Category Archives: Cathy Ace

I Thank the Lord I’m Welsh*

Wales is a beautiful country with a unique language, culture, and history. And, in the last few decades, there’s been a concerted effort to maintain that culture and teach that language. As you’ll know if you’ve lived there, or even been there, it’s a bilingual country (it’s been officially so since 1998).

But, if you read crime fiction, you’ll soon see that Wales isn’t exactly a peaceful, crime-free place. And it’s interesting to see how the country and its people are portrayed in the genre. Space doesn’t permit more than a quick peek at a few examples; I’m sure you’ll be able to add others.

One of Rhys Bowen’s series takes place mostly in the fictional Welsh town of Llanfair, in Snowdonia. These novels (there are ten) feature Constable Evan Evans, who was originally from Llanfair, but moved to Swansea as a child. When he gets fed up with life in the city, he decides to move ‘back home,’ where he’s now sometimes known as ‘Evans the Law,’ to distinguish him from others with the same surname. He re-acquaints himself with life in the small town in Evans Above, the first novel in the series. But it doesn’t turn out to be nearly as idyllic a life as he had imagined it would. This is a small-town series, but it’s not a ‘frothy,’ light series. Among other things, it shows how social changes such as immigration, culture clash, family structure changes, and so on don’t affect just the larger cities. They even find their way into small villages.

In The Earth Hums in B-Flat, Mari Strachan introduces readers to twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan. She lives in a small Welsh village in the 1950s, and is just on the cusp of coming of age. Gwenni’s a creative thinker; some people call her a dreamer. She’s certainly not obsessed with clothes, boys, or an active social life. Everything in Gwenni’s life changes when one of the town’s residents, Ifan Evans, goes missing, and is later found dead. For various reasons, Gwenni wants to find out the truth about his death, so she starts to ask questions. As she searches out the truth, she also makes some life-changing discoveries about her own family. Strachan’s second novel, Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers, also takes place in a small Welsh town, just after World War I.

Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels has two timelines. One begins in 1962, in an isolated Welsh village, and is the story of four children: Lawrence ‘Fatty’ Bevan; Elizabeth ‘Iffy’ Meredith; Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Tranter; and William ‘Billy’ Edwards. These children don’t have much in common, but there aren’t a lot of other children in town. So, they spend their share of time together. During one eventful summer, they slowly begin to learn some of the town’s secrets, including some things that several people would much rather no-one find out. The other timeline begins some forty years later, when retired detective Will Sloane decides to return to his native Wales. He knows he doesn’t have a lot longer to live, and he wants to spend his last days in his own country. More than that, he finds a clue that’s related to mystery he was never able to solve. A child went missing, and was never found. Sloane was on the team that investigated, and everyone made efforts to find the child, but they had no success. Now, with this new clue, Sloane is hoping he can finally get some answers. As the children’s story moves forward, and Sloane’s backwards, we slowly learn how these children are connected to the secrets people are keeping. We also learn how all of that is related to Sloane’s investigation.

There’s also Cathy Ace’s WISE Enquiry Agency series. This series, in the traditional whodunit style, features four women (one Welsh, one Irish, one Scottish, and one English) who set up an investigation agency. The stories mostly take place in the Welsh town of Anwen by Wye.

One of Elizabeth J. Duncan’s series features Penny Brannigan, who emigrated from Nova Scotia to the small Welsh town of Llanelen, where she lives now. She’s the owner of the Happy Hands Nail Care shop, and as such, gets to hear a lot of what’s going on in town. And, because it’s the sort of place where everyone knows everyone, she knows most of the town’s residents. This is a lighter, cosy, series, but it’s not ‘frothy.’

Just in case you were wondering whether all Welsh crime fiction takes place in small towns and villages, think again. Stephen Puleston, for instance, has two crime fiction series. One of them features Inspector Ian Drake, and takes place in North Wales. The other is set in Cardiff. This series features DI John Marco of the Queen Street Police. These novels are sometimes-gritty, fast-paced thrillers, rather than the more traditional-style whodunits.

And I couldn’t do a post about crime fiction set in Wales without mentioning Hinterland (AKA Y Gwyll). This noir television drama takes place in Aberystwyth, and stars Richard Harrington as DI Tom Matthias. One of the interesting things about this particular show is that it’s actually filmed twice: once in English, and once in Welsh. And even in the English version, there are occasional (subtitled) Welsh words and comments.

There are, of course, lots of other mentions of Wales and of Welsh characters in crime fiction. For instance, Ellis Peters’ most famous sleuth, Brother Cadfael, is Welsh. In fact, his Welsh identity plays a role in more than one of the novels in this series. And Cathy Ace’s other sleuth, Caitlin ‘Cait’ Morgan is also Welsh, although she now lives in Canada.

Wales may not be a large country. But it’s got a rich, long history, and a language and culture of which its people are proud. And it certainly features in crime fiction. Which crime novels set in Wales have you enjoyed?

ps. Thank you, wales.com, for the lovely ‘photo!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Catatonia’s International Velvet.

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Filed under Babs Horton, Cathy Ace, Elizabeth J. Duncan, Ellis Peters, Mari Strachan, Rhys Bowen, Stephen Puleston

So Hoist Up the John B. Sails*

voyagesOne of literature’s very interesting plots is what Christopher Booker has called the voyage and return. Booker’s work has its critics, but it is interesting to see how journeys (whether figurative or literal) can change people. We certainly see this sort of structure in crime fiction, and that makes sense when you consider all of the things that can happen on a voyage, no matter how you conceive of that term.

For example, there’s quite a literal voyage and return in Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train. After ten years of service as a paid companion, Katherine Grey inherits a fortune when her employer dies. She decides to use some of the money to travel, and chooses Nice as her destination (she has distant relatives who live there). As she’s taking the famous Blue Train through France, she meets wealthy Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, who has her own reasons for taking the train. During the trip, Ruth is murdered, and Katherine is drawn in to the case. Hercule Poirot is taking the same train, and he works with the police to find out who killed the victim and why. Katherine returns to her village of St. Mary Mead, and takes up another position, but she’s not the same person as when she left. As Poirot points out, she’s no longer an onlooker to life; she takes an active part in it.

Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time features fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone. He has autism, although he’s high-functioning, and is quite accustomed to a certain routine in his life. One day, he discovers that the dog belonging to the people next door is dead. Its owners think he’s responsible, but Christopher knows he isn’t. So, he decides to be a detective, just like Sherlock Holmes, and find out the truth. The trail leads him to several unexpected places, and when he returns, he’s not the same person he was. He still has autism, but he has discovered several important things about himself.

H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote’s First Case serves as a prequel to his series featuring Mumbai police detective Ganesh Ghote. In this novel, Ghote has just been promoted to the rank of Inspector. His supervisor asks him to travel to Mahableshwar and look into a case of suicide on behalf of a friend. It seems Robert Dawkins’ wife Iris killed herself, and he (Dawkins) wants to know why. Since Dawkins is a friend of Ghote’s boss, Ghote feels he has no choice but to look into the matter, although his wife, Protima, is about to give birth to their first child. So, he goes to Mahableshwar and begins to ask questions. He finds that there are reasons for which Iris Dawkins might have wanted to take her own life. Still, the clues don’t add up, and Ghote slowly begins to believe that she was murdered. Now, he has to work out who is responsible. He discovers the truth, and gains some confidence in himself along the way. When he returns to Mumbai, we see that he’s done some maturing, and has a different relationship with his boss than he did at the beginning.

Cathy Ace’s The Corpse With the Silver Tongue is the first of her novels to feature Caitlin ‘Cait’ Morgan. In that novel, Morgan travels from Vancouver, where she teaches at the university, to Nice. There, she’ll attend a symposium and deliver a paper on behalf of a colleague who’s had an accident and can’t travel. One afternoon, she’s at an outdoor café when she has a chance encounter with Alistair Townsend, a former employer. Among other things, he persuades her (mostly against her will) to attend a birthday party he’s hosting for his wife, Tamsin. During the course of the party, Townsend suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. The French police investigate, and Morgan finds herself one of the suspects. Mostly to clear her own name and be free to return to Vancouver, Morgan begins to ask questions. Each in a different way, Morgan and the police work to find out who killed Townsend, and they have several suspects. In the end, Morgan discovers the truth and goes back to Vancouver. But she’s not the same person she was at the beginning of the novel. And we see that this experience will change her life in more ways than she thought.

Sandy Curtis’ Deadly Tide is the story of Samantha ‘Sam’ Bretton. Her father Allan ‘Tug’ is the owner of a Brisbane-based fishing trawler called Sea Mistress, and the Brettons depend on the income that comes from good catches. Tug is suspected of murdering Ewan McKay, a deckhand from another trawler. He claims he’s not guilty and Sam believes him. But he’s under a cloud of suspicion. What’s more, he broke his leg in the incident surrounding McKay’s death. So, he can’t take Sea Mistress out. After some effort, Sam convinces her father to let her skipper the trawler in his place. Meanwhile, Brisbane cop Chayse Jarrett has been assigned to find out the truth about the McKay murder. He goes undercover and gets a job as deck hand on Sea Mistress, hoping to find out whether Tug Bretton is guilty of murder, and whether he might be connected to the drugs smuggling trade. The trawler goes out, with both Sam and Chayse looking to catch a killer. And the experience changes both of them. It turns out that McKay’s murder is connected with a much bigger case than it seems on the surface.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind. Newly-minted psychiatrist Stephanie Anderson gets a new client, Elisabeth Clark. At first, they don’t make any progress together. But very slowly, Elisabeth starts to talk about herself. And Stephanie finds that her client’s story is hauntingly similar to her own. It seems that years ago, Elisabeth’s younger sister, Gracie, was abducted. No trace of her was ever found, and the experience scarred the whole family. Stephanie lost her own sister, Gemma, seventeen years earlier in a similar way. When she hears Elisabeth’s story, Stephanie decides to lay her own ghosts to rest. She travels from Dunedin to her home town of Wanaka to try to find out who wreaked so much havoc on her family and on the Clark family. Stephanie does find the answers she’s seeking. She also goes through some real personal changes.

And that’s the thing about some voyages. They can take people to places they hadn’t imagined. And they almost always change the voyager.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the traditional Bahamas folk song, The John B Sails. You might be familiar with the Kingston Trio’s recording of it, or that of the Beach Boys.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Cathy Ace, H.R.F. Keating, Mark Haddon, Paddy Richardson, Sandy Curtis

She Seems to Have an Invisible Touch*

ManipulatingHave you ever asked yourself, ‘How did I get talked into doing this?’ If you have, then you know what it’s like to be under the spell of someone who’s a good manipulator. By that I don’t mean someone who deliberately and maliciously exploits others. Rather, I mean someone who has a way of getting people to do things without threatening, blackmailing, using social status (i.e. ‘Do you know who I am?’) or ‘pulling rank.’

Such people can sometimes be so subtle about it that you’re not even aware you’ve been persuaded…until you’re actually doing something. And they don’t always need to coax or obviously persuade; they just have a way of organizing things the way they want.

There are definitely such people in real life. There are in crime fiction, too, and they can be interesting characters. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we are introduced to Lady Lucy Ankgatell. She and her husband, Sir Henry, invite a group of people to spend a weekend at their country home. Two of the guests are Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife Gerda. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has been invited to lunch, so he arrives just after the murder. At first, he’s not even sure it is a real murder, because the scene looks deliberately set up for his ‘amusement.’ But soon enough he sees that it is all too real. Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find out who the killer is. Throughout the novel, we see Lady Lucy’s way of getting people to do things. For instance, there’s a dinner-table scene in which she persuades one of the guests to engage another in conversation without saying a word. As Sir Henry says to one of the guests,
 

‘‘She gets away with things. She always has…She’s flouted the traditions at Government House – she played merry hell with precedence at dinner parties…She’s put deadly enemies next to each other at the dinner table… I’m damned if she hasn’t got away with it.’’
 

Lady Lucy arranges everything exactly the way she wants without ever being overbearing. I know, I know, fans of The Mystery of the Blue Train.

In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate the disappearance of Andreas Winther. When Andreas’ mother Runi first goes to the police about her son, Sejer doesn’t take the matter overly seriously, since the young man has only been gone for a couple of days. But as time goes on, Sejer begins to believe that something bad might have happened. So he starts to look into the matter. His first stop is Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe, Andreas’ best friend. At first, Zipp says as little as possible to Sejer, for several reasons (and no, lest you make the obvious inference, he didn’t kill Andreas). But slowly, Sejer finds out what has happened to Andreas and why. And as he does, we see how Andreas has been able to manipulate people around him, including Zipp, without bullying, threatening, and so on. He’s been able to get people to do what he wants through his own charisma.

Cathy Ace’s The Corpse With the Silver Tongue begins when academician and criminologist Cait Morgan takes an injured colleague’s place at a conference in Nice. One afternoon, she’s relaxing at a café when an old acquaintance (and former supervisor) Alistair Townsend, happens to pass by. He sees her and, much to her chagrin, invites her to a birthday party he’s having for his wife, Tamsin. She dislikes Townsend, and certainly doesn’t want to go to the party. But she finds herself going all the same. And that’s how she ends up getting involved when he’s poisoned during the event. He doesn’t bully or blackmail her into going; it just never seems to occur to him that she won’t. It’s a sort of power of persuasion, if you think about it.

One of the ‘regulars’ in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is Mma. Silvia Potokwane, who runs a local orphanage. She is deeply devoted to the children in her charge, and goes to great effort to make sure they are well. Part of doing that involves getting other people in the area to help, and she is a master at that. In several story arcs and sub-plots, she arranges for orphanage events, gets people to donate time and money, and more. In fact, in Tears of the Giraffe, she even gets Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to take in two of the orphans living there. Here is his thinking about it:
 

‘How Mma. Silvia Potokowane…had managed to persuade him to take the children was beyond him…Mma. Potokwane was like a clever lawyer engaged in the examination of a witness. Agreement would be obtained to some innocuous statement and then, before the witness knew it, he would have agreed to a quite different proposal.’
 

That’s also how she gets Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to agree to a parachute jump as a part of a fundraising event in The Full Cupboard of Life.

Several fictional sleuths have partners who have that power of persuasion. For example, Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh is married to such a person. She’s not at all what you’d call shrewish. But she has a way of making him do what she wants. Donna Leon’s Paola Falier has the same gift, although she is a different sort of character. She is often able to persuade her husband, Commissario Guido Brunetti, to go places and do things that he might not otherwise want to do. And she serves, in part, as his conscience, so that she also gets him to do the ethical thing (not that he’s unethical by nature). What’s interesting is that she’s not a nag, and he’s not a weak-willed person. She manages to get what she wants without resorting to yelling or browbeating.

And that’s the thing about some people. They have a way of getting others to do things without really seeming to be manipulative about it. And they can certainly add ‘spice’ to a novel.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Genesis’ Invisible Touch.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Cathy Ace, Donna Leon, Karin Fossum, Shamini Flint

Tradition*

Traditional MysteriesOne of the enduring legacies of Agatha Christie and other Golden Age/classic-era crime writers is arguably the traditional mystery structure. The ‘whodunit’ has survived very well, thank you, and continues to thrive.

To give one example of how the traditional mystery has thrived, consider that every year, the Malice Domestic convention is held in the US. Its focus is the traditional mystery, which is loosely defined as a mystery that contains no gratuitous violence, excessive gore or explicit sex. The Agatha Awards are given each year at Malice Domestic to US authors (or authors who publish in the US) who write the best traditional mysteries. And the Agathas are not the only awards that celebrate such crime fiction.

So what is the appeal of the traditional mystery? Why do they sell, and why do so many people love them? One reason is arguably that the traditional mystery is a really flexible way to tell a story. There are no rules that determine who the killer has to be, who the sleuth has to be, how many suspects there are, etc.

What this means is that there’s room for a lot of variety. For example, Cathy Ace’s Cait Morgan novels are considered traditional mysteries. They feature Morgan, a criminologist and academician who uses her experience, plus her own photographic memory, to solve crimes. Morgan is originally Welsh, but now lives in British Columbia. As an academic, she travels, presents at conferences, and so on. The mysteries that she solves don’t contain a lot of gore, gratuitous violence or explicit sex. They’re ‘whodunits’ in the traditional style. And yet, they’re thoroughly modern in outlook.

And they’re quite different to Martin Edwards’ Lake District mysteries. Also considered traditional, the Lake District mysteries feature Cumbria Constabulary’s DCI Hannah Scarlett and Oxford historian Daniel Kind. Together (and sometimes independently) they work to solve contemporary crimes that have connections to the past in some way. Edwards’ stories also bear the hallmarks of the traditional mystery; yet, they’re not like Ace’s. That’s what I mean by flexibility.

Another reason for the traditional mystery’s appeal arguably lies in its very nature. Many readers enjoy crime novels, but aren’t so fond of a lot of gore, blood and explicit sex. Since traditional mysteries, by their very natures, don’t feature those elements, they’re attractive to such crime fiction fans. For instance, consider work like that of D.S. Nelson, whose Blake Heatherington novels are traditional. Her stories take place mostly in the fictional village of Tuesbury, and feature contemporary life, contemporary issues and so on. There’s nothing ‘frothy’ about them. And yet, they aren’t gory, and Nelson leaves the reader to imagine whatever intimacy there is among different characters.

The same is true of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, who write as Michael Stanley. Their David ‘Kubu’ Bengu series takes place in modern Botswana, and features Kubu, who works for the Botswana CID. These novels are contemporary in outlook, and include an honest look at today’s Botswana. Sears and Trollip don’t gloss over the horror of murder. But at the same time, the novels are not gratuitous, and don’t feature a lot of gore or explicit sex. The focus is on the crime(s) and on the search for the killer.

And this leads me to another reason for which the traditional mystery may be so appealing. Just because a reader may not care for a lot of gore or explicit sex doesn’t mean that reader prefers Golden Age/classic social views. Novels written during that time period often reflect, however subtly, the prejudices and ‘isms’ of the times. Many modern readers don’t care for those attitudes, no matter how elegantly the mystery is done. Modern takes on the traditional mystery allow readers to enjoy the traditional structure without gritting their teeth at the ‘isms.’ For instance, Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series features many characters who would probably have been marginalized in earlier times. As an example, there are Olivier Brulé and his partner Gabriel Dubeau, who own the local B&B/bistro. They’re an integral part of the community of Three Pines, where many of the novels take place, and the ‘regulars’ in this series see them as excellent cooks and hosts, and good friends – not as gay people who run a bistro. There are plenty of other examples, too, of characters who might be marginalized in classic or Golden Age novels, but aren’t as much in today’s world.

We also see that in the work of Martin Walker. His sleuth, Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges, is chief of police in the small French town of St. Denis. The town and area are becoming more diverse, as indeed France is; and many of the characters are members of groups that might have been marginalized in earlier crime fiction. But they really aren’t in Walker’s world. And although Bruno is the protagonist, there are plenty of strong, independent female characters as well. This isn’t to say that there is no prejudice in these novels. They’re about people and people have biases. But you don’t see the systematic, sometimes casual bias that you sometimes do see in earlier crime novels.

There’s also the matter of engagement in the mystery itself. Many, many readers enjoy matching wits with the author to find out whodunit before that information is revealed. There are other intellectual challenges, too, that come from modern-day traditional-style mysteries. Cryptic clues, intellectual puzzles and so on are often really appealing to readers, and traditional mysteries offer them. There are too many such novels for me to list them, but I’m sure you can think of at least as many examples as I ever could.

It’s also worth noting that while today’s traditional mysteries don’t contain a lot of gore, ugly violence or explicit sex, they are also realistic. They don’t tend to be ‘frothy,’ and they include the kind of character development that invites the reader to engage in the story. Some of them are witty, but they don’t offer trite, easy solutions to mysteries.

To me, it’s little wonder that the traditional mystery, that’s low on gore, doesn’t indulge in gratuitous violence or explicit sex, and does feature the whodunit puzzle, is popular. It’s at least as popular now as it ever was.

What do you think? Do you enjoy traditional style mysteries? Why (not)? If you’re a writer, do you use that structure? Why (not)?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Cathy Ace, D.S. Nelson, Louise Penny, Martin Edwards, Martin Walker, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Stanley Trollip

I Feel Inventive*

Simple DevicesThe ‘photo you see is of an ingenious little device I was given recently: a portable charger. I’m going to find it quite useful when I go ‘on the road,’ where it may be a long time between power sources. It’s a terrific example of the way in which technology has freed us up to create all sorts of ingenious devices. Any fan of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, for instance, can tell you about clever technology that hides weapons.

But you don’t really need high-tech devices. There are all sorts of clever ways to use everyday things in the world of crime fiction. And they don’t need batteries or microchips. Here are just a few examples. I’ll be interested in the ones that you think of, too.

In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness, we are introduced to wealthy, elderly, Emily Arundell. She’s quite well aware that her relatives are more than eager to get their share of her money. One weekend, her two nieces and nephew pay her a visit, during which it’s made clear to her that there’s a limit to how long they’re willing to wait for their inheritance. During that visit, Miss Arundell wakes up in the middle of the night, as is her custom, and decides to go downstairs. She’s tripped up, though, and falls down the staircase. Her injuries aren’t fatal, but they do leave her certain that someone’s trying to kill her. She writes to Hercule Poirot, asking for his help in the matter, but by the time he gets the letter, it’s too late: Miss Arundell has since died of what seems on the surface to be liver failure. Still, Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate, since to Poirot, Miss Arundell is still a client. As you can imagine, he and Hastings go back to the fall down the stairs. At first, it was put down to Miss Arundell stepping on her terrier’s toy ball that was left at the top of the stairs. But Poirot discovers something much more clever and ingenious: a string stretched across the stair and nailed in place. It’s not high-tech, it doesn’t require a lot of knowledge, but it very nearly succeeds. I know, I know, fans of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas)

Several of Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee stories involve ingenious, yet very simple (i.e. not high-tech) kinds of devices. For example, in one plot thread of The Chinese Maze Murders, Judge Dee is faced with the case of retired general Ding Hoo-gwo. He was murdered one day in his library, apparently with no-one around. His son Ding Yee believes that Woo Feng, Commander of the Board of Military Affairs, is responsible. But Woo says that he is innocent. And in any case, this is a ‘locked room’ sort of mystery, so that it’d be very hard to prove that Woo had the opportunity. One of the questions Dee has to face here is how the victim was actually killed. Without spoiling the story, I can say that the answer lies in the very clever use of an ordinary object. Fans of Rex Stout’s Fer de Lance will know that the clever manipulation of an everyday sort of object is also responsible for the murder in that novel.

In Cathy Ace’s The Corpse With the Silver Tongue, academician and criminologist Caitlin ‘Cait’ Morgan is visiting Nice to give a scholarly presentation on behalf of a colleague who’s been sidelined by an accident. During her trip, she happens to encounter an old acquaintance and former employer, Alistair Townsend. She doesn’t want much to do with him; but before she knows it, she’s agreed to come to a birthday party Townsend is having for his wife Tamsin.  During the party, Townsend collapses and dies. At the same time, some of the guests become sickened. At first, it’s all put down to tainted escargot. It’s not long, though, before it’s proved that Townsend died of digitalis poisoning. The police begin their investigation, starting with the party guests and moving to anyone else who might have been in a position (and had a motive) to poison the food. Morgan becomes a ‘person of interest’ for several reasons. In order to clear her name, and be able to return to her ‘home base’ in Vancouver, she begins to ask some questions of her own. As it turns out, a clever use of a fairly ordinary set of objects plays a pivotal role in the way the murder was accomplished.

Of course, it’s not just criminals who create ingenious, low-tech devices. Lots of sleuths do the same. If you’ve read enough crime fiction, you’ll know that there are plenty of stories in which hairpins and, later, credit cards are used to pick locks. Hercule Poirot even uses his moustache-curling tongs and a wire from a hatbox in an ingenious way in Murder on the Orient Express.

Fictional characters also often use clever devices as evidence that someone’s been in their homes or hotel rooms. For example, in Aaron Elkins’ Fellowship of Fear, cultural anthropologist Gideon Oliver travels to Europe to give a series of guest lectures. His trip turns into much more and ends up with him getting involved in a web of espionage and murder. As you can imagine, there are some nasty people after him, who seem to want something he has. At first, he doesn’t even know what it is that anyone would want. But he certainly knows that he’s in danger. So he decides to protect himself:

 

‘Somebody was in his room.
The quarter inch segment of paper clip on the worn hallway carpet caught his eye the moment he reached the top of the stairs….
Since coming to the BOQ, he’d stuck a piece of paper clip or matchstick or cardboard between the door and jamb every time he’d left his room. For three days it had been in its hidden place every time he’d returned. Now it glinted at him like a tiny, malignant exclamation point on the threshold of his room.’
 

That little ingenious device helps to protect Oliver’s life.

It’s very useful to have modern high-tech things like portable chargers. I love mine and intend to use it. But never underestimate the power of the humble paper clip or piece of string…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Pretenders’ Brass in Pocket (I’m Special).

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Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Cathy Ace, Rex Stout, Robert Van Gulik