Category Archives: Dorothy Sayers

It’s Curtain Time and Away We Go!*

Stage AdaptationsIn Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings run into several difficulties and obstacles as they work to solve the murder of wealthy Miss Emily Arundell. One evening, Hastings suggests that they take a break from the case and go to a play, and Poirot enthusiastically agrees. The evening goes well enough, except that Hastings admits he’s made one mistake: taking Poirot to a crook play.
 

‘There is one piece of advice I offer to all my readers. Never take a soldier to a military play, a sailor to a naval play, a Scotsman to a Scottish play, a detective to a thriller – and an actor to any play whatsoever!’
 

And yet, crime fiction fans do enjoy going to mystery/thriller plays. Sometimes they’re adaptations of novels or short stories. Sometimes they’re originally written as plays. Other times they’re ‘audience participation’ plays. In any case, they’re popular.

Adapting a story for the different media (print, film, theatre) isn’t always easy. But there’ve been many stories that have made their way from print to stage (or vice versa). And it’s interesting to see how they’re adapted. Here are just a few examples.

Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger is the story of Ellen and Robert Bunting, a couple who spent several years ‘in service,’ and have now retired. As a way to earn income, they’ve opened their home to lodgers, but so far, haven’t been overly successful. Then, a mysterious stranger who calls himself Mr. Sleuth takes a room. He’s a little odd; but at first it seems like a fine arrangement. He’s quiet, pays promptly, and so on. Bit by bit though, the Buntings begin to suspect that something might be very wrong. Could Mr. Sleuth somehow be connected to a series of murders committed by a man who calls himself The Avenger? On the one hand, the Buntings depend on the income from their lodger. On the other, if he does have something to do with the Avenger killings, they should inform the police. It’s an interesting psychological study which was adapted for the stage in 1916 as Who is He?

Edgar Wallace adapted his own novel The Gaunt Stranger as a play that he called The Ringer. He later edited the original novel and re-released it with the same name as the play. In the story, Henry Arthur Milton, who calls himself ‘The Ringer,’ is a vigilante who’s gone into hiding in Australia. Then he learns that his sister Gwenda has been found dead, and returns to London to avenge her. He targets the man he blames; and of course, Scotland Yard can’t support ‘vigilante justice,’ so they’ll have to find The Ringer before he can take justice into his own hands. The major problem is, he’s very good at disguising himself – so good that no-one knows what he looks like. You can find out lots more about this story in a really interesting post by Sergio at Tipping My Fedora. And you’ll want that excellent blog on your blog roll anyway – it’s the source for classic crime novels and film adaptations.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories have been adapted for the stage. The Mousetrap, for instance, has been running continuously since 1952. It had its origin in a short story (which was based on a radio play!) called Three Blind Mice. There’s also The Yellow Iris, which began as a short story in which Rosemary Barton dies of cyanide poisoning during a dinner party. It’s believed her death is suicide, but her widower George says otherwise. A year later, he stages another dinner party with the same people to see if he can catch the killer. Interestingly enough, Christie also developed this into the novel Sparkling Cyanide, ‘though she changed both the sleuth and the murderer.

James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice is the story of Frank Chambers and Cora Papadakis, who meet when Frank, who’s a drifter, ends up working in the diner owned by Cora and her husband Nick.  Frank and Cora begin an affair that ends up having disastrous results when they decide to get rid of Nick. Originally, this was written as a short novel, but it’s been adapted several times for film, and twice (that I’m aware of) for the stage: in 2005 in London’s West End, and in 2008 in Moscow.

And then there’s Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon, the last Lord Peter Wimsey novel she completed. In the novel, Wimsey and Harriet Vane have finally married. But trouble starts when they travel to Tallboys, the country home Wimsey’s bought for his bride, and they place they intend to spend their honeymoon. When the body of the house’s former owner is found in the basement, the wedding couple have a new mystery to solve. This story had its origins in a 1936 play that Sayers co-wrote, and was later adapted as a full-length novel.

Ruth Rendell’s An Unkindness of Ravens is the thirteenth in her Reg Wexford series. In the novel, Wexford agrees to look into the disappearance of Rodney Williams. At first he’s not overly concerned about the man. All indications are that he’d run off with another woman – not exactly ‘upstanding,’ but not really a police matter. Then, Williams’ suitcase and car are found. Later, his body is discovered. Then there’s another stabbing. It’s now clear that this is more than just a case of a man who treated his wife badly. While not as well-known as some other stage adaptations are, this novel has been adapted as a play.

And I don’t think I could do a post about crime novels and the theatre without mentioning Ngaio Marsh, whose career was so heavily influenced by her work on and behind the stage. Many of her stories feature plays, stage settings and so on.

There’s just something about seeing a crime story played out on the stage. There are some nuances that it’s much harder to get across in print than ‘live.’ So it’s little wonder that so many crime novels either had their start as plays or have been adapted for that media. Which ones have you enjoyed?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Cole Porter’s Another Op’nin’ Another Show.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Edgar Wallace, James M. Cain, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Ngaio Marsh, Ruth Rendell

Are You Strong Enough?*

Real RelationshipsHere’s the problem with Valentine’s Day, as I see it anyway. It’s an illusion. Let me explain what I mean. If you watch or listen to the advertisements, or see the greeting cards, or watch one of the dozens of romance films and TV shows out there, you can easily get the idea that relationships are happy, even blissful, and exciting, with flowers, lovely holidays and so on. But that’s the thing. They’re not.

Of course anyone who’s been in a long relationship will tell you that flowers, holidays and all that sort of thing are a part of it. They’re terrific. They really are. But real-life relationships are not easy. And they’re not always fun. People who expect otherwise can get very disillusioned when they learn that relationships need work. Sometimes that work is painful and difficult. It involves forgiveness (Ever done something stupid and had to ask your partner to forgive you? Me, too.). Sometimes it involves giving up things you want, or forgiving your partner when you really don’t want to. Nobody in the greeting card industry tells you that part of it.

Relationships can be hard work because no-one is perfect. We all carry ‘baggage,’ and we all have faults. When you expect that a relationship with an imperfect person (when you’re not perfect either!) will be smooth sailing, you’re bound to be sadly disappointed.

But here’s the thing. Good relationships – the kind you admire in couples who’ve been together for decades and decades – are worth the work. It’s not the candy, flowers, sexy lingerie and so on that make them solid. It’s the bond between the people involved. Let me offer a few examples to show you what I mean.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a political scientist and academician (now retired) who’s had her share of blows over the years. She’s come out of it all a stronger person, and in general, she doesn’t obsess about the things that have happened to her. She is married to successful attorney Zack Shreve, who has his own baggage. They’re both intelligent and strong-minded people; and although they love each other very much, they’ve had their rocky times. Bowen doesn’t gloss over the hard work involved in staying married, even when you’re in a good relationship. But at the same time, she doesn’t skip over the positive things either. Joanne and Zack enjoy each other’s company. They’re good ‘sounding boards’ for each other, and they support one another. As Joanne herself puts it,
 

‘Ours was not an easy marriage, but it was a good one.’
 

I honestly don’t know if any really good marriage is also really easy.

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant knows all about the hard work involved in a long-term relationship. In some ways he’s still working that out for himself, and fans will know there are a few story arcs that involve his love life. But he has a good role model. His mentor is successful clothier Anthony Gatt, whose partner is former supermodel Jared Lowe. Those two have been together for some time, and have had their share of troubles. I won’t spoil the story arcs by detailing everything, but suffice it to say that Anthony and Jared’s lives have not been uninterrupted joyful bliss. But that’s not what keeps them together anyway. They love one another, and each has the other as a top priority, even when things go wrong between them, or when something happens to one of them. They’ve resolved to patch up whatever differences they have, and that bond is more important to them than anything else. But it hasn’t been easy. The ‘frothy’ romance films don’t tell you how difficult staying together can be…

In David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, we meet Perth Superintendent Frank Swann. The main plot of this novel concerns the murder of Ruby Devine, a brothel owner and friend of Swann’s. But running in the background is Swann’s relationship with his wife Marion and his daughters. The family has been going through a very rocky time, as families sometimes do. And Whish-Wilson doesn’t make light of that. As the novel goes on, everyone has to start to put the family pieces together and learn to trust each other again. But in Zero at the Bone, the second Frank Swann novel, we see the result of that. Frank and Marion Swann are devoted to each other. It’s not the devotion of fancy flowers, fine champagne or a night in a five-star hotel. It’s that gut-level devotion where each one accepts and appreciates the other, flaws and all. And that’s because each has made the conscious choice that the marriage is more important than ‘winning.’

That’s also true of Geoffrey McGeachin’s Charlie Berlin and his wife Rebecca. When we first meet them in The Diggers Rest Hotel, which takes place in 1947, Charlie has recently returned to Australia after serving in WW II. He meets Rebecca during the course of an investigation into a series of robberies and a suspicious death, and the two fall in love. But it’s not a ‘greeting card’ sort of romance. Charlie’s dealing with the ghosts he’s brought back with him from the war, and Rebecca has her own issues. Nevertheless, they love each other and support each other. In Blackwattle Creek and St. Kilda Blues, we see that their marriage has to endure its share of ‘bumps in the road.’ McGeachin doesn’t indulge in ‘over the top’ events just to show that the marriage is tested; rather, the couple faces some of the things any couple could face. It’s not an easy ride, but Charlie and Rebecca take it together.

A lot of Golden Age mysteries involve couples who fall in love, usually as one or the other of the couple is suspected of murder. One couple in particular is Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and his wife Harriet Vane. They first meet in Strong Poison when Harriet is charged with murdering her former lover Philip Boyes. Lord Peter attends the trial and finds himself smitten with Harriet. In fact, he determines to clear her name, and clear his own path to marrying her. But it’s not all flowers and candy. For one thing, Harriet has to deal with having been on trial for murder, and with her reluctance to trust this man she thinks she loves. And Lord Peter has things to learn too. They’re not a magical couple who all of a sudden fall in love and marry, to live happily ever after. They have to work through things, and they have their difficult times. In the end, the awareness that they’re better together than alone cements their relationship and allows them to reach out for each other.

I wish the greeting card companies and the Valentine’s Day publicity machine told people that a good relationship is not easy. It’s very hard work, and it’s not always fun. But then, if they did, they’d probably scare too many people away from getting involved with someone, and that would be a shame. Because what you get if you’re willing to do that work is a lot better than candy. Even dark chocolate almonds.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sheryl Crow’s Strong Enough.

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Filed under Anthony Bidulka, David Whish-Wilson, Dorothy Sayers, Gail Bowen, Geoffrey McGeachin

Same as it Ever Was*

Classic links to todayThere’s an old expression Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (The more things change, the more it’s the same thing). There’s some wisdom to that saying if you think about it. Certain things about human nature, and certain kinds of situations have happened for a very long time and still happen.

When we see that sort of thing in a novel, it can help us connect with the story, even if the story was written decades or more than a century ago. Times certainly change, culture changes and technology changes. But some things seem timeless, and they can add to the modern-day appeal of a classic or Golden Age crime novel.

For instance, Charles Dickens’ Bleak House has as its focal point the Jarndyce case, a longstanding dispute over a will. In fact, the case has been languishing in the Courts of the Chancery for generations. The fact that this case concerns a contested will certainly resonates even today. Wills can lead to a great deal of turmoil and contention, particularly if a lot of money is involved. And in this case, the dispute has been a very protracted one. In fact, Dickens uses the novel in part to skewer the legal system of his day, and many people still agree with some of his criticisms. If you’ve ever been involved in a long and complicated legal battle, you know what I mean. Each party’s attorneys do their best to win. And sometimes that means continuations, negotiations that go on for a time but fall through, and other things that can drag a case out for a long time. Even if you’re not fond of Victorian literature or Dickens in particular, you can probably relate to that aspect of the novel.

In John Bude’s The Cornish Coast Murder, one of the central characters is the Reverend Mr. Dodd, Vicar of St. Michael’s-on-the-Cliff, in Cornwall. His old friend is Dr. Pendrill, the local physician, and the two enjoy regular dinners and conversations about books. They also engage in interesting and spirited debate about the roles of science and faith in thinking. At one point in one of their conversations, for instance, Pendrill has made a scientific, reasoned point:
 

‘‘Oh, I grant you that! I grant you that!’ The Vicar was getting shrill in his excitement. ‘But why base all truth on scientific proof? What about Faith, my dear chap?’’
 

The relationship of reason, science and faith isn’t the reason for the murder in this novel. But it’s an ongoing debate in the novel, and people still struggle with it today. We each resolve it in our own way, but those issues resonate even in modern times.

So does the mixing and blending of families when two people marry. Even for people who don’t live near their families of origin, there’s a perennial set of issues around whether the two sides of the new family will get on together, and how each spouse will be received by the other’s family. Sometimes, it goes well; sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s always a question. That very question is addressed in Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon. In that novel, Lord Peter Wimsey and mystery novelist Harriet Vane have finally married and are off on their honeymoon at Tallboys, the country house Wimsey has bought for his bride. At one point, Harriet pays a visit to her new mother-in-law, the Dowager Duchess of Denver. Here’s what the duchess writes about it in her journal:
 

‘She walked straight up to me, rather as if she was facing a firing-squad, and said abruptly, in that queer, deep voice of hers, ‘…Do you honestly not mind too much, about Peter and me? Because I love him quite dreadfully and there’s just nothing to be done about it.’’
 

The duchess reassures Harriet immediately, and it’s soon clear that they’re likely to have a good relationship. But new spouses and partners everywhere will understand that anxiety.

I think each of us can also relate to certain perennial idiosyncrasies of our own professions. For instance, retailers have always had to deal with rude/fussy/miserly/etc… customers. And anyone who’s ever been in higher education will understand this:
 
‘He was returning…from one of those innumerable educational conferences which spring up like mushrooms to decide the future of this institution or that, and whose decisions, if any, are forgotten two days after they are over…’
 
That bit comes from the beginning of Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly, and describes the return of Gervase Fen, Professor of English Language and Literature, to Oxford after such a conference. Soon afterwards, his sense of tedium is forgotten when a member of a visiting theatre company is murdered on campus. The novel was published in 1944, but as anyone in academia can tell you, that aspect of higher education life still resonates more than 70 years later…

And finally, here is an interesting observation from Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. Fans will know that this is the story of Linnet Ridgeway Doyle. She and her new husband Simon are in the second night of their honeymoon cruise of the Nile when she is shot. At first, the most likely suspect is Linnet’s former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, whose fiancé Simon was until he met Linnet. But it’s soon proven that Jackie could not have committed that murder, so Hercule Poirot, who is on the same cruise, has to investigate further to find the killer. One of the other passengers is Rosalie Otterbourne, daughter of once-famous novelist Salome Otterbourne. In the last few years, sales of her mother’s racy books have been plummeting, and here’s what Rosalie says about it:
 
‘She got discouraged. Her books didn’t sell any more. People are tired of all that cheap sex stuff… It hurt her-it hurt her dreadfully.’
 

In that comment, we see a very similar issue to what writers face today. Will people tire of what have often been called trashy novels? Will they stop selling? It’s an interesting issue that’s as relevant now as it was in 1937, when Death on the Nile was published.

And that’s the thing about certain experiences, debates and issues. They really are perennial, and part of the overall human experience. So they resonate, even in books that are a hundred years old or older. It’s arguably those aspects of such novels that keep them interesting, even if the language is a bit dated, or if there are ‘isms’ we find offensive today, or…..or…

What things have you seen in classic/Golden Age fiction that still resonate with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, John Bude

And What Could Ever Lead You Back Here Where We Need You*

Alumnae

Lots of people feel a sort of bond with their school, whether it’s secondary school or university. And that’s logical too, since so many important life experiences happen during those years. Alumni groups rely on that bond for donations, and it makes for good ‘networking’ too for recent graduates. It can be just the thing that tips the proverbial scales for a job applicant if the prospective employer finds out that they share an alma mater.

That bond is often the reason alumni return to their schools for visits. It can also be what draws a fictional sleuth into a mystery. And school/university connections and ‘networks’ can play an important role in those stories. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen series takes place for the most part at Oxford, and several plots involve alumni returning to the university. In The Case of the Gilded Fly for instance, journalist Nigel Blake returns to Oxford when the Oxford repertory theatre schedules a run of Robert Warner’s new play Metromania. Blake is a bit of a hanger-on among the cast and crew because he admires one of the actors Helen Haskell. He’s also interested in renewing his acquaintance with his former mentor Gervase Fen. In fact, he’s visiting Fen’s rooms one night when they hear a gunshot. It turns out that actor Yseute Haskell, Helen Haskell’s half-sister, has been murdered. Fen is a friend of Chief Constable Sir Richard Freeman, so he gets involved in the investigation as Sir Richard looks into the case. And when Blake finds out that Helen has become a suspect, he gets involved too.

Crispin fans will also know that The Moving Toyshop concerns an almunus returning to Oxford. This time it’s poet Richard Cadogan. He returns to Oxford for a rest, but finds his trip anything but peaceful. Late one night, he’s taking a walk when he sees a toyshop. The door’s unlocked and mostly out of curiousity, he goes in, only to find the body of an old woman. Before he can do anything about it, Cadogan is hit on the head and knocked unconscious. The next morning, he tries to tell the police what happened, but they don’t believe him. They say there’s never been a toyshop in that place. But Cadogan’s university friend Gervase Fen believes him. Fen works with Cadogan to try to find out what really happened, but his work’s made more difficult when Cadogan gets himself in trouble for an entirely different reason…

In Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, mystery novelist Harriet Vane gets an invitation to visit her alma mater at Oxford for its annual Gaudy Dinner and festivities. She’s not inclined to attend, mostly because she has no idea of the reception she’d receive after being accused of murder (see Strong Poison for the details of that). But when a former classmate particularly asks that she go, Vane changes her mind. The bond she feels with her classmates and the faculty convinces her to travel to Oxford, and she gets a very warm reception there. But things soon start to turn ominous. First, Vane gets an anonymous note accusing her of murder. Then, she gets a letter from the dean of her college, saying that there’ve been other incidents too, including vandalism. The dean wants Vane to come back to Oxford and investigate. This Vane agrees to do, under the guise of doing research for a novel. It turns out that what’s happening at Oxford is more dangerous than just a nasty note, and has everything to do with a past incident.

Val McDermid’s Report For Murder also concerns returning alumni. Derbyshire House Girls’ School is desperately in need of funds. So teacher Paddy Callaghan uses the ‘old girls’ network’ to contact Perspectives and persuade them to do a piece on the school and its fundraising efforts. Callaghan’s friend Lindsay Gordon will do the piece, and although a school like this is against Gordon’s principles, the money from the commission is not. So she travels to the school. There she meets TV personality Cordelia Brown, who’s also there to do publicity for the school. One of the big fundraising events will be a Gala and concert featuring famous cellist and alumna Lorna Smith-Couper. But everything goes wrong when Smith-Couper is murdered. School authorities know that the media will descend on the school after the killing and there’ll be all sorts of terrible publicity. So Gordon and Brown agree to do what they can to keep the story as quiet as possible. If they’re going to do that though, they’ll need to find out who the killer is…

Amateur detective Charles Lenox returns to his alma mater Oxford in Charles Finch’s historical mystery The September Society. It’s 1866 in London, and Lady Annabelle Payson is concerned because her son George has disappeared from his rooms at Lincoln College. Lady Annabelle wants Lenox to visit Oxford and see if he can trace George’s whereabouts. Lenox agrees, thinking that this is going to be a straightforward case. But the weird clues left behind suggest that there’s more to the disappearance than a young man who wanted to take off for a few days. One of the clues is a card with a cryptic reference to a secret group called The September Society, and Lenox follows up on that. Then there’s a murder. Now it’s clear that this will be a very complex and possibly very dangerous case.

Very often that university/school bond allows alumni to stay in touch and help one another. This is what happens in Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace. Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman is slowly (and not yet really successfully) coming to terms with the death of her beloved husband Stefan. One day she gets an anonymous letter making it clear that she’s being stalked. The stalker even seems to have access to her case files. Then she’s set up for a drink-driving incident. Other things too occur that seem designed to sabotage her professional reputation. Then the body of a client Sara Matteus is found in the water on Bergman’s property. It’s set up to look like a suicide; there’s even a note blaming Bergman. But the police soon establish that the victim was murdered. Bergman own name is cleared soon enough, but it’s now obvious that someone is out to ruin her life – or even end it. To try to find out who that person might be, Bergman and police officer Markus Stenberg visit a former classmate from Stockholm University Vijay Kumar. Bergman, Kumar, and Bergman’s best friend Aina Davidson were in graduate school together and still have a bond. Bergman is hoping that Kumar, who’s become an expert in profiling, will be able to give them some insight into the kind of person who may be stalking her. The information Kumar offers doesn’t solve the case. But it does provide a very useful perspective, and we can see how the ‘university bond’ works.

The school/university years can have a powerful impact. So it’s no surprise that one’s alma mater can draw one back. Where have you seen this plot point?

 

ps. Oh, the ‘photo? Yes, I’m a proud alumna.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Sebastian’s Welcome Back.

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Filed under Åsa Träff, Camilla Grebe, Charles Finch, Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, Val McDermid

I Remember How Things Used to Be*

Crime Fiction StaplesAn interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about certain kinds of characters we don’t see very often any more in crime fiction. As society has changed, so have our values and the way we see social structure. And it makes sense that those changes would be reflected in crime fiction too. Here are just a few examples of the kinds of characters we used to see a lot in classic/Golden Age crime fiction, but not so much any more.
 

The Ne’er-Do-Well Son

You know the sort of character, I’m sure. He’s the kind who’s been shipped around to different jobs and places because he just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. He may be a pleasant enough person, but certainly causes plenty of worry to the family. There are a lot of them in crime fiction; I’ll just mention one. In Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder For Christmas and A Holiday For Murder), we are introduced to the Lee family. Patriarch Simeon Lee is an unpleasant tyrant, but he’s very wealthy. So when he invites the members of his family to gather at the family home Gorston Hall for Christmas, no-one dares refuse. One of his sons is Harry Lee, who’s been all over the world and managed to run out of money wherever he is. He can be charming, but he’s irresponsible. So when word comes that he’ll be at the family gathering, his brother Albert takes real issue with it. But all thoughts of that feud are pushed aside when Simeon Lee is brutally murdered. Hercule Poirot is in the area spending the Christmas holiday with a friend, so he is persuaded to help in the investigation. It proves to be an interesting case of history catching up with the victim…
 

The Ward/Protector Dynamic

In the years before women were free to own property and so on, they were often hard-put to survive on their own. But sometimes, a young woman was left orphaned; or, for some reason, her parents were unable to care for her. In these situations, one solution was to be taken in by a well-off family as a ward. The idea was that the young woman’s ‘protector’ would see to her being taken care of until she found a husband. There are lots of instances of wards throughout literature in general and in crime fiction too. One of them is Esther Summerson, whom we meet in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. Esther is an orphan who’s been raised thus far by a very unpleasant woman she refers to as her godmother. Wealthy John Jarndyce takes an interest in the girl and wants to help her. So he takes her into his home, nominally to serve as companion to a distant relative Ada Clare. Really, though, she’s his ward. All three are connected to a very old Jarndyce family dispute over a will that’s been going round the Court of Chancery for generations. Even though the feud is a holdover from a very long time ago, it still impacts the family, with murder and intrigue being the result.
 

The Devoted Factotum

The factotum may have a title such as butler, driver or something similar. But really, that person does all sorts of jobs. He (it usually is a ‘he’) has his employer’s complete trust, and is usually intensely loyal to that employer and the employer’s family. There are dozens of crime-fictional characters like that. One of them is Simon Brandon, who figures in the Charles Todd writing duo’s Bess Crawford series. Crawford is a WWI nurse whose family is well-served by Brandon. Brandon is nominally the family’s driver, but he is much, much more as well. He takes care of business, he travels on behalf of the family, and so on. He served with Crawford’s father in the military, and is devoted the family’s well-being. He takes it upon himself to look after Crawford as best he can, and she trusts him. He’s no toady, but at the same time, he has a strong loyalty to the Crawfords. I know, I know, fans of Dorothy Sayers’ Mervyn Bunter and Kerry Greenwood’s Dot Williams …
 

The ‘Maiden Aunt’

There are a lot of women who don’t marry and have children – there always have been. They used to be placed in the category of ‘spinster’ or ‘maiden aunt,’ and we see them all throughout crime fiction. Perhaps the most famous is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, who has neither husband nor children, but does have plenty of nephews, nieces and other relatives. There are other crime-fictional ‘maiden aunts’ as well. For example, in Earl Der Biggs’ The House Without a Key, we are introduced to Miss Minerva Winterslip, who comes from a ‘blueblood’ Boston family. She travels to Hawai’i for a six-week visit to some cousins, and ten months later, she’s still there. Her nephew John Quincy Winterslip goes to Hawai’i to try to convince his aunt to come back to Boston and pick up her life again there, but instead, he gets drawn into a case of murder. When a family cousin Dan Winterslip is murdered, John Quincy works with the police, including Detective Charlie Chan, to find out who the killer is. Throughout this novel, Minerva Winterslip is portrayed as unusually independent and quite content to chart her own course as the saying goes. She may be just a bit eccentric, but she’s certainly not bizarre.
 

The Paid Companion

Paid companions are arguably a fixture in classic and Golden Age crime fiction. They’re usually women, and quite often they’re from modest backgrounds, or from ‘good’ birth but modest economic means. They’re hired by wealthy employers to take care of some light tasks (such as correspondence, some errands, light housework and so on). They also accompany their employers to certain events and in general, serve as, well, companions. Sometimes they’re treated well; sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re terrific people; sometimes they’re not. But they’re woven into the fabric of that era. One fictional companion is Violet ‘Vi’ Day, whom we meet in Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth. As the novel begins, she’s sharing rooms with Kerrie Shawn, who dreams of Hollywood stardom but so far, hasn’t had much success. The two are scraping by when they learn to their shock that Kerrie has inherited a fortune. Elderly shipping/industrial magnate Cadmus Cole has died at sea, and Kerrie is one of only two living relatives. Cole’s will specifies that Kerrie and the other heiress Margo Cole must share Cole’s home on the Hudson for a year before they can inherit. Kerrie insists that Vi share her fortune and become her secretary/companion. Everyone moves into the Cole house, and as you can imagine, there’s discord between Kerrie and Margo. When Margo is shot, Kerrie becomes the prime suspect. Since Ellery Queen and his new PI partner Beau Rummell were the firm Cole hired to find his relatives, they investigate the murder and find out who really killed Margo and why. Vi believes in her friend and employer and stays loyal to her throughout. I know, I know, fans of Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral.

There are of course other ‘staple characters’ in classic/Golden Age crime fiction. Which ones have resonated with you?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration! Folks, do go visit Moira’s excellent blog on clothes, popular culture, and what it all says about us in literature. You’ll be inspired too.

ps.  I took the ‘photo above, but it’s really a ‘photo of a ‘photo. Credit really goes to Alana Newhouse’s beautifully illustrated A Living Lens, where I found the original. It just seemed to fit the topic…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lou Reed’s I Remember You.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, Charles Todd, Dorothy Sayers, Earl Der Biggs, Ellery Queen, Kerry Greenwood