When Fictional Sleuths Text ;-)

When Sleuths TextWith email and texting, to say nothing of other social media, it’s easier than ever for people to communicate with one another. It all happens instantly, and it’s possible now to include documents, photographs, and much more.

I wonder what it would be like for fictional sleuths to use that sort of technology. Sometimes texts and other social media can give real insight into the way sleuths communicate. So, if you’ll ask your disbelief to go walk the dog, let’s take a look at what happens….

 

When Fictional Sleuths Text

 

I Nero Wolfe (Rex Stout)

Wolfe: Where are you? It is 11:00am.
Goodwin: @Lily’s. Taking her to lunch. C U later.
Wolfe: Flummery! I need you here now.
Goodwin: It’s all jake. Our meeting w/ new client isn’t until 2. C U then.
Wolfe:  Pfui!!

 

II Inspector Morse (Colin Dexter)

Morse:  Are you finished with that interview?
Lewis: Yeah, should be back in the office in a bit.
Morse: Not the office. Opening time is in twenty minutes. Meet me at the Crown and Feather.
Lewis: Right. Could you give me address?
Morse: It’s ‘could you give the address to me!’

 

III Phryne Fisher (Kerry Greenwood)

Inspector Jack Robinson: Stopped by your house, but you’re not here. Where are you?
Phryne: I’m at a tea this afternoon. Very big do.
Robinson: Not likely. You’re not nosing into that case again are you?
Phryne: Certainly not!  Smiles, puts her telephone back in her handbag and goes back to searching a suspect’s rooms.

 

IV Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle)

Holmes: Watson, are you free to join me on a case?
Watson: Most certainly.
Holmes: Excellent. Once you’ve seen to that patient you’re expecting, we’ll get started.
Watson: How did you know I was about to see a patient?
Holmes:. It took you ten minutes to respond to my text. At this time of day, you were no doubt consulting your notes before your patient arrives. Colonel Smitherington, isn’t it?
Watson But how did you know that?
Holmes: Smitherington had an appointment with you last week, which you told me he cancelled. He would be likely to reschedule.

 

V Commissario Guido Brunetti (Donna Leon)

Paola Falier (Brunetti’s wife): You’ll be home soon, right?
Brunetti: Not sure – about to interview a witness and I don’t know how long it’ll take.
Paola: My Women in Writing meeting is tonight.
Brunetti: I’ll do the best I can.
Paola: I’m cooking risi e bisi
Brunetti: Home in 15 minutes.

 

VI Jane Marple (Agatha Christie)

Raymond West: How are you, Aunt Jane?
Miss Marple: Very well, thank you, dear.
West: Excellent. Thought I’d pop by and look in on you. That all right?
Miss Marple: Lovely. When?
West: This afternoon.
Miss Marple: Em, perhaps tomorrow? There’s a meeting of the Ladies’ Church Group today.
West: Tomorrow, then.
Miss Marple puts on her hat, picks up her handbag, and goes off to follow a murder suspect.

 

Got any you’d like to add?

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Let’s Go Down to the Big Ranch*

RanchesIf you live in suburbia or in a city, you might not think a lot about what it takes to get your milk, cheese, and meat (for those who eat meat) to market. It’s not an easy process. Cattle and sheep ranching are expensive undertakings that require a lot of land, luck with the weather, and hard work. Even with today’s technology, ranching still means long days, especially when calves and lambs are born. It’s not a life for everyone, but it keeps the rancher close to the land.

Ranching is a central part of the economy for many cultures, and it’s certainly found its way into crime fiction. That makes sense, too. As we’ll see, there are lots of places to hide a body on a ranch, and anything can happen there.

In Ngaio Marsh’s Died in the Wool, for instance, New Zealand MP Flossie Rubrick is preparing an important speech that she’s scheduled to deliver. So she goes to an isolated sheep pen on her husband’s ranch to prepare. She doesn’t return, though, until three weeks later, when her body is found inside a bale of wool. The victim’s nephew writes to Scotland Yard’s Inspector Roderick Alleyn about the death; and, since this might be a matter of national security, Alleyn travels to New Zealand to investigate. In the end, the murder turns out to be related to an important secret that Flossie Rubrick had found out about one of her family members.

More than one of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Boney’ Bonaparte novels are set on ranches. In The Bushman Who Came Back, for instance, Bony is sent to Mt. Eden, a ranch belonging to Mr. Wooten. Wooten’s widowed housekeeper, Mrs. Bell, is shot one morning, and her seven-year-old daughter Linda disappears. Fearing the worst about Linda, the ranch hands go on a search, and Bony starts to sift through the evidence. On the surface, it looks as though a bushman named Ol’ Fren Yorky was responsible both for the murder and for abducting Linda. No-one wants to believe this of him, since he’s well liked. But the evidence is what it is. Still, the more that Bony learns about the case, the more he comes to believe in Yorky’s innocence. But if he is innocent, then where is Linda? Now, Bony has to go in search of both Yorky and Linda to find out the truth. You’re absolutely right, fans of The Bone is Pointed.

Even Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, who normally wouldn’t dream of leaving his brownstone home, let alone New York City, visits a ranch in Death of a Dude. Wolfe’s partner Archie Goodwin has accepted an invitation from Lily Rowan to be part of a house party at her ranch in rural Montana. Goodwin’s plan is to have a short visit with Lily and then return to New York. Everything changes, though, when Philip Brodell is shot, and Lily’s ranch manager, Roger Dunning, is accused of the crime. Lily is sure he is innocent, and wants Goodwin (and, by extension, Wolfe) to solve the murder. When Goodwin writes to Wolfe to explain why he’s changed his travel plans, Wolfe takes an interest in the case and makes the unusual decision to travel to Montana.

Steve Hockensmith has created an interesting historical (early 1890s) series whose protagonists are Gustav ‘Old Red’ Amlingmeyer and his brother Otto ‘Big Red.’ At the beginning of the series (Holmes on the Range) they are cowpokes who sign on to work at the Bar VR Ranch in Montana. They know that life as ranch hands isn’t going to be luxurious, but they’ll be able to indulge their pastime of reading Sherlock Holmes stories. Then, a ranch hand dies of a gunshot wound. Another dies after being trampled (but there was no cattle stampede that anyone can remember). Now, Old Red decides to use his ‘deducifyin’’ skills to find out the truth – just like Sherlock Holmes.

The Lone Elk Ranch is the scene for much of the action in Craig Johnson’s Dry Bones. It all starts when a large Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton nicknamed ‘Jen’ is discovered on the ranch. This is a very valuable find, both for the local museum and for science, and there are lots of people who want their hands on it. With stakes in the millions, there are plenty of suspects when the ranch’s owner, a member of the Cheyenne Nation named Danny Lone Elk, is found dead. Sheriff Walt Longmire (now Acting Deputy Attorney for Wyoming) looks into the matter to find out how and why Danny was killed.

And I couldn’t really do a post on cattle and ranching without mentioning Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe. Fans will tell you that she got her start as Botswana’s first lady detective because her father, Obed, had a keen eye for cattle and owned a fine herd. When he passed away, the cattle went to his daughter, and it’s meant a great deal to her to have that security.

There are a lot of other novels that take place on cattle and sheep ranches. They really are effective contexts for a crime story if you think about it. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Los Lobos’ The Big Ranch. 

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Multi-Million Dollar Heist*

HeistsHave you ever seen George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)? If you have, then you know its focus is an outlaw gang called the Hole in the Wall Gang. One of their goals is to rob the Union Pacific’s Overland Flyer, and the gang makes preparations to do so – twice, on both the eastward and westward run of the train. The first time they’re successful. The second train’s arrival, though, sets off a chain of events that changes the story dramatically. Throughout the story, though, the two lead characters, played by, respectively, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, are portrayed sympathetically.

More than that, Hill built the tension in this film not through a murder (or murders) and the investigation, but through the plans and execution of a heist. And that makes sense. Fictional heists can add at least as much conflict and tension as a murder can, not to mention another layer to a plot. It’s little wonder, then, that they figure so often in crime fiction.

Many heist novels do include murders or other deaths. It’s just that it’s the heist that’s the main plot, rather than the murder(s). There are a lot of heist novels out there. I’ll just mention a few; I know you’ll think of more.

In Robert Pollock’s Loophole, or: How to Rob a Bank, we are introduced to professional thief Mike Daniels and his teammates Harry and Gardner. They decide to pull off a difficult, but potentially very lucrative job – a theft from the City Deposit Bank. It’s a heavily guarded bank with the latest in security, so it’s not going to be easy. In fact, in order to carry their plan out, the thieves will need the services of an architect. They find one in the person of Stephen Booker, who’s recently been laid off from his job and hasn’t been able to find another. In fact, he’s been driving cab at night to pay the bills. That’s how he meets Daniels, who finally convinces Booker to join the thieves. They prepare very carefully for the heist, and on the day of the job, all goes well at first. Then a sudden storm blows up, and changes everything for the men.

In Donald Westlake’s The Hot Rock, we are introduced to professional thief John Dortmunder. He’s recently been released from prison, and the plan is that he’ll ‘go straight.’ But that’s before he meets up with his old friend and co-conspirator Andy Kelp. Kelp tells Dortmunder that a new heist is in the works, one that’s worth ten thousand dollars to each member of the team. The target is a valuable gem called the Balabomo Emerald, currently on display at the Coliseum in New York. While the African nation of Akinzi claims ownership, another African nation, Talabwo, contests that claim. Talabwo’s Ambassador to the US, Major Patrick Iko, wants the gem, and is willing to pay the heist team to get it. Dortmunder, Kelp, and the rest of the gang meet and plan the heist very carefully. But almost from the beginning, things don’t go at all as the team planned…  Westlake’s Dortmunder series sees the heist team get in several serious situations as they plan and try to carry out difficult heists.

Fans of Lawrence Block will tell you that one of his series features Bernie Rhodenbarr, who’s a New York bookseller. But he’s also a burglar. In fact, he served a prison sentence as a young man. Now he’s determined not to get caught again, so he’s very careful when he plans a heist. He’s good at what he does, but he sometimes has a habit of finding bodies when he’s actually on the trail of some other prize. Bernie is well aware that it’s illegal to break and enter, but he’s what you might call addicted to the thrill. This series is lighter than Block’s Matthew Scudder series. Although I don’t usually like to compare series, it has a hint of similarity to Westlake’s Dortmunder series on that score.

In one plot thread of Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage, we are introduced to Vincent Naylor. He’s recently been released from prison, and has no desire to go ‘back inside.’ So he’s careful about avoiding risk unless the payoff is very much worth it. He meets up with this girlfriend, Michelle Flood, his brother Noel, and some other friends; together, they come up with an idea for a heist that will set them all up for life. The target is Protectica, a company that provides secured transportation of cash among different banks. The heist is planned down to the last detail, and everyone is hoping it’ll go smoothly. At first, things do go well. But then, there’s a tragic turn of events that changes everything.

And then there’s Andrew Nette’s Gunshine State. Gary Chance is, among other things, a professional thief who’s been lying low in South Australia. A union leader friend of his named Lawrence convinces him to work a robbery so he can have money to care for his wife Faye, who has cancer. When that robbery goes wrong, Chance knows he has to get out of the area. So he heads for Brisbane. There, he meets Dennis Curry, who runs certain non-casino poker games. Curry wants to rob wealthy Frederick ‘Freddie’ Gao, who’s one of his high rollers. Chance meets the rest of Curry’s team and takes the job. Not one of the other team members is a reliable, straightforward sort of thief, but they’re the people Curry has picked. Despite the fact that he doesn’t really trust them, Chance has to work with them to plan the heist with as few risks as possible. But this doesn’t turn out to be anything like the sort of job Chance thought he was taking.

There are, of course, many other kinds of heist novels. Some, such as Gunshine State, are a little grittier. Others are lighter. But all of them have an added layer of tension that comes from the heist and the planning that leads up to it. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Blue Meanies’ Big Brother’s Watching.

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Filed under Andrew Nette, Donald Westlake, Gene Kerrigan, Lawrence Block, Robert Pollock

In The Spotlight: Herman Koch’s The Dinner

>In The Spotlight: Martha Grimes' The Anodyne NecklaceHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. The context of a story can play a crucial role in its atmosphere and in the way the plot plays out.  Let’s take a look at one particular story context today and turn the spotlight on Herman Koch’s The Dinner.

The context for this novel is a dinner at an exclusive Amsterdam restaurant – the kind where reservations have to be made months in advance. One night, two couples, Paul and Claire Lohman, and Paul’s older brother Serge and his wife Babette, meet there for dinner. On the surface, they seem like any other set of middle- to upper-middle-class people: Serge Lohman is a successful politician who seems poised for real achievement; his brother is a former teacher who’s retired for medical reasons. The couples greet each other and the dinner begins.

As the meal goes on, we learn that these people are not at all what they seem. Bit by bit, course by course, the backstories of the four diners are revealed. We find out some very uncomfortable truths about them and their relationships to one another. Also revealed is a terrible secret that they are keeping. Paul and Claire’s fifteen-year-old son, Michel, and Serge and Babette’s son, Rick, also fifteen, are guilty of a terrible crime. The police are investigating, and now the families have to face the truth about what’s happened. In fact, that turns out to be the reason they’re dining at this restaurant in the first place. They’ve met to decide what to do about what’s happened. That discussion, and its result, has its own consequences.

The story unfolds as the meal does, and the different sections of the novel are named for the different courses (e.g. aperitif, main course, dessert). And if you think about it strictly chronologically, the novel begins as the meal does, and ends shortly after it does. That context gives the novel what you might call a sense of claustrophobia.

But this novel isn’t really chronological. The story is told from the point of view of Paul Lohman (more about his character shortly), and his way of telling it includes many flashbacks and streams of consciousness. Readers who prefer a strictly linear story, with a clear sequence of events, will notice this.

That approach to telling the story gives readers quite a lot of insight into what the characters are like. And it’s soon clear that they’re very dysfunctional. Each of them has serious flaws that play their part in what happens in the novel. For example, Serge is both pompous and a social climber. One of his main concerns is his image. Paul’s retirement from teaching wasn’t for a physical reason. Rather, it was ‘difficulty managing his anger.’ Other ugly things about each diner are also revealed. And all four of them are, in their way, complicit in what’s happened. Readers who prefer stories with at least one likeable character will notice this.

Since the story is told from Paul Lohman’s point of view, in first person, we get to know quite a bit about him. And it’s not long before we learn that he is probably not a reliable narrator. In fact, he indulges in his share of denial about his role in what led up to the awful crime that’s at the heart of the novel. Through Paul’s eyes, we see the superficiality and consumerism of upper middle class Dutch society. There’s also a critique of and a disturbing look at that group’s racism and ethnocentrism. Or is that critique really Paul’s view? Does he subscribe to these opinions? Readers who enjoy unreliable narrators, and trying to work out what is actually true and what isn’t, will appreciate this.

One of the questions the novel raises has to do with parents’ responsibility for their children. What the Lohman cousins have done is horrible. So on one level, most people would agree they should face justice immediately. But the boys are still their parents’ sons. To what extent should their parents protect them? Isn’t it natural for parents to want to keep their children out of legal trouble? But if they do, isn’t that tacit approval of what they boys have done? And where did the boys learn their attitudes, anyway? The issue of what parents should be expected to do when their children commit crimes is not an easy one.

This is a noir story, and that element is an important part of the novel. The main characters are not nice, or particularly trustworthy, people, and that includes the narrator. We learn what happened, so in that sense, the story has a kind of resolution. But it doesn’t have a very hopeful ending. And one more note is in order here. The crime that’s so important to this story is an ugly one, and Koch doesn’t mince words. Readers who prefer their crime-fictional violence to be ‘off stage’ will notice this. What’s even more unsettling is the reaction of the boys’ parents to everything. The result is a story that doesn’t offer an optimistic outlook on life.

There is, however, dark wit in the novel. In several places, Paul Lohman makes observations about the pretensions of very upmarket restaurants and the people who frequent them. There is also dark wit about the Dutch culture. It isn’t really upbeat, joking sort of wit, though, and is in keeping with the noir nature of the novel.

The Dinner is the noir story of two sets of parents forced to face the reality of what their sons have done. It reveals the dark and dysfunctional side of family relations, and offers a barbed look at life in modern-day upmarket Amsterdam. It’s also got a singular and somewhat claustrophobic context. But what’s your view? Have you read The Dinner? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 22 August/Tuesday, 23 August – Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty 

Monday, 29 August/Tuesday, 30 August – The Last Child – John Hart

Monday, 5 September/Tuesday, 6 September – The Last Act of All – Aline Templeton

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Filed under Herman Koch, The Dinner

Sister Mary Used To Be a Nun*

Former NunsAn interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about women who join a convent, but then later, decide to leave it. Nuns who choose to leave the convent have to re-accustom themselves to the outside world, and that’s not always easy. But they have an interesting perspective on both the religious life and the secular life. There are several such characters in crime fiction. Here are few; I know you’ll think of others.

In Catherine Aird’s The Religious Body, Inspector D.C. Sloan and his assistant, Constable William Crosby, investigate a mysterious death at the Convent of St. Anselm. Sister Mary St. Anne (Sister Anne)’s body has been found at the bottom of the basement staircase, and it’s soon clear that this was no accident. One of the lines of investigation that Sloan has to follow is the network of relationships among the nuns. To get a perspective on that, and on the victim’s interactions with the others, he turns to the former Sister Bertha, now once again using her birth name of Eileen Lome. She’s been out of the convent less than a month, and still finds everything very, very different. What she tells the Sloan doesn’t solve the murder. But it does give an important perspective on Sister Anne’s personality and background. And it provides readers with an interesting look at what it’s like to leave the convent.

Marian Babson’s Untimely Guest is the story of a staunchly Catholic Irish family, headed by a strong-willed matriarch known only as Mam. Mam’s adult sons Kevin and Patrick are married and have their own families. Her daughter Dee Dee has committed what, for Mam, is the terrible sin of getting divorced. Her daughter Veronica lives at home and cares for her. The whole family is rocked when Mam’s daughter Bridget ‘Bridie’ returns to the family after ten years in a convent. Financial problems have meant the closure of the convent, and Bridie really has nowhere else to go. Besides having to adjust to the outside world again, Bridie’s going to find it extremely difficult to tell the truth to Mam, since it was Mam who was determined she’d enter the convent in the first place. As it happens, Dee Dee also returns to the family, hoping to introduce them to her new fiancé. All the ingredients are there for a family feud, and that’s exactly what happens. Then one day, Dee Dee takes a tragic fall down a staircase and dies. But was it an accident? And if it wasn’t, which family member is responsible?

Fans of James Lee Burke’s Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux will know that, in Crusader’s Cross, he investigates the 50-year-old murder of a prostitute. In the course of that, he goes up against the powerful and wealthy Chalon family. And it turns out, they’ve had some run-ins before with one Sister Molly Boyle, who runs a group that builds houses for the poor and homeless. So he follows up that lead by meeting Sister Molly and talking to her. That interview is the beginning of what turns into a romance between them. Fans will know, too, that she later leaves the convent and becomes Robicheaux’s wife.

In Gene Kerrigan’s Rage, Dublin DS Bob Tidey and Garda Rose Cheney investigate the murder Emmet Sweetman, a banker who was murdered, execution-style, in his own home. In the meantime, Vincent Naylor has recently been released from prison. Now he re-connects with his girlfriend, Michelle Flood, his brother Noel, and some of his friends. Together, they plan a heist that will set them all up financially. The target is to be a van belonging to Protectica, a security company that transports money among banks. The Naylor brothers and their friends duly pull off the heist. But then there’s a tragedy that changes everything. In the midst of it all, and a link between these cases, is a former nun named Maura Cody. She has her own secrets, and her own private reasons for leaving the convent. Something she sees draws her into Tidey’s investigations, and makes her vulnerable. So Tidey and Cheney determine to do everything possible to keep her safe.

There are also some series with former nuns as protagonist. For example, there’s Alice Loweecey’s series featuring Giulia Falcone, whom we meet in Force of Habit. In that novel, we learn that she’s recently left the convent and gone to work for Driscoll Investigations, which is run by former cop Frank Driscoll. The main plot in this novel features wealthy Blake Parker and his fiancée, who’ve been getting some disturbing ‘gifts.’ But woven throughout the novel is also Falcone’s process of getting used to the outside world again. As the series goes on, she gets more accustomed to it, and more streetwise, and that evolution of her character adds a layer to the novels. Oh, and it’s also worth noting that Loweecey herself is a former nun.

There’s also Lee Harris’ (AKA Syrell Leahy) Christine Bennett series. Bennett is a former nun who lived at St. Stephen’s Convent, and taught English. Now she’s moved to Oakwood, in upstate New York, and lives in her now-deceased Aunt Margaret’s house. In The Good Friday Murder, where we first meet her, Bennet attends a town meeting where one point of contention is the planned relocation of Greenwillow Institution to the town. For Bennett, this has personal implications, since her cousin, Gene, is a resident in the institution, and she is his legal guardian. Through Gene, Bennett has gotten to know a pair of savant twins with mental retardation who were convicted many years earlier of murdering their mother. Now senior citizens, they’ve become friends to Bennett, and she doesn’t think they’re guilty of murder. The institution needs support for its plan to move to Oakwood, and Bennett is a connection between the two. So she agrees to look into that old murder case to try to exonerate the twins. Along with the murder investigation, readers also get a look at what it’s like to readjust to the outside world after a long time ‘away.’

There are plenty of other crime novels and series that include this sort of character. Which ones have stayed with you?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Now, may I suggest your next blog visit be Clothes in Books? A treasure trove of posts about clothes and popular culture in fiction, and what it all means about us, awaits you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jewel Kilcher’s Everybody Needs Someone Sometime.

 

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Filed under Alice Loweecey, Catherine Aird, Gene Kerrigan, James Lee Burke, Lee Harris, Marian Babson, Syrell Leahy