Category Archives: Wendy James

You Can Rely on the Old Man’s Money*

If you’ve ever been concerned that you haven’t been able to give your children what you wish you could, you’re not alone. Most parents want the best for their children. I’m sure you’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t want them to struggle the way I had to.’

It’s only natural for parents to want their children to have everything. But there’s an old expression, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ And it might very well apply here. If you’ve met children who’s always had everything they wanted, and never had to work for it, you know the effect that can have on their dispositions. And that’s to say nothing of how unprepared such children are to deal with life’s challenges.

There are plenty of examples of young people who’ve always had everything they wanted in crime fiction. They don’t always make for sympathetic characters, but they can add interest to a story, and they can add plot threads.

In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, for instance, we are introduced to Ronald Marsh. Having grown up in a ‘blueblood’ family, he hasn’t really wanted for anything. He’s never learned to manage his money, so he’s in quite a difficult financial situation. In fact, that makes him a suspect when his wealthy uncle, 4th Baron Edgware, is murdered. The victim’s wife, famous actress Jane Wilkinson, is the primary suspect. She wanted a divorce so that she could marry again. But she says she was at a dinner party in another part of London, and there are twelve people willing to swear that she was there. So Chief Inspector Japp has to look elsewhere for the murderer. Hercule Poirot is involved in the case, since he visited the victim on the day of the murder. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how Ronald Marsh copes with the stress of being suspected of murder, of being in need of money, and so on. It’s clear that he was never prepared to work for goals and to deal with adversity.

Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep introduces us to the Sternwood family. General Guy Sternwood is upset because a book dealer named Arthur Geiger has sent him an extortion letter that mentions his daughter, Carmen. Sternwood hires Los Angeles PI Philip Marlowe to find Geiger and stop him from harassing the family. Marlowe doesn’t find the Sternwoods pleasant at all, but he agrees to take the case. By the time he tracks Geiger down, though, it’s too late: Geiger’s been murdered. Carmen Sternwood was in the room at the time of the killing, but she’s either too drugged or too dazed to say much or remember anything. Marlowe quickly gets her out of the way before the police suspect her, and thinks that this will be the end of his work with the Sternwoods. The next day, though, the Sternwoods’ chauffer dies in what looks like a suicide (but is it?). Now, Marlowe gets more and more deeply involved with the family as he helps to find out what’s behind that death. Throughout the novel, we see that Carmen Sternwood and her older sister, Vivian, have always had every material thing they wanted. They haven’t had love and affection from their parents, but they’ve always been indulged. And that has a profound impact on them.

Shadaab Amjad Khan’s Murder in Bollywood gives readers a look at the ultra-privileged lives of Bollywood superstars. In it, top film director Nikhil Kapoor is found dead in his writing studio, apparently of a freak electrical accident. His wife, superstar actress Mallika Kapoor, also dies of an apparent cocaine overdose. The Powers That Be want this case wrapped up quickly, and the deaths attributed to tragic accident; but Senior Inspector Hoshiyar Khan isn’t so sure. So, he begins to look into the matter. He learns that, not long before the deaths, Nikhil Kapoor had hosted a private party at which he said one of those present had killed before, and would kill again. With this information in hand, Khan begins to investigate the people who were at the party, and find out which one Kapoor might have had in mind. And in the end, he finds out the truth about those deaths, and one other murder. As the story evolves, we meet the Kapoors’ son, Rohan. He’s been very much indulged his whole life, and is thoroughly spoilt. He’s smart enough, but he’s never had to work for a living, or make a life for himself. That overindulged background has an important impact on him.

In Jill Edmondson’s Blood and Groom, Toronto PI Sasha Jackson gets a new client, Christine Arvisais. It seems that her former fiancé, ‘blueblood’ Gordon Hanes, was shot on the day that was supposed to be their wedding. Everyone thinks that Christine’s responsible, but she claims she is innocent. Sasha doesn’t care at all for this new client; Christine is spoiled, self-entitled, and rude. But a fee is a fee. So, she starts looking into the case. And it’s not long before she finds that there could definitely be other explanations for Hanes’ murder. Throughout the novel, we see that Christine has always had everything she wanted. And she’s actually quite hampered by not knowing how to work for herself or deal with life’s unexpected blows. And that life of indulgence has certainly had an impact on her personality.

Wendy James’ The Mistake is the story of the Garrow family.  Angus Garrow is a successful attorney who comes from a ‘blueblood’ family. He’s doing quite well, even being spoken of as the next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. He’s been indulged most of his life, and his mother still works to make sure he has whatever he wants. And on the surface, he does. His wife, Jodie, is smart and attractive, and he’s got two healthy children. 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. Angus doesn’t know about this child, but a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about her baby.  Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but the overzealous nurse can’t find any formal records. Soon, the whispers start. Then there are some very public questions about what happened to Jodie’s baby. There’s even talk that Jodie may have had something to do with the baby’s disappearance. Now, Jodie is a social pariah, and Angus finds it very hard to cope with this challenge. He’s never really had to face adversity before, and he’s always had everything. It’s interesting to see what happens to him as the novel goes on.

There are plenty of other examples of fictional children who’ve never been refused anything (right, fans of James. M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce?). They’re almost never really pleasant, happy people. But they can add to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Daryl Hall and John Oates’ Rich Girl.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, James M. Cain, Jill Edmondson, Raymond Chandler, Shadaab Amjad Khan, Wendy James

She Can Tell You ‘Bout the Plane Crash With a Gleam in Her Eye*

In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall is murdered during a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Hercule Poirot is staying at the hotel, too, and he works with the police to find out who the killer is. At one point, they’re interviewing Mrs. Castle, who owns and manages the establishment. Here’s what she says about the murder:
 

‘‘But it does so reflect upon an establishment…When Ay think of the noisy gaping crowds…they will no doubt come and point from the shore.’ She shuddered.’
 

She’s got a point. In real life and in crime fiction, violent crime, especially murder, stirs up a lot of public interest. And that’s part of the odd dual nature of people’s reaction to crime. On the one hand, murder and other serious crime is horrible. If you’ve ever actually seen a violent crime, or been involved in one, you don’t need me to convince you of that. If you haven’t, then trust me. There is nothing entertaining about a serious crime.

And yet, many news sources (often, but not always, tabloids) make fortunes reporting on such stories. People want to read about crime. The more lurid the details, the better. We may want to keep serious crime at a distance, but many people still find it fascinating. It may be the same instinct that draws people to slow down and stare when they see a serious accident on the side of a road.

That duality (‘Keep it away from me! But I want all the details.’) shows up in plenty of crime fiction. There won’t be space in this one post to give more than a few examples. I know you’ll have plenty more than I could offer, anyway.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we are introduced to the Garrow family. Angus Garrow is a successful lawyer whose name is being brought up as the next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. His wife, Jodie, is intelligent, attractive, and involved in the community, and his children are healthy and doing well enough in school. Everything changes when his daughter, Hannah, is rushed to a Sydney hospital after an accident. It turns out to be the same hospital in which Jodie gave birth to another child years earlier – a child she’s never told anyone about, not even Angus. A nurse there remembers Jodie, and asks about the child. Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but the overcurious nurse can’t find any official records of the adoption. Now, questions start to come up, first privately, and then quite publicly. Where is the child? If the child is dead, did Jodie have something to do with it? People all over become fascinated with the case, and everyone puts in an opinion. Before long, Jodie becomes a social pariah, but she’s still obsessed, too, with media stories about her. At the same time as people are horrified by the thought that she might have killed her baby, they’re utterly drawn into the case.

In Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs, police detective William Wisting and his team are faced with a disturbing case. A left foot in a training shoe has washed ashore near the Norwegian town of Stavern. That’s news enough in itself, but then another foot appears. And another. Oddly enough, though, no bodies have been discovered. There’s all sorts of speculation about what might be going on, and some of the local residents are concerned that these murders, if that’s what they are, might be the work of a serial killer. The police know that some people are worried for their safety. And, of course, they don’t want wild and inaccurate speculation to get in the way of their investigation. At the same time, taking advantage of the media interest (of which there is a great deal) might reach someone who has valuable information to share. So, the police give a few press conferences. And it’s interesting to see how the public’s fascination with a strange set of crimes is mixed with shock and horror at such crimes striking so close to home.

The focus of Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry is Joanna Lindsay and her partner, Alistair Robertson. When they travel from Scotland, where they’ve been living, to Alistair’s home in Victoria, they think that the long, miserable flight is the worst of their troubles. But during the drive from the airport at Melbourne to their destination, their worst nightmare comes true: the loss of their nine-week-old son, Noah. A massive search is launched, and there’s all sorts of ‘armchair detection’ about what might have happened to the baby. Then talk starts that perhaps the couple, especially Joanna, is involved. There’s an awful lot of public interest and speculation, which makes life miserable for Alistair and Joanna. And when the stories start circulating that they are responsible, matters get even worse. People are horrified by what’s happened, but at the same time, they are fascinated, and can’t get enough about the story.

We also see this fascination/repugnance in Peter James’s Not Dead Yet. In one plot thread, Brighton and Hove Superintendent Roy Grace and his team are investigating a bizarre murder. The torso of an unknown man has been discovered in a disused chicken coop. There’s not much to go on, and the victim had no identification with him. The police want to find out who the man was, so they take advantage of the public’s interest in a lurid crime like this. Grace sends two of his team members to appear on a true-crime TV show called Crimewatch. Neither really, truly, wants to do the show. But they both understand how important it is to identify a crime victim. So, they do the show. And it’s interesting to see how TV shows like that get large audiences and, sometimes, good results.

And that’s the case in a lot of investigations. The public is fascinated by lurid crimes. At the same time, we know how horrible murder is. It’s an interesting duality, and it can add to a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Don Henley’s Dirty Laundry.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Helen Fitzgerald, Peter James, Wendy James

Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?*

Have you ever watched someone do something, and wished you could be like that person? It’s not really envy, but it is wanting what another person has or can do. And it’s a very human emotion, really.

It’s little wonder, then, that it shows up in crime fiction. That feeling of wanting to be like someone else can add an interesting layer of character development. And it can add suspense to a story, especially if it’s taken too far…

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), we are introduced to London hairstylist’s assistant Jane Grey. She’s accustomed to dealing with upper-middle-class and upper-class clients, and listening to their stories. It’s not really that she’s envious of them, but she certainly wouldn’t mind a taste of that life. So, when she wins a sweepstakes, she decides on,
 

‘A week at Le Pinet. So many of her ladies had been going to Le Pinet, or just come back from Le Pinet. Jane…had thought to herself, “Why the devil can’t I go to Le Pinet?” Well, now she could.’
 

Jane finds herself drawn into a murder investigation when a fellow passenger on her flight back to London is poisoned. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight, and he works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who the killer is. There’s more than one possibility, too, since the victim, Marie Morisot, was a well-known moneylender with some desperate clients.

In Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair, we meet Gilbert Hand, junior partner in a small bookselling/publishing firm. After the death of his wife, Rachel, Hand takes his doctor’s advice, and moves to London for a fresh start. He takes a room in respectable hotel and settles in. One day, he discovers that the davenport in his room has a storage area with an unusual package in it. He opens the package to find that it contains a long coil of dark hair. Immediately, Hand is fascinated by the hair, and wonders how it came to be there and whose it was. Soon enough, he learns that the person who had the room before him was a man named Freddie Doyle. Now curious about Doyle, Hand starts to ask some questions. Over time, he becomes more and more obsessed with Doyle, and imagines that he’s in some sort of ‘chess match’ with him. At the same time as he sees Doyle as an opponent, Hand is also fascinated with his life. It’s not long before that obsession spins out of control.

There’s a similar sort of fascination/envy in Ruth Rendell’s 13 Steps Down. In one plot thread of the novel, Mix Cellini earns his living repairing exercise equipment. That’s how he meets supermodel Merissa Nash. Soon enough, Cellini becomes obsessed with her, and imagines a relationship that isn’t really there. At the same time, he learns about notorious serial killer Richard Christie. The murderer’s life fascinates the phobic, neurotic Christie. And, as his own life isn’t particularly interesting, his fantasies soon become more and more real to him. It’s not long before Cellini’s life comes closer and closer to Christie’s, with tragic results. I know, I know, fans of A Judgement in Stone.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little is the story of Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. Lora and her brother, Bill, are very close. So, when Bill falls in love with former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant Alice Steele, Lora’s naturally concerned. But for Bill’s sake, she tries to get along with Alice. Then, Bill and Alice get married. Soon, Alice is the envy of their group of friends. She always hosts the perfect party, cooks the perfect meals, and manages to do it without looking frazzled. Still, Lora has questions about her new sister-in-law. Some things about Alice just don’t add up. As Lora slowly learns more and more about Alice’s secret life, she’s more and more repulsed by it. At the same time, though, she is irresistibly drawn to it. Alice seems to be sophisticated in a way that Lora isn’t. Then, there’s a murder, and Alice could very well be mixed up in it. Telling herself that she’s trying to protect her brother, Lora begins to ask questions about the death. And it turns out that she’s in far deeper than she thought…

And then there’s Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. Fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan spends the summer of 1978 staying with her Aunt Barbara and Uncle Doug Griffin, and her cousins, Mick and Jane. Angela naturally bonds with Mick and his friends, since they are close in age. Jane is a little younger, and often ends up being a tagalong. She looks up to Angela, and very much wants to be like her, as Angela seems so mature and sophisticated. Then, one day, Angela goes missing. She’s later found dead, with a scarf around her head. At first, the members of her family, and the friends she spent time with, are of a lot of interest to the police. But then, there’s another, similar, death. Now, it looks as though there’s a multiple killer around – one the Sydney press has dubbed the Sydney Strangler. The murderer is never found, though. Some thirty-five years later, documentary maker Erin Fury is doing a piece on families of murder victims. She wants to interview the Griffin family, and finally gets permission. And as she speaks to the different members, we see how Angela’s life and death impacted everyone.

It’s only natural to look up to, or wish you were like, someone else. It’s human nature. Sometimes it can spin out of control, though. And even when it doesn’t, it’s an interesting plot thread and piece of character development.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Charlotte Jay, Megan Abbott, Ruth Rendell, Wendy James

Down to Elvis Presley Boulevard Where All the Faithful Cried*

As this is posted, it’s 40 years since the death of Elvis Presley. Whatever you think of his music, Presley was a worldwide phenomenon, and millions of people still make the pilgrimage to his home at Graceland. Oh, and by the way, you’ll want to check out Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Memphis Barbecue series, which takes place in Memphis, and which has plenty of mentions of (and even a big event at) Graceland.

Presley’s passing left his legions of fans grief-stricken. There are even those who swear that he’s still alive; that’s how much he meant to them. But it’s often that way when someone you’ve put on a pedestal dies. If it’s a famous person, there’s a wide outpouring of emotion. If it’s someone you’ve personally had as an idol (say, a colleague or friend or mentor), the grief may not be as public, but it’s no less there. Certainly, that’s true in real life, and it is in crime fiction, too.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we are introduced to Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. He and his wife, Gerda, are among a group of people invited to spend a weekend at the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot by the swimming pool. Hercule Poirot, who’s in the area and has been invited for lunch, arrives just after the shooting; in fact, at first, he thinks it’s an ‘amusement’ staged for his benefit. Very soon, though, he sees that it’s all too real. Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find out who the murderer is. As he does, we see just how many people put Christow on a pedestal. And even for those who didn’t do that, we see clearly that his death has left a gaping hole, if I can put it like that.

In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, Oslo police detective Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate when eighteen-year-old Andreas Winther disappears. When Andreas’ mother, Runi, first reports him missing, Sejer isn’t overly concerned. There are, after all, plenty of reasons why a young man might take off for a few days without telling his mother where he’s going. But when more time goes by, and he doesn’t return, Sejer begins to look more seriously into the matter. He begins with Andreas’ best friend, Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. I can say without spoiling the story that Zipp didn’t kill his friend. But he does know a lot more than he’s saying about their last day together, and about what might have happened to Andreas. And, as the story goes on, we see that, in a way, Zipp hero-worshipped his friend, and is dealing with his own kind of grief and sense of loss.

Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm) is the story of the murder of Viktor Stråndgard. His body is discovered in a Kiruna church called the Church of the Source of All Our Strength. The victim was an up-and-coming church leader who was sometimes called The Paradise Boy. He had many, many followers, so his death makes national news. In fact, that’s how Stockholm tax attorney Rebecka Martinsson hears about the murder. It’s especially shocking to her because she grew up in Kiruna, and knew the Stråndgard family. Then, she gets a call from the victim’s sister, Sanna, a former friend. Sanna says that the police suspect her of the murder, and she needs Martinsson’s help. At first, Martinsson refuses; she had her own good reasons for leaving Kiruna in the first place, and has no desire to return. But Sanna finally persuades her to go. Martinsson hasn’t been there long when Sanna is actually arrested for the murder and imprisoned. Now, if she’s to clear her former friend’s name, Martinsson will have to find out who the real killer is. As she looks into the case, we see how Viktor Stråndgard’s death has impacted the church, his followers, and plenty of other people as well.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine is the first in his series featuring Shanghai police detective Chief Inspector Chen Cao. One morning, the body of a woman is pulled from a canal not far from Shanghai. Very soon, she is identified as Guan Hongying, a national model worker. That means this investigation is going to have to be done very delicately. The victim was somewhat of a celebrity, and her death has been reported widely, leaving many people upset. What’s more, she had high political status, and moved in circles with some important people. So, it’s going to be critical that the case be handled as carefully as possible.

A similar thing might be said of William Ryan’s The Darkening Field (AKA The Bloody Meadow), which takes place in the then-USSR in the years just before World War II. It’s the story of the murder of Maria Alexandrovna Lenskaya, a dedicated Party worker and up-and-coming actress. When she’s found dead at a filming location, it looks at first as though it might be a suicide. But there are enough questions about it that Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev is seconded to Odessa to find out the truth. And that’s going to be a problem. If the victim died by suicide that’ll be put down as a tragedy, but no more. If it’s a murder, though, the matter could turn very ugly for some important people. And, since the victim was a celebrity, albeit a minor one, there’ll be news reports, and word will get out. So, Korolev will have to tread very, very lightly as he investigates.

And then there’s Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. The real action in this novel begins in 1978, when fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan goes missing and is later found dead, with a scarf round her head. At the time, the police concentrate heavily on her family, especially her aunt, uncle and cousins, with whom she’s staying during the summer. Then, a few months later, another girl, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor is killed. She, too, is found with a scarf. Now, the Sydney police seem to be dealing with a mass killer that the press has dubbed the Sydney Strangler. No-one is ever arrested for the crimes, though, and the cases go cold. Years later, journalist Erin Fury wants to do a documentary on the families of murder victims. She approaches Angela’s cousin Jane Tait, who gives very reluctant permission to be interviewed. She also interviews Jane’s brother, Mick, and their parents, Barbara and Doug Griffin. As the story goes on, we learn the story of that summer, and we learn what really happened to both Angela and Kelly. Admittedly, Angela is not a film or music idol. But Jane put her up on a pedestal, in a way, and her loss struck a devastating blow from which the family still hasn’t really recovered. It’s an interesting case of a person who isn’t famous, but who is still someone’s idol.

The loss of an idol can have a profound impact on a person. And that can make for an interesting crime plot or layer of character development. Which examples have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Elvis Presley Boulevard.  

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Karin Fossum, Qiu Xiaolong, Riley Adams, Wendy James, William Ryan

Why These Victorian Views?*

The Victorian Era ended more than 100 years ago. But, if you think about it, that era’s customs, culture, and so on still exert influence, especially in the West. Just as one example, consider the tradition of the white wedding dress. That wasn’t a custom until Queen Victoria chose to wear a white dress for her own wedding. And that’s not to mention the many other beliefs, ‘rules,’ and so on that became a part of that era. One post isn’t nearly enough to do justice to the topic, but it’s interesting to take a glance at it.

We see the influence of this era in a lot of ways in crime fiction. And, as you’ll see, I’m not really talking of the crime fiction (such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s) that was written during the Victorian years. Even novels written after those years ended show the era’s influence.

One of the very important characteristics of the era was an emphasis on doing one’s duty. We see that, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect). In that novel, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to solve the sixteen-year-old murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time, Crale’s wife (and Carla’s mother) Caroline was suspected of the murder, and with good reason. In fact, she was arrested and convicted, and died in prison a year later. Carla insists her mother was innocent, and wants Poirot to clear her name. In order to find out the truth, Poirot interviews the five people who were present at the time. He also gets their written accounts of the murder and the days leading up to it. One of those people is Cecilia Williams, who acted as governess to Carla’s aunt, Angela Warren. Here’s what we learn about Miss Williams:
 

‘She had that enormous mental and moral advantage of a strict Victorian upbringing…she had done her duty in that station in life to which it had pleased God to call her, and that assurance encased her in an armour impregnable to the slings and darts of envy, discontent and regret.’
 

In other ways, too, Miss Williams reflects Victorian attitudes. For example, one of the ‘people of interest’ in the novel is Elsa Greer Dittisham, who was Crale’s lover at the time of his murder, and who was staying at the house while he painted her portrait. Miss Williams describes her as ‘thoroughly unprincipled.’ Later she says:
 

‘‘Whatever our feelings, we can keep them in decent control. And we can certainly control our actions. That girl had absolutely no morals of any kind. It meant nothing to her that Mr. Crale was a married man. She was absolutely shameless about it all – cool and determined. Possibly she may have been badly brought up, but that’s the only excuse I can find for her.”
 

Miss Williams is as much upset at what she sees as the lack of propriety and ‘proper conduct’ as she is about anything else.

We also see the Victorian emphasis on propriety in Dorothy L. Sayer’s Strong Poison. In the novel, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is tried for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial and immediately becomes smitten with Vane. In fact, he determines to clear her name, so that he can marry her. And, with help of some friends, as well as his valet/assistant, Mervyn Bunter, that’s exactly what he does. As the story goes on, we learn that Vane and Boyes lived together before their relationship ended. Since they never married, that’s very much held against her. In keeping with the Victorian view of what was ‘proper,’ it’s considered inappropriate to cohabit. The fact of their relationship is almost less important than the fact that Vane behaved in an ‘unseemly’ way.

We also see that attitude in Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series, which takes place in 1920’s Madras (today’s Chennai). In one story arc, we learn about the relationship between Le Fanu and his housekeeper, Roisin McPhedren. The two care very much about each other, but their relationship is doomed. For one thing, Le Fanu is, at least in name, married. His wife, who now lives in England, wants a divorce, but that’s somewhat scandalous. For another, Le Fanu and McPhedren live in the same house, and are not married. If any whispers got around that they had more than a professional relationship, that would mean the end of La Fanu’s career. Such impropriety isn’t in keeping with the ideals he’s supposed to be upholding. And that’s to say nothing of what would happen to Roisin McPhedren’s reputation. There would be no way she could get any kind of ‘respectable’ employment. This series offers a look at Victorian attitudes towards class and race, as well, and how they impacted the British Raj.

There’s an interesting example of the Victorian perspective in Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die. In it, poet and private investigator Nigel Strangeways looks into the poisoning death of George Rattery. The most obvious suspect is crime writer Frank Cairnes, who holds Rattery responsible for the death of his son, Martin ‘Martie.’ But Cairnes says that he’s innocent, and there are solid reasons to believe him. What’s more, as Strangeways discovers, Cairnes is not the only possible suspect. For one thing, it turns out that Rattery was having an affair with a woman named Rhoda Carfax. Rattery’s mother, Ethel, is
 

‘…crazy about family honour, and being a Victorian she looks upon sexual scandal as the arch-disgrace.’ 
 

That passion for ‘respectability’ could have been part of a motive for murder. Among other things, it’s an interesting look at that need to be ‘respectable.’

There’s also an interesting look at the impact of the Victorian-Era perspective in Wendy James’ Out of the Silence. This novel is James’ fictional retelling of the 1900 Melbourne arrest and conviction of Maggie Heffernan for the murder of her infant son. In the novel, Maggie meets and is wooed by Jack Hardy. He asks her to marry him, but says they need to keep their engagement secret until he can support them. Maggie agrees, and he soon leaves to look for work in New South Wales. In the meantime, Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant, and writes to Jack. Even after several letters, she doesn’t hear from him. Maggie knows her family won’t accept her (what ‘proper’ family would?), so she gets work in a Melbourne Guest House. When baby Jacky arrives, Maggie moves briefly to a home for unwed mothers. Then, she discovers that Jack Hardy has moved to Melbourne, and goes in search of him. When she finally tracks him down, he utterly rejects her. With nowhere else to go, Maggie goes from lodging house to lodging house, and is turned down by six places.  That’s when the tragedy with Jacky occurs. This story takes place in the last year or two of the Victorian Era, and really shows how that perspective influences everything that happens to Maggie, including her own point of view.

There are also other historical series, such as K.B. Owen’s Concordia Wells novels, and Felicity Young’s Dorothy ‘Dody’ McCleland series, that depict Victorian-Era perspectives, world views and mores. Owen’s series takes place at the very end of those years, and Young’s takes place in the Edwardian Era that followed it.

Even today, we can see how the Victorian Era has left its mark. It has on Western society, and it certainly has in crime fiction. Which examples have stayed with you?

ps The ‘photo is of a group of Victorian-era schoolgirls in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Courtesy of the Lehigh County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ogden Nash and Kurt Weill’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Brian Stoddart, Dorothy L. Sayers, Felicity Young, K.B. Owen, Nicholas Blake, Wendy James