Category Archives: Elizabeth Spann Craig

It’s Late in the Evening*

LateNightPlenty of real and fictional crime happens in broad daylight. But most people associate crime with night. We’re more vulnerable at night; and, since a lot of people are at home then, public areas are less populated. So there’s no safety in numbers, so to speak. And those places that are late-night magnets (clubs, bars and pubs, etc.) have their own dangers.

It’s not surprising when you think about it that a lot of fictional crime takes place at night. There are far too many examples of this for me to include in this one post. I’m sure you’ll be able to add more than I could think of, anyway.

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, for instance, Hercule Poirot is taking a cruise of the Nile. Also on the cruise are Simon Doyle and his bride Linnet Ridgeway Doyle. On the second night of the cruise, Linnet is shot. The first theory is that her former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort is the killer. She certainly had motive, as she and Simon were engaged before he met Linnet. But it’s soon proven that Jackie couldn’t have committed the murder, so Poirot has to consider all of the other passengers. One important part of this investigation is finding out exactly what everyone was doing on the night of the murder. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that the ship was quite active, even late at night. I know, I know, fans of Murder on the Orient Express.

In John Bude’s The Cornish Coast Murder, Reverend Dodd, vicar of St. Michael’s-on-the-Cliff, is having dinner with his friend Dr. Pendrill. Their pleasant evening is interrupted when Pendrill is summoned to Greylings, the home of the Tregarthan family. Family patriarch Julius Tregarthan has been shot in his sitting room. Inspector Bigswell and his team are called in and begin to investigate. Interestingly, they find that three shots were fired through the open sitting-room window. Each shot came from a slightly different angle. What’s more, some money is missing from Tregarthan’s wallet. One of the tasks the police face is finding out exactly what all of those involved in the case were doing at the time of the murder. Matters aren’t made any easier by the fact that most of the people concerned were coming or going from somewhere. Although the investigation itself doesn’t occur only at night, a lot of the activity the police (and the vicar) look into does.

Karin Fossum’s Bad Intentions concerns three young men: Axel Frimann, Philip Reilly and Jon Moreno. Jon has recently been released from a mental hospital after a bout with severe anxiety problems, and it’s thought that some relaxation and a change of scenery will do him good. He and the other two take a cabin for a weekend at Dead Water Lake, and all starts out well enough. Late one night, the three young men go out on the lake in a boat. Only two come back. Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jakob Skarre investigate, and try to get as much information as they can from the two survivors. In the meantime, the body of a teenager is found in Glitter Lake. So Sejer and Skarre take on that case as well. As it turns out, the tragedies are connected and in both instances, finding out the truth means tracing a series of events that happened late at night. I know, I know, fans of Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride).

Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar introduces readers to Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney. After a particularly difficult case, she decides to take a break and visit her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse in Chiang Mai. Late one night, Didi’s partner Nou is murdered outside a club. Not long after that, Didi himself is shot. The official police account is that Didi murdered Nou; when the police came to arrest him, Didi turned dangerous, leaving the officers no choice but to shoot him. Keeney doesn’t believe any of this, and determines to clear her friend’s name. The trail leads to the Thai sex trade and to child trafficking. And a lot of both the criminal activity and Keeney’s investigation take place late at night. That makes sense, too, since that’s when many Thai bars and clubs do most of their business.

Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter features one very memorable night. Callum MacLean is a Glasgow-based freelance professional killer. He’s got a good reputation, so he’s an obvious choice when Peter Jamieson needs to ‘solve a problem.’ Jamieson is a ‘rising star’ in the criminal underworld. He’s noticed that small-time dealer and criminal Lewis Winter has been trying to make his own name. If he succeeds, this will cause real problems for Jamieson and his right-hand man John Young. So they hire MacLean to deal with Winter. One night, Winter and his girlfriend Zara Cope go to a club called Heavenly. Winter has far too much to drink, which doesn’t particularly bother Cope, since she’s having quite a good time with the evening’s ‘conquest’ Stewart Macintosh. She and Macintosh decide to take Winter home and spend the rest of the night together, since Winter will be oblivious anyway. They go ahead with their plan, and that’s when Maclean and his partner put their own plan into action.

And then there’s Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover. She’s a retired teacher who has regular bouts with insomnia. So she often goes for late-night walks, and seems to do her best thinking when everyone else is sleeping. In Pretty is as Pretty Dies, she investigates the murder of malicious real estate developer Parke Stockard, and it’s not an easy case. So one night, she decides to go down to the lake behind her house and sit for a while to think things out. She’s doing exactly that when she’s shoved from behind and almost drowns in the lake. Fortunately, the man next door Miles Bradford sees her distress before it’s too late and rescues her. For both of them, that’s more than enough for one night’s work.

There’s just something about those late-night hours that lends itself to crime. I know I’ve only touched on a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eric Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight.

EricClapton

Happy Birthday, Mr. Clapton!!

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Elizabeth Spann Craig, John Bude, Karin Fossum, Malcolm Mackay

Still These Allergies Remain*

AllergiesAutumn (or spring, depending on which hemisphere you call home) is upon us. And that means one important thing: allergies. If you’re subject to allergy attacks, you know how miserable they can make you. Seasonal allergies can be very annoying, but some allergies are more than that: they’re deadly. Some people have such severe reactions to certain foods, stings, etc. that they are at risk for death from anaphylaxis if they come in contact with that allergen.

For a crime writer, anaphylactic shock can make for a very handy murder weapon. The killer doesn’t need a special skill, a lot of medical knowledge or a great deal of pre-planning.  Anaphylaxis is also a handy ‘cover’ for certain kinds of poisoning. There are plenty of examples of the way allergies are woven into crime fiction; here are just a few.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane is one of the later Holmes stories, taking place after he’s retired. In this story, he’s on a seaside holiday at Sussex when he runs into a friend Harold Stackhurst, headmaster of an exclusive preparatory school. As they’re chatting, one of Stackhurt’s employees, science master Fitzroy McPherson, staggers towards them, suddenly collapsing. The only thing he’s able to say before he dies is something about a lion’s mane. At first it makes no sense, but it’s soon suspected that McPherson was murdered. And the most likely possible culprit is mathematics master Ian Murdoch. In fact, Stackhurst fires him. But Holmes doesn’t believe that the case against Murdoch is iron-clad. For one thing, Murdoch has a solid alibi. For another, there are puzzling things about McPershon’s death that aren’t consistent with the theory that Murdoch is the killer. In the end, Holmes finds that the real murderer was a Lion’s Mane jellyfish which stung the victim and to which he had a fatal allergic reaction.

More than one of Agatha Christie’s stories feature allergies to wasps, bees and other stinging insects. For instance, in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), a wasp is blamed for the death of Marie Morisot, who is killed on a flight from Paris to London. There is a wasp on the flight; several passengers comment on it and one kills it. There’s a small sting mark on the victim, too. So at first it looks as though she died from a severe allergic reaction to a sting. But soon enough, Hercule Poirot, who was on the same flight, discovers that the victim was poisoned. The only possible suspects are the other passengers, so Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp look among them to find out who the killer is. I know, I know, fans of And Then There Were None

Kaitlyn Dunnett’s Liss Macrimmon is a former Scottish dancer who’s had to end her career because of an injury. Now she’s returned to her hometown of Moosetookalook, Maine. In Scone Cold Dead, she learns that her former dance troupe Strathespy is on tour in the area, and arranges for them to perform at the University of Maine’s Fallstown campus. One night, she throws a party for the troupe. One of the guests is company manager Victor Owen. During the event, Owen suddenly dies after eating a scone stuffed with mushrooms, to which he was violently allergic. Macrimmon has a not-very-amicable history with the victim, and she was the one who hosted the party and arranged for the food. So as you can imagine, she falls under immediate suspicion. Determined to clear her name, she works to find out who the real murderer is. And it turns out there’s no shortage of suspects.

Susan Wittig Albert’s Chile Death also features food allergies. In that novel, herb and spice shop owner China Bayles and her police-officer partner Mike McQuaid are invited to the upcoming Cedar Choppers Chili Cook-Off. McQuaid is even persuaded to serve as one of the judges. Bayles thinks this will be a good opportunity for him to ‘rejoin the human race’ as he starts to cope with life after a devastating line-of-duty shooting. On the day of the cook-off, insurance executive Jerry Jeff Cody, who’s serving as another judge, suddenly collapses and dies. It looks at first as though he’s the victim of a sudden heart attack. But before long it’s shown that he died of anaphylactic shock brought on when someone slipped crushed peanut shells into a sample of chili he was tasting. Now Bayles works to find out who knew about Cody’s severe peanut allergy, and who would have wanted to kill him.

I’ve actually used peanut flour as a fiction murder weapon myself. In B-Very Flat, violin virtuosa Serena Brinkman is killed just after having won a major musical competition. It turns out that someone knew about her severe peanut allergy and took advantage of it. Serena’s death is devastating to her partner Patricia Stanley, so Patricia asks her academic advisor Joel Williams to help find out the truth.

Of course, allergies can serve as useful clues, too. Just ask Elizabeth Spann Craig’s sleuth, retired teacher Myrtle Clover. In Pretty is as Pretty Dies, she discovers the body of beautiful but malicious Parke Stoddard in a local church. She wants to prove, mostly to her police-chief son Red, that she’s not ready yet to be ‘put out to pasture.’ So she decides to find out who killed the victim. And in this case, an allergy gives her important information.

Whether mild or severe, allergies are a part of life for millions of people. And they’re also a very useful tool for crime writers. These are a few examples. Over to you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Allergies.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Kaitlyn Dunnett, Susan Wittig Albert

Girl, I’m On Your Side*

Female MentorsSometimes we all benefit from the guidance of someone who’s more experienced and knowledgeable. Those mentor relationships are often organic, and they benefit both people involved, really. If you’ve ever had a mentor, you know how much of an impact that relationship can have. It’s certainly a part of real life, and there are plenty of crime-fictional examples as well.

In Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, for instance, we are introduced to Honoria Bulstrode, head of Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school. In one plot thread, Miss Bulstrode’s been contemplating what will happen when she retires, and she’s deciding who should succeed her. One possibility is Eleanor Vansittart, her ‘second in command.’ Miss Vansittart is devoted to Miss Bulstrode, and makes it quite clear that she intends to run the school in exactly the way Miss Bulstrode does. Another possibility is Eileen Rich, who teaches English Literature and Geography. Miss Rich is quite young for a position of real authority; still, she has a real passion for teaching, and is gifted in the classroom. Miss Bulstrode’s concerns for the future of the school are put aside when games mistress Grace Springer is shot late one night at the school’s new Sports Pavilion. Then there’s another murder. And a disappearance. Julia Upjohn, a pupil at the school, makes an important discovery about the events at the school. She visits Hercule Poirot, who is acquainted with her mother’s good friend, and asks his help. Poirot returns with her to the school and investigates. Throughout this novel, we see how Miss Bulstrode acts as a guide and mentor, especially to Eileen Rich.

There’s a similar relationship between Gail Bowen’s sleuth Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her informal mentor Hilda McCourt. When we first meet them in Deadly Appearances, Joanne is investigating the poisoning murder of her friend up-and-coming political leader Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. In part to deal with her own sense of grief and loss, Joanne decides to write Andy’s biography, and begins with his youth. That’s how she gets to know Hilda, who taught Andy in high school. Over the course of the next few novels in the series, the two women become friends. Joanne is glad of Hilda’s wisdom and experience, and benefits from using her mentor as a ‘sounding board.’ For her part, Hilda ‘adopts’ Joanne’s family and she too benefits from the relationship.

Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Memphis Barbecue series features Lulu Taylor, who owns Aunt Pat’s Barbecue. The restaurant is named for Lulu’s aunt, who taught her about cooking and about running a restaurant. That mentoring relationship has been very important to Lulu, who is proud to carry on the good traditions she learned from her aunt. Now that Lulu is no longer a young woman, she’s a mentor herself. Her son Ben is married to Sara, a talented artist. In a few novels in this series, Lulu serves as a sort of informal mentor to Sara. And in Hickory Smoked Homicide, she helps clear Sara’s name when she becomes a suspect in the murder of socialite and beauty pageant coach Tristan Pembroke. Lulu has a way of supporting Sara without ‘taking over’ or interfering in her daughter-in-law’s life.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we meet former school principal Thea Farmer, who’s had a dream house built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. Unfortunately, some poor financial decision-making and bad luck have meant that Thea has to give up that perfect house and settle for the house next door. None too happy about that, Thea calls the smaller house ‘the hovel.’ To add insult to injury, Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington buy the home Thea still sees as her own. Thea dislikes then intensely, referring to them as ‘the invaders.’ Then, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with the couple. At first, Thea is prepared to dislike Kim as much as she does Frank and Ellice. Instead, she develops an awkward kind of friendship with Kim, and sees real promise in the girl. She even invites Kim to join her in a writing class she’s taking. Thea sees herself as Kim’s mentor and support system, so when she begins to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for the girl, she makes her own plans to do something about it.

Wendy James’ Out of the Silence: a Story of Love, Betrayal, Politics and Murder is a fictional re-telling of the case of Maggie Heffernan, who was convicted and imprisoned in 1900 for the murder of her infant son, and sentenced to execution. In this account, Maggie meets Jack Hardy when he visits her rural Victoria town to see relatives of his. The two fall in love and secretly become engaged. Then Jack leaves for New South Wales to find work. Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant, and writes to Jack several times; but he doesn’t respond. Knowing that her family won’t accept her, Maggie goes to Melbourne where she gets work in a Guest House. When the baby is born, Maggie lives briefly in a home for unwed mothers, until she learns where Jack is. When she goes to see him, though, he rejects her utterly, calling her ‘crazy.’ Maggie and her infant son are then turned away from six lodging houses; that’s when the tragedy occurs. In the meantime, we also follow the story of Elizabeth Hamilton, who moved to Australia after the death of her fiancé. She soon meets Vida Goldstein, the first woman in the British Commonwealth to seek office as an MP. Vida is a champion of women’s rights and women’s suffrage, and wants to mentor Elizabeth. The two women become interested in the case of Maggie Heffernan, and try to prevent her execution. Throughout this novel, we see several examples of women mentoring and supporting other women; it’s one of the story’s themes.

We also see that in Kishwar Desai’s stories featuring social worker Simran Singh. In Witness the Night, an old university friend asks Simran to travel from Delhi to her home town in the state of Punjab to help in an unusual and appalling case. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal is suspected of the poisoning murders of thirteen of her family members; some were stabbed as well. Later, the house was set on fire. One possible theory is that Durga is responsible for what happened. However, there are signs that she may have been a victim too, and simply managed to escape. The authorities can’t get her to discuss that night though, so there’s no way to really know what happened. That’s where Simran comes in. It’s believed that if she can get Durga to talk about that night, there’ll be a clearer picture of the killings. Simran agrees and begins to interact with Durga. Bit by bit, the two get to know each other and Simran feels a sort of mentor-like protectiveness about the girl. In fact, it’s not spoiling the story to say that she plans to take Durga in once the case gets resolved.

There’s also Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. In that novel, secondary school teacher Ilsa Klein becomes concerned when one of her prize students, fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman, loses interest in school. She stops attending class regularly; and when she is there, she barely takes part in what’s going on. Ilsa takes her concerns to the school’s counselor, but Serena’s family is, to say the least, dysfunctional and not open to help from the outside. Ilsa and her mother Gerda continue to become involved in Serena’s life, and that decision draws them into more than either had imagined.Then Serena disappears. Her older sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington back to the family home in Alexandra to look for the girl. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that mentoring/supporting plays a major role in this novel.

Those often-informal mentoring relationships can make a big difference in how we move along in life. Sometimes they make a bigger difference than more formal things. As I post this, we’re observing International Women’s Day. But really, supporting women is something that we can do all the time, not just on one day. Look behind you: there’s probably a woman (or another woman if you’re female) working her way up in life. Reach back and support her. It’s not a competition; it’s a matter of everyone doing better when each one does better.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Thomas Bank and Candy Dulfer’s Girls Should Stick Together (for Nada).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Kishwar Desai, Paddy Richardson, Virginia Duigan, Wendy James

I Want You Just the Way You Are*

LimitationsOne of the things about real-life humans is that we all have our vulnerabilities. I don’t personally know anyone who has no physical limitations, even among people who are young and in good health. There’s just about always something, whether it’s allergies, myopia, or something else that limits a person. And sometimes it’s not even a physical limitation.

That’s one reason for which it’s so refreshing when fictional characters also have those vulnerabilities. I’m not talking here of the sort of psychological vulnerability that you see in, say, ‘stalker’ novels or novels where characters have suffered emotional trauma. Rather, I’m talking of those everyday limitations that make characters seem more human.

For instance, Agatha Christie fans will know that her Hercule Poirot is very particular about the way he dresses. And that includes his shoes. The trouble is of course that sometimes, fashionable shoes are not comfortable. So Poirot isn’t one to walk for long distances when he can avoid it. When he can’t, he pays the price. For instance, in Hallowe’en Party, Poirot travels to the small town of Woodleigh Common to help his friend, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, solve the drowning murder of thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds. At one point, Poirot has to take a bit of a long walk to visit Mrs. Oliver at the home of her host Judith Butler:
 

‘Mrs. Oliver waited until Poirot approached.
‘Come here,’ she said, ‘and sit down. What’s the matter with you? You look upset.’
‘My feet are extremely painful,’ said Hercule Poirot.
‘It’s those awful tight patent leather shoes of yours,’ said Mrs. Oliver.
 

She’s right. As it is, Poirot is not exactly in marathon-running form. And a painful pair of shoes makes it all worse. It also adds a little to his humanity. If you’ve ever worn a pair of shoes that pinched your feet, you know what that’s like.

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe is also not in top physical condition. To put it bluntly, he’s quite heavy, as fans will know. Of course, he’s made accommodations for that. He has an elevator that takes him to the different parts of his house, so that he doesn’t have to puff up staircases. He doesn’t go running around after suspects (Archie Goodwin, Fred Durkin, Saul Panzer and Orrie Cather do that). And limitations or no, he’s a brilliant detective. But the point is that he has vulnerabilities. And as cantankerous and eccentric as Wolfe can be, that aspect of his character makes him more accessible.

The same could be said of Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe. She is, as McCall Smith puts it, ‘a traditionally built lady.’ She can’t go running after people or engage in really strenuous physical activity. In that sense, she’s limited. And sometimes, she feels limited in another way. For instance, in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, she is following a young teenage girl whose father is worried that she may have a secret boyfriend. Mma. Ramotswe stops to admire a rack of African-print blouses:
 

Buy one of these, Mma.’ said the woman. ‘Very good blouses. They never run. Look, this one I’m wearing has been washed ten, twenty times and hasn’t run. Look.’…
‘You wouldn’t have my size,’ said Mma. Ramotswe. ‘I need a very big blouse.’
The trader checked her rack and then looked at Mma. Ramotswe again.
‘You’re right,’ she said. ‘You are too big for these blouses. Far too big.”
 

Mma. Ramotswe is comfortable with her size for the most part, and with herself. She is also certainly comfortable wearing clothes that are suited to her build. But she is also realistically limited by it.

Karin Fossum’s Inspector Konrad Sejer is no longer a young man. But for the most part, he’s in fairly good physical shape. He even goes skydiving at times. But he has his limitations too. In his case, it’s eczema, which especially flares up when he’s under severe work stress. Sejer doesn’t obsess about it; he uses medicated cream and gets on with life. But that little touch of vulnerability adds a human aspect to his character that makes him more approachable. You could say the same of Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope. She’s a terrific and skilled detective. But she’s – erm – no longer twenty, and she’s not in top physical condition. What’s more, she too has eczema. Those little details, since they are realistically depicted (‘though not overdone) make her more accessible.

As we age, of course, those little ‘creaks and groans’ get more frequent. And there are several older fictional characters (you could name lots more than I could, I know) who show those age-related limitations. For instance, Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover is in her eighties. She’s not in particularly bad condition. As a matter of fact, given her age, she’s fairly healthy. But she uses a cane. She can’t walk very quickly, and she tires more easily than a younger person would. Those things don’t make her any less of a smart, skilled sleuth, but they are everyday vulnerabilities that she has to take into account. And she’s all the more human for it.

Of course, not all vulnerabilities are physical (or even psychological). For example, Jill Edmondson’s Toronto PI Sasha Jackson is young and physically healthy. She’s also not crippled by phobias or other psychological issues. But she is limited by not driving. In Toronto of course, one can take public transit to lots of different places. But that means one can’t really set one’s own schedule. And there are places that aren’t as easily accessible via a train or a bus. In those cases, Jackson often depends on rides. Fans will know that she’s working with a driving instructor – when she can. But her lack of freedom to just hop into a car and get where she’s going does limit her. And that makes her both vulnerable and human.

There’s always a risk in giving a character limitations. It’s easy to fall into the trap of making a sleuth or major character a helpless victim, and that can be both melodramatic and very much overdone. It’s also easy if one’s not careful to go on and on too much about whatever vulnerability the sleuth may have. That can be tiresome. But when it’s done deftly and with restraint, giving a sleuth or major character some sort of limitation can make that character a lot more credible. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to look for my specs…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Jill Edmondson, Karin Fossum, Rex Stout

Who Cares What They’re Wearing on Main Street or Saville Row*

Dressmakers and TailorsAn excellent post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about dress shops. We may not see so many of the old-fashioned dressmaker establishments any more, but there’s something about having a dress or a suit custom-fitted. Clothes that are tailored to the individual fit like nothing else, and a good tailor or dress shop professional can help you choose exactly the right clothes for your body type, physical appearance, age and lifestyle.

Because custom-fitted clothes are individually altered, tailors and dress shops can be very good contexts for getting to know fictional characters. For one thing, readers can get a sense of a character’s personality. For another, such shops can be really effective contexts for character interactions and for giving a glimpse of a particular era or segment of society. Here are just a few examples from crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we are introduced to Katherine Grey. She’s spent the last ten years as paid companion to wealthy Mrs. Harfield and has been content enough. When her employer dies, Katherine finds to her shock that she has inherited Mrs. Harfield’s entire fortune. She begins to make plans for her future, and one of her first stops is a well-regarded dressmaker’s:
 

Her first action was to visit the establishment of a famous dressmaker.
A slim, elderly Frenchwoman, rather like a dreaming duchess, received her, and Katherine spoke with a certain naiveté.
‘I want, if I may, to put myself in your hands. I have been very poor all my life and know nothing about clothes, but now I have come into some money and want to look really well dressed.’’

 

As you can imagine, the dressmaker is delighted at the prospect of matching Katherine with just the right clothes for her, and it works very well. In fact, in more than one place in the novel, remarks are made about how well-dressed she is. Katherine’s next stop is a trip to visit a distant cousin Lady Rosalie Tamplin, who lives in Nice. That’s how she comes to be on the famous Blue Train when another passenger, Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, is strangled. Since she was the last person known to speak to the victim, Katherine gets involved in the investigation, and so does Hercule Poirot, who was also a passenger on the fateful trip. I know, I know, fans of The Hollow and of Three Act Tragedy…

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI sleuth Russell Quant certainly takes care of his appearance, but he has neither the time nor the budget to keep himself in the finest of fashion. That’s why he so relies on his ‘wonderpants,’ a pair of simple but attractive black pants that don’t wrinkle and look good for just about every occasion. But Quant’s friend and mentor Anthony Gatt has a different attitude. Gatt is a clothing expert and owner of a very upmarket chain of men’s clothing stores. At one point in Flight of Aquavit, Quant pays a visit to Gatt’s flagship store. Here’s Gatt’s reaction to what Quant’s wearing:
 

So boring I could pass out,’ Anthony said with a convincing yawn as he held forth a pair of pants he’d grabbed seemingly from thin air. How does he do that? ‘Diesel Kulter black leather straight-legs or…’ Poof! Another pair! ‘…Theory Tristan surf indigo stretch cotton jeans. I imagine you’ll prefer the jeans even though a man with such wonderfully long legs and shapely posterior should go with leather, because so few can.”
 

It’s easy to see that Gatt not only knows his business, but he’s also skilled at matching clothes to a person’s lifestyle and body shape.

A tailor shop plays a vital role in Peter James’ Not Dead Yet. In that novel, Superintendent Roy Grace of the Brighton and Hove Police is faced with a very puzzling case. The torso of an unidentified man has been found in an unused chicken coop. There are very few clues as the man’s identity, so even missing person reports aren’t very helpful. But there is one piece of evidence: a small bit of cloth. Grace’s second-in-command Glenn Branson has the idea of taking the cloth to a tailor he knows, Gresham Blake, to see if he can help identify it. His idea proves to be a good one, as Blake points the team towards the possible source of the cloth. In the end, that information helps to identify the victim.

In Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig‘s) Hickory Smoked Homicide, Memphis restaurant owner Lulu Taylor gets involved in a murder case when her daughter-in-law Sara becomes a suspect. Socialite and beauty-contest coach Tristan Pembroke is killed during a charity event at her home. Since she and Sara had a very public argument shortly before the murder, Sara is naturally ‘of interest’ to the police. But Lulu knows her daughter-in-law is innocent. So she looks into the matter. One branch of the trail leads to Dee Dee’s Daring Dress Shoppe, where Lulu’s been buying her clothes for a long time, and where many beauty pageant contestants have also shopped. So Lulu brings her friend Cherry Hayes to the shop to look for information. The pretext is that Cherry wants a new look, and needs Dee Dee’s help to match clothes to her appearance. Meanwhile Lulu will try to find out what she wants to know. The plan works, as Cherry makes much of wanting exactly the right new look. Dee Dee of course wants the business, and doesn’t approve anyway of Cherry’s flamboyant style. So Cherry succeeds in distracting her. It’s an interesting scene for a few reasons, one of which is that it gives us a look at modern customer service in dress shops.

And then there’s Kerry Greenwood’s Earthly Delights, which introduces us to Melbourne baker Corinna Chapman. She is accustomed to wearing trousers or track pants, and she’ll tell you herself that she’s overweight and comfortable with that – no overly expensive clothes needed or really desired. But she has a particularly good experience when she gets the chance to wear a custom-made dress. She and her new partner Daniel Cohen are looking into a series of deaths and near-deaths from heroin overdose. The trail seems to lead to a Goth club called Blood Lines. But it’s not the sort of place you visit dressed in just anything. So, in order to gain admission, Corinna gets help from her friend, clothing-shop owner Pat, who’s better known by her professional name Mistress Dread. Pat/Mistress Dread designs and creates a completely new look for Corinna. The dress fits perfectly and gives Corinna a very different perspective on her physical appearance. Daniel seems to appreciate it too…

And that’s the thing about tailors and dressmakers. They can make you feel completely different about the way you look. And their shops are good places to find out information. Which examples have I forgotten?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Want to know more about clothes, dress shops and what it all says about us? You want Clothes in Books on your blog roll. It’s the source for sartorial splendour in fiction.

ps. The ‘photo is of the dress my daughter wore to her prom. We got it at an upmarket dress shop where my daughter had her first (and hopefully, not only) experience at having clothes crafted just for her. Trust me, she stunned in it.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin’s You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Kerry Greenwood, Peter James, Riley Adams