Category Archives: Sinéad Crowley

We’re No Longer Strangers*

An interesting post from José Ignacio at A Crime is Afoot has got me thinking about the way we interact with people we don’t know. In his post (which you’ll want to read), José Ignacio reviews Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, which takes place mostly at the Jolly Roger Hotel, on Leathercombe Bay in Devon. Hercule Poirot, who’s there on holiday, gets involved in a murder investigation when fellow guest, Arlena Stuart Marshall, is murdered.

One of the interesting things about this novel is the way Christie uses the interactions among the guests, some of whom were complete strangers to each other when they first arrived.  And yet, they come to know a lot about one another as the story goes on. They play tennis, they sit and chat, and so on, and those conversations form part of the plot. In large part, that’s because in 1941, when the novel was published, modern electronics weren’t available. Television had been invented, but most people didn’t have one. That meant that, especially on holiday, people were more inclined to talk to one another.

That’s also apparent in Elizabeth Daly’s Unexpected Night, which takes place at the Ocean House resort in Ford’s Beach, Maine. In that novel, a young man named Amberley Cowden is found dead at the bottom of a cliff. He had a serious heart condition and wasn’t expected to live long. So, his death might have been natural. But was it? Rare book expert Henry Gamadge is staying at the same resort and gets involved in the investigation. In this novel, too, we see people who don’t know each other start to talk and interact. There are many other novels, too (I’m thinking of Patricia Moyes’ Dead Men Don’t Ski, for instance), in which people come to the same place for a holiday and interact quite a lot with strangers. That’s what people did before television and other modern electronics changed the way we communicate.

It’s arguably harder for contemporary authors to create a credible similar scenario (where strangers at a hotel or other gathering place start chatting with each other and get to know each other). It still happens of course. For instance, if I may, let me share a personal example. Not many years ago, there was a widespread power outage in the area where I live. It affected my entire community. Without television, air conditioning, or the Internet, people wandered outdoors, and began chatting. The big topic was, of course, the blackout itself. But we started talking about other things, too. That sort of scenario also happens in fiction, too, and gives the author plenty of opportunities for conflict, misdirection, and more.

That said, though, today’s authors often need to explore the other ways in which people communicate and get to know each other. For instance, Cat Connor’s Ellie Conway is an FBI Special Agent (Later Supervising Special Agent (SSA)). Her cases often involve online groups, chat rooms, and other fora, both legitimate and in the ‘dark web.’ These groups also involve people who are complete strangers to each other at first, but who get to know one another. A major difference between these groups and an in-person collection of strangers is that it’s very easy to be anyone you want online. So, contemporary crime novelists can build tension and suspense as they explore what online anonymity may be covering up.

That’s what happens, for instance, in Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me. When Gerry and Yvonne Mulhern move from London to Dublin with their newborn daughter, it means big changes for everyone. For Gerry, a new job offers a lot of promise for his career. For Yvonne, though, the changes aren’t so easy. She’s overwhelmed by the many demands of tending to a newborn. And she doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin. Then, she finds an online forum called Netmammy. It’s a mutual support group for new mothers, and for Yvonne, it’s a lifesaver. She finally begins to find the friendship and help that she’s been needing. And then, one of the forum members goes ‘off the grid.’ Yvonne gets concerned enough to go to the police about it, but there’s not much they can do. Then, the body of an unknown woman is found in an empty apartment. Her description matches that of Yvonne’s missing online friend. But is it the same person? If so, what does this mean for Netmammy? Is someone in the group adopting an identity? Detective Sergeant (DS) Claire Boyle investigates the murder and finds the link between the online group and the dead woman.

The anonymity of online groups can provide another sort of protection. In Qiu Xiaolong’s Enigma of China, for instance, Chief Inspector Chen Cao learns about an online watchdog group. In the late-1990s Shanghai in which Chen lives and works, it can be very risky to chat about certain things in real life. And people don’t generally do a lot of face-to-face chatting with complete strangers, anyway. It’s different online, though. Because of the government’s close supervision of printed news, many people feel that the only credible news comes from the Internet. And that’s mostly because it’s harder for the government to keep tabs on members of online groups. So, when an online watchdog group accuses Zhou Keng, head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, of corruption, the government has a dilemma. On the one hand, they have to act on the accusation, because the group has made the alleged corruption public. On the other hand, it’s in the interest of the government to monitor and, if necessary, clamp down on this online group. And Chen gets caught in the middle of it all when Zhou suddenly dies. Is it suicide, as the government claims? Or did someone kill Zhou?

Technology has radically changed the way we do a lot of things, including communicate. But what’s interesting is that it hasn’t changed the fact that we communicate. People have a need to reach out, whether it’s face-to-face or online, even to complete strangers. That dynamic can add a lot to a crime novel.

Thank you, José Ignacio, for the inspiration. Now, folks, give yourselves a treat and go visit José Ignacio’s excellent blog. Fine reviews, discussions, and photographs await you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lewis Lebish, Jerry Leiber, Irving Nahan, Mike Stoller, and George Treadwell’s Dance With Me.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Cat Connor, Elizabeth Daly, Patricia Moyes, Qiu Xiaolong, Sinéad Crowley

And Now I’ve Done My Time in the Kitchen at Parties*

One of the skills most of us have to learn as adults is how to mingle and make small talk. Whether it’s at a conference, a company cocktail party, or a university’s department mixer, it often serves a person well to be able to chat with strangers and fit in at a gathering. Some people loathe those events, and others enjoy them. Either way, they’re part of many of our lives, so it’s often an advantage to be able to negotiate them.

For an author, a mixer or cocktail party offers all sorts of possibilities. Any number of things can happen, which can add tension and suspense to a story. A character’s way of handling mixers and cocktail parties can also show-not-tell quite a lot about that person. And, in whodunits, cocktail parties and mixers can be very good places to find out information, especially as alcohol starts to loosen people’s tongues.

Agatha Christie makes use of these sorts of events in several of her stories. In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, detective story writer Ariadne Oliver is staying in the village of Broadhinny, visiting up-and-coming playwright Robin Upward. They’re collaborating on an adaptation of one of her novels for the stage, and, to say the least, they have different visions of what the play ought to be like. Hercule Poirot, as it happens, is also staying in Broadhinny. He’s there investigating the murder of a charwoman who was killed, so everyone says, by her lodger, James Bentley. The evidence is very much against him, too. But Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence doesn’t think he’s guilty. So, he’s asked Poirot to look into the matter again. One night, both Poirot and Mrs. Oliver are invited to a cocktail party. Mrs. Oliver isn’t much for such events, but Poirot has told her why he’s there, and she knows that mixers like this are good places to learn things. And, as it turns out, they do find out something important. Not long afterwards, Upward takes Mrs. Oliver to a play to ‘vet’ an actor he’s considering for the lead role in their collaboration. Afterwards, there’s a cast party, which Mrs. Oliver doesn’t enjoy at all:
 

‘The play itself she had enjoyed, but the ordeal of “going round afterwards” was fraught with its usual terrors.’
 

Still, Mrs. Oliver hears something interesting at the party that proves to be a clue to Mrs. McGinty’s murder and another that occurs.

In Robert Barnard’s Death of an Old Goat, Professor Belville-Smith, a noted Oxford academic, is scheduled to do a tour of Australia, and is including the University of Drummondale in his itinerary. Professor Bobby Wickham and the rest of the English faculty are to play host, and everyone’s hoping the events will go well. But, right from the start, things go wrong. First, Professor Belville-Smith is condescending, even contemptuous, which endears him to no-one. As if that weren’t enough, his lectures are dry and very boring. He’s given the same lectures so many times that he drones, rather than interacts with the audience. Still, he is a noted scholar, so Wickham and his staff do their best to put out the proverbial red carpet. That includes a cocktail party at which he’s to meet the staff. The party isn’t much of a success; certainly Belville-Smith doesn’t make any new friends. Later that night, he is stabbed in his hotel room. Inspector Bert Royle has never investigated a murder before, but he’s called to do so now. And it’s interesting how different people have different memories of the ‘greet-the-guest’ event.

In Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant gets a new client, Daniel Guest. It seems that Guest, who is a ‘closeted,’ married, gay man, is getting blackmailed over trysts he had with other men. He wants Quant to find the blackmailer and get that person to stop. Quant tells Guest that he’d be far better off simply coming out as gay, but Guest won’t consider it. So, Quant begins asking questions. The trail leads to New York and back to Saskatchewan, but after that journey, and a murder, Quant gets to the truth. At one point, Guest arranges for Quant to attend his accounting firm’s Christmas party, so that Quant can ‘vet’ some of the people who work there. Quant is, fortunately, not bad at small talk and mingling. But Guest is nervous about the whole thing. It’s very important to him that no-one know why Quant’s really there (he’s being passed off as a potential client). What’s more, he doesn’t want anyone to know that Quant’s gay. So, he refers to the friend Quant’s brought as his ‘girlfriend,’ which leads to the inevitable, ‘So how long have you two been together?’ sort of question. It all ends up being awkward for Guest, for Quant, and for Quant’s friend.

Teresa Solana’s A Shortcut to Paradise begins just after an Barcelona awards gathering, where famous novelist Marina Dolç is awarded the Golden Apple prize for her latest novel. There’s lots of mixing and mingling, and Dolç doesn’t get back to her hotel room until just after two. The party’s still going on when, less than an hour later, a friend stops by Dolç’s ‘s hotel room and discovers her body. The police soon arrest Amadeu Cabestany, Dolç’s top rival for the Golden Apple prize. The two were at odds, and it doesn’t help matters that Cabestany’s hotel room is right next to Dolç’s. But he claims he wasn’t at the hotel at the time of the murder, and that he left the party early and went elsewhere. But no-one can corroborate his story. There was so much mixing, mingling, and drinking that no-one remembers when he left. Cabestany’s literary agent hires PIs Josep ‘Pep’ Martínez and his brother Eduard to find out who killed the victim.

And then there’s Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? In that novel, we are introduced to Yvonne and Gerry Mulhern, who’ve just moved from London to Dublin, so that Gerry can take advantage of an attractive job opportunity. The move goes smoothly enough, but Gerry spends a lot of time at work, which means Yvonne is left alone much of the time to care for their newborn daughter, Róisín. She doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin, and she’s overwhelmed with the demands of taking care of a newborn. So, she joins an online group called Netmammy. There, she finds answers, support, and friendship. All goes well until one of her new online friends goes ‘off the grid.’ And then a body is found in an abandoned apartment – a body that matches what Yvonne knows about her friend’s description. If the body is the same person, then what does that mean for Netmammy? And for Yvonne? At one point in the novel, Gerry persuades Yvonne to go with him to a cocktail party for people at his work. She doesn’t want to be there, doesn’t know anyone there, and Gerry spends almost no time with her. So, as you can imagine, she’s miserable. Her saving grace? She’s brought her ‘phone, and logs onto Netmammy from the party.

Some people really do enjoy mixing, mingling and exchanging small talk. Others do everything possible to avoid it. Either way, those events crop up in crime fiction, just as they do in real life.

 
 
 

*Note: The title of this post is a line from Jona Lewie’s You’ll Always Find Me in the Kitchen at Parties.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Robert Barnard, Sinéad Crowley, Teresa Solana

Everybody in the World Likes Chocolate*

Recently, FictionFan, at FictionFan’s Book Reviews, conducted an interesting scientific study of chocolate. Using the My Life in Books meme from Adam at Roof Beam Reader, Fiction Fan compared two sets of data. One set, collected before eating any chocolate, was an initial list of responses to the My Life in Books prompts. Then, FictionFan provided answers to the same prompts after eating chocolate. As you can clearly see from FictionFan’s answers, there was a definite positive effect of chocolate on mood.

Of course, any study ought to be replicated, if possible, in order to lend support to the results. So, I decided to do just that. Like FictionFan, I collected two sets of data: one was collected before eating chocolate, and the other after. My own data is presented below:

 

Prompts

Before Chocolate

After Chocolate

In high school, I was:

Among Thieves

In Like Flynn

People might be surprised (by):

The Colaba Conspiracy

[What] Harriet Said

I will never be:

You

Wife of the Gods

My fantasy job is:

Nunslinger

An Easy Thing

At the end of a long day, I need:

Burial Rites

A Jarful of Angels

I hate it when:

Days are Like Grass

Not a Creature Was [is] Stirring

Wish I had:

The Frozen Shroud

Greenlight

My family reunions are:

Murder and Mayhem at Honeychurch Hall

Above Suspicion

At a party, you’d find me with:

The Hidden Man

Ruby and the Blue Sky

I’ve never been to:

The Cemetery of Swallows

China Lake

A happy day includes:

Dead Lemons

Crystal Ball Persuasion

Motto I live by:

Can Anybody Help Me?

Happiness is Easy

On my bucket list is:

Talking to the Dead

The Dawn Patrol

In my next life, I want to have:

A Moment’s Silence

A Three-Pipe Problem

 

As you can see, chocolate also had a positive effect on my mood. Now, of course, this study is limited, as all studies are. For one thing, I made use of Belgian chocolates for this research. Other sources and types of chocolates would have to be studied to really confirm the hypothesis that chocolate enhances one’s mood. For another thing, FictionFan’s data and mine are only two iterations of this study. More researchers would be needed, to rule out effects based on any similarities between me and FictionFan (I mean, we are both crime fiction readers, etc..). There are other limitations, too, as any academician can tell you.

That said, though, I think it’s safe to say that this study certainly lends support to FictionFan’s conclusion that chocolate has mood-enhancing effects. Anyone else care to take part in this all-important research?

Thanks, FictionFan, for your groundbreaking study!

 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Soul Control’s Chocolate (Choco Choco).

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Filed under Babs Horton, Beryl Bainbridge, Christopher Abbey, Don Winslow, Edney Silvestre, Finn Bell, Gordon Ell, Hannah Dennison, Hannah Kent, Harry Bingham, Jane Haddam, Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol, John Clarkson, Julian Symons, Katherine Dewar, Kwei Quartey, Lynda La Plante, Meg Gardiner, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Rhys Bowen, Robin Blake, Sinéad Crowley, Stark Holborn, Sue Younger, Surender Mohan Pathak, Zoran Drvenkar

Sleeping in That Old Abandoned Beach House*

There’s something about abandoned places. They have a certain allure, especially for people inclined to explore. And they often have good stories to tell, too. Since they’re abandoned, such places are also very appealing for people who want to hide evidence of a crime – namely, a body. Perhaps that’s why abandoned places are so appealing for crime writers…

For instance, in John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, we are introduced to Tad Rampole, an American who’s recently finished his university studies. He’s been encouraged by his mentor to visit Dr. Gideon Fell, so he decides to go to the UK. When he gets there, he meets Dorothy Starberth, and the two take a liking to each other. Soon, Rampole finds out more about the Starberths from Fell. It seems that several generations of Starberth men were Governers of nearby Chatterham Prison, which is now disused. The prison is abandoned, but it still plays a role in a Starberth family ritual. On the night of his twenty-fifth birthday, every Starberth male spends the night in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. Now, it’s the turn of Dorothy Starberth’s brother, Martin. He’s anxious about it, because there seems to be a curse on Starberth males, several of whom have died in strange circumstances. Still, he goes through with the plan. Late that night, Martin Starberth dies in what looks like a horrible accident. But Fell discovers that this death was no accident at all, and works to find out who the killer is.

Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow is the first of his novels to feature Detective John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay (Ontario) Police. In this novel, he is called in when a body is discovered in an abandoned mine shaft on Windigo Island. The body is very possibly that of thirteen-year-old Katie Pine, who disappeared five months ago. Cardinal investigated that disappearance, but was never able to find out what happened to the girl. When the body is positively identified as Katie’s, Cardinal has the thankless task of informing her mother, and of re-opening the investigation. In the end, he finds out the truth about Katie and about other disappearances, too.

In Patricia Stoltey’s The Desert Hedge Murders, retired Florida judge Sylvia Thorn accompanies her mother and a group of other retirees on a sightseeing trip to Laughlin, Nevada. The group (they call themselves the Florida Flippers) gets involved in a case of murder when the body of an unknown man turns up in the bathtub of one of the group’s hotel rooms. Matters get more complicated when another Florida Flipper goes missing, and is later found dead in an abandoned mine. Now, the Flippers are ‘people of interest’ in a double murder, and Sylvia works to keep them out of trouble, and to find out who the real killer is, and what the motive is.

Tana French’s The Likeness is the second in her Dublin Murder Squad series. In it, a young woman is found stabbed to death in an abandoned house. Cassie Maddox, who’s recently returned to the Murder Squad after some time away, is shocked to discover that the woman is identified as Lexie Madison, an alias Maddox once used. The victim bears a strong resemblance to Maddox, too. Now, the squad has two serious questions. One, of course, is, who killed the victim? The other is about the victim’s identity. Since there never really was a ‘Lexie Madison,’ the squad has to find out who the woman really was, and why she hid her identity. Maddox is persuaded to go undercover as Lexie Madison to find out the truth.

One of the plot threads in Peter James’ Not Dead Yet concerns an unknown man whose body is found in an abandoned chicken coop. The only part of the body that’s been discovered is the torso, so identifying the victim will be a challenge. Superintendent Roy Grace of the Brighton and Hove Police and his team trace the man through his clothes, and find out who he was. And, in the end, they connect this murder with another case they’re working: a superstar whose life’s been threatened. It turns out that someone is willing to stop at nothing to ‘win.’

And then there’s Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? Dublin Detective Sergeant (DS) Claire Boyle investigates when the body of an unknown woman is discovered in an empty apartment. Boyle and her team try to trace the victim’s identity through the apartment’s manager and owner, but they don’t get very far at first. Then, another possibility arises. Yvonne Mulhern and her family have recently moved to Dublin from London. She’s a brand-new mother, and at first, has no real support system. She doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin, and her relationship with her husband’s family isn’t particularly good. She soon finds solace in Netmammy, an online forum for new mothers. Then, she notices that one of the members has gone ‘off the grid.’ She’s concerned enough to contact the police, but there’s not much they can do. Boyle, though, starts to wonder whether there is a connection between the case she’s investigating, and the disappearance of Yvonne Mulhern’s online friend. If there is, this could have real implications for Netmammy.

There are a lot of other novels, too, in which bodies are found in abandoned houses, apartments, warehouses, and other places. And that makes sense. Hiding a body in an abandoned place gives the fictional killer time to hide any connection with the murder. And it gives the author the opportunity for a really creepy setting.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Backstreets.

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Filed under Giles Blunt, John Dickson Carr, Patricia Stoltey, Peter James, Sinéad Crowley, Tana French

Golden Opportunity*

I’ll bet you know the feeling. An opportunity comes along, and it seems like the proverbial answer to a prayer. Or your credit line at your bank is increased, just when you’re planning to get a car or some new furniture. It’s a great feeling, isn’t it?

But beware. Those pieces of good fortune have to be handled carefully. That’s certainly true in real life, and if crime fiction is anything to go by, it’s true there, too. And when things go wrong in a crime novel, they can go very wrong indeed.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds, we are introduced to Lady Cicely Horbury. She’s a former chorus girl who married Lord Stephen Horbury. At first, all went well enough. But Lady Horbury has developed a gambling problem, so she’s incurred a lot of debt. And she uses cocaine – another costly habit. Then, she finds a solution that she thinks will work. She meets Marie Morisot, AKA Madame Giselle, a Paris moneylender, who agrees to lend to her. It starts with small enough sums that Lady Horbury can repay. Then, Madame Giselle lends her larger sums – as much as Lady Horbury wants. In fact, as she later tells Hercule Poirot,
 

‘‘It seemed like a miracle at the time.’’
 

Then, the time comes when Lady Horbury can’t repay her debt. That’s when Madame Giselle threatens to use her ‘collateral’ – private information that she intends to give to Lord Stephen. Now, Lady Horbury is desperate, and Madame Giselle is unyielding. That’s the situation when Madame Giselle is murdered aboard a flight that Lady Horbury is also taking. So, she becomes a ‘person of interest’ as Poirot investigates.

Robert Colby’s novella No Experience Necessary is the story of Glenn Hadlock. He’s recently been released from prison, and he knows that, because he’s an ex-convict, his opportunities are very limited. But he’s got to pay the bills. So, he starts looking for whatever sort of job he can get.  One day he sees an advertisement that especially interests him. Wealthy Victor Scofield is looking for a bodyguard/escort/chauffer for his wife, Eileen. Scofield is permanently disabled, so he can’t leave the house. But, as he tells Hadlock during the interview, he doesn’t want to restrict his wife similarly. Hadlock gets the job; and, at first, all goes very well. The position comes with a nice apartment, use of the Scofield cars, and a good salary. It’s not long, though, before things start to go wrong. And Hadlock soon learns that this job is fraught with a great deal of danger.

Walter and Joanna Eberhart get what they think is a golden opportunity when they discover the small suburban town of Stepford, Connecticut. The taxes are low, the schools are good, and the housing is affordable. So, the Eberharts and their two children make the move from New York City to Stepford. At first, all goes well. The family settles in, the children make new friends, and the house is everything they hoped it would be. But all is not as it seems. It starts when Joanna’s new friend, Bobbie Markowe, suspects that something might be very wrong with the town. At first, Joanna doesn’t believe her. But as time goes by, more and more things happen that suggest that Bobbie might be right. If she is, then something sinister is lurking beneath Stepford’s picture-perfect surface.

In Pascal Garnier’s novella How’s the Pain, we meet twenty-one-year-old Bernard Ferrand. He doesn’t have a university education or clear career goals. In fact, he’s a bit aimless. He gets what seems to be the perfect opportunity when ageing contract killer Simon Marechall offers him a job. Marechall wants Ferrand to serve as his driver for one last trip to the French coast, where he has some business to do. Ferrand doesn’t know what his new employer’s business is at first, but it’s an opportunity he can’t pass up. So, he goes along with the plan. Before he knows it, he’s in much, much deeper than he thought, and involved with a very dangerous business.

And then there’s Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? In it, Yvonne and Gerry Mulhern and their newborn daughter, Róisín, move from London to Dublin, so that Gerry can take advantage of a very attractive job opportunity. At first, it seems like the right choice. Then, things start to go wrong. For one thing, Gerry works a lot, so he can’t do much baby minding or housework. And Yvonne is exhausted from the work of taking care of Róisín mostly on her own. What’s worse, she doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin. So, there’s no-one to confide in or to pitch in and help. Then Yvonne discovers Netmammy, an online forum for new mums. It seems like the perfect solution; Yvonne finds new friends among the other forum members, and gets answers to many of her questions. All goes well until one of the members seems to go ‘off the grid.’ Yvonne’s concerned enough to go to the police about it, but there’s really nothing they can do. Then, the body of an unidentified woman is discovered in an empty apartment. Detective Sergeant (DS) Claire Boyle investigates, and finds that the woman’s description is similar enough to that of Yvonne’s online friend that it could be the same person. If so, what does that mean for Netmammy? If not, then who is the dead woman? In the end, we learn that sometimes, what seems like a perfect solution…isn’t.

And that’s the thing about those golden opportunities. You have to be very careful before taking them. And even then, they don’t always work out as planned…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an Ian Hunter song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ira Levin, Pascal Garnier, Robert Colby, Sinéad Crowley