Category Archives: Nicholas Blake

I Bet You Set Me Up to Fall*

You’d think that someone who hired a PI or got the police involved in an investigation would want the mystery solved. But that’s not always the case – at least not fictionally. There are plenty of novels and stories in which a PI is hired either by the killer, or by someone who actively wants the PI to fail. There are others in which a police detective is assigned to a case with the hope/expectation that it won’t be solved.

Sometimes this happens because the guilty person wants to keep tabs on the investigation, or hopes to sabotage it by manipulating the sleuth. Sometimes it’s because a police ‘rubber stamp’ is needed to cover up corruption or worse. There are other reasons, too.

Whatever the motivation, it’s tricky to pull such a story off, because it can stretch credibility. But if it’s done carefully, such a plot point can be suspenseful as well as intriguing. And, for readers who like to ‘match wits’ against the author, it can provide a very engaging ‘match.’

A few of Agatha Christie’s novels and stories include this plot point. I won’t give titles, or even sleuths, in order to avoid spoilers. Suffice it to say that, just because a person asks one of her sleuths to solve a case, or wants a name cleared, doesn’t mean that person really wants that to happen. Sometimes the very person who does the hiring (or requesting) is the guilty one.

As Nicholas Blake, Cecil Day-Lewis wrote a long-running (1935-1968) crime fiction series featuring a poet, Nigel Strangeways, who is also a PI. Strangeways is a reflective sort of person, who considers many different possibilities when he’s on the case. And that’s a good thing, because he’s learned not to trust everyone who asks him to get involved in an investigation. Again, I won’t get more detailed because of spoilers. But Strangeways has learned the value of suspecting everyone.

One of the interesting sorts of crime plots happens when a police detective is, if you will, set up to fail – or at least to help convict the wrong person. In Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, for instance, we are introduced to New York homicide detective Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley. In the futuristic New York where he lives, the population is basically divided between Spacers and Earthmen. Spacers are the descendants of humans who explored space and then returned. They’ve embraced the idea of space travel. Earthmen, on the other hand, are the descendants of humans who remained behind, and who believe that humans will survive best if they remain on Earth. Among the many differences between the two groups is that Spacer society includes positronic robots. Earthmen hate and fear them. When noted Spacer scientist Dr. Roj Nemennuh Sarton is murdered, it’s believed that an Earthman was responsible. In order to make the investigation as balanced and transparent as possible, Baley (who is an Earthman) is assigned to investigate. He’s given a Spacer partner, R. Daneel Olivaw, who is a positronic robot. Together, the two begin to look into the matter. They find out who killed Sarton and why, but readers also learn that someone far up on the police ‘food chain’ didn’t want them to find out the truth…

That also happens in Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine. In that novel, Shanghai Inspector Chen Cao and his assistant, Detective Yu Guangming, investigate the murder of a young woman named Guan Hongying. The victim was a national model worker, and for that reason, somewhat of a celebrity. That’s reason enough to be very careful about investigating her murder. It complicates matters that she moved in some high Party circles, too, so some important people could be involved in her death. Chen and Yu begin to trace the victim’s last days and weeks, and it soon comes out that she took a taxi ride not long before she was killed. Now that the taxi driver is a possible suspect, Party officials want the investigation stopped. So, the message comes down that the taxi driver is the killer, and that’s what needs to be on the report. Chen and Yu aren’t convinced, though, and continue looking for the truth. But some very important people do their best to ensure that this case isn’t going to be really solved. On the surface, it seems that the police brass and government are endorsing the investigation. But underneath, the exact opposite is happening.

William Ryan’s Captain Alexei Korolev of the Moscow CID faces a related situation in The Twelfth Department, which takes place just before World War II. In that novel, Korolev and his assistant, Sergeant Nadezdha Slivka, are assigned to investigate the murder of noted scientist Boris Azarov. The two sleuths follow the leads and settle on a suspect. Then, that suspect is murdered. Now, they have to start again. This case is especially delicate because Azarov was working on a top-secret government project, and the NKVD has an interest in it. Another possible suspect in both murders comes to light, and Korolev and Slivka are more or less instructed to identify that suspect as the guilty party and consider the case closed. But both of them believe that person’s been set up. Together, they decide to keep investigating, and it’s soon clear that some very important people do not want the truth about this case to come out. At the same time as Korolev and Slivka have been assigned to the case, they’re also being hampered.

Fictional characters can have several reasons for hiring a PI even if they’re the killers. Fictional police detectives can be assigned to cases by the very people who have the most to lose if they’re solved. That plot point isn’t easy to do well. But in deft hands, it can be very suspenseful.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Rasmus’ Dangerous Kind.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Cecil Day-Lewis, Isaac Asimov, Nicholas Blake, Qiu Xiaolong, William Ryan

Why These Victorian Views?*

The Victorian Era ended more than 100 years ago. But, if you think about it, that era’s customs, culture, and so on still exert influence, especially in the West. Just as one example, consider the tradition of the white wedding dress. That wasn’t a custom until Queen Victoria chose to wear a white dress for her own wedding. And that’s not to mention the many other beliefs, ‘rules,’ and so on that became a part of that era. One post isn’t nearly enough to do justice to the topic, but it’s interesting to take a glance at it.

We see the influence of this era in a lot of ways in crime fiction. And, as you’ll see, I’m not really talking of the crime fiction (such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s) that was written during the Victorian years. Even novels written after those years ended show the era’s influence.

One of the very important characteristics of the era was an emphasis on doing one’s duty. We see that, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect). In that novel, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to solve the sixteen-year-old murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time, Crale’s wife (and Carla’s mother) Caroline was suspected of the murder, and with good reason. In fact, she was arrested and convicted, and died in prison a year later. Carla insists her mother was innocent, and wants Poirot to clear her name. In order to find out the truth, Poirot interviews the five people who were present at the time. He also gets their written accounts of the murder and the days leading up to it. One of those people is Cecilia Williams, who acted as governess to Carla’s aunt, Angela Warren. Here’s what we learn about Miss Williams:
 

‘She had that enormous mental and moral advantage of a strict Victorian upbringing…she had done her duty in that station in life to which it had pleased God to call her, and that assurance encased her in an armour impregnable to the slings and darts of envy, discontent and regret.’
 

In other ways, too, Miss Williams reflects Victorian attitudes. For example, one of the ‘people of interest’ in the novel is Elsa Greer Dittisham, who was Crale’s lover at the time of his murder, and who was staying at the house while he painted her portrait. Miss Williams describes her as ‘thoroughly unprincipled.’ Later she says:
 

‘‘Whatever our feelings, we can keep them in decent control. And we can certainly control our actions. That girl had absolutely no morals of any kind. It meant nothing to her that Mr. Crale was a married man. She was absolutely shameless about it all – cool and determined. Possibly she may have been badly brought up, but that’s the only excuse I can find for her.”
 

Miss Williams is as much upset at what she sees as the lack of propriety and ‘proper conduct’ as she is about anything else.

We also see the Victorian emphasis on propriety in Dorothy L. Sayer’s Strong Poison. In the novel, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is tried for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial and immediately becomes smitten with Vane. In fact, he determines to clear her name, so that he can marry her. And, with help of some friends, as well as his valet/assistant, Mervyn Bunter, that’s exactly what he does. As the story goes on, we learn that Vane and Boyes lived together before their relationship ended. Since they never married, that’s very much held against her. In keeping with the Victorian view of what was ‘proper,’ it’s considered inappropriate to cohabit. The fact of their relationship is almost less important than the fact that Vane behaved in an ‘unseemly’ way.

We also see that attitude in Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series, which takes place in 1920’s Madras (today’s Chennai). In one story arc, we learn about the relationship between Le Fanu and his housekeeper, Roisin McPhedren. The two care very much about each other, but their relationship is doomed. For one thing, Le Fanu is, at least in name, married. His wife, who now lives in England, wants a divorce, but that’s somewhat scandalous. For another, Le Fanu and McPhedren live in the same house, and are not married. If any whispers got around that they had more than a professional relationship, that would mean the end of La Fanu’s career. Such impropriety isn’t in keeping with the ideals he’s supposed to be upholding. And that’s to say nothing of what would happen to Roisin McPhedren’s reputation. There would be no way she could get any kind of ‘respectable’ employment. This series offers a look at Victorian attitudes towards class and race, as well, and how they impacted the British Raj.

There’s an interesting example of the Victorian perspective in Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die. In it, poet and private investigator Nigel Strangeways looks into the poisoning death of George Rattery. The most obvious suspect is crime writer Frank Cairnes, who holds Rattery responsible for the death of his son, Martin ‘Martie.’ But Cairnes says that he’s innocent, and there are solid reasons to believe him. What’s more, as Strangeways discovers, Cairnes is not the only possible suspect. For one thing, it turns out that Rattery was having an affair with a woman named Rhoda Carfax. Rattery’s mother, Ethel, is
 

‘…crazy about family honour, and being a Victorian she looks upon sexual scandal as the arch-disgrace.’ 
 

That passion for ‘respectability’ could have been part of a motive for murder. Among other things, it’s an interesting look at that need to be ‘respectable.’

There’s also an interesting look at the impact of the Victorian-Era perspective in Wendy James’ Out of the Silence. This novel is James’ fictional retelling of the 1900 Melbourne arrest and conviction of Maggie Heffernan for the murder of her infant son. In the novel, Maggie meets and is wooed by Jack Hardy. He asks her to marry him, but says they need to keep their engagement secret until he can support them. Maggie agrees, and he soon leaves to look for work in New South Wales. In the meantime, Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant, and writes to Jack. Even after several letters, she doesn’t hear from him. Maggie knows her family won’t accept her (what ‘proper’ family would?), so she gets work in a Melbourne Guest House. When baby Jacky arrives, Maggie moves briefly to a home for unwed mothers. Then, she discovers that Jack Hardy has moved to Melbourne, and goes in search of him. When she finally tracks him down, he utterly rejects her. With nowhere else to go, Maggie goes from lodging house to lodging house, and is turned down by six places.  That’s when the tragedy with Jacky occurs. This story takes place in the last year or two of the Victorian Era, and really shows how that perspective influences everything that happens to Maggie, including her own point of view.

There are also other historical series, such as K.B. Owen’s Concordia Wells novels, and Felicity Young’s Dorothy ‘Dody’ McCleland series, that depict Victorian-Era perspectives, world views and mores. Owen’s series takes place at the very end of those years, and Young’s takes place in the Edwardian Era that followed it.

Even today, we can see how the Victorian Era has left its mark. It has on Western society, and it certainly has in crime fiction. Which examples have stayed with you?

ps The ‘photo is of a group of Victorian-era schoolgirls in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Courtesy of the Lehigh County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ogden Nash and Kurt Weill’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Brian Stoddart, Dorothy L. Sayers, Felicity Young, K.B. Owen, Nicholas Blake, Wendy James

But Does Anybody Know My Name?*

Names are funny things. They’re one of the most important ways by which we identify ourselves. Imagine, for instance, not knowing your own name. And yet, we do sometimes use different names. For instance, if you’re a writer, perhaps you use a pen name for some of your work. Or, you may use your legal given name in some circumstances, but another name for others.

You might be surprised at the important role that names can play in crime fiction. But it makes sense if you think about it. Use of a different name can be a useful tool for hiding the identity of a murderer. And, there are many espionage novels and other thrillers where a character goes undercover using a different name. There are other times, too, when a sleuth or another character might not want to use her or his real name. If the author’s going to do that, it’s got to be done carefully. Otherwise, a change of name can be confusing for the reader. And it can be a bit too convenient, too. But there are times when playing with a character’s name can add to a story.

There are several Agatha Christie novels, for instance, where names are changed or switched. There’s even one in which a character’s real name turns out to give an important clue as to the killer in the story. And, in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal) Hercule Poirot changes his name temporarily. Wealthy Richard Abernethie has died, and there’s a possibility that someone in his family might have killed him. So, to get a better sense of what the family members are like, Poirot spends the weekend at the family home, under the guise of possibly buying the property to use as a home for elderly war refugees. As fans can tell you, Poirot is convinced that his name is well-known. So, he goes under the name of M. Pontarlier – and affects a distinctly ‘un-English’ persona. He even pretends not to know much English. And that gives him the opportunity to observe much more than anyone thinks.

Poirot isn’t the only sleuth to go undercover and take a different name. For instance, in Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar, Bangkok PI Jayne Keeney learns that her good friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse has been killed by police. The official explanation is that the police had come to arrest Didi for the murder of his partner, Sanga ‘Nou.’ According to the report, Didi resisted arrest so violently that he had to be killed. But Keeney doesn’t believe this. What’s more, she doesn’t believe that her friend killed his partner. So, she decides to investigate. And to do this, she takes on the name Simone Whitfield. That’s the name she uses when she meets Australian Federal Police (AFP) agent Mark D’Angelo. He’s in Thailand as part of a special task force looking into the child sex trade. He and Keeney have very different ways of going about addressing that problem, and it’s interesting to see how she interacts with him in her ‘Simone’ persona.

In Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, we are introduced to mystery novelist Frank Cairnes. He writes under the name of Felix Lane, and that’s the name he uses when he decides to find out who killed his beloved son, Martin ‘Martie.’ The boy died in a hit-and-run incident, and Cairnes wants to find out who was driving. He believes that he may be too well-known under his own name, so he grows his beard out and ‘becomes’ Felix Lane. Then, he moves back to the town where he and Martie lived, and tracks down the man who he believes is responsible for Martie’s death. The only problem is, the most likely suspect, a man named George Rattery, has found Carines’ diary, and now knows his plan. He tells Cairnes that if anything happens to him, Cairnes will be the immediate suspect. Later that day, Rattery dies of what turns out to be poison. Cairnes contacts poet and private investigator Nigel Strangeways, and asks for his help. His claim is that he had planned to kill Rattery, but not with poison. And why would he carry out his first plan, and also make such an elaborate plan to poison the victim? Strangeways is inclined to believe him, and starts looking for other possibilities. And, in the end, he finds out who killed George Rattery.

It’s not uncommon in the sex industry for people to use ‘stage names.’ There are, in fact, a lot of good reasons for people who work in that industry not to use their own names. We see this, for instance, in Leigh Redhead’s Peepshow. In that novel, we meet private investigator Simone Kirsch, who also works at times as a stripper. When she is hired to investigate the murder of a table dancing club called the Red Room, she goes undercover there as a newly-hired dancer. She uses the name Vivien Leigh, and plenty of people think the mystique of the name suits her.

In John Grisham’s The Chamber, Chicago lawyer Adam Hall travels to his firm’s Memphis office to help on the case of Sam Cayhall, who’s about to be executed for a bombing related to his Ku Klux Klan activities. We learn before long that Cayhall had been involved in Klan activity for a number of years, and that his son, Eddie, was disgusted at it all. When his father was convicted, Eddie Cayhall changed his name and moved to California. Later, he returned to the South (but not to Memphis) as Eddie Hall. He was the father of Adam Hall (who was actually born Alan Cayhall). So, as it turns out, Sam Cayhall is Adam Hall’s grandfather. That doesn’t make anything easier as Hall learns more about the bombing, and about his own family history. Along with trying to keep his grandfather from getting the death penalty, Hall also has to confront his own past, and it’s not going to be easy.

Names really are an important part of how we appear to the world. That’s why they can be so useful in a crime story. They can disguise or create an identity, and they can allow for interesting character development.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ You Don’t Know My Name.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, John Grisham, Leigh Redhead, Nicholas Blake

They Say He’s Got to Go*

monstersOne of the most enduring plot types in any sort of writing is what I’ll call overcoming the monster. One example, for instance is the story of Beowulf and the monster called the Grendel. Of course, you don’t have to go back that far to find stories where protagonists have to overcome monsters.

If you think of monsters in the figurative sense, there are a lot of instances of this sort of plot in crime fiction. By the way, you’ll notice as this post goes on that there won’t be any instances of ‘crazed serial killer’ plots. Too easy.

In Cecil Day-Lewis/Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, we are introduced to Frank Cairnes, a detective novelist who writes under the name of Felix Lane. Six months before the events of the story, his son Martin ‘Martie’ was killed in a hit-and-run incident, and he’s been inconsolable since then. His grief has driven him to the point where, as he puts it,
 

‘I am going to kill a man.’
 

He’s referring, of course, to the man who killed his son. And he regards that person as a kind of monster. He sets out to find the identity of the driver, and put an end to him. Cairnes moves to the town where he and Martie were living at the time of the boy’s death, and starts his sleuthing. He finds out that the driver of the car was likely a man named George Rattery. With that information, Cairnes wangles his way into the Rattery household and looks for an opportunity to kill the man. He gets his chance one afternoon when he and Rattery go sailing together. But, as it turns out, Rattery has found Cairnes’ diary, and knew about the plot to kill him. As he tells Cairnes, if anything happens to him, the police will immediately suspect Cairnes. That’s exactly what happens when, later that afternoon, Rattery dies of poison. Cairnes seeks out poet and amateur sleuth Nigel Strangeways, and asks for his help. He claims that he’s innocent (after all, why would he have planned to poison Rattery when he was going to push him overboard?) and Strangeways goes to work finding out who the real killer was. In this case, Cairnes’ grief has made him think of Rattery as a monster.

Sometimes, the monster that characters seek to overcome is in themselves (perhaps that’s another blog topic in itself…). In Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, for instance, we meet Lou Ford, deputy sheriff of Central City, Texas. He’s a quiet sort of man, a little on the ‘plodding’ side, but not stupid. He investigates when a local prostitute, Joyce Lakeland, is viciously beaten. While he’s working on that case, there’s a murder. Now it’s clear that something is going on in Central City. And all along, what people don’t know about Ford is that he’s hiding something he calls ‘the sickness’ – something he tries to overcome. And that ‘sickness’ plays its role in the story.

Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men features her sleuth, artist Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair. The story takes place in 1932 in New South Wales. It’s a time of great hardship, with the worldwide Great Depression hitting everyone very hard. Siinclair’s family is relatively safe, as they’re wealthy and powerful. But that doesn’t mean they’re safe from tragedy. When Sinclair’s uncle, also named Rowland, is murdered one night, Inspector Biquit and his team investigate. Slowly, Sinclair comes to suspect that his uncle’s killers might be members of the New Guard, a far-right group led by Colonel Eric Campbell. The group’s aim is to stamp out all liberal and left-wing thinking, and establish a new government in Australia, that will protect the current class system, and re-establish very traditional ways of life. The more Sinclair learns about the New Guard, the more dangerous he finds them to be. In fact, they’re already plotting against New South Wales’ government, and the rest of the country will likely not be far behind. As Sinclair and his friends try to find out who murdered his uncle, they also have to work to prevent the New Guard, and Campbell, from succeeding. In this case, it’s a dangerous political group that’s seen as a sort of monster that must be stopped.

Most children are no strangers to the concept of a monster and the desire to overcome it. And for some children, it’s all too real. For instance, in Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks, fourteen-year-old Adam Vander finally works up the courage to escape his abusive father, Joe. He’s always thought of Joe as a kind of monster, and with good reason. But until now, he’s always been too small and too frightened to leave. When he finally does, he meets Billy Benson, a young man who happens to be at the house when Adam makes his escape. The two spend the next week together, and form a sort of friendship. They learn, too, that they are connected in ways they’re not really comfortable discussing, but that are undeniable. And it all stems from a past incident. Still, they work together, and face real danger as the week goes on, and in the end, there’s a sense of resolution. Several parts of the story are told from Adam’s perspective, so we see how he regards Joe. It’s not exactly like Beowulf trying to defeat the Grendel, but there’s a very similar sort of sentiment.

And then there’s Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol’s The Cemetery of Swallows. That novel begins as Manuel Gemoni travels from France to the Dominican Republic. There, he kills a Dominican citizen named Tobias Darbier. There’s no doubt that Gemoni is the killer, but what’s missing is a motive. All he says about it is that he killed Darbier,
 

‘‘…because he had killed me.’’
 

Gemoni has been badly injured, so Police Commissioner Amédée Mallock of the Paris CID is sent to the Dominican Republic to bring Gemoni back to France as soon as his condition allows. When he has fully recuperated, the agreement is that he will be returned to the Dominican Republic to face trial. Mallock is particularly interested in this case, since one of his colleagues is Gemoni’s sister. As the novel goes on, we slowly learn the history of Gemoni and Darbier. And we see that the theme of overcoming a monster is woven into the plot.

It’s woven into many plots, actually. And that’s not surprising. That plot type can be very suspenseful and tense. And it’s something that resonates with readers.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Blue Öyster Cult’s Godzilla.

 

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Filed under Cecil Day-Lewis, Honey Brown, Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol, Jim Thompson, Nicholas Blake, Sulari Gentill

I Know the End is Comin’ Soon*

murder-warningsAn important part of the appeal of crime fiction is the suspense. Sometimes that comes from not knowing who the killer is, and the sleuth’s search for the truth. It might also come from a ‘cat and mouse’ sort of plot, where the killer and the sleuth face off against each other. There are other ways, too, in which the author can build suspense. Whichever way the author decides to go about it, building suspense is an important part a crime novel.

That’s why it takes skill to create a plot where we’re told at the beginning that there’s going to be a murder. It takes even more when readers are told who the victim will be. A few stories, such as Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone let the reader in on that information right away. We know from the first sentence of that novel who the killer is (a professional housekeeper named Eunice Parchman). We know who the victims are, too (members of the Coverdale family, Eunice’s employers). Even with this information having been provided, Rendell builds the tension by showing what the characters are like, how they met, and how the murders happened.

There are other ways in which authors handle that tension, too. For instance, in Georges Simenon’s The Saint-Fiacre Affair, the Paris police receive a note warning them that a crime will be committed,
 

‘…at the church of Saint-Fiacre during First Mass.’
 

For Commissaire Jules Maigret, the place has special meaning. It’s a church near Matignon, where he was born and raised. He takes an interest in the note, although his colleagues think it’s a prank, and travels to Matignon, where he attends the service mentioned in the note. Sure enough, after the Mass ends and everyone else leaves, the Countess of Saint-Fiacre is found dead. Maigret knew the victim, so it’s very difficult for him to be objective in this case. Still, he investigates, and finds out who the killer is, and why the note was sent. In this novel, part of the suspense comes from the search for answers. Part comes as Maigret faces his own past.

Nicholas Blake’s (AKA Cecil Day-Lewis) The Beast Must Die begins with the sentence,
 

‘I am going to kill a man.’
 

This comes from the journal of Frank Cairnes, a crime writer who uses the pen name Felix Lane. Cairnes/Lane plans to murder the man who killed his son Martin ‘Martie’ in a hit-and-run incident. He returns to the town he and Martie lived in at the time of the boy’s death, and starts looking for information. Soon enough, he learns that the driver was probably a man named George Rattery. After getting an ‘in’ to the Rattery household, Cairnes puts in motion his plan for revenge. But on the day’s Cairnes has chosen for the crime, Rattery dies of what turns out to be poison. Cairnes is the natural suspect, but he claims he didn’t actually commit the murder. Then, he contacts poet/PI Nigel Strangeways, and asks for his help. According to Cairnes, he planned to kill Rafferty – even tried. But his method was attempted drowning, and the plan fell through. Why, says Cairnes, would he have planned to poison the man he’d already planned to drown? It’s a complicated case, and the suspense in it comes from Strangeways’ efforts to make sense of it.

In Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes, New York Homicide Bureau Detective Tom Shawn meets a young woman named Jean Reid, who’s about to jump off a bridge. He manages to talk her into getting off the bridge and going with him, and soon hears her story. As it turns out, her distress has come from the fact that her father, Harlan Reid, has been told he is going to die on a certain day at midnight. The predication came from Jeremiah Tompkins, a man who considers himself cursed with being able to see the future. Shawn takes an interest in the Reid case, and joins Jean in the effort to prevent her father’s death, if that’s possible.

There’s also Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced (You were waiting for this, right, Christie fans?). The novel begins with a personal advertisement in a local newspaper that states,
 

‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6:30pm. Friends, please accept this, the only invitation.’  
 

The residents of Chipping Cleghorn can’t resist the invitation, and several of them go to Little Paddocks to see what it’s all about. At the appointed time, a man bursts into the house, demanding that everyone ‘stick ‘em up.’ No-one takes it seriously – until shots are fired into the room, and the man is killed. Even though we know there’ll be a murder, Christie doesn’t make it exactly clear who the victim will be, and certainly not who the killer is. That’s part of what adds to the suspense.

The main focus of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity is a plot to murder H.S. Nirdlinger. It all starts when Nirdlinger’s insurance representative, Walter Huff, stops by the house to see about a policy renewal. Instead of his client, Huff meets Nirdlinger’s wife, Phyllis. He’s immediately smitten, and it’s not long before he and Phyllis are involved. She convinces him that, with his help, her husband can be killed, and she and Huff can be together and enjoy his insurance payout. Huff goes along with the plan and the murder is duly committed. But as fans of this novella know, that’s only the beginning of the complications in Huff’s life…

And then there’s John Grisham’s A Time to Kill. When ten-year-old Tonya Hailey is brutally raped and left to die, her father, Carl Lee, is understandably devastated and angry. There’s a lot of sympathy for him, too. Tonya’s attackers, Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard are promptly arrested. The case gets the attention of Jake Brigance, an attorney whose office is just across the street from the courthouse. Out of interest, he attends the preliminary hearing for the two men, where he sees Hailey (whom he knows). Lee makes some cryptic remarks that give Brigance the idea that he intends to exact revenge on Cobb and Willard. Brigance tries to warn him not to do anything drastic, but Hailey says,
 

‘What would you plan, Jake?’
 

Sure enough, Hailey gets some help from his brother Lester, ambushes Cobb and Willard, and murders them. Then he asks Brigance to defend him. Along with several other elements, the legal and ethical issues add to the suspense of this novel. So does the fact that the stakes turn out to be a lot higher than just one man killing his daughter’s rapists.

In deft hands, even a story where we (and the sleuth) are told there’s going to be a murder can still draw us in. When it’s done well, the fact that we know what probably (or definitely) will happen can add to the tension. Which stories like this have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Creedance Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Cecil Day-Lewis, Cornell Woolrich, Georges Simenon, James M. Cain, John Grisham, Nicholas Blake, Ruth Rendell