Category Archives: Hannah Dennison

Women in Charge*

One of the more formidable character types in fiction is the grande dame. She is often (not always) elderly, and she has a lot of influence within her sphere. Sometimes, that influence is beneficent; other times it is far from that. Either way, a grande dame plays a key social role in her circles.

Crime-fictional sleuths know that they’re not going to get very far in their investigations if they don’t get the co-operation of a grande dame, when there is one. That’s because grandes dames can have a powerful influence over other characters. There are many fictional grandes dames; space only allows me to mention a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, we are introduced to Princess Natalia Dragomiroff. She and her maid are en route through Europe on the legendary Orient Express. On the second night of the journey, fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed in his compartment. Hercule Poirot is on the same train and is persuaded to investigate. The only possible suspects are the other passengers in the same coach, so Poirot’s focus is that group of people. One of those ‘people of interest’ is Princess Dragomiroff. She is elderly, autocratic, and thoroughly accustomed to being obeyed. Yet, she complies willingly when she’s asked to give an account of her own actions, and she even says,

‘‘You need not offer apologies, Messieurs. I understand a murder has taken place. Naturally, you must interview all the passengers. I shall be glad to give all the assistance in my power.’’

After the interview, M. Bouc, who represents the travel company that owns the train, describes the princess as ‘truly grande dame.’ And so she turns out to be.

Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart is the first in his series featuring American ex-pat writer Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty. He’s made his new home in Bangkok, where he’s gained a reputation for being able to find people who don’t necessarily want to be found. That’s why Clarissa Ulrich, who’s visiting from Australia, wants to hire him. She’s concerned because she hasn’t heard from her Uncle Claus in several months, and she’s worried about him. He seems to have gone missing, and she wants Rafferty to find him. Rafferty agrees and starts the search. Part of the trail leads to an enigmatic grande dame named Madame Wing.  She agrees to give Rafferty the information he requests, on condition that he do something for her. She claims that something of value has been taken from her, and she wants it back. Rafferty isn’t exactly drawn to Madame Wing, but she is a person of great influence and presence. Besides, he needs the information she has. So, he agrees to the arrangement, and ends up getting drawn into two cases where past tragedies lead to modern-day crimes.

In Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall, television presenter Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford has decided to leave the high-pressure ‘goldfish bowl’ world of television, and open an antique shop with her mother, Iris. Then, she learns that her mother has abruptly moved to the old carriage house at Honeychurch Hall, in Little Dipperton, Devon. Shocked at this move, Stanford goes to Little Dipperton, where she finds that her mother’s had a hand injury from an auto accident. She decides to stay for a short time, until her mother has recuperated. Soon, she gets drawn into a disappearance, and then a murder, all having to do with the history of the Honeychurch family and of Honeychurch Hall. In the process of asking questions, Stanford meets Lady Edith Honeychurch, matriarch of the family. She’s a little eccentric, but she has a strong presence, and she’s got a great deal of local influence. Her personality is an interesting aspect of this novel.

Kalpana Swaminathan’s sleuth, Lalli, is an interesting example of a grande dame. Officially retired now, she is a former member of the Mumbai Police. She has legendary skills among the police, though, and is often consulted and informally brought in on cases. Lalli has a real presence, and still wields a great deal of influence in the police department, although she’s no longer on the force. She has a way, too, of getting suspects and other ‘people of interest’ to co-operate with her, whether or not they want to initially. In part it’s because she’s highly intelligent and skilled. In part it’s because of her presence.

And then there’s Mme. Pomfort, whom we meet in Susan C. Shea’s Love and Death in Burgundy. She is the undisputed social queen of the small French town of Reigny-sur-Canne. When ex-pat Americans Michael Goff and his artist wife, Katherine, move to the town, they soon learn that Mme. Pomfort’s approval is essential to social acceptance in the town. Katherine, in particular, wants to get on Mme. Pomfort’s good side, as she wants to be able to fit in. But that’s not going to be easy. At best, Mme. Pomfort is icily polite, and Katherine doesn’t know how to break that ice. Then, longtime resident Albert Bellegarde dies after a fall down some stairs in his home. At first, it’s put down to a tragic accident. But soon, there are little bits of evidence that suggest otherwise. Katherine gets involved in the investigation because she knew the victim and his wife, Adele. As she starts putting the pieces together, she finds that more than one person might have wanted the victim dead. And she runs the risk of complete social isolation if she can’t persuade Mme. Pomfort to accept her.

And that’s the thing about grandes dames. They wield a great deal of power and influence. So, fictional sleuths have to deal with them at times, whether they want to or not.


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


Filed under Agatha Christie, Hannah Dennison, Kalpana Swaminathan, Susan C. Shea, Timothy Hallinan

When You Were Only Startin’ to Go to Kindergarten*

It’s a ritual that happens in almost every family. I’m talking about the first day of school, especially the first day of Kindergarten or its equivalent. It’s a big event, even for children who’ve been in a child care facility of some kind. It’s an even bigger event for those who haven’t. And it often makes people anxious.

For the parents, it might be the first time their child is ‘officially’ compared to others. And in some countries, it’s the first time that children are expected to do anything like academic work. So, it’s natural for parents to feel anxious (e.g. ‘Will my child make friends/learn letters/behave/etc….’). For the children, starting school means a whole new routine, new adults in charge, and all sorts of new children to meet. And that’s to say nothing of what they’re expected to learn. Some children are excited about it, and some are reluctant, to say the least.

Not the least of parents’ concerns is, of course, their child’s well-being. That’s one reason many parents walk or drive their young children to school (at least until those children beg them not to any more…). We see that sort of concern in Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal. In that novel, Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband, Hendrik, seem to have a perfect suburban life, complete with white picket fence. They’ve been married for fifteen years, and they are the proud parents of six-year-old Axel. Then, Eva discovers that Hendrik has been unfaithful. Devastated by this news, she determines to find out who the other woman is. When she does, she makes her own plans, which quickly spiral out of control. In the meantime, she’s got another concern. One day, Axel tells her about a man – someone he doesn’t know – who’s been talking to him over the fence at his school. It scares Eva, as you can imagine, and adds to the tension in the story. And, in its own way, it relates to the larger plot.

Hannah Dennison’s Deadly Desires at Honeychurch Hall features former TV personality Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford, who’s living with her mother, Iris, in the former carriage house on the estate of Honeychurch Hall, in Devon. The estate’s current owner is Rupert Honeychurch, whose son, Harry, is old enough now to go to school. Like many boys in his social group, Harry is sent away to school, and he doesn’t like the idea at all. He’s miserable away from home and keeps finding excuses to come back to Honeychurch Hall. His unhappiness sparks a major debate in his family. On the one hand, if Harry doesn’t go away to one of the ‘right schools,’ there’s a good chance he won’t get to mix with boys of his social class. This means he won’t get the opportunity to be a part of the networks that are so important to later advancement. On the other hand, there’s no doubt he’s deeply unhappy, and would much prefer to go to the local school. It’s not an easy choice to make, especially for a boy as young as Harry is. Admittedly, it’s not a part of the main plot thread. But it shows what it can be like for families as their children go off to school.

In Peter May’s The Blackhouse, Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ MacLeod is seconded to the Isle of Lewis. There’s been a murder there that resembles a murder MacLeod is investigating, and it’s hoped that, if the same person committed both murders, working as a team might help both groups catch the killer. For MacLeod, this is a homecoming, since he grew up on the Isle of Lewis. But it’s not a particularly joyful one. He had his own good reasons for leaving when he did. And the dead man is a person he used to know. As MacLeod works with the local team to find out who the killer is, he meets several people he grew up with, and we learn about his early life. One of his memories is going to school for the first time (he was excited about it at first). One of the realities of life at the time MacLeod was growing up was the fact that most people on the Isle of Lewis spoke Gaelic. And yet, only English was spoken and taught in school. So, along with getting used to lessons and so on, MacLeod also had to get used to a new language. And that’s a reality for many young children who speak one language at home and/or in their community but must learn another at school.

Claudia Piñeiro’s Thursday Night Widows takes place mostly in an ultra-exclusive community called Cascade Heights Country Club, about thirty miles from Buenos Aires. Only the very wealthy can afford to live there, and even they are not guaranteed acceptance. It’s a very elite place. Residents are expected to shop at certain places, go on certain trips, and send their children only to the ‘right’ schools. Then, the financial crises of the late 1990s (when this novel takes place) find their way into even this most upmarket of places. Everything starts to change, and eventually, it ends in real tragedy. At one point, there’s an interesting discussion of one of the residents, Mariana, getting her daughter ready to go to school for the first time. This school teaches in English, so the child will have to get used to a new school, new children, and a completely new language. But this is one of the ‘right’ schools, and Mariana’s main concern is getting her daughter into the school and then making sure she stays there. Instead of being concerned about her daughter’s readiness, comfort, etc., or easing her anxieties, Mariana is thinking about her daughter’s appearance, and about her superficial success. Certainly, she’s doing nothing to ease the transition to school.

And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. This novel takes place within the community of parents and children associated with Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The main focus is on the Kindergarten class, and the children who are joining it. The plot follows the lives of three families whose children are enrolled in that class, and how those lives intersect. There are rivalries, domestic issues, and other simmering conflicts that boil over one evening and end in tragedy. Throughout the novel, we see the anxiety of starting school for both parents and children. The parents want their children to reflect well on them, of course. The children have their own anxieties, and it’s interesting to see how that tension impacts the story.

Starting school, especially for the first time, can be stressful. It’s almost always eventful, and it can lead to all sorts of anxiety. Little wonder we see this plot point in the genre.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer’s You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby.


Filed under Claudia Piñeiro, Hannah Dennison, Karin Alvtegen, Liane Moriarty, Peter May

We Are All Branches, Branches on the Family Tree*

Many people are interested in learning more about their family’s history. In the US, for instance, there’s a television show called Who do You Think You Are?, in which famous people follow their families’ histories and learn about their ancestries.

Family roots and stories from the family tree play roles in crime fiction, too. And that isn’t surprising, really. You never know what you’ll dig up when you search around your roots. And even if your ancestors weren’t notorious or famous, you could still find some interesting stories in your family past. And some of those stories can play roles in the present.

Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead includes an interesting discussion of the impact of family roots and family history. In the novel, Hercule Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny to investigate the murder of a charwoman. Everyone thinks the killer was her lodger, James Bentley, but there are other possibilities. One evening, Poirot is invited to a cocktail party, where tongues are somewhat loosened with alcohol. Later, a group of the guests goes to visit the home of one of the residents who couldn’t go to the party. There’s an interesting discussion about breeding dogs, and one of the people says,

‘‘You can’t get away from heredity – in people as well as dogs.’’

Not everyone agrees with that assessment, so it’s a lively conversation. As it turns out, there is a connection between family pasts and the murder of Mrs. McGinty. It seems that the victim found out more about one particular person’s history than was safe for her to know.

Family stories and history play an important role in John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook. When Tad Rampole finishes his university studies, he decides to travel. His mentor suggests that he go to England to visit Dr. Gideon Fell, and Rampole takes that advice. On his way to Fell’s home, Rampole meets Dorothy Starberth, and it’s not long before the two are taken with each other. And Rampole soon learns that she has an interesting family history. Two generations of Starberth men were Governors at the new-disused Chatterham Prison. Even today, the men of the family undergo an odd sort of ritual because of that old connection. Each male Starberth spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room. There, he opens the room’s safe, and follows a set of instructions listed on a piece of paper that’s kept there. It’s now the turn of Dorothy’s brother, Martin. He’s reluctant to go through with the ritual, because several Starberth men have died unusual deaths. Some people even call it a curse. But, he goes along with the plan in the end, and spends the night at the prison. Tragically, he dies of what looks like a terrible accident. But was it? Fell discovers that this death was most definitely a murder, and finds out who the killer is.

Fans of Steve Robinson’s Jefferson Tayte novels can tell you that family stories play a major role in that series. Tayte is a genealogist, who often uncovers surprising (sometimes dangerous) secrets in families’ stories. For instance, in In the Blood, Tayte is hire by wealthy Boston business magnate Walter Sloane. Sloane wants Tayte to trace his wife’s ancestry as a gift for her, and Tayte agrees. One branch of her family went to England with a group of Royalists during the American Revolution, so Tayte gets the ‘green light’ to go there and find out what happened to that family. And what he finds still resonates today, with the family’s modern descendants. And it all brings real danger to him.

Dorothy Fowler’s What Remains Behind introduces readers to archaeologist Chloe Davis. She, her business partner, Bill, and a group of their students, get clearance to go to Kaipara Harbour, on New Zealand’s North Island. They want to excavate the remains of a religious community that burned down in the 1880s. For Chloe, this is a homecoming of sorts, since she grew up in the area. But it’s not a joyful family reunion. For one thing, Chloe’s cousin, Shane, is a leader of a group of people who do not want the excavation to go on. They want the land for development. There’s also the fact that Choe has a troubled relationship with her sister, Phaedra, who has inherited a house in the contested area. Still, the excavation goes ahead. And, as the team members work the site, they find more there than a burnt-out set of mission buildings. There are some surprising connections to the present, and some family-ancestry links, that someone doesn’t want uncovered.

And then there’s Hannah Dennison’s Murderous Mayhem at Honeychurch Hall. In one plot thread of this novel, the village of Little Dipperton, in Devon, is preparing to re-enact a battle that was fought there between the Cavaliers, who supported King Charles I, and the Roundheads, who supported Oliver Cromwell. The Honeychurch family, who’s been in the area for hundreds of years, were Cavaliers. So, Rupert Honeychurch, the current Lord Honeychurch, will take on that role. His wife, Lavinia, was a Carew before she married, and the Carews were Roundheads. So, there’s some interesting tension in the family. Those generations-old connections still matter in this village. The main plot of the novel has to do with the murder of the local postmistress. But it’s interesting to see how family roots, and family history, play a role, too.

And, for many people, that’s as true in real life as it is in fiction. Little wonder there’s so much fascination with ancestry and family pasts. Which stories have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Londonbeat’s It’s In the Blood.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy Fowler, Hannah Dennison, John Dickson Carr, Steve Robinson

Stars on TV Screens*

You see them on TV all the time. You may even feel that you know them, they’re that familiar. Yes, I’m talking about TV presenters. They may host a quiz or celebrity show, or they may host some other sort of show. Either way, they’re a part of our lives.

They may seem to live charmed lives, but TV presenters are humans, as we all are. And they work in what can be very highly-charged, tense atmosphere. So, it’s not surprising that they also show up in crime fiction. After all, where would we be without those shows and their hosts?

In Julian Symons’ A Three-Pipe Problem, we are introduced to television star Sheridan ‘Sher’ Haynes. He is the lead in a popular Sherlock Holmes series, with Basil Wainwright as his Watson. Although Haynes is a popular television personality, the show has been slipping in ratings. What’s more, Haynes has his share of problems with the show. He is a dedicated fan of the Holmes stories, and isn’t happy at all with the changes that the show’s creators have made to the stories and some of the major characters. Then, Haynes gets an idea to save the series and show that his more purist view of the show will prevail. There’s been a series of bizarre murders, called the ‘Karate Killings.’  The police haven’t made much progress, but Haynes thinks that if he uses Holmes’ method, he can find out who the killer is. It’s a strange idea, and plenty of people in Haynes’ life are not happy about it. But he persists and starts to ask questions. He gets into his share of trouble, but in the end, he finds out the truth.

In Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are, we meet TV presenter Frank Allcroft. As the novel begins, he’s at rather a crossroads in his life. He’s doing well at his show, he’s happy with his wife, and a proud father. But he doesn’t feel settled. He’s also dealing with the death of his predecessor, friend, and colleague, Phil Smedway. It seems that Smedway was jogging one morning when he was killed in a hit-and-run incident. In his restlessness, Allcroft is drawn to the scene of Smedway’s death. He notices some things that make him wonder. For one thing, the road is straight and clear. For another, the weather on the day of Smedway’s death was dry. There’s no reason a driver wouldn’t have been able to swerve to avoid hitting Smedway. Now, Allcroft begins to wonder what really happened. Among other things, the novel gives real insight into what it’s like to be a TV presenter.

Christopher Fowler’s Ten Second Staircase features London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). Arthur Bryant and John May and the rest of the PCU investigate a bizarre set of murders. It seems that someone is targeting minor celebrities and seems to be doing it to become a star himself. One of those the killer targets is Danny Martell, the host of a popular ITV teen lifestyle show. He’s in the gym one day, trying to work off some stress and lose a bit of weight when he’s mysteriously electrocuted. It’s a strange set of crimes, and the PCU team has its hands full as it tries to make sense of the only clear clue: an eyewitness who says the killer was wearing a cape and a tricorner hat.

Lynda Wilcox’s Strictly Murder is the first of her novels to feature Verity Long. She is research assistant to famous crime novelist Kathleen ‘KD’ Davenport. Mostly, her job is to research old crime cases that Davenport can use as the basis for her work. Long gets involved in her own murder case when she decides to look for a new home. A house agent is showing her a place when she discovers the body of celebrity TV presenter Jaynee ‘JayJay’ Johnson. Since Long found the body, she’s of interest to the police, and she gets involved in finding out who killed the victim. And it turns out that there are several suspects. The behind-the-scenes atmosphere wasn’t at all pleasant, since Johnson wasn’t exactly beloved among her colleagues.

And then there’s Hannah Dennison’s Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford. She was a successful TV presenter who hosted a show called Fakes & Treasures. But she got ‘burned out’ from the stress of being in the media limelight. Her plan had been to open an antiques business with her mother, but everything changes in Murder at Honeychurch Hall. In that novel, Stanford discovers that her mother has abruptly moved to the Devon village of Little Dipperton. Shocked at her mother’s choice, Stanford rushes there, only to find that her mother’s been injured in a minor car accident. She stays on to help while her mother heals up and gets drawn into a murder mystery.

Television presenters may seem to lead magical lives, but things don’t always go very smoothly. Those conflicts and stresses can make things difficult for the presenter, but they can add much to a crime novel. These are just a few examples. I know you’ll think of more.


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


Filed under Catherine O'Flynn, Christopher Fowler, Hannah Dennison, Julian Symons, Lynda Wilcox

Few of the Sins of the Father are Visited Upon the Son*

When a crime is committed, especially something like murder, it’s not just the victim and the perpetrator who are affected. The public’s memory can be long; so, even a generation or two (or more) later, a family can be associated with a crime. And that can impact family members, and even be very difficult for them (e.g. ‘Are you any relation to that man/woman who…?’).

Having an infamous crime or ancestor in one’s past can make for an interesting layer of character development. How, for instance, do you deal with the fact that your parent, or grandparent, or great-grandparent, etc., killed someone? Or stole a lot of money? This sort of plot point can add tension to a story, too. So, it’s little wonder we see it in crime fiction.

For example, Ruth Rendell’s first novel as Barbara Vine was A Dark-Adapted Eye. In it, Faith Longley Severn has to come to terms with a terrible crime in her family’s past. Many years earlier, Vera Longley Hilliard was arrested, convicted, and executed for murder. The Longley family had always prided itself on its respectability, so this was an especially hard blow. No-one’s spoken of it since. But now, a journalist, Daniel Stewart, finds out about the story, and decides to write a book on the family and the hanging. He approaches Faith to see if she’ll cooperate, and provide him with whatever family history she may have. It’s a wrenching topic, but Faith agrees. And, as she and Daniel look into the past, we learn what happened in the Longley family, and how and why the death happened.

John Grisham’s The Chamber features the Cayhall family. Former Ku Klux Klansman Sam Cayhall is in prison in Mississippi, on death row for a bombing murder. He says he’s not guilty of the bombing. In fact, he’s had several stays of execution, but has run out of options, and is scheduled to be executed. His case is taken pro bono by a Chicago law firm. They send one of their attorneys, Adam Hall, to their Memphis office to defend Cayhall. As we soon learn, Hall was born Alan Cayhall, and is actually Sam Cayhall’s grandson. It turns out that Adam/Alan’s father, Eddie, was disgusted with his father’s Klan activities and bigotry, and left for California, never to return. He didn’t want to be associated with the Cayhall name. As the novel goes on, and Adam/Alan works on behalf of his grandfather, we learn the family’s history, and we learn the truth about the bombing.

Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs is the story of the Franco family. At the turn of the 20th Century, Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco and his family leave their native Italy to settle in New York. He gets a job at a shoe repair shop, and starts to do well. In fact, he ends up opening his own shoe repair and sales company, and the family prospers. Unfortunately, he starts drinking, and ends up killing a man in a bar fight one night. He’s arrested and taken into custody. Then he discovers that the victim was Luigi Lupo, son of notorious crime boss Tonio Lupo. When Lupo finds out who killed his son, he visits Franco in jail, and curses his three sons, saying that they’ll die at the same age as his son was when he died. As the story goes on, we learn what happens to those three sons, and how they deal with being the sons of a man who committed murder.

Steve Robinson’s In The Blood introduces his sleuth, genealogist Jefferson Tayte. In this novel, business executive Walter Sloane hires Tayte to trace his wife’s ancestry. Her family, the Fairbornes, split into two branches, one of which returned to their native England during the American Revolution. So, Tayte travels to England to contact the modern-day Fairbornes and see what he can learn. He discovers that some of the family members when missing, so he decides to find out what happened to them. Soon enough, he’s warned off, and it’s clear that someone does not want the truth about the family to come out. It turns out that even things that happened as long ago as the late 1700s still impact the family today.

We see a bit of similarity in Hannah Dennison’s Murderous Mayhem at Honeychurch Hall. In one plot thread of this novel, the small Devon town of Little Dipperton is preparing for a Skirmish – a re-enactment of a battle between the Cavaliers, who supported King Charles I, and the Roundheads, who supported Oliver Cromwell. As it happens, the Honeychurch family were Cavaliers; so Rupert Honeychurch is taking on that role. His wife, Lavinia, was a Carew before she married; and the Carews were Roundheads. As the story goes on, it’s interesting to see how crimes that were committed (or alleged to have been committed) by one side or other still play roles today.

There’s also Sue Younger’s Days Are Like Grass. Pediatric surgeon Claire Bowerman returns from London to her native Auckland with her partner, Yossi Shalev, and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Roimata ‘Roi.’ She had her reasons for leaving Auckland in the first place, so she’s reluctant to go back. But it’s very important to Yossi, so she agrees. At first, all goes well enough. But then, one of her patients, two-year-old Rory Peteru, is diagnosed with a tumour on his kidney. From Claire’s perspective, it’s best to remove the growth as soon as possible. But the child’s parents, Isa’ako and Kate, refuse the procedure on the grounds of their religious beliefs. The media take an interest, and before Claire knows it, she’s the focus of publicity – some thing she didn’t want. Years earlier, her father, Patrick, was arrested and convicted for the 1970 murder of Kathryn Philips. Although he was jailed, there was never enough evidence to truly determine whether he was guilty, so he was released. Still, plenty of people think he was guilty, and they associate Claire’s name with that case. For Claire, it’s as though she can’t shake the stigma associated with her father.

And that does happen when a family member commits a crime. Sometimes it even happens when there’s just suspicion. Either way, it can cast a very long shadow.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Midnight Oil’s Forgotten Years


Filed under Apostolos Doxiadis, Barbara Vine, Hannah Dennison, John Grisham, Ruth Rendell, Steve Robinson, Sue Younger