Category Archives: Arthur Conan Doyle

You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)*

Police in Supporting RolesFor obvious reasons, police characters play critical roles in crime fiction. Even when the main character is a PI or perhaps amateur sleuth, we see a lot of police presence. It’s a bit tricky to write a story where the police play an important role, but aren’t main characters. On the one hand, the author wants the protagonist to be the main focus of attention, which means that character needs to be featured and developed. On the other, readers know that it’s the police who have the authority to make arrests, and who have the resources and government sanction to go after criminals. Most readers want their crime fiction plots to reflect that. And they want their police characters to be more than caricatures. It’s interesting to see how different authors have integrated police character when they are not (co)protagonists.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s police characters are arguably often used to highlight just how skilled his Sherlock Holmes is. Holmes fans will know that he has, in general, little respect for the police. He works most often with Inspector Tobias Gregson and of course with Inspector Lestrade, and refers to them as,
 

‘…the pick of a bad lot.’
 

To Holmes, the police of Scotland Yard are thick-headed and miss obvious evidence. Gergson and Lestrade are, perhaps, less guilty. At least they notice when things don’t add up. But even so, they certainly don’t save the day. That’s Holmes’ role.

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are definitely the ‘stars’ of his series. But Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Purley Stebbins also play roles in the stories. Rarely does Wolfe approve of what they do, although both he and Goodwin depend on them for actual arrests. And as fans will know, Cramer, Stebbins and Lieutenant Rowcliff aren’t always happy about what Wolfe and Goodwin do, either. In this series, the police play a more integral role than just making Wolfe, Goodwin and their team look good. And that makes sense, given how important police are to crime detection. They’re not bumbling imbeciles, either (‘though Wolfe might beg to differ at times). Rather, they add tension and sometimes conflict to the stories.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot gets ‘top billing’ in most of the novels and stories that feature him. But the police certainly play integral roles, although not as ‘co-stars.’ And although Poirot is not at all modest about his own powers of deduction, he does have respect for police detectives whom he considers to be good at their jobs. And he often says that the police have more resources at their disposal than he does; in fact, he frequently suggests that his clients go to the police. Chief Inspector Japp is perhaps the best-known of Poirot’s police associates. But he’s not the only recurring police character. There’s also Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence. And of course, other police characters make one-time appearances. In just about all of those cases, the police play a supporting role, but an important one. We may not get much of a look at their home lives or what it’s like at the police station, but they do matter in the stories. It’s interesting too that Christie created a mix of skilled detectives (such as Japp) whom Poirot respects, and detectives for whom he has little liking (Am I right, fans of The Murder on the Links?).

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels feature Wimsey, and later, Harriet Vane, as protagonists. But Inspector Charles Parker is an important supporting character. In Clouds of Witness, where we first meet him, Parker is called in to help the local police find the killer of Dennis Cathcart. The victim was the fiancé of Lady Mary Wimsey, Lord Peter’s sister; and at one point, the evidence seems to implicate her. Luckily for both her and Parker (who has fallen in love with her), it turns out that Cathcart’s murderer was someone else. As the series goes on, Parker marries Lady Mary, and he and Wimsey become friends. That makes things a bit awkward in Strong Poison, when Parker gets solid evidence that mystery novelist Harriet Vane has poisoned her former lover Philip Boyes. Wimsey has fallen in love with the accused, and is determined to clear her name so that he can marry her. And Parker’s made out the case against her. Still, they do work together, and in the end, Parker helps Wimsey find the truth about the murder. In this series, Parker plays the role of friend, sometimes-confidant, and professional resource for Wimsey.

The protagonist of Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… mysteries is newspaper columnist James ‘Qwilll’ Qwilleran. Circumstances have placed him in Pickax, a small town in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ The stories are told from Qwill’s perspective, and he’s the one who often puts the pieces of the puzzle together. But one of the important supporting characters in the series is Police Chief Andrew Brodie. Qwill respects Brodie as an intelligent police professional, and he lets Brodie and his team do the evidence-gathering and arresting. Brodie may not be a main protagonist in this series, but he does have a key supporting role. Especially in series such as this, where the protagonist is an amateur sleuth, the presence of a recurring police-officer character adds realism.

It does in K.B. Owen’s series, too. These historical mysteries, which take place at the very end of the 19th Century, feature Concordia Wells, a teacher at Hartford (Connecticut)’s Women’s College. She herself is, of course, not on the police force. And during the era in which she lives, it’s considered unseemly for ladies to be interested in crime and detection anyway. But she is insatiably curious, and does get drawn into murder as it touches those she knows. She’s made a friend of Lieutenant Aaron Capshaw, who is married to her best friend Sophie. Capshaw isn’t the main character of this series. But he plays an important role, since he has access to information that isn’t available to civilians. In that sense, his presence in the stories makes the series more realistic.

You’ll notice I’m not mentioning series such as Stuart Palmer’s, Elly Griffiths’ or Martha Grimes’, which feature recurring police characters. That’s because in those cases and cases like them, the police character really is one of the protagonists. That dynamic can be highly effective. But it’s also interesting to look at cases where the police are supporting players. Which ones have stayed with you?
 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Elly Griffiths, K.B. Owen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Martha Grimes, Rex Stout, Stuart Palmer

If You Think That I Don’t Know About the Little Tricks You Play*

Faked EvidenceIt’s very difficult to commit a crime without leaving any evidence behind. So police look carefully for anything that can link a crime to its perpetrator. Most criminals know this, too. And sometimes, they fake evidence, either to confuse the police or to implicate someone else.

Admittedly, in a ‘heat of the moment’ kind of crime, the criminal may be more interested in covering her or his own tracks, so to speak, than in taking the time to fake any of the evidence. But it can still happen. And it happens in pre-planned crimes too. Faked evidence figures into a lot of crime fiction, too – much more than I can mention in just this one post. But here are a few examples.

Arthur Conan Doyle used this plot point in more than one of his Sherlock Holmes adventures. In The Adventure of the Priory School, for instance, Holmes gets a visit from Thornycroft Huxtable, head of the exclusive Priory School. He wants Holmes’ help in finding one of his pupils, ten-year-old Lord Saltire, son of the Earl of Holdernesse. Saltire has disappeared, and Huxtable is afraid he’s been abducted. Holmes takes the case and immediately begins to trace the boy. The case turns out to be more complicated than kidnapping for ransom, but Holmes discovers the truth. At one point, they see a great number of cow tracks out on the moor as they investigate. But they never see any cows. As if that’s not strange enough, the tracks indicate that the cows are behaving in ways that are very unusual: galloping and cantering. Holmes follows up on this clue and learns, not much to his surprise, that the evidence of the cow tracks was faked.

Agatha Christie also uses faked evidence in several of her stories. In Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, Hercule Poirot is en route across Europe on the famous Orient Express train. On the second night of the journey, fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on the same coach, so Poirot investigates each one to find out who would have wanted to kill the victim. In this novel, there are lots of pieces of evidence, including a pipe cleaner, a handkerchief and smashed watch. Part of Poirot’s task as he searches for the truth is to sift out which clues are genuine, and which have been faked. I can say without spoiling the story that there are some of each.

Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water introduces his sleuth, Inspector Salvo Montalbano. In this novel, Montalbano and his team are called to the scene when the body of Silvio Luparello is discovered in a car in The Pasture, a notorious area just outside the Sicilian city of Vigatà. At first, it looks very much as though Luparello died of a massive heart attack during a sexual encounter. But little pieces of evidence just don’t add up for Montalbano. He requests, and is given, two days to see if he can find out what really happened. As it turns out, some of the evidence is deliberately faked, and Montalbano has decide which evidence that is in order to get to the truth.

There’s a very interesting case of faked evidence in Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent. Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich is a Kindle County prosecuting attorney who gets drawn into a very complex case when fellow attorney Carolyn Polhemus is murdered. This case will have to be handled carefully and transparently, but Sabich’s boss believes he’s up to the task. What Sabich hasn’t mentioned to anyone is that he has a personal stake in this case: he was involved with the victim until just a few months before she was killed. When that fact comes out, Sabich is replaced by a rival. Then, evidence begins to build up that Sabich himself may have committed the crime. Now he finds himself on the other side of the law as he faces a murder trial. With help from his own counsel Alejandro ‘Sandy’ Stern, Sabich works to clear his name. And part of doing so will involve looking through the evidence and determining which is genuine and which has been faked.

Sometimes, evidence is faked when a killer wants to disguise a murder as the work of another killer who’s already known to the police. Such ‘copycat’ murders can be very difficult to difficult to distinguish from the ‘real thing.’ That’s what happens, for instance, in Jane Casey’s The Burning. DS Maeve Kerrigan and her Met team are on the trail of a multiple murderer whom the press has dubbed The Burning Man, because he tries to incinerate his victims’ bodies. When the body of Rebecca Haworth is discovered, it looks as though she, too, was killed by The Burning Man. But little clues suggest otherwise to Kerrigan. Although she wants to keep working the case, her boss directs her to focus on the Haworth murder. It may be the work of The Burning Man, who’s simply changed his methods a bit. Or, it may be a ‘copycat killer.’ In either case, if the Met gives the appearance of not paying attention to this murder, there will be serious consequences. As Kerrigan and her team look at the Haworth murder, we see how evidence can be manipulated.

Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing is a very clear example of the way evidence can be faked. Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri discovers that a former client, Dr. Suresh Jha, has been killed. According to reports, he was attending a morning meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club when the goddess Kali appeared and stabbed Jha. The story goes that the murder was punishment for Jha’s denouncement of ‘godmen,’ people who prey on others’ need to believe in religion. There are a great number of people, too, who are convinced that that’s exactly what happened. However, Puri thinks that the murder has a more prosaic solution. So he begins to investigate. And as he does, we learn quite a lot about how evidence can be used to create whatever impression someone might want.   

Wendy James’ The Lost Girls concerns the 1978 murder of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan, who was killed during a holiday stay with her aunt and uncle. At first, as you’d expect, the police concentrate on the victim’s family and friends. But they can’t get enough clear evidence to prosecute. Then, a few months later, another body is discovered. This time the victim is sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor. Like Angela, her body is found with a scarf wrapped round her head and neck. Now the police and press begin to suspect a serial killer, whom they dub the Sydney Strangler. The killer is never caught, though. Years later, documentary journalist Erin Fury is preparing a piece on the impact of murder on the families of the victim. When she takes an interest in the Buchanan case, we learn just what evidence means, and doesn’t mean.

And that’s the thing about evidence. It is important, and crime scene and forensics specialists are critical to criminal investigation. But wise police detectives and attorneys know that evidence doesn’t always tell the whole story, or even the truth.

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Who’s I Can See For Miles.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jane Casey, Scott Turow, Tarquin Hall, Wendy James

So May I Introduce to You*

IntroductionsIt’s always tempting to plunge right in when we begin a new book, especially if it’s a book we’ve been excited to read. But lots of books and collections have interesting Introduction sections that give the reader helpful background, interesting information or some sort of structure that can offer some useful perspective. Sometimes they really are worth taking the time to read. And that’s just as true of crime fiction as it is of any other genre. Keep in mind as you read on in this post that the Introductions I mention appear in my editions of the books. They may or may not appear in other editions.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet includes an Introduction piece from Ed McBain. In it, McBain discusses the very negative image police are given in many of the Sherlock Holmes adventures. Using his own creations from the 87th Precinct, McBain gives a witty description of what might happen if Carella and his team actually caught up with Holmes and took him to task for that portrayal. It’s an interesting look at the way the police are portrayed in both Conan Doyle’s work and McBain’s own.

Some Introductions provide biographical and other information about the author. Those pieces also have the purpose of pointing out the author’s place in the genre’s history. That’s what we see, for instance, in Otto Penzler’s introduction to Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase. You may already know that she is credited with pioneering the ‘Had I but known’ approach to foreshadowing that has since been used in several suspense and crime novels. Penzler discusses this in his Introduction, and mentions some of Rinehart’s groundbreaking work. He also shares some biographical background, as well as information about film adaptations of her work.

Martin Edwards provides a similar sort of Introduction to Ernest Carpenter Elmore, AKA John Bude’s debut, The Cornish Coast Murder.  Edwards discusses the novel itself, providing literary and historical contexts for it. He also uses the book as an example of the sort of work Bude did, explaining how it led to Bude’s popularity. The Introduction also includes some biographical information and places the novel within the context of Bude’s life. Finally, Edwards discusses the significance of both the novel and its author. That background information helps to put The Cornish Coast Murder into perspective for the reader.

Sometimes, authors themselves write Introductions to their work. An author may choose to do this to provide historical or other information that the reader may find necessary in order to really understand the story. Shona (now writing as S.G.) MacLean does this in her historical novel A Game of Sorrows. In that novel, which takes place in 17th Century Scotland and Northern Ireland, Aberdeen teacher Alexander Seaton is persuaded to go to Ulster when his cousin convinces him that there is a threat to the family. The family matriarch believes that the family has been cursed by a poet (a not unusual belief for the times). But Seaton comes to believe that the threat is much more prosaic. To help the reader understand the events in the story, MacLean provides some historical background before the novel proper begins. She outlines the religious, political and social tenor of those times, showing how they combined to create the context for the novel.

Some novels are fictional treatments of real events. In those books, the author sometimes provides an Introduction and other background on the real-life cases. That’s what we see, for instance, in Damien Seaman’s The Killing of Emma Gross. This novel is based on the real-life 1929 murder of a Düsseldorf prostitute Emma Gross. At the time of the murder, Peter Kürten was arrested for the crime and in fact confessed to it. Later, he recanted his confession, and there was never any direct evidence against him. Still, he was unquestionably guilty of other murders and was executed in 1931. Emma Gross’ real killer was never found. This story is Seaman’s take on the crime and its solution. He provides helpful factual information, in part to provide context and in part to separate the facts from his fictional characters and events.

One of the most popular uses of the Introduction is to add cohesion to a collection of short stories. If I may say so, I’ve done that sort of Introduction myself at the beginning of In a Word: Murder. Even when all of the stories in a collection revolve around a single theme, or have another unifying link, it’s still helpful to have an Introduction to show the reader what that link is. What’s more, Introductions to short story collections give the reader a sense of the stories that have been included, and sometimes explain their origins.

Sometimes, Forewards and Introductions simply serve to set the scene for a story collection. That’s the case with Lindy Cameron’s Foreward to Hard Case Crime’s Hard Labour, a collection of noir stories from some of Australia’s best-known crime writers. Among the authors included here are Peter Corris, Garry Disher, Angela Savage, Adrian McKinty and Helen Fitzgerald, just to give a sense of what I mean.  Cameron sets the stage for this collection in her Foreward, giving a sort of preview of the tone of the stories.

Off the Record, another collection of short crime stories edited by Luca Veste, provides not one, but two Forewards. Matt Hilton and Anthony Neil Smith each offer a perspective on this charity anthology. Neither Foreward is particularly long, but each one gives a sense of what the stories are like.

Admittedly, Forewards and Introductions are a bit different. But both provide background, perspective and sometimes helpful historical context. Do you read Introductions? Do you find them interesting/useful? If you’re a writer, have you written an Introduction? What was the process like?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

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Filed under Adrian McKinty, Angela Savage, Anthony Neil Smith, Arthur Conan Doyle, Damien Seaman, Ed McBain, Garry Disher, Helen Fitzgerald, John Bude, Lindy Cameron, Martin Edwards, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Matt Hilton, Otto Penzler, Peter Corris, Shona MacLean

Scotland Yard Was Trying Hard*

National Police ForcesMany countries have a national police force or other law-enforcement agency with jurisdiction over the entire country. There are also sometimes local, province/state/department-level, or regional police as well.

National police forces and agencies are often the subject of crime fiction novels, for obvious reasons. And it’s fascinating (at least to me) to look at how they’re treated. Of course, a lot of that depends on the protagonist of a given novel or series, and it’s interesting to look at the different lenses through which those agencies are viewed.

The Met (formerly Scotland Yard), for instance, gets some very different treatments depending on the perspective of a given book or series. You’ll probably already know that the Met is not a national police force per se. But the agency does include expert special branches and services that other regional police forces tap. And in series such as Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan novels, Elizabeth George’s Lynley/Havers novels, or James Craig’s John Carlyle novels, Met police are treated sympathetically. In all of those cases, we have a protagonist who’s a member of that police force, so that makes sense. It’s not that there are no unpleasant Met characters in those novels. But the agency itself is viewed as competent and, overall, a positive force. Not so, though, if one reads, for instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Fans of those novels will know that Holmes has little patience with Scotland Yard. There are other novels too where there’s friction between Met branches and regional police.

We see a similar sort of disparity when it comes to the way the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Canada’s national police force, is treated. In L.R. Wright’s The Suspect for instance, we meet RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg, who investigates the murder of eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. It’s a very puzzling case; soon enough, Alberg begins to suspect eighty-year-old George Wilcox, but he can’t find a motive. Readers know from the beginning of the novel that Wilcox is, indeed, guilty. The suspense in the story really comes from the slow reveal of the motive and from Alberg’s dogged pursuit of the truth about the case. In this novel, the RCMP is not portrayed as perfect in the least. But it’s presented as an overall solid agency with competent law enforcers. Scott Young’s novels featuring Matthew ‘Matteesie’ Kitologitak are also more sympathetic than unsympathetic towards Matteesie’s employer, the RCMP. But we get a very different picture through reading the work of Inger Ash Wolfe/Michael Redhill, Giles Blunt or Robert Rotenberg. Those series feature police protagonists who are in local or provincial police forces, and their perceptions of RCMP involvement are not exactly positive. At best, RCMP involvement is irritating. At worst, RCMP ‘players’ are slow, incompetent and counterproductive.

There’s an interesting ‘inside’ look at the Australian Federal Police (AFP) in Kel Robertson’s novels featuring Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen. As a member of the AFP, Chen participates in investigations that have federal (and sometimes international) implications. He works with competent and dependable team members, too. They aren’t always perfect, and they like a night off work as much as the next person. But they do their jobs well and they are committed to their work. What’s more, they form an important support network for Chen. They’re as much his mates as they are his colleagues.

There’s a less positive portrayal of the AFP in Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar, which introduces her Bangkok-based PI sleuth Jayne Keeney. In this novel, Keeney travels north to Chiang Mai to visit her friend, Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. When his partner Nou is murdered, Didi is devastated. The police visit him, supposedly because he was considered a suspect. During their visit he’s shot, and the police report is that he was in fact guilty, and tried to resist arrest. The report alleges that he represented an immediate threat to the arresting officers. But Keeney is sure that her friend was innocent, and works to clear his name. In the process of looking into the case, she crosses paths with AFP agent Mark D’Angelo. He’s in Thailand on special assignment with a group that’s looking into human trafficking and the child sex trade. D’Angelo is not portrayed as stupid, incompetent or corrupt. But Keeney does find him unwilling to really consider all the implications of what he’s doing. And without spoiling the story, I can say that for Keeney, it’s very difficult to reconcile herself to the perceptions he and his task force represent.

Talking of Bangkok, the Royal Thai Police have jurisdiction in Thailand. There are several novels (Andrew Grant’s Death in the Kingdom is one of them) in which this agency is depicted as corrupt and greedy at best. But other novels (including Savage’s work) show things differently. Savage’s Jayne Keeney knows that doing her job successfully depends on a rapport with the police. So she’s worked to get to know them. She finds some of the Royal Thai Police to be just as venal as their reputation suggests. But most do their jobs the best they can. And the hard-working police Keeney knows have encountered at least as many problems caused by farangs (foreigners) as those caused by the police. We also see a generally positive portrayal of the Royal Thai Police in John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep series. Sonchai is a member of the police force and a very observant Buddhist. As he investigates cases, readers get an ‘inside look’ at some of the challenges the police face and some of the ways in which they make a very positive impact. That’s not to say of course that there are no corrupt or even dangerous police in those novels. And even the ‘good guys’ have their faults. But we do see a more or less sympathetic depiction of this national police force, and one that shows readers what goes on ‘behind the scenes.’

Fred Vargas’ Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is a member of the Police Nationale, one of France’s two national police forces. The Police Nationale have jurisdiction in large cities, and Vargas’ novels portray at least Adamsberg’s team as competent, if eccentric (to say the very least). They do their jobs and they care about their work in their way. The Gendarmerie has jurisdiction in smaller towns, rural areas and borderlands. This group gets a less positive treatment from Vargas, although she doesn’t portray each member in a terribly negative way. Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series isn’t very flattering to the Gendarmerie either. In fact. Bruno, who is Chief of Police of the village of St. Denis, very often finds himself at odds with Captain Duroc of the local gendarmerie. In fact, he works better with the Police Nationale. As an aside, you’ll probably know that the Police Nationale used to be known as the Sûreté. Fans of Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links will know that her Hercule Poirot is no big fan of that group…

You’ll notice that until now, I’ve not mentioned the US’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). That’s because there are dozens and dozens of crime novels and series that mention that agency, either in a positive or negative light. P.D. Martin’s Sophie Anderson is an FBI agent, and as you can imagine, the agency is portrayed more or less positively in those novels. There are many others too that depict the FBI in a sympathetic way. But if you read Tony Hillerman’s work or some of James Lee Burke’s novels, you soon see that it’s not at all that simple. There are dozens of novels and series in which the FBI is portrayed as officious, heavy-handed, and sometimes corrupt.

So what can we say about national police agencies (or those that provide national-level services)? They’re large, sometimes complicated, and therefore, complex. As with many groups, the answer depends on whom you ask.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Blinded by the Light.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Grant, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth George, Fred Vargas, Giles Blunt, Inger Ash Wolfe, James Craig, James Lee Burke, Jane Casey, John Burdett, Kel Robertson, L.R. Wright, Martin Walker, Michael Redhill, P.D. Martin, Robert Rotenberg, Scott Young, Tony Hillerman

I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You*

I'd  Be Good For YouPeople who live in the limelight often get a lot of scrutiny. The same thing happens when someone is in a high-stakes career (e.g. trying to become a law partner). Every move that person makes may be noticed, and that includes choice of partner. Whether it’s fair or not, people do judge others by the way their partners act, sometimes even by what they wear.  So the right partner can do an awful lot to advance one’s career or social status.

Traditionally (‘though certainly not always!) women have been expected to join the ‘right’ clubs, wear the ‘right’ clothes, visit the ‘right’ people (and avoid certain others) to advance their husbands’ fortunes. It’s not the hard-and-fast rule now that it was, but it’s still there, and in some social circles, it’s still very much culturally expected. It can work the other way too.

We see some interesting cases of this sort of couple in crime fiction, which makes sense when you consider all of the possibilities there are for conflict and other layers of tension. Sometimes such a union turns out very well. Sometimes, it doesn’t…

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from the King of Bohemia, who’s so concerned that his problem be kept quiet that he comes in disguise. He is soon to marry a rich and powerful princess, and the expectation is that the marriage will advance both of their fortunes. In order for this to happen though, the king is expected to have led a more or less blameless life, with no scandal to embarrass his fiancée or her family. And therein lies his problem. The king had a past relationship with an actress, Irene Adler, and there’s a compromising ‘photo to prove it. He wants Holmes to retrieve that ‘photo so that his indiscretion will stay hidden. Holmes agrees and ends up pitted against a much more worthy opponent than he imagined…

Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile is the story of beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway. She has no real plans to marry until she meets Simon Doyle, fiancé to her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. Not long after she hires Simon as her land agent, the papers and pubs are full of gossip about their sudden marriage. The newlyweds take a honeymoon cruise of the Nile, which is what Linnet had wanted. For his part, Simon plays the role of properly adoring husband. He wears the ‘right’ clothes, takes Linnet where she wants to go, and in other ways advances her high social status as a very wealthy young bride. On the second night of the cruise, Linnet is shot. The first suspect is Jackie, who has an obvious motive and who is also on the cruise. But it’s soon proven that she couldn’t have committed the murder. So Hercule Poirot, who’s also aboard, has to look elsewhere for the killer.

Until the last few forty years or so, men traditionally got the high-status jobs in academia, and their wives played important roles in getting them there. In that community, it was very important to attend the ‘right’ teas, luncheons and charity events; be pleasant to the ‘right’ highly placed people; and in every way support one’s husband’s chances at tenure, an endowed chair, or deanship. That’s what’s at stake in Colin Dexter’s Death is Now My Neighbour. Sir Clixby Bream is planning to retire from his position as Master of Lonsdale College, Oxford, and is getting ready to choose his successor. The two top candidates are Julian Storrs and Denis Cornford. They’re equally qualified and their wives have done their jobs at behaving ‘properly’ and making their husbands look as good as possible. Then, journalist Geoffrey Owens does some digging around and discovers that someone is hiding a dubious past. When he’s shot, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis have to dig into several people’s histories to find out what the truth is about these outwardly respectable lives.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we are introduced to Jodie Evans Garrow. She’s got what seems to be the perfect upwardly-mobile life. Her husband Angus is a successful attorney, and a lot of people think he’ll be the next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. Jodie is no ‘clinging vine,’ but she does try to advance his career. She wears the ‘right clothes,’ sends their children to the ‘right’ schools, and so on. In every way, Angus looks poised for a fine future, and Jodie’s played her part in that. Then, everything changes. After an accident, their daughter Hannah is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where years ago, Jodie gave birth to another child. Not even Angus knows about this. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie says she gave the child up for adoption, but when the nurse does some research, she finds that there are no formal records of adoption. Now questions begin to be asked. Where is the child? If she’s alive, can she be found? If she’s dead, did Jodie have something to do with it? Jodie’s social capital plummets, and the notoriety of the whole thing also threatens Angus’ career. Along with the truth about the baby, we also learn what happens when a person loses the social capital that comes with a spouse who does all the ‘right’ things.

In Donna Leon’s About Face, Commissario Guido Brunetti and his wife Paola Falier are invited to dinner with her parents. Her father, Conte Orazio Falier, has an ulterior motive. He’s invited another couple, Maurizio Cataldo and his wife, Franca Marinello, to the dinner as well. He’s considering doing business with Cataldo, and he wants Brunetti to meet the couple and do a little discreet searching into Cataldo’s background. Brunetti agrees and in one plot thread, he starts learning about the Cataldo/Marinello family. Franca is a loyal wife who does everything she can to advance her husband’s career and make him look as good as possible. She dresses well, is an interesting conversationalist, and even pays a visit to Brunetti at his office try to help her husband. It’s a fascinating look at the way even today, what one spouse says and does can reflect on the other.

There are a lot of other novels, too, in which one spouse behaves or dresses in certain ways, or is nice to certain people, to advance the other’s career. You might even call it part of the bargain the couple strike when they marry.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Colin Dexter, Donna Leon, Wendy James