Category Archives: Caroline Graham

Some of Us Believe in Spiritualism*

SpiritualismFor a very long time, people have been fascinated by what I’ll call spiritualism (mostly for convenience’s sake). Strictly speaking, spiritualism is usually used to refer to the belief in communicating with the dead. And that possibility has certainly intrigued humans. But it’s taken on a wider meaning, too, and now often includes interest in psychics, prescience and so on.  And it’s interesting to see how that way of thinking about spiritualism has been woven into crime fiction.

You’ll notice as I go on today that I won’t be mentioning paranormal stories or fantasy stories. Those certainly have their places for readers who enjoy them. But fascination with spiritualism is also there in other crime fiction as well.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories include spiritualism, and it’s interesting to speculate on what she might have thought of it. An interesting conversation with Moira at the excellent Clothes in Books got me thinking about Christie’s views, so thanks for that inspiration, Moira.

In Dumb Witness, for instance, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings visit the village of Market Basing. They’re there at the request of Miss Emily Arundell, who wrote to Poirot, asking him to advise her on a ‘delicate matter.’ By the time they get to Market Basing, though, it’s too late: Miss Arundell has died. At first, her death is put down to liver failure. But it’s proven in the end that she was poisoned. And there are several suspects, too, as she had a large fortune to leave, and several greedy/desperate relatives. One of the characters in this novel is Miss Arundell’s companion Wilhelmina ‘Minnie’ Lawson. Miss Lawson is a dedicated believer in spiritualism, and often attends séances and other such events. Her good friends, Julia and Isabel Tripp, are just as fascinated by mysticism, and often share those experiences with Miss Lawson. Miss Lawson’s interest in spiritualism is not the reason for Emily Arundell’s death. But it does add an interesting layer, both to her character and to the story. And it shows how strong a belief people can have in spiritualism. For those who do believe, it’s as real as anything else is.

Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine introduces readers to Ava Garrett. A self-styled medium, she’s developed quite a following. One of those believers is Benny Frayle, who’s recently lost her good friend, financial planner Dennis Brinkley. The official report is that his death was a tragic accident when one of the antique war machines he collects malfunctioned. But Benny’s not so sure of that. The police, in the form of DCI Tom Barnaby, believe they’ve done all they can do, and that there’s no need for further investigation. And, to be fair, the police have done a thorough job. But Benny still thinks it was murder. So she attends one of Ava Garrett’s séances. During the event, Ava describes the murder scene vividly, although she’s not seen it. And she makes it clear that Benny was right. That’s enough for Benny, but the police still don’t really look into the death…until Ava herself is poisoned. One the one hand, I can say without spoiling the story that Barnaby and his team don’t learn the truth through a medium or psychic. But there is an interesting twist in the story that adds a layer to it.

In Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold), the small Québec town of Three Pines gets some new residents: CC de Poitiers and her family. CC is a popular lifestyle/self-help celebrity whose book, Be Calm, has sold very well. Not everyone in town is happy about the newcomers, though. For one thing, CC is egotistical, rude, manipulative, and malicious. She manages to alienate everyone in town, including Beatrice Mayer, known locally as Mother Bea. Mother Bea has a yoga and meditation center, also called Be Calm, and is, as she puts it,

‘…familiar with all spiritual paths…’

She sees beneath the ‘spiritual wellness’ touted in CC’s hype, and is not happy at what she finds. When CC dies of electrocution, there’s no question that it’s murder. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec investigates with his team. They find that more than one person had a strong motive for murder. Admittedly, spiritualism doesn’t solve the mystery here. And it’s not the reason for the murder. But it’s an interesting look at the way spiritualism – or what’s hyped as spiritualism – impacts people.

We see that in Tarquin Hall’s The Man Who Died Laughing, too. Dr. Suresh Jha has made a career out of unmasking spiritual charlatans. He is the founder of the Delhi Institute for Research and Education (DIRE); and, as such, does everything he can to stop those who prey on others’ fascination with spiritualism. One morning, he’s attending a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club when, according to witnesses, the goddess Kali appears and stabs Jha. Believers say that she is punishing him for being an infidel. But Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri thinks this death has a more prosaic explanation. Jha was a onetime client, so Puri takes a special interest in this case, and decides to investigate it. One part of the trail leads to Maharaj Swami, a well-known spiritualist and advisor. He’s set up his own ashram, which has become quite popular, and seems to have quite a hold on his followers. Spiritualism doesn’t really solve this mystery. But it’s interesting to see how many people want to believe in the things Swami says and does.

There are other sorts of spiritualism in its very broadest sense in crime fiction, too. For example, both David Rosenberg’s The Junction Chronicles and Spencer Cope’s Collecting the Dead feature characters who are synthaesthetes. Their protagonists can sense things accurately that most of us can’t. Rosenberg’s Decker Roberts is able to tell whether someone is lying or not. And Cope’s Steps Craig can sense people’s essence – he calls it their ‘shine’ – on things they’ve touched. I confess I’ve not read the Cope (yet). But it’s a good example of the sort of almost paranormal ability that some characters seem to possess. Many people believe that there are real-life instances of such things, too.

Whether or not things such as psychic ability or spiritualism actually exist, people are fascinated by them. And that in itself is really interesting. Little wonder Arthur Conan Doyle was so intrigued by spiritualism.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Donovan’s Children of the World.



Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Caroline Graham, David Rosenberg, Louise Penny, Spencer Cope, Tarquin Hall

It’s Like a Dream Come True*

Dreams and WishesMost of us have dreams and wishes. A lot of times they don’t come true, but that doesn’t stop people dreaming. After all, some dreams do happen. But an old saying goes,

‘Be careful what you wish for…’

and that’s not bad advice. Sometimes what seems like a dream come true doesn’t turn out to be that way at all.

There’s certainly plenty of that plot point in crime fiction, and that makes sense. Discovering that one’s dream job/home/partner is anything but can add solid suspense to a story. And that’s to say nothing of the motive it can provide for all sorts of things.

We see that, for instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Red-Headed League. Pawnbroker Jabez Wilson responded to an unusual job advertisement in a local newspaper, placed by the League of Red-Headed Men. The main qualification seemed to be that the successful applicant must have red hair. Wilson was told that the money was reasonable and the work easy, and he is certainly red-haired; so he decided to apply. Much to his surprise, he was selected and soon began his work. His duties were simple: to copy the Encyclopaedia Britannica. All went well at first, and seemed like a perfect way to add to his income. Everything changed one day, though, when he came to the league’s offices, only to find a sign indicating that the Red-Headed League was disbanded. Wilson wants to know what happened to the league, so he asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate. As it turns out, the league was a cover for a nefarious plot to rob a nearby bank.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds, Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who poisoned Marie Marisot, a French moneylender whose business name was Madame Giselle. She was poisoned during a flight from Paris to London, so the only possible suspects are her fellow passengers. And it turns out that more than one of them had a motive. Madame Giselle’s business worked in an unusual way. She would lend money to people after she’d found out damaging or at least compromising, information about them. That information served as collateral, to be held over those who wouldn’t or couldn’t pay what they owed. Here’s what one of her clients has to say about it:

‘‘But later she lent you more?’ [Poirot]
‘Yes, as much as I wanted. It seemed like a miracle at the time.’’

That dream come true turns out to be a nightmare for this client, whose debt soon ran so high that it was impossible to pay it back. That was when Madame Giselle threatened to reveal some very uncomfortable truths…

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives begins as Walter and Joanna Eberhart and their two children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. At first, the town seems like a dream come true – exactly what they’ve wanted. The taxes are low, the schools are good, the new house is just what they hoped for, and the children are settling in. Then, Joanna’s new friend Bobbie Markowe begins to suspect that there is something very wrong going on in Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t believe Bobbie. But little by little, she comes to see that Bobbie was probably right. And the closer she gets to the truth of what’s going on, the more nightmarish it gets.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, we are introduced to Mallory and Kate Lawson. Mallory’s become ‘burned out’ as a teacher/headmaster, and started to pull away from his family. Kate loves her husband, but can’t deny the strain in their family. Then, they get news that seems like a dream come true. Mallory’s Aunt Carey has died (of natural causes) and left her nephew and his family a large fortune. All they need to do is move into the home she left behind, and ensure that her longtime friend and companion Benny Frayle has a permanent home there. That’s little enough to ask, so the Lawsons take up their new residence and get to know Benny. Soon, they’ll be able to start up their own publishing company, something they’ve always wanted. Now it seems that they’ll be able to live out their dream. It all starts to go sour, though, when the Lawson’s daughter Polly decides to get out of major financial mess by taking her share of the money sooner than her great-aunt’s will stipulates. Her plan backfires badly, which is trouble enough. Then, the family’s financial advisor Dennis Brinkley is killed. On the surface of it, it looks like an accident. But Benny suspects that it was murder, and she determines that the police should investigate. Finally, after another death, DCI Tom Barnaby and his assistant Gavin Troy look into the matter closely, and discover who’s behind the deaths. It just goes to show that inheriting a lot of money doesn’t solve everything.

Librarian Israel Armstrong gets a wish to come true in Ian Sansom’s The Case of the Missing Books. He wants a career as a librarian, but so far, he’s only been able to find a job as a bookseller’s assistant. It’s a ‘nowhere’ job, and not what he wants. So when he sees an advertisement for a librarian’s position at the Tumdrum and District Library in Ireland, he applies. To his happy surprise, he gets the job and travels from his home in North London to Ireland. He’s expecting that this will be the stepping-stone to a fine career that may lead to a very important position at a university library or even the British Library. It doesn’t turn out to be that way though. For one thing, when he arrives, Armstrong finds out that he’s actually been hired to drive the local mobile library, which is a rattletrap bus. The district has very little money, but is required by law to make library books available all over the area. This is the solution they’ve found, and for the urban-dwelling Armstrong, that’s bad enough. His living conditions (a makeshift bed in a chicken coop) just make matters worse. Then he discovers that the books he’s supposed to make available have disappeared. He’s going to have to find them if he’s going to keep his job and reputation.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers. In one plot thread of that novel, television journalist Rebecca Thorne works on an exposé of dubious developer Denny Graham. His stock in trade is luring investors with lush advertisements that feature luxurious retirement properties. He then hosts parties where he sells those potential investors on his properties and gets them to buy into that ‘dream retirement.’ But there’ve been several allegations that Graham is dishonest. When Thorne visits one of his properties, she finds that it’s completely undeveloped. What’s more, she talks with several people who’ve been bilked out of their money and had to severely retrench their lifestyles because of it.

So maybe there is some truth that old saying about being careful what you wish for. These are just a few examples. I haven’t even touched the numerous novels in which a dream marriage turns nightmarish – too easy. Over to you.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s Peg.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Caroline Graham, Ian Sansom, Ira Levin, Paddy Richardson

On With the Show*

Amateur PerformancesLots of places don’t have professional acting or musical groups. So they turn to amateurs for entertainment. There’s a long tradition of church plays, village concerts and amateur drama societies. And if you’re a parent, I’ll bet you’ve attended school productions where your child had a part. Perhaps you’ve been on stage yourself.

Amateur entertainment gives people a chance to see plays and hear music they might not otherwise be able to enjoy. And for those interested in a career in performing, directing, and so on, these productions offer an excellent chance to learn the skills. Even for those who simply have a good time performing, these productions offer the chance to be creative.

There are references to these local performances throughout crime fiction. That’s not surprising, either, when you consider what an effective context they are for a murder mystery. There are the inevitable conflicts, the gathering of disparate people for rehearsals and performances, and a lot more. And that’s to say nothing of the opportunity they provide for all sorts of clues, encounters, and the like.

In Caroline Graham’s Death of Hollow Man, for instance, Inspector Tom Barnaby attends Causton Amateur Dramatic Society’s production of Amadeus. Most of the cast and crew, including Barnaby’s wife Joyce, are volunteers. On opening night, Esslyn Carmichael, who has the role of Salieri, picks up what he thinks is a blunt prop knife for the pivotal attempted-suicide scene. The knife turns out to be all too real, though, and Carmichael is killed in what looks like a real suicide. But there are enough questions about that that Barnaby and his assistant Sergeant Gavin Troy start to investigate more deeply. And they find that more than one person (including several of the locals) had a motive for murder.

P.D. James’ Death of an Expert Witness tells the story of the murder of Dr. Edwin Lorrimer, a member of the senior staff at Hoggatt’s Laboratory in East Anglia. When he is murdered at the lab one evening, Commander Adam Dalgliesh and DI John Massingham investigate. The evidence suggests strongly that Lorrimer was killed by someone he knew, and probably by a work colleague, since there was no evidence of a break-in. Part of the detectives’ task is, of course, to find out what everyone concerned was doing at the time of the break-in. Several interviewees use a village concert at Chevisham as their alibi, and it’s interesting to see how James ties that performance in with some of the characters’ lives. For instance, there are several violinists among the lab staff members; and one character claims that he was playing one half of a hobby-horse in a morris-dancer performance. With all of these connections, Dalgliesh and Massingham have to look into doings at the village hall, too…

There’s an interesting scene set at a village pantomime in Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin. DC Ben Cooper and DS Diane Fry are investigating the murders of two young women whose remains have been found at Pity Wood Farm in England’s Peak District. In one sub-plot of this novel, Cooper has a relationship with SOCO professional Liz Petty; but for the moment, they don’t want it known all over. So while they don’t really hide their romance, they also try to keep it as discreet as they can. One night they arrange to meet at Edendale’s Royal Theatre for the annual Christmas pantomime, since some of Liz’ friends will be performing in it. The production is a (very politically incorrect) version of Aladdin, and Booth uses this date to show the panto tradition.

Of course, school productions are among the most common sorts of amateur performances, from very young children reciting a line or two, to university acting groups. We see this in crime fiction, too. For instance, in Gail Bowen’s The Nesting Dolls, political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her husband Zack attend a concert one evening at their daughter Taylor’s high school. Afterwards, as everyone’s leaving, a woman approaches Taylor’s friend Isobel and hands her a baby. A note with the baby explains that the mother, Abby Michaels, wants to give him up and wants Isobel’s mother Delia to have full custody. It’s a complicated situation, made all the more so when Abby is later found murdered in her car…

In Christine Poulson’s Stage Fright, literature scholar Cassandra James gets involved in a deadly stage production. She is head of the English Department for St. Ethelreda’s College, Cambridge, and a new mother; so her life is quite busy enough. But when director Kevin Kingsleigh asks for her help with a new production he’s directing, she agrees. He and his wife, actress Melissa Meadows, will be doing a stage version of the Victorian novel East Lynne, and they want Cassandra to adapt the script. Rehearsals get underway, and opening night gets closer. Then, Melissa calls, claiming that someone is stalking her. Cassandra goes to the house and does her best to allay Melissa’s fears. But the next day, when Melissa doesn’t show up for rehearsal, it’s quite clear that something is very wrong. She seems to have completely disappeared, even leaving her infant daughter Agnes behind. As time goes by and she doesn’t return or contact anyone, the police begin to believe she’s been murdered. And one of their suspects is Cassandra. Partly to clear her name, and partly because she’s really worried about her friend, Cassandra starts asking questions, too.

And then there’s K.B. Owen’s Dangerous and Unseemly, the first of her historical mysteries featuring Concordia Wells. Concordia teaches at Hartford Women’s College in the last years of the 19th Century, a time when young ladies are not expected to have a career once they marry. Certainly they’re not expected to take an interest in crime, let alone investigate it. In this novel, Concordia agrees to help with the school’s production of The Scottish Play, but ends up doing most of the direction. The main plot thread in this novel is the murder of Bursar Ruth Lyman, and Concordia’s search for the truth about the murderer. But readers also get the chance to go ‘behind the scenes’ as the students put their production together.

Village concerts, plays and pantos, and school-related productions, are all interesting in that they involve ‘regular’ people who also perform. The people on stage could be accountants, lab assistants, aspiring chemists or just about anything else. This lets the author pull in characters’ personal lives as well as the personas they have onstage. And that can make for an absorbing story.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Irving Berlin’s There’s No Business Like Show Business.


Filed under Caroline Graham, Christine Poulson, Gail Bowen, K.B. Owen, P.D. James, Stephen Booth

When He Died, I Inherited His Wealth*

Unusual WillsWills can be funny things. They aren’t always as straightforward as they may seem, no matter how clearly the terms in them may be laid out. And sometimes, they include very strange provisions. Because wills sometimes involve a lot of money, they can be high-stakes, too. It’s only natural, when you think about it, that we’d hear a lot about wills in crime fiction. And sometimes, they involve some unusual situations. Here are just a few examples. I know you’ll think of a lot more than I ever could.

In Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, Colonel John Herncastle bequeaths a large yellow diamond called the Moonstone to his niece, Rachel Verinder, to be given to her on her eighteenth birthday. On the surface, you might think this a very generous gift, and as far as monetary value goes, it is. However, things aren’t exactly what they seem. Herncastle stole the Moonstone from a palace in India, and the story goes that anyone who removes the diamond from its rightful place is cursed. So one possibility is that Herncastle’s bequest is actually a curse on the Verinder family. That’s not so outrageous, considering the bad relations between Herncastle and his sister, Lady Julia Verinder. Certainly trouble comes to the Verinder family after the Moonstone is given to Rachel. For one thing, there are groups of people in India who want the stone back and will do anything to get it. Then, on the night Rachel gets the stone, it’s stolen from her room.  Later, the second housemaid (who has troubles of her own) commits suicide. As it turns out, this bequest causes a great deal of trouble, even for those who don’t believe in the curse.

Agatha Christie referred to wills an awful lot in her work. For example, in the short story Manx Gold, Fenella Mylecharane and Juan Faraker learn that Fenella’s eccentric Uncle Myles has passed away, and they travel to the Isle of Man to hear the reading of his will. According to the will, there is buried treasure on the island, and Uncle Myles has arranged a sort of game to determine who will inherit it. Fenella and Juan are hoping they’ll win; they’re a young, engaged couple who could use the money to start their lives. But they are not the only contestants. There are other would-be heirs who want the treasure just as badly. One morning, each contestant is given the first clue and the race is on. When murder strikes, it’s clear that, for at least one person, this is not a game. I see you, fans of After the Funeral and of The Case of the Missing Will. And of Sad Cypress. See what I mean?

Dorothy Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellonna Club also involves an interesting sort of a will.  In that novel, Lord Peter Wimsey investigates two deaths. One is the death of General Fentiman, a fellow member of his club. The other is the death of Fentiman’s wealthy sister Lady Dormer. According to Lady Dormer’s will, if she dies before her brother does, her fortune passes to Fentiman’s grandson. If her brother predeceases her, then the fortune goes to her distant cousin Ann Dorland. So in this case, the timing of the two deaths is of great importance. When it’s discovered that General Fentiman was poisoned, it’s clear that someone has a very personal stake in which sibling dies first.

Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth also features an odd sort of a will. Queen and his friend Beau Rummell have recently opened up a PI agency. One of their first clients is wealthy and eccentric Cadmus Cole. He’s spent most of his adult life at sea, and has had little contact with anyone in his family. Now he wants to trace any living relatives and make arrangements for the disposition of his fortune. Queen and Rummell take the case, and soon track down two potential heirs. One is aspiring actor Kerrie Shawn, who’s scraping by getting whatever bit parts and ‘extra’ roles she can. Getting a start in Hollywood is proving difficult for her. The other heir is Margo Cole, who’s mostly lived in Paris. When word comes that Cadmus Cole has died, his will is made public. His two heirs will divide his fortune under the condition that they share his home on the Hudson for a year. Kerrie and Margo both agree to the terms, and duly arrive at the house. Not long afterwards, Margo is shot, and Kerrie becomes the prime suspect. Rummell is infatuated with her, and wants to clear her name. And, as it turns out, there are other possible explanations for Margo’s murder…

Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine introduces readers to the Lawson family. Carey Lawson is both wealthy and beloved in her village of Forbes Abbot. When she dies, her will stipulates that her home and fortune are to pass to her nephew Mallory Lawson and his wife, Kate. A generous share of the money is also to go to Mallory and Kate’s daughter Polly when she turns twenty-one. There is also a stipulation in the will that requires the Lawsons to provide a permanent home on the property to Benny Frayle, who was Carey Lawson’s companion. The Lawsons are only too willing to do that, since they like Benny. Besides, this inheritance is a dream come true to them, as they’ve wanted startup money to launch their own publishing company. It’s not spoiling the story to say that Carey Lawson’s death is not suspicious. But before long, it’s clear that something untoward is going on. The Lawsons’ financial advisor Dennis Brinkley is killed in what looks like a terrible accident. But Benny, who was a friend to Brinkley, is sure that he was murdered. She tries to get DCI Tom Barnaby to investigate, but he sees no reason to question the original findings. The police who investigated did their jobs professionally. When there’s another death, though, things change. Now Barnaby and his assistant Gavin Troy look more deeply into the goings-on in Forbes Abbot, and find more than they bargained for, as the saying goes.

Sometimes, even wills that seem to be quite clear aren’t. For instance, in R.J. Harlick’s Death’s Golden Whisper, we meet Meg Harris. She’s recovering from a disastrous marriage, and has moved away from Toronto to Three Deer Point, the home she inherited from her Aunt Agatha. This house is located in rural Western Québec. At first, the change is welcome, as Meg starts to put her life back together. But then, a large company, CanacGold, learns that there may be gold on Whisper Island, which lies near Three Deer Point. The company wants to mine the island and if there is gold, to lay claim to it. This has divided the local Miskigan community, with some wanting that development, and others opposing it. MIskigan Band Chief Eric Odjik knows that Meg doesn’t want the company mining the island. So he is hoping she’ll agree to help resolve the issue. If Whisper Island is actually part of Three Deer Point, then it belongs to Meg, and she has the right to keep the company off the island. If not, then it’s likely the company could come in. So one plot thread of this novel concerns the effort to try to find out exactly what Meg has inherited. The other concerns a case of murder that turns out to be linked to the dispute over Whisper Island, and to her own past.

Of course, not all wills are that difficult to sort out, or that dangerous. But they are interesting. And they’re woven throughout the genre.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Wesley Harding’s Miss Fortune.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, R.J. Harlick, Wilkie Collins

It’s All About the Same Thing Underneath the Disguise*

Same Underlying Plot, Different BookIn Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, Hercue Poirot works with Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race, and detective story writer Ariadne Oliver to solve the stabbing death of the enigmatic Mr. Shaitana. There are only four suspects, and each one could have committed the crime. What’s more, each one has, or so Shaitana hinted, killed before. The sleuths look into the background of all of the suspects to see what kind of murders they committed, and whether those crimes bear the same hallmarks they see in the Shaitana case. When Mrs. Oliver says that she wouldn’t commit the same kind of murder twice, here’s the conversation that ensues:

‘‘Don’t you ever write the same plot twice running?’ asked Battle.
‘The Lotus Murder,’ murmured Poirot. ‘The Clue of the Candle Wax.’
Mrs. Oliver turned on him, her eyes beaming appreciation.
‘That’s clever of you – that’s really clever of you. Because of course those two are exactly the same plot, but nobody else has seen it.’’

And she’s not the only author to use plot points, or even entire plots, that have been used before.

The fact is, there aren’t that many plausible reasons to commit murder. So if you look beyond the outer trappings of setting and so on, you’ll see a lot of books that bear similarities to other books, even if you might not think so at first. Moira at Clothes in Books got me thinking about this, and I’m glad she did. It’s an interesting topic, so I am grateful for the inspiration.

Some books’ similarities are quite clear, because they have such a similar context. For example, Ngaio Marsh’s Enter a Murderer and Caroline Graham’s Death of a Hollow Man both feature on-stage murders during the performance of a play. And in both cases, the sleuth has to look among the people who had access to the stage props to find out who would have been able to commit the crime. There are some differences (e.g. in one, the death looks like a suicide, but in the other, it’s a more obvious murder). But the underlying nature of the plot is strikingly similar.

Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair is the story of Gilbert Hand, who has recently moved to a very respectable London hotel. He’s settling into his room when he discovers that the ottoman he wants to use as a storage space has something hidden in it. Hand pulls out the silk-wrapped package and discovers a coil of long dark hair. He begins to wonder about the person who owned that hair, and it’s not long before he discovers that that person is Freddie Doyle. When Doyle tries to reclaim the hair, Hand refuses. Now he begins to be obsessed with Doyle, and that obsession leads to tragedy. It might not seem on the surface that this would bear a lot of resemblance to Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, which features a Pasadena schoolteacher named Lora King, and her relationship with her new sister-in-law Alice. But underneath the very obvious differences, there are some real similarities. Like Gilbert Hand, Lora King makes some unsettling discoveries about a person (in this case, Alice). And, like Hand, King finds herself becoming obsessed. She is both repelled by and drawn to Alice in the same way that Hand finds himself both repelled by and drawn to Doyle. And in both these novels, disaster strikes. Of course there are important differences between the books. Those differences set them apart and make each a unique read, with different characters and so on. But the core of the plot in the two books is very similar.

That’s also true of James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos and Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. One takes place in modern-day Louisiana; the other takes place in 1950’s Los Angeles. One features a police detective, and the other an amateur/soon-to-be PI. And the books focus on different kinds of contexts, too (a New Orleans crime syndicate v a Black church and the people who volunteer there). Different kinds of people are murdered, too. But underneath those major differences, we see some very strong similarities. In both cases, the sleuths are pressured by government authorities to bring down someone regarded as a ‘bad guy.’ In both novels, the sleuths are reluctant to do so, but are persuaded. And both sleuths face a serious internal struggle when they find themselves sympathetic towards the person they’re supposed to be targeting. These aren’t by any means alike. Each author has a unique way of telling the story, of developing the characters, and of resolving the story’s conflicts. But the underlying cores are quite similar.

They are in Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City and Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, too. These stories are unlike each other in many ways. They take place in different settings, feature different kinds of murder victims and murderers, and ‘star’ very different kinds of sleuths. You might not think of them as having anything in common. And yet, they do. In each case, we have a sleuth who has to find out why someone who seems innocent enough on the surface would be targeted. We also have some very, very ugly past history that plays an important role. And the solution for each case has to do with the past coming back, if you will. Saying more would bring me closer than I like to spoiler territory. But if you’ve read both books, you’ll know what I mean.

Betty Webb’s Desert Wives and William Ryan’s The Twelfth Department might not seem to be similar stories at all. And in a lot of ways, they are not. One features a PI; the other ‘starts’ a police detective. They take place in very different time periods (the former takes place is a modern-day story; the latter takes place in pre-World War II Moscow), and the murder victims are very different sorts of characters. But look closely and you’ll see these stories have more in common than you might think. Both involve penetrating a closed community; in one case it’s a compound owned by a fundamentalist sect, and in the other a group of scientists working on a top-secret project. And in each instance, the original murder – the reason the sleuths look into things – hides a much deeper, uglier truth.

There are many more examples of crime novels that tell similar ‘core stories,’ even though they are quite different. And if you think about it, that’s logical, considering that there are only so many credible reasons for murder, and only so many believable kinds of plots. What’s your view on this? Have you ever had that sense of déjà vu as you see that two quite dissimilar novels actually have a lot in common?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. And speaking of inspiration, may I suggest your next blog stop by Clothes in Books. It’s a rich resources of fine book reviews and informative discussion of clothes, popular culture, and what it all tells us about ourselves. I learn every time I visit.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joe Walsh’s Over and Over.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Betty Webb, Caroline Graham, Charlotte Jay, James Lee Burke, Megan Abbott, Ngaio Marsh, Timothy Hallinan, Walter Mosley, William Ryan