Category Archives: Agatha Christie

Closed the Shop, Sold the House, Bought a Ticket to the West Coast*

Midlife Crisis MaleTransitions through adulthood are often challenging. Adjusting to a new phase in one’s life can be stressful and people have all sorts of different kinds of reactions to that stress. That’s arguably part of the reason people sometimes have what’s often been called mid-life crises. An interesting post from Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write has got me thinking about how often we see that crisis in fiction in general and crime fiction in particular.

Marina Sofia’s post dealt with male mid-life crises, so that’s what I’ll focus on in this post. But women are by no means immune; that’ll be the topic for another post soon. For now, here are just a few examples of what can happen at that pivotal point in adulthood.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we are introduced to Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. He has a thriving career, a wife Gerda who adores him, and two healthy children. By all accounts he should be completely contented with his life; most people would call him very successful. But he’s restless. His mind keeps drifting back to an affair he had fifteen years earlier with Veronica Cray, who’s since become a famous actress. He’s in this state of flux when he and Gerda are invited to spend the weekend at the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. To his shock, he is reunited with Veronica during the visit; it turns out that she’s taken a getaway cottage nearby. Because they have a history together, she becomes a suspect when he is shot on the Sunday afternoon. Hercule Poirot has also taken a cottage in the area, and he works with Inspector Grange to find out who killed John Christow and why.

Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal is the story of Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik. They’ve been married fifteen years and as far as Eva’s concerned, they’ve had a contented life. But lately, Henrik has been distant and obviously unhappy. He’s restless and seems to have built a proverbial wall between them. Eva is hoping that a holiday might help them re-discover each other but then, she learns to her shock that Henrik has been unfaithful. She’s devastated at this and soon becomes determined to find out who the other woman is. When she does, she plots her own kind of revenge that has consequences she couldn’t have imagined.

In Geoffrey McGeachin’s Fat, Fifty and F***ed, banker Martin Carter faces this kind of crisis. His marriage is ending, which would be bad enough. Then he finds out that he’s being retrenched. With all of the things that had identified him being taken away, he’s reaching out for something new anyway. So on his last day at work, he can’t resist helping himself to a million-dollar payroll. Then he makes his escape in a police-issue 4WD and takes off. His plan is to meet up with an old friend and start over, but things don’t work out that way. First, he meets Faith, a librarian who’s got her own problems. Then there’s the matter of the bike gang. And that’s just the beginning…

Jodi Brett and Todd Gilbert are a successful Chicago couple whom we meet in A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife. They’ve never formally married, but they’ve been together twenty years and have built a solid home. Then, everything changes. Todd’s feeling restless, and begins an affair with Natasha Kovacs, a college student and the daughter of his business partner. This isn’t the first time he’s strayed, but what makes this time different is that Natasha wants it to be a permanent relationship. She becomes pregnant and tells Todd that she wants to marry and be a family. At first, Todd promises her that’s what he wants too; he even leaves Jodi and moves in with Natasha. But as time goes on, he begins to see that he doesn’t want a wife and family. He feels ‘hemmed in’ enough as it is. Besides, the realities of living with a woman so much younger have set in. Then, Todd is murdered in a drive-by shooting. At first, it looks like a carjacking gone wrong. But then, the police begin to suspect that someone hired the shooters. And given Todd’s business and personal decisions, there’s no lack of suspects.

Sometimes sleuths go through mid-life crises too. That’s what happens in Peter Robinson’s Watching the Dark. In that novel, DCI Alan Banks is faced with the murder of DI Bill Quinn. Quinn was a patient at St. Peter’s Police Convalescence and Treatment Center, and that’s where his body is discovered early one morning, pierced with an arrow from a crossbow. The case turns out to be very delicate, because compromising ‘photos are found in Quinn’s room that suggest he’s been having an affair with a much younger woman. Obviously the police Powers That Be don’t want to cast aspersions on the badge, so Banks will have to tread lightly. In the meantime, he’s got his own personal issues to face. His former wife Sandra has married again and started a new family. He’s no longer involved with his lover Annie Cabbot, either, although they work together professionally. His children are grown and starting their own lives, too, and although they love him, it’s a different sort of relationship. So Banks is facing the sort of restlessness that often goes along with periods of change in life. It adds another layer to his character.

Fans of Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano series will know that he’s at a point of flux in his life. He feels himself getting older, but at the same time, he still has plenty of energy and good detective skills. He’s torn about his relationship with his long-time lover Livia, too. He does care about her, but at the same time, he’s just as well pleased that she lives in Genoa, and not in Sicily. He also sees himself changing as he gets older, and that’s not always comfortable either. Camilleri depicts that internal conflict as a series of debates between ‘Montalbano One’ and ‘Montalbano Two,’ and it’s an interesting way to show the way the mid-life crisis can feel.

The changes that middle age brings aren’t always fun. The question, ‘Is this all there is?’ can hit hard. So can the recognition of one’s own mortality. People generally make their way through the transition intact, but not always. And it certainly can add character depth and plot points to a novel. Which ones have stayed with you?

Thanks, Marina Sofia, for the inspiration. Now, may I suggest your next blog stop be Finding Time to Write. It’s a treasure trove of book reviews, poetry and beautiful visuals too.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s My Life.

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Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Geoffrey McGeachin, Karin Alvtegen, Peter Robinson

Well, There’s Just an Empty Space*

MissingPeopleSome of the hardest cases that professional detectives face concern missing persons. In part that’s because some people go missing because they want to leave. And even in modern times with modern technology, it can be difficult to trace a person who doesn’t want to be found. Besides, adults are legally allowed to go where they wish; in most cases it’s not a crime to go somewhere and not tell anyone. There’s also the fact that the police are reluctant to spend department resources on a case that has a perfectly logical explanation (e.g. someone simply wanted to spend a few days away). This means among other things that there may not be an immediate search for a person who’s gone missing. It also means that except in the case of children (a topic in its own right), professional detectives don’t always immediately devote the energy to a missing person report that they might to, say, a murder. It’s not that they don’t care; rather, it’s that those cases are much more ‘slippery.’

In Agatha Christie’s Third Girl for instance, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from a young woman who tells him that she may have committed a murder. But before she goes into any detail, she abruptly changes her mind, telling him that he’s too old to help her. She leaves without even giving her real name. With help from his friend detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, Poirot establishes that the young woman is Norma Restarick, who shares a London flat with two other young women. Between them, Poirot and Mrs. Oliver visit both the flat and the Restarick family home. Norma’s flatmates make it clear that they really don’t keep tabs on her and that she’s probably either spending a few extra days with her family, or has gone off on a tryst. Certainly they’re not overly concerned about her. Norma’s father and stepmother say that she’s gone back to London, and that they don’t really follow everything she does there. They’re willing to admit that she’s had a difficult time with her family lately, but at the same time, they’re not afraid for her. Poirot begins to dig a little deeper. After all, if there was a murder and Norma committed it, she needs to be found. And even if that’s not true, she certainly seems troubled and may be in danger. Poirot and Mrs. Oliver continue to search for answers and in the end, they find out what happened to Norma. They also discover the truth behind the murder she says she may have committed.

In Peter Robinson’s Cold is the Grave, DCI Alan Banks gets an unusual request from his boss Chief Constable Jeremiah ‘Jimmy’ Riddle. Riddle’s daughter Emily has had a bad relationship with her parents and has left home. She’s of legal age, so the police can’t look at it as a runaway case. But then her younger brother Benjamin discovers pornographic pictures of her online, and this frightens her parents. Riddle wants Banks to look for Emily, the idea being that if Banks goes as a civilian, he’ll draw less attention to this very private and difficult case. Riddle and Banks haven’t exactly had a good relationship in the past; in fact, it’s been more animosity than amity. But Banks is a father himself and he can understand Riddle’s concern. So he agrees to see what he can find out. His search for Emily takes him into some of London’s seamiest places – certainly places her parents wouldn’t have wanted her to be…

Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle concerns the disappearance of Andreas Winther. His mother Runi becomes concerned when he doesn’t come home as he usually does, and she goes to the police to report him missing. At first the police aren’t very worried, and they do their best to reassure her that all is probably well. There are, after all, any number of reasons for which a young man might take off for a few days and not tell his mother about it. But when more time goes by and Andreas still doesn’t return, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer begins to suspect that something might have happened to him. So he and his assistant Jacob Skarre start to investigate. One of their first stops is Andreas’ best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. Zipp spent the day with him on the day he was last seen, and knows more than he is saying about what happened on that day. As Sejer and Skarre try to find out where Andreas Winther is and what happened to him, we see how difficult it is to look for an adult. Lots of people simply don’t worry about someone they haven’t seen lately. I know, I know, fans of Calling Out For You/The Indian Bride.

In Peter James’ Dead Simple, Ashley Harper contacts the police in the form of DI Glenn Branson. She’s worried because her fiancé Michael Harrison hasn’t been seen since his ‘stag night’ party. She doesn’t know what his friends were planning, and as it turns out, the police can’t ask them. Tragically, three of them were killed in a car crash and the fourth is in a coma. The only person who might know is Harrison’s best-man-to-be and business partner Mark Warren. But he was out of town and didn’t go out with the group. At first, Branson and his boss Superintendent Roy Grace think that Harrison might have changed his mind about the wedding and gone off. But by all accounts, he’s very much in love with his intended, and looking forward to the wedding. So the detectives dig a little deeper and soon find that Harrison might be in a great deal of danger. Now they’ll have to work as quickly as they can if they’re to have a chance of finding him.

Anthony Bidulka’s Amuse Bouche introduces readers to Sasktoon PI Russell Quant. As the story begins, successful businessman Harold Chavell hires Quant to find his fiancé Tom Osborn. According to Chavell, Osborn disappeared just before their planned wedding, and has gone alone on the honeymoon trip to France that they’d mapped out together. Quant wonders whether Osborn might simply have changed his mind about getting married, but he takes the case and travels to France. He goes to each place the couple had intended visiting, and finds some evidence that Osborn has been there recently and is fine. Then he gets a note saying that Osborn does not want to be found. When Chavell learns of this, he calls off the search and prepares to get on with his life. A short time later, Osborn’s body is found in a lake near a house the two owned. Now Chavell becomes the prime suspect in a murder case and asks Quant to help clear his name.

Not all police agencies are well-enough funded to have missing person departments. Some of them in fact hire missing person experts such as Donna Malane’s Diane Rowe. Rowe lives and works in Wellington, where she’s occasionally hired by the police to help search for people or match unknown remains to past reports of missing people. That’s what happens for instance in Surrender. In one plot thread of that novel, the remains of an unknown man are recovered from Rimutaka State Forest. Forensics evidence suggests the age (in his mid-to-late twenties) and the approximate time he disappeared (the mid-1970s), but nothing much else about him. So Rowe uses all of the resources at her disposal to trace the man’s identity and find out how and why he died. In My Brother’s Keeper, former prison inmate Karen Mackie hires Rowe to find her fourteen-year-old daughter Sunny, who’s been living with her father Justin. Justin has custody of the girl, but Mackie has no idea where he’s living or if he’s even using the same name. Rowe agrees to find Justin and Sunny if she can. But this isn’t just a case of a mother who wants to be reunited with her daughter. The reason Mackie was in prison in the first place was the murder of her son and the attempted murder of Sunny…

Except for people on parole, adults are generally legally free to go where they wish without necessarily letting anyone else know. So missing persons cases are very often complicated. They can use up a lot of resources, including time, and don’t always result in a ‘joyful reunion.’ But they can make for suspenseful and interesting crime novels. Which ones have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Phil Collins’ Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Donna Malane, Karin Fossum, Peter James, Peter Robinson

Turn the Choral Music Higher, Pile More Wood Upon the Fire*

Preparing For GatheringsIt’s the time of year when people make plans for office parties, family gatherings and holiday travel. There are often all sorts of preparations to be made for everything from clothing to cleaning to food and travel tickets. And that’s to say nothing of gifts (but that’s for another post). It all can add up to an awful lot of stress. Part of the reason for that is arguably that people often picture an ‘ideal, perfect holiday’ as they plan, and hold themselves to that ideal. And of course, all sorts of disasters can happen, and people want to avoid them.

Certainly the stress of those preparations is a fact of real life, and of course, it’s there in crime fiction, too. That sort of stress is seldom the reason for a murder, but it does ratchet up the pace and sometimes the suspense. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder For Christmas and A Holiday For Murder), wealthy family patriarch Simeon Lee decides to invite the members of his family to Gorston Hall for Christmas. Lee is an unpleasant tyrant, but he is very wealthy, so no-one dares refuse the invitation. Lee’s son Alfred and Alfred’s wife Lydia share the home, so most of the preparations fall on them. And it’s not going to be pleasant, either. For one thing, Alfred finds out that his brother Harry, whom he’s disliked for years, will be there. So will his niece Pilar, whom he’s never met. For another, there will be extra bedrooms, more food and so on that will need to be planned. None of the other family members are any more keen to prepare for this holiday, but everyone duly gathers. On Christmas Eve, Simeon Lee is murdered. Hercule Poirot is staying in the area with a friend, and he agrees to work with the local police to investigate. As it turns out, the murder has everything to do with a past that came back to haunt the victim (I know, I know, fans of The Hollow…)

Gail Bowen’s Murder at the Mendel begins just before Christmas. The Mendel Gallery is planning an exhibition of the artwork of Sally Love. As it happens, she was a friend of academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, so Kilbourn decides to go to the gallery and see the exhibit. She’d like if possible to see if the friendship could be renewed. But that doesn’t work out as planned; in fact, it’s awkward. Then, when gallery owner Clea Poole is murdered, Sally becomes a likely suspect. Then, there’s another murder. Kilbourn has to juggle getting involved in the murders with final preparations for Christmas and for a week of skiing that she’d planned for herself and her children. And the lead-up to the holiday is a little frantic. Here, for instance, is a snippet of a scene featuring Kilbourn’s daughter Mieka, who’s come home from university for the holidays:
 

‘…my daughter Mieka was sitting at the dining-room table behind piles of boxes and wrapping paper and ribbons…
‘Help,’ she said. ‘I’m three days behind in my everything.’
I sat down beside her and picked up a box. ‘For whom? From whom?’ I asked.
‘For you. From me. No peeking. Now choose some nice motherly paper. Something sedate.”
 

There’s nothing like the glittery clutter and frantic pace of gift-wrapping…

In Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit, successful accountant Daniel Guest hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who’s been blackmailing him. Guest is married and firmly ‘in the closet,’ but he has had some trysts with men. And someone’s found out about it. Quant agrees to see what he can do, although he thinks it would be more logical for his client to simply come out as gay. This Guest refuses to do, so Quant gets to work on the case. The search for the truth takes Quant to New York, where he finds out some surprising truths. When he returns, there’s a murder. And an attempt on his own life. Meanwhile, Quant’s mother Kay has come to stay for the Christmas holidays. He loves his mother, but it’s awkward living at close quarters with her now that he’s an adult. But Kay does come in handy as Quant gets ready for his annual Christmas come ‘n’ go. He’s not really a particularly high-strung person, as the saying goes, but he does want things to look nice and turn out well. And with Kay’s help, they do.

There’s a lot at stake in Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Delicious and Suspicious. The Cooking Channel’s Rebecca Adrian has come to Memphis to choose the restaurant that will win the coveted Best Barbecue award. The award will mean lots of recognition and more business for the winning restaurant, so everyone at Aunt Pat’s Barbecue is eager to show the place off to best effect. Aunt Pat’s has been in Lulu Taylor’s family for generations, and as current owner, she oversees everything that goes on there. When Adrian arrives, Taylor’s as anxious as anyone else for the visit to go well:
 

Got to be the Cooking Channel scout,’ Lulu hissed. She scurried to the mirror. ‘I knew I should have worn my power suit today!”
 

She and her family members do their best to make their guest welcome, and she’s confident that the food will be delicious. But only a few hours later, Adrian dies of what turns out to be poison. Then the gossip starts to spread that the victim was killed by the food at Aunt Pat’s. Taylor wants to salvage the restaurant’s reputation and keep the business going, so she decides to investigate. And she soon learns that more than one person had a good reason to want Rebecca Adrian dead.

Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool begins on New Year’s Eve. Cumbria Constabulary DCI Hannah Scarlett and her partner Marc Amos are planning to go to a New Year’s Eve party at the home of successful attorney Stuart Wagg. It’s more upmarket than Scarlett likes, but she’s persuaded to go. She doesn’t lack confidence in herself most of the time, but there is of course the question of what to wear:
 

‘…her mind drifted back to the wardrobe challenge. Leather trousers were a safe bet. They were the colour of chocolate fudge cake – if she daren’t eat it, at least she could wear something that reminded her of it. That halter neck top with copper sequins, maybe, plus the brown boots for tramping outside to watch the firework display.’
 

The two go to the party and at first Scarlett’s pleased with her clothing choice, even getting compliments. But then then things go downhill. First, there’s a loud argument and one of the guests, after too much to drink, throws a glass of red wine at another and storms out. Not many days later, the host is murdered. Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team are already looking into a six-year-old murder, and they find that this recent one (and another killing as well) is connected.

As crime fiction shows us, it doesn’t matter how frantically and carefully we prepare for gatherings. Anything can happen, and sometimes does…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s She’s Right On Time.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Martin Edwards, Riley Adams

I Needed One More Fare to Make My Night*

TaxisDepending on where you live and your lifestyle, you may or may not take taxis very often. There are some cities where taking a taxi is easier than driving your own car, even if you have one; and of course, it’s far safer to take a cab if you’re having a night out drinking than it is to drive. Taxis are the scenes of lots of personal dramas, and cab drivers see an awful lot. So it’s little wonder that cabs and cab drivers appear in a lot of crime fiction.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes is called in to help solve the murder of Enoch Drebber, an American visitor to London. At one point, Drebber’s secretary Joseph Stangerson is suspected of the murder, but then he’s killed himself. Holmes and Dr. Watson are now faced with two murders that are probably related. To get to the truth, Holmes has to follow two lines of investigation. One of them is the personal lives of the two victims. The idea there of course is to look for motive. The other is to trace their movements to see who would have had the opportunity to kill them. In the end Holmes deduces what happened and when the killer is confronted, that person admits to everything. In this novel, encounters in cabs play an important role…

Agatha Christie made use of taxis in several of her stories. In Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner) for instance, famous actress Jane Wilkinson wants to hire Hercule Poirot to convince her husband Lord Edgware to consent to a divorce. She’s fallen in love with the Duke of Merton, and wants a clean break from her current husband so she can marry again. In fact, she says that if Poirot does not help her,
 

‘I’ll have to call a taxi to go round and bump him off myself.’
 

Poirot agrees to at least talk to Edgware and when he does, he discovers that Edgware has already written to his wife agreeing to the divorce. Poirot and Captain Hastings are surprised by this, but they think that settles the matter. Then, Edgware is stabbed and Jane Wilkinson becomes the most likely suspect. A cab driver remembers taking her to the home, and what’s more, a woman giving her name was admitted to the house at the time of the murder. The only problem is that Jane says she was at a dinner party in another part of London, and there are twelve people ready to swear that she was there. So Poirot, Hastings and Chief Inspector Japp have to look elsewhere for the killer. One possibility is the victim’s nephew Ronald, who was in serious debt and who now inherits both the title and a fortune. He claims he was at the opera on the night of the murder, but a helpful taxi driver is able to prove him wrong. The cabbie actually picked him up at the opera during the intermission and took him to the house. Now the new Lord Edgware has some explaining to do…

In Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, PI Nick Charles and his wife Nora are visiting New York when he is drawn into the case of the disappearance of Claude Wynant. Wynant’s daugher is worried about her father and wants Charles to find out what happened to him. He’s just getting started on the case when Wynant’s secretary Julia Wolf is murdered. And as it turns out, Wynant himself had a motive for killing her. Now it’s more important than ever that Wynant be found. At one point on the novel, Wynant’s attorney Herbert Macaulay says that he believes Wynant is guilty, and tells of having been followed:
 

‘The quickest way to find out seemed to be by taking a taxi, so I did that and told the driver to drive east. There was too much traffic there for me to see whether this small man or anybody else took a taxi after me, so I had my driver turn south at Third, east again on Fifty-sixth, and south again on Second Avenue, and by that time I was pretty sure a yellow taxi was following me. I couldn’t see whether my small man was in it, of course; it wasn’t close enough for that. And at the next corner, when a red light stopped us, I saw Wynant. He was in a taxicab going west on Fifty-fifth Street. Naturally, that didn’t surprise me very much: we were only two blocks from Julia’s and I took it for granted she hadn’t wanted me to know he was there when I phoned and that he was now on his way over to meet me at the Plaza. He was never very punctual. So I told my driver to turn west, but at Lexington Avenue—we were half a block behind him—Wynant’s taxicab turned south.’
 

It’s an interesting example of the way taxis can be used to follow people…

In Robert Pollock’s Loophole: Or, How to Rob a Bank, out-of-work London architect Stephen Booker has been pushed to the point of financial desperation. So he takes a night job driving cab, thinking that he’ll be able to use the daytime for a proper job search. One night he picks up an unusual fare. Mike Daniels is a professional thief with a big plan. He and his team want to rob the City Savings Deposit Bank, and they’ve come up with a way to defeat the bank’s powerful security measures. But they’ll need the help of someone with some expertise and when Daniels finds out that his cab driver is an architect, he thinks he’s found his man. Over a short period of time, he wins Booker’s confidence and finally persuades him to become a part of the team. Every detail of the robbery is carefully planned, and at first it looks as thought things will go beautifully. Then a sudden storm comes up and changes everything…

Of course, cab drivers don’t really live charmed lives, as the saying goes. They’re often not paid particularly well, and customers can be awfully difficult. In Robin Cook’s Vector, we get a look at the life of Yuri Davydov, a disaffected Soviet emigre to New York. In the then-Soviet Union, he was a technician working for the Soviet biological weapons program. But he was (or so he believes) lured to the US with promises of lots of money and great success. It hasn’t worked out that way though, and Davydov has had to settle for a job as a taxi driver. He’s an easy convert for a group of skinheads who are also disenchanted with ‘the system.’ When they find out Davydov’s area of expertise, they enlist him to help them carry out their plan of revenge: a mass release of anthrax. New York City medical examiners Jack Stapleton and Lori Montgomery become aware of the plot when they investigate the death of a carpet dealer who was exposed to anthrax. Once they learn of the plot, they work to find and stop the conspirators before they can carry out their plan.

And then there’s Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. Winter is a small-time drug dealer/criminal who’s got big ambitions. He wants to climb to the top of Glasgow’s underworld and that’s got some of some powerful crime bosses upset. They decide to take care of this problem by hiring hit-man Calum McLean to murder Winter. MacLean learns his target’s routines and chooses a good night to do the job. That evening, Winter and his live-in girlfriend Zara Cope go to a nightclub called Heavenly. There Winter gets thoroughly drunk and Cope, seeing her opportunity, strikes up an acquaintance with Stewart Macintosh. They decide to spend the night together, but first, says Cope, they’ll have to get Winter home and to bed. So the two of them escort an extremely drunken Winter into a taxi and get out at the Winter/Cope home. A short time later, the interlude that the couple had planned is interrupted by McLean and his partner, who break into the house to do what they’ve been paid to do. With Cope’s help, Macintosh escapes, but information from the club’s CCTV and the memory of the cab driver allow the police to track him down, so he’s drawn into the investigation.

Taxis and taxi drivers can help establish alibis or guilt. They can also add other important information to an investigation. And as anyone who’s seen Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver can attest, drivers themselves can be fascinating, even dangerous, characters. Which taxi scenes have stayed with you?
 

Late Addition…
 

After this post was published, it occurred to me that it wasn’t complete. I couldn’t do a post about taxis in crime fiction without mentioning Kerry Greenwood’s historical Phryne Fisher series, which takes place in and around 1920’s Melbourne. Phryne’s made several friends in the course of the series, among them Bert and Cec, who are wharfies, but also have an all-purpose sort of cab service. They’re witty and well-drawn characters and if you haven’t yet ‘met’ them, I recommend it.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Harry Chapin’s Taxi.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Kerry Greenwood, Malcolm Mackay, Robert Pollock, Robin Cook

Thanks For Watching As I Fall*

Tailspin and FallingOne of the ways that crime writers build up tension in a novel (and I admit, it’s not very fair in a way) is for otherwise solid, stable people – even people with strong reputations – to go on a downward spiral. Of course, bad things can happen to just about anyone, but there are some crime novels in which that plot point is a main focus. In those stories, the criminal may try to discredit someone else in order to frame that person and throw off suspicion. Or, the criminal may have personal reasons for wanting to ruin someone’s reputation or life. Either way, it can make for an interesting layer of suspense, especially when that downward spiral is the work of someone else.

In Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, for example, Elinor Carlisle has the sort of life many young women of her era would envy. She’s attractive, she’s well-off and she’s engaged to marry Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman, who’s a catch, as the saying goes. Things begin to fall apart for her when she gets an anonymous letter suggesting that someone may be trying to angle for her wealthy Aunt Laura’s fortune. It’s not that either Elinor or Roddy is particularly greedy, but they are accustomed to a comfortable life, so they pay a visit to the family home Hunterbury, where Aunt Laura lives. Matters begin to get worse when it’s clear that Roddy has become infatuated with Mary Gerrard, the lodgekeeper’s daughter. Then, Aunt Laura dies of complications from a stroke. Not long afterwards, Mary is poisoned. All sorts of circumstantial evidence suggests that Elinor might be the murderer. She has motive, too, since Aunt Laura wanted to provide generously for Mary, and since Mary is the cause of Elinor’s broken engagement. Local GP Dr. Peter Lord wants to clear Elinor’s name and asks Hercule Poirot to do it, whether or not Elinor is guilty. The whole experience takes a terrible toll on Elinor and it’s interesting to see how she copes with it.

Michael Robotham’s The Suspect is the first of his series featuring pscyhologist Joe O’Loughlin. In that novel, O’Loughlin has a contented life with a wife he loves and a daughter he absolutely adores. Everything starts to change though when he gets involved in a case of murder. One afternoon the body of a nurse and former patient Catherine McBride is found near London’s Grand Union Canal. At first Inspector Vincent Ruiz of the Met is only interested in O’Loughlin’s professional expertise and whatever he may be able to offer about the victim’s history. But soon, pieces of evidence turn up that implicate O’Loughlin. Then there’s another murder. And another. As the story goes along, O’Loughlin’s life starts to fall apart as he tries desperately to find the killer and clear his own name. In this case, I don’t think I’m spoiling the story to say that the things that happen to O’Loughlin are very carefully planned.

David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight introduces readers to Superintendent Frank Swann, a police detective in 1970s Perth. Swann’s been away from Perth for several years, but returns when he learns that a former friend brothel owner Ruby Devine has been killed. There aren’t really many suspects in the case except for Ruby’s lover Jacky White, but there’s not enough evidence there to go for a conviction. Swann soon begins to suspect that Ruby was murdered by one of the ‘purple circle,’ a group of corrupt cops who have any number of dirty secrets they don’t want revealed. When Swann calls for a Royal Commission into the corruption, his enemies on the force do everything they can to discredit him, including accusing him of corruption. That’s why, in Zero at the Bone, we learn that Swann has left the force and is now a private investigator. In that novel, he’s hired to look into the suicide of Max Henderson, a highly-respected geologist. He finds that Henderson had gotten involved in some very dirty dealings with corrupt politicians, mining executives and greedy local business executives. As Swann gets closer to the truth about what’s really been going on in Perth’s mining industry, he learns that some very powerful people are willing to do everything they can to discredit him even further, both personally and professionally…

We also see that in Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace. Siri Bergman is a successful Stockholm psychologist who’s managed to start putting her life back together after the tragic death of her husband Stefan. One day she gets an anonymous letter that makes it clear she is being stalked. As if that’s not enough, she finds that someone’s gotten access to her private client files. Then, she is set up to be arrested for drink driving. And to make matters worse, the body of a client Sara Matteus is found in the water on her property. There’s a suicide note that makes it look as though Bergman is responsible for her client’s death. When it’s proven that the victim was murdered, Bergman is briefly considered as a suspect. Her name is cleared, but there’s still someone out there who is willing to do whatever it takes to thoroughly ruin her career, and possibly kill her. If she’s going to salvage her professional reputation and stay alive, Bergman will have to find out who her enemy is.

And then there’s Will Thomas’ Fatal Enquiry, which takes place in Victorian London. Scottish private enquiry agent Cyrus Barker and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn have built a solid business for themselves and all’s going well. But then an old nemesis from Barker’s past returns to London. He is Sebastian Nightwine, whom Barker exposed as a criminal years ago. Now he’s back and Barker knows trouble is about to follow. And it does. Barker and Llewelyn soon find themselves the object of a massive manhunt when Barker is accused of murder. This means, among other things, that they have to go into hiding. What’s worse, all of Barker’s available funds have been frozen, so he has no access to money. Then there’s another death that turns out to be murder. Barker and Llewelyn will have to best Nightwine and get the police to believe them that Nightwine is behind all of the incidents if they’re to survive. But Nightwine is no easy prey, and he has a very long and unpleasant history with Barker. He also has plans that include getting Barker permanently out of his way.

Life can start to fall apart for any one of us of course. But it’s a bit different when that tailspin is the work of someone else. And that feeling of paranoia and suspense can add a solid layer to a crime novel, especially when the character has what seems to be a stable life. These are just a few examples (I know, I know, fans of Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent). Over to you.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Avril Lavigne’s My Happy Ending.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Träff, Camilla Grebe, David Whish-Wilson, Michael Robotham, Will Thomas