Category Archives: Wilkie Collins

Am I Too Late?*

sleuths-and-late-appearancesAn interesting post from Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery has got me thinking about timing. In her post (which you should read) about Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love, Tracy points out that James Bond doesn’t make an appearance in that novel until later in the plot. And that’s not the only story in which we see that.

When the sleuth doesn’t come into the story until later, the author has to build interest and suspense in other ways. It might be through following other characters; or, the author may choose to focus on the buildup to the murder or other crime. There are other approaches, too. Whichever choice the author makes, the key to having the sleuth come into the story later is ensuring that there’s some way to engage the reader.

For example, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone begins with the removal of a valuable diamond called the Moonstone from a palace in India. The thief, Colonel John Herncastle, later bequeaths the stone to his niece, Rachel Verinder, as a gift for her eighteenth birthday. However, it’s not the generous bequest it may seem to be. The story is that the stone curses anyone who takes it from its rightful place, and misfortune soon befalls the Verinder family. First, the stone is stolen from Rachel on the night she receives it. Then, second housemaid Rosanna Spearman, who has her own troubled history, disappears and is later found to have committed suicide. Sergeant Cuff investigates the robbery, and, after a two-year search, traces the stone. He doesn’t make an appearance, though, until later in the novel. Before we meet Cuff, we learn the story of the stone, of the Herncastle and Verinder families and staffs, and of the curse.

In Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger, Inspector Cockrill investigates the death of postman Joseph Higgins. It seems that Higgins was taken to Heron Park Hospital, where he was operated on for a broken femur. But he died on the table in what everyone thinks is a tragic accident. In fact, Cockrill himself thinks so at first. But one night at a party, Sister Marion Bates, who is a nurse at the hospital, has too much to drink, and says that she knows Higgins was murdered, and how it was done. She herself is then killed. And Higgins’ widow had already insisted he was murdered. So Cockrill starts to ask questions and investigate more thoroughly. This story doesn’t begin with the death or with Cockrill. It starts as Higgins is making his rounds, delivering letters to the people who are later mixed up in this murder case. Slowly, we learn who they are, what brought them to Heron Park, and a bit about their histories. Cockrill doesn’t come into the story until a bit later. Instead, Brand builds engagement by introducing the other characters and showing how they all know Higgins, and what their relationships are to one another.

Agatha Christie’s The Hollow begins as a group of people plan for a weekend at The Hollow, which is the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Slowly, we get to know a little about Sir Henry and Lady Lucy. We also meet the rest of the house party. The guests are to be well-known sculptor Henrietta Savernake, Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife Gerda, and another relative, Midge Hardcastle. Also invited are relatives Edward Angkatell and David Angkatell. Christie gives background detail on all of these characters and their network of relationships (and those turn out to be very important in the story). Everyone arrives, and the weekend begins. Hercule Poirot, who’s taken a nearby cottage, is invited for lunch on the Sunday, so he doesn’t make an appearance until farther along in the story. When he does, though, he finds that Christow has been shot, and his killer is holding the weapon. At first, he thinks it’s a macabre tableau arranged for his ‘amusement.’ But it turns out to be quite real. The case seems very straightforward, and that’s how Inspector Grange looks at it. But Poirot isn’t sure. As he investigates, he finds that the case is quite different to what it seems at first glance.

And then there’s Karin Fossum’s Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride). That novel begins as we meet Gunder Jormann, who’s lived a very quiet life in the Norwegian village of Elvestad. He’s no longer young, but he’s in reasonable physical shape and he’s a steady worker. In other words, he’s a solid prospect for marriage, and that’s what he wants to do. He becomes fascinated with the idea of choosing a bride from India, and makes his plans to travel to Mumbai. All of this shocks his sister, Marie, who finds many reasons he shouldn’t go ahead with his plan. But Gundar heads to Mumbai, anyway. Soon after his arrival, he meets Poona Bai and is soon smitten. It’s not long before he proposes marriage, and she accepts. She has to take care of the details of ending her time in India, and get the necessary papers to go to Norway. So Gundar returns to Elvestad with the agreement that Poona will join him as soon as possible. On the day of her return, though, Gundar isn’t able to meet her at the airport. Marie has been in a tragic accident, and he can’t leave her. So he delegates a friend to meet Poona. But that friend and Poona miss each other. The next morning, Poona’s body is found in a field not far from Gundar’s home. Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer, and his assistant Jacob Skarre, investigate Poona’s death. But they don’t make an appearance until later in the novel. Instead, the novel’s focus at the beginning is Gundar, his trip to Mumbai, his meeting with Poona, and his relationship with Marie and with the other people of Elvestad. Fossum also gives background information on those other residents.

It can be tricky to have the sleuth make an appearance later in a crime novel, but it can be successful. Which examples of this have stayed with you?

Thanks, Tracy, for the inspiration! Folks, treat yourself and visit Tracy’s excellent blog. There you’ll find all sorts of fine reviews

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tavares’ Too Late.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christianna Brand, Ian Fleming, Karin Fossum, Wilkie Collins

Part of the Story, Part of the Same*

Stories in Serial FormCrime writer and fellow blogger E. Michael Helms has taken the interesting step of sharing his Dinger, PI story in serial form. You can check out the first instalment right here. Dinger lives and works in post-WWII Las Vegas – a very effective context for the sort of noir stories that Helms writes. And while you’re at it, check out Helms’ terrific blog. And his ‘Mac’ McClellan novels. You’ll be glad you did.

The novel-in-serial-form has a long history, of course. And you’ll no doubt know that several famous novels were originally published that way. One of the benefits of the serial format is that it gets readers interested in what’s going to happen next. That builds circulation for the magazine that prints the story. And fans get to read a story in smaller doses as it were, a much less daunting prospect than a very long novel. For the author, the serial story allows flexibility as s/he sees how readers respond to the different instalments.

There’ve been many crime novels that were originally published in serial form. For instance, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, which was published as a novel in 1868, began life that way in Charles Dickens’ magazine All The Year Round. The novel tells the story of the Verinder family, and the troubles that befall it when Rachel Verinder receives a valuable diamond, called the Moonstone, for her eighteenth birthday. The legend goes that there’s a curse on the diamond, and it certainly seems that way. First, the diamond is stolen from the Verinder home. Then, one of the maids goes missing, and is later found to have committed suicide. Sergeant Cuff is assigned to recover the diamond, and after two years, he traces what’s happened to it. Those who’ve read the novel will know that’s it’s broken into parts told from different points of view. It’s not difficult to see its origins as a story told in serial form.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will tell you that a lot of his work was published in serial form in The Strand Magazine and other publications. For instance, The Sign of the Four, the second full-length Holmes novel, was published in instalments in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. The novel’s focus is a pact among four prison inmates in India, and two corrupt prison guards, to share stolen treasure. That pact, and the treasure, have implications decades later and thousands of miles away in London, when a young woman named Mary Morstan begins receiving a series of pearls, one each year, sent by an anonymous donor who claims that she is ‘a wronged woman.’ When she takes her case to Holmes, he finds that long-ago link. And Dr. Watson finds a bride.

Margery Allingham’s first detective story, The White Cottage, was first published in 1927 as a serial in The Daily Express. It’s not one of her Albert Campion mysteries. Instead, this one features Chief Inspector W.T. Challenor and his son, Jerry. It all begins as Jerry Challenor is on his way to London. He happens to see a young woman struggling to carry a heavy basket. He pulls over and offers her a lift, which she gratefully accepts. She tells him her destination is the White Cottage, and Jerry takes her there. He starts on his way again, but pulls over to put the hood on his car when an oncoming storm threatens. He’s finishing the task when he and a passing police officer hear the sound of a shotgun. Shortly afterwards, the parlourmaid from the White Cottage runs up the road, hails the police officer and says there’s been a murder. The victim is Eric Crowther, and it’s not surprising that he’s been shot. He’s got a nasty history of finding out people’s secrets and using that knowledge as a weapon. So the Challenors have no shortage of suspects as they investigate.

The Daily Express was also the first home of Agatha Christie’s A Pocket Full of Rye. In that novel, wealthy businessman Rex Fortescue is poisoned, and Inspector Neele takes the case. Neele begins his investigation with the members of Fortescue’s family, and in this situation, that makes sense. The family was far from a happy one, and more than one member has a motive. But a family connection doesn’t explain the rye seeds found in Fortescue’s pocket. Neele’s trying to make progress on the case when there’s another murder. This time, the victim is housemaid Gladys Martin. Miss Marple takes an interest in the case, since Gladys used to work for her. In fact, it was Miss Marple who prepared Gladys for domestic service. As it turns out, this murder has its roots, as murders often do, in the past.

And then there’s James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, which was first published as a serial in Liberty Magazine in 1936. Insurance salesman Walter Huff finds himself in Hollywoodland one day, and decides to pay a visit to a client, H.S. Nirdlinger, to try to get a policy renewal. Nirdlinger isn’t at home when Huff arrives, but his wife, Phyllis is. Huff is immediately smitten with her, and she does nothing to discourage him. Before long, they’re having an affair. Then, Phyllis tells Huff that she wants to kill her husband. She’s decided to take out an accident policy so that she can benefit from his death. Huff is so besotted with Phyllis that he goes along with her idea, even writing the right sort of policy for her. The two plot the murder carefully, and the night for it finally arrives. When the deed is done, though, Huff finds it very hard to cope with the guilt he feels at having killed a man. And it’s not long before he learns he has more problems than just that guilt…

Stories have been told in serial form for a very long time, and it’s not hard to see why. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Balkan Beat Box’s Part of the Glory.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, E. Michael Helms, Margery Allingham, Wilkie Collins

I’m Telling You, Beware*

Dangerous GiftsVirgil’s Aeneid includes the famous story of the Trojan Horse, and the way in which the Greeks used subterfuge (and a false ‘gift’) to best their enemies from Troy. In it, there are lines that have been passed down to become the proverb, ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts’ – a warning not to trust one’s enemies, even if they ‘bear gifts.’

And it’s interesting to see how often untrustworthy gifts show up in crime fiction. If you think about it, it’s almost a trope: the flowers from a stranger that turn out to be deadly; the mysterious package left on a doorstep, etc. There’s only space for a few examples in this one post. But I’m sure you’ll be able to think of many more than I could, anyway.

Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone begins with the theft of a valuable diamond, called the moonstone, from the Palace of Seringaptam. The diamond is said to be cursed, so that evil will befall anyone who takes it from its place. But Sir John Herncastle doesn’t let that stop him, and actually commits murder to get the jewel. Later, we learn that he’s had a falling out with his sister, Lady Julia Verinder, and is not welcome in the Verinder home. When he dies, he bequeaths the diamond to his niece, Rachel, to be given to her on her eighteenth birthday. His wishes are duly carried out, and it’s not long before all sorts of misfortunes happen to the family, beginning with the disappearance of the moonstone on the night Rachel receives it. Then, there’s a suicide. Other trouble follows. Sergeant Richard Cuff investigations, and slowly puts the pieces of the puzzle together.

In Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy, Hercule Poirot attends a sherry party hosted by famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. Among the guests is the local vicar, Reverend Stephen Babbington. During the party, Babbington suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Not long afterwards, there’s another, similar, murder. This time, the victim is Harley Street specialist Dr. Bartholomew Strange. Poirot investigates the two murders as connected events, since many of the same people were at both occasions. He’s working on those two cases when there’s a third murder. The weapon is a gift box of poisoned chocolates, delivered to Margaret de Rushbridger, a patient at Strange’s sanatorium. Now Poirot has to connect her death to the two others.

Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case tells the story of another dangerous gift. In that novel, we are introduced to the Crimes Circle. Run by journalist and amateur sleuth Roger Sheringham, it’s a discussion club where members try to solve difficult crimes. And one day, DCI Moresby brings the group an interesting one. It seems that well-known chocolatier Mason & Sons has come out with a new variety of chocolates. In order to build interest and boost sales, the company sent complimentary boxes of the new chocolates to well-known, influential people, one of whom is Sir Eustace Pennefeather. He himself doesn’t eat chocolate, so he passed the gift on to a fellow club member, Graham Bendix. Bendix, in turn, shared the candy with his wife Joan. Now, Joan is dead, and her husband badly sickened. Analysis shows that the chocolates were poisoned. So the question before the club is: who is the killer? And that, of course, entails the question: who was the intended victim?

Not all gifts are as attractive and welcome as chocolates and diamonds. In Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, for instance, we are introduced to nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill. Her father, Leander, recently died of a heart attack. Laurel, though, is convinced that this wasn’t a natural death. She believes his heart attack was brought on after he began receiving a series of macabre ‘gifts,’ What’s more, she thinks they may be related to her father’s business, since his partner, Roger Priam, has also been receiving ‘gifts.’ She asks Ellery Queen to investigate; and at first, he’s reluctant. But he is intrigued by the puzzle of what this all may mean. So he looks into the matter. In the end, and after Priam is nearly killed, Queen pieces together what actually happened. It turns out that these ‘gifts’ have everything to do with the men’s pasts.

And then there’s Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Said Cheese. In that novel, a bouquet of flowers is delivered to The New Pickax Hotel. They’re a gift for a mysterious guest named Ona Dolman. She doesn’t happen to be in her room when they arrive, and that turns out to be a good thing for her.  A bomb hidden in the flowers detonates, causing severe damage to the hotel and killing a chambermaid. Journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran takes an interest in the case – an interest that’s piqued when Ona goes missing.  Now Qwilleran works with Pickax Police Chief Andrew Brodie to find out who the murderer is, and what’s happened to his intended victim.

As you can see, crime fiction includes some very clear examples of gifts from dangerous people. I think that should serve as a warning to us all. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I hear a knock at the door; I think I’ve just gotten a package.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong’s Smiling Faces Sometimes.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Ellery Queen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Wilkie Collins

Got the Loan Shark Blues*

MoneylendersMoneylending in its different forms has been woven into many cultures for a very long time. Even with the evolution of modern banking systems, there’s a good market for the services of people who will lend money to those who, for whatever reason, can’t or won’t use regular banks. Sometimes it works out well enough; a person gets a loan that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. The interest rate may be much higher, but the money goal is accomplished. Other times, it’s disastrous. After all, people who are desperate for money often don’t ask too many questions, and they’re not in a position to negotiate. So they can be easy prey for very unscrupulous lenders.

Plenty of governments make rules and policies about lending, but that doesn’t prevent predatory loans. Certainly that’s true in real life, and we see it in crime fiction, too. There’s nothing like financial desperation to make fictional characters behave in all sorts of ways.

For example, in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, Rachel Verinder is given a very valuable diamond, known as the Moonstone, for her eighteenth birthday. The gift comes from her uncle, and many say it’s more of a curse than a gift, since misfortune seems to befall anyone who has the stone. And there’s no doubt that trouble soon comes to the Verinder family. On the night Rachel receives the stone, it is stolen. A thorough search for the stone turns up nothing. Then, the family’s second housemaid, who has her own personal issues, dies, apparently a successful suicide. The stone itself is eventually traced to London, where it seems to have been pledged to a London moneylender. Sergeant Richard Cuff is put in charge of the investigation, and slowly, over the course of two years, he finds out the truth about who stole the diamond and where it is now.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Dr. James Sheppard of the small village of King’s Abbot gets involved in a murder mystery when his friend, Roger Ackroyd, is stabbed. The most likely suspect is Ackroyd’s stepson Captain Ralph Paton. But Paton’s fiancée Flora Ackroyd doesn’t think he is guilty. So she asks Hercule Poirot, who has taken the house next door to Sheppard’s, to investigate. As it turns out, several people in Ackroyd’s household have motives for murder, many of them financial. For instance, Ackroyd’s sister-in-law (and Flora’s mother), has been desperate for money. Here is how she explains it to Sheppard:
 

‘‘Those dreadful bills…And of course they mounted up, you know, and they kept coming in…And the tone altered – became quite abusive. I assure you, doctor, I was becoming a nervous wreck.’’
 

That worry has led Mrs. Ackroyd to do business with some ‘unconventional’ kinds of lenders, and she very much needs a share of Ackroyd’s fortune to make things right. You’re absolutely right, fans of Death in the Clouds.

One of the plot threads in Ian Rankin’s The Black Book concerns ‘Operation Moneybags.’ It’s to be a joint operation between the police and the Trading Standards people, designed to bring down an unscrupulous moneylender associated with crime boss Morris Gerald ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty. John Rebus is assigned to work on this case, and he’s none too happy about the way it’s shaping up. On the one hand, he’s only too happy to bring down this sort of predator:
 

‘People who wouldn’t stand a chance in any bank, and with nothing worth pawning, could still borrow money, no matter how bad a risk. The problem was, of course, that the interest ran into the hundreds percent and arrears could soon mount, bringing more prohibitive interest. It was the most vicious circle of all, vicious because at the end of it all lay intimidation, beatings and worse.’ 
 

On the other hand, Rebus knows that the operation won’t really get Cafferty, who is his nemesis and main target. It’ll be a matter of small-time arrests, political do-gooding and photo ops. But he gets involved, and soon finds that this operation leads to important information about another crime, a five-year-old fire that ended in murder.

Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty features Miami loan shark Chili Palmer. He’s the no-nonsense type who, at the beginning of the novel, goes to Ray Bones’ house and breaks his nose because Bones accidentally took Palmer’s jacket from a restaurant where they were both eating. Some years later, in a fluke, Palmer’s working for Bones. His newest assignment is to collect on a debt owed by Leo Devoe, who supposedly died in an airline crash. But it turns out that he’s not dead. Instead, he’s living in Las Vegas on the money his ‘widow’ collected from the airline. So Bones sends Palmer to force Devoe to pay up. Everything changes when Devoe goes to Hollywood. Palmer follows him there, and the original mission gets complicated by a movie pitch, agents, directors, and other Hollywood ‘types.’

In Sue Grafton’s V is For Vengeance, PI Kinsey Millhone is hired to do a background investigation on Audrey Vance, who has suddenly died after a shoplifting spree. The official report is that she committed suicide, but Marvin Striker, who was her fiancé, doesn’t think it’s all that simple. He believes in her innocence, and wants to know the truth about her death. Millhone doesn’t agree with her client; she thinks the victim was a professional thief who’d conned Striker. But she gets to work on the investigation. In one of the sub-plots of this novel, we meet Lorenzo Dante, a Las Vegas ‘private banker’ who’s been involved in various dubious lending arrangements most of his life, as that’s his family’s business. When he meets Nora, who’s unhappily married to a successful, ‘attorney to the stars,’ the two take to each other, which has all sorts of unforeseen consequences, and eventually ties Dante’s story to the story of Audrey Vance.

And then there’s Annie Hauxwell’s In Her Blood, in which we meet London investigator Catherine Berlin. She’s been building up a case against a loan shark, Archie Doyle, and needs some extra ‘ammunition.’ For that, she relies on an informant who goes by the name of Juliet Bravo. When her informant is found dead in Limehouse Basin, Berlin feels a sense of responsibility for what happened. So she decides to ask some questions. But then, she’s suspended for not following protocol in that matter, and no longer has access to any official information. It seems there’s a deliberate attempt to keep the death quiet. To complicate matters, Berlin is a registered heroin addict whose official supplier, Dr. George Lazenby, has been murdered, and she finds herself a suspect. With only seven days’ supply of heroin left, Berlin knows she has very little time before withdrawal makes pursuing these cases impossible. As the story goes on, we get to know Archie Doyle, and we learn that he’s a complex character – much more than a cartoonish thug. He adds an interesting layer to the novel.

Moneylending is at times a very dangerous and illegal business. Some of the people in the business are predatory. And even an ethical moneylending business can be very expensive for those who use it. But it doesn’t stop people who are desperate for money.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rory Gallagher’s Loan Shark Blues.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Annie Hauxwell, Elmore Leonard, Ian Rankin, Sue Grafton, Wilkie Collins

When He Died, I Inherited His Wealth*

Unusual WillsWills can be funny things. They aren’t always as straightforward as they may seem, no matter how clearly the terms in them may be laid out. And sometimes, they include very strange provisions. Because wills sometimes involve a lot of money, they can be high-stakes, too. It’s only natural, when you think about it, that we’d hear a lot about wills in crime fiction. And sometimes, they involve some unusual situations. Here are just a few examples. I know you’ll think of a lot more than I ever could.

In Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, Colonel John Herncastle bequeaths a large yellow diamond called the Moonstone to his niece, Rachel Verinder, to be given to her on her eighteenth birthday. On the surface, you might think this a very generous gift, and as far as monetary value goes, it is. However, things aren’t exactly what they seem. Herncastle stole the Moonstone from a palace in India, and the story goes that anyone who removes the diamond from its rightful place is cursed. So one possibility is that Herncastle’s bequest is actually a curse on the Verinder family. That’s not so outrageous, considering the bad relations between Herncastle and his sister, Lady Julia Verinder. Certainly trouble comes to the Verinder family after the Moonstone is given to Rachel. For one thing, there are groups of people in India who want the stone back and will do anything to get it. Then, on the night Rachel gets the stone, it’s stolen from her room.  Later, the second housemaid (who has troubles of her own) commits suicide. As it turns out, this bequest causes a great deal of trouble, even for those who don’t believe in the curse.

Agatha Christie referred to wills an awful lot in her work. For example, in the short story Manx Gold, Fenella Mylecharane and Juan Faraker learn that Fenella’s eccentric Uncle Myles has passed away, and they travel to the Isle of Man to hear the reading of his will. According to the will, there is buried treasure on the island, and Uncle Myles has arranged a sort of game to determine who will inherit it. Fenella and Juan are hoping they’ll win; they’re a young, engaged couple who could use the money to start their lives. But they are not the only contestants. There are other would-be heirs who want the treasure just as badly. One morning, each contestant is given the first clue and the race is on. When murder strikes, it’s clear that, for at least one person, this is not a game. I see you, fans of After the Funeral and of The Case of the Missing Will. And of Sad Cypress. See what I mean?

Dorothy Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellonna Club also involves an interesting sort of a will.  In that novel, Lord Peter Wimsey investigates two deaths. One is the death of General Fentiman, a fellow member of his club. The other is the death of Fentiman’s wealthy sister Lady Dormer. According to Lady Dormer’s will, if she dies before her brother does, her fortune passes to Fentiman’s grandson. If her brother predeceases her, then the fortune goes to her distant cousin Ann Dorland. So in this case, the timing of the two deaths is of great importance. When it’s discovered that General Fentiman was poisoned, it’s clear that someone has a very personal stake in which sibling dies first.

Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth also features an odd sort of a will. Queen and his friend Beau Rummell have recently opened up a PI agency. One of their first clients is wealthy and eccentric Cadmus Cole. He’s spent most of his adult life at sea, and has had little contact with anyone in his family. Now he wants to trace any living relatives and make arrangements for the disposition of his fortune. Queen and Rummell take the case, and soon track down two potential heirs. One is aspiring actor Kerrie Shawn, who’s scraping by getting whatever bit parts and ‘extra’ roles she can. Getting a start in Hollywood is proving difficult for her. The other heir is Margo Cole, who’s mostly lived in Paris. When word comes that Cadmus Cole has died, his will is made public. His two heirs will divide his fortune under the condition that they share his home on the Hudson for a year. Kerrie and Margo both agree to the terms, and duly arrive at the house. Not long afterwards, Margo is shot, and Kerrie becomes the prime suspect. Rummell is infatuated with her, and wants to clear her name. And, as it turns out, there are other possible explanations for Margo’s murder…

Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine introduces readers to the Lawson family. Carey Lawson is both wealthy and beloved in her village of Forbes Abbot. When she dies, her will stipulates that her home and fortune are to pass to her nephew Mallory Lawson and his wife, Kate. A generous share of the money is also to go to Mallory and Kate’s daughter Polly when she turns twenty-one. There is also a stipulation in the will that requires the Lawsons to provide a permanent home on the property to Benny Frayle, who was Carey Lawson’s companion. The Lawsons are only too willing to do that, since they like Benny. Besides, this inheritance is a dream come true to them, as they’ve wanted startup money to launch their own publishing company. It’s not spoiling the story to say that Carey Lawson’s death is not suspicious. But before long, it’s clear that something untoward is going on. The Lawsons’ financial advisor Dennis Brinkley is killed in what looks like a terrible accident. But Benny, who was a friend to Brinkley, is sure that he was murdered. She tries to get DCI Tom Barnaby to investigate, but he sees no reason to question the original findings. The police who investigated did their jobs professionally. When there’s another death, though, things change. Now Barnaby and his assistant Gavin Troy look more deeply into the goings-on in Forbes Abbot, and find more than they bargained for, as the saying goes.

Sometimes, even wills that seem to be quite clear aren’t. For instance, in R.J. Harlick’s Death’s Golden Whisper, we meet Meg Harris. She’s recovering from a disastrous marriage, and has moved away from Toronto to Three Deer Point, the home she inherited from her Aunt Agatha. This house is located in rural Western Québec. At first, the change is welcome, as Meg starts to put her life back together. But then, a large company, CanacGold, learns that there may be gold on Whisper Island, which lies near Three Deer Point. The company wants to mine the island and if there is gold, to lay claim to it. This has divided the local Miskigan community, with some wanting that development, and others opposing it. MIskigan Band Chief Eric Odjik knows that Meg doesn’t want the company mining the island. So he is hoping she’ll agree to help resolve the issue. If Whisper Island is actually part of Three Deer Point, then it belongs to Meg, and she has the right to keep the company off the island. If not, then it’s likely the company could come in. So one plot thread of this novel concerns the effort to try to find out exactly what Meg has inherited. The other concerns a case of murder that turns out to be linked to the dispute over Whisper Island, and to her own past.

Of course, not all wills are that difficult to sort out, or that dangerous. But they are interesting. And they’re woven throughout the genre.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Wesley Harding’s Miss Fortune.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, R.J. Harlick, Wilkie Collins