Category Archives: Arthur Conan Doyle

Set That Baggage Down*

All of us have a past that we bring into relationships. And once in a while, that ‘baggage’ impacts those relationships. Even when a partner knows the truth about a person’s past, it can still come back to haunt, so to speak. And having a partner who has a lot of past ‘baggage’ can be a challenge.

There many examples of this dynamic in crime fiction, and it’s not hard to see why. It can make for interesting tension and suspense in a story. And there are plenty of opportunities for adding character layers. Sometimes, that past ‘baggage’ can even be a plot point.

It is in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men. Hilton Cubitt is worried about his wife, Elsie. Before they married, she told him that she had had some ‘unpleasant associations’ in her past, although she reassured him that she had done nothing shameful herself. She also told him that she didn’t want to discuss her past; that was a condition of marriage for her. Cubitt agreed, and all was well at first. But lately, Elsie’s been getting some cryptic letters that are frightening her. She won’t say what they’re about; and, since they’re written in a sort of hieroglyphic code, her husband can’t work that out for himself. So, he takes the problem to Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is working on the code when matters get more urgent. Whoever’s writing the letters has written more messages, this time on the windowsills of the Cubitt home. One night, a tragedy occurs and Cubitt is shot. Holmes uses the code to lure the killer and find out the truth about what happened.

Lady Elsa Dittisham, whom we meet in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, also has a past. Years ago, she had an affair with a famous painter named Amyas Crale. One afternoon, he was poisoned. His wife, Caroline, was arrested, tried, and convicted in the matter, and died in prison a year later. Elsa was a witness in the investigation, so she gave evidence in court, and took quite a lot of nasty criticism for breaking up the Crale home. Now, she is married to Lord Dittisham, who knows about the case. While he doesn’t deny what happened, he wants to leave it all in the past. So, he’s none too pleased when Hercule Poirot wants to interview Elsa about Crale’s murder. Poirot’s been hired by the Crales’ daughter, Carla Lemarchant, to re-open the case, because Carla believes that her mother was innocent. Although Lord Dittisham is opposed to the idea, Elsa is eager to tell her story. She and the other people who were present at the time of the murder write out their accounts of what happened. They also speak to Poirot. From those recollections, Poirot pieces together the truth about the matter.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little introduces readers to Bill King. He and his sister, Lora, have always been close, so he hopes she’ll be happy for him when he falls in love with a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant named Alice Steele. Right from the start, Lora has concerns about Alice, but she tells herself it’s because she’s too protective of her brother. Then, Bill and Alice get married. Lora tries to be nice to her new sister-in-law, mostly for Bill’s sake. But, she soon learns some things about Alice that make her uneasy. Bill doesn’t seem to be badly bothered by his wife’s past, and she is, as he sees it, good to him. The more Lora finds out, though, the more repulsed she is. At the same time, though, she’s drawn to Alice’s life. Then, there’s a murder, and Alice could be mixed up in it. Lora tells herself she wants to look after her brother, so she starts asking questions about the murder. And she finds herself pulled even deeper into Alice’s story.

In Håkan Östlundh’s The Intruder, we are introduced to Malin Andersson, her husband, Henrik Kjellander, and their two children, Ellen and Axel. They return from a two-month trip only to find that their Fårö Island home has been left in a mess, with some things missing, trash everywhere, and more. At first, it looks as though it’s a case of terrible temporary tenants. But then, Malin finds a photograph that’s been deliberately defaced. Now, it looks as though this could be a very personal violation of their home. So, they call in the police. Gotland police detectives Fredrik Broman and Sara Oskarsson begin to look into the case. They’re following up on some leads when Ellen goes missing. Now, the stakes are a lot higher, and everyone searches frantically for the girl. And it turns out that it all has to do with ‘baggage’ from the past that quite probably should have been shared – but wasn’t.

And then there’s Stella Duffy’s The Hidden Room. Laurie and Martha have been married for a long time, and have raised three children, Hope, Ana, and Jack. They’ve had their differences, as couples do, but they a strong bond. Martha knows that Laurie comes from an unusual background. Adopted from China, she was raised in a cult in the American desert. The group was led by a charismatic man named Abraham, and it had a strict code for dress, activities, and more. Laurie left the cult as a young woman, and Martha knows that her years there still have an impact on her. But she doesn’t know everything about Laurie’s experiences. And that means trouble when the past catches up with Laurie, and someone she hasn’t seen for years turns up again. This could spell disaster for the family, and Laurie is determined to protect the ones she loves.

And that’s the thing about having a partner with ‘baggage.’ You never know when it can come up again or impact the relationship. And it’s interesting to see how that dynamic adds to a crime novel.


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


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Håkan Östlundh, Megan Abbott, Stella Duffy

There Was No One There to Meet Me, And Your Clothes Were on the Floor*

Most of us have routines for doing things – routines that make sense and work for us. And those routines tell a lot about us. So, when they are interrupted, that, too, can give a lot of information. For example, say you come home, and your partner isn’t there, but the keys are, the door is unlocked, and the dog doesn’t come to greet you.  You can guess that your partner probably took the dog for a walk and both will be back soon.

Those conclusions aren’t, of course, completely foolproof. But they do give helpful information, and in crime fiction, they can be very helpful as a sleuth tries to put the pieces of a puzzle together. I started thinking about this after a really interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books. Her post (which you should read) was a review of how this works in one crime novel, but there are plenty of other examples. Here are just a few.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Commissioner Peterson breaks up a scuffle between some thugs and a man they had targeted. Their would-be victim runs off, dropping his hat and a goose as he goes. Peterson takes the goose home to his wife, who starts to prepare it for cooking. When she does, she discovers a valuable gem in its craw. Peterson takes the jewel and the hat to Sherlock Holmes, who starts by making some useful deductions just from the hat. Then, he uses what Peterson tells him to work out what the man’s routine would have been. That gives him valuable information about how the jewel got into the goose’s craw, and what happened to the man who had the goose. Fans of Sherlock Holmes will know that he frequently uses clues like that to work out the events of a crime.

So does Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot at times. In Murder in Mesopotamia, for instance, he is persuaded to interrupt his travels in the Middle East to investigate the murder of Louise Leidner. Her husband, noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, is leading an excavation a few hours from Baghdad, and she’s decided to join the team, although she’s not involved in the actual work of digging. One afternoon, she is murdered in her room. No-one is seen entering or leaving that room, so at first, it’s hard to tell exactly how the murder occurred. But Poirot uses the clues he has to work out what likely would have happened – what her routine would have been. That information gives some valuable clues about who would have killed the victim, and how the murder occurred.

Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn is the story of the murder of Nicholas Quinn, the only Deaf member of the Oxford Foreign Exams Syndicate. This group oversees exams given in countries other than the UK that follow the British system of education. Quinn is poisoned one afternoon, and Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate. They soon learn that the members of the Syndicate are keeping secrets – things that Quinn discovered and that might have been worth murdering him to keep hidden. As a part of working out who killed the victim, Morse works out what his afternoon routine would have been like on the day he was killed, and that’s helpful. It’s not spoiling the story to say that another aspect of Quinn’s usual way of doing things proves vital to the case.

In Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer, Tapani Lehtinen becomes concerned about his journalist wife, Joahnna. She’s been following a story and hasn’t been in contact with anyone for twenty-four hours. That’s very unlike her, and Lehtinen has good reason to be worried. The world in which this story takes place has fallen into chaos due to wars and climate change, and millions of refugees have gone north to try to make lives for themselves. Helsinki, the setting for the story, has been reduced to near-anarchy, and the police are spread so thin that they can do little to solve any but the most major of crimes. Lehtinen starts at Johanna’s office, and uses notes and other clues to work out that she left the office quickly to work on her story. Her boss isn’t much help, but he does say that she was working on a story about a man called the Healer. This man has been responsible for the murders of several people, such as CEOs of certain corporations, that he believes are responsible for the climate change which has so impacted the world. Lehtinen believes that if he pursues that story himself, he’ll be able to find Johanna, so he begins to track the Healer. That choice gets him into danger, and he learns that several people involved in this case are hiding things. But, in the end, he learns the truth.

Teresa Solana’s A Not So Perfect Crime shows how those little routines can also be used to make a certain impression. In that novel, we meet Barcelona brothers Eduard and Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez. Together, they own a PI business that’s just getting started. Borja is of the strong belief that people won’t be willing to hire PIs who aren’t successful, so the office is designed to look much more prosperous than it is. For instance, there’s a receptionist/secretary’s desk, even though the brothers can’t afford to pay a secretary. In order to give the illusion that they can, they leave a cardigan or a jacket on the chair. Sometimes, they leave a bottle of nail polish on the desk, to make it look as though their secretary just went to the restroom for a moment. Or, they leave papers and other things on the desk to make it look as though someone was in the middle of something, and just had to run out for a bit. It’s a clever ruse, and it convinces potential clients that the firm’s doing well.

Those little clues to routines can be very helpful to detectives who are trying to work out exactly how a crime occurred. But they can also be useful if a criminal wants to leave a false trail (right, fans of Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Mews?). Either way, they can add to a story.

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Now, folks, give yourselves a treat and go visit Moira’s blog. It’s a valuable resource for all things fashion and culture in fiction, and what they say about us.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alvin Lee’s The Bluest Blues.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Antti Tuomainen, Arthur Conan Doyle, Colin Dexter, Teresa Solana

Intuition Takes Me There*

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot are very different characters in many ways. But they have in common that they believe in prosaic solutions to mysteries. Conan Doyle was fascinated by spiritualism, but his creation is strictly a man of science and logic. And, while Poirot respects the hold that the spiritual has on people, he, too, believes in straightforward solutions.

And, yet, there is such a thing as sensing something is wrong. Experienced detectives, for instance, can often tell when someone is lying. All sorts of details, some of them very subtle, alert the detective. And even people who aren’t ‘officially’ detectives pay attention at some level to those little hints that give them information.

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, for instance, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver has been invited to plan a Murder Hunt – a bit like a scavenger hunt – for an upcoming fête at the home of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. She goes along with the plan, but all along, she senses that all is not what it seems. So, she asks Hercule Poirot to come to Nasse House, where the fête will be held, and he agrees. Here’s a bit of what they say to each other when he arrives:

‘‘I suppose you think I’m a complete fool,’ said Mrs. Oliver defensively.
‘I have never thought you a fool,’ Poirot said.
‘And I know what you always say – or look – about intuition.’
‘One calls things by different names,’ said Poirot. ‘I am quite ready to believe that you have noticed something, or heard something, that has caused you anxiety. I think it is possible that yourself may not even know just what it is that you have seen or noticed or heard. You are aware only of the result.’’

It turns out that Mrs. Oliver’s intuition, if that’s the word, is right. On the day of the fête, there is a murder.

Paul Thomas’ Death on Demand begins with several seemingly unrelated incidents, including three murders. The victims have nothing obvious in common, and the police don’t link the murders. Then, a strange thing happens. Christopher Lilywhite contacts the police, saying that he wants to talk to Sergeant Tito Ihaka, and only Tito Ihaka. What’s especially odd about this is that, five years earlier, Ihaka investigated Lilywhite on the suspicion that he hired a paid assassin to murder his wife. Ihaka was absolutely sure his intuition was right, but couldn’t prove it, and Lilywhite is a powerful person. So, Ikaha was banished to Wairarapa. Now, Ihaka’s boss, Finbar McGrail, wants him to return to Auckland and talk to Lilywhite. Ihaka agrees, and pays the man a visit. It turns out that Lilywhite has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and wants to tell Ihaka the truth. He did, indeed, hire a paid killer, and now he believes that same person is killing other people. The next day, Lilywhite dies, and Ihaka is on the trail of a multiple murderer. Ihaka is a very pragmatic person. But part of his skill as a detective is that he pays attention to all of the small, sometimes very subtle, things that link everything in a case. And that’s what helps him here.

Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? is the story of Yvonne Mulhern, who moves from London to Dublin with her husband, Gerry, and their newborn daughter, Róisín, so Gerry can take advantage of an attractive job opportunity. Gerry’s gone a lot, so Yvonne is left with much of the baby’s care, and it’s got her exhausted. And she doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin, so she doesn’t have much support. Then, she discovers an online forum called Netmammy, a support group for new mothers. There, she finds the camaraderie and connection she needs. Then, one of her online friends goes ‘off the grid.’ There’s nothing specific to alert her, but Yvonne begins to get concerned. So, she contacts the police. There’s not much they can do, though. Not long afterwards, the body of an unidentified woman is discovered in an empty apartment. Detective Sergeant (DS) Claire Boyle investigates, and finds that the dead woman’s profile is similar to that of Yvonne’s missing friend. Could it be the same woman? And, if it is, what does that mean for Netmammy? The case isn’t solved by what you’d call intuition. But that hard-to-define feeling that something is wrong contributes to the solution.

Of course, even a detective who has what people call good instincts gets it wrong sometimes. Just ask Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. He is a brilliant detective, and he is both smart enough and savvy enough to put the pieces of a puzzle together. He relies on his ‘gut feeling,’ and it does, in the end, lead him to the right answer. But in more than one novel (I’m thinking, for instance, of The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, and of The Jewel That Was Ours), he discovers that he’s wrong at first. Then he has to go back over everything to get to the truth.

Instinct, intuition, call it whatever you want to call it. Experience and observation often give us an awareness that we can’t always define. But they give us those hunches that are often worth heeding. It works that way for fictional detectives, too.


ps. Oh, the ‘photo? I’m always amazed at the intuition dogs use. The ones that own me always know, well before I park my car, that I’m about to come home. They’re always there waiting near the door.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Lennon’s Intuition.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Colin Dexter, Paul Thomas, Sinéad Crowley

We’re Not Quite Sure Just What We’re Dying Of*

If you’ve ever been ill, even with something relatively minor like a cold, you know how easy it is to be preoccupied about your health. And that has advantages. It’s important to take medication, especially things like antibiotics, as directed, to rest if needed, and so on.

But, like anything else, it’s possible to take that preoccupation too far. I’m emphatically not talking here of genuine chronic illness. That’s an entirely different matter. Rather, I’m talking of cases where preoccupation becomes hypochondria. In real life, it can be annoying to spend too much time with a hypochondriac. But hypochondria can add an interesting character layer in a novel. And, if it’s a crime novel, there’s just a chance that preoccupation with one’s health is justified…

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sign of the Four, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate a strange case brought to them by Mary Morstan. Years earlier, her father returned from India to London, and arranged to meet her. But he didn’t keep that appointment and hasn’t been seen since. Not long after his disappearance, Mary began receiving a set of pearls, one each year, from an anonymous person. Holmes and Watson discover that that person is Thaddeus Sholto, the son of a friend of Morstan’s. It turns out that Sholto has some important information about what happened to Morstan, and why he’s been sending the pearls. As it happens, Thaddeus Sholto is a hypochondriac, who can go on at great length about his health (and does). Even Dr. Watson finds his medical conversations tiresome.

Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal) features the Abernethie family. When wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie dies, his family members gather for the funeral and the reading of his will. During the gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, says that he was murdered. Everyone else hushes her up, and even she tells the others not to pay attention to her. But the seed has been sown, and everyone wonders whether she might be right. When she herself is murdered the next day, it seems clear that she was right. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and he agrees. One of the people concerned in this case is Abernethie’s younger brother, Timothy. He doesn’t attend the funeral because of ill health, and we soon learn that ill health is his status quo. He revels in his bottles of medicine, and is obsessed with his heart rate, his pulse, and so on. This hypochondria isn’t the reason for the two deaths, but it adds an interesting layer to the story.

Fans of Martha Grimes’ Inspector Richard Jury will know that his assistant, Sergeant Wiggins, is also obsessed with his health. He’s constantly concerned about whether he’s well, and he keeps himself updated on all of the latest articles about health, whether they’re from responsible sources or they’re faddish. Wiggins can be tiresome about health matters, and that annoys Jury. But Wiggins is also a skilled police officer who knows his job. So, Jury tries to keep Wiggins’ hypochondria in perspective. It’s not always easy, though…

Elizabeth Spann Craig’s amateur sleuth, Myrtle Clover, is a retired English teacher who lives in the small town of Bradley, North Carolina. She originally gets involved in solving mysteries mostly to prove she’s not ready to be ‘put out to pasture,’ although that’s what her son, the local police chief, would like. Myrtle sometimes needs a ‘sounding board’ for her ideas, or some help putting them into action. One of the people she turns to is her friend, Miles Bradford. Like Myrtle, he’s retired. His idea of retirement, though, is quite different to Myrtle’s. He’d pictured a quiet retirement, without a lot of adventure. But that’s not what happens once he gets to know Myrtle. Miles is a germaphobe, and someone of a hypochondriac, although he’s not the whiny sort. Still, Myrtle doesn’t always have patience for his more cautious approach. He makes for an interesting contrast to Myrtle’s more adventurous nature.

Of course, there are times when it’s wise to pay close attention to, and to focus on, one’s health. For instance, Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances introduces us to her sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn. In the main plot of the novel, she happens to be present when her friend, up-and-coming politician Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk, suddenly collapses and dies of poison. As a way of coping with her grief, she decides to write a biography of her friend. And, as she does, she gets closer and closer to the truth about what happened to him. In another plot thread, she begins to lose weight and have other signs of illness. At first, she doesn’t pay much attention, as she’s not one to be obsessed about her health. But as time goes by and things get worse, she gets concerned and seeks medical attention. At first, there aren’t any clear answers to what’s going on, and that’s scary. It’s easy to see why, in cases like this, one would start getting very preoccupied with health.

It can be annoying to spend too much time with a hypochondriac in real life. But in fiction, hypochondria can make for an interesting layer of character. And there really are people like that, so it can be credible, too. These are just a few examples. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Hotspur’s Hypochondria.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Martha Grimes

His Painting’s On the Wall*

We’ve all heard of world-famous paintings such as Picasso’s Guernica. Beyond their monetary value, there’s just something about certain pieces of artwork that capture the imagination – or at least, people’s attention. If you’ve ever stood looking at a piece of artwork, drawn to it, you know what I mean.

And artwork certainly plays its role in crime fiction. And we don’t just see it in ‘heist’ stories, either. Sometimes, a particular piece of art is central to a plot; sometimes it’s not. Either way, it can add an interesting layer to a story.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, Inspector Lestrade brings Sherlock Holmes an unusual case of vandalism. It seems that two busts of Napoleon, sold by the same shop, have been smashed. Then another is found smashed, and this time, there’s also a murder. Lestrade wonders whether the culprit is some sort of madman with a fanatical hatred of Napoleon, but Holmes guesses that’s not the case. He traces the smashed busts to their origin, and, in the end, finds out why someone would want to destroy them.

In Agatha Christie’s short story Within a Wall, famous artist Alan Everard and his wife, Isobel, host a tea party to unveil his latest work: a portrait of her. It’s technically flawless, but Everard knows it doesn’t have the passion of his earlier works. Then, one of the guests discovers a painting of Everard’s daughter’s godmother (and his muse) Jane Haworth. The contrast between the two paintings shows just how much influence Jane has had on his work, and that influence has had its consequences. Admittedly, this story isn’t really as much a crime story as it is a psychological study. But it shows how one painting can play an important role in a story. I see you, fans of Five Little Pigs

Aaron Elkins’ Loot begins as Boston art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere gets a call from his friend, pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky. It seems that Pawlovsky has gotten in a new painting, and he wants Revere to tell him whether it’s valuable. Revere goes to the shop, expecting that the painting won’t be worth much. To his shock, though, it appears to be a priceless Velázquez. Revere wants to do some research on the painting, but he’s concerned for Pawlovsky’s safety if the painting is left in the shop. He asks for permission to take the painting with him while he does the research, but Pawlovsky refuses. Reluctantly, Revere leaves the painting behind. By the time he returns, Pawlovsky’s been murdered. Guilty about leaving his friend in such a dangerous situation, Revere wants to know who’s responsible for the killing. He knows that he’s not a professional detective. But he reasons that, if he can trace the painting from its last known owner to the pawn shop, he might be able to find out who the killer is. And that’s what he proceeds to do. It gets him into plenty of danger, but Revere finds out the truth.

As Bartholomew Gill’s McGarr and the PM of Belgrave Square begins, Chief Superintendent Peter McGarr of the Garda Síochána is at the scene of a murder. Antiques and art dealer William Craig has been shot, and his body has been discovered behind the building that houses his home and his shop. McGarr and his assistant, O’Shaughnessy, have just gotten started on the case when it’s discovered that one of the paintings in the shop is missing. This adds a possible motive, and McGarr wants to find out more about the painting. His wife, Noreen, works at her family’s picture gallery, and has a background in art history. So, he taps her expertise. It turns out that the research she does, and the background of that painting, prove to be important clues in this case.

An argument over a painting is an important plot point in Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig’s) Hickory Smoked Homicide. Tristan Pembroke is a wealthy beauty pageant coach, who’s as malicious and mean-spirited as she is influential. She commissions a portrait from local artist Sara Taylor. Tristan isn’t happy at all with the result, as she feels that it doesn’t do her justice. So, she refuses to pay Sara. As you can imagine, that prompts a dispute between the two. When Tristan holds a charity art auction at her home, Sara includes the painting among the pieces that will be sold. After all, she reasons, who’s going to want to buy a portrait of someone else who isn’t world-famous? At the auction, the painting prompts another argument. Later, Tristan is found murdered, and Sara becomes the prime suspect. Her mother-in-law, Lulu Taylor (the sleuth in this series) knows that Sara’s innocent, and she sets out to find out who the real killer is.

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s The Gifted. Political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, and her husband, Zack, are excited when their daughter, Taylor, is invited to include some of her work in an upcoming charity art auction. Taylor is a talented, passionate artist, and this is a real chance for her. She’s already shown her parents one of the two pieces that she will contribute. The other, which she’s called BlueBoy21, is a portrait of her muse and love interest, Julian Zentner. No-one sees that painting until it’s revealed on the night of the auction. And it turns out that that piece of artwork will have tragic consequences for more than one person.

Some pieces of art are like that. Beyond any monetary value, they have influence, appeal, or influence on their own. These are just a few examples of how plot point can play out in crime fiction. I know you’ll think of others.


The ‘photo is of a beautiful Joan Miró sculpture that’s displayed at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, in Madrid.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me).  


Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bartholomew Gill, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Riley Adams