Category Archives: Arthur Conan Doyle

Today There Is No Black or White*

An interesting article in Punk Noir Magazine has got me thinking about the way characters are portrayed in crime fiction. In it, crime writer Tess Makovesky makes the point that one difference between many American crime dramas and many UK crime dramas is that, as she puts it, American drama,

‘tends to have a much stronger moral message of ‘good vs evil…’’

It’s an interesting point. And to me, it speaks to a larger issue in crime fiction.

Most of us like our crime-fictional characters to be nuanced. We don’t want them to be all good or all evil. After all, real people aren’t generally all good or all evil. And any one of us might commit a crime, depending on the circumstances. At the same time, plenty of people want to see a sense of order restored in their crime fiction. They want the ‘bad guy’ to get comeuppance, and the ‘good guy’ to prevail, or at least the ‘good guy’ to survive another day. Balancing those two can be tricky. But, when it’s done well, the result can be effective.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Abbey Grange is the story of the murder of Sir Eustace Brackenstall. On the surface, it looks as though Brackentsall was the victim of the Randall gang, which has been going the rounds of the houses in the area and robbing where they can. But there are little pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise, so Inspector Stanley Hopkins asks Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to look into the matter. Holmes finds a piece of evidence that leads him directly to the killer, and he lures that person to a meeting. There, we learn that this isn’t a case of a ‘bad guy’ killing a ‘good guy.’ It’s more complex than that, so Holmes’ response is more nuanced than simply having Hopkins haul away the murderer.

Agatha Christie’s work includes several stories where the whole question of ‘good and evil’ and ‘right vs wrong’ is layered and nuanced. I don’t want to give away too many details, for fear of spoilers, but I’m thinking in particular of Murder on the Orient Express, The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, Dumb Witness, and The Hollow. There are others, too, of course. And it’s interesting how Christie’s sleuths respond to those complex situations. On the one hand, they believe that murder is wrong. On the other hand, they also know that the world is not really ‘black and white.’ There are any number of reasons that a person might take a life, and any number of factors that might make a situation morally ambiguous.

In Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy, we meet Fabio Montale. In the first novel, Total Chaos, he is police officer who’s trying to do the best he can in a police force that’s filled with corruption, and in a city were the proverbial deck is stacked against those who are poor, especially if they are immigrants. When two former friends of his are murdered, Montale feels an obligation to find out what really happened. In the process, he runs up against some very dangerous people. And he makes some difficult choices, not all of which are ‘good guy’ things to do. His character is, in some ways, deeply flawed. But he tries to do the best he can, even if it’s not going to do much good in the end (it’s that sort of trilogy). Certainly, these novels do not focus on ‘good v evil,’ with the ‘bad guys’ getting theirs in the end.

Neither does William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, which introduces Glasgow police detective Jack Laidlaw. When eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawson goes missing after a night at a disco, her father, Bud, goes to the police, where Laidlaw listens to his story. At first, Laidlaw suggests that she might have spent the night somewhere and will return soon. But only hours later, a young woman’s body is found in Kelvingrove Park. When it is identified as Jennifer Lawson’s, Laidlaw and the team have a murder case on their hands. And it turns out to be much more nuanced and complex than it seems on the surface. As Laidlaw continues to investigate, the question of who the ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ are becomes quite murky. And even his own choices aren’t always what people would call ‘good,’ even if he does what he does for the right reasons. That ambiguity adds much to the story.

L.R. Wright’s The Suspect begins just after eighty-year-old George Wilcox kills eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. He leaves Burke’s home, and then returns later to report the murder to the police. RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg takes the case and begins investigating. It’s not long before he suspects Wilcox, but what he doesn’t have is a motive. The two men knew each other for a long time, and weren’t exactly close. But that doesn’t count as a good murder motive. As the story goes on, we learn more about both the killer and the victim, and we learn what the motive was. It turns out to be a very nuanced case in which it’s not exactly clear who’s ‘good’ or not. And Alberg has to decide what he’s going to do under those circumstances.

And I really couldn’t do a post on this issue without mentioning Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos. In it, a woman is released from prison, where she has been serving time for murder. She’s given a place to live, not far from a local child care facility, and tries to start a new life with her pit bull, Sully. Then one of the parents who uses the child care facility complains about Sully. The narrator now has to give up her beloved companion, because he’s a restricted breed. When she finds out, she begins to plot her own response. As the story goes on, we learn more about her, about her history, and bout the woman who reported her. It’s a nuanced story where the question of what’s right and what’s wrong is ambiguous.

But that’s the way real life is. People generally aren’t all good or all bad. And conflicts are usually much more nuanced and complex than ‘good versus evil.’ Thanks, Tess, for making me think about this. Folks, do check out Tess’ interesting site. And try her crime fiction. You won’t be sorry.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s Shades of Gray.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jean-Claude Izzo, L.R. Wright, William McIlvanney

What’s the Use of Wonderin’ if He’s Good or if He’s Bad*

Being arrested/accused of murder takes a real toll on people who are close to the accused. Whether or not the suspect is actually guilty, the experience tests any relationship. Of course, there are some people who trust implicitly in the accused person, even to an unhealthy extent. Those people will stand by the accused, no matter what, whether or not that person is actually a murderer.

We certainly see examples of that sort of person in real life. There are plenty of characters like that in crime fiction, too. Sometimes their faith is justified; sometimes it’s not. Either way, it can make for an interesting layer of character development. It can move a plot forward, too.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery, we are introduced to Alice Turner. She is engaged to James McCarthy, so she is devastated when he is arrested for murdering his father, Charles. There is evidence against him, too. He was seen quarreling with his father shortly before the murder, and physically appearing to threaten him. McCarthy says he left his father alive. When he returned shortly afterwards, his father was already near death. The case against McCarthy is strong, but Alice believes in him, and asks Inspector Lestrade to look at the murder again. He asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate, and Holmes agrees. He finds that the dead man’s last words give an important clue as to the murderer. In this case, Alice’s faith in her fiancé is justified.

Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress is the story of Elinor Carlisle. She’s engaged to Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman, and the two are planning their future together. Part of that plan includes Elinor’s expectation that she will inherit from her wealthy Aunt Laura. Roddy is related to Aunt Laura, too, on the other side of the family. So, regardless of which of them inherits, they seem financially secure. Then, Elinor receives an anonymous letter hinting that someone is out to get Aunt Laura’s money. She and Roddy travel to Hunterbury, the family home, to visit and, truth be told, to see if that letter is telling the truth. There, they reacquaint themselves with the lodgekeeper’s daughter, Mary Gerrard. Roddy is quickly smitten with her – to the point where he and Elinor break off their engagement. Shortly afterwards, Mary is poisoned. With at least two separate motives for murder, and the opportunity, Elinor is soon arrested and held over for trial. The local GP, Dr. Peter Lord, has fallen in love with Elinor, and wants her name cleared. He asks Hercule Poirot to do just that and makes it clear that he doesn’t care whether Elinor is really innocent or not. Poirot investigates, and finds out the truth about Mary’s death.

In Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is arrested and put on trial for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. As it happens, Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial, and finds himself falling for the accused. When the jury cannot reach a verdict in the case, Lord Peter decides to clear Harriet’s name, so that he will be free to marry her. He’s got a month in which to do it, and soon sets out investigating. He finds that there are other possible suspects in the murder, and eventually gets to the truth of what happened.

Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow begins as the body of thirteen-year-old Katie Pine is discovered in an abandoned mineshaft on Windigo Island. She’d gone missing several months earlier, and Detective John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay (Ontario) Police Department investigated that case. Now that she’s been found, it falls to him to inform her mother and look into the murder. There’s a good possibility that this abduction and murder is related to two other disappearances. Matters get even more urgent when another teenager goes missing. Cardinal works with Detective Lise Delorme to get find out the truth about these cases. An important part of the case involves an almost blind loyalty to someone, regardless of what that person has done.

And then there’s Gianrico Carofiglio’s Involuntary Witness, which introduces his sleuth, Bari attorney Guido Guerrieri. In the novel, he gets a visit from Abajaje Deheba, and with it, a new case. Deheba tells him that her partner, a Senegalese immigrant named Abdou Thiam, has been arrested and imprisoned for the abduction and murder of nine-year-old Francesco Rubino. There’s plenty of evidence against him, too. For one thing, he admits that he knew the boy. For another, he can’t reliably account for his whereabouts at the time of the crime. And there’s a witness who claims to have seen him in the area where the boy was abducted. But Deheba believes that Thiam is innocent. She wants Guerrieri to defend Thiam. Guerrieri agrees to meet with Thiam, and finds that his client says he’s innocent, but has become almost resigned to spending the rest of his life in prison. Still, he agrees to work with Guerrieri, and the two get started. It turns out that Thiam is not the only person who could have abducted and killed Francesco.

Sometimes, faith in someone who is accused of murder is justified. Sometimes it’s unhealthy – even dangerous. Either way, it’s interesting to see how that quality plays out in crime novels. These are only a few examples. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s What’s the Use of Won’drin’.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Gianrico Carofiglio, Giles Blunt

But I Got These Short Stories in My Bag*

Agatha Christie’s The Big Four started life as a series of short stories that were drawn together. And, as you’ll know, several of her sleuths (the Beresfords, Miss Marple, and Hercule Poirot) feature in both short stories and full-length novels. That’s not easy to accomplish. Short stories require a different form of writing to novels. That may be part of the reason for which some authors are better known for (perhaps even better at) short stories or novels.

Many authors who do both short stories and novels use their novels for ‘regular’ sleuths, and short stories for different sleuths, different styles of writing, and so on. Other authors, though, feature their main protagonists in both formats. There are advantages to doing this. Readers who are new to an author can ‘meet’ the author’s sleuth in short stories, and then move on to novels. For the author, a short story or a collection can be an effective way to keep a featured sleuth active while a new novel is in the works.

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes. That’s the format for which he is perhaps most famous. But he also wrote four Holmes novels, including Holmes’ first appearance in A Study in Scarlet. Many people (certainly not all) think the short stories are better. Aidan at Mysteries Ahoy has an interesting discussion about A Study in Scarlet and the novels vs the short stories. You’ll want to check that out for a more in-depth look at that novel. And you’ll want to have a look at Aidan’s blog. Rich discussions and thoughtful reviews await you.

John Mortimer’s Horace Rumpole actually started life as a television character. As you’ll know, he is a barrister who is completely dedicated to defending his clients. He doesn’t always like them, and he doesn’t always really think they’re innocent. But he always does his utmost for them. The move from television to short stories and novellas makes sense, when you consider the television episode format. The content of a short story or novella is often appropriate for the length of a television episode. It’s harder to fit the content of a full-length novel into a one-hour or ninety-minute television episode. Still, there are a few Rumpole novels. Rumpole’s Return, Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, and Rumpole and the Reign of Terror are three of them.

Ellery Queen appears in a number of novels, beginning with The Roman Hat Mystery. And, most people think of those novels when they think of Queen. But he also appears in a number of short stories and collections. For example, there’s the Ellery Queen Omnibus, which contains nineteen short stories. The Adventures of Ellery Queen, which includes eleven short stories, and The New Adventures of Ellery Queen, which includes nine short stories and the novella The Lamp of God. Like Christie’s short stories, some of these are reprinted in more than one collection. But the net result is a variety of different ways for readers to experience Queen.

Lawrence Block has been quite prolific. Perhaps his most famous sleuth, though, is Matthew Scudder, the former police detective who’s become his own sort of private investigator. Scudder’s appeared in a number of novels (e.g. The Sins of the Father, Eight Million Ways to Die, and When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes). Many readers know him mostly through those novels. But Scudder has also appeared in several short story collections (e.g. The Night and the Music).

So has Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer. He’s a Southern California PI who first appears in 1949’s The Moving Target. There are sixteen other novels in which he features. But he also appears in short story form, too. There are three Lew Archer collections: The Name is Archer; Lew Archer, Private Investigator; and, Strangers in Town. There aren’t as many Archer short stories as there are novels. But those stories allow readers a chance to get to know him. In fact, it was through a short story, The Singing Pigeon, that I first ‘met’ Lew Archer.

Elly Griffiths has also been versatile in her writing. Her Ruth Galloway series features Galloway, who is a forensic archaeologist. Thus far, there are ten novels in that series, and many people have become acquainted with Griffiths’ writing through them. But she’s also done a short story, Ruth’s First Christmas Tree. It’ll be interesting to see, as time goes by, whether Galloway appears in other short stories at some point.

And then there’s Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus. Rebus has featured in a number of full-length novels, beginning with Knots and Crosses. And those novels have allowed Rankin to explore quite a lot about Scotland, about history, and about Rebus. Fans of the series have followed the various story arcs and gotten to know the characters through those novels. But Rankin has also written several short stories featuring Rebus. They’re all collected, if you’re interested in The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories.

There are, of course, many other examples of authors whose main characters appear in both novels and short stories; I know you can think of many more than I could. How do you feel about this? Do you have a preference for novels or short stories about the fictional characters you like best? If you’re a writer, do you write both novels and short stories about your main character(s)?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Current Swell’s Short Stories.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Elly Griffiths, Ian Rankin, John Mortimer, Lawrence Block, Ross Macdonald

I Was Playing Detective*

If you read enough crime fiction, you learn that nearly anyone can be a sleuth. And that makes sense, since murder can happen anywhere. There are fictional sleuths who are police detectives, PIs, amateur sleuths in just about every profession, and even some child sleuths.

There are even fictional sleuths who are fictional characters. Bear with me and I’ll show you what I mean. When you think of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, you may think of the boy who has a knack for getting into trouble, for getting others to do the work for him, and for being friends with Huckleberry ‘Huck’ Finn. But, in Twain’s last Tom Sawyer novel, Tom Sawyer, Detective, Tom becomes a sleuth. He and Huck go to Arkansas to help Tom’s Uncle Silas, who’s in trouble. In one plot line of the novel, Uncle Silas hires a ‘no account’ named Jubiter Dunlap, as a way of patching up relations with the Dunlap family. Things are unpleasant between them because Uncle Silas doesn’t want Jubiter’s brother, Brace, to marry his daughter, Benny. When Jubiter is killed, Uncle Silas is accused of the murder, and Tom and Huck try to find out who’s responsible.

P.D.James’s Death Comes to Pemberley takes place six years after the events of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet are living at Pemberley when tragedy strikes. George Wickham and his wife, Lydia (née Bennet), are passing through a wooded area on the grounds of Pemberley when Wickham’s friend, Captain Mark Denny, who is with them, suddenly rushes off into the woods. Wickham chases after him to get him to stop, and not long afterwards, Denny is found murdered. Wickham is suspected; he even says that he’s responsible. But it’s not so simple as that. Darcy is a magistrate; and, although he doesn’t have a direct role in Wickham’s arrest and trial, he follows the events. As the story goes on, we learn what really happened to Denny.

Debbie Cowens’ Murder and Matchmaking also uses Jane Austen’s characters. In it, the people of Hertfordshire are upset and worried that three young, marriageable ladies have died under suspicious circumstances. On the surface, it looks like a terrible series of accidents. But Miss Elizabeth Bennet suspects that these deaths are deliberate murders. So does well-known London detective Mr. Sherlock Darcy. He travels to Hertfordshire to investigate, and soon finds that Miss Elizabeth is already asking her own questions. As you can imagine, the two clash, but each has solid ideas about what really happened to the victims. The question is whether they will be able to work together to find the killer. And, of course, whether they will make a match of it.

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre becomes a sleuth in Joanna Cambell Slan’s Death of a Schoolgirl. In that novel, Jane and Mr. Rochester have married and settled down, and they have a baby son. Then, Jane receives a letter from her husband’s ward, Adèle Varens, who’s away at school. She says that she’s in grave danger, so Jane goes to London to try to help. When she gets there, she finds it hard to convince the school superintendent that she’s a gentleman’s wife. In fact, he thinks she’s a new schoolteacher who’s gone missing. What’s worse, Jane discovers that one of Adèle’s fellow students has suddenly died. Jane takes advantage of the superintendent’s unwillingness to believe her story and poses as the missing teacher as she investigates.

Also in this series is The Death of a Dowager. In that novel, the Rochesters visit a friend in London while repairs are being made to their country home. There, Jane encounters Lady Ingram (fans of Jane Eyre will remember that her daughter, Blanche, had wanted to marry Rochester). Lady Ingram still hasn’t forgiven Jane, and publicly snubs her and the friend she’s visiting. When Jane tries to repair the damage by visiting the Ingrams, things don’t go well. They get far, far worse when Lady Ingram suddenly dies as she’s having tea. Now, Jane is drawn into a murder case in which she could be a suspect.

Fans of Laurie R. King will know that she’s written eighteen novels featuring Mary Russell, who services as apprentice to Sherlock Holmes. Of course, Holmes is a fictional detective already, but it’s interesting to see how King uses another main character to vary the perspective. And Peter Tong takes an equally interesting approach in his Detective Ladies of Baker Street series. In that series, Sherlock Holmes has died, but people still need their cases solved. So, Holmes’ landlady, Mrs. Hudson, and her maid, Fanny-Annie Grubbins, take on the investigations themselves.

There are other examples, too, of fictional characters who end up becoming sleuths. What do you think of this premise? Are you open to seeing those iconic characters in different roles? Do you prefer authors not to use them that way?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ray Davies’ Creatures of Little Faith.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Charlotte Brontë, Debbie Cowens, Jane Austen, Joanna Campbell Slan, Laurie R. King, P.D. James, Peter Tong

Some Others Choose the Good Old Family Home*

There are some homes that have been in the same family for many generations. They’re full of history (and sometimes, secrets), and they often develop their own personalities. Houses like that can be fascinating to explore. They can also make very effective settings for crime novels, especially those that link past crimes with the present.

There are a lot of such fictional houses – many more than space permits. But here are a few. I know you’ll think of many, many more.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual takes place in that sort of home. In the story, Holmes tells Watson about one of his cases, a case that began with a visit from an old college friend, Reginald Musgrave. Musgrave dismissed his butler, Richard Brunton, after catching the man reading a private family paper. Not long afterwards, Brunton and a maid named Rachel Howells disappeared. Holmes agreed to look into the matter, and he found that the paper Brunton was reading contained a cryptic poem that all of the Musgrave men learned. That poem proved to be the key to a very old mystery, and the key to the disappearance of Musgrave’s staff.  Conan Doyle did some other mysteries, too, that take place in an ancestral family home, didn’t he, fans of The Hound of the Baskervilles?

Agatha Christie used family homes in several of her novels and stories. One of them is Enderby, the home of the Abernethie family, whom we meet in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal). When patriarch Richard Abernethie dies, his family members gather for his funeral and the reading of his will. During that gathering, his younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, says that he was murdered. Everyone dismisses the idea right away. The next day, though, Cora herself is murdered. Now, the remaining family members begin to suspect that she was right. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and Poirot agrees. Enderby itself isn’t the reason for the deaths. But it makes for an interesting setting, and, among some of the older characters, there’s talk about ‘the old days,’ and what the house used to be like. I see you, fans of Sleeping Murder and of Peril at End House, and of 4:50 From Paddington, and of…

Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the story of the Blackwood family. Eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ Blackwood lives in the family home with her older sister, Constance, and their Uncle Julian. The family is quite isolated, and that’s mostly because of a tragedy that took place six years earlier. Three other members of the Blackwood family died of what turned out to be poison, and everyone in town is convinced that someone in the Blackwood family is responsible. Still, the Blackwoods have made a life for themselves, and everything goes smoothly enough. Then, they get a visitor. Charles Blackwood, a family cousin, comes to the house. His visit sets of a chain of events that ends in real tragedy. In this novel, the house itself adds to the suspense.

Much of Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache takes place in the small Québec town of Three Pines. It’s the sort of place where everyone knows everyone, and some people are deeply rooted in the place, and a part of its history. So are some of the houses. One in particular is the Hadley House, which plays a role in the very first novel, Still Life. It’s got its own history, and Gamache has more than one experience there.

In Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, we are introduced to the de Luce family. The protagonist of this series is eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, who lives with her father, Colonel de Luce, and her two older sisters, in the family home, Buckshaw, in the village of Bishop’s Lacey. Flavia is a child, but she is also highly intelligent, and a very skilled chemist. In this novel, she uses her skills to help clear her father’s name when he is accused of murdering a visitor to their home. Buckshaw is a distinctive old house, with lots of passages, unused rooms, and so on. And it contains Flavia’s chemistry lab, which has its own personality.

And then there’s Steve Robinson’s In the Blood, in which we are introduced to genealogist Jefferson Tayte. In that novel, he is commissioned by Boston business executive Walter Sloane to trace the ancestry of Sloan’s wife as a gift. The trail leads to the Fairborne family, which has lived in the US since before the American Revolution. One branch of the family returned to English in 1781, along with a group of Loyalists, so Tayte goes to Cornwall, where the family moved. There, he finds that the modern Fairbornes are strangely unwilling to help him find out the truth about what happened to their ancestors once they got to England. Tayte continues to search for the truth and learns that the answers might be very dangerous to him. The contemporary Fairbornes live in Rosemullion Hall, the family home. It’s been Fairborne property since the 18th Century, and Tayte finds that it has plenty of history and secrets to share.

Houses that have been in the same family for a long time often develop their own personalities as they absorb a family’s history. They’re fascinating places. They can also be really effective settings for a crime novel (right, fans of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca?).


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s Philadelphia Freedom.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Daphne du Maurier, Louise Penny, Shirley Jackson, Steve Robinson