Category Archives: Ellery Queen

Que Bonita es Barcelona*

Writers are like everyone else: we are products of our times, and we live through events as the rest of the world does. And those events sometimes have a real impact on us. Well, they do on me, at any rate.

And therein lies the issue. Like millions of others, I am heartbroken about the loss of life and the devastation in Barcelona. I’ve been there. I’ve walked down its streets and explored its history (did you know that Barcelona is home to Europe’s oldest synagogue?). So, there’s a really personal sense of loss. I felt the same way about what happened in London before that. And in Charlottesville. And in Manchester, although I admit I’ve not been there. And in other places, too. This has been, so far, a terrible year in terms of the awful things people can do to each other.

The thing is, I’m a writer. Writers are, in general, observers. That’s part of what we do. And we can’t help seeing what goes on around us (am I right, fellow writers?). The question is, what do we do with it? How do writers cope with some of the awfulness of life that we can’t help seeing?

Some writers speak out about it. That’s what Margaret Atwood has done in The Handmaid’s Tale. She herself has said that everything that happens in that novel has happened, or is happening, in real life. She’s used those things as inspiration, and brought a lot of things to our notice. Perhaps this novel isn’t, strictly speaking, a crime novel, but crimes are certainly committed in it.

They are in George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, too. Like Atwood, Orwell spoke out about what he observed, and used what he saw to inspire his writing. And there’ve been many crime writers who’ve done the same. Attica Locke, Kishwar Desai, Antti Tuomainen and Sara Paretsky are only a few examples of authors who’ve been deeply affected by major issues like poverty, racism, and climate change, and have discussed them in their writing. I know you’ll think of many more.

Other writers have made other choices. For instance, Agatha Christie lived through two world wars. She was tragically familiar with wartime shortages, the loss of people she knew, and so on. In fact, she safeguarded both Curtain and Sleeping Murder, which were written during World War II, in case she didn’t survive it.

And yet, if you read Christie’s work, you see comparatively little discussion of the real costs of war. She certainly mentions war and its losses in books such as The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Taken at the Flood and some other work, too. But her stories really focus on the mysteries at hand, the characters involved, and so on. And in some books, such as Five Little Pigs, there’s no mention of the war at all, although that particular novel was published in 1942.

Christie isn’t the only author who didn’t really write about what she was living through at the time. The ‘Queen Team’ also wrote during World War II. Calamity Town, for instance was published in 1942. And yet, you don’t see a lot of discussion of war losses, shortages and so on. In fact, Calamity Town doesn’t really mention World War II at all.

Every writer is different, of course. Some deal with their sense of grief and loss and heartbreak through their writing. Others prefer to escape those sorrows and write other sorts of stories. Still others are motivated in different ways. I don’t think there is a ‘right’ way to cope, to be honest.

What do you folks think? If you’re a reader, are you comfortable with books in which the author explores the raw grief, anger and heartbreak that go with war, terrorism, loss, and sorrow? Or does that keep you too close to it all? If you’re a writer, do you deal with your sense of anger and grief at these horrible events by writing? Or do you use your writing to go (and take the reader) elsewhere?

As for me, I can’t answer that question right now – at least about the terrorism we’ve seen lately. It’s too recent. But just because I’m not writing about the heartbreak doesn’t mean I’m not feeling it…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Manuel Moreno. In English (my translation) the title means: How beautiful Barcelona is.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Antti Tuomainen, Attica Locke, Ellery Queen, George Orwell, Kishwar Desai, Margaret Atwood, Sara Paretsky

You’d Think I’d Know by Now*

Crime writers get to know the worst side of human nature. After all, they’re the ones who create stories in which people do pretty awful things to each other. Crime writers do research, too, when they’re working on a novel. So, they know about all sorts of dangers and risks.

With all of that background and preparation, you’d think they’d know better. And yet, fictional crime writers are always getting into trouble. Perhaps it’s the same curiosity and interest in crime that got them started writing in the first place.  Whatever it is, all it takes is a quick look at some fictional crime writers to see that forewarned isn’t always forearmed. Some crime writers just can’t stay out of trouble…

For example, Agatha Christie’s Ariadne Oliver is a sensible person. Yet, she certainly gets herself into danger. In Third Girl, for instance, a young woman named Norma Restarick pays a visit to Hercule Poirot, and tells him she may have committed a murder. She leaves, though, without telling him her name, so he can’t really help her. It happens that Mrs. Oliver knows Norma, though, and decides to help Poirot find her. That turns out to be difficult, though. Still, one day, Mrs. Oliver gets her chance. She knows that Norma has been seeing a young man named David Baker. When she spots Baker one afternoon, she decides to follow him. And that gets Mrs. Oliver into quite a lot of danger. In the end, though, we learn what happened to Norma Restarick, and we learn the truth about the murder.

Dorothy L. Sayers’ Harriet Vane is, as fans can tell you, a detective novelist. She isn’t a particularly rash or reckless person, but she is independent and intelligent. And somehow, trouble has a way of cropping up around her. For instance, in Gaudy Night, she gets an invitation to attend her alma mater’s annual Gaudy Dinner and festivities. She’s not inclined to go, but an old friend persuades her to attend. She is warmly welcomed back, and ends up enjoying herself. But then, some scary things begin to happen at the school. There’s vandalism, nasty anonymous notes, and more. The administrators don’t want to bring the police in, so they ask Harriet to see what she can find out. Under the guise of doing research for a new novel, she returns to the school and starts looking into the matter. And before she finds out the truth, she’s nearly killed.

Any fan of Ellery Queen can tell you that he is, among other things, a detective novelist. And in several of the Ellery Queen stories (I’m thinking, for instance, of Calamity Town and of Origin of Evil), he’s looking for some peace and quiet so that he can write. But it usually doesn’t work out that way. Sometimes, he’s drawn into cases because he happens to be on hand (that’s what happens in Calamity Town). And sometimes, he’s drawn in because someone insists on it (that’s the case with Origin of Evil). Admittedly, he doesn’t usually get into life-threatening danger. But that doesn’t mean he never faces trouble (right, fans of Four of Hearts?). You would think that, with a police inspector for a father, and his own experience, Queen would know better, but that’s often not enough to keep him out of trouble.

In Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, we are introduced to crime writer Martin Canning. Canning generally tries to avoid trouble as much as he can. In fact, he very much wishes life could be as pleasant as the fictional world he’s created. But it’s not. When his agent persuades him to appear at the Edinburgh Arts Festival, Canning goes, but not eagerly. While he’s in Edinburgh, he plans to attend a lunchtime comedy radio broadcast, mostly because he’s got a free ticket. He’s at the studio to pick up his ticket when he witnesses a blue Honda collide with the Silver Peugeot in front of it. The two drivers get out and begin arguing. Then the Honda driver pulls out a baseball bat and attacks the Peugeot driver, whose name is Paul Bradley. Without really thinking about it, Canning throws his computer case at the Honda driver, knocking him over and saving Bradley’s life. That one gesture gets him involved in fraud, murder and more. And that’s sort of thing he’s always tried very hard to avoid.

And then there’s Lynda Wilcox’s Verity Long. She is research assistant to best-selling crime novelist Kathleen ‘KD’ Davenport. Her job is supposed to be looking into true crime cases, and selecting those that might work as plot inspirations for her boss. You would think that wouldn’t be a particularly dangerous job, but it is. In Strictly Murder, for instance, Long is looking for a new place to live. A house agent shows her a nice home, but it happens to have a body in it. She gets advice from more than one person to stay out of the matter, but she feels that she’s already involved, since she found the body. And in Organized Murder, Davenport gives her a simple request: travel to Bellhurst and meet with MBE Ernest ‘Ernie’ Rutland. Rutland wants Davenport to open the Bellhurst Christmas Market, and the details have to be worked out. When Long gets to St. Isadore’s Church Hall, where she’s to meet Rutland, she finds that a murderer has been there before her. Rutland’s body is hanging from one of the pipes on the roof of the building. Once again, she’s drawn into a search for a killer.

See what I mean? Crime writers really do know all the dangers out there, but that doesn’t stop them getting into trouble. Knowing all of the risks doesn’t mean you avoid them…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ozma’s You’d Think I’d Know.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, Kate Atkinson, Lynda Wilcox

Got to Make Your Own Breaks*

It’s not easy to be an entrepreneur. First, you have to have a good business idea – something people will want. Then, you have to market that idea to investors, unless you’re wealthy yourself (and most entrepreneurs don’t start out with a lot of money). Then, you have to have a workable business plan. And that’s only the beginning

Still, there are real potential rewards for entrepreneurs who are willing to take those risks. Ray Kroc, for instance, opened the first McDonald’s restaurant in 1955. I don’t have to tell you how successful that business idea turned out to be. And there’s Richard Branson, who parlayed his small Virgin brand into one of the most successful groups of companies in the world. There are, of course, many other examples, too.

Entrepreneurs are interesting characters in crime fiction. They take risks and they’re often bold planners. This leads to all sorts of possibilities for the crime writer. And it can add interesting layers to a crime story.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), we are introduced to Susan Banks. She and her new husband, Greg, don’t have a great deal of money. But she has a big dream. She wants to create a beauty salon, complete with skin products, hair treatments, and more. She knows exactly the sort of business she wants, and she has plans to make it happen. What she doesn’t have is capital. Then, her uncle, family patriarch Richard Abernethie, dies. His will stipulates that Susan and Greg will inherit a portion of his considerable fortune, and that’ll be more than enough for Susan to set up business. So, when suspicion is raised that Abernethie was murdered, Susan becomes one of the ‘people of interest’ in the case. So does Greg. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to find out whether Abernethie was murdered, and, if so, by whom, and Poirot agrees. As he gets to know both Susan and Greg, it’s interesting to see how Susan’s entrepreneurial spirit comes through.

One of the characters in Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit is Frank Ogden. He’s patented a special process for making specialty wood products, and has teamed up with Luke Latham, who owns a wood factory. Together, they’ve created a very successful business. And that’s part of the problem. This process relies on a particular sort of tree, and the land that the Ogden family owns won’t support the business for a lot longer. Frank’s wife, Irene, inherited a large parcel of land from her first husband, who died in a tragic accident. She and her husband, together with Latham, decide to hold a séance, and contact her first husband to get his permission to log the land she inherited. The séance is held, and is quite eerie in itself. Later that night, Irene is found murdered. Now the people gathered for the séance have to find out which of them wanted Irene dead.

In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle, we meet Sheila Grey. She’s a very successful clothing designer, whose entrepreneurial spirit has gotten her a lot of recognition, to say nothing of money. She’s independent and wants to stay that way. Then, she develops a relationship with another successful entrepreneur, Ashton McKell. Eventually, both his wife, Lutetia, and his son, Dane, find out about the relationship. One night, Sheila is shot, and Inspector Richard Queen is assigned to the case. As he and his son, Ellery, look into the matter, they find that all three McKells had motives for murder. But, so did several other people.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a (now retired) academician, as well as a political scientist. She is also a mother. So, in one story arc of this series, she’s as concerned as any parent might be when her oldest child, Mieka, withdraws from university to start her own catering business. Mieka knows she’s taking a lot of risks with her idea. But, she has a solid business plan, she’s aware of the market, and she feels the need to at least try her best. As it turns out, the business is so successful that she ends up opening another location. Later in the series, she uses the same entrepreneurial skills to open a community parent resource place/playground called UpslideDown. That, too, is successful. Mieka’s character shows the combination of planning and risk-taking that’s necessary for business success.

Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty is an American ex-pat travel writer who now lives in Bangkok. Among other things, he’s good at finding people who don’t want to be found, so he’s a natural at being a PI. Rafferty is married to a former bar girl named Rose. When Rose decided to get out of that business, she knew she would have to find another way to make a living. So, she opened up her own apartment-cleaning company. She’s become successful enough that she’s now got several employees. Each one of her employees is a former bar girl who wanted to leave that business. It’s an effective way of helping others who want an alternative to the sex/bar trade.

And then there’s Harold Chavell, whom we meet in Anthony Bidulka’s Amuse Bouche. He is a successful entrepreneur, as is his partner, Tom Osborn. The two planned a wedding and honeymoon trip to France, but Osborn has gone missing. Chavell hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to trace Osborn’s movements and find him. It seems that Osborn went alone on the trip through France, so Quant traces his movements there. He’s not successful, though, and returns to Saskatchewan. Soon afterwards, Osborn’s body is discovered not far from a home that he and Chavell owned, so Chavell is now suspected in his murder. He asks Quant to stay on the case and find out who really killed Osborn, and Quant agrees. Like his fiancé, Osborn was an entrepreneur who took certain risks, as all entrepreneurs do. So, Quant finds that more than one person might have wanted him dead.

Entrepreneurs can change the face of an industry. Certainly their own businesses fill needs that many don’t even see at first. But that potential success comes with risks, and that’s part of what makes such characters interesting in fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Ellery Queen, Gail Bowen, Hake Talbot, Timothy Hallinan

These Are the Stories of Edgar Allan Poe*

As this is posted, it’s 176 years since Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue was first published in Graham’s Magazine. This is the story that introduced the world to C. Auguste Dupin, Poe’s detective. In the story, Dupin solves the murders of Madame L’Espanaye, and her daughter, Mademoiselle Camille L’Espanaye. This is often said to be the first ‘real’ detective story, although there are some who argue otherwise.

Whether or not you’re a fan of Poe, it’s hard to deny his influence on crime fiction. Just a quick look at The Murders in the Rue Morgue offers glimpses of several tropes that we see in later crime fiction.

For example, Dupin’s adventures are narrated by a friend and sidekick. Although this particular narrator isn’t named, the approach to storytelling is reflected in lots of other, more modern, crime fiction. To offer just a few examples, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories can tell you that they are, by and large, told by Holmes’ sidekick, Dr. Watson. Several of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories are narrated by his friend and sidekick, Captain Arthur Hastings. There are also a few in which the narrator is someone else.  And, much more recently, Chris Grabenstein’s John Ceepak/Danny Boyle novels are narrated in first person by Ceepak’s sidekick, Danny Boyle. In all of these cases (and they’re not the only one), we have a narrator who tells the story in first person, and gives the reader a different perspective on the main sleuth. This allows the author to share what the main sleuth is like without going into too much narrative detail. It also allows the author to share the sleuth’s thinking at a strategic point (more on that shortly).

In The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Dupin solves the murders through a process of logical reasoning and deduction. He doesn’t make claims based just on superficial evidence. Rather, he uses logic to put the facts together. In this, we see the beginnings of the sort of detective Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes turned out to be. Holmes might beg to differ – in fact, he does in A Study in Scarlet. He sees Dupin as not nearly as much of a genius as it may seem. That said, though, there are several parallels between Dupin’s way of putting evidence together, and that of Holmes. You might even argue that there are traces of this approach in some of the Ellery Queen stories.

Dupin doesn’t share his thought processes with the reader as he solves the mystery of the two murders in the story. Instead, he waits until the end to explain how he reached the conclusion. And we see that storytelling strategy in a great deal of crime fiction. For example, fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot will know that he admits to liking an audience. Several of the Poirot novels (I’m thinking, for instance, of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Five Little Pigs) include dramatic ‘big reveal’ scenes. The suspects are gathered, and Poirot names the murder, and then explains his thinking. Some of Patricia Wentworth’s Maude Silver novels are like that, and so are some of Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn novels. That dramatic scene in the drawing room, or a lounge, or some other place, where all of the suspects come together, is a trope that’s closely associated with the Golden Age. But it’s in more modern crime fiction, too. For instance, Margaret Maron’s One Coffee With has a similar sort of scene.

One of the witnesses in The Murders in the Rue Morgue is a clerk named Adolphe Le Bon. Due to a series of circumstances, he’s arrested for the crime and imprisoned. He claims he’s not guilty, and Dupin clears his name. This trope – the innocent person who’s wrongly accused – has become an integral part of the genre. Golden Age/classic, police procedural, PI, cosy, just about all of the sub-genres include plenty of examples of stories where the wrong person is accused, if not actually convicted. There are far too many examples for me to list them here. But they all add tension to the story.

Does this mean that The Murders in the Rue Morgue is without problems? No. Many people have argued that the explanation – the real story of the murders – is too improbable. What’s more, neither Dupin’s character nor that of his narrator is what we would now call ‘fleshed out.’ The focus in the story is entirely on the intellectual mystery. Modern readers would certainly notice this, and might call the story lacking on that score. There’s also the issue of the way the police are portrayed in the story. Poe doesn’t treat them with a great deal of respect. And there are several ‘isms’ in the story that modern readers would notice.

All of this said, though, The Murders in the Rue Morgue laid the groundwork for the modern detective story. We have a set of murders, a sleuth who makes sense of the evidence, and an invitation to the reader to ‘match wits’ with that sleuth. On that score, Poe’s work arguably deserves recognition. And, if you haven’t read the story, you might want to, just to see how it all arguably started.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lou Reed’s Edgar Poe.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Chris Grabenstein, Edgar Allan Poe, Ellery Queen, Margaret Maron, Patricia Wentworth

I Can’t Do My Homework Anymore*

It’s Sunday as this is posted, a day when young people everywhere are scrambling to finish up those school assignments before they have to be turned in on Monday. It can be a frantic time, especially for students who – ahem – don’t feel the need to rush into things without reflection. It’s all got me thinking about school assignments.

Most school assignments, at any level, are fairly straightforward, if not exactly benign. Students are expected to do activities, write things, create things, and so on. If the assignments are engaging and relevant, they can serve student understanding and growth. If not, they can end up being a major bone of contention at home and at school.

You might not have thought about it (I know I didn’t until I started reflecting on it), but schoolwork does play a role in crime fiction. And that makes sense, if you think about it. After all, you never do know what a student may turn up in the course of doing research.

For instance, in Ellery Queen’s The Adventure of the African Traveler, Queen has agreed to teach a master’s degree course in applied criminology. Of the many who applied to take the course, only two have been selected. A third is the daughter of the professor who persuaded Queen to teach the class, so she’s been admitted, too. Queen takes seriously the term ‘applied,’ and takes the group to the scene of a murder. The victim, Oliver Spargo, was a representative for a large exporting company. After a year in Africa, he’d recently returned, and was staying at the Fenwick Hotel when he was bludgeoned to death. Queen makes the case a sort of laboratory for the students, and each of them tries to use the clues to work out who the killer is. This one may not be regarded as Queen’s best, but it’s certainly an interesting take on coursework…

In Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone, we are introduced to Melinda Coverdale. A university student, she is the daughter of wealthy and successful George Coverdale, and step-daughter to his wife, Jacqueline. When the Coverdales decide to hire a new housekeeper, Melinda doesn’t think too much about it; she’s quite busy, as university students are, with her own life. But Eunice Parchman isn’t like other housekeepers. She has a secret – one she is terrified will get out. Unbeknownst to Eunice, Melinda’s done some work in school that allows her to find out more than she should know. And when she comes home for a visit, the result is tragic.

In one plot thread of Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo, Wordsworth scholar Jane Gresham learns that an unidentified body has been pulled from a bog not far from her home village in the Lake District. There is evidence that the body could very well be that of Fletcher Christian. If it is, it means that he didn’t die on Pitcairn Island, as had always been assumed. And, if he made it back to the Lake District, what would be more natural than that he should contact his close friend, Wordsworth? And if that happened, it would only make sense that Wordsworth would have written something about Christian’s adventures. This logic tallies with the stories Gresham’s heard about an unpublished manuscript. Finding such a treasure would make her academic career, so Gresham immediately travels to her home town and starts trying to track down the manuscript, if it exists. Oddly enough, she gets some very valuable assistance from an assignment that her schoolteacher brother, Matthew, has given to his class, and one student’s response to it. Jane follows all of the leads, but the closer she gets to the truth about the manuscript, the more danger there is. And a strange series of deaths seems to follow along…

Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring concerns the murder of Reed Gallagher, whose body is discovered in a seedy hotel room. Bowen’s sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn, is a university colleague of Gallagher’s, and acquainted with his widow. So, it’s not long before she’s involved in the murder investigation. Not long after Gallagher’s murder, journalism student Kellee Savage goes missing after an argument at a bar. Kellee is a also student in one of Kilbourn’s classes, so this deepens her involvement in the case. It turns out that Gallagher’s death and Kellee Savage’s disappearance are related. And part of it has to do with Kellee’s work as a journalism student.

A school assignment turns out to have major implications for three families in Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. This story’s focus is Piriwee Public School, on the Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney, where a tragedy occurs on a much-anticipated Trivia Night, which is supposed to be a fundraiser. The novel follows the lives of three families, all of whom have children enrolled in the school. One family consists of Madeline Mackenzie, her second husband Ed, and their children Fred and Chloe. There’s also Madeline’s daughter, Abigail, whose father, Nathan, has recently remarried. Another family is the White family: Perry, his wife Celeste, and their twin sons Max and Josh. The third is Jane Chapman and her son, Ziggy. As the story unfolds, we learn how these families interconnect when Ziggy is accused of bullying – an accusation he denies, but doesn’t protest. That accusation, and some other conflicts, touch off a series of incidents that lead to the tragedy. In one plot thread, the Kindergarten teacher assigns her students to create a family tree. It seems a simple enough assignment, but it isn’t. Ziggy doesn’t know who his father is, and his mother says she doesn’t, either. In Madeline’s family’s case, the assignment is complicated by the fact that Abigail has a different father to Fred and Chloe, and that creates difficulties for Madeline. And Celeste has her own issues with the assignment. It’s not the reason for the tragedy, but it shows how complex even a simple school project can be.

And that’s the thing about schoolwork. One never knows where it’ll lead. Perhaps it’s little wonder so many people leave it to the last moment to complete their homework.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fleetwood Mac’s Homework.

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Filed under Ellery Queen, Gail Bowen, Liane Moriarty, Ruth Rendell, Val McDermid