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And Everybody, Yeah, Tries to Put My Sloopy Down*

As this is posted, it’s 82 years since King Edward VIII announced his abdication of the British throne to marry Wallis Simpson. As you’ll know, their relationship was considered scandalous, and the couple took a great deal of criticism.

It’s a very famous scandalous marriage, but it’s hardly the only one. For a long time, people have disapproved of certain marriages, and that topic comes up in crime fiction, too. It’s no surprise, either, considering that that plot point can add an interesting layer of tension to a story.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, famous actress Jane Wilkinson wants a divorce from her husband, the 4th Baron Edgware, so that she can marry the Duke of Merton, with whom she’s fallen in love. She asks Hercule Poirot to convince her husband to agree to the divorce, and he pays a visit to Edgware. During the visit, Edgware says that he has already withdrawn his objection, and is willing for the divorce to go ahead. That’s odd enough, but when Edgware is stabbed that night, the case gets even more complicated. In the midst of it all, Poirot gets a visit from the Dowager Duchess of Merton. Now that Edgware is dead, Jane Wilkinson is free to marry her son, and she’s upset about that. To her, the actress is absolutely not a suitable wife, and she wants Poirot to stop the marriage. He can’t agree to that, which infuriates her. That visit doesn’t solve the crime. But it’s interesting to see how it sheds light on the characters involved.

Colin Dexter’s Death is Now My Neighbour begins as Sir Clixby Bream prepares to step down as Master of Lonsdale College, Oxford. The matter of who will succeed him is not a trivial one, and he considers the question carefully. The two most likely candidates are Julian Storrs and Denis Cornford. They’re equally qualified, and each has behaved ‘properly.’ Both are married to women who’ve learned how to make their husbands look good, and both men have their supporters. Then, a dubious journalist named Geoffrey Owens starts digging around, and discovers that someone has a shady past – something that Bream would likely find unacceptable. When Owens is shot, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate. They find out that more than one person involved has a secret.

Megan Abbott’s historical novel (1950s) Die a Little introduces Lora King, a Pasadena, California teacher. She’s especially close to her brother, Bill, so when he meets and falls in love with Alice Steele, Lora wants to be happy for him. But it’s not long before she begins to have her doubts. Alice has a murky background, and some things about her make Lora uneasy. Still, the relationship continues, and Bill and Alice marry. Lora tries to be nice to her new sister-in-law for Bill’s sake. But the more she learns about her, the more concerned she is. At the same time as she is repulsed by Alice’s life, though, she is also drawn to it. Then, there’s a death. And Alice could very well be mixed up in it. Telling herself she’s trying to help her brother, Lora starts asking questions. And she finds herself more caught up in the events than she’d thought possible.

In Surender Mohan Pathak’s The Colaba Conspiracy, locksmith Jeet Singh has been trying to ‘go straight’ since he spent time in prison. Now, he runs a legitimate key-making business from a Mumbai kiosk, and wants to stay out of trouble. But trouble finds him. He gets an opportunity to do a safecracking job, and at first, he rejects. Everything changes, though, when he gets a visit from a former lover, Sushmita. She tells him that her wealthy husband, Pursumal Changulani, has been murdered. He was killed in what looked like a carjacking gone horribly wrong. But evidence has turned up which shows that this was likely a planned assassination. Changulani’s children have never approved of his marriage to Sushmita, and are now saying that she was never officially his wife. If that is true, she can’t inherit any of his fortune. What’s worse, these same children believe that she hired the person who killed their father. Sushmita tells Singh that she is innocent, but can’t pay for a good lawyer. He agrees to help her if he can, and takes on that job he originally rejected. It’s not long before Singh finds himself drawn in much deeper than he had thought.

And then there’s M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth. He’s constable for the Highlands village of Lochdubh, and is quite content to stay there. He’s not professionally ambitious, and he likes the town he serves. Fans will tell you, though, that he’s not lucky in love. One of the regular characters in this series is Priscilla Halburton-Smythe, whose ‘blueblood’ parents have a fine local manor. Macbeth loves Patricia, and she cares very much for him, too. But their relationship is not exactly smooth sailing. One of the reasons for that is that her parents don’t think a ‘mere constable’ is a suitable match for her. Priscilla’s father, in particular, is determined that she will meet and marry ‘one of her own kind.’ And it’s interesting to see how those ideas of what is and isn’t a suitable match play a role in the series.

There are a lot of other examples of fictional marriages where there’s a lot of disapproval. It’s difficult to maintain a relationship under those circumstances, and it’s hard on everyone. But it can make for an interesting plot point.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Wes Farrell and Bert Berns’s Hang on Sloopy.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, M.C. Beaton, Megan Abbott, Surender Mohan Pathak

In The Spotlight: Bill Crider’s Too Late to Die

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Bill Crider was a well-known, well-respected crime writer and commentator who passed away early this year. He left behind a legacy of crime fiction novels, Westerns, and horror fiction, too. It’s about time this feature included one of his stories, so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on Too Late to Die, the first of his Sheriff Dan Rhodes novels.

The story begins as Rhodes, Sheriff of Blacklin County, Texas, is looking into a break-in at a local market. He’s talking to the owner about it when the body of Jeanne Clinton is discovered in her home. The owner of the market, Hod Barrett, is none too happy about his case being relegated to second place, so to speak. But a murder is a murder, and Rhodes and his deputies and staff get to work.

As you might guess, the most likely suspect is the victim’s husband, Elmer. It doesn’t help his case that his wife had been ‘a bit wild’ as a younger woman and might still be entertaining ‘visitors.’ But Elmer says that Jeanne had matured, and he’s not the only one who says so. Besides, so he claims, he was at work at the time of the murder, and he can prove it. And even Rhodes is inclined to believe that Elmer Clinton loved his wife.

If Clinton isn’t the murderer, the team has to work out who is. And that means finding out who might have seen Jeanne Clinton on the evening she was killed. As it turns out, there are several people who did. Even Hod Barrett was there, as were a few other highly respectable local citizens. Every one of them eventually admits to being friends with the victim. But each one says that: a) it was just a friendship, nothing more; b) Jeanne was alive when last seen. Untangling the truth from the lies is going to take effort.

In the meantime, Rhodes is facing an election year, and this time, he’s got real competition. Ralph Claymore is running for sheriff, and he’s got his share of support. He looks the part, too, and is comfortable interacting with people. It’s not going to be an easy win.

As if that’s not enough, two local citizens have decided to sue Rhodes, the country, and whoever else they can sue for beating them up during a routine stop. They blame Rhodes’ deputy, Johnny Sherman, and they’re out for a big win. In fact, they’ve hired Billy Don Painter, who’s seen as a hotshot lawyer, to press their case for them. It doesn’t help matters at all that Sherman is dating Rhodes’ daughter, Kathy.

Then, there are two more deaths. Now, Rhodes is under intense pressure to solve this case. The public wants answers, and he’s not sleeping easily, either. And he’s not likely to win re-election if Claymore can use these murders against him. In the end, and piece by piece, Rhodes puts the puzzle together.

This novel takes place in rural Texas, and the reader is placed there immediately and distinctly. There are local food markets, plenty of boots and Dr. Pepper, Texas expressions, and pickup trucks. But Crider doesn’t present stereotypes. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that the characters in this novel are more complex than that.

Because the setting is a small, rural area, everyone knows everyone, and that includes Rhodes. Many of the people in town have relationships that stretch back to primary school, and Rhodes and his deputies know everyone’s history.

The story is told from Rhodes’ perspective (third person, past tense), so readers learn about him. He is widowed, but he has more or less gotten used to it. He misses his wife, but he doesn’t wallow in that. In fact, he starts his first, awkward, attempts at dating again in this novel (and no, it doesn’t really have a romance aspect). He makes mistakes in this case, but he is a persistent, hardworking detective who gets to the truth in the end.

The solution to the mystery is, in its way, more complex than it might seem on the surface. I don’t want to say more about it for fear of spoilers, but I can say that readers who appreciate moral ambiguity will appreciate some of the situations in the novel. In the end, Rhodes wants to do the right thing. But what counts as the right thing isn’t really clear when the facts are known.

There is some violence in the novel (there are, after all, three deaths). But it is mostly ‘off stage.’ Still, this is not a ‘frothy’ read. There is real sadness in the story, and knowing the truth doesn’t make that go away. That said, though, there is a strong sense that life will go on, and that the local people will pick up their lives.

Too Late to Die is the story of a small Texas community and its sheriff, and what happens to everyone when murder strikes. It uncovers several local secrets, and introduces a sleuth who wants to do what’s best for everyone. But what’s your view? Have you read Too Late to Die? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 

 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 17 December/Tuesday, 18 December – All She Was Worth – Miyuki Miyabe

Monday, 24 December/Tuesday, 25 December – In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

Monday, 31 December/Tuesday, 1 January – Accused – Lisa Scottoline

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Filed under Bill Crider, Too Late to Die

My Own Way*

When we think about what it takes to be a sleuth, management skills probably don’t come first to mind. But plenty of sleuths work regularly with others. And those sleuths are frequently in positions where they supervise others. So, management is an important part of their jobs.

Each manager has a slightly different style, and some people respond better to a given style than others do. It’s interesting to see how sleuths’ personalities come out in the way they manage, and how others react to those personalities. It’s also interesting to see how management skills develop over time.

Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel has a singular approach to managing. He is a tough, no-nonsense leader who expects his team to do their jobs well. Fans know that he does not suffer fools gladly, and he’s quite plain-spoken when he has a criticism. He’s not much of a one for being too concerned about people’s sensitivities. Working for Andy Dalziel requires a very thick skin. That said, though, there’s another side to his management style. He never asks his team to work harder or take more risks than he does. And he supports his team members, too. More than once in the series, Dalziel protects the people he supervises, and backs them in disputes with the Powers That Be. He’ll rake someone over the proverbial coals himself, but he is just as loyal to his team as he expects his team to be loyal to him.

Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg has a very different approach to management. But, then, he has a very unusual team. His team members are all what a lot of us would think of as eccentric, to say the least. One of them has narcolepsy, one is a naturalist, and one is a ‘walking encyclopaedia’ who drinks far more white wine than most people would think is a good idea. Oh, and in several books, there’s Snowball the office cat, who is a far better tracker than the humans at the office. Adamsberg knows that he works with very talented people. Insisting that they behave conventionally would rob him of some expert teammates. So, he looks the other way about the wine drinking, the narcolepsy, and so on. And he has come to trust his team as they trust him. Adamsberg himself is a bit eccentric. He has more of a philosophical approach to solving crime than a conventional one. Sometimes, he spends as much time at a local café thinking things through as he does sitting in his office. But he and his team are successful.

Angela Marsons’ Detective Inspector (DI) Kim Stone has had her challenges in life. She grew up in the care system, and was shuttled among several foster homes, not all of which were healthy places. So, she sometimes has an abrupt manner. She can be thoughtless, too, and sometimes pushes her team without considering that they have home lives and other obligations. But she works at least as heard as she expects any of her colleagues to do. And she’s quite well aware that she has faults. When she does see that she’s been too curt, or that her team desperately needs a break, she admits that and makes amends when she can. Her honesty may be brusque, but her team appreciates that she tells everyone the truth. And it’s interesting to see how she grows in her management role as the series goes on

Mari Hannah’s Detective Inspector (DI) Kate Daniels gets a chance at an important management role in The Murder Wall. The body of Alan Stephens is discovered, and Daniels’ boss, Superintendent Bright, names her Senior Investigating Officer (SIO). That’s a real coup, and Daniels wants, of course, to do well. It’s not going to be an easy case, though. For one thing, the team knows and has worked with the chief suspect, the victim’s ex-wife. For another thing, Daniels herself knew the victim, and hasn’t told anyone. Still, she and her team take on the investigation. As the novel goes on, one of the interesting story threads is the way Daniels begins to grow into her role as SIO. She and her team certainly make their share of mistakes. But they also learn a lot, and they do find the killer. It’s an interesting look at developing a management style.

We also see the development of a management style in Martin Edwards’ Lake District mysteries. As they begin (with The Coffin Trail), Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Hannah Scarlett has just been named to head the Cold Case Review Team at Cumbria Constabulary. She faces several challenges as she gets started, too. Her new position is actually seen as a demotion, since the team is ‘relegated’ to looking at cases that aren’t really making the news. And she’s got to deal with all of the interactions among team members, as well as the inevitable paperwork, assessment, and other duties that fall to those who manage. It’s a process for Scarlett as she learns to lead the team effectively and earn the respect of those who report to her. She makes mistakes, but her style develops as she gains confidence.

Everyone, real and fictional, has a different management style, And sometimes, different styles can be equally effective, depending on the leader and depending on those who report to that person. There’s only been space to talk about a few examples here, but I know you’ll think of lots more.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Angela Marsons, Fred Vargas, Mari Hannah, Martin Edwards, Reginald Hill

Oh, OK, I’ll Leave*

Most of us respect and admire someone who doesn’t back down from challenges. I know I do. At the same time, it’s important to use resources carefully and choose our battles wisely. And sometimes, doing so means a carefully chosen, wise retreat.

Backing off when it’s the wisest thing to do has several advantages. It allows one to conserve (or gather) resources for a more important challenge. Sometimes it even prevents more challenges. And, it can put someone in a position to reach a larger, more important goal. That’s true in real life (as when, say, the police let a minor drug dealer off with a light ‘slap on the wrist’ in hopes of getting the ‘bigger fish.’). It’s also true in crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, for instance, famous actress Jane Wilkinson asks Hercule Poirot to persuade her husband, Baron Edgware, to agree to a divorce (she’s fallen in love with the Duke of Merton and wants to marry him). Poirot and Hastings pay a visit to Edgware and are treated icily. In fact, the only thing he will tell them is that he already withdrew his objection to the divorce. When Poirot tries to ask their host a few questions, he and Hastings are unceremoniously dismissed. Poirot knows that he isn’t going to get any more information during that visit. So, instead of continuing to ask questions, he and Hastings leave quickly. Hastings sees it as a defeat; and, in a way, it is. But it also allows Poirot slightly easier access to the house to investigate when Edgware is stabbed that night. At first, the victim’s wife is the most likely suspect. But she says that she was in another part of London at a dinner party, and there are twelve other people who are willing to swear that she was there. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have to look elsewhere for a suspect.

In Megan Abbott’s historical (1950s) Die a Little, we are introduced to Pasadena, California schoolteacher Lora King. She and her brother Bill are especially close, so he wants her to be happy for him when he meets and falls in love with Alice Steele. Lora want that, too, but something about Alice makes her uneasy. Still, she tries to be nice to Alice. And, when Bill and Alice marry, it seems even more important that Lora get along with her new sister-in-law. Little by little, though, she learns things about Alice that unsettle her even more. Still, she doesn’t want to rupture her relationship with Bill; it’s not a hill she wants to die on, as the saying goes. Then, there’s a murder. And Alice might be mixed up in it. Telling herself she’s protecting her brother, Lora starts to ask questions about the death, and finds herself drawn into Alice’s life, even as she is repulsed by it.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack takes place in late-1970s Buenos Aires, at a time when the military government is firmly in control. No dissension of any kind is permitted, and everyone knows that the penalty for seeming disloyal is ‘disappearing,’ or worse. Against this background, Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano works as a police detective. He has to be very careful, but he does try to do his job the best he can. One morning, he’s alerted to the discovery of two dead bodies. When he arrives on the scene, he sees that they bear the hallmarks of an army ‘hit.’ He’s not willing to go up against the army – at least not at that moment. So, he simply ‘rubber stamps’ those deaths as he is supposed to do. There is, though, a third body. And this one seems a little different. Suspecting that this victim might have been murdered by someone in a separate case, Lescano begins to very carefully and very quietly ask some questions. Little by little, and one step at a time, he gets to the truth. And the outcome of this case is that more than one character has to escape the country and be willing to lose that proverbial battle in order to stay alive and, perhaps, do some good for the country elsewhere.

Alan Carter’s Nick Chester has made a similar choice. In Marlborough Man, where we meet him, he and his wife, Vanessa, and their son, Paulie, have been relocated from Sunderland, in the UK, to the Marlborough area of New Zealand’s South Island. Chester is a police detective who was involved in an undercover operation that went wrong. Rather than staying in the UK and testifying (and, possibly, losing his family and his own life in the process), Chester decided it was better to leave, at least for a time. Now, he works with the local police. In this novel, he investigates a series of murders. He also has an ongoing conflict with his UK nemesis, Sammy Pritchard. In both that conflict, and a rough patch he has in his marriage, Chester learns that there are hills not worth dying on, and that, sometimes, the bigger picture is more important.

John Mortimer’s Horace Rumpole has always known that. He’s a barrister who does his job very well, in part because he knows when to pick fights. He sometimes does so in court when conventional wisdom might suggest otherwise. But he never does so at home. Any fan of this series can tell you that Rumpole knows better than to go against his wife, Hilda, ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed.’ It’s not worth the consequences…

There are certainly times when it’s worth seeing something through to the finish. But sometimes, it’s wiser to retreat strategically, regroup, and focus on larger challenges more worth the effort. And it’s interesting to see how that plays out in crime fiction.

 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone’s Tomorrow is a Latter Day.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Carter, Ernesto Mallo, John Mortimer, Megan Abbott

Don’t Hear Words That I Didn’t Say*

It’s surprisingly easy to misinterpret what you see and hear. After all, we may not see or hear accurately. Or, we may see or hear accurately enough, but not understand what’s really going on. Sometimes, those misinterpretations are funny; sometimes they’re downright embarrassing.

In crime fiction, misinterpretations can be dangerous. At the very least, they can bring their own challenges. I’m not talking here of deliberate misdirection. That’d be too easy! Rather, I’m talking about a simple misunderstanding. Here are just a few examples. I know you’ll think of more.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery concerns the murder of Charles McCarthy. His son, James, was overheard quarreling with the victim right before the murder, and he had motive, too. So, the police quickly settle on him as the chief suspect. But his fiancée, Alice Turner, is convinced that he is innocent. So, she goes to the police and asks them to re-investigate. Inspector Lestrade may have his faults, but he doesn’t want an innocent man hung. So, he asks Sherlock Holmes to look into the matter, and Holmes agrees. It turns out that a single misinterpreted phrase is an important clue to the real murderer. Once Holmes works out what that phrase meant, he finds out who the guilty person is.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings work with the police to find a killer who has murdered several people. Each death is prefaced by a cryptic warning note to Poirot. And, an ABC railway guide is found near each body. The second victim is Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Barnard, whose body is found on a beach early one morning. Her older sister, Megan, hears the news and, of course, immediately travels from London, where she lives and works, to Bexhill-on-Sea, where her family lives. When she gets to her parents’ home, Poirot and Hastings are already there with the police. She misinterprets their purpose and says,
 

‘‘I don’t think I’ve got anything to say to you. My sister was a nice, bright girl with no men friends. Good morning.’’ 
 

When Hastings explains that he’s not a reporter, she sees that she’s misunderstood, and turns out to be helpful to them.

In Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, we meet Guy Haines, who is on a cross-country rail trip to visit his estranged wife. During the journey, he meets Charles Anthony Bruno, and the two men strike up a conversation. They end up sharing their stories, and Bruno comes up with an idea. He has reason to want his father dead, and there’s no love lost between Haines and his wife. So, Bruno suggests that each commit the other’s murder. His view is, if Haines kills his father, and he kills Haines’ wife, neither has a motive, and both will get away with the crime. Haines passes off Bruno’s suggestion as a joke, or at most, idle chat, and agrees in the same spirit. But he has misinterpreted Bruno, who was actually being quite serious. That misunderstanding leads to some tragic places.

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost features ten-year-old Kate Meaney, who wants very much to be a detective. In fact, she has her own agency, Falcon Investigations. A new mall, Green Oaks Shopping Center, has been constructed, and she decides that it’s a good place to look for suspicious people and activity. She spends quite a lot of time there, and watches what people do. And it’s interesting to see how she misinterprets those activities, considering them highly suspicious, when in fact, they’re not. Kate is perfectly content with her life, but her grandmother, Ivy, thinks she ought to go away to school. So, she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate takes the bus to the school, but she doesn’t return. A thorough search doesn’t yield any clues, either – not even a body. Twenty years later, a mall security guard named Kurt starts seeing strange images on his camera – a young girl who looks a lot like Kate. One night, he meets Lisa Palmer, who’s an assistant manager at one of the mall stores, and who knew Kate. They form an awkward sort of friendship and, each in a different way, go back to the past, and we learn what happened to Kate.

Gianrico Carofiglio’s Involuntary Witness introduces attorney Guido Guerrieri, who lives and works in Bari. He gets a new client, Abdou Thiam, who’s been arrested for the abduction and murder of nine-year-old Francesco Rubino. Thiam says that he’s innocent, but this isn’t going to be an easy case. There is evidence against him. Still, Guerrieri goes to work, and starts gathering information and speaking to witnesses. And, in the end, he finds that one misinterpretation has made a major difference in this investigation. Once he uncovers that misinterpretation, he’s able to learn more about the truth of what happened to the boy.

It’s easy to misunderstand or misinterpret what we hear and see. That’s especially true if we don’t know the real story, so to speak. It’s little wonder that these misunderstandings come up as they do in crime fiction. And it can add much to a story when that happens.

 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Eva and Magaldi/Eva, Beware of the City.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Catherine O'Flynn, Gianrico Carofiglio, Patricia Highsmith