Category Archives: Arthur Conan Doyle

It’s Who You Know*

NetworksMost of us are members of social networks, whether we really think about it or not. And it’s sometimes surprising how those networks come up. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever said (or heard) something like this: ‘You went to [name of university]? So did I!’ People use networks all the time to get things accomplished. Ask anyone who’s ever been in charge of an alumni donation drive for a school.

Those networks can also serve a social purpose. People who belong to exclusive clubs, for instance, have a group of wealthy, well-placed allies who can help them get things done. It might be arranging a business loan, getting a place for a child at an elite school, or something else.

We all use our networks, however casual they may be, because it’s efficient. So it’s little wonder we see these networks operating in crime fiction too. Sometimes, they serve a very useful purpose. Other times, they turn out to be deadly.

In Agatha Christie’s They Do it With Mirrors (AKA Murder With Mirrors), for instance, Ruth Van Rydock takes advantage of her finishing-school network. She’s become concerned about her sister Carrie Serrocold, who lives with her husband Lewis at a Victorian-Era property called Stonygates.  The place has been converted into a school for delinquent boys, so there’s a great deal of coming and going, as it were. There aren’t any obvious signs, but Ruth suspects that Carrie may be in danger, so she writes to Jane Marple, an old friend from the school she attended in Florence. Miss Marple is conscious of that school network, too, and is happy to oblige her friend. She visits Stonygates herself to see what’s going on. Tragedy strikes soon enough. Carrie’s stepson Christian Gulbrandsen, who is one of the school’s trustees, pays a business-related visit. One night, he’s shot while he’s writing a letter, and that letter goes missing. Miss Marple extends her visit to find out who the killer really is and what the motive is.

Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder begins when Howard Van Horn wakes up from what seems to be a blackout. That’s happened before, and it’s cause enough for concern as it is. But when he sees that he’s got blood on himself, he becomes terrified that he must have done something horrible. So he taps his school network and contacts an old friend from college, Ellery Queen, to ask for help. Queen agrees to do what he can, and together, the two begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The trail leads to the small New England town of Wrightsville, where Van Horn grew up and where his father Dietrich now lives with his second wife Sally. One night during Queen and Van Horn’s visit, Sally is murdered. As it happens, Van Horn was having a blackout that night, so he’s a natural suspect. He even comes to believe it himself. But Queen isn’t convinced, and continues to investigate. And in the end, he finds out what really happened to Sally Van Horn, and why.

There are a lot of other stories in which school networks play an important role (I know, I know, fans of Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night). And of course there are examples of school societies such as fraternities and sororities that also figure in crime fiction. But school networks are by no means the only ones.

In many cultures, extended family serves as a network. In those cultures, any kind of kinship status entitles one to hospitality, financial assistance, and so on. And some fictional sleuths find those networks to be very useful.

For example, Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation. He is also a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. Kinship ties are particularly important within the Navajo culture. In fact, traditional Navajo introductions include references to family networks. That’s done in order to establish the relationship between two people who meet for the first time. If it comes out that there is any kinship, however distant, those two people could not consider a romantic relationship. But they could claim kinship privileges and they would assume kinship responsibilities. As fans of this series know, several of Hillerman’s novels include scenes where Chee makes use of his own family network to get information or assistance. There are also, of course, scenes where others make use of their networks to protect their kin from the police. It works both ways.

M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth also makes use of his family network. He is ‘just’ the village bobby for the Highlands village of Lochdubh, but his kinship ties are extended. In Death of a Cad, for instance, he investigates the shooting death of Captain Peter Bartlett. At first it looks like a terrible hunting accident, but soon enough, Macbeth finds evidence that this was murder. He wants to get as much information as he can about the people present at the time of the murder, in order to work out which one(s) had a motive:
 

‘Like many Highlanders, Hamish had relatives scattered all over the world, and he was thankful he still had a good few of the less ambitious ones in different parts of Scotland.’
 

Macbeth makes a few calls to get the background he wants. And he finds out some very useful information from, in this case, his fourth cousin.

Of course, being involved in a network can be very dangerous, too. That’s especially the case if someone is believed to have betrayed that network. For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Five Orange Pips, John Openshaw brings a very strange case to Sherlock Holmes. His Uncle Elias, with whom he lived, was found dead in a pool on his estate. His death followed a series of increasingly bizarre reactions and incidents. What’s especially strange is that it all seemed to start when Elias Openshaw received a letter containing five orange pips. Now John Openshaw’s father Joseph has gotten a letter containing pips as well, but he won’t go to the police about it. He’s badly frightened, though, so his son has taken the case to Holmes. When Holmes gets to the truth behind the pips, he sees that it all has to do with the Ku Klux Klan, which had formed in the US after the Civil War, and had (so people thought) disbanded.

There are also many novels in which members or former members of the Mob pay a very high price for anything perceived as betrayal.  Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas, for instance, is the story of Fred and Maggie Blake and their children, who’ve recently moved from the US to the small Normandy town of Cholong-sur-Avre. They’ve got more than the usual challenges that ex-pats often face, though. Fred Blake is really Giovanni Manzoni, a former member of the New Jersey Mob who was targeted when he became a federal witness against the group. Now he and his family are in the US’ Witness Protection Program, and are supposed to be looked after by its staff. But that may not be enough when word of the family’s whereabouts gets back to New Jersey…

Most of us depend on our networks of family, fellow alumni, fellow society members, and so on. Sometimes those networks can provide invaluable support. But sometimes they draw people into very dangerous situations.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Reed Nielsen’s I Never Walk Alone, recorded by Huey Lewis and the News.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, M.C. Beaton, Tonino Benacquista, Tony Hillerman

But Me, I’m the Catalyst*

MacGuffinsLegendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock is said to have coined the term ‘MacGuffin.’ That particular story may be called into question, but there’s no question that Hitchcock made the term, and the concept, popular. So what’s a MacGuffin? It is, as Hitchcock says, nothing. Really, it’s a possibly inconsequential thing that serves as a catalyst for a story’s plot. And it drives the plot because for whatever reason, the plot revolves around it (think, for instance of the One Ring in Lord of the Rings).

Most people think of MacGuffins as film devices, and they certainly are. But we also arguably see them in crime fiction. There are lots of examples in the genre, and space only allows me a few. I’m sure you’ll fill in the gaps though; at least, I hope you will.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, the MacGuffin is a photograph. The King of Bohemia is about to marry, and there’s only one potential impediment to that wedding. He was once involved with actress Irene Adler, and there is still a compromising photograph of them. It wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in and of itself, but the king knows that his wealthy and powerful fiancée will not go through with the wedding if she finds out about his relationship with Adler. The king hires Sherlock Holmes to get the photograph in order to prevent his fiancée from learning of the affair. Holmes agrees, and he and Dr. Watson begin their search. As fans will know, it turns out that Irene Adler is more than a match for Holmes.

Agatha Christie used MacGuffins, too. In The Mystery of the Blue Train, for instance, wealthy American business tycoon Rufus Van Aldin decides to cheer up his daughter Ruth by purchasing a ruby necklace. One of the stones on the necklace is the famous ‘Heart of Fire.’ Ruth is, as you can imagine, delighted by the gift. Shortly thereafter, she takes a trip to on the famous Blue Train. She tells her father she’s going to Nice, but in reality, she’s planning to meet up with an old lover Armand de la Roche. Van Aldin cautions his daughter not to take the rubies with her, but as it turns out, she doesn’t listen to him. When she is murdered during the train journey, it’s assumed right away that the killer’s motive was robbery, since the necklace is missing. Hercule Poirot is also on the train, and he works with the police to find out who murdered the victim. In this case, quite a lot of people want that necklace, and it’s interesting how Christie uses it to drive this plot.

Jonathan Gash’s The Judas Pair introduces the reader to Lovejoy, an antiques dealer and collector who is passionate about the business. One day he gets a visit from George Field, who presents him with an irresistible puzzle. According to Field, his brother Eric had recently acquired a set of legendary dueling pistols – the Judas Pair. Stories of this priceless pair of pistols have circulated for years, and few antiques people really believe they exist. But Field insists that they do. Further, he says that his brother was shot with one of them. His idea is that if the pistols can be tracked down, the killer will be, too. Lovejoy is no police detective, but the thought of getting his hands on those pistols proves too tempting to resist. So agrees to look into the matter. In this novel, the Judas Pair serves as the MacGuffin. It’s just a couple of pistols, and in that sense inconsequential. But that pair of pistols drives the action.

In Aaron Elkins’ Loot, the MacGuffin is a painting. Boston art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere gets a call one day from Simeon Pawlovsky, a local pawn shop owner. He and Pawlovsky are by way of being friends, and now Pawlovsky needs Revere’s professional expertise. He’s acquired a painting that he thinks may be valuable, and he wants Revere’s opinion. Revere agrees and makes the trip to the pawn shop. When he arrives, he’s shocked to find that the painting is very likely a priceless Velázquez, one of several taken by the Nazis ‘for safekeeping’ during World War II. He wants to do some more research on the painting, but he’s concerned about such a valuable item remaining in the shop. Pawlovsky insists that there won’t be a problem, though, and Revere reluctantly goes to do his background research. By the time he returns two hours later, Pawlovsky has been murdered. Revere feels a strong sense of guilt at leaving his friend in such a vulnerable situation, so he wants to do what he can to help catch the killer. He believes that if he can trace the painting from the time it was taken during the war to the time it ended up in the shop, he’ll be able to find out who the murderer is. The novel is really about the murder and its investigation more than it is about the painting. But the painting drives the plot and motivates quite a lot of people.

A MacGuffin is often an object, but it doesn’t have to be. Some MacGuffins are people. For instance, in Karin Fossum’s Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride), Gunder Jorman takes the unexpected decision to find a wife. He may not be the most physically attractive or youngest or wealthiest ‘catch’ in the world, but he’s a steady worker and responsible man. He thinks he’ll make a good husband, and he decides to go to India to find a bride. Shortly after he arrives, he meets Poona Bai. The two find that they are well matched, and soon enough, she agrees to marry him. Poona has some things to do to finish up her life in India, so the arrangement is that her fiancé will return to Norway. She will follow shortly thereafter. On the day of Poona’s arrival, Gundar’s sister Maria is involved in a terrible car crash, and he needs to remain at the hospital with her. So he asks a friend to meet Poona at the airport and bring her to town. The two miss each other though, and Poona never makes it. When her body is found in a field near town, Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate to find out what happened to the victim. To do that, they’ll have to trace her movements from the time she left India. So the plot really revolves around and is driven by her presence.

A crime novel doesn’t, of course, have to have a MacGuffin. Many don’t. But a MacGuffin can be an interesting way of pulling the plot together. Which MacGuffins have you liked best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Anna Nalick’s Catalyst.

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Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jonathan Gash, Karin Fossum

All the Cards Were Comin’ From the Bottom of the Pack*

Card GamesIt’s just a friendly game of cards. A nice way to have a social evening with friends or loved ones. Or perhaps it’s a way to pass the time on a long trip or in the hospital room. What could be the harm in that, right? Wrong.

As crime fiction clearly shows us, cards may seem innocent enough, but the stakes can be deadly. And even when the result isn’t murder, card games really can be dangerous. Just consider these examples from the genre, and you’ll see what I mean.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Solitary Cyclist, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit, and a very interesting problem, from Violet Smith. She’s been engaged as a live-in piano teacher at Chiltern Grange. The arrangement with her employer is that she spends the week in the country with her young charge, and the weekends in London with her mother. All went well enough at first. But then something odd happened. Violet began to notice a strange man on a bike following her on the way to and from the train station. He doesn’t approach her or attempt to speak to her, but it still makes her nervous. And she’s curious about who the man is and what he wants. Holmes and Dr. Watson agree to investigate, and they make the trip to the country. In the end, they find that it all has to do with a card game.

Agatha Christie mentions cards quite a lot in her stories. Popular among those card games is bridge. In Cards on the Table, for instance, an eccentric man named Mr. Shaitana invites eight people to a dinner party. Four (including Hercule Poirot) are sleuths. The other four are people Shaitana suspects have got away with murder. After dinner, all of the guests settle in for bridge. One of those guests, Mrs. Lorrimer, is particularly glad about that. Here’s what she says:
 

‘I simply will not go out to dinner now if there’s no bridge afterwards! I just fall asleep. I’m ashamed of myself, but there it is.’
 

At some point during the game, someone stabs Mr. Shaitana. The only possible suspects are the four people who were playing in the same room with him. Poirot and the other sleuths now have to look into the backgrounds of each one to see who the murderer is. What’s interesting is that any one of them could have committed the crime. I know, I know, fans of The Hollow.

When many people think of card games, they think of poker. Different forms of poker are played all over the world, in places like Monte Carlo, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and of course, on river boats. One place you see a lot of poker is, of course, Las Vegas. There are lots of novels and short stories that feature Las Vegas card games; I’ll just mention a few. In Michael Connelly’s Trunk Music, LAPD homicide detective Harry Bosch investigates the murder of second-rate filmmaker Tony Aliso, who’s killed execution style, with the body found in the trunk of his car. The trail in this case leads to Las Vegas, and to a seedy casino. It also leads to Eleanor Wish, former FBI agent who has left the force and become a professional card player/gambler. Fans of this series will remember that she met Bosch in The Black Echo. When they reunite in Trunk Music, they develop a relationship that ends in marriage and a daughter, Madeleine ‘Maddy.’

Forensic accountant Ava Lee encounters her share of cards and card games in Ian Hamilton’s The Disciple of Las Vegas. In that novel, wealthy Philippines banker Tony Ordonez hires Lee’s employer to track down and return $50 million he lost in a bogus land deal. Lee is an expert at finding lost money, so she gets to work on the case. She soon finds that the trail leads to Las Vegas, and to poker champion David Douglas. He’s played against the best all over the world, and Lee is fairly certain that he knows more about what happened to the money than he’s saying.

In George V. Higgins’ Cogan’s Trade, New England Mob enforcer Jackie Cogan gets a new assignment. Someone’s been hijacking Mob-run card games, and the Powers That Be in the organization are not happy about it. So they hire Cogan to find out who’s responsible and ‘take care of matters.’ Needless to say, those card games do not end up being friendly pastimes.

And there’s Dead Man’s Hand, a collection of short stories edited by Otto Prenzler. This collection features stories by Michael Connelly, Walter Mosley, Laura Lippman, and Sue DeNymme, has as its theme card playing (especially poker) and gambling.

And of course, I couldn’t have a post about card-playing without mentioning John D. MacDonal’s Travis McGee. He refers to himself as a ‘salvage consultant,’ and his specialty is returning money property that his clients have had stolen from them. McGee isn’t a professional card-player, but he’s been lucky at least once. He lives on a boat, The Busted Flush, that he won in a poker game…

Card games such as Bridge, poker and canasta can be a lot of fun. And even in today’s world of electronic games, they can be great opportunities to spend time with family and friends. But if you do play this weekend, be careful. A friendly game doesn’t always stay that way.

This post was inspired in part by a plot point in a novel that I’m beta-reading for a friend. For obvious reasons I can’t give title or author. But if you’re reading this, you know who you are. I’m really enjoying the story!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from AC/DC’s  The Jack.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, George V. Higgins, Ian Hamilton, Laura Lippman, Michael Connelly, Otto Penzler, Sue DeNymme, Walter Mosley

She Talks to Angels*

Communicating With the DeadIf you’ve seen M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, then you’ll know that its main focus is a young boy who can hear and see those who’ve died. For a very long time, people have wanted to believe that they could communicate with loved ones who’ve passed away. That’s been the driving force behind countless séances.

Each culture is different with respect to whether we communicate with those who’ve died. In some cultures, there’s a vital important link between the dead and the living. In others, there is no such link, and the idea that the dead might communicate is not taken seriously.

Whatever one’s cultural or personal beliefs, the idea of communicating with lost friends and loved ones has had a powerful influence on people. And, given that a lot of crime fiction is about murder, it shouldn’t be surprising that this idea is woven into the genre, too.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle will know that he had a great interest in spiritualism. It’s ironic, considering that his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, is a man of science and logic. Holmes is not one for séances and other spiritualist traditions. But his creator certainly was.

Agatha Christie touches on this theme in a few of her stories. In The Last Séance, for instance, Raoul Daubreuil pays a visit to his fiancée Simone, who is a very successful medium. She is worn out from the work, though, and wants nothing more than to be done with it forever. But she has made one last commitment – a sitting for Madame Exe, who is desperate to stay in contact with her dead daughter Amelie. At first, Simone doesn’t want to do this last séance. She is exhausted; more than that, she is afraid. She fears the consequences of working with Madame Exe any longer. But Raoul insists that she keep her commitment, and Simone finally allows herself to be persuaded. Madame Exe duly arrives, and in the end, we see the tragic consequences. Christie fans will know that she also mentions spiritualism in Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Murder in Mesopotamia and the short story Blue Geranium, among others.

In one plot thread of Donna Leon’s The Girl of His Dreams, Commissario Guido Brunetti and his team investigate the death of twelve-year-old Ariana Rocich. She was a Roma girl who, according to the first reports, fell into a canal from a building where she was trying to rob an apartment. Brunetti isn’t so sure that she died accidentally, and starts asking questions. Brunetti doesn’t believe in spiritualism. But he can’t deny that Ariana haunts him:
 

‘…and the girl’s face…would return to him at odd times and more than once in his dreams.’
 

That’s part of what spurs him on to find out the truth about her death.

Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath be Past is in part the story of the death of seventeen-year-old Wilma Persson. One winter day, she and her boyfriend, eighteen-year-old Simon Kyrö, go diving into Lake Vittangijärvi, hoping to explore the ruins of a WWII plane that went down there. The two are deliberately trapped and killed. A few months later, Wilma’s body re-surfaces, and Inspector Anna-Maria Mella and her team investigate. In the meantime, attorney Rebecka Martinsson has been having strange dreams in which a young girl appears, trying to communicate with her. Martinsson doesn’t believe in ghosts, or in the dead communicating with the living, but she knows what she’s experienced. And it’s interesting to see how her experiences are woven into the story.

In Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second, Jason Barnes is riding a bus one day when three young people begin harassing another passenger, Luke Murray. Jason intervenes, and for a time, the bullying abates. But then, Luke gets off the bus. So do the three bullies, and so does Jason. The harassment starts up again, and this time it escalates. The fight continues all the way into Jason’s yard, where he is fatally stabbed, and Luke badly wounded. Both boys’ parents are understandably devastated by what’s happened. There is, of course, a police investigation into the incident, and Jason’s parents Andrew and Val do the best they can to help. Part of the plot involves the slow discovery of what really went on and what led up to it. Another part has to do with the impact that Jason’s death has on his family. In the end, though, Andrew and Val are able to begin healing; and, without spoiling the story, I can say that there’s one great scene in which Andrew does have a sense of really connecting with Jason.

There are many cultures in which it is believed that those who’ve died really do communicate with the living. It’s not done in the Western sense of using the planchette or having a séance. In fact, there isn’t really a strong dividing line between the living and the dead in some cultures. We see that, for instance, in Nicole Watson’s The Boundary, some of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte novels, and Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest novels. All of these touch on Australian Aboriginal people’s connections with their dead.

We also see that link in Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun series, which takes place in 1970s Laos. Dr. Siri may be a medical professional, but that doesn’t mean he ignores the unexplainable. In fact, he actually does see the spirits of people who’ve died. Again, it’s not in the traditional Western sense, but it’s quite real for him. There are other novels and series, too, that touch on this sense that those who have died communicate with the living (I know, I know, fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire stories). When it’s done effectively, it can add a fascinating layer to a story. It can also add some depth to characters.

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Åsa Larsson, Cath Staincliffe, Colin Cotterill, Craig Johnson, Donna Leon, Nicole Watson

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