Category Archives: Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

Riddles Are Abound Tonight*

Ongoing MysteriesMost well-written crime novels give answers to the main questions in a plot. If it’s a whodunit, then usually the criminal is revealed, even if that person isn’t brought to justice. If it’s a whydunit or a howdunit, we learn the answers to those questions as well. That’s part of creating a good reading experience for the reader.

And yet, there are some questions that go unanswered through most, if not all, of a series. It’s not always easy to dodge those questions and still have an engaging series, but some authors manage it. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll have others to suggest.

One of Agatha Christie’s sleuths (and, so it is said, one of the characters she liked best) is Mr. Harley Quin. He usually works with another Christie character, Mr. Satterthwaite. Satterthwaite is a socialite who is often on the ‘also present’ lists when parties and other social events are written up in newspapers. So he has all sorts of encounters with members of the ‘upper crust.’ People tend to trust him and talk to him, which is often how he gets involved in mysteries. The real mystery, though, is Mr. Quin, who always seems to appear at key points in a story, and then disappear just as unexpectedly. We really know almost nothing about him; in fact, you could debate the question of whether he actually exists. But he certainly has conversations with Satterthwaite. He is a sort of catalyst for his friend, and frequently points him in the right investigative direction. Yet, we never see Mr. Quin interact with others. He’s an intriguing and very enigmatic character whom we never really get to know; still, the mysteries in which he gets involved are solved.

For quite some time, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels presented readers with an ongoing riddle: Morse’s given name. At more than one point, when people ask his given name, Morse says that it’s Inspector. It’s not until the twelfth novel (of thirteen), Death is Now My Neighbour, that Morse’s full name is revealed. For many readers, not knowing Morse’s given name adds to the mystery around him. At the same time, it doesn’t take away from the plots of the different novels. And, since we know Morse’s surname, it was easy enough for Dexter to negotiate the details of writing the stories smoothly.

It’s not so easy to do that when the main character is not given a name at all. Yet, that’s what Bill Pronzini decided to do with his sleuth. Beginning with The Snatch, Pronzini has written more than forty novels featuring the San Francisco detective that most of us think of as Nameless. In fact, ‘though fans now know his name (it’s revealed in Savages, in case you’re interested), I’d guess a lot of people still refer to him as Nameless; I know I do. And, interestingly enough, it took Pronzini more than thirty novels to give readers what you’d think would be a vital piece of information about his sleuth. In part, of course, Pronzini’s been able to do that because of the stories’ focus on the mysteries at hand. But it’s also taken some skillful writing. The novels are written in the first person, from Nameless’ point of view, and that’s made it a bit easier to avoid giving away the name. But there are also some sections written from other characters’ perspectives. And that’s where Pronzini’s writing talent has come in. Most Pronzini fans I know don’t mind not being given the name of the main character for so long. Pronzini has, if you will, written his way around that question very successfully.

Sarah Caudwell created a four-novel series featuring a group of young London lawyers: Timothy Shepherd, Selena Jardine, Michael Cantrip, Desmond Ragwort, and Julia Larwood. Acting as a sort of mentor to these budding attorneys is Shepherd’s Oxford mentor, law professor Hilary Tamar. Each novel features at least one murder and the mystery surrounding it. The cases are solved, and the murderer revealed. But one mystery that is never solved is Hilary Tamar’s sex. Caudwell wrote these novels in first person, from Tamar’s perspective. So in that sense, it was a fairly straightforward matter not to reveal whether Tamar is male or female. But that doesn’t prevent every potential awkwardness in writing. Still, Caudwell managed to keep her writing style smooth, and the focus on the mysteries. So fans will tell you that not knowing Tamar’s sex doesn’t take away from the stories.

And then there’s Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa series, which takes place mostly in the Copacabana section of Rio de Janeiro. Espinosa isn’t what you’d call overly mysterious. The stories are told in part from his point of view, so we learn a bit about his personal life (he’s a divorced father who has very little contact with his children). We know that he’s a book lover with quite a collection and with dreams of owning a bookshop. He’s an essentially good guy who has to operate in an often-corrupt system. But what we never learn about him is his given name. It’s hinted at in A Window in Copacabana, when he has a conversation with a woman he’s trying to protect from a murderer:

 

‘‘When I want to talk to you, I’ll use the name Benedito. Don’t answer calls from anybody else. Remember: I’ll never use the name Espinosa. I’ll only be Benedito.’
‘Is that your first name?’
‘Almost.’’

 

Still, it’s not revealed. Since Gracia-Roza does use Espinosa’s surname, it’s a straightforward matter to tell these stories without any ‘clunkiness.’ But it’s still a bit of a riddle.

What do you think about all of this? Do you find it annoying, for instance, not to know a sleuth’s name (or part of it?). Do you notice those little mysteries within the mysteries you read? If you’re a writer, do you include those sorts of riddles?

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Bill Pronzini, Colin Dexter, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Sarah Caudwell

You Meet Him On The Street And Never Notice Him*

Nondescript PeopleDo you ever really pay attention to the person who waits your table at a restaurant? To the person who washes your car, handles your bank transaction, or stocks the grocery shelves where you shop? Unless you live in a very small town or rural area, where everyone knows everyone, you may not even know anything about those people. And that’s only natural; there are only so many things and people we can pay close attention to at any one time. So unless there’s something distinctive about a person, so that you really notice, you’re not likely to pay that much attention.

That fact actually plays an important role in crime fiction. Being the sort of person no-one really notices can put a fictional murderer in a very advantageous position. Of course, it works for sleuths, too. The sleuth whom nobody pays much attention to can learn quite a lot.

In G.K. Chesterton’s short story The Invisible Man, private investigator Hercule Flambeau and his friend, Father Brown, investigate the strange murder of Isidore Smythe. What’s particularly odd about this case is that Smythe was murdered without anyone seeing a person going in or out of his apartment. The solution turns out to linked to that phenomenon of not really noticing everyone.

Agatha Christie uses this plot point in more than one of her stories (right, fans of The ABC Murders?). In fact, one of her recurring characters is an interesting example. He is Mr. Goby, a sort of private investigator who is very skilled at finding out information. He’s the sort of nondescript person whom nobody really notices. And so are the people he employs. They’re shop assistants, household staff, newspaper delivery people, and all sorts of other ‘nameless, faceless’ people who have access to information. It’s rare that Mr. Goby isn’t able to get answers.

There’s another kind of anonymity: the kind that comes from social structure. We see that, for instance, in Barbara Neely’s Blanche White. She is a professional housekeeper whom we first meet in Blanche on the Lam. Most of her employers are white, while she is black. In this case, really, the social divisions are along two lines: racial and socioeconomic. In many cases, her employers aren’t particularly interested in knowing her as a person. They see her as ‘the help;’ and, even though she’s a human being, she tends to ‘fade into the background.’ That actually proves to be very useful. Nobody pays much attention when to what she does, as long as the meals are on time and tasty, the laundry’s done, and so on. Once she learns the routine of the households in which she works, Blanche can move around without being much noticed.

There’s also Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce. She’s a pre-teen, so most people don’t notice her as they would an adult. And she takes advantage of that. Even though she lives in the kind of village where people do know each other, she can still ride around on her bike without people checking where she’s going. People don’t raise eyebrows when they see her, and so on. In some senses, she’s limited in terms of what she can learn. But that very limit (her youth) also allows her to escape a lot of notice.

In Luiz Aflredo Garcia-Roza’s Alone in the Crowd, we are introduced to Hugo Breno, a teller at Rio de Janeiro’s Caixa Econômica Federal. He’s not the kind of person that you’d pay much attention to; there’s nothing really distinctive about his appearance. And that’s been very helpful to him. He falls under suspicion when one of his regular customers, Dona Laureta Sales Ribeioro, is killed after falling (or being pushed) under a bus. It turns out that she visited the bank on the day she died, and then went to the police station and asked to speak to Inspector Espinosa. He wasn’t able to break free to speak to her, and now, he feels a sense of responsibility. He also suspects (because of her visit) that her death was no accident. So he takes a special interest in this case, and it turns out that this case touches on his past as well as Breno’s.

And then there’s real estate agent William Heming, whom we meet in Phil Hogan’s A Pleasure and a Calling. He’s not the sort of person you notice very much, or remember well. He’s just the house agent. Once the hands are shaken and the keys turned over, nobody really thinks about him at all. And that’s just how he likes it. What people aren’t aware of is that Mr. Heming is a lot more observant of them than they are of him. And he’s kept keys to all of the houses he’s sold. When a body is discovered in one of the town’s backyards, Mr. Heming is as concerned as anyone. If too much comes out, and people start to notice him, the people in the town might learn that he has interests besides selling homes.

See what I mean? There are all sorts of people we encounter whom we don’t even really notice. And sometimes, that turns out to be a mistake…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Nina Mouskouri’s Bill.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Barbara Neely, G.K. Chesterton, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Phil Hogan

Getting to Know You Well*

Learning From BookshelvesLet’s say you’re invited to someone’s home for the first time. What’s the first thing that’s likely to pique your curiosity? If you’re a book lover, chances are that one of the first things you’ll want to look at is your host’s book collection. Part of that is, of course, that book lovers are drawn to books. But there’s also the fact that books tell a lot about their owners.

You can often tell people’s taste, education level, hobbies or special interests, and much more just from looking at their bookshelves. So it’s not surprising that we get curious about what’s on others’ shelves.

There are plenty of examples in crime fiction of what we learn from people’s bookshelves. That makes sense, too. For one thing, it’s realistic. For another, those details can add a lot to character development without having to go into a lot of narrative explanation.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, for instance, Hercule Poirot is on his way back to London from a trip through the Middle East. He’s persuaded to interrupt his travels to help investigate the murder of Louise Leidner. She and her husband, noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, have been staying at the expedition house of an important dig a few hours from Baghdad. One afternoon, Louise is murdered in her room. Poirot is of the belief that the more one learns about a victim, the closer one gets to the truth about that victim’s death. So he takes a close look at, among other things, Louise’s collection of books. Interestingly enough, they tell him quite a lot about her personality, and that proves to be key to solving the mystery of her death. I know, I know, fans of Evil Under the Sun.

Ellery Queen is able to draw some conclusions from a book collection in The Origin of Evil. In that novel, he’s taken a house in the Hollywood Hills, hoping for some quiet time to write. That’s not what happens, though. One day, he’s visited by nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill, who tells him she believes her father Leander was murdered. According to Laurel, he’d been receiving a series of eerie and unpleasant ‘gifts.’ Those parcels caused the heart attack that actually killed him. In fact, Laurel says that her father’s business partner, Roger Priam, has been getting similar deliveries. At first, Queen is unwilling to do any investigation. But Laurel is nothing if not persistent. So he finally agrees. Naturally, he wants to speak to Priam, but Priam refuses to discuss the matter. That is, until an attempt is made on his life. He reluctantly allows Queen to investigate; as you might expect, Queen is drawn to his book collection. Priam has an impressive and expensive library. But oddly enough (‘though not surprising), it’s clear that Priam hasn’t read any of the books he owns. He simply amassed the collection because that’s what wealthy men are ‘supposed to’ do: have extensive libraries. It’s a very interesting case of using a character’s book collection to show what that character is like.

The main plot in Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back concerns the murder of fifteen-year-old Annie Holland. When her body is discovered near a tarn not far from her village, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate. At first, they don’t get very far. Annie was well-liked and had a good relationship with her mother and stepfather. She had an on-again/off-again relationship with her boyfriend, Halvor Muntz, but it was never violent. Halvor claims that he’s innocent, and there really is no reason to believe otherwise. Still, he wants to be sure his name is cleared. He also wants to find a way to cope with the grief he’s feeling over Annie’s loss. So he starts to go through her computer files to find anything that might shed light on the case. The problem is that her computer is password-protected. In trying to narrow down the password, Halvor immediately thinks of books and characters that Annie’s talked about before. He knows what any reader knows: those who love books take them to heart. It’s an example of using people’s taste in books to find out more about them.

Sometimes, a look at someone’s books can reveal a commonality. It might be a shared interest, a shared ‘go to’ author, or something else. And those commonalities can help to build relationships. For instance, in Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn gets involved in the investigation of the murder of a colleague, Reed Gallagher. As if that’s not enough, there’s vandalism at the university where Joanne works. It’s meant that several colleagues are temporarily out of their offices as repairs are made, so Joanne gets a temporary office-mate, Ed Mariani. One night, he invites her and her daughter Taylor to dinner at the home he shares with his partner, Barry Levitt. Taylor is a gifted artist, and, as it turns out, Barry is quite knowledgeable about art. And in one scene, she ends up with a supply of art books he’s loaned her. It goes to show how people’s books can let us know what their interests are.

And then there’s Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa, who lives and works in Rio de Janeiro. Espinosa certainly puts a lot of time into his work. But he also loves books and reading. He has a large collection, and in fact, dreams of someday owning a bookshop. Espinosa doesn’t have lots of bookshelves to show his collection. They’re stacked on top of one another in various parts of his home. And that in itself shows something about Espinosa as a reader. He’s not a bibliophile in the sense of wanting particular editions of particular classic novels, and so on. Rather, he loves the stories that books tell. And you can see that just from looking at the way he stores his books.

You may not think about it until, well, you actually think about it. But the books we have really do say a lot about us. In my case, I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not…

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Gail Bowen, Karin Fossum, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

I’m Getting Married in the Morning*

Pressure to MarryOne of the more famous literary opening lines (from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) is this:
 

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’
 

And to say the very least, there’s been equal pressure on women to find husbands. Of course, times have changed since Austen wrote those lines. Being single for a long time, even permanently, isn’t looked down on as it once was. And many, many people live together permanently (and happily) without going through a wedding ceremony. They may be legally married under common law, but they choose not to get a marriage license. And of course, there are millions of same-sex marriages, too. So the concept of ‘spouse’ has changed.

Still, that pressure to ‘land a husband’ or wife has been woven into many cultures for an awfully long time. It’s there all through crime fiction, too. And that pressure can add an interesting layer of character development to a story, as well as an interesting statement on the social context of that story.

K.B. Owen’s Concordia Wells faces that sort of pressure in Owen’s historical mystery series. Concordia is a teacher at Hartford (Connecticut) Women’s College during the last years of the 19th Century. At that time, ladies, at least those in the ‘better classes’ only work until they marry. Their primary goal is ‘supposed to be’ to find a husband. On the one hand, Concordia likes the independence her job allows. She doesn’t feel the need to gain her identity through her marital status. On the other hand, she has found someone special. And for her, this presents an interesting dilemma. Should she marry (which means giving up her career) or should she remain single (which means going against the social pressure, and her own attachment)? I hear you, fans of Kerry Greenwood’s Dorothy ‘Dot’ Williams!

The search for a spouse is an important factor in Brian Stoddart’s A Madras Miasma, which is set in 1920, during the last decades of the British Raj. Virginia Campbell and Jane Carstairs are young English women who are spending some time in Madras. They and other young women like them are often referred to as ‘the fishing fleet’ because of their purpose for being in Madras. They’re no longer in their early twenties, and the proverbial clock is ticking. So they’re looking to meet as many well-placed, eligible, young men as possible, in hopes of finding a husband. They attend every party, sailing trip, picnic and other social event they can. One night, after one such event, Jane is murdered and her body left in Buckingham Canal. Superintendent Christian Le Fanu and his assistant, Sergeant Muhammad Habibullah, take charge of the investigation. As they trace the victim’s last days and hours, they (and readers) get a sense of ‘the marriage marketplace’ in the Madras of that time.

There’s an interesting discussion of the pressure to find a spouse in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. Rosamund Darnley is a very successful clothing designer whose creations are well regarded (and upmarket). She takes a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay, only to meet up unexpectedly with an old friend, Captain Kenneth Marshall. He’s there with his wife, actress Arlena Stuart, and his daughter, Linda. Rosamund is very proud of her career and her talent. And yet, as she tells Poirot,
 

‘…all the same, I’m nothing but a wretched old maid!’
 

Poirot is of the opinion that
 
‘To marry and have children, that is the common lot of women.’
 

He doesn’t disapprove of women having careers, nor does he think less of Rosamund because she is in business. In fact, he quite admires her. That doesn’t, of course, stop him considering her a suspect when Arlena Marshall is murdered.

In Rex Stout’s Champagne For One, Archie Goodwin agrees to stand in for a friend at a dinner party hosted by society leader Louise Robilotti. The dinner dance is an annual event with a not-very-well-hidden agenda. Mrs. Roilotti is a patron of Grantham House, a home for unwed mothers. The idea of the dinner dance is to introduce a few of these young women to some of the eligible bachelors in the ‘better circles,’ and perhaps make a match or two. On this night, though, no-one’s thinking much about matchmaking after one of the guests, Faith Usher, suddenly dies. At first it’s put down to suicide, since she had poison with her and had threatened to kill herself. But Goodwin isn’t sure at all that it is suicide. So, with his boss Nero Wolfe’s support, Goodwin starts to ask questions. It turns out that he was absolutely right: Faith Usher was murdered.

Of course, there are plenty of people who don’t feel an undue amount of pressure to marry. Even in books written during and about times past, there are characters like that. Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher, for instance, feels no burning desire to marry, although she does have several relationships. In fact, that’s part of what makes her daring for her time.

Fans of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano will know that he and his lover Livia have gone back and forth about marriage more than once. They do care deeply about each other, and in The Snack Thief, readers even get a glimpse of what they might be like as parents. In that novel, Montalbano and his team investigate the murder of a retired executive, which turns out to be connected to another case, the death of a Tunisian sailor who was on board an Italian fishing boat when he was killed. In the course of the story, Montalbano and Livia have the temporary care of a young boy whose mother has disappeared. It’s interesting to see this side of both of them. And yet, they don’t really feel a lot of social pressure to get married, and a lot of the time, they feel no great compulsion to do so.

That’s also true of Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa. He lives and works in Rio de Janeiro, where he’s well settled in. He’s in a relationship with Irene, a graphics designer who lives and works in São Paulo. Neither is what you’d call very young. But neither really feels the pressure to marry and ‘settle down.’ They do care about each other, but there’s no real compulsion to marry.

It’s interesting to see how that social pressure has changed and not changed over time. I think that’s true in real life, and it’s true in crime fiction, too.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Get Me to the Church on Time.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Brian Stoddart, Jane Austen, K.B. Owen, Kerry Greenwood, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Rex Stout

Far From a Maddening Crowd*

CrowdsThis photograph was taken at Los Angeles’ Union Station. It’s a major transportation hub, so thousands of people go through it each day. And most of them are so intent on their own business that they don’t usually pay much attention to anyone else. And because of the surging crowds, it’s hard to notice everything and everyone, even if you do pay attention. So it’s fairly easy for someone to fade into the background, as the saying goes.

That sort of anonymity is one reason that train stations, buses and other crowded places can be such effective settings in a crime novel. As Josephine Tey shows in The Man in the Queue, when there is a large group of disparate people together in one place, it’s easy for one person to, quite literally, get away with murder. That’s in fact what happens in the novel when small-time bookmaker Albert Sorrell is stabbed. He’s waiting with a large crowd of other people who’ve gathered at the Woofington Theatre to see the final performance of the hit show Did You Know? Everyone is so self-absorbed that no-one notices the murder. For inspector Alan Grant, it’s frustrating to have so many witnesses but so little useful information from them.

A similar sort of thing happens in Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Alone in the Crowd. Dona Laura Sales Ribeiro is waiting for a bus along with a group of other people. Many others are walking by on the street. Despite the number of witnesses, no-one sees it when she falls, or is pushed, under an oncoming bus. At first, her death is put down to a terrible accident. But then it comes out that she had been to see Rio de Janeiro Inspector Espinosa a short time before her death. At the time, he wasn’t available to speak to her, and she agreed to return later. Now Espinosa is very curious about what she wanted and why she would have died so soon after coming to the police station, so he and the team begin to look into her death more closely. It turns out that this death was no accident.

Katherine Howell’s Web of Deceit also includes a very effective large-crowd sort of murder. One afternoon, Marko Meixner is among a large crowd at a busy Sydney train station. When he is pushed under an oncoming train, New South Wales Police Inspectors Ella Marconi and Murray Shakespeare are called to the scene. At first, it looks as though this was a terrible accident. But when paramedics Jane Koutofides and Alex Churchill arrive, they are shocked to see that this is the same man they rescued from a one-car crash earlier in the day. At that time, Meixner said that he was in terrible danger, and that they would be, too, if they spent any time with him. And now it seems that his warning wasn’t just an irrational rambling from a mentally ill person. What’s interesting about this particular murder is that, even with CCTV cameras in the station, Marconi and Shakespeare can’t follow individuals in the crowd well enough to work out who pushed the victim under the train.

Large, crowded places also serve another crime-fictional purpose for the author. They bring together lots of disparate people from all over. This means that any one character could have all sorts of interactions without contrivance. In fact, Hercule Poirot makes mention of this in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. He is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay when a fellow guest, Arlena Stuart Marshall, is murdered. Since he’s there, and is possibly the last person who saw the victim alive, he gets involved in the investigation. Early in the novel, before the murder, he’s talking with another guest who’s just said that the hotel isn’t the sort of place you’d find a body. Poirot begs to differ and explains himself this way:

 

”Let us say, you have an enemy. If you seek him out in his flat, in his office, in the street – eh bien, you must have a reason – you must account for yourself. But here at the seaside it is necessary for no one to account for himself. You are at Leathercombe Bay, why? Parbleu! it is August – one goes to the seaside in August – one is on one’s holiday. It is quite natural, you see, for you to be here and for Mr Lane to be here and for Major Barry to be here and for Mrs Redfern and her husband to be here. Because it is the custom in England to go to the seaside in August.”

 

It’s the sort of place where people from all over gather, and where they don’t have to explain why they’re there. I know, I know, fans of Murder on the Orient Express.

We see this sort of gathering together of disparate people in K.B. Owen’s Unseemly Haste, too. It’s 1898, and Concordia Wells is on a cross-country train journey from Hartford, where she teaches at a women’s college, to San Francisco. She’s taking the journey with her friend Pinkerton detective Penelope Hamilton, who has her own agenda. Along the way, Concordia runs up against crooked card players, fraud, a newspaper reporter in hiding, and a couple of murders. One of the elements in this novel is the number of very different kinds of people who are aboard the train. They come from all sorts of places, and all have their own agendas.

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant deals with trouble in large crowds too. In both Tapas on the Ramblas and Date With a Sheesha, the trail of a case leads to large market bazaars where crowds of people mingle and where nobody pays a lot of attention to any one person. It’s easy to get lost, and easy to find yourself very vulnerable in such a crowd. And in both of those novels, that market setting is used very effectively to bring all sorts of people together.

And that’s what happens in places such as train stations, buses, markets and so on. They gather together all kinds of people from all over. And people are so intent on what they’re doing that they don’t pay attention to what’s going on around them. Even when they should…

 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Blackfoot’s Take a Train.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Josephine Tey, K.B. Owen, Katherine Howell, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza