Category Archives: Gail Bowen

You Had to Open Up Your Mouth*

LooseLipsThere’s wisdom to the old wartime saying, ‘Loose lips sink ships.’ A person may mean well, and may even agree to keep quiet about something. But the right setting, the right atmosphere and the right confidant can get people to say things they otherwise might not. And there are those who enjoy the feeling of seeming important – to whom boasting might come naturally.

In crime fiction, anyway, saying too much can get a person into real trouble. For the police, it can put an investigation in jeopardy. For a criminal, it can lead to getting caught. And in any case, it can lead to murder.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, we are introduced to twelve-year-old Joyce Reynolds. She and several other people are at the home of Rowena Drake one afternoon, getting ready for a Hallowe’en party to be held there that night. One of the others at that gathering is detective story writer Ariadne Oliver, who’s staying locally with a friend. When Joyce finds out who Mrs. Oliver is, she boasts that she herself saw a murder. Nobody believes her, and at first everyone hushes her up. But Joyce continues to insist that she’s telling the truth. Many people there put those remarks down to the efforts of a young girl to get the attention of a famous writer. But that evening, during the party, Joyce is murdered. Mrs. Oliver asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and he travels to the village of Woodleigh Common to do so. It now seems clear that what Joyce said got someone frightened enough to kill, and that the peaceful town may very well be hiding a murderer.

In Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City, Reykjavík police inspector Erlendur and his team investigate the murder of a seemingly harmless older man named Holberg. At first, the case looks like a home invasion gone very wrong. But a few clues suggest that this was a deliberate killing. If that’s the case, then the more the team members know about Holberg, the more likely they are to find his killer. So they start to dig into the victim’s past. What they find is not at all pleasant, either. It turns out that Holberg has a history that includes multiple rapes. To check up on this, they have a conversation with a man named Ellidi, who’s been in regular trouble with the law and is currently in prison. Ellidi has this to say about Holberg:
 

‘Holberg liked talking about it [one particular rape incident]. Boasted. Got away with it.’
 

It soon turns out that more than one person could easily have wanted Holberg dead.

Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring features her sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn, who is an academician and political scientist. In one plot thread of this novel, she is concerned about a student of hers, Kellee Savage, who has missed several classes lately. The last time anyone saw Kellee was one night when several students were at a local bar. The evening ended in disaster when someone noticed that Kellee had secretly been recording everyone’s conversation. Kilbourn follows up on what happened that night, and what was said. It turns out that Kellee had been drinking heavily, and said some things that would have been far better left unsaid. Later, those comments have their consequences.

Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas concerns Fred and Maggie Blake and their two children, ex-pat Americans who have moved to a small town in Normandy. As we learn, though, the Blakes are not the people they seem. Fred Blake is really Giovanni Manzoni, a former member of the New Jersey Mafia. In return for testifying against his fellow gangsters, Manzoni was placed in the US Federal Witness Protection Program, along with the members of his family. Because of the sensitive and dangerous nature of what’s happened, it’s vital that all of the ‘Blakes’ keep quiet about everything related to that part of their lives. And at first, all goes well enough, although there’s plenty of ‘culture shock’ as they get used to living in Normandy. Then, the ‘rule of silence’ is broken, and word of the family’s whereabouts gets back to New Jersey. Now, getting along in a different country is the least of the family’s troubles.

In Donna Malane’s Surrender, missing person expert Diane Rowe learns of the murder of James Patrick ‘Snow’ Wilson. This death has special significance for her, because it’s suspected that Snow killed Rowe’s sister Niki a year earlier. Before his death, that suspicion was confirmed. Snow confessed that he’d been hired to commit that murder; he even boasted of his skill. Now he’s been killed in the same way. Rowe reasons that if she can find out who hired (and, presumably, killed) Snow, she’ll also learn who paid Snow to kill her sister.

And then there’s David Whish-Wilson’s Zero At the Bone, the second of his novels featuring former Perth Police Superintendent Frank Swann. It’s the late 1970’s, and Swann is dealing with the fallout from events in the first novel (Line of Sight  – recommended, by the way). One of the consequences of that fallout is that he’s not working as a copper. In one plot thread of this novel, another former police officer, Percy Dickson, hires Swann to help him get to the truth about a series of robberies. Dickson is head of security at one local department store, and consults with several others, and with some local jewelers. So for him, a series of robberies like this will mean the end of his job. Swann agrees to look into the matter, and in fact, finds out the truth about the thieves. This particular truth is very dangerous, though, and Dickson is under strict orders not to say anything to anyone about how the stolen merchandise was recovered, or even that the case has been solved. Unfortunately for both Dickson and Swann, Dickson makes mention of it to the wrong people…

And that’s the problem with unguarded words, whether they’re casual comments, boasts, drunken remarks, or things said in anger. They can get people in a lot of trouble. These are only a few examples; over to you.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Big Shot.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Tonino Benacquista, Arnaldur Indriðason, Donna Malane, Gail Bowen, David Whish-Wilson

What I Am is What I Am*

Nature and NurtureIn Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot visits the village of Broadhinny to investigate the murder of a charwoman. Everyone thinks the killer was her rather unpleasant lodger James Bentley, but Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence has come to believe that Bentley is innocent. One evening, Poirot is invited to a party and later, joins a group of people who’ve gathered at the home of one of the characters, Laura Upward. During a discussion about the care and breeding of Irish Wolfhounds, Mrs. Upward says,
 

‘Environment can give a veneer – no more. It’s what’s bred in people that counts.’
 

Without spoiling the story, I can say that this question of ‘nature vs nurture’ is one of the elements in this novel.

And it’s not surprising. The question of what impacts us the most, our environment or heredity, has fascinated people for centuries. It’s been the driving force behind countless studies.

The answer to the question, of course, is quite complicated. People are complex, and impacted by many factors. Heredity is one, and so is environment. So are other forces as well. But despite the fact that we know it’s not as simple as ‘nature or nurture,’ people still debate that issue, and explore it in writing.

Certainly it’s there in crime fiction. Christie discussed it in several of her stories (I’m thinking, for instance, of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, of Appointment With Death, and of The Murder on the Links). There are lots of other examples, too.

Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City takes up the topic of nature and nurture and what it all means, too. In that novel, Reykjavík police inspector Erlendur and his team investigate the murder of a seemingly inoffensive elderly man named Holberg. At first the case looks like a robbery gone very wrong. But there are a few clues that suggest that this was a deliberate killing. So the next step is to look at the people in the victim’s current life, as well as those in his past. And as it turns out, Holberg was quite possibly not as harmless and innocent as he seemed. As the police team digs into his background, they find some ugly allegations of rape and attempted rape. There’s even a possibly-related case of suicide that seems to have had its roots in Holberg’s past. Among other things, it’s an interesting exploration of the environment/heredity issue.

The ‘Nicci French’ writing team raises the question of nature v nurture in Blue Monday. In that novel, London psychologist Frieda Klein gets a new client, Alan Dekker. He has all sorts of emotional and other issues, one of which is his dream of having his own son – a boy who looks just like him. He and his wife, Carrie, haven’t had any children, and Dekker doesn’t want to adopt. So he and Klein start the difficult work of exploring his past, his feelings about adoption, and his beliefs about heredity and environment. Then comes the disturbing news that four-year-old Matthew Farady has gone missing. DI Malcom Karlsson and his team begin the investigation immediately, but nothing turns up. When Klein hears of the boy’s disappearance, she begins to worry, first subconsciously and then actively, that it might be connected in some way with the work she’s doing with Dekker. It’s risky from the perspective of professional ethics, but Klein lets Karlsson know of her concerns. They begin to look more deeply into the case and, little by little, each in a different way, they find out the truth. They also find out how it relates to another disappearance from twenty years earlier.

Gail Bowen’s sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, is a political scientist and academician. She is also the adoptive mother of Taylor, who is a gifted artist. Taylor’s birth mother Sally Love was also a gifted artist, and Taylor has had her issues in coming to terms with her own talent and what that means about her connection to her birth mother. She’s been raised in the Kilbourn/Shreve home for almost all of her life, so she certainly is impacted by the influence from that experience, too. One of the challenges she faces as she begins the journey to adulthood is to sort out her personal self and reconcile her heredity and the environment in which she’s lived.

And then there’s Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel. That novel explores the relationship between Eve Moran and her daughter Christine. Eve has always been both seductive and manipulative, able to get anything. And she’s not above doing whatever it takes, including murder, to go after what she wants. On one level, Christine has always known what her mother was like. But she’s been raised in that environment, and has a complicated relationship with Eve. Everything changes, though, when Christine notices that her three-year-old brother Ryan is beginning to be drawn into the same dangerous web. Now she has to come to terms with the person Eve is and the person she herself has become, and find a way a way to free herself and Ryan. Among other things, this novel shows just how intermingled and ‘muddy’ the relationship between heredity and environment can really be.

A lot of research shows that we are products of both our heredity and our environment in a lot of complicated and integrated ways. So it’s really not sufficient to say that one or the other is the most important factor in what we are. Still, many people find that question absolutely fascinating, and there are certainly a lot of stories that address it. I’ve not mentioned some of those I had in mind, for fear of giving away spoilers. But I’ll bet you know of plenty yourself.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Edie Brickell’s What I Am.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Gail Bowen, Nicci French, Patricia Abbott

Nobody Shows You What They’re Thinking*

Different ViewsIt’s always interesting to see the world – even the same event – from different perspectives. Have you ever wondered, for instance, what the person ringing up your grocery order might be thinking? Or what the person who changes your oil and fixes your brakes might think? Or perhaps the members of the band whose concert you’re attending?

Including those different perspectives in a story can add a layer of interest. And in a crime novel, they can also add clues and other information. But even if the author doesn’t choose to do that, those different perspectives can add some texture and character development.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, Hercule Poirot works with Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race, and detective story writer Ariadne Oliver to solve the murder of the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana. In one scene in that novel, Poirot goes to a women’s clothing store to buy stockings. After ordering quite a number of pairs of expensive stockings, he completes the purchase and leaves. Now, the hitherto professional, polished young women behind the counter share their true feelings:
 

‘As Poirot departed with his purchase, the next girl at the counter said, ‘Wonder who the lucky girl is? Must be a nasty old man. Oh, well, she seems to be stringing him along good and proper. Stockings at thirty-seven and sixpence indeed!’’

Unaware of the low estimate formed by the young ladies of Messrs Harvey Robinson’s upon his character, Poirot was trotting homewards.’
 

Those who know Poirot will know that his purchase has nothing to do with his personal life. It’s related to the case. But it’s interesting to get that different perspective on what he does.

Chris Gragenstein’s John Ceepak/Danny Boyle mysteries take place mostly in and around the small town of Sea Haven, New Jersey. It’s a summer tourist destination, complete with tasteless souvenir shops, a boardwalk, and overpriced restaurants. As the series begins, Boyle is a ‘summer cop,’ hired to help deal with the influx of tourists during the season. Here’s a bit of what he thinks of them (from Tilt a Whirl):
 

‘Saturday is changeover day. People who rented last week are leaving; people renting this week will show up later, after the maid brigades have vacuumed the sandy floors and tossed out the abandoned seashell collections. This morning, I see mostly locals eating sensible stuff like eggs and toast, cereal and muffins. It’s the tourists and day-trippers who go for the specials – chocolate chip French toast, Coco-Loco Pancakes, and a little something I like to call The Heart Stopper: a waffle, with crispy bits of bacon baked right into the batter, topped with two scoops of butter and a fluffy igloo of whipped cream.’
 

Boyle is just as, well, observant about the tourists’ children, who
 

‘…fling their forks at each other, and topple sippy cups and steal their sisters’ crayons so they can color in the maze on the Kidz Menu…’
 

What’s interesting is the difference between what the tourists think of themselves and their children, and what the locals think.

John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep series takes places mostly in Bangkok, and features Sonchai, who is a member of the Royal Thai Police, and a devout Buddhist. His mother, Nong, is a former bar girl, so Sonchai knows many of the people in that business. He uses his contacts with them when he needs information on a case, and it’s very interesting to get their perceptions about their clients. Here, for instance, is one scene from Bangkok 8. In this part of the novel, Sonchai is looking for someone who can translate a bit of Lao for him, and he knows just where to go: the entertainment district, where many of the bar girls are Laotian:
 

‘A few girls were already hanging out at the street-level bars, chatting about the night before, comparing stories of the men who paid their bar fines and took them back to their rooms, moaning about the ones who just flirted and groped, then disappeared without buying them a drink…I knew how they liked to talk about the quirks of farangs [foreigners] whose preferences can be so different from our own.’
 

Fans of Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series will know he also depicts what the bar girls and their employers think of their clients. So does Angela Savage in her Jayne Keeney novels.

In Maureen Carter’s Working Girls, Birmingham DS Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss and her team investigate the murder of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas. They discover that she was a sex worker, so Morriss gets clearance to start with the other sex workers who do their business in the area where the body was found. Morriss gets the opportunity to spend some time with some of the young women in the trade, including an evening of pizza, beer and videos at the home of Big Val, their unofficial leader. Part of the evening involves swapping stories about their customers:
 

‘There were one or two well-known men in town that Bev would never look in the face again. The girls were rolling around in hysterics on the carpet.’
 

It’s an enlightening look at the way that sex workers sometimes think about their clients.

There’s another kind of illuminating perspective offered in Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring. Bowen’s series features Joanne Kilbourn, who is a political scientist and academician. In this novel, she gets involved in the investigation when a university colleague, Reed Gallagher, is found murdered. At the same time, in a related plot thread, she is concerned when a troubled student, Kellee Savage, seems to have disappeared. She was last seen at a bar with a group of other students. As it happened, she was recording their conversation, and the recording is discovered. On the recording, Kilbourn picks up the voice of one of her students, Jeannine. In person, Jeannine has twice said that Kilbourn is a role model. But here’s what she really seems to think:
 

‘‘If I’d known Kilbourn was such a bitch about not letting people express their own opinions, I wouldn’t have taken her…course. You know what she gave me on my last paper? Fifty-eight percent! Just because I didn’t use secondary sources! I showed that paper to my boyfriend and a lot of other people. Everybody says I should’ve got an A.’

Unexpectedly it was Jumbo Hryniuk who jumped to my defence. ‘Kilbourn’s all right,’ he said. ‘She’s kinda like my coach – tough but generally pretty fair.’’
 

It’s probably just as well that I don’t get to hear my students’ unadulterated perspectives on me…

But those different perspectives and view can be really helpful and interesting in crime fiction. They add character development, texture and sometimes, clues.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jackson Browne’s Boulevard.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Chris Grabenstein, Gail Bowen, John Burdett, Maureen Carter, Timothy Hallinan

And You Could Hear a Pin Drop*

Pin Drop MomentsI’m sure you’ve had it happen. You’re sitting with a group of people, perhaps at dinner, or perhaps at a business meeting. All of a sudden, someone says something that’s at best awkward. It’s the kind of moment where everyone takes a sudden interest in the food, or meeting notes, or something – anything – else besides the comment just made. One of those moments where, it’s said, you can hear a pin drop. Those moments can be challenging if you’re the host or if you’re the one facilitating the meeting. In fiction, though, they can add some real tension, even conflict, to a story. And they can show important information or layers of character.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide…), the Cloade family is shocked when the wealthy family patriarch, Gordon Cloade, marries. His new bride, Rosaleen, was a widow Cloade met on a ship, and the romance was what people used to call whirlwind. As if that’s not enough, Cloade is tragically killed by an enemy bomb (the novel takes place just after World War II) shortly after his wedding. He’d always promised his family he would take care of them financially, but as it happens, he’s died intestate. So Rosaleen is set to inherit everything. Against this backdrop of financial discomfort, Katherine ‘Aunt Kathie’ Cloade invites everyone to dinner at her home. The various members of the Cloade family attend, as do Rosaleen and her brother, David Hunter. It’s soon clear how Hunter feels about the Cloades. While everyone is greeting each other and being polite, one of the Cloades asks Rosaleen how she likes Furrowbank, the Cloade family home. Here’s what Hunter says:
 

‘’Poor old Gordon did himself well,’ he said. ‘No expense spared.’’
 

That moment passes, and everyone goes into the dining room to eat. A little later, Hunter is talking with Cloade’s niece Lynn Marchmont:
 

‘‘With all the ill will in the world you and your family can’t do much about Rosaleen and myself, can you?’’
 

Lynn herself takes the comment in stride, but it certainly does nothing to lighten the dinner conversation. I see you, fans of After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal)!

In Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn is as shaken as the rest of her colleagues are when Reed Gallagher, head of the Department of Journalism, is found dead. As if that’s not enough, she’s concerned about one of her students, Kellee Savage. Kellee is emotionally very fragile, and now she’s been making accusations of inappropriate conduct against a fellow student. Then, Kellee disappears. The last time anyone saw her was during an evening at a bar called the Owl. And as it turns out, that was a very awkward evening. As another student tells the story, several of them, including Kellee, were in the bar. Then, the student Kellee had been accusing walked in, and Kellee had an outburst. It was uncomfortable for everyone, and it’s only been made worse by the fact that someone found out Kellee had tape recorded the group’s conversation without anyone knowing. The tape recording doesn’t solve the mystery of Reed Gallagher’s death or Kellee’s disappearance (they are connected). But it does give Joanne Kilbourn an interesting perspective on her students’ opinions of her.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we are introduced to Jodie Evans Garrow. From the outside, it seems as though she has the perfect life. She’s married to a successful attorney, she has two healthy children, and she herself is healthy, attractive, and well-regarded. Then her daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and rushed to the same Sydney hospital where, years before, Jodie gave birth to another child. No-one knows about the child, not even Jodie’s husband. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie says that she gave the baby up for adoption, but the over-curious nurse can’t find any formal records. Now questions begin to arise, first privately and then quite publicly. What happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If she is dead, did Jodie have something to do with it? Soon, Jodie becomes a social pariah. So she’s grateful when one night, she’s invited to a meeting of a local book club. The meeting starts out well enough, but then, one of the members of the club makes it clear that Jodie’s been invited because of her notoriety. They want her ‘expertise’ as they discuss a book about then famous Lindy Chamberlain case.
 

‘The room is silent. All Jodie can hear is her own harsh and ragged breathing.’
 

Jodie quickly makes her escape from the meeting, feeling more like a specimen in a jar than a human being.

Peter May’s The Blackhouse is the first of a trilogy featuring Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod. In that novel, he’s seconded from Edinburgh, where he’s a police officer, to his home on the Isle of Lewis. A murder there bears a strong resemblance to a murder Macleod is investigating, and it’s hoped that he can get closer to finding the killer if he works with the local Lewis police. Lewis is a small place, so Macleod knows just about everyone, including the victim, Angel Macritchie. So one element in the novel is the network of past and present relationships on the island. In fact, Macleod meets up again with his old flame, Marsaili, who’s married another old friend, Artair Macinnes. One night, Artair insists on Macleod staying for dinner with him and Marsaili. It’s all very awkward, as you can imagine, but at first everyone tries to be polite. Then, Macinnes insists that Macleod stay overnight. That adds to the awkwardness, which gets worse after Marsaili leaves to get the spare room ready. Then, her husband says:
 

‘‘You know, I’d never have f-ing married her if it hadn’t been for you.’’
 

That comment in and of itself is uncomfortable enough. But it’s followed by even more vitriol, until finally,
 

‘Fin was shocked. He had no idea what to say. So he just sat, clutching his watered-down whisky, feeling the glass warm in his hands, watching the peat embers dying in the hearth. The air in the room seemed suddenly to have chilled…’
 

It’s certainly not an easy exchange between two old friends.

And then there’s Aditya Sudarshan’s A Nice, Quiet Holiday. Justice Harish Shinde and his law clerk Anant travel from Delhi to Bhairavgarh, in the Indian state of Rajasthan. They’ve been invited for a stay with Shinde’s old friend Shikhar Pant. Pant has other houseguests, too, including another old friend Pravin Anand, and Anand’s son Avinash. Also invited are Ronit and Kamini Mittal, who own a controversial NGO. It’s raised people’s hackles, so to speak, because one of the Mittals’ goals is to educate people in the rural parts of India about AIDS. Many people think that’s obscene as it is; others take it as personally offensive. Pant’s guests include people on both sides of this issue, so as you can guess, it all gets a bit awkward. Still, people do try to observe the social niceties. Then, the news comes of a protest against a pamphlet that the Mittals have published. That sets Aviansh Anand off, and he rails against the ‘filthy language and filthy pictures’ in the pamphlet. His father asks him to calm down, which he does at first. Everyone goes in to lunch and things are a bit less charged. But then the discussion starts up again, with Avinash speaking up strongly about his feelings. That makes everything difficult, and it’s made no easier when there’s a murder among the group…

There are a lot of other ‘pin drop’ awkward moments in crime fiction; one post couldn’t possibly do justice to them all. They serve some useful purposes, too. They can add character layers, suspense, and motivation.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ben Folds’ Tom and Mary.

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Filed under Aditya Sudarshan, Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Peter May, Wendy James

On With the Show*

Amateur PerformancesLots of places don’t have professional acting or musical groups. So they turn to amateurs for entertainment. There’s a long tradition of church plays, village concerts and amateur drama societies. And if you’re a parent, I’ll bet you’ve attended school productions where your child had a part. Perhaps you’ve been on stage yourself.

Amateur entertainment gives people a chance to see plays and hear music they might not otherwise be able to enjoy. And for those interested in a career in performing, directing, and so on, these productions offer an excellent chance to learn the skills. Even for those who simply have a good time performing, these productions offer the chance to be creative.

There are references to these local performances throughout crime fiction. That’s not surprising, either, when you consider what an effective context they are for a murder mystery. There are the inevitable conflicts, the gathering of disparate people for rehearsals and performances, and a lot more. And that’s to say nothing of the opportunity they provide for all sorts of clues, encounters, and the like.

In Caroline Graham’s Death of Hollow Man, for instance, Inspector Tom Barnaby attends Causton Amateur Dramatic Society’s production of Amadeus. Most of the cast and crew, including Barnaby’s wife Joyce, are volunteers. On opening night, Esslyn Carmichael, who has the role of Salieri, picks up what he thinks is a blunt prop knife for the pivotal attempted-suicide scene. The knife turns out to be all too real, though, and Carmichael is killed in what looks like a real suicide. But there are enough questions about that that Barnaby and his assistant Sergeant Gavin Troy start to investigate more deeply. And they find that more than one person (including several of the locals) had a motive for murder.

P.D. James’ Death of an Expert Witness tells the story of the murder of Dr. Edwin Lorrimer, a member of the senior staff at Hoggatt’s Laboratory in East Anglia. When he is murdered at the lab one evening, Commander Adam Dalgliesh and DI John Massingham investigate. The evidence suggests strongly that Lorrimer was killed by someone he knew, and probably by a work colleague, since there was no evidence of a break-in. Part of the detectives’ task is, of course, to find out what everyone concerned was doing at the time of the break-in. Several interviewees use a village concert at Chevisham as their alibi, and it’s interesting to see how James ties that performance in with some of the characters’ lives. For instance, there are several violinists among the lab staff members; and one character claims that he was playing one half of a hobby-horse in a morris-dancer performance. With all of these connections, Dalgliesh and Massingham have to look into doings at the village hall, too…

There’s an interesting scene set at a village pantomime in Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin. DC Ben Cooper and DS Diane Fry are investigating the murders of two young women whose remains have been found at Pity Wood Farm in England’s Peak District. In one sub-plot of this novel, Cooper has a relationship with SOCO professional Liz Petty; but for the moment, they don’t want it known all over. So while they don’t really hide their romance, they also try to keep it as discreet as they can. One night they arrange to meet at Edendale’s Royal Theatre for the annual Christmas pantomime, since some of Liz’ friends will be performing in it. The production is a (very politically incorrect) version of Aladdin, and Booth uses this date to show the panto tradition.

Of course, school productions are among the most common sorts of amateur performances, from very young children reciting a line or two, to university acting groups. We see this in crime fiction, too. For instance, in Gail Bowen’s The Nesting Dolls, political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her husband Zack attend a concert one evening at their daughter Taylor’s high school. Afterwards, as everyone’s leaving, a woman approaches Taylor’s friend Isobel and hands her a baby. A note with the baby explains that the mother, Abby Michaels, wants to give him up and wants Isobel’s mother Delia to have full custody. It’s a complicated situation, made all the more so when Abby is later found murdered in her car…

In Christine Poulson’s Stage Fright, literature scholar Cassandra James gets involved in a deadly stage production. She is head of the English Department for St. Ethelreda’s College, Cambridge, and a new mother; so her life is quite busy enough. But when director Kevin Kingsleigh asks for her help with a new production he’s directing, she agrees. He and his wife, actress Melissa Meadows, will be doing a stage version of the Victorian novel East Lynne, and they want Cassandra to adapt the script. Rehearsals get underway, and opening night gets closer. Then, Melissa calls, claiming that someone is stalking her. Cassandra goes to the house and does her best to allay Melissa’s fears. But the next day, when Melissa doesn’t show up for rehearsal, it’s quite clear that something is very wrong. She seems to have completely disappeared, even leaving her infant daughter Agnes behind. As time goes by and she doesn’t return or contact anyone, the police begin to believe she’s been murdered. And one of their suspects is Cassandra. Partly to clear her name, and partly because she’s really worried about her friend, Cassandra starts asking questions, too.

And then there’s K.B. Owen’s Dangerous and Unseemly, the first of her historical mysteries featuring Concordia Wells. Concordia teaches at Hartford Women’s College in the last years of the 19th Century, a time when young ladies are not expected to have a career once they marry. Certainly they’re not expected to take an interest in crime, let alone investigate it. In this novel, Concordia agrees to help with the school’s production of The Scottish Play, but ends up doing most of the direction. The main plot thread in this novel is the murder of Bursar Ruth Lyman, and Concordia’s search for the truth about the murderer. But readers also get the chance to go ‘behind the scenes’ as the students put their production together.

Village concerts, plays and pantos, and school-related productions, are all interesting in that they involve ‘regular’ people who also perform. The people on stage could be accountants, lab assistants, aspiring chemists or just about anything else. This lets the author pull in characters’ personal lives as well as the personas they have onstage. And that can make for an absorbing story.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Irving Berlin’s There’s No Business Like Show Business.

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Filed under Caroline Graham, Christine Poulson, Gail Bowen, K.B. Owen, P.D. James, Stephen Booth