Category Archives: P.D. James

Just the Few of Us*

There are only so many ‘regular’ characters an author can weave into a series without confusing readers. That’s why, even in crime fiction series that are set in large cities, there’s a relatively small group of ‘focus characters.’ That’s just as true of police procedurals as it is of other sorts of series.

It’s easy enough when a series takes place in a small town. Such places may only have one police station with a relatively small number of people who work there. It’s a bit trickier for series that take places in larger cities. Readers couldn’t, for instance, keep track of every fictional police officer in Sydney, Toronto, London, Los Angeles or Moscow. So, how do authors face this challenge?

Some focus on one geographic area. For example, Ed McBain’s long-running police procedural series mostly features the police who serve in the 87th Precinct of Isola, a thinly-disguised New York City. That precinct has a limited number of officers, and serves a limited geographic area. Fans of the series know that there are occasional forays into other parts of the city. But, because the 87th is a finite group, it’s easier to keep track of Steve Carella and the rest of his team. The reader isn’t faced with the challenge of trying to remember the thousands of fictional police officers who might actually serve in such a large city.

Henry Chang’s Jack Yu series also has a geographic focus: New York City’s Chinatown. Yu was born and raised in that part of the city, and in Chinatown Beat, he’s stationed there. The series does see him temporarily assigned to other places, but he basically stays in Chinatown. This allows readers to get to know the area, as well as the various characters with whom Yu usually interacts. Fans of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Jean-Baptsite Adamsberg will know that that series, too, focuses on one small geographic part of Paris.

That’s certainly not the only way to address the challenge, though. Some authors focus on just one department (such as Robbery, Homicide, etc.). That’s what Michael Connelly does with his Harry Bosch novels. Fans of this series will know that Bosch has been a member of several L.A.P.D. departments. He’s been a part of Robbery/Homicide, Open/Unsolved, and Homicide Special, among others. This choice has given Connelly (and his readers) some real advantages. One is that, as Bosch works with one team (say, Open/Unsolved), readers get to know that team, and don’t have to try to remember the many other members of other teams. As the series has gone on, and Bosch has been with other departments, it’s kept the series from being restricted to only one small group. This has allowed for different sorts of plots and characters.

Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss also works with a departmental team. She is a member of the Göteborg/Gothenberg Police‘s Violent Crimes Unit. It’s a relatively small unit, with a focus just on murder and other violent crimes. This choice has allowed Tursten to develop her characters over time, as different members of the department evolve. It’s also allowed (as happens naturally) for members to leave and join.

The same thing’s true of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad. That team, has a small number of members. So, we get to know them. And different members of the squad ‘star’ in the different novels of the series. So, as members leave, join, and so on, we get to see how the team operates in the real world of a large city like Dublin.

Sometimes, police teams are gathered for a specific purpose. For example, at one point, P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh heads up a squad set up specifically for investigations that are likely to attract a lot of media attention. That’s the case in A Taste For Death, when Crown Minister Paul Berowne is murdered. He’s well known and ‘well-born,’ so of course the media take note when he’s killed. The squad, which consists of Dalgliesh, DCI John Massingham, and DI Kate Miskin is assigned to the case. They slowly put the pieces of the puzzle together, and find that this is as much about the victim’s private life as it is about his public life.

There’s also Jussi Adler-Olsen’s ‘Department Q.’ Part of the Copenhagen police force, Department Q is tasked with cases ‘of special interest.’ It was set up in part to appease the government’s (and the public’s) demand that the police show they’re looking into all cases, even those that have ‘gone cold.’ This group is headed by Carl Mørck, a homicide detective who has a reputation of being difficult. In fact, he’s so hard to work with that that’s the reason he was given the department in the first place – to keep him off others’ teams. Mørck is crusty and sometimes truculent. And the department has few resources and only a very few members. But the team gets the job done.

And then there’s Christopher Fowler’s London-based Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). That group, led by Arthur Bryant and John May, is tasked with solving strange crimes that the regular police homicide units haven’t been able to solve. It’s a very small group, but that makes it easier for readers to follow the team and get to know the members well.

These small units, whether they’re based on geography, on department, or on special assignment, allow the author to develop characters. And they make it much easier for readers to follow along and keep track of those characters. I’ve only mentioned a few; which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Sondheim’s It Takes Two.

32 Comments

Filed under Christopher Fowler, Ed McBain, Fred Vargas, Helene Tursten, Henry Chang, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Michael Connelly, P.D. James, Tana French

Make Me Beautiful*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 
 

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

17 Comments

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

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.

30 Comments

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).

20 Comments

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.

35 Comments

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