Category Archives: Colin Dexter

Let’s Go to the Movies*

Going to the cinema has been a deeply ingrained part of many cultures for a very long time. I’ll bet you have memories of going to the cinema as a child. Or of going there on a date – and not actually watching much of the film. Perhaps you still go. There’s no doubt that the advent of the internet, streaming films, and other technology has changed people’s cinema habits dramatically. But the cinema’s still a part of our lives.

It’s little wonder, then, that it’s also woven into crime fiction. For instance, there are dozens of crime novels where a suspect claims to have been at the cinema. And, there are sometimes important scenes – even murders – that take place there.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp and local police detectives to solve a series of murders that seem to be connected. Each killing is preceded by a cryptic warning to Poirot. And an ABC railway guide is found next to each body. Still, there’s not much else linking the killings, and even Poirot isn’t making a lot of headway. Then, Poirot gets a warning that there will be a murder in Doncaster. The police do their best to prepare, but there’s a major horse race on the same day, so it’s going to be very hard to keep track of what happens. And, in fact, the murderer takes advantage of the situation and kills another victim. The murder takes place at the Regal Cinema, Doncaster, during a showing of Not a Sparrow. It’s a very effective setup for the killing, too. The room is dark, everyone’s watching the film, and no-one’s watching who comes in our out. Everyone’s so intent on leaving at the end of the film that nobody sees the stabbing take place. In the end, Poirot works out who the killer is, and what the motive is. And it’s interesting to see how the murderer has managed to get away with it.

In Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis work to find out who poisoned Nicholas Quinn, the newest member of the Oxford Foreign Exams Syndicate. This group oversees exams given in other (non-UK) countries that follow the British system of education. It’s a tight-knit group, and as Quinn became involved with the members, he found out some things that it wasn’t safe for him to know. This means that all of the members are suspects, and Morse and Lewis look into their alibis, their relationships with Quinn, and the like. Interestingly enough, an afternoon spent at a pornography cinema turns out to figure importantly into people’s alibis.

There’s also a look at pornographic cinema in Leigh Redhead’s Peepshow, which introduces her sleuth, Simone Kirsch. Kirsch is a newly-licensed Melbourne PI and occasional stripper, who works at a cinema called the Shaft. One day, her best friend, Chloe Wozniak, who also works at the Shaft, asks for her help. Wozniak also works at a table dance place called the Red Room. She had a major argument with the owner, Francisco ‘Frank’ Parisi, and the next morning, he was found dead. Now she’s a prime suspect. Kirsch hasn’t investigated a murder case before, but she agrees to see what she can do. And it’s not long before she’s given extra ‘motivation.’ The victim’s brother, Sal Parisi, decides to take matters into his own hands, and abducts Wozniak. Then, he tells Kirsch that Wozniak won’t be released until the real killer is found.

Cinemas were once large, sometimes ornate buildings of their own. Then, during the ‘mall culture’ of the 1970s and 1980s, many of them moved to (or opened in) malls. They became part of the ‘mall experience’ for people. We see a bit of that in Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. In that novel, which begins in 1984, we are introduced to ten-year-old Kate Meaney. She wants very much to be a detective. In fact, she’s already opened her own agency, Falcon Investigations. She spends a great deal of time at the newly-opened Green Oaks Shopping Center, where she is sure that she’ll find plenty of suspicious activity to investigate. And right across the parking lot from the mall is a cinema (that’s actually been the setup for a lot of malls). Kate’s grandmother, Ivy, thinks she’d be better off going away to school, so she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams for the exclusive Redspoon school. When Kate doesn’t come back from her exams, there’s a massive search for her, but she’s never found – not even a body. Years later, a mall security guard named Kurt begins to see some strange things on his camera: a young girl who looks a lot like Kate. One night, he meets Lisa Palmer, who works at a mall shop called Your Music. The two form an awkward sort of friendship, and, each in a different way, go back to the past, as we find out what really happened to Kate. And, although the cinema isn’t the reason for Kate’s disappearance, it’s a part of the mall culture that O’Flynn explores in the novel.

And then there’s Heda Margolius Kovály’s Innocence: Or, Murder on Steep Street. The novel takes place in 1950’s Prague, where the state controls everything, and no-one can really trust anyone. After all, anyone might by a spy, or report an activity to the police. So, people generally keep their secrets to themselves. Against this backdrop, we meet a group of people who work at the Horizon Cinema. The political and social systems are set up so that these people, who are supposed to support each other, actually end up being forced to mistrust each other and even betray each other. When eight-year-old Josef Vrba is murdered in the cinema’s projection booth, it seems clear that the killer is the projectionist. But then, the investigating officer is killed. The ensuing investigation brings to light a great deal of what these employees have been hiding.

See what I mean? Cinemas have played all sorts of roles in our culture and in crime fiction. They’re even, sometimes, murder scenes. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Charles Strouse and Martin Charmin.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Colin Dexter, Heda Margolius Kovály, Leigh Redhead

Sleuth Celebrity Shows ;-)

We’re all familiar with our top fictional sleuths’ skill at solving mysteries. But they have other talents, too, if you think about it. What if those other talents were celebrated? Wouldn’t it be great if the fictional sleuths we like best got their own TV shows, designed to showcase those skills? No, I mean it – it could work. If you’ll park your disbelief in front of the laptop to do some online shopping, I’ll show you what I mean with these

 

Sleuth Celebrity Shows
 

Restaurant Rescue

Struggling restaurants everywhere get a new lease on life as master gourmand Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie) offers them his singular expertise. Join M. Poirot as he pays a visit to a different restaurant each week, and gives the owner and chef the benefit of his deep knowledge of ambiance, food, wine, and service. The end result? A restaurant and staff that provide an unforgettable dining experience. You won’t want to miss it!

[We hear from our sources that Nero Wolfe (Rex Stout) had been considered for this show, but his spokesman has said that Wolfe would not be taking the role. The spokesman neither confirmed nor denied that Wolfe said the show was ‘flummery.’]

 

Refashion Yourself

If you’ve ever felt you wanted a new look, but weren’t sure where to start, you’ll want to tune in as Paris’ own Aimée Leduc (Cara Black) transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary. Each week, she takes charge of a different lucky client’s wardrobe, and brings it alive with the best in clothes, shoes, outerwear, accessories, and more. She also offers valuable tips to viewers on how to put together simple but sophisticated looks for every occasion. Don’t miss a single episode!

 

Save My Kitchen

Straight from the heart of France’s gastronomic culture, Bruno Courrèges (Martin Walker) brings the Périgord to homes everywhere. Tune in each week as this skilled chef transforms his guests’ everyday meals into something special. With the right ingredients and simple cooking strategies, Courrèges makes even a quick lunch memorable. Each episode brings you a treasure trove of advice for your own kitchen. No more ho-hum meals!

 

Live With Less

The show for people who want to de-clutter and start living simpler, less hectic, and less expensive lives. Let natural living expert Rebecka Martinsson (Åsa Larsson) be your guide to a more sustainable, more budget-conscious, and less frantic lifestyle. Each week, Rebecka visits the home of a different family, and gives them sustainable and inexpensive solutions for clothing, cooking, cleaning, and much more. Each episode teaches easy ways to cut down the waste, tone down the non-stop stress of modern life, and make the most of what nature offers. Don’t miss a single one!

 

The Big Event

Starring one of the world’s foremost entertainment experts, Phryne Fisher (Kerry Greenwood), this show covers everything involved in planning and hosting the perfect event. Each week, Phryne coaches her guests as they put together weddings, reunions, corporate events, and other special occasions. Watch as the guests plan themes, decorations, music, food and drink, and all of the other unique touches that make an event unforgettable. Then, see the event itself, and get some great ideas for your own big day.

 

Pub Crawl

Renowned pub expert E. Morse (Colin Dexter) takes you on a tour of the UK’s best pubs and watering holes. Each week, Morse visits a different local, and shares his experiences. Learn how the UK’s pubs compare on selection, price, quality, ambiance, and much more. Enjoy Morse’s critiques, and pick your own new places to try!

 

See what I mean? These TV shows could really take off, don’t you think? And it would mean our sleuths could earn some welcome extra income. These are just a few of my own ideas. Got any of your own to share?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Cara Black, Colin Dexter, Kerry Greenwood, Martin Walker, Rex Stout

We’re Off to the Pub to Play in the Trivia Club*

As this is posted, it’s the birthday of famous quiz show host Alex Trebek. If you think about it, quiz shows such as Jeopardy and Mastermind are interesting examples of how much people like trivia. If you watch those shows, or you’ve ever played Trivial Pursuit or games like it, you know what I mean. And sometimes, knowing trivia can be lucrative.

Even if all you get is bragging rights, trivia can be interesting. Trivia even finds its way into crime fiction. And sometimes, it can end up being important, and not trivial at all.

Take Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, for instance. In that novel, famous American actress Jane Wilkinson comes to Poirot with an unusual (for him) sort of problem. She wants a divorce from her husband, Lord Edgware, so that she can marry again. But she says he won’t consent. Her solution is for Poirot to visit Edgware and ask him to withdraw his objection. It’s a strange request, but Poirot agrees. When he and Captain Hastings visit Edgware, though, their host tells them that he’s already written to his wife to tell her that he consents to the divorce. Confused, Poirot and Hastings leave, only to learn the next day that Edgware’s been stabbed. Jane is the most likely suspect, but there are a dozen people willing to swear that she was at a dinner party in another part of London at the time of the murder. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp, who’s assigned to the case, have to look elsewhere for the killer. In the end, a piece of trivia casually mentioned turns out to be part of the murderer’s undoing.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, we are introduced to Jonas Hansson. He’s got deep scars from an unhappy childhood and very dysfunctional parents. But he found solace in his fiancée, Anna. Then, Anna nearly died in a fall from a pier at a local boat club. She’s been in a coma since then, and Jonas spends as much time as he can by her side. At first, that attention impresses the staff at the hospital where Anna lives. But soon enough, we see that Jonas isn’t dealing with his life in a very healthy way. One night, he happens to be in a pub where he meets Eva Wirenström-Berg, who’s just found out that her husband, Henrik, has a mistress. Both she and Jonas make some fateful decisions that end up having tragic consequences for everyone. Interestingly enough, Jonas uses a particular set of trivia – distances between different places in Sweden – to cope with stress.
 

‘Alingsås to Arjeplog 1179 kilometres, Arboga to Arlanda 144, Arvidsjaur to Borlänge 787.’
 

He uses the ritual of repeating the distances to himself to calm down.

Trivia turns out to be useful to Saskatoon PI Russell Quant in Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit. Successful accountant Daniel Guest is being blackmailed, and he wants Quant to find out who’s responsible, and get that person to stop. He gives Quant the information he has about who the blackmailer might be, and Quant gets started. At one point, the trail leads to a local community theatre, where Quant hopes the secretary might provide him with some photographs he wants to see:
 

‘‘Hello, my name is Rick Astley and I’m the Artistic Director for Theatre Quant in Mission.’ I was betting she wasn’t old enough to be up on her late 1980’s teen idol trivia or informed enough about British Columbia community theatre to catch on to my clever ruse. And actually she looked pretty unimpressed with life in general regardless of the decade. I continued on, hoping my enthusiasm, if not my really bad English accent, would be contagious.”
 

Quant’s knowledge of musical trivia helps get him the photographs he wants, and a tiny piece of the puzzle.

Catriona McPherson’s Dandelion ‘Dandy’ Gilver series begins with Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains. In that novel, private detective Dandy Gilver gets a new client, Walburga ‘Lollie’ Balfour, who believes her husband, Philip ‘Pip,’ is trying to kill her. She doesn’t want Pip to know she’s consulted a detective, so she asks Dandy to visit her in the guise of a maid seeking a job. Dandy agrees, and takes a position under the name of Fanny Rossiter. The idea is that she’ll find out what she can, and try to protect her client. Late on the first night of ‘Fanny’s’ employment, Pip is stabbed. Dandy gets involved in the case as she tries to clear her client’s name. At one point, she comes upon the maid who discovered Pip’s body, desperately trying to get bloodstains out of her clothes. Dandy doesn’t think this maid is the killer, so she tries to be practical about it:
 

‘‘Apart from anything else, Miss Etheldreda, hot water sets a bloodstain so nothing will ever shift it. A cold water and salt soak is what’s needed.’’
 

That little bit of knowledge helps Dandy get some information she wants, and brings down the barrier between her and Etheldreda.

One of the major events in Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies is a Trivia Night event at Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. It’s intended as a fundraiser to provide the school’s classrooms with Smart Boards. Everyone’s ready for a fun event, but instead of a friendly competition in aid of a good cause, disaster strikes. The hors d’oeuvres don’t arrive, which means that people are drinking too much without anything to eat. The alcohol fuels already-simmering resentments, and the end result is tragedy. Then, the book takes readers back six months to show how the resentments built, and what led to the events of Trivia Night.

You see?  Trivia isn’t just for Jeopardy or for Quiz Night at the pub. And, of course, trivia isn’t always deadly. Just ask Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. He depends on that sort of knowledge, and his knowledge of language, to do his crossword puzzles. And where would he be without those?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Squeeze’s Sunday Street.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Catriona McPherson, Colin Dexter, Karin Alvtegen, Liane Moriarty

Hardly Anyone Has Seen How Good I Am*

Not long ago, I did a spotlight on Jane Haddam’s Not a Creature Was Stirring. And, as always seems to happen, the best thing about the post wasn’t the post at all. It was the discussion that followed it. In this case, a few of you commented about Haddam’s series, and wondered why it’s not much more widely read than it is.

And that’s got me thinking about other series that are like that. You know the sort of series I mean. They’re well-regarded, and may run to five, ten, or even more, books. But at the same time, they aren’t very widely read, and you don’t see them on a lot of ‘recommended’ lists.

It’s a difficult question to answer, really. After all, people differ greatly on what ‘counts’ as ‘widely read’ and ‘well known.’ That said, though, it’s interesting to consider why some series catch fire, as the saying goes, and are talked about a lot, and others aren’t.

Haddam’s is arguably one such series. For those not familiar with these novels, they feature former FBI agent Gregor Demarkian. He has an Armenian background, and is a member of Philadelphia’s Armenian community. In fact, most of the novels in the series are set in and around that city. Although he’s retired, he does consult with the police under certain circumstances. And a lot of the cases he investigates come through his best friend and local parish priest, Father Tibor. This is a 29-book series, so it’s not just a matter of a few books. And Haddam’s won awards for her work. And yet, plenty of people aren’t familiar at all with her series.

The ‘Emma Lathen’ writing team of Mary Jane Latsis and Martha Henissart created the very well-regarded John Putnam Thatcher series. As fans of the series can tell you, Thatcher is a vice-president for the Sloan Guaranty Trust. The Sloan is often involved in mergers, acquisitions, international banking, and so on. So, there’s plenty of opportunity for nefarious doings, including fraud and murder. This series is 24 novels long, and, like Haddam’s, has won awards. In fact, one of the entries, Murder Against the Grain, won the Crime Writer’s Association (CWA)’s 1967 Gold Dagger Award. And the team won the Malice Domestic Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1997. Admittedly, this series is arguably more widely known than Haddam’s. Still, it doesn’t always make the list of best-known authors and series the way, say, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series might.

The same might be said for the work of Marian Babson. Since 1971’s Cover Up Story, she’s had more than 40 books published. Interestingly enough, they’re all standalones (although some do re-use characters). They’re traditional-style mysteries, usually involving amateur sleuths. That said, though, they aren’t really what you’d call ‘cosy.’ While they tend to be low on violence (especially graphic violence), they aren’t ‘light, frothy’ books. Babson’s work is very highly regarded, especially among those who prefer traditional mysteries. She won the CWA’s 1996 Dagger in the Library Award for her body of work. And yet, a great many readers, including crime fiction fans, aren’t familiar at all with her work. And it’s not for lack of quality or high regard. Like Haddam and the Emma Lathen team, it’s also not because she only wrote a few novels.

There’s also the case of K.C. Constantine. He is the author of the Mario Balzic series, which takes place in the fictional Western Pennsylvania town of Rocksburg, where Balzic is Chief of Police. Beginning with The Blank Page, there are 17 novels in the series, most of which feature Balzic (two feature his protégé, Detective Sergeant Ruggiero ‘Rugs’ Carlucci, as well as other ‘beat’ cops). Rocksburg is the sort of town where everyone knows everyone, so, as the series evolves, we get to know Balzic, his wife, and several other people in the town quite well. And, in fact, character development plays an important role in the series. It’s a highly-regarded series, and fans will tell you it’s well worth reading. And, yet, you might easily be forgiven for never having heard of these books. In a way, that’s how Constantine likes it. He chooses to remain as anonymous as possible, and values his privacy, and that of his family, very much. So, even if you’re a crime fiction fan who goes to conferences such as Malice Domestic, Crimefest, Bouchercon, or other such events, you’re not likely to meet him.

And then there’s Jill McGown’s series featuring Detective Inspector (DI) David Lloyd, and Detective Sergeant (DS) Judy Hill of Stansfield CID. Beginning with 1983’s A Perfect Match, this is a traditional-style police procedural series. As the series goes on, Lloyd and Hill move along in their careers. They also continue their romantic relationship, eventually marrying and having a family. But the focus in these novels is on the mysteries. All in all, there are thirteen books in the series, and they’re well regarded. In fact, A Shred of Evidence was adapted for television film in 2001. McGown’s fans are devoted, too. And yet, this series is arguably not a ‘household word,’ the way, say, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series is.

There are plenty of other series, too, that fall into this category. I’ll bet you could name far more examples than I could. And there are a number of reasons that a series might not be particularly widely known. Even if authors are willing to go to a lot of conferences, etc., to promote their work, there’s a lot of competition. And with today’s self-publishing and other digital publication, there are even more book choices. So, readers have to make decisions about what they’ll choose. So do publishers. Even if an author is talented, and gets professional acclaim, that doesn’t mean that particular author is a best-seller. And publishers are interested in promoting the work of authors whose work sells a lot.

There are other reasons, too. What do you think about this? Which authors do you feel deserve a lot more attention than they’ve gotten? Why do you think those authors haven’t ‘caught fire?’ Thanks to those who commented on that earlier post, and got me thinking about this!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Rosalinda’s Eyes.

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Filed under Colin Dexter, Emma Lathen, Jane Haddam, Jill McGown, K.C. Constantine, Marian Babson, Sue Grafton

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