Category Archives: Catherine O’Flynn

Pushing the Town Away*

Ordinary TownsMany crime fiction fans will tell you that a sense of place is important in a story. Some themes and larger issues may be universal, but most of us want to also see something distinctive in a story that speaks of a particular place or region. And that’s straightforward (if not easy!) in a place that’s got something to sell, if I may put it that way. For instance, some places are tourist destinations. Others are exotic to most readers. A place may have breathtaking scenery or be the kind of faded, dusty small town where you can just imagine nasty things happening. And that can add to the suspense.

It can take some creativity to make a setting interesting if it isn’t a major capital, a physically lovely setting, or a deliciously creepy one (I’m looking at you, Jamaica Inn!). But there are authors who make it work. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal), Hercule Poirot investigates two deaths. One of them is the sudden death of wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie. When his family gathers for his funeral, his younger sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that her brother was murdered. Everyone hushes her up, and she herself tells the others to pay no attention to what she’s said. But privately, people do wonder whether she might be right. And when she becomes the second death the next day, everyone is certain she was. The family lawyer Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and together, they look into the matter. One of the ‘people of interest’ in this case is Abernethie’s brother Timothy, who was very unhappy with the terms of his brother’s will. So Entwhistle pays him a visit in the Yorkshire town where he lives. It’s not an eerie sort of place, but it’s certainly not a ‘delightful English village’ either. World War II has left its mark on the economy, so the place isn’t exactly prospering. Yet, it’s also not a ‘ghost town.’ And it’s very interesting to see how Christie gives readers a sense of the place.

K.C. Constantine’s Mario Balzic series takes place in the small Western Pennsylvania mining town of Rocksburg. Balzic is the chief of police there, and as the series evolves, we get to know what the town of Rocksburg is like. It’s a working-class sort of place, and not particularly pretentious. It’s been hit by the economy and by the slow change over time from mining to service and other industries. But it’s not eerie or dilapidated. It’s got schools, churches, banks and so on – in short, a normal sort of town, if you can say that any town is normal. There is lovely mountain scenery in that part of Pennsylvania – trust me – but Constantine doesn’t focus on it as a rule. Rather, the town comes alive through the ways in which Constantine depicts the people who live there. We get a strong sense of place not because Rocksburg is a tourist destination, or because it’s in view of a particular geographic landmark. We get that sense of place from the day-to-living that happens there.

In Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, we meet ten-year-old Kate Meaney. Her dream is to become a detective, and she’s already started her own company, Falcon Investigations. She’s targeted the new local mall, Green Oaks Shopping Center, as a place where crime is likely to occur, so she spends a lot of time there. Kate lives in a rather dispirited Midlands town, but she actually finds it quite interesting. She’s content with her detection company, too. But her grandmother Ivy believes the girl would be better off away at school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams for the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate doesn’t want to go, but is finally persuaded by her friend Adrian Palmer. She and Palmer take the bus to the school, but only Palmer comes back. A massive search is undertaken for Kate, but she is never found. Years later, Palmer’s sister Lisa is working one of the stores in the mall. One night, she has an unexpected encounter with Kurt, a security guard at the mall. They strike up an awkward kind of friendship, and, each in a different way, they go back to the past and we find out what really happened to Kate. The town where the novel takes place is hardly a tourist destination. It’s an everyday town with everyday people. O’Flynn depicts it as lackluster, but not really desperately poor or creepy. And it’s just that ‘blah’ sort of dreariness that sets off Kate’s incandescent personality.

Several of Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren novels take place in Maardam, a fictional Northern European city. It’s never said so, but a lot of people think of it as a Swedish town. Like other cities in that part of the world, Maardam has long, cold winters and shorter summers. But it’s not really remarkable. It doesn’t have the rugged natural beauty that you find in the far north of Sweden and Norway. It’s not an exciting tourist stop. And there isn’t a major ‘draw,’ such as a famous university. The town isn’t crumbling, but at the same time, it’s not a wealthy place, either. In short, it’s a rather unremarkable place. Yet Neser makes the place real through the interactions among the characters. These novels gain their sense of setting from the lifestyles of the people in the stories more than from Maardam itself, if I may put it that way.

And then there’s Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks. Fourteen-year-old Adam Vander has finally worked up the courage to leave his abusive father, Joe. He knows that staying where he isn’t an option. But he’s been kept so locked away that he doesn’t really know how to function in the larger world. As he’s leaving the house, he meets Billy Benson, who’s stopped by. Billy takes Adam under his wing, as the saying goes, and the two leave together. As the next week goes by, they learn a great deal about each other, and we learn some uncomfortable truths about both of them. We also learn how each is connected to the disappearance ten years earlier of a boy named Nathan Fisher. The week also brings Adam and Billy plenty of danger as they get mixed up in real trouble. The novel is distinctly Australian. But the town itself, in suburban New South Wales, isn’t exotic or famous. It’s neither run-down nor glittering with wealth. It’s got the sort of places you’d expect, with nothing really extra-special. And that rather ordinary sort of setting shows how the sorts of things that happen in the novel could happen in any ‘regular’ town. And that makes them all the more psychologically powerful.

Setting really does matter in a novel. But the setting doesn’t have to be a famous place, or a wealthy one. It doesn’t have to be an especially creepy place, either. The key is in the way the author uses the setting.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dream Academy’s Life in a Northern Town.



Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Håkan Nesser, Honey Brown, K.C. Constantine

This is the End*

Books with Great EndingsNot long ago, Moira at Clothes in Books did a terrific post on crime books that she felt had the best endings. And that got me to thinking about which crime novel endings I’ve liked best. It’s actually not easy to write a good ending to a book. On the one hand, most readers want an ending that falls out logically from the story. ‘Out of the blue’ endings, or endings that are too far-fetched, are annoying. And readers want a sense that the important plot points (in the case of crime fiction, that’s usually the solution to the mystery) have been resolved.

On the other hand, an ending that is too ‘pat,’ where everything is tied up in a neat little ‘package,’ is annoying as well, and isn’t realistic. Life is usually messier than that. And an ending that’s too anticlimactic leaves the reader wondering, ‘Is this all there is?’

Nonetheless, there are some crime novels that have very powerful, memorable endings. They stay with the reader, and they encourage the reader to think about the book long after it’s finished. Of course, your idea of what sort of ending falls into that category is going to differ from mine. But, keeping in mind that this is just my opinion, here, in roughly chronological order of publication, are…


Margot’s Choices For Crime Novels With the Best Endings


The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie

In this story, Hercule Poirot is asked to solve the murder of retired magnate Roger Ackroyd, who’s been found stabbed in his study. In some ways, the novel is reflective of the Golden Age style. There’s a wealthy dead man, several likely suspects in the household, the ne’er-do-well most likely suspect whom the police have targeted, the young lovers, and so on. It’s clear that Christie had mastered the art of the Golden Age whodunit. But then she turned it on its head and broke the rules with this novel. It’s got one of the most famous dénouements in crime-fictional history.


Presumed Innocent – Scott Turow

This novel introduces Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich, who at this point is a Kindle County prosecuting attorney. When one of his colleagues, Carolyn Polhemus, is murdered, Sabich is assigned to the case. His boss has made it clear that that case must be handled both delicately and openly, with no hint of cover-up. Sabich gets started on the investigation, but there’s something he hasn’t told his boss: up until a few months before her death, he was involved with the victim. When that fact comes out, Sabich is removed from the case and replaced by a rival. That’s only the beginning of his trouble, though. Soon, evidence is found that suggests Sabich is the killer. In fact, the evidence is so compelling that he is arrested for the crime. Now on the other side of the table, so to speak, Sabich asks his friend and colleague Alejandro ‘Sandy’ Stern to defend him, and Stern agrees. This ending is particularly powerful for me because not only does Turow provide a strong ending to the court case, but also, the truth about Carolyn Polhemus’ death is, in my opinion, brilliantly done.


Gone, Baby, Gone – Dennis Lehane

If you’ve read this novel, then you’ll probably already guess why I chose it. For those not familiar with the story, the real action in it begins when Dorchester, Massachusetts PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro get a visit from Lionel McCready and his wife Beatrice. They want Kenzie and Gennaro to investigate the heartbreaking disappearance of their four-year-old niece Amanda. Both PIs are familiar with the case, as the media has made much of it. After all, it’s a missing child. And that publicity is part of why Kenzie and Gennaro are reluctant to take the case at first. They don’t see what they can do that dozens of police and all sorts of media outlets can’t do. But Beatrice McCready is insistent and determined, so the PIs agree to at least speak to Amanda’s mother Helene. Before they know it, they’re drawn into a gut-wrenching case of a missing child, and are faced with several difficult choices as they investigate. The ending to this story is, for me, one of the more powerful endings in crime fiction. It raises some important and fascinating topics for debate and discussion, and is surprising without being so completely impossible that it’s not credible. I can’t say more without spoiling it, but if you’ve read it…you know what I mean.


What Was Lost – Catherine O’Flynn

This novel begins in 1984, when ten-year-old Kate Meaney is a fledgling detective. In fact, she’s even started her own detective agency, Falcon Investigations. She doesn’t have much of a life otherwise; she lives in a rather grim English Midlands town with an ageing High Street and more struggling families than people of means. But she is content planning and operating her new company. She spends a lot of time at the newly-constructed Green Oaks Shopping Center, where she is sure she’ll find plenty of crime to investigate. Everything changes when her grandmother Ivy decides that Kate should go away to school. Kate refuses, but Ivy is convinced she’ll have a better chance for a ‘real’ life if she goes. Finally, Kate’s friend, twenty-two-year-old Adrian Palmer, agrees to go with her to the exclusive Redspoon School to sit the entrance exams. Only Adrian returns, and then the alarm is given, there’s a massive search. But no trace of Kate is found – not even a body. Everyone thinks Adrian is responsible, although he flatly denies it. In fact, he is harassed so badly that he leaves town, vowing not to return. Twenty years later, his sister Lisa is Assistant Manager at Your Music, one of the stores at Green Oaks. One night, she meets Kurt, one of the mall security guards. Kurt’s been seeing some strange things on his CCTV cameras lately: a young girl who looks a lot like Kate. Each in a different way, Kurt and Lisa go back to the past, if you will, and we learn what really happened to Kate Meaney. The answer to that question, and the way it has impacted everyone, makes the ending to this book one of the more emotionally powerful endings I’ve read.


Confessions – Kanae Minato

This novel, which shows the ugly side of middle school, begins as Yūko Moriguchi addresses her class. It’s her last day at the school, and she has a powerful message for her students. Her four-year-old daughter Manami died not long ago, and she is convinced that it wasn’t the accident the police thought it was. In fact, she knows Manami was murdered, and she knows by whom: two of her students. What’s more, she knows exactly which students are responsible, and she makes that clear in her speech. Then, she duly resigns. She’s not convinced that the justice system will mete out an appropriate punishment, because the killers are juveniles. So she’s made her own plans. Still, a new teacher is assigned to the class, and life seems to go on. But it’s soon clear that things are not at all ‘normal.’ Before long, life begins to spin out of control for three students in particular. As matters get worse, we see exactly what Yūko Moriguchi planned to do, and we learn the truth about Manami’s death. The tension that’s built in this novel comes to a head at the end, and as the final pieces fall into place, Minato provides a powerful dénouement that raises questions and invites debate.


Traces of Red – Paddy Richardson

Connor Bligh has been incarcerated for several years in Rimutaka Prison for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan, and their son Sam. Only their daughter Katy survived, and that was because she wasn’t home at the time of the tragedy. Now there are new little pieces of evidence that suggest that Bligh may not be guilty. When Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne hears of this, she thinks that the Bligh story may be just the story she needs to ensure her place at the top of New Zealand television journalism. So she decides to investigate the case more deeply. In the process, she finds herself more deeply and dangerously drawn in, and closer to the case, than she ought to be. The end of this novel is particularly memorable to me because it shows not just the truth about who killed the Dickson family, but also what the consequences are of the choices that journalists make. And Richardson does so in a way that is unexpected, but still credible. It’s a very powerful ending, for my money.


Other Books With Great Endings

Exit Music – Ian Rankin – A terrific end-of-book scene regarding a story arc.

The Half Child – Angela Savage – OK, not as much related to the mystery at hand, but one of the most lovely scenes between two characters that I’ve read. It’s just…great.

Lord Edgware Dies – Agatha Christie – One of the most telling, and unsettling, final lines from a killer:  Do you think they will put me in Madame Tussaud’s? Love it!

What about you? Which crime books have the best endings you’ve ever read?  Now, do please visit Moira’s excellent blog, and check out her fine choices.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doors’ The End.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Catherine O'Flynn, Dennis Lehane, Kanae Minato, Paddy Richardson, Scott Turow

Everyday Things*

Everyday ThingsOne of my very top crime novels** begins this way:

‘Crime was out there.’

That line makes sense, when you think about it, especially when it comes to crime fiction. Sometimes doing the most ordinary things can get a person involved in a fictional murder. One of the first things that comes to mind is, of course, the stereotype jogger or dog-walker who discovers a body. I won’t mention those examples in this post, because they’re just too easy. Besides, there are a lot of other ordinary, everyday things people do that can get them involved in a crime, whether they want to be or not.

What could be more ordinary than looking out a window when you’re on a train? People do it all the time. But it has a sinister outcome in Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!). Elspeth McGillicuddy takes a train to visit her friend Miss Marple. During the trip, another train on a parallel track catches up to and then passes the train. Mrs. McGillicuddy happens to look out the window into the windows of the other train – a very ordinary, even mundane thing to do. But this time, she sees a man strangling a woman. Almost everyone thinks that Mrs. McGillicuddy simply drifted off to sleep and dreamt the whole thing. But Miss Marple knows her friend isn’t fanciful. She does some of her own research and determines that the body was probably pushed off the train and likely landed on the grounds of Rutherford Hall. Knowing she herself doesn’t have an ‘in’ there, she gets a friend of hers, professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow, to take a position at Rutherford Hall. Sure enough, a woman’s body turns up. With Lucy’s help, Miss Marple figures out who the dead woman was, why she was killed and by whom. And all of this comes from one glance out of a window.

Looking out of a window gets Maura Cody involved in a dangerous case in Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage. Cody is a former Roman Catholic nun who’s left the convent and started again on her own. She lives a very quiet life, and certainly doesn’t look to call a lot of attention to herself. She’s not really the ‘curtain-twitching’ type, either. But when she does happen to look out of her window, she sees something that puts her in a great deal of danger. So Dublin DS Bob Tidey and Detective Garda Rose Cheney have to try to keep her safe as they look for the murderers of banker Emmet Sweetman. As it turns out, Cody is in even more danger than anyone thought. Vincent Naylor and a group that included his brother Noel planned and carried out what was supposed to be the perfect heist. It went tragically wrong, and now Naylor wants revenge. When he suspects that Cody might have seen something, he decides to get rid of his problem.

If you’re a teacher, very little is more ordinary than planning a trip with your class, especially to a local place. But in Stuart Palmer’s The Penguin Pool Murder, a class trip turns out to be anything but mundane for fourth-grade teacher Hildegarde Withers. She and her students have spent the morning visiting the New York Aquarium, and are gathering to leave. But one of the students notices that Miss Withers’ hatpin is missing. It’s finally found at the bottom of a flight of steps. But then, Miss Withers discovers that one of her students is not with the rest of the group. A search leads to the penguin pool, where the child is found watching the animals. Just then, a man’s body slides into the pool. That’s how Miss Withers gets involved in what turns out to be a case of murder.

Getting on a bus is another everyday sort of thing people do. How often have you ridden a bus without even thinking about it? But it’s not so ordinary in Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second. One day, Emma Curtis is taking a bus home from work, as she always does. It’s another regular day for her. Also on the bus is Luke Murray. At one stop, a group of young people get on the bus and begin to bully Murray. Finally, fellow rider Jason Barnes intervenes, telling the group to leave Murray alone. For a time, things quiet down. Murray gets off the bus. So do the young people who’ve been harassing him. So does Barnes. The fight starts up again and in fact escalates. It continues all the way to Barnes’ front yard, where he is fatally stabbed. Emma now finds herself involved in what has turned out to be a case of murder, and all because she took a certain bus on a certain day.

Kate Atkinson makes use of this strategy in One Good Turn. A group of people that includes mystery writer Martin Canning is waiting to purchase tickets for an afternoon comic radio show. It’s the most ordinary thing, if you think about it – waiting to buy tickets. But it’s hardly mundane this time. As the group watches, a silver Peugeot driven by Paul Bradley is hit by a Blue Toyota. Both drivers get out of their cars and start arguing. The argument gets worse; finally, the Toyota driver brandishes a baseball bat and starts to attack Bradley. Almost instinctually, Canning, who’s never done a truly brave thing in his life, hurls his computer case at the Toyota driver, stopping him and saving Bradley’s life. Canning feels a responsibility to make sure that Bradley gets the medical help he needs, so he goes with the man to a local hospital. Before he knows it, he’s drawn into a case of fraud and multiple murder. And it all started with a simple, everyday wait for tickets.

In Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, involvement in a murder case begins with a simple trip to a dumpster. Academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn gets an early-morning call from her daughter Mieka, who’s just opened a catering business. Mieka was taking some trash to the dumpster when she discovered the body of seventeen-year-old Bernice Morin. Bernice was one of Mieka’s employees, so she feels a particular sense of responsibility. At first, the murder looks like one of a series of killings that the police have dubbed ‘the Little Flower Murders.’ But as Kilbourn and her daughter ask questions, it turns out that this murder is different…

So do be careful if you wash dishes, walk the dog, look out a bus or train window, or wait for tickets at the cinema. You never know where it all might lead…



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by David Usher.

** Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. If you haven’t read it yet, I heartily recommend it.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Cath Staincliffe, Catherine O'Flynn, Gail Bowen, Gene Kerrigan, Kate Atkinson, Stuart Palmer

I May Be Crazy*

Self DoubtMost of us would like to think we can trust our own thinking. No-one’s perfect of course, but we like to think we can make sense of what we see and hear and so on. So it’s frightening to think that we can’t believe what we think is true – that we can’t trust our own mental processes. That feeling of ‘I’m not crazy – am I?’ is woven into a lot of crime fiction, and can make for a suspenseful plot thread or character layer.

Agatha Christie uses it in some of her work. For instance, in Sleeping Murder, Giles and Gwenda Reed are newlyweds looking for their first home. Gwenda is particularly drawn to a house in Dilmouth, and she and Giles make the purchase arrangement. Soon though, Gwenda begins to have some strange experiences. She has an odd sense of déjà vu about the place, although she doesn’t really remember being there before. To make matters worse, she sees images of a dead woman lying in the hall. Worried that she might be having some sort of mental breakdown, Gwenda takes some time away and visits her cousin Raymond West and his wife. Christie fans will know that West’s Aunt Jane (Marple) takes a great interest in human nature, and is sympathetic towards Gwenda. One night, they go to the theatre, where Gwenda has a bizarre reaction to one scene. Miss Marple is soon convinced that something really is going on in the house at Dilmouth, and that Gwenda isn’t crazy. So she begins to investigate. In the end, she finds that the house holds an important secret from the past. Christie fans will also know that Miss Marple is sure that her friend Elspeth McGillicuddy isn’t crazy when she thinks she sees a murder being committed in4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!). And there’s a Christie story in which a character is manipulated by a killer into taking responsibility for murder. No spoilers – those who’ve read it will know which story I mean…

In Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes, New York Homicide Bureau Detective Tom Shawn is taking a late-night walk when he meets a young woman who’s about to jump off a bridge. He convinces her to not to follow through, and takes her to an all-night diner where she tells him her story. She is Jean Reid, only child of wealthy Harlan Reid. Until recently, she’s had a good life. But everything changed when her father took a business trip to San Francisco. When a housemaid warned of a fatal plane crash, Jane almost sent a telegram to her father to take another flight back. At the last minute, she didn’t do so; yet, her father did receive a telegram and changed his plans. When he returned safely, the two of them decided to find out how the housemaid knew about the crash. The trail leads to a man named Jeremiah Tompkins, who sees himself as cursed with being able to predict the future. Harlan Reid began to visit Tompkins and made use of what he learned to make an even bigger success of himself in business. Then, Tompkins predicted the other man’s death. Now convinced he will die on a certain night at midnight, Reid has lost hope and become a shadow of his former self. With this background, Shawn decides to help Jean, and gets involved in the business. He finds that this case has a lot to do with people’s states of mind and with not trusting one’s own thinking.

So does Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder. Howard Van Horn has been having a series of troubling blackouts lately. One day he wakes up from one of them to discover he’s got blood on himself and his clothes. Convinced that he’s done something horrible, he visits his former college friend Ellery Queen and asks his advice. Queen agrees to look into the case. The trail leads to the small town of Wrightsville, where Van Horn’s father Dietrich lives with his second wife Sally. During the visit, Howard has another blackout; this time, Sally is found murdered. Howard doesn’t remember the murder, but finds it hard not to believe the evidence against him. Queen, however, is less sure. Throughout the novel, we see the growing fear as Howard increasingly doubts his own sanity.

Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances introduces readers to academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn. When her good friend Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk dies of what turns out to be poison, Kilbourn is devastated. As a way of dealing with her grief, she decides to write a biography of Boychuk. As she gets material for the book, Kilbourn also gets closer to the truth about the murder. In the meantime, she begins to suffer from an odd illness. At first, it doesn’t seem like much. Then, the symptoms get strange and more severe. For a time, Kilbourn isn’t sure exactly what to believe about it, and there’s a real sense of her anxiety as she tries to puzzle out whether she’s imagining things or is really ill (and if so, what the problem is). It’s an interesting look at what it’s like to be sure that something is wrong and at the same time, wonder if it’s ‘all in the head.’

In Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, we meet Kurt, a security guard at Green Oaks Shopping Center. Part of his job involves monitoring the mall’s security cameras. During one session, he sees a young girl with a backpack. The mall’s closed, so he gets concerned that she may be lost or abandoned. The image isn’t clear, but he looks into the matter. That’s when things get strange. He can’t find the girl, although he sees her during more than one of his shifts. One night, he happens to meet with Lisa Palmer, who works at Your Music, one of the stores in the mall. They strike up an awkward friendship and Kurt tells her what he’s seen. Each in a different way, they try to find out what it all means. To do so, they have to look twenty years into the past, and to the disappearance of ten-year-old Kate Meaney.

And then there’s Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip. Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone is a marine biologist (at least in name), who’s been hired by agribusiness tycoon Samuel Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut. Perrone’s developed a way to make water tests come out with ‘clean’ results; and that’s just what Hammernut needs to ensure that the mandatory water samples taken near his company’s Everglades property won’t get him into trouble. When Perrone’s wife Joey begins to suspect what’s going on, he decides to solve the problem by pushing her overboard during a cruise. What he doesn’t know is that she survives and is rescued by former cop Mick Stranahan. Determined to find out why her husband wanted her dead, Joey works out a plan of revenge. First, she begins to play ‘mind games’ with him. For instance, she turns on the sprinkler system in the house when he’s not home. Then, Stranahan pretends to be a blackmailer who saw what Perrone did. Together, they make a nervous wreck of Perrone. He becomes increasingly unstable, which doesn’t exactly endear him either to Hammernut or to Broward County, Florida police detective Karl Rolvaag, who’s always suspected him…

There are other stories, too, in which one of the plot threads revolves around questioning one’s own thinking. It can be very scary, so it’s little wonder that it’s an effective suspense-building tool. These are a few examples. Your turn.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s You May be Right.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Carl Hiaasen, Catherine O'Flynn, Cornell Woolrich, Ellery Queen, Gail Bowen

He Sees Angels in the Architecture*

ArchitectureFor an author, it’s sometimes a challenge to decide how much detail to give the reader. On the one hand, painting a verbal picture can place the reader in a particular setting or context, and that can invite the reader to engage in the story. On the other, too much detail can slow a story down, and many readers will tell you they just skip over that information and move on to ‘the good stuff.’

Architecture is one example of the kind of detail that can add to a story or really detract from it depending on how it’s handled. And there really is a lot of architecture in crime fiction. That makes sense, if you think about it. For one thing, architecture can add context and even character development to a story. For another, architecture can play a role in mysteries, too.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Helen Stoner. She’s very much worried that her life may be in danger, and she wants Holmes’ help. Here is the story she tells. She and her sister Julia lived at the family home Stoke Moran with their stepfather Dr. Roylott. Julia began to hear strange noises at night, and started to be afraid. Then one night, she suddenly died after saying something about a speckled band. Shortly after that, Roylott insisted that Helen move her things into Julia’s room and use it as her own. Now, Helen is hearing the same strange noises that her sister heard right before her death. Holmes takes his client’s case seriously and he and Dr. Watson travel to Stoke Moran. There they discover that the danger to Helen is very real. As Holmes works out the truth, we learn how important architecture is in this story. Conan Doyle fans will know that architecture plays a role in other stories too (I know, I know, fans of The Red-Headed League).

Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly takes place at Nasse House, the property of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. Detective novelist Ariadne Oliver is visiting Nasse House to plan a Murder Hunt as one attraction for the upcoming annual fête to be held there. On the surface it seems that she’s simply been commissioned to plan clues, ‘red herrings,’ a ‘victim’ and so on. But she suspects there’s something more going on. So she asks her friend Hercule Poirot to investigate, and he travels to Nasse House to look into the matter. On the day of the big event, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who was chosen to play the part of the victim, is actually killed. Now Poirot works with Inspector Bland and P.C. Hoskins to find out who the murderer is. One of the ‘interested parties’ is an architect Michael Weymouth, who’s on hand to build a small ornamental building – a folly – on the property. Weymouth’s profession is not the reason for the murder, but he has some interesting things to say about wealthy clients who don’t have any architectural knowledge or taste. And as it turns out, architecture does play a role in the story. Like Conan Doyle, Christie used architecture in more than one of her stories actually (I know, I know, fans of Three Act Tragedy).

Architecture plays a pivotal role in the plans of Mike Daniels, a professional thief whom we meet in Robert Pollock’s Loophole: Or, How to Rob a Bank. He and his team mates have decided to try to pull off a major heist: the robbery of the City Savings Deposit Bank. But as you might expect, the bank boasts the latest in security, so it’s not going to be easy to get the job done. One night Daniels meets a man he think can help the group. He takes a ride in a cab that’s driven by out-of-work architect Stephen Booker and the two strike up a conversation. Over time, Daniels takes more rides in Booker’s cab and they begin to get to know one another. Finally Daniels feels comfortable enough to invite Booker to lend his skills to the group in exchange for a share of the loot. At first, Booker’s reluctant; after all, Daniels and his team are thieves and what they want to do is, of course, both illegal and dangerous. But he’s getting desperate for money, so he agrees. With Booker’s skills, the team plans the tunneling and other preparations they’ll need. Finally, the day of the robbery arrives, and everything looks to be going well. Then, a sudden and unexpected storm blows up that changes everything.

In Johan Theorin’s The Darkest Room, we are introduced to Joakim and Katrine Westin. They’ve moved to a run-down manor house near Eel Point on Öland, with the goal of getting away from big-city life. They tell themselves and everyone else that they want to raise their children in a healthier environment, and are looking forward to the less-frenetic pace of life on the island. One of their major tasks will be to renovate their home. That project becomes a the subject of a feature in a local news magazine, and a reporter visits the Westin home to get ‘photos and background for the story:


Katrine and the reporter followed him [Joakim] up the crooked wooden staircase to an upstairs corridor. It was gloomy up here despite the fact that there was a row of windows facing the sea, but the panes were covered with pieces of chipboard that let in only narrow strips of daylight.’


When tragedy strikes the family, police officer Tilda Davidsson investigates, and we learn that this particular house has a dark history.

Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are sheds an interesting light on architecture. Television presenter Frank Allcroft has reached a sort of crossroads in his life. He’s got a happy marriage and a good relationship with his eight-year-old daughter Mo. But he’s trying to search out the direction his life should take. He’s also devastated by the death of his predecessor, friend and mentor Phil Smedway. Smedway was jogging one day when he was hit by a car. It’s been regarded as a tragic accident, but Allcroft is drawn to the scene of the accident as he works through his grief. He notices that the road there is straight and wide, so it would have been easy for even a tired or drunk motorist to see Smedway. What’s more, the road was dry at the time of Smedway’s death. So Allcroft starts to ask some questions. Along with this search for the truth about his friend’s death, he’s also dealing with the loss of his architect father, and his complicated relationship with his mother. Allcroft’s father was passionate about his work, and although he was distant from his family, he created some imaginative and forward-thinking plans. So Allcroft has been working very hard to preserve the last of the buildings his father designed. Here’s Mo’s observation about it when the preservation approval comes through:


‘I think in four hundred years, people will be coming here for day trips. They’ll have question sheets to fill in about the name of the man who built it and the shape of the windows like we had to do at Aston Hall…I bet loads of them will look at the building and say, ‘Wow! What a great building. I wonder if he had any grandchildren.’ And they’ll try to imagine me, but they won’t be able to because I’ll be so long ago and mysterious.’


Architecture really can take on a life of its own, so to speak.

There isn’t space to mention all of the ‘impossible-but-not-really’ mysteries that rely on details of architecture. Nor is there space to mention authors such as P.D. James, who integrate a powerful sense of architecture into their novels. You’ll be better able than I anyway to fill in those gaps. Which architectural stories have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Catherine O'Flynn, Johan Theorin, P.D. James, Robert Pollock