Category Archives: Alex Scarrow

You’ll Learn Things You Never Knew You Never Knew*

Questioning AssumptionsOne of the real benefits (at least to me) of reading is that sometimes, what we read challenges our beliefs and invites us to re-think them. Books like that can be a little uncomfortable; it’s not always easy to question our own assumptions about life. But those books are valuable for just that reason. They challenge us to grow and to re-shape the way we think.

Everyone has a different list of authors, series and books that have had that effect – that have helped us to question what we ‘always knew.’ So your mileage, as the saying goes, will vary. But here are a few books and authors whose work has invited me to question what I always thought. And that’s a good thing.

Before I started reading the work of Deon Meyer, I always thought I knew what a thriller was (And I’m not talking here of espionage stories; that’s a different category): an action-packed, adrenaline-loaded book. The characters wouldn’t have a lot of depth and the plot might require some suspension of disbelief, but it could be a fun and exciting literary ride. Meyer’s work has taught me that really fine thrillers have well-drawn characters who act in credible ways. Well-written thrillers also have more depth to the plot than I’d thought before. I’m very glad to have learned that there’s a lot more to this sub-genre than I’d imagined.

I’d never thought of myself as a person who liked science fiction. I could appreciate some science fiction authors’ skilled writing, and there were some novels I liked. But as a genre? Not for me. Well… until a number of years ago when I read Isaac Asimov’s Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley series. Those novels are unquestionably science fiction. Yet they cross the line into crime fiction as well (for those unfamiliar with these novels, Baley is a New York police officer). And that fact tempted me to try the series. I’m very glad I did. I discovered that science fiction has a lot to offer. It invites us to speculate; it encourages us to think of solutions to real problems, and; it can be very well-written. Science fiction characters can be deep, human, and quite memorable, and the plots can be terrific. Just goes to show you how much I ‘knew’ before I read Asimov.

A similar thing happened with my assumptions about post-apocalyptic fiction. I never thought I’d enjoy it. I’m generally not one for that sort of bleak, sometimes despairing, story. So I’ve typically avoided it. Imagine my surprise when I read and enjoyed Alex Scarrow’s Last Light and Afterlight. Those novels take place in a world where the supply of oil has been cut off; so needless to say, it’s a very different world to the one we live in now. The story of how one family tries to make a life after this catastrophe was – surprise! – interesting and engaging, at least to me. There’s also Ben Winters’ trilogy featuring police detective Hank Palace. Imagine me, who ‘always knew’ exactly what post-apocalyptic fiction was about, drawn into a very real, human set of stories.

Does this all mean I’ll ‘click here to purchase’ every new adrenaline-loaded thriller, sci-fi or post-apocalypse novel? No. I’m still cautious about them and in general wouldn’t choose them first. But I am a lot more open to excellent stories told in those ways. Perhaps I can learn…

I’ve also learned about about different people and things that I always ‘knew’ about before. For example, my assumptions about the sex trade have been challenged in the last few years. I thought I knew ‘all about’ why people become commercial sex workers, and why other people hire them. I didn’t. It’s a complex business, and people get into it for a lot of different reasons. The people who engage in the trade are not all cut from the same proverbial cloth, and they don’t all have the same experiences. Work by Angela Savage (Behind the Night Bazaar), John Burdette (e.g. Bangkok 8), Timothy Hallinan (e.g. A Nail Through the Heart) and Jill Edmondson (Dead Light District and Frisky Business) have all invited me to question what ‘I always knew’ about that business.

There’s also the matter of what I always ‘knew’ about Native Americans and First Nations people. I had no idea how much I didn’t know and how much I wrongly assumed until I began to read the work of Tony Hillerman some years ago. I was invited to develop a whole new perspective on a group of people I only thought I understood. I felt the same way after reading Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series and Margaret Coel’s Vicky Holden/Fr. John O’Malley series. Oh, and there’s Scott Young’s novels and Stan Jones’, too. All of them have challenged my assumptions in a good way.

I could go on and on about things I’ve learned about history, other countries and so on that I always ‘knew’ before. I think you get the idea without that though. To me anyway, learning to question what I’ve always believed is one of the very good reasons for reading. What about you? Which novels and series have invited you to learn what you always ‘knew?’

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken’s Colors of the Wind.


Filed under Alex Scarrow, Angela Savage, Ben Winters, Craig Johnson, Deon Meyer, Isaac Asimov, Jill Edmondson, John Burdett, Margaret Coel, Scott Young, Stan Jones, Timothy Hallinan, Tony Hillerman

Got a Job With a Company Drillin’ For Oil*

OilEver since the automobile became a commercially viable form of transportation (and really, even before then) oil has been a valuable commodity. As I know I don’t have to tell you, oil has made incredible fortunes for people. And as we’ll see, it’s become pretty much a necessity for modern infrastructures, at least until other forms of energy become feasible. With oil being such a critical part of life, it’s not surprising that it’s also the source of a great deal of conflict. So of course, it’s a natural as a theme for crime fiction.  Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In James Lee Burke’s Black Cherry Blues, former blues singer Dixie Lee Pugh finds himself in a serious situation. His music career ended in a haze of drugs and alcohol, and a prison sentence didn’t help matters. Now he earns a legal living as a leaseman. One of his jobs takes him to Montana’s Blackfoot Reservation, where a deal is underway to lease some of the land for oil drilling. One night Pugh happens to overhear two men discussing two murders they’ve committed. Pugh doesn’t want to call attention to himself because of his past history. So he asks his old college friend Dave Robicheaux, who’s now a police officer in New Iberia, Louisiana, for help. Robicheaux is reluctant to get involved but when Pugh finds himself arrested on a major drugs charge, Robicheaux gets involved. He soon finds that the murders were all too real and that he’s gotten drawn into a major case involving greed and corruption around the oil drilling.

Bartholomew Gill’s McGarr and the Sienese Conspiracy (AKA Death of an Irish Consul) also deals with oil drilling. In that novel, Chief Inspector Peter McGarr gets involved in a case with international implications. Former SIS agents Browne and Hitchcock are murdered and both of their bodies left in the same place. McGarr believes that someone is targeting the SIS, and that the next victim may be newly-appointed British ambassador to Italy Sir Colin Cummings. Hoping he can prevent Cummings’ death, McGarr accompanies him to Italy. But that’s not enough to keep Cummings safe from a sniper’s bullet. Slowly, McGarr works his way through the connections among the three men and finds out that the deaths are related to high-level corruption and a bitter fight over valuable North Sea drilling rights.

In one plot thread of Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue, we meet Allan Mitchison. He saw a video of a North Shore oil rig as a child and immediately knew what he wanted to do for a living. Now he’s an oilman out of Aberdeen and all’s well – until the night he’s brutally murdered. Evidence leads to Anthony Ellis Kane – Tony El – who most likely committed the murder on behalf of someone else. So DI John Rebus starts to investigate to find out who would have wanted to murder a seemingly inoffensive oil driller. For that he looks into the connections between the people who work on the oil rig and the kind of person who’d know about Tony El. It turns out that Mitchison found out more about something than was safe for him to know and as is so often the case, died because of it.

Sarah Andrews’ Em Hansen is a forensic geologist who in Tensleep starts her career as a mudlogger for an oil company. Her job is to collect and analyse mud samples, which isn’t glamourous as it is. But matters are made worse by the fact that most of her male colleagues do not think an oil rig is any place for a woman. Then, Hansen’s mentor Bi ll Kretzmer is killed in what looks like a car accident. At first Hansen is willing to accept that explanation. But then co-worker Willie Sewell is killed too, apparently crushed by a horse. Hansen no longer thinks either death was an accident and starts to ask questions. As she investigates, we learn what life is like in the oil-drilling life. It may pay well, but it’s not exactly easy and fun.

To get a real sense of why people are willing to steal, lie and kill over oil, it’s important to remember just how integral it is to modern life. Just imagine a world with no oil. Think about everything that depends on the energy that comes from it. Although your mileage may vary on this as the saying goes, in my opinion, Alex Scarrow’s Last Light describes that kind of life as well as any crime novel could. The world’s oil supply is suddenly and deliberately cut off. The people behind that act are fairly nasty and the main plot concerns the reason the oil has been stopped. But far more interesting (well, at least in my opinion) is the story of Andy and Jenny Sutherland and their family, who are caught up in the chaos that follows. Andy is an oil engineer who happens to be in Iraq when the crisis begins. Jenny is in Manchester where she’s had a job interview. Their daughter Leona is at university and their son Jake is at a London boarding school. When everything falls apart, the Sutherlands try desperately to re-unite. It’s that story that really keeps the reader (well, this one anyway) engaged.

We see more of the power of oil in Scarrow’s follow-up novel Afterlight, which takes place ten years after the events in Last Light. At this point, Jenny Sutherland is the leader of a small group of people who’ve survived the catastrophe and are making a life for themselves in an abandoned oil rig. Their more or less orderly world begins to fray when they rescue a badly wounded stranger who was found in a nearby town. Matters get even more complicated when it’s discovered that another group of survivors, who live in London’s Millennium Dome, may have oil. When Jenny’s son Jake decides to go with a group to see if they can get the oil, Jenny is against the idea. But the group goes anyway and this leads to tragic consequences.

At least at this point in history, we’re awfully dependent on oil. It’s important in a million different big and little ways that you probably don’t think about until you really reflect on it. No wonder it plays such a role in crime fiction. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to fuel up…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Dingoes’ Way Out West.


Filed under Alex Scarrow, Bartholomew Gill, Ian Rankin, James Lee Burke, Sarah Andrews

It’s the End of the World as We Know it*

End of the WorldIt’s 21 December 2012 and despite all the speculation, the world hasn’t ended. All of the discussion of the Mayan calendar and the end of the world shows though just how fascinated people are with the future and what would happen if the world as we know it now ended. There’s been of course a lot of interest in real life and we certainly see it in crime fiction too.

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death) for instance, we meet Howard Raikes. Raikes is a radical activist whose goal in life is to tear down the existing institutions and infrastructure and build completely new ones. To him, the established institutions are The Enemy; they stand in the way of a better world. Raikes is dating Jane Olivera, whose uncle Alistair Blunt is the embodiment of The Establishment. Blunt is a successful and powerful banker who stands for stability, order and prudence. Although Jane agrees with Howard about some things, she isn’t as radical as he is, and she is fond of her uncle. Their debates form a sub-plot to the major plot of this story, in which Blunt’s dentist Henry Morley is shot. Because Blunt is so influential, he’s made several dangerous enemies who might very well try to get at him at the dentist’s office, so at first it’s thought that Morley’s death might be a attempt-gone-wrong to get at Blunt. Chief Inspector James ‘Jimmy’ Japp is assigned the case and works with Hercule Poirot, who is also one of Morley’s patients, to find out who the killer is. The case gets complicated when another patient dies of an overdose of anaesthetic, and another patient disappears. The larger question of what the world should and could be like forms an interesting debate in this novel.

In Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, Queen takes a house outside Hollywood so he can get some writing done. His dream of peace and quiet is ended when he gets a visit from nineteen-year-old Lauren Hill. Her father Leander has recently died of a heart attack that she suspects was deliberately brought on. She tells Queen of a series of macabre ‘gifts’ her father received and claims that he must have had a secret enemy. What’s more, Hill’s business partner Roger Priam has been receiving ‘gifts’ too. At first Queen doesn’t want to get involved but the strange nature of the puzzle intrigues him. So does Priam’s absolute refusal to co-operate in any way. So Queen begins to investigate Hill’s history as well as that of Priam. Then there’s an attempt on Priam’s life. Now Queen and the local police begin to get more involved. Queen finds that the key to Hill’s death and the other events in the story lies in the two men’s history. In the course of this novel we meet Roger Priam’s stepson Crowe ‘Mac’ McGowan. Mac lives in a tree on the Priam property where he’s built himself a house. He wears as little as possible, and much of the time nothing at all. Mac’s claim is that the world is about to end because of nuclear attacks, so he wants to be prepared for life after The Bomb.

Isaac Asimov speculated a great deal about what the future might hold if life as we know it ended. For instance, his The Caves of Steel takes place in and near a futuristic New York City in which humans have divided into two groups: Earthmen and Spacers. Spacers are the descendents of people who left the planet to explore other worlds. They look to other planets as the best chance for the survival of the species and their technology reflects that. They’ve also developed sophisticated positronic robots that are an active part of their society. Earthmen on the other hand are the descendents of people who never left the planet. They live in extremely large domed mega-cities and look to making more use of Earth’s resources to ensure the survival of the species. Earthmen and Spacers dislike and distrust each other; in fact, they live in separate communities. So when famous Spacer scientist Dr. Roj Nemennuh Sarton is murdered, the Spacers believe an Earthman is responsible. In order to ease the tensions between the two groups, New York Police Commissioner Julius Enderby assigns Earthman homicide detective Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley to investigate. He also assigns Baley to work with a new partner R. Daneel Olivaw. At first Baley treats this like any other investigation. But then he discovers to his dismay that Olivaw is a positronic robot. If there’s anything Earthmen hate and fear more than Spacers, it’s robots. So the two detectives have to overcome several barriers in order to find out who killed Sarton. In this novel, not only do we see Asimov’s speculation at work; we also see the fear of the future reflected in the Earthmen’s attitude towards space exploration, robots and other developments.

In John D. MacDonald’s The Green Ripper, ‘salvage consultant’ Travis McGee loses his beloved girlfriend Gretel Howard to a mysterious illness. When it turns out to be deliberately induced, McGee decides to go after whoever is responsible for her murder. He traces her death to a Northern California group called the Church of the Apocrypha, This group is committed to the tearing down and destruction of civilisation because the members believe that’s the only way that humans can be saved. McGee infiltrates the group so that he can find out why Gretel was targeted and take vengeance.

Alex Scarrow’s Last Light and Afterlight both depict the end of life as we know it when the world’s supply of oil is deliberately shut off. In the first book Andy and Jenny Sutherland and their two children happen to be in different places when the oil supply stops. They try desperately to survive and re-unite and although the main plot in this novel concerns the reason the oil’s been shut off, I honestly think the Sutherland family and the way they cope is the more interesting aspect of this novel. But that’s only my opinion, so feel free to differ with me if you do. The second novel takes place ten years after the events of the first. By this time Jenny Sutherland has become the leader of a small group of survivors who have made a home for themselves on a former North Sea oil rig. The novel concerns what happens when they discover another badly wounded survivor in a nearby town, and when they learn that another group of survivors, who live in the Millennium Dome in London, may have fuel. In both of these novels Scarrow takes a look at a harsh new world in which everything we take for granted has changed.

And then there’s Ben Winter’s The Last Policeman. In that novel, a meteor will hit Earth in approximately six months. Most people are giving up on life, quitting jobs, using drugs and in general living as though the world will end. For them, it will. And different people are reacting to it in a number of ways. But police detective Hank Palace is unique; he’s still trying to do his job. That’s why he takes a special interest when Peter Zell dies.  Everyone thinks Zell’s death is a suicide like so very many others. But Palace doesn’t think so and investigates just as though there were no oncoming meteor. I confess I’ve not yet read this book, but it’s just too good an example for me not to mention it.

There are other examples too of course. Everyone’s got a different view of when and how life as we know it will end and it’s both fascinating and scary to speculate on it. No wonder authors face this demon in their novels.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from REM’s It’s the End of the World as We Know it (and I Feel Fine).


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alex Scarrow, Ben Winters, Ellery Queen, Isaac Asimov, John D. MacDonald

I’ve Been Swimming in a Sea of Anarchy*

I’m sure we all have times when we wish we could do whatever we wanted. But life’s not like that and if you put it in perspective, it’s a good thing it isn’t. Imagine for instance a world where there was no recourse if someone swindled you because they wanted to, or a world in which people who were larger, more powerful and better-armed could take whatever they wanted from you. Of course things like this do happen. But those are often exceptions, rather than the rule. In case you’re having trouble imagining the way life would be without a sense of order, all you need to do is look at crime fiction to see what happens when anarchy starts to gain the upper hand.

In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians), a group of people is invited for a stay at Indian Island off the Devon coast. For different reasons, each person accepts the invitation and everyone gathers at the island. On the first day all seems to be going well and the guests settle in. Then, after dinner on the first night, each one of the people on the island is accused of causing the death of at least one other person. As if that’s not shocking enough, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Late that night there’s another death. It’s soon clear that one of the people on the island is a murderer whose plan is to kill all of the others. Meanwhile a storm has come up and cut the island off from the mainland. One by one, the guests continue to die and the survivors have to do whatever they can to stay alive. It’s an interesting and eerie case of what happens when paranoia combines with the lack of a sense of the normal order of things.

In Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice, L.A.P.D. detective Harry Bosch discovers that one of his fellow cops Calexico “Cal” Moore has apparently committed suicide and that it happened on Bosch’s patch. He goes to the scene of the death only to be told to leave the case alone, that Moore had “turned” – gone dirty – and the department doesn’t want to be embarrassed by that. In fact, Bosch is given a set of eight other cases to solve to keep him away from the Moore case. But this being Harry Bosch, he doesn’t let the case alone. He begins to find little signs that Moore did not commit suicide and starts exploring Moore’s possible connections with a Mexican gang that’s been dealing in “black ice,” a dangerous drug that contains heroin, cocaine and PCP.  Bosch traces Moore’s dealings and history to a Mexican border town area that’s basically a “no-man’s land” ruled by the drug gang. He’s warned several times and with good reason not to go there, but that doesn’t stop him. In the end, Bosch finds out what the connection is between the Mexican drug gang, the death he’s investigating and two other deaths that occur in the novel. And no, it’s not the obvious connection.

There’s a real sense of what happens when anarchy starts to take over in Alex Scarrow’s Last Light and Afterlight. Those novels tell the story of Andy and Jenny Sutherland and their children and what happens to them when the world’s supply of oil is suddenly and deliberately cut off. In Last Light they happen to all be in different places when the oil is cut off, and each of them tries desperately to re-unite with the others. Throughout that novel we see how the old saying that “only the strongest survive” plays out as people scrabble to survive. In Afterlight, which takes place ten years after the events of Last Light, some groups of people have established more or less orderly communities. One of those communities, located on an oil rig, is led by Jenny Sutherland. The members of the community have managed to put together a life and a sort of social order that allows people to live together reasonably well. Then the group rescues a badly wounded man Valerie Latoc, whom they find in a town not far from the oil rig. They bring Latoc back to the rig and nurse him to health. That’s when the trouble begins as Latoc begins to sabotage the fragile sense of community that the group has developed. Together these novels offer among other things a gripping look at what happens when the normal sense of order breaks down and anarchy begins to prevail.

There’s also a look at what happens when anarchy threatens in Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari. Emma le Roux hires personal bodyguard Martin Lemmer to protect her as she takes on a very dangerous challenge. Twenty years earlier, Emma’s brother Jacobus disappeared from Kruger National Park where he was working in a special branch of the South African military – the Nature and Environmental Conservation Unit.  At the time it was assumed that Jacobus le Roux had run afoul of poachers and paid the ultimate price for it. But Emma has recently seen a man on television whom she believes strongly is her brother. So she decides to find out for herself what the truth is about Jacobus’ disappearance. Emma and Martin Lemmer leave Cape Town, which has its own very real dangers, and travel to the Lowveld, which has nearly no law at all – at least no dependable responsible law enforcement. They quickly find that there is much, much more to Jacobus le Roux’s disappearance than a fight with poachers. It turns out that the truth has everything to do with some very ugly political, social and economic realities. Throughout the novel, we see that in a lot of ways, this is a “kill or be killed” kind of situation. As Lemmer and le Roux try to find out answers, they also have to face off against some very, very nasty people who don’t mind killing and who have little to fear from law enforcement. That adds a solid layer of suspense to this novel.

We see a similar effect of the suspense brought on by anarchy in Roger Smith’s Dust Devils. In that novel, former reporter Robert Dell is the only survivor after he and his wife and two children are ambushed not far from Cape Town. Then, Dell is framed for the murders and sent to prison to await trial – a trial that’s likely to be a sham. He’s freed from prison when his father, with whom he hasn’t had contact in twenty-five years, manages to engineer his escape. Dell’s father Bobby Goodbread has “inside information” on the murders of Dell’s wife and children and he has his own reasons for going after the killer. So Dell and his father leave Cape Town and head towards Zululand where the killer has a home base. Along the way we learn that the murderer is Inja Mazibuko, a locally powerful Zulu warlord who committed the murders on orders from his boss. Also traveling to Zululand, but for a different reason, is Disaster Zondi, a bureaucrat who’s just lost his job. The three men get ready for a confrontation with Mazibuko, but Mazibuko is a very powerful man with connections all the way to the top of the South African government. And in the part of Zululand where they’re headed, there really is no trustworthy law enforcement, especially not for “regular” people. Throughout the novel we can see how the feeling of anarchy has affected people. Nearly no-one can be trusted, and many of the characters live in fear for their lives and stay as inconspicuous as they can, just to stay out of trouble and survive. In the end, though, we find out exactly why Dell’s family was attacked and who’s behind it, and we see how Goodbread, Dell and Zondi deal with the chaos in which they find themselves.

There are of course other crime novels that feature this theme or context of anarchy; space has only allowed me to mention a few. It can be an effective tool to ratchet up suspense and to add interesting plot twists and threads.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sheryl Crow’s Everyday is a Winding Road.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alex Scarrow, Deon Meyer, Michael Connelly, Roger Smith

A Constant Battle For the Ultimate State of Control*

Most of us like to have at least some control over our lives. We all know that there are things that happen to us that we can’t control, but most of us try to stay in control overall. That’s what can make it so scary when life seems to spin out of control. Sometimes it happens because people try to handle things they really can’t handle. Other times it happens because of outside events (like a natural disaster for example). And other times it happens for other reasons. For whatever the reason, the feeling that things are spinning out of control is suspenseful and scary; that’s one reason for which it can add such an effective layer to a crime fiction novel.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s And Then There None (AKA Ten Little Indians), ten people receive an invitation to stay for a time on Indian Island off the Devon coast. For different reasons each accepts the invitation and they all gather on the island. Oddly enough, their host doesn’t make an appearance but everyone settles in and the evening starts off well enough. Then after dinner, each guest is accused of causing the death of at least one other person. That’s unsettling enough. Then, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Then another dies during the night. Now the guests start to get very worried. Then a storm comes up, cutting the island off and making it impossible to leave. As one by one, more guests die, the others feel increasingly out of control of what’s going on. They try to take some measures (e.g. trying to find out who the killer is, locking their doors, not being alone) but it doesn’t seem to do any good and that sense of everything spinning out of control adds a solid layer of suspense to this novel.

Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder introduces us to Howard Van Horn, son of a wealthy manufacturing tycoon. Van Horn’s had some difficulties lately with short “blackouts,” where he has no memory of what happens. But otherwise his life is fairly ordinary. Then one day his world spins completely out of control when he wakes up from one of these episodes with blood on him. Terrified that he might have done something horrible, Van Horn seeks out his college friend Queen and asks for his help in figuring out what happened. Queen agrees and together the two men try to fill in the proverbial blanks. The trail leads to Van Horn’s hometown of Wrightsville where his father, stepmother and uncle still live. While they’re in Wrightsville, Van Horn has another “blackout.” On the same night, his stepmother Sally is killed. Now Van Horn is not only plagued with troubling chunks of missed time, but he could be a murderer. That feeling of life spinning out of control for Van Horn adds a crisp layer of tension to this story as he and Queen try to find out the truth.

In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, life spins completely out of control for Sivert Skorpe, who goes by his nickname Zipp. Zipp’s best friend – his only friend, really – is Andreas Winther. The two young men have known each other most of their lives and do everything together. One afternoon Zipp and Andreas are aimlessly wandering around when they get the idea to find a way to get some extra money. They follow through on their plan – a purse-snatching – and that in itself has some unexpected and later tragic consequences. But that’s only the beginning for these two young men. Something else happens (sorry – no spoilers here) that really upends Zipp’s formerly organised world and now things begin to spin completely out of control for him. The night ends dramatically and Andreas disappears (no, Zipp doesn’t kill him – told you; no spoilers). Andreas’ mother contacts the police when he doesn’t come home and Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre look into what happened. In the meantime, they are also investigating a tragic shooting at a party when some characters let things get out of control. At the same time, Sejer’s personal life begins to feel to him a bit like it’s spinning out of control. He’s in a new relationship with the very free-spirited Sara Struel, who is far more spontaneous than Sejer is and sometimes that’s disconcerting. Fossum thus explores that sense of everything spinning out of control on several levels in this story.

There’s a similar sense of everything getting out of control in Shona MacLean’s A Game of Sorrows. Alexander Seaton is a university teacher in 17th Century Aberdeen. His life is fairly settled and he’s even got his eye on a young woman he wants to marry. Then one night he gets a startling visit. His cousin Sean O’Neill Fitzgarrett has traveled from Ireland on an urgent mission. A local poet has cursed the O’Neills, an ancient and proud Celtic family, and part of the curse has started to come true. What’s worse, there’s been an attempt on Fitzgarrett’s own life. O’Neill family matriarch Maeve O’Neill has sent Fitzgarrett to bring Seaton back to Ireland to find the poet and prove that the rest of the curse can’t come true. That’s the only way, so thinks Maeve O’Neill, to lift the curse. Seaton’s world shifts, if you will, to begin with when he discovers the existence of a cousin he never knew he had. Then when he reluctantly agrees to go to Ireland, he finds that life goes completely out of control for him. He’s in an environment he’s not familiar with, that observes a religion he’s been brought up to believe is wrong, and with people whose culture he doesn’t understand. And then, as he and Fitzgarrett try to get to the truth about the bizarre incidents happening with the family, things get even more upside-down for Seaton. He no longer knows whom to trust, especially given the incendiary politics of the time. We also see this theme of things spinning out of control in the person of Maeve  O’Neill. She is the matriarch of a proud and old family who refuses to come to terms with the fact that the world is changing daily. Her reaction to it adds a real layer of suspense to the story.

One of the most suspenseful explorations of what it’s like to feel out of control (in my opinion, so feel free to differ if you do) is Martin Edwards’ short story 24 Hours From Tulsa. That’s the story of a sales representative named Lomas, who’s feeling very much as though his ordered world – the one he’s always known – is spinning out of control. He’s always done his job and lived his life and raised his marriage in a certain way but now the old patterns have been completely disrupted. His children have changed and are growing away from him. His wife has just announced she’s leaving him. And to make matters even more unsettling, the world of Lomas’ work is getting more out of his control too. More and more, his job requires technology and he feels hopeless at understanding it, let alone using it. Even the roads he uses to get to his various clients are changing too as new construction’s being done. Lomas no longer feels that he has any control over his life. So at a rest stop, he takes some drastic action and the buildup to that climax adds a strong layer of tension to the story.

There are a lot of other stories too (Alex Scarrow’s Last Light and Afterlight come to my mind) that explore the theme of what happens when people feel themselves spinning out of control. It can make for a gripping undercurrent in a good crime story.


ps.  Oh, the ‘photo? That’s my new Kindle Fire. Talk about getting out of control…  There is no hope for me now is there? ;-)



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s A Matter of Trust.



Filed under Agatha Christie, Alex Scarrow, Ellery Queen, Karin Fossum, Martin Edwards, Shona MacLean