Category Archives: Ellery Queen

I Want More*

DissatisfactionOne of the less positive things about human nature is that people get dissatisfied, even when they seem to have everything. It’s not really greed so much as not seeing the value of what one already has. When we’re not content with what we have, this can lead to all sorts of bad decisions and worse. There’s a strong argument of course that setting goals and wanting to make more of ourselves is a good thing. But the opposite side of that proverbial coin is a sometimes very dangerous restlessness. And that can end up in disaster. Just a few quick examples from crime fiction should be enough to show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie writes about that restlessness in several of her stories. I’ll just mention one. In The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), we are introduced to Harley Street specialist John Christow, a man who really does seem to ‘have it all.’ He has a successful practice, a rich strand of research, and a stable home with a devoted wife and two healthy children. He even has a mistress who engages him intellectually as well as physically. And yet, he’s not satisfied. As the story begins, he puts that restlessness down to an odd nostalgia for an affair that ended fifteen years earlier and tries to shrug it off. He and his wife Gerda accept an invitation to spend the weekend in the country at the home of his friends Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. But his past catches up with him when Veronica Cray, his former love, comes back into his life. She’s taken a cottage not far from the Angkatells’ home, and drops in unexpectedly one evening. Now in a way more restless than ever, Christow ends up seeing her home. The next afternoon, he’s shot. Hercule Poirot has been invited to lunch, and arrives just in time to see the body and the person who seems to have killed Christow. At first it looks like a grotesque tableau. But Poirot soon sees that it’s all too real. And as he investigates, we see the force of wanting more even when one seems to ‘have it all.’ (I know, I know, fans of Death on the Nile, Five Little Pigs and Sad Cypress).

Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep introduces readers to the Sternwood family. Wealthy General Guy Sternwood hires PI Philip Marlowe to solve a family problem. Book dealer Arthur Geiger has sent Sternwood an extortion letter that mentions Sternwood’s younger daughter Carmen. Marlowe’s job will be to make Geiger leave the family alone. He accepts the case and goes to see the book dealer. By the time he does, though, it’s too late: Geiger’s been killed. Carmen is at the scene of the crime, but she’s either drugged or has had a mental breakdown, so she can’t be much help. Marlowe gets her out of the way and it seems the case ends there. But that’s only the beginning of his dealings with the Sternwood family. This family certainly seems to have ‘it all.’ The Sternwoods are wealthy and powerful, and both Carmen and her older sister Vivian are attractive, smart and healthy. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be happy with their lives. But the truth is quite different. As just one example, Vivian has a habit of gambling and a taste for ‘escorts.’ And her husband Rusty, who’d married a beautiful, wealthy woman, ended up running away with another woman. It’s interesting how no-one in that family is satisfied, although you’d think they have everything.

In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle, Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery investigate the murder of famous fashion designer Sheila Grey. She’s a woman who seemed to have everything: a highly successful career, money, intelligence and looks. In fact, at the time of her death, she had more than one admirer, so the Queens have several suspects. As they get to know the victim better, they (and readers) learn that she wasn’t content, although she was proud of her business. In her personal life, she certainly wasn’t the type to be happy forever with just one person. Here’s what she says about it to one partner:
 

‘‘I’m a one-man-at-a-time-gal, and right now that man can be you. But you must understand that while I’d be yours and yours only, I don’t know for how long. A week, a month, five years – maybe forever; how can either of us tell? You notify me when you want out, and I’ll do the same.’’
 

She’s not greedy in the sense of wanting more and more lovers. But she certainly isn’t what you’d call content.

Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes begins late one night when New York Homicide Bureau Detective Tom Shawn stops a young woman who’s about to jump off a bridge. He persuades her to come with him and takes her to an all-night diner where she tells him her story. She is Jean Reid, only child of wealthy and successful Harlan Reid. Until recently, life had been good for them. But everything’s changed. Not long ago, Harlan Reid took a business trip to San Francisco. The housemaid warned Jean of terrible danger if her father returned to New York on the date he’d originally planned. At first, Jean didn’t want to believe it was true, but enough of her wondered that she almost sent him a telegram. Then she discovered that the flight he was to take crashed with no survivors. Her father, however, escaped that fate because someone else sent him a telegram. When he returned safely, the two resolved to find out how the housemaid knew what would happen. That curiosity led to Jeremiah Tompkins, a man who, as he puts it, is cursed with knowing the future. Since that time, Harlan has become obsessed with knowing the future. Each time he’s visited Tompkins, he’s learned things that have made him richer and richer, but it’s not greed that has driven him. It’s more wanting to know the future and at the same time not wanting to know. Now, Tompkins has seen something shocking: Harlan Reid’s death. This has utterly devastated the Reids and it’s what’s led to Jean Reid’s attempt at suicide. Shawn decides to try to help her if he can, and finds himself drawn into a very strange case…

And then there’s A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife. Jodi Brett and Todd Gilbert have been together for twenty years, although they’ve never legally married. Todd’s a real estate developer, and Jodi is a psychologists. They have a lovely Chicago home, a successful relationship – in short, everything. Yet Todd is restless. He has what most people think of as ‘it all,’ but he’s not really content. And to be fair, neither is Jodi, really. Todd begins an affair with Natasha Kovacs, the daughter of his business partner. He’s strayed before; but this time, things are different: Natasha becomes pregnant. She wants to marry and have a family, and at first that’s what Todd says he wants as well. Jodi is devastated when she finds out, and it’s made even worse because Todd isn’t open with her. He’s trying to keep both doors open, if I can put it that way. The consequences of choices that both of them make turn out to be drastic.

And that’s the thing about not appreciating what you have. Restlessness and wanting more can push a person into some very dark places…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s Part of Your World.

 

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Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, Cornell Woolrich, Ellery Queen, Raymond Chandler

I Think I’m Gonna Like it Here*

Rags to RichesMost of us have probably imagined what it would be like. The official letter from the attorney’s office informing you that you’ve inherited millions. Or perhaps the once-in-a-lifetime lottery win. Or maybe meeting that perfect someone who’s also really wealthy. However it actually happens, the ‘rags to riches’ dream captures people’s imaginations. I’m sure we could all think of films and books in which that’s the main plot point.

It shows up in crime fiction, too. But of course, it doesn’t always work out perfectly, despite the fantasy. The ‘rags to riches’ phenomenon is a lot more complicated than it seems on the surface. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories include this plot point. For instance, in The Mystery of the Blue Train, we meet Katherine Grey. She’s had a very modest life in the village of St. Mary Mead for ten years, where she’s been paid companion to Mrs. Harfield. When her employer dies, Katherine gets the exciting and surprising news that she’s been named as sole heir to Mrs. Harfield’s considerable fortune. She’s now going to be quite a wealthy woman, and things begin to change immediately for her. In one amusing scene, for instance, she gets a letter from a Harfield cousin, who tries to persuade and then bully her into parting with the money. Then, she gets a letter from one of her own distant relatives Lady Rosalie Tamplin. Lady Rosalie has found out about her cousin’s good fortune and suddenly decides that it might be nice to have her visit. Katherine is no fool, and knows exactly what Lady Rosalie has in mind. But she has always wanted to travel, so she arranges to go from London to Nice, where Lady Rosalie lives, on the famous Blue Train. That’s how she meets Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, who’s on her way to meet her lover Armand de la Roche. The two end up having a long conversation, so when Ruth is murdered, the police want whatever information Katherine can provide. Hercule Poirot is on the Blue Train as well, so he works with the police to find out who killed the victim and why.

In Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth, Queen and his new business partner Beau Rummell set up a private investigation firm. One of their first clients is wealthy and very eccentric Cadmus Cole. He’s spent most of his adult life at sea, and hasn’t established bonds with anyone in his family. He wants Queen and Rummell to track down his relations so that they’ll be in a position to inherit when he dies. Then, Queen becomes ill, so Rummell has to take on the ‘legwork.’ He follows the trail to Hollywood, where Kerrie Shawn is an aspiring actress. She hasn’t had much success though, and shares a dingy place with her friend Violet ‘Vi’ Day. Word comes that Cole has died, and Rummell gets the distinct pleasure of telling Kerrie that she is set to inherit a large fortune. Cole’s will stipulates that she and the other heir, Margo Cole, must share his home on the Hudson for a year before they can inherit, so she and Vi move to the house. As you can imagine, trouble soon begins, since such a large amount of money is at stake. Then, Margo is shot and Kerrie becomes a suspect. By this time Rummell has fallen in love with her, so he wants to clear her name. If he does, it’ll be a real case of ‘rags to riches’ for both of them.

When Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series begins, her sleuth James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran is trying to get his life back together. He’s a former big-city crime reporter and author who’s hit some hard times and gotten far too familiar with the bottle. In The Cat Who Could Read Backwards, he gets a chance to start over when his former boss Arch Riker hires him as a features writer for the Daily Fluxion. At first, he lives the sort of paycheck-to-paycheck existence that you might expect. A bit later in the series (The Cat Who Played Brahms has the details) Qwill inherits a vast fortune from his mother’s friend Francesca ‘Fanny’ Klingenschoen. The only proviso is that in order to inherit, Qwill must live in Pickax, Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere’ for five years. If he chooses not to do that, the fortune passes to Atlantic City. When word gets around that Qwill is set to inherit so much money, there’s resentment at first, since many of the locals were hoping the money would be used in the town. But they’re even more upset at the thought of having all of that money go to Atlantic City. As fans know, Qwill finds a way to make it work. He’s not comfortable with vast wealth anyway, so he remains in Pickax and sets up a charitable fund, the Klingenschoen Foundation, that supports many town projects. And that still leaves him with more money than he could ever need.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, readers are introduced to Jodie Evans. She’s been brought up, as the saying goes, on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ near Sydney. Her home life is not good, and she would like very much to get free of it and out of poverty. Her first chance comes when she does well enough in school to get a scholarship to an upmarket secondary school. Then later, she meets Angus Garrow, an up-and-coming law student from a ‘blue blood’ family. He falls in love with her and the two marry, very much against the wishes of his mother, who was hoping he’d choose someone from his own social class. For a long time, it seems that Jodie has successfully gone from ‘rags to riches.’ She and Angus remain married and she has two healthy children. There’s certainly a difference between her perspective and that of her new social circle, but she’s learned to fit in. Then everything changes. Her daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child – a girl she named Elsa Mary. No-one knows about the child, not even Angus. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about her. Jodie says she gave Elsa Mary up for adoption, but when the extra-vigilant nurse does some checking, she finds that there are no formal records of adoption. Now questions begin to be asked, first privately and then very publicly. What happened to the baby? If she is alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with it? As the story spreads, Jodie becomes a social pariah to the well-off people she’s been living among for so long, and she learns who her real friends are.

Even winning the lottery isn’t necessarily a great way to go from ‘rags to riches.’ Just ask Waldemar Leverkuhn, whom we meet in Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery. After a lifetime of working for a living, he and some of his friends go in together on a lottery ticket that turns out to be a big winner. He goes out with those friends to celebrate; but later that night, he is brutally murdered. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate. When they learn about the lottery ticket, one of their questions is whether someone was anxious to keep Leverkuhn’s winnings. The truth is more complicated than that, but it goes to show that riches can’t always protect you.

There’s just something about the ‘rags to riches’ fantasy. I’m sure you can think of lots of good examples of it that I’ve not included here. Just as well, as I’ve got to see what’s in this letter. You never know…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Håkan Nesser, Lilian Jackson Braun, Wendy James

Three Banquets a Day*

Festive  FoodIf there’s one thing this season brings, it’s….. lots of food. There are all kinds of delicious foods associated with the different holidays that come at this time of year; it’s enough to make you swear to take up an exercise regime for the rest of your life. But as scrumptious as holiday treats are, they can also be dangerous. And no, I’m not talking about the calories. A quick look at crime fiction is all that’s needed to show that holiday treats should be taken with extreme caution.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Commissionaire Peterson brings Sherlock Holmes an interesting case. He discovered a hat and a goose lying on the street after a scuffle between an unknown man and some hooligans. When Peterson’s wife prepared the goose for cooking it, she discovered a valuable jewel in its craw. Holmes uses clues from the hat to trace its owner, and soon finds out the story. Once he traces the goose back to its breeder, he learns that the breeder’s brother had stolen the jewel and stuffed it into the goose’s craw for lack of a better hiding place. Unfortunately, he didn’t remember which goose had the jewel, and it ended up in different hands.

Very well, then, the Christmas goose may not be as innocent as it seems. What about traditional plum pudding? In Agatha Christie’s short story The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (AKA The Theft of the Royal Ruby), Hercule Poirot is persuaded against his better judgement to spend Christmas at Kings Lacey, an English country house owned by the Lacey family. Ostensibly he is there to experience an old-fashioned English Christmas. But his real purpose is to recover a very valuable ruby that was stolen from a Middle Eastern prince. Poirot’s not happy about staying in a drafty country house (What? No central heating?), but he goes to King’s Lacey. On Christmas Day, the family has a full-scale Christmas feast, complete with plum pudding at the end. Everyone is joking around about who got the various symbols in the pudding when Colonel Lacey begins on his portion. To his shock, it contains a very unusual ‘surprise.’ And that night, someone raids Poirot’s room. It’s now clear that someone else has the same goal he does. But as the saying goes, Poirot has a few tricks of his own, and in the end, he finds out what happened to the pudding. He also finds out the truth about the ruby.

Any crime fiction fan can tell you that festive candy is dangerous. Consider, just as one example, Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case. In that novel, Roger Sheringham and the other members of the Crimes Circle club try to find out the truth behind a bizarre case of poisoning. Wealthy Sir Eustace Pennefather gets a complimentary box of chocolates as a marketing ploy. Not much of a chocolate eater himself, and not too fond of that approach to advertising, he gives the box to an acquaintance Graham Bendix. Bendix in turn gives the box to his wife Joan. A few hours after they share the chocolate, Joan dies of what turns out to be poison. Her husband is taken ill too, but survives, since he didn’t eat as much of the chocolate. So the question before the Crimes Circle is: who poisoned the chocolate? Related to that is the question of whether Pennefather or one (or both) of the Bendixes were the original targets.

Very well, then: no goose, no plum pudding, no chocolate. What about eggnog? Not so fast. Just think what happens in The Tragedy of Y, the second in the ‘Barnaby Ross’ (a pseudonym used by the Ellery Queen ‘Queen team’) Drury Lane series. The body of an unidentified man is found by a fishing boat. On his body is a suicide note identifying the victim as ‘Y’ (York) Hatter. The police are working on figuring out the truth about Hatter’s death when tragedy strikes the Hatter family again. As it is, the entire family is a little odd; they’re even referred to as ‘the mad Hatters.’ But when the victim’s grandson Jackie drinks a glass of cyanide-laced eggnog intended for his step-aunt Louisa, things get even more strange in the family. The doctor treating Jackie contacts the police, and wealthy retired actor Drury Lane gets involved in investigating the poisoning. His main question is: who wanted to poison Louisa? There’s also the question of whether (and how) this is related to York Hatter’s death and to a later murder that occurs.

Well, what if you avoid all of the Christmas treats altogether? That certainly may lower your risk, but it’s no guarantee. Even if you celebrate other holidays, you may not be entirely safe. In Sharon Kahn’s Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Choir, for instance, the choir of Temple Rita, in Eternal, Texas, is planning a trip to the Canadian Rockies. They’ve been invited to participate in the first Interdenominational ChoirFest in Lake Louise, Canada – a real feather in the proverbial cap. In order to raise funds for the trip, the choir plans a latke promotion. For those who don’t know, latkes are special potato pancakes that are traditionally eaten during Chanukah. They’re not exactly healthy food, but (at least in my opinion) worth every calorie. As part of this promotion, the choir hosts a large latke party that will feature a musical performance. But to everyone’s shock, star soprano Serena Salit suddenly dies of what looks like a heart attack. Police Lieutenant Paul Lundy learns that Serena was poisoned, and he’s concerned for his love interest, Ruby Rothman, who’s a member of the temple community and planning to go on the trip. But Ruby believes that the trip will be just the thing to find out who the killer is.

See what I mean? It simply doesn’t pay to overindulge in holiday treats. And besides, you won’t have as much work to do to get back into shape after the season. So do be careful if you accept an invitation. On second thought, you might just be better off going to the gym…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lionel Bart’s Food, Glorious Food.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Barnaby Ross, Ellery Queen, Sharon Kahn

Give Thanks For Your Protection*

Private SecurityThe police can’t be everywhere at once. What’s more, they are civil servants. This means that their duty is to protect the public, not the interests of a particular company or person. So, companies and people have often turned to private security and protection firms to fill that gap. For instance, banks, malls, gated communities and so on often hire security companies. People hire personal bodyguards too. And that’s to say nothing of the many people who sign up for home security systems.

With all of this interest in private security companies, it’s not surprising that we see them represented in crime fiction. There are a lot of examples of course; I know you’ll think of many more than I could. But here are a few to show you what I mean.

In Ellery Queen’s The French Powder Mystery, New York City Police Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery investigate when the body of Winifred French is discovered in the shop window of French’s Department Store. The victim was the wife of the store’s owner Cyrus French, and the evidence soon shows that she was shot on the store’s premises. So the Queens focus their attention on the French family and the store employees. It turns out that beneath the respectable surfaces of the family and the store lie several secrets. For one thing, Winifred French was having an affair with one of the members of the store’s board of directors. For another, it turns out that the store was being used to connect drug dealers and drug buyers. There are other things going on, too. So there are several possible suspects. One of the characters who figures in the story is William Crouther, the store detective. It’s his job to supervise the store’s security staff, monitor customers and so on. Because the murder happened in the store, the Queens depend on information he provides to establish the store’s security procedures and work out who would have been able to commit the murder.

Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly gives readers a look inside Venice’s glass blowing industry. In that novel, Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello investigate when Giorgio Tassini is killed. Tassini was night watchman/guard at a glass blowing factory owned by Giovanni De Cal, and at first, his death is put down to tragic accident. But some things about the death don’t seem consistent with that explanation, so Brunetti and Vianello look a little more deeply into the case. Tassini was an outspoken critic of the way the glass blowing industry disposes of its waste, and there are plenty of people who wanted him to keep quiet about it. There are other reasons too why someone might have wanted to kill him. Among other things it shows how vulnerable a night watchman can be.

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost begins in 1984, with the opening of the Green Oaks Shopping Center. Ten-year-old Kate Meaney is especially interested in the mall, because she is a budding detective who thinks that malls are very likely places to detect crime. Kate spends a lot of time at the mall observing possible criminals and watching for suspicious activity. Her grandmother Ivy, though, thinks she’d be better off going away to school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate doesn’t want to go, but her friend Adrian Palmer finally persuades her, promising to accompany her for moral support. They board the bus to the school together, but only Adrian returns. Despite a massive search for Kate, she’s never found. Everyone blames Adrian for her disappearance although he claims he’s innocent. Matters get so bad for him that he leaves town, vowing not to return. Twenty years later, his younger sister Lisa is working as the assistant manager for Your Music, one of the stores in Green Oaks. One night she meets Kurt, a mall security guard. They strike up a sort of friendship and soon, Kurt tells her about something unusual that’s been going on at the mall. Lately, the security cameras have been showing the image of a young girl with a backpack – a girl who looks just like Kate. Each in a different way, Lisa and Kurt go back to the past, so to speak, and we learn the real truth about what happened to Kate.

One plot thread of Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage concerns Vincent Naylor, a young man who’s recently been released from prison. He certainly doesn’t want to go back, so he decides he’s only going to take another risk if the prize is really worth having. He, his brother Noel, his girlfriend Michelle Flood, and some friends plan a coup that will set them up financially. They’re going after Protectica, a security company that transports money among banks and other firms. After careful preparations, the team targets a specific truck and goes through with the heist. The robbery itself goes off well enough, but then things begin to fall apart. In the end, they turn tragic, and Naylor decides to have his revenge for what happened.

Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer takes place in a dystopic future. Climate change and wars have created millions of refugees, and that’s only made life more difficult for Helsinki residents. The few police are overwhelmed with cases and can’t get to most of them. Even something as seemingly simple as buying food has become a struggle. This near-anarchy has led to the rise of a lot of private security companies that are hired to protect companies or individuals. Those who can afford it are therefore somewhat safe. Even the security companies are no guarantee, but they fill the vacuum left by the dwindling police force. In the midst of this chaos, poet Tapani Lehtinen discovers that his journalist wife Johanna is missing. He knows the police won’t be of much help, so he decides to find her himself. He begins with the story she was working on when she disappeared: the case of a man calling himself The Healer. The Healer blames certain corporations for the destruction of the environment and seems to have been targeting some of their executives for murder. Lehtinen believes that if he can find out who The Healer is, he’ll get closer to finding his wife. In this novel it’s interesting to see how people turn to private companies when they no longer feel safe in the hands of police.

We also see that in Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari, in which we are introduced to personal bodyguard-for-hire Martin Lemmer. He’s employed by a company called Body Armour, which provides personal protection services. Emma le Roux hires Lemmer to accompany her from Capetown to the Lowveld in search of her brother Jacobus. It’s always been believed that Jacobus was killed years earlier in a skirmish with poachers while he was working at Kruger National Park. But Emma has come to believe that he may be alive. Lemmer goes along on the trip and soon discovers that his client is likely in very grave danger. There are some extremely dangerous people who do not want the truth about Jacobus le Roux to come out. But Emma is determined to find out what really happened to her brother and by now, Lemmer would like to know too. So they continue on the search. Then, they are both attacked and Emma is gravely injured. Lemmer is now determined to find out who’s responsible, so he follows the trail on his own. He discovers that the truth has to do with greed, corruption and ugly environmental and sociopolitical realities.

Private security companies have been on the scene for a long time, although they’ve changed the way they operate and the tools they use. These are just a few instances where we see them in crime fiction. Over to you.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from UB40’s Watchdogs.

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Filed under Antti Tuomainen, Catherine O'Flynn, Deon Meyer, Donna Leon, Ellery Queen, Gene Kerrigan

I Remember How Things Used to Be*

Crime Fiction StaplesAn interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about certain kinds of characters we don’t see very often any more in crime fiction. As society has changed, so have our values and the way we see social structure. And it makes sense that those changes would be reflected in crime fiction too. Here are just a few examples of the kinds of characters we used to see a lot in classic/Golden Age crime fiction, but not so much any more.

 

The Ne’er-Do-Well Son

You know the sort of character, I’m sure. He’s the kind who’s been shipped around to different jobs and places because he just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. He may be a pleasant enough person, but certainly causes plenty of worry to the family. There are a lot of them in crime fiction; I’ll just mention one. In Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder For Christmas and A Holiday For Murder), we are introduced to the Lee family. Patriarch Simeon Lee is an unpleasant tyrant, but he’s very wealthy. So when he invites the members of his family to gather at the family home Gorston Hall for Christmas, no-one dares refuse. One of his sons is Harry Lee, who’s been all over the world and managed to run out of money wherever he is. He can be charming, but he’s irresponsible. So when word comes that he’ll be at the family gathering, his brother Albert takes real issue with it. But all thoughts of that feud are pushed aside when Simeon Lee is brutally murdered. Hercule Poirot is in the area spending the Christmas holiday with a friend, so he is persuaded to help in the investigation. It proves to be an interesting case of history catching up with the victim…

 

The Ward/Protector Dynamic

In the years before women were free to own property and so on, they were often hard-put to survive on their own. But sometimes, a young woman was left orphaned; or, for some reason, her parents were unable to care for her. In these situations, one solution was to be taken in by a well-off family as a ward. The idea was that the young woman’s ‘protector’ would see to her being taken care of until she found a husband. There are lots of instances of wards throughout literature in general and in crime fiction too. One of them is Esther Summerson, whom we meet in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. Esther is an orphan who’s been raised thus far by a very unpleasant woman she refers to as her godmother. Wealthy John Jarndyce takes an interest in the girl and wants to help her. So he takes her into his home, nominally to serve as companion to a distant relative Ada Clare. Really, though, she’s his ward. All three are connected to a very old Jarndyce family dispute over a will that’s been going round the Court of Chancery for generations. Even though the feud is a holdover from a very long time ago, it still impacts the family, with murder and intrigue being the result.

 

The Devoted Factotum

The factotum may have a title such as butler, driver or something similar. But really, that person does all sorts of jobs. He (it usually is a ‘he’) has his employer’s complete trust, and is usually intensely loyal to that employer and the employer’s family. There are dozens of crime-fictional characters like that. One of them is Simon Brandon, who figures in the Charles Todd writing duo’s Bess Crawford series. Crawford is a WWI nurse whose family is well-served by Brandon. Brandon is nominally the family’s driver, but he is much, much more as well. He takes care of business, he travels on behalf of the family, and so on. He served with Crawford’s father in the military, and is devoted to the family’s well-being. He takes it upon himself to look after Crawford as best he can, and she trusts him. He’s no toady, but at the same time, he has a strong loyalty to the Crawfords. I know, I know, fans of Dorothy Sayers’ Mervyn Bunter and Kerry Greenwood’s Dot Williams …

 

The ‘Maiden Aunt’

There are a lot of women who don’t marry and have children – there always have been. They used to be placed in the category of ‘spinster’ or ‘maiden aunt,’ and we see them all throughout crime fiction. Perhaps the most famous is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, who has neither husband nor children, but does have plenty of nephews, nieces and other relatives. There are other crime-fictional ‘maiden aunts’ as well. For example, in Earl Der Biggs’ The House Without a Key, we are introduced to Miss Minerva Winterslip, who comes from a ‘blueblood’ Boston family. She travels to Hawai’i for a six-week visit to some cousins, and ten months later, she’s still there. Her nephew John Quincy Winterslip goes to Hawai’i to try to convince his aunt to come back to Boston and pick up her life again there, but instead, he gets drawn into a case of murder. When a family cousin Dan Winterslip is murdered, John Quincy works with the police, including Detective Charlie Chan, to find out who the killer is. Throughout this novel, Minerva Winterslip is portrayed as unusually independent and quite content to chart her own course as the saying goes. She may be just a bit eccentric, but she’s certainly not bizarre.

 

The Paid Companion

Paid companions are arguably a fixture in classic and Golden Age crime fiction. They’re usually women, and quite often they’re from modest backgrounds, or from ‘good’ birth but modest economic means. They’re hired by wealthy employers to take care of some light tasks (such as correspondence, some errands, light housework and so on). They also accompany their employers to certain events and in general, serve as, well, companions. Sometimes they’re treated well; sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re terrific people; sometimes they’re not. But they’re woven into the fabric of that era. One fictional companion is Violet ‘Vi’ Day, whom we meet in Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth. As the novel begins, she’s sharing rooms with Kerrie Shawn, who dreams of Hollywood stardom but so far, hasn’t had much success. The two are scraping by when they learn to their shock that Kerrie has inherited a fortune. Elderly shipping/industrial magnate Cadmus Cole has died at sea, and Kerrie is one of only two living relatives. Cole’s will specifies that Kerrie and the other heiress Margo Cole must share Cole’s home on the Hudson for a year before they can inherit. Kerrie insists that Vi share her fortune and become her secretary/companion. Everyone moves into the Cole house, and as you can imagine, there’s discord between Kerrie and Margo. When Margo is shot, Kerrie becomes the prime suspect. Since Ellery Queen and his new PI partner Beau Rummell were the firm Cole hired to find his relatives, they investigate the murder and find out who really killed Margo and why. Vi believes in her friend and employer and stays loyal to her throughout. I know, I know, fans of Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral.

There are of course other ‘staple characters’ in classic/Golden Age crime fiction. Which ones have resonated with you?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration! Folks, do go visit Moira’s excellent blog on clothes, popular culture, and what it all says about us in literature. You’ll be inspired too.

ps.  I took the ‘photo above, but it’s really a ‘photo of a ‘photo. Credit really goes to Alana Newhouse’s beautifully illustrated A Living Lens, where I found the original. It just seemed to fit the topic…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lou Reed’s I Remember You.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, Charles Todd, Dorothy Sayers, Earl Der Biggs, Ellery Queen, Kerry Greenwood