Category Archives: Megan Abbott

There is Good and Bad in Everyone*

DualNatureThere’s an old Cherokee story (you can read it here) in which a grandfather explains human nature to his grandson. He portrays it as a battle between our own good and evil tendencies, and claims that the side that wins is, as he puts it, ‘the one you feed.’

There’s a lot to that perspective if you think about it. We can look at human nature and good and evil from several points of view (philosophical, religious, anthropological, etc.). But, I’m not a philosopher, a member of the clergy, or an anthropologist. And besides, it’s a very large topic, and this is a very small blog. But even keeping the focus on crime fiction, we see plenty of examples of characters who ‘feed’ their ‘better angels’ as well as those who do just the opposite. In both cases, there are consequences.

G.K. Chesterton’s Hercule Flambeau begins as a notorious thief. In fact, in the short story The Blue Cross, we learn that he has gone from France to England, and is on his way to steal a valuable religious artifact. Flambeau has bested many people, including the French police. But Father Brown proves to be more than a match for him. Flambeau then chooses to ‘feed’ the better side of his nature. He gives up his larcenous career and becomes a private investigator. He doesn’t start going to religious services, and he enjoys a good wine as much as the next person. It’s not those outer trappings of what some people think of as ‘morality’ that change. Rather, it’s his decision to nurture the ethical side of his nature.

We see that sort of conversation and struggle in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, too. In that novel, Hercule Poirot is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Among the other hotel guests are famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall; her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall; and Marshall’s teenaged daughter Linda. It’s soon hotel gossip that Arlena is having a not-very-well-hidden affair with another guest, Patrick Redfern. So, when she is found murdered one day, her husband Kenneth comes under suspicion. He has a solid alibi, though, so Poirot and the police have to look elsewhere for the killer. One of the people they talk to is Linda Marshall. As it turns out, she hated her stepmother, and cannot be ruled out as the killer. At one point, she and Poirot have an interesting conversation about the difference between the urge to kill someone and actually going through with the act. That conversation, and one other one, suggests that, while Poirot is not naïve about the existence of evil, he does believe that people can choose to ‘feed’ their better natures, too. I see you, fans of Death on the Nile.

In Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks, we are introduced to fourteen-year-old Adam Vander. He’s finally managed to escape his abusive father, Joe. But Adam has been kept locked away for many years, so he has little knowledge of the world and no good skills to survive in it. Fortunately, he meets Billy Benson, a young man who’s at the house when Adam makes his escape, and who becomes his ally. The two spend the next week together, and Billy provides Adam with a great deal of ‘street knowledge,’ as well as basics like a place to stay, clothes, and food. As they spend time together, the two also become friends, and begin to confide in each other. It turns out that both of them are haunted by the past, and by their connections to the tragic disappearance of a small boy from a crowded market ten years earlier. As the story evolves, both Adam and Billy learn something about ‘feeding one’s better nature,’ and about starting over, if I can put it that way.

Of course, people sometimes ‘feed’ their worse – even evil – side as well. After all, where would crime fiction be if they didn’t? And when they do, the result can be disastrous.

In Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair, we are introduced to Gilbert Hand, who works for a publishing firm. He’s recently moved to a very respectable London hotel, where he’s hoping to start over after the tragic death of his wife. Shortly after his arrival, he makes a bizarre discovery: in the davenport in his room, he finds a long coil of dark hair, wrapped in a scarf. Hand gets curious about the room’s former occupant and soon learns that it was man named Freddie Doyle. Now he’s even more curious, especially when Doyle pays him a visit to ask for the coil of hair (which request Hand refuses). Little by little, Hand becomes obsessed with Doyle, at the same repulsed and fascinated by him. He imagines a sort of ‘chess game’ between them. As his obsession grows, Hand starts to ‘feed’ his darker side, and the result leads to real tragedy.

A similar thing happens in Ruth Rendell’s 13 Steps Down. Mix Cellini takes a flat in a home owned by Gwendolyn Chawcer. They don’t really like each other, but it’s a business arrangement; and on that level, it works. Through his profession (he repairs exercise equipment), Cellini meets supermodel Merissa Nash. He’s immediately smitten, and soon goes beyond that to obsession. At the same time, he learns about the life of notorious killer Richard Christie. The more he reads, the more obsessed Cellini becomes with Christie, too. Little by little, he starts to ‘feed’ his darker side, and the end result, as you’d expect, is disastrous.

It does in Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep, too. Dr. Everett Seeley has lost his medical license due to his drug problems. He decides to go to Mexico to start over; but until he gets settled, he doesn’t want to bring his wife Marion with him. So he establishes her in a Phoenix apartment, and sets her up with a job as a file clerk in the exclusive Werden Clinic. At first, all goes well enough. Marion even makes two friends: Louise Mercer (a nurse at the clinic) and Louise’s roommate Ginny Hoyt. It’s not long before Marion starts spending more time with them, and getting more and more involved in their edgy, even dangerous, lifestyle of wild parties, drugs and drinking. As time goes on, Marion begins to ‘feed’ her own darker and more dangerous side. The end result is an awful tragedy that impacts everyone involved.

Oh, and speaking of Abbotts, you’ll also want to check out Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel as a really interesting example of making choices between which side of our nature we ‘feed.’ Eve Moran has always nurtured her selfish side, letting nothing – not even someone’s life – get in the way of what she wants. Her daughter Christine’s been brought up with this influence, and has been caught in her mother’s web, so their relationship is truly dysfunctional. But everything changes when Christine sees that her little brother Ryan is at risk. Now she’s going to have to find a way to free herself and her brother from their mother’s influence.

And that’s the thing about human nature. People generally aren’t all good or all bad. The choices we make – the side of our nature that we ‘feed’ – plays a major role in what we do. And those choices can have far-reaching consequences.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s Ebony and Ivory.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Charlotte Jay, G.K. Chesterton, Honey Brown, Megan Abbott, Patricia Abbott, Ruth Rendell

I Really Need This Job*

InterviewsOne of the facts of life for most working adults is the job interview. Whether the job is bagging groceries, managing a warehouse, or performing cardiac surgery, getting it usually involves at least one interview. Sometimes there’s more than one interview, and sometimes, the interview process involves talking to several different people.

Interviews seldom go as planned. If I may share two personal examples, at one interview, I happened to have a terrible cold. At another, the interview ended just as a severe snowstorm moved in, and it was quite a harrowing trip back home. But even if the interview goes very well, it’s still a nerve-wracking experience. For the company or institution that’s hiring, it’s time-consuming and can be a real drain on resources. But that’s the way new people are usually hired.

Job interviews figure a lot in crime fiction, which shouldn’t be surprising, since they happen so often in real life. And that tension can add much to a crime novel’s plot or character development.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, for instance, Violet Hunter is interviewed by Jephro Rucastle for the position of governess to his six-year-old son. It’s an odd interview, as he asks her some unusual questions. In fact, she’s not sure she should take the job. But then, Rucastle raises the salary offer so much that she really can’t resist. So she visits Sherlock Holmes to ask his advice. Among other things, he tells her that if she ever needs him, all she has to do is contact him. It’s not long, either, before that’s exactly what happens. As it turns out, she’s been hired as a part of a larger plan, and she’s in very grave danger.

Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) introduces readers to London hairstylist’s assistant Jane Grey. When she wins some money in a sweepstakes, she decides to take a trip to Le Pinet. She’s on the flight back to England when one of the other passengers, Marie Morisot, dies of what turns out to be poison. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight, and he works with Chief Inspector Japp to find the murderer. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on that flight, so it’s a relatively small circle of suspects. Among them are famous archaeologist Armand Dupont and his son Jean. For various reasons, Poirot wants Jane to get to know the Duponts. He even manages to wangle a spot for her on an upcoming dig. She knows nothing about archaeology, but Poirot convinces the Duponts to at least consider her. Here’s what Poirot says to Jane about it:
 

‘‘By the way, I must obtain for you in the morning a handbook on prehistoric pottery of the Near East. I have said that you are passionately interested in the subject.’’
 

Later, he suggests this:
 

‘‘If M. Jean Dupont should ring up or call, be amiable to him. Talk of buttons and socks, but not as yet of prehistoric pottery. He admires you, but he is intelligent!’’
 

It certainly makes for an interesting job opportunity.

In Robert Colby’s novella No Experience Necessary, we meet Glenn Hadlock. He’s a convicted felon who’s recently been released from prison, so his job chances are limited. But one day he sees an advertisement that interests him. Victor Scofield is looking for a bodyguard/chauffer for his wife, Eileen. Hadlock goes to the Scofield home on the appointed day, and waits with a group of other applicants. When he meets Scofield, he learns more about the family. Scofield himself is completely disabled and unable to leave his room. But, as he tells Hadlock, he doesn’t want that fact to restrict his wife unnecessarily. Hadlock gets the job, and at first, all is well. The pay is good, the working conditions excellent, and Eileen Scofield is pleasant company. But Hadlock soon learns that this job is going to be much more dangerous than he thought.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little is the story of Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. She’s always been very close to her brother, Bill, and protective of him. So when he meets and falls in love with former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant Alice Steele, Lora isn’t too happy about it. But even she admits to herself that it’s probably because of her protectiveness. When Bill and Alice marry, Lora tries to be happy for them. But little by little, she begins to have some real questions about Alice. For example, Bill asks her to get an interview for Alice at the school where she teaches. He says that Alice has her teaching certificate, and could do the job. The school’s principal, Don Evans, is eager to replace a teacher who’s getting ready to leave, so he doesn’t do a thorough check. Before anyone knows it, Alice is working at the school. She doesn’t know anything, really, about teaching, and it turns out she’s lied about having her teaching certificate, too. As Lora learns more about Alice’s life, she is at the same time repulsed by it and drawn to it. Then there’s a murder, and Alice is very likely mixed up in it. It just shows you have to be careful whom you interview. Am I right, fans of Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone?

Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen’s Winemaker Detective series features noted oenologist Benjamin Cooker. In the first of this series, Treachery in Bordeaux, he is preparing to meet Virgile Lanssien, who wants a job as Cooker’s assistant. Here’s a little of how the interview goes:
 

‘Virgile Lanssien tried to hide his apprehension and answered as distinctly as possible the volley of questions that descended on him.’
 

Cooker isn’t unpleasant, but he does want to know just how much Lanssien understands about winemaking. The interview goes very well, and Lanssien is hired. He turns out to be very helpful, too, when Cooker is asked to find out who has sabotaged some of a fellow winemaker’s harvest.

And then there’s P.J. Parrish’s Dead of Winter. This story begins as Louis Kincaid travels to Loon Lake, Michigan for a job interview with the Loon Lake police force. To his surprise, Police Chief Brian Gibraltar hires him after a very short conversation. He’s given his assignment and he prepares to get to work. It’s not long before he learns the reason for which there was an opening on the police force. Just a few weeks earlier, Officer Thomas Pryce was killed in his home. Kincaid gets Gibraltar’s permission to look more deeply into the case, and he gets to work. Then, there’s another death, this time of a retired officer. Kincaid soon learns that several of the people involved are not telling everything they know. It turns out that this is much more than just someone who’s targeting police offers.

Job interviews can be successful, disastrous, funny, and a lot else. They have interesting dynamics, and there’s always a lot of tension around them. Little wonder we see so many of them in crime fiction.

 

 
 

*NOTE; The title of this post is a line from Marvin Hamlish and Edward Kleban’s I Hope I Get It.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Megan Abbott, Noël Balen, P.J. Parrish, Robert Colby, Ruth Rendell

All Day Long, Wearing a Mask of False Bravado*

Hiding Behind MasksWe all wear masks, if you think about it. A person may be honest and straightforward, for instance, in business, but does anyone really need to know about the knee-knocking fear that person feels every time a major presentation comes up? When people go on first dates, they want everything to go smoothly and to make a good first impression. So, they take pains with appearance, try to keep the conversation to things they know about, and so on.

Sometimes those masks are deliberately deceptive of course. We’ve all read stories, both real and fictional, of people who pretend to be something they most definitely aren’t. More often, though, the masks we wear are meant to preserve privacy or to hide our insecurities and weaknesses. Because that’s such a human thing to do, it’s no surprise that we see it in crime fiction, too.

In Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), for instance, Hercule Poirot is present at a cocktail party during which one of the guests, Reverend Stephen Babbington, suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. He didn’t have any enemies, and certainly no fortune to leave, so it’s hard to establish the motive at first. Not very long afterwards, there’s another, similar poisoning, this time at another house party. Many of the same people were at both events, so it’s hard to argue that the two cases are not connected. One of the ‘people of interest’ here is Oliver Manders, a young man who’s just getting started in his career. He has all of the insecurities that a lot of young people have as they move out into the world. So he wears a mask of jaded boredom and sarcasm. It certainly doesn’t endear him to others, but Poirot sees that he’s really just an unhappy young man who’s no more pleased with his annoying mask than anyone else is.

Fans of Reginald Hill’s series featuring Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant (later Inspector) Peter Pascoe will know that Sergeant Edgar Wield wears a sort of mask, at least at first. Wield is a part of Dalziel’s team, and does his job well. But he’s gay at a time and in a place where it’s not wise to let that fact be widely known. Everything changes in Child’s Play, though. In that novel, the team is investigating the strange case of the Lomas family. Wealthy Geraldine Lomas left her considerable fortune to her long-lost son, provided he returned by 2015. When she died, a man claiming to be that son came to her funeral, so now it looks as though he is set to inherit the money. Then he’s killed, and his body found in a car at the police station. In one of the sub-plots of this novel, Wield comes out as gay. It’s awkward for him, but as it turns out, not nearly as difficult for his bosses as he thought it might be.

We see a similar kind of mask in Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit. Successful (and married) accountant Daniel Guest has been leading a sort of double life. He’s also had several trysts with men, and in that sense, identifies as gay. But he doesn’t want to come out. That choice has gotten him into trouble, as he’s being blackmailed. Guest hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who the blackmailer is and get that person to stop. Quant thinks it would be better for his client to come out as gay, but Guest refuses to do that. So Quant starts asking questions. The trail leads him to New York City – and to an unexpected murder.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little introduces readers to Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King and her brother Bill, who’s a junior investigator for the district attorney’s office. It’s the 1950’s, when everyone is expected to get married, settle down and have a family. So when Bill meets former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant Alice Steele, it seems that ‘suburban dream’ is about to come true for him. Lora tries to be happy for her brother, but right from the start, she’s not too fond of Alice. Still, Bill is in love, and the two get married. For Bill’s sake, Lora tries to get along with her new sister-in-law. And on the surface, Alice is a happy suburban wife. She becomes the ‘star’ of their circle of friends, and takes great pains to ensure that every event she hosts comes off perfectly. Behind that mask, though, Lora senses something dark. As she starts to learn more about Alice’s life, she is both repelled by it and drawn to it. Then there’s a murder, and a good possibility that Alice may be mixed up in it. Now Lora worries for her brother’s safety. Alice isn’t what she seems, but what, exactly, is she?

And then there’s Louise Penny’s Yvette Nichol. When we first meet her in Still Life, she’s just been made a member of the Sûreté du Québec, and is excited about this promotion. Even more, she’s been assigned to work with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, who has a strong reputation. Nichol has had an unfortunate background with a dysfunctional family. That in itself puts her at a disadvantage. She also has the insecurities that any young person might when starting a career with a prestigious leader. She doesn’t want to appear weak, and wants desperately to belong. But instead of asking questions, listening to advice, and doing as she’s asked, Nichol hides her insecurity behind a mask of smugness and arrogance. Her decision not to be honest with herself and others leads to a tense story arc (which I won’t spoil by revealing).

Masks may not always be the wisest choice. But we all wear them. We all present ourselves (as best we can) in the way we want others to see us. So it’s no wonder that there are so many masks in crime fiction.

Thanks to Tim, who blogs at Beyond Eastrod, for the inspiration for this post. Now, do go visit his blog. Lots of interesting ‘food for thought’ awaits you there.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Player’s Baby Come Back.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Louise Penny, Megan Abbott, Reginald Hill

Friday Night Arrives Without a Suitcase*

LuggageAny sort of travel involves luggage. Whether it’s a small ‘weekend’ size bag, or the largest suitcase an airline allows, luggage reflects a lot about the person who owns it. For instance, some people pack very neatly…and some don’t. And people tend to pack things in a certain way, even given today’s tight restrictions on what passengers may bring aboard a flight.

And then there’s the matter of how much you pack. Some people pack very heavily, and bring everything that they might need. It means they have to check luggage and get it wherever they’re going, but it also means they’re prepared for a lot of eventualities. Others pack very light. That’s the way I am. I only bring exactly what I need, and I don’t check my luggage through – ever. That’s got its advantages and disadvantages, and it does raise some eyebrows. If you’ll indulge me, here’s one example. I recently returned from a (roughly) week-long trip to New Zealand. When I returned, I went through Customs and Immigration at Los Angeles.  After having my passport stamped, etc., I started to leave the secured area, since all I had brought was one small pilot-sized suitcase and my handbag. One of the security people came over to me and we had this conversation:
 

Security Officer: ‘Can I help you?’
Me: ‘Oh, no, thanks. I’m all done the process – just leaving.’
Security Officer: ‘But you have to get your checked luggage from the carousel, and that has to go through security, too.’
Me: ‘Thanks – I don’t have any checked luggage.’
Security Officer Looking at my suitcase and handbag: ‘Are you sure? Because if you do, you’re going to have to get it and send it through security.’
Me: ‘No, this is all I have.’

 

The security officer was doing her job, and doing it courteously, but she must have wondered at a person who spends a week in another country and has so little luggage.

There are good reasons to be very careful about luggage. Don’t believe me? All you have to do is read some crime fiction. There are a lot of examples of luggage that turns out to contain all sorts of things.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot is on board the famous Orient Express on a three-day trip through Europe. On the second night, Samuel Ratchett, one of the other passengers, is stabbed. At the request of Poirot’s friend M. Bouc, who is a director of the company that owns the train, he agrees to investigate. The idea is for him to find out who the killer is before the train reaches the next border, so that he can hand the murderer over to the police. At one point, it’s deemed appropriate to do a search of the passenger’s luggage, and it’s quite surprising what turns up in two particular suitcases…

In John Alexander Graham’s Something in the Air, Professor Jake Landau is on a plane from Boston to New York with his friend and attorney Martin Ross. They’ve been working through the details of Landau’s divorce from his wife, and both are tired just from that process. All of that’s forgotten when a bomb goes off in the plane. Six passengers are killed, including Ross. Landau survives, and decides to try to find out who killed his friend. The only problem is, he’s stymied right from the beginning by airline policy and FBI security regulations. But Landau persists, and finds out that the bombing is related to a powerful and far-reaching drugs ring. And how did the bomb get on the airplane? In a suitcase that’s later stolen by the bomber just before he is killed, too. As an aside, this novel was published in 1970, long before today’s luggage screening protocols. Crime writers who write contemporary crime novels would find it difficult to re-create that sort of scenario.

Megan Abbott’s historical novel Bury Me Deep is the story of Marion Seeley, whose doctor husband Everett has to leave the country when his cocaine habit costs him his medical license. He sees that his wife is set up in an apartment in Phoenix, with a clerical job at the prestigious Werden Clinic. At first, all goes well enough. Marion settles in and forms friendships with a Werden nurse, Louise Mercer, and Louise’s roommate Ginny Hoyt. Before she knows it, Marion is drawn into their world of parties, drugs, and dubious ‘friends.’ As she slips closer and closer to the edge, Marion gets more deeply involved in that world. It all leads to tragedy for those involved. Interestingly enough, this novel is loosely based on the 1933 case of Winnie Ruth Judd, who was accused of killing two of her friends. The bodies were later discovered in trunks that Judd took with her to Los Angeles after the murders…

In Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ The Boy in the Suitcase, we are introduced to Copenhagen Red Cross nurse Nina Borg. One day she gets a call from her friend Karin Kongsted. She wants Nina to go to the train station and pick up a suitcase that’s waiting in one of the lockers. She seems upset about the suitcase, but won’t tell Nina what’s wrong, nor why she needs the suitcase. Nina agrees to get the luggage and goes to the train station. To her shock, she finds that the suitcase contains a three-year-old boy. He’s drugged and dazed, but he is alive. Immediately she tries to reach Karin, but she can’t make contact. In the meantime, Sigita Ramoškienė, a young Lithuanian mother, faces every parent’s worst nightmare when her three-year-old son Mikas goes missing. The police aren’t very helpful; in fact, they suspect her of having something to do with Mikas’ disappearance. So she determines to find out on her own what happened to him. The trail leads her to Copenhagen, and it’s not long before we learn that the three-year-old boy that Nina Borg found is, in fact, Mikas. Now, each in her own way, Sigita and Nina work to find out who abducted Mikas and why. In the end, and after a brutal murder, they discover the truth.

And then there’s Elly Griffiths’ The Zig Zag Girl. It’s 1950, and magician Max Mephisto is on the circuit with other magicians, fortune-tellers, and other carnival people. He’s called in to help when the body of a young woman is found at Brighton’s Left Luggage Department. The body has been cut up in what DI Edgar Stephens thinks is a macabre re-enactment of one of Mehpisto’s illusions. So he’s hoping Mephisto will have some insight into who might be responsible for the murder.

Of course, luggage doesn’t always contain such horrible things as bodies and bombs. For instance, in Anthony Bidulka’s Aloha Candy Hearts, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant is visiting his partner Alex Canyon in Hawai’i. He’s at the airport, preparing for the return to Canada, when he meets an enigmatic stranger who turns out to be archivist Walter Angel. Angel slips a cryptic message, a lot like a treasure map, into Quant’s hand luggage before Quant boards his flight. Shortly afterwards, Angel is murdered. Quant follows up on the clue he was given, and connects the killing to some dark secrets right in his own Saskatchewan.

You see what I mean about luggage? You’ll want to be very careful about yours, and don’t leave it unattended…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Lady Madonna.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Anthony Bidulka, Elly Griffiths, John Alexander Graham, Lene Kaaberbøl, Megan Abbott

She’ll Get a Hold on You, Believe It*

Femmes FatalesOne of the more memorable kinds of characters, especially (but not exclusively) in Golden Age ‘hardboiled’ novels, is the femme fatale. She is alluring and seductive, and that often spells ruin for anyone who gets involved with her. She’s an interesting character, actually. On the one hand, she is often depicted as wily, deceptive and sometimes a criminal. On the other, she is also depicted as independent, strong, and unwilling to accept the roles that society has laid out for her. You may not trust her, but you can’t help but admire her in a way. That kind of complexity has made the femme fatale an enduring sort of character. I’ve only space here for a few examples, but that’s all right; I know you’ll think of more than I ever could, anyway.

In Erle Stanley Gardner’s first Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws, Mason gets a visit from a woman who calls herself Eva Griffin. She says that she is being blackmailed by Frank Locke, a reporter for a tabloid called Spicy Bits. The tabloid has evidence that Griffin, who is married, was at the Beechwood Inn with up-and-coming politician Harrison Burke. Now, Locke is threatening to release the story unless Griffin pays him. She wants Mason to find Locke and stop him.  Mason agrees, but almost immediately runs into problems in this case. The major one is that Eva Griffin is not who she says she is. Her surname is actually Belter, and she’s been telling several other lies, too, about her situation. Still, she is Mason’s client, so he keeps working on her behalf. Then one night, she places a frantic call to him. Her husband George has been shot, and she’s terrified. Mason goes to her, and before he knows it, is drawn into a murder case in which both he and his client are suspects. He’s going to have to find Belter’s real killer if he’s going to clear his own name and defend his client.

Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia features noted archaeologist Eric Leidner and his wife, Louise.  Leidner and his dig team are hoping to make some important discoveries at their site a few hours from Baghdad. Louise is joining the team for the first time, and isn’t fitting in particularly well. On the one hand, she can be both polite and charming when she wishes; and she has a certain ‘polish’ and sophistication. On the other hand, she can be rude and cutting as well. But even those who dislike her admit that she has a sort of magic that can draw people to her. One afternoon, she is murdered in her bedroom. Hercule Poirot is in the area, having finished another case, and is now on his way back to London. He is persuaded to change his plans and investigate the murder. As he looks into the case, he gets to know quite a lot about the victim’s personality:
 

‘She disliked domination – she disliked the feeling of belonging to someone else – in fact she disliked playing second fiddle.
 

He also learns how Louise Leidner impacted everyone around her. That effect certainly plays its role in her death.

Fans of Raymond Chandler will know that several of his stories feature femmes fatales. In The Big Sleep, for instance, General Guy Sternwood hires Los Angeles PI Philip Marlowe to stop a blackmailer, book dealer Arthur Geiger, from extorting his family. Marlowe is persuaded, and goes in search of Geiger; but by the time he finds his quarry, Geiger’s dead. Sternwood’s daughter Carmen is at the murder scene, but she is either drugged or having a breakdown, so she can’t help much. Marlowe decides to get her to safety; that choice draws him into a case of multiple murder. It also means he crosses paths with both Carmen and her sister Vivian Regan. Both are seductive and, in their ways, quite toxic. As their father puts it,
 

‘Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat.’
 

And both women’s femme fatale personalities play their roles in the story’s events. I know, I know, fans of The Lady in the Lake and of Farewell, My Lovely. Both have terrific examples of femmes fatales.

James M. Cain also included several femmes fatales in his work. For instance, in The Postman Always Rings Twice, we meet Frank Chambers, an aimless drifter who ends up working at a roadside diner. He is attracted to the owner’s wife, Cora Papadakis, and the feeling seems to be mutual. Cora is unhappy in her marriage, and wants both her freedom and the diner. So she and Frank plot to kill her husband, Nick. Then, everything starts to spin out of control, and as with most noir stories, things don’t go at all as planned.  They don’t in Double Indemnity, either. In that story, insurance agent Walter Huff meets Phyllis Nirdlinger, the wife of one of his clients. It doesn’t take long for him to fall under her spell; and before much time has passed, she’s drawn him into a plot to kill her husband for insurance money. As you can guess, things don’t work out the way either hopes they will.

Minette Walters’ The Breaker is the story of the murder of thirty-two-year-old Kate Sumner, whose body is discovered by Chapman’s Pool, in Dorset. PC Nick Ingram is first on the scene, so he begins the investigation. He, DI John Galbraith, WPC Sandra Griffiths, and Superintendent Carpenter narrow down the list of suspects to three. One is the victim’s husband, William. The other two are an actor, Stephen Harding, and his roommate, schoolteacher Tony Bridges. In this case, we don’t have the sort of femme fatale who induces a man to murder someone else. But we do have a seductive character who is independent and, in her own way, quite manipulative.

And then there’s Megan Abbott’s historical novel Queenpin. That’s the story of the infamous Gloria Denton, hardened mob moll who’s ‘seen it all and done it all.’ We see Gloria through the eyes of her twenty-two-year-old protégée, who’s recently been hired to do the books at a seedy Las Vegas club called Tee Hee. Little by little Gloria introduces the narrator of the story to the late-night-life of casinos, betting, and a lot of money. Then, the narrator falls for a small-time gambler, Vic Riordan. Now, everything changes, and things begin to take a very noir turn…

Speaking of Abbotts…Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel features Eve Moran and her daughter Christine. Eve has a lot of the qualities of a femme fatale. She’s independent, seductive, and clever. She is also very toxic, and stops at nothing to get what she wants – including murder. Christine has been raised in this dysfunctional atmosphere, and it’s had a powerful impact on her. But then, she sees that her three-year-old brother Ryan is beginning to get caught in the same dangerous pattern. Now she’s going to have to find a way to free both of them from Eve’s spell.

And femmes fatales do have a way of casting spells over people. It’s part of what can make them so compelling. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Philip Bailey, Phil Collins, and Nathan East’s Easy Lover.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, James M. Cain, Megan Abbott, Minette Walters, Patricia Abbott, Raymond Chandler