Category Archives: John Dickson Carr

Life On a Film Set*

As this is posted, it’s 126 years since Thomas Edison built the world’s first film studio. Since that time, of course, films have become integral to many cultures. And the film industry is a lucrative one. Little wonder millions of people dream of being film stars or film executives.

But film sets and film studios are not always the happy, dream-world places they might seem to be. If you look at crime fiction, at least, you find that there’s plenty of mayhem on set. And that makes sense, when you consider all of the disparate (and sometimes clashing) personalities, all of the money involved, and so on.

For instance, Carter Dickson’s (AKA John Dickson Carr) And So to Murder features Pineham Studios, where author Monica Stanton has been hired to work with bestselling author William Cartwright on an adaptation of his latest novel for Albion Films. In the meantime, megastar Frances Fleur is working on her own new film for Albion, so the company has plenty at stake. It’s a dream job for Monica, but things soon go wrong. For one thing, she and Cartwright don’t get along. For another, soon after she starts work, there are two attempts on her life. Why would someone want to kill an up-and-coming novelist who’s just beginning a career as a scriptwriter? Cartwright gets Sir Henry Merrivale involved in the case, and he works out who’s behind it all.

In one of Ellery Queen’s ‘Hollywood’ novels, The Four of Hearts, Queen has been hired to work as a scriptwriter for Magna Studios. The project is to be a biopic of the lives of major stars Blythe Stuart and John Royle. The couple had a stormy, very public, love affair that ended years ago. They both married other people, and each had a child. At first, the studio isn’t sure that the stars will consent to work on the film, but to everyone’s surprise, they do. In fact, they re-kindle their romance, and decide to marry again. That wasn’t the story that Magna Studios had envisioned, but it’s decided to make the best of the situation and turn the wedding into a Hollywood affair. The couple marry on an airstrip, with great fanfare, and then take off for their honeymoon, with Stuart’s daughter and Royle’s son in tow. When the plan lands, the couple is found dead of what turns out to be poison. At first, it looks as though one of the adult children might be responsible, but Queen looks into the matter and finds that these murders have their roots in the past.

One of Stuart Kaminsky’s series features Los Angeles PI Toby Peters. Before he became a private investigator, Peters worked for a few years as a security guard for Warner Brothers Studio. So, he’s familiar with the way studios work, and he still has several contacts in the film industry. His cases frequently involve Hollywood stars, too. And the historical context (1940s) of the series means that Peters encounters some of Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’ starts, such as Errol Flynn, Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart, and Peter Lorre.

There’s also B.C. Stone’s Kay Francis novels, Murder at the Belmar and Midnight in Valhalla. These novels feature the famous star as the protagonist. So, readers go ‘behind the scenes’ of what happens on Hollywood sets and within the Hollywood community.

Even if you’re not a star, working on a film set can be dangerous. For example, Michael Connelly’s Lost Light is in part the story of the murder of Angella Barton, who is found murdered in the vestibule of her apartment building. At the time of the murder, LAPD detective Harry Bosch works a little on the case, but isn’t officially assigned to it. Four years later, it still haunts Bosch, but he hasn’t been able to follow up. By that time, though, he’s taken early retirement and started his own PI business. He decides to look into the matter again when he finds that the case wasn’t solved satisfactorily. Bosch learns that this murder is related to a US$2 million robbery from the set of a film that Barton’s employer was making. That link allows Bosch to solve the case.

And then there’s Shadaab Amjad Khan’s Murder in Bollywood. Khan himself has been a Bollywood script writer and actor, and is the son of noted Bollywood star, Amjad Khan. So, he’s familiar with the ins and outs of life in the Bollywood community. In this novel, Nikhil Kapoor, Bollywood’s top director, is found dead in his writing studio. Not many hours later, his wife, famous actress Mallika Kapoor, also dies, of what looks like a tragic drug overdose. There’s pressure to label both of these deaths as accidents, but Senior Inspector Hoshiyar Khan sees little pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise. With the support of his boss, Khan looks into the matter more deeply. As he does, readers get to know what life is like in a Bollywood studio, and how integrally related that community is into the culture of Mumbai and of India in general.

Studios and film sets have come a long way since Edison’s time. But they’re still fascinating places, and anything can happen on a film set. So, it’s little wonder we see them in crime fiction.

ps. The ‘photo is of a ‘green screen,’ of the sort that’s used in many films.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Yes.


Filed under B.C. Stone, Carter Dickson, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Michael Connelly, Shadaab Amjad Khan, Stuart Kaminsky


One of the first rules when there’s a crime is that the crime scene is not to be disturbed until it’s assessed. There are good reasons for that, too, as details about a crime scene can give valuable information about who the criminal is. Today’s technology allows for assessments such as DNA studies, blood analysis, and so on. But there are also basics, too, such as footprints.

Footprints can play a key role in an investigation, even today. And they certainly have in the past. They’re important in crime fiction, too. The author can use footprints to either guide the sleuth (and the reader) or misdirect.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance, footprints of what looks like a giant hound are used as evidence that Sir Charles Baskerville fell victim to a family curse. It’s said that the Baskervilles have been cursed by a phantom hound since one of their ancestors traded his soul to the Powers of Evil in return for a woman who had besotted him. Not one to believe in otherworldly solutions to mysteries, Holmes looks for another explanation for Sir Charles’ death, and he and Dr. Watson find it. And, in The Adventure of the Priory School, prints play a role when Holmes investigates the kidnapping of ten-year-old Lord Saltire from the boarding school he attends. There are several other Holmes stories, too, in which footprints and hoof prints figure into the solution.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is not one to rely on only visual evidence such as footprints. But in some stories, they do prove to be important. For example, in Dead Man’s Mirror, Poirot is summoned by Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore. That high-handedness irks Poirot, but he decides to take the case. It seems that Sir Gervase is concerned that someone in his household may be cheating him, and he wants Poirot to investigate. Poirot arrives at the Chevenix-Gore home just before dinner is announced, so he’s present when everyone gathers for the meal – everyone except Sir Gervase. Soon afterwards, it’s discovered that Sir Gervase has been shot in his study. It looks at first as though he’s committed suicide, although he’d done nothing to suggest he was contemplating taking his own life. But small pieces of evidence suggest that he was murdered. And, as Poirot investigates, he finds that some footprints offer interesting evidence in the matter. Christie uses footprints in other cases, too, right, fans of The Murder on the Links?

In Dorothy L. Sayers’ Clouds of Witness, Lord Peter Wimsey is faced with a perplexing mystery. His brother Gerald, Duke of Denver, stands accused of murdering Captain Denis Cathcart, who was fiancé to the Duke’s (and Lord Peter’s) sister, Mary. There’s good evidence against him, too. For one thing, he and Cathcart had had an argument when he found out that Cathcart was cheating at cards. For another, he was at the scene of the crime, which took place late at night. He says he was simply taking a walk, but, of course, that’s not a strong alibi. Still, the Duke claims innocence, and his brother believes that. One of the pieces of evidence in question is a set of footprints near and around the body. Are they the Duke of Denver’s? If they aren’t, then whose are they? And why is Lady Mary obviously hiding something?

It’s lack of footprints that confuses matters in John Dickson Carr’s The Problem of the Wire Cage. Frank Dorrance has become engaged to Brenda White, but he’s made it clear that he’s only marrying her for the money she will inherit. Meanwhile, he’s got a rival, Hugh Rowlands, who truly does love Brenda. One day, Frank and Brenda attend a tennis party, during which Frank manages to alienate just about everyone. After the party, Brenda discovers her fiancé’s body on the tennis court. The only footprints on the wet, sandy court belong to Frank, so there’s no way to tell who was there, or how Frank’s body came to be on the court. But, as Dr. Gideon Fell finds out, there is no lack of suspects. This is one of those ‘impossible, but not really’ novels for which Carr is famous.

There’s also Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit. In that novel, Frank and Irene Ogden hold a séance at their home. Their purpose is to contact Irene’s dead first husband, Grimaud Désanat, and ask him to approve logging on some land that he owned and wanted to keep untouched for at least twenty years. Also present are Irene’s daughter Sherry; family friend Luke Latham; his nephew, Jeff; Jeff’s girlfriend, Barbara; Professor Peyton Ambler; and Svetozar Vok, a stage magician who’s made it his mission to debunk spiritual fakery. Rogan Kincaid, an itinerant gambler who also serves as sleuth here, is also present. This plan to hold a séance isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. For one thing, Irene Ogden is a medium. For another, both her husband and Latham believe firmly in spiritualism. What’s more, there are high stakes involved. The wood that’s on the property in question is needed for the Ogden family business. The séance takes place, and it’s eerie for all concerned, including those who aren’t believers. Later that night, Irene Ogden is murdered in her room. And it seems to be an ‘impossible’ sort of crime. She was found alone in a locked room, and there are no footprints to show that anyone entered or left the room through the window. Was she killed by a vengeful spirit? If she wasn’t, then how did someone kill her and leave without leaving footprints (there’s snow on the ground, so any footprints would show clearly)?

Even today, footprints matter in crime novels. For instance, in Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood, a group of friends gather for a hen weekend. There are all sorts of relationship dynamics, past histories, and more that impact this get-together. But Clare Cavendish, the bride-to-be, has a way of attracting people and getting them to do what she wants. So, the group gets together in a remote summer home belonging to the hostess’ aunt. But is the group as alone as it seems? Why are there footprints behind the house – footprints that no-one in the group admits to leaving? And how is this related to the tragedy that later happens as the weekend goes on? That tension certainly adds to the suspense in the novel.

Footprints are important evidence, even in these days when most people know about evidence such as prints. And they’ve always played a role in the genre.  Which stories have left footprints in your memory?


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Tiësto.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Hake Talbot, John Dickson Carr, Ruth Ware

I Want Adventure in the Great Wide Somewhere*

Many young people choose to travel before they settle down to jobs and adult responsibilities. Some do a gap year before university. Others travel after they finish university. Still others travel instead of going to university. Either way, that year or so of travel can add a real richness to one’s life, and some memorable experiences.

Of course, that sort of travel can lead to all sorts of unforeseen circumstance. Just a quick look at crime fiction is all it takes to show that gap years and other travel experiences can have very unexpected outcomes.

In Agatha Christie’s Hickory, Dickory Dock, we are introduced to Sally Finch. She is from the US, but she’s studying in London under a Fulbright Scholarship, and is living in a hostel for students. All goes well until one of a pair of her evening shoes goes missing. At first, it seems like a mean, but not dangerous, prank. Then, other things go missing. Now, Sally’s worried about what’s going on in the hostel. The manager, Mrs. Hubbard, invites Hercule Poirot to do a little discreet investigation, and he agrees. On the night of his visit, another resident, Celia Austin, confesses to taking some of the things (including Sally’s shoe), and everyone thinks the matter is settled. The next night, though, Celia dies. It’s soon proven that she was murdered, and now Sally’s mixed up in it all. It’s certainly not the experience she’d planned when she came to London.

John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook features an American named Tad Rampole. He’s recently finished his university studies and has decided to travel a bit before he settles into adult life. His university mentor suggested that, since he’s planning to be in England, he should pay a visit to Dr. Gideon Fell. Rampole takes that advice and makes the arrangements. On his way to Fell’s home, he meets a young woman named Dorothy Starberth. He’s smitten right away, and the feeling is mutual. Later, Fell tells Rampole a strange story about the Starberths, It seems that, for two generations, the Starberth men were Governors at a nearby prison, which has now fallen into disuse. There’s still a family ritual associated with the prison, and it’s now the turn of Dorothy’s brother Martin, to participate. He’s concerned, because several of the Starberth men have died violent deaths. Tragically, Martin dies, too. Mostly because of his feelings for Dorothy, Rampole works with Fell to find out the truth about the murder.

Cath Staincliffe’s Half the World Away is the story of Lori Maddox, who decides to do a gap year backpacking in South East Asia. Her mother, Jo, and stepfather, Nick, support her choices, although, of course, they’re concerned, as any parents would be. Lori begins her trip and keeps in regular contact at first. She blogs about her adventures, she sends emails, and so on. Then, the contact starts to become a little more erratic. At first, there’s no reason to really worry. The gap year can be the adventure of a lifetime, so it’s natural for young people to get distracted. Then, Lori stops communicating at all. Now, Jo is really worried. She turns for support to Lori’s father, Tom, and together, the two decide they need to go and find their daughter. Lori was last known to be in Chengdu, China, where she was teaching English, so that’s where Tom and Jo travel. When they get there, they get very little help from the local authorities. Even their consul can’t be of much assistance, because it’s in the interest of the local police to preserve the area’s reputation. So, Jo and Tom will have to find out the truth on their own.

In Charity Norman’s See You in September, Cassy Howells and her boyfriend, Hamish, are planning a trip to New Zealand as a break between their university studies and taking up adult life. They’re planning to volunteer for a few weeks, and then explore the country. Cassy’s parents, Diana and Mike, are excited for her, but, of course, concerned, as you’d expect. Things go well at first. But Cassy and Hamish start arguing, as couples do. That adds tension to their relationship. Then, Cassy discovers to her shock that she’s pregnant. When Hamish makes it clear that he doesn’t want to be a father, the two break up, and Cassy’s left alone and vulnerable. She’s rescued by a group of people who live on an eco-commune. They invite her stay with them for a few days so that she can decide what to do next. Cassy gratefully accepts and joins the group. Little by little, she feels comfortable with them, and in the end, she decides to stay with them. Soon enough, it’s clear that she’s joined a cult which is led by a charismatic man named Justin. Meanwhile, her parents, particularly Diana, are quite worried about her. She’s cut off contact, and in other ways is no longer the Cassy they thought they knew. So, they decide to go and get her. By this time, though, Cassy is fully integrated into the cult; she even has a new name, Cairo. In the meantime, Justin has revealed that the Last Day is coming, and that could spell disaster for the group. Now, the question is: can Diana and Mike get Cassy/Cairo to leave before tragedy strikes?

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s A Darkness of the Heart, which features her sleuth, retired academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. In one plot thread of this novel, her daughter, Taylor, has just finished secondary school, and decides to take a gap year. Her reasoning makes sense, but that doesn’t mean Joanne doesn’t have any concerns. I admit I’ve not (yet) read this book; I’m a book or two behind in the series. But if you want to read more about it, visit Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan, who did an excellent review.

Gap years and other travel can be exciting and fulfilling adventures for young people. They can also be quite dangerous, and you never quite know what will happen. Little wonder this plot point comes up in crime fiction.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Menken’s Belle (Reprise).


Filed under Agatha Christie, Cath Staincliffe, Charity Norman, Gail Bowen, John Dickson Carr

And We’ll Come to Find the Key to it All*

As this is posted, it’s 219 years since the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. That stone unlocked the meaning of several Egyptian hieroglyphics and allowed linguists and historians to interpret them. It proved to be a key to understanding a lot about the culture and the people.

Thinking about the Rosetta Stone has got me thinking about keys to crime-fictional mysteries. I’m not, strictly speaking, talking about encrypted messages or codes. A crime-fictional ‘Rosetta Stone’ could be something as simple as a list or a diary page. Whatever it is, it shows the sleuth how the pieces of a mystery fit together.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Five Orange Pips, John Openshaw brings a strange case to Sherlock Holmes. It seems that Openshaw’s Uncle Elias, with whom he lived, was found dead in a pool on his estate. Prior to his death, there’d been a strange series of events that began when he received an envelope containing five orange pips. Now, the victim’s brother, John, has also received five orange pips. He’s terrified, but he won’t go to the police about it. As it turns out, a page from a diary proves to be the key to unlocking the meaning of the pips. Once Holmes knows that meaning, he’s able to solve the mystery.

In John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, it’s a poem that holds the key to the mystery of the death of Martin Starberth. For two generations, Starberth men served as Governors of Chatterham Prison. The prison is now in disuse, but Starberth men still follow an old ritual connected to is. Each Starberth male spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. While there, he opens the safe that’s in the room, and follows the instructions written on a piece of paper kept in that safe. When it’s Martin Starberth’s turn, he agrees to go through with the ritual, even though he’s reluctant. He dies of what looks like a tragic fall, but Dr. Gideon Fell isn’t sure the death was an accident. Once Fell understands what the old poem means, he’s able to find out who killed Starberth and why.

The focus of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is the murder of Samuel Ratchett, a wealthy American businessman who is stabbed on the second night of a three-day trip across Europe on the famous Orient Express train. The only possible suspects are the other people in the same carriage, so Hercule Poirot, who’s on the train as well, concentrates his efforts on them. One important question, of course, is what the motive might be. Who would want to kill Ratchett? The key to this mystery turns out to be a note that the killer never intended to be found. Once Poirot understands what the note says and what it means, he’s able to discover the motive for the killing. And that leads him to the truth about Ratchett’s murder.

Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil begins when Laurel Hill asks Queen to help her find out who’s responsible for the death of her father, Leander. It seems that Leander Hill died of a heart attack after receiving a series of macabre ‘gifts.’ His business partner, Roger Priam, has also been receiving ‘packages.’ Laurel is convinced that her father’s heart attack was deliberately triggered, and she wants Queen to find out why and by whom. Queen’s reluctant at first; he’s trying to get some writing done. But he is intrigued by the puzzle. So, he agrees to look into the matter. The motive for everything lies in the past. And, once Queen is able to unlock the meaning of the ‘gifts,’ he’s able to find out why Hill and Priam have been targeted. He also discovers who’s behind everything that’s happened.

There’s also Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal. In that novel, high school principal Hilary VanBrook is directing a local production of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. On the night of the final performance of the play, VanBrook is found dead in his car on the property of journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. Qwill (who is Braun’s protagonist) works with local police chief Andrew Brodie to find out who killed VanBrook and why. And it turns out that there are several suspects. VanBrook had plenty of enemies, and it’s not going to be easy to narrow it all down. One important key to solving the mystery turns up when Qwill pays a visit to VanBrook’s personal library. In it, there’s a hollowed-out book that contains a list of other books, some of which have red dots next to the titles. The meaning of that list and those red dots turns out to be essential to finding out who killed VanBrook.

There are, of course, plenty of other crime novels in which there’s a list, a diary entry, or something else that holds the key to understanding a mystery. Once the sleuth finds that key, the pieces of the puzzle start to come together. These are only a few examples; I know you’ll think of more.

ps. I know I’ve shown this ‘photo before, but I thought it was worth sharing again. What a privilege it was to see the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marillion’s Tumble Down the Years.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Lilian Jackson Braun

We Are All Branches, Branches on the Family Tree*

Many people are interested in learning more about their family’s history. In the US, for instance, there’s a television show called Who do You Think You Are?, in which famous people follow their families’ histories and learn about their ancestries.

Family roots and stories from the family tree play roles in crime fiction, too. And that isn’t surprising, really. You never know what you’ll dig up when you search around your roots. And even if your ancestors weren’t notorious or famous, you could still find some interesting stories in your family past. And some of those stories can play roles in the present.

Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead includes an interesting discussion of the impact of family roots and family history. In the novel, Hercule Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny to investigate the murder of a charwoman. Everyone thinks the killer was her lodger, James Bentley, but there are other possibilities. One evening, Poirot is invited to a cocktail party, where tongues are somewhat loosened with alcohol. Later, a group of the guests goes to visit the home of one of the residents who couldn’t go to the party. There’s an interesting discussion about breeding dogs, and one of the people says,

‘‘You can’t get away from heredity – in people as well as dogs.’’

Not everyone agrees with that assessment, so it’s a lively conversation. As it turns out, there is a connection between family pasts and the murder of Mrs. McGinty. It seems that the victim found out more about one particular person’s history than was safe for her to know.

Family stories and history play an important role in John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook. When Tad Rampole finishes his university studies, he decides to travel. His mentor suggests that he go to England to visit Dr. Gideon Fell, and Rampole takes that advice. On his way to Fell’s home, Rampole meets Dorothy Starberth, and it’s not long before the two are taken with each other. And Rampole soon learns that she has an interesting family history. Two generations of Starberth men were Governors at the new-disused Chatterham Prison. Even today, the men of the family undergo an odd sort of ritual because of that old connection. Each male Starberth spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room. There, he opens the room’s safe, and follows a set of instructions listed on a piece of paper that’s kept there. It’s now the turn of Dorothy’s brother, Martin. He’s reluctant to go through with the ritual, because several Starberth men have died unusual deaths. Some people even call it a curse. But, he goes along with the plan in the end, and spends the night at the prison. Tragically, he dies of what looks like a terrible accident. But was it? Fell discovers that this death was most definitely a murder, and finds out who the killer is.

Fans of Steve Robinson’s Jefferson Tayte novels can tell you that family stories play a major role in that series. Tayte is a genealogist, who often uncovers surprising (sometimes dangerous) secrets in families’ stories. For instance, in In the Blood, Tayte is hire by wealthy Boston business magnate Walter Sloane. Sloane wants Tayte to trace his wife’s ancestry as a gift for her, and Tayte agrees. One branch of her family went to England with a group of Royalists during the American Revolution, so Tayte gets the ‘green light’ to go there and find out what happened to that family. And what he finds still resonates today, with the family’s modern descendants. And it all brings real danger to him.

Dorothy Fowler’s What Remains Behind introduces readers to archaeologist Chloe Davis. She, her business partner, Bill, and a group of their students, get clearance to go to Kaipara Harbour, on New Zealand’s North Island. They want to excavate the remains of a religious community that burned down in the 1880s. For Chloe, this is a homecoming of sorts, since she grew up in the area. But it’s not a joyful family reunion. For one thing, Chloe’s cousin, Shane, is a leader of a group of people who do not want the excavation to go on. They want the land for development. There’s also the fact that Choe has a troubled relationship with her sister, Phaedra, who has inherited a house in the contested area. Still, the excavation goes ahead. And, as the team members work the site, they find more there than a burnt-out set of mission buildings. There are some surprising connections to the present, and some family-ancestry links, that someone doesn’t want uncovered.

And then there’s Hannah Dennison’s Murderous Mayhem at Honeychurch Hall. In one plot thread of this novel, the village of Little Dipperton, in Devon, is preparing to re-enact a battle that was fought there between the Cavaliers, who supported King Charles I, and the Roundheads, who supported Oliver Cromwell. The Honeychurch family, who’s been in the area for hundreds of years, were Cavaliers. So, Rupert Honeychurch, the current Lord Honeychurch, will take on that role. His wife, Lavinia, was a Carew before she married, and the Carews were Roundheads. So, there’s some interesting tension in the family. Those generations-old connections still matter in this village. The main plot of the novel has to do with the murder of the local postmistress. But it’s interesting to see how family roots, and family history, play a role, too.

And, for many people, that’s as true in real life as it is in fiction. Little wonder there’s so much fascination with ancestry and family pasts. Which stories have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Londonbeat’s It’s In the Blood.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy Fowler, Hannah Dennison, John Dickson Carr, Steve Robinson