Category Archives: Babs Horton

Everybody in the World Likes Chocolate*

Recently, FictionFan, at FictionFan’s Book Reviews, conducted an interesting scientific study of chocolate. Using the My Life in Books meme from Adam at Roof Beam Reader, Fiction Fan compared two sets of data. One set, collected before eating any chocolate, was an initial list of responses to the My Life in Books prompts. Then, FictionFan provided answers to the same prompts after eating chocolate. As you can clearly see from FictionFan’s answers, there was a definite positive effect of chocolate on mood.

Of course, any study ought to be replicated, if possible, in order to lend support to the results. So, I decided to do just that. Like FictionFan, I collected two sets of data: one was collected before eating chocolate, and the other after. My own data is presented below:

 

Prompts

Before Chocolate

After Chocolate

In high school, I was:

Among Thieves

In Like Flynn

People might be surprised (by):

The Colaba Conspiracy

[What] Harriet Said

I will never be:

You

Wife of the Gods

My fantasy job is:

Nunslinger

An Easy Thing

At the end of a long day, I need:

Burial Rites

A Jarful of Angels

I hate it when:

Days are Like Grass

Not a Creature Was [is] Stirring

Wish I had:

The Frozen Shroud

Greenlight

My family reunions are:

Murder and Mayhem at Honeychurch Hall

Above Suspicion

At a party, you’d find me with:

The Hidden Man

Ruby and the Blue Sky

I’ve never been to:

The Cemetery of Swallows

China Lake

A happy day includes:

Dead Lemons

Crystal Ball Persuasion

Motto I live by:

Can Anybody Help Me?

Happiness is Easy

On my bucket list is:

Talking to the Dead

The Dawn Patrol

In my next life, I want to have:

A Moment’s Silence

A Three-Pipe Problem

 

As you can see, chocolate also had a positive effect on my mood. Now, of course, this study is limited, as all studies are. For one thing, I made use of Belgian chocolates for this research. Other sources and types of chocolates would have to be studied to really confirm the hypothesis that chocolate enhances one’s mood. For another thing, FictionFan’s data and mine are only two iterations of this study. More researchers would be needed, to rule out effects based on any similarities between me and FictionFan (I mean, we are both crime fiction readers, etc..). There are other limitations, too, as any academician can tell you.

That said, though, I think it’s safe to say that this study certainly lends support to FictionFan’s conclusion that chocolate has mood-enhancing effects. Anyone else care to take part in this all-important research?

Thanks, FictionFan, for your groundbreaking study!

 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Soul Control’s Chocolate (Choco Choco).

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Filed under Babs Horton, Beryl Bainbridge, Christopher Abbey, Don Winslow, Edney Silvestre, Finn Bell, Gordon Ell, Hannah Dennison, Hannah Kent, Harry Bingham, Jane Haddam, Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol, John Clarkson, Julian Symons, Katherine Dewar, Kwei Quartey, Lynda La Plante, Meg Gardiner, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Rhys Bowen, Robin Blake, Sinéad Crowley, Stark Holborn, Sue Younger, Surender Mohan Pathak, Zoran Drvenkar

So Much Has Happened, But Nothing Has Changed*

Buildings often have a lot of history to them, especially if they are older buildings. And it’s interesting to see how they change over time, and how our perceptions of them change as we get older. If you’ve ever returned to a home you knew as a child, you know the feeling, I’m sure.

A building with history can add much to a story, including, of course, a crime story. It can add atmosphere, tension, character development, and a lot more. There are a lot of them in the genre; here are just a few. I know you’ll think of more.

Interestingly enough, Agatha Christie uses such buildings in a few of her stories. One is Styles Court, in Styles St. Mary. This old family home makes its debut in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (incidentally, Hercule Poirot makes his first appearance in the same novel). In the story, Captain Hastings visits an old friend, John Cavendish, who now lives at Styles Court with his wife, Mary, his brother, Lawrence, and his stepmother, Emily Inglethorp. Also living there is Mrs. Inglethorp’s husband, Alfred, her protégée, Cynthia Murdoch, and her good friend, Evelyn ‘Evie’ Howard. When Mrs. Inglethorp is murdered, all of the other residents are suspects. Poirot feels a debt to the victim, since she sponsored him as a refugee. So, he investigates her murder. Years later, Styles Court features again in Curtain, the last Hercule Poirot novel. It’s now a Guest House, and an aged and ailing Hercule Poirot is staying there. He wants Captain Hastings to be his ‘eyes and ears,’ and help him catch a killer known only as X. According to Poirot, X has killed before, and he wants the murderer stopped. Then, there’s a murder at the Guest House, and it looks very much as though X has struck again. It’s a complicated puzzle, and it’s interesting to see the changes to Styles Court between these two novels.

Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House introduces his sleuths, Arthur Bryant and John May, both of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). As the novel begins, Bryant’s writing his memoirs, including the story of the first PCU case. Then, a bomb blast goes off at the PCU offices, taking Bryant with it. A grieving May wants to find out who is responsible, and decides to go back through that old first case to try to get some answers. He returns to the scene, London’s Palace Theatre. In that 1940 investigation, Bryant and May looked into some bizarre deaths and a disappearance, all connected with the theatre’s upcoming production of Orpheus. As the modern-day May re-examines the case, we learn that an important part of it was never solved. So, May picks up that piece and searches again for the truth. At the same time, we go back to 1940, and follow along as Bryant and May investigate. Both timelines feature the Palace Theatre. In 1940, it’s a vibrant place with plenty of innovation, new shows, and so on. The building still stands in the modern-day timeline, but of course, it’s much older. It may not have changed dramatically, since it’s not a private residence or a more typical business. But it’s got more ‘ghosts,’ including the people involved in the 1940 case. As May goes back to the past, as you might say, we see how much the Palace has and hasn’t changed.

Peter May’s Lewis trilogy features Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod. As the first novel begins, he’s an Edinburgh police detective who’s investigating a bizarre murder. When another, very similar, murder occurs on the Isle of Lewis, MacLeod is seconded there. The idea is that if these two crimes were committed by the same person, it makes sense to join forces. If not, nothing’s been lost. For MacLeod, this is a homecoming, since he grew up on the island. But it’s not a joyful reunion with friends and family. MacLeod has his own past history, and some very good reasons for having left in the first place. As the trilogy goes on, we see several places on the island both as they were years earlier, and as they are now. And, we see how MacLeod’s perspective has changed, now that he’s an adult. It’s an interesting and distinctive use of the setting.

A great deal of Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels takes place in a small Welsh village. In one timeline, it’s 1962, and we follow the fortunes of four children: Lawrence ‘Fatty’ Bevan, Elizabeth ‘Iffy’ Meredith, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Tranter, and William ‘Billy’ Edwards. They don’t have much in common, but there aren’t many children in the village, so they spend their share of time together. And that fateful summer, they unearth several dark secrets that some people have been keeping. The other timeline is contemporary. In it, retired police detective Will Sloane returns to the village after several years in Spain. There’s one case he hasn’t solved yet – a missing child – and he wants some resolution before he dies. As Sloane returns to the village and interacts with people, we see how much (and how little) everything has changed. There are some new shops and businesses (and residents), and some old buildings that have fallen into disuse. There are other changes, too. At the same time, the rhythm of the village is much the same. It’s an interesting look at the pace of village life.

And then there’s Hannah Dennison’s Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford series. These novels are set in the small Devon village of Little Dipperton. The main estate there is Honeychurch Hall, which has been owned by the same family for many, many generations. Today, it’s lived in by Lady Edith Honeychurch, her son, Rupert, his wife, Lavinia, and their son, Harry. The roots of the house and the village are very deep, and they include Stanford’s mother, Iris. In fact, in Murder at Honeychurch Hall, the first in this series, Iris has abruptly left London and taken a small house on the Honeychurch property. Her daughter goes to Little Dipperton to see what’s behind her mother’s sudden decision, and ends up staying. As the series goes on, we see the hall and the village as they are now. But we also see them as they once were, especially during the 1950s, when Iris was there as a teenager and young woman. It’s especially interesting to see how things have (but haven’t, really) changed.

And that’s the thing about those old buildings. They have a lot of history. On the one hand, they change, as everything does. On the other, in many ways, they may not. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Glenn Frey’s You Belong to the City.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Babs Horton, Christopher Fowler, Hannah Dennison, Peter May

I’ve Always Listened to Your Point of View*

Humans are, by nature, social animals. That makes sense, too, when you consider how we depend on each other for so much – sometimes even for survival. Because people depend on one another, there’s often pressure for group consensus. That’s part of why, for instance, we ask for others’ opinions about things (e.g. ‘Which outfit should I wear,’ or ‘What do you think? A Honda or a Nissan?’). For many people, it’s important to have group approval, so looking for a consensus is logical.

We see that effort to get consensus in a lot of fiction, including crime fiction. And that shouldn’t be surprising, since it’s such a human quality. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, we are introduced to Honoria Bulstrode. She owns and heads Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school. She and her business partner and colleague, Miss Chadwick, have built the place into one of the most sought-after schools in England. Everything changes, though, when the new Games Mistress, Grace Springer, is shot one night. Then, there’s a kidnapping. And another death. Now the school is at real risk of having to close. One of the pupils, Julia Upjohn, knows of Hercule Poirot through her mother, and visits him to ask his help. And, in the end, he finds out the truth behind the events at the school. In one sub-plot, Miss Bulstrode is considering whether it’s time to retire and name a successor. She has a few possibilities in mind, and wants to get input on her decision. So, she asks various people what they think She’s an independent, strong-minded person, but she still wants some sort of consensus on the school’s future.

John D. MacDonald’s short story, The Case of the Homicidal Hiccup takes place in the small town of Baker City, where Johnny Howard and his gang run everything. Nothing happens without their consent, and every business pays for ‘protection.’ Then, Walter Maybree moves to town and buys the local drugstore. He wants to run a ‘clean’ business, so he refuses to have anything to do with Howard or his associates. At first, no-one really believes that Maybree will be able to stand up to Howard, but he does. Soon, other business owners feel the proverbial wind shifting, and join Maybree in refusing to work with Howard. Soon, the consensus against the crime boss builds. Now, Howard is afraid that he’ll lose respect and support in the underworld if he doesn’t do something about Maybree. So, he and his girlfriend, Bonny Gerlacher, devise a plan to kill Maybree. Everything is set up, and Gerlacher goes to the drugstore to carry out her part of the plan. But things don’t go quite the way they were intended…

Many times, when police teams are working on cases, they try to achieve consensus on what probably happened, and on the direction their investigations should take. We see that, for instance, in Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss stories. We also see it in Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion, the first of her Anna Travis novels. In the story, Travis, who’s recently been promoted to Detective Sergeant (DS), joins the Murder Squad at Queen’s Park, London. The team is facing a baffling case, too. The body of seventeen-year-old Melissa Stephens has been found, and in several ways, her murder fits the profile of a group of six other women who’ve also been killed in exactly the same manner. But there’s one major difference: the other victims were older prostitutes. Melissa was young and not a prostitute. Now, the team has to establish whether Melissa’s murder was the work of the same killer, or there’s a different, perhaps ‘copycat’ killer. Among many other plot threads in the novel, this one includes the thread of establishing what the police really think happened. And that requires trying to find out what everyone thinks, and establish a consensus and a plan for moving forward.

One plot thread of Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels concerns four children growing up in a small Welsh town in the early 1960s. These four children, Lawrence ‘Fatty’ Bevan, Elizabeth ‘Iffy’ Meredith, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Tranter, and William ‘Billy’ Edwards, have very little in common. But it’s a small town, so the children tend to spend a lot of time together, especially in the summer, when there’s no school. This particular summer, the children learn about some dark secrets that some people in the town are keeping. And they stumble on some truths that people would much rather keep hidden. Because they’re so different, the young people don’t always agree. But, they only really have each other. So, there are several scenes where they try to sift out all of the opinions and get some sort of agreement.

In collectivist cultures, group consensus, and having one’s opinion supported by the group, are very important. We see that, for instance, in Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach. In that novel, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner, Rajiv Patel, are taking some time off at Krabi. They’re both very much upset when they learn of the death of Chanida Manakit, also known as Miss Pla. The victim actually led a tour that Keeney and Patel took, so they have a special interest in finding out what happened to her. The official police report is that she drowned, but Keeney doesn’t think that’s likely, since Miss Pla was an expert swimmer. And, as it turns out, she’s right. As they work through the case, Keeney and Patel learn that Miss Pla worked with an environmental group. Her task was to attend village meetings with a development company called Apex Enterprises, and articulate the villagers’ concerns about Apex’s development plans. The company has determined that getting support and positive opinions from the villages was the best way to go ahead with their plans. What’s more, Thai law requires the consent of villages for development. So, Miss Pla was involved in helping to build, or at least assess, consensus. And that played a role in her death.

Most people want the support of others for what they do and think; some need it more than others. And it’s interesting to see how that process and human need work in crime fiction. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Foreigner’s Blue Morning, Blue Day.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Babs Horton, Helene Tursten, John D. MacDonald

With Ev’ry Kind o’ Comfort Ev’ry House is All Complete*

One of the major changes in society within the last hundred or so years has been the number of what we call modern conveniences. They were meant to save time and effort, and there are several that I’ll bet you couldn’t imagine living without at this point. Dishwashers, laundry machines, and so on have become integrated into modern homes. But of course, it wasn’t always that way. And it’s interesting to see how they’ve changed the way we do things. There are plenty of examples of these changes in crime fiction, too, and they give us a ‘window’ on a different way of life.

For example, many people today, especially in developed nations, have indoor bathrooms. Some people don’t think of them as ‘conveniences,’ but as essentials. But there are still plenty of places where outdoor toilets are common. And they were in regular use, even in cosmopolitan places, for a long time. One timeline of Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels, for instance, begins in late 1962, in a small Welsh village. In this plot thread, we meet four children: Lawrence ‘Fatty’ Bevan, Elizabeth ‘Iffy’ Meredith, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Tranter, and William ‘Billy’ Edwards. One of the other residents of the village, a man named Dai Full Pelt, is a malicious bully. When he does something especially terrible, the children decide to get their revenge. They watch him closely, noting the places he goes and the times. They decide that he’ll be most vulnerable while he’s in his outdoor toilet, so that’s where they strike. Their plan works, and it is quite the case of ‘just deserts.’ But it’s not the sort of thing that one could pull off in a modern indoor bathroom.

Refrigerators are also modern conveniences that plenty of people take for granted now, but are relatively recent developments. For example, Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s The Cape Cod Mystery was published in 1931. In it, Prudence Whitsby and her niece, Betsey, are spending the summer in at their cottage on Cape Cod. The cabin next door has been taken by a famous writer, Dale Sanborn. One night, he’s murdered. It turns out that there are several suspects, but one of the most likely is Bill Porter, who’s a friend of the Whitsby family. Local sheriff Slough Sullivan soon settles on Porter as the guilty man and arrests him. But Porter’s cook and ‘man of all work,’ Asey Mayo, doesn’t think his employer is guilty. So, he starts to ask questions. Between them, he and Prudence Whitsby find out who the real killer is. The story is told from Whitsby’s point of view, and here’s what she has to say about the summer cottage:
 

‘That refrigerator had been another added attraction to the cottage. Until this summer, we had carried our ice like the rest of the summer people from freight cars at the station whenever a load of ice happened to come in. Now we stood by and watched with an evil gleam of joy in our eyes as people raced cars home with their hunks of ice dismally dripping from a running board.’
 

It certainly makes one appreciate the modern refrigerator.

Sarah Waters touches on this, too, in The Paying Guests. In that novel, which takes place in 1922, Emily Wray and her daughter, Frances, have been left in a precarious financial situation. They decide that their only choice is to open their home to lodgers – ‘paying guests’ is the euphemism they use. After a short time, Leonard and Lilian Barber respond to their discreet advertisement. Terms are arranged, and the Barbers move in. It’s awkward, as you might expect. But everything goes reasonably well at first. Then, things slowly spiral out of control until there’s a tragedy. This novel takes place in the days before modern refrigeration. So, the Wrays use a meat-safe to store their perishables. You can read about what a meat-safe is, and how it works, right here. Meat-safes couldn’t keep things fresh for long, but they worked in a society where people bought meat, vegetables and the like every day.

There’s an interesting look at modern conveniences in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d). In it, Miss Marple and her friend, Dolly Bantry, solve the murder of Heather Badcock, who lived with her husband, Arthur, in the then-new council housing in the village. It’s not a major part of the plot, but there’s a discussion at the beginning of the novel about the way the village of St. Mary Mead has changed. And one of those changes is in the form of modern conveniences:
 

‘There were new people in most of the other old houses…the people who had bought them had done so because they liked what the house agent called “old world charm.” They just added another bathroom, and spent a good deal of money on plumbing, electric cookers, and dishwashers.’
 

In this case, ‘old world charm’ is only attractive to a point. Now that electric kitchen appliances and updated bathrooms are available, people want them.

Lots of homes now have air conditioning, whether it’s central air conditioning, or takes the form of room units. Before that, people who could afford to do so would go to a summer place in the mountains, by the sea, or somewhere else that was cooler. Those who couldn’t afford to travel opened their homes as much as they could so that breezes could cool things off, at least a little. But that wasn’t always enough when there was a heat wave. And that’s what we see in Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, the first of his 87th Precinct series. In it, a serious heat wave has struck Isola (a thinly-disguised New York City). Everyone’s miserable, including Steve Carella and the other people who work at the precinct. The main plot line concerns the murders of two police officers. But, in a small ‘aside’ plot line, we see how far the heat can drive people when there’s no relief. Among other things, the police are expected to attend lineups for major crimes, so that they can become familiar with local criminals. One of these cases concerns Virginia Pritchett, who’s charged with murdering her husband with a hatchet. She doesn’t deny the allegation. Instead, she tries to explain what she’s done:
 

‘‘The heat. It’s…it was very hot in the apartment. Right from the morning. You…you lose your temper very quickly in the heat.”
 

And that, she says, is what led to the murder.

We may take modern conveniences for granted. But they haven’t always been around, and it’s interesting to see what a difference they make in people’s lives. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Kansas City.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Babs Horton, Ed McBain, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Sarah Waters

Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid*

An interesting quote, attributed to Dennis Lehane, goes this way:
 

‘Maybe there are some things we were put on this earth not to know.’
 

And it’s got me thinking about whether there really are some things that people are better off not knowing. On the one hand, if someone finds out the truth later, this can wreak all sorts of havoc, to say nothing of the breach of trust. On the other hand, there may very well be some things that are best left alone. And it’s not always an easy call to make. Just a quick look at crime fiction is enough to show that.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, for instance, Hercule Poirot gets involved in a murder investigation when he is invited for lunch at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. He arrives just in time to see that Dr. John Christow, another guest, has been shot. The apparent shooter is standing near the body, holding the weapon. But soon enough, Poirot is left unsure of whether he has really seen what he thinks he saw. He and Inspector Grange investigate, and find that there are several possible suspects. At one point, Christow’s widow, Gerda, says this about their son, Terry:
 

‘‘Terry always has to know.’’
 

She’d rather keep Terry and his sister, Zena, as far away from the investigation as possible, but Terry isn’t that sort of child. And even Poirot hints, later in the story, that Terry will want to know the truth. And there’s a real question about whether children should be told the truth about a parent’s death.

Similar sorts of questions are addressed in Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels. In one plot thread of that novel, we are introduced to four children: Lawrence ‘Fatty’ Bevan, Elizabeth ‘Iffy’ Meredith, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Tranter, and William ‘Billy’ Edwards.  They’re growing up in a small, isolated Welsh village in 1962. As their part of the story goes on, we slowly learn about some secrets that people in the village are keeping. Little by little, the children learn what some of them are. What’s more, they find that they’re woven into the web of some of those secrets in ways they didn’t know. And that causes its own trouble. In fact, it’s an interesting question whether it would have been better for them not to know. To say more would spoil the story, but Horton address the question in some interesting ways.

Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger introduces us to Fabien Delorme. As the story begins, the police inform Delorme that his wife, Sylvie, has been killed in a car crash. What’s more, they tell him that Sylvie was not alone in the car. It seems that she had a lover, and the news takes Delorme by surprise. He can’t resist trying to find out the other man’s name, and he soon does: Martial Arnoult. Delorme also learns that Arnoult left a widow, Martine. Now he feels the need to know more about her; and before long, he’s stalking her. He even follows her and a friend as they take a holiday trip to Majorca, where he begins an affair with her. That relationship spins quickly out of control, and it’s not long before tragedy results. And you could argue that it all might have been prevented if Delorme hadn’t known the truth about his wife’s affair.

In Cara Black’s Murder in the Marais, we are introduced to Paris PI Aimée Leduc. Soli Hecht hires her on behalf of Temple Emmanuel to do some decoding, and deliver the results to one of the temple members, Lili Stein. By the time Leduc gets there, though, it’s too late: Lili Stein has been murdered, and a swastika marked on her forehead. Leduc is a ‘person of interest,’ since she was on the scene, but it’s soon clear that she’s not the murderer. She gets interested in the case, though, and investigates. The answers lie in the past, during and just after the Nazi occupation of France; and those events have repercussions in modern Paris. Leduc finds out what really happened, and we learn the truth. The question is, though, how much she will tell the victim’s son, Abraham:
 

‘‘Aimée,’ Réne[Leduc’s business partner] asked slowly, ‘Will you tell Abraham?’
‘If he asks. Otherwise, I’ll let the ghosts alone. All of them.’’  
 

In the end, it’s an interesting question whether Abraham Stein has the right to know everything about his mother’s death.

And then there’s Kalpana Swaminathan’s Greenlight, the sixth in her series featuring retired Mumbai police inspector Lalli. In this novel, parents living in the small slum of Kandewadi become terrified when some children begin to disappear from the slum and are later found dead. At first, the media and police don’t pay a lot of attention to what’s going on. But after several children have been killed, Inspector Savio is assigned to the case, and he consults with Lalli. Finding out the truth is a slow, painful process, some of that truth is truly brutal and ugly. So Lalli doesn’t tell everyone everything. There are some things she keeps private, even from her niece, Sita, who is part of the team that helps her. In this case, Lalli believes that more harm than good would come from saying too many things to people who don’t need to know them. I can’t say more without spoiling the story, but it’s interesting to see how that question of how much people need to know is addressed.

And it is a good question. Is Lehane right? Are there things we’re better off knowing?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Daryl Hall and John Oates.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Babs Horton, Cara Black, Kalpana Swaminathan, Pascal Garnier