Category Archives: Elizabeth Peters

These Days There’s a Million Ways to be Pulled and Torn, to be Misdirected*

Real life illusionists such as Penn and Teller (yes, that’s the duo in the ‘photo), and fictional ones such as Elly Griffiths’ Max Mephisto know something very important. People find it hard to pay attention to a lot of things at the same time. So, if you focus your audience’s attention on one thing, they’re less likely to notice something else you may be doing. It’s called misdirection, and these people are experts at it.

Misdirection is an important part of crime fiction, too. Authors use it all the time. In fact, there’s probably a book’s worth of commentary on the way crime writers manipulate readers’ attention. So do fictional characters. After all, if you’re a fictional murderer, it suits you very well if everyone’s paying attention to something else, so that you can get away with your crime.

Misdirection is a part of many of Agatha Christie’s novels and stories. I’ll just give one example. Christie fans will know there are plenty of others. In Death in the Clouds, a group of people boards a plane for a flight from Paris to London. Among them is Marie Morisot, a French moneylender who goes by the name of Madame Giselle. Just before the flight lands, one of the stewards goes around to the different passengers to give them their meal bills. That’s when he discovers that Madame Giselle is dead. At first, it looks as though she’s had a serious allergic reaction to a wasp sting (and there is a wasp on the plane). But Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same flight, notices some things that suggest she was deliberately poisoned. And so it proves to be. The only possible suspects are the other passengers, so Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out which passenger is the killer. And it turns out that the murderer used misdirection quite effectively to carry out the crime.

In Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, we are introduced to Frank Cairnes, a detective novelist who writes under the name of Felix Lane. As the story begins, he is distraught over the death of his son, Martin ‘Martie’, who was killed six months earlier in a hit-and-run incident. Cairnes decides to find and kill the man who murdered his son and sets out to learn who that person was. After a time, he establishes that the driver of the car is a man named George Rattery. So, he contrives an introduction by starting a romance with Rattery’s sister, and soon gets to know Rattery. He’s decided to kill Rattery by drowning him during a sailing trip. The only problem is that Rattery has found Cairnes’ diary, so he knows Cairnes’ plan. He tells Cairnes that if anything happens to him, the police will know who is responsible. Cairnes counters with the threat that if the police read the diary, they will also know that Rattery killed Martie. With the two men at a stalemate, they return to the Rattery home. Later that day, Rattery dies of what turns out to be poison. Cairnes contacts PI and poet Nigel Strangeways to ask for his help. He knows he’ll be suspected of murder, but he says he’s innocent. After all, he claims, why would he plan to poison a victim after already having planned to drown him? What’s more, there turn out to be several other possibilities when it comes to suspects. In the end, Strangeways finds that the killer has used misdirection to keep from being caught.

Elizabeth Peters’ Crocodile on the Sandbank introduces her sleuth, Amelia Peabody. In the novel, Miss Peabody decides to take a tour of the Middle East. When her companion falls ill and can’t join her, she fears she’ll have to cancel her trip (this story takes place in the days before it was considered appropriate for ‘proper ladies’ to travel alone). Her problems seem to be solved when she meets Evelyn Barton-Forbes. It turns out that Miss Barton-Forbes has been abandoned by her lover, and now has to make her way in the world as best she can. She’s delighted and grateful at the chance to serve as Miss Peabody’s companion, and the two set out for Egypt. That’s where they meet archaeologist brothers Radcliffe and Walter Emerson, who are working on an excavation in Amarna. Miss Peabody has an interest in ancient ruins, and is well-informed on them, so when the two women stop at the excavation site, they decide to stay on for a bit. That’s how they get drawn into a bizarre case. First, a mummy that the team has found seems to disappear. Then, villagers and other locals report that a mummy has been seen at night. Other strange and disturbing things begin to happen, and it’s now clear that someone wants the Emerson excavation to stop. If the team is to stay alive, and continue the work, they’re going to have to find out the truth. And it turns out that someone has used misdirection to get everyone frightened about the mummy, so that the real motive for what’s going on will stay hidden.

In Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, Nick and Nora Charles, who live in San Francisco are on a visit to New York City. By chance, Nick, who is a former PI, is spotted by Dorothy Wynant, the daughter of a former client. She’s worried because her father, Clyde Wynant, seems to have gone missing. Later, Nick gets a visit from Wynant’s lawyer, who thinks he’s in New York to track Wynant down. That’s not the case, but Nick seems to be getting more and more drawn in to the matter. The next day, Wynant’s secretary, Julia Wolf, is found dead. Now, Nick’s even more deeply drawn into the case. As it happens, there are several suspects in the murder, any one of whom might be guilty. Misdirection plays an important part in this story as we find out the truth about Wynant’s disappearance and his secretary’s murder.

And then there’s Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing. Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri is saddened when he finds out that a former client, Dr. Suresh Jha, has been killed. Jha was at a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club when something extraordinary happened. Witnesses say that the goddess Kali appeared, and stabbed Jha. To Kali’s devotees, this makes sense, since Jha was dedicated to science and to debunking people who used religion and spiritualism to deceive people. But Puri doesn’t think Kali really appeared and committed murder. So, he starts to ask questions. And he discovers quite a lot of misdirection as he finds out what really happened.

See what I mean? Misdirection is critical to crime fiction and crime writers. Wait a second – what was that? Look over there!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Blonde Over Blue.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Elizabeth Peters, Elly Griffiths, Nicholas Blake, Tarquin Hall

Hello, Young Lovers, Whoever You Are*

One of the hallmarks of a lot of classic and Golden Age crime novels (and not always from that era!) is the trope of the young couple in danger. I don’t mean always in physical danger (although that happens). Rather, in many of these novels, there’s a couple whose relationship is threatened. Sometimes it’s because one of them is suspected or even accused of murder; other times it’s for other reasons.

It’s also worth noting that I’m not talking here of sleuths who are balancing work and romance, or who find love as they investigate. To me, that’s a very different plot element.  That aside, though, there are plenty of crime novels that include the plot point of the ‘young and threatened couple.’

For example, 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 and his father had a violent quarrel just before the killing. And it was common knowledge that his father objected strongly to McCarthy’s choice of fiancée. Inspector Lestrade thinks he has the right suspect, but McCarthy’s fiancée, Alice Turner, is convinced it was someone else. She begs the police to look into the matter more closely, and Lestrade agrees. He asks Sherlock Holmes to review the evidence, and Holmes and Dr. Watson do so. In the end, they find that the case isn’t nearly as simple as it seemed. Throughout the story, Jack McCarthy and Alice Turner are under a cloud as it’s not certain what the outcome of the case will be.

Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links introduces readers to the Renauld family. Paul Renauld is a Canadian émigré to France, who’s living with his wife and his son, Jack, in the small town of Merlinville sur Mer. Renault writes to Poirot, saying that his life is in danger, and asking him to come to France and help. Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to France, but by the time they get there, it’s too late: Renauld has been killed. M. Giraud of the Sûreté investigates, and it doesn’t take long for him to settle on Jack Renauld as the main suspect. Poirot isn’t convinced of the young man’s guilt, but Renauld is arrested for the crime. And this wreaks havoc on Renauld’s romantic life. If the course of true love is to run true, as the saying goes, Poirot will have to find out who the real killer is.

Grey Mask, the first of Patricia Wentworth’s Maude Silver novels, tells the story of Charles Moray, who returns to England after a four-year absence. He goes to the family home, only to find that it’s being used as the meeting place of a criminal gang. What’s worse, Moray’s former fiancée, Margaret Langton, seems to be mixed up with the group. On the advice of a friend, Moray consults Miss Silver, and she begins to ask questions. In the meantime, Moray tracks Margaret Langton to the shop where she works, and the two resume an up-and-down relationship. That relationship isn’t the reason for the criminal gang, or for a plot that the gang’s leader has concocted. But it’s woven throughout the novel, and the young couple gets into some classic danger; they’re even locked in a basement, in true classic/Golden Age style.

In John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, Tad Rampole travels to England on the advice of his mentor. Among other things, he wants to meet famous lexicographer Dr. Gideon Fell. On his way to do so, he happens to meet Dorothy Starberth. The two strike up a conversation, and it’s not long before they find themselves attracted to each other. Then, Rampole learns about the Starberth family history. For two generations, Starberth men served as governors at the now-disused Chatterham Prison. Even though the prison hasn’t been in use for a hundred years, the Starberth family still follows a ritual connected with it. Each male Starberth heir spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the Governor’s Room at the prison. During his stay, each heir opens the safe in the room, and follows the instructions written on a piece of paper that’s kept in that safe. Now it’s the turn of Dorothy Starberth’s brother, Martin. The two Starberths are anxious about it, because several Starberths have died suddenly through the years, and there’s talk that the family is cursed. In fact, the last Starberth heir to die in unusual circumstances was Dorothy and Martin’s father, Timothy. Still, Martin goes through with the tradition. That night, he dies in what looks like a tragic fall from the balcony of the Governor’s Room. But Gideon Fell isn’t convinced that this death was an accident. And in the end, he finds out the truth of the matter. Throughout the novel, the romance between Tad Rampole and Dorothy Starberth is ‘clouded over,’ if you will, by the murder of her brother.

And then there’s Elizabeth Peters’ Crocodile on the Sandbank, the first of her Amelia Peabody novels. True, this novel was published after the end of the Golden Age (in 1975), but it takes place at the end of the Nineteenth Century, and Peters stayed true to some of the elements. One of those elements is the young couple in love and threatened. In the novel, Miss Amelia Peabody is in Rome, on her way to Egypt, when she meets Evelyn Barton-Forbes. Miss Peabody’s travel companion has just taken ill, and has had to return to England. Evelyn has her own sad history, and is now on her own. So, it works out well for both of them when she agrees to join Miss Peabody as companion. Not long after their arrival in Egypt, the two ladies meet archaeologists Radcliffe and Walter Emerson, who are working on an excavation in Armana. Walter and Evelyn are immediately drawn to each other, but they have very different sets of plans, and go their separate ways. They meet up again, though, at the excavation site, and at first, things go well. Then, a mummy that the Emerson brothers discovered goes missing. Then, the local villagers report seeing a mummy walk at night. And it’s not fanciful; the very pragmatic Miss Peabody sees it, too, and so does Evelyn. Then, other frightening things begin to happen, and it’s soon clear that something, or someone, is targeting the excavation. By this time, Walter and Evelyn are in love, but there are several obstacles to their becoming an ‘official’ couple. If the excavation is to stay in place, and the couple are to find any happiness, the team will have to discover who’s wreaking havoc on the site, and why.

There are plenty of other classic/Golden Age novels, too, in which there’s a young couple whose happiness will depend on solving a mystery. These are just a few. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Hello, Young Lovers.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth Peters, John Dickson Carr, Patricia Wentworth

In The Spotlight: Elizabeth Peters’ Crocodile on the Sandbank

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Barbara Metz was a prolific writer who created several series under different names. This feature can only be improved by including one of her books, so let’s do that today. Metz’ Amelia Peabody novels were written under the name Elizabeth Peters. This particular series reflects Metz’ real-life expertise and interest in Egyptology (her Ph.D. was in that field), so I thought it might be appropriate to focus on that series. Let’s turn today’s spotlight on Crocodile on the Sandbank, the first Amelia Peabody novel.

The story begins in Rome in 1884. Amelia Peabody is a well-to-do unmarried heiress. This means that she’s free to do what she wishes with her money, and what she wants to do is travel to Egypt. At the last minute, her companion takes ill and has to return to England. Now, Miss Peabody sees no practical way to follow through with her plan. Then, she meets Evelyn Barton-Forbes, who’s got her own sad history. She’s been abandoned by the man she thought she would marry, and for whom she turned her back on her family and her fortune. With no other real options, Evelyn is delighted and grateful when Miss Peabody invites her to go along to Egypt as companion.

The two arrive in Cairo, and prepare to outfit a boat for a two-month cruise of the Nile. While there, they meet archaeologists Radcliffe and Walter Emerson, who are working on an excavation in Amarna. Walter and Evelyn are immediately drawn to each other, but they have different sets of plans. The boat is readied, and Evelyn and Amelia set off on their trip.

Along the way, Amelia insists on stopping at various points of archaeological interest, since she is well-informed on, and fascinated by, ancient tombs and relics. One of them is near the village of Haggi Qandil. She and Evelyn discover that the place is also called Tell-el-Amarna, and that this is where the Emerson brothers are working.

The four meet up, and before anyone (except, perhaps, Amelia) knows it, they’re all ensconced at the excavation site. Evelyn is enjoying doing sketches of the finds, and Amelia is fascinated by the tombs and other discoveries. Walter is delighted to have Evelyn nearby, although his brother sees the two visitors as hindrances. Then, some disturbing things begin to happen.

First, a mummy that the Emersons discovered seems to disappear. Then, the local villagers report seeing a mummy walking around at night. The usually-practical and not-at-all-fanciful Amelia sees it, too. So does Evelyn. Other frightening things happen, too. The villagers and some of the work crew believe that the excavation is cursed, and want the English people to leave. But there are other possible explanations. It might be that a rival archaeologist has concocted this plan to scare the Emersons away, or goad the villagers into doing so. Or, it could be the villagers themselves, who might have discovered buried riches that they want to keep for themselves. Whatever it is, things soon get extremely dangerous for the Emersons, as well as for Amelia and Evelyn. If they’re going to stay alive, they’re going to have to find out who’s behind what’s happening, and stop that person.

The novel was published in 1975, but it has several elements of the classic/Golden Age plot. There’s treasure, a possible curse, a young couple whose love is threatened, and some dangerous situations and narrow escapes. There are other elements, too, but revealing them would come too close to spoiling the story for my taste.

The story takes place at the end of the 19th Century, and elements of the Victorian Era are woven through the novel, especially in terms of customs and mores. It’s not considered seemly, for instance, for members of the opposite sex to travel together unless they are at the very least engaged. And a lady certainly doesn’t travel unaccompanied. In her early thirties, Amelia Peabody is considered a spinster, with increasingly little chance to ‘find a man,’ so it’s not surprising that she wants Evelyn to join her on her trip.

This Victorian view of life comes through in other ways, too. The English are firmly at the top of the social ladder in Egypt, and the British Empire is about to reach its zenith. The Egyptians are seen as clearly inferior, although the excavation team doesn’t make the mistake of assuming they’re all ignorant savages. Still, that sense of ethnocentrism is there.

The story is told (in first person) from Amelia’s perspective, so we learn a lot about her. She is an extremely independent woman, who has contempt for most men, and believes strongly that women should have much more freedom than they do. She’s more empowered than most women are, because she’s both single and wealthy, but she knows she’s the exception. She’s intelligent, well-read, and interested in life. But she’s not perfect. She can be bossy and interfering, too. And, as we learn, she’s not always reliable as a narrator. Still, readers who prefer strong female characters who hold their own will appreciate Amelia Peabody.

Amelia can be sarcastic, especially as she spars with Radcliffe Emerson, so there is wit in the story. For instance, at one point, the two are having a conversation, when Amelia notices that there’s a slight smell of smoke. Soon, she sees what the problem is:
 
‘‘Your pocket is on fire,’ I added [to Emerson]. ‘I thought when you put your pipe away that it was not quite out, but you dislike advice so much…Good night.’’
 

But Emerson can hold his own. Later, he says this:
 

‘‘…Peabody had better retire to her bed; she is clearly in need of a recuperative sleep; she has not made a sarcastic remark for fully ten minutes.’’
 

Crocodile on the Sandbank is a classic/Golden Age style mystery with a distinctive Egyptian setting. It takes place in the late Victorian Era and reflects that time period. And it features a protagonist who has no intentions of restricting herself to the life ‘ladies’ are ‘supposed to’ live. But what’s your view? Have you read Crocodile on the Sandbank? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 9 October/Tuesday, 10 October –  Close Quarters – Michael Gilbert

Monday, 16 October/Tuesday, 17 October – Blind Goddess – Anne Holt

Monday, 23 October/Tuesday, 24 October – The Mask of Dimitrios/A Coffin For Dimitrios – Eric Ambler

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Filed under Barbara Metz, Crocodile on the Sandbank, Elizabeth Peters