Category Archives: Steve Robinson

Some Others Choose the Good Old Family Home*

There are some homes that have been in the same family for many generations. They’re full of history (and sometimes, secrets), and they often develop their own personalities. Houses like that can be fascinating to explore. They can also make very effective settings for crime novels, especially those that link past crimes with the present.

There are a lot of such fictional houses – many more than space permits. But here are a few. I know you’ll think of many, many more.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual takes place in that sort of home. In the story, Holmes tells Watson about one of his cases, a case that began with a visit from an old college friend, Reginald Musgrave. Musgrave dismissed his butler, Richard Brunton, after catching the man reading a private family paper. Not long afterwards, Brunton and a maid named Rachel Howells disappeared. Holmes agreed to look into the matter, and he found that the paper Brunton was reading contained a cryptic poem that all of the Musgrave men learned. That poem proved to be the key to a very old mystery, and the key to the disappearance of Musgrave’s staff.  Conan Doyle did some other mysteries, too, that take place in an ancestral family home, didn’t he, fans of The Hound of the Baskervilles?

Agatha Christie used family homes in several of her novels and stories. One of them is Enderby, the home of the Abernethie family, whom we meet in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal). When patriarch Richard Abernethie dies, his family members gather for his funeral and the reading of his will. During that gathering, his younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, says that he was murdered. Everyone dismisses the idea right away. The next day, though, Cora herself is murdered. Now, the remaining family members begin to suspect that she was right. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and Poirot agrees. Enderby itself isn’t the reason for the deaths. But it makes for an interesting setting, and, among some of the older characters, there’s talk about ‘the old days,’ and what the house used to be like. I see you, fans of Sleeping Murder and of Peril at End House, and of 4:50 From Paddington, and of…

Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the story of the Blackwood family. Eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ Blackwood lives in the family home with her older sister, Constance, and their Uncle Julian. The family is quite isolated, and that’s mostly because of a tragedy that took place six years earlier. Three other members of the Blackwood family died of what turned out to be poison, and everyone in town is convinced that someone in the Blackwood family is responsible. Still, the Blackwoods have made a life for themselves, and everything goes smoothly enough. Then, they get a visitor. Charles Blackwood, a family cousin, comes to the house. His visit sets of a chain of events that ends in real tragedy. In this novel, the house itself adds to the suspense.

Much of Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache takes place in the small Québec town of Three Pines. It’s the sort of place where everyone knows everyone, and some people are deeply rooted in the place, and a part of its history. So are some of the houses. One in particular is the Hadley House, which plays a role in the very first novel, Still Life. It’s got its own history, and Gamache has more than one experience there.

In Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, we are introduced to the de Luce family. The protagonist of this series is eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, who lives with her father, Colonel de Luce, and her two older sisters, in the family home, Buckshaw, in the village of Bishop’s Lacey. Flavia is a child, but she is also highly intelligent, and a very skilled chemist. In this novel, she uses her skills to help clear her father’s name when he is accused of murdering a visitor to their home. Buckshaw is a distinctive old house, with lots of passages, unused rooms, and so on. And it contains Flavia’s chemistry lab, which has its own personality.

And then there’s Steve Robinson’s In the Blood, in which we are introduced to genealogist Jefferson Tayte. In that novel, he is commissioned by Boston business executive Walter Sloane to trace the ancestry of Sloan’s wife as a gift. The trail leads to the Fairborne family, which has lived in the US since before the American Revolution. One branch of the family returned to English in 1781, along with a group of Loyalists, so Tayte goes to Cornwall, where the family moved. There, he finds that the modern Fairbornes are strangely unwilling to help him find out the truth about what happened to their ancestors once they got to England. Tayte continues to search for the truth and learns that the answers might be very dangerous to him. The contemporary Fairbornes live in Rosemullion Hall, the family home. It’s been Fairborne property since the 18th Century, and Tayte finds that it has plenty of history and secrets to share.

Houses that have been in the same family for a long time often develop their own personalities as they absorb a family’s history. They’re fascinating places. They can also be really effective settings for a crime novel (right, fans of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca?).


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s Philadelphia Freedom.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Daphne du Maurier, Louise Penny, Shirley Jackson, Steve Robinson

We got that: [Title of Show]*

Right now, I’m working on a standalone novel (well, it’s a standalone for now, anyway). And one of the decisions I have to make about it is what the title will be. I had a working title for the book, but it wasn’t effective at all. Trust me. It had nothing to do with the plot, and wasn’t a good clue to the sort of story it is.

So, it was back to the proverbial drawing board. That’s a normal part of writing a novel. But, as I think about a title that will work (I haven’t chosen one yet), I have to come up with one that’s going to be distinctive. And that’s not as easy to do as you might think. There are millions of books in print, and more become available each year. So, there are plenty of examples of two very different books with the same title.

For instance, both Michael Robotham and L.R. Wright have written novels called The Suspect. They’re both well-regarded, but they’re very different sorts of stories. The Robotham novel introduces psychologist Joe O’Loughlin. It’s the story of the murder of one of his former clients, and links that murder to several others that occur. All of them link back to the past, and O’Loughlin gets caught up in the web, as someone is working to frame him. The Wright novel is the story of the murder of one man, Carlyle Burke.  We know from the beginning that he was killed by George Wilcox. The main focus of this novel is the slow reveal of the motive. Along with that, readers follow along as RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg puts together the pieces of the puzzle, and finds out who killed Burke and why.

In the Blood is the title of Steve Robinson’s first novel featuring genealogist Jefferson Tayte. In it, Tayte is commissioned to trace the ancestry of a client’s wife as a birthday gift. The trail leads to the Cornish coast, and draws Tayte into a deadly mystery. As you might guess, it links the past with the current residents of the area. In the Blood is also the title of a Lisa Unger novel. Lana Granger is finishing up her university degree in psychology when she is persuaded to take a job as nanny to eleven-year-old Luke Kahn. Right from the beginning, she’s made aware that Luke’s had trouble in school. He’s unusually intelligent, but he has several social and emotional problems. And she has a great deal of difficulty working with him. Lana soon has a much more serious problem, though. Her roommate disappears, and it soon seems clear that Lana knows more than she is saying about it. How is she involved, and what does it have to do with her work with Luke Kahn?

Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors features Australian Federal Police (AFP) officer Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen. He’s been taking some time off from his job, but is lured back to it when the bodies of Alec Dennet and Lorraine Starke are discovered at a Canberra writer’s retreat. Dennet was a member of the 1972-1975 Gough Whitlam government who was writing his memoirs; Starke was his editor. So, it’s quite likely that something in the memoirs led to the murders. And that’s not out of the question, since they could have been seriously problematic for several highly-placed people. Chen and his team work through this case, and find that little is as it seems. Elly Griffiths’ Smoke and Mirrors is a completely different sort of novel. The second in her historical (1950s) Stephens and Mephisto series, this one uses children’s fairy tales as a backdrop to the disappearance and murders of two local children, Annie Francis and Mark Webster, in a grim parody of the Hansel and Gretel story. It seems they’d been working with a group of young people who were doing their own theatre productions of some of the fairy tales, with their own interpretations. Magician Max Mephisto works with Detective Inspector (DI) Edgar Stephens to find out what’s really behind these deaths.

Both Carolyn Hart and Paul Thomas have written novels called Death on Demand. Hart’s novel is the first in her Death on Demand series, and introduces her protagonist, bookshop owner Annie Laurance. Both the title and the name of the series refer to the bookshop, which features crime and mystery fiction. In the story, a group of local authors come under suspicion when one of their number, Elliot Morgan, is killed. It seems he wrote a tell-all book that included some unpleasant truths (and allegations) about the other members. Even Annie is mentioned, and that’s part of the reason she becomes a suspect in the murder. Thomas’ novel features Sergeant Tito Ihaka of the Auckland Police. He’s been banished for a time because of a conflict with a powerful man he’d accused of murder. But he returns when that same man, Christopher Lilywhite, is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and decides to tell Ihaka the truth. It turns out that Lilywhite did arrange for his wife’s murder, and he’s learned that the killer is likely still out there, committing crimes. Ihaka puts the pieces together, and connects several murders together. These stories are quite different (they’re even in different sub-genres). But they have the same title.

So do both Deon Meyer’s and Robin Cook’s Fever. Meyer’s novel features Nico Storm and his father, Willem, who are among the few to survive a catastrophic virus. Willem works to form a small community of survivors; and, little by little, the community grows. And so do the challenges that the group faces. Whenever there’s a group of disparate people, especially those thrown together by circumstances, anything can happen. And it does. It all leads to murder, and, in Nico’s voice, we hear what happened. Cook’s novel features Dr. Charles Martel, who’s working on a very promising new cancer study. But his employer wants him to devote his energies to their product, Canceran. He agrees (he needs to keep his job), but continues to work on his own research when he can. Then, his daughter, Michelle, is diagnosed with a form of leukemia, and it’s soon traced to toxic waste from a powerful company. Now, Martel works even harder to see if he can find a way to help Michelle. At the same time, he goes up against the company that’s been dumping toxins, and he finds that that can be a very dangerous undertaking.

See what I mean? Sometimes, some very different books have exactly the same title. It’s a good reminder to look carefully before you ‘click here.’ Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll get back to trying to choose a title, myself.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jeff Bowen’s Filling Out the Form.


Filed under Carolyn Hart, Deon Meyer, Elly Griffiths, Kel Robertson, L.R. Wright, Lisa Unger, Michael Robotham, Paul Thomas, Robin Cook, Steve Robinson

She Left a Note on the TV*

There are all sorts of clues that can drive a crime fiction novel. Some of them even inspire the sleuth. Those clues can take different forms, but, when they’re done well, they can invite the reader to follow along and find out what the clue means. And they can make for a credible reason that the sleuth investigates a case.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s N or M?, we find that Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are now middle-aged, and have gotten out of the espionage business they had joined as young people. They are drawn back in when a British agent dies, living a cryptic note: N or M. Sang Susie. The note’s been decrypted a bit: Sang Susie refers to the Sans Souci, a seaside hotel. And N and M are German secret agents, one male, and one female. Tommy is asked to go to the Sans Souci and work out who (M, N or both) is at the Sans Souci, and try to identify the enemy agents if he can. Not to be left behind, Tuppence makes her own plans, and joins Tommy at the Sans Souci. It takes some time; but in the end, they work out who the enemy agents are and why they’re at the hotel. You’re absolutely right, fans of The Clocks.

In one plot strand of Steve Robinson’s In the Blood, we are introduced to Amy Fallon, who lives in a Cornwall cottage named Ferryman’s Cottage. Two years earlier, her husband, Gabriel, was lost in a storm, so she’s been doing her best to go on as a widow. Just before he died, Gabriel told Amy that he’d found out a secret. He never got the chance to tell her what it was, but construction on their home has revealed a staircase that leads to a hidden room. When Amy goes into it, she finds a very old carved wooden writing box with a love letter in it. Now, she’s curious about the letter and the box. So, she starts a search to find out who might have lived there and left the box. The trail leads to a long-ago murder, so she ends up visiting Dartmoor and the Prison Museum that’s there. That’s where she meets genealogist Jefferson Tayte, who’s there as a part of tracing a client’s ancestry. In the end, they both discover more danger than they’d thought, and both of them learn about some dark secrets from the local past.

In Steve Hamilton’s Ice Run, PI Alex McKnight arranges to meet his new love interest, Natalie Reynaud, a constable with the Ontario Police Service (OPS). Their plan is to meet at the Ojibwa Hotel in Sault Ste. Marie (Soo). While he’s in the lobby, McKnight has a strange encounter with an old man wearing a homburg hat. Later, while McKnight and Reynaud are at dinner, the man sends them a bottle of champagne. Then, when the two go up to their room, they see that the homburg hat, now filled with snow and ice, is outside the door. With it is a note that says I know who you are. McKnight tries to find out who the man was and learns that his name was Simon Grant. What’s more, he discovers that the man died of exposure not far from the hotel, and not long after leaving the hat and the note. Now even more curious, McKnight tries to find out more about Grant, but there are some very dangerous people who want him to leave everything alone…

Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer begins as writer Tapani Lehtinen begins to worry about his wife, Joanna. She is a journalist who sometimes does go out of town, or ‘drop out of sight’ to do her stories. But she always gets in contact within twenty-four hours to let her husband know she’s all right. This time, she hasn’t, though, and he’s concerned. Joanna’s editor doesn’t know where she is, either. Lehtinen gets an idea, though. Joanna’s editor knows from notes she’s left that she is pursuing a story about a man called The Healer. This man has been claiming responsibility for the murders of CEOs of companies he blames for the current climate crisis. Lehtinen believes that if he follows up on those notes, and pursues the story as Joanna was, he can find his wife. And that’s what he sets out to do. It won’t be easy, though. This story takes place in a world that’s fallen into chaos. Millions of climate refugees have surged into Helsinki, and the police are so stretched that they can’t do much investigating, except for the most serious of crimes. There’s little food, and less order. So his search will be dangerous.

And then there’s Anthony Bidulka’s Aloha Candy Hearts. Saskatoon PI Russell Quant is in Hawai’I, where he’s spending time with his partner, Alex Canyon. He’s in the airport, ready to return to Canada, when he meets an enigmatic archivist named Walter Angel. Without Quant’s knowing it at first, Angel slips a cryptic message, a bit like a treasure map, into Quant’s hand luggage. Shortly afterwards, he is murdered. Quant follows up on the message and uses it to try to work out who would have wanted to kill Angel and why. The trail leads to Saskatchewan’s past, and to some secrets still hidden in Saskatoon.

Notes, messages, and other clues can be interesting in themselves. And, in crime fiction, they can motivate the sleuth to look into a case. Let’s face it: they’re intriguing, too. So it’s little wonder we see them in the genre.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bonnie Raitt’s Papa Come Quick (Jodi and Chico).


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Antti Tuomainen, Steve Hamilton, Steve Robinson

Over the Moor, Take Me to the Moor*

For many readers, the setting of a story is an important part of the appeal. And when it comes to crime fiction, a setting can add to the suspense, and even create its own particular challenges and conflicts. Case in point: moors.

Moors are beautiful, and they are unique in terms of the plant and animal life. But they are also potentially hazardous. The weather is frequently unreliable, and there are bogs and other dangers. They can be lonely and deserted, too. So, it’s little wonder that plenty of crime fiction is set on moors.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles is set on Dartmoor. As fans can tell you, it’s the story of the Baskerville family and a curse that seems to have been laid on its members. For generations, a phantom hound has been said to haunt the family since the 1600s, when Hugo Baskerville sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he was infatuated. And there certainly have been some strange deaths in the family. Most recently, Sir Charles Baskerville was found dead in the park of Baskerville Hall, the family estate. Now a new Baskerville is coming from Canada to take over the home and family leadership, and Dr. James Mortimer is concerned that this new Baskerville will also fall to the curse. He goes to Sherlock Holmes with his concerns. Holmes can’t get away from London immediately, so he sends Dr. Watson in his stead. It turns out that the explanation for the family curse is quite prosaic. In this novel, the wild, dangerous moor is an important part of the story.

It is in Gil North’s Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm, too. In that novel, Sergeant Caleb Cluff is called to the village of Gunnershaw when Amy Wright is found dead. It looks on the surface like a suicide, but Cluff isn’t entirely convinced. The victim’s husband, Alfred, was much younger than his wife, and it’s not out of the question that he would have killed her for her fortune. But Cluff can’t question Wright, as he’s gone missing. So, Cluff decides to try to find him. His search takes him across the Yorkshire moor where Gunnershaw is located, and it’s a very dangerous place. Cluff knows the area well, since he grew up there. But that doesn’t mean he’s entirely safe…

Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn takes place mostly on Dartmoor, where Mary Yellan has gone to stay with her Uncle Joss and Aunt Patience Merlyn. They own Jamaica Inn, which Mary soon learns is a depressing, foreboding place that gets no visitors. She also soon learns about some things going on at the inn. As she gets closer to the truth about the inn, she also finds herself in danger. Then, there’s a murder. Now, Mary’s life is in peril, because she’s found out some things she wasn’t supposed to know. Now, she’s going to have to get to safety if she’s to stay alive. And it won’t be easy. The moor is dangerous, and there are very few people around who could help her. It’s not spoiling the story to say that there are some tense scenes involving the moor in this novel.

Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands takes place mostly in the town of Shipcott, on Exmoor. Twelve-year-old Steven Lamb decides to help his family. Nineteen years earlier, his Uncle Billy Peters went missing and never returned. The family hasn’t recovered, and Steven wants to help with the healing. So, he decides to find Uncle Billy’s body, so that at least the family can bury him properly. He can’t, though, and isn’t sure what he’s going to do, until he gets another idea. A man named Arnold Avery, who’s in prison for another child murder, was always suspected of Uncle Billy’s murder, too, and Steven decides to find out from him where the body is. So, he writes to Avery. Avery answers his letter, and before long, the two are engaged in a very dangerous game of cat and mouse. There are some important scenes that take place both on Exmoor and on Dartmoor, where Avery is imprisoned. They add to the tension, and they add to the sense of atmosphere.

And then there’s Steve Robinson’s In the Blood. Genealogist Jefferson Tayte has been commissioned by business executive Walter Sloane to trace Sloan’s wife’s ancestry. The trail has led to England, where one of her ancestors, James Fairborne, went with his family during the American Revolution. There are several mysteries connected with the family, including the fact that Tayte is warned quite strongly to leave the genealogy alone, and go home. This he refuses to do, and he continues his search for the truth. At the same time, Amy Fallon is in search of some truth of her own. The house she lives in has a secret room in which she has found an old writing box containing a love letter. Her search for its writer takes her to previous owners of the cottage, and to the Prison Museum in Dartmoor. It turns out that Tayte’s search has led him to the same place, and the two end up searching for the same history from two different perspectives. The Dartmoor scenes are not the most important scenes in the novel. But the atmosphere there is evocative and adds to the suspense.

And that’s the thing about moors. They are beautiful, peaceful at times, and full of distinctive wildlife. But they can also be extremely dangerous and even eerie. Little wonder we see them in crime fiction.

The ‘photo is of Dartmoor. I was ‘sentenced’ there once, when I was visiting the UK. It’s magnificent, but it’s easy to see how perilous it could be.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Smiths’ Suffer Little Children.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Belinda Bauer, Daphne du Maurier, Gil North, Steve Robinson

We Are All Branches, Branches on the Family Tree*

Many people are interested in learning more about their family’s history. In the US, for instance, there’s a television show called Who do You Think You Are?, in which famous people follow their families’ histories and learn about their ancestries.

Family roots and stories from the family tree play roles in crime fiction, too. And that isn’t surprising, really. You never know what you’ll dig up when you search around your roots. And even if your ancestors weren’t notorious or famous, you could still find some interesting stories in your family past. And some of those stories can play roles in the present.

Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead includes an interesting discussion of the impact of family roots and family history. In the novel, Hercule Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny to investigate the murder of a charwoman. Everyone thinks the killer was her lodger, James Bentley, but there are other possibilities. One evening, Poirot is invited to a cocktail party, where tongues are somewhat loosened with alcohol. Later, a group of the guests goes to visit the home of one of the residents who couldn’t go to the party. There’s an interesting discussion about breeding dogs, and one of the people says,

‘‘You can’t get away from heredity – in people as well as dogs.’’

Not everyone agrees with that assessment, so it’s a lively conversation. As it turns out, there is a connection between family pasts and the murder of Mrs. McGinty. It seems that the victim found out more about one particular person’s history than was safe for her to know.

Family stories and history play an important role in John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook. When Tad Rampole finishes his university studies, he decides to travel. His mentor suggests that he go to England to visit Dr. Gideon Fell, and Rampole takes that advice. On his way to Fell’s home, Rampole meets Dorothy Starberth, and it’s not long before the two are taken with each other. And Rampole soon learns that she has an interesting family history. Two generations of Starberth men were Governors at the new-disused Chatterham Prison. Even today, the men of the family undergo an odd sort of ritual because of that old connection. Each male Starberth spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room. There, he opens the room’s safe, and follows a set of instructions listed on a piece of paper that’s kept there. It’s now the turn of Dorothy’s brother, Martin. He’s reluctant to go through with the ritual, because several Starberth men have died unusual deaths. Some people even call it a curse. But, he goes along with the plan in the end, and spends the night at the prison. Tragically, he dies of what looks like a terrible accident. But was it? Fell discovers that this death was most definitely a murder, and finds out who the killer is.

Fans of Steve Robinson’s Jefferson Tayte novels can tell you that family stories play a major role in that series. Tayte is a genealogist, who often uncovers surprising (sometimes dangerous) secrets in families’ stories. For instance, in In the Blood, Tayte is hire by wealthy Boston business magnate Walter Sloane. Sloane wants Tayte to trace his wife’s ancestry as a gift for her, and Tayte agrees. One branch of her family went to England with a group of Royalists during the American Revolution, so Tayte gets the ‘green light’ to go there and find out what happened to that family. And what he finds still resonates today, with the family’s modern descendants. And it all brings real danger to him.

Dorothy Fowler’s What Remains Behind introduces readers to archaeologist Chloe Davis. She, her business partner, Bill, and a group of their students, get clearance to go to Kaipara Harbour, on New Zealand’s North Island. They want to excavate the remains of a religious community that burned down in the 1880s. For Chloe, this is a homecoming of sorts, since she grew up in the area. But it’s not a joyful family reunion. For one thing, Chloe’s cousin, Shane, is a leader of a group of people who do not want the excavation to go on. They want the land for development. There’s also the fact that Choe has a troubled relationship with her sister, Phaedra, who has inherited a house in the contested area. Still, the excavation goes ahead. And, as the team members work the site, they find more there than a burnt-out set of mission buildings. There are some surprising connections to the present, and some family-ancestry links, that someone doesn’t want uncovered.

And then there’s Hannah Dennison’s Murderous Mayhem at Honeychurch Hall. In one plot thread of this novel, the village of Little Dipperton, in Devon, is preparing to re-enact a battle that was fought there between the Cavaliers, who supported King Charles I, and the Roundheads, who supported Oliver Cromwell. The Honeychurch family, who’s been in the area for hundreds of years, were Cavaliers. So, Rupert Honeychurch, the current Lord Honeychurch, will take on that role. His wife, Lavinia, was a Carew before she married, and the Carews were Roundheads. So, there’s some interesting tension in the family. Those generations-old connections still matter in this village. The main plot of the novel has to do with the murder of the local postmistress. But it’s interesting to see how family roots, and family history, play a role, too.

And, for many people, that’s as true in real life as it is in fiction. Little wonder there’s so much fascination with ancestry and family pasts. Which stories have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Londonbeat’s It’s In the Blood.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy Fowler, Hannah Dennison, John Dickson Carr, Steve Robinson