Category Archives: Ian Rankin

One Word From You is All I Need to be Inspired*

Writing InspirationIn Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, detective story novelist Ariadne Oliver is talking to Hercule Poirot about how she gets inspired for her stories:
 

‘It does happen that way. I mean, you see a fat woman sitting on a bus…And you look at her and you study her shoes and the skirt she’s wearing and her hat and guess her age and whether she’s got a wedding ring on and a few other things. And then you get off the bus. You don’t want ever to see her again, but you’ve got a story in your mind…’
 

Later in the conversation, Mrs. Oliver points out (and I think, rightly, at least for me) that it would ruin the inspiration if she actually knew the woman she describes. Then the woman she created wouldn’t really be, well, her own creation.

Lots of fiction writers get asked if they base their stories on real people. And of course, there are plenty of authors who write fiction about real people (Hilary Mantel, Martin Edwards and Truman Capote, to name just three). But a lot of writers don’t quite do that.

What happens instead (well, at least for me) is that the writer may see an event, or read or hear about it. Or, perhaps the writer notices a stranger in a grocery store or restaurant or park. Whether it’s a person or event, it sparks the writer’s imagination. Then, the ‘what if questions’ happen: ‘That guy in the baseball cap is so wrapped up in his ‘phone that he’s not paying attention to anything. There could be a murder right behind him and he might not even notice! What would that be like?’  And the story starts to come together, just from that one scene.

Agatha Christie is said to have been inspired for Murder on the Orient Express by a personal experience in which she was caught on a train that was stopped because of snow. Of course, there wasn’t a murder on the train, and it wasn’t for three days, and…  But that one incident sparked her imagination. I can’t speak for her, of course, but my guess would be that she didn’t base the characters in that novel on specific people she knew. It’s possible that no-one on the train with her that day resembled any of the characters. Instead, it was the experience that got her thinking.

In October of 1999, two trains collided more or less head-on near Ladbroke Grove, a few miles from Paddington Station. There were 31 deaths and hundreds of injuries, and the incident left permanent scars. Ruth Rendell used that incident as the setting for her novel Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, in which three women’s lives intersect as a result of the crash. Two lose their partners in the wreck; the third meets her fiancé because of it. When these three discover that they’ve all been duped by the same con artist (who was ostensibly killed in the crash) the result leads to some dark places. Rendell didn’t, as far as I know, base those characters directly on people she actually knew who survived the crash. Rather, the event itself sparked the story.

You might say the same sort of thing about Michael Connelly. As he has told the story, he was at a baseball game and got to talking with another person who was there. That man was a lawyer who didn’t have an office in the conventional sense of that word. Rather, he used his car as an office. If you’ve read Connelly’s work and that sounds familiar, it should. Connelly used this person he met as the inspiration for Mickey Haller, whom he introduced in The Lincoln Lawyer. Fans of Haller will know that he uses his car as an office, and travels all over Los Angeles to pursue his cases. The man Connelly met at the baseball game wasn’t named Mickey Haller, and very likely didn’t resemble Haller either in character or appearance. My guess is that instead, Connelly was inspired to imagine a lawyer who works out of his car, and the kind of cases he might encounter.

In discussing the creation of his John Rebus series, Ian Rankin has said that Rebus came to him as a fully-formed fictional character. But he (Rankin) was inspired by the place where he was living at the time he was writing Knots and Crosses, the first Rebus novel. He has said that he wrote the story on a typewriter, sitting at a table by a window. From that window, he could see the tenement opposite, and decided that Rebus would live there – across the way. His living situation inspired the sort of home environment Rebus would have. Fans of this series will also know that Rankin has been inspired for several stories by other places in Edinburgh.

Here’s what Val McDermid says about the inspiration for her novel The Vanishing Point:
 

‘‘I was travelling with my son when he was about six,’ she says. ‘I’ve got replacement knees so I set off the detectors, and they literally put you in a box. While I was there, my boy was standing by the luggage belt waiting for our bags to come through and I thought that someone could just take him by the hand and walk away with him.’’
 

She took that moment of fear, with which any parent can identify, and used it to spark the story, even though fortunately, the events of the story didn’t happen in her personal life.

Some writers do use real people, of course. And if you’re interested in the legalities of that, please check out this fascinating post by Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan. That’s a great crime fiction blog, by the way, that deserves a place on any crime fiction fan’s blog roll.

A lot of writers, though, take those little ideas that come from people they see, events they watch (or learn about) or experiences, and use them to spark fictional stories. Admittedly it can be a bit difficult to explain the process. But when it happens to you, there’s nothing quite like it.

 

ps  It’s not just authors who do this. So do those who write songs. For instance, Billy Joel was, so it is said, inspired to write New York State of Mind by a bus ride he took to West Point. And Allentown was inspired by a comment he heard from a fan.

Wait, what? You wonder why I’d mention a rock star in a crime fiction blog post? But it’s Billy Joel!! And it’s his birthday. So happy birthday, Mr. Joel. And now I’m off to celebrate this important international holiday. Problem with that? Good! ;-)

 
 
 

*NOTE: the title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Blonde Over Blue.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Hilary Mantel, Ian Rankin, Martin Edwards, Michael Connelly, Ruth Rendell, Truman Capote, Val McDermid

Teach Your Parents Well*

DigitalNatives and ImmigrantsOne of the interesting effects of changing technology is arguably a generational divide. Quite often (certainly not always!) younger generations are comfortable with new technology, adapt to it easily and use it skillfully. Their parents and grandparents don’t always adapt as well (again this obviously isn’t always the case). In fact, some people call the newer generations ‘digital natives,’ and us not-so-new generations ‘digital immigrants.’ That’s not a bad description really.

We see this divide between using more traditional ways and using new ways woven all through crime fiction. That difference can lead to an interesting bit of tension in a plot, as well as a layer of character depth. And if the research is correct on who uses technology and how, it also reflects reality.

That difference has been around a long time, too. In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), Hercule Poirot is persuaded to look into a baffling series of petty thefts and other strange occurrences at a hostel for students. When hostel resident Celia Austin confesses to some of the thefts, it seems the matter is settled. But when she dies two nights later, apparently a successful suicide, everything changes. And when that death is proved to be murder, Poirot and Inspector Sharpe have a difficult case on their hands. At one point, Poirot has a conversation with hostel resident Colin McNabb about crime, punishment and detection. Here’s a tiny bit of it:

 

“You’ve given us an amusing talk tonight,” he said indulgently. ‘And I’ll not deny that you’re a man who’s had a varied and lengthy experience, but if you’ll excuse me for saying so, your methods and your ideas are both equally antiquated.’…
‘You take the narrow view of the Law – and what’s more of the Law at its most old fashioned. Nowadays, even the Law has to keep itself cognizant of the newest and most up to date theories of what causes crime. It is the causes that are important, Mr. Poirot.’
‘But there,’ cried Poirot, ‘to speak in your new fashioned phrase, I could not agree with you more!’…
Poirot said meekly, ‘My ideas are doubtless old fashioned, but I am perfectly prepared to listen to you, Mr. McNabb.’
Colin looked agreeably surprised.
‘That’s very fairly said, Mr. Poirot. Now I’ll try to make this matter clear to you, using very simple terms.’’
 

It’s interesting to see both the way in which McNabb condescends to Poirot, and the way Poirot reacts to it, knowing what crime fiction fans know about Poirot’s abilities.

In Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective: Introducing Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, there’s an interesting ‘digital divide.’ Diamond, who, as the title suggests, considers himself a true detective, relies on observation, evidence, witness/suspect reactions, and good old-fashioned detection. On the other hand, some of the members of Diamond’s team swear by computer-generated data, DNA and other modern forensic evidence and general data analysis. When the team investigates the murder of former TV star Geraldine ‘Gerry’ Jackman, both traditional sleuthing skills and more modern digital data turn out to be important in solving the case.

There’s a small bit of this generational difference in technology use in Donna Leon’s A Question of Belief. In one plot thread of that novel, Venice Commissario Guido Brunetti helps his assistant Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello with a family problem. Vianello’s aunt has lately fallen (so he thinks) prey to a horoscope scam (or perhaps more than one of them). Brunetti does know how to use computers, and is comfortable enough going online, but he’s still in many ways a ‘digital immigrant.’ He’s using the computer one day at lunchtime when he has a conversation with a younger team member about another use of the computer: online learning:

‘‘She’s [the instructor/facilitator] got a course we can take, ten lessons that we can take, my wife and me together.’
‘In Torino?’ [Brunetti]
‘Oh, no, sir,’ Riverre said with a gentle laugh. ‘We’re in the modern age now, me and my wife. We’re on line now, so all we have to do is sign up, and the class comes to our computer…’
 

Riverre’s information doesn’t solve the case, but it does show how the different generations sometimes think about learning.

Fans of Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus will know that he is neither stupid nor ignorant, so he knows that computers and modern technology can be very useful tools. But he is most definitely a ‘digital immigrant.’ He often relies on his assistant Sergeant Siobhan Clarke when computer expertise is required; she’s more comfortable and adept with modern technology than he is. Rankin doesn’t make this difference a ‘stock joke,’ but that difference comes through in various places in the series.

We also see some of those differences in Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall. Television star Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford had been planning to leave the TV business and open up an antique store with her mother Iris. But those plans change completely when Iris calls to say she’s changed her mind. It turns out that Iris has taken the former carriage house on the property of Honeychurch Hall at Little Dipperton, Devon. Shocked at the news, Kat rushes to Devon, only to find the house in sad need of repair and her mother recovering from a broken hand. Among other things, Kat takes over as scribe for a project her mother’s been doing. Here’s a bit of their conversation about it:
 

‘‘How will I print out the pages?’ I said. ‘Is there somewhere in Dartmouth? A printing place I can use?’
‘I have no idea,’ Mum yawned. ‘Now you know why I don’t have a computer. With a typewriter, you just type, pull out the paper, and it’s done.’
There was little point in arguing.’
 

The difference in thinking fades to the background when the housekeeper at Honeychurch Hall goes missing, and is later found dead. Stanford takes an interest in the case both the protect herself and her mother from suspicion, and to answer some questions of her own.

To be fair, the generational divide isn’t always a yawning gulf. For instance, there’s Frankie Y. Bailey’s The Red Queen Dies, which takes place in the not-very-distant future (2019) and in a slightly altered reality. So as you can imagine, there’s some interesting technology available. In this story, Albany, New York police detective Hannah McCabe and her police partner Mike Baxter investigate two deaths of young women who were murdered by injections of phenol. Then, a third body is discovered. This time, the victim is Broadway star Vivian Jessup, who’s in town to work with a local theatre group. Now McCabe and Baxter have to determine whether the same person killed all three women, or whether there is more than one murderer at work. Throughout the novel, McCabe gets quite a lot of help from her father Angus, a retired journalist. He’s as adept as his daughter at using modern technology and has access to sources she doesn’t. So the information he provides is quite useful.

That said though, in many cases, there is often a generational difference in the way we think about and use technology. Have you noticed it? Do you use technology differently to the way your younger friends and loved ones do? If you’re a writer, does that divide play a role in your stories?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Teach Your Children.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Frankie Y. Bailey, Hannah Dennison, Ian Rankin, Peter Lovesey

And They Sit at the Bar and Put Bread in My Jar*

Bar and Pub ScenesBars and pubs come in all shapes and sizes. There are very posh bars in resort hotels; and seedy places where only the locals go, and then only when they don’t have enough money to go anywhere else. There are very dangerous drinking places and places that are quite safe. And of course there’s an endless variety of bar/pub themes, too.

When it comes to crime fiction, bars and pubs make for near-ideal backdrops. One reason is that they are so varied. Wherever the author sets a novel, in whatever context, there’s probably some kind of licensed establishment. And all sorts of scenes can take place at a drinking place. Business deals, romantic trysts, meetings between old friends…well, you get the idea. There’s nothing like a bar or pub for interactions among characters. That’s probably why there are so many scenes in crime fiction that take place in bars and pubs. I couldn’t possibly name them all, so I’ll content myself with just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, wealthy heiress Ruth Van Aldin Kettering is murdered during a trip on the famous Blue Train. Hercule Poirot is on the same train, and gets involved in the investigation. One of the more likely suspects is the man the victim was going to meet, Armand de la Roche, who calls himself a Count. Another suspect is the victim’s estranged husband, Derek Kettering. At one point, the Comte de la Roche hears of evidence against Kettering and thinks he can make a profit by charging for his silence. He waits in the salon/lounge of the hotel where Kettering is staying. When he tries blackmail, Kettering lets him know in no uncertain terms what he thinks of him. It’s a taut scene that also shows some interesting character traits of both men.

Perth Superintendent Frank Swann uses pubs for quite a different purpose in David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight. He’s investigating the murder of a friend of his, Ruby Devine, who owned a brothel. He faces several challenges in this investigation, not the least of which is a group of corrupt police officers, called ‘the purple circle.’ They’ve marked Swann because he called for a Royal Commission hearing into their activities. And now, he’s convinced that somehow, one or more of them is behind the murder. Few people will talk openly to Swann because most fear ‘the purple circle. But he finds ways to meet up with people who have information. In one scene for instance, he goes to the Grosvenor Hotel, which,

 

‘…looked like a shaky drunk under escort.’

 

Despite its less-than-inspiring exterior, it’s an upmarket place that professionals use to discuss business they don’t want to deal with in the office. That’s where Swann goes to look for a lawyer named Cooper, who handled Ruby Devine’s business. The meeting is tense, because in this case, they’re on opposite sides, so to speak. He is, in fact, a suspect in the murder. But as Cooper says, they were both Ruby’s friends. And he figures into the story in a few places.

There’s another case of a bar being used for a business deal in Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart. Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty is an ex-pat American travel writer who now lives in Bangkok. He’s got a reputation for being good at finding people who don’t want to be found, and he speaks both Thai and English. So when Clarissa Ulrich visits Bangkok to find someone who can look for her missing uncle, Rafferty is a natural choice. She leaves word at the Expat Bar, one of Rafferty’s regular stops, and he gets the message that she wants to talk to him. When they meet at the Expat, she tells him that she hasn’t heard from her uncle in a few months and is worried about him. Rafferty agrees to look into the matter, and is soon drawn into a case that goes far deeper than a man who simply wanted to take off for a bit.

Angela Savage’s Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney also finds bars to be good places to follow up on leads and find people. In The Half Child, for instance, Jim Delbeck hires her to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. The police report stated that she committed suicide by jumping from the roof of the building where she lived. But Delbeck doesn’t believe it was suicide. Keeney looks into the case, which at one point leads her to a place called the B-52 Bar. Her skill at playing pool turns out to be very useful as she goes after the information she wants. And so, in another bar scene, are her skill at speaking Thai and her understanding of the Thai culture.

Of course, bars and pubs are also effective settings for romantic meetings. But not all of them work out well. In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, for instance, Eva Wirenström-Berg is devastated when she learns that her husband Henrik has been unfaithful. One night she goes out just to get away for a bit, and ends up at a pub. That’s where she meets Jonas Hansson, a man who has his own serious issues. Their meeting ends up having disastrous consequences, and as the story goes on, things spiral out of control for both of them.

Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House introduces us to Petra Westman, junior member of an investigating team that’s looking into a strange group of murders. One night, she and a colleague Jamal Hamad go out for a friendly drink. While they’re at the bar, she meets Peter Fryhk. A conversation leads to several drinks and to flirting. The next morning, she wakes up in a house she doesn’t know. Very soon she concludes that she’s been ‘date raped.’ She manages to get home, and one of the plot threads in this story is her search for the proof she needs to have her attacker brought to justice.

And of course, I don’t think I could do a post on bar and pub scenes in crime fiction without mentioning The Red Pony. That’s a bar/restaurant/poolroom owned by Craig Johnson’s Henry Standing Bear. It’s one of Durant, Wyoming’s few gathering places, and it’s a regular haunt of Johnson’s sleuth Sheriff Walt Longmire. It may not be upmarket, but it’s comfortable and ‘down home,’ and lots of scenes, both funny and tense, take place there.

There are of course lots of other bar and pub scenes in crime fiction (I know, I know, fans of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus). And it’s not at all surprising. They’re perfect for all kinds of meetings that can end in all kinds of ways. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Piano Man. Oh, come on, was there ever any doubt? ;-)

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Carin Gerhardsen, Colin Dexter, Craig Johnson, David Whish-Wilson, Ian Rankin, Karin Alvtegen, Timothy Hallinan

Lately All the Missing Pieces Have Been Falling Into Place*

EquilibriumOne really interesting aspect of human psychology is that we like things to make sense. We like questions to have answers. When things do make sense, we get closure. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget called this process ‘equilibration.’ To him, cognitive development occurs when we become aware that our assumptions don’t answer all the questions. When that happens, we adjust our thinking and find out more. That’s how we return to cognitive equilibrium.

And that’s arguably part of the driving force behind people’s reaction to old, unsolved crimes – ‘cold cases.’ Of course, for the family and friends involved in unsolved cases, there’s also the sense of loss and grief. But there are also the unanswered questions. Those questions can drive the sleuths who investigate those cases as well. And they’re sometimes the reason those cases come back to haunt people, as the saying goes, even years later.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, for instance, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to find out the truth behind the death of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. Sixteen years earlier, he was poisoned one afternoon during a painting session. His wife (and Carla’s mother) Caroline was arrested, tried and convicted, and she had motive. Her husband was having an affair with the subject of the portrait he was painting. What’s more, she had the poison in her possession. At the time, it seemed that the police had caught the right person. But Carla is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants her name cleared. And Caroline can no longer speak for herself, as she died a year after her conviction. Poirot interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ at the time of the murder, and also gets written accounts of the murder from each of them. He uses that information to find out who really killed Amyas Crale and why. Throughout this novel, we see how this case has come back to haunt some people, precisely because the ‘official’ report at the time didn’t answer all of their questions. I know, I know, fans of Sleeping Murder

Ian Rankin’s Resurrection Men sees Inspector John Rebus remanded to Tulliallan Police College after an unfortunate run-in with a supervisor. He and a group of other cops (they’re called ‘The Resurrection Men’ and ‘The Wild Bunch’) are given an unsolved case to work together. The idea is that the experience will teach them teamwork and the skills they need to co-operate with authority figures. The case is the 1995 murder of small-time crook Eric Lomax. The victim was hardly an upstanding citizen, but his murder has left some nagging questions. And as Rebus and the others on the team look into the case, they find more there than they’d thought. And Rebus finds that Lomax’s murder is connected with a case he and his team-mate DS Siobhan Clarke were investigating before his remand. As it turns out, the need for answers in that older case leads to answers in the recent case.

In Jan Costin Wagner’s The Silence, we are introduced to Inspector Antsi Ketola. He’s at the point of retirement, but is still haunted by one particular case. In 1974, Pia Lehtinen disappeared and was later found murdered. Ketola was never able to find out who killed the girl. It’s bothered him since then, not least because he wasn’t able to get answers for himself or for Pia’s family. Now another case has come up. Sinikka Vehkasalo was on her way to a volleyball session when she went missing. Her bloody bicycle has been found at the same place where a cross marks Pia Lehtinen’s murder. The older case still nags, and Inspector Kimmo Joentaa suspects that it may be related to this new case. So he asks Ketola’s help in solving both. It turns out that someone has been keeping secrets for a very long time…

Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett supervises the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. The team’s job is to re-investigate old cases that offer new leads. And part of what motivates these people (and the families and friends involved) is the desire to get some answers. In The Hanging Wood for instance, Orla Payne contacts Scarlett because she wants to find out what happened to her brother Callum. Twenty years earlier, Callum disappeared, and no trace of him – not even a body – was found. She’s been haunted by this for years, and part of the reason for that is that it doesn’t make sense to her. At first, Scarlett doesn’t pay close attention to the case; unfortunately Orla Payne is quite drunk when she calls about it, and doesn’t make a good impression. But not long afterwards, Orla herself dies in what looks like a case of suicide. But was it? Now Scarlett feels a strong sense of guilt that she didn’t take the victim more seriously, and re-opens the Callum Payne case. She also works to find out what really happened to Orla.

Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne looks for that same kind of equilibrium in Cross Fingers. She’s working on an exposé of dubious land developer Denny Graham when her boss asks her to change her focus. The idea now is to do a documentary on the Springboks’ 1981 tour of New Zealand – ‘The Tour,’ as it’s called. At the time, apartheid was still very much in place in South Africa, and many New Zealanders protested their country’s welcoming of the South African team. On the other hand, the police simply wanted to keep order. And of course, rugby fans just wanted to see some good matches, politics aside. The tour went from bad to worse to devastating, and it’s certainly documentary-worthy. But Thorne believes that the story’s already been done well already, and that there are no real new angles for her to pursue. Then she gets interested in one small detail. During a few of the protests, two people dressed as lambs showed up at games. They danced, made fun, and entertained the crowds at the matches. Then, they stopped coming to the games. Thorne wants to know what happened to The Lambs, and decides to pursue that question. She discovers that one of them was a professional dancer who was murdered late one night. Now this older case nags at her, especially as it becomes clear that there are some people who do not want her to find the answers.

There’s a powerful example of unsolved cases coming back, so to speak, in Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. In 1978, fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan disappears and is later found dead, with her own scarf round her head. The police do a thorough investigation, but they can’t get clear evidence against any one particular person. Then, a few months later, the body of sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor is discovered, also with a scarf round her head. Now it’s suspected that this is the work of a serial killer the press dubs The Sidney Strangler. The investigation continues, but the killer isn’t caught. There aren’t really answers in this case, and that haunts the people involved more than they know. Years later, journalist Erin Fury is putting together a documentary on the effects of murder on the families involved. She gets an introduction to Angela Buchanan’s cousins Jane Tait and Mick Griffin, as well as their parents. As she interviews these people, we see how much they’ve been impacted by what happened. And it’s not only their sense of loss. It’s also the lack of real answers and their growing awareness that things really aren’t as they seemed.

That need for things to make sense is part of what drives our curiosity. It’s also part of what keeps detectives and family members looking into old cases that don’t have clear answers, especially when those cases affect present investigations. These are just a few examples of what’s out there. Over to you.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin, Jan Costin Wagner, Martin Edwards, Paddy Richardson, Wendy James

I’m Filling the Cracks That Ran Through the Door*

RenovationsHave you ever had a room or a home renovated? On the one hand, it’s exciting, and there’s the promise of a beautiful new place ahead. But of course, it involves plaster, paint, drywall, and lots of inconvenience and money. So most people don’t renovate on a whim.

Renovations are actually very useful plot devices for crime writers. For one thing, they can add an interesting sub-plot to a story. For another, renovation is a good reason for a character to stay elsewhere temporarily, and that opens up several possibilities. And there’s no telling what might be found when an older building is torn down or taken apart. So it should come as no surprise that we see painting and renovation in many different crime novels. Here are just a few.

Agatha Christie uses that theme in a few of her novels. For example, in Death on the Nile, we are introduced to beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway. She’s purchased Wode Hall from its former owner, and as the novel begins, she’s in the midst of making it her own:
 

‘Ah, but Wode was hers! She had seen it, acquired it, rebuilt and redressed it, lavished money on it. It was her own possession – her kingdom.’
 

Linnet’s life changes dramatically when her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort asks her to hire Simon Doyle (Jackie’s fiancé) as land agent. She unexpectedly falls in love with Doyle and the two marry. On the second night of their honeymoon cruise of the Nile, Linnet is shot. Jackie is also on the cruise, so she is the natural first suspect. But it’s soon proven that she couldn’t be the killer. So Hercule Poirot, who’s also aboard, has to look elsewhere. I know, I know, fans of After the Funeral and Dead Man’s Folly…

Renovation plays an important role in Ian Rankin’s Set in Darkness. Queensberry House was originally the property of a wealthy landowner, but has also served as a military barracks and a hospital. Now it’s being completely renovated to house the new Scottish Parliament. In fact, it’s one of several major demolition/renovation projects in that area. To everyone’s shock, the renovation uncovers a long-dead body hidden behind a blocked-up fireplace. The body has been there for a few decades (i.e. the house is much older), so Inspector Rebus looks for answers in the building’s more recent history. In the meantime, there are two more deaths: an aspiring Member of Parliament and a homeless man with a surprising amount of money. It turns out that these three deaths are connected, ‘though not as you might think (this is Ian Rankin, after all).

There’s also an interesting case of renovation in Steve Robinson’s In the Blood. Genealogist Jefferson Tayte has accepted a commission from wealthy Boston businessman Walter Sloane. Sloane wants Tayte to trace his wife’s ancestry as far back as possible. The trail leads to James Fairborne, who left America with his wife Eleanor and their children in 1783 with a group of Royalists. With Sloane’s support, Tayte travels to England to trace that branch of the Fairborne family. He discovers that James Fairborne married again shortly after his arrival in England. What’s more, there is no more information on Eleanor or the children. Now Tayte is curious and begins to look into the matter. In the process of looking for the truth, Tayte meets Amy Fallon, whose husband Gabriel was lost in a storm two years earlier. Just before he died, Gabriel had told his wife that he’d found out a secret, but he didn’t get the chance to tell her what it was. However, new construction on their home has uncovered an old hidden staircase and room. That’s where Amy finds a very old carved writing box with a love letter in it. Gradually, she and Tayte, each in a different way, connect that letter to his genealogical mystery.

Renovation doesn’t always have to be sinister of course. But it always involves a certain amount of stress and a lot of decisions. For instance, in Gail Bowen’s The Endless Knot, political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn and her partner Zack Shreve are planning to get married. One of the things they’ll have to decide is where to live. For Zack to move into his bride’s two-story house will mean renovation, since he uses a wheelchair. And it isn’t practicable for Joanne and her daughter Taylor to move in with him. So they decide to purchase a new home. The new home and the renovations made to it aren’t really the main plot point of this novel. But they go on in the background and add a layer of interest to the novel.

Fans of Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series will know that it features James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran, a journalist who moved from a large city to Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ At the beginning of Qwill’s life in Moose County, he lives in a few different places. But none of them is exactly what he’s looking for as a permanent residence. Then he hits on an ideal solution. He hires interior designer Fran Brodie to renovate an old apple barn to meet his needs. Together with building contractor Dennis Hough, she creates a custom-made home for Qwill and his two Siamese cats. In The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal, Qwill finds himself hosting an impromptu house-warming/cast party for the local repertory theatre group. The festivities are interrupted when the body of Hilary VanBrook, one of the cast members and the local high school principal, is found in his car on Qwill’s property. Not exactly an auspicious beginning to the ownership of a renovated home…

Renovations don’t always have such deadly aftermaths. But there’s no end to the havoc they can wreak. And I haven’t even mentioned the many novels that include excavations of old homes… Got any ‘war stories’ of your own??

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Fixing a Hole.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Lilian Jackson Braun, Steve Robinson