Category Archives: Betty Webb

Rainbows in the High Desert Air

DesertLas Vegas is a major tourist attraction with lots to do. Because of that it’s easy to forget that it’s located in the middle of a desert. There are deserts in lots of different places in the world, and they can be beautiful. But deserts can be very harsh and inhospitable places if one’s not prepared. They’re lonely places, too, where it’s a long time between people. Deserts can be effective settings for stories just because of the danger; it can add a layer of suspense to a story. So it’s not surprising that we see deserts in crime fiction.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are called to the scene of the unusual murder of Enoch Drebber, an American who was staying in London boarding house with his friend Joseph Stangerson. At first, Stangerson is suspected of the murder, but when he himself is killed, it’s clear that someone else is responsible. It turns out that these murders have their roots in the American desert of Utah. Years earlier, John Ferrier had been stranded in the desert with a young girl Lucy whom he had more or less adopted. They were rescued and the events that followed that rescue led directly to the murders of Drebber and Stangerson.

Since several of Agatha Christie’s stories take place in the Middle East, it’s no surprise that the desert plays a role in her work. Just to give one example, in the short story The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, Sir John Willard discovers and excavates an ancient tomb that’s said to be haunted and cursed. Not long after the tomb is opened, Sir John dies. Then, there are two other deaths. Willard’s widow is not a fanciful, hysterical person, but she is beginning to wonder whether there might indeed be some kind of curse. So she visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to travel to Egypt and investigate. Poirot and Captain Hastings go to the site of the excavation and look into the matter. What they find is that there is a very prosaic reason for the deaths, and that someone has been using the curse to cover up murder.

Many of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte novels are set in the desert of Australia’s Outback. Let me just give one example. In The Bushman Who Came Back, life at the Wootton homestead is turned upside down when Mrs. Bell, who serves as housekeeper, is found shot. What’s more, her daughter Linda has disappeared. Everyone is especially fond of Linda, so a massive search is launched. It’s suspected that a bushman named Yorkie killed Mrs. Bell and took Linda, Bony is sent to investigate and to try to rescue Linda if he can. There are several scenes in this novel that depict just how harsh the desert in that part of the world can be, and in fact, that’s part of the reason for which there’s such a sense of urgency to Bony’s search. In the end, Bony finds out the truth about Mrs. Bell’s murder and as you imagine, it’s not at all what it seems to be at first.

More recently, Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest novels depict life in the Outback desert. Tempest is an Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) who is assigned to Moonlight Downs, an aboriginal encampment that’s,


‘…miles from nowhere. The nearest town, Bluebush, was four hours of rough roads away, Alice Springs another five beyond that.’


Because Tempest was brought up there, she knows the land and is prepared for the harsh climate. But that doesn’t mean she’s safe from desert danger…

Fans of Tony Hillerman will know that his Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee novels are set in the American Southwest. The intersection of the US states of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado is often called Four Corners, and is the home of several Native American Nations, including the Navajo. The desert there is unforgiving, but both Chee and Leaphorn have always lived in the area and have learned how to adapt to the climate. Novels such as The Blessing Way and The Dark Wind give readers vivid portraits of life in the desert.

So does Betty Webb’s series featuring Scottsdale, Arizona PI Lena Jones. Together with her partner Jimmy Sisiwan, Jones owns Desert Investigations.  Jones is familiar with living and working in a desert climate, and she’s well aware of the dangers. But even she comes almost fatally close to those dangers in Desert Noir. I don’t want to say more for fear of spoiling the novel; suffice it to say that the desert is not a safe place to be if you’re at all vulnerable.

And then there’s Patricia Stoltey’s The Desert Hedge Murders. Former Florida judge Sylvia Thorn grew up in Illinois and has lived in Florida for some years. But she gets more than a taste of the desert experience when she accompanies her mother’s travel club the Florida Flippers on a sightseeing tour of Laughlin, Nevada. The group hasn’t been settled in their hotel very long when one of the group members finds the body of an unknown man in her hotel room’s bathtub. Then, another group member disappears and is later found in an abandoned mine. Thorn wants to keep her mother and the rest of the group safe, so she begins to investigate. With help from her brother Willie Grisseljon, Thorn finds out who the murderer is and why the Florida Flippers seem to be the focus of so much mayhem.

As you can see, the desert is not the kind of place you want to be unless you are thoroughly prepared. And sometimes even then, it’s not all that safe. And I haven’t even mentioned the Arctic deserts…


ps.  The ‘photo is of the sunrise over the Nevada desert. It only looks peaceful and safe…




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Betty Webb, Patricia Stoltey, Tony Hillerman

What’s it All About?*

Making Sense of LifeIt seems to be human nature that we want the things that happen to us to make sense. We don’t want to think that it’s all random. Perhaps that’s because humans seek ways to organise things in their minds, and it’s hard to make a pattern if everything that happens to us is random. That’s arguably one reason for which people study science; they want things to have an explanation. That’s also arguably why people look to spirituality for life’s answers; they want explanations too. That quest for things to make sense is an important part of what it is to be human, and it governs quite a lot of behaviour, so it isn’t surprising that we find it in crime fiction. Just the fact that fictional detectives want to solve mysteries is an example of that. There are a lot of others.

We see that search for things to make sense in Betty Webb’s Desert Wives, which features a polygamist group that lives in an isolated compound called Purity. PI Lena Jones and her investigation partner Jimmy Sisiwan are hired to rescue thirteen-year-old Rebecca Corbett from the group after her father Abel promises her in marriage to the group’s leader Solomon Royal. The rescue comes off and Rebecca is returned to her mother Esther, who is divorced from Abel. In the process of retrieving the girl, though, Jones sees that Royal has been shot and badly wounded. She calls the police anonymously, thinking that’ll be the end of her involvement. But the next day Jones finds out that Royal has died, and that Esther is the prime suspect. In order to clear her client’s name, Jones goes undercover, posing as a new member of Purity. As she learns more about the sect, she finds that women there are treated as, at best, third- or fourth-class citizens. She makes other discoveries too, some of them very disturbing. So one of the questions Jones asks herself is, ‘Why don’t the women just leave?’ One answer to that is that several of them have been raised in the group and believe that things make sense as they are. They’ve been given explanations for life by the group leaders and that’s how they see life. Others joined the group after leaving difficult or dangerous lives in the ‘outside world.’ For them, becoming a part of the group was the product of their own search for what it all means and why they ended up in the situations they faced. Of course, not all of the group’s members feel that way, but it’s an interesting undercurrent in the story.

Colin Cotterill’s The Coroner’s Lunch introduces readers to Dr. Siri Paiboun, who’s been ‘volunteered’ to serve as Laos’ chief medical examiner. The novel takes place in the 1970’s, and Laotians are expected to serve the new revolutionary regime. But Paiboun is already in his 70’s and ready to retire. What’s more, he no longer believes the revolution’s explanations for everything; he’s gotten cynical. But he’s pragmatic enough to know that he doesn’t have much choice but to go along with what he’s told to do, so he takes up his duties. Then he’s faced with two puzzling cases. One is the case of Comrade Nitnoy, who is poisoned during an important luncheon. At first her death is put down to a severe allergic reaction to some seafood she was eating but it soon turns out that she was murdered. The other case is even more delicate. Two bodies are discovered in the Nam Ngum Reservoir in Khamuan; a third soon joins them. The victims are Vietnamese, so there’s the difficult question of whether they were spies. At the same time as Paiboun is negotiating this political land mine, he faces an even more difficult set of questions. He’s a doctor and a person of science. He wants things to make sense scientifically. And yet in the process of this investigation, he has some experiences that have no scientific explanation. The process of making sense of it all – of figuring out how it all fits together – is an interesting part of Paiboun’s character development as well as an interesting thread through this novel.

Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing has as one of its major themes people’s attempts to make sense of life.  Dr. Suresh Jha has made a career out of exposing religious charlatans – he calls them ‘the Godmen’ – and showing them for what they are. In fact, he is the founder and head of the Delhi Institute for Rationalism and Education (DIRE), a group dedicated to promoting scientific explanations for life and debunking religious myths. One morning, Jha is killed in a bizarre incident. According to witnesses, the goddess Kali appears and murders Jha in retribution for turning people away from her worship. Jha was once a client of Delhi private detective Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri, so he takes an interest in this unusual case. At one point, the trail leads to an ashram run by spiritual leader Maharaj Swami. His spiritual group has become increasingly popular as people look for answers, and in the voices of some of the group members we see that human desire for things to make sense. Swami may be regarded as a cult leader, but that doesn’t mean he murdered his nemesis Suresh Jha, so Puri sends one of his team members, who goes by the name of Facecream, undercover at the ashram to find out what she can. It’s a fascinating look at the way people seek explanations.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series often takes a look at people’s desire for things to make sense. Chapman is a Melbourne baker who lives and works in a large Roman-style building called Insula. One of her neigbours is Miriam Kaplan, who usually goes by her Wicca name of Meroe. Meroe has a lot of wisdom, and answers life’s questions through her knowledge of traditional lore, an understanding of human nature, and Wicca spiritualism. Chapman isn’t at all a religious person and she doesn’t study Wicca or attend Wicca events as a rule. But she does respect Meroe’s wisdom and often relies on it when she’s trying to make sense of a case. There’s another perspective on making sense of life in the case of Chapman’s parents, hippies who live in a commune in Nimbin:


‘My parents had believed in going back to the land, and that meant candles. And an earth closet…And no shoes, even in winter.’


Chapman’s parents, who go by the names of Starshine and Sunlight, have answered life’s big questions by rejecting formal religion and living, so to speak, at one with nature. Chapman has a difficult relationship with them and part of the reason for that is that she wants life to make sense in a much more practical way. Besides, she prefers to wear shoes, especially when it’s cold.

Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder has seen plenty of things in life that don’t make sense and might lead a person to despair. Although he acknowledges that those things happen, he still tries to make sense of them – to put it all in perspective. He’s not a religious person but he does have a sense of spirituality in his way. He has come to believe that things have a way of coming back to a person, if I can put it like that. It’s one of the reasons for which he has a habit of visiting churches and lighting candles for people who have died. In the way Scudder processes the things he experiences, we see that human urge to make sense of sometimes terrible things – to impose some sort of order on the otherwise random.

This is a fairly big theme, and it’s treated in an awful lot of crime fiction. I’ve only the space to mention a few examples here. So now it’s your turn…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s I Don’t Know How to Love Him.


Filed under Betty Webb, Colin Cotterill, Kerry Greenwood, Lawrence Block, Tarquin Hall

Let’s Shake Hands*

HandshakeEvery culture is just a little different and those differences come through in ways that go far beyond language. Different cultures have different assumptions about nearly everything and those assumptions are reflected in dozens of different ways. We may not even be aware of the ways in which we reflect our own cultures but we do it all the time. Just as an example, think for a moment about how close you stand to someone you’ve never met. There are of course individual preferences and differences that come into play, but culture has a real impact on how close we stand to others, how much and what kind of eye contact we make and our social rituals. Writers can use those cultural details to make characters and settings distinctive and to show not tell what they’re like. And readers really like those details. Most readers I know want to feel a sense of place when they read; those little cultural details can help to convey that. Besides, they’re interesting.

Agatha Christie was quite skilled at holding up a mirror to her own culture and its assumptions. One way she did this was by creating Hercule Poirot, who’s not a member of that culture – most decidedly not. Just as an example, Poirot is from a culture in which hugging is quite common, even between men. He’s learned, though, that in his adopted English culture, that’s not done. In The Murder on the Links for example, he and Captain Hastings travel to France to investigate the stabbing death of Canadian émigré Paul Renauld. At one point, Poirot makes a trip from the Renauld home in Merlinville-sur-Mer to Paris to track down an important lead in the case. Here’s a bit of the scene in which he takes his leave of Hastings:


‘You permit that I embrace you? Ah, no, I forget that it is not the English custom. Une poignee de main, alors.’


The handshake for leave-taking and greeting is one of those little social rituals that some cultures have – and some don’t.

Tony Hillerman’s novels featuring Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn include quite a lot about Navajo social customs and rituals. Just to offer one example, both Chee and Leaphorn visit the homes of people who may have information about a case or who may have been witnesses to a crime. Sometimes they just want background information. When they do visit the homes of other Navajo people (especially those who are more traditional in their outlook), both detectives know that politeness requires waiting outside until one’s welcomed inside. In more than one novel, Chee or Leaphorn travels to a home and simply waits in or by the car. The owner then sees that there’s a visitor and comes out to greet that person. Why not just knock on the door? The reason is that it’s more polite to give the homeowner time to straighten things up and prepare a bit to have a guest. And a handshake, which is exactly appropriate in some cultures, is not appropriate in the Navajo culture. It’s a reflection of traditional Navajo spiritualism. So neither Chee nor Leaphorn shakes hands with other Navajos they encounter. And yet, they’re not at all ignorant of other cultures’ customs and adjust when they need to do that. Those little details about the characters and the stories give the reader a very strong sense of setting and context without too much verbiage.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s series featuring Botswana private investigator Mma. Precious Ramotswe, we learn yet another approach to greeting. In Tears of the Giraffe, Mma. Ramotswe gets a visit from Andrea Curtin, an ex-pat American who’s decided to move to Botswana. She and her family lived there for a few years, during which time her son decided to remain and join an eco-commune. When he disappeared, the official explanation was that he must have been caught by a wild animal. But Curtin wants closure so she visits Mma. Ramotswe to ask her to investigate. Here’s Mma. Ramotswe’s first impression of Andrea Curtin:


‘The woman took her hand, correctly, Mma. Ramotswe noticed, in the proper Botswana way, placing her left hand on her right forearm as a mark of respect. Most white people shook hands very rudely, snatching just one hand and leaving the other hand free to perform all sorts of mischief. This woman had at least learned something about how to behave.’


It’s a fascinating perspective on what a handshake means. And again, McCall Smith explains that bit of culture and how it is reflected in people’s greetings without a lot of un-necessary description.

In Betty Webb’s Desert Wives, Arizona PI Lena Jones is hired by Esther Corbett to rescue her thirteen-year-old daughter Rebecca from a polygamous group called Purity. Rebecca is returned safely but then her mother finds herself accused of murder when group leader Solomon Lord is found killed. Jones joins the group in the guise of the newest wife of disaffected member Saul Berkhauser. Her plan is to ‘go undercover’ to find out who Royal’s real killer is and clear Esther’s name. But as she soon discovers, Purity has a culture all its own. One essential aspect of that culture is the low status of women. And all sorts of little social rituals at Purity reflect this. Jones has to learn to look down when she’s speaking, to walk a few paces behind her ‘husband’ and to not initiate conversations, especially with men, un-necessarily. All of this is very difficult for the outspoken Jones, and she runs into more than one obstacle. But in the end she does find out the truth about what happened to Royal. She also finds out several other very ugly truths about Purity.

One of the most fascinating depictions of having to learn different social rituals and customs is in Angela Savage’s series featuring PI Jayne Keeney. Keeney is an ex-pat Australian who lives and works in Bangkok. You could argue that there are several cultures in Australia (and you’d be right). But Keeney’s particular culture of origin is not much like the Thai culture in which she has to function. So she’s had to learn to do much more than just speak Thai (which she does). She’s had to learn how to ‘properly’ speak to authority figures, how to walk and move without attracting attention to herself, and how to conduct business. In Behind the Night Bazaar and The Half Child, Keeney uses what she’s learned about the Thai culture to find out the truth about the cases she investigates. And what’s interesting is that Savage uses those social rituals and other cultural reflections to show readers what the Thai culture Keeney encounters is like. They help to create a strong sense of context.

And that’s what’s so valuable about paying attention to the small cultural realities such as social distance, greetings and so on. They ‘flesh out’ characters and as long as they’re not done self-consciously, they add to the atmosphere. But what do you think? Do you notice those things? If you’re a writer, do you think consciously about those cultural realities?


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The White Stripes.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Betty Webb, Tony Hillerman

You Just Recover When Another Belief is Betrayed*

TrustingOne of the ways crime fiction authors build suspense in their novels is by raising the issue of trust. In any investigation, real or fictional, the detective has to decide who’s trustworthy and who is trying to mislead. When that question is woven into a novel, it can draw the reader in (e.g. ‘Is he really on ____’s side? What if he’s trying to kill ___?’  Or ‘No!! Don’t trust her! She’s really working for ___!’).  We see a lot of this plot device in thrillers, but it can also be very effective other kinds of crime fiction too. Authors need to be careful with this plot tool though. First, a plot that’s too complicated, with too many hidden loyalties and motives, can be confusing for the reader. Second, if the characters aren’t well-drawn, then the question of, who can be trusted can make them almost cartoonish and can make the sleuth seem too gullible. But when it’s done well, the trust issue can ratchet up a story’s suspense and keep the reader turning or clicking pages.

Agatha Christie wrote several novels in which there’s a question of who’s trustworthy. I’ll just mention one of them. In The Man in the Brown Suit, we meet Anne Beddingfeld, whose father has recently died, leaving her with little money. For a short time after his death, Anne lives with her father’s solicitor Mr. Flemming and his family. They’re well-meaning but Anne finds them dull and has no wish to live like that. Then one day she happens to witness a tube accident in which a man falls or is pushed onto the tracks. As his body is being recovered, Ann spots a piece of paper which she picks up. The note written on the paper makes reference to an upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town and on impulse, Anne books a cabin. That decision draws her into a case of jewel theft, murder, faked identities and more. As the novel moves along, Anne has to decide whom she should trust. As she sorts this out, she gets closer and closer to the truth about a stolen fortune and a secret past that one of the characters is hiding. Since the story is written from Anne’s perspective, the reader follows along with her as she slowly finds out who is and who isn’t trustworthy.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch often has to decide whom he can and can’t trust. One of the themes in this series is corruption in the top echelons of the LAPD and hidden loyalties and agendas. We see that for instance in The Black Ice. In that novel, Bosch goes to the scene of what looks like a suicide. Fellow cop Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore has apparently taken his own life because, or so the official report says, he’d ‘gone dirty.’ But Bosch isn’t sure that’s what really happened. So he begins to ask questions about Moore’s life and death. He finds out that Moore was investigating the importation from Mexico of a new and very dangerous drug called Black Ice. That plus what he learns about Moore’s past lead Bosch to a small Mexican border town where a vicious drugs gang has a heavily fortressed operation. Bosch gets a lot of pressure from the top brass to leave the Moore case alone, but anyone who’s familiar with Harry Bosch will know that doesn’t stop him. As the story moves on and Bosch gets closer to the truth about Moore, he has to make some sometimes very quick decisions about who’s trustworthy and who isn’t and that adds to the tension.

Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa knows he has to be careful about trusting too easily. He’s a cop in Rio de Janeiro, where bribery is a way of life and police corruption is all too common. What’s more, as in many places, the rich and powerful often manipulate events and people to get what they want. In A Window in Copacabana for instance, Espinosa investigates the murders of three cops. At first, it looks as though someone has a vendetta against the police. But then, the mistress of one of the murdered officers is killed. Then another one dies. And the third disappears. The more that Espinosa learns about this case, the clearer it is that this is no vengeful cop-killer. This is a case of a web of corruption involving the victims and some very ruthless people. As Espinosa gets closer to the truth, he also knows that he can’t tell just anyone what he’s found. So he gathers a very small team of people he trusts to work with him. They keep things so secret that they don’t even discuss the case while they’re at the station. Even so, Espinosa learns that you sometimes don’t know whether someone can or cannot be trusted.

That’s also what Philip Margolin’s PI sleuth Dana Cutler needs to remember in Executive Privilege. Cutler is hired to follow nineteen-year-old Charlotte Walsh and report where she goes, what she does and whom she meets. Cutler isn’t told the name of her client; the arrangement is made through a third party, highly placed attorney Dale Perry. At first, the assignment isn’t all that interesting. Walsh’s patterns are more or less predictable and nothing much comes of watching her. But then one night she leaves her car at a local mall and is driven to a secluded safe house where, to Cutler’s shock, she meets with U.S. President Christopher Farrington. Cutler is sure now that she’s out of her league as the saying goes, and calls her anonymous client, saying that she’s dropping the case. But when Walsh is murdered Cutler herself becomes the target of some highly placed people who want all of the information she’s got about the victim. Cutler quickly goes into hiding and as she slowly gets closer to the truth about the murder, she finds that she has to be extremely careful about whom to trust. So does fledgling attorney Brad Miller, who is approaching the same case from a different angle. He’s been hired by a powerful Portland, Oregon law firm and hopes his career will get a boost when he takes on the case of serial killer Clarence Little. Little’s been convicted of several grisly murders, one of which is the killing of Laurie Erickson. Little claims that he was busy committing another murder when Erickson was killed, so he is not guilty of that crime. As Miller follows up on that case to see who might have killed Laurie Erickson, he finds himself getting closer to an extremely dangerous truth. He also finds that he can no longer be sure who is trustworthy.

Betty Webb makes use of that ‘who can be trusted’ plot point in Desert Wives, which features her sleuth PI Lena Jones. Jones rescues thirteen-year-old Rebecca Corbett from a polygamous group called Purity, and returns the girl to her mother Esther. During the rescue, Jones sees that group leader Solomon Royal has been shot and badly wounded. So as soon as Rebecca is safe, Jones calls the police to report the shooting. The next day she learns that Royal has been murdered. What’s worse, Esther Corbett is suspected. If she’s arrested, it’s very likely that Rebecca will be taken from her and returned to Purity, where her father Abel is a member. So Esther is desperate to clear her name. Jones agrees to help and ends up infiltrating Purity in the guise of the newest wife of disaffected group member Saul Berkhauser. As Jones begins to take up her ‘new life’ at Purity, she slowly meets the different members of the community. Very soon Jones learns just how much danger there is for her. She discovers to her shock that the group is not the peaceful, happy community it seems on the surface. There are many instances of domestic abuse of both wives and children. There’s also child molestation and the forced marriage of girls as young as thirteen. To make matters worse, there’s so much intermarriage that there are many cases of severe birth defects. And the powerful group leaders (and even some locals who have their own power) are not eager to have those truths made public. Jones needs to keep her ‘cover’ to protect herself from those people. She also needs to keep in mind that someone in the group is a murderer who doesn’t want to be discovered. And it’s not at all clear at first which group members can be trusted and which ones cannot. Even Jones’ ‘husband’ Saul comes in for his share of suspicion since he had a motive for murdering Royal. That question of who is trustworthy adds a taut layer of suspense to this novel.

And then there’s T.J. Cooke’s Kiss and Tell, which is the story of London lawyer Jill Shadow. Shadow’s managed to get past a poor and very dysfunctional childhood to go to law school and get her legal credentials. Along the way, she had a relationship with Jimmy Briscoe, father of her daughter Hannah. Jimmy’s been in prison for several years on drugs charges and Shadow’s had to make a life for herself and Hannah. Everything’s going well enough though until Shadow takes on the pro bono case of Bella Kiss. Originally from Hungary, Bella’s lived in London for a couple of years. She’s just been arrested though for drugs smuggling on her return from a trip. She admits she had the drugs in question with her when she came into the country, but she refuses to say anything about where she got the drugs or who paid or convinced her to bring the drugs in. It soon becomes obvious that she’s trying to protect someone. Shadow knows that she can do little to help her client without knowing everything about the case, but Bella remains stubbornly uncooperative. Then Jimmy Briscoe comes back into her life. He’s finished his sentence and claims that he’s made a fresh start. But at the same time, he seems to know too much about Bella Kiss’ situation. What’s more, he has a very poor ‘track record’ with Shadow. As if that weren’t enough, Shadow begins to uncover other truths about this case. Bella seems to be a pawn in a very high-stakes and high-level game of drugs and politics, and the more she finds out about this case, the less sure Shadow is of exactly what or whom to believe. Then one of the key people involved in the case is murdered. In the meantime, there’s been another murder. Then, Shadow herself becomes a possible target. Throughout this novel, the question of whom Shadow should trust adds a strong dose of tension and interest. And since the story is told from her point of view, the reader doesn’t always know who is trustworthy either.

It’s certainly possible to overdo the theme of ‘Who can be trusted?’ But when that plot point is used carefully and the characters are well-developed, it can add much to a story and give readers an added reason to invest themselves in what happens in the novel.



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


Filed under Agatha Christie, Betty Webb, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Michael Connelly, Philip Margolin

It’s an Illusion, It’s a Game*

Penn and TellerHave you ever been to a magic show? I mean a really well-done show. We all know going into a show that the magician really cannot, for instance, turn water into coins. But a talented magician can make the audience believe even if it’s just for a moment that a handkerchief turned into flowers. Magicians use misdirection and other strategies to create illusions. And when they do it well, it takes all of one’s effort to remember that it isn’t real.

We see that same use of strategy to create illusion in crime fiction. I’m not referring here to things like faking an alibi. Rather, I mean strategies that make people believe that something they think they see is true, while the reality is something entirely different. And when you get people to think that something is true, they are often convinced – even to the point of testifying in court – that they are right. And that fact of human life can be useful to criminals.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of the 4th Baron Edgware. Edgware’s wife Jane Wilkinson is the most likely suspect. It’s well-known that she wanted a divorce from her husband so that she could marry again. She’s even approached Poirot to try to convince Edgware to withdraw his objection to the divorce. What’s more, she was heard to threaten her husband. And she was admitted to the house on the night of the murder. So at first, Chief Inspector James ‘Jimmy’ Japp believes that he’s got his culprit. But on the night of the murder Jane Wilkinson went to a dinner party in another part of London. Twelve people, including the host, are willing to swear in court that she was at the party. So Poirot, Hastings and Japp have to look elsewhere for the killer. And they find plenty of suspects too, as Edgware was an extremely unpleasant person. In the end Poirot finds out who the killer is and we get a first-class lesson in the power of illusion.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives introduces us to attorney Walter Eberhart, his wife Joanna and their two children Pete and Kim. The Eberharts decide to move from New York to the beautiful and quiet town of Stepford, Connecticut and at first all goes well. They are warmly welcomed and the children soon settle into school and start to make friends. But soon, Joanna begins to think that something odd is going on in Stepfored. She and her new friend Bobbie Markowe ask a few questions, but they don’t get clear answers. Besides, there is no obvious danger to them or their families. Then, disturbing things begin to happen and Joanna becomes more and more convinced that Stepford’s beauty, peace and quiet are illusions. She begins to believe that something truly sinister is going on in town. It turns out that she’s right.

We also see the use of illusion strategies in Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move Science fiction writer Zack Walker, his journalist wife Sarah and their children Angie and Paul move to a beautiful new housing development called Valley Forest Estates. Zack is hoping that the lower cost of living in the suburbs will mean that he can write full-time, and he’s utterly convinced that life in the suburbs will be safer than it is in the city where they lived before the move. But little by little, his illusion of the ‘perfect suburban life’ is shattered. First, the house itself has all sorts of structural and other problems and Zack can’t seem to get anyone in authority to respond to his requests for maintenance. Then he discovers the body of Samuel Spender, a local environmental activist, in a creek. Then there’s another murder. Little by little Zack discovers that the development has mostly been a carefully orchestrated illusion designed to cover up some nasty goings-on. It’s not until Zack puts aside his belief that life is safer in the suburbs that he’s really able to see what’s happening.

Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine also includes the use of illusion to cover up a crime. Mallory Lawson and his wife Kate move to the village of Forbes Abbot when Mallory’s wealthy Aunt Carey dies. Aunt Carey has left her home and much of her fortune to Mallory and his family on the condition that her former companion Benny Frayle will always have a home. Mallory and Kate are happy to agree to that and everyone settles into the new arrangement. Then, the Lawsons’ financial advisor Dennis Brinkley is killed in what looks like a very tragic accident. But Benny thinks it was murder and tries to get the police to investigate. No-one takes very much notice of her allegation until there’s another death. Self-styled medium Ava Garret is leading a séance one day; during the event she says some things about the murder that she couldn’t possibly know. Not long afterwards she’s poisoned. Now Inspector Tom Barnaby and his team re-open the Dennis Brinkley case and slowly link it to Ava Garret’s murder. In a sad irony, Ava’s determination to maintain the illusion that she is psychic costs her her life as the murderer uses what you could call an illusion against her.

There’s an effective use of illusion in Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s Toffee’s Christmas too. In that short story, an author of romance novels who calls herself Toffee Brown moves to the small Yorkshire village of Knavesborough. As she tells the local vicar’s daughter Rhapsody Gershwin, Toffee came to the village to get some rest. Although she’s very eccentric and rather put out at not being identified as the world-famous writer she is, Toffee becomes a part of village life and settles in. Then one day, Rhapsody and her sister Psalmonella discover Toffee’s body in the cottage she’s taken. Rhapsody’s fiancé local constable Archibald ‘Archie’ Primrose begins to investigate and in the process they learn what Toffee’s real identity was. That doesn’t bring them much closer to finding the murderer though. It’s not until Rhapsody discovers that another character has created an illusion that she and her fiancé catch the killer.

Betty Webb’s Desert Wives is mostly set in the compound of a polygamous sect called Purity. The sect has been run by Brother Solomon Royal until he is murdered. Private investigator Lena Jones goes undercover to join Purity and find out who killed Royal when her client Esther Corbett is accused of the crime. Esther had a good motive for the murder too, as Royal had been planning to marry Esther’s thirteen-year-old daughter Rebecca. Jones settles into Purity and begins to ask questions about Royal’s murder. What she finds is that Purity is hiding some truly ugly secrets. There’s been a very carefully-designed illusion of Purity as being a peaceful, happy group of people who help each other, meet the group’s needs in a self-sufficient way and raise the group’s children together. But the reality is far, far different. Jones discovers domestic abuse, child molestation, and intermarriage leading to some serious birth defects. She also discovers financial wrongdoing. In fact, the reality underneath the illusion of Purity is so awful that Jones finds it hard to focus on her main reason for being there. But she does discover who killed Solomon Royal and why.

The thing about well-crafted illusions is that they can be very convincing. And in crime fiction that ability to create a reality that isn’t there can be very useful to criminals. Of course, sleuths can create illusions too; maybe I’ll address that in another post…


ps.  The photos are of Penn Jillette and Raymond Teller, who make up the hugely popular and successful magician duo Penn and Teller. Not only are they dedicated to debunking fraudulent psychics and other fakes, but they are truly gifted illusionists themselves. Oh, and they’re as pleasant in person as you could wish for, despite their great success.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Genesis’ Abacab.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Betty Webb, Caroline Graham, Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen, Ira Levin, Linwood Barclay