Category Archives: Louise Penny

Round About Their Homes*

One of the decisions that authors make when they tell a story is how to share point of view. Will the story have only one point of view? If so, whose? If not, how will different points of view be shared? There are a lot of different successful ways to do this, really; it all depends on the context and on the author’s goals.

When the story is about a relatively small community, where there is a limited group of characters, it can be effective to share those different perspectives. It’s a bit like a camera ‘zooming in’ on different households as events unfold.

Agatha Christie did that quite frequently in her novels and stories. To take only one example, in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot visits the village of Broadhinny when his friend, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence asks him to look into a case. James Bentley is soon to be executed for the murder of his landlady, but Spence thinks he may be innocent. As Poirot investigates, we get glimpses into the homes of the various characters who figure into the story. There’s the Summerhayes family, owners of a Guest House; there are the wealthy and dysfunctional Wetherbys; and, there is up-and-coming politician Guy Carpenter and his wife, Eve. Also living in the village are the local GP, Dr. Rendell, and his wife, Shelagh, and Laura Upward and her playwright son, Robin. As the story goes on, we get to know these characters as there are various scenes in their homes. That set of perspectives offers a broader look at the village, as well as some interesting character development. You’re absolutely right, fans of The Moving Finger and of A Murder is Announced.

In Lawrence Sanders’ The Anderson Tapes, we meet professional thief John ‘Duke’ Anderson. He’s recently been released from prison, and he’s trying to ‘go straight.’ Then, he gets the chance to visit an exclusive Manhattan apartment building and decides to rob the entire building. As the story unfolds, and Anderson makes his plans, we meet the various residents in the building. The entire story is told in the form of transcripts, letters, notes, and so on, so the points of view aren’t shared in the traditional way. Still, we ‘zoom in’ on the various apartments and their residents. And we get the police perspective as well.

Truman Capote uses a similar approach in In Cold Blood, the fictional retelling of the murders of the Clutter family in 1959. Richard ‘Dick’ Hickock and Perry Smith killed Herb Clutter, his wife, Bonnie, and two of their children, Nancy and Kenyon, because they’d heard that Clutter kept a great deal of money at his home. Capote tells the story from different points of view, including the Clutters, some of the families they knew, and others who lived in their small Kansas town. The novel begins with the lead-up to the murders, and then goes on through the tragedies themselves, the police investigations, and the trials of the two killers. Through it all, the different perspectives allow the reader to see how the murders impacted this small community.

Louise Penny’s novels featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec take place very often in the small town of Three Pines. Because it’s a small town, the local families know each other, and each is affected when murder strikes. And Penny chooses to show the points of view of the different characters as the stories go on. We get to know, for instance, Clara and Peter Morrow, both of whom are artists. We also follow Gabri and Olivier, who own the local bistro/B&B, and Ruth Zardo, resident poet. There are other characters, too, whose lives we follow and whose points of view Penny shares. That multiple viewpoint works well in this series, quite probably because there is a limited cast of ‘regular’ characters, so the number of perspectives is limited.

And then there’s Shirley Wells’ Into the Shadows, in which she introduces her sleuths, forensic psychologist Jill Kennedy and Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Max Trentham. Kennedy has recently moved to the Pennines village of Kelton Bridge, hoping for a quiet life. She’s recently left her successful career, and now she wants to start over. Then, in one plot thread, the vicar’s wife, Alice Trueman, is murdered. It seems very clear on the surface that her son, Michael, is responsible. He was found standing over the body with the murder weapon. But he won’t say anything about what’s happened. So, Trentham asks Kennedy to work with the young man and try to get him to open up. It’s not going to be an easy task, but Kennedy agrees to at least try. As Trentham and his team work to find out the truth about this murder, we get an ‘inside look’ at the other families in the village. Parts of the story are told from the points of view of some of those people, and that allows the reader to see the sleuths and the investigation from different points of view.

Showing different perspectives – ‘zooming in’ on different characters and families – can be complicated, especially if there’s a large number of people. But when those perspectives are done well, and when it’s a smaller sort of mystery, those different points of view can be interesting. They can add character layers, plot points, and more to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Johnston’s China Grove.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Lawrence Sanders, Louise Penny, Shirley Wells, Truman Capote

And Meet the Best Innkeeper in Town*

Staying at an inn can be a really pleasant alternative to staying at a large, ‘corporate’ hotel. Inns are often smaller, more intimate, and more ‘homey’ than larger places. They have a long history, too – longer than that of the large hotel chains. And they’re quite varied.

One important difference between the larger hotels and inns is that, instead of being owned by corporations, and managed onsite, many inns are privately owned. This means that innkeepers and owners have a lot of say and personal stake in their inns. They can be interesting people in their own right, and they certainly figure in crime fiction. After all, innkeepers have a way of knowing what goes on in their places.

In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, for instance, we are introduced to Mrs. Castle, who owns the Jolly Roger Hotel, a holiday destination on Leathercombe Bay. She prides herself on running a respectable establishment; she is painfully respectable herself, too. So, it’s a source of great distress when one of her guests is murdered. Famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall is strangled during a visit to the Jolly Roger. At first, her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, is a natural suspect. But he has a provable alibi. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel, and he works with the police to find out who the real killer is. Through it all, Mrs. Castle is determined to preserve the good name of her hotel.

Matsumoto Seichō’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates is the story of the murder of Miki Ken’ichi, whose body is found early one morning under a Tokyo train. Inspector Imanishi Eitaro and his team take the case. The victim wasn’t from Tokyo, so there are no nearby family members of close friends. So, one important task for the police is to find out where the man was from and try to trace his movements. It takes time, but eventually, it’s established that Miki was from Okayama. He was taking what was, for him, a very unusual trip, so Imanishi starts with Okayama, and traces the man’s journey. This leads him to the Futami Inn, where Miki stayed briefly. The innkeeper isn’t exactly thrilled to have the police asking questions, since he’s concerned about the inn’s reputation. But he co-operates with the police, and so does the maid who waited on Miki. Between them, they provide Imanishi with interesting and important information.

Ross Macdonald’s short story The Singing Pigeon features his PI sleuth, Lew Archer. In it, Archer is heading north from Mexico into Southern California. He stops for the night at a motel called the Siesta. At first, the innkeeper doesn’t seem eager to rent out rooms, but finally, he gives Archer a room for the night. The next morning, Archer is awakened by a woman’s scream, and rushes to the room next door to see what’s going on. There’s blood on the bedsheets, and the young woman who was screaming starts to say something about it, but she’s quickly hushed up. The innkeeper, who is her father, says that one of the guests had a nosebleed, but Archer doesn’t believe it. Still, there’s not much he can do. He checks out of the Siesta and prepares to be on his way. Not far from the motel, though, he finds the body of a man. Making the obvious inference, he goes back to the Siesta, where it’s soon clear that nobody is telling him the truth about what really happened there. In the end, though, Archer finds out who the dead man was, and what his connection is to the Siesta and the family that owns it.

In Sujata Massey’s The Salaryman’s Wife, Tokyo-based art expert Rei Shimura decides to treat herself to a New Year’s trip to a traditional inn/B&B near Shiroyama, in the Japanese Alps. The inn is owned by Mayumi Yogetsu, who takes pride in her establishment, and wants to maintain its reputation. She keeps up traditional standards, and that makes for a bit of awkwardness with Shimura, who is more modern in her outlook. Still, the visit starts out well enough. Then, early one morning, Shimura discovers the body of another guest, Setsuko Nakamura. The police are called in, in the form of f Captain Jiro Okuhara, and the investigation gets underway. It’s all very difficult for Mayumi Yogetsu, who now has to cope with police everywhere, uncomfortable questions about the guests, and more. It’s not a lot easier for Rei Shimura, who is, at the very least, a ‘person of interest’ since she found the body. In the end, we learn who and what is behind the murder, but not before there’s great danger to Shimura, as well as another murder.

There’s also Louise Penny’s A Rule Against Murder (AKA The Murder Stone). In that novel, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec, and his wife, Reine-Marie, take their annual anniversary trip to the Manoir Bellechoise. It’s a lovely, rural place that they both enjoy. There, they are greeted by the proprietor, Clementine Dubois, who knows them and makes them welcome. She makes it her business to know all of her guests, and to make everyone as comfortable as possible. And she is a consummate professional. But even her skills are put to the test by the members of the Finney family, who are also staying there. It’s a very dysfunctional group, and that makes things awkward for everyone. Then, there’s a murder. All sorts of old secrets come to the surface; so does a connection to another series character.

And I don’t think I could do a post about innkeepers without mentioning Joss Merlyn, who owns the eponymous inn in Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Merlyn’s twenty-three-year-old niece, Mary Yellan, comes to stay with him and his wife, Patience; and, right away, there’s trouble. Merlyn is abusive and rude, and it’s clear he doesn’t want Mary there. Patience is terrified of her husband and does her best to placate him when she can. It’s a cold, eerie atmosphere, and Mary dislikes it immediately. Even the inn itself is chilling. No-one ever seems to stay there, and it’s not hard to see why. Then, Mary discovers that something eerie is going on at the inn. Neither her aunt nor her uncle will tell her anything, so she goes looking for answers on her own. And she soon finds herself in very real danger. Then, there’s a murder. And it’s very likely that Mary could be the next target.

Inns and other such small places can be warm, friendly, positive experiences. They can be unique, too, and often have a much more ‘personal touch.’ And the people who own and run them can be as interesting as the inns themselves.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from  Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Master of the House. 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Louise Penny, Matsumoto Seichō, Ross Macdonald, Sujata Massey

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

Some Others Choose the Good Old Family Home*

There are some homes that have been in the same family for many generations. They’re full of history (and sometimes, secrets), and they often develop their own personalities. Houses like that can be fascinating to explore. They can also make very effective settings for crime novels, especially those that link past crimes with the present.

There are a lot of such fictional houses – many more than space permits. But here are a few. I know you’ll think of many, many more.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual takes place in that sort of home. In the story, Holmes tells Watson about one of his cases, a case that began with a visit from an old college friend, Reginald Musgrave. Musgrave dismissed his butler, Richard Brunton, after catching the man reading a private family paper. Not long afterwards, Brunton and a maid named Rachel Howells disappeared. Holmes agreed to look into the matter, and he found that the paper Brunton was reading contained a cryptic poem that all of the Musgrave men learned. That poem proved to be the key to a very old mystery, and the key to the disappearance of Musgrave’s staff.  Conan Doyle did some other mysteries, too, that take place in an ancestral family home, didn’t he, fans of The Hound of the Baskervilles?

Agatha Christie used family homes in several of her novels and stories. One of them is Enderby, the home of the Abernethie family, whom we meet in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal). When patriarch Richard Abernethie dies, his family members gather for his funeral and the reading of his will. During that gathering, his younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, says that he was murdered. Everyone dismisses the idea right away. The next day, though, Cora herself is murdered. Now, the remaining family members begin to suspect that she was right. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and Poirot agrees. Enderby itself isn’t the reason for the deaths. But it makes for an interesting setting, and, among some of the older characters, there’s talk about ‘the old days,’ and what the house used to be like. I see you, fans of Sleeping Murder and of Peril at End House, and of 4:50 From Paddington, and of…

Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the story of the Blackwood family. Eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ Blackwood lives in the family home with her older sister, Constance, and their Uncle Julian. The family is quite isolated, and that’s mostly because of a tragedy that took place six years earlier. Three other members of the Blackwood family died of what turned out to be poison, and everyone in town is convinced that someone in the Blackwood family is responsible. Still, the Blackwoods have made a life for themselves, and everything goes smoothly enough. Then, they get a visitor. Charles Blackwood, a family cousin, comes to the house. His visit sets of a chain of events that ends in real tragedy. In this novel, the house itself adds to the suspense.

Much of Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache takes place in the small Québec town of Three Pines. It’s the sort of place where everyone knows everyone, and some people are deeply rooted in the place, and a part of its history. So are some of the houses. One in particular is the Hadley House, which plays a role in the very first novel, Still Life. It’s got its own history, and Gamache has more than one experience there.

In Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, we are introduced to the de Luce family. The protagonist of this series is eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, who lives with her father, Colonel de Luce, and her two older sisters, in the family home, Buckshaw, in the village of Bishop’s Lacey. Flavia is a child, but she is also highly intelligent, and a very skilled chemist. In this novel, she uses her skills to help clear her father’s name when he is accused of murdering a visitor to their home. Buckshaw is a distinctive old house, with lots of passages, unused rooms, and so on. And it contains Flavia’s chemistry lab, which has its own personality.

And then there’s Steve Robinson’s In the Blood, in which we are introduced to genealogist Jefferson Tayte. In that novel, he is commissioned by Boston business executive Walter Sloane to trace the ancestry of Sloan’s wife as a gift. The trail leads to the Fairborne family, which has lived in the US since before the American Revolution. One branch of the family returned to English in 1781, along with a group of Loyalists, so Tayte goes to Cornwall, where the family moved. There, he finds that the modern Fairbornes are strangely unwilling to help him find out the truth about what happened to their ancestors once they got to England. Tayte continues to search for the truth and learns that the answers might be very dangerous to him. The contemporary Fairbornes live in Rosemullion Hall, the family home. It’s been Fairborne property since the 18th Century, and Tayte finds that it has plenty of history and secrets to share.

Houses that have been in the same family for a long time often develop their own personalities as they absorb a family’s history. They’re fascinating places. They can also be really effective settings for a crime novel (right, fans of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca?).

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s Philadelphia Freedom.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Daphne du Maurier, Louise Penny, Shirley Jackson, Steve Robinson

I Can See All Obstacles in My Way*

Murder investigations don’t always get solved quickly. In fact, in many cases, there comes a point where the detective runs low on (or even out of) ideas. It’s not always easy to admit that ‘I got nothing’ feeling, but it does happen.

When it does happen, the sleuth needs to get past that sticking point. And there are any number of ways in which an author can use that situation. Sticking points can add tension to a story. And, when they’re done well, they’re credible. Exploring how the protagonist gets past being stuck can make for an interesting character layer, too.

Sometimes, the detective gets to the truth by chance. In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, for instance, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the stabbing death of the 4th Baron Edgware. His wife, famous actress Jane Wilkinson, is the most likely suspect. She wanted to divorce her husband so that she could marry someone else, and she’d even threatened his life. But she claims that she was in another part of London at a dinner party at the time of the murder. And there are 12 other people who are prepared to swear that she was there. It’s a baffling case for Poirot, and he doesn’t know how the pieces fit together at first. Then, he and Hastings happen to overhear a comment made by someone coming out of a cinema. That comment gives Poirot a new way of looking at the case, and that’s exactly what he needs to solve the mystery.

There are also times when the sleuth gets past a sticking point when something seemingly trivial triggers a new idea. For example, in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck and his team are stymied in their investigation of the murder of Roseanna McGraw. She was killed when she went overboard a ship during a tour of Sweden, and, since her body was dredged up from a lake, there’s not much evidence to suggest any particular person as the killer. And, since she wasn’t Swedish, it takes time to identify her, since her records aren’t on file. Even after she’s identified, there’s very little that the detectives can use as leads. All of these complications hold up the case for quite some time. Then, Beck gets a new idea from a simple postcard and a comment. He and his team contact all of the other passengers and ask to see any photographs they’ve taken. That idea gives Beck vital information that goes a long way towards solving the case.

Lawyers can sometimes get past a legal logjam by ‘doing the homework’ and finding a possibly-obscure point of law that’s relevant, and that can help them win their case. That’s what happens in Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case. Berlin attorney Caspar Leinan is taking his turn on standby for legal aid when a new case comes in. Fabrizio Collini lived peacefully in Germany for years after immigrating from Italy. Now, for apparently no reason, he’s murdered a man named Jean-Baptiste Meyer.  He does nothing to defend himself; in fact, he admits that he shot the victim. But he says very little else, and Leinan can’t find any evidence of a motive, nor much of anything else that he can use. But, German law requires that all defendants be represented by an attorney. What’s more, Leinan believes in the idea of everyone deserving a fair trial. And, truth be told, he wants to make his reputation and win this case. So, he digs in. It’s not easy, though, because Collini won’t be of any help, and the witnesses have little to offer. At a loss, Leinan decides to do more background research. When he does, he comes across an obscure point of German law that spurs him on and helps him to defend his client.

There are times when a sleuth finds that simply talking to people – or, rather, mostly listening to them – can help when there’s a sticking point in a case. That’s what Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache finds. He is a member of the Sûreté du Québec whom we first meet in Still Life. In that novel, he and his team travel to the small town of Three Pines when beloved former teacher Jane Neal is killed. At first, her death looks like a terrible accident, but Gamache isn’t sure of that. He’s a bit held back by what seems to be a lack of motive. But he observes, listens, and talks to people in the town. And, little by little, he finds that there are people who could have had a motive for murder. And, in the end, it’s that sort of conversation that helps put him on the right path.

Sleuths can also break through to a solution to one case if there’s another case that linked. Of course, sleuths don’t want people to be killed as a rule. But when there is a second murder, and it can be linked to the original murder, this can help point the sleuth in the right direction. Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine is a bit like that. So is Colin Dexter’s Death is Now My Neighbour. For that reason, a skilled sleuth will sometimes keep even a ‘cold’ case open enough to put the pieces together if there’s another murder.

There are other ways, too, in which a sleuth gets past sticking points. It takes perseverance and an openness to what people say, to new ideas, and so on. And, when the plot point is done well, sticking points and sleuths’ approaches to them can add to a novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Johnny Nash’s I Can See Clearly Now.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Colin Dexter, Ferdinand von Schirach, Louise Penny, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö