Category Archives: Alexander McCall Smith

Just One Look, That’s All it Took*

Rose1Not long ago, I read an interesting post from D.S. Nelson about things that it’s best not to say to pregnant women. The post is both witty and spot-on – well-written and well worth a read. And it inspired me to think about the issue from a different perspective: the adoptive family. Adoptive mothers don’t get the pointed remarks about cravings and the well-meant advice about childbirth that pregnant mothers do. But people still have points of view about it. Trust me. And I’ll get to some of the things it’s best not to say to an adoptive parent later in this post.

Adoption hasn’t always been regarded as positively as it is now. In Agatha Christie’s short story Dead Man’s Mirror for instance, we are introduced to the Chevenix-Gore family. It’s an old, proud and distinguished family, and no-one is more conscious of that than the present patriarch Gervase Ghevenix-Gore. He is obsessed with family name and reputation, so when he suspects that someone is cheating him, perhaps someone in his family, the last thing he wants is to make it a public matter. So he summons Hercule Poirot (who is not to keen on being ‘summoned!’) to the family home to investigate. On the night of Poirot’s arrival, Chevenix-Gore is shot in what looks at first like a suicide. No-one really believes that, but there doesn’t seem a way that anyone else could have shot him. Poirot investigates and discovers that this crime isn’t as ‘impossible’ as it seems. One of the suspects in the case is the victim’s adopted daughter Ruth. She’s been told very little about the adoption, and in fact refers to herself as ‘only adopted.’ While the fact that Ruth is adopted isn’t exactly what you’d call scandalous, it’s certainly not discussed frankly as adoption is now.

There’s a very interesting and sometimes intimate portrait of an adoptive family in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Mma. Precious Ramotswe owns Botswana’s only female-owned-and-run private investigation business, and the series of course features the various cases that she and her associate Mma. Grace Makutsi take. The series also shares Mma. Ramotswe’s home life with her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. Early in the series, after the couple’s engagement but before their marriage, he takes on the responsibility for two orphaned children Motholeli and her brother Puso. Mma. Ramotswe is very surprised at first, since he didn’t discuss the matter with her first. But she knows that he can give the children a good home. The four of them become a solid family as the series goes on, and Mma. Ramotswe and her husband gain at least as much from the family bonds as do their children. And that’s the way it works in most adoptive situations. Trust me.

There’s also an interesting look at an adoptive family in Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series. Rafferty is a Bangkok-based ex-pat American travel writer. He’s got a knack for solving problems and finding people who don’t want to be found, so he’s a good choice if you’re looking for a PI. Rafferty has a personal life too. He is married to Rose, a former bar girl who now owns her own apartment cleaning business. And he and Rose have an adopted daughter Miaow, a former street child. This series actually shows a few things about adoption. One is that in many cases (certainly not all!) the people who work for adoption agencies do want children to find healthy and loving homes with parents who will care for them and love them. Another is that because of that, the adoption process can be time-consuming and sometimes frustrating. There are background checks, home visits, financial solvency checks and more. Trust me. There is no such thing as privacy if you’re a prospective adoptive parent. Still, the ‘vetting’ process makes sense if the goal is ensure the safety and well-being of each child.

Everyone has to make a lot of adjustments when there’s an adoption. Just ask Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her husband Zack. They are the adoptive parents of Taylor, a gifted artist whose mother was murdered when she was very young. Taylor is bright and loving, and she has developed strong bonds with her adoptive family. But she has her own issues to deal with, and it’s not always easy to be around her. Her parents too have their share of ‘baggage,’ as we all do. They have a good marriage and they love each other, but things don’t always go smoothly. And Joanne has three adult children from her first marriage; that presents another level of complexity. But through it all, the commitment that the Shreves have made to Taylor and vice versa is obvious. The ‘family’ story arcs in this series really show, among other things, what adoption means on an everyday basis.

Adoption can be a complex process, especially if it’s handled legally and ethically, even when the biological parents have died. It’s even more so when one or both is alive. Add in the fact of international adoption and you have a very complicated situation. We get a look at that in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. In that novel, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney takes on a new client Jim Delbeck. His daughter Maryanne died in Pattaya after a fall (or jump, or push) from the roof of the building where she was living. The official police report says that the death was a suicide, but Delbeck doesn’t believe that. Keeney travels to Pattaya and begins to look into the victim’s life there. She discovers that Maryanne was a volunteer at New Life Children’s Centre, an agency that prepares adoptable Thai babies for life with international adoptive parents. There’s more going on at New Life than it seems on the surface, and Keeney finds that out too. She also learns what, exactly, happened to Maryanne and why. In the course of the novel, we follow the story of one baby named Kob. When he is made available for adoption, he’s matched with an American couple who are absolutely joyful about the news. Honestly, there’s nothing like that ‘phone call. It’s…indescribable. One of the plot threads concerns their trip to Thailand to get their new son, and Keeney’s involvement in that process.

Adoption is a unique way of building a family. It brings with it all the joys of any other kind of parenthood, and some of its own. It brings with it different kinds of complexities and different kinds of issues. Just ask any adoptive parent…

And now, here are

 

Five Things Not To Say To An Adoptive Mother

 

  • How much did it cost? Really? You’d ask something that personal? You don’t even know me!! The only people I don’t mind asking that question are prospective adoptive couples whom I know and who are trying to plan their future. Anyone else, please kindly mind your own business.

  • Are you going to tell him/her? (AKA Does s/he know?) Of course we told our daughter she’s adopted! It’s as much a part of her identity as her physical appearance is. I especially mind this question if it’s asked in a hushed, anxious voice, as though discussing some sort of illness. Adoption is not an illness.

  • Why did you have to adopt? Is there something wrong with adoption? This question always implies (to me anyway) that adoption is some sort of ‘second-class’ parenthood – a fallback position. Our daughter is not second-class. And neither are we.

  • Oh, well, at least you didn’t have to deal with labour pains and delivery. You had it easy. Easy? EASY? OK, all respect (and I’m being quite serious) to those who give birth. It’s painful, sometimes lengthy, and sometimes risky. And pregnancy has its own challenges. But adoption is not easy. Not if you do it ethically. It’s nerve-wracking, it’s complicated, it’s time-consuming, it’s sometimes heartbreaking and you get no privacy. It can be very expensive, too, and all kinds of people who don’t really know you (some who’ve never even met you) get to judge you. The adoption process and the birth process are different. Neither is easy. But both end in the joy of having children. Please, let’s leave it at that.

 

And finally… my least favourite question:

  • What do you know about his/her real mother? Excuse me? I know her very well, thank you. I see her in the glass every time I look into it. Who do you think sits up with my child at night? Takes my child to the doctor? Insists that schoolwork be done and friends be appropriate? Listens to my child’s dreams and fears? Knows my child’s favourite films and books? I won’t go on. You get the idea. I really dislike this question. I really do.

 

So please, next time you talk to an adoptive parent, think about what you’re saying. Especially if that parent is a crime writer ;-) -  Thanks, D.S., for the inspiration.

 

 
 

ps. The ‘photo is the first look we ever got at our daughter, when we were matched with her. She was three months old when that was taken. One look was all it took…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Doris Troy and Gregory Carroll’s Just One Look.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Gail Bowen, Timothy Hallinan

Coca-Cola Got Machines in Every Land*

GlobalisationOne of the facts of life in today’s connected world is globalisation. On one level, that means that some large companies such as McDonald’s® and Nestlé® now have an international reach and outlets all over the world. On another, music, clothing and lifestyle have ‘gone global’ too. Some people argue that this makes quality products and services available to more people. Others argue that globalisation will mean the end of local cultures.

But local cultures are as vibrant as ever, and people find their own ways of preserving what they have. That tension between the global (or even national) and the local is certainly there in real life. We see it in crime fiction too. Let me share just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is an accountant-turned-baker who takes great pride in her work. To her, bread is real:

 

‘I make bread, that’s what I do, that’s what I am.’

 

So in one plot thread of Trick or Treat, there is quite a lot of tension when a bread chain called Best Fresh opens a franchise in the same neighbourhood as Chapman’s own bakery. Although her assistant Jason reassures her that the competition’s food isn’t as fresh and doesn’t taste as good, it’s still a cause for concern. Matters get even worse when a young man jumps to his death from a local roof after an ergot-induced hallucination. It’s soon clear that ergot has gotten into the local supply of flour, and all of the bakeries, including Chapman’s, are suspect. An investigation closes them temporarily and Chapman determines to find out where the tainted flour came from, so as to clear her bakery’s reputation and open up again. Chapman’s determination to preserve her own local bakery is an important part of this novel.

Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters also includes an important plot point of tension between global and local. Jerusalem Lane is a unique and historic area of London that has its own culture. It’s got little shops and residents who’ve been there for quite some time. A development company wants to buy up the lane and turn the area into a tourism, shopping and entertainment complex. Economic realities mean that several of Jerusalem Lane’s residents decide to sell. But Meredith Winterbottom, who lives in the lane with her two sisters, refuses; she is determined to stay where she is. Without her property the development project can’t go on as planned, so there’s a great deal of pressure on her to change her mind. Then she dies suddenly in what looks like a successful suicide attempt. But DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla aren’t sure that’s what happened, and they investigate. Several of the development project people are suspect for obvious reasons. So is Meredith’s son Terry, who stands to earn quite a lot by selling his mother’s home. There are other possibilities too. The difference between the distinctive local ‘feel’ of Jerusalem Lane and the more generic development is an important plot thread in the story.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe is well aware of the pressure that globalisation puts on people, especially young people. In The Full Cupboard of Life for instance, Mma. Holonga, the successful owner of a chain of hair braiding salons, is ready to get married. She’s narrowed down her list of suitors to four and she wants Mma. Ramotswe to ‘vet’ them for her. Mma. Ramotswe agrees and takes a closer look at each man. One of them, Mr. ‘Spokes’ Spokesi, is a radio deejay/personality who’s very much attuned to popular culture. He drives a brand-name car, wears brand-name clothes and plays the latest music. He’s also quite attractive to the local young girls and does little to discourage them. And therein lies the problem from Mma. Ramotswe’s point of view. She sees that Spokes has no respect for the traditional ways or for Mma. Holonga and it’s one of the several reasons she doesn’t recommend him to her client. Mma. Ramotswe’s determination to preserve the best of traditional Botswana while still accepting for instance global technology is an important thread through this series.

Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges series features the small town of St. Denis, in France’s Périgord region. The locals are very proud of their own traditional ways of cooking, of baking and of making cheese. They’ve been doing it that way for generations and they’ve developed their own distinctive local culture. So no-one is best pleased at EU regulations that require local food and drink to be prepared in certain ways. On the surface, those regulations seem like sensible ways to avoid bacteria and other toxins. But the locals see those policies as overreaching. And Bruno agrees with them. So at the beginning of Bruno, Chief of Police, he helps them evade EU inspectors who’ve come to take a close look at St. Denis’ market day. That tension, between the regional culture and the larger EU culture isn’t the main plot thread in this novel. But it adds to the story.

There are several novels, too, in which we see how Aboriginal and other Native nations work to preserve their unique lifestyles and cultures in the face of globalisation. It’s a tricky balancing act. On the one hand, global realities such as technology, medicine and so on have a lot of benefits. On the other, they often come with intense pressure to assimilate.

That balance is explored in different ways in Scott Young’s two novels featuring Matthew ‘Matteesie’ Kitologitak, M. J. McGrath’s Edie Kiglatuk series, Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak series, and Stan Jones’ Nathan Active series, among others. In those novels, we see for instance, local and distinctive ways of interacting, of using language, of cooking, eating and dressing, and traditional kinds of hunting. We also see the global influence of radio, of Western medicine and of technology such as planes. There’s also the unfortunate global influence of drugs and alcohol. The balance between adopting what’s best of global realities and maintaining a unique local culture is a thread that runs through these series.

Globalisation is a definite force in modern life. Like anything else it has its benefits and its disadvantages. The key seems to be finding ways to preserve what is unique and local without giving up the good parts of globalisation. That’s not easy to do, and it’s just that tension that can add to a crime novel or series. I’ve only given a few examples. Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chumbawamba’s And in a Nutshell.

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Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Barry Maitland, Dana Stabenow, Kerry Greenwood, M.J. McGrath, Martin Walker, Scott Young, Stan Jones

With a Little Love We Can Lay it Down*

Blended FamiliesToday, the concept of ‘family’ extends far beyond the stereotypical ‘Mum, Dad and kids.’ There are adoptive families, foster families, step-families and a lot more. It makes sense that that diversity in real life would also come up in crime fiction, and we certainly see a lot of it. Space doesn’t permit me to mention all of the examples out there, but here are a few.

Agatha Christie mentions blended families several times in her stories. I’ll give just one example. In Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Among his fellow guests are famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall, her husband Captain Kenneth Marshall and her step-daughter Linda. This particular blend is not a happy one. Linda dislikes Arlena, who in turn pays very little attention to her step-daughter. And the Marshalls’ marriage is shaky, a situation which doesn’t improve when Arlena begins a not-very-well-hidden affair with another hotel guest Patrick Redfern. One day Arlena is strangled on a beach not far from the hotel. Since Poirot is at the same hotel, he works with the police to find out who the murderer is. As you can imagine, both Marshall and his daughter fall under suspicion, and it’s interesting to see how the family dynamic plays out as the book ends.

Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back is the story of the murder of fifteen-year-old Annie Holland, whose body is found by a tarn not far from the village where she lives. Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate, and of course they begin at home, so to speak. Annie’s parents Ada and Eddie are devastated by her death. Her half-sister Sølvi is upset too, but she’s an adult, more or less on her own now, and she and Annie were never very close. And then there’s Ada’s first husband Axel Bjørk, Sølvi’s father. He and Ada had a bitter break-up and he has a lot of resentment against her. The blended family of Ada, Eddie, Sølvi and Annie hasn’t been as tightly knit as it may seem on the surface. There are other possibilities though as to who killed Annie. So Sejer and Skarre continue to dig into the case. As the novel unfolds, we see how the blended nature of this family has affected the characters, and how Annie’s murder affects them as well.

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant isn’t what you’d call a family man. But in Sundowner Ubuntu, he meets Ethan Ash, who runs Ash House, a retirement home. Ash is the single father of Simonette, who usually goes by the name Simon. Quant and Ash begin a relationship in Aloha Candy Hearts, and we see how these three people work to put together a loving family life.

There are other sleuths too who have blended families. For example, fans of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux will know that he is the adoptive father of Alafair, whom he rescued from a plane crash that killed her biological mother. In A Morning For Flamingos, Robicheaux is reunited with his high school sweetheart Bootsie Mouton Giacano. The two resume their relationship over the course of the stories, and they marry and build a family with Alafair. There are many stresses and strains on the family, including the dangers of Robicheaux’s job, his wife’s health problems, and the fact that Robicheaux strays more than once. But they all care deeply about each other and their family dynamic is an important part of this series.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is also part of a blended family. In Deadly Appearances, the first novel in this series, we learn that Kilbourn’s first husband Ian was murdered when he stopped to help two young people who were having car trouble. For a time Kilbourn raises her three children Mieka, Peter and Angus on her own. She also takes in Taylor, whose mother, one of Kilbourn’s former friends, has been murdered. Later in the series Kilbourn marries attorney Zack Shreve. By this time, the three older children are more or less on their own, although they are still very much a part of their mother’s life. So the day-to-day family life mostly consists of Joanne, Zack and Taylor, and it’s not always an easy dynamic. Taylor is a supremely gifted artist, but she has her own issues to deal with. And both Joanne and Zack are intelligent, strong-willed people who don’t always agree. But they do love each other and they work hard to keep their family solid. Here’s how Joanne puts it in The Nesting Dolls:

 

‘Ours was not an easy marriage, but it was a good one.’

 

And Taylor benefits from this blended family too.

Fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series will know that Mma. Precious Ramotswe has helped to create a successful blended family. In Tears of the Giraffe, Mma. Ramotswe learns that her fiancé Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni has taken in two orphans, Motholeli and her younger brother Puso. He didn’t exactly consult her about the matter either, and it makes for awkwardness between them. But Mma. Ramotswe and her fiancé love each other and what’s more, they care very much for the children and learn to love them too. As the series goes on, they form a solid family unit even though there are stresses and strains at times.

And then there’s Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty. He’s a writer whose specialty has been adventure travel guides. But he also has a knack for finding people who don’t want to be found, and for solving problems. Rafferty lives in Bangkok and has grown to love the place. Mostly though, he loves the family he’s cobbled together there. His wife Rose is a former bar girl/prostitute who’s left the business to start her own cleaning company.  He’s also working to formally adopt Miaow, a former street child he’s taken in. Each of the three of them has a past to cope with, and plenty of personal scars. But they love and care about each other, and they work very hard to be a family.

And that’s the thing about blended families. It can take extra work to forge a real set of bonds in those situations. But blended families can be a tremendous source of love and support. And let’s face it: stereotypical family life isn’t always easy or successful either. Which crime-fictional blended families stand out in your memory?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s With a Little Luck.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Anthony Bidulka, Gail Bowen, James Lee Burke, Karin Fossum, Timothy Hallinan

But Don’t You Step on My Blue Suede Shoes*

ShoesNot long ago, Moira at Clothes in Books wrote a very interesting piece for the Guardian book blog about shoes in literature. Footwear really does say a lot about us, which is why it plays such a prominent role in crime fiction. Before I go any further about that, let me invite you to check out Clothes in Books – a treasure trove of insights about shoes, clothes, culture and what it all says about us in fiction.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes always learns quite a lot from what people wear, and that includes their shoes. In A Scandal in Bohemia, for instance, Holmes and Watson haven’t seen much of each other lately, but here is what Holmes says:

 

‘How do I know that you have been getting yourself very wet lately, and that you have a most clumsy and careless servant girl?’ 

 

The answer to that question is shoes. Holmes can tell by slit marks on the inside of Watson’s left shoe that mud was scraped from it by someone very careless. Simplicity itself, as Holmes says. Granted, the focus of this particular mystery isn’t Watson’s shoes, but it’s an interesting example of the way Holmes uses evidence that he finds in footwear.

So does Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Although he generally isn’t one to look for things like cigarette ash and footprints, he does use physical clues at times. Just as one example, in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Poirot is leaving the office of his dentist Henry Morley when he sees a woman getting out of a taxi. She’s wearing a pair of shoes with buckles on them and accidentally tears off one of the buckles. In a rather funny scene, Poirot returns the buckle to her and she goes into the office while he goes on his own way. Poirot learns later that Morley has been shot and works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who the killer is. And part of that process is interviewing all of the people who visited the dentist on the fatal day. One of those people is Miss Mabelle Sainsbury Seale, the owner of the shoe with the torn-off buckle. Not long after that interview, there’s another death. And then Miss Sainsbury Seale disappears. It’s clear now that there’s more going on here than the murder of one dentist. In the end, Poirot and Japp find out the truth, and one important clue comes from that torn-off shoe buckle.

Christie fans will know that Poirot himself would never consider worn-down or broken shoes. He much prefers his polished, pointed-toe, patent leather shoes. He even wears them at times when something more comfortable would be much more appropriate. But as he puts it, he likes to be soigné.

Arthur Upfield’s Death of a Swagman sees Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte traveling to the small town of Merino to investigate the murder of stockman George Kendall. Bony is working on that case when there’s another death. Itinerant worker John Way seems to have committed suicide in the same isolated hut where Kendall’s body was found. This is a complex and carefully-planned series of events, but Bony finds out who’s behind them and what the motive is. And one of the things that help him get to the truth is a particular kind of footwear.

Shoes also figure in Faye Kellerman’s The Ritual Bath. LAPD Detective Peter Decker is investigating a series of rapes committed by a man dubbed the Foothill Rapist. So far he and his partner Marge Dunn haven’t had a lot of luck. Then comes the news that there’s been a rape at a secluded yeshiva – an Orthodox Jewish community and place of learning. At first Decker and Dunn think that this rape has also been committed by the Foothill Rapist. But there are some differences between this incident and the others. One of them is shoes. The other victims were all wearing high-heeled shoes, but this victim was wearing sandals. It’s not conclusive evidence that this is a different culprit, but it does make Decker wonder. Then, there’s a brutal murder at the same yeshiva. Now it’s clear that something is going on there that’s likely quite separate from the Foothill Rapist cases. Decker works with Dunn and with Rina Lazarus, who lives at the yeshiva, to find out what’s behind the events there.

Footwear plays a very important role in Johan Theorin’s Echoes From the Dead. Retired sea captain Gerlof Davidsson has lived on the island of Øland all of his life, and knows most of its residents and a lot of its secrets. One day, he gets a shocking package – a sandal belonging to his grandson Jens. Jens was wearing those sandals when he disappeared twenty years earlier, and no trace of him has ever been found. His mother Julia was so distraught at his disappearance that she left the island, planning never to return. When she finds out about the sandal, she reluctantly returns to Øland to help find out the truth about Jens. As Julia and her father face the past, we learn how the island’s history and secrets people have been keeping still have an effect.

Chief Inspector William Wisting of the Stavern, Norway police has to deal with a grisly collection of shoes in Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs. The main action in that novel begins with a left foot clad in a training shoe washes up on the beach. Soon after that, another left foot, also wearing a shoe, is discovered. And then another. The media and the public come up with all sorts of theories, including the possibility that some kind of twisted serial killer is at work. Wisting and his team know that the more quickly they figure out who the feet belonged to, the more likely it is that they’ll solve this case. So they go back through the records of missing persons. They discover that list of people missing could very well be related to the case of the shoes and feet that have been discovered. Bit by bit, the team ties the two major threads of the case together.

Shoes are very important to Mma. Grace Makutsi, Associate Detective in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. In fact, in a few of the novels, they even speak to her. And in Blue Shoes and Happiness, she learns the importance of buying shoes that are not just attractive, but comfortable too. One day she and her boss, Mma. Precious Ramotswe, are out together when she sees a beautiful pair of blue shoes with red linings. They’re elegant, but not particularly practical, and Mma. Ramotswe doesn’t think they’ll be comfortable. But she knows that Mma. Makutsi loves shoes. So she doesn’t say too much when the purchase is made. But when Mma. Makutsi wears them to work the next day, it’s obvious that she’s uncomfortable:

 

‘…there were some pairs of shoes that would never be broken in. Shoes that were too small were usually too small for a reason: they were intended for people with small feet.’

 

Mma. Makutsi runs into more shoe trouble in The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, when she wears a pair of dressy shoes to a job placement agency. She and Mma. Ramotswe have had a serious difference and she’s looking around for a new position. On her way back from what turns out to be a difficult time at the agency, Mma. Makutsi breaks the heel of her shoe. It’s not a good day for her.

Fans of Anne Zouroudi’s enigmatic sleuth Hermes Diaktoros will know that he always wears white sneakers which he takes great pains to keep pristine. Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh has the same footwear preference.  And that’s the thing about shoes. We all have our own preferences and unique way of walking in our shoes. In that way, they are arguably nearly as individual as people are. Little wonder they matter so much in crime fiction.

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carl Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes. Listen to his version and Elvis Presley’s version and decide which one you like better.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Anne Zouroudi, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Faye Kellerman, Jørn Lier Horst, Johan Theorin

While the Roadies Rig the Video Surveillance Van*

SurveillanceDetectives know that it’s not enough to just ask questions of witnesses and suspects. After all, people lie, or they don’t remember things accurately, or they find it convenient not to mention certain things. So detectives sometimes engage in surveillance. That might involve watching a certain place to see who comes and goes. Or it might involve following a certain person or people. Surveillance is time-consuming and it can be tedious, especially if there are a long periods of inactivity. But it’s a part of many real-life investigations. And it’s a part of crime fiction too. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that he frequently does surveillance. That’s part of the reason for which he keeps somewhat odd hours. Dr. Watson does his share of surveillance too. In one instance, The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist, Violet Smith hires Holmes to help her solve an odd mystery. She is employed as a piano teacher at Chiltern Grange and lives there during the week. On Fridays she goes to London to visit her mother and on Monday mornings she returns to Chiltern Grange. All goes well enough until one Friday when Violet notices that a man is following her as she rides her bicycle to the train station. On Monday when she returns, the same man follows her from the station towards Chiltern Grange. The man doesn’t get close enough to be physically threatening but Violet is understandably worried. Watson travels to the Chiltern Grange area and takes up a stakeout near the part of the road where Violet has reported seeing this strange man. Sure enough, she is telling the truth. He and Holmes look more closely into the matter and find out that Violet is in a great deal more danger than she might have thought. Surveillance plays a key role in this story.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot generally eschews surveillance, preferring to use his ‘little grey cells’ to solve cases. Besides, as he will admit, he doesn’t have the resources to be everywhere at once. So as a rule, he leaves surveillance to others. Yet it still crops up in Christie’s work. For instance in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Marie Morisot, who does business as Madame Giselle, is on a flight from Paris to London. During the flight she suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on the flight, one of whom is Hercule Poirot. He works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who killed Madame Giselle and why. One of the other passengers is London hair stylist’s assistant Jane Grey. She’s not a very likely suspect but of course, being mixed up in a murder case does impact her. One evening she and another passenger Norman Gale are having dinner when they notice that yet another passenger is at the same restaurant. He is detective novelist Mr. Clancy, whom the police already suspect (after all, we know that mystery novelists are quite suspicious ;-) ). On impulse Grey and Gale decide to follow Mr. Clancy and see where he goes after he finishes his meal. It’s a funny set of scenes as they practice the art of discreetly following someone. And Mr. Clancy certainly acts suspiciously…

Sue Grafton’s PI Kinsey Millhone occasionally does investigative work for California Fidelity Insurance Company, in exchange for which she has the use of office space in their suite. One of the sub-plots of A is for Alibi concerns a California Fidelity case that Millhone takes on. Marcia Threadgill is claiming disability related to a fall, and the insurance company wants Millhone to follow up on that claim. The idea is that Millhone will ‘rubber stamp’ the insurance company’s approval of the payout. So Millhone follows Threadgill, takes ‘photos and observes her carefully. What she finds is that Threadgill is committing insurance fraud. The original claim was credible enough for the company to be prepared to pay; it takes surveillance to prove that it was fraudulent.

Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series features Mma. Precious Ramotswe, a private detective who does her share of surveillance in her way. But in The Good Husband of Zebra Drive it’s her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni who does the surveillance. Much as he loves his work as the owner of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, he’s been looking for something a little different to do from time to time. He gets his chance when a new client Faith Botumile wants to hire Mma. Ramotswe’s agency. She believes that her husband has been unfaithful and wants to know who the other woman is. Mma. Ramotswe happens to be out when Mma. Botumile arrives, and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni takes down the information. Since he is the one who had the first contact with the client, Mma. Ramotswe thinks it makes sense for him to follow up on the case. Mma. Botumile is rude, harshly critical and unpleasant, and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni can well understand how the husband of a woman like her might stray. But she is a client so he takes up working on the case. Part of his task is following Mr. Botumile to find out what he does after work. So Mr. J.L.B. Matakoni does that, and turns up some surprising results.

It isn’t just private investigators who conduct surveillance. The police do their share of it too. Let me just give two examples. In one plot thread of Jane Casey’s The Burning, DC Maeve Kerrigan and her colleagues at the Met are on the trail of a killer whom the press has dubbed the Burning Man because he tries to destroy his victims’ bodies with fire. At one point the police catch a man they think is the murderer, but then another body is discovered. So they have to start over again. After more time goes by with no real leads, it’s decided to set up a surveillance operation in a local park – the sort of place that has so far appealed to the killer. Kerrigan joins one of the surveillance teams and everyone settles in for a long night. With one of the cops serving as ‘bait,’ everyone watches and waits. It’s a really interesting depiction of how cold, uncomfortable and frustrating surveillance can be. And how dangerous it can be. It’s little wonder that the cops don’t generally set up large-scale surveillance operations on a whim.

In Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear, New South Wales Police Detective Ella Marconi and her team investigate the murder of Paul Fowler. He’s tossing a football around with a few friends one afternoon when he’s shot. Part of the process of finding out who killed Fowler is talking to everyone in his life, including his ex-wife Trina. The police duly interview her, but although she talks to them, it’s soon clear that she’s hiding something. It could be something relatively innocent, but the police can’t risk the chance. And Trina is good at keeping her own counsel. So it’s decided to follow her, to find out where she goes and whom she sees, and to follow up on any of her ‘phone calls. That surveillance proves to be very useful in solving the Fowler case.

And that’s the thing about surveillance. It can be frustrating and time-consuming, even with modern CCTV cameras. But it can also yield important information. These are only a few examples (I know, I know, fans of Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin, Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather). Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from They Might Be Giants’ Working Undercover For the Man.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jane Casey, Katherine Howell, Rex Stout, Sue Grafton