Category Archives: C.J. Box

Of Course Mama’ll Help to Build the Wall*

Helicopter ParentsMost parents have hopes and dreams for their children. If you’re a parent, then you know the feeling of wanting your children to have everything life has to offer. It’s a fairly natural desire if you think about it. What’s more, for many parents, their children are a reflection on them. If one’s child has a problem, does something wrong, etc., it says something about the parents. Whether that’s true or not, there are a lot of parents who see it that way.

If you put those two feelings together, it’s easy to see why there are parents who protect their children too much from the consequences of their actions. In the world of (at least US) education, these are called ‘helicopter parents’ – parents who swoop in to rescue their children even when it’s not appropriate to do so. They’re certainly out there in real life, and although their desire to protect their children is perfectly natural, that sort of rescuing can have very negative consequences. It happens in the real world, and it happens in crime fiction too. Here are a few examples; I know you can think of many, many more.

In Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen to Dinner), we meet American actress Jane Wilkinson. She’s currently married to George Marsh, 4th Baron Edgware, but she wants to get rid of him. Her reason is quite simple: she’s fallen in love with the Duke of Merton and wants to marry him. So she asks Hercule Poirot to intervene on her behalf and ask that Lord Edgware withdraw his objection to a divorce. Surprisingly, Edgware agrees and Jane is now free to marry the Duke. Shortly after that, Edgware is murdered one night, and the police are convinced that Jane is responsible. The only problem is that she has an alibi vouched for by a dozen other people. She tells the police that she was at a dinner in another part of London at the time of the murder. So Chief Inspector Japp and Poirot have to look elsewhere for the killer. At one point, Poirot gets a surprising visit from the Dowager Duchess of Merton, the Duke’s mother. She dislikes Jane Wilkinson intensely and feels that she’s a bad influence on Merton. So she wants Poirot to stop the wedding that will likely take place now that Edgware is dead. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that Poirot doesn’t agree to interfere. And it’s an interesting example of a ‘helicopter parent…’

In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, science fiction writer Zack Walker is concerned for the safety of his family. He’s not pleased with the kinds of people his two children Angie and Paul may be associating with, and he wants to protect them. So he moves his family to a new home in a suburban housing development called Valley Forest Estates. One day, Walker goes to the main sales office to complain about the workmanship in his house and ask for repairs. While he’s there he witnesses an argument between a sales executive and local environmentalist Samuel Spender. Later that day, Walker discovers Spender’s body near a local creek. Before he knows it, Walker and his family are drawn into a far more dangerous situation than any they faced in the city. In this case, his attempt to rescue his children backfires badly.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit tells the story of Gates and Mason Hunt. They grew up in a home with an abusive, alcoholic father, but they’ve somehow managed to survive. Mason has taken advantage of every opportunity he’s had and is now preparing to be an attorney. Gates, though, has squandered his considerable athletic ability and now lives on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments and money from the young men’s mother Sadie Grace. One day, Gates has an argument with his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. Later that night, on the way back from a ‘night on the town,’ the Hunt brothers have another encounter with Thompson and the argument starts anew. Before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates shoots Thompson. Out of a sense of loyalty, Mason helps his brother hide the evidence and life goes on for the two brothers. Throughout these years, Sadie Grace does her best to ‘rescue’ Gates. She gives him money and in other ways tries to protect him from the consequences of what he does. But then, Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking. He’s given a stiff jail sentence and begs his brother, who’s now a commonwealth prosecutor, to get him out of jail. At first Sadie Grace supports Gates and asks Mason to help him. But this time, Mason refuses. Then Gates threatens that if Mason doesn’t help him, he’ll implicate Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. When it becomes clear that he intends to do just that, Sadie Grace stops rescuing him. This time, she renounces him. And now, Mason has to do everything he can to clear his name.

In one story arc early in Gail Bowen’s series, her sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, has to accept the fact that her daughter Mieka isn’t going to finish at university. Mieka has dropped out to begin her own catering business. On the one hand, Kilbourn loves her daughter and wants to see her succeed. On the other, she’s well aware that the business world is not always kind to small start-up businesses, and Mieka won’t have a university degree to help her. So Kilbourn has a strong desire to rescue her daughter from what she sees as a bad situation. Mieka of course doesn’t see it that way, and she and her mother have some difficult conversations about what she’s doing. As a result of an uneasy truce, Mieka goes ahead with her business, and it turns out to be much more successful than her mother thought it would be.

Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer has to deal with ‘helicopter parents’ in more than one of his investigations. In Black Seconds for instance, he faces a terrible case. Nine-year-old Ida Joner decides to ride her bicycle to a local kiosk to buy some candy. When she doesn’t return, her mother Helga becomes anxious and starts the frightening process of trying to find out where her daughter is. Her search turns out to be fruitless and she becomes more and more panicked as the hours go by. Eventually Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre are called in and begin a professional search. As we learn what really happened to Ida, we see the role that wanting to rescue one’s child plays in the events. I can’t say much more without spoiling the story; suffice it to say that Sejer has to get past that reality to find the truth.

There’s another example of ‘helicopter parenting’ in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant. Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri gets a visit one day from successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal. He’s been accused of the rape and murder of a family servant Mary Murmu. Mary went missing a few months ago, and it’s assumed that she’s dead. Kasliwal claims that he isn’t responsible for her disappearance, and that the police are simply trying to make an example of him to show that they’re not beholden to wealth and power. He wants Puri to find out what happened to Mary and clear his name. Puri doesn’t make the mistake of assuming his new client is telling the truth, but he takes the case. When he discovers the truth about Mary’s disappearance, we learn the role that that urge to rescue has played in the case. We see it in two other cases Puri handles in this novel as well. Those cases are requests for background checks on potential spouses – the sort of case that’s the ‘bread and butter’ of Puri’s agecy. In both of those situations, anxious parents want to rescue their children from the marriage partners they’ve chosen.

And then there’s C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. Travel development specialist Jack McGuane and his wife Melissa are the devoted adoptive parents of beautiful baby Angelina. One day their world is turned upside down when they discover that the baby’s biological father, eighteen-year-old Garrett Moreland, never waived his parental rights. Now he wants to exercise them. As you can imagine, the McGuanes refuse point-blank. Then Garrett’s father, powerful judge John Moreland comes to his son’s rescue, if you want to call it that. He and Garrett pay a visit to the McGuanes. During that conversation, he makes it clear that if the McGuanes relinquish their rights, he’ll see that they have both financial and legal support for another adoption – a quick and easy one. He makes it just as clear that if they don’t agree, there will be serious consequences. When they call his bluff, Moreland issues a court order giving them twenty-one days in which to surrender Angelina to the court. Both McGuanes decide to do whatever it takes to fight this order. And ‘whatever it takes’ turns out to be much more than either imagined. This story shows a chilling side of being a ‘helicopter parent.’

It’s perfectly natural to want to rescue one’s child and keep him or her safe from trouble. But sometimes, facing the consequences of their actions isn’t a bad lesson for young people to learn…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pink Floyd’s Mother.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, Gail Bowen, Karin Fossum, Linwood Barclay, Martin Clark, Tarquin Hall

Anything You Want, You Got It*

Standalones and seriesMany crime fiction authors choose to write series (some in fact write more than one series). Other crime writers opt for standalones. And of course there are good reasons for each choice. There are also authors who do both. There are some challenges when an author writes both series and standalones. The author has to make the standalone distinctive enough to have its own character. At the same time, fans of a series likely chose it because of its unique ‘personality.’ So the author has to maintain the quality of the series. That includes characters, setting, type of plot, and even things such as marketing choices. Some authors have made it work though.

For instance, Agatha Christie is well known for her novels featuring Hercule Poirot, and for her novels featuring Miss Marple. Fans will know that she also wrote a series featuring Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, as well as some stories featuring Parker Pyne. But she also wrote several standalones, and they’ve been just as well regarded as her series. To give one example, there’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians). In that novel, ten people gather on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. Each received an invitation or offer of employment and for different reasons, each accepted. After dinner on the first night, everyone is shocked when each person is accused of having been responsible for at least one death. Not long after those accusations, one of the guests dies of poison. Late that night there’s another death. And then, one by one, there are other murders. It’s clear now that someone lured everyone to the island and that if the survivors are to stay alive, they have to find out who’s behind it all.

Tony Hillerman fans will know that he created the Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series featuring members of the Navajo Tribal Police. That series takes place in the US Southwest and its focus is often the Navajo Reservation. But Hillerman also wrote a standalone Finding Moon, which takes place in 1975. In that novel, Malcolm ‘Moon’ Mathias, managing editor for a Colorado newspaper, finds out that his mother has collapsed in the waiting room at Los Angeles International Airport and has been rushed to a nearby hospital. At first, Moon is stunned. His mother lives in Miami; what would she have been doing in LA, and where was she going? He discovers that, unbeknownst to him, his mother was planning a trip to Southeast Asia. Then he learns the reason for the trip: she was going to recover the body of his brother Ricky, who died there. What’s more, Ricky left behind a daughter, and Moon’s mother was going to try to find her. With his mother incapacitated, Moon takes on the task himself. He’s hoping to find out more about the brother he only thought he knew, and he wants to do something to mend his troubled relationship with his mother. In the process of looking for his niece, Moon finds out quite a lot about life in Cambodia and Vietnam. He also finds out quite a lot about himself. Although there’s plenty of suspense in this novel, as well as atmosphere and setting, it’s not a crime novel in the sense that Hillerman’s series is.

Ruth Rendell is very well-known for her Inspector Reg Wexford series. It’s highly regarded and popular. But Rendell fans know that she’s also written many standalones both under her own name and under her Barbara Vine pen name. And some of those standalones are at least as highly regarded as her series. For example, A Judgement in Stone is the story of the wealthy and educated Coverdale family. In the novel, George and Jacqueline Coverdale hire Eunice Parchman as their housekeeper without giving her background a very thorough check. All goes well enough at first, but what the Coverdales don’t know is that their new housekeeper has a secret. When one of the family members accidentally discovers that secret, there are tragic consequences. This novel is often thought of as one of Rendell’s best.

C.J. Box is perhaps best known for his Joe Pickett series. Pickett is a game warden in rural Wyoming, and many of the novels focus on the interplay of development, ecological and local interests. There are also plots that focus on Pickett’s family within the context of larger mysteries. Box took a different approach with his standalone Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. That novel, which takes place in Denver, features Jack and Melissa McGuane. They’re the loving adoptive parents of baby Angelina. Everything begins to fall apart for them when they learn that Angelina’s biological father Garrett Moreland never waived his parental rights, and now intends to exercise them. Garrett’s father is powerful Judge John Moreland, who at one point tries to persuade the McGuanes to give up Angelina in return for financial and court support for them to adopt another child. The McGuanes refuse this fairly obvious attempt at a bribe, and the Morelands move from bribes to threats. The McGuanes are given twenty-one days to relinquish custody of Angelina or face prosecution. The McGuanes choose to do whatever it takes to keep their daughter, with no idea of how far ‘whatever it takes’ will actually take them.

Vanda Symon has also written both a series and standalones. Her series features Samantha ‘Sam’ Shephard of the Dunedin Police. In Overkill, The Ringmaster, Containment and Bound, we follow her career as she works her way up, sometimes against very difficult odds, to Detective. The series is well-regarded; Bound, for instance, was shortlisted for New Zealand’s 2012 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. Symon has also written a standalone, The Faceless, which was shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh award in 2013. In that novel, the fates of three unhappy characters come together when one ill-advised tryst gets out of control. This story takes place in Auckland and doesn’t involve any of the ‘regulars’ from the Sam Shephard series. But it’s well-thought-of in its own right.

The same is true of Geoffrey McGeachin’s work. He’s written three novels featuring Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin. Beginning with The Diggers Rest Hotel, which takes place in 1947, each novel takes place ten years after the previous one. So we get to see how Berlin evolves over time, and how his family life and his life as a cop changes as society does. Before the Berlin series though, McGeachin wrote a standalone Fat, Fifty and F***ed, which features bank manager Martin Carter. As the story begins, Carter’s been made redundant at his job. As if that’s not enough, his marriage has fallen apart. On his last day of work, Carter can’t resist the chance to get his hands on a million-dollar payroll. He escapes in a stolen police 4WD, and that’s just the beginning of his adventures.  This novel is different in tone to the Berlin novels, and of course, with different characters. Yet both the Berlin series and this standalone have been very well-received.

It isn’t easy for an author to pull off both a well-done series and an equally solid standalone, but there are some out there. Which ones have you liked best? If you’re a series author, do you stick with that series, or do you include standalones?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne’s You Got It.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, Geoffrey McGeachin, Ruth Rendell, Tony Hillerman, Vanda Symon

That’s the Time You Get Me Runnin’ and You Know I’ll Be Around*

Enabling Have you ever known an enabler? You know the kind of person I mean; I’m sure you do. Parents who make excuses for their child’s mistakes instead of helping that child to be responsible are arguably enabling. So are people who cover for friends who are habitually late to work, or who drink too much. What’s interesting is that most enablers aren’t that way out of malice. Some aren’t even really aware that they’re enabling. I don’t have a background in psychology, but my guess is that a lot of enablers simply don’t want to accept that their friend or loved one has a problem. It’s a form of denial if you want to put it that way. Other enablers (especially parents and partners) see others’ problems as a reflection on themselves in a way (e.g. ‘If my child lies to a teacher, that means I’m a bad parent.’).  There are also people who enable because it benefits them in some way. For instance, authorities who look the other way when it comes to smuggling or human trafficking are enablers of that sort.

There are lots of enablers among crime-fictional characters, and that makes sense. A lot of the things that lead to crime are made a lot easier if one’s enabled in some way. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

There are several examples of enablers in Agatha Christie’s novels, and discussing most of them would give away spoilers. But I can mention one in particular without giving away too much. In Death on the Nile, we meet Salome Otterbourne. She is a once-successful novelist whose work has faded in popularity. Rather than try to adapt to changing tastes, she continues to believe that her work is misunderstood and that it’s only a matter of time before it once again gets the acclaim it deserves. Still, the drop in sales has depressed her and she’s turned to drink. She and her daughter Rosalie take a cruise of the Nile, although to Rosalie,

 

‘One place is much like another.’

 

At first, all goes well enough. Everything changes though when fellow passenger Linnet Doyle is shot one night. Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise, and he and Colonel Race investigate. In the process, Poirot gets to know both Otterbournes, and he discovers how Mrs. Otterbourne’s drinking has been enabled.

In Donna Leon’s Fatal Remedies, university professor Paola Falier discovers that a Venice travel agency owned by powerful Paolo Mitri has been enabling the Thai child sex trade. The agency earns quite a lot of money from people who want to prey on children and are willing to pay well to do so. One morning, Paola is arrested for throwing stones through the window of the agency to call attention to their ‘side business.’ Matters are made complicated by the fact that her husband is Commissario Guido Brunetti of the Venice questura. Having his own wife arrested makes things quite difficult for Brunetti, and the fact that Mitri has strong connections to some very influential people just makes things worse. In fact, Brunetti ends up placed on administrative leave because of this situation. Paola isn’t proud of that, but she is equally determined not to allow the travel agency to continue to enable child predators.

C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye tells the story of Jack and Melissa McGuane. He’s a Travel Development Specialist for the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau; she works at a local hotel. They are also the proud adoptive parents of a beautiful baby Angelina. All goes well until they discover to their shock that Angelina’s biological father, eighteen-year-old Garrett Moreland, never legally waived his parental rights. Now he’s come forward to exercise those rights, and he wants the McGuanes to relinquish custody of Angelina. As you can imagine, they refuse. Then Garrett and his powerful father Judge John Moreland pay the McGaunes a visit. During the visit, the McGuanes discover what a truly unpleasant person Garrett Moreland is. They also discover that his father is an enabler on many levels. Just to give one example, he makes it clear that if the McGuanes will do what his son wants, he will see that they get the funding and court approvals to adopt another child. In other words, it’s a thinly concealed offer to ‘buy back’ Angelina. This the McGuanes also refuse, and that’s when the real trouble begins…

And then there’s Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. In that novel, small-time gangster and drug dealer Lewis Winter has become a problem for some bigger players in Glasgow’s underworld. He wants to climb up the proverbial ladder to keep his girlfriend Zara Cope but instead, he’s been marked for death. Twenty-nine-year-old freelance hit man Calum MacLean has been hired to do the job. MacLean is a professional and does his job well, and part of the reason for that is that he’s got more than one enabler in his life. There’s his brother William, who has his concern’s about Calum’s line of work, but still helps him out with transportation. There’s also the runner from whom MacLean gets the guns he and his accomplice George will use to do the job. This runner acquires and re-sells all sorts of guns, and can be trusted not to ask too many questions about his customers. The runner is very well aware of what the guns are used for, but enables the business because it benefits him. On the night of the planned hit, the two hit men go to Winter’s home to do the job, and the result has powerful consequences for everyone involved.

Herman Koch’s The Dinner focuses on two couples; Paul and Claire Lohman, and Paul’s older brother Serge and his wife Babette. One night the four of them meet for dinner at an excusive Amsterdam restaurant. As the dinner moves from course to course, so does the narrative. We learn about the backstories of these couples, about their family lives, and about a very dark secret they’ve been keeping. These are very dysfunctional people, and as the story unfolds, we see how that dysfunction has played out in disastrous ways. The more we learn about the real reason for the dinner, the more we see how enabling has played an important role in what’s happened.

Enabling takes on many forms, and it’s often (‘though of course, not always) counter-productive – sometimes outright destructive. There’s only been space here to mention a few instances from crime fiction. So, please, fill in the gaps I’ve left…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steely Dan’s Dirty Work.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, Donna Leon, Herman Koch, Malcolm Mackay

Hello It’s Me*

TelephonesYou don’t see many public telephones any more, at least not in the area where I live. In part that’s because so many people have mobile ‘phones; there’s just no need for them. Telephones have become rich storehouses of people’s information, so when there is a murder, the police check the victim’s telephone to see who might have contacted that person and when the last calls were placed. All of this helps to narrow down the possibilities when it comes to suspects and motives for murder.

Actually telephone records have been around for a long time as very useful tools. And an interesting comment exchange with Rebecca Bradley has got me thinking about that. Now, I’ll wait while you go visit Rebecca’s blog. It’s an excellent resource for readers and writers of crime fiction. And Rebecca hosts the online Crime Book Club, which discusses a different crime novel each month (This month: Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie – Wednesday 16 April, 8PM GMT).

Back now? Right – telephones. Hercule Poirot uses records of telephone calls in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas). In that novel, we meet the various members of the Lee family, which is headed by unpleasant and tyrannical patriarch Simeon Lee. When he invites his family to gather at Gorston Hall for Christmas, no-one really wants to accept. But at the same time, no-one dares to refuse. On Christmas Eve, Lee is murdered in his private room. Hercule Poirot is staying nearby with a friend, and he works with Superintendent Sugden to find out who the murderer is. It’s not easy either because all of the family members have motives for murder. One of them is Lee’s son George, a Member of Parliament and very concerned about his image. He claims that he was making a telephone call at the time of the murder. It’s interesting to find out what the truth about that telephone call reveals about George Lee. What’s more, it shows that even then, detectives traced calls.

We see that in Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Velvet Claws too. Perry Mason’s been hired by Eva Belter to stop sleazy tabloid reporter Frank Locke from blackmailing her. Locke found out that she was having an affair with an up-and-coming politician and plans to milk that for all it’s worth. Mason agrees to meet with Locke to try to get him to leave Belter alone. They do meet but Mason is sure that Locke knows more than he’s saying. So he follows Locke one day, ending up at a local hotel. There, he arranges with the hotel telephone operator to trace a call that Locke makes. The information from that call gives Mason the information he needs about why his client has been targeted for blackmail. But that’s when things get complicated. When Eva’s husband George is murdered, she becomes the prime suspect and appeals to Mason to clear her name.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of Red Heroine takes place in 1990’s Shanghai, not many years before mobile telephones became easily available to almost everyone. In that novel, Chief Inspector Chen Cao and his assistant Yu Guangming investigate the murder of national model worker Guang Hongying. Her body is found one afternoon in the Baili Canal, and it’s thought at first that she was raped and killed by a taxi driver. But there are pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise. This case will be delicate though, because the victim was linked to several powerful people. Still, Chen and Yu persevere. One of the leads they follow is a series of telephone calls that ties the victim to one particular person. Those calls are all made from and received at a public telephone and it’s interesting to see how those records are kept.

As I say, most people now have mobile telephones, and those records can prove extremely helpful. Of course, people who want to cover their tracks know that too, so they often use pay-as-you-go ‘phones. But the police can find those useful too at times. In one plot thread of Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage for instance, DS Bob Tidey is working with Garda Detective Rose Cheney on the murder of Emmet Sweetman, a dubious banker who made a lot of money during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years, but got into serious financial trouble when the crash came. He did business with some dangerous people and the detectives want to know who those associates are. They’re lucky enough to find Sweetman’s pay-as-you-go ‘phone, which he used for his off-the-record dealings, and that discovery proves quite informative.

Today’s telephones are also frequently used for texting, and those texts can also be very helpful to detectives. In C.J. Box’s Below Zero for instance, Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett is on the trail of the Mad Archer, a poacher who shoots animals and leaves them to die. Then Pickett’s daughter Sheridan begins receiving text messages from her foster sister April Keeley, whom everyone thought was tragically killed six years earlier. Pickett rushes home to find out the truth about those texts. If they were from April, then he wants to trace her. Where has she been and why hasn’t she contacted her foster family? If the texts are not from April, Pickett wants to know who would want to play the sick game of pretending they are. Those text messages turn out to be very helpful in leading Pickett to the truth about April.

Of course, it’s not always as easy as it may seem to use telephone records. In Vicki Delany’s Winter of Secrets, Constable Molly Smith and Sergeant John Winters investigate the Christmastime deaths of Jason Wyatt-Yarmouth and his friend Ewan Williams. Part of that investigation is a set of interviews with the victims’ friends. At one point Winters asks one of them if Jason got a call on Christmas Eve:

 

‘‘I don’t know. We didn’t keep him under armed guard, you know. Can’t you check his phone calls or something?’
Everyone knew too much these days, or thought they did, about police methods. Ewan and Jason both had cell phones on them. Completely ruined by their immersion in the icy river. Winters had put in a request for the phone records of the dead men but had yet to hear back. It was a slow week everywhere.’

 

It’s sometimes a difficult process to get telephone information, although of course, you don’t see that on television or films.

Still, telephone records give extremely valuable information in solving cases. With modern messaging, Internet capability and so on, they’re increasingly individual too. Little wonder cops always look for people’s telephones.

Oh, sorry, I’ve got a call – must take this. Thanks, Rebecca, for the inspiration!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Todd Rundgren song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, Erle Stanley Gardner, Gene Kerrigan, Qiu Xiaolong, Vicki Delany

No, it Don’t Mean Nothing Till You Sign it on the Dotted Line*

Paper TrailsSometimes it seems as though there are a lot of ‘hoops to jump through’ as the saying goes when we want to get certain things done. Do you really need that marriage certificate to prove your love? Can’t you raise a child in a loving and caring way without an adoption decree? And do you really have to have purchase papers for a friendly exchange of an auto for money if the two people involved know each other? The fact is that there’s a lot to be said for ‘paper trails’ and legal documents. They can do a lot to protect a person. Just a quick look at the way they’re used in crime fiction should show you what I mean. Oh, and you’ll notice as you read this that there won’t be any mention of wills. Too easy! ;-)

Agatha Christie uses marriage documents more than once in her novels. For instance, in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Chief Inspector Japp investigates the shooting death of Henry Morley, a seemingly inoffensive dentist who is killed during his surgery hours. Since Hercule Poirot is one of his patients and actually had an appointment on the day of the murder, Japp seeks his help in the case. Morley didn’t have dangerous enemies, nor did he have a fortune to leave. So there seems no motive for the murder.  Shortly after Japp and Poirot begin their search for answers, one of Morley’s patients dies of an overdose of anaesthetic. Then another disappears. It’s now clear that this case is complicated. As Poirot discovers, a marriage certificate plays an important role in this novel.

A marriage certificate – or rather, a lack of one – plays a crucial role in Perri O’Shaughnessy’s Breach of Promise. In that novel, Tahoe, California attorney Nina Reilly gets a new client Lindy Markov. Lindy has been living with Mike Markov for twenty years, and in fact helped him build an extremely successful business. She recently found out that Mike was having an affair with his company’s vice-president of financial services Rachel Pembroke and now, Lindy’s been served with an eviction order. She’s required to vacate her home, and it doesn’t look as though Mike is planning to provide for her in any way. Lindy wants Nina Reilly to defend her interests in a civil suit. Reilly agrees, but she knows that this will be a difficult case. Lindy and Mike were never legally married, so Lindy has no legal claim on any of Mike’s money or other assets. There’s not a lot of court precedent for such cases either. Still, Reilly pulls a team together and they work hard to prepare for the trial. The trial starts and a jury is seated. After contentious testimony and even more contentious debate among the members of the jury, a verdict is reached. Then, a shocking event changes everything about the case.

A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife also addresses the issue of a marriage certificate. Jodi Brett is a successful Chicago psychotherapist who’s been in a relationship with developer Todd Gilbert for twenty years. The two have never been legally married, but Jodi regards Todd as her husband. Then, Todd has an affair with a college student Natasha Kovacs, who is the daughter of Todd’s longtime friend Dean Kovacs. Todd’s been unfaithful before and Jodi has dealt with it. But this time it’s different because Natasha gets pregnant. What’s even more shocking for Jodi is that Todd decides to leave her and marry Natasha. Then comes even more unpleasant news. Through his attorney, Todd serves eviction papers to Jodi, and she’ll be forced out of their home. When Jodi sees a lawyer, the first point brought up is that she was never legally married to Todd, so she has no legal claim on his home or his assets. Then, Todd is murdered and everything changes.

C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye deals with a different kind of legal ‘trail’ – adoption papers. Jack McGuane and his wife Melissa are the loving adoptive parents of beautiful baby Angelina. They adopted her legally, so they have the paperwork to support their claim to her. Then, they get the devastating news that all is not as much in order as they thought. Angelina’s biological father is eighteen-year-old Garrett Moreland. At the time of her birth, he never waived his parental rights and now that he is of legal majority, he’s chosen to exercise them. Moreland has never been the least bit interested in Angelina, so the McGuanes do not believe that he wants to be a real father to her. In fact, they strongly suspect his motives. But he won’t sign the papers granting the McGuanes full custody, and he is supported by his father, who is a powerful local judge. So when the McGuanes refuse to relinquish Angelina, Judge Moreland serves them with a court order that gives them twenty-one days to relinquish custody of Angelina. This the McGuanes vow not to do, and they decide to do whatever is necessary to keep Angelina. ‘Whatever is necessary’ turns out to be much more than either of them imagined…

One of the most difficult ‘legal trails’ to follow is paperwork regarding works of art. For one thing, people do sell art informally sometimes, so there isn’t an official set of transaction papers. For another, some people are willing to pay for art without asking too many questions. So the matter of the art’s provenance doesn’t come up. But art can be extremely valuable, so proof of ownership can become a matter of real importance. That’s what we find for example in Aaron Elkins’ Loot. Art historian/expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere gets a call one day from an acquaintance Simeon Pawlovsky, who owns a pawn shop. Pawlovsky thinks that a painting he’s just gotten in may be valuable, and he wants Revere to look at it. Revere agrees and discovers that Pawlovsky is right: the painting is very likely a valuable Velázquez that’s been missing since World War II. When Pawlovsky is murdered shortly afterwards, Revere decides to try to trace the painting and therefore, possibly find out who the killer is. It turns out that this painting was one of many stolen by the Nazis and now there isn’t a clear ‘paper trail’ leading to its current legal owner. Revere untangles the messy question of ownership and that information helps lead him to the killer. What’s interesting too is that readers get a look at questions of provenance and how one actually goes about proving that a) a painting is genuine; and b) it is legitimately owned by a given person/family.

In Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin, it’s property ownership documents that become vitally important. DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper are called to the scene when a female skeleton is found at Pity Wood Farm in England’s Peak District. Shortly afterwards, another female skeleton is found. The current owner of the farm is attorney Aaron Goodwin, who bought the land for development purposes. He claims to know nothing about the remains; in fact, he has no real connection to the farm other than as its owner. So although he’s still a suspect, Fry and Cooper also consider other possibilities. Before Goodwin bought the property it was owned for many years by the Sutton family, most recently by brothers Derek and Raymond Sutton. Derek has died, but Raymond is still alive and in a care home. He claims to know nothing about the deaths and forensics evidence supports him. The bodies were apparently buried after he sold the farm. So now the team has to find out who actually owned the farm, who actually lived there, and what the young women were doing there if they’re going to find the killer.

Legal documents can be the source of an awful lot of conflict. But they are often very effective sources of protection. Sometimes that ‘piece of paper’ isn’t meaningless at all…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Marx and Bruce Gaitsch’s Don’t Mean Nothing.

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Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, Perri O'Shaughnessy, Stephen Booth