Category Archives: Donna Leon

But You Were Just Too Clever By Half*

Too CleverIf you read enough crime fiction, you learn a few lessons. One of them is that there is danger in being very clever and observant. Characters who notice things and put the proverbial two and two together tend to come upon truths that aren’t safe for them to know. And that tends to make fictional characters very vulnerable.

Of course, a certain amount of cleverness is important; otherwise fictional sleuths couldn’t easily find out the truth about a murder. But how often does a character become a victim because s/he found out a secret the killer was keeping? Or because s/he knows about another murder? It happens a lot in the genre.

Agatha Christie used this plot point in several of her novels and stories. For example, in Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the stabbing death of Lord Edgware. His wife, famous actress Jane Wilkinson, is the most likely suspect. She wanted to divorce him so that she could marry someone else – a divorce he would not grant. And what’s more, she even threatened his life publicly. To make matters worse, the butler and Edgware’s secretary both say that someone who looked like her, and gave her name, came to the house just before the killing. But she has a solid alibi. Twelve people are prepared to testify that on the night of the murder, she was at a dinner party in another part of London, so she couldn’t possibly have been the killer. Poirot, Hastings, and Chief Inspector Japp are trying to reconcile the two sets of evidence when there’s another death. And another. One of the other victims is up-and-coming actor Donald Ross. As it turns out, he’d noticed one small thing, which got him to wondering too much and coming too close to the truth.

In Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, we are introduced to Nicholas Quinn, the only Deaf member of the Oxford Foreign Exams Syndicate. This group is responsible for administering and managing exams given in other countries that follow the British educational system. One afternoon, Quinn dies of what turns out to be poison. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis look into the case, and soon learn that the members of the Syndicate all had things to hide. One by one, each member’s secret comes out, and Morse and Lewis have to work out which of those secrets was deadly for Quinn. It turns out that he found out more about the Syndicate and the lives of its members than it was safe for him to know, and paid a very high price for it.

One of the most chilling examples of being too clever is Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. The wealthy and well-educated Coverdale family is in need of a new housekeeper. So Jacqueline Coverdale goes in search of a suitable person. She soon hires Eunice Parchman for the job, and at first, things are all right. But Eunice has a secret that she’s determined will not come out. One day, and quite by accident, one of the Coverdales finds out Eunice’s secret. That unwitting discovery ends up in tragedy.

Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly introduces readers to Giorgio Tassini, who works as a night watchman at one of Venice’s glass-blowing factories. He is convinced that the factories are illegally disposing of toxic waste, and poisoning Venice’ water. In fact, he blames them for the fact that his daughter was born with special needs. One morning, Tassini is discovered dead at the factory where he works. Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello investigate, and at first, it seems this death was a terrible accident. But it’s not long before murder is suspected. So the detectives look into the allegations that Tassini had made, to see whether they might have led to his murder. As it turns out, Tassini had learned more than was safe for him to know. And that cleverness, if you want to call it that, cost him his life.

We see that sort of consequence in Shona (now writing as S.G.) MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. In that novel, which takes place in 17th Century Banff, Seaton is undermaster at a local grammar school. One morning, the body of local apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davison, is discovered in Seaton’s classroom. He’s died of poison, and soon enough, music master Charles Thom is arrested and imprisoned for the crime. Thom says he’s innocent, and asks his friend Seaton to help. Seaton reluctantly agrees, and begins to ask questions. One possibility is that Davidson was murdered because of his political leanings. Banff is staunchly Protestant, and there was talk Davidson might have been a spy for Catholic King Philip of Spain. But there are other possibilities, too. And in the end, Seaton finds that Davidson had innocently observed something that gave him more information than was safe for him to have. That knowledge cost him his life.

Many whodunits, cosy and otherwise, include (at least) a second death, where the victim’s killed because of finding out too much about the first murder in the novel. That’s the case in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, the first in her Myrtle Clover series. Myrtle is a retired English teacher who’s not yet ready to be put out to pasture, as the saying goes. Her son Red, who’s the local Chief of Police, sees things otherwise, and ‘volunteers’ his mother to work at the local church. When Myrtle goes to the church, she discovers the body of Parke Stockard. Determined to prove that she’s not ready to be put aside yet, Myrtle decides to investigate. And there are plenty of suspects, too. The victim was both malicious and scheming, and had made enemies all over the small North Carolina town where she’d recently moved. Then there’s another death. One of the members of the church, Kitty Kirk, is killed. As it turns out, she had noticed something about the murderer that would have made it too easy for her to work out what happened to Parke Stockard.

See what I mean? All you have to do is look at crime fiction to conclude that maybe it’s best not to be too observant and clever. At the very least you live longer…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Long Blondes’ Too Clever by Half.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Donna Leon, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ruth Rendell, S.G. MacLean, Shona MacLean

Don’t You Forget About Me*

GoodbyeThere’s a bond that often develops between people when they share an experience, especially an intense experience. That bond can make it difficult to say ‘good bye’ when it’s time. I’m not referring here to romantic breakups; that’s worth a blog post on its own. There are other kinds of partings, though, that can be quite emotionally charged.

Certainly there are such ‘good byes’ in crime fiction. They can run the risk of getting maudlin; but, when they’re done well, partings can add depths to characters. They can also add a point of tension to a story.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, the King of Bohemia hires Sherlock Holmes to take on a difficult case. He is planning to marry, and wants to make sure that the wedding takes place with no problems. The problem is that he was previously involved in a love affair with famous actress Irene Adler, and there’s a compromising photograph of the two of them. The king wants Holmes to get that photograph to ensure that there won’t be a scandal. Holmes agrees and begins to trace Irene Adler. It turns out, though, that she is more than a match for him, and the case doesn’t end the way he planned. She says ‘good bye’ to Holmes in a most unexpected way, and in the end, Holmes knows he’s been bested.

Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds introduces readers to London hairdresser’s assistant Jane Grey. When she wins a sweepstakes, she decides to use her prize money for a trip to Le Pinet. On the way back, she takes a flight from Paris to London. That’s how she gets involved in the murder of a fellow passenger, Marie Morisot, also known as Madame Giselle. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight, and works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who killed the victim, how, and why. It’s a difficult investigation, and for Jane, it’s an intense experience. She shares part of it with Poirot, so that when the story ends, they’ve developed a sort of bond. Their ‘good bye’ on the final page reflects that, too.

Fans of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus will know that over the course of the series, Rebus works closely with Sergeant Siobhan Clarke. They become friends as well as colleagues, and they work several extremely difficult cases together. So, in Exit Music, as Rebus’ retirement comes ever closer, both have to prepare for a difficult ‘good bye.’ Neither is given to gushing, but parting will be hard for them. We see both the strength of their bond, and the restraint they both show, at Rebus’ retirement party. Clarke’s gift to him – an iPod loaded with the ‘oldie’ groups he loves – says more than a long speech would. And they have a nearly silent, but none the less affecting for that, ‘good bye’ a bit later. It’s an example of the way in which understatement can make an intense scene all the more powerful.

In Donna Leon’s About Face, Commissario Guido Brunetti and his team investigate the murder of Stefano Ranzano, who owned a trucking company. One of Brunetti’s colleagues suspects that the death may be related to the illegal transportation of toxic materials. So, as well as looking into Ranzano’s personal relationships and connections, the team also investigates those allegations. They find out that more than one person could have wanted the victim dead. As it turns out, the key to this case lies with a woman named Franca Marinello, whom Brunetti met at the home of his parents-in-law. She and Brunetti bond, if you will, over the classics of Greek and Roman writing. It’s not spoiling the story to say that he and Franca do not have an affair; they don’t even ‘officially’ flirt. But he has a soft spot for her, and they interact quite a lot over the course of the investigation. At the end, they have a final conversation in a coffee shop. It turns out to be quite intense, although neither gushes. As they do, we get answers to some of the questions raised in the story.

And then there’s Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs. That novel begins in 1974, when an unnamed art restorer visits a monastery in the Swiss Alps. He’s there to look at some of the monastery’s frescoes, with an eye towards restoring them if he can. There’s also a care home for the aged on the premises; so, in the course of his work, the art restorer meets one of its residents. The old man has a story to tell, and wants his new acquaintance to record it. The art restorer acquiesces, and the anziano begins his tale. It’s the story of Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco and his family who immigrated to New York City from Italy at the turn of the 20th Century. The old man details Franco’s life, a tragic bar fight in which he killed a man, and the consequences of that murder. Then, the old man goes on to share the stories of Franco’s three sons, Alessandro ‘Al’, Niccola ‘Nick’, and Leonardo ‘Leo.’ Their lives turn out to be profoundly impacted by what their father did, and the art restorer hears the whole saga. It’s a very intense experience, as the old man is passionate about making sure the story is told. For the art restorer, it’s a very personal window into other people’s lives. At the end, they share what seems to be a straightforward ‘good night.’ But there’s more to come, as the old man has one further long communication with his interviewer. Certainly that experience, and their parting, impacts the art restorer.

When people do share intense experiences, they often feel a connection that’s quite different to acquaintanceship, or even friendship. So when they say, ‘good bye,’ it can be a very meaningful moment. Those moments certainly happen in real life. And when they’re done well, they can add to a crime novel, too.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simple Minds’ Don’t You (Forget About Me).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Apostolos Doxiadis, Arthur Conan Doyle, Donna Leon, Ian Rankin

Doesn’t Seem To Be a Shadow in The City*

Summer in the CityThe weather is heating up in the Northern Hemisphere. In some places, people are already using their air conditioning, pulling out beachwear and fans, and looking through those recipes for cold drinks.

In the days before air conditioning, anyone who had the means at all would get out of the city as soon as possible. Some would spend the summer at the beach; that’s how many coastal towns got their start. Others would go to the country; in fact, there’s a long tradition of wealthy families who have both city places and country homes. Even today, it’s not uncommon for people who can afford it to beat the heat by getting out of the city.

We certainly see that in crime fiction. And it’s surprising how often that custom ends up getting a character involved in a case of murder. I’ll bet you’re already thinking of examples; here are just a few of my own.

Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase begins when Rachel Innes and her maid, Liddy Allen, travel to Sunnyside, a country home that she’s rented for a summer holiday. The idea is to get away from the heat of the city for a while. Rachel’s also looking forward to spending some time with her nephew, Halsey, and niece, Gertrude, whom she’s more or less raised since their father (and her brother) died. If Rachel had only known that taking that house would get her and her family involved in a case of theft, murder and fraud, she might have made different summer plans…

In Elizabeth Daly’s Unexpected Night, rare book dealer Henry Gamadge is spending some time at the Ocean House resort at Ford’s Beach, Maine. At the time this book was written, it wasn’t uncommon for people from New York or Boston (and sometimes even cities such as Philadelphia) to spend the summer in Maine. During Gamadge’s visit, he makes friends with Colonel Harrison Barclay and his family, who are staying nearby. So he’s on the scene when the Cowdens (relatives of the Barclays) arrive for their own summer getaway. Eleanor Cowden has brought her daughter Alma, her son Amberley, and Amberley’s tutor Hugh Sanderson. Amberley has a very serious heart condition, but he’s insisted on this trip, so that he can support a cousin of his who has a theatre group in nearby Seal Cove. On the night of the Cowden’s arrival, Amberley dies, and his body is found the next morning at the foot of a cliff. Then there’s another death. And two attempts at another murder. Gamadge works with local police detective Mitchell to find out who’s behind all of these events.

In Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s The Cape Cod Mystery, we are introduced to Prudence Whitsby and her niece, Betsey. A heat wave has arrived, and they’re planning to escape it by taking a trip to their summer cottage on Cape Cod. They’ve gotten a sheaf of letters and telegrams from potential guests, but have narrowed down the list to two, and the holiday begins. One night, Prudence’s cat Ginger escapes; while chasing after the cat, Prudence discovers the body of Dale Sanborn, a famous writer who’s staying in the   cottage next door. A family friend of the Whitsbys, Bill Porter, is the most likely suspect. He was in the area at the time of the murder, he can’t account for himself, and he has a motive. But his employee and ‘man-of-all-work,’ Asey Mayo, doesn’t believe he’s guilty. Together, Asey and Prudence set out to prove that Bill Porter is innocent.

As anyone who’s ever lived there can tell you, Delhi can get extremely hot in the summer. So in Aditya Sudarshan’s A Nice Quite Holiday, Justice Harish Shinde is happy to escape the heat. He accepts an invitation from an old friend, Shikhar Pant, to take a holiday in Bhairavgarh, in the Indian state of Rajasthan. With him, the judge brings his law clerk, Anant.
 

‘In Delhi, it was that time of summer when cool days are difficult to recollect and impossible to imagine.’
 

So Anant is delighted to be included in the trip. The pair arrive, settle in, and soon meet the rest of Pant’s guests. Trouble soon starts, because two of those guests, Ronit and Khamini Mittal, run a controversial NGO. Its purpose is AIDS education and prevention in the rural areas, and there are plenty of people who oppose both the NGO and its pamphlets. One afternoon, Kailish Pant, the host’s cousin, is found murdered. He was a strong supporter of the Mittals’ work, so this presents one important avenue for investigation. But as Shinde and Anant soon learn, it’s by no means the only possibility.

Donna Leon’s sleuth, Commissario Guido Brunetti, tries to escape the Venice summer heat in A Question of Belief. He, his wife, Paola Falier, and their children Chiara and Raffi, are planning a trip to the mountains, and everyone is excited about it. The family is on the train, on the way to their destination, when Brunetti gets a call from a colleague. Araldo Fontana, a clerk at the local courthouse – the Tribunale di Venezia – has been bludgeoned in the courtyard of the apartment building where he lives. Now Brunetti has to get off the train at the next stop, return to Venice and the heat, and try to find out who committed the murder and why.

And in Andrea Camilleri’s August Heat, Inspector Salvo Montalbano doesn’t even get the opportunity to make plans to beat the Sicilian summer heat. His second-in-command, Mimì Augello, has had to change his own summer travel plans, so Montalbano has to stay in sweltering Vigàta. When he explains the situation to his longtime lover, Livia, she has the idea of renting a beach house near Montalbano. And, since Montalbano is likely to be busy with work, she’ll bring some friends to stay with her and keep her company. Montalbano’s not happy with the idea, but the plan’s put in motion. It doesn’t work out to be a good solution, though. When the son of Livia’s friend disappears, that’s bad enough. He’s found, unharmed, in a secret tunnel that runs underneath the house. But so is an old trunk that contains a corpse…

See what I mean? Sometimes it seems there’s no escaping trouble. Even when you try to escape the heat…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer in the City.

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Filed under Aditya Sudarshan, Andrea Camilleri, Donna Leon, Elizabeth Daly, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Phoebe Atwood Taylor

(More) Things You’ll Never Hear These Sleuths Say… ;-)

Things Sleuths Don't SayA few years ago, I did a post on things you would never hear certain fictional sleuths say. And if you think about it, you can learn as much from what sleuths wouldn’t say as you can from what they would say, especially when it comes to character development. Of course, one post never allows enough space to mention all the sleuths out there, so I thought it might be fun to take a look at a few more sleuths. Now, if you’ll be kind enough to park your disbelief in front of the TV for a bit, here are…

 

(More) Things You’ll Never Hear These Sleuths Say

 

Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple

Really? He did? I hadn’t noticed.
Bugger the garden! There’s a great football match on.
I’m so tired of this boring village. I’ve been thinking of getting a place in Camden Town.

 

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe

Fine, but it’s going to cost you. Five grand and I never saw anything, never met you.
God, you’re beautiful! Of course you’re innocent.
Oh, no, thanks. Never touch the stuff.

 

Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel

None for me, thanks. Watchin’ the blood pressure.
Sorry, did that upset you?
(To Pascoe) Go on, then. Aren’t you and Ellie going to that book signing tonight? This’ll wait.

 

Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano

No, thanks. I just don’t feel like eating.
You know what, Livia? Let’s set a wedding date.
What a beautiful morning! The sun’s shining, the birds are singing. It’s going to be a great day!

 

Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher

Oh, I couldn’t! Ladies don’t do that.
I’ll need to check with Inspector Robinson first. He’s in charge of the case.
Not another dinner dance invitation! I hate those things!

 

Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti

So what? Everybody takes a cut, don’t they? Why shouldn’t I?
Signorina Elettra? She’s just a glorified secretary. Who cares what she says?
I have so much respect for Vice-Questore Patta. He’s my role model.
Bonus: Brunetti’s wife, Paola Falier (In a very meek tone of voice):  Yes, dear. 

 

And there you have it. Things you will never hear these sleuths say. What about you? What things do you think your top sleuths would never say? If you’re a writer, what would your sleuth never say?

 

And Now For a Few Things You Will Never Hear Margot Say

Oh, no, thanks. I can’t stand the taste of coffee.
I couldn’t care less who wrote that stupid book.
Billy who?

 

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Donna Leon, Kerry Greenwood, Raymond Chandler, Reginald Hill

Say What You Need to Say*

SubtletyIn many cultures, it isn’t the custom for people to come right out and say certain things. To do so is considered abrupt, even rude. So, members of those cultures have developed subtler ways to say what they want to say. That can be a challenge to understand if you’re someone from a culture where directness is valued. But it’s an important form of communication.

In real life and in crime fiction, police need to understand this kind of subtle communication. Otherwise, they may miss out on important information. The same is true of PIs and other professional investigators. Not only do such people need to pay attention to what’s really being said, but also, they need to learn how to communicate in subtle ways themselves. Otherwise, they risk alienating the very people whose information they need.

There are plenty of examples of this kind of subtlety in crime fiction; space only permits a few of them. I know you’ll be able to come up with plenty of instances yourself, anyway.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell host a weekend gathering. Two of the guests are Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife, Gerda. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage nearby, and is invited to the house for lunch on the Sunday. When he arrives, he finds what looks like a macabre tableau set up for his ‘amusement.’ Christow has been shot, and his body is lying by the pool. It only takes a moment for Poirot to see that this scene is all too real. Once it’s clear that Christow has been murdered, Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find out who the killer is. One of the important sets of clues in this novel comes from very subtle communication. Christie ‘plays fair’ with the reader, but it’s easy to miss on first reading.

In Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone, Commissario Guido Brunetti has to use and understand subtlety to solve the murder of an unidentified Senegalese man who is killed, execution-style, in an open-air market. The victim was in Venice illegally, so it’s going to be enough of a challenge to find out who he was, let alone who killed him. Brunetti guesses that the man might have been helped by Don Alvise Perale, a former Jesuit priest who is very active in the community. Brunetti knows that asking Don Alvise outright for the name of the victim will be pointless. Either he won’t know the name, or he won’t tell, at least at first. Saying too much could be dangerous for other people who are in the country illegally. So Brunetti settles for asking Don Alvise to find out whatever he can and let Brunetti know. This Don Alvise agrees to do, after he gets Brunetti’s assurance that the Immigration police won’t be involved. It turns out that Don Alvise’s cooperation is very useful as Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello investigate.

In Laura Joh Rowland’s Shinju, we meet Sano Ichirō, a police investigator in 1687 Edo (Tokyo). When the bodies of Niu Yukikko and Noriyoshi are discovered in a river, it’s assumed that they committed suicide by drowning. That’s not an uncommon choice in the case of a forbidden love affair, and that’s what everyone wants to believe. But Sano begins to wonder whether the two actually did commit suicide. Little by little, evidence suggest that at Noriyushi was murdered. If so, perhaps Yukiko was as well. But the Niu family is powerful and influential, and Sano’s supervisor, Magistrate Ogyu, doesn’t want the police to do anything to offend them. So he makes it clear to Sano that the investigation is not to proceed. At one point, Sano tries to persuade him otherwise. Here is Ogyu’s response:
 

‘Instead of replying to Sano’s impassioned speech, Ogyu changed the subject. ‘I am sorry to hear that your father is unwell,’ he said….
‘A man of his age deserves a peaceful retirement and the respect of those closest to him. It would be a pity if a family disgrace were to worsen his illness.’’
 

It doesn’t take much skill to understand that Ogyu is threatening Sano’s employment if he disobeys orders and continues to investigate.

In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney travels to Pattaya to investigate the death of Maryanne Delbeck. The police report is that she committed suicide, but her father believes otherwise. He wants Keeney to find out what really happened to his daughter, and Keeney agrees. To do that, though, she’ll need some support. She knows she can’t just show up in Pattaya, asking questions, without cooperation. So she asks for help from Police Major General Wichit, who has family connections there. Wichit owes Keeney a large debt, but it’s as important for her not be direct about that debt as it is for him to remember it. So when they meet, they simply greet each other. She does ask after his family, but,
 

‘Wichit assumed this was just politeness on her part and not a subtle reminder of the debt he owed her.’
 

He’s right, as Keeney understands the need for circumspection. It’s an interesting exchange which acknowledges their history without actually referring to it.

And then there’s Qiu Xiaolong’s Enigma of China. In that novel, Shanghai Chief Inspector Chen Cao and his team are assigned to investigate the death of Zhou Keng, head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee. The official police theory is that he committed suicide after becoming the subject of a corruption investigation. But Chen suspects he may have been murdered. Either way, the case will have to be handled delicately. Zhou’s corruption was brought to light by an online group that posted pictures of expensive items he owned, so Chen wants to find out more from that group. But the government has an interest in severely restricting who gets to post online and about what. So the group is extremely wary about interacting with anyone official. Chen knows this, and has a very careful and subtle conversation with one of the group’s leaders. He begins with a reassurance:
 

‘‘Once the case is solved and everything comes out, I don’t think the netcops or any of the others will waste their time on you.’
The hint was unmistakable. Given Chen’s position and connections, it wasn’t impossible for the chief inspector to help.’
 

That subtle reassurance goes a long way towards building the rapport Chen needs to get the information he wants.

And that’s the thing about subtlety. When you know how to be subtle and respond to others’ subtlety, you can often get useful information.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mayer’s Say.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Donna Leon, Laura Joh Rowland, Qiu Xiaolong