Category Archives: Colin Dexter

Stuck in the Middle With You*

An interesting post by Brad at ahsweetmystery has got me thinking about the middle of a story. Now, before I go any further, let me suggest that your next blog stop should be Brad’s fine blog. It’s a treasure trove of in-depth, informed, thoughtful reviews and commentary.

It’s important, of course, that the author create an interesting beginning – something that will invite the reader to invest in a story. And we’ve all had experiences with endings that left us satisfied (or even awed), and endings that disappointed (or worse). It’s not hard to make a case for a well-written, strong ending. But the middle of a story is at least as important. One of the reasons, for instance, that readers don’t finish a novel is that they get bogged down somewhere in its middle.

There are plenty of reasons that can happen. In some novels, it’s a matter of providing too much detail (e.g. historical fiction where there’s sometimes a lot of emphasis on time and place). In others, it’s a matter of, if I can put it this way, not enough happening. There are other things, too, that can bog down a story in the middle. It’s just as important for authors to plan the middle of the story as it is for them to plan the rest of it.

Some authors keep the interest going by slowly building tension. For example, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None uses the suspense that’s created when ten people are stranded on an island together – and someone is targeting them. It’s true that there are several deaths in that novel, but the real focus is on the psychological suspense in the surviving characters. As they slowly begin to suspect each other, we see how each interaction is increasingly fraught with tension, and that helps to keep the story going through the middle.

Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn also uses slowly-building tension to keep the story moving. In that novel, Mary Yellan goes to stay with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss Merlyn after her mother dies. They run Jamaica Inn, on Dartmoor, and it was Mary’s mother’s last wish that she go to live with them. Right from the start, the place is eerie, and Uncle Joss even eerier. Aunt Patience is obviously afraid of her husband but is powerless to do much about it. As the story continues, the place becomes more and more claustrophobic, and Mary is more and more uneasy. Then, she begins discovering some dark secrets about the inn. Even the day-to-day business of eating, sleeping and so on are tense, and that keeps the story moving to its conclusion.

Some authors use major plot twists to keep the middle of a story interesting. That’s what happens in Vera Caspary’s Laura. As the novel begins, the body of successful advertising executive Laura Hunt is found in her apartment. New York Police Lieutenant Mark McPherson is assigned the case and begins looking into it. He slowly gets to know the people in her life, spends time in her home, and gets to know something about what she was like. Then, in a major plot twist, it turns out that the dead woman is not Laura Hunt. Instead, she is identified as Diane Redfern, an acquaintance of Laura’s who had permission to stay in the apartment while Laura was away on a trip. Now, McPherson has to start all over again with his investigation. As it turns out, even Laura herself now becomes a suspect.

In Colin Dexter’s Death is Now My Neighbour, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are called in to investigate when physiotherapist Rachel James is shot through the window of her kitchen one morning. The police look into the victim’s finances and relationships, but there isn’t anything untoward – certainly nothing that would suggest murder. Then, a journalist named Geoffrey Owens is shot. He lived near the first victim, so now, there’s a question of whether a killer is stalking all of the residents. There’s a major plot twist, though, when Morse and Lewis discover the real reason that both people were killed. When they change their focus, the whole investigation changes, too.

Many authors choose to use sub-plots in their novels to keep interest going and to keep the middle of the story from getting ‘boggy.’ Reginald Hill, for instance, frequently used sub-plots in his Dalziel and Pascoe stories. As fans of this series can tell you, Superintendent Andy Dalziel supervises a diverse group of police detectives, and they all have their own personalities and lives. Throughout the novels, Hill explored those characters, providing sub-plots and story arcs to maintain the interest in the stories.

Louise Penny has done this as well with her Armand Gamache series. Many of those novels take place in the small Québec town of Three Pines. As the series evolves, we learn more about the various characters who live in the town. We also learn more about Gamache. Penny uses these opportunities to develop the setting and context, and she provides sub-plots and story arcs in which readers learn more. Not only does this serve to keep reader interest going, but it also adds layers of plot and character development.

There are, of course, many other ways to keep a story from getting bogged down in the middle. I haven’t mentioned, for instance, the second murder, the wrong person being arrested, or (with apologies to Raymond Chandler) the man with a gun coming through the door. All of those strategies, if they fall out naturally from the story, can keep reader interest going, too.

What about you? Do you consign a book to the DNF pile if the middle drags on? If you’re an author, how do you keep the middle of a story interesting?

Thanks, Brad, for the inspiration!
 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Daphne du Maurier, Louise Penny, Reginald Hill, Vera Caspary

When Sleuths Get Their Taxes Done ;-)

I’m not sure how annual tax filing is done in other countries; but, in the US, people are already gathering their documentation and getting ready to file. The deadline is 15 April, and plenty of people don’t want to wait that long if they’re getting a refund. So, this is a very, very busy season for accountants.

It’s all got me thinking about what it might be like for our top fictional sleuths when it’s time to file that paperwork. It can’t be easy when you’re a sleuth to explain all of the – erm – miscellaneous expenses that come up. If you’ll invite your disbelief to take some friends and go get pizza, here’s a look at what happens…

 

When Sleuths Get Their Taxes Done

 

I. Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie)

Accountant: I must say, M. Poirot, your papers are very neatly docketed and arranged.
Poirot: Merci. Me, I know the importance of order and method. Whether it is the taxes or a case I am investigating, order and method are my watchwords.
Accountant (slowly looking through Poirot’s papers): Hmm… travel expenses, business expenses, it all seems to be here. Wait just a moment. What is this item? He points to one item on Poirot’s list.
Poirot:  Ah, that is my moustache wax and grooming tools.
Accountant: But, M. Poirot, I’m afraid you can’t deduct those expenses.
Poirot: But why not?
Accountant: Well, they aren’t necessary for the running of your business.
Poirot (Bristling with annoyance): How can I be expected to solve cases if my moustaches are not shown to perfection? It is essential!

 

II. Inspector Morse (Colin Dexter)

Accountant: Good of you to come in, Morse. I’ve just been looking through your paperwork.
Morse: All there, I hope?
Accountant: Well, I do have a few questions about your office expenses.
Morse (Somewhat irritated): All right, go on.
Accountant: You’re provided office space at the police station, isn’t that right?
Morse: Of course I am!
Accountant: Then you can’t claim your expenses at The Crown and Feather as office expenses. It’s not your office.
Morse: Well, it’s where I do most of my work.

 

III. Aimée Leduc (Cara Black)

Accountant: I’m glad to see you’ve got your forms ready early this year, Mlle. Leduc.
Aimée: Might as well get it all out of the way (Takes a seat).
Accountant: Well, then, let’s see what we have here. (A few moments of silence as the accountant looks through the paperwork). Hmm…. I’m not sure of this one.
Aimée: Which one? (Leans over to look at the papers)
Accountant: The coffee beans. You’re not a coffee supplier, café, or restaurant. You really can’t count these as a legitimate business expense.
Aimée: There is no way that I can conduct my business without good coffee! Next, you’ll be telling me I can’t claim my new Christian Louboutin boots!

 

IV. Kinsey Millhone (Sue Grafton)

Accountant:  Glad you could stop by. Let’s talk about these forms now.
Kinsey: OK. Is there a problem?
Accountant: There are a few things here that I don’t think are going to be deductible.
Kinsey:  What things?
Accountant: Well, here, for instance. You’re claiming over a thousand dollars in fast food as a business expense.
Kinsey: Hmmm… I thought it’d be more.
Accountant: That’s not the point. The point is, unless you’re taking clients to eat at McDonalds or something, you can’t claim those receipts as business expenses.
Kinsey: You haven’t tasted my cooking. Without fast food, there’d be no business.

 

V. Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin (Rex Stout)

Accountant: Your boss has some odd expenses.
Archie: Yeah, well, my boss is a little odd.
Accountant: But some of these expenses – I just don’t know.
Archie: Like which ones?
Accountant: Well, for instance, there’s this elevator repair. Don’t you and Wolfe do business in your own home?
Archie: Yeah, why?
Accountant: You have an elevator in your home?
Archie: Doesn’t everyone?
Accountant (Not amused at the joke): Well, it’s a private home.
Archie: Exactly. So, Wolfe sees clients in his downstairs office. The bedrooms and private rooms are upstairs.
Accountant: He can’t use the stairs like everyone else?
Archie: Like I said. My boss is odd…

 

VI. The Nameless Detective (Bill Pronzini)

Accountant: So, Mr. – er –
Nameless (Taking a seat): Thanks for seeing me.
Accountant: Now, let’s see what we have here (Takes a few minutes to look through the papers that Nameless has brought along). I see you’re claiming several copies of Black Mask?
Nameless: Yeah, I have a lot of them, and collect them whenever I find one I don’t have.
Accountant: I’m sorry, but I don’t think you can claim them as a deduction.
Nameless: But they’re important to my business. I’m a private investigator.
Accountant: I know that, but Black Mask isn’t necessary to run your business.
Nameless: They’re learning materials. I use them for research!

 

See what I mean? Sleuths have it hard enough, and trying to explain themselves at tax time doesn’t make anything easier. These are only a few examples. Care to add any?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Bill Pronzini, Cara Black, Colin Dexter, Rex Stout, Sue Grafton

We Are Thrown Together*

Humans are, by our nature, social (as opposed to more solitary animals). Some of us are, of course, more introverted or extroverted than others. But all of us have a certain level of need for human contact. That’s part of why, when we’re in groups together, even with complete strangers, we almost can’t help interacting with each other. In fact, in some cultures, not to do so is considered rude.

Those interactions can be very useful to the crime writer. For one thing, they can give insight into character. For another, they can serve as useful plot points. They can also build tension, especially if there’s conflict.

Agatha Christie used these sorts of interactions in several of her novels and stories. I’ll just mention Death on the Nile. In that novel, Linnet Doyle is murdered on the second night of her honeymoon cruise of the Nile. Her former friend, Jacqueline de Bellefort, is the most likely suspect, but she could not have committed the crime. So Hercule Poirot, who is on the same cruise, has to look elsewhere for the murderer. As the novel goes on, we get to know the various passengers, and we see often they interact with each other and get to know each other. In fact, it’s not spoiling the story to say that more than one relationship blossoms in the course of the novel between people who were complete strangers. And even in cases where that doesn’t happen, the social barriers that are often present between strangers do break down.

We also see that in Patricia Moyes’ Dead Men Don’t Ski, the first of her series featuring Scotland Yard’s Henry Tibbett and his wife, Emmy. In the novel, the Tibbetts are taking a skiing holiday at the Bella Vista Hotel, in Santa Chiara, in the Italian Alps. Tibbett is doing a little investigating, but the trip is mostly for a holiday. They travel by train with a group of people, most of whom are going to the same hotel; and, little by little, people start to talk to each other. As the novel goes on, they continue to interact. Then, there’s a murder. Austrian businessman Fritz Hauser is shot, and his body is found on the ski lift that runs between the hotel and the town. Capitano Spezzi and his officers investigate. When he learns that Tibbett is with Scotland Yard, he slowly starts to share information and get Tibbett’s insights, too. And, in the end, we learn who the killer is and what the motive is. Throughout the novel, we see how the other hotel guests interact with the Tibbetts and with each other, especially when at one point, Emmy has a mild injury.

Colin Dexter’s The Jewel That Was Ours begins as a group of American tourists are preparing to visit Oxford. Among them is Laura Stratton, who has with her the Wolvercote Tongue, part of a valuable Saxon belt buckle. The highlight of the group’s visit to Oxford is to be her official presentation of the Wolvercote Tongue to Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, where it will be displayed with the rest of the belt buckle. The Ashmolean’s curator, Theodore Kemp, is slated to accept the relic. On the afternoon that the tour group arrives in Oxford, Laura suddenly dies of a heart attack. What’s more, her handbag, in which she’s been keeping the Wolvercote Tongue, is stolen. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are called in to investigate the theft. At first, they go through the routine of finding out where everyone was, who was seen near the room, and so on. But everything changes the next day, when Theodore Kemp is found murdered. Now, Morse and Lewis have a much more complex case to handle. As they investigate, we get to know the members of the tourist group, and it’s interesting to see how they get to know each other, too.

Brad Parks’ Faces of the Gone features Newark, New Jersey journalist Carter Ross. He’s sent to the scene when four bodies are discovered in a vacant lot. The official police theory is that a local bar owner arranged to have the victims killed because one of them tried to rob his establishment, and the others were accomplices. But things aren’t as simple as that, and Ross soon finds himself mixed up in a very dangerous case involving highly-placed people. In a few places in the novel, Ross finds himself at the scene of a crime, talking to the people who are there. And it’s interesting to see how complete strangers talk to each other about the fire, or home invasion, or accident that they’ve witnessed. If you’ve ever stood with a group of people who were watching something going on, you know what I mean.

Of course, not all groups of strangers get together in person. In today’s world of the Internet and social media, there’s an interesting modern phenomenon of people who’ve never even met, but who communicate, sometimes on a deep level. And we see that in crime fiction, too. For instance, Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? Introduces Yvonne Mulhern, who’s just moved from London to Dublin with her husband, Gerry, and newborn daughter. They’ve made the move so that Gerry can take advantage of a good job opportunity. But the change is very difficult for Yvonne. Gerry’s gone a lot, so most of the baby’s care falls to her. She’s worn out from the demands of a newborn, and she doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin, so she hasn’t got much of a social life. Then, she discovers an online forum called Netmammy. It’s a support group for new mothers, and Yvonne joins. There, she finds the support and camaraderie she’s needed. Everything changes when one of the group’s members goes ‘off the grid.’ Then, the body of an unidentified woman is discovered in an abandoned apartment. It may not be the body of Yvonne’s missing friend, but if it is, what does that mean for Netmammy? As the story goes on, we see how the members of Netmammy, who begin as total strangers to each other, end up confiding in each other.

We all need a certain amount of human companionship. So it makes sense that our instinct, when we’re in groups, is often to interact. And those interactions can make for very effective crime fiction.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Brad Parks, Colin Dexter, Patricia Moyes, Sinéad Crowley

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

There Was No One There to Meet Me, And Your Clothes Were on the Floor*

Most of us have routines for doing things – routines that make sense and work for us. And those routines tell a lot about us. So, when they are interrupted, that, too, can give a lot of information. For example, say you come home, and your partner isn’t there, but the keys are, the door is unlocked, and the dog doesn’t come to greet you.  You can guess that your partner probably took the dog for a walk and both will be back soon.

Those conclusions aren’t, of course, completely foolproof. But they do give helpful information, and in crime fiction, they can be very helpful as a sleuth tries to put the pieces of a puzzle together. I started thinking about this after a really interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books. Her post (which you should read) was a review of how this works in one crime novel, but there are plenty of other examples. Here are just a few.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Commissioner Peterson breaks up a scuffle between some thugs and a man they had targeted. Their would-be victim runs off, dropping his hat and a goose as he goes. Peterson takes the goose home to his wife, who starts to prepare it for cooking. When she does, she discovers a valuable gem in its craw. Peterson takes the jewel and the hat to Sherlock Holmes, who starts by making some useful deductions just from the hat. Then, he uses what Peterson tells him to work out what the man’s routine would have been. That gives him valuable information about how the jewel got into the goose’s craw, and what happened to the man who had the goose. Fans of Sherlock Holmes will know that he frequently uses clues like that to work out the events of a crime.

So does Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot at times. In Murder in Mesopotamia, for instance, he is persuaded to interrupt his travels in the Middle East to investigate the murder of Louise Leidner. Her husband, noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, is leading an excavation a few hours from Baghdad, and she’s decided to join the team, although she’s not involved in the actual work of digging. One afternoon, she is murdered in her room. No-one is seen entering or leaving that room, so at first, it’s hard to tell exactly how the murder occurred. But Poirot uses the clues he has to work out what likely would have happened – what her routine would have been. That information gives some valuable clues about who would have killed the victim, and how the murder occurred.

Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn is the story of the murder of Nicholas Quinn, the only Deaf member of the Oxford Foreign Exams Syndicate. This group oversees exams given in countries other than the UK that follow the British system of education. Quinn is poisoned one afternoon, and Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate. They soon learn that the members of the Syndicate are keeping secrets – things that Quinn discovered and that might have been worth murdering him to keep hidden. As a part of working out who killed the victim, Morse works out what his afternoon routine would have been like on the day he was killed, and that’s helpful. It’s not spoiling the story to say that another aspect of Quinn’s usual way of doing things proves vital to the case.

In Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer, Tapani Lehtinen becomes concerned about his journalist wife, Joahnna. She’s been following a story and hasn’t been in contact with anyone for twenty-four hours. That’s very unlike her, and Lehtinen has good reason to be worried. The world in which this story takes place has fallen into chaos due to wars and climate change, and millions of refugees have gone north to try to make lives for themselves. Helsinki, the setting for the story, has been reduced to near-anarchy, and the police are spread so thin that they can do little to solve any but the most major of crimes. Lehtinen starts at Johanna’s office, and uses notes and other clues to work out that she left the office quickly to work on her story. Her boss isn’t much help, but he does say that she was working on a story about a man called the Healer. This man has been responsible for the murders of several people, such as CEOs of certain corporations, that he believes are responsible for the climate change which has so impacted the world. Lehtinen believes that if he pursues that story himself, he’ll be able to find Johanna, so he begins to track the Healer. That choice gets him into danger, and he learns that several people involved in this case are hiding things. But, in the end, he learns the truth.

Teresa Solana’s A Not So Perfect Crime shows how those little routines can also be used to make a certain impression. In that novel, we meet Barcelona brothers Eduard and Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez. Together, they own a PI business that’s just getting started. Borja is of the strong belief that people won’t be willing to hire PIs who aren’t successful, so the office is designed to look much more prosperous than it is. For instance, there’s a receptionist/secretary’s desk, even though the brothers can’t afford to pay a secretary. In order to give the illusion that they can, they leave a cardigan or a jacket on the chair. Sometimes, they leave a bottle of nail polish on the desk, to make it look as though their secretary just went to the restroom for a moment. Or, they leave papers and other things on the desk to make it look as though someone was in the middle of something, and just had to run out for a bit. It’s a clever ruse, and it convinces potential clients that the firm’s doing well.

Those little clues to routines can be very helpful to detectives who are trying to work out exactly how a crime occurred. But they can also be useful if a criminal wants to leave a false trail (right, fans of Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Mews?). Either way, they can add to a story.

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Now, folks, give yourselves a treat and go visit Moira’s blog. It’s a valuable resource for all things fashion and culture in fiction, and what they say about us.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alvin Lee’s The Bluest Blues.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Antti Tuomainen, Arthur Conan Doyle, Colin Dexter, Teresa Solana