Category Archives: Dorothy Sayers

I Was Thinking That Maybe I’d Get a Maid*

Domestic WorkersOne of the interesting things about social class is the way the different classes depend on one another. When you read Golden Age crime fiction, for instance, you might think at first that members of the domestic staff depend utterly on the whims of their employers. And it’s true that even today, it’s in the interest of your cleaning person, your au pair/nanny, or your landscaper to do a good job. That’s how those people earn their money, your references for future employment, and so on.

But the relationship works the other way as well. That’s particularly true for domestic staff who are very good at their jobs. A quick look at crime fiction is all it takes to show just how dependent members of the ‘better class’ have been on the people who work for them.

In Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!), we are introduced to professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow. She is at the top of her profession and, quite frankly, could have her pick of any number of well-paid situations with whatever benefits she asked. That’s how good at her job she is. But Lucy likes keeping her own schedule, and she likes some variety in her work. So she picks and chooses among the many people who want to hire her while their housekeeper is away, or sick, or there’s a large house party coming, or… Lucy is intrigued when her friend Miss Marple makes her an interesting proposition. Miss Marple’s friend Elspeth McGillicuddy witnessed a murder, and there is a good possibility that the body may be on the property of Rutherford Hall, which belongs to the Crackenthorpe family. Miss Marple wants Lucy to do some sleuthing under the guise of working for the Crackenthropes as a temporary housekeeper during the Christmas season. Lucy agrees, and, of course, has no trouble getting a position at Rutherford Hall. It’s soon very clear to everyone that Lucy knows her way around a household, and everyone is soon very much under her spell. As it turns out, there is, indeed, a body on the property, and Miss Marple works with the police to find out the truth about who the victim was and how the body ended up at the Crackenthorpe home. Although that’s the major plot thread of the novel, it’s also interesting to see how very dependent the Crackenthropes are on someone who is supposed to be their social inferior and employee. You’re absolutely right, fans of The Hollow.

We see a very similar dynamic in the relationship between Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet/servant Mervyn Bunter. Wimsey, of course, has the title and the money. He is Bunter’s employer and, technically, his social superior. But the reality is that he depends very much on Bunter, and he knows it. Bunter may not be the one paying the bills, but he has his own way of exercising power when he needs to, and Wimsey pays heed.

There’s a disastrous example of how easy it is to take domestic staff for granted in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. The Coverdale family (George, his wife Jacqueline, his daughter Melinda, and Jacqueline’s son Giles) are well off and well educated. They’re not consciously snobby, but they certainly take certain things for granted. And when they decide to hire a housekeeper, they assume that they’re going to be the ones ‘in charge.’ That’s arguably a bit of the reason why they don’t do much of a check on their prospective housekeeper, Eunice Parchman. After all, as long as she does the job, it doesn’t matter, does it? As it turns out, that’s a fatal mistake. Eunice is keeping a secret, and she is determined to do anything to prevent her employers from finding out. When her secret is revealed, the results are tragic. As the plot unfolds, we see, too, how much power Eunice actually has in the Coverdale household. It’s subtle, but real.

Barbara Neely’s sleuth, Blanche White, could tell you all about how much power domestic staff members have. She’s a black professional housekeeper who, for most of the series, works for Southern (usually, but not always, white) employers. So on the one hand, she knows that her employers have a lot more social power than she does. She can get fired on a whim, with no chance of getting hired by anyone else in the same social circles. But she does have her share of power – more than most of her employers want to admit. For one thing, because she’s often not thought of as a person in her own right, she can ‘fade into the background.’ And that means she often finds out all sorts of secrets. Her employers know that subconsciously, and sometimes they are intimidated by it. What’s more, she has her methods of getting the household to run the way she wants it to run, without seeming to do so. She hears all of the local gossip, too, and makes use of it.

And then there’s Kalpana Swaminathan’s The Page 3 Murders. Hilla Driver has inherited a beautiful seaside villa in Mumbai, and decides to host a weekend house party, in part to celebrate her niece Ramona’s eighteenth birthday. She’s invited a group of celebrities, including a dancer, an author, a food critic, a doctor and his wife, and an actress/model. Also invited are Hilla’s friend Lalli, a former police officer who’s still consulted regularly; and Lalli’s niece.  With such disparate personalities, there’s bound to be conflict, so Hilla is hoping for the best. The one person she’s going to utterly depend on this weekend will be her cook, Tarok Ghosh. It’s to be a ‘foodie’ weekend, and everything will have to be just right. One night, there’s a formal, seven-course dinner at which it comes out that Tarok seems to know secrets about several of the guests. So when he is found murdered the next day, Lalli isn’t completely shocked. She and her niece work together to find out which of the guests is the killer. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how, even though Tarok is an employee, his rule is law in some ways. He is certainly not someone who accepts being ordered around, and Hilla knows his importance too well to let that happen.

And that’s the thing about domestic staff. On the surface, it looks as though they’re at the whims of their employers. But if you look a little more closely, it’s not quite as uneven a balance of power as it seems.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Neil Young’s Man Needs a Maid.

36 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Neely, Dorothy Sayers, Kalpana Swaminathan, Ruth Rendell

I Think You Ought to Know That I Intend to Hold You For the Longest Time*

ProposalToday (or yesterday, depending on when you read this), a friend of mine is getting married. I couldn’t be happier for the couple, and I’m really looking forward to the wedding.

It’s got me thinking about what my husband a reliable expert tells me is not nearly as easy as it may seem: the marriage proposal. For one thing, there’s always the risk that you’ll get your heart broken if the answer is ‘no.’ For another, there’s choosing the right moment. And if you’re the one getting the proposal, do you say an immediate ‘yes,’ even if you’re not quite sure? And if the proposal is a public one, how do you deal with everyone looking on?

Even so, marriage proposals are exciting. They’re very sweet, too; have you noticed how people always seem to smile and applaud when they witness one? And some of them are breathtaking. I know someone whose husband proposed during a hot-air balloon ride. Someone else I know proposed during a trip to one of the US’ most beautiful national parks. And I read a story about a firefighter who proposed to his partner during his community-outreach trip to the classroom where she’s a teacher.

Marriage proposals work their way into crime fiction, too, as nearly everything does. Of course, a romance angle to a crime novel can make it too cloying if it’s not handled well. But when handled deftly, a marriage proposal can fall out naturally from a plot, and it can add a welcome touch of warmth and humanity.

Agatha Christie fans can tell you that she wove romance into several of her mysteries. For example, in Evil Under the Sun, Captain Kenneth Marshall, his wife, Arlena, and his daughter, Linda, visit the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Not long after they arrive, Arlena begins to carry on a not-so-discreet affair with another (married) guest, Patrick Redfern. So when she is murdered one day, her husband is an obvious suspect. But Marshall claims that he’s innocent, and it seems that his alibi is reliable. Hercule Poirot is also staying at the hotel, and he works with the police to find out who the real killer is. As they investigate, they find that more than one guest might easily have had a motive for murder. In one of the sub-plots of this novel, a couple meet again for the first time in several years, and discover that they have feelings for each other.
 

‘‘Are you going to ask me to marry you now…or are you determined to wait six months?’…
‘How the devil did you know I’d fixed six months as the proper time?’
‘I suppose because it is the proper time. But I’d rather have something definite now, please.’’
 

And it’s not spoiling the story to say that this proposal takes place in a lovely spot on a cliff above the beach.

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey falls in love with mystery novelist Harriet Vane almost from the moment he sees her (Strong Poison has the story). But the only problem is, she’s on trial for murder. So he can’t propose to her then. But he doesn’t give up – not even in the face of her initial reluctance to be romantically involved with him. But everything changes in Gaudy Night, when Wimsey helps her solve the mystery of some baffling and frightening events at her alma mater college of Oxford. At the end of the novel, they’re taking a walk through the campus when Wimsey asks her to marry him. And, very appropriate to the place, he does it in part in Latin:
 

‘‘Placetne, magistra?’ (Does it please you, Mistress?)
‘Placet.’’ (It pleases.)
 

There’s a lot more conveyed in that exchange than there is space for in this post, chiefly because it’s very difficult to translate nuances from one language to another, but it’s a very meaningful proposal.

In Michael Connelly’s Trunk Music Harry Bosch investigates the murder of mediocre filmmaker Tony Aliso. His death has all of the hallmarks of a Mob execution, but the LAPD seems strangely reluctant to pursue the investigation, even though it could mean bringing down a criminal group. But that doesn’t stop Bosch, who follows the trail to a seedy Las Vegas casino. During his trip, Bosch renews his acquaintance with Eleanor Wish, a former FBI agent who’s become a professional poker player. They find that they still care about each other, and Bosch doesn’t want to let his chance go by.
 

‘He almost faltered, but then the resolve came back to him.
‘There is one stop I’d still like to make before we leave. That is, if you’ve decided.’
She looked at him for a long moment and then a smile broke across her face.’
 

They wouldn’t be the first couple to get married in Las Vegas…

When Camilla Läckberg’s Erica Falck returns to her home town (in The Ice Princess), she meets up again with people she’s known for a long time. That includes local police officer Patrik Hedström, whom she was smitten with when they were in school. In the course of that novel, they begin a relationship, and soon enough, they have a daughter, Maja. It’s not easy to be the parent of a new baby, especially if you’re dealing with all of the physical changes that come with giving birth, and Ericka feels the pressure. So it’s doubly special for her when, in The Stonecutter, Patrik proposes:
 
‘Erica Sofia Magdalena Falck, would you consider doing me the honor of making an honest man out of me? Will you marry me?’
 

The whole thing has made Patrik anxious. There’s picking out the ring, suddenly wondering whether he’s made a mistake in assuming she’ll say ‘yes,’, and then that awkward silence as he waits. But as fans know, he’s not disappointed. This isn’t the most exotic proposal in the world; it takes place right at home, in their study. But it’s just right for them.

And then there’s Anthony Bidulka’s Aloha Candy Hearts, which more or less begins with a marriage proposal. In that novel, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant takes a trip to Hawai’i to spend time with his partner, Alex Canyon, who’s a private and corporate security specialist. Canyon currently works in Melbourne, so the two have settled on Hawai’i as a good ‘in between’ place. It doesn’t hurt matters in this case that Canyon has paid for the airline tickets and the hotel. One night, they’re having dinner at an upmarket restaurant called La Mer, when Canyon proposes.
 

‘Then came THE QUESTION…
I was pretty sure a few neighbouring diners were also monitoring the drama at our table. How could they resist? Two well-dressed men seated at the best table in the house, a tropical paradise as our backdrop, the sultry haziness of too much too-expensive wine that begs close acquaintance from perfect strangers, romantic island music, one of us with a ring in his hand and a hopeful look on his face, the other with a wide-open mouth and shock on his (that would be me).’
 

Seriously, that sort of proposal is hard to resist. And Quant doesn’t.

Marriage proposals can take all kinds of forms. But no matter what the proposal is like, it always speaks of hope and promise, and that can really add to a novel. If you’re reading this, all the best to both of you!

ps. The ‘photo was taken on my ‘proposal night.’ In case you were wondering, I said ‘yes.’

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The Longest Time.  

36 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Camilla Läckberg, Dorothy Sayers, Michael Connelly

We Got All the Friends That Money Can Buy*

Hangers on to WealthOne of the famous quotes usually attributed to Benjamin Franklin goes like this:
 

‘Now I’ve a sheep and a cow, every body bids me good morrow.’
 

Whether or not Franklin actually originated this saying, there’s a lot of wisdom to it. People who find themselves in possession of a large fortune often discover that they have a whole new group of ‘best friends,’ relatives they never knew about, and ‘loyal business associates.’ It’s something I’ve been thinking about as the US Powerball lottery jackpot reaches a record high (as I write this, it’s at US$1.4 billion. Yes, billion).

A lot of us dream of what it’d be like to be that rich. But it’s not without pitfalls. One of them is the number of people who want their share of all that money. It’s certainly true in real life, and it’s all over crime fiction, too. Space only permits me a few examples; I know you’ll think of lots more.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery, James McCarthy is arrested for the murder of his father Charles. There’s evidence against him, too; he was known to have had a serious quarrel with his father just before the killing. But he says he’s innocent, and his fiancée Alice Turner believes him. She goes to the police to plead for his release. Inspector Lestrade thinks the police have the right man, but he asks Sherlock Holmes to look into the case. Holmes agrees, and he and Dr. Watson investigate. They discover that McCarthy was originally from Australia, and made quite a bit of money there. That money ended up attracting the wrong kind of attention…

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we are introduced to Katherine Grey. She’s worked as a paid companion for ten years, in the employ of wealthy Mrs. Harfield. When Mrs. Harfield dies, Katherine is startled to discover that she has inherited her employer’s entire fortune. Right away, those who find out about this are more than eager to get their share. For example, one of Mrs. Harfield’s distant relatives writes, insisting that she and her husband should inherit, and that they’ll raise legal issues if Katherine objects. Then Katherine gets another letter, this time from a cousin of her own, Rosalie Tamplin. Lady Tamplin has learned of Katherine’s newfound wealth, and of course, wants whatever part of it she can get. So she invites Katherine to visit her in Nice, so she can ‘introduce her to the right people.’ Not being a fool, Katherine knows exactly why her cousin has suddenly become so interested in her. Still, she’s always wanted to travel, so she decides to go. That trip gets Katherine involved in the strangling murder of another wealthy woman, Ruth Van Aldin Kettering.

In Dorothy Sayers’ Unnatural Death, Dr. Edwin Carr overhears a conversation between Lord Peter Wimsey and his friend Inspector Parker. This leads Carr to tell them about a case of his own that’s been troubling him. He was treating elderly Miss Agatha Dawson for cancer. When she died, no-one was surprised about it, and her death was put down to her disease. But Carr has never been satisfied that her death was natural. Although his view has more or less cost him his patients, Carr still thinks he’s right. So he asks Wimsey and Parker to look into the matter, and they start to ask questions. They find that more than one person has claimed or taken advantage of kinship to try to get some of Miss Dawson’s fortune.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Mma. Precious Ramotswe uses some of her inheritance from her father to open her own private detective agency. One of her first clients is Happy Bapetse. As is the custom in her culture, Happy has been taught that caring for elderly parents and other relatives is one of her responsibilities. So, when a man shows up at her door, claiming to be her long-lost father, Happy is pleased to take him in. She earns a good living as an accountant at a bank, and has been doing well for herself, so caring for him is not a problem. But Happy has come to suspect that the person claiming to be her father isn’t really her father. Instead, so she tells Mma. Ramotswe, she thinks he may be an imposter who perhaps knew her father and knew that she had done well in life. Mma. Ramotswe agrees to look into the matter, and finds a very clever way to discover whether the man claiming to be Happy’s father really is who he claims to be.

And then there’s Charity Wiser, whom we meet in Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas. She is a very wealthy executive and heiress, who has come to suspect that one of her relatives may be trying to kill her. At her behest, her granddaughter Flora hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out which relative it is. To do that, she invites Quant to join the family on a cruise aboard her private boat. The plan is to have him meet everyone, and ‘vet’ the various family members. As it turns out, Charity is not popular in the family. Each member dislikes her for one reason or another, some more than others. But because of her money, they do her bidding, which includes all sorts of ‘family trips’ designed to make them all uncomfortable. It’s surprising (or perhaps not!) what people will do if they think they’ll get a lot of money in the bargain.

And that’s the thing about coming into a lot of money. One of the consequences is that you suddenly find yourself getting acquainted with good friends, close relatives and helpful business partners you never knew existed. But that won’t stop me dreaming of that big Powerball win. Fortunately, I have very good friends all over the world who will help me make wise decisions about how to spend it all…😉

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Shel Silverstein’s The Cover of the Rolling Stone, made famous by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.

 

32 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers

When He Died, I Inherited His Wealth*

Unusual WillsWills can be funny things. They aren’t always as straightforward as they may seem, no matter how clearly the terms in them may be laid out. And sometimes, they include very strange provisions. Because wills sometimes involve a lot of money, they can be high-stakes, too. It’s only natural, when you think about it, that we’d hear a lot about wills in crime fiction. And sometimes, they involve some unusual situations. Here are just a few examples. I know you’ll think of a lot more than I ever could.

In Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, Colonel John Herncastle bequeaths a large yellow diamond called the Moonstone to his niece, Rachel Verinder, to be given to her on her eighteenth birthday. On the surface, you might think this a very generous gift, and as far as monetary value goes, it is. However, things aren’t exactly what they seem. Herncastle stole the Moonstone from a palace in India, and the story goes that anyone who removes the diamond from its rightful place is cursed. So one possibility is that Herncastle’s bequest is actually a curse on the Verinder family. That’s not so outrageous, considering the bad relations between Herncastle and his sister, Lady Julia Verinder. Certainly trouble comes to the Verinder family after the Moonstone is given to Rachel. For one thing, there are groups of people in India who want the stone back and will do anything to get it. Then, on the night Rachel gets the stone, it’s stolen from her room.  Later, the second housemaid (who has troubles of her own) commits suicide. As it turns out, this bequest causes a great deal of trouble, even for those who don’t believe in the curse.

Agatha Christie referred to wills an awful lot in her work. For example, in the short story Manx Gold, Fenella Mylecharane and Juan Faraker learn that Fenella’s eccentric Uncle Myles has passed away, and they travel to the Isle of Man to hear the reading of his will. According to the will, there is buried treasure on the island, and Uncle Myles has arranged a sort of game to determine who will inherit it. Fenella and Juan are hoping they’ll win; they’re a young, engaged couple who could use the money to start their lives. But they are not the only contestants. There are other would-be heirs who want the treasure just as badly. One morning, each contestant is given the first clue and the race is on. When murder strikes, it’s clear that, for at least one person, this is not a game. I see you, fans of After the Funeral and of The Case of the Missing Will. And of Sad Cypress. See what I mean?

Dorothy Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellonna Club also involves an interesting sort of a will.  In that novel, Lord Peter Wimsey investigates two deaths. One is the death of General Fentiman, a fellow member of his club. The other is the death of Fentiman’s wealthy sister Lady Dormer. According to Lady Dormer’s will, if she dies before her brother does, her fortune passes to Fentiman’s grandson. If her brother predeceases her, then the fortune goes to her distant cousin Ann Dorland. So in this case, the timing of the two deaths is of great importance. When it’s discovered that General Fentiman was poisoned, it’s clear that someone has a very personal stake in which sibling dies first.

Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth also features an odd sort of a will. Queen and his friend Beau Rummell have recently opened up a PI agency. One of their first clients is wealthy and eccentric Cadmus Cole. He’s spent most of his adult life at sea, and has had little contact with anyone in his family. Now he wants to trace any living relatives and make arrangements for the disposition of his fortune. Queen and Rummell take the case, and soon track down two potential heirs. One is aspiring actor Kerrie Shawn, who’s scraping by getting whatever bit parts and ‘extra’ roles she can. Getting a start in Hollywood is proving difficult for her. The other heir is Margo Cole, who’s mostly lived in Paris. When word comes that Cadmus Cole has died, his will is made public. His two heirs will divide his fortune under the condition that they share his home on the Hudson for a year. Kerrie and Margo both agree to the terms, and duly arrive at the house. Not long afterwards, Margo is shot, and Kerrie becomes the prime suspect. Rummell is infatuated with her, and wants to clear her name. And, as it turns out, there are other possible explanations for Margo’s murder…

Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine introduces readers to the Lawson family. Carey Lawson is both wealthy and beloved in her village of Forbes Abbot. When she dies, her will stipulates that her home and fortune are to pass to her nephew Mallory Lawson and his wife, Kate. A generous share of the money is also to go to Mallory and Kate’s daughter Polly when she turns twenty-one. There is also a stipulation in the will that requires the Lawsons to provide a permanent home on the property to Benny Frayle, who was Carey Lawson’s companion. The Lawsons are only too willing to do that, since they like Benny. Besides, this inheritance is a dream come true to them, as they’ve wanted startup money to launch their own publishing company. It’s not spoiling the story to say that Carey Lawson’s death is not suspicious. But before long, it’s clear that something untoward is going on. The Lawsons’ financial advisor Dennis Brinkley is killed in what looks like a terrible accident. But Benny, who was a friend to Brinkley, is sure that he was murdered. She tries to get DCI Tom Barnaby to investigate, but he sees no reason to question the original findings. The police who investigated did their jobs professionally. When there’s another death, though, things change. Now Barnaby and his assistant Gavin Troy look more deeply into the goings-on in Forbes Abbot, and find more than they bargained for, as the saying goes.

Sometimes, even wills that seem to be quite clear aren’t. For instance, in R.J. Harlick’s Death’s Golden Whisper, we meet Meg Harris. She’s recovering from a disastrous marriage, and has moved away from Toronto to Three Deer Point, the home she inherited from her Aunt Agatha. This house is located in rural Western Québec. At first, the change is welcome, as Meg starts to put her life back together. But then, a large company, CanacGold, learns that there may be gold on Whisper Island, which lies near Three Deer Point. The company wants to mine the island and if there is gold, to lay claim to it. This has divided the local Miskigan community, with some wanting that development, and others opposing it. MIskigan Band Chief Eric Odjik knows that Meg doesn’t want the company mining the island. So he is hoping she’ll agree to help resolve the issue. If Whisper Island is actually part of Three Deer Point, then it belongs to Meg, and she has the right to keep the company off the island. If not, then it’s likely the company could come in. So one plot thread of this novel concerns the effort to try to find out exactly what Meg has inherited. The other concerns a case of murder that turns out to be linked to the dispute over Whisper Island, and to her own past.

Of course, not all wills are that difficult to sort out, or that dangerous. But they are interesting. And they’re woven throughout the genre.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Wesley Harding’s Miss Fortune.

33 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, R.J. Harlick, Wilkie Collins

Do You Need Anybody?*

Kindness of StrangersLots of crime fiction tells stories of people who try to be kind to someone, only to have it end up going very, very badly. And there’s something to that sort of story; it can be a very suspenseful premise for a plot. You know the sort of thing I mean: driver stops to help when a car is stranded, only to find real trouble. And in deft hands, novels with that plot point can be memorable.

But sometimes it’s also nice to remember that kindness to strangers isn’t always dangerous. In fact, it’s part of the glue that holds us together. And it can lead in all sorts of directions. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot visits the village of Broadhinny. He’s there to look into the death of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger, James Bentley. But Superintendent Spence has begun to think that Bentley was innocent, so he’s asked Poirot to investigate. One of the people he meets is Deirdre Henderson, who is one of the few villagers with a kind word to say for Bentley. It seems that Bentley once helped her rescue her dog from a trap. She hasn’t forgotten, and that’s part of why she isn’t convinced Bentley is a killer. Fans of this series will know that that one kind act has repercussions, which are brought up in another book, Hallowe’en Party.

Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors begins with a gesture of kindness to a stranger. Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet/assistant Mervyn Bunter are on a road trip one New Year’s Eve when they get into a car accident and left stranded. The Reverend Theodore Venables, vicar of a nearby church, comes upon the two men and helps them get their car to a repair shop. He even offers them lodging at the vicarage until the car can be fixed. Very grateful, Wimsey and Bunter accept, and are soon taken to the vicarage. That evening, Wimsey gets the chance to return the kindness. It seems that one of the church’s bell ringers has gotten ill and can’t do his part of the traditional change-ringing. So Wimsey takes his place, and the change-ringing goes off well. When Wimsey’s car is ready, he and Bunter go their way. A few months later, Wimsey gets a letter from Venables, asking him to return, and help with the odd mystery of a corpse that has turned up unexpectedly at another person’s gravesite. Although this mystery is really sad in its way, one bright point is the friendship that strikes up between Wimsey and Venables, all because of one kind gesture.

In one plot thread of Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack, Buenos Aires police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano and his team are raiding a brothel. Once they’ve made the arrests, Lescano does a final walk-through of the premises. That’s when he discovers a young woman, Eva, who’s been hiding in the house. Without really thinking too much about it, Lescano rescues her and shelters her in his home. Part of the reason is that she looks very much like his wife, Marisa, who has died. But he also doesn’t want to see Eva get into trouble. It’s late in the 1970’s, when just about anything can lead to a person ‘disappearing’ in Argentina. At first, Eva isn’t sure why Lescano hasn’t denounced her, nor what he wants. He doesn’t demand sexual ‘rewards,’ he doesn’t blackmail her, and he continues to protect her. That kind gesture turns out to be very important to the novel as we see what happens to both characters.

There’s also a kind gesture in Wendy James’ The Mistake. That’s the story of Jodie Evans Garrow, who starts life on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks. One day, when she’s about eight, she happens to meet a girl about her own age, who’s just gotten some money in a dare. Then, she notices Jodie.
 

‘‘Hi, there,’ she says breezily. ‘He’s given me a dollar. You can get fifty cobbers for that up at Rafferty’s. You want to share?’’
 

Jodie’s unaccustomed to such a treat, and happy to accept. The other girl turns out to be Bridget ‘Bridie’ Sullivan, who comes from more money than Jodie has, and much more freedom. The two become inseparable until Bridie moves away. Years later, Jodie has good cause to remember that friendship when Bridie comes into her life again. Jodie has become a social pariah, since a devastating news story has broken about her. It seems that she gave birth to a baby who, shortly afterwards, disappeared. Was the child simply adopted? If so, why are there no records? Did the child die? If so, did Jodie have something to do with it? In the worst of it all, she meets Bridie again, and the two pick up their friendship. In fact, Bridie’s the one person who helps Jodie keep sane, if I can put it that way.

And then there’s Andrea Camilleri’s The Snack Thief. In one plot thread of this novel, a young boy named François gets into trouble for stealing food from other children. Ordinarily, such a child would end up in the hands of authorities, but this child is different. His mother Karima seems to have gone missing, and the boy is just doing the best he can to eat. It soon turns out, too, that she may be mixed up in a murder investigation that Inspector Salvo Montalbano is conducting. He has sympathy for the boy, and decides to try to take care of him. As it happens, his long-time lover Livia is visiting, and she helps him to look after François. The two bond; and in fact, Livia considers whether she might want to adopt the boy when it’s discovered that his mother has been killed. That plan doesn’t pan out, but the boy is given a good, safe home with the sister of Montalbano’s second-in-command Mimì Augello. The kind gesture of taking care of François ends happily both for himself and for the family who adopts him.

And that’s the thing about kindness to strangers. You never know what will happen. And they happen in real life, too. Picture this – true story, as Wendy James’ Bridie Sullivan would say. It was a sweltering, and I mean sweltering, August day – my first full day of university. Never mind how long ago. I’d spent the morning unpacking my things, and was ready to go get something to eat. So I went to one of the university cafeterias. I was waiting my turn to get food when the heat overcame me and I began to get dizzy. Barely keeping my feet, I stumbled to the nearest table and slumped into a chair, arms on the table, head dropped onto them.  I sat there for a few moments that way, thoroughly embarrassed both at my dizziness and the attention I knew it would bring. I’d so wanted to make a good impression on that all-important first day ‘in public,’ and passing out was not what I’d had in mind. All of a sudden I heard a voice beside me, asking me if I was OK. I nodded, hoping desperately that whoever it was would leave me alone and let me slink away.

It didn’t happen. That person saw that I was in need, and went to get me a fruit juice, then sat beside me so I wouldn’t be alone, until I felt better. That glass of fruit juice, and the friendship that started because of it, made all the difference in the world to me. This many years later, we are still friends.

If you’re reading this, you know who you are. You may have forgotten that day, but I never will.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends.

28 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Dorothy Sayers, Ernesto Mallo, Wendy James