Category Archives: Arthur Conan Doyle

Buried in the Family Well*

Have you ever researched your family? Some families don’t have a long history, but others have a very long history indeed. And those families that have been around for a hundred years or more collect all sorts of stories. Some of them can still have an impact, too, even after generations.

Family histories are interesting in and of themselves, and they can add a real dimension to a crime novel. They can build suspense, add layers of character development, and even make for a motive for murder. They can also add context to a story.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance, we learn the history of the Baskerville family. The story goes that, in the 1600s, Hugo Baskerville sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he’d become infatuated. Since that time, there’ve been several strange deaths in the Baskerville family. They’re said to be caused by a curse on the family that takes the form of a phantom hound. And the latest victim seems to be Sir Charles Baskerville, who’s been found dead in the park on the Baskerville property. Is the Baskerville history really the cause of Sir Charles’ death? If so, then there is real danger ahead for the newest Baskerville, Sir Hugh, who is coming from Canada to take on the title and property. An old family friend is concerned about Sir Hugh’s safety, and asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate. He agrees, and he and Dr. Watson look into the matter. They find that this mystery has a very prosaic explanation. I know, I know, fans of The Musgrave Ritual.

Agatha Christie wove family histories into several of her novels and stories. One of them is Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client). In that novel, we are introduced to wealthy Miss Emily Arundell, the last of her generation of the Arundell family. She’s well aware that the next generation is eager for her money, and she’s often told them that they’ll get everything when she dies. But, when she takes a fall down a set of stairs, Miss Arundell begins to wonder whether someone isn’t willing to wait that long. During her recuperation, Miss Arundell writes a letter to Hercule Poirot, asking him to look into a delicate matter for her (‘though she doesn’t specify just what that is). By the time Poirot and Captain Hastings get to the Arundell home, though, it’s too late: Miss Arundell has died of what her doctor claims is liver failure. Poirot isn’t so sure, though, and he and Hastings search for the truth. In the course of their investigation, they meet Miss Caroline Peabody, who knows quite a bit about the Arundell family history. What she tells them doesn’t solve the case, but she gives them helpful background information. I see you, fans of After the Funeral.

The Blackwood family is the focus of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. As the story begins, we meet Mary Katherine ‘Merricat,’ Blackwood, her older sister, Constance, and their Uncle Julian, who live a rather isolated life in their old Vermont home. As the story moves on, we learn about a tragedy in the Blackwood history: the deaths of three other family members. And it’s soon clear that the other residents of the village think that one of the remaining Blackwoods is responsible. Still, Merricat, Constance, and Uncle Julian go on with their lives, doing as much as much as they can to keep the outside world at bay. Then, Charles Blackwood, a cousin to Merricat and Constance, pays a visit. His arrival triggers a series of events that spins out of control and ends in more tragedy.

In Shona (S.G.) MacLean’s A Game of Sorrows, we are introduced to Maeve O’Neill. She is the matriarch of the old and once-powerful Irish O’Neill family, and what she wants most is to see her family once again dominate Ireland. But it’s the 17th Century, and the English have taken control of Ulster, where she lives. This has led to several conflicts and a lot of scheming, as some people have sided with the English in exchange for power within the new order. Others resist, determined to maintain their Irish identity and religion. Against this background, there’s a wedding in the O’Neill family, to which a traditional Irish poet has been invited. Instead of using his poetry to celebrate the occasion, though, the poet curses the O’Neill family. What’s worse, parts of the curse seem to be coming true. So, Maeve sends her grandson, Sean Fitzgarrett, to Scotland to ask his cousin, Alexander Seaton, to help lift the curse. Seaton is reluctant, but is finally persuaded to go to Ireland, where his mother was born. He soon finds himself drawn into the religious and political conflicts of the day, and learns that the deaths and tragedies mentioned in the curse have more to do with greed and politics than with the curse. Despite everything, Maeve O’Neill still dreams of her ancient family’s return to power.

Peter May’s Entry Island is the story of the Mackenzie family. Sergeant Enquêteur Sime Mackenzie of the Sûreté du Québec lives and works in Montréal. But he’s sent to Entry Island, one of the Îles-de-la-Madeleine/Magdalen Islands, to help investigate the murder of James Cowell. It’s believed that, since Mackenzie is a native speaker of English, he’ll find it easier to get information from the island’s mostly English-speaking residents. As soon as he arrives, Mackenzie is struck with a sense of déjà vu, although he’s never been to Entry Island. What’s more, he begins to have vivid dreams about stories his grandmother used to tell him about his Scottish ancestor, also called Sime, who lived in the mid-19th Century. In one plot thread, we follow the investigation into Cowell’s murder. In another, we learn the history of the Mackenzie family, and how that history has impacted the present-day Sime.

And then there’s Steve Robinson’s Jefferson Tayte mysteries. Tayte’s a genealogist, so he’s very accustomed to looking into family backgrounds. And sometimes, what he finds there is dangerous. More than once in this series, Tayte uncovers secrets from the past that still impact modern-day descendants. And that puts him at grave risk.

Long family histories can often include fascinating stories and people. There’s a lot of opportunity there for character development, too. But there’s also risk, and sometimes, motive for crime.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chris Ward and David Michael Tyson’s Family Secret.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Peter May, S.G. MacLean, Shirley Jackson, Steve Robinson

I Never Tire of Legends Grown*

As this is posted, it’s the 120th anniversary of the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Of course, stories of vampires have been told since long before Stoker came along. And since that time, the vampire has become enshrined in popular culture.

What is it about folktales like the vampire that capture people’s imagination? I’m not a cultural anthropologist, so I can’t give a sophisticated, informed answer. But part of the explanation may lie in human curiosity. We like to understand our world, and certain folk tales may explain certain phenomena. Then, too, the scarier stories have been used as ways to discipline children and teach them the mores of their society (e.g. ‘You’d better come inside when I tell you or La Llorona will get you! [This refers to a South American/Mexican legend about a ghost who goes searching for her children. You can read a version of it here]).

Whatever the reason, those folk legends are woven into the history of many cultures. And we see them in crime fiction, too, and not just in speculative or fantasy stories. People’s belief in such folktales finds its way into more conventional stories, too.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the death of Sir Charles Baskerville, whose body was found in a park on the family property, Baskerville Hall. The legend in the area is that there is a phantom hound that haunts the Baskerville family, and has for many generations. It’s that hound that has caused Sir Charles’ death. But Holmes doesn’t believe in phantoms or other folktales. He is convinced only by logic and science. He’s unable to leave London at the moment, so he sends Watson to Baskerville Hall to start looking into the matter. Later, he joins his friend there. They find that there is a very prosaic explanation for Sir Charles’ death, and that it has nothing to do with legends or curses.

Some folktales are told about real people. For example, in Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger, there’s a robbery of a Ute casino, and the thieves get away with a large haul. Officer Teddy Bai is suspected of being an ‘inside operator,’ working with the gang. But Navajo Tribal Police Officer Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Manuelito doesn’t think so. She asks Sergeant Jim Chee to help find out the truth. And that truth turns out to be connected to a Ute legend about a man named Ironhand. It seems that Ironhand was able to almost magically steal Navajo sheep and escape without ever being caught. Stories were told among the Ute about him and his descendants, and those stories turn out to be quite useful to Chee and (now-retired) Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn as they look into the case.

Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money features Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan, who’s turned private investigator. Madeleine Avery hires Quinlan to find her brother, Charles, who’s gone missing from his home in Bangkok. Quinlan travels to Bangkok, and visits Avery’s apartment. There, he finds the body of Avery’s business partner, Robert Lee. There’s no sign of Avery, but Quinlan finds evidence that his quarry has gone on to Cambodia. With help from journalist’s assistant Heng Sarin, Quinlan traces Avery to the north of Cambodia. There, he learns of a legend about spirits who haunt that part of the country, and who capture humans. That folk tale helps Quinlan and Sarin find out the truth about what happened to Avery, and where he is now.

I’m sure you’ve heard legends of mermaids. One of Hans Christian Andersen’s most famous stories is about one. And there are all sorts of other mermaid stories told by sailors and other people who’ve been out on the sea. Mermaids even swim their way into Sharon Bolton’s A Dark and Twisted Tide. In that novel, Detective Constable (DC) Lacey Flint is working with the Marine Unit, where she’s looking forward to less-stressful police work, such as checking for boat licenses and warning people about unsafe conditions on the Thames, and so on. Everything changes, though, when she discovers the body of an unknown woman in the river. The victim is probably Middle Eastern or South Asian, but she has no ID, and it’s going to be very hard to trace her identity, let alone find out who killed her or why. Once the woman’s death is classified as a homicide, Flint works with Detective Inspector (DI) Dana Tulloch and her team at the Met to find out the truth about this murder. Mermaids aren’t responsible for murdering the victim. But the legend of people who are half-fish, half-human play a role in the novel.

And then there’s D.S. Nelson’s Model For Murder. Nelson’s sleuth is retired milliner Blake Heatherington, who lives in the village of Tuesbury. One of the sources of pride in town is a small model village that depicts the various businesses and buildings. One day, newsagent Harold Slater is murdered, and his body found in a local wood. Then it’s discovered that there’s a cross painted on the model newsagent, and the figure representing Slater is missing. And that’s just the first murder that’s marked in the model. There are signs that these murders might be connected with the Vodou beliefs of many people in Jamaica and Haiti. As it turns out, the murders are not caused by religion or even spirituality. They have a more prosaic motive. But there are some interesting discussions in the novel about the differences between traditional Vodou and many of the folk tales associated with it. For example, there’s a mention of Juju dolls, which have become the stuff of folklore. And there’s even a word or two about zombies. Nelson doesn’t go into any description, but I don’t have to tell you how folktales of ‘undead’ corpses have become a part of our culture.

Even people who absolutely don’t believe in the truth of any folktale sometimes enjoy going to see a ‘zombie film,’ or reading a story that involves werewolves or vampires. We humans do seem to enjoy those stories, even though we know a lot of them aren’t true. Little wonder they find their way into crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Big Country’s Hold the Heart.

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Filed under Andrew Nette, Arthur Conan Doyle, D.S. Nelson, Sharon Bolton, Tony Hillerman

It Was Just My Dog and Me*

Recently, Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write posted some lovely pictures of writers with their cats. I really enjoyed that post, because I think it shows a side of authors that we don’t always see. And, although I don’t live with cats, I do like them very much.

Of course, there are also plenty of authors who are owned by dogs. So, I thought it might be fun to have a look at some of those authors, too.

 

Here is Canadian novelist Louise Penny with her Golden Retriever. Her series features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, who’s also owned by a dog.

 

This is Sara Paretsky with her Golden Retriever. As fans can tell you, her V.I. Warshawski is owned by two dogs, Mitch and Peppy.

 

And here’s Stephen King with his Corgi canine overlord. No, let’s not mention Cujo here….

 

This is Martin Walker, author of the Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series. Here he’s consulting with his Basset Hound owner.

 

I don’t think I could look at crime-fictional authors and their canines without mentioning Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Here he is with his terrier owner.

 

And anyone who knows me will know that I also couldn’t do a post on crime fiction without a mention of Agatha Christie. Here’s a young Ms. Christie with her Fox Terrier. It shouldn’t be surprising that dogs figure so often in her stories.

It’s not just fictional sleuths who are owned by dogs. Their creators often are, too. Thanks very much, Marina Sofia, for the inspiration. I’m really glad you got me thinking about this. Folks, give yourselves a treat and have a look at Marina Sofia’s excellent blog. Fine reviews, excellent poetry, and more await you there.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Hiatt’s My Dog and Me.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Louise Penny, Martin Walker, Sara Paretsky, Stephen King

I Can’t Explain All These Sounds That I Hear*

If you’re owned by a dog, then you’ve no doubt seen that dogs will prick their ears up and attend to the faintest of sounds. Dogs get a lot of information from what they hear, actually. My canine overlords, for instance, can easily tell the difference between the sounds of a delivery van (cue: a barking fit) and a waste-disposal van (not a reason for barking). Those who are owned by cats can probably tell similar stories about the ability of their overlords to detect sound.

As humans, our hearing isn’t as sensitive as is other animals’ hearing. But what we hear can still have a real impact. Studies show, for instance, that newborn babies can distinguish between their mothers’ voices and other, similarly-pitched, female voices.

It’s not always easy to write about what we hear, but those sensory details can add a lot to a story. And in a crime novel, details of sound can provide interesting clues or misdirection, to say nothing of added atmosphere.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band, for instance, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from a new client, Helen Stoner, who has an eerie story to tell. It seems that she and her sister Julia lived at an estate called Stoke Moran. Julia had begun hearing a strange series of noises during the night, and couldn’t make much sense of them. Then, one night, she suddenly died after some cryptic final words. Now, Helen’s been hearing the same weird noises that Julia heard. She doesn’t know what they are, either, but she’s afraid that she’s about to be the next victim. She wants Holmes to find out what’s going on, and he agrees. And he soon discovers that Helen was very wise to be concerned. As it turns out, those strange noises she and Julia heard are very important clues to the mystery.

Agatha Christie used sounds as both clues and ‘red herrings.’ In Death on the Nile, for instance, a new bride, Linnet Doyle, is shot on the second night of her honeymoon cruise of the Nile. The evidence points at first to her former best friend, Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, who’s on the same cruise. After all, Linnet ended up marrying Jackie’s former fiancé. But it’s soon shown that Jackie could not have committed the crime. Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise, and he works to find out who really killed the victim. Along the way, he learns of several sounds people heard at the time in question. Some are related to the crime; some aren’t. All add to the story. I see you, fans of Murder on the Orient Express

Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X introduces readers to Tokyo physicist/mathematician Dr. Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa. In the novel, police detective Shunpei Kusanagi investigates the murder of Shinji Togashi. Kusanagi suspects the victim’s ex-wife, Yasuko Hanaoka, of the crime. But he can’t find any convincing evidence against her. So, he brings in Galileo to consult on the case. It turns out that he’s up against a formidable opponent, though, in Tetsuya Ishigami, a mathematics teacher who lives in the same building as Yasuko Hanaoka. Ishigami has fallen in love with her and would do anything to protect her. As it turns out, sound plays an important role in this story. What is heard, not heard, and so on, all figure in.

Kwei Quartey’s Wife of the Gods introduces readers to Accra-based DI Darko Dawkins. In the novel, he is seconded to the small town of Ketanu, when the body of Gladys Mensah is discovered there. She was a promising medical student, with hopes of making a real difference in her community. At first, it’s hard to say how exactly she died, and there is talk of witchcraft. But it’s soon discovered that she was strangled. Dawkins is already at a bit of a disadvantage, since he’s not from the area (although his aunt and uncle live there). But he gets to know the various people in Gladys’ life. Bit by bit, Darko works out who might have had a motive for murder, and there’s more than one possibility. One of the things that helps him is that he has a very nuanced sense of hearing. He notices very subtle changes in voices, that indicate when someone is upset, or lying, or at the very least hiding something. He’s sensitive to other sounds, too, and they give him clues along the way as to what the truth is.

And then there’s Brian McGilloway’s The Nameless Dead. In one plot thread of this case, Garda Ben Devlin is asked to investigate a very strange phenomenon. Christine Cashell has reported hearing a baby cry on her baby monitor. But she and her partner have no children. They had wanted a family, but their son was stillborn, and they haven’t yet got rid of the baby things they’d bought (hence, the monitor). Christine swears that she’s not ‘hearing things,’ but if she’s not, then how can a monitor transmit infant cries if there’s no baby? Cashell is emotionally very fragile, but Devlin doesn’t think she’s either hallucinating or lying. So, he looks into the matter further. What he finds helps him in another case he’s investigating, and shows just how important sound can be.

And it really can. Not only does the effective use of sounds help an author to ‘show not tell,’ but it also allows for clues, misdirection, atmosphere, and lots more. Wait – just a second – was that footsteps I just heard?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bill Sheffield’s Hearing Things.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Brian McGilloway, Keigo Higashino, Kwei Quartey

These Are the Stories of Edgar Allan Poe*

As this is posted, it’s 176 years since Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue was first published in Graham’s Magazine. This is the story that introduced the world to C. Auguste Dupin, Poe’s detective. In the story, Dupin solves the murders of Madame L’Espanaye, and her daughter, Mademoiselle Camille L’Espanaye. This is often said to be the first ‘real’ detective story, although there are some who argue otherwise.

Whether or not you’re a fan of Poe, it’s hard to deny his influence on crime fiction. Just a quick look at The Murders in the Rue Morgue offers glimpses of several tropes that we see in later crime fiction.

For example, Dupin’s adventures are narrated by a friend and sidekick. Although this particular narrator isn’t named, the approach to storytelling is reflected in lots of other, more modern, crime fiction. To offer just a few examples, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories can tell you that they are, by and large, told by Holmes’ sidekick, Dr. Watson. Several of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories are narrated by his friend and sidekick, Captain Arthur Hastings. There are also a few in which the narrator is someone else.  And, much more recently, Chris Grabenstein’s John Ceepak/Danny Boyle novels are narrated in first person by Ceepak’s sidekick, Danny Boyle. In all of these cases (and they’re not the only one), we have a narrator who tells the story in first person, and gives the reader a different perspective on the main sleuth. This allows the author to share what the main sleuth is like without going into too much narrative detail. It also allows the author to share the sleuth’s thinking at a strategic point (more on that shortly).

In The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Dupin solves the murders through a process of logical reasoning and deduction. He doesn’t make claims based just on superficial evidence. Rather, he uses logic to put the facts together. In this, we see the beginnings of the sort of detective Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes turned out to be. Holmes might beg to differ – in fact, he does in A Study in Scarlet. He sees Dupin as not nearly as much of a genius as it may seem. That said, though, there are several parallels between Dupin’s way of putting evidence together, and that of Holmes. You might even argue that there are traces of this approach in some of the Ellery Queen stories.

Dupin doesn’t share his thought processes with the reader as he solves the mystery of the two murders in the story. Instead, he waits until the end to explain how he reached the conclusion. And we see that storytelling strategy in a great deal of crime fiction. For example, fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot will know that he admits to liking an audience. Several of the Poirot novels (I’m thinking, for instance, of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Five Little Pigs) include dramatic ‘big reveal’ scenes. The suspects are gathered, and Poirot names the murder, and then explains his thinking. Some of Patricia Wentworth’s Maude Silver novels are like that, and so are some of Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn novels. That dramatic scene in the drawing room, or a lounge, or some other place, where all of the suspects come together, is a trope that’s closely associated with the Golden Age. But it’s in more modern crime fiction, too. For instance, Margaret Maron’s One Coffee With has a similar sort of scene.

One of the witnesses in The Murders in the Rue Morgue is a clerk named Adolphe Le Bon. Due to a series of circumstances, he’s arrested for the crime and imprisoned. He claims he’s not guilty, and Dupin clears his name. This trope – the innocent person who’s wrongly accused – has become an integral part of the genre. Golden Age/classic, police procedural, PI, cosy, just about all of the sub-genres include plenty of examples of stories where the wrong person is accused, if not actually convicted. There are far too many examples for me to list them here. But they all add tension to the story.

Does this mean that The Murders in the Rue Morgue is without problems? No. Many people have argued that the explanation – the real story of the murders – is too improbable. What’s more, neither Dupin’s character nor that of his narrator is what we would now call ‘fleshed out.’ The focus in the story is entirely on the intellectual mystery. Modern readers would certainly notice this, and might call the story lacking on that score. There’s also the issue of the way the police are portrayed in the story. Poe doesn’t treat them with a great deal of respect. And there are several ‘isms’ in the story that modern readers would notice.

All of this said, though, The Murders in the Rue Morgue laid the groundwork for the modern detective story. We have a set of murders, a sleuth who makes sense of the evidence, and an invitation to the reader to ‘match wits’ with that sleuth. On that score, Poe’s work arguably deserves recognition. And, if you haven’t read the story, you might want to, just to see how it all arguably started.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lou Reed’s Edgar Poe.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Chris Grabenstein, Edgar Allan Poe, Ellery Queen, Margaret Maron, Patricia Wentworth