Category Archives: Ed McBain

Silk Pyjamas*

An interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about sleepwear. That’s right, robes, pyjamas, oversized tees, and other nightwear. One of the really interesting things about sleepwear is the way it’s changed over time, at least for a lot of people. It’s true in real life, and we can see it in crime fiction, too.

For example, in my novel Past Tense, I mention that my sleuth’s wife, Laura, wears an oversized tee to sleep. And she’s not alone; lots of people do that. Others sleep in shorts and a tee, or something else comfortable.

One of the points that Moira makes (you really want to read that post if you haven’t) is that, with so many hotels and other such places having en suite facilities, there’s not a need these days for things like robes and dressing gowns. People don’t need to be concerned about who sees what they wear to bed. But it wasn’t always that way.

For instance, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express takes place mostly on board the famous Orient Express train as it makes its way across Europe. On the second night of the journey, one of the passengers, Samuel Ratchett, is stabbed in his compartment. Hercule Poirot is on the same train, and he works to find out who is responsible. As he questions the passengers, several mention a lady wearing a scarlet dressing gown with dragons embroidered on it. So, he asks every female passenger what her dressing gown looks like. For many, it’s at the very least an odd question. One of them even says,
 

‘‘I must suppose you have a reason for such a question.’’
 

All of the women answer the question, so we learn about their nightwear. And Christie matches nightwear to what you might call station in life, as well as temperament. So, Poirot also learns something about the women as he asks that question.

Ed McBain’s Cop Hater introduces his 87th Precinct team, in particular, Steve Carella. In the novel, two police officers are murdered; and, at first, it looks as though someone has some sort of vendetta against the police. Carella follows up on that possibility and traces the whereabouts of several former convicts who might resent the cops. One of them is staying at a brothel, so Carella visits the place. It’s owned by someone he knows, Mama Luz. When Mama Luz opens the door to Carella, she’s wearing a silk kimono that, you could argue, befits her status as the madam. She and Carella have known each other for a while, and they have an understanding. He basically leaves her business alone; she sees that things at the brothel stay under control.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little is the story of Lora King, a teacher in 1950s Padadena, California. She’s very close to her brother, Bill, so she takes interest when he starts dating a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant named Alice Steele. She tries to be happy for Bill when he and Alice marry, but Alice makes her uneasy. And, little by little, she starts learning some things about her new sister-in-law that make her even more uncomfortable. At the same time as she is repulsed by Alice’s life, though, Lora also finds herself drawn to it.  A note from Alice (that actually mentions a nightgown) perhaps expresses this best:
 

‘You liked the voile nightgown you saw in my closet, touched it with your milky fingers and asked me where I’d gotten it. When I bought you one of your own, your face steamed baby pink, but you wore it. I knew you’d wear it.’ 
 

Then, there’s a murder. And Alice might be mixed up in it. Telling herself she’s doing it to protect Bill, Lora starts asking questions. And she finds herself drawn in in ways she wouldn’t have imagined.

In John Burdett’s Bangkok 8, Royal Thai Police detective Sonchai Jitplecheep investigates the murder of a US Marine named William Bradley. Sonchai’s police partner, Pichai Apiradee, was killed as a result of this case, so Sonchai is especially motivated to find out who is responsible. The trail leads at one point to the home of a Russian pimp named Iamskoy. Here’s part of the description we get when Sonchai gets to the place (just about lunchtime, when Iamskoy’s employees are still asleep, or just getting up):
 

‘…a woman answers the door. She is wearing a black dress…and reveals a lot of cleavage…
‘Andy,’ she calls without anxiety. Instead of Iamskoy, another woman appears in shorts and T-shirt. Then another. A fourth is dressed in a long nightgown, done up firmly at the neck.’
 

All of these women are in the same business, and it’s interesting to see how their different personalities are expressed in their sleepwear.

Of course, sleuths have sleepwear, too. In Frankie Y. Bailey’s The Red Queen Dies, for instance, Albany, New York police detective Hannah McCabe and her police partner investigate three murders. They all have the same murder method, but nothing else really links the victims. So, one important part of solving these murders is looking into the victims’ pasts to see if they have ever met, or ever would have had contact with each other. That involves background research done on the computer, and McCabe chooses to work at home,
 

‘…on the sofa in the living room, in her cotton nightgown and robe.’
 

And she’s not the only sleuth who sometimes works that way.

Of course, no discussion of sleepwear in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. As any fan can tell you, his preferred nightwear is a large pair of yellow silk pyjamas. He wears them in several novels and stories. In fact, Gail Bowen pays tribute to them in The Gifted. In one scene in that novel, her sleuth Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, goes to a costume party with her husband, Zack. She goes as Archie Goodwin; he goes as Wolfe. And he is dressed in…. yellow silk pyjamas.

See what I mean? Sleepwear is an important part of crime fiction.  Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Now, folks, please give yourselves a treat and go visit Moira’s excellent blog. Lots of interesting reviews and commentary on clothes and culture in fiction, and what it all says about us.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Frankie Y. Bailey, Gail Bowen, John Burdett, Megan Abbott, Rex Stout

Just As Well They Never See the Hate That’s in Your Head*

As adults, we know that things sometimes happen that we resent. Someone else gets the coveted promotion. Or, we don’t take kindly to a remark someone makes. Or… For a lot of people, resentment passes, especially if it’s just one incident.

But build up enough resentment over enough time, and you have a potentially ugly situation. And, in crime fiction, it can even turn deadly. Just a quick look at the genre is a helpful reminder to do something about it when you cause resentment. Otherwise the consequences could be serious…

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, for instance, we are introduced to Jaqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. She and Simon Doyle are very much in love, but they don’t have the money they need to start a life together. So, Jackie asks her best friend, wealthy Linnet Ridgeway, to hire Simon as her land agent. Linnet agrees, and Jackie is delighted that her best friend is there for her. Then, disaster strikes. Linnet falls in love with Simon, and the two get married. As you can imagine, Jackie resents this horribly. In fact, she follows the couple on their honeymoon trip, showing up in all sorts of unexpected places. She even goes along on their cruise of the Nile. It all rattles Linnet, and she asks Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same cruise, to help her. It doesn’t work. On the second night of the cruise, Linnet is shot. The odd thing is, though, that Jackie cannot be the guilty party. She was with at least one other person the entire evening, so there’s no possibility that she is the killer. So, Poirot and Colonel Race (also on the cruise) have to look elsewhere for the murderer.

Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series begins with Cop Hater. In it, two police detectives are murdered during a long, severe heat wave. Immediately, there’s a serious effort to find out who the killer is. At first, it looks as though someone has a grudge against police officers. But Detective Steve Carella and his team can’t find any viable leads. Little by little, they get closer to the truth about this case. And it turns out that a lot of simmering resentment plays an important role in the novel.

In P. D. James’ A Taste For Death, Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his team investigate when Crown Minister Paul Berowne is murdered, and his body found in a nearby church. Also murdered is a tramp named Harry Mack. It’s an odd sort of case, because there doesn’t seem to be a reason why those two would have had any contact. The team digs in and starts asking questions. As you’d expect, they spend quite a lot of time talking to Berowne’s family and staff. One of the people they talk to is Evelyn Matlock, who is Berowne’s ward. Her father was convicted of a crime and imprisoned, and now she acts as a sort of nurse to Berowne’s mother, Lady Ursula. The family, especially Lady Ursula, does not treat Evelyn as anything like a social equal, and often behave in a very rude and highhanded way. And that causes an awful lot of resentment. What’s interesting, too, is that the members of the family don’t really think about it or notice her. It’s in interesting look at how the class system can engender resentment.

In one plot thread of Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective, we are introduced to two young girls, Preeti and Basanti. They’ve agreed to join India’s sex trade in exchange for money given to their families. The plan is that they’ll work in the trade for a few years and save their money (and send as much as they can back to their families). Then, they’ll return to their villages, find husbands, and settle down. Both girls feel a strong sense of obligation to support their families, so they go along with the plan. Everything changes, though, when they are taken to Scotland. They’re sold to some very dangerous people; worse, they’re separated. Basanti truly resents the life she’s living now – it’s not at all what she’d thought. She resents even more the people who are in control of what she does. But she knows she could be killed if she causes trouble. So, she bides her time; and, finally, makes her escape. When she does, the first thing she wants to do is to find Preeti. But by this time, Preeti has gone missing, and may be dead. Basanti is determined to learn the truth, so she approaches oceanographer Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill for help. In the end, we find out the truth about Preeti, and we see how that simmering resentment has fueled Basanti’s search.

And then there’s Peter May’s The Blackhouse. Edinburgh detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ MacLeod is seconded to the Isle of Lewis to help with a murder investigation. Angel Macritchie has been killed in a way that’s very similar to a case that MacLeod is investigating in Edinburgh. It’s thought that, if the murders were committed by the same person, it makes sense to join forces. For MacLeod, it’s a homecoming, since he was born and raised on the Isle of Lewis. But it’s not a happy reunion, as he had his own good reasons for leaving. Still, he begins the investigation. And it turns out that simmering resentment is a very important part of this case.

There are a lot of other examples in the genre of the way resentment can build up. And when it does, there’s no telling what can happen. So, do make apologies when you should – it’s safer that way…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Claude Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Lovely Ladies.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Mark Douglas-Home, P.D. James, Peter May

The Archetypal Man*

Over the years, there’ve been some interesting character types that have become an integral part of crime fiction. They’re almost mythical, in a way, because we know the reality is a lot more complex than the myth. It’s a bit like the myth vs the reality of the famous shootout at the OK Corral. And, yet, those mythical characters can add to a story. And they’ve helped shape our perception of crime-fictional characters.

One mythical sort of character is the crusading lawyer personified in Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels. On television, Mason was, of course, portrayed by Raymond Burr. This character fights for the defendant, comes up with all sorts of strategies, surprise witnesses, and so on, and works to get justice for the client. The reality is, of course, much more complex than what was presented in the TV series, especially. And modern crime-fictional attorneys show that complexity. Most attorneys (both in real life and in crime fiction) do want to do their jobs well. They want to win their cases, and they do try to do so in an ethical way. But sometimes, their clients are guilty. Sometimes, they do things that aren’t exactly above-board, so to speak. And they don’t always win their cases. But many people still want to believe in the Perry Mason type of attorney.

Another interesting archetypal character is the PI personified by Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. He’s a loner, somewhat cynical, but still idealistic enough to want to do the right thing. He doesn’t let people get the better of him and stays just aloof enough not to get too personally entangled in a case, even if a ‘bombshell’ femme fatale tempts him. There are plenty of fictional PIs like that, of course. I’m sure you could name as many as I could. Crime fiction fans know, though, that PIs and the PI life are a lot more complex. For one thing, PIs come in lots of different shapes and sizes, so to speak. They do want to do their jobs well, by and large, but not all of them are fierce crusaders for justice. Some PIs are, indeed, susceptible to temptation. Some are extremely cynical, with their only focus on their fees, and so on. Crime fiction shows us this complexity, and most readers want that. At the same time, though, when we think of the PI, lots of us think of that Sam Spade archetype.

There’s also the mythical figure of the sheriff, especially in US western novels. You know the type, I’m sure: fighting for justice, facing off against a gang of ‘bad guys,’ and so on. If you’ve read novels by J.A. Jance, Craig Johnson, or Bill Crider (to name only three), you know that there’s more to being a sheriff than is portrayed in television and film westerns. And today’s sheriff characters are more complex. They’re not all male, they’re not all white, and their cases aren’t all clear-cut. Fictional sheriffs are often faced with ‘bad guys’ that aren’t so easy to spot, and aren’t always simplistic. Most sheriffs try to uphold the law in the best way they can, and they all do it a little differently. And, yet, despite these shades of differences, we still have a mental image of the sheriff as the lone force of good against the evil [Name of Gang] Boys.

There’s also the mythical loner/drifter who comes into town and ends up righting wrongs. I’m thinking, for instance, of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. This sort of character’s appeal arguably comes in part from being somewhat mysterious. We don’t ever really know everything about that person. But we do know that the ‘stranger in town’ is ultimately on the side of the angels. Of course, loners/drifters are more complex than it seems on the surface (we see that, actually, as the Jack Reacher series evolves). But there’s just something about the ‘stranger in town who ends up saving everything’ that appeals.

There are other mythical/archetypal characters, too, in crime fiction. But one character who isn’t enshrined in this way is the police detective. If you think about it, crime fiction includes a wide, wide array of police characters. There are bumbling cops (e.g. the way Arthur Conan Doyle portrayed police), dedicated detectives (like Agatha Christie’s Chief Inspector Japp), and ‘everyman’ police officers (e.g. Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct police). And not all of the police characters are depicted as sympathetic, either. From James Ellroy’s Los Angeles trilogy to Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road and plenty in between, there are ‘bent’ police officers, too. Perhaps the reason there may not be an archetypal police character is exactly that there’s this much variety.

A mythical/archetypal character can be limiting. It’s taken several decades, for instance, for fictional PIs to include women, non-whites, LGBTQ+ characters, and so on. And there may not be as much room for depths and layers to a mythical character as there is to a different sort of character. But they serve an important purpose. They give us a mental image of a lawyer, or a PI, or….  And they have some interesting qualities that can add to a story.

What’s your view? Do you think of those mythical characters (like Sam Spade or Perry Mason) when you think of a crime-fictional PI or lawyer? If you’re a writer, do you get inspired by those characters?

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Bill Crider, Craig Johnson, Dashiell Hammett, Ed McBain, Erle Stanley Gardner, Garry Disher, J.A. Jance, James Ellroy, Lee Child

Where Do You Start*

A recent conversation with Brad at ahsweetmysteryblog has got me thinking about reading a series in order vs picking and choosing in a series (and, perhaps, going completely out of order). Now, before I go any further, let me strongly encourage you to pay Brad’s blog a visit, and follow it if you aren’t already. It’s a treasure trove of rich, knowledgeable discussion about classic and GA crime fiction (with some more contemporary crime fiction here and there for added volume).

If you think about it, there are plenty of arguments for starting a series at the beginning and working one’s way through it chronologically. One is that many series have story arcs. They begin in earlier novels and are resolved as the series goes on (often, to lead to more story arcs in a longer series). Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series is like that. I won’t spoil those arcs by being really specific about them here. But there are several that involve Gamache’s private and professional lives. And, as fans can tell you, the stories in this series feature the residents of the small Québec town of Three Pines. As the series goes on, there is more than one story arc that involves those characters. Reading a series like this one in order allows the reader to follow those arcs in a logical way, and to see how they are resolved.

Another argument for reading a series sequentially is that later books in a series sometimes refer to earlier novels/plot points/etc.  For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the murder of Miss Emily Arundell, who had a fortune to leave, and several relatives who are desperate for money. That, of course, means several suspects. At one point, Poirot and Hastings are discussing the personalities of the people involved. Poirot mentions the names of four fictional murders from previous Christie novels. To be fair, people who haven’t read those earlier novels wouldn’t know they were the killers (Christie doesn’t, strictly speaking, say that they are). But if a reader happens to remember one of the names, and then goes back to an earlier novel, it’s a major spoiler to know the name of the killer.

There’s also the fact that, in a longer series, changes happen in the characters’ lives. They marry, break up, have children, move house, and go through other changes. For example, many life changes happen to Steve Carella, who features in Ed McBain’s long-running 87th Precinct series. As the novels go on, he marries, has children, and so on. Those life events aren’t always the central focus of the novels, but they are part of the story. So, a reader who starts later in the series might have a mental representation of Carella that includes his wife, older children, and so on. If the reader then goes back to the first novel, Cop Hater, that mental representation doesn’t fit quite so well. Certainly, a reader could easily make the adjustment. Still, those changes in perception can mean a reader has to stop and take stock, so to speak, even if it’s not really confusing for the reader to go back. The same is true of series in which the protagonist has one partner in the early novels, and then moves on to someone else as the series goes on.

All of that said, though, there are also good arguments for starting later in a series. For one thing, it takes many authors a few novels to really find their voices and do their best work. If I may speak personally, I think my more recent novels are better-written and more mature, if I can put it that way, than my first one. At least, I hope I’ve learned as I’ve gone along. It’s a natural part of the evolution of a writer. So, a reader who chooses an author’s later work may get to see the best that author has to offer. That can invite the reader to go back and try something else by that author. And, even if the author’s earlier work isn’t as good, the reader knows that the potential is there. So, the reader won’t be as likely to be put off by a less-than-great first novel.

Another – and probably related – thing about series is that the major characters often grow, change, evolve, and become more interesting as the series goes on. That’s certainly true of Ellery Queen. In the first novels in which he features, he’s certainly not a multi-dimensional, nuanced character. He’s smart and solves the mysteries, but many people wouldn’t consider him a warm, sympathetic character. As the series goes on, though, Queen evolves. He becomes more fully fleshed out and multi-dimensional. And that (speaking strictly for myself) makes him more appealing. So, there’s a solid argument that it makes some sense to start later in the Queen series than earlier.

There’s also the issue of availability. Sometimes, an author’s more recent books are more easily available in a library or bookshop than are earlier novels. Better-known titles are also often more easily available than are lesser-known titles. That doesn’t mean, of course, that you can’t find that first novel. But it sometimes takes more digging. And if your goal is to try an author’s work to see what you think, you may not want to make as much effort (or spend as much).

This isn’t a settled question. There are some solid arguments for starting at the beginning of a series, but there are also solid arguments for not doing that. What do you think? Are you strictly a ‘begin at the beginning’ person? If you’re a writer, how do you feel about readers beginning at different points in your work?

Thanks, Brad, for the inspiration!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Johnny Mandel and Alan and Marilyn Bergman.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Ellery Queen, Louise Penny

I’ll be Waiting in the Photo Booth at the Underground Station*

If you live in or near a large metropolis, then you’re probably familiar with that city’s subway/Underground/Metro system. In a place with extremely heavy traffic, it can be a lot more efficient to get where you’re going if you take the metro system. In fact, a lot of people in such areas don’t own cars, because it’s a lot easier and less expensive to simply take public transit.

Metros (whatever they are called in a given city) can also be very effective settings for action in a crime novel. For one thing, they can be very atmospheric – even creepy. For another, there are all sorts of disparate people who use the system. So, any number of things can happen. And, in crime novels, they do.

The London Underground system has been in place since the Victorian Era, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes knows the system by heart. Quite a number of the Holmes stories make reference to different Underground stations (Waterloo, Euston, and, of course, Baker Street, among others). At the time of the original Holmes stories, the London system was only a few decades old, and Conan Doyle makes quite effective use of it in the stories.

Many other authors also include stops at various London tube stations. For instance, Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit features Anne Bedingfield, a young woman who’s recently lost her father. Now, with no ties to keep her in London, she’d like to see a bit of the world. One day, she’s at the Hyde Park Corner tube station when she witnesses he death of a man who falls (or is he pushed?) into the path of an oncoming train. Anne happens to get hold of a piece of paper that fell from the man’s pocket and gets curious about it. It turns out to be a reference to the upcoming sailing of the HMS Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. On impulse, Anne books passage and boards the ship. And that’s when her real adventures begin. She ends up getting caught in a web of international intrigue, jewel theft, and more.

Jewel theft also plays a role in Martha Grimes The Anodyne Necklace. Inspector Richard Jury is about to go off for a holiday when he’s sent to the village of Littlebourne, where the remains of a human finger have been found. The rest of the body is soon discovered, too. It turns out that the victim was Cora Binns, a temporary secretary who’d gone to Littlebourne for a job interview, but never made it to that meeting. As Jury and his friend, Melrose Plant, start to look into the matter, they learn that this death is not the only terrible thing to have happened in the village. Sixteen-year-old Katie O’Brien was brutally attacked in a London Underground station not far from where Cora Binns lived. Now, she’s in a coma, and is unlikely to survive. Those connections are too close to be coincidental, so Jury and Plant believe that the two incidents are related. And so they turn out to be. In the end, they are linked to another death, a jewel theft, and a cryptic treasure map.

Ed McBain’s Kiss features Emma Bowles. The story begins as someone tries to push her off of a subway platform and into the path of an oncoming train. She survives, but that’s hardly the end of her troubles. Less than two weeks later, someone tries to run her over with a car. Now, she goes to the police. She has come to believe that the man responsible for both incidents is the driver employed by her husband, Martin. If that’s true, then it’s quite possible Martin is trying to kill her. Detectives Meyer Meyer and Steve Carella look into the matter, and Martin Bowles hires a bodyguard to protect his wife. But Meyer and Carella being to suspect something very serious is going on when Emma gets into even more danger…

In Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone discovers the body of the dog that’s owned by the people next door to him. At first, they think he’s responsible for the animal’s death. But he’s not. He wants to clear his name, and he’s curious about what happened. So, Christopher decides to become a detective like Sherlock Holmes and find out what happened to the dog. It’s not going to be easy for him, though. Christopher has autism, and although he’s high-functioning, it limits his social skills and makes it difficult for him to do a lot of things we take for granted. One of those things is taking public transit. In one thread of this plot, Christopher takes a trip on the Underground, and it’s interesting to get his perspective:
 

‘And I did detecting by watching and I saw that people were putting tickets into gray gates and walking through. And some of them were buying tickets at big black machines on the wall.’
 

For Christopher, this is a major undertaking, but he completes his journey and ends up learning a great deal, including things about himself.

And then there’s Fred Vargas’ The Chalk Circle Man, the first of her Commissaire Adamsberg novels. Adamsberg and his team are with the Paris Police, and they often deal with unusual cases. This one’s no different. It seems someone has been leaving blue chalk circles in different parts of the city and putting things (a hat, an orange, scraps of paper, and so on) in the circles. And each circle contains a cryptic message: Victor, woe’s in store. What are you out here for? At first, it seems harmless enough, if very odd. But Adamsberg does need to know who’s responsible. So, he tries to find out who’s been in the area where the circles are left. That includes getting information from the local Metro stations. Matters get more serious when the body of Madeleine Châtelain is found in a newly-drawn circle. Now, it’s a murder investigation that’s complicated by the discovery of two other bodies. In the end, Adamsberg and his team connect the deaths, and find the killer. And it turns out that the Metro plays a role in where and when the chalk circles are left.

And that’s the thing about the Underground/subway/Metro. The system allows people to get where they’re going efficiently and quickly. But that doesn’t mean it’s safe…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Babyshambles’ Albion.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Fred Vargas, Mark Haddon, Martha Grimes