Category Archives: Ruth Rendell

But You Were Just Too Clever By Half*

Too CleverIf you read enough crime fiction, you learn a few lessons. One of them is that there is danger in being very clever and observant. Characters who notice things and put the proverbial two and two together tend to come upon truths that aren’t safe for them to know. And that tends to make fictional characters very vulnerable.

Of course, a certain amount of cleverness is important; otherwise fictional sleuths couldn’t easily find out the truth about a murder. But how often does a character become a victim because s/he found out a secret the killer was keeping? Or because s/he knows about another murder? It happens a lot in the genre.

Agatha Christie used this plot point in several of her novels and stories. For example, in Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the stabbing death of Lord Edgware. His wife, famous actress Jane Wilkinson, is the most likely suspect. She wanted to divorce him so that she could marry someone else – a divorce he would not grant. And what’s more, she even threatened his life publicly. To make matters worse, the butler and Edgware’s secretary both say that someone who looked like her, and gave her name, came to the house just before the killing. But she has a solid alibi. Twelve people are prepared to testify that on the night of the murder, she was at a dinner party in another part of London, so she couldn’t possibly have been the killer. Poirot, Hastings, and Chief Inspector Japp are trying to reconcile the two sets of evidence when there’s another death. And another. One of the other victims is up-and-coming actor Donald Ross. As it turns out, he’d noticed one small thing, which got him to wondering too much and coming too close to the truth.

In Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, we are introduced to Nicholas Quinn, the only Deaf member of the Oxford Foreign Exams Syndicate. This group is responsible for administering and managing exams given in other countries that follow the British educational system. One afternoon, Quinn dies of what turns out to be poison. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis look into the case, and soon learn that the members of the Syndicate all had things to hide. One by one, each member’s secret comes out, and Morse and Lewis have to work out which of those secrets was deadly for Quinn. It turns out that he found out more about the Syndicate and the lives of its members than it was safe for him to know, and paid a very high price for it.

One of the most chilling examples of being too clever is Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. The wealthy and well-educated Coverdale family is in need of a new housekeeper. So Jacqueline Coverdale goes in search of a suitable person. She soon hires Eunice Parchman for the job, and at first, things are all right. But Eunice has a secret that she’s determined will not come out. One day, and quite by accident, one of the Coverdales finds out Eunice’s secret. That unwitting discovery ends up in tragedy.

Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly introduces readers to Giorgio Tassini, who works as a night watchman at one of Venice’s glass-blowing factories. He is convinced that the factories are illegally disposing of toxic waste, and poisoning Venice’ water. In fact, he blames them for the fact that his daughter was born with special needs. One morning, Tassini is discovered dead at the factory where he works. Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello investigate, and at first, it seems this death was a terrible accident. But it’s not long before murder is suspected. So the detectives look into the allegations that Tassini had made, to see whether they might have led to his murder. As it turns out, Tassini had learned more than was safe for him to know. And that cleverness, if you want to call it that, cost him his life.

We see that sort of consequence in Shona (now writing as S.G.) MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. In that novel, which takes place in 17th Century Banff, Seaton is undermaster at a local grammar school. One morning, the body of local apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davison, is discovered in Seaton’s classroom. He’s died of poison, and soon enough, music master Charles Thom is arrested and imprisoned for the crime. Thom says he’s innocent, and asks his friend Seaton to help. Seaton reluctantly agrees, and begins to ask questions. One possibility is that Davidson was murdered because of his political leanings. Banff is staunchly Protestant, and there was talk Davidson might have been a spy for Catholic King Philip of Spain. But there are other possibilities, too. And in the end, Seaton finds that Davidson had innocently observed something that gave him more information than was safe for him to have. That knowledge cost him his life.

Many whodunits, cosy and otherwise, include (at least) a second death, where the victim’s killed because of finding out too much about the first murder in the novel. That’s the case in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, the first in her Myrtle Clover series. Myrtle is a retired English teacher who’s not yet ready to be put out to pasture, as the saying goes. Her son Red, who’s the local Chief of Police, sees things otherwise, and ‘volunteers’ his mother to work at the local church. When Myrtle goes to the church, she discovers the body of Parke Stockard. Determined to prove that she’s not ready to be put aside yet, Myrtle decides to investigate. And there are plenty of suspects, too. The victim was both malicious and scheming, and had made enemies all over the small North Carolina town where she’d recently moved. Then there’s another death. One of the members of the church, Kitty Kirk, is killed. As it turns out, she had noticed something about the murderer that would have made it too easy for her to work out what happened to Parke Stockard.

See what I mean? All you have to do is look at crime fiction to conclude that maybe it’s best not to be too observant and clever. At the very least you live longer…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Long Blondes’ Too Clever by Half.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Donna Leon, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ruth Rendell, S.G. MacLean, Shona MacLean

You Can Run a Household*

HousekeepersWouldn’t it be wonderful to have someone to manage your household? The cleaning chores would be done, the dry cleaning would be sent out and picked up, the food would be purchased, cooked, and served, and perhaps even your household accounting would be done. That’s the life people live when they have a skilled housekeeper.

A recent comment exchange with Kathy D. and with Tim at Solitary Praxis has got me thinking about the role of housekeepers in crime fiction. And housekeepers are certainly woven through the genre. It makes sense, too, when you consider that housekeepers have been part of the social and economic structure of many societies for a long time.

In days past, of course, people of means (and even plenty of people who weren’t extremely wealthy) had household staffs (cooks, maids, drivers, nannies, and so on). The housekeeper supervised those people – not always an easy job.

We see that sort of household structure in Emily Brightwell’s historical (Victorian Era) Mrs. Jeffries series. Mrs. Jeffries serves as housekeeper to Inspector Gerald Witherspoon. In that role, she supervises his cook, maids, coachman and footman. Witherspoon also finds that Mrs. Jeffries is a very helpful ‘sounding board’ when he’s on a case. What he doesn’t know is how deliberate that is on Mrs. Jeffries’ part. She has a good relationship with her employees, who serve as her ‘eyes and ears.’ So when Witherspoon is conducting an investigation, Mrs. Jeffries gets a lot of information from her staff. After all, who pays attention to a maid? Or a coachman? Those people can hear things and see things without really being noticed.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories feature housekeepers. And it’s interesting to see how their roles evolved over time as they’re portrayed in her work. For example, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was published in 1926. In that novel, wealthy manufacturing magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed one night. His stepson, Captain Ralph Paton, is the most likely suspect, but he’s gone missing, so the police can’t question him. His fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, believes he’s innocent, though, and asks Hercule Poirot (who has moved to the area) to investigate. Poirot agrees, and looks into the matter. One of the ‘people of interest’ is Ackroyd’s housekeeper, Miss Russell. She’s certainly very much in charge of the staff. But she is, if you will, a victim of the social mores of the day, and has to be very careful of what she says and does. She’s also very much aware that Ackroyd could fire her at any moment.

Things changed quickly, especially after World War II. So in 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!) (published in 1957), we see quite a different role for the housekeeper. In that novel, Miss Marple works with her friend, Elspeth McGillicuddy, to find out the truth about a murder Mrs. McGillicuddy witnessed. The body ends up at Rutherford Hall, the property of Luther Crackenthorpe, so Miss Marple needs an ‘in’ to get to know the Crackenthorpe family. For that, she relies on professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow.  Lucy is very good at her job, so she’s in demand, and basically sets her own work schedule and working conditions. The Crackenthorpe family eagerly hires her, and, technically speaking, she is an employee. But there’s no question who really runs the household and is subtly in charge.

We see that also in Barbara Neely’s novels featuring professional housekeeper Blanche White. Like other skilled housekeepers, Blanche is observant and quick-thinking, and is able to multi-task. On the surface, Blanche is an employee who can be dismissed at any time. What’s more, she is black, while many of her employers are white. This in itself puts her and her employers in different social classes in many areas. And yet, fans of this series can tell you that Blanche has her own way of being much more ‘in charge’ than many of her employers may think. They depend on her in ways they’re probably not even aware of, and they go along with her wishes without noticing it.

Sometimes it can be dangerous to be a housekeeper. Just ask Vera Pugsley, whom we meet in Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall. In that novel, TV personality Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford has decided to give up the pressures and hassles of the media, and open an antiques business with her recently-widowed mother, Iris. Everything changes, though, with one telephone call from Iris. It seems she’s suddenly moved from London to Little Dipperton, Devon, and taken the former carriage house on the grounds of Honeychurch Hall, home of the Honeychurch family. This abrupt change of plans shocks Kat, and she rushes to Devon to see what’s going on. When she gets there, she discovers that her mother has injured one of her hands in a car accident, so Kat makes plans to stay on a bit until Iris is well. It’s not long before a strange series of events starts happening. First, someone seems to be sabotaging Iris’ attempts to get settled in her new home. There’s also the matter of the disappearance of the nanny that the Honeychurch family has hired. Then, there’s a theft from Honeychurch hall – a valuable antique snuff box. Then, the Honeychurch family’s housekeeper, Vera Pugsley, is murdered. Kat gets drawn into this mystery, as well as the history of the Honeychurch family.

Of course, not all housekeepers are sleuths or victims. Some are decidedly not on the side of the angels, as the saying goes. Any fan of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca can tell you that. In that story, we follow the fortunes of Maxim de Winter’s second wife as she tries to adjust to life at Manderley, the de Winter home. One major obstacle is that the place still seems permeated by the presence of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca. And the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, does nothing to dispel that presence. In fact, she works as hard as she can to manipulate, frighten, demean, and belittle the new Mrs. de Winter. Matters are made worse by the fact that Rebecca did not die naturally.  The psychological tension in the story increases as the second Mrs. de Winter slowly discovers the truth about her husband, Rebecca, and Mrs. Danvers.

And then there’s Eunice Parchman, whom we meet in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. The wealthy and well-educated Coverdale family needs a housekeeper. So Jacqueline Coverdale advertises for the position. Eunice applies, and is hired with very little ‘vetting.’ And that proves to be disastrous. It turns out that Eunice has a secret – one she is determined that no-one will discover. When a family member accidently stumbles on that secret, the result is tragedy.

See what I mean? Housekeepers are woven into crime fiction in many different ways. Thanks, Tim and Kathy D., for the inspiration. Which fictional housekeepers have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebb’s The Grass is Always Greener.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Neely, Daphne du Maurier, Emily Brightwell, Hannah Dennison, Ruth Rendell

The Lady With the Lamp, You Know She Understands*

Live-in NursesWe don’t see it as much these days, but there was a time when it wasn’t uncommon for a family to hire a live-in nurse if they had a relative who needed regular medical care. For the person with health issues, it means being cared for at home, rather than a hospital. For the family, it’s much more convenient, if they have the means. Live-in nurses get to learn a lot about a family, and they add an interesting dynamic to a household. So it makes sense that they’d find their way into crime fiction, too.

Agatha Christie chose a live-in nurse as the narrator in Murder in Mesopotamia. Famous archaeologist Dr. Eric Leidner hires Nurse Amy Leatheran to help care for his wife, Louise. They’re on a dig a few hours from Baghdad, and this is the first time Louise has joined the team. She’s been having difficulty with anxiety, and reports seeing faces at windows and hearing hands tapping and so on. Leatheran’s task will be to allay her fears and help with her anxiety. At first, things go well enough, although the atmosphere is a little tense. But Leatheran soon notices friction, carefully covered up with politeness, among some of the members of the excavation team. Then, Louise confides her reasons for being afraid: she believes that her first husband, Frederick Bosner, may be planning to kill her. According to her story, they were married for a brief time, but he was killed. It might be, though, that he didn’t die; and he’s always said that she would be his and no-one else’s. At first there doesn’t seem a whole lot of merit to that story. But one afternoon, Louise is murdered. Hercule Poirot is in the area, and is persuaded to investigate. Among other things, this novel offers a look at the life of a live-in nurse of the times. Yes, indeed, fans of Appointment With Death and of The ABC Murders. Oh, and of The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side.

In Barbara Vine’s (AKA Ruth Rendell) The Minotaur, we are introduced to Kerstin Kvist, a Swedish nurse who moves to the UK to be near her lover Mark Douglas. She’s hired by the Cosway family to look after thirty-nine-year-old John Cosway, who is said to be schizophrenic. On the surface, it looks like a good arrangement for everyone. But soon after her arrival Kvist begins to suspect that something is very badly wrong. For one thing, the family still seems to live in the Victorian Era, which is strange enough. What’s more, family matriarch Mrs. Cosway has ordered that her son be kept heavily sedated. Kvist is sure that he doesn’t need to be medicated in that way. So, bit by bit, she withdraws the medication her patient is on, but doesn’t tell anyone. That decision leads to real tragedy, which is documented in the diary that Kvist keeps.

Minette Walters’ novella The Tinder Box is the story of the murders of elderly Lavinia Fanshaw, and her live-in nurse, Dorothy Jenkins. Everyone in their village of Sowerbridge is convinced that the murderer is an Irish worker named Patrick O’Riordian.  He is duly arrested, and it seems that the case will be settled. But Siobhan Levenham, who also lives in Sowerbridge, believes that Patrick is innocent. She thinks that he’s been ‘railroaded’ because of local prejudice, and wants to clear his name. But the more she learns about the accused’s past, the more she begins to wonder what really happened. Is O’Riordian guilty? If so, what went on among him, Lavinia Fanshaw and Dorothy Jenkins? As she looks for the truth, Levenham begins to question her own thought processes.

Anne Perry’s historical series features Hester Latterly, a nurse who’s recently returned from service in the Crimean War (the series takes place in Victorian London). At first, she works in a free hospital, but she is dismissed for insubordination. She treated a patient in crisis without a doctor present, something she’s not permitted to do. After that incident, Latterly takes up a career as a private nurse, working in homes where a patient is recuperating (or, at times, is chronically ill). She meets Detective William Monk (in The Face of a Stranger) through her sister-in-law, who swears by Monk’s PI skills. As the series goes on, Latterly and Monk work together on cases, and later become partners in life as well. Among other things, this series shows the life of a private nurse shortly after Florence Nightingale’s reform efforts began to make nursing a higher-status and more skilled profession.

And then there’s James Ellroy’s historical (1950’s) novel, L.A. Confidential. The novel’s focus is three L.A.P.D. officers, each of whom gets drawn into solving the case of a group of murders at the Nite Owl Café. One of these cops is Jack Vincennes, who is acting as a technical advisor for a television show called Badge of Honor. The set designer, David Mertens, has a rare form of epilepsy, and needs regular nursing attention and medication in order to function. For that, he’s hired a live-in nurse, Jerry Marsalas, to look after his needs. Marsalas also accompanies Mertens to the studio set, to be available as needed. Without spoiling the story, I can tell you that these characters play important roles in the novel.

See what I mean? Live-in nurses have all sorts of crime-fictional jobs, from classic and Golden Age novels to modern noir, and a lot of other types besides. This is just a small dose (I know, I know, fans of Charles Todd’s Bess Crawford); which ones have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Country Joe McDonald’s Lady With the Lamp.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anne Perry, Barbara Vine, Charles Todd, James Ellroy, Minette Walters, Ruth Rendell

Why is it Always a Fight?*

Own Worst EnemyThere’s something to the old expression about people being their own worst enemies. It’s such a common human experience that ‘war against self’ is one of the basic conflicts that we find in literature. That’s just as true of crime fiction as it is of any other sort of fiction.

The ‘war against self’ can take many forms, too. It can be a matter of conquering a fear, overcoming a self-destructive habit, or even learning a new (but difficult) skill. You’ll notice as I go on today that I won’t be mentioning the all-too-common version of this where a dysfunctional sleuth battles the bottle and can’t keep a relationship. There are many such characters, and I’m sure you could name more than I could. The reality is, though there are plenty of other ways to portray this ‘war against self.’

In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock, we are introduced to Len Bateson. He’s a London medical student with St. Catherine’s Hospital, who lives in a student hostel. Bateson’s a friendly enough person, who enjoys a good laugh. But in several ways, he’s his own worst enemy. For one thing, he has a temper that sometimes gets in the way of his judgement. For another, he has a secret – one that holds him back, at least in his own mind. He gets drawn into a strange mystery when his stethoscope disappears, along with other odd things (a shoe, some light bulbs, and a cookery book, among other things). Matters take a murderous turn when a fellow resident, Celia Austin, dies in what looks at first like a suicide. When it’s proven that she was murdered, Inspector Sharpe investigates. Also involved is Hercule Poirot, mostly at the request of the hostel’s manager Mrs. Hubbard, the sister of Poirot’s frighteningly efficient secretary, Felicity Lemon. As Sharpe and Poirot look into the death, they find that several people in the hostel are hiding things, and some are not what they seem to be. Admittedly, Bateson’s struggle with himself is not the major plot point in this novel, but it adds to one plot thread.

Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone tells the story of Eunice Parchman. When the wealthy and well-educated Coverdale family hires her as housekeeper, she’s glad of the job. But she is keeping a secret – one that truly has held her back. She’s very much her own worst enemy in that she doesn’t really take any positive steps towards dealing with that secret. Rather, she’s desperate that no-one will find out the truth, and goes to great length to prevent that. As fans of the story can tell you, that leads to terrible tragedy. One thing that makes this story all the more tragic is that there are several points along the way where it all might have been avoided.

Fans of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series will know that in many ways, he’s his own worst enemy. Certainly he is when it comes to his health He knows very well that he doesn’t eat well, doesn’t take care of himself, and so on. He’s not particularly good, either, at reaching out for help or at the social glue that holds relationships together. He’s intelligent, too, so he’s aware that he’s often his own greatest obstacle. But as I’m sure we can all attest, knowing something doesn’t always translate to making better (or at any rate, more healthful) choices.

Jassy Mackenzie’s PI/bodyguard protagonist Jade de Jong is also arguably her own worst enemy. When we first meet her in Random Violence, she’s just returned to her native Johannesburg after being away for ten years. Many people would say that, as the saying goes, her heart’s in the right place. But she faces plenty of battles with her own demons. She has a dark past, and is trying to come to terms with it. What’s more, she’s coping with the fact that her father was murdered. As the novels go on, she becomes a little more mature, and slightly less alienated. But that doesn’t mean things magically become easier for her.

We might say a similar thing about Sharon Bolton’s Lacey Flint. She’s a police detective who has her share of personal issues. She has some real darkness in her past, and finds it difficult (at least at first) to trust anyone. That’s one of several reasons that she doesn’t reach out when she might be better served by doing so. And although she’s not what you’d call a stereotypical ‘maverick,’ she does go out on her own without always thinking of her own safety or the consequences. She finds trust quite difficult in her personal life, too, which certainly doesn’t make life easier. On the one hand, Flint is not a demon-haunted sleuth who can’t stay away from the bottle, and can’t care about anyone else. On the other, she often has to overcome herself, if I can put it that way. And it’s interesting to see how she’s doing that as the series goes on.

And then there’s Peter May’s Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ MacLeod, whom we first meet in The Blackhouse. MacLeod is an Edinburgh police detective who returns to his home on the Isle of Lewis when a murder there looks suspiciously like another murder he’s investigating. Fin’s past plays a major role in his interactions with the other characters, and in the actual case he’s working. In many ways, that past holds him back. Facing it and dealing with it are hard to do, but that’s the battle with himself that Fin faces.

And that’s the thing about being our own worst enemies. Sometimes people spend more time throwing up obstacles themselves than they do getting past hurdles anyone else sets up. It’s a common human tendency, so it’s little wonder we see it as much as we do in crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Big Man on Mulberry Street.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Henning Mankell, Jassy Mackenzie, Peter May, Ruth Rendell, Sharon Bolton

A Public Service Update… ;-)

The GirlFair Warning: this post is not appropriate for impressionable disbeliefs. So please have your disbelief leave the room as you read this. Thank you.

As a public-spirited citizen, and especially one who’s interested in crime fiction, I feel a responsibility to alert you to things that are going on in the genre. In that spirit, let me make you aware of a potentially dangerous individual who’s been lurking among recent crime novels. That’s right, I’m referring to an unnamed person I’ll refer to as The Girl.

She’s become a prominent character in a lot of crime fiction, but she’s just been reported as a Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn).  In case you haven’t noticed, let me fill you in on what she’s been doing and why authorities are looking for her. You’ll soon see why she’s a cause for concern.

Let’s begin with what she’s been doing. There is evidence that she is The Girl Who Played With Fire (Stieg Larsson), and that’s of course always dangerous. Word is also that she’s The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest (Stieg Larsson). That’s a very risky thing to do, as it could result in swarms of hornets who could pose a threat. She’s quite possibly been responsible for a great deal more harm, too, so I think it’s important that the public be aware of this person.

Here is what we know about her appearance. One important identifying feature is that she’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson). It’s quite likely that you’ll notice her right away, as she’ll be The Girl in the Green Raincoat (Laura Lippman). Reports are, though, that she’s been seen in other clothes. For instance, you may see her as The Girl in the Red Coat (Kate Hamer).  So don’t be fooled by changes in clothes. The ‘photo above is provided so that you can get a sense of what she may look like.

Hospitals and doctors’ offices are also being alerted to the presence of this girl. She will likely stand out at such places, because she is The Girl With a Clock For a Heart (Peter Swanson). As if that weren’t unusual enough, we’ve also gotten reports that it’s a unique sort of a clock. In fact, some people call this girl The Girl With the Long Green Heart (Lawrence Block). That may very well be because of the shape and appearance of this clock. Authorities aren’t sure at this point where the clock came from, or what the girl’s purpose was in having it. It’s possible that she stole it or was transporting it for someone else.  Either way, it’s hoped that if the girl goes for medical treatment of some kind, the clock can then be traced to its source.

There have been several alleged sightings of this girl. Some witnesses have reported seeing The Girl on the Stairs (Louise Welsh). Others, though, insist that they saw The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins). Descriptions of the girl were not clear enough to establish whether the witnesses were speaking of the same, or of two different, girls. Authorities are not ruling out either possibility. There has even been speculation that she was The Girl in the Ice (Robert Bryndza), as some witnesses have suggested. That possibility seems less likely, though.

Whatever her actual whereabouts may be, this girl has certainly caused quite an upheaval in the crime fiction genre, and authorities would like to find her as soon as possible. If you do happen to see her, use extreme caution in approaching her. She’s been involved in all sorts of crime-fictional doings. Keep an eye out: she could even be The Girl Next Door (Ruth Rendell).

Thank you very much for your kind attention and alert observation in this matter. The more of us who know about this girl, the more likely it is she’ll be found. Now, please feel free to pick up your disbelief as you exit. Thank you.

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Filed under Gillian Flynn, Kate Hamer, Laura Lippman, Lawrence Block, Louise Welsh, Paula Hawkins, Peter Swanson, Robert Bryndza, Ruth Rendell, Stieg Larsson