Category Archives: Rita Mae Brown

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.

19 Comments

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.

27 Comments

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.

17 Comments

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

Dissatisfied With What I Am*

Body ImageA lot of people worry about how the way they look ‘measures up.’ Each culture of course has its own standards of what ‘counts’ as attractive, but in a lot of cultures, there is a great deal of media pressure and sometimes peer pressure to look a certain way. That’s one reason that the cosmetics, cosmetic surgery, fitness, hair salon and diet industries are so lucrative. People spend any amount of money on trying to fit the media/popular image of ‘attractive.’

Of course, a sometimes-very-unhealthy focus on appearance isn’t new. The pressure to look a certain way has been there for thousands of years, and there’ve been some unusual and sometimes horribly dangerous ‘remedies’ for what was perceived as ‘less than beautiful.’ But body/appearance issues are still very much with us, and they can still have dangerous effects.

Anxiety about the way one looks has certainly found its way into crime fiction, and not just recent stories either. In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, for instance, we meet sixteen-year-old Linda Marshall. She and her father Captain Kenneth Marshall are taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger, an upmarket hotel on Leathercombe Bay. With them is Marshall’s second wife, famous actress Arlena Stuart. She is, among other things, stunningly beautiful. So Linda has a great deal of anxiety about her own appearance:

 

‘She disliked her face very much. At this minute it seemed to her to be mostly bones and freckles. She noted with distaste her heavy bush of red-brown hair (mouse, she called it in her own mind), her greenish-grey eyes, her high cheek-bones and the long, aggressive line of the chin. Her mouth and teeth weren’t perhaps quite so bad – but what were teeth after all? And was that a spot coming on the side of her nose? She decided with a relief that it wasn’t a spot.’

 

Linda has in her mind an ideal image of what a young woman ‘should’ look like, and she doesn’t measure up to that image. That’s a bit of the reason she’s very resentful of her stepmother; Arlena makes it all look easy, and certainly doesn’t bother to be friends with Linda. So when Arlena becomes a murder victim, Linda has mixed feelings. On the one hand, she admits to herself that she hated Arlena. On the other, the idea of actually killing or being killed is frightening and horrible. Hercule Poirot is also at the Jolly Roger, so he works with the local police to find out who the murderer is.

In Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Ashes to Dust, Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir gets a new client. An excavation on the Westmann Island reveals four bodies in a basement. It soon turns out that they’ve been there since a 1973 volcanic eruption on the islands. Markús Magnússon was only a teen at the time, but he was living in that house. So he might have some knowledge of who the victims are, who killed them and how they got to the basement. Then, there’s another death. Alda Thorgeirsdóttir, who was actually Markús’ childhood sweetheart, has apparently committed suicide. What’s more, she had some knowledge of the incident that led to those bodies being in the basement. Now it’s beginning to look to the police as though Markús may have killed Alda, and may have had something to do with the older murders. Thóra travels to the islands with her secretary Bella to do the best job she can to defend her client against the murder accusation. One important witness is Tinna, a young teen who saw something vital. But no-one really pays much attention to her account. Tinna has severe anorexia, and is so obsessed by avoiding every single calorie that she’s got real mental, emotional and physical issues. They’ve made her sick enough that she’s not taken particularly seriously, although her illness is. It turns out though that she has a critical clue to the case.

Body image issues are also often a part of the high-profit trade in anabolic steroids and other performance enhancers. On the one hand, they can seem very effective as muscle bulk increases and endurance seems to improve as well. And carefully-supervised medically appropriate steroids can help heal injuries. But as I’m sure you know, those performance enhancers also sometimes come with dangerous side effects, especially when they are abused. Yet, the ‘ideal’ image of the well-muscled, toned body is irresistibly appealing for those who’d like to change the way they look.

In Rita Mae Brown’s Hiss of Death, for instance, her sleuth, Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Harristeen has a frightening health crisis. She is treated at Central Virginia Hospital where she meets a nurse, Paula Benton, who’s very helpful to her. So when Benton is murdered, Harry is determined to find out why. Then, there’s another murder. In the meantime, she’s joined Heavy Metal, a local gym, to help her build her strength. That’s where she starts to learn how performance enhancers are made available illegally. And it turns out that that information is critical to solving this case.

There’s a similar sort of theme in G.A. McKevett’s Killer Physique, which features her PI Savannah Reid. Reid gets the opportunity to meet celebrity Jason Tyrone, who embodies the muscle-toned, fit look that you see on advertisements for performance enhancers and fitness clubs. When he is killed, Reid finds a connection between that murder and a possible performance-drugs ring at the famous gym where Tyrone worked out.

There’s also Bev Robitai’s Body on the Stage. Dennis Dempster has been ‘out of it’ since his divorce from his ex-wife Louise. His sister persuades him to pick up his life a bit and audition to work on the Regent Theatre’s upcoming production of Ladies Night. He’s taken on as part of the backstage crew and soon gets into the routine of working there. That’s how he meets Cathy, who owns a gym called Intensity where she’s training the dancers for the show. When he fixes a computer problem for her, Cathy invites him to take a tour of Intensity, and even offers to work up a fitness plan for him. Dennis knows he’s out of shape, but at first, he’s reluctant. Still, he goes along with her idea, and even joins the dancers for their workouts. He and Cathy begin to develop a relationship too. Then, Cathy’s assistant Vincenzo Barino disappears. When he is found dead, the case turns into a murder investigation. It turns out that the victim had a lucrative ‘side business’ in illegal performance enhancers, where he had some unpleasant ‘business associates.’ What’s more, he had a reputation as a ‘ladies’ man,’ with no concern for whether his current love interest was involved with someone else. So there are plenty of suspects, including Cathy herself. Dennis wants to clear Cathy’s name and Cathy wants to save her gym’s reputation. So the two of them work together with the police to find out who the killer is.

Just about any responsible medical expert will tell you that it’s a good idea to stay fit. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look good, too. But sometimes, what starts as interest can turn into unhealthy obsession. And being consumed by a media/peer-hyped ideal of what we ‘should’ look like can have terrible consequences. That’s one reason I like Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman so much as a character. She owns a Melbourne bakery where she does what she truly loves: provide bread. Corinna is no sylph. But she doesn’t obsess about what the media says she ‘should’ look like; instead, here is her view:
 

‘I could not get that thin if I starved myself for ten years, and that is a fact. We are famine survivors, we fat women and ought to be valued for it. We must have been very useful when everyone else collapsed of starvation. We would have been able to sow the crops, feed the babies and keep the tribe alive until spring came. If you breed us out, what will you do when the bad times come again? At the very least, you could always eat us. I reckon I’d feed a family of six for a month.’
 

In my opinion, that’s a really healthy attitude.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Kinks’ (Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman.

20 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Bev Robitai, G.A. McKevett, Kerry Greenwood, Rita Mae Brown, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

Red, Red Wine, Stay Close to Me*

Vineyards

When you’re having a nice dinner or perhaps sitting in a wine bar, you may not think a lot about the work that goes into making that delicious glass of wine you’re enjoying. But it doesn’t get there by magic. Vintners take their work very seriously, and the best ones take great pride in producing memorable wines. It’s a tricky business too. An oenologist can tell you that producing great wine requires exactly the right mix of weather, grapes, fermenting, bottling and so on. It takes real dedication to make a success of a vineyard. And any number of things can happen in the process. What’s more, one bottle or batch of less-than-good wine can ruin a vineyard’s reputation. So a lot’s at stake too. But as those who enjoy wine know, a good glass of the right wine is a real treasure.

Vineyards feature quite a lot in crime fiction and that makes sense when you consider how important wine is in many cultures. I only have the space here for a few examples; I’m quite sure you can think of lots more.

Domingo Villar’s Inspector Leo Caldas lives and works in Vigo, in the Spanish region of Galicia. Galician wine has a world-class reputation for good reason. Trust me. And Caldas’ father is a part of that region’s vineyard culture. Since the death of his wife, Caldas’ father has built up the family vineyard little by little, and has gotten to the point where he’s producing some decent wine for which he has very high hopes. For him, growing grapes and making wine is not only a tribute to his late wife, but also a way to connect with the land and with growing things. To him, that’s real, if I may put it that way. And although his son is a cop and always will be, he does respect the process of wine making and when he visits the vineyard, he feels a sense of connection to his parents.

In Jill Paterson’s Once Upon a Lie, Sydney DI Alistair Fitzjohn and his assistant DS Martin Betts are seconded from their own Day Street station to the shortstaffed Kings Cross Police Station when the body of businessman Michael Rossi is discovered at a marina at Rushcutter’s Bay. There are several suspects in this murder, since a variety of people stand to benefit from Rossi’s death. One angle that the detectives pursue is Rossi’s interest in Five Oaks Winery, which has been in the family for a long time. The victim’s niece Charlotte is set to benefit from that connection and what’s more, Rossi had had real disagreements with some of the Five Oaks staff about running the vineyard. So on more than one level, the vineyard is a place of interest. The truth about the murder isn’t as simple as the tragic result of an argument, but the police do get some interesting background on the family, and readers get a look at New South Wales’ winemaking culture. When it comes to Australia’s superb wines, I can also personally vouch for South Australia’s McLaren Vale wines. Trust me.

California also produces some very well-known and highly-regarded wines. Northern California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys in particular are known for their vineyards and wine-making. And there are plenty of mystery novels and series that take a look at the Northern California wine industry. For example, there’s Michele Scott’s cosy Wine Lovers series. This series features Nikki Sands, who began to be interested in wine when she was waiting tables between acting roles. When she’s hired on at a major Napa vineyard, she has no idea how dangerous it will be.

Wine expert Edward Finstein’s Pinot Envy features Woody Robins, a ‘wine guru’ whose specialty is rare wine artifacts. Powerful grape grower Walter Pendry has heard of Robins’ reputation, and Robins is the man he wants for a case of theft. Pendry’s the owner of a very rare double magnum of wine that was once owned by Napoleon. When his prize property is stolen, he hires Robins to get the bottle back. What starts as a case of theft turns into blackmail, Mob activity and murder. This novel is about the case of course, but it also shows readers the Napa food and wine culture.

At the beginning of Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen series, her sleuth is the postmistress of the tiny town of Crozet, Virginia. She also manages her own small farm. As the series goes on, changes in the postal system mean that Harry leaves her job at the post office. But she still needs an income. So in Cat’s Eyewitnesses she decides to try her hand at winemaking. In Sour Puss, Crozet gets a visit from world-renowned oenologist Professor Vincent Forland. Harry is hoping he’ll be able to give her feedback on her grape growing and advice for making good wine. But before she can ask him, Forland disappears and is later found dead. So Harry has to look among the other winemakers in the area to find out who would have wanted to kill Forland and why.

And of course, I couldn’t discuss vineyards without mentioning Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen. Their Winemaker Detective series is only now being translated into English although it’s not a new series. Thus far two novels, Treachery in Bordeaux and Grand Cru Heist have been translated. The series features well-known and respected oenologist Benjamin Cooker and his assistant Virgile Lanssien. Between them, the two have an awful lot of expertise, which they bring to bear in Treachery in Bordeaux when a local vintner finds that some of his wine has been contaminated. In Grand Cru Heist, Cooker and Lanssien investigate when there are two murders and a theft of two priceless bottles of Grand Cru. All of these are connected with the hotel where Cooker is staying during a trip to the Loire Valley; they are also connected with his own Bordeaux region. This series gives readers an ‘inside’ look at what goes into the entire winemaking process, from growing the grapes to bottling and later selling the wine.

The process is a lot more complicated than you may think when you’re choosing whether to go with a Shiraz or a Cabernet Sauvignon with your meal. It involves a real commitment of time and effort, some ‘weather luck’ and a store of knowledge about how wine is made. And that vineyard context makes for some delicious crime fiction too. Space doesn’t permit me to mention all of the examples there are, but there are plenty of them. They range from cosy to darker, from sweet to dry, from hearty to light…. Well, you get the idea. Which vineyard-based crime fiction have you tasted?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Neil Diamond’s Red, Red Wine, made popular by UB40.

36 Comments

Filed under Domingo Villar, Edward Finstein, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Jill Paterson, Michele Scott, Nöel Balen, Rita Mae Brown