Category Archives: Deborah Nicholson

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.


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

Lost in the Dangling Conversation*

Awkward ConversationsBeing a detective, whether real or fictional, means that you sometimes have to have very awkward, even difficult, conversations. It’s not easy for instance to ask a grieving widow(er) for an alibi or to tell a subordinate s/he’s been fired. But those conversations happen in real life. And in a crime novel, they can add a solid layer of tension to a story. There are a lot of them out there and space only permits me to mention some. Hopefully you’ll get my point with just these few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, Hercule Poirot is in Cairo preparing for a cruise of the Nile. While he’s there he witnesses a very tense few scenes between newlyweds Linnet and Simon Doyle and Linnet’s former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. There’s good reason for the tension too, as Simon was Jackie’s fiancé before he married Linnet. Since the wedding, Jackie’s been following the couple wherever they go and it’s unsettling, so at Linnet’s request, a very reluctant Poirot agrees to speak to Jackie. During that very awkward conversation, he urges her to put her hurt behind her and go on. It’s a difficult talk and Jackie doesn’t end up taking Poirot’s advice. When Linnet and Simon embark on a cruise of the Nile, Jackie goes as well and ends up as the chief suspect when Linnet is shot. It turns out that Jackie could not have committed the crime though, so Poirot and Colonel Race, who’s also aboard the cruise, have to look elsewhere for the killer.

In Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red, Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne hears about a story that could assure her career. Connor Bligh has been imprisoned for several years for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. Only their daughter Katy survived because she wasn’t at home at the time of the murders. There are hints that Bligh might be innocent though. If he is, then he’s been wrongly imprisoned and the killer is still at large. The story has the potential for being powerful, so Thorne is determine to probe into it. As you can imagine, one of the people she wants to talk to is Katy Dickson. But Katy has no desire to talk to her. Katy has always believed that her uncle is guilty and she thinks the press is exploiting everyone’s grief. That’s to say nothing of her concern that the murderer of her family members might go free. So she absolutely refuses to speak to Thorne at first. The two have some extremely difficult conversations in the course of the novel, and they add to the story’s tension and interest.

In David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, Perth police Superintendent Frank Swann returns to the city after a seven-year absence when a friend of his is murdered. Ruby Devine was a brothel owner whose body has been discovered on a golf course. Although they were on opposite sides of the law, Swann considered the victim a friend and wants to find out who killed her. He knows the case is going to be difficult because it’s quite possible that the ‘purple circle’ of corrupt police know all about the murder and are covering it up. He’s already on their ‘list’ because he’s called for a Royal Commission hearing about corruption on the force. Since Swann can’t blindly depend on his colleagues, he tries to reach out to other people he knows – connections that he’s cultivated in the course of his work. One of them is Terry Accardi, who works in the Traffic department. At one point early in the novel, Swann and Accardi have a conversation about the case and about the fallout from Swann’s request for the commission hearing. It’s a very awkward conversation because for one thing, the ‘purple circle’ has let it be known that anyone who talks to or works with Swann will pay dearly. For another, Swann’s in the difficult position of having, one could argue, turned against his own by calling for the commission. So he’s not sure of Accardi’s loyalty. I don’t think it’s spoiling this story to say that Accardi doesn’t like the corruption any more than Swann does, and he proves helpful. But the tension between them in this scene is very clear.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn has very difficult conversations with a colleague in A Killing Spring. Reed Gallagher, Head of the Journalism Department at the university where Kilbourn teaches, has been murdered. KIlbourn gets involved in the case beginning when she helps to break the news of the murder to Gallagher’s widow. Meanwhile, some graffiti and other vandalism has occurred in the Journalism Department and the faculty there have to temporarily move offices while everything is cleaned up and repaired. So Kilbourn opens her office to Ed Mariani. The two get to know each other a bit and Ed and his partner Barry Levitt invite Kilbourn and her daughter Taylor over for dinner. This developing friendship makes it hard on both Kilbourn and Mariani when Kilbourn begins to suspect that Mariani could be the murderer. They have more than one very awkward conversation about the case and the strain that causes lends tension to the story.

In Deborah Nicholson’s House Report, we are introduced to Kate Carpenter, house manager for Calgary’s Foothill Stage Network (FSN). One evening during a performance of Much Ado About Nothing, the body of Peter Reynolds is discovered in one of the men’s washrooms. The police are called in and begin their investigation. The most likely suspect is Reynolds’ ex-wife Gladys, who works as an usher at the theatre. Gladys claims she’s innocent though, and doesn’t think the police will treat her fairly. So she asks Carpenter to help clear her name. Carpenter’s no professional sleuth, but she agrees to ask a few questions. Her interest in the case gets more personal when evidence turns up that links her lover Norman ‘Cam’ Caminksi to the murder. On the one hand, Carpenter wants to believe Cam is innocent, and she really doesn’t think he’s a murderer. But on the other, there’s certainly evidence against him and there is a possibility that he could be guilty. It makes for some very awkward conversations between them as Carpenter tries to find out the truth.

Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his second-in-command Jean-Guy Beauvoir have a strong professional relationship, even a friendship. But that doesn’t mean there’s no strain or awkward times between them. Matters come to a head as you might say in The Beautiful Mystery while the two are investigating the murder of Frère Mathieu, choirmaster at the monastery Saint-Gilbert-Entre-Les-Loups. I don’t want to spoil this story arc, but I can say that the rift between them doesn’t magically heal, and we learn more about it in How the Light Gets In. It’s a compelling look (at least it is to me) at what happens when some serious matters come between friends.

Awkward conversations are hard to write and in real life of course they make people uncomfortable. But sometimes they have to happen. I’ve only mentioned a few of them here. Your turn.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s The Dangling Conversation.


Filed under Agatha Christie, David Whish-Wilson, Deborah Nicholson, Gail Bowen, Louise Penny, Paddy Richardson

Having Been Some Days in Preparation*

PreparationIf you’re in the midst of final preparations for holiday parties or guests, then you know how important those preparations can be. Do you have enough food and drink? Are all the towels clean if you have guests? Has everyone on your gift list been crossed off? It can get hectic, but those last-minute preparations can make a great deal of difference. They matter a lot in crime fiction too. Now, before I go any further, let me say that this post will not mention novels where we follow a serial killer preparing for the next murder. Too easy and frankly, I’m a bit ‘over’ serial killers. But there are a lot of other crime fiction novels where preparations are highlighted. Here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, detective story author Ariadne Oliver has been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt, along the lines of a scavenger hunt, for an upcoming fête. The big event is to be held at Nasse House, the home of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. Soon enough Mrs. Oliver begins to suspect that something more is going on here than a fête, and she asks Hercule Poirot to travel to Nasse House and investigate. His presence will be explained easily enough since he’ll be giving away the prizes for the Murder Hunt. When Poirot arrives, he’s witness to all of the last-minute preparations, including discussions about where the various booths will be, who will do what, and whether the leaflets describing the Murder Hunt are ready. On the day of the fête, everything is finally ready. The event is shattered though by the murder of Marlene Tucker, the young girl who’s serving as the ‘victim’ in the Murder Hunt. Poirot and Inspector Bland both work to find out who would have wanted to kill Marlene and why. In this novel we get a solid ‘inside look’ at all that goes into planning an event like a fête.

There are a lot of theatre-based novels in which we learn about what it takes to put on a play. I’ll just mention two. In Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly, Oxford’s repertory theatre is getting ready for a production of Robert Warner’s new play Metromania. A group of people including Warner, the cast and repertory producer Sheila McGaw gear up for rehearsals and production. One night, one of the actresses Yseute Haskell is shot. The first explanation is that this is a suicide. The victim was alone, and no-one else had been seen going to or coming from her room. Chief Constable Sir Richard Freeman happens to be visiting his friend Oxford don Gervase Fen when the shot is fired, so he gets involved immediately in the case, as does Fen and journalist Nigel Blake. Although the main plot of this novel is the murder and its investigation, there’s also an interesting thread as we go ‘backstage’ (yes, pun intended 😉 ) to see what it’s like to get ready for a theatre production.

Of course it’s not just the cast that has to get ready for a play. So does the house. We learn about this in Deborah Nicholson’s House Report. Kate Carpenter is House Manager for the Foothills Stage Network (FSN), which is housed in the Calgary Arts Complex (the Plex). One evening during a run of Much Ado About Nothing, the body of Peter Reynolds is discovered in one of the men’s washrooms. Detective Ken Lincoln begins to investigate the case, and his first suspect is the victim’s ex-wife Gladys, who serves as one of FSN’s ushers. She claims to be innocent, and asks Carpenter to help clear her name since she doesn’t think she’ll get fair treatment from the police. Carpenter’s reluctant at first, as she and Gladys are not exactly friends. But Gladys is an employee. What’s more one of the other suspects is Carpenter’s lover Norman ‘Cam’ Caminksi, who’s a building engineer and whose hammer was used for the murder. As Carpenter investigates, we get to see all of the preparations that the building staff members of a theatre have to go through for every evening of a performance. Among many other things, there’s the matter of concessions, there’s the matter of making sure the theatre is clean and everyone’s ready, and there’s the matter of ensuring that all of the tickets are ready to be picked up. That includes keeping a list of complimentary ticketholders. It’s not any easy job to manage all of this…

We see a very different kind of preparation in Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal. A far-right French terrorist group called Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) has determined to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle. Because of an earlier attempt, OAS’ members are already known to the police, so none of the members of the group can take on this task. Instead, they hire an ‘outsider,’ an Englishman known only as ‘the Jackal.’ The arrangements are made, and Jackal begins preparations. Meanwhile, the French government finds out about the plot, but no-one knows who the Jackal is nor what this person looks like. So Detective Claude Lebel has very little to go on as he matches wits with the Jackal. The novel gives readers solid details about how an assassination is planned and what preparations are necessary. In my opinion (so feel free to differ with me if you do), Fred Zinnemann’s 1973 filmed version of the novel conveys the preparations even more effectively.

Any skilled attorney will tell you that preparing for a trial is at least as important as the actual trial itself. Certainly surprises happen during a trial; but the better prepared one is, but better one’s chances. We see that in many, many legal novels. For instance in Perri O’Shaughnessy’s Breach of Promise, Tahoe attorney Nina Reilly gets a chance at a major case when Lindy Markov hires her. Lindy lived with her common-law husband Mike for twenty years. She helped build the Markov’s successful business, and in every other way was Mike’s partner. Then, Mike fell in love with his financial services vice-president Rachel Pembroke. Now, Lindy’s been served eviction papers ordering her to leave the home she’s shared with Mike for their entire relationship. What’s more, she’s been removed from her position as executive vice-president of the business she and Mike built together. Faced with the possibility that she’ll be left with nothing, Lindy wants to sue Mike for her share of the business’ assets. This won’t be an easy case. Lindy and Mike were never legally married, so there’s a very sound legal argument that Lindy has no right to anything. Still, Reilly takes the case. The preparations for the trial take months, and readers follow along as the jury is selected, experts are gathered, and a consulting attorney and jury consultant join the team. The trial begins, and we see how all of those preparations lead up to it. Then, a shocking event changes everything…

No less complicated is the preparation for a major news story. We see this in Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers. Wellington television journalist Rebecca Thorne has been working on an exposé of dubious developer Denny Graham. In order to be responsible about the story she does, Thorne needs to talk to Graham’s victims, gather background facts about his company and also get information from people on his team. And she soon hears some tragic stories of people who were ‘sold’ by richly catered evenings, glossy ‘photos and videos of luxurious properties, and ‘testimonials.’ Many of the victims lost everything they’d saved, and Thorne is happy with the progress of her story, as this will be a major ‘scoop.’ Then, her boss asks her to put the Graham story aside temporarily and do a story on the 30th anniversary of the Springboks’ rugby tour of New Zealand. ‘The Tour,’ as it’s often called, was highly controversial because of South Africa’s then-in-place policy of Apartheid, and there were many protests and stories of police abuse. At first Thorne isn’t happy about this. To her way of thinking, the story’s been done and there isn’t really a fresh angle. Then, she happens to learn of an unsolved murder that took place at the time and she begins to investigate that. Again, we see how a journalist prepares for a story as Thorne talks to people who protested, to members of the police, and to other people. She also gets background information and in other ways marshals her facts for the story.

Sometimes, it’s all in the preparation, whether it’s a holiday, a news story, a legal case or something else…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite! 


Filed under Agatha Christie, Deborah Nicholson, Edmund Crispin, Frederick Forsyth, Paddy Richardson, Perri O'Shaughnessy

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Props

PropsThe Crime Fiction Alphabet meme is moving along steadily on our perilous journey through the alphabet. Thanks as ever to our tour guide Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for handling all of the details of the trip so well. Everyone’s excited because we’ve arrived at Pborough, where there is a lovely old theatre. We’ll be seeing one of their productions later, so we’re all looking forward to that. Right now everyone else is having a look around our hotel, so I’ll take a moment to share my contribution for this week:  props.

Most theatre productions use props of one kind or another and that’s all to the good. Props can make a production that much more realistic. But on the other hand they can also be very dangerous. Just a quick look at crime fiction should suffice to show what I mean.

Ngaio Marsh had a theatre background and many of her novels reflect that interest. They also reflect her knowledge of how much damage a prop can do. In Enter a Murderer for example, Scotland Yard Inspector Roderick Alleyn is attending the Unicorn Theatre’s production of The Rat and the Beaver. During the play, one of the actors Arthur Surbonadier is shot with a prop gun that’s been tampered with and left loaded. Since he’s ‘on the scene,’ Alleyn begins the investigation right away. The most likely suspect is fellow actor Felix Gardner, who’d gotten the lead role that Surbonadier thought was his. The two had had a serious quarrel and Surbonadier actually threatened Gardner. But as Alleyn soon learned, there is plenty of intrigue in this production and more than one person had a reason to want Arthur Surbonadier dead.

In James Yaffe’s Mom Doth Murder Sleep, murder strikes the Mesa Grande, Colorado’s amateur theatre group. The acting troupe has planned a production of The Scottish Play, and casting, rehearsals and so on have gone ahead. One of the cast members is Roger Meyer, who works with the local Public Defender’s office. On opening night, former Hollywood actor/producer Martin Osborn, who has the lead in the play, is stabbed onstage. It isn’t long before Sally Michaels, who is playing Lady Macbeth, is arrested for the crime. She had good reason to kill, too, since Osborn had recently ended a relationship he was having with her. There’s other evidence too against her. When Meyer’s boss Dave tells his mother about the case though, Mom’s not so sure that Sally really is guilty. So Dave looks more deeply into the acting troupe and its history and finds that more than one person had a good reason to want to kill Martin Osborn.

Caroline Graham’s Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby has to look into a case of murder with a prop in Death of a Hollow Man. The Causton Amateur Dramatic Society has chosen to do Amadeus. Barnaby’s wife Joyce has been given a minor role and his future son-in-law Nicholas Bradley has the role of Mozart. So Barnaby attends the opening-night production. All’s going well enough until the dramatic scene during which Antonio Salieri tries to commit suicide. Esslyn Carmichael, who’s playing Salieri, picks up what he thinks is a blunted prop knife only to find out too late that the knife was all too real. Now, Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy look into the relationships among the cast members and into Carmichael’s history to try to find out who wanted to kill him. As it turns out, more than one person had both the opportunity and the motive.

Simon Brett’s series featuring actor Charles Paris includes quite a lot of on-stage mayhem. Paris isn’t exactly a household word, and his agent is not particularly competent. So Paris spends his share of time in small roles for small-town productions. In between those roles, he does what he can to ‘fill in the gaps.’ In So Much Blood for instance, Paris gets the opportunity to fill in at the Edinburgh Festival with a one-man show of Thomas Hood’s work. Another play has fallen through, and this is a chance for Paris to get some exposure and some work. His agent warns him not to take the job, but Paris accepts anyway. While he’s there, he attends the performance of a play called Mary, Queen of Sots, a satire being put on by the Derby University Dramatic Society. During the performance, one of the actors Willy Mariello, is stabbed with what’s supposed to be a prop knife. At first it’s thought that his death is a tragic accident. But Paris doesn’t think so and he can’t resist trying to find out what really happened.

There’s also Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House, in which John May and Arthur Bryant of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) investigate several murders and a disappearance at the Palace Theatre. The theatre is planning a production of Orpheus, and rehearsals have begun. Then, one of the dancers Tanya Capistrania is killed and her feet removed. May and Bryant are looking into this case when there’s another tragedy. Charles Senechal, who has the role of Jupiter, is called by a piece of scenery in what looks like a terrible accident. Then there’s another death, and a disappearance. Now it looks very much as though someone is trying to stop the production, and the PCU works to find out who it is.

Of course, sometimes props can save lives. Just ask Kate Carpenter, whom we first meet in Deborah Nicholson’s House Report. Carpenter is House Manager for Calgary’s Foothills Stage Network (FSN). One night, during FSN’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, the body of Peter Reynolds is found in the men’s washroom. One possible suspect is Reynolds’ ex-wife Gladys, who works as an usher at the theatre. Gladys asks Carpenter to help clear her name, and against her better judgement, Carpenter agrees to at least ask some questions. Soon, the evidence begins to point to Carpenter’s lover Norman ‘Cam’ Caminksi, so Carpenter becomes even more vested in finding out the truth. The closer she gets to the real killer, the more danger she finds for herself. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that at one point, she’s in very grave danger indeed, but  she’s saved by the judicious use of a piece of property. In the end, Carpenter and her assistant Graham find out who the killer is and what the motive was.

As you can see, props are an important part of crime-fictional murders. Looks like it’s almost time to see the play. Would you like to go backstage before it begins??? 😉


Filed under Caroline Graham, Christopher Fowler, Deborah Nicholson, James Yaffe, Ngaio Marsh, Simon Brett

All the World’s Indeed a Stage and We Are Merely Players*

Shakespeare's InfluenceToday (or yesterday, depending on when you read this) would have been William Shakespeare’s 449th birthday. I don’t think I have to convince you that Shakespeare’s work has been tremendously influential in many ways, and it’s not hard to see why many people think of him as the greatest English-language poet and playwright. Whether you agree with that or not, there’s no denying his impact on books, plays, poems and authors. People don’t always consider Shakespeare a crime fiction writer but if you think about it, he was. Murder, betrayal, jealousy, theft, politics, family dysfunction – yup, it’s all there. So it’s little wonder that we see Shakespearean references and Shakespeare’s influence throughout crime fiction. There are dozens of examples, so I’ll just mention a few.

Agatha Christie refers to Shakespeare quite a lot. Even the titles of some of her stories (e.g. Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide)) are taken from Shakespeare’s work. And in there are other references too. In one of her novels (No spoilers!), Hercule Poirot says this about a murderer:


‘‘…I have always wondered,’ he added, ‘exactly what sort of woman Lady Macbeth was. What would she be like if you met her in real life? Well, I think I have met her.’’


There are lots of other allusions to Shakespeare too in the Christie canon.

Shakespeare is also woven through the plots of many theatre mysteries. I’ll just mention two to make my point. Simon Brett’s What Bloody Man is That? is the story of the Pintero Theatre’s production of The Scottish Play. Famous actor Warnock Belvedere is slated for the role of Duncan, and Brett’s sleuth Charles Paris has been given two bit parts. For Paris, this is an opportunity to re-build his career, which has suffered greatly, mostly due to his over-fondness for drinking and to the fact that he’s in emotional distress after separating from his wife. It doesn’t help that his agent isn’t exactly of the highest calibre. As the blocking, first readings and later rehearsals for the play go on, Warnock Belvedere alienates just about everyone. He is arrogant, rude, sexist and egotistical. One night after a particularly disastrous rehearsal, the cast goes to the bar to drown their sorrows. Paris takes a particularly deep dive, so to speak, but he manages to find his way back to his dressing area in the theatre and promptly falls asleep. When he wakes up at three in the morning, he discovers two things. First, he’s locked inside the theatre, as it’s been shut for the night. Also, he finds that Belvedere has also been locked in the theatre, and he is dead. At first Belvedere’s death is put down to heart failure but soon enough it’s shown that he was poisoned. Afraid he’ll be suspected by the police, Paris decides to clear his name and he begins to investigate. Shakespeare readers will know that the title of this novel comes from the play that the Pintero Theatre is producing. Some of the themes in the novel do, too.

In Deborah Nicholson’s House Report, Calgary’s Foothill Stage Network is doing a production of Much Ado About Nothing. The show’s run is going well until one night, Peter Reynolds is murdered and his body discovered in the men’s washroom. One of the first and most likely suspects is Reynolds’ ex-wife Gladys, who works as a theatre usher. She claims that she’s innocent and asks house manager Kate Carpenter to help her prove it. Carpenter is reluctant at first, but then, her lover Norman ‘Cam’ Caminksi comes under suspicion. Mostly to clear his name, Carpenter starts asking questions. With help from her assistant Graham, she narrows down the list of people who could have killed Reynolds. As she gets closer to the truth about the murder, Carpenter finds that the killer has discovered she’s on the right trail. Now she’s going to have to work even harder if she’s to find the killer before she and Graham are the next victims.

There are of course a lot of other theatre-related murder mysteries, many of which allude to Shakespeare. And really, how could they not? But Shakespeare’s influence goes beyond the surface level of his writing. Shakespeare used his characters and plots not just to tell stories, but also to make political and social commentary. If that sounds familiar it should. Many, many authors of crime fiction have done the same thing.

For example, Maj Sjöwall and Per Whalöö used their ten-novel Martin Beck series for similar purposes. This police procedural series features Beck and his police team as they investigate robberies, riots, disappearances, brutal murders and more. The cases are in and of themselves engaging and as a police procedural series, it’s in many people’s estimation the ‘gold standard.’  But fans of this series can tell you that the novels also serve as a vehicle for their authors’ social and political agendas. It’s not hard to see that in the context of telling stories, Sjöwall and  Whalöö were also making statements about capitalism, police brutality, class and privilege and other issues. Shakespeare probably would have respected that about them.

Sara Paretsky has done the same thing with her V.I. Warhsawski series. Warshawski is a Chicago PI who has gone after all sorts of ‘bad guys’ including insurance fraudsters, corrupt politicians and bankers, union thugs and greedy business executives. The Chicago-land setting, the plots, and Warshawski’s character have won Paretsky millions of fans worldwide. But the novels do more than just tell well-written stories about well-drawn characters (although they do that). Paretsky has strong social and political views, and her novels are one way in which she shares those views. I think Shakespeare would have respected her for that too.

Whether it’s subtle or more obvious, it’s hard to overstate Shakespeare’s influence on writing in general and on crime fiction. And on this World Book Night, it’s appropriate to salute his memory.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rush’s Limelight.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Deborah Nicholson, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Sara Paretsky, Simon Brett