Category Archives: K.B. Owen

They Think Me Macbeth, and Ambition is My Folly*

More then 400 years after its first known production, Shakespeare’s Macbeth still plays an important role in theatre, literature, and in Western culture. There are, of course, many books, commentaries, and other pieces of writing that reflect on the play and its significance.

And it shouldn’t be surprising that Macbeth (we’re not in a theatre, so I can use the play’s proper name) also shows up in crime fiction. It is, after all, a play about a crime, among other things. And it shows how that crime impacts the people who are mixed up in it.

Fans of Agatha Christie will know that she was a fan of Shakespeare’s work, and that includes Macbeth. In Hallowe’en Party, for instance, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a young girl who had boasted that she saw a murder. Only hours after she made her claim, someone drowned her in the apple-bobbing bucket at a Hallowe’en party. As Poirot gets to know the people in the village of Woodleigh Common, where the victim lived, he also learns the history of the place, and the history of some of the characters’ interactions. And that leads him to some important clues about the murder. At one point, he compares one of the characters to Lady Macbeth, saying,

‘‘I have always wondered…exactly what sort of woman Lady Macbeth was. What would she be like if you met her in real life?’’

Poirot is not a fanciful person; it’s just that that Lady Macbeth is a strong and well-developed character who’s not easy to forget. There’s also, of course By the Pricking of My Thumbs, which takes its title from a line in the play.

Ngaio Marsh’s last Inspector Alleyn novel, Light Thickens, features Macbeth, a play that Marsh directed more than once. In the story, Sir Dougal Macdougal is set to play the lead in a production of the Scottish Play, to be held at London’s Dolphin Theatre. As theatre fans will know, this is considered an unlucky play, and there are people who won’t produce or act in it. But Peregrine Jay, who owns the Dolphin, wants to go ahead with it. Some odd things happen (missing equipment, for instance), but all of the rehearsals go well, and cast is ready for opening night. Six weeks into the play’s run, Macdougal is murdered on stage. Inspector Alleyn investigates, looking into the victim’s relationships with fellow cast members, as well as his personal life. And in the end, he finds out who the killer is, and how this murder is related to the other strange events at the theatre.

James Yaffe wrote a short series featuring Dave, an investigator for the Mesa Grande, Colorado, Public Defender’s Office. He does his job well, but the real sleuth in the series is his mother, who’s moved from their native New York City to Mesa Grande. In Mom Doth Murder Sleep, the local amateur theatre group decides on a production of Macbeth, with Martin Osborn set to take the lead role. Sally Michaels has the role of Lady Macbeth. Dave’s friend and co-worker, Roger Meyer, is also in the cast. On opening night, Osborn is stabbed onstage, and Sally is the most likely suspect. In fact, she is arrested and charged with the crime. When Dave finds out about the case from Roger, he sees no reason to doubt that Sally is the killer. But his mother sees things differently and persuades him to look into the case more deeply. When he does, Dave finds that more than one person had very good reason to want to kill Martin Osborn.

There’s also Simon Brett’s What Bloody Man is That? (Oh, come on! Could I resist the chance to add a Charles Paris mystery with a topic like this?). In that novel, Paris is ‘resting between roles’ when his agent calls to tell him he’s gotten a ‘play as cast’ contract. The production is Macbeth, and the location is the Pintero Theatre, Warminster. ‘Play as cast’ roles are notorious for being time-consuming and difficult, but Paris doesn’t have much choice. So, he accepts the contract and work on the play begins. The role of Duncan has been given to the legendary Warnock Belvedere. He’s gifted on the stage, but in real life, is arrogant, egotistical, sexist and high-handed. So, as you can imagine, he manages to alienate just about everyone in the cast and crew. There are other hurdles, too, with this production, but little by little, the cast and crew get ready. One day, rehearsal goes especially badly, and everyone decides to drown their sorrows. Paris has quite a lot more to drink than is judicious, so he lurches back to his dressing room to try to get some rest. He sees Belvedere, who’s also had quite a bit to drink. Paris falls asleep and wakes up at three in the morning. He soon sees that he’s been locked in to the theatre. He also discovers that Belvedere has died. He calls the police, and they begin to investigate. Once they establish that Belvedere’s been murdered, Paris sees that he will be a suspect, since he was in the theatre all night, and can’t account for his actions. In order to clear his name, he decides to do a little investigating on his own – and to avoid the police as much as he can until he finds out the truth.

One of K.B. Owen’s protagonists is Concordia Wells. She is a teacher at Hartford Women’s College, in the last years of the 19th Century. And, although she doesn’t set out to be an investigator, she finds herself drawn into more than one murder. In Dangerous and Unseemly, for instance, she is supervising the school’s upcoming production of Macbeth, something she hadn’t planned to do, but has ended up doing by default, so to speak. While she’s busy with the details of the play, the college’s Bursar, Ruth Lyman, dies in an apparent case of suicide. It’s not, though, and it’s not the only bad thing happening at the school. Some malicious pranks, and even arson, also happen. Concordia knows that if someone doesn’t act, her school may have to close. So, she decides to find out the truth behind what’s been going on, even though criminal investigation is simply not ‘ladylike.’

See what I mean? Macbeth has been a part of our culture for a very long time and shows up in all sorts of different ways in crime fiction. Considering the play’s themes and plot, that isn’t surprising.

ps. Thank you, Royal Shakespeare Company, for this fabulous ‘photo of Christopher Eccleston as Macbeth! Their production will be on at Stratford-Upon-Avon until September, and then it moves to London.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lin-Manual Miranda’s Take a Break.


Filed under Agatha Christie, James Yaffe, K.B. Owen, Ngaio Marsh, Simon Brett

I Guess Every Form of Refuge Has Its Price*

I’m always grateful when I get inspiration from the rest of you kind folks. You have some terrific ideas, and I like learning from them. Take K.B. Owen, for instance. She’s a skilled crime writer (you want to read her Concordia Wells novels – you really do), and a fellow blogger. She had a great idea for a post, so I thought I’d run with it, as the saying goes.

Safety and security are really important to us. In fact, if you believe theorists such as Abraham Maslow, It’s not really possible to go on to higher things like emotional connections, higher cognitive processing, and so on, if one doesn’t feel safe. So, people will go to a lot of lengths to create a sense of safety – a refuge, if you will.

The problem is that choosing perceived safety or refuge can have consequences. As an extreme example, agoraphobics feel safest at home. But, this means they also limit themselves. But, if you think about it, we all trade some things in for safety. We trade the thrill of very fast driving in for road safety, for instance. That sort of tradeoff happens in real life, and it happens in crime fiction, too.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, we meet Amy Folliat. Her family owned Nasse House, in Devon, for many centuries. But World War II and other problems meant that the house had to be sold. Now, it’s the property of Sir George Stubbs and his wife, Hattie. Mrs. Folliat lives in a lodge on the grounds of Nasse House. For her, it’s a safe, secure arrangement, and it means that she gets to stay among the local people she’s always known. But that safety has come at a price. And life has not always been kind to Mrs. Folliat. She’s stoic, though. As she says,

‘‘So many things are hard…’’

She gets involved in a murder investigation when detective novelist Ariadne Oliver is asked to create a Murder Hunt (along the lines of a scavenger hunt) for an upcoming fête to be held at Nasse House. On the day of the event, Marlene Tucker, who’s been chosen to play the ‘victim’ in the Murder Hunt, is actually killed. Mrs. Oliver has asked Hercule Poirot to the house, so he works with Inspector Bland to find out who the killer is.

Romain Gary’s short story, A Humanist, takes place in Munich at the time of Hitler’s rise to power. Toy manufacturer Karl Loewy enjoys a good book, a good glass of brandy and a good cigar. He’s a humanist who believes that common sense will prevail in Germany, and that there is no cause for alarm. Despite warnings from his Jewish friends, he’s determined to stay where he is. Finally, things get dangerous enough that Herr Loewy decides he will need to go into hiding. So, he gets help from Herr and Frau Schultz, who take care of his home and kitchen. They build a secret underground home, and agree to take over Herr Loewy’s affairs until the war is over. Herr Loewy now has a safe refuge from all of the ugliness in the world. But it comes at a very high price.

Robert Colby’s novella No Experience Necessary introduces us to Glenn Hadlock. He’s recently been released from prison, and he’s not finding it easy to get a job. One day, though, he sees something that might work. Victor Scofield is looking for someone to serve as a bodyguard/escort for his wife, Eileen. Scofield himself is permanently disabled, and can’t leave the house. But he doesn’t want his wife to be confined in the same way. So, he’s looking for someone to serve as her driver, and escort when that’s necessary. Hadlock gets the job, and at first, all’s well. The job pays well, it comes with a furnished apartment, and Eileen is pleasant company. But it’s not long before Hadlock learns the high price for all of this safety.

Love, Lies and Liquor is the 17th of M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series. In it, Agatha’s ex-husband, James Lacey, persuades her to take a short holiday at Snoth-on-Sea, where he spent many holidays as a child. The resort, and the Palace Hotel, where they stay, are both deeply disappointing. In fact, Agatha wants to leave immediately. But she’s soon drawn into a murder that takes place there. Geraldine Jankers is staying at the hotel for her honeymoon (with her fourth husband). One night, her body is found on a nearby beach, strangled with Agatha’s own scarf. Agatha’s name is cleared soon enough, but now, she’s intrigued. So, she stays on at Snoth-on-Sea to investigate. And she soon finds that more than one person had a very good motive to want to kill the victim. Two possible suspects are the victim’s friend and childhood sweetheart Cyril Hammond, and his wife, Dawn. As Agatha gets to know them, she learns that Dawn may have been subjected to domestic abuse. In fact, Dawn actually leaves her husband at one point in the story. But, he has quite a lot of money – money she’s never really had before. So, in the end, it’s not spoiling the story to say that Dawn trades her newfound freedom for what she sees as the safety of a fine home and the other trappings of wealth.

And then there’s A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife. Jodi Brett and Todd Gilbert are a successful Chicago couple. She’s a psychotherapist; he’s a developer. They’ve been together twenty years, although they never legally married. Jodi sees herself as having a secure, safe life. Then, Todd begins an affair with Natasha Kovacs, the daughter of his business partner. He’s strayed before, but this time, it’s different: Natasha discovers that she’s pregnant. She wants to marry and have a family, and Todd tells himself, and her, that he wants those things, too. But Todd misses Jodi, also, and their life together. So, in an odd way, she is hoping he’ll come back to her. Instead of starting over, Jodi clings to the home they’ve had together, and depends on it as a refuge and a haven. But then, she gets a letter from Todd’s attorney, stating that the home isn’t legally hers, and she will have to vacate it. The lawyer Jodi contacts gives her the bad news that there is no common law marriage in Illinois, so she has no grounds to claim the house. Now, with her options dwindling, Jodi gets desperate…

Everyone seeks safety and refuge. We need to feel safe before almost everything else. So, it’s no wonder that people will sometimes choose what they see as safety – as a refuge – over anything else. Even if it has serious consequences for them.

Thanks, Kathy, for the inspiration!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Eagles’ Lyin’ Eyes.


Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, K.B. Owen, M.C. Beaton, Robert Colby, Romain Gary

Standing on My Own Two Feet*

One of the writing projects I’m working on right now is a standalone that features one of the characters from my second Joel Williams novel, B-Very Flat. It’s a bit of a risk. After all, it’s one thing for a character to appear – even to have an important role – in a novel. It’s quite another for that character to feature in the lead role.

And yet, there are cases where it’s done successfully. And sometimes, that character has enough backstory, personality, and so on to make a novel (or even a new series) interesting. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

K.B. Owen’s historical (end of the 19th Century) series (which begins with Dangerous and Unseemly) features Concordia Wells, who teaches at Hartford Women’s College. It’s not so much that she’s overly eager to investigate and solve crimes. And in her world, ‘proper’ ladies do not interest themselves in something as sordid as murder. But she is curious, and she does want to see justice done. So, she gets drawn into mysteries. One of the characters we meet in that series is Penelope Hamilton Wynch, a former operative for Pinkerton’s. She serves as a mentor for Concordia, but she doesn’t ‘star’ in that series. Still, she’s an interesting character in her own right. So, Owen decided to give Penelope her own series. That series, which begins with Never Sleep, starts some thirty years before the Concordia Wells series. It tells the story of Penelope’s work with Pinkerton’s and details some of her cases.

Henning Mankell is perhaps best known for his series featuring Ystad police detective Kurt Wallander. Fans of that series will know that Wallander has a daughter, Linda, with whom he has a complicated relationship. As the series goes on, she begins to come into her own as a character. In fact, Mankell planned a three-novel series in which she was to be the protagonist. The first novel, Before the Frost, was published in 2002. But, tragically, Johanna Sällström, who took the role of Linda Wallander in the Swedish television series, died in 2007, probably by suicide. Her death had a real impact on Mankell, and he never finished the trilogy. It would have been interesting to see Linda’s character develop over time if he had.

Michael Connelly took a very interesting approach to giving a character a ‘spinoff’ series. Fans will know that Connelly’s Harry Bosch is a homicide detective for the L.A.P.D. He is the son of Marjorie Lowe, who was a prostitute, and prominent attorney J. Michael ‘Mickey’ Haller. Bosch never met his father, and his mother was murdered when he was a boy. So, he grew up mostly in a children’s home. In The Black Ice, Connelly shares a flashback in which Bosch discovers who his father is, and learns that he is dying. He decides to pay his father a visit, and, later attends his funeral. Bosch also learns that he has a half brother several years younger:

‘The half brother was now a top defense attorney and Harry was a cop. There was a strange congruence to that that Bosch found acceptable. They had never spoken and probably never would.’

That half brother turns out to be Mickey Haller, whom we later meet in The Lincoln Lawyer. He has his own backstory, including two ex-wives, a daughter, and his own history with his father. Since The Lincoln Lawyer, Haller has appeared in eight other Connelly novels, and ‘starred’ in five of them. He’s certainly become very much his own character, and fans will tell you that he carries that series quite well.

Tana French has also taken an interesting approach to giving some of her characters their own stories. Her Dublin Murder Squad series includes (thus far) six novels. The first two feature Cassie Maddox (although In the Woods really ‘stars’ Rob Ryan). In the second, The Likeness, we’re introduced to Frank Mackey, who is the main protagonist in the next novel, Faithful Place. That sort of shifting of main characters happens in the other novels, too. In real life, police detectives do move in and out of assignments. They join and leave squads, and so on. It makes sense that that would happen in this series, too, and that’s how French has chosen to write it.

And then there’s Kathy Reichs’ Temperance ‘Tempe’ Brennan. She’s a forensic anthropologist who’s moved from North Carolina to Montréal, where she’s called in when the bodies of murder victims can’t easily be identified. Fans will tell you that, along with her professional work, Brennan also has family issues that sometimes come up. And one of those family members is her grand-niece, Tory. Tory doesn’t really play a role in this series, but she does in another series that Reichs has written with her son, Benjamin. That four-book YA series, called the Virals series, tells the story of a group of young people who live in South Carolina. The novels have elements of the speculative (the young people, for instance, acquire special powers through a mysterious infection they get in the first novel). The focus, though, is on the mysteries that they solve.

There are all sorts of ways in which a character in one novel or series can end as the main character in another. It is a bit tricky to do that, as that character has to be strong enough to take the lead. When it works, though, it can make for an interesting new direction for an author.

ps. The picture shows just how well spin-offs can work on television…


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


Filed under Henning Mankell, K.B. Owen, Kathy Reichs, Michael Connelly, Tana French

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.


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.


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