a young man. He’s become an American citizen, and has had a good experience in his new country. In fact, he’s grateful to the United States, and has done well.

One of the main characters in Anya Lipska’s series is Janusz Kiszka, who immigrated to London from his native Poland. Now he is a sort of ‘fixer’ in London’s Polish community. He knows how to get things done, whom to talk to, and so on. And he knows most of the other people in the community. So he proves to be very helpful to DC Natalie Kershaw. The two are very different, and certainly come from different cultural backgrounds. But they slowly learn to work together and trust each other. Kiszka is content with his Polish cultural identity. At the same time, though, he has no burning desire to return to Poland. His immigrant experience has been more or less a successful one, and he’s made a new life for himself in London.

We might say a similar thing about Gerda Klein, whom we meet in Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Gerda and her husband, along with their daughter Ilse, emigrated from Leipzig, in the former East Germany, when Ilse was a child. They ended up on New Zealand’s South Island, in the small town of Alexandria, and made a good life for themselves. And New Zealand has been, in the main, welcoming to them. For that, Gerda is grateful, and she’s been more than content to stay in her adopted country, even after Germany’s reunification. Ilse, though, has a different perspective. She, too, has been treated well, and has made a good life for herself (she’s a secondary school teacher). But she was a child when the family left Leipzig, and doesn’t have the troubling memories of the Stasi (the East German secret police) that her mother has. Still, she likes New Zealand, and has done a fine job teaching. Her dedication is exactly why she starts to get concerned when one of her most promising pupils, Serena Freeman, loses interest in school. When she does come to class (which isn’t often), she doesn’t participate. And she doesn’t compete much schoolwork. Ilse grows even more worried when Serena disappears. And it turns out that she and her mother will get more drawn into what happened to Serena than either imagined.

In Three Little Pigs, Apostolos Doxiadis tells the story of the Franco family, who immigrated to New York from Italy at the turn of the 20th Century. Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco started out making a living as a shoemaker. As time went on, he and his family saved their money, adopted many American ways (they even changed their last name to Frank), and began to fit in. Ben opened his own shoe repair shop and shoe store, and the family prospered. In many ways, this family began to live what some people have called ‘the American dream.’ Everything changed when Ben got into a bar fight one night and ended up killing Luigi Lupo, who, as it turns out, was the son of a well-known criminal and member of the Mob, Tonio Lupo. This Lupo cursed the family, saying that each of Ben Frank’s three sons will die at the age of forty-two, Luigi’s age when he was murdered. As we follow along with the family’s story, we see how the curse played out. We also see how that family became not Italian so much as Italian-Americans.

And then there’s Jen Shieff’s The Gentlemen’s Club. In that novel, which takes place in 1950’s Auckland, we are introduced to Istvan Ziegler. He left his native Hungary after World War II, wanting to make a new life for himself. After a stop in London, he learns that there’s work available on a new bridge at Auckland Harbour, and decides to go there. He has no family, and there’s nothing really keeping him in Europe, so he takes a chance. When he arrives in Auckland, he starts work on the bridge. There are moments when things are more difficult for him because he’s a foreigner. But in general, he’s treated fairly and shows by his hard work that he can do the job. And that’s what really matters. Istvan soon finds himself drawn into complex and dangerous situation when he helps a young girl, Judith Curran, recover from a (then illegal) abortion. It turns out that that act gets him involved in a case that uncovers some truly ugly things going on just under the surface of this seemingly peaceful city.

There are plenty of other stories of fictional characters who’ve immigrated successfully, and of their families (right, fans of Anthony Bidulka’s Russel Quant?). That plot point offers the author some interesting opportunities for character development as well as for a sense of place and culture. There’s only space for a few examples here (I know, fans of Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney and Rajiv Patel!). Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Pogues’ Thousands are Sailing.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Anthony Bidulka, Anya Lipska, Apostolos Doxiadis, Jen Shieff, Paddy Richardson, Rex Stout

Takin’ Suzy to the Church Bazaar*

social-eventsFor many people, places of worship aren’t just for prayer and ritual. They also serve an important social function. People come together at church halls, synagogues, mosques and temples for films, talks, celebrations, meals, and sometimes secular events like book sales. Even those who aren’t observant sometimes enjoy the company and the social experience.

You might argue that churches and other houses of worship used to serve a more important social function than they do now. But even today, they’re important in many communities. So it’s only natural that they show up in crime fiction, too. Whether you have a set of religious beliefs or none at all, it’s hard to deny the social role of churches and other such places.

As fans know, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple lives in the village of St. Mary Mead, where the church serves important social functions. Of course the vicar leads services on Sundays, but there are also teas, craft and artwork sales and other events. And Miss Marple makes use of them all to hear the local talk, ask questions and get to know people when they’re off their guard.

We also see that side of the local church in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, the first in her series featuring retired English teacher Myrtle Clover. Although she’s in her eighties, Myrtle has no intention of being ‘put out to pasture.’ But her son, Red, who’s the local police chief, has other ideas. He loves his mother, but he’d like to see her take her ease, watch soap operas, and fill in crossword puzzles like other retirees. He thinks he can help her along by ‘volunteering’ her to serve on the local church’s Altar Guild, as well as signing her up for the United Methodist Women’s social group. Needless to say, Myrtle isn’t happy at all about this, and comes up with a creative way to express her disapproval. Still, she goes to the church. When she gets there, she discovers the body of real-estate developer Parke Stockard. Myrtle wants to prove that she’s not ready to be shunted aside yet, so she decides to find out who killed the victim. And she soon learns that there are plenty of possibilities. Parke was both arrogant and malicious, and had made plenty of local enemies.

Churches also serve as important social support groups. For example, in John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, Carl Lee Hailey is arrested for the murders of Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard. On the one hand, he’s clearly guilty. There are witnesses, including a sheriff’s deputy who was wounded in the incident. On the other, there’s a lot of sympathy for Hailey. The two victims had recently beaten and raped his ten-year-old daughter, Tonya, and left her for dead. Plenty of people privately think they’d have done the same thing Hailey did. Still, he’s committed murder. So Hailey asks his friend, attorney Jake Brigance to defend him. In one plot thread of the novel, the Hailey family gets a lot of social, financial, and other support from their church, even from those who have very little money themselves.

Places of worship also provide a sort of cultural as well as social connection that goes beyond the ritual. We see that, for instance, in several of Tony Hillerman’s novels. His two main protagonists are Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, both of whom are Navajo, and both of whom are members of the Navajo Tribal Police. For the Navajo Nation, gathering for ritual also involves a lot of social interaction. Traditional Navajo rituals can take several days, so there are shared meals, catching up with people one hasn’t seen, and more. Many rituals are undergone in people’s homes, but there are also events at local Navajo chapter houses. Whether the occasion is a rite of passage or a secular event, it’s an opportunity to connect with people who may be otherwise very far-flung. And for Chee and Leaphorn, these gatherings offer the chance to talk to people and find out all sorts of information.

Many synagogues have social halls where people meet for book discussions, lectures, holiday parties, or to break ritual fasts together. We see those social gatherings in Faye Kellerman’s series featuring Rina Lazarus and Detective Peter Decker. For instance, in The Ritual Bath, here’s how Rina’s son Jake describes Purim (the Feast of Esther):

‘You get to dress up in a costume and the shul [synagogue] has a big Purim party after they read the megillah [the story of Queen Esther].’

The synagogue isn’t just a place for worship, although that’s an important aspect of it. It’s also a place for social gatherings and the development of a sense of community.

In Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead, we are introduced to Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty of the Community Policing Section (CPS) of the Canadian federal government. They are called in to investigate when the body of Christopher Drayton is found at the bottom of the Scarborough (Ontario) Bluffs. The CPS is generally concerned with hate crimes and community relations; so, at first, there doesn’t seem a reason for the CPS to be involved. But Khattak has learned that Drayton may actually be Dražen Krstić, a notorious war criminal who was known as the butcher of Srebrenica. If he is, then there’s an important question of how and why Canada admitted a war criminal. There is evidence that Drayton was Krstić, so one lead for Khattak and Getty is the local Bosnian mosque. In this way, they get to know a little about the members of that community. The mosque serves not just as a place for worship for them. It also serves important social and cultural purposes.

And that’s the thing about places of worship. Apart from their importance as places for religious ritual, they also serve social and cultural functions as well. And that means they can be important for fictional sleuths.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dion DiMucci’s Written on the Subway Wall/Little Star.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Faye Kellerman, John Grisham, Tony Hillerman

We Can Discover the Wonders of Nature*

natural-restorativeIf you’ve read novels featuring Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, you’ll know that she’s very fond of her garden. Admittedly, she likes the opportunity that gardening gives her to – erm – observe others. But she also likes being outdoors when the weather allows it.

She’s not alone. There’s actually credible research that suggests that we all benefit in many ways (cognitive, emotional, and more) from being in nature. In fact, research that a colleague and friend has done suggests that children learn better, have fewer mental and other health problems, and are more creative if they are out in nature. And that’s only a few of the benefits. That may be one reason so many of us were told to ‘run outdoors and play’ when we were young.

Certainly being outdoors, without electronics, can be a real restorative. So it’s not surprising that we see plenty of cases of sleuths who like their time in nature. For instance, in Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is recovering from the traumatic experience of being charged with murder (read Strong Poison for the details of that). She decides to take a break from the world by going on a hiking holiday near Wilvercombe. And at first, she does find it both relaxing and restorative. It helps her get some perspective, as nature tends to do. One afternoon, she stops to take a rest near a beach. When she wakes up, the tide is out, and she sees the body of a dead man. She alerts the authorities, who begin the investigation. The man is soon identified as Paul Alexis, a Russian-born professional dancer who works at a nearby hotel. Before long, Lord Peter Wimsey joins Vane, and together, they work to find out who would have wanted to kill the victim. It turns out that there are several possibilities.

The central focus of Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage has to do with Framhurst Great Wood, which lies near the town of Kingsmarkham. There’s a plan to run a road through the wood, and plenty of people are upset about it. And that includes Inspector Reg Wexford. He’s resigned to the development, but he’s not happy about it:

‘When I retire, he had told his wife, I want to live in London so that I can’t see the countryside destroyed.’

He’s not alone. Many people love the forest, and don’t want to see it ruined. Several activist groups arrive in the area to protest the new road, and Wexford knows there’s going to be trouble. Matters get far worse when the situation disintegrates to a hostage-taking incident. What’s more, one of the hostages is Wexford’s own wife, Dora. Then there’s a murder. Now Wexford and his team have to solve the murder as well as try to find a way to free the hostages.

Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache enjoys spending time in nature, too. In fact, in A Rule Against Murder, he and his wife, Reine-Marie, travel to the Manoir Bellechasse for an annual getaway to celebrate their anniversary. It’s a time for them to get away from it all, and at first, it’s a wonderful trip:

‘One day rolled gently into the next as the Gamaches swam in Lac Massawippi and went for leisurely walks through the fragrant woods.’

They enjoy themselves thoroughly until they begin to get to know the dysfunctional Finney family, who are also staying at the lodge. Then, there’s a murder. Now Gamache finds that his peaceful, natural retreat is anything but.

Fans of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux can tell you that, in the first novels in the series, he lives in a small, rural home on a bayou where he operates a fish dock. Later, he lives in a house that’s a little less rural, but not far away from the bayou. Robicheaux often finds peace when he simply spends time out on a lake, away from ‘it all.’ Although he’s not an eco-warrior, he understands the value of nature’s rhythms, and some of nature’s healing power. And Burke’s descriptions share that natural beauty with the reader.

Many indigenous cultures are infused with the understanding of how important a connection with nature really is. Fans of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee, or of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte can tell you that those sleuths pay very close attention to nature, and are attuned to its rhythms. They connect on a regular basis with the natural world.

So does Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest. In Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs), we learn that she spent her childhood among her mother’s Aborigine people:

‘…my little mob and I would hunt in the hills, fish in the creeks, climb the skeletal trees, scour the countryside on horses borrowed from the stock camps.’

Emily ended up being sent away to boarding school in Adelaide, but she returns to the Moonlight Downs encampment and finds a place to belong. And she reconnects in this novel and in Gunshot Road with the natural world.

Even dedicated city dwellers know how restorative it can be to take a walk in a park, listen to birds, grow plants, or sit watching the sea. For instance, there isn’t a much more determined ‘city person’ than Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. But fans know that he gets his ‘nature fix,’ too. He spends a few hours each day with his orchids. If you find that being in nature calms you and helps you focus, well, the research supports you. Little wonder we see so many fictional sleuths who know that.

Speaking of nature…just for fun, can you spot the baby lizard in the ‘photo (You can click on the ‘photo to enlarge it if you like)?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Grateful Dead’s Sugar Magnolia.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Upfield, Dorothy Sayers, James Lee Burke, Louise Penny, Rex Stout, Ruth Rendell, Tony Hillerman

Making Mischief Used to Make My Day*

mischief‘I didn’t mean any real harm.’ ‘We were only having a bit of fun.’ I’m sure you’ve heard things like this when people make mischief. And sometimes mischief is really just that: a relatively harmless prank that’s no more than annoying. You might even laugh about it (much) later. But sometimes mischief gets out of control. And when that happens, there can be real consequences.

Mischief can be an interesting plot thread in a mystery novel. It can show a little bit about characters, or even be used to misdirect in a whodunit sort of story. Once in a while it can provide some comic relief, too, depending on the sort of mischief it is. In whatever way the author uses mischief-making, it can add a layer to a story.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to investigate the sixteen-year-old murder by poison of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time, everyone thought the killer was Crale’s wife (and Carla’s mother) Caroline. She had plenty of motive, and there was enough evidence to convict her. She died in prison a year later, but Carla has always believed her mother was innocent. Poirot agrees to take the case, and interviews the five people who were present at the time of the murder. He also gets each person’s written account of the murder, and of the days leading up to it. One of those people is Carla’s aunt (and Caroline’s half-sister), Angela Warren, who lived with the Crales. At the time of the murder, she was fifteen years old, and about to be sent away to boarding school. She had an ongoing conflict with Crale about that and other things, and wasn’t above playing tricks on him. Among those tricks was putting things into his drinks. In one case, she put valerian (which has a very unpleasant taste) into his beer. And that habit makes her a possible suspect…

Peter Robinson’s Gallows View introduces readers to DCI Alan Banks. In this novel, he and his family have recently moved to the small Yorkshire town of Eastvale. And they’re not long there before Banks has to face several challenges. One of them is a voyeur who’s making life miserable for the local women. Another is a series of home invasions. Then there’s a murder. Mixed up in some of this is Trevor Sharp, a young teenager who doesn’t really fit in in school. When he gets involved with textbook-case juvenile delinquent Mick Webster, trouble soon begins. What starts out as just having some fun goes very, very wrong.

In Louise Penny’s Still Life, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is assigned to investigate the death of Jane Neal. She is a beloved former teacher who lives in the small Québec town of Three Pines. Early one Thanksgiving morning, she’s killed in what looks like a terrible hunting accident. But Gamache comes to wonder whether her death really was an accident, and begins to look into the case. As he does, he and his team get to know her background and her relationships with the other residents of Three Pines. That’s how they learn about one incident in particular. It seems that three local boys had recently played a cruel prank on bistro/B&B owners Olivier Brulé and his partner Gabriel Dubeau. Jane saw what happened and called out two of the boys by name. They might have only been making some mischief, but the incident puts them squarely in the spotlight when it comes to motives for murder.

Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle features Andreas Winthur and his best (really, only) friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. They’re not really by nature cruel or malicious. What they are is bored young people looking for some fun. One day, they’re spending time together as they usually do. As the day goes on, what starts out as ‘just some fun’ turns out very differently. At the end of it, Andreas disappears. His mother, Runi, gets concerned when he doesn’t come home, and goes to the police about it. But Oslo police detective Konrad Sejer isn’t overly worried. When more time passes, though, he begins to think something might have happened to Andreas, and looks into the matter more closely. Soon enough, he meets Zipp and asks him about what happened on that fateful day. But Zipp says as little as possible. It’s not spoiling the story to say that Zipp hasn’t killed Andreas. But he certainly knows more than he tells Sejer, at least at first. And as the story goes on, we see how far a little mischief can end up going…

Of course, not all mischief turns out so horribly. Fans of Alan Bradley’s historical (1950s) series featuring Flavia de Luce can tell you that she isn’t above making mischief. Flavia is the youngest of three sisters. Suffice it to say that the three of them certainly have their conflicts. Flavia’s two older sisters, Ophelia ‘Feely’ and Daphne ‘Daffy,’ consider her a nuisance at best, and sometimes play some very mean tricks on her. But Flavia isn’t without her resources. She’s a very skilled chemist, and uses that to her advantage. For instance, in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, she schemes to tamper with a lipstick belonging to one of her sisters. She distils the irritant in poison ivy, and puts it on the lipstick, hoping to make her sister miserable. And that bit of mischief has its own consequences.

Most mischief does, though. Playing what seems like a harmless prank can end up in laughter. But it can also have serious consequences. But don’t take my word for it. Crime fiction’ll show you.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Super Furry Animals’ Bad Behaviour.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Karin Fossum, Louise Penny, Peter Robinson