Category Archives: G.K. Chesterton

You Didn’t Even Notice Me*

We interact, probably on a daily basis, with a number of people we don’t really even notice. Unless there’s something very distinctive about that person, do you really pay attention to your bus driver, your taxi driver, or the person who pours your coffee at the restaurant? You might if you happen to be a ‘regular,’ so that that person is familiar. But otherwise, my guess is that you usually don’t. And that makes sense if you think about it. There’s only so much stimuli that we can pay attention to at any given time.

There are several ways crime writers make use of characters like that. They may hear something that they’re not meant to overhear, just because no-one noticed them. Or, they may provide helpful evidence, since the perpetrator doesn’t think about their presence. And, since they’re so much ‘in the background, they can even be killers…

In one of G.K. Chesterton’s short stories, for instance, that’s exactly what happens. I won’t give spoilers by naming the story. But the very fact of one character’s not being noticed allows that character to quite literally get away with murder.

In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, famous American actress Jane Wilkinson is suspected when her husband, Lord Edgware, is stabbed one night in his study. There’s evidence against her, too, as she wanted to marry someone else. In fact, she even threatened to commit murder. But Jane says that she was at a dinner party in another part of London on the night of the murder. And there are twelve people who are prepared to swear that she was there. Hercule Poirot had an appointment with the victim on the day he was murdered, so he works with Chief Inspector Japp to find the killer. And they find that more than one person had a motiv. One of those people is Ronald Marsh, the victim’s nephew. Marsh was desperate for money and had quarreled with his uncle about it. But he claims he was at the opera at the time of the murder. The only problem is, there’s a taxi driver – the sort you don’t pay attention to until it comes up later – who remembers taking Marsh to his uncle’s home during the performance. That fact makes Marsh very much a ‘person of interest.’

In P.D. James’ Death of an Expert Witness, Commander Adam Dalgliesh and Inspector John Massingham investigate when Dr. Edwin Lorrimer is murdered. The victim was a senior doctor at Hoggett’s Laboratory in East Anglia, so Dalgliesh and Massingham concentrate their efforts on the lab’s staff, and others who may have had a reason to be on the premises at the time. The murder wasn’t committed during office hours, so of great interest is information on who might have come in or out once the laboratory’s doors were locked. Oddly enough, a piece of information comes from a group of people who were riding a public bus at the time. The bus was rounding a curve that put the lab in view of anyone looking out the window in the right direction, and the bus driver and several passengers mention having seen a woman in that area. Dalgliesh and Massingham finally track that person down; and, although that doesn’t solve the crime, the woman is still able to give them some information.

In Max Kinning’s Baptism, we meet London train driver George Wakeham. He’s getting ready to leave for work as usual one morning when a group of three people burst into his home and abduct his wife and two children. They then give Wakeham a mobile ‘phone and tell him he must follow all of their telephoned instructions if he wants his family to stay alive. Wakeham has no choice but to obey, so he goes to work and gets into the cab of his train as he always does. Before long, the train heads into a tunnel, and Wakeham is told to stop. What he doesn’t know at first is that the abductors have brought his family aboard the train, and that they’re there, too. With the train halted, and more than 400 people taken hostage, it’s a dire situation for Wakeham and everyone else on the train. DCI Ed Mallory is called in to negotiate with the hostage-takers and find out what they want. And when he finds out, he and Wakeham learn that these hostage takers want much more than money.

And then there’s Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man. This novel follows Captain Sam Wyndham, as he arrives from England to take up his duties with the police in Kolkata/Calcutta. He’s no sooner started working when he’s faced with a delicate case. Alexander MacAuley, head of Indian Civil Service (ICS) for Bengal has been murdered, and his body discovered in an alley behind a brothel. For many reasons, Wyndham and his team, Sub-inspector John Digby and Sergeant Surendranath Benarjee, will have to move carefully as they investigate. As it turns out, the case has connections to some very high and very powerful places, and this will mean a great deal of danger for Wyndham. But he makes an unlikely friend in a rickshaw driver named Salman. Ordinarily, as a white person in Bengal at the time (the novel takes place in 1919), Wyndham wouldn’t be expected to pay any attention at all to the driver. But he does. And he learns a little about the man. Without spoiling the story, I can say that Salman proves to be a useful ally.

But it’s not often that we pay very much attention to those people who drive buses or trains, deliver parcels, or pour the coffee. They often fade into the background. Still, they can be very interesting, and in crime fiction, they can also be very useful…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Trust Company’s Letting Go.

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Filed under Abir Mukherjee, Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, Max Kinnings, P.D. James

And it’s Been Right There the Whole Time*

In many crime novels (especially, but not always, whodunits), the reader is invited to match wits with the author, so to speak, and work out the solution before it’s revealed. And after enough time, most crime fiction fans are adept at picking up on the clues they need to get to the truth.

But sometimes, it’s not that easy. Not all clues – even important clues – are obvious. And some authors choose those very subtle clues. Of course, making a clue too subtle runs the risk of not ‘playing fair’ with the reader. Still, when it’s done well, a subtle clue can slip by even a seasoned crime fiction fan (e.g. ‘How did I not see that?’).  Recently, a fascinating post by Brad at Ahsweetmysteryblog got me thinking about those sorts of clues.

In G.K. Chesterton’s The Invisible Man, for example, private investigator Hercule Flambeau gets an unusual case. Isidore Smythe has been murdered in his own home. However, his home has only one door – the front door. The way the building is constructed, no-one could have got out a window and escaped. And no-one saw anyone coming or going at the time of the murder. So, the question is: how could someone have got in, committed the murder, and got out again, without being seen? Flambeau gets help from his friend, Father Brown, who gets to the truth about this case. What’s interesting is that, all along, there’s a subtle clue as to who is responsible. It’s right there, but not obvious.

Agatha Christie used those subtle clues quite often in her work. Just as one example, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot retires (or so he thinks) to the village of King’s Abbot. He’s drawn into a case, though, when wealthy manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd is murdered in his study. There are several possible suspects, but the most likely one is Ackroyd’s stepson, Captain Ralph Paton. Paton’s fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, wants to clear his name, and asks Poirot to investigate. At the time this book was published, Christie was accused of not ‘playing fair.’ But, if you read carefully, the clues are all there. Everything that’s needed to solve the mystery is there. That said, though, I won’t deny that I was taken in the first time I read this one.

In Georgette Heyer’s A Blunt Instrument, Sergeant Hemingway and Superintendent Hannasyde investigate when wealthy businessman Ernest Fletcher is found bludgeoned in his study. They’ve got plenty of suspects, too. For instance, Abraham Budd bought and sold stocks for the victim, and hasn’t been exactly aboveboard about it. If Fletcher found out, Budd might easily have felt the need to kill him. Charlie Carpenter has a history of blackmailing and a police record. He also could be responsible. So could Helen or John North, who live near the Fletcher home. They have their own motives, and they live close enough to have committed the crime without being seen. Then, there’s the victim’s nephew, Neville Fletcher, who has financial problems and who benefits from his uncle’s will. Any one of these people could have committed the crime, and Hemingway and Hannasyde have to work through a tissue of lies and evasions to find out who did. As it turns out, there’s a very good and important clue to the solution. But it’s subtle – something you could easily be excused for not noticing. And it took me a while to catch on to it.

It took me a bit of time to catch on to the important clue in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, too. In that novel, retired teacher Myrtle Clover is ‘volunteered’ by her son to join a women’s group at the local church. She’s none too happy about this, as she is not ready to be ‘put out to pasture,’ and ‘managed.’ Still, her son, local police chief Red Clover, wants his mother to take her ease and step back from life, the way older people are supposed to do. When Myrtle grumpily goes to the church to meet with the group, she discovers the body of local real estate developer Parke Stockard. Determined to show that she’s not so easily put aside, Myrtle decides to find out who the killer is. And there are several suspects, too, since the victim had managed to alienate just about everyone in town. Interestingly, there is one clear, but subtle clue. If you pay attention, it’s there. But it’s not really obvious, and I missed it at first.

And then there’s Zoë Sharp’s Killer Instinct, which introduces her sleuth, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox. In one plot thread, Fox gets a job working security at the New Adelphi, a trendy nightclub. She soon begins to suspect that more is going on there than just serving drinks, playing music, and making sure that drunks don’t make life miserable for everyone. As the story goes on, she slowly gets clues as to what’s happening at the club. But it doesn’t become really clear to her until closer to the end of the novel. That’s when she makes sense of some comments she’s heard and is able to put all the pieces together.

And that’s the way it is with well-placed, subtle clues. When they’re done well, even veteran crime fiction readers can miss them. But they’re still right there. Thanks, Brad, for the inspiration. Now, folks, may I suggest your next blog stop be Brad’s fine blog. Rich discussion of crime fiction awaits you there!

ps. Oh, the ‘photo? Can you see who’s responsible for cutting down on the bug population? You can’t? The clue’s right there!

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joss Stone’s Clean Water.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elzabeth Spann Craig, G.K. Chesterton, Georgette Heyer, Zoë Sharp

It’s a Very Special Knowledge That You’ve Got*

An interesting post from Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery has got me thinking about what Rosemary Herbert calls the surrogate detective. Here’s what Tracy had to say about it:

In Whodunit?: A Who’s Who in Crime & Mystery Writing by Rosemary Herbert, John Putnam Thatcher is described as a prime example of the surrogate detective.

The term “surrogate detective” is applied to characters who solve crimes yet who are neither amateur nor professional detectives. Like the accidental sleuth, the surrogate sleuth may simply have stumbled upon the crime scene, but whereas the accidental sleuth acts out of pluckiness or sometimes self-defense in order to prove who committed the crime, the surrogate sleuth feels compelled to act by applying expertise that he or she brings to the situation.

There’s a strong argument, too, that Emma Lathen’s John Putnam Thatcher is such a detective. He isn’t a police officer or PI. He’s a vice president for a large, international bank. He doesn’t solve crimes to prove himself, or to clear his name, or to clear the name of a friend or loved one. Rather, he uses his particular financial skills as he’s drawn into mysteries.

And he’s far from the only fictional surrogate detective out there. There are plenty more; there’s only space in this post for a few, but I know you’ll think of others. It’s an interesting category of sleuth.

For example, you might argue that G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown is a surrogate detective. He’s not a professional detective. And yet, he doesn’t get drawn into crimes, if you will, accidentally. Rather, he uses his particular background, skills and knowledge to solve mysteries. He feels compelled to set things right, in part because of his role as a priest.

John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell is another fictional sleuth who might be classified as a surrogate detective. He is an academic – a lexicographer by background – who uses those skills to solve mysteries. He’s not paid to do so, and his involvement in mysteries isn’t usually accidental. Rather, he wants to find out the truth, and is drawn into cases because he can add his own expertise to them.

There are several fictional medical sleuths who also use their expertise to solve mysteries. It’s often not to clear their names, but to solve an intriguing medical puzzle. Some of Robin Cook’s early medical thrillers (I’m thinking, for instance, of Outbreak and Blindsight) feature this premise. In more than one of them, a doctor, medical examiner, or someone in a similar position notices a case (or cases) of unusual death. Then, that medical person uses her or his expertise to narrow down the probable causes of death, and link them to a source.

We also see this in Kathryn Fox’s Anya Crichton novels. Crichton is a New South Wales-based pathologist and forensic physician. On the one hand, she is officially consulted on certain cases; so, in that sense, she’s a professional. On the other, she’s not a police detective or PI. Rather, she uses her medical expertise to put the pieces of a puzzle together.

Fans of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway will know that she is a forensic archaeologist associated with North Norfolk University. She is consulted by the police when her background and expertise are needed, but she’s not herself a professional detective. Once she gets interested in a case, she wants to find out the truth as much for the sake of knowing as for any other reason. In that sense, she does feel compelled to act and contribute what she finds out. There are plenty of other fictional archaeologists, too, who arguably are surrogate detectives.

There are also several crime-fictional psychologists who are arguably surrogate detectives. One, for instance, is the ‘Nicci French’ team’s sleuth, Frieda Klein. She’s a London psychologist who didn’t really bargain for getting involved in murder mysteries. She has her own life and issues to keep her busy. But she gets drawn into cases when her expertise is needed, or when she feels compelled to share it. For example, in Blue Monday, she learns that a small boy has gone missing. Some of the details of that case remind her eerily of a client she’s been helping. So, although even she wonders how ethical it really is, she shares the information she has with the police. And it turns out that her expertise is very helpful.

There are a lot of other fictional sleuths who might be considered surrogate detectives. And, of course, the line between a surrogate detective and an amateur detective can be very blurred. So, we might not all agree on whether a sleuth is one or the other. But it’s a really interesting concept.

What do you think? Do you agree with Herbert’s idea of the surrogate detective? Which of your top fictional sleuths ‘counts’ as one? Writers, is your main character a surrogate detective?

Thanks, Tracy, for the inspiration! Now, folks, may I suggest your next stop be Tracy’s excellent blog? Excellent reviews await you there!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from David Bowie’s Did You Ever Have a Dream?

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Filed under Elly Griffiths, Emma Lathen, G.K. Chesterton, John Dickson Carr, Kathryn Fox, Nicci French, Robin Cook

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