Hide it in a Hiding Place Where No One Ever Goes*

Ingenious Hiding PlacesWhere would crime fiction be without the ingenious hiding place? All sorts of valuable things are hidden throughout the genre: wills, letters, jewels, even a horse (more on that shortly). And a garden-variety hiding place (in a drawer or behind a picture) isn’t nearly as interesting as something more ingenious. Of course, an ingenious hiding place still has to be believable, or crime fiction fans won’t ‘buy’ it. Even with that, though, there’s plenty of leeway for some interesting hiding places, and lots of authors have made use of thtem. Here are a few examples.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson travel to Dartmoor to investigate the disappearance of a famous racehorse Silver Blaze (See? Here’s the one about the horse), and the murder of the horse’s trainer, John Straker. Inspector Tobias Gregory has arrested London bookmaker Fitzroy Simpson, and he did have motive, since he has a lot at stake in an upcoming race that Silver Blaze is scheduled to run. But there are pieces of evidence that suggest that Simpson is not the killer. And for all his imperfections as a detective (at least, that’s how Holmes sees it), he doesn’t want an innocent man convicted. So he’s asked Holmes to look into the matter. Silver Blaze is, of course, missing. So along with solving Straker’s murder, Holmes and Watson have to also find out where Silver Blaze is hidden. It’s really quite an ingenious place, actually. I know, I know, fans of The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.

Agatha Christie used clever hiding places in several of her stories. For example, in Death on the Nile, Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race investigate the murder of Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, who was shot on the second night of a honeymoon cruise of the Nile. The most likely suspect is her former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, but it’s soon proven that she could not have committed the murder. So Poirot and Race have to re-think their ideas. In the meantime, it’s been noticed that some valuable pearls belonging to the victim have disappeared. Besides their intrinsic value, their theft could possibly have been a motive for murder. So a search is undertaken for them. It turns out that they’ve been hidden in a very interesting place. I know, I know, fans of The Man in the Brown Suit, and The Case of the Missing Will.

Ellery Queen’s short story The Adventure of the One-Penny Black presents another really interesting hiding place. In that story, Queen and Sergeant Velie investigate the disappearance of a very rare stamp called a one-penny black – one of a valuable pair. It’s gone missing from the collection of avid philatelists Friedrich and Albert Ulm, who are particularly anxious about it, because it’s got Queen Victoria’s signature on it. Of course, there are dozens of places where one might hide a stamp. But Queen makes some deductions and, after being pulled off the trail briefly, finds out what happened to that stamp. It turns out to have been a very clever hiding place.

Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone begins with the execution-style shooting of an unidentified Senegalese immigrant. One day, he’s laying out his wares in one of Venice’s open-air markets when he is murdered. It all happens so fast that no-one really sees the killer or the actual incident. What’s worse, no-one knows the victim. To most people he’s ‘just another immigrant,’ with no real identity. And he doesn’t have any identification. That’s going to make it difficult to find out who he was and who wanted to kill him. Still, Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello persist; eventually they trace the man to the house that he shared with several other immigrants. That presents another challenge. For obvious reasons, the other people with whom the victim lived do not trust the police. What’s more, there’s a language barrier. Still, Brunetti and Vianello manage to learn a few things about the man, and they find out which room in the house he was using. As they search through his things, they discover a box of salt. Buried inside the salt is a cache of diamonds. Now the case takes on a whole new meaning. As it turns out, the victim’s death is connected to arms trafficking and to ‘conflict diamonds.’

And then there’s Steve Robinson’s In the Blood. Wealthy Boston businessman Walter Sloane hires genealogist Jefferson Tayte for a special family search. He wants Tayte to trace his wife’s ancestry as a gift to her, and Tayte takes the commission. He traces the family all the way back to her first American-born ancestor William Fairborne. That line died out; however, another branch of the family continued. In 1783, so Tayte learns, Fairborne’s brother James took his family to England with a group of Loyalists. Sloan wants Tayte to pursue this line, so Tayte makes the trip to Cornwall, where the modern-day Fairbornes live. Almost immediately he faces several challenges. One is that there are no records of Fairborne’s wife and children after his arrival. There’s only a record of another marriage two years later. So what happened to the Fairbornes?  Another is that the modern Fairborne family is not interested in helping him. They have a lot of social status and local ‘clout,’ too, so very few other people are willing to give Tayte any information. One day, by chance, he meets Amy Fallon, who is working on a mystery of her own. Two years earlier, her husband Gabriel died at sea in a storm. Before he died, he told Amy that he’d found out a secret, but never got the chance to tell her what he’d discovered. Since then, though, construction on their home, Ferryman Cottage, has revealed a hidden staircase that leads to a secret room beneath the house. In that room, Fallon has discovered an antique writing box. That writing box turns out to contain an important clue to Tayte’s mystery.

There are, of course, dozens of other mysteries that feature ingenious and unusual hiding places for papers, wills, jewels, and a lot of other things too. Which ones do you like best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Donna Leon, Ellery Queen, Steve Robinson

Pushing the Town Away*

Ordinary TownsMany crime fiction fans will tell you that a sense of place is important in a story. Some themes and larger issues may be universal, but most of us want to also see something distinctive in a story that speaks of a particular place or region. And that’s straightforward (if not easy!) in a place that’s got something to sell, if I may put it that way. For instance, some places are tourist destinations. Others are exotic to most readers. A place may have breathtaking scenery or be the kind of faded, dusty small town where you can just imagine nasty things happening. And that can add to the suspense.

It can take some creativity to make a setting interesting if it isn’t a major capital, a physically lovely setting, or a deliciously creepy one (I’m looking at you, Jamaica Inn!). But there are authors who make it work. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal), Hercule Poirot investigates two deaths. One of them is the sudden death of wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie. When his family gathers for his funeral, his younger sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that her brother was murdered. Everyone hushes her up, and she herself tells the others to pay no attention to what she’s said. But privately, people do wonder whether she might be right. And when she becomes the second death the next day, everyone is certain she was. The family lawyer Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and together, they look into the matter. One of the ‘people of interest’ in this case is Abernethie’s brother Timothy, who was very unhappy with the terms of his brother’s will. So Entwhistle pays him a visit in the Yorkshire town where he lives. It’s not an eerie sort of place, but it’s certainly not a ‘delightful English village’ either. World War II has left its mark on the economy, so the place isn’t exactly prospering. Yet, it’s also not a ‘ghost town.’ And it’s very interesting to see how Christie gives readers a sense of the place.

K.C. Constantine’s Mario Balzic series takes place in the small Western Pennsylvania mining town of Rocksburg. Balzic is the chief of police there, and as the series evolves, we get to know what the town of Rocksburg is like. It’s a working-class sort of place, and not particularly pretentious. It’s been hit by the economy and by the slow change over time from mining to service and other industries. But it’s not eerie or dilapidated. It’s got schools, churches, banks and so on – in short, a normal sort of town, if you can say that any town is normal. There is lovely mountain scenery in that part of Pennsylvania – trust me – but Constantine doesn’t focus on it as a rule. Rather, the town comes alive through the ways in which Constantine depicts the people who live there. We get a strong sense of place not because Rocksburg is a tourist destination, or because it’s in view of a particular geographic landmark. We get that sense of place from the day-to-living that happens there.

In Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, we meet ten-year-old Kate Meaney. Her dream is to become a detective, and she’s already started her own company, Falcon Investigations. She’s targeted the new local mall, Green Oaks Shopping Center, as a place where crime is likely to occur, so she spends a lot of time there. Kate lives in a rather dispirited Midlands town, but she actually finds it quite interesting. She’s content with her detection company, too. But her grandmother Ivy believes the girl would be better off away at school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams for the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate doesn’t want to go, but is finally persuaded by her friend Adrian Palmer. She and Palmer take the bus to the school, but only Palmer comes back. A massive search is undertaken for Kate, but she is never found. Years later, Palmer’s sister Lisa is working one of the stores in the mall. One night, she has an unexpected encounter with Kurt, a security guard at the mall. They strike up an awkward kind of friendship, and, each in a different way, they go back to the past and we find out what really happened to Kate. The town where the novel takes place is hardly a tourist destination. It’s an everyday town with everyday people. O’Flynn depicts it as lackluster, but not really desperately poor or creepy. And it’s just that ‘blah’ sort of dreariness that sets off Kate’s incandescent personality.

Several of Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren novels take place in Maardam, a fictional Northern European city. It’s never said so, but a lot of people think of it as a Swedish town. Like other cities in that part of the world, Maardam has long, cold winters and shorter summers. But it’s not really remarkable. It doesn’t have the rugged natural beauty that you find in the far north of Sweden and Norway. It’s not an exciting tourist stop. And there isn’t a major ‘draw,’ such as a famous university. The town isn’t crumbling, but at the same time, it’s not a wealthy place, either. In short, it’s a rather unremarkable place. Yet Neser makes the place real through the interactions among the characters. These novels gain their sense of setting from the lifestyles of the people in the stories more than from Maardam itself, if I may put it that way.

And then there’s Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks. Fourteen-year-old Adam Vander has finally worked up the courage to leave his abusive father, Joe. He knows that staying where he isn’t an option. But he’s been kept so locked away that he doesn’t really know how to function in the larger world. As he’s leaving the house, he meets Billy Benson, who’s stopped by. Billy takes Adam under his wing, as the saying goes, and the two leave together. As the next week goes by, they learn a great deal about each other, and we learn some uncomfortable truths about both of them. We also learn how each is connected to the disappearance ten years earlier of a boy named Nathan Fisher. The week also brings Adam and Billy plenty of danger as they get mixed up in real trouble. The novel is distinctly Australian. But the town itself, in suburban New South Wales, isn’t exotic or famous. It’s neither run-down nor glittering with wealth. It’s got the sort of places you’d expect, with nothing really extra-special. And that rather ordinary sort of setting shows how the sorts of things that happen in the novel could happen in any ‘regular’ town. And that makes them all the more psychologically powerful.

Setting really does matter in a novel. But the setting doesn’t have to be a famous place, or a wealthy one. It doesn’t have to be an especially creepy place, either. The key is in the way the author uses the setting.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dream Academy’s Life in a Northern Town.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Håkan Nesser, Honey Brown, K.C. Constantine

Mais Oui! ;-)

French Crime FictionAh, yes, it’s time for the start of a new school term. And that means it’s time for…
 
 
 
 
 
 

…a quiz! Oh, I don’t want to hear it! You know the risks of stopping by this blog by now! ;-)

 

France has a long and proud history when it comes to crime fiction. And as a dedicated crime fiction fan, you know all of your French and  France-set crime fiction, don’t you? Or do you? Take this handy quiz and find out. Match each question with the correct answer. As you go along, see how many you get correct.

 

Ready? Pour yourself a glass of Rothschild Mouton Cadet to begin…if you dare ;-)

 

Mouton_Cadet_Rouge_Bordeaux

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Do You Need Anybody?*

Kindness of StrangersLots of crime fiction tells stories of people who try to be kind to someone, only to have it end up going very, very badly. And there’s something to that sort of story; it can be a very suspenseful premise for a plot. You know the sort of thing I mean: driver stops to help when a car is stranded, only to find real trouble. And in deft hands, novels with that plot point can be memorable.

But sometimes it’s also nice to remember that kindness to strangers isn’t always dangerous. In fact, it’s part of the glue that holds us together. And it can lead in all sorts of directions. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot visits the village of Broadhinny. He’s there to look into the death of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger, James Bentley. But Superintendent Spence has begun to think that Bentley was innocent, so he’s asked Poirot to investigate. One of the people he meets is Deirdre Henderson, who is one of the few villagers with a kind word to say for Bentley. It seems that Bentley once helped her rescue her dog from a trap. She hasn’t forgotten, and that’s part of why she isn’t convinced Bentley is a killer. Fans of this series will know that that one kind act has repercussions, which are brought up in another book, Hallowe’en Party.

Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors begins with a gesture of kindness to a stranger. Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet/assistant Mervyn Bunter are on a road trip one New Year’s Eve when they get into a car accident and left stranded. The Reverend Theodore Venables, vicar of a nearby church, comes upon the two men and helps them get their car to a repair shop. He even offers them lodging at the vicarage until the car can be fixed. Very grateful, Wimsey and Bunter accept, and are soon taken to the vicarage. That evening, Wimsey gets the chance to return the kindness. It seems that one of the church’s bell ringers has gotten ill and can’t do his part of the traditional change-ringing. So Wimsey takes his place, and the change-ringing goes off well. When Wimsey’s car is ready, he and Bunter go their way. A few months later, Wimsey gets a letter from Venables, asking him to return, and help with the odd mystery of a corpse that has turned up unexpectedly at another person’s gravesite. Although this mystery is really sad in its way, one bright point is the friendship that strikes up between Wimsey and Venables, all because of one kind gesture.

In one plot thread of Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack, Buenos Aires police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano and his team are raiding a brothel. Once they’ve made the arrests, Lescano does a final walk-through of the premises. That’s when he discovers a young woman, Eva, who’s been hiding in the house. Without really thinking too much about it, Lescano rescues her and shelters her in his home. Part of the reason is that she looks very much like his wife, Marisa, who has died. But he also doesn’t want to see Eva get into trouble. It’s late in the 1970’s, when just about anything can lead to a person ‘disappearing’ in Argentina. At first, Eva isn’t sure why Lescano hasn’t denounced her, nor what he wants. He doesn’t demand sexual ‘rewards,’ he doesn’t blackmail her, and he continues to protect her. That kind gesture turns out to be very important to the novel as we see what happens to both characters.

There’s also a kind gesture in Wendy James’ The Mistake. That’s the story of Jodie Evans Garrow, who starts life on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks. One day, when she’s about eight, she happens to meet a girl about her own age, who’s just gotten some money in a dare. Then, she notices Jodie.
 

‘‘Hi, there,’ she says breezily. ‘He’s given me a dollar. You can get fifty cobbers for that up at Rafferty’s. You want to share?’’
 

Jodie’s unaccustomed to such a treat, and happy to accept. The other girl turns out to be Bridget ‘Bridie’ Sullivan, who comes from more money than Jodie has, and much more freedom. The two become inseparable until Bridie moves away. Years later, Jodie has good cause to remember that friendship when Bridie comes into her life again. Jodie has become a social pariah, since a devastating news story has broken about her. It seems that she gave birth to a baby who, shortly afterwards, disappeared. Was the child simply adopted? If so, why are there no records? Did the child die? If so, did Jodie have something to do with it? In the worst of it all, she meets Bridie again, and the two pick up their friendship. In fact, Bridie’s the one person who helps Jodie keep sane, if I can put it that way.

And then there’s Andrea Camilleri’s The Snack Thief. In one plot thread of this novel, a young boy named François gets into trouble for stealing food from other children. Ordinarily, such a child would end up in the hands of authorities, but this child is different. His mother Karima seems to have gone missing, and the boy is just doing the best he can to eat. It soon turns out, too, that she may be mixed up in a murder investigation that Inspector Salvo Montalbano is conducting. He has sympathy for the boy, and decides to try to take care of him. As it happens, his long-time lover Livia is visiting, and she helps him to look after François. The two bond; and in fact, Livia considers whether she might want to adopt the boy when it’s discovered that his mother has been killed. That plan doesn’t pan out, but the boy is given a good, safe home with the sister of Montalbano’s second-in-command Mimì Augello. The kind gesture of taking care of François ends happily both for himself and for the family who adopts him.

And that’s the thing about kindness to strangers. You never know what will happen. And they happen in real life, too. Picture this – true story, as Wendy James’ Bridie Sullivan would say. It was a sweltering, and I mean sweltering, August day – my first full day of university. Never mind how long ago. I’d spent the morning unpacking my things, and was ready to go get something to eat. So I went to one of the university cafeterias. I was waiting my turn to get food when the heat overcame me and I began to get dizzy. Barely keeping my feet, I stumbled to the nearest table and slumped into a chair, arms on the table, head dropped onto them.  I sat there for a few moments that way, thoroughly embarrassed both at my dizziness and the attention I knew it would bring. I’d so wanted to make a good impression on that all-important first day ‘in public,’ and passing out was not what I’d had in mind. All of a sudden I heard a voice beside me, asking me if I was OK. I nodded, hoping desperately that whoever it was would leave me alone and let me slink away.

It didn’t happen. That person saw that I was in need, and went to get me a fruit juice, then sat beside me so I wouldn’t be alone, until I felt better. That glass of fruit juice, and the friendship that started because of it, made all the difference in the world to me. This many years later, we are still friends.

If you’re reading this, you know who you are. You may have forgotten that day, but I never will.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Dorothy Sayers, Ernesto Mallo, Wendy James

In The Spotlight: Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. As I’ve often mentioned on this blog, a strong sense of place and local culture can add a great deal to a novel. And the nuances of setting and context can be conveyed in many ways, without overburdening the reader with detail. Let’s look at an example of how context is conveyed, and turn the spotlight on Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road.

Constable Paul ‘Hirsch’ Hirschhausen has just been stationed in Tiverton, in rural South Australia. He’s there under the supervision of Sergeant Kropp, and under a dark cloud, as far as other coppers are concerned. He got a reputation as a ‘whistleblower’ as the result of an internal investigation, and was basically exiled from Adelaide because of it. So, right from the start, he knows that his boss and fellow officers will make life as difficult for him as they can. And they do. ‘Maggot’ is one of the nicest things they call him, and they do everything possible to embarrass him, threaten him and make his job harder.

Still, Hirsch has a job to do. One day, he gets a call about a grim discovery. The body of fifteen-year-old Melia Donovan has been discovered by the side of Bitter Wash Road. One explanation is that she was hitchhiking and was accidentally struck by a car, then rolled (or dumped) out of sight. But there are other possibilities too, and Hirsch begins to explore them.

He soon discovers that very few of the locals are interested in helping him. Most of them assume that he’s in league with the other police, and the locals have every reason not to trust him on that score. Little by little, Hirsch hears stories of police abuse of authority, particularly harsh treatment of Aboriginals, and more. So one of his challenges will be to overcome that barrier. It won’t be easy, though, considering that his fellow officers have more than earned the contempt of the people they are supposed to serve. And they are not inclined to support him.

Still, Hirsch begins to get a picture of the victim. She was, as many people put it, ‘a sweet kid.’ But she was also a little wild, and quite possibly involved with some dangerous people. Very slowly, Hirsch gets a few answers about Melia’s whereabouts in the days leading up to her death, and what might have happened to her.

Then, there’s another death. This time, the victim is Allie Latimer, whose husband Ray is a good friend of Kropp’s.  She seems to have committed suicide, and that is possible. It’s certainly the line that Kropp wants Hirsch to take, and he does everything he can to ensure that Hirsch doesn’t pursue the matter.  But a few pieces of evidence suggest Allie might have been killed, either accidentally or deliberately. Bit by bit, and with some help from the few friends he’s made, Hirsch puts together the pieces of the puzzle. It turns out that all of these events are woven together into a much bigger case than Hirsch imagined. It all comes down to the old saying that power corrupts.

One of the most important elements in this novel is, as I mentioned, the sense of setting and context. The story takes place in rural South Australia, and Disher depicts the area clearly. It’s a region of small towns, a warm, dry climate and long stretches between stops. Disher also uses lifestyle, dialect and local culture to give a sense of the context.

The main focus of the novel is the dusty, dry, small town of Tiverton and the surrounding towns, and we also get a solid sense of the characters who live there. Like many small communities, it’s insular, and there’s history among the residents. That certainly plays its role in what happens in the novel.

Also playing an important role in the novel is the police culture. There is a very deeply held belief that you don’t ‘do the dirty’ on a fellow officer, and several police characters add ‘no matter what’ to that. That said though, Disher does not paint all of the officers with the same proverbial paintbrush. There are several who try to do their jobs the best they can, and without spoiling the story, I can say that Hirsch doesn’t solve this case alone.

But Hirsch is the central figure in the novel, so we learn a good deal about his character. He’s a pariah among the police because he violated their ‘code of conduct.’ He’s the ‘good guy’ in the story, but he isn’t sanctimonious and he’s not perfect. In fact, more than once in the novel he does things that one might question. And we learn that he’s tired of being a whistleblower. He just wants some peace and to be able to do his job. He’s not overly sanctimonious in dealing with others, either. Although he has nothing but contempt for police who abuse their power, he isn’t particularly judgemental about other things. He’s quick-thinking, too. More than once, he finds ways to outwit people ranged against him.

In some senses, this is a noir story. There are plenty of characters who are not what they seem, and Hirsch soon learns that he can’t be sure who is trustworthy and who isn’t. And the truth behind the deaths of Melia Donovan and Allie Latimer is very sad. There are characters whose lives are wrecked as a result of what happens in the story. It’s also worth noting that the larger truths that Hirsch uncovers are unsettling – even disturbing. I can’t say more without spoiling the story, but this is not an easy book to read. Readers who prefer lighter fare will notice this.

That said though, there is a sense that life will go on, and that things can even be good again. We also see Hirsch slowly settling in to his new assignment as the story evolves, and even coming to feel a strong connection with some of the people of Tiverton. If you want to call it getting a sense of peace, that works as well as anything.

Bitter Wash Road is the story of corruption and power in a small town. It has a distinctive South Australia setting and context, and features a copper trying to do his best in a world where you have to be very pragmatic. But what’s your view? Have you read Bitter Wash Road? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 31 August/Tuesday 1 September – A Bad Day For Sorry – Sophie Littlefield

Monday 7 September/Tuesday 8 September – Berlin Game – Len Deighton

Monday 14 September/Tuesday 15 September – Drop Dead – Swati Kaushal

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Filed under Bitter Wash Road, Garry Disher