Category Archives: Arthur Conan Doyle

Don’t Hear Words That I Didn’t Say*

It’s surprisingly easy to misinterpret what you see and hear. After all, we may not see or hear accurately. Or, we may see or hear accurately enough, but not understand what’s really going on. Sometimes, those misinterpretations are funny; sometimes they’re downright embarrassing.

In crime fiction, misinterpretations can be dangerous. At the very least, they can bring their own challenges. I’m not talking here of deliberate misdirection. That’d be too easy! Rather, I’m talking about a simple misunderstanding. Here are just a few examples. I know you’ll think of more.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery concerns the murder of Charles McCarthy. His son, James, was overheard quarreling with the victim right before the murder, and he had motive, too. So, the police quickly settle on him as the chief suspect. But his fiancée, Alice Turner, is convinced that he is innocent. So, she goes to the police and asks them to re-investigate. Inspector Lestrade may have his faults, but he doesn’t want an innocent man hung. So, he asks Sherlock Holmes to look into the matter, and Holmes agrees. It turns out that a single misinterpreted phrase is an important clue to the real murderer. Once Holmes works out what that phrase meant, he finds out who the guilty person is.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings work with the police to find a killer who has murdered several people. Each death is prefaced by a cryptic warning note to Poirot. And, an ABC railway guide is found near each body. The second victim is Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Barnard, whose body is found on a beach early one morning. Her older sister, Megan, hears the news and, of course, immediately travels from London, where she lives and works, to Bexhill-on-Sea, where her family lives. When she gets to her parents’ home, Poirot and Hastings are already there with the police. She misinterprets their purpose and says,

‘‘I don’t think I’ve got anything to say to you. My sister was a nice, bright girl with no men friends. Good morning.’’ 

When Hastings explains that he’s not a reporter, she sees that she’s misunderstood, and turns out to be helpful to them.

In Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, we meet Guy Haines, who is on a cross-country rail trip to visit his estranged wife. During the journey, he meets Charles Anthony Bruno, and the two men strike up a conversation. They end up sharing their stories, and Bruno comes up with an idea. He has reason to want his father dead, and there’s no love lost between Haines and his wife. So, Bruno suggests that each commit the other’s murder. His view is, if Haines kills his father, and he kills Haines’ wife, neither has a motive, and both will get away with the crime. Haines passes off Bruno’s suggestion as a joke, or at most, idle chat, and agrees in the same spirit. But he has misinterpreted Bruno, who was actually being quite serious. That misunderstanding leads to some tragic places.

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost features ten-year-old Kate Meaney, who wants very much to be a detective. In fact, she has her own agency, Falcon Investigations. A new mall, Green Oaks Shopping Center, has been constructed, and she decides that it’s a good place to look for suspicious people and activity. She spends quite a lot of time there, and watches what people do. And it’s interesting to see how she misinterprets those activities, considering them highly suspicious, when in fact, they’re not. Kate is perfectly content with her life, but her grandmother, Ivy, thinks she ought to go away to school. So, she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate takes the bus to the school, but she doesn’t return. A thorough search doesn’t yield any clues, either – not even a body. Twenty years later, a mall security guard named Kurt starts seeing strange images on his camera – a young girl who looks a lot like Kate. One night, he meets Lisa Palmer, who’s an assistant manager at one of the mall stores, and who knew Kate. They form an awkward sort of friendship and, each in a different way, go back to the past, and we learn what happened to Kate.

Gianrico Carofiglio’s Involuntary Witness introduces attorney Guido Guerrieri, who lives and works in Bari. He gets a new client, Abdou Thiam, who’s been arrested for the abduction and murder of nine-year-old Francesco Rubino. Thiam says that he’s innocent, but this isn’t going to be an easy case. There is evidence against him. Still, Guerrieri goes to work, and starts gathering information and speaking to witnesses. And, in the end, he finds that one misinterpretation has made a major difference in this investigation. Once he uncovers that misinterpretation, he’s able to learn more about the truth of what happened to the boy.

It’s easy to misunderstand or misinterpret what we hear and see. That’s especially true if we don’t know the real story, so to speak. It’s little wonder that these misunderstandings come up as they do in crime fiction. And it can add much to a story when that happens.


NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Eva and Magaldi/Eva, Beware of the City.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Catherine O'Flynn, Gianrico Carofiglio, Patricia Highsmith

Here’s to My Bride-to-Be*

An interesting book review from FictionFan at FictionFan’s Book Reviews has got me thinking of what a lot of people call ‘May/December’ marriages. It may not be as popular now in Western cultures. But it used to be quite normal for an older man to marry a much-younger woman. And it wasn’t seen (as it often is now) as ‘gold-digging’ on the part of the woman. Sometimes, such marriages have been seen as useful alliances. Other times, they’ve been seen as effective ways for a girl without much money or ‘prospects’ to be taken care of by someone with some wealth. There are other reasons, too, for which such marriages have been made, and still are.

There are plenty of ‘May/December’ unions in crime fiction, and that’s not surprising. For one thing, they weren’t, as I say, uncommon in the past. For another, they can make for interesting character development. And that’s to say nothing of the possibilities for suspense and plot points.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Retired Coulourman, Josiah Amberley hires Sherlock Holmes to find his much-younger wife, who’s gone missing. Amberley suspects that she’s run off with his friend and frequent chess opponent, Dr. Ray Ernest. Also missing is a great deal of money in cash and securities, so Amberley’s first thought is that his wife and Ernest were lovers who’d run off with the money. Holmes agrees to look into the matter, but he’s busy with another case. So, it’s really Dr. Watson who does most of the ‘legwork’ in the matter. And he finds that this isn’t at all as simple as two people who fell in love and went away together.

Agatha Christie’s Crooked House is the story of the Leonides family. Wealthy patriarch Aristide Leonides lives with his much-younger wife, Brenda, at Three Gables, the family home. With them live several members of their extended family. When World War II ends, Leonides’ granddaughter, Sophie, returns to Three Gables, only to find that her grandfather has been poisoned with his own eyedrops. Sophie’s fiancé, Charles Hayward, knows that she will not marry him until the mystery of who killed Leonides and why is solved. So, Hayward is highly motivated to find out the truth. And he soon learns that there are several possible suspects in this case. Was Brenda a ‘gold-digger,’ out to get her husband’s fortune? What about the other members of the family? They all had reasons for wanting the victim dead.

Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder features the Van Horn family. Howard Van Horn has been having troubling blackouts, which are worrisome enough. Then, one day, he wakes from one of them to find that he has blood on him, and it’s not his own. Terrified that he did something horrible, Van Horn visits his old college friend, Ellery Queen. He tells Queen of his concerns, and Queen agrees to help him get to the truth. The trail leads to Van Horn’s home town of Wrightsville, so Queen and Van Horn go there. There, they stay with Van Horn’s wealthy father, Dietrich, and Dietrich’s much-younger wife, Sally. During their visit, Sally is strangled. It looks very much as if Van Horn murdered his stepmother during one of his blackouts, but there isn’t definitive proof. And Queen doesn’t think his friend is guilty. As he works towards a solution to the mystery, we get to know a bit about Dietrich and Sally Van Horn. She grew up on the proverbial ‘wrong side of town,’ and doesn’t have the background or education that her husband does. But she is beautiful, and glad to have someone with money to take care of her. It’s an interesting dynamic that plays its part in the novel.

In Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer, we are introduced to fledgling attorney Catherine Monsigny. In one plot thread of this novel, she gets her chance to make her mark as a lawyer when Myriam Villetreix is arrested for poisoning her wealthy husband, Gaston. Myriam is much younger than her husband; and on the surface, she seems to be a very likely suspect. She, however, claims that she is innocent, and is being framed by Gaston’s cousins, who dislike her because she is foreign – originally from Gabon – and never wanted her to marry Gaston in the first place. What’s more, they want whatever they can get of his fortune, and they don’t want to share it with her. Catherine agrees to defend Myriam, and she gets to know a little more about her and about Gaston. As she does, it’s interesting to see how very different the marriage seems, depending on who’s describing it (Myriam or Gaston’s cousins).

And then there’s Ilsa Evans’ Nefarious Doings. In that novel, we meet news columnist Nell Forrest, who lives in the small town of Majic, Victoria (she herself makes fun of the town’s name). One day, she learns that there’s been a fire at the home of her mother, Lillian ‘Yen.’ Yen is safe, but the garage has been damaged. As if that’s not enough, a man’s body has been found in the ruins. He is Dustin Craig, who lived next door to Yen, and with whom she’d had a loud argument on the evening of his death. And, his body was found on her property. So, she’s certainly ‘of interest’ to the police. Nell doesn’t believe her mother is a murderer, though, so she starts to ask questions. And she soon learns that more than one person could have had a motive. For instance, there’s the victim’s much-younger wife, Beth, whom he’d abused. There are other local people, too, with whom Craig had had disagreements. And, in the end, that network of relationships turns out to have a lot to do with the murder.

‘May/December’ marriages do still happen, even if they’re less common in the West than they were. And they certainly play a role in crime novels. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

Thanks, FictionFan, for the inspiration. Now, please treat yourself and go visit FictionFan’s great blog. Fine reviews, wit, and a porpentine await you…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s To Life.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Ilsa Evans, Sylvie Granotier

Her Name Was Magill and She Called Herself Lil*

Many people don’t go by the names they were given at birth. They may use a middle name, a nickname, or another name entirely. Sometimes, that’s not a big problem. And it’s perfectly legal to go through the process of changing one’s name. But name changes, and using different names, can make for real challenges for the police.

If the police are doing background checks on one name, they may not know to look for information under another name as well. There may also be connections between people involved in a case, but the police might not know about those connections if one of those people is living and working under a different name.

Name issues come up quite a bit in crime fiction, and that makes sense. They can add plot points and twists, character layers, and more. But they’re most effective if they’re used carefully and credibly (and not as a big surprise at the end of a story!).

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery, James McCarthy is arrested for the murder of his father, Charles. There’s evidence against him, too, as he was seen and overheard quarreling with his father just before the murder. He doesn’t have an alibi, either. But he claims he’s innocent, and his fiancée, Alice Turner, believes him. She asks the police to go over the case again, and Inspector Lestrade reluctantly agrees. He enlists Sherlock Holmes to investigate, and Holmes and Dr. Watson look into the matter. They find that, just before he died, McCarthy uttered what seemed at the time to be a meaningless jumble of words. But it turns out that he was actually saying the name of his killer. Once Holmes works out what that name is and to whom it belongs, he solves the case.

There are a few Agatha Christie stories in which names turn out to matter a great deal. I won’t give sleuths or titles for fear of spoilers. But in several that I can think of, the fact that people are using different names plays a major role in a case. Very often those changed names hide family or other connections to an investigation. And when the sleuth finds out what the character’s real name is, the pieces start to fall into place.

In Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, we are introduced to mystery novelist Frank Cairnes. He writes under the name of Felix Lane, and that’s how most people know him. From the beginning of the story, we learn that he is planning to kill a man. Six months earlier, Carines’ beloved son, Martin ‘Martie,’ was killed in a hit-and-run incident, and Cairnes intends to kill the man who was driving the car. After a bit of detective work, Cairnes discovers that the driver was probably a man named George Rattery. Using his pen name, he finds a way to get an ‘in’ to Rattery’s home and is soon staying there as a guest. His plan is for Rattery to have a ‘drowning accident’ while they are out boating together. But, although the two men do go out on the water, the plan doesn’t work, because Rattery has found out about it. They return to land, and, later that afternoon, Rattery dies of what turns out to be poison. Cairnes says that he is innocent. After all, why would he plan to poison a man he planned to drown? He asks poet and PI Nigel Strangeways to investigate, and Strangeways agrees. He finds that this case is both simpler and more complicated than it seems on the surface.

Mari Hannah’s The Murder Wall is the first of her Kate Daniels novels. In it, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Daniels gets the chance to be Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) when Alan Stephens is murdered in his home. In one plot thread, Daniels comes to believe that this murder is linked to two murders that occurred almost a year earlier. At first, the connection isn’t that obvious. But then there’s another murder. And another. These deaths are linked, and Daniels faces real danger as she gets close to the truth about the deaths. It turns out that one person’s change of name has meant that a major clue isn’t picked up at first. It’s not until Daniels learns about the name change that she makes the connection.

And then there’s Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead, the first in her Esa Khattak/Rachel Getty series. Both work for the Community Policing Service (CPS) of the Canadian federal government, which is usually concerned with anti-bigotry and other community issues. So it’s a surprise when Khattak is asked to investigate the death of Christopher Drayton, whose body was found at the bottom of Scarborough (Ontario) Bluffs. His fall could be accidental, but it’s unlikely. In either case, it’s not the sort of investigation that usually concerns the CPS. Then, Khattak learns that Drayton may have been Dražen Krstić, a notorious Bosnian war criminal known as the butcher of Srebrenica. If so, there could be many reasons for someone to want him dead. And if that’s who Drayton was, it makes sense that he would go by a different name to escape his enemies. But if that’s true, how did a war criminal get into Canada? The case has delicate and challenging implications on political, social, and other levels.

Going by a different name doesn’t necessarily mean trouble. But in crime fiction, the answer to the question, ‘What’s in a name?’ is sometimes, ‘Everything.’ These are just a few examples. Your turn.


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


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Mari Hannah, Nicholas Blake


One of the first rules when there’s a crime is that the crime scene is not to be disturbed until it’s assessed. There are good reasons for that, too, as details about a crime scene can give valuable information about who the criminal is. Today’s technology allows for assessments such as DNA studies, blood analysis, and so on. But there are also basics, too, such as footprints.

Footprints can play a key role in an investigation, even today. And they certainly have in the past. They’re important in crime fiction, too. The author can use footprints to either guide the sleuth (and the reader) or misdirect.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance, footprints of what looks like a giant hound are used as evidence that Sir Charles Baskerville fell victim to a family curse. It’s said that the Baskervilles have been cursed by a phantom hound since one of their ancestors traded his soul to the Powers of Evil in return for a woman who had besotted him. Not one to believe in otherworldly solutions to mysteries, Holmes looks for another explanation for Sir Charles’ death, and he and Dr. Watson find it. And, in The Adventure of the Priory School, prints play a role when Holmes investigates the kidnapping of ten-year-old Lord Saltire from the boarding school he attends. There are several other Holmes stories, too, in which footprints and hoof prints figure into the solution.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is not one to rely on only visual evidence such as footprints. But in some stories, they do prove to be important. For example, in Dead Man’s Mirror, Poirot is summoned by Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore. That high-handedness irks Poirot, but he decides to take the case. It seems that Sir Gervase is concerned that someone in his household may be cheating him, and he wants Poirot to investigate. Poirot arrives at the Chevenix-Gore home just before dinner is announced, so he’s present when everyone gathers for the meal – everyone except Sir Gervase. Soon afterwards, it’s discovered that Sir Gervase has been shot in his study. It looks at first as though he’s committed suicide, although he’d done nothing to suggest he was contemplating taking his own life. But small pieces of evidence suggest that he was murdered. And, as Poirot investigates, he finds that some footprints offer interesting evidence in the matter. Christie uses footprints in other cases, too, right, fans of The Murder on the Links?

In Dorothy L. Sayers’ Clouds of Witness, Lord Peter Wimsey is faced with a perplexing mystery. His brother Gerald, Duke of Denver, stands accused of murdering Captain Denis Cathcart, who was fiancé to the Duke’s (and Lord Peter’s) sister, Mary. There’s good evidence against him, too. For one thing, he and Cathcart had had an argument when he found out that Cathcart was cheating at cards. For another, he was at the scene of the crime, which took place late at night. He says he was simply taking a walk, but, of course, that’s not a strong alibi. Still, the Duke claims innocence, and his brother believes that. One of the pieces of evidence in question is a set of footprints near and around the body. Are they the Duke of Denver’s? If they aren’t, then whose are they? And why is Lady Mary obviously hiding something?

It’s lack of footprints that confuses matters in John Dickson Carr’s The Problem of the Wire Cage. Frank Dorrance has become engaged to Brenda White, but he’s made it clear that he’s only marrying her for the money she will inherit. Meanwhile, he’s got a rival, Hugh Rowlands, who truly does love Brenda. One day, Frank and Brenda attend a tennis party, during which Frank manages to alienate just about everyone. After the party, Brenda discovers her fiancé’s body on the tennis court. The only footprints on the wet, sandy court belong to Frank, so there’s no way to tell who was there, or how Frank’s body came to be on the court. But, as Dr. Gideon Fell finds out, there is no lack of suspects. This is one of those ‘impossible, but not really’ novels for which Carr is famous.

There’s also Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit. In that novel, Frank and Irene Ogden hold a séance at their home. Their purpose is to contact Irene’s dead first husband, Grimaud Désanat, and ask him to approve logging on some land that he owned and wanted to keep untouched for at least twenty years. Also present are Irene’s daughter Sherry; family friend Luke Latham; his nephew, Jeff; Jeff’s girlfriend, Barbara; Professor Peyton Ambler; and Svetozar Vok, a stage magician who’s made it his mission to debunk spiritual fakery. Rogan Kincaid, an itinerant gambler who also serves as sleuth here, is also present. This plan to hold a séance isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. For one thing, Irene Ogden is a medium. For another, both her husband and Latham believe firmly in spiritualism. What’s more, there are high stakes involved. The wood that’s on the property in question is needed for the Ogden family business. The séance takes place, and it’s eerie for all concerned, including those who aren’t believers. Later that night, Irene Ogden is murdered in her room. And it seems to be an ‘impossible’ sort of crime. She was found alone in a locked room, and there are no footprints to show that anyone entered or left the room through the window. Was she killed by a vengeful spirit? If she wasn’t, then how did someone kill her and leave without leaving footprints (there’s snow on the ground, so any footprints would show clearly)?

Even today, footprints matter in crime novels. For instance, in Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood, a group of friends gather for a hen weekend. There are all sorts of relationship dynamics, past histories, and more that impact this get-together. But Clare Cavendish, the bride-to-be, has a way of attracting people and getting them to do what she wants. So, the group gets together in a remote summer home belonging to the hostess’ aunt. But is the group as alone as it seems? Why are there footprints behind the house – footprints that no-one in the group admits to leaving? And how is this related to the tragedy that later happens as the weekend goes on? That tension certainly adds to the suspense in the novel.

Footprints are important evidence, even in these days when most people know about evidence such as prints. And they’ve always played a role in the genre.  Which stories have left footprints in your memory?


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


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Hake Talbot, John Dickson Carr, Ruth Ware

Well, She Wrote Me a Letter*

Writing letters isn’t as common as it used to be. And that makes sense, when you think of how easy it is to email or, if it’s more urgent, text or call someone. And, yet, letters used to be the backbone of communication.

They’ve also served an interesting purpose in crime fiction: to sound an alarm, so to speak, and ask for help. There are plenty of examples of stories where someone writes a letter that gets the sleuth involved in a case. These are just a few instances; I know you’ll think of more.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, Violet Hunter writes a letter to Sherlock Holmes, asking his advice on whether she should take a new position as governess for a six-year-old boy. Jephro Rucastle, who has made the offer, has also made a few odd requests, and he unsettles Violet in a few ways. But the offer is a good one. When Holmes hears the whole story, he advises his new client not to take the job. She’s of a mind to take that advice, too. But then, Rucastle increases the offer to a number that she cannot resist. Holmes knows he can’t stop Violet from taking the job. But he does tell her that if she needs him, all she has to do is let him know. Before long, she does just that. Things have gone from odd to eerie, and even dangerous, and Violet asks for help. Holmes and Watson travel to the Rucastle home just in time to solve a deadly mystery.

Agatha Christie uses letters in more than one of her stories. In The Murder on the Links, for instance, Hercule Poirot gets a letter from Paul Renauld, a Canadian émigré to France. Renauld says that his life is in danger, and he begs Poirot to come and help. Usually, Poirot is not much for being summoned (right, fans of Dead Man’s Mirror?), but this letter gets his attention, and he and Captain Hastings go to France. By the time they get there, though, it’s too late: Renauld has been murdered. Poiorot and Hastings look into the matter and find out the truth about the case. And it turns out to be more complicated than it seems on the surface.

The real action in Dashiell Hammett’s short story, Fly Paper, begins when Major Waldo Hambleton hires the Continental Detective Agency to find his daughter, Sue, who’s cut off all contact with her family. She’s been reportedly mixed up with some very dangerous people, so Hambleton wants to be sure she’s all right. Then, he gets a letter from Sue, asking for money. That letter spurs him on, and he points the private investigator towards Sue’s last known address. It turns out the address belongs to a thug named Joseph ‘Holy Joe’ Wales, and he’s not the only thug Sue’s been associated with lately. Slowly, the detective (who is not named in the story) tracks down Sue’s actual address, but by the time he does, it’s too late: Sue is dead of what turns out to be arsenic poisoning. Now this missing person case has become a murder (or suicide) investigation.

In Catriona McPherson’s The Proper Treatment of Bloodstains, private investigator Dandelion ‘Dandy’ Gilver gets a letter from Walburga ‘Lollie’ Balfour that begins this way:

‘Dear Mrs. Gilver,
…My husband is going to kill me, and I would rather he didn’t.’


The letter goes on to say that Lollie fears for her life, and to ask Dandy to investigate surreptitiously by taking a position as a maid in the Balfour household.  Dandy takes the case and goes on a fake ‘interview’ to get the details from her new client. She soon moves in and starts investigating. But the next night, someone murders Lollie’s husband, Philip ‘Pip.’ Now, Dandy is involved in a murder investigation that turns out to be much more complicated than it seemed on the surface.

Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency introduces Botswana’s only female private investigator, Mma Precious Ramotswe. In one of her cases, she receives a letter from a teacher named Ernest Pakotati, whose eleven-year-old son has gone missing. The letter is heartbreaking, and Mma Ramotswe is moved by it. It’s not going to be an easy case, though. Among many other things, this disappearance could be related to local witchcraft, which is a politically very sensitive issue. It’s going to take tact and perseverance to find out what has happened to the boy. But Mr. Pakoti is desperate to get his son back if that’s possible, and Mma Ramotswe is determined to do just that.

And then there’s Deborah Johnson’s The Secret of Magic. In that novel, which takes place just after WW II, we meet idealistic young attorney Regina Robichard. She’s working for the NAACP in New York City, and hoping to make a difference there. Everything changes when the NAACP gets a letter from reclusive author M.P. Calhoun. As it happens, Calhoun wrote one of Robichard’s best-loved books from childhood, so she’s intrigued. In the letter, Calhoun alleges that a returning black veteran named Joe Howard Wilson was murdered. It’s clear from the letter that Calhoun wants the murder investigated, so Robichard decides to make the trip to Revere, Mississippi, where the alleged crime took place. As she starts to ask questions, Robichard learns that things are not always as they seem, and that she has much to learn.

There isn’t as much use of letters these days as there was. But they do offer the crime writer a lot of opportunities for getting the sleuth (and the reader) involved in a case. This is just a sampling. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Wayne Carson’s The Letter.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Arthur Conan Doyle, Catriona McPherson, Dashiell Hammett, Deborah Johnson