Category Archives: Priscilla Masters

When You’re Twins, the Magic Just Never Ends*

One of Ronald Knox’s rules for detective fiction holds that,
 

‘Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.’
 
The idea here was that it’s not fair to the reader to raise that question of identification. And, of course, crime fiction fans do want the author to ‘play fair.’

And yet, there are lots of twins in crime fiction. Some of them are identical, and some are fraternal. All of them, though, seem to have a unique sort of relationship – one that we don’t always see among other siblings. And it’s interesting to see how twins are treated in crime fiction.

For instance, in Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar, we are introduced to the various members of the Ashby family, a once-‘better’ family that’s fallen upon very hard times. But that’s about to change for Simon Ashby. When he turns twenty-one, he’s set to inherit a vast fortune. Out-of-work actor Alec Loding knows this, as he knows the Farrar family very well. He also knows that Simon had a twin brother, Patrick, who was believed to have committed suicide years earlier. One day, Loding meets an ex-pat American, Brat Farrar, who looks a lot like the Ashby twins. That gives him the idea that Farrar should impersonate Patrick. Since Patrick was the older twin, if Farrar can pull off the deception, he’s set to inherit a lot of money. All Loding wants is a part of that fortune. Farrar agrees and plans are laid. But it’s not going to be as easy as it seems. As it turns out, Patrick did not commit suicide. Instead, he was murdered. Now, the same person intends to try again, this time more successfully.

Matthew Gant’s short story The Uses of Intelligence introduces readers to eleven-year-old twins Patty and Danny Perkins. They’re both exceptionally intelligent, with genius-level IQs, and a strong bond. One day, they discover that an acquaintance of theirs, banana seller Aristos Depopoulos, has been killed. At first, it looks as though he was killed by one of the workers at a nearby construction site. But the Perkins twins aren’t so sure of that and decide to find out the truth for themselves. When they discover who killed Depopoulos, they engage in a little blackmail, hoping to profit from what they know. What they haven’t counted on is that they’re not the only ones who are geniuses…

In Peter Corris’ The Dying Trade, Sydney PI Cliff Hardy gets a call from wealthy Bryn Gutteridge, who wants to consult him on a ‘private’ matter. Hardy agrees to at least talk to the man and goes to his home. It seems that Bryn’s twin sister, Susan, is being harassed and threatened. Bryn wants it to stop, so he wants to hire Hardy to find out who’s responsible. On the surface, Susan Gutteridge doesn’t seem to have any enemies. She works with several social causes and hasn’t attracted negative attention. What’s more, she’s not in good health, spending her share of time at a private clinic. There doesn’t seem to be much motive there, either. The twins’ father, Mark Gutteridge, made quite a lot of money, but was, according to his widow, a swindler. So, it’s possible one of his enemies has decided to target Susan. Bit by bit, Hardy learns some of the family history and some family secrets that play their roles in what’s been happening. He also discovers how that all ties in with Mark Gutteridge’s business practices. In the end, he finds out who’s behind the harassment.

Scott Turow’s Identical is the story of twins Cass and Paul Gianis. Paul is leading in the race to become mayor of Kindle County, and his prospects look good. But then, everything changes. Cass is released from prison after serving 25 years for the beating death of his girlfriend, Aphrodite (Dita) Kronon. Her brother Hal believes that Paul was also involved in some way, and wants the case investigated. For his part, Paul doesn’t want this matter raked up, and sues for defamation. But, for his own reasons, Hal is very much opposed to Paul becoming mayor and will do what he needs to do to prevent that. That conflict between the families means that some very dark secrets are going to be raked up.

Of course, not all twins have a lot in common. For example, Teresa Solana’s Barcelona PIs Eduard and Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez are twins, but they’re very different. They don’t look much alike, they have different politics, and they have different temperaments. Borja is more extroverted, more willing to take risks, and better able to ‘sell’ clients on the brothers’ services. Eduard is a little more stable, a planner, and, perhaps, more realistic. They are complementary, but their differences can sometimes lead to friction.

Detective Inspector Kim Stone, whom we first meet in Angela Marsons’ Silent Scream, had a difficult, sometimes quite traumatic childhood. She spent quite a lot of time in the care system, and that’s given her, in a way, a hard edge. She’s not what you’d call dysfunctional, but she does have her issues. One of the things that haunts her is that she had a twin brother, Mikey, who died when they were children. She slowly comes to terms with that tragedy as time goes by, but it’s still hard for her. And, as we learn what happened in their childhoods, we see why.

Priscilla Masters’ Martha Gunn is the coroner for Shrewsbury, which means she gets involved in all cases of unnatural death. As if that doesn’t keep her busy enough, she is the mother of twins Sukey and Sam, who are twelve when the series begins. They have different interests and friends, so Gunn does the best that she can to treat them as unique individuals. In some ways, they are quite different, too. But they also have their own special connection.

There are a lot of other stories in which twins figure (I know, Agatha Christie fans. It’s just hard to mention those examples without spoilers…). It’s a fascinating relationship and can make for character layers and plot points in a crime novel. And that gives an author all sorts of possibilities.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Philip Bailey and Little Richard’s Twins.

11 Comments

Filed under Angela Marsons, Josephine Tey, Matthew Gant, Peter Corris, Priscilla Masters, Ronald Knox, Scott Turow, Teresa Solana

Where’d You Hide the Body*

One way to get away with a murder, whether it’s real or fictional, is to frame someone else for the crime. It’s not always easy to do that successfully, but it certainly makes a person look guilty if a body is found in her or his home.

Putting a body in someone else’s home can mislead detectives (and readers, if it’s a fictional crime). So it’s little wonder we see that trope in a lot of crime fiction. It takes effort to move a body, or to lure a victim to someone else’s home. But it can be a useful strategy, at least in crime fiction.

In Dorothy L. Sayers’ Whose Body?, for instance, an architect named Alfred Thipps discovers the body of a man in his bathtub. Thipps doesn’t know the man and has no idea why the body would be there, but he’s badly shaken. And he knows that it doesn’t look good for him, although he’s innocent. Thipps’ employer, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, doesn’t believe he’s a killer, and she wants to clear his name. So, she asks her son, Lord Peter Wimsey, to look into the matter. He agrees and begins to ask questions. He finds that this man’s death is related to the disappearance of noted financier Sir Reuben Levy (and, no, the body is not Levy’s). In the end, Wimsey is able to clear Thipps’ name, but the whole experience does rattle Thipps.

Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library begins as a maid discovers the body of a young woman in the library of Gossington Hall, which belongs to Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife, Dolly. Neither Bantry knows the woman, but the police aren’t completely satisfied that they are innocent. Still, they aren’t blind to other possibilities, especially when the victim is identified as a professional dancer named Ruby Keene. This turns out to be complex mystery, and Dolly’s friend, Miss Marple, proves to be quite helpful in working out how all the pieces fit together. It turns out that this death is related to another death, in which a body is found in a crashed car. There’s just something about Gossington Hall, isn’t there, fans of The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side?

In Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread Man, we are introduced to a real estate professional, Hans Vennerberg. One evening, he tells his wife, Pia, that he’s going to look at a house for a client, and that he’ll be back soon. When he doesn’t return, Pia gets worried, and goes to the police, who start searching the next morning. The search ends when Ingrid Olssen, who’s just come home after a hospital stay, finds Vennerberg’s body in her kitchen. She is soon eliminated as a suspect, since she had just had hip surgery, and the hospital records support her account. But that leaves the important question of who killed Vennerberg. And why was his body found in Ingrid Olssen’s home? It wasn’t the house he was going to visit, and there’s no record that he knew Olssen. Then, there’s another murder. And another. Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Conny Sjöberg and his team find that the deaths have a link, and that it all comes from events in the past.

Priscilla Masters’ River Deep begins as the River Severn overflows its banks, causing flooding in the area. The water causes the body of an unidentified man to float out of the basement of a house belonging to James Humphreys. The dead man isn’t Humphreys, and he claims he doesn’t know who the man is, nor how he got into the basement. What’s more, Humphreys has an alibi that’s strong enough so that the police don’t really think he’s the killer. This leaves Shrewsbury Coroner Martha Gunn and her team with several questions (besides the obvious one – the killer’s identity). Who is the dead man? Why was his body found in Humphreys’ home? It’s a complex case involving more than one death and a missing person.

And then there’s Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed. Douglas Brodie has recently returned to the UK after World War II service (the novel takes place just after that war), and he’s trying to put his life back together. He’s living in London as a journalist when he gets a call from an old friend, Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan. It seems that Donovan has been arrested and convicted for the abduction and murder of a young boy, Rory Hutchinson. Donovan says that he’s innocent, but there’s a lot of damaging evidence against him. For one thing, the boy’s clothes were found in his home. For another, there was heroin in Rory’s system, and Donovan admits he’s a user. So, Brodie isn’t completely certain his friend is innocent. Still, he agrees to return to Glasgow, where he grew up, and ask some questions. He works with Donovan’s lawyer, Samantha ‘Sam’ Campbell to find out the truth behind this murder and some others. And it turns out that someone has framed Donovan quite neatly.

It’s not easy to convince the police of your innocence if a body is found in your home. So, it’s little wonder that fictional criminals frame people by allowing bodies (or possessions) to be found in their homes. It has to be done carefully to be credible, but when it is, that trope can add to a crime story.

 
 
 

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

13 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Carin Gerhardsen, Dorothy L. Sayers, Gordon Ferris, Priscilla Masters

It Wasn’t You*

There are many ways that an author can add suspense to a crime novel. One of them, for instance, is the ‘second murder’ trope. I’ve done that, myself, and it can be effective. Another is what I’ll call the ‘misidentified body’ trope. In that sort of plot, a body is identified. Then, it’s discovered that it’s not that person at all.

This trope gives the writer a lot of flexibility. Perhaps the writer wants to make the real victim the intended victim all along. Or, perhaps the writer wants an ‘accidental murder.’ Or two murders. In any case, a misidentified body can add plot twists, suspense, and interest to a story.

Agatha Christie uses this sort of plot point in more than one of her stories. For example, in The Body in the Library, Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife, Dolly, awake to the terrible news that the body of a young woman has been found in their library. Neither knows who the dead woman was, nor how her body got there. The police are called in and begin the task of finding out who the victim was, but Dolly Bantry isn’t sure they’ll get to the truth. So, she asks her friend, Miss Marple, to help. A search of missing person records suggests a match with eighteen-year-old Ruby Keene, who was a professional dancer at the Majestic Hotel. With that as a starting point, the police interview Ruby’s co-workers and friends to find out who would have wanted to kill her. There are several suspects, too. Everything gets much more complicated when the burned-out hulk of a car belonging to George Bartlett is discovered with a body in it, also the body of a young woman. As it happens, Bartlett was the last person to see Ruby Keene alive, so there’s a good chance that the two deaths are related. And so they turn out to be. And throughout this story is the question of who, exactly, has been killed…  I see you, fans of The Man in the Brown Suit, and Taken at the Flood.

In Vera Caspary’s Laura, New York police detective Lieutenant Mark McPherson is assigned to investigate when the body of successful advertising executive Laura Hunt is discovered in her apartment. McPherson starts by trying to trace the victim’s movements during her last days, and soon discovers that she had planned to marry a ‘blueblood’ named Shelby Carpenter. She’d postponed the wedding, though, saying she needed some time away. As it turned out, though, she never left town. What’s more, she had planned to have dinner with an old friend, Waldo Lydecker, on the night of her death, but called him to cancel. Neither man knows why she changed her plans, and neither claims to know who killed her. Then comes a shock. The body turns out not to be Laura Hunt’s after all. In fact, she comes home from a stay in the country and surprises McPherson while he’s in her home. Now, the police have to find out who was actually killed. It turns out that the real victim was a woman named Diane Redfern. Laura knew her, and even gave her permission to stay in the apartment. But she claims not to know who killed her. But, as McPherson soon learns, Laura had a very good motive for murder, since Diane was having an affair with Shelby Carpenter. Now, Laura becomes the chief suspect, as McPherson tries to get to the truth.

In one plot thread of Ruth Rendell’s Simisola, Dr. Raymond Akande gets concerned when his twenty-two-year-old daughter, Melanie, goes missing after a visit to the local employment bureau. He tells his friend and patient, Inspector Reg Wexford, what’s happened. At first, Wexford isn’t unduly worried, as there might be any number of reasons why a young woman might take off for a few days. Akande insists that Melanie wouldn’t have left, even for a short trip, without telling her parents. So, after a bit more time goes by, Wexford starts the missing persons process. Then, the body of a young woman is found in a local wood. Wexford’s sure it’s Melanie’s body, and asks her parents to identify her. They go to the mortuary and, to Wexford’s shock, tell him that the young woman is not Melanie. Now, Wexford has two tasks (beyond, of course, making things right with Melanie’s parents as best he can). One is to find out what happened to Melanie. The other is to find out who the dead woman is, and who killed her.

Priscilla Masters’ River Deep is the first of her series featuring Martha Gunn, Coroner for Shrewsbury. In the novel, the body of an unknown man floats out of a basement when the River Severn overflows its banks. The body is not that of the house’s owner. In fact, he says he has no idea who the dead man is. At first, the police think the dead man may be Clarke Haddonfield, who was reported missing, and whose description is a solid match. But they soon learn they’re wrong. Finally, the victim is identified as Gerald Bosworth. So, the police concentrate on trying to trace Bosworth’s last days and weeks and find out who would have wanted to kill him. This raises other questions, though. What happened to Haddonfield? And, is his disappearance related to Bosworth’s death? And why was Bosworth’s body found in the basement of someone he didn’t know?

And then there’s Don Winslow’s The Dawn Patrol. San Diego PI and passionate surfer Boone Daniels gets a new case. It seems that Coastal Insurance is being sued by Daniel ‘Dan Silver’ Silvieri. A warehouse he owned was burned, and he filed a claim with Coastal. However, Coastal investigated the blaze, and concluded that it was a case of arson. Now Silvieri is suing for damages and bad faith. The key to this case is a stripper named Tamera Roddick, who was a witness to the fire. But she’s disappeared. Coastal wants Daniels to find her, so that she can testify. Then, a young woman dies after a fall from the balcony of a cheap motel. She has Tamera Roddick’s ID with her, so at first, the obvious assumption is made. But it turns out that she is Tamera’s best friend, another stripper who called herself Angela Hart. Was she killed in a case of mistaken identity? Was the killer after her the whole time? And where is Tamera? Daniels finds the case getting increasingly complex – and dangerous.

If it’s not handled well, the plot point of a misidentified body can come off as contrived. But if it’s handled effectively, it can add layers of interest and suspense to a crime novel. Which examples have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Thom Bell and Linda Creed’s You Are Everything.

14 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Don Winslow, Priscilla Masters, Ruth Rendell, Vera Caspary

Here Comes the Rain Again*

The umbrella you see in the ‘photo is one of those that shade the chairs at the pool in my residential community.  A windstorm blew it over, and that got me to thinking about what happens when wind and rainstorms come along. Of course, there’s often damage, but there’s more, too.

In crime fiction, storms and other weather extremes can uncover bodies that have been hidden – sometimes for a while. And that can offer all sorts of possibilities for crime writers. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of others.

In Peter Robinson’s In a Dry Season, a drought has uncovered the long-buried Yorkshire village of Hobbs End. And Adam Kelly is determined to explore the village, which he believes is a magic place. He’s looking for something he calls the Talisman. Instead, he finds the skeleton of a human hand. Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Banks and his team investigate. The body turns out to belong to Gloria Stringer, who seems to have been killed at the end of World War II. Now, Banks and his team have to trace her history and find out who would have wanted to kill her. And it turns out that this murder still has ramifications, decades later.

That’s the case in Elly Griffiths’ The House at Sea’s End, too. In that novel, coastal erosion has led to the discovery of six unidentified bodies. The University of North Norfolk’s Head of Forensic Archaeology, Ruth Galloway, is called in to see what she can find out about the remains. She finds that the bodies belong to a group of Germans who died during World War II. But it’s soon clear that someone doesn’t want the truth about their deaths to come to light. First, a Home Guard veteran named Archie Whitcliffe is murdered after he reveals the existence of a secret about a group of soldiers from that eras. Then, a German journalist, Dieter Eckhart, who’s doing a story about a wartime operation in the area, is also killed. Now, Inspector Harry Nelson has to find out who the killer is before there are any more deaths.

Priscilla Masters’ River Deep begins as the River Severn overflows its banks, flooding the local Shrewsbury area. When the river pours into one particular basement, the body of a man floats out of it. James Humphreys, who owns the house, claims not to know who the dead man is nor what he’s doing in the basement. What’s more, he has a credible alibi for the time of the murder. DI Alex Randall and his team begin the process of trying to find out who the dead man was. At first, they think it may be Clarke Haddonfield, who’s in the same age group and was reported missing by his family. But the body isn’t Haddonfield. It turns out to be Gerald Bosworth. Now, Martha Gunn, who is Coroner for Shrewsbury, has several questions. Who killed Gerald Bosworth? Where is Clarke Haddonfield? And are those two events related? Gunn’s role as Coroner precludes her from conducting an investigation or getting too close to what the police are doing. But in her own way, she looks into the matter; and, in the end, she finds out how the lives of all three men intersect.

Sister Carol Anne O’Marie introduces her sleuth, Sister Mary Helen, in A Novena For Murder. In that novel, Sister Mary Helen has retired from her Order. But she’s not yet ready to be put out to pasture, as the saying goes. So, she trades in her habit for modern clothes, and takes a teaching position at San Francisco’s Mount Saint Francis College for Women. She’s just started her new job when an earthquake hits the area. The college remains intact, but one of the faculty members, Professor Villanueva, is killed. At first, it looks as though it was a terrible accident caused by the quake. But it’s not long before it’s established that the professor was murdered. The assistant cook, a young man named Leonel, is suspected and is soon arrested. But Sister Mary Helen doesn’t think he’s guilty. And she’s determined to find out the truth.

And then there’s Jane Woodham’s Twister. Five days of drenching rain have soaked Dunedin. Then, a twister comes through the area, making matters that much worse. As if that’s not enough, there’s been an epidemic of ‘flu in the area, so, many businesses, including the police, have skeleton staffs. The storm and twister uncover the body of Tracey Wenlock, who’s been missing for two weeks. Now, the police have the thankless task of informing the girl’s family of her death, and of hunting for her killer. Because of the ‘flu epidemic, the only one available to head an investigation team is Detective Senior Sergeant (DSS) Leo Judd, who’s still coping with the loss of his own daughter, Beth, nine years earlier. She was never found, and Leo and Kate Judd have never recovered. Still, Judd does the best he can with this new investigation. In the end, the two plot strands intersect, and we learn what happened to both girls.

And that’s the thing about weather events like windstorms, rain and so on. Sometimes they uncover a lot more than we think they will. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

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

18 Comments

Filed under Elly Griffiths, Jane Woodham, Peter Robinson, Priscilla Masters, Sister Carol Anne O'Marie

You Only See What She Wants You to See*

Assumptions and ImpressionsWe humans are bombarded with so much stimuli that it’s nearly impossible to sort it all out. So, we make judgements and assumptions about people based on just a few salient cues. Sometimes those judgements are absolutely right, and sometimes they aren’t. Either way, we can’t really avoid making them, as very often we just don’t have the time to sift through all of the cues about a person at once. So we focus on one or two really salient cues, such as clothes. Lawyers know this, so some of them coach their clients as to the kind of clothes to wear when they appear in court. People use clothes to make impressions in other situations, too.

Crime-fictional sleuths, criminals and other characters know the impact of people’s overall impressions and assumptions and they take advantage of it. Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, for instance, will know that he uses changes of clothes in several stories. As one example, in The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, he adopts the clothing and manner of a workman. He’s trying to stop a blackmailer, and he knows that simply going to the man’s home and demanding the incriminating evidence isn’t going to work. So instead, he uses his ‘workman’s guise’ to strike up a friendship with a housemaid, and gets the information he needs.

Several characters in Agatha Christie’s novels use clothing and clothing styles to make exactly the impression they want. In The Mystery of the Blue Train, for instance, Katherine Grey learns that, after ten years of serving as a paid companion, she has inherited a large amount of money from her now-deceased employer. Although she’s a practical person, Katherine wants the chance to travel, and she wants to make the right impression. So she visits a famous dressmaker and orders a new wardrobe. She then decides to accept an invitation to visit a distant cousin who now lives in Nice. That visit ends up drawing her into a case of murder and theft, when a fellow passenger on the train she’s taking is killed. Katherine’s new look isn’t a disguise, as everyone knows her identity, and that she’s been a paid companion. But her clothes do give the ‘right’ impression for the Riviera. Of course, Christie fans will also know that in several stories, the killer uses a disguise, or at least different clothing, to ‘fade into the background’ or to avoid being ‘spotted.’ But no spoilers here!

Arthur Upfield’s Queensland Inspector Napoleon ‘Boney’ Bonaparte knows the value of making the right impression, and of having people make the assumptions about him that he wants. So he sometimes chooses clothes and bearing that will suit that purpose. For instance, in Death of a Swagman, he’s been called to the small town of Merino to investigate the murder of a stockman named George Kendell. Boney knows that he won’t easily find out what happened if he goes into the town wearing an official uniform and showing a badge. So, he dresses differently and arranges to get himself arrested for vagrancy. He’s given ten days’ jail time, and ordered to paint the fence at the police station. He dresses and acts the part, so at first, almost everyone assumes that he’s an itinerant stockman passing through town, hoping for a few days of work. And that’s just the impression he wants to make, so that he can get people to talk to him.

Priscilla Masters’ Martha Gunn is the coroner for Shrewsbury, so she and her team investigate whenever there is an unnatural death. And that’s exactly what they find in River Deep, when the body of a man is washed out of a basement after the River Severn overflows its banks. As the team check the missing persons records to try to identify the dead man, they learn of a disappearance that might be a match. At first it looks as though the identification is settled – until it turns out that these are two different men. Now Gunn and the team have a much more complicated case to solve. Part of the trail leads to an exclusive day spa, so Gunn decides to make an appointment and go there. In order not to be of any particular notice, she chooses very different clothes to what she usually wears, and a different way of doing her hair. This lets her craft the image she wants to craft, so that the staff at the spa make the assumptions about her that she wants: that she’s an upper-middle-class woman with money to spend, and certainly not a coroner…

As I mentioned earlier, lawyers know that the assumptions juries and judges make about their clients can matter very much. In higher profile cases, where the media is involved, there’s also the matter of a client’s public image, and the assumptions that that very public ‘court’ will make. So, some attorneys work with their clients and suggest certain kinds of dress. We see examples of this in many novels; I’ll just mention two. In both Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry and Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer, there’s a plot thread that involves a character who’s on trial. In the former, it’s Joanna Lindsay; in the latter, the defendant is Myriam Villetreix. There are many differences between the cases, but both have become very public. And in both cases, the defendant has already gotten an awful lot of negative attention in the press. It’s going to be very important for both women to make as good an impression as they can when they’re in court. So each gets advice about what to wear. And in the case of The Paris Lawyer, we learn that it’s not just clients who go through this. Myriam Villetreix’s attorney, Catherine Monsigny, wants to be taken seriously as a competent and capable attorney. So she’s quite careful about the way she dresses, too.

Of course, it’s not just clothing that causes people to make assumptions. Many, many other factors go into that split-second decision people make about what you’re like and what to assume about you. Sometimes those decisions end up being correct, and sometimes not. Either way, they’re interesting.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Cameo’s Back and Forth.

26 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Helen Fitzgerald, Priscilla Masters, Sylvie Granotier