Category Archives: M.C. Beaton

I Guess Every Form of Refuge Has Its Price*

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

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

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

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

‘‘So many things are hard…’’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, Kathy, for the inspiration!


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


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

Oh, Those Small Communities*

In a recent post, Bill Selnes, at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan, describes a small town coming together and supporting a family who’s suffered real tragedy. He makes an interesting point about small communities where members support one another. And, if you’ve ever lived in that sort of small town, you know that people do come together when there’s a need.

We see that sort of support in crime fiction, too. And that plot point can shed light on a local culture and on people’s perceived characters. For example, in John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, the local community of Clanton, Mississippi comes together, at least at first, when ten-year-old Tonya Hailey is brutally raped and beaten, and left for dead. Her family’s church community immediately begins to provide meals and other support, and even local people who don’t attend that church do what they can to help. There’s a lot of sympathy for her and for the Hailey family. As you can imagine, Tonya’s father, Carl Lee, is devastated by what’s happened. In his fury, he takes a drastic step. He waits in ambush for Tonya’s attackers, Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard, and shoots, killing them and wounding a sheriff’s deputy. That changes everything. For one thing, the Hailey family is black and the two rapists were white. So, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is interested. And there’s the fact that, whatever his race or his motivation, Hailey killed two people in an episode of vigilantism. Still, he has plenty of supporters (fathers: how would you feel?) Soon the town is torn by the competing interests. Local lawyer Jake Brigance takes Hailey’s case, and it’s interesting to see how outside interests try to pursue their own agendas.

Fans of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series will know that those novels take place in the small, rural Québec community of Three Pines. The members of the community all know each other, and they are supportive of each other. Something that happens to one impacts everyone. We see that in Still Life, when the community comes together to mourn the loss of beloved former teacher Jane Neal, when she is murdered. We see it in A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold) when a group of the Three Pines residents go into Montréal to support resident poet Ruth Zardo when she has book released. There are plenty of other examples, too, throughout the series. Yes, there are misunderstandings, and sometimes worse. But in Three Pines, people know they can depend on each other, and that permeates the novels.

So can the small Périgord community of St. Denis, which we get to know in Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series. Bruno is the local police chief, and knows just about everyone in town. Through his eyes, too, we see how the community itself comes together. When there’s a funeral, everyone attends. When there’s trouble, everyone does something to try to help. Bruno himself makes the most of his membership in the community. Rather than see him as an adversary, most of the people in town understand that he’s just doing his job, and they respect him for it. He’s welcome just about everywhere. In return, he acts with a real understanding of the town; he considers the consequences for this family, that business, and so on, before he takes action whenever he can.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman lives and has her bakery in a large Melbourne building called Insula. Of course, Melbourne is a large, cosmopolitan city. But in it, there are smaller communities within which people help and support each other, and can count on one another for help. That’s certainly true of Insula. As fans of this series know, the various apartments in Insula are occupied by a diverse group of people. They all know one another, and help one another when it’s needed. They get together for impromptu snacks-and-drinks parties, they support each other during emergencies, and they know they can count on each other. That network is one of the important threads that runs through this series.

There’s also the small Scottish community of Lochdubh, in which many of M.C.Beaton‘s Hamish Macbeth novels take place. Macbeth is the local bobby, and has gotten to know just about everyone in Lochdubh. There are certainly some eccentric people in the village, and there are disputes among them at times. But they support each other. Townspeople show up for funerals, help each other in times of need, and so on. Macbeth’s woven into that fabric, too, and it’s interesting to see how his relationships with the other people in town play roles in the novels.

We also see that in one plot line of Peter May’s Entry Island. When James Cowell is murdered on Entry Island, Sergeant Enquêteur Sime Mackenzie of the Sûreté du Québec is assigned to help investigate. He’s never been to the place before, but almost as soon as he arrives, he begins to have a sense of déjà vu, that only grows stronger as he continues. At the same time, he begins to have vivid dreams about stories his grandmother told – stories about his Scottish ancestor, also named Sime, who immigrated to Canada in the mid-19th Century. Through those dreams, and through that Sime’s diary, we see what life was like in the village where Sime grew up. Everyone sticks together. The men hunt together; everyone pitches in when someone is ill, gives birth, or needs a hand with the harvest; and people look after each other’s children. That sense of community helps to give character to the community.

And then there’s Sarah R. Shaber’s Simon Shaw novels. Shaw’s a professor at the small North Carolina institution, Kenan College. The town of Kenan is small, and people know one another. So, when there’s a funeral, a wedding, or other occasion, everyone does a share. It doesn’t mean that there are no conflicts or disagreements in town. But there’s a sense that everyone’s responsible for everyone else.

I couldn’t do a post on this sort of community without mentioning Peter Weir’s 1985 film, Witness. In it, a Philadelphia police detective, John Book, spends time within the Amish community of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when an Amish boy witnesses a murder. Throughout the film, starting from the beginning, we see how the members of this local Amish community watch out for one another, stick together, and depend on one another. For my money, the scene that shows that most clearly is a scene where everyone gets together for a barn-raising. I recommend the film highly, by the way, if you’ve not seen it.

As you can see, Bill’s right. Small communities have ways of standing together and helping one another. Even in crime novels. Which ones have stayed with you?


Thanks, Bill, for the inspiration. Now, may I suggest that your next blog stop be Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan? Thoughtful, well-written reviews, discussions, and more await you there.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mellencamp’s Small Town.


Filed under John Grisham, Kerry Greenwood, Louise Penny, M.C. Beaton, Martin Clark, Peter May, Sarah R. Shaber

Make Me Beautiful*

Cosmetic surgery has advanced a great deal over the years, as has its relative, reconstructive surgery. There are new techniques and materials, and new options. It’s no longer the exclusive property of the very rich and Hollywood stars, either.

I got to thinking about the whole topic when I read an interesting post by Moira at Clothes in Books. By the way, if you’re not already following that excellent blog, I recommend it highly. It’s a treasure trove of fine book reviews and discussions of clothes and culture in fiction, and what it all says about us.

Moira was discussing Ngaio Marsh’s Death and the Dancing Footmen, but that’s not the only example of a crime novel where cosmetic surgery plays a role. It’s not hard to see why, either. There are all sorts of possibilities for the author. And, whatever you feel about cosmetic surgery, it’s increasingly popular.

In P.D. James’ The Private Patient, we are introduced to journalist Rhoda Gradwyn. She checks into Cheverell Manor, an exclusive private clinic for patients undergoing cosmetic surgery. Her plan is to have a facial scar removed, but that’s not what happens. During her stay at the clinic, Gradwyn is strangled. Met Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his team investigate, and there are several possibilities. Certainly, the victim’s surgeon had opportunities to kill her. But, so did several nurses, attendants, and even visitors, among others. Dalgliesh and his team have to go back into Gradwyn’s past to see who would want to murder her.

In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Hussy, Lochdubh PC Hamish Macbeth investigates the murder of Maggie Baird. Although she hasn’t been a commercial sex worker, she’s certainly traded sex for expensive things, posh places to live, and so on. Now, although she’s still attractive, she’s middle-aged, and, at least in her view, has lost her looks. So, she goes away for several months and undergoes cosmetic surgery. When she returns, with her looks restored, she invites four former lovers to visit, and announces that she’s going to get married. Instead, she dies, ostensibly of a heart attack suffered during a car fire. Macbeth soon learns that there are several people who could have wanted the victim dead. For one thing, her four suiters have all come down in the world, as the saying goes. Any one of them could have killed her for her money. Then there’s her niece, who’s just been cut out of her will. There are other possibilities, too. The story certainly shows the wisdom of the saying, ‘Looks aren’t everything.’

One plot thread of Donna Leon’s About Face concerns a businessman, Maurizio Cataldo. Conte Orazio Falier is considering doing business with Cataldo, but he wants to be sure of the man before he actually signs anything. So, he asks his son-in-law, Commissario Guido Brunetti, to ‘vet’ Cataldo, and see if there’s anything Falier should know. Brunetti agrees to do so. In the process of getting to know Cataldo’s life better, Brunetti also gets to know his wife, Franca Marinello. One of the things we learn about her is that she’s had cosmetic surgery. That surgery isn’t the reason for Falier’s caution. But it plays a role in the novel, and in some of the tragic events that happen.

Carl Hiaasen’s Skin Tight features former police officer Mick Stranahan (yes, fans, he later appears in Skinny Dip).  He learns that an unknown man has been asking where lives. He isn’t sure who the man might be, but it doesn’t take long for them to meet up. In fact, the man breaks into Stranahan’s home. In the course of defending himself, Stranahan kills the home invader, goring him with the stuffed head of a marlin (it is Hiassen…). Then he dumps the body, which is later discovered by a couple of tourists. In the meantime, Stranahan decides to find out who’s trying to kill him. His attacker had no ID and there was no way to connect him with any particular one of Stranahan’s enemies, so it won’t be an easy task. It’s made even harder by the fact that Stranahan’s got plenty of enemies. There’s the sleazy injury lawyer, the annoying TV journalist, the hit man, and an inept plastic surgeon named Rudy Graveline. They’re all good candidates, and Stranahan will have to work through all of them to find out who the killer is.

Leigh Redhead’s Peepshow is the first of her novels to feature Melbourne PI Simone Kirsch. She’s got a background as a stripper, and has now gotten her PI license. When the body of Francesco ‘Frank’ Parisi is discovered in a local bay, Simone’s best friend, Chloe, becomes a suspect. Parisi was the owner of a table-dancing strip club called the Red Room, where Chloe works. She was among several people who had a very good reason to kill the victim, and she’s worried about what to do. Matters get worse when Parisi’s underworld brother, Sal, gets involved. He wants Simone to find out who killed his brother, and he takes Chloe as ‘insurance.’ Since the only way to free Chloe is to find the killer, Simone gets started right away. She goes undercover as a new table dancer at the Red Room, and begins to get to know the people in the dead man’s life. And it’s not long before she discovers that some very dangerous people had very good murder motives. While cosmetic surgery isn’t the reason for the murder in this case, it does have a part in the story. And on a side note, it’s interesting to see how the table dancers use wigs, makeup, and costuming to play their roles.

And then there’s Sophie Littlefield’s A Bad Day For Mercy, which features her sleuth, Stella Hardesty. By day, she owns Hardesty Sewing Machine Repair & Sales. But she has a ‘side business,’ too. She pays ‘friendly visits’ to those who’ve committed domestic abuse, and she has very effective ways of reminding them of how to behave, let’s just say. In this novel, Hardesty learns that her step-nephew, Chip, is in serious trouble because of gambling debts. In fact, his life’s been threatened. So, she drives from her home in small-town Missouri to Wisconsin to visit him. When she gets there, she finds Chip and his girlfriend, Natalya, trying to get rid of a dead man’s body. The man turns out to be Natalya’s abusive husband, and it looks very much as though Chip might be responsible. He and Natalya claim that they’re innocent, though, and found the body on their porch. So, if they aren’t the killers, Hardesty is going to have to find out who is. One very good possibility is a medical student named Doug, who has a sideline performing illegal (and not particularly professional) Botox injections. As it turns out, he had dealings with the victim, and a good reason to want him dead. But he’s not the only likely candidate.

Whatever your opinion of cosmetic surgery, there’s no doubt it’s popular. And it really does have a place in crime fiction, Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Engine Room’s A Perfect Lie.


Filed under Carl Hiaasen, Donna Leon, Leigh Redhead, M.C. Beaton, Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James, Sophie Littlefield

No One Messes With My Girls*

Brothel OwnersThe sex trade can be very dangerous, especially for those who work independently. Brothels can be a safer and healthier alternative to going it alone, especially if they’re owned and run by skilled and caring owners. Brothel owners have a vested interested in making sure their employees are healthy and safe. And in places where prostitution is illegal, they’re very helpful in terms of keeping the employees out of trouble with the law. Some of them are very particular about clients, too, so that their employees are at less risk. For the client, brothels can offer a more comfortable atmosphere. And if the brothel owner is doing the job well, there’s less risk of STDs.

Of course, real and fictional brothels run the gamut from elegant, upmarket places to seedy, very dangerous places where the employees are treated horribly. Either way, brothel owners can make very interesting characters in crime novels and series. On the one hand, what they are doing is illegal in a lot of places. On the other, they can be very helpful sources of information, and the police find that it’s often better all round to work with them than to make life too difficult for them.

Ed McBain’s Steve Carella knows that. In Cop Hater, he and his team are looking for a suspect they believe might be responsible for killing two of his colleagues, Mike Reardon and David Foster. They’ve traced this suspect to a local brothel owned by Mama Luz. Carella and Mama Luz have a very amicable relationship. Here’s how she greets him when he and his rookie assistant visit her establishment:

“You come on a social call?’ she asked Carella, winking.
‘If I can’t have you, Mama Luz,’ Carella said, ‘I don’t want anybody.’’


She’s helpful in directing him to the room where the suspect is, too.

In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Nag, Hamish Macbeth has been having a difficult time lately. He’s been demoted from the rank of sergeant, and his engagement to Priscilla Haliburton-Smythe is now off. At loose ends and fed up with everything, Macbeth decides to take some time away. He stays at the Friendly House, a beachside inn. It’s not exactly the peaceful respite he’d hoped for, though. Many of the guests are at the very least annoying, and the innkeepers aren’t exactly the stuff of travel fantasy. Then, Bob Harris, who’s one of the residents, is murdered. Macbeth finds himself drawn into the investigation, and begins to trace Harris’ last days and weeks. That includes a follow-up on an incident in which he himself saw Harris leave a brothel. The brothel’s owner, Mrs. Simpson, is both candid and co-operative. It’s clear from their exchange that she’s used to being on what’s technically speaking the wrong side of the law, but at the same time working with the police. It’s also clear from this scene that she cares about the welfare of her employees.

So does Candace Curtis, whom we meet in Jill Edmondson’s Dead Light District. In that novel, she hires Toronto PI Sasha Jackson to find one of her employees, Mary Carmen Santamaria. The young woman’s gone missing, and Curtis is concerned that something might have happened to her. Jackson takes the case, and as she investigates, she learns quite a bit about the Toronto sex trade. She also gets to know her new client, and her client’s way of running her business. Curtis takes the well-being of her employees very seriously, so she’s quite particular about accepting clients. She insists, too, on ensuring her employees’ dignity and self-esteem. She’s also smart when it comes to business, and has done well for herself and the women who work for her.

In David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, which takes place in 1970’s Perth, we meet Superintendent Frank Swann. He’s been away from Perth for a few years, but returns when he learns that a friend has been murdered. The victim is brothel owner Ruby Devine, whose body has been found in her car on a golf course. The official police explanation is that she was probably killed by her partner Jacky White. But the case is flimsy and Swann is sure that more is going on here than a case of domestic violence gone horribly wrong. He’s not going to get much help from his work colleagues, because he’s already a marked man, as the saying goes, for requesting a Royal Commission hearing regarding police corruption. The police he’s accusing are members of what’s known as ‘the purple circle,’ a group known for graft, corruption, and vicious brutality if they are crossed. The word on the street is that they are responsible for Ruby’s murder, so lots of people are afraid to speak up against them for fear of a similar reprisal. Swann perseveres, though, and we learn the truth about Ruby’s death. In the meantime, the Royal Commission hearing goes on, and there’s testimony from several witnesses. One of them, Pat Chesson, is, like the victim, a brothel owner. Here’s what she says about the relationship between the owners and the police before the ‘purple circle’ moved in:

‘When I first arrived to set up my business here, there was understandings between myself and the police. We kept our part of the bargain, they kept theirs. We made sure all our girls was clean and well behaved. We kept a quiet profile. You wouldn’t know, walking past one of my businesses, what it was. And anyone who went outside the rules was run out of town.’’

Among other things, this shows the role that brothel owners play in making sure their businesses fit into the community without causing the police a lot of trouble.

In Jussi Adler-Olsen’s The Purity of Vengeance, Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck gets a visit from an old nemesis, Børge Bak. Bak is a former colleague who has since transferred, and Mørck is none too pleased to see him. This time, Bak has a request. His sister Esther, who owns a brothel, has been attacked with acid, and Bak thinks he has the right man in custody. He wants Mørck’s help in getting a confession. He’s also brought along another case: the 1987 disappearance of another brothel owner, Rita Nielson. Mørck’s secretary/researcher Rose Knudsen is sure that the Nielsen case was more or less passed over – ‘shelved’ – because of the woman’s profession, and at her insistence, Mørck looks into it. He and his team discover that this disappearance, and that of several others on the same weekend, all have to do with one woman, Nete Hermansen, and her desire for revenge, especially against a doctor who horribly abused his medical privileges.

We also see plenty of brothel owners – mamasans – in work like that of John Burdett and Timothy Hallinan. In Southeast Asia (although not in all of Asia), these are women (there are also papasans – the male equivalent) who manage bars that also provide prostitution services. Their roles aren’t identical to the roles played by Western-style brothel owners, but they bear some similarities.  Mamasans and papasans ensure that customers pay the ‘bar fine’ – the price for leaving with one of the bar’s employees. They also make sure that the bar runs smoothly, and, where necessary, they pay off the police and other authorities.

There are many cases of brothel owners who are vicious and predatory, both in fiction and in real life. But plenty of them are business people who make a living providing a service. And some of them care a lot about their employees, and want to make sure that they’re safe and that their clients have a good experience, too. They can also make very interesting characters in a crime story.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carol Hall’s A Lil’ Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place.


Filed under David Whish-Wilson, Ed McBain, Jill Edmondson, John Burdett, Jussi Adler-Olsen, M.C. Beaton, Timothy Hallinan

Why, We Only Live to Serve*

Service StaffAn interesting comment exchange with Bryan, who blogs at The Vagrant Mood, has reminded me of how much fictional (and real) sleuths can learn from those service people we don’t always notice. People such as receptionists, secretaries, delivery people and so on can be extremely helpful when the police are trying to establish someone’s whereabouts or the course of events. And wise detectives know not to ignore those folks.

Agatha Christie’s stories frequently include clues, or at least information, from such people. For instance, in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot goes to see his dentist, Henry Morley. Later Chief Inspector Japp visits Poirot, and tells him that Morley has been shot. Poirot and Japp begin the investigation, with their focus on those who were in the surgery at the time of the murder. For that information, they turn to Morley’s houseboy Alfred Biggs. One of his duties is to escort patients and other visitors from the reception area to the dentist, so he knows who’s arrived and who wasn’t there. He may not be able to pronounce the names correctly, but Alfred has more information about this case than anyone really knows at first.

In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Cad, Lochdubh constable Hamish Macbeth investigates the shooting death of Captain Peter Bartlett.  He was one of several houseguests staying with Colonel Haliburton-Smythe and his wife for a weekend party. Early one morning, he went out hunting for grouse, but was murdered instead. Macbeth happens to be on the scene when Bartlett’s body is discovered, because he wanted to speak to the Haliburton-Smythe’s daughter Priscilla, with whom he has an on-again/off-again romance. He starts asking questions, and, despite interference from DCI Blair, he’s able to prove that Bartlett’s death was no accident. As he tries to find out who was responsible, Macbeth relies on help from the Haliburton-Smythes’ maid Jessie, who has a particular liking for him. And in one funny scene, she proves resourceful, too. Macbeth doesn’t want Blair to know that he’s still at the Haliburton-Smythes after being more or less dismissed.

‘Hamish had not left. He had had no lunch and wanted to see if he could manage to get some tea and scones. He had slid quietly down behind a large sofa by the window and was sitting on a small stool.
Jessie, the maid, had a soft spot for Hamish. She quietly handed him down a plate of scones and tea when Jenkins [the butler] wasn’t looking.’

Jessie may be a little ‘dizzy,’ but she can be very helpful.

Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow introduces readers to Smilla Jaspersen, a half Inuit/half Danish Greenlander who’s now living in Copenhagen. As the novel begins, she’s attending a funeral for Isaiah Christiensen, a boy who lived in the same building, and who had what looks like a tragic fall from its roof. Jaspersen feels a bond with Isaiah, since he too is a Greenlander. So she’s drawn to the roof where the accident took place. While she’s there, she sees signs in the snow that suggest this was no accident. So she starts asking questions. The trail leads to the Cryolite Corporation of Denmark, and to a bookkeeper, Elsa Lübing, who worked there. When she discovers that Lübing was promoted directly from bookkeeper to head accountant, she knows that the woman probably has very useful information. And so it turns out to be. In the end, Jaspersen links Isaiah Christiansen’s death with some events in her own land.

Emily Brightwell’s long-running Victorian-era series features Mrs. Jeffries, who serves as housekeeper for Inspector Gerald Witherspoon. As housekeeper, she’s not officially entitled to give her opinion on the cases that Witherspoon investigates. But he often finds himself discussing them with her; and, in her own way, she offers insight that proves very helpful. She doesn’t do it alone, though. She in turn relies on her staff (cook, housemaids, footman, driver, and so on). These staff members are the ones who deal with delivery people, shopkeepers and others who see and know things that their ‘betters’ might not. And most of them would rather not talk to the police. So Mrs. Jeffries’ staff is tailor-made to find out information.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack takes place in 1970’s Argentina, a very dangerous time to live in Buenos Aires. Through it all, Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano does his job as a police officer the best he can. One morning, he’s called out to a riverbank, where he’s been told two bodies were dumped. When he gets there, though, there are actually three. Two of them bear the hallmarks of an Army-style execution, and in the times in which he lives, Lescano knows better than to ask questions about them. The third body, though, is a little different. The victim is successful pawnbroker Elías Biterman, who doesn’t seem to have been killed in the ‘regular’ way. So Lescano begins what turns out to be an extremely dangerous investigation. Most people don’t want to help, since it could get them killed. But a few people do. One of them is Marcelo, who works as a court office boy. He finds some important, incriminating information, and manages to get it to Lescano. It’s a dangerous and brave thing to do, and it makes a major difference in this case.

And then there’s Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit. In that novel, successful accountant Daniel Guest hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to catch and stop a blackmailer. Guest is married and ‘settled,’ but he’s had a few secret trysts with men; apparently someone’s found out about them and is now prepared to go public. The trail leads to the Persephone Theatre, so Quant visits the place, hoping to get some information on the actors who work there. He encounters a receptionist, Rebecca, whom he has to persuade to part with some information. When he finally does,

‘She lethargically opened a drawer that must have weighed several tonnes given the effort she expended to do so and pulled out just the documents I was looking for.’

Then, he has to convince her to let him have a look at the actors’ résumés. It’s not easy, but he finally manages to get Rebecca to collect the information he wants. It’s a funny scene, but it also shows that receptionists can be both help and hindrance for the sleuth.

And it’s not just receptionists. Secretaries, delivery drivers, domestic staff, hotel chambermaids, and other service staff can all be extremely useful resources. Sleuths ignore them at their peril.

Now, may I suggest your next blog stop be The Vagrant Mood? It’s a great resource for reviews, and you can also treat yourself to Bryan’s historical mystery series. One features actress Kay Francis; the other ‘stars’ 1940’s British Secret Service agent Peter Warlock.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s Be Our Guest.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Emily Brightwell, Ernesto Mallo, M.C. Beaton, Peter Høeg