Category Archives: Arthur Conan Doyle

Do You Want the Real Story*

criminal-confessionsIn many crime novels (‘though certainly not all of them), the perpetrator confesses to the crime. It’s not always a full-length story of the crime, but it’s clear that the killer admits what has happened. If you stop and think about it, though, this raises a question. Why would a killer confess? In some cases, it’s guilt. After all, most of us are not accustomed to taking a life, and the guilt can be tremendous.

But there are other reasons, too, for which a fictional killer might confess. And weaving that moment into a story can be tricky. It has to be believable (there are plenty of people who wouldn’t admit what they’d done, because the consequences of telling the truth are drastic). It also has to be done in a way that’s not melodramatic. But when it’s done right, it can be an effective way to let the reader know what really happened.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the mysterious deaths of Enoch Drebber and Joseph Stangerson. Both victims were Americans who’d come to London; in fact, Stangerson was Drebber’s secretary. The clues to the murders are strange – the word rache written in blood, and a ring, among other things – and they baffle the police. But Holmes puts the pieces of the puzzle together. The murderer is confronted, and, instead of fighting or continuing to claim innocence, admits what has happened. The reason in this case is a fatal heart condition which will end the killer’s life in a matter of weeks. Here’s what the murderer says:

‘…I should like to leave some account of the business behind me. I don’t want to be remembered as a common cut-throat.’

As fans of this story know, this killer isn’t a common thug at all.

There are killers who confess because they’re glad of what they’ve done. For instance, the victim in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder) is Simeon Lee. He’s the unpleasant, tyrannical patriarch of the Lee family, and no-one enjoys his company. But, when he decides he wants the family to gather at Gorston Hall, the family home, for Christmas, no-one dares refuse the invitation. He’s both very wealthy and very vindictive. On Christmas Eve, Lee is murdered in his private room. Hercule Poirot is staying nearby, and is persuaded to work with the police to find the killer. When he does, he confronts that person with his theory of what happened. While Poirot’s view is logical and accounts for everything, he doesn’t really have the conclusive proof that courts prefer as evidence. But the killer confesses anyway, saying,

‘God rot his soul in Hell! I’m glad I did it!’

In this case, the killer may understand what the consequences for murder are. But for that person, it’s worth it. We also see a proud – if that’s the word – confession in Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies.

The main plot of Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring concerns the killing of journalism professor Reed Gallagher. For Bowen’s sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn, Gallagher was a colleague. What’s more, she knows his widow. So, she gets drawn into the investigation of his murder. The solution to the mystery is related to another mystery concerning one of Kilbourn’s students, and it turns out to be a complicated case. In the end, Kilbourn discovers who the murderer is, and the two have an extremely tense scene in an elevator. In this case, the killer confesses in part because Kilbourn sees no choice but to keep that person talking – otherwise her own life will be in danger. So, she finds ways to manipulate the conversation so that the murderer will get caught up in it. And that’s exactly what happens. As the conversation continues, we also see that there’s a sense of wanting to justify what happened – to explain the killer’s side of the story.

There’s an interesting twist on the killer’s choice to confess in Jane Casey’s The Burning. DC Maeve Kerrigan of the Met has been working on the investigation of a killer who tries to incinerate his victims. The press has dubbed this murderer the Burning Man, and there’s a lot of pressure on the Met to catch the criminal. Then, the body of Rebecca Haworth is discovered. On the surface, it looks like the work of the Burning Man. But Kerrigan notices a few differences between this case and the other murders. It might be that the killer has changed tactics. It could also be a ‘copycat’ killer. Kerrigan very much wants to stay on the Burning Man case, but she’s assigned to focus on the Haworth case, even if this wasn’t a victim of the Burning Man, to show that the Met isn’t being lax. In the end, we learn who Haworth’s killer is. This murderer chooses to explain what happened in a letter, not to Kerrigan, nor to the police as a group, but to another character. Here’s a bit of what the letter says:

‘I want you to understand because I want to know you have had your eyes opened to what you really are…You thought you were the dangerous one, but you don’t know what dangerous is.’

It’s an interesting approach to sharing with readers what really was behind the murder.

Peter May’s The Blackhouse features an interesting final confrontation between Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ MacLeod and a murderer. MacLeod has been seconded to the Isle of Lewis to help investigate the murder of Angel Macritchie. This killing resembles another case that Macleod is working, so it could be the same killer. For MacLeod, this is a homecoming, since he grew up on Lewis. It’s awkward, though, because there are a lot of old, unresolved issues. What’s more, it’s difficult for MacLeod to interview, and consider as suspects, people he’s known all his life. Still, he goes about his job; and, in the end, he finds the killer. When he does, it becomes clear that the murderer has nothing to lose by confessing. In fact, it’s not spoiling the story to say that the whole point of the confession is so that MacLeod will know exactly what happened and why.

There are, of course, plenty of other reasons why a murderer confesses, even knowing that it will lead to a long jail term or, possibly, execution. It might be pride, guilt, setting the record straight, or something else. And including the confession can add an interesting layer of character development and tension to a crime novel.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lene Marlin’s Never to Know.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Gail Bowen, Jane Casey, Peter May

For a Séance in the Dark*

seancesA recent post from Moira at Clothes in Books (also on the Guardian Website Book Pages) had to do with fictional séances. It’s an interesting topic, actually. If you believe that we can communicate with the dead, then you may be interested in séances anyway. If you don’t believe we can contact those who’ve died, it’s still fascinating to consider the impact that that belief has had on people. Thousands are spent each year on mediums, séances and so on. And there are people who absolutely swear by them.

Whatever you think about séances, they’re certainly woven into crime fiction. Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle, for instance, will know that he was fascinated by spiritualism, and attended a séance. He wrote on the topic, and joined more than one spiritualist group. It’s ironic, considering that his most famous protagonist, Sherlock Holmes, depends on science and pure reason for his deductions.

Agatha Christie used séances in more than one of her stories. Perhaps the most chilling one is her short story, The Last Séance. It’s not really a crime story, but it does have a séance as the central focus. Raoul Daubreuil pays a visit to his fiancée, Simone, who is a very successful medium. But she’s exhausted by the work, and wants to end it. She’s made one last appointment, though, with Madame Exe, who is desperate to stay in contact with her dead daughter, Amelie. Simone wants to cancel the appointment, but Raoul insists that she keep her commitment. She finally allows herself to be persuaded, with tragic consequences. You’re absolutely right, fans of Dumb Witness and The Blue Geranium.

A séance is used in a very interesting way in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison. Lord Peter Wimsey has fallen in love with mystery novelist Harriet Vane, and is determined to marry her. But she’s standing trial for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. Wimsey decides to clear her name, so that he can pursue a romance with her. He only has thirty days, so he’ll have to work quickly. He’s helped along the way by his friend, Miss Katherine Climpson, who runs what you might call a secretarial agency. At one point, she wants to get a certain piece of information, and comes up with the ingenious device of using a séance for that purpose. I don’t want to say more, for fear of spoilers, but it’s a very clever use of that tool.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, we are introduced to self-styled medium Ava Garrett. She’s become popular and well-regarded, and has quite a following. One of her devotees is Benny Frayle, who’s dealing with a recent loss. Her good friend, financial planner Dennis Brinkley, died of what looks like a tragic accident with one of the ancient weapons he collects. But Benny isn’t sure that it was an accident. In fact, she’s tried to get the police interested, but DCI Tom Barnaby hasn’t found any fault with the original police investigation. So, he’s reluctant to commit any further resources to looking into the matter. One day, Benny attends a séance led by Ava Garrett. To her shock, Ava describes the murder scene, although she never saw it. And she makes it clear that Benny was right. So, Benny redoubles her efforts to get the police involved. Then, there’s another murder. Finally convinced, Barnaby and his team link the two murders.

Louise Penny’s The Cruelest Month also features a séance. In that novel, a noted Hungarian psychic, Madame Blavatsky, pays a visit to the small Québec town of Three Pines, and is persuaded to hold a séance there. The first attempt doesn’t go very well, but another is scheduled. This one is to take place at the old Hadley place during the Easter break. During that second séance, Madeleine Favreau suddenly dies. At first, it’s thought that she was, quite literally, frightened to death. But then it’s determined that she died of an overdose of a diet drug. Now, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec investigates. He and his team find that there’s more to this case than it seems on the surface.

In Christine Poulson’s Murder is Academic, we meet Cassandra James, of the English Literature Department, St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge. She takes the position of Interim Head of the Department when her boss, Margaret Joplin, is found dead. The main plot of the novel concerns Cassandra’s search for the truth about Margaret’s death. But throughout the novel, we also get to know the other people in the department. One of them is Cassandra’s colleague Merfyn. He’s fascinated by spiritualism and séances, and actually believes he’s been channeling Arthur Conan Doyle. Cassandra is not convinced, but Merfyn persuades her to attend a séance. She isn’t quite sure what to expect, but brings her partner, Stephen, along. It turns out that there’s a big surprise in store for her at that event.

Whether or not you believe that we can communicate with those who’ve died, there are many, many people who do. Grief and the desire to know what it’s like ‘on the other side’ can often lead people to spiritualism and séances. That appeal can be used very effectively in a crime novel, too, for misdirection, atmosphere, character development or even clue placement in whodunits. There are other ways séances can be used, too.

Thanks for making me think of all of this, Moira. Now, folks, give yourselves a treat and go visit Moira’s excellent blog, Clothes in Books. It’s the source for fictional fashion and culture, and what it all says about us.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Cry Baby Cry.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Caroline Graham, Christine Poulson, Dorothy Sayers, Louise Penny

Talk Me Into Losing Just as Long as I Can Win*

imag0201Even if you’re not into playing sports, you may have a bit of the competitive spirit, especially if there’s a prize worth the winning. It’s a very human trait, and it can add a great deal to a fictional character. It can also add a layer of suspense to a story, too, not to mention a motive for all sorts of things…

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Red-Headed League, pawn shop owner Jabez Wilson gets caught up in a strange sort of contest. His shop assistant tells him about an advertisement for a new job, which promises good pay for easy work. The only requirement to apply is naturally red hair. Wilson goes to the job interview and finds that many, many other men with red hair are competing for the same job. But Wilson is chosen, and soon begins work. The job is as easy as promised: copying the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The pay is good, too. One day, though, Wilson goes to his work as usual, only to find that the building is shut and there’s a sign saying that the Red Headed League has been disbanded. It’s a puzzling matter, and Wilson takes it to Sherlock Holmes, who agrees to find out what’s going on. It turns out that the Red-Headed League was just a cover for some nefarious business.

Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), introduces us to Jane Grey, a London hairstylist’s assistant. She takes a chance on the Irish Sweeps, and turns out to be a winner. While there are all kinds of well-meaning suggestions for how to spend her winnings, Jane decides to take a trip to Le Pinet, just as her wealthy clients do. On her way back after the trip, she takes a flight from Paris to London. On that same flight is a Paris moneylender named Marie Morisot. When the flight lands, one of the stewards discovers that Mmlle. Morisot has died of what turns out to be poison. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight, and works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who the killer is. In this case, it turns out that winning the sweeps competition wasn’t all celebration for Jane…

Hugh Pentecost’s The Fourteen Dilemma tells the story of the lucky Watson family, who wins an all-expenses paid trip to New York City, including a stay at the ultra-exclusive Hotel Beaumont. Everything is carefully planned for their comfort, and all starts off well enough. Then, their twelve-year-old daughter, Marilyn, wanders off and is later found dead, stuffed into a trash can. The family is devastated, and of course, the hotel will do everything it can to find out the truth. PR Director Mark Haskell works with the hotel’s manager, Pierre Chambrun, and with the police, to find out who killed Marilyn. And the truth turns out to be much more complicated than it seems on the surface.

Waldemar Leverkuhn learns that winning a competition isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be in Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery. He and some friends go in together on a lottery ticket and, wonder of wonders, they win. They go out to celebrate and it looks as though everything will go well for them. But that night, Leverkuhn is stabbed to death. Intendant Münster and his team investigate the killing. And, of course, they focus on the friends that Leverkuhn was with that night. But it turns out that there are several other possibilities, too. And in the end, the murder is related to something that has nothing to do with a lottery ticket.

But don’t worry. Getting into a competition isn’t always dangerous. I promise. For instance, there are still a couple of days left for you to enter the Blackjack Blog Scavenger Hunt competition! What’s in it for you? Possibly one of three signed copies of Past Tense, my newest Joel Williams novel, which is coming out on 1 November. Wanna be a part of it? It’s easy! The instructions are right here. C’mon, play along!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Easy Money.



Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Håkan Nesser, Hugh Pentecost

Clinging to Your Stocks and Bonds*

investmentThe ‘Roaring 20s’ came to a screeching halt in late October, 1929 with the crash of major stock markets. That crash was one of the main factors that led to the Great Depression of the 1930s, and, at least in the U.S., to fundamental changes in banking and stock market laws.

Of course, there’s a risk any time you speculate with your money. The company you think will do well may go under. Or, a company you decided not to invest in takes off and does well. Or, the person you thought you could trust turns out to be untrustworthy. Still, people do dream of making money from the market, and some people do well. So, it’s not surprising that so many invest.

And we certainly see investments and tension about them in crime fiction. That makes sense, too, when you consider what’s at stake. Someone who invests money (especially if it’s a considerable sum) expects a return. If things don’t go well, the consequences can be serious…

There’s a mention of investing in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men. One day, completely unexpectedly, Holmes says:

‘‘So, Watson,’ said he, suddenly, ‘you do not propose to invest in South African securities?”

That’s exactly what’s happened, but Watson doesn’t have any idea how Holmes knew – until he hears the explanation. It seems that Watson’s friend, Thurston, wanted him to invest in some South African property, but Watson decided not to do that. It’s hard not to wonder what would have happened if he had invested.

In Stuart Palmer’s The Penguin Pool Murder, we are introduced to New York homicide detective Oscar Piper. One day, he’s called to the New York Aquarium to investigate the murder of stockbroker Gerald Lester. Oddly enough, his body was discovered in the penguin pool by a group of schoolchildren who were there on a field trip. That’s how Piper meets their teacher, Hildegarde Withers. She takes an interest in the case, and she and Piper soon discover that more than one person could have had a motive for murder. This story takes place not long after the Great Crash, and many of Lester’s clients lost all their money. And then there’s Lester’s personal life to consider. He wasn’t exactly a faithful husband, and his wife wasn’t above reproach, either. It’s quite a complicated puzzle; in the end, though, Piper and Miss Withers find out the truth.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories mention investing and its consequences. For instance, in the short story, The Lost Mine, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are having a conversation about money. Hastings suggests that Poirot might want to invest some of his money in the Porcupine Oil Fields, which seems to have a promising prospectus. Poirot refuses, reminding Hastings of how important safe investment is. Then he goes on to say that the only risky investment he has is shares in Burma Mines, Ltd. And that’s only because those shares were a ‘thank you’ for solving a complicated case. It turns out that one of that company’s principals disappeared, and Poirot was able to find out exactly what happened to the man, and who was behind it all. So far, Poirot’s shares seem to have done well. I know, I know, fans of Dead Man’s Mirror and of Taken at the Flood.

At the beginning of Donna Leon’s About Face, Count Orazio Falier is thinking of investing his money in a business owned by Maurizio Cataldo. Before he does, he wants to be sure his investment will be safe, so he decides to have Cataldo ‘vetted.’ And there’s no-one better for that than Falier’s son-in-law, Commissario Guido Brunetti. Brunetti is accustomed to doing things in this informal way, and agrees to find out what he can about the man. With help from his boss’ assistant, Signorina Elettra Zorzi, Brunetti gets some information. But then, he’s pulled away to investigate another case – the murder of a trucking company owner who might have been involved in illegal dumping. In the end, Brunetti discovers that there’s a link between the two cases. Among other things, this novel shows how people sometimes go outside ‘official channels’ and don’t exactly use a prospectus to get background on companies they’re considering for investment.

And then there’s Peter Temple’s Black Tide, the second in his series featuring sometime-lawyer Jack Irish. In this novel, Irish gets a visit from Des Connors, an old friend of his father’s. He wants Irish’s help with two things. For one thing, he wants a will done that excludes his son, Gary. For another, he wants Irish to find Gary and get back sixty thousand dollars that Des says he’s owed. It seems that Gary had gotten his father to lend him the money for investing in shares of a ‘sure thing’ that was ‘going through the roof.’ Then, Gary disappeared, and so did Des’ money. Irish agrees to see what he can do. The will isn’t difficult, but finding Gary proves to be much more dangerous than Irish would have thought. And in the end, he learns that this disappearance is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to corruption and fraud.

And that’s the thing about buying shares of stock, or otherwise investing in a company. You never really know what’s going to happen. Even safe investments vouched for by people you trust may not work out as planned. These are just a few examples. I know you’ll think of lots more.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s Someone Saved My Life Tonight.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Donna Leon, Peter Temple, Stuart Palmer

Let Me Make My Final Stand*

good-guy-bad-guyEven if you’re not thoroughly familiar with the story, you may very well have heard of the famous gunfight at the OK Corral, in Tombstone, Arizona. It’s a classic story of the famous 1881 showdown between Sheriff Wyatt Earp and his friend, Doc Holliday on one side, and Ike Clanton and his gang on the other. And it’s a legendary story of ‘good guys’ versus ‘bad guys.’

Of course, that particular gunfight isn’t the only showdown between the ‘hero’ and the ‘villain,’ either in fiction or in real life. But it highlights the tension that builds up with that sort of confrontation. That suspense can add a great deal to a crime novel, too, so it’s little wonder we see so many examples of this plot point in the genre. There are far too many for me to mention here; I’m sure you could think of more than I could, anyway. But here are just a few.

One of the most famous crime-fictional confrontations comes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Final Problem. In that story, Sherlock Holmes is up against his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. Holmes is, of course, formidable, but Moriarty has plenty of his own resources. In fact, things get so dangerous for Holmes that he and Watson temporarily leave their London lodgings and end up in Switzerland. As Holmes fans can tell you, he and Moriarty have a dramatic confrontation at the Reichenbach Falls. Conan Doyle had intended this to be his last Holmes story; but fans wouldn’t hear of it. Still, it’s a ‘power-packed’ story with plenty of buildup.

There are a few tense final showdowns in Agatha Christie’s stories and novels. We see one of them in The Murder on the Links. Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to France at the request of Canadian émigré Paul Renauld. He wrote to Poirot, claiming that his life was in danger because of a secret that he possessed. Poirot doesn’t usually take kindly to being summoned, but somehow, this letter is different. By the time he and Hastings get to France, though, it’s too late. Renauld has been murdered. Poirot and Hastings slowly find out the truth about who the murderer is, and it all comes to a head one night in a dramatic way. It’s one of those times when Poirot doesn’t announce the solution to a drawing room full of suspects. I know, Christie fans, there are lots of other great examples of this sort of drama in her work.

In Tony Hillerman’s The Blessing Way, readers are introduced to Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police. In the story, Leaphorn works with ethnologist Bergen McKee, who’s worried about the disappearance of his friend, Luis Horseman. It seems that Horseman went missing after getting into a drunken quarrel, and hasn’t returned. Later, his body is found in Many Ruins Canyon; and at first, it looks as though his death is the result of Navajo witchcraft. But Leaphorn isn’t superstitious, nor does he follow Navajo spiritual traditions. So he looks for a more prosaic solution, and that’s what he finds. In the novel, there’s a dramatic scene as Leaphorn and the killer face off in a place that’s very much ‘in the middle of nowhere.’ That geographical setting adds to the suspense of the confrontation, too, as it’s got its own very real dangers.

You could say the same thing about the confrontation between National Park Service ranger Anna Pigeon and a killer in Nevada Bar’s Track of the Cat. Pigeon has been assigned to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, in the Chihuahuan Desert of western Texas. One day, she comes upon the body of another ranger, Sheila Drury. At first, it looks as though Drury was killed by a mountain lion, and that’s the explanation the authorities want. But Pigeon isn’t sure it’s true. Besides, she’s afraid that, if word gets out that a mountain lion killed a person, then all of the park’s mountain lions could be in danger. So Pigeon starts looking into the matter more closely. As she does, she finds that there are other possibilities, and several people who could have had a motive to murder Drury. Finally, Pigeon finds out who the killer is, and one night, she has a final confrontation with that person. It’s very dramatic, and not least because of the physical setting.

A final confrontation doesn’t have to take place in a remote area to be dramatic, though. For instance, in Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn gets involved in investigating the murder of a colleague, Reed Gallagher. His body is discovered in a cheap rooming house, and it looks as though he was living some sort of double life that got him killed. But it’s not as simple, or as complex, as that. As Kilbourne starts looking into the matter a little more, she finds that more than one person might have had a motive for murder. And when she finally discovers who the real killer is, she confronts that person. Then, there’s a very tense final scene between them in an elevator. It’s a small, enclosed space, and that adds to the suspense.

Some dramatic fictional final showdowns take place in lonely, outdoors spots. Others can be as close as the sleuth’s front door (I’m thinking, for instance, of Christine Poulson’s Murder is Academic). There are many other settings, too, including some very famous film scenes. Whichever way it’s done, that ‘good guy’-against-‘bad guy’ final scene can add a strong layer of tension to a story. Little wonder the story of the gunfight at the OK Corral has become iconic. These are just a few examples. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jon Bon Jovi’s Blaze of Glory.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christine Poulson, Gail Bowen, Nevada Barr, Tony Hillerman