Category Archives: Ngaio Marsh

It’s Curtain Time and Away We Go!*

Stage AdaptationsIn Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings run into several difficulties and obstacles as they work to solve the murder of wealthy Miss Emily Arundell. One evening, Hastings suggests that they take a break from the case and go to a play, and Poirot enthusiastically agrees. The evening goes well enough, except that Hastings admits he’s made one mistake: taking Poirot to a crook play.
 

‘There is one piece of advice I offer to all my readers. Never take a soldier to a military play, a sailor to a naval play, a Scotsman to a Scottish play, a detective to a thriller – and an actor to any play whatsoever!’
 

And yet, crime fiction fans do enjoy going to mystery/thriller plays. Sometimes they’re adaptations of novels or short stories. Sometimes they’re originally written as plays. Other times they’re ‘audience participation’ plays. In any case, they’re popular.

Adapting a story for the different media (print, film, theatre) isn’t always easy. But there’ve been many stories that have made their way from print to stage (or vice versa). And it’s interesting to see how they’re adapted. Here are just a few examples.

Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger is the story of Ellen and Robert Bunting, a couple who spent several years ‘in service,’ and have now retired. As a way to earn income, they’ve opened their home to lodgers, but so far, haven’t been overly successful. Then, a mysterious stranger who calls himself Mr. Sleuth takes a room. He’s a little odd; but at first it seems like a fine arrangement. He’s quiet, pays promptly, and so on. Bit by bit though, the Buntings begin to suspect that something might be very wrong. Could Mr. Sleuth somehow be connected to a series of murders committed by a man who calls himself The Avenger? On the one hand, the Buntings depend on the income from their lodger. On the other, if he does have something to do with the Avenger killings, they should inform the police. It’s an interesting psychological study which was adapted for the stage in 1916 as Who is He?

Edgar Wallace adapted his own novel The Gaunt Stranger as a play that he called The Ringer. He later edited the original novel and re-released it with the same name as the play. In the story, Henry Arthur Milton, who calls himself ‘The Ringer,’ is a vigilante who’s gone into hiding in Australia. Then he learns that his sister Gwenda has been found dead, and returns to London to avenge her. He targets the man he blames; and of course, Scotland Yard can’t support ‘vigilante justice,’ so they’ll have to find The Ringer before he can take justice into his own hands. The major problem is, he’s very good at disguising himself – so good that no-one knows what he looks like. You can find out lots more about this story in a really interesting post by Sergio at Tipping My Fedora. And you’ll want that excellent blog on your blog roll anyway – it’s the source for classic crime novels and film adaptations.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories have been adapted for the stage. The Mousetrap, for instance, has been running continuously since 1952. It had its origin in a short story (which was based on a radio play!) called Three Blind Mice. There’s also The Yellow Iris, which began as a short story in which Rosemary Barton dies of cyanide poisoning during a dinner party. It’s believed her death is suicide, but her widower George says otherwise. A year later, he stages another dinner party with the same people to see if he can catch the killer. Interestingly enough, Christie also developed this into the novel Sparkling Cyanide, ‘though she changed both the sleuth and the murderer.

James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice is the story of Frank Chambers and Cora Papadakis, who meet when Frank, who’s a drifter, ends up working in the diner owned by Cora and her husband Nick.  Frank and Cora begin an affair that ends up having disastrous results when they decide to get rid of Nick. Originally, this was written as a short novel, but it’s been adapted several times for film, and twice (that I’m aware of) for the stage: in 2005 in London’s West End, and in 2008 in Moscow.

And then there’s Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon, the last Lord Peter Wimsey novel she completed. In the novel, Wimsey and Harriet Vane have finally married. But trouble starts when they travel to Tallboys, the country home Wimsey’s bought for his bride, and they place they intend to spend their honeymoon. When the body of the house’s former owner is found in the basement, the wedding couple have a new mystery to solve. This story had its origins in a 1936 play that Sayers co-wrote, and was later adapted as a full-length novel.

Ruth Rendell’s An Unkindness of Ravens is the thirteenth in her Reg Wexford series. In the novel, Wexford agrees to look into the disappearance of Rodney Williams. At first he’s not overly concerned about the man. All indications are that he’d run off with another woman – not exactly ‘upstanding,’ but not really a police matter. Then, Williams’ suitcase and car are found. Later, his body is discovered. Then there’s another stabbing. It’s now clear that this is more than just a case of a man who treated his wife badly. While not as well-known as some other stage adaptations are, this novel has been adapted as a play.

And I don’t think I could do a post about crime novels and the theatre without mentioning Ngaio Marsh, whose career was so heavily influenced by her work on and behind the stage. Many of her stories feature plays, stage settings and so on.

There’s just something about seeing a crime story played out on the stage. There are some nuances that it’s much harder to get across in print than ‘live.’ So it’s little wonder that so many crime novels either had their start as plays or have been adapted for that media. Which ones have you enjoyed?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Cole Porter’s Another Op’nin’ Another Show.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Edgar Wallace, James M. Cain, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Ngaio Marsh, Ruth Rendell

Livin’ it Up When I Hit the Ground*

ElevatorsYou may not even remember the last time you used one, because we use them so frequently. And a lot of times we don’t even think about it when we do. I’m talking about elevators – lifts. No matter what you call them, they are extremely convenient, especially when the alternative is to take a lot of stairs.

You might not think about this, because they’re so mundane, but elevators are also really useful in crime fiction. They make very effective places for characters to interact. Also, in lots of modern public elevators, there are CCTV cameras that allow for helpful information about who goes in and out of a building. They can be dangerous places, too, so it’s little wonder some people don’t like them. They’re all throughout the genre, but space only permits me a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot goes to his dentist Henry Morley for his regularly scheduled cleaning. Later, Chief Inspector Japp pays him a visit to tell him that Morley has been shot in his surgery. The official explanation is suicide, but Japp doesn’t agree. Poirot takes an interest in the matter, especially when the case is complicated by the death of one patient and the disappearance of another. One of the things that has to be established is who came to see Morley and at what times. For that information, Poirot and Japp rely on Alfred, the boy who answers the door and takes patients up in the elevator to see Morley or his partner Dr. Reilly. They hope Alfred will have a good memory of who came and went, and who went up and down in the elevator at the time in question. Alfred has a lot of trouble getting names right, but he provides Poirot with an important clue.

If you’re a fan of Ngaio Marsh’s work, you probably thought of A Surfeit of Lampreys (AKA Death of a Peer) as soon as you knew the topic of this post. Roberta Grey is more or less adopted by the very eccentric Lamprey family during their visit to her native New Zealand. When Roberta is left, as the saying goes, alone in the world, she travels to England and is immediately taken in by the Lampreys. She’s therefore mixed up in it all when the Lampreys have a case of murder in the family. They’re not particularly good at making wise financial decisions, and have traditionally gone to wealthy but unpleasant Gabriel ‘Uncle G’ Lord Wutherwood, the older brother of family patriarch Sir Charles Lamprey. Uncle G finally decides to stop supporting his brother’s family, and he and Sir Charles have a violent quarrel about it. Shortly after that, Uncle G is murdered in an elevator. Inspector Roderick Alleyn takes the case, and has to work through an odd assortment of family members and a variety of motives to find out who the killer is.

An elevator is also the scene of a murder in Andrea Camilleri’s The Snack Thief. One morning, semi-retired business executive Aurelio Lapècora is murdered in the elevator of his apartment building. Commissario Salvo Montalbano and his team investigate the case, which at first looks like a private murder. But the team is also investigating another case, the accidental (or was it?) killing of a Tunisian sailor who happened to be aboard an Italian fishing ship when he was killed. Montalbano comes to believe the two cases are related, and so they are (although not in the way you might think). One of the interesting aspects of this story is Montalbano’s attempt to find out exactly when Lapècora was murdered. Was he killed in his own home and then put in the elevator? If not, at which floor was he murdered? The answers don’t come easily, since the other residents of the apartment building have their various reasons for not telling everything they know.

An elevator also figures in Anya Lipska’s Death Can’t Take a Joke. DC Natalie Kershaw is investigating the case of a man who seems to have committed suicide by jumping off a building. As it turns out, the explanation for his death is quite different. In the meantime, Janusz Kiszka, Lipska’s other protagonist, is searching for the murderer of a friend of his, who was shot right on his own property. He and Kershaw find that the cases do have a link. At one point, Kiszka is on the trail of someone he thinks is key to the murders. In order to follow up on that lead, he attends a very posh party that takes place in an exclusive sort of apartment. When his quarry senses that Kiszka may be on to him, he and Kiszka go on the hunt for each other and there’s a very suspenseful scene involving the building’s elevator. Come to think of it, that elevator and the private key used to get into it play other roles in the story…

As an interesting side note, in Kate Rhodes’ Crossbones Yard, we are introduced to psychologist Alice Quentin. One of her pastimes is taking long runs through London both to stay in shape and to exorcise her personal demons. When DCI Don Burns asks her to work with the police on a murder case, she agrees. The case looks a great deal like another series of murders from several years earlier, but on the surface of it, that seems unlikely. Yet Quentin sees enough similarities to keep asking questions. Her questions lead her into a great deal of danger when it turns out that there’s a new killer who seems to have learned from those older murders. For reasons having to do with her past, Quentin has a phobia about elevators:
 

‘It wasn’t the speed that got me, just the space itself. Tiny and airless, no windows to escape through.’
 

It’s an interesting perspective on something most of us take very much for granted.

But it’s not how Rex Stout ‘s Nero Wolfe feels about elevators. You didn’t think I’d do a post about elevators in crime fiction and not mention this very famous example, did you? As fans will know, Wolfe has a custom-made elevator in his brownstone that he uses to get from his bedroom to his office to the orchid room and back. He sees no reason to take the stairs when the elevator is right there. Of course, his co-sleuth Archie Goodwin sometimes wonders how long that elevator will be able to move Wolfe around…

See? You make not think about it much because we often take them for granted. But elevators really can be interesting contexts for all sorts of crime-fictional action. Which examples have I forgotten?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Aerosmith’s Love in an Elevator.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Anya Lipska, Kate Rhodes, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout

Baby, Look at You Now*

BabyLookatYouNow

Yesterday I posted some pictures of famous crime writers when they were young, and invited you to guess who they are. As promised, here are the answers  :-)
 
 
 
Young and Adult Ngaio Marsh

Why, look! That adorable child became the one and only Ngaio Marsh!
 
 
Young and Adult Colin Dexter

And that fine young man grew into…..Colin Dexter!
 
 
Young and Adult Val McDermid

This little lassie could only be…Val McDermid!
 
 
Young and Adult Arthur Conan Doyle

This little boy is none other than…Arthur Conan Doyle! Elementary ;-)
 
 
Young and Adult Patricia Highsmith

This cheerful young lady blossomed into…Patricia Highsmith! Smiles on the outside, but what a skill at inner noir.
 
 
Young and adult Michael Connelly

And this serious young man? Well, when you’re Michael Connelly, you have a lot to think about! All those great plots and characters…
 
 
Young and Adult Agatha Christie

The devious mind behind that innocent face could only belong to…the ‘Queen of Crime,’ Agatha Christie!
 
Young and Adult Ian Rankin

Isn’t that a great ensemble? It’s being modeled for us by…Ian Rankin! Wonder if Rebus ever wore somthing like that…
 
 
Young and Adult Sue Grafton

Sue Grafton got an early start at reading. Doesn’t seem to have done her any harm…
 
 

And finally…
 
Young and Adult Arthur Upfield

That adventurous young man made the most of his travels in his books. Yes, it’s Arthur Upfield!
 

So… how did you do? Did you recognise that greatness for what it is? Thanks for playing! Happy Weekend!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer’s You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Colin Dexter, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Highsmith, Sue Grafton, Val McDermid

I’m Totally Formidable When I’m With You*

Detective DuosOne of the really interesting crime fiction sleuth traditions is the husband-and-wife detective team. There are many, many such teams in the genre; in fact you could argue that it’s a deeply ingrained crime novel context. Space is only going to allow me to mention a few of them, but I’m sure you could think of many more than I could anyway.

One of the better-known husband-and-wife teams is Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Prudence ‘Tuppence’ Beresford. When we first meet them in The Secret Adversary, World War I has recently ended and the very young Beresfords find themselves with little money and no real career plans. So they decide to form Young Adventurers, Ltd. and hire themselves out, with ‘no unreasonable offer refused.’ To their surprise, they are indeed hired and soon find themselves involved in a web of international intrigue, missing secret papers, and murder. Unlike some of Christie’s other work, this series follows the Beresfords more or less chronologically and in real time. Throughout the series, we see that these two really do function as a team. They bring different strengths to their cases and they depend on each other.

That’s also true of Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn and his wife, artist Agatha Troy. It’s true that Troy isn’t a professional detective. But she is a keen and intelligent observer, and of course, she’s well-connected within the fine arts community. In several novels (e.g. A Clutch of Constables, Spinsters in Jeopardy and Tied up in Tinsel) the two combine forces to solve cases. Troy relies on her husband’s detective skills and his official status. But she’s no ‘clinging vine.’ Alleyn depends on his wife’s social skills, her observation and intelligence, and her creativity.

There are some similarities between Marsh’s Alleyn/Troy team and Patricia Moyes’ Henry Tibbett and his wife Emmy. Like Alleyn, Tibbett works with Scotland Yard, and like Troy, Emmy is not a professional sleuth. Beginning with Dead Men Don’t Ski, the two work together on Tibbett’s cases. In that novel, they’re taking a ski holiday to Santa Chiara, in the Italian Alps. For Tibbett it’s a working holiday, as he’s doing a bit of secret investigating. The couple soon gets mixed up in a case of murder and smuggling, and it’s obvious even in this first story that they work well together. Emmy has a great deal of insight and her husband depends on what she learns just from simple conversations with others. They map out their strategies almost as though they were police partners.

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series is another powerful example of a husband-and-wife detecting team. Wimsey and mystery novelist Harret Vane meet for the first time in Strong Poison, in which Wimsey helps to clear Vane of murder charges. He falls in love with her and at the end of Gaudy Night, finally persuades her to marry him. The two aren’t married until the last novel, Busman’s Honeymoon, but they are a couple throughout several novels and it’s obvious that they work very well as a team. Wimsey appreciates Vane’s intelligence and her deductive abilities (she is a crime writer after all. ;-) ). And Vane appreciates Wimsey’s experience at detection and his way of solving cases.

There’s also of course Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles. Hammett only wrote one novel The Thin Man that features this couple. But there’ve been several Nick and Nora films. In the novel, Nick Charles is hired to find out what happened to wealthy businessman Clyde Wynant, who seems to have disappeared. Nick isn’t really interested in taking on this case, but he’s drawn into it anyway when the next morning, Wynant’s former secretary Julia Wolf is murdered. Nora Charles certainly plays much more than a supporting role in the novel. But the real teamwork in this couple is more evident in the ‘Thin Man’ films, where they form a strong ‘detective duo.’

Some husband-and-wife sleuthing teams are also police partners for at least some of the series. That’s the case with Deborah Crombie’s Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. When the series begins, in A Share in Death, Met Superintendent Duncan Kincaid works with then-Sergeant Gemma James to solve the murder of Sebastian Wade, whose body is found floating in a whirlpool at the holiday retreat of Followdale House. As the series evolves, the two become friends and then lovers. Later they marry. Both are cops and although James moves on to her own police career, they continue to work together and pool their knowledge. In this series too, we see the way that detective couples’ home lives and work lives interact.

There are of course also lots of cases (I’m thinking for instance of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series) in which couples may not be exactly detective teams, but still rely a great deal on each other. The husband-and-wife detecting team scenario allows the author to explore not just crimes and their investigations, but also relationships and other kinds of story arcs. There’s also lots of opportunity for character development. Little wonder this is such a popular premise.

Thanks very much to Moira at Clothes in Books for the inspiration for this post. Now that you’ve been kind enough to read it, be kind to yourself and check out Moira’s excellent blog. It’s a fantastic resource for information about clothes, popular culture and what it all says about us in fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from UB40’s Nothing Without You.

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Filed under Dashiell Hammett, Deborah Crombie, Dorothy Sayers, Louise Penny, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Moyes

Sketch the Trees and the Daffodils*

ArtMany people love art just for its own sake. They visit museums and if they have enough money, they have their own art collections. But art can also be very valuable. People who see art as a financial investment may even collect it for that reason. And of course, something that’s worth a lot of money is also a very attractive target for theft and (in the case of art) forgery. Little wonder the art business is such a popular context for crime fiction. Anything worth that much money is bound to attract crime. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), the family of patriarch Richard Abernethie gathers for his funeral and the reading of his will. When his youngest sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered, everyone hushes her up at first, and even she takes back what she said. But the next day, Cora herself is killed. Now the family attorney Mr. Entwhistle begins to believe that perhaps she was right, and in any case he wants to know who killed her.  So he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. There are several suspects too, since everyone in the family benefited from both Abernethie’s death and that of his sister. As Poirot traces Cora’s last days and weeks, he learns that she was an enthusiastic (if not particularly skilled) painter who kept hoping to find a masterpiece when she picked up various paintings at estate and bargain sales. That’s how she made the acquaintance of art expert Alexander Guthrie, who, as it turns out, plays a role in the outcome of this story.

Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Roderick Alleyn is married to artist Agatha Troy, so the art world is a frequent context in her novels. And sometimes the art world can be dangerous. In A Clutch of Constables, for instance, Troy decides to take a much-needed getaway cruise on the Zodiac. But it doesn’t turn out to be the restful trip she wants. First, one of the passengers is left behind when the boat leaves the dock, and is later found murdered. Then, during the trip, another passenger is drowned, and quite probably not by accident. Meanwhile, Troy learns that an international art forger known only as Jampot may be along for the cruise, and may have had something to do with the deaths. She tells the story to her husband in the form of a series of letters that he later uses in a class he’s teaching.

It’s well-known that just before and during World War II, the Nazis ‘safeguarded’ large fortunes of art. Some of it has been returned to the families that rightfully own it; much hasn’t. That valuable art figures into the plot of several novels. One of them is Bartholomew Gill’s McGarr and the PM of Belgrave Square. Garda Chief Superintendent Peter McGarr and his assistant O’Shaugnessy investigate the shooting death of Dublin art and antiques dealer William Craig. In the process, they look into Craig’s business dealings as well as his personal life, and they find more than one suspect. Then it’s discovered that one of the paintings in Craig’s inventory is missing. This opens up other possibilities for the murder, one of which leads back to Nazi art theft during World War II. In the end, and with help from his wife Noreen, who works in her family’s art gallery, McGarr finds out the truth about Craig’s murder.

That theme of looted art from the Nazi era is also at the core of Aaron Elkins’ Loot. Boston art historian/expert Ben Revere gets a call one day from pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky, a casual friend. Pawlovsky’s just gotten a painting he thinks may be valuable and he wants Revere’s opinion on it. Revere agrees and visits the shop. There he is shocked to find that the painting is likely an extremely valuable Velázquez. He wants to check out some facts though, and promises to return to the shop once he’s done so. When he does return after a few hours, he finds that Pawlovsky’s been murdered. Revere feels some responsibility for the killing; he believes he should have insisted that Pawlovsky not keep such a valuable piece of art in his shop. So he decides to try to trace the painting, hoping it will lead him to the killer. It turns out that the painting is one of a truckload of ‘safeguarded’ pieces of art that disappeared during World War II.  Revere travels to Europe and slowly finds out how the painting got from the back of the truck to a pawn shop. In that end, that trail also leads to the killer.

Art theft is also at the heart of Ian Rankin’s Doors Open. Wealthy Mike Mackenzie is a little bored with his life and wants to put some excitement back into it. One of his friends is banker Allan Cruikshank, with whom he shares a love of art. Together with art professor Robert Gissing, and with help from local gangster Chib Calloway, the group concocts a very daring scheme. They want to rob the National Gallery of Scotland and replace some of its extremely valuable holdings with forgeries that will be created by one of Gissing’s art students, who’s usually known as ‘Westie.’ The group chooses the gallery’s Doors Open day for the robbery. On that day, the gallery will open its warehouse and some other private areas to the public, and it seems like the perfect opportunity for the robbery. Everything goes off well enough, but the group soon learns that just stealing valuable art isn’t all there is to benefiting from it…

Because art is valuable, there are also plenty of crime stories that involve art auctions, whether for gain or charity. For instance, Gail Bowen’s The Gifted has as one of its plot threads a charity art auction that’s intended to benefit the Racette-Hunter Centre, a community development project. Bowen’s sleuth Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her husband Zack are both excited and concerned when two pieces of their daughter Taylor’s work are chosen to be auctioned. Taylor is an unusually gifted artist, but she is also only fourteen, and her parents are concerned about the major changes that this kind of notice will bring to her life. Taylor shares one piece of her work with her parents, but no-one has seen the other. On the night of the auction, she reveals that other painting and that work has drastic consequences for more than one person.

A charity art auction is the setting for a murder in Riley Adams’ (AKA  Elizabeth Spann Craig) Hickory Smoked Homicide. Socialite and beauty pageant coach Tristan Pembroke puts together a charity art auction and dinner. Underneath that beneficent exterior though, she’s actually a malicious and spiteful person. So when she’s murdered at the auction, there are several suspects. Lulu Taylor, who owns and runs Aunt Pat’s Barbecue, gets involved in the investigation because her daughter-in-law Sara is high on the list of candidates. Lulu wants to clear Sara’s name, so she starts to ask questions. The art itself isn’t the reason for this murder, but I can say without spoiling the story that a particular painting plays a role in the mystery.

All of this just shows that art is more than something people love for its own sake. It’s a very valuable commodity. Little wonder there are so many crime novels that involve art theft and forgery. Which ones have you enjoyed?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Don McLean’s Vincent (Starry, Starry Night).

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Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Bartholomew Gill, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Ngaio Marsh, Riley Adams