Category Archives: Donald Smith

Oh, Let’s Go Back to the Start*

In a recent post, crime writer and fellow blogger Elizabeth Spann Craig made an interesting point about taking a story full circle. She suggested that one way to do this is to end a story by going back to the beginning. For instance, her Pretty is as Pretty Dies begins one morning at the home of Myrtle Clover. She’s a retired teacher who isn’t ready to be ‘put out to pasture’ yet. So, when she discovers the body of real estate developer Parke Stoddard in a local church, she can’t resist getting involved in the investigation, much to the chagrin of her son, who happens to be the local chief of police. As Myrtle starts to ask questions, she finds that there are plenty of people who had a good reason to want the victim dead. She was, to say the least, malicious and vindictive, and had alienated just about everyone in town. Myrtle discovers who the killer is, and in the final scene, is back at her home. In that sense, the story goes full circle, beginning and ending at Myrtle Clover’s home. But a lot of things have happened in the interim, and we see that as the final scene plays out.

And that’s one way in which that ‘full circle’ approach to storytelling can be useful. It allows the author to show character changes, but at the same time bring the story to some closure. And there are plenty of examples of how this works in crime fiction. Here are just a few.

In one of the very first scenes in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, sculptor Henrietta Savernake is in her studio, creating a piece for an upcoming show. We soon learn that she is one of several guests invited to spend a weekend at the home of some cousins, Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Two of the other guests are to be Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife, Gerda; and for Henrietta, this makes the visit all the more special, since she is Christow’s mistress. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has been invited for lunch, and arrives just after the murder. He and Inspector Grange work to find out who murdered Christow. At the very end of the novel, there’s another scene, again in Henrietta’s studio. It brings the story round to the beginning again, and shows some of what’s happened to Henrietta as a result of the events in the novel.

Simon Beckett’s Whispers of the Dead more or less begins at the London home of forensic anthropologist David Hunter. He’s recovering from the physical and mental trauma he suffered as a result of events in Written in Bone, and now he’s preparing to leave for a trip to Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Laboratory, often called The Body Farm. For Hunter, this is a welcome trip, as he wants to get out of London for a time. He’s looking forward to doing some research as well as to renewing his acquaintance with his mentor, Tom Liebermann. Hunter arrives in Tennessee just in time to hear the news of the discovery of a decomposed body in a cabin not far from the laboratory. Hunter gets involved in the investigation, and it turns out to be a wrenching case. At the end of the novel, he returns to his London apartment. There’s a final scene in which he has a short conversation with the woman who lives in the flat above his. That conversation, and his return, really only take up a few sentences. But they bring the story back to the beginning to give some closure to it. And the scene shows some of what’s happened to Hunter in the course of the novel.

Ilsa Evans’ Nefarious Doings is the first of her series featuring Victoria journalist Nell Forrest. As the story opens, she’s at the home she shares with two of her five daughters (the other three are adults who have their own homes). She gets a visit from the police, who inform her that there’s been a fire at her mother’s house, not far away. Nell’s mother, Lillian ‘Yen’ is safe, but the fire has done considerable damage. And the body of a man has been found in the garage. It turns out that this man is Dustin Craig, who lived next door to Yen. And it turns out that he was murdered before the fire started. Now, Yen is a suspect in a murder investigation. Nell doesn’t believe her mother is guilty. And there’s no lack of other suspects. So, she starts looking into the matter, and ends up getting into real danger. At the very end, there’s a scene where Nell is back at her home. She’s having a glass of wine with DS Ashley Armistead, who’s the official investigator on the case. In a way, the scene takes us back to the beginning of the novel. But it’s not the same Nell Forrest at the end, if I can put it that way. She’s learned a few things about herself, and sees the world a little differently.

And then there’s Donald Smith’s The Constable’s Tale. This story begins in 1758 in the British colony of North Carolina. Plantation owner Henry ‘Harry’ Woodyard is serving his term as a Royal Constable for Craven County. His work mostly involves breaking up drunken quarrels, levying fines on people who don’t attend church services, and catching petty thieves. Everything changes when Edward and Anne Campbell and their son are discovered brutally murdered at their home. Only their infant survived. On the surface, it looks like it might be the work of Indians. And, considering that this novel takes place during the Severn Years/French and Indian War, that wouldn’t be out of the question. But there are hints that that might not be what happened. A broach found at the murder scene provides a clue, and Woodyard decides to follow up on it. He believes that if he can find its owner, he can find the killer. So, he starts to follow the trail. In fact, it leads on a four-month journey all the way into Canada. In the end, though, Harry finds that the truth is closer to home than he would have imagined. The last scene in the novel has him back in Craven County, getting ready to resume his duties. He’s gone through some changes, though, and Smith makes that clear.

And that’s one of the advantages of using this sort of plot structure. Going back to the beginning can help the reader see how a character has grown or changed. It also allows the author to ‘tie up’ the novel and give some closure to it. Thanks, Elizabeth, for the inspiration.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Coldplay’s The Scientist.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Donald Smith, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ilsa Evans, Simon Beckett

Gone to Carolina in My Mind*

Have you ever been to North Carolina? Perhaps you live (or have lived) there? It’s a beautiful place, with an interesting mix of cosmopolitan, (sub)urban areas, beaches, and small towns. There are plenty of very rural places, too. And North Carolina is rich with history, beginning before the state was a colony.

On the surface, it’s a lovely, peaceful state. But just look at crime fiction, and you’ll see that a lot can happen, even in a friendly, small town or lovely city. As this is posted, it’s the birthday of North Carolina’s own James Taylor. So, what better time to share some fine North Carolina-based crime fiction?

For those who enjoy cosy mysteries, there are two series by North Carolina author Elizabeth Spann Craig. One features retired teacher Myrtle Clover. She lives in the small town of Bradley, where her son, Red, is chief of police. Myrtle may be retired, but that doesn’t mean she wants to be put out to pasture, as the saying goes. Much to her son’s chagrin, Myrtle gets very interested when there’s a murder, and likes to do her own sleuthing. She’s fairly good at it, too. She knows almost everyone in town, and, since she’s a ‘harmless old lady,’ she can go places and hear things that the police might not. Spann Craig’s other series features Beatrice Coleman, a retired art expert who moves to the small town of Dappled Hills for some peace and quiet after a busy career. That’s not what she gets, though. Through her association with the Village Quilters, Beatrice gets to know a lot of people in town – and gets involved in more than one murder investigation.

North Carolina has some prestigious universities and colleges, too. And Sarah R. Shaber gives us a look at higher education in that state with her Simon Shaw series. Shaw is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, who could have had his pick of any of the US’s top institutions. But he’s chosen to work at Kenan College, a small but selective and well-regarded school in a typical ‘college town.’ Shaw couldn’t imagine living and working anywhere but the South, and there’s plenty for him to do. As I say, there’s rich history in the state, and Shaw’s interested in a lot of it. For instance, in the first of this series, Simon Said, he’s works with an archaeologist friend to find out the truth about a long-buried set of remains that’s found on the old Bloodworth property. Part of it’s been deeded to the college, but that gift won’t go through without an investigation. So, Shaw looks into the family history to discover who the victim might have been, and who would have wanted to commit that murder.

Another look at North Carolina’s history comes from Donald Smith’s The Constable’s Tale, which takes place in 1758.  Plantation owner James Henry ‘Harry’ Woodyard is serving his term as a Royal Constable for Craven County. Usually, that’s mostly a matter of breaking up drunken quarrels, catching petty thieves, and other small crimes. Everything changes when the bodies of Edward and Anne Campbell and their son are discovered. It looks like a sort of ritual killing, and that it might have been the work of local Indians. And that’s not impossible, considering this story takes place during the Seven Years (French and Indian) War. Soon enough, an Indian named Comet Elijah is arrested for the crime. Woodyard’s known the man for a long time, and cannot imagine him committing these murders. And there are other possibilities, too. For instance, why was a brooch engraved with Masonic symbols found at the scene? Campbell wasn’t a Mason, so there has to be another explanation. Woodyard takes an interest in the case, and, despite pressure from the Craven County authorities to accept the obvious solution, he finds out the real truth. Besides the mystery at the core of the novel, readers also get an interesting look at life in North Carolina during its colonial history.

Barbara Neely offers readers another perspective on modern North Carolina. In Blanche on the Lam, we meet professional housekeeper Blanche White. Originally from New York, White moved to North Carolina, and, as the series begins, works for a housekeeping agency. Her job means that she gets a very intimate look at her clients’ lives. That’s especially true because she is black, while most of her clients are white. They tend to see her as ‘the help,’ rather than as an individual. That attitude makes her almost invisible, which is very helpful as she investigates. Two of the novels (Blanche on the Lam, and Blanche Passes Go) take place in North Carolina, so readers get a sense of the setting. Along with that and the mystery plots, this series offers a close (and not always comfortable) look at race relations and social structure.

And then there’s John Hart’s The Last Child, which is set in contemporary small-town/rural North Carolina. Thirteen-year-old Johnny Merrimon has been devastated since his twin sister, Alyssa, went missing a year ago. He hasn’t stopped looking for her, although his mother has all but given up hope. He has a map, a bicycle, and a plan, and is determined to find Alyssa, or at least, her body. One day, Johnny’s skipping school, spending time at a local river, when he witnesses a car accident on the bridge over the river. A man’s body hurtles towards him, landing nearby. The man dies but not before telling Johnny,

‘‘I found her…the girl that was taken.’’

This gives Johnny hope that Alyssa may still be alive, and he renews his search. Detective Clyde Hunt has also been looking for the girl, and is afraid of the trouble Johnny may find if he keeps looking on his own. Still, he respects the boy’s motives and effort, and he tries, in his own way, to help. Each in a different way, he and Johnny pick up the search for Alyssa, and relate it to the unknown dead man, and to another disappearance.

See what I mean? North Carolina is physically beautiful, with lots of rich history and interesting places. But safe? Well….

ps. The ‘photos were taken on Emerald Isle, in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. See? Lovely!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from James Taylor’s Carolina in My Mind.


Filed under Barbara Neely, Donald Smith, Elizabeth Spann Craig, John Hart, Sarah R. Shaber

In The Spotlight: Donald Smith’s The Constable’s Tale

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. As this is posted, it’s Independence Day in the US. So I thought it might be interesting to take a look at what life in Colonial America might have been like. Let’s do that, and turn today’s spotlight on Donald Smith’s The Constable’s Tale.

It’s 1758 in the colony of North Carolina, and plantation owner James Henry ‘Harry’ Woodyard is serving his term as a Royal Constable for Craven County. His work consists mostly of settling the occasional drunken quarrel, catching petty thieves, and other small matters. He is conscientious and tries to behave ethically; but he’s also hoping that loyal service in this capacity will make him eligible to move up in North Carolina’s social ranks.

Everything changes one day when an itinerant peddler makes a horrifying discovery. Edward and Anne Campbell and their son have been found murdered and their bodies carefully posed, as if ritually. The only survivor is their infant. On the surface, it looks as though Indians may have been responsible. Considering this takes place during the Seven Years/French and Indian War, that’s not out of the question. But a few things aren’t consistent with that account. For one thing, Indian killers wouldn’t likely leave an infant alive at a murder scene. They would be more likely to take a baby with them. More importantly, the Indians in the area are not enemies. Most intriguing, a brooch with Masonic symbols on it was found at the scene of the crime. Since Edward Campbell was not a Mason, there’s a possibility that the killer might have been.

Soon enough, a local Indian named Comet Elijah is arrested and imprisoned for the murders. He says that he is innocent, but he’s held over for trial. Woodyard doesn’t believe that Comet Elijah is guilty. The man’s been a friend of the Woodyard family for many years; in fact, he served as Woodyard’s own mentor. So Woodyard starts to ask some questions.

Woodyard decides to begin with the brooch. He reasons that, if he can find its owner, he can find the killer. Noah Burke, who tutored the Campbells’ son, accompanies him. The trail leads first to Williamsburg, then to Philadelphia, then to Boston, then to Québec. Along the way, several possibilities about the murders arise. For one thing, the British and French are at war, and there are spies for both sides. If the Campbells found out that someone was a spy, that could easily be a motive for murder. For another, many Masons are in high social positions. If the Campbells knew about a scandal involving one of them, that, too, would be a motive.

As Woodyard continues following leads, he faces increasing pressure from the Craven County authorities to accept the theory that Comet Elijah is guilty. There’s no concrete reason to believe anyone else was, and Woodyard is needed back home. He persists, though; and after another death, and two attempts on his own life, he finds out the truth. As it turns out, that truth is closer to home than he thought.

This is, of course, historical fiction. So an important element in the novel is its depiction of life in the mid-18th Century. Readers learn about daily life, social structure, law enforcement, and customs of that era. There are even a few letters between Woodyard and his wife, Toby, that show the writing style of the times. Oh, and there’s a bit of information about Masonic symbols, too. Readers who enjoy reading historical detail will appreciate this.

It’s worth noting here that that detail includes a close look at the society of the times. Woodyard, for instance, comes from respectable, but by no means wealthy or ‘well born’ roots. On the one hand, he knows that if he does his job well, and causes no scandal, he’ll be accepted by people of higher social station and move up in the world. He can increase his holdings and perhaps become a ‘gentleman of substance.’ On the other hand, he will never reach the highest levels of society. Everyone knows that he wasn’t ‘well born,’ and that his wife is a former indentured servant. That’s enough to exclude him from the very highest circles. He’s actually a bit insecure about his social status, and works hard to do ‘the right thing’ when he’s in the company of his ‘betters.’ In fact, each chapter begins with a piece of advice from the Rules of Civility, which governs every detail of the way people are expected to behave.

There is also the element of the Seven Years/French and Indian War. This is not a novel of war, and I can say without spoiling the story that Woodyard doesn’t go off to fight the French. But there is ongoing tension, and quite a lot of anti-French sentiment. There’s danger, too, and there’s discussion of various battles between the foes.

The American Revolution is twenty years away, so there isn’t talk of what counted then as treason. But there is a growing dislike of what the colonists see as British highhandedness. And we see the beginnings of the simmering resentment that later fueled the revolution.

There’s also the element of adventure. There are narrow escapes, daring trips, a femme fatale, secret conversations and more. There’s intrigue, too. Readers who don’t care for adventure novels will notice this.

The mystery itself – who killed the Campbells and why – is solved, and it’s interesting to see how Woodyard goes about getting answers. He doesn’t really have the force of law, at least, not as we know it today. And he certainly has no authority outside Craven County. Nor does he have access to modern technology or communication. But he finds his own ways to learn what happened. And, while the resolution of the story isn’t happy, there’s a sense of real hope at the end.

This isn’t a light, fun mystery. The reason for the killings is a very sad one, and readers who like the satisfaction of the ‘killer led away in handcuffs’ scene will notice that that doesn’t happen here. There’s violence, too. But at the same time, the novel isn’t dark in the way that noir fiction is.

The Constable’s Tale is a portrait of life in the Americas in the decades before the American Revolution. It depicts a strange mystery, and features a constable who tries to do the right thing and solve it as best he can. But what’s your view? Have you read The Constable’s Tale? If you have, what elements do you see in it?



Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday, 11 July/Tuesday, 12 July – Resurrection Bay – Emma Viskic

Monday, 18 July/Tuesday, 19 July – Unleashed – David Rosenfelt

Monday, 25 July/Tuesday, 26 July – Our Trespasses – Steph Avery


On Another Note…


My best wishes for a happy Independence Day to my US friends, and all my best to all of you, wherever you are.


Filed under Donald Smith, The Constable's Tale