Category Archives: Arthur Conan Doyle

Was I So Unwise*

Unwise ChoicesI’m sure you’ve had those moments. Someone you know, who’s otherwise an intelligent person, is doing something really foolish. You may even think (or say), ‘How can you be so stupid?’

There are lots of reasons why smart people do stupid things. All sorts of factors (denial, greed, and fear being a few) play roles in what we do; intelligence is only one of them. We all have those ‘blind spots’ though. And in crime fiction, when smart people make foolish choices, the result can bring real trouble. This sort of plot thread has to be done carefully; otherwise, it takes away from a character’s credibility, and can pull a reader out of a story. Still, when it’s done well, it can make for a solid layer of suspense and character development.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Red-Headed League, we are introduced to pawn shop owner Mr. Jabez Wilson. One day he visits Sherlock Holmes, bringing with him an unusual story. His assistant showed him a newspaper advertisement placed by the Red-Headed League, inviting red-headed men to apply for membership in the group, and for a job. Wilson went along to apply, and was chosen for the job. It turned the work was easy, too: copying the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The only stipulation was that he was not to leave his work during ‘office hours.’ Then one day, Wilson went to his new job only to find the building locked and a sign indicating that the Red-Headed League was disbanded. He wants Holmes to help him solve the mysteries behind these weird occurrences, and Holmes agrees. Wilson isn’t a particularly stupid person (although he could be accused of being a bit credulous). But he seems to have had a sort of ‘blind spot’ about this job, which turns out to be connected to a gang of robbers who wanted to use his pawn shop to tunnel into a nearby bank.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot retires (or so he thinks) to the village of King’s Abbot. He is soon drawn into a case of murder, though, when retired manufacturing magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study. The most likely suspect is his stepson Ralph Paton. Not only had the two quarreled about money, but also, Paton went missing shortly after the murder and hasn’t been seen since. But Paton’s fiancée Flora Ackroyd doesn’t believe he’s guilty, and she asks Poirot to investigate. Ackroyd was a wealthy man, so there are plenty of suspects, one of whom is his widowed sister-in-law (and Flora’s mother). It turns out that each of these suspects is hiding something, and in the case of Mrs. Ackroyd, it’s a stupid decision on the part of an otherwise smart enough woman. She was eager for money, and Ackroyd wasn’t exactly a generous person. She ran up bills she couldn’t afford to pay, and became a victim of some unscrupulous moneylenders.

There’s a chilling example of smart people doing very unwise things in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. George and Jacqueline Coverdale are well off and well educated. You wouldn’t think they’d do a lot of foolish things. But when they decide to hire a housekeeper, Jacqueline does a very stupid thing indeed. She hires Eunice Parchman without doing any real checking into her background, her previous experience, or much of anything else. Still, Eunice settles in and at first, all goes well enough. But Eunice has a secret – one she will go to any lengths to keep from her employers. When that secret accidentally comes out one day, the result is tragic for everyone. And it all might have been prevented if Jacqueline had done a little background checking before making her hiring decision.

In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, we meet science fiction writer Zack Walker and his journalist wife Sarah. Walker is concerned about the family’s safety, and decides that they’d be better off moving from the city to a safer, suburban home. The cost of living is lower, the amenities are better, and so he convinces his wife to make the move. All goes well enough at the very beginning, although the children aren’t happy. But then one day, Walker goes to the main sales office of their new housing development to complain about some needed repairs to the home. During his visit, he witnesses an argument between one of the sales executives and local environmentalist Samuel Spender. Later, Walker finds Spender’s body in a nearby creek. He calls the police, who interview him – a wise enough decision. But then, one day during a shopping trip with his wife, Walker accidentally discovers a handbag left in a supermarket cart. He thinks it belongs to his wife, and takes it, only later discovering that it doesn’t belong to her. Instead of taking it back to the supermarket or to the police, Walker keeps it, hoping to return it to the owner himself. And that gets him more and more deeply involved in a tangled case of fraud and murder. In the end, his family gets in much more danger in the suburbs than they ever did in the city.

And then there’s Donna Leon’s A Question of Belief. In one plot thread of that novel, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello has gotten concerned about his aunt, Zia Anita. An otherwise intelligent woman, she’s been behaving oddly lately. For one thing, she’s taken what Vianello thinks is an unhealthy interest in astrology. As if that’s not enough, she’s been withdrawing money from the family business and giving it to a man called Stefano Gorini. The money is hers to do with as she wishes, so she’s not stealing it. But the family is worried about the choices she’s making. Vianello asks his boss, Commissario Guido Brunetti, to look into the matter, and Brunetti agrees. He does some background checking on Gorini, and finds that the man has been in trouble with the law before. In fact, he lost his medical license. Now he’s back in business again, promising ‘miracle’ cures that he can’t deliver. In this case, Zia Anita wants so badly to believe in Gorini that she’s made some very unwise choices.

And that’s the thing. Even the smartest of us sometimes have ‘blind spots,’ and make some very foolish choices. The consequences aren’t always drastic, although they can be embarrassing. But sometimes, they’re devastating.

ps. You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the many crime novels in which otherwise intelligent people make really stupid romantic choices. Too easy.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ The Night Before.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Donna Leon, Linwood Barclay, Ruth Rendell

Things Are Going Great, and They’re Only Getting Better*

Multimedia and Other DevelopmentsWhen most of us think of reading a story or novel, we think about opening a book or clicking on an ebook link and reading, turning or swiping pages as we go. Lots of people also experience stories by listening to them, too, either through podcasts or as audio books. Those traditions (reading in the ‘regular’ way and listening to stories) have been with us for a very long time.

But times change. So does technology. So does our knowledge of how people learn from what they read, and how young people read. And this means that the options for experiencing stories are changing, too. This is a broad topic, so I won’t be able to do justice to it in one post. Hopefully these few examples will suffice to show you what I mean.

One of the many changes we’ve seen in the last years is the availability of crime fiction classics in graphic novel form. Several of Agatha Christie’s novels, for instance, have been re-published as graphic novels. For instance, Ordeal by Innocence is, as Christie fans will know, the story of the murder of Rachel Argyle. Her adopted son Jacko was arrested, tried and convicted in connection with the killing, and died in prison. Two years later, Dr. Arthur Calgary visits the Argyle home, Sunnyside, with news he thinks will please the family. He can conclusively prove that Jacko Argyle was not a murderer. He wasn’t able to give evidence at the trial, because he had amnesia. But he wants to put things right now. Far from being grateful to Calgary, the family members don’t want this case brought up again. They know that if Jacko was innocent, then one of them is a murderer. This novel, and others by Christie, have been recast as graphic novels by Chandre, and many people find them enjoyable. What’s more, research suggests that, for struggling and reluctant young readers, graphic novels can provide an important way to experience a story and build reading skills.

Several of Arthur Conan Doyle’s works have also been adapted as graphic novels. One of those is The Hound of the Baskervilles, adapted by J.R. Parks and Vinod Kumar. That classic story of a supposed family curse, and mysterious deaths associated with it, has been one of Conan Doyle’s more popular Sherlock Holmes stories. And it was one of only four full-length Holmes novels. Many people argue that making this and the other Holmes stories available in graphic form helps interest new generations in the Holmes canon. And, as I say, there is research that supports such formats, especially for struggling and reluctant readers, as well as those who are language learners.

It’s not just a matter of graphic novels, either. The ‘photo you see is of a video game version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. In that game, players take on the role of a character who ends up on Indian Island with the ten people Christie depicts in the novel. As the story goes on, the player’s task is to find the clues and discover who’s responsible for the killings that take place. The game permits the user to ‘travel’ from room to room, ‘talk’ with the various characters and so on. And this isn’t even the most updated of video games. Christie’s The ABC Murders, for instance, is available for both Playstation and X-Box users.  The modern gaming industry has made possible a whole new way of experiencing a classic story.

Stories can also be published, co-written, shared and so on – on telephones. Apps such as Wattpad allow readers to experience a story on any device that can host the app.  Such apps are flexible, too, allowing authors to make changes or add to a story instantly. They can write a story a little at a time, much like stories told in serial form in newspapers and magazines. My Wattpad account is right here, so you can see what Wattpad is like.

And it doesn’t stop there. Twitter users will know that there are stories written in the 140-character-at-a-time-format, and then sent out to Twitter followers. This allows for a lot of flexibility, too, since Twitter allows one to include a ‘photo or video as part of a tweet.

In fact, so does Wattpad (and it’s not the only app with this capability). Certain apps allow the author to integrate ‘photos, videos and audios, so as to make stories multimedia experiences. And there is logic to it. Research has shown for years (to my satisfaction, anyway) that we don’t just think and know in one way. We all have different intelligences, as Howard Gardner puts it. Those intelligences include visual and musical as well as linguistic. If that’s true, so the logic would dictate, why not provide a story that allows the reader to follow the plot on more than one cognitive level?

Not everyone is happy with these new developments, though. There are questions, for instance, about how such new formats help young people build actual reading fluency. And for many people, there is nothing like the feeling of opening a paper book and reading the words, letting their imaginations fill in the gaps. Others have concerns about ‘watering down’ books by adding multimedia elements. Still others wonder about things like focus and attention spans if young people don’t experience books as they were originally written.

What do you think of all of this possibility? Is a story still a story if it’s told in a multimedia format? In the form of a video game? If you’re a writer, what do you think the implications are for your work? It may not just be a matter of deciding whom you’d like to play the role of your main character in a TV or film adaptation. For the author, this could mean working with game developers, graphic artists and others in the visual arts field to add different components to your stories. On the one hand, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to add a video of, say, a rainstorm or ocean if that’s the context for your story? Or a street map? On the other, is that necessary? Or even desirable? It’s certainly not a settled matter, but, technology being what it is, I doubt it will go away soon.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Timbuk-3’s The Future’s So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle

It’s Like a Dream Come True*

Dreams and WishesMost of us have dreams and wishes. A lot of times they don’t come true, but that doesn’t stop people dreaming. After all, some dreams do happen. But an old saying goes,
 

‘Be careful what you wish for…’
 

and that’s not bad advice. Sometimes what seems like a dream come true doesn’t turn out to be that way at all.

There’s certainly plenty of that plot point in crime fiction, and that makes sense. Discovering that one’s dream job/home/partner is anything but can add solid suspense to a story. And that’s to say nothing of the motive it can provide for all sorts of things.

We see that, for instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Red-Headed League. Pawnbroker Jabez Wilson responded to an unusual job advertisement in a local newspaper, placed by the League of Red-Headed Men. The main qualification seemed to be that the successful applicant must have red hair. Wilson was told that the money was reasonable and the work easy, and he is certainly red-haired; so he decided to apply. Much to his surprise, he was selected and soon began his work. His duties were simple: to copy the Encyclopaedia Britannica. All went well at first, and seemed like a perfect way to add to his income. Everything changed one day, though, when he came to the league’s offices, only to find a sign indicating that the Red-Headed League was disbanded. Wilson wants to know what happened to the league, so he asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate. As it turns out, the league was a cover for a nefarious plot to rob a nearby bank.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds, Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who poisoned Marie Marisot, a French moneylender whose business name was Madame Giselle. She was poisoned during a flight from Paris to London, so the only possible suspects are her fellow passengers. And it turns out that more than one of them had a motive. Madame Giselle’s business worked in an unusual way. She would lend money to people after she’d found out damaging or at least compromising, information about them. That information served as collateral, to be held over those who wouldn’t or couldn’t pay what they owed. Here’s what one of her clients has to say about it:
 

‘‘But later she lent you more?’ [Poirot]
‘Yes, as much as I wanted. It seemed like a miracle at the time.’’
 

That dream come true turns out to be a nightmare for this client, whose debt soon ran so high that it was impossible to pay it back. That was when Madame Giselle threatened to reveal some very uncomfortable truths…

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives begins as Walter and Joanna Eberhart and their two children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. At first, the town seems like a dream come true – exactly what they’ve wanted. The taxes are low, the schools are good, the new house is just what they hoped for, and the children are settling in. Then, Joanna’s new friend Bobbie Markowe begins to suspect that there is something very wrong going on in Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t believe Bobbie. But little by little, she comes to see that Bobbie was probably right. And the closer she gets to the truth of what’s going on, the more nightmarish it gets.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, we are introduced to Mallory and Kate Lawson. Mallory’s become ‘burned out’ as a teacher/headmaster, and started to pull away from his family. Kate loves her husband, but can’t deny the strain in their family. Then, they get news that seems like a dream come true. Mallory’s Aunt Carey has died (of natural causes) and left her nephew and his family a large fortune. All they need to do is move into the home she left behind, and ensure that her longtime friend and companion Benny Frayle has a permanent home there. That’s little enough to ask, so the Lawsons take up their new residence and get to know Benny. Soon, they’ll be able to start up their own publishing company, something they’ve always wanted. Now it seems that they’ll be able to live out their dream. It all starts to go sour, though, when the Lawson’s daughter Polly decides to get out of major financial mess by taking her share of the money sooner than her great-aunt’s will stipulates. Her plan backfires badly, which is trouble enough. Then, the family’s financial advisor Dennis Brinkley is killed. On the surface of it, it looks like an accident. But Benny suspects that it was murder, and she determines that the police should investigate. Finally, after another death, DCI Tom Barnaby and his assistant Gavin Troy look into the matter closely, and discover who’s behind the deaths. It just goes to show that inheriting a lot of money doesn’t solve everything.

Librarian Israel Armstrong gets a wish to come true in Ian Sansom’s The Case of the Missing Books. He wants a career as a librarian, but so far, he’s only been able to find a job as a bookseller’s assistant. It’s a ‘nowhere’ job, and not what he wants. So when he sees an advertisement for a librarian’s position at the Tumdrum and District Library in Ireland, he applies. To his happy surprise, he gets the job and travels from his home in North London to Ireland. He’s expecting that this will be the stepping-stone to a fine career that may lead to a very important position at a university library or even the British Library. It doesn’t turn out to be that way though. For one thing, when he arrives, Armstrong finds out that he’s actually been hired to drive the local mobile library, which is a rattletrap bus. The district has very little money, but is required by law to make library books available all over the area. This is the solution they’ve found, and for the urban-dwelling Armstrong, that’s bad enough. His living conditions (a makeshift bed in a chicken coop) just make matters worse. Then he discovers that the books he’s supposed to make available have disappeared. He’s going to have to find them if he’s going to keep his job and reputation.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers. In one plot thread of that novel, television journalist Rebecca Thorne works on an exposé of dubious developer Denny Graham. His stock in trade is luring investors with lush advertisements that feature luxurious retirement properties. He then hosts parties where he sells those potential investors on his properties and gets them to buy into that ‘dream retirement.’ But there’ve been several allegations that Graham is dishonest. When Thorne visits one of his properties, she finds that it’s completely undeveloped. What’s more, she talks with several people who’ve been bilked out of their money and had to severely retrench their lifestyles because of it.

So maybe there is some truth that old saying about being careful what you wish for. These are just a few examples. I haven’t even touched the numerous novels in which a dream marriage turns nightmarish – too easy. Over to you.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s Peg.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Caroline Graham, Ian Sansom, Ira Levin, Paddy Richardson

Very Strange*

Odd ThingsPeople tend to like things to make sense. When something is in a very odd place or doesn’t look as it normally does, we want to know why. And sometimes that feeling of ‘That’s funny, what’s that doing there?’ can get our curiosity roused. In fact, here’s what Isaac Asimov had to say on the subject:
 
‘The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny…”
 

It’s just as true in criminal investigation as it is in science, really. When something just doesn’t make sense or fit in, that’s often an important clue that something is going on. And in crime fiction, that often means a murder. Those odd things that just don’t make sense can also be important leads, too, so sleuths learn to pay attention to them.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, for instance, Commissioner Peterson breaks up a scuffle between a couple of local thugs and their would-be victim. The man they were targeting runs off, dropping a hat and a goose as he goes. Peterson picks up the goose and hat and goes on his way. He gives the goose to his wife, but when she starts to prepare it for cooking, she sees that there’s a jewel stuck in its craw. That’s, of course, a very odd place for a jewel to end up, and Peterson can’t make sense of it. So he takes it and the hat to Sherlock Holmes. Holmes makes quite a few deductions from the hat, and eventually, traces the gem back to its original source. The case isn’t quite as complicated as it sounds, but it all starts with one of those ‘That’s funny!’ moments.

Agatha Christie made use of those moments in several of her stories. In fact, Hercule Poirot often mentions how important it is that any theory of a crime account for every piece of the puzzle, however small. In Evil Under the Sun, for instance, notorious actress Arlena Stuart Marshall is strangled during a holiday she and her husband Kenneth are having at the Jolly Roger Hotel. For several reasons, Kenneth Marshall is an obvious suspect at first. But it’s proven that he couldn’t have committed the crime. So Poirot and the police have to look elsewhere. One of the important clues to the murder comes from something simple, but odd: a mid-morning bath. Anyone might take a bath, but oddly enough, no-one admits to it this time. It’s one of those funny things that don’t make sense. But it does once the puzzle is solved.

In Catherine Aird’s The Religious Body, we are introduced to the residents of the Convent of St. Anselm. One morning, Sister Mary Saint Anne seems to be missing from her bed at wake-up call. A search is made, and her body is soon discovered on the floor of the basement. At first it looks as though she had a tragic fall down the stairs. Soon enough, though, it becomes clear that she was murdered. Berebury Inspector C.D. Sloan and his assistant, Constable William Crosby, begin the investigation. One of the funny things they discover is that the victim’s spectacles are missing. She wouldn’t likely have left her room, let alone go around the convent, without them. They aren’t anywhere near the body, and they aren’t among her possessions. Nor does anyone else at the convent have them. The question of where they are points the detectives into a very interesting direction…

Fans of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series will know that all sorts of funny things happen in those novels. Just to give one example, in The Chalk Circle Man, Adamsberg and his team have a very odd case on their hands. Someone has been using blue chalk to draw circles on the pavement in different parts of Paris. What are those circles doing there? And why are such odd things found in some of them? It seems like the work of some mentally ill person. But then one day, a new circle is found – with a body in it. Now what seems like something just a little weird is a case of murder. As Adamsberg and his team work to find out who the killer is, there are two more murders. And it all starts with a funny circle of blue chalk.

Sometimes it’s just a very small thing that rouses curiosity. That’s what happens in Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall.  Early one morning, Gurdial Singh is making his morning rounds, delivering copies of the Globe and Mail to his customers in Market Place Tower, one of Toronto’s exclusive addresses. One of his ‘regulars’ is popular radio host Kevin Brace. When Singh gets to Brace’s condominium, he notices something odd right away: the door is partway open. Curious, he knocks on the door. When Brace comes to the door, he says,
 
‘I killed her, Mr. Singh…I killed her.’
 

And he says nothing else. Singh goes in and, as he later tells police, he discovers the body of Brace’s common-law wife Katherine Torn in one of the bathtubs. The ensuing investigation turns out to be complicated and difficult, but Detective Ari Greene and his team eventually get to the truth. And it all really starts because of Singh’s sense of ‘That’s funny’ when he sees the door partly open.

Those moments really do get people curious, and sometimes it’s impossible to resist trying to find out why something is in an odd place, or something that ought to be there isn’t. It’s in our nature to want those odd things to make sense. And those little oddities can add much to a crime novel.

ps. The ‘photo is of a scarf I saw on a walk the other day. What was it doing there? How did it get there? There are, of course, a number of different possible explanations. But still…that’s funny.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Penny Lane.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Catherine Aird, Fred Vargas, Isaac Asimov, Robert Rotenberg

Pile More Wood Upon the Fire*

FireplacesBeing able to make and control a fire has been an essential part of human survival. Fires have protected people from predators, cooked their food, and kept them warm for practically as long as there’ve been humans. So it makes sense that people are drawn to fireplaces and, in the outdoors, to campfires. When it’s cold outside, there’s nothing like a comfortable chair near the fireplace, with the fire lit, your beverage of choice poured, and a novel in your hand. Or a group of friends sitting near the fireplace, laughing and telling stories. Out in the open, a campfire means fresh-roasted food and coffee, warmth, and the kind of psychological intimacy that sharing that warmth brings.

It’s such an important part of life for so many people that it’s not surprising we see fireplaces and campfires so often in crime fiction. All sorts of conversations happen there, and sometimes, fireplaces provide clues, too.

Agatha Christie used fireplaces in several of her mysteries. I won’t mention particular titles or circumstances, as that would be giving away spoilers. But there are several Christie stories in which important information and clues are hidden on mantelpieces, squirreled away in and near hearths, and so on. There are a few, too (Taken at the Flood and Ordeal by Innocence come to my mind), where pokers, edges of hearths and the like turn out to be deadly.

In Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate the murder of Eva Ringmar, who is found dead in her bathtub. Her husband, Janek Mitter, is the most likely suspect. He was on the scene at the time of the killing, but was so drunk that he remembers little about that night. He claims that he loved his wife and did not kill her; but there is circumstantial evidence against him. So he is duly arrested, tried and convicted. Since he remembers so little about the night of the murder, he’s remanded to a mental hospital instead of a regular jail, with the hope being he’ll start to recover his memory. Van Veeteren isn’t convinced that Mitter is guilty. And when Mitter himself is brutally murdered, it seems clear that he was innocent. So Van Veeteren and his team look into the matter more deeply. One ‘person of interest’ is Andreas Berger, Eva Ringmar’s first husband. Berger has since married again and has a family, and he invites Van Veeteren to dinner at his home. Afterwards, they have a drink in front of a warm, inviting fire. Against this backdrop, Van Veeteren feels guilty about asking the difficult questions he has to ask (Berger is, after all, a suspect). The contrast between the friendly, homey scene and the ugly reality of interrogation make the process difficult for him. But he asks his questions, and Berger gives him some interesting background information.

In Vicki Delany’s Winter of Secrets, Trafalgar, British Columbia Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith investigates the deaths of Jason Wyatt-Yarmouth and Ewan Williams. These two young men were part of a group of six young people who were taking a skiing holiday in Trafalgar. One snowy night, the group’s rental SUV skids on an icy patch of road and goes into the Upper Kootenay River. Forensics tests show that Jason, who was driving, died as a result of the accident and exposure in the river. But Ewan had already been dead for several hours before the accident. So Smith and her boss, Sergeant John Winters, trace his last days and hours to find out what happened to him. One possibility – and the evidence suggests this might be the case – is that Ewan was killed at the B&B where the group was staying. There’s a chance he was hit with a fireplace poker, and the evidence includes traces of what could be fireplace ash. And, since Smith has been to the B&B, she knows it has a fireplace. Armed with this knowledge, Smith urges her boss to go to the B&B with a search team. Winters agrees, based on what Smith has told him. The only problem is, the fireplace at the B&B is gas-powered. Needless to say, the team leave with proverbial egg on their faces, and Smith has a lot of explaining to do.

There’s a very tense scene in front of a fireplace in Peter May’s The Blackhouse. Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod is seconded to the Isle of Lewis. One of the island’s residents, Angel Macritchie, has been murdered in a way that’s very similar to a murder that MacLeod is already investigating. It’s hoped that his working with the Lewis police will help to solve both cases. MacLeod grew up on Lewis, so he knows most of the people who live there, including a former friend Artair Macinnes. One night, he has dinner with Artair and his wife Marsaili. The situation is awkward, since Marsaili is MacLeod’s old love. Nonetheless, everyone behaves more or less politely. Then, Marsaili leaves to make up the spare room so that MacLeod can spend the night. The two men sit by the fire with a drink. At first it’s peaceful enough. But then, Artair, who’s had more than his share, stuns MacLeod with an attack of vitriol. At the end, he says something that shocks his guest and changes everything. The conversation is a real contrast to what’s supposed to be a friendly, warm setting.

Of course, not all ‘hearth’ scenes have to be indoors. In Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, for instance, Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest investigates the murder of geologist and former prospector Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins. The official police theory is that he was murdered as the result of a drunken quarrel. But Tempest isn’t sure that’s what really happened. Her questions and insistence on investigating get her into serious trouble with her boss, Bruce Cockburn. More than that, they put her in serious danger. In fact, she is brutally attacked. Not very long afterwards, she travels with her lover, JoJo Kelly, to his bush shack. She’s still suffering from what happened to her, but feels much better when she and JoJo arrive at the shack. There, she sees that her best friend, Hazel Flinders, has come to visit and lit a bluebush campfire. The company of people close to her and the warmth of the fire do much to help Emily start the healing process. It’s a very human, intimate scene that shows, among other things, the way a fire can draw people close.

There are a lot of other ‘hearth’ scenes in mysteries (I’m thinking, for instance, of Arthur Conant Doyle’s novels, Arthur Upfield’s novels, and Louise Penny’s novels). That context can provide a very effective background for the exchange of confidences, contrast with tension, and clues, too. Which have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s She’s Right on Time.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Håkan Nesser, Louise Penny, Peter May, Vicki Delany