Category Archives: Claudia Piñeiro

But Lately There Ain’t Been Much Work On Account of the Economy*

One of the biggest issues that many people are concerned about is the economy. And for a lot of people, it’s not really the larger economic issues. It’s basic issues such as jobs/working conditions, education, and so on. How often, for instance, have you seen politicians and candidates go on about all of the jobs they’ll create (or have created)? And plenty of people vote based on those records (or those promises).

Basic economic issues play a role in crime fiction, too. And that makes sense. After all, most people are concerned at some level about getting (or keeping) a job, retiring with some dignity, and prospects for their (grand)children. It’s not really a matter of greed (although I’d suspect a lot of us would like to have more wealth than we do). It’s a matter of economic security. That elemental concern for safety and security can form an interesting background feeling of tension in a story or series.

Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide), for instance, takes place just after the end of World War II. The British economy is recovering from the war, and even people with money are feeling the proverbial pinch. Against this backdrop, we meet the Cloade family, who live in the village of Warmsley Vale. Wealthy Gordon Cloade has always taken good financial care of his family, and has told them that they need never worry about money. Then, unexpectedly, Cloade marries a young woman named Rosaleen Underhay. Not long after that, he is killed in a bomb blast. Now, his widow is set to inherit a great deal of money, and his relations are likely to be left with nothing. The economic uncertainly this brings, combined with the poor state of the general economy, is enough to make the family uneasy and very anxious. That adds an important layer of tension to the novel. And it adds to the mystery surrounding the death of an enigmatic visitor to Warmsley Vale – a man who calls himself Enoch Arden. It turns out he may very well be connected with the Cloades’ financial situation.

Reginald Hill’s Underworld and On Beulah Height both take place against a backdrop of economic tension. In the former, the world of miners and mining is the context for a search for the truth about the abduction and murder of a young girl. The man everyone suspected committed suicide. But when new evidence comes out that he was not guilty, everything changes. Then a miner dies of a fall (was it accidental?) into a mine shaft. Was he guilty? The latter book takes a look at an entire town that disappeared when it was cleared and flooded to create a reservoir. But the people of the town haven’t disappeared. Neither have their secrets. In these novels, the murders aren’t, per se, committed because of economic fears. But that anxiety is there, and plays a role in the stories’ backgrounds.

Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series begins in 1931 in Berlin. Vogel is a crime reporter for the Berliner Tageblatt. When she discovers that her brother, Ernst, has been killed, she decides to look into the matter. She can’t involve the police, because she and Ernst allowed two Jewish friends to borrow their identity cards, so they could leave the country. Without proper identification, Vogel risks a lot if she’s stopped by any authority figures. So, she will have to move very quietly. This novel is set during the Weimar Republic and the larger Great Depression. The economy is suffering badly, and it’s gotten so desperate that people can’t always buy even basics such as food. Some women turn to prostitution so they can eat. Other people sell whatever anyone will buy for the same purpose. It’s a frightening time, and that adds to the tension in the novel.

One plot thread of Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising concerns an upcoming strike that’s been planned by the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA). They are looking for better wages and working conditions, and they know that they have to present a united front if they’re to get what they want. The story takes place in 1981, before the integration of the (white) ILA with the (black) Brotherhood of Longshoremen (BoL). The BoL wants parity with the ILA, but many in the latter union fear that if that happens, they’ll lose out on jobs, wages and so on. For them, it’s a matter of economic survival. It is for the members of the BoL, too, though, so there’s an inevitable clash. In fact, some ILA thugs attack a member of the BoL named Darren Hayworth. Unless Hayworth’s attackers are found and punished, the ILA is going to have a much more difficult time in the upcoming strike. So will the BoL. So, the BoL wants the case investigated. For that, they turn to a young lawyer, Jay Porter. He’s black, so he’ll be more likely to be trusted by the BoL. And, he knows Houston’s mayor, Cynthia Maddox. It’s hoped he can use his influence to get justice for Hayworth. This plot thread shows just how much economic issues matter, and it adds tension to the larger story, which also concerns a shooting murder and its connections to corporate greed and powerful people who won’t stop at killing to preserve their privilege.

Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage takes place in 2008, just after the collapse of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ Irish economy. In one plot thread, Dublin DS Bob Tidey, and Garda Rose Cheney investigate the shooting murder of a dubious banker named Emmet Sweetman. During the ‘boom’ years, Sweetman took advantage of the easy money that was available, and didn’t think much about the source of his newfound wealth. But, when the economy went bad, Sweetman found he could no longer pay on his debts. He got more and more desperate, and took more and more risks. And, in the end, his risk-taking caught up with him when some very dangerous people decided they didn’t want to wait any longer for their money.

There’s an interesting look at the impact that economic issues have in Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows. That novel concerns the residents of an ultra-exclusive community called Cascade Heights – or, more familiarly, ‘The Heights’ – located about 30 miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthy can afford to live there, and even they are carefully ‘vetted’ before they’re allowed to move in. It’s a community full of money and privilege, and gated from the outside world. But even that security doesn’t spare the residents from the severe economic problems of late-1990s Argentina. In fact, the economic difficulties hit home, as the saying goes, among even the most privileged characters, and, ultimately, leads to a terrible tragedy.

And that’s the thing about the economy. We might not think a lot about the stock market, the larger economic forces operating in a country, etc… But, when it comes to basic economics such as jobs, affordable housing, and so on, people do care. A lot. It’s a basic safety and security issue, and it can form an interesting backdrop to a crime story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s The River.  

20 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Attica Locke, Claudia Piñeiro, Gene Kerrigan, Rebecca Cantrell, Reginald Hill

She Won’t Join Your Clubs, She Won’t Dance in Your Halls*

groupdynamicsAs I’ve said many times on this blog, well-written crime fiction shows us ourselves. And one of the things we see about ourselves is the way we behave in groups. Humans are social animals, so it’s natural for us to want to belong to a group. And, once in, we try to sort ourselves out. You can call it group dynamics, or group politics, if you will. Whatever you call it, it’s one way people try to impose order on their worlds.

Group dynamics can add much to a crime novel. There’s the tension as people establish the group order. There’s other tension as ‘outsiders’ try to become ‘insiders.’ There’s also the suspense as people try to either stay in the group, or leave it, or gain a particular position within it. There are too many examples in the genre for me to mention them all. Here are just a few.

Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows takes place mostly at the ultra-exclusive Cascade Heights Country Club, located about thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthy can afford to live there, and even they are carefully ‘vetted.’ The community is tightly-knit, and figuratively and literally separated from the outside world. It’s an insular group, and everyone knows the ‘right’ places to shop, the ‘right’ schools for their children, the ‘right’ people to befriend, and the ‘right’ causes to support. Everything changes when Argentina’s financial situation begins to deteriorate (the novel takes place at the end of the 1990s/beginning of 2000). At first, the residents of ‘the Heights’ seem impervious to the developing crisis, but that doesn’t last. The end result is a tragedy, and the residents now have to deal with what’s happened.

Megan Abbott’s Dare Me explores the world of teen social dynamics. Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy have been best friends for years. Now, they’re in their last year of high school, and they ‘own’ the school, Beth in particular. They’re both on the cheerleading squad, and getting ready to start their lives after they graduate. Then, the school hires a new cheerleading coach, Collette French. Right from the start, French changes the social order. She makes the cheerleading squad a sort of exclusive club, and Addy is welcomed as an ‘insider.’ Beth, however, is excluded, and becomes an outsider ‘looking in.’ Then, there’s a suicide (or was it?). Now this social group is turned upside down as everyone deals with what’s happened.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao series takes place in Shanghai in the late 1990s, a time of great change in China. There’s still an influence of Maoism, and of some older, even ancient, traditions. But there’s also a newly developing form of capitalism as China continues to work with capitalist nations. China’s bureaucracy is a system of cadres, or social levels. Those in extremely important positions are ‘high cadre’ people, and do not take kindly to any threat, real or imagined, to their status. For that reason, the police have to work very carefully whenever a crime might possibly involve such a person. As the series goes on, we see how these cadres sort themselves out and establish and keep order. The dynamics may change as one or another member’s fortune changes. But the cadre system itself is a well-established and deeply-ingrained social structure.

If you’ve ever worked for a law firm, you know that the attorneys in a firm often form a community. In a large firm, you may find senior partners, junior partners, associates, and contract lawyers. And that’s to say nothing of the legal assistants (such as clerks, paralegals, and legal secretaries) and support staff. Even smaller firms have some sense of community, and, therefore, of social structure. And, even in the most supportive and employee-friendly firms, people sort themselves out. A beginning associate who wants to become a partner needs to know how the firm’s structure works, and what the firm’s priorities are. Crime writers such as Robert Rotenberg, John Grisham and Scott Turow explore not just the particular legal cases at hand, but also the inner workings of law firms. And it’s interesting to see how the social structure at a firm can impact what lawyers do.

Police departments also have their own social structure, and anyone who works in one quickly learns what that structure is. There are many, many police procedural series, some of them outstanding, that depict the ways in which police social structure works. In healthy departments, cases are solved by teams of people who have supportive leadership. Fred Vargas’ Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg novels are like that. And so, arguably, are Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss novels, Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi novels and Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe novels. That’s not to say that the characters are all perfect, with no faults, quirks or weaknesses. Rather, we see how the groups in these novels sort themselves out, and how the people in them work out what their roles are.

Of course, there are plenty of police procedurals where we see a very unhealthy social dynamic. In those novels, ‘patch wars,’ infighting, and even sabotage happen. A few examples are Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town, Simon Lelic’s A Thousand Cuts (AKA Rupture), and Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road. There are many others.

And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. That novel’s focus is Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The main characters are members of three families, all of whom have children in the school’s Kindergarten class. Shortly after the school year begins, there’s a bullying incident. Renata Klein, one of the most influential ‘school mums,’ accuses another child of bullying her daughter. That boy, Ziggy, is the son of a relative newcomer. Ziggy says he didn’t do any bullying, and his mother believes him. And it’s not long before there are two camps. Tension escalates for this and other reasons, until it boils over on Quiz Night, which was planned as a school fundraiser. Tragedy results, and each family is deeply affected by what happens. Throughout this novel, we see the social structure of ‘playground mums’ and some dads, too. The elite group here is called ‘the Blond Bobs’:
 

‘The Blond Bobs rule the school. If you want to be on the PTA, you have to have a blond bob…it’s like a bylaw.’
 

Part of the tension in the story comes from the way this social hierarchy plays out.

And that’s the thing about groups. Almost any time people get together, those dynamics come into play. And they can be very dangerous.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Actress Hasn’t Learned the Lines.

29 Comments

Filed under Claudia Piñeiro, Fred Vargas, Helene Tursten, John Grisham, Katherine Howell, Liane Moriarty, Megan Abbott, Qiu Xiaolong, Reginald Hill, Robert Rotenberg, Scott Turow

Garage Sale Sunday*

Garage and Yard SalesSometimes they’re called jumble sales. They also go by names such as yard sales, tag sales, boot sales, and garage sales. They have other names, too. Whatever you call them, they’re opportunities for people who are getting rid of things to sell them to people who may want those things. Sometimes the proceeds go to a charity; other times, they’re private sales, with the seller keeping any proceeds.

You never know what you’ll find at such sales, really. Sometimes it’s nothing worth much. But there are times when you find something really special. And sales like that can be great places to find things like vintage clothes and jewelry, collectibles and so on. And they can be fun, too. So it’s little wonder that so many people make a weekend hobby of going the rounds of whatever sales there are in the area.

This kind of sale can make a useful context for a crime novel, too. There are all sorts of possibilities for clues and ‘red herrings,’ and motives for murder as well. And with a group of disparate people, you never know what conflicts might arise.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, Hercule Poirot visits the village of Broadhinny at the request of Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence. One of the residents, James Bentley, has been convicted of murdering his landlady, and on good evidence. But Spence isn’t convinced of Bentley’s guilt, so he asks Poirot to look into the matter. As he settles into Broadhinny, Poirot is told about the village’s Bring and Buy sales that are held at the village hall. He also learns that Mrs. McGinty was murdered in November, after the autumn Bring and Buy, but before the Christmas event. That fact turns out to be significant as Poirot works to find out who would have been in a position to commit the crime.

Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Wasn’t There takes place in the fictional town of Pickax, ‘four hundred miles north of nowhere.’ In one plot thread of the novel, we learn that beloved local GP Dr. Hal Goodwinter has died, and that his daughter, Melinda, has inherited his house and its effects. She doesn’t plan to live in the house, so she puts the contents up for sale. Later, she’ll sell the property itself. The event draws thousands of people, and the town has all it can do to manage the logistics and safety issues. So it’s not until later that anyone learns that some professional thieves used to sale as a cover and distraction for their own plans.

Hallie Ephron’s Never Tell a Lie takes a darker look at yard sales. David and Ivy Rose have purchased a Victorian home, where they plan to start their own family. As a matter of fact, Ivy is eight months pregnant with their first child. To make more room, and clear things out, they decide to host a yard sale one November day. As anyone who’s ever held such a sale can attest, people arrive early and the place is soon crowded. One of those people is Melinda ‘Mindy’ White, whom the Roses knew in school, and who is heavily pregnant herself. Mindy never really fit in in high school, and she’s still a bit of an ‘oddball.’ When the sale is over, everyone leaves, but Mindy never makes it home. In fact, no-one can remember seeing her after the sale. When she’s officially reported missing, the police investigate, and one of their first stops is the Rose’s home. David and Ivy claim to know nothing about her disappearance, but there’s evidence to suggest they may know much more than they’re saying. The truth about Mindy’s disappearance turns out to go a lot deeper than a case of someone who wandered off during a yard sale.

Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows takes place mostly at an ultra-exclusive, gated community outside Buenos Aires. Called Cascade Heights Country Club, it’s usually called The Heights. Every potential resident is thoroughly ‘vetted,’ and only the very wealthy can afford to live there. They all have domestic staff, shop only in exclusive stores, and send their children to the ‘right schools.’ It’s that kind of place. Everything changes when Argentina goes through an economic crisis (the novel takes place at the end of the 1990s/beginning of the 2000s). People are losing jobs, and no-one’s lifestyle is secure any more. One night, there’s a tragedy, and we see as the book develops what has led to it. One of the ‘things people do’ in this community is to give to the ‘right’ charities and do the ‘right things’ to help the needy. To accomplish this, some of the residents create a charitable group called ‘The Ladies of the Heights.’ This group decides to hold a jumble sale in aid of a local children’s free meal centre. The sale is duly held and the money donated. Admittedly, the jumble sale and the preparations for it aren’t the cause of the tragedy. But they do highlight the social divisions that play a key role in the story, and they show the attitudes that also play an important role.

And then there’s David Houswright’s Unidentified Woman #15. Former Minneapolis police officer-turned-occasional-PI Rushmore McKenzie is witness one night to the attempted murder of a young woman. McKenzie rescues her, but she is badly injured and is rushed to the nearest hospital. Her physical wounds heal, but she’s lost her memory. St. Paul Police Commissioner Bobby Dunstan believes she may be in danger, so he asks McKenzie (who’s a former colleague and friend) to take her in for a short time. This McKenzie agrees to do. All goes well enough for a short time, but then, the young woman disappears. Now, McKenzie and the police have to find the woman (whose name they still do not know) and try to find out who was targeting her. As it turns out, this case is connected to another case, which involves stolen merchandise being sold at a series of garage sales. It’s an interesting way to weave the garage sale tradition into the larger plot.

Of course, not all jumble, yard, garage or tag sales are dangerous. Sometimes you can find fantastic bargains, and who knows? You may find something priceless if you keep your eyes open. But perhaps it’s just as well to keep your wits about you…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Granddaddy’s Where I’m Anymore.

 

27 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Claudia Piñeiro, David Housewright, Hallie Ephron, Lilian Jackson Braun

The Pursuit of Happiness Just Seems a Bore*

Privileged Lives and LimitationsPlenty of people dream about what it might be like to have a lot of money and be a member of the upper class. After all, many of us can’t afford to travel whenever we want, buy what we want on a whim, or send our children to the ‘best’ schools. But if you think about it, the lives of those people who seem to ‘have it all’ can be just as restrictive.

Crime fiction shows us clearly that that lifestyle can be at least as limiting as the lifestyle most of us have – perhaps more so. And being among that group of people is absolutely no guarantee against tension, conflict and tragedy. Here are a few examples to show you what I mean.

Teresa Solana’s A Not So Perfect Crime gives a witty, but biting, look at the upper-class life. In that novel, Catalonia politician Lluís Font hires Barcelona PIs Eduard and Josep ‘Pep’ (who goes by the name Borja) Martínez. Font believes that his wife Lídia is having an affair, and he wants to know if he’s right. It’s not just that Font wants to know if his wife has betrayed him; he’s also concerned that any scandal could threaten his political career (he represents the Catholic Conservative party). The Martínez brothers take the case, but a week of surveillance doesn’t turn up anything. It does, however, offer a look at the lives of people of that class. Lídia Font spends her days visiting hairstylists and salons, going shopping, and having coffees and lunches with friends and acquaintances. Her husband, of course, has his political reputation to uphold, so he makes the ‘right’ speeches, goes to the ‘right’ meetings and so on. Then one evening, Lídia dies of what turns out to be poison. The police suspect Font of killing his wife, so he asks the Martínez brothers to stay on the job and clear his name.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack also explores the lives of ‘people of a certain class.’ That novel takes place in 1970’s Buenos Aires, a time when the military is in full control. Speaking out on anything is a very dangerous thing to do, so few people dare it. One day, police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano gets an early-morning call about two bodies left by a riverbank. He goes to the scene and, sure enough, finds the bodies. The two people are victims of an Army ‘hit,’ and Lescano knows better than to ask too many questions about that. But then, he finds a third body. This victim, too, seems to bear the hallmarks of a ‘hit,’ but there are small pieces of evidence that suggest that this is a different kind of murder. Lescano starts to ask questions, and opens quite a proverbial can of worms. The victim is Elías Biterman, a successful pawnbroker and moneylender, who counted among his clients some very wealthy and powerful people. As we get to know some of those characters, we see how restrictive that upper-class life is. One is expected to be at the ‘right’ events, behave in the ‘right’ way and so on. And one is expected to have a great deal of money to do all of that.

Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows addresses what happens when that protective ‘bubble of money’ is taken away. That novel takes place at the end of the 1990s, in the exclusive Cascade Heights Country Club. Only the wealthy can afford to live there, and prospective residents are thoroughly ‘vetted’ before being accepted. The story begins one September evening in 2001, when a tragedy occurs at the home of El Tano Scaglia and his wife Teresa. Then the story takes readers back to where it all began, and tells the events that have led to that tragedy. As those events unfold, we learn about the lives of the people who live in Cascade Heights. The men have ‘the right kinds of jobs,’ as high-level business executives, bankers, attorneys and so on. The women shop at the ‘right’ exclusive places, raise money for the ‘correct’ causes, host expensive parties, get cosmetic surgery and send their children to the best schools. Some have careers (one, for instance, is a real estate professional). Everything changes with the economic downturn at the end of the 1990s. People can no longer rely on a steady supply of easy money. And this has devastating consequences for everyone.

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, we are introduced to successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal and his wife. They live in an upmarket part of Delhi, have a beautiful home and a staff of servants. They also have a reputation and lifestyle to uphold, so the family’s good name is extremely important. Disaster strikes when Kasliwal is accused of raping and murdering a family servant, Mary Murmu. She disappeared a few months ago, and there’s been quite a lot of talk about her fate. He claims that he’s innocent, but the police arrest him. They don’t want to give the appearance of toadying to the rich and powerful, so it’s decided to make an example of this case. Kasliwal hires PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri to find out the truth about his servant’s disappearance, and clear his name. As we get to know the family, we see how limiting that upper-class status can be, despite the privilege associated with it.

And then there’s Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel. It’s the late 1950s, and Evelyn ‘Eve’ Hobart has always been acquisitive. But she grew up with little money and no privilege. Things change when she meets Hank Moran at a college dance. He comes from a wealthier family with a reputation. Eve isn’t rich, but she is beautiful and seductive, and it’s not long before they’re married. Now she becomes a part of the ‘better class’ of Philadelphia-area society. Women of that class take day trips into the city to shop, spend money on their suburban homes, and belong to clubs and societies. For Eve, though, the real spark of life is getting and having things, especially taking things she hasn’t bought. It gets her in trouble more than once, and eventually, lands her in The Terraces, an expensive ‘special place’ where she can be ‘cured’ of her compulsions. But Eve remains completely dysfunctional and toxic, doing whatever it takes, including murder, to get what she wants, whether it’s clothing, jewels, or men. As her daughter Christine grows up, Eve draws her into that web, and Christine, being so dependent on her mother, can do little about it. As the years go by, that dysfunction continues to dominate their relationship until Christine notices that her younger brother Ryan is starting be drawn in to their mother’s life, too. Now, she decides she will have to rescue Ryan, and set herself free, too.

By the way, it was a conversation with Patti Abbott that got me thinking about this topic. Thanks for the inspiration!

On the outside, the life of those who have a privileged existence can seem very alluring. But it really is as limiting as any other life. And it can be at least as deadly.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rolling Stones’ Mother’s Little Helper.

25 Comments

Filed under Claudia Piñeiro, Ernesto Mallo, Patricia Abbott, Tarquin Hall, Teresa Solana

At the Watering Holes of the Well-to-Do*

Exclusive ClubsAgatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide…) begins at the Coronation Club during a World War II air raid. Major Porter is reading a newspaper item which he discusses with Hercule Poirot. The item concerns the death of wealthy Gordon Cloade, who’s been killed in a bomb blast. Cloade leaves behind a young widow Rosaleen, as well as several relatives. And therein lies the problem. He’d always made it clear to his family that he would take care of them financially, so they’ve never gone without. But he died without making a will. Now Rosaleen is entitled to everything, and that fact leads to acrimony and worse. Major Porter plays a role later in the novel, and at one point Poirot has a conversation with him:
 

‘Poirot guessed that for Major Porter, retired Army officer, life was lived very near the bone. Taxation and increased cost of living struck hardest at the old war-horses.
Some things, he guessed, Major Porter would cling to until the end. His club subscription, for instance.’ 
 

Major Porter’s attitude towards his club isn’t uncommon. There’s something about belonging to an exclusive club that makes members feel special – even superior. Little wonder there are so many of them.

Exclusive clubs can also serve as effective contexts for crime fiction. Who knows what might go on among members, and clubs offer all sorts of options for the author. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Dorothy Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Lord Peter Wimsey investigates a death that occurs at his own Bellona Club. Old General Fentiman has passed away while sitting in his customary chair at the club. His sister, wealthy Lady Dormer, has also passed away. What’s important in this instance is the timing of the deaths. If Lady Dormer dies first, the family fortune passes to Fentiman’s grandson. If Fentiman dies first, the money goes to Lady Dormer’s distant cousin Ann Dorland. When it’s discovered that Fentiman was poisoned, Wimsey looks into the matter. And with so much money involved, there’s a lot at stake. Here’s Fentiman’s grandson’s amusing commentary on the club:
 

‘Place always reminds me of that old thing in Punch, you know—‘Waiter, take away Lord Whatsisname, he’s been dead two days.’ Look at Old Ormsby there, snoring like a hippopotamus. Look at my revered grandpa — dodders in here at ten every morning, collects the Morning Post and the armchair by the fire, and becomes part of the furniture till the evening. Poor old devil. Suppose I’ll be like that one of these days.’
 

Still, neither Fentiman would give up his club subscription

Several of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories feature exclusive clubs. For instance, in Gambit, Wolfe and Archie Goodwin investigate when Paul Jerin is poisoned. It seems that he did magic stunts and other party tricks, and was also quite skilled at chess. Matthew Blount, a member of the exclusive Gambit Chess Club, had played against Jerin a few times and the idea was born of a kind of competition at the club. Jerin would sit in one room, blindfolded, and play twelve simultaneous chess matches against other members of the club, who would sit in other rooms. Moves would be communicated by messenger. At first everything went well enough. But then Jerin suddenly died from what has turned out to be poisoned hot chocolate. Since it was Blount who brought Jerin the chocolate, he’s the most likely suspect. But his daughter Sally is convinced he’s innocent. So she hires Wolfe and Goodwin to find out the truth.

In H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote’s First Case, Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay Police has just been promoted to the rank of Inspector. He’s delighted with that, and with the prospect of becoming a father (his wife Protima is due to give birth very soon). Then his boss Sir Rustom Engineer assigns him to a delicate case. Iris Dawkins has apparently committed suicide; her widower wants to know why. Since Engineer is an old friend of Dawkins’, he’s promised to have someone look into the matter. So Ghote goes to Mahableshwar, where Dawkins lives. Ghote begins by tracing the victim’s last days and weeks, and it’s not long before he comes to believe that she was murdered. Part of the trail leads to the Mahableshwar Club, so Ghote pays more than one visit there:
 

‘Smoking Room. Inside, at once evident, the aroma from many past years of cigars, pipes and cigarettes lingering unmistakably. But yes, in the far corner a human being. Must be, even if he is holding up the broad pages of the Times of India.’
 

The story has a clear depiction of the Anglo-Indian club.

Of course, there are plenty of modern clubs too, as we see in Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows, which takes place mostly in the late 1990’s. The setting for most of the novel is the ultra-exclusive Cascade Heights Country Club, located about thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Potential members/residents are thoroughly vetted before being admitted, and everything that happens within the community is monitored and managed by its Commission. From the physical design of the area to the ID cards that are provided to members, it’s all specially designed to keep the outside world at bay. And those who live there are desperate to maintain their status as accepted members in good standing. So when the financial troubles of late-1990s Argentina find their way into the club, residents begin to worry about keeping up their privileged lives. As those problems worsen, it gets harder and harder to do that. The desperation to remain a part of this exclusive club ultimately leads to tragedy.

But that’s how important being a part of a very exclusive club is to some people. That feeling of being ‘set apart,’ superior and privileged can be intoxicating. And the club setting can make for a very solid crime setting.
 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Peron’s Latest Flame.

18 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Claudia Piñeiro, Dorothy Sayers, H.R.F Keating, Rex Stout