Category Archives: Dawn Harris

Assassinations That Make Me Scared and Afraid*

As this is posted, it’s 36 years since John Hinckley, Jr.’s attempt to assassinate then-US president Ronald Reagan. It certainly wasn’t the first attempted assassination; there’ve been many actual assassinations, too.

It shouldn’t be surprising that there are plenty of such attempts in crime fiction, too. It’s a tension-filled, suspenseful main plot line, and it’s flexible enough that it can be adapted for a thriller, a traditional-style crime novel, and other sub-genres, too. There are several examples out there; here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, powerful banker Alistair Blunt visits his dentist, Henry Morley. When Morley is later found shot in his surgery, the police believe that Blunt was actually the intended victim. He is a wealthy and influential man, and those in political power depend on him. Blunt stands for traditional approaches to government and finance, and that’s made him plenty of enemies. One day, he happens to be meeting with the Prime Minister when an activist takes a shot at the Prime Minister. Neither he nor Blunt is killed, but it shows just how much in danger Blunt may be. Because this is such a sensitive case, the Home Office takes over, pulling Chief Inspector Japp from the investigation. But Hercule Poirot is under no such restriction. So, he continues to look into the Morley murder and finds that it’s not as easy as you might think to tell whether this was an attempt on Blunt, or whether Morley was the intended victim.

One of the most famous novels dealing with this topic is Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal. A far-right French group called Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) wants to plan to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle. The members are aware that they’re already known to the police. So, they decide to hire a killer – an Englishman known only as ‘the Jackal.’ No-one knows his real name or what he looks like, so he’s a good choice for the purpose. The arrangements are made, and the Jackal begins elaborate preparations for the assassination. Detective Claude Lebel has the difficult assignment of finding and stopping the Jackal, if he can, before de Gaulle becomes a victim. In this novel, it’s the ‘cat and mouse’ suspense of watching both sides that keeps the suspense going.

In Dawn Harris’ The Fat Badger Society, which takes place at the end of the 18th Century, an attempt is made on the life of the English King. It isn’t successful, but it’s clear that there is some sort of major plot in the works. Prime Minister William Pitt has intelligence that suggests that there may be a group of French supporters behind this plot. And he suspects that they have a base on the Isle of Wight. As it happens, Lady Drusilla Davanish (Harris’ sleuth) lives on Wight. She happens to be in London on other business, so Pitt asks to see her. He tells her that John Hamerton, whom she actually knows, may be a French spy, and may be in with those involved in the plot. Pitt wants Lady Drusilla to return to the Isle of Wight, and find out whether or not Hamerton is a spy, and what ties, if any, he may have to a mysterious group called the Fat Badger Society, which is suspected of having French loyalties. Lady Drusilla agrees, and begins to ask some questions. She finds that there’s a lot more danger in store for her than she thought…

Murder in the Lincoln Room is one of a series of mysteries featuring Eleanor Roosevelt as the sleuth. Her son, Elliott Roosevelt, is listed as the author. Whether he actually wrote the novels, or whether they were ‘ghost-written,’ they provide an interesting portrait of life during the Roosevelt years. And in this particular novel, President Roosevelt is holding a top-secret meeting with UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower. It’s important that this meeting be kept completely confidential. Matters get complicated when the body of Special Counsel to the President Paul Weyrich is found in the famous Lincoln Bedroom. Now, it’ll be even harder to keep the story of the meeting out of the press. When it’s discovered that Weyrich was part of a plot to assassinate the president, Mrs. Roosevelt knows that she’ll have get answers quickly, before there’s another, possibly successful, attempt.

And then there’s Leif GW Persson’s Free Falling, As If in a Dream. This story has as its focus the 1986 assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. As you’ll know doubt know, there’ve been a number of theories, but Palme’s murder has never been solved. In the novel, Lars Martin Johansson, chief of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation in Sweden, decides to re-open the investigation. He enlists the help of a group of trusted colleagues, and together, the team starts going back through all of the paperwork associated with the assassination. Little by little, the team uncovers new leads. And that means fresh possibilities for investigation. But there’s more at stake here than there is in most murder cases. And Johansson soon finds himself caught in several moral dilemmas.

Assassination attempts are, of course, awful in real life, whether or not they’re successful. But in crime fiction, they can add a great deal of suspense and tension. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Anne Clark’s Red Sands.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dawn Harris, Elliott Roosevelt, Frederick Forsyth, Leif G.W. Persson

I Found an Old Letter*

Old LettersIn today’s world of email, texting and social media, many people don’t write letters any more. But there was a time, and it wasn’t too many decades ago, when letters were the main form of communication, even for people who lived in the same town. And they were absolutely critical for those who lived at any distance.

Old letters can be treasure troves for historians, genealogists and anthropologists, among other professionals. They convey the story of an era at a very personal level. They can also be rich resources for those who are looking into their own family’s history. If you’ve ever gotten to read a letter that one of your great-greats wrote, you know what I mean. So it’s little wonder that old letters play important roles in crime fiction too. There are many, many examples; I just have space for a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, Elinor Carlisle is charged with the poisoning murder of Mary Gerrard. There’s good reason to suspect her too. For one thing, Elinor’s former fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman is infatuated with Mary; in fact, his feelings for Mary are an important part of what broke the couple up. For another thing, Elinor’s wealthy Aunt Laura Welman was planning to leave at least part of her considerable fortune to Mary, of whom she’d become quite fond. She might even have cut Elinor out of the will completely if enough time had gone by. But local GP Peter Lord wants Elinor’s name cleared. He’s fallen in love with her and is determined to see her acquitted. So he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot agrees and looks into the matter. He finds that in this case, past relationships and interactions have everything to do with Mary’s murder. And an old letter has an important role to play. I know, I know, fans of Five Little Pigs

The real action in Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo begins when a body surfaces in a bog near the Lake District town of Fellhead. It’s not long before talk begins to spread that the body is that of Fletcher Christian, of H.M.S. Bounty fame. The story is that Christian did not die on Pitcairn Island, as has always been supposed. Instead, he made his way back to his native Lake District. If that’s the case, then what would be more likely than that he would have re-connected with his longtime friend William Wordsworth? And if he did, then it’s likely Wordsworth would have written about it. Wordsworth scholar Jane Gresham is hoping exactly that. There’ve been stories for quite some time about an unpublished Wordsworth manuscript; the appearance of what could be Christian’s body lends credence to them. So Gresham travels to Fellhead, which is home to her, to try to trace the manuscript, if there is one. She’s up against several obstacles, since she’s by no means the only one desperate to get that manuscript. Besides that, even if she does find it, she’ll need to persuade whoever has it to give it up. Then, one of the people whom Gresham interviews about the manuscript suddenly dies. Then there’s another death. Now it looks as though Gresham may be mixed up in a case of multiple murder. Woven throughout this story is a series of old letters bearing on the case. And in fact, those old letters play a role in finding out the truth about what happened to the manuscript.

Steve Robinson’s In the Blood introduces readers to genealogist Jefferson Tayte. Successful Boston businessman Walter Sloane hires Tayte to trace his wife’s ancestry and Tayte beings work on the project. The trail leads to the Fairborne family. One branch of that family settled in the American South. The other went to England with a group of Loyalists in 1783. Tayte follows that lead to England to find out what happened to those Fairbornes. In the process of searching for the truth, he makes the surprising discovery that some members of the family seem to have disappeared, with no records of their deaths. As Tayte is looking into that mystery, Amy Fallon has a mystery of her own to solve. Her husband Gabriel died two years ago when he was lost in a storm. Just before his death, he told Amy that he’d discovered a secret about their house. He never got the chance to tell her what it was though. Now, construction on the home has revealed a hidden staircase and basement. In that room, Amy’s discovered a very old writing box containing a love letter. That letter proves to be crucial to figuring out the truth about the Fairborne family.

In L.R. Wright’s The Suspect, RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg is up against a challenging case. Eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke has been murdered, and there don’t seem at first to be many clues. The murder was reported by eighty-year-old George Wilcox, who says he stopped by Burke’s home, only to find him dead. Alberg isn’t convinced by this, but he has no real evidence, and there seems no motive. And yet, the more he learns about the case, the more convinced he is that Wilcox is the murderer. As it turns out, a group of old letters is the key to this mystery, and plays an important role in it.

Sometimes, old letters have value because they were written to or by someone who’s become famous. That’s the case in Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters. Meredith Winterbottom lives with her two sisters Eleanor Harper and Peg Blythe in a unique part of London called Jerusalem Lane. A big development company wants to buy up Jerusalem Lane to make a shopping and entertainment district, but Meredith refuses. Then one day she is found dead. DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla investigate the death, which looks at first like a suicide. But Kolla’s not so sure. So she begins to look into the matter more closely. There’s no lack of suspects, either. The victim was the only resident of Jerusalem Lane who didn’t agree to sell up to the development company, and her unwillingness was costing money and holding up the plans. Just as interesting is the fact that the three sisters are great-granddaughters of Karl Marx, who lived in the Jerusalem Lane area for a time. They’ve got a collection of old notes and letters that could potentially be very valuable. And as Kolla and Brock get closer to the truth, we see the role that those old letters play in this case.

And then there’s Dawn Harris’ Letter From a Dead Man, which takes place in 1793. Lady Drusilla lives on the Isle of Wight with her Aunt Thirza and cousin Lucie. Lucie is set to marry Giles Saxborough, whose father Cuthbert is Lady Drusilla’s godfather. Everything changes one day when Cuthbert Saxborough dies in what looks like a terrible riding accident.  Lady Drusilla thinks it’s very odd, since her godfather was an expert horseman. But she’s soon distracted by a suspected case of smuggling. Then, tragedy strikes again when Giles’ brother Thomas and his son Tom are killed in a yachting accident. Two accidents are too many for Lady Drusilla, who begins to investigate more thoroughly. As it turns out, the truth about the murders has to do with the past, and some important clues are to be found in some letters that have been kept for sentimental reasons…

And that’s the thing about actual letters. Much more often than emails, they’re kept for all sorts of reasons. And they can provide rich information on a place and time, a family, a person, or a murder.

 

 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Comsat Angels’ Not a Word.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Barry Maitland, Dawn Harris, L.R. Wright, Steve Robinson, Val McDermid

There Were Incidents and Accidents*

So-Called AccidentsSome deaths are quite obviously murders. In those cases, at least in crime fiction, the killer doesn’t try to hide the fact that it was murder. Rather, the murderer may work hard at an alibi, or may work hard to prove there was no motive. But really, it’s much easier to disguise the murder as an accident if it’s possible. And sometimes, that makes it awfully difficult to prove that a death was murder.

Examples of murders made to look like accidents run all through crime fiction, possibly because it’s really credible that someone would want to cover up a murder that way. Whatever the reason, there are a lot of examples – many more than I could list in one post. But here are a few.

Agatha Christie uses the so-called accident in several of her stories. To take just one example, in Cards on the Table, Hercule Poirot is invited to a very unusual dinner. The enigmatic Mr. Shaitana gathers four sleuths (including Poirot) and four people that he hints have gotten away with murder. After the meal, everyone settles in to play bridge. During the evening, someone stabs Mr. Shaitana. The only possible suspects are the four people who were in the room at the time – the very four people Shaitana more or less accused of murder. Now the four sleuths are faced with the task of figuring out which of these equally-plausible suspects is guilty. One of them is Anne Meredith. At one point, she’d served as companion to a Mrs. Benson, who died tragically of poisoning by hat paint. Apparently, she confused the hat paint with her medicine, a very plausible accident. Or was it?

In Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow), a young boy Isaiah Christiansen tragically dies after a fall from the roof of the Copenhagen apartment building where he lives. Isaiah had befriended fellow Greenlander Smilla Jasperson, and she is upset at his death. She’s drawn to the scene of the accident, and when she gets there, she sees signs in the snow that lead her to believe that the boy’s death was not accidental. She begins to ask questions and soon discovers that some dangerous people are determined to hide the truth. She persists though, and her search for answers takes her back to her homeland, where she finds the connection between Isaiah’s death and some secrets hidden in Greenland.

Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House introduces Arthur Bryant and John May of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). The novel actually tells two stories, one of which is a recounting of the PCU’s first case. In 1940, the Palace Theatre is set to do a production of Orpheus. Then one of the dancers Tanya Capistrania dies in what some say is a freak accident. The police are investigating that death when Charles Senechal, who was to play the role of Jupiter in the production, is killed by a piece of scenery. Again it’s regarded as a terrible accident, but an accident nonetheless. Still, it’s beginning to look very much as though someone is determined to stop the production. When another death occurs, and then a disappearance, Bryant and May and their team come under intense pressure to solve the case before there are any more tragedies.

Louise Penny’s Still Life is our introduction to the small rural Québec town of Three Pines. One of its residents Jane Neal is killed during the Thanksgiving holiday in what looks like a hunting accident. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is called to the scene, and he soon finds that this death was actually a murder. The question though is who would have had a motive. The victim was a beloved former teacher whom everyone seemed to respect. Gamache and the team get to know the town, though, and some of its history. And it’s in the past that they find the motive and therefore, the killer.

In Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip, Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone thinks he’s found a great new way to make money. He’s a marine biologist (well, in name at least) who’s hired by agribusiness owner Samuel Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut. Hammernut’s company has been accused of pouring toxic waste into Florida’s Everglades, and Hammernut needs proof that his company doesn’t pollute. Perrone offers that in the form of a way he’s developed to fake the results of water testing so the water looks clean. The two begin to do business and all goes well enough at first. Then, Perrone’s wife Joey begins to suspect what’s going on, and threatens to report it. Now he needs to get rid of her, so he tells her they’re going on an anniversary cruise of the Everglades. While they’re on the trip, he pushes Joey overboard, thinking that’s the end of his problems. At first everyone, including the police, thinks it’s a terrible accident and there’s much sympathy for Perrone. What he doesn’t know though is that Joey didn’t drown, and she’s made her own plans for revenge…

And then there’s Dawn Harris’ Letter From a Dead Man. In the late 18th-Century Lady Drusilla Davenish lives on the Isle of Wight with her Aunt Thirza and Thirza’s daughter Lucie. The family is excited about Lucie’s upcoming wedding to Giles Saxborough. Everything changes though, when Giles’ father (and Lady Drusilla’s godfather) Cuthbert Saxborough dies in what looks like a tragic riding accident. But things don’t quite add up for Lady Drusilla. Her godfather was an expert horseman. It’s highly unlikely that he’d have died in that way. So she starts to ask questions. Not long afterwards, Giles’ older brother Thomas and his son Tom are both killed in what’s put down as a horrible yachting accident. But Lady Drusilla is convinced that it’s more than that. And there’s more than one possible explanation. It might be connected to a smuggling operation she’s recently discovered. Or it might be someone with a vendetta against the Saxborough family. Or it might be something else…

In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney is hired by Jim Delbeck to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. She was a volunteer at the New Life Children’s Centre in Pattaya when she fell from the roof of the building where she was living. The police report suggests it might have been suicide, but Delbeck doesn’t think so. It could also have very well been an accident. Whatever the cause, Delbeck wants to know the truth about his daughter’s death. Keeney takes the case and travels to Pattaya. As a part of her investigations, she decides to learn more about at New Life, going undercover as a volunteer. As she gets closer to the truth about Maryanne’s life and death, she finds out that some people do not want their secrets revealed…

At least in fiction, murders designed to look like accidents can serve a lot of purposes. They can give murderers effective ways to hide their crimes. They can also give the author a way to build suspense and interest. And they can allow the author the chance to lead the reader up the proverbial garden path. After all, sometimes an accident is just an accident. There are so many other examples of this plot point in crime fiction – many more than I could name. So…what gaps have I left?

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Carl Hiaasen, Christopher Fowler, Dawn Harris, Louise Penny, Peter Høeg

In The Spotlight: Dawn Harris’ Letter From a Dead Man*

SpotlightHello All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some crime fiction novels are as much adventure novels as they are crime stories. In those stories, the suspense comes not just from the crime and its investigation, but also from the sleuth’s and other characters’ exploits, if I can put it that way. To show you what I mean, let’s take a look at an adventure/crime novel today and turn the spotlight on Dawn Harris’ Letter From a Dead Man.

The novel takes place in 1793 on the Isle of Wight, where Lady Drusilla Davanish lives at Westfleet Manor with her Aunt Thirza and Thirza’s daughter Lucie. Lucie is engaged to marry Giles Saxborough, son of Lady Drusilla’s godfather Cuthbert Saxborough, and everyone’s happy about the upcoming event. Tragedy strikes though when Cuthbert is found dead of what looks very much like a tragic riding accident. Drusilla isn’t sure of that; her godfather was an expert horseman and she finds it hard to believe that he would have made the mistakes that seem to have led to his death.

She begins to ask questions but she’s soon distracted by another matter. It seems that one of her tenants Jeremiah Smith has been smuggling. Drusilla wants to put a stop to the smuggling but she has no proof at first. She finds evidence of a kind though and continues to try to catch Smith in the act, so to speak. As she does so, she begins to attract some unwanted attention from people who do not want the smuggling to be interrupted.

In the meantime, tragedy again strikes the Saxborough family when Giles’ older brother Thomas and his son Tom are both killed while out on their yacht. Again, the deaths are put down to terrible accident, but Drusilla is sure that they were murdered. For one thing, both were powerful swimmers who should have been able to survive. For another, Thomas was a skilled yachtsman. And there are several possible motives and suspects too. Could Thomas have caught French smugglers, who then killed him? What about Giles? Now that Thomas is dead, Giles inherits the family home Ledstone Place, as well as the family fortune. There’s also the strange fact that Cuthbert’s brother Vincent, long thought dead, has suddenly returned to the Isle of Wight with his son Piers. And then there’s Radleigh Reevers, Giles’ cousin from the mainland, who is paying a visit to the island to help look after Ledstone until Giles’ wedding. He seems to know more about the smuggling than he’s saying, and what’s more, always seems to turn up at odd moments.

Drusilla is certain that her godfather’s death and the deaths of his son and grandson are tied in with each other. And as she puts the pieces of the puzzle together, she begins to fear that the killer she’s up against is closer than she wants to think, and very dangerous. With help from her groom John Mudd, Lady Drusilla slowly finds out the truth about what happened to the Saxborough men, and how it’s related to the ongoing problem of smuggling on the island.

This is an adventure story, so there’s plenty of action. For instance, in one scene, Drusilla is nearly killed when two strangers try to get her to stop investigating smuggling. In another, she goes to a very seedy sailors’ pub disguised as a young man to get some information. There are other ways too in which adventure is woven into the story, but I don’t want to give away spoilers.

The novel is also an historical mystery and Harris has carefully ‘done her homework.’ The novel is set during the time of The Reign of Terror that followed the beginnings of the French Revolution. The Reign of Terror plays an important role in the novel in several ways. For instance, Drusilla’s uncle (Thirza’s husband) has been taken captive in France and in one sub-plot, Giles is secretly working with some of his contacts to get his fiancée’s father to safety.

In other ways too, Harris captures the times in a believable way. We see for example the very sour relations between the English and the French at the time, and that plays out at a very human level. Readers should be aware that since the characters in the novel are English, there is some very, very strong anti-French sentiment. It’s quite authentic, if not exactly pleasant by today’s standards. There’s also Harris’ portrayal of the social structure and customs of the day. Readers get a look at visiting customs, wedding preparations, mealtime habits and much more. There is a real sense of the time period, even to the descriptions of clothes, which those who follow fashion will find interesting.

Another element in this novel is the character of Lady Drusilla. In many ways, she is a product of her times and her social class, and that makes her authentic. But she is also independent, intelligent and quite courageous. She’s hardly perfect though. She sometimes acts rashly, she makes mistakes as she’s getting to the truth about the murders, and she can be impatient. It’s not hard to like her though and wish her well.

In the course of the novel, Lady Drusilla becomes interested in Radleigh Reevers, and the attraction is mutual. But you couldn’t really call this a romance. For one thing, Reevers is a suspect and Drusilla is quite well aware of the danger of being involved with a murderer. For another, Drusilla very much enjoys her independence and

 

‘…no man, however amiable, would allow me the independence I am accustomed to. And that is something I am not prepared to give up.’

 

It is to Harris’ credit that this relationship doesn’t instantly (and unrealistically) blossom into love. It does add a layer of depth to both characters though.

There’s also some humour in the novel. For example, one of the minor characters in the novel is the insufferable Mr. Upton, the local parson. No-one much likes him or his officious moralising and sanctimonious behaviour. So it’s especially funny when one day Drusilla and her groom are making their way to her home together only to witness Mr. Upton fall down a muddy slope. To make matters worse, a cart goes by and splashes him with more mud. The driver stops to help Upton and give him a ride home. But when Upton then loses his footing getting into the cart, falling face-down in the mud, neither Drusilla nor her groom can help dissolving in laughter.

 

‘‘We shouldn’t laugh, my lady,’ he chortled, making no effort to hide his own mirth.
‘No – and I wouldn’t,’ I gasped, holding my sides, ‘if only he wasn’t so full of his own importance.’’

 

There’s also Drusilla’s Aunt Thirza, who can be infuriating. It’s not that she has no redeeming qualities but Drusilla sometimes gets her fill of the woman. At one point for example, Drusilla has just found out that her aunt couldn’t keep to herself a rumour that Giles Saxborough killed his brother. Instead, she told Giles’ stepmother, who is already devastated by the tragedy in her family:

 

‘I was so angry that for one very brief moment, I asked myself why it was that, if a murderer was indeed at large, he had failed to choose my aunt as a victim.’

 

The wit comes through in other places too and it makes for a refreshing counterpoint to the sadness and the loss in the novel.

Letter From a Dead Man is a believable mystery set in a fascinating and authentically-depicted historical era. It features a solidly-developed protagonist, plenty of escapes and adventures, and a thread of wit too. But what’s your view? Have you read Letter From a Dead Man? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 

 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday 15 July/Tuesday 16 July – In the Blood – Steve Robinson

Monday 22 July/Tuesday 23 July – Witness the Night – Kishwar Desai

Monday 29 July/Tuesday 30 July – Forty Words For Sorrow – Giles Blunt

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Filed under Dawn Harris, Letter From a Dead Man