Category Archives: Ngaio Marsh

They Think Me Macbeth, and Ambition is My Folly*

More then 400 years after its first known production, Shakespeare’s Macbeth still plays an important role in theatre, literature, and in Western culture. There are, of course, many books, commentaries, and other pieces of writing that reflect on the play and its significance.

And it shouldn’t be surprising that Macbeth (we’re not in a theatre, so I can use the play’s proper name) also shows up in crime fiction. It is, after all, a play about a crime, among other things. And it shows how that crime impacts the people who are mixed up in it.

Fans of Agatha Christie will know that she was a fan of Shakespeare’s work, and that includes Macbeth. In Hallowe’en Party, for instance, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a young girl who had boasted that she saw a murder. Only hours after she made her claim, someone drowned her in the apple-bobbing bucket at a Hallowe’en party. As Poirot gets to know the people in the village of Woodleigh Common, where the victim lived, he also learns the history of the place, and the history of some of the characters’ interactions. And that leads him to some important clues about the murder. At one point, he compares one of the characters to Lady Macbeth, saying,

‘‘I have always wondered…exactly what sort of woman Lady Macbeth was. What would she be like if you met her in real life?’’

Poirot is not a fanciful person; it’s just that that Lady Macbeth is a strong and well-developed character who’s not easy to forget. There’s also, of course By the Pricking of My Thumbs, which takes its title from a line in the play.

Ngaio Marsh’s last Inspector Alleyn novel, Light Thickens, features Macbeth, a play that Marsh directed more than once. In the story, Sir Dougal Macdougal is set to play the lead in a production of the Scottish Play, to be held at London’s Dolphin Theatre. As theatre fans will know, this is considered an unlucky play, and there are people who won’t produce or act in it. But Peregrine Jay, who owns the Dolphin, wants to go ahead with it. Some odd things happen (missing equipment, for instance), but all of the rehearsals go well, and cast is ready for opening night. Six weeks into the play’s run, Macdougal is murdered on stage. Inspector Alleyn investigates, looking into the victim’s relationships with fellow cast members, as well as his personal life. And in the end, he finds out who the killer is, and how this murder is related to the other strange events at the theatre.

James Yaffe wrote a short series featuring Dave, an investigator for the Mesa Grande, Colorado, Public Defender’s Office. He does his job well, but the real sleuth in the series is his mother, who’s moved from their native New York City to Mesa Grande. In Mom Doth Murder Sleep, the local amateur theatre group decides on a production of Macbeth, with Martin Osborn set to take the lead role. Sally Michaels has the role of Lady Macbeth. Dave’s friend and co-worker, Roger Meyer, is also in the cast. On opening night, Osborn is stabbed onstage, and Sally is the most likely suspect. In fact, she is arrested and charged with the crime. When Dave finds out about the case from Roger, he sees no reason to doubt that Sally is the killer. But his mother sees things differently and persuades him to look into the case more deeply. When he does, Dave finds that more than one person had very good reason to want to kill Martin Osborn.

There’s also Simon Brett’s What Bloody Man is That? (Oh, come on! Could I resist the chance to add a Charles Paris mystery with a topic like this?). In that novel, Paris is ‘resting between roles’ when his agent calls to tell him he’s gotten a ‘play as cast’ contract. The production is Macbeth, and the location is the Pintero Theatre, Warminster. ‘Play as cast’ roles are notorious for being time-consuming and difficult, but Paris doesn’t have much choice. So, he accepts the contract and work on the play begins. The role of Duncan has been given to the legendary Warnock Belvedere. He’s gifted on the stage, but in real life, is arrogant, egotistical, sexist and high-handed. So, as you can imagine, he manages to alienate just about everyone in the cast and crew. There are other hurdles, too, with this production, but little by little, the cast and crew get ready. One day, rehearsal goes especially badly, and everyone decides to drown their sorrows. Paris has quite a lot more to drink than is judicious, so he lurches back to his dressing room to try to get some rest. He sees Belvedere, who’s also had quite a bit to drink. Paris falls asleep and wakes up at three in the morning. He soon sees that he’s been locked in to the theatre. He also discovers that Belvedere has died. He calls the police, and they begin to investigate. Once they establish that Belvedere’s been murdered, Paris sees that he will be a suspect, since he was in the theatre all night, and can’t account for his actions. In order to clear his name, he decides to do a little investigating on his own – and to avoid the police as much as he can until he finds out the truth.

One of K.B. Owen’s protagonists is Concordia Wells. She is a teacher at Hartford Women’s College, in the last years of the 19th Century. And, although she doesn’t set out to be an investigator, she finds herself drawn into more than one murder. In Dangerous and Unseemly, for instance, she is supervising the school’s upcoming production of Macbeth, something she hadn’t planned to do, but has ended up doing by default, so to speak. While she’s busy with the details of the play, the college’s Bursar, Ruth Lyman, dies in an apparent case of suicide. It’s not, though, and it’s not the only bad thing happening at the school. Some malicious pranks, and even arson, also happen. Concordia knows that if someone doesn’t act, her school may have to close. So, she decides to find out the truth behind what’s been going on, even though criminal investigation is simply not ‘ladylike.’

See what I mean? Macbeth has been a part of our culture for a very long time and shows up in all sorts of different ways in crime fiction. Considering the play’s themes and plot, that isn’t surprising.

ps. Thank you, Royal Shakespeare Company, for this fabulous ‘photo of Christopher Eccleston as Macbeth! Their production will be on at Stratford-Upon-Avon until September, and then it moves to London.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lin-Manual Miranda’s Take a Break.


Filed under Agatha Christie, James Yaffe, K.B. Owen, Ngaio Marsh, Simon Brett

Fresh Out of Jail Trying to Make a New Start*

An interesting comment exchange with Cleo, at Cleopatra Loves Books, has got me thinking about ex-convicts. People go to prison for different reasons, not all of which mean that the ex-convict is going to be a danger to society once released. But that doesn’t necessarily mean life is easy for those who are trying to start over again.

For one thing, it’s often hard for an ex-convict to get a job. Not many employers are willing to give a chance to someone who’s been in prison. There’s also the issue of settling back into ‘regular’ society. Prison is its own world, with its own culture and its own ways. A person can get used to life there, and then find it very difficult to rejoin ‘the rest of us’ when the time comes. There are other challenges, too.

That transition – from prison to life on the outside – can make for an interesting plot point or layer of character development in a crime novel. And it makes sense, too, since prison and crimes often go together. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of many, many more.

In Ngaio Marsh’s Tied Up In Tinsel, sculptor and painter Agatha Troy is commissioned to do a portrait of Hilary Bill-Tasman. She’ll be working over the Christmas holiday, so Bill-Tasman invites her to do the work at his country home, Halbards. He’s planning a holiday gathering, too, so there is a lot going on at the estate. Bill-Tasman’s staff is unusual in that each one of them has spent time in prison for murder. None of these people is habitually violent or likely to offend again, so Bill-Tasman wanted to give them another chance. He’s a big believer in the redemptive power of productive and dignified employment, and he’s confident this experiment will work. On Christmas Eve, Bill-Tasman has a party for the local children, at which his uncle, Fleaton ‘Uncle Flea’ Forrester, is to dress up as a Druid and distribute gifts. But Forrester is taken ill at the last minute and isn’t able to do the job. His servant, Alfred Moult, stands in for him, and the party goes on. After the party, Moult goes missing and is later found dead. Troy’s husband, Inspector Roderick Alleyn, is persuaded to investigate. It’s assumed at first that a member of Bill-Tasman’s staff must be guilty, since each one of them has already killed, and since there was always friction between them and Moult. In the end, though, Alleyn finds it’s not quite that simple.

Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus introduces us to Dr. Duca Lamberti. He’s recently been released from prison, where he served time for euthanasia. One evening, wealthy engineer Pietro Auseri offers Lamberti an unusual proposition. He wants to hire Lamberti to help his son, Davide, overcome a bout with severe alcoholism and depression. It seems that Davide Auseri has not been able to stop drinking, despite spending time in rehabilitation facilities. Lamberti isn’t sure what he can do, but he agrees to try. Little by little, he finds out why Davide is suffering so much. A year earlier, he happened to meet a young woman, Alberta Radelli. They started talking, decided they liked each other, and spent a pleasant day together in Florence. At the end of the day, Alberta begged her new friend to take her with him. Davide refused, and Alberta threatened suicide. He continued to refuse, and not long afterwards, Alberta’s body was discovered in a field outside of Milan. Since then, Davide has blamed himself for what he thinks is her suicide. Lamberti believes that the only way to help Davide is to find out what really happened to Alberta Radelli, and he sets out to do just that.

Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos begins shortly after the narrator has been released from prison, where she served time for murder. She is given a place to live not far from a child care facility, and she settles in with her constant companion, a Pit Bull named Sully. All goes well enough until the day a complaint is filed against her. One of the mothers whose children attend the child care facility lodged the complaint because Sully is a restricted breed. The local council then sends a letter to the narrator, instructing her to give Sully up. She has no choice, but that doesn’t mean she’s not going to do anything about it. As the story goes on, we learn more about why the narrator was in prison, and that adds an interesting and important layer to the story.

John Clarkson’s Among Thieves features James Beck, who owns a bar in the Red Hood section of Brooklyn. He served eight years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, and he bought the bar with money he got from a wrongful-imprisonment lawsuit. The bar’s co-owners are Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Guzman, Demarco Jones, and Ciro Baltassare, all people Beck met in and through prison. The bar is their chance to ‘go straight’ and live legal lives. Everything changes when Manny’s cousin, Olivia Sanchez, comes to him for help, claiming that she’s been harassed by a co-worker. She goes on to say that she was hounded out of her job and ‘blacklisted’ from other companies because she was going to ‘blow the whistle’ on illegal activity at the investment firm where she worked. Manny wants to handle this in his own way, but Beck persuades him to hold off – at first. Then, the group discovers that there’s a lot more going on here than it seems on the surface. And they soon find themselves drawn into a complicated case of fraud, theft and murder.

And then there’s Magdaleno ‘Mags’ Argueta, whom we meet in Christina Hoag’s Skin of Tattoos. He’s recently been released from prison, where he served time on weapons charges. He was set up by a fellow gang member, and he’s aware of that. But his feeling is that, by taking this prison time, he’s demonstrating loyalty to his gang, which he’s always thought as a family. Showing that sort of loyalty goes far among gang members. Now that he’s out of prison, Mags wants to ‘go straight,’ try to get a legitimate job, and maybe even get out of the gang-ridden area of Los Angeles where he lives. It’s going to be difficult, though. For one thing, the gang leadership doesn’t easily let members go. For another, not many employers will trust someone who’s been in prison with a job. Certainly, there aren’t many legitimate opportunities to make a decent income. And there’s Mags’ loyalty to the gang. The members are closer than brothers. Still, Mags is determined to try to live a legitimate life – until a series of events draws him closer to the gang life and forces him to make some choices that could cost him his life.

Being released from prison doesn’t really end a former convict’s challenges. It’s not easy to start over, and certainly not easy to live a ‘straight and narrow life.’ And that tension can add much to a crime novel.

Thanks, Cleo, for the inspiration. Now, folks, give yourselves a treat and go visit Cleo’s excellent blog. Fine reviews await you!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ Once a Thief.


Filed under Angela Savage, Christina Hoag, Giorgio Scerbanenco, John Clarkson, Ngaio Marsh

Please Don’t Tell Me That I’m the Only One That’s Vulnerable*

Most people would rather not be killed. I know, that’s a painfully obvious point to make, but it has implications if you’re a fictional murderer. Among other things, it means that you have to pick your time. It’s easiest to commit the crime if the victim is already vulnerable, or at the very least, unsuspecting. For the author, that’s not always easy to pull off in a believable way, but there are plenty of examples of how this can work. Here are a few of them, to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, we are introduced to powerful banker Alistair Blunt. He’s made more than his share of enemies, and he’s generally a careful person, partly for that reason. One day, he goes to see his dentist, Henry Morley, because of a toothache. Later, Morley is found shot in his surgery. And one real possibility is that the intended victim was Blunt himself. After all, people are quite vulnerable when they’re in the dentist’s chair. Chief Inspector Japp’s been told by his superiors to make this case a priority, since Blunt is considered important for national security. Then, there’s another death. A patient of Morley’s dies from a suspected overdose of drugs. When Japp finds out that Hercule Poirot was also at Morley’s office on the day of the murder, he contacts Poirot, and the two work together to find out the truth behind the two murders.

Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger takes place mostly at Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for military (WWII) use. One day, a postman named Joseph Higgins is brought to the hospital with a broken femur. It’s considered a straightforward operation, and he’s brought in for surgery. Tragically, Higgins dies during the procedure. Inspector Cockrill of the Kent Police is brought in to ‘rubber-stamp’ the report of accidental death. Higgins’ wife, though, does not accept that explanation. She says that Higgins was murdered. Then, one of the hospital nurses has too much to drink at a party, and blurts out that she knows Higgins was murdered, and she knows how it was accomplished. Later that night, she, too, is killed. Now, Cockrill is sure this is a case of murder, and puts the focus of his search on the people who were present when Higgins died. It certainly shows how vulnerable people can be during surgery. Right, fans of Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder?

One plot thread of Ruth Rendell’s Simisola concerns the murder of Annette Bystock. She works at the local Employment Bureau, trying to match available jobs with unemployed people who can fill them. One day, she’s found murdered in her bed. Inspector Reg Wexford and his team begin to trace her last days, and discover that, shortly before she was murdered, she had an appointment with a young woman named Melanie Akande. Melanie has since gone missing, and Wexford and the team wonder whether the two incidents are related. And so they turn out to be, only not in the obvious way. It turns out that, on the day she died, Annette had stayed home from work because she was ill. Her vulnerability, and the fact that she was unsuspecting, made her easy prey for the killer.

In Zoran Drvenkar’s You, we are introduced to a character called the Traveler. His part of the story begins in 1995, during a terrible snowstorm that’s blocked the road between Bad Hersfeld and Eisenach. Many vehicles are stranded on the road, and even emergency vehicles can’t get through because of the snow. Everyone in that traffic mess is extremely vulnerable, and not just because of the snow and the cold. With everyone stuck, the Traveler has plenty of ready-made victims. He works his way along the line of cars, leaving twenty-six people dead by the time the road is cleared. He’s able to make his escape, and as the story goes on, we see what happens to him in the ensuing years.

And then there’s Max Kinning’s Baptism. In that novel, we meet George Wakeham, a London Underground driver. Early one morning, three hostage-takers break into his home, capturing his wife and children. Wakeham is told that his only chance of saving his family is to do exactly what their captors say. Then, they give him a mobile ‘phone and tell him to follow precisely the instructions they give him. This Wakeham agrees to do (what choice does he have?). He’s told to go to his job as usual, and take his place driving his usual train. What he doesn’t know at first is that the hostage-takers have boarded the train as well, and they have his family with them. Wakeham starts his route as usual, but before long, one of the hostage-takers joins him in the cab. He’s soon told to stop the train, and it’s only then that he sees what his enemies really wanted from him. The train is now stopped in an underground tunnel with over 400 very vulnerable people aboard. Word of the captured train gets out, and Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Ed Mallory is assigned to contact the hostage-takers, find out what they want, and free the passengers. It’s not going to be easy, though, as this is a group of fanatics with a very specific purpose in mind. As Mallory tries to find out what he can, Wakeham tries to save his own life and those of his family members.

There are lots of other examples, too, of stories where the murderer (or would-be murderer) tries to choose a time when the victim will be especially vulnerable. It can add real tension to a story, and it makes sense. It’s easiest to target a victim who’s at a disadvantage.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Secondhand Serenade’s Vulnerable.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Christianna Brand, Max Kinnings, Ngaio Marsh, Ruth Rendell, Zoran Drvenkar

Bohemian Like You*

There are certain communities of people who tend to live what people have sometimes called a bohemian lifestyle. They don’t keep conventional hours, or dress conventionally. And they don’t look at the world in a conventional way. We often think of artists, writers, musicians and actors as being in this category, and some are.

Those communities can be really effective as settings for crime novels. The bohemian lifestyle is intriguing, and can even be appealing. And there are all sorts of possibilities for character developments and for plots.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories include bohemian characters and settings. As just one example, in Third Girl, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from a young woman who claims she may have committed a murder. Before she can give any details, though, she tells him she’s made a mistake, and that he’s too old. She leaves without giving her name, so at first, Poirot can’t follow up. But his friend, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, happens to know who the woman is. She is Norma Restarick, daughter of successful businessman Andrew Restarick. Mrs. Oliver tries to trace Norma’s whereabouts, beginning with her London flat. One of Norma’s flatmates is Frances Cary, who works in an art gallery, and sometimes models. She lives a very bohemian lifestyle. It also turns out that Norma’s been seeing a man named David Baker – a man Mrs. Oliver calls the Peacock because of the way he dresses. Baker, too, is a bohemian. Oddly enough, Norma really isn’t, although she’s mixed up with that community. Poirot and Mrs. Oliver try to find out whether Norma really might have committed a murder. But first they’re going to have to find her. They do, but not before there’s a murder…

When we first meet Dorothy L. Sayers’ Harriet Vane, she is in the dock, on trial for the murder of Philip Boyes. And the situation doesn’t look very good for her. For one thing, there is evidence against her. For another, she lives somewhat of a bohemian lifestyle, even daring to live with Boyes without being married to him. At the time this was written, that was enough to make a woman notorious. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial, and falls in love with Vane. In fact, when the jury cannot reach a verdict, he determines to clear her name, so that he can marry her. As it turns out, this case isn’t what it seems on the surface.

Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly is the first of his Gervase Fen novels. It takes place mostly at Oxford, and its focus is a group of people who are all connected in some way to playwright Robert Wright’s new work, Metromania. They’re all ‘theatre people:’ actors, musicians, writers, and some admirers. And they all live bohemian lifestyles, with little interest in social conformity. Preparations are being made for a production of this new play, and the pace is getting a bit frenetic. Then one night, Yseute Haskell, who has the lead in the play, is shot. On the surface, it seems like an ‘impossible crime,’ since she was alone in her room, and no-one was seen to go into it or leave it. In fact, the police think it may be a suicide. Fen doesn’t think so, though, and he gets involved in the investigation. It turns out that this wasn’t suicide at all.

Fans of Ngaio Marsh’s work will know that she had a lifelong connection to the theatre and ‘theatre people.’ Many of her novels (e.g. Enter a Murderer and Opening Night) take place mostly in a theatre setting. Others involve actors in other settings. And, of course, Marsh’s Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn meets and later marries an artist, Agatha Troy. So, several of her novels also feature art and the art world. Throughout these novels, we meet characters with bohemian lifestyles and nonconformist views about life.

Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peters is a PI in 1940s Hollywood. A former Warner Brothers security officer, he has several connections in the film business, and he certainly gets his share of clients from the world of acting. Both Bullet For a Star and Murder on the Yellow Brick Road are set in the Hollywood filmmaking context. So are several other books in this series. And the actors and other ‘Hollywood types’ that Peters meets often live unconventional lives. So do some of Peters’ other clients (he has one adventure, for instance, that takes place in a circus setting). He certainly doesn’t meet a lot of ‘suburban couple with two children and white picket fence’ families…

Sulari Gentill’s Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair is a member of a wealthy, ‘blueblood’ family in 1930’s New South Wales.  His conservative older brother, Wilfred, runs the family business. But Rowly has a very different view of life. He’s a ‘gentleman artist,’ and his closest friends are also artists, or writers. While Rowly himself lives a mostly conventional lifestyle, his friends really don’t. They keep the hours they want, dress in ways that suit them, and don’t hold as much with traditional social structure. Their politics are unconventional, too. All of that sometimes puts Rowly at odds with Wilfred, who’s more comfortable with traditional ways of thinking and living.

Bohemian lifestyles and unconventional views can make for a really interesting community of people. And those communities can add richness to a crime novel or series. There are many more of them in crime fiction than I have space to discuss (right, fans of Elly Griffiths’ Max Mephisto series?). But these examples should give you a sense of how bohemian communities fit into the genre. Which ones have stayed with you?


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


Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Edmund Crispin, Elly Griffiths, Ngaio Marsh, Sulari Gentill

Make Me Beautiful*

Cosmetic surgery has advanced a great deal over the years, as has its relative, reconstructive surgery. There are new techniques and materials, and new options. It’s no longer the exclusive property of the very rich and Hollywood stars, either.

I got to thinking about the whole topic when I read an interesting post by Moira at Clothes in Books. By the way, if you’re not already following that excellent blog, I recommend it highly. It’s a treasure trove of fine book reviews and discussions of clothes and culture in fiction, and what it all says about us.

Moira was discussing Ngaio Marsh’s Death and the Dancing Footmen, but that’s not the only example of a crime novel where cosmetic surgery plays a role. It’s not hard to see why, either. There are all sorts of possibilities for the author. And, whatever you feel about cosmetic surgery, it’s increasingly popular.

In P.D. James’ The Private Patient, we are introduced to journalist Rhoda Gradwyn. She checks into Cheverell Manor, an exclusive private clinic for patients undergoing cosmetic surgery. Her plan is to have a facial scar removed, but that’s not what happens. During her stay at the clinic, Gradwyn is strangled. Met Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his team investigate, and there are several possibilities. Certainly, the victim’s surgeon had opportunities to kill her. But, so did several nurses, attendants, and even visitors, among others. Dalgliesh and his team have to go back into Gradwyn’s past to see who would want to murder her.

In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Hussy, Lochdubh PC Hamish Macbeth investigates the murder of Maggie Baird. Although she hasn’t been a commercial sex worker, she’s certainly traded sex for expensive things, posh places to live, and so on. Now, although she’s still attractive, she’s middle-aged, and, at least in her view, has lost her looks. So, she goes away for several months and undergoes cosmetic surgery. When she returns, with her looks restored, she invites four former lovers to visit, and announces that she’s going to get married. Instead, she dies, ostensibly of a heart attack suffered during a car fire. Macbeth soon learns that there are several people who could have wanted the victim dead. For one thing, her four suiters have all come down in the world, as the saying goes. Any one of them could have killed her for her money. Then there’s her niece, who’s just been cut out of her will. There are other possibilities, too. The story certainly shows the wisdom of the saying, ‘Looks aren’t everything.’

One plot thread of Donna Leon’s About Face concerns a businessman, Maurizio Cataldo. Conte Orazio Falier is considering doing business with Cataldo, but he wants to be sure of the man before he actually signs anything. So, he asks his son-in-law, Commissario Guido Brunetti, to ‘vet’ Cataldo, and see if there’s anything Falier should know. Brunetti agrees to do so. In the process of getting to know Cataldo’s life better, Brunetti also gets to know his wife, Franca Marinello. One of the things we learn about her is that she’s had cosmetic surgery. That surgery isn’t the reason for Falier’s caution. But it plays a role in the novel, and in some of the tragic events that happen.

Carl Hiaasen’s Skin Tight features former police officer Mick Stranahan (yes, fans, he later appears in Skinny Dip).  He learns that an unknown man has been asking where lives. He isn’t sure who the man might be, but it doesn’t take long for them to meet up. In fact, the man breaks into Stranahan’s home. In the course of defending himself, Stranahan kills the home invader, goring him with the stuffed head of a marlin (it is Hiassen…). Then he dumps the body, which is later discovered by a couple of tourists. In the meantime, Stranahan decides to find out who’s trying to kill him. His attacker had no ID and there was no way to connect him with any particular one of Stranahan’s enemies, so it won’t be an easy task. It’s made even harder by the fact that Stranahan’s got plenty of enemies. There’s the sleazy injury lawyer, the annoying TV journalist, the hit man, and an inept plastic surgeon named Rudy Graveline. They’re all good candidates, and Stranahan will have to work through all of them to find out who the killer is.

Leigh Redhead’s Peepshow is the first of her novels to feature Melbourne PI Simone Kirsch. She’s got a background as a stripper, and has now gotten her PI license. When the body of Francesco ‘Frank’ Parisi is discovered in a local bay, Simone’s best friend, Chloe, becomes a suspect. Parisi was the owner of a table-dancing strip club called the Red Room, where Chloe works. She was among several people who had a very good reason to kill the victim, and she’s worried about what to do. Matters get worse when Parisi’s underworld brother, Sal, gets involved. He wants Simone to find out who killed his brother, and he takes Chloe as ‘insurance.’ Since the only way to free Chloe is to find the killer, Simone gets started right away. She goes undercover as a new table dancer at the Red Room, and begins to get to know the people in the dead man’s life. And it’s not long before she discovers that some very dangerous people had very good murder motives. While cosmetic surgery isn’t the reason for the murder in this case, it does have a part in the story. And on a side note, it’s interesting to see how the table dancers use wigs, makeup, and costuming to play their roles.

And then there’s Sophie Littlefield’s A Bad Day For Mercy, which features her sleuth, Stella Hardesty. By day, she owns Hardesty Sewing Machine Repair & Sales. But she has a ‘side business,’ too. She pays ‘friendly visits’ to those who’ve committed domestic abuse, and she has very effective ways of reminding them of how to behave, let’s just say. In this novel, Hardesty learns that her step-nephew, Chip, is in serious trouble because of gambling debts. In fact, his life’s been threatened. So, she drives from her home in small-town Missouri to Wisconsin to visit him. When she gets there, she finds Chip and his girlfriend, Natalya, trying to get rid of a dead man’s body. The man turns out to be Natalya’s abusive husband, and it looks very much as though Chip might be responsible. He and Natalya claim that they’re innocent, though, and found the body on their porch. So, if they aren’t the killers, Hardesty is going to have to find out who is. One very good possibility is a medical student named Doug, who has a sideline performing illegal (and not particularly professional) Botox injections. As it turns out, he had dealings with the victim, and a good reason to want him dead. But he’s not the only likely candidate.

Whatever your opinion of cosmetic surgery, there’s no doubt it’s popular. And it really does have a place in crime fiction, Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Engine Room’s A Perfect Lie.


Filed under Carl Hiaasen, Donna Leon, Leigh Redhead, M.C. Beaton, Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James, Sophie Littlefield