Category Archives: Ellery Queen

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

Living in a World of Make-Believe*

Have you ever known people who lived very much in what we sometimes call a world of their own? Sometimes, it seems as though people like that have lost touch with reality, even if they can function in the actual world.

In some cases, that disconnect is because of a mental health problem. In some cases, it has other bases. Either way, characters like that can add an interesting touch to a crime novel. Is the character really as ‘out of touch’ as it seems? Is the character hiding something sinister? Characters who live in a world of their own can add a particularly interesting layer to a psychological thriller, too, and there are a lot of examples of that. Here are just a few examples from thrillers and crime fiction to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, for instance, we are introduced to the Boynton family. They’re taking a tour of the Middle East – their first visit outside their home in America. Family matriarch Mrs. Boynton is unpleasant, malicious and controlling. In fact, she has her family so much under her control that no-one dares do anything without her approval. When she is murdered on the second day of the family’s trip to the ancient city of Petra, Hercule Poirot (who is in the area) investigates. He soon discovers that every member of the family had a good motive for murder. One of those members is seventeen-year-old Ginevra Boynton. Of all of the family, she’s the one who seems to be suffering most from her mother’s influence. She has a very tenuous connection with reality, and doesn’t always seem lucid. Yet, she is very sure of what she does believe. Without spoiling the story, I can also say that she is not as ‘out of touch’ as it seems.

In Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, Queen is staying in a rented house in the Hollywood Hills. He’s there for some peace and quiet – and some writing. Everything changes when nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill asks him for help. Her father, Leander Hill, has recently died of a heart attack, and Laurel is convinced that it was brought on deliberately. Queen’s reluctant to investigate at first. But Lauren tells him that, just before his death, her father received a series of macabre ‘gifts’ that she thinks were a message to him. What’s more, Hill’s business partner, Roger Priam, has also been receiving ‘gifts.’ The puzzle is irresistible for Queen, so he starts asking questions. And one of the people he meets is Priam’s stepson, Crowe ‘Mac’ McGowan. Mac doesn’t live with his mother and stepfather; rather, he lives in a tree. He wears as little as possible – frequently nothing at all. And, in the world he lives in, there’s about to be a nuclear blast, so everyone has to get ready for life after ‘The Bomb.’ He may seem eccentric – even mentally ill. But to Mac, the way he lives makes perfect sense.

As Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell introduces us to the Cosway family in The Minotaur. Swedish nurse Kerstin Kvist accepts a job with the Cosways who live in an old, Victorian home called Lydstep Old Hall. Her role will be to care for 39-year-old John Cosway, who is said to be schizophrenic. Soon after settling in, Kvist begins to see that this family is not a typical family (if there even is such a thing). For one thing, Mrs. Cosway, the family matriarch, insists that Kvist’s patient be kept under heavy sedation – something Kvist isn’t sure is necessary. For another, the entire family lives and behaves as though it’s still the Victorian Era. They seem to live in a world of their own in that sense. Kvist decides that she’ll have to take some action with regard to her patient. So, without informing anyone, she begins to withhold his medication. That decision has tragic consequences for several people. Throughout the novel, we see how the Cosways have their own, insular little world, quite apart from the real world. I know, fans of 13 Steps Down

So do the Blackwoods, whom we meet in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The story is narrated by eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ Blackwood, who very much lives in her own world, and seems quite out of touch with reality at times. For her, any little action can be an omen, and she has several rituals that make sense to her, but aren’t at all connected with reality. We soon find out that her sister, Constance, and her Uncle Julian, have their own psychological issues. All of them live in a rather isolated house near a small Vermont village. And it’s not long before we learn that a tragedy took place there six years earlier. As the story goes on, we find out what that tragedy was, and we learn some dark truths about the family and the village. One of the plot threads in the story is the disconnect between the members of the family and what most people would call reality.

And then there’s Teresa Solana’s A Shortcut to Paradise. In that novel, noted Catalán novelist Marina Dolç has just received the very prestigious Golden Apple Fiction Award. There’s a glittering event to celebrate the award, and, of course, Dolç attends. After the event, she returns to her hotel room, where she is brutally murdered. Her top rival, Amadeu Cabestany, is the most likely suspect. In fact, he’s arrested for the crime. But he says he’s innocent. Barcelona PIs Eduard and Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez, get involved in the investigation when Borja claims they’ve been hired to find the killer. As they look for the real murderer, they find that more than one person could have wanted the victim dead. And when they get to the truth, we learn that Dolç was killed because someone lived in a separate world, so to speak, not very connected with reality.

Sometimes living in a world of one’s own can bring on real surges of creativity. Ask any writer and you’ll find that imagination plays a big role in writing. But sometimes, the price of not being connected with the real world is very high…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan O’Day’s Angie Baby.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Vine, Ellery Queen, Ruth Rendell, Shirley Jackson, Teresa Solana

Yes, I Know I’m Just an Outcast*

As this is posted, it’s the 167th anniversary of the publication of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic The Scarlet Letter. As you’ll know, it’s the story of Hester Prynne, who has a child out of wedlock and is therefore, punished for adultery. There are many themes in the novel – it’s a complex story, really – and I won’t pretend to touch on them all here. But one of them that’s quite relevant to crime fiction is the trope of the outcast.

Different cultures have different reasons for rejecting people and considering them outcasts. But no matter what the reason, being outcast is traumatic. Humans by nature are social. We have a deep-seated need to be accepted. So, it’s especially distressing not to have a group to accept us. That tension can add much to a story, and can add a fascinating layer of character development.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, Hercule Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny to investigate the murder of a charwoman. Everyone thinks the killer is her lodger, James Bentley. In fact, there’s enough evidence against him that he’s been convicted and is set to be executed. But Superintendent Spence doesn’t think he’s guilty. And if he is innocent, Poirot doesn’t want to see him hanged, either. But Poirot soon runs into a problem as he investigates. Bentley has never really been accepted in the village. He doesn’t have much in the way of social skills, and he isn’t the ‘dashingly handsome type.’ So, he’s become a sort of outcast, although people don’t go out of their way to hurt him. Still, he’s an easy mark when the time comes to arrest someone for Mrs. McGinty’s murder. And most people aren’t really interested in standing up for him. But Poirot perseveres, and we learn, in the end, who really killed the victim and why.

In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, we are introduced to Jim Haight. He was engaged to Nora Wright, whose parents, John F. and Hermione ‘Hermy’ Wright, are the undisputed social leaders of the small town of Wrightsville. Three years ago, though, Haight unexpectedly jilted his bride-to-be, and left town. That’s how matters stand at the beginning of the novel, when Ellery Queen temporarily moves into the Wrights’ guest house so that he can do some writing. Not long after Queen’s arrival, Haight returns to town. He’s not welcome after having treated Nora as he did. But he and Nora rekindle their romance, and even get married. Then, some evidence comes up that suggests that Haight married Nora only for her money, and is planning to kill her. On New Year’s Eve, there is, in fact, a murder. Haight’s sister, Rosemary, drinks a cocktail that was intended for Nora, and dies of poison. Haight is arrested right away, and because he’s already an outcast, gets no support. In fact, the residents have an almost-vigilante attitude towards him. But Queen isn’t convinced of his guilt. So, he and Nora’s sister, Pat, look into the matter more deeply and discover who the real killer is.

Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black takes place mostly in the small Shetland town of Ravenswick. Everyone in town knows everyone else, and just about everyone stays away from Magnus Tait. He’s an eccentric loner, so he’s not much of a ‘mixer’ to begin with. It doesn’t help his case that there are whispers that link him to the disappearance several years earlier of a young girl. For the most part, he’s not overtly bullied, but he’s certainly not welcome in people’s homes, either. One New Year’s Eve, local teenagers Sally Henry and Catherine Ross stop by Tait’s home to wish him a good year. It’s partly a ‘dare you to knock on the door’ moment, and partly a matter of feeling bad for someone left alone on the holiday. Just a few days later, Catherine is found murdered, not far from Tait’s home. Immediately it’s assumed that he is the killer, and people are only too happy to lead Inspector Jimmy Perez in that direction. But Tait claims that he is innocent. Besides, Perez is a good cop who doesn’t want to assume guilt without the evidence to support that assumption. So, he digs deeper, and finds that more than one person might have had a motive for murder.

Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel sees his Amsterdam Police sleuth, Piet Van der Valk, sent from Amsterdam to the small Dutch town of Zwinderen. A number of anonymous, ‘poison pen’ letters have been sent to the residents, and everyone’s shaken up. In fact, one recipient committed suicide; another had a mental breakdown. Matters are not helped by the fact that Zwinderen is a small community, where everyone knows everyone, and where people feel a great need to fit in and be accepted. The local police haven’t made much headway in finding the author of the letters, so Van der Valk and his wife, Arlette, go to Zwinderen. It’s not long before Van der Valk discovers that a lot of people think that a certain M. Besançon is the guilty party. He’s somewhat of an outcast, and no-one in the town really likes him much. He lives alone in a house with a walled garden for privacy (something that makes the townspeople quite suspicious). And, he’s not ‘one of them;’ he’s a French Jew who survived the Holocaust and immigrated to the Netherlands.  Van der Valk is soon able to show that M. Besançon didn’t write the letters. But it’s interesting to see how quick the residents of Zwinderen are to blame him.

And then there’s Jodie Evans Garrow, whom we meet in Wendy James’ The Mistake. She has, by most people’s estimation, a perfect life. She’s educated, attractive, and married to a successful attorney. She’s the mother of two healthy children, and seems to have everything going for her. Although she grew up on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, Jodie now lives among well-off, well-connected people who’ve accepted her as one of them, for the most part. Then, disaster strikes. It comes out that, long ago, Jodie gave birth to another child – a child she never told anyone about before. Not even her husband knew. Jodie claims that she gave the baby up for adoption, but there are no formal records to support that. So, very soon, questions start to arise. What happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If she’s dead, did Jodie have something to do with it? It’s not long before Jodie’s social group rejects her, and she becomes a pariah. As we slowly learn what happened to the baby, we also see how difficult it is for Jodie to be shunned or worse by the very people who once accepted her.

And that’s the thing about outcasts. They often have little in the way of a support system, and that can make life miserable. That tension may add to a novel, but in real life, it’s awful.

 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’ God Help the Outcasts.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Ellery Queen, Nicolas Freeling, Wendy James

Franchise Joints on Hamburger Row*

If you look at the ‘photo, you’ll probably be able to tell that it was taken in a hotel room (I’m at a conference as this is posted). But do you know which hotel? That’s a sort of trick question, really, because a lot of hotels aren’t really distinctive any more. They may have different logos, or other sorts of branding, but the major hotel chains are really quite similar in a lot of ways.

And it’s not just hotels. Many restaurants, shops, and other facilities, especially if they are part of a large chain, are almost generic in nature. That’s arguably a trend, since the larger chains have become more prevalent, whether it’s bookshops or places to have pancakes.

As with most social trends, you see that development in crime fiction, too. For example, much of Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun takes places at the Jolly Roger Hotel, on Leathercombe Bay. This hotel has a long history, and by the time Hercule Poirot visits it, it’s got a fine reputation. It’s a unique sort of place with its own atmosphere. And in this novel, it becomes a crime scene when one of the guests, famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall, is murdered nearby. At first, her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, is the most likely suspect. And it’s not surprising, considering the victim’s not-too-well-hidden affair with another guest. But Marshall is soon proven innocent, so Poirot and the police have to look elsewhere for the culprit. It might be interesting to consider the sort of story this would be if it took place in one of today’s more generic hotels.

Ellery Queen’s the French Powder Mystery takes place at French’s Department Store. The novel was published in 1930, before department stores were taken over by large chains. This particular store is owned by Cyrus French, who’s made it a real success. Then one day, the body of French’s wife, Winnifred, is discovered in one of the store’s window displays. Inspector Richard Queen investigates, and, of course, his son, Ellery, has quite a hand in the search for the truth. As the Queens, Sergeant Velie, and the rest of the team look into the case, we get a look at what department stores were like when they were owned by individuals. French’s is distinctive, and it’s interesting to see how that individuality comes through.

The change from the individual/unique to the more generic/mass-produced is one of the themes of Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. The story beings in 1984, when Kate Meaney is ten years old. She’s growing up in a rather dreary Midlands town, but she’s content. In fact, she’s a budding detective with her own private agency, Falcon Investigations. A new mall, Green Oaks Shopping Center, has opened, and Kate is sure that it will be a hotbed of criminal activity. So, she spends quite a lot of time there. Her grandmother, Ivy, thinks the girl would be better off going away to school, so she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate reluctantly agrees to go, and her friend Adrian Palmer goes along for moral support. Tragically, only Adrian returns. Despite a thorough search, no trace of Kate is found – not even a body. Twenty years later, a Green Oaks security guard named Kurt starts seeing strange images on his camera: a young girl who looks a lot like Kate. One night, he happens to meet Lisa Palmer (Adrian’s younger sister) who works at the mall. She knew Kate, and she and Kurt form a sort of awkward friendship. Each in a different way, they go back to the past, and we learn what really happened to Kate. As the novel goes on, we see the change from the individual ‘High Street’ shops to more modern large chains.

In Apostolos Doxiodis’ Three Little Pigs, we hear the story of Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco. In the early years of the 20th Century, he moves with his family from Italy to New York City. He gets work as a shoemaker, and is soon successful enough to have his own shoe repair/shoemaking business. Unfortunately, he gets in a bar fight with Luigi Lupo, and ends up killing the other man. He’s arrested and jailed, but that’s not the end of his trouble. It turns out that the victim is the son of notorious Mafia gangster Tonio Lupo. When Lupo learns who was responsible for his son’s death, he visits Franco in prison and curses his family. Lupo says that each of Franco’s three sons will die at the age of forty-two, the same age as Luigi was at his death. As the novel goes on, we learn how this curse plays out with Franch’s sons, Alessandro ‘Al,’ Niccola ‘Nick’ and Leonardo ‘Leo.’ While the major focus of the novel isn’t on Franco’s shoe business, we see that there’s a real difference between it and today’s mass-produced shoes.

And then there’s Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman. She is a former accountant-turned-baker, who lives and works in Melbourne. She takes pride in her bakery, Earthly Delights, where she bakes all of the bread herself, and her assistant, Jason, does the muffins himself. In Trick or Treat, a large chain, Best Fresh, opens a franchise very close to where Chapman has her bakery. Chpman’s concerned, even though Jason assures her that the competitor’s food isn’t as fresh or as tasty. Then, a young man jumps to his death from a nearby roof. Before long, his death is attributed to hallucinations brought on by ergot poisoning. All of the local bakeries, including Chapman’s, are suspect, and it’s very hard for her not to be able to do what she does – provide bread and rolls to her community. She wants to clear her bakery’s name, so she starts ask questions. And it’s interesting to see the difference between the way Chapman and her staff look at what they sell, and the way the local franchise does.

On the one hand, large chains and franchises are efficient, and can often provide goods and services at a lower cost. But there’s also something to be said for the uniqueness of independent companies. And it’s interesting to see how both are portrayed in the genre.

 
 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Brownsville Station’s The Martian Boogie.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Apostolos Doxiadis, Catherine O'Flynn, Ellery Queen, Kerry Greenwood

So Welcome to Our Family Tree*

Most of us have what you might call ordinary families. No particularly long history, great wealth, or titles. But some families have pedigrees. On the surface, it may seem as though a pedigree is a good thing to have, especially if it comes with money. But that’s not always the case. Just a quick look at crime fiction and you’ll see what I mean.

There are several examples of such pedigrees in Agatha Christie’s work (right, fans of The Hollow?). One family like that is the Chevenix-Gore family, whom we meet in Dead Man’s Mirror. Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore is inordinately proud of his family lineage. In fact, he’s working on a book about the Chevenix-Gore history. That pride is what makes it so difficult for him when he comes to believe that one of his own family members may be cheating him. He writes to Hercule Poirot asking him to look into the matter, and Poirot decides to accede. By the time Poirot arrives at the family home, though, Sir Gervase is dead. On the surface, it looks as though he’s shot himself. But small pieces of evidence suggest that he might have been murdered. And it turns out that there are several suspects, too.

Several of Raymond Chandler’s stories feature pedigreed, or at least very wealthy, families. One of them is the Sternwood family of The Big Sleep. General Guy Sternwood hires PI Philip Marlowe to help solve an embarrassing problem. It seems that a book dealer named Arthur Geiger has sent Sternwood an extortion letter that makes reference to Sternwood’s daughter, Carmen. Marlowe’s task will be to find Geiger and get him to leave the family alone. When Marlowe tracks down Geiger, he discovers that the man’s been murdered – and Carmen is in the room. She’s either too drugged or too dazed to say what’s happened, though, and Marlowe’s instinct is to get her out of the way and keep suspicion from her. He does just that, thinking that he’s now done with the family. That doesn’t prove to be the case, though. When the Sternwoods’ chauffer is found dead of an apparent suicide (that’s later identified as a murder), Marlowe ends up being drawn into the investigation, and right back into the Sternwoods’ drama.

John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook features the Starberth family. The Starbeths have lived in the area for many generations. And, for two of them, the Starberth men served as governors of nearby Chatterham Prison. The prison’s been abandoned, but the Starberths are still associated with it. On his twenty-fifth birthday, each male Starberth spends the night in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. During his stay, he has to open the safe in the room, and follow the directions written on a piece of paper that’s stored there. Now it’s the turn of Martin Starberth; and, although he’s reluctant to follow the ritual, he sees no good way out. On the night of his stay at the prison, Starberth dies of what looks like a tragic accident. But there are clues that this was murder. Dr. Gideon Fell (for whom this is a first appearance) makes sense of the clues, and discovers who’s responsible for Martin Starberth’s death.

In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Queen travels to the small New England town of Wrightsville, where he’s hoping to get some peace and quiet, so he can write. He settles into a guest house owned by the town’s undisputed social leaders, John F. Wright, and his wife, Hermione ‘Hermy.’ The family’s been integrally woven into the town’s life for generations, and that becomes part of the problem in this story. It was embarrassing enough for them when their youngest daughter, Nora, was jilted by her fiancé, Jim Haight, three years earlier. But now Haight has returned. What’s worse, he and Nora resume their relationship. In fact, they marry. Then, suspicions arise that Jim may be planning to kill his bride for her money. Matters come to a head on New Year’s Eve, when Jim’s sister, Rosemary, is poisoned by a cocktail that was meant for Nora. Now, Jim’s arrested for murder, and the whole town assumes he’s guilty. Queen isn’t so sure, though, and he works with Nora’s sister, Pat, to find out who really killed Rosemary Haight.

In Rita Mae Brown’s Wish You Were Here, we are introduced to Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen. In this novel, she’s the postmistress of the small town of Crozet, Virginia. Her job puts her in contact with all of the local residents, since just about everyone comes to the post office on a regular basis. That’s part of how she comes to know so much about what’s going on in town. But there’s another factor, too. Harry is, on her mother’s side, a Minor, which makes her a member of one of the oldest families around. She’s one of the First Families of Virginia (FFV), and that gives her status, even though she’s neither wealthy nor politically powerful. In that culture, being from such a family gives one cachet. In Harry’s case, it gives her an ‘in’ that plenty of other people don’t have. So, she’s able to find out a lot of things as she solves mysteries.

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey has a similar ‘in.’ He’s a member of a very old, titled family; in fact, his brother is the Duke of Denver, and his mother the Dowager Duchess of Denver. Wimsey’s pedigree is sterling enough that he can move in the highest social circles, and sometimes does. He doesn’t judge people by their wealth or family names, but he certainly has both.

And then there’s Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti. He himself isn’t from a ‘pedigreed’ background. But his wife, Paola Falier is. Her parents are Conte Orazio Falier and his wife, Donatella. They have impeccable social credentials, and are quite well-connected. This gives Brunetti a very valuable resource in his investigations, as his trails often lead to high places.

As you can see rich family histories, and pedigrees, can give a person status in some places. For some sleuths, it’s quite helpful. But that doesn’t necessarily make life any easier for them. That sort of background can come with a price…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s (Our) Family Tree.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Raymond Chandler, Rita Mae Brown