Category Archives: Alexander McCall Smith

The Shocking Truth About Sleuths! ;-)

We’ve all seen them. Maybe you even glance at the stories as a guilty pleasure. Yes, I’m talking about tabloids. They may not get the story right, but they can be fun. That is, until they twist the truth about you. It’s all got me wondering what it would be like if a tabloid started getting interested in our best-known fictional sleuths. Hmmmm….

If you’ll send your disbelief out for a film and some popcorn, here’s …

 

The Shocking Truth About Sleuths!

 

Who do you call when you need to solve a mystery? We depend on our sleuths to solve crimes, but what do we really know about them?  We at The Weekly Messenger have the shocking story in this exclusive article.

 

‘For all we know, he could be running a brothel or something.’

 

On the outside, the New York City brownstone occupied by Nero Wolfe seems like a quiet, pleasant building. But inside, it’s a completely different story. Wolfe has spent years living in the building, rarely appearing in public. ‘Who knows what goes on in there?’ said the owner of the building next door. ‘It’s always seemed quiet, but that guy is a little weird. For all we know, he could be running a brothel or something.’ Wolfe himself has dismissed that allegation as ‘flummery,’ but did not invite our reporter into the house. Wolfe’s business partner, Archie Goodwin, says everything’s strictly legal. He claims that Wolfe runs his detective agency from his home. But Goodwin has had more than one brush with the law. And we’ve learned that Goodwin handles a great deal of money, and has been seen letting people into the house at all hours. When we asked the police whether the brownstone might actually be a brothel, Inspector Cramer refused to discuss the situation. And that leads to an interesting question: why aren’t the police investigating this?

 

‘A moustache like that couldn’t be real!’

 

Whitehaven Mansions, London, is home to one of the world’s most famous detectives, Hercule Poirot. He’s been solving crimes for years, but we’ve found some shocking evidence that there may be no such person. We spoke to the doorman at Whitehaven Mansions, who had this to say. ‘I’ve always wondered about M. Poirot. A moustache like that couldn’t be real. Why’s he wear a fake moustache? It’s not for me to say, but you can’t help but wonder.’ Other residents of the building have mentioned Poirot’s habit of going outdoors carefully muffled up, no matter what the weather. M. Poirot claims to be from Belgium, but our sources haven’t been able to find out much information about his career there. The Belgian authorities say that a great deal of that sort of information was lost in the war. So who is the person who lives at Whitehaven Mansions and calls himself Hercule Poirot? We contacted Poirot’s valet, Georges, but he has not responded to telephone calls or emails.

 

‘Who knows what she could be capable of doing?’

 

One of the most respected police detectives in Venice is Commissario Guido Brunetti. He’s been responsible for bringing a number of criminals to justice, and has a reputation for being incorruptible. But a closer look at his life and career calls that shiny exterior into question. Brunetti’s wife, Paola Falier, is the daughter of some very powerful people, Count Orazio Falier and his wife, Donatella. Through her, Brunetti has access to the highest levels of society. And that almost always means the chance to line one’s pockets. What’s more, Paola Falier has her own history. She’s on record as having committed vandalism at a local travel agency (for which she didn’t serve a long prison sentence, as she should have). And in one case Brunetti investigated, she was heard to say that she would give the murderer a medal. She’s known as a political leftist with a very strong sense of independence. We talked to her colleagues, who admitted she has strong opinions. As one put it, ‘She isn’t one to do as she’s told without what she sees as a good reason. Who knows what she could be capable of doing?’ With such a strong connection to such a questionable person, it’s debatable whether Brunetti can really be as law-abiding as he seems to be. In fact, The Weekly Messenger is pursuing this case further. We’ll be reporting on Brunetti’s relationship with his questura colleague, Elettra Zorzi, soon.

 

‘Those boys are always getting into mischief! And she knows it!’

 

Almost everyone in Botswana’s capital, Gabarone, has heard of Mma Precious Ramotswe, the famous detective. She has a solid reputation for getting cases solved, and for restoring order and peace. But The Weekly Messenger has uncovered some disturbing things about Mma Ramotswe. She has a close association with Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. And that company employs two assistant mechanics who’ve caused plenty of trouble for their boss and for the area. According to Mma Ramotswe’s associate, Mma Grace Makutsi, the two assistants do not typically work with Mma Ramotswe. But interviews with some of the people who have nearby businesses suggest a troubling possibility: that Mma Ramotswe actually encourages these young men in their destructive pranks. One nearby resident said this: ‘It is true. Mma Ramotswe is married to Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who runs that garage. She knows those assistants very well and sees them every day. Those boys are always getting into mischief! And she knows it!’ If it’s true that Mma Ramotswe is corrupting minors in this way, she could be in serious violation of the law.

 

‘Holmes has to be running that gang.’

 

Our last stop was at crime solving’s most famous address, 221B Baker Street, in London.  Sherlock Holmes has quite a reputation for being eccentric. But The Weekly Messenger has uncovered evidence that Holmes’ lifestyle may be a lot more than just eccentric. Sources say that Holmes is a regular drug user, of both morphine and cocaine. As if that’s not troubling enough, there are reports that he runs a street gang who traffic those drugs. The owner of the house next door, who asked not to be identified, said, ‘I see these boys going in and out of there. His landlady calls them the Baker Street Irregulars. They’re irregular all right! The big one goes up to see Holmes, then he tells the others what they’re supposed to do. Holmes has to be running that gang.’  If that proves to be true, then Holmes could be responsible for distributing drugs all over the city. This is an ongoing investigation, and we’ll have more for you as it develops.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Arthur Conan Doyle, Donna Leon, Rex Stout

The Answer is Easy if You Take it Logically*

I’m sure you’ve heard the old expression, ‘When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.’ It comes from the medical field, and refers to an approach to diagnosis. The idea is that the doctor should link symptoms to the most likely diagnosis, rather than look for a very rare diagnosis. Of course, there are people who have rare illnesses, so it’s wise for the doctor to keep an open mind. But looking for the most straightforward explanation can oten be useful.

It’s that way in crime fiction, too. Sometimes, crimes that look very complex really aren’t. So, the wise crime-fictional sleuth keeps an open mind, but tries to focus on the simplest, most straightforward explanation for a crime. It doesn’t always work as a strategy, but it’s generally a solid starting point.

A few of Agatha Christie’s plots focus on murders that are a lot simpler than they seem to be on the surface. In The Clocks, for instance, we meet Colin Lamb, a British agent who’s been tracking a spy ring that may be based in the town of Crowdean. He gets drawn into a case of murder when the body of an unknown man is discovered in a house on a block he’s checking. On the surface of it, the murder looks very complex. The dead man had no connection to the woman who owns the home, and there are four clocks, all set to the wrong time, in the room. None of the clocks belongs to the homeowner, either. Here, though, is what Poirot says about the murder when Lamb brings the case to him:
 

‘He reflected a moment. ‘One thing is certain,’ he pronounced. ‘It must be a very simple crime.’
‘Simple?’ I demanded in some astonishment.
‘Naturally.’
‘Why must it be simple?’
‘Because it appears so complex.’’
 

And so it turns out to be. The murder is a simple crime, committed for a simple reason.

In Dorothy L. Sayers’ Have His Carcase, mystery novelist Harriet Vane takes a hiking holiday near the village of Wolvercombe. She gets involved in a case of murder when she discovers the body of an unknown man lying by the sea. He turns out to be Paul Alexis, a professional dancer at a nearby hotel. At first, his murder seems to be quite a complex matter. There’s even a possibility that he might have been mixed up in a Russian political plot, since that’s his background. But in the end, this turns out to be a very simple case. With help from Lord Peter Wimsey, Vane discovers that the killer had a simple motive, and made the death look more complicated than it was. Once that simple motive is found out, so is the murderer.

Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers introduces readers to Ystad detective Kurt Wallander. Late one night, Johannes Lövgren and his wife, Maria, are brutally attacked in their home. Wallander and his team are called in quickly, but not quickly enough to save Johannes. Maria, though, is still alive. She’s rushed to the nearest hospital, where she survives for a short time. Just before she dies, she says the word ‘foreign.’ There’s already anti-immigrant sentiment in the area, and this terrible pair of murders, ostensibly committed by foreigners, only makes matters worse. So, Wallander and his team have to work quickly to find the killer or killers. The only problem is, there seems to be no motive. The victims weren’t wealthy, there was no history of family rancor or dark secrets, and neither victim was mixed up in criminal activity. It seems very complicated on the surface, but in the end, and thanks to a chance discovery, Wallander learns that it’s a very simple crime.

Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors is the second of his novels to feature Australian Federal Police (AFP) detective Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen. In this story, Chen is taking some time off from work after the incidents of Dead Set. He’s pulled back on duty when the bodies of Alec Dennet and Lorraine Starke are discovered at a Canberra writers’ retreat called Uriarra. Dennet was a member of the 1972-75 Gough Whitlam government, and was at the retreat to work on his memoirs; Starke was his editor. When it’s discovered that the manuscript is missing, Chen and his team immediately suspect that the victims were killed because of what was in it. And that’s not a crazy assumption, since it was said that Dennet was going to share a lot of things that some very highly-placed people don’t want revealed. And, there are other governments involved, too – governments that might find it very useful to have that memoir. It takes a while, but Chen and his team work through all of those layers and get to the very simple truth about the murder.

And then there’s Alexander McCall Smith’s The Good Husband of Zebra Drive. In it, Mma Precious Ramotswe is faced with a difficult case. Her cousin, Tati Monyena, is facing real trouble at the hospital where he works. There’ve been three deaths, all on the same day of the week (during different weeks). And all three patients were on the same bed in the Intensive Care ward when they died. It seems a very complex case (perhaps some airborne pathogen, or contaminated equipment, or….). Monyena is very concerned about the hospital’s reputation, and wants Mma Ramotswe to solve the case as quickly and quietly as she can. She agrees, and looks into the matter. And it turns out that the solution is very simple.

And that’s the thing about some cases. They look very complicated on the surface, and sometimes that’s done on purpose. But underneath, they’re very simple indeed. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Dorothy L. Sayers, Henning Mankell, Kel Robertson

We Took Paper, Ink and Type*

In Agatha Christie’s Postern of Fate, Tuppence Beresford makes an interesting comment about reading:
 

‘‘We could all read. Me and Martin next door and Jennifer down the road and Cyril and Winifred. All of us. I don’t mean we could all spell very well but we could read anything we wanted to.’’
 

I’d imagine that’s probably true for a lot of people. There is still, unfortunately, plenty of illiteracy in the world. But, according to one study I read, just over 84% of the world’s population has at least some functional literacy.

If you’re literate, and you weren’t born into great wealth and privilege, you arguably owe at least some of that to Johannes Gutenberg. As you’ll know, he’s credited with inventing the movable-type printing press. That invention had far-reaching effects. For one thing, it made books and, therefore, written ideas, accessible to people who weren’t necessarily very wealthy. For another, it arguably contributed to the rise of the middle class. And that’s to say nothing of the printing press’ impact on the sharing of information, the development of newspapers, and so on.

And certainly, the ideas in books play an important role in crime fiction. In Postern of Fate, for instance, an important clue to a long-ago murder is found in a novel. When Tommy and Tuppence Beresford move into a new home, they find quite a collection of books. Tuppence is going through them when she notices that one of the books has been marked in an unusual way, with some words underlined. The book belonged to a boy named Alexander Parkinson, who later died. The clue,
 

‘Mary Jordan did not die naturally’
 

refers to the death of a woman during the World War I era. As the Beresfords start to look into the case, they learn that it still resonates decades later.

Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce may be a pre-teenager, but she’s already developed into a knowledgeable chemist. She’s an avid reader, too, who often finds useful information in the books she chooses. For instance, in A Red Herring Without Mustard, Flavia meets a Gypsy fortune-teller at a church fête. The experience goes very badly, and Flavia feels responsible. So, she invites the Gypsy to stay on the property of Buckshaw, where she lives with her father and two older sisters. When the Gypsy is later murdered, Flavia takes a personal interest in the case. She finds out that more than one person might have been responsible. Interestingly, it’s actually a book of history that gives Flavia a major clue to the killer.

Donna Leon’s About Face introduces readers to Franca Marinello. One night, she and her husband, Maruizio Cataldo, are invited to dinner at the home of Conte Orazio Falier and his wife, Donatella. Falier is contemplating doing business with Cataldo, and he wants to get to know the man. Also invited that evening are Falier’s daughter, Paola, and her husband, Commissario Guido Brunetti. During the meal, Brunetti finds that he and Franca Marinello have a common interest in Cicero. That interest forms a thread through the novel, and actually plays a role when Brunetti and his team investigate the murder of Stefano Ranzato, who owned a trucking company. The key to this murder, and to another murder that occurs in the novel, is Franca Marinello. And Brunetti gets some real insight from his knowledge of Cicero.

As the librarian for the Tumdrum and District Mobile Library, Ian Sansom’s Israel Armstrong loves books, and once dreamed of being a librarian at a major university, or even with the British Library. As we learn in The Case of the Missing Books, though, that’s not how things have turned out. Instead, Armstrong is hired to drive the mobile library bus, so that patrons in remote areas can access books. It’s not at all the sort of job he’d had in mind, but he’s left without much choice. So, he resolves to get started. When he tries to get the mobile library bus ready, though, he discovers that all fifteen thousand of the library’s books are missing. When Armstrong reports this to Linda Wei, who actually hired him, and who is the Deputy Head of Entertainment, Leisure and Community Services, she tells him that it’s his responsibility to find the books. After all, she points out, he is the librarian. So, Armstrong has to turn sleuth and find the books. Among other things, this series shows how important access to books is to a lot of people.

And then there’s Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe. As fans will know, Mma Ramotswe has a much-beloved copy of Clovis Anderson’s Principles of Detection. She consults it frequently, and depends on the book for all sorts of advice. For instance, in The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, Mma Ramotswe’s second cousin, Tati Monyena, is facing real trouble at the hospital where he works. It seems that there’ve been three deaths at the hospital recently. All three occurred on the same day of the week (‘though during different weeks), and all three patients were in the same bed in the Intensive Care ward when they died. It’s already been established that there were no pathogens involved, so Rra Monyena doesn’t know what might have been responsible. If the hospital’s reputation comes into question, though, this could be catastrophic. So, Mma Ramotswe agrees to look into the matter. When she goes to the hospital, she brings along Mr. Polopetsi, her newest assistant. And it turns out that that was a wise choice, since he is very familiar with the area and the people who live there. According to Clovis Anderson,
 

‘Local knowledge is like gold.’
 

It’s that sort of wisdom that Mma Ramotswe seeks, and sometimes finds, in the book.

You see? Books themselves play an important role in crime fiction. If you think about it, we likely wouldn’t even have the genre if we didn’t have easy access to books. So, perhaps it’s fair to say that we owe the genre in part to Gutenberg…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s The Printer’s Trade.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Alexander McCall Smith, Donna Leon, Ian Sansom

Eva Beware Your Ambition*

Ambition is a fascinating human trait. On the one hand, it can push people to reach important goals that they might not otherwise attempt. Ambition is what gets a person through difficult exams, grueling work hours, and so on. But, like other human traits, it has its negative side, too. In fact, too much ambition can lead to disaster.

It’s interesting the way we view people who are ambitious. We may dislike what seems to be ruthlessness. But at the same time, we may admire those who have ‘made it.’ They’ve succeeded. At the very least, many people respect the drive that ambitious people have.

In crime fiction, ambition can make for a fascinating layer of character development. Since it can be both a fault and a strength, ambition can make for a more well-rounded character. And that’s to say nothing for what ambition can add in terms of suspense and even motive for murder.

Agatha Christie created several ambitious sorts of characters. One of them is Thora Grey, whom we meet in The ABC Murders. She serves as assistant to retired throat specialist Sir Carmichael Clarke. One of Clarke’s passions is Chinese art, and Grey helps him to catalogue his findings, sort out his display room, search out new finds, and so on. One night, Clarke is killed in what looks like a terrible accident. But his death is soon linked to two other deaths. Each body is found with an ABC railway guide nearby. And, each death is preceded by a cryptic warning note sent to Hercule Poirot. He and Captain Hastings work with the police to try to find out who is committing the murders. As he gets to know Grey a little better, he sees that she’s not really the mild-mannered, willing secretary/assistant that she seems to be on the surface. In fact, she’s quite ambitious.  As Poirot puts it, she is
 

‘…a type of young woman “on the make.’’
 

Grey’s ambitions are not really the reason for which her employer is murdered. But they play their role in the story.

In Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, we are introduced to Alice Steele. She’s a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant who’s had to scratch and scrabble for a living. In fact, she’s gotten involved with some disreputable people, and done things most people would think are sordid, especially in the 1950’s, when this story takes place. She gets her chance at a better life when she meets Bill King. He’s a junior investigator for the district attorney’s office, and has a real chance at some success. He falls in love with Alice, and it seems that the feeling is mutual. Despite the reservations that Bill’s sister, Lora, has about the match, the two get married. At first, Lora tries hard to develop a positive relationship with her new sister-in-law. But soon, little things about Alice don’t seem to add up. And the better she gets to know Alice, the more repelled she is by Alice’s life. At the same time, she is drawn to it. Then, there’s a murder, and Alice just might be mixed up in it. Telling herself she’s doing so to protect her brother, Lora starts asking questions. That choice draws her even more into Alice’s past.

Robin Cook’s Seizure features Dr. Daniel Lowell. He’s been conducting promising stem cell research, and is hoping for both professional support and funding to pursue his interests. He’s not ambitious in the sense of being greedy, but he does want to make his name as a world-class researcher. He’s also, of course, interested in science and in what medicine can do. He’s concerned because the US Congress, in particular, Senator Ashley Butler, is proposing a ban on the sort of research he’s conducting. So, it’s a real shock when Butler contacts him with a proposal. It turns out Butler has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. He’ll never be able to fulfill his own ambition of becoming president of the US if word of this gets out. So, he offers Lowell a deal. Butler will withdraw his objection to the research, in exchange for which Lowell will perform his controversial surgical procedure on Butler. Lowell agrees, and the two go to a private clinic in the Bahamas, to preserve secrecy. It turns out that ambition carries both men to extraordinary and dangerous lengths.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Full Cupboard of Life, Mma Precious Ramotswe gets a new client, Mma Holonga. It seems that Mma Holonga is the successful owner of a chain of hair salons. She’s doing well professionally, but hasn’t taken the time to find someone to marry. Now she feels the time has come, and she wants Mma Ramotswe to help her choose among four suitors. One of them is Mopedi Bobologo. On the surface of it, he seems a fine enough choice for a husband, if a bit dull. He’s a well-regarded teacher, and he runs House of Hope, which is a home for troubled young girls. Mma Ramotswe soon finds, though, that underneath the surface, Mr. Bobologo is quite ambitious. In fact, he may even be marrying Mma Holonga for her money. When Mma Ramotswe tells her client what she’s found, though, she gets a surprising reaction. In this novel, it’s interesting to see how ambition can be hidden beneath a very mild-mannered sort of exterior.

And then there’s Rachel da Silva, whom we meet in John Daniell’s The Fixer. She writes for a Brazilian magazine, and wants to move ahead in her career. She gets her chance when she is sent to France to do an in-depth piece on rugby, its popularity, and the rugby life. One of the players on the team she visits is former New Zealand All-Blacks star Mark Stevens. Stevens is getting closer to the end of his career, but he’s not quite ready to end his playing days. So, he’s spending a few years on a French professional team. Rachel is attractive, smart, and interesting, so Stevens has no problem agreeing to an interview. That interview gives access to the rest of the team, and it leads to a relationship between the two. It turns out, though, that Rachel has other ambitions. Soon enough, she tells Stevens about a friend of hers named Philip, who’s made a lot of money betting on rugby. Before he knows it, Stevens is drawn into a web of inside information. It makes Stevens uncomfortable, but it also means money that he needs for his retirement and for his family. Things change, though, when match-fixing is proposed. Stevens doesn’t want to cheat his teammates or ruin his reputation. But by now, he’s in deep. If he’s going to extricate himself, he’ll have to be very, very careful. In this novel, we see how ambition can drive people to do things, even illegal things, that they otherwise wouldn’t do.

And that’s the thing. Ambition is a positive quality in some ways. But it’s also got a very dangerous side. Like everything else, it needs to be tempered.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Eva and Magaldi/Eva Beware of the City.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, John Daniell, Megan Abbott, Robin Cook

I Love the Old-Fashioned Things*

I spent a couple of days at a conference last week. The conference itself was interesting, with plenty of ‘food for thought.’ Just as interesting (at least to me) was the way people interacted. As you’ll know, one of the customs people have at conferences is to exchange business cards. Business cards and other, related, calling cards have been in use in some form or another for hundreds of years. And even with the less formal nature of today’s business interactions, and with today’s technology, they’re still a popular formality.

The exchange of business cards isn’t the only formal ritual custom people keep. And that’s not surprising. There’s a certain comfort and security that can be associated with them. For example, a funeral ritual can help the bereaved go through the process of letting go of a loved one, no matter how casual those left behind are in the rest of their lives. And certain ritual customs, like formal meals, engraved invitations, and exchanging business cards, add what a lot of people think of as ‘class’ to an event. So, even in today’s more casual world, where people often text or email rather than send letters, there’s something about certain formalities. We certainly see that in crime fiction. And those formalities can be effective tools for character development, cultural background, and even the setting up of context.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to find out the truth about the murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. He was poisoned sixteen years earlier; and at the time, his wife Caroline was the only really viable suspect. There was plenty of evidence against her, too. She was arrested, convicted and died a year later in prison. Now, her daughter wants to clear her name if that’s possible. Poirot agrees to look into the case. One of the people who give him information is Caleb Jonathan, the Crale family lawyer. He’s retired now, but he knows the family history very well. Both he and Poirot are accustomed to certain formal traditions, so before they even meet, there’s an exchange of letters. Then Poirot receives an invitation for dinner and to spend the night. Only after dinner and an after-dinner brandy does the attorney really begin to talk to Poirot about the Crale family. And that conversation proves useful.

Fans of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series, for instance, will know that Chee and Leaphorn are members of the Navajo Nation, as well as members of the Navajo Tribal Police. In his personal life, Chee is more traditional than Leaphorn is, but both respect their people’s customs. For instance, one custom they observe has to do with visiting people’s homes. It’s the Navajo tradition when visiting to sound the horn and/or call out, and then to wait outside the home of someone one’s visiting until one’s host opens the door and invites one in. This is intended to allow the host to clean up, change clothes, or whatever is needed to prepare for a guest. These police officers know that they could knock on a door right away. But the formality of sounding the car horn and waiting to be invited in shows respect to the homeowner, It also puts witnesses at ease, so they’re more likely to be helpful to the police.

We also see formal courtesy, for instance, in Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss. In that novel, Göteborg DI Irene Huss and her team investigate the death of wealthy financier Richard von Knecht. One day, he falls from the balcony of his exclusive penthouse, and at first, it looks very much like a suicide. But small pieces of forensic evidence begin to suggest otherwise. So, Huss and the members of her team look more deeply into the matter. One of the important witnesses in this case is Fru Eva Karlsson, an elderly lady who happened to be walking her dog at the time of von Knecht’s deah. Huss wants to learn as much as she can from this witness, so she pays Fru Karlsson a visit. From Huss’ perspective, it’s an informal visit, just to get information. But she is a visitor, so Fru Karlsson insists on making a more formal event of it, complete with fresh coffee and homemade pastries. It’s much more than Huss wants to eat or drink, but putting the witness at ease is important, so she goes along with this formality.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe understands the value of a certain amount of ease and modern informality. But there are some more formal traditions that she continues, and prefers. She prefers to greet people in the traditional way, although it is a bit more formal. And she respects the custom of showing traditional respect to the elderly. When clients come to see her, she puts them at their ease by offering them traditional hospitality: a cup of bush tea and, perhaps, some cake. She knows that those formalities can help ease the awkwardness that often goes with hiring a private investigator.

In Kalpana Swaminathan’s The Page 3 Murders, Dr. Hilla Driver decides to have a large house party, both as a sort of housewarming, and to celebrate her niece Ramona’s upcoming eighteenth birthday. The guests are among Mumbai’s elite, and include Bollywood people, a famous dancer, a famous author, and a critic, among others. And Hilla wants this to be a very special weekend. So, at the urging of her chef, Tarok Ghosh, she decides to make it a ‘foodie’ weekend that will culminate in a formal, traditional, seven-course gourmet meal. There are to be special hors d’oeuvres, printed menu cards, and other formalities. The weekend arrives, and so do the guests. Right from the beginning, there’s conflict among some of them, but for the most part, things go smoothly enough. Then, on the night of the gourmet meal, Ghosh gives each guest a custom-made hors d’oeuvre, and uses these to show that he knows a secret about each one. That hint strikes too close to home for someone, and by the next morning, he’s dead. One of Hilla’s guests is a retired police detective, Lalli, who’s there with her niece. Together, the two find out who killed Ghosh and why.

Some formalities may seem unnecessary in today’s world. But they have their place, and a lot of people like them. What about you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer’s I’m Old Fashioned.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Helene Tursten, Kalpana Swaminathan, Tony Hillerman