Category Archives: P.D. James

Nobody Was Really Sure if He Was From the House of Lords*

legislatorsWatch (or read) any news reports, and you’ll be reminded of something interesting about democratic governments. They are often led by presidents, prime ministers, or their counterparts. But in reality, a lot of political power rests with legislators. They may be members of Parliament, members of Congress, or of some other legislative body. Whatever their position, these people often have quite a lot of power.

It’s interesting to see how they’re treated in crime fiction, too. Legislators are natural fits for crime fiction, if you think about it. There’s power, money, status – and vulnerability. Just a quick look at the genre should show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we are introduced to Lady Westholme, MP. She and her friend, Miss Pierce, join an excursion to the famous Middle East city of Petra. With them on the trip are several other people, including newly-minted doctor Sarah King, and the members of the Boynton family, who are also touring the Middle East. From the moment that we meet her, Lady Westholme is assertive (some might even say aggressive) and quite clear in her views. There’s an interesting scene, for instance, where she has an argument with a representative from the travel company about the size and amenities of the car that’s to take the group to Petra. Needless to say, Lady Westholme wins the day. On the second afternoon of the trip, Mrs. Boynton (matriarch of the Boynton family) suddenly dies of what looks like heart failure. That’s not surprising, considering her age and health. But Colonel Carbury, who’s the investigator in the area, isn’t entirely convinced. He asks Hercule Poirot, who’s also in the Middle East, to look into the matter, and Poirot agrees. It turns out there are several suspects, too, as Mrs. Boynton was tyrannical, manipulative, and cruel to the members of her family. In the end, though, Poirot gets to the truth about the murder.

Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder is the story of Sir Derek O’Callaghan, MP. He’s written a controversial Anarchy Bill that specifically targets leftist revolutionaries and their activities. There’s no guarantee that the bill will be accepted, but it does have support. Sir Derek believes firmly that it will help keep the country safer. Others claim it squelches free speech. Whatever the bill’s fate, it seems clear that it’s going to spark fierce discussion. One day, Sir Derek is giving a speech when he suddenly collapses from a ruptured appendix. He’s rushed to a nearby nursing home run by his longtime friend, Sir John Phillips. There, he undergoes an emergency operation, which he survives. Later, though, he dies of what turns out to be hyoscine poisoning. Sir Roderick Alleyn and his assistant, Inspector Fox, investigate. And one important avenue they explore is the bill that Sir Derek had written. It’s not the only possibility, though, and the two end up with several suspects. I see you, fans of Died in the Wool.

P.D. James’ A Taste For Death introduces us to Crown Minister Paul Berowne. As a close advisor to the Prime Minister, he’s got plenty of power and ‘clout.’ One day, he’s found dead in a church not far from his home. Also found there is the body of a local tramp, Harry Mack. Commander Adam Dalgliesh, DCI John Massingham, and DI Kate Miskin investigate the deaths. They do, of course, look into Berowne’s political life. People in a position of power often make enemies. They also look into his personal life, and there are plenty of suspects there, too. It turns out to be a complex case that challenges the team.

As you’ll know, Margaret Truman was the daughter of US President Harry S. Truman. She was also a crime writer who wrote the well-regarded Capital Crimes series. More than one of those novels involves crime, corruption and murder in the US Congress. For instance, in Murder at the Kennedy Center, US Senator Ken Ewald is making a bid for the presidency. He has a very good chance at being elected, too, as he’s politically astute. He has an egalitarian agenda, but he also knows how to play the ‘power game.’ One night, at a glittering fund-raiser, Ewald staffer Andrea Feldman is shot. Georgetown University Law School professor Mackensie ‘Mac’ Smith discovers the body – or, rather, his dog does – during a late-night walk. Soon enough, he’s drawn into the case, because he knows the Ewalds. Ewald himself is a suspect, since his gun was used in the murder. But so is his son, who was having an affair with the victim. Those aren’t the only possibilities, though. For as many friends as Ewald has, he has enemies, too, and some of them would be only too happy to see his campaign in ruins. It’s an interesting look at the ins and outs of legislative politics. So, by the way, is Truman’s Murder in the House.

In Robin Cook’s medical thriller, Seizure, we meet US Senator Ashley Butler. He’s a conservative, who’s staunchly opposed to stem-cell research and other, similar, medical advances. He’s also a strong proponent of ‘traditional family values.’ He’s used his constituents’ concerns about the economy, social change, and other issues to cement his role as one of the most powerful senators in Congress. His next goal is the US presidency. But even as it is, he has an awful lot of ‘clout.’ The, he is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. If the truth about this comes out, Butler knows he’ll never be elected, and may not even keep his Senate seat. So, he reaches out to Dr. Daniel Lowell, who’s been doing exactly the sort of research Butler has publicly opposed. He offers Lowell a deal: if Lowell will perform the controversial procedure he’s been studying on Butler, then Butler will withdraw his opposition to this sort of research. And that isn’t trivial. Millions of dollars ride on whether the government will or will not support medical and other scientific research. Lowell agrees, unable to resist the opportunity to try his new procedure. The two make their plans, and surgery is scheduled. It doesn’t work out the way either plans, though, and the result involves real danger.

And then there’s Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, the first of her Joanne Kilbourn novels. As the series begins, Kilbourn is a political scientists and academician. She’s been working on the campaign of Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk, who’s just been selected to lead Saskatchewan’s Official Opposition party. He’s got a very promising future as a provincial political leader, but it all ends one afternoon at a barbecue, where he’s scheduled to give an important speech. He’s just about to start, when he suddenly collapses and dies. Kilbourn is devastated at the loss of her friend, so, partly as a way to deal with the grief, she decides to write a biography of Boychuk. As she does, she gets closer and closer to the truth about his death. In fact, she could very well be the next victim…

Just because someone has a lot of power, as legislators often do, doesn’t mean one’s safe from harm. And it’s interesting to see how that combination of power and vulnerability is treated in crime fiction. Which examples have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ A Day in the Life.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Margaret Truman, Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James, Robin Cook

Every Time She Find a Minute, That’s the Time When They Begin It*

cinderella-charactersDo you remember the story of Cinderella? You know, the young girl who’s made to work like a slave by her evil stepmother and stepsisters? Well, the story may not be real, but it resonates. For instance, many countries have laws that require all employees, including domestic employees, to be paid. And the vast majority of people who employ, say, au pairs, cleaning staff, and so on do pay them. But that doesn’t mean such staff have an easy time of it. And there are cases where even paid domestic staff are overworked or worse.

If you look at crime fiction, there are plenty of examples, too, of characters who fall into that vague ‘fuzzy’ category between paid employees (such as a nanny) and family/dependents (such as children, foster children, and so on). Those characters can be particularly vulnerable, and it’s interesting to see how crime fiction treats them.

In Anna Katharine Green’s short story, The House of Clocks, Violet Strange gets an unusual case from her employer. Wealthy Arabella Postlethwaite summoned a lawyer to draw up her will. When he got to her home, that lawyer discovered that his new client lives in a strange, even eerie, home with her stepdaughter, Helena. The lawyer fears that Helena may be in grave danger. Her stepmother despises her, for reasons that become clear in the story, and expressly says that Helena will get nothing when she dies. That means she’ll have no place to go. What’s more, Helena is ill and getting worse. The lawyer is hoping that someone might look into the matter, and Violet begins to investigate, using the guise of a nurse/maid. She discovers that, while Helena is technically Mrs Postlethwaite’s dependent, she’s treated much more like a slave. If Helena is to be rescued, Violet’s going to have to learn the story of this family, and get Helena to co-operate with her.

Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile introduces us to wealthy, elderly Marie Van Schuyler. She plans a trip that includes Egypt, and decides that her young cousin, Cornelia Robson, should accompany her. As she sees it,
 

‘There are many little things that Cornelia can do for me.’
 

And for Cornelia, it’s a chance to travel. The two go on a cruise of the Nile, but Cornelia gets very little time to explore. Her cousin is both demanding and impatient, to say nothing of rude. But Cornelia gets more than she bargained for when a fellow passenger, Linnet Doyle, is shot on the second night. Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise, and he works with Colonel Race to find out who the killer is. Throughout most of the novel, Cornelia acts as a sort of unpaid servant to her cousin. She does everything she’s asked to do (although never quite as fast as Miss Van Schuyler would like), and has to put up with a great deal of indignity. And yet, although everyone else on the boat seems to notice it, Cornelia doesn’t mind. It’s an interesting look at the ‘poor cousin/rich cousin’ relationship.

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, we learn the story of Mary Murmu. A girl from a very poor family, she went to Delhi, where she worked for the family of Ajay Kasliwal, a well-to-do attorney. She disappeared, though, and the story was that Kasliwal raped and killed her. The Indian police don’t want to be seen as too soft on the wealthy and the powerful, so they’ve decided to make an example of Kasliwal. He’s arrested, and is going to stand trial. He claims that he doesn’t know what happened to Mary, and hires PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri to find out the truth. Puri needs to learn what was really going on in the Kasliwal home. For that, he taps his employee ‘Facecream,’ so called because of her ability to blend in anywhere. Her job will be to get work as a maid in the Kasliwal household, and investigate. This she does quite effectively, and discovers that there are several possibilities for what might have happened to Mary. As she looks into the matter, we see how Mary was treated (and how Facecream herself is now). Servants in Mrs. Kasliwal’s employ are not given much dignity or any respect; and, even though they are paid, it’s very little, and the money isn’t really theirs to spend. It’s not a pleasant home in which to work.

Neither is the home in which Evelyn Matlock works in P.D. James’ A Taste For Death. In that novel, Commander Adam Dalgliesh works with DCI John Massingham and DI Kate Miskin to find out who murdered Crown Minister Sir Paul Berowne. His body, together with the body of a local tramp named Harry Mack, was found in a local church. Naturally, the team looks into the dynamics of the Berowne house, and they find a very unhappy place. Evelyn was taken in (at Paul Berowne’s insistence) when her father was convicted of a crime and imprisoned, and now she serves as housekeeper and nurse to Lady Ursula. Here’s what she has to say about life in that household:
 

‘‘I’m tired, I’m overworked and I hate you all. You didn’t know that, did you? You thought I was grateful. Grateful for the job of washing you like a baby, grateful for waiting on a woman too idle to pick up her own underclothes from the floor, grateful for the worst bedroom in the house, grateful for a home, a bed, a roof, the next meal. This place isn’t a home…And you think of no one but yourselves. Do this, Mattie, fetch that, Mattie, run my bath, Mattie. I do have a name. I’m not a cat or a dog. I’m not a household pet.’’
 

Evelyn’s views reflect just how much she’s been taken for granted.

And then there’s Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, which is a fictional retelling of the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, one of the last people in Iceland to be executed for murder. In this story, Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson, are murdered, allegedly by Agnes Magnúsdóttir, Friðrik Sigurðsson, and Sigrídur ‘Sigga’ Gudmondsdóttir. Agnes is found guilty, and now awaits her execution. It’s decided that it would be best for her to stay with a ‘proper Christian family’ until her execution, so she is sent to live with District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife, Margrét, and their two daughters, Steina and Lauga. The idea is that the family will benefit from Agnes’ work, while she will benefit from staying with ‘Godly’ people. The family will be compensated, as well. And the government won’t have the responsibility of feeding and housing the prisoner. At first, Agnes is treated as not much more than a slave. She’s told what to do and she does it. Very gradually, she gets to know, especially, Steina and Margrét, and they learn that there’s much more to their temporary live-in help than they thought.

There are other cases, too, of people who fall into that vague area between family members and ‘official’ employees. That position can make one very vulnerable, but there are some interesting examples in crime fiction.

Cinderella, of course, is a fairy tale, but it’s got a long history.  Want to know more about the history of such tales? Try D.D. Storyteller! There, you’ll find all sorts of discussion of different stories and their origins.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Mack David, Jerry Livingston, and Al Hoffman’s  Cinderella (The Work Song).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anna Katherine Green, Hannah Kent, P.D. James, Tarquin Hall

I Was Running For the Door*

Creepy PlacesI was reading an excellent review by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading, when I was struck by a comment she made about the setting of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. As you’ll see if you read her review (which you should!), the post itself wasn’t about that novel. It wasn’t even, really, about setting. But in the course of it, Bernadette mentioned that,
 

‘Insular settings can provide a powerful sense of place in their own right (I’m still having nightmares about the house in Dame Christie’s And Then There Were None) …’
 

She’s right. Settings such as that house can add a great deal to the tension in a story. In this particular novel, knowing that the people on the island can’t escape makes the story that much eerier. So I can see how that house would stay with a reader.

There are plenty of other crime-fictional novels, too, where we see the impact of the insular setting. Here are just a few that have stayed with me. I know you’ll have your own selection.

In Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger, Inspector Cockrill travels to Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for wartime (WWII) military use. Local postman Joseph Higgins has died, apparently a tragic, but accidental, death on the operating table. But Higgins’ widow insists that he was murdered. Cockrill starts asking questions, particularly of the seven people most closely associated with Higgins during his hospital stay. He soon learns that this case isn’t at all as it seemed on the surface. As he starts to home in on the killer, he insists that all of his suspects stay together as much as possible. That, plus the fact that two people end up dead in the same operating theatre, makes the hospital a really insular setting that gets creepier and creepier as the story goes on – at least for me. There’s something about that sort of setting, isn’t there, fans of Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder?

In John Alexander Graham’s Something in the Air, Columbia University Professor of Law Jake Landau is on a flight from Boston to New York when a bomb goes off (this novel was written before today’s careful screening of passengers). Landau’s friend and attorney Martin Ross is killed in the tragedy, and of course, Landau wants answers. But the airline people aren’t very forthcoming. And, since he’s not a police officer, neither is anyone else, including the police who are investigating the incident. So Landau starts asking questions on his own. His questions get too close for comfort for the powerful international drugs ring that’s connected to this bombing, so they target Landau. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that there’s a really memorable scene at New York’s Grand Central Station that’s stayed in my mind. As it is, the station has a long history (it was built about 1871). It’s large, with lots of different passageways and so on. It can feel very creepy, and Graham takes advantage of that.

P.D. James’ Death of an Expert Witness has as its focus Hoggatt’s Laboratory in East Anglia. It’s a private forensic laboratory that performs different sorts of tests in cases of unnatural death. As such, it’s used by both sides when a murder case is tried in court. One night, Dr. Edwin Lorrimer, one of the senior staff at the laboratory, is working late on a recently-opened case when he is bludgeoned. Commander Adam Dalgliesh is assigned to the investigation. One thing he and DI John Massingham quickly learn is that Lorrimer had very strict security procedures, especially after normal working hours. So it’s unlikely that anyone ‘on the outside’ could be the killer. That leaves Lorrimer’s colleagues and subordinates, and that’s a wide field. Lorrimer was much disliked, and for good reason. As Dalgliesh and Massingham look into the matter, the lab itself comes under plenty of scrutiny (how many entrances, where are the windows, etc.). It takes on a sort of eerie personality of its own, especially at night.

There’s also Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island. In that novel, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels travels to Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, which is located on Shutter Island, in Massachusetts’ Outer Harbor. With him is his assistant, Chuck Aule. They’re there because one of the patients, Rachel Solando, has escaped, and is loose somewhere on the island. She’s a dangerous person, and that alone is reason enough to want to find her. But as Daniels and Aule soon discover, there’s much more at stake here than just one escaped prisoner, and all sorts of things are going on in the ward from whence she escaped. Then a storm comes up, which makes the investigation even more difficult. Throughout the story (and the film, if you saw it), the hospital compound is depicted in a very eerie way. It’s a former wartime hospital, converted for postwar use. It’s old and, since it’s on an island, it’s isolated. And there’s the fact that it’s psychiatric facility for the most dangerous of criminals. It’s the sort of place that stays with many readers. And so does the island.

Of course, I couldn’t do a post on eerie, insular places without mentioning the Bates Motel, vividly depicted in Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho. The medium Hitchcock used to tell the story is especially effective at evoking that isolated, creepy place. It’s definitely not a welcoming stop for the night. I know, I know, fans of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn

Bernadette’s right about some places in crime novels. They really can be insular, eerie, and frightening. And that can make them stay with the reader long after the novel’s finished.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Eagles’ Hotel California.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Christianna Brand, Daphne du Maurier, Dennis Lehane, John Alexander Graham, Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James

On With the Show*

Amateur PerformancesLots of places don’t have professional acting or musical groups. So they turn to amateurs for entertainment. There’s a long tradition of church plays, village concerts and amateur drama societies. And if you’re a parent, I’ll bet you’ve attended school productions where your child had a part. Perhaps you’ve been on stage yourself.

Amateur entertainment gives people a chance to see plays and hear music they might not otherwise be able to enjoy. And for those interested in a career in performing, directing, and so on, these productions offer an excellent chance to learn the skills. Even for those who simply have a good time performing, these productions offer the chance to be creative.

There are references to these local performances throughout crime fiction. That’s not surprising, either, when you consider what an effective context they are for a murder mystery. There are the inevitable conflicts, the gathering of disparate people for rehearsals and performances, and a lot more. And that’s to say nothing of the opportunity they provide for all sorts of clues, encounters, and the like.

In Caroline Graham’s Death of a Hollow Man, for instance, Inspector Tom Barnaby attends Causton Amateur Dramatic Society’s production of Amadeus. Most of the cast and crew, including Barnaby’s wife Joyce, are volunteers. On opening night, Esslyn Carmichael, who has the role of Salieri, picks up what he thinks is a blunt prop knife for the pivotal attempted-suicide scene. The knife turns out to be all too real, though, and Carmichael is killed in what looks like a real suicide. But there are enough questions about that that Barnaby and his assistant Sergeant Gavin Troy start to investigate more deeply. And they find that more than one person (including several of the locals) had a motive for murder.

P.D. James’ Death of an Expert Witness tells the story of the murder of Dr. Edwin Lorrimer, a member of the senior staff at Hoggatt’s Laboratory in East Anglia. When he is murdered at the lab one evening, Commander Adam Dalgliesh and DI John Massingham investigate. The evidence suggests strongly that Lorrimer was killed by someone he knew, and probably by a work colleague, since there was no evidence of a break-in. Part of the detectives’ task is, of course, to find out what everyone concerned was doing at the time of the break-in. Several interviewees use a village concert at Chevisham as their alibi, and it’s interesting to see how James ties that performance in with some of the characters’ lives. For instance, there are several violinists among the lab staff members; and one character claims that he was playing one half of a hobby-horse in a morris-dancer performance. With all of these connections, Dalgliesh and Massingham have to look into doings at the village hall, too…

There’s an interesting scene set at a village pantomime in Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin. DC Ben Cooper and DS Diane Fry are investigating the murders of two young women whose remains have been found at Pity Wood Farm in England’s Peak District. In one sub-plot of this novel, Cooper has a relationship with SOCO professional Liz Petty; but for the moment, they don’t want it known all over. So while they don’t really hide their romance, they also try to keep it as discreet as they can. One night they arrange to meet at Edendale’s Royal Theatre for the annual Christmas pantomime, since some of Liz’ friends will be performing in it. The production is a (very politically incorrect) version of Aladdin, and Booth uses this date to show the panto tradition.

Of course, school productions are among the most common sorts of amateur performances, from very young children reciting a line or two, to university acting groups. We see this in crime fiction, too. For instance, in Gail Bowen’s The Nesting Dolls, political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her husband Zack attend a concert one evening at their daughter Taylor’s high school. Afterwards, as everyone’s leaving, a woman approaches Taylor’s friend Isobel and hands her a baby. A note with the baby explains that the mother, Abby Michaels, wants to give him up and wants Isobel’s mother Delia to have full custody. It’s a complicated situation, made all the more so when Abby is later found murdered in her car…

In Christine Poulson’s Stage Fright, literature scholar Cassandra James gets involved in a deadly stage production. She is head of the English Department for St. Ethelreda’s College, Cambridge, and a new mother; so her life is quite busy enough. But when director Kevin Kingsleigh asks for her help with a new production he’s directing, she agrees. He and his wife, actress Melissa Meadows, will be doing a stage version of the Victorian novel East Lynne, and they want Cassandra to adapt the script. Rehearsals get underway, and opening night gets closer. Then, Melissa calls, claiming that someone is stalking her. Cassandra goes to the house and does her best to allay Melissa’s fears. But the next day, when Melissa doesn’t show up for rehearsal, it’s quite clear that something is very wrong. She seems to have completely disappeared, even leaving her infant daughter Agnes behind. As time goes by and she doesn’t return or contact anyone, the police begin to believe she’s been murdered. And one of their suspects is Cassandra. Partly to clear her name, and partly because she’s really worried about her friend, Cassandra starts asking questions, too.

And then there’s K.B. Owen’s Dangerous and Unseemly, the first of her historical mysteries featuring Concordia Wells. Concordia teaches at Hartford Women’s College in the last years of the 19th Century, a time when young ladies are not expected to have a career once they marry. Certainly they’re not expected to take an interest in crime, let alone investigate it. In this novel, Concordia agrees to help with the school’s production of The Scottish Play, but ends up doing most of the direction. The main plot thread in this novel is the murder of Bursar Ruth Lyman, and Concordia’s search for the truth about the murderer. But readers also get the chance to go ‘behind the scenes’ as the students put their production together.

Village concerts, plays and pantos, and school-related productions, are all interesting in that they involve ‘regular’ people who also perform. The people on stage could be accountants, lab assistants, aspiring chemists or just about anything else. This lets the author pull in characters’ personal lives as well as the personas they have onstage. And that can make for an absorbing story.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Irving Berlin’s There’s No Business Like Show Business.

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Filed under Caroline Graham, Christine Poulson, Gail Bowen, K.B. Owen, P.D. James, Stephen Booth

Tawdry Secrets of a Select Few*

Closed Places and Few SuspectsWhen there’s a murder, whether it’s real or fictional, the police work as quickly as they can to narrow down the list of probable suspects. All other things equal, the fewer the number of suspects, the easier it is for them to do their work.

In fiction, one way to narrow the list of suspects is to have the murder (or murders) happen in a closed place. I’m not referring here to the ‘locked room’ sort of mystery. That’s an entirely different category of crime story. Rather, I mean a place that’s either relatively closed-in, or relatively inaccessible, so that only a limited number of people would have access and be likely suspects.

Such a mystery isn’t as easy as it might seem to pull off. The characters have to be interesting (because there aren’t many of them). And the mystery itself has to be challenging, but not strain the limits of credibility too far. Still, when it works, it can work well.

Agatha Christie used that ‘closed place’ scenario in several of her stories. For example, in Cards on the Table, the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana invites a group of people to a dinner party. Four are detectives (one is Hercule Poirot). The other four are people whom Mr. Shaitana suspects of murder. He believes that those people have gotten away with their crimes. Over dinner, he throws out hints as to what he suspects, and those hints are not lost on his guests. Later, when everyone is playing bridge, Mr. Shaitana is stabbed. There are only four possible suspects: the four possible murderers who were playing bridge in the room where Mr. Shaitana was killed. Each one has a very good motive, and each one had the opportunity. So Poirot and the other sleuths have to look into each person’s past to see which of them really was a murderer, and which one killed Shaitana. I know, I know, fans of Death in the Clouds and of Murder on the Orient Express.

Michael Innes’ Death at the President’s Lodging introduces Scotland Yard Inspector Appleby. In this novel, Josiah Umpleby, President of St. Andrews College, is shot one night in his private study. His valet George Slotwiner and one of the Fellows, Mr. Titlow, discover the body. In order to preserve the school’s reputation, the school authorities don’t want this case to get a lot of press. So Appleby is asked to investigate as quickly and quietly as he can. He soon learns that the college was locked at the time of the murder, and the president’s home locked separately.  What this means is that there are only seven possible suspects: the staff and Fellows who had access to the key to the Orchard Grounds, which adjoins the study. Appleby does discover the killer, but I think I can say without spoiling the story that limited access does not mean as much limitation of possibility as you might think. There’s a lot of manufacturing of alibis that goes on…

Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger begins as postman Joseph Higgins delivers letters to a group of people, informing them that they’ve been assigned to serve at Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for (World War II) military use. All seven take up their duties and begin their service. One day Higgins is brought into the hospital with a broken femur. An operation is immediately planned for the next day. Higgins dies during the procedure, and at first it’s put down to tragic accident. Inspector Cockrill of the Kent Police is called in to ‘rubber stamp’ the death. But questions soon arise. For one thing, Mrs. Higgins insists that her husband was murdered, and she’s not a fanciful person. For another, one of the nurses, Sister Marion Bates, drinks too much at a party one night and blurts out that she knows who Higgins’ murderer is, and that she has proof. Later that night, she, too, is murdered, in the same operating theatre. At this point, there are only six possible suspects: the people who were involved in the original operation on Higgins (minus, of course, Sister Marion). So Cockrill has to use every trick in the proverbial book, including confining the suspects to quarters, to find out who the killer is. This one has some similarities to Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder in that in both cases, the murder takes place in a ‘closed’ medical environment, and there are fairly few suspects.

In Ellery Queen’s The Last Woman in His Life, Queen is invited for a getaway weekend at the guest house owned by wealthy playboy John Levering Benedict III. Queen accepts the invitation and settles in for what he hopes will be a peaceful time. Benedict has other guests, though. Staying at the house with him are his three ex-wives, his attorney, and his attorney’s secretary. Needless to say, this makes for a great deal of strain, and Queen spends as little time there as he can. Then one night, he’s in the guest house when he gets a frantic call from his host. Benedict tells Queen that he’s been murdered. He starts to tell Queen who the killer is, too, but can’t get the words out because he stammers. Queen rushes over to the main house, but by the time he gets there, it’s too late. His host has been killed by a blow from a heavy statuette. The only other clues are an evening gown, a wig, and a pair of gloves. Each item belongs to a different person, so it’ll be difficult, even with such a limited pool of suspects, for Queen to work out who the killer is.

And then there’s P.D. James’ The Skull Beneath the Skin, the second of her Cordelia Grey novels. Grey owns a not-overly-successful PI agency, so she is glad for the work when Sir George Ralston hires her. His wife, famous actress Clarissa Lisle, is to take part in a Victorian-dress play The Duchess of Malfi, to be presented at Castle Courcy, on the Isle of Courcy. The island is privately owned by wealthy Sir Ambrose Corringe. Lisle has been getting vague death threats, and Ralston wants Grey to help protect his wife and, of course, to find out who this enemy is. Grey and Lisle duly take a trip to the island, and join a group of other houseguests, including some of Lisle’s friends’ and relatives. When Lisle is killed, Grey feels a sense of responsibility, since it was her job to protect her client’s wife. So she looks into the murder. The list of suspects isn’t overly long, and the island isn’t the sort of place where just anyone can come in and out as a rule. But that doesn’t mean this case will be easy.

And that seems to be key to creating a well-crafted mystery that’s set in a more or less ‘closed’ place and has few suspects. There has to be something challenging about the mystery. And of course, the more interesting the characters (within the limits of credibility) the better. I’ve only mentioned a few such stories (I know, I know, fans of Anne Holt’s 1222 and of Minette Walters’ The Ice House). Which ones have you liked best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rebecca Pidgeon’s Magazine.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anne Holt, Christianna Brand, Ellery Queen, Michael Innes, Minette Walters, P.D. James