Category Archives: G.K. Chesterton

I Had to Go Down to the Post Office*

As this is posted, it’s the birthday of the United States Post Office. Of course, there’ve been postal services for hundreds of years; and, even with today’s easy access to email and texts, the postal service is still important.

It certainly matters in crime fiction. I’m sure we could all think of crime novels where the plot hinges on a letter (or the absence of one). But it’s not just letters themselves.

For one thing, there’s the letter carrier. They can be interesting characters in and of themselves. There is, for instance, a G.K. Chesterton short story (no titles – I don’t want to give away too much) in which a postman figures strongly into the plot

And there’s Joseph Higgins, whom we meet in Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger. He’s a postman who, at the beginning of the novel, delivers a series of letters to different characters. The letters are all from Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for wartime (WW II) military use. Each recipient is informed that she or he will be assigned there. Shortly after their work begins, Higgins is brought into the hospital with a broken femur. The operation he needs is routine, but it still involves surgery. Tragically, Higgins dies on the table in what’s put down to a terrible accident. His widow doesn’t think so, though, and says as much to Inspector Cockrill, who goes to the hospital to do the routine paperwork. Not long afterwards, one of the nurses who was present at the operation has too much to drink at a party and blurts out that she knows Higgins was murdered, and she knows how it was done. That night, she, too, is killed. Now, Cockrill has a major case on his hands, and it’s going to take finesse to find out which of the other characters is the killer.

Sometimes, the post office itself becomes a part of crime novel. That’s the case in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. James Bentley has been convicted, and is due to be executed soon, for the murder of his landlady. There’s evidence against him, and Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence should be satisfied with the outcome of the trial. It was he, after all, who gathered the evidence. But he’s begun to think that perhaps Bentley wasn’t guilty. And Spence doesn’t want to see a man die for a crime he didn’t commit. He asks Hercule Poirot to look into the case and see if there’s something that might have been missed, and Poirot agrees. He travels to the village of Broadhinny, where the murder occurred, and begins to get to know the residents. One of the gathering places in that village is the local shop, which also serves as the post office. When Poirot stops in to the shop, he meets its proprietor, Mrs. Sweetiman, who provides him with useful background information and a very important clue.

There’s a funny scene at a post office in Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors. Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet, Mervyn Bunter, are stranded in the East Anglia village of Fenchurch Saint Paul when Wimsey’s car gets into an accident. Vicar Theodore Venables rescues the two men, and lets them stay at the rectory until the car can be repaired. When the car is ready, Wimsey and Bunter leave, only to return a few months later when an unexpected corpse is found in a grave belonging to the local squire, Sir Henry Thorpe. At the vicar’s request, Wimsey looks into the matter. He and Bunter discover that there is a letter in the post office for the dead man, and they decide that it may provide clues. So, Bunter goes into the post office to try to get the letter if he can. Bunter invents a story for the postmistress to the effect that he’s looking for a letter sent to his chauffer, indicating Wimsey, who’s waiting outside in the car. Bunter soon returns to the car:

“What’s up?’
‘Better move on quickly, my lord,’ said Bunter, ‘because, while the manoeuvre has been attended with a measure of success, it is possible that I have robbed His Majesty’s Mails by obtaining a postal packet under false pretenses.’…
‘Bunter,’ said his lordship, ‘I warn you that I am growing dangerous. Will you say at once, yes or no, did you get that letter?’
‘Yes, my lord, I did. I said, of course, that since the letter for my chauffer was there, I would take it to him, adding some facetious observations to the effect that he must have made a conquest while we were travelling abroad and that he was a great man for the ladies. We were quite merry on the subject, my lord.’
‘Oh, where you?’
‘Yes, my lord. At the same time, I said, it was extremely vexatious that my own letter should have gone astray….and in the end I went away, after remarking that the postal system in this country was very undependable and that I should certainly write to the Times about it.”
 

Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen lives in the tiny town of Crozet, Virginia. At the beginning of the series, she serves as the village’s postmistress, so she sees nearly everyone at least a few times a week. It’s the sort of place where people tend to come to the post office to pick up their mail, so it serves as a social gathering place as much as anything else. And that means that Harry knows everyone, and everyone knows her. It also means that she often gets to hear the local gossip. As ‘plugged in’ as Harry is, it’s not surprising that she gets involved when there’s a murder. And sometimes, the post itself provides clues (I’m thinking, for instance, of Wish You Were Here).

People use email, texts, online bill paying, and social media so often these days, that we may not think about how important post offices and delivery people really are. But they are. Especially when you’re waiting for that paper book you’ve ordered…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Lucksmiths’ Don’t Come With Me.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christianna Brand, Dorothy L. Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, Rita Mae Brown

What’s On Your Radio?*

radio-dramasIn 1922, the BBC began airing daily radio news broadcasts. Radio had already been used to broadcast election results, among other things. And it wasn’t long before the power of radio was felt. Until the advent of reasonably priced commercial television, roughly thirty years later, radio was people’s source for news, entertainment, and more.

So, it shouldn’t be surprising that a lot of crime fiction, especially the crime fiction of those years, found its way to radio. And there’s still something about those radio broadcasts. They invite listeners to use their imaginations in ways that film and television don’t.

One set of mysteries that were adapted for radio was Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Various actors took the roles of Holmes and Dr. Watson; among the most famous were Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Fans will know that they also played these characters on film. But there were several other actors, too, who took those roles. An argument has been made that these radio broadcasts were responsible for a resurgence of interest in Conan Doyle’s stories. And what’s interesting is that the broadcasts didn’t end when television became popular. There were even some made in the 1970s and 1980s. If you’d like to experience some of these broadcasts for yourself, several of them are available right here.

G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories were also brought to the radio. From 1984 to 1986, the BBC aired several of the stories, with Andrew Sachs taking the title role. What’s interesting about this radio series is that it aired long after television was entrenched in many cultures. Stories such as The Blue Cross, The Hammer of God, and The Honour of Israel Gow were successfully adapted for radio. Like many of the Sherlock Holmes adventures, many of the Father Brown mysteries are short stories (as opposed to novellas or novels). That format really seems to lend itself well to the radio format.  If you’re interested in listening, you can find them here (there are even two from an older (1945) radio series).

Agatha Christie fans can tell you that she wrote several plays, including radio plays. For instance, she adapted her short story Yellow Iris for radio; it premiered on BBC Radio in 1937. This story takes place mostly in a restaurant, and the radio play had much more of a focus on that setting than did the short story. Later, the story was adapted again into a full-length novel that Christie called Sparkling Cyanide. There were some significant differences between the story and the novel, too, including a change of detective (it’s Poirot in the story, but not in the novel) and a different murderer. If you get the chance to experience all three versions of the story, I invite you to see which version works the best for you. Plenty of other Christie works have been adapted for radio. You can listen to many of them right here, including some from 1944-45.

Ellery Queen has been popular with crime fiction fans since 1929. And Queen’s adventures have been adapted for stage and screen (both large and small) several times. There’ve also been Ellery Queen radio dramas; in fact, the ‘Queen team’ of Frederic Danney and Manfred Lee wrote the early scripts for the 1939-1948 series.  Later, (in the 1970s), there was another incarnation of Ellery Queen on the radio. This time, the title was The Ellery Queen Minute Mysteries. As the name suggests, listeners were briefly given a set of clues and a scenario, and then invited to solve the mystery. If you’d like to try your hand at some of them, or, if you’d like to listen to some of the earlier broadcasts, you can do so right here. One note is in order. This site doesn’t include the original correct titles for the broadcasts. But they’re announced in the broadcasts themselves, and Queen fans will likely find the stories familiar.

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe has been an iconic crime fiction figure for more than seventy years. Since that time, Marlowe has starred in film and television adaptations as well as in novels and short stories. There was also a radio series, The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, based on the Chandler stories. The series, which ran, all told, from 1947 to 1958, starred Van Heflin and, later, Gerald Mohr in the lead role. If you’d like to hear some of these episodes, you can experience them right here.

Most of the radio dramas didn’t faithfully follow the stories on which they were based. Some of them were entirely new stories that simply used the famous sleuths as protagonists. But all of them had a role in keeping people interested in crime fiction and in those sleuths in particular. And, in the era before television dominated media, radio was an important form of entertainment. That was especially true for those who didn’t have access to a nearby cinema or theatre. Even today, audio broadcasts have an appeal. They invite listeners to use their imaginations, and they offer a way to experience mystery stories through a different medium.

What do you think? Have you listened to the old radio broadcasts (and some not-so-old) of crime stories? What’s your opinion? Does it bother you when they veer off the original stories?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The Living End

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, G.K. Chesterton, Raymond Chandler

Be One of Us*

cultsAs this is posted, it’s 38 years since the tragic deaths of over 900 members of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple group. Most people agree that that was a dangerous cult, but the line between spiritual group and cult is sometimes quite blurred. Whatever you call those non-conformist spiritual groups, they do attract plenty of people. And there are reasons for that. Some people are searching for a place to be accepted and to belong. Others want to make sense out of life, when it doesn’t always make sense at all. Others have other reasons for joining such a group.

And there’s no shortage of such groups in crime fiction. They can add a real layer of atmosphere, suspense and interest, too. There’s often a charismatic leader, a group of disparate people, plenty of secretiveness, and so on. All of those can combine to make for an effective context for a crime story.

For example, in G.K. Chesterton’s The Eye of Apollo, private investigator Hercule Flambeau gets a new resident in his building. The man calls himself Kalon, and claims he is the new Priest of Apollo. He’s quite charismatic in his way, and gets a following. One tragic day, Pauline Stacey, an heiress who lives two floors down from Kalon, dies from a tragic fall down an elevator shaft. Father Brown happens to be visiting Flambeau at the time, so he gets involved in investigating the death. And it turns out that this death was no accident, but a carefully planned murder.

Agatha Christie’s short story The Flock of Geryon also takes up the topic of cults and cult leaders. In that story, an acquaintance of Hercule Poirot’s, Miss Carnaby, is concerned about a friend of hers, Emmeline Clegg. It seems that Emmeline has gotten involved in new religious group, The Flock of the Shepherd, led by the charismatic and shadowy Dr. Anderson. Miss Carnaby is worried that her friend might be at risk, and Poirot agrees to help her look into the matter. He, Miss Carnaby, and Chief Inspector Japp and his team make a plan for investigating the group. They find that there’s much more at stake than spiritual well-being.

The focus of Ngaio Marsh’s Death in Ecstasy is a religious group called the House of the Sacred Flame. One night, Nigel Bathgate visits the group’s worship place on impulse, and witnesses one of their ceremonies. During the ritual, one of the group members, Cara Quayne, suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Bathgate calls in his friend, Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn, and the official investigation begins. In finding out who killed the victim and why, Alleyn and Bathgate look into the inner workings of the group, its leadership, and the interactions of its members. I agree, fans of Spinsters in Jeopardy.

John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee goes undercover in a cult group in The Green Ripper. In that novel, McGee’s girlfriend, Gretel Howard, dies of what looks like a fatal illness. But it turns out that she was murdered, and her death carefully planned. As he searches for answers, McGee finds a connection to a Northern California cult called the Church of the Apocrypha. Under the leadership of the charismatic Brother Persivel, the group is committed to the destruction of everything in society, so that everything can then be re-built. McGee joins the group to find out more information, and he discovers what the group’s plans are, and how they are linked to Gretel’s death.

Betty Webb’s Desert Wives takes readers into a sect/cult called Purity, which has a compound straddling the Arizona/Utah border. PI Lena Jones has been hired to help rescue thirteen-year-old Rebecca Corbett from the cult, and that particular goal is accomplished. But then, she discovers that on the same night, the cult’s leader, Solomon Royal, was shot. And there’s evidence against Rebecca’s mother, Esther (who, incidentally, hired Jones in the first place). If she’s going to clear her client’s name, Jones will have to find out who killed the victim. For that, she goes undercover in the group, and finds that there is much more going on than just attention to the spiritual. Some of the things she discovers are frightening and very dangerous.

And then there’s Åsa Larson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm). The novel begins with the murder of Viktor Stråndgard, whose body is found in a Kiruna church called The Church of the Source of All Our Strength. He was one of the leaders of the church, and had developed quite a cult-like following. The police, in the form of Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Eric Stålnacke, investigate the killing. It’s not long before they learn that the victim’s sister, Sanna, is a very likely suspect. She found the body (which could very easily be because she’s the reason it’s there). And there are any number of possible motives. Sanna claims she is innocent, and asks for help from her former friend, Rebecka Martinsson. Rebecka’s reluctant, as she had her own reasons for moving from Kiruna to Stockholm. But she agrees, mostly for the sake of Sanna’s two children. She finds that the solution to this mystery is connected with her own past.

There are plenty of other crime novels that explore life in groups that we might call cults (right, fans of Emma Cline’s The Girls?). They are fascinating, if frightening, and they can form interesting contexts for murder mysteries. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Who’s Welcome.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Betty Webb, Emma Cline, G.K. Chesterton, John D. MacDonald, Ngaio Marsh

Instant Karma’s Going to Get You*

Mending KarmaIn Hinduism and Buddhism, it’s called karma – bringing upon oneself the inevitable results of one’s own actions. Good deeds tend to mend one’s karma; bad deeds have the opposite effect. Western spiritual traditions have different concepts, but there’s still the underlying principle that what you do comes back to you, if you will.

Many people believe in karma, or something similar to it. So it’s not surprising that we see a lot of fictional characters who try to redeem themselves, especially if they’ve done things of which they’re particularly ashamed. Self-redemption can make for an interesting layer of character development. And it’s effective as a source of conflict in a story, as well. It’s an appropriate fit for crime fiction, too, if you think about it.

One such character is G.K. Chesterton’s Hercule Flambeau. When we first meet him in The Blue Cross, he is a most accomplished and notorious international thief. In this story, he’s after a silver cross covered in precious blue stones. The cross is the property of Father Brown, who’s taking it to a gathering of priests. As the story goes on, we see how Flambeau is pitted against Father Brown and against Valentin, head of the Paris police. As time goes on, Flambeau decides to quit his life of crime. He becomes instead a private investigator – and maintains a friendship with Father Brown. One can’t say that Flambeau makes the conscious decision to mend his karma; still, it’s clear that he sees a way to redeem himself. And he becomes quite good at what he does, too.

In Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus, we are introduced to Davide Auseri. For the past year, he’s been sunk in a deep depression, and spent most of his time drunk. His father has tried several remedies, including rehabilitation facilities, to help him, but nothing’s worked. Then, Davide’s father meets Dr. Duca Lamberti, who’s recently been released from prison, where he served time for euthanasia. Auseri hires Lamberti to try to help Davide, and Lamberti agrees. In the course of some rather unorthodox therapy, Lamberti learns the reason for Davide’s condition: he believes he’s responsible for the death of Alberta Radelli. A year ago, they met by chance and decided they liked one another’s company. After spending a day in Florence, though, Alberta begged him to take her with him, and not return her to Milan. Davide refused, and Alberta threatened to kill herself. He held firm, though, and she was later found dead of what’s been called a suicide. Lamberti comes to believe that the only way to help Davide is for him to redeem himself, if you will, by learning the truth about what happened to Alberta. So he and Davide look into the case. They find that the victim’s death had nothing to do with Davide. Although he doesn’t speak of it in terms of mending karma, Davide undertakes the investigation as a way to do some good after what he feels he’s done.

Fabio Montale, whom we first meet in Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos, is a Marseilles police officer. In fact, he patrols the area of Marseilles where he grew up. When Montale was young, he and his best friend Pierre ‘Ugo’ Ugolini, and their friend Manu, caused more than their share of trouble in town. One night, what started out as petty crime turned tragic, and that changed everything for Montale. Although he promised to remain loyal to his friends, he re-thought the course his life was taking. He first joined the army, and then returned to his old haunt as a cop. Now he’s trying to do some good as a sort of way to make things right. Then, Manu is murdered, and Ugo returns to Marseilles to avenge his death. When Ugo himself is killed, Montale feels a real obligation to find out what happened to his friends. It’s an interesting case of a man who knows he cannot take back the past, but wants to do his small part in the future.

Although he’s from a very different culture, John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep has a similar motivation in being a Bangkok police officer. Several years earlier, Sonchai and his friend, Pichai Apiradee, killed a drug dealer. Both were extremely remorseful about taking a life, and spent time at a monastery facing what they’d done. Being devout Buddhists, they wanted to mend their karmas. To do that, both became members of the Royal Thai Police. In this way, they would protect lives instead of taking them. Since the novels in this series are written from Sonchai’s point of view, we learn quite a lot about the Buddhist approach to doing right and mending karma.

And then there’s Maura Cody, a former nun who plays an important role in Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage. Mara left the convent for good reasons, and carries a burden of guilt for things that happened in her past. This is an important part of the reason she chooses to get involved when she happens to see something as she’s looking out of one of her windows. At first, she’s not sure she should get involved. But she wants a way to redeem herself – to do some good. So she reports what she sees, and becomes a critical witness to two cases that Dublin DS Bob Tidey and Garda Rose Cheney are investigating. Maura’s role in those cases doesn’t erase the past. But it does give her an opportunity to ‘do it right this time,’ if I may put it that way.

There are plenty of other fictional characters who are motivated by that sort of wish for self-redemption and mending karma. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Lennon’s Instant Karma! (We All Shine On).

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Filed under G.K. Chesterton, Gene Kerrigan, Giorgio Scerbanenco, Jean-Claude Izzo, John Burdett

You Meet Him On The Street And Never Notice Him*

Nondescript PeopleDo you ever really pay attention to the person who waits your table at a restaurant? To the person who washes your car, handles your bank transaction, or stocks the grocery shelves where you shop? Unless you live in a very small town or rural area, where everyone knows everyone, you may not even know anything about those people. And that’s only natural; there are only so many things and people we can pay close attention to at any one time. So unless there’s something distinctive about a person, so that you really notice, you’re not likely to pay that much attention.

That fact actually plays an important role in crime fiction. Being the sort of person no-one really notices can put a fictional murderer in a very advantageous position. Of course, it works for sleuths, too. The sleuth whom nobody pays much attention to can learn quite a lot.

In G.K. Chesterton’s short story The Invisible Man, private investigator Hercule Flambeau and his friend, Father Brown, investigate the strange murder of Isidore Smythe. What’s particularly odd about this case is that Smythe was murdered without anyone seeing a person going in or out of his apartment. The solution turns out to linked to that phenomenon of not really noticing everyone.

Agatha Christie uses this plot point in more than one of her stories (right, fans of The ABC Murders?). In fact, one of her recurring characters is an interesting example. He is Mr. Goby, a sort of private investigator who is very skilled at finding out information. He’s the sort of nondescript person whom nobody really notices. And so are the people he employs. They’re shop assistants, household staff, newspaper delivery people, and all sorts of other ‘nameless, faceless’ people who have access to information. It’s rare that Mr. Goby isn’t able to get answers.

There’s another kind of anonymity: the kind that comes from social structure. We see that, for instance, in Barbara Neely’s Blanche White. She is a professional housekeeper whom we first meet in Blanche on the Lam. Most of her employers are white, while she is black. In this case, really, the social divisions are along two lines: racial and socioeconomic. In many cases, her employers aren’t particularly interested in knowing her as a person. They see her as ‘the help;’ and, even though she’s a human being, she tends to ‘fade into the background.’ That actually proves to be very useful. Nobody pays much attention when to what she does, as long as the meals are on time and tasty, the laundry’s done, and so on. Once she learns the routine of the households in which she works, Blanche can move around without being much noticed.

There’s also Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce. She’s a pre-teen, so most people don’t notice her as they would an adult. And she takes advantage of that. Even though she lives in the kind of village where people do know each other, she can still ride around on her bike without people checking where she’s going. People don’t raise eyebrows when they see her, and so on. In some senses, she’s limited in terms of what she can learn. But that very limit (her youth) also allows her to escape a lot of notice.

In Luiz Aflredo Garcia-Roza’s Alone in the Crowd, we are introduced to Hugo Breno, a teller at Rio de Janeiro’s Caixa Econômica Federal. He’s not the kind of person that you’d pay much attention to; there’s nothing really distinctive about his appearance. And that’s been very helpful to him. He falls under suspicion when one of his regular customers, Dona Laureta Sales Ribeioro, is killed after falling (or being pushed) under a bus. It turns out that she visited the bank on the day she died, and then went to the police station and asked to speak to Inspector Espinosa. He wasn’t able to break free to speak to her, and now, he feels a sense of responsibility. He also suspects (because of her visit) that her death was no accident. So he takes a special interest in this case, and it turns out that this case touches on his past as well as Breno’s.

And then there’s real estate agent William Heming, whom we meet in Phil Hogan’s A Pleasure and a Calling. He’s not the sort of person you notice very much, or remember well. He’s just the house agent. Once the hands are shaken and the keys turned over, nobody really thinks about him at all. And that’s just how he likes it. What people aren’t aware of is that Mr. Heming is a lot more observant of them than they are of him. And he’s kept keys to all of the houses he’s sold. When a body is discovered in one of the town’s backyards, Mr. Heming is as concerned as anyone. If too much comes out, and people start to notice him, the people in the town might learn that he has interests besides selling homes.

See what I mean? There are all sorts of people we encounter whom we don’t even really notice. And sometimes, that turns out to be a mistake…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Nina Mouskouri’s Bill.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Barbara Neely, G.K. Chesterton, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Phil Hogan