Category Archives: Ruth Rendell

Residents Are More Than Welcome*

Boarding HousesIt can be a challenge to find a place to live, especially if you don’t have much in the way of means, or if you’re not planning to be in a place long enough to purchase property. And in times past, it wasn’t considered appropriate for, especially, young ladies to live on their own. So boarding houses and homes that offer lodging had real appeal. There were a variety of them, too, ranging from seedy and dangerous to luxurious.

You don’t see boarding houses and lodging places as much as in the past, although they’re still there. And the arrangement does make sense. The homeowner gets extra income; the lodger gets less expensive accommodations and, depending on the arrangement, meals. Boarding houses also make for effective settings and contexts for crime fiction. That makes sense too, when you consider the variety of different personalities, and the conflicts that can come up.

One of the more famous lodgings in crime fiction is of course 221B Baker Street, where Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes lodges. His landlady is Mrs. Hudson, who’s gotten accustomed to his eccentric ways, although they are unusual. In fact in stories such as The Adventure of the Empty House, she is helpful to Holmes in his cases. In that particular adventure, Holmes is targeted by an associate of his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, and wants to lay a trap for the man who’s been trying to kill him. So he has a bust of himself placed in his sitting room. Then, he has Mrs. Hudson move the bust at certain intervals, so that it looks as though he’s actually there. In that way, Holmes and Dr. Watson are able to catch the would-be assassin.

Marie Belloc Lowndes The Lodger, introduces us to Ellen and Robert Bunting, who’ve retired from domestic service. They don’t have much in the way of income, and have decided to open their home to a lodger. However, Ellen Bunting is quite particular about the kind of person she’ll allow to live in her home, so their extra space has gone unused for some time. Then one day, a man who calls himself Mr. Sleuth applies for the room. He seems to be ‘a gentleman,’ and has quiet habits, so the arrangement is made and he moves in. The Buntings soon learn that Mr. Sleuth is a little eccentric, but he doesn’t cause them trouble. More to the point, he pays well and on time. In the meantime, the Buntings have been anxiously following the story of several murders that have occurred in London, all committed by a killer calling himself The Avenger. Very slowly, Ellen Bunting begins to wonder whether her lodger may in fact be The Avenger. She doesn’t want to admit it at first, because she and her husband really need the income they get from Mr. Sleuth’s residence there. But before long, she’s faced with the reality that she may be shielding a killer.

In John Dickson Carr’s Death-Watch, Dr. Gideon Fell is faced with a very strange boarding-house mystery. An apparently homeless man has been stabbed to death in the home of clockmaker Johannes Carver, who has opened his home to boarders. The victim isn’t what he seems though; instead, he is a police detective named Ames, who’d come to the boarding house to arrest one of the lodgers for a prior shoplifting incident. Of course, this is a Carr mystery, so the solution is not as simple as a thief who kills to avoid being arrested. As Fell looks into the matter, we see the different kinds of things that can happen in a boarding house…

There’s always a certain amount of risk when you open your home to boarders. So in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, no-one is shocked when James Bentley is arrested for the murder of his landlady Mrs. McGinty, who was a charwoman. Bentley didn’t fit in well in the village of Broadhinny anyway, and everyone is quick to believe that he is guilty. But Superintendent Spence, who in fact investigated the murder for the police, has come to believe that Bentley may be innocent. He’s been assigned to another case, so he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. When Poirot begins to ask questions, he soon learns that Mrs. McGinty was the kind of person who found out things about the people whose homes she cleaned. When she learned something that was too dangerous for her to know, she paid the price for it. Fans of this novel will also know that Poirot himself takes a room in a guest house called Long Meadows. It’s run by two very – erm – unsophisticated owners, Maureen and Johnnie Summerhayes. Some of the scenes that take place at Long Meadows are (at least in my opinion) really funny, just because of the difference between Poirot’s expectations and habits and the Summerhayes’ approach to running the place.

Ruth Rendell’s 13 Steps Down explores the lodging/boarding relationship as well. Mix Cellini takes rooms in a house owned by Gwendolyn Chawcer. He doesn’t find his landlady particularly appealing; she’s mentally unsound, and as we learn about her history, we see why. And the feeling of distaste is mutual, since Cellini has plenty of his own issues. He’s got a host of phobias and obsessions that make him a difficult person. But the two do need each other financially, so they make an arrangement. Cellini’s job is repairing exercise equipment; that’s how he meets supermodel Merissa Nash. He soon becomes obsessed with her, and that obsession begins to take over his life. So does his obsession with notorious killer Dr. Richard Christie…

Some of Charlotte MacLeod’s Sarah Kelling/Max Bittersohn novels have a boarding house context. As that series begins, Kelling is a widow who’s decided to open her Boston home to boarders (Bittersohn is one of those boarders). She’s a ‘blueblood,’ so she is extremely particular about the sort of boarding house she will run. Her first lodgers are each a little eccentric in their ways, but all starts well enough. Then she takes on Barnwell ‘Barney’ Augustus Quiffen. From the start, he is an annoying resident. He has a habit of complaining about everything, and demanding all sorts of extra service (and complaining again about the quality of that service). He soon succeeds in upsetting everyone, including Kelling. Then one day, he suddenly dies in what looks like a tragic fall under a subway car. The next morning, a strange woman shows up at the boarding house claiming that she witnessed what happened, and that it wasn’t an accident. And when the police begin to show up, too, asking questions, Kelling finds herself more involved in the investigation than she’d thought.

Boarding houses may not be as common as they were, but they’re still out there. And they do play interesting roles in crime fiction…

ps.  This whole topic got me thinking about B&B’s, which are (at least to me) a different kind of accommodation. A post on that is on tap for tomorrow…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Master of the House.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Dickson Carr, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Ruth Rendell

Let’s Get Married*

Arranged MarriagesIn Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot travels to Nasse House, in Nassecomb, to help his friend, detective story writer Ariadne Oliver. She’s at Nasse House on commission from its owner Sir George Stubbs; her task is to create a Murder Hunt as a part of the festivities for an upcoming fête. But Mrs. Oliver suspects that there’s more going on at Nasse House than preparations for the event. Poirot has agreed to look into the matter with her. On the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who was playing the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt, actually is killed. Poirot and Inspector Bland investigate to find out who was responsible. As a part of that investigation, Poirot wants to get to know the members of the household as well as possible. So he has a conversation with Amy Folliat, whose family used to own Nasse House, and who’s lived in the area all her life. In fact, Sir George married her ward Harriet ‘Hattie’.  Here’s what she and Poirot have to say about that marriage:
 

‘‘…I admit that I deliberately influenced her to accept him. If it had turned out badly –’ her voice faltered a little, ‘– it would have been my fault for urging her to marry a man so many years older than herself.’
‘It seems to me,’ said Poirot approvingly, ‘that you made there a most prudent arrangement for her… To arrange a good marriage, one must take more than romance into consideration.’’

Many modern people, especially members of Western cultures, might bristle at the idea of arranged marriages. But marriage arrangements are still common in many parts of the world. In those cultures, there’s logic to that. It’s believed that parents have their children’s best interests in mind, and are more mature. Who better to guide the choice of marriage partner?

Of course, not all parents do have their children’s best interests at heart, and they aren’t always mature. Still, as Poirot points out, there’s more to a good marriage than just emotions and romance (not, of course, that they don’t matter). So even in cultures where marriages aren’t formally arranged by the families, parents often weigh in on their children’s choices of partner. Caring parents want their children to make wise choices.

Arranged marriages have been a part of many societies for a long time, too, and certainly a part of crime fiction. For example, Robert van Gulik’s sleuth is Dee Jen-djieh, usually known as Judge Dee, who serves as Magistrate for the district of Lan-Fang, in the northwest of China. Judge Dee has three wives, a not-uncommon practice during the Tang Dynasty in which he lives. His marriage to his first (senior) wife was arranged by their families. He’s chosen his other two wives. And the custom of families arranging marriages is woven throughout the Judge Dee stories. It’s sometimes a very elaborate process, with ritual visits and gifts and planning.

In one plot thread of Ruth Rendell’s The Monster in the Box, Inspector Hannah Goldsmith is faced with a difficult case. She’s been assigned to find out the truth about sixteen-year-old Tamima Rahman, whose parents are recent émigrés from Pakistan. It’s suspected that Tamima was coerced into a marriage against her will – a marriage arranged by her family. On the one hand, Goldsmith is not alone in her belief that sixteen-year-olds are too young to marry, whether or not it’s their choice. On the other hand, as the Rahman family reminds her, every culture is different, and it’s risky to make judgements about other belief systems. As Goldsmith works to find Tamima and sort out the truth about this marriage, she also has to confront her own assumptions.

That’s also the case in Rhys Bowen’s Evanly Bodies. In one plot thread, Constable Evan Evans has to deal with greatly increased tensions in the town of Llanfair. The Khan family moved there not long ago and no-one is really comfortable about it. The Khans are Pakistani, and the locals are not accustomed to their traditions. For their part, the Khans have been treated with enough bigotry that they don’t trust anyone. One day though, sixteen-year-old Jamila Khan helps Evans’ wife Bronwen with groceries, and the two strike up a friendship. So when Jamila disappears, Bronwen is especially worried, and urges her husband to look into the matter. It’s believed that the girl went into hiding to avoid being sent back to Pakistan for an arranged wedding. At first, the Khan family blames Bronwen for interfering and accuses her of shielding Jamila. And even after it becomes clear that Bronwen had nothing to do with the girl’s disappearance, the Khans still believe that their customs and traditions are being disregarded. To them, there’s nothing wrong with ensuring that Jamila will have a solid marriage to someone of their own culture. There’s of course more to this mystery than that question, but it forms an interesting thread throughout the novel.

Arranged marriages are also a part of modern life in India. A former colleague told me that, in her experience, it’s not that today’s young people have absolutely no say in their partners. But parents often do guide their choices. For example, parents may consult astrologists to find out the best sort of match for their child. They also put out personal advertisements in papers, and participate in ‘vetting’ marriage candidates. They get involved in other ways too. Once the spouse-to-be is chosen, both families make arrangements for the wedding. We see this process in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, which introduces Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. His ‘bread and butter’ is background checks on future spouses. Families pay his agency to find out everything possible about a likely marriage candidate before the final wedding agreement is made. In this novel, Puri’s involved in a few such background checks, and they lead to some interesting findings.

Arranged marriages may seem coercive or worse. Certainly people from Western backgrounds, who likely chose their own partners, may see the custom as wrong. Speaking strictly for my family, I’m quite sure my daughter wouldn’t have gone along with an arranged marriage; nor would I. But not everyone sees it that way, and the tradition has a long history in society – and in crime fiction.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Rhys Bowen, Ruth Rendell, Tarquin Hall

One Word From You is All I Need to be Inspired*

Writing InspirationIn Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, detective story novelist Ariadne Oliver is talking to Hercule Poirot about how she gets inspired for her stories:
 

‘It does happen that way. I mean, you see a fat woman sitting on a bus…And you look at her and you study her shoes and the skirt she’s wearing and her hat and guess her age and whether she’s got a wedding ring on and a few other things. And then you get off the bus. You don’t want ever to see her again, but you’ve got a story in your mind…’
 

Later in the conversation, Mrs. Oliver points out (and I think, rightly, at least for me) that it would ruin the inspiration if she actually knew the woman she describes. Then the woman she created wouldn’t really be, well, her own creation.

Lots of fiction writers get asked if they base their stories on real people. And of course, there are plenty of authors who write fiction about real people (Hilary Mantel, Martin Edwards and Truman Capote, to name just three). But a lot of writers don’t quite do that.

What happens instead (well, at least for me) is that the writer may see an event, or read or hear about it. Or, perhaps the writer notices a stranger in a grocery store or restaurant or park. Whether it’s a person or event, it sparks the writer’s imagination. Then, the ‘what if questions’ happen: ‘That guy in the baseball cap is so wrapped up in his ‘phone that he’s not paying attention to anything. There could be a murder right behind him and he might not even notice! What would that be like?’  And the story starts to come together, just from that one scene.

Agatha Christie is said to have been inspired for Murder on the Orient Express by a personal experience in which she was caught on a train that was stopped because of snow. Of course, there wasn’t a murder on the train, and it wasn’t for three days, and…  But that one incident sparked her imagination. I can’t speak for her, of course, but my guess would be that she didn’t base the characters in that novel on specific people she knew. It’s possible that no-one on the train with her that day resembled any of the characters. Instead, it was the experience that got her thinking.

In October of 1999, two trains collided more or less head-on near Ladbroke Grove, a few miles from Paddington Station. There were 31 deaths and hundreds of injuries, and the incident left permanent scars. Ruth Rendell used that incident as the setting for her novel Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, in which three women’s lives intersect as a result of the crash. Two lose their partners in the wreck; the third meets her fiancé because of it. When these three discover that they’ve all been duped by the same con artist (who was ostensibly killed in the crash) the result leads to some dark places. Rendell didn’t, as far as I know, base those characters directly on people she actually knew who survived the crash. Rather, the event itself sparked the story.

You might say the same sort of thing about Michael Connelly. As he has told the story, he was at a baseball game and got to talking with another person who was there. That man was a lawyer who didn’t have an office in the conventional sense of that word. Rather, he used his car as an office. If you’ve read Connelly’s work and that sounds familiar, it should. Connelly used this person he met as the inspiration for Mickey Haller, whom he introduced in The Lincoln Lawyer. Fans of Haller will know that he uses his car as an office, and travels all over Los Angeles to pursue his cases. The man Connelly met at the baseball game wasn’t named Mickey Haller, and very likely didn’t resemble Haller either in character or appearance. My guess is that instead, Connelly was inspired to imagine a lawyer who works out of his car, and the kind of cases he might encounter.

In discussing the creation of his John Rebus series, Ian Rankin has said that Rebus came to him as a fully-formed fictional character. But he (Rankin) was inspired by the place where he was living at the time he was writing Knots and Crosses, the first Rebus novel. He has said that he wrote the story on a typewriter, sitting at a table by a window. From that window, he could see the tenement opposite, and decided that Rebus would live there – across the way. His living situation inspired the sort of home environment Rebus would have. Fans of this series will also know that Rankin has been inspired for several stories by other places in Edinburgh.

Here’s what Val McDermid says about the inspiration for her novel The Vanishing Point:
 

‘‘I was travelling with my son when he was about six,’ she says. ‘I’ve got replacement knees so I set off the detectors, and they literally put you in a box. While I was there, my boy was standing by the luggage belt waiting for our bags to come through and I thought that someone could just take him by the hand and walk away with him.’’
 

She took that moment of fear, with which any parent can identify, and used it to spark the story, even though fortunately, the events of the story didn’t happen in her personal life.

Some writers do use real people, of course. And if you’re interested in the legalities of that, please check out this fascinating post by Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan. That’s a great crime fiction blog, by the way, that deserves a place on any crime fiction fan’s blog roll.

A lot of writers, though, take those little ideas that come from people they see, events they watch (or learn about) or experiences, and use them to spark fictional stories. Admittedly it can be a bit difficult to explain the process. But when it happens to you, there’s nothing quite like it.

 

ps  It’s not just authors who do this. So do those who write songs. For instance, Billy Joel was, so it is said, inspired to write New York State of Mind by a bus ride he took to West Point. And Allentown was inspired by a comment he heard from a fan.

Wait, what? You wonder why I’d mention a rock star in a crime fiction blog post? But it’s Billy Joel!! And it’s his birthday. So happy birthday, Mr. Joel. And now I’m off to celebrate this important international holiday. Problem with that? Good! ;-)

 
 
 

*NOTE: the title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Blonde Over Blue.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, Martin Edwards, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, Val McDermid, Truman Capote, Hilary Mantel

This Bird Had Flown*

Ruth_Rendell_1672119cMany crime writers (well, many writers in any genre) will tell you that they’d love to leave a distinctive mark on their genre and innovate it in some way. Few can actually do that. Ruth Rendell was one of those few, and her passing leaves a gaping hole in the world of crime fiction.

To me, anyway, Rendell helped bring the traditional mystery into the modern age. Her Inspector Wexford stories have several elements of the traditional whodunit novel. But she added other elements as well; integrated new themes and more contemporary contexts; and used that series to explore social issues as well as the mysteries at hand. What’s more, the Wexford series blends ‘home scenes’ and domestic life in with the actual crime story in innovative ways.

Her writing had a powerful impact on the genre in other ways too. Crime fiction fans can tell you that with novels such as To Fear a Painted Devil and A Judgement in Stone, Rendell explored the psychology of crime using new approaches. All sorts of themes, such as obsession, paranoia, phobias, and family dysfunction are woven into her work. Both under her own name and as Barbara Vine, she was a ‘game-changer’ when it came to writing about human interaction and human thinking.

What’s especially noteworthy (at least to me) is that Rendell didn’t indulge in gratuitousness to make her points. Some of her books are quite dark, but the stories don’t hinge on mindless brutality. Building suspense and creating a truly chilling story without brutality isn’t easy.

As a reader, I must confess I haven’t liked every Rendell/Vine story I’ve read. Even her most devoted fans will admit that some of her novels and stories are better than others. But what I do admire about Rendell is her willingness to try out different themes and different approaches. She saw ways in which the elements of the traditional mystery could be given contemporary settings and contexts, and she took the risks involved in being a part of that evolution.

Rendell’s work has many, many dedicated fans, and there are good reasons for that. But even if you’re not among them, it’s hard to deny her impact on the genre. And that in itself is worth remembering.

For crime writers, Rendell had another kind of impact. Many of us have learned a lot from her writing style, her plots, her characters and other aspects of her stories. I know I have. For instance, I admire her skill at peeling away the veneer of the supposedly peaceful, suburban idyll to reveal the ugliness that could lie beneath it. She was also, to my mind, quite skilled at building real psychological suspense without gore. And some of her stories bring larger social issues and problems down to the human level; I admire that too. I’d like to be able to do those things when I grow up. If I grow up.

So, would I want to be Rendell? No. But I think that’s the point. She wasn’t really a ‘clone’ of other writers. Instead, she followed her own path. I think writers do their best work when they find their own voices. Hers, anyway, changed crime fiction.

She will be missed.

 
 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).

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Filed under Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell

It’s Curtain Time and Away We Go!*

Stage AdaptationsIn Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings run into several difficulties and obstacles as they work to solve the murder of wealthy Miss Emily Arundell. One evening, Hastings suggests that they take a break from the case and go to a play, and Poirot enthusiastically agrees. The evening goes well enough, except that Hastings admits he’s made one mistake: taking Poirot to a crook play.
 

‘There is one piece of advice I offer to all my readers. Never take a soldier to a military play, a sailor to a naval play, a Scotsman to a Scottish play, a detective to a thriller – and an actor to any play whatsoever!’
 

And yet, crime fiction fans do enjoy going to mystery/thriller plays. Sometimes they’re adaptations of novels or short stories. Sometimes they’re originally written as plays. Other times they’re ‘audience participation’ plays. In any case, they’re popular.

Adapting a story for the different media (print, film, theatre) isn’t always easy. But there’ve been many stories that have made their way from print to stage (or vice versa). And it’s interesting to see how they’re adapted. Here are just a few examples.

Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger is the story of Ellen and Robert Bunting, a couple who spent several years ‘in service,’ and have now retired. As a way to earn income, they’ve opened their home to lodgers, but so far, haven’t been overly successful. Then, a mysterious stranger who calls himself Mr. Sleuth takes a room. He’s a little odd; but at first it seems like a fine arrangement. He’s quiet, pays promptly, and so on. Bit by bit though, the Buntings begin to suspect that something might be very wrong. Could Mr. Sleuth somehow be connected to a series of murders committed by a man who calls himself The Avenger? On the one hand, the Buntings depend on the income from their lodger. On the other, if he does have something to do with the Avenger killings, they should inform the police. It’s an interesting psychological study which was adapted for the stage in 1916 as Who is He?

Edgar Wallace adapted his own novel The Gaunt Stranger as a play that he called The Ringer. He later edited the original novel and re-released it with the same name as the play. In the story, Henry Arthur Milton, who calls himself ‘The Ringer,’ is a vigilante who’s gone into hiding in Australia. Then he learns that his sister Gwenda has been found dead, and returns to London to avenge her. He targets the man he blames; and of course, Scotland Yard can’t support ‘vigilante justice,’ so they’ll have to find The Ringer before he can take justice into his own hands. The major problem is, he’s very good at disguising himself – so good that no-one knows what he looks like. You can find out lots more about this story in a really interesting post by Sergio at Tipping My Fedora. And you’ll want that excellent blog on your blog roll anyway – it’s the source for classic crime novels and film adaptations.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories have been adapted for the stage. The Mousetrap, for instance, has been running continuously since 1952. It had its origin in a short story (which was based on a radio play!) called Three Blind Mice. There’s also The Yellow Iris, which began as a short story in which Rosemary Barton dies of cyanide poisoning during a dinner party. It’s believed her death is suicide, but her widower George says otherwise. A year later, he stages another dinner party with the same people to see if he can catch the killer. Interestingly enough, Christie also developed this into the novel Sparkling Cyanide, ‘though she changed both the sleuth and the murderer.

James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice is the story of Frank Chambers and Cora Papadakis, who meet when Frank, who’s a drifter, ends up working in the diner owned by Cora and her husband Nick.  Frank and Cora begin an affair that ends up having disastrous results when they decide to get rid of Nick. Originally, this was written as a short novel, but it’s been adapted several times for film, and twice (that I’m aware of) for the stage: in 2005 in London’s West End, and in 2008 in Moscow.

And then there’s Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon, the last Lord Peter Wimsey novel she completed. In the novel, Wimsey and Harriet Vane have finally married. But trouble starts when they travel to Tallboys, the country home Wimsey’s bought for his bride, and they place they intend to spend their honeymoon. When the body of the house’s former owner is found in the basement, the wedding couple have a new mystery to solve. This story had its origins in a 1936 play that Sayers co-wrote, and was later adapted as a full-length novel.

Ruth Rendell’s An Unkindness of Ravens is the thirteenth in her Reg Wexford series. In the novel, Wexford agrees to look into the disappearance of Rodney Williams. At first he’s not overly concerned about the man. All indications are that he’d run off with another woman – not exactly ‘upstanding,’ but not really a police matter. Then, Williams’ suitcase and car are found. Later, his body is discovered. Then there’s another stabbing. It’s now clear that this is more than just a case of a man who treated his wife badly. While not as well-known as some other stage adaptations are, this novel has been adapted as a play.

And I don’t think I could do a post about crime novels and the theatre without mentioning Ngaio Marsh, whose career was so heavily influenced by her work on and behind the stage. Many of her stories feature plays, stage settings and so on.

There’s just something about seeing a crime story played out on the stage. There are some nuances that it’s much harder to get across in print than ‘live.’ So it’s little wonder that so many crime novels either had their start as plays or have been adapted for that media. Which ones have you enjoyed?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Cole Porter’s Another Op’nin’ Another Show.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Edgar Wallace, James M. Cain, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Ngaio Marsh, Ruth Rendell