Category Archives: Ellery Queen

Riddle Me This*

RiddlesMany people enjoy solving riddles and playing ‘riddle’ games, where they have to put clues together to find an answer. And it can be a really interesting way to ‘exercise the brain.’ ‘Riddle games’ have been woven into plenty of crime fiction, which shouldn’t be surprising, really. After all, if you’re a crime fiction fan, you probably like to use your ability to link clues together and solve mysteries. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Musgrave Ritual, Sherlock Holmes relates one of his older cases to Dr. Watson. Sir Reginald Musgrave was a university friend of Holmes’, and so, was acquainted with his legendary deductive skill. He asked Holmes to visit him at his home and help solve a mystery. Musgrave’s butler, Richard Brunton, and his maid, Rachel Howells, disappeared, and no sign has been seen of them. The only clue is that before the two went missing, Musgrave had caught Brunton looking through some private family papers. The one he seemed most interested in was a paper that contained an old, apparently meaningless, poem used in a sort of family ritual. It turns out to be far from meaningless, though, when Holmes discovers what the poem really says.

Agatha Christie used riddles, puzzles and so on in several of her stories. For instance, in the short story Manx Gold, we meet Fenella Mylecharane and Juan Faraker, a recently-engaged couple who travel to the Isle of Man to hear the reading of the will when Fenella’s eccentric Uncle Myles dies. The will states Uncle Myles found buried treasure on the island, and provides clues to the treasure. According to the will, Fennella, Juan, and two other potential heirs will be given sets of clues to where the treasure is buried. The first to find the treasure gets to claim it. Very soon, the race is on. What’s interesting about this story is that Christie wrote it on commission to help boost tourism on the island. It was printed in instalments, and given to tourists, who were invited to make sense of the clues and find the treasure. Ironically, no-one ever claimed the real-life treasure – £100 to the first person who could find four identical snuffboxes holding Manx half-pennies. I know, I know, fans of Dead Man’s Folly.

There’s a more macabre puzzle in Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil. In this novel, Queen has taken a house in the Hollywood Hills to spend some quiet time writing. His plans change dramatically when he meets Laurel Hill. She’s heard he’s there, and wants his help solving what she considers to be a murder. Her father, Leander Hill, recently died of a heart attack after receiving several grotesque ‘gifts.’ She doesn’t know what the packages mean, but she is sure that her father did. What’s more, Hill’s business partner, Roger Priam, has also been getting ‘gifts.’ Lauren believes that if Queen can find out what the puzzle of the packages means, he’ll find out who caused her father’s heart attack. Queen doesn’t want to get involved at first; he wants to work on his writing. But he finds himself getting drawn into the puzzle as he solves the riddle that was left for Hill and Priam.

One of the more unusual ‘riddle games’ is in Fred Vargas’ The Chalk Circle Man, the first of her novels featuring Comissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and his police team. As the novel begins, there’s been a great deal of attention given to a strange phenomenon: someone has been drawing chalk circles in blue on the pavement in various places in Paris. Each circle is accompanied by the strange saying,

‘Victor, woe’s in store. What are you out here for?’

And all sorts of things have been found inside the circles, including notebooks, an orange, and a hat. Then one day a body is found inside one of the circles. Now the case has gone beyond the bizarre and into the murderous, so Adamsberg and his team get to work looking for the killer. In order to find that person, they’re going to have to solve the riddle of the circles, their contents, and the strange message.

And then there’s Lisa Unger’s In the Blood, which tells the story of college student Lana Granger. She’s working on a degree in psychology, and is hoping to finish soon. When her mentor recommends her for a job as an after-school sort of nanny, Lana’s not sure she wants the position at first. But the child, eleven-year-old Luke Kahn, is an interesting case from a professional viewpoint. He is extremely intelligent – even gifted. But he has severe emotional, anger, and other issues. It might be a valuable experience to work with such a child, so Lana is persuaded to contact Luke’s mother Rachel. Lana gets the job offer and prepares to work with Luke. But she soon finds it to be quite a challenge, as he is a troubled young boy. Lana’s not sure whether he is brilliant, and simply bored, or whether he is victim of abuse, or seriously disturbed for some other reason. One day Luke insists that they play a game. He begins to give clues, all of which make Lana begin to wonder at how much Luke seems to know about her. It’s an eerie game, but Luke refuses to stop playing. Then, Lana’s roommate and friend Rebecca ‘Beck’ Miller goes missing. As the police start looking into the case, Lana herself becomes a ‘person of interest.’ And Luke seems to know an awful lot about the case…

Riddles and ‘riddle games’ can be a lot of fun, and certainly intellectually stimulating. They can also add some interesting leaven to a mystery story. Oh, and you’ll notice, I didn’t include any of the serial-killer novels where the killer leaves cryptic clues. Can you guess why?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steel Pulse’s Steppin’ Out.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Fred Vargas, Lisa Unger

The Hotel Detective, He Was Outta Sight*

Hotel DetectivesHave you stayed in any hotels recently? Because of the nature of hotels, all kinds of people may be there, for any number of reasons. Most hotel guests are there temporarily, too. So hotels do need to take security seriously. Many modern hotels address that issue by using CCTV and other surveillance. Some hotels have entire security staffs. That’s especially true in large or upmarket hotels, or hotels in places such as Las Vegas, where guests may be either very vulnerable or sorely tempted.

What I haven’t seen in any hotel I’ve stayed at is a hotel detective. I don’t know if hotels hire such professionals any more. Some certainly may. On the other hand, it may not be as necessary today, given how easy it is to set up a security system. But many hotels used to hire them. It was logical, too, since the police couldn’t really patrol a hotel.

Moira at Clothes in Books suggested I take a look at the hotel detective in crime fiction, and I’m glad she did. It’s a fascinating topic! Almost as fascinating as Moira’s excellent blog, which you really should have on your blog roll if you don’t. It’s a treasure trove of information and commentary on clothes and popular culture in books, and what it all says about us.

Raymond Chandler’s short story I’ll Be Waiting tells the story of Tony Reseck, house detective for the Windermere Hotel. He’s concerned about one particular guest, Eve Cressy, who’s been staying in the hotel for five days without leaving her room. She assures him that she’s all right, and just waiting for someone. Then, Reseck gets a message from his brother Al, who warns him to get Eve out of the hotel right away, as she’s in big trouble. It seems that she was mixed up with a criminal who’s recently been released from San Quentin prison, and is coming back to her. Of course, the relationship is a little more complicated than that, and Reseck finds himself getting mixed up in a drama and having to find a creative way out of it.

Much of the action in Ellery Queen’s The Chinese Orange Mystery takes place in the Chancellor Hotel. That’s where Donald Kirk keeps a well-appointed suite of rooms for his publishing business and his rare stamp collection. One day, a strange little man comes to see Kirk. He won’t give his name or his business to Kirk’s assistant James Osborne; instead, he says he’ll wait from Kirk. Osborne settles him in an office Kirk has set up for visitors, promising to let him know when Kirk returns. When Kirk comes back to his office, he and his clerk find to their shock that the visitor’s been murdered. His clothes are on backwards, and the room’s furnishings are backwards, too. Ellery Queen happens to be with Kirk, since the two had meet by chance in the lobby. He immediately takes an interest in the odd case. It’s all made even stranger by the fact that no-one was seen to go in or out of the office. What’s more the door is locked from the inside. This is one of those ‘impossible but not impossible’ cases that Queen fans will know. In this instance, the hotel detective, Brummer, doesn’t solve the case. But he does get involved, and it’s interesting to see how his job is portrayed.

Philip Kerr’s If The Dead Rise Not features his sleuth Bernie Gunther, a former police officer. This story takes place before the events of the Berlin Noir trilogy, and in it, Gunther has taken a job as house detective for the Adlon Hotel. It’s 1934, and the Nazis have taken power. They’re putting their stamp on everything; and, more and more, anyone whose loyalty is called into question is at risk. In fact, Gunther has a run-in with a police detective who questions his commitment to Hitler (in my opinion, Gunther finds a creative way to deal with that!). When he learns that the Nazis are targeting anyone with any kind of Jewish ancestry, he finds himself in trouble, since one of his grandparents was Jewish. As he’s dealing with that problem, he also has two other cases. One is the theft of a Chinese artefact from the room of an American businessman. The other is helping a journalist with her exposé of Hitler’s increasingly harsh treatment of Jews. Through it all, Gunther has to do his best to stay in the face of increasing risk from the Nazis.

There’s also Alan Russell’s novels featuring former surfer-turned hotel detective Am Caulfield, who works at La Jolla’s California Hotel. In The Hotel Detective, he solves several cases, including Carlton Smoltz’ murder of his wife, and the death of contractor Tim Kelly who may or may not have jumped from the balcony of his room. In The Fat Innkeeper, the hotel’s been bought by a Japanese firm, so Caulfield has to deal with his new bosses’ ways of doing things. And then there’s also the poisoning murder of Dr. Thomas Kingsbury, who was attending a retreat for those who’d had near-death experiences. Kingsbury was committed to debunking mediums, paranormal experts and so on, so no-one’s really surprised at his death. And that means there are several suspects in this case.

And here are a few other tidbits about house detectives that you might not know.  Dashiell Hammett had several jobs in his lifetime besides writing. One of them, for a time, was as a hotel detective. And E. Howard Hunt (yes, he of the Nixon Watergate years) wrote a thriller, House Dick, about a hotel detective. And finally, Stewart Stirling wrote a series featuring house detective Gil Vine. Those books aren’t as easy to find, but they present a more pulp-fiction/noir picture of the job.

So as you can see, even if the hotels you stay don’t have official house detectives, they’re still out there. At least in fiction. I’ll sleep better knowing that next time I’m on the road…

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Grand Funk Railroad’s We’re an American Band.


Filed under Alan Russell, Dashiell Hammett, E. Howard Hunt, Ellery Queen, Philip Kerr, Raymond Chandler, Stewart Stirling

Hide it in a Hiding Place Where No One Ever Goes*

Ingenious Hiding PlacesWhere would crime fiction be without the ingenious hiding place? All sorts of valuable things are hidden throughout the genre: wills, letters, jewels, even a horse (more on that shortly). And a garden-variety hiding place (in a drawer or behind a picture) isn’t nearly as interesting as something more ingenious. Of course, an ingenious hiding place still has to be believable, or crime fiction fans won’t ‘buy’ it. Even with that, though, there’s plenty of leeway for some interesting hiding places, and lots of authors have made use of thtem. Here are a few examples.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson travel to Dartmoor to investigate the disappearance of a famous racehorse Silver Blaze (See? Here’s the one about the horse), and the murder of the horse’s trainer, John Straker. Inspector Tobias Gregory has arrested London bookmaker Fitzroy Simpson, and he did have motive, since he has a lot at stake in an upcoming race that Silver Blaze is scheduled to run. But there are pieces of evidence that suggest that Simpson is not the killer. And for all his imperfections as a detective (at least, that’s how Holmes sees it), he doesn’t want an innocent man convicted. So he’s asked Holmes to look into the matter. Silver Blaze is, of course, missing. So along with solving Straker’s murder, Holmes and Watson have to also find out where Silver Blaze is hidden. It’s really quite an ingenious place, actually. I know, I know, fans of The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.

Agatha Christie used clever hiding places in several of her stories. For example, in Death on the Nile, Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race investigate the murder of Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, who was shot on the second night of a honeymoon cruise of the Nile. The most likely suspect is her former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, but it’s soon proven that she could not have committed the murder. So Poirot and Race have to re-think their ideas. In the meantime, it’s been noticed that some valuable pearls belonging to the victim have disappeared. Besides their intrinsic value, their theft could possibly have been a motive for murder. So a search is undertaken for them. It turns out that they’ve been hidden in a very interesting place. I know, I know, fans of The Man in the Brown Suit, and The Case of the Missing Will.

Ellery Queen’s short story The Adventure of the One-Penny Black presents another really interesting hiding place. In that story, Queen and Sergeant Velie investigate the disappearance of a very rare stamp called a one-penny black – one of a valuable pair. It’s gone missing from the collection of avid philatelists Friedrich and Albert Ulm, who are particularly anxious about it, because it’s got Queen Victoria’s signature on it. Of course, there are dozens of places where one might hide a stamp. But Queen makes some deductions and, after being pulled off the trail briefly, finds out what happened to that stamp. It turns out to have been a very clever hiding place.

Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone begins with the execution-style shooting of an unidentified Senegalese immigrant. One day, he’s laying out his wares in one of Venice’s open-air markets when he is murdered. It all happens so fast that no-one really sees the killer or the actual incident. What’s worse, no-one knows the victim. To most people he’s ‘just another immigrant,’ with no real identity. And he doesn’t have any identification. That’s going to make it difficult to find out who he was and who wanted to kill him. Still, Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello persist; eventually they trace the man to the house that he shared with several other immigrants. That presents another challenge. For obvious reasons, the other people with whom the victim lived do not trust the police. What’s more, there’s a language barrier. Still, Brunetti and Vianello manage to learn a few things about the man, and they find out which room in the house he was using. As they search through his things, they discover a box of salt. Buried inside the salt is a cache of diamonds. Now the case takes on a whole new meaning. As it turns out, the victim’s death is connected to arms trafficking and to ‘conflict diamonds.’

And then there’s Steve Robinson’s In the Blood. Wealthy Boston businessman Walter Sloane hires genealogist Jefferson Tayte for a special family search. He wants Tayte to trace his wife’s ancestry as a gift to her, and Tayte takes the commission. He traces the family all the way back to her first American-born ancestor William Fairborne. That line died out; however, another branch of the family continued. In 1783, so Tayte learns, Fairborne’s brother James took his family to England with a group of Loyalists. Sloan wants Tayte to pursue this line, so Tayte makes the trip to Cornwall, where the modern-day Fairbornes live. Almost immediately he faces several challenges. One is that there are no records of Fairborne’s wife and children after his arrival. There’s only a record of another marriage two years later. So what happened to the Fairbornes?  Another is that the modern Fairborne family is not interested in helping him. They have a lot of social status and local ‘clout,’ too, so very few other people are willing to give Tayte any information. One day, by chance, he meets Amy Fallon, who is working on a mystery of her own. Two years earlier, her husband Gabriel died at sea in a storm. Before he died, he told Amy that he’d found out a secret, but never got the chance to tell her what he’d discovered. Since then, though, construction on their home, Ferryman Cottage, has revealed a hidden staircase that leads to a secret room beneath the house. In that room, Fallon has discovered an antique writing box. That writing box turns out to contain an important clue to Tayte’s mystery.

There are, of course, dozens of other mysteries that feature ingenious and unusual hiding places for papers, wills, jewels, and a lot of other things too. Which ones do you like best?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Donna Leon, Ellery Queen, Steve Robinson

Call Me Unpredictable*

UnpredictableIn Agatha Christie’s short story Triangle at Rhodes, Hercule Poirot is taking a holiday at a luxury hotel on the Island of Rhodes. One day he has a conversation with a fellow guest, Pamela Lyall.

‘‘Oh, M. Poirot, I don’t think anything’s so interesting – so incalculable – as a human being!’
‘Incalculable? That, no.’
‘Oh, but they are! Just as you think you’ve got them beautifully taped – they do something completely unexpected.’
Hercule Poirot shook his head.
‘No, no, that is not true. It is most rare that anyone does an action that is not dans san caractère.’’ 

That, to Poirot, is an important reason to understand the psychology of the people with whom he’s involved when he works a case.

But it does present a challenge for crime writers. Most readers want believable characters who behave in credible ways. Stories don’t ‘feel’ real otherwise. On the other hand, readers also want some surprises. And authors know that when characters behave in unexpected ways, this can get the reader wondering why, and wanting to know more. The key seems to be in making sure that those unexpected things happen for a reason, and are not inconsistent with what that character might conceivably do.

Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder is an example of how this can happen. Howard Van Horn has been having blackouts for some time now, and that’s worrisome in itself. But when he wakes up with blood on himself after one of them, he becomes frightened. It’s not in his nature to be violent. His guess is that he must have done something horrible. So he contacts Queen, who is an old friend from college, and asks him for help. Queen agrees and together, the two begin to search for the truth. The trail leads to Van Horn’s home town of Wrightsville, whether his father Dieter lives with his second wife Sally. During their visit, Sally is murdered, and Howard becomes the prime suspect. Queen has known his friend for a long time, although they hadn’t seen each other much just lately. It doesn’t seem ‘in character’ for him to do some terrible such as commit murder. So Queen looks for another explanation.

In Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed, former police officer Douglas Brodie has recently returned from service in World War II. He’s living in London, trying to get his life in order, when he gets a call from an old friend Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan, asking for his help. Donovan’s been arrested for the kidnap and murder of a young boy Rory Hutchinson, and there is evidence against him. In fact, that evidence is compelling enough that Brodie isn’t entirely convinced that Donovan is innocent. And yet, Donovan just doesn’t seem to be the kind of person who would abduct and kill a boy – not like that. It just doesn’t seem to be in character for him. Still, he too served in World War II, and was badly wounded. And he’s picked up the heroin habit. So who knows what could have happened? Brodie agrees to at least ask a few questions, though, and travels to Glasgow to see what he can do. He ends up getting drawn into a very ugly and complicated case of murder. And it’s interesting how the question is raised of whether someone like Shug Donovan would do the kinds of things that have been alleged.

There’s a fascinating question of acting unexpectedly and out of character in Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case. Caspar Leinen is just starting on his law career, and is serving his turn on legal aid standby duty when he gets a call from the local examining magistrate about a new client. Italian immigrant Fabrizio Collini has lived quietly for years in Böblingen, Germany. One day, he unexpectedly travels to Berlin’s Hotel Adlon, where he goes to one of the suites and shoots Jean-Baptiste Meyer. He’s promptly taken into custody and arrested. It will be Leinen’s duty to defend Collini, and it won’t be easy. For one thing, Collini doesn’t even want a lawyer. He says that he is responsible and won’t defend himself. For another, he gives no motive. And such a thing seems completely out of character and shocking for him. He’s never been in trouble with the law, isn’t known for violence, and wasn’t known as one of Meyer’s associates. So why do something so completely unexpected? As Leinen starts to do the work of preparing for the trial, he finds out more and more about Collini by starting at the beginning. As it turns out, the whole case has to do with World War II and the Nazi occupation of Italy. And as we find out, the murder is not nearly as unexpected as it seems on the surface.

Successful TV presenter Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford has to cope with her mother’s completely unexpected decisions in Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall. Sanford and her recently-widowed mother Iris have been planning to open an antiques business together. That all changes one day when Iris telephones her daughter to say that she’s changed her mind and taken a home many miles away in Devon. Completely stunned by this, Sanford immediately heads for Devon to find out for herself what’s going on. When she gets there, she discovers that her mother has taken the old carriage house on the estate of Honeychurch Hall and is redoing it. She’s injured her hand in a car accident though, and can’t do much at the moment. So Sanford decides to stay with her mother until the hand is healed, at least. During her visit, some strange things happen at the Hall. First, a valuable antique snuff box is stolen. Then, the young woman who’s been serving as nanny goes missing. Then, the housekeeper, Vera Pugsley, is found dead. Before long, Sanford is much more drawn into the doings at Honeychurch Hall than she had imagined, and so is her mother. And we learn that Iris Sanford has her own reasons for behaving in such an unexpected and out-of-character (or was it?) way.

When characters do something sudden and unexpected, it can to a story’s interest, and to the suspense. But if it’s going to work, it’s important that the motivation be credible. After all, it takes a lot for someone to behave out of character; some even argue that it’s impossible.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn’s Call Me Irresponsible.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Ferdinand von Schirach, Gordon Ferris, Hannah Dennison

It’s Who You Know*

NetworksMost of us are members of social networks, whether we really think about it or not. And it’s sometimes surprising how those networks come up. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever said (or heard) something like this: ‘You went to [name of university]? So did I!’ People use networks all the time to get things accomplished. Ask anyone who’s ever been in charge of an alumni donation drive for a school.

Those networks can also serve a social purpose. People who belong to exclusive clubs, for instance, have a group of wealthy, well-placed allies who can help them get things done. It might be arranging a business loan, getting a place for a child at an elite school, or something else.

We all use our networks, however casual they may be, because it’s efficient. So it’s little wonder we see these networks operating in crime fiction too. Sometimes, they serve a very useful purpose. Other times, they turn out to be deadly.

In Agatha Christie’s They Do it With Mirrors (AKA Murder With Mirrors), for instance, Ruth Van Rydock takes advantage of her finishing-school network. She’s become concerned about her sister Carrie Serrocold, who lives with her husband Lewis at a Victorian-Era property called Stonygates.  The place has been converted into a school for delinquent boys, so there’s a great deal of coming and going, as it were. There aren’t any obvious signs, but Ruth suspects that Carrie may be in danger, so she writes to Jane Marple, an old friend from the school she attended in Florence. Miss Marple is conscious of that school network, too, and is happy to oblige her friend. She visits Stonygates herself to see what’s going on. Tragedy strikes soon enough. Carrie’s stepson Christian Gulbrandsen, who is one of the school’s trustees, pays a business-related visit. One night, he’s shot while he’s writing a letter, and that letter goes missing. Miss Marple extends her visit to find out who the killer really is and what the motive is.

Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder begins when Howard Van Horn wakes up from what seems to be a blackout. That’s happened before, and it’s cause enough for concern as it is. But when he sees that he’s got blood on himself, he becomes terrified that he must have done something horrible. So he taps his school network and contacts an old friend from college, Ellery Queen, to ask for help. Queen agrees to do what he can, and together, the two begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The trail leads to the small New England town of Wrightsville, where Van Horn grew up and where his father Dietrich now lives with his second wife Sally. One night during Queen and Van Horn’s visit, Sally is murdered. As it happens, Van Horn was having a blackout that night, so he’s a natural suspect. He even comes to believe it himself. But Queen isn’t convinced, and continues to investigate. And in the end, he finds out what really happened to Sally Van Horn, and why.

There are a lot of other stories in which school networks play an important role (I know, I know, fans of Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night). And of course there are examples of school societies such as fraternities and sororities that also figure in crime fiction. But school networks are by no means the only ones.

In many cultures, extended family serves as a network. In those cultures, any kind of kinship status entitles one to hospitality, financial assistance, and so on. And some fictional sleuths find those networks to be very useful.

For example, Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation. He is also a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. Kinship ties are particularly important within the Navajo culture. In fact, traditional Navajo introductions include references to family networks. That’s done in order to establish the relationship between two people who meet for the first time. If it comes out that there is any kinship, however distant, those two people could not consider a romantic relationship. But they could claim kinship privileges and they would assume kinship responsibilities. As fans of this series know, several of Hillerman’s novels include scenes where Chee makes use of his own family network to get information or assistance. There are also, of course, scenes where others make use of their networks to protect their kin from the police. It works both ways.

M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth also makes use of his family network. He is ‘just’ the village bobby for the Highlands village of Lochdubh, but his kinship ties are extended. In Death of a Cad, for instance, he investigates the shooting death of Captain Peter Bartlett. At first it looks like a terrible hunting accident, but soon enough, Macbeth finds evidence that this was murder. He wants to get as much information as he can about the people present at the time of the murder, in order to work out which one(s) had a motive:

‘Like many Highlanders, Hamish had relatives scattered all over the world, and he was thankful he still had a good few of the less ambitious ones in different parts of Scotland.’

Macbeth makes a few calls to get the background he wants. And he finds out some very useful information from, in this case, his fourth cousin.

Of course, being involved in a network can be very dangerous, too. That’s especially the case if someone is believed to have betrayed that network. For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Five Orange Pips, John Openshaw brings a very strange case to Sherlock Holmes. His Uncle Elias, with whom he lived, was found dead in a pool on his estate. His death followed a series of increasingly bizarre reactions and incidents. What’s especially strange is that it all seemed to start when Elias Openshaw received a letter containing five orange pips. Now John Openshaw’s father Joseph has gotten a letter containing pips as well, but he won’t go to the police about it. He’s badly frightened, though, so his son has taken the case to Holmes. When Holmes gets to the truth behind the pips, he sees that it all has to do with the Ku Klux Klan, which had formed in the US after the Civil War, and had (so people thought) disbanded.

There are also many novels in which members or former members of the Mob pay a very high price for anything perceived as betrayal.  Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas, for instance, is the story of Fred and Maggie Blake and their children, who’ve recently moved from the US to the small Normandy town of Cholong-sur-Avre. They’ve got more than the usual challenges that ex-pats often face, though. Fred Blake is really Giovanni Manzoni, a former member of the New Jersey Mob who was targeted when he became a federal witness against the group. Now he and his family are in the US’ Witness Protection Program, and are supposed to be looked after by its staff. But that may not be enough when word of the family’s whereabouts gets back to New Jersey…

Most of us depend on our networks of family, fellow alumni, fellow society members, and so on. Sometimes those networks can provide invaluable support. But sometimes they draw people into very dangerous situations.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Reed Nielsen’s I Never Walk Alone, recorded by Huey Lewis and the News.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, M.C. Beaton, Tonino Benacquista, Tony Hillerman