Category Archives: Ellery Queen

What I Didn’t Realise Was How You Would Change My Life*

One of the most common types of blended families is the stepfamily. In fact, there’ve been stepparents and stepchildren for so many years that we could even think of it as one of the traditional family structures.

Blending a family in this way can work, especially if everyone involved is willing to be flexible. But ‘stepping’ almost always presents challenges, even when family members love one another, and really want the relationships to be successful. And when there’s spite or malice, things can turn very bad, indeed.

There’ve been many, many crime novels that involve stepfamilies. One post couldn’t possibly do the topic justice. But I’ll mention a few examples, to start the conversation. Oh, and you’ll notice I don’t include examples of what a lot of people call domestic noir. Too easy…

Agatha Christie used stepfamilies many times in her work, so there are several examples. One is Evil Under the Sun. In that novel, Captain Kenneth Marshall and his daughter, Linda, travel to the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay for their holiday. With them is Marshall’s second wife (and Linda’s stepmother), famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall. It’s soon clear that Linda dislikes her stepmother heartily. It’s not so much that Arlena is cruel to her, but she is self-involved, and mostly, she ignores Linda. What’s worse, Arlena is beautiful and graceful, and Linda is at an awkward point in her life, as young people often are at sixteen. One day, Arlena is found strangled in a cover not far from the hotel, Linda becomes a ‘person of interest,’ as does her father. Hercule Poirot is also staying at the hotel, and he works with the police to find out who killed the victim and why. And as far as the ‘evil stepmother’ stereotype goes, there’s Christie’s Appointment With Death

In Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, we are introduced to the Priam family. Roger Priam and his business partner Leander Hill ran a successful company for years. But then, they both began receiving macabre ‘gifts’ that unsettled them. In fact, Hill died of a heart attack shortly after getting one of them. Hill’s daughter, Laurel, asks Ellery Queen  to find out who has sent the parcels, because she believes her father’s death is directly related to them. At first, Queen demurs, but he’s finally persuaded. When he learns that Priam also received packages, he tries to get his help. But Priam is unwilling to get involved at first. Still, Queen meets Priam’s wife, Delia, and her son, Crowe ‘Mac’ MacGowan. Mac is a very unconventional person. He lives in a treehouse he’s made on the Priam property, and wears as little as possible – sometimes nothing at all. He’s convinced that nuclear bombs are about to be unleashed (the book takes place in the early 1950s, during a particularly tense part of the Cold War), and wants to be ready to live in a world where not much is left. Priam has little to do with his stepson; he’s a businessman through and through. There’s an interesting, if dysfunctional, dynamic in the Priam household…

James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity begins when insurance sales representative Walter Huff decides on a whim to visit one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger. Huff happens to be in that area, and wants to see if he can get Nirdlinger to renew his policy. When Huff gets to the house, he finds that Nirdlinger isn’t there, but his wife, Phyllis is. The two get to talking and Huff soon finds himself attracted to her. She does nothing to discourage him, and before long, they’re having an affair. Then, Phyllis reveals that she wants her husband killed. By this time, Huff is so besotted that he falls in with her plan, even going so far as to write the double indemnity insurance policy she’ll need in order to collect from the company. The murder is duly pulled off, but that’s really only the beginning of Huff’s problems. He’s going to have to protect Phyllis as best he can if he’s going to protect himself. Then, he meets Phyllis’ stepdaughter, Lola. The two form a friendship (which Huff would like to be more than a friendship), and Lola tries to warn him about her stepmother. There is no love lost between the two, so there’s a possibility her attitude might simply be spite. But it turns out that Huff is in much deeper than he thought…

M.J. McGrath’s White Heat is the first in her series featuring Ellesmere Island hunting guide Edie Kiglatuk. As the story begins, Kiglatuk is escorting two hunters, Felix Wagner and Andy Taylor. During the trip, Wagner is fatally shot. Taylor says he’s not responsible, and the evidence supports him. So, at first, the death is put down to a tragic accident. But Kiglatuk is fairly certain that’s not the truth. Evidence that she saw suggests that another person shot Wagner. But she’s told that the Council of Elders, on whom she depends for her guide license, wants the ‘accident’ explanation ‘rubber stamped.’ Still, she starts to ask some questions. There’s not much she can do officially, but she tries to get answers. Then, there’s a disappearance. Then, her former stepson, Joe, with whom she’s still close, dies. On the surface, it looks like a suicide. But Kiglatuk is now sure that it was murder. In the end, we learn what connects all of these events; it turns out that there’s something much bigger going on than most people knew. The relationship between Kiglatuk and Joe is an undercurrent throughout the novel. It’s clear that they see each other as family, and take care of each other as close family members do. Not much of the ‘wicked stepmother’ stereotype here…

There’s also Surender Mohan Pathak’s The Colaba Conspiracy. In that novel, former safecracker/lockbreaker Jeet Singh has decided to ‘go straight.’ He now owns and runs a small keymaking business. Everything changes, though, when he gets drawn into just one last job, for the sake of his former lover Sushmita. She married wealthy industrialist Pursumal Changulani, but now, he’s been murdered. At first, the murder looked like a carjacking gone wrong. But now, there’s evidence that it was a pre-planned murder. Sushmita is the main suspect, since her husband’s death means she now stands to inherit a considerable fortune. However, Changulani has three children from a previous marriage, and they claim that she was never legally married to their father. They argue that their stepmother was really just their father’s live-in lover. Sushmita needs money to pay a good lawyer to defend her interests, so Singh decides to help her. He ends up, though, being framed for murder. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how stepmother and stepchildren view each other when a lot of money is involved.

Many stepfamilies work well, function as a unit, and love each other (right, fans of Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve?). But there are always some complexities, and sometimes, they play out in unexpected ways.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Peter Andre’s Unconditional.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Gail Bowen, James M. Cain, M.J McGrath, Surender Mohan Pathak

Everything Old is New Again*

Have you ever read a novel written, perhaps, decades ago, or even longer, and still found that it felt contemporary? Me, too. I got to thinking about this after yesterday’s post about Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios/A Coffin For Dimitrios. Someone who was kind enough to read the post mentioned that the book still feels quite contemporary.

And there are aspects of it we do still face today. The novel is set against a backdrop of unsettling international tension. In that case it’s the tension that was building just before World War II. But international tension is nothing new, and we’re still feeling it today. One of the plot threads has to do with drugs smuggling, and with how smugglers get their contraband across borders. That still goes on today, too. And we’re still asking ourselves some of the larger questions that are raised in the book (e.g. Do the ends ever justify the means? Are we really in control of our own choices?).

Whether you agree about that particular novel feeling contemporary or not, there are certainly plenty of novels, sometimes from a long time ago, that arguably have that feel. Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, for example, was originally given a title that most of us would consider offensive today. But the story itself still resonates. A group of people are invited to house on Indian Island. For various reasons, they all accept. On the night of their arrival, each one is accused of causing the death of at least one other person. Soon afterwards, one of the guests dies of poison. Late that night, there’s another death. Before long, it’s clear that someone has targeted all of the guests. The survivors are now going to have to find out who the killer is, and stay alive themselves. Some of the larger questions of guilt, of what ‘counts’ as a crime, and of how people justify what they do are still raised today. And the context – a group of people trying to survive in a dangerous situation, also resonates.

Another reason that even older books can feel contemporary is arguably that they address challenges that we still face today. For example, Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die has as one of its central figures a detective novelist named Frank Cairnes, who writes under the name Felix Lane. When his son, Martin ‘Martie,’ is killed by a hit-and-run driver, Cairnes decides to find the culprit. That’s, in fact, the first sentence of the novel:
 

‘I am going to kill a man.’
 

Those feelings of grief and rage resonate today. The loss of a child is the sort of human experience that isn’t limited, unfortunately, to one era.

Neither is a heat wave, which is the backdrop of Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, the first of his 87th Precinct series. The fictional city of Isola (a thinly disguised New York City) is stricken by a persistent heat wave, which makes everyone miserable. With this in the background, Steve Carella and his teammates at the precinct investigate the murders of two police officers. At first, it looks as though the killer is someone with a grudge against the police. But it’s both easier and more complicated than that. It’s true that this book (published in 1956) doesn’t include modern amenities such as air conditioning, computers, and so on. But even today, we all know what it’s like to go through a heat wave, and how hard that can be on the nerves. And many of the procedures used in the novel (talking to witnesses, checking information on weapons, and so on) are still done.

Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts was originally published in 1938. In it, Ellery Queen is working on a film script for Magna Studios. The project is a biopic about screen legends John Royle and Blythe Stuart. They had a very public, stormy romance and an equally public breakup, and went their separate ways. Each married someone else, and now has a grown child. The studio executives think that the public would pay for a film about their love story, so the pair is approached about it. To everyone’s shock, they not only agree, but they also rekindle their romance. In fact, they decide to marry. Unwilling to let go of the profits from the film, the studio Powers That Be decide to make the most of this new romance. They plan a Hollywood-style wedding, right on the tarmac of a local airport. Then, the couple and their children will take off in a private plane for the honeymoon. The wedding goes off as planned, and the plane leaves. When it lands, though, the newlyweds are dead from what turns out to be poison. Queen investigates to find out who the killer is and what the motive is. Without spoiling the story, I can say that the motive isn’t ‘dated.’ Neither is the backdrop of Hollywood glitz and gossip, very public love affairs, and fascination with celebrity.

And that seems to be one of the keys to a novel that feels contemporary, even though it was written many decades ago. A contemporary ‘feel’ is even more likely if the emphasis in the novel is on the characters and overall plot, rather than in details of an era that can ‘date’ a book. What about you? Are there books that feel quite timely and contemporary to you, although they were published a long time ago? Which ones?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Peter Allen and Carol Bayer Sager.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Ellery Queen, Eric Ambler, Nicholas Blake

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