Category Archives: Dorothy L. Sayers

Interruptions Are Always on My Mind*

Most readers want a smooth narration in their stories. They’d rather not have the story broken up, because it can be distracting. But sometimes, when it’s done well, a narrative can be broken up successfully, and still be a coherent story. It’s not easy to pull off well, but when it works, it can be an interesting innovation.

Some authors break up the narrative with asides to the reader. The ‘Queen team’ behind the Ellery Queen novels and stories did this more than once (I’m thinking, especially, of The Roman Hat Mystery). At some point in the story, the authors turn to the reader, as it were, and announce that all the clues are there. Then, the reader is invited to work out the solution. After that brief interlude, the story returns to a chronological retelling of the events, and then the solution.

We see just a hint of this in Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Five Red Herrings, too. In that novel, painter Sandy Campbell is found dead in a stream in Galloway, Scotland. Lord Peter Wimsey is in the area on a fishing holiday, so he gets involved in the investigation of Campbell’s death. There are six suspects, all of them artists. One of them is the real killer; the other are red herrings (hence, the title). At one point, Wimsey notices that something is not right about the scene of the crime. Here is how Sayers expresses it:
 

‘Here Lord Peter Wimsey told the Sergeant what he was looking for and why, but as the intelligent reader will readily supply these details for himself, they are omitted from this page.’
 

It’s an interesting way to tell that part of the story, and to invite the reader to engage in it.

Sometimes, the author chooses to use devices such as letters, transcripts and the like. This, too, breaks up the narrative, and can convey quite a lot of meaning. We see this in Minette Walters’ The Breaker. When the body of Kate Sumner is discovered near Chapman’s Pool in Dorset, PC Nick Ingram is the first police officer on the scene. He works with DI John Galbraith, WPC Sandra Griffiths, and Superintendent Carpenter to find out who killed the victim and why. The list of possible suspects is soon narrowed to three: the victim’s husband, William Sumner; an actor named Stephen Harding; and his roommate, schoolteacher Tony Bridges. Now, the team has to work through each suspect’s alibi and background to find out which one is guilty. Part of the information in the story is given in the form of transcripts, police files, hospital records, and so on. These pieces of information break up the narrative and provide detail in a different way.

You might argue that Lawrence Sanders’ The Anderson Tapes doesn’t really have a narrative – not in the conventional sense. It’s the story of John ‘Duke’ Anderson and his plot to rob all of the apartments in a wealthy Manhattan building. As he gets the idea, enlists confederates, gets materials, and so on, readers follow along through a series of transcripts, notes, records, and other documentation. Each bit of information tells a part of the story, and it’s interesting to see how plot coheres, even though there isn’t one particular narrative voice that does that.

In one plot thread of Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers, Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne is asked to come up with a new angle for a story to commemorate the (South Africa) Springbok’s 1981 tour of New Zealand. Often called ‘the Tour,’ the event was marked by a lot of controversy. At the time of the tour, South Africa was still under apartheid, and many New Zealanders didn’t want the Springboks to tour on that score. Others simply wanted to watch the rugby matches. And the police were supposed to keep order. There were protests, some of which turned very ugly, and everyone had to deal with that reality. Thorne doesn’t think there is a new angle for this story, as it’s been covered quite often. But then, she notices something. During some of the matches, two dancers dressed as lambs entertained the audience. Then, the lambs stopped attending. Thorne later finds out that one of them was killed. Now, she’s got an angle: what happened to the lambs? As the story of that day unfolds, Richardson uses interviews with some of the people there to help tell the story. Those interviews are woven into the rest of the narrative, and add to it, although they’re not, strictly speaking, part of it.

There are other ways, too, in which authors can break up, or interrupt, the narrative of the story. Sometimes, it’s a distraction, and can pull the reader out of the story. But, when it’s done well, it can actually have the opposite effect. Such breaks can actually invite the reader to process more and engage more. What do you think? Do you get distracted by breaks in the story? If you’re a writer, do you put them into your story?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rogue Wave’s Interruptions.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ellery Queen, Lawrence Sanders, Paddy Richardson

What Time Was It?*

When there’s a murder, whether it’s real or fictional, it’s important to establish time of death if possible. Sometimes there are witnesses who can help in that process. But even so, establishing time of death isn’t always as simple as it may seem on the surface.

In crime fiction, at any rate, there are plenty of factors that can make it harder to establish when a victim actually died. Sometimes, for instance, fictional murderers set things up to make it seem as though a victim died at one time, when the death really took place either earlier or later. And that makes sense, too. If the killer has an unbreakable alibi for the supposed time of death, it’s easier to avoid getting caught. There are a few Agatha Christie stories in which the time of death is manipulated. No spoilers here, but the end result is that everyone has to go back to the proverbial drawing board when the real time of death is established.

Sometimes, knowing when someone died plays an important role in inheritances. That, too, can impact the way people think about it. In Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, General Fentiman dies while sitting in his customary chair at his club (which also happens to be Lord Peter Wimsey’s club). His sister, wealthy Lady Dormer, has also passed away. The time of these deaths matters greatly, mostly because of inheritances. If Lady Dormer dies first, the family fortune passes to Fentiman’s grandson. If Fentiman dies first, it passes to Lady Dormer’s distant cousin, Ann Dormer. Then, it’s discovered that Fentiman was poisoned. Wimsey looks into the case and finds that more than one person had a stake in exactly what time each death happened.

There’s also a question of time of death and inheritance in Elizabeth Daly’s Unexpected Night, which introduces her sleuth, rare book expert Henry Gamadge. In the novel, Eleanor Cowden, her son and daughter Amberley and Alma, and Amberley’s tutor Hugh Sanderson, pay a summer visit to Ford’s Beach, Maine. Amberley’s in very bad health because of his heart condition, and he’s not expected to live long. He stands to inherit a fortune from a deceased aunt if he lives to the age of 21, but there’s a good chance he won’t live that long. Still, he’s determined to make this trip, as he is interested in the summer stock theatre in the area. The family arrives in the last few hours before Amberley turns 21 and settles in. The next morning, he’s found dead at the bottom of the cliff. One question is, how did he end up at the cliff in the middle of the night? Another is: did he die of heart failure or was this a murder? And, of course, there’s the question of when he died. This makes all the difference when it comes to the money he was to inherit.

Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye begins as schoolteacher Janek Mitter wakes up with a terrible hangover after a drunken sleep. He takes stock of himself and then slowly gets up. Within minutes, he discovers the body of his wife, Eva Ringmar, in the bathtub. Mitter was so drunk that he has no memory at all of what happened the night before. So, he has no alibi when the police begin to investigate. Having no choice, they arrest him, and he’s soon put on trial. Because Mitter was thoroughly drunk, he can’t establish when he last saw his wife alive. So, it’s difficult to pinpoint when she died. In part because of that, Mitter is the only one who was definitely at their home at the time his wife died. He claims to be innocent, but there’s no clear time of death that would put anyone else at the scene. He’s therefore convicted and remanded to a mental hospital until he can recover his memory of the murder. Inspector Van Veeteren’s team gathered the evidence against Mitter, and at first, it seemed persuasive. But now, Van Veeteren has doubts. And, when Mitter himself is murdered, it’s clear that this case is much more complicated than it seems.

And then there’s Julia Keller’s Bitter River, which features Raythune County, West Virginia, prosecuting attorney Belfa ‘Bell’ Elkins. Early one morning, the body of sixteen-year-old Lucinda Trimble is found in a car at the bottom of Bitter River, in Acker’s Gap. At first, it looks possible that she either committed suicide or that the car went into the river by accident. But soon enough, forensics reports reveal that Lucinda was dead before she went into the river. The fact that she was submerged in water makes it hard enough to pinpoint when she died. But now, Elkins and local sheriff Nick Fogelsong have to cast a wider net, as the saying goes, since they don’t have a clearly established time of death. And it turns out that there are more suspects than it may seem on the surface.

There are lots of other crime novels in which the time of death turns out to be very important to the story. Sometimes it’s because of one or another alibi. Sometimes it has to do with another aspect of the plot. Either way, the process of finding out when a victim actually died is central to murder investigations, whether they take place in real life or fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Unicorns’ Sea Ghost. 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Elizabeth Daly, Håkan Nesser, Julia Keller

It’s Called Plagiarism*

An interesting post from Bill at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan has got me thinking about integrity. Of course, integrity has all sorts of different meanings, and one post couldn’t possibly do them all justice. But it’s a fascinating topic.

In the world of writing, higher education and science (among other settings), one of the greatest breaches of integrity is plagiarism – passing off someone else’s work as one’s own. It’s grounds for termination on a lot of campuses; and, in the case of students, it’s grounds for failing a course/exam, dismissal, and other consequences. No matter what disciplinary action is taken, the end result for an academician/scientist who commits plagiarism is a ruined reputation and disgrace.

Because it’s such a grave matter, accusations of plagiarism are taken as seriously as criminal investigations. So, it’s no wonder that we see plagiarism come up in crime fiction. It can make for an interesting layer of tension in a novel, and it can add to a plot, too.

In Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, for instance, Harriet Vane returns to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, Oxford, to attend the school’s annual Gaudy Festival and Gala Dinner. She is warmly welcomed, and enjoys her stay. A few months later, she’s asked back, this time for a much more unpleasant reason. There’s been a rash of vicious anonymous notes and vandalism at the college, and the dean would rather not involve the police. So, she asks Vane to investigate, under the guise of doing research. With some help from Lord Peter Wimsey, and after getting attacked herself, Vane discovers who is responsible for what’s happened at the college. It turns out that academic dishonesty – plagiarism – has an important role to play in the story.

It does in Aditya Sudarshan’s A Nice Quiet Holiday, too. Justice Harish Shinde (called the Judge throughout most of the novel) and his law clerk Anant travel to the town of Bhairavgarh, in the Indian state of Rajasthan. They’ve been invited for a two-week holiday at the home of an old friend of the Judge’s, Sinkhar Pant. Other guests have also been invited, including NGO managers Ronit and Kamini Mitta; Pant’s cousin, Kailish Pant; and Pravin Anand and Anand’s son Avinash, as well as Dr. Davendra Nath and his daughter Mallika and sons Ashwin and Nikhil. There’s a certain amount of tension right from the start, since the Mittas’ NGO is controversial. They’re focused on HIV/AIDS education, and plenty of people think that what they’re doing is obscene, even subversive. Still, the guests settle in and all starts well enough. Then, Kailish Pant is found murdered. Inspector Patel is assigned to investigate, and he works to find out who was responsible. The Judge isn’t sure Patel is on the right trail, though, and he and Anant also start to ask some questions. And they find that plagiarism played a role in what happened.

Janice MacDonald’s Another Margaret, features Edmonton-based sessional lecturer Miranda ‘Randy’ Craig. As the novel begins, she’s teaching mostly for Grant McEwan University. Then, her friend, Denise Wolff, asks for her help with a major alumni event at the University of Alberta (that’s where Craig got her M.A. in English). Craig’s reluctant at first, but allows herself to be persuaded. She’s busy helping to make preparations when Wolff tells her a disturbing piece of news. A new novel, Seven Bird Saga, has been published. The author is Margaret Ahlers, the subject of Craig’s master’s thesis. That’s how Craig knows that this book is a problem. Ahlers died twenty years earlier, so whose book is this, actually? As the story goes on, we learn about Craig’s master’s research, her work under Dr. Hilary Quinn, and the truth about what happened to Ahlers. Then, the story returns to the present day, and to Craig’s concern that someone attending the reunion knows more about this new book than he or she is saying. And that could be very dangerous for Craig. In the end, we find that academic dishonesty – including plagiarism – is involved in what happens.

Christine Poulson’s Cold, Cold Heart has two main plot lines. In one, research scientist Kate Flanagan steps in to assist at an Antarctic research station when one of the station’s team members has to be evacuated. She and the rest of the team will be together, cut off from the rest of the world, for the next nine months. In that atmosphere, one of their number goes missing, and there’s more trouble to come. In the other plot thread, UK patent attorney Daniel Marchmont is overseeing due diligence for Lyle Linstrom in the matter of an important medical breakthrough. But something isn’t quite right about the case. And it turns out to be very closely connected to what’s going on at the research station. There’s an important question in the novel as to some of the scientific work that’s discussed in the novel, and Poulson presents some interesting questions of ethics.

Of course, there are other means of passing off someone else’s work as one’s own. For instance, in Rhys Bowen’s For the Love of Mike, Molly Murphy is trying to carry on the private investigation business that she inherited from her former business partner, who’s now dead. It’s 1901, and the idea of a female private investigator is, to say the least, unusual. Still, Murphy gets a new case. Max Mostel, who owns a clothing factory, suspects that one of his employees is stealing his designs and giving or selling them to Lowenstein’s, Mostel’s top competitor. Mostel isn’t exactly comfortable hiring a woman, but he sees the advantage of it, since most of his garment workers are female. So, she goes undercover at his factory to find out who might be helping Loweinstein. This case turns out to be more dangerous than it seems, and it’s tied in to another case Murphy is working, involving the disappearance of a young woman named Katherine Faversham.

Anyone in academia, science, writing, and several other fields, can tell you that plagiarism is a serious matter. It’s investigated thoroughly, and not forgiven when it’s found. It’s little wonder, then, that it also figures into crime fiction.

Thanks, Bill, for the inspiration. Now, folks, may I suggest your next blog stop be Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan? Fine reviews and discussion await you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Primus’ Year of the Parrot.

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Filed under Aditya Sudarshan, Christine Poulson, Dorothy L. Sayers, Janice MacDonald, Rhys Bowen

Livin’ On The Edge*

Anyone who’s ever lived in wildfire/bush fire country can tell you that, when even a small fire starts, things can turn very, very bad, very, very quickly. So, there’s often a lot of tension as everyone looks at things such as prevailing winds, terrain, availability of firefighting staff, and size of the blaze. Wise people take precautions, in case they need to evacuate. After all, there may only be 10-30 minutes to evacuate once the order is given. That’s not the time to discuss who will take what, or where to go. By the way, if you want to read a realistic account of what this situation is like, read Adrian Hyland’s Kinglake-350. G’wan, read it. Admittedly, it’s not crime fiction, but it’s such a good fit here that I decided to mention it, anyway.

That tension, as people wait to see what will happen, is almost palpable. In real life, it can be a big challenge. In fiction, it can add an engaging layer of suspense. And crime writers have used it in several different ways.

For instance, Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood begins in Hercule Poirot’s club. Everyone’s taking shelter there against World War II air raids, and it’s not in the least clear how things will pan out. So, there’s a lot of tension. In part to break that tension, Poirot listens to a story told by fellow member Major Porter. It seems he knew a Robert Underhay who died in Africa. Underhay’s widow, Rosaleen, later married Gordon Cloade. But Porter’s story suggests that Underhay might still be alive. This possibility becomes crucial later, when Cloade is killed in a bombing. He dies without having made a will, which in most cases would mean Rosaleen inherits all of his considerable wealth. But if her first husband is alive, that would mean she couldn’t inherit. And that’s exactly what Cloade’s family wants, for various reasons. So, Poirot’s interest is piqued when he learns that a stranger named Enoch Arden has been killed in Warmsley Vale, where most of the Cloads lived. Arden hinted that he knew Underhay was still alive, and that could certainly have something to do with his murder. Poirot travels to the village and slowly learns the truth about Arden, the Cloades, and Rosaleen.

Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors takes place mostly in the East Anglia village of Fenchurch Saint Paul. When a car accident strands Lord Peter Wimsey and his assistant/valet, Mervyn Bunter, the village’s vicar, Reverend Theodore Venables, rescues the men and lodges them in the rectory until the car is fixed. That’s how Wimsey ends up getting involved in a case involving an unknown ‘extra’ corpse in a grave, some missing emeralds, a long-ago robbery, and change-ringing. In one plot thread of this novel, heavy rains bring on a flood. Venables wants to do what he can to save the villagers, and there are some very tense moments as everyone watches and waits to see how high the waters will rise, and how severe the damage will be.

Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke introduces Berlin crime reporter Hannah Vogel. It’s 1931, and the Great Depression has meant that everyone is desperate for money. Hannah herself has very little, although she has enough to eat and keep her home. What’s more, there’s a great deal of tension as everyone waits to see whether and to what extent the Nazis will get power. They’re already a force to be reckoned with, and people know that it’s best not to get in their proverbial sights. Against this very suspenseful background Vogel learns that her brother, Ernst, has been found dead. She wants to know why, and, if he was murdered, who killed him. So, she starts to ask questions. She’ll have to work very quietly, so as not to call too much attention to herself. But she’s determined to find answers. The background tension to this novel adds a real layer of atmosphere, as people watch and wait and wonder what will happen to the country.

Adrian McKinty’s The Cold, Cold Ground is the first of his series to feature Sean Duffy. He’s that rare thing, a Catholic member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). The novel takes place in 1981, in the midst of the Troubles, when everyone’s nerves are frayed from the constant conflict. People do try to go about their lives, but they watch and wait to see what ‘the other side’ will do, and where the next attacks might be. There aren’t many really trustworthy people, and for Duffy, it’s especially difficult. For one thing, almost all of his colleagues are Protestant, reason enough for suspicion on both sides. For another, the public is suspicious, too. He’s a police officer, which is a problem in itself. Then, he’s a Catholic in the RUC; hence, he’s a traitor to a lot of Catholics. And Protestant civilians won’t trust him, either. All of that undercurrent of tension, as people wait to see what will happen, adds to the story as Duffy works to solve two murders that seem to be related.

And then there’s Peter Temple’s Truth.  That novel takes place during a siege of brush fires that are threatening the state of Victoria. It’s an extremely tense time, and it’s not at all clear how much damage there will be, which way the fires will go, and so on. Everyone is very much on edge as people watch and wait. Against this backdrop, Inspector Stephen Villani and his team work to solve the murder of an unknown woman whose body was found in a very posh apartment.  Meanwhile, they’re also investigating the killings of three drug dealers whose bodies were found in another part of the Melbourne area. The brush fires are not the central focus of the novel. But the suspense they cause adds much to the novel.

Watching and waiting, and not knowing how things will pan out, can be extremely hard to deal with in real life. In a novel, though, that suspense can add much to a plot if it’s not done in a melodramatic way. Which examples have stayed with you?

ps. The ‘photo is of a wildfire evacuation map. Red means a mandatory evacuation. Purple is voluntary/evacuation warning. Everyone who’s anywhere near a wildfire pays close attention to those maps, and the tension often builds as people watch and wait to see what will happen on their streets.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an Aerosmith song.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Adrian McKinty, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Peter Temple, Rebecca Cantrell

Bohemian Like You*

There are certain communities of people who tend to live what people have sometimes called a bohemian lifestyle. They don’t keep conventional hours, or dress conventionally. And they don’t look at the world in a conventional way. We often think of artists, writers, musicians and actors as being in this category, and some are.

Those communities can be really effective as settings for crime novels. The bohemian lifestyle is intriguing, and can even be appealing. And there are all sorts of possibilities for character developments and for plots.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories include bohemian characters and settings. As just one example, in Third Girl, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from a young woman who claims she may have committed a murder. Before she can give any details, though, she tells him she’s made a mistake, and that he’s too old. She leaves without giving her name, so at first, Poirot can’t follow up. But his friend, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, happens to know who the woman is. She is Norma Restarick, daughter of successful businessman Andrew Restarick. Mrs. Oliver tries to trace Norma’s whereabouts, beginning with her London flat. One of Norma’s flatmates is Frances Cary, who works in an art gallery, and sometimes models. She lives a very bohemian lifestyle. It also turns out that Norma’s been seeing a man named David Baker – a man Mrs. Oliver calls the Peacock because of the way he dresses. Baker, too, is a bohemian. Oddly enough, Norma really isn’t, although she’s mixed up with that community. Poirot and Mrs. Oliver try to find out whether Norma really might have committed a murder. But first they’re going to have to find her. They do, but not before there’s a murder…

When we first meet Dorothy L. Sayers’ Harriet Vane, she is in the dock, on trial for the murder of Philip Boyes. And the situation doesn’t look very good for her. For one thing, there is evidence against her. For another, she lives somewhat of a bohemian lifestyle, even daring to live with Boyes without being married to him. At the time this was written, that was enough to make a woman notorious. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial, and falls in love with Vane. In fact, when the jury cannot reach a verdict, he determines to clear her name, so that he can marry her. As it turns out, this case isn’t what it seems on the surface.

Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly is the first of his Gervase Fen novels. It takes place mostly at Oxford, and its focus is a group of people who are all connected in some way to playwright Robert Wright’s new work, Metromania. They’re all ‘theatre people:’ actors, musicians, writers, and some admirers. And they all live bohemian lifestyles, with little interest in social conformity. Preparations are being made for a production of this new play, and the pace is getting a bit frenetic. Then one night, Yseute Haskell, who has the lead in the play, is shot. On the surface, it seems like an ‘impossible crime,’ since she was alone in her room, and no-one was seen to go into it or leave it. In fact, the police think it may be a suicide. Fen doesn’t think so, though, and he gets involved in the investigation. It turns out that this wasn’t suicide at all.

Fans of Ngaio Marsh’s work will know that she had a lifelong connection to the theatre and ‘theatre people.’ Many of her novels (e.g. Enter a Murderer and Opening Night) take place mostly in a theatre setting. Others involve actors in other settings. And, of course, Marsh’s Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn meets and later marries an artist, Agatha Troy. So, several of her novels also feature art and the art world. Throughout these novels, we meet characters with bohemian lifestyles and nonconformist views about life.

Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peters is a PI in 1940s Hollywood. A former Warner Brothers security officer, he has several connections in the film business, and he certainly gets his share of clients from the world of acting. Both Bullet For a Star and Murder on the Yellow Brick Road are set in the Hollywood filmmaking context. So are several other books in this series. And the actors and other ‘Hollywood types’ that Peters meets often live unconventional lives. So do some of Peters’ other clients (he has one adventure, for instance, that takes place in a circus setting). He certainly doesn’t meet a lot of ‘suburban couple with two children and white picket fence’ families…

Sulari Gentill’s Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair is a member of a wealthy, ‘blueblood’ family in 1930’s New South Wales.  His conservative older brother, Wilfred, runs the family business. But Rowly has a very different view of life. He’s a ‘gentleman artist,’ and his closest friends are also artists, or writers. While Rowly himself lives a mostly conventional lifestyle, his friends really don’t. They keep the hours they want, dress in ways that suit them, and don’t hold as much with traditional social structure. Their politics are unconventional, too. All of that sometimes puts Rowly at odds with Wilfred, who’s more comfortable with traditional ways of thinking and living.

Bohemian lifestyles and unconventional views can make for a really interesting community of people. And those communities can add richness to a crime novel or series. There are many more of them in crime fiction than I have space to discuss (right, fans of Elly Griffiths’ Max Mephisto series?). But these examples should give you a sense of how bohemian communities fit into the genre. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by the Dandy Warhols.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Edmund Crispin, Elly Griffiths, Ngaio Marsh, Sulari Gentill