Category Archives: Tarquin Hall

To See the Total Eclipse of the Sun*

Yesterday (as this is posted), the US was treated to that astronomical rarity: a total solar eclipse. Scientists took full advantage of the opportunity to study that phenomenon, and so did teachers and professors and their classes. And, of course, millions of people watched the big event in a more casual way.

The more we learn about science, the better we understand phenomena such as eclipses. Still, there’ve also been some fascinating non-scientific explanations, too. And what’s just as interesting (at least to me) is that plenty of societies still have those other beliefs woven in somehow, even as they also embrace more scientific approaches to explaining things.

In real life, there are certainly misunderstandings about eclipses that almost resemble those more ancient beliefs. And that’s true even in today’s world, where the latest scientific developments are easily accessible for a lot of people. For instance, E.C. Krupp, Director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, says the observatory gets plenty of calls from people asking whether the eclipse presents a danger to pregnant women or their unborn children. We see that juxtaposition of older beliefs and more modern understanding in crime fiction, too. And that can add interest to a story, as well as insight into a culture.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot is taking what he thinks will be a simple holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. He gets involved in a murder case when fellow hotel guest, famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall, is killed. At first, her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, seems to be the most likely suspect, but he’s soon proven to have a solid alibi. So, Poirot and the police have to look elsewhere for the killer. At one point, there’s an interesting conversation about different ancient beliefs of the area (Devon); one of them is belief in pixies. In fact, even as recently as this novel, people still tell stories about them.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation, as well as a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. He certainly accepts modern science, and has a university education. But at the same time, he is a spiritual person who, for a time, studies to be a Navajo singer/healer. And he’s not alone in accepting both modern science and traditional Navajo beliefs. In Skinwalkers, for instance, we are introduced to Bahe Yellowhorse. He’s a doctor who runs the Badwater Clinic. He is also known as a ‘crystal gazer,’ who uses traditional ways to diagnose and treat patients. Interestingly, he uses both approaches to healing to work with patients, directing them to whichever paths to healing work for them. When the Badwater Clinic becomes the focus of a murder investigation, Chee and Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn get to know Yellowhorse, and we learn how he tries to balance different views of medicine.

Colin Cotterill’s series featuring Dr. Siri Paiboun takes place in 1970s Laos. Dr. Siri is Laos’ only medical examiner, and as such, he is expected to use modern science to explain phenomena that he finds. And he does. Even though his equipment is outdated and he doesn’t have access to all of the modern technology available, he does believe in the scientific method. And he uses it to solve mysteries. However, there are deep spiritual traditions in Laos that go back thousands of years, and Dr. Siri is aware of them, too. And some of those traditions find their way into his perspective and experiences. What’s more, those more ancient explanations for phenomena reflect the way the people of Laos have thought for a long time. So, despite the current government that insists on atheism and disparages ancient beliefs, Dr. Siri finds that those less prosaic beliefs play an important role in what he does.

They do in the world of Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri, too. He’s a PI who lives and works in Delhi. Puri believes in science and in scientific explanations for things, although he has a spiritual side. But he also understands that there are other ways of looking at the world. For example, much of the ‘bread and butter’ of his business is ‘vetting’ potential spouses for his clients’ children and grandchildren. So, he sees a lot of what goes into choosing a partner. And one aspect of that choice, for a lot of people, is astrology. It’s believed that successful marriages are at least in part the result of compatible horoscopes. That ancient tradition leads many people to cast horoscopes of promising partners before they do anything else. It’s an interesting case of people who study, contribute to, and believe in science, but who still have ancient explanations woven into their cultures.

And then there’s Fred Vargas’ Seeking Whom He May Devour. In that novel, which takes place in the French Alps, the residents of Ventebrune and Pierrefor are upset when nine sheep are discovered with their throats slashed. At first, it’s believed that a wolf is responsible, and that’s dangerous enough. But then, a sheep breeder named Suzanne Rosselin is found murdered in one of her sheep pens, killed the same way as the sheep. Now, despite modern beliefs in science and in forensics, whispers start that all of this is the work of a werewolf. In fact, those who believe that say that the werewolf is a loner called Auguste Massart, who’s gone missing. Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg travels to the Alps to investigate. As you can guess, there isn’t a werewolf involved. But it’s interesting to see how those ancient beliefs and explanations survive alongside modern science.

Phenomena such as eclipses are fascinating on a lot of levels. One of them is what they say about human thinking. We have modern science, and modern explanations for a lot of what we experience. But those ancient accounts, whether they’re of sky-wolves eating the sun (that was a Viking belief) or of the sun and moon fighting (that belief comes from Togo), are still woven into our psyche at some level.

ps. I don’t live in the path of totality of this latest eclipse, so this beautiful ‘photo comes courtesy of ABC News.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain. 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Cotterill, Fred Vargas, Tarquin Hall, Tony Hillerman

It’s Only an Illusion*

In Agatha Christie’s short story, The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, a series of mysterious deaths is associated with the excavation of an important ancient tomb. More than one person believes that those deaths happened because there’s a curse on anyone who disturbs the tomb. Hercule Poirot looks into the matter, and finds a very prosaic explanation for the deaths. He himself doesn’t believe in spiritualism or ancient curses. But he does say this:
 

‘Once get it firmly established that a series of deaths are supernatural, and you might almost stab a man in broad daylight, and it would still be put down to the curse, so strongly is the instinct of the supernatural implanted in the human race.’
 

And he has a point. Millions of people believe in the supernatural, or at least want very badly to believe. And that makes them vulnerable to charlatans and cheats.

There are plenty of people out there, though, who make it their business to call out those charlatans. One of those was Harry Houdini, born Erich Weiss, whose 143rd birthday would have been today, as this is posted. Houdini was a skilled magician who knew all of the ‘tricks of the trade’ for getting people to believe they saw whatever he wanted them to believe they saw. But he knew it was all illusion – all deception. And he was determined that others wouldn’t prey on the vulnerable.

He’s not the only one, either, at least not in crime fiction. In Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit, for instance, we are introduced to Svetozar Vok. He’s a well-known and successful stage magician, who’s taken to unmasking fake mediums and spiritualists. So, he’s very interested in the proceedings when Frank and Irene Ogden, together with Frank’s business partner Luke Latham, decide to hold a séance. Their purpose is to contact Irene’s first husband, French émigré Grimaud Désanat. Irene is a medium, so it’s decided to hold the séance at the Ogden home, and invite several other people, including Vok. The séance is held, and is truly eerie. But shortly afterwards, Vok exposes Irene as a fake. Even so, there are things about the event that can’t be explained. Later that night, Irene is found dead. Does the death have a supernatural explanation? If not, then who among the group is the murderer?

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, we meet Dr. Suresh Jha, founder of the Delhi Institute for Research and Education (D.I.R.E.). A devotee of scientific research, he has dedicated himself to debunking spiritual charlatans and others who claim paranormal power. One morning, Jha attends a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club when an extraordinary event occurs. As witnesses later tell the police, the goddess Kali appears, and stabs Jha. Believes claim that she did so as a punishment for Jha’s infidelity and for his leading others away from worship. And, in fact, the death leads to a resurgence of interest in matters religious. But Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri isn’t sure this death is what it seems. He has spiritual beliefs of his own, but he doesn’t really believe in paranormal explanations for murder. Since Jha was once a client of his, Puri takes an interest in the case and begins asking questions. And he soon learns that more than one person had a good reason for wanting Jha dead.

There’s also Alan Russell’s The Fat Innkeeper. Am Coulfield is house detective at San Diego’s very upmarket Hotel California. He has enough on his hands when the hotel is bought by a Japanese firm. But then, disaster strikes. The hotel has been playing host to a Union of Near Death Experiences Retreat, and several New Age mentalists are present. Also staying at the hotel is Dr. Thomas Kingsbury, who’s made a career out of unmasking fraudulent mentalists. And he’s targeted some of the people who are at the retreat. So, when Kingsbury is poisoned, there are plenty of suspects for Coulfield to consider.

Donna Leon’s A Question of Belief sees Venice’s Commissario Guido Brunetti serve as a sort of debunker. His second-in-command, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello comes to him with a family problem. It seems that Vianello’s aunt, Zia Anita, has been withdrawing money from the family business and giving it to a man named Stefano Gorini. The money is hers to do with as she wishes, so she’s not stealing. But Vianello is concerned that Gorini is cheating her. So, he asks Brunetti to look into the matter. Brunetti agrees and starts doing a little research into Gorini. He finds that the man has been in trouble with the law before over matters of possible fraud. In fact, he lost his medical license. Now, it seems he’s back, once more taking money for what seem to be fake cures. And Brunetti will need to find a way to stop Gorini before more people are bilked.  

And then there’s Elly Griffiths’ Max Mephisto. He’s a magician who lives and works in the 1950’s UK. He may not be known all over the world, but he knows what he’s doing onstage. And those skills were important during WWII, when Mephisto was one of the Magic Men, a special-operations group that used their stage tricks to fool the enemy. Now that the war’s over, Mephisto is ‘on the circuit’ with circus performers, fortune tellers and the like. He works with a fellow former Magic Man, DI Edgar Stephens, and his expertise turns out to be very useful. Mephisto may not be specifically committed to unmasking charlatans. But he certainly knows that murders don’t happen by magic, and he helps to unwrap the layers of fakery, and get to the truth.

And that’s exactly what Houdini did. He’s no longer with us, but his brilliance on stage, and his commitment to keeping people from being hoodwinked, will be remembered. He’s also inspired generations of illusionists since his time.

 
 
 

The ‘photo is of two of those illusionists, Penn Jillette and his magic partner, Raymond Teller. Both are outstanding, world-class illusionists. And both are committed, as Houdini was, to uncovering fraud and charlatanism. In fact, in their shows, Jillette, the ‘voice of the duo,’ often tells members of the audience that the pair is going to use trickery to confuse them. He then reminds the audience that it’s all sleight-of-hand and other illusion. But it still works. Gentlemen, if you’re reading this, I’m sure Houdini would have been proud to be your colleague.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Uriah Heep’s Illusion.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Russell, Donna Leon, Elly Griffiths, Hake Talbot, Tarquin Hall

Every Time She Find a Minute, That’s the Time When They Begin It*

cinderella-charactersDo you remember the story of Cinderella? You know, the young girl who’s made to work like a slave by her evil stepmother and stepsisters? Well, the story may not be real, but it resonates. For instance, many countries have laws that require all employees, including domestic employees, to be paid. And the vast majority of people who employ, say, au pairs, cleaning staff, and so on do pay them. But that doesn’t mean such staff have an easy time of it. And there are cases where even paid domestic staff are overworked or worse.

If you look at crime fiction, there are plenty of examples, too, of characters who fall into that vague ‘fuzzy’ category between paid employees (such as a nanny) and family/dependents (such as children, foster children, and so on). Those characters can be particularly vulnerable, and it’s interesting to see how crime fiction treats them.

In Anna Katharine Green’s short story, The House of Clocks, Violet Strange gets an unusual case from her employer. Wealthy Arabella Postlethwaite summoned a lawyer to draw up her will. When he got to her home, that lawyer discovered that his new client lives in a strange, even eerie, home with her stepdaughter, Helena. The lawyer fears that Helena may be in grave danger. Her stepmother despises her, for reasons that become clear in the story, and expressly says that Helena will get nothing when she dies. That means she’ll have no place to go. What’s more, Helena is ill and getting worse. The lawyer is hoping that someone might look into the matter, and Violet begins to investigate, using the guise of a nurse/maid. She discovers that, while Helena is technically Mrs Postlethwaite’s dependent, she’s treated much more like a slave. If Helena is to be rescued, Violet’s going to have to learn the story of this family, and get Helena to co-operate with her.

Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile introduces us to wealthy, elderly Marie Van Schuyler. She plans a trip that includes Egypt, and decides that her young cousin, Cornelia Robson, should accompany her. As she sees it,
 

‘There are many little things that Cornelia can do for me.’
 

And for Cornelia, it’s a chance to travel. The two go on a cruise of the Nile, but Cornelia gets very little time to explore. Her cousin is both demanding and impatient, to say nothing of rude. But Cornelia gets more than she bargained for when a fellow passenger, Linnet Doyle, is shot on the second night. Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise, and he works with Colonel Race to find out who the killer is. Throughout most of the novel, Cornelia acts as a sort of unpaid servant to her cousin. She does everything she’s asked to do (although never quite as fast as Miss Van Schuyler would like), and has to put up with a great deal of indignity. And yet, although everyone else on the boat seems to notice it, Cornelia doesn’t mind. It’s an interesting look at the ‘poor cousin/rich cousin’ relationship.

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, we learn the story of Mary Murmu. A girl from a very poor family, she went to Delhi, where she worked for the family of Ajay Kasliwal, a well-to-do attorney. She disappeared, though, and the story was that Kasliwal raped and killed her. The Indian police don’t want to be seen as too soft on the wealthy and the powerful, so they’ve decided to make an example of Kasliwal. He’s arrested, and is going to stand trial. He claims that he doesn’t know what happened to Mary, and hires PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri to find out the truth. Puri needs to learn what was really going on in the Kasliwal home. For that, he taps his employee ‘Facecream,’ so called because of her ability to blend in anywhere. Her job will be to get work as a maid in the Kasliwal household, and investigate. This she does quite effectively, and discovers that there are several possibilities for what might have happened to Mary. As she looks into the matter, we see how Mary was treated (and how Facecream herself is now). Servants in Mrs. Kasliwal’s employ are not given much dignity or any respect; and, even though they are paid, it’s very little, and the money isn’t really theirs to spend. It’s not a pleasant home in which to work.

Neither is the home in which Evelyn Matlock works in P.D. James’ A Taste For Death. In that novel, Commander Adam Dalgliesh works with DCI John Massingham and DI Kate Miskin to find out who murdered Crown Minister Sir Paul Berowne. His body, together with the body of a local tramp named Harry Mack, was found in a local church. Naturally, the team looks into the dynamics of the Berowne house, and they find a very unhappy place. Evelyn was taken in (at Paul Berowne’s insistence) when her father was convicted of a crime and imprisoned, and now she serves as housekeeper and nurse to Lady Ursula. Here’s what she has to say about life in that household:
 

‘‘I’m tired, I’m overworked and I hate you all. You didn’t know that, did you? You thought I was grateful. Grateful for the job of washing you like a baby, grateful for waiting on a woman too idle to pick up her own underclothes from the floor, grateful for the worst bedroom in the house, grateful for a home, a bed, a roof, the next meal. This place isn’t a home…And you think of no one but yourselves. Do this, Mattie, fetch that, Mattie, run my bath, Mattie. I do have a name. I’m not a cat or a dog. I’m not a household pet.’’
 

Evelyn’s views reflect just how much she’s been taken for granted.

And then there’s Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, which is a fictional retelling of the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, one of the last people in Iceland to be executed for murder. In this story, Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson, are murdered, allegedly by Agnes Magnúsdóttir, Friðrik Sigurðsson, and Sigrídur ‘Sigga’ Gudmondsdóttir. Agnes is found guilty, and now awaits her execution. It’s decided that it would be best for her to stay with a ‘proper Christian family’ until her execution, so she is sent to live with District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife, Margrét, and their two daughters, Steina and Lauga. The idea is that the family will benefit from Agnes’ work, while she will benefit from staying with ‘Godly’ people. The family will be compensated, as well. And the government won’t have the responsibility of feeding and housing the prisoner. At first, Agnes is treated as not much more than a slave. She’s told what to do and she does it. Very gradually, she gets to know, especially, Steina and Margrét, and they learn that there’s much more to their temporary live-in help than they thought.

There are other cases, too, of people who fall into that vague area between family members and ‘official’ employees. That position can make one very vulnerable, but there are some interesting examples in crime fiction.

Cinderella, of course, is a fairy tale, but it’s got a long history.  Want to know more about the history of such tales? Try D.D. Storyteller! There, you’ll find all sorts of discussion of different stories and their origins.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Mack David, Jerry Livingston, and Al Hoffman’s  Cinderella (The Work Song).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anna Katherine Green, Hannah Kent, P.D. James, Tarquin Hall

The Name on Everybody’s Lips is Gonna be…*

high-publicity-casesAs this is posted, it’s 70 years since Elizabeth Short’s body was discovered in Leimert Park, Los Angeles. This still-unsolved murder case got a great deal of public attention at the time, and it’s not hard to see why. A young, attractive woman, found brutally murdered, would be sure to attract interest, especially when the killer was not found. It was a sensational killing, and the press dubbed Short ‘The Black Dahlia.’ Since the murder, there’ve been any number of theories about the killing, and dozens of people have confessed, or have pointed the police towards someone. No leads have held up to scrutiny, though.

There’ve been other murders that have gotten that sort of hype, both in real life and in crime fiction. Sometimes it’s because it’s a particularly gruesome killing. Other times it’s because the victim is famous, or wealthy, or particularly appealing.

We see this, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. Famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall travels to the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Accompanying her are her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, and her stepdaughter, Linda. Not long after the family’s arrival, Arlena engages in a not-too-carefully hidden affair with another (married) guest, Patrick Redfern. It’s the talk of the hotel, and when Arlena is found strangled one day, the killing becomes a public sensation. At first, the police suspect Marshall of killing his wife. But it’s soon shown that he couldn’t have committed the crime. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel, and he works with the police to find out who the real killer is. Even though he’s been cleared of suspicion, Marshall is still subject to a lot of scrutiny, and it’s very hard for him. I see you, fans of The ABC Murders.

Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town takes Queen to the small New England town of Wrightsville. He’s arranged to stay in a guest house on the property of wealthy social leaders John and Hermione ‘Hermy’ Wright. Queen gets drawn into the family’s private affairs when Jim Haight, former fiancé of the Wrights’ youngest daughter, Nora, comes back to town after leaving three years earlier. Against all advice, Nora rekindles her romance with Jim, and the two marry. Then, some letters emerge that suggest that Jim is planning to kill Nora. Nora doesn’t believe it, and the two settle in together. Matters get even more complicated when Jim’s unpleasant sister, Rosemary, comes for an extended visit.  On New Year’s Eve, Rosemary drinks a cocktail that turns out to be poisoned. The police investigate and immediately, the case becomes a public sensation. It involves the most important family in town and it’s a lurid murder case. So, naturally, everyone has something to say about it. When Jim is arrested for the murder (the theory is that the cocktail was intended for Nora), almost no-one believes his claims of innocence. Queen does, though, and it’s interesting to see how his investigation is impacted by the publicity surrounding the murder.

Jane Casey’s The Burning introduces readers to Met PC Maeve Kerrigan. She’s been working with a team investigating a series of murders where the killer tries to incinerate his victims. The press has dubbed the murderer the Burning Man, and the murders have gotten quite a lot of media and public attention. In part, that’s because there’s a series of killings. In part, it’s because of the fires. In any case, the Met is getting an awful lot of pressure to catch the killer, and that doesn’t make anyone’s job easy. Then comes the murder of Rebecca Haworth. At first, her death looks like another Burning Man killing. But certain aspects of the murder are different enough that Kerrigan isn’t sure it’s the same killer. She wants to stay on the team investigating the Burning Man killings, but her boss has other ideas. If Haworth’s murder is a Burning Man killing, then any progress in solving it is progress towards solving the other murders. If it’s a ‘copycat’ killer, then the Met will come under heavy criticism for neglecting it if leads aren’t pursued. So, Kerrigan is assigned to follow up on the Haworth murder. Among other things, it’s an interesting look at how a case’s level of publicity can impact police decision-making.

In Tarrquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, we learn of Dr. Suresh Jha, founder of the Delhi Institute for Research and Education (D.I.R.E.). His mission, and that of the institute he founded, is to debunk fake spiritualists – people he calls ‘the godmen.’ One morning, Jha attends a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club. During the meeting, so say witnesses, the goddess Kali appears, and stabs Jha. As you can imagine, the press and public make much of this, and many people say that Jha was killed because he was leading people towards becoming infidels. News commentators everywhere have their say, and the incident leads to an upsurge in attendance at shrines, and other worship. Delhi PI, whose client Jha once was, is not convinced this death has a supernatural explanation. He takes an interest in the case, and decides to investigate. As he and his team look into the matter, it’s very interesting to see the role that the case’s publicity plays.

Nelson Brunanski’s Frost Bite is the second of his novels to feature John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. Bart and his wife, Rosie, life in the small Saskatchewan town of Crooked Lake. They own Stuart Lake Lodge, a fly-fishing lodge in the northern part of the province. Most of the time, life for the Bartowskis doesn’t involve a lot of press or publicity. But that changes when Bart finds the body of Lionel Morrison under a pile of wheat at the Crooked Lake Wheat Pool elevator. For one thing, Morrison was a well-known, well-connected agribusiness CEO; as a ‘heavy hitter,’ his death would naturally get attention. And this is no ordinary death. So, there’s soon a media ‘feeding frenzy’ and the case gets a lot of public attention. Bart’s already connected to the case, since he found the body. And the victim had recently spent some time at Stuart Lake Lodge. So, even though Bart’s really not one to covet media attention, he gets drawn into this investigation.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. When Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam, were murdered, the most likely suspect was Angela’s brother, Connor Bligh. In fact, he’s been in prison for years for the murders. But now, little hints have suggested that he might be innocent. If so, this could be the case to solidify Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne’s place at the top of her field. So, she starts to look into the matter. And, as she does, she finds herself getting closer than is safe to it. Among other things, it’s a really clear look at how publicity affects those involved in a murder.

There are plenty of other examples, too, of fictional cases that get a lot of public attention (you’re right, fans of Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry). And it’s interesting to consider which sorts of cases do get that sort of publicity, and which don’t. I wonder what that says about us…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebbs’ Roxie.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Helen Fitzgerald, Jane Casey, Nelson Brunanski, Paddy Richardson, Tarquin Hall

Well, I Ain’t Superstitious*

scepticismI’m sure that you’ve learned in the course of your adult life that it’s not a good idea to be too credulous. A certain amount of disbelief – even cynicism – can protect you from all sorts of trouble, from scams to terrible relationships and worse. Even when people read fiction, they often keep that disbelief with them. I know I do.

Authors know that a lot of readers are not willing to believe everything they see and read. And sometimes, they use that in stories. A character who isn’t easily convinced by things such as spiritualism, psychics and so on can give voice to readers’ doubts. Such a character can also add tension to a crime story.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, for instance, believes only what logic and deduction show. He’s not convinced by otherworldly explanations for anything, which is quite ironic considering his creator was deeply interested in spiritualism and the occult. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance, Holmes gets a visit from Dr. James Mortimer, who tells him of a curse on the Baskerville family (Mortimer is a family friend). Legend has it that the family has been cursed by a phantom hound 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 strange deaths in the family. In fact, the most recent head of the Baskervilles, Sir Charles, was found dead of an apparent heart attack. Mortimer doesn’t believe that it was a heart attack, and wants to protect the new head of the family, Sir Henry, who is due to arrive soon from Canada. So, he asks Holmes to investigate. Holmes, as fans know, is a cynic when it comes to matters paranormal, so he seeks a more prosaic solution to the case. And it turns out that he’s right.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is also incredulous about spirits, Ouija, curses, and ghosts. But, as he says in The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb,
 

‘‘…I believe in the terrific force of superstition. Once get it firmly established that a series of deaths are supernatural, and you might almost stab a man in broad daylight, and it would still be put down to the curse, so strongly is the instinct of the supernatural implanted in the human race.’’
 

And that’s exactly what happens in this story, when a series of murders are put down to a curse on a tomb. As Poirot makes clear, this killer is very much a human being. You’re right, fans of Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client).

In The Cat Who Could Read Backwards, Lilian Jackson Braun introduces her sleuth, journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. As a former crime reporter, he’s learned to be very, very cynical. And life hasn’t taught him to think otherwise. That’s what makes it such a challenge for him when he inherits a Siamese cat, Kao K’o-Kung ‘Koko’, as a result of this first case. The cat previously belonged to George Mountclemens, the art critic for the Daily Fluxion, but adopts Qwilleran when Mountclemens is murdered. Koko is, in many ways, a normal (if quite spoiled) Siamese cat. But every once in a while, he acts in ways that can be interpreted as paranormal. Qwilleran is just as incredulous as you probably are about Koko’s abilities, and it’s interesting to see how Braun weaves that cynicism through the stories. It’s a very useful tool to keep the series grounded, if I may put it that way.

Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun has become quite cynical over the years, and with good reason. He lives and works in 1970s Laos, where he is the country’s only medical examiner. It wasn’t a job he wanted; he’d been ready to retire. But he was ‘volunteered’ for the job, and really has had no choice but to carry out his work as best he can. He’s seen plenty of government programs that don’t work, Party promises that haven’t been kept, medical supplies and equipment he can’t get, and so on. So, as you can imagine, he’s not one to believe in mysticism. And yet, in The Coroner’s Lunch, the first in this series, he has several encounters that make him wonder. For example, he seems to have a strange connection to an ancient shaman called Yeh Ming. And he has dreams and visions in which those who have died communicate with him. On the one hand, he doesn’t believe in ghosts in the way that belief is traditionally portrayed. He’s a sceptic and a pragmatist. But he knows what he’s seen and experienced. It’s an interesting dichotomy that runs through the series.

And then there’s Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing. Dr. Suresh Jha has made a career out of unmasking spiritualist charlatans. He doesn’t believe in religion or mysticism. In fact, he is the founder of the Delhi Institute for Research and Education (D.I.R.E.). One day, he’s attending a morning meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club. During the group’s session, so say witnesses, the goddess Kali appears and stabs Jha. Believers say that this is punishment for Jha’s lack of faith. When Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri learns of what’s happened, he decides to investigate. Jha was a former client, so Puri has a particular interest in the case. On the one hand, he doesn’t believe in spiritualism or the occult, although he has religious beliefs. On the other, he can’t at first suggest any other explanation for what happened. In the end, though, we learn what really happened to Jha and why.

It’s interesting to contemplate things that seem otherworldly. But most people do have a strong attachment to the credible – to something prosaic. That’s why characters who are sceptics can add so much to a crime story. They resonate with many readers, and their reluctance to believe can add tension to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steve Miller’s Rockin’ Me.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Colin Cotterill, Lilian Jackson Braun, Tarquin Hall