Category Archives: Donna Leon

Hide it in a Hiding Place Where No One Ever Goes*

Ingenious Hiding PlacesWhere would crime fiction be without the ingenious hiding place? All sorts of valuable things are hidden throughout the genre: wills, letters, jewels, even a horse (more on that shortly). And a garden-variety hiding place (in a drawer or behind a picture) isn’t nearly as interesting as something more ingenious. Of course, an ingenious hiding place still has to be believable, or crime fiction fans won’t ‘buy’ it. Even with that, though, there’s plenty of leeway for some interesting hiding places, and lots of authors have made use of thtem. Here are a few examples.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson travel to Dartmoor to investigate the disappearance of a famous racehorse Silver Blaze (See? Here’s the one about the horse), and the murder of the horse’s trainer, John Straker. Inspector Tobias Gregory has arrested London bookmaker Fitzroy Simpson, and he did have motive, since he has a lot at stake in an upcoming race that Silver Blaze is scheduled to run. But there are pieces of evidence that suggest that Simpson is not the killer. And for all his imperfections as a detective (at least, that’s how Holmes sees it), he doesn’t want an innocent man convicted. So he’s asked Holmes to look into the matter. Silver Blaze is, of course, missing. So along with solving Straker’s murder, Holmes and Watson have to also find out where Silver Blaze is hidden. It’s really quite an ingenious place, actually. I know, I know, fans of The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.

Agatha Christie used clever hiding places in several of her stories. For example, in Death on the Nile, Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race investigate the murder of Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, who was shot on the second night of a honeymoon cruise of the Nile. The most likely suspect is her former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, but it’s soon proven that she could not have committed the murder. So Poirot and Race have to re-think their ideas. In the meantime, it’s been noticed that some valuable pearls belonging to the victim have disappeared. Besides their intrinsic value, their theft could possibly have been a motive for murder. So a search is undertaken for them. It turns out that they’ve been hidden in a very interesting place. I know, I know, fans of The Man in the Brown Suit, and The Case of the Missing Will.

Ellery Queen’s short story The Adventure of the One-Penny Black presents another really interesting hiding place. In that story, Queen and Sergeant Velie investigate the disappearance of a very rare stamp called a one-penny black – one of a valuable pair. It’s gone missing from the collection of avid philatelists Friedrich and Albert Ulm, who are particularly anxious about it, because it’s got Queen Victoria’s signature on it. Of course, there are dozens of places where one might hide a stamp. But Queen makes some deductions and, after being pulled off the trail briefly, finds out what happened to that stamp. It turns out to have been a very clever hiding place.

Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone begins with the execution-style shooting of an unidentified Senegalese immigrant. One day, he’s laying out his wares in one of Venice’s open-air markets when he is murdered. It all happens so fast that no-one really sees the killer or the actual incident. What’s worse, no-one knows the victim. To most people he’s ‘just another immigrant,’ with no real identity. And he doesn’t have any identification. That’s going to make it difficult to find out who he was and who wanted to kill him. Still, Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello persist; eventually they trace the man to the house that he shared with several other immigrants. That presents another challenge. For obvious reasons, the other people with whom the victim lived do not trust the police. What’s more, there’s a language barrier. Still, Brunetti and Vianello manage to learn a few things about the man, and they find out which room in the house he was using. As they search through his things, they discover a box of salt. Buried inside the salt is a cache of diamonds. Now the case takes on a whole new meaning. As it turns out, the victim’s death is connected to arms trafficking and to ‘conflict diamonds.’

And then there’s Steve Robinson’s In the Blood. Wealthy Boston businessman Walter Sloane hires genealogist Jefferson Tayte for a special family search. He wants Tayte to trace his wife’s ancestry as a gift to her, and Tayte takes the commission. He traces the family all the way back to her first American-born ancestor William Fairborne. That line died out; however, another branch of the family continued. In 1783, so Tayte learns, Fairborne’s brother James took his family to England with a group of Loyalists. Sloan wants Tayte to pursue this line, so Tayte makes the trip to Cornwall, where the modern-day Fairbornes live. Almost immediately he faces several challenges. One is that there are no records of Fairborne’s wife and children after his arrival. There’s only a record of another marriage two years later. So what happened to the Fairbornes?  Another is that the modern Fairborne family is not interested in helping him. They have a lot of social status and local ‘clout,’ too, so very few other people are willing to give Tayte any information. One day, by chance, he meets Amy Fallon, who is working on a mystery of her own. Two years earlier, her husband Gabriel died at sea in a storm. Before he died, he told Amy that he’d found out a secret, but never got the chance to tell her what he’d discovered. Since then, though, construction on their home, Ferryman Cottage, has revealed a hidden staircase that leads to a secret room beneath the house. In that room, Fallon has discovered an antique writing box. That writing box turns out to contain an important clue to Tayte’s mystery.

There are, of course, dozens of other mysteries that feature ingenious and unusual hiding places for papers, wills, jewels, and a lot of other things too. Which ones do you like best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Donna Leon, Ellery Queen, Steve Robinson

She Talks to Angels*

Communicating With the DeadIf you’ve seen M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, then you’ll know that its main focus is a young boy who can hear and see those who’ve died. For a very long time, people have wanted to believe that they could communicate with loved ones who’ve passed away. That’s been the driving force behind countless séances.

Each culture is different with respect to whether we communicate with those who’ve died. In some cultures, there’s a vital important link between the dead and the living. In others, there is no such link, and the idea that the dead might communicate is not taken seriously.

Whatever one’s cultural or personal beliefs, the idea of communicating with lost friends and loved ones has had a powerful influence on people. And, given that a lot of crime fiction is about murder, it shouldn’t be surprising that this idea is woven into the genre, too.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle will know that he had a great interest in spiritualism. It’s ironic, considering that his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, is a man of science and logic. Holmes is not one for séances and other spiritualist traditions. But his creator certainly was.

Agatha Christie touches on this theme in a few of her stories. In The Last Séance, for instance, Raoul Daubreuil pays a visit to his fiancée Simone, who is a very successful medium. She is worn out from the work, though, and wants nothing more than to be done with it forever. But she has made one last commitment – a sitting for Madame Exe, who is desperate to stay in contact with her dead daughter Amelie. At first, Simone doesn’t want to do this last séance. She is exhausted; more than that, she is afraid. She fears the consequences of working with Madame Exe any longer. But Raoul insists that she keep her commitment, and Simone finally allows herself to be persuaded. Madame Exe duly arrives, and in the end, we see the tragic consequences. Christie fans will know that she also mentions spiritualism in Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Murder in Mesopotamia and the short story Blue Geranium, among others.

In one plot thread of Donna Leon’s The Girl of His Dreams, Commissario Guido Brunetti and his team investigate the death of twelve-year-old Ariana Rocich. She was a Roma girl who, according to the first reports, fell into a canal from a building where she was trying to rob an apartment. Brunetti isn’t so sure that she died accidentally, and starts asking questions. Brunetti doesn’t believe in spiritualism. But he can’t deny that Ariana haunts him:
 

‘…and the girl’s face…would return to him at odd times and more than once in his dreams.’
 

That’s part of what spurs him on to find out the truth about her death.

Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath be Past is in part the story of the death of seventeen-year-old Wilma Persson. One winter day, she and her boyfriend, eighteen-year-old Simon Kyrö, go diving into Lake Vittangijärvi, hoping to explore the ruins of a WWII plane that went down there. The two are deliberately trapped and killed. A few months later, Wilma’s body re-surfaces, and Inspector Anna-Maria Mella and her team investigate. In the meantime, attorney Rebecka Martinsson has been having strange dreams in which a young girl appears, trying to communicate with her. Martinsson doesn’t believe in ghosts, or in the dead communicating with the living, but she knows what she’s experienced. And it’s interesting to see how her experiences are woven into the story.

In Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second, Jason Barnes is riding a bus one day when three young people begin harassing another passenger, Luke Murray. Jason intervenes, and for a time, the bullying abates. But then, Luke gets off the bus. So do the three bullies, and so does Jason. The harassment starts up again, and this time it escalates. The fight continues all the way into Jason’s yard, where he is fatally stabbed, and Luke badly wounded. Both boys’ parents are understandably devastated by what’s happened. There is, of course, a police investigation into the incident, and Jason’s parents Andrew and Val do the best they can to help. Part of the plot involves the slow discovery of what really went on and what led up to it. Another part has to do with the impact that Jason’s death has on his family. In the end, though, Andrew and Val are able to begin healing; and, without spoiling the story, I can say that there’s one great scene in which Andrew does have a sense of really connecting with Jason.

There are many cultures in which it is believed that those who’ve died really do communicate with the living. It’s not done in the Western sense of using the planchette or having a séance. In fact, there isn’t really a strong dividing line between the living and the dead in some cultures. We see that, for instance, in Nicole Watson’s The Boundary, some of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte novels, and Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest novels. All of these touch on Australian Aboriginal people’s connections with their dead.

We also see that link in Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun series, which takes place in 1970s Laos. Dr. Siri may be a medical professional, but that doesn’t mean he ignores the unexplainable. In fact, he actually does see the spirits of people who’ve died. Again, it’s not in the traditional Western sense, but it’s quite real for him. There are other novels and series, too, that touch on this sense that those who have died communicate with the living (I know, I know, fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire stories). When it’s done effectively, it can add a fascinating layer to a story. It can also add some depth to characters.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The Black Crowes.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Åsa Larsson, Cath Staincliffe, Colin Cotterill, Craig Johnson, Donna Leon, Nicole Watson

Go Where You Wanna Go*

ItinerantMost of us have a fixed place to live. It may not be where we grew up, or where we think of as ‘home,’ but it’s the place we return to when the work day is done. When we fill out forms, we have an address to include. But that’s not true of everyone. There are many people who have, as the saying goes, no fixed abode. They travel from place to place, never staying anywhere very long. They’re often on the fringes of society, too.

Groups like this can be insular, since they don’t often make a lot of connections with people not in the group. What’s more, ‘outsiders’ often don’t trust them, and the feeling is usually mutual. So when they’re involved in cases of murder, it can be especially difficult for the police to investigate. It doesn’t help matters that the police are often (‘though certainly not always) biased against itinerants. The whole dynamic can make for a very effective crime novel, given the realities of not having one particular place to live, and the feelings that others have about that.

One such group of people is the group of migrant farm workers. At least in the US, they move from place to place, working a few weeks or months on one farm or in one area, and then moving on. They follow harvests, and when their services are no longer needed, they’re expected to leave.

We see this lifestyle in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. That’s the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two migrant workers who’ve been forced to leave their last place of employment and move on to the next. Lennie, who is of limited intelligence, was wrongly accused of attempted rape when he wouldn’t let go of a young woman’s dress. He says that he just enjoyed stroking it because it was soft, but that’s not how the young woman saw it. When George and Lennie get to their new jobs, they are checked in, given places to sleep, and introduced to the boss’ son, Curly. He’s arrogant, spiteful and rude – not a person you want to cross. As they settle in and try to do a good job, we see how migrant workers have traditionally been treated. And when tragedy befalls the farm, we see how their migrant status affects both men.

The Roma people, too, have a tradition of moving around and staying nowhere for very long. Stef Penney explores life among these people in The Invisible Ones. In that novel, Leon Janko hires PI Ray Lovell to find his daughter Rose, who’s been missing for seven years. At first Lovell demurs, saying that missing person cases aren’t his area of expertise. But Janko insists, and then explains that he wants Lovell because Lovell is half Roma.
 

‘You’re always who you are, even sitting here in your office, behind your fancy desk. You’re one of us.’
 

Janko says that Lovell will be able to talk to people in ways that gorijos (non-Roma) will not. Finally Lovell is persuaded to look into the matter. He’s soon dismayed by the resistance he gets from the Jankos, especially considering that it was Leon Janko who hired him. It’s soon clear that they’re hiding something that may very well relate to Rose’s disappearance. As Lovell investigates further, readers get a real sense of what life is like for people who never live anywhere for very long.

In Donna Leon’s The Girl of His Dreams, Commissario Guido Brunetti and his team investigate the death of twelve-year-old Ariana Rocich, a Roma girl who allegedly fell into a canal from a Venice roof after robbing an apartment in the building. Brunetti begins to wonder just how accidental the girl’s death was, though, and investigates. His search for the truth leads him to the Roma encampment near the city. As he tries to work with the victim’s people, we see what their lives are like, and why they have very little reason to trust Brunetti, at least at first.

You might not think of it right away, but circus workers are also often itinerant. They may stay for a couple of months in one place, but they spend much of their time ‘on the road.’ That’s what we see, for instance, in Catriona McPherson’s The Winter Ground. The Cooke family circus is happy that they’ve been given permission to stay on the Blackcraig Estate for the winter. As compensation, they’ve agreed to do a few shows for the wealthy Wilson family, who own the place. There are some concerns about having ‘those kinds of people’ around for the winter, but Dandelion ‘Dandy’ Gilver’s two sons couldn’t be happier; they want to see the circus. Then, some nasty events begin to happen in the circus, and Mrs. Cooke wants an end to it. She asks Dandy to investigate. Things go from bad to worse when Anastasia ‘Ana,’ the bareback horse rider, falls from her mount and is killed. At first it looks like a terrible accident, but it’s not long before Dandy begins to believe it was murder.

A circus also plays a role in Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes. New York Homicide Bureau Detective Tom Shawn is taking a late-night walk when he sees a young woman about to jump off a bridge. He stops her just in time, and takes her to a nearby all-night diner, where she tells him her story. She is Jean Reid, only child of wealthy Harlan Reid. Her mother died when she was two years old; otherwise, her life had been a more or less happy one until recently. In a very strange series of events, Harlan Reid met a man named Jeremiah Tompkins, a man who, as he himself puts it, is cursed with being able to predict the future. Despite warnings, and against his daughter’s wishes, Reid began to visit Tompkins more and more often, whenever he was faced with an important decision. Now Tompkins has predicted that Reid will die on a certain night at midnight. Reid firmly believes that it will happen, and Jean can no longer tolerate the stress. Shawn decides to help her if he can, and takes her to his boss, McManus, to see what the police can do. After all, since Reid is a wealthy man, this could simply be a scam to get his money. That part of the investigation leads to an itinerant circus and another murder investigation. In the meantime, Shawn tries to protect the Reids as well as he can, in case the threat to the family is real. Among other things, this novel offers a glimpse of what it means to travel in a circus, and how ‘circus people’ are viewed from the outside.

Of course, there are some fictional sleuths, too, who don’t really have a ‘regular’ home. Yes, I mean you, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. Eleanor Kuhn’s Will Rees is another example of a sleuth who’s a bit of an itinerant. He’s a late-18th Century weaver who goes from place to place on commission. He’s recently married Lydia Farrell, a former member of the Shaker sect. As the series goes on, it’ll be interesting to see how his roving life changes.

Itinerant people often live outside the realm of what we think of as ‘normal.’ They usually have relatively few possessions or connections, and they have a unique culture based on moving around. Perhaps that’s part of what makes them such interesting characters in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by John Phillips, made famous by The Mamas and the Papas. See whether you like that version or the recording done by The Fifth Dimension better.

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Filed under Catriona McPherson, Cornell Woolrich, Donna Leon, Eleanor Kuhns, John Steinbeck, Lee Child, Stef Penney

I Went Down to the Chelsea Drugstore*

PharmaciesYou probably visit them without even thinking about it. Perhaps you have a cold, or need a headache remedy. If you’ve been to see a doctor, you may have a prescription. Yes, I’m talking about pharmacies. Today’s larger pharmacy chains, such as Boots, Walgreen’s, PharmaChoice and Amcal, offer a lot more than medicine, too. You can get just about anything from lotions to cereal to small appliances. At the pharmacy nearest where I live, you can even get your passport ‘photo taken.

Of course, the concept of what a pharmacy is and does is different across cultures. And those ideas have changed considerably over time. But in whatever form, pharmacies play important roles in our lives – and in our crime fiction. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie fans will know that she had a background in chemistry and pharmaceuticals. So it’s little wonder that she makes use more than once of the chemist’s and the hospital dispensary. For instance, in After the Funeral, Hercule Poirot looks into the untimely, if not unexpected, death of Richard Abernethie. When the members of Abernethie’s family gather for his funeral, his younger sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up; even she asks the family to ignore what she said. But privately, all of her relatives begin to wonder whether she’s right. The wondering turns to certainty when Cora herself is murdered the next day. One of the ‘people of interest’ in this mystery is Gregory Banks, nephew-by-marriage to both Abernethie and his sister. Banks is a chemist’s assistant who, it turns out, has a questionable history. It is said that he once offered to sell a customer poison to kill her husband. And when Poirot meets Banks, he learns that the man is psychologically very fragile. Now Poirot has to decide whether that means Banks is the killer. I know, I know, fans of Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client) and of The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

In Michael Collins’ short story Who?, we learn about Boyd Conners, a young man whose job is making deliveries from a local drugstore. One day, he suddenly dies of what seems to be a heart attack. He was in very good health, and not a drug user, so his mother is convinced that there’s something more to his death. She visits PI Dan Fortune to ask him to investigate. As Fortune begins to look into the case, he learns that there are a few possibilities. For one thing, there’s the victim’s romantic rival Roger Tatum. There’s also a local group of hoodlums who might have wanted him dead. As it turns out though, the actual killer is someone who isn’t even a suspect.

In the US, drugstores used to be more than just places to purchase aspirin. They used to be social gathering places. We see that, for instance, in John D. MacDonald’s short story The Homicidal Hiccup. Walter Maybree has purchased the local drugstore, and wants to keep it a safe ‘clean’ place for young people to meet, and for families to do their pharmacy shopping. Like many drugstores of the day, it’s got a counter where customers can get milkshakes, ice cream sundaes and other treats. The only problem for Maybree is local crime boss Johnny Howard. Howard and his gang run the town and extort ‘protection money’ from all of the businesses. As if the extortion weren’t enough, the gang wants to make Maybree’s drugstore a place for selling pornography. This Maybree refuses to do. Much to Howard’s surprise, other business owners in the area, who are fed up with the crime gang, stand by Maybree and help him protect his store. Desperate to keep his respect, Howard and his girlfriend Bonny Gerlacher devise a plan. She’ll go to the drugstore disguised as a teen. As she’s sitting at the counter, she’ll use a straw to shoot poison at Maybree, killing him and getting him out of Howard’s way. Things don’t go as expected, though, when a natural human response takes over. Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories will know that drugstores make several appearances in that series. They’re used as places to make telephone calls, have a meal, meet people and get an ice cream soda.

Kerry Greenwood’s Cocaine Blues introduces us to Phryne Fisher. Originally from Australia, she’s been living in London. One evening, an acquaintance, Colonel Harper, asks Phryne to visit his daughter Lydia, who now lives in Melbourne, and see whether she’s all right. It seems from her letters that she’s not in good health, and that her husband may be responsible for that. Phryne agrees and travels to Melbourne. In the course of finding out the truth about Lydia, she unearths a cocaine ring operating in the area. It’s not long before she discovers that the nexus of the ring is a pharmacy in a seedy part of town. So one night, she and her friend Bert Johnson visit the pharmacy to find out for themselves what’s going on there. She knows that she won’t learn anything from just going in well-dressed, and asking questions in an educated accent. So, she pretends to be a very different sort of woman:
 

‘Those pink powders for pale people,’ she finished, and held out her ten shilling note. The man nodded, and exchanged her note for a slip of pink paper, embossed with the title ‘Peterson’s pink powders for pale people’ and containing a small quantity of the requisite stuff. Phryne nodded woozily to him and found her way back to Bert.’
 

It turns out that that visit to the pharmacy provides an important clue.

And then there’s Donna Leon’s Suffer the Little Children. In one plot thread of that novel, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello has discovered that a local hospital has been in collusion with three pharmacists. Pharmacists sometimes receive a courtesy fee when they schedule their customers for appointments with specialists. Vianello has learned that three pharmacists have been scheduling ‘phantom patients’ in exchange for extra money. Vianello and his boss, Commissario Guido Brunetti, are looking into the matter when there’s a break-in at a pharmacy that adds a whole new dimension to the case.

You might not think about it much, unless you’re not feeling well or you run out of tissues. But pharmacies are an integral part of our lives, even with today’s online ordering. And they can add interesting layers to a crime story.

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, John D. MacDonald, Kerry Greenwood, Michael Collins, Rex Stout

I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You*

I'd  Be Good For YouPeople who live in the limelight often get a lot of scrutiny. The same thing happens when someone is in a high-stakes career (e.g. trying to become a law partner). Every move that person makes may be noticed, and that includes choice of partner. Whether it’s fair or not, people do judge others by the way their partners act, sometimes even by what they wear.  So the right partner can do an awful lot to advance one’s career or social status.

Traditionally (‘though certainly not always!) women have been expected to join the ‘right’ clubs, wear the ‘right’ clothes, visit the ‘right’ people (and avoid certain others) to advance their husbands’ fortunes. It’s not the hard-and-fast rule now that it was, but it’s still there, and in some social circles, it’s still very much culturally expected. It can work the other way too.

We see some interesting cases of this sort of couple in crime fiction, which makes sense when you consider all of the possibilities there are for conflict and other layers of tension. Sometimes such a union turns out very well. Sometimes, it doesn’t…

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from the King of Bohemia, who’s so concerned that his problem be kept quiet that he comes in disguise. He is soon to marry a rich and powerful princess, and the expectation is that the marriage will advance both of their fortunes. In order for this to happen though, the king is expected to have led a more or less blameless life, with no scandal to embarrass his fiancée or her family. And therein lies his problem. The king had a past relationship with an actress, Irene Adler, and there’s a compromising ‘photo to prove it. He wants Holmes to retrieve that ‘photo so that his indiscretion will stay hidden. Holmes agrees and ends up pitted against a much more worthy opponent than he imagined…

Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile is the story of beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway. She has no real plans to marry until she meets Simon Doyle, fiancé to her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. Not long after she hires Simon as her land agent, the papers and pubs are full of gossip about their sudden marriage. The newlyweds take a honeymoon cruise of the Nile, which is what Linnet had wanted. For his part, Simon plays the role of properly adoring husband. He wears the ‘right’ clothes, takes Linnet where she wants to go, and in other ways advances her high social status as a very wealthy young bride. On the second night of the cruise, Linnet is shot. The first suspect is Jackie, who has an obvious motive and who is also on the cruise. But it’s soon proven that she couldn’t have committed the murder. So Hercule Poirot, who’s also aboard, has to look elsewhere for the killer.

Until the last few forty years or so, men traditionally got the high-status jobs in academia, and their wives played important roles in getting them there. In that community, it was very important to attend the ‘right’ teas, luncheons and charity events; be pleasant to the ‘right’ highly placed people; and in every way support one’s husband’s chances at tenure, an endowed chair, or deanship. That’s what’s at stake in Colin Dexter’s Death is Now My Neighbour. Sir Clixby Bream is planning to retire from his position as Master of Lonsdale College, Oxford, and is getting ready to choose his successor. The two top candidates are Julian Storrs and Denis Cornford. They’re equally qualified and their wives have done their jobs at behaving ‘properly’ and making their husbands look as good as possible. Then, journalist Geoffrey Owens does some digging around and discovers that someone is hiding a dubious past. When he’s shot, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis have to dig into several people’s histories to find out what the truth is about these outwardly respectable lives.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we are introduced to Jodie Evans Garrow. She’s got what seems to be the perfect upwardly-mobile life. Her husband Angus is a successful attorney, and a lot of people think he’ll be the next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. Jodie is no ‘clinging vine,’ but she does try to advance his career. She wears the ‘right clothes,’ sends their children to the ‘right’ schools, and so on. In every way, Angus looks poised for a fine future, and Jodie’s played her part in that. Then, everything changes. After an accident, their daughter Hannah is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where years ago, Jodie gave birth to another child. Not even Angus knows about this. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie says she gave the child up for adoption, but when the nurse does some research, she finds that there are no formal records of adoption. Now questions begin to be asked. Where is the child? If she’s alive, can she be found? If she’s dead, did Jodie have something to do with it? Jodie’s social capital plummets, and the notoriety of the whole thing also threatens Angus’ career. Along with the truth about the baby, we also learn what happens when a person loses the social capital that comes with a spouse who does all the ‘right’ things.

In Donna Leon’s About Face, Commissario Guido Brunetti and his wife Paola Falier are invited to dinner with her parents. Her father, Conte Orazio Falier, has an ulterior motive. He’s invited another couple, Maurizio Cataldo and his wife, Franca Marinello, to the dinner as well. He’s considering doing business with Cataldo, and he wants Brunetti to meet the couple and do a little discreet searching into Cataldo’s background. Brunetti agrees and in one plot thread, he starts learning about the Cataldo/Marinello family. Franca is a loyal wife who does everything she can to advance her husband’s career and make him look as good as possible. She dresses well, is an interesting conversationalist, and even pays a visit to Brunetti at his office try to help her husband. It’s a fascinating look at the way even today, what one spouse says and does can reflect on the other.

There are a lot of other novels, too, in which one spouse behaves or dresses in certain ways, or is nice to certain people, to advance the other’s career. You might even call it part of the bargain the couple strike when they marry.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Colin Dexter, Donna Leon, Wendy James