Category Archives: Ellery Queen

I Keep My Visions to Myself*

cards close to the chestOne of the many balances that crime writers consider is how much to share with readers. As the sleuth gets information and forms theories, is it better to let readers in on that thought process, or is it better for the sleuth to ‘hold the cards close to the chest?’ On the one hand, most people agree it’s important to ‘play fair’ with readers and give them the information they need to make sense of the mystery. On the other hand, many readers enjoy being challenged and not always knowing what the sleuth is thinking and what her or his theories are. And readers want to remain engaged in a story; so if the author is going to reveal the sleuth’s thinking process, there need to be other aspects of the story that keep readers invested.

Different authors have taken different approaches to this question. In some cases, the sleuth is quite tight-lipped about what she or he is thinking until ‘the big reveal.’ For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is like that. By the end of a given story, we know what the clues are that led Holmes to a given deduction. And fans will know that Holmes is a stickler for following evidence in a scientific way. But he doesn’t reveal his theory until he’s ready. In The Sign of the Four, for instance, Watson asks about Holmes’ theory about certain footprints. Holmes’ reply is:
 

‘You know my methods. Apply them, and it will be instructive to compare results.’
 

Watson is no mental slouch; still, he never fails to be surprised by Holmes’ deductions. Neither do we.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is a bit like that too. As he himself says, he doesn’t always look for things such as cigarette ash or unusual shoe prints. But like Holmes, he tends to keep his theories to himself. He says it’s because he may be wrong, and doesn’t want to sway anyone else if he is. But in Death on the Nile, he hints at another reason for which he doesn’t reveal his theories until the last moment:
 

‘‘I like to say, ‘See how clever is Hercule Poirot!’’
 

Even die-hard Poirot fans will admit that he does like to be the admired focus of attention. Christie fans will also know that Miss Marple isn’t always exactly forthcoming about her theories either. She offers hints here and there, but seldom explains herself before the ‘big reveal.’

Patricia Wentworth’s Maude Silver is another sleuth who doesn’t share much about her thought process as a story goes on. She listens to her clients, makes suggestions, does her own investigation and the like. But we often don’t know exactly what her theory is until she’s ready to explain it all. There are a lot of other fictional sleuths who take a similar approach (I know, I know, fans of Ellery Queen).

Keeping one’s cards close to the chest can be effective in a story. But readers can also be drawn in when they have the opportunity to follow along as the sleuth works things out. This allows for certain plot twists and other events when the sleuth makes the occasional mistake. After all, sleuths are only human…

There are a lot of examples of this approach. One is Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi series. Marconi is a detective with the New South Wales Police. As she investigates cases, she frequently talks over her ideas with her police partners Dennis Orchard and, later, Murray Shakespeare. Fans of this series will know that it also features paramedics who figure in some way or other into each plot. Howell shares their thoughts as well. But Marconi is sometimes wrong, and in any case, isn’t privy to everything. So Howell can build suspense without having Marconi keep her theories to herself.

Readers are also ‘in on’ the way Peter James’ Superintendent Roy Grace thinks. And so are his colleagues. As he investigates murders, he often shares ideas with his team-mates, particularly his second-in-command, Glenn Branson. The tension is built in these novels in part because the reader also knows some things that the detectives don’t know. We aren’t told everything of course, but James shares the points of view of several characters. This strategy gives the reader some omniscience and allows for suspense (i.e. ‘Is Grace going to find out that X knows about Y, and is lying about it?’). So even though we know what Grace and his teammates are thinking, there are still plot twists in the series.

One of the more interesting examples of sharing what detectives are thinking is the case of H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay/Mumbai Police. Ghote is a reflective police officer who often mulls over things. For instance, at the beginning of Inspector Ghote Breaks an Egg, he’s sent to a small town to investigate a fifteen-year-old murder as quietly as possible. This mission concerns an Eminent Figure of such high rank that it’s thought Ghote ought to use some sort of guise, rather than go as a police officer. The Eminent Figure instructs Ghote to go as a salesman for a new chicken-feed product. Here’s what Ghote thinks about it:
 

‘Ghote had rejected the notion of explaining to the Eminent Figure that…in the remote part of the state to which he was being sent chickens were just one more set of scavengers feeding where they could on what they could find.
After all, one did have a duty to feed one’s family. There could be no gainsaying that.
But he hoped profoundly, now that he had arrived, that the disguise the bold, orange box provided would be sufficient.’
 

Ghote ponders his cases themselves in the same way. So in that sense, he doesn’t hold the cards particularly close to his chest as far as the reader is concerned. At the same time, there are enough surprises that the reader doesn’t know everything right away.

The decision on whether to have a sleuth hold a lot back or not arguably depends on the kind of story the author is creating and the sort of suspense the author wants to build. What do you think about this strategy? Does it bother you when the sleuth holds the cards very closely? Do you like to know what the sleuth is thinking the whole time? If you’re a writer, how do you handle this matter?

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, H.R.F. Keating, Katherine Howell, Patricia Wentworth, Peter James

Are You Talking to Me?*

Directly Addressing the ReaderMost crime stories are told either in the first or third person, as a narration of events. Readers follow along and (hopefully) are drawn into the tale. But every once in a while, the author addresses the reader more directly. That strategy, when it’s done well, can invite the reader to engage in the story. It’s a bit like someone telling you about something and then asking what you think or whether you agree. You’re more drawn into the conversation when you’re addressed directly.

Fans of ‘the Queen team’ will know that they use this strategy in some of the Ellery Queen stories. For example, in The Roman Hat Mystery, Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, investigate the murder of attorney Monte Field. The murder occurs during a theatrical performance, so the Queens have two logistical tasks. One is to find out how Field was killed, with so many people around. The other is to narrow down who, exactly, was close enough to him to commit the crime. There’s also of course the question of who would have a motive. That field’s open, since the victim was in the habit of blackmail. There’s a section in this novel titled: Interlude: In Which the Reader’s Attention is Respectfully Requested. In that section, the narrator figuratively turns to the reader and lets the reader know that all of the evidence, suspects, clues and so forth are now ‘on the table.’ The reader is then invited to make sense of them and solve the case. The narrator than returns to the story in the next section. Those who’ve seen the TV series starring Jim Hutton will know that Hutton, as Queen, does the same sort of thing in that series.

Talmage Powell’s short story To Avoid a Scandal begins this way:

 

‘My dear fellow, it’s all perfectly simple and clear. I detest discussing such a gory thing, but I must do so. Otherwise, I fear you’ll receive your only knowledge of the episode from those lurid newspaper accounts, which are written for scandal-hungry human animals of the lowest order.’

 

The narrator, staid banker Horace Croyden, then goes on to tell his story. A quiet, very respectable man, he’s always prided himself on living a quiet, completely scandal-free life. He craves stability and order, and that’s all he’s ever known. Then, he meets his boss’ cousin Althea. After an appropriate time of courtship, they marry. Almost immediately, Croyden finds that he’s made a dreadful mistake. Althea isn’t the quiet, old-fashioned, respectable sort of woman he’d thought she was. She begins by making some (to her) minor changes to the décor of their home, which is bad enough from her husband’s perspective. But then, she destroys some of his beloved ciphers (a hobby he’s had for a while). That proves to be too much for Croyden, who decides to take his own approach to solving his problem.

There’s also Fredric Brown’s short story Don’t Look Behind You. Here’s how that story begins:
 

‘Just sit back and relax, now. Try to enjoy this; it’s going to be the last story you ever read, or nearly the last. After you finish it you can sit there and stall awhile, you can find excuses to hang around your house, or your room, or your office, wherever you’re reading this; but sooner or later you’re going to have to get up and go out. That’s where I’m waiting for you: outside. Or maybe closer than that. Maybe in this room.’ 

 

The narrator then continues to address the reader directly, telling the story of a printer named Justin and a suave man named Harley. Things turn ugly when they get involved with some dangerous people, and the end of the story has a real twist in it. The effect is all the more eerie because the reader is directly addressed.

John Burdett’s series featuring Royal Thai Police officer Sonchai Jitpleecheep also includes comments made directly to the reader. These novels take place mostly in Bangkok, and are told from Sonchai’s perspective. As the stories go on, Sonchai occasionally breaks the narrative just a bit to address the reader. Here, for instance, is a bit from Bangkok Tattoo. In this scene, Sonchai is discussing Thai attitudes towards prostitution:

 

‘These are all country girls, tough as water buffalo, wild as swans, who can’t believe how much they can make by providing to polite, benevolent, guilt-ridden, rich, condom-conscious farang [foreigners] exactly the same service they would otherwise have to provide free without protection to rough, drunken, whoremongering husbands in their home villages. Good deal? Better believe it. (Don’t look at me like that, farang, when you know in your heart that capitalism makes whores of all of us).’

 

It’s an interesting way to share cultural/religious information, which occasionally happens in this series. It also serves to show Sonchai’s particular world view.

Sometimes, the author puts the reader in the story, if you will, almost as a character. For instance, in Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair, we meet Gilbert Hand, junior partner in a bookselling/publishing firm. Hand is devastated by the sudden death of his wife Rachel, and decides to make a major change in his life. He sells their home and moves to a quiet, respectable hotel in London. When he settles into his room, he discovers that the previous occupant left behind a long coil of dark hair, wrapped in a silk bundle and hidden in the davenport.  Hand becomes curious about that occupant, whose name is Freddie Doyle, and starts to ask questions. When Doyle tries to get the hair back, Hand refuses and becomes even more curious. In fact, he becomes obsessed with Doyle and with the woman whose hair Doyle left behind. Hand’s obsession begins to take over as he starts to believe that Doyle is a murderer. As is the case with many obsessions, this one leads to very dark places. Throughout the story, Hand addresses the reader, starting with the first sentences:
 

‘I’m not going to give explanations and make excuses. I’ll tell you what happened, and you can draw your own conclusions.’ 

 

In the end, we find out what role the reader is given in the novel.

Sue Grafton’s ‘Alphabet Mysteries,’ featuring her sleuth, PI Kinsey Millhone, don’t address the reader quite as directly as do Burdett’s. Still, the novels end with epilogues signed,

 

Respectfully Submitted,
Kinsey Millhone

 

In those epilogues, Millhone occasionally steps out of the role of narrator and addresses the reader just a bit more directly than she does in the stories themselves.

What do you think of that strategy of directly addressing the reader? Do you feel more engaged in a novel when its author uses it? Does it pull you out of the story? If you’re a writer, do you use that tactic?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s What Was it You Wanted?

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Filed under Charlotte Jay, Ellery Queen, Fredric Brown, John Burdett, Sue Grafton, Talmage Powell

Look at This Stuff, Isn’t it Neat?*

CollectionsDo you have a collecting hobby? Whether it’s T-shirts, antique hurricane lamps, books with skeletons in the cover art, or something else, collecting can be really enjoyable. It can be fun to hunt for additions to your collection, and it puts you in contact with others who share your interest. And it provides those who love you with no-fail ideas for birthday gifts.

Collecting can, of course, be expensive (depends on your particular interest). And sometimes collections are really valuable, which makes them tempting targets. There are also people who are so obsessed with their collections that they become dangerous. There are other risks, too, when you’re a collector. Little wonder collections come up so often in crime fiction. Here are just a few items; there are a lot more.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp and local police forces to solve a disturbing series of crimes. The murders have in common that Poiroit receives a cryptic warning note before each one, and that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. One of the victims is retired throat specialist Carmichael Clarke. He always had a passion for Chinese pottery and porcelain; and, when he inherited a fortune, he was able to devote much more time and money to that passion. Clarke’s love of collecting isn’t the reason he is murdered. But it is an interesting aspect to his character. I know, I know, fans of Cards on the Table

Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil also includes a character with a collection. In that novel, Queen has taken a house in the Hollywood Hills as a writing retreat. His plans change, though, when he gets a visit from nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill. She’s recently lost her father Leander to a heart attack which she’s convinced was deliberately caused. Queen is reluctant to get involved in the case at first. But he’s persuaded to look into the matter when Laurel tells him that her father’s death was preceded by a series of macabre ‘gifts.’ Her claim is that someone wanted him dead, and probably wants his business partner Roger Priam dead too, since Priam also has received ‘gifts.’ Priam doesn’t want Queen to get involved, but Laurel insists. As Queen looks into the matter, he learns more about Priam. The man’s not particularly educated, and not interested at all in literature or reading. But he does have a collection of ‘great books’ in expensive bindings. He owns the books more because rich men are supposed to have a library of fine books than because of any interest on his part. Still, the books do play a role in solving this mystery. I know, I know, fans of The Adventure of the One-Penny Black.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, we are introduced to financial consultant Dennis Brinkley. He has a very unusual collecting hobby: antique war machines. In fact, he’s got a special room set aside for his acquisitions. One night, he’s killed by one of his devices. The police theory is that this was a tragic accident, but Brinkley’s friend Benny Frayle doesn’t think so. She tries to persuade DCI Tom Barnaby to look into the matter, and he agrees to review the case file. He sees nothing untoward in it though. The police did a thorough and careful job, and there’s no reason to believe they were wrong. But then, self-styled medium Ava Garrett dies of poisoning not long after a séance in which she revealed some details about Brinkley’s death. Now Barnaby and his team have two suspicious deaths to investigate.

Art collecting is very popular, especially among people with means. Art can be intrinsically quite valuable, so some people collect it as an investment. But others do so because of their passion for art or for the work of one particular artist. Crime fiction fans will know that there are many novels that feature art collections, art theft and forgery and so on. One of them is Aaron Elkins’ Loot. This story features Boston art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere. Experts such as Revere provide extremely useful services when a museum or a private collector wants to establish whether a piece of art is authentic. So when pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky gets a painting he thinks is valuable, he calls Revere. When Revere gets a look at the painting, he immediately suspects it might be a priceless Velázquez that disappeared after it was ‘taken for safekeeping’ by the Nazis. Revere wants to take the painting with him while he researches it, because he’s concerned about Pawlovsky keeping an item like that in his pawn shop. But Pawlovsky refuses and Revere reluctantly leaves the painting there. When he returns a few hours later, Pawlovsky’s been murdered. Revere feels responsible, so he wants to find out who killed his friend. His view is that if he can trace the painting from the time the Nazis took it, he can find out who the culprit is. As he investigates, we learn how some of that art got into the hands of private collectors and museums after World War II. And in the end, we learn how the painting ended up at the pawn shop.

S.J. Rozan’s China Trade introduces Chinese American PI Chin Ling Wan-ju, who usually goes by Lydia Chin. In this story, she is hired by the Chinatown Pride (CP) Museum to find a collection of stolen Chinese porcelain. The porcelains were donated by the widow of wealthy private collector Hamilton Blair, and if they’re not found, the museum’s reputation will suffer. So Chin is urged to trace them as quickly and discreetly as she can. Chin and her PI partner Bill Smith look into the case and soon settle on a few possibilities. One is that a local gang, the Golden Dragons, took the porcelains because the museum wouldn’t pay protection money. Another gang, the Main Street Boys, might also be responsible. They ‘rented’ space from the Golden Dragons, and could have had access to the loot. Still another possibility is that one of the staff took the porcelains. As Chin and Smith get closer to the truth, the case turns from theft to multiple murders. And they’ll have to get answers quickly before one of them becomes the next target.

I admit I’ve not (yet) read Donald Westlake’s (as Richard Stark) Firebreak. But I couldn’t resist mentioning it here. This story sees Stark’s anti-hero Parker with a new job. His mission is to get his hands on a collection of priceless stolen artwork that dot-com millionaire Paxton Marino has secured at his Montana hunting lodge. Parker’s got enough to deal with before he even tries to get to the art. And things don’t get any easier once the heist is put in motion. Want to know more about Westlake’s Stark novels? Check out this interesting reference to them from Col at Col’s Criminal LibraryAnd as you’ll be there anyway, check out that great blog.

Collecting can be fulfilling, fun and sometimes lucrative. But it can also be very, very risky. Which novels with this theme have you enjoyed?

 

On Another Note…

Margot's Bookshelves

Talking of collecting, today’s your chance to see some of my collection…of books. Patti Abbott has kindly welcomed me to her excellent blog Pattinase to share what’s on my bookshelves. Do come pay me a visit there. And since you’ll be there anyway, have a look round the blog. Book reviews, music, great ‘photos, and of course, Friday’s Forgotten Books await you there!

 

 
 

*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 Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Donald Westlake, Ellery Queen, Richard Stark, S.J. Rozan

Hey, What’s That Sound?*

SoundSound plays a very important role in most people’s perceptions and memories. I’ll bet, for instance, that when you hear certain songs, you’re reminded of a date or other event, a time in your life, or perhaps a person. Certain other sounds, such as a siren behind you, trigger other reactions. And a lot of scientific evidence suggests that a baby’s cry evokes all sorts of physical and emotional responses.

As important as sounds are, it makes sense that they also play important roles in crime fiction. Witnesses to a shooting are often asked, for example, how many shots they heard. And as any crime fiction fan knows, the ‘evidence of the ears’ can also be misunderstood or deliberately manipulated.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the disappearance of a famous racehorse named Silver Blaze, and the death of his trainer John Straker. The most likely suspect is London bookmaker Fitzroy Simpson; the theory is that he abducted the horse to rig the race. But there are also clues that point away from Simpson. One of them is the clue of what the stable dog did on the night that the horse went missing. Scotland Yard’s Tobias Gregory points out that,
 

‘The dog did nothing in the night-time.’
 

That, says Holmes, is exactly what is curious. His point is that if someone the dog didn’t know (e.g. Simpson) approached, the animal would have barked. Since there was no barking noise, the logical deduction is that the dog knew the person who took the horse. That turns out to be an important clue.

In Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase, we are introduced to Rachel Innes, a middle-aged ‘maiden aunt,’ who takes her grown nephew Halsey and his sister Gertrude for a summer stay at a large, rented country house called Sunnyside. The plan is for everyone to have a relaxing time away from the city. Soon after their arrival though, things begin to go very wrong. There are some odd noises that become very unsettling. The housemaid Liddy Allen thinks that the creaks, taps and other sounds mean that the house is haunted. But Rachel thinks there’s a more prosaic explanation for what’s going on, and she is later proved right. One night, everyone hears a shot coming from the card-room. When they get there, they discover the body of Arnold Anderson, son of the owner of Sunnyside. His murder turns out to be connected to the strange sounds; and those sounds are important clues to the mystery.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett. The only possible suspects are the other people in the first class coach of the famous Orient Express train. As a part of his investigation, Poirot asks each person for an account of what happened on the night of the murder. He also considers his own memories of that night. Sound plays an important role in this story; and Poirot has to sift through the various thumps, knocks, voices, bells, and so on to find out which ones are clues and which ‘red herrings.’ I know, I know, fans of Death on the Nile

In Ellery Queen’s The Last Woman in His Life, we are introduced to jet-setting playboy John Levering Benedict III. He happens to encounter Ellery Queen, and expansively invites Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, to use his guest house for a getaway weekend. The Queens accept, and duly settle in to relax. They soon discover that Benedict’s three ex-wives, his secretary, and his attorney are also spending the weekend. As you can imagine, the atmosphere is more than a little strained. That night, Queen gets a frantic call from Benedict, who says that he’s been murdered. Queen rushes over to the main house, but by the time he arrives, it’s too late: Benedict is dead of a blow to the head. The weapon is a statuette with a heavy base. The only clues are an evening gown, a wig, and a pair of gloves. Each item belongs to a different person. Now Queen has to sift through those clues and find out who the killer is. As it turns out, Benedict told him who the killer was during their telephone conversation. The problem is that Queen misinterpreted the evidence of his own ears, and it’s not until later that he makes sense of that dying statement.

Edward D. Hoch’s short story Captain Leopold Finds a Tiger takes place mostly in a small zoo run by Jack and Maggie Drummond. One morning, Maggie’s body is found in the tiger pit, and everyone assumes that the tiger is responsible. But soon enough, the evidence shows stab wounds, rather than claw wounds. Now Captain Leopold and his team have to find out who would have wanted to kill Maggie. There’s more than one suspect, too, as Leopold finds when he lifts up the proverbial lid on what’s going on at the zoo. In the end, an animal provides Leopold with the vital clue that he needs to put him on the right trail. In this story, sound, both real and manufactured, plays a vital role in what happens.

It does in Brian McGilloway’s The Nameless Dead too. In one plot thread of this novel, Garda Ben Devlin is asked to respond to a very odd case. Christine Cashell has reported hearing a baby cry in her baby monitor, and says that it’s not her son. What’s odd about this is that she and her partner do not have children. They had planned a family, but their son was stillborn. The manufacturer of the baby monitor says that sometimes monitors may pick up other crying babies if they are very near. However, no other babies live near Christine and her partner. Devlin finds that this mystery is tied in with another case he is investigating.  During the search for the body of Declan Cleary, Devlin and his team discover the body of an infant who died about the same time as Cleary probably did. At first, Devlin is told that the baby’s death cannot be investigated, since it was found in the course of work for the Commission on the Location of Victims’ Remains. This commission is charged with finding the remains of those who died during the early days of the Troubles in Ireland. Those remains are then returned to the families for burial and hopefully, for closure. The rule is that there can be no investigation or prosecution in any of the commission’s work. The reason for this is to make people feel more comfortable reporting what they may know about one or another of the Disappeared, as those who died are called. In general, Devlin respects policy, but he also wants to offer closure to the parents of the dead infant if he can. So he finds ways to look for answers. And the sounds Christine Cashell hears turn out to be important.

People may misinterpret what they hear, but sounds are still a fundamental part of how we make sense of the world. Little wonder they’re so tightly woven into crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Buffalo Springfield’s For What it’s Worth.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Brian McGilloway, Edward D. Hoch, Ellery Queen, Mary Roberts Rinehart

The Law Won*

Not all fictional coppers play ‘starring roles’ in their series. But they can still add character depth, a police perspective and sometimes tension to a plot Here’s a salute to them, with some help from Sonny Curtis’ I Fought the Law, from whence the title of this post.  Enjoy!
 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, Jonathan Kellerman, Kerry Greenwood, Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler, Rex Stout, Sara Paretsky, Stuart Palmer, Tess Gerritsen