Category Archives: Nicholas Blake

Her Name Was Magill and She Called Herself Lil*

Many people don’t go by the names they were given at birth. They may use a middle name, a nickname, or another name entirely. Sometimes, that’s not a big problem. And it’s perfectly legal to go through the process of changing one’s name. But name changes, and using different names, can make for real challenges for the police.

If the police are doing background checks on one name, they may not know to look for information under another name as well. There may also be connections between people involved in a case, but the police might not know about those connections if one of those people is living and working under a different name.

Name issues come up quite a bit in crime fiction, and that makes sense. They can add plot points and twists, character layers, and more. But they’re most effective if they’re used carefully and credibly (and not as a big surprise at the end of a story!).

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery, James McCarthy is arrested for the murder of his father, Charles. There’s evidence against him, too, as he was seen and overheard quarreling with his father just before the murder. He doesn’t have an alibi, either. But he claims he’s innocent, and his fiancée, Alice Turner, believes him. She asks the police to go over the case again, and Inspector Lestrade reluctantly agrees. He enlists Sherlock Holmes to investigate, and Holmes and Dr. Watson look into the matter. They find that, just before he died, McCarthy uttered what seemed at the time to be a meaningless jumble of words. But it turns out that he was actually saying the name of his killer. Once Holmes works out what that name is and to whom it belongs, he solves the case.

There are a few Agatha Christie stories in which names turn out to matter a great deal. I won’t give sleuths or titles for fear of spoilers. But in several that I can think of, the fact that people are using different names plays a major role in a case. Very often those changed names hide family or other connections to an investigation. And when the sleuth finds out what the character’s real name is, the pieces start to fall into place.

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 how most people know him. From the beginning of the story, we learn that he is planning to kill a man. Six months earlier, Carines’ beloved son, Martin ‘Martie,’ was killed in a hit-and-run incident, and Cairnes intends to kill the man who was driving the car. After a bit of detective work, Cairnes discovers that the driver was probably a man named George Rattery. Using his pen name, he finds a way to get an ‘in’ to Rattery’s home and is soon staying there as a guest. His plan is for Rattery to have a ‘drowning accident’ while they are out boating together. But, although the two men do go out on the water, the plan doesn’t work, because Rattery has found out about it. They return to land, and, later that afternoon, Rattery dies of what turns out to be poison. Cairnes says that he is innocent. After all, why would he plan to poison a man he planned to drown? He asks poet and PI Nigel Strangeways to investigate, and Strangeways agrees. He finds that this case is both simpler and more complicated than it seems on the surface.

Mari Hannah’s The Murder Wall is the first of her Kate Daniels novels. In it, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Daniels gets the chance to be Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) when Alan Stephens is murdered in his home. In one plot thread, Daniels comes to believe that this murder is linked to two murders that occurred almost a year earlier. At first, the connection isn’t that obvious. But then there’s another murder. And another. These deaths are linked, and Daniels faces real danger as she gets close to the truth about the deaths. It turns out that one person’s change of name has meant that a major clue isn’t picked up at first. It’s not until Daniels learns about the name change that she makes the connection.

And then there’s Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead, the first in her Esa Khattak/Rachel Getty series. Both work for the Community Policing Service (CPS) of the Canadian federal government, which is usually concerned with anti-bigotry and other community issues. So it’s a surprise when Khattak is asked to investigate the death of Christopher Drayton, whose body was found at the bottom of Scarborough (Ontario) Bluffs. His fall could be accidental, but it’s unlikely. In either case, it’s not the sort of investigation that usually concerns the CPS. Then, Khattak learns that Drayton may have been Dražen Krstić, a notorious Bosnian war criminal known as the butcher of Srebrenica. If so, there could be many reasons for someone to want him dead. And if that’s who Drayton was, it makes sense that he would go by a different name to escape his enemies. But if that’s true, how did a war criminal get into Canada? The case has delicate and challenging implications on political, social, and other levels.

Going by a different name doesn’t necessarily mean trouble. But in crime fiction, the answer to the question, ‘What’s in a name?’ is sometimes, ‘Everything.’ These are just a few examples. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Rocky Raccoon.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Mari Hannah, Nicholas Blake

It’s Just Those Ordinary Moments We Adore*

One of the ways authors can amplify tension in their novels is to include simple domestic scenes (e.g. setting the table, folding laundry, etc.). Those very ordinary scenes can serve as a contrast to the tension the author’s building, and make it even stronger. If you’ve ever been through a time of real tension, but still sat down to eat, or washed dishes, you know how that contrast works in real life. It does in crime fiction, too.

Agatha Christie used that contrast in several of her stories. For instance, in And Then There Were None, ten people are invited for a stay on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. They’re all invited for different reasons, and they all have their personal reasons for accepting the invitation. Their host isn’t present when they arrive, but everyone settles in. After dinner on the first night, they’re all shocked when each person is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Not long afterwards, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, another guest dies. Now, it’s clear that someone has lured these people to the island, and is killing them. The survivors will have to stay alive if they’re going to find out who the killer is. As you can imagine, a great deal of suspense is built up as the characters suspect each other of being the killer. At one point, a few of them are in the kitchen, getting a meal ready. The preparations are, on the surface, normal enough. And that throws the underlying tension into stark relief. You’re absolutely right, fans of Murder in Mesopotamia.

In Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, mystery novelist Frank Cairnes decides that he is going to commit murder. Six months earlier, his beloved son Martin ‘Martie’ was killed in a hit-and-run tragedy. Cairnes is devastated, and wants to find the person responsible, and kill that person. He moves back to the town where the tragedy occurred, and starts to ask a few questions. It doesn’t take long before he learns that a man named George Rattery was probably driving the car that killed Martie. He manages to get an ‘in’ to meet Rattery and his wife, and, soon enough, he’s invited to stay with them. Then, he works out his plan. He decides he’ll go sailing with Rattery, and, when they’re out alone on the water, he’ll drown his enemy. But, of course, he’ll have to get Rattery to agree to go sailing. One afternoon at lunch, he brings up the topic. It’s a regular lunch, where everyone’s eating, talking, and so on. But, for Cairnes, it’s an important part of putting his plan in motion. And there’s a lot of tension as that underlying suspense contrasts with the ordinariness of the meal.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives is the story of Walter and Joanna Eberhart. They and their two children have just moved from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. They settle in a bit, and at first, everything goes well enough. Then, Joanna’s new friend, Bobbie Markowe, begins to suspect that something is wrong in the town. Joanna doesn’t agree, and she’s unwilling anyway to make a move so soon after having moved to town. But as time goes by, she comes to believe that Bobbie was right, and that something dark is going on. Now, she herself is in very real danger. At one point, Walter invites a few of his friends over to the house, and Joanna agrees to play hostess. There’s a very tense scene in which she’s in the kitchen, and one of the guests joins her there. On the surface, it’s an everyday situation, where someone’s doing something in the kitchen, and chatting with another person. But there’s a lot of underlying tension, as Joanna’s trying to work out what’s going on in Stepford.

There’s another kitchen scene in Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, which takes place in 1950s California. Lora King has always been close to her brother, Bill. So, when he begins to date a former Hollywood seamstress’ assistant named Alice Steele, she’s naturally concerned that he might get hurt. Then, he marries Alice. Lora has her doubts, but she tries to be nice to her new sister-in-law, mostly for Bill’s sake. And Alice does seem to be fitting in among Bill’s friends. In fact, she’s quite the hostess. Slowly, though, Lora begins to learn little things that make her very uneasy. The more she discovers about Alice’s life, the more repulsed she is. At the same time, she’s drawn to it. Then, there’s a death, and Alice might be mixed up in it. Telling herself she’s protecting her brother, Lora starts to ask questions to find out what really happened. At one point in the novel, Alice is preparing for a get-together will some friends, and Lora’s in the kitchen, helping her. It’s a very ordinary-looking scene on the surface. Underneath, though, there’s a great deal of tension as Lora has become convinced that something is badly wrong.

And then there’s Wendy James’ The Mistake. In that novel, we meet Jodie Evans Garrow and her family. Her husband, Angus, is a successful attorney whose name has been brought up as the next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. She’s attractive, smart, and has two healthy children and a comfortable life. Everything’s going well for this family. Then, her daughter, Hannah, is involved in an accident, and is rushed to a Sydney hospital. It turns out to be the same hospital where, several years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child, one she’s never mentioned to anyone. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie, and asks about the child. Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but when the nurse checks into it, she finds no formal record of the adoption. Now, whispers start, and soon turn very ugly and very public. What happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If she’s dead, did Jodie have something to do with it? Before she knows it, Jodie becomes a social pariah. In the midst of all of this, she is invited to visit a local book club. Pleased at this sign of acceptance, Jodie accepts the invitation, and attends the book club meeting. On the surface, it’s an ordinary book club discussion. But the tension soon rises when Jodie discovers the reason she was invited. The group is discussing a book about the famous Lindy Chamberlain case, and they’ve drawn a parallel to Jodie’s situation. That underlying suspense contrasts with the surface-level peace of the book club.

And that’s the power that those ordinary scenes can have in crime fiction. They can contrast very effectively with underlying tension, and bring that tension into sharp focus. And that can add much to a novel.


*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Marc Robillard’s Blown Away.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ira Levin, Megan Abbott, Nicholas Blake, Wendy James

Sometimes It’s Better Not to Know*

If you’re a crime fiction fan, chances are good that you’re curious, and that you want answers. And that’s quite natural. Most humans have a certain amount of curiosity, and that serves us well. But, are there times when, as the saying goes, ignorance is bliss? Are there some things we’re better off not knowing?

It’s interesting to see how crime fiction treats that question. On the one hand, the genre is all about finding out answers and getting to the truth. On the other, sometimes that truth is so difficult that it really might be better not to know.

Agatha Christie address this question in several of her stories. For instance, in the short story Dead Man’s Mirror, Gervase Chevenix-Gore summons Hercule Poirot to his family home to help him deal with a delicate matter. Poirot is, as you can imagine, not exactly delighted with such treatment, but he is intrigued. So, he travels to Chevenix-Gore’s home. Shortly after he arrives, everyone gathers for dinner. But, by then, Chevenix-Gore is dead – shot in his study. On the surface, it looks very much like suicide. But there is good reason to believe that he would not have committed suicide. And Poirot soon finds evidence to suggest that he was murdered. As he slowly gets to the truth of the matter, Poirot discovers that there are several secrets perhaps best left alone. In fact, he leaves one of them alone himself.

Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die begins as mystery writer Frank Cairnes writes in his journal,

‘I am going to kill a man.’

He’s being perfectly literal, too. Six months ago, Cairnes’ beloved son, Martin ‘Martie’ died in a tragic hit-and-run incident. Devastated with grief, Cairnes has determined that he will find and kill the man responsible. So, he moves back to the town where he and Martie lived at the time of the tragedy and starts doing a little detective work. Before long, he establishes that the person who was driving the car that killed Martie was a man named George Rattery. Soon afterwards, he finds an ‘in’ to Rattery’s company, and gets an invitation for a visit. His plan is to take Rattery out on a boat and drown him. But Rattery has found Cairnes’ diary. He says that if anything happens to him, the police will get the diary, and Cairnes will be caught. For Cairnes’ part, he says that if the police get the diary, then they’ll know about Rattery’s role in Martie’s death. At a stalemate, the two men head back to shore. Later that day, Rattery dies of what turns out to be poison. Cairnes says that he is innocent. After all, why would he plan to poison a man whom he’d already been going to drown? And he asks poet and PI Nigel Strangeways to help clear his name. As the story goes on, it’s an interesting question whether it would have been better if Cairnes had never found out who the driver of that car was.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband, Henrik, have what seems like the perfect suburban life. Then, Eva discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful. Many people would argue that she has a right to know that. But for her, the news is truly devastating. She is determined that she will find out who the other woman is, and that decision spells disaster. When she learns who Henrik’s lover is, Eva plans revenge, but things don’t work out the way she wants. Gradually, things spin out of control in a way that they likely wouldn’t have if she’d never learned who the other woman was.

Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger begins as Fabien Delorme discovers that his wife, Sylvie, has died in a car crash. He feels the loss, but their marriage had faded, so he doesn’t feel a really deep grief. Then, he is told that she wasn’t alone in the car. Apparently, she had a lover who also died in the crash. This upsets Delorme more than does the fact that Sylvie died, and he wants to know who this other man was. The police aren’t willing to tell him, but he finds out that the man’s name was Martial Arnoult, and that he left a widow, Martine. Delorme becomes obsessed with finding out more about her, and before he knows it, he’s caught in a web that spins out of control. Admittedly, if he hadn’t found out the name of Sylvie’s lover, it wouldn’t make for much of a story. But it’s hard not to think he would have been better off not knowing…

And then there’s Mick Herron’s Down Cemetery Road. Sarah Tucker and her husband, Mark, are entertaining some guests one evening when an explosion destroys a house not far from theirs. At first, it’s believed to be a gas main. But Sarah has questions about that. For one thing, the owners of the house, Thomas and Maddie Singleton, who were killed in the explosion, left a four-year-old daughter, Dinah. There’s been no sign of the child, and no evidence that she was hurt or killed. So, what’s happened to her? Sarah soon finds out, too, that Thomas Singleton had been listed as killed four years earlier in a military accident. So, why was he present on the night of the explosion? Sarah is especially concerned about Dinah, so she starts to ask questions. And the more she finds out, the more danger there is for her. In the end, Sarah learns some dark, ugly truths, as this case is far more than a tragic gas main accident. Some of that knowledge is very dangerous, too – enough to make one wonder just how much good it did her to learn what she learned.

And that’s the thing about curiosity. It’s a natural part of human thinking. But sometimes, you can’t help wondering whether some things are better left unknown…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pale Divine’s The Fog.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Karin Alvtegen, Mick Herron, Nicholas Blake, Pascal Garnier

Making My Entrance Again*

In most crime novels (not all) there’s a sleuth, or at least a protagonist who finds out the truth about a crime. Sometimes, the sleuth appears from the very beginning of a novel. Other times, we don’t meet the sleuth until much later.

Both approaches have advantages. If we meet the victim and those in the victim’s circle first, this lets us get to know those characters, and get a sense of why one or another would want to kill (or would be a likely victim). On the other hand, if we meet the sleuth first, we get to know that person well, and that allows the reader to identify with the sleuth.

Agatha Christie wrote both sorts of novels. In Hickory, Dickory Dock, for instance, Hercule Poirot says the first line of dialogue in the novel. He notices that his usually frighteningly efficient secretary, Felicity Lemon, has made an error in a letter that he dictated. When confronted with the error, she explains that she was distracted because she was concerned about her sister, Mrs. Hubbard, who manages a student hostel. It seems that some odd things have gone missing, and there’s no logical explanation for it. Poirot agrees to look into the matter, and he visits the hostel. On the night he does, one of the students, Celia Austin, admits that she’s responsible for most of the thefts, and everyone thinks the matter is settled – until she dies the next night. When her death is proved to be murder, Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out who the killer is.

In Christie’s The Hollow, on the other hand, Poirot doesn’t make an appearance until Page 90 (of my edition of the book). In that novel, he works with Inspector Grange to find out who killed Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. The murder takes place while Christow and his wife, Gerda, are visiting Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell for a weekend at their country home. Poirot is invited for lunch on the Sunday, and comes on the murder scene, which he thinks has been set up for his ‘amusement.’ When he sees that it’s not, he gets involved in the investigation. With this setup, Christie introduces us to all of the major characters, including the victim and his wife, before introducing Poirot. That allows readers to get to know them, and to get a sense of the interactions among them.

Nevada Barr’s Track of the Cat introduces her sleuth, US National Park Service Ranger Anna Pigeon, on the first page of the novel. In it, Pigeon has been assigned to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. One day, she discovers the body of a fellow ranger, Sheila Drury. At first, it looks as though Drury was killed by a mountain lion. But Pigeon isn’t sure that’s true. And she doesn’t want there to be a mass slaughter of mountain lions, as she thinks there will be if word gets out that that’s how Drury died. So, she starts to ask some questions, and she learns that more than one person might have wanted to kill the victim. In this case, it makes sense to introduce Pigeon first, since she finds the body. What’s more, this allows Barr to give readers a bit of backstory on Pigeon. She was a New York ‘social wife’ until her beloved husband Zach was killed in a tragic accident. Now, she’s moved into a career where she can be close to nature, and she finds some peace and healing in it.

Bill Pronzini’s The Snatch introduces his San Francisco PI, Nameless, on the first page as well. In that novel, Nameless is hired by wealthy Louis Martinetti, whose son, Gary, has been abducted. Martinetti says that the kidnappers have demanded ransom money, or Gary will be killed. But, he doesn’t want Nameless to find Gary. Rather, he wants Nameless to take the ransom money to the drop-off point and leave it – nothing else. It’s an odd request, but a fee is a fee, so Nameless agrees. On the appointed day, Nameless gets the money from Marinetti and takes it to the drop-off site. And that’s when, as the saying goes, all hell breaks loose. Now, Nameless has to decide what to do. His decision draws him deeper and deeper into a complex case that’s much more than he imagined it would be. One of the advantages of having Nameless enter the story right away is that we get to see the Marinetti family – and the kidnapping case – from his perspective (the story is told in first person, past tense). And that offers an interesting perspective on the other characters. Another advantage is that we get to know a bit about Nameless, too.

In Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, detective novelist Frank Cairnes has been left devastated by the death of his son, Martin ‘Martie’ in a hit-and-run incident. He determines that he’s going to find the man responsible for his son’s death and kill him. It takes a little time, but he discovers that the person who was driving the car was a man named George Rattery. He wangles an introduction to the man, and before long, has worked out a plan to commit the murder. The plan involves drowning Rattery while the two are out on a boat, but it doesn’t come off as Cairnes wants. Rattery finds out about the plan, and he and Cairnes end up returning to shore. Later that day, Rattery dies of what turns out to be poison. Naturally, Cairnes is suspected, but he claims he isn’t the murderer. His idea had been to drown Rattery; why would he also arrange to poison the man? Cairnes asks poet and PI Nigel Strangeways to clear his name and find the guilty person, and Strangeways agrees. But we don’t meet Strangeways until Page 139 (of my edition). This strategy allows Blake to introduce the other characters and to show their interactions. It also allows Blake to describe Cairnes’ process of getting to know Rattery.

As you can see, a story can work well, whether the sleuth is introduced right away, or later in the book. It really depends on the author’s goals and the sort of story it is. Do you have a preference? If you’re a writer, when do you like to introduce your sleuth?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Bill Pronzini, Nevada Barr, Nicholas Blake

I Won’t Kill Again*

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, Hercule Poirot solves the murder of Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, who is shot on the second night of a honeymoon cruise of the Nile. Poirot finds out the truth about that murder and two others that take place. Later in the novel, he has a conversation with the killer, who says this:

‘‘I might do it again…I’m not a safe person any longer.’’

And there certainly are people who, having killed once, would kill again.

But that’s not true in all cases. There are plenty of fictional (and real) murders committed by people who wouldn’t kill again. Sometimes it’s because the victim was the only one who posed a (perceived) threat. Sometimes it’s because the killer was defending her or himself (or a loved one). There are other situations, too, in which someone might kill once, but never again. And those cases can be very interesting, not least because they can make the reader feel (at least a little) for the murderer.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Abbey Grange, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the murder of Sir Eustace Brackenstall. On the surface, it looks as though the killers are the notorious Randall gang, who’ve been going the rounds of the wealthy homes in the area. But there are pieces of evidence that suggest a different solution to Holmes. He discovers what really happened and confronts the killer with the truth. Once we know the facts, it seems clear that this is not a person who is likely to commit another murder. Holmes and Watson, at least, think so…

In Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, we are introduced to crime wrier Frank Cairnes, who writes under the name of Felix Lane. Cairnes has been devastated since his son Martin ‘Martie’ was killed in a hit-and-run incident. He’s determined to find the person responsible and kill that person. It’s not long before he learns that a man named George Rattery is most likely the driver who killed Marti. He finds a way to wangle an introduction to Rattery, and, soon enough, plans the murder. But it doesn’t work out as planned. As Cairnes lays out, he planned to kill Rattery on a short boating outing. But Rattery found out about the plan when he came across Cairnes’ dairy and threatened to have the diary sent to the police if anything happened to him. For his part, Cairnes threatened that Rattery’s role in Martie’s death would be made public if the police got the diary. At a stalemate, the two return to the Rattery home. Later that day, Rattery is killed by poison that’s been put in his medicine bottle. Cairnes claims he’s not guilty, and enlists Nigel Strangeways, poet and PI, to clear his name. Strangeways is inclined to believe Cairnes. After all, who would try to kill someone on a boating trip and plan a poison murder? There are other very likely suspects, too. In the end, Strangeways gets to the truth about Rattery’s death. And it certainly seems unlikely that this killer would commit another murder.

As L.R. Wright’s The Suspect begins, eighty-year-old George Wilcox has just murdered eight-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. We don’t know the motive right away, and neither does RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg, who investigates the case. It’s not very long before he begins to suspect Wilcox, but the lack of motive proves to be a real sticking point. It’s slowly revealed as the story goes on, though, and in the end, we find out the truth. While there’s rarely a guarantee in these things, it seems extremely unlikely that Wilcox would take another life.

And then there’s Teresa Solana’s A Not So Perfect Crime. In that novel, successful politician Lluís Font, Member of the Parliament of Catalonia, hires Barcelona PIs Eduard and Josep “Pep” (who goes by the name Borja) Martínez for a personal matter. He believes his wife, Lídia, has been unfaithful, and he wants proof. The brothers take the case, but after a week of surveillance, they find no evidence that she has strayed. Then, Lídia suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Now, Font is suspected of her murder. He asks the Martínez brothers to continue working for him, this time to clear his name. Neither brother has any experience investigating murder, but they agree to do what they can. And they discover that more than one person might have had a motive for murder. In the end, we find out who the killer is. And it seems very unlikely that that person will ever kill again.

And there are plenty of other killers, both real and fictional, who are the same. They may take a life, for whatever reason, but they wouldn’t do it again. And those types of killers can make interesting characters. Which have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Silverstein’s Discovering the Waterfront.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, L.R. Wright, Nicholas Blake, Teresa Solana