Category Archives: Brian Stoddart

It is the Music of a People Who Will Not be Slaves Again*

As this is posted, it’s Bastille Day. Among other things, the day commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison, and the start of the French Revolution. The revolution itself was complex and multi-faceted. But one of the major issues at hand was social class and social inequities.

Class differences and class struggles feature in a lot of fiction, including crime fiction. There are far, far too many examples for me to discuss in one post. And that makes sense. For one thing, social class differences, and the resentment around them, are very real; this is something that resonates with readers. For another, the context lends itself well to the sort of conflict and tension that can add much to a story. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of lots more.

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, a group of passengers boards a boat for a cruise of the Nile. Among them is a young man, Mr. Ferguson, who claims to be on the cruise to ‘study conditions.’ He’s an outspoken critic of the wealthy and privileged classes, and there’s talk that he’s a communist. He believes strongly in the overthrow of society as it is, and expresses nothing but contempt for those who don’t work with their hands. On the second night of the cruise, another passenger, Linnet Doyle, is shot. The most obvious suspect is her former friend, Jaqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. But soon enough, it’s proven that she couldn’t have committed the crime. So Hercule Poirot, who’s on the cruise as well, has to look elsewhere for the killer. And Mr. Ferguson’s feelings about the upper classes are not lost on him. Here, for instance, is a comment Ferguson makes about the victim:
 

‘‘Hundreds and thousands of wretched workers slaving for a mere pittance to keep her in silk stockings and useless luxuries. One of the richest women in England, so someone told me – and never done a hand’s turn in her life.’’
 

It turns out that this murder isn’t at all what it seems to be on the surface. And it’s interesting to note how class resentment and the desire for revolution is woven into the story in Ferguson’s character. I see you, fans of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.

In Glen Peter’s 1960’s-era Mrs. D’Silva’s Detective Instinct and the Saitan of Calcutta, we are introduced to Joan D’Silva, who teaches at a Catholic school in Kolkata/Calcutta. One day, her son discovers the body of a former student, Agnes Lal. After the inquest, two other former students visit Mrs. D’Silva, to tell her that Agnes was murdered, and ask for her help in finding the killer. Then, one of those students is arrested for stabbing a factory manager. He says he’s innocent, and that the confession the police produce was forced. Mrs. D’Silva looks into the case more deeply, and finds that all three former students were members of the Workers’ Revolutionary Movement of Bengal. This group is dedicated to overthrowing the current government and stripping Anglo-Indians of their power. As Mrs. D’Silva works to clear her former student’s name, she learns how people’s passion for a better world, and even for revolution, can be used to manipulate them. And it turns out that these murders are more than just a case of young people who are determined to tear down ‘the system’ and build a new one.

Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising takes place in 1981 Houston, where Jay Porter is a low-rent lawyer who’s trying to make his name. In one plot thread of the novel, Porter’s father-in-law asks for his help. The Brotherhood of Longshoremen (BoL) which is a black union, wants pay and other parity with their white counterparts who belong to the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILU). Both groups want higher living standards, better wages, and better benefits. One of the BoL members has been beaten up by thugs from the ILU; and, unless those thugs are caught, both groups will be at a huge disadvantage during an upcoming strike. Porter happens to know Houston Mayor Cynthia Maddox, and his father-in-law wants him to ask Maddox to use her influence to get justice for the young man who was attacked. Porter has a history, both with Maddox and with the police. He was associated with the student unrest and Black Power movement of the late 1960s, and understands all too well why some people still feel that revolution is needed. At the same time, he has no desire to be on the wrong side of the law again. So, he has to walk a very fine line, as the saying goes, to try to help get a more equal living standard for the longshoremen without risking trouble with the law.

Gail Bowen’s Kaleidoscope introduces readers to Riel Delorme. He’s a Regina-based Métis activist and a leader of a group called the Warriors. This group is dead-set against any development in the city, claiming that it will only benefit the wealthy. And the Warriors aren’t afraid to get violent if needs be. They believe that if that’s what it takes to protect the disenfranchised people of the city, then it’s worth it. So, when one of the employees of the development company is killed, Delorme is definitely, ‘a person of interest.’ Things get complicated for Bowen’s sleuth, Joanne Kilbourne Shreve, because her husband, Zack, is an attorney who represents the company. Her daughter, Mieka, becomes romantically involved with Delorme. And she’s caught in the middle. Among other things, while she has sympathy for Delorme’s point of view, she can’t condone violence, and she certainly isn’t sure she wants her daughter in a relationship with Delorme.

Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series takes place in India during the 1920s – the last decades of the British Raj. At the time, there was quite a lot of agitation for home rule, and that agitation was sometimes violent. There were plenty of people who wanted a full-scale revolution against the British. And Stoddart uses that plot point in A Madras Miasma. In one thread of that novel, there’s a demonstration against the entrenched British establishment. Le Fanu is, of course, part of the police force. He’s sworn to uphold the law, and he doesn’t want trouble. On the other hand, he thinks the revolutionaries have well-taken points, and he can see the advantage of power-sharing. Plenty of those in powerful positions don’t want to give up their privilege, though, and aren’t willing to work with the protestors. The planned demonstration goes forward, and things get very ugly. Twenty-three demonstrators are killed, and eighty-five are injured. And someone uses this unrest to commit a very deliberate killing.

Class has been a bone of contention for a very long time, and it certainly played an important role in the French Revolution. Little wonder that we see it come up in crime fiction, too. These are just a few instances. Over to you.

 

ps  The ‘photo is, of course, of a print of Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. I know, not exactly the same revolution. But it fits…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Do You Hear the People Sing?

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Attica Locke, Brian Stoddart, Gail Bowen, Glen Peters

Gotta Get Down To It*

One of the more challenging jobs that police do is manage crowds of people. On the one hand, safety is the most important consideration. So, the police have to ensure that people aren’t looting, hurting each other, or worse. On the other hand, most of us agree that people have the right to go about their business, even in large crowds, without being stopped by the police. In many countries, too, it’s been determined that people have the right to protest peacefully, and protests and marches can draw large crowds.

The balance between protecting people’s rights, and ensuring public order and safety isn’t an easy one. And the vast majority of police strike that balance. If you think about it, a large number of crowd events, whether for fun, for protest, or something else, go off quite smoothly. But even so, they can be tense, and some spill over into conflict, or worse.

That’s certainly true in real life, and it’s true in crime fiction, too. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot, Chief Inspector Japp, and several local police officers, are looking for an elusive killer. Their target has already killed three people, and has warned that there’ll be more deaths. Before each murder, the killer sends a cryptic warning to Poirot, so he’s told in advance that this next murder will take place at Doncaster. At first, preventing that murder seems straightforward. But, the police haven’t considered the fact that the St. Leger is to be run in Doncaster on the day the killer has specified. Now, the police have to manage the crowds, look for a killer, and try to keep potential victims safe. In the end, we learn who the murderer is, and what the motive is. But the large crowds on St. Leger day don’t make things any easier.

There’s a very tense set of scenes featuring large crowds and police in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman. In one plot thread of that novel, the Swedish government is preparing for a visit from a US senator. Many, many people are upset at the US’ involvement in Vietnam, and a large protest is staged outside the US Embassy in Stockholm. The police are already stretched rather thin, as the saying goes, and the demonstrators are determined. With the police force pushed to its limit, a gunman boards a bus, killing eight passengers, including Åke Stenström, a police officer. And it turns out that this murderer ‘hid’ that death among the others on the bus.

In Peter Robinson’s A Necessary End, the town of Eastvale gears up for an anti-nuclear demonstration. Several groups have come into town for the occasion, and DCI Alan Banks and his team know that things could turn ugly. So, they prepare as best they can for the crowds. The day of the demonstration arrives, and the police do their best to manage everything. Then, tragedy strikes. Someone takes advantage of the large crowd to murder P.C. Edwin Gill. Banks’ superior officer, Superintendent Richard ‘Dirty Dick’ Burgess, is convinced that one of the demonstrators is responsible for Gill’s murder, and wants Banks to make a quick arrest. But Banks isn’t so sure that the demonstrators had anything to do with the killing. And, as he digs more deeply into the case, he finds that Gill had a reputation as a thug, who abused his authority more than once. So, there are plenty of people in town who could have a very good motive for murder.

Ian Rankin’s Mortal Causes takes place during the Edinburgh Festival, which is always a very difficult time for police. It’s a major tourist draw, there are parties, plenty of drinking, and big events. So, it’s very hard to keep the peace and ensure that everyone is safe. That background is tense enough. Matters get worse when the body of Billy Cunningham is discovered at Mary King’s Close, one of Edinburgh’s busiest streets. It turns out that Cunningham may have had ties to the IRA and to some Scottish ultra-nationalist groups. What’s worse, it turns out that he was the son of Morris Gerald ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty, a local crime boss, and Inspector John Rebus’ nemesis. Cafferty, as you can imagine, is all for dealing with his son’s killers in his own way. But Rebus knows that this could lead to a bloodbath. So, he’ll have to find Cunningham’s killer, find a way to manage Cafferty, and deal with the festival crowds.

And then there’s Felicity Young’s The Anatomy of Death (AKA A Dissection of Murder).  In that novel, which takes place in 1910, Dr. Dorothy ‘Dody’ McCleland returns to London from Edinburgh. She’s just finished qualifying in forensic pathology, and is hoping to work with the noted Dr. Bernard Spilsbury in the Home Office. As she’s waiting for that opportunity, she takes a job at a women’s hospital. She’s no sooner arrived and gotten settled when she learns that a women’s suffrage march in Whitechapel turned very ugly. Several of the protesters were beaten, and many were arrested. There were three deaths, too, and McCleland performs the autopsies. It turns out that one of the deaths, that of Lady Catherine Cartwright, might not have been accidental. And it turns out that this killer used the large crowd as a ‘cover’ for a very deliberate murder.

That happens, too, in Brian Stoddart’s A Madras Miasma, which takes place in 1920 Madras (today’s Chennai). This story takes place during the last years of the British Raj, and there’s a lot of talk of social and political reform. In fact, in one plot thread of the novel, there’s a demonstration against the entrenched British establishment. Stoddart’s protagonist, Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu, understands both the need to keep order and the benefits of some sort of power-sharing. He’d like the ‘powers that be’ to at least hear out the other side’s arguments. There are plenty of people in the upper levels who don’t want to give up power, though, so the protest takes place.  Le Fanu is sympathetic to the protesters’ cause, but, he is a police officer, and is sworn to uphold the law. The demonstration turns ugly, and Madras Commissioner of Police Arthur Jepson insists that his men use their weapons. At the end of it all, there are twenty-three deaths, and eighty-five people with injuries. One of the dead is a key source of information for another case that Le Fanu is investigating, and he learns that that person was killed by someone who used the large crowd and the unrest to ‘cover up’ the murder.

It’s not easy to be a police officer under the best of circumstances. Add in a large crowd, no matter how peaceful, and things can get very dangerous, very quickly. That’s part of what makes such scenes so suspenseful, and potentially so effective in a crime novel.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Brian Stoddart, Felicity Young, Ian Rankin, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Peter Robinson

Why These Victorian Views?*

The Victorian Era ended more than 100 years ago. But, if you think about it, that era’s customs, culture, and so on still exert influence, especially in the West. Just as one example, consider the tradition of the white wedding dress. That wasn’t a custom until Queen Victoria chose to wear a white dress for her own wedding. And that’s not to mention the many other beliefs, ‘rules,’ and so on that became a part of that era. One post isn’t nearly enough to do justice to the topic, but it’s interesting to take a glance at it.

We see the influence of this era in a lot of ways in crime fiction. And, as you’ll see, I’m not really talking of the crime fiction (such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s) that was written during the Victorian years. Even novels written after those years ended show the era’s influence.

One of the very important characteristics of the era was an emphasis on doing one’s duty. We see that, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect). In that novel, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to solve the sixteen-year-old murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time, Crale’s wife (and Carla’s mother) Caroline was suspected of the murder, and with good reason. In fact, she was arrested and convicted, and died in prison a year later. Carla insists her mother was innocent, and wants Poirot to clear her name. In order to find out the truth, Poirot interviews the five people who were present at the time. He also gets their written accounts of the murder and the days leading up to it. One of those people is Cecilia Williams, who acted as governess to Carla’s aunt, Angela Warren. Here’s what we learn about Miss Williams:
 

‘She had that enormous mental and moral advantage of a strict Victorian upbringing…she had done her duty in that station in life to which it had pleased God to call her, and that assurance encased her in an armour impregnable to the slings and darts of envy, discontent and regret.’
 

In other ways, too, Miss Williams reflects Victorian attitudes. For example, one of the ‘people of interest’ in the novel is Elsa Greer Dittisham, who was Crale’s lover at the time of his murder, and who was staying at the house while he painted her portrait. Miss Williams describes her as ‘thoroughly unprincipled.’ Later she says:
 

‘‘Whatever our feelings, we can keep them in decent control. And we can certainly control our actions. That girl had absolutely no morals of any kind. It meant nothing to her that Mr. Crale was a married man. She was absolutely shameless about it all – cool and determined. Possibly she may have been badly brought up, but that’s the only excuse I can find for her.”
 

Miss Williams is as much upset at what she sees as the lack of propriety and ‘proper conduct’ as she is about anything else.

We also see the Victorian emphasis on propriety in Dorothy L. Sayer’s Strong Poison. In the novel, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is tried for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial and immediately becomes smitten with Vane. In fact, he determines to clear her name, so that he can marry her. And, with help of some friends, as well as his valet/assistant, Mervyn Bunter, that’s exactly what he does. As the story goes on, we learn that Vane and Boyes lived together before their relationship ended. Since they never married, that’s very much held against her. In keeping with the Victorian view of what was ‘proper,’ it’s considered inappropriate to cohabit. The fact of their relationship is almost less important than the fact that Vane behaved in an ‘unseemly’ way.

We also see that attitude in Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series, which takes place in 1920’s Madras (today’s Chennai). In one story arc, we learn about the relationship between Le Fanu and his housekeeper, Roisin McPhedren. The two care very much about each other, but their relationship is doomed. For one thing, Le Fanu is, at least in name, married. His wife, who now lives in England, wants a divorce, but that’s somewhat scandalous. For another, Le Fanu and McPhedren live in the same house, and are not married. If any whispers got around that they had more than a professional relationship, that would mean the end of La Fanu’s career. Such impropriety isn’t in keeping with the ideals he’s supposed to be upholding. And that’s to say nothing of what would happen to Roisin McPhedren’s reputation. There would be no way she could get any kind of ‘respectable’ employment. This series offers a look at Victorian attitudes towards class and race, as well, and how they impacted the British Raj.

There’s an interesting example of the Victorian perspective in Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die. In it, poet and private investigator Nigel Strangeways looks into the poisoning death of George Rattery. The most obvious suspect is crime writer Frank Cairnes, who holds Rattery responsible for the death of his son, Martin ‘Martie.’ But Cairnes says that he’s innocent, and there are solid reasons to believe him. What’s more, as Strangeways discovers, Cairnes is not the only possible suspect. For one thing, it turns out that Rattery was having an affair with a woman named Rhoda Carfax. Rattery’s mother, Ethel, is
 

‘…crazy about family honour, and being a Victorian she looks upon sexual scandal as the arch-disgrace.’ 
 

That passion for ‘respectability’ could have been part of a motive for murder. Among other things, it’s an interesting look at that need to be ‘respectable.’

There’s also an interesting look at the impact of the Victorian-Era perspective in Wendy James’ Out of the Silence. This novel is James’ fictional retelling of the 1900 Melbourne arrest and conviction of Maggie Heffernan for the murder of her infant son. In the novel, Maggie meets and is wooed by Jack Hardy. He asks her to marry him, but says they need to keep their engagement secret until he can support them. Maggie agrees, and he soon leaves to look for work in New South Wales. In the meantime, Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant, and writes to Jack. Even after several letters, she doesn’t hear from him. Maggie knows her family won’t accept her (what ‘proper’ family would?), so she gets work in a Melbourne Guest House. When baby Jacky arrives, Maggie moves briefly to a home for unwed mothers. Then, she discovers that Jack Hardy has moved to Melbourne, and goes in search of him. When she finally tracks him down, he utterly rejects her. With nowhere else to go, Maggie goes from lodging house to lodging house, and is turned down by six places.  That’s when the tragedy with Jacky occurs. This story takes place in the last year or two of the Victorian Era, and really shows how that perspective influences everything that happens to Maggie, including her own point of view.

There are also other historical series, such as K.B. Owen’s Concordia Wells novels, and Felicity Young’s Dorothy ‘Dody’ McCleland series, that depict Victorian-Era perspectives, world views and mores. Owen’s series takes place at the very end of those years, and Young’s takes place in the Edwardian Era that followed it.

Even today, we can see how the Victorian Era has left its mark. It has on Western society, and it certainly has in crime fiction. Which examples have stayed with you?

ps The ‘photo is of a group of Victorian-era schoolgirls in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Courtesy of the Lehigh County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ogden Nash and Kurt Weill’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Brian Stoddart, Dorothy L. Sayers, Felicity Young, K.B. Owen, Nicholas Blake, Wendy James

All the Cats Who Are So In, I Don’t Fit In*

assimilating-or-notVery often, when two cultures come into contact, one of them ends up becoming dominant. There are many reasons for this, and many consequences of it. One of them is that members of the minority culture frequently have to make a painful choice – one of several. Do they keep their own language, cultural ways, and so on, or do they assimilate? If they assimilate, there’s more of a chance of surviving well within the dominant culture. But it means rejecting their own culture and language, with all of the loss that entails. Keeping that culture and language, though, means likely being cut off from a lot of opportunity.

This isn’t an easy choice to make, and matters aren’t helped by the pressure to assimilate and the equal (and opposite) pressure not to ‘sell out.’ And that pressure can come in several ways. And, in some cultures, being a member of a minority culture carries a stigma that greatly impacts a person. That, too, plays a role in the decisions a person might make. There are plenty of crime-fictional characters who face these dilemmas, and it adds to their characters.

In Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series, we are introduced to Janet Pete. She’s a half-Navajo/half-white attorney whom we first meet in Skinwalkers. At first, she lives and works in Washington, D.C., where she has a position with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Later, she works for the Navajo Nation. For a time, she and Jim Chee are also romantically involved. Pete has learned how important it is to assimilate if one wants to ‘get ahead.’ She lives a white lifestyle, and at one point, encourages Chee to accept a position off the Reservation, so that they can live in a more dominant-culture way. But at the same time, she is well aware of her Navajo background, understands its traditions, and has a deep respect for her people. She has to make some very painful decisions as the story arc concerning her plays out. And part of the reason for that is the pressure she feels both to assimilate and to be a part of the Navajo world.

Jason Matthews faces much the same challenge in Nicole Watson’s The Boundary. He’s a Brisbane police detective who is also a member of the Corrowa people. He’s been able to manage his life by (mostly) assimilating, as have some other Aborigine characters in this novel. And so far, he’s done all right. Then, the Corrowa people get into a land dispute with a development company over Meston Park. Both groups lay claim to the place, and the situation gets very ugly. Judge Bruce Brosnan rules against the Corrowa, and a few hours later, he’s found dead. Then there are other murders, each of someone involved in the case against the land claim. Matthews is on the team that investigates the killings, and the experience tests his views about assimilating, about identity, and about culture.

Then there’s the question of what’s sometimes been called ‘passing’ – being a member of one race, but identifying oneself (at least publicly) as a member of another. In the US, at least, there’ve been blacks who chose to ‘pass’ as white, rather than identify as black, and it’s been a difficult choice. On the one hand, ‘passing’ has meant opportunities that wouldn’t be available otherwise. On the other, many blacks have seen ‘passing’ as turning one’s back on one’s own. There’s a Walter Mosley book featuring PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins that addresses this very issue, but naming it would be too close to spoiling for my taste.

It’s been an issue in other places, too. Malla Nunn’s Emmanuel Cooper series, for instance, takes place in 1950s South Africa, a time when Apartheid was the law of the land. The rules about race were strict, and brutally enforced. They determined where one lived, what sort of education and job one got, whom one could marry, and much more. Being identified as white (whether Afrikaans or English) meant privilege, power, and opportunity. Being identified as non-white relegated one to a lower class of citizenship, with little opportunity and less voice. In that world, it’s so important to be considered white that many people hide any evidence that they might not be. And that fact figures into more than one character’s choices in the series.

One of Anya Lipska’s sleuths is Janusz Kiszka, a Polish immigrant to London. He’s a well-known member of the Polish community there, and has become sort of a ‘fixer’ – a person who can get things done. He doesn’t always use the ‘usual channels,’ but he always knows someone who knows someone, if I can put it that way. Although he has no burning desire to return to Poland, Kiszka has kept many of his cultural ways, as well as his own language. And he dislikes the tendency for some Polish immigrants to immediately adopt English ways, drop their language, and so on. It’s an interesting perspective on the meeting of cultures.

And then there’s Brian Stoddart’s Roisin McPhedren. When we first meet her in A Madras Miasma, she serves as cook and housekeeper for Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu. They are also lovers, but they keep that secret. The series takes place in 1920s Madras (today’s Chennai) during the last decades of the British Raj. Roison is Anglo-Indian, and well aware of the social advantages of being as ‘English’ as possible, particularly since she is not of the upper class.  And that includes English social mores. It’s a painful situation for both her and Le Fanu. By contrast, Le Fanu’s assistant, Sergeant Muhammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah makes no attempt to ‘be English.’ He is unashamedly Indian, and Muslim. He may not assimilate, but Habi has earned the respect of others, most particularly his boss, because he is very, very good at what he does.

It can be painful and difficult to decide whether and how much to assimilate, if one’s not a member of a dominant culture. And there isn’t really a ‘right’ answer. Perhaps that’s part of what makes such characters so interesting.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beat’s I Don’t Fit In.

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Filed under Anya Lipska, Brian Stoddart, Malla Nunn, Nicole Watson, Tony Hillerman, Walter Mosley

Don’t Push Me Too Far*

pressureMost of us learn that we can only push people so far before they push back. Everyone has a different limit, but we all have one. Crime writers know this, and sometimes use it to real advantage in their novels.

That pressure, as someone pushes too hard, and someone else nears the breaking point, can add real suspense to a story. And it can serve as a credible motive for murder, at least in the mind of the killer.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we meet the Boyntons, an American family on a sightseeing visit to the Middle East. Matriarch Mrs. Boynton is malicious, vindictive, and tyrannical. She has her family so browbeaten that no-one dares go against her wishes. But that doesn’t mean they don’t resent her. A few of the members have been pushed so far for so long that they are at the proverbial breaking point. So, when Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies on the second day of a trip to Petra, Colonel Carbury decides to look into the matter. The death looks on the surface like heart failure, but the family dynamics make Carbury wonder. So, he asks Hercule Poirot, who’s also in the Middle East, to investigate. As we learn who really killed the victim and why, we see the wisdom in not pushing people past their limits.

Talmage Powell’s short story, To Avoid a Scandal, features a banker named Horace Croyden. He leads a quiet, well-ordered and completely scandal-free life, and he likes it that way. In fact, for quite a while, his life is, for him, perfect. Then he meets his boss’ cousin Althea. At first, she seems demure, with good taste and good manners. And that’s what draws him to her. They court in an utterly respectable way, and then marry. That’s when Horace discovers that his wife isn’t all the person he thought he’d married. She’s more vivacious than he’d prefer, and her habits, in his opinion, aren’t well-ordered at all. She shops without a list, she doesn’t always dress before breakfast, and so on. More and more, she pushes him to the limit. Then comes the day she accidentally destroys some ciphers he’s been working (ciphers are Horace’s passion). That’s when she pushes him too far…

Ed McBain’s Cop Hater is the first in his long-running 87th Precinct series. As the novel begins, the city of Isola (a thinly-disguised New York City) is suffering from a terrible heat wave. This novel was written before air conditioning was a common amenity for homes, so everyone’s sweltering and miserable. That includes Detective Steve Carella and his team, who are investigating the murders of two fellow police officers. They’re also expected to attend lineups of those who’ve been arrested for major crimes, so that they can become familiar with those cases. One of those suspects is Virginia Pritchett, who’s been arrested for killing her husband with a hatchet. She doesn’t deny the allegation. Rather, she explains that the murder was the end result of a buildup of tension between her and her husband that pushed her beyond her breaking point. And the miserable heat didn’t help:
 

‘‘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.”
 

In this case, we see what happens when a person is pushed too far by both the heat and a tense domestic situation.

Ruth Rendell’s One Across, Two Down tells the story of Stanley Manning, who works as a fuel attendant. He has a prison record, but he’s trying to stay on the proverbial straight and narrow, and make a life for himself and his wife, Vera. But he’s got a big problem: Vera’s mother, Maude, who hates Stanley. The feeling is mutual, but Stnaley has to put up with her, because he and Vera stand to inherit a fortune when she dies. Still, the pressure of having to tolerate Maude gets worse and worse, until Stanley decides to take matters into his own hands. And as you can guess if you’ve read Rendell’s work, this doesn’t end well.

Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s An Easy Thing addresses another sort of pressure. In that novel, Mexico City PI Héctor Belascoaran Shayne gets three different cases. One of them concerns the death of an engineer named Gaspar Alvarez Cerruli, who was killed in his office at Delex, the company where he worked. The Santa Clara Industrial Council hires Belascoaran Shayne to find out who the killer was, and bring them the proof. This case is complicated by the fact that there’s a great deal of tension between union members and management at Delex. There’s a great deal of agitation for better wages and working conditions, and the union activists have been very busy. As the novel goes on, those tensions reach the boiling point, and this plays its role in this case. What’s more, the tension adds much to the suspense in the story.

Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series takes place during the last years of the British Raj in Madras (today’s Chennai). In A Madras Miasma, the first of the series, Le Fanu and his assistant, Sergeant Muhammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah, are investigating the murder of Jane Carstairs, an English visitor whose body was found in the Buckingham Canal. It’s a difficult case, made more challenging by the fact that the trail leads to some very high places. In the midst of the investigation, there’s a protest. There are many who believe that India should move to Home Rule, and that the Raj should end. These people clash with the local authorities and the police, and the situation turns very, very ugly. Then, there’s a murder. And Le Fanu finds that this death is related to the Carstairs murder, and that the killer has used the protest to ‘disguise’ that connection. Part of the suspense in this novel comes from the simmering resentment against British rule, and the increasing pressure on the government to reform, and on the protesters to be quiet and go away.

If crime fiction shows us nothing else, it shows us that people do have their limits. There’s only so far that most of us can be pushed. If the pushing continues, there are bound to be consequences. And that tension can add a great deal to a crime story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Divinyls’ Back to the Wall.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Brian Stoddart, Ed McBain, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Ruth Rendell, Talmage Powell