Category Archives: Ellery Queen

You’re So Vain*

EgotistsMost of us know, whether or not we admit it to others, that we’re not perfect. We’re wrong at times, and we make mistakes. And there are plenty of people who know more than we do and can do things better. But not everyone’s like that. There are certain people with very exaggerated senses of their own knowledge and importance. I’ll bet you’ve met people like that, yourself. Such people are sometimes very successful, if you define success as having a lot of money and/or power. And they can be personable, even charming. But they can be dangerous, too. And they can add an interesting texture to a crime story, even if they’re neither the victim nor the killer.

Agatha Christie created several egotistical characters in her novels. Some of them are obvious, and some less so. In Hickory Dickory Death, for instance, Hercule Poirot investigates some odd thefts and other disturbing incidents at a hostel for students. When one of the residents, Celia Austin, admits to some of the thefts, everyone thinks the matter is closed. Then, two nights later, she dies. At first glance it looks like a suicide, but very soon it’s proven to be murder. Now Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out who the killer is. They start with the other hostel residents, one of whom is a law student named Elizabeth Johnston. After interviewing her, here is what Inspector Sharpe has to say:

 

‘‘That’s a very interesting girl who just went out. She’s got the ego of a Napoleon and I strongly suspect that she knows something.’’

 

As it turns out, all of the residents are keeping secrets that they aren’t particularly eager to share.

One of the very interesting things about Elizabeth Johnston is that she isn’t the stereotypical egomaniac, who’s impolite to others and who constantly talks about him or herself. Rather, she’s quiet, unassuming, even pleasant. It’s an effective way to show that not all of those with oversized egos are obvious about it.

That’s certainly not true of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. As fans of this series know, he is not in the least bit unassuming, and is positively arrogant in his estimation of his own ability. Stout uses the character of Archie Goodwin in part to serve as a foil to Wolfe. But even Goodwin accepts the fact that Wolfe is brilliant. He may have a Napoleonic ego, but he is very, very good at what he does. Is it really arrogance if you can back it up with success? Wolfe would probably say, ‘no.’ Or Pfui!

Some characters have been surrounded by sycophants and other hangers-on for so long that they’ve come to believe their own hype. This can make people all the more arrogant and convinced of their own worth and importance. Such a person is Kane ‘King’ Bendigo, whom we meet in Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead. He is the very powerful owner of a hugely successful munitions firm, so he has become quite wealthy. He, his wife Karla, and his two brothers, Abel and Judah, live on a private, heavily guarded island. When Bendigo begins to receive cryptic threats on his life, he doesn’t take them seriously at first. After all, the people on the island are loyal to him, and in any case, he’s carefully protected. You might say that he’s so convinced of his own hype that he can’t imagine anyone killing him. Abel, however, convinces him to take the threat seriously, so he arranges for Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery to travel from New York City to investigate the matter. The Queens are not exactly enthused about being summoned in that highhanded way, but they are convinced to go. They settle in and begin asking questions. Meanwhile, the threats continue, and get more and more specific about the date and time. It’s finally revealed that Bendigo will be shot on a certain Thursday at midnight. On that night, at that time, he is in his hermetically sealed office/study with his wife. There are no weapons in the office, and no-one can get in or out. Still, he is shot, just as was threatened. What’s even stranger is that the weapon used to shoot him was a gun that Judah fired at exactly midnight – in another room. Judah couldn’t have somehow gone to his brother’s office; he was with Ellery Queen. It’s a very tangled sort of ‘impossible, but not really’ crime.

In Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town, we are introduced to successful Hollywood director Peter Alan Nelson. Like many Hollywood moguls, he’s been surrounded by eager hangers-on and sycophants for a very long time, and has come to have a high opinion of himself. More to the point for this novel, he believes that he can manipulate people and events to suit his whims. So when he decides that he’d like to get to know his twelve-year-old son Toby, he doesn’t see why that shouldn’t quickly happen. The only problem is, Toby lives with Nelson’s ex-wife Karen Shipley, and the two of them have disappeared. So Nelson hires L.A. PI Elvis Cole to find his family. At first, Cole demurs. He’s sure, as many people would be, that Nelson’s ex-wife had her own reasons – possibly very good ones – for going away without letting Nelson know. But Nelson insists. So Cole gets started on the case, and traces Shipley and Toby to a small town in Connecticut. He also discovers that Shipley has gotten tangled up with the Mob. Now he’s up against an arrogant director who insists on reuniting with his family, and a Mob group with an interest in that family. It’s going to be a tricky case for Cole and his partner Joe Pike.

And then there’s Louise Penny’s Yvette Nichol. When we first meet her in Still Life, she’s just been named to the Sûreté du Québec. Even better, she’s assigned to work with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, who has the best reputation in the agency. It’s an understatement to say that Nichol isn’t perfect. She makes plenty of mistakes, and like anyone new at the job, she has a lot to learn. Fans of this series will know, too, that she turns out to be duplicitous, even malicious, and not trustworthy. Despite Gamache’s attempts to help her learn how to fit in and do her job well, Nichol refuses to take his advice. Part of the reason for that is that she is arrogant. She is convinced that she knows what she’s doing, and that any failures she has are the fault of others. In a sense, she becomes the victim of her own sense of self. What’s interesting about her character is that she combines this egotism with a desperate need to belong.

Egotists aren’t all rich and powerful. But, more or less, they all have an overinflated sense of their worth and importance. That can make life miserable for those around them, but even when it doesn’t, such characters can add to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Carly Simon song. Did you know Carly Simon has a literary connection? That’s right. Her father, Richard Simon, was a co-founder of Simon and Schuster.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Louise Penny, Rex Stout, Robert Crais

When He Died, I Inherited His Wealth*

Unusual WillsWills can be funny things. They aren’t always as straightforward as they may seem, no matter how clearly the terms in them may be laid out. And sometimes, they include very strange provisions. Because wills sometimes involve a lot of money, they can be high-stakes, too. It’s only natural, when you think about it, that we’d hear a lot about wills in crime fiction. And sometimes, they involve some unusual situations. Here are just a few examples. I know you’ll think of a lot more than I ever could.

In Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, Colonel John Herncastle bequeaths a large yellow diamond called the Moonstone to his niece, Rachel Verinder, to be given to her on her eighteenth birthday. On the surface, you might think this a very generous gift, and as far as monetary value goes, it is. However, things aren’t exactly what they seem. Herncastle stole the Moonstone from a palace in India, and the story goes that anyone who removes the diamond from its rightful place is cursed. So one possibility is that Herncastle’s bequest is actually a curse on the Verinder family. That’s not so outrageous, considering the bad relations between Herncastle and his sister, Lady Julia Verinder. Certainly trouble comes to the Verinder family after the Moonstone is given to Rachel. For one thing, there are groups of people in India who want the stone back and will do anything to get it. Then, on the night Rachel gets the stone, it’s stolen from her room.  Later, the second housemaid (who has troubles of her own) commits suicide. As it turns out, this bequest causes a great deal of trouble, even for those who don’t believe in the curse.

Agatha Christie referred to wills an awful lot in her work. For example, in the short story Manx Gold, Fenella Mylecharane and Juan Faraker learn that Fenella’s eccentric Uncle Myles has passed away, and they travel to the Isle of Man to hear the reading of his will. According to the will, there is buried treasure on the island, and Uncle Myles has arranged a sort of game to determine who will inherit it. Fenella and Juan are hoping they’ll win; they’re a young, engaged couple who could use the money to start their lives. But they are not the only contestants. There are other would-be heirs who want the treasure just as badly. One morning, each contestant is given the first clue and the race is on. When murder strikes, it’s clear that, for at least one person, this is not a game. I see you, fans of After the Funeral and of The Case of the Missing Will. And of Sad Cypress. See what I mean?

Dorothy Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellonna Club also involves an interesting sort of a will.  In that novel, Lord Peter Wimsey investigates two deaths. One is the death of General Fentiman, a fellow member of his club. The other is the death of Fentiman’s wealthy sister Lady Dormer. According to Lady Dormer’s will, if she dies before her brother does, her fortune passes to Fentiman’s grandson. If her brother predeceases her, then the fortune goes to her distant cousin Ann Dorland. So in this case, the timing of the two deaths is of great importance. When it’s discovered that General Fentiman was poisoned, it’s clear that someone has a very personal stake in which sibling dies first.

Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth also features an odd sort of a will. Queen and his friend Beau Rummell have recently opened up a PI agency. One of their first clients is wealthy and eccentric Cadmus Cole. He’s spent most of his adult life at sea, and has had little contact with anyone in his family. Now he wants to trace any living relatives and make arrangements for the disposition of his fortune. Queen and Rummell take the case, and soon track down two potential heirs. One is aspiring actor Kerrie Shawn, who’s scraping by getting whatever bit parts and ‘extra’ roles she can. Getting a start in Hollywood is proving difficult for her. The other heir is Margo Cole, who’s mostly lived in Paris. When word comes that Cadmus Cole has died, his will is made public. His two heirs will divide his fortune under the condition that they share his home on the Hudson for a year. Kerrie and Margo both agree to the terms, and duly arrive at the house. Not long afterwards, Margo is shot, and Kerrie becomes the prime suspect. Rummell is infatuated with her, and wants to clear her name. And, as it turns out, there are other possible explanations for Margo’s murder…

Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine introduces readers to the Lawson family. Carey Lawson is both wealthy and beloved in her village of Forbes Abbot. When she dies, her will stipulates that her home and fortune are to pass to her nephew Mallory Lawson and his wife, Kate. A generous share of the money is also to go to Mallory and Kate’s daughter Polly when she turns twenty-one. There is also a stipulation in the will that requires the Lawsons to provide a permanent home on the property to Benny Frayle, who was Carey Lawson’s companion. The Lawsons are only too willing to do that, since they like Benny. Besides, this inheritance is a dream come true to them, as they’ve wanted startup money to launch their own publishing company. It’s not spoiling the story to say that Carey Lawson’s death is not suspicious. But before long, it’s clear that something untoward is going on. The Lawsons’ financial advisor Dennis Brinkley is killed in what looks like a terrible accident. But Benny, who was a friend to Brinkley, is sure that he was murdered. She tries to get DCI Tom Barnaby to investigate, but he sees no reason to question the original findings. The police who investigated did their jobs professionally. When there’s another death, though, things change. Now Barnaby and his assistant Gavin Troy look more deeply into the goings-on in Forbes Abbot, and find more than they bargained for, as the saying goes.

Sometimes, even wills that seem to be quite clear aren’t. For instance, in R.J. Harlick’s Death’s Golden Whisper, we meet Meg Harris. She’s recovering from a disastrous marriage, and has moved away from Toronto to Three Deer Point, the home she inherited from her Aunt Agatha. This house is located in rural Western Québec. At first, the change is welcome, as Meg starts to put her life back together. But then, a large company, CanacGold, learns that there may be gold on Whisper Island, which lies near Three Deer Point. The company wants to mine the island and if there is gold, to lay claim to it. This has divided the local Miskigan community, with some wanting that development, and others opposing it. MIskigan Band Chief Eric Odjik knows that Meg doesn’t want the company mining the island. So he is hoping she’ll agree to help resolve the issue. If Whisper Island is actually part of Three Deer Point, then it belongs to Meg, and she has the right to keep the company off the island. If not, then it’s likely the company could come in. So one plot thread of this novel concerns the effort to try to find out exactly what Meg has inherited. The other concerns a case of murder that turns out to be linked to the dispute over Whisper Island, and to her own past.

Of course, not all wills are that difficult to sort out, or that dangerous. But they are interesting. And they’re woven throughout the genre.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Wesley Harding’s Miss Fortune.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, R.J. Harlick, Wilkie Collins

That is All I Have Left to Say*

Dying WordsNot every fictional victim gets the chance for last words. But it’s interesting to see how many crime novels include dying words. It’s tricky to handle dying words effectively. For one thing, a lot depends on how the fictional victim dies. In many cases, it wouldn’t be possible for a victim to say anything. And there’s the matter of melodrama. That said though, dying words can be very interesting; and sometimes, they’re important clues to the killer.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Helen Stoner. She feels that her life may be in danger, and she wants Holmes’ help. It seems that Helen’s sister Julia suddenly died after a strange series of eerie noises and unexplained events. On the night of Julia’s death, Helen heard her sister scream. She rushed from her bedroom into the corridor and saw her sister there. Julia was only able to say,
 

‘‘Oh my God! Helen! It was the band! The speckled band!’’
 

before she died. Helen could make little sense of the words, but now, she’s hearing the same strange noises that preceded Julia’s death. Holmes and Watson travel to Stoke Moran, the estate where Helen lives, and investigate to find out who would want both women dead and why. I know, I know, fans of The Boscombe Valley Mystery.

In Ellery Queen’s The Last Woman in His Life, Queen is invited for a getaway weekend at a guest house belonging to wealthy playboy John Levering Benedict III. Also staying (but in the main house) for the weekend are Levering’s three ex-wives, his attorney, and his attorney’s secretary. As you can guess, the atmosphere at the house is tense, so Queen spends most of his time at the guest house. One night, Queen gets a frantic call from his host, who says that he’s been murdered. He tries to say more, but because he stutters, it’s extremely difficult for him to get anything out. And at least at first, Queen can’t make sense of what he does say. In any case, he rushes over to the main house. But by then, it’s too late: Benedict has been killed by a blow to the head. The only physical clues are a wig, an evening gown and a pair of gloves. It turns out that Benedict knew all along who killed him; had Queen understood what he was saying, the case would have been solved before it began. But of course, that wouldn’t make for riveting reading…

Agatha Christie used dying words in more than one of her stories. For instance, in The Boomerang Clue (AKA Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?), Bobby Jones is golfing with his friend, Dr. Thomas. At one point, they’re looking for a ball that went over a cliff when they see a man who’s fallen off the cliff and landed below. Jones goes to stay with the man as Thomas rushes off to get help. So Jones is alone when the victim says,
 

‘Why didn’t they ask Evans?’
 

and then dies. The words seem meaningless at first, but as Jones and his friend, Lady Frances ‘Frankie’ Derwent ask some questions, it becomes clear that the man was murdered, and that he’s the key to something much bigger than they’d thought. I know, I know, fans of The Hollow.

Henning Mankell’s first Kurt Wallender novel, Faceless Killers, begins with brutal attacks on a rural farmer, Johannes Lövgren, and his wife, Maria. Johannes dies before any help can arrive, but Maria lives long enough to be transported to emergency care at the nearest hospital. She, too, later dies, but not before uttering the word,
 

‘Foreign.’
 

That one word means serious trouble for Wallander and his police team. There is already simmering resentment against immigrants in the area. If it gets out (which it does) that these murders were likely committed by foreigners, there’s no telling what might happen. And when the media hears about it, the police have to deal with a real backlash – including the murder of a Somali immigrant who was living at a nearby camp. Now the police have to fend off the media, solve the murder of the immigrant quickly (so as not to appear prejudiced) and continue to work on the Lövgren case.

And then there’s Shona (now writing as S.G.) MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. Seaton is an undermaster at the local grammar school in 17th Century Banff, in Scotland. One morning he wakes to the news that there’s a dead body in his classroom. He finds that the dead man is apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson, and that Davidson has been poisoned. The most likely suspect is his romantic rival, music master Charles Thom, who is duly arrested. Thom claims that he’s innocent, and begs Seaton to help clear his name and get him out of prison. Seaton agrees and begins asking questions. He saw Davidson alive, not long before his death, and now that vision comes back to haunt him. Davidson had tried to get his attention, but Seaton didn’t respond. Now he discovers that two other people did respond: local prostitutes Mary and Janet Dawson saw Davidson and tried to help him. Neither they nor Seaton can make sense of Davidson’s dying words, at least at first. But as we find out, those words have a lot of significance.

And that’s the thing. Dying words often do have a significance, both in real life and in crime fiction. It’s just that sometimes, it’s harder to work out what the meaning is than it is other times. Which fictional dying words have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eric Clapton’s version of Muddy Waters’ Blow Wind Blow. 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Henning Mankell, Shona MacLean

Tawdry Secrets of a Select Few*

Closed Places and Few SuspectsWhen there’s a murder, whether it’s real or fictional, the police work as quickly as they can to narrow down the list of probable suspects. All other things equal, the fewer the number of suspects, the easier it is for them to do their work.

In fiction, one way to narrow the list of suspects is to have the murder (or murders) happen in a closed place. I’m not referring here to the ‘locked room’ sort of mystery. That’s an entirely different category of crime story. Rather, I mean a place that’s either relatively closed-in, or relatively inaccessible, so that only a limited number of people would have access and be likely suspects.

Such a mystery isn’t as easy as it might seem to pull off. The characters have to be interesting (because there aren’t many of them). And the mystery itself has to be challenging, but not strain the limits of credibility too far. Still, when it works, it can work well.

Agatha Christie used that ‘closed place’ scenario in several of her stories. For example, in Cards on the Table, the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana invites a group of people to a dinner party. Four are detectives (one is Hercule Poirot). The other four are people whom Mr. Shaitana suspects of murder. He believes that those people have gotten away with their crimes. Over dinner, he throws out hints as to what he suspects, and those hints are not lost on his guests. Later, when everyone is playing bridge, Mr. Shaitana is stabbed. There are only four possible suspects: the four possible murderers who were playing bridge in the room where Mr. Shaitana was killed. Each one has a very good motive, and each one had the opportunity. So Poirot and the other sleuths have to look into each person’s past to see which of them really was a murderer, and which one killed Shaitana. I know, I know, fans of Death in the Clouds and of Murder on the Orient Express.

Michael Innes’ Death at the President’s Lodging introduces Scotland Yard Inspector Appleby. In this novel, Josiah Umpleby, President of St. Andrews College, is shot one night in his private study. His valet George Slotwiner and one of the Fellows, Mr. Titlow, discover the body. In order to preserve the school’s reputation, the school authorities don’t want this case to get a lot of press. So Appleby is asked to investigate as quickly and quietly as he can. He soon learns that the college was locked at the time of the murder, and the president’s home locked separately.  What this means is that there are only seven possible suspects: the staff and Fellows who had access to the key to the Orchard Grounds, which adjoins the study. Appleby does discover the killer, but I think I can say without spoiling the story that limited access does not mean as much limitation of possibility as you might think. There’s a lot of manufacturing of alibis that goes on…

Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger begins as postman Joseph Higgins delivers letters to a group of people, informing them that they’ve been assigned to serve at Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for (World War II) military use. All seven take up their duties and begin their service. One day Higgins is brought into the hospital with a broken femur. An operation is immediately planned for the next day. Higgins dies during the procedure, and at first it’s put down to tragic accident. Inspector Cockrill of the Kent Police is called in to ‘rubber stamp’ the death. But questions soon arise. For one thing, Mrs. Higgins insists that her husband was murdered, and she’s not a fanciful person. For another, one of the nurses, Sister Marion Bates, drinks too much at a party one night and blurts out that she knows who Higgins’ murderer is, and that she has proof. Later that night, she, too, is murdered, in the same operating theatre. At this point, there are only six possible suspects: the people who were involved in the original operation on Higgins (minus, of course, Sister Marion). So Cockrill has to use every trick in the proverbial book, including confining the suspects to quarters, to find out who the killer is. This one has some similarities to Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder in that in both cases, the murder takes place in a ‘closed’ medical environment, and there are fairly few suspects.

In Ellery Queen’s The Last Woman in His Life, Queen is invited for a getaway weekend at the guest house owned by wealthy playboy John Levering Benedict III. Queen accepts the invitation and settles in for what he hopes will be a peaceful time. Benedict has other guests, though. Staying at the house with him are his three ex-wives, his attorney, and his attorney’s secretary. Needless to say, this makes for a great deal of strain, and Queen spends as little time there as he can. Then one night, he’s in the guest house when he gets a frantic call from his host. Benedict tells Queen that he’s been murdered. He starts to tell Queen who the killer is, too, but can’t get the words out because he stammers. Queen rushes over to the main house, but by the time he gets there, it’s too late. His host has been killed by a blow from a heavy statuette. The only other clues are an evening gown, a wig, and a pair of gloves. Each item belongs to a different person, so it’ll be difficult, even with such a limited pool of suspects, for Queen to work out who the killer is.

And then there’s P.D. James’ The Skull Beneath the Skin, the second of her Cordelia Grey novels. Grey owns a not-overly-successful PI agency, so she is glad for the work when Sir George Ralston hires her. His wife, famous actress Clarissa Lisle, is to take part in a Victorian-dress play The Duchess of Malfi, to be presented at Castle Courcy, on the Isle of Courcy. The island is privately owned by wealthy Sir Ambrose Corringe. Lisle has been getting vague death threats, and Ralston wants Grey to help protect his wife and, of course, to find out who this enemy is. Grey and Lisle duly take a trip to the island, and join a group of other houseguests, including some of Lisle’s friends’ and relatives. When Lisle is killed, Grey feels a sense of responsibility, since it was her job to protect her client’s wife. So she looks into the murder. The list of suspects isn’t overly long, and the island isn’t the sort of place where just anyone can come in and out as a rule. But that doesn’t mean this case will be easy.

And that seems to be key to creating a well-crafted mystery that’s set in a more or less ‘closed’ place and has few suspects. There has to be something challenging about the mystery. And of course, the more interesting the characters (within the limits of credibility) the better. I’ve only mentioned a few such stories (I know, I know, fans of Anne Holt’s 1222 and of Minette Walters’ The Ice House). Which ones have you liked best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rebecca Pidgeon’s Magazine.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anne Holt, Christianna Brand, Ellery Queen, Michael Innes, Minette Walters, P.D. James

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.

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