Category Archives: Christine Poulson

Searching For the Truth*

Any writer will tell you that research plays a role (and sometimes a very important role) in creating a quality novel, story, or article. Research can take a person in any number of directions, too; and I’m sure that, if you’re a writer, you’ve got plenty of good ‘research stories’ to share. I know I do.

Research plays a role in crime fiction, too. After all, you never know what research might turn up. And if it’s something that people would rather keep secret, anything might happen.

For instance, in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, mystery novelist Harriet Vane returns to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, Oxford, to participate in the school’s Gaudy Dinner and the accompanying festivities. A few months later, she’s asked to go back to Shrewsbury. It seems that several distressing things have been going on at the school, and the administrators don’t want the police involved, if that’s possible. There’ve been anonymous threatening notes, vandalism, and more. Vane agrees, and goes under the guise of doing research for a new novel. In the process, she turns up some things that someone does not want revealed; and it nearly costs her her life. Lord Peter Wimsey joins Vane to help find out the truth, and, together, they discover who and what are behind the disturbing occurrences.

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse gets involved in some research in The Wench is Dead. In that novel, he’s laid up with a bleeding ulcer. With not much else to do, he reads a book he’s been given, Murder on the Oxford Canal, about the 1859 murder of Joanna Franks on a canal boat. At the time, two men were arrested, convicted, and executed. But, as Morse reads and considers the case, he begins to believe that those men were not guilty. With help from Sergeant Lewis and Bodleian librarian Christine Greenaway, Morse looks into the case again, and finds out the truth about the long-ago murder.  You’re absolutely right, fans of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time.

Deadly Appearances is the first in Gail Bowen’s series featuring Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. As the series begins, she is an academician and political scientist. So, she’s well aware of the importance and value of research. One afternoon, she attends a community picnic at which her friend, Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk, is to make an important speech. He’s been selected to lead Saskatchewan’s provincial Official Opposition Party, and has a bright political future ahead of him. Tragically, he collapses and dies just after beginning his speech. It’s soon shown that he was poisoned. Kilbourn grieves the loss of her friend and political ally, and decides to write his biography. The more she researches for the book, the more she learns about Boychuk. And that knowledge leads her to the truth about his murder – and to some real personal danger.

Paddy Richardson’s Rebecca Thorne is a Wellington-based journalist. Her career, of course, involves quite a lot of background research, as any credible story has to be supported. In Cross Fingers, Thorne is working on an exposé documentary about dubious land developer Denny Graham. She’s lined up interviews with people who claim he’s duped them, and she’s been trying to get information from Graham’s people, too, to be as fair as she can. Then, her boss asks her to change her focus, and do a story on the upcoming 30th anniversary of the Springboks’ 1981 tour of New Zealand. At the time, apartheid was still the law of the land in South Africa, and a lot of New Zealanders protested the government’s decision to invite the Springboks. On the other hand, the police needed to keep order, and rugby fans just wanted to see some good matches. The result was a set of violent clashes between protestors and police. Thorne is reluctant to do that story. For one thing, she wants to do her interviews for the Graham story before his victims lose their nerve. For another, she doesn’t see that there’s any new angle on the rugby tour story. Still, her boss insists, and Thorne gets to work. Then, as she does research on the tour, she finds a story of interest. It seems that two dancers dressed as lambs went to several of the games and entertained the fans. Then, they stopped attending. Thorne wants to know what happened to The Lambs, so she starts researching. She learns that one of them was murdered one night, and his killer never caught. The case nags at her, especially when it becomes clear that several people do not want her to find out the truth.

And then there’s Martin Edwards’ Daniel Kind. He’s an Oxford historian whose work gained him not just academic plaudits but also a lot of popular appeal. Burnt out from being a well-known TV personality, Kind moved to the Lake District and more or less dropped out of media sight. He still writes, gives lectures, and so on, though. And he’s still interested in research. His research findings are often very helpful to the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team, led by DCI Hannah Scarlett. Since her team’s focus is on older cases that are re-opened, she finds Kind’s historical perspective useful and informative. For example, Kind’s research on Thomas de Quincey proves to be key in both The Serpent Pool and The Hanging Wood.

There are other fictional sleuths, too, such as Christine Poulson’s Cassandra James, and Sarah R. Shaber’s Simon Shaw, who do research as a part of their lives. Those skills serve them very well when it comes to sleuthing, too (right, fans of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway?).

Research skills – knowing how to pose questions, look for information, weigh its value, and come to conclusions – are important in a lot of professions. And they can certainly add to a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Edwyn Collins.

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Filed under Christine Poulson, Colin Dexter, Dorothy L. Sayers, Elly Griffiths, Gail Bowen, Josephine Tey, Martin Edwards, Paddy Richardson, Sarah R. Shaber

I’ll Let You Touch the First Editions*

With today’s easy digital access to information, it’s often possible for people to do background reading without leaving their homes or offices. Many articles are available online (although some come with a fee). In other cases, one can order a copy of a journal or a book. And that makes research much easier than it used to be. Trust me.

But, speaking strictly for myself, there’s something about doing research in an actual university or college library. For one thing, many of them are beautiful buildings, so the surroundings are a treat in themselves. And, when a university has generous benefactors and donors, there’s a chance it will have rare, even priceless, manuscripts, books, and so on. That’s a dream come true to scholars and bibliophiles. Many university libraries also have scholarly books and journals that a public library might not carry. That, too, is very helpful if you’re doing research.

University libraries also have a rich sense of atmosphere. And you never know what you’ll find out in them. And that can make them very effective settings in crime fiction.

In Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, for instance, mystery novelist Harriet Vane returns to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, Oxford, when a disturbing series of events starts happening. She goes to the school under the pretext of doing research for a new novel, so she spends her share of time in the college’s library. And that library plays a critical role in solving the mystery. For instance, some important manuscripts are taken from the library; others are defaced. There’s other vandalism, too. With help from Lord Peter Wimsey, Vane discovers who’s behind the trouble at the college. And it turns out that the mystery is rooted in a longstanding grievance that one of the characters has.

Fans of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series will know that much of it takes place in the town (and sometimes on the campus) of Oxford. And that means that Morse is familiar with several of Oxford’s libraries. They play roles in a few of the novels, too. For instance, in The Wench is Dead, Morse is recovering from a bleeding ulcer. During his recuperation, he is given a copy of Murder on the Oxford Canal, which tells the story of the 1859 murder of Joanna Franks on a canal boat. At the time of the murder, two men were arrested, convicted, and executed in connection with the death. But Morse isn’t sure that they were guilty. So, he decides to look into the case. He can’t get about very well, so he gets help from Sergeant Lewis, as well as from Christine Greenaway, one of the Bodleian’s librarians. And that background information proves to be very useful as Morse looks into the murder again.

Christine Poulson’s Cassandra James mysteries take place at Cambridge, where James is head of the English Literature Department at St. Etheldreda’s College. In the first of the series, Murder is Academic, James gets involved when her predecessor, Margaret Joplin, is found dead. The trail leads to another case, which James wants to look up. So, she goes to the university’s library:
 

‘There was nowhere else I would rather have been than this library, in this city. In fact, I’d like to live in the library. I’d often wondered if that would be possible. Of course, you’d have to hide at closing time.’
 

During this particular visit, James has a frightening experience that plays its role in the outcome of the mystery. And it’s interesting how quickly its atmosphere changes from warm, safe, and beautiful to sinister.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a former academician, so she, too, is quite familiar with university libraries. And the one at her institution figures into Burying Ariel. In that novel, one of Bowen’s colleagues, Kevin Coyle, is accused of sexual assault. There isn’t clear-cut evidence, and the case begins to divide the department. Then, Ariel Warren, a lecturer in the same department, is found stabbed to death in the basement of the university’s library. Coyle is convinced that her murder is related to his case. But there are other possibilities, too. And it turns out that this killing has to do with the network of relationships on campus.

And then there’s Sarah R. Shaber’s Simon Shaw, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who teaches at Kenan College, a small school in North Carolina. Shaw’s very familiar with the inner workings of university libraries, and finds them helpful as he looks into past murders that still impact the present. In Simon Said, for instance, Shaw looks into the 1926 murder of Anne Bloodworth when her bones are discovered on a piece of property that’s about to be deeded to the college. And in The Fugitive King, Shaw investigates the 1957 murder of Eva Potter. In both cases, he uses university libraries (both Kenan College’s and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s) to get background information on the cases. Those old records prove to be very helpful.

My own Joel Williams, who teaches at Tilton University, finds a very helpful old map and some old records in the university’s library in Past Tense. In that novel, he works with the Tilton, Pennsylvania, police to find out who’s responsible for the 1974 murder of a Tilton University student, Bryan Roades.

University libraries have all sorts of fascinating records, rare books and manuscripts, and much more. So, it’s no wonder they’re still a beacon for scholars, even in today’s digital world. And they can serve as effective atmospheres.

ps The ‘photo is of the university library where I spent my share of time during my undergraduate years. It wasn’t grand or glorious, but I have good memories of it.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Haunted Love’s Librarian.

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Filed under Christine Poulson, Colin Dexter, Dorothy L. Sayers, Gail Bowen, Sarah R. Shaber

It’s the Latest, It’s the Greatest*

Not long ago, crime writer and fellow blogger Christine Poulson did a very interesting post about clothing fads and other fads, too, that make us wince now, but were all the rage. You know what I mean: bug-eyed glasses, bowl haircuts, and cable-knit vests, among others.

Of course, it’s not just a matter of clothing. Fads can come in any form, and not all them are as cringe-worthy as jumpsuits for men. But they all leave their mark, including mentions in crime fiction.

For example, during the Jazz Age, Mah Jong became all the rage.  People played it at parties, at home, and sometimes in clubs. Agatha Christie makes mention of that fad in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In that novel, the small village of Kings Abbot is rocked by the stabbing death of retired magnate Roger Ackroyd. The most likely suspect is the victim’s stepson, Captain Ralph Paton. But Paton’s fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, doesn’t think he’s guilty, and asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. This novel is narrated by the village doctor, Dr. James Sheppard, who lives next door to the house Poirot has taken. One evening, Sheppard, his sister Caroline (who lives with him), and two guests play a game of Mah Jong. A good deal of gossip is passed around during the course of the evening, and some of it is relevant to the mystery at hand. We also get to follow the game, and learn a bit about how it’s played.

Christie also mentions other fads that came later. For instance, the ‘Teddy Boy’ look makes an appearance in The Pale Horse. And we see bits of faddish fashion in Hallowe’en Party, too. Here, for instance, is a description of Desmond Holland, a character who turns out to be helpful in solving the murder of a young girl, Joyce Reynolds:
 

‘The younger one was wearing a rose-coloured velvet coat, mauve trousers, and a kind of frilled shirting.
 

Not something that would likely be worn today, but the look was especially popular at the time (the book was published in 1969).

Another fad we see in crime fiction is the dance marathon. These marathons became extremely popular in the 1920s and 1930s; and, as the name suggests, involved couples moving to music for as long as they could. The winners of this endurance contest might win money or some other coveted prize. A dance marathon forms the background for a murder in Kerry Greenwood’s 1920s-era novel, The Green Mill Murder. In that novel, Phryne Fisher and her escort, Charles Freeman, are at an upmarket dance club called the Green Mill. The club is hosting a dance marathon that night, which is supposed to be an exciting event. But it turns tragic when one of the dancers, Bernard Stevens, slumps to the floor, dead of a stab wound. Phryne starts investigating, but she hasn’t got very far when Charles Freeman goes missing. His mother hires Phryne to find him, and she agrees. It turns out that his disappearance is related to Stevens’ death, and to the end of World War I.

On the topic of dancing, one of the crazes of the 1970s was disco dancing. There were disco outfits, disco contests, and so on (right, those who’ve seen Saturday Night Fever?). Of all fictional sleuths, you wouldn’t expect Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun to get caught up in disco. But that’s exactly what happens in one plot thread of Disco For the Departed. In that novel (which takes place in 1970s Laos), Dr. Siri is sent to northern Laos in his capacity as the country’s medical examiner. Construction of a concrete walkway to the president’s palace has uncovered a body. With a major celebration coming up, the government can’t afford a public embarrassment like this, and Dr. Siri is expected to quietly do away with the ‘problem.’ But it’s clear that this victim was murdered, and Dr. Siri wants to know why and by whom. As fans of this series will know, there’s an element of the supernatural in these novels, as Dr. Siri discovers that he has a connection with the spirits of those who’ve died. And in this case, that connection becomes clear when he arrives at the village of Vieng Xai, where the body was discovered.  For several nights in a row, Dr. Siri hears disco music – music no-one else can hear.  Here’s what Dr. Siri thinks about it when he first hears it:
 

‘It destroyed any hope of sleep. He wondered what type of people would start dancing in the middle of the night and how anyone could enjoy such an ugly Western din. Or perhaps this was one of the Party’s torture techniques to punish the officials from Vientiane. He could think of few things more cruel.’
 

But, as it turns out, that music, and those spirits, play a role in the novel. The mystery itself has a very prosaic solution, but Dr. Siri gets inspiration from several different sources, including the spirits of those who’ve died.

Pinball has been played for a long time, and many people still enjoy it. During the 1960s and 1970s, though, pinball became a craze. It’s enshrined in the Who’s rock opera Tommy, and it’s in crime fiction, too.

For instance, in Wendy James The Lost Girls, we learn of the 1978 death of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. She was spending the summer with her aunt, uncle and cousins; and, like most teens, didn’t want to spend all day sitting at home. So, she, her cousin, Mick, and Mick’s friends, spent their share of time at the local drugstore. There, they played plenty of pinball. One afternoon, after a pinball session, Angela disappeared. She was later found dead, with a scarf around her head. At first, Mick was ‘a person of interest.’ But no real evidence was found against him. And a few months later, another young girl, Kelly McIvor, was found dead, also with a scarf around her. The police began to see the two deaths as related; in fact, the press dubbed the killer the Sydney Strangler. The murderer was never caught. Now, nearly forty years later, filmmaker Erin Fury wants to interview Angela’s family as a part of a documentary on families who survive the murder of one of their members. As she speaks to Angela’s cousins, aunt, and uncle (her parents have since died), we learn what really happened to her. Pinball isn’t the reason for her death, but it’s an interesting example of how a fad can find its way into a story.

And that’s the thing about fads. They’re an important part of our culture, so it makes sense that we’d see them in crime fiction, too. Thanks, Christine, for the inspiration. Now, may I suggest your next blog stop be Christine’s excellent blog? Great book reviews, discussions of writing, and more await you. Oh, and you’ll want to try her crime fiction, too. You won’t be disappointed.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Barry Mann and Bernie Lowe’s Mashed Potato Time.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christine Poulson, Colin Cotterill, Kerry Greenwood, Wendy James

Tell Us What You’ve Seen*

I learn so much from authors I respect. So I’m especially privileged and excited that Christine Poulson has invited me to visit her blog for an interview! Like me, she’s an academic. She’s also the author of the first-rate Cassandra James Cambridge Mystery novels, and of a new standalone, Deep Water. It’s a real honour to have been invited to her blog!

Please come pay me a visit at Christine’s terrific blog, where I’ll be answering a few questions about my writing and blogging. And, as you’ll be there, anyway, do have a look around the blog, and try her excellent mysteries. You’ll be glad you did.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Moody Blues’ Lovely to See You.

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Filed under Christine Poulson

Pressure, Pushing Down on Me*

In the US, one of the last major hurdles for Ph.D. candidates is defending their dissertations. I understand it’s the same in many other places, too. If you have a Ph.D. yourself, or you’ve sat in on one of these events, then you know it’s a very intense experience. As this is posted, it’s my ‘dissertation anniversary,’ which has me thinking about the process. Candidates spend weeks or even months preparing their presentations of their material, as well as responses to possible questions they may get from members of their dissertation committees (and, at times, the audience). And, of course, those questions may be about any aspect of the dissertation, so the candidate needs to be thoroughly familiar with every bit of the material. It’s nerve-wracking, to say the least.

The thing about defending a dissertation is that it’s a bit difficult to describe, since it doesn’t have a lot of obvious parallels in other fields. But a look at crime fiction can help give a few insights.

Getting ready to defend a dissertation is a little like rehearsing for a performance. Just as actors must know their lines and musicians must know their pieces, Ph.D. candidates have to have their presentations well-prepared. We see the intensity of rehearsal in a lot of crime fiction. For instance, Christine Poulson’s Stage Fright sees her protagonist, Cassandra James, asked to adapt a Victorian novel, East Lynne, for a stage production. She’s Head of the English Department at St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge, and her specialty is Victorian literature. So, she’s the right choice for the job. All starts out well enough, and rehearsals begin. But then, Melissa Meadows, who is to take a leading role in the play, tells James that someone is stalking her. Then, she goes missing. This throws rehearsals into chaos, and, when she doesn’t return, leads to the investigation of a possible murder.

Fans of Ngaio Marsh, Simon Brett, and Deborah Nicholson, among others, will know that their novels also take the reader ‘backstage.’ In such novels, we see how many times material has to be prepared and how important timing is. We also see the suspense, nerves and tension that come out under so much pressure. It’s the same when one’s preparing to defend a dissertation.

Defending a dissertation isn’t really entertainment, though. Candidates need to be prepared to address challenges to everything about their work. They need to examine each aspect of their dissertations, from the topic, to the data collection, to the data analysis, and more. In that sense, preparing to defend a dissertation is a little like preparing for a trial. A good attorney prepares thoroughly for each trial. That includes working with witnesses and, possibly, the defendant. It also includes looking carefully at each aspect of the case, and addressing possible weaknesses. Attorneys know that any serious weaknesses in a case will be exploited by the other side. So, they do everything possible to prevent that. Admittedly, the Ph.D. candidate doesn’t risk prison. But it’s still quite a high-stakes process.

We see that sort of preparation in work by, for instance Scott Turow, John Grisham, Robert Rotenberg, and Paul Levine. The writing team of ‘Perri O’Shaughnessy’ also explore this sort of pre-trial work in their Nina Reilly novels.

Presenting one’s material before the dissertation committee, and fielding questions, isn’t exactly like a trial. The role of the dissertation committee is to support the candidate. After all, if the candidate doesn’t do well, this reflects on the committee, too – in particular on the candidate’s advisor/tutor, who generally chairs the committee.

In that way, defending a dissertation is a bit like a major sports competition. On the one hand, the player has to work very hard, and coaches can be difficult to satisfy. The Olympic Games, the World Series, the World Cup, and other such contests, all require discipline and focus. And coaches and trainers push and challenge players to get the most from them. At the same time, their role is to be allies and support systems.

Alison Gordon’s crime novels give readers a good look at what it’s like to play for a Major League baseball team. Readers see how important the actual games can be, and what the roles of coaches and trainers are. John Daniell’s The Fixer offers some similar insight into the world of rugby. And there’s Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar series, which takes the perspective of a sports agent. In all of these novels and series, we see how pivotal a game or series of games can be. That stress and tension is quite similar to what it’s like to defend a dissertation.

As I say, it’s a little difficult to describe getting ready to defend a dissertation. It’s a singular experience, and it challenges Ph.D. candidates to think about their work in ways they probably wouldn’t otherwise. But there is nothing quite like being informed you’ve passed, and having your committee address you as ‘Doctor.’ I often think it would actually be a solid context for a crime novel. There’s tension, intense preparation, possible ego clashes, and there’s no telling what the candidate might uncover in pursuit of that all-important data set. If you went through this process, I’d love to hear your experiences. I still remember mine, even after a number of years.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure.

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Filed under Alison Gordon, Christine Poulson, Deborah Nicholson, Harlan Coben, John Daniell, John Grisham, Ngaio Marsh, Paul Levine, Perri O'Shaughnessy, Robert Rotenberg, Scott Turow, Simon Brett