Category Archives: Ellery Queen

Why Are There Always So Many Other Things to Do?*

One of the things that writing requires is discipline. Sticking with a project, not letting yourself get too distracted, and seeing it through, are all difficult to do. That’s especially true with today’s social media and instant accessibility through email, text, and so on.

And then there’s the fact that a lot of writers do their writing at home. So, there’s always laundry, bills, pets, gardening, and all sorts of other things to pull the attention away from that manuscript. Trust me. Am I right, authors?

It’s that way in crime fiction, too. Writers try to make time to write, and when they’re on deadline, that’s even more important. And, yet, they do get pulled away from the manuscript, especially when there’s a murder investigation. Don’t believe me? Here are a few examples.

Agatha Christie’s Ariadne Oliver is a detective story writer. She’s well-enough known and popular enough that her publisher knows her books will sell. But that doesn’t mean she has no pressure to write. She does get distracted, though. For instance, in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, she’s working on an adaptation of one of her novels for the stage when she gets drawn into a case that Hercule Poirot is investigating – and that ends up impacting her, too. Of course, Mrs. Oliver doesn’t welcome all distractions. Late in the novel, Poirot telephones her for a very important reason. She, however, sees it another way:
 

‘‘Have you got to ring me up just now? I’ve thought of the most wonderful idea for a murder in a draper’s shop…’’
 

She’s not happy to be interrupted, but what she tells Poirot helps to solve the case. Of course, fans of Mrs. Oliver know that sometimes, she welcomes distractions…

In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Queen takes some time away in the small New England town of Wrightsville. He’s there to get some writing done, and he’s looking forward to some peace and quiet while he stays in a guest house owned by John and Hermione ‘Hermy’ Wright. But soon enough, he gets distracted by family drama among the Wrights. It seems that their youngest daughter, Nora, had been engaged to a young man named Jim Haight. He jilted her, though, and left town abruptly. Now, Haight’s back, and everyone hopes that Nora will give him short shrift. Instead, to everyone’s shock, she takes up with him again and, in fact, they marry. Then, evidence comes up that Haight may be planning to kill his bride for her money. Queen isn’t sure that’s true, but there’s no denying the evidence. Then, on New Year’s Eve, Haight’s sister Rosemary, who’s been staying with the family, dies after drinking a poisoned cocktail. The assumption is that Haight is the murderer, and that the cocktail was intended for Nora. Haight is duly arrested and put on trial. The only people who question his guilt are Queen, and Nora’s sister, Pat. Together, the two look for the real truth behind Rosemary’s death. Queen fans will know that this isn’t the only time when Queen is pulled away from his writing…

Lilian Jackson Braun’s James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran is a newspaper journalist (he’s written a book, too). As a result of an odd series of events, he ended up in the small town of Pickax, in rural Moose County. Now, he does a twice-weekly column, Straight From the Qwill Pen, for the local paper. He’s become somewhat of a celebrity in the area, too. Like most journalists, Qwill is naturally curious. And he follows up when he thinks there might be a good story in something that’s happening. Since he’s in the newspaper business, he understands about deadlines, and he does his best to keep them. But, because he’s curious, he often gets involved in murder investigations. And sometimes, that distracts him from filing his stories promptly. In more than one novel, he rushes to the newspaper office with his copy just in the nick of time (much of this series was written before it was common to email copy).

Linwood Barclay’s Zack Walker is a science fiction author whom we meet in Bad Move. He’s worried about his family’s safety, living as they do in a big city. So, he persuades his wife, Sarah, to go along with his plan to move to a new suburban development, Valley Forest Estates. Along with the increased safety, Walker is looking forward to having more space, and hopefully more time, for writing. And that’s what he’s working on when he starts to get distracted. First, there are some problems with the new house the family has bought. So, Walker goes to Valley Forest’s sales office to lodge complaints and requests for service. While he’s there, he witnesses an argument between one of the company’s sales executives, and a local environmentalist named Samuel Spender. Then, later on the same day, Walker finds Spender’s body near a local creek. Before he knows it, Walker’s drawn into a web of murder and intrigue in his quiet, suburban development, and drawn away from his writing.

And then there’s Lynda Wilcox’s Verity Long, whom we meet in Strictly Murder. Long isn’t, strictly speaking, a writer, herself. She’s PA to successful crime writer Kathleen ‘KD’ Davenport. While Davenport is popular and sells well, that doesn’t mean she can be heedless of deadlines and commitments to her publisher. So, Long has to do her job, too. And her job is mostly to find and research old unsolved crime cases that Davenport can use as inspiration for her work. But Long does get distracted from her research at times, especially when she stumbles across cases of modern-day murder.

See what I mean? Writers really need to have focus and discipline. Otherwise they get distracted by all sorts of things, including murder. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to work on my novel. Oh, wait, there’s that laundry to do. And shouldn’t I be looking over this month’s bills? And there’s that meeting later on…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s Distractions.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Linwood Barclay, Lynda Wilcox

I Can’t Face Another Day*

Even in today’s world of better understanding of mental health, many people still don’t feel comfortable talking about suicide. It can be incredibly difficult to talk about the depression and sadness that lead people to take that step. But, of course, we need to.

And suicide doesn’t just affect those who take their own lives. Those left behind are devastated, and often feel a deep sense of guilt and, often, shame. Because mental health issues such as depression often contribute to suicide, it’s not something people have tended to discuss openly, but we should.

Suicide is there. And it causes a great deal of pain. The recent deaths by suicide of Kate Spade and of Anthony Bourdain have brought suicide into the public conversation, but it’s a tragic reality for many families. And we see that in crime fiction, too. In fact, it’s interesting to note how often characters don’t want a death to have been suicide. They don’t want to bear the guilt that comes with suicide. Or, they don’t want to believe a loved one was depressed/upset/etc. enough to commit suicide. Or…

There’s a mention of suicide in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. In that novel, Rachel Verinder receives a valuable diamond called the Moonstone for her eighteenth birthday. It may not be the generous gift it seems to be, though, because it is said to be cursed. And misfortune soon befalls the Verinder family. On the very night Rachel receives the diamond, it’s stolen from her room. Then, second housemaid Roseanna Spearman disappears and is found to have committed suicide. This devastates her family, and, of course, saddens the members of the household where she works. Sergeant Cuff investigates the theft of the diamond, and, over the course of the next two years, traces its whereabouts and finds out who stole it. And we see how the theft and suicide are related.

Agatha Christie mentions suicide in more than one of her stories. In And Then There Were None, for instance, we are introduced to Miss Emily Brent. She is one of ten people who are invited to a house on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. On the night she and the others arrive, each one is accused of causing the death of at least one other person. In the case of Miss Brent, it’s the death of Beatrice Taylor, a former housemaid who threw herself into a river. Miss Brent insists that Beatrice’s death was not her fault; in fact, she’s quite smug about it on the surface. That night, one of the other guests dies of what turns out to be poison. Then, there’s another death later that night. Now, it’s clear that the guests have been lured to the island, and that their lives are in danger. Miss Brent is not immune, as we learn when she is killed by what looks like a bee sting. And it’s interesting to see that, as we get to know her a bit, we see that she is more haunted by Beatrice’s death than she lets on.  Suicide also impacts The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Hollow, among others.

There’s an Ellery Queen novel in which a suicide towards the end of the novel rocks Queen to the core. Without going into details, Queen feels that he bears some of the responsibility for this suicide, and he finds that very difficult. Among other things, this shows a bit of Queen’s human side, if I may put it that way. And it shows a bit of the impact a suicide can have on those left behind.

We also see that impact in Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus. Davide Auseri happens to be in Milan one day, where he meets Alberta Radelli. On impulse, he invites her for a drive to Florence and a day there. She agrees, and the two find they enjoy each other’s company. At the end of the day, Alberta begs Davide to take her with him, and not back to Milan. He demurs, and she insists. Then, she threatens to commit suicide if he doesn’t take her. He refuses again. Not long afterwards, Alberta’s body is found in a field outside Milan, and it seems she’s carried out her threat. The thought that he is responsible for this suicide devastates Davide, leaving him inconsolable. He takes to heavy drinking, and even trips to rehabilitation facilities don’t help. Now, his father is deeply concerned about his son, and hires Dr. Duca Lamberti to help. Lamberti isn’t sure what he can do, but he agrees. As he gets to know Davide, he finally learns the truth about the young man’s depression. Lamberti finally concludes that the only way to solve this is to find out what really happened to Alberta Radelli, so as to relieve Davide of his guilt. It turns out that Alberta was murdered, but the novel has a very vivid depiction of a someone consumed by grief and guilt because of a suicide.

Nicolas Freeling’s Double-Barrel begins as Amsterdam police detective Piet Van der Valk is seconded to the small town of Zwinderen. Someone has been sending vicious anonymous letters to various residents, and they’ve had terrible consequences. In fact, two of the recipients have committed suicide. The local police haven’t been able to find out who wrote the letters, but whoever it is bears some responsibility for those deaths. As Van der Valk and his wife, Arlette, get to know the people in town, they learn that more than one person has secrets to hide…

In Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City, Reykjavík police inspector Erlendur and his team investigate the murder of a seemingly inoffensive elderly man named Holberg. At first, it looks like a robbery gone horribly wrong. But soon enough, the evidence suggests something different. So, Erlendur and the team look into the victim’s past. They learn that he’d been accused of rape more than once. The first to make that accusation was a woman named Kolbrún. When she went to the police, they didn’t take her seriously; in fact, they humiliated her. Her distress was so great that she committed suicide. Although this all happened years ago, Kolbrún’s sister, Elín, still grieves. She is also still bitter about the way the police handled the case, and blames the police, at least in part, for her sister’s suicide. Erlendur knows that Elín is suffering, but he also knows that she may be an important source of information. So, he takes the risk of talking to her about what happened. She is no friend of the police, but she ends up being helpful.

It doesn’t take a detective, or crime fiction, really, to know how awful suicide is, both for the person who takes that step, and for those who are left behind. It’s hard to remember at times, but we don’t have to go through life’s pain alone. For anyone who’s thinking about suicide, here are some people to talk to:

 

Australia – 1300 22 4636

Canada – 1-833-456-4566

India – 91-22-27546669

Ireland – 087 2 60 90 90

New Zealand – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Spain (Also serves some Latin American countries) – 717-003-717

UK –  08457 90 90 90

USA – 1-800-273-8255

 

If I didn’t list your country, that doesn’t mean there isn’t help. There is. Reach out.

 

We can all do our bit to help. If someone needs to talk, we can listen – without judgement. We can help find resources. We can take it seriously when someone is depressed and check in to be sure that person has support. We can’t make life’s sadness go away. But we can stand together to get through it.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Ellery Queen, Giorgio Scerbanenco, Nicolas Freeling, Wilkie Collins

The Game We Call Gaslighting*

It’s interesting how words become a part of our language. Take George Cukor’s 1947 film Gaslight. As you’ll know, the focus is a young woman who travels to Italy, falls in love, and marries. When she and her new husband return to England, she begins to notice strange things happening. As she slowly starts to question her own sanity, another, bigger question arises: what are her husband’s motives?

The film gave us the word ‘gaslight,’ which has come to mean ‘to manipulate someone into questioning her or his own sanity.’ ‘Gaslighting’ has been a part of crime fiction for a long time, and it certainly can add a lot to a story. On one level, there’s a lot of tension as a fictional character begins to wonder: ‘Am I crazy?’ On another level, there’s tension as readers wonder (and, later, learn) who is pulling the proverbial strings. There are a lot of examples of this plot point in the genre. Here are a few.

Agatha Christie used this plot point in several of her stories. For instance, in Third Girl, a young woman comes to visit Hercule Poirot. She tells him that she believes she may have committed a murder. Then, she abruptly leaves without giving her name (she says he’s ‘too old!’). Poirot learns from his friend, detective story writer Ariadne Oliver, that the young woman is Norma Restarick. With that information, Poirot and Mrs. Oliver start to look into the matter. Did Norma really commit a murder? If so, who is the victim? Then, Norma goes missing. Now, the possible murder case is even more complex. And it’s very interesting to see how ‘gaslighting’ works in this novel.

Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins begins as socialite Iris Carr prepares to travel back to London after a Continental holiday. She’s waiting for the train she needs, when she suffers what is likely heat stroke and blacks out. She recovers just in time to catch the train, and rushes aboard. She finds a spot in one of the coaches and settles in, but it’s soon apparent that she’s not welcome there. Still, she tries to rest a little. As the journey gets underway, Iris makes the acquaintance of an English governess, Winifred Froy. The two start talking and continue their conversation over tea that afternoon. Then, Iris returns to the compartment and falls asleep. When she wakes, Miss Froy is missing. Iris looks for her everywhere, but no-one can help her. In fact, the people in her compartment insist that there is no such person. As time goes by, Iris gets more and more concerned about Miss Froy, but no-one else seems to be able to help. Is there a Miss Froy? Is Iris mentally ill? If there is a Miss Froy, what’s happened to her? Those questions add to the tension in the story.

Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder features Howard Van Horn. One morning, he wakes from what seems to be a blackout. He’s got blood on him – not his own – and is terrified he’s done something awful. He visits his old college friend, Ellery Queen, to ask for help, and Queen agrees to do what he can. As Queen and Van Horn try to unravel the mystery, they return to Van Horn’s home town of Wrightsville, where they stay with Van Horn’s father, Dietrich, and stepmother, Sally. When Sally Van Horn is murdered, all of the evidence seems to point to Howard as the guilty party. Even he believes he must have killed her during a blackout. Did he? Has someone been manipulating him? It’s a difficult puzzle, and I can say without spoiling the story that it takes a terrible toll.

In Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, Walter and Joanna Eberhart, and their two children, leave their home in New York City, and move to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. At first, everything goes smoothly. The family settles in, and the children get accustomed to their new school and new friends. Then, Joanna’s friend, Bobbie Markowe, starts to suspect that something is very wrong in Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t believe her. But then, some things begin to happen that make Joanna wonder. As time goes by, she becomes less and less sure of the truth. Is she right about the danger? Is she losing her mind? That tension, as Joanna starts to question her own sanity, makes for some very suspenseful scenes in the novel.

The real action in Jane Haddam’s Not a Creature Was Stirring begins as former Philadelphia-based FBI agent Gregor Demarkian gets a note from his local parish priest, Father Tibor. It seems that Father Tibor has an odd request. A very wealthy railroad tycoon, Robert Hannaford, wants Demarkian to have Christmas Eve dinner with the Hannaford family. He won’t say why, or what he wants. But it’s worth a donation of US$100,000 to the church to him. Demarkian is happy to help the church if he can. And he is curious about what Hannford would want. So, he goes to the house as requested. By the time he gets there, though, it’s too late: Hannaford’s been murdered. Demarkian works with local police detective John Jackman to find out who the killer is. And, as it turns out, there are plenty of possibilities. In the end, Demarkian finds out who the killer is and what the motive is. He also finds out the reason Hannaford wanted him to visit: It seems that he
 

‘‘…complained about someone coming into his study and moving things, trying to make him think he was going senile.’’
 

That bit of ‘gaslighting’ plays an important role in the novel.

It’s not easy to make this plot point credible. After all, why would an intelligent person who’s not gullible start to question her or his own sanity? But when it’s done well, ‘gaslighting’ can add real suspense to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steely Dan’s Gaslighting Abbie.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Ethel Lina White, Ira Levin, Jane Haddam

Say I’m Old-Fashioned*

As times change, people often change with them. We learn to use new technology, we may change our thinking about things, and so on. But there are people whom time seems to leave behind. They stay with more traditional ways of thinking, and they see value in sticking to the old ways.

Characters like that can add a layer to a crime novel. They can be interesting in and of themselves. They can also provide perspective on other characters, and on the context of the novel.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), we are introduced to Miss Cecilia Wiliams. She’s one of five people who were ‘on the scene’ on the day famous painter Amyas Crale was poisoned. Crale and his wife, Caroline, had hired Miss Williams to teach Carline’s half-sister, Angela Warren. So, she was present on the afternoon of his death. At the time, Caroline was widely assumed to be guilty, and she had good reason. That, plus the evidence against her, was enough to convict her of the crime, and she died in prison. Now, sixteen years later, the Crales’ daughter, Carla, wants her mother’s name cleared. So, she hires Hercule Poirot to re-investigate the murder. To do so, he interviews Miss Williams and the other people who were at the Crale home when the killing took place. He also gets written accounts from each. Those interviews and accounts give Poirot the information he needs to find the killer. Throughout the book, we get to know Miss Williams’ character. She is Victorian in her outlook, and traditional in what she believes.
 

‘She had that enormous mental and moral advantage of a strict Victorian upbringing, denied to us in these days – she had done her duty in that station in life to which it had pleased God to call her, and that assurance encased her in an armour impregnable to the slings and darts of envy, discontent and regret.’
 

Miss Williams’ evidence doesn’t solve the murder, but it does help clear Caroline Crale’s name.

In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle, Dane McKell learns that his wealthy father, Ashton, is hiding a secret. It seems that he is having an affair with famous fashion designer Sheila Grey. When Dane discovers who his father’s paramour is, he decides to confront her. Unexpectedly, he finds himself attracted to her, and the two begin a relationship. Then, one night, Sheila Grey is murdered. New York Police Inspector Richard Queen investigates, and, naturally, his son, Ellery, gets involved in the case. Both Ashton and Dane McKell come in for their share of suspicion. So does Ashton’s wife, Lutetia. As the Queens get to know her, we learn that she is very much a ‘throwback’ to Victorian times. She’s very traditional in her views, and that adds to the tension and even dysfunction in the family. As the investigation continues, the Queens find that the McKells aren’t the only suspects. The victim had a complicated personal life, and there are several possibilities when it comes to her murderer.

One of the recurring characters in Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus series is Morris Gerald ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty. He’s a notorious Edinburgh crime boss, and, as such, frequently goes up against Rebus. Every once in a while, the two find themselves ‘necessary allies’ when it’s in both of their interests. And, over time, they develop a grudging respect for each other, even though neither really likes or trusts the other. As the series begins, Cafferty is very much in charge of his share of Edinburgh’s crime trade. But, as the series goes on, times change, and crimes change with them. Little by little, crime bosses such as Cafferty are being supplanted by other sorts of crime and new sorts of criminals. For Cafferty, this raises a question. Where does an old-style crime boss like him fit in in Edinburgh’s new crime scene? It’s not an easy situation for him.

Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective: Introducing Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond is the first of his series featuring Diamond. There’s a reason for that title, too. Diamond is, in many ways, an old-fashioned sort of detective. He believes in ‘legwork,’ in looking for clues, interviewing witnesses and suspects, and so on. And, although he’s had some trouble, he’s good at what he does, and he has a solid instinct. He sees himself as the last of the true detectives, who rely on their own skills, rather than getting all of their answers from computers. And he’s well able to show that nothing can completely replace a good police detective with solid instincts and the ability to put the pieces of a puzzle together.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is a former accountant-turned baker, who lives and has her bakery in a large Melbourne building called Insula. Fans of this series know that the building is also home to several other ‘regular’ characters. One of them is retired professor Dionysus Monk. He’s a bibliophile who regularly quotes Greek and Roman classics. While he is fully aware that it’s a modern world, he has a sort of ‘old world’ charm and courtliness that appeals. And he often has quite a lot of wisdom.

So does Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe. She is the owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Botswana’s only female-run private investigation company. Mma Ramotswe understands that the world keeps changing, and so do tastes and attitudes. She even agrees with some of those changes, as they improve life. But she is old-fashioned in many respects. She clings to traditional Botswana values, and is very proud of her people’s ways. She isn’t completely ‘stuck in the past,’ but she believes that many traditions are worth preserving.

There are other characters, too, who are, as you might say, reminders of an earlier time. They know the world is changing, but they prefer some (or even all) of the older ways. Depending on how the author creates those characters, this can make for a sympathetic character or…the opposite. Which have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger’s Old Time Rock and Roll.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Ellery Queen, Ian Rankin, Kerry Greenwood, Peter Lovesey

Over at the Counter, Helping All the Shoppers*

As this is posted, it’s 116 years since James Cash (J.C.) Penney opened his first department store. Since that time, department stores have become an integral part of our buying culture. And, if you think about it, department stores represented a major change in shopping. It was now possible to purchase ready-made clothing for men, women, and children, all in the same place. Linens, housewares and jewelry, too.

Of course, today’s department stores don’t much resemble the early department stores. Most now have online shopping options, for example. And there aren’t as many department stores as there once were. But, whether it’s El Corte Inglés, J.C. Penney, Debenhams or Hudson’s Bay, department stores still play a role in our shopping.

They play a role in crime fiction, too, and it’s interesting to see how they fit in to the setting of a novel. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Much of Ellery Queen’s The French Powder Mystery is set in French’s Department Store, which is in New York City. One day, a store employee is setting up a window demonstration of some of the store’s furniture. When she tries to demonstrate the way the pull-out bed works, she discovers the body of a woman on the bed. Inspector Richard Queen takes the investigation, and, of course, his son Ellery goes along. It turns out that the dead woman is Winnifred French, wife of the store’s owner, Cyrus French. As the Queens investigate, they learn that there are several possibilities for the killer’s identity. As we meet the various suspects, we also learn about the way older, family-run department stores worked.

In Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe, Perry Mason and Della Street duck out of the rain into a department store. There, they see a store security guard stop Sarah Breel for shoplifting. Unfortunately, this is a habit with her, but most of the time, her niece, Virginia Trent, goes shopping with her to prevent any incidents. But this time, Virginia wasn’t right next to her aunt. Not long afterwards, Virginia Trent comes to Mason with an even more complex problem. Her uncle is a gem expert, who appraises, cuts, cleans, and custom-sets gems on commission. Now, two valuable diamonds have been stolen, and the most likely suspect is Aunt Sarah. Austin Cullens, who originally sold the diamonds, doesn’t believe Aunt Sarah has the diamond. But when he’s found dead, and Aunt Sarah becomes the prime suspect, Mason has a difficult case on his hands.

Fans of Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series know that it takes place in the small town of Pickax, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ The local department store, Lanspeak’s, is owned by Larry and Carol Lanspeak, who run it as a family business. Several scenes in the series take place at the store, and the Lanspeak family figures into more than one of the mysteries. It’s an interesting example of the sort of department store that used to be much more common before the advent of larger company buyouts and, later, the Internet.

There’s a memorable scene at a department store in Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke. It’s 1931, and the Nazis are rising to power in Germany. Berlin crime reporter Hannah Vogel has just learned that her brother Ernst was killed, but she doesn’t know why or by whom. So, she starts to quietly ask some questions. She has to be careful, so as not to attract Nazi attention, but she does want to find out the truth. Late one night, a young boy named Anton comes to her home. His birth certificate lists her as his mother, but she knows she has no children. Still, she takes the boy in and decides to take care of him the best she can for now. And that will include getting him some clothes, since the boy has nearly nothing. So, she takes Anton to Wertheim’s Department Store. They have a very good experience, and for Anton, it’s like being taken to a wonderland. All that changes on the way out of the store, when they are harassed by Nazi thugs who don’t want ‘good Germans’ shopping at ‘Jewish stores.’ It’s a frightening experience, and it shows how stores got caught in the dramatic events in Germany at the end of the Weimar Republic.

In one plot thread of David Whish-Wilson’s Perth-based Zero at the Bone, we learn that former police superintendent Frank Swann is no longer working with the police (read about the events that led up to that in Line of Sight). He’s been hired by another former police officer, Percy Dickson. Dickson is head of security at a local department store, and he wants to know the truth behind some robberies that have been taking place. Several department stores and some jewelers have been targeted, and Dickson wants to know who’s responsible. So, he is working with the security people at the other stores to see if there’s a pattern. And Swann works with them to find out who’s behind the thefts. He discovers the truth, and the stolen merchandise is returned. But Dickson is under strict orders to say nothing about the thefts or the resolution of the problem. Unfortunately, he makes the mistake of mentioning the matter to the wrong people…

And then there’s Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel. That story begins in Philadelphia in the 1950s. Evelyn ‘Evie’ Hobart has grown up with very little. But she is beautiful and seductive. So, when she meets Hank Moran at a dance, it doesn’t take long for him to fall in love with her. They marry, and Evie finally has the life of privilege that she always wanted, since Hank comes from a family with money and prestige. All starts out well enough, and Evie joins the group of wealthy young women who take day trips into Philadelphia to shop, who belong to clubs, and so on. But Evie has always wanted to acquire things. And she enjoys the rush that comes when she takes them without paying for them. So, she’s caught shoplifting in department stores more than once. At first, it’s all hushed up and settled over because of the Moran family’s money and power. But finally, things get to the point where she is sent to The Terraces, an exclusive ‘special place’ where she can be ‘cured.’ Things don’t work out that way, though, and her daughter, Christine, grows up in a very toxic home. Evie hasn’t changed, and stops at nothing, including murder, to get what she wants. Christine feels powerless to do anything about it until she sees her young brother, Ryan, begin to get caught up in the same web. Now, Christine will have to find a way to free herself and Ryan before it’s too late.

The world of shopping has changed dramatically over the decades. But it’s still got a place for department stores. And so does crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rosenbergs’ Department Store Girl.

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Filed under David Whish-Wilson, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, Lilian Jackson Braun, Patricia Abbott, Rebecca Cantrell