Category Archives: Dorothy Sayers

You’re In the Care of a Spin Doctor*

PR and Spin DoctorsIt’s a competitive world out there. So, for a lot of people and businesses, image is everything. They have to inspire confidence and build loyalty. That’s where public relations and ‘spin doctors’ come in. They’re the ones who work to ensure that the public sees the company in the best possible light. They also do ‘damage control’ when there’s a problem.

PR people certainly play roles in real life. They help build brand image and the good ones articulate the company’s (or person’s) message. They can be interesting characters in crime fiction, too. And including a PR angle (or even conflict) can add a solid plot point or layer of character development to a story.

Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise is the story of Pym’s Publicity, Ltd., a very respectable advertising agency. One day, copywriter Victor Dean has a tragic fall down a staircase at Pym’s, and dies. At first it looks as though it could have been just a terrible accident. But Dean left behind an unfinished note that calls that conclusion into question. The note says that he’d discovered one of Pym’s employees was using the company’s advertising for illegal purposes. For Pym’s, this is a PR disaster, so they don’t want to call in the police. Instead, they hire Lord Peter Wimsey to go undercover as Dean’s replacement and find out the truth. This he agrees to do, and he starts looking into the matter. It turns out that Dean was right: someone was using the company’s advertising to arrange meetings between drugs gangs and local drugs dealers. When Dean found out who it was, he blackmailed that person and paid the price for it. It’s an interesting case of a PR firm that needs a PR boost of its own.

In Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts, Queen is temporarily working for Hollywood’s Magna Studios. The project is a film biography of famous actors Blythe Stuart and John Royle. The two had a very stormy romance and public breakup, and the gossip about them has been popular for a long time. Each married someone else and now has a grown child; and at first, the studio people think they’ll refuse to do the film. But to everyone’s shock, they agree. More than that, they rekindle their romance and decide to get married. For publicity man Sam Vix, this is a nightmare. He’d depended on the couple’s feud to sell the film. Then, Vix and the publicity team decide to make the best of the situation. They arrange with Stuart and Royle to give their wedding the ‘Hollywood treatment,’ and have it take place on an airstrip. From thence, the couple and their children will leave for a honeymoon trip. All goes off as planned; but by the time the plane lands, Stuart and Royle are dead of what turns out to be poison. Queen works to find out who the killer is and how the killer managed to poison the newlyweds.

As Hugh Pentecost, Judson Philips wrote a series of mysteries featuring Pierre Chambrun, manager of New York’s very upmarket Hotel Beaumont. A hotel’s image is extremely important, so one of Chambrun’s valued employees is his PR chief, Mark Haskell. In fact, this series is written in first person, from Haskell’s point of view. As the series goes on, it’s interesting to see how Haskell handles press announcements and other public image events. It’s also interesting to see how the hotel deals with PR challenges such as police searches and arrests.

Carole Nelson Douglas’ Temple Barr is a freelance PR expert. As such, she’s hired by hotel/casinos (she’s based in Las Vegas), corporations and so on help create or restore the images they want. Companies consult with her to choose TV advertising campaigns, push new logos or spokespeople, and otherwise keep their names before the public. Among other things, this cosy series offers an interesting look at what PR people do.

Public relations is important to the plot of Robin Cook’s medical thriller Contagion. In that novel, medical examiners Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery are faced with a mysterious set of deaths at Manhattan General Hospital. They seem to be caused by a particularly virulent strain of influenza, and there’s a great deal of concern. But, as Stapleton discovers, the concern is as much for the hospital’s image as it is for anything else. For that reason, the hospital’s administrators want there to be as little obvious investigation as possible. From Stapleton’s point of view, this puts patients at risk, so he frequently butts heads with those in charge. He and Montgomery learn that Manhattan General is affiliated with insurance giant AmeriCare. That company’s major rival is National Health. As the story goes on, we learn how the competition between those companies impacts what’s going on at the hospital. We also see how important public image is in the medical field.

And then there’s Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach. In that novel, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner, Rajiv Patel, are taking a holiday at Krabi. There, they meet a guide, Chanida Manakit, who goes by the name of Miss Pla. When her body is found washed up in a cave, Keeney and Patel feel a personal sense of loss, and decide to extend their stay for a bit and ask some questions. It’s difficult to say exactly how the victim died, but Keeney doesn’t believe the police theory that it was an accident. Miss Pla was far too good a swimmer for that. So Keeney and Patel trace Pla’s last days and weeks. They learn that she was working with an environmental group. Her task was to attend meetings between local villages and Nukun, the public relations officer for Apex Enterprises, a development company. While at those meetings, Pla was to ensure that villagers’ concerns were articulated. For the company, these meetings are important for public relations. Apex wants to cultivate the image of being sensitive to the local culture and its needs, and the people who run these meetings have to keep that image at the forefront. And Miss Pla’s role in the company’s PR plan plays its part in what happens to her.

PR people and ‘spin doctors’ have important and sometimes difficult tasks to do. That’s especially the case when a company or politician gets into trouble or does something illegal or unethical. There are all sorts of interesting possibilities when that happens, and crime fiction certainly shows that.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from TV Smith’s For Every Hit There’s a Miss.

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Filed under Angela Savage, Carole Nelson Douglas, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, Hugh Pentecost, Judson Philips, Robin Cook

Secret Messages*

Codes and CiphersToday would have been the 104th birthday of British mathematician and computer pioneer Alan Turing. As you’ll know, among many other accomplishments, he played a crucial role in intercepting and deciphering Nazi coded messages. It’s estimated that he and the other members of the Bletchley Park team shortened World War II by several years.

To celebrate his birthday, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at a few of the ciphers and codes we’ve seen in crime fiction. You’ll notice that I don’t make reference to the many espionage thrillers in which codes are used: too easy. But even if you take that sort of book out of the equation, there’s plenty of coding used in the genre.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Hilton Cubitt. He’s concerned about his American-born wife, Elsie. They’ve been happy together as a couple, but everything changed when she received a letter containing what looked like a child’s drawing of ‘stick people.’ She won’t explain what’s upset her so much, but she does say that it has to do with her past in Chicago. Other, equally cryptic, messages arrive, including some that are chalked onto one of the windowsills at the couple’s Norfolk home. Then one tragic night, Cubitt is shot and his wife badly injured. Holmes slowly decrypts the coded messages, and uses the code as a ‘bait’ to catch the killer.

In Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet/assistant Mervyn Bunter are stranded by a car accident in the small East Anglia village of Fenchurch St. Paul. While they wait for their car to be repaired, they stay with the local vicar, Theodore Venables. Their visit occurs during New Year’s Eve, the night of the traditional change-ringing at Venables’ church. One of the ringers has been taken ill, so Wimsey takes his place. The next day, word comes that Lady Thorpe, wife of the local squire, has died. Wimsey and Bunter stay on for her funeral, then go on their way when their car is fixed. A few months later, Wimsey gets a letter from Venables. It seems that Sir Henry has died, and there’s a mystery surrounding his death. When the gravediggers prepared the place next to that of Lady Thorpe, they found another corpse already there. Venables wants Wimsey to return to Fenchurch St. Paul to find out the truth about that ‘extra’ body. Wimsey agrees, and he and Bunter make the trip. He finds that the extra corpse is related to a robbery, some stolen jewels, and a mysterious cipher that’s found in the church’s bell tower.

Agatha Christie made use of ciphers and codes in more than one of her stories. In The Clocks, for example, British operative Colin Lamb is in the village of Crowdean, following up on a lead. A fellow operative named Hanbury has been killed, and Lamb wants to find out why and by whom. He knew that Hanbury was investigating an espionage ring, and he has only one clue to that ring: a cipher written on a piece of paper found in Hanbury’s pocket. Lamb happens to be on a street called Wilbraham Crescent when he gets drawn into a case of murder. A young woman named Sheila Webb has discovered the body of an unknown man in the sitting room of a house she was visiting. She gives the alarm and Lamb tries to help. The case is, on its surface, strange, so Lamb takes it to his father’s old friend Hercule Poirot. In the end, Poirot connects the dead man’s murder to two other deaths; in an odd way, it also connects with the case Lamb is working.

Horace Croyden, whom we meet in Talmage Powell’s short story To Avoid a Scandal, is an avid amateur cryptographer. His hobby of choice is working ciphers and he’s proud of his skill. As the story begins, Croyden’s life is going exactly the way he wants. He has a safe, very respectable job at a bank, and a well-ordered, quiet home life. Everything changes when he meets his boss’ cousin Althea. They begin to date and eventually marry, and that’s when the trouble begins. Althea turns out to be much more vivacious than her husband had thought (or hoped). What’s more, she begins to remodel their home with bright shades and modern furniture and décor – all of which Horace dislikes intensely. Then comes the proverbial straw: Althea discovers her husband’s beloved ciphers and burns them. She says she thought they were just useless scraps of paper. But to Horace, they were much more. It’s past the point of tolerance for him, and he takes drastic action because of it…

Of course, not all codes and ciphers have to be written on paper, or even electronic. In Martin EdwardsThe Cipher Garden, for instance, Oxford historian Daniel Kind discovers an unusual sort of cipher. He’s taken a cottage in the Lake District, and is setting it up the way he wants. He notices that the cottage’s garden is an unusual shape and, gradually, comes to see that it’s actually a cipher. As he’s slowly working out what it means, DCI Hannah Scarlett of the Cumbria Constabulary has a strange case of her own. Ten years earlier, landscaper Warren Howe was found murdered by his own scythe. At the time, his widow, Tina, was suspected of the crime. But the police couldn’t find enough evidence to pursue the case. Now, anonymous tips suggest that she really was guilty. So Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team look into the matter again. As it turns out, that case is connected to Kind’s own mystery, and not just by the fact that Warren Howe worked for the company that created that garden.

Ciphers and codes have been embedded in crime fiction (and espionage fiction) for a very long time. And as Alan Turing’s work shows, they’ve been critical to real-life history, too. Which ‘coded’ stories have you enjoyed?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of song by the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Martin Edwards, Talmage Powell

Pomp and Circumstance*

Academic MysteriesAs I post this, the university where I teach is holding its annual Commencement exercises. It’s a very special time for the graduates and their families, and there’s always a profusion of flowers, decorations, and so on.

If you’ve participated in Commencements, then you know that those events are filled with ritual, from the things that are said, to the caps, gowns and hoods people wear, to some of the things they do. The ceremonies themselves are a very traditional aspect of academia.

It’s all got me thinking about a recent post from Moira, who blogs at Clothes in Books. By the way, if you’re not already a fan of Clothes in Books, you will be after just one visit. It’s a treasure trove of fine book reviews and discussions of fashion and popular culture in fiction, and what it all says about us.

Moira’s post described her list of the best mysteries set in schools. And she’s got a terrific set of novels, so you’ll want to check them out. There are a lot of novels and series set in the world of academia, and it’s not surprising. There’s that layer of tradition that I mentioned. But underneath it is the reality of a disparate group of people, each with a different agenda. And in the world of university, there’s also the reality of young people, many of whom are away from home for the first time. And let’s not forget the competitive nature of a lot of universities. Little wonder there’s so much rich context for a novel or a series.

There’s a lot to choose from, just within this group of crime novels. Here are a few that I’ve found really reflect the academic life at its best. And worst.

Fans of Dorothy Sayers’ work will know that Gaudy Night is set at fictional Shrewsbury College, Oxford, the alma mater of Sayers’ mystery novelist, Harriet Vane. In that novel, she returns to Shrewsbury at the request of the Dean when some disturbing and mysterious things begin to happen. As she looks into what’s going on, readers get a sense of some of the pomp and even pageantry of traditional academic life. The novel shows what it was like to be at university at that time and in that place. I couldn’t agree more, fans of Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, and of Michael Innes’ Death at the President’s Lodging.

There’s also Edmund Crispin’s Dr. Gervase Fen, Professor of English at fictional St. Christopher’s College, Oxford. These mysteries are whodunits that often feature the sort of ‘impossible but not really impossible’ sort of mystery that classic/Golden Age crime fiction fans often associate with writers such as John Dickson Carr. In fact, Fen refers to Carr’s creation, Dr. Gideon Fell, in The Case of the Gilded Fly.

Of course, times have changed since Sayers and Crispin were writing, and so has academia. Christine Poulson’s Cassandra James novels show readers university life from a more contemporary perspective. James is Head of the English Literature Department at St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge. As such, she has to cope with challenges such as staffing, student issues, budgets, and ensuring that her department meets the requirements of outside examiners. She knows what goes on in her department, so she has a very useful perspective when murder occurs on and around campus. Among other things, these novels offer a look at the day-to-day life of a modern academic.

We also get that perspective in Gail Bowen’s series featuring Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. She’s a Saskatchewan political scientist and, for the first several novels, a university professor. In novels such as A Killing Spring and Burying Ariel, readers get an ‘inside view’ of what it’s like to teach at a Canadian university.

Sarah R. Shaber has written an academic mystery series featuring Pulitzer Prize winning historian Simon Shaw. Shaw teaches at Kenan College near Raleigh, North Carolina. Because of his scholarly interest, these mysteries tie in historical elements with the modern-day plots, and with the realities of academic life.

There are several other examples of US-based academic mysteries, too. For instance, there’s Amanda Cross’ Kate Fansler series, set in New York. And two of Bill Crider’s mystery series (one featuring Carl Burns and the other featuring Sally Good) are set in colleges located in Texas. Oh, and my own Joel Williams novels are also academic mysteries, set in a fictional university town in Pennsylvania.

Novels and series that are set in a university context can take advantage of a lot of aspects of that setting. Universities draw together students from many different kinds of backgrounds, who may have any number of motivations. They also draw together professors, each with a different agenda. And then there’s the pressure on both students and members of the faculty, whether it’s pressure for high marks or for promotion/tenure. There’s also the fact that academic mysteries allow the author to explore a topic (such as literature, politics, history or archaeology). After all, professors have their own areas of research interest, and that can provide an interesting set of plot layers for the author. With all of that, it’s really little wonder that academic mysteries are so popular. And I’ve only touched on the ones that take place at college and university campuses.

Want more? Check out Moira’s excellent post. Thanks for the inspiration, Moira! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to put on my cap, gown and hood…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is, of course, the commonly-known (at least in the US) title of Pomp and Circumstance, March No. 1 in D, one of Sir Edward Elgar’s most famous compositions.

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Filed under Amanda Cross, Bill Crider, Christine Poulson, Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, Gail Bowen, John Dickson Carr, Josephine Tey, Michael Innes, Sarah R. Shaber

My Old Car Broke Down*

Car Accidents and BreakdownsI recently read an excellent review of Robert Barnard’s The Case of the Missing Brontë from Rich at Past Offences. Before I go on, let me encourage you strongly to visit Rich’s fine blog. There you’ll find all sorts of terrific reviews, crime-fictional news, and much more. You don’t want to miss it.

In the Barnard novel, Scotland Yard detective Perry Trethowan and his wife Jan run into car trouble, and are forced to stay the night in a small Yorkshire town. Their car is repaired, and they’re soon ready to return to London. But that bit of car trouble gets Trethowan drawn into a mystery that involves a possibly priceless manuscript, and a group of less-than-honest people who’d do just about anything to get it. The story is a clear example of the way that car trouble can end up getting people involved in any number of situations.

Of course, car trouble, and even car crashes, are at the very least annoying, and at the worst, devastating. But those situations can be really useful tools for the crime writer. They can serve as catalysts, they can involve the sleuth in a case, and they can lead in any number of directions, something of them truly creepy.

In Agatha Christie’s short story, The Harlequin Tea Set, Mr. Satterthwaite is on his way to visit some old friends in the village of Doverton Kingsbourne. Unfortunately, his car breaks down and he has to stop to get it repaired. In part to pass the time, and in part to make the best of a bad situation, Satterthwaite decides to walk to the Harlequin Café and look around while he waits for the car to be fixed. When he gets to the café and shop, he sees an old acquaintance, Mr. Harley Quin. He tells Quin about his car trouble and about the family he’s going to visit. It turns out that Quin has some things to tell him, too. That information proves quite useful when Satterthwaite gets involved in a family mystery surrounding his friends.

As Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors begins, Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet/assistant Mervyn Bunter are on a car trip, heading towards the town of Walbeach. Unfortunately, they have a car accident not far from the East Anglia village of Fenchurch St. Paul. The two men start walking towards the village when they encounter its vicar, Theodore Venables. He takes Wimsey and Bunter in, inviting them to stay at the rectory until their car is repaired. As a way of thanking his host, Wimsey agrees to take part in the church’s annual New Year’s Eve change-ringing, as one of the bell ringers is ill. All goes well at first. But that car accident ends up drawing Wimsey and Bunter into a case of theft, complete with an unexpected corpse.

In Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, a car accident turns out to be a catalyst for a number of events, including murder. One afternoon, crime writer Martin Canning is waiting with a group of other people to pick up tickets to a lunchtime radio show. As everyone watches, a blue Honda crashes into a silver Peugeot that stopped too quickly. The two drivers get out and begin arguing. Matters escalate until the Honda driver starts attacking Paul Bradley, the Peugeot driver. Acting on instinct, Canning throws his computer case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. This draws him into a case of fraud, theft and murder. And as the novel goes on, we see how that one car accident involves a whole group of people, including Atkinson’s sleuth, Jackson Brodie.

Stephen King’s Misery also shows what a car accident can lead to in the end. I know, I know; it’s not, strictly speaking, a crime novel. But it is a good example of the car accident motif. Novelist Paul Sheldon is driving through a heavy snowstorm when he has a car accident. He is rescued by Annie Wilkes, who happens to be a fiercely dedicated fan of Sheldon’s work. You’d think that would be a good thing for Sheldon, and at first it is. His life is saved, and he can rest up and get back to work on his next book. But this is Stephen King, after all. Annie gets deeply involved in the plot of her hero’s forthcoming novel, which is still in manuscript form. When she gets upset about some of the events the story, she chooses her own way of dealing with the matter…

Car trouble also plays a role in Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, the first of her series featuring academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourne Shreve. Early in the novel, we learn that Joanne’s husband, up-and-coming politician Ian Kilbourne, was murdered one night. He was on his way home from a funeral when he stopped to help a young couple, Kevin Tarpley and Maureen Gault, whose car had broken down. They asked him for a ride to a party, but he refused. That’s when Kevin killed him. In A Colder Kind of Death, we learn more about that night, and we find out what happened to both young people. It makes for a compelling story arc.

And then there’s D.S. Nelson’s Model For Murder. Former milliner Blake Heatherington has retired to the village of Tuesbury, where he still sometimes makes hats by special order. In this novel, he gets drawn into a series of murders, beginning with the village newsagent, Harold Salter. That case is being investigated when the local greengrocer, Mr. Davies, disappears. His prized car is found in a lay-by on London Road, the keys still in it. But there’s no sign of Davies. Not long afterwards, his body is discovered in a nearby call-box. As it turns out, his car had broken down and his telephone was out of battery power. So Davies did what a lot of people would do: he went to a call box. That’s how he became vulnerable to a killer.

There are lots of other novels and short stories in which people become victims when their cars won’t start. There are also plenty of stories in which people witness crimes while they’re by the side of the road, or get drawn into investigations when they’re stranded by a broken-down car. Those situations can make for a very effective context for a crime novel, and they can add a layer of tension.

Thanks, Rich, for the inspiration!
 

ps. In case you were wondering, no, that’s not my car.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lee Dorsey’s My Old Car.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, D.S. Nelson, Dorothy Sayers, Gail Bowen, Robert Barnard, Stephen King

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.

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