Category Archives: Donna Leon

We Took Paper, Ink and Type*

In Agatha Christie’s Postern of Fate, Tuppence Beresford makes an interesting comment about reading:
 

‘‘We could all read. Me and Martin next door and Jennifer down the road and Cyril and Winifred. All of us. I don’t mean we could all spell very well but we could read anything we wanted to.’’
 

I’d imagine that’s probably true for a lot of people. There is still, unfortunately, plenty of illiteracy in the world. But, according to one study I read, just over 84% of the world’s population has at least some functional literacy.

If you’re literate, and you weren’t born into great wealth and privilege, you arguably owe at least some of that to Johannes Gutenberg. As you’ll know, he’s credited with inventing the movable-type printing press. That invention had far-reaching effects. For one thing, it made books and, therefore, written ideas, accessible to people who weren’t necessarily very wealthy. For another, it arguably contributed to the rise of the middle class. And that’s to say nothing of the printing press’ impact on the sharing of information, the development of newspapers, and so on.

And certainly, the ideas in books play an important role in crime fiction. In Postern of Fate, for instance, an important clue to a long-ago murder is found in a novel. When Tommy and Tuppence Beresford move into a new home, they find quite a collection of books. Tuppence is going through them when she notices that one of the books has been marked in an unusual way, with some words underlined. The book belonged to a boy named Alexander Parkinson, who later died. The clue,
 

‘Mary Jordan did not die naturally’
 

refers to the death of a woman during the World War I era. As the Beresfords start to look into the case, they learn that it still resonates decades later.

Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce may be a pre-teenager, but she’s already developed into a knowledgeable chemist. She’s an avid reader, too, who often finds useful information in the books she chooses. For instance, in A Red Herring Without Mustard, Flavia meets a Gypsy fortune-teller at a church fête. The experience goes very badly, and Flavia feels responsible. So, she invites the Gypsy to stay on the property of Buckshaw, where she lives with her father and two older sisters. When the Gypsy is later murdered, Flavia takes a personal interest in the case. She finds out that more than one person might have been responsible. Interestingly, it’s actually a book of history that gives Flavia a major clue to the killer.

Donna Leon’s About Face introduces readers to Franca Marinello. One night, she and her husband, Maruizio Cataldo, are invited to dinner at the home of Conte Orazio Falier and his wife, Donatella. Falier is contemplating doing business with Cataldo, and he wants to get to know the man. Also invited that evening are Falier’s daughter, Paola, and her husband, Commissario Guido Brunetti. During the meal, Brunetti finds that he and Franca Marinello have a common interest in Cicero. That interest forms a thread through the novel, and actually plays a role when Brunetti and his team investigate the murder of Stefano Ranzato, who owned a trucking company. The key to this murder, and to another murder that occurs in the novel, is Franca Marinello. And Brunetti gets some real insight from his knowledge of Cicero.

As the librarian for the Tumdrum and District Mobile Library, Ian Sansom’s Israel Armstrong loves books, and once dreamed of being a librarian at a major university, or even with the British Library. As we learn in The Case of the Missing Books, though, that’s not how things have turned out. Instead, Armstrong is hired to drive the mobile library bus, so that patrons in remote areas can access books. It’s not at all the sort of job he’d had in mind, but he’s left without much choice. So, he resolves to get started. When he tries to get the mobile library bus ready, though, he discovers that all fifteen thousand of the library’s books are missing. When Armstrong reports this to Linda Wei, who actually hired him, and who is the Deputy Head of Entertainment, Leisure and Community Services, she tells him that it’s his responsibility to find the books. After all, she points out, he is the librarian. So, Armstrong has to turn sleuth and find the books. Among other things, this series shows how important access to books is to a lot of people.

And then there’s Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe. As fans will know, Mma Ramotswe has a much-beloved copy of Clovis Anderson’s Principles of Detection. She consults it frequently, and depends on the book for all sorts of advice. For instance, in The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, Mma Ramotswe’s second cousin, Tati Monyena, is facing real trouble at the hospital where he works. It seems that there’ve been three deaths at the hospital recently. All three occurred on the same day of the week (‘though during different weeks), and all three patients were in the same bed in the Intensive Care ward when they died. It’s already been established that there were no pathogens involved, so Rra Monyena doesn’t know what might have been responsible. If the hospital’s reputation comes into question, though, this could be catastrophic. So, Mma Ramotswe agrees to look into the matter. When she goes to the hospital, she brings along Mr. Polopetsi, her newest assistant. And it turns out that that was a wise choice, since he is very familiar with the area and the people who live there. According to Clovis Anderson,
 

‘Local knowledge is like gold.’
 

It’s that sort of wisdom that Mma Ramotswe seeks, and sometimes finds, in the book.

You see? Books themselves play an important role in crime fiction. If you think about it, we likely wouldn’t even have the genre if we didn’t have easy access to books. So, perhaps it’s fair to say that we owe the genre in part to Gutenberg…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s The Printer’s Trade.

17 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Alexander McCall Smith, Donna Leon, Ian Sansom

Make Me Beautiful*

Cosmetic surgery has advanced a great deal over the years, as has its relative, reconstructive surgery. There are new techniques and materials, and new options. It’s no longer the exclusive property of the very rich and Hollywood stars, either.

I got to thinking about the whole topic when I read an interesting post by Moira at Clothes in Books. By the way, if you’re not already following that excellent blog, I recommend it highly. It’s a treasure trove of fine book reviews and discussions of clothes and culture in fiction, and what it all says about us.

Moira was discussing Ngaio Marsh’s Death and the Dancing Footmen, but that’s not the only example of a crime novel where cosmetic surgery plays a role. It’s not hard to see why, either. There are all sorts of possibilities for the author. And, whatever you feel about cosmetic surgery, it’s increasingly popular.

In P.D. James’ The Private Patient, we are introduced to journalist Rhoda Gradwyn. She checks into Cheverell Manor, an exclusive private clinic for patients undergoing cosmetic surgery. Her plan is to have a facial scar removed, but that’s not what happens. During her stay at the clinic, Gradwyn is strangled. Met Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his team investigate, and there are several possibilities. Certainly, the victim’s surgeon had opportunities to kill her. But, so did several nurses, attendants, and even visitors, among others. Dalgliesh and his team have to go back into Gradwyn’s past to see who would want to murder her.

In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Hussy, Lochdubh PC Hamish Macbeth investigates the murder of Maggie Baird. Although she hasn’t been a commercial sex worker, she’s certainly traded sex for expensive things, posh places to live, and so on. Now, although she’s still attractive, she’s middle-aged, and, at least in her view, has lost her looks. So, she goes away for several months and undergoes cosmetic surgery. When she returns, with her looks restored, she invites four former lovers to visit, and announces that she’s going to get married. Instead, she dies, ostensibly of a heart attack suffered during a car fire. Macbeth soon learns that there are several people who could have wanted the victim dead. For one thing, her four suiters have all come down in the world, as the saying goes. Any one of them could have killed her for her money. Then there’s her niece, who’s just been cut out of her will. There are other possibilities, too. The story certainly shows the wisdom of the saying, ‘Looks aren’t everything.’

One plot thread of Donna Leon’s About Face concerns a businessman, Maurizio Cataldo. Conte Orazio Falier is considering doing business with Cataldo, but he wants to be sure of the man before he actually signs anything. So, he asks his son-in-law, Commissario Guido Brunetti, to ‘vet’ Cataldo, and see if there’s anything Falier should know. Brunetti agrees to do so. In the process of getting to know Cataldo’s life better, Brunetti also gets to know his wife, Franca Marinello. One of the things we learn about her is that she’s had cosmetic surgery. That surgery isn’t the reason for Falier’s caution. But it plays a role in the novel, and in some of the tragic events that happen.

Carl Hiaasen’s Skin Tight features former police officer Mick Stranahan (yes, fans, he later appears in Skinny Dip).  He learns that an unknown man has been asking where lives. He isn’t sure who the man might be, but it doesn’t take long for them to meet up. In fact, the man breaks into Stranahan’s home. In the course of defending himself, Stranahan kills the home invader, goring him with the stuffed head of a marlin (it is Hiassen…). Then he dumps the body, which is later discovered by a couple of tourists. In the meantime, Stranahan decides to find out who’s trying to kill him. His attacker had no ID and there was no way to connect him with any particular one of Stranahan’s enemies, so it won’t be an easy task. It’s made even harder by the fact that Stranahan’s got plenty of enemies. There’s the sleazy injury lawyer, the annoying TV journalist, the hit man, and an inept plastic surgeon named Rudy Graveline. They’re all good candidates, and Stranahan will have to work through all of them to find out who the killer is.

Leigh Redhead’s Peepshow is the first of her novels to feature Melbourne PI Simone Kirsch. She’s got a background as a stripper, and has now gotten her PI license. When the body of Francesco ‘Frank’ Parisi is discovered in a local bay, Simone’s best friend, Chloe, becomes a suspect. Parisi was the owner of a table-dancing strip club called the Red Room, where Chloe works. She was among several people who had a very good reason to kill the victim, and she’s worried about what to do. Matters get worse when Parisi’s underworld brother, Sal, gets involved. He wants Simone to find out who killed his brother, and he takes Chloe as ‘insurance.’ Since the only way to free Chloe is to find the killer, Simone gets started right away. She goes undercover as a new table dancer at the Red Room, and begins to get to know the people in the dead man’s life. And it’s not long before she discovers that some very dangerous people had very good murder motives. While cosmetic surgery isn’t the reason for the murder in this case, it does have a part in the story. And on a side note, it’s interesting to see how the table dancers use wigs, makeup, and costuming to play their roles.

And then there’s Sophie Littlefield’s A Bad Day For Mercy, which features her sleuth, Stella Hardesty. By day, she owns Hardesty Sewing Machine Repair & Sales. But she has a ‘side business,’ too. She pays ‘friendly visits’ to those who’ve committed domestic abuse, and she has very effective ways of reminding them of how to behave, let’s just say. In this novel, Hardesty learns that her step-nephew, Chip, is in serious trouble because of gambling debts. In fact, his life’s been threatened. So, she drives from her home in small-town Missouri to Wisconsin to visit him. When she gets there, she finds Chip and his girlfriend, Natalya, trying to get rid of a dead man’s body. The man turns out to be Natalya’s abusive husband, and it looks very much as though Chip might be responsible. He and Natalya claim that they’re innocent, though, and found the body on their porch. So, if they aren’t the killers, Hardesty is going to have to find out who is. One very good possibility is a medical student named Doug, who has a sideline performing illegal (and not particularly professional) Botox injections. As it turns out, he had dealings with the victim, and a good reason to want him dead. But he’s not the only likely candidate.

Whatever your opinion of cosmetic surgery, there’s no doubt it’s popular. And it really does have a place in crime fiction, Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Engine Room’s A Perfect Lie.

17 Comments

Filed under Carl Hiaasen, Donna Leon, Leigh Redhead, M.C. Beaton, Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James, Sophie Littlefield

I Went Down to the Demonstration*

Lots of us want to see change in the world, or at least in our part of it. Many of us vote for what we want. Others get involved in some sort of activism, whether it’s protesting, a letter campaign, or something else. Still other people are even more deeply involved in activism.

Activists can make quite a difference in the real world, and they can be very interesting fictional characters. They’re often passionate, and the author can use such characters as protagonists or antagonists, depending on where the story is going. And there’s often suspense when there’s a conflict between activists and those against whom they protest.

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), we are introduced to Harold Raikes. He wants major societal changes, and protests people and institutions he feels hold back progress. One of his targets, if you will, is powerful banker Alistair Blunt. Blunt has conservative views about government and finance, and believes in careful, prudent steps and slow decision-making. To Raikes, he represents all that is wrong with the current British system of things. One day, Blunt finally gives in to the pain of a toothache and goes to see his dentist, Henry Morley. When Morley is shot in his surgery, the police and the Home Office believe that this was really an attempt on Blunt (after all, he’s certainly made plenty of enemies). And Raikes comes in for his share of suspicion, since he was in the building at the time of Morley’s murder. Hercule Poior was also a patient of the victim’s, so he works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who killed Morley.

In Gail Bowen’s Kaleidoscope, we are introduced to Riel Delorme, a Regina-based Métis activist. Delorme has his own issues to deal with, but he is committed to bettering the lives of the people who live in Regina’s North Central district. When a development company proposes a project in North Central, Riel is one of the leaders of the opposition to it. He believes the project will disenfranchise the people who live in that area, and will force them out of their homes. So, when one of the development company’s employees is murdered, Delorme is a very likely suspect. Bowen’s sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn Shreve gets involved in the case for two reasons. First, her husband is the attorney who represents the development company. Second, her daughter, Mieka, is romantically involved with Delorme. In this case, the investigation strikes quite close to home.

Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage features activists from several groups who converge on the town of Kingsmarkham when a new road is announced. The road will run through Framhurst Great Wood, and plenty of people are strongly opposed to it. That includes Inspector Reg Wexford’s wife, Dora. Wexford is hoping that the protests and activism won’t get out of control, but that’s not to be. First, a group of hostages – including Dora – is taken. Then, there’s a murder. The stakes get very high as Wexford and his team have to solve the murder and try to get the hostages free without a bloodbath.

Eco-activist Samuel Spender finds out just how dangerous activism can be in Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move.  A development company has put up new suburban housing in a community called Valley Forest Estates. Spender and his group are very much against the development, and have been proverbial thorns in the company’s side. One day, Spender goes to the company’s sales office, and has a loud argument with one of the executives. Witnessing that argument is science-fiction writer Zack Walker, who moved his family to the community for greater safety and security. When Walker finds Spender’s body in a nearby creek later that day, he learns just how unsafe and unsecure a suburb can be…

Peter Temple’s Bad Debts introduces his sleuth, PI Jack Irish. Irish is also a sometime-lawyer. One day, one of his former clients, Danny McKillop calls, asking to meet him as soon as possible. Irish doesn’t get around to it right away, and by the time he does, McKillop is dead. As it is, Irish felt guilty about McKillop’s case; he didn’t do a good job of defending his client against a hit-and-run murder charge. Now he feels even more guilty. So he starts to look into the case. McKillop had originally been convicted of killing Melbourne activist Anne Jeppeson. But, the more deeply Irish looks into the case, the more he suspects that his former client was framed, and that Jeppeson was killed by someone who wanted to shut her up.

In Donna Leon’s Through a Glass Darkly, we meet Venice activist Marco Ribetti. He and his group are convinced that the local glass-blowing factories are major polluters, and very dangerous for the environment. So, one day, Ribetti and his group stage a protest in front of a factory owned by his own father-in-law, Giovanni de Cal. Ribetti is arrested and jailed. Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello is a friend of Ribetti’s, so Ribetti asks him for help. Vianello agrees and asks his boss, Commissario Guido Brunetti, for support. Together, the two arrange for Ribetti’s release. Not long afterwards, Giorgio Tassini, who works as night watchman at de Cal’s factory, dies in what looks like a terrible accident. But, when Brunetti learns that Tassini, too, was convinced the factories pollute the environment, he begins to wonder whether it was an accident.

And then there’s legendary environmental activist Jay Duggan, whom we meet in Geoffrey Robert’s The Alo Release. He’s been working with the Los Angeles-based Millbrook Foundation. That group has been monitoring a company called Vestco, which claims to have created a seed coating that will increase world food production by a substantial factor. Millbrook doubts both the company’s claims and the safety of the seed coating, but hasn’t been able to prevent its release. Now, with nine days to go, the foundation has decided not to fight the release any longer. Duggan decides to leave the foundation and return to his native New Zealand, and invites two colleagues to join him for a visit before they return to work. All three leave on their flight, with no idea that a Vestco employee has just been murdered. When they land in Auckland, they learn about the death. They also learn that they’ve been framed for it, and have become international fugitives. Now, they have to find out who the killer really is, and avoid the police if they can. There’s also the matter of stopping the release of the seed coating, which is imminent.

Activism is an important part of what makes our society look at itself and, hopefully, reflect and improve. And activists are involved in a number of different causes. They are important in real life, and they make interesting fictional characters.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

14 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Gail Bowen, Geoffrey Robert, Linwood Barclay, Peter Temple, Ruth Rendell

It’s Only an Illusion*

In Agatha Christie’s short story, The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, a series of mysterious deaths is associated with the excavation of an important ancient tomb. More than one person believes that those deaths happened because there’s a curse on anyone who disturbs the tomb. Hercule Poirot looks into the matter, and finds a very prosaic explanation for the deaths. He himself doesn’t believe in spiritualism or ancient curses. But he does say this:
 

‘Once get it firmly established that a series of deaths are supernatural, and you might almost stab a man in broad daylight, and it would still be put down to the curse, so strongly is the instinct of the supernatural implanted in the human race.’
 

And he has a point. Millions of people believe in the supernatural, or at least want very badly to believe. And that makes them vulnerable to charlatans and cheats.

There are plenty of people out there, though, who make it their business to call out those charlatans. One of those was Harry Houdini, born Erich Weiss, whose 143rd birthday would have been today, as this is posted. Houdini was a skilled magician who knew all of the ‘tricks of the trade’ for getting people to believe they saw whatever he wanted them to believe they saw. But he knew it was all illusion – all deception. And he was determined that others wouldn’t prey on the vulnerable.

He’s not the only one, either, at least not in crime fiction. In Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit, for instance, we are introduced to Svetozar Vok. He’s a well-known and successful stage magician, who’s taken to unmasking fake mediums and spiritualists. So, he’s very interested in the proceedings when Frank and Irene Ogden, together with Frank’s business partner Luke Latham, decide to hold a séance. Their purpose is to contact Irene’s first husband, French émigré Grimaud Désanat. Irene is a medium, so it’s decided to hold the séance at the Ogden home, and invite several other people, including Vok. The séance is held, and is truly eerie. But shortly afterwards, Vok exposes Irene as a fake. Even so, there are things about the event that can’t be explained. Later that night, Irene is found dead. Does the death have a supernatural explanation? If not, then who among the group is the murderer?

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, we meet Dr. Suresh Jha, founder of the Delhi Institute for Research and Education (D.I.R.E.). A devotee of scientific research, he has dedicated himself to debunking spiritual charlatans and others who claim paranormal power. One morning, Jha attends a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club when an extraordinary event occurs. As witnesses later tell the police, the goddess Kali appears, and stabs Jha. Believes claim that she did so as a punishment for Jha’s infidelity and for his leading others away from worship. And, in fact, the death leads to a resurgence of interest in matters religious. But Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri isn’t sure this death is what it seems. He has spiritual beliefs of his own, but he doesn’t really believe in paranormal explanations for murder. Since Jha was once a client of his, Puri takes an interest in the case and begins asking questions. And he soon learns that more than one person had a good reason for wanting Jha dead.

There’s also Alan Russell’s The Fat Innkeeper. Am Coulfield is house detective at San Diego’s very upmarket Hotel California. He has enough on his hands when the hotel is bought by a Japanese firm. But then, disaster strikes. The hotel has been playing host to a Union of Near Death Experiences Retreat, and several New Age mentalists are present. Also staying at the hotel is Dr. Thomas Kingsbury, who’s made a career out of unmasking fraudulent mentalists. And he’s targeted some of the people who are at the retreat. So, when Kingsbury is poisoned, there are plenty of suspects for Coulfield to consider.

Donna Leon’s A Question of Belief sees Venice’s Commissario Guido Brunetti serve as a sort of debunker. His second-in-command, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello comes to him with a family problem. It seems that Vianello’s aunt, Zia Anita, has been withdrawing money from the family business and giving it to a man named Stefano Gorini. The money is hers to do with as she wishes, so she’s not stealing. But Vianello is concerned that Gorini is cheating her. So, he asks Brunetti to look into the matter. Brunetti agrees and starts doing a little research into Gorini. He finds that the man has been in trouble with the law before over matters of possible fraud. In fact, he lost his medical license. Now, it seems he’s back, once more taking money for what seem to be fake cures. And Brunetti will need to find a way to stop Gorini before more people are bilked.  

And then there’s Elly Griffiths’ Max Mephisto. He’s a magician who lives and works in the 1950’s UK. He may not be known all over the world, but he knows what he’s doing onstage. And those skills were important during WWII, when Mephisto was one of the Magic Men, a special-operations group that used their stage tricks to fool the enemy. Now that the war’s over, Mephisto is ‘on the circuit’ with circus performers, fortune tellers and the like. He works with a fellow former Magic Man, DI Edgar Stephens, and his expertise turns out to be very useful. Mephisto may not be specifically committed to unmasking charlatans. But he certainly knows that murders don’t happen by magic, and he helps to unwrap the layers of fakery, and get to the truth.

And that’s exactly what Houdini did. He’s no longer with us, but his brilliance on stage, and his commitment to keeping people from being hoodwinked, will be remembered. He’s also inspired generations of illusionists since his time.

 
 
 

The ‘photo is of two of those illusionists, Penn Jillette and his magic partner, Raymond Teller. Both are outstanding, world-class illusionists. And both are committed, as Houdini was, to uncovering fraud and charlatanism. In fact, in their shows, Jillette, the ‘voice of the duo,’ often tells members of the audience that the pair is going to use trickery to confuse them. He then reminds the audience that it’s all sleight-of-hand and other illusion. But it still works. Gentlemen, if you’re reading this, I’m sure Houdini would have been proud to be your colleague.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Uriah Heep’s Illusion.

17 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Russell, Donna Leon, Elly Griffiths, Hake Talbot, Tarquin Hall

So Welcome to Our Family Tree*

Most of us have what you might call ordinary families. No particularly long history, great wealth, or titles. But some families have pedigrees. On the surface, it may seem as though a pedigree is a good thing to have, especially if it comes with money. But that’s not always the case. Just a quick look at crime fiction and you’ll see what I mean.

There are several examples of such pedigrees in Agatha Christie’s work (right, fans of The Hollow?). One family like that is the Chevenix-Gore family, whom we meet in Dead Man’s Mirror. Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore is inordinately proud of his family lineage. In fact, he’s working on a book about the Chevenix-Gore history. That pride is what makes it so difficult for him when he comes to believe that one of his own family members may be cheating him. He writes to Hercule Poirot asking him to look into the matter, and Poirot decides to accede. By the time Poirot arrives at the family home, though, Sir Gervase is dead. On the surface, it looks as though he’s shot himself. But small pieces of evidence suggest that he might have been murdered. And it turns out that there are several suspects, too.

Several of Raymond Chandler’s stories feature pedigreed, or at least very wealthy, families. One of them is the Sternwood family of The Big Sleep. General Guy Sternwood hires PI Philip Marlowe to help solve an embarrassing problem. It seems that a book dealer named Arthur Geiger has sent Sternwood an extortion letter that makes reference to Sternwood’s daughter, Carmen. Marlowe’s task will be to find Geiger and get him to leave the family alone. When Marlowe tracks down Geiger, he discovers that the man’s been murdered – and Carmen is in the room. She’s either too drugged or too dazed to say what’s happened, though, and Marlowe’s instinct is to get her out of the way and keep suspicion from her. He does just that, thinking that he’s now done with the family. That doesn’t prove to be the case, though. When the Sternwoods’ chauffer is found dead of an apparent suicide (that’s later identified as a murder), Marlowe ends up being drawn into the investigation, and right back into the Sternwoods’ drama.

John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook features the Starberth family. The Starbeths have lived in the area for many generations. And, for two of them, the Starberth men served as governors of nearby Chatterham Prison. The prison’s been abandoned, but the Starberths are still associated with it. On his twenty-fifth birthday, each male Starberth spends the night in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. During his stay, he has to open the safe in the room, and follow the directions written on a piece of paper that’s stored there. Now it’s the turn of Martin Starberth; and, although he’s reluctant to follow the ritual, he sees no good way out. On the night of his stay at the prison, Starberth dies of what looks like a tragic accident. But there are clues that this was murder. Dr. Gideon Fell (for whom this is a first appearance) makes sense of the clues, and discovers who’s responsible for Martin Starberth’s death.

In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Queen travels to the small New England town of Wrightsville, where he’s hoping to get some peace and quiet, so he can write. He settles into a guest house owned by the town’s undisputed social leaders, John F. Wright, and his wife, Hermione ‘Hermy.’ The family’s been integrally woven into the town’s life for generations, and that becomes part of the problem in this story. It was embarrassing enough for them when their youngest daughter, Nora, was jilted by her fiancé, Jim Haight, three years earlier. But now Haight has returned. What’s worse, he and Nora resume their relationship. In fact, they marry. Then, suspicions arise that Jim may be planning to kill his bride for her money. Matters come to a head on New Year’s Eve, when Jim’s sister, Rosemary, is poisoned by a cocktail that was meant for Nora. Now, Jim’s arrested for murder, and the whole town assumes he’s guilty. Queen isn’t so sure, though, and he works with Nora’s sister, Pat, to find out who really killed Rosemary Haight.

In Rita Mae Brown’s Wish You Were Here, we are introduced to Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen. In this novel, she’s the postmistress of the small town of Crozet, Virginia. Her job puts her in contact with all of the local residents, since just about everyone comes to the post office on a regular basis. That’s part of how she comes to know so much about what’s going on in town. But there’s another factor, too. Harry is, on her mother’s side, a Minor, which makes her a member of one of the oldest families around. She’s one of the First Families of Virginia (FFV), and that gives her status, even though she’s neither wealthy nor politically powerful. In that culture, being from such a family gives one cachet. In Harry’s case, it gives her an ‘in’ that plenty of other people don’t have. So, she’s able to find out a lot of things as she solves mysteries.

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey has a similar ‘in.’ He’s a member of a very old, titled family; in fact, his brother is the Duke of Denver, and his mother the Dowager Duchess of Denver. Wimsey’s pedigree is sterling enough that he can move in the highest social circles, and sometimes does. He doesn’t judge people by their wealth or family names, but he certainly has both.

And then there’s Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti. He himself isn’t from a ‘pedigreed’ background. But his wife, Paola Falier is. Her parents are Conte Orazio Falier and his wife, Donatella. They have impeccable social credentials, and are quite well-connected. This gives Brunetti a very valuable resource in his investigations, as his trails often lead to high places.

As you can see rich family histories, and pedigrees, can give a person status in some places. For some sleuths, it’s quite helpful. But that doesn’t necessarily make life any easier for them. That sort of background can come with a price…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s (Our) Family Tree.

19 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Raymond Chandler, Rita Mae Brown