Category Archives: Arthur Conan Doyle

And We’ll Come to Find the Key to it All*

As this is posted, it’s 219 years since the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. That stone unlocked the meaning of several Egyptian hieroglyphics and allowed linguists and historians to interpret them. It proved to be a key to understanding a lot about the culture and the people.

Thinking about the Rosetta Stone has got me thinking about keys to crime-fictional mysteries. I’m not, strictly speaking, talking about encrypted messages or codes. A crime-fictional ‘Rosetta Stone’ could be something as simple as a list or a diary page. Whatever it is, it shows the sleuth how the pieces of a mystery fit together.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Five Orange Pips, John Openshaw brings a strange case to Sherlock Holmes. It seems that Openshaw’s Uncle Elias, with whom he lived, was found dead in a pool on his estate. Prior to his death, there’d been a strange series of events that began when he received an envelope containing five orange pips. Now, the victim’s brother, John, has also received five orange pips. He’s terrified, but he won’t go to the police about it. As it turns out, a page from a diary proves to be the key to unlocking the meaning of the pips. Once Holmes knows that meaning, he’s able to solve the mystery.

In John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, it’s a poem that holds the key to the mystery of the death of Martin Starberth. For two generations, Starberth men served as Governors of Chatterham Prison. The prison is now in disuse, but Starberth men still follow an old ritual connected to is. Each Starberth male spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. While there, he opens the safe that’s in the room, and follows the instructions written on a piece of paper kept in that safe. When it’s Martin Starberth’s turn, he agrees to go through with the ritual, even though he’s reluctant. He dies of what looks like a tragic fall, but Dr. Gideon Fell isn’t sure the death was an accident. Once Fell understands what the old poem means, he’s able to find out who killed Starberth and why.

The focus of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is the murder of Samuel Ratchett, a wealthy American businessman who is stabbed on the second night of a three-day trip across Europe on the famous Orient Express train. The only possible suspects are the other people in the same carriage, so Hercule Poirot, who’s on the train as well, concentrates his efforts on them. One important question, of course, is what the motive might be. Who would want to kill Ratchett? The key to this mystery turns out to be a note that the killer never intended to be found. Once Poirot understands what the note says and what it means, he’s able to discover the motive for the killing. And that leads him to the truth about Ratchett’s murder.

Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil begins when Laurel Hill asks Queen to help her find out who’s responsible for the death of her father, Leander. It seems that Leander Hill died of a heart attack after receiving a series of macabre ‘gifts.’ His business partner, Roger Priam, has also been receiving ‘packages.’ Laurel is convinced that her father’s heart attack was deliberately triggered, and she wants Queen to find out why and by whom. Queen’s reluctant at first; he’s trying to get some writing done. But he is intrigued by the puzzle. So, he agrees to look into the matter. The motive for everything lies in the past. And, once Queen is able to unlock the meaning of the ‘gifts,’ he’s able to find out why Hill and Priam have been targeted. He also discovers who’s behind everything that’s happened.

There’s also Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal. In that novel, high school principal Hilary VanBrook is directing a local production of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. On the night of the final performance of the play, VanBrook is found dead in his car on the property of journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. Qwill (who is Braun’s protagonist) works with local police chief Andrew Brodie to find out who killed VanBrook and why. And it turns out that there are several suspects. VanBrook had plenty of enemies, and it’s not going to be easy to narrow it all down. One important key to solving the mystery turns up when Qwill pays a visit to VanBrook’s personal library. In it, there’s a hollowed-out book that contains a list of other books, some of which have red dots next to the titles. The meaning of that list and those red dots turns out to be essential to finding out who killed VanBrook.

There are, of course, plenty of other crime novels in which there’s a list, a diary entry, or something else that holds the key to understanding a mystery. Once the sleuth finds that key, the pieces of the puzzle start to come together. These are only a few examples; I know you’ll think of more.

ps. I know I’ve shown this ‘photo before, but I thought it was worth sharing again. What a privilege it was to see the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marillion’s Tumble Down the Years.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Lilian Jackson Braun

You’re Not the Only One With Mixed Emotions*

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot works with Chef Inspector Jap to solve three murders that turn out to be related. At one point, he says this to one of the characters:

‘‘…I am sorry…for the things which I shall have to do so soon.’’

Here, Poirot is referring to the fact that he’s going to be responsible for the arrest of the murderer, a person whom he would much prefer not to see in prison. He does what he feels he has to do (identify the killer), but he’s quite conflicted about it. And Christie fans know that this isn’t the only case where Poirot has mixed feelings about letting the law take its course.

There are other novels, too, where the sleuth is conflicted about naming the murderer. On the one hand, murder is a serious crime. On the other, it’s not always quite so simple as, ‘You killed someone. Therefore, you must go to prison.’ And sometimes, fictional sleuths feel the complexity of a case. Little wonder, then, that they have mixed emotions about certain cases.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes is called in when the body of Enoch Drebber is discovered. Drebber was a visitor to London, originally from the US, so he doesn’t have a circle of friends and family in London who might benefit from his death. There are some strange elements to this case, and police detective Tobias Gregson wants Holmes’ input. At first, there’s a question of whether Drebber’s secretary, Joseph Stangerson, might be the murderer. But then, Stangerson himself is murdered. Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate to find out who might have wanted to kill both men. The answer lies in the men’s past, and on the one hand, Holmes has the intellectual satisfaction that comes from knowing the truth about the case. On the other hand, though, he has sympathy for the killer. As Conan Doyle fans can tell you, this isn’t the only case in which Holmes is torn between the interests of the law, and the particular situation of the murderer and/or victim. He may be dedicated to the logical and the scientific, but that doesn’t mean he’s oblivious to the humans with whom he interacts.

Neither is Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire. He’s the sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming, and based in the small town of Durant. He knows most of the people in the area, and they know him, too. For Longmire, justice isn’t a simple concept. We see that in The Cold Dish, when he and his team investigate the murder of Cody Pritchard. There’s not a lot of evidence, but Longmire begins the work. Then, Jacob Esper is found dead. Now, Longmire starts to suspect that these two young men were killed because of their involvement in a gang-rape two years earlier. He begins to wonder whether members of the victim’s family might have decided to exact revenge (for which he, personally, wouldn’t blame them). As the investigation continues, Longmire gets closer and closer to the truth. And when he finds out who the killer really is, he’s very conflicted about it. It’s a difficult situation for him, and Johnson doesn’t gloss over that.

Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Diggers Rest Hotel introduces readers to Melbourne-based police detective Charlie Berlin. It’s 1947, and Berlin has recently returned to Melbourne from service in World War II. He’s seconded to Wodonga to help solve a series of thefts committed by a motorcycle gang. The latest theft, which took place at a railroad station, involved injury to the paymaster, so there’s a great deal of pressure to get the case solved. Then, the body of sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee is found in an alley. At first, it looks as though the motorcycle gang committed the murder. But Berlin soon learns that that group had nothing to do with the killing. Now, he has to deal with two separate cases. When he gets to the truth about them, Berlin finds himself very conflicted. I don’t want to say more, for fear of spoilers, but the Berlin really is torn by what he finds.

So is RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg, whom we meet in L.R. Wright’s The Suspect. As that novel begins, eighty-year-old George Wilcox has just murdered eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. He leaves the scene of the crime, then returns to his home. Later, he goes back to Burke’s house and calls the police to report the murder. Alberg begins the investigation by trying to trace the victim’s last day. At first, there’s talk that an itinerant fish salesman who visits the various homes in the area might be responsible. But that doesn’t seem likely. The only other viable suspect – and the one who interests Alberg – is Wilcox. But there doesn’t seem to be any motive. Alberg learns that the two men have known each other for a long time. They didn’t like each other, but that’s not a motive for a murder. Little by little, Alberg gets to the truth. And when he does, he’s very conflicted about what to do.

And that’s the thing. Sleuths are human. They know that situations are often not ‘black and white’ when it comes to who kills, and why someone might take a life. And yet, they also know that murder laws are there for a reason. That means that they are sometimes conflicted about a case. And that tension can add a great deal to a character and to a plot.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rolling Stones’ Mixed Emotions.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Craig Johnson, Geoffrey McGeachin, L.R. Wright

Say That We’ll be Nemeses*

A recent post from Sue at Novel Heights has got me thinking about fictional nemeses. I’m not talking here of one antagonist in one novel. Rather, I mean a recurring character who serves as a ‘bad guy,’ or at least an antagonist, in more than one novel.

It’s not easy to create such a character. By and large, crime fiction fans want their characters to be believable. So, if a character is going to, say, be arrested in one novel and imprisoned, there’d have to be a credible reason that character would show up in another.

Sue’s post (which you really do want to read) mentions Dean Reeve, whom we first meet in Nicci French’s Blue Monday. That series’ protagonist is London psychologist Frieda Klein, who encounters Reeve in the course of linking a decades-old disappearance with a contemporary one. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoilers. Reeve’s role in the series doesn’t end with that novel, though. He returns later in the series and upends Klein’s life. And his role in the novels is a clear example of the way nemeses can add to a series.

But Reeve is hardly the only example of a fiction nemesis. Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle will know that his Sherlock Holmes goes up against Professor Moriarty more than once in the course of his career. In fact, he has what Conan Doyle originally thought of as a final showdown in The Adventure of the Final Problem. In that story, Holmes and Watson have to leave London, and end up in Switzerland. There, Holmes has a confrontation with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. Fans of the Holmes stories didn’t want them to end, though, and Conan Doyle was persuaded to bring Holmes back in further stories.

In Reginald Hill’s An Advancement of Learning, Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant Peter Pascoe are sent to the campus of Holm Coultram College. A body has been discovered in the course of some campus renovations, and Dalziel and Pascoe investigate the death. One of the people they encounter is brilliant and enigmatic student activist leader Franny Roote. He’s a thorn in both detectives’ sides during this novel, and his role doesn’t end there. Roote makes appearances in A Cure For All Diseases, Death’s Jest-Book, and Dialogues of the Dead. And in each one, he proves to be a more-than-worthy adversary, especially to Pascoe. Roote’s an interesting character in his own right, and his presence in the novels arguably adds leaven to the series.

We might say the same thing about Ian Rankin’s Morris Gerald ‘Big Ger’ Caffery. As fans of Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus series know, Cafferty is an Edinburgh crime boss, who makes his first appearance in Tooth and Nail. He goes on to appear in several other Rebus novels, and the two have an interesting relationship. On the one hand, they are antagonists. Cafferty is a criminal and Rebus is a copper. Rebus will do whatever it takes to put Cafferty behind bars, keep him there, and stop his operations. And, of course, Cafferty has no intention of letting that happen. On the other hand, the two develop a grudging respect for each other over time. And there are cases in which they end up helping each other. As time goes on, we also see how the face of Edinburgh crime and law enforcement change. Those changes impact both men, so that each one wonders, in his own way, where he’s going to fit in in the new order of things.

Not all fictional nemeses are criminals. For instance, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch contends with Irvin Irving in more than one of the Bosch novels. Irving is a very politically astute member of the LAPD, who’s involved in several of Bosch’s cases. For various reasons, mostly to protect himself or other, highly-placed, members of the police force, he often tries to limit what Bosch does. He’s been responsible for disciplining him, having him transferred, and so on. Later in the series, Irving runs for, and is elected to, political office. But that doesn’t mean he and Bosch no longer interact. Irving isn’t an evil, twisted serial killer, nor a crime boss. But he isn’t above squashing investigations and muzzling the police detectives who want to pursue them, especially if his name is connected to anything. And he’s not at all afraid to threaten Bosch’s job and career if that’s what it takes. Bosch, of course, isn’t willing to shut up and go away, or ‘rubber stamp’ an investigation. It makes for an interesting adversarial relationship as the series goes on.

And that’s the thing about nemeses. When they’re well drawn as characters, they can add suspense and strong story arcs to a series. They can also be interesting characters in their own right, so that we want to know more about them, even if we want the protagonist to ‘win.’ These are only a few examples of nemeses; I know you’ll think of more.

Thanks, Sue, for the inspiration! Now, folks, may I suggest you pay a visit to Sue’s excellent blog? Fine reviews and news await you there.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jonathan Coultron and John Roderick’s Nemeses.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, Nicci French, Reginald Hill

You Got a Different Point of View*

Many crime stories are told, for he most part, from the point of view of the sleuth. Sometimes they’re told from the point of one of a pair of sleuths (I’m thinking, for instance, of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Homes stories). That makes sense, since the sleuth is often the story’s protagonist.

Sometimes, though, a story is told from the point of view of a different character. That can be tricky to do well, but when it does work, it can make for an interesting perspective. And, that different point of view can mean that readers get to see the sleuth through different eyes, as the saying goes.

Agatha Christie did that in several of her stories. For instance, Murder in Mesopotamia is the story of the murder of Louise Leidner, who accompanies her archaeologist husband, Eric, to a dig a few hours from Baghdad. Louise has reported strange noises, hands tapping on windows, and other odd occurrences, and her husband wants to ease her mind. So, he hires a nurse, Amy Leatheran, to stay at the expedition house and look after his wife’s needs. Not long afterwards, Louise is bludgeoned to death one afternoon in her room. Hercule Poirot is in the area and is persuaded to investigate. This story is told in first person (past tense) from Amy Leatheran’s point of view. That allows for a really interesting perspective on Poirot, as well as perspectives on the other people in the expedition house.

Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger is told mostly from the point of view of the suspects in the death of Joseph Higgins. Most of the action in the novel takes place at Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for military use (WW II). One day, Higgins is brought there with a broken femur. It’s not life-threatening, but surgery will be required. Tragically, Higgins dies during the operation in an incident that’s put down to a terrible accident. Inspector Cockrill of the Kent police is sent in to do the requisite paperwork. It’s not long before he begins to suspect that Higgins might have been murdered. For one thing, that’s what Higgins’ widow claims. For another, one of the people who was present when Higgins died has too much to drink at a party, and then blurts out that she knows Higgins was murdered. That night, she, too, is killed. As Cockrill gets closer and closer to the truth about these deaths, we follow the thought processes of the suspects, and we see how they view Cockrill.

John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook introduces readers to one of his sleuths, Dr. Gideon Fell. When Tad Rampole finishes his university studies in the US he decides to travel. His mentor suggests that he make plans to meet Fell, and Rampole agrees. On his way to Chatterham, where Fell lives, Rampole meets a young woman named Dorothy Starberth. He’s smitten right away and wants to know more about her. When he meets Fell, he learns some of the Starberth family story. It seems that, for two generations, Starberth men were governors in the nearby Chatterham Prison, which has fallen into disuse. From those years has come a tradition that every Starberth male spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. During his visit, each one is to open the safe in the room and follow the instructions that are written on a piece of paper kept in the safe. Now it’s the turn of Dorothy Starberth’s brother, Martin. Tragically, he dies from what looks like a fall from the balcony attached to the room. Although it seems like an accident at first, it turns out to have been murder. Fell solves the crime, but the story isn’t really told from his perspective. It’s told from Rampole’s perspective. It’s an interesting way to see Fell’s character from the outside, so to speak.

Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is the story of Jennifer White, a Chicago orthopaedic surgeon who’s been diagnosed with dementia. She’s had to retire, and now lives with her caregiver, Magdalena. One night, seventy-five-year-old Amanda O’Toole is murdered. She lives next door to White, so, naturally, the police want to know if there’s any information White has. Detective Luton takes the case and wants to talk to White, but learning the truth won’t be easy. Since White has dementia, she may or may not be lucid, and she is very likely not going to be reliable. But Luton is convinced that she knows all about the murder and might even be guilty. So, she tries to find ways to get White to share her story. The novel is told from White’s point of view, so readers see Luton from that perspective. And, as the story goes on, and White’s condition deteriorates, her view of Luton changes, too.

And then there’s Donna Morrisey’s The Fortunate Brother, which features the members of the Now family. Sylvanus Now, his wife, Addie, and their son, Kyle, live in The Beaches, Newfoundland, where they’re still reeling from the death three years earlier of Kyle’s brother, Chris. His death was a tragic accident, not a murder, but that doesn’t make it any easier for the family, and they’re all suffering. Then, a local bully named Clar Gillard is killed. In one sense, there are plenty of suspects. He was mean and cruel, and no-one will miss him. But it’s not long before the police start to focus their attention on the Nows. And there’s evidence that could support any of the three of them being guilty. At the same time as they’re coping with being suspects in a murder investigation, they’re also facing a family health crisis. Having to deal with both of these crises at the same time draws the family together just a little. And, very slowly, they start to do a small bit of healing. Interestingly, we don’t ‘get into the heads’ of the police here. The story is told from the different perspectives of members of the Now family.

When a story is told from a different perspective like that, it can give readers a different view of the sleuth. It can also offer an interesting way to look at the experience of being involved in a criminal investigation. It’s not easy to write this sort of story well, but it can be effective.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Pet Shop Boys’ A Different Point of View.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christianna Brand, Donna Morrissey, John Dickson Carr

Let Me Have My Privacy*

The balance between the right to personal privacy and the public good is a very delicate one. On the one hand, many countries have determined that there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in the home, in one’s personal conversations, and so on. On the other hand, when there’s a criminal investigation, courts have determined that searches can be conducted of one’s car, one’s most personal things, one’s telephone logs, one’s private papers, and one’s banking records, among many other things.

That balance plays out in real life every time the police conduct a search or get a warrant. It plays out in crime fiction, too, and it’s interesting to see how it’s handled. It’s especially interesting to see how the concept has been seen differently in different places and at different times.

Warrants have been a part of police procedure for a long time. We see them, for instance, in more than one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. In The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter, for instance, Holmes’ brother, Mycroft, wants his help in a strange case. A man named Melas, who makes his living as an interpreter, is abducted, taken to a private house some two hours from London, and forced to act as interpreter for another man who speaks only Greek. Then, Melas is taken away from the house, and left just close enough to a train station to catch the last train back to London. As part of their investigation, Holmes, Watson, and Inspector Tobias Gregson go to the house itself. They’ve had to wait for an official warrant to enter it, though, so by the time they get there, Melas’ abductors have disappeared. He’s there, though, albeit barely alive. It seems the abductors captured him again when they learned that the police know what happened. It turns out that this case is based in greed and a dispute over property.

By the time Agatha Christie was writing, most people knew that the police can’t go through their private possessions, papers, and so on without a warrant. And in several of her stories, there are scenes where a character asks about a warrant. One of the more memorable ‘personal search’ scenes appears in Hickory Dickory Dock. In that novel, Hercule Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out who killed Celia Austin, a resident in a hostel for students. It turns out that her death is connected to an odd series of petty thefts and other strange events that have been making everyone uneasy. At one point, Inspector Sharpe and his team come to the hostel armed with search warrants, and they go through the students’ belongings. Then, they want to search the private rooms of Mrs. Nicoletis, who owns the place. When they ask her to unlock a certain cupboard, she outright refuses, insisting that it’s her private property, and they have no right to look inside. In fact, she becomes belligerent. Sharpe then tells her that she can unlock the cupboard, or they’ll break it. She refuses again, and the cupboard door is broken. Its contents turn out to be most surprising.

One of the big issues around privacy has to do with communication with certain people such as lawyers, clerics, medical doctors, and psychologists/psychiatrists. Those sorts of conversations/contacts are confidential, and all of those professionals know that they may not release any information regarding that kind of communication except under certain very specific circumstances. In Nicci French’s Blue Monday, that presents a real dilemma for London psychologist Frieda Klein. She’s working with a new patient, Alan Dekker. One of the things he tells her is a vivid dream he’s had about a son – a boy who looks like him. In point of fact, he and his wife have no children, and he’s working through the issues around that. Then, four-year-old Matthew Faraday goes missing. Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Malcolm Karlsson and his team are investigating, but so far, they haven’t found any substantive leads. When Klein hears of this, she begins to wonder whether there’s a connection between Dekker and the Faraday case. She has no real proof, but still, if her information can help find the boy, shouldn’t she give it to the police? On the other hand, what about her patient’s privacy? It’s a serious dilemma. In the end, she does contact Karlsson, and the two begin to work, each in a different way, on the case. It turns out that the boy’s disappearance is related to another disappearance twenty-two years earlier.

Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark features Gerda Klein and her daughter, Ilse. Years ago, during the ‘Cold War’ between the UK, US, and their allies, and the then-Soviet Union and its allies, the Klein family lived in Leipzig, in what was East Germany. At that time, and in that place, the Stasi (the East German secret police) had agents everywhere. What’s more, people were encouraged to denounce others to the authorities, no matter how close the relationship. People learned that conversations, even in the privacy of one’s own home, were not really private, and more than one person was taken into custody on the basis of private telephone calls and other communication. Gerda and her husband wanted to escape this environment, so they made careful plans. With help, and some luck, they and Ilse managed to leave the country, and ended up in Alexandria, on New Zealand’s South Island. There, they settled in, and Ilse became a secondary school teacher. As the novel begins, she faces a real challenge when Serena Freeman, one of her most promising students, stops coming to class. Then, she disappears. Ilse soon finds that her interest in, and concern for, the girl leads her to places she hadn’t imagined.

With today’s CCTV cameras, it’s harder than ever for people to go places privately. It’s been determined that, so long as it’s made clear that the cameras are recording, then people don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy in public places. But it still can make for awkward moments. For instance, what if a CCTV camera in a hotel lobby catches someone with a lover? It’s a violation of privacy, but, is it really? And, is the number of crimes that CCTV can help solve worth the fact that your presence at a bank, a hotel, or someplace else public is a matter of record?

The issues around personal privacy aren’t easy to resolve. And cases involving privacy have sometimes been controversial. It’s going to continue to be an issue as police procedure includes online activity more and more. And it certainly shows up in crime fiction.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Parliament’s Let Me Be.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Nicci French, Paddy Richardson