Category Archives: John Dickson Carr

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).

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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.

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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.

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

You Got a Different Point of View*

Many crime stories are told, for he most part, from the point of view of the sleuth. Sometimes they’re told from the point of one of a pair of sleuths (I’m thinking, for instance, of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Homes stories). That makes sense, since the sleuth is often the story’s protagonist.

Sometimes, though, a story is told from the point of view of a different character. That can be tricky to do well, but when it does work, it can make for an interesting perspective. And, that different point of view can mean that readers get to see the sleuth through different eyes, as the saying goes.

Agatha Christie did that in several of her stories. For instance, Murder in Mesopotamia is the story of the murder of Louise Leidner, who accompanies her archaeologist husband, Eric, to a dig a few hours from Baghdad. Louise has reported strange noises, hands tapping on windows, and other odd occurrences, and her husband wants to ease her mind. So, he hires a nurse, Amy Leatheran, to stay at the expedition house and look after his wife’s needs. Not long afterwards, Louise is bludgeoned to death one afternoon in her room. Hercule Poirot is in the area and is persuaded to investigate. This story is told in first person (past tense) from Amy Leatheran’s point of view. That allows for a really interesting perspective on Poirot, as well as perspectives on the other people in the expedition house.

Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger is told mostly from the point of view of the suspects in the death of Joseph Higgins. Most of the action in the novel takes place at Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for military use (WW II). One day, Higgins is brought there with a broken femur. It’s not life-threatening, but surgery will be required. Tragically, Higgins dies during the operation in an incident that’s put down to a terrible accident. Inspector Cockrill of the Kent police is sent in to do the requisite paperwork. It’s not long before he begins to suspect that Higgins might have been murdered. For one thing, that’s what Higgins’ widow claims. For another, one of the people who was present when Higgins died has too much to drink at a party, and then blurts out that she knows Higgins was murdered. That night, she, too, is killed. As Cockrill gets closer and closer to the truth about these deaths, we follow the thought processes of the suspects, and we see how they view Cockrill.

John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook introduces readers to one of his sleuths, Dr. Gideon Fell. When Tad Rampole finishes his university studies in the US he decides to travel. His mentor suggests that he make plans to meet Fell, and Rampole agrees. On his way to Chatterham, where Fell lives, Rampole meets a young woman named Dorothy Starberth. He’s smitten right away and wants to know more about her. When he meets Fell, he learns some of the Starberth family story. It seems that, for two generations, Starberth men were governors in the nearby Chatterham Prison, which has fallen into disuse. From those years has come a tradition that every Starberth male spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. During his visit, each one is to open the safe in the room and follow the instructions that are written on a piece of paper kept in the safe. Now it’s the turn of Dorothy Starberth’s brother, Martin. Tragically, he dies from what looks like a fall from the balcony attached to the room. Although it seems like an accident at first, it turns out to have been murder. Fell solves the crime, but the story isn’t really told from his perspective. It’s told from Rampole’s perspective. It’s an interesting way to see Fell’s character from the outside, so to speak.

Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is the story of Jennifer White, a Chicago orthopaedic surgeon who’s been diagnosed with dementia. She’s had to retire, and now lives with her caregiver, Magdalena. One night, seventy-five-year-old Amanda O’Toole is murdered. She lives next door to White, so, naturally, the police want to know if there’s any information White has. Detective Luton takes the case and wants to talk to White, but learning the truth won’t be easy. Since White has dementia, she may or may not be lucid, and she is very likely not going to be reliable. But Luton is convinced that she knows all about the murder and might even be guilty. So, she tries to find ways to get White to share her story. The novel is told from White’s point of view, so readers see Luton from that perspective. And, as the story goes on, and White’s condition deteriorates, her view of Luton changes, too.

And then there’s Donna Morrisey’s The Fortunate Brother, which features the members of the Now family. Sylvanus Now, his wife, Addie, and their son, Kyle, live in The Beaches, Newfoundland, where they’re still reeling from the death three years earlier of Kyle’s brother, Chris. His death was a tragic accident, not a murder, but that doesn’t make it any easier for the family, and they’re all suffering. Then, a local bully named Clar Gillard is killed. In one sense, there are plenty of suspects. He was mean and cruel, and no-one will miss him. But it’s not long before the police start to focus their attention on the Nows. And there’s evidence that could support any of the three of them being guilty. At the same time as they’re coping with being suspects in a murder investigation, they’re also facing a family health crisis. Having to deal with both of these crises at the same time draws the family together just a little. And, very slowly, they start to do a small bit of healing. Interestingly, we don’t ‘get into the heads’ of the police here. The story is told from the different perspectives of members of the Now family.

When a story is told from a different perspective like that, it can give readers a different view of the sleuth. It can also offer an interesting way to look at the experience of being involved in a criminal investigation. It’s not easy to write this sort of story well, but it can be effective.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Pet Shop Boys’ A Different Point of View.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christianna Brand, Donna Morrissey, John Dickson Carr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 
 

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

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