Category Archives: Ngaio Marsh

Speak Your Mind*

Political DissentEven the best-intentioned people don’t always agree on the choices their countries should make. There are a lot of issues, too, that don’t have easy solutions. That’s part of the reason for which there is political dissent. That dissent takes different forms, depending on the kind of government that’s in power, and the issue. But whatever form it takes, political dissent and debate can move a society forward when it’s productive.  That aspect of it is essential. And of course, political dissent can make for a very effective context for crime fiction; after all, there’s plenty of conflict and tension to be had in political debates and dissent.

In Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder, Sir Derek O’Callaghan has written an Anarchy Bill, specifically directed against leftist revolutionaries and their activities. It’s not a settled matter whether the Bill will be accepted, and it’s interesting to consider the question of whether such legislation squelches freedom of expression or keeps society safer. One day during a speech in the House, Sir Derek collapses due to a ruptured appendix and is rushed to a nearby nursing home run by his longtime physician Sir John Phillips. He survives the surgery, but dies later of what turns out to be an overdose of hyoscine. Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn and Inspector Fox investigate and soon determine that this death was not accidental. As they sift through the evidence and consider all the possibilities, they certainly can’t ignore the fact that the victim had written a controversial bill…

Agatha Christie’s short story The Kidnapped Prime Minister begins when Hercule Poirot gets a visit from the Leader of the House of Commons and a member of the War Cabinet. Prime Minister David MacAdam was on his way to Paris to make an important speech when he was apparently abducted. At this time, World War II is imminent, and there’s a real question as to what Britain’s stance out to be. You’ll know from your history that there was a debate between those who wanted to avoid war, even if it meant appeasement, and those who wanted to oppose Hitler, although it would mean war. MacAdam’s speech is crucial in this debate. He intends a ‘rally the troops’ speech in the hope of cementing support for his anti-Hitler stance. But plenty of his political opponents want to move the country in the other direction. Poirot and Captain Hastings get to work right away; in the end, they find out exactly what happened to MacAdam.

Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men is set against the backdrop of the Great Depression. Millions of people are out of work, and times are desperate. The question of what to do is not an easy one, and there’s a lot of debate. There’s also a lot of interest in political factions that promise solutions. Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair and his brother Wilfred are members of a wealthy ‘blueblood’ New South Wales family, so they haven’t personally suffered as a result of the Depression. But they’re certainly aware of it. When their uncle is murdered, Rowly gets involved in the political dissent about what Australia’s future should be. He comes to suspect that an ultra-Right group called The New Guard might be responsible for his uncle’s death. This group, led by Colonel Eric Campbell, believes that Australia will do best with a government run by ‘right thinking men’ who maintain traditional ways of life and the current class order. Rowly infiltrates this group, hoping to find out who, exactly, committed the murder. This puts him in real danger from the Left (among which group he has friends), who will consider him a traitor if they find out he’s joined the New Guard. At the same time as he’s trying to find out who killed his uncle, Rowly also has to negotiate the various political factions who want to further their causes.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a political scientist and, before retiring, an academician. So she’s no stranger to political debate, and steps into the political fray more than once in the series. She’s frequently involved in Saskatchewan (and national) politics. In fact, in one story arc in this series, she becomes a panelist on a NationTV show called Canada Today. The show features debate on current issues, and includes commentators from across the political spectrum. It figures in a few novels in this series.

Alan Orloff’s Deadly Campaign has as its backdrop Edward Wong’s campaign for a seat in the U.S. Congress. His opponent in the upcoming election will be the incumbent, Sanford Korbell. One evening, a group of thugs disrupts a celebration event at a restaurant owned by one of Wong’s uncles, Thomas Lee. Rather than call in the police, Lee asks his friend Channing Hayes, co-owner of a nearby comedy club, to ask a few questions and find out if anyone local is responsible. When other members of Wong’s family find out about this, they warn Hayes to leave the matter alone. But Lee is determined to find out what happened, and Hayes feels he has little choice to go along. One distinct possibility is that Korbell arranged the attack at the celebration, so Hayes visits Korbell’s headquarters as a part of his search for the truth, and we learn a bit about his political positions as opposed to Wong’s. I can say without spoiling the story that the answer to what is right for Northern Virginia (which is where the novel takes place) isn’t the reason for the attack, or for the murders that take place later in the novel. But it does form an interesting thread of tension in the novel.

And then there’s Ian Rankin’s Saints of the Shadow Bible, which takes place during the debate leading up to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. Rebus fans will know that he’s not at all a political animal. In fact, in one funny scene, he turns off his car radio during a broadcast about the Yes/No debate, preferring to listen to a CD of the band Spooky Tooth. But the debate is woven throughout the story. In one plot thread, for instance, Justice Minister Patrick McCusky, ‘the face of the Yes movement,’ faces embarrassment as his son may have been responsible for a car crash from which he later fled. Matters get worse when the Justice Minister is found dead, apparently as the result of a housebreaking gone wrong. The ‘No’ campaign is facing its own problems. Prominent business leader and ‘No’ advocate Stefan Gilmour could very well have been involved in obstructing a murder investigation against Billy Saunders. That case is more than thirty years old, but it could still come back to haunt Gilmour. It will if internal affairs copper Malcolm Fox has his way. He wants to re-open that case, and he won’t lose any sleep if Rebus, who was a young constable at the time, gets caught in the net. The debate about independence certainly isn’t Rebus’ focus, but it forms a fascinating backdrop to the novel.

Political debate and dissent aren’t always pleasant. In fact, they can be polemical. But that clash of ideas can be the basis from which we move forward.

 

On Another Note…

I’d like to wish a Happy Canada Day to all Canadians. Erm – sorry if there’s extra noise from down here. We’re gearing up for a major election next year, and the rhetoric/polemic/name-calling/mudslinging debate has already started…

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Alan Orloff, Gail Bowen, Ngaio Marsh, Sulari Gentill

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