And She Only Reveals What She Wants You to See*

Sleuths' ThoughtsOne of the major developments we’ve seen in crime fiction over the years has arguably been the move from the sleuth as a third person – as someone whose thoughts we don’t always know – to the sleuth as the first person. Of course, not all modern crime novels are written in the first person. But in many of them, the reader is privy to what’s going on in the sleuth’s mind. And that makes sense, since today’s crime fiction fans want their characters, by and large, to be well-developed.

But as those who’ve read classic and Golden Age crime fiction know, that hasn’t always been the style. Here are just a few examples; I know that those of you who’ve read classic and Golden Age detective fiction will be able to provide lots more than I could.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is (at least to me) an interesting case in point. He does let us know how he deduces things. He also occasionally gives his opinion about one thing or another. For instance, we know that he’s not much of a fan of the police (with one or two exceptions). But as a rule, readers aren’t privy to what he’s really thinking. Rather, we learn about Holmes ‘from the outside,’ mostly through Dr. Watson. On the one hand, this invites the reader to get caught up in the mystery and try to get to the solution of a case. On the other hand, we can often only speculate on what Holmes really thinks about it all. He keeps the cards, as the saying goes, close to his chest.

The same might be said of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. We get a sense from things that he says that he has a philosophical side. And we also learn some of his views about religion and about what it means to be a good person. There are a few other things we learn about his thought processes too. But readers don’t really ‘get into his head.’ The Father Brown stories don’t, for instance, follow him home at night as he makes tea and thinks about whatever case he’s involved in at the moment. Readers also don’t learn what his opinions are about a given case. That’s not generally revealed until close to the end of the story, as Father Brown explains how he came to certain conclusions.

That’s also often the case with Patricia Wentworth’s Maude Silver. Readers follow along of course as Miss Silver meets new clients, discusses their cases and so on. We know a bit about Miss Silver’s background (former governess turned private investigator), and we know something of her methods too. But readers don’t know what she’s thinking as she puts the pieces of the puzzle together, so to speak. She has her ways of ‘saving the day,’ but we don’t know what she thinks about it all, except for what she says. In other words, readers don’t ‘get in her head.’

Several of Christianna Brand’s novels feature Inspector Cockrill of the Kent Police. He’s a police detective, so in that sense, we know the way he goes about solving crimes. He talks to witnesses and suspects, observes the evidence and so on. In fact, sometimes Brand lets the reader in on the main clues that Cockrill notices. Readers are also privy to certain thoughts Cockrill has (from Green For Danger):

‘Cockrill had been waiting for something, but not for this.’

But we don’t always know what he’s thinking as he investigates. The stories are told more or less ‘from the outside.’

And then there’s John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell. We know a few things about his personal life, and we do learn how he draws the conclusions he draws. He explains himself, so that the reader can see how he came to suspect the killer. But readers aren’t really privy to what he’s thinking as the case develops. We don’t ‘get in his head’ as he looks through the clues and listens to what people say, either. In fact, we don’t always know what he thinks of the various people with whom he interacts.

Agatha Christie lets us in on a few of Hercule Poirot’s and Miss Marple’s thoughts. For instance, readers know how Miss Marple feels about being ‘looked after’ by Miss Knight in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Cracked). If you haven’t read that one, you can, I am sure, imagine how she might feel with an overzealous paid nurse/companion watching everything she does, eats, and so on. Readers are privy to Poirot’s feelings about things too. For example, we know Poirot is not fond of then-modern standards for beauty and dress. In several stories, Christie lets us in on his thinking about that topic. Poirot also often lets clues drop when he notices something. But he is notoriously close-mouthed about the theories he develops and his views about a given case. He says that it’s because he may be wrong and doesn’t want to influence anyone else’s thinking. But that strategy also serves to invite the reader to match wits with him.

One really can’t say that anything is true of all classic/Golden Age mysteries (or any other sub-genre, for the matter of that). There are well-written modern mysteries that don’t let readers in on much of the sleuth’s thinking. And there are well-written mysteries from earlier times in which we do know much of what the sleuth is thinking. That said though, as a general pattern, we see more crime fiction now where we ‘get into the sleuth’s head.’

A possible reason for that might be the larger, more general distinction between plot-driven and character-driven stories. Another might be the increasing interest over the years in psychology and psychological plot threads. There could well be other reasons too.

What do you think about all this? Do you see this pattern? If you do, do you have a preference as to whether you know what the sleuth’s thinking is? If you’re a writer, how do you decide how much to tell the reader about the sleuth’s thoughts?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s She’s Always a Woman.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christianna Brand, G.K. Chesterton, John Dickson Carr, Patricia Wentworth

From Astrophysics to Biology*

ScienceScience and scientists have a particular way of thinking about their professions. Reputable scientists develop theories and hypotheses about the way something works. As best they can, they put those hypotheses to the test and accept what the data tell them. They don’t make too many assumptions, they don’t rely only on their own opinions, and they do their best (they are humans, after all) not to be too vested in one or another outcome. That’s how scientific research goes forward.

If you think about it, that’s exactly the kind of thinking that helps in detection too. The sleuth considers what the evidence suggests, forms a theory, tests that theory and accepts what the data say. Of course, it’s much more complicated than that, because sleuths deal with the complexity that is human life and human thinking. And that can muddy the proverbial waters considerably. Still, it’s little wonder that we see so many scientists in crime fiction.

In fact, there are so many fictional scientists out there that there’s only space in this one post for a few examples. You’ll notice, for instance, that I won’t be mentioning the myriad forensic scientists, medical examiners, pathologists, archaeologists, or physical anthropologists there are in the genre. Too easy! And too many! You’ll also notice that I won’t be mentioning the many social and psychological scientists (e.g. psychologists, educators, criminal law scientists, political scientists). Again – too many! But they’re out there.

There is, as you can imagine, quite a lot of chemistry involved in crime detection. Agatha Christie fans, for instance, will know that she had a background in chemistry, and it shows in her work. Poisoning plays a role in several of her stories, and quite often, chemistry provides the solution (yes, pun intended ;-) ) to the puzzle. Of course, Christie didn’t ignore other branches of science. In Sad Cypress, for instance, botany plays an important role in solving the murder of Mary Gerrard. Elinor Carlisle is charged with the murder, and she had motive, too. But local GP Dr. Peter Lord is smitten with her and wants her name cleared. So he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Chemistry and botany both help Poirot find out who the killer is.

Anyone who’s made wine knows that science is key to producing a delicious vintage. And no-one knows that better than Benjamin Cooker, noted oenologist and ‘star’ of Jean-Pierre Alaux and Nöel Balen’s Winemaker Detective series. Cooker is an expert on wine, so in Treachery in Bordeaux, he’s the first one Denis Massepain calls when he discovers that four barrels of his wine have been sabotaged. Massepain owns Château Les Moniales Haut-Brion, a very highly-regarded vineyard. If his winery turns out poor product, he’ll lose that all-important reputation. Cooker and his new assistant Virgile Lanssien agree to look into the matter. For help in this investigation, they turn to biologist and biological testing expert Alexandrine de la Palussière. With her expertise, they discover that the wine has been contaminated with brettanomyces, a yeast-like spore that can quickly ruin wine. What’s worse, this particular spore is highly contagious, so Massepain’s entire output is at risk. Cooker and Lanssien investigate to find out who would have wanted the winery to be ruined. And in the end, they discover the culprit.

Mining and oil drilling companies rely heavily on the work of geologists to help them take decisions about their businesses. For example, in Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins has used his background in geology for a long time both as an independent prospector and for various companies. But he has his own ideas and theories about the land, and it’s gotten him into trouble more than once. One night after a drunken quarrel at a pub, he returns to his shack, where he is found murdered. At first, the police assume the murder is the result of that quarrel. But Emily Tempest, who’s just become an Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) isn’t so sure. Her temporary boss Bruce Cockburn warns her to ‘fall in line’ with the police account, but Tempest continues to ask questions. It turns out that Ozolins’ geological knowledge was dangerous for him.

In S.J. (now writing as Sharon) Bolton’s Awakening, we are introduced to wildlife veterinarian Clara Benning. She works at a wildlife hospital, and has particular expertise with all sorts of species of snakes. Her scientific knowledge proves to be of real value when snakes begin to cause a threat to the village where she lives. First, a mother discovers a deadly adder in her child’s crib. Then, another villager dies of an adder bite. But forensics reports show that there was much more venom in his blood than would be caused by one snake. Now, ACC Matt Hoare, who also lives locally, taps Benning’s expertise to get to the truth about this case.

Keigo Higashino’s series features Tokyo physics professor Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa. In Salvation of a Saint, for instance, his knowledge proves to be extremely valuable when Junior Detective Kishitani and Junior Detective Kaoru Utsumi are faced with what looks like a suicide. Yoshitaka Mashabi seems to have killed himself with a cup of coffee laced with arsenous acid. Bit by bit though, the evidence begins to suggest that he was murdered. What the police find hard to prove is how he got the poison. They have some suspects in mind, including the victim’s wife Ayane Mita and her assistant/apprentice Hiromi Wakayama. But for different reasons, it’s not easy to show who actually committed the crime. That’s where Galileo’s expertise turns out to be useful. He is able to demonstrate exactly how the poison could have been administered and when it happened.

And then there’s Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective. This novel introduces readers to Edinburgh Ph.D. candidate Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill. He is an oceanographer and an expert in wave patterns, and wants to use those skills for personal as well as professional goals. He’s hoping to find out the truth about his grandfather Uilliam, who disappeared during a fishing trip years earlier. With his own expertise, as well as help from other oceanographers, he eventually finds out the truth. He also uses his knowledge in another case. Basanti and her friend Preeti were taken from their homes in India to Scotland as a part of the international sex trade. There, they were separated. Basanti has managed to escape the people who held her, but she hasn’t been able to find Preeti. Her search leads her to McGill, who is able to use what she remembers to find out what happened to Preeti and to go after the people who involved in Scotland’s human trafficking trade.

As you can see, natural science is a big part of crime fiction. I think Arthur Conan Doyle and his creation Sherlock Holmes would approve…

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from They Might Be Giants’ Science is Real.




Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Keigo Higashino, Mark Douglas-Home, Nöel Balen, S.J. Bolton, Sharon Bolton

I Believe in Miracles*

LittleMiraclesLet’s face it: all sorts of terrible things have been going on in the world lately. It’s enough to drive anyone to despair. But through it all, there are those small miracles that happen that can make all the difference in the world.

Just as one example, I learned that an Omaha (Nebraska) teen had gone missing from her high school yesterday (Monday 15 December). I cannot imagine any news more terrifying for a parent to hear. But before you start thinking the worst, I also learned that she is now safe and at home with her family. This is one of those stories that remind us to hope.

There are stories like that in crime fiction too. It’s hard to do them effectively, because of the risk of making a story too saccharine or too unbelievable (you know – the ‘nick of time’ syndrome). But if it’s done well, it’s possible to include those bright threads of hope and, dare I say it, little miracles, without overpowering what’s supposed to be a crime plot.

Agatha Christie included those moments in several of her stories. Lots of them involve some sort of romance (or a hint of it), but there are others too. For instance, in Hallowe’en Party, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver visits her friend Judith Butler, who lives in the small town of Woodleigh Common. Mrs. Oliver is helping prepare for a Hallowe’en party at another home in the village when a local girl Joyce Reynolds boasts of having seen a murder. Everyone hushes her immediately; but when she is murdered later that evening at the party, it seems that she may have been telling the truth. Mrs. Oliver asks her friend Hercule Poirot to investigate, and he travels to Woodleigh Common to look into the matter. It turns out that Joyce’s death is connected to a past murder. It is also very nearly the cause of another murder. The prevention of that death is one of those bright moments that gives hope. In a sense it’s not a ‘miracle’ (no spoilers here!), but it does inspire a big sigh of relief.

In Aaron Elkins’ Loot, art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere gets involved in a case of murder when his friend, pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky, asks him to take a look at a painting. Pawlovsky thinks it may be valuable but he wants Revere’s expert opinion. To Revere’s shock, the painting turns out to be an extremely valuable Velázquez that was one of a group of paintings ‘held for safekeeping’ by the Nazis. By the time Revere gets the chance to do some background research on the painting and return to the pawn shop though, Pawlovsky has been murdered. Revere feels guilty for leaving his friend alone in the shop with such a valuable piece of art, so he has a personal sense of responsibility about the murder. He thinks that if he can trace the painting from the time it was ‘stored’ by the Nazis to the present, he can find out who killed Pawlovsky. In the process of following the trail, Revere goes up against several nasty people who want the painting for themselves. In the end though, he discovers the murderer. He also (I don’t think this is spoiling the story) helps to create one of those ‘miracles’ by righting a very old wrong.

Kerry Greenwood’s Heavenly Pleasures is the second of her series featuring Melbourne baker Corinna Chapman. In that novel, Chapman is faced with a few mysteries. One of them is that someone is trying to sabotage the chocolate shop owned by Chapman’s friends Juliette and Vivienne Lefebvre. Another is that a very enigmatic man has moved into the building where Chapman lives and works. It’s soon clear too that the man has brought real danger to the building. One day there’s a bomb threat in the building. Everyone’s cleared out and fortunately, no-one is killed. It’s then discovered that the mysterious new resident has been attacked (‘though not killed). It turns out that all of this has to do with a desperate search for something that some nasty people want very much to have. Tangling with them is extremely dangerous, but even after the bomb scare, everyone’s safe.

In Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit, successful and somewhat high-profile accountant Daniel Guest is being blackmailed. He is married, but someone has found out that he’s had several trysts with men and is threatening to reveal that. Guest hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who the blackmailer is. Quant thinks it would be easier for Guest to ‘come out’ publicly, but Guest refuses to do that. The trail leads to New York and, later, to a murder. At one point, Quant and his friend Jared Lowe are ambushed, abducted and abandoned in the proverbial middle of nowhere. And that’s no joke in Saskatchewan just before Christmas. The danger of death from exposure is quite real, and the two are at risk. But they manage to find shelter. The next morning, they even find an abandoned shack where they can escape the worst of the cold. It’s one of those bright spots of hope that don’t seem like much until you consider the alternative.

And then there’s Peter James’ Not Dead Yet. Brighton and Hove Superintendent Roy Grace and his team face two difficult cases. One is the discovery of the torso of an unidentified man in an abandoned chicken coop. Another is that superstar Gaia Lafayette will be visiting the area to do a film. She’s already had one near miss, and there’ve been threats against her life, so Grace is asked to provide extra security. It turrns out that these two cases are related, and as Grace finds out what’s behind both of them, he begins to see that he’s up against a fairly dangerous foe. In the meantime, he has another major concern. His partner Cleo Morey is about to give birth to their first child, so he’s worried about her well-being anyway, although she’s in good health. But then, anonymous threats make it clear that someone is out to get Grace through Cleo. The story itself has some very sad – even bleak – aspects to it. But in this case, there’s also a real little miracle…

It can be very tricky to include those little moments that can make you want to believe in miracles. They can be contrived and ‘sugary sweet’ and can take away from a story if they’re not done effectively. But they can also add a layer of hope to an otherwise sad story, and every once in a while, great things do happen.

On Another Note…

My best wishes to those who celebratre Chanukah. May you enjoy a joyful and hopeful Season of Lights. To all of you, whatever you celebrate, all my best, and let’s be happy for those everyday miracles.

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


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Asron Elkins, Kerry Greenwood, Peter James

In The Spotlight: Bill Pronzini’s The Snatch

>In The Spotlight: P.D. Martin's Body CountHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Bill Pronzini has been one of the most prolific and influential crime writers of the last four decades. It’s past time this feature included some of his work, so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on The Snatch, the first of his Nameless series.

The story begins when San Francisco PI Nameless (I’m going to follow the convention here) goes to the home of wealthy Louis Martinetti, who lives in an upmarket area called Hillsborough. Martinetti tells Nameless that his son Gary has been abducted, and that the kidnappers are demanding three hundred thousand dollars in ransom. At first, Nameless thinks he’s beinig hired to find the boy. But Martinetti has a different purpose in mind. He’s been warned that one and only one person is to drop the money off at the specified location. Then, so Gary’s abductors say, Martinetti will be informed where his son can be found.

At first, Nameless suggests strongly that Martinetti tell the police. They are in a much better position to find the boy and safely return him than a civilian, even a PI, is. But Martinetti is adamantly opposed to involving any police. He says that if he does contact the police, Gary will be killed. All he wants Nameless to do is to take the ransom money to the drop-off point and leave it there. And for that, he’s willing to pay fifteen hundred dollars (this is the end of the 1960’s, when fifteen hundred dollars meant quite a lot more than it does today). Nameless finally agrees, and prepares to play his part in the exchange of money for the boy.

The next day, Nameless picks up the money from Martinetti and drives to the appointed place. He’s just finished doing his share of the work when everything goes wrong. The expression ‘All hell breaks loose’ has perhaps become cliché over time, but it’s actually an effective choice for what happens at this point.

With the direction of the investigation completely changed now, Nameless has to decide what to do next. Martinetti wants him to take one course of action. However, Martinetti’s partner Allan Channing and his secretary Dean Proxmire have other ideas. And Nameless’ lover Erika Coates has her own opinion about what ought to be done.

Through all of this, Nameless makes his own mind up about what to do. As we follow along, we learn what happened to Gary, and how the kidnapping affects everyone involved with it. And in the end, we find out what’s behind it all.

And that’s one important element in the story: the impact of abduction. Louis Martinetti and his wife Karyn are both devastated by the fact that Gary is missing. They don’t handle it in exactly the same way, but it’s clear that this is a truly horrible experience for both of them. And Nameless picks up on that awful sense of loss. Pronzini takes the experience of kidnapping to a very human, individual level.

Another important factor in the novel is the fact that Louis Martinetti is a wealthy and powerful man. Through his life and that of his family and associates, we get a look at the lives of San Francisco’s richest people. And the view isn’t always a pleasant one. Martinetti is in some ways hard-edged, and Channing is even more so. On the one hand, he is instrumental in gathering the ransom money. On the other, he is obsessed with that investment (that’s how he sees it). He’s only willing to help if he thinks that the boy has a good chance of being returned. And later in the novel, here’s what Nameless has to say to him:

“It must be hell to be a man like you, Channing,’ I said. ‘It must be pure hell to value a sum of money more than the life of a nine-year-old boy.”

There are other unpleasant things too that we learn about these wealthy people. In this, Pronzini’s work arguably reflects similar themes in work by Raymond Chandler. Both authors comment on the decadance of the ‘beautiful people.’

And then there’s the character of Nameless himself. He’s a loner, although readers who dislike drunken, demon-haunted sleuths will be pleased to note that he’s not that sort of detective. As the series goes on, Nameless evolves, but at this point, he is more interested in what you might call the fight for justice than he is in the personal work and intimacy required for a long-term relationship. He’s a former police officer who

‘..stuck it out for fifteen years, because I believed then – and I still believe now – that the prevention of crime and the interests of justice and the law are of vital and immediate concern.’

Still, fifteen years was enough. And after one particularly horrific murder, Nameless went into the PI business. He is in some ways naïve. But at the same time, readers who are tired of jaded detectives who are almost as reprehensible as the people they go after will be pleased to see that Nameless has a solid core of integrity. Oh, and he’s an avid fan of pulp fiction such as Dime Detective and Black Mask.

The pace of the story is fairly quick, and there are a few twists in the plot. However, readers who prefer spare, ‘lean’ writing will notice that there is also a great deal of description in the story too:

‘She [Erika] had the gas logs burning in the small false fireplace at one end of the room, and it was warm and comfortable in there. The apartment itself was neat and feminine, furnished in Danish Modern, with a lot of frilly throw pillows and some quite white-and-black fluff rugs and a big panda bear setting in one corner like a naughty child. The walls were filled with wood and glass figurines on dainty shelves, and impressionistic and experimental prints…Over the door leading to the kitchen was a funny little scroll plaque that said: Evil Is a Very Bad Thing.’

There are also detailed descriptions of the characters and the San Francisco setting for the story.

The story itself isn’t exactly one of those ‘It all works out in the end,’ sort of stories. But there is some wit in it. And although some very unpleasant things happen, Nameless continues to be determined to do his best to set the world right.

The Snatch is the story of what happens when an abduction touches the lives of the rich and powerful. It takes place in a distinctive San Francisco-area setting, and introduces an iconic fictional sleuth. But what’s your view? Have you read The Snatch? If so, what elements do you see in it?

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 22 December /Tuesday 23 December – Malicious Intent – Kathryn Fox

Monday 29 December/Tuesday 30 December – Mercy – Jussi Adler-Olsen

Monday 5 January/Tuesday 6 January – Confessions – Kanae Minato


Filed under Bill Pronzini, The Snatch

But Don’t Fall in Love*

Chance Meetings and Blind DatesA lot of parties and other holiday activities are meant for couples. So life can get a bit awkward for those who are single. That’s one reason why a lot of people consent, however reluctantly, to being ‘fixed up’ for dates. Others meet new people casually, for instance, at pubs/bars or clubs. At least it’s a little easier to go to parties and so on as a couple, even if you don’t know the other person well.

Sometimes, even in crime fiction, being ‘fixed up’ or taking a chance on a complete stranger can work quite well. Fans of Agatha Christie, for instance, will know that more than one happy match is made with encouragement from Hercule Poirot (and actually, Miss Marple too). I’m thinking, for instance, of The Moving Finger and Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, among others. But sometimes, such chances turn out to be very unlucky – even disastrous.

For instance, in Mickey Spillane’s My Gun is Quick, PI Mike Hammer is at a coffee shop. A young woman – who, as it turns out, is a prostitute named Nancy Sanford – approaches him. They start a conversation which ends with her telling Hammer the story of how she got into the business. Hammer feels for the woman and gives her some money to help her start over. Not long after their chance meeting, he learns that she’s been killed in what looks like a drive-by car accident. He is determined to find out who killed her and why, and begins to investigate. That investigation puts Hammer up against a prostitution ring run by some highly-placed people who aren’t afraid to do whatever it takes to silence anyone who gets in their way. Not a safe situation for Hammer…

In Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus, wealthy engineer Pietro Auserti hires Dr. Duca Lamberti to help his son Davide. Davide Auserti suffers from a serious drinking problem that hasn’t abated even after a stint at a treatment facility. Lamberti accepts the job and begins to interact with Davide. It takes some time, but little by little he gets to the root of the young man’s troubles. A year earlier, Davide had a chance meeting with Alberta Radelli during which she begged him to help her leave Milan. She claimed she couldn’t stay there any more, but he didn’t believe her. Shortly afterwards she died in what police claimed was a suicide, and he’s blamed himself since that time. Lamberti knows that if he doesn’t find out the truth about what really happened to the victim, Davide Auserti will never be free of his guilt. So he begins to investigate. He and Davide end up being drawn into a dark case of multiple murder and sleazy underworld business. And all because of a spontaneous invitation to give a pretty young woman a ride…

Margaret Yorke’s Speak For the Dead is in part the story of Carrie Foster. For various reasons, she’s gotten into the business of upmarket prostitution. One day she’s sitting in a café waiting for one of her clients when by chance, she meets Gordon Matthews. The two hit it off, and Carrie is impressed with his good looks and apparent wealth. In fact, they end up marrying. But each is keeping an important secret from the other. Carrie’s never told her husband that she was a prostitute, nor that she returned to the business after a few years of marriage to him. And for his part, Gordon doesn’t tell his wife that he served time in prison for the murder of his first wife Anne. As time goes on, we see just how disastrous this chance meeting turns out to be.

As Sarah Caudwell’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered begins, London lawyer Julia Larwood decides to take an Art Lovers tour of Venice. She’s glad for the chance to escape her own tax woes, and hoping to enjoy herself. And at first, she does. In fact, she becomes besotted with a young man Nick Watson whom she meets on the tour, and they end up spending a memorable afternoon together. But when Julia wakes up afterwards, she finds that Watson is dead. She leaves the room as quickly as she can and slips away. But she’s left behind her copy of the Finance Act, so right away, there is evidence to connect her with the murder. It’s going to take help from her lawyer friends and their unofficial mentor Hilary Tamar to sort matters out and clear her name.

Jane Casey’s The Burning is in part an investigation into a series of deaths committed by a killer that the London Press has dubbed the Burning Man, because he tries to incinerate the bodies of his victims. DC Maeve Kerrigan of the Met is on the investigating team, and as the story goes on, she and her teammates slowly find out how the killer operates. Somehow (no spoilers), the murderer wins over his victims by gaining their trust. By the time he attacks, they’re no longer really able to defend themselves. Then comes the slightly different murder of PR professional Rebecca Haworth. Many of Kerrigan’s colleagues think that the Burning Man has simply changed his tactics. But Kerrigan wonders if it may be a ‘copycat’ murder, thus implying two killers. This novel is a good reminder that casual encounters can be as dangerous as blind dates can be.

We also see that in Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. Stewart Macintosh is at a Glasgow night club called Heavenly one night when he happens to meet Zara Cope. She’s beautiful, she’s had a few as the saying goes, and she seems willing. So the two agree to go back to her house. That turns out to be a big mistake on Macintosh’s part. He’s soon drawn into a case of murder, concealing drugs, and other crimes. And all because of a pickup at a club.

And for film buffs, there’s Joseph Losey’s 1959 film Blind Date. That’s the story of Jan Van Rooyer, a Dutch painter living in London who happens to meet Jacqueline Cousteau at the art gallery where he works. Although she doesn’t seem much interested in art, she ends up asking him for painting lessons, and before long, the two begin an affair. One day Van Rooyer goes to an apartment to meet his lover. He waits for her for a time, but she doesn’t appear. Van Rooyer thinks he was probably stood up, but before he can do anything about it, a group of police arrive. It turns out that Jacqueline Cousteau has been murdered; her body was in the apartment the whole time, but hidden from view. Inspector Morgan of Scotland Yard investigates, and is convinced that Van Rooyer has killed his mistress. Someone has clearly framed Van Rooyer, but it’s awfully tempting for the police to assume his guilt and close out the case. You can read more about this film at Tipping My Fedora, which is the place to go for terrific reviews of crime novels and great crime films.

When you look at what can happen when you go on a blind date or chat up a stranger, it’s probably easier (and certainly safer!) to just go to those holiday parties by yourself or with a friend (I know, I know, those who’ve read Tammy Cohen’s Dying For Christmas. I haven’t read it…).

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Tubes’ She’s a Beauty.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Giorgio Scerbanenco, Jane Casey, Malcolm Mackay, Margaret Yorke, Mickey Spillane, Sarah Caudwell, Tammy Cohen