Category Archives: K.B. Owen

But How do You Thank Someone Who Has Taken You From Crayons to Perfume*

As you’ll know if you’ve been kind enough to read my blog, I’m an academic in my ‘day job.’ In that capacity, I’ve worked for a long time with in-service and pre-service teachers. So, I found this post by Lesley Fletcher at Inspiration Import to be especially powerful and resonant. You’ll want to read the post; and, as you’ll be there, anyway, you’ll want to have a look at the rest of Lesley’s excellent site. Thoughtful posts and fine artwork await you there! In fact, Lesley is responsible for the covers of two of my Joel Williams novels (B-Very Flat and Past Tense), and In a Word: Murder. See? Isn’t she talented?

And that’s just the thing. Lesley’s post speaks of a terrible experience she had with a teacher who, instead of helping her develop her skills, did exactly the opposite. It got me to thinking about crime-fictional teachers. There are plenty of examples of cruel, rude teachers in the genre (I know you could think of plenty). But they aren’t all that way. There are plenty of teachers out there, both fictional and real, who are caring, and who exhibit the sort of dedication that I wish Lesley’s teacher had.

For example, Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons introduces us to several caring teachers who are passionate about what they do. They work at Meadowbank, an exclusive school for girls. When games mistress Grace Springer is killed one night, the police are called in and begin to investigate. But that murder is only one part of a web of international intrigue, jewel theft, and kidnapping. One of the pupils, Julia Upjohn, visits Hercule Poirot, whom she’s heard of through a friend of her mother’s. She asks him to investigate, and he agrees. As Poirot and the police work through the case, we see how dedicated Headmistress Honoria Bulstrode is. We also see how much a few other teachers, such as Eileen Rich, also love teaching.

In Val McDermid’s The Grave Tatttoo, we meet Matthew Gresham, head teacher at a school in Fellhead, in the Lake District. He’s preparing to present a unit on family trees, and he wants to get the students engaged in their learning, rather than just having them sit and take notes. So, he has each student create a personal family history that will be shared with the class, and, later, with the town. His students by and large like and respect him, and they get started with the assignment. Little does anyone know that this project will be connected with a mystery that Matthew’s sister, Jane, has discovered. She’s a fledgling academic and Wordsworth scholar who has found evidence that there might be an unpublished manuscript somewhere in the Lake District. If there is, it would be the making of her career. So, she travels from London, where she’s been living, back to Fellhead, to start her search. The trail leads to several murders, and, interestingly, to the project her brother has assigned his students.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a (now retired) academician and political scientist. In the earlier novels, in which she’s still active on campus, we see several interactions between her and her students. In A Killing Spring, for instance, she gets concerned when one of her students, Kellee Savage, goes missing. Kellee is already mentally and emotionally fragile, and Joanne is concerned about her well-being. It turns out that Kellee’s disappearance is related to the murder of one of Joanne’s colleagues, Reed Ghallager. There are a few scenes in this novel in which Joanne interacts with students. In them, we see that she cares about them, and knows them as more than just faces and names on her enrollment records. She’s not perfect, even with her students, but it’s obvious that they matter to her, and that she is committed to their success.

In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we are introduced to Ilse Klein. She and her family emigrated in the 1980s from what was then East Germany. They ended up on New Zealand’s South Island, in the small town of Alexandria, where Ilse has grown up and become a secondary school teacher. She works hard and has earned the respect of her students. And she does care about them. So, when one of her most promising pupils, Serena Freeman, loses interest in school, Ilse gets concerned. Matters get to the point where Serena misses school much of the time, and when she is there, shows no interest in participating or learning. Now, Ilse’s worried enough to alert the school’s counseling staff. That choice touches off a whole series of incidents; and Ilse finds herself getting drawn into much more than she bargained for when Serena goes missing.

There’s also K.B. Owen’s Concordia Wells. She’s a teacher at Hartford Women’s College at the very end of the 19th Century. She’s also an amateur sleuth, who gets drawn into investigations that are considered ‘unseemly’ for a woman. At that time, at that school, many of the faculty members live on campus. So, they do get to know the students, and that’s just as true of Concordia as it is of any other faculty member. She’s devoted to her students, concerned for their well-being, and interested in their development. Yes, they exasperate her at times. But they matter to her very much. In fact, that becomes a challenge for her as her personal life goes on. The school’s policy is that married people cannot teach at the school. So, if Concordia falls in love and decides to marry, she’ll have to give up work she enjoys, and students whose welfare is very important to her.

The fact is, teaching is not an easy job, no matter which educational level. While there are, unfortunately, teachers out there like the one in Lesley’s post, there are also some fine teachers, too. And, in part, my ‘day job’ is to do my small bit to make sure there are more of the latter than of the former…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Don Black and Mark London’s To Sir With Love.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, K.B. Owen, Paddy Richardson, Val McDermid

Why These Victorian Views?*

The Victorian Era ended more than 100 years ago. But, if you think about it, that era’s customs, culture, and so on still exert influence, especially in the West. Just as one example, consider the tradition of the white wedding dress. That wasn’t a custom until Queen Victoria chose to wear a white dress for her own wedding. And that’s not to mention the many other beliefs, ‘rules,’ and so on that became a part of that era. One post isn’t nearly enough to do justice to the topic, but it’s interesting to take a glance at it.

We see the influence of this era in a lot of ways in crime fiction. And, as you’ll see, I’m not really talking of the crime fiction (such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s) that was written during the Victorian years. Even novels written after those years ended show the era’s influence.

One of the very important characteristics of the era was an emphasis on doing one’s duty. We see that, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect). In that novel, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to solve the sixteen-year-old murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time, Crale’s wife (and Carla’s mother) Caroline was suspected of the murder, and with good reason. In fact, she was arrested and convicted, and died in prison a year later. Carla insists her mother was innocent, and wants Poirot to clear her name. In order to find out the truth, Poirot interviews the five people who were present at the time. He also gets their written accounts of the murder and the days leading up to it. One of those people is Cecilia Williams, who acted as governess to Carla’s aunt, Angela Warren. Here’s what we learn about Miss Williams:
 

‘She had that enormous mental and moral advantage of a strict Victorian upbringing…she had done her duty in that station in life to which it had pleased God to call her, and that assurance encased her in an armour impregnable to the slings and darts of envy, discontent and regret.’
 

In other ways, too, Miss Williams reflects Victorian attitudes. For example, one of the ‘people of interest’ in the novel is Elsa Greer Dittisham, who was Crale’s lover at the time of his murder, and who was staying at the house while he painted her portrait. Miss Williams describes her as ‘thoroughly unprincipled.’ Later she says:
 

‘‘Whatever our feelings, we can keep them in decent control. And we can certainly control our actions. That girl had absolutely no morals of any kind. It meant nothing to her that Mr. Crale was a married man. She was absolutely shameless about it all – cool and determined. Possibly she may have been badly brought up, but that’s the only excuse I can find for her.”
 

Miss Williams is as much upset at what she sees as the lack of propriety and ‘proper conduct’ as she is about anything else.

We also see the Victorian emphasis on propriety in Dorothy L. Sayer’s Strong Poison. In the novel, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is tried for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial and immediately becomes smitten with Vane. In fact, he determines to clear her name, so that he can marry her. And, with help of some friends, as well as his valet/assistant, Mervyn Bunter, that’s exactly what he does. As the story goes on, we learn that Vane and Boyes lived together before their relationship ended. Since they never married, that’s very much held against her. In keeping with the Victorian view of what was ‘proper,’ it’s considered inappropriate to cohabit. The fact of their relationship is almost less important than the fact that Vane behaved in an ‘unseemly’ way.

We also see that attitude in Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series, which takes place in 1920’s Madras (today’s Chennai). In one story arc, we learn about the relationship between Le Fanu and his housekeeper, Roisin McPhedren. The two care very much about each other, but their relationship is doomed. For one thing, Le Fanu is, at least in name, married. His wife, who now lives in England, wants a divorce, but that’s somewhat scandalous. For another, Le Fanu and McPhedren live in the same house, and are not married. If any whispers got around that they had more than a professional relationship, that would mean the end of La Fanu’s career. Such impropriety isn’t in keeping with the ideals he’s supposed to be upholding. And that’s to say nothing of what would happen to Roisin McPhedren’s reputation. There would be no way she could get any kind of ‘respectable’ employment. This series offers a look at Victorian attitudes towards class and race, as well, and how they impacted the British Raj.

There’s an interesting example of the Victorian perspective in Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die. In it, poet and private investigator Nigel Strangeways looks into the poisoning death of George Rattery. The most obvious suspect is crime writer Frank Cairnes, who holds Rattery responsible for the death of his son, Martin ‘Martie.’ But Cairnes says that he’s innocent, and there are solid reasons to believe him. What’s more, as Strangeways discovers, Cairnes is not the only possible suspect. For one thing, it turns out that Rattery was having an affair with a woman named Rhoda Carfax. Rattery’s mother, Ethel, is
 

‘…crazy about family honour, and being a Victorian she looks upon sexual scandal as the arch-disgrace.’ 
 

That passion for ‘respectability’ could have been part of a motive for murder. Among other things, it’s an interesting look at that need to be ‘respectable.’

There’s also an interesting look at the impact of the Victorian-Era perspective in Wendy James’ Out of the Silence. This novel is James’ fictional retelling of the 1900 Melbourne arrest and conviction of Maggie Heffernan for the murder of her infant son. In the novel, Maggie meets and is wooed by Jack Hardy. He asks her to marry him, but says they need to keep their engagement secret until he can support them. Maggie agrees, and he soon leaves to look for work in New South Wales. In the meantime, Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant, and writes to Jack. Even after several letters, she doesn’t hear from him. Maggie knows her family won’t accept her (what ‘proper’ family would?), so she gets work in a Melbourne Guest House. When baby Jacky arrives, Maggie moves briefly to a home for unwed mothers. Then, she discovers that Jack Hardy has moved to Melbourne, and goes in search of him. When she finally tracks him down, he utterly rejects her. With nowhere else to go, Maggie goes from lodging house to lodging house, and is turned down by six places.  That’s when the tragedy with Jacky occurs. This story takes place in the last year or two of the Victorian Era, and really shows how that perspective influences everything that happens to Maggie, including her own point of view.

There are also other historical series, such as K.B. Owen’s Concordia Wells novels, and Felicity Young’s Dorothy ‘Dody’ McCleland series, that depict Victorian-Era perspectives, world views and mores. Owen’s series takes place at the very end of those years, and Young’s takes place in the Edwardian Era that followed it.

Even today, we can see how the Victorian Era has left its mark. It has on Western society, and it certainly has in crime fiction. Which examples have stayed with you?

ps The ‘photo is of a group of Victorian-era schoolgirls in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Courtesy of the Lehigh County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ogden Nash and Kurt Weill’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Brian Stoddart, Dorothy L. Sayers, Felicity Young, K.B. Owen, Nicholas Blake, Wendy James

Take the Good From the Bad*

minus-to-a-plusWe all have traits that can be seen as disadvantages. Take me, for instance. At just over 1.5m (5ft) tall, there are plenty of things that I can’t easily reach. And it’s not always easy to find clothes that fit me properly. Other people have other things that can put them at a disadvantage.

The trick is, really, to use those disadvantages as advantages. For instance, as small as I am, air travel isn’t quite as difficult for me as it is for taller people. I can fit my things into a much smaller suitcase, and I don’t need as much room to sit. I don’t need as much leg room, either, so my things often don’t have to go into an overhead compartment.

It’s the same way with other traits. And when people turn disadvantages into advantages, they can often be more successful. Just a quick look at crime fiction, for instance, should show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has the disadvantage, as many people see it, of being a foreigner. At the time and place in which he lives, not being English is often considered a strike against him, and people usually end up respecting him not because he’s foreign, but in spite of it. And Poirot uses that very much to his advantage. In After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), for instance, he investigates two deaths. One is of wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie, whose death was sudden, but not really unexpected. When Abernethie’s younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, says that he was murdered, people don’t believe her at first. But privately, Abernethie’s other relatives begin to wonder. When Cora herself is murdered the next day, it seems clear that she was right. At one point in the story, Poirot attends a weekend gathering of Abernethie family members. The purpose is to choose mementos they want, before the property is sold. Poirot’s there under the guise of a potential buyer, and has accentuated his ‘foreign-ness.’ Because of that, everyone condescends to him, and soon, he’s able to sit and watch, almost forgotten. And that proves to be very useful indeed.

For several fictional female detectives, the fact of being a woman puts them at a disadvantage. But the smart ones have learned to use popular stereotypes and sexist notions to their advantage. For instance, Anna Katherine Green’s Violet Strange is a private investigator in the early years of the 20th Century. She comes from one of the ‘better’ New York families, so she has access to the higher social circles. But she’s still female at a time when ‘proper ladies’ simply do not engage in something like detection. She uses that, though; in more than one story, she takes the ‘I’m just a woman’ approach to lower people’s guards. She hears more than she might otherwise hear, and gets into places from which she might otherwise be barred.

The same is true of K.B. Owen’s Penelope Hamilton. She’s a Pinkerton’s agent who lives and works at the very end of the 19th Century. And she’s learned to be quite good at using her role as ‘just a woman’ to do what she needs to do. So does Concordia Wells, for whom Hamilton is a mentor. Wells is a teacher at Hartford (Connecticut) Women’s College, where she’s supposed to concentrate on her role as a faculty member and supervisor of her pupils. But she often finds herself getting mixed up in mysteries. And she’s learned how to occasionally use her status as a woman to find out what she needs to know.

One of Walter Mosley’s series features Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins. A black man, he lives and works in post-WW II Los Angeles, beginning at a time when institutional segregation was a fact of life. And the deep-seated prejudices and bigotry behind that segregation are alive and quite well in Rawlins’ world. On the one hand, that means he is at a real disadvantage. There are places he can’t go, people he’s not ‘supposed to’ speak to, and jobs he can’t hope to get. But he uses his race to advantage in the cases he investigates. He fits in in certain places in a way that a white sleuth wouldn’t. And other blacks trust him in ways that they would never trust a white sleuth. So, Rawlins can solve cases that his white counterparts, and the white police, can’t.

There’s an interesting use of disadvantage in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series. Flavia is eleven years old at the start of the series, which takes place in 1950s England. She may be ‘just a child,’ but Flavia is very skilled at chemistry, and has a knack for detection, too. She knows that no-one really pays very much attention to ‘just a kid.’ Flavia riding her bicycle is just Flavia riding her bicycle, and she’s not considered much of a threat. So, she often finds herself able to go places, observe things, overhear conversations, and so on, that she wouldn’t be able to do if she were an adult. On the one hand, being a child puts Flavia at a disadvantage. She’s smaller, more vulnerable, not as mature, and less well able to get around than adults are. But at the same time, she can go places they can’t, and she has access to private conversations and other clues that they don’t.

Of course, criminals can use disadvantages, too. For instance, in Phil Hogan’s A Pleasure and a Calling, we meet real estate agent William Heming. He’s not particularly attractive, or rich, or…. In fact, he has the disadvantage of being very, very ordinary – the sort of person nobody notices. And if you want to sell real estate, being noticed and remembered can be real advantages. But Heming uses his very, very average appearance and personality quite effectively. He’s observant of all of the people to whom he’s sold homes. And he’s kept copies of each house key. He has, shall we say, interests besides selling houses. And, when a body is discovered in the yard of one those houses, he’s as concerned as anyone. If people really remember him, too much might come out that Heming would prefer didn’t. In this case, that disadvantage of, well, ordinariness turns out to be very helpful to Heming.

And that’s the thing about disadvantages. They do restrict us, but they can also be used to good effect. And people who know how to do that can end up quite successful.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sara Bareilles’ Red.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Anna Katherine Green, K.B. Owen, Phil Hogan, Walter Mosley

The Pinkertons Pulled Out My Bags*

detective-agenciesPlenty of PIs, both real and fictional, work alone or with just one partner. There are some advantages to that, too, if you think about it. One of the biggest advantages is the flexibility (since the PI can choose which cases to take, what hours to work, and so on). And the lone PI doesn’t have to share the profits with anyone. So, it’s easy to see why a detective might want to go it alone.

It’s not all roses, though, as the saying goes. A lone PI can’t cover as many cases as an agency can. And an agency, complete with a staff, often has more resources, both financial and in terms of people. There’s also the possibility that a client might prefer to work with an agency, rather than just one PI, or a PI partnership. So, quite a number of PIs belong to an agency, at least at first.

One of the most famous of all detective agencies is Pinkerton’s (The Pinkerton National Detective Agency), originally founded in the US by Scottish immigrant Allan Pinkerton. It’s still in operation, although it’s now a subsidiary of another firm. Pinkerton’s plays an important role in K.B. Owen’s historical (end of the 19th Century) Concordia Wells series. Concordia is a teacher at Hartford Women’s College. She’s also an amateur detective. One of her friends (and a former mentor) is Penelope Hamilton, who is a Pinkerton’s agent. In fact, in Unseemly Haste, Concordia gets involved in one of Penelope’s cases as she travels across the country to visit her aunt. Agencies such as Pinkerton’s were very popular in the days before the FBI and other federal agencies changed the landscape of nationwide criminal investigation.

In Dashiell Hammett’s short story Fly Paper, Major Waldo Hambleton hires the Continental Detective Agency to find his daughter, Sue, who has cut off all contact with her family. She’s reportedly been mixed up with some very shady people, so Hambleton wants to be sure that she’s all right. Then, he gets a letter from Sue, asking for money. He has the agency send a representative to the address she gave – an address that belongs to Joseph ‘Holy Joe’ Wales, whom Sue has been seeing. She’s also been involved with a thug named ‘Babe’ McCloor. When the detective finally finds Sue’s own place, it’s too late: she’s dead of arsenic poisoning. Now this missing person case has become a case of murder – or perhaps suicide…

Fans of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone will know that she trained as a private investigator. At first, she worked as a police officer, but two years was enough to show her that police life wasn’t for her. Then, she worked for a detective agency for a short time, while she learned the ropes. After that, as happens with many PIs, she decided to hang out her own shingle. For Kinsey, the independence and flexibility of having her own agency is worth much more than the security that belonging to a larger agency might provide.

In Dick Francis’ Odds Against, we are introduced to Sid Halley. He’s a former jockey whose career was ended when his left hand was severely damaged in a racing accident. Not sure where to go or what to do after that, he got a job at Hunt Radnor Associates, a large detective agency. He worked there for two years until he was shot by a suspect in an investigation. His father-in-law (later ex father-in-law) Charles Roland can see that Halley is floundering, and offers him a way out. He wants Halley to investigate Howard Kraye, a shady businessman who Roland suspects is trying to take over his Seabury Racecourse. Halley agrees, and embarks on a new career as a racetrack investigator.

Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri is the owner of a well-respected Delhi agency, Most Private Investigators, Ltd. Although he’s the head of the agency, he depends crucially on the members of his team. Each of them has special skills and backgrounds that help the agency. There’s Tube Light, his head investigator, who has a special knack with computers. Facecream is a valuable member of the team who can blend in anywhere she goes. She often does undercover work. And there’s Flush, so called because his was the first house in his village to have indoor plumbing. And of course, Puri couldn’t get very far without Handbrake, his driver. Handbrake knows how to blend in with other drivers, street vendors and so on, which helps him get information.

While we often think of PI characters as ‘lone wolves’ – and many are – there are plenty who don’t work alone. Some work with just one partner (like Betty Webb’s Lena Jones). Others are slowly building (like Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe). But there are lots who work for a bigger agency. It’s not a bad choice, especially if you’re new to the field and don’t have your own reputation yet. Or if you haven’t (yet) got the funds to set up for yourself. Which fictional larger agencies have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s Ballad of a Well-Known Gun.

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Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Betty Webb, Dashiell Hammett, Dick Francis, K.B. Owen, Sue Grafton, Tarquin Hall

Got Your Cable Just Today*

TelegramsMost people don’t send telegrams any more, although you certainly can if you want. With today’s wireless communication, text messaging and social media, there’s really no need. But there was a time when telegrams were the fastest way for people to communicate, especially if they lived at a distance.

From the mid-1800s until the advent of commercially available telephones, telegrams were the only way for people to communicate quickly, since letters could take days or more. And even after people got telephones, it was still easier and less expensive for a long time to send a telegram.

There are, of course, all sorts of mentions of telegrams in crime fiction. They contain information, they may serve as clues, and they prompt sleuths to take action. I’m only going to bring up a few examples. I know you’ll think of a lot more than I ever could.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery begins as Dr. Watson and his wife are at the breakfast table. Watson gets a telegram from Sherlock Holmes, inviting him to join Holmes in the west of England. There’s been a murder in the Boscombe Valley, and Holmes is investigating it. Watson soon joins his friend, and the two look into the killing of Charles McCarthy. He and his son John quarreled loudly shortly before the murder, so John McCarthy is the most likely suspect. But his fiancée Alice Turner wants his name cleared. If the killer isn’t John McCarthy, though, then who is it? The only real clue is something the dying man said, but it doesn’t make sense until Holmes puts the pieces together.

A telegram plays an interesting role in Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes. Late one night, New York Homicide Bureau detective Tom Shawn is taking a walk when he sees a distraught young woman on a bridge, apparently about to jump. He manages to persuade her to come back to safety, and then takes her to an all-night diner, where she tells her story. She is Jean Reid, daughter of wealthy and successful Harlan Reid. Until recently, she’s had a reasonably good life. But everything changed after her father took a trip to San Francisco. A maid warned Jean that her father was in real danger if he took his scheduled flight back to New York, because the plane was going to crash. Jean’s not really a fanciful person, but concern for her father led her to start to send him a telegram asking him to change his travel plans. But she didn’t follow through. So when Harlan Reid returned safely, she was stunned to learn that he got a telegram. Who sent it, if not she? As Shawn soon learns, this was only the first in a strange series of incidents involving predictions made by a man named Jeremiah Tompkins, who is, as he puts it, cursed with being able to see the future. What troubles Jean especially is that Tompkins has predicted that her father will die on a certain night at midnight. Convinced that this prediction will come true, Harlan Reid has become a shell of his former self. Shawn decides to do what he can to help the family, and gets caught up in a strange case.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories make use of telegrams. For example, in Death on the Nile, Linnet Ridgeway Doyle and her new husband, Simon, are taking a honeymoon cruise of the Nile. One afternoon, she sees that a telegram has arrived. Mistakenly thinking it’s for her, she opens it. The telegram’s actual recipient is Italian archaeologist Guido Richetti; and, when he sees that she’s read it, he’s infuriated, far out of proportion to a simple mistake like that. And when Linnet is shot later that night, that odd telegram, and Richetti’s reaction to it, come under scrutiny…

Telegrams also feature in Rex Stout’s work. For instance, in Not Quite Dead Enough, a telegram actually serves as an interesting clue. Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are investigating the supposed suicide of Captain Albert Cross. It’s a delicate matter, because there are political and security issues involved. So the Powers That Be want this case solved as quickly and as quietly as possible. The official account of Cross’ death is that he committed suicide. But as Wolfe and Goodwin trace the victim’s last days, they find out something interesting: Cross had communicated with his fiancée shortly before his death. Here’s what Wolfe says about that clue:
 

‘‘He sent a telegram to his fiancée in Boston that he would see her on Saturday. And then committed suicide? Pfui.’’
 

To Wolfe, anyway, it’s an obvious clue that this was a murder, not a suicide.

K.B. Owen’s historical series takes place at the end of the 19th Century, and features Concordia Wells, a teacher at Hartford Women’s College. During these times, telegrams are really the only way for most people to get messages quickly from one place to another. Few people have telephones, and even for those who do, they aren’t always reliable. So the majority of people use telegrams. In Unseemly Haste, for instance, Concordia is planning a train trip from Hartford to San Francisco. In part, its purpose is to ensure her safety from some unpleasant people who may have targeted her (read Unseemly Ambition for the background on that). In part it’s to give her time to make some personal decisions. It’s also got the purpose of accompanying her friend Penelope Hamilton, who is a Pinkerton’s agent with her own agenda. At first, Concordia’s mother Letitia disapproves of her daughter taking such a journey without a ‘proper chaperone.’ But then, Letitia Wells receives a telegram from her sister Estella, who lives in San Francisco. Estella’s husband Karl has gone missing, and she’s frantic. Concordia agrees to do her best to help her aunt, and with that, her mother sees her off. The train journey turns out to be much more dangerous than Concordia thinks, and it turns out to be connected with the disappearance of Concordia’s uncle.

Most people don’t send telegrams any more. But as you can see, they’ve certainly played their role, both in real life an in crime fiction. And there’s still something about a telegram…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Five Americans’ Western Union.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Cornell Woolrich, K.B. Owen, Rex Stout