Category Archives: Ellery Queen

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.

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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.

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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.

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

Starting Over Again*

Rejoining the worldWhen people have been isolated, too sheltered or in some other way kept apart, it can be very hard to adjust to life in ‘the real world.’ Ask anyone who’s spent time in prison and then had to re-adapt to life ‘outside’ (that’s actually a separate topic in and of itself!) Things most of us take for granted, such as making our own decisions and connecting with others can be very much more difficult for those who are just entering (or re-entering) the world.

Certainly that adaptation is a challenge in real life. It is in crime fiction, too. And that sort of plot point can make for some interesting character development and tension in a story.

For example, Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death introduces readers to the Boynton family. They’re Americans who are on a trip through the Middle East. When newly-minted doctor Sarah King meets them for the first time, she gets the sense right away that something is ‘off’ about the family. And she soon discovers how right she is. Mrs. Boynton, the family matriarch, is a tyrannical mental sadist who has her family so cowed that none of them dares cross her. In two interactions (one with Carol Boynton and one with her brother Raymond), Sarah tries to help, but her efforts come to little. Sarah heads off to Petra on a sightseeing tour, thinking that’ll be the end of her encounters with the Boyntons. To her shock though, when she arrives at Petra, she sees that they’re on an excursion there as well. Surprisingly, she even gets the chance to interact with Carol and Raymond a bit. Then, on the second afternoon there, Mrs. Boynton dies of what looks like a heart attack. Colonel Carbury, the official investigator, isn’t satisfied that her death was natural, though, and asks Hercule Poirot, who’s in the area, to look into the matter.  As he does, he finds that one challenge he will face is working with Mrs. Boynton’s family. Carol, Raymond, and their two siblings have been isolated for so long that they simply don’t know how to operate in the larger world. It makes for an interesting plot thread to see how they learn.

In Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, Queen is staying in a house in the Hollywood Hills, hoping to get some writing done. His plans are interrupted by nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill. She wants Queen to investigate the death of her father Leander, who recently died of a heart attack. Laurel claims that his heart attack was deliberately induced by someone who sent him a series of macabre ‘presents.’ Queen is finally persuaded to investigate, and starts to ask questions. One of the people he tries to speak to is Leander Hill’s business partner Roger Priam, who’s also received ‘gifts.’ Priam refuses to get involved, although his wife Delia takes the matter more seriously. Bit by bit, Queen puts the pieces of the puzzle together, and we learn how Hill’s and Priam’s past has impacted their current lives, and how it led to Hill’s death. One of the unusual characters in this story is Delia Priam’s son (and Roger Priam’s stepson) Crowe ‘Mac’ McGowan. Mac is convinced that the world is on the brink of destruction from nuclear bombs, and he wants to survive The Bomb. So he lives in a tree. He only emerges for food, and in general, interacts as little as possible with anyone else. In the course of the novel, he makes the choice to come out of his self-imposed exile and rejoin the world, and it’s interesting to see how he does that. Queen fans will know that Queen is also involved in helping Paula Paris join the world, as the saying goes. She’s a well-known Hollywood gossip columnist whom Queen meets in The Four of Hearts. She is also agoraphobic. While she’s by no means entirely disconnected from everyday life, she doesn’t leave her home. At least, not until Queen helps her to do so.

Catherine Aird’s The Religious Body touches on the interesting case of a nun who has re-entered the larger world. In that novel, Inspector C.D. Sloan and Constable William Crosby investigate the murder of Sister Mary St. Anne, who is a member of the Convent of St. Anselm’s. In order to find out who might have had a motive, Sloan and Crosby want to talk to anyone who knew the victim both before she joined the convent, and after. One of their interviews is with Elieen Lome, who left the convent fairly recently. In fact, she’s still getting used to things such as comfortable chairs and modern clothes. She admits that to her, everything is very different. The interview with Miss Lome doesn’t solve the case, but it sheds some interesting light on what it’s like to re-join the world if one’s been in a religious enclave like a convent.

Betty Webb’s Desert Wives addresses a different sort of rejoining the world. In that novel, PI Lena Jones works with her PI partner Jimmy Sisiwan to protect Esther Corbett and her thirteen-year-old daughter Rachel. Esther is a former member of Purity, a polygamous sect that lives in a compound straddling the Utah/Arizona border. Her thirteen-year-old daughter Rebecca, who is still living at the compound, has been ‘given’ to the sect’s leader Solomon Royal as a bride, and Esther wants to rescue the girl. Jones agrees and she and Sisiwan duly return Rebecca to her mother. But that’s just the beginning of the trouble. When Royal is shot, Esther becomes a suspect. It turns out, though, that there are plenty of other possibilities, and Jones goes undercover at the compound to find out who really committed the crime. Along the way, she meets Leo and Virginia Lawler, who own West Wind Ranch. On the surface it’s a tourist attraction. But it’s also a safe house for women who want to leave Purity. The logistics of escaping Purity are difficult enough (it’s rough terrain and at least twenty miles to anywhere). Along with that, the women and girls who leave have no money or credit cards, no transportation and almost no possessions. The Lawlers help them to rest up and get some of the things they need to re-join the larger world, and that is a difficult task.

And then there’s Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks, which features fourteen-year-old Adam Vander. He’s finally summoned up the courage he needs to flee his abusive father Joe. The problem is, though, that Adam has been locked away so successfully that he has no connections in the larger world, and knows little about managing on his own. As he’s leaving the house, he meets Billy Benson, a young man who’s there at the time. The two spend the next week together, with Billy providing a lot of streetwise knowledge. They find shelter and food, and Adam begins to learn a lot that he’s never really known. They also find a great deal of danger. It turns out that Billy and Adam have a connection from the past, and that link comes back to haunt them. Throughout this novel, it’s interesting to see how Adam starts to adjust to life ‘on the outside.’

That process of adaptation is never easy. But it can add an interesting layer of suspense to a story. It can also be an effective way to add character depth.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Peter Criss’ By Myself.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Betty Webb, Catherine Aird, Ellery Queen, Honey Brown

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