Category Archives: Rex Stout

Don’t Have Any Need to Prove Nothin’ to No One*

Life on One's Own TermsThere are people (I’ll bet you know some, yourself) who live life absolutely on their own terms. It’s not that they don’t care about others, such as friends and loved ones. Very often they do. What they don’t care about is ‘what everyone else will think!’  They don’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone, and they live as they see fit, without trying to self-consciously fit in.

That independence of character can make a person all the more interesting, and can add depths to a fictional character, too. Of course, as with most things, creating this sort of character requires a tricky balance. Independence of thought is one thing; too much eccentricity or thoughtlessness can be quite another. But there are some characters out there in crime fiction who seem to strike that balance. Here are just a few; I know you will think of many others.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is not at all bound by what people might think of his lifestyle. He keeps unusual hours, has a very unconventional approach to housekeeping (the tobacco in the slipper being just one example), and doesn’t exactly play by the conventional rules when it comes to catching criminals, either. He doesn’t particularly worry about what anyone thinks of his lifestyle, either, and makes no apologies for it. To be fair, in A Study in Scarlet, he does warn Dr. Watson about the way he is when they begin to share rooms:

‘‘I generally have chemicals about, and occasionally do experiments. Would that annoy you?’
‘By no means.’ [Watson]
‘Let me see — what are my other shortcomings. I get in the dumps at times, and don’t open my mouth for days on end. You must not think I am sulky when I do that. Just let me alone, and I’ll soon be right.’’

But he isn’t very much attached to what Watson thinks of him – not in the ‘aiming to please’ sort of a way that new roommates sometimes have.

Although he lives a more conventional lifestyle than Holmes does, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot isn’t very much bound by what people think of him, either. And some of Christie’s other characters are like that, too. For instance, in Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Hercule Poirot investigates the sixteen-year-old murder of famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time of the murder, his wife Caroline was the most likely suspect, and she certainly had motive. He was having an obvious affair with Elsa Greer, even going so far as to have Elsa in his home while he did a painting of her. Caroline was arrested, tried and convicted, and died a year later in prison. Her daughter thinks she was innocent, though, and wants Poirot to find out the truth. To do so, he interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ on the day of the murder; one of those people is Elsa, now Lady Dittisham. We learn about her that she was not at all worried about what people would think of her. On one level, she wanted to be ‘respectably married.’ But she dressed as she wished, she lived life completely on her own terms, and still doesn’t much care what people think of her. In fact, when Poirot asks her what her husband’s opinion would be of her involvement in the investigation, she says,

‘‘Do you think I care in the least what my husband would feel?’’

And she really doesn’t.

Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe will know that he doesn’t care very much what people (clients, the police, or even his own employees) think of him. He has his own very rigid schedule that suits him, and he sees people when he agrees to do so. He lives life on his own terms, and it doesn’t matter in the least bit to him that he is unconventional. Rather than try to fit into a world where people go out to offices, travel, interact in public and so on, he’s created a world that suits him. He has a world class chef, so that he only need eat elsewhere when he wants to do that. He has an elevator in his home, so that he doesn’t need to use the stairs. And he relies on Archie Goodwin and his other employees to do the ‘leg work’ for him and bring witnesses and suspects to him. Of course, if you’re a fan of this series, you’ll know that Goodwin has his own way of manipulating situations and getting his boss to do things. But Wolfe lives his life as he sees fit, with no apologies to anyone.

Another character who makes no apologies to anyone is Virginia Duigan’s Thea Farmer. She’s a former school principal who has bought some land in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. She’s even had a dream home built there. Then, bad luck and poor financial decisions mean that she has to give up that home and settle for the house next door, a house she calls ‘the hovel.’ To make matters worse, her dream home is purchased by Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington, and they soon move in, much to her chagrin. She has nothing but contempt for these ‘invaders,’ and doesn’t much care if they like her. The only person there whom she finds even bearable is Frank’s niece Kim, who comes to live with the couple. So when Thea begins to suspect that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for the girl, she gets concerned. The police aren’t going to do anything about it; so, rather than worry about what anyone will think of it all, Thea makes her own plans.

Sulari Gentill’s Edna Higgins is another crime-fictional character who lives life on her own terms. She is a friend, secret love interest, and muse to Gentill’s protagonist, Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair. At the time that this series takes place – the 1930’s – there are things that young ladies do and do not do, but Edna doesn’t worry overmuch about that. She feels no need to prove herself to anyone. She is a sculptor who creates what she wants to create. She’s also a sometimes-model, who isn’t afraid of the social sanctions for posing in the nude. She does some acting, too. She lives the life she wants to live, on her own terms.

And then there’s Sheldon Horowitz, whom we meet in Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian By Night. He’s moved from his native New York to Norway, to be nearer his granddaughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband. In one plot thread of this novel, Horowitz rescues a young boy whose mother has just been murdered. The two go on the run, and Horowitz does his best to protect the boy from some very nasty people. His thinking is unconventional, and he really doesn’t care much about that. He’s not worried about what a man of his age ‘should’ be doing, either. And that makes him all the more interesting.

That’s the thing about characters who don’t have anything to prove (You’re absolutely right, fans of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher!). They live life on their own terms, and that in itself can be very interesting. They can certainly add to a story, too.


ps. That’s a ‘princess’ dress over a T-shirt and a pair of sport leggings, and those shoes are mine. Yes, that’s what I call living life on one’s own terms.. ;-)


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Motorcycle Song. Interestingly, this song later became All About Soul. If you’ve heard both songs, you’ll notice the similarity…


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Derek B. Miller, Kerry Greenwood, Rex Stout, Sulari Gentill, Virigina Duigan

A King Ain’t a King Without the Power Behind the Throne*

Power Behind the PowerIn any group, there are two different sorts of authority, or perhaps power would be the better term. There are those who have official authority, and those ‘behind the scenes’ who actually get things done. In real life, if you want to make a sale to a major business client, one of your most important tasks is to get that person’s assistant on your side. That’s the person who screens visitors, makes most of the day-to-day decisions, and often persuades the boss to do (or not do) something. A wise authority figure listens to, respects and depends on those ‘behind the scenes’ people without becoming too easy to manipulate (that’s another topic in and of itself!).

There are plenty such characters in crime fiction. They may have modest titles and unassuming job descriptions, but everyone knows that they are the ones whose opinions matter. They’re the ones who get things done.

One such character is Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin. Goodwin is officially an employee of private investigator Nero Wolfe. But anyone who knows this series also knows that Wolfe hardly has all of the power in that relationship. In fact, it’s hard at times to say who really runs this detective agency. While Wolfe certainly directs Goodwin (and the other investigators who work for him), anyone who wants to see Wolfe generally has to go through Goodwin. And although Goodwin is supposed to do what Wolfe says (and frequently does), he’s very much his own man, and does quite a lot of work on their cases. He respects Wolfe’s brilliance, but he has no particular reverence for his boss. And he’s not above manipulating situations to get Wolfe to do what he wants. It’s actually a very interesting dynamic.

So is the relationship between Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and his secretary, Felicity Lemon.  Miss Lemon is frighteningly efficient and competent at her job. That, in fact, is one of the reasons for which Poirot hired her. On the one hand, she takes his business telephone calls, answers his letters and so on. In that sense, she does as he asks her to do, and usually does so immediately. On the other hand, she has considerable authority and power of her own. Poirot depends on her quite a lot, and pays attention to what she says. This is how Christie expresses it in the short story The Nemean Lion:

‘He trusted Miss Lemon. She was a woman without imagination, but she had an instinct. Anything that she mentioned as worth consideration usually was worth consideration.’

Poirot knows that although he’s the boss, he can’t do his job without an efficient secretary, and he has learned to respect Miss Lemon.

Fans of Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series will know that the real power in the Venice questura doesn’t belong to Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta. It belongs to his assistant, Signorina Elettra Zorzi. Anyone who wants to do business with the questura has to meet with her approval. And everyone who works at the questura, including Brunetti, knows that Signorina Elettra is both an indispensable ally and a formidable opponent. If she wants something to happen, it will happen. If she opposes something, it will stop happening, or won’t happen in the first place. The easiest and most efficient way to get anything done is to enlist Signorina Elettra’s cooperation right from the start.

Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire may be the sheriff of fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming, but he knows very well that that doesn’t mean he’s all-powerful. For one thing, his position is an elected one. For another, there’s Ruby, his dispatcher/secretary. Ruby has a kind heart, and genuinely cares about people. But she is plain-spoken and direct, and everyone knows better than to take her for granted or ignore what she says. The sheriff’s office is run in the way she wants it to be run; and even Longmire has learned to obey her on certain things.  He knows how dependent he is on her to keep the office running smoothly, and to make sure that he can do his job. And, since she knows everyone, he also knows how valuable she is as an important source of information. She’s not above manipulating situations, either, if she needs to do that, and she usually turns out to be right.

And then there’s Lynda Wilcox’s Verity Long. She is researcher and secretary to famous crime writer Kathleen ‘K.D.’ Davenport. One of her jobs, for instance, is to get information on past true crimes, and provide those details to her boss. Then Davenport adapts those facts to inspire her novels. Davenport is the one with the name recognition and the best-seller income. But it’s Long who does a great deal of the ‘leg work’ and the research. She’s also often a sounding board for her boss’ ideas. Like the relationship between Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, the relationship between Davenport and Long is an interesting dynamic. On the one hand, Davenport is bright, quick-thinking and a skilled writer. She’s no figurehead, if I may put it that way. On the other, it’s Long who provides the background information, prepares everything for publication, and deals with the myriad demands on Davenport’s time. The two really do depend on each other, and each one knows it.

One of the more interesting cases of this sort of ‘power behind the throne’ is in the work of Hilary Mantel. Her three-book Wolf Hall trilogy is a fictional retelling of the story of Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to King Henry VIII. Those with an interest in history will know that Cromwell’s life shows both the power that ministers and other assistants can have, and their vulnerability. At the height of his authority, Cromwell was said to have done much to move the Reformation forward, especially behind the scenes. The king depended quite a lot on Cromwell’s ability to manipulate situations; and he certainly got and kept quite a lot of power. But as it turned out, he was also vulnerable. He was executed in 1540, after he lost the king’s good will.

Most of the time, those who get things done ‘behind the scenes’ don’t face execution. But they do have a lot more responsibility and authority than it may seem at first glance. And they can add much to a novel or series.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s It Takes Two.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Craig Johnson, Donna Leon, Hilary Mantel, Lynda Wilcox, Rex Stout

I Feel Inventive*

Simple DevicesThe ‘photo you see is of an ingenious little device I was given recently: a portable charger. I’m going to find it quite useful when I go ‘on the road,’ where it may be a long time between power sources. It’s a terrific example of the way in which technology has freed us up to create all sorts of ingenious devices. Any fan of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, for instance, can tell you about clever technology that hides weapons.

But you don’t really need high-tech devices. There are all sorts of clever ways to use everyday things in the world of crime fiction. And they don’t need batteries or microchips. Here are just a few examples. I’ll be interested in the ones that you think of, too.

In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness, we are introduced to wealthy, elderly, Emily Arundell. She’s quite well aware that her relatives are more than eager to get their share of her money. One weekend, her two nieces and nephew pay her a visit, during which it’s made clear to her that there’s a limit to how long they’re willing to wait for their inheritance. During that visit, Miss Arundell wakes up in the middle of the night, as is her custom, and decides to go downstairs. She’s tripped up, though, and falls down the staircase. Her injuries aren’t fatal, but they do leave her certain that someone’s trying to kill her. She writes to Hercule Poirot, asking for his help in the matter, but by the time he gets the letter, it’s too late: Miss Arundell has since died of what seems on the surface to be liver failure. Still, Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate, since to Poirot, Miss Arundell is still a client. As you can imagine, he and Hastings go back to the fall down the stairs. At first, it was put down to Miss Arundell stepping on her terrier’s toy ball that was left at the top of the stairs. But Poirot discovers something much more clever and ingenious: a string stretched across the stair and nailed in place. It’s not high-tech, it doesn’t require a lot of knowledge, but it very nearly succeeds. I know, I know, fans of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas)

Several of Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee stories involve ingenious, yet very simple (i.e. not high-tech) kinds of devices. For example, in one plot thread of The Chinese Maze Murders, Judge Dee is faced with the case of retired general Ding Hoo-gwo. He was murdered one day in his library, apparently with no-one around. His son Ding Yee believes that Woo Feng, Commander of the Board of Military Affairs, is responsible. But Woo says that he is innocent. And in any case, this is a ‘locked room’ sort of mystery, so that it’d be very hard to prove that Woo had the opportunity. One of the questions Dee has to face here is how the victim was actually killed. Without spoiling the story, I can say that the answer lies in the very clever use of an ordinary object. Fans of Rex Stout’s Fer de Lance will know that the clever manipulation of an everyday sort of object is also responsible for the murder in that novel.

In Cathy Ace’s The Corpse With the Silver Tongue, academician and criminologist Caitlin ‘Cait’ Morgan is visiting Nice to give a scholarly presentation on behalf of a colleague who’s been sidelined by an accident. During her trip, she happens to encounter an old acquaintance and former employer, Alistair Townsend. She doesn’t want much to do with him; but before she knows it, she’s agreed to come to a birthday party Townsend is having for his wife Tamsin.  During the party, Townsend collapses and dies. At the same time, some of the guests become sickened. At first, it’s all put down to tainted escargot. It’s not long, though, before it’s proved that Townsend died of digitalis poisoning. The police begin their investigation, starting with the party guests and moving to anyone else who might have been in a position (and had a motive) to poison the food. Morgan becomes a ‘person of interest’ for several reasons. In order to clear her name, and be able to return to her ‘home base’ in Vancouver, she begins to ask some questions of her own. As it turns out, a clever use of a fairly ordinary set of objects plays a pivotal role in the way the murder was accomplished.

Of course, it’s not just criminals who create ingenious, low-tech devices. Lots of sleuths do the same. If you’ve read enough crime fiction, you’ll know that there are plenty of stories in which hairpins and, later, credit cards are used to pick locks. Hercule Poirot even uses his moustache-curling tongs and a wire from a hatbox in an ingenious way in Murder on the Orient Express.

Fictional characters also often use clever devices as evidence that someone’s been in their homes or hotel rooms. For example, in Aaron Elkins’ Fellowship of Fear, cultural anthropologist Gideon Oliver travels to Europe to give a series of guest lectures. His trip turns into much more and ends up with him getting involved in a web of espionage and murder. As you can imagine, there are some nasty people after him, who seem to want something he has. At first, he doesn’t even know what it is that anyone would want. But he certainly knows that he’s in danger. So he decides to protect himself:


‘Somebody was in his room.
The quarter inch segment of paper clip on the worn hallway carpet caught his eye the moment he reached the top of the stairs….
Since coming to the BOQ, he’d stuck a piece of paper clip or matchstick or cardboard between the door and jamb every time he’d left his room. For three days it had been in its hidden place every time he’d returned. Now it glinted at him like a tiny, malignant exclamation point on the threshold of his room.’

That little ingenious device helps to protect Oliver’s life.

It’s very useful to have modern high-tech things like portable chargers. I love mine and intend to use it. But never underestimate the power of the humble paper clip or piece of string…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Pretenders’ Brass in Pocket (I’m Special).


Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Cathy Ace, Rex Stout, Robert Van Gulik

I Went Down to the Chelsea Drugstore*

PharmaciesYou probably visit them without even thinking about it. Perhaps you have a cold, or need a headache remedy. If you’ve been to see a doctor, you may have a prescription. Yes, I’m talking about pharmacies. Today’s larger pharmacy chains, such as Boots, Walgreen’s, PharmaChoice and Amcal, offer a lot more than medicine, too. You can get just about anything from lotions to cereal to small appliances. At the pharmacy nearest where I live, you can even get your passport ‘photo taken.

Of course, the concept of what a pharmacy is and does is different across cultures. And those ideas have changed considerably over time. But in whatever form, pharmacies play important roles in our lives – and in our crime fiction. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie fans will know that she had a background in chemistry and pharmaceuticals. So it’s little wonder that she makes use more than once of the chemist’s and the hospital dispensary. For instance, in After the Funeral, Hercule Poirot looks into the untimely, if not unexpected, death of Richard Abernethie. When the members of Abernethie’s family gather for his funeral, his younger sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up; even she asks the family to ignore what she said. But privately, all of her relatives begin to wonder whether she’s right. The wondering turns to certainty when Cora herself is murdered the next day. One of the ‘people of interest’ in this mystery is Gregory Banks, nephew-by-marriage to both Abernethie and his sister. Banks is a chemist’s assistant who, it turns out, has a questionable history. It is said that he once offered to sell a customer poison to kill her husband. And when Poirot meets Banks, he learns that the man is psychologically very fragile. Now Poirot has to decide whether that means Banks is the killer. I know, I know, fans of Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client) and of The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

In Michael Collins’ short story Who?, we learn about Boyd Conners, a young man whose job is making deliveries from a local drugstore. One day, he suddenly dies of what seems to be a heart attack. He was in very good health, and not a drug user, so his mother is convinced that there’s something more to his death. She visits PI Dan Fortune to ask him to investigate. As Fortune begins to look into the case, he learns that there are a few possibilities. For one thing, there’s the victim’s romantic rival Roger Tatum. There’s also a local group of hoodlums who might have wanted him dead. As it turns out though, the actual killer is someone who isn’t even a suspect.

In the US, drugstores used to be more than just places to purchase aspirin. They used to be social gathering places. We see that, for instance, in John D. MacDonald’s short story The Homicidal Hiccup. Walter Maybree has purchased the local drugstore, and wants to keep it a safe ‘clean’ place for young people to meet, and for families to do their pharmacy shopping. Like many drugstores of the day, it’s got a counter where customers can get milkshakes, ice cream sundaes and other treats. The only problem for Maybree is local crime boss Johnny Howard. Howard and his gang run the town and extort ‘protection money’ from all of the businesses. As if the extortion weren’t enough, the gang wants to make Maybree’s drugstore a place for selling pornography. This Maybree refuses to do. Much to Howard’s surprise, other business owners in the area, who are fed up with the crime gang, stand by Maybree and help him protect his store. Desperate to keep his respect, Howard and his girlfriend Bonny Gerlacher devise a plan. She’ll go to the drugstore disguised as a teen. As she’s sitting at the counter, she’ll use a straw to shoot poison at Maybree, killing him and getting him out of Howard’s way. Things don’t go as expected, though, when a natural human response takes over. Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories will know that drugstores make several appearances in that series. They’re used as places to make telephone calls, have a meal, meet people and get an ice cream soda.

Kerry Greenwood’s Cocaine Blues introduces us to Phryne Fisher. Originally from Australia, she’s been living in London. One evening, an acquaintance, Colonel Harper, asks Phryne to visit his daughter Lydia, who now lives in Melbourne, and see whether she’s all right. It seems from her letters that she’s not in good health, and that her husband may be responsible for that. Phryne agrees and travels to Melbourne. In the course of finding out the truth about Lydia, she unearths a cocaine ring operating in the area. It’s not long before she discovers that the nexus of the ring is a pharmacy in a seedy part of town. So one night, she and her friend Bert Johnson visit the pharmacy to find out for themselves what’s going on there. She knows that she won’t learn anything from just going in well-dressed, and asking questions in an educated accent. So, she pretends to be a very different sort of woman:

‘Those pink powders for pale people,’ she finished, and held out her ten shilling note. The man nodded, and exchanged her note for a slip of pink paper, embossed with the title ‘Peterson’s pink powders for pale people’ and containing a small quantity of the requisite stuff. Phryne nodded woozily to him and found her way back to Bert.’

It turns out that that visit to the pharmacy provides an important clue.

And then there’s Donna Leon’s Suffer the Little Children. In one plot thread of that novel, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello has discovered that a local hospital has been in collusion with three pharmacists. Pharmacists sometimes receive a courtesy fee when they schedule their customers for appointments with specialists. Vianello has learned that three pharmacists have been scheduling ‘phantom patients’ in exchange for extra money. Vianello and his boss, Commissario Guido Brunetti, are looking into the matter when there’s a break-in at a pharmacy that adds a whole new dimension to the case.

You might not think about it much, unless you’re not feeling well or you run out of tissues. But pharmacies are an integral part of our lives, even with today’s online ordering. And they can add interesting layers to a crime story.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, John D. MacDonald, Kerry Greenwood, Michael Collins, Rex Stout

You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)*

Police in Supporting RolesFor obvious reasons, police characters play critical roles in crime fiction. Even when the main character is a PI or perhaps amateur sleuth, we see a lot of police presence. It’s a bit tricky to write a story where the police play an important role, but aren’t main characters. On the one hand, the author wants the protagonist to be the main focus of attention, which means that character needs to be featured and developed. On the other, readers know that it’s the police who have the authority to make arrests, and who have the resources and government sanction to go after criminals. Most readers want their crime fiction plots to reflect that. And they want their police characters to be more than caricatures. It’s interesting to see how different authors have integrated police character when they are not (co)protagonists.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s police characters are arguably often used to highlight just how skilled his Sherlock Holmes is. Holmes fans will know that he has, in general, little respect for the police. He works most often with Inspector Tobias Gregson and of course with Inspector Lestrade, and refers to them as,

‘…the pick of a bad lot.’

To Holmes, the police of Scotland Yard are thick-headed and miss obvious evidence. Gergson and Lestrade are, perhaps, less guilty. At least they notice when things don’t add up. But even so, they certainly don’t save the day. That’s Holmes’ role.

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are definitely the ‘stars’ of his series. But Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Purley Stebbins also play roles in the stories. Rarely does Wolfe approve of what they do, although both he and Goodwin depend on them for actual arrests. And as fans will know, Cramer, Stebbins and Lieutenant Rowcliff aren’t always happy about what Wolfe and Goodwin do, either. In this series, the police play a more integral role than just making Wolfe, Goodwin and their team look good. And that makes sense, given how important police are to crime detection. They’re not bumbling imbeciles, either (‘though Wolfe might beg to differ at times). Rather, they add tension and sometimes conflict to the stories.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot gets ‘top billing’ in most of the novels and stories that feature him. But the police certainly play integral roles, although not as ‘co-stars.’ And although Poirot is not at all modest about his own powers of deduction, he does have respect for police detectives whom he considers to be good at their jobs. And he often says that the police have more resources at their disposal than he does; in fact, he frequently suggests that his clients go to the police. Chief Inspector Japp is perhaps the best-known of Poirot’s police associates. But he’s not the only recurring police character. There’s also Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence. And of course, other police characters make one-time appearances. In just about all of those cases, the police play a supporting role, but an important one. We may not get much of a look at their home lives or what it’s like at the police station, but they do matter in the stories. It’s interesting too that Christie created a mix of skilled detectives (such as Japp) whom Poirot respects, and detectives for whom he has little liking (Am I right, fans of The Murder on the Links?).

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels feature Wimsey, and later, Harriet Vane, as protagonists. But Inspector Charles Parker is an important supporting character. In Clouds of Witness, where we first meet him, Parker is called in to help the local police find the killer of Dennis Cathcart. The victim was the fiancé of Lady Mary Wimsey, Lord Peter’s sister; and at one point, the evidence seems to implicate her. Luckily for both her and Parker (who has fallen in love with her), it turns out that Cathcart’s murderer was someone else. As the series goes on, Parker marries Lady Mary, and he and Wimsey become friends. That makes things a bit awkward in Strong Poison, when Parker gets solid evidence that mystery novelist Harriet Vane has poisoned her former lover Philip Boyes. Wimsey has fallen in love with the accused, and is determined to clear her name so that he can marry her. And Parker’s made out the case against her. Still, they do work together, and in the end, Parker helps Wimsey find the truth about the murder. In this series, Parker plays the role of friend, sometimes-confidant, and professional resource for Wimsey.

The protagonist of Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… mysteries is newspaper columnist James ‘Qwilll’ Qwilleran. Circumstances have placed him in Pickax, a small town in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ The stories are told from Qwill’s perspective, and he’s the one who often puts the pieces of the puzzle together. But one of the important supporting characters in the series is Police Chief Andrew Brodie. Qwill respects Brodie as an intelligent police professional, and he lets Brodie and his team do the evidence-gathering and arresting. Brodie may not be a main protagonist in this series, but he does have a key supporting role. Especially in series such as this, where the protagonist is an amateur sleuth, the presence of a recurring police-officer character adds realism.

It does in K.B. Owen’s series, too. These historical mysteries, which take place at the very end of the 19th Century, feature Concordia Wells, a teacher at Hartford (Connecticut)’s Women’s College. She herself is, of course, not on the police force. And during the era in which she lives, it’s considered unseemly for ladies to be interested in crime and detection anyway. But she is insatiably curious, and does get drawn into murder as it touches those she knows. She’s made a friend of Lieutenant Aaron Capshaw, who is married to her best friend Sophie. Capshaw isn’t the main character of this series. But he plays an important role, since he has access to information that isn’t available to civilians. In that sense, his presence in the stories makes the series more realistic.

You’ll notice I’m not mentioning series such as Stuart Palmer’s, Elly Griffiths’ or Martha Grimes’, which feature recurring police characters. That’s because in those cases and cases like them, the police character really is one of the protagonists. That dynamic can be highly effective. But it’s also interesting to look at cases where the police are supporting players. Which ones have stayed with you?

NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Elly Griffiths, K.B. Owen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Martha Grimes, Rex Stout, Stuart Palmer