Category Archives: 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

But Do You Now Represent Anyone’s Cause But Your Own?*

Most causes, movements, etc. have leaders, however informally they’re chosen. Whether it’s environmentalists, student activists, unions/workers’ groups, or something else, people know that they’re not going to be heard, so to speak, without some leadership.

As long as that leadership is responsive to the group members, and really represents their interests, it can be a very productive relationship. Everybody gets something, especially if the cause becomes popular and successful. But what if the leadership doesn’t have the group’s best interests at heart? That conflict can result in a lot of damage to a cause. And it can be an interesting plot line to explore in a crime novel.

For instance, in Reginald Hill’s An Advancement of Learning, Superintendent Andy Dalziel, and Sergeant Peter Pascoe are sent to the campus of Holm Coultram College. The school is undergoing renovations that include relocating a large bronze statue. When that statue is moved, everyone is shocked to discover a woman’s body underneath its base. The dead woman turns out to be Alison Girling, former President of the College. She disappeared five years earlier, and everyone thought she died in a freak avalanche during a ski holiday. But it’s now clear that she never left the school. As Dalziel and Pascoe trace the victim’s last days and weeks, they meet several people, including student activist leaders Franny Roote and his right-hand man, Stuart Cockshut. The novel was published in 1971, a time of student radicals and a great number of student-led movements. As the novel goes on, we get to know these particular student activists, and we see the relationship that the leaders have with their members. And it’s very interesting to speculate about whose interests Roote and Cockshut actually have in mind.

One focus of Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage is a planned road that will pass through Framingham Great Wood, near the town of Kingsmarkham. Plenty of people do not want the road, fearing its impact on the environment. Certainly, Inspector Reg Wexford is no fan of the idea. His wife, Dora, is even a member of a citizens’ group that’s trying to stop the road. Then, a group of environmental activists come to town, seemingly to support the locals in their efforts. That’s when the real trouble starts. One of the groups takes hostages, including Dora Wexford. And then there’s a death. Now, Wexford and his team have to find a way to free the hostages and solve the murder, before anyone else is put it risk. And as the story goes on, we see how group leadership doesn’t always have the group members’ interests as a priority.

In John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, Clanton, Mississippi attorney Jake Brigance gets a case that soon draws national attention. Carl Lee Hailey has been arrested for shooting Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard. There’s no doubt that he is the killer, but this isn’t the ‘open and shut’ case that it seems on the surface. Cobb and Willard are responsible for beating and raping Hailey’s ten-year-old daughter, Tonya, and there’s a lot of sympathy for him. At the same time, vigilantism cannot be condoned. To complicate matters further, Hailey is black, while Cobb and Willard were white. Hailey asks Brigance to defend him, and Brigance agrees. It’s not going to be an easy case, though. And several different national groups have an interest in the outcome of Hailey’s trial. Their background manipulation raises important questions of whose interests they really represent.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Full Cupboard of Life, we are introduced to Mma Holonga, who is the very successful owner of a chain of hair salons. She’s ready to choose a husband, and, since she is both attractive and successful, she has plenty of suitors. After narrowing down the list to just a few eligible men, Mma Holonga visits Mma Precious Ramotswe. She wants Mma Ramotswe to ‘vet’ the men on the list and help her choose the best match. Mma Ramotswe agrees and starts to find out about the men. One of them is Mr. Bobologo, a teacher who also runs House of Hope, a home for troubled girls. He is highly respected and is dedicated both to his students and to the residents of House of Hope. But, as Mma Ramotswe does a little digging, she finds that he is a very ambitious person, who may only want to marry Mma Holonga for her money. And there’s a real question of whose interests he really has in mind. It’s especially interesting to see what Mma Holonga says when Mma Romatswe reveals what she’s discovered.

And then there’s Jonothan Cullinane’s Red Herring, which takes place in 1951 Auckland. The dock workers – the wharfies – are planning a strike, and the government wants to do everything possible to stop that happening. There’s no love lost, either, between the government and the union leaders in this era of anti-communist hysteria. Against this backdrop, PI Johnny Malloy is hired for a possible insurance fraud case. It seems that Francis ‘Frank’ O’Phelan, AKA Frank O’Flynn, was reported dead when he went overboard in the Bering Sea. But now, it’s come out that O’Flynn may still be alive. In fact, there’s a photograph of him with several people involved in the upcoming strike. The insurance company that carried O’Flynn’s life insurance policy hires Malloy to find the man in the photograph and establish whether it’s O’Flynn. Malloy takes the case, but soon finds that some powerful people are protecting O’Flynn, and don’t want Malloy to find him. And the closer Malloy gets to the truth, the more he sees who, exactly, has an interest in the upcoming strike. Things are not what they seem, and there’s a real question of whose interests are really being served.

And that’s the thing about the sociology of some groups. Leadership is important if the group’s agenda is going to be furthered. But that doesn’t mean that the leadership always has the members’ best interests as a priority. Not in crime fiction, at any rate…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Actress Hasn’t Learned the Lines.


Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, John Grisham, Jonothan Cullinane, Reginald Hill, Ruth Rendell

Walk Away From it All*

An interesting comment exchange with crime writer and fellow blogger E. Michael Helms has got me thinking about crime-fictional situations where the sleuth is asked (or sometimes told forcefully (or worse)) not to investigate. That happens quite a lot in the genre, and it’s interesting to consider the many reasons why.

Obviously, the guilty party (or someone in league with the guilty party) wouldn’t want an investigation. I’m not really talking of those cases: the reason is patently clear. But there are other reasons, which can add a layer of interest and character development to a story.

In several of Agatha Christie’s stories, the sleuth is pressured not to investigate. For example, in Appointment With Death, Hercule Poirot is on a trip through the Middle East. Colonel Carbury asks Poirot’s help with a case he’s investigating. The Boynton family has been sightseeing in the area and took a trip to Petra. There, family matriarch Mrs. Boynton suddenly died of what looked at first like sudden heart failure. That wouldn’t be surprising, given her age and health. But it turns out that Mrs. Boynton was poisoned. Poirot starts to look into the case, and it’s not long before one of the characters asks him to let the matter go. The reason is that Mrs. Boynton was tyrannical and, as Poirot says, ‘a mental sadist.’ She kept her family so cowed that none of the members dared disagree with her on anything. It’s felt that the family have suffered enough, and that if one of them is guilty, this will just make things worse.

In A Dark-Adapted Eye, Ruth Rendell (as Barbara Vine) explores the complexities of family dynamics, among other things. The Longley family has always prided itself on being very ‘respectable.’ There’s been no scandal or cause for anyone to gossip. Then, journalist Daniel Stewart digs up a Longley family secret and decides to write a book about it. He contacts Faith Longley Severn to help him with the book, and she agrees. But it’s not going to be easy. Many years earlier, Faith’s aunt, Vera Longley Hilliard, was executed for murder. It was all kept very quiet, and no-one really wanted an investigation. To have the Longley name dragged through the mud like that would have been unthinkable. As the story goes on, we learn what really happened, and how the family dynamics played an important role in everything.

Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X offers another interesting reason people wouldn’t want a murder investigated. In that novel, Tokyo Inspector Shunpei Kusanagi investigates when Shinji Togashi is murdered. The most likely suspect is the victim’s ex-wife, Yasuko Hanaoka, and she certainly had motive. Togashi was abusive and had been harassing her again lately. But Kusanagi can’t find any real evidence to link her to the case. And she has an unbreakable alibi, so there seems no way to connect her to the murder. Kusanagi asks for help from an old college friend, Dr. Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa, a physicist who sometimes consults with the police. Yakuwa discovers that a gifted math instructor named Tetsuya Ishigami lives next door to Hanaoka. He suspects that this man knows more than he is saying about the crime, but Ishigami holds firmly to what he claims. He corroborates Hanaoka’s alibi, and does everything he can to protect her, mostly because he is in love with her. He doesn’t want the case investigated, and he does what he can to keep the police from making progress.

Sometimes fictional characters don’t want cases investigated because they’re afraid of the consequences for themselves if they are. For example, in both Maureen Carter’s Working Girls, and Harry Bingham’s Talking to the Dead, the police are investigating cases of sex workers who’ve been murdered. As you would expect, the police want to talk to the victims’ friends and co-workers to try to find out who the killer is. That makes sense, as those people might know the victims well enough to help. But in both cases, those friends and co-workers (mostly other sex workers) do not want the police to investigate. It’s not because they don’t mourn their friend. And, in an ideal world, they’d want the killer brought to justice. But it’s not an ideal world, and these sex workers are afraid for themselves if the police investigate, since they’re mixed up with some dangerous people. So, they say as little as they can get away with saying.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne has reached a sort of crossroads in her career. She’s well aware that there are younger, ‘hungry’ journalists out there who would be more than happy to supplant her. So, she’s looking for the story that will establish her at the top of New Zealand journalism. She thinks she finds that story when she hears of the case of Connor Bligh. He’s been in prison for years for the murders of his sister, Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. Their daughter, Katy, survived only because she wasn’t home at the time of the murders. Everyone’s assumed that Bligh was guilty, but now there are little pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise. If he is innocent, and he’s been wrongly imprisoned, this could be a major story. So, Thorne starts asking questions. Almost immediately there’s a lot of pressure on her not to investigate. Some of it comes from people who are convinced that Bligh is guilty. There are also those who don’t want people’s lives turned upside down. But Thorne persists, and finds herself getting much closer to the case than she thought – or than is good for her.

A murder investigation is a difficult, painful process, even for those who are not suspects (or criminals). So, it’s understandable that sometimes, people wouldn’t want an investigation to be carried out. This reality can add interest and tension to a story.

Thanks, Michael, for the inspiration. Folks, do visit Michael’s site, and his blog, and do try his ‘Mac’ McClellan mysteries. You won’t regret it.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Roland Kent LaVoie (AKA Lobo).


Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Vine, Harry Bingham, Keigo Higashino, Maureen Carter, Paddy Richardson, Ruth Rendell

Please Don’t Tell Me That I’m the Only One That’s Vulnerable*

Most people would rather not be killed. I know, that’s a painfully obvious point to make, but it has implications if you’re a fictional murderer. Among other things, it means that you have to pick your time. It’s easiest to commit the crime if the victim is already vulnerable, or at the very least, unsuspecting. For the author, that’s not always easy to pull off in a believable way, but there are plenty of examples of how this can work. Here are a few of them, to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, we are introduced to powerful banker Alistair Blunt. He’s made more than his share of enemies, and he’s generally a careful person, partly for that reason. One day, he goes to see his dentist, Henry Morley, because of a toothache. Later, Morley is found shot in his surgery. And one real possibility is that the intended victim was Blunt himself. After all, people are quite vulnerable when they’re in the dentist’s chair. Chief Inspector Japp’s been told by his superiors to make this case a priority, since Blunt is considered important for national security. Then, there’s another death. A patient of Morley’s dies from a suspected overdose of drugs. When Japp finds out that Hercule Poirot was also at Morley’s office on the day of the murder, he contacts Poirot, and the two work together to find out the truth behind the two murders.

Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger takes place mostly at Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for military (WWII) use. One day, a postman named Joseph Higgins is brought to the hospital with a broken femur. It’s considered a straightforward operation, and he’s brought in for surgery. Tragically, Higgins dies during the procedure. Inspector Cockrill of the Kent Police is brought in to ‘rubber-stamp’ the report of accidental death. Higgins’ wife, though, does not accept that explanation. She says that Higgins was murdered. Then, one of the hospital nurses has too much to drink at a party, and blurts out that she knows Higgins was murdered, and she knows how it was accomplished. Later that night, she, too, is killed. Now, Cockrill is sure this is a case of murder, and puts the focus of his search on the people who were present when Higgins died. It certainly shows how vulnerable people can be during surgery. Right, fans of Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder?

One plot thread of Ruth Rendell’s Simisola concerns the murder of Annette Bystock. She works at the local Employment Bureau, trying to match available jobs with unemployed people who can fill them. One day, she’s found murdered in her bed. Inspector Reg Wexford and his team begin to trace her last days, and discover that, shortly before she was murdered, she had an appointment with a young woman named Melanie Akande. Melanie has since gone missing, and Wexford and the team wonder whether the two incidents are related. And so they turn out to be, only not in the obvious way. It turns out that, on the day she died, Annette had stayed home from work because she was ill. Her vulnerability, and the fact that she was unsuspecting, made her easy prey for the killer.

In Zoran Drvenkar’s You, we are introduced to a character called the Traveler. His part of the story begins in 1995, during a terrible snowstorm that’s blocked the road between Bad Hersfeld and Eisenach. Many vehicles are stranded on the road, and even emergency vehicles can’t get through because of the snow. Everyone in that traffic mess is extremely vulnerable, and not just because of the snow and the cold. With everyone stuck, the Traveler has plenty of ready-made victims. He works his way along the line of cars, leaving twenty-six people dead by the time the road is cleared. He’s able to make his escape, and as the story goes on, we see what happens to him in the ensuing years.

And then there’s Max Kinning’s Baptism. In that novel, we meet George Wakeham, a London Underground driver. Early one morning, three hostage-takers break into his home, capturing his wife and children. Wakeham is told that his only chance of saving his family is to do exactly what their captors say. Then, they give him a mobile ‘phone and tell him to follow precisely the instructions they give him. This Wakeham agrees to do (what choice does he have?). He’s told to go to his job as usual, and take his place driving his usual train. What he doesn’t know at first is that the hostage-takers have boarded the train as well, and they have his family with them. Wakeham starts his route as usual, but before long, one of the hostage-takers joins him in the cab. He’s soon told to stop the train, and it’s only then that he sees what his enemies really wanted from him. The train is now stopped in an underground tunnel with over 400 very vulnerable people aboard. Word of the captured train gets out, and Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Ed Mallory is assigned to contact the hostage-takers, find out what they want, and free the passengers. It’s not going to be easy, though, as this is a group of fanatics with a very specific purpose in mind. As Mallory tries to find out what he can, Wakeham tries to save his own life and those of his family members.

There are lots of other examples, too, of stories where the murderer (or would-be murderer) tries to choose a time when the victim will be especially vulnerable. It can add real tension to a story, and it makes sense. It’s easiest to target a victim who’s at a disadvantage.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Secondhand Serenade’s Vulnerable.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Christianna Brand, Max Kinnings, Ngaio Marsh, Ruth Rendell, Zoran Drvenkar