Category Archives: Paddy Richardson

But it Don’t Take No Detective*

StoriesWithoutSleuthsWhen most people think of crime novels, they think of a story with a mystery (usually about a murder or series of murders) and the sleuth who solves the case. And a lot of crime novels have that form. But not all of them have that pattern. There are even crime stories that arguably don’t have a sleuth. In that sort of novel, there may be references to ‘the police,’ or a mention of one or another police officer. But those characters don’t really figure into the story.

It’s not easy to write that sort of story since traditionally, the suspense in a crime story is built as the sleuth solves the case. But when it’s done well, crime stories without sleuths can have their own kind of suspense. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll be able to think of lots more than I could.

One very suspenseful story that has no sleuth is Frederic Brown’s short story Don’t Look Behind You. The narrator tells the history of a printer named Justin, a suave man named Harley, and what happens when they get involved with some very dubious people. There are certainly crimes involved, but the suspense isn’t built through solving them. Instead, it’s built through the way in which the narrator addresses the reader.

There’s also no sleuth in Robert Pollock’s Loophole: or, How to Rob a Bank. Architect Stephen Booker is made redundant by his company. At first, he thinks he’ll find a new job quickly; he is, after all, a professional. But time goes on and he finds nothing. He finally settles for a job driving a cab at night, so he can continue looking for a ‘real job’ during the day. One evening, he picks up a passenger who turns out to be professional thief Mike Daniels. Over time and several cab rides, they get to know each other, and they learn that they may be able to help each other. Daniels and his team are planning a major heist: the robbery of the City Savings Deposit Bank. In order for their logistics to work, they need help from an architect, and Booker may be just the man for the job. For his part, Booker is desperate for money, and after some misgivings about turning to crime, falls in with Daniels’ team. The group has every detail ready, and at first it looks as though the robbery will go off as planned. But then a sudden storm comes up and changes everything…

Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger begins when the police inform Fabien Delorme that his wife Sylvie has been killed in a car accident. Their marriage hadn’t been a loving one for some time, but he still feels her loss. What’s worse than that though is that he learns that she was not alone when she died. Sylvie had taken a lover Martial Arnoult, who was with her at the time of the crash and who also died. When Delorme learns that Arnoult left behind a widow Martine, he determines to find out about her. He soon becomes obsessed with Martine and begins a relationship with her. And that’s when things begin to spin completely out of control.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we are introduced to former school principal Thea Farmer. As the story begins, she’s left her position and had a dream home built for herself in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. But bad luck and poor financial planning have changed everything. Now Thea has to settle for the smaller house next door, which she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ To make matters worse, her perfect home is purchased by Frank Campbell and Elllice Charringon, whom Thea heartily dislikes (she calls them ‘the invaders.’). After a short time, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with him and Ellice. At first, Thea is prepared to dislike her, too. Instead, she discovers that the girl has real promise as a writer, and even forms a kind of awkward friendship with her. So when she begins to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate living environment for Kim, Thea gets very concerned. The police won’t do much about it without clear evidence, so Thea makes her own plans to deal with the situation. This novel does refer to the police, but there really isn’t a sleuth. Rather, the suspense is built as we learn, little by little, about Thea, about the new arrivals, and about what happens when Thea decides to take matters into her own hands.

Kanae Minato’s Confessions is the story of middle school teacher and single mother Yūko Moriguchi. When her only child, four-year-old Manami, dies, it looks at first like a tragic accidental drowning. But Yūko knows that Manami was murdered; what’s more, she knows who is responsible. In fact, the novel begins with a speech she makes to her class in which she makes it clear that she knows who killed her daughter. She doesn’t trust the juvenile justice system to punish the culprits appropriately, so she’s made her own plans for justice. And as the story goes on, we follow the lives of her students, and we learn what her plan was. The tension in this novel is built as life spirals downwards for several characters, and as we learn what, exactly, was behind the original murder.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman is one of the most promising students that secondary-school teacher Ilsa Klein has had. And Serena seems to be really interested in further education. Then, everything changes. Serena stops coming to class regularly; and when she is there, she doesn’t participate. Ilsa takes her concerns to the school counselor, and a visit is duly made to the Freeman family. When that effort is rebuffed, there’s not much more that Ilsa can do, although she is still worried. Then, Serena disappears. Three weeks later her sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington to the family home in Alexandra to look for Serena. This novel doesn’t really cast Lynnie (or anyone else, for the matter of that) in the role of sleuth. Rather, the suspense and interest are built as we learn the truth about Serena and about some of the other characters. It’s that slow reveal, rather than a sleuth solving a mystery, that keeps the reader engaged.

It can be a challenge to build and maintain interest if the author tells a crime story without a sleuth. But in the right hands, it can work well. What are your thoughts on this? Does a story need to have a sleuth for you to ‘plunge in?’ If you’re a writer, have you ever tried your hand at a crime story without a sleuth?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The Great Wall of China.

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Filed under Frederic Brown, Kanae Minato, Paddy Richardson, Pascal Garnier, Robert Pollock, Virginia Duigan

Girl, I’m On Your Side*

Female MentorsSometimes we all benefit from the guidance of someone who’s more experienced and knowledgeable. Those mentor relationships are often organic, and they benefit both people involved, really. If you’ve ever had a mentor, you know how much of an impact that relationship can have. It’s certainly a part of real life, and there are plenty of crime-fictional examples as well.

In Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, for instance, we are introduced to Honoria Bulstrode, head of Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school. In one plot thread, Miss Bulstrode’s been contemplating what will happen when she retires, and she’s deciding who should succeed her. One possibility is Eleanor Vansittart, her ‘second in command.’ Miss Vansittart is devoted to Miss Bulstrode, and makes it quite clear that she intends to run the school in exactly the way Miss Bulstrode does. Another possibility is Eileen Rich, who teaches English Literature and Geography. Miss Rich is quite young for a position of real authority; still, she has a real passion for teaching, and is gifted in the classroom. Miss Bulstrode’s concerns for the future of the school are put aside when games mistress Grace Springer is shot late one night at the school’s new Sports Pavilion. Then there’s another murder. And a disappearance. Julia Upjohn, a pupil at the school, makes an important discovery about the events at the school. She visits Hercule Poirot, who is acquainted with her mother’s good friend, and asks his help. Poirot returns with her to the school and investigates. Throughout this novel, we see how Miss Bulstrode acts as a guide and mentor, especially to Eileen Rich.

There’s a similar relationship between Gail Bowen’s sleuth Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her informal mentor Hilda McCourt. When we first meet them in Deadly Appearances, Joanne is investigating the poisoning murder of her friend up-and-coming political leader Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. In part to deal with her own sense of grief and loss, Joanne decides to write Andy’s biography, and begins with his youth. That’s how she gets to know Hilda, who taught Andy in high school. Over the course of the next few novels in the series, the two women become friends. Joanne is glad of Hilda’s wisdom and experience, and benefits from using her mentor as a ‘sounding board.’ For her part, Hilda ‘adopts’ Joanne’s family and she too benefits from the relationship.

Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Memphis Barbecue series features Lulu Taylor, who owns Aunt Pat’s Barbecue. The restaurant is named for Lulu’s aunt, who taught her about cooking and about running a restaurant. That mentoring relationship has been very important to Lulu, who is proud to carry on the good traditions she learned from her aunt. Now that Lulu is no longer a young woman, she’s a mentor herself. Her son Ben is married to Sara, a talented artist. In a few novels in this series, Lulu serves as a sort of informal mentor to Sara. And in Hickory Smoked Homicide, she helps clear Sara’s name when she becomes a suspect in the murder of socialite and beauty pageant coach Tristan Pembroke. Lulu has a way of supporting Sara without ‘taking over’ or interfering in her daughter-in-law’s life.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we meet former school principal Thea Farmer, who’s had a dream house built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. Unfortunately, some poor financial decision-making and bad luck have meant that Thea has to give up that perfect house and settle for the house next door. None too happy about that, Thea calls the smaller house ‘the hovel.’ To add insult to injury, Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington buy the home Thea still sees as her own. Thea dislikes then intensely, referring to them as ‘the invaders.’ Then, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with the couple. At first, Thea is prepared to dislike Kim as much as she does Frank and Ellice. Instead, she develops an awkward kind of friendship with Kim, and sees real promise in the girl. She even invites Kim to join her in a writing class she’s taking. Thea sees herself as Kim’s mentor and support system, so when she begins to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for the girl, she makes her own plans to do something about it.

Wendy James’ Out of the Silence: a Story of Love, Betrayal, Politics and Murder is a fictional re-telling of the case of Maggie Heffernan, who was convicted and imprisoned in 1900 for the murder of her infant son, and sentenced to execution. In this account, Maggie meets Jack Hardy when he visits her rural Victoria town to see relatives of his. The two fall in love and secretly become engaged. Then Jack leaves for New South Wales to find work. Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant, and writes to Jack several times; but he doesn’t respond. Knowing that her family won’t accept her, Maggie goes to Melbourne where she gets work in a Guest House. When the baby is born, Maggie lives briefly in a home for unwed mothers, until she learns where Jack is. When she goes to see him, though, he rejects her utterly, calling her ‘crazy.’ Maggie and her infant son are then turned away from six lodging houses; that’s when the tragedy occurs. In the meantime, we also follow the story of Elizabeth Hamilton, who moved to Australia after the death of her fiancé. She soon meets Vida Goldstein, the first woman in the British Commonwealth to seek office as an MP. Vida is a champion of women’s rights and women’s suffrage, and wants to mentor Elizabeth. The two women become interested in the case of Maggie Heffernan, and try to prevent her execution. Throughout this novel, we see several examples of women mentoring and supporting other women; it’s one of the story’s themes.

We also see that in Kishwar Desai’s stories featuring social worker Simran Singh. In Witness the Night, an old university friend asks Simran to travel from Delhi to her home town in the state of Punjab to help in an unusual and appalling case. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal is suspected of the poisoning murders of thirteen of her family members; some were stabbed as well. Later, the house was set on fire. One possible theory is that Durga is responsible for what happened. However, there are signs that she may have been a victim too, and simply managed to escape. The authorities can’t get her to discuss that night though, so there’s no way to really know what happened. That’s where Simran comes in. It’s believed that if she can get Durga to talk about that night, there’ll be a clearer picture of the killings. Simran agrees and begins to interact with Durga. Bit by bit, the two get to know each other and Simran feels a sort of mentor-like protectiveness about the girl. In fact, it’s not spoiling the story to say that she plans to take Durga in once the case gets resolved.

There’s also Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. In that novel, secondary school teacher Ilsa Klein becomes concerned when one of her prize students, fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman, loses interest in school. She stops attending class regularly; and when she is there, she barely takes part in what’s going on. Ilsa takes her concerns to the school’s counselor, but Serena’s family is, to say the least, dysfunctional and not open to help from the outside. Ilsa and her mother Gerda continue to become involved in Serena’s life, and that decision draws them into more than either had imagined.Then Serena disappears. Her older sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington back to the family home in Alexandra to look for the girl. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that mentoring/supporting plays a major role in this novel.

Those often-informal mentoring relationships can make a big difference in how we move along in life. Sometimes they make a bigger difference than more formal things. As I post this, we’re observing International Women’s Day. But really, supporting women is something that we can do all the time, not just on one day. Look behind you: there’s probably a woman (or another woman if you’re female) working her way up in life. Reach back and support her. It’s not a competition; it’s a matter of everyone doing better when each one does better.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Thomas Bank and Candy Dulfer’s Girls Should Stick Together (for Nada).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Kishwar Desai, Paddy Richardson, Virginia Duigan, Wendy James

Lately All the Missing Pieces Have Been Falling Into Place*

EquilibriumOne really interesting aspect of human psychology is that we like things to make sense. We like questions to have answers. When things do make sense, we get closure. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget called this process ‘equilibration.’ To him, cognitive development occurs when we become aware that our assumptions don’t answer all the questions. When that happens, we adjust our thinking and find out more. That’s how we return to cognitive equilibrium.

And that’s arguably part of the driving force behind people’s reaction to old, unsolved crimes – ‘cold cases.’ Of course, for the family and friends involved in unsolved cases, there’s also the sense of loss and grief. But there are also the unanswered questions. Those questions can drive the sleuths who investigate those cases as well. And they’re sometimes the reason those cases come back to haunt people, as the saying goes, even years later.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, for instance, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to find out the truth behind the death of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. Sixteen years earlier, he was poisoned one afternoon during a painting session. His wife (and Carla’s mother) Caroline was arrested, tried and convicted, and she had motive. Her husband was having an affair with the subject of the portrait he was painting. What’s more, she had the poison in her possession. At the time, it seemed that the police had caught the right person. But Carla is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants her name cleared. And Caroline can no longer speak for herself, as she died a year after her conviction. Poirot interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ at the time of the murder, and also gets written accounts of the murder from each of them. He uses that information to find out who really killed Amyas Crale and why. Throughout this novel, we see how this case has come back to haunt some people, precisely because the ‘official’ report at the time didn’t answer all of their questions. I know, I know, fans of Sleeping Murder

Ian Rankin’s Resurrection Men sees Inspector John Rebus remanded to Tulliallan Police College after an unfortunate run-in with a supervisor. He and a group of other cops (they’re called ‘The Resurrection Men’ and ‘The Wild Bunch’) are given an unsolved case to work together. The idea is that the experience will teach them teamwork and the skills they need to co-operate with authority figures. The case is the 1995 murder of small-time crook Eric Lomax. The victim was hardly an upstanding citizen, but his murder has left some nagging questions. And as Rebus and the others on the team look into the case, they find more there than they’d thought. And Rebus finds that Lomax’s murder is connected with a case he and his team-mate DS Siobhan Clarke were investigating before his remand. As it turns out, the need for answers in that older case leads to answers in the recent case.

In Jan Costin Wagner’s The Silence, we are introduced to Inspector Antsi Ketola. He’s at the point of retirement, but is still haunted by one particular case. In 1974, Pia Lehtinen disappeared and was later found murdered. Ketola was never able to find out who killed the girl. It’s bothered him since then, not least because he wasn’t able to get answers for himself or for Pia’s family. Now another case has come up. Sinikka Vehkasalo was on her way to a volleyball session when she went missing. Her bloody bicycle has been found at the same place where a cross marks Pia Lehtinen’s murder. The older case still nags, and Inspector Kimmo Joentaa suspects that it may be related to this new case. So he asks Ketola’s help in solving both. It turns out that someone has been keeping secrets for a very long time…

Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett supervises the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. The team’s job is to re-investigate old cases that offer new leads. And part of what motivates these people (and the families and friends involved) is the desire to get some answers. In The Hanging Wood for instance, Orla Payne contacts Scarlett because she wants to find out what happened to her brother Callum. Twenty years earlier, Callum disappeared, and no trace of him – not even a body – was found. She’s been haunted by this for years, and part of the reason for that is that it doesn’t make sense to her. At first, Scarlett doesn’t pay close attention to the case; unfortunately Orla Payne is quite drunk when she calls about it, and doesn’t make a good impression. But not long afterwards, Orla herself dies in what looks like a case of suicide. But was it? Now Scarlett feels a strong sense of guilt that she didn’t take the victim more seriously, and re-opens the Callum Payne case. She also works to find out what really happened to Orla.

Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne looks for that same kind of equilibrium in Cross Fingers. She’s working on an exposé of dubious land developer Denny Graham when her boss asks her to change her focus. The idea now is to do a documentary on the Springboks’ 1981 tour of New Zealand – ‘The Tour,’ as it’s called. At the time, apartheid was still very much in place in South Africa, and many New Zealanders protested their country’s welcoming of the South African team. On the other hand, the police simply wanted to keep order. And of course, rugby fans just wanted to see some good matches, politics aside. The tour went from bad to worse to devastating, and it’s certainly documentary-worthy. But Thorne believes that the story’s already been done well already, and that there are no real new angles for her to pursue. Then she gets interested in one small detail. During a few of the protests, two people dressed as lambs showed up at games. They danced, made fun, and entertained the crowds at the matches. Then, they stopped coming to the games. Thorne wants to know what happened to The Lambs, and decides to pursue that question. She discovers that one of them was a professional dancer who was murdered late one night. Now this older case nags at her, especially as it becomes clear that there are some people who do not want her to find the answers.

There’s a powerful example of unsolved cases coming back, so to speak, in Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. In 1978, fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan disappears and is later found dead, with her own scarf round her head. The police do a thorough investigation, but they can’t get clear evidence against any one particular person. Then, a few months later, the body of sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor is discovered, also with a scarf round her head. Now it’s suspected that this is the work of a serial killer the press dubs The Sidney Strangler. The investigation continues, but the killer isn’t caught. There aren’t really answers in this case, and that haunts the people involved more than they know. Years later, journalist Erin Fury is putting together a documentary on the effects of murder on the families involved. She gets an introduction to Angela Buchanan’s cousins Jane Tait and Mick Griffin, as well as their parents. As she interviews these people, we see how much they’ve been impacted by what happened. And it’s not only their sense of loss. It’s also the lack of real answers and their growing awareness that things really aren’t as they seemed.

That need for things to make sense is part of what drives our curiosity. It’s also part of what keeps detectives and family members looking into old cases that don’t have clear answers, especially when those cases affect present investigations. These are just a few examples of what’s out there. Over to you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Getting Closer.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin, Jan Costin Wagner, Martin Edwards, Paddy Richardson, Wendy James

Well, You Get a Hammer and I’ll Get a Nail*

DoitYourselfThere’s something about the process of building or refinishing something. It can give a real sense of satisfaction (i.e. I did this myself). And doing things yourself allows for a real creative outlet, and it means that you don’t have to pay for someone else to do the job. So it’s little wonder that a whole industry has been built up around doing things yourself. There are all sorts of home building outlets, and some furniture chains (Ikea comes to mind) sell only put-it-together-yourself pieces. You can do as little or as much do-it-yourself as you want, too, from snapping casters onto the bottom of a prefab chair to building your own house.

Of course, not everyone enjoys do-it-yourself projects, but they are very popular. They make appearances in crime fiction, too. In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for instance, Hercule Poirot has retired (or so he thinks) to the small village of King’s Abbot. He’s soon drawn into a murder case when retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study. The most obvious suspect is Ackroyd’s stepson Captain Ralph Paton, who was desperate for money and had quarreled with Ackroyd about that. What’s more, Paton has been missing since the day of the murder. But his fiancée Flora Ackroyd is convinced he’s innocent, and wants Poirot to clear his name. This story is narrated by Dr. James Sheppard, who lives next door to the house Poirot has taken. Sheppard knows everyone in the area, and takes an interest in the case himself. Although he’s a medical man, Sheppard also enjoys do-it-yourself electronics, and has an entire workshop in his home that’s devoted to that interest.

Fans of Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa will know that he loves books. He’s got quite a collection, especially for a small home like his. He’s a busy police inspector, so he doesn’t have a lot of time for home improvement projects. But he does want to take care of his books. At one point, he considers building bookshelves, and there are a few references to his reflections on what they might be like and where he might put them. But he settles on another option,
 
‘…a ‘shelf in its purest state’…’
 

He’s made his bookshelves completely out of books stacked on one another. No nails, hammer or paint are required for that project.

Peter Temple’s Jack Irish knows the sense of satisfaction that can come from making and building something yourself. He is a sometimes-lawyer who also has a side business in finding people who don’t want to be found. But whenever he can, he spends time in his friend Charlie Taub’s cabinetry shop, where he is a kind of unofficial apprentice to Taub. There, he’s learned the real pleasure one can get in choosing the right piece of wood, using the right tools, and creating something in which he can take pride. He’s not the master of the craft that Taub is, but he’s learning; even Taub, who is not a man to gush, occasionally praises his work in his own way.

One of the plot threads in Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers concerns dubious developer Denny Graham. Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne has been doing the research for an exposé on Graham, and she’s hoping to shut down his business. It seems that he lures people to invest their money in what seem to be lovely retirement or holiday properties. Then, they discover too late that the ‘luxury’ property they’ve bought is anything but. Thorne finds that several of Graham’s victims don’t want to be a part of her story, in part because they fear the consequences of going up against a powerful person like Graham. But there’s another reason too for which Thorne finds it hard to get her story at first:
 

‘It was difficult to work out exactly how he got away with it but buyers generally either sold up at a huge loss or got out their deckchairs and barbies and got on with it. New Zealanders are do-it-yourselfers and there’d always be someone they could count on to give them a hand to fix up the electrics or sort out the plumbing for the exchange of a week or so at the bach. And it was a whole lot easier and cheaper to pick up discounted floor coverings and a Para pool than to try to take it through the courts.’
 

Depending on how large and complex the job is, there certainly is something to the argument that if you’re willing to learn the task and do the work, it’s easier to do it than to deal with contractors.

Even people who don’t generally enjoy do-it-yourself projects sometimes like to put their own personal ‘stamp’ on a project or a place. For instance, in Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall, television personality Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford and her mother Iris have planned to open an antique business together. Everything changes though when Kat gets an odd call from Iris. On what seems to be a complete whim, Iris has suddenly moved to the small Devon town of Little Dipperton and taken the former carriage house on the estate of Honeychurch Hall. Shocked at this change in plans, Kat rushes to Little Dipperton to find that her mother has indeed started a whole new life there. Iris has recently broken a hand in a car accident, so Kat decides to stay for a bit to help out until her mother recovers. During that visit, she gets involved in a murder case when Honeychurch Hall’s housekeeper Vera Pugsley is killed. She also learns things about Iris that she never knew before. The carriage house itself is not in very good shape, and Iris is not by nature a do-it-yourselfer. But she’s trying to ‘stretch herself’ since the death of her husband Frank, and she’s doing a few things:
 

‘The pantry…was in desperate need of a coat of paint but it was clean and Mum had painstakingly lined every surface with adhesive paper in a cheerful red gingham pattern.’
 

There’s something about a coat of paint or varnish or paper that turns a room or a piece of furniture into something personal.

There are also several mystery series that feature do-it-yourself projects. For example, there’s Jennie Bentley’s Do-It-Yourself Mysteries, featuring New York-based home renovator Avery Baker. And there’s Sarah A. Hoyt‘s (as Elise Hyatt) Daring Finds mysteries, which feature furniture refinisher Candyce ‘Dyce’ Dare.

Even if you’re not one to open a can of paint or wield a hammer, you know how popular do-it-yourself projects are. They really can be satisfying, and in a novel, they can add character depth or even be a plot point. This is just a smattering of what’s out there. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Woody Guthrie’s Bling Blang.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elise Hyatt, Hannah Dennison, Jennie Bentley, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Paddy Richardson, Peter Temple, Sarah A. Hoyt

Thank You For Opening Your Door*

HouseguestsOne of many things people have to prepare for at this time of year is house guests. People often take time to visit friends and relatives, and those visits can be wonderful. But they also involve lots of logistics, from food, to where everyone will sleep, to things such as extra towels and bedding, and many other details. And then there’s the dynamics of people sharing a home when they’re not accustomed to it. With all of that going on, it’s no surprise that house guests can make a terrific backdrop/context for a murder mystery.

You’ll notice in this post that there won’t be a mention of the traditional ‘country house murder,’ where a group of people are gathered and one of them becomes a victim – too easy! And there are lots of other ‘house guest’ contexts. Here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, detective fiction writer Ariadne Oliver accepts an invitation to visit Judith Butler, a woman she met on a cruise of the Greek islands. During her stay, she helps out at a local children’s Hallwe’en party at another home. On the afternoon of the party, one of the guests Joyce Reynolds boasts that she’s seen a murder. Everyone hushes her up and no-one believes her. But that night at the party, Joyce is murdered. It’s certainly clear to Mrs. Oliver that there probably was a murder and that the killer overheard Joyce’s comments. Mrs. Oliver asks Hercule Poirot to travel to Woodleigh Common, where Judith Butler lives, and investigate. Poirot agrees and looks into the case. He finds that this murder and another that occurs are linked to the town’s history. At one point, Poirot asks Mrs. Oliver if there is space in her London home to accommodate guests. Here is her response:
 

‘I never admit that there is…if you ever admit that you’ve got a free guest room in London, you’ve asked for it. All your friends, and not only your friends, your acquaintances or indeed your acquaintances’ third cousins sometimes….say would you mind just putting them up for a night? Well, I do mind. What with sheets and laundry, pillow cases and wanting early morning tea and very often expecting meals served to them, people come.’
 

In this case, though, Mrs. Oliver ends up making an exception.

One plot thread of Alexander McCall Smith’s Morality For Beautiful Girls concerns an important Government Man who consults Mma. Precious Ramotswe on a private matter. He believes that his new sister-in-law is poisoning his brother and plotting to kill him. He wants Mma. Ramotswe to look into the matter and stop his sister-in-law before it’s too late. Mma. Ramotswe agrees to take the case, and travels to the Government Man’s home village, where his brother and sister-in-law live. There she gets to know the various members of the household. She feels a little uncomfortable exploring her client’s suspicions and still being treated as a guest, and matters are not made easier by the tension in the household. Then one afternoon, everyone, including Mma. Ramotswe, is sickened by what turns out to be poisoned food. As soon as she recovers a bit, Mma. Ramotswe pieces together what happened. She finds out some surprising truths about the household too.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack introduces readers to Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano, a Buenos Aires police officer at a time (the late 1970s) when it’s very dangerous to live in Argentina. One day, he and his team raid a brothel. They make a few arrests, but several people get away because they have ties to people who are in power. Lescano is making a final walk-through when he discovers a young woman Eva, who’s been hiding in the house. She looks eerily like Lescano’s dead wife Marisa, so almost as a reflex action, he shelters her in his home. Eva is grateful to be rescued (we learn as the story goes on why she was hiding). But she has no reason at all to trust Lescano. He’s a police officer and in her experience, the police are brutal and sadistic. But he asks nothing of her. Lescano finds himself drawn to Eva, at first because of her resemblance to Marisa. As time goes by though, he gets to know Eva just a bit (she is not forthcoming), and finds her own personality appealing too. Eva’s stay with Lescano certainly has its awkwardness. Neither really trusts the other, especially at first. But they become allies.

In Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, fledgling psyciatrist Stephanie Anderson meets a new patient Elisabeth Clark. After several sessions, Elisabeth begins to open up just a little. She has had mental and emotional problems since the abduction of her younger sister Gracie several years earlier. Gracie was never found, and the experience still haunts the family. It also haunts Stephanie, who lost her own younger sister Gemma in a similar way seventeen years earlier. Little by little, Elisabeth starts to put her life together again, and Stephanie decides to lay her own ghosts to rest and find out who wrought this havoc on both families. She travels from Dunedin, where she’s been living and working, to her home town of Wanaka. As one of her stops, she is invited to stay with Elisabeth’s father Andy, who is deeply grateful for his daughter’s returning mental health. In fact, he’s so grateful to Stephanie that he insists she stay as long as she wants at the lodge he owns, free of charge, as his guest. Although she doesn’t really even know Andy, Stephanie finds herself beginning to relax for the first time in a long time, and the visit prepares her to face the devastation her family suffered.

One of the ‘Charles Todd’ writing team’s series features World War I nurse Bess Crawford. More than once, Bess becomes a guest in someone’s home as she investigates mysteries. In A Duty to the Dead for instance, she is invited to visit the Graham family at Owlhurst in Kent. She nursed Arthur Graham before his death from battlefield wounds; in the process, he came to know and trust her and the feeling was mutual. So he gave her a very cryptic message, insisting that she commit it to memory and that she deliver it in person to his brother Jonathan. Bess is reluctant, but an injury of her own gives her the opportunity to pass along the message during her convalescence in England. The visit to Owlhurst is a very difficult one. For one thing, there is a great deal of tension in the family. For another, Bess learns that this family has many secrets. Having delivered Arthur’s message, Bess would actually just as soon end her visit, but she’s drawn into an emergency situation. Before she knows it, Bess is also drawn into a larger case of past murder and present death, all relating to that message.

And then there’s Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear. One afternoon, Paul Fowler and some friends are tossing a football around when he suddenly collapses. It’s soon determined that he was killed by a sniper’s bullet, and New South Wales Police Inspector Ella Marconi and her partner Murray Shakespeare investigate. They look into the lives of Fowler’s ex-wife Trina as well as the lives of his friends, and make some interesting discoveries. One of them is that Fowler had been laid off from his job, and was staying with a friend Seth Garland. When the team visits Garland’s home, they find a stark difference between the two men’s lifestyles. Garland is neat and orderly; Fowler…was not. I can say without spoiling the story that that difference isn’t the reason Fowler was killed. But it’s that sort of thing that can make being (or hosting) a house guest a challenge.

Whether you’ve been one or had them, the house guest situation can be delightful. But it’s also got lots of logistical and other challenges. I’ve only mentioned a few examples here because I’ve got to go count towels and sheets and plan food shopping. Your turn…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Wiggly Tendrils’ Song of the Grateful House-Guests.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Charles Todd, Ernesto Mallo, Katherine Howell, Paddy Richardson