Category Archives: Arthur Conan Doyle

The Landlady Said, ‘You Got the Rent Money Yet?’

Landlords and LandladiesIf you rent your home, rather than own it, then you have a landlady/landlord, or perhaps there’s a company that owns the property. Either way, there’s a certain relationship between property owners and tenants; in fact, there’s a whole branch of the law dedicated to landlord/tenant matters. When there’s a person to whom you pay your rent, and to whom you go if you have a property maintenance issue, there’s an even closer relationship, because you see that person on a regular basis. And, since so many people do rent, it’s a relationship we see a lot in real life. We see it, of course, in crime fiction, too – again, not surprising, since so many people rent.

One of the best-known of fictional landladies is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Mrs. Hudson, who rents rooms to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. We don’t learn an awful lot about her in the course of the stories; but she is a regular presence. Here’s what Dr. Watson says about her in The Adventure of the Dying Detective:

‘Not only was her first-floor flat invaded at all hours by throngs of singular and often undesirable characters but her remarkable lodger showed an eccentricity and irregularity in his life which must have sorely tried her patience.’

Still, Mrs. Hudson and Holmes have a good relationship. She even helps him set a trap for a killer in The Adventure of the Empty House.

Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger is told from the point of view of Ellen and Robert Bunting, who have retired from domestic service. In order to supplement their income, they’ve become landlord and landlady, and have opened their home to lodgers. Their plan isn’t very successful at first, mostly because Ellen Bunting is particular about the kinds of people to whom she is willing to rent. But their luck changes one day when an eccentric man calling himself Mr. Sleuth arrives. He is quiet, has the ‘right’ bearing, and pays well and in advance. So the Buntings willingly accept him as a tenant. At first, all goes smoothly enough. Besides, the Buntings are preoccupied with a series of murders that have been taking place in London. The police haven’t arrested anyone, and the papers are full of the lurid details. Then, Ellen Bunting begins to have some concerns about Mr. Sleuth. He’s been behaving oddly, and she slowly begins to wonder, to her horror, whether he might be the killer. If he is, then the Buntings themselves could be in danger. If he’s not, then she could be giving up an important source of income. It’s an interesting example of a landlord/landlady’s point of view.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her unpleasant tenant James Bentley. There’s evidence against him, too. In fact, he’s already been convicted, and is scheduled to be executed. But Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence isn’t convinced of Bentley’s guilt. So he asks Poirot to go to the village of Broadhinny to investigate. As it turns out, Mrs. McGinty was a little too curious for her own good about her clients’ secrets, and someone didn’t want her telling what she knew. Although it’s not the main focus of this novel, Christie does have a few things to say about the relationship between Bentley and his landlady. On the one hand, she could be irritating. On the other, he was concerned about her because he knew she kept money in her home, instead of safely at the bank. It’s an interesting insight into their interactions.

Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home offers a different perspective on landlords and landladies. In that novel, DI Dushan Zigac and DS Mel Ferreira investigate the murder of a man whose body is found in a burned-out shed on the property of Paul and Gemma Barlow. The Barlows claim that he was a squatter, and that they don’t know who he was; and in any case, they say he wasn’t there for very long. So Zigac and Ferreira try to trace the victim’s last days and weeks. He is soon identified as an Estonian immigrant named Jaan Stepulov, and the police start with that name. The trail leads to Fern House, a home owned by Joseph and Helen Adu. They do what they can to provide a decent home for their tenants, but they are overwhelmed by the work involved. Zigic and Ferreira then learn that Stepulov might have gotten involved in a fight with Andrus Tombak. If that’s true, then Tombak may know something about the murder. It turns out that Tombak, too, is a landlord, but of a very different kind. He has at least a dozen immigrants living in squalid conditions in his home, and has no compunctions about bribing whoever he has to in order to keep from losing that source of income. The Adus and Tombak don’t provide ‘the vital clue’ about the victim’s death. But they do show the kinds of tenant conditions that immigrant workers often have.

Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, which takes place in 1922, shows the way that rentals sometimes worked in those immediate post-war years. Frances Wray and her mother have fallen on hard times since the end of the war. For one thing, her father has died, leaving the family without his income. For another, her two brothers were lost in the war. With little other choice, the two women have decided to open their home to ‘paying guests’ – tenants. For them, it’s an admission of economic difficulty and, therefore, a source of shame. But they try to make the best of it. Len and Lilian Barber take an interest in the place and before long, are installed as the Wrays’ tenants. It’s very awkward at first, but everyone tries to adjust. It turns out, though, that this landlady/tenant arrangement is the start of a tragic chain of events.

And of course, no discussion of landlords and landladies in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Sue Grafton’s Henry Pitts, who is landlord for Grafton’s PI sleuth Kinsey Millhone. He’s not just the person to whom she pays her rent; he’s also a friend. He’s an interesting person in his own right, and Millhone finds him good company. She also sees him as a sort of father figure.

For a chilling look at a crime-fictional landlady, there’s Roald Dahl’s short story The Landlady. In that story, Billy Weaver has just arrived in Bath to start a new job. By chance he comes upon a B&B with rooms available; so on impulse, he checks in. What happens next is…well…you can read it here.

As you can see (and you probably knew it already), landlords and landladies come in all types. Some are to be avoided at all costs, and some are wonderful people. But all of them can add to a good story. Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from George Thorogood’s version of One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer. It’s an interesting mix of the original John Lee Hooker version, plus another Hooker song called House Rent Boogie.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Eva Dolan, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Roald Dahl, Sarah Waters, Sue Grafton

Just Leave Everything to Me*

Unofficial LeadersThere are certain people who become, if you want to put it this way, unofficial leaders in their communities. They don’t have official status (e.g. mayor, department manager, and so on). But they command respect, and they get things done. When the police are investigating a crime, they know that they won’t get nearly as far without the cooperation of these leaders.

That’s especially true in what I’ll call ‘shadow communities.’ By that, I mean communities that aren’t really geopolitical entities such as towns. Rather, these are unofficial groups of people linked by an interest, ethnic background, or some other commonality.

You see this sort of leadership emerge in real life, and it’s there in crime fiction, too. Oh, and before I go any further, you’ll notice that this post won’t really have discussion of crime bosses. Too easy

In several of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Sherlock Holmes gets very valuable help from a group of street children he calls the Baker Street Irregulars. These are children who don’t go to school and often don’t have regular homes. In the Victorian world in which Holmes lives, no-one pays very much attention to them, so they can come and go without being noticed. That makes them very useful as Holmes’ ‘eyes and ears.’ They’re an interesting ‘shadow community,’ without an established infrastructure. But they do have a social structure in place, and they work as a group. Their leader is a boy called Wiggins. He obviously doesn’t have official status as any kind of authority. But the others look up to him, and he serves as their liaison with Holmes.

We also see an example of the ‘shadow community’ of street children in William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series. These novels take place mostly in Moscow in the years just before World War II. At that time, often called the Great Purge, there were thousands of arrests of people who were considered ‘enemies of the state.’ If they weren’t killed outright, they were imprisoned or sent away, often to Siberia. Many of them left behind children, who were sometimes considered suspicious simply because of their parents’ arrests. These children were often left to fend for themselves as best they could. In The Holy Thief, the first of this series, Captain Alexei Korolev of the Moscow CID meets a group of such children. He’s investigating the death of a woman whose body was found in a former church, as well as another, similar murder. Korolev learns that a group of street children was near the scene when the first murder occurred, and he wants to talk to them. He finally tracks them down and learns that they are led by Kim Goldstein, whose

‘‘…parents got caught up in something or other…’’

and is now managing for himself. Goldstein and Korolev establish a kind of rapport, and his help turns out to be valuable in this novel and in The Twelfth Department.

In William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, we meet Jack Laidlaw of the Glasgow police. He and his team investigate when eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawson goes missing and is later discovered raped and murdered. There isn’t much to go on, and there is a great deal of pressure to find the killer. So Laidlaw decides to visit John Rhodes, who holds court in a pub called The Gay Laddie. Laidlaw says this about Rhodes:

‘‘He’s an honourable thug. He won’t like this kind of thing. He might lend us his eyes and ears for a week.’’

This part of Glasgow has a ‘shadow community’ that’s not really run by the civil authorities, except nominally. Things happen when John Rhodes wants them to happen. He’s not a crime boss, really, but he has connections all through the area, and everyone knows better than to cross him. Laidlaw and his assistant, DC Brian Harkness, have a conversation with Rhodes, and after a little staking out of positions, enlist his cooperation. It’s an interesting example of the way these ‘shadow communities’ work.

Maureen Carter’s Working Girl introduces readers to DS Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss of the Birmingham Police. When fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas is found murdered, Morriss and her team investigate. It turns out that Michelle was a commercial sex worker, so Morriss wants to talk to other sex workers to see what they might know about what happened. As you can imagine, the ‘shadow community’ of sex workers isn’t eager to talk to the police. In order to get their cooperation, Morriss will need the support of their unofficial leader, Big Val. Val’s been in the business longer than the rest, and has a sort of nurturing interest in the others. For their part, they look to her for advice and support – and a place to relax. Once Morriss is able to convince Big Val to work with her, she gets some useful information from the other sex workers in the area.

There are even some sleuths who are unofficial leaders. For example, you could argue that Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple is one such sleuth. Her village of St. Mary Mead isn’t a ‘shadow community;’ it’s an official town. But there’s plenty that goes on there that’s informal. And in that sense, Miss Marple is a leader. She isn’t the mayor or a member of the council. But everyone knows her, most people trust her, and she certainly has her ear to the ground, as the saying goes. And the police who investigate murders in that area know that they ignore Miss Marple to their peril.

And then there’s Anya Lipska’s Janusz Kiszka. One of the many ‘shadow communities’ in London is its Polish community. Members of it look to their own leaders for advice and support, and one of those leaders is Kiszka. He’s known as a ‘fixer’ – someone who can get things done and make things right. So it’s no surprise that DC Natalie Kershaw of the Met finds it to her advantage to work with Kiszka when she investigates murders that involve the Polish community. Kiszka doesn’t have official authority – not even in the area where he lives. But everyone knows he’s the person to go to in order to make things happen.

And that’s the thing about those ‘shadow communities.’ Like more official communities, they have their leaders. The authority of those leaders doesn’t come from a title or an office. But the police know that it’s just as real as a badge is, and that it pays to work with those leaders.


ps. Just in case you’re wondering…no, I don’t smoke. That’s a bit of ‘trick’ photography…


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Jerry Herman song. It might not have been used in the original musical Hello, Dolly, but it was a memorable addition to the film version.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Arthur Conan Doyle, Maureen Carter, William McIlvanney, William Ryan

Don’t Have Any Need to Prove Nothin’ to No One*

Life on One's Own TermsThere are people (I’ll bet you know some, yourself) who live life absolutely on their own terms. It’s not that they don’t care about others, such as friends and loved ones. Very often they do. What they don’t care about is ‘what everyone else will think!’  They don’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone, and they live as they see fit, without trying to self-consciously fit in.

That independence of character can make a person all the more interesting, and can add depths to a fictional character, too. Of course, as with most things, creating this sort of character requires a tricky balance. Independence of thought is one thing; too much eccentricity or thoughtlessness can be quite another. But there are some characters out there in crime fiction who seem to strike that balance. Here are just a few; I know you will think of many others.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is not at all bound by what people might think of his lifestyle. He keeps unusual hours, has a very unconventional approach to housekeeping (the tobacco in the slipper being just one example), and doesn’t exactly play by the conventional rules when it comes to catching criminals, either. He doesn’t particularly worry about what anyone thinks of his lifestyle, either, and makes no apologies for it. To be fair, in A Study in Scarlet, he does warn Dr. Watson about the way he is when they begin to share rooms:

‘‘I generally have chemicals about, and occasionally do experiments. Would that annoy you?’
‘By no means.’ [Watson]
‘Let me see — what are my other shortcomings. I get in the dumps at times, and don’t open my mouth for days on end. You must not think I am sulky when I do that. Just let me alone, and I’ll soon be right.’’

But he isn’t very much attached to what Watson thinks of him – not in the ‘aiming to please’ sort of a way that new roommates sometimes have.

Although he lives a more conventional lifestyle than Holmes does, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot isn’t very much bound by what people think of him, either. And some of Christie’s other characters are like that, too. For instance, in Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Hercule Poirot investigates the sixteen-year-old murder of famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time of the murder, his wife Caroline was the most likely suspect, and she certainly had motive. He was having an obvious affair with Elsa Greer, even going so far as to have Elsa in his home while he did a painting of her. Caroline was arrested, tried and convicted, and died a year later in prison. Her daughter thinks she was innocent, though, and wants Poirot to find out the truth. To do so, he interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ on the day of the murder; one of those people is Elsa, now Lady Dittisham. We learn about her that she was not at all worried about what people would think of her. On one level, she wanted to be ‘respectably married.’ But she dressed as she wished, she lived life completely on her own terms, and still doesn’t much care what people think of her. In fact, when Poirot asks her what her husband’s opinion would be of her involvement in the investigation, she says,

‘‘Do you think I care in the least what my husband would feel?’’

And she really doesn’t.

Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe will know that he doesn’t care very much what people (clients, the police, or even his own employees) think of him. He has his own very rigid schedule that suits him, and he sees people when he agrees to do so. He lives life on his own terms, and it doesn’t matter in the least bit to him that he is unconventional. Rather than try to fit into a world where people go out to offices, travel, interact in public and so on, he’s created a world that suits him. He has a world class chef, so that he only need eat elsewhere when he wants to do that. He has an elevator in his home, so that he doesn’t need to use the stairs. And he relies on Archie Goodwin and his other employees to do the ‘leg work’ for him and bring witnesses and suspects to him. Of course, if you’re a fan of this series, you’ll know that Goodwin has his own way of manipulating situations and getting his boss to do things. But Wolfe lives his life as he sees fit, with no apologies to anyone.

Another character who makes no apologies to anyone is Virginia Duigan’s Thea Farmer. She’s a former school principal who has bought some land in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. She’s even had a dream home built there. Then, bad luck and poor financial decisions mean that she has to give up that home and settle for the house next door, a house she calls ‘the hovel.’ To make matters worse, her dream home is purchased by Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington, and they soon move in, much to her chagrin. She has nothing but contempt for these ‘invaders,’ and doesn’t much care if they like her. The only person there whom she finds even bearable is Frank’s niece Kim, who comes to live with the couple. So when Thea begins to suspect that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for the girl, she gets concerned. The police aren’t going to do anything about it; so, rather than worry about what anyone will think of it all, Thea makes her own plans.

Sulari Gentill’s Edna Higgins is another crime-fictional character who lives life on her own terms. She is a friend, secret love interest, and muse to Gentill’s protagonist, Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair. At the time that this series takes place – the 1930’s – there are things that young ladies do and do not do, but Edna doesn’t worry overmuch about that. She feels no need to prove herself to anyone. She is a sculptor who creates what she wants to create. She’s also a sometimes-model, who isn’t afraid of the social sanctions for posing in the nude. She does some acting, too. She lives the life she wants to live, on her own terms.

And then there’s Sheldon Horowitz, whom we meet in Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian By Night. He’s moved from his native New York to Norway, to be nearer his granddaughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband. In one plot thread of this novel, Horowitz rescues a young boy whose mother has just been murdered. The two go on the run, and Horowitz does his best to protect the boy from some very nasty people. His thinking is unconventional, and he really doesn’t care much about that. He’s not worried about what a man of his age ‘should’ be doing, either. And that makes him all the more interesting.

That’s the thing about characters who don’t have anything to prove (You’re absolutely right, fans of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher!). They live life on their own terms, and that in itself can be very interesting. They can certainly add to a story, too.


ps. That’s a ‘princess’ dress over a T-shirt and a pair of sport leggings, and those shoes are mine. Yes, that’s what I call living life on one’s own terms.. ;-)


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Motorcycle Song. Interestingly, this song later became All About Soul. If you’ve heard both songs, you’ll notice the similarity…


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Derek B. Miller, Kerry Greenwood, Rex Stout, Sulari Gentill, Virigina Duigan

But You Just Keep Me Hanging on Again*

Building Tension Without GoreI think most of us would agree that a high-quality crime novel builds tension and suspense without resorting to a lot of gore and gratuitous violence. Everyone’s idea of what ‘counts’ as ‘too much’ or ‘gratuitous’ violence is likely to be a little different. But all of us have our limit. And there are ways to keep people turning and swiping pages without a bloodbath.

How, exactly, does a crime writer go about that, though? How can an author keep the tension strong in other ways? Here are just a few of my ideas. I’m sure you’ll have your own, too, and I’d love to learn from them.


Creepy Settings

Eerie settings can take on a life of their own, as the saying goes. When they’re depicted well, they can add quite a lot of suspense to a story. For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle uses Baskerville Hall to good effect in The Hound of the Baskervilles. In that novel, Sherlock Holmes sends Dr. Watson to Baskerville Hall on Dartmoor to help investigate the recent death of Sir Charles Baskerville. Legend has it that the Baskerville family is cursed by a phantom hound, and that’s the reason for his death. Holmes isn’t sure that’s true, though. In any case, family friend Dr. Mortimer wants to prevent a similar fate for the new heir, Sir Henry Baskerville. As you can imagine, Sir Charles’ death has a much more prosaic explanation than a curse. One interesting thing about this story is that there isn’t a lot of violence in it. The tension and suspense aren’t built that way. The setting, though, is eerie. First, there’s the bleak moor, which at night is not exactly a warm, welcoming place. There’s the house itself, too, which

‘…was a heavy block of building from which a porch projected. The whole front was draped in ivy, with a patch clipped bare here and there where a window or coat-of-arms broke through the dark veil. From this central block rose the twin towers, ancient, crenelated, and pierced with many loopholes.’

It’s certainly not a cheerful, bright place.

Neither is the eponymous lodging that features in Daphne’s du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Also located on Dartmoor (hmm……), it’s owned by Joss Merlyn and his wife Patience. Their niece, Mary Yellan, goes to stay with them when her mother dies. Before she even arrives, she’s warned about the place; and when she arrives, she finds that the warnings have been more than justified:

‘She [Mary] went out of the room and into the dark passage, bumping against the settle in the hall, and so upstairs, feeling her way with her hands, judging her whereabouts by turning round and facing the stairs again. Her uncle had told her the room over the porch, and she crept across the dark landing, which was unlit, past two doors on either side – guest rooms, she imagined, waiting for those travelers who never came nowadays, nor sought shelter beneath the roof of Jamaica Inn – and then stumbled against another door and turned the handle, and saw by the flickering flame of her candle that this was her room, for her trunk lay on the floor.

Not the sort of place that suggests a happy, warm story. Like The Hound of the Baskervilles, the violence is more implied than depicted in detail (although there is more of it in this story). The setting builds the tension as much as anything else does.


The Elements


Along with physical setting, authors can also use the elements to build tension without getting gory. In Nevada Barr’s Firestorm, for instance, US National Park Service Ranger Anna Pigeon has been sent to Northern California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park. She’s to serve as a medic for those fighting a wildfire – the Jackson fire – in the area. Weather predictions are for colder air and snow to move in, so the hope is that the firefighters will soon be able to leave the area. Pigeon and a small group remain behind, though, to help an injured comrade. That’s when a freak thunderstorm forms and changes everything. A firestorm is whipped up, and all of the team dives for cover in individual shelters. When the storm passes, the firefighters check on each other only to find that one of them has been murdered. Now, Pigeon has to help the other exhausted firefighters, and at the same time find out who the killer is. This novel uses the quickly-changing and dangerous elements to add suspense to the story, rather than a very high ‘body count,’ or a lot of brutal gore.

That’s also true of Craig Johnson’s The Cold Dish, which introduces his sleuth, Sheriff Walt Longmire. In this novel, Longmire and his deputy, Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti investigate two murders, both of young men who were involved in a previous rape. There are a number of possibilities, including that the family of the rape victim has exacted vengeance. Although the story has some dark elements, it’s not a really gory novel. And the violence that there is, is not extended. Part of what builds the tension here is a snowstorm that moves in during a trek that Longmire and his friend Henry Standing Bear make to try to prevent a third murder. The weather is brutal, and the two men are at serious risk. That’s what adds to the suspense, rather than a lot of violence.


Psychological Tension


Authors can also use the buildup of psychological tension to invite readers to stay engaged in a story. That’s what Agatha Christie does in And Then There Were None. In that novel, ten people visit Indian Island, off the Devon Coast. They’re all there for different reasons, but as we learn early on, they’ve all been deliberately brought to the island. After dinner on the first night, each is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Shortly afterwards, one of them suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, another dies. Soon enough, it’s clear that someone is trying to kill all of them. The survivors have to find out who that person is, and stay alive themselves. Admittedly, there’s a higher ‘body count’ here than there is in some of Christie’s other work. But the deaths are not described in ugly, gory detail. The real tension lies in the growing paranoia and the knowledge that someone in the same house is a killer.

Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train also uses a solid buildup of psychological tension. The real action in that novel begins when Guy Haines travels across country by train to visit his estranged wife Miriam, from whom he’s hoping to get a divorce. While he’s en route, he meets Charles Anthony Bruno. The two men get to talking, and before very long, Bruno proposes that each man commit the other man’s murder. He will kill Haines’ wife if Haines kills his father. At first, Haines doesn’t take Bruno seriously. But then, Bruno actually kills Miriam, and demands that Haines fulfil his side of the bargain. Now Haines has a terrible dilemma. In this novel, the violence isn’t the main part of the story, really. It’s the buildup of psychological tension as we slowly see the kind of person Bruno really is, and as Haines tries desperately to get out of his situation.

There are a lot of other ways, too, to ramp up the suspense in a story without a bloodletting. Which keep your interest the most? If you’re a writer, how do you build suspense without gore?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Hooters’ Hanging on a Heartbeat.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Craig Johnson, Daphne du Maurier, Nevada Barr, Patricia Highsmith

That is All I Have Left to Say*

Dying WordsNot every fictional victim gets the chance for last words. But it’s interesting to see how many crime novels include dying words. It’s tricky to handle dying words effectively. For one thing, a lot depends on how the fictional victim dies. In many cases, it wouldn’t be possible for a victim to say anything. And there’s the matter of melodrama. That said though, dying words can be very interesting; and sometimes, they’re important clues to the killer.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Helen Stoner. She feels that her life may be in danger, and she wants Holmes’ help. It seems that Helen’s sister Julia suddenly died after a strange series of eerie noises and unexplained events. On the night of Julia’s death, Helen heard her sister scream. She rushed from her bedroom into the corridor and saw her sister there. Julia was only able to say,

‘‘Oh my God! Helen! It was the band! The speckled band!’’

before she died. Helen could make little sense of the words, but now, she’s hearing the same strange noises that preceded Julia’s death. Holmes and Watson travel to Stoke Moran, the estate where Helen lives, and investigate to find out who would want both women dead and why. I know, I know, fans of The Boscombe Valley Mystery.

In Ellery Queen’s The Last Woman in His Life, Queen is invited for a getaway weekend at a guest house belonging to wealthy playboy John Levering Benedict III. Also staying (but in the main house) for the weekend are Levering’s three ex-wives, his attorney, and his attorney’s secretary. As you can guess, the atmosphere at the house is tense, so Queen spends most of his time at the guest house. One night, Queen gets a frantic call from his host, who says that he’s been murdered. He tries to say more, but because he stutters, it’s extremely difficult for him to get anything out. And at least at first, Queen can’t make sense of what he does say. In any case, he rushes over to the main house. But by then, it’s too late: Benedict has been killed by a blow to the head. The only physical clues are a wig, an evening gown and a pair of gloves. It turns out that Benedict knew all along who killed him; had Queen understood what he was saying, the case would have been solved before it began. But of course, that wouldn’t make for riveting reading…

Agatha Christie used dying words in more than one of her stories. For instance, in The Boomerang Clue (AKA Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?), Bobby Jones is golfing with his friend, Dr. Thomas. At one point, they’re looking for a ball that went over a cliff when they see a man who’s fallen off the cliff and landed below. Jones goes to stay with the man as Thomas rushes off to get help. So Jones is alone when the victim says,

‘Why didn’t they ask Evans?’

and then dies. The words seem meaningless at first, but as Jones and his friend, Lady Frances ‘Frankie’ Derwent ask some questions, it becomes clear that the man was murdered, and that he’s the key to something much bigger than they’d thought. I know, I know, fans of The Hollow.

Henning Mankell’s first Kurt Wallender novel, Faceless Killers, begins with brutal attacks on a rural farmer, Johannes Lövgren, and his wife, Maria. Johannes dies before any help can arrive, but Maria lives long enough to be transported to emergency care at the nearest hospital. She, too, later dies, but not before uttering the word,


That one word means serious trouble for Wallander and his police team. There is already simmering resentment against immigrants in the area. If it gets out (which it does) that these murders were likely committed by foreigners, there’s no telling what might happen. And when the media hears about it, the police have to deal with a real backlash – including the murder of a Somali immigrant who was living at a nearby camp. Now the police have to fend off the media, solve the murder of the immigrant quickly (so as not to appear prejudiced) and continue to work on the Lövgren case.

And then there’s Shona (now writing as S.G.) MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. Seaton is an undermaster at the local grammar school in 17th Century Banff, in Scotland. One morning he wakes to the news that there’s a dead body in his classroom. He finds that the dead man is apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson, and that Davidson has been poisoned. The most likely suspect is his romantic rival, music master Charles Thom, who is duly arrested. Thom claims that he’s innocent, and begs Seaton to help clear his name and get him out of prison. Seaton agrees and begins asking questions. He saw Davidson alive, not long before his death, and now that vision comes back to haunt him. Davidson had tried to get his attention, but Seaton didn’t respond. Now he discovers that two other people did respond: local prostitutes Mary and Janet Dawson saw Davidson and tried to help him. Neither they nor Seaton can make sense of Davidson’s dying words, at least at first. But as we find out, those words have a lot of significance.

And that’s the thing. Dying words often do have a significance, both in real life and in crime fiction. It’s just that sometimes, it’s harder to work out what the meaning is than it is other times. Which fictional dying words have stayed with you?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eric Clapton’s version of Muddy Waters’ Blow Wind Blow. 


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Henning Mankell, Shona MacLean