Category Archives: Lilian Jackson Braun

Well, I Ain’t Superstitious*

scepticismI’m sure that you’ve learned in the course of your adult life that it’s not a good idea to be too credulous. A certain amount of disbelief – even cynicism – can protect you from all sorts of trouble, from scams to terrible relationships and worse. Even when people read fiction, they often keep that disbelief with them. I know I do.

Authors know that a lot of readers are not willing to believe everything they see and read. And sometimes, they use that in stories. A character who isn’t easily convinced by things such as spiritualism, psychics and so on can give voice to readers’ doubts. Such a character can also add tension to a crime story.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, for instance, believes only what logic and deduction show. He’s not convinced by otherworldly explanations for anything, which is quite ironic considering his creator was deeply interested in spiritualism and the occult. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance, Holmes gets a visit from Dr. James Mortimer, who tells him of a curse on the Baskerville family (Mortimer is a family friend). Legend has it that the family has been cursed by a phantom hound since the 1600s, when Hugo Baskerville sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he was infatuated. And there certainly have been strange deaths in the family. In fact, the most recent head of the Baskervilles, Sir Charles, was found dead of an apparent heart attack. Mortimer doesn’t believe that it was a heart attack, and wants to protect the new head of the family, Sir Henry, who is due to arrive soon from Canada. So, he asks Holmes to investigate. Holmes, as fans know, is a cynic when it comes to matters paranormal, so he seeks a more prosaic solution to the case. And it turns out that he’s right.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is also incredulous about spirits, Ouija, curses, and ghosts. But, as he says in The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb,

‘‘…I believe in the terrific force of superstition. Once get it firmly established that a series of deaths are supernatural, and you might almost stab a man in broad daylight, and it would still be put down to the curse, so strongly is the instinct of the supernatural implanted in the human race.’’

And that’s exactly what happens in this story, when a series of murders are put down to a curse on a tomb. As Poirot makes clear, this killer is very much a human being. You’re right, fans of Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client).

In The Cat Who Could Read Backwards, Lilian Jackson Braun introduces her sleuth, journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. As a former crime reporter, he’s learned to be very, very cynical. And life hasn’t taught him to think otherwise. That’s what makes it such a challenge for him when he inherits a Siamese cat, Kao K’o-Kung ‘Koko’, as a result of this first case. The cat previously belonged to George Mountclemens, the art critic for the Daily Fluxion, but adopts Qwilleran when Mountclemens is murdered. Koko is, in many ways, a normal (if quite spoiled) Siamese cat. But every once in a while, he acts in ways that can be interpreted as paranormal. Qwilleran is just as incredulous as you probably are about Koko’s abilities, and it’s interesting to see how Braun weaves that cynicism through the stories. It’s a very useful tool to keep the series grounded, if I may put it that way.

Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun has become quite cynical over the years, and with good reason. He lives and works in 1970s Laos, where he is the country’s only medical examiner. It wasn’t a job he wanted; he’d been ready to retire. But he was ‘volunteered’ for the job, and really has had no choice but to carry out his work as best he can. He’s seen plenty of government programs that don’t work, Party promises that haven’t been kept, medical supplies and equipment he can’t get, and so on. So, as you can imagine, he’s not one to believe in mysticism. And yet, in The Coroner’s Lunch, the first in this series, he has several encounters that make him wonder. For example, he seems to have a strange connection to an ancient shaman called Yeh Ming. And he has dreams and visions in which those who have died communicate with him. On the one hand, he doesn’t believe in ghosts in the way that belief is traditionally portrayed. He’s a sceptic and a pragmatist. But he knows what he’s seen and experienced. It’s an interesting dichotomy that runs through the series.

And then there’s Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing. Dr. Suresh Jha has made a career out of unmasking spiritualist charlatans. He doesn’t believe in religion or mysticism. In fact, he is the founder of the Delhi Institute for Research and Education (D.I.R.E.). One day, he’s attending a morning meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club. During the group’s session, so say witnesses, the goddess Kali appears and stabs Jha. Believers say that this is punishment for Jha’s lack of faith. When Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri learns of what’s happened, he decides to investigate. Jha was a former client, so Puri has a particular interest in the case. On the one hand, he doesn’t believe in spiritualism or the occult, although he has religious beliefs. On the other, he can’t at first suggest any other explanation for what happened. In the end, though, we learn what really happened to Jha and why.

It’s interesting to contemplate things that seem otherworldly. But most people do have a strong attachment to the credible – to something prosaic. That’s why characters who are sceptics can add so much to a crime story. They resonate with many readers, and their reluctance to believe can add tension to a story.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steve Miller’s Rockin’ Me.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Colin Cotterill, Lilian Jackson Braun, Tarquin Hall

Get Me Now, Holy Cow! *

RagstoRichesOne of the classic story lines in fiction is the rags-to-riches plot. Someone who’s been very poor, but who works hard, etc., finally comes into money. It’s not surprising this is such a popular sort of story, really. For one thing, plenty of readers can identify with the plot, since lots of readers would love to have wealth. For another, there’s the sense of satisfaction that comes from seeing a deserving character ‘make good.’ And rags-to-riches plots have also been used to teach young people lessons about working hard (e.g. the old Horatio Alger stories), and about holding up under adversity (e.g. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess).

Rags-to-riches plot lines are also woven into crime fiction. There are a lot of them, so space only permits a few. But it’s interesting to see how some different authors in the genre have played with this concept.

One of the plot lines in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House has a bit of the rags-to-riches theme in it. Esther Summerson is an orphan who’s been raised by an unpleasant and angry woman she refers to as her godmother. Wealthy philanthropist John Jarndyce takes an interest in her welfare, since she is distantly connected to a long-standing legal dispute that involved his family. When Esther’s godmother dies, Jarndyce takes over her guardianship, sees that she’s sent to school, and then takes her into his home as his ward. She becomes companion to wealthy Ada Clare, whose future Jarndyce is also helping to plan. Esther’s life is by no means idyllic after Jarndyce takes her in, but she’s off the streets, so to speak, and in a very good home. As fans will know, Dickens wrote several novels that have the rags-to-riches plot line. But this one, with a murder, a disputed will, and a proto-detective, seems (at least to me) to fit most closely into the category of early detective fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we are introduced to Katherine Grey. For ten years, she’s served as companion to a woman named Mrs. Harfield. Katherine’s never had money, but all of that changes when Mrs. Harfield dies and leaves all of her considerable fortune to her companion. Now that she’s suddenly come into money, Katherine decides to travel. So she gets a new wardrobe, and makes plans to accept an invitation to visit a distant cousin, Lady Rosalie Tamplin, who lives in Nice. Katherine’s under no illusions about why she got that invitation: Lady Rosalie wants to ingratiate herself with her newly-wealthy relative. But she decides to go, and takes the famous Blue Train. While on board, she meets Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, who’s got her own family drama. As it turns out, Katherine’s very likely the last person to speak to Ruth at any length before Ruth is murdered late one night. So she gets drawn into the murder investigation. Hercule Poirot is also on board the train, and works with the police to find out who murdered the victim and why.

Jaqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs is the first in her historical series about former WWI nurse Maisie Dobbs. As we learn in that novel, Maisie is the daughter of hard-working, but poor, parents. At a young age, she goes into domestic service for the wealthy Compton family. Maisie is quick-thinking and intelligent, and Lady Rowan notices that. So she takes an interest in the girl, and sponsors her. One of Lady Rowan’s friends is Maurice Blanche, who also sees how intelligent Maisie is, and becomes her mentor. Between the two of them, Maisie is well-supported. After she returns from service as a nurse in the Great War, Maisie sets up shop as a private investigator/psychologist. She doesn’t move among the very highest social circles herself, but several of her clients do, and it’s interesting to see how she remains quite practical, despite moving from the scullery to the drawing room, as you might say.

In The Cat Who Could Read Backwards, Lilian Jackson Braun introduces readers to her sleuth, newspaper journalist James ‘Qwill, Qwilleran. He’s trying to get his life back together after a terrible divorce and too much time at the bottom of the bottle. In the first few novels, his old friend Arch Riker, who’s a newspaper editor, hires Qwill to give him some support. But Qwill is still living very close to the bone. Then, the unexpected happens. Qwill inherits a vast fortune from his mother’s best friend Fanny Klingenschoen. The will specifies that Qwill must live in the small town of Pickax, ‘400 miles north of nowhere,’ so he makes the journey. Qwill has no real interest in extreme wealth, so he creates the Klingenschoen Foundation, which underwrites worthy projects and companies. Once the citizens of Pickax see that Qwill is giving back to their community, they’re grateful, and accept him as one of them.

And then there’s David Housewright’s Rushmore McKenzie, former Minneapolis police detective turned occasional private investigator. In A Hard Ticket Home, we learn that McKenzie was living as most police do: not desperately poor, but certainly with little to spare. Then, as a result of a case he was working on, he came into quite a large fortune. I don’t want to spoil the story of how that happened for those who haven’t read it. Now, McKenzie is a millionaire, with a beautiful home in St. Paul. He’s remained more or less practical, but he won’t deny he enjoys being able to get what he wants, when he wants.

Rags-to-riches crime-fictional stories can take all kinds of forms. Some end very well, but some most definitely don’t (it is crime fiction, after all). These are just a few. Over to you.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Charles Strouse and Martin Charmin’s I Think I’m Gonna Like it Here.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, David Housewright, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Horatio Alger, Jacqueline Winspear, Lilian Jackson Braun

I’m Telling You, Beware*

Dangerous GiftsVirgil’s Aeneid includes the famous story of the Trojan Horse, and the way in which the Greeks used subterfuge (and a false ‘gift’) to best their enemies from Troy. In it, there are lines that have been passed down to become the proverb, ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts’ – a warning not to trust one’s enemies, even if they ‘bear gifts.’

And it’s interesting to see how often untrustworthy gifts show up in crime fiction. If you think about it, it’s almost a trope: the flowers from a stranger that turn out to be deadly; the mysterious package left on a doorstep, etc. There’s only space for a few examples in this one post. But I’m sure you’ll be able to think of many more than I could, anyway.

Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone begins with the theft of a valuable diamond, called the moonstone, from the Palace of Seringaptam. The diamond is said to be cursed, so that evil will befall anyone who takes it from its place. But Sir John Herncastle doesn’t let that stop him, and actually commits murder to get the jewel. Later, we learn that he’s had a falling out with his sister, Lady Julia Verinder, and is not welcome in the Verinder home. When he dies, he bequeaths the diamond to his niece, Rachel, to be given to her on her eighteenth birthday. His wishes are duly carried out, and it’s not long before all sorts of misfortunes happen to the family, beginning with the disappearance of the moonstone on the night Rachel receives it. Then, there’s a suicide. Other trouble follows. Sergeant Richard Cuff investigations, and slowly puts the pieces of the puzzle together.

In Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy, Hercule Poirot attends a sherry party hosted by famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. Among the guests is the local vicar, Reverend Stephen Babbington. During the party, Babbington suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Not long afterwards, there’s another, similar, murder. This time, the victim is Harley Street specialist Dr. Bartholomew Strange. Poirot investigates the two murders as connected events, since many of the same people were at both occasions. He’s working on those two cases when there’s a third murder. The weapon is a gift box of poisoned chocolates, delivered to Margaret de Rushbridger, a patient at Strange’s sanatorium. Now Poirot has to connect her death to the two others.

Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case tells the story of another dangerous gift. In that novel, we are introduced to the Crimes Circle. Run by journalist and amateur sleuth Roger Sheringham, it’s a discussion club where members try to solve difficult crimes. And one day, DCI Moresby brings the group an interesting one. It seems that well-known chocolatier Mason & Sons has come out with a new variety of chocolates. In order to build interest and boost sales, the company sent complimentary boxes of the new chocolates to well-known, influential people, one of whom is Sir Eustace Pennefeather. He himself doesn’t eat chocolate, so he passed the gift on to a fellow club member, Graham Bendix. Bendix, in turn, shared the candy with his wife Joan. Now, Joan is dead, and her husband badly sickened. Analysis shows that the chocolates were poisoned. So the question before the club is: who is the killer? And that, of course, entails the question: who was the intended victim?

Not all gifts are as attractive and welcome as chocolates and diamonds. In Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, for instance, we are introduced to nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill. Her father, Leander, recently died of a heart attack. Laurel, though, is convinced that this wasn’t a natural death. She believes his heart attack was brought on after he began receiving a series of macabre ‘gifts,’ What’s more, she thinks they may be related to her father’s business, since his partner, Roger Priam, has also been receiving ‘gifts.’ She asks Ellery Queen to investigate; and at first, he’s reluctant. But he is intrigued by the puzzle of what this all may mean. So he looks into the matter. In the end, and after Priam is nearly killed, Queen pieces together what actually happened. It turns out that these ‘gifts’ have everything to do with the men’s pasts.

And then there’s Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Said Cheese. In that novel, a bouquet of flowers is delivered to The New Pickax Hotel. They’re a gift for a mysterious guest named Ona Dolman. She doesn’t happen to be in her room when they arrive, and that turns out to be a good thing for her.  A bomb hidden in the flowers detonates, causing severe damage to the hotel and killing a chambermaid. Journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran takes an interest in the case – an interest that’s piqued when Ona goes missing.  Now Qwilleran works with Pickax Police Chief Andrew Brodie to find out who the murderer is, and what’s happened to his intended victim.

As you can see, crime fiction includes some very clear examples of gifts from dangerous people. I think that should serve as a warning to us all. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I hear a knock at the door; I think I’ve just gotten a package.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong’s Smiling Faces Sometimes.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Ellery Queen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Wilkie Collins

Garage Sale Sunday*

Garage and Yard SalesSometimes they’re called jumble sales. They also go by names such as yard sales, tag sales, boot sales, and garage sales. They have other names, too. Whatever you call them, they’re opportunities for people who are getting rid of things to sell them to people who may want those things. Sometimes the proceeds go to a charity; other times, they’re private sales, with the seller keeping any proceeds.

You never know what you’ll find at such sales, really. Sometimes it’s nothing worth much. But there are times when you find something really special. And sales like that can be great places to find things like vintage clothes and jewelry, collectibles and so on. And they can be fun, too. So it’s little wonder that so many people make a weekend hobby of going the rounds of whatever sales there are in the area.

This kind of sale can make a useful context for a crime novel, too. There are all sorts of possibilities for clues and ‘red herrings,’ and motives for murder as well. And with a group of disparate people, you never know what conflicts might arise.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, Hercule Poirot visits the village of Broadhinny at the request of Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence. One of the residents, James Bentley, has been convicted of murdering his landlady, and on good evidence. But Spence isn’t convinced of Bentley’s guilt, so he asks Poirot to look into the matter. As he settles into Broadhinny, Poirot is told about the village’s Bring and Buy sales that are held at the village hall. He also learns that Mrs. McGinty was murdered in November, after the autumn Bring and Buy, but before the Christmas event. That fact turns out to be significant as Poirot works to find out who would have been in a position to commit the crime.

Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Wasn’t There takes place in the fictional town of Pickax, ‘four hundred miles north of nowhere.’ In one plot thread of the novel, we learn that beloved local GP Dr. Hal Goodwinter has died, and that his daughter, Melinda, has inherited his house and its effects. She doesn’t plan to live in the house, so she puts the contents up for sale. Later, she’ll sell the property itself. The event draws thousands of people, and the town has all it can do to manage the logistics and safety issues. So it’s not until later that anyone learns that some professional thieves used to sale as a cover and distraction for their own plans.

Hallie Ephron’s Never Tell a Lie takes a darker look at yard sales. David and Ivy Rose have purchased a Victorian home, where they plan to start their own family. As a matter of fact, Ivy is eight months pregnant with their first child. To make more room, and clear things out, they decide to host a yard sale one November day. As anyone who’s ever held such a sale can attest, people arrive early and the place is soon crowded. One of those people is Melinda ‘Mindy’ White, whom the Roses knew in school, and who is heavily pregnant herself. Mindy never really fit in in high school, and she’s still a bit of an ‘oddball.’ When the sale is over, everyone leaves, but Mindy never makes it home. In fact, no-one can remember seeing her after the sale. When she’s officially reported missing, the police investigate, and one of their first stops is the Rose’s home. David and Ivy claim to know nothing about her disappearance, but there’s evidence to suggest they may know much more than they’re saying. The truth about Mindy’s disappearance turns out to go a lot deeper than a case of someone who wandered off during a yard sale.

Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows takes place mostly at an ultra-exclusive, gated community outside Buenos Aires. Called Cascade Heights Country Club, it’s usually called The Heights. Every potential resident is thoroughly ‘vetted,’ and only the very wealthy can afford to live there. They all have domestic staff, shop only in exclusive stores, and send their children to the ‘right schools.’ It’s that kind of place. Everything changes when Argentina goes through an economic crisis (the novel takes place at the end of the 1990s/beginning of the 2000s). People are losing jobs, and no-one’s lifestyle is secure any more. One night, there’s a tragedy, and we see as the book develops what has led to it. One of the ‘things people do’ in this community is to give to the ‘right’ charities and do the ‘right things’ to help the needy. To accomplish this, some of the residents create a charitable group called ‘The Ladies of the Heights.’ This group decides to hold a jumble sale in aid of a local children’s free meal centre. The sale is duly held and the money donated. Admittedly, the jumble sale and the preparations for it aren’t the cause of the tragedy. But they do highlight the social divisions that play a key role in the story, and they show the attitudes that also play an important role.

And then there’s David Houswright’s Unidentified Woman #15. Former Minneapolis police officer-turned-occasional-PI Rushmore McKenzie is witness one night to the attempted murder of a young woman. McKenzie rescues her, but she is badly injured and is rushed to the nearest hospital. Her physical wounds heal, but she’s lost her memory. St. Paul Police Commissioner Bobby Dunstan believes she may be in danger, so he asks McKenzie (who’s a former colleague and friend) to take her in for a short time. This McKenzie agrees to do. All goes well enough for a short time, but then, the young woman disappears. Now, McKenzie and the police have to find the woman (whose name they still do not know) and try to find out who was targeting her. As it turns out, this case is connected to another case, which involves stolen merchandise being sold at a series of garage sales. It’s an interesting way to weave the garage sale tradition into the larger plot.

Of course, not all jumble, yard, garage or tag sales are dangerous. Sometimes you can find fantastic bargains, and who knows? You may find something priceless if you keep your eyes open. But perhaps it’s just as well to keep your wits about you…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Granddaddy’s Where I’m Anymore.



Filed under Agatha Christie, Claudia Piñeiro, David Housewright, Hallie Ephron, Lilian Jackson Braun

Found in a Book, Hidden on the Pages*

Hidden in BooksWhen most of us think of books, we think of the pleasure of reading. That’s treasure enough in itself. But books can serve other purposes, too. For instance, they’re very good hiding places for things. Don’t believe me? All you need to do is take a quick look through crime fiction.

For example, in Ellery Queen’s short story The Adventure of the One-Penny Black, philatelists Friedrich and Albert Ulm report that a valuable stamp – a one-penny black, with Queen Victoria’s signature on it – has been stolen from their collection. On the same day, a man rushes into a nearby bookshop followed by police. The man disappears through the back of the store before the police can catch him. Then, the next day, the bookshop owner reports that someone came in and bought all of his copies of a book called Europe in Chaos. To add to the oddness, certain customers who’ve bought copies of that book have been robbed of those copies. Ellery Queen figures out that whoever stole the stamp probably hid it in a copy of Europe in Chaos as an emergency measure, and then went back to get it later (hence the need to buy and steal as many copies of that book as possible). But where is the stamp now? Who hid it? And what’s the truth about the robbery? It’s not as simple as you might think.

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, a group of passengers is taking a cruise of the Nile. Among them are Linnet Ridgeway Doyle and her new husband Simon. On the second night of the journey, she is shot. The most likely suspect is her former best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort, whose fiancé Simon was before he met Linnet. But it’s soon proven that Jacqueline could not be the murderer. So Hercule Poirot, who is on this cruise as well, has to look elsewhere for the killer. As he does so, he finds out a great deal about some of the other characters. And it turns out that one of them has been using hollowed-out books for an ingenious purpose…

A hollowed-out book turns out to be both lucrative and very dangerous in Harry Whittington’s Fires That Destroy. In that novel, we meet Beatrice Harper, secretary to wealthy businessman Lloyd Deerman. When she finds a cache of US$24,000 in a hollowed out book she can’t resist the opportunity to get her hands on that money. So she devises a plan. Deerman drinks more than he should, so one night, when he’s had plenty, she pushes him down a staircase to his death. Now Beatrice has the money; and at first, it opens up a world of privilege, good-looking young men, cars, and so on. But Beatrice doesn’t find it easy to live with the guilt of what she’s done. And her new boyfriend Carlos has his own demons. They try to start life over in Florida, but that only makes matters worse. Soon enough, life spins out of control for both of them. The saying that money can’t buy happiness turns out to be tragically true.

In Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal, the local community theatre group is doing a production of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII under the direction of high school principal Hilary VanBrook. On the night of the final performance VanBrook is found dead in his car on the property of journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. Qwill and local police chief Andrew Brodie look into the murder and soon find that VanBrook had made more than his share of enemies. One of the clues in this case actually comes from VanBrook’s personal library. Qwilleran finds a hollowed-out book in which there’s a list of other books, some of which have red dots next to the titles. In each of those books, Qwill finds a cache of money. Working out where the money came from and what this particular code means turns out to be essential to finding the killer.

And then there’s Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Social worker Simran Singh lives and works in Delhi, but travels to her home town in the state of Punjab at the request of an old friend who’s now the state’s inspector general. He’s faced with a baffling and difficult murder case. Thirteen members of the wealthy and powerful Atwal family have been poisoned, and several stabbed as well. What’s more, their house has been set on fire. The only survivor is fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal. It isn’t clearly evident whether she committed the murders, or is a victim who just happened to stay alive, and she’s said nearly nothing about the crime since the night it happened. The hope is that Simran will be able to get Durga to talk about the night of the murders, so that the police will know what steps to take. At first, Durga is reluctant to say much of anything, and Simran herself isn’t too enthusiastic about this case. But gradually the two start to communicate. At one point, Durga, who’s being kept in makeshift quarters in an adult prison, asks Simran to retrieve some of her books from the family home. Simran agrees, and gathers the materials. When she does, she finds a photograph that falls out of one of the books. It’s not a ‘photo of Durga, but all the same, it’s disturbing in its way. And it proves to be an important clue as Simran searches for the truth about what happened to the Atwal family and what led to it.

You see? Books are a never-ending source of interesting things, aren’t they? And I didn’t even mention the number of stories in which people find wills, names on a flyleaf, or margin notes in books – too easy!!  And all of this isn’t even to mention actually reading them…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Spock’s Beard’s On a Perfect Day.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Harry Whittington, Kishwar Desai, Lilian Jackson Braun