Category Archives: Dick Francis

Stranded on an Island Alone*

As this is posted, it’s 299 years since the publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Among other things, this novel explores the relationship between humans and nature as Crusoe works to find shelter, food, and so on after he is stranded. It’s also, of course, his personal reflection.

And being stranded can be very scary, even if you have some survival skills. After all, lots of different things can happen, and plenty of them are not good. That’s part of why that plot point can add a lot to a crime story. There’s an extra layer of tension that can be very powerful. And the physical setting can add interest to the story, too. There are lots of novels that include that element of being stranded, or close to it. Here are just a few; I know you’ll think of others.

Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is the story of ten people who accept invitations to visit Indian Island, off the Devon coast. They all arrive and settle in, and at first, all seems well enough. Then, that night, each person is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Then, one of the guests dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, there’s another death. Soon, a storm comes up that cuts off access to the island, so these people are stranded. And, now that it’s clear that one of them is a killer, no-one feels safe trusting anyone else. These characters don’t really have to make shelter or forage outside for food. But they are trapped, and they don’t trust each other enough to work well together. Against that backdrop, the survivors are going to have to find out who the killer is if they’re going to stay alive.

Dick Francis’ Second Wind features BBC meteorologist Perry Stuart. In one plot thread, he crashes in the Caribbean after flying a plane through the eye of a hurricane. He thinks he’s about to drown, but instead, washes up on an uninhabited island. He manages to survive, and uses the resources he can find for shelter, food, and so on. Then, he is found by four visitors to the island. At first, it seems that they want to kill him for intruding. Instead, they return him to Grand Cayman. He’s blindfolded, so he doesn’t know where the island he discovered is. But apparently, someone thinks he knows too much for safety. Once he returns to England, Stuart becomes the target of some dangerous people whose plot he slowly uncovers.

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River is the story of London-born William Thornhill, his wife, Sal, and their children. In 1806, Thornhill is sentenced to transportation to Australia for stealing a load of wood. He and his family arrive in Sydney and have to start all over. On the one hand, they are not stranded in the sense of there being no-one else there. On the other, they have to make do as best they can for a lot of things. Still, they slowly start to build a life. Thornhill finds work with a man named Alexander King, who wants him to transport casks of liquor to nearby coves, where they won’t be seen by customs inspectors. Sal puts together a makeshift pub. It’s all rudimentary, but it’s a start. Then, Thornhill gets a job delivering goods on the Hawkesbury River. That’s where he discovers the perfect piece of land that he’s been wanting. But, of course, there have been people in this area for many thousands of years. So, there are bound to be clashes between them and the newcomers. And soon enough, that’s exactly what happens. Thornhill wants no part of the bloodshed and crimes that ensue. He soon learns, though, that if he wants to hold on to his land, he’ll have to get his hands dirty. As the Thornhills get settled on their land, we see how they have to learn to use creatively the things they find there.

Fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series will know that, in more than one novel, Longmire ends up more or less stranded in the mountains. He’s the sheriff of fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming, and that means his jurisdiction includes some very rough terrain. He knows the land, and he knows how to make do. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy for him to stay warm, find food, and take shelter. It’s a good reminder not to take the elements for granted.

And that’s a lesson that Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte knows very well. He’s a Queensland Police Inspector, who is also half white/half Aborigine. He is thoroughly familiar with, as he calls it, the Book of the Bush. And that helps him to survive when he’s out in the ‘back of beyond.’ He knows what’s safe to eat and what isn’t, what sorts of places will offer safe shelter, how to find potable water, and how to spot an oncoming storm.

All of those skills are useful, especially if one ends up as Robinson Crusoe did. That plot line – where characters who are isolated have to make what they can from what’s available – can add suspense to a novel. And it’s interesting to explore the dynamic between people and their surroundings in those situations. Which examples have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Junior Senior.

10 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Upfield, Craig Johnson, Daniel Defoe, Dick Francis, Kate Grenville

Old Love*

Just because people break off relationships doesn’t mean they automatically stop caring for their exes. Sometime, the breakup is amicable, and the two people remain friends, or they are colleagues who can work together. Sometimes, one of the two wants to rekindle the romance. Other times, it’s just what you might call fond memories.

Whatever is the case, there is often a bond between former lovers. And that’s part of why we see so many crime novels in which an old flame asks the sleuth for help, or in which the sleuth offers help because of that former relationship. That trope can add tension to a story, as well as backstory on a character.

For instance, in Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask, Charles Moray returns to England after a four-year absence. The reason he left was mostly his breakup with his fiancée, Margaret Langton, but Moray’s trying not to let that prevent him from taking up his life again. He returns to his family home, only to find that it’s being used by a criminal gang led by a man called Grey Mask. Moray discovers that they seem to be planning to kidnap an heiress in order to get at her money. Worse, he sees that one of the people mixed up in this plot is his former fiancée. Moray doesn’t know at first whether Margaret is in danger or has willingly become a criminal. Either way, though, he worries for her, and decides to do some sleuthing. A friend gives him the name of Miss Maude Silver, and Moray goes to see her. With her help, and help from his friend, Archie Millar, Moray uncovers the truth about Grey Mask, the gang, and Margaret Langton.

Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael is a monk who lives and works in 12th-Century England. He joined the clergy a bit later in life than a lot of other monks, and so, has a past. And part of that past is a woman named Richildis, whom we meet in Monk’s Hood. In that novel, Brother Cadfael is called to the bedside of Gervase Bonel. That in itself isn’t surprising, as Cadfael is an herbalist. What is shocking is that Bonel has been poisoned by monkshood oil that was taken from Cadfael’s supplies. The first and most likely suspect is Bonel’s stepson (and Richildis’ son), Edwin. But Cadfael isn’t sure he’s guilty. So, in part because he cares about Richildis, Cadfael looks into the matter to find out who really killed the victim.

In Surender Mohan Pathak’s The Colaba Conspiracy, key maker and locksmith Jeet Singh is trying to live a ‘straight and narrow’ life after a career as a lockbreaker and safecracker. Now, he owns a Mumbai kiosk where he’s trying to make an honest, if not lucrative, living. One day, Singh gets the chance to earn a great deal of money by doing another underworld job, but he refuses. He thinks that will be the end of his lawbreaking days, until he gets a visit from a former lover, Sushmita.  She is in trouble and needs his help. It seems that her wealthy husband, Pursumal Changulani, was killed in what looked like a carjacking incident that went wrong. But other evidence suggests that this was a professional killing, and there is a suspicion that Sushmita hired the killer. She says that she is innocent and is being targeted by her stepchildren, who claim she was never legally married to their father and is therefore ineligible to inherit. In order to clear her name, and inherit, she’ll need a good lawyer, which she can’t afford. And she won’t have access to any of her husband’s money until the matter is resolved. Singh still has feelings for Sushmita. Besides, if she is innocent, she should be cleared of suspicion. So, he agrees to help. And that’s what pushes him to take on that one last illegal job – and gets him into grave danger.

Martin Edwards’ All the Lonely People features Liverpool solicitor Harry Devlin. He makes his living defending the ‘down and out’ people, so he’s not exactly getting rich. Still, he’s dedicated to doing the best job he can. One day, he gets a surprise visit from his ex-wife. Liz. She tells him that she’s run away from her current lover, Mick Coghlin, because she’s afraid of him. Then, she asks Devlin to let her stay with him for a few days. Devlin is hoping he and Liz can reconcile, so he agrees. Then, two nights later, Liz is murdered, and her body found in an alley. Devlin feels a burden of guilt, because he didn’t take her fears very seriously at first. Besides, he still cares about Liz. So, he decides to find out who murdered her. At first, it seems clear that Coghlin is the killer. But, as Devlin learns more about Liz’ last months and weeks, he also learns that there are other possibilities.

There’s an interesting case of an old flame in Dick Francis’ Whip Hand. Former jockey Sid Halley’s racing career ended when his left hand was permanently injured. Later (see Odds Against for the details) he lost that hand. With his riding days over, Halley’s become a racetrack investigator. In one plot thread of this novel, he is approached by his former father-in-law, Charles Roland. It seems that his daughter (and Halley’s ex-wife), Jenny, has gotten involved with a scam artist who calls himself Nicholas Ashe. His trick is to bilk people out of money using a fake charity, and now he’s used Jenny’s name in the scheme. This means that she’s under investigation for fraud. The only way to clear her name is to find Ashe, and that’s what Roland wants Halley to do. Halley ’s very reluctant at first. The divorce was a bitter one, and neither he nor Jenny want anything to do with each other. But Roland finally persuades Halley to look into the matter.

And that’s the thing about old loves and exes. Even after the relationship is over, there’s still often a bond. So, it’s not surprising that we see this plot point as often as we do in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an Eric Clapton/Robert Cray song.  Happy Birthday, Mr. Clapton!

16 Comments

Filed under Dick Francis, Ellis Peters, Martin Edwards, Patricia Wentworth, Surender Mohan Pathak

At the Gate Are All the Horses Waiting For the Cue to Fly Away*

Have you ever ridden horses? Even if your family never owned a horse, you might have taken riding lessons. Horses have a long history with people, for farm work, for racing, and as forms of transportation. And that’s to say nothing of the way they’ve been bred for showing.

The horse business is a very lucrative one, and it’s got its own culture and language. Because it’s a small world, so to speak, and because of the money involved, the world of horses is an interesting context for a crime story. There are a lot of them out there; here are just a few.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson travel to Dartmoor to investigate the disappearance of a famous racehorse, Silver Blaze. The horse has been abducted, and his trainer, John Straker, has been murdered. Some of the evidence points to a London bookmaker, Fitzroy Simpson. In fact, Inspector Tobias Gregson has already arrested him for murder. But, for all of his faults, Gregson doesn’t want an innocent man to be convicted. So, he asks Holmes to investigate. Of course, Holmes and Watson want to know who Straker’s killer is, too. But there’s also the intriguing question of what happened to Silver Blaze. It’s not easy to hide a horse. But Holmes works out where Silver Blaze is.

In Ellery Queen’s short story, Long Shot, Queen is under contract to Hollywood’s Magna Studios. They’ve tapped him to do a crime film that takes place in the horse racing world, but he knows nothing about horses, or racing. His love interest, gossip columnist Paula Paris, takes him to meet with well-known breeder John Scott. Queen gets some useful information, but he also gets drawn into a difficult mystery. It seems that Scott is being threatened by a man who wants to buy up his whole stable. If Scott doesn’t acquiesce, his best horse, Danger, is at real risk. And, on the day of an important race at Santa Anita, tragedy strikes. Danger is badly wounded, and Scott’s daughter, Kathryn, is abducted. But, as Queen discovers, this isn’t as straightforward a mystery as it seems…

Fans of Dick Francis’ work will know that many of them feature the horse breeding and racing world. For example, one of his series features former jockey Sid Halley. His racing career has ended in injury, and Halley now works as a racetrack investigator. And there are all sorts of nefarious things that can go on in that world, There’s a lot of money in racing, so there’s quite a lot at stake. And that means that some people will do whatever it takes to sabotage competition and ensure their horses will win. Of course, there are watchdog groups to make sure that races are run fairly. But, as Halley learns throughout the novels, there are plenty of insidious ways to ‘work the system.’

Fans of Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series will know that Irish is a Melbourne-based sometimes-lawyer, who also has a knack for finding people who don’t want to be found. One of his interests is horse racing, and he and a group of his friends have a sort of betting ‘syndicate.’ In Dead Point, for instance, one of the plot threads follows the syndicate as their horse, Renoir, can’t finish an important race, and has to be put down. Then, one of the group members is mugged, and the group’s winnings from another race are stolen. Now, Irish has very personal reasons for finding out who’s behind it all.

If you’ve ever been to the US state of Virginia, you know that horses and horse breeding are integral to the culture. There are some horse bloodlines that go back many generations, and races, shows, sales, and even fox hunts, are important social events. Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen series takes place against this backdrop. As the series begins, she is the postmistress for tiny Crozet, Virginia. Later she steps away from that position and does other things, such as winemaking and concentrating on her farm. Throughout the series, readers get a strong sense of the local culture, and that includes horses. In more than one novel, Harry investigates mysteries that have to do with horse breeding, racing, and so on. Fans can tell you, too, that her ex-husband, Pharamond ‘Fair’ Haristeen (who later returns to her life), is a much-in-demand veterinarian whose specialty is horses.

Horses also play important roles on ranches. Good horses are an essential to a successful operation. We see that in work like Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte series. He is a police investigator for the Queensland Police. His work takes him to some far-flung places, and to more than one ranch. In works such as The Bone is Pointed and The Bushman Who Came Back, we see how a ranch relies on its horses. We see that in Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series, too, as well as several others.

As you can see (but you knew this), horses and people have a long and varied sort of relationship. Whether it’s racing, farm work, transportation, or something else, horses have been integrated into our lives for millennia. So, it’s really little wonder at all that we also see them in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples. Your turn.

 

ps. Oh, the ‘photo? That’s a ‘photo of my daughter taking her first pony ride.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Ascot Gavotte.

20 Comments

Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Craig Johnson, Dick Francis, Ellery Queen, Peter Temple, Rita Mae Brown

Where You Come From*

One of the interesting things about fictional PIs is the diversity in their backgrounds. The profession isn’t limited to people who have a particular academic degree or job experience. This means that the author has a lot of flexibility when it comes to a PI’s background. And that can make for intriguing layers of character development, to say nothing of plot points and other characters.

There are some fictional PIs who decide early in life that that will be their profession. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, for instance, chose the profession quite deliberately. And, in A Study in Scarlet, he describes himself to Dr. Watson as
 

‘…a consulting detective, if you can understand what that is.’’
 

He’s carefully prepared for his career, too. In fact, his focus is so much on being the finest detective that he doesn’t take a lot of interest in topics unless they’ll be helpful to him professionally.

There are many fictional PIs who are former police officers. This means that they may very well have connections within the police community. And that can either be a source of valuable information, or an obstacle, depending on how the author wants to use that relationship.

For instance, Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant is a former member of the Saskatoon Police Service (SPS). He decided that life on the police force wasn’t for him, and hung out his own shingle. But he still has contacts on the force. He doesn’t spend a lot of social time with his former colleagues, and he’s much happier as a PI. But he’s established a useful and mutually beneficial relationship with the SPS.

Fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot will know that he used to be a member of the Belgian police. That career ended, and then life changed abruptly with the advent of World War I. Poirot went to England as a refugee and started a career in private detection there. Interestingly enough, Christie doesn’t delve very much into Poirot’s early history. There are a few stories (right, fans of The Chocolate Box) that shed some light on Poirot’s life as a police detective. But he doesn’t maintain ties with his former colleagues.

Sometimes, fictional private investigators get into the business unexpectedly, or even accidentally. For instance, Dick Francis’ Sid Halley was at one time a well-known jockey. But he suffered a riding accident that severely injured his left hand and ended his riding career. At loose ends, so to speak, he got a job working for a large private detective agency, Hunt, Radnor and Associates. Private investigation wasn’t in Halley’s plan, and he’s bitter over the loss of his racing career. Still, he’s had to find some sort of job. His real career in private detection, though, begins in Odds Against, when his former father-in-law asks him to uncover a plot to take over the Seabury Racecourse for development. This case, which brings Halley back into contact with the racing world, also, as you might say, brings him back to life. He becomes a racetrack investigator; and, although he misses riding, and is still sometimes bitter, he manages to put himself back together.

Some PIs start by doing informal investigations, mostly to help friends. It’s only later that they make it an official business. Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is like that. As the series begins (in Devil in a Blue Dress), he’s been laid off from his job at an aircraft manufacturing plant. It’s shortly after the end of World War II, and several former aircraft, munitions, and other war-related factories are closing or downsizing. Rawlins has to find some way to earn a living. So, when his friend, a bar owner named Joppy, introduces him to a man named DeWitt Albright, Rawlins listens to what Albright has to say. Albright is looking for a woman named Daphne Monet, who seems to have gone missing. He wants Rawlins to find her, and is willing to pay well for it. Rawlins is in serious need of money, so he agrees. But, as he soon discovers, this isn’t a simple case of finding a woman who may be in hiding. It involves theft, blackmail, and murder. Rawlins solves the case, and he does get paid, but he works informally for the first few novels in this series. Mostly, he does things for friends and their acquaintances.

That’s also the case with Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder. He was a New York homicide detective (another former police officer!). But a tragic accidental shooting changed everything. As the series begins (with The Sins of the Fathers), he doesn’t really have a ‘regular’ job. But he does know how to find people and get answers. He works very informally. As he puts it:
 

‘‘Sometimes I do favors for people. They give me gifts.’’
 

He doesn’t get his official PI license until later in the series.

Some PIs have very unusual backgrounds. Leigh Redhead’s Simone Kirsch for instance, is a former stripper. She still does gigs now and again. It might seem unlikely that a stripper would make the change to a career as a PI. But for Kirsch, there’s a reason. When she got the point where it was time to quit, she tried to join the Victoria Police. That’s because she’s still grateful to the police for saving her life and her mother’s and brother’s when she was younger. But,
 

‘Either I didn’t have the moral credentials to be a girl in blue, or the Victoria Police had enough scandal without dropping a stripper into the mix.
 

She’s not accepted into police training, so she decides that the PI course is the next best thing. And she’s good at it, too. It helps that she stays in close contact with several people in ‘the business.’ They’re often good sources if information.

Fictional PIs (real ones, too) sometimes have some fascinating backgrounds, or at least unusual ones. That can add to a story, and make for solid character development and contexts.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

18 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dick Francis, Lawrence Block, Leigh Redhead, Walter Mosley

The Pinkertons Pulled Out My Bags*

detective-agenciesPlenty of PIs, both real and fictional, work alone or with just one partner. There are some advantages to that, too, if you think about it. One of the biggest advantages is the flexibility (since the PI can choose which cases to take, what hours to work, and so on). And the lone PI doesn’t have to share the profits with anyone. So, it’s easy to see why a detective might want to go it alone.

It’s not all roses, though, as the saying goes. A lone PI can’t cover as many cases as an agency can. And an agency, complete with a staff, often has more resources, both financial and in terms of people. There’s also the possibility that a client might prefer to work with an agency, rather than just one PI, or a PI partnership. So, quite a number of PIs belong to an agency, at least at first.

One of the most famous of all detective agencies is Pinkerton’s (The Pinkerton National Detective Agency), originally founded in the US by Scottish immigrant Allan Pinkerton. It’s still in operation, although it’s now a subsidiary of another firm. Pinkerton’s plays an important role in K.B. Owen’s historical (end of the 19th Century) Concordia Wells series. Concordia is a teacher at Hartford Women’s College. She’s also an amateur detective. One of her friends (and a former mentor) is Penelope Hamilton, who is a Pinkerton’s agent. In fact, in Unseemly Haste, Concordia gets involved in one of Penelope’s cases as she travels across the country to visit her aunt. Agencies such as Pinkerton’s were very popular in the days before the FBI and other federal agencies changed the landscape of nationwide criminal investigation.

In Dashiell Hammett’s short story Fly Paper, Major Waldo Hambleton hires the Continental Detective Agency to find his daughter, Sue, who has cut off all contact with her family. She’s reportedly been mixed up with some very shady people, so Hambleton wants to be sure that she’s all right. Then, he gets a letter from Sue, asking for money. He has the agency send a representative to the address she gave – an address that belongs to Joseph ‘Holy Joe’ Wales, whom Sue has been seeing. She’s also been involved with a thug named ‘Babe’ McCloor. When the detective finally finds Sue’s own place, it’s too late: she’s dead of arsenic poisoning. Now this missing person case has become a case of murder – or perhaps suicide…

Fans of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone will know that she trained as a private investigator. At first, she worked as a police officer, but two years was enough to show her that police life wasn’t for her. Then, she worked for a detective agency for a short time, while she learned the ropes. After that, as happens with many PIs, she decided to hang out her own shingle. For Kinsey, the independence and flexibility of having her own agency is worth much more than the security that belonging to a larger agency might provide.

In Dick Francis’ Odds Against, we are introduced to Sid Halley. He’s a former jockey whose career was ended when his left hand was severely damaged in a racing accident. Not sure where to go or what to do after that, he got a job at Hunt Radnor Associates, a large detective agency. He worked there for two years until he was shot by a suspect in an investigation. His father-in-law (later ex father-in-law) Charles Roland can see that Halley is floundering, and offers him a way out. He wants Halley to investigate Howard Kraye, a shady businessman who Roland suspects is trying to take over his Seabury Racecourse. Halley agrees, and embarks on a new career as a racetrack investigator.

Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri is the owner of a well-respected Delhi agency, Most Private Investigators, Ltd. Although he’s the head of the agency, he depends crucially on the members of his team. Each of them has special skills and backgrounds that help the agency. There’s Tube Light, his head investigator, who has a special knack with computers. Facecream is a valuable member of the team who can blend in anywhere she goes. She often does undercover work. And there’s Flush, so called because his was the first house in his village to have indoor plumbing. And of course, Puri couldn’t get very far without Handbrake, his driver. Handbrake knows how to blend in with other drivers, street vendors and so on, which helps him get information.

While we often think of PI characters as ‘lone wolves’ – and many are – there are plenty who don’t work alone. Some work with just one partner (like Betty Webb’s Lena Jones). Others are slowly building (like Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe). But there are lots who work for a bigger agency. It’s not a bad choice, especially if you’re new to the field and don’t have your own reputation yet. Or if you haven’t (yet) got the funds to set up for yourself. Which fictional larger agencies have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s Ballad of a Well-Known Gun.

18 Comments

Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Betty Webb, Dashiell Hammett, Dick Francis, K.B. Owen, Sue Grafton, Tarquin Hall