Category Archives: Rex Stout

To a Land of Opportunity*

immigrationOne of a country’s great strengths is arguably the talent, energy and intelligence of those who immigrate. Fresh ideas and other perspectives add richness to a country. Of course, there is no need for me to detail how difficult immigration can be. And I think we’re all familiar with the all-too-true horror stories of immigrants who’ve been mistreated or worse. There are plenty of crime fiction novels that have that motif, too.

But there are also stories of immigrants who’ve made good lives in their new homes, where both they and their adopted countries have benefited. Those stories, too, are important. And in crime fiction, they allow for all sorts of character development and plot twists, too. They also reflect reality in our world, where it’s increasingly easy to move from one country to another.

Fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot will know that he is originally from Belgium. He came to England as a result of World War I, and quite frankly, hasn’t really looked back. There are things about life in Belgium that he no doubt misses; in general, though, he is content in his adopted home. Interestingly, apart from a few characters and remarks (I know, fans of Taken at the Flood), he’s been more or less accepted. He’s most definitely a foreigner, and treated differently sometimes for that reason. But he’s been accepted.

So has Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, who immigrated to the United States from Montenegro when he was a young man. He’s become an American citizen, and has had a good experience in his new country. In fact, he’s grateful to the United States, and has done well.

One of the main characters in Anya Lipska’s series is Janusz Kiszka, who immigrated to London from his native Poland. Now he is a sort of ‘fixer’ in London’s Polish community. He knows how to get things done, whom to talk to, and so on. And he knows most of the other people in the community. So he proves to be very helpful to DC Natalie Kershaw. The two are very different, and certainly come from different cultural backgrounds. But they slowly learn to work together and trust each other. Kiszka is content with his Polish cultural identity. At the same time, though, he has no burning desire to return to Poland. His immigrant experience has been more or less a successful one, and he’s made a new life for himself in London.

We might say a similar thing about Gerda Klein, whom we meet in Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. Gerda and her husband, along with their daughter Ilse, emigrated from Leipzig, in the former East Germany, when Ilse was a child. They ended up on New Zealand’s South Island, in the small town of Alexandria, and made a good life for themselves. And New Zealand has been, in the main, welcoming to them. For that, Gerda is grateful, and she’s been more than content to stay in her adopted country, even after Germany’s reunification. Ilse, though, has a different perspective. She, too, has been treated well, and has made a good life for herself (she’s a secondary school teacher). But she was a child when the family left Leipzig, and doesn’t have the troubling memories of the Stasi (the East German secret police) that her mother has. Still, she likes New Zealand, and has done a fine job teaching. Her dedication is exactly why she starts to get concerned when one of her most promising pupils, Serena Freeman, loses interest in school. When she does come to class (which isn’t often), she doesn’t participate. And she doesn’t compete much schoolwork. Ilse grows even more worried when Serena disappears. And it turns out that she and her mother will get more drawn into what happened to Serena than either imagined.

In Three Little Pigs, Apostolos Doxiadis tells the story of the Franco family, who immigrated to New York from Italy at the turn of the 20th Century. Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco started out making a living as a shoemaker. As time went on, he and his family saved their money, adopted many American ways (they even changed their last name to Frank), and began to fit in. Ben opened his own shoe repair shop and shoe store, and the family prospered. In many ways, this family began to live what some people have called ‘the American dream.’ Everything changed when Ben got into a bar fight one night and ended up killing Luigi Lupo, who, as it turns out, was the son of a well-known criminal and member of the Mob, Tonio Lupo. This Lupo cursed the family, saying that each of Ben Frank’s three sons will die at the age of forty-two, Luigi’s age when he was murdered. As we follow along with the family’s story, we see how the curse played out. We also see how that family became not Italian so much as Italian-Americans.

And then there’s Jen Shieff’s The Gentlemen’s Club. In that novel, which takes place in 1950’s Auckland, we are introduced to Istvan Ziegler. He left his native Hungary after World War II, wanting to make a new life for himself. After a stop in London, he learns that there’s work available on a new bridge at Auckland Harbour, and decides to go there. He has no family, and there’s nothing really keeping him in Europe, so he takes a chance. When he arrives in Auckland, he starts work on the bridge. There are moments when things are more difficult for him because he’s a foreigner. But in general, he’s treated fairly and shows by his hard work that he can do the job. And that’s what really matters. Istvan soon finds himself drawn into complex and dangerous situation when he helps a young girl, Judith Curran, recover from a (then illegal) abortion. It turns out that that act gets him involved in a case that uncovers some truly ugly things going on just under the surface of this seemingly peaceful city.

There are plenty of other stories of fictional characters who’ve immigrated successfully, and of their families (right, fans of Anthony Bidulka’s Russel Quant?). That plot point offers the author some interesting opportunities for character development as well as for a sense of place and culture. There’s only space for a few examples here (I know, fans of Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney and Rajiv Patel!). Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Pogues’ Thousands are Sailing.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Anthony Bidulka, Anya Lipska, Apostolos Doxiadis, Jen Shieff, Paddy Richardson, Rex Stout

We Can Discover the Wonders of Nature*

natural-restorativeIf you’ve read novels featuring Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, you’ll know that she’s very fond of her garden. Admittedly, she likes the opportunity that gardening gives her to – erm – observe others. But she also likes being outdoors when the weather allows it.

She’s not alone. There’s actually credible research that suggests that we all benefit in many ways (cognitive, emotional, and more) from being in nature. In fact, research that a colleague and friend has done suggests that children learn better, have fewer mental and other health problems, and are more creative if they are out in nature. And that’s only a few of the benefits. That may be one reason so many of us were told to ‘run outdoors and play’ when we were young.

Certainly being outdoors, without electronics, can be a real restorative. So it’s not surprising that we see plenty of cases of sleuths who like their time in nature. For instance, in Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is recovering from the traumatic experience of being charged with murder (read Strong Poison for the details of that). She decides to take a break from the world by going on a hiking holiday near Wilvercombe. And at first, she does find it both relaxing and restorative. It helps her get some perspective, as nature tends to do. One afternoon, she stops to take a rest near a beach. When she wakes up, the tide is out, and she sees the body of a dead man. She alerts the authorities, who begin the investigation. The man is soon identified as Paul Alexis, a Russian-born professional dancer who works at a nearby hotel. Before long, Lord Peter Wimsey joins Vane, and together, they work to find out who would have wanted to kill the victim. It turns out that there are several possibilities.

The central focus of Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage has to do with Framhurst Great Wood, which lies near the town of Kingsmarkham. There’s a plan to run a road through the wood, and plenty of people are upset about it. And that includes Inspector Reg Wexford. He’s resigned to the development, but he’s not happy about it:

‘When I retire, he had told his wife, I want to live in London so that I can’t see the countryside destroyed.’

He’s not alone. Many people love the forest, and don’t want to see it ruined. Several activist groups arrive in the area to protest the new road, and Wexford knows there’s going to be trouble. Matters get far worse when the situation disintegrates to a hostage-taking incident. What’s more, one of the hostages is Wexford’s own wife, Dora. Then there’s a murder. Now Wexford and his team have to solve the murder as well as try to find a way to free the hostages.

Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache enjoys spending time in nature, too. In fact, in A Rule Against Murder, he and his wife, Reine-Marie, travel to the Manoir Bellechasse for an annual getaway to celebrate their anniversary. It’s a time for them to get away from it all, and at first, it’s a wonderful trip:

‘One day rolled gently into the next as the Gamaches swam in Lac Massawippi and went for leisurely walks through the fragrant woods.’

They enjoy themselves thoroughly until they begin to get to know the dysfunctional Finney family, who are also staying at the lodge. Then, there’s a murder. Now Gamache finds that his peaceful, natural retreat is anything but.

Fans of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux can tell you that, in the first novels in the series, he lives in a small, rural home on a bayou where he operates a fish dock. Later, he lives in a house that’s a little less rural, but not far away from the bayou. Robicheaux often finds peace when he simply spends time out on a lake, away from ‘it all.’ Although he’s not an eco-warrior, he understands the value of nature’s rhythms, and some of nature’s healing power. And Burke’s descriptions share that natural beauty with the reader.

Many indigenous cultures are infused with the understanding of how important a connection with nature really is. Fans of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee, or of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte can tell you that those sleuths pay very close attention to nature, and are attuned to its rhythms. They connect on a regular basis with the natural world.

So does Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest. In Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs), we learn that she spent her childhood among her mother’s Aborigine people:

‘…my little mob and I would hunt in the hills, fish in the creeks, climb the skeletal trees, scour the countryside on horses borrowed from the stock camps.’

Emily ended up being sent away to boarding school in Adelaide, but she returns to the Moonlight Downs encampment and finds a place to belong. And she reconnects in this novel and in Gunshot Road with the natural world.

Even dedicated city dwellers know how restorative it can be to take a walk in a park, listen to birds, grow plants, or sit watching the sea. For instance, there isn’t a much more determined ‘city person’ than Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. But fans know that he gets his ‘nature fix,’ too. He spends a few hours each day with his orchids. If you find that being in nature calms you and helps you focus, well, the research supports you. Little wonder we see so many fictional sleuths who know that.

Speaking of nature…just for fun, can you spot the baby lizard in the ‘photo (You can click on the ‘photo to enlarge it if you like)?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Grateful Dead’s Sugar Magnolia.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Upfield, Dorothy Sayers, James Lee Burke, Louise Penny, Rex Stout, Ruth Rendell, Tony Hillerman

We Stand as One…Undivided*

pi-partnershipsWhen we think of fictional PIs, the ones who may quickly come to mind are ‘lone wolves,’ such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski. There are plenty of other examples, too, and it makes sense that we’d think of them. A lot of PIs have their own businesses. And some, such as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, or Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, work with associates who aren’t business partners.

But there are benefits to having an official PI partner. For one thing, the costs and risks are shared. For another, two PIs can work on more cases than can one PI. That means more business. So plenty of PIs, both real and fictional, work with a partner rather than go it alone. It’s not always an easy relationship, of course. There are logistics, matters of finance, and decision-making that have to be worked out between people who are bound to disagree at times. But a PI partner can add a variety of strengths to a business. After all, no one person can do everything, let alone do it well.

There are plenty of PI partnerships in the genre, too. For instance, technically, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe is Archie Goodwin’s employer. So in that sense, they are not partners. But any fan of the series can tell you that Goodwin makes plenty of the decisions, has plenty of autonomy, and actually runs the business to a much greater extent than Wolfe would probably care to admit. So, although you may disagree with me (and feel free to if you do), I think of Wolfe and Goodwin as PI partners more than employer and employee.

Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole and Joe Pike offer an interesting contrast when it comes to a PI duo. Cole is more personable and outgoing than his partner. He has his quirks (do you know another fictional PI who wears a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and has a Disney clock in his office?). But he’s the one, in general, who interacts with clients. He can be snarky at times, but he’s the one who does the talking. Pike, on the other hand, is taciturn. He’s a former US Marine who now owns a gun shop. He is, in a way, the ultimate ‘bad boy’ who wears sunglasses all the time, always carries weapons, and so on. But at the same time, he’s got his own code. And he’s the only one who can interact with the feral cat that shares Cole’s home. In many ways, he and Cole couldn’t be more different. But they respect each other and they depend on one another’s skills.

Betty Webb’s Lena Jones and her business partner, Jimmy Sisiwan, own Desert Investigations, a Scottsdale, Arizona PI firm. Jones is a former police officer with her own history and personal scars. She’s able to use her police background and the grit that comes from her personal past as she investigates. Sisiwan is a member of the Pima Nation. He lives in a trailer on the Reservation, and prefers a simple, uncomplicated life. He’s the computer expert of this PI team (in fact, in Desert Run, Sisiwan is lured away from the PI world by Southwest Microsystems). Jones and Sisiwan have a number of differences, but their skills are complementary, and they make an effective team.

S.J. Rozan has chosen an interesting approach to writing her Lydia Chin and Bill Smith series. Each is an independent PI, but they do work together on some cases. And in many ways, they’re very different people. Chin Ling Wan-ju, who usually goes by the name of Lydia Chin, is an American-born Chinese PI. She lives and works in New York City’s Chinatown. She keeps some of the traditions of her Chinese family, but she’s also American. Her family strongly disapproves of her occupation, and her mother would like very much for her to find a Chinese man and settle down. But Chin has other plans. She’s as comfortable speaking English as she is speaking Cantonese, and her ability to negotiate both cultures is an asset. Bill Smith, twelve years older than Chin, lives alone over a bar. He’s seen plenty of life, and is much more cynical than Chin is, although he’s not hardened. Fans of this series will know that the books are written from alternating points of view, in first person. Some are written from Chin’s perspective; others are written from Smith’s. This allows readers to get to know both PIs, and lets readers in on how they perceive each other.

And then there’s Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney and Rajiv Patel. They’re a Bangkok-based PI team, and partners in life as well. Their partnership has taken adjustment on both sides. Keeney is Australian by birth and culture, but has adapted to living in Thailand. She speaks fluent Thai, and is very much accustomed to living independently and making her own business and personal choices. Patel is originally from India, but moved to Bangkok in part to help in his uncle’s book shop (that’s how he and Keeney met).  Learning to work as a team isn’t always easy for these two PIs. They’re both bright, strong-willed people who have very different cultural backgrounds and different perspectives. But they’ve found that they have complementary skills and knowledge. And they care deeply for each other.

And that’s the thing about PI partnerships. In the most successful ones, the partners bring different strengths to the job, and learn to trust each other. They know that they do much better working together than either could do alone. They might argue from time to time; but in the end, they respect each other and work together, rather than at cross purposes. This post has only allowed space for me to mention a few PI teams. Which ones do you like best?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bon Jovi’s Undivided.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Betty Webb, Rex Stout, Robert Crais, S.J. Rozan

Let’s Go Down to the Big Ranch*

RanchesIf you live in suburbia or in a city, you might not think a lot about what it takes to get your milk, cheese, and meat (for those who eat meat) to market. It’s not an easy process. Cattle and sheep ranching are expensive undertakings that require a lot of land, luck with the weather, and hard work. Even with today’s technology, ranching still means long days, especially when calves and lambs are born. It’s not a life for everyone, but it keeps the rancher close to the land.

Ranching is a central part of the economy for many cultures, and it’s certainly found its way into crime fiction. That makes sense, too. As we’ll see, there are lots of places to hide a body on a ranch, and anything can happen there.

In Ngaio Marsh’s Died in the Wool, for instance, New Zealand MP Flossie Rubrick is preparing an important speech that she’s scheduled to deliver. So she goes to an isolated sheep pen on her husband’s ranch to prepare. She doesn’t return, though, until three weeks later, when her body is found inside a bale of wool. The victim’s nephew writes to Scotland Yard’s Inspector Roderick Alleyn about the death; and, since this might be a matter of national security, Alleyn travels to New Zealand to investigate. In the end, the murder turns out to be related to an important secret that Flossie Rubrick had found out about one of her family members.

More than one of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Boney’ Bonaparte novels are set on ranches. In The Bushman Who Came Back, for instance, Bony is sent to Mt. Eden, a ranch belonging to Mr. Wooten. Wooten’s widowed housekeeper, Mrs. Bell, is shot one morning, and her seven-year-old daughter Linda disappears. Fearing the worst about Linda, the ranch hands go on a search, and Bony starts to sift through the evidence. On the surface, it looks as though a bushman named Ol’ Fren Yorky was responsible both for the murder and for abducting Linda. No-one wants to believe this of him, since he’s well liked. But the evidence is what it is. Still, the more that Bony learns about the case, the more he comes to believe in Yorky’s innocence. But if he is innocent, then where is Linda? Now, Bony has to go in search of both Yorky and Linda to find out the truth. You’re absolutely right, fans of The Bone is Pointed.

Even Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, who normally wouldn’t dream of leaving his brownstone home, let alone New York City, visits a ranch in Death of a Dude. Wolfe’s partner Archie Goodwin has accepted an invitation from Lily Rowan to be part of a house party at her ranch in rural Montana. Goodwin’s plan is to have a short visit with Lily and then return to New York. Everything changes, though, when Philip Brodell is shot, and Lily’s ranch manager, Roger Dunning, is accused of the crime. Lily is sure he is innocent, and wants Goodwin (and, by extension, Wolfe) to solve the murder. When Goodwin writes to Wolfe to explain why he’s changed his travel plans, Wolfe takes an interest in the case and makes the unusual decision to travel to Montana.

Steve Hockensmith has created an interesting historical (early 1890s) series whose protagonists are Gustav ‘Old Red’ Amlingmeyer and his brother Otto ‘Big Red.’ At the beginning of the series (Holmes on the Range) they are cowpokes who sign on to work at the Bar VR Ranch in Montana. They know that life as ranch hands isn’t going to be luxurious, but they’ll be able to indulge their pastime of reading Sherlock Holmes stories. Then, a ranch hand dies of a gunshot wound. Another dies after being trampled (but there was no cattle stampede that anyone can remember). Now, Old Red decides to use his ‘deducifyin’’ skills to find out the truth – just like Sherlock Holmes.

The Lone Elk Ranch is the scene for much of the action in Craig Johnson’s Dry Bones. It all starts when a large Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton nicknamed ‘Jen’ is discovered on the ranch. This is a very valuable find, both for the local museum and for science, and there are lots of people who want their hands on it. With stakes in the millions, there are plenty of suspects when the ranch’s owner, a member of the Cheyenne Nation named Danny Lone Elk, is found dead. Sheriff Walt Longmire (now Acting Deputy Attorney for Wyoming) looks into the matter to find out how and why Danny was killed.

And I couldn’t really do a post on cattle and ranching without mentioning Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe. Fans will tell you that she got her start as Botswana’s first lady detective because her father, Obed, had a keen eye for cattle and owned a fine herd. When he passed away, the cattle went to his daughter, and it’s meant a great deal to her to have that security.

There are a lot of other novels that take place on cattle and sheep ranches. They really are effective contexts for a crime story if you think about it. Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Los Lobos’ The Big Ranch. 


Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Arthur Upfield, Craig Johnson, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout, Steve Hockensmith

So If You’re a Redhead, a Blonde or Brunette*

Physical AppearanceOne of the many benefits of reading is that it allows us to use our imaginations. In fact, I think most readers probably don’t want every detail provided to them. Not only does that get tedious, but it can also be insulting. So authors tend to leave some things to the reader’s imagination.

But what about physical descriptions? Should the author give a lot of detail about what a main character looks like? Do readers want to know whether a character is short or tall, heavy or slender, dark-haired or blond/e? Many people would say they want to know at least a bit about a main character’s physical appearance. But of course, there’s the risk of giving so much detail that it becomes burdensome.

Some authors have provided quite a bit of information about character appearance, and that has its advantages. It’s easy for the reader to conjure up the image the author intended. And the author can make a character distinctive (e.g. Dennis Lyndes’/Michael Collins’ one-armed PI Dan Fortune). And that sets a character apart from others.

For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle was quite specific about Sherlock Holmes’ physical appearance. Fans know that Holmes is,

‘…rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination.’

This description and a few other details that come up in the stories has made Holmes as iconic a physical presence as anything else.

The same may be said of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. As Captain Hastings describes him,

‘He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible.’

Poirot’s luxurious moustache and his sense of the sartorial have also provided readers with a very clear visual image of what he looks like. So, casting directors have had a very specific ‘look’ they’ve wanted for those who’ve portrayed Poirot on the screen (with all due respect, David Suchet is Poirot. Just sayin’). Christie’s Miss Marple isn’t described in quite as much detail, but Christie makes it clear what she looks like.

There’s also Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. Fans will tell you that he’s well-known for his bulk, his large head, and his yellow silk pyjamas. Of course, Wolfe has linguistic idiosyncrasies, too, that make him distinct. But even if you consider just his physical attributes, it’s easy for readers to develop a solid mental image of what he looks like and how he moves. I know, I know, fans of Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs. Bradley.

On the other hand, though, there are plenty of fictional sleuths whose appearance isn’t described, or is only briefly alluded to, with few details. One of the most famous is Sarah Caudwell’s Hilary Tamar. Tamar is a former Oxford don, who now serves as a sort of mentor to a group of young London lawyers. Granted, this series is only four books long. But within that span, we are never even told Tamar’s sex, let alone other physical details. It’s left completely up to the reader’s imagination what this character really looks like.

There’s also little given about Peter Temple’s Jack Irish. We can get a very rough approximation of his age (not in his first youth, but at the same time, not in late middle age, either). We also know that he’s a ‘regular guy,’ so he’s not a formal dresser. But we’re not given detailed information about what he looks like.

We aren’t told an awful lot about what Michael Dibdin’ Aurelio Zen looks like, either. We know that he’s Italian, and that he’s based in Rome. And we can make a few probably logical guesses as to his general appearance. But we don’t really get a lot of information about it. So it’s left up to the imagination.

And some readers like it that way. They prefer to make up their own minds as to whether a character is tall or short, has long or short hair, is heavy or not, and so on. Other readers want more detail than that. In fact, on an interesting note, when I was planning this post, I found there were many more instances of characters who are described, at least somewhat, than of those who are not. That makes sense, when you consider how much we rely on physical appearance to help us identify people. In fiction, physical appearance can also be an important element of character development.

Where do you stand on this? Do you like to have a lot of detail about what a character looks like? Do you prefer no detail at all? Perhaps you’re the sort of reader who’s happy with vague description (e.g. tall and middle-aged, with a slight beer gut). If you’re a writer, how much detail do you provide?


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


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dennis Lynds, Gladys Mitchell, Michael Collins, Michael Dibdin, Peter Temple, Rex Stout, Sarah Caudwell