Category Archives: Ellery Queen

You Put My Life in Danger*

Most people don’t want to think that someone they know may be in danger. It’s a very unsettling feeling, if you think about it. That’s part of why it’s so tempting to dismiss that sort of threat, rather than take it seriously. ‘Maybe you’re just under stress,’ or ‘Perhaps you’re just misinterpreting something,’ or, less charitably, ‘It might be your imagination.’

Sometimes, of course, the threat of danger isn’t real, but a product of imagination, stress, or misinterpretation. But every once in a while, it’s quite real. And that possibility can add tension and plot points to a crime novel, especially if the threat turns out to be real…

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, we are introduced to Louise Leidner. She is accompanying her husband, noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, on a dig a few hours from Baghdad. And the trip isn’t easy for her. As she tells her husband, she’s been hearing odd noises, and seeing strange things out her window. She’s even begun to fear for her life. She isn’t really taken seriously, though. One of the people on the dig even refers to Louise’s fears as ‘fancies,’ and even those more kindly disposed aren’t convinced of the danger. One afternoon, Louise is tragically proved right about the danger she’s been in when she’s found murdered in her room. Hercule Poirot is in the area and is persuaded to look into the matter. He finds that this murder has much to do with the sort of person Louise was, and how that impacted others.

In Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes, New York Homicide Bureau Detective Tom Shawn gets drawn into the lives of wealthy business executive Harlan Reid and his daughter, Jean. Through their housemaid, they’ve met a man named Jeremiah Tompkins, a man who, as he puts it, is cursed with being able to predict the future accurately. Since their meeting, Reid has begun meeting with Tompkins whenever he has a big decision to make. So far, all of what Tompkins has said has proven true, and now Reid believes in him utterly. Then comes a shocking prediction. Tompkins says that Reid will die on a certain night at midnight. Jean isn’t sure whether it’s going to happen or not, but her father has no doubt at all. That belief dramatically affects him, and by extension, his daughter. When Shawn meets the Reids, they’re already distraught. Shawn isn’t sure whether any of the danger is real. What’s more, he does know that there are plenty of scammers who pretend to predict things. But he feels for Jean, and he does want to protect Reid if he is, in fact, in danger. That possibility – that Reid and Tompkins are right – adds real tension to the novel.

Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil begins as Queen rents a home in the Hollywood Hills so that he can do some writing. His peace and quiet don’t last long, though. He gets a visit from nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill, who wants him to investigate the death of her father, Leander. He died of a heart attack, but Laurel thinks that it was deliberately induced. Before he died, he received a series of macabre ‘gifts’ that Laurel says caused his death.  What’s more, his business partner, Roger Priam, has also been receiving similar ‘gifts.’ Queen’s not inclined at first to get involved. But the puzzle does intrigue him. So, he starts to look into the matter. When he talks to Priam, though, he’s surprised to find that the man has no interest in whether anyone might be trying to kill him or might have killed his business partner. At first, he refuses to have anything to do with the investigation. Queen pushes the issue, and then there’s another attempt on Priam’s life. Now it’s clear that Laurel’s belief, and her father’s fear, were justified, and that someone has targeted both men.

Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs is the story of the Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco and his family, who emigrate from Italy to New York City at the turn of the 20th Century. Shortly after they arrive in New York, Franco gets a job at a shoe repair shop. Before long, he’s saved up enough money to open his own shoe sales and repair business, and the family prospers. Then, one night, Franco kills a man in a bar fight. To make matters worse, the victim turns out to be Luigi Lupo, son of notorious crime boss Tonio Lupo. Lupo curses the Franco family, saying that each of his sons will die at the age of forty-two, the same age Luigi was at his death. As the story goes on, we learn what happens to Franco’s three sons. And it’s interesting to see how each of them reacts to the threat of being killed.

And then there’s Shadaab Amjad Khan’s Murder in Bollywood. One night at a private party, famous Bollywood director Nikhil Kapoor makes the eerie pronouncement that one of the people at the party has killed and will kill again. Not long afterwards, Kapoor himself is killed one night while he is working at his film studio. A few hours later, his wife, noted actress Mallika Kapoor, also dies, apparently of a drug overdose. Both deaths look like terrible accidents on the surface. But Senior Inspector Hoshiyar Khan sees little pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise. At first, the other people at the party aren’t overly concerned about Kapoor’s comments. But then, there’s another death. That, plus the Kapoors’ deaths, makes everyone tragically aware that what Kappor said was true, and that they might be the next victims.

It’s very tempting to put the fear of danger aside. The alternative is a lot too unsettling for many people. But sometimes, those fears are real…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steel Pulse’s Said You Was an Angel.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Apostolos Doxiadis, Cornell Woolrich, Ellery Queen, Shadaab Amjad Khan

Life On a Film Set*

As this is posted, it’s 126 years since Thomas Edison built the world’s first film studio. Since that time, of course, films have become integral to many cultures. And the film industry is a lucrative one. Little wonder millions of people dream of being film stars or film executives.

But film sets and film studios are not always the happy, dream-world places they might seem to be. If you look at crime fiction, at least, you find that there’s plenty of mayhem on set. And that makes sense, when you consider all of the disparate (and sometimes clashing) personalities, all of the money involved, and so on.

For instance, Carter Dickson’s (AKA John Dickson Carr) And So to Murder features Pineham Studios, where author Monica Stanton has been hired to work with bestselling author William Cartwright on an adaptation of his latest novel for Albion Films. In the meantime, megastar Frances Fleur is working on her own new film for Albion, so the company has plenty at stake. It’s a dream job for Monica, but things soon go wrong. For one thing, she and Cartwright don’t get along. For another, soon after she starts work, there are two attempts on her life. Why would someone want to kill an up-and-coming novelist who’s just beginning a career as a scriptwriter? Cartwright gets Sir Henry Merrivale involved in the case, and he works out who’s behind it all.

In one of Ellery Queen’s ‘Hollywood’ novels, The Four of Hearts, Queen has been hired to work as a scriptwriter for Magna Studios. The project is to be a biopic of the lives of major stars Blythe Stuart and John Royle. The couple had a stormy, very public, love affair that ended years ago. They both married other people, and each had a child. At first, the studio isn’t sure that the stars will consent to work on the film, but to everyone’s surprise, they do. In fact, they re-kindle their romance, and decide to marry again. That wasn’t the story that Magna Studios had envisioned, but it’s decided to make the best of the situation and turn the wedding into a Hollywood affair. The couple marry on an airstrip, with great fanfare, and then take off for their honeymoon, with Stuart’s daughter and Royle’s son in tow. When the plan lands, the couple is found dead of what turns out to be poison. At first, it looks as though one of the adult children might be responsible, but Queen looks into the matter and finds that these murders have their roots in the past.

One of Stuart Kaminsky’s series features Los Angeles PI Toby Peters. Before he became a private investigator, Peters worked for a few years as a security guard for Warner Brothers Studio. So, he’s familiar with the way studios work, and he still has several contacts in the film industry. His cases frequently involve Hollywood stars, too. And the historical context (1940s) of the series means that Peters encounters some of Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’ starts, such as Errol Flynn, Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart, and Peter Lorre.

There’s also B.C. Stone’s Kay Francis novels, Murder at the Belmar and Midnight in Valhalla. These novels feature the famous star as the protagonist. So, readers go ‘behind the scenes’ of what happens on Hollywood sets and within the Hollywood community.

Even if you’re not a star, working on a film set can be dangerous. For example, Michael Connelly’s Lost Light is in part the story of the murder of Angella Barton, who is found murdered in the vestibule of her apartment building. At the time of the murder, LAPD detective Harry Bosch works a little on the case, but isn’t officially assigned to it. Four years later, it still haunts Bosch, but he hasn’t been able to follow up. By that time, though, he’s taken early retirement and started his own PI business. He decides to look into the matter again when he finds that the case wasn’t solved satisfactorily. Bosch learns that this murder is related to a US$2 million robbery from the set of a film that Barton’s employer was making. That link allows Bosch to solve the case.

And then there’s Shadaab Amjad Khan’s Murder in Bollywood. Khan himself has been a Bollywood script writer and actor, and is the son of noted Bollywood star, Amjad Khan. So, he’s familiar with the ins and outs of life in the Bollywood community. In this novel, Nikhil Kapoor, Bollywood’s top director, is found dead in his writing studio. Not many hours later, his wife, famous actress Mallika Kapoor, also dies, of what looks like a tragic drug overdose. There’s pressure to label both of these deaths as accidents, but Senior Inspector Hoshiyar Khan sees little pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise. With the support of his boss, Khan looks into the matter more deeply. As he does, readers get to know what life is like in a Bollywood studio, and how integrally related that community is into the culture of Mumbai and of India in general.

Studios and film sets have come a long way since Edison’s time. But they’re still fascinating places, and anything can happen on a film set. So, it’s little wonder we see them in crime fiction.

ps. The ‘photo is of a ‘green screen,’ of the sort that’s used in many films.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Yes.

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Filed under B.C. Stone, Carter Dickson, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Michael Connelly, Shadaab Amjad Khan, Stuart Kaminsky

I Don’t Want to Work*

A lot of people eagerly look forward to weekends, and they aren’t especially happy to go back to work on Monday. And that’s not surprising, when you think of how dangerous work can be. Offices are simply not safe places – well, not if you read crime fiction. And that makes sense, really. Office tensions can run high, and people often spend a lot of time at their offices. That mix makes it quite plausible that someone might be killed at the office.

Just ask Henry Morley, a dentist whom we meet in Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death). One morning, Morley goes to his surgery as usual. Sometime late that morning, he is shot. There doesn’t seem to be a personal motive for the murder, as he didn’t have a fortune to leave, and he hasn’t made a lot of enemies. One of his patients, though, is well-known powerful banker Alistair Blunt, who does have his share of enemies. It’s very possible that one of those enemies killed Morley to try to get to Blunt. Hercule Poirot was at Morley’s surgery on the morning of the murder, so Chief Inspector Japp asks him to help investigate. They’ve just started when one of Morley’s patients goes missing. Then, another dies of what looks like a botched use of anaesthetic. It turns out that this case is more complex than either Poirot or Japp thought it would be.

In Dorothy L. Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise, we are introduced to Victor Dean, a copywriter at the prestigious and very respectable Pym’s Publicity, Ltd. One afternoon, he is killed after he is pushed down a staircase at work. The executives at Pym’s are very concerned about the company’s reputation, and don’t want the police involved. So, they hire Lord Peter Wimsey to go undercover at the company and find out who the killer is and what the motive is. Wimsey goes to work at Pym’s under the guise of Dean’s replacement, and slowly gets to the truth of the matter. It turns out that someone at the office had been using the company’s resources to arrange meetings between a dangerous drugs ring and local drug dealers. Dean found out, and was foolish enough to try to benefit through blackmail. And that, as the saying goes, sealed his fate.

Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead takes place mostly on Bendigo island, a private place owned by successful munitions manufacturer Kane ‘King’ Bendigo. When he starts receiving threatening letters, he makes light of them. But not everyone does. Soon enough, his brother, Abel, gets Inspector Richard Queen and his son, Ellery, involved, and the US government considers this enough of a national security issue to pressure the Queens to co-operate. They end up going to Bendigo Island to find out who’s   responsible for the threat to Bendigo’s life. One night, the threat is carried out. Bendigo and his wife, Karla, are working in his sealed-off office when a gun goes off, wounding Bendigo, but not killing him. This isn’t a ‘normal’ shooting, though. For one thing, no-one entered or left the office at the time of the shooting, and there is no gunshot residue on either Bendigo or his wife. For another thing, the gun that was used in the attack was fired by Bendigo’s brother, Judah, who was in another room. In fact, Queen was with Judah at the time, and can attest to the fact that the gun didn’t go off. So, Queen is faced with a challenging ‘impossible mystery.’

In Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s An Easy Thing, Mexico City PI Hector Belascoarán Shayne works on a few cases. One of them is the murder of Gaspar Alvarez Cerruli, who was killed in his office at the Delex consortium. Matters are made complicated because at the time of the killing, there’s a serious conflict between union and management at the consortium. And it is certainly possible that a union agitator is the killer. But at the same time, the Santa Clara Industrial Council, which hired Belascoarán Shayne in the first place, has its own agenda. So, it’s not out of the question that a member of that group is responsible for the murder. There are other possibilities, too, and it proves to be a very delicate matter.

And then there’s Henry Beck, whom we meet in Geoffrey Robert’s The Alo Release. He works for a Los Angeles-based company called Vestco, which has developed a new seed coating that it promises will drastically increase food production, thereby dramatically reducing the amount of starvation in the world. Everyone’s excited about the new release – everyone except the members of the Millbrook Foundation, an environmentalist watchdog group. Millbrook has found evidence that Vestco’s claims may not be true. What’s more, the seed coating could have very dangerous consequences. But their work hasn’t been enough to stop the release, which is now only nine days away. One day, Beck is killed in his office. The killer finds a way to frame three Millbrook employees, who are on a plane to New Zealand at the time Beck’s body is discovered. When they land in Auckland, they soon become fugitives, although they are innocent. Now, they have to find the real killer, and stop the release of the seed coating if they can.

See what I mean? Anything can happen at work! Perhaps that research about an increase of deaths on Mondays makes some sense…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Todd Rundgren’s Bang the Drum All Day.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ellery Queen, Geoffrey Robert, Paco Ignacio Taibo II

But I Got These Short Stories in My Bag*

Agatha Christie’s The Big Four started life as a series of short stories that were drawn together. And, as you’ll know, several of her sleuths (the Beresfords, Miss Marple, and Hercule Poirot) feature in both short stories and full-length novels. That’s not easy to accomplish. Short stories require a different form of writing to novels. That may be part of the reason for which some authors are better known for (perhaps even better at) short stories or novels.

Many authors who do both short stories and novels use their novels for ‘regular’ sleuths, and short stories for different sleuths, different styles of writing, and so on. Other authors, though, feature their main protagonists in both formats. There are advantages to doing this. Readers who are new to an author can ‘meet’ the author’s sleuth in short stories, and then move on to novels. For the author, a short story or a collection can be an effective way to keep a featured sleuth active while a new novel is in the works.

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes. That’s the format for which he is perhaps most famous. But he also wrote four Holmes novels, including Holmes’ first appearance in A Study in Scarlet. Many people (certainly not all) think the short stories are better. Aidan at Mysteries Ahoy has an interesting discussion about A Study in Scarlet and the novels vs the short stories. You’ll want to check that out for a more in-depth look at that novel. And you’ll want to have a look at Aidan’s blog. Rich discussions and thoughtful reviews await you.

John Mortimer’s Horace Rumpole actually started life as a television character. As you’ll know, he is a barrister who is completely dedicated to defending his clients. He doesn’t always like them, and he doesn’t always really think they’re innocent. But he always does his utmost for them. The move from television to short stories and novellas makes sense, when you consider the television episode format. The content of a short story or novella is often appropriate for the length of a television episode. It’s harder to fit the content of a full-length novel into a one-hour or ninety-minute television episode. Still, there are a few Rumpole novels. Rumpole’s Return, Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, and Rumpole and the Reign of Terror are three of them.

Ellery Queen appears in a number of novels, beginning with The Roman Hat Mystery. And, most people think of those novels when they think of Queen. But he also appears in a number of short stories and collections. For example, there’s the Ellery Queen Omnibus, which contains nineteen short stories. The Adventures of Ellery Queen, which includes eleven short stories, and The New Adventures of Ellery Queen, which includes nine short stories and the novella The Lamp of God. Like Christie’s short stories, some of these are reprinted in more than one collection. But the net result is a variety of different ways for readers to experience Queen.

Lawrence Block has been quite prolific. Perhaps his most famous sleuth, though, is Matthew Scudder, the former police detective who’s become his own sort of private investigator. Scudder’s appeared in a number of novels (e.g. The Sins of the Father, Eight Million Ways to Die, and When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes). Many readers know him mostly through those novels. But Scudder has also appeared in several short story collections (e.g. The Night and the Music).

So has Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer. He’s a Southern California PI who first appears in 1949’s The Moving Target. There are sixteen other novels in which he features. But he also appears in short story form, too. There are three Lew Archer collections: The Name is Archer; Lew Archer, Private Investigator; and, Strangers in Town. There aren’t as many Archer short stories as there are novels. But those stories allow readers a chance to get to know him. In fact, it was through a short story, The Singing Pigeon, that I first ‘met’ Lew Archer.

Elly Griffiths has also been versatile in her writing. Her Ruth Galloway series features Galloway, who is a forensic archaeologist. Thus far, there are ten novels in that series, and many people have become acquainted with Griffiths’ writing through them. But she’s also done a short story, Ruth’s First Christmas Tree. It’ll be interesting to see, as time goes by, whether Galloway appears in other short stories at some point.

And then there’s Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus. Rebus has featured in a number of full-length novels, beginning with Knots and Crosses. And those novels have allowed Rankin to explore quite a lot about Scotland, about history, and about Rebus. Fans of the series have followed the various story arcs and gotten to know the characters through those novels. But Rankin has also written several short stories featuring Rebus. They’re all collected, if you’re interested in The Beat Goes On: The Complete Rebus Stories.

There are, of course, many other examples of authors whose main characters appear in both novels and short stories; I know you can think of many more than I could. How do you feel about this? Do you have a preference for novels or short stories about the fictional characters you like best? If you’re a writer, do you write both novels and short stories about your main character(s)?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Current Swell’s Short Stories.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Elly Griffiths, Ian Rankin, John Mortimer, Lawrence Block, Ross Macdonald

Here’s to My Bride-to-Be*

An interesting book review from FictionFan at FictionFan’s Book Reviews has got me thinking of what a lot of people call ‘May/December’ marriages. It may not be as popular now in Western cultures. But it used to be quite normal for an older man to marry a much-younger woman. And it wasn’t seen (as it often is now) as ‘gold-digging’ on the part of the woman. Sometimes, such marriages have been seen as useful alliances. Other times, they’ve been seen as effective ways for a girl without much money or ‘prospects’ to be taken care of by someone with some wealth. There are other reasons, too, for which such marriages have been made, and still are.

There are plenty of ‘May/December’ unions in crime fiction, and that’s not surprising. For one thing, they weren’t, as I say, uncommon in the past. For another, they can make for interesting character development. And that’s to say nothing of the possibilities for suspense and plot points.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Retired Coulourman, Josiah Amberley hires Sherlock Holmes to find his much-younger wife, who’s gone missing. Amberley suspects that she’s run off with his friend and frequent chess opponent, Dr. Ray Ernest. Also missing is a great deal of money in cash and securities, so Amberley’s first thought is that his wife and Ernest were lovers who’d run off with the money. Holmes agrees to look into the matter, but he’s busy with another case. So, it’s really Dr. Watson who does most of the ‘legwork’ in the matter. And he finds that this isn’t at all as simple as two people who fell in love and went away together.

Agatha Christie’s Crooked House is the story of the Leonides family. Wealthy patriarch Aristide Leonides lives with his much-younger wife, Brenda, at Three Gables, the family home. With them live several members of their extended family. When World War II ends, Leonides’ granddaughter, Sophie, returns to Three Gables, only to find that her grandfather has been poisoned with his own eyedrops. Sophie’s fiancé, Charles Hayward, knows that she will not marry him until the mystery of who killed Leonides and why is solved. So, Hayward is highly motivated to find out the truth. And he soon learns that there are several possible suspects in this case. Was Brenda a ‘gold-digger,’ out to get her husband’s fortune? What about the other members of the family? They all had reasons for wanting the victim dead.

Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder features the Van Horn family. Howard Van Horn has been having troubling blackouts, which are worrisome enough. Then, one day, he wakes from one of them to find that he has blood on him, and it’s not his own. Terrified that he did something horrible, Van Horn visits his old college friend, Ellery Queen. He tells Queen of his concerns, and Queen agrees to help him get to the truth. The trail leads to Van Horn’s home town of Wrightsville, so Queen and Van Horn go there. There, they stay with Van Horn’s wealthy father, Dietrich, and Dietrich’s much-younger wife, Sally. During their visit, Sally is strangled. It looks very much as if Van Horn murdered his stepmother during one of his blackouts, but there isn’t definitive proof. And Queen doesn’t think his friend is guilty. As he works towards a solution to the mystery, we get to know a bit about Dietrich and Sally Van Horn. She grew up on the proverbial ‘wrong side of town,’ and doesn’t have the background or education that her husband does. But she is beautiful, and glad to have someone with money to take care of her. It’s an interesting dynamic that plays its part in the novel.

In Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer, we are introduced to fledgling attorney Catherine Monsigny. In one plot thread of this novel, she gets her chance to make her mark as a lawyer when Myriam Villetreix is arrested for poisoning her wealthy husband, Gaston. Myriam is much younger than her husband; and on the surface, she seems to be a very likely suspect. She, however, claims that she is innocent, and is being framed by Gaston’s cousins, who dislike her because she is foreign – originally from Gabon – and never wanted her to marry Gaston in the first place. What’s more, they want whatever they can get of his fortune, and they don’t want to share it with her. Catherine agrees to defend Myriam, and she gets to know a little more about her and about Gaston. As she does, it’s interesting to see how very different the marriage seems, depending on who’s describing it (Myriam or Gaston’s cousins).

And then there’s Ilsa Evans’ Nefarious Doings. In that novel, we meet news columnist Nell Forrest, who lives in the small town of Majic, Victoria (she herself makes fun of the town’s name). One day, she learns that there’s been a fire at the home of her mother, Lillian ‘Yen.’ Yen is safe, but the garage has been damaged. As if that’s not enough, a man’s body has been found in the ruins. He is Dustin Craig, who lived next door to Yen, and with whom she’d had a loud argument on the evening of his death. And, his body was found on her property. So, she’s certainly ‘of interest’ to the police. Nell doesn’t believe her mother is a murderer, though, so she starts to ask questions. And she soon learns that more than one person could have had a motive. For instance, there’s the victim’s much-younger wife, Beth, whom he’d abused. There are other local people, too, with whom Craig had had disagreements. And, in the end, that network of relationships turns out to have a lot to do with the murder.

‘May/December’ marriages do still happen, even if they’re less common in the West than they were. And they certainly play a role in crime novels. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

Thanks, FictionFan, for the inspiration. Now, please treat yourself and go visit FictionFan’s great blog. Fine reviews, wit, and a porpentine await you…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s To Life.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Ilsa Evans, Sylvie Granotier