Category Archives: Ellis Peters

I Thank the Lord I’m Welsh*

Wales is a beautiful country with a unique language, culture, and history. And, in the last few decades, there’s been a concerted effort to maintain that culture and teach that language. As you’ll know if you’ve lived there, or even been there, it’s a bilingual country (it’s been officially so since 1998).

But, if you read crime fiction, you’ll soon see that Wales isn’t exactly a peaceful, crime-free place. And it’s interesting to see how the country and its people are portrayed in the genre. Space doesn’t permit more than a quick peek at a few examples; I’m sure you’ll be able to add others.

One of Rhys Bowen’s series takes place mostly in the fictional Welsh town of Llanfair, in Snowdonia. These novels (there are ten) feature Constable Evan Evans, who was originally from Llanfair, but moved to Swansea as a child. When he gets fed up with life in the city, he decides to move ‘back home,’ where he’s now sometimes known as ‘Evans the Law,’ to distinguish him from others with the same surname. He re-acquaints himself with life in the small town in Evans Above, the first novel in the series. But it doesn’t turn out to be nearly as idyllic a life as he had imagined it would. This is a small-town series, but it’s not a ‘frothy,’ light series. Among other things, it shows how social changes such as immigration, culture clash, family structure changes, and so on don’t affect just the larger cities. They even find their way into small villages.

In The Earth Hums in B-Flat, Mari Strachan introduces readers to twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan. She lives in a small Welsh village in the 1950s, and is just on the cusp of coming of age. Gwenni’s a creative thinker; some people call her a dreamer. She’s certainly not obsessed with clothes, boys, or an active social life. Everything in Gwenni’s life changes when one of the town’s residents, Ifan Evans, goes missing, and is later found dead. For various reasons, Gwenni wants to find out the truth about his death, so she starts to ask questions. As she searches out the truth, she also makes some life-changing discoveries about her own family. Strachan’s second novel, Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers, also takes place in a small Welsh town, just after World War I.

Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels has two timelines. One begins in 1962, in an isolated Welsh village, and is the story of four children: Lawrence ‘Fatty’ Bevan; Elizabeth ‘Iffy’ Meredith; Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Tranter; and William ‘Billy’ Edwards. These children don’t have much in common, but there aren’t a lot of other children in town. So, they spend their share of time together. During one eventful summer, they slowly begin to learn some of the town’s secrets, including some things that several people would much rather no-one find out. The other timeline begins some forty years later, when retired detective Will Sloane decides to return to his native Wales. He knows he doesn’t have a lot longer to live, and he wants to spend his last days in his own country. More than that, he finds a clue that’s related to mystery he was never able to solve. A child went missing, and was never found. Sloane was on the team that investigated, and everyone made efforts to find the child, but they had no success. Now, with this new clue, Sloane is hoping he can finally get some answers. As the children’s story moves forward, and Sloane’s backwards, we slowly learn how these children are connected to the secrets people are keeping. We also learn how all of that is related to Sloane’s investigation.

There’s also Cathy Ace’s WISE Enquiry Agency series. This series, in the traditional whodunit style, features four women (one Welsh, one Irish, one Scottish, and one English) who set up an investigation agency. The stories mostly take place in the Welsh town of Anwen by Wye.

One of Elizabeth J. Duncan’s series features Penny Brannigan, who emigrated from Nova Scotia to the small Welsh town of Llanelen, where she lives now. She’s the owner of the Happy Hands Nail Care shop, and as such, gets to hear a lot of what’s going on in town. And, because it’s the sort of place where everyone knows everyone, she knows most of the town’s residents. This is a lighter, cosy, series, but it’s not ‘frothy.’

Just in case you were wondering whether all Welsh crime fiction takes place in small towns and villages, think again. Stephen Puleston, for instance, has two crime fiction series. One of them features Inspector Ian Drake, and takes place in North Wales. The other is set in Cardiff. This series features DI John Marco of the Queen Street Police. These novels are sometimes-gritty, fast-paced thrillers, rather than the more traditional-style whodunits.

And I couldn’t do a post about crime fiction set in Wales without mentioning Hinterland (AKA Y Gwyll). This noir television drama takes place in Aberystwyth, and stars Richard Harrington as DI Tom Matthias. One of the interesting things about this particular show is that it’s actually filmed twice: once in English, and once in Welsh. And even in the English version, there are occasional (subtitled) Welsh words and comments.

There are, of course, lots of other mentions of Wales and of Welsh characters in crime fiction. For instance, Ellis Peters’ most famous sleuth, Brother Cadfael, is Welsh. In fact, his Welsh identity plays a role in more than one of the novels in this series. And Cathy Ace’s other sleuth, Caitlin ‘Cait’ Morgan is also Welsh, although she now lives in Canada.

Wales may not be a large country. But it’s got a rich, long history, and a language and culture of which its people are proud. And it certainly features in crime fiction. Which crime novels set in Wales have you enjoyed?

ps. Thank you, wales.com, for the lovely ‘photo!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Catatonia’s International Velvet.

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Filed under Babs Horton, Cathy Ace, Elizabeth J. Duncan, Ellis Peters, Mari Strachan, Rhys Bowen, Stephen Puleston

I Will Remember You*

MemorialsAn interesting post from Cathy at Kittling: Books has got me thinking about Día de los Muertos, a memorial celebration that’s typically observed in Spain and in Latin American countries. It’s a time to remember loved ones who have died, and in lots of places it’s marked by parades, food, visits to cemeteries and the decoration of private family memorials. You’ll want to check out Cathy’s post to see some of the artwork and other observations.

Día de los Muertos isn’t celebrated in every culture. But many cultures do have some way of remembering loved ones who’ve died. And people often find personal ways to do so as well. They do in real life and they do in fiction too.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), we meet well-known sculptor Henrietta Savernake. One weekend she is invited to join one of her cousins Lady Lucy Angkatell and her husband Sir Henry at their country home. Henrietta is pleased about it because, among other things, she’ll get to spend some time with her lover John Christow, who’s also been invited. Christow is married, so they can’t be very public with their relationship, but everyone knows about it. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has been invited for lunch that day and arrives just after the shooting. To him it looks like a macabre tableau arranged for his ‘benefit.’ He soon sees though that it is all too real, and works with Inspector Grange to find out who killed Christow and why. At the end of the novel, Henrietta has to deal with the grief she feels, and she wants some way to remember her lover, even though they weren’t officially a couple. Here is how she does so:
 

“I must take my grief and make it into a figure of alabaster.’
Exhibit No. 58. ‘Grief.’ Alabaster. Miss Henrietta Savernake…’

 

She may not be able to publicly put flowers on his grave, but she finds her own kind of memorial.

Lawrence Block’s New York PI Matthew Scudder has to deal with the fact that while he was a police officer, he killed a young girl Estrellita Rivera in a tragic accident. He was chasing some thieves who’d just shot the owner of a bar, and Estrellita was shot by mistake. Although her family never blamed him for what happened, Scudder feels the burden of it. Whenever he has the opportunity and is in a Roman Catholic church, he lights a candle for her. It’s his way of remembering her.

One of the older Roman Catholic traditions is that bones, piece of cloth and other things belonging to saints were to be revered. They were regarded as holy and used as memorials to the saint. This belief plays a major role in Ellis Peter’s A Morbid Taste For Bones, the first of her Brother Cadfael stories. Fans will know that Cadfael is a Benedictine monk in 12th Century Shrewsbury Abbey. In this novel, Cadfael travels with a group of monks to the Welsh village of Gwytherin to retrieve the bones of St. Winifred and take them back to the abbey. As you can imagine, the people who live in Gwytherin are unwilling to have a group of English monks take their prized memorial away. Among other things they regard St. Winifred as their protectress. So there’s already hostility between the monks and the townspeople. Then Lord Rhysart, who led the opposition to the monks, is killed. If the monks are to return to the abbey in safety, and with the bones, it will have to be proved that none of them is responsible. So Cadfael works to solve the murder.

Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri has his own way of remembering those who have gone before. He visits temples, although he isn’t what you would call blindly religious. He also keeps a personal shrine in his Delhi office. Here’s how it’s described in The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing:
 

‘The first thing he did upon entering his office – that is, after turning on the air conditioning – was to light an incense stick in the little puja shrine below the two frames hanging on the wall next to his desk. One contained a photograph of his father, Om Chander Puri, the other a likeness of Chanakya, the detective’s guide and guru who had lived around 300 BC and founded the arts of espionage and investigation. The detective said a short prayer, asking for guidance from them both, and then buzzed in his secretary.’
 

Puri feels a connection not just with his own personal ancestors, but with those from the broader history of India as well.

Some people of course develop smaller ways to reflect on and remember those who’ve died. Karin Fossum’s Inspector Konrad Sejer, for instance, has a prized photograph of his wife Elise, who died of cancer. He doesn’t obsess over her loss, ‘though he misses her very much. But he keeps that ‘photo in place of pride. He remembers her often and sometimes reflects on what she might think or say about what he does.

In Qiu Xiaolong’s Enigma of China, Shanghai Police Bureau Chief Inspector Chen Cao investigates what seems to be the suicide of Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee. The official explanation for his death is that he killed himself because he was under investigation for corruption. Chen is assigned to the case under the assumption that he’ll ‘rubber stamp’ that account of Zhou’s death. But Chen isn’t entirely satisfied with the ‘suicide story.’ So he begins to ask some questions and works to find out what really happened to the victim. In one plot thread of this novel, Chen gets an invitation/request from his assistant Detective Yu. Yu’s wife Pequin wants to remember her dead father on the hundredth anniversary of his birth. It’s the Buddhist tradition to have a celebration to mark that occasion, and when possible, the memorial takes place at a Buddhist temple. Normally, a Party cadre such as Chen wouldn’t attend a religious observance like that. However, it’s a request from his friend and assistant. What’s more, it’s a mark of pride for Yu and his wife to have such an important person as Chen attend the memorial. So Chen agrees. It’s an interesting look at Buddhist customs for remembering dead loved ones as they’re observed in China.

Of course, not all cultures have such memorials. In some cultures, for instance, those who have died are still considered to be a part of one’s life, so creating memorials simply isn’t a part of daily living. In others, memorials to those who have died are seen as possible openings for malevolent spirits. So once loved ones have died, they are not mentioned. That said though, in a lot of cultures and a lot of different ways, we do remember those we’ve loved who have died. These are a few examples. Over to you.

ps. The ‘photo is of a yahrzeit candle. In the Jewish tradition, these candles are lit at certain times of the year to remember family members who have died.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a the title of a Sarah McLachlan song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellis Peters, Karin Fossum, Lawrence Block, Qiu Xiaolong, Tarquin Hall

When Death Came Calling Today*

Medical ExaminersOne of critical tasks in any criminal investigation is finding out exactly how the victim died. For that, police rely on medical examiners. They have slightly different roles in different countries, but in general, their job is to perform autopsies and determine cause of death. Often that leads to a conclusion on manner of death too (accident, suicide or murder). The police rely heavily on that medical information to help make their cases, and medical examiners’ reports are also very useful for attorneys, whether they’re prosecuting or defending someone. It’s no wonder at all then that these professionals figure so often in crime fiction.

Several series feature medical examiners as sleuths, which makes sense when you consider what they do and the information they learn. For instance, Ariana Franklin’s Adelia Aguilar lives and works in 12th Century England. She’s what’s called a ‘mistress of the art of death,’ a doctor who was originally at the University at Salerno. At the request of King Henry II, she’s sent to England to investigate a murder and remains there. She may not have modern technology or science at her disposal, but she understands how the human body works, and she is good at determining cause of death.

Although he is not a doctor by profession, Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael plays much the same role . He’s a Benedictine monk, and an herbalist. He’s learned many of the telltale signs of different causes of death and that helps him draw his conclusions. And since he’s thoroughly familiar with different kinds of plant life, he’s especially good at finding small pieces of evidence that suggest where the victim was killed and in cases of poison, which kind of poison was used.

Felicity Young’s Dorothy ‘Dodie’ McCleland is a medical examiner who works in the London of the early 20th Century. There’s a real interest in the profession at this time, as it’s the era of the Crippen case and not that many years after the Whitechapel murders. It’s a profession that’s just opened to women, so McCleland faces her share of sexism and cultural barriers. Still, she’s good at what she does. And what’s interesting is that Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the famous real-life pathologist, figures into the series. In fact, Young has written that the inspiration for Antidote to Murder, the second novel in the series, came from Spilsbury’s case notes.

Garrett Quirke, the creation of Benjamin Black, lives and works in 1950’s Dublin. In The Silver Swan, Quirke gets involved in the investigation of the death of Deirdre Hunt. And in this case, we see how important the observations of a medical examiner can be. When the victim’s body is found off the rocks near Dalkey Island, the police believe that it’s a case of suicide. Deirdre’s husband Billy accepts that explanation and wants the matter to go no further. In fact, he appeals to Quirke (they’re old friends) not to conduct an autopsy, saying that he can’t bear to think of his wife’s body cut up and dissected. Quirke agrees to see what he can do, but his suspicions are raised when he discovers a mark from hypodermic needle on one of Deirdre’s arms. That mark casts a whole new light on this death, but it isn’t noticed until Quirke conducts his examination.

And then there’s Colin Cotterill’s 1970s-era Dr. Siri Paiboun series. Dr. Siri is Laos’ only medical examiner, so he deals with all sorts of different cases. He faces several challenges too. For one thing, he has very little equipment or technology as his disposal. He has to make do sometimes with very rudimentary solutions, but he manages to get answers. Another challenge is that the government of Laos at this time is in the hands of socialist leaders who demand unquestioning co-operation and obedience. They expect that Dr. Siri’s results will tally with official explanations. That doesn’t always happen though, and Dr. Siri has to be cautious and clever as he goes about his work. But Dr. Siri has a strong and loyal team: Nurse Dtui and mortuary assistant Mr. Geung are highly skilled at their jobs. In fact Mr. Geung knows more about mortuary procedures than Dr. Siri does. This series offers an interesting look at the life of a non-Western medical examiner.

There are also of course many modern-day fictional medical examiners, such as Robin Cook’s Laurie Montgomery and Jack Stapleton. They live and work in New York City, but as readers of this series know, they also travel in the course of their work. Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan is another example of the modern medical examiner.

Medical examiners also play important roles in novels and series even when they’re not the protagonists. For instance, Peter James’ Superintendent Roy Grace depends a lot on Cleo Morey, a medical examiner with Brighton and Hove Mortuary. Fans of this series know that while these two begin as colleagues, their relationship changes and they become partners. Morey’s expertise is critical to Grace’s investigations. And Priscilla Masters’ Martha Gunn, who serves as Coroner for Shrewsbury, depends very much on her team members for accurate results in the cases she hears. In Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack, Buenos Aries medical examiner Dr. Fusili is very helpful, despite great personal risk, to police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano when he investigates a murder that some highly-placed people want ‘rubber stamped.’

Medical examiners have what may seem like eerie jobs. But their expertise is extremely important, and their cases can be very interesting, too. Which fictional medical examiners have stayed in your memory?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Mountain Goats’ The Coroner’s Gambit.

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Filed under Ariana Franklin, Benjamin Black, Colin Cotterill, Ellis Peters, Ernesto Mallo, Felicity Young, Kathy Reichs, Peter James, Priscilla Masters, Robin Cook

Gotta Go Back in Time*

Historical NovelsA very interesting recent blog post discussion has got me thinking about what really counts as an historical crime novel. You might think at first glance that that’s an easy question to answer. But it’s not as easy as you might think. Let me use a few examples to show you what I mean.

As Ellis Peters, Dame Edith Pargeter created one of the best-known historical crime fiction series, the Cadfael novels. Those novels take place in 11th Century Britain and many of them are set in and near fictional Shrewsbury Abbey. I think most people would agree that these novels ‘count’ as historical fiction. They weren’t written during that century, and that time period was a very long time ago. This one’s a fairly easy call.

So, I think, is Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death series. Those novels take place in Medieval England and feature Adelia Aguilar, who has journeyed from the University of Salerno in Naples to England at the request of the king. Again, that series was not written during the time in which it takes place, and that time was a very long time ago.

We could say the same of series such as Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma series, which takes place in 7th Century Ireland, or C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series, which takes place during the reign of King Henry VIII. There’s also Michael Jecks’ Medieval Murder series. All of these are easy to put into the category of ‘historical’ because they take place a very long time ago, and they weren’t written at that time. I’m quite certain you could think of many more series that fall into this category than I ever could.

Of course, there are lots of series that take place more recently than that, but are still generally considered historical. For instance, both Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series and Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series take place in the 1920’s. While that puts them within the 20th Century, it’s still not that far from a hundred years ago, and most people consider that long enough ago, if I may put it that way, to be considered historical. There are lots of other series too – more than I have space for here – that fall into this category.

Even novels and series that take place more recently than the 1920’s ‘count’ as historical for many people. Just as a few examples, there’s Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series (pre-World War II – 1950’s Berlin), William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series (pre-World War II Moscow) and Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series (1950’s England). There are many, many other examples of this sort of series too.

So far, so good. I think most people would agree that these series are historical crime fiction series. But as we get closer to modern times, it’s a little bit more difficult I think to make the distinction between what does and what doesn’t ‘count’ as an historical series.

For example, David Whish-Wilson’s Frank Swann series takes place in 1970’s Perth.  If you were alive during those years, you might not be so quick to think of these novels as ‘historical.’ The same is true of Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun series. That one also takes place during the 1970’s, which for a lot of people doesn’t seem so long ago.

And then there’s James W. Fuerst’s Huge, which takes place in 1980’s New Jersey. It’s historical in the sense that it wasn’t written at the time. And if you give the term ‘historical’ some latitude, you probably count it that way. But if you remember the 1980’s, maybe it seems more current. This one’s not quite so clear.

Even more difficult to categorise are series such as Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney series. Those novels take place in late-1990’s Thailand. On the one hand, it’s not the late 1990’s any more. And the novels weren’t published during that time. So in that sense these novels are historical. But the late 1990’s wasn’t that long ago (or perhaps that’s just my view…). Perhaps not enough time has passed to consider these stories historical.

As you can see, this isn’t as easy a question to resolve as it seems on the surface. Some series and novels fall quite easily into the ‘historical’ category. But for others, it really depends on what you call ‘history.’ Is a novel that takes place two years ago historical?

What’s your view of this? How long ago does a series have to take place for you to consider it ‘historical?’

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Huey Lewis and the News’ Back in Time.

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Filed under Alan Bradley, Angela Savage, Ariana Franklin, C.J. Sansom, David Whish-Wilson, Edith Pargeter, Ellis Peters, Jacqueline Winspear, James W. Fuerst, Kerry Greenwood, Michael Jecks, Peter Tremayne, Philip Kerr, William Ryan

Does Anything Last Forever?*

An interesting post at Fair Dinkum Crime (You really should be following that blog if you’re not) has got me thinking about what happens as we expand our reading horizons. Reading more widely introduces one to all kinds of ideas, themes, and authors that one wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. It also gives debut authors and authors who are less widely known the chance to get their work ‘out there.’ So I for one think it benefits readers, authors and the genre (in this case crime fiction) when readers stretch themselves. Of course, let’s not talk about what expanding one’s reading horizons does to one’s TBR list… 😉 But there’s another consequence to branching out: one sees one’s old favourites in a different light. Sometimes that’s a positive experience, and sometimes it isn’t. As we evolve in our reading habits, we do get a different perspective and that affects the way we look at the authors and books we always loved before.

For example, authors such as Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr created memorable novels that feature mostly a focus on plotting as opposed to deep character development. Of course one can point to exceptions in each of these authors’ back catalogues but in general their novels feature intellectual puzzles. That’s their appeal for millions of crime fiction fans. But for those of you who loved those puzzles, what happened to your view when you first read, say, Ruth Rendell’s work or P.D. James’ work? Those authors certainly feature solid mystery plots but their focus is also on deep interesting characters and psychological study. Did expanding your horizons that way change your perception of the ‘whodunit’ kind of intellectual exercise?

Many readers fell in love with the hardboiled PI novel along the lines of Raymond Chandler and later, John D. MacDonald, Peter Temple, Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton. It’s easy to see why too. A well-written ‘hard boiled’ novel has a solid blend of realism, action, compelling plot and suspense. And the very well-written ones also develop the characters so that they aren’t ‘cardboard cutouts.’ But if you’re the PI-novel type, what happened to your perception when you expanded your horizons to include quieter series such as Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series? Did you change your view of the level of violence and grit in the series you’d always loved? If you’ve broadened your reading to include some traditional ‘country house’ or ‘English village’ series such as Ngaio Marsh’s or Caroline Graham’s work, have you returned with the same interest to the PI sub-genre?

Very often crime fiction fans experience these ‘growing pains’ if you want to call it that when they broaden their reading to include the work of authors from other countries. Each country has a different culture – sometimes several different cultures – and that’s reflected in the crime fiction that comes from that country. So suppose you’ve been a fan of L.A. crime fiction such as the work of Michael Connelly. What happened to your perception of that sort of crime fiction after you expanded your reading to include work such as Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren novels or Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache novels? Those series reflect the cultures of their authors and thus expose readers to those cultures. After experiencing those different cultures did you return to Connelly’s work with the same enthusiasm?

There are also many crime fiction fans who originally fell in love with historical crime fiction such as Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series. If that describes you, what happened to your perception of that context and those authors when you began to read crime fiction set in the modern day? Do you still enjoy virtually returning to medieval times? What about when you began to read historical crime fiction set in different eras, such as Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series which is set just before World War II? Did that change your perception of the historical crime fiction you’d always loved?

Sometimes of course we broaden our reading only to realise how much we really do enjoy the novels we’ve always loved. In those cases, returning to a favourite author’s work is like re-uniting with a dear friend. Yes we’ve matured but that doesn’t change our feelings about that author’s novels. I know I have my favourites whose writing I always enjoy. It doesn’t always work out that way though, even if the author has continued to innovate and create well-written books.

When that happens – when we see that our tastes have simply changed – it can be a little sad, especially if we have some very good memories of a particular author or series. But people grow and expand their horizons and sometimes that simply means that our favourite clothes if you will simply don’t fit any more.

Has that happened to you? What’s happened to your perception of your favourite authors’ novels as you’ve widened the scope of your reading? If you’re a writer, has your writing changed as your reading has changed? Just wondering…

Thanks to Bernadette at Reactions to Reading for the inspiration for this post. Folks, you really should be following her superb blog. I know it’s one of my must-reads.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kenny Loggins’ Heart to Heart.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Caroline Graham, Ellery Queen, Ellis Peters, Håkan Nesser, John D. MacDonald, John Dickson Carr, Louise Penny, Michael Connelly, Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James, Peter Temple, Raymond Chandler, Rebecca Cantrell, Ruth Rendell, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton