Category Archives: Alan Orloff

Why Try to Hide It?

DisguisingMurderorNotMost murderers, real or fictional, don’t want to be caught. So, they take various means to ensure that doesn’t happen. Sometimes for instance, a murderer will construct a well-crafted alibi. Other times, a murderer will frame someone else for the crime. There are many, many crime novels where that happens. I’ll bet you can think of at least as many as I ever could.

But there are cases where the murderer ‘disguises’ a death so that it looks like a natural or accidental death, or like a suicide. Just to give one example, the murderer in Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach disguises the murder of a tour guide as an accidental drowning. And it’s very hard to prove, at least at first, that it wasn’t. And the killer in Alan Orloff’s Diamonds For the Dead covers up a murder to look like an accidental fall down a flight of stairs. And then there’s the murder of a wealthy patriarch in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Mirror that’s made up to look like suicide.

How often does that really happen in crime fiction? You’d think quite a lot, since for most murderers, it’s important not to be caught. I decided to take a look at that question. I chose 213 fictional murders from among my own books. Then I divided them into two groups: murders that are not diguised (i.e. It’s clear immediately that this is a murder) and murders that are disguised (i.e. The murder looks very much like a suicide, an accident or death by natural causes until the sleuth looks more deeply). Here’s what I found.

 

Disguised v Undisguised Murders

As you can see, the vast majority of the murders in my data set (81%) are not disguised. Admittedly, these are books I have personally read. They do not include the myriad books I’ve not read, so this is a limited data set. That said though, it seems pretty clear that a lot of fictional murderers don’t disguise their handiwork.

Still it is interesting to see just how a murder might be covered up. How do fictional killers do that? Here are the results I got when I looked more closely at those 41 ‘disguised’ murders.

 

Disguises Used For Murders

Most of them (63%) were made to look like accidents. And that’s logical when you think about it. It’s easier to fake an accident than to fake a suicide or a natural death (‘though of course, that does happen).

One question that occurred to me was: why not disguise a murder to look like something else? One reason for that may be that a lot of murders are not pre-planned; they are ‘heat of the moment’ killings, or at least deaths that the killer hadn’t intended to commit. In cases like that, the murderer might not think ahead to disguise the crime. I wondered whether that might be the case, so I examined those 172 undisguised fictional murders. Here’s what I found.

 

Planned vs Unplanned Murders

It’s clear that, at least among the fictional murders I looked at, most of them (a full 82%) were pre-planned, at least in the sense that the murderer starts out with the intention to kill the victim. I understand that there are a lot of legal shadings in any discussion of what counts as an intentional killing.

So, among these fictional murders, we can’t really argue that they’re ‘heat of the moment’ killings where the criminal didn’t think ahead to disguise the murder. So why are so many undisguised? In some cases, it’s because the killer wants the death to be obvious, as a warning to others. There are also some situations where the killer has psychological reasons for making the murder(s) obvious. And there are some as well in which the fact of an obvious murder doesn’t necessarily point to a particular person as the culprit. That’s what happens, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, where the victim is stabbed – a clear case of murder – but that fact doesn’t tell the police or Hercule Poirot (at least at first) who committed the crime.

So what can one conclude from all of this? One thing I’ve concluded is that, for a variety of reasons, fictional murderers very often don’t take pains to disguise what they’ve done. At least the ones I looked at here don’t. Another is that in many cases, one reason for that is that an obviously murdered victim doesn’t automatically incriminate one specific person. Another is that the killer has particular reasons for not trying to cover up a murder as something else.

What’s your view on all of this? Do you see a similar pattern in the crime fiction you read? If you’re a crime writer, does your killer disguise the murder(s)? If not, how does your killer try to avoid getting caught?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fleetwood Mac’s My Little Demon.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Orloff, Angela Savage

I Want to be Elected*

VotingWhen many people think of elections and politics, they think of national-level elections. And that makes sense, since presidents and prime ministers have a great deal of power, and those elections get a lot of press. But it’s often the local and state/province/department – level elections that have the most impact on our day-to-day lives. For example, when you apply for a permit to build a house or develop some land, you generally don’t do so at the national level. So smaller elections can be very important.

They can stir up real passion, too, and the buildup of tension and excitement can be an interesting backdrop for a crime story. An election can also serve as an interesting sub-plot, even if it’s not the most important plot thread of a story.

In Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, up-and-coming Saskatchewan politician Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is preparing to make a very important speech at a local picnic/barbecue. He’s widely seen as his party’s next leader, so everyone wants to hear what he has to say. As he’s beginning his speech, though, he takes a sip of water and then suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. One of his campaign workers and speechwriters is political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn. She’s also a personal friend. When Boychuk dies, she decides to deal with her grief by writing a biography of him. The more she learns about Andy Boychuk’s life, the more she sees that there are sides to him that no-one knew. That search for the truth also leads Kilbourn to the truth about who killed Boychuk and why – and into real danger for herself.

We see the power of local politics too in Peter Temple’s Bad Debts. Danny McKillop spent eight years in prison for the drink driving murder of Melbourne citizens’ rights activist Anne Jeppeson. Now he’s been released, and he is desperate to contact the attorney who represented him Jack Irish. But before Irish can meet up with his former client, McKillop is murdered. Irish feels guilty already because he didn’t do a good job of defending McKillop in the first place. So he decides to look into the murder. He soon discovers that the victim was most likely framed for the killing of Anne Jeppeson. If that’s the case, then not only is the killer still free, but that person also probably murdered McKillop. As Irish and journalist Linda Hillier get closer to the truth, they discover that it’s all related to dirty politics, greed and intrigue.

Alan Orloff’s Deadly Campaign features a U.S. Congressional campaign. Edward Wong has just won the Democratic primary election, and will soon be preparing to face his Republican opponent in the larger general election. One night there’s a celebration event at the Northern Virginia restaurant owned by Wong’s uncle Thomas Lee. During the evening, a group of thugs bursts in and breaks up the party, using baseball bats to cause damage to the restaurant. Wong’s family does not want the police involved, but his uncle sees things differently. Lee asks his friend Channing Hayes, who co-owns a nearby comedy club, to ask around and see if he can find out who’s responsible for the attack, before anyone gets hurt or worse. Hayes reluctantly agrees. It’s not long though before the Wong family finds out that Lee and Hayes have been looking into what happened. The family leaders make it very clear to both that their involvement is not necessary; the matter is settled and there is no need to ask any more questions. They also make some not-very-veiled threats about the consequences if either man continues to investigate. Lee though is determined to find out the truth and Hayes feels no choice but to continue. Besides, he’s not exactly enamoured of the Wong family. And what the two find is that the attack is related to politics, greed and power-grabbing. And so are some murders that also occur in the novel…

We see an example of more local politics in Shelly Reuben’s The Boys of Sabbath Street. Artemus Ackerman is mayor of the small city of Calendar. A former magician, he wants to convert an old local theatre building into a museum of magic. To do that, he’ll need funding and the support of city leaders. He thinks he may be getting everything arranged when there’s a fire on the same street as the building. Then there’s another. And another. It’s soon obvious that there’s an arsonist at work. If the arsonist isn’t caught, there won’t be public support for this new museum. What’s more, people will likely lose their confidence in their mayor. Ackerman’s smart enough to know this, so he asks his publicist/assistant Maggie Wakeling to find out what she can. She works with Fire Marshal George Copeland to get to the bottom of this nightmare before anyone is killed.

In Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, retired schoolteacher Myrtle Clover discovers the body of malicious real estate developer Parke Stoddard in a local church. Myrtle’s son Red, who’s the local police chief, doesn’t want his mother involved. In fact, he’d much rather her do things other retired people do – play Bingo, go to church meetings, and so on. But Myrtle is by no means ready to be ‘put out to pasture.’ To show that she’s not going to be pushed aside, she decides to investigate. The victim made more than her share of enemies in her relatively short time in the small town of Bradley, North Carolina, so there are plenty of suspects. One of them is City Councilman Benton Chambers, whom the victim was blackmailing. As Myrtle discovers, Chambers is not the ‘family man’ and ‘man of the people’ that he would have his constituents believe he is. So one very good possible motive for murder here is political.

One of the funniest commentaries on local politics (at least I find it funny) is in Craig Johnson’s The Cold Dish, the first in his series featuring Absaroka County, Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire. In this novel, Longmire and his team investigate the murders of two young men who are connected with a vicious gang-rape two years earlier. Longmire isn’t what you’d call a political animal, although he does know the value of showing up at community events and so on. He’d rather just do his job. Still, he understands that he has his job because of people’s votes. At one point in the murder investigation, one of the crime scene investigators says this to Longmire:
 

‘You blow one homicide, it looks like a mistake. You blow two, it starts looking like negligence. Or worse yet, stupidity.’

 

Here’s how Longmire answers.
 

‘I thought I’d use that on the bumper stickers in the next election, VOTE LONGMIRE, HE’S STUPID.’

 

I wonder if that slogan would be successful… ;-)

It’s not just national-level politics that can get downright dirty. Local and state/provincial/department politics can be dangerous too.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alice Cooper’s Elected.

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Filed under Alan Orloff, Craig Johnson, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Peter Temple, Shelly Reuben

I Must Be Strong and Carry On*

Funeral CustomsPeople who die usually leave behind friends, colleagues and loved ones who need to go through the process of grieving. And for a lot of people, that process involves a funeral or memorial service. Many people find that a ritual service helps them accept the death and begin the difficult process of letting go. And each culture has its own way of letting go of those who’ve died. Since death is so much a part of crime fiction, it’s no surprise at all that we see many examples of funerals, memorial services and so on in the genre. There’s only space in this one post for a few examples, but I’m sure you can think of more than I could, anyway.

Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal) starts with the funeral of patriarch Richard Abernethie. As is the custom at that time and in that place, the family members gather at the Abernethie home Enderby after the service. Among the mourners is the family lawyer Mr. Entwhistle, who’s been through this before with other clients. He knows the ritual very well and at the expected time, he informs the family of the terms of Abernethie’s will. At this gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up and even she tells the group to pay no attention to her. But secretly everyone wonders whether she was right. When she herself is murdered the next day, it seems clear that she was. Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and Poirot agrees. In the end he finds out the truth about both Abernethie’s death and that of his sister. It’s interesting to see how people’s beliefs about what is ‘the proper thing to do’ at funerals comes into play at the beginning of the novel even though Christie doesn’t depict the service itself.

In Arthur Upfield’s Death of a Swagman, Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte visits the small town of Merino to investigate the murder of stockman George Kendall, whose body was found in an isolated hut. He’s just arrived when one of the town’s most respected citizens Ted Bennett dies of a heart attack. Bony’s in the process of looking into the Kendall case when there’s another grisly discovery. Transient worker John Way’s body is found in the same hut, and it seems he committed suicide. Bony doesn’t think that’s true though, and certain aspects of the two deaths seem to connect them. It turns out that Bony’s right, and in the end he finds out what really happened to both men, and how it’s connected to the death of Ted Bennett. On the day of Bennett’s funeral, a storm threatens, and it’s interesting to see how everyone rushes to make sure all of the decencies are observed before the storm hits.

Burial customs play an important role in Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway. In that novel, Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee investigates the disappearance of sixteen-year-old Margaret Billy Sosi, who went missing from the school she attends. Chee believes that this case is related to another case he’s investigating, the disappearance and later murder of Albert Gorman. Gorman was a Los Angeles Navajo who’d moved to the Reservation. Chee is right that there’s a connection, and the trail leads him to Los Angeles, where he finds out important things about Gorman’s history. He also finds out the truth about why Gorman’s been killed. At one point in the novel Chee goes to the home of one of Gorman’s kinsmen where he believes Gorman may have been hiding out. That’s when he discovers that Gorman’s dead. The body is prepared in the traditional Navajo way, but there are just a few things about that preparation that aren’t consistent with tradition. That’s what begins to put Chee on the right path. This novel also discusses Navajo beliefs about the dead and about rituals used by those who come in contact with the dead.

One of the story arcs in Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn series concerns the death of Kilbourn’s first husband Ian. He was a rising politician who was murdered one night when he stopped to help a young couple whose car wasn’t working. When he refused to take them to a party, the young man, Kevin Tarpley, murdered him. Tarpley was convicted and imprisoned for the crime. In A Colder Kind of Death, Tarpley is shot while he’s exercising in the prison yard. Then his wife Maureen, who was with him on the night of Ian Kilbourn’s murder, is also killed. Now suspicion falls on Kilbourn. It’s soon shown that she had nothing to do with the killings, but she still wants to deal with the grief that that this experience brings up. Part of the way she does that is by looking at old footage of her husband’s funeral. That process helps both her and her son Angus, who is also dealing with his father’s murder. It’s not vital to the case, but it’s interesting to see how each of them reacts to the footage, and what each remembers about the funeral.

Alan Orloff’s Diamonds For the Dead is the story of the death of Abe Handleman, who had a fatal fall down a flight of stairs. His son Josh returns to the family home in Northern Virginia to arrange his father’s funeral. That’s when he discovers that his father had a cache of very valuable diamonds – and they’re missing. What’s more, his father’s best friend Lev Yurishenko tells Josh that his father didn’t die accidentally, but was murdered. At first Josh doesn’t want to believe it, but the missing diamonds seem to support that theory. So he begins to ask some questions. He finds out that there was more to his father than he knew. He also finds out the truth about his father’s death. As a part of this novel, we see the traditional Jewish custom of burial as soon as possible after the death. We also see the custom of sitting shiva – a week-long period of mourning that’s observed in traditional Jewish homes.

Police sometimes attend funerals and memorial services of murder victims, particularly if they believe they can get some insight into who the killer might be. That’s what happens for instance in Jane Casey’s The Burning. DC Maeve Kerrigan and her colleagues at the Met are investigating a series of killings committed by a murderer who tries to destroy his victims’ bodies by fire. When the body of Rebecca Haworth is discovered, it looks at first as though she may be the so-called Burning Man’s latest victim. But little pieces of evidence suggest otherwise. Partly to follow up on that possibility, Kerrigan is asked to focus on the Haworth case. She attends Haworth’s funeral and in one moving scene, she gets the chance to speak to the victim’s parents. She knows it’s the worst possible time to ask them any questions, but she also wants to solve the case as quickly as possible. In the end, something she sees at the funeral gathering helps Kerrigan to put some of the pieces together.

Funeral and memorial rites often help people let go and we see that in Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart. American ex-pat Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty is a Bangkok-based travel writer who has a reputation for being able to find people and solve problems. So Australian Clarissa Ulrich seeks him out when she goes in search of her Uncle Claus. The two were close when she was growing up, but she hasn’t heard from him and she’s worried for him. Rafferty agrees to ask questions and is soon drawn into an ugly case of murder, awful hidden secrets and more. One murder in particular hits Rafferty very hard. His wife Rose, who’s a former bar girl, and his foster daughter Miaow, who’s a former street child, both understand that this is tearing Rafferty apart, and will only get worse. They are also products of the Thai culture, and have a set of culturally-based beliefs about death and about letting go. With their help, Rafferty goes through a particular ritual, and it’s clear that it has a cleansing effect on him.

We see a similar effect in Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar. PI Jayne Keeney is an ex-pat Australian who lives and works in Bangkok. She goes north to Chiang Mai to visit her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. During her visit, Didi’s partner Nou is murdered. The official police theory is that Didi is responsible and one night he is killed in what police say was an incident of violently resisting arrest. Keeney doesn’t believe that though. She thinks the police are covering up the real reason for both killings and she begins to ask questions. Her search leads her to the Thai sex trade, human trafficking and corruption. In the end she finds out the truth about these deaths and she’s able to officially have her friend’s name cleared. At the very end of the book, she finds her own way to ritually let go of Didi in a poignant memorial scene.

Funerals and memorial services are woven into crime fiction partly because in real life, they often help people start the healing process. Of course they can also be useful for detectives. And that’s not to mention the many times that funerals are used to cover up illegal activities (there’s an interesting case of that in Geoffrey McGeachin’s Blackwattle Creek). They are deeply rooted in our various cultures. I’ve only had space for a few instances from the genre. Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eric Clapton and Will Jennings’ Tears in Heaven.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Orloff, Angela Savage, Arthur Upfield, Gail Bowen, Geoffrey McGeachin, Jane Casey, Timothy Hallinan, Tony Hillerman

I Make Such Pretty Speeches*

SpeechesDo you feel comfortable speaking in public? No? Well if you don’t, you’re not alone. The most common fear, so we’re told, is the fear of speaking in public. But the fact is that nearly all of us have to make a presentation, give a speech or in some other way speak in public at least sometimes. You might think that sleuths, both real and fictional, wouldn’t have to do this but they do. In fact, the ability to speak comfortably in public can make a real difference in a case even if it doesn’t lead to major clues.

In Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers for instance, Ystad police inspector Kurt Wallander and his team have a very difficult case on their hands. Johannes and Maria Lövgren have been brutally attacked on their rural farm. Johannes is dead, but Maria lives long enough to say the word foreign before she too dies. There’s a lot of simmering resentment against foreigners in Sweden and this lurid case will not help matters at all. In fact it leads to another death. So Wallander has to do the best he can to put out the proverbial flames in all of his public comments. He doesn’t relish the prospect of making public speeches; he’d rather be solving the case. But if he doesn’t talk to the press, the anti-immigration hysteria will only get worse, and so will the perception that the police aren’t doing anything to solve the murders. So a couple of  times in this novel, Wallander has to update the media on what the team is doing and at the same time discount the theory that the only solution to the case is to go after foreigners and immigrants.

We see a similar use of public speaking skill in Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs.  When the gruesome discovery of a left foot clad in a training shoe is made near the Norwegian town of Stavern, Inspector William Wisting and his team are put on the case. Soon afterwards, another foot is discovered. Then there’s another discovery. Soon, there are several theories about the deaths. One is that a twisted kind of killer is at loose, and that of course makes the locals very uneasy. So one of the jobs that the police have to accomplish is to reassure everyone that people are safe, and that the police are doing everything possible to find out what happened to the victims To that end, Wisting has to give more than one public speech to the press. He’s hardly frightened of doing so, but he is concerned about giving the right impression. So he thinks carefully about what he’s going to tell the media, and he considers his presentations before he gives them. In order to try to find out whom the feet might belong to, Wisting’s team looks at all of the people reported missing in the last year. As it turns out, most of them come from the same elder care home, so the team starts to focus its investigation there. What’s more, most of the people have a connection that goes back to the days of World War II, so there is a possibility that these deaths are connected to some long-ago events. Wisting’s public speaking doesn’t solve the crimes, but it does keep people calm enough to let the police do their jobs.

There’s quite a lot of public speaking in Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn series. Kilbourn is a political science expert and an academician. So of course as a professor she does her share of public speaking in class, at conferences and so on. But it goes further than that. As the series featuring her goes on, she gets a position at NationTV on a political discussion show. And in A Killing Spring, it’s that forum that allows her to unsettle the killer of a colleague Reed Gallagher enough for that person to admit guilt. She arranges to make it clear to the killer that she knows what happened to Gallagher, and it’s very interesting to see how she uses the very public nature of NationTV to do so. This series also shows how dangerous public speaking can be. Perhaps I shouldn’t mention this in case some of you are really nervous about speaking to an audience but in Deadly Apperances, the first of the Joanne Kilbourn novels, her friend Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is poisoned during an important political speech. Trust me, though; poisoning isn’t common during speeches. Really. It’s not.

One of the hardest things to do – even harder really than simply speaking in public – is to be funny in public. Standup comedians have to do ‘double duty.’ They have to be comfortable speaking in public and they have to think of material that will keep people laughing. That’s what Alan Orloff’s Channing Hayes faces in Orloff’s Last Laff series. The Last Laff is a comedy club in Northern Virginia that’s co-owned by Hayes and Artie Worsham. In Killer Routine, one of the comics Heather Dempsey disappears just before she’s supposed to do her routine. At first it looks as though she got too nervous at the last moment and simply fled. But Hayes doesn’t think so. Heather is the sister of Hayes’ fiancée Lauren Dempsey, who was killed in a tragic car accident, so he feels a special need to find Heather and see that she’s all right. It turns out though that he’s not the only one looking for Heather. She’s been keeping some secrets of her own, and Hayes will have to look more closely into her life if he’s going to find out what happened to her. At the same time, he’s been battling back from that same car wreck that killed his fiancée. He’s had to deal with guilt, grief, physical wounds and more, so he’s been very uncomfortable about going on stage again. This novel gives an interesting look at what it’s like for a nervous comic to take (or re-take) the stage.

Even mystery novelists have to do their share of speaking in public. Just ask Martin Canning, whom we meet in Kate Atkinsons’s One Good Turn. He’s a crime fiction writer who’s scheduled to appear as part of a panel at the Edinburgh Arts Festival. Canning isn’t much of a one at all for public speaking. He’d rather live in the dream world he’s created with his novels than in the real one most of the time. But his agent has convinced him that he’ll benefit greatly from the publicity that comes from making public speeches. So he agrees to go. When he gets to Edinburgh, Canning witnesses a car accident between a blue Honda and silver Peugeot. Both drivers get out of their cars and within seconds they’re arguing. Then, the driver of the Honda wields a baseball bat and tries to attack Paul Bradley, the Peugeot driver. Canning, who’s never done a courageous thing in his life, throws his computer case at the Honda driver and saves Bradley’s life. Feeling duty-bound to be sure Bradley is safe, Canning accompanies him to the local hospital. That’s how Canning gets drawn into a case of murder, deception and theft. In the light of the rest of the story, joining in a panel of crime writers, even in public, is not so scary…

But many people do find public speaking quite difficult. Do you? Which novels have you read where it plays a role?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from James V. Monaco and Mack Gordon’s I Can’t Begin to Tell You.

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Filed under Alan Orloff, Gail Bowen, Henning Mankell, Jørn Lier Horst, Kate Atkinson

Those of Us With Ravaged Faces, Lacking in the Social Graces*

Attractiveness and UnattractivenessCrime fiction confronts us with our own prejudices. And one of those prejudices has to do with what we consider attractive. Of course people’s definitions of what’s attractive vary, and each culture has its own view of what ‘counts’ as ‘beautiful.’ But just about everyone is drawn to the physically appealing rather than to people who are considered unattractive. That’s why it can be very refreshing when a major character (in crime fiction, that’s usually the sleuth) is not what people think of as physically attractive. That takes writing skill.

Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs. Bradley, for instance, is hardly what one would call beautiful. In The Mystery of Butcher’s Shop, she is described as

 

‘A small, shriveled, bird-like woman who might have been thirty-five and who might have been ninety, clad in a blue and sulphur jumper like the plumage of a macaw…’

 

Her clothes are notoriously unattractive and she’s sometimes described as having saurian features or a reptilian smile. She is not what most people would find physically appealing, but she is a brilliant detective. She’s a psychoanalyst who has a thorough understanding of motivation and personality. And in this novel, that helps her to find out who murdered local squire Rupert Sedleigh and how his body ended up in a local butcher shop. Interestingly enough, Mrs. Bradley was portrayed by the emphatically not saurian Diana Rigg in a television series and it’s very interesting to see that Mrs. Bradley’s (lack of) taste in clothes and her unattractive appearance were given an overhaul for that series.

Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin doesn’t fare too badly as far as appearance goes but his boss Nero Wolfe could hardly trade on his looks. Wolfe fans will know that he weighs a seventh of a ton. That’s heavy by just about anyone’s standards. Archie later says that Wolfe weighs

 

‘…between 310 and 390…’   

 

And although Wolfe isn’t depicted as hideous-looking, he doesn’t win clients over with his handsomeness. Still, when Wolfe is on the case, it’s easy to forget (even when Goodwin mentions it) that he’s much heavier than most people consider attractive. In Fer de Lance, for instance, he and Goodwin solve the unusual murder of Peter Barstow, president of Holland University. They first learn of this case when Maria Maffei visits Wolfe and asks for him to help find her brother Carlo, who has disappeared. When Carlo Maffei is found dead, it comes out that he had designed the special golf club that was used to kill Barstow. So now Goodwin and Wolfe have to find out who paid Maffei to create this design and killed him before he could reveal what he knew.  In this novel and in other novels in this series, clients don’t come to Wolfe because of his appearance; they come to him because he’s very good it what he does. Wolfe may not be physically attractive but we really do forget that when he’s on the case.

Most people probably wouldn’t call Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope ‘a looker.’ She’s somewhat overweight, has eczema, and although she keeps clean, she doesn’t exactly take a lot of pains with her appearance. Stanhope is aware of the fact that she’s not conventionally beautiful, and sometimes that makes her self-conscious, as in Silent Voices. That novel begins with Stanhope going for a swim at the local gym/spa. She specifically chooses early morning for her doctor-prescribed workout because she’d rather not be there at the same time as the club’s usual habitués, young women who are tanned, thin and have beautiful faces. During this trip Stanhope makes a horrifying discovery. When she goes to the steam room after her swim, she finds the body of social worker Jenny Lister. Once she’s on this case, it’s easy to forget that Stanhope is not what you’d think of as ‘pretty’ at all. Instead, she’s intuitive, thoughtful, determined and a very good detective.

Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel isn’t exactly magazine-cover material either, physically speaking. In A Pinch of Snuff, for instance, Hill says that Dalziel’s face is

 

‘…as heavy and ugly as a slag heap.’

 

What’s more, Dalziel’s overweight and makes no effort to behave in what most people would call a socially acceptable way. But he is a sound human being with real intuition. What’s more, he’s loyal, ethical and a very good detective. Although he’s often called, ‘the Fat Man,’ his appearance really doesn’t matter in terms of his ability to solve cases. In this novel for instance, he and Inspector Pascoe investigate the Calliope Kinema Club, which has a reputation for showing extreme and sometime violent pornography. It’s all legal though, or it least it seems so until Pascoe’s dentist suspects that one of the actresses has been actually hurt or worse. When Pascoe looks into it though, the actress seems to be fine. Still, Pascoe isn’t quite satisfied. Then the club’s owner Gilbert Haggard is murdered, and the club is wrecked. Now Dalziel and Pascoe have to find out what was really going on there that would lead to murder.

And then there’s Alan Orloff’s Channing Hayes. He’s a standup comic who survived a terrible car accident that claimed the life of his fiancée Lauren Dempsey. In Killer Routine, he’s just getting back into the ‘standup life’ as co-owner of The Last Laff, a Northern Virginia comedy club. Then, Lauren’s sister Heather disappears one night just before she’s supposed to go onstage at the club. Hayes is worried about Heather so he starts asking questions and before he knows it, he’s up against Heather’s difficult parents, dangerous ex-boyfriend and several other people in her life who don’t seem to want her to be found. Hayes has a scarred face and a withered left hand because of the accident, so most people who meet him wouldn’t exactly call him gorgeous. Hayes knows this and it sometimes makes him self-conscious. But it doesn’t take away from his ability to find out what happened to Heather Dempsey. And as the story goes on, it’s easy to forget that Hayes isn’t conventionally good-looking.

All too often, media images tell us what we’re supposed to find attractive and what physical qualities we’re supposed to admire. And all too often, that means the marginalisation of those who don’t fit those images. I’m glad that crime fiction doesn’t fall into that trap and I respect authors who have the skill to create strong and sympathetic characters who aren’t conventionally attractive.

 

 

 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Janis Ian’s At Seventeen.

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Filed under Alan Orloff, Ann Cleeves, Gladys Mitchell, Reginald Hill, Rex Stout