Category Archives: Tarquin Hall

Pass the Biscuits, Please*

Food DescriptionsAn interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about the way food descriptions and meals fit into crime fiction. By the way, if Clothes in Books isn’t on your blog roll, you’re missing out. It’s the place for great discussions on clothes, popular culture, and what it all says about us in fiction. On the one hand, the kind of food we eat, the amount, and so on says a lot about us. So food can be used as a very effective way to develop characters. And because food is so culturally contextual, a meal can also provide cultural background too.

On the other hand, too much description of anything, food or otherwise, can overburden a story and take away from the main plot. In this, as in just about anything else in a novel, it seems that there needs to be a balance.

There are plenty of meals described in Agatha Christie’s novels and short stories. I’ll just mention one example. In Cards on the Table, the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana invites eight people to a dinner party. Four are sleuths; four are people Shaitana believes have gotten away with murder. Here’s a bit of the description of the dinner:
 

‘Poirot’s prognostication was amply justified. The dinner was delicious and its serving perfection. Subdued light, polished wood, the blue gleam of Irish glass.’
 

Interestingly enough, there’s no real discussion of the actual food. In this case, the conversation is more important. During the meal, Mr. Shaitana throws out hints about getting away with murder. One of his guests takes what he says too much to heart, and during after-dinner bridge, Mr. Shaitana is stabbed. There are only four suspects: the four people playing bridge in the room in which he was killed. So the four sleuths look into their backgrounds to find out who the killer is.  Of course, Poirot being the gourmand that he is, there are also mentions of food in the stories that feature him. But they tend not to be particularly descriptive.  In Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, Poirot travels to London on the famous Orient Express train. At one point, he and M. Bouc, who is a director of the Compagnie Internationale des  Wagon Lits, are having lunch:
 

‘Poirot sat down and soon found himself in the favoured position of being at the table which was served first and with the choicest morsels. The food, too, was unusually good.
It was not till they were eating a delicate cream cheese that M. Bouc allowed his attention to wander to matters other than nourishment.’
 

Those matters soon turn deadly when fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed.

Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series takes place in the Périgord, a region that particularly prides itself on its gastronomic culture. Bruno is the Chief of Police in the small town of St. Denis, and although he cares about his job and takes it very seriously, he certainly doesn’t forget to eat. In Bruno, Chief of Police, for instance, he works with Isabelle Perrault of the Police Nationale to solve the murder of Hamid Mustafa al-Bakr. At one point, they have a dinner picnic:
 

‘The fish were just right…She saw thin slivers of garlic that he had placed inside the belly of the trout, and he handed her half a lemon to squeeze onto the pink-white flesh, and a small side plate with potato salad studded with tiny lardons of bacon.’
 

They also have baguettes with pâté, Champagne, and some rosé. In this series, that careful attention to food really reflects the culture of the Périgord and adds to the sense of place.

Food is also an important part of life for Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano. Fans of this series will know that the novels have lots of description of delicious food. Here, for instance, is just one snippet from The Snack Thief, in which, among other things, Montalbano investigates the murder of Aurelio Lapècora, who is stabbed to death in the elevator of his apartment building. At one point, he takes a lunch break. Here’s a description of the hake he orders:
 

‘Then, eight pieces of hake arrived, enough to feed four people. They were crying out their joy – the pieces of hake, that is – at having been cooked the way God had meant them to be. One whiff was enough to convey the dish’s perfection, achieved by the right amount of breadcrumbs and the delicate balance between the anchovies and the whisked egg.’
 

Although there is quite a lot of food discussed in this series, Camilleri doesn’t go on about it for any real length of time. In this case, the food descriptions add some depth to Montalbano’s food-loving character, and they give a sense of the local culture.

It’s the same thing with Tarquin Hall’s stories featuring Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. Puri is sometimes nicknamed ‘Chubby,’ and part of the reason for that nickname is that he loves food. As he goes about his business, Hall gives readers an interesting look at the sort of food that’s popular in Delhi. Here, for instance, is a bit of a description of a meal that Puri’s wife Rumpi cooks (from The Case of the Missing Servant):
 

‘Rumpi was busy in the kitchen chopping onions and tomatoes for the bhindi. When the ingredients were ready, she added them to the already frying pods and stirred. Next, she started cooking the rotis on a round tava, expertly holding them over a naked flame so they puffed up with hot air like balloons and became nice and soft…
Presently Rumpi served him some kadi chawal, bhindi and a couple of rotis. He helped himself to the plate of sliced tomato, cucumber and red onion, over which a little chat masala had been sprinkled…’   
 

With less than a paragraph, really, Hall uses this meal to give some interesting cultural insights as well as set a homey scene. And for those who don’t know the terms, there’s a glossary in the back of the novel (at least in my edition). The real focus of these novels is the cases Puri and his team investigate; but Hall also manages to weave in some powerful food descriptions.

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant is half-Ukrainian. And although he identifies himself as Canadian, rather than Ukrainian, he enjoys traditional Ukrainian cooking. In A Flight of Aquavit, for instance, his mother Kay pays him a visit. They have their ups and downs and awkward moments, but he’s well-fed:
 

‘I comforted myself with the ultimate in Ukrainian comfort food – pierogies lightly fried in butter, garlic and onion and drowned in a rich, creamy sauce of mushrooms and dill.’  
 

Bidulka doesn’t take up page after page to describe food in this series; yet, the descriptions he does provide give character depth and an interesting cultural context to the stories.

And of course, no discussion of food descriptions in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. He is a dedicated devotee of fine food. He can be (and often is) brusque, even rude. But he knows the value of his chef Fritz Brenner, and he appreciates a properly done meal. There are many books, as Wolfe fans know, in which Fritz’ creations are mentioned, and others that include other delicious meals (Too Many Cooks comes immediately to my mind). And yet, despite the fact that Wolfe is a connoisseur of fine food, Stout keeps the focus in his stories on the plots and the characters.

And that’s the thing about descriptions of food and meals. They can provide a rich layer of character depth and cultural background. But they are best served in moderate portions. Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bobbie Genry’s Ode to Billie Joe.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Anthony Bidulka, Martin Walker, Tarquin Hall

Acting Like a Born Aristocrat*

Casual SnobberyMost of us would probably say we don’t care much for snobbery. And if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a snub, then you know how alienating that can be. What’s interesting too is that sometimes, the assumptions that underlie snobbery (i.e. I belong to a group that’s inherently better than other groups) is so deeply ingrained that snobs may not even be aware of their own beliefs.

I got to thinking about that kind of snobbery after reading a really interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books. And by the way, if you don’t already follow that excellent blog, I really do recommend it. It’s a fabulous site for daily posts on fictional fashion, culture, and what it all says about us. Snobbery really is woven into a lot of cultures, and it’s certainly a part of crime fiction as well. There are far too many examples for me to list them all in this one post, but here are a few.

Agatha Christie depicts snobbery in several of her novels and stories. For instance, in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), a group of passengers is en route by air from Paris to London. Towards the end of the flight, one of the passengers, Marie Morisot, dies of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are her fellow passengers, so Hercule Poirot, who is on that flight, works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who is guilty. Among the characters, we find a ‘mixed bag’ of people. Some of them, such as passenger Venetia Kerr, are ‘well born’ and have the assumptions of their class. It’s not that they’re rude or deliberately offensive. But, as one character puts it:
 

‘She walks about as though she owns the earth; she is not conceited about it: she is just an Englishwoman.’
 

There’s also Cicely Horbury, who started as ‘just a chorus girl,’ but has married Lord Stephen Horbury. In her case, she has eagerly taken on the lifestyle of the upper classes, but she doesn’t have those unconscious assumptions. She’s quite a different sort of snob. I know, I know, fans of Death on the Nile, Lord Edgware Dies, etc.

In Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar, PI Lew Archer gets a new client: Dr. Sponti, head of Laguna Perdida, a school for ‘troubled youth.’ Sponti is worried because one of the students, seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman, has gone missing. Tom’s parents are both wealthy and well-connected, so he’s afraid of what will happen if they find out Tom’s gone. Archer is at the school discussing the case with Sponti when Tom’s father Ralph Hillman bursts in with shocking news. It seems that Tom has been kidnapped and his abductors want ransom money. Archer returns to the Hillman home with Ralph and begins to investigate, in the hopes of finding Tom. It’s soon clear to Archer that this is no ordinary kidnapping case. For one thing, the Hillmans are not nearly as forthcoming about Tom and the family dynamics as you’d expect from a couple desperate to get their son back. For another, it’s quite possible that Tom may know the people who took him, and may in fact be with them willingly. Then, one of the people Tom is with is murdered. And then there’s another murder. As Archer finds out the truth in this case, we see how the Hillmans’ money and power have affected their assumptions about themselves and others. They are snobbish in their way, and that’s how they treat Archer- often without really seeming to be aware of it. What’s more, it’s very important for them to keep up their status in the community.

Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant introduces readers to Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. One of the clients with whom he works in this novel is prominent attorney Ajay Kasliwal. A few months ago, one of Kasliwal’s household servants, Mary Murmu, disappeared. Now, evidence has come out that suggests Kasliwal raped and killed her. He claims that he’s innocent and has no idea what happened to her. But the police want to prove to the public that they cannot be ‘bought,’ so they’re making an example of Kasliwal. Puri agrees to look into the matter, and he and his team begin to investigate. As they search for the truth, we see how the Kasliwals’ assumptions about themselves and others are woven into what they say and do. On the one hand, Kasilwal is not a cruel, arrogant person. He’s not even particularly unpleasant. But it doesn’t really occur to either him or his wife to communicate with Mary’s family, members of an entirely different social class. And Mary’s life is not really important to either of the Kasliwals: their concern over her has to do with the possible damage to the family’s reputation, not with any concern for her.

We also see that same kind of casual snobbery in Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows. Much of the action in this novel takes place at Cascade Heights Country Club, an ultra-exclusive community thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Members are thoroughly ‘vetted’ before they’re allowed to move in, and there are several measures in place to keep the ‘outside world’ away. Club members shop and dine in certain places, and it would never occur to them to mix with ‘other kinds of people.’ Tragedy strikes this supposedly safe haven, and things begin to unravel. But even then, we see how people who live in ‘The Heights’ interact with each other and others. At one point, for instance, some of the women who live in the community decide they want to help ‘the less fortunate.’ It would never occur to them to actually get to know any of those people. Instead, they host a charity sale of their used clothes and some accessories. The scenes in which they plan and hold the sale show how unconscious their snobbery is. They really aren’t nasty, cruel people. But they do assume that some people (including them) matter, and some don’t.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we are introduced to the Garrow family. Angus Garrow is a successful attorney living in Arding, New South Wales. He comes from a well-off ‘blueblood’ family, and it’s always been assumed he’ll do well in life. He has, too: he’s married to an attractive, intelligent wife, Jodie; he has two healthy children; and his career is on the rise. Then everything changes. His daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where, years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child – a child Angus didn’t even know about until it comes out now. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie tells the nurse that she gave the baby up for adoption, but when the nurse checks the files, there is no record of a formal adoption. Now the question is: what happened to the baby? If she is alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with her death? As the Garrows’ lives spin more and more out of control, we see how the casual snobbery of people like Angus’ family of origin impacts how they feel about Jodie, and what they think should be done.

ferent sort of snobbery – but just as real – in Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine, which introduces Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau. The body of national model worker Guan Hongying is discovered in the Baili Canal near Shanghai. It’s a politically-charged case, since the victim was somewhat of a celebrity and had several friends among the elite of the Party – the High Cadre. At first, the official theory is that she was raped and murdered by a taxi driver. But other evidence suggests strongly that that’s not what happened. Now Chen and his assistant Yu Guangming have to search elsewhere. Slowly, they trace Guan’s last days and weeks, and find out that way who killed her and why. Throughout this novel, we see clearly how High Cadre people and their families see themselves and others. It’s not that all of them are horrible, cruel people; some are, but some are not. But they do see themselves as entitled, and certainly not in the same class as ‘other people.’

And that’s the thing about that unconscious, casual snobbery. It’s so unconscious that people who have those assumptions may not even be aware of their own skewed thinking. Which examples of this have stayed with you?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Herman’s Elegance.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Claudia Piñeiro, Qiu Xiaolong, Ross Macdonald, Tarquin Hall, Wendy James

She’s Never Had a Nickname*

NicknameNicknames are a big part of many cultures. Sometimes they’re simply shortened versions of people’s names. Other times they’re descriptive (e.g. either ‘Curly’ or ‘Baldy’ for someone with no hair). Still other times they’re intended as insults. Either way, nicknames can add depth to a fictional character. And sometimes, they’re pretty funny, too. Here are just a few crime-fictional examples to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot is persuaded to travel to the village of Broadhinny to investigate the death of a charwoman. Everyone thinks the murderer is her lodger James Bentley, but Superintendent Spence is beginning to think Bentley is innocent. And as Poirot gets to know the various villagers, he suspects that several of them are hiding things that Mrs. McGinty may have discovered. One of Bentley’s few friends, former co-worker Maude Williams, wants to help clear Bentley’s name. Poirot enlists her aid as a sort of spy in the home of Roger and Edith Wetherby, with the goal of finding a clue that might link them to Mrs. McGinty’s death. The Wetherbys are not pleasant, friendly people; in fact, here is how Maude describes them during a conversation with Poirot:
 

‘Old Frozen Fish was shut up in his study as usual…
So I nipped upstairs into Her Acidity’s bedroom…’
 

Those nicknames really are quite descriptive, actually.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we meet former school principal Thea Farmer. She’s had the perfect home built for herself in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains, and is looking forward to living there. But then, some bad financial decisions and bad luck get in her way, and she’s forced to sell that perfect home and settle for the smaller house next door – a house she calls ‘the hovel.’ To add insult to injury, her dream home is purchased by Frank Campbell and Ellyce Carrington, and they soon move in. Thea is contemptuous of the new arrivals and very resentful that they’re living in ‘her’ home. In fact, her name for them is ‘the Invaders.’ It’s quite reflective of what she really thinks of them and of her perception of life. Then, unexpectedly, she develops a sort of awkward friendship with Frank’s niece Kim, who comes to live with him and Ellyce. So when Thea begins to suspect that they are not providing an appropriate home for a child, she wants something done about it. The police can’t do much, so Thea makes plans of her own…

Of course, not all nicknames are meant as insults. In Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, for instance, Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest investigates when former prospector Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins is killed. At first it looks as though he was murdered as the result of a drunken quarrel. But Tempest suspects otherwise and starts to ask questions. Doc got his nickname because he was a geologist, and although he was a little eccentric, there are people who respected his knowledge. Tempest’s own miner/prospector father is nicknamed ‘Motor Jack.’

In Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors, Australian Federal Police (AFP) officer Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen is taking some time off duty to recover from the events of Dead Set. But he’s persuaded to come back to active duty when two politically charged murders occur. Alec Dennet, a member of Gough Whitlam’s (1972-1975) government, has been writing his memoirs with his editor Lorraine Starke. One night they’re both killed, and the AFP wants Chen back at work to help investigate. One possibility is that Dennet and Starke were killed because of the ‘dirty laundry’ he was going to include in his memoirs. There are several people in powerful places who don’t want that to happen. But there are other possibilities too, so Chen and his team have their work cut out for them, as the saying goes. Throughout the novel, Chen works with Constable Paul ‘Voodoo’ Filipowski, who turns out to be very helpful on the case. Voodoo got his name because he was badly injured in one particular incident, but survived, although odds were he wouldn’t. Chen also works with another teammate nicknamed Talkative and with Baby’s Arm, a police videographer.

Fans of Tarquin Hall’s series featuring Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri will know that nicknames are woven all through that series. Puri himself is sometimes nicknamed ‘Chubby’ because of his fondness for food. His office boy has the equally unflattering name of Doorstop, because he does nothing all day. Then there’s Handbrake, Puri’s driver, and Facecream, one of his investigators who has the knack of blending in wherever she goes. There’s also Tube Light, who is Puri’s top operative and quite skilled with things technical; and Flush, who got his nickname because his was the first house in his village with indoor plumbing.

Sometimes, nicknames are actually more appealing than a character’s real name. For instance, Anya Lipska’s DC Natalie Kershaw frequently reports to DS Alvin ‘Streaky’ Bacon.
 

‘Alvin, she [Kershaw] thought. Who knew?’
 

Her boss doesn’t mind being called Streaky. Alvin is another thing.

And that’s the thing about nicknames. They can be insulting, a sign of bonding, or simply descriptive. They can also add solid character depth. Which fictional nicknames have stayed with you? If you’re a writer, do you give your characters nicknames?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Go-Betweens’ Head Full of Steam.

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Kel Robertson, Tarquin Hall, Virginia Duigan

Analyze You, Categorize You*

CategoriesWe’re all exposed to so much stimuli in our daily lives that there’s no way that we can make sense of it all. That can make it very difficult to take in and remember the things that are important. One thing that helps us in that process is putting people and things we encounter into categories. For instance, we put work colleagues into one category, and at one level of intimacy. We put close friends in another. We put partners and spouses into yet another. Those categories often determine how we treat people and even the way we speak to them.

The trouble is of course that people are far too complicated to be so easily put into categories. And when it comes to fictional characters, I’m quite certain that like me, you wouldn’t want your fictional characters to be that one-dimensional anyway. But I think it’s safe to say that a lot of us make assumptions about others based on categories we (however unconsciously) put them in when we meet them.

The conflict between what others want to assume and what’s really true about people can make for a solid thread of tension in a story. I’ll just mention a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Yellow Face, Grant Munro asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate when a strange family moves into the area where he and his wife Effie live. Munro is especially concerned because he thinks there may be a connection between the new family moving in and the growing distance he’s sensing between himself and Effie. He has the strong feeling that she’s keeping things from him, and that she knows more about this family than she’s saying. Holmes agrees to investigate, and he and Dr. Watson look into the matter. As it turns out, both the new family and Effie’s reluctance to confide in her husband have everything to do with the conflict between the categories into which people are put, and the reality of Effie’s life.

Malla Nunn’s series featuring DS Emmanuel Cooper takes place in 1950’s Johannesburg. At that time, and in that place, people are placed into categories based on one factor: race. The apartheid laws are firmly in effect and determine where people may live, eat and shop. They determine whom people may marry and what sort of job, education, medical care and public service they are likely to get. Racial categories are in fact so rigidly enforced that breaking those barriers can get a person imprisoned or much worse. More than once in this series, there are conflicts between those imposed categories and the realities of peoples’ lives.

Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House also touches (although less obviously) on racial and ethnic categories. In that novel, Stockholm police detective Conny Sjöberg and his team investigate when real estate professional Hans Vannerberg is murdered in the kitchen of a home not far from his own. The police don’t have many leads at first; but then, two other murders occur. Both victims are the same age as Vannerberg, and Sjöberg begins to suspect that the killings are connected. One of the members of the police team is Jamal Hamad, whose family moved to Stockholm from Lebanon. In language, dress and so on, Hamad is as Swedish as the other members of the team are. He is a Swedish citizen and that’s the way he lives. But his colleagues still put him in a different category because of where he was born. They respect his work, and they do enjoy his company, but some of what they say and do shows that they think of him as Middle Eastern, even though he isn’t.

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, we are introduced to Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri and his family. One of the ‘regulars’ in this series is Puri’s mother, usually referred to as Mummy-ji. She’s by no means frail and helpless, but she is getting on in years, and even her own son puts her into a certain category based on that fact. One of the ongoing threads of tension in this series is Mummy-ji‘s refusal to fit into the ‘older female’ category into which so many people want to place her. And I know that you can think of lots of other examples of that particular source of conflict in crime novels – more than I could.

Many, many people put parents into certain categories based on assumptions. You know what I mean, especially if you are a parent: “Good’ parents always/would never ______.’ Or, ‘Oh, that must be a horrible parent! Just look at ___.’ Of course, there are some things (like outright physical abuse) that we can pretty much all agree are signs of poor parenting. But in a lot of cases it’s not that easy to put parents into one or another category. Yet, people do. That’s what happens, for instance, in Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. Joanna Lindsay and her partner Alistair Robertson travel from Joanna’s home in Scotland to Alistair’s home near Melbourne. As anyone who’s made that sort of trip knows, it’s a very long flight, and it’s complicated by the fact that they’re bringing with them their nine-week-old son Noah. As it is, Noah isn’t an ‘easy’ baby, and it’s only made worse by the flight. The whole experience is harrowing for Joanna in particular, and several of her fellow passengers make all sorts of assumptions about her based on that flight. If you’ve ever been on a long flight with parents who have infants, you can understand the other passengers’ irritation. But as it turns out, the flight is only the beginning of Joanna’s and Alistair’s misery. On the trip from the airport at Melbourne to their destination, they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of their baby. The media, the police and the public quickly jump to their aid, and a massive search is made for Noah. Then, questions begin to be raised about Noah’s disappearance. And this leads to increasing suspicion of, especially, Joanna. Now her parenting and Alistair’s come under the proverbial microscope more than ever.

People often put commercial sex workers into categories based on what they do for a living. And the tension between that perception and the reality of sex workers’ lives is a plot point in Jill Edmondson’s Dead Light District. In the former, brothel owner Candace Curtis hires Toronto PI Sasha Jackson to trace one of her employees, Mary Carmen Santamaria, who seems to have disappeared. In the process of investigating, Jackson has to resolve the conflict between her preconceived notions about prostitution, and the reality of it:
 

You have a database of hookers?’… [Jackson]
‘Please, don’t call them hookers. Most of the girls use the term intimacy consultant, though some call themselves relaxation therapists. I know they’re euphemisms, but they’re important to the girls’ self esteem.’
‘Consultants. Right. Got it.’

 

These are professionals, and Jackson has to face the fact that she hasn’t really thought about them that way before.

There are lots of other categories that we use for people, especially if we don’t know them. On the one hand categories are efficient and they help us remember. On the other, they’re often very limiting. That conflict can add some really interesting tension to a story.
 
 
 
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s All I Really Want to Do.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Carin Gerhardsen, Helen Fitzgerald, Jill Edmondson, Malla Nunn, Tarquin Hall

I Got the Feeling That Something Ain’t Right*

Growing SuspicionsHave you ever seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window? Even if you haven’t, you probably know the premise: L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies is laid up with a broken leg; to pass the time, he begins to observe what’s going on in the other apartments that face the same courtyard his does. It’s not long before he begins to suspect that one of those other people, a man named Lars Thorvald, may be a murderer. Part of the tension in the film comes from the the fact that we don’t see the suspected murder, and there’s no real evidence that anyone’s been killed. And yet, Jeff is convinced that something is very wrong. Everything Thorvald does has a logical explanation; yet it also has a possibly sinister one as well. And of course, the more convinced Jeff is that Thorvald is a murderer, the more possible danger there is for him and his girlfriend Lisa Fremont.

It’s arguably a bit harder to depict that kind of growing suspicion with words, but it can make for a suspenseful plot point in a crime novel. Is someone a character observes a criminal or not? We see that in all sorts of crime fiction; space only permits me a tiny sampling.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), French moneylender Marie Morisot, who goes by the name of Madame Giselle, is poisoned while en route from Paris to London. The only possible suspects are her fellow passengers, so Chief Inspector Japp concentrates his attention there. Hercule Poirot was on the same flight, so he works with Japp to find the killer. One evening, two of the other passengers, Jane Grey and Norman Gale, are having dinner and discussing the case. They notice detective novelist Mr. Clancy eating at the same restaurant and decide to sleuth him. As they do, they come to believe that he’s acting most suspiciously:
 

‘His direction, too, was erratic. Once, he actually took so many right-angle turns that he traversed the same streets twice over.
Jane felt her spirits rise.
‘You see?’ she said excitedly. ‘He’s afraid of being followed. He’s trying to put us off the scent.”
 

Mr. Clancy does other things too that make the two suspect him.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives is the story of Walter and Joanna Eberhart and their move to the quiet town of Stepford, Connecticut. At first, the move seems like an excellent decision. The town is lovely, they’ve been welcomed, and their children Pete and Kim have settled into school and begun to make friends. Then Joanna’s friend Bobbie Markowe starts to suspect that something dangerous is going on in Stepford. At first, Joanna thinks Bobbie is overreacting. But then other things happen that convince Joanna that Stepford is not the idyllic place it seems to be. Everything she observes seems to have a very plausible explanation; in fact, she herself wonders whether she may be crazy. But she learns that what she’s noticed also has a very sinister explanation as well.

In Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King learns that her brother Bill has met and fallen in love with Alice Steele, a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant. Lora wants to be happy for her brother since they’ve always been close. But she’s not at all impressed with Alice. On the surface, Alice seems terrific; she’s beautiful, pleasant and quite devoted to Bill. But Lora has her doubts. Still, she puts the best face on it when Bill and Alice get married. Then, little things begin to surface that make Lora doubt Alice even more. Everything she learns has a plausible explanation, and Alice provides them. But Lora’s suspicions continue to grow. Then there’s a murder, and Alice may be mixed up in it. Lora is afraid for her brother, so she decides to find out whether that’s true. The more she learns about Alice’s world, the more repelled Lora is by it; at the same time though, she is drawn to it. And that sense that something is probably – but not definitely – very wrong adds a layer of tension to the story.

Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant introduces us to Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. The ‘bread and butter’ for his private investigations company is ‘vetting’ potential brides and bridegrooms. Before final wedding arrangements are made between families, one or the other often hires an agency such as Puri’s to make sure that the prospective new family member is respectable and meets the family’s standards. One such case is that of Brigadier General Kapoor, who hires Puri to look into the background of Mahinder Gupta, who is slated to marry Kapoor’s granddaughter Tisca. On the surface, there seems no problem with Gupta, and there’s no one thing in particular that upsets Kapoor. But he has the feeling that something isn’t right about the bridegroom-to-be, and he’s become worried. As Puri and his team investigate, they find out something that Kapoor didn’t know.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we are introduced to former school principal Thea Farmer. She’s planned and had built a ‘dream house’ in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. But poor financial decisions have meant that she has to change her plans drastically. Instead of the perfect home, she’s had to settle for the smaller house next door – ‘the hovel,’ as she refers to it. To make matters worse, Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington have purchsed the home that Thea still sees as her own. She dislikes them both intensely, and even more so when Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with them. Still, Thea develops a kind of friendship with Kim. So when she slowly begins to be convinced that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate environment for the girl, Thea gets concerned. She soon learns that the police aren’t going to do anything about it because they don’t have actual evidence that there’s any problem. Everything Thea witnesses has a plausible explanation. But she is certain that Kim is at risk. So she makes her own plans to deal with the situation.

Everything may appear perfectly innocent on the surface, but sometimes it’s not. And sometimes little suspicions can grow, whether or not they’re well-founded. That possibility can make for a solid layer of suspense in stories (and in films!). Which ones have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stealers Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle With You.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ira Levin, Megan Abbott, Tarquin Hall, Virginia Duigan