Category Archives: Alexander McCall Smith

The Pinkertons Pulled Out My Bags*

detective-agenciesPlenty of PIs, both real and fictional, work alone or with just one partner. There are some advantages to that, too, if you think about it. One of the biggest advantages is the flexibility (since the PI can choose which cases to take, what hours to work, and so on). And the lone PI doesn’t have to share the profits with anyone. So, it’s easy to see why a detective might want to go it alone.

It’s not all roses, though, as the saying goes. A lone PI can’t cover as many cases as an agency can. And an agency, complete with a staff, often has more resources, both financial and in terms of people. There’s also the possibility that a client might prefer to work with an agency, rather than just one PI, or a PI partnership. So, quite a number of PIs belong to an agency, at least at first.

One of the most famous of all detective agencies is Pinkerton’s (The Pinkerton National Detective Agency), originally founded in the US by Scottish immigrant Allan Pinkerton. It’s still in operation, although it’s now a subsidiary of another firm. Pinkerton’s plays an important role in K.B. Owen’s historical (end of the 19th Century) Concordia Wells series. Concordia is a teacher at Hartford Women’s College. She’s also an amateur detective. One of her friends (and a former mentor) is Penelope Hamilton, who is a Pinkerton’s agent. In fact, in Unseemly Haste, Concordia gets involved in one of Penelope’s cases as she travels across the country to visit her aunt. Agencies such as Pinkerton’s were very popular in the days before the FBI and other federal agencies changed the landscape of nationwide criminal investigation.

In Dashiell Hammett’s short story Fly Paper, Major Waldo Hambleton hires the Continental Detective Agency to find his daughter, Sue, who has cut off all contact with her family. She’s reportedly been mixed up with some very shady people, so Hambleton wants to be sure that she’s all right. Then, he gets a letter from Sue, asking for money. He has the agency send a representative to the address she gave – an address that belongs to Joseph ‘Holy Joe’ Wales, whom Sue has been seeing. She’s also been involved with a thug named ‘Babe’ McCloor. When the detective finally finds Sue’s own place, it’s too late: she’s dead of arsenic poisoning. Now this missing person case has become a case of murder – or perhaps suicide…

Fans of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone will know that she trained as a private investigator. At first, she worked as a police officer, but two years was enough to show her that police life wasn’t for her. Then, she worked for a detective agency for a short time, while she learned the ropes. After that, as happens with many PIs, she decided to hang out her own shingle. For Kinsey, the independence and flexibility of having her own agency is worth much more than the security that belonging to a larger agency might provide.

In Dick Francis’ Odds Against, we are introduced to Sid Halley. He’s a former jockey whose career was ended when his left hand was severely damaged in a racing accident. Not sure where to go or what to do after that, he got a job at Hunt Radnor Associates, a large detective agency. He worked there for two years until he was shot by a suspect in an investigation. His father-in-law (later ex father-in-law) Charles Roland can see that Halley is floundering, and offers him a way out. He wants Halley to investigate Howard Kraye, a shady businessman who Roland suspects is trying to take over his Seabury Racecourse. Halley agrees, and embarks on a new career as a racetrack investigator.

Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri is the owner of a well-respected Delhi agency, Most Private Investigators, Ltd. Although he’s the head of the agency, he depends crucially on the members of his team. Each of them has special skills and backgrounds that help the agency. There’s Tube Light, his head investigator, who has a special knack with computers. Facecream is a valuable member of the team who can blend in anywhere she goes. She often does undercover work. And there’s Flush, so called because his was the first house in his village to have indoor plumbing. And of course, Puri couldn’t get very far without Handbrake, his driver. Handbrake knows how to blend in with other drivers, street vendors and so on, which helps him get information.

While we often think of PI characters as ‘lone wolves’ – and many are – there are plenty who don’t work alone. Some work with just one partner (like Betty Webb’s Lena Jones). Others are slowly building (like Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe). But there are lots who work for a bigger agency. It’s not a bad choice, especially if you’re new to the field and don’t have your own reputation yet. Or if you haven’t (yet) got the funds to set up for yourself. Which fictional larger agencies have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s Ballad of a Well-Known Gun.

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Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Betty Webb, Dashiell Hammett, Dick Francis, K.B. Owen, Sue Grafton, Tarquin Hall

And When the Morning Light Comes Streamin’ In, I’ll Get Up and Do It Again*

everydaytasksWhat do you do when you’ve been hit with a major stressor? It could be a serious illness (or worse, a death) in the family, a job loss, a move (even a positive move), or something else. After all, food still needs to be bought and cooked, the mortgage still comes due, and the kids still need to get to school. Sometimes, concentrating on those ordinary, everyday tasks like doing the dishes and walking the dog can help give structure until life starts to feel a little more settled again.

If you’ve been through a traumatic experience, you may have found that doing those everyday things can help you feel a little, well, normal. And that can help you cope. We see a lot of that cooping strategy in crime fiction, and that makes sense. The genre is full of characters who have to face the worse trauma of their lives.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), the Angkatell family faces a tragedy when a weekend houseguest is murdered. Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife, Gerda, spend the weekend at the Angkatell’s country home. On the Sunday afternoon, he is shot. Hercule Poirot has been invited to lunch that day, and he arrives just after the incident. He and Inspector Grange work to find out who shot the victim and why. Shortly after the police arrive, Lady Lucy Angkatell makes what seems like a heartless comment about serving lunch. But in a way, it’s not heartless at all. Here’s what another guest thinks about it:
 

‘One did remember the servants, and worry about meals. One did, even, feel hungry.’
 

And somehow, those ‘normal’ things work to keep everyone going as the police investigation continues.

Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger takes place mostly in the context of Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for wartime (WWII) use. One day, postman Joseph Higgins is brought in with a fractured femur. It’s a routine operation, but not without risks. Still, nobody expects him to die. And yet, that’s exactly what happens. Higgins’ death during surgery is put down to a tragic freak incident. Inspector Cockrill of the Kent Police investigates, presumably just to ‘rubber stamp’ the official theory of a tragic accident. But it’s not long before questions come up. For one thing, Higgins’ wife insists that he was murdered. Then one night, a nurse, Sister Marion Bates, has too much to drink at a party, and blurts out that Higgins was killed, and she knows how it happened. Later that night she is murdered. Now it’s clear that something sinister is going on, and Cockrill changes the nature of his investigation. The closer he gets to the truth, the more his interest starts to focus on six people in particular, all of whom are employees of the hospital. Despite the fact that there’ve been two murders, and the others are under suspicion, everyone has to go about normal duties. And there are their own daily routines. Those mundane tasks form an interesting counterpoint to the suspicion and suspense of the investigation.

In Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, we are introduced to academic and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn. As a widowed mother of three (in this novel), she’s been trying to put the pieces of her life back together since the murder of her husband, Ian. He was killed when he stopped to help two young people who were stranded by car trouble. When he refused to take them to a party, one of them murdered him. Just when Joanne thinks that life is moving along again, her friend and political ally Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is murdered by what turns out to be poison. It’s a bit like reliving Ian’s murder in some ways, so the Kilbourn family’s fragile stability is rocked. Still, they muddle along, and Joanne decides to write a biography of her friend as a way of coping. That choice ends up being very dangerous for her as she gets closer to the truth about Andy’s death. At one point, an old friend of the family stops by for breakfast, bringing fresh corn:
 

‘I made coffee.  Howard cooked the corn, and it was wonderful, indescribably delicate and sweet… It was an oddly comforting meal…’
 

Just the routine of making and eating a meal together helps Joanne deal with the events of the novel.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe knows that sometimes, those little ‘normal’ tasks can help people focus and cope, so that she can help them. It’s partly for that reason that, when she meets with a new client, she often settles her guest with a cup of bush tea and sometimes cake before getting down to business. Politeness is part of it, too, of course; but those everyday, ‘normal’ things do help her clients come to terms with what’s happened in their lives.

And then there’s Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. In that novel, Joanna Lindsay and her partner, Alistair Robertson, travel from her native Scotland to his home in Victoria. With them is their nine-week-old son, Noah. After they land, they begin a long drive from the airport to their destination. Along the way, they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of baby Noah. A massive search gets underway, and the media outlets are very sympathetic at first. But then questions begin to arise. What really happened to Noah? Did one (or both) of his parents have something to do with his disappearance?  It’s all harrowing, especially for Joanna. She finds it hard to concentrate, and the media scrutiny doesn’t make it any easier. At one point, Alistair recommends that she take a walk to the shops, and maybe make something in the kitchen, to keep herself busy:
 

‘She Googled the jam recipe and set to: washing and boiling the berries, draining the misty pink juice through muslin, adding sugar and lemon, boiling, removing scum, waiting for it to set.’
 

The rhythm of that ‘normal’ sort of task doesn’t make Joanna feel a whole lot better. And it certainly doesn’t take away the fact that Noah is gone. But it’s the sort of mindless task that helps a person feel normal.

And that’s the thing about such everyday tasks. They can help a person connect with normal, whatever that is, during the coping process. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to take out some trash and then walk the dogs.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jackson Browne’s The Pretender.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Christianna Brand, Gail Bowen, Helen Fitzgerald

Let’s Go Down to the Big Ranch*

RanchesIf you live in suburbia or in a city, you might not think a lot about what it takes to get your milk, cheese, and meat (for those who eat meat) to market. It’s not an easy process. Cattle and sheep ranching are expensive undertakings that require a lot of land, luck with the weather, and hard work. Even with today’s technology, ranching still means long days, especially when calves and lambs are born. It’s not a life for everyone, but it keeps the rancher close to the land.

Ranching is a central part of the economy for many cultures, and it’s certainly found its way into crime fiction. That makes sense, too. As we’ll see, there are lots of places to hide a body on a ranch, and anything can happen there.

In Ngaio Marsh’s Died in the Wool, for instance, New Zealand MP Flossie Rubrick is preparing an important speech that she’s scheduled to deliver. So she goes to an isolated sheep pen on her husband’s ranch to prepare. She doesn’t return, though, until three weeks later, when her body is found inside a bale of wool. The victim’s nephew writes to Scotland Yard’s Inspector Roderick Alleyn about the death; and, since this might be a matter of national security, Alleyn travels to New Zealand to investigate. In the end, the murder turns out to be related to an important secret that Flossie Rubrick had found out about one of her family members.

More than one of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Boney’ Bonaparte novels are set on ranches. In The Bushman Who Came Back, for instance, Bony is sent to Mt. Eden, a ranch belonging to Mr. Wooten. Wooten’s widowed housekeeper, Mrs. Bell, is shot one morning, and her seven-year-old daughter Linda disappears. Fearing the worst about Linda, the ranch hands go on a search, and Bony starts to sift through the evidence. On the surface, it looks as though a bushman named Ol’ Fren Yorky was responsible both for the murder and for abducting Linda. No-one wants to believe this of him, since he’s well liked. But the evidence is what it is. Still, the more that Bony learns about the case, the more he comes to believe in Yorky’s innocence. But if he is innocent, then where is Linda? Now, Bony has to go in search of both Yorky and Linda to find out the truth. You’re absolutely right, fans of The Bone is Pointed.

Even Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, who normally wouldn’t dream of leaving his brownstone home, let alone New York City, visits a ranch in Death of a Dude. Wolfe’s partner Archie Goodwin has accepted an invitation from Lily Rowan to be part of a house party at her ranch in rural Montana. Goodwin’s plan is to have a short visit with Lily and then return to New York. Everything changes, though, when Philip Brodell is shot, and Lily’s ranch manager, Roger Dunning, is accused of the crime. Lily is sure he is innocent, and wants Goodwin (and, by extension, Wolfe) to solve the murder. When Goodwin writes to Wolfe to explain why he’s changed his travel plans, Wolfe takes an interest in the case and makes the unusual decision to travel to Montana.

Steve Hockensmith has created an interesting historical (early 1890s) series whose protagonists are Gustav ‘Old Red’ Amlingmeyer and his brother Otto ‘Big Red.’ At the beginning of the series (Holmes on the Range) they are cowpokes who sign on to work at the Bar VR Ranch in Montana. They know that life as ranch hands isn’t going to be luxurious, but they’ll be able to indulge their pastime of reading Sherlock Holmes stories. Then, a ranch hand dies of a gunshot wound. Another dies after being trampled (but there was no cattle stampede that anyone can remember). Now, Old Red decides to use his ‘deducifyin’’ skills to find out the truth – just like Sherlock Holmes.

The Lone Elk Ranch is the scene for much of the action in Craig Johnson’s Dry Bones. It all starts when a large Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton nicknamed ‘Jen’ is discovered on the ranch. This is a very valuable find, both for the local museum and for science, and there are lots of people who want their hands on it. With stakes in the millions, there are plenty of suspects when the ranch’s owner, a member of the Cheyenne Nation named Danny Lone Elk, is found dead. Sheriff Walt Longmire (now Acting Deputy Attorney for Wyoming) looks into the matter to find out how and why Danny was killed.

And I couldn’t really do a post on cattle and ranching without mentioning Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe. Fans will tell you that she got her start as Botswana’s first lady detective because her father, Obed, had a keen eye for cattle and owned a fine herd. When he passed away, the cattle went to his daughter, and it’s meant a great deal to her to have that security.

There are a lot of other novels that take place on cattle and sheep ranches. They really are effective contexts for a crime story if you think about it. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Los Lobos’ The Big Ranch. 

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Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Arthur Upfield, Craig Johnson, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout, Steve Hockensmith

What You Need is Some Fresh Publicity*

Publicity StuntsThere are plenty of times when people want to call as little attention to themselves as possible. That’s especially true if one is by nature a private person, or the matter is something personal, and one doesn’t want it getting around. But there are also times when publicity is exactly what’s needed. Whether it’s to sell a company’s product, tout a particular political candidate, or boost a particular cause, publicity can be very helpful. So, sometimes, people or companies do publicity stunts to call attention to themselves.

I don’t have to tell you how often that happens in real life. And it happens in crime fiction, too. Space only permits me to share a few examples; I know you will think of many more.

Agatha Christie took part in a publicity stunt to boost tourism on the Isle of Man. She wrote a short story called Manx Gold, in which engaged couple Fenella Mylecharane and Juan Faraker take part in a scavenger hunt to find treasure that’s buried on the island. It seems that Fenella’s eccentric Uncle Myles has stipulated in his will that the treasure goes to whichever of his potential heirs finds it first. Each competitor gets the same clues, and soon enough, it’s clear that someone is willing to kill to win. The story was linked to an actual competition on the island. Four identical snuffboxes filled with Manx half-pennies were hidden at various places on the island. The story, which was printed in instalments, provided clues to those boxes. Anyone who could find all four snuffboxes would win £100. Interestingly, no-one ever claimed the prize.

Hollywood is well-known for publicity stunts, and that’s exactly what happens in Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts. Queen is working temporarily at Magna Studios, where he’s doing some screenwriting on a biopic of famous stars John Royle and Blythe Stuart. The couple had a famous, very public, very stormy romance that ended bitterly. Each then married someone else, and each now has an adult child. Now, Magna wants to reunite the couple for the film. To everyone’s surprise, they agree. What’s more, they rekindle their romance, and decide to get married. So, rather than fighting the force of love, so to speak, Magna decides to use the wedding as a publicity stunt for the film. The plan is for the couple to marry on an airstrip, and then immediately board a private plane for their honeymoon trip. The wedding gets an awful lot of hype, and everyone’s there for the big day. Royle and Stuart duly marry; then, they and their children get onto the plane. But by the time the plane lands, the newlyweds are dead – murdered, as it turns out, by poison. The couple’s children claim they’re innocent, but it’s hard to imagine who else had the opportunity. Queen looks into the matter and finds out the answer.

Sometimes, publicity stunts are undertaken for a good cause. In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Full Cupboard of Life, for instance, Mma Sylvia Potokwani wants to raise awareness and money for the orphanage she runs. So she decides to have a publicity-stunt parachute jump. And she can’t think of anyone better suited to jump than Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who runs Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. He’s committed to the orphanage, and spends quite a lot of time there, fixing equipment and doing repairs. But Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is not eager to do the jump. Not only does he tend to shy away from publicity, but also, there’s the very real danger. Still, he allows himself to be persuaded. His fiancée, Mma Precious Ramotswe, finds a solution. She persuades Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s assistant, Charlie, to jump instead, telling him that it will impress all of the girls. The idea works, and the orphanage gets the publicity it needs.

A publicity stunt backfires badly in Anthea Fraser’s Eleven That Went Up to Heaven. In that novel, wealthy conference center owner Richard Vine decides to hold a publicity-stunt party to which he’s invited several guests, twenty of whom are also named Richard Vine. Hours later, a minibus crashes not very far from where the party was held. There are ten fatalities; five of the victims are called Richard Vine. What’s more, it’s soon clear that this was no accident. Now DCI Webb and his team have to find out whether the deaths were related to the publicity stunt, or whether someone had another reason for killing.

When a trial gets a lot of media attention, very often, the attorneys involved do, too. And that publicity can be a real help to their careers, especially if they want to work for a large, rich firm, or even go into politics. There are, of course, limits to what lawyers are allowed to do in terms of publicity.  They’re expected to behave professionally. Still, every attorney knows how important publicity can be, not just for the case at hand, but also for the future. In John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, small-town attorney Jake Brigance gets the opportunity of a lifetime when Carl Lee Hailey hires him. Hailey has been jailed for murdering Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard. But this isn’t a typical case. Cobb and Willard had brutally raped Hailey’s ten-year-old daughter, Tonya, and there are plenty of people who support Hailey. Just as many, though, want this case to go away. The national media get hold of the story, and one plot thread in this novel is the way Brigance and his counterpart for the prosecution, Rufus Buckley, make use of the publicity.

Publicity stunts and grandstanding have their place. They can help people’s careers, support a cause, and much more. These are only a few crime-fictional examples. Now it’s your turn to take the stage.

ps. The ‘photo you see is of player cards for two of the players for the (US) National Football League (NFL)’s Philadelphia Eagles. Several years ago, a menswear store opened not far from where Mr. COAMN and I were living. As a publicity stunt for the store, several of the players were in the store, signing player cards and greeting fans. I got to meet three of them – all very courteous and gracious. It turned out that the event was a real success.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joan Baez’ Time Rag.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Anthea Fraser, Ellery Queen, John Grisham

You Wear Smug So Very Well*

SmugnessMost of us know that no-one’s always right, and no-one has all of the answers. Still, there are some people who are so convinced of their own perspective that they’re unwilling to even consider the possibility that they may be wrong, or that there may be other perspectives out there. That sort of smugness can be grating for anyone who has to deal with a person like that. It’s limiting for the person who’s smug, too, if you think about it.

In crime fiction, smugness can even make a person vulnerable. After all, if the only ‘correct’ perspective is your own, you’re not willing to consider that you might have enemies that could get the better of you. Such a character can also add a nice dose of conflict to a series, so that human frailty can be a useful tool for the writer as well.

In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, ten people accept an invitation to go to Indian Island. On the evening of their arrival, it becomes clear that their host, whoever she or he is, will not be there. That’s odd enough, but things take a darker turn when each person is accused of having been responsible for the death of at least one other person. One of the guests, Miss Emily Brewster, has been accused of being responsible for the suicide of a former housemaid. It comes out that when she discovered that the maid was what used to be called ‘in trouble,’ she fired her, leaving the young woman with no place to live and no options. In her smugness, Miss Brewster believes that she was correct, and that it wasn’t her fault if the maid had ‘loose morals.’ Miss Brewster ends up paying for her smug perspective when she becomes a victim to a killer who seems to be preying on all of the guests.

Louise Penny’s series features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. In one story arc in this series, he is assigned a new member of the Sûreté, Yvette Nichol. On the one hand, when she first begins working with Gamache, she’s eager to make the best impression she can. On the other, she is smug. Because of this, she’s unwilling to learn from anyone else, and unwilling to take even the friendliest of advice. This makes for a host of problems for Gamache’s team. Not only does Nichol make mistakes (as we all do), but she isn’t willing to admit she’s wrong, watch and learn, or accept the fact that she doesn’t always know best. This is really limiting for her, as we see in the course of the series. She alienates people who might be real allies for her, and she’s not really welcome socially, either. It’s difficult for everyone.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School For Men, Mma Precious Ramotswe takes on the case of a client who wants to make amends for wrongs he did years ago. In order to do that, he needs to locate his former landlady. That’s not going to be easy, but Mma Ramotswe thinks of a good starting place. The woman her client is looking for is the widow of a government worker, so it’s quite likely that her address and contact information can be found at the office that deals with government pensions. The clerk at that office is not helpful, though, and at first, refuses to give her any information. In fact, he’s quite smug about it:
 

‘‘But that is not the rule,’ said Mma Ramotswe. ‘…The rule says that you must not give the name of a pensioner. It says nothing about the address.’
The clerk shook his head. ‘I do not think you can be right, Mma. I am the one who knows the rules. You are the public.’’

 

Mma Ramotswe has to think quickly, since this clerk is really her only solid lead. But she comes up with a way to best the clerk, and ends up getting the information she needs.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we meet Jodie Evans Garrow. As the novel begins, she seems to have the perfect life. She’s married to a successful attorney, she’s the mother of two healthy children, and she herself is both attractive and intelligent. Everything begins to fall apart, though, when a secret from Jodie’s past comes out. Her daughter, Hannah, is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where, years before, Jodie herself gave birth to another child. She’s never told anyone about this, but a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie says that the child was adopted, but the overcurious nurse can find no formal records. Now, questions begin to be asked, and before long, Jodie becomes a social pariah. Of no help at all is Jodie’s mother-in-law, Helen Garrow. She’s a ‘blueblood’ who wasn’t happy when her son married Jodie, and who certainly doesn’t befriend her very much. She does ‘damage control,’ as far as the media goes, but that’s only to preserve the Garrow reputation. She’s quite convinced she’s right about the kind of person Jodie is, and although she does help to take care of the children, her smugness alienates Jodie, just when Jodie needs support the most.

And then there’s Brian Stoddart’s Arthur Jepson. Jepson is Madras Commissioner of Police in 1920’s Madras (today’s Chennai) during the British Raj. He’s not only very conscious of his position, but he’s absolutely convinced he’s right about the way to investigate. For instance, in The Pallampur Predicament, the Rajah of Pallampur is murdered. Jepson is sure that the victim was killed by disgruntled servants (Jepson is no fan of Indians). And that’s not an impossible explanation. But Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu (Stoddart’s protagonist) and his team believe that this is much more than just a ‘grudge murder.’ And they have more than one possible suspect. Still, Jepson is unwilling to listen to anyone else’s point of view. It all makes the case much more challenging for Le Fanu.

And that’s the thing about smug characters. I’ll bet we’ve all met people like that, and they have a way of making everything more difficult. Such people can be downright annoying in real life, but in crime fiction, characters like that can add interesting layers to a story.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Poliça’s Smug.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Brian Stoddart, Louise Penny, Wendy James