Category Archives: Margery Allingham

It Don’t Take Long*

condensed-storiesIn real life, murder investigations take time. And that makes sense, when you consider all of the factors that go into solving a crime. But that doesn’t always work well in a novel. Many readers prefer a faster pace and more engagement in their stories. And it’s interesting to see how different crime writers have approached that balance between telling a story in a realistic way, and keeping the story’s pace in mind.

Some writers have even managed to tell an absorbing story that takes place over just a few days, or even less. It’s not easy to pull that off, and still make the story credible. But when it works, that approach can add tension and a solid pace to a story.

Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley is one of those novels. In it, Dr. George Abbershaw is among several guests invited for a house party at Black Dudley, the family of home of academician Wyatt Petrie. The only permanent residents of Black Dudley are Petrie and his uncle, Colonel Gordon Coombe. This weekend, though, there are several other people there, including Albert Campion, who would become Allingham’s sleuth. On the first night, Petrie tells the guests about an old family legend concerning a large dagger that’s hanging over the fireplace in the drawing room. Everyone decides to go through the ritual associated with that legend. During the night, Colonel Coombs is killed. Abbershaw is asked to sign a death certificate that identifies the cause as heart failure. But he has his doubts, and very quickly deduces that the victim was stabbed with the dagger. What’s more, one of the other guests turns out to be associated with a criminal gang that claims to be missing ‘something important,’ and demands its return. The gang refuses to let anyone leave until that property, which turns out to be a set of papers, is returned. With this pressure, Abbershaw and, to an extent, Campion, have to work quickly to find out the truth about Coomb’s death and the papers.

There’s a similar sort of short time span in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. A group of people, including Hercule Poirot, board the famous Orient Express for a three-day journey across Europe. On the second night, one of the passengers, Samuel Ratchett, is stabbed in his bunk. Poirot is asked to investigate and, hopefully, find out the who the killer is before the train reaches the next frontier, so that the murderer can be handed over to the police. Poirot agrees, and begins by interviewing each of the passengers. A search is also made of their luggage. That information, plus certain clues and pieces of information, leads Poirot to the truth. The truth about the murder stems from an event several years earlier. But the action in the story takes place mostly over just two days.

The context for Kalpana Swaminatham’s The Page 3 Murders is a weekend ‘foodie party’ hosted by Dr. Hilla Driver. In part, the party is a sort of ‘housewarming,’ as she’s just inherited a beautiful upscale home. It’s also intended as a celebration of her niece Ramona’s upcoming eighteenth birthday. Hilla is very well-connected, so her guests represent Mumbai’s elite, including a food critic, a well-known writer, a dancer, a model, and a socialite and her husband. Also invited is a retired police detective, Lalli, and her niece (who narrates the story). Right away, it’s clear that there are conflicts among some of the guests, and hidden animosity. But everyone settles in and looks forward to what’s supposed to be the culminating event: a seven-course gourmet meal prepared by Hilla’s chef, Tarok Ghosh. The meal begins with custom-designed starters/appetizers, and it’s soon clear that Tarok planned them as his way of hinting at secrets that each guest is keeping. It’s clear now that he knows more than it’s safe to know. When his body is discovered late the next morning, Lalli is not shocked, given what he revealed. But she is dismayed, of course, and wants to find the killer as soon as possible. Then another death is discovered. Now there’s even more time pressure, and Lalli and her niece work quickly to find out who’s responsible. Again, some of the secrets we learn in this story go back some years. But the action in it takes place over only a few days.

There’s also Kazuhiro Kiuchi’s Shield of Straw. Kazuki Mekari, of the Tokyo Municipal Police Department is given a difficult and unusual assignment. He and a specially-chosen group of officers are to travel to Fukuoka and bring back Kunihide Kiyomaru to face justice in Tokyo. Kiyomaru is responsible for the rape and murder of a young girl, and escaped to Fukuoka. This trip isn’t going to be easy, though. The girl’s very wealthy grandfather has publicly offered a one-billion-yen reward to anyone who kills Kiyomaru. So Mekari and his team will have to protect their prisoner from potentially thousands of people. What’s more, they’ll have to keep their own greed in check. The longer the trip takes, the more likely it is that someone will get to Kiyomaru. So, the team has to move as quickly as possible. The distance between Fukuoka and Tokyo is about 1100 km/685 mi, and on a ‘bullet train,’ that would normally take about six hours. But it doesn’t turn out to be nearly that simple. The bulk of the action in this novel takes place as Mekari and his team travel with their prisoner. But a lot can happen even in the space of less than two days…

As the name suggests, Herman Koch’s The Dinner takes place over the course of one upmarket gourmet meal. Paul and Claire Lohman meet Paul’s brother, Serge, and his wife, Babette, for dinner at one of Amsterdam’s most exclusive restaurants. As the dinner progresses, we slowly learn the backstories of these characters, and we learn about a dark secret both families are keeping. Paul and Claire’s son, Michel, and Serge and Babette’s son, Rick, are guilty of a terrible crime. As we find out what happened, we also find out that this dinner had a very specific purpose: trying to decide what to do about that crime. It’s a fascinating story structure: it takes place during one meal, but it has to do with the characters’ entire lives.

There are, of course, plenty of other stories where the action is ‘telescoped’ into a short period of time. It can be tricky to do that effectively but the result can be a solid layer of suspense and an interesting plot structure. Which stories like that have stayed with you?

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Herman Koch, Kalpana Swaminathan, Kazuhiro Kiuchi, Margery Allingham

Part of the Story, Part of the Same*

Stories in Serial FormCrime writer and fellow blogger E. Michael Helms has taken the interesting step of sharing his Dinger, PI story in serial form. You can check out the first instalment right here. Dinger lives and works in post-WWII Las Vegas – a very effective context for the sort of noir stories that Helms writes. And while you’re at it, check out Helms’ terrific blog. And his ‘Mac’ McClellan novels. You’ll be glad you did.

The novel-in-serial-form has a long history, of course. And you’ll no doubt know that several famous novels were originally published that way. One of the benefits of the serial format is that it gets readers interested in what’s going to happen next. That builds circulation for the magazine that prints the story. And fans get to read a story in smaller doses as it were, a much less daunting prospect than a very long novel. For the author, the serial story allows flexibility as s/he sees how readers respond to the different instalments.

There’ve been many crime novels that were originally published in serial form. For instance, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, which was published as a novel in 1868, began life that way in Charles Dickens’ magazine All The Year Round. The novel tells the story of the Verinder family, and the troubles that befall it when Rachel Verinder receives a valuable diamond, called the Moonstone, for her eighteenth birthday. The legend goes that there’s a curse on the diamond, and it certainly seems that way. First, the diamond is stolen from the Verinder home. Then, one of the maids goes missing, and is later found to have committed suicide. Sergeant Cuff is assigned to recover the diamond, and after two years, he traces what’s happened to it. Those who’ve read the novel will know that’s it’s broken into parts told from different points of view. It’s not difficult to see its origins as a story told in serial form.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will tell you that a lot of his work was published in serial form in The Strand Magazine and other publications. For instance, The Sign of the Four, the second full-length Holmes novel, was published in instalments in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. The novel’s focus is a pact among four prison inmates in India, and two corrupt prison guards, to share stolen treasure. That pact, and the treasure, have implications decades later and thousands of miles away in London, when a young woman named Mary Morstan begins receiving a series of pearls, one each year, sent by an anonymous donor who claims that she is ‘a wronged woman.’ When she takes her case to Holmes, he finds that long-ago link. And Dr. Watson finds a bride.

Margery Allingham’s first detective story, The White Cottage, was first published in 1927 as a serial in The Daily Express. It’s not one of her Albert Campion mysteries. Instead, this one features Chief Inspector W.T. Challenor and his son, Jerry. It all begins as Jerry Challenor is on his way to London. He happens to see a young woman struggling to carry a heavy basket. He pulls over and offers her a lift, which she gratefully accepts. She tells him her destination is the White Cottage, and Jerry takes her there. He starts on his way again, but pulls over to put the hood on his car when an oncoming storm threatens. He’s finishing the task when he and a passing police officer hear the sound of a shotgun. Shortly afterwards, the parlourmaid from the White Cottage runs up the road, hails the police officer and says there’s been a murder. The victim is Eric Crowther, and it’s not surprising that he’s been shot. He’s got a nasty history of finding out people’s secrets and using that knowledge as a weapon. So the Challenors have no shortage of suspects as they investigate.

The Daily Express was also the first home of Agatha Christie’s A Pocket Full of Rye. In that novel, wealthy businessman Rex Fortescue is poisoned, and Inspector Neele takes the case. Neele begins his investigation with the members of Fortescue’s family, and in this situation, that makes sense. The family was far from a happy one, and more than one member has a motive. But a family connection doesn’t explain the rye seeds found in Fortescue’s pocket. Neele’s trying to make progress on the case when there’s another murder. This time, the victim is housemaid Gladys Martin. Miss Marple takes an interest in the case, since Gladys used to work for her. In fact, it was Miss Marple who prepared Gladys for domestic service. As it turns out, this murder has its roots, as murders often do, in the past.

And then there’s James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, which was first published as a serial in Liberty Magazine in 1936. Insurance salesman Walter Huff finds himself in Hollywoodland one day, and decides to pay a visit to a client, H.S. Nirdlinger, to try to get a policy renewal. Nirdlinger isn’t at home when Huff arrives, but his wife, Phyllis is. Huff is immediately smitten with her, and she does nothing to discourage him. Before long, they’re having an affair. Then, Phyllis tells Huff that she wants to kill her husband. She’s decided to take out an accident policy so that she can benefit from his death. Huff is so besotted with Phyllis that he goes along with her idea, even writing the right sort of policy for her. The two plot the murder carefully, and the night for it finally arrives. When the deed is done, though, Huff finds it very hard to cope with the guilt he feels at having killed a man. And it’s not long before he learns he has more problems than just that guilt…

Stories have been told in serial form for a very long time, and it’s not hard to see why. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Balkan Beat Box’s Part of the Glory.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, E. Michael Helms, Margery Allingham, Wilkie Collins

So Christian Dior Me, From My Head to My Toes*

Fashion DesignFashion design is big business. Whether you’re a fan of a certain designer, or you couldn’t care less what name you’re wearing, it’s hard to deny the influence designers have. The most successful designer houses make billions each year; and buyers for large and small companies know that at least some of their profits depend on having the latest creations. The fashion design business is highly competitive, too.

With that tension, and with so much at stake, it shouldn’t be surprising that fashion designers and design houses would play a role in crime fiction. Fashion design’s a very effective context, and there’s plenty of opportunity for conflict and worse.

In Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), we are introduced to successful fashion designer Cynthia Dacres. Always alert to the newest trends, she’s built her business on cutting-edge clothes. Her fashion design company, Ambrosine, Ltd., seems on the surface to be doing quite well. One evening, she and her husband, Captain Freddy Dacres, attend a cocktail party at the home of famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. All goes well until another guest, Reverend Stephen Babbington, suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be a poisoned drink. Hercule Poirot is also at the party, and takes an interest in what happened. Not long afterwards, there’s another, similar murder. This time, well-known specialist Dr. Bartholomew Strange is murdered at his home in Yorkshire during a dinner party. Several of the same guests (including the Dacres) attended both parties; and it’s very likely that the murders are related. Cynthia Dacres becomes a suspect when Poirot takes an interest in this case and works with the police to find out who the killer is.

Margery Allingham’s Fashion in Shrouds features fashion designer Valentine ‘Val’ Ferris, sister of Allingham’s sleuth, Albert Campion. In this novel, Campion discovers the body of Richard Portland-Smith, who disappeared three years previously. The trail leads to Portland-Smith’s former fiancée, famous actress Georgia Wells. Since Wells is good friends with Campion’s sister, and her best client, Campion asks his sister for an introduction. That meeting takes place at a major event during which Ferris’ newest designs are to be revealed. The evening is ruined when it’s discovered that the design for the main creation has been leaked. Then, there’s a murder. And another. And Ferris is implicated. So Campion works to find out who’s really responsible.

Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle introduces readers to successful fashion designer Sheila Grey. She’s passionate about creating new clothing designs. She’s not just talented; she also has strong business skills. So she’s not dependent on anyone, and she has no desire to marry and have children. In fact, she’s gained a certain amount of something like notoriety for her series of affairs. Dane McKell meets her when he discovers that she’s in a relationship with his father, wealthy business mogul Ashton McKell. Then one night, she is murdered, and Inspector Richard Queen investigates, as does his son, Ellery. The most likely suspect is Ashton McKell, but he is soon cleared of suspicion. Then, McKell’s wife Letitia becomes a suspect. So does Dane. It turns out that the victim’s fashion designs contain an important clue to her murderer.

There’s another sort of look at the fashion design industry in Rhys Bowen’s For the Love of Mike, which takes place at the very beginning of the 20th Century. Molly Murphy has emigrated from Dublin to New York City. There, she’s decided to continue operating the PI business her former mentor left behind when he died. Most of her cases consist of following adulterous spouses, and she can’t stomach that for much longer. Then, in one plot thread of the novel, she gets a different sort of case. Clothing designer Max Mostel has determined that someone’s been stealing his designs and selling them to his biggest competitor, Lowenstein’s. Mostel and Murphy put together a plan for finding out who’s guilty. Murphy goes undercover briefly at Mostel’s, to learn the trade and get to know some of the people who work there. Then, she goes undercover at Lowenstein’s, so she can catch the guilty person. Among other things, this novel gives a ‘behind the scenes’ look at what it was once like to produce those design creations and sell them to shops.

Fans of J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike novels will know that, in The Cuckoo’s Calling, Strike gets involved in the death of supermodel Lula Landry. She fell (or was it pushed? Or did she jump?) from her balcony three months previously. At the time, the police claimed it was a case of suicide, and the victim did have a history of depression. Still, her adoptive brother John Bristow hires Strike to find out the truth about her death, claiming that he’s not convinced it was suicide. Part of the trail leads to Guy Somé, a well-known fashion designer whose creations the victim modeled. She and Somé were close friends; in fact, she’d recently signed a lucrative contract to model his clothes. It’s hoped that he can provide some insight into why she might have died. At the very least, Somé can help Strike trace her last days and weeks. It’s an interesting look at the world of today’s high-powered fashion designing.

And then there’s Sophie Littlefield’s Hanging By a Thread, a YA standalone featuring fledgling clothes designer Clare Knight. At the beginning of the novel, she and her mother have just moved back to her home town of Winston, California, a quiet beach community. There, she sets up a business with her best friend, Rachel, selling the one-of-a-kind vintage clothes she designs. On the surface, life in Winston seems idyllic. But the town has had its share of tragedy. For the last two years, a young person has disappeared during the July Fourth celebrations. One was ten-year-old Dillon Granger. The second was a high school student, Amanda Stavros. Gossip has started that someone else will disappear this year, but Clare doesn’t believe it, and tries to enjoy life in Winston. Until she discovers a denim jacket that Amanda owned. Clare is a synthaesthete, who senses people’s pasts when she touches clothes they’ve worn. When she finds the jacket, Clare knows that Amanda was murdered. Now she looks into the reason why, and uncovers some dark secrets about her home town.

See what I mean? Fashion design can be exciting. For some very lucky and talented designers, it can also be lucrative. But it can also be dangerous…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Rainbow High.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, J.K. Rowling, Margery Allingham, Rhys Bowen, Robert Galbraith, Sophie Littlefield

The Law Won*

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!
 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, Jonathan Kellerman, Kerry Greenwood, Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler, Rex Stout, Sara Paretsky, Stuart Palmer, Tess Gerritsen

Now My Belly’s Full of Fancy Food and Wine*

Dinner PartiesRecently, 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.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dave Roberts, Gail Bowen, Herman Koch, Margery Allingham, Rex Stout