They Think Me Macbeth, and Ambition is My Folly*

More then 400 years after its first known production, Shakespeare’s Macbeth still plays an important role in theatre, literature, and in Western culture. There are, of course, many books, commentaries, and other pieces of writing that reflect on the play and its significance.

And it shouldn’t be surprising that Macbeth (we’re not in a theatre, so I can use the play’s proper name) also shows up in crime fiction. It is, after all, a play about a crime, among other things. And it shows how that crime impacts the people who are mixed up in it.

Fans of Agatha Christie will know that she was a fan of Shakespeare’s work, and that includes Macbeth. In Hallowe’en Party, for instance, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a young girl who had boasted that she saw a murder. Only hours after she made her claim, someone drowned her in the apple-bobbing bucket at a Hallowe’en party. As Poirot gets to know the people in the village of Woodleigh Common, where the victim lived, he also learns the history of the place, and the history of some of the characters’ interactions. And that leads him to some important clues about the murder. At one point, he compares one of the characters to Lady Macbeth, saying,
 

‘‘I have always wondered…exactly what sort of woman Lady Macbeth was. What would she be like if you met her in real life?’’
 

Poirot is not a fanciful person; it’s just that that Lady Macbeth is a strong and well-developed character who’s not easy to forget. There’s also, of course By the Pricking of My Thumbs, which takes its title from a line in the play.

Ngaio Marsh’s last Inspector Alleyn novel, Light Thickens, features Macbeth, a play that Marsh directed more than once. In the story, Sir Dougal Macdougal is set to play the lead in a production of the Scottish Play, to be held at London’s Dolphin Theatre. As theatre fans will know, this is considered an unlucky play, and there are people who won’t produce or act in it. But Peregrine Jay, who owns the Dolphin, wants to go ahead with it. Some odd things happen (missing equipment, for instance), but all of the rehearsals go well, and cast is ready for opening night. Six weeks into the play’s run, Macdougal is murdered on stage. Inspector Alleyn investigates, looking into the victim’s relationships with fellow cast members, as well as his personal life. And in the end, he finds out who the killer is, and how this murder is related to the other strange events at the theatre.

James Yaffe wrote a short series featuring Dave, an investigator for the Mesa Grande, Colorado, Public Defender’s Office. He does his job well, but the real sleuth in the series is his mother, who’s moved from their native New York City to Mesa Grande. In Mom Doth Murder Sleep, the local amateur theatre group decides on a production of Macbeth, with Martin Osborn set to take the lead role. Sally Michaels has the role of Lady Macbeth. Dave’s friend and co-worker, Roger Meyer, is also in the cast. On opening night, Osborn is stabbed onstage, and Sally is the most likely suspect. In fact, she is arrested and charged with the crime. When Dave finds out about the case from Roger, he sees no reason to doubt that Sally is the killer. But his mother sees things differently and persuades him to look into the case more deeply. When he does, Dave finds that more than one person had very good reason to want to kill Martin Osborn.

There’s also Simon Brett’s What Bloody Man is That? (Oh, come on! Could I resist the chance to add a Charles Paris mystery with a topic like this?). In that novel, Paris is ‘resting between roles’ when his agent calls to tell him he’s gotten a ‘play as cast’ contract. The production is Macbeth, and the location is the Pintero Theatre, Warminster. ‘Play as cast’ roles are notorious for being time-consuming and difficult, but Paris doesn’t have much choice. So, he accepts the contract and work on the play begins. The role of Duncan has been given to the legendary Warnock Belvedere. He’s gifted on the stage, but in real life, is arrogant, egotistical, sexist and high-handed. So, as you can imagine, he manages to alienate just about everyone in the cast and crew. There are other hurdles, too, with this production, but little by little, the cast and crew get ready. One day, rehearsal goes especially badly, and everyone decides to drown their sorrows. Paris has quite a lot more to drink than is judicious, so he lurches back to his dressing room to try to get some rest. He sees Belvedere, who’s also had quite a bit to drink. Paris falls asleep and wakes up at three in the morning. He soon sees that he’s been locked in to the theatre. He also discovers that Belvedere has died. He calls the police, and they begin to investigate. Once they establish that Belvedere’s been murdered, Paris sees that he will be a suspect, since he was in the theatre all night, and can’t account for his actions. In order to clear his name, he decides to do a little investigating on his own – and to avoid the police as much as he can until he finds out the truth.

One of K.B. Owen’s protagonists is Concordia Wells. She is a teacher at Hartford Women’s College, in the last years of the 19th Century. And, although she doesn’t set out to be an investigator, she finds herself drawn into more than one murder. In Dangerous and Unseemly, for instance, she is supervising the school’s upcoming production of Macbeth, something she hadn’t planned to do, but has ended up doing by default, so to speak. While she’s busy with the details of the play, the college’s Bursar, Ruth Lyman, dies in an apparent case of suicide. It’s not, though, and it’s not the only bad thing happening at the school. Some malicious pranks, and even arson, also happen. Concordia knows that if someone doesn’t act, her school may have to close. So, she decides to find out the truth behind what’s been going on, even though criminal investigation is simply not ‘ladylike.’

See what I mean? Macbeth has been a part of our culture for a very long time and shows up in all sorts of different ways in crime fiction. Considering the play’s themes and plot, that isn’t surprising.

ps. Thank you, Royal Shakespeare Company, for this fabulous ‘photo of Christopher Eccleston as Macbeth! Their production will be on at Stratford-Upon-Avon until September, and then it moves to London.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lin-Manual Miranda’s Take a Break.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, James Yaffe, K.B. Owen, Ngaio Marsh, Simon Brett

This Warehouse Frightens Me*

Many companies use warehouses to store things until they are shipped or delivered. And, of course, there’s a big business in residential/individual storage too. That makes sense, as people look for a house, serve in the military, and so on. There’s even a US TV show about goods in storage, where people bid on the contents of different storage sheds.

If you think about it, warehouses and storage places can make for interesting additions to crime novels. They’re convenient for hiding contraband, weapons, bodies, and so on. And they can be awfully creepy, too. So, it makes sense that we’d see them in the genre.

For example, in Freeman Wills Crofts’ The Cask, the Bullfinch pulls in to the London docks from Rouen. When it arrives, the cargo is unloaded into the warehouse. Tom Broughton, who works for the Insular and Continental Steam Navigation Company, is sent to ensure that a valuable consignment of wine has arrived in good order. He checks the casks, and finds that one weighs more than the others, and that gets his attention right away. Soon enough, when he gets a foreman to open the questionable cask, he finds the body of a woman in it. Inspector Burnley of Scotland Yard investigates, and he works with his French friend and counterpart, M. Lefarge of the Sûreté, to find out who the woman was and who killed her.

Deborah Crombie’s In a Dark House begins with a fire in a warehouse in London’s Southwark area. Firefighters are called in and manage to control the blaze. In the ruins of the warehouse, they find the body of an unknown woman. The police, in the form of Superintendent Duncan Kincaid, are called in and begin to investigate. With help from his partner, Sergeant Gemma James, Kindcaid and his team discover that there are four missing persons reported whose descriptions match that of the woman in the warehouse. So, Kincaid, James, and the team work to find out if the dead woman is one of those people and, if so, which one. In the meantime, there’s the question of who set the warehouse fire – especially after it’s followed by other fires…

There’s a very eerie scene in a storage bunker in Tony Hillerman’s The Wailing Wind. In that novel, Navajo Tribal Police Officer Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Manuelito finds the body of a man slumped over in his car. At first it looks a case of a drunk curled up asleep, but soon enough, it’s clear that this man was murdered. Once it’s clear that this is a crime scene, Sergeant Jim Chee takes over the case, and he works with (now retired) Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn to find the truth. It turns out that this is linked to a five-year-old case that Leaphorn wasn’t able to solve – the first time…

Don Winslow’s The Dawn Patrol features San Diego PI Boone Daniels. He’s approached by Petra Hall, from the law firm Burke, Spitz, and Culliver, to take on a new case. The firm represents Coastal Insurance Company, which is currently facing a lawsuit. Daniel ‘Dan Silver’ Silvieri is suing Coastal for bad faith and damages in the matter of a warehouse he owns. The warehouse burned, and Silvieri applied to the insurance company to cover his losses. But the company suspects this is a case of arson, and won’t pay; hence, the lawsuit. Hall wants Daniels to find a stripper named Tamera Roddick, who was a witness to the fire. Her testimony will be important in this case, and she has gone missing. Daniels doesn’t want to take the case at first, but he is finally persuaded. Not long afterwards, a young woman dies from a fall (or a push) off the balcony of a cheap motel room. She’s got Tamera Roddick’s identification, so at first, Daniels and the police draw the obvious conclusion. But they are soon proved wrong. The dead woman is Tamera’s best friend, another stripper who calls herself Angela Hart. Now, Daniels is drawn into a case of murder, arson, and some very ugly things going on. And the warehouse plays a role in the story.

And then there’s Peter Temple’s Truth. That novel takes place as Melbourne faces a serious threat from bush fires, so everyone’s nerves are stretched. Against this backdrop, Inspector Stephen Villani has some very difficult cases to solve. One of them is the murder of three drug dealers whose mutilated bodies are discovered in an abandoned warehouse. Another is the case of an unidentified woman whose body is found in a posh apartment. As the novel goes on, Villani finds that there are several people, including some in his own department, who do not want the truth about these cases to come out.

There are plenty of other examples, too, of crime stories where storage places and warehouses play roles (right, fans of Ian Rankin’s Doors Open?). And it’s not hard to see why. They’re very seldom carefully watched, they offer space for…whatever, and they can be positively creepy. These are just a few examples, to show you what I mean. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dave Matthews’ Warehouse.

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Filed under Deborah Crombie, Don Winslow, Freeman Wills Crofts, Ian Rankin, Peter Temple, Tony Hillerman

Not Guilty

They were looking at me. They were making eye contact. Celia told me that’s a good sign. It means they see you as a person, and that was going to make it harder for them to convict me. And I could use all the good signs I could get.

I felt bad for Celia. She had to really work hard for me. I mean, I was drunk that night. A few of us from Delta Epsilon were at Patricio’s, where we used to drink when we were in school. It was no big deal, just an Alumni Weekend thing. I told them that, too, when I was on the stand. It didn’t look good that I had too much to drink, but Celia told me not to lie. And I didn’t. Lying is perjury. I may not be a lawyer, but I know that.

Now, the other lawyer was looking at me – the one for the prosecution. God, it was hard when he asked me questions. ‘Why were you in the alley?’ (I had too much to drink and I got sick, OK? Not proud of it, but that’s what happened). ‘The knife had your fingerprints on it. Can you explain why?’ (I was using it to eat my steak, that’s why).

The scary thing is, though, that there were things I couldn’t remember. Like the knife. We were all eating – I remember that – and I was using the knife to cut my steak. But what I didn’t know was why I had it in the alley. Maybe I just forgot I was holding it. That’s what Celia said might have happened. That’s how she spun it when she was questioning me.

They were all sitting and waiting. Soon, they would give their verdict. And honest to God, I didn’t know what it’d be. I don’t know if I would have found me not guilty if I were in the jury. There was a lot that was still so fuzzy that it must have looked like I was guilty. Right? I had the knife. I was in the alley.

I knew the guy, too. Paul was in some of my classes in school. He was always kind of an asshole, but I didn’t hate him. And so what if he was in some classes with me? So was Celia, and I didn’t go after her! The story was, Paul had raped a couple of women, but as far as I knew, he was never arrested. And he never tried anything with me. I didn’t even know he was in town for this alumni thing. Why would I kill him? And even if I did hate him, why would I wait until now to do something about it?  But that was his body in the alley. That was me with the knife, right? I had blood on my clothes, too. Celia told the jury it was because of me getting sick and then finding the body, but still. And I did know Paul.

The worst thing was that I just didn’t remember. It’s like there was cotton in my brain covering everything from the time I was eating until I was in the alley, looking at Paul’s body. That still made me nauseous. And it reminded me. It was still pretty hazy, but I’m fairly sure I was in the ladies’ room after I ate that night. Or maybe it was after I was in the alley. It was all so jumbled. Anyway, other people were there, too. Somebody said, ‘You’ll be OK,’ but I didn’t know who it was. It was a familiar voice, though.

Thank God for Celia. I remember her grabbing my arm and telling me, ‘Don’t say anything!’ when they put me in the police car. She was with me every step of the way after that night, too. She was the one who reminded me Paul was probably a rapist. I think she was trying to make me feel better. ‘Trust me,’ she said, ‘Any jury we get’s going to understand.’

But that’s the thing. Understand what? I honestly don’t remember killing Paul. I must have, but I have no memory of it. Celia said not to worry. ‘You’ll be OK,’ she told me.

The bailiff told us all to rise. The judge finally came in. In a few minutes, it would all be done, one way or another. The jury was asked if they’d reached a verdict. Yes, they had. Now I had to stand up again, and Celia stood up next to me. ‘You’ll be OK,’ she said, one last time.

The verdict was ‘Not Guilty.’ I looked at Celia and she looked at me. I was wobbly in the knees now, and I wanted to sit down. She hugged me hard and said, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here.’

The crush of people in the courtroom lobby made it hard for us to get through. I couldn’t breathe for a minute, but then we finally made it outside. I took a deep breath of fresh air. Clean air.

‘Celia?’
‘Mmm?’
‘Do you think I killed Paul?’
‘Doesn’t matter what I think. The court says you didn’t.’
‘But do you think I did?’
She glanced over at me. ‘Look,’ she said, ‘Trust me. I know. Whoever killed that bastard did the world a public service.’
‘Was it true about him?’
‘Was what true?’
‘About him being a rapist.’
Were those tears in her eyes? ‘Stop worrying about him. You’re off the hook and that’s what matters.’

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Now We Are Forced to Recognize Our Inhumanity*

My guess is, if it came down to it, we would all like to think we would be touched, as Abraham Lincoln put it, by the better angels of our nature. We’d like to think we wouldn’t yield to pure selfishness, or worse. And yet, as we know all too well, that’s not the way humans always are.

And that’s one of the interesting roles that crime fiction can play. Crime fiction shows us humans who make choices we would hope we wouldn’t make. But wouldn’t we? In some crime fiction, the reader is invited to think a little more deeply (e.g. ‘I wouldn’t do that…would I?’).  Those books can sometimes make us feel a little uncomfortable, because they show us sides of ourselves we might not want to see. At the same time, that’s part of what makes them memorable. There are certainly books that aren’t crime fiction that have the same effect. But, this is a crime-fictional blog, so….

There are several novels, for instance, in which readers are invited to ponder whether they might commit a murder under the circumstances laid out in the story. In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, Hercule Poirot is on the famous Orient Express train, en route to London. On the second night of the three-day journey, fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed. Poirot’s asked to find the killer, so that that person can be handed over to the authorities at the next border crossing. The only possible suspects are the other people in the same car, so Poirot has a limited pool. And, when he discovers the truth, we see that this is a murder that plenty of people might have committed in the same situation. We don’t want to think we’d kill, but there are times when we have to admit we might.

That point is also raised in John Grisham’s A Time to Kill. When ten-year-old Tonya Hailey is beaten, raped, and left for dead, her family is, understandably, devastated. Her father, Carl Lee, is especially impacted. The two men who are responsible are soon caught and jailed, but Hailey is not sure he and his family will get justice. They are black, while Tonya’s attackers are white, and this is small-town Mississippi. He is also infuriated, and wants to do what he can, however little it may be, to help his daughter. So, he gets a gun and lies in ambush as the two men accused of the attack are brought to the courthouse. There, he kills them and badly wounds a deputy sheriff who’s with them. Now he’s about to stand trial for a double murder. And, even though there’s a lot of local sympathy for him, he still needs an attorney and he has still killed two people and wounded a third. So, he asks attorney Jake Brigance to defend him, and Brigance agrees. It’s a tough case, though. We’d like to think we would let the law take its course, and I think we’d agree that vigilantism is wrong. But what if it were your daughter? I know, fans of William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw – there’s a similar sort of theme in that one, too.

It’s not just the taking of a life, either. In Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney goes to Chiang Mai to visit her friend, Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. During her visit, Didi’s partner, Nou, is murdered. Before long, the police settle on Didi as the suspect, and go to his home. During their visit, he, too, is killed. The police say that he resisted arrest and was so violent as to be a danger to them, so they had no choice but to kill him. But Keeney doesn’t believe that account. So, she starts asking questions. The trail leads to the Thai sex-trafficking and child-trafficking businesses. Those businesses are a lot more complex than they seem on the surface, and that’s one of the points in this novel. On the one hand, we deplore the idea of child trafficking, and with good reason. But, for many families, the only other option they see is starvation. If it comes down to a choice between having your child earn money in the sex trade, or you and your family dying of starvation, the answer to, ‘What would you do?’ isn’t perhaps quite so easy.

There’s also Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows. That novel takes place mostly within an ultra-exclusive housing development called Cascade Heights Country Club, about 30 miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthiest can afford to live there, and even they are carefully ‘vetted’ before being admitted. The people in the Heights, as the place is called, live in a safeguarded world, with a large wall to keep ‘others’ out, the finest houses, and so on. The novel takes place at the end of the 1990s/beginning of the 2000s, a time when Argentina’s economy begins to have serious problems. And those problems finally find their way into the Heights. Eventually, that leads to real tragedy. As we get to know the people in this development, we see the casual cruelty with which they treat anyone who’s not ‘one of us.’ And we see how hard they work to keep themselves away from ‘all of that.’ On the one hand, we might deplore that lack of compassion and unwillingness to see other people as equal humans. On the other, what if you had that much money, and that much stake in a very safe home for your children, the best education money can buy, and a comfortable life? The decision to give it up might not be so straightforward.

There are plenty of other crime fiction stories where characters do things we want to think we’d never do. But some of them invite to ask ourselves whether we really – no, really – wouldn’t do them. And those stories invite us to look at ourselves in new ways. They’re not always easy or comfortable, but they stay with us.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Summer, Highland Falls.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Claudia Piñeiro, John Grisham, William McIlvanney

In The Spotlight: Anne Perry’s The Face of a Stranger

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There’s something about Victorian London as a setting and context for a murder mystery. The atmosphere, the physical setting, and so on, have been popular with crime writers for generations. It’s little wonder, then, that Anne Perry chose that setting for her William Monk mysteries. Let’s take a closer look at that series and turn the spotlight on The Face of a Stranger, the first of the Monk mysteries.

Oh, and before I go further, I won’t be discussing Anne Perry’s own history. With your indulgence, I’ll be keeping the focus on the novel itself. Perhaps another time a discussion of authors’ own pasts might be an interesting topic for a blog post, but not this one.

As The Face of a Stranger begins, William Monk wakes up ion a hospital. It’s the early 1850’s so this hospital is not like today’s hospitals, with up-to-date care, antiseptic hygiene, and more. A hospital is a place where even sick people don’t want to go unless there is no choice, because of all of the cross-contamination, contagion, and lack of training.

Monk’s been in a terrible accident, and as a result, has lost his memory. He has no idea who he is, nor (at first) how he was hurt. What he does know is that he wants to get out of the hospital as soon as possible. When he gets a police visitor named Runcorn, he gets the first hint that he, too, is a police officer. And, as the days go by and he’s physically able to return to work, he begins to take up his duties again.

He’s put on a murder case that’s a few months old – the murder of a ‘blueblood’ called Joscelin Grey, who was bludgeoned to death in his own home. There’ve been few clues, and the going police theory is that it was a burglary gone wrong. But the family, the public, and the press want the killer brought to justice. After all, if not even a gentleman is safe, then no-one is.

Monk and his assistant, John Evan, get to work on the case. That means investigating the victim’s relationships, business dealings, and more. And it’s not long before Monk and Evan run into all sorts of obstacles. For one thing, the Grey family is of extremely high social standing. So, investigating any of them will be fraught with difficulty. Certainly, it would be as much as Monk’s career is worth to suggest that any of them might be involved.

There are other possibilities, though, and the two detectives look into them as well. It turns out that Grey seemed to have more money than his allowance from the family estate would suggest. What’s more, he’d been involved in some business dealings that had turned out disastrously. So, it could be that he’d borrowed money from some dangerous people and then couldn’t repay. Monk and Evans turn up some other leads, too.

In the meantime, Monk is trying desperately to remember anything he can about his own past, his involvement in this case before the accident, and his relationships with others. He does his best to keep others from knowing how little he remembers, but it’s getting more and more difficult. In time, though, and despite the frightening loss of memory, Monk and Evans get to the truth about Grey’s murder.

This novel takes place during the Crimean War (which, by the way, plays a role in the solution to the mystery). The Victorian Era is firmly in place, with its social conventions, rigid class barriers, and equally rigid gender roles. Monk and Evans visit some of the highest social circles (where they are treated as little better than tradespeople), and some very dangerous slums, where revealing themselves as police will mean being murdered instantly. Customs, language patterns, and more reflect Victorian London. So do place descriptions.

In several ways, this is a police procedural, although of course without today’s technology. So, readers follow along as Monk and Evans talk to witnesses, find and learn of clues, and so on. And we get to see how the police did their work in the days before there were telephones, let alone other modern communications. But, like today’s police, they face a great deal of pressure from the public and the press, who want proof that the police are doing their jobs.

Another element in the novel is Monk’s character. The story is told mostly from his point of view (third person, past tense). So, readers get a sense of what it’s like to have absolutely no memory of who one is, or even what one looks like. Monk wants desperately not to let anyone else know that he remembers nothing, and that, plus the amnesia itself, adds to the suspense of the story. In more than one place, he muses about the sort of person he must be, and he doesn’t like what he thinks he is.

The solution to the mystery – who killed Joscelin Grey and why – is sad, and knowing the truth doesn’t really make anyone happy. And this isn’t a case of a purely ‘bad’ person who committed a murder from what you might call an evil motive. It’s a more complex solution than that. Readers who are comfortable with moral ambiguity will appreciate that.

The Face of a Stranger is the story of the murder of a Victorian gentleman, and the context in which he lived. It’s distinctly set in London, and features a detective who’s trying to solve the mystery of his own identity even as he’s trying to solve a murder. But what’s your view? Have you read The Face of a Stranger? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 23 April/ Tuesday, 24 April – The Rules of Backyard Cricket – Jock Serong

Monday, 30 April/Tuesday 1 May – Finding Nouf  – Zoë Ferraris

Monday, 7 May/Tuesday, 8 May – Forty Acres – Dwayne Alexander Smith

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