Category Archives: Rex Stout

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. 

28 Comments

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.

27 Comments

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

Everything She Wants is Everything She Sees*

High MaintenanceYou know the type, I’ll bet. The sort of person who has no problem sending a dish back to the kitchen three times. Or who insists on getting instant service, answers to questions, and so on. Or who absolutely must have the best in clothes, food, or wine (or all of the above). Yes, I’m talking about high-maintenance people. I’m sure we’ve all met folks like that.

High-maintenance people can be the bane of existence for anyone in any sort of service industry. And they don’t tend to endear themselves to others in personal life, either. But they can make for interesting fictional characters. And they can be a ‘gold mine’ of conflict and tension in a crime novel.

Agatha Christie included high maintenance characters in several of her novels. One of them is Timothy Abernethie, whom we meet in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal). He’s the younger brother of patriarch Richard Abernethie, who, at the beginning of the novel, has just died. Timothy is a hypochondriac who really does seem to relish the attention he gets due to his ‘ill health.’ He’s demanding, querulous and petulant, too. When his brother’s will is read, Timothy naturally assumes that he should inherit everything (and it’s quite a fortune), and be trusted to look after the other members of the family. That’s not what happens, though. Instead, the money is divided more or less evenly amongst Richard Abernethie’s relatives, and this infuriates Timothy. But that turns out to be the least of his problems when a suspicion is raised that this death might have been a murder. And when the youngest Abernethie sister, Cora Lansquenet, is murdered, it looks as though someone is determined to get that fortune. The family lawyer, Mr. Entwhistle, asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and he agrees. It turns out to be a very interesting psychological case.

Barbara Neely’s Blanche White has to deal with high maintenance people in more than one of her investigations. She’s a professional housekeeper whose clients often make assumptions about themselves and about her because of their different social classes. They also often make such assumptions because many of them are white, and Blanche is black. On the one hand, she’s learned to manoeuver in that environment. She’s also learned that in subtle but real ways, she’s the one in control. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean she’s immune to the very natural irritation that comes from being treated in a demanding, high-handed way. In Blanche on the Lam, for instance, she ends up taking a temporary housekeeping job with wealthy Grace and Everett. From the moment Blanche begins her new job, Grace treats her with at best, condescension and at worst, complete disrespect. Both Grace and Everett are demanding, high-handed and very particular. The fact that they’re high maintenance isn’t the reason for the two murders that occur in the novel. But it makes for an interesting layer of tension.

In Geraldine Evans’ Dead Before Morning, DI Joe Rafferty and DS Dafyd Llewellyn investigate the murder of a young woman whose body is found on the grounds of the exclusive Elmhurst Sanatorium. Its owner, Dr. Anthony Melville-Briggs, is extremely concerned lest anything happen to the facility’s reputation, and he wants the case solved as quickly as possible. Soon enough, the body is identified as that of a sex worker named Linda Wilks. Once she is identified, the two sleuths trace leads that may link her to her killer. One very good possibility is that Melville-Briggs himself may be responsible, and Rafferty would like nothing better. Melville-Briggs is high-handed, demanding, and rude. He’s also quite high maintenance in that he expects instant results, instant call returns, and so on. It’s actually Llewellyn who has to remind Rafferty that there are other possibilities.

Toronto PI Sasha Jackson doesn’t have it much easier in Jill Edmondson’s Blood and Groom. One day, she gets a visit from Christine Arvisais, who wants to hire Jackson to solve a murder case. It seems that Arvisais’ former fiancé, Gordon Hanes, was shot on the day that would have been their wedding day had the engagement not been broken off. Everyone thinks Arvisais is responsible, but she claims to be innocent. From the beginning, Jackson doesn’t care much at all for this client. She’s rude, overly pampered, snooty, and very high maintenance. In fact, she doesn’t want the case solved because she cares who shot Hanes. She only wants to prove she didn’t. Still, a fee is a fee, and Jackson is just getting started as a PI. So she takes the case and gets started looking for answers. She finds that Hanes’ murder is linked to another murder, and in the process, digs up some shady secrets.

Sometimes, high maintenance goes beyond just spoiled and petulant. For example, in Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel, we meet the very high maintenance Eve Moran. From the time she was a small child, Eve has always wanted to acquire. And she’s never let anything, not even murder, get between her and what she wants, whether it’s money, jewels, men, or something else. Her daughter Christine has been raised in this toxic environment, so she and her mother have a very dysfunctional relationship. The more time goes on, the more trapped Christine is in her mother’s web. Then, she sees that her little brother Ryan is at risk of being caught in the same trap. She decides that she’s going to have to free both herself and Ryan if she’s going to save them.

And I don’t think I’d be forgiven if I discussed high maintenance people in crime fiction without mentioning Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. Fans will tell you that he’s demanding, extremely particular, high-handed and sometimes very condescending. He definitely insists that the world run by his rules. And his partner, Archie Goodwin, is not afraid to tell him so. Wolfe gets away with what he does because he happens to be a brilliant detective. But that doesn’t make him a delight to be around at times…

And that’s the thing about high maintenance people. They are sometimes most unpleasant, and they’re not popular as bosses, potential partners or customers/clients. But they’re also a part of life. And they can add some interesting tension to a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Wham! ‘s Everything She Wants.

24 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Neely, Geraldine Evans, Jill Edmondson, Patricia Abbott, Rex Stout

Countries, Classes, Creeds as One in Love of Chess*

ChessDo you play chess? If you do, then you know that it’s a game of strategy and of anticipating the other person’s next move(s). It requires reflection and thinking, rather than physical skill, to outwit your opponent and win.

Chess has a very long history, and we certainly see it woven through crime fiction. Little wonder, too, as it’s played all over the world. And a chess match is a competition; that fact can add tension to a story, too. Here are just a few instances of chess moves in the genre. I know you’ll know of many more.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Retired Colourman features retired art dealer Josiah Amberley, who hires Sherlock Holmes when his much-younger wife disappears. Amberley’s an avid chess player who’d struck up a friendship with Dr. Ray Ernest, also a chess lover. Amberley’s wife also struck up a friendship with Ernest, that became more; and now, Amberley suspects they ran off together. Also missing is a great deal of money in cash and securities. Holmes is busy with another case, so Dr. Watson does the ‘legwork’ on this investigation. Between them, the two sleuths discover that this isn’t quite as simple as a case of a greedy wife running off with a lover. And, interestingly, chess gives Holmes a clue about the case.

In Agatha Christie’s The Big Four, Captain Hastings returns to England from Argentina for a visit. Naturally, he looks up his old friend Hercule Poirot, only to find that Poirot is about to leave for South America. His plans have to change, though, when he gets drawn into a mystery involving a dangerous international conspiracy. Poirot and Hastings find themselves pitted against four ruthless, brilliant, and powerful enemies. These people will stop at nothing, including murder, to achieve their aim; and investigating these murders draws Poirot and Hastings closer to the truth about the conspiracy. One of the victims is Gilmour Wilson, a chess grandmaster. He’s playing against Dr. Savoronoff, a Russian émigré, when he suddenly collapses and dies of what seems to be poison. At the time of his death, a group of people were watching the match, so it’s hard to work out how he might have been poisoned. Then, Poirot discovers something about this particular chess set that explains how it happened. The next task is to find out whether Wilson was the intended victim; and, if so, who would have wanted to kill him. It all turns out to be linked to the Big Four’s plan.

Rex Stout’s Gambit features the exclusive Gambit Chess Club. Matthew Blount, a member of the club, has played chess a few times against magician and party-stunt trickster Paul Jerrin. He’s enjoyed the experience, and the matches have led to an interesting idea for a club competition. Jerrin will sit in one room, blindfolded, and play twelve simultaneous matches against other club members, who are in other rooms. Moves will be communicated by messenger. All goes well enough at first, and the competition certainly garners interest. Then, Jerrin suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poisoned hot chocolate. Since Blount brought the hot chocolate to Jerrin, he’s the suspect of most interest to the police. But Blount’s daughter Sally doesn’t believe he’s guilty. She hires Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin to find out who really killed Jerrin and why.

There’s also Len Deighton’s Berlin Game, the first in his Bernard ‘Bernie’ Sansom trilogy. Sansom is a middle-aged agent for MI6, who works in the agency’s London Central office. In one plot thread of this novel, word has come out that there’s a KGB mole in the agency. And there are several possible suspects, too. Whoever the mole is, that person has access to top-secret information, so he or she has to be found immediately. So Sansom looks for anyone who might have connections or opportunities to meet with members of the KGB. One part of the trail leads to a London chess club, Kar’s Club. Sansom’s had word that a Russian player stops in there occasionally, so he wants to find out whether that person may be the link he needs. Sansom doesn’t get all of the answers he wants just from visiting the club, but that part of the investigation gives the reader an interesting look at chess clubs of the day.

Of course, there are sleuths who play chess, too. Fans of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, for instance, will tell you that he’s adept at the game. He enjoys playing against live opponents, but he also plays from books. He even plays against himself at times. There’s also Marek Krajewski’s Eberhard Mock. This series begins in 1934 Wroclaw/Breslau, where Mock is a police officer and Criminal Counsellor to the police department. He is also a frequenter of Madame le Goef’s club, where members can get food, drink, and female companionship. Mock goes there every Friday, but it’s not just because of the women. Madame has two employees who can play chess, and that’s the real appeal for Mock. In fact, everyone he works with knows better than to disturb him on Friday nights unless it’s truly, unavoidably urgent. It’s an interesting layer to his character.

See what I mean? Chess is woven through crime fiction, just as it is through many real-life cultures. And it can add a layer of character development, a bit of tension, and even a trail for the sleuth to follow. I’ve given a few examples here. Your move.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ Chess.

35 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Len Deighton, Marek Krajewski, Raymond Chandler, Rex Stout

Yours is so Distinctive*

Distinctive SeriesThe thing about crime fiction is that there’s a lot of it. Every year, new novels are released, too. All of this means that nobody can read all of the crime fiction that’s out there. And yet, despite all of the options and all of the reading we do, there are some series that really seem to stand out. There’s something about those series that makes them unique. I’m not talking here of just an interesting plot and characters; any well-written crime series has those. I’m talking more of something special that sets those series apart.

In some cases, it’s a unique sort of sleuth. These are sleuths who are distinctive enough that if you see a caricature, you know exactly which sleuth it is. For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is like that. He has enough eccentricities that he’s quite distinctive. And his personality and detection style are part of what set those stories apart.

One might say the same thing about Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, too. Both of those detectives are distinct from other detectives, both in physical appearance and in their approaches to solving crime. So the novels featuring them stand out, too. This isn’t to say that that mysteries themselves aren’t interesting, or that there’s nothing else appealing about those series. Rather, it’s to say that those characters are important parts of what sets those series apart from others.

For some series, it’s the cultural context that sets them apart. We see that, for instance, in Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee novels. Both of those characters are members of the Navajo Tribal Police, and the Navajo Nation. So, many of these stories take place in that culture. In fact, Hillerman was awarded the distinction of being named ‘A Special Friend of the Navajo’ for his thoughtful and respectful, but honest, depiction of the Navajo.

Fans of Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder novels will know that that series, too, is set apart by its depiction of a unique culture. In this case, it’s the Amish of the US state of Ohio. Burkholder is chief of police in the small town of Painters Mill. She is also Amish by background, although she no longer lives that life. So readers get a look at the distinctive way of life of the Amish, and that’s part of what makes this series different to others.

Many readers like a strong sense of setting in their novels. And any well-written crime series gives the reader a sense of what it’s like to live in the place where the stories are set. But in some series, that sense of setting is distinctive. I’m thinking, for instance, of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire novels. Longmire is the sheriff for fictional Apsaroka County, Wyoming, so in those novels, readers get a real sense of rural Wyoming. The physical setting, the climate, and the people who live there are all depicted in these novels. That’s not to say there’s nothing else about the series that makes it worth reading. It is to say, though, that for fans of these novels, the setting is one factor that sets them apart.

That’s also arguably true of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway/Harry Nelson series. Galloway is a forensic anthropologist with the University of North Norfolk; Nelson is a local chief inspector. Among many other things that fans of this series enjoy, the setting is distinctive. As the novels go on, readers learn about the history of this part of East Anglia, and about the climate, geography, and so on that make the place unique. And, of course, there’s Cathbad…

Peter May’s Lewis trilogy takes place in the Lewis and Harris part of the Outer Hebrides. Right from the beginning, readers are placed there in terms of climate, geography and so on. Certainly the character and plot are part of what appeal to fans of May’s writing. But the setting is definitely one of the things that sets this trilogy apart. May’s depiction of setting is also really clear in his standalone Entry Island.

Another element that sets some series apart for readers is the depiction of a profession. In those cases, readers learn what it’s really like to be a lawyer/doctor/paramedic/etc. John Grisham’s novels, for instance, just about always focus on an attorney or a group of attorneys. So they give readers an ‘inside look’ at the life of an attorney. And what sets these novels apart is that they go beyond the TV-and-film stereotypes of what an attorney does. The same is arguably true of Robert Rotenberg’s novels.

Katherine Howell’s novels feature New South Wales police inspector Ella Marconi. But they also include major characters who are paramedics. Among the things that set these novels apart is the way they depict the life of a paramedic. Readers get to ‘go behind the scenes’ and really see what it’s like to become a paramedic, to do the job, and to live the life. It’s interesting to note, too, that Grisham, Rotenberg and Howell are all, or have been, members of the professions that feature in their stories. This may be just my opinion, but I think that lends something to their series. And that depiction of profession sets them apart.

Of course, these are just a few examples of ways in which a series can distinguish itself from all the good series out there. As you think about the series that most stand out for you, what is it about them that draws you? If you’re a writer, what do you find easiest to do to make your stories unique?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sense Field’s Voice.

34 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Craig Johnson, Elly Griffiths, John Grisham, Katherine Howell, Linda Castillo, Peter May, Rex Stout, Robert Rotenberg, Tony Hillerman