Category Archives: Ruth Rendell

We Keep to Ourselves*

Today’s technology has meant that it’s possible to communicate with nearly anyone, nearly anywhere. But it wasn’t so long ago that families could be very insular, having little contact with anyone who wasn’t a member of the family. Even with modern communication, there are still some families that keep to themselves.

Everyone needs a different amount of social contact, but most experts agree that it’s important for mental health to have some outside contact. Families that are too turned in on themselves can become dysfunctional. And that can have all sorts of consequences. Certainly, it can in crime fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we are introduced to the Boynton family. Mrs. Boynton, the family matriarch, is tyrannical and malicious. In fact, she has her family so much under her thumb that no-one dares to refuse her even the slightest request. Her three stepchildren, Lennox, Carol, and Raymond, and her daughter, Ginevra ‘Jinny,’ have very little experience outside the family property, and don’t interact comfortably with others. So, when the family takes a sightseeing trip to the Middle East, they’re not sure exactly how to behave. The family decides to include a visit to Petra in their itinerary; while they’re there, Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. On the surface, it looks as though her death was natural. She wasn’t in good health, the trip was physically taxing, and the climate is very warm. But Colonel Carbury isn’t satisfied. So, he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot soon learns that a number of people had very good reasons to want Mrs. Boynton dead. As he interviews the various family members, we see how being a part of a secluded, insular family has impacted each of them.

As Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell tells the story of the Cosway family in The Minotaur. This family keeps very private and insular, and matriarch Mrs. Cosway would like to keep it that way. But her son, 39-year-old John Cosway, has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. So, the family hires a full-time nurse, Kerstin Kvist, to care for him. She is happy to take the position, as it will allow her to be closer to her lover. At first, things seem to go well enough, although Kvist finds the family to be a little strange. But she soon learns that her patient is kept heavily medicated at his mother’s request. In Kvist’s professional opinion, he doesn’t need that medication. So, without telling anyone, she withholds the drugs he’s been taking. Her decision turns out to have tragic consequences for more than one character. Throughout the novel, we see how insular this family is, and how that’s affected the members.

The Blackwood family, whom we meet in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, is also extremely insular. Eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ Blackwood lives with her older sister, Constance, and their Uncle Julian on a Vermont estate. It’s soon clear that they are not welcome in the nearby village, and gradually, we learn why. Six years earlier, three other members of the family were poisoned, and everyone is convinced that one of the Blackwoods is a murderer. Still, although they’re isolated, the Blackwoods have made a sort of life for themselves. Then, the outside world intrudes. A family cousin, Charles Blackwell, comes for a visit. That event touches off a series of other events that end in real tragedy.

Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is, in part, the story of the wealthy and very insular Vanger family. Almost forty years ago, Harriet Vanger went missing, and was presumed dead. But for the past few years, her great-uncle, Henrik Vanger, has been receiving gifts of dried flowers, just as she used to send him for his birthday. He wants to know the truth about what happened to her, so he hires journalist Mikael Blomqvist to find out. Blomqvist is highly motivated to agree to investigate, because his magazine, Millennium, is in serious financial trouble. Together with his research assistant, Lisbeth Salander, Blomqvist looks into the Vanger family’s past. And he finds out the truth about Harriet Vanger.

And then there’s Peter Robinson’s A Strange Affair. In one plot thread of this novel, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Banks gets a telephone message from his younger brother, Roy, who lives in London. The message says that Roy needs his brother’s help, and that it may be a matter of life and death. Banks is going through his own problems, but he musters up the energy to go to London. When he gets there, he finds that Roy is missing. Eventually, he discovers that this case has a link to a case that Inspector Annie Cabott, his teammate and former lover, is investigating. As the novel goes on, we see that the Banks family is, in its own way, quite insular. And the family history has played its role in the relationship between the Banks brothers.

Some families are like that. The members turn inward rather than outward, and keep to themselves. Sometimes, that’s not necessarily a problem. But sometimes, especially in crime fiction, it can spell disaster.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Inverso.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Vine, Peter Robinson, Ruth Rendell, Shirley Jackson, Stieg Larsson

And I’m a Little Bit Older Now*

One of the important decisions that authors of series need to make is whether, and how quickly, their main characters will age. There are some good reasons not to have characters age. But there are also some strong arguments for letting characters age in more or less real time.

For one thing, we all age. So, we can identify with main characters who get older – it’s realistic. For another thing, as we age, different things happen in our lives (from beginning of career, through height of career, through retirement; from newlyweds, through raising children, through having grandchildren). This gives the author a number of possibilities for adding plot points, characters, and so on.

Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford age in real time, and that makes for several possibilities for plots. In The Secret Adversary and in the Partners in Crime collection, they are young, energetic, and adventurous. And that’s part of what draws them into the espionage business. In N or M? and By the Pricking of My Thumbs, they’re middle-aged. They’re more experienced, their children have grown, and they go about their cases differently. In Postern of Fate, they’ve retired. They’re older, with grandchildren, and take a different attitude towards life to what they did as a young couple. Fans of this series like the fact that they can see how the Beresfords change over time as they age. It adds appeal to their characters.

That’s arguably also true of Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. When we first meet her, in Deadly Appearances, she’s middle-aged, the mother of a university-bound daughter and two younger sons. She’s moving to the top of her career as an academician and political scientist, and still coping with the death of her husband, Ian. As the series goes on, Joanne ages, as we all do, in real time. Her children grow, leave home, and make their own lives. She adopts another child, who also grows up and gets ready to leave home. She marries again, moves into retirement, and learns the joys of grandparenting. Other things happen in her home life, too, and they all fit in with what happens as people move in life and get older. That natural aging process makes Joanne an accessible, realistic character; her life reflects what happens to real people.

Tony Hillerman’s Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn ages, too, over the course of the novels that feature him. In the early novels, such as The Blessing Way, Leaphorn is a young man. He’s active, he has stamina, and so on. And the cases he investigates fit with that sort of a detective. As the series moves on, Leaphorn ages. As he does, he rises a bit in the ranks of the Navajo Tribal Police (now the Navajo Nation Police). He and his wife, Emmy, approach middle age together, and later, he copes with her death. In the later novels, Leaphorn has retired from active duty, but still occasionally lends his expertise. It’s an interesting transition through the course of the novels, and it makes his character believable.

Michael Connelly has made more or less the same decision about his main character, Harry Bosch. As the series begins, he’s about forty, and a veteran with the LAPD. He’s had relationships, but he’s not married or particularly tied to one person. As the series goes on, he goes through several changes professionally. He also marries and is later divorced. He also becomes a father. In more recent novels, he sees his daughter, Maddie, grow up and begin to think about becoming a police officer like her father. Although Connelly doesn’t place a big emphasis on Bosch’s age, he does address issues such as retirement age. You’re absolutely right, fans of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus.

There are also authors such as Donna Leon and Ruth Rendell, whose main characters have aged over time, but perhaps not as quickly as real time. Leon’s Guido Brunetti and Rendell’s Reg Wexford are both married fathers of young-ish children at the start of their respective series (‘though Wexford’s daughters are a bit older – in their teens). As both series go on, their children get older (Wexford becomes a grandfather). They begin to face the issues that people face as they get towards middle age, too. And, although, neither author places a great deal of emphasis on this ageing process, it’s going on in the background.

On the one hand, having characters age in real time can be limiting for an author. On the other, it’s a very natural process, so readers can identify with the characters. And it allows the author to work in different sorts of characters and plots. Do you prefer to see your characters age in real time? If you’re a writer, what choices have you made about your main character’s ageing process? Why?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby, Stills, & Nash’s As I Come of Age.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, Ruth Rendell, Tony Hillerman

Now, Can You Tell Me What’s Ailin’ Me?*

Visiting the doctor is a really interesting phenomenon. Apart from the odd power relationship, there’s a deep and private communication that goes on between doctor and patient. In fact, those communications are protected under privacy laws except under very specific and unusual circumstances. An appointment with a doctor can be routine or can be highly charged. Either way, it’s a part of life.

Doctor appointments can make very interesting plot moments in crime novels, too. They can serve to move a plot along, or to add character layers. They can be important aspects of a plot, too. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of others.

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), we are introduced to a dentist named Henry Morley. One particular morning, he has several patients, including Hercule Poirot. Late in the morning, he is shot in his surgery. Chief Inspector Japp investigates the case, and we soon learn that this could be a complicated situation. It seems that another of Morley’s patients that day was a powerful banker named Alistair Blunt. He’s made several enemies, and it’s not outrageous to believe that someone might take advantage of the vulnerability a person has while in the dentist’s chair. Then, another patient of Morley’s dies of an overdose of anaesthetic. And another goes missing. As though that’s not enough, Japp is pulled off the case, because it may have something to do with an espionage operative whose identity the Home Office needs to protect. But Poirot is not similarly restricted, and he continues to investigate. In the end, he finds that this case is both simpler and more complex than it seems. And it’s interesting to see how the different characters react to being in the doctor’s office. I see you, fans of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

One of the main plot lines in Ruth Rendell’s Simisola begins with a visit to a doctor. Inspector Reg Wexford visits his doctor, Raymond Akande. It’s a normal sort of visit – Wexford’s health isn’t in jeopardy. But not long afterwards, he gets a call from Akande. It seems that Akande’s daughter, Melanie, went missing after a visit to the local employment bureau, and she hasn’t been home since. At first, Wexford isn’t inclined to panic. Melanie is twenty-two – an adult who could have any number of reasons to go somewhere else for a few days. But Akande persuades Wexford to at least look into the matter. Not long afterwards, the woman with whom Melanie had her employment bureau appointment is found murdered. Then, a young woman is found dead in a local wood. At first, Wexford thinks it might be Melanie. It turns out to be someone else, though, and now Wexford has three difficult cases to solve.

Michael Robotham’s The Suspect introduces his sleuth, Dr. Joe O’Loughlin. He is a psychologist whose profession often gets him involved in cases. He also has Parkinson’s Disease, which means he goes for regular visits to a neurologist, Dr. Emlyn Robert ‘Jock’ Owens. Jock is a no-nonsense sort of a doctor, who knows his patient quite well. As a matter of fact, they mix socially; O’Loughlin’s wife, Julianne, even dated Owens at one point. It can be a tense relationship, especially when Julianne is discussed, or when Jock has bad news to share. But it’s also a really interesting look at one side of O’Loughlin’s character.

In Annie Hauxwell’s In Her Blood, we meet London investigator Catherine Berlin. Among other things, she is a registered heroin addict who’s supplied by Dr. George Lazenby under the registered addicts’ program. In one plot line of this novel, she goes to his office early one evening to keep a regular appointment. When she gets there, she finds that he’s been murdered, and she’s been set up as a likely suspect. What’s worse, with Lazenby dead, she now has no legal supply of heroin until she finds a new doctor under the program. This leaves her with only a week’s supply of the drug. This case is very probably related to another case Berlin is working. She’s been investigating a loan-shark operation run by Archie Doyle. Not long ago, she was working with an informant who called herself Juliet Bravo. Then, Bravo was murdered, and her body found in Limehouse Basin. Berlin wants to find out who that killer is, and how it’s related to Lazenby’s murder. But she’s going to have to act quickly, because there are some dangerous people who don’t want her to succeed.

And then there’s Eoin Colfer’s Plugged. Daniel McEvoy is ex-pat Irish, who worked for a time as a Middle East peacekeeper. Now, he works security at a sleazy nightclub called Slotz, in the fictional town of Cloisters, New Jersey. In one plot thread of this novel, he goes to visit his friend and hair replacement doctor, Zebulon ‘Zeb’ Kronski, whom he met while he was in the Middle East. While he’s waiting for Kronski, McEvoy encounters Macey Barrett, an ‘enforcer’ for local gangster Mike Madden. It’s obvious that something is going on between Madden and Kronski, but McEvoy doesn’t want to get involved in that mess. He has no choice, though, when Barrett tries to kill him, and his only option is to defend himself. Now, he’s got a tough, powerful gangster after him. What’s worse, Kronski’s gone missing. McEvoy will have to try to stay alive long enough to clear his name and find his friend.

Meetings in doctors’ offices can lead in all sorts of directions. And they’re a part of most of our lives. Little wonder that they show up as they do in crime fiction.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rudy Clark and Arthur Resnick’s Good Lovin’.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Annie Hauxwell, Eoin Colfer, Michael Robotham, Ruth Rendell

Let’s Throw a Twilight Cookout*

Community parties, picnics, and barbecues can be a lot of fun. They’re especially popular when the weather is warm, and people can get outdoors. Sometimes they’re sponsored by a school, and sometimes by a religious or political group. They can even be spontaneous. Lots of times they’re very enjoyable, and they give people a chance to connect. But they’re not always safe – well, at least not in crime fiction.

Barbecues and other community social gatherings bring together a lot of different people. They may live or work together, but that doesn’t mean they like one another. And it’s hard to keep track of what everyone’s doing. That makes the context tailor-made for the crime writer. Little wonder we see community events like that in crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, for instance, there’s a community fête planned at Nasse House, the home of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. One of the events planned for the fête is Murder Hunt, a bit like a Scavenger Hunt, where participants find clues and try to find out who murdered the ‘victim.’ The hunt itself is designed by detective story novelist Ariadne Oliver. Tragedy strikes on the day of the fête, when Marlene Tucker, who’s playing the part of the victim, is actually killed. Mrs. Oliver has invited Hercule Poirot to Nasse House to give the prizes for the Murder Hunt, so he is on hand when the body is discovered. And it turns out that more than one person might have had a reason for wanting to kill Marlene. She had a way of finding out much more about people’s secrets than it was safe for her to know.

Ruth Rendell’s To Fear a Painted Devil is the story of Tamsin and Patrick Selby, who live in a sort of cliquish, suburban community called Linchester. They decide to celebrate Tamsin’s twenty-seventh birthday by hosting an outdoor party. They invite several of their friends, and other people who live in the community. Everything goes well enough, until some wasps start annoying the guests. Patrick climbs a ladder to get rid of the wasps’ nest, but he is badly stung in the process. He becomes very ill and unexpectedly dies a few days later. On the surface of it, it seems that he succumbed to an allergy to the wasps. But Dr. Max Greenleaf, who’s been taking care of him, begins to suspect otherwise. He doesn’t want to think that someone he may know is a murderer, but he finally starts asking questions. And it turns out that there are several secrets that the people in Linchester are keeping.

Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances begins at a community barbecue/picnic. The event is going to give up-and-coming politician Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk an opportunity to make a very important speech. He’s got a promising future, and people want to hear what he has to say. Just after he begins speaking, he collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. His friend, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, is grief-stricken at his loss. So, she decides to cope by writing Boychuk’s biography. As she does so, she gets closer and closer to the truth about why and how he died. In the end, we learn that Boychuk’s death is related to his past.

In Robert Crais’ L.A. Requiem, Joe Pike’s former lover, Karen Garcia, goes missing, and he wants his partner, Elvis Cole, to help find her. Then, tragically, she turns up dead. Now, her father, who is both wealthy and well-connected, wants to be sure that the police catch the person responsible. So, he hires Pike and Cole to follow along with the LAPD police to be sure they’re not glossing over anything. But Pike has a history with the department. He used to be a cop, and there are still plenty of police officers in the department who don’t like him. In the novel, there’s a telling ‘flashback’ scene that takes place at the (LAPD) Rampart Division’s Family Day picnic. Pike and Karen attend the picnic, but it doesn’t turn out to be the lovely ‘introduce the girlfriend to the workmates’ event it’s supposed to be.

In one of the sub-plots of M.C. Beaton’s Love, Lies and Liquor, private investigator Agatha Raisin’s ex-husband, James Lacey, takes the house next door to hers. On the one hand, she does think of getting back together with him. On the other, she had very good reasons for leaving, and she feels herself well rid of him. One day, he invites her to a barbecue being hosted by friends of his. It turns out that the whole event is a disaster. James treats her horribly, and her hosts and several of the other guests are rude, too. As a gesture to try to make it up to her, James decides to invite her for a getaway weekend at the Paradise Hotel at Snoth-on-Sea. He has fond memories of the place from childhood, but the place has become dilapidated and the town is no longer popular. As if that’s not enough, Agatha gets involved in an argument with another guest – and is later accused of murder when that guest is found dead.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, which begins with a school picnic on Lake Wanaka. The members of the Anderson family attend, and all starts out well enough. Then, tragedy strikes. Four-year-old Gemma Anderson goes missing. There’s a massive search for her, but no trace of her is found – not even a body. The police don’t even have any leads as to who, exactly, might have abducted her, since there were so many people there. The family is devastated and left permanently scarred by Gemma’s loss. Seventeen years later, Gemma’s older sister, Stephanie, is finishing up her psychiatry program in Dunedin. When she hears about a similar abduction from a patient, she decides to lay her ghosts to rest, and find out who wrought so much havoc on both families. So, she returns to her home town to get some answers.

See what I mean? Community events like picnics and barbecues can be a lot of fun. But, if you get an invitation to one, please do be careful. You never know what can happen…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chuck Berry’s You Two.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, M.C. Beaton, Paddy Richardson, Robert Crais, Ruth Rendell

To the Backroom, the Alley, or the Trusty Woods*

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are discussing what they would want for ‘the perfect crime.’ Poirot asks:

‘‘If you could order a crime as one orders a dinner, what would you choose.’’
He and Hastings discuss the sort of crime (murder, of course!). Then, Hastings says,

‘‘Scene of the crime – well, what’s wrong with the good old library? Nothing like it for atmosphere.’’ 

Hastings has a point. Libraries can be very atmospheric places for scenes of crime or for discovering a body. And Christie uses the library to that effect, too, right, fans of The Body in the Library? When Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife, Dolly, learn that the body of a young woman has been found in their library, they’re drawn into a strange case of multiple murder.

Of course, the library is by no means the only atmospheric place for a murder scene, or for leaving a body. The place the author chooses depends a lot on the story, the characters, and so on. And that place can add quite a lot of atmosphere, even creepiness, to a story.

For instance, if you’ve ever walked down a street at night, and happened to peek down an alley, you know how eerie that sort of place can be. And, in Martin Edwards’ All the Lonely People, that’s where the body of Liverpool attorney Harry Devlin’s ex-wife, Liz, is found. A few days before her death, she unexpectedly visits Devlin, and he hopes this means she might want to reconcile with him. That’s not her purpose, though. She says that she’s escaping her current lover, Mick Coghlin, and needs a place to stay for a few days. Devlin agrees, but the next night, she is stabbed. Devlin knows he isn’t guilty, but of course, he’s an obvious ‘person of interest.’ Along with wanting to clear his name, he wants to find out who killed Liz. So, he starts to ask questions. He finds that Liz’ life was a lot more complicated than he’d thought, and there are several possible suspects for her murder. There are plenty of other novels, too, in which bodies are found in alleys behind buildings, or between two buildings.

Woods can also be eerie, atmospheric places to find a body. For instance, in Martha Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace, the body of Dora Binns is found in a wood near the village of Littlebourne. Inspector Richard Jury has to cancel his holiday plans and travel to Littlebourne to investigate. He and his friend, Melrose Plant, discover that the victim’s death is connected to a robbery, some missing jewels, and an attack on another resident of LIttlebourne. Fans of Ruth Rendell’s Simisola will know that the body of a young woman is found in wood near the town of Kingsmarkham. At first, Inspector Reg Wexford thinks it’s the body of Melanie Akande, who’s been missing for several days. It’s a different young woman, though, so now, Wexford and his team have two major cases on their hands.

Moors are also wild, often desolate places that can be very atmospheric places for murders and bodies. And Belinda Bauer makes use of that setting in Blacklands. That’s the story of twelve-year-old Steven Lamb, who lives with his working-class family in the Exmoor town of Shipcott. The family is haunted by the nineteen-year-old disappearance of Steven’s uncle, Billy Peters. It was always suspected that he was abducted and killed by a man named Arnold Avery, who’s currently in prison for other child murders. Steven has been searching for Billy’s body on the moor, hoping that finding it will help his family. But he has no idea exactly where the body is. Then, he gets the idea of contacting Avery to find out from him where Uncle Billy’s body is. He takes the chance and writes, and he and Avery start a correspondence that turns into a very dangerous game of cat-and-mouse.

Minette Walters’ The Ice House makes use of another very atmospheric sort of place for a body. In the novel, Chief Inspector George Walsh is assigned an eerie case. A gardener has discovered the decomposed body of a man in the ice house of remote Streech Grange. That’s the property of Phoebe Maybury, who lives there with two friends, Anne Cattrell and Diana Goode. Ten years ago, Phoebe’s husband, David, went missing, and never returned. Walsh investigated at the time, but there were no clues as to where the man might have gone. Now, it appears Maybury’s body might have been found. But there’s a question as to whether the body is Maybury’s. If it is, then one of the three women living at Streech Grange is very possibly guilty of murdering him. If it’s not, then who is the man? And is one of the women guilty?

There are plenty of other atmospheric, even creepy, places authors use as murder scenes or as places to ‘dump’ a body. And when those places are chosen well, they can add quite a lot of tension to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger’s Night Moves.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Belinda Bauer, Martha Grimes, Martin Edwards, Minette Walters, Ruth Rendell