Category Archives: Agnete Friis

It Starts When You’re Always Afraid*

Witch Hunts and Mass HysteriaThere’ve been all sorts of fictional and historical accounts of the ‘witch trials’ in Salem, Massachusetts during 1692 and 1693. Those events have captured a lot of people’s imaginations and the term ‘witch hunt’ has become synonymous with group hysteria that can lead to injustice and much worse. And if you read history you’ll know that Salem was by no means the first instance of mass hysteria about witchcraft. There’s a line between concern for public safety and the public good on the one hand, and mass hysteria on the other. It’s sometimes hard to say precisely where that line is, but there are many cases where it’s been crossed. A quick look at crime fiction shows some interesting examples.

Hysteria about witches plays a role in Robin Cook’s Acceptable Risk. In that novel, neuroscientist Edward Armstrong is doing research on anti-depressants. He’s introduced to a nurse, Kimberly Stewart, and the two are soon involved romantically. Kimberly is a descendant of Elizabeth Stewart, who was hanged for witchcraft during the 17th Century wave of anti-witch hysteria. As Armstrong learns about the family history, he also sees another possible avenue for research. It turns out that bread baked in the Stewart home was contaminated with ergot, which has certain psychotropic effects. The house is still in the Stewart family, and Armstrong wants to experiment with the ergot that grows there to see if it has promise as an anti-depressant. The first results are truly exciting and Armstrong and his research team think they’ve made a major medical breakthrough. Then, some disturbing things begin to happen. Before long it’s clear that Armstrong, Stewart and the rest of the team are in far greater danger than anyone imagined.

During the ‘Cold War’ between the US and the UK and their allies, and the then-Soviet Union and its allies, there was a great deal of fear about communism. There was reason to be concerned about Soviet spying, and that concern led to fear and even hysteria. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory DIckory Death), Hercule Poirot investigates some unusual events at a hostel for students. Odd things have been disappearing there and, as the manager Mrs. Hubbard is the sister of Poirot’s secretary Felicity Lemon, Poirot agrees to visit the hostel. On the night of his visit, one of the residents Celia Austin admits having taken some of the things. When she does, it’s believed that the matter is settled. When Celia dies two nights later, her death is put down to suicide, but it’s soon proven she was murdered. Now Poirot and Inspector Sharpe look into the backgrounds and personal lives of the other hostel residents to find out who would have wanted to kill Celia and why. In the process, they discover quite a bit of anit-communist sentiment. That discussion forms an interesting thread in this story.

We see that same sort of hysteria reflected in Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins is an amateur PI in post-World War II Los Angeles. One day he gets a letter from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent Reginald Lawrence, claiming that he owes thousands of dollars in back taxes and threatening jail if he doesn’t pay up. Rawlins doesn’t have that kind of money so he starts to resign himself to the very real possibility of a jail term. Then he gets a way out. FBI agent Darryl Craxton offers to make Rawlins’ tax problems go away if he’ll do something in return. The FBI wants to bring down suspected communist Chaim Wenzler, a Polish war refugee. Wenzler does a lot of volunteer work for the First African Baptist Church, and Craxton wants Rawlins to use that volunteer work to get close to Wenzler and inform on him. Rawlins isn’t interested but he sees no other way out of his tax trouble. So he agrees to the plan. As he gets to know Wenzler, he discovers that he likes the man and becomes less and less eager to set him up. Then there are two murders at the church. Since Rawlins was there at the time, he’s a natural suspect. Then the LAPD link him to an earlier death. It’s now clear that someone’s trying to frame him for murder. So Rawlins has to clear his name and strike a very delicate balance between keeping to his agreement with Craxton and keeping Wenzler out of trouble if he can. Throughout the novel there’s a strong thread of anti-communist hysteria and Rawlins is appealed to as a ‘patriotic American’ to do his share.

Anti-Western hysteria shows up in a lot of crime fiction too. For instance, William Ryan’s Captain Alexei Korolev series takes place mostly in pre-World War II Moscow. During those years of Stalinist rule, anyone perceived as having any kind of pro-Western or anti-Soviet sentiment was considered an enemy of the state. Such people were often executed or sent off to gulags for ‘re-education.’ Life was hard for their family members too. In this atmosphere people live in dread of being betrayed to the NKVD as traitors. In fact, Korolev himself has to be very careful. As a CID police investigator, he and his team are responsible for catching criminals. It’s in the Soviet interest to have a strong record of catching and punishing those who break the law. But at the same time, Korolev finds that the trail sometimes leads to the NKVD or to other highly respected and powerful Soviet citizens. To suggest that they may be involved in crime is to run the risk of being declared an enemy of the state.

We also see that kind of anti-Western ‘witch hunt’ in Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Death of a Nightingale, the third of their Nina Borg series. In one plot thread of this novel, two sisters, Olga and Oxana, are growing up in the Ukraine during the terrible famine years of 1934-1936. Everyone is exhorted to make sacrifices for the greater good of the State, but that doesn’t fill people’s stomachs. Yet people who complain or worse, who seem to be too well-fed or have too much food, are in real danger. They’re perceived as traitorous and are denounced. At that time, even the slightest denunciation was enough to consign a person or family to Siberia or worse, as this was the time of Stalin’s Great Purge of people he saw as enemies. That climate of fear and the ever-increasing circle of denunciations play an important role in this plot thread of the novel. Years later, this story casts a shadow when Natasha Doroshenko and her daughter Katerina flee the Ukraine after the murder of Natasha’s journalist husband Pavel. They make their way to Denmark where at first Natasha thinks she’s found a haven. That turns out to be tragically false when she’s imprisoned for the attempted murder of her fiancé Michael Vestergaard.  Then, she overhears a conversation that convinces her that her past in the Ukraine has caught up with her. So she escapes police custody and heads for Coal House Camp, a Red Cross facility where Katerina has been staying. That’s when the real danger starts for her, for Katerina and for Nina Borg.

There are other series too, such as Colin Cotterill’s  Siri Paiboun series, which takes place in 1970’s Laos, that address themes of what you could call ‘witch hunts.’ In series like that, people are encouraged to denounce others, even friends and family members, as traitors. That climate of fear adds a layer of tension to a novel or series. It’s even more disturbing when we think how close those novels come to real life.

ps. The ‘photo is part of an illustration of Pedro Berruguete’s Auto-da-fé, which hangs in Madrid’s Prado Museum. It’s a haunting reminder that widespread fear and the fear of being denounced have a long history.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Stills’ For What it’s Worth.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Colin Cotterill, Lene Kaaberbøl, Robin Cook, Walter Mosley, William Ryan

In The Spotlight: Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ The Boy in the Suitcase

>In The Spotlight: Agatha Christie's 4:50 From PaddingtonHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some crime novels draw several disparate people’s stories together to form one larger story. When that happens, we see how people’s lives intersect in sometimes very unusual ways. To show you what I mean, let’s turn the spotlight today on Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ The Boy in the Suitcase, the first of their novels featuring Danish Red Cross nurse Nina Borg.

One important thread of this story begins when Nina gets a call from her friend Karin Kongsted. The two arrange to meet and that’s when Karin asks Nina to do something. She wants Nina to go to the train station and pick up a suitcase that’s in one of the lockers. It’s obvious that Karin is upset about whatever’s going on, but she won’t tell Nina what’s in the suitcase. She does however say that she’s planning to go away for a while.

Not seeing much choice in the matter, Nina does as her friend asks and picks up the suitcase. When she opens it, she finds inside a three-year-old boy. He’s drugged and dazed, but he’s alive. Nina doesn’t know what Karin’s gotten herself into, but when she tries to reach Karin, she’s unable to make contact. It’s soon clear too that there are some dangerous people who seem to want this boy. Nina wants to keep the boy safe so for the moment she goes into hiding with him. She gets the medical care he needs and tries to find a way to communicate with him, since neither speaks the other’s language.

In the meantime, Sigita Ramoškienė, a Lithuanian single mother, wakes up in a hospital with a broken arm, a concussion and little memory of how she got injured. The one thing she’s certain of is that her three-year-old son Mikas is missing. At first Sigita thinks he may be with his father Darius. But when that’s proven not to be the case, Sigita is as panicked as any parent would be. As soon as possible, she tries to get the police to investigate. But they’re not convinced by her story. To them, Sigita seems the most likely candidate if someone actually did harm the boy. Her story of what happened seems too vague and unsubstantiated. Not trusting the police to help her, Sigita begins her own search for her son. She tracks him to Copenhagen and starts her search again there.

In a third story thread, we meet Jučas, a man with his own dreams of what he wants from life. He gets a way to make them come true when he’s hired for a very special purpose. The person paying the bills for this job is Jan Marquart, whom Jučas refers to as the Dane.

Soon enough, it’s clear that the little boy Nina has found is Sigita’s son Mikas. Each in her own way, the two women try to find out who abducted Miaks and why. In the end, we see how all of the threads of this story are woven together, but not before there’s a brutal murder.

One of the important elements of this story is the character of Sigita Ramoškienė. It’s every loving parent’s worst nightmare to lose a child, and Sigita’s frantic search for Mikas adds a solid level of believable tension to the story. She is also a strong and well-developed character. She may be injured and frightened, but she is neither weak nor stupid. It’s true that her son has been abducted, but she refuses to be a victim. It’s not hard to be on her side as she goes after Mikas.

We are also introduced to Nina Borg in this story. As her friend Karin puts it, Nina has a need to save the world. In that sense, she’s compassionate and caring. But her instinct to protect the vulnerable gets her in serious trouble. It’s taken her to all sorts of dangerous places in the world, and it causes serious tension between her and her husband Morten. Morten isn’t really what you would call a selfish person, but he thinks his wife puts too much of her energy into risking her life for total strangers and too little into being a mother to her children Ida and Anton. In fact, as the novel goes on, we see how Nina’s devotion to saving others compromises her family. And yet, Nina is not heartless about her family. I think I can say without spoiling the story or the series that Nina grows and evolves as the series moves on.

The story is told from several points of view including Nina’s, Sigita’s, Jan’s and Jučas’. Readers who prefer just one person’s perspective will notice this, especially since the stories are told more or less separately at first. They do gradually come together, but readers who prefer just one major plot thread and perspective will be disappointed.

Another important element in this novel is the set of plot twists. Readers who like to be surprised and outwitted by the author will be pleased. For example, the reason for which Mikas has been abducted is not the one you might assume right off. There are other plot twists too that keep the outcome of the story from being a given.

The plot twists and the high stakes involved give the novel a hint of the thriller. Readers who like a fast pace will be pleased at this. Like some other thrillers, this one asks the reader to do some suspension of disbelief. Readers who prefer not to do that will be disappointed in some parts of the story. That said though, there’s a solid sense of authenticity in Sigita’s desperate search for her son.

The Boy in the Suitcase explores the consequences of Mikas’ abduction for all of the people involved, and shows the power of the parent/child bond. It also shows how one focal point can draw a group of people’s lives together. It also introduces several of the characters that develop further and become important a bit later in the series. As just one example, two characters mentioned almost in passing in this novel become the focus of Death of a Nightingale, the third Nina Borg novel. There are several plot twists and some important themes discussed. But what’s your view? Have you read The Boy in the Suitcase? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday 27 January/Tuesday 28 January – The Guards – Ken Bruen

Monday 3 February/Tuesday 4 February – Where the Devil Can’t Go – Anya Lipska

Monday 10 February/Tuesday 11 February – Bruno, Chief of Police – Martin Walker

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Filed under Agnete Friis, Lene Kaaberbøl, The Boy in the Suitcase

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime*

1930sThe world market crash of 1929 was part of what you might call a ‘perfect storm’ that lasted throughout much of the 1930s. That era – the 1930s – was marked by several movements and events, only a few of which space allows me to mention. But as we’ll see, crime fiction of and about the era reflects a lot of them.

The dire economic straits of the 1930’s comes through in several crime novels. I’ll just mention a few. Stuart Palmer’s The Penguin Pool Murder, published in 1931, introduces us to school teacher Hildegarde Withers. As the novel begins, she’s shepherding her students through the New York Aquarium when her handbag is nearly stolen. Miss Withers deters the thief, but ends up getting mixed up in a murder case when the body of stockbroker Gerald Lester is found in the penguin pool. Police Inspector Oscar Piper is called in and begins the official investigation. The Great Crash has financially wiped out many of Lester’s clients and some of them are angry and desperate enough to have committed murder. Among other things, this novel gives readers a look at how buying on margin and other common stock market customs contributed to the crash.

In Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke, which also takes place in 1931, Berlin crime reporter Hannah Vogel happens to be at a local police station when she notices a shockingly familiar ‘photo in the station’s ‘Hall of the Unknown Dead.’ Her own brother Ernst has apparently been killed. Vogel can’t do much to investigate because neither she nor Ernst has official identification documents. They lent those documents to Jewish friends so that they could leave the country. Still, Vogel is determined to find out what happened to her brother so very quietly, she begins to ask questions. As Vogel investigates, we see just how desperately poor many people were at this time. There are, for instance, lots of women who’ve turned to prostitution simply in order to eat. Many, many people have pawned anything of any value, and regular full meals are not a given. It’s a frightening time financially and that adds to the tension of this novel.

Another part of the ‘perfect storm’ of this era was the combination of natural forces, policy decisions and poor land management that led to famine in several parts of the world.  Part of Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Death of a Nightingale takes place in the Ukraine during 1934-1936. Two sisters, Olga and Oxana, are growing up under Stalin’s regime, and as we learn what happens to them, we see just how desperate people were, just for some bread. Everyone is suffering and although the official message is that everyone must make sacrifices for the State, that doesn’t quell anyone’s hunger. The sisters’ story has a long reach, as we learn when some eighty years later Natasha Doroshenko flees the Ukraine with her daughter Katerina. She takes her daughter to Denmark to escape the people who murdered her journalist husband Pavel. Things aren’t much better for her in Denmark though. First, she ends up in prison for the attempted murder of her new fiancé Michael Vestergaard. Then by chance, she overhears a conversation that convinces her that the people she tried to escape from have followed her. So she escapes police custody and goes to Coal-House Camp, a Red Cross facility that’s been looking after Katerina. Red Cross nurse Nina Borg works at the camp and knows both Natasha and her daughter. So she gets involved when Michael Vestergaard is found brutally murdered and Natasha disappears. The Ukraine famine isn’t the reason for Vestergaard’s murder (or for that matter, for Pavel Doroshenko’s). But it plays a role in the story and we see just how hungry people really were. This plot thread also gives readers a look at the rise of Josef Stalin and the purges of the era. Interested readers can also check our William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series for a look at that aspect of the 1930s.

We also see poverty in the work of Arthur Upfield, whose Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte novels depict life in Australia’s Outback and other less populated regions during the era. In several of them there’s a real struggle for life, and it’s not made any better by the racism of the day. And I can’t resist a mention of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I admit; it’s not a crime novel as such (although there is a murder in it), but it’s an authentic portrayal of the poverty of the era and the way the American Dust Bowl added to that misery. It’s an unflinching look at what happens to people when it’s sometimes hard just to find anything to eat.

Yet another part of the 1930’s ‘perfect storm’ was the rise of Nazism and the looming threat of World War II. The rising power of the Nazi party is an important theme in Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke. It’s also mentioned vaguely in a few of Agatha Christie’s works. For instance, in her short story The Kidnapped Prime Minister, Hercule Poirot gets a late-night visit from the Leader of the House of Commons and a member of the War Cabinet. Their purpose is to seek his help in finding Prime Minister David MacAdam, who’s apparently been kidnapped. World War II is just on the horizon and MacAdam was on his way to Paris to make a ‘rally the troops’ speech when he disappeared. It’s in the interest of the Nazis for England to take an appeasement approach, so there are several people both inside and outside MacAdam’s government who do not want him to give that speech. Poirot and Hastings are given one day to find MacAdam, so that he can go on as planned.

On a (slight) side note, Christie mentions the Spanish Civil War in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas). In that novel, Hercule Poirot spends the holiday with Colonel Johnson and is thereby drawn in to the murder of Simeon Lee, an unpleasant and tyrannical patriarch who lived not far away. One of the suspects in that novel is Lee’s grand-daughter Pilar Estravados, who’s half-Spanish and has come from Spain at Lee’s request to spend Christmas there. In a few of the stories she tells, we see some of the horror of the Spanish Civil War.

It shouldn’t be surprising that with all of the harshness of reality in the 1930’s, people wanted to escape. So there was also lots of attention paid to famous criminals like Al Capone. And of course, everyone followed the kidnapping of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s son. In fact Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express reflects that case. People were also fascinated by the doings of the ‘café society’ and of course, the Royal family. Several of Agatha Christie’s novels of that decade (e.g. Lord Edgware Dies), focus on the lives of the ‘glitterati.’

So do other novels. In Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts for instance, Hollywood stars Blythe Stuart and John Royle become the subject of a lot of attention, as did many stars of the day. Stuart and Royle had a very public, very stormy love affair that ended years ago. Each married someone else and each had a child. Now, Magna Studios wants to do a biopic of the two stars and surprisingly, they agree. Ellery Queen is under contract to Magna so he gets involved in writing the screenplay. To everyone’s shock, the two ex-lovers re-kindle their romance and even decide to marry. Rather than let this stop the film’s production, it’s decided to embrace the upcoming wedding and give it the full Hollywood treatment. The two marry on an airstrip and then, with their children, board the plane for their honeymoon. When the plane lands, both Stuart and Royle are dead of what turns out to be poison. At first, their children blame each other, but Ellery Queen discovers that the murder has another motive entirely. There are other novels too (e.g. Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep) that take a much more jaded look at the wealthy and powerful of the era.

The 1930s was of course a very hard time economically, politically and in other ways too. At the same time, it was an era that laid the groundwork for a lot of modern attitudes (ask anyone who had a relative who lived during the Great Depression, and you’ll see for instance how mistrust of banks still persists). It was also the height of the Golden Age, so we see a lot of the era portrayed in the crime fiction of the time, only a bit of which I’ve had space to mention here. Little wonder people still find the decade fascinating.

 

ps. The ‘photo is of my grandparents-in-law. It was taken during the early 1930s in Atlantic City, New Jersey. I know, I know, I’ve shown this ‘photo before, but I couldn’t resist it for this post.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by E.Y. Harburg and Jay Gorney.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Arthur Upfield, Dashiell Hammett, Ellery Queen, John Steinbeck, Lene Kaaberbøl, Raymond Chandler, Rebecca Cantrell, Stuart Palmer, William Ryan

Just a Flashy Fast Advertisement*

AdvertisementsThey’re everywhere. They pop up when you’re online, they take up lots of space in magazines and newspapers, and of course you can hardly watch anything on television without seeing them. I’m talking of course about advertisements. As we’ll shortly see, they’ve always been around. And now that people can digitally record what they want and can click away from online advertisements, companies are finding ever more creative ways to get our attention. You even see them on airline boarding passes and on the backs of purchase receipts. The all-pervasiveness of advertisements means of course, that they also run through crime fiction. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, the Boynton family goes on a sightseeing tour of the Middle East, including a visit to Petra. On the second day of their stay, Mrs. Boynton dies of what seems to be natural causes. She was both elderly and in poor health, and the trip is long and hot. So no-one is really surprised that she’s died. Colonel Carbury is tasked with the police report about this unexpected death, and something about it worries him. So he asks Hercule Poirot, who’s staying in Jerusalem, to investigate. Poirot agrees and travels to Petra to find out the truth. There are several suspects in this case, most particularly the members of Mrs. Boynton’s family. She was a tyrannical matriarch who kept her family completely cowed. Bit by bit Poirot finds out what everyone was doing on the afternoon of her death, and gets to the truth about what happened to her. One of the other visitors to Petra is MP Lady Westholme. She’s got a very strong will and quite a lot of determination. At one point, she has a disagreement with a representative from Castle’s, the tour company that’s running the excursion. The car they’ve provided for the trip to Petra is, in Lady Westholme’s view, far too small:

 

‘The young man from Castle’s murmured that a larger car would add to the price.
‘The price,’ said Lady Westholme firmly, ‘is inclusive, and I shall certainly refuse to sanction any addition to it. Your prospectus distinctly states, ‘in comfortable saloon car.’ You will keep to the terms of your agreement.’’

 

As you can imagine, Lady Westholme wins the day – an early example of the need for truth in advertising. Christie uses advertising in other novels and stories too. For instance, a brochure on missionary work features in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death). And I’m not even mentioning the many times that personal advertisements and announcements are woven into her work.

I couldn’t possibly discuss advertisements in crime fiction without mentioning Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise. In that novel, copywriter Victor Dean has died from a fall down a staircase at his place of employment Pym’s Publicity, Ltd. It would be considered a tragic accident except for the fact that Dean left behind an unfinished letter in which he claimed that someone at the company was using company resources illegally. The management at Pym’s wants to avoid a scandal at all costs. So they hire Lord Peter Wimsey to find out whether Dean was right. Wimsey agrees and goes undercover at the company as Dean’s replacement. He finds out that in fact, Dean was right. He’d discovered that one of the employees was using Pym’s advertising to arrange meetings between a dangerous drugs ring and local dealers. Dean made the mistake of blackmailing the guilty person and paid with his life. In the process of investigating, Wimsey develops what turns out to be a very successful advertising campaign for Whifflet cigarettes. It’s an interesting look at differences in advertising over the years.

In Louise Penny’s Bury Your Dead, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is taking some time away from his job. He and his wife Reine-Marie are visiting Québec City for the Winter Carnival when there’s a murder committed at the Literary and Historical Society Library.  At the same time, Gamache has to face the terrible possibility that he was wrong in his most recent investigation. I won’t give away spoilers except to say that you’ll want to read The Brutal Telling before you read Bury Your Dead if you’ve not done so. As you can imagine if you’ve read Penny’s novels, the trail leads back to the small town of Three Pines. At one point, former psychologist Myrna Landers, a series ‘regular’ and a resident of Three Pines, is thinking about a getaway trip to beat the terrible winter cold. She’s discussing it with her friends Clara Morrow and Gabriel ‘Gabri’ Dubeau:

 

‘‘I tell you, I’m going to do it,’ Myrna was saying…
‘No, you’re not,’ laughed Clara. ‘Every winter you say you will and you never do. Besides, it’s too late now.’
‘Have you seen the last-minute deals? Look.’ Myrna handed her friend the Travel section from the weekend Montreal Gazette, pointing to a box…
‘Let me see that,’ said Gabri, leaning towards Clara…
Gabri scanned the page then leaned back in his seat. ‘Nope, not interested. Condé Nest has better ads.’
‘Condé Nest has near naked men smothered in olive oil lying on beaches,’ said Myrna.
‘Now, that I would pay for,’ said Gabri. ‘All inclusive.’’

 

Admittedly the advertisement isn’t the reason for the murder at the library. But it’s an interesting look at the characters and this snippet shows Penny’s wit.

There’s an example of the dangers of advertisements in Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers. Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne is working on an exposé of unscrupulous land developer Denny Graham. His scheme has been to lure investors in with seductive advertisements featuring luxurious homes, happy investors and all sorts of ‘testimonials’ from people who’ve supposedly embarked on a dream retirement. The fact is though that the reality is very far from those glittering advertisements. When Thorne actually visits one of the ‘luxury locations,’ she finds that it’s completely undeveloped. What’s more she talks with several people who’ve lost all of their savings in this scheme, and have had to severely retrench their lifestyles as a result. Thorne is excited about this story  but her boss soon asks her to work on something else. The 30th anniversary of the Springboks’ 1981 tour of New Zealand – The Tour, as it’s often called – is fast approaching. The event caused a lot of controversy and Thorne’s boss thinks there’s mileage in it. He wants Thorne to find a new angle on it. At first she’s reluctant. Not only is she worried about scaring away people who might go public against Denny Graham, but also, she doesn’t think there’s much new to report about The Tour. Then she discovers an unsolved murder that happened during that tour…

An advertisement plays a very interesting role in Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Death of a Nightingale. Natasha Doroshenko fled from the Ukraine to Denmark with her daughter Katerina after the murder of her journalist husband Pavel. At first she thought she’d found a safe haven. But trouble seems to have followed her. For one thing, she’s been imprisoned for the attempted murder of her new fiancé Michael Vestergaard. As we learn in the novel, she had good reason, but it’s meant that she’s been separated from Katerina, who’s been staying at Coal-House Camp, a Red Cross facility. One day, Natasha is being escorted from the prison to a police station when she overhears something that convinces her that someone from the Ukraine is following her. She escapes police custody and goes on the run to try to get to her daughter and escape Denmark. When Michael Vestergaard is found brutally murdered, Natasha is pursued by the Danish police. She’s also in the sights of some very nasty people from the Ukraine who believe that she has something they want very much. Red Cross nurse Nina Borg has worked with both Natasha and Katerina, and together with Danish Security officer Søren Kierkegaard, she tries to keep Katerina safe and find and help Natasha. At one point, Natasha is trying to figure out exactly who is after her and why those people killed Pavel. When she does make the connection, an advertising jingle gives her what she needs to ‘flush out the enemy.’ It’s interesting too how that jingle stays in her memory.

And that’s just what advertisers want. They want customers to see their products and services, remember what they’ve heard and of course, spend money. It’s no wonder advertisements pop up all over crime fiction…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michael Nehra’s Ghost Dance, made popular by Roy Harper.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Dorothy Sayers, Lene Kaaberbøl, Louise Penny, Paddy Richardson

Lean on Me When You’re Not Strong*

Millions of people volunteer their time and energy to help those in need. And the best kinds of volunteers are the ones who don’t make a big fuss about it. They see a need and without judging or asking anything in return, they try to meet that need. I won’t go on and on about the different causes for which they work. There is far too long a list of urgent needs out there for me to do that. Suffice it to say though that volunteers have a huge impact. Certainly they do in real life; I’ll bet you volunteer yourself and if you do, you know what a difference the work you do makes. That’s why you do it. There are many, many volunteer and volunteer groups in crime fiction too.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles for example, Captain Hastings is recovering from a wartime injury. He accepts an invitation to visit an old friend John Cavendish while he heals up, and is looking forward to a pleasant stay. Instead, Hastings is drawn into a case of murder when Cavendish’s stepmother Emily Inglethorp is poisoned. By chance Hastings discovers that another old friend Hercule Poirot is staying in the nearby village and asks him to investigate. Poirot agrees, not least because Emily Inglethorp was his benefactor.  As the novel goes along we learn that several members of the family do their share of volunteering, mostly in aid of the war effort. Cavendish, for instance drills with the local volunteer militia. His wife Mary volunteers as what would later be known as a Land Girl. And Emily Inglethorp plays quite a key role in all sorts of local charity groups. Although this fact of their lives isn’t the motive for the murder, it’s an interesting perspective on their lives.

Deborah Crombie’s In a Dark House introduces us to Helping Hands, a group dedicated to helping abused women and their children find safe places to go and make plans for their lives once they get there. One night, a warehouse fire in Southwark is reported by a resident at Helping Hands, and Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his lover DI Gemma James go to the shelter to interview the person who called in the fire.  There they meet Kath Warren, the director. What makes this fire of special interest is that the body of an unidentified woman was found in the remains. It seems that the shelter may be more than casually related when it turns out that Laura Novak, a member of its board of directors, has disappeared and could be the fire victim. There are three other equally strong possibilities though and Kincaid and James investigate all of them as they work to figure out who set the fire and who the dead woman is. I don’t think it’s spoiling this novel to say that the Helping Hands group didn’t engineer the fire or Novak’s disappearance. But we do get some interesting insight into the workings of a volunteer group, its leadership and the way such groups are viewed.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman volunteers with the Melbourne Soup Run, a mobile soup kitchen that serves Melbourne’s street people. She’s a baker so she provides bread; she also takes her turn going on the run with other volunteers who travel from one part of the city to another. At each stop the Soup Run gives out coffee and tea, food, some medicines and other supplies like blankets and clothes. Chapman is quite matter-of-fact about her volunteer work. She doesn’t talk much about it; she just rolls up her sleeves as the saying goes and does what needs to be done. The Soup Run is overseen by the indefatigable Sister Mary, one of Melbourne’s strongest advocates for those in need. Sister Mary has a remarkable skill at getting people to part with their time, their money, their donations, their official permission, whatever is necessary to get the job done. And she’s one of the few people Chapman co-operates with nearly automatically. The Soup Run proves useful to Chapman too, in a few mysteries. For instance, in Devil’s Food, Chapman’s father seems to have disappeared. Through the Soup Run she makes contact with other Melbourne volunteer groups and services and is able to find out what happened to him. The Soup Run is also a source of clues in Earthy Delights, in which she helps to solve the mystery of a series of junkie overdose deaths.

In Peg Brantley’s Red Tide we meet volunteer guide dog handler Jamie Taylor. By day she’s a Colorado bank loan professional. She also trains and handles Gretchen, Socrates ‘Socks’ and McKenzie, who are search-and-rescue dogs. When the need arises Taylor and her dogs go on search and rescue missions. That’s how they get involved in an eerie discovery. Convicted serial killer Leopold Bonzer has told the FBI where he buried his victims and Taylor and her dogs are sent to that remote field. They find the bodies but they also find bodies that Bonzer could not have buried there. Now it looks as though a ‘copycat killer’ is using the same field. Each in a different way, Taylor, her sister Jacqueline ‘Jax’ and FBI Agent Nick Grant investigate to find out who this new killer is and how that relates to a tragedy in Taylor’s own past. Among other things, this is an interesting look at the way search-and-rescue operations are carried out and how dogs are used in the process.

And then there’s Nina Borg, whom we first meet in Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ The Boy in the Suitcase. Nina is a nurse at Ellen’s Place, a shelter and service provider for refugees. She’s also volunteered in several different world ‘danger zones’ and takes her work in service to others very seriously. But one day she gets a very unusual case. Her friend Karin asks her to go to the Copenhagen train station and pick up a suitcase. She does so only to discover that it contains a little boy. He’s dazed and drugged, but he is alive. So she tries as best she can to find out who he is. Her first call is to Karin, but Karen seems to have disappeared. Now Nina has to find out for herself who the boy is and get him to safety. In doing so she finds herself up against some ruthless people who want that child. Meanwhile, we meet Sigita Ramoskiene, the Lithuanian mother of three-year-old Mikas, who has been abducted. As she frantically searches for her son, we learn that he is the child Nina found. Each in her own way the two women work to find out why Mikas was abducted and return him safely.

Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer features Catherine Monsigny, who’s recently become an attorney. She has a full-time job at the law office of Maître Renaud, but she also volunteers her time to an association that works with undocumented immigrants who get into legal trouble. Her purpose in doing the volunteer work is mostly to get experience. That’s how she learns of the case of Myriam Villetreix, originally from Gabon, who’s been arrested and charged with the murder of her wealthy husband Gaston. The case has been getting a lot of media attention and if Catherine gets her boss’ permission to defend Myriam, it could launch her career. She gets that permission and begins to look into the case only to find that it’s more complicated than it seems on the surface. There is evidence against her client and there is motive. What’s more, this trial takes place not far from where Catherine’s mother was murdered when she was a tiny child. No-one was ever arrested for the crime and the memory of that day has haunted her since then. Being in the area spurs Catherine to try to find out who killed her mother while she is also searching for the truth about the murder of Gaston Villetreix.

There are of course many other crime fiction novels that feature volunteers, and quite frankly, I’m glad they get ‘air time.’ It’s easy enough to click a link and donate money. It’s not so easy to give up your time and your mental and physical energy. But volunteers do it all the time in a million different ways, and without going on about it. They deserve our respect and gratitude. Mostly, they deserve to have us join their company.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bill Withers’ Lean on Me.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Deborah Crombie, Kerry Greenwood, Lene Kaaberbøl, Peg Brantley, Sylvie Granotier