It’s Only an Illusion*

In Agatha Christie’s short story, The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, a series of mysterious deaths is associated with the excavation of an important ancient tomb. More than one person believes that those deaths happened because there’s a curse on anyone who disturbs the tomb. Hercule Poirot looks into the matter, and finds a very prosaic explanation for the deaths. He himself doesn’t believe in spiritualism or ancient curses. But he does say this:
 

‘Once get it firmly established that a series of deaths are supernatural, and you might almost stab a man in broad daylight, and it would still be put down to the curse, so strongly is the instinct of the supernatural implanted in the human race.’
 

And he has a point. Millions of people believe in the supernatural, or at least want very badly to believe. And that makes them vulnerable to charlatans and cheats.

There are plenty of people out there, though, who make it their business to call out those charlatans. One of those was Harry Houdini, born Erich Weiss, whose 143rd birthday would have been today, as this is posted. Houdini was a skilled magician who knew all of the ‘tricks of the trade’ for getting people to believe they saw whatever he wanted them to believe they saw. But he knew it was all illusion – all deception. And he was determined that others wouldn’t prey on the vulnerable.

He’s not the only one, either, at least not in crime fiction. In Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit, for instance, we are introduced to Svetozar Vok. He’s a well-known and successful stage magician, who’s taken to unmasking fake mediums and spiritualists. So, he’s very interested in the proceedings when Frank and Irene Ogden, together with Frank’s business partner Luke Latham, decide to hold a séance. Their purpose is to contact Irene’s first husband, French émigré Grimaud Désanat. Irene is a medium, so it’s decided to hold the séance at the Ogden home, and invite several other people, including Vok. The séance is held, and is truly eerie. But shortly afterwards, Vok exposes Irene as a fake. Even so, there are things about the event that can’t be explained. Later that night, Irene is found dead. Does the death have a supernatural explanation? If not, then who among the group is the murderer?

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, we meet Dr. Suresh Jha, founder of the Delhi Institute for Research and Education (D.I.R.E.). A devotee of scientific research, he has dedicated himself to debunking spiritual charlatans and others who claim paranormal power. One morning, Jha attends a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club when an extraordinary event occurs. As witnesses later tell the police, the goddess Kali appears, and stabs Jha. Believes claim that she did so as a punishment for Jha’s infidelity and for his leading others away from worship. And, in fact, the death leads to a resurgence of interest in matters religious. But Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri isn’t sure this death is what it seems. He has spiritual beliefs of his own, but he doesn’t really believe in paranormal explanations for murder. Since Jha was once a client of his, Puri takes an interest in the case and begins asking questions. And he soon learns that more than one person had a good reason for wanting Jha dead.

There’s also Alan Russell’s The Fat Innkeeper. Am Coulfield is house detective at San Diego’s very upmarket Hotel California. He has enough on his hands when the hotel is bought by a Japanese firm. But then, disaster strikes. The hotel has been playing host to a Union of Near Death Experiences Retreat, and several New Age mentalists are present. Also staying at the hotel is Dr. Thomas Kingsbury, who’s made a career out of unmasking fraudulent mentalists. And he’s targeted some of the people who are at the retreat. So, when Kingsbury is poisoned, there are plenty of suspects for Coulfield to consider.

Donna Leon’s A Question of Belief sees Venice’s Commissario Guido Brunetti serve as a sort of debunker. His second-in-command, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello comes to him with a family problem. It seems that Vianello’s aunt, Zia Anita, has been withdrawing money from the family business and giving it to a man named Stefano Gorini. The money is hers to do with as she wishes, so she’s not stealing. But Vianello is concerned that Gorini is cheating her. So, he asks Brunetti to look into the matter. Brunetti agrees and starts doing a little research into Gorini. He finds that the man has been in trouble with the law before over matters of possible fraud. In fact, he lost his medical license. Now, it seems he’s back, once more taking money for what seem to be fake cures. And Brunetti will need to find a way to stop Gorini before more people are bilked.  

And then there’s Elly Griffiths’ Max Mephisto. He’s a magician who lives and works in the 1950’s UK. He may not be known all over the world, but he knows what he’s doing onstage. And those skills were important during WWII, when Mephisto was one of the Magic Men, a special-operations group that used their stage tricks to fool the enemy. Now that the war’s over, Mephisto is ‘on the circuit’ with circus performers, fortune tellers and the like. He works with a fellow former Magic Man, DI Edgar Stephens, and his expertise turns out to be very useful. Mephisto may not be specifically committed to unmasking charlatans. But he certainly knows that murders don’t happen by magic, and he helps to unwrap the layers of fakery, and get to the truth.

And that’s exactly what Houdini did. He’s no longer with us, but his brilliance on stage, and his commitment to keeping people from being hoodwinked, will be remembered. He’s also inspired generations of illusionists since his time.

 
 
 

The ‘photo is of two of those illusionists, Penn Jillette and his magic partner, Raymond Teller. Both are outstanding, world-class illusionists. And both are committed, as Houdini was, to uncovering fraud and charlatanism. In fact, in their shows, Jillette, the ‘voice of the duo,’ often tells members of the audience that the pair is going to use trickery to confuse them. He then reminds the audience that it’s all sleight-of-hand and other illusion. But it still works. Gentlemen, if you’re reading this, I’m sure Houdini would have been proud to be your colleague.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Uriah Heep’s Illusion.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Russell, Donna Leon, Elly Griffiths, Hake Talbot, Tarquin Hall

So Unusual ;-)

The more crime fiction there is out there, the more possibility there is for most unusual murder methods. After all, lots of different things can serve as weapons, can’t they? And if you think enough about it, you’ll be all ready for….

 

 

 

 

….a quiz!! Oh come on! It’s not as though you haven’t been warned that this blog is not safe! 😉

 

There are plenty of different ways to commit murder. And, as a dedicated crime fiction fan, you know all of the most unusual murder methods in the genre, don’t you? Or do you? Take this handy quiz and find out. Match each question to the correct answer, and see how many you get right.

 

Ready? Pet that crocodile to begin… if you dare!! 😉

 

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Living in a World of Make-Believe*

Have you ever known people who lived very much in what we sometimes call a world of their own? Sometimes, it seems as though people like that have lost touch with reality, even if they can function in the actual world.

In some cases, that disconnect is because of a mental health problem. In some cases, it has other bases. Either way, characters like that can add an interesting touch to a crime novel. Is the character really as ‘out of touch’ as it seems? Is the character hiding something sinister? Characters who live in a world of their own can add a particularly interesting layer to a psychological thriller, too, and there are a lot of examples of that. Here are just a few examples from thrillers and crime fiction to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, for instance, we are introduced to the Boynton family. They’re taking a tour of the Middle East – their first visit outside their home in America. Family matriarch Mrs. Boynton is unpleasant, malicious and controlling. In fact, she has her family so much under her control that no-one dares do anything without her approval. When she is murdered on the second day of the family’s trip to the ancient city of Petra, Hercule Poirot (who is in the area) investigates. He soon discovers that every member of the family had a good motive for murder. One of those members is seventeen-year-old Ginevra Boynton. Of all of the family, she’s the one who seems to be suffering most from her mother’s influence. She has a very tenuous connection with reality, and doesn’t always seem lucid. Yet, she is very sure of what she does believe. Without spoiling the story, I can also say that she is not as ‘out of touch’ as it seems.

In Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, Queen is staying in a rented house in the Hollywood Hills. He’s there for some peace and quiet – and some writing. Everything changes when nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill asks him for help. Her father, Leander Hill, has recently died of a heart attack, and Laurel is convinced that it was brought on deliberately. Queen’s reluctant to investigate at first. But Lauren tells him that, just before his death, her father received a series of macabre ‘gifts’ that she thinks were a message to him. What’s more, Hill’s business partner, Roger Priam, has also been receiving ‘gifts.’ The puzzle is irresistible for Queen, so he starts asking questions. And one of the people he meets is Priam’s stepson, Crowe ‘Mac’ McGowan. Mac doesn’t live with his mother and stepfather; rather, he lives in a tree. He wears as little as possible – frequently nothing at all. And, in the world he lives in, there’s about to be a nuclear blast, so everyone has to get ready for life after ‘The Bomb.’ He may seem eccentric – even mentally ill. But to Mac, the way he lives makes perfect sense.

As Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell introduces us to the Cosway family in The Minotaur. Swedish nurse Kerstin Kvist accepts a job with the Cosways who live in an old, Victorian home called Lydstep Old Hall. Her role will be to care for 39-year-old John Cosway, who is said to be schizophrenic. Soon after settling in, Kvist begins to see that this family is not a typical family (if there even is such a thing). For one thing, Mrs. Cosway, the family matriarch, insists that Kvist’s patient be kept under heavy sedation – something Kvist isn’t sure is necessary. For another, the entire family lives and behaves as though it’s still the Victorian Era. They seem to live in a world of their own in that sense. Kvist decides that she’ll have to take some action with regard to her patient. So, without informing anyone, she begins to withhold his medication. That decision has tragic consequences for several people. Throughout the novel, we see how the Cosways have their own, insular little world, quite apart from the real world. I know, fans of 13 Steps Down

So do the Blackwoods, whom we meet in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The story is narrated by eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ Blackwood, who very much lives in her own world, and seems quite out of touch with reality at times. For her, any little action can be an omen, and she has several rituals that make sense to her, but aren’t at all connected with reality. We soon find out that her sister, Constance, and her Uncle Julian, have their own psychological issues. All of them live in a rather isolated house near a small Vermont village. And it’s not long before we learn that a tragedy took place there six years earlier. As the story goes on, we find out what that tragedy was, and we learn some dark truths about the family and the village. One of the plot threads in the story is the disconnect between the members of the family and what most people would call reality.

And then there’s Teresa Solana’s A Shortcut to Paradise. In that novel, noted Catalán novelist Marina Dolç has just received the very prestigious Golden Apple Fiction Award. There’s a glittering event to celebrate the award, and, of course, Dolç attends. After the event, she returns to her hotel room, where she is brutally murdered. Her top rival, Amadeu Cabestany, is the most likely suspect. In fact, he’s arrested for the crime. But he says he’s innocent. Barcelona PIs Eduard and Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez, get involved in the investigation when Borja claims they’ve been hired to find the killer. As they look for the real murderer, they find that more than one person could have wanted the victim dead. And when they get to the truth, we learn that Dolç was killed because someone lived in a separate world, so to speak, not very connected with reality.

Sometimes living in a world of one’s own can bring on real surges of creativity. Ask any writer and you’ll find that imagination plays a big role in writing. But sometimes, the price of not being connected with the real world is very high…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan O’Day’s Angie Baby.

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An Evolving Mystery*

You may or may not be aware of this, but the world of crime fiction lost a very influential and talented member today with the passing of Colin Dexter. Whether you’re a fan of his work or not, it’s hard to deny the impact that his stories have had on the genre.

Dexter’s work is interesting on several levels, and one post couldn’t really do it justice. But here are just a few things that (at least to me) have made his work such an important part of crime fiction.

We first met Dexter’s sleuth, Inspector Morse, in 1975’s Last Bus to Woodstock. So, both chronologically and in other ways, Dexter’s work arguably bridges the gap between the end of the Golden Age of crime fiction (Agatha Christie, for instance, ended her writing career in the early 1970s) and the coming of the modern era of crime fiction. And we see that in several aspects of Dexter’s writing.

In novels such as The Way Through the Woods, The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, and Death is Now My Neighbour, Dexter created complex, traditional mystery plots. Many of them are, in that sense, reminiscent of the whodunits of the Golden Age. Finding the killer is a matter of checking alibis, looking at the clues, and so on. But, like some of the Golden Age writers, Dexter included plot twists such as issues of identification, words (mis)heard, and so on.

In those senses, one could easily argue that Dexter’s work resembles the Golden Age that came before him. But there are also many elements that we see in more modern crime fiction. The psychology of family dysfunction, for instance, plays an important part in The Remorseful Day; and we arguably see more of a focus on that aspect than on, say, the whodunit sort of plot that we see in some older mysteries. There are other ways, too, in which this series reflects more contemporary approaches to telling a crime story.

Inspector Morse is, as fans will know, a member of the Thames Valley Police. So, among other things, we get a look at UK police procedure at the time. There were certainly police sleuths before Morse. But this series offers an interesting look at the evolution of the police procedural. In many (certainly not all!) earlier novels featuring police, we don’t see a lot of the coppers’ home lives – certainly they don’t form story arcs. Just to offer an example, we know, for instance, that Dorothy Sayers’ Inspector Parker is married to Lord Peter Wimsey’s sister, Mary. And there are some home-based conversations that include them. But there aren’t really the sort of ‘domestic life’ story arcs that we often see in today’s police procedural.

We see the glimmerings of those arcs in some of Dexter’s novels. For instance, fans will know that Dexter has more than one relationship in his life, although he doesn’t marry. He has medical problems in a few of the novels, too (The Wench is Dead and The Remorseful Day come to mind). These sub-plots and story arcs aren’t the central focus of Dexter’s novels, but they do show him as a fully fleshed-out character (more on that shortly). Sergeant Lewis, too, has a home life, and we hear about that from time to time. Again, though, it’s not the main focus of the novels.

You might easily argue that there are other police procedurals of the time (for instance, Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe novels and Ruth Rendell’s Reg Wexford novels) that also made a real impact on the genre. And you’d be right. They did. Work such as Hill’s, Rendell’s, and Dexter’s set the stage for, among other series, Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series, Peter May’s Superintendent Roy Grace series, and Ann Cleeves’ DI Vera Stanhope series.

So why does Dexter’s series really stand out? Another element is arguably Morse’s character. He’s complicated, sometimes moody, and at times short-tempered, especially with what he sees as ineptitude. He likes his pint (frequently having more liquid than solid at meals). And he doesn’t always play by the proverbial rules, either in terms of tact or in terms of policy. He’s blind to his own health problems, too. Still, he’s not a stereotypical ‘demon-haunted detective.’ He knows the value of proper procedure, and he isn’t a maverick sort of loner, who breaks every rule and doesn’t care. He can be quite compassionate in his way, too. He is, in other words, a complex human being, as we all are. And he’s unique.

Morse is also a brilliant detective. Dexter didn’t make the mistake of allowing Morse to always be right. In fact, he blunders more than once as he investigates. But he gets to the solution of some very difficult puzzles.

If the series were only about Morse, it might still be well-regarded. But Dexter also created Sergeant George Lewis (his first name was changed to Robbie for the television series). Lewis is by no means an awed onlooker in these novels. Yes, Morse is his boss. But Lewis is bright, thoughtful, and a skilled detective in his own right. Sometimes he sees things more clearly than Morse does, and he is better with certain aspects of investigation. They’re different sorts of people, though, and the dynamic between them is arguably another element that makes this series distinctive.

And then, of course, there’s the Oxford-area setting. Fans of the series will know that Dexter depicts the area vividly. There’s the ‘town/gown’ dynamic, the challenges of living in a large modern city (don’t get Morse started on traffic and parking), and the unique history of the place.

There’s also the very well-regarded television series (and spinoffs) that came from and with the novels. You’ll probably know that Dexter had a great deal to do with the writing and production of the original Inspector Morse show. That’s arguably part of why, for many people, John Thaw was Inspector Morse, and Kevin Whately is Lewis. In fact, the show and the series were so closely integrated that Dexter’s The Jewel That Was Ours is actually an adaptation of an Inspector Morse episode called The Wolvercote Tongue.

No matter what you think of Dexter’s work, of Morse, or of the television series (if you’ve seen it), it’s hard to deny the impact of these novels and their author. Dexter will be much missed.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Barrington Pheluong.

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In The Spotlight: Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Shirley Jackson is highly regarded for her suspense novels and short stories. What’s perhaps most remarkable about them is that they build tension and even horror without a lot of obvious violence. It’s about time this feature included her work, so let’s do that today and turn the spotlight on her last novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

The novel is told in first person from the point of view of eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ Blackwood, who lives with her older sister, Constance, and their Uncle Julian, on a Vermont estate. As the story begins, Mary Katherine is going into the nearby village to buy food and other supplies. Right from the beginning, it’s obvious that something is very wrong. For one thing, it’s clear that she is not welcome in the village. In fact, she goes to great effort to avoid seeing people. Several people are unkind to her, and it’s apparent that no-one wants her in town more than absolutely necessary.

When Mary Katherine gets home, we meet Constance. Now it’s even clearer that something is terribly wrong in the family. Constance is afraid to leave the house, and will not speak to anyone other than her sister and her uncle. She’s the one who does the cooking, a lot of the cleaning, and so on. She also takes care of Uncle Julian, who’s elderly and in bad health.

The family is quite isolated, as much socially as anything else. And we can see in their interactions that something is very much ‘not right’ (more on that shortly). Little by little, we learn about the tragedy that isolated them six years earlier. It seems that three other members of the family were poisoned. There was no conviction, but the people of the village are convinced that one of the Blackwoods is a murderer. So it’s little wonder that the villagers want little to do with them. Still, Mary Katherine, Constance, and Uncle Julian have managed to make a life for themselves. Then, the outside world comes in. Charles Blackwood, a cousin to Mary Katherine and Constance, pays a visit. His visit touches off a series of events that ends in another tragedy.

This isn’t a traditional sort of mystery novel, where there’s a murder, the police investigate, and the killer is caught (or at least, we find out who the killer is). Rather, it’s a novel of psychological suspense, where we learn what happened through conversations that the Blackwood family members have. We also see the tragedies as filtered through Mary Katherine’s mind. This approach to telling the story means that the truth of what really happened is revealed slowly, and relies on the reader making the connections.

The members of the Blackwood family are all impacted severely by what happened. Along with the fact that they’ve been isolated, they’ve got their own psychological issues. Mary Katherine, for instance, has a number of rituals about nearly everything. And small things, such as whether she sees anyone, become omens for her.

Constance doesn’t leave the house. She’s a compulsive cleaner and homemaker, and refuses to see or speak to anyone but Mary Katherine or Uncle Julian. Although she’s older than her sister, it’s really Mary Katherine who tries to take care of Constance. She, Mary Katherine, leaves the house when it’s necessary, interacts with others, and so on.

Uncle Julian has his own psychological issues. He’s writing a book about the tragedy in the family, and is continually going over notes, reviewing chapters, and so on. And yet, even as he works on his project, he wavers between lucidity and what might be called a form of dementia.

Because of the psychological issues this family has, the reader must peel back the layers of what the members say and sometimes do to get to the truth about what happened six years earlier. In that sense, what is not said is almost as important as what the characters do say.

But the novel isn’t just about the Blackwoods. It’s also a portrait of an insular village with its own views of what happened. The villagers are not above insults, bullying, and shunning. And yet, there are also moments when some of them do try to reach out to the family. On the one hand, it’s unsettling to the other people in the town to have a possible murderer nearby. On the other, they’ve made life nearly impossible for the Blackwoods. This conflict adds a great deal of tension to the story, and it’s part of the reason for which Mary Katherine is fixated on making the family home – their castle – as safe from outsiders as possible. And the conflict spirals as the novel goes on. That, too, adds to the tension and suspense.

Because the novel is told from Mary Katherine’s perspective, the story sometimes shifts back and forth in time, as our thinking sometimes does. So, it’s not really a chronological, linear sort of novel. Readers who prefer a story that starts at the beginning and follows a sequential progression of events will notice this. That said, though, it’s clear (at least to me) what is happening in the present time, what is a memory, and what is simply a general thought.

The novel isn’t long (my edition clocked in at 214 pages), and Jackson is sparing in telling about exactly what happened six years ago. So, the reader is invited to ‘fill in the blanks.’ I usually try to avoid making comparisons when I analyze books, as each story is unique. But in this sense, the story is similar to some of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Hints are given, layers are peeled away, and gradually the reader is told the truth, without violence, but with psychological unease.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the story of a very dysfunctional family with a very dark history. It takes place in a closed-in sort of village, and tells the story of tragedies that could have been averted (or, could they?). But what’s your view? Have you read We Have Always Lived in the Castle? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 27 March/Tuesday, 28 March – Death of an Old Goat – Robert Barnard

Monday, 3 April/Tuesday, 4 April – Peepshow – Leigh Redhead

Monday, 10 April/Tuesday, 11 April – Something in the Air – John Alexander Graham

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