Category Archives: Rex Stout

Join Our Club*

Humans are social by our very nature. Of course, some of us are much more socially inclined than others, and some of us aren’t really ‘joiners’ at all. But to an extent, we all need social connections.

That may be part of the reason for which there are so many interest clubs. There are book clubs, travel clubs, wine clubs, and sport clubs, to name just a very few. And people join these groups as much for the social interaction as for anything else. After all, you don’t need to belong to a book club to read and enjoy a novel. But many people enjoy the exchange of ideas and different perspectives. There’s also the fact that someone else may notice something about a story that you didn’t. The opportunity to interact with and learn from other people who share an interest is really appealing.

It’s little wonder, then, that we see so many examples of this sort of shared-interest club in crime fiction. In fact, Agatha Christie’s The Thirteen Problems (AKA The Tuesday Club Murders) combines an interest club with murder. It’s a collection of short stories, each detailing a murder. Each story is told by one member of what’s called the Tuesday Club (the group meets each Tuesday). Then, the club discusses the murder and its solution. Miss Marple is a member of this club, so, as you can imagine, her insights prove quite helpful. You’re right, fans of Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case

In Rex Stout’s Gambit, we are introduced to the exclusive Gambit Chess Club. Matthew Blount is a member of the club, so he’s always interested in new opponents. He’s played a few times against magician and party-trickster Paul Jerrin, and decides to have Jerrin match wits against the rest of the club. The plan is that Jerrin will sit in one room, blindfolded, and play twelve simultaneous matches against different club members, who are in other rooms. Moves will be communicated by messenger. All goes well enough at first. But then, Jerrin suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poisoned hot chocolate. Blount’s immediately suspected, since he was the one who brought Jerrin the chocolate. But Blount’s daughter, Sally, is sure that he’s innocent. She hires Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin to find out who’s really guilty.

Tarquin Hall’s The Man Who Died Laughing begins as Dr. Suresh Jha attends a session of the Delhi-based Rajpath Laughing Club. The group meets to use laughter and silliness to relieve the stress of daily life. This morning, though, everything is different. During the group’s meeting, so say witnesses, the goddess Kali appears and stabs Jha. Believers say that she killed him as punishment for his lack of belief, and the story makes a lot of the news headlines. Jha was the founder of the Delhi Institute for Research and Education (D.I.R.E.), which is devoted to debunking superstition, and he’d made his share of enemies. So, when PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri hears about his death, he suspects that this murderer isn’t a goddess at all, but a human. And, since Jha was once a client, Puri decides to find out who’s responsible.

In Jill Edmonson’s The Lies Have It, Toronto PI Sasha Jackson agrees to help her friend, Jessica, tend bar at the Stealth Lounge, which is a private party room in the Pilot Tavern. A fetish club called Bound For Glory has booked the Stealth Lounge for a big party, and some of the staff members aren’t willing to work that event. So, the Stealth needs some extra ‘fill-in’ help. Soon after the party, Ian Dooley, head of the club, is found murdered near Cherry Beach. At first, it looks as though some of the ‘party games’ went too far. But soon enough, it’s clear that Dooley was deliberately murdered. Now, Jackson adds to her case load as she works to find out who the murderer is.

With today’s online capability, there are also plenty of online clubs. And they, too, pose danger – well, at least fictionally. In Cat Connor’s Killerbyte, for instance, we are introduced to FBI special agent Gabrielle ‘Ellie’ Conway. She’s an ex-pat New Zealander who has a special love of poetry. In fact, she co-moderates an online chat room/poetry club called Cobwebs. When one of the members, Carter McClaren, behaves inappropriately, Conway sees no choice but to ban him from the club. He then shows up at her home to ‘pay her back.’  He’s arrested, but is able to pay bail. Then, later, he’s murdered, and his body is found in Conway’s car. With it is a Post-It note with a cryptic piece of poetry written on it. Then, there’s another murder, also of a club/chat room member. Again, a piece of poetry is left near the body. Now, Conway and her fellow moderator/lover Cormac ‘Mac’ Connelly have to find out which of the other club members is the murderer.

Interest clubs can be really enjoyable. And they’re often excellent ways to get new ideas and have some social interaction. But peaceful? Not always…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Saint Etienne.

22 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Cat Connor, Jill Edmondson, Rex Stout, Tarquin Hall

What a Cast of Characters*

For the reader, one of the advantages of standalone novels is that each one is a different experience. And that means it’s less likely that a reader will get tired of a given author’s work. At the same time, though, standalones may not give the reader the opportunity to really get to know a group of characters, and see how they evolve. For that, a series can be very appealing.

Developing those characters – especially secondary characters – over time can be tricky. Crime fiction fans generally want their stories to focus on crime at hand. And an effective series welcomes new readers, whether they start at the first novel or not. That said, though, there are plenty of series out there that people read as much for the ‘regular’ characters as they do for the individual plots. In fact, there are too many for me to discuss in one post. But here are a few.

Rex Stout’s main sleuths are, of course, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Most of the attention in the novels is on them, and the way they go about solving mysteries. The mysteries at hand –  the central plots of the stories – are the focus, too. And yet, there are other regular characters we get to know over the course of the series. For instance, Wolfe employs Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin, and Orrie Cather – the ‘teers – to do freelance work for him when he needs information. There are also Fritz Brenner, Wolfe’s world-class Swiss chef, and Theodore Horstmann, his orchid expert. Lily Rowan, Goodwin’s sometimes love interest, is also a regular character. And then there are various police detectives, like Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Purly Stebbins, who also play roles in the series. For many people, these other characters, and their interactions, are as important to enjoying the stories as are the actual mysteries.

A similar thing might be said of Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe series. As fans can tell you, Mma Ramotswe has the only female-owned private investigation business in Botswana. Each novel features a few mysteries that she solves. But there’s also a set of other regular characters that readers have come to know well. Those characters arguably add much to the novels, and are part of the reason readers keep coming back. For example, Mma Ramotswe doesn’t investigate every mystery by herself. Her associate is Grace Makutsi, who started as the company’s secretary, and has proven herself a capable detective. On the home front, Mma Ramotswe is married to Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. He’s the proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, and is quite handy at fixing all sorts of things. He employs two assistants, who also sometimes figure into the stories. There’s also Mma Sylvia Potokwane, Mma Ramotswe’s friend, and proprietor of the local orphanage. All of these characters develop over time, and sometimes figure into the mysteries that are featured in the novels. And for many readers, they’re an important part of enjoying the series.

The same is arguably true of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series. Montalbano is the lead character, and the novels are told, much of the time, from his perspective. But the series also includes a group of other regular and recurring characters who add to the novels. One of them is Montalbano’s second-in-command, Mimì Augello. There are also Giuseppe Fazio and Sergeant Agatino Catarella, among others, who are Montalbano’s police colleagues. And then there are the people in Montalbano’s personal life: his partner, Livia Burlando; his friend, Ingrid Sjostrom; his housekeeper/cook, Adelina Cirrinciò; and his friend, Nicolò Zito, for instance. All of those characters add layers to the stories, and many fans of this series read the novels as much to keep up with their doings as to read about the crime(s) at hand.

Louise Penny’s Three Pines series features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. Each of the novels has a focus on a particular case that Gamache and his team investigate, and those cases are central to the novels. But the novels also follow the lives of Three Pines’ residents, and readers get to know them. Gabri and Olivier, who own the local B&B; Clara and Peter Morrow, both artists; resident poet Ruth Zardo; and psychologist-turned-bookshop owner Myrna Landers are just a few. As the series has continued, there’ve been several story arcs involving those characters, as well as Gamache’s wife, Reine-Marie, and his daughter, Annie. And for many fans of this series, those characters add a great deal to its appeal.

And then there’s Kerry Greenwood’s work. One of her series ‘stars’ 1920s socialite Phryne Fisher. The other ‘stars’ modern-day accountant-turned-baker Corinna Chapman. They’re quite different, but they have some things in common (besides their Melbourne settings). One of them is that they each have a cast of regular and recurring characters. In the Phryne Fisher series, Phryne solves cases with the help of several people. One of them is her assistant, Dorothy ‘Dot’ Williams. She also gets help from her friends, Albert ‘Bert’ Johnson, and Cecil ‘Cec’ Yates. They’re taxi drivers and wharfies who also do quite a lot of ‘legwork’ for Phryne. Phryne shares her home with her adopted daughters, Jane and Ruth, and her staff, Mr. and Mrs. Butler (yes, that’s their name). And, of course, there’s Inspector John ‘Jack’ Robinson, as well as Constable Hugh Collins, who do the police investigations.

Greenwood’s other series also includes a cast of regular characters besides Corinna. There’s her assistant, Jason Wallace, and her two other employees, Gossamer Judge and Kylie Manners. And of course, her lover, Daniel Cohen. Corinna’s home and shop are located in a large, Roman-style building called Insula. The other residents of Insula are also regular characters, who add quite a lot to the series. Professor Dionysus ‘Dion’ Monk, herbalist and Wicca shop owner Miriam ‘Meroe’ Kaplan, and Andy Holliday and his daughter Cherie are just a few of the other people who live in the building. In both series, the novels feature mysteries that form the central plots. But the regular characters are arguably just as important. And many fans will tell you that they follow the series in part because of those characters.

There are many other series, too, that readers follow as much for the cast of characters as for the mysteries. That’s one thing that a well-written series can provide that a standalone can’t always pull off. What about you? Are there series you follow as much for the cast of characters as for the plots? Which ones?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rolling Stones’ She Saw Me Coming.

28 Comments

Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Andrea Camilleri, Kerry Greenwood, Louise Penny, Rex Stout

Sleuth Celebrity Shows ;-)

We’re all familiar with our top fictional sleuths’ skill at solving mysteries. But they have other talents, too, if you think about it. What if those other talents were celebrated? Wouldn’t it be great if the fictional sleuths we like best got their own TV shows, designed to showcase those skills? No, I mean it – it could work. If you’ll park your disbelief in front of the laptop to do some online shopping, I’ll show you what I mean with these

 

Sleuth Celebrity Shows
 

Restaurant Rescue

Struggling restaurants everywhere get a new lease on life as master gourmand Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie) offers them his singular expertise. Join M. Poirot as he pays a visit to a different restaurant each week, and gives the owner and chef the benefit of his deep knowledge of ambiance, food, wine, and service. The end result? A restaurant and staff that provide an unforgettable dining experience. You won’t want to miss it!

[We hear from our sources that Nero Wolfe (Rex Stout) had been considered for this show, but his spokesman has said that Wolfe would not be taking the role. The spokesman neither confirmed nor denied that Wolfe said the show was ‘flummery.’]

 

Refashion Yourself

If you’ve ever felt you wanted a new look, but weren’t sure where to start, you’ll want to tune in as Paris’ own Aimée Leduc (Cara Black) transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary. Each week, she takes charge of a different lucky client’s wardrobe, and brings it alive with the best in clothes, shoes, outerwear, accessories, and more. She also offers valuable tips to viewers on how to put together simple but sophisticated looks for every occasion. Don’t miss a single episode!

 

Save My Kitchen

Straight from the heart of France’s gastronomic culture, Bruno Courrèges (Martin Walker) brings the Périgord to homes everywhere. Tune in each week as this skilled chef transforms his guests’ everyday meals into something special. With the right ingredients and simple cooking strategies, Courrèges makes even a quick lunch memorable. Each episode brings you a treasure trove of advice for your own kitchen. No more ho-hum meals!

 

Live With Less

The show for people who want to de-clutter and start living simpler, less hectic, and less expensive lives. Let natural living expert Rebecka Martinsson (Åsa Larsson) be your guide to a more sustainable, more budget-conscious, and less frantic lifestyle. Each week, Rebecka visits the home of a different family, and gives them sustainable and inexpensive solutions for clothing, cooking, cleaning, and much more. Each episode teaches easy ways to cut down the waste, tone down the non-stop stress of modern life, and make the most of what nature offers. Don’t miss a single one!

 

The Big Event

Starring one of the world’s foremost entertainment experts, Phryne Fisher (Kerry Greenwood), this show covers everything involved in planning and hosting the perfect event. Each week, Phryne coaches her guests as they put together weddings, reunions, corporate events, and other special occasions. Watch as the guests plan themes, decorations, music, food and drink, and all of the other unique touches that make an event unforgettable. Then, see the event itself, and get some great ideas for your own big day.

 

Pub Crawl

Renowned pub expert E. Morse (Colin Dexter) takes you on a tour of the UK’s best pubs and watering holes. Each week, Morse visits a different local, and shares his experiences. Learn how the UK’s pubs compare on selection, price, quality, ambiance, and much more. Enjoy Morse’s critiques, and pick your own new places to try!

 

See what I mean? These TV shows could really take off, don’t you think? And it would mean our sleuths could earn some welcome extra income. These are just a few of my own ideas. Got any of your own to share?

25 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Cara Black, Colin Dexter, Kerry Greenwood, Martin Walker, Rex Stout

The Way She Brushed Her Hair From Her Forehead*

Not very long ago, I had an author portrait taken. I don’t usually care much for ‘photos of myself – at all. But part of getting the word out about one’s writing is….an author portrait (am I right, fellow crime writers?). I asked my daughter fashion and image expert which of several shots to choose, and she mentioned that I looked angry in one. I asked her what made her think that. After a second’s pause she said, ‘It’s your upper lip.’ Turns out I have a certain facial mannerism I didn’t even know about that gives away irritation.

But I shouldn’t have been surprised. We all have unique mannerisms that are part of our equally unique identities. Sometimes they are very subtle. Other times they’re more obvious. Either way, they help to define us. And they can be really useful to the crime writer. Mannerisms help to make characters distinctive. Readers might not necessarily remember a character’s name, but they might remember, ‘Oh, yeah, the one who tilts her head back to look at you.’

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is a very distinctive character. His pipe, his violin, and so on have served to make him familiar to millions. But he also has some physical mannerisms that distinguish him from others. Here’s what Dr. Watson says about it in A Study in Scarlet:
 

‘Nothing could exceed his energy when the working fit was upon him; but now and again a reaction would seize him, and for days on end he would lie upon the sofa in the sitting-room, hardly uttering a word or moving a muscle from morning to night.’
 

As time goes by, Watson learns to ‘read’ Holmes’ mannerisms to determine when he’s feeling sociable, when he’s deep in thought, and so on.

Agatha Christie used mannerisms in more than one of her stories. In at least two novels that I can think of (Sorry – no titles. I don’t want to give away spoilers), characters’ distinctive physical mannerisms help the sleuth identify the criminal. Sometimes, Christie used mannerisms to lead readers down the proverbial garden path, too. And of course, her sleuths have mannerisms of their own. Any fan of Hercule Poirot, for instance, can tell you that he has plenty of physical quirks. He absently straightens anything that’s not in perfect alignment. He smooths his moustache unconsciously, too. And those are only two examples.

Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe will know that he has several physical mannerisms. One of them is that, when he’s deep in thought, his lips show it. Here’s a description from Champagne For One:
 

‘…his lips started to work. They pushed out and went back in, out and in, out and in…’
 

Wolfe may not always be consciously aware that he’s doing that, but Archie Goodwin knows to leave him alone when he does. It means he’s pondering a case, and will not take it kindly if he’s interrupted.

Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios / A Coffin For Dimitrios introduces us to mystery novelist Charles Latimer. When he hears about a notorious character named Dimitrios Makropoulos, he gets interested. And when he finds out the man has been found dead, Latimer gets even more interested. He decides to trace Makropoulos’ history, and find out how and why he committed the crimes that he did, and how he met his end. It’s a very dangerous undertaking, but Latimer is too curious to stop. Slowly, he gets drawn into the dead man’s story. Along the way, he meets a mysterious man who calls himself Mr. Peters. Peters has the mannerism of smiling – a lot. His smiles change, depending on the circumstances, but he smiles quite often. Latimer finds the smile disconcerting, and it’s interesting to see how that adds to the suspense in the story.

Anne Zouroudi’s Hermes Diaktoros is a somewhat enigmatic sleuth. When he’s on a case, he tells people that he’s been sent ‘from Athens’ to help investigate. But it’s never clear exactly where he’s from or what his actual job is (although he is a sort of private detective). In appearance, he’s not overly distinctive. But he does have the distinctive mannerism of keeping the white tennis shoes he habitually wears pristine.

James W. Fuerst’s Huge is the story of Eugene ‘Huge’ Smalls. It takes place in a small 1980’s New Jersey town, where twelve-year-old Huge lives with his mother and his sister, Eunice ‘Neecey.’ Huge has his problems in school, but he’s highly intelligent, and dreams of being a private detective, just like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. He gets his chance when his grandmother hires him to find out who defaced the sign at the elder care facility where she lives. Huge goes to work on the case; and in the process of finding out who the guilty person is, he learns a lot about himself. The story takes place, as I say, in the 1980s, and Fuerst places the reader in that time period in some interesting ways. For instance, Neecey has a habit she’s probably not even aware of, of wrapping the family’s extra-long telephone cord around her waist when she’s having a ‘phone conversation. It’s an unconscious mannerism, and it adds a layer of character and of setting (remember those super-long cords?).

There are lots of other examples of crime-fictional characters who have distinctive physical mannerisms (right, fans of Andy Breckman’s Adrian Monk?). Those mannerisms can add layers of character development, and make it easier to distinguish among characters. If they’re overdone, they can take away from a story, but when they’re written well, they can be interesting.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Graceland. 

24 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Andy Breckman, Anne Zouroudi, Arthur Conan Doyle, Eric Ambler, James W. Fuerst, Rex Stout

I Have a Thick Skin*

Life teaches most of us to develop a thick skin, as the saying goes, at least professionally. Criticism isn’t always fun, and dealing with it takes skill. And it helps – a lot – to have a thick hide. Having one doesn’t mean you enjoy criticism, or think it’s fun. It means you learn not to take it personally.

In crime fiction, having a thick (or thin) hide can add a really interesting layer of character development. It can also add to a plot, if you think about it. After all, a thin skin can lead to all sorts of interesting conflict and suspense.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, for instance, we are introduced to Elsa Greer (later, Lady Dittisham). She is one of the five people ‘on the scene’ on the day that famous painter Amyas Crale is poisoned. His wife, Caroline, is the main suspect, and there’s plenty of evidence against her. In fact, she is arrested, tried, and convicted in the matter. A year later, she dies in prison. Sixteen years after the murder, the Crales’ daughter, Carla Lemarchant visits Hercule Poirot. She is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants Poirot to clear her name. Poirot agrees, and looks into the matter. In order to get to the truth, he interviews the five people most closely concerned (including Elsa), and gets written accounts of the murder and the days leading up to it from each one. We soon learn that Elsa was Crale’s mistress, a fact which certainly came out at the trial. She’s described as ‘hard boiled,’ and tells Poirot that she didn’t care about the insults she got from people who thought of her as a ‘home wrecker.’ In fact, she developed a tough hide about all that sort of thing, even though ‘ladies’ were supposed to shrink from public criticism. On that level, she’s an interesting character.

Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel also has a very thick skin. Like most of us, he doesn’t think criticism is fun. But he doesn’t take it personally, and fans of this series knows that he gives as good as he gets, as the saying goes. In fact, that’s one thing that Peter Pascoe, Edgar Wield, and the other members of Dalziel’s team have to learn. When you work with Dalziel, you have to have a thick hide. He’s hardly gushing in his praise, and he doesn’t mince words when he dresses people down. It takes Dalziel’s staff some time to get used to his forthright ways, and not take it personally. When they do, they learn that he is also loyal to them, and willing to take on ‘the top brass’ on their behalf if necessary.

Another character with a thick skin is Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin. And for him, that’s a job requirement. His boss is Nero Wolfe, who can be very caustic in what he says, and isn’t afraid to say it. But many people think of Archie as an employee in name only. Really, he’s more of a partner, even though Wolfe pays his salary. Archie has learned not to take Wolfe’s diatribes personally, and he’s not afraid to give it right back, as the saying goes. He’s one of the few people whom Wolfe doesn’t intimidate. Archie’s not overly intimidated by the police, either, and doesn’t take their remarks to him personally. Sometimes, he even gets himself into trouble because he doesn’t react in an ‘appropriately’ humble way when the police lay into him. In fact, fans of this series know that some of the funnier lines in these novels come from Archie.

Of course, not all fictional characters are thick-skinned. And sometimes, characters can hide that thin skin beneath false bravado. For example, in Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town, we are introduced to famous director Peter Alan Nelson. On the one hand, he is a well-known director, and every word he says counts. He’s waited on hand and foot, and is very accustomed to getting his way. But he doesn’t handle demurrals or criticism well at all; underneath, he has a thin skin. He does not like to be wrong, and doesn’t deal well with objections. Years earlier, he was married to Karen Shipley, and they had a son, Toby. The marriage ended, and Karen and Toby left. Now, Nelson wants to re-establish a relationship with his son, and he hires Los Angeles PI Elvis Cole to find them. At first, Cole demurs. After all, there are any number of reasons that these people might want to go on with their own lives. But Nelson insists, and a fee is a fee. So, Cole tracks Karen and Toby down, and discovers that they’re living in a small town in Connecticut. It seems like a straightforward case – until he also discovers that she’s mixed up with some very dangerous Mob types…

And then there’s Louise Penny’s Yvette Nichol. When we meet her in Still Life, she’s recently been named to the Sûreté du Québec, and she’s thrilled about it. She’s also determined to ‘make good,’ as much because of her personal situation as anything else. So, when she is appointed to work with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache on a murder case, she does everything she can at first to ingratiate herself with him. But she is new at her job, and knows a lot less than she thinks she does. What’s worse, she has a thin skin and doesn’t deal well with criticism. She’d rather blame others than reflect on her own actions. When she makes mistakes, as we all do, Gamache tries to counsel her and help her become a productive part of the team. She won’t listen to him, though, in part because she can’t deal with criticism. That causes all sorts of problems which, as fans know, are part of a story arc in this series.

For most of us, it’s important to develop a thick skin, at least in our professional lives. We all have to handle criticism, and sometimes it can hurt. It’s healthy to learn deal with it in ways that don’t debilitate us. Some fictional characters can do that well – some can’t…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joy Ike’s Nomad.

17 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Louise Penny, Reginald Hill, Rex Stout, Robert Crais