Category Archives: Arthur Conan Doyle

There’ll be One Child Born and a World to Carry On*

One of the many things that parents do is pass on certain traditions to their children. That’s one important way in which culture is perpetuated, if you think about it. Those traditions may be religious, but they certainly don’t have to be. It could be a family tradition of winemaking, or a particular way of cooking, or something else. And it’s interesting to see how many of those traditions people follow when they become adults.

We see that in crime fiction, just as we do in real life. For example, John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, the first of his Dr. Gideon Fell novels, features a family tradition among the Starberths. It seems that several generations of Starberth men served as governors of Chatterham Prison, until the place fell into disuse. The prison itself is in ruins now, but it’s still part of an important Starberth family tradition. Each Starberth male spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. As proof of his presence, he’s to open the safe in the room, and read and follow the instructions on a piece of paper that’s kept there. Tragically, too, many of those Starberth men have met with untimely ends. There’s even talk the family is cursed. Now, it’s Martin Starberth’s turn. He’s not looking forward to the experience, but he prepares himself to do what he’s supposed to do. On the night of his birthday, though, he dies of an apparent fall from the balcony of the Governor’s Room. It turns out, though, that Starberth’s death was no accident at all. Fell, who lives nearby, investigates with some help from an American guest, Tad Rampole. They find that this death has very little to do with a family curse. You’re right, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Musgrave Ritual.

Sometimes, a tradition that’s passed on is professional. The child of a police officer or firefighter, etc., follows the same path. And that can lead to a lot of success. But it doesn’t always work out that way. For example, in James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, we meet L.A.P.D. officer Edmund ‘Ed’ Exley. He bears the heavy burden of being the son of revered police detective, Preston Exley. And Exley the elder intends that his son will go as far as possible in the department. So, he pushes him to climb the proverbial ladder, and berates him when he doesn’t achieve. For his part, Ed works hard and does everything ‘by the book’ – too much so for plenty of people. And the pressure he feels from his father turns him into a player of politics. That has an important impact when seven civilians are attacked by the police – and, two years later, when there’s a shooting at a nightclub. It’s an interesting look at the way a family professional tradition can impact the next generation.

Some family traditions are religious/spiritual in nature. That’s the case with Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee. He is a member of the Navajo Nation, and a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. Although he’s certainly familiar with dominant-culture society, Chee prefers to follow the traditions of his own people. In fact, early in the series, he studies to become a yata’ali – a singer/healer. Chee’s maternal uncle, Frank Sam Nakai, is pleased about this. He himself is a singer, and wants to pass along those rituals. And there aren’t as many young people interested in learning them as there were. So, Nakai works with Chee when he can, and teaches him what he needs to know.

We also see the passing on of religious traditions in Faye Kellerman’s Rina Lazarus/Peter Dekcer series. When we first meet these sleuths, Lazarus lives with her two sons, Jaakov ‘Jake’ and Shmuel ‘Sammy’ in Yeshivat Ohavei Torah, an Orthodox Jewish community near Los Angeles. Her religion is extremely important to her, so she wants to pass it on to her children. It’s a bit difficult, because she is a widow, but Lazarus keeps the house in the kosher style, speaks to her sons in both English and Hebrew, and so on. They study religion and religious history at the community’s school, too. The other members of the community do much the same thing. It’s part of the bond among the people who live there.

Peter May’s The Blackhouse explores a different sort of tradition. In that novel, Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod is seconded to the Isle of Lewis when a murder occurs there that resembles one he’s already investigating. It’s hoped that, if the same person committed both crimes, it’ll be easier to catch the killer if both teams are working on the case. For Macleod, this is a homecoming, since he was raised on the Isle of Lewis. But it’s not a joyful prospect, as he had his own reasons for leaving in the first place. As Macleod works through the investigation, we learn about life on the Isle of Lewis. One of the traditions that’s a part of this story is that every year, a group of men travel to An Sgeir, an outcropping of rock fifty miles away. They spend two weeks there, harvesting guga, young gannet that nest on the rock. It’s dangerous and physically very demanding, and not everyone gets to go. In fact, it’s a real mark of distinction to be one of those who do. As new places in the group open up, people ‘sponsor’ sons, nephews, or even grandsons, to join the team. In that way, the tradition of harvesting the guga has been passed along for as long as anyone knows.

And that’s the thing about passing along traditions. People want to preserve parts of their culture, or they want to pass along their profession. So they teach their children, hoping that they will preserve what they’ve learned.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Laura Nyro’s And When I Die. Listen to her version,  Peter, Paul and Mary’s version, and the recording by Blood, Sweat & Tears, and see which one you prefer.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Faye Kellerman, James Ellroy, John Dickson Carr, Peter May, Tony Hillerman

You Know the People Were Quite Pleased ‘Cause the Outlaw Had Been Seized*

As this is posted, it’s 137 years since Australian bushranger Ned Kelly was captured. Later that year, he was hanged. His exploits became the stuff of legend; in fact, some of Australia’s highest awards for crime fiction are called the Ned Kelly Awards – the ‘Neddies.’

That dramatic sort of confrontation and capture certainly makes the news in real life. And it can add suspense and tension to a crime novel, too. Of course, some stories don’t lend themselves well to this sort of drama, and are better off with a lower-key unmasking of the killer. But when it suits the story, that sort of confrontation can add much to a crime story.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Red-Headed League, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate a strange case brought to them by pawnbroker Jabez Wilson. Through an unusual series of events, he was offered a job that promised easy money. All he had to do to get paid was copy the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Then, the job abruptly ended. Now, Wilson wants to know what was really going on with this job. Holmes takes the case, and he and Watson begin to investigate. What they find is that this strange job is connected to a gang of robbers who want to tunnel into a bank. The confrontation between the ‘good guys’ and the robbers adds tension to this story.

In Patricia Moyes’ Dead Men Don’t Ski, Scotland Yard’s Henry Tibbett and his wife, Emmy, take a skiing trip to the small town of Santa Chiara, in the Italian Alps. They’ll be staying at the Bella Vista Hotel, which caters to such holidays. One day, one of the other hotel guests, Fritz Hauser, is shot, and his body discovered on the downward-facing ski lift that runs between the hotel and the village below. Capitano Spezzi and his team begin to investigate. And, once he finds out that Tibbett is with Scotland Yard, the two men slowly begin to work together. They find that there are plenty of suspects among the hotel guests. Hauser was involved in smuggling, blackmail, and other dirty business, and no-one mourns his loss. Bit by bit, Tibbett and Spezzi find out who the killer is. And there’s a dramatic scene – a ski chase – when the killer is unmasked. That confrontation adds to the tension in the novel.

Michael Connelly uses such tension in several of his stories. For instance, in The Black Ice, LAPD detective Harry Bosch happens to hear of the suicide of fellow copper Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore. He goes to the scene of the suicide, and it’s not long before he notices a few things that aren’t consistent with suicide. The official word on the case is that Moore had ‘gone dirty’ and then committed suicide. But Bosch isn’t so sure of that. He persists, as is his way, and discovers that this death is not what it seems. The trail leads to a dangerous Mexican drugs gang, and to Moore’s background. Towards the end of the novel, there’s a dramatic showdown between the Bosch and some allies he’s made, and some of the ‘bad guys’ in the novel, and it adds a great deal to the suspense of the story.

Meg Gardiner’s China Lake is a thriller, so you’d expect that it would include a dramatic confrontation. And it does. In the novel, we are introduced to science fiction author and legal researcher Evan Delaney. She’s at the funeral of an AIDS activist friend one day, when the mourners are accosted by a fanatic religious group called the Remnant. That’s when Delaney learns that her ex-sister-in-law, Tabitha, has joined the group. Worse, Tabitha’s made it clear that she wants custody of her six-year-old son, Luke, who’s been in the care of his father, Delaney’s brother, Brian. And the Remnant is willing to take all sorts of measures to get Luke away from Brian. They engage in vandalism, harassment, and more. Then, Pastor Pete, the leader of the Remnant, is found murdered in Brian’s home, with Brian being the chief suspect. Now, Delaney has to clear her brother’s name, try to keep Luke safe, and try to convince the police that the Remnant are much more dangerous people than is known. In the end, there’s a quite a confrontation…

And then there’s Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy, in which we meet Copenhagen detective Carl Mørck. In the novel, he’s just getting back to work after a line-of-duty incident in which he was badly injured. For several reasons, he’s put in charge of a new department – Department Q – which is dedicated to those cases ‘of special interest.’ In this case, that means cold cases. He’s given an assistant, Hafez al-Assad, but very few other resources. Still, he and Assad begin their duties. Their first case of interest is the five-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Linggaard. At the time she went missing, it was believed that she’d fallen overboard in a tragic ferry accident. But little pieces of evidence suggest otherwise, so Mørck and Assad look into the matter. And in the end, they find out the truth. There’s a dramatic confrontation in the novel between the police and a perpetrator that adds quite a lot of tension to the last bit of the novel.

And that’s the thing about those confrontations and captures. When they’re done well, they can add a lot of suspense to a novel, even if it’s not a thriller. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s Smackwater Jack.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Meg Gardiner, Michael Connelly, Patricia Moyes

I’m Almost Through My Memoirs*

As this is posted, it’s 70 years since the very first publication of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl in Amsterdam. As you’ll know, it’s the story of the Frank family, especially their years of hiding from the Nazis. It’s had a powerful impact on generations of readers; and is required reading in many schools. If you haven’t yet visited the Anne Frank Huis/Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, may I strongly encourage you to do so. It’s a memorable, very moving, experience.

Diaries and memoirs are fascinating ways to learn about a lifestyle, a time period, and a particular person. Even though they almost always have biases (they are written from one person’s perspective), they’re often quite informative. I’m sure you’ll be able to think of many more examples of powerful diaries and memoirs than I could. I know, fans of Agatha Christie’s autobiography.

And this form of writing certainly finds its way into crime fiction. After all, not everyone may be eager to have certain things about them published in a diary. And sometimes, diaries and memoirs are effective ways to tell a story (right, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories?).

Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is, by and large, a memoir told from the point of view of Dr. James Sheppard, who lives in the small village of Kings Abbot. The small town is rocked when retired manufacturing titan Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study one night. The most likely suspect is the victim’s stepson, Captain Ralph Paton. But Paton’s fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, insists that he’s innocent. She asks Hercule Poirot, who’s taken the house next to Sheppard’s, to clear Paton’s name, and he agrees. Christie also used the ‘memoir’ form of storytelling in Murder in Mesopotamia, which is told from the point of view of a nurse, Amy Leatheran. She’s hired by an expedition team that’s working a few hours from Baghdad, so she’s on the scene when Louise Leidner, who’s married to the team’s leader, is murdered. Poirot is in the area, and is persuaded to investigate. In both of those cases, we get an interesting perspective on the crimes, victims, and perpetrators.

In Barbara Vine’s (AKA Ruth Rendell) The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy, famous novelist Gerald Chandliss dies of a heart attack. His grief-stricken daughter, Sarah, decides to cope with her loss by writing a biography of her father, combined with a memoir of what it was like to grow up with him. The more she probes into his life, though, the more Sarah sees that he wasn’t at all the man she thought he was. His name, as it turns out, wasn’t even Gerald Chandliss. It turns out that Sarah’s planned memoir uncovers all sorts of dark secrets that she never imagined were there.

As Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House begins, Arthur Bryant, of the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) is working on his memoirs. He’s been a part of the PCU since 1940, when it was established, and certainly has plenty of stories to tell. As he’s looking through the materials he has on the PCU’s first case, Bryant makes a shocking discovery, and decides to investigate it. Shortly after Bryant starts asking questions, a bomb blast destroys the PCU offices, taking him with it. Bryant’s grieving police partner, John May, decides to find out who set the bomb. To do that, May goes back to the 1940 Palace Phantom case that Bryant was investigating when the PCU offices were destroyed. At the time, there were several bizarre accidents and deaths connected with London’s Palace Theatre and its production of Orpheus. Someone wanted very badly to shut down the production, and took several drastic measures to do just that. As May looks into the case again, he slowly picks up on the trail Bryant was following, and makes the discovery that Bryant made. And that solves the present case, as well as answering some important questions about the 1940 case.

And then there’s Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors. In that novel, Alec Dennet, who was a member of Gough Whitlam’s 1972-75 Australian government, has decided to write his memoirs. He and his editor, Lorraine Starke, are visiting Uriarra, a writer’s retreat near Canberra, so that they can focus on the work. One night, they’re both murdered. Australian Federal Police (AFP) officer Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen is reluctantly persuaded to return from a leave of absence and investigate the murders. Chen is interested anyway, since his Ph.D. work has to do with Australia’s political history. Soon, he and his team discover that the manuscript that Dennet and Starke were working on has disappeared. This opens up several possibilities when it comes to suspects. For one thing, there are still several people in high places who might be embarrassed or worse if some truths about them come out in the memoirs. For another, there are several foreign governments who are also interested in the content of that manuscript.

And that’s the thing about diaries and memoirs. They can shed fascinating light on a person, an era, or an event. And, in fiction, they can be an interesting way to tell a story. But they can also be dangerous, especially when their contents might put someone at risk.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Sondheim’s  I’m Still Here.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Barbara Vine, Christopher Fowler, Kel Robertson, Ruth Rendell

You Thought You Were Clever*

If there’s anything that crime fiction should teach us, it’s that very few people are as clever as they think they are. Whether a character tries to double-cross a partner in crime, evade detection, or something else, there aren’t that many characters who get away with it.

Of course, there are exceptions (right, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia?). But, in the main, it’s just not safe to try to be overly clever. And we see that all through the genre.

For instance, at the beginning of Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, we are introduced to a dancer who calls herself Nadina. From the beginning, we learn that she is planning to double-cross a man called the Colonel, for whom she’s worked. It’s not spoiling the story to say that, not long afterwards, Nadina is found dead in an empty house. Her death is soon connected with the mysterious death of a man at an underground station. And both deaths turn out to be related to jewel thefts and international intrigue. Anne Bedingfield gets caught up in this web when she witnesses the tragedy at the station. She happens to find a piece of paper that fell out of the dead man’s pocket, and works out that the message on it refers to the upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. Impulsively, Anne books passage on the ship, and gets more adventure than she’d planned. It turns out that the two victims weren’t nearly as clever as they thought they were.

Neither is Lewis Winter, whom we meet in Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. He’s a small-time drug dealer who’s trying to make a name for himself in the Glasgow underworld. And he’s caught the attention of Peter Jamieson and his right-hand man, John Young. That’s going to be a big problem, because Jamieson is a ‘rising star’ in the criminal world, and has a lot more power than Winter thinks. And Winter isn’t nearly as clever as he thinks he is. Still, Jamieson and Young don’t want an upstart like Winter getting any credibility, so they hire Callum MacLean to take care of their problem. He’s got the skills and the reputation to do the job, and soon puts things into motion. Things don’t go exactly according to plan. Still, I can say that Winter’s belief that he’s cleverer than Jamieson and Young turns out to have disastrous consequences.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Enigma of China concerns the death of Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee. The real action starts when an online watchdog group targets him. They’ve been working to expose corruption at all levels of government, and they’ve found evidence that he may be guilty. On the one hand, the Party leaders distrust this group and the members of it distrust the Party. On the other hand, the Party needs the information that the group provides in order to monitor its highly placed members. In this case, Zhou isn’t as clever as he thinks he is, because the government finds out the information that the watchdog group has. Zhou is promptly arrested, and held over for trial. One morning, he’s discovered dead in his hotel room, apparently of a suicide. At least that’s what the government wants on the police report. Chief Inspector Chen Cao, who is well aware of the government’s power, is at first prepared to ‘rubber-stamp’ the official explanation for Zhou’s death. But he notices a few things that aren’t consistent with suicide. So, very carefully and very quietly, he and his assistant, Yu Guangming, look into the matter. And they find that this death was very much a murder.

In Patricia Melo’s The Body Snatcher, we are introduced to an unnamed narrator who makes a startling discovery one day. He witnesses a small plane crash into a river near the Brazilian town of Corumbá, not far from the Bolivian border. He rushes to the scene, but he’s too late to save the pilot. But he’s not too late to find and take a backpack and a watch from the dead man. When he gets home, he’s startled to find that the backpack is full of cocaine. Instead of reporting the matter to the police, the narrator decides to sell the cocaine, just this one time, and make some money so that he and his girlfriend, Sulamita, can start a new life together. So, he partners with his friend, Moacir, who lives nearby and who seems to know all the right people for this sort of transaction. Soon enough, the two have made the connection they need. And that’s when the trouble really starts. It turns out that the dead pilot was involved with the drug dealers Moacir’s met; and they are none too happy at what they see as a double-cross. After all, that was their cocaine. Now, the narrator and Moacir, who aren’t nearly as clever as they thought they were, will have to come up with a large amount of money, very quickly, if they’re going to stay alive. The narrator comes up with a plan, but it just gets them deeper and deeper into trouble. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to try to be too clever…

And then there’s Ray Berard’s Inside the Black Horse, which takes place in a small New Zealand town on the North Island. The real action in the story begins when Pio Morgan decides he’s going to rob the Black Horse Bar and Casino. Morgan’s in debt to a vicious local pot grower who’s duped him. He’s been given a ‘friendly warning’ to pay up. Quickly. He feels completely trapped, and decides that the best way to get a lot of money very quickly is to commit a robbery. The Black Horse offers off-course betting services, so there’s sometimes quite a lot of money in the place, and that’s why Pio has targeted it. But he’s chosen a bad day. Local drugs courier Rangi Wells happens to be in the pub at the time, and his drugs deal is interrupted; that’s going to have serious consequences. The robbery goes badly wrong and there’s a murder. What’s more, the pub’s owner, Toni Bourke, is out a great deal of money, and the off-track betting authorities and police are very interested in what happened. So is Toni’s insurance company, Now, Pio is on the run from the drugs dealer he owes, the police, and the insurance company. And it’s all because he thought he might be able to outwit them.

As these quick examples show, it’s never a good idea to try to be too clever. Sooner or later, it’s bound to catch up. Which examples have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Long Blondes’ Too Clever by Half.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Malcolm Mackay, Patricia Melo, Qiu Xiaolong, Ray Berard

How the Mighty Have Fallen*

Being powerful certainly has its advantages. Things get done on your say-so, and you have access to things that you otherwise wouldn’t. It’s not surprising that a lot of people would like to be powerful.

But that’s just the problem. People in power can be very vulnerable, because others want that power. And there’s no guarantee that someone with power will stay in that powerful position. Just ask Thomas Cromwell, who was arrested on this date in 1540. As you’ll know, he was one of King Henry VIII’s most trusted advisors. And he had a great deal of influence. But that didn’t stop the king having him arrested and, a bit more than a month later, executed.

Hilary Mantel’s historical novels, Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, and the upcoming The Mirror and the Light, tell the story of Cromwell’s rise, fall, and execution. They may not be, strictly speaking, considered crime fiction. But there are plenty of crimes mentioned in them. And they show how illusory power can be. And there are plenty of other historical figures whose stories show that, too. I’m sure you can think of many more than I could. We certainly see it in historical crime fiction, right, fans of C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels?

We see how vulnerable the powerful can be in lots of crime fiction, actually. For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from the King of Bohemia. He’s soon to marry a wealthy Scandinavian princess, and that union is expected to advance both of their fortunes. But there’s one big problem: an actress named Irene Adler. She and the king are former lovers, and she has a compromising photograph of them. The king wants Holmes to get that photograph, because he knows that if his fiancée finds out about it, the marriage won’t happen. Holmes agrees, and soon learns that he is up against a most worthy adversary. In fact, as fans of the Holmes stories know, she bests Holmes.  In this case, power has advantages for the king, but it also leaves him at a disadvantage.

In Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows, which takes places in the late 1990s, we are introduced to the wealthy, powerful families who live in an enclave called The Cascade Heights Country Club. Known as ‘The Heights,’ it’s a gated, ultra-exclusive community located about 30 miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthiest and most powerful people can afford to live there, and even they are ‘vetted’ carefully. The people who live in The Heights are protected from the daily struggles that a lot of people in Argentina face, and they are in completely unassailable social positions. Everything changes, though, when Argentina’s economic problems find their way into the community. The very power that has protected its residents also means that they have to live up their reputations. Many aren’t prepared to leave the community, find more affordable places to live, and so on. And for some, their social status has become so important that they can’t imagine life without it. And that leads to real tragedy.

Olavo Bettencourt learns how vulnerable power can make a person in Edney Silvestre’s Happiness is Easy. He’s an advertising executive whose services are much in demand. And, with Brazil’s political process getting more open, Bettencourt has found that political candidates are advertising more and more. And this means he’s steadily acquiring more and more power. But he’s trapped, although he’s not really aware of it, because he’s engaged in several corrupt business deals. He’s certainly being manipulated more than he thinks. That becomes all too painfully clear when a gang decides to kidnap his son, Olavinho. It’s a logical choice, given Bettancourt’s money and power. But the gang abducts the wrong boy. Instead of Olavinho, they take the son of the Bettancourts’ housekeeper. Now, the gang has to decide what to do with the boy they kidnapped, and what to do about their original plans. And Bettancourt has to decide how much to tell the media and the police. After all, if he shares too much information, he could be vulnerable to prosecution. Not enough, and the result could be tragic.

Fans of Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao series can tell you that these novels often focus on those in power – the High Cadre. On the one hand, they are very important people. They make the decisions, they have all of the ‘perks’ that power brings, and so on. On the other hand, because they’re in such enviable positions, there are plenty of other people who would like nothing better than to take that power for themselves. So, even though they tend to protect each other, they are also very vulnerable to one another. And, they’re vulnerable to the ‘court of public opinion.’ Their public reputation can be, and is, used against them.

Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache isn’t what you’d call wealthy. And he’s not at the proverbial top of the tree when it comes to his position within the Sûreté du Québec. But he’s legendary in terms of his ability to solve cases. And he’s well-known as a person who supports his teammates, and coaches his juniors in helpful ways. So, in that sense, he has a certain amount of ‘clout’ within the Sûreté. And that’s part of what makes him vulnerable. In one story arc, we learn that several people would like to see him fail, and will stop at very little to succeed in that.

And that’s the thing about power. It’s most definitely got its advantages. But it also puts a person in a very vulnerable position. These are only a few examples. Over to you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Hoodoo Gurus.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, C.J. Sansom, Claudia Piñeiro, Edney Silvestre, Hilary Mantel, Louise Penny, Qiu Xiaolong