Category Archives: Rex Stout

At the Watering Holes of the Well-to-Do*

Exclusive ClubsAgatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide…) begins at the Coronation Club during a World War II air raid. Major Porter is reading a newspaper item which he discusses with Hercule Poirot. The item concerns the death of wealthy Gordon Cloade, who’s been killed in a bomb blast. Cloade leaves behind a young widow Rosaleen, as well as several relatives. And therein lies the problem. He’d always made it clear to his family that he would take care of them financially, so they’ve never gone without. But he died without making a will. Now Rosaleen is entitled to everything, and that fact leads to acrimony and worse. Major Porter plays a role later in the novel, and at one point Poirot has a conversation with him:
 

‘Poirot guessed that for Major Porter, retired Army officer, life was lived very near the bone. Taxation and increased cost of living struck hardest at the old war-horses.
Some things, he guessed, Major Porter would cling to until the end. His club subscription, for instance.’ 
 

Major Porter’s attitude towards his club isn’t uncommon. There’s something about belonging to an exclusive club that makes members feel special – even superior. Little wonder there are so many of them.

Exclusive clubs can also serve as effective contexts for crime fiction. Who knows what might go on among members, and clubs offer all sorts of options for the author. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Dorothy Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Lord Peter Wimsey investigates a death that occurs at his own Bellona Club. Old General Fentiman has passed away while sitting in his customary chair at the club. His sister, wealthy Lady Dormer, has also passed away. What’s important in this instance is the timing of the deaths. If Lady Dormer dies first, the family fortune passes to Fentiman’s grandson. If Fentiman dies first, the money goes to Lady Dormer’s distant cousin Ann Dorland. When it’s discovered that Fentiman was poisoned, Wimsey looks into the matter. And with so much money involved, there’s a lot at stake. Here’s Fentiman’s grandson’s amusing commentary on the club:
 

‘Place always reminds me of that old thing in Punch, you know—‘Waiter, take away Lord Whatsisname, he’s been dead two days.’ Look at Old Ormsby there, snoring like a hippopotamus. Look at my revered grandpa — dodders in here at ten every morning, collects the Morning Post and the armchair by the fire, and becomes part of the furniture till the evening. Poor old devil. Suppose I’ll be like that one of these days.’
 

Still, neither Fentiman would give up his club subscription

Several of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories feature exclusive clubs. For instance, in Gambit, Wolfe and Archie Goodwin investigate when Paul Jerin is poisoned. It seems that he did magic stunts and other party tricks, and was also quite skilled at chess. Matthew Blount, a member of the exclusive Gambit Chess Club, had played against Jerin a few times and the idea was born of a kind of competition at the club. Jerin would sit in one room, blindfolded, and play twelve simultaneous chess matches against other members of the club, who would sit in other rooms. Moves would be communicated by messenger. At first everything went well enough. But then Jerin suddenly died from what has turned out to be poisoned hot chocolate. Since it was Blount who brought Jerin the chocolate, he’s the most likely suspect. But his daughter Sally is convinced he’s innocent. So she hires Wolfe and Goodwin to find out the truth.

In H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote’s First Case, Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay Police has just been promoted to the rank of Inspector. He’s delighted with that, and with the prospect of becoming a father (his wife Protima is due to give birth very soon). Then his boss Sir Rustom Engineer assigns him to a delicate case. Iris Dawkins has apparently committed suicide; her widower wants to know why. Since Engineer is an old friend of Dawkins’, he’s promised to have someone look into the matter. So Ghote goes to Mahableshwar, where Dawkins lives. Ghote begins by tracing the victim’s last days and weeks, and it’s not long before he comes to believe that she was murdered. Part of the trail leads to the Mahableshwar Club, so Ghote pays more than one visit there:
 

‘Smoking Room. Inside, at once evident, the aroma from many past years of cigars, pipes and cigarettes lingering unmistakably. But yes, in the far corner a human being. Must be, even if he is holding up the broad pages of the Times of India.’
 

The story has a clear depiction of the Anglo-Indian club.

Of course, there are plenty of modern clubs too, as we see in Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows, which takes place mostly in the late 1990’s. The setting for most of the novel is the ultra-exclusive Cascade Heights Country Club, located about thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Potential members/residents are thoroughly vetted before being admitted, and everything that happens within the community is monitored and managed by its Commission. From the physical design of the area to the ID cards that are provided to members, it’s all specially designed to keep the outside world at bay. And those who live there are desperate to maintain their status as accepted members in good standing. So when the financial troubles of late-1990s Argentina find their way into the club, residents begin to worry about keeping up their privileged lives. As those problems worsen, it gets harder and harder to do that. The desperation to remain a part of this exclusive club ultimately leads to tragedy.

But that’s how important being a part of a very exclusive club is to some people. That feeling of being ‘set apart,’ superior and privileged can be intoxicating. And the club setting can make for a very solid crime setting.
 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Peron’s Latest Flame.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Claudia Piñeiro, Dorothy Sayers, H.R.F Keating, Rex Stout

You Had to Have the Last Word Last Night*

WisecracksThere’s a great deal of sadness in a lot of crime novels, even those that don’t count as ‘bleak’ or noir. And that makes sense, since there’s nothing amusing about murder. So it can come as a welcome lift when one of the characters has enough of a sense of wit to make wisecracks. Those ‘wiseacre remarks’ have to be handled well, or they can be off-putting. But when they are deftly done, they can add a ‘lift’ to a story. Here are just a few examples to show what I mean. Oh, and you’ll notice that I haven’t included ‘screwball’ novels: too easy…

In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), wealthy Emily Arundell knows very well that her relatives would love to get their hands on her fortune. She tells them that they’ll have to be content to wait for her death, and a frightening fall down a flight of stairs convinces her that someone is willing to hurry her along, as the saying goes. That’s when she writes to Hercule Poirot. She doesn’t specify exactly what she wants from him, but Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to the village of Market Basing to investigate. By the time they get there though, it’s too late: Emily Arundell has died of what seems to be liver failure. When it becomes clear that she was poisoned, Poirot looks among her relatives and employees to find out who the murderer is. One source of information on the history of the Arundell family and their home Littlegreen House is Caroline Peabody, who’s known the family for years. Miss Peabody may be elderly, but she’s alert and intelligent, and not afraid to speak her mind. Here is a bit of a conversation she has with Hastings:
 

‘‘You are his secretary, I suppose?’
‘Er – yes,’ I said doubtfully.
‘Can you write decent English?’
‘I hope so.’
 ‘H’m – where did you go to school?’
‘Eton.’
‘Then you can’t.’’
 

Hastings can’t really come up with the right rejoinder to that.

Fans of Andrea Camilleri’s work will know that it’s infused with wisecracks. Those remarks lighten up what are sometimes very sad stories. And those quips come from several of the characters. For instance, in The Wings of the Sphinx, Inspector Montalbano and his team investigate the murder of an unknown young woman whose body is found near a local landfill. Here’s a bit of the conversation Montalbano has with his second-in-command Mimì Augello shortly after he’s roused early in the morning when the body is found:
 

‘‘Mimì, couldn’t you have scratched your balls by yourself?’
‘Salvo, I’m not going to play your game anymore.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean that if I hadn’t had you come here, later you’d be driving me crazy saying, ‘Why didn’t you tell me this, why didn’t you tell me that…’’
‘What’s the corpse like?
‘Dead,’ said Augello.’
 

There’s not much Montalbano can say in response to that…

Martin Edwards’ Lake District series features DCI Hannah Scarlett, who heads up the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. That’s not of course the only team at the constabulary, and Scarlett’s made friends with Fern Larter, who heads a team of her own. In The Serpent Pool, the two work together to connect a six-year-old drowning death that Scarlett’s investigating with two recent murders that Larter’s investigating. One of those is the killing of book collector George Saffell. At one point, they’re discussing the Saffell case, in particular the Saffell family background:
 

‘‘For good measure, there’s a villa in Spain, but so far I haven’t managed to wangle a trip out there to hunt for clues.’ [Larter]
‘You’re slipping.’ Fern’s ability to persuade the top brass that trips overseas were vital to her latest investigation were the stuff of legend. ‘How about a trip to New Zealand, for a word with the daughter? They say it’s a beautiful country.’
‘Lynsey came back to England for the funeral,’ Fern pouted.’
 

Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series takes place mostly in Absaroka County, Wyoming, where Longmire is sheriff. Some of these stories are very sad, but there’s also a dose of wit. And some of that wit comes from exchanges between Longmire and his deputy Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti. In Death Without Company for instance, Longmire has assigned her to wait outside a local supermarket to ‘collect’ a group of shoppers to serve as talis jurors, so they can fill out the local jury pool. Here’s a bit of their exchange about that:
 

‘I watched as my…deputy accosted a middle-aged man…copied down information from his driver’s license and informed him that he needed to get over to the courthouse pronto or be faced with contempt of court. ‘Well, there’s another notch on my Glock.’
…‘Hey, there are worse places for stakeouts. At least we’ve got plenty of supplies.’’
 

Then, Moretti asks what a talis juror is.
 

‘‘It’s from the Latin. Meaning bystander. You’re Italian, you should understand these things.’
‘I’m from Philadelphia, where we vote early and often, and everybody on the jury has a vowel on the end of his name.’’
 

Fans of this series will also know that there are plenty of wisecracks between Longmire and his friend Henry Standing Bear, who runs the Red Pony Inn.

Peter Temple’s Jack Irish is a sometimes-lawyer who also has a knack for finding people who don’t want to be found, and for finding out secrets people would rather keep. As a way of keeping his sanity, he’s informally apprenticed himself to master cabinetmaker Charlie Taub. Irish richly enjoys working with the wood and creating new things. He also enjoys the interactions he has with Taub. For his part, Taub is absolutely not one to gush. But he does like having Irish around. Here’s a bit of an exchange they have in Bad Debts, when Irish pays a visit after not having been there for a bit:
 

‘‘So,’ he said without looking at me. ‘Man who finds the scum of the earth. Man who breaks his parents’ hearts. Horses and criminals. That’s his life.’…
‘I gather you missed me a lot then?’
Another snort ‘What I miss, I miss someone finishes little jobs I give him. Like little tables. Day’s work for a man who actually works.’’

 

There’s not much Irish can say to that…

There’s also Donna Malane’s Surrender, in which missing persons expert Diane Rowe gets involved in the murder of James Patrick ‘Snow’ Wilson. A year earlier, Rowe’s sister Niki was murdered, and Snow admitted being hired to do the job. But he never gave the name of the person who hired him. Now he’s been killed in exactly the same way. Rowe believes that if she can find out who killed Snow, she’ll find out who killed her sister. So she looks into the case. Niki was an exotic dancer at a club, so Diane starts there to find out what her sister’s connections were, and who might have wanted her dead. One possibility is club regular Richard Brownlee, who paid quite a lot of attention to Niki. Brownlee’s crude, arrogant sexism does not exactly endear him to Diane. Here’s a bit of the conversation they have:
 

‘One of the girls at the club told me you had a bit of a thing for my sister.’…
‘What kind of a thing would that be, babe? No offence, but she was a whore.’
I was determined not to let him get to me. ‘She said you didn’t like other guys spending time with Niki. That you liked to have her all to yourself. I heard you were jealous.’
Richard barked a laugh. ‘Now that would be pretty stupid, wouldn’t it?’
‘Yep,’ I agreed pleasantly. ‘But then, you see, that would fit nicely with my assessment of you so far.’
 

Needless to say, everyone has a good laugh at Brownlee’s expense.

And, at the risk of making this post go on too long, here is my top wisecrack, from Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate the murder of Eva Ringmar, whose body is found in her bathtub. Her husband, Janek Mitter, discovers the body when he wakes up hung over after a long night of drinking. As you can imagine, he becomes the chief suspect and in fact, is arrested for the crime. He claims he’s innocent, and at his trial, an officious prosecutor asks how he knows he didn’t kill his wife, since he was so drunk at the time of the murder. Here’s Mitter’s reply:
 

‘I know I didn’t kill her; because I didn’t kill her. Just as I’m sure that you know you are not wearing frilly knickers today, because you aren’t. Not today.’ 
 

That, to me, is priceless. And it helps to spur Van Veeteren on to investigate the murder more thoroughly.

There are of course a lot of other great wisecracks in crime fiction, even in very sad stories (I know, I know fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series). Which ones have stayed with you?
 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Martin Edwards, Andrea Camilleri, Håkan Nesser, Donna Malane, Craig Johnson

As They Would Mingle With the Good People We Meet*

Social SkillsIn today’s world of social media and electronic communication, we can be in contact instantly with people all over the world. I think most of us would agree that that can be a very good thing. But there are also some studies that raise the question of what happens to people’s face-to-face social skills when they focus a lot on social media. And any crime fiction fan can tell you that social skills – the ability to mingle with different kinds of people – are very important for sleuths.

The social skills one needs to make appropriate eye contact, ‘read’ people’s expressions and so on allow the sleuth to find out valuable information. What’s more, those social skills give the sleuth the background to make sense of what people say (and don’t say) and what their non-verbals mean. It’s harder for people with few social skills to work those things out, even if they are highly intelligent.

There are some fictional sleuths who are very effective ‘minglers.’ They’re good at getting people to talk to them and they’re good at making sense of people’s non-verbals. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is one of them. To most of the English people with whom he interacts, Poirot is most emphatically a foreigner. But he has the ability to mix and mingle with all sorts of different kinds of people, including people from different social classes. We see that for instance in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air). In that novel, Poirot travels by air from Paris to London. One of his fellow passengers is Marie Morisot, a French moneylender who goes by the name of Madame Giselle. When she is poisoned en route, Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who the killer is. He interacts with several different kinds of people during that investigation, including Madame Giselle’s maid Elise Grandier and Venetia Kerr, who is ‘well born.’ He has a knack of getting the various characters to talk to him, and the skills to ‘read’ what they say. And that information helps him get to the truth. I know, I know, fans of Death on the Nile.

Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte has solid social skills too. He is a member of the Queensland Police, so he’s sent to a wide variety of different places, and has to interview all sorts of people in the course of his work. Since Bony is bi-cultural (half Aboriginal/half White), he frequently works with both Whites and Aboriginal people as he investigates. And he has the skills to get people to talk to him no matter their background. In stories such as The Bone is Pointed and The Bushman Who Came Back, he gets ranch hands to trust him at the same time as he mingles effectively with Aboriginal people who give him information. And in some stories, he gets children to trust him, too (Death of a Swagman is an example of that). Bony certainly depends on what he calls ‘the Book of the Bush’ – clues in nature – to help him solve crimes. But he also depends on his social skills. I’m not sure he’d be able to find out as much just using a social media application…

Social skills are important in the PI business, but they aren’t a ‘strong suit’ for Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. That’s where Archie Goodwin comes in. He does do a lot of the ‘legwork’ for Wolfe. But he also does his share of mingling with other people and getting a sense of them. Wolfe doesn’t always like to admit it, but he depends on Goodwin’s social skills, since he himself is almost never willing to use tact or diplomacy. It’s part of what makes that pair a formidable team. Wolfe has the brilliance (‘though Goodwin is no mental slouch) and Goodwin has the ‘people skills.’

Journalists often find that the better their social skills, the more information they get. Certainly that’s true for Lilian Jackson Braun’s James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. After a career in big-city news reporting, he’s ended up in Pickax, a small town in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ He’s got a way of getting all kinds of people to talk to him; and even though he prefers to live alone, he’s got solid social skills. Part of his local appeal comes from his fame as a newspaper columnist. But people do naturally seem to trust him and he’s good at ‘reading’ them, for the most part. And that’s how he often gets people to confide in him.

And then there’s Teresa Solana’s Barcelona PI Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez. Borja and his brother Eduard are in many ways a study in contrasts, although they’re fraternal twins. Where his brother is more reserved, Borja is outgoing, even gregarious at times. He mixes with all sorts of people, and his social skills are considerable. Those skills are often key to getting new clients for the business. For instance, in A Not So Perfect Crime, Borja uses his ability with people to engage Lluís Font, a Member of the Parliament of Catalonia, as a client. Font believes that his wife Lília is unfaithful, and he wants the brothers to find out if that’s true. They take the case and for a week, they follow her movements and find out what they can about her. But there is no evidence that she’s seeing anyone. Then one evening, she is poisoned. Now Font is the prime suspect in her murder. He asks the Martínez brothers to continue working for him and clear his name. Although they’ve never worked a murder case before, they take this one, and it’s soon clear that more than one person might have had a motive. Throughout the novel, there are situations that Borja manages to negotiate because of his social skills.

There are certainly famous fictional sleuths who are not, as the saying goes, good with people. But for a sleuth to get information, it’s useful to have the kinds of social skills needed to make people feel comfortable. It does make one wonder what will happen to fictional detectives as social media and electronic devices continue to be really popular.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Marley’s No Woman No Cry.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Upfield, Lilian Jackson Braun, Rex Stout, Teresa Solana

I Want You Just the Way You Are*

LimitationsOne of the things about real-life humans is that we all have our vulnerabilities. I don’t personally know anyone who has no physical limitations, even among people who are young and in good health. There’s just about always something, whether it’s allergies, myopia, or something else that limits a person. And sometimes it’s not even a physical limitation.

That’s one reason for which it’s so refreshing when fictional characters also have those vulnerabilities. I’m not talking here of the sort of psychological vulnerability that you see in, say, ‘stalker’ novels or novels where characters have suffered emotional trauma. Rather, I’m talking of those everyday limitations that make characters seem more human.

For instance, Agatha Christie fans will know that her Hercule Poirot is very particular about the way he dresses. And that includes his shoes. The trouble is of course that sometimes, fashionable shoes are not comfortable. So Poirot isn’t one to walk for long distances when he can avoid it. When he can’t, he pays the price. For instance, in Hallowe’en Party, Poirot travels to the small town of Woodleigh Common to help his friend, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, solve the drowning murder of thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds. At one point, Poirot has to take a bit of a long walk to visit Mrs. Oliver at the home of her host Judith Butler:
 

‘Mrs. Oliver waited until Poirot approached.
‘Come here,’ she said, ‘and sit down. What’s the matter with you? You look upset.’
‘My feet are extremely painful,’ said Hercule Poirot.
‘It’s those awful tight patent leather shoes of yours,’ said Mrs. Oliver.
 

She’s right. As it is, Poirot is not exactly in marathon-running form. And a painful pair of shoes makes it all worse. It also adds a little to his humanity. If you’ve ever worn a pair of shoes that pinched your feet, you know what that’s like.

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe is also not in top physical condition. To put it bluntly, he’s quite heavy, as fans will know. Of course, he’s made accommodations for that. He has an elevator that takes him to the different parts of his house, so that he doesn’t have to puff up staircases. He doesn’t go running around after suspects (Archie Goodwin, Fred Durkin, Saul Panzer and Orrie Cather do that). And limitations or no, he’s a brilliant detective. But the point is that he has vulnerabilities. And as cantankerous and eccentric as Wolfe can be, that aspect of his character makes him more accessible.

The same could be said of Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe. She is, as McCall Smith puts it, ‘a traditionally built lady.’ She can’t go running after people or engage in really strenuous physical activity. In that sense, she’s limited. And sometimes, she feels limited in another way. For instance, in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, she is following a young teenage girl whose father is worried that she may have a secret boyfriend. Mma. Ramotswe stops to admire a rack of African-print blouses:
 

Buy one of these, Mma.’ said the woman. ‘Very good blouses. They never run. Look, this one I’m wearing has been washed ten, twenty times and hasn’t run. Look.’…
‘You wouldn’t have my size,’ said Mma. Ramotswe. ‘I need a very big blouse.’
The trader checked her rack and then looked at Mma. Ramotswe again.
‘You’re right,’ she said. ‘You are too big for these blouses. Far too big.”
 

Mma. Ramotswe is comfortable with her size for the most part, and with herself. She is also certainly comfortable wearing clothes that are suited to her build. But she is also realistically limited by it.

Karin Fossum’s Inspector Konrad Sejer is no longer a young man. But for the most part, he’s in fairly good physical shape. He even goes skydiving at times. But he has his limitations too. In his case, it’s eczema, which especially flares up when he’s under severe work stress. Sejer doesn’t obsess about it; he uses medicated cream and gets on with life. But that little touch of vulnerability adds a human aspect to his character that makes him more approachable. You could say the same of Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope. She’s a terrific and skilled detective. But she’s – erm – no longer twenty, and she’s not in top physical condition. What’s more, she too has eczema. Those little details, since they are realistically depicted (‘though not overdone) make her more accessible.

As we age, of course, those little ‘creaks and groans’ get more frequent. And there are several older fictional characters (you could name lots more than I could, I know) who show those age-related limitations. For instance, Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover is in her eighties. She’s not in particularly bad condition. As a matter of fact, given her age, she’s fairly healthy. But she uses a cane. She can’t walk very quickly, and she tires more easily than a younger person would. Those things don’t make her any less of a smart, skilled sleuth, but they are everyday vulnerabilities that she has to take into account. And she’s all the more human for it.

Of course, not all vulnerabilities are physical (or even psychological). For example, Jill Edmondson’s Toronto PI Sasha Jackson is young and physically healthy. She’s also not crippled by phobias or other psychological issues. But she is limited by not driving. In Toronto of course, one can take public transit to lots of different places. But that means one can’t really set one’s own schedule. And there are places that aren’t as easily accessible via a train or a bus. In those cases, Jackson often depends on rides. Fans will know that she’s working with a driving instructor – when she can. But her lack of freedom to just hop into a car and get where she’s going does limit her. And that makes her both vulnerable and human.

There’s always a risk in giving a character limitations. It’s easy to fall into the trap of making a sleuth or major character a helpless victim, and that can be both melodramatic and very much overdone. It’s also easy if one’s not careful to go on and on too much about whatever vulnerability the sleuth may have. That can be tiresome. But when it’s done deftly and with restraint, giving a sleuth or major character some sort of limitation can make that character a lot more credible. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to look for my specs…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Jill Edmondson, Karin Fossum, Rex Stout

Livin’ it Up When I Hit the Ground*

ElevatorsYou may not even remember the last time you used one, because we use them so frequently. And a lot of times we don’t even think about it when we do. I’m talking about elevators – lifts. No matter what you call them, they are extremely convenient, especially when the alternative is to take a lot of stairs.

You might not think about this, because they’re so mundane, but elevators are also really useful in crime fiction. They make very effective places for characters to interact. Also, in lots of modern public elevators, there are CCTV cameras that allow for helpful information about who goes in and out of a building. They can be dangerous places, too, so it’s little wonder some people don’t like them. They’re all throughout the genre, but space only permits me a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot goes to his dentist Henry Morley for his regularly scheduled cleaning. Later, Chief Inspector Japp pays him a visit to tell him that Morley has been shot in his surgery. The official explanation is suicide, but Japp doesn’t agree. Poirot takes an interest in the matter, especially when the case is complicated by the death of one patient and the disappearance of another. One of the things that has to be established is who came to see Morley and at what times. For that information, Poirot and Japp rely on Alfred, the boy who answers the door and takes patients up in the elevator to see Morley or his partner Dr. Reilly. They hope Alfred will have a good memory of who came and went, and who went up and down in the elevator at the time in question. Alfred has a lot of trouble getting names right, but he provides Poirot with an important clue.

If you’re a fan of Ngaio Marsh’s work, you probably thought of A Surfeit of Lampreys (AKA Death of a Peer) as soon as you knew the topic of this post. Roberta Grey is more or less adopted by the very eccentric Lamprey family during their visit to her native New Zealand. When Roberta is left, as the saying goes, alone in the world, she travels to England and is immediately taken in by the Lampreys. She’s therefore mixed up in it all when the Lampreys have a case of murder in the family. They’re not particularly good at making wise financial decisions, and have traditionally gone to wealthy but unpleasant Gabriel ‘Uncle G’ Lord Wutherwood, the older brother of family patriarch Sir Charles Lamprey. Uncle G finally decides to stop supporting his brother’s family, and he and Sir Charles have a violent quarrel about it. Shortly after that, Uncle G is murdered in an elevator. Inspector Roderick Alleyn takes the case, and has to work through an odd assortment of family members and a variety of motives to find out who the killer is.

An elevator is also the scene of a murder in Andrea Camilleri’s The Snack Thief. One morning, semi-retired business executive Aurelio Lapècora is murdered in the elevator of his apartment building. Commissario Salvo Montalbano and his team investigate the case, which at first looks like a private murder. But the team is also investigating another case, the accidental (or was it?) killing of a Tunisian sailor who happened to be aboard an Italian fishing ship when he was killed. Montalbano comes to believe the two cases are related, and so they are (although not in the way you might think). One of the interesting aspects of this story is Montalbano’s attempt to find out exactly when Lapècora was murdered. Was he killed in his own home and then put in the elevator? If not, at which floor was he murdered? The answers don’t come easily, since the other residents of the apartment building have their various reasons for not telling everything they know.

An elevator also figures in Anya Lipska’s Death Can’t Take a Joke. DC Natalie Kershaw is investigating the case of a man who seems to have committed suicide by jumping off a building. As it turns out, the explanation for his death is quite different. In the meantime, Janusz Kiszka, Lipska’s other protagonist, is searching for the murderer of a friend of his, who was shot right on his own property. He and Kershaw find that the cases do have a link. At one point, Kiszka is on the trail of someone he thinks is key to the murders. In order to follow up on that lead, he attends a very posh party that takes place in an exclusive sort of apartment. When his quarry senses that Kiszka may be on to him, he and Kiszka go on the hunt for each other and there’s a very suspenseful scene involving the building’s elevator. Come to think of it, that elevator and the private key used to get into it play other roles in the story…

As an interesting side note, in Kate Rhodes’ Crossbones Yard, we are introduced to psychologist Alice Quentin. One of her pastimes is taking long runs through London both to stay in shape and to exorcise her personal demons. When DCI Don Burns asks her to work with the police on a murder case, she agrees. The case looks a great deal like another series of murders from several years earlier, but on the surface of it, that seems unlikely. Yet Quentin sees enough similarities to keep asking questions. Her questions lead her into a great deal of danger when it turns out that there’s a new killer who seems to have learned from those older murders. For reasons having to do with her past, Quentin has a phobia about elevators:
 

‘It wasn’t the speed that got me, just the space itself. Tiny and airless, no windows to escape through.’
 

It’s an interesting perspective on something most of us take very much for granted.

But it’s not how Rex Stout ‘s Nero Wolfe feels about elevators. You didn’t think I’d do a post about elevators in crime fiction and not mention this very famous example, did you? As fans will know, Wolfe has a custom-made elevator in his brownstone that he uses to get from his bedroom to his office to the orchid room and back. He sees no reason to take the stairs when the elevator is right there. Of course, his co-sleuth Archie Goodwin sometimes wonders how long that elevator will be able to move Wolfe around…

See? You make not think about it much because we often take them for granted. But elevators really can be interesting contexts for all sorts of crime-fictional action. Which examples have I forgotten?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Aerosmith’s Love in an Elevator.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Anya Lipska, Kate Rhodes, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout