Category Archives: Elizabeth J. Duncan

I Position My Precious Assortment of Pencils and Powders and Paint*

I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but the cosmetics industry is doing very well. Even ‘drugstore’ cosmetics aren’t cheap, and that’s to say nothing of the more upmarket brands. And let’s not even talk about good nail salons and the like. Let’s face it; looking good comes at a price. It takes time, too.

But it’s awfully popular. From organic skin preparations, to perfume, to myriad other things, there’s quite a market for makeup. Flip open any magazine, paper or online, and you’ll find all sorts of cosmetics ads. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that we see cosmetics in crime fiction, too. There are all sorts of examples out there; here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal), we are introduced to Susan Banks. When her wealthy Uncle Richard Abernethie dies, she stands to inherit quite a bit of money. And for her, this offers the opportunity to start her own enterprise – a cosmetics and beauty business. Her husband, Greg, works in a chemist’s shop, so the plan is to also have a laboratory for special beauty preparations. It’s a major undertaking, so she’s eager for her inheritance. And that’s what makes her a ‘person of interest’ when Uncle Richard dies. At first, everyone’s prepared to say that the death was natural – sudden, but not unexpected. But then, at the gathering after the funeral, Susan’s Aunt Cora Lansquenet says that it was murder. Everyone hushes her, but privately, everyone also begins to wonder. And then, when Cora herself is murdered the next day, everyone is sure she was right. The family lawyer, Mr. Entwhistle, asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and he agrees. He finds that Susan Banks is by no means the only one who might have wanted to kill Abernethie and his sister.

In Harry Bingham’s Talking to the Dead, we are introduced to Detective Constable (DC) Fiona Griffiths, of the Cardiff Police. She’s tapped to join a murder investigation team when the bodies of Nancy Mancini and her six-year-old daughter, April are found in their apartment. The victim was an occasional sex worker, and at first, the evidence suggests that she might have been murdered by a client. But then, there’s another death. And another. It’s now clear that something very much more is going on than it seems on the surface. And it turns out that the closer Fiona gets to the truth, the darker that truth turns out to be. Fiona battled mental illness as a teenager; and, although she doesn’t wallow in it, she finds it hard to live on what she calls ‘Planet Normal.’ And part of that ‘planet’ is the world of dating. At one point in the novel, she does begin to date someone, and it’s interesting to see how she thinks about the way girlfriends are ‘supposed to’ dress, wear makeup, and so on when they’re on dates.

Elizabeth J. Duncan’s Penny Brannigan is the owner of a nail salon – the Happy Hands Nail Care shop – in the Welsh town of Llanelen. In The Cold Light of Mourning, she gets involved in a case of murder when a young bride, Meg Wynne Thompson, goes missing and is later found dead. As it turns out, Penny was possibly the last person (other than the killer) to see the victim alive. Meg Wynne had come to the shop to have her nails done on the morning of her wedding. She left the shop afterwards, and never returned. So, although Penny isn’t really considered a suspect, her information is important. And she is curious about what happened. The police, in the forms of Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Gareth Davies, and Detective Sergeant (DS) Bethan Morgan are the official investigators. In her own way, Penny investigates, too. Each in a different way, they get to the truth. Many parts of the story are told from Penny’s point of view, so we learn what pride she takes in doing nails. She knows that having beautiful-looking hands and nails makes a difference, and she always works with her clients to choose exactly the right shade for whatever the occasion may be. It’s a lot more than just a paycheck for her.

Steph Avery’s Our Trespasses is the story of teenage sisters Madeline ‘Midge’ and Bridget ‘Bridie’ Dolan. It’s East London, 1966, a time of Mods, Rockers, and all sorts of experimentation. The Dolan sisters have been sheltered most of their lives, raised in a ‘good’ home. But that doesn’t mean they’re not curious about the world around them. They read the fashion and popular culture magazines and want to be a part of it all. One Friday night, they persuade their mother, Eileen, to let them go to the Palais Royale to dance. Her one condition is that their cousin, Jimmy, take them and then bring them home. Jimmy is ‘cool,’ so the sisters agree.  They choose their clothes and makeup carefully, as they want to make a good impression. Then, they show their mother:

‘‘My, but you two are a pair of beauties…’
‘You don’t think the makeup’s too much, Mam?’ Bridie, still uncertain.
‘It’s no more than I used to wear. We all wanted to look like Joan Crawford when I was your age and when I look at pictures of me, Sweet Baby Jesus, I look like a painted doll. It makes you look bonny – not that you need it, but no, it’s not too much.’’

With that approval, the girls go to the dance. Later that night, a tragedy occurs that will change both of their lives.

And then there’s Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, which introduces his sleuth, eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce. She lives in the small, 1950s English village of Bishop’s Lacey with her father and her two older sisters, Ophelia ‘Feely’ and Daphne ‘Daffy. They’re interested in makeup, clothes, and boys. Flavia, on the other hand, is interested in chemistry. In fact, she’s quite an accomplished chemist, especially for someone her age, and has a real passion for the subject. The main plot of this novel revolves around a stranger who visits the de Luce home and is found dead the next morning. But woven through the story is the ongoing sibling ‘war’ between Flavia and her sisters. They play nasty tricks on her, and she is not one to back away from a challenge. So, she comes up with a plan. She ‘borrows’ one of Feely’s lipsticks and injects it with poison ivy. But her trick ends up having an unexpected outcome…

Cosmetics and the beauty culture have been a part of life for thousands of years. So it’s no surprise that we see their impact in crime fiction, too. These are just a few examples. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Herman’s A Little More Mascara.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Elizabeth J. Duncan, Harry Bingham, Steph Avery

I Thank the Lord I’m Welsh*

Wales is a beautiful country with a unique language, culture, and history. And, in the last few decades, there’s been a concerted effort to maintain that culture and teach that language. As you’ll know if you’ve lived there, or even been there, it’s a bilingual country (it’s been officially so since 1998).

But, if you read crime fiction, you’ll soon see that Wales isn’t exactly a peaceful, crime-free place. And it’s interesting to see how the country and its people are portrayed in the genre. Space doesn’t permit more than a quick peek at a few examples; I’m sure you’ll be able to add others.

One of Rhys Bowen’s series takes place mostly in the fictional Welsh town of Llanfair, in Snowdonia. These novels (there are ten) feature Constable Evan Evans, who was originally from Llanfair, but moved to Swansea as a child. When he gets fed up with life in the city, he decides to move ‘back home,’ where he’s now sometimes known as ‘Evans the Law,’ to distinguish him from others with the same surname. He re-acquaints himself with life in the small town in Evans Above, the first novel in the series. But it doesn’t turn out to be nearly as idyllic a life as he had imagined it would. This is a small-town series, but it’s not a ‘frothy,’ light series. Among other things, it shows how social changes such as immigration, culture clash, family structure changes, and so on don’t affect just the larger cities. They even find their way into small villages.

In The Earth Hums in B-Flat, Mari Strachan introduces readers to twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan. She lives in a small Welsh village in the 1950s, and is just on the cusp of coming of age. Gwenni’s a creative thinker; some people call her a dreamer. She’s certainly not obsessed with clothes, boys, or an active social life. Everything in Gwenni’s life changes when one of the town’s residents, Ifan Evans, goes missing, and is later found dead. For various reasons, Gwenni wants to find out the truth about his death, so she starts to ask questions. As she searches out the truth, she also makes some life-changing discoveries about her own family. Strachan’s second novel, Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers, also takes place in a small Welsh town, just after World War I.

Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels has two timelines. One begins in 1962, in an isolated Welsh village, and is the story of four children: Lawrence ‘Fatty’ Bevan; Elizabeth ‘Iffy’ Meredith; Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Tranter; and William ‘Billy’ Edwards. These children don’t have much in common, but there aren’t a lot of other children in town. So, they spend their share of time together. During one eventful summer, they slowly begin to learn some of the town’s secrets, including some things that several people would much rather no-one find out. The other timeline begins some forty years later, when retired detective Will Sloane decides to return to his native Wales. He knows he doesn’t have a lot longer to live, and he wants to spend his last days in his own country. More than that, he finds a clue that’s related to mystery he was never able to solve. A child went missing, and was never found. Sloane was on the team that investigated, and everyone made efforts to find the child, but they had no success. Now, with this new clue, Sloane is hoping he can finally get some answers. As the children’s story moves forward, and Sloane’s backwards, we slowly learn how these children are connected to the secrets people are keeping. We also learn how all of that is related to Sloane’s investigation.

There’s also Cathy Ace’s WISE Enquiry Agency series. This series, in the traditional whodunit style, features four women (one Welsh, one Irish, one Scottish, and one English) who set up an investigation agency. The stories mostly take place in the Welsh town of Anwen by Wye.

One of Elizabeth J. Duncan’s series features Penny Brannigan, who emigrated from Nova Scotia to the small Welsh town of Llanelen, where she lives now. She’s the owner of the Happy Hands Nail Care shop, and as such, gets to hear a lot of what’s going on in town. And, because it’s the sort of place where everyone knows everyone, she knows most of the town’s residents. This is a lighter, cosy, series, but it’s not ‘frothy.’

Just in case you were wondering whether all Welsh crime fiction takes place in small towns and villages, think again. Stephen Puleston, for instance, has two crime fiction series. One of them features Inspector Ian Drake, and takes place in North Wales. The other is set in Cardiff. This series features DI John Marco of the Queen Street Police. These novels are sometimes-gritty, fast-paced thrillers, rather than the more traditional-style whodunits.

And I couldn’t do a post about crime fiction set in Wales without mentioning Hinterland (AKA Y Gwyll). This noir television drama takes place in Aberystwyth, and stars Richard Harrington as DI Tom Matthias. One of the interesting things about this particular show is that it’s actually filmed twice: once in English, and once in Welsh. And even in the English version, there are occasional (subtitled) Welsh words and comments.

There are, of course, lots of other mentions of Wales and of Welsh characters in crime fiction. For instance, Ellis Peters’ most famous sleuth, Brother Cadfael, is Welsh. In fact, his Welsh identity plays a role in more than one of the novels in this series. And Cathy Ace’s other sleuth, Caitlin ‘Cait’ Morgan is also Welsh, although she now lives in Canada.

Wales may not be a large country. But it’s got a rich, long history, and a language and culture of which its people are proud. And it certainly features in crime fiction. Which crime novels set in Wales have you enjoyed?

ps. Thank you,, for the lovely ‘photo!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Catatonia’s International Velvet.


Filed under Babs Horton, Cathy Ace, Elizabeth J. Duncan, Ellis Peters, Mari Strachan, Rhys Bowen, Stephen Puleston

In The Spotlight: Elizabeth J. Duncan’s The Cold Light of Mourning

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. St. David’s Day has come and gone for this year, but it’s never a bad time for a literary visit to Wales. Let’s make one today, and turn the spotlight on Elizabeth J. Duncan’s The Cold Light of Mourning, the first of her Penny Brannnigan series.

Brannigan is a widow, originally from Nova Scotia, who immigrated to the small Welsh town of Llanelen almost twenty-five years ago, and hasn’t regretted her decision. Now in her early fifties, she’s the proprietor of the Happy Hands Nail Care shop, and lives in a flat right above her business.

As the novel begins, Brannigan is mourning the recent death of her good friend, Emma Teasdale, a retired local teacher. It’s not spoiling the story to say that this death isn’t a murder. Still, Brannigan is grieving, and she’s involved in the funeral, in a tangential way; she’s doing her friend’s nails one last time.

Along with this, Brannigan has a bridal party booked for complete manicures. Emyr Gruffydd, son of a wealthy local family, is marrying a London bride, Meg Wynne Thompson. It’s to be a major event, with no expense spared. The bride and her attendants arrive in Llanelen and settle into the local inn. They keep their manicure appointments, and Brannigan doesn’t think much more about it, as she hasn’t been invited to the wedding.

But the wedding doesn’t go as planned. On the morning of the big day, Meg Wynne comes into the shop for her manicure, and then leaves when her nails are done. No-one sees her after that time. At first, everyone thinks that it’s a case of a bride getting the last-minute jitters and taking off. But no-one’s able to reach her, and she doesn’t contact anyone. When more time goes by with no word from Meg Wynne, the police are called in, in the forms of DCI Gareth Davies, and DS Bethan Morgan.

Davies and Morgan trace the bride’s movements, and soon discover that the last person known to have seen her was Brannigan. And she can’t be much help, because she really didn’t know Meg Wynne, and the young woman didn’t mention having any particular plans. Still, she can’t help but be curious.

She gets even more drawn into the case when Meg Wynne turns up dead. Now, Davies and Morgan re-trace their steps, this time with an eye to catching a killer, and Brannigan gets involved. Little by little, she and the police, each in a different way, follow the trail. And the closer Brannigan gets to the truth, the more dangerous things get for her. After all, as Davies tells her, this is a person who’s killed, and who won’t shy away from doing it again.

And there are several suspects, too. For one thing, the victim’s father is an abusive drunk, and could have killed her (although he claims innocence). She’s alienated plenty of other people, too. And then there’s the matter of the bridegroom. He claims to be as upset as anyone at her disappearance, and her death is hard on him and his father. But who knows what goes on with even the most loving couple? In the end, Brannigan and the police get to the truth.

This novel takes place in small-town Wales, and Duncan gives the reader a sense of that setting. Everyone knows everyone, for the most part, and there’s plenty of gossip and history in the town. Readers who’ve been to North Wales, and/or have read books about it, will find the physical beauty, the setting, and the context familiar.

Brannigan is an amateur sleuth (although she knows something about procedure, as her husband was a copper). So, she can’t officially question witnesses and suspects, and there’s information to which she’s not privy. Readers who dislike it when amateur sleuths ‘act like the police’ will be pleased to know that that doesn’t really happen here. There are a few times where Brannigan and her new business partner, Vicoria Hopkirk, follow suspects and so on. And sometimes they get into trouble because of it. But, in the main, they let the police do the official work.

That doesn’t mean Brannigan doesn’t talk about the case with the police, though. As she’s involved anyway, she gets to know both Davies and Morgan, especially Davies. She has her own theories of the investigation, which she shares with him. Gradually, the two form a relationship. Readers who dislike any form of romance in their crime novels will notice this. But the romance goes very slowly (both are widowed, but are content with their lives, and neither is in a great hurry to find someone new). And it’s not a central plot point.

The story takes different points of view, including Davies’, Morgan’s and Brannigan’s (all third person, past tense). Readers who prefer only one perspective will notice this. That said, though, it’s always clear whose point of view is being shared at any one time.

Readers who like stories in which the guilty party is apprehended and brought to justice will be pleased to know that that happens here. It certainly doesn’t make everything all right again. And there is real sadness and some darkness in the story. But this isn’t a noir sort of story where everything falls apart permanently.

In keeping with that, there’s not much violence in the story, although Duncan doesn’t make light of the fact that murder – any murder – is horrible. Nor is there much other explicitness. Reader who prefer their stories to be low on gore and explicit sex will appreciate this.

The Cold Light of Mourning is the story of what happens in a small Welsh town when a murder takes place there, even if it’s not the murder of a local person. It’s got a distinctive, contemporary setting, and characters you might imagine living there. And it features an amateur sleuth who has come to love her adoptive home. But what’s your view? Have you read The Cold Light of Mourning? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday, 13 March/Tuesday, 14 March – L.A. Confidential – James Ellroy

Monday, 20 March/Tuesday, 21 March – We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson

Monday, 27 March/Tuesday 28 March – Death of an Old Goat – Robert Barnard



Filed under Elizabeth J. Duncan, The Cold Light of Mourning