Category Archives: Robin Blake

In The Spotlight: Robin Blake’s The Hidden Man

>In The Spotlight: Rex Stout's Fer de LanceHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Well-written historical series don’t just give information about a particular time and place (although they do that). They tell a story, too, that just happens to take place during a particular era. In this way, the reader learns about a period of time without it seeming like reading a textbook. To show you what I mean, let’s take a look at Robin Blake’s The Hidden Man, the third in his series featuring Coroner Titus Cragg and Dr. Luke Fidelis.

It’s 1742, in the English town of Preston. One morning, attorney and town Coroner Titus Cragg gets a note from Phillip Pimbo, who’s a local pawnbroker and would-be banker. Pimbo indicates a legal matter, and asks Cragg to come to his establishment as soon as possible. By the time Cragg gets there, though, it’s too late. Pimbo’s been shot. On the surface of it, it looks like a suicide. But when Cragg asks his friend, Dr. Luke Fidelis, to look into the matter, Fidelis isn’t so sure that Pimbo killed himself. There is a great deal of pressure to let the matter rest as a suicide, mostly because of the upcoming festival, the Preston Guild. The festival always brings in a lot of money, and the town’s leaders don’t want anything to spoil that. Still, Cragg has enough respect for his friend to start asking a few questions.

One possibility is that someone in Pimbo’s household was behind the murder. But there are other leads, too. For instance, Pimbo had recently backed a ship called The Fortunate Isle. A few weeks before Pimbo’s death, his business partner, Zadok Moon, launched a claim against the company that insured the ship, saying that the ship and all its cargo were lost. But when Cragg tries to track Moon down to talk to him, he finds that the man has disappeared. And then there are Pimbo’s various other business transactions, that might have made him enemies. What about his assistant, who has good reasons to want to take over the business? And why is the town’s mayor so eager to have the death declared a suicide and be done with the matter?

It turns out that Pimbo had a few secrets, and so do some of the other characters in the novel. As Cragg burrows deeper into the case, there’s another murder. And it’s clearly linked to the first. Now, Cragg and Fidelis have a pair of cases, and have to work quickly to find out the truth. In the end, they learn that the deaths are connected to the insurance case, to the African slave trade, and to connections among some of the characters.

The story takes place in 1742, and Blake depicts that era. For one thing, we learn a bit about the way banking and insurance worked in the days before large, commercial firms took over those businesses. Pimbo, for instance, wants to set himself up as a banker. As the story begins, he’s a goldsmith and pawnbroker, but wants to ‘branch out.’ Insurance, too, worked differently to the way it does today. There’s also some discussion of the important topics of the time, including the morality of slavery (for those wondering, both Cragg and Fidelis oppose it strongly).

Lifestyles and customs of the times are also depicted. As one example, Cragg learns that Fidelis’ mother lives with him. She has what would probably now be called dementia, and is cared for by Pimbo’s housekeeper, Ruth Peel. The housekeeper has no medical background of any kind, and no experience; she simply does the best that she can. It’s a look at the way the elderly were cared for in a time before care homes, modern medical knowledge, and so on.

It’s worth noting, though, that the language used is more contemporary. Readers who prefer more modern language, even in a novel that takes place so long ago, will appreciate this.

Cragg is the town Coroner, and as such, presides over inquests. So, parts of the novel take place in the local courtroom. Readers who are interested in the way court proceedings were conducted in the mid-Eighteenth Century will appreciate those scenes. Fidelis, being a doctor, makes use of the medical knowledge there was at that time; that, too, will of interest to readers who want to know about the role of the doctor in that era.

The story is written from two perspectives, both past tense. One, told in the first person, is Titus Cragg’s. So, we learn about Cragg’s home life. He is happily married to Elizabeth, an intelligent, well-read companion who turns out to be quite helpful in this case. The other, told in third person, is Luke Fidelis’. Readers who prefer just one point of view, and just one voice, will notice this. The two protagonists do compare notes, meet at the local inn or coffeehouse, and otherwise investigate together. But they also have separate lines of enquiry, and the reader follows both.

The mystery itself is ugly, as is the motive for the killings. But the story, while not light, is not particularly grim or gritty. There’s a sense at the end that life will go on, and that things will be all right.

The Hidden Man is a story of life in an English town in the mid-1700s. It features a complex mystery, and two sleuths who make use of their different, but complementary, skills to solve it. But what’s your view? Have you read The Hidden Man? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 20 February/Tuesday, 21 February – China Lake – Meg Gardiner

Monday, 27 February/Tuesday, 28 February – River of Darkness – Rennie Airth

Monday, 6 March/Tuesday, 7 March – In the Cold Light of Mourning – Elizabeth J. Duncan.

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Filed under Robin Blake, The Hidden Man

We Were Sailing Away With a Cargo of Bricks*

Shipping and BoatingThe shipping and boating industries have been essential to many nations’ economies since ships were able to cross the oceans. People have made fortunes transporting cargo, and it’s been responsible for a lot of related businesses (shipbuilding, banking, and even pleasure and sport boating, just to name a few).

And if you think about it, places like cargo holds, shipping crates and boathouses are effective settings for crime fiction, too. All sorts of things can happen in those places, and they make good hiding places for bodies, weapons and clues. So it’s not surprising that we see those locations in crime fiction.

In Freeman Wills Crofts’ The Cask, for instance, Tom Broughton, who works for the Insular and Continental Steam Navigation Company, is sent down to the London docks when the Bullfinch pulls in from Rouen. There’s a valuable consignment of wine on board, and the company wants to ensure that it’s arrived in good order. As Broughton checks the various casks, he makes a horrifying discovery. Instead of wine, one of them contains the body of a young woman. Inspector Burnley of Scotland Yard begins to investigate. At first the case is difficult, since the woman has no identification. But, going from the fact that the casks came from Paris, Burnley suspects she may have been French. So he travels to Paris and works with M. LeFarge of the Sûreté to find out who the woman was and how her body ended up in a shipping cask. Among other things, this is an interesting look at the way cargo was moved at the time the novel was written.

Vanda Symon’s Containment begins with the grounding of the Lauretia Express in Dunedin. The ship’s cargo ends up strewn on the beach (and some of it doesn’t even get that far), which sets off mass looting. People grab whatever they can, from clothes to furniture and more. The looting raises tensions to the point where people are fighting over the salvage. In fact, when Detective Constable Sam Shephard arrives on the scene, she tries to break up one such fight and ends up injured herself. But there’s something else about this particular cargo. When one women goes searching among the clothes, she finds a human skull. And Shephard ends up with much more to cope with than a public disturbance.

There’s also Robin Blake’s The Hidden Man. In that historical (1742) novel, Attorney and Coroner Titus Cragg works with his friend, Dr. Luke Fidelis, to find out who shot pawnbroker and would-be banker Philip Pimbo. As Cregg looks into the case, he learns that Pimbo had financially backed a ship called The Fortunate Isle. A few weeks before Pimbo’s death, Pimbo’s business partner, Zadok Moon, lodged a claim with the company that insured the ship, stating that the ship and all its cargo was a total loss. As it turns out, that insurance claim plays an important role in the solution to the mystery.

And it’s not just what one finds in ships’ holds and cargo containers, either. Boathouses and storage garages can also hold plenty of shipping equipment, too – and clues, as well as bodies. For instance, in Jill McGown’s A Perfect Match, DI David Lloyd and DS Judy Hill investigate when the body of Julia Mitchell is found in Thorpe Wood, a boating park near the town of Stansfield. At first, all of the evidence points to a man named Chris Wade, who was known to have been with the victim on the night of the murder. But he can’t be questioned, since he’s gone missing. And as it turns out, there are several other possibilities. So Lloyd and Hill have to untangle the messy network of relationships among the people in the victim’s life. And they find that part of the key to the mystery can be found in a boathouse.

A storage garage figures in Minette Walter’s The Breaker. One morning, two young boys discover the body of Kate Sumner on the beach near Chapman’s Pool in Dorset. Not long afterwards, her toddler daughter Hannah is found wandering the streets of nearby Poole. PC Nick Ingram, who’s first officer on the scene, works with DI John Galbraith, WPC Sandra Griffiths and Superintendent Carpenter to find out who the murderer is and what happened to Hannah. The field of suspects ends up being narrowed to more or less three possibilities. So the police have to look closely into each one’s background. And part of what they learn comes from a garage that’s used to store a boat – and the evidence of other ‘business enterprises.’

And then there’s Peter May’s The Blackhouse, the first of his Lewis trilogy. In that novel, two sixteen-year-olds, Ceit and Uilleam, sneak off to a boatshed on the Isle of Lewis to find some privacy. Instead of the romantic interlude they planned, they make a gruesome discovery: the body of Angel Macritchie is hanging from the rafters. As it turns out, there’s been a killing in Edinburgh that bears similarity to this case. So Edinburgh police detective Fionnliagh ‘Finn’ Macleod makes the trip to Lewis to see if anything about this newest murder can help in solving the other. For Macleod, this is a homecoming, since he grew up here. But it’s not a happy one. Along with solving the murder of Angel Mcritchie, Macleod will also have to face his past, and plenty of personal ghosts.

See what I mean? Shipping and boating are certainly crucial to a lot of economies. But safe? Peaceful? I don’t think so.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Irish Rover, attributed to J.M. Crofts.

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Filed under Freeman Wills Crofts, Jill McGown, Minette Walters, Peter May, Robin Blake, Vanda Symon

Hope There’s Someone Who’ll Take Care of Me*

In Home CarersOne of the most difficult decision adults have to make is arranging for the care of elderly parents when those parents are no longer in a position to care for themselves. It’s hard enough when parents lose their physical health; it’s even harder when dementia and other cognitive losses are involved.

Different people find different solutions. A lot depends, too, on individual factors such as income, local living options, size of one’s house and space available, and so on. There are cultural factors too (more on those shortly). No solution is entirely perfect, but many families opt to have in-home carers. This offers some benefits too. For one thing, it allows elderly parents to stay in their homes, and that’s what many of them would rather do. For another, it eases the caregiving burden on the adult son or daughter.

On the other hand, even a thorough ‘vetting’ doesn’t guarantee that an in-home carer will be the dedicated individual one would hope. And there’s the issue of having someone who’s not family live in one’s home. In-home care can be very expensive, too. Still, many people take that option, and it’s interesting to see how it plays out in crime fiction.

It’s  not surprising that it does. There is a rising population of adults who need such care, so it’s realistic and timely. And the context allows for lots of conflict, suspense and more.

In the years before there were well-established care homes, having an in-home carer was the only option available to those who could afford one. And in earlier centuries, those people often had no special preparation for that role. Robin Blake’s The Hidden Man, for instance, takes place in 1742. Attorney and Coroner Titus Cragg goes to visit local pawnbroker and would-be banker Philip Pimbo. When he arrives, it’s discovered that Pimbo has been shot. On the surface, it looks like a suicide, but Cragg’s friend, Dr. Luke Fidelis, isn’t sure. There is pressure to simply let the case go, but Cragg respects Fidelis, and starts to ask a few questions. One important question is: who would want to kill Pimbo? In part to get some background, Cragg visits the Pimbo home. There he discovers that Pimbo’s mother lives with her son. She is cared for by the family housekeeper, Ruth Peel, who does her best. She tries to make sure her charge is comfortable and well cared-for, but she has no medical background, and of course, in 1742, not much was known about dementia. So she certainly has her hands full, as the saying goes. It’s an interesting, if not exactly happy, look at the care customs of that time.

Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death introduces readers to the Boynton family. They are on a sightseeing tour through the Middle East when they decide to spend a few days in Petra. On the second afternoon, family matriarch Mrs. Boynton dies of what looks at first like a heart attack. That wouldn’t be surprising, since she is elderly and not in good health. But Colonel Carbury isn’t quite satisfied, and asks Hercule Poirot, who is in the area, to investigate. Poirot agrees and begins to look into the matter. In this case, there are plenty of suspects. Mrs. Boynton was an unpleasant tyrant who delighted in keeping her cowed. And one of those people is her live-in nurse (and daughter-in-law) Nadine Boynton. Nadine met her husband when she came to live in with the family and look after Mrs. Boynton, and she’s had her share of abuse. But Nadine is the only person in the household who wasn’t really intimidated. She’s actually a very interesting character.

Fans of Elizabeth George’s Lynley/Havers series will know that Sgt. Barbara Havers faces the difficult challenge of finding the best care situation for her mother. As her mother slowly begins to suffer more dementia, Havers knows that she cannot live independently. Her mother has moved in with her, but even that’s not really enough. So Mrs. Gustafson, who lives next door, helps out, and looks after Havers’ mother while Havers is on duty. But the arrangement isn’t particularly successful. Mrs. Gustafson has no medical background, and more than once Havers worries about what might happen to her mother. In For the Sake of Elena, matters come to a head when Havers’ mother leaves the house alone without anyone knowing. This situation isn’t the main plot of the novel, but it does reflect the real difficulty many adult children have in trying to make the best arrangements possible for their parents. It’s a process filled with challenges.

The main character in Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind is former Chicago surgeon Jennifer White. At sixty-five, she has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, and can no longer live on her own. But as the novel begins, she still has many more lucid days than bad days. Still, her grown children have arranged a live-in carer for her, Magdalena. Magdalena is very helpful at ‘anchoring’ White on her bad days, and all goes well enough. Then one day, Amanda O’Toole, who’s lived next door to the Whites for many years, is murdered. Detective Luton is assigned the case and begins the investigation. She makes the disturbing discovery that the body was mutilated in a way that suggests the work of a surgeon, or at least someone familiar with surgical tools. And, since the Whites and O’Tooles have a long (and not entirely happy) history together, Luton is naturally interested in White as a suspect. But White’s dementia is slowly taking hold, and Luton may not be able to get the real truth from her. Throughout this novel, it’s fascinating to see Magdalena’s role as a ‘memory bank’ when White forgets things. She has her own past, too, which makes her an interesting character.

In many cultures, it would be unthinkable to hire a carer for an elderly parent. In those cultures it’s seen as the family’s responsibility to look after elderly members. For instance, in one plot thread of Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee gets a difficult case. Sixteen-year-old Margaret Billy Sosi has gone missing from the residential school she attends. Chee traces her to the outlying areas of Los Angeles, where she has a distant relative, Bentwoman. In the traditional Navajo culture, family members are responsible for taking care of elderly relatives, and that’s what happens in this case. Bentwoman is a very old woman, and doesn’t always speak coherently. She cannot live on her own. So her daughter lives with her and looks after her, doing everything that’s needed.

Sometimes that arrangement can work. But very often, when an elderly parent cannot be left alone, a live-in carer has to be found. That has its own benefits and challenges, but it is an option many people choose.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Antony and the Johnson’s Hope There’s Someone.  

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Elizabeth George, Robin Blake, Tony Hillerman

The Coffee Tasted So Fine*

CoffeehousesSome places are natural magnets that invite people to ‘come in and stay a while.’ Good coffeehouses are like that. They may not have full restaurant menus (‘though many do offer small food items), but the atmosphere and the coffee or tea are enough to keep patrons sitting and sipping.

Coffeehouses have undergone a lot of changes over time. But the good ones are still places where you can enjoy a coffee or tea, perhaps listen to some music or poetry, or just catch up with a friend or a date. They’re also, incidentally, terrific places for writing inspiration. Just sit in any coffee house for twenty minutes with your choice of hot beverage and watch the interactions, and you’ll see what I mean. As you can imagine, the coffeehouse is woven throughout crime fiction, too, and that makes sense given the possibilities the setting offers.

In centuries gone by, coffeehouses used to be an important place for people to meet to discuss business, catch up on the local news and sometimes, to be seen. There’s an element of that in Robin Blake’s The Hidden Man, part of his historical Fideles and Cragg series. Titus Cragg is an attorney and also coroner of Preston. Luke Fideles is the local doctor. They’re friends as well as professional allies, and in this novel, they put their skills together to solve the murder of pawnbroker/would-be banker Philip Pimbo. More than once in the novel, Cragg and Fideles meet at the Turk’s Head coffeehouse, where they exchange notes and follow leads. One interesting thing about coffeehouses of this era: they also sell wine and meals. In that sense they’re more like today’s pubs than modern coffeehouses tend to be. They also serve as places where someone might stop in often enough to arrange to receive letters and other messages there. It’s a very different perspective on this sort of gathering place.

Coffeehouses have also been known for a long time as places to hear live music, poetry, and book readings. They can be terrific for authors who want to set up signings and readings, too. Trust me. And trust Talba Wallis, the New Orleans PI who features in one of Julie Smith’s series. When she’s not ‘on the job,’ Wallis is a poet who goes by the name of ‘Baroness Pontalba.’ She’s fortunate to be living in a city with a very vibrant cultural life, so she goes regularly to poetry readings at coffeehouses and at the place where she had her first public reading, Reggie and Chaz. Coffeehouse audiences can be very receptive to different kinds of poetry and music, so coffeehouses can be very good places to begin if one’s not an established artist.

Even when they don’t feature events or performances, today’s coffeehouses are often popular local places. There are also, of course, large ‘chain’ coffeehouses. In Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall, for instance, Toronto police officer Daniel Kennicott is helping to investigate the murder of Katherine Thorn. Her common-law husband, star radio personality Kevin Brace, is the most likely suspect, and has even said that he killed her. But there are other possibilities too. One of those is another radio personality, Donald Dundas, who might have committed the murder for more than one reason. Kennicott wants to track Dundas down and ask him some questions, so he goes to some coffee shops near the station’s building:
 

‘He couldn’t see Dundas going to Starbucks. The man was always doing nostalgic pieces about things like small-town general stores. He liked championing the ‘little people.’ On the south side of the building, there was a friendly-looking coffee shop with a collection of antique teapots in the window. That’s it, Kennicott thought.’
 

And he’s right. Dundas is indeed in that shop, ready to read his Globe and Mail when Kennicott sees him. Oh, and I can’t resist mentioning the terrific nickname given to that small coffeeshop’s big competitor in this novel:
 

‘Kennicott noticed a lot of the company employees trooping out this door and heading zombielike for their doses of caffeine. ‘Time for some four-bucks,’ he overheard one of them say.’
 

A nice touch, in my opinion.

Many times, coffeehouses serve as good places to meet up for a mix of business and friendship. That’s what we see in Kathryn Fox’s Malicious Intent, the first of her novels featuring pathologist/forensic physician Anya Crichton her friend, DS Kate Farrer. In one scene in this novel, Crichton happens to run into Farrer at the local courthouse. They decide to catch up, as they haven’t seen each other lately, and head for a nearby coffeehouse/café. That’s where Farrer tells Crichton about a strange case of suicide (or is it?) she’s working. She asks for Crichton’s input, and the two are soon drawn into a bizarre case of multiple murder.

There are also mystery series that take place in coffeehouses. One, for instance, is the Coffeehouse Mysteries, authored by husband-and-wife team Mark Cerasini and Alice Alfonsi, who use the pen name Cleo Coyle. When you consider the different kinds of people who go to coffeehouses, the different sorts of events that can take place, and the conflicts that can arise, the setting makes a lot of sense as a mystery context.

Coffeehouses are also of course effective places to look at the way society has changed over time. And, speaking on a personal level, I appreciate the fact that coffeehouses are often welcoming to people who don’t have international ‘brand names’ as writers, or perhaps write and play music that hasn’t (yet) drawn a stadium crowd. I salute them all!

If you go to coffeehouses, have you noticed how they reflect the times? Writers and performers, do you have ‘coffeehouse stories’ to share?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ray Smith and Tony Colton’s The Coffee Song, recorded by Cream.

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Filed under Alice Alfonsi, Cleo Coyle, Julie Smith, Kathryn Fox, Mark Cerasini, Robert Rotenberg, Robin Blake