Category Archives: Alexander McCall Smith

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

We Got All the Friends That Money Can Buy*

Hangers on to WealthOne of the famous quotes usually attributed to Benjamin Franklin goes like this:
 

‘Now I’ve a sheep and a cow, every body bids me good morrow.’
 

Whether or not Franklin actually originated this saying, there’s a lot of wisdom to it. People who find themselves in possession of a large fortune often discover that they have a whole new group of ‘best friends,’ relatives they never knew about, and ‘loyal business associates.’ It’s something I’ve been thinking about as the US Powerball lottery jackpot reaches a record high (as I write this, it’s at US$1.4 billion. Yes, billion).

A lot of us dream of what it’d be like to be that rich. But it’s not without pitfalls. One of them is the number of people who want their share of all that money. It’s certainly true in real life, and it’s all over crime fiction, too. Space only permits me a few examples; I know you’ll think of lots more.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery, James McCarthy is arrested for the murder of his father Charles. There’s evidence against him, too; he was known to have had a serious quarrel with his father just before the killing. But he says he’s innocent, and his fiancée Alice Turner believes him. She goes to the police to plead for his release. Inspector Lestrade thinks the police have the right man, but he asks Sherlock Holmes to look into the case. Holmes agrees, and he and Dr. Watson investigate. They discover that McCarthy was originally from Australia, and made quite a bit of money there. That money ended up attracting the wrong kind of attention…

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we are introduced to Katherine Grey. She’s worked as a paid companion for ten years, in the employ of wealthy Mrs. Harfield. When Mrs. Harfield dies, Katherine is startled to discover that she has inherited her employer’s entire fortune. Right away, those who find out about this are more than eager to get their share. For example, one of Mrs. Harfield’s distant relatives writes, insisting that she and her husband should inherit, and that they’ll raise legal issues if Katherine objects. Then Katherine gets another letter, this time from a cousin of her own, Rosalie Tamplin. Lady Tamplin has learned of Katherine’s newfound wealth, and of course, wants whatever part of it she can get. So she invites Katherine to visit her in Nice, so she can ‘introduce her to the right people.’ Not being a fool, Katherine knows exactly why her cousin has suddenly become so interested in her. Still, she’s always wanted to travel, so she decides to go. That trip gets Katherine involved in the strangling murder of another wealthy woman, Ruth Van Aldin Kettering.

In Dorothy Sayers’ Unnatural Death, Dr. Edwin Carr overhears a conversation between Lord Peter Wimsey and his friend Inspector Parker. This leads Carr to tell them about a case of his own that’s been troubling him. He was treating elderly Miss Agatha Dawson for cancer. When she died, no-one was surprised about it, and her death was put down to her disease. But Carr has never been satisfied that her death was natural. Although his view has more or less cost him his patients, Carr still thinks he’s right. So he asks Wimsey and Parker to look into the matter, and they start to ask questions. They find that more than one person has claimed or taken advantage of kinship to try to get some of Miss Dawson’s fortune.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Mma. Precious Ramotswe uses some of her inheritance from her father to open her own private detective agency. One of her first clients is Happy Bapetse. As is the custom in her culture, Happy has been taught that caring for elderly parents and other relatives is one of her responsibilities. So, when a man shows up at her door, claiming to be her long-lost father, Happy is pleased to take him in. She earns a good living as an accountant at a bank, and has been doing well for herself, so caring for him is not a problem. But Happy has come to suspect that the person claiming to be her father isn’t really her father. Instead, so she tells Mma. Ramotswe, she thinks he may be an imposter who perhaps knew her father and knew that she had done well in life. Mma. Ramotswe agrees to look into the matter, and finds a very clever way to discover whether the man claiming to be Happy’s father really is who he claims to be.

And then there’s Charity Wiser, whom we meet in Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas. She is a very wealthy executive and heiress, who has come to suspect that one of her relatives may be trying to kill her. At her behest, her granddaughter Flora hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out which relative it is. To do that, she invites Quant to join the family on a cruise aboard her private boat. The plan is to have him meet everyone, and ‘vet’ the various family members. As it turns out, Charity is not popular in the family. Each member dislikes her for one reason or another, some more than others. But because of her money, they do her bidding, which includes all sorts of ‘family trips’ designed to make them all uncomfortable. It’s surprising (or perhaps not!) what people will do if they think they’ll get a lot of money in the bargain.

And that’s the thing about coming into a lot of money. One of the consequences is that you suddenly find yourself getting acquainted with good friends, close relatives and helpful business partners you never knew existed. But that won’t stop me dreaming of that big Powerball win. Fortunately, I have very good friends all over the world who will help me make wise decisions about how to spend it all…😉

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Shel Silverstein’s The Cover of the Rolling Stone, made famous by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers

Sit Around With the Folks*

Tension in the OrdinaryIt doesn’t take a physical fight, an explosion, or other such dramatic scene to build tension in a novel. Sometimes, just as in real life, tension can mount even during something as mundane as eating lunch or dinner. And an everyday event like washing up dishes or eating a meal can form a very effective contrast to tension that may be building up between characters.

Crime novels use such scenes a lot, and they can work very well when they’re done deftly. I’m sure some of those memorable scenes have stayed with you. Here are just a few that have stayed with me.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife Gerda have been invited to send the weekend with Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. The plan is for them to leave right after lunch on the Friday, and Christow is eager to go. For one thing, he enjoys the Angkatells. For another, one of the Angkatell cousins (and Christow’s mistress), Henrietta Savernake, will also be there. For her part, Gerda loathes going to the Angkatells. She feels completely uncomfortable with them, and wants nothing more than to stay in the family’s comfortable home, where she feels safer. Her husband has no real idea of this, though, and happily talks about the trip. As if that’s not enough, Gerda is very worried about what to do about the lunch, since John is late on that day. She frets about it for quite a while, during which time the meal is getting cold. It all makes very a very tense meal. I know, I know, fans of And Then There Were None.

In James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, insurance salesman Walter Huff happens to be in the same area where one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger, lives. So he decides to pay a visit and try to get a renewal on Nirdlinger’s policy. Huff’s client isn’t home, but his wife, Phyllis is. She and Huff strike up a conversation and before he knows it, Huff is completely smitten with Phyllis. She does nothing to discourage him, either. Soon enough, Huff is so besotted that he falls in with Phyllis’ plan to kill her husband so that she can inherit. Part of the plan involves getting some paperwork signed off and getting some signatures and money from Nirdlinger, so Huff has to think of a plausible excuse. He does, and pays a visit to his client at Nirdlingher’s office. Their conversation is more or less what you’d expect: a perfectly normal conversation between insurance representative and client. But under the surface, a great deal of tension has built up, chiefly because readers know what Huff’s plan is, and Nirdlinger doesn’t. It’s a very effective use of an ordinary conversation to build suspense.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn has a very tense couple of interactions in A Killing Spring. That novel begins with the murder of Reed Gallagher, who heads the Department of Journalism at the university where Kilbourn teaches. In a separate incident, there’s vandalism to the building that houses the department, and Kilbourn’s friend and colleague Ed Mariani ‘bunks’ in her office until the repairs are made. At first, the arrangement works well. But then, Kilbourn begins to wonder if her temporary office mate might be the killer. She doesn’t want to jump to conclusions, but there are pieces of evidence that suggest he could be responsible. This makes for an extremely tense situation in her office, since at least on the surface, Mariani has no idea that she suspects him at first.

There’s also awkwardness and suspense in Alexander McCall Smith’s Morality For Beautiful Girls. One of Mma. Precious Ramotswe’s clients in that novel is an important Government Man, who believes that his new sister-in-law is trying to poison her husband (and his brother). He insists that Mma. Ramotswe travel to his family home and find out whether his suspicion is true. She agrees to go, and when she arrives, joins the family for lunch. On the surface, it’s an ordinary sort of lunch, set out to welcome a guest. Underneath, though it’s a very awkward meal, since Mma. Ramotswe is there to see if someone is poisoning other people. The tension is built, too, with some remarks about men and women, and by the fact that the food tastes just a little odd to Mma Ramotswe, All in all, it’s not a comfortable meal; and it’s made worse when everyone later gets sick. It turns out that someone has poisoned the food, so now Mma. Ramotswe has another mystery to solve.

Aditya Sudarshan’s A Nice Quiet Holiday begins as Judge Harish Shinde and his law clerk Anant travel to the town of Bhairavgarh, in the Indian state of Rajasthan, for what’s supposed to be a relaxing couple of weeks of holiday away from the crowds and heat of Delhi. They’ll be staying with an old friend of the Judge’s, Shikhar Pant, who’s also hosting some other house guests. Two of them are Ronit and Kamini Mittal, who run an NGO that has an emphasis on AIDS information and education. Not everyone thinks that disseminating information about AIDS is a good idea; some people are even deeply offended at any hint that they or someone they know might have AIDS. Still others dislike what they see as obscenity. So conversation with and about the Mittals is bound to be tense, and it is.  At one lunch in particular, there’s a very awkward and stressful conversation about whether the Mittals are, in fact, distributing obscene material, as is alleged. The different characters stake out their positions, and it’s interesting how some of the characters try to balance what’s supposed to be a pleasant, ordinary lunch with expressing their views. When one of them, Kailash Pant, is murdered, suspicion falls on the Kittals, since they’re already considered dubious. But the Judge and, later, Anant, are not so sure they are guilty.

Possibly one of the best examples of using an everyday event like a dinner to build suspense is in Herman Koch’s The Dinner. Two Amsterdam couples, Paul and Claire Lohman and Paul’s older brother Serge and his wife Babette, meet at a very upmarket restaurant for dinner. On the surface, it’s simply two brothers and their wives meeting for a meal. But as we soon learn, it’s much more suspenseful than that. As each course is served, we learn more and more about these brothers, their families, and the dark secret they’re keeping. We discover what actually brought them together, and a lot about their family histories. It may seem like a family dinner at a nice restaurant, but this meal is much more than that.

Ordinary things – meals, cups of tea, dishes, and so on – may be mundane. But they can serve as an effective backdrop, and can be very useful as a context for building tension. All you need do is look below the surface.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Great Suburban Showdown.

 

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Filed under Aditya Sudarshan, Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Gail Bowen, Herman Koch, James M. Cain