Category Archives: Rex Stout

You’re So Vain*

EgotistsMost of us know, whether or not we admit it to others, that we’re not perfect. We’re wrong at times, and we make mistakes. And there are plenty of people who know more than we do and can do things better. But not everyone’s like that. There are certain people with very exaggerated senses of their own knowledge and importance. I’ll bet you’ve met people like that, yourself. Such people are sometimes very successful, if you define success as having a lot of money and/or power. And they can be personable, even charming. But they can be dangerous, too. And they can add an interesting texture to a crime story, even if they’re neither the victim nor the killer.

Agatha Christie created several egotistical characters in her novels. Some of them are obvious, and some less so. In Hickory Dickory Death, for instance, Hercule Poirot investigates some odd thefts and other disturbing incidents at a hostel for students. When one of the residents, Celia Austin, admits to some of the thefts, everyone thinks the matter is closed. Then, two nights later, she dies. At first glance it looks like a suicide, but very soon it’s proven to be murder. Now Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out who the killer is. They start with the other hostel residents, one of whom is a law student named Elizabeth Johnston. After interviewing her, here is what Inspector Sharpe has to say:

 

‘‘That’s a very interesting girl who just went out. She’s got the ego of a Napoleon and I strongly suspect that she knows something.’’

 

As it turns out, all of the residents are keeping secrets that they aren’t particularly eager to share.

One of the very interesting things about Elizabeth Johnston is that she isn’t the stereotypical egomaniac, who’s impolite to others and who constantly talks about him or herself. Rather, she’s quiet, unassuming, even pleasant. It’s an effective way to show that not all of those with oversized egos are obvious about it.

That’s certainly not true of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. As fans of this series know, he is not in the least bit unassuming, and is positively arrogant in his estimation of his own ability. Stout uses the character of Archie Goodwin in part to serve as a foil to Wolfe. But even Goodwin accepts the fact that Wolfe is brilliant. He may have a Napoleonic ego, but he is very, very good at what he does. Is it really arrogance if you can back it up with success? Wolfe would probably say, ‘no.’ Or Pfui!

Some characters have been surrounded by sycophants and other hangers-on for so long that they’ve come to believe their own hype. This can make people all the more arrogant and convinced of their own worth and importance. Such a person is Kane ‘King’ Bendigo, whom we meet in Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead. He is the very powerful owner of a hugely successful munitions firm, so he has become quite wealthy. He, his wife Karla, and his two brothers, Abel and Judah, live on a private, heavily guarded island. When Bendigo begins to receive cryptic threats on his life, he doesn’t take them seriously at first. After all, the people on the island are loyal to him, and in any case, he’s carefully protected. You might say that he’s so convinced of his own hype that he can’t imagine anyone killing him. Abel, however, convinces him to take the threat seriously, so he arranges for Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery to travel from New York City to investigate the matter. The Queens are not exactly enthused about being summoned in that highhanded way, but they are convinced to go. They settle in and begin asking questions. Meanwhile, the threats continue, and get more and more specific about the date and time. It’s finally revealed that Bendigo will be shot on a certain Thursday at midnight. On that night, at that time, he is in his hermetically sealed office/study with his wife. There are no weapons in the office, and no-one can get in or out. Still, he is shot, just as was threatened. What’s even stranger is that the weapon used to shoot him was a gun that Judah fired at exactly midnight – in another room. Judah couldn’t have somehow gone to his brother’s office; he was with Ellery Queen. It’s a very tangled sort of ‘impossible, but not really’ crime.

In Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town, we are introduced to successful Hollywood director Peter Alan Nelson. Like many Hollywood moguls, he’s been surrounded by eager hangers-on and sycophants for a very long time, and has come to have a high opinion of himself. More to the point for this novel, he believes that he can manipulate people and events to suit his whims. So when he decides that he’d like to get to know his twelve-year-old son Toby, he doesn’t see why that shouldn’t quickly happen. The only problem is, Toby lives with Nelson’s ex-wife Karen Shipley, and the two of them have disappeared. So Nelson hires L.A. PI Elvis Cole to find his family. At first, Cole demurs. He’s sure, as many people would be, that Nelson’s ex-wife had her own reasons – possibly very good ones – for going away without letting Nelson know. But Nelson insists. So Cole gets started on the case, and traces Shipley and Toby to a small town in Connecticut. He also discovers that Shipley has gotten tangled up with the Mob. Now he’s up against an arrogant director who insists on reuniting with his family, and a Mob group with an interest in that family. It’s going to be a tricky case for Cole and his partner Joe Pike.

And then there’s Louise Penny’s Yvette Nichol. When we first meet her in Still Life, she’s just been named to the Sûreté du Québec. Even better, she’s assigned to work with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, who has the best reputation in the agency. It’s an understatement to say that Nichol isn’t perfect. She makes plenty of mistakes, and like anyone new at the job, she has a lot to learn. Fans of this series will know, too, that she turns out to be duplicitous, even malicious, and not trustworthy. Despite Gamache’s attempts to help her learn how to fit in and do her job well, Nichol refuses to take his advice. Part of the reason for that is that she is arrogant. She is convinced that she knows what she’s doing, and that any failures she has are the fault of others. In a sense, she becomes the victim of her own sense of self. What’s interesting about her character is that she combines this egotism with a desperate need to belong.

Egotists aren’t all rich and powerful. But, more or less, they all have an overinflated sense of their worth and importance. That can make life miserable for those around them, but even when it doesn’t, such characters can add to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Carly Simon song. Did you know Carly Simon has a literary connection? That’s right. Her father, Richard Simon, was a co-founder of Simon and Schuster.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Louise Penny, Rex Stout, Robert Crais

I’m Getting Married in the Morning*

Pressure to MarryOne of the more famous literary opening lines (from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) is this:
 

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’
 

And to say the very least, there’s been equal pressure on women to find husbands. Of course, times have changed since Austen wrote those lines. Being single for a long time, even permanently, isn’t looked down on as it once was. And many, many people live together permanently (and happily) without going through a wedding ceremony. They may be legally married under common law, but they choose not to get a marriage license. And of course, there are millions of same-sex marriages, too. So the concept of ‘spouse’ has changed.

Still, that pressure to ‘land a husband’ or wife has been woven into many cultures for an awfully long time. It’s there all through crime fiction, too. And that pressure can add an interesting layer of character development to a story, as well as an interesting statement on the social context of that story.

K.B. Owen’s Concordia Wells faces that sort of pressure in Owen’s historical mystery series. Concordia is a teacher at Hartford (Connecticut) Women’s College during the last years of the 19th Century. At that time, ladies, at least those in the ‘better classes’ only work until they marry. Their primary goal is ‘supposed to be’ to find a husband. On the one hand, Concordia likes the independence her job allows. She doesn’t feel the need to gain her identity through her marital status. On the other hand, she has found someone special. And for her, this presents an interesting dilemma. Should she marry (which means giving up her career) or should she remain single (which means going against the social pressure, and her own attachment)? I hear you, fans of Kerry Greenwood’s Dorothy ‘Dot’ Williams!

The search for a spouse is an important factor in Brian Stoddart’s A Madras Miasma, which is set in 1920, during the last decades of the British Raj. Virginia Campbell and Jane Carstairs are young English women who are spending some time in Madras. They and other young women like them are often referred to as ‘the fishing fleet’ because of their purpose for being in Madras. They’re no longer in their early twenties, and the proverbial clock is ticking. So they’re looking to meet as many well-placed, eligible, young men as possible, in hopes of finding a husband. They attend every party, sailing trip, picnic and other social event they can. One night, after one such event, Jane is murdered and her body left in Buckingham Canal. Superintendent Christian Le Fanu and his assistant, Sergeant Muhammad Habibullah, take charge of the investigation. As they trace the victim’s last days and hours, they (and readers) get a sense of ‘the marriage marketplace’ in the Madras of that time.

There’s an interesting discussion of the pressure to find a spouse in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. Rosamund Darnley is a very successful clothing designer whose creations are well regarded (and upmarket). She takes a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay, only to meet up unexpectedly with an old friend, Captain Kenneth Marshall. He’s there with his wife, actress Arlena Stuart, and his daughter, Linda. Rosamund is very proud of her career and her talent. And yet, as she tells Poirot,
 

‘…all the same, I’m nothing but a wretched old maid!’
 

Poirot is of the opinion that
 
‘To marry and have children, that is the common lot of women.’
 

He doesn’t disapprove of women having careers, nor does he think less of Rosamund because she is in business. In fact, he quite admires her. That doesn’t, of course, stop him considering her a suspect when Arlena Marshall is murdered.

In Rex Stout’s Champagne For One, Archie Goodwin agrees to stand in for a friend at a dinner party hosted by society leader Louise Robilotti. The dinner dance is an annual event with a not-very-well-hidden agenda. Mrs. Roilotti is a patron of Grantham House, a home for unwed mothers. The idea of the dinner dance is to introduce a few of these young women to some of the eligible bachelors in the ‘better circles,’ and perhaps make a match or two. On this night, though, no-one’s thinking much about matchmaking after one of the guests, Faith Usher, suddenly dies. At first it’s put down to suicide, since she had poison with her and had threatened to kill herself. But Goodwin isn’t sure at all that it is suicide. So, with his boss Nero Wolfe’s support, Goodwin starts to ask questions. It turns out that he was absolutely right: Faith Usher was murdered.

Of course, there are plenty of people who don’t feel an undue amount of pressure to marry. Even in books written during and about times past, there are characters like that. Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher, for instance, feels no burning desire to marry, although she does have several relationships. In fact, that’s part of what makes her daring for her time.

Fans of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano will know that he and his lover Livia have gone back and forth about marriage more than once. They do care deeply about each other, and in The Snack Thief, readers even get a glimpse of what they might be like as parents. In that novel, Montalbano and his team investigate the murder of a retired executive, which turns out to be connected to another case, the death of a Tunisian sailor who was on board an Italian fishing boat when he was killed. In the course of the story, Montalbano and Livia have the temporary care of a young boy whose mother has disappeared. It’s interesting to see this side of both of them. And yet, they don’t really feel a lot of social pressure to get married, and a lot of the time, they feel no great compulsion to do so.

That’s also true of Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa. He lives and works in Rio de Janeiro, where he’s well settled in. He’s in a relationship with Irene, a graphics designer who lives and works in São Paulo. Neither is what you’d call very young. But neither really feels the pressure to marry and ‘settle down.’ They do care about each other, but there’s no real compulsion to marry.

It’s interesting to see how that social pressure has changed and not changed over time. I think that’s true in real life, and it’s true in crime fiction, too.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Get Me to the Church on Time.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Brian Stoddart, Jane Austen, K.B. Owen, Kerry Greenwood, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, 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…

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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.

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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).

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