Category Archives: Lilian Jackson Braun

Martha My Dear*

Not long ago, I was privileged to have the chance to read Cat Connor’s new Ellie Iverson novel, Qubyte. By the way, it’s coming out on 31 December. In the novel, FBI Supervisory Special Agent (SSA) Ellie Iverson and her team link a series of tragic events, and find themselves up against a very real (and, if I may say so, frighteningly possible) threat.

I won’t say more about the plot right now, but I found one aspect of it very interesting as a reader. Without spoiling the story, I can say that Ellie works with an FBI-trained German Shepherd, Argo. As I read, I found myself hoping that nothing would happen to Argo (and something easily could). The deaths of human characters were one thing for me, but I did not want to see Argo hurt or worse. And that got me to thinking about animals in novels.

When people read crime fiction, they generally do so with the understanding that there’s going to be ugliness. People will most likely be killed. For those who like dark, very gritty crime fiction, those deaths can sometimes be truly brutal. But even those who prefer lighter crime fiction with less violence know that there’s going to be at least one murder.

We know that, and we accept it. For most of us, if the murder isn’t described in horrific detail, we take that as part of the plot. But there seems to be a catch, so to speak. For lots of readers (I am one of them), it’s one thing if a murder victim is an adult (of either sex). It’s not even a ‘deal killer’ if the victim is younger. In Maureen Carter’s Working Girls, for instance, the victim is fifteen years old. And in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, there’s a fourteen-year-old victim. But many people draw the line at the death (particularly a brutal death) of an animal, especially if that animal is a pet.

There are plenty of novels (don’t worry; I won’t list them all!) in which a character’s pet is killed. I won’t describe a set of examples; you don’t need them. Fictional deaths of pets and other animals often gets people very upset. In fact, there are people who stop reading a novel, and/or stop reading a particular author’s work, if an animal such as a pet is killed. Even people who don’t go as far as that often still dislike that plot point. I know I do. And it makes me wonder why.

Why do crime fiction lovers accept the death of a person, or even several persons, but not the death of an animal? I don’t have ‘official’ data on this, but here’s one possibility. Perhaps it’s because we know that pets are, in their way, much more vulnerable than people are. They can’t stand up for themselves in the same way that people can. So, the death of a pet may seem crueler.

It’s also worth noting that lots of people have pets, and that includes fictional sleuths. Sara Paretsky’s V.I.  Warshawski, Peter James’ Roy Grace, Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant, Lilian Jackson Braun’s James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran, and Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are just a few examples. People who have pets are often very devoted to them, especially if they don’t also have children (and often even if they do!). And they relate to fictional characters who have them. So, the death of a fictional pet hits hard.

There are also people who are animal lovers in general. They don’t want to see any animal, whether it’s a pet or a wild animal, be hurt or killed. There are other reasons, too, for which crime fiction lovers put pets and other animals in a separate category. Whatever one’s individual reasons, it seems to be a common reaction. Plenty of readers don’t worry so much about who dies in a crime novel, so long as the dog or cat (or…) makes it.

What do you think about all this? As a crime fiction fan, do you see animal deaths as different to the deaths of human victims? Does that sort of plot point put a book in the DNF pile for you? Why? If you’re a writer, where do you stand in terms of animal deaths? Is that a line that you don’t cross? I’d really like to know your thoughts about this.

The ‘photo is a gratuitous pet picture. You’re welcome.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Beatles song which Paul McCartney wrote about his dog.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Cat Connor, Lilian Jackson Braun, Maureen Carter, Peter James, Sara Paretsky

Deadlines and Commitments*

Deadlines are a fact of life for most of us. For students, assignments have to be handed in on time. Journalists and other writers have deadlines for publication, and TV professionals have production deadlines, especially if they’re in the news business. Lawyers must have their cases ready by the hearing or trial date; a lot of judges don’t like granting continuances. And the list goes on.

In real life, deadlines can cause anxiety. They can also spur on the procrastinator. Either way, they can add a layer of tension and suspense to a crime novel. And they are realistic, as just about all of us have to cope with them at one point or another. There are many examples of how deadlines work in the genre; here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot receives an odd sort of deadline. He gets a cryptic note warning him of something that’s going to take place in the town of Andover. The writer of the note even goes so far as to give the date. Sure enough, on the appointed day, Alice Ascher, who owns a small newsagent shop, is murdered. At first, the police believe her estranged husband, Franz Ascher, is responsible. But he claims he is innocent, and Poirot is inclined to believe him. Then, Poirot gets another warning note, this time directing him to Bexhill-on-Sea. The body of twenty-three-year-old Betty Barnard is found on the beach, and it’s shown that she was killed on the day specified in the note. It takes two more deaths before Poirot and the police work out who the killer is, and what the motive is. In the meantime, especially for the fourth death, everyone’s scrambling to get ready before the day mentioned in the notes, so there’s a great deal of time pressure. It’s not a main point of the story, but that tension adds to the suspense.

In Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice, LAPD detective Harry Bosch goes to the scene of what looks like a suicide. The body of fellow copper Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore has been found in a seedy motel, and the story is that he committed suicide because he’d ‘gone dirty.’ Little things about the scene suggest that Moore might have been murdered, so Bosch decides to look into the matter. But it’s soon made clear to him that the Powers That Be want this case to be left alone. In fact, Bosch is distanced from the investigation, and given eight other cases to close – cases left unsolved because another officer is on a stress-related leave of absence. Bosch is also given an impossible deadline – one week – to finish the job. It’s hoped that giving him a heavy workload will keep Bosch from asking too many questions about the Moore case. It doesn’t work. Bosch follows up leads and pursues the case, and, in the end, finds out the truth about Calexico Moore.

Anyone who’s ever been in academia can tell you that deadlines are a part of life in that world.  For instance, in Christine Poulson’s Murder is Academic, we are introduced to Cassandra James, who becomes Acting Head of the English Literature Department at St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge. Her predecessor, Margaret Joplin, has been murdered, and, since James found the body and, of course, knew the victim, she wants to find out who was responsible for the killing. Until arrangements can be made, someone needs to undertake the duties of Head of Department, and that person is James. One of those tasks is to prepare for the next Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The department’s funding depends heavily on how successful it is at passing that exercise, so James must get everyone’s research, including her own, updated and as polished as it can be. She’s on a deadline, too, as the RAE is already in the works. So, besides finding out who killed Joplin, she’s under pressure to gather everyone’s scholarship. That deadline stress adds tension to the story.

If you’re a writer, you know all about deadlines. That’s especially true in journalism, but it’s true of other sorts of writing as well. And there are plenty of journalist protagonists who have to meet deadlines. One is James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran, who is featured in Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series. After inheriting a fortune from a friend of his mother’s, Qwill moved to the small town of Pickax, in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ Now, he writes a twice-weekly column for the Moose County Something. Qwill is somewhat of a celebrity, but that doesn’t excuse him from having to meet deadlines. In more than one scene in this series, Qwill rushes to the newspaper office to turn in his copy in time (most of the novels were written before today’s Internet made submitting copy a matter of a few keystrokes).

And then there’s Brad Parks’ Carter Ross. He’s a reporter for the Newark, New Jersey Eagle-Examiner. Because it’s a daily paper, there’s a lot of pressure to meet publication deadlines. And Ross certainly feels that pressure. Even his cat’s named Deadline. In Faces of the Gone, for instance, he’s working on a story about four bodies that were found in a vacant lot. The first police theory is that one of the victims had held up a local bar, and the bar’s owner had the thief and accomplices murdered. But Ross soon discovers that that’s probably not true. In one plot thread, his boss wants him to go with the police account and do a background story on the bar based on that assumption. And he gives Ross a short deadline. Ross is reluctant, because he doesn’t want to put in print something that’s not true, so he starts by procrastinating. It takes a lot of convincing to get his boss to agree to a different approach, and it’s interesting to see how the pressure to put out a newspaper plays a role in the story.

And that’s the thing. Newspapers have to be published. Grades have to be given. Trial dates have to be set. And all of that means deadlines. We may not always like them, but they add an interesting layer of suspense to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger’s Against the Wind.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Brad Parks, Christine Poulson, Lilian Jackson Braun, Michael Connelly

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

Why Are There Always So Many Other Things to Do?*

One of the things that writing requires is discipline. Sticking with a project, not letting yourself get too distracted, and seeing it through, are all difficult to do. That’s especially true with today’s social media and instant accessibility through email, text, and so on.

And then there’s the fact that a lot of writers do their writing at home. So, there’s always laundry, bills, pets, gardening, and all sorts of other things to pull the attention away from that manuscript. Trust me. Am I right, authors?

It’s that way in crime fiction, too. Writers try to make time to write, and when they’re on deadline, that’s even more important. And, yet, they do get pulled away from the manuscript, especially when there’s a murder investigation. Don’t believe me? Here are a few examples.

Agatha Christie’s Ariadne Oliver is a detective story writer. She’s well-enough known and popular enough that her publisher knows her books will sell. But that doesn’t mean she has no pressure to write. She does get distracted, though. For instance, in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, she’s working on an adaptation of one of her novels for the stage when she gets drawn into a case that Hercule Poirot is investigating – and that ends up impacting her, too. Of course, Mrs. Oliver doesn’t welcome all distractions. Late in the novel, Poirot telephones her for a very important reason. She, however, sees it another way:
 

‘‘Have you got to ring me up just now? I’ve thought of the most wonderful idea for a murder in a draper’s shop…’’
 

She’s not happy to be interrupted, but what she tells Poirot helps to solve the case. Of course, fans of Mrs. Oliver know that sometimes, she welcomes distractions…

In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Queen takes some time away in the small New England town of Wrightsville. He’s there to get some writing done, and he’s looking forward to some peace and quiet while he stays in a guest house owned by John and Hermione ‘Hermy’ Wright. But soon enough, he gets distracted by family drama among the Wrights. It seems that their youngest daughter, Nora, had been engaged to a young man named Jim Haight. He jilted her, though, and left town abruptly. Now, Haight’s back, and everyone hopes that Nora will give him short shrift. Instead, to everyone’s shock, she takes up with him again and, in fact, they marry. Then, evidence comes up that Haight may be planning to kill his bride for her money. Queen isn’t sure that’s true, but there’s no denying the evidence. Then, on New Year’s Eve, Haight’s sister Rosemary, who’s been staying with the family, dies after drinking a poisoned cocktail. The assumption is that Haight is the murderer, and that the cocktail was intended for Nora. Haight is duly arrested and put on trial. The only people who question his guilt are Queen, and Nora’s sister, Pat. Together, the two look for the real truth behind Rosemary’s death. Queen fans will know that this isn’t the only time when Queen is pulled away from his writing…

Lilian Jackson Braun’s James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran is a newspaper journalist (he’s written a book, too). As a result of an odd series of events, he ended up in the small town of Pickax, in rural Moose County. Now, he does a twice-weekly column, Straight From the Qwill Pen, for the local paper. He’s become somewhat of a celebrity in the area, too. Like most journalists, Qwill is naturally curious. And he follows up when he thinks there might be a good story in something that’s happening. Since he’s in the newspaper business, he understands about deadlines, and he does his best to keep them. But, because he’s curious, he often gets involved in murder investigations. And sometimes, that distracts him from filing his stories promptly. In more than one novel, he rushes to the newspaper office with his copy just in the nick of time (much of this series was written before it was common to email copy).

Linwood Barclay’s Zack Walker is a science fiction author whom we meet in Bad Move. He’s worried about his family’s safety, living as they do in a big city. So, he persuades his wife, Sarah, to go along with his plan to move to a new suburban development, Valley Forest Estates. Along with the increased safety, Walker is looking forward to having more space, and hopefully more time, for writing. And that’s what he’s working on when he starts to get distracted. First, there are some problems with the new house the family has bought. So, Walker goes to Valley Forest’s sales office to lodge complaints and requests for service. While he’s there, he witnesses an argument between one of the company’s sales executives, and a local environmentalist named Samuel Spender. Then, later on the same day, Walker finds Spender’s body near a local creek. Before he knows it, Walker’s drawn into a web of murder and intrigue in his quiet, suburban development, and drawn away from his writing.

And then there’s Lynda Wilcox’s Verity Long, whom we meet in Strictly Murder. Long isn’t, strictly speaking, a writer, herself. She’s PA to successful crime writer Kathleen ‘KD’ Davenport. While Davenport is popular and sells well, that doesn’t mean she can be heedless of deadlines and commitments to her publisher. So, Long has to do her job, too. And her job is mostly to find and research old unsolved crime cases that Davenport can use as inspiration for her work. But Long does get distracted from her research at times, especially when she stumbles across cases of modern-day murder.

See what I mean? Writers really need to have focus and discipline. Otherwise they get distracted by all sorts of things, including murder. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to work on my novel. Oh, wait, there’s that laundry to do. And shouldn’t I be looking over this month’s bills? And there’s that meeting later on…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s Distractions.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Linwood Barclay, Lynda Wilcox

Over at the Counter, Helping All the Shoppers*

As this is posted, it’s 116 years since James Cash (J.C.) Penney opened his first department store. Since that time, department stores have become an integral part of our buying culture. And, if you think about it, department stores represented a major change in shopping. It was now possible to purchase ready-made clothing for men, women, and children, all in the same place. Linens, housewares and jewelry, too.

Of course, today’s department stores don’t much resemble the early department stores. Most now have online shopping options, for example. And there aren’t as many department stores as there once were. But, whether it’s El Corte Inglés, J.C. Penney, Debenhams or Hudson’s Bay, department stores still play a role in our shopping.

They play a role in crime fiction, too, and it’s interesting to see how they fit in to the setting of a novel. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Much of Ellery Queen’s The French Powder Mystery is set in French’s Department Store, which is in New York City. One day, a store employee is setting up a window demonstration of some of the store’s furniture. When she tries to demonstrate the way the pull-out bed works, she discovers the body of a woman on the bed. Inspector Richard Queen takes the investigation, and, of course, his son Ellery goes along. It turns out that the dead woman is Winnifred French, wife of the store’s owner, Cyrus French. As the Queens investigate, they learn that there are several possibilities for the killer’s identity. As we meet the various suspects, we also learn about the way older, family-run department stores worked.

In Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe, Perry Mason and Della Street duck out of the rain into a department store. There, they see a store security guard stop Sarah Breel for shoplifting. Unfortunately, this is a habit with her, but most of the time, her niece, Virginia Trent, goes shopping with her to prevent any incidents. But this time, Virginia wasn’t right next to her aunt. Not long afterwards, Virginia Trent comes to Mason with an even more complex problem. Her uncle is a gem expert, who appraises, cuts, cleans, and custom-sets gems on commission. Now, two valuable diamonds have been stolen, and the most likely suspect is Aunt Sarah. Austin Cullens, who originally sold the diamonds, doesn’t believe Aunt Sarah has the diamond. But when he’s found dead, and Aunt Sarah becomes the prime suspect, Mason has a difficult case on his hands.

Fans of Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series know that it takes place in the small town of Pickax, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ The local department store, Lanspeak’s, is owned by Larry and Carol Lanspeak, who run it as a family business. Several scenes in the series take place at the store, and the Lanspeak family figures into more than one of the mysteries. It’s an interesting example of the sort of department store that used to be much more common before the advent of larger company buyouts and, later, the Internet.

There’s a memorable scene at a department store in Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke. It’s 1931, and the Nazis are rising to power in Germany. Berlin crime reporter Hannah Vogel has just learned that her brother Ernst was killed, but she doesn’t know why or by whom. So, she starts to quietly ask some questions. She has to be careful, so as not to attract Nazi attention, but she does want to find out the truth. Late one night, a young boy named Anton comes to her home. His birth certificate lists her as his mother, but she knows she has no children. Still, she takes the boy in and decides to take care of him the best she can for now. And that will include getting him some clothes, since the boy has nearly nothing. So, she takes Anton to Wertheim’s Department Store. They have a very good experience, and for Anton, it’s like being taken to a wonderland. All that changes on the way out of the store, when they are harassed by Nazi thugs who don’t want ‘good Germans’ shopping at ‘Jewish stores.’ It’s a frightening experience, and it shows how stores got caught in the dramatic events in Germany at the end of the Weimar Republic.

In one plot thread of David Whish-Wilson’s Perth-based Zero at the Bone, we learn that former police superintendent Frank Swann is no longer working with the police (read about the events that led up to that in Line of Sight). He’s been hired by another former police officer, Percy Dickson. Dickson is head of security at a local department store, and he wants to know the truth behind some robberies that have been taking place. Several department stores and some jewelers have been targeted, and Dickson wants to know who’s responsible. So, he is working with the security people at the other stores to see if there’s a pattern. And Swann works with them to find out who’s behind the thefts. He discovers the truth, and the stolen merchandise is returned. But Dickson is under strict orders to say nothing about the thefts or the resolution of the problem. Unfortunately, he makes the mistake of mentioning the matter to the wrong people…

And then there’s Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel. That story begins in Philadelphia in the 1950s. Evelyn ‘Evie’ Hobart has grown up with very little. But she is beautiful and seductive. So, when she meets Hank Moran at a dance, it doesn’t take long for him to fall in love with her. They marry, and Evie finally has the life of privilege that she always wanted, since Hank comes from a family with money and prestige. All starts out well enough, and Evie joins the group of wealthy young women who take day trips into Philadelphia to shop, who belong to clubs, and so on. But Evie has always wanted to acquire things. And she enjoys the rush that comes when she takes them without paying for them. So, she’s caught shoplifting in department stores more than once. At first, it’s all hushed up and settled over because of the Moran family’s money and power. But finally, things get to the point where she is sent to The Terraces, an exclusive ‘special place’ where she can be ‘cured.’ Things don’t work out that way, though, and her daughter, Christine, grows up in a very toxic home. Evie hasn’t changed, and stops at nothing, including murder, to get what she wants. Christine feels powerless to do anything about it until she sees her young brother, Ryan, begin to get caught up in the same web. Now, Christine will have to find a way to free herself and Ryan before it’s too late.

The world of shopping has changed dramatically over the decades. But it’s still got a place for department stores. And so does crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rosenbergs’ Department Store Girl.

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Filed under David Whish-Wilson, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, Lilian Jackson Braun, Patricia Abbott, Rebecca Cantrell