Not all fictional coppers play ‘starring roles’ in their series. But they can still add character depth, a police perspective and sometimes tension to a plot Here’s a salute to them, with some help from Sonny Curtis’ I Fought the Law, from whence the title of this post. Enjoy!
Category Archives: Margery Allingham
Not all fictional coppers play ‘starring roles’ in their series. But they can still add character depth, a police perspective and sometimes tension to a plot Here’s a salute to them, with some help from Sonny Curtis’ I Fought the Law, from whence the title of this post. Enjoy!
Recently, Moira at Clothes in Books had a very interesting piece in The Guardian book blog about how very wrong fictional dinner parties can go. And they certainly can. Let me give you a moment to go check out her terrific article…
Back now? Right, dinner parties. It’s little wonder that they’re popular plot points in novels, really. There are all sorts of different personalities, opportunities for conflict, character histories, and lots more for the author to use to build tension. And in crime fiction, they’re great settings for a murder. You’d think that with everyone in the same room, it’d be hard to get away with something like murder, but it does happen. Here are just a few examples.
In Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley, we meet a young academician Wyatt Petrie, who’s invited several guests for a weekend house party at Black Dudley, a remote old property that’s been in the family for generations. One of the guests is Dr. George Abbershaw. Through his eyes, we get a look at the other guests at dinner on the first night. There’s already a sense of tension, but the dinner goes off as planned. After dinner, everyone goes into the drawing room, where there is on display a large dagger. Petrie tells his guests the story of the dagger and of a ritual game in which the lights are turned out and the dagger is passed round. The last one to hold it is the loser, so the goal is to get rid of it as quickly as possible. Several of the guests want to play the game so finally it’s decided to go ahead. Late that night, Abbershaw is wakened and asked to attend to Petrie’s Uncle Gordon Coombe, who has apparently died of heart failure. It turns out that the real cause is stabbing, and Abbershaw works with Albert Campion, who is also part of the house-party, to find out who the killer is.
Agatha Christie made use of dinner parties as contexts for several of her stories. I’ll just mention two of them. In Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), famous specialist Dr. Bartholomew Strange is poisoned at a dinner party at his home in Yorkshire. This murder bears several resemblances to an earlier death, that of the Reverend Stephen Babbington. He was killed by the same poison during a cocktail party. Hercule Poirot attended that party and is persuaded (not that that takes much effort… ) to look into Strange’s murder. He finds that several of the same people were at both events. Now Poirot has to figure out which of the people who were there on both occasions had a reason to kill both men. He’s just gotten started when there’s yet another murder. In the end, we find the three murders connected, but not in the way you might think. Christie uses the ‘murder at a dinner party’ again in the short story Yellow Iris. In the story, Rosemary Barton dies of poisoned wine during a dinner party with her husband, her sister Iris and five other people. It’s thought to be a suicide at first, but then anonymous notes suggest otherwise. So a year later, her widower George re-stages the dinner, with the idea that he’ll be able to determine who the killer is. At that dinner, there’s another death. Christie wrote a different version of this story and expanded it to create Sparkling Cyanide, and the two stories have different sleuths and even different murderers. I invite you to read each and see which you think works better.
Rex Stout’s Champagne For One also involves murder at a dinner party. In that novel, Archie Goodwin is persuaded to attend a dinner/dance being held at the home of wealthy socialite Louise Robilotti. The dinner is an annual event intended as a benefit for Grantham House, a home for unwed mothers. Each year some of the Grantham House residents are invited to the dinner to get a close-up look at how ‘the right sort of people’ live, and it’s hoped that some may even meet young men. One of the guests at this year’s dinner is Faith Usher, who, by more than one account, has cyanide in her purse and plans to use it during the evening. Sure enough, Faith dies during the evening and at first, everyone believes that she followed through on her plan. Goodwin isn’t sure that’s true, though, and wants to investigate. He’s up against considerable odds though, as his hostess has lots of social ‘clout’ and no desire to be mixed up in a police case. Nero Wolfe supports Goodwin though, and together they find out what really happened. Given Wolfe’s love of fine food, it shouldn’t be surprising that this is only one of several Wolfe stories that involve death at a dinner. Wolfe fans will no doubt be able to add considerably to this list.
Dave Roberts’ Sweet Poison, which takes place in 1935, features Lord Edward Corinth and journalist Verity Brown. Corinth is a ‘blue blood,’ but a younger son, with all that that implies. One evening, he’s on his way to dinner at his older brother Gerald (current Duke of Mersham). By chance he encounters journalist Verity Browne and, mostly because of car trouble, she goes with him to the dinner. They arrive late – in fact, just after one of the guests Sir Alistair Craig dies of poison. Corinth and Browne work together (‘though not always amicably) to find out who had a motive for murder. They find in fact that more than one person wanted the victim dead.
In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders, political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn is preparing for her daughter Mieka’s formal engagement to her boyfriend Greg Harris. The plan is a large engagement party/weekend at the home of Harris’ mother. The tension gets ratcheted up even before the party with the arrival at the Kilbourn home of Christy Sinclair. She is the ex-girlfriend of Kilbourn’s older son Peter, and Kilbourn had thought Peter was well-rid of the girl. Instead, Christy joins the group for the trip to the Harris home, and even hints along the way that she and Peter may be getting back together. At the party, tragedy strikes when Christy dies in what looks like a successful suicide attempt. As it turns out though, her death was no accident, and Kilbourn gets involved in the investigation. As she discovers, this death is closely related to Christy’s past and to other deaths that have occurred recently.
And then there’s Herman Koch’s The Dinner. This one is a clear example of how the context of a dinner can be used effectively to build tension. In this novel, two couples, Paul and Claire Lohman and Paul’s older brother Serge and his wife Babette meet for dinner at an exclusive Amsterdam restaurant. As the dinner progresses, we get to know the couples and their families better, and we see how deeply dysfunctional they are. We also learn that they’ve all been keeping a terrible secret, which is actually the reason for the get-together. As each course is served, we learn more and more about what’s happened in the families and about their histories. The novel is a very dark portrait of a dinner party, but it’s an innovative use of the context.
And dinner parties can be highly effective contexts for murder mysteries. There’s tension, there’s a group of disparate personalities, and of course, there’s delicious food and drink. Which ‘dinner party’ murder mysteries have stayed with you?
Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Somewhere Along the Line.
It seems to be human nature, at least for a lot of people, to want that jolt that comes from being a little scared. I don’t mean of course truly terrified; that’s traumatic. But a lot of people like a little shot of adrenaline. That’s part of why people ride roller coasters, go through ‘haunted houses,’ watch suspense movies and read certain kinds of crime fiction. It’s part of why people allow themselves to be dared to do things, too. It’s little wonder then that we also see a lot of characters like that in crime fiction novels. Not only does that make sense from a human perspective but also, it can be a very effective context for a story.
In Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Captain Arthur Hastings is returning to London after a business trip. In the same carriage is a young woman who calls herself Cinderella. The two get to talking and it comes out that Cinderella loves reading detective stories and following news of real-life murders. Hastings isn’t exactly thrilled by this aspect of Cinderella’s personality, and is even less so a bit later in the novel when he meets her again. He and Hercule Poirot go to France after Poirot receives a letter from Paul Renauld asking for his help. When they arrive at the Renauld home, they find that he’s been murdered. Hastings is walking around the Renauld property with the aim of having another look at the crime scene when he quite literally bumps into Cinderella. She says that she’s fascinated by the whole thing and wants him to show her round:
‘Me for the horrors…’
Hastings does so, mostly to impress her with the fact that he’s in on the investigation. It’s interesting to see the contrast between his almost-Victorian sense of what ‘should’ interest a young lady, and his companion’s enjoyment of that rush of adrenaline.
In Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley, a house party gathers at Black Dudley, the home of academician Wyatt Petrie. Petrie’s just taken over the place from his uncle Gordon Coombe, and is looking forward to having some of his friends there. After dinner on the first night of the party, the guests move to the drawing room, where they notice a dagger hanging over the fireplace. Wyatt is persuaded to tell the story of the dagger. According to him, the family legend was that the dagger would take on a red glow if it was touched by anyone who’d committed murder. The family later developed a sort of ritual about the dagger. The lights would be turned off and everyone would pass the dagger round in the dark. The object of the ritual was to avoid being the last one caught with the dagger. The hint of danger involved in passing a dagger round in the dark in a spooky old house (it is an eerie place) appeals to just about everyone, so the group decides to play the game. It turns all too deadly the next morning when it’s found that Coombe has died. Dr. George Abbershaw, one of the guests, is asked to sign the death certificate but he soon finds that the victim was likely stabbed in the back with the dagger. With help from Albert Campion, who’s also a member of the house party, Abbershaw finds out who killed Gordon Coombe and why.
In Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black, school friends Sally Henry and Catherine Ross are coming home from a Hogmanay party. They’ve gotten a lift most of the way but are walking for the last bit of the trip. Then they spot the home of Magnus Tait, an eccentric misfit who lives by himself. Catherine wants to wish Tait a happy new year, but Sally doesn’t. Catherine dares her though, and the two knock on the door. For Catherine it’s a bit of an adrenaline rush, and she rather likes the thrill of being just a little scared. Tait invites the girls in and they toast the New Year. Not many days later, Catherine Ross is found strangled in a field not far from Tait’s home. Because Tait was the last person known to see the victim, he becomes the most likely suspect. It doesn’t help his case that he’s already suspected of having killed another young girl Catriona Bruce, who disappeared some years before. But Tait claims he is innocent, and there is no definite physical evidence that connects him with Catherine Ross’ murder. So Inspector Jimmy Perez has to look elsewhere for the murderer.
Karin Fossum’s When The Devil Holds the Candle introduces us to Andreas Winther. He’s a young man who’s easily bored and enjoys taking risks. He savours the adrenaline rush that goes with risk-taking. His best friend is Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. Zipp doesn’t share his friend’s love for a bit of adrenaline, but he does value the friendship. So he and Winther do everything together. They get in a little trouble now and again, but thus far it hasn’t been anything really serious. Then one day, Andreas’ love of that ‘jolt’ gets him and Zipp involved in much more than either of them intended. After they part ways at the end of the day, Andreas disappears. His mother Runi wants to make a report to the police but at first, Inspector Konrad Sejer isn’t overly concerned. After all, there’s nothing necessarily ominous about a young man going off for a few days. But when more time goes by and Andreas doesn’t return, Sejer takes the case more seriously. His best source of information on what happened is Zipp, but Zipp is completely unwilling to give Sejer any information at all. Little by little though, Sejer breaks down Zipp’s composure and finds out what happened on the day of Andreas’ disappearance.
In William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace, we ‘meet’ thirteen-year-old Frank Drum. He and his family live in the small town of New Bremen, Minnesota. In the summer of 1961, a boy Frank knows from school is killed on the railroad tracks near the town. Frank knows he isn’t supposed to be down by the tracks, but he can’t resist the chance to go there and try to make sense of what happened. So he and his younger brother Jake walk along the tracks. Jake’s very reluctant but Frank enjoys the adrenaline jolt. While they’re on the tracks they find a dead man. Near him is a stranger, a South Dakota Sioux they’ve never seen before. When the man invites them down to see the dead man, Jake wants no part of it. But Frank is overwhelmingly curious. After all, as he rationalises it, you don’t see a dead man every day. So the two boys go down to see the body. Tragically, those are not the only two deaths they’ll encounter that summer and Frank has to learn some unpleasant truths about life. He also learns that that jolt you get sometimes from being a little scared doesn’t seem as much fun when you’ve been really frightened.
Everyone’s different of course. Some people love the jolt they get from roller coasters, thriller novels and so on. Others don’t think it’s much fun at all. But either way, it’s an important part of the human experience. Now, want to see what’s inside that old storage shed in the ‘photo? Dare ya! Erm – mind I’ve been known to write crime fiction…😉
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Van Halen’s Jump.
What do you think of when you think of the 1920’s? Do you think of ‘flappers?’ Of Babe Ruth? Prohibition? The growth of Hollywood? It was an action-packed decade, and so many things happened at that time that it’s no wonder it’s got such an appeal. There’s a certain mystique about art-deco and 1920’s style extravagance among other things. So it’s no wonder that the 1920’s is also a big part of crime fiction.
For one thing, many people argue that the Golden Age of crime fiction began to hit its stride in the 1920’s. And I’m sure that those of you who are Golden Age fans could list a large number of authors and books from that time – many more than I could. Let me just mention a few. Dorothy Sayers’ series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey debuted in 1923 with Whose Body?, in which Wimsey investigates the murder of an unknown man whose body is found in a bathtub. This plot thread ties in with embezzlement and another man who seems to have disappeared. In this novel, we see one of the hallmarks of the 1920’s – the class differences that still remained quite strong. Wimsey and his family are wealthy and privileged. They have access to all sorts of means that ‘ordinary’ people do not. And the theme of class differences is woven into more than one of Sayers’ novels.
We also see those stark class differences in historical series. For instance, Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series features Fisher, who was born to the working class but inherited a title and fortune. So she mixes and mingles in the highest social circles. And yet, we also see that not everyone has that sort of prosperity. In Cocaine Blues for instance, Fisher gets involved in cracking an illegal (and dangerous) abortion clinic for working-class girls and young women whose families don’t have the means to make it all quietly ‘go away’ safely.
The 1920’s were also a time of great waves of immigration, and not just to the United States. Travel was becoming easier and the Great War had uprooted millions of people. The resulting diversity was one of the major social changes of the era. But that immigration also resulted in quite a lot of ethnic and racial prejudice. We see that reflected in crime fiction of the era too. In Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley for instance, a group of friends is gathered at Black Dudley, the home of academician Wyatt Petrie. During the course of this house party, Petrie’s uncle Gordon Crombie dies, and it looks very much as though his death is suspicious. One of the guests Albert Campion takes a hand in finding out the truth about the death and about a mysterious ritual that’s supposedly associated with the family living there. In the course of the novel, there are several ‘isms’ and offensive references to members of different groups. You’ll find those in lots of other crime fiction of that decade too.
For several reasons, the roles of women changed fundamentally during the 1920’s. Just as one example, between 1920 and 1929, voting rights were extended to include women in the Czech Republic, Sweden, the U.K., the U.S. and Belgium among other countries (Australia granted federal voting rights to women in 1902, but some states granted it earlier for state elections. Canadian women had full federal voting rights in 1918. Women had had full suffrage in New Zealand since 1893). We see the changing status of women in a lot of crime fiction from and about that era. Certainly we see it in Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series. Fisher is single and in no hurry to marry. She’s independent, liberated and although she certainly depends on her circle of friends, I’d say the word ‘demure’ hardly describes her.
We see that also in the work of Agatha Christie. Several of her female characters are independent, strong women. There’s Anne Beddingfeld from The Man in the Brown Suit; there’s Katherine Grey from The Mystery of the Blue Train; and there’s ‘Cinderella’ (giving away her real name would be giving away too much of the plot) from The Murder on the Links, just to name three. All of these women think for themselves. They’re not averse to falling in love, and they’re not ‘man haters.’ But all of them reflect the reality of that time that women were coming into their own, so to speak.
A lot of people associate the 1920’s with extravagant parties and hedonism and it was certainly there. We see a hint of that in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client). Hercule Poiriot and Captain Hastings investigate the death of Miss Emily Arundell, who supposedly died of liver failure, but has a group of relations desperate for her fortune. One of them is Theresa Arundell, a young ‘jet-setter’ who goes with a ‘party crowd,’ drinks heavily and so on. She’s not painted unsympathetically, but she is reckless.
And reckless is I think a good way to describe some aspects of that era. I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know for sure why the 1920’s was such a time of reckless abandon for a lot of people but here’s my guess. World War I changed everything for everyone. The real threat of mortality (especially with the influenza pandemic that followed that war) made a lot of people decide to enjoy life while they could You see that in writing from the era (e.g. F. Scott Fitzgerald) and you see that theme of deep wounds from the Great War in some terrific historical mystery series too. May I suggest Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, ‘Charles Todd’s’ Inspector Ian Rutledge series, and Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple series. You can also see it in Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles. In all of those novels and series, we get a sense of the privations of the war and the ‘flu pandemic. People wanted to forget it, to plunge into life and have fun while they could.
Of course there was plenty of violence during the 1920’s too. There was a lot of union unrest and the backlash from that. There was plenty of ugly, ugly racism, anti-Semitism, anti-immigration and political corruption and that too led to a lot of violence. And there was organized crime. There’s a trace of that rise in organized crime in Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask, in which Charles Moray returns to England after some time away only to find that his home has been taken over by a criminal gang and that the woman who broke his heart may be mixed up with it. And then there’s Jeffrey Stone’s Play Him Again. In that historical mystery, Matt ‘Hud’ Hudson is a ‘rum-runner’ – a smuggler of then-illegal alcohol who supplies Hollywood’s luminaries with ‘liquid fuel’ for their parties. When a friend of his is murdered, Hud goes after those responsible, including a very nasty crime gang that’s moved into the area. That novel also explores what Prohibition was like in the U.S. (and makes it clear why the law enforcing Prohibition was never going to be really successful).
I could go on and on about the 1920’s (Jazz, anyone? The Harlem Renaissance? The fashions!) Moira at Clothes in Books has done some great posts on the clothes and fashions of the era. Here’s just one example. But this one post doesn’t give me nearly enough space to talk about it all. The 1920’s was too influential a decade for that. So now it’s your turn. Does that era appeal to you? Which books and series from and about that era do you like? Help me please to fill the gaps I left.
ps. The pearls on the left in the top ‘photo are part of a long double strand of pearls that belonged to my grandmother. On the right is a double-strand necklace that belonged to my grandmother-in-law. Both are genuine vintage… The other ‘photo is of the terrific Essie Davis, who portrayed Phryne Fisher in the very well-done (in my opinion, anyway) Australian series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. These episodes are adaptations of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher novels and if you get the chance, I can recommend them. They aren’t of course 100% true to the novels, but very nicely done I think.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Cole Porter’s Let’s Misbehave.
An interesting comment exchange has got me thinking about the way our reading tastes and the novels and series that appeal to us change over the years. In part of course our tastes change as we mature and develop. Our tastes also change as we read more and expose ourselves to different sub-genres and authors. Want to see how you’ve changed as a reader? Pick up a book you first read at least ten years ago. Do you still feel the same way about it? Are there any authors whose work you used to love but have now drifted away from reading? I’m not talking here about authors who’ve changed their style; we’ve all had the experience of reading a novel by an author who’s long since ceased to innovate or who’s changed her or his style. I’m really talking about an author whose work you feel differently about because you’ve changed. There may even be authors whose work you used to dislike but have come to really like.
Some people for instance started out by reading spy thrillers, and there’ve been a lot to love over the decades. For instance, Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File is the story of crime reporter Peter Miller, who happens to follow an ambulance to the scene of the death of Holocaust survivor Solomon Tauber, who’s committed suicide. Through Tauber’s diary entries and some of his own investigation Miller learns of an ultra-secret worldwide organization to re-establish the Nazis as a world power.
There’s also the work of John le Carré, like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. In that novel, jaded and wearied British spy Alec Leamas is the leader of British Intelligence in East Berlin. When several of his agents are killed on his watch, it’s obvious that Leamas isn’t doing his job very well any more. Then, his best agent Karl Riemeck is murdered. Leamas is called back to London where he’s persuaded to take on just one more assignment: the murder of Hans Dieter Mundt, who organised the killings of Leamas’ agents.
Spy thrillers like these and the work or authors such as Robert Ludlum are past-paced and “high-octane” so it’s no wonder that they’ve sparked many people’s interest in crime fiction. Were spy thrillers your first introduction to crime fiction? Do you still love them as much as you did? Did you move on to more modern thriller authors such as Daniel Silva? Do you branch out into psychological thrillers such as those by Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine?
Other people (and I am one of them) started out with classic or Golden Age crime fiction. For instance, one of the first crime fiction novels I read was Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. That’s the story of the murder of a seemingly inoffensive charwoman, allegedly by her lodger James Bentley. Superintendent Spence begins to believe that perhaps Bentley isn’t guilty, and asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny to look into the matter and finds that several of the villagers are keeping secrets and that Mrs. McGinty had found out more than it was safe for her to know about one of them.
If you started out with the classics, perhaps you began with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels or stories. The Adventure of the Red-Headed League, for instance is the story of pawnbroker Jabez Wilson, who gets hired for a job that seems too good to be true: he’ll be paid to copy the Encyclopaedia Britannica. When his “dream job” disappears, Wilson visits Holmes to ask his help in unravelling the mystery.
If you started with the classics or Golden Age novels, do you still love them as much as you did? Do you still read Rex Stout, Margery Allingham, Patricia Wentworth or Ellery Queen as much as ever? Do you also read more modern authors such as Colin Dexter, Peter Lovesey or P.D. James who keep some of the classic traditions?
Lots of people began their mystery reading with books in the British or U.S. tradition, whatever the sub-genre, and have discovered translated crime fiction. For example, when Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series was first translated in the mid-1960’s, many English-speaking crime fiction fans who’d been reading authors like Patricia Highsmith, Dick Francis or Ed McBain had a whole new series of novels to enjoy. The first in the Martin Beck series, Roseanna, is the story of the discovery of the body of an unknown woman who was murdered during a holiday cruise. She turns out to be twenty-seven-year-old Roseanna McGraw, an American who was on a tour of Sweden when she was murdered. Martin Beck and his team may not have had today’s technology, but they doggedly pursue the case and in the end, they find out who the murderer is.
There have been many other translated authors since then of course, from all over the world. Have you moved from work only in your own language to translated work? Have your feelings about “homegrown” crime fiction changed as you’ve read novels originally written in other languages?
There are also readers who began by reading cosy mysteries. If you started out with cosies, perhaps you began with LIlian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series featuring newspaper columnist James “Qwill” Qwilleran. Much of that series takes place in Moose County, “400 miles north of nowhere” and follows the lives of Qwill, his two seal-point Siamese cats and the various “regulars” who live in the small town of Pickax. This was a very popular and enduring series actually; it lasted from 1966 until Braun’s death in 2011 (OK, there was an 18-year break between 1968 and 1986, but still!).
If your first mystery novels were cosies you might have begun with something like Joanne Fluke’s Hannah Swensen mysteries. Swensen is a former aspiring teacher of literature who returns to her Lake Eden, Minnesota home town after the death of her father and opens a bake shop The Cookie Jar. Fans of this series have followed the lives of Swensen, her love interests Mike and Norman, and the other residents of Lake Eden for thirteen years as I write this. These mysteries have the small-town setting, the amateur sleuth, the theme and the recipes that have become features of several cosy series over the years, so it’s easy to see why cosy fans would have started here.
If you’ve stayed with cosies, are you a fan of other cosy series such as M.C. Beaton’s Hamisch Macbeth series or Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Memphis Barbecue series? Perhaps you’ve branched out to “cosies with an edge” such as Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series. Or maybe you’ve moved on to something completely different.
Sometimes it’s really interesting to look back at the way your crime fiction tastes have changed. If you’re a writer, it’s also interesting to think about theyou’re your changing tastes in crime fiction affect your writing. So thanks, Kathy D., for the food for thought.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s My Elusive Drug.