Category Archives: Arthur Conan Doyle

Got to Begin Again*

It’s a not-so-pleasant fact of life that sometimes, you have to stop what you’re doing and start all over again. You know the feeling, I’m sure. You’re nearly done putting together a piece of furniture, only to notice you’ve put a key piece on backwards. Or, you’ve just finished an email, ready to click on ‘Send,’ when you notice you’ve made some major mistakes in it and have to rewrite it. We all have to start over sometimes.

That includes fictional sleuths. As sleuths investigate, they develop mental constructs of what probably happened. Sometimes, something happens that makes that construct impossible. So, they have to start all over again. It’s frustrating and time-consuming – so much so that there are people who will ignore new evidence that disproves their own ideas. But, if a sleuth’s to find out what really happened in a case, that frustration is sometimes part of the proverbial package.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery, for instance, Inspector Lestrade gets what looks like a ‘cut and dried’ case. Charles McCarthy has been murdered, and the most likely suspect is his son, James. There’s plenty of evidence, too, as the two were seen quarreling loudly just before the killing. James McCarthy’s fiancée, Alice Turner, is convinced that he’s innocent, though. She pleads with Lestrade to take another look at the case. For all of his faults, Lestrade doesn’t want an innocent man executed. So, he contacts Sherlock Holmes about the case, and Holmes and Watson look into the matter. Holmes starts again at the beginning and finds out who really killed McCarthy and why.

Fans of Agatha Christie will know that she uses that trope of starting all over again in several of her stories. There’s a clear example of it in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence investigated the murder of a charwoman, and all of the evidence pointed towards her lodger, James Bentley. The evidence was so compelling, in fact, that Bentley was arrested, tried and convicted – all very fair and above-board. But Spence has begun to think he was wrong. The theory of Bentley’s guilt doesn’t make sense to him as it did, and he doesn’t want to see an innocent man hung. So, he asks for Hercule Poirot’s help. Poirot agrees, and travels to the village of Broadhnny, where the murder occured. He begins all over again and goes back over the case. And in the end, he finds out who the real killer is. Although it’s Poirot who finds the solution, it’s Spence’s willingness to start over that makes that possible.

Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye begins as schoolteacher Janek Mitter wakes up after a long night of drinking. Badly hung over, he slowly comes to his senses, only to discover the body of his wife, Eva Ringmar, in the bathtub. The police, in the form of Inspector Van Veetern, are called in and, as you can imagine, Mitter becomes the most likely suspect. In fact, he’s arrested, tried and convicted. He can remember nothing about the murder, because he was far too drunk at the time. So, he’s remanded to a mental facility, rather than a traditional prison, in the hope that his memory will return. Van Veeteren has come to wonder whether his initial theory about the murder was correct. And, when Mitter himself is brutally murdered, Van Veeteren is sure that he was wrong. Now, he and his team have to let go of their theory of Eva Ringmar’s death and start all over again. And now they’ve got two murders to solve.

Gordon Ferris’ Glasgow trilogy features former journalist Douglas Brodie. In The Hanging Shed, he’s just returned from service in World War II (the book takes place just after the war), and is living in London. He’s trying to pick up the pieces, as the saying goes, and start life again. Then, he gets a call from an old friend, Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan. Donovan’s been arrested for the abduction and murder of a young boy, Rory Hutchinson. There is a great deal of convincing evidence against him, too. For instance, the boy’s clothes were found in his home, and there are traces of heroin in his system (Donovan has the habit). But Donovan claims that he had nothing to do with Rory’s death. Brodie isn’t sure what he can do to help. And, in any case, he’s not entirely convinced that his old friend is innocent. Donovan went through the war, too, and that sort of trauma can do all sorts of things to a person. Still, Brodie agrees to see what he can do, and travels to his native Glasgow. There, he meets Donovan’s lawyer, Samantha ‘Sam’ Campbell. Together, the two have to start all over again and try to put the pieces of the puzzle together in a different way if they’re to save Donovan.

And then there’s Angela Makholwa’s Red Ink. Lucy Khambule is one half of The Publicists, a Johannesburg company which she owns with her friend, Patricia Moabelo. But, she’s at a bit of a crossroads for a few reasons. Everything changes when she gets a telephone call from Napoleon Dingiswayo, who’s in a maximum-security prison for a series of horrific killings. She had written to him during her years in journalism, and he kept her contact information. Now, he wants to meet her and possibly have her write a book about him. The offer is extremely tempting, since Khambule has always wanted to write a book. So, she goes to the prison, and she and her interviewee start working together. Then, some very unsettling and violent things begin to happen. Dingiswayo can’t be responsible for them, since he is in a maximum-security facility. But if he’s not guilty, then who is? And what might that say about the murders for which he’s in prison? Now, the whole theory of what really happened has to be set aside and re-examined. And Khambule will have to do that quickly, before anything else happens.

It’s never easy or fun to have to toss something aside and start over again. But sometimes, it’s the only way to get to the truth. And the sleuth who can do that is more likely to find out the real answers.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Billy Joel song.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Makholwa, Arthur Conan Doyle, Gordon Ferris, Håkan Nesser

He’s a Genius Who Believes*

As this is posted, it would have been Albert Einstein’s 139th birthday. For many people, Einstein personified genius. And he was, of course, a truly remarkable mathematician, physicist, and more. His contributions to science and technology have had profound and lasting effects on the world.

Einstein isn’t, of course, the only person people regard as a genius. There are plenty of others. And the people you would put on your ‘genuine genius’ list would depend on how, exactly, you define genius. And that’s by no means a settled question. Still, it’s interesting to take a look at people with extraordinary intellectual gifts.

There are certainly plenty of them in crime fiction. One of the crime-fictional geniuses most people think of is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. He’s made detection his life’s work and passion, so he channels his brilliance into certain specific areas. But in those areas, he has remarkable knowledge. Fans of these stories can tell you that genius seems to run in Holmes’ family. His brother, Mycroft, is even more gifted, and in a few stories, the Holmes brothers work together. There’s also genius on the other side of the law in the form of Holmes’ nemesis, Professor Moriarty. In fact, Moriarty is one of the few people who can really be a match for Holmes’ skills.

In Matthew Gant’s short story, The Uses of Intelligence, we are introduced to eleven-year-old twins Patty and Danny Perkins. They are both geniuses, with exceptionally high IQs. One day, they learn that an acquaintance of theirs, banana seller Aristos Depopoulos, has been killed. The weapon looks like the proverbial blunt instrument, and the police think Depopoulos was killed by one of the workers at a nearby construction site. But Patty and Danny aren’t sure that’s what happened. So, they put their genius to the test and work to find out the truth. When they discover who the killer is, the twins decide to engage in a bit of blackmail: their silence for regular weekly payoffs. What they don’t know, though is that they’re not the only ones who are geniuses…

Keigo Higashino’s crime fiction series features Tokyo physics professor Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa. In many ways, this is a police procedural series, and the focus is on the police and the way they go about investigating and solving crime. But Yukawa acts as a mentor to several of the police officers who took his classes or have otherwise had dealings with him. So, they bring their cases to him when they need to tap his genius. And he proves to be very helpful. Yugawa doesn’t claim to have a great deal of knowledge outside his fields of physics and mathematics. But within those fields, he has remarkable abilities.

If you’ve read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium novels, then you know that one of his protagonists, Lisbeth Salander, has a rare gift with computers and a photographic memory. She has Asperger’s Syndrome, so social skills are not her strength. But she does have real genius in certain areas. And her skills turn out to be crucial for journalist Mikael Blomkvist. It all starts in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, when he is hired by Henrik Vanger. It seems that Vanger’s great-niece, Harriet, went missing nearly forty years earlier. Everyone thought she was dead, but Vanger’s been getting gifts of dried flowers for his birthdays – something only Harriet would do. Vanger wants Blomqvist to find out what happened to Harriet, in return for which he’ll help Vanger bring down the man who successfully sued Blomqvist for libel. Blomqvist hires Salander to do the background research, and she proves to be critical to finding out the truth.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. In that novel, Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne is at a crossroads. She’s had quite a bit of success, but she isn’t naïve enough to think that she can rest on her laurels. There are younger, ‘hungry’ people coming up behind her, and Thorne would like to cement a position at the top of New Zealand journalism. She thinks she may have her chance when she learns about the case of Connor Bligh. He’s been in prison for years for the murder of his sister, Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. The only survivor was their daughter, Katy, who wasn’t home at the time of the killings. Everyone assumed that Bligh was guilty, but now, there are little suggestions that he might have been innocent. If so, then this could be the story that Thorne needs. Despite the misgivings that several people express, Thorne starts asking questions. And in the end, she finds herself much more bound up in the story than she thought she would be (or should be). As Thorne does her research (including lengthy communication with Bligh himself), she learns that Bligh is a brilliant person – a genius. He’s had unusual intellectual gifts all his life, but not much in the way of social skills. His struggle to find a place, if you will, has played an important role in his life.

There are, of course, many different kinds of genius, and many examples of people who possess it. These are just a few crime-fictional examples. Over to you.

In Memoriam

Although we celebrate Einstein’s birthday today, this post is also dedicated to the memory of Stephen Hawking, a true scientific visionary, who saw so much more than most. He will be sorely missed.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Instanzia’s A Genius Who Believes.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Keigo Higashino, Matthew Gant, Paddy Richardson, Stieg Larsson

At the Gate Are All the Horses Waiting For the Cue to Fly Away*

Have you ever ridden horses? Even if your family never owned a horse, you might have taken riding lessons. Horses have a long history with people, for farm work, for racing, and as forms of transportation. And that’s to say nothing of the way they’ve been bred for showing.

The horse business is a very lucrative one, and it’s got its own culture and language. Because it’s a small world, so to speak, and because of the money involved, the world of horses is an interesting context for a crime story. There are a lot of them out there; here are just a few.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson travel to Dartmoor to investigate the disappearance of a famous racehorse, Silver Blaze. The horse has been abducted, and his trainer, John Straker, has been murdered. Some of the evidence points to a London bookmaker, Fitzroy Simpson. In fact, Inspector Tobias Gregson has already arrested him for murder. But, for all of his faults, Gregson doesn’t want an innocent man to be convicted. So, he asks Holmes to investigate. Of course, Holmes and Watson want to know who Straker’s killer is, too. But there’s also the intriguing question of what happened to Silver Blaze. It’s not easy to hide a horse. But Holmes works out where Silver Blaze is.

In Ellery Queen’s short story, Long Shot, Queen is under contract to Hollywood’s Magna Studios. They’ve tapped him to do a crime film that takes place in the horse racing world, but he knows nothing about horses, or racing. His love interest, gossip columnist Paula Paris, takes him to meet with well-known breeder John Scott. Queen gets some useful information, but he also gets drawn into a difficult mystery. It seems that Scott is being threatened by a man who wants to buy up his whole stable. If Scott doesn’t acquiesce, his best horse, Danger, is at real risk. And, on the day of an important race at Santa Anita, tragedy strikes. Danger is badly wounded, and Scott’s daughter, Kathryn, is abducted. But, as Queen discovers, this isn’t as straightforward a mystery as it seems…

Fans of Dick Francis’ work will know that many of them feature the horse breeding and racing world. For example, one of his series features former jockey Sid Halley. His racing career has ended in injury, and Halley now works as a racetrack investigator. And there are all sorts of nefarious things that can go on in that world, There’s a lot of money in racing, so there’s quite a lot at stake. And that means that some people will do whatever it takes to sabotage competition and ensure their horses will win. Of course, there are watchdog groups to make sure that races are run fairly. But, as Halley learns throughout the novels, there are plenty of insidious ways to ‘work the system.’

Fans of Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series will know that Irish is a Melbourne-based sometimes-lawyer, who also has a knack for finding people who don’t want to be found. One of his interests is horse racing, and he and a group of his friends have a sort of betting ‘syndicate.’ In Dead Point, for instance, one of the plot threads follows the syndicate as their horse, Renoir, can’t finish an important race, and has to be put down. Then, one of the group members is mugged, and the group’s winnings from another race are stolen. Now, Irish has very personal reasons for finding out who’s behind it all.

If you’ve ever been to the US state of Virginia, you know that horses and horse breeding are integral to the culture. There are some horse bloodlines that go back many generations, and races, shows, sales, and even fox hunts, are important social events. Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen series takes place against this backdrop. As the series begins, she is the postmistress for tiny Crozet, Virginia. Later she steps away from that position and does other things, such as winemaking and concentrating on her farm. Throughout the series, readers get a strong sense of the local culture, and that includes horses. In more than one novel, Harry investigates mysteries that have to do with horse breeding, racing, and so on. Fans can tell you, too, that her ex-husband, Pharamond ‘Fair’ Haristeen (who later returns to her life), is a much-in-demand veterinarian whose specialty is horses.

Horses also play important roles on ranches. Good horses are an essential to a successful operation. We see that in work like Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte series. He is a police investigator for the Queensland Police. His work takes him to some far-flung places, and to more than one ranch. In works such as The Bone is Pointed and The Bushman Who Came Back, we see how a ranch relies on its horses. We see that in Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series, too, as well as several others.

As you can see (but you knew this), horses and people have a long and varied sort of relationship. Whether it’s racing, farm work, transportation, or something else, horses have been integrated into our lives for millennia. So, it’s really little wonder at all that we also see them in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples. Your turn.


ps. Oh, the ‘photo? That’s a ‘photo of my daughter taking her first pony ride.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Ascot Gavotte.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Craig Johnson, Dick Francis, Ellery Queen, Peter Temple, Rita Mae Brown

Spare Him His Life From This Monstrosity*

It’s easy to understand how people might want to clear their own names if they’re mixed up in a crime, especially a crime such as murder. It’s also easy enough to understand why, for instance, attorneys work to defend their clients and clear their names. That makes sense both in real life and in crime fiction.

But there are also cases in crime fiction where someone else steps in to try to clear another person of a crime. And there are many reasons to do that. It might be that the suspect is a friend or loved one. Or it might be the sleuth him or herself who doesn’t believe a suspect is guilty. There are other reasons, too. This plot point gives an author some interesting possibilities for character and plot development, as well as for adding in tension. There are plenty of examples – far more than I can mention in one post. Here are just a few.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery introduces readers to Alice Turner. When her fiancé, James McCarthy, is arrested for murdering his father, she goes to Inspector Lestrade to ask him to review the case.  She is convinced that McCarthy is innocent, and wants his name cleared. There’s plenty of evidence against McCarthy, but Lestrade presents the case to Sherlock Holmes, who asks Dr. Watson to help him look into it. In this case, it’s not just Alice Turner’s love for her fiancé that drives her. She is convinced that he wouldn’t be capable of committing murder. And Holmes’ investigation proves that she was right.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to investigate the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. Crale’s wife (and Carla’s mother) Caroline was arrested, tried, and convicted in the matter, and there was plenty of evidence against her.  But Carla doesn’t think she was guilty. And it’s not just because of any sentimental attachment Carla has to her mother. She firmly believes her mother was innocent of murder, and she wants Poirot to investigate. He agrees, and then interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ at the time of the murder. He also gets written accounts from each of those people. In the end, he discovers that Carla was right: someone else killed Amyas Crale.  Christie uses this plot point in other stories, too, right, fans of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead?

Lord Peter Wimsey has a very strong motive for wanting to clear Harriet Vane’s name in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison: he’s fallen in love with her. Vane is arrested and tried for the poisoning murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. There is evidence against her, too. But the jury can’t reach a verdict, so the judge declares that there will be a new trial. Wimsey, who attended the first trial, is determined to ask Vane to marry him. But he’ll have to clear her name first. So, he decides to investigate the murder. With the help of some friends, he’s able to find out who really killed Boyes and why.

In Giorgio Scerbanenco’s  A Private Venus, we meet Dr. Duca Lamberti. He’s recently been released from prison, where he was serving a sentence for euthanasia. One evening, wealthy engineer Pietro Auseri offers Lamberti a proposition. It seems that Auseri’s son, Davide, has been drinking heavily, despite going for treatment. Auseri’s concerned for Davide and wants Lamberti to help. Lamberti’s not sure how much good he can do, but he agrees to at least try. After a b it, he discovers the reason for Davide’s drinking and depression. It seems that a year earlier, Davide met a young woman named Alberta Radelli. They had a pleasant day together in Florence, and at the end of it, Alberta asked Davide to take her with him. He refused, and she threatened suicide. Not long afterwards, she was found dead in a field outside Milan. Davide’s convinced he is responsible for Alberta’s death. Lamberti believes that the best way to help Davide is to find out what really happened to Alberta, so he begins to ask questions. It’s not long before he turns up the distinct possibility that Alberta was murdered. So, Lamberti works to find out who killed the victim, so he can clear Davide of his sense of guilt.

In Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, it’s actually the police detective who decides to clear a suspect’s name. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team gathered the evidence that implicated Janek Mitter for the murder of his wife, Eva Ringmar. Mitter claims that he is innocent, but he was so drunk on the night of the murder that he has no memory of what happened, nor of who else might have committed the crime. So, he is tried and convicted. Van Veeteren has begun to have his doubts about MItter’s guilt, so he goes over the case again. He’s hoping to be able to clear Mitter’s name and find out who the killer is. Then, Mitter himself is murdered. Now Van Veeteren and his team redouble their efforts to find out the truth.

And then there’s Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Last Rituals. Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir gets a telephone call from Germany, from Amelia Guntlieb. Her son, Harald, was studying at the university in Reykjavík when he was murdered. The police think they have the right suspect in Harald Guntlieb’s friend, Hugi Thórisson. But Amelia Guntlieb doesn’t believe he killed her son. She wants Thóra to defend Hugi and find out who the real killer was. It’s an unusual request, but the fee is irresistible. So, Thóra and the Guntlieb family banker, Matthew Reich, work together to find out the truth about this case.

There are many other cases, both real and fictional, where someone asks for a suspect’s name to be cleared. These are only a few. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Giorgio Scerbanenco, Håkan Nesser, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

And No Doubt Everything Will Go As Planned*

Many crimes are opportunistic, and don’t involve a lot of advance planning. Other crimes, though, are very carefully planned. Those preparations are necessary to make sure that the crime can be pulled off successfully. And the planning can take a long time.

That sort of crime can be a little tricky to do well in a crime novel. Readers don’t want to get bogged down in the minutiae of planning. But when they’re woven effectively into the story, those details can be interesting, and can add to the suspense of a story.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story, The Red-Headed League introduces a pawnbroker named Jabez Wilson. One day, he learns of a group called the Red Headed League, which is offering employment. The only pre-requisite is that the successful candidate must have red hair (which Wilson does). He decides that there’s no harm in applying, and that the extra income would come in handy. So, he applies for the position and is hired. His task is to copy the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and at first, all goes well. Then, he reports for work one day, only to find that the office locked, and a sign indicates that the Red-Headed League has disbanded. He visits Sherlock Holmes to ask for the detective’s insight on the matter. Holmes agrees to investigate, and finds out that Wilson has been a pawn in a very carefully-orchestrated plan to rob a local bank.

A bank robbery is also at the core of Robert Pollock’s Loophole: or, How to Rob a Bank. Professional thief Mike Daniels and his team want to plan a heist. Their target is London’s City Savings Deposit Bank. But, of course, the bank is equipped with plenty of security features, and it won’t be easy to get in. What they need is an architect, and that’s where unemployed architect Stephen Booker comes in. He hasn’t worked in several months, and is desperate for money. So, although he’s reluctant to get involved in an illegal scheme, he eventually falls in with the thieves. Everything is meticulously planned, and quite a bit of time is spent making sure that everything is ready, down to the last detail. The day of the robbery arrives, and, at first, all goes well. But no-one planned on a sudden storm coming up and changing everything…

In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, ten people are invited for a stay on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. For different reasons, each accepts. Then, on the first night, each person is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Not long afterwards, one of the guests dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, there’s another death. Soon, the remaining people see that they have been lured to the island by someone who’s trying to kill them. Now, they’ll have to catch the killer – and stay alive. In the end, we learn who the killer is and what the motive is. And we learn the details of the meticulous planning that went into this scheme.

Lawrence Sanders’ The Anderson Tapes is the story of a plan to rob an entire building full of apartments. John ‘Duke’ Anderson has recently been released from prison, and has been legitimately employed at a printer’s. But, when he visits a very posh East Side Manhattan apartment building, he starts thinking about all of the wealth in the building, and decides to put together a plan to rob it. Anderson knows he can’t do the job on his own, so he gets in touch with various contacts to get the supplies, help, and financing he’s going to need. And the book includes detailed information on what’s involved in this sort of heist. What Anderson and his confederates don’t know is that various law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, have been monitoring several of the people involved. So, much of the group’s plan is recorded in some way or another. The question is: will the police put the pieces together and stop the thieves before they pull off the robbery?

There’s also a lot of meticulous planning in Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal. A far-right French group, Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS), wants to plot to assassinate President Charles de Gaulle. But, of course, he is well-protected. What’s more, most of the members of OAS are known to the police. So, the group decides to hire an ‘outsider’ to do the job. For this, they choose an Englishman who’s known only as the Jackal. No-one knows what this person looks like, nor what his real name is. So, he’s a good choice, from OAS’ perspective. Detective Claude Lebel has the task of trying to find and stop the Jackal, if he can, before the killer gets to de Gaulle. A main focus of the book is the set of preparations the Jackal makes to carry out his mission, and the set of preparations that Lebel and his team make to try to prevent that.

And then there’s Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow trilogy: The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, and The Sudden Arrival of Violence. All three feature paid assassin Calum MacLean, a man who’s earned a good reputation in the underworld.  Part of the reason he’s good at what he does is that he plans carefully. He observes his targets, picks his times and places carefully, and knows what he’s getting into as best he can before he carries out a job. The books include the details about the preparations MacLean makes, and they add to the suspense of the stories.

Putting too much emphasis on the details can take away from the tension of a story. But careful planning is important to a successful plot. Of course, even careful planning doesn’t always present disasters – right, fans of Donald Westlake’s John Dortmunder?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Neil Young’s Angry World.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Donald Westlake, Frederick Forsyth, Malcom Mackay, Robert Pollock