Category Archives: Sulari Gentill

Bohemian Like You*

There are certain communities of people who tend to live what people have sometimes called a bohemian lifestyle. They don’t keep conventional hours, or dress conventionally. And they don’t look at the world in a conventional way. We often think of artists, writers, musicians and actors as being in this category, and some are.

Those communities can be really effective as settings for crime novels. The bohemian lifestyle is intriguing, and can even be appealing. And there are all sorts of possibilities for character developments and for plots.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories include bohemian characters and settings. As just one example, in Third Girl, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from a young woman who claims she may have committed a murder. Before she can give any details, though, she tells him she’s made a mistake, and that he’s too old. She leaves without giving her name, so at first, Poirot can’t follow up. But his friend, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, happens to know who the woman is. She is Norma Restarick, daughter of successful businessman Andrew Restarick. Mrs. Oliver tries to trace Norma’s whereabouts, beginning with her London flat. One of Norma’s flatmates is Frances Cary, who works in an art gallery, and sometimes models. She lives a very bohemian lifestyle. It also turns out that Norma’s been seeing a man named David Baker – a man Mrs. Oliver calls the Peacock because of the way he dresses. Baker, too, is a bohemian. Oddly enough, Norma really isn’t, although she’s mixed up with that community. Poirot and Mrs. Oliver try to find out whether Norma really might have committed a murder. But first they’re going to have to find her. They do, but not before there’s a murder…

When we first meet Dorothy L. Sayers’ Harriet Vane, she is in the dock, on trial for the murder of Philip Boyes. And the situation doesn’t look very good for her. For one thing, there is evidence against her. For another, she lives somewhat of a bohemian lifestyle, even daring to live with Boyes without being married to him. At the time this was written, that was enough to make a woman notorious. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial, and falls in love with Vane. In fact, when the jury cannot reach a verdict, he determines to clear her name, so that he can marry her. As it turns out, this case isn’t what it seems on the surface.

Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly is the first of his Gervase Fen novels. It takes place mostly at Oxford, and its focus is a group of people who are all connected in some way to playwright Robert Wright’s new work, Metromania. They’re all ‘theatre people:’ actors, musicians, writers, and some admirers. And they all live bohemian lifestyles, with little interest in social conformity. Preparations are being made for a production of this new play, and the pace is getting a bit frenetic. Then one night, Yseute Haskell, who has the lead in the play, is shot. On the surface, it seems like an ‘impossible crime,’ since she was alone in her room, and no-one was seen to go into it or leave it. In fact, the police think it may be a suicide. Fen doesn’t think so, though, and he gets involved in the investigation. It turns out that this wasn’t suicide at all.

Fans of Ngaio Marsh’s work will know that she had a lifelong connection to the theatre and ‘theatre people.’ Many of her novels (e.g. Enter a Murderer and Opening Night) take place mostly in a theatre setting. Others involve actors in other settings. And, of course, Marsh’s Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn meets and later marries an artist, Agatha Troy. So, several of her novels also feature art and the art world. Throughout these novels, we meet characters with bohemian lifestyles and nonconformist views about life.

Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peters is a PI in 1940s Hollywood. A former Warner Brothers security officer, he has several connections in the film business, and he certainly gets his share of clients from the world of acting. Both Bullet For a Star and Murder on the Yellow Brick Road are set in the Hollywood filmmaking context. So are several other books in this series. And the actors and other ‘Hollywood types’ that Peters meets often live unconventional lives. So do some of Peters’ other clients (he has one adventure, for instance, that takes place in a circus setting). He certainly doesn’t meet a lot of ‘suburban couple with two children and white picket fence’ families…

Sulari Gentill’s Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair is a member of a wealthy, ‘blueblood’ family in 1930’s New South Wales.  His conservative older brother, Wilfred, runs the family business. But Rowly has a very different view of life. He’s a ‘gentleman artist,’ and his closest friends are also artists, or writers. While Rowly himself lives a mostly conventional lifestyle, his friends really don’t. They keep the hours they want, dress in ways that suit them, and don’t hold as much with traditional social structure. Their politics are unconventional, too. All of that sometimes puts Rowly at odds with Wilfred, who’s more comfortable with traditional ways of thinking and living.

Bohemian lifestyles and unconventional views can make for a really interesting community of people. And those communities can add richness to a crime novel or series. There are many more of them in crime fiction than I have space to discuss (right, fans of Elly Griffiths’ Max Mephisto series?). But these examples should give you a sense of how bohemian communities fit into the genre. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Edmund Crispin, Elly Griffiths, Ngaio Marsh, Sulari Gentill

Too Much Information Running Through My Brain*

Part of the reason that people enjoy historical fiction is that it can give really interesting information about a particular time and place. That’s part of why, for many readers, it’s important that their historical fiction be accurate. They want to learn from it, which is hard to do if it’s not realistic.

But that presents a challenge. Even if you don’t read much historical fiction, you probably know that many periods of history haven’t been exactly pleasant. Wars, disease, high infant mortality, lack of hygiene, and plenty of other factors could make life miserable. That’s especially true for those who were poor or otherwise disenfranchised. At the same time as readers of historical fiction want realistic depictions, they may very well not want unrelenting misery. So, what’s the balance? How can an author depict a particular historical period honestly, yet in an engaging way? Everyone has a different idea of what ‘counts’ as the right amount of realism. But here are a few examples of books and series that strike that balance.

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is the fictional retelling of the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, one of the last people to be executed for murder in Iceland. The novel takes place beginning in 1828, when two farmers, Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson, are murdered, allegedly by Agnes Magnúsdóttir, Friðrik Sigurðsson, and Sigrídur ‘Sigga’ Gudmondsdóttir. The three suspects are found guilty, and are sentenced to death. It’s decided that, rather than spend the money to keep Agnes housed in a prison, she will be sent to live with District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife, Margrét, and their two daughters, Steina and Lauga. There, so it’s believed, she will benefit from living with a ‘good Christian family’ for her last months. And the government won’t be responsible for feeding and housing her. The family will benefit, too, from her work. As the story goes on, we slowly get to know Agnes, and we learn about her past, her relationship with the other two convicted of the crime, and their reasons. Throughout the novel, Kent is clear about what life was like at that time, and in that place, especially if you were a woman and a convict. There’s no glossing over. At the same time, the attention is on the story, rather than on every gritty detail.

One could say much the same thing about C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series. Shardlake is a lawyer who lives and works in London during the reign of King Henry VIII. It’s a very uncertain time, with religious upheaval, political intrigue, and strained international relations. Life’s not easy for the average person; in fact, it can be quite bleak. And even those with means are not immune from disease, persecution, and more. Against this backdrop, Shardlake has to move very carefully. He knows he works at the pleasure of the king and his advisors. If he does anything to displease them, he risks everything. Sansom doesn’t make light of the grim realities of life at that time. That said, though, the focus is on the mysteries and the plot threads relating to them.

It is in Ariana Franklin/Diana Norman’s Adelia Aguilar series, too. These novels take place in the 12h Century, during the rule of King Henry II. Aguilar is a doctor, originally from the University at Salerno, who is summoned by the king to investigate a murder. Life at this time is grueling, especially for women and other disenfranchised people. In fact, for her own safety, Aguilar has to work ‘behind the scenes’ and pretend that the medical work is done by Simon Menahm – Simon of Naples – who came with her to England. It’s too dangerous for a woman to be involved in medical science. Superstition plays a major role in people’s lives, and that, too, makes life difficult. That’s not to mention the other hardships that people faced at the time. But the focus of these novels is on the cases at hand. It’s not that Franklin/Norman plays down the realities of the times. Rather, the emphasis is on the stories, instead of on the ‘gory details.’

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River tells the story of William Thornhill and his family, who move from London to Sydney 1806, when Thornill is sentenced to transportation for stealing a load of wood. The family makes a new start, with Thornhill earning a living by making deliveries up and down the local river. His wife, Sal, sets up a makeshift pub. Little by little, they settle in. But as they do, they come into increasing conflict with the people who were always there.  That conflict ends in some brutal atrocities. Although Thornhill wants no part of this sort of bloodshed, he soon sees that he’ll have to get his hands dirty if he’s to build a life on the piece of land he dreams of owning. Grenville is realistic about what it was like to be poor in London at that time, and later, what it was like to live in a penal colony. It’s dirty, exhausting, and sometimes very ugly. Lifespans are not long, and disease kills very quickly. That said, though, there isn’t exhaustive detail about the grimness of live. Rather, Grenville’s focus is on the story of how the Thornhill family makes a new life in Australia.

Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu novels are set in 1920’s India, mostly in Madras (today’s Chennai). Life’s not really easy, even for the British, who are firmly in charge. It’s much more difficult for anyone else, especially the poor who happen to be Indian. Although there have been some medical advances, there’s still a high mortality rate. As is mentioned in The Pallampur Predicament,
 

‘If there was a scourge left for the British in India, it was illness in many forms.’
 

That said, though, Stoddart’s focus is the mystery at hand in each novel. There’s no glossing over some of the difficulties of life; at the same time, the novels don’t dwell on them.

That’s also arguably true of the work of other authors, such as Sulari Gentill, Gordon Ferris, and Felicity Young. It’s not an easy balance to strike. On the one hand, readers want realistic portrayals. On the other, most readers don’t want unrelenting bleakness. What’s your personal balance? If you’re a writer of historical crime fiction, how do you acknowledge the difficulties of life in other times without letting them overpower your plots?
 

ps. The ‘photo is from Abba Eban’s Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, and was reprinted there from the Bettmann Archives. It shows a tenement in New York’s Lower East Side not long after the turn of the 20th Century.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Police’s Too Much Information.

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Filed under Ariana Franklin, Brian Stoddart, C.J. Sansom, Diana Norman, Felicity Young, Gordon Ferris, Hannah Kent, Kate Grenville, Sulari Gentill

Who Could Imagine I’d be Wandering So, Far From the Home I Love*

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned how important it is for a lot of parents and other adults to pass on traditions. And it is. That’s how cultures are perpetuated, and many families see those traditions as legacies.

As always happens on this blog, the discussion was a lot more interesting than the post itself. And one of the topics that came up was: what about children who don’t choose to carry on those traditions? It’s a good question, and certainly it’s a plot point in a lot of crime fiction. That makes sense, too, since that choice can add interesting layers of character development (to say nothing of plot threads) to a story.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), for instance, we meet the members of the Abernethie family. As the novel begins, family patriarch Richard Abernethie has just died, and his family attends the funeral. Afterwards, they gather at the family home, Enderby, to hear the terms of Abernethie’s will. During the gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, blurts out that her brother was murdered. At first, that suggestion is brushed aside. But when she herself is murdered the next day, it seems all too plausible. Mr. Entwhistle, the family attorney, asks Hercule Poirot to look into the case, and Poirot agrees. One of the main motives, of course, would be money, since Abernethie was a wealthy man. So, Mr. Entwhistle tries to find out the different family members’ financial situations. At one point, he has a conversation with Timothy Abernethie, brother of both victims. Here’s what Timothy has to say about the family:
 

‘‘Our father left us all a perfectly reasonable share of his money–that is, if we didn’t want to go into the family concern [a company that makes foot preparations]. I didn’t. I’ve a soul above corn-plasters, Entwhistle!’’
 

Timothy’s choice to break with the family company tradition means he and his wife, Maude, haven’t had as much access to the family fortune. It’s an interesting look at the later consequences of not staying in the family business.

S.J. Rozan’s Chin Ling Wan-ju, who usually goes by Lydia Chin, is a Chinese-American PI, based in New York City. Her family is very traditional, and her mother in particular would like her to settle down, marry a Chinese man, and raise a family, in the traditional Chinese way. But that’s not what Chin wants. For one thing, she hasn’t found a person she wants as a partner, and she would rather make that choice herself. For another, she likes what she does, although no-one in her family approves. She’s good at her job, too. Because she’s multilingual (mostly using English and Cantonese), she can work with a wide variety of clients. And she knows New York City very well. Breaking with family tradition isn’t always easy for Chin, but she’s almost always content with her choice.

Sulari Gentill’s Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair is a member of a wealthy New South Wales family. At the time that this series takes place (the early/mid 1930s), the worldwide Great Depression is in full force, and millions of people are hard-hit.  Plenty of them want major changes in the government and economic systems; some even call for a revolution. The Sinclair family, now headed by Rowly’s older brother, Wilfred, is well-off and politically conservative. Rowly himself isn’t overly interested in politics, but he has plenty of friends on the left, even the far left. And he doesn’t really have a desire to take over the family businesses. Instead, he’s an artist, as are several of his friends. Wilfred doesn’t exactly approve of his brother’s lifestyle, companions, or choices, and he is concerned about the family reputation. Here’s what he says to Rowly about it in A Few Right Thinking Men:
 

‘‘Why can’t you just drink too much like everybody else’s wayward brother?’’
 

For his part, Rowly is mostly content with his choices. He can’t bring himself to agree with Wilfred on politics, and certainly won’t be lectured to about his life. The conflict sometimes leads to tension, and that adds to the plots in this series. It also adds to the characters.

Geraldine Evans’ Detective Inspector (DI) Joe Rafferty works with the Elmurst CID in Essex. He’s hardly perfect, but he’s good at what he does, and he likes police work. That career isn’t what his family would have liked, though. Rafferty comes from a large, Irish working-class family, some of whose members are involved in not-exactly-legal ‘enterprises.’
 

‘His family was the limit, especially as some of them were of the opinion that if they must have a copper in the family, he might at least have the decency to be a bent one.’
 

Rafferty’s career is tolerated, because it’s convenient to have a police officer in the family when you’re arrested. But in many ways, the family would prefer if he had a ‘regular’ sort of working-class job, ‘like everybody else.’

And then there’s Angela Savage’s Rajiv Patel. When we first meet him, in The Half-Child, Patel is helping out in his uncle’s bookshop in the ‘Little India’ section of Bangkok. His family’s plan is for him to spend some time there, then return to his native India, marry someone of whom his family approves, and settle down there. But that’s not what Patel wants. His dream is to see some of the world, to explore. And he wants to start by seeing a great deal more of Thailand than just the small part of Bangkok where others from India live. So, when he meets PI Jayne Keeney, he’s intrigued. She’s an ex-pat Australian who speaks fluent Thai, and who has had her share of travel experiences. And, when he helps her solve the mysterious death of a young volunteer at a children’s home, he sees an opportunity for the sort of interesting life he wants. He ends up becoming her business partner as well as her partner in life.

Sometimes, making the choice to part with family traditions and expectations has really positive consequences. But it’s never easy to do, even in the best of situations. And it can cause plenty of conflict.

Thanks to those of you who suggested this post: I appreciate the ‘food for thought.’

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Brock and Sheldon Harnick’s Far From the Home I Love.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Geraldine Evans, S.J. Rozan, Sulari Gentill

They Say He’s Got to Go*

monstersOne of the most enduring plot types in any sort of writing is what I’ll call overcoming the monster. One example, for instance is the story of Beowulf and the monster called the Grendel. Of course, you don’t have to go back that far to find stories where protagonists have to overcome monsters.

If you think of monsters in the figurative sense, there are a lot of instances of this sort of plot in crime fiction. By the way, you’ll notice as this post goes on that there won’t be any instances of ‘crazed serial killer’ plots. Too easy.

In Cecil Day-Lewis/Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, we are introduced to Frank Cairnes, a detective novelist who writes under the name of Felix Lane. Six months before the events of the story, his son Martin ‘Martie’ was killed in a hit-and-run incident, and he’s been inconsolable since then. His grief has driven him to the point where, as he puts it,
 

‘I am going to kill a man.’
 

He’s referring, of course, to the man who killed his son. And he regards that person as a kind of monster. He sets out to find the identity of the driver, and put an end to him. Cairnes moves to the town where he and Martie were living at the time of the boy’s death, and starts his sleuthing. He finds out that the driver of the car was likely a man named George Rattery. With that information, Cairnes wangles his way into the Rattery household and looks for an opportunity to kill the man. He gets his chance one afternoon when he and Rattery go sailing together. But, as it turns out, Rattery has found Cairnes’ diary, and knew about the plot to kill him. As he tells Cairnes, if anything happens to him, the police will immediately suspect Cairnes. That’s exactly what happens when, later that afternoon, Rattery dies of poison. Cairnes seeks out poet and amateur sleuth Nigel Strangeways, and asks for his help. He claims that he’s innocent (after all, why would he have planned to poison Rattery when he was going to push him overboard?) and Strangeways goes to work finding out who the real killer was. In this case, Cairnes’ grief has made him think of Rattery as a monster.

Sometimes, the monster that characters seek to overcome is in themselves (perhaps that’s another blog topic in itself…). In Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, for instance, we meet Lou Ford, deputy sheriff of Central City, Texas. He’s a quiet sort of man, a little on the ‘plodding’ side, but not stupid. He investigates when a local prostitute, Joyce Lakeland, is viciously beaten. While he’s working on that case, there’s a murder. Now it’s clear that something is going on in Central City. And all along, what people don’t know about Ford is that he’s hiding something he calls ‘the sickness’ – something he tries to overcome. And that ‘sickness’ plays its role in the story.

Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men features her sleuth, artist Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair. The story takes place in 1932 in New South Wales. It’s a time of great hardship, with the worldwide Great Depression hitting everyone very hard. Siinclair’s family is relatively safe, as they’re wealthy and powerful. But that doesn’t mean they’re safe from tragedy. When Sinclair’s uncle, also named Rowland, is murdered one night, Inspector Biquit and his team investigate. Slowly, Sinclair comes to suspect that his uncle’s killers might be members of the New Guard, a far-right group led by Colonel Eric Campbell. The group’s aim is to stamp out all liberal and left-wing thinking, and establish a new government in Australia, that will protect the current class system, and re-establish very traditional ways of life. The more Sinclair learns about the New Guard, the more dangerous he finds them to be. In fact, they’re already plotting against New South Wales’ government, and the rest of the country will likely not be far behind. As Sinclair and his friends try to find out who murdered his uncle, they also have to work to prevent the New Guard, and Campbell, from succeeding. In this case, it’s a dangerous political group that’s seen as a sort of monster that must be stopped.

Most children are no strangers to the concept of a monster and the desire to overcome it. And for some children, it’s all too real. For instance, in Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks, fourteen-year-old Adam Vander finally works up the courage to escape his abusive father, Joe. He’s always thought of Joe as a kind of monster, and with good reason. But until now, he’s always been too small and too frightened to leave. When he finally does, he meets Billy Benson, a young man who happens to be at the house when Adam makes his escape. The two spend the next week together, and form a sort of friendship. They learn, too, that they are connected in ways they’re not really comfortable discussing, but that are undeniable. And it all stems from a past incident. Still, they work together, and face real danger as the week goes on, and in the end, there’s a sense of resolution. Several parts of the story are told from Adam’s perspective, so we see how he regards Joe. It’s not exactly like Beowulf trying to defeat the Grendel, but there’s a very similar sort of sentiment.

And then there’s Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol’s The Cemetery of Swallows. That novel begins as Manuel Gemoni travels from France to the Dominican Republic. There, he kills a Dominican citizen named Tobias Darbier. There’s no doubt that Gemoni is the killer, but what’s missing is a motive. All he says about it is that he killed Darbier,
 

‘‘…because he had killed me.’’
 

Gemoni has been badly injured, so Police Commissioner Amédée Mallock of the Paris CID is sent to the Dominican Republic to bring Gemoni back to France as soon as his condition allows. When he has fully recuperated, the agreement is that he will be returned to the Dominican Republic to face trial. Mallock is particularly interested in this case, since one of his colleagues is Gemoni’s sister. As the novel goes on, we slowly learn the history of Gemoni and Darbier. And we see that the theme of overcoming a monster is woven into the plot.

It’s woven into many plots, actually. And that’s not surprising. That plot type can be very suspenseful and tense. And it’s something that resonates with readers.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Blue Öyster Cult’s Godzilla.

 

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Filed under Cecil Day-Lewis, Honey Brown, Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol, Jim Thompson, Nicholas Blake, Sulari Gentill

They’re Only Made of Clay*

PotteryFor thousands of years, people have merged beauty and practicality in many ways (blankets, clothing, furnishings, etc.). And in doing so, they’ve left behind real windows into their lives. We see this in a lot of ways; I’d never be able to do justice to it in a book, let alone a blog post. But we can get a hint just by looking at pottery.

If you have handmade pottery, then you know it really can be seen as a form of art. If you’ve made it, you may feel even more strongly about that. But pottery also serves lots of practical uses. Potters and pottery certainly turn up in crime fiction, and that makes sense. There are all sorts of possibilities for including interesting information, linking past and present in a mystery, and even creating conflict.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, pottery is used as a way for Dr. Watson to help Sherlock Holmes prevent a disaster. Sir James Damery is worried about his daughter, Violet, who’s fallen in love with Baron Adelbert Gruner. Both Holmes and Damery are certain that this marriage will end in disaster, since the baron is a philanderer who sees women merely as conquests. The problem is that the Baron has a way of getting a hold over people, so that they do anything he wants. That includes thuggery against anyone who tries to get in his way. Holmes learns from one of Gruner’s former mistresses that he has a book in which he’s chronicled his amorous adventures, and it’s hoped that, if Violet sees that book and learns the truth, she’ll break off the engagement. But getting the book proves to be harder than it seems. The Baron has one weakness, though: he is a renowned expert on and collector of Chinese pottery. So Holmes has Watson study up on Chinese pottery and go to Gruner’s home in the guise of someone wishing to sell a Ming piece. Watson’s visit has some unintended consequences, but it certainly plays a role in helping Holmes’ client.

Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours) introduces London potter and sculptor Henrietta Savernake. One weekend, she’s invited to the home of a cousin, Lady Lucy Angkatell. Among the other guests is Henrietta’s lover, John Christow, and his wife, Gerda. Also present are some of Lucy’s other relatives: Midge Hardcastle, Edward Angkatell (who is in love with Henrietta), and David Angkatell. As you can imagine, the weekend does not bode well. On the Sunday afternoon, Hercule Poirot, who has taken a nearby cottage, is invited to lunch. When he arrives, he sees what he thinks is a macabre sort of joke, set up for his ‘benefit.’ John Christow has been shot and is lying by the pool. His killer is standing nearby, holding the weapon. Within seconds, it’s clear to Poirot that this isn’t a tableau: it’s a real murder scene. But does it tell the truth? Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find out who really killed Christow and why. And it’s interesting to see how pottery plays a role in solving the crime. You’re quite right, fans of Murder in Mesopotamia and of The ABC Murders.

In Mary Kelly’s The Spoilt Kill, PI Hedley Nicholson is hired by Luke Shentall, of the Shentall Pottery Factory in Stoke-on-Trent. Someone’s been stealing pottery designs from the factory and selling them to foreign competitors. One of the main suspects is the firm’s top designer, Corinna Wakefield. On the one hand, she’s a likely possibility; she’s quite talented, and has access to everything she’d need to be ‘the mole.’ And, since she’s an ‘outsider,’ no-one knows much about her. On the other hand, there are other possibilities. And the very fact that she’s an ‘outsider’ could prejudice people against her. Then one day, Corinna is on the spot when a body is discovered in a kiln. She says she’s innocent, and Nicholson wants to believe her, especially since he’s fallen for her. But is she? And are the two crimes connected?

Margaret Maron’s Uncommon Clay introduces readers to the Nordan family, a dynasty with a long history of pottery-making. Now the family’s being torn apart by a messy, ugly divorce. James Nordan and Sandra Hitchcock, both highly skilled potters, are separating after twenty-five years. Judge Deborah Knott is in the Asheboro (North Carolina) area to visit the potters’ festival there, and see if she can find a piece that she wants. While she’s there, she’s also on temporary assignment; her role is to oversee the distribution of the Nordan/Hitchcock property and ensure that it’s as equitable as possible. Everything changes, though, when Nordan’s body is found in a kiln. Sandra is the natural most likely suspect, but this case turns out to be more complex than that.

And then there’s Stephen E. Stanley’s Pottery and Poets, which features his sleuth, Luke Littlefield. He is an academic who also writes crime fiction (hmm…). His specialty is cultural anthropology, so, in one plot thread of this novel, he is consulted when a major find is reported in the Cape Cod area. Littlefield is from Maine, so besides his academic credentials, he knows New England and a lot of its history. He is sent a collection of pottery and other relics, and uses it to establish that the dig may be a long-buried 17th Century village. Apparently, a fire swept through the village. It wasn’t a brush fire or a lightning strike, so one mystery concerns how the fire started. The other concerns the unexplained death of the village’s cleric, Reverend Josiah Babbage. It was believed he committed suicide, but did he? In this plot thread, it’s really interesting to see how Littlefield’s knowledge of pottery helps him to draw some conclusions about the village and its people.

And I don’t think I could do a post on pottery without mentioning Sulari Gentill’s Edna Higgins. She is a sculptor, potter, and sometime-model who is very much a free spirit. But she is quite loyal to her friends, among whom is Gentill’s protagonist, Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair. In fact, she’s his muse. During the time when this series takes place (the 1930s), it’s a bit unusual for a woman to chart her own artistic and personal course, but that’s exactly what Edna Higgins does.

Pottery really is fascinating, and so are the people who create it. They have a unique perspective on the world, and the things they make reflect that world. Little wonder we see that perspective in crime fiction.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from George and Ira Gershwin’s Love is Here to Stay.  

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Margaret Maron, Mary Kelly, Stephen E. Stanley, Sulari Gentill