Category Archives: Rita Mae Brown

I Had to Go Down to the Post Office*

As this is posted, it’s the birthday of the United States Post Office. Of course, there’ve been postal services for hundreds of years; and, even with today’s easy access to email and texts, the postal service is still important.

It certainly matters in crime fiction. I’m sure we could all think of crime novels where the plot hinges on a letter (or the absence of one). But it’s not just letters themselves.

For one thing, there’s the letter carrier. They can be interesting characters in and of themselves. There is, for instance, a G.K. Chesterton short story (no titles – I don’t want to give away too much) in which a postman figures strongly into the plot

And there’s Joseph Higgins, whom we meet in Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger. He’s a postman who, at the beginning of the novel, delivers a series of letters to different characters. The letters are all from Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for wartime (WW II) military use. Each recipient is informed that she or he will be assigned there. Shortly after their work begins, Higgins is brought into the hospital with a broken femur. The operation he needs is routine, but it still involves surgery. Tragically, Higgins dies on the table in what’s put down to a terrible accident. His widow doesn’t think so, though, and says as much to Inspector Cockrill, who goes to the hospital to do the routine paperwork. Not long afterwards, one of the nurses who was present at the operation has too much to drink at a party and blurts out that she knows Higgins was murdered, and she knows how it was done. That night, she, too, is killed. Now, Cockrill has a major case on his hands, and it’s going to take finesse to find out which of the other characters is the killer.

Sometimes, the post office itself becomes a part of crime novel. That’s the case in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. James Bentley has been convicted, and is due to be executed soon, for the murder of his landlady. There’s evidence against him, and Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence should be satisfied with the outcome of the trial. It was he, after all, who gathered the evidence. But he’s begun to think that perhaps Bentley wasn’t guilty. And Spence doesn’t want to see a man die for a crime he didn’t commit. He asks Hercule Poirot to look into the case and see if there’s something that might have been missed, and Poirot agrees. He travels to the village of Broadhinny, where the murder occurred, and begins to get to know the residents. One of the gathering places in that village is the local shop, which also serves as the post office. When Poirot stops in to the shop, he meets its proprietor, Mrs. Sweetiman, who provides him with useful background information and a very important clue.

There’s a funny scene at a post office in Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors. Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet, Mervyn Bunter, are stranded in the East Anglia village of Fenchurch Saint Paul when Wimsey’s car gets into an accident. Vicar Theodore Venables rescues the two men, and lets them stay at the rectory until the car can be repaired. When the car is ready, Wimsey and Bunter leave, only to return a few months later when an unexpected corpse is found in a grave belonging to the local squire, Sir Henry Thorpe. At the vicar’s request, Wimsey looks into the matter. He and Bunter discover that there is a letter in the post office for the dead man, and they decide that it may provide clues. So, Bunter goes into the post office to try to get the letter if he can. Bunter invents a story for the postmistress to the effect that he’s looking for a letter sent to his chauffer, indicating Wimsey, who’s waiting outside in the car. Bunter soon returns to the car:

“What’s up?’
‘Better move on quickly, my lord,’ said Bunter, ‘because, while the manoeuvre has been attended with a measure of success, it is possible that I have robbed His Majesty’s Mails by obtaining a postal packet under false pretenses.’…
‘Bunter,’ said his lordship, ‘I warn you that I am growing dangerous. Will you say at once, yes or no, did you get that letter?’
‘Yes, my lord, I did. I said, of course, that since the letter for my chauffer was there, I would take it to him, adding some facetious observations to the effect that he must have made a conquest while we were travelling abroad and that he was a great man for the ladies. We were quite merry on the subject, my lord.’
‘Oh, where you?’
‘Yes, my lord. At the same time, I said, it was extremely vexatious that my own letter should have gone astray….and in the end I went away, after remarking that the postal system in this country was very undependable and that I should certainly write to the Times about it.”
 

Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen lives in the tiny town of Crozet, Virginia. At the beginning of the series, she serves as the village’s postmistress, so she sees nearly everyone at least a few times a week. It’s the sort of place where people tend to come to the post office to pick up their mail, so it serves as a social gathering place as much as anything else. And that means that Harry knows everyone, and everyone knows her. It also means that she often gets to hear the local gossip. As ‘plugged in’ as Harry is, it’s not surprising that she gets involved when there’s a murder. And sometimes, the post itself provides clues (I’m thinking, for instance, of Wish You Were Here).

People use email, texts, online bill paying, and social media so often these days, that we may not think about how important post offices and delivery people really are. But they are. Especially when you’re waiting for that paper book you’ve ordered…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Lucksmiths’ Don’t Come With Me.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christianna Brand, Dorothy L. Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, Rita Mae Brown

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down*

As this is posted, it’s 152 years since General Robert E. Lee of the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, who was headquartered with the Army of the Potomac. As you’ll know, that was more or less the end of the U.S. Civil War (or, the War Between the States, depending on where you live).

Of course, that didn’t end the hostility and bad feeling between the former combatants. The war left deep and lasting scars all around, and even today, there are times when resentment flares up on both sides.

Certainly, there are important cultural differences between the northern and southern parts of the country. There are other regional differences, too. And it’s interesting to see how those differences, and that war, play roles, even in more modern crime fiction that doesn’t take place during the 19th Century.

For example, Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen series takes place in the small town of Crozet, Virginia. As the series begins, Harry is the town’s postmistress. Since most of the residents have post office boxes, Harry gets to hear a lot of what’s going on in town. She’s also a member of one of the region’s oldest families, so she has an ‘in’ to all the ‘better’ events and social circles. Throughout the series, there’s a thread of people from the North as ‘other.’ At the very least, ‘Yankees’ are clearly from another culture and another way of life. They’re often to be looked on with suspicion, and families who happen to be from the North are only accepted after a long time.

In Deborah Johnson’s The Secret of Magic, which takes place just after World War II, we are introduced to Regina Robichard, an idealistic young New York attorney, who works for the Legal Defense Fund. One day, the Legal Defense Fund gets a letter from a reclusive author, M.P. Calhoun. It seems that a black veteran named Joe Howard Wilson was murdered, and Clahoun wants his death investigated. As it happens, Calhoun wrote one of Robichard’s best-loved books from childhood, so she already knows the name. That’s enough to interest her in going to Revere, Mississippi, where Calhoun lives, and where the murder takes place. For Robichard, it’s a completely different world, and she already has some preconceptions about it. But, as she investigates, she finds that things aren’t what they seem, and she’s forced to examine life in her own New York City. This is a legal novel, but it’s also an interesting look at the differences between North and South – both perceived and real.

Sarah R. Shaber’s Simon Shaw is quite familiar with the cultural differences that come when North meets South in the US. He’s a history professor at Kenan College, in North Carolina. He’s happy to live and work where he does, and he considers himself a southerner. But his mother was from New York, and he has quite a lot of family there, so he does visit. His perspective is impacted by both those experiences and his upbringing, so he really does interact, as you might say, with both cultures.

When we first meet P.J. Parrish’s Louis Kincaid in Dark of the Moon, he has returned from Detroit to his home town of Black Pool Mississippi. His mother is dying, and he’s agreed to look after her during her last illness. He’s been hired to work under Sheriff Sam Dodie as the county detective, and that’s problematic enough. Kincaid is bi-racial in a place where that’s enough to exclude him from most of the local life. But then, a hunter discovers the remains of a man who’s been dead thirty years, and some very dark secrets are about to come out. The closer Kincaid gets to the truth, the more danger he faces. In fact, his experiences in Black Pool are part of the reason that, in Dead of Winter, he accepts a job working with the Loon Lake, Michigan police. He thinks it’ll be a fresh start in a new place. But it’s not long before he finds that buried secrets are not the exclusive property of the South. Throughout this series, we see how Kincaid ideals with the very different cultures of North and South.

And then there’s Adam Hall, a Chicago lawyer whom we meet in John Grisham’s The Chamber. His firm sends him to its Memphis office when an older man named Sam Cayhall is convicted of a Ku Klux Klan murder, and sentenced to execution by the state of Mississippi. Hall is Cayhall’s grandson, so for him, this trip isn’t just for professional reasons. He isn’t experienced when it comes to murder cases, but he does everything he can to win a stay of execution for his grandfather. Hall’s legal strategies, and the question of the death penalty, are important plot threads in this book. But so is Hall’s story. In a way, he is caught between his family’s southern roots, and his own life in the north. And it’s interesting to see how the different cultures play out in the novel.

There are other stories, too, where we see how the end of the Civil War/War Between the States didn’t really put an end to the deep divides between North and South. Which ones come to your mind? You’re absolutely right, fans of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Robbie Robertson. Listen to the version by The Band, and by Joan Baez, and see which you prefer. There’s a version by Johnny Cash, too.

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Filed under Deborah Johnson, Harper Lee, John Grisham, P.J. Parrish, Rita Mae Brown, Sarah R. Shaber

So Welcome to Our Family Tree*

Most of us have what you might call ordinary families. No particularly long history, great wealth, or titles. But some families have pedigrees. On the surface, it may seem as though a pedigree is a good thing to have, especially if it comes with money. But that’s not always the case. Just a quick look at crime fiction and you’ll see what I mean.

There are several examples of such pedigrees in Agatha Christie’s work (right, fans of The Hollow?). One family like that is the Chevenix-Gore family, whom we meet in Dead Man’s Mirror. Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore is inordinately proud of his family lineage. In fact, he’s working on a book about the Chevenix-Gore history. That pride is what makes it so difficult for him when he comes to believe that one of his own family members may be cheating him. He writes to Hercule Poirot asking him to look into the matter, and Poirot decides to accede. By the time Poirot arrives at the family home, though, Sir Gervase is dead. On the surface, it looks as though he’s shot himself. But small pieces of evidence suggest that he might have been murdered. And it turns out that there are several suspects, too.

Several of Raymond Chandler’s stories feature pedigreed, or at least very wealthy, families. One of them is the Sternwood family of The Big Sleep. General Guy Sternwood hires PI Philip Marlowe to help solve an embarrassing problem. It seems that a book dealer named Arthur Geiger has sent Sternwood an extortion letter that makes reference to Sternwood’s daughter, Carmen. Marlowe’s task will be to find Geiger and get him to leave the family alone. When Marlowe tracks down Geiger, he discovers that the man’s been murdered – and Carmen is in the room. She’s either too drugged or too dazed to say what’s happened, though, and Marlowe’s instinct is to get her out of the way and keep suspicion from her. He does just that, thinking that he’s now done with the family. That doesn’t prove to be the case, though. When the Sternwoods’ chauffer is found dead of an apparent suicide (that’s later identified as a murder), Marlowe ends up being drawn into the investigation, and right back into the Sternwoods’ drama.

John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook features the Starberth family. The Starbeths have lived in the area for many generations. And, for two of them, the Starberth men served as governors of nearby Chatterham Prison. The prison’s been abandoned, but the Starberths are still associated with it. On his twenty-fifth birthday, each male Starberth spends the night in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. During his stay, he has to open the safe in the room, and follow the directions written on a piece of paper that’s stored there. Now it’s the turn of Martin Starberth; and, although he’s reluctant to follow the ritual, he sees no good way out. On the night of his stay at the prison, Starberth dies of what looks like a tragic accident. But there are clues that this was murder. Dr. Gideon Fell (for whom this is a first appearance) makes sense of the clues, and discovers who’s responsible for Martin Starberth’s death.

In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Queen travels to the small New England town of Wrightsville, where he’s hoping to get some peace and quiet, so he can write. He settles into a guest house owned by the town’s undisputed social leaders, John F. Wright, and his wife, Hermione ‘Hermy.’ The family’s been integrally woven into the town’s life for generations, and that becomes part of the problem in this story. It was embarrassing enough for them when their youngest daughter, Nora, was jilted by her fiancé, Jim Haight, three years earlier. But now Haight has returned. What’s worse, he and Nora resume their relationship. In fact, they marry. Then, suspicions arise that Jim may be planning to kill his bride for her money. Matters come to a head on New Year’s Eve, when Jim’s sister, Rosemary, is poisoned by a cocktail that was meant for Nora. Now, Jim’s arrested for murder, and the whole town assumes he’s guilty. Queen isn’t so sure, though, and he works with Nora’s sister, Pat, to find out who really killed Rosemary Haight.

In Rita Mae Brown’s Wish You Were Here, we are introduced to Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen. In this novel, she’s the postmistress of the small town of Crozet, Virginia. Her job puts her in contact with all of the local residents, since just about everyone comes to the post office on a regular basis. That’s part of how she comes to know so much about what’s going on in town. But there’s another factor, too. Harry is, on her mother’s side, a Minor, which makes her a member of one of the oldest families around. She’s one of the First Families of Virginia (FFV), and that gives her status, even though she’s neither wealthy nor politically powerful. In that culture, being from such a family gives one cachet. In Harry’s case, it gives her an ‘in’ that plenty of other people don’t have. So, she’s able to find out a lot of things as she solves mysteries.

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey has a similar ‘in.’ He’s a member of a very old, titled family; in fact, his brother is the Duke of Denver, and his mother the Dowager Duchess of Denver. Wimsey’s pedigree is sterling enough that he can move in the highest social circles, and sometimes does. He doesn’t judge people by their wealth or family names, but he certainly has both.

And then there’s Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti. He himself isn’t from a ‘pedigreed’ background. But his wife, Paola Falier is. Her parents are Conte Orazio Falier and his wife, Donatella. They have impeccable social credentials, and are quite well-connected. This gives Brunetti a very valuable resource in his investigations, as his trails often lead to high places.

As you can see rich family histories, and pedigrees, can give a person status in some places. For some sleuths, it’s quite helpful. But that doesn’t necessarily make life any easier for them. That sort of background can come with a price…

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Raymond Chandler, Rita Mae Brown

He Knows Everyone*

hubsIn many smaller towns and villages, there’s a person who seems to be at the town’s hub. That person isn’t necessarily wealthy, or a law enforcement leader, or a political leader. But everyone knows that person. And, when there’s a crime in the area, that’s the person who’s likely to know the most about what’s going on in town.

In crime fiction, that person may be the sleuth, but doesn’t really have to be. Wise fictional sleuths know that making an ally of the town ‘hub’ is a very good idea, whether or not that person has any authority. And ignoring that person is almost always a mistake.

One of Agatha Christie’s sleuths, Jane Marple, is exactly that sort of person. She’s not a mayor, or in the police, or a church leader. But everyone in her village of St. Mary Mead knows her, and most respect her. She finds out just about everything that’s happening in town, and it’s not always because she’s – ahem – inquisitive. People connect with her. Christie wrote other characters like that, too (I’m thinking, for instance, of Johnnie Summerhayes in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead).

In Friedrich Glauser’s Thumbprint, Sgt. Jacob Studer of the Bern Cantonal Police is faced with a difficult case. Traveling salesman Wendelin Witschi has been shot, and Erwin Schumpf is in prison for the crime. He’s despondent, and in fact, tries to commit suicide. Studer happens to visit him in prison just in time to prevent the suicide, and gets more of an opportunity to talk to him. Although Studer was the arresting officer, he’s got a sort of liking for Schumpf, and starts to wonder whether someone else might have killed the victim. So, he begins to ask questions. He visits the town of Gerzenstein, where the Witschi family lives, and follows up on some leads. This is a small town, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else. And one of the leaders of the town is its mayor, Emil Aeschbacher. It’s not very long before Studer discovers that if he’s going to make any headway in this case, he’s going to have to do so with Aeschbacher’s support. He seems to know everything, and be a part of everything, in town. And as the novel goes on, it’s interesting to see how his influence works.

In Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, we are introduced to Reverend Theodore Venables, vicar at St. Paul’s in the East Anglia town of Fenchurch St. Paul’s. When Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet, Mervyn Bunter, have a car accident not far from the village, it’s Venables who rescues them, and invites them to stay at the rectory until their car can be repaired. Wimsey and Bunter gratefully agree, and settle in. In exchange, Wimsey offers to take part in the church’s New Year’s Eve change-ringing, to replace one of the ringers who’s fallen ill. Venables is glad for the help, and all goes well. That encounter ends up drawing Wimsey into a complicated mystery involving an extra body in a grave, missing emeralds, and a few deaths. Throughout the novel, we see how important Venables is to the town. The locals know him and trust him, and when the town is threatened by a flood, he’s the one they turn to for guidance. And he’s the one who does everything possible to save his parishioners.

One of Rita Mae Brown’s series features Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Harristeen. As the series begins, she is the postmistress of the small town of Crozet, Virginia. She hears a lot and she knows everyone in town. What’s interesting, too, about Harry is that she comes from an old Virginia family, one that’s been in the area as long as anyone can remember. And she herself has lived in Crozet all her life. So, although she’s not wealthy, and not at all pretentious, Harry is considered one of the area’s elite. She gets invited to the ‘right’ events, and so on. That status makes her a credible amateur sleuth, since she has access to people and information that someone with less status might not have.

And then there’s Craig Johnson’s Dorothy Caldwell, who presides over one of Durant, Wyoming’s social hubs, the Busy Bee Café. She’s not Johnson’s sleuth – that would be Absaroka County Sheriff Walt Longmire. But she does know everyone in town, and she hears just about everything that happens. People like her and trust her because she belongs, if I may put it that way. And Longmire knows that she’s a valuable resource, and not just for eggs and pancakes. Another ‘hub’ in this series is Henry Standing Bear, Longmire’s long-time close friend, and proprietor of the Red Pony Inn. That means he’s gotten to know just about everyone in the Durant area. And people know him, too, and talk to him. He’s also a member of the Cheyenne Nation, so he knows everyone in that community as well. Longmire has learned that Henry Standing Bear isn’t just a good friend; he’s also a really helpful source of insight.

There’s also Anya Lipska’s Janusz Kiszka. He emigrated from Poland to London, and has more or less established himself there. Although he doesn’t have an official leadership position, he has become known as a ‘fixer’ – someone who can get things done. He’s well known in London’s Polish community, and people trust him to help them solve their problems. He knows the other members of the community, too, and is a ‘hub’ within it.

And that’s how it is with many people who are at the hub of social groups. They may not be rich, have a lot of authority, or an important title. But they are integral to their communities. Fictional sleuths do well to pay heed to them.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kaiser Chiefs’ Cousin in the Bronx.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Craig Johnson, Dorothy Sayers, Friedrich Glauser, Rita Mae Brown

Bus Driver…Ambulance Man…Ticket Inspector*

occupationIt’s easy enough to imagine scenarios where fictional police detectives and PIs get involved in investigating crimes. So, a series that features a police officer or a PI makes sense and can be quite credible. It’s harder when the protagonist of a crime fiction series is an amateur detective.

Some professions do lend themselves to the role a bit more than others. For instance, there are lots of fictional academics who are amateur detectives. And it’s not hard to imagine scenarios where the sleuth is an academic (ahem – at least I hope it’s not…). The same might be said of fictional members of the clergy or their spouses/partners. Those people hear and see quite a bit, so it makes sense that they’d be involved in fictional investigations. There are also lots of fictional psychologists, medical professionals, attorneys and journalists who are also amateur sleuths. Again, it’s fairly credible that such people would be in a position to encounter and investigate a crime.

But there are some fictional amateur sleuths out there who have more unusual occupations. In those cases, the author has the challenge of creating a believable context for the sleuth. It’s not always easy to do, but some authors have achieved it.

One such sleuth is Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Harristeen. When this series begins, Harry is the postmistress for the tiny town of Crozet, Virginia. She also runs a small farm. Later in the series, she steps aside as postmistress, and takes up cultivating a vineyard. This scenario – with Harry as postmistress, and also sleuth – works (at least for me) because it makes sense that, in a small town, people would gather at the post office, pick up their mail, and talk. This puts Harry in a very good position to know a lot about what’s going on. We also learn that her family has been in the area for generations. So, she’s ‘plugged in.’ There are some aspects of the series that aren’t as credible. But a postmistress as sleuth makes sense.

You wouldn’t expect a ticket-taker to be in a position to do sleuthing – at least not credibly – but that’s what happens in Denise Mina’s Garnethill, the first in her Garnethill trilogy. Maureen ‘Marui’ O’Donnell works in a low-paid job as a ticket-taker. She’s emotionally fragile (in fact, she spent some time in a mental health hospital). Still, she’s trying to get her life together. She even has a relationship with Douglas Brodie. He happens to be married, but she’s working on figuring out what she’s going to do. One morning, after a night of drinking, Mauri wakes to find Brodie’s body in her living room. As you can imagine, the police are not satisfied that she isn’t responsible. So, Mauri decides to clear her own name. And that’s the approach Mina takes to making Mauri a believable sleuth, although she’s neither a copper nor a PI.

Eleanor Kuhns’ historical (end of the 18th Century) series features Will Rees. He’s an itinerant weaver, who also has a small piece of property. On the surface of it, weaving isn’t the sort of occupation that would likely put someone in contact with murder. But in A Simple Murder, the first of this series, Kuhns sets up a credible context. In that novel, we learn that Rees is despondent over his first wife’s death. He puts his son, David, in the care of his sister, and goes off, working as a weaver where and when he can. Then, he finds out that David has been sent to a Shaker sect establishment, where he’s being mistreated. Rees rushes to do what he can for his son, only to be on the scene when there’s a murder. And, since the Shakers are a small and tightly-knit community, Rees can’t help but be drawn into the mystery as he tries to re-establish contact with his son. Slowly, as the series goes on, word gets around that Will Rees can find answers. So, he begins to build a reputation.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is a Melbourne accountant-turned-baker, who lives and works in a large, Roman-style building called Insula. When the series begins (with Earthly Delights), Chapman has no desire to be a sleuth or to solve mysteries. But she gets drawn into investigating a series of heroin overdoses that might not be as accidental as they seem. It all starts when one overdose happens right outside Chapmen’s own bakery. Then, someone starts targeting the people who live in Insula. Chapman wants to find out who that person is, and her new lover, Daniel Cohen (he volunteers for a mobile soup kitchen), wants to find out what’s behind the overdoses. So, they agree to help one another.

There’s also D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heathington. He’s a retired milliner, who’s moved to the village of Tuesbury. You might not think that a milliner would likely come across a lot of bodies. But Heatherinton has a keen eye for his clients, and a good sense of what makes them ‘tick.’ So, in Hats Off to Murder, he becomes more than curious when two of his clients die. There’s no obvious evidence that they were murdered, but some things just don’t add up. Then, a new client, Delilah Delibes, asks for his help tracking down her mother, Flora, who’s gone missing. Heatherington is not a professional sleuth, and doesn’t pretend to have investigative skills. But he is compassionate. And he’s curious. So, he works with Delilah to find out what happened to her mother. And, in the process, he finds out how and why his clients died.

And then there’s Steve Robinson’s Jefferson Tayte, who is a genealogist. His specialty is tracing people’s ancestry, not finding killers. But sometimes, secrets from the past have a way of haunting modern families. So Tayte runs into more than one murder as he searches for his clients’ roots.

For authors who create amateur sleuths, it can be a challenge to create a credible context for those sleuths to ask questions and investigate. When it’s done well, though, it can work. And there really are some interesting occupations out there in crime-fiction land.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Clash’s Career Opportunities.

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Filed under D.S. Nelson, Denise Mina, Eleanor Kuhns, Kerry Greenwood, Rita Mae Brown, Steve Robinson