To Me He’s a Fabulous Character*

As you’ll know, as this is posted, it would have been Agatha Christie’s 127th birthday. And, if you’ve been kind enough to visit this blog even a few times, you’ll have guessed that I’m very much a fan of her work. That doesn’t mean I’m blind (I hope!) to the fact that not all of her work is truly excellent, shall we say. But taken as a whole, Christie’s body of work merits its place, I think, on the list of top crime fiction.

Christie isn’t always noted for strong character development. And it’s true that, in some of her work, the plot outshines the characters. But she did create some memorable characters, too. Several of them have stayed with me over the years, and I’ll bet you have your own list, too. Here are just a few on my list (in no particular order).

Lucy Eyelesbarrow

We meet Lucy in 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw). She’s a professional housekeeper who is so good at her job that she’s very much in demand. She sets her own schedule and dictates the terms under which she’ll work. That’s how skilled and in-demand she is. And in this novel, she helps Miss Marple solve a baffling murder and find a missing body. She’s quite independent, and doesn’t get her sense of identity from a relationship, or even her profession, really. That doesn’t mean she’s averse to falling in love. But she doesn’t let that side of her life define her. And Christie added enough layers to her character to make her interesting.

Mr. Satterthwaite

Mr. Satterthwaite appears in more than one of Christie’s stories (e.g. Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts) and the short story collection The Mysterious Mr. Quin). A bit of a social snob, Mr. Satterthwaite enjoys parties and other affairs where ‘the best people’ meet. He himself isn’t of noble birth, but he’s always on the ‘also attending’ list for such events. Through his eyes, we see the other characters in the story, and this gives them more depth. Mr. Sattherthwaite may prefer the company of the crème de la crème, but he’s not autocratic. He’s approachable – even friendly – and doesn’t intimidate or alienate household staff who might have valuable information to share. He’s a bit old-fashioned in his outlook on life, but he also knows that times must change. Christie tells us enough about him to make him human, but there’s enough mystery to make him interesting, too.

Honoria Bulstrode

Miss Bulstrode is the headmistress of Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school that features in Cat Among the Pigeons. She and her partner, Miss Chadwick, founded the school, and it’s become the place to send one’s daughter if she’s accepted. Miss Bulstrode is both shrewd and intelligent, and has a solid understanding of human nature. But even she’s put to the test when the school’s new games mistress is murdered. Then, there’s a kidnapping. And another murder. Now, parents are scrambling to remove their daughters, and the school faces a very uncertain future. Hercule Poirot is drawn into the mystery, and he works with Miss Bulstrode and the police to find the killer. But even the – er – confident Poirot depends on Miss Bulstrode’s knowledge, grit, and tact to solve the case. Miss Bulstrode has compassion and a lot of understanding, but at the same time, she is a force to be reckoned with; she’s a strong character.

Dr. James Sheppard

Dr. Sheppard is the narrator of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. He’s the local GP for the village of Kings Abbot, and knows just about everybody in the area. So, when Sheppard’s friend, Roger Ackroyd, is murdered, he naturally gets involved. Hercule Poirot has taken the house next door to Sheppard’s, and he’s drawn into the case when the victim’s niece, Flora, asks him to clear her fiancé’s name. Poirot sees that Sheppard knows everyone, and can give him useful background on the village. So, he cultivates a relationship with Sheppard, and invites him to be a part of the investigation. Sheppard is smart, and he’s fairly good at ‘reading’ people. And, since he tells the story, we do learn about him. He’s an interesting character, and has stayed with me.

Jane Wilkinson

We ‘meet’ Jane Wilkinson in Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner). She’s a famous American actress who’s married to the 4th Baron Edgware. But she wants a divorce, so that she can marry the Duke of Merton. So, she enlists Hercule Poirot’s help. She tells Poirot that her husband won’t grant her a divorce, and asks him to persuade Lord Edgware to change his mind. Poirot isn’t happy about the idea, but he agrees to at least visit the man. He and Captain Hastings are in for a surprise, though. Lord Edgware says he’s withdrawn his objection, and has already let his wife know that. Then, that night, Edgware is stabbed. Jane is, naturally, the prime suspect. But she says she was at a dinner party in another part of London at the time, and twelve people are ready to swear that she was there. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have to look elsewhere for the murderer. Throughout the novel, we get to know Jane. On the one hand, she’s utterly self-absorbed. On the other, she’s remarkably shrewd in her way. At the same time as she can’t tell the difference between ‘AM’ and ‘PM,’ she’s quite skilled at what she does, and has her own kind of intelligence.

Dr. John Christow

Christow’s a Harley Street specialist who is passionate about finding a cure for Ridgeway’s Disease. He’s also married to Gerda, and the father of Terry and Zena. Although he’s dedicated to his profession, he’s not at all perfect; in fact, he’s strayed more than once. And he’s had a long-term relationship with a sculptor, Henrietta Savernake. But he is,
 

‘…so vital, so alive…’
 

He’s self-absorbed in his way, but he’s generous, friendly, and provides well for his family. And he’s fully aware that he has his faults. In fact, when he meets up with an old flame, he tells her he’s,
 

‘A man you don’t even know – and whom I daresay you wouldn’t like much if you did.’
 

When Christow is shot one Sunday afternoon, Hercule Poirot is drawn into the investigation, and he works with Inspector Grange to find the killer. Christow may be the victim in this novel, but he’s a layered, interesting character.

And that’s the thing about Agatha Christie. It’s true that she’s perhaps much better known for her plots than for her characters. But she created several that have stayed with me. Which have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bennie Benjamin and Sol Marcus’ Fabulous Character.

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Traveling in the World of My Creation*

As this is posted, yesterday would have been Roald Dahl’s 101st birthday. As you’ll know, Dahl was famous for his children’s books (e.g. James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, among many others). It’s a tribute to his talent that his children’s books are still popular several decades after they were written.

But Dahl didn’t just write children’s books. He also wrote other sorts of stories, and that versatility arguably shows just how talented a writer he was. One of the genres in which he wrote is crime fiction. In fact, he wrote a collection of short stories, Tales of the Unexpected, which includes several crime stories.

In one of them, The Landlady, we are introduced to Billy Weaver. He’s just arrived in Bath to start a new job, and is on his way to the Bell and Dragon to try to get a room. He happens to notice an inviting-looking B&B as he’s walking along; and, on impulse, goes there instead. That choice has drastic consequences for him. If you don’t know the story, you can read it for yourself right here.

Also included in this collection is Lamb to the Slaughter. In that story, police officer Patrick Maloney comes home one evening and gives his wife, Mary, some shocking news. Not very long afterwards, he is killed. Mary alerts the police, who come immediately. They’re determined to find the culprit; after all, Maloney was ‘one of them.’ The only problem is, they can’t find the murder weapon. So, they can’t connect the crime with the criminal. If the story’s new to you, or you haven’t read it lately, you can read it right here.

Dahl included other crime and crime-related stories in this collection, too, such as The Man From the South (which you may find familiar, as it was adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents) and The Way Up to Heaven. A year later, Dahl’s More Tales of the Unexpected was published. Again, there are some crime and crime-related stories among them.

Dahl is, of course, not the only children’s author to also write crime fiction. As you’ll know, J.K. Rowling first achieved fame and success with her novels featuring Harry Potter. Since 2013, she’s been writing a crime series featuring London PI Cormoran Strike. So far (to my knowledge), there’ve been three Cormoran Strike novels: The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm, and Career of Evil. The date of publication for the fourth, Lethal White, hasn’t been confirmed. The Strike novels are quite different to the Harry Potter series, and show Rowling/Galbraith’s versatility.

Another author who made the move from children’s books to crime fiction is Eoin Colfer. As an author of children’s books, he is famous for, among other things, the Artemis Fowl series. This 8-novel series features Artemis Fowl, who is a teenage criminal mastermind. It’s billed as a science fantasy series – what Colfer himself has called, ‘Die Hard with fairies.’ Colfer’s also written crime fiction for adults. He’s got a (so far) 2-novel series (Plugged and Screwed), featuring Irish ex-pat Daniel McEvoy. He’s a former member of the military, who now works as a bouncer at Slotz, a seedy, dirty, bar/casino in the fictitious town of Cloisters, New Jersey. The novels are suspenseful and sometimes gritty. But they also have a lot of dark wit in them. Although I don’t usually go for comparisons, these novels have been compared to the work of Elmore Leonard, so you can get an idea of both the grit and the wit. And, by the way, Leonard’s mentioned in Screwed.

Of course, it can work the other way, too. You’ll most likely be familiar with Adrian McKinty’s name from his Sean Duffy novels. Duffy is a Catholic member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) during the worst of the Troubles. This series was actually only supposed to be a trilogy, but has been expanded to six books, the most recent of which is Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly.  But, did you know that he’s also written a YA trilogy? Called the Lighthouse Trilogy, it features 13-year-old Jamie O’Neill. These novels are billed as YA science fiction, and take place in Ireland, the US, and the fictional planet, Altair.

When you think of spy stories, you probably include Ian Fleming’s James Bond series among them. Bond is, of course, the dapper British agent who’s always equipped with all sorts of useful gadgets. He moves in the highest circles, and has all sorts of handy skills. And there are the women… Bond’s been brought to life on the screen many times, by a variety of actors. But Bond wasn’t Fleming’s only creation. He also wrote the children’s book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car for his son. In the book, the Potts family goes on all sorts of adventures with their car that looks like a wreck at first, but can actually fly and swim. The book was adapted for film in 1968 – in part by Roald Dahl!

We don’t always think of children’s literature and crime fiction as being written by the same people. But sometimes, they are. And one such author, Roald Dahl, left an indelible impression in both genres. He is missed.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s Pure Imagination.

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All Aboard, Get On Board*

I’m excited and very privileged that writer and fellow blogger Benjamin Thomas, who blogs at The Writing Train, has invited me aboard! Not only is Benjamin a writer and blogger, he’s also one of the hard-working people who are responsible for the annual online Mystery Thriller Week, which will come your way in February. Hop on board yourself and pay me at visit at The Writing Train, where I’ll be talking about writing, about what makes a great mystery, about crime fiction, and a few other things, too.

As you’ll be there anyway, you’ll want to have a look around the blog. It’s a terrific resource for all things writing. Thanks, Benjamin, for the luxury ride.

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Housemartins’ People Get Ready.

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When They’ve Been Used So Ill*

A really interesting conversation with crime writer and fellow blogger Angela Savage has got me thinking about what’s sometimes called sexually transmitted debt. By that, I mean becoming responsible for a spouse or partner’s debt after being convinced (sometimes misled) into taking on new debt or financial risks without necessarily being aware of it at first. Some sexually transmitted debt involves a partner agreeing to share (or assume) the responsibility for a debt. It can work in other ways, too.

Whichever way it works, it can leave a person in a great deal of financial trouble. And, in crime fiction, it can add to plot lines, character development, tension, and more. Here are just a few examples; I’ll bet you’ll be able to think of more.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds, we are introduced to Lord Stephen Horbury. He fell in love with a chorus girl named Cicely Bland, and married her without really getting to know her. The fact is, though, that Cicely has a fondness for gambling. She’s not averse to using cocaine, either. All of this has meant that she owes a lot of money. At first, her husband paid her debts, mostly for the sake of the family name.  But Cicely’s debts keep mounting. So, she borrows money from a French moneylender named Madame Giselle. Then, when she’s not able to pay what she owes, Madame Giselle threatens to reveal certain information that she has. Cicely is frantic, but this time, her husband is no longer willing to assume her debt. He even makes a public announcement that he will no longer be responsible for anything she owes. It all puts Cicely in a very difficult position, especially when Madame Giselle is murdered during an airline flight. Cicely is also on the flight, and becomes one of the suspects. Hercule Poirot, who was also a passenger, works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who actually killed the victim.

In Carolina Garcia-Aguilera’s Bloody Waters, we are introduced to Miami PI Guadalupe ‘Lupe’ Solano. Jose Antonio and Lucia Moreno hire Solano to find the birth mother of their adopted daughter, Michelle, who is very ill. Doctors say that she needs a bone marrow transplant, and that only her biological mother can serve as her donor. Solano takes the case and finds out everything she can about the circumstances of Michelle’s birth and adoption. Along this way, she meets Barbara Perez, whose partner, Alberto Cruz, is mixed up in illegal businesses. Barbara knows what he’s doing, but there really isn’t much of a way out for her, mostly because she’s got children. Later in the novel, she gets herself (and Solano) into real danger because of the work her partner was doing, and the money from it that he was supposed to have hidden away. This isn’t, strictly speaking, a case of debt that’s transmitted. But it is an interesting case of being mixed up in a partner’s criminal activity, and risking a heavy price for that.

Peg Brantley’s Red Tide introduces readers to Jackie ‘Jax’ Sussman, medical examiner for Aspen Falls, Colorado. Her husband, Phil, is a philanderer with a gambling problem and other ‘expenses.’ Jax pays his debts and, so far, has stayed with him. But the cost of assuming that financial responsibility has wiped her out financially. Her sister, Jamie, is a loan officer for a local bank, so she’s all too well aware of Jax’s financial situation. But there’s very little she can do. In one plot thread of this story, both sisters get mixed up in a case of multiple murders when FBI agent Nicholas Grant is assigned to find 13 bodies in the Aspen Falls area. Convicted killer Leonard Bonzer has confessed to the murders, but won’t tell police where the bodies are. And, when other, more recent corpses are discovered, it looks as though there might be a ‘copycat’ at work. Admittedly, Jax’s financial situation isn’t the main plot thread, nor the reason for the murders. But it does show how sexually transmitted debt can work.

There’s also Natuso Kirino’s Out. This novel is the story of a group of women who work nights at a Tokyo factory that makes boxed lunches. One of them, Yayoi, is married to an abusive husband, Kenji, who has gambled away their savings. Now, she’s left with a heavily mortgaged home, little money, and no real way to pay off the debt – not on her salary. In a rage, she strangles Kenji with his own belt. Now, of course, she’s left with a body, and the very real likelihood that she’ll be arrested for the murder. So, she turns to her co-workers for help. Their choices draw the women into a very dark web of Tokyo’s underside.

And then there’s Chelsea Field’s series featuring Isobel ‘Izzy’ Avery. In Eat, Pray, Die, we learn that Izzy has recently moved from her home town of Adelaide to Los Angeles. Mostly, she made the move to escape her ex-husband, Steve. More specifically, she wants to escape Platypus Lending, a loan shark operation that she owes money to, thanks to Steve. Early in their marriage, Steve convinced her to
 

‘…get a two-hundred-grand-loan to invest in some “sure thing” stocks…’
 

Even she admits that was stupid. The plan backfired, the stock market crashed, and Steve hadn’t told her he’d borrowed money from a shady operation. Now, Izzy works as a professional taster for Los Angeles’ rich and famous. This series is among other things, an interesting look at how much trouble sexually transmitted debt can cause.

I’m really glad Angela brought the topic up, as it’s really interesting. And it’s a good reminder to be sure of the person you choose as a partner…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lionel Bart‘s As Long As He Needs Me.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, Chelsea Field, Natsuo Kirino, Peg Brantley

In The Spotlight: Don Winslow’s The Dawn Patrol

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some crime novels are as much about a particular culture or sub-culture as they are about the crime. It’s tricky to pull that off without losing the main plot thread – the crime and its solution. But when it’s done well, such a novel can evoke an atmosphere and culture quite effectively. As an example, let’s turn today’s spotlight on Don Winslow’s The Dawn Patrol.

Boone Daniels is a former San Diego Police Department officer who’s become a PI. But his real passion is surfing. He lives in San Diego’s Pacific Beach, and spends as much of his time surfing as he can. He’s got a group of friends called the Dawn Patrol who join him. Daniels’ friends Hang Twelve (usually called ‘Hang’), High Tide, Johnny Banzai, Dave the Love God (he is a legend among women, both locals and tourists), and Sunny Day almost always surf together before they go to their various jobs. Then, when they can, they get together after work, too, and surf. In fact, Daniels would rather surf than actually make a living at a regular job.

Everything changes when attorney Petra Hall, from the law firm Burke, Spitz, and Culliver, approaches Daniels about taking a case on behalf of Coastal Insurance Company. They’re being sued by Daniel ‘Dan Silver’ Silvieri. It seems a warehouse he owns in Vista (something like 45 miles/72 km north and east of San Diego) burned. Coastal investigated and believes that it’s a case of arson, so they won’t pay. Dan Silver’s now suing them for damages and bad faith to the tune of US$5 million. Hall wants Daniels to find a stripper named Tamera Roddick who is a witness to the fire, and whose testimony will be important. Daniels doesn’t want to take the case, as a major set of waves is due in the area in the next few days, and he doesn’t want to miss his chance. But he’s finally convinced.

Then, a young woman dies of a fall from the balcony of a cheap motel room. At first, it’s assumed that she is the missing Tamera, because she has Tamera’s ID. But it soon turns out that the dead woman is actually Tamera’s best friend, another stripper who calls herself Angela Hart. But why was Tamera’s ID found with the dead woman? And which woman was the killer actually targeting?

As Daniels and Hall try to find the missing woman, they learn bits and pieces about her life in the past few months. And Daniels, in particular, wants to know who killed Angela Hart. He’s driven in part by a case from years earlier, when he was on the police force. A six-year-old girl disappeared from her front lawn, and was never found. He’s been trying to learn what happened to her since, since he blames himself for not solving the case. Little by little, he and Hall find out what happened to Tamera Roddick, how it’s linked up with Angela Hall’s murder, and what it all has to do with the warehouse fire. And before they’re done, they turn up some truly ugly secrets that some people are keeping.

This novel takes place in San Diego County, and Winslow places the reader there in many ways. Winslow provides background information on how the area developed, what it’s like geographically and demographically, and so on. Each reader is different about how much of that sort of information is ‘too much,’ so your mileage, as the term goes, may vary. But it’s more than just the history. The various small towns in the county, the roads that connect them, and so on, are all a part of the story.

San Diego has many different cultures and sub-cultures. Winslow concentrates on the surfing life, including the mix of cultural influences on it. Surfing takes athletic ability and lots of practice to surf, even to surf a little. And these people know the water, the weather patterns, and the beaches. One of them, Sunny Day, is so skilled at surfing that she has a real chance at national and international coverage, endorsements, and more. What’s more, they all have other jobs (cop, PI, lifeguard, restaurant server, etc.). Winslow evokes surfing and the surfing life as the story unfolds, even in details such as the language and surfing customs (and yes, there are surfing customs).

The members of the Dawn Patrol figure heavily in the novel. They don’t join Daniels’ investigation, but all of them have a part to play in the way the mystery unfolds. So, we get to know each. We learn their backstories, how they got into surfing, their plans, and so on. And we see how close-knit the group is. They are close friends as well as surfing partners.

But that friendship is tested and changed by the mysteries at hand. And the truth about Tamera Roddick’s disappearance, Angela Hart’s death, and the warehouse fire, is ugly. It’s even harrowing. Readers who prefer light mysteries will want to know that. There’s violence, too, some of it also ugly. But it’s not gratuitous or extended.

That said, though, there is wit in the story. Here, for instance, is Daniels’ reflection on the explosion of interest in Southern California after the Beach Boys became popular:
 

‘So many people moved to the SoCal coast, it’s surprising it didn’t just tilt into the ocean. Well, it sort of did; the developers threw up quick-and-dirty condo complexes on the bluffs above the ocean, and now they’re sliding into the sea like toboggans.’
 

Daniels mourns the loss of the days before the surge of popularity, when not many people knew about the great Southern California surfing beaches.  

It’s also worth pointing out that this isn’t one of those stories where every question is answered. Readers learn the answers to the main mysteries, but there are some ‘loose ends.’ Things aren’t wrapped up neatly at the end.

The Dawn Patrol is the story of a group of surfers whose lives are changed when one of them takes a case that turns out to be gut-wrenching. It’s set against a distinctive San Diego backdrop, and features a PI who’d rather surf than fight, but has a strong sense of what’s right. But what’s your view? Have you read The Dawn Patrol? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 18 September/Tuesday, 19 September – Another Margaret – Janice McDonald

Monday, 25 September/Tuesday, 26 September – Among Thieves – John Clarkson

Monday, 2 October/Tuesday,3 October – Crocodile on the Sandbank – Elizabeth Peters

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