Category Archives: Ellery Queen

Find Out the Truth*

As I’ve often mentioned on this blog, most criminals aren’t eager to be caught. And there’s not always enough evidence to bring charges against someone. So, at least in crime fiction, the sleuth sometimes has to use some creativity to get the criminal to confess.

There are limits to what fictional police sleuths can do. For instance, entrapment – enticing someone to commit a crime she or he would not otherwise commit – is not allowed. And there’s a very fine line between a ‘sting’ operation (which is permissible) and entrapment. And even if the sleuth is not a cop, there’s still the credibility factor. Still, sleuths can be innovative, and sometimes have to be.

In Ellery Queen’s The Roman Hat mystery, for instance, Inspector Richard Queen investigates the poisoning death of an attorney, Monte Field, who was also a blackmailer. He was killed in a theatre, so it’s hard a first to narrow down the list of people who could have committed the crime. And, even when the Queens do work out who was responsible, they don’t have the sort of evidence needed to pursue the case. So, they devise a ruse that, today, might be considered entrapment. They entice the killer into attempting another murder in the same way, using the same poison.

Fans of Agatha Christie will know that, more than once, her sleuths find creative ways to catch killers, even without a lot of evidence. For instance, in The Moving Finger, Miss Marple helps to solve the mystery of who’s been writing a series of vicious anonymous letters to the residents of the small town of Lymstock. Several of the villagers take those letters very seriously; there’s even a suicide (or was it a suicide?) associated with one of them. Then, there’s an obvious murder. Miss Marple works out who the killer is, but there’s not a lot of proof. So, she sets up what you might call a trap, and ‘baits’ it with another character, to flush the killer out. Fans of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series will know that Beck and his team use a rather similar sort of ‘trap’ in Roseanna. They know who the killer of twenty-seven-year-old Roseanna McGraw is, but they don’t have the proof they need. So, they lure the killer into trying for another victim. And it works.

Lawrence Sanders’ The Anderson Tapes introduces readers to John ‘Duke’ Anderson. He’s recently been released from prison, and has a legitimate job working in a print factory. But, then, he gets a chance to visit an exclusive Manhattan apartment building. Impressed by the luxury he sees, Anderson can’t resist the opportunity to set up a heist – and not just of one apartment, either. His scheme is to rob the whole building. For that, he’s going to need some help. So, he contacts several people he knows to get supplies, a getaway truck, and so on. What he doesn’t know is that the FBI and various other agencies have been interested in several of Anderson’s contacts for some time. And they know full well that those criminals are not going to be easy to catch. In order to get the proof they need, these agencies have gotten clearance for wiretapping and other surveillance. They’re hoping this will get the evidence they need to convince the people they’ve targeted. So, much of what Anderson says to these people is recorded. The question is: will they learn of Anderson’s scheme before he and his team have the chance to pull it off?

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Mma Precious Ramotswe gets a new client, Happy Bapetse. Like other members of her culture, Happy has been taught that caring for elderly relatives, especially parents, is her responsibility. So, when a man shows up at her home claiming to be her father, Happy welcomes him and starts to take care of him. But she slowly begins to suspect that the man is not her father at all, but someone who wants to take advantage of the fact that she’s done well in life. So, she goes to Mma Ramotswe to get some help. Mma Ramotswe soon sees that she isn’t going to get this man to admit his scam. So, she sets up a ruse that forces his hand, as the saying goes. And it works.

And then there’s Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands. In it, twelve-year-old Steven Lamb takes a very risky decision. His family has been devastated for a long time by the loss of his uncle, Billy Peters, who went missing nineteen years earlier. Steven wants his family to heal, and he believes that finding his uncle’s body, assuming he’s dead, will at least allow his family to start that process. It was always assumed that a man named Arnold Avery, who’s currently in prison for another child murder, killed Billy. So, Steven decides to write to Avery, and try to find out from him whether he killed Uncle Billy, and if so, where the body is buried. It’s a very daring ploy, since Avery has never admitted to that murder. And it begins a dangerous game of ‘cat and mouse’ between the two. And the stakes get higher as time goes on.

It can be very risky to try to get a criminal to admit wrongdoing, especially if it’s a serious crime like murder. But, few criminals are eager to tell what they’ve done. So, sometimes, a fictional sleuth has to come up with a different approach to getting the truth.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Love and Money’s Axis of Love.  

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Belinda Bauer, Ellery Queen, Lawrence Sanders

Give Me the Simple Life*

As this is posted, it’s 164 years since the publication of Henry David Thoroeau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods. As you’ll know, one of the important messages in this book is the value of simplicity. Thoreau advocated for living close to nature and rejecting consumerism and materialism. And there’s something to be said for that perspective. If you’ve ever moved house, then you know how having a lot of ‘stuff’ can make everything all the more complicated.

There are a lot of crime-fictional characters who like to live very simply. And it’s interesting to get their perspectives, especially as they contrast with what a lot of people value. It’s just as interesting to see how they’ve been viewed in different places and at different times.

In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), for instance, we are introduced to Julia and Isabel Tripp. They live in the small town of Market Basing where they are friends with Wilhelmina ‘Minnie’ Lawson. When Miss Lawson’s wealthy employer, Miss Emily Arundell, suddenly dies, it’s put down to liver failure. But Hercule Poirot thinks differently. He had gotten a letter from Miss Lawson, asking him to investigate a ‘delicate matter’ that she didn’t detail. He and Captain Hastings didn’t follow up until Miss Arundell was already dead, but he still feels an obligation to his client. So, he begins to look into the matter to find out who would want to kill the victim. There’s no lack of suspects, as she had a large fortune and financially strapped relatives. Surprisingly, though, it’s Miss Lawson who inherits the bulk of the money. So, she also could have had a motive. Since the Tripps are friends of Miss Lawson’s, Poirot and Hastings naturally want to talk to them. They find that the Tripps are dedicated to living a very simple life, with few possessions and very much ‘back to nature’ food. After their conversation, they invite their guests for lunch:
 

‘…some shredded raw vegetables, brown bread and butter, fruit.’
 

Needless to say, Poirot quickly finds an excuse for the two men to leave. The Tripps’ lifestyle is not the reason for Miss Arundell’s murder. But it’s an interesting look at then-contemporary perspectives on the ‘back to nature’ lifestyle.

Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil begins as Queen is trying to get some writing done. He’s taken a house in the Hollywood Hills to do just that, and he’s hoping for some peace and quiet. Such is not to be, though. Laurel Hill finds out that he’s there and wants him to investigate the death of her father, Leander. It seems he died of a massive heart attack, which his daughter says was deliberately brought on by a series of macabre ‘gifts’ left for him. What’s more, his business partner, Roger Priam, has also been receiving bizarre ‘gifts.’ Against his better judgement, Queen finds himself intrigued, and starts to ask questions. Along the way, he meets Priam’s wife, Delia, and his stepson, Crowe ‘Mac’ McGowan. Mac is convinced that the world is on the brink of destruction from nuclear weapons, and he wants to be prepared to survive. So, he lives in a treehouse he’s built, and wears as little as possible – often nothing at all. His aim is to be able to make his way in a world where all of the things we take for granted are gone. Mac’s commitment to a ‘back to nature’ life isn’t the reason for the strange packages, nor Leander Hill’s death. But it adds leaven to the story and a layer to his character.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation. He is also a member of the Navajo Tribal (now the Navajo Nation) Police. In many ways, Chee is a traditional Navajo. He’s very much attuned to nature. More to the point, he’s not particularly interested in material things like a big house or a new car. He has the things he needs, but they’re quite simple. For instance, he lives in a trailer, and he doesn’t have a large wardrobe or the latest in sound systems. His wants are few, and he’s basically content with that.

Fans of Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson novels will know that, at the beginning of that series, she is a Stockholm lawyer. She’s not greedy, or even overly ambitious. But she wants to get ahead. Circumstances return her to her hometown of Kiruna, and she ends up staying there. As time goes on, she becomes more and more attuned to nature, and lives more and more simply. She does almost everything on her own, too, and isn’t really interested in the trappings of modern consumerism. In fact, as time goes on, her simple lifestyle brings her more contentment, in its way, than would a very high salary and a plush lifestyle.

John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitplecheep also lives a very simple life. He is a member of the Royal Thai Police, and mostly works in and near Bangkok. He is also an observant Buddhist. As such, he tries to live by the Buddhist tradition of putting aside cravings. That includes wanting things like a fine house, a good car, and so on. So, he has very little. He lives in one room and keeps only what he needs. He eats simply, too. For Sonchai, though, it’s not important to have a lot. In fact, one’s better off with less. So, he’s not, in general, discontent with his lifestyle.

Not everyone is content to live very simply. But, for those who are, it’s interesting to see how their choices and lifestyles contrast with the focus a lot of people have on consumerism. These are just a few examples. I know you’ll think of more.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Rube Bloom and Harry Ruby.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Ellery Queen, Henry David Thoreau, John Burdett, Tony Hillerman

Then Came the Reading of the Will*

An interesting post from Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books has got me thinking about what happens (at least in crime fiction) when a will is read. It’s possible that there aren’t as many scenes in modern crime fiction as there used to be of a group of people gathered to hear the reading of a will. But that moment – when someone opens and reads the terms of a will – can make for a tense, suspenseful scene. And, in real life and in crime fiction, a will and its implications can have a lot of impact. So, it’s little wonder that a lot of, particularly less recent, crime novels include that sort of scene.

The book that Cleo was referring to, Reginald Hill’s Child’s Play, is a really clear example of a scene where a will is read. Wealthy Geraldine Lomas dies, and, as you might expect, her relatives look forward to benefiting from her will. When her will is read, though, the family members are shocked to learn its terms. According to the will, all of Geraldine Lomas’ considerable fortune is to go to her son, who disappeared during WW II, providing he can be found before 2015. If he’s not, then the fortune is to be divided among three charities. At the funeral, an unknown man shows up, claiming to be that long-lost son. Before his claim can be evaluated, though, he’s found dead in his car. Now, Superintendent Andy Dalziel and his team have to find out who had the most to gain by the murder.

Agatha Christie included several will-reading scenes in her work. In After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal), for instance, wealthy Richard Abernethie dies, and the members of his family gather for the reading of his will. All of his relatives are in need of money, some more than others, so they’re all eager to hear what family attorney Mr. Entwhistle has to say. According to the terms of the will, everyone gets some of the fortune. And that means everyone’s under suspicion when Abernethie’s younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, says that he was murdered. Everyone hushes her up, but privately, everyone wonders whether she was right. When Cora herself is found murdered the next day, it seems clear that she was. Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and Poirot agrees. He finds that more than one person might have wanted both family members dead.

Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth includes a very unusual will and reading. Eccentric and wealthy Cadmus Cole has spent most of his life at sea. He’s had little contact with his relatives and doesn’t even know where most of them are. But, he wants to make arrangements for the disposition of his fortune. So, he hires Queen, who’s recently set up a PI firm with his friend, Beau Rummel. The agency’s charge is to find any living relatives of Cole’s, and the two men set about it. It turns out that one relative is Kerrie Shawn, who’s eking out an existence in Hollywood as she tries to become a film star. The other is Margo Cole, who’s mostly lived in Paris. When the will is made public, everyone’s surprised to learn its main terms. The two heiresses will have equal shares of Cole’s fortune, but only provided they live together in Cole’s home on the Hudson River for one year. It’s a strange provision, but both women agree, and they travel to New York. Shortly after they settle in, Margo is shot. Kerrie, of course, becomes the prime suspect. Beau Rummel has become infatuated with her, though, and wants to clear her name. So, he starts investigating the murder, and he finds that Kerrie is by no means the only person who might have killed the victim.

Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine features the members of the Lawson family. Mallory Lawson, his wife, Kate, and their daughter, Polly, all benefit greatly when Mallory’s wealthy Aunt Carey dies. Mallory is burned out from his job, and he and Kate have wanted to start their own small publishing firm for a while. So, for them, the money is a dream come true. When the will is read, Polly learns that she, too, will inherit a very generous share of the fortune when she turns twenty-one (she is twenty at the start of the novel). The Lawsons also learn that, under the terms of the will, they will need to move to Carey Lawson’s home, and provide a permanent home on the property for Benny Frayle, who was Carey Lawson’s companion. This the family is only too happy to do, as they like Benny. Everyone’s excited about the future, and it’s not long before the family settles in. Then, the Lawsons’ financial advisor, Dennis Brinkley, dies in what looks like a tragic accident. Benny doesn’t think it’s an accident, though, and tries to get the police to investigate. Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Tom Barnaby looks over the files, but he doesn’t see anything that warrants a closer look. Then, there’s another death that’s very likely connected to the first. Now, it’s clear that Brinkley’s death was no accident.

And then there’s Minette Walters’ The Scold’s Bridle. The body of Mathilda Gillespie is discovered in her bathtub. Her wrists have been slashed, and on her head is a ‘scold’s bridle,’ a medieval device with tongue clamps that was used to punish women branded as nags. At first, her death is put down to a bizarre suicide. She’d been suffering from several ailments, so it’s not out of the question. Then, her will is read. It turns out that she left all of her fortune to her doctor, Sara Blakeney. Now, questions begin to be raised. Did Sarah know about this provision? If so, did she kill the victim? In order to clear her own name, Sarah looks into the case. She finds the victim’s diaries, and they start to provide some of the answers. This death turns out to be connected to the past.

There’s something about a will, and the revelation of its terms, that can be quite suspenseful. That’s especially true if there’s something unusual about it. Little wonder that we see scenes like this in crime fiction.

Thanks, Cleo, for the inspiration. Now, give yourself a treat and go visit Cleo’s excellent blog. Lots of fine reviews await you there.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marc Almond’s Widow Weeds.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Ellery Queen, Minette Walters, Reginald Hill

And He’s Proud of His Scars and the Battles He’s Lost*

Most people go through at least some sadness in their lives – sometimes true sorrow. And some of what happens can leave a person with real psychological scars. It happens in fiction, too, which makes sense, since well-written fiction shows us ourselves.

The challenge, if you’re an author, is depicting a character who has such scars. On the one hand, psychological scars impact the way people interact and think. Not to acknowledge that is unrealistic. On the other hand, many readers don’t want their characters (especially their protagonists) to be so damaged that they languish at the bottom of a bottle or at the end of a needle. That might be all right for a very short time, but most people want their main characters to be functioning, if not always entirely functional. There are some crime-fictional characters who balance dealing with their scars with actually functioning in life, and they can make for interesting reading.

In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, for instance, we are introduced to the members of the Boynton family, who are on a tour of the Middle East. Family matriarch Mrs. Boynton is, as Hercule Poirot puts it, a mental sadist who has her family so cowed that not one member dares to cross her. Her cruelty is psychological, not really physical, and it’s had its impact on her three stepchildren and her daughter. On the second day of their trip to the ancient city of Petra, Mrs. Boynton dies of what turns out to be poison. Poirot is in the area, and Colonel Carbury persuades him to investigate. Each member of the victim’s family had a very good motive for murder, and so did some of the other characters associated with the family. As we learn about the family, we see the scars that Mrs. Boynton’s treatment has left. Those scars have certainly impacted each character, even those who aren’t what you’d call incapacitated.

In Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts, Queen investigates the murders of two famous Hollywood stars, Blythe Stuart and John Royle. Part of his investigation involves looking into the victims’ backgrounds and histories to find out if something in their pasts has caught up with them. As a part of that process, he meets well-known gossip columnist Paula Paris. She’s ‘plugged in’ to every bit of talk in Hollywood, and her contacts find out whatever there is to know. Interestingly, Paris gets all of this information without ever leaving her home. She is, in fact, agoraphobic. There’s not really a clear reason given for her condition, but it certainly impacts her. That said, though, she doesn’t sit wringing her hands. Instead, she uses her network, and she writes a popular column. So, she’s got plenty of influence, and no financial worries. In this particular case, Queen helps her overcome the worst of her agoraphobia. And she proves to be quite helpful as he finds out the truth about the murders.

Fans of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch know that he’s had several psychologically scarring experiences. He spent a good deal of time in a children’s home and had to deal with the murder of his mother. Then, later in his life, he served in Vietnam. His experiences there were traumatic, too, as they are with nearly everyone who serves in war. All of this has meant that Bosch has some psychological wounds. They impact the way he sees his job, the way he interacts with others, and more. That said, though, they haven’t left him so dysfunctional that he can’t do his job. It’s true he’s had difficulty with personal relationships, and certainly with some of his work colleagues. Still, he hasn’t drowned at the bottom of a bottle, and he has a loving relationship with his daughter, Maddie.

In The Diggers Rest Hotel, Geoffrey McGeachin introduces readers to Charlie Berlin. It’s 1947, and Berlin has recently returned to his native Melbourne from service in World War II. He has what we would now call PTSD, and that’s not surprising, considering that he saw combat and served time as POW. Still, he’s trying to put his life back in order. In this novel, and the other two Berlin novels (Blackwattle Creek and St. Kilda Blues), we see how Berlin copes with his personal scars. On the one hand, he doesn’t ‘get over it.’ And it’s clear that he’s been permanently impacted by what he’s been through in life. On the other, he gets on with life. He marries, has children, and so on. It’s an interesting case of a character who does his best to cope with life, given everything.

Angela Marsons’ Detective Inspector (DI) Kim Stone also has her share of scars. When we first meet her in Silent Scream, we learn that she spent more than her share of time in the care system. That experience has left its mark on her. She’s prickly, sometimes very impatient, and not always good at picking up on others’ subtle cues and nuances. But she’s not hopelessly dysfunctional. She interacts professionally a lot of the time, she’s aware that she’s not easy to be with, and she does try to acknowledge it when she makes a mistake. As the series goes on, she does some growing, too. She never ‘gets over’ some of the things that have happened to her, but she learns to cope with life in a (mostly) productive way.

And then there’s Abir Mukherjee’s Captain Sam Wyndham. When this series begins, it’s 1919, and Wyndham has just arrived in Kolkata/Calcutta to take up his duties with the police. He suffers, as most soldiers do, with the after-effects of his wartime (WW I) service, and he’s grieving the loss of his wife, Sarah. He’s good at his job, and he is a functioning person. But the psychological scars are still there, and they’ve led to him using opium. His dependency doesn’t keep him from doing his job. Nor does it mean he has no relationships with anyone else, etc. But he has several hidden scars.

And that’s the case with a lot of major crime-fictional characters. The challenge is acknowledging the scars without them being so debilitating that the character can’t function. Striking that balance isn’t easy, but the result can be a character who’s realistic.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Prelude/Angry Young Man.

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Filed under Abir Mukherjee, Agatha Christie, Angela Marsons, Ellery Queen, Geoffrey McGeachin, Michael Connelly

And We’ll Come to Find the Key to it All*

As this is posted, it’s 219 years since the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. That stone unlocked the meaning of several Egyptian hieroglyphics and allowed linguists and historians to interpret them. It proved to be a key to understanding a lot about the culture and the people.

Thinking about the Rosetta Stone has got me thinking about keys to crime-fictional mysteries. I’m not, strictly speaking, talking about encrypted messages or codes. A crime-fictional ‘Rosetta Stone’ could be something as simple as a list or a diary page. Whatever it is, it shows the sleuth how the pieces of a mystery fit together.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Five Orange Pips, John Openshaw brings a strange case to Sherlock Holmes. It seems that Openshaw’s Uncle Elias, with whom he lived, was found dead in a pool on his estate. Prior to his death, there’d been a strange series of events that began when he received an envelope containing five orange pips. Now, the victim’s brother, John, has also received five orange pips. He’s terrified, but he won’t go to the police about it. As it turns out, a page from a diary proves to be the key to unlocking the meaning of the pips. Once Holmes knows that meaning, he’s able to solve the mystery.

In John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, it’s a poem that holds the key to the mystery of the death of Martin Starberth. For two generations, Starberth men served as Governors of Chatterham Prison. The prison is now in disuse, but Starberth men still follow an old ritual connected to is. Each Starberth male spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. While there, he opens the safe that’s in the room, and follows the instructions written on a piece of paper kept in that safe. When it’s Martin Starberth’s turn, he agrees to go through with the ritual, even though he’s reluctant. He dies of what looks like a tragic fall, but Dr. Gideon Fell isn’t sure the death was an accident. Once Fell understands what the old poem means, he’s able to find out who killed Starberth and why.

The focus of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is the murder of Samuel Ratchett, a wealthy American businessman who is stabbed on the second night of a three-day trip across Europe on the famous Orient Express train. The only possible suspects are the other people in the same carriage, so Hercule Poirot, who’s on the train as well, concentrates his efforts on them. One important question, of course, is what the motive might be. Who would want to kill Ratchett? The key to this mystery turns out to be a note that the killer never intended to be found. Once Poirot understands what the note says and what it means, he’s able to discover the motive for the killing. And that leads him to the truth about Ratchett’s murder.

Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil begins when Laurel Hill asks Queen to help her find out who’s responsible for the death of her father, Leander. It seems that Leander Hill died of a heart attack after receiving a series of macabre ‘gifts.’ His business partner, Roger Priam, has also been receiving ‘packages.’ Laurel is convinced that her father’s heart attack was deliberately triggered, and she wants Queen to find out why and by whom. Queen’s reluctant at first; he’s trying to get some writing done. But he is intrigued by the puzzle. So, he agrees to look into the matter. The motive for everything lies in the past. And, once Queen is able to unlock the meaning of the ‘gifts,’ he’s able to find out why Hill and Priam have been targeted. He also discovers who’s behind everything that’s happened.

There’s also Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal. In that novel, high school principal Hilary VanBrook is directing a local production of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. On the night of the final performance of the play, VanBrook is found dead in his car on the property of journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. Qwill (who is Braun’s protagonist) works with local police chief Andrew Brodie to find out who killed VanBrook and why. And it turns out that there are several suspects. VanBrook had plenty of enemies, and it’s not going to be easy to narrow it all down. One important key to solving the mystery turns up when Qwill pays a visit to VanBrook’s personal library. In it, there’s a hollowed-out book that contains a list of other books, some of which have red dots next to the titles. The meaning of that list and those red dots turns out to be essential to finding out who killed VanBrook.

There are, of course, plenty of other crime novels in which there’s a list, a diary entry, or something else that holds the key to understanding a mystery. Once the sleuth finds that key, the pieces of the puzzle start to come together. These are only a few examples; I know you’ll think of more.

ps. I know I’ve shown this ‘photo before, but I thought it was worth sharing again. What a privilege it was to see the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marillion’s Tumble Down the Years.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Lilian Jackson Braun