Category Archives: Ellery Queen

And We Had to Go Our Separate Ways*

Returning After AbsencesA lot can happen to a person, even in a short time. So when someone goes away for a while and then reappears, there’s no telling what might have happening during that absence. This scenario can be really effective in a crime novel. For one thing, those questions and that speculation can make a fictional character all the more interesting. And sometimes, what happens during those absences plays a role in a present-day story.

Fans of Agatha Christie will know that her life included a real-life disappearance and return. She went missing for eleven days at the end of 1926, and was found staying at a hotel under an assumed name. Christie herself never published the reason for her disappearance, so there’s been a lot of speculation about it. Whatever the reason, it certainly added to her mystery.

We see that plot thread in some of her work, too. For example, in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder For Christmas and A Holiday For Murder), Poirot is staying with a friend over the Christmas holiday. He gets drawn into a case of murder when Simeon Lee, who lives not very far away, is killed on Christmas Eve. There are plenty of suspects, too, as his family is gathered for the holiday. And, in classic Golden Age fashion, Lee was both wealthy and very unpleasant. One of the suspects is Lee’s son Harry, who hasn’t visited the family home in twenty years. He’s spent most of that time living in out-of-the-way places and cabling for money when he runs out. His long absence and sudden return have upset his brother Alfred, who’s always resented Harry. That thread of tension adds a layer to this novel, as does the mystery of what Harry’s been doing all these years. And the absence adds to Harry’s character.

In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, we meet Nora Wright, daughter of social leaders John F. and Hermione Wright. Three years before the events of the novel, she was planning to marry Jim Haight; he jilted her, though, and disappeared. Now he’s back, and to everyone’s consternation, he and Nora rekindle their relationship. Ellery Queen has been using a guest house on the Wright property as a writing retreat, so he’s on hand to see the impact that Haight’s return has on the family. Everyone hopes the relationship will end; instead, Nora and Jim marry. Then, Jim’s sister Rosemary comes for an extended visit. No-one likes her very much, but she seems ‘dug in’ to stay for a while. Then, on New Year’s Eve, she is killed by what turns out to be a poisoned cocktail. For several reasons, Haight is the most likely suspect, and everyone is satisfied that he’s guilty. In fact, only Queen and Nora’s sister Pat believe there could be any other explanation. Queen looks into the matter and finds out what really happened; it turns out that Haight’s absence, and what happened during that time, play a role in the mystery.

John D. MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Goodbye introduces readers to his sleuth, ‘salvage consultant’ Travis McGee. He’s the last hope for those who’ve been cheated out of money or property and want it returned. In this novel, McGee’s friend, dancer Chookie McCall, asks him to help one of the members of her dance troupe. Catherine Kerr has lost something and wants it back. The only problem is, she doesn’t know what ‘it’ is. She tells McGee that she got a visit from a man named Junior Allen, who had known her father. Allen ingratiated himself with her, and before long, they were a couple. Then Allen disappeared, only to return some months later, a great deal richer. He then took up with another woman, only to disappear again. Kerr is certain that Allen stole something of her father’s, and that that accounts for his wealth. But she has no idea what that something might be. In order to recover his client’s property, McGee will have to not only find Allen, but also trace what he was doing during his absence. And that turns out to be a very dangerous task.

Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed takes a slightly different perspective on being gone for a time and then coming back. Douglas Brodie has just returned from service in World War II, and is now trying to start his life again in London. Then he gets a call from an old Glasgow friend Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan. It seems that Donovan’s been arrested for the murder of a young boy Rory Hutchinson, and is scheduled to be executed in four weeks. Brodie doesn’t know what he can do to help, but for the sake of his friendship with Donovan, he agrees to at least ask a few questions. One of the threads that runs through this novel is the relationship between Brodie and Donovan. They grew up together, and they saw military service together. But they haven’t seen each other in a while, and neither knows what the other’s been doing. So, although Donovan claims he’s innocent, Brodie can’t know for sure, especially at first, whether he is. Even as he’s talking to people and exploring other possibilities, he isn’t convinced his old friend was framed.

And then there’s D.S. Nelson’s Model For Murder, which takes place in the village of Tuesbury. The town is rocked by a series of murders, beginning with the local newsagent, Harold Slater. Retired milliner Blake Heatherington gets drawn into the case when Slater’s partner Steve Pensthorpe asks him to investigate. At first Heatherington demurs, saying that the police are much better equipped to do the job. But his curiosity is piqued. It’s even more so when he learns of some apparent vandalism going on at the local model village Little Tuesbury. A small cross has been painted on the door of the model newsagent’s, and the figure representing Slater has disappeared. As other murders occur, the same thing happens with their model businesses and the figures that represent them. Is this a case of Voodoo, as some whisper? Or is it something more prosaic? The closer Heatherington gets to the truth, the more danger he is in of being the next victim. Throughout this novel, there’s an interesting plot thread concerning Heathington’s friendship with Rufus Blackwood. The two grew up together, but then Blackwood left the area. He returned for early retirement ten years ago, but the two haven’t really picked up their friendship. And it’s interesting to see how Blackwood’s absence plays a role in the way they relate to each other now:
 

‘Rufus Blackwood is my oldest friend, living in Tuesbury, that is; and yet I know very little of him these days. We grew up together…and we went our separate ways.’
 

It’s actually Blackwood’s commissioning of a hat from Heatherington that gets the two talking again.

And that’s what happens when people leave, or go missing, and then return. You never know what’s really happened in their lives.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s James.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, D.S. Nelson, Ellery Queen, Gordon Ferris, John D. MacDonald

Wanna See My Picture on the Cover*

FameSeveral cultures place a premium on fame. Perhaps that’s at least in part because fame is often seen as a mark of individual achievement. Name recognition is often a status symbol, too. There’s also the fact that fame can open proverbial doors for a person; and it can mean lots of money. It’s little wonder then that plenty of people want very much to be famous. That goal can push people to work harder, do better, and so on. It can also lead to conflict and much worse. But even when it doesn’t, the desire for fame can add an interesting layer of character development, and it can add tension to a story.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), we are introduced to actress Veronica Cray. She’s becoming quite famous; and her goal is to get to the top rung of the acting ladder. When her former lover John Christow is shot, she becomes a suspect in the murder. For one thing, she wanted very much to resume the relationship, although Christow had gotten beyond it. In fact, they had a bitter argument about it. For another, she’s staying in a getaway cottage near the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell, where Christow was a house guest. She had easy access to the part of the property where Christow was killed. Hercule Poirot also has a nearby cottage, and in fact, is at the Angkatell home on the day of the shooting. So he works with Inspector Grange and his team to find out who killed Christow. Here’s what Veronica says about herself at one point:

 

‘You mean that I haven’t got to the top of the tree. I shall! I shall!’

 

She’s not just egotistical; she’s determined to get to the top.

Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth is in part the story of aspiring actress Kerrie Shawn. She’s hoping for fame and success in Hollywood; but so far, she’s not found much of either. She and her friend Violet ‘Vi’ Day share a dingy place and scrape by the best they can. She’s worked very hard, and she has ambition. Still, there are a lot of people who want to make it in the acting world; Kerrie has a lot of competition. Everything changes when eccentric millionaire Cadmus Cole returns from years at sea. He wants to track down his relatives so that they’ll be able to inherit when he dies. So he hires the PI firm that Ellery Queen has just opened with his friend Beau Rummell. There’s a hefty commission at stake, so even after Queen is laid up with illness, Rummell continues to search. As it turns out, Kerrie Shawn is related to Cole. When Rummell finds her, she is shocked at her good fortune. After Cole’s death, she and her friend pull up stakes and move into the Cole mansion on the Hudson River (that’s one of the conditions Cole laid down in his will). The other heir is Margo Cole, who’s been living in France. She, too, moves into the mansion, and, not surprisingly, conflict soon comes up. When Margo is shot, Kerrie is the natural suspect. Then, there’s what seems to be an attempt on her life, too. Now, with Queen’s guidance, Rummell has to find out whether Kerrie engineered that attempt, or whether someone else has targeted both young women.

In Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red, the focus is on television fame. Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne is the successful host of Saturday Night. But she’s reached more or less a crossroads in her career. She’s very well aware that there are other ambitious people coming up behind her, as the saying goes, and she wants to ensure her place at the top. In fact, up-and-comers such as Janet Beardsley, the darling of the network, are already making their mark. So Thorne needs the story – a story that will make her career. And that just may be the case of Connor Bligh, who’s been in prison for several years for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan, and their son Sam. Thorne learns that there are pieces of evidence that suggest Bligh may not be guilty. If he’s innocent, that story could be Thorne’s breakthrough. So she starts to pursue it. And one of the story elements is the reality of television ambition and the search for fame.

Kylie Manners and Gossamer Judge, whom we meet in Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series, are also out for television fame. It’s not so much that they’re egotistical. They are, however, both determined to ‘make it’ on ‘the soapies.’ By day, they work in Chapman’s bakery. But they also go to every audition they can; and when they do get parts, Chapman cuts back on their hours (without firing them) so they can do their television work. They’re young enough to have the energy to carry the load of two jobs, as it were. And they’re ambitious enough to do what they have to do.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s Morality For Beautiful Girls, Mma. Grace Makutsi, Associate Detective at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, gets a new client. Mr. Pulani runs a very famous and popular Botswana beauty pageant. Now he wants Mma. Makutsi to help him find the best candidate to win the Miss Beauty and Integrity contest. It’s an odd request, but Mma. Makutsi agrees, and begins to meet the top candidates. She doesn’t have a lot of time to make her choice, but she soon gets to know enough about these young women to decide which one best embodies the pageant’s ideals. It’s an interesting look at the drive to win pageant fame. So, by the way, is Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann CraigHickory Smoked Homicide, which goes ‘behind the scenes’ of the beauty pageant circuit.

Then there’s the interesting case of Clara and Peter Morrow, whom Louise Penny fans will know as residents of the small Québec town of Three Pines. The Morrows are both artists, and when we first meet them in Still Life, Peter is widely acknowledged to be the one with the greater talent, and certainly more recognition. In one story arc, though, Clara finds her own artistic voice and begins to get some attention and notice of her own. She’s really not what you’d call greedy or overly ambitious. But it is interesting to see what happens to the dynamic between the Morrows as Clara begins to get noticed. I won’t spoil the arc for those who don’t know it. I can say, though, that it’s a case of up-and-coming fame changing a lot.

On the outside, anyway, fame seems to offer a great deal. So it’s little wonder so many people dream of it. But as any crime fiction fan knows, that ambition can carry a hefty price tag…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Shel Silverstein’s The Cover of the Rolling Stone made famous by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. Yes, that Shel Silverstein.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ellery Queen, Kerry Greenwood, Louise Penny, Paddy Richardson, Riley Adams

I Ain’t Got No Crystal Ball*

Crystal BallIf you read a lot of crime fiction, you see certain patterns often enough that you can almost predict what’s going to happen in a given story. Of course, if the author’s done her or his job, you’ll still be interested – even absorbed. But even so, there are just certain things you can guess about certain characters and events. You don’t need a crystal ball to work some things out.

Space only allows for a few examples. But I’m sure you’ll be able to think of dozens more; I hope you’ll share them in the comments. Here is just a smattering:

 

The Blackmailer is a Marked Person

Blackmailing in any form has a way of shortening people’s life spans. On the surface, it may seem like a quick and easy way to make a fortune. But any crime fiction fan knows that a person who wants to be paid for silence usually pays a much greater price in the end.

Just ask Monte Field, the wealthy lawyer whom we meet in Ellery Queen’s The Roman Hat Mystery. One evening, Field attends a production at New York’s Roman Theatre. By the end of the performance, Field is dead of what turns out to be poison. Inspector Richard Queen takes the case and he and his son Ellery start to put the pieces of the puzzle together. As it turns out, Field’s wealth didn’t just come from representing his clients; he was also an accomplished blackmailer. As you can imagine, this makes for quite a list of suspects, several of whom were at the performance on the night Field died. So the Queens have to go over all of the events of that evening to find out which suspect could have had the opportunity to commit the murder.

Agatha Christie address the risks of being a blackmailer too. In Death on the Nile, for instance, beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is on her honeymoon trip with her new husband Simon. On the second night of their cruise of the Nile, Linnet is shot. The first and most likely suspect is her former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, whose fiancé Simon was before he met Linnet. But Jackie could not have committed the crime. So Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same cruise, has to consider other alternatives. As the story goes on, we learn that one person knows who the killer is. When that person makes the mistake of trying to get money for silence, well, I’m sure you know what the result of that is…

You could predict the same risk, too, for other people who know too much, even if they don’t blackmail. You know, the person who calls the sleuth with an important clue that can’t be discussed over the telephone. Or the person who arranges to meet the killer to confront that person. Both are dangerous things to do…

 

People Who Seem to ‘Have it All’ Are in Trouble

We all know that life isn’t perfect. But there are some people who seem to have ‘it all’ – money, a successful marriage, and so on. Any dedicated crime fiction fan can tell you that those people are likely in for a lot of trouble. In fact, that’s the main plot point of a lot of noir stories.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayed, for instance, we meet Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik. They’ve been married for fifteen years, and are the parents of six-year-old Axel. On the surface, they seem to have a fine suburban life. But then, disaster strikes. Eva learns to her shock and dismay that Henrik has been unfaithful. She’d suspected he wasn’t happy for some time, but had been hopeful they’d work matters out. When she learns the truth, Eva becomes determined to find out who the other woman is. As matters start to spin out of control, we see that having ‘it all’ is no guarantee of avoiding trouble. In fact, in crime fiction, quite the opposite often happens.

It certainly does in Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss. Richard von Knecht is a very successful financier with a beautiful penthouse, a circle of family and friends, and just about everything else you’d associate with ‘success.’ One day he jumps (or falls, or is pushed) to his death from the balcony of his penthouse. At first it seems to be a case of suicide, although there doesn’t appear to be any kind of logical motive. But as Göteborg Police Inspector Irene Huss and her team discover, this is no suicide. When forensic evidence shows that von Knecht was murdered, the team looks into the victim’s background and family life. As we learn more and more of the truth, we see that ‘having it all’ can cover up some very ugly things.

 

Don’t Expect Help From the Locals

Whenever there’s a serious crime, especially murder, the police interview people who live in the area. And it doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict that in a crime novel, at least some of the locals are going to be close-mouthed and suspicious. Sometimes it’s because they’re hiding their own embarrassing truths. Other times it’s because they know something about the crime and either don’t want to be suspected, or don’t want the killer to target them. There are other reasons, too (e.g. not trusting the police).

We see this, for instance, in Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters. Meredith Winterbottom lives with her two sisters in Jerusalem Lane, a very historic area of London. When she dies in what looks like a successful suicide attempt, DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla investigate. Kolla isn’t so sure that this was a suicide, and Brock gives her the go-ahead to look into the case. It turns out that everyone in Jerusalem Lane knows everyone else. The locals have formed a tight community and keep their own and each other’s secrets. Here’s what Kolla says about it:
 

‘It’s almost as if the people who live here are all frantically signaling to one another, without letting on to the people passing through on the street.’
 

And as it turns out, that insularity hides some interesting truths…

Thea Osborne finds much the same sort of close-mouthed insularity in Rebecca Tope’s A Cotswold Killing. Duntisbourne Abbots residents Clive and Jennifer Reynolds have hired Osborne as a house/pet sitter for the three weeks during which they’ll be away on a cruise. On the appointed day, Osborne duly arrives and gets ready to take on her responsibilities. She’s under pressure as it is, since Reynolds has given her a long and exhaustive list of things to do. Matters get worse when she hears (or does she?) a scream late that night. The next morning, Osborne discovers the body of Joel Jennison in a pond on the Reynolds property. She gives the alarm and the police are called in. It’s not long before she learns that there may be more going on in this case than it seems. Then, she discovers that the victim’s brother was killed just six months earlier. Now the question seems to be: who had a vendetta against the Jennison family? To look into the case further, Osborne’s going to need to penetrate the layer of reticence among the locals. And that’s not going to be easy…

These are just a few instances of things you can predict without a crystal ball when you read enough crime fiction. Which patterns have you discovered?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sublime’s Santeria. Not exactly a family-friendly song, but the lyric worked…

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Barry Maitland, Ellery Queen, Helene Tursten, Karin Alvtegen, Rebecca Tope

Criticising All You See*

Uninformed OpinionsWhenever a major news story comes out, people weigh in with their views. That makes sense in a society that supports freedom of expression. And in today’s world of instant communication and social media, it takes very little time before people from all over the world have their say on stories.

On the one hand, I don’t think many people would say we shouldn’t have the right to speak our minds. On the other, the price for this is that people sometimes do so before they have all the facts. And that can make it much harder to get to the truth about something. It can also make things terribly difficult for the people involved in such news stories.

That said, people do share their opinions, sometimes quite publicly, and that can add an interesting layer of tension to a crime novel. It also makes for an interesting point of conflict.

Even before the days of the Internet, people spoke out publicly, whether or not they had all the facts. Agatha Christie, for instance, uses this plot point in several of her stories. To take one example, in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence visits Hercule Poirot to ask him to look into a case. James Bentley has been arrested for murdering his landlady. There’s evidence against him – enough, in fact, that he’s been convicted. But Spence has come to believe that Bentley is innocent. He wants Poirot to investigate and find out the truth before Bentley is executed. Poirot goes to the village of Broadhinny to learn what actually happened, and very soon discovers that popular opinion is very much against Bentley. Everyone assumes that he is guilty, and many people are surprised that Poirot is even interested in the matter. There are those who claim they always ‘knew’ Bentley was dangerous, and plenty more who are happy to give Poirot their opinions as to Bentley’s guilt. But there’s more to this case than a misfit lodger who killed his landlady, and Poirot soon finds that more than one person might have had a motive to kill Mrs. McGinty. I know, I know, fans of Five Little Pigs… 

In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Queen decides to take some time away to work on his writing. So he travels to the small New England town of Wrightsville, where he plans to stay in a guesthouse owned by the town’s social leaders John F. and Hermione ‘Hermy’ Wright. Queen’s visit naturally puts him in contact with the Wright family; and he learns a sad part of their history. John F. and Hermy’s youngest daughter Nora had been engaged to Jim Haight; in fact, the guesthouse in which Queen is staying was intended as their first home. But Haight left town suddenly, jilting his fiancée. When he returns just as suddenly, everyone is already prejudiced against him. But Nora is determined to renew her relationship with him, and to everyone’s dismay, the couple marry. Then, Haight’s sister Rosemary comes to Wrightsville for an extended visit. On New Year’s Eve, she dies of what turns out to be a poisoned cocktail. Haight is arrested for murder, and people are soon very quick to voice their opinions, both verbally and in letters to the editor of the local newspaper. One opinion builds from another, and the outcry becomes so intense that Haight’s attorney Eli Martin has a very difficult job assembling his case. In the end, the only people who believe that Haight might be innocent are Queen and Nora’s sister, Pat. And they work to find out who really committed the crime.

There’s a similar sort of ‘fanning the flames’ in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. When Tom Robinson is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, there’s an immediate public reaction. Without knowing any of the real facts involved, everyone assumes that Robinson is guilty. It doesn’t help matters at all that he is Black, and Mayella Ewell is White. Word spreads quickly and Robinson’s life is at risk. But local attorney Atticus Finch isn’t convinced that things happened the way everyone thinks they did. He takes Robinson’s case and digs more deeply. His job is made all the more difficult by the fact that everyone’s sure of what happened, without having actual information. Oh, and talking of Harper Lee….her new novel Go Set a Watchman is due to be released on 14 July. I’m proud to be co-hosting a blog tour to celebrate its release. You can check out the details right here, and get involved if you’d like.

In the US, one of the big questions people have weighed on is what really happened to President John F. Kennedy. Despite the Warren Commission’s finding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in that murder, people have voiced all sorts of views, including views not supported by facts. The same is true for the famous O.J. Simpson case. Editorials, blogs, books and articles have been written on that case; it’s still a subject for discussion over twenty years later. And people are still convinced one way or the other without always carefully reviewing the facts.

One of the clearest examples of people having their say has been Australia’s Lindy Chamberlain case. The 1980 death of Lindy Chamberlain’s daughter Azaria sparked a major outcry and a great deal of media interest. The question of whether or not ‘Lindy did it’ was a very hot topic for a long time. And it’s found its way into a few books in which we see that theme of people sharing their opinions regardless of whether they’re informed.

One of them is Wendy James’ The Mistake. In that novel, Jodie Evans Garrow has what seems to be the perfect life. She’s smart and attractive, married to a successful attorney, and the mother of two healthy children. Everything changes when her daughter is involved in an accident and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where years ago, Jodie gave birth to another daughter. No-one, not even her husband, knows about the child. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about her. Jodie claims she gave the baby up for adoption, but the nurse can find no formal record of that. Now the gossip starts. Where is the baby? If she’s alive, what happened to her? If she is dead, is Jodie responsible? The outcry gets louder and more public, and Jodie becomes a social pariah. And a lot of vitriol comes from people who don’t have the facts. Interestingly, in one scene, Jodie is invited to a book club meeting at which the group is discussing a book about the Chamberlain case. We do learn the truth about Jodie’s first baby, but it’s despite, not because of, public views.

There’s an oblique reference to the Chamberlain case in Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. When Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson report their infant son Noah missing, there’s a huge amount of public support for them at first. Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, editorials and more urge the return of the baby and express sympathy for the couple. But when questions come up about the incident, the tide of public opinion sways. Before long, people begin to be sure that Joanna had something to do with the baby’s disappearance. Now social media outlets burst with condemnation and worse. We do learn what really happened to Noah, but it’s no thanks to the uninformed blog posts, comments, Tweets and so on.

And that’s the thing about having a say. It can lead to all sorts of heated debate, informed or no, about a case, event or person. And sometimes that means one’s got to wade through all sorts of commentary to get to the truth.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Back Chat.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Harper Lee, Helen Fitzgerald, Wendy James

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