Category Archives: Lilian Jackson Braun

Hanging Tough, Staying Hungry*

EntrepreneursIt takes a lot of courage and bold planning to start up one’s own business. The odds are against success, and even if a person does launch a successful company, there’s a heavy cost in terms of time and personal life. But people open their own businesses all the time, trusting that they’ll do well and their companies will flourish.

Crime fiction is full of PIs who’ve take the risk to set up shop for themselves. Mentioning them on this post would be too easy. But there are plenty of other entrepreneurs in genre. Sometimes they do well, and sometimes…not well at all. Either way, people who start their own businesses can make for very interesting characters.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal) we meet Susan Banks. She has dreams of opening up her own beauty salon, and the business acumen and bold planning that are needed to start one’s own company. But she and her husband Greg don’t have the money to stake such a venture. We learn as the story goes on that she approached her wealthy uncle Richard Abernethie, but he refused to help. When Abernethie dies, apparently of natural causes, his family gathers for the funeral. At the gathering, his youngest sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that he was murdered. At first no-one takes her seriously. But when she herself is killed the next day, everyone begins to believe that she might have been right. The family attorney Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and he agrees. Susan immediately becomes ‘a person of interest’ because of her determination to have her own business – and because she has now inherited the money she needs to open her salon. It doesn’t help her case that she can’t really prove her whereabouts on either occasion. But as Poirot and Mr. Entwhistle find out, there are several suspects in this case…

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve discovers the same entrepreneurial spirit in her daughter Mieka. Like many parents, Joanne wants to see her daughter go to university and get a good education. And at first, that’s what Mieka does. But by the end of the first year, she’s made other plans. She decides to open her own catering business. In one story arc in this series, we see how Mieka has to convince her mother that the business can be successful. She does what new business owners have to do: study the market, look for an opening, decide on one’s talents and interests, and put together a business plan. It takes some time for Joanne to get used to the idea, but Mieka makes a go of it. Later, she uses the same initiative to develop a playground, UpSlideDown. Mieka has faults, as we all do, but she doesn’t lack in courage or bold planning.

There are several ‘regulars’ in Lilian Jackson Braun’s series featuring features journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. Throughout most of the series, he lives and works in a small town, where readers get to know many of the other people who live there. One of those people is Lori Bamba. She starts out as Qwill’s part-time secretary, who also happens to be quite gifted with cats. So he depends a lot on her as he gets used to having his own two Siamese. As the series goes on, Lori and her husband Nick get involved in several new business ventures. One, for instance, is the Domino Inn, which we learn about in The Cat Who Came to Breakfast. It’s located on Breakfast Island/AKA Pear Island, Grand Island, and Providence Island, a holiday/fishing community with a certain tourist appeal. Lori and Nick are concerned about some strange incidents that look like sabotage, so Qwill arranges a stay at the Domino to look into the matter. What he finds goes much deeper and is much more dangerous that someone playing nasty pranks. The Bambas don’t always succeed in their ventures, but they have energy and resilience – and creative ideas.

In Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series, we meet another entrepreneur, Rose. Originally from a small village in the country, she ended up in Bangkok, where she became a bar girl. She’s no longer in that business any more, and has started up a new apartment-cleaning company of her own. There’s plenty of competition, and Rose isn’t exactly wealthy. But she has a lot of courage. And what’s interesting about her company is that all of her employees are former bar girls who’ve had enough of that life and want to get out of it.

Walter Mosley’s Fear of the Dark is in great part the story of Paris Minton. A year before the events in the story, he opened the Florence Avenue Used Bookshop, hoping to run a peaceful business. He’s not at all what you’d call bold or a person of initiative. But he does love books, and just wanted a place where he could make a living and indulge his passtion. And for a year, he’s done all right for himself. Then his cousin Ulysses S. Grant IV ‘Useless’ pays him a visit. At first, Minton doesn’t even want to let his cousin in; Useless has been nothing but trouble, sometimes very bad trouble, all his life. But eventually Minton yields. Useless asks him for a place to stay, but Minton refuses. At first, Minton doesn’t think much of it – until Useless disappears and Minton’s aunt asks him to track Useless down. For that, Minton turns to his friend Fearless Jones, who’s the kind of person you want on your side in a fight. Jones and Minton go looking for Useless, and find instead a complicated blackmail scheme and some very dangerous people who are also looking for Useless…

And then there’s Carl Hiaasen’s Nature Girl. In one plot thread of that novel, we meet Sammy Tigertail, who was born Chad McQueen. He is half White/half Seminole, and not sure where he fits in with either community. He sets up his own new business offering airboat rides through the Florida Everglades. When his first client dies of a heart attack during the trip, Sammy decides that this business is not going to be successful, especially if enough tourists hear that his client died. So he heads deep into the wilderness and ends up in Dismal Key. That happens to be the place where Honey Santana is leading Boyd Shreave on a kayak trip that could turn out to be disastrous for him. She’s getting back at Boyd for verbal abuse during a telemarketing call he made. There are other characters in pursuit of both of them, so Sammy hardly gets the peace and quiet he feels he needs after his venture failed. This is a Hiaasen novel, so as you can imagine, all of the characters’ lives intersect in some unusual ways.

Not all business ventures are quite that adventurous. But all new businesses need courage, a lot of time, a lot of faith, and some luck. Money doesn’t hurt, either. Which fictional ones have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Carl Hiaasen, Gail Bowen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Timothy Hallinan, Walter Mosley

I’m Going Back Some Day*

Return Trips to Places From Earlier NovelsHave you ever finished a novel, and wondered what happened to the characters later, perhaps even years later? It’s interesting when authors explore this question, because it leads to all sorts of possibilities. Some authors return to their characters in the context of a series, so that we follow what happens to them on a regular basis.

Some authors, though, do things a bit differently. They return to their characters after (at least fictionally) some time has passed. When this happens, readers get to find out how different places and characters have evolved, if they have, and what has happened to them. And that can lead in very interesting directions.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny to investigate the murder of a charwoman. Everyone thinks the killer is her lodger James Bentley, and there’s plenty of evidence against him. In fact, there’s so much evidence that he’s been arrested, tried and convicted. Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence isn’t sure Bentley is guilty though, and has asked Poirot to look into the matter. In the course of the investigation, Poirot found that Mrs. McGinty had a way of finding out things about people, and that more than one person might have been willing to kill to prevent certain facts from coming out. Years later (in Hallowe’en Party), Poirot visits Spence, who is now retired, and living in the village of Woodleigh Common. Poirot is on another case, this time the drowning death of thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds. He wants Spence’s impression of the people in the village and their possible motives for murder. As they chat, they return to the Mrs. McGinty case, and follow up on a few of the major characters in it. It isn’t, admittedly, a return to Broadhinny, but it does catch the reader up on what’s happened since the events of the first novel.

Scott Turow first introduced the world to Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich in Presumed Innocent. In that novel, Sabich is a prosecuting attorney for Kindle County. He gets a particularly disturbing case when he is asked to investigate the murder of a colleague, Carolyn Polhemus. What makes this case even more difficult is that until a few months before her death, Polhemus and Sabich were romantically involved. When Sabich’s boss finds out about this, he removes Sabich from the case. Matters get even worse when evidence turns up that implicates Sabich. In fact, he goes on trial for the murder. He asks Alejandro ‘Sandy’ Stern to defend him and together, the two prepare their case. Turow returns to Kindle County and to Rusty Sabich many years later in Innocent. By this time, Sabich is the chief appellate judge for Kindle County. One morning, he wakes up to find that his wife Barbara has died, apparently of natural causes. But questions begin to arise about the case. For example, why did Sabich wait 24 hours to contact authorities or his son Nat? And why was there a large dose of antidepressants in the victim’s system? Before long, Sabich is on trial for murder again, this time the murder of his wife. As the story goes along, we see how the characters have evolved since the events of Presumed Innocent.

John Grisham takes readers on two visits to Clanton, Mississippi. In A Time to Kill, the town is outraged when Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard brutally attack and rape ten-year-old Tonya Hailey. There’s a lot of sympathy for the Hailey family, and Cobb and Willard are duly arrested.  Tonya’s father, Carl Lee Hailey, isn’t convinced that these rapists will really face justice, since they are White and Hailey and his family are Black. So he lies in wait for them and shoots them as they go into the courthouse. Hailey’s lawyer, Jake Brigance, faces several obstacles as he prepares for trial. For one thing, his client clearly shot two people. And it doesn’t help matters that there are several powerful people in town who want Hailey out of the way for reasons of their own. Sycamore Row takes place three years after the events of A Time to Kill. Brigance has had to deal with financial and other very negative consequences of his defending Carl Lee Hailey. But it’s clear that at least someone supported him. One day Seth Hubbard hangs himself from a sycamore tree; his lung cancer is terminal and increasingly painful, and he saw this as the best way out, so to speak. Before his death, he sent a letter containing a holographic will to Brigance. The will stipulates that his children and grandchildren will not inherit any of his money. Instead, he has left everything to his housekeeper Letitia ‘Letty’ Lang. Hubbard knew that his family would contest the will, and he wants Brigance to do everything possible to uphold it. As Brigance and Lang prepare to go up against the Hubbards, we see what the town of Clanton is like now, and how much has changed or not changed.

In Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Turned On and Off, her sleuth, James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran, is a features journalist for The Daily Fluxion. He plans to do a feature on a little-known section of the city called Junktown. A lot of people think that Junktown is a run-down area full of junkies and crime. But it’s actually a collection of interesting antique shops and other unusual businesses. As he gets ready to do his feature, Qwilleran gets drawn into the personal stories of the people who live and work there. That’s how he finds out about the death a few months earlier of Andrew ‘Andy’ Glanz, a respected antiques expert and dealer. The death was assumed to be an accident, but Qwill soon begins to believe it was anything but that. As he prepares a tribute article, he finds out about the network of past history and relationships in the area; it turns out that Glanz’ murder has everything to do with that network. Qwill returns to Junktown later in the series, in The Cat Who Lived High. In that story, he is in the area to help save the legendary Casablanca apartment building from demolition. While he’s there, he stays at the Casablanca, in an apartment formerly occupied by artist Diane Bessinger. When Qwill discovers that she was murdered, he gets drawn into finding out who the killer was. And this puts him in contact again with several of the characters and places that Braun depicted in the earlier novel.

Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising takes place in 1981, in the Houston area. Jay Porter is a low-rent lawyer who’s trying to make a successful life for himself, his wife Bernadine ‘Bernie’ and their soon-to-be-born first child. In one plot thread, he takes Bernie out for a bayou cruise to celebrate her birthday. Instead, he ends up rescuing a woman who’s fallen (or been thrown) in to the bayou. She won’t say much about herself; and once the Porters drop her off at the police station, she indicates that she doesn’t need or want any more help. But the next day, Porter learns that there was a murder that night, and that the woman they helped may be mixed up in it. Porter doesn’t want to get involved in the case, since he has an unpleasant past with the police (mostly a result of his days with the Black Power movement). But Porter finds himself drawn into this shooting case, and works to find out the truth and still say as far away from trouble as he can. It isn’t entirely successful…   Pleasantville returns readers to this area of Houston fifteen years after the events of Black Water Rising. Porter has been working on environmental law, and trying to keep his office a going concern. He gets drawn into the disappearance of Alicia Nowell when he learns that she’s the third of three girls gone missing in the last few years. And this isn’t the work of a crazed serial killer either. It turns out that Alicia was a volunteer for one of the local mayoral candidates, and that this case is all about corruption and politics. As Locke tells the story, we see how the community has evolved, and we see what’s happened to Porter and the people in his life as well.

And that’s one of the interesting things about books that take readers back to settings and characters from earlier stories. Readers can see how places, characters and even ideas have evolved. Or haven’t.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Roy Orbison and John Melson’s Blue Bayou. Listen to the original version and the popular recording by Linda Ronstadt and see which one you prefer.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Attica Locke, John Grisham, Lilian Jackson Braun, Scott Turow

You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)*

Police in Supporting RolesFor obvious reasons, police characters play critical roles in crime fiction. Even when the main character is a PI or perhaps amateur sleuth, we see a lot of police presence. It’s a bit tricky to write a story where the police play an important role, but aren’t main characters. On the one hand, the author wants the protagonist to be the main focus of attention, which means that character needs to be featured and developed. On the other, readers know that it’s the police who have the authority to make arrests, and who have the resources and government sanction to go after criminals. Most readers want their crime fiction plots to reflect that. And they want their police characters to be more than caricatures. It’s interesting to see how different authors have integrated police character when they are not (co)protagonists.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s police characters are arguably often used to highlight just how skilled his Sherlock Holmes is. Holmes fans will know that he has, in general, little respect for the police. He works most often with Inspector Tobias Gregson and of course with Inspector Lestrade, and refers to them as,
 

‘…the pick of a bad lot.’
 

To Holmes, the police of Scotland Yard are thick-headed and miss obvious evidence. Gergson and Lestrade are, perhaps, less guilty. At least they notice when things don’t add up. But even so, they certainly don’t save the day. That’s Holmes’ role.

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are definitely the ‘stars’ of his series. But Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Purley Stebbins also play roles in the stories. Rarely does Wolfe approve of what they do, although both he and Goodwin depend on them for actual arrests. And as fans will know, Cramer, Stebbins and Lieutenant Rowcliff aren’t always happy about what Wolfe and Goodwin do, either. In this series, the police play a more integral role than just making Wolfe, Goodwin and their team look good. And that makes sense, given how important police are to crime detection. They’re not bumbling imbeciles, either (‘though Wolfe might beg to differ at times). Rather, they add tension and sometimes conflict to the stories.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot gets ‘top billing’ in most of the novels and stories that feature him. But the police certainly play integral roles, although not as ‘co-stars.’ And although Poirot is not at all modest about his own powers of deduction, he does have respect for police detectives whom he considers to be good at their jobs. And he often says that the police have more resources at their disposal than he does; in fact, he frequently suggests that his clients go to the police. Chief Inspector Japp is perhaps the best-known of Poirot’s police associates. But he’s not the only recurring police character. There’s also Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence. And of course, other police characters make one-time appearances. In just about all of those cases, the police play a supporting role, but an important one. We may not get much of a look at their home lives or what it’s like at the police station, but they do matter in the stories. It’s interesting too that Christie created a mix of skilled detectives (such as Japp) whom Poirot respects, and detectives for whom he has little liking (Am I right, fans of The Murder on the Links?).

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels feature Wimsey, and later, Harriet Vane, as protagonists. But Inspector Charles Parker is an important supporting character. In Clouds of Witness, where we first meet him, Parker is called in to help the local police find the killer of Dennis Cathcart. The victim was the fiancé of Lady Mary Wimsey, Lord Peter’s sister; and at one point, the evidence seems to implicate her. Luckily for both her and Parker (who has fallen in love with her), it turns out that Cathcart’s murderer was someone else. As the series goes on, Parker marries Lady Mary, and he and Wimsey become friends. That makes things a bit awkward in Strong Poison, when Parker gets solid evidence that mystery novelist Harriet Vane has poisoned her former lover Philip Boyes. Wimsey has fallen in love with the accused, and is determined to clear her name so that he can marry her. And Parker’s made out the case against her. Still, they do work together, and in the end, Parker helps Wimsey find the truth about the murder. In this series, Parker plays the role of friend, sometimes-confidant, and professional resource for Wimsey.

The protagonist of Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… mysteries is newspaper columnist James ‘Qwilll’ Qwilleran. Circumstances have placed him in Pickax, a small town in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ The stories are told from Qwill’s perspective, and he’s the one who often puts the pieces of the puzzle together. But one of the important supporting characters in the series is Police Chief Andrew Brodie. Qwill respects Brodie as an intelligent police professional, and he lets Brodie and his team do the evidence-gathering and arresting. Brodie may not be a main protagonist in this series, but he does have a key supporting role. Especially in series such as this, where the protagonist is an amateur sleuth, the presence of a recurring police-officer character adds realism.

It does in K.B. Owen’s series, too. These historical mysteries, which take place at the very end of the 19th Century, feature Concordia Wells, a teacher at Hartford (Connecticut)’s Women’s College. She herself is, of course, not on the police force. And during the era in which she lives, it’s considered unseemly for ladies to be interested in crime and detection anyway. But she is insatiably curious, and does get drawn into murder as it touches those she knows. She’s made a friend of Lieutenant Aaron Capshaw, who is married to her best friend Sophie. Capshaw isn’t the main character of this series. But he plays an important role, since he has access to information that isn’t available to civilians. In that sense, his presence in the stories makes the series more realistic.

You’ll notice I’m not mentioning series such as Stuart Palmer’s, Elly Griffiths’ or Martha Grimes’, which feature recurring police characters. That’s because in those cases and cases like them, the police character really is one of the protagonists. That dynamic can be highly effective. But it’s also interesting to look at cases where the police are supporting players. Which ones have stayed with you?
 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Elly Griffiths, K.B. Owen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Martha Grimes, Rex Stout, Stuart Palmer

If You Know Your History*

HistoriansAn interesting comment exchange with Prashant at Chess, Comics, Crosswords, Books, Music, Cinema has got me thinking about historians. When you consider it, understanding our history is absolutely essential to understanding who we are now, and why we are the way we are. So the work historians do is important, even if we aren’t always conscious of it.

Historians, both professional and amateur, play roles in crime fiction, too. Well, academics in general figure into the genre quite a lot, but there’s only so much room in one post. Still, even if we only focus on one discipline – history – we see a lot of examples.

Lilian Jackson Braun’s James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran is a newspaper columnist who lives and works in Pickax, Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ The area has a long and rich history that includes mining, railroads and more. And that history is often related to the present-day crimes that Qwill investigates. He himself may not be thoroughly informed on the area’s history, but he has a rich resource in Homer Tibbitt. Tibbitt is a nonagenarian expert on local history, and spends a great deal of time at the public library reading up on his topic. His expertise is very helpful too. For instance, in The Cat Who Blew the Whistle, Tibbitt is writing a paper on Moose County mining. It turns out that he’s very familiar with one of the original mining families in the area, the Trevelyans. And that history is of particular interest to Qwill, who’s investigating the disappearance of a modern-day member of the family – along with a million dollars – and that case’s connection to a murder. Tibbitt’s background knowledge proves to be extremely useful in solving the puzzle.

In Deborah Crombie’s A Finer End, Met Superintendent Duncan Kincaid gets a strange request from his cousin Jack Montfort, who lives in Glastonbury. Montfort’s aware of the legends about Glastonbury, its Druid past and the myth that King Arthur and Queen Guinevere are buried there. But he’s never really taken a serious interest in those matters. Still, he does find history fascinating. That’s how he comes across a thousand-year-old chronicle that tells of an ancient terrible crime. He’s troubled enough on several levels to ask his cousin’s help, and Kincaid agrees. After all, a nice, peaceful getaway from London is a welcome change. But for Kincaid and his partner Gemma James, it turns out to be anything but peaceful. When a local tiler Garnet Todd is murdered, the solution seems somehow to be connected to her interest in the pagan history of the area and to Goddess worship. So James turns for guidance to historian Erika Rosenthal, who’s made a career of studying that aspect of Glastonbury’s past. Rosenthal’s insights don’t solve the murder, but they do provide very helpful information.

There are, of course, plenty of fictional sleuths who are historians. For example, one of the protagonists in Martin Edwards’ Lake District series is Oxford historian Daniel Kind. His work earned him celebrity status, but he got burned out, as the saying goes, on TV and personal appearances. So he’s taken a home in the Lake District, where he’s trying to focus on his work. That’s how he meets up again with DCI Hannah Scarlett, who heads the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team, and who was also his father Ben’s police protégée. Scarlett and her team investigate cases that have their roots in the past – sometimes in the distant past. So she finds Kind’s expertise and historical perspective very useful.

One of Fred Vargas’ series features three historians: Marc Vandoosier, Lucien Devernois and Matthias Delamarre. They live together with Vandoosier’s uncle, a disgraced former police officer. They first get drawn into crime in The Three Evangelists when Sophia Siméonidis, the opera singer who lives next door, notices the sudden appearance of a beech tree in her yard. She asks the Vandoosiers, Devernois and Delamarre to help her make sense of why a tree would suddenly appear. Then, she disappears and is later found dead, and the Three Evangelists set out to find out the truth about her murder.

There’s also Sarah R. Shaber’s Professor Simon Shaw. He is a Pulitzer Prize winning historian whose specialty is the history of the American South. Although he could have his pick of academic positions, Shaw has chosen North Carolina’s small, but competitive and reputable, Kenan College. As the series begins (with Simon Said), he’s recovering from a divorce, and hoping to pick up a quiet, academic life again. Instead, he gets drawn into the 1926 murder of Anne Bloodworth. Throughout the series, he uses his knowledge of history and his research-oriented approach to investigation to help solve mysteries. And it sometimes gets him into danger.

Of course, that’s nothing compared to what awaits historian Augustin Renaud in Louise Penny’s Bury Your Dead. In one plot thread of that novel, Renaud has been researching the history of Samuel de Champlain. When he is murdered at Québec City’s Literary and Historical Society, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache (who’s there for a respite and to enjoy the Winter Carnival) gets involved in the investigation. It turns out that Renaud’s murder is directly related to his determined search for Champlain’s remains.

You’ll notice that I’ve not mentioned the many fictional sleuths whose professions are history-related (e.g. anthropology and archaeology) – too easy. And that’s to say nothing of the many crime writers who are historians. They’re all examples of the way history finds its way into crime fiction. I know I’ve only mentioned a sampling here. Over to you.

Thanks, Prashant, for the inspiration. Folks, you won’t want to miss Prashant’s excellent blog. Fine reviews of film, books, and much more await you.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Marley’s Buffalo Soldier.

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Filed under Deborah Crombie, Fred Vargas, Lilian Jackson Braun, Louise Penny, Martin Edwards, Sarah R. Shaber

As They Would Mingle With the Good People We Meet*

Social SkillsIn today’s world of social media and electronic communication, we can be in contact instantly with people all over the world. I think most of us would agree that that can be a very good thing. But there are also some studies that raise the question of what happens to people’s face-to-face social skills when they focus a lot on social media. And any crime fiction fan can tell you that social skills – the ability to mingle with different kinds of people – are very important for sleuths.

The social skills one needs to make appropriate eye contact, ‘read’ people’s expressions and so on allow the sleuth to find out valuable information. What’s more, those social skills give the sleuth the background to make sense of what people say (and don’t say) and what their non-verbals mean. It’s harder for people with few social skills to work those things out, even if they are highly intelligent.

There are some fictional sleuths who are very effective ‘minglers.’ They’re good at getting people to talk to them and they’re good at making sense of people’s non-verbals. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is one of them. To most of the English people with whom he interacts, Poirot is most emphatically a foreigner. But he has the ability to mix and mingle with all sorts of different kinds of people, including people from different social classes. We see that for instance in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air). In that novel, Poirot travels by air from Paris to London. One of his fellow passengers is Marie Morisot, a French moneylender who goes by the name of Madame Giselle. When she is poisoned en route, Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who the killer is. He interacts with several different kinds of people during that investigation, including Madame Giselle’s maid Elise Grandier and Venetia Kerr, who is ‘well born.’ He has a knack of getting the various characters to talk to him, and the skills to ‘read’ what they say. And that information helps him get to the truth. I know, I know, fans of Death on the Nile.

Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte has solid social skills too. He is a member of the Queensland Police, so he’s sent to a wide variety of different places, and has to interview all sorts of people in the course of his work. Since Bony is bi-cultural (half Aboriginal/half White), he frequently works with both Whites and Aboriginal people as he investigates. And he has the skills to get people to talk to him no matter their background. In stories such as The Bone is Pointed and The Bushman Who Came Back, he gets ranch hands to trust him at the same time as he mingles effectively with Aboriginal people who give him information. And in some stories, he gets children to trust him, too (Death of a Swagman is an example of that). Bony certainly depends on what he calls ‘the Book of the Bush’ – clues in nature – to help him solve crimes. But he also depends on his social skills. I’m not sure he’d be able to find out as much just using a social media application…

Social skills are important in the PI business, but they aren’t a ‘strong suit’ for Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. That’s where Archie Goodwin comes in. He does do a lot of the ‘legwork’ for Wolfe. But he also does his share of mingling with other people and getting a sense of them. Wolfe doesn’t always like to admit it, but he depends on Goodwin’s social skills, since he himself is almost never willing to use tact or diplomacy. It’s part of what makes that pair a formidable team. Wolfe has the brilliance (‘though Goodwin is no mental slouch) and Goodwin has the ‘people skills.’

Journalists often find that the better their social skills, the more information they get. Certainly that’s true for Lilian Jackson Braun’s James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. After a career in big-city news reporting, he’s ended up in Pickax, a small town in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ He’s got a way of getting all kinds of people to talk to him; and even though he prefers to live alone, he’s got solid social skills. Part of his local appeal comes from his fame as a newspaper columnist. But people do naturally seem to trust him and he’s good at ‘reading’ them, for the most part. And that’s how he often gets people to confide in him.

And then there’s Teresa Solana’s Barcelona PI Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez. Borja and his brother Eduard are in many ways a study in contrasts, although they’re fraternal twins. Where his brother is more reserved, Borja is outgoing, even gregarious at times. He mixes with all sorts of people, and his social skills are considerable. Those skills are often key to getting new clients for the business. For instance, in A Not So Perfect Crime, Borja uses his ability with people to engage Lluís Font, a Member of the Parliament of Catalonia, as a client. Font believes that his wife Lília is unfaithful, and he wants the brothers to find out if that’s true. They take the case and for a week, they follow her movements and find out what they can about her. But there is no evidence that she’s seeing anyone. Then one evening, she is poisoned. Now Font is the prime suspect in her murder. He asks the Martínez brothers to continue working for him and clear his name. Although they’ve never worked a murder case before, they take this one, and it’s soon clear that more than one person might have had a motive. Throughout the novel, there are situations that Borja manages to negotiate because of his social skills.

There are certainly famous fictional sleuths who are not, as the saying goes, good with people. But for a sleuth to get information, it’s useful to have the kinds of social skills needed to make people feel comfortable. It does make one wonder what will happen to fictional detectives as social media and electronic devices continue to be really popular.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Marley’s No Woman No Cry.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Upfield, Lilian Jackson Braun, Rex Stout, Teresa Solana