Category Archives: 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

It’s the Latest, It’s the Greatest*

Not long ago, crime writer and fellow blogger Christine Poulson did a very interesting post about clothing fads and other fads, too, that make us wince now, but were all the rage. You know what I mean: bug-eyed glasses, bowl haircuts, and cable-knit vests, among others.

Of course, it’s not just a matter of clothing. Fads can come in any form, and not all them are as cringe-worthy as jumpsuits for men. But they all leave their mark, including mentions in crime fiction.

For example, during the Jazz Age, Mah Jong became all the rage.  People played it at parties, at home, and sometimes in clubs. Agatha Christie makes mention of that fad in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In that novel, the small village of Kings Abbot is rocked by the stabbing death of retired magnate Roger Ackroyd. The most likely suspect is the victim’s stepson, Captain Ralph Paton. But Paton’s fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, doesn’t think he’s guilty, and asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. This novel is narrated by the village doctor, Dr. James Sheppard, who lives next door to the house Poirot has taken. One evening, Sheppard, his sister Caroline (who lives with him), and two guests play a game of Mah Jong. A good deal of gossip is passed around during the course of the evening, and some of it is relevant to the mystery at hand. We also get to follow the game, and learn a bit about how it’s played.

Christie also mentions other fads that came later. For instance, the ‘Teddy Boy’ look makes an appearance in The Pale Horse. And we see bits of faddish fashion in Hallowe’en Party, too. Here, for instance, is a description of Desmond Holland, a character who turns out to be helpful in solving the murder of a young girl, Joyce Reynolds:
 

‘The younger one was wearing a rose-coloured velvet coat, mauve trousers, and a kind of frilled shirting.
 

Not something that would likely be worn today, but the look was especially popular at the time (the book was published in 1969).

Another fad we see in crime fiction is the dance marathon. These marathons became extremely popular in the 1920s and 1930s; and, as the name suggests, involved couples moving to music for as long as they could. The winners of this endurance contest might win money or some other coveted prize. A dance marathon forms the background for a murder in Kerry Greenwood’s 1920s-era novel, The Green Mill Murder. In that novel, Phryne Fisher and her escort, Charles Freeman, are at an upmarket dance club called the Green Mill. The club is hosting a dance marathon that night, which is supposed to be an exciting event. But it turns tragic when one of the dancers, Bernard Stevens, slumps to the floor, dead of a stab wound. Phryne starts investigating, but she hasn’t got very far when Charles Freeman goes missing. His mother hires Phryne to find him, and she agrees. It turns out that his disappearance is related to Stevens’ death, and to the end of World War I.

On the topic of dancing, one of the crazes of the 1970s was disco dancing. There were disco outfits, disco contests, and so on (right, those who’ve seen Saturday Night Fever?). Of all fictional sleuths, you wouldn’t expect Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun to get caught up in disco. But that’s exactly what happens in one plot thread of Disco For the Departed. In that novel (which takes place in 1970s Laos), Dr. Siri is sent to northern Laos in his capacity as the country’s medical examiner. Construction of a concrete walkway to the president’s palace has uncovered a body. With a major celebration coming up, the government can’t afford a public embarrassment like this, and Dr. Siri is expected to quietly do away with the ‘problem.’ But it’s clear that this victim was murdered, and Dr. Siri wants to know why and by whom. As fans of this series will know, there’s an element of the supernatural in these novels, as Dr. Siri discovers that he has a connection with the spirits of those who’ve died. And in this case, that connection becomes clear when he arrives at the village of Vieng Xai, where the body was discovered.  For several nights in a row, Dr. Siri hears disco music – music no-one else can hear.  Here’s what Dr. Siri thinks about it when he first hears it:
 

‘It destroyed any hope of sleep. He wondered what type of people would start dancing in the middle of the night and how anyone could enjoy such an ugly Western din. Or perhaps this was one of the Party’s torture techniques to punish the officials from Vientiane. He could think of few things more cruel.’
 

But, as it turns out, that music, and those spirits, play a role in the novel. The mystery itself has a very prosaic solution, but Dr. Siri gets inspiration from several different sources, including the spirits of those who’ve died.

Pinball has been played for a long time, and many people still enjoy it. During the 1960s and 1970s, though, pinball became a craze. It’s enshrined in the Who’s rock opera Tommy, and it’s in crime fiction, too.

For instance, in Wendy James The Lost Girls, we learn of the 1978 death of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. She was spending the summer with her aunt, uncle and cousins; and, like most teens, didn’t want to spend all day sitting at home. So, she, her cousin, Mick, and Mick’s friends, spent their share of time at the local drugstore. There, they played plenty of pinball. One afternoon, after a pinball session, Angela disappeared. She was later found dead, with a scarf around her head. At first, Mick was ‘a person of interest.’ But no real evidence was found against him. And a few months later, another young girl, Kelly McIvor, was found dead, also with a scarf around her. The police began to see the two deaths as related; in fact, the press dubbed the killer the Sydney Strangler. The murderer was never caught. Now, nearly forty years later, filmmaker Erin Fury wants to interview Angela’s family as a part of a documentary on families who survive the murder of one of their members. As she speaks to Angela’s cousins, aunt, and uncle (her parents have since died), we learn what really happened to her. Pinball isn’t the reason for her death, but it’s an interesting example of how a fad can find its way into a story.

And that’s the thing about fads. They’re an important part of our culture, so it makes sense that we’d see them in crime fiction, too. Thanks, Christine, for the inspiration. Now, may I suggest your next blog stop be Christine’s excellent blog? Great book reviews, discussions of writing, and more await you. Oh, and you’ll want to try her crime fiction, too. You won’t be disappointed.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Barry Mann and Bernie Lowe’s Mashed Potato Time.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christine Poulson, Colin Cotterill, Kerry Greenwood, Wendy James