Category Archives: Martin Edwards

Back to the Beginning Again*

Circular NarrativeOne option for telling a story is by means of a circular narrative. That narrative structure begins and ends a story in more or less the same place, often with the tale of how the character ended up in that place being the main plot.

There are a lot of ways to go about using this structure in crime fiction. Sometimes those beginning/ending ‘bookends’ are detailed and obvious. Sometimes they’re less so. Either way, it’s an interesting way to give a crime story a form.

Agatha Christie arguably uses the circular narrative structure in Sad Cypress. That novel begins at the trial of Elinor Carlisle, who’s been arrested and charged in connection with the poisoning murder of Mary Gerrard, daughter of the lodgekeeper at Elinor’s family home, Hunterbury. After the opening scenes, Christie tells us that the story really all began with an anonymous letter to Elinor. The letter claimed that someone had ‘designs’ on her elderly Aunt Laura’s fortune. Then, the story moves on to Elinor’s trip to Hunterbury with her fiancé, Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman. We learn then of Roddy’s growing infatuation with Mary, of the breakup of his engagement with Elinor, of Aunt Laura’s death (and the fortune at stake), and of Mary’s poisoning. Local GP Dr. Peter Lord has fallen in love with Elinor, and wants her name cleared, so he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot agrees, and the story proceeds to the climax, where we return to the trial. There, Poirot’s investigation leads to some startling evidence that changes the course of the trial.

Talmage Powell’s short story To Avoid A Scandal also takes a rather circular path. It begins as Horace Croyden tells a listener that he wants to explain exactly what happened, so the listener won’t get the wrong impression from lurid newspaper stories. Then, Croyden proceeds to tell his story. He’s a staid, old-fashioned banker with quiet good taste, who’s always had a horror of creating a scandal, or even getting public notice. He keeps his home scrupulously neat, and works ciphers as a hobby. Then one day, as he tells the story, he met his boss’ cousin Althea, and the two began what Croyden thought would be a dignified courtship that would end in marriage. At first, that’s exactly what it was. But then, he found Althea was more vivacious than he’d thought (or hoped for). What was worse, she redecorated their home with more modern taste, and in other ways, didn’t behave in ways he thought were ‘ladylike.’ The proverbial straw came when she destroyed the ciphers her husband was working, and he took the only action he felt he could. Now, the story returns to the beginning, so to speak, as Croyden explains why he did what he did.

James M. Cain’s novella Double Indemnity has a touch of the circular narrative, too. In it, insurance salesman Walter Huff tells the story of his meeting with Phyllis Nirdlinger, the wife of one of his clients. He goes on to tell of his attraction to Phyllis, of the affair they start, and of its disastrous consequences. As the story begins, we can see that he’s actually telling it to a reader. And as the story ends, it comes full circle and we learn where Huff is as he writes, and why he’s actually writing the story to begin with.

In Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair, we are introduced to Gilbert Hand, junior partner in a publishing/bookselling firm. The story begins as Hand tells the reader (as if speaking to a listener),
 

‘I’m not going to give explanations and make excuses. I’ll tell you what happened, and you can draw your own conclusions.’
 

Then, Hand explains how, after the death of his wife, Rachel, he moved to a respectable London hotel for a change of scenery, and perhaps, to get ready to start his life again. There, he found a long coil of dark hair hidden in the davenport in his room. That discovery led to the development of an obsession with the person who put it there, and, ultimately, to tragedy. At the end, the narrative returns to the beginning, as Hand addresses his listener again. And here, we learn where Hand has been all along as he’s told his story.

Martin Edwards’ Dancing For the Hangman is the fictional retelling of the story of Dr. Hawley Crippen, and the famous murder of his wife, Cora. Edwards’ account begins and ends with notes from the Chief Government Archivist. In them, it’s clear that a manuscript written by Crippen has been discovered, and that it sheds a completely new light on the murder. The story itself begins as Crippen is in prison, awaiting execution. He tells of his early life, his young adulthood, his meeting with Cora, their marriage, and his later meeting with Ethel Le Neve. As the story goes on, we see the events from his perspective as doubts are raised about exactly what happened to Cora. Then, the story goes round again and ends with Crippen about to be executed. It’s an interesting way to tie the events together.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. That novel begins with an account of the discovery of the murders of Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan, and their son Sam. It’s told in first person, from the point of view of Angela and Rowan’s daughter Katy, who wasn’t home at the time of the murders. Then, the story moves to the perspective of Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne. She learns that Connor Bligh has been in prison for several years for those murders, but that there is a possibility he is innocent. If he is, this could be the story to establish Thorne’s place at the top of New Zealand journalism. So she begins to ask questions. The more questions she asks, the closer she gets to the story – too close for objectivity.  But eventually, Thorne learns what really happened on the day of the murders. The story comes round again at the end, and there are references to the same story Katy starts to tell at the beginning.

As you can see, there are several ways to tell a story. One option for telling a story is by means of a circular narrative. That narrative structure begins and ends a story in more or less the same place, often with the tale of how the character ended up in that place being the main plot.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Charlotte Jay, James M. Cain, Martin Edwards, Paddy Richardson, Talmage Powell

The Tree Fell Down*

Tree DamageThe ‘photo you see shows the aftermath of a tree falling on a covered parking spot. In case you’re wondering, that’s not my car. But it did happen in the community where I live. And it shows just how strong and powerful trees can really be. If you’ve ever had tree damage from a storm (that’s what actually happened in this case), you know what I mean.

Tree damage plays a role in crime fiction, too. Hadn’t thought about it before? Nor had I. But if you do think about it, you can see how tree damage can be used quite effectively in a crime novel. It can get people involved in cases, it can cause all sorts of tension, and it can be used to cover up a murder (or sometimes even cause one). Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, we are introduced to Sir George Stubbs and his wife, Hattie, who own Nasse House, in Nassecomb. It’s been the custom for a long time to hold an annual charity fête at Nasse House, and Sir George and Lady Hattie intend to continue that tradition. This year, they decide to include a Murder Hunt as one of the attractions, and they commission detective novelist Ariadne Oliver to create the hunt, the clues, and so on. But she suspects there’s more going on at Nasse House than just a charity event, so she asks Hercule Poirot to visit under the guise of handing out the prizes. Soon enough, he begins to wonder whether Mrs. Oliver might be right. Then, on the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who’s playing the part of the victim, is actually murdered. Now Poirot works with Inspector Bland to find out who killed a seemingly harmless teenage girl. In the process, he learns the Stubbs’ back story, including the story of the night George Stubbs brought his new bride Hattie to the house. That night, so Poirot is told, there was a terrible storm which knocked down a big oak tree. That fallen tree, and the damage the storm caused, plays a role in the story (I know, I know, fans of The Big Four).

Martin Edwards’ First Cut is the Deepest begins as Liverpool lawyer Harry Devlin agrees to a getaway weekend with his new flame Juliet May. They have to be careful, since she is married, and to a very dangerous person. But they do want to spend time together, so they arrange to borrow a cottage that belongs to Juliet’s assistant Linda Blackwell. A strong storm comes up, knocking a sycamore over on the cottage’s utility room. With no telephone service available, Juliet goes next door to the home of Carl Symons to ask if she can use his telephone to call Linda and tell her what’s happened. That’s when she discovers that he’s been brutally murdered. As fortune would have it, Symons is a Crown prosecutor whom Devlin’s known for a long time. That, plus the fact that he and Juliet will have to explain their presence, draws him into the case. That and the sycamore.

Monica Ferris’ Darned If You Do also begins with a serious storm. The small town of Excelsior, Minnesota is struck by a pocket of storm activity that causes an old elm tree to fall on Tom Riordan’s house, wounding him and trapping him in his bedroom. When Marianne Schultz, who lives next door, sees the damage, she gives the alert and Riordan is rescued. He’s injured, though, and is immediately taken to the nearest hospital. His cousin, Valentina Shipp, arrives to help, and soon sees that she’s not going to be able to clean up the damage alone. Betsy Devonshire, who owns Crewel World, a local needlework shop, is among several of the locals who volunteer to help clean up Riordan’s house while he recuperates. It’s not going to be easy, though, because Riordan is a hoarder. But the team gets started. Then, Riordan is murdered in the hospital. Valentina is the most likely suspect, since she is set to inherit everything. And in this case, ‘everything’ includes some valuable things that were hidden among her cousin’s vast collections. Valentina claims that she’s innocent, though, and it’s not long before Betsy begins to believe her. But if she isn’t guilty, then who killed Tommy Riordan and why?

In Paul Doiron’s Massacre Pond, Maine game warden Mike Bowditch is called to the scene when the bodies of ten moose are discovered on the property of Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Morse. The moose weren’t killed for food or sport, so it’s likely that they were left there to target Morse. An investigation begins, and it’s not long before Bowditch learns that there are several suspects. Morse was well-known as an ardent environmentalist and animal rights activist in this land of hunters and trappers. There’s also the fact that the lumber and building industries stand to lose if she has her way in converting a large chunk of land to a wildlife preserve. Things are dangerous enough as it is, but matters get far worse when Morse’s daughter Briar is killed. She’s driving on the property one night when she slams into a tree. On the surface it looks like a terrible accident, but Bowditch knows better. The victim was talking to him on her telephone when it happened, and she told him she was being chased by another vehicle. Now the question becomes, who would want to kill Briar and why? It’s a frightening case of a tree being used as a murder weapon.

And then there’s D.S. Nelson’s Model For Murder. Retired milliner Blake Heatherington lives in the usually-peaceful village of Tuesbury. One day, the village is shocked by the news that local newsagent Harold Salter has been murdered. His body has been found in a local wood, and the evidence shows he was struck on the head, and died after he fell onto a tree stump. At first it looks as though this might be a hate crime, since it’s well known Salter was gay. But soon enough, Heatherington finds that to be very unlikely. No threats had been reported, and no-one really seems to have cared very much about Salter’s private life. So Heatherington has to look for another explanation. It turns out that this death (and others that occur) has everything to do with a secret from someone’s past. Oh, and it’s not spoiling the story to say that a tree also provides a very interesting clue…

And that’s the thing about trees. They’re vital to our ecosystem, they’re strong, they’re powerful, and they’re beautiful. But…they can also be quite dangerous.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kithkin’s Treefell.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, D.S. Nelson, Martin Edwards, Monica Ferris, Paul Doiron

And With This Cat, it’s Curiosity*

CuriosityI’ll bet you know the feeling. You’re walking by someone’s door and see a notice on it. What does the notice say? Or you see a piece of paper someone’s dropped. Only take a second to read it. Perhaps you’re visiting someone’s house and see a drawer half-opened. No harm in peeking in for just a second, right?

Of course, most of us wouldn’t dream of, say, opening someone’s handbag and going through it, or looking through someone’s computer files. But humans are curious by nature as a rule. So it’s perfectly understandable that we sometimes have the urge to just have a peek, even we don’t follow through on it.

That curiosity is a very common plot point in crime fiction for a number of reasons. One is that it’s realistic. People do get curious. Another is that it can be a very effective premise for a story. Whether it’s looking through a drawer, overhearing a conversation, or something else, curiosity is a very useful to set up a motive for murder.

Agatha Christie used that plot point in several of her stories. For example, in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny to investigate the murder of a seemingly inoffensive charwoman. Everyone thinks that her lodger, James Bentley, is responsible, but Superintendent Spence has begun to think otherwise; hence Poirot’s presence. It’s not long before Poirot discovers that,
 

‘‘Of course she snooped a bit. Had a look at one’s letters and all that.’’
 

That curiosity turned out to be fatal for Mrs. McGinty, when she found out something it wasn’t safe for her to know. I see you, fans of Hickory, Dickory Dock.

Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone is the story of the well-off and well-educated Coverdale family. George and Jacqueline Coverdale are in need of a housekeeper, and they quickly settle on Eunice Parchman. Unfortunately, Jacqueline hasn’t done the research she should, because Eunice is hiding a secret. Still, all goes well enough at first, and Eunice settles into her job. Then, George’s daughter Melinda happens to be home from university when she accidentally discovers Eunice’s secret. It’s not that she goes through handbags or drawers, but her curiosity helps her to put two and two together as the saying goes. And that spells disaster for the family.

In one plot thread of Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue, Inspector John Rebus and his team investigate the death of Allan ‘Mitch’ Mitchison, an Aberdeen-based oil worker. At first, there doesn’t seem to be much reason for him to have been murdered. But as Rebus traces the victim’s last days and weeks, he learns that Mitch had found out some secrets it wasn’t safe for him to know. And when powerful, wealthy people don’t want others to know things, they have ways of making their wishes known…

Chris Grabenstein’s Hell Hole is the story of the murder of Corporal Shareef Smith, who’s recently returned from service in Iraq. His body is discovered in the men’s room of a highway rest stop, apparently a successful suicide. But Sea Haven, New Jersey police officer Danny Boyle isn’t so sure, and he convinces his boss John Ceepak to ask some questions. Smith’s commanding officer wants the case solved quickly; in fact, he’d rather mete out ‘vigilante’ justice. But Ceepak convinces him to wait for 24 hours before taking matters into his own hands. Ceepak and Boyle’s search for the truth pit them against some very influential people who are determined to keep some secrets that Smith had found out.

In Martin EdwardsThe Serpent Pool, Cumbria Constabulary DCI Hannah Scarlett and her team re-open the case of the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. That death turns out to be connected to two more recent deaths. And all three turn out to be related to some work that Oxford historian Daniel Kind is doing on Thomas De Quincey. In one sub-plot of this novel, Scarlett is going through a rough patch with her partner, rare book dealer Marc Amos. Matters aren’t helped when she accidentally leaves her telephone at home one day. Amos can’t resist the opportunity to just have a peek at her texts, and sees one from Kind. That discovery doesn’t solve the murders, but it plays its role in what happens in the story.

And then there’s Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall. Television star Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford has been planning to leave TV behind and open an antiques business with her mother, Iris. Everything changes, though, when she gets a call from Iris. It seems that Iris has changed her mind about the business, and has abruptly moved to the village of Little Dipperton, Devon. She’s purchased the carriage house on the estate of Honeychurch Hall, and plans to stay. Shocked at this news, Stanford goes to Little Dipperton right away. There, she finds that her mother’s broken one of her hands in a car accident. So Stanford decides to stay and help out, at least until her mother can manage on her own again. In one plot thread of this novel, Stanford discovers a locked door in the cottage. Then, she finds the key to it:
 

‘I knew it was wrong, but I just had to find out what was behind that locked door.’
 

When she opens the door, Sanford discovers some things about her mother than she never knew. And what she learns gives her a whole new perspective on the mother she thought she knew.

And that’s the thing about just opening that door a crack, or having a quick look at that letter. You never know what you’ll find…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Little River Band’s Curiosity (Killed the Cat).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Chris Grabenstein, Hannah Dennison, Ian Rankin, Martin Edwards, Ruth Rendell

He Started Something With His First “Hello, Hello”*

TelephoneAs I post this, today would have been Alexander Graham Bell’s 169th birthday. It’s not really an overstatement to say that the telephone, the invention with which he’s most closely associated, created a communications revolution. Today, we take for granted the ability to reach into a pocket or handbag, get our telephones, and call anyone we want. Modern telephones do even more. You can make hotel reservations, buy airline tickets, check into your flight, rent a car, and get a cab to the airport within a few moments, all with a telephone.

Telephones are crucial for police investigations, too, and they have been since long before you could take ‘photos with them. There was a time when houses had one telephone, with possibly an extension in another room. That meant few conversations were as private as one might have hoped.

That lack of privacy figures into Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal). When family patriarch Richard Abernethie suddenly dies, the rest of his family gathers for his funeral and the reading of his will. At that gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. Everyone discounts the idea, and she herself tells the group not to pay any attention to her. But secretly, everyone begins to wonder. Any doubts are put to rest when Cora herself is killed the next day. Family lawyer Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and Poirot agrees. At one point, one character remembers something that turns out to be an important clue. That character makes a telephone call to report that memory, but unfortunately, the wrong person overhears…

In Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Velvet Claw, Perry Mason gets a new client who calls herself Eva Griffin. She tells him she’s being blackmailed by tabloid reporter Frank Locke, who threatens to publish her relationship with up-and-coming politician Harrison Burke in Spicy Bits unless she pays him well. Being married to someone else, she knows this might ruin her lover’s career, and will certainly ruin her own reputation.  Mason agrees to take the case, and begins to communicate with Locke. He soon concludes that there’s more to this story than it seems. So he follows Locke to a nearby hotel, where he arranges with the hotel’s switchboard operator to trace a call that Locke makes. That information gives Mason the lead he needs to find out who’s set his client up for blackmail and why. At first it seems that this might be the end of the case. But that turns out not to be so, when Eva’s husband is shot and she becomes the prime suspect. Now Mason has to defend his client, even though he’s discovered that not much of what she says is the truth.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine takes place in 1990’s Shanghai, where many people use public telephones. When the body of national model worker Guang Hongying is discovered in a nearby canal, Chief Inspector Chen Cao and his assistant, Sergeant Yu Guangming are assigned to investigate. It’s a very delicate matter, because the victim was a sort of national role model – a celebrity in her own way. It takes time and patience, but the two detectives do rack down the killer. And part of the way they do that is by tracing a call that links the victim to the murderer.

Today, of course, many, many people have their own telephones. Those can be treasure troves of information, since lots of people store contact numbers, addresses, photographs, and lots more in their telephones. So those who don’t want to have their calls traced often use pay-as-you-go telephones. That’s what happens in Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage. In one plot thread of that novel, DS Bob Tidey and Garda Rose Chyney investigate the execution-style murder of dubious Dublin banker Emmet Sweetman. His killers are not exactly legitimate business contacts, so they did business with Sweetman through a pay-as-you-go ‘phone. Tidey and Cheney are lucky enough to find that telephone, and are able to link the killers to their victim. Incidentally, in another plot thread of the same novel, Vincent Naylor, his brother Noel, and some friends plot the robbery of a van belonging to Protectica, a company that transports cash among banks and firms. They pull off the heist by holding the driver’s wife hostage and sending pictures that prove she’s in danger.

They aren’t the only criminals who use telephones in that way, either. In Max Kinnings’ Baptism, three hostage-takers break into the home of London Underground train driver George Wakeham. They take his wife and children hostage, and order him to do as they tell him. He’s to go to his job as usual, and follow every instruction he is given by the hostage-takers. They then give him a special mobile ‘phone that he’s to keep with him at all times. With no other option, Wakeham does as he’s told, goes to his job, and takes his seat in the driver’s cab of his train. The hostage-takers board it shortly afterwards. And it’s not long before Wakeham understands that these people want to capture the entire train, with all 400-plus passengers. Hostage negotiator DCI Ed Mallory is assigned to try to find out what the hostage-takers want, so he has to establish communication with them, too. By telephone.

There are a lot of other examples, too, of the way police use telephones to get information about victims, suspects and more. And it’s not hard to see why. People do leave a lot of information on their telephones, sometimes more than is judicious. Just ask Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett. In The Serpent Pool, she and her Cold Case Review Team re-open the six-year-old murder of Bethany Friend. It turns out that that killing is tied to two more recent deaths. Oxford historian Daniel Kind is working on some research about Thomas de Quincey, and it turns out that his work is very useful to the cases Scarlett is investigating. One day, she goes out, forgetting her mobile ‘phone at home. When her partner, book dealer Marc Amos finds the telephone, he can’t resist the urge to check her messages. He’s been feeling unsettled about their relationship, and his worst fears seem to be coming true when he sees a text from Kind. That incident doesn’t solve the case, but it plays its role. And it shows just how much information a person can get from a telephone.

Telephones may drive us to the brink sometimes. What with robo-calls, people who have loud, public conversations, and so on, they can seem to do more harm than good. And modern telephones make it harder than ever to actually get away for a break. But where would we be without them?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sweet’s Alexander Graham Bell.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, Gene Kerrigan, Martin Edwards, Max Kinnings, Qiu Xiaolong

There are Elephants in Every Room I See*

Elephant in the RoomAt this time of year, a lot of people go to gatherings of friends and family. There are also the inevitable office gatherings. And if you pay attention to what people talk about, you’ll notice that there are things they don’t talk about as well: the proverbial elephant in the room.

At a company gathering, it may be an imminent buyout by another company. In a family get-together, it may be someone’s unemployment, or someone else’s worries about the choices a child is making. You get the idea. Of course those things are important, but a lot of people consider them too painful, or too divisive, or too something else to discuss. So they don’t, unless some outspoken person brings up the topic.

There are many examples of these ‘elephants in the room’ in crime fiction, and that makes sense. They can add an interesting layer of tension to a story; they can also make for solid motives for conflict – and worse.

Agatha Christie makes effective use of this social tendency in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal). In that novel, the members of the Abernethie family gather at the family home, Enderby, when patriarch Richard Abernethie dies. His will is read, and a few comments are made about it. Then, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up, and even she says not to pay attention to what she’s said. But it turns out that that question has been the elephant in the room here. And when Cora herself is murdered the next day, it’s clear that she was probably right. Mr. Entwhistle, the family lawyer, asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and Poirot agrees. Without spoiling the story, I can say that the ‘elephant in the room’ plot point is used very effectively here.

It is in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, too. The story is written from the point of view of fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone, who has autism. He’s high-functioning, but he doesn’t have a lot of social tact or the ability to read subtle social cues. Still, he’s very bright, and wants more than anything else to be a detective like Sherlock Holmes. He gets his chance when he discovers that the dog belonging to the people next door has been killed. They think he’s responsible, but Christopher knows he is not. So he decides to find out the truth. In the process, he finds out a great deal about himself. He also challenges his family to face an important elephant in their room: the loss of his mother.

In Martin Edwards’ The Hanging Wood, we are introduced to Orla Payne, who works at St. Herbert’s Residential Library. She’s intelligent, but emotionally fragile. In fact, one of the elephants in her family’s room is that her mother Niamh was also fragile and succumbed to alcoholism. The more important elephant, though, is that twenty years ago, Orla’s brother Callum disappeared. His body was never found, and it’s haunted the family ever since – especially Orla. One day, she makes a call to Cumbria Constabulary DCI Hannah Scarlett to ask her to look into the case. Unfortunately, Orla’s had far too much to drink, and doesn’t make her point coherently, so Scarlett doesn’t take the case seriously. She has good reason to later, though, when Orla commits suicide (or is it suicide?). Little by little, Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team connect Orla’s and Callum’s deaths; in the process, they uncover several family truths lying just beneath the surface.

Jane Casey’s How to Fall features eighteen-year-old Jess Tennant. After her parents’ bitter divorce, Jess travels with her mother Molly from London to Molly’s home town of Port Sentinel. The idea is to spend the summer visiting Molly’s twin sister Tilly and her family and taking some time to regroup. Not long after their arrival, Jess is confronted with the ‘family elephant’ – the death of her cousin Freya the year before. The family has handled it best by claiming that it was an accident, and that’s certainly possible, since Freya died of a fall from a cliff. And when Jess asks about it, she quickly learns that everyone wants to believe that explanation:

 

‘‘It was an accident, wasn’t it?’
‘As far as I know.’
‘Not suicide or something.’
The car lurched forward as Mum yanked the wheel, irritated. ‘Jess, I’m serious. Do not even suggest something like that to Tilly. Promise me.’
‘I was just asking.’
‘You can’t ask. It would be too hurtful.’
‘Because they don’t want to think Freya killed herself.’
‘Exactly.’
‘Don’t they want to know the truth, though?’
‘Not necessarily.’’
 

Soon, though, all sorts of hints and bits of evidence begin to suggest that there is more to Freya’s death than a tragic accident. So Jess begins to ask questions on her own.

The elephant in the room at the beginning of Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests is money. It’s 1922 in London, and Emily Wray and her daughter Sarah have been left in a very difficult financial position after the death of Emily’s husband (and Sarah’s father). At that time, and in that place, it’s still extremely uncommon for ‘well bred’ ladies to take up careers, so neither woman has marketable skills. They decide that the only option they have is to open their home to lodgers – ‘paying guests’ is the euphemism – to earn some money. Soon, Len Barber and his wife Lilian respond to the Wrays’ discreet advertisement and take rooms in the house. It’s all very awkward, especially at first, and part of that comes from the whole issue of money. It’s just not something that’s discussed in ‘polite circles.’ Soon enough, though, the Barbers’ arrival begins to have more consequences, and they become increasingly drastic.

It’s always difficult to have an easy conversation among people when they share a room with a large elephant. But it happens often enough, both in real life and in crime fiction. Which examples of this have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jon McLaughlin’s These Crazy Times.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Jane Casey, Mark Haddon, Martin Edwards, Sarah Waters