Category Archives: C.J. Box

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.


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.


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.


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

Raise Up a Multiplex and We Will Make a Sacrifice*

Land DevelopmentAn interesting comment exchange with Col at Col’s Criminal Library has got me thinking about land development. As the population increases and becomes ever more mobile, there are more and more land development projects. In a way, it makes sense, since bringing new people and new industries to an area means a stronger local economy. But a lot of people believe that too often, that economy grows at a devastating price: the loss of the land, the local wildlife and the ecosystem. That’s to say nothing of people who object to the changes that development brings to their small towns and their quality of life. That conflict between land development advocates and opponents is ongoing and has sometimes flared up into violence. So it’s little wonder we see it in crime fiction too.

A few of Agatha Christie’s stories touch on land development in a tangential way, (I’m thinking for instance of The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side and Death on the Nile). In those stories, there’s some dismay for instance at the coming of council housing and the uprooting of people so that a personal piece of property can be developed. But that theme isn’t a central part of the mystery.

In Peter Temple’s Bad Debts though, land development plays a major role in the story. Sometime-attorney Jack Irish gets involved in a case of greed, corruption and land development when a former client Danny McKillop is murdered. Irish had unsuccessfully defended MicKillop in a drink-related hit-and-run case in which Melbourne activist Anne Jeppeson was killed. When McKillop was released from prison after serving his sentence, he contacted Irish, trying desperately to reach him, but by the time Irish returned McKillop’s calls it was already too late. Now Irish feels a sense of guilt over not getting to McKillop sooner and over not doing a better job of defending his client. So he decides to look into the Jeppeson case again. He soon discovers that McKillop was framed for Jeppeson’s murder.  Before her death, Jeppeson had been spearheading a protest against the closing of a public housing estate in Melbourne’s Yarrabank district. And the more Irish looks into this planned closing, the more he sees that it’s motivated by greed, land development planning and corruption. In the end, Irish and journalist Linda Hillier trace the murders to very highly-placed people with much to lose if the planned closing doesn’t go through.

Science fiction novelist Zack Walker and his family get caught up in a fight between land developers and local eco-activists in Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move. Walker and his family move from the city to Valley Forest Estates. There, Walker hopes that life will be safer (and less expensive) for his family. He soon finds out how wrong he is though when he witnesses an argument between local environmental activist Samuel Spender and one of Valley Forest’s sales/development executives. Later that day Walker discovers Spender’s body in a nearby creek. Then, Walker is trying to return a handbag he’s found to its owner when he discovers the owner’s body. It’s now clear that something very serious is going on at Valley Forest. And even though the one thing Walker wants more than anything else is to have a safe, quiet life, he finds himself more and more involved in the murders, which have everything to do with greed and development schemes.

Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage tells the story of the conflict that arises over a planned road that will cut through Framhurst Great Wood. Many of the residents of Kingsmarkham, including Inspector Reg Wexford and his wife Dora, are not happy about this road. In fact, Dora’s joined a local citizens’ group that is actively opposing this development. But matters turn ugly when several groups of activists come to town. They end up taking hostages, including Dora Wexford. Then, there’s a murder. Now Wexford and his team have to work the murder case as well as try to rescue Dora and the other hostages before there’s any more death. The land development people aren’t exactly Citizens of the Year in this novel, but Rendell doesn’t oversimplify the issues and it’s interesting to see how she portrays what is sometimes the darker side of activism.

Vicki Delany’s In the Shadow of the Glacier has land development as one of its major themes too. Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith has recently joined the Trafalgar (British Columbia) police. One night while making her rounds, she finds the body of wealthy developer Reginald Montgomery. Sergeant John Winters is assigned to investigate the case and he and Smith begin to look into Montgomery’s professional and private relationships to find out who would have wanted to kill him. There are several suspects too. One important angle to this case is that Montgomery was co-owner of the soon-to-be opened Grizzly Resort, an upmarket resort/spa/holiday destination. Many people feel that Grizzly will bring in desperately-needed money and will provide jobs for several of the local residents. Others feel at least as strongly that the resort will ruin the natural beauty of the area and will be hard on the local ecosystem. They don’t want the influx of tourists either. That conflict adds an underlying layer of tension to the novel as Smith and Winters work to find out who killed Montgomery and why.

In C.J. Box’s Open Season, newly-appointed game warden Joe Pickett has an embarrassing encounter with local outfitter and poacher Ote Keeley. Shortly afterwards, Keeley’s body is found on Pickett’s property. What’s more, Pickett’s daughter Sheridan discovers something else – a family of endangered animals living in the woodpile near the post where Keeley’s body was discovered. Now that Pickett and his family are personally involved, he works to find out who killed Keeley. What he discovers is a long-simmering conflict among oil developers, a poaching ring and independent locals who do not want a game warden telling them what they can and cannot do. This isn’t the only novel in this series in which Box addresses issues of land development and what it may mean.

That’s also true of Carl Hiaasen’s work. In several of his novels (I’m thinking for instance of Lucky You and Tourist Season), we meet characters who want to develop the land. And it’s Hiaasen’s work that actually got Col and me ‘talking’ about the way land development is portrayed. As Col pointed out, Hiaasen uses a lot of humour in his stories but there’s a strong underlying urgency about protecting the land from over-development.

There are plenty of mentions of land development in cosy mysteries too. For instance in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Prretty Is as Pretty Dies, retired English teacher Myrtle Clover is ‘volunteered’ to work with her local church’s women’s group. She goes to the church for a meeting of the Altar Guild where she finds the body of Parke Stockard. Myrtle wants to prove, especially to her overprotective son, that she’s not ready to be ‘put out to pasture’ yet, so she decides to investigate the murder. As it turns out, there are several suspects. Parke Stockard was a malicious real estate developer who used all sorts of unethical and illegal tactics to ensure her place in the community and to get the properties she wanted. Myrtle sifts through what she finds, what people tell her and what she overhears (deliberately and otherwise), and figures out who killed the victim and why.

The question of whether, how and for what purpose land ought to be developed is not an easy one. That’s why it’s been such a contentious issue for such a long time. Little wonder we see so much crime fiction that touches on land development.

Thanks, Col, for the inspiration. Folks, please do pay Col’s blog a visit; it’s a nicely focused set of crime fiction reviews well worth following.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s No Man’s Land.


Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, Carl Hiaasen, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Linwood Barclay, Peter Temple, Ruth Rendell, Vicki Delany

Do You Think That I’ll be Different When You’re Through?*

JailSince crime fiction is about, well, crime, it makes sense that the topic of prison would come up in any discussion about the genre. And one of the developments we’ve seen in crime fiction over the decades is that there is some solid discussion of the effects of being imprisoned. There are also questions raised about whether the threat of prison is really a deterrent. Certainly questions about prison have been around for a very long time and we do see mentions of prison in Golden Age crime fiction. But it’s become a real topic of interest in more recent crime fiction. There are a lot of examples, and this one post only gives me space for a few, but hopefully these will suffice to show you what I mean.

Gail Bowen’s sleuth Joanne Kilbourn is the widow of Saskatchewan politician Ian Kilbourn, who was murdered one night when he stopped to help a young couple who were having car trouble. When he refused to take them to a party they wanted to attend, the young man Kevin Tarpley murdered him. In A Colder Kind of Death, Tarpley is shot while he’s in the exercise yard of the prison where he’s been remanded. As if that isn’t enough of a shock to Kilbourn, she then receives a letter and a newspaper clipping that Tarpley sent her just before he was murdered.  From the letter and from what she learns from the media, it seems that Tarpley was a ‘model prisoner’ who found religion while he was behind bars. Then, Tarpley’s wife Maureen, who was with him on the night of Ian Kilbourn’s murder, is herself killed. Now suspicion falls on Joanne Kilbourn, who has a very strong motive in both cases. Partly to clear her name and partly to deal with her own continuing sense of loss and grief, Kilbourn looks into both murders. She finds that the reality of Tarpley’s prison life was more complicated than just a man who’d ‘found God.’ Prison chaplain Paschal Temple tells her that at first, Tarpley simply attended chapel events so that he’d get an earlier parole. But in other conversations, he admitted having lied about something and began to seem worried about his eternal fate because of his lies. It’s that fact that proves the most salient as Kilbourn works to find out who killed Tarpley and his wife. The answer also leads her to more truths about her husband’s murder.

In C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye, we meet Jack McGuane who, with his wife Melissa, has adopted a baby girl Angelina. The couple’s happiness is complete until they get the shocking news that Angelina’s biological father Garrett Moreland never relinquished his parental rights and now wants to exercise them. At first the McGuanes believe that it’s all a terrible mixup that will be resolved. But then, Garrett’s powerful father, Judge John Moreland, visits the McGuanes and more or less tries to bribe them to go along with Garrett’s wishes and give up the child. When they refuse, Moreland uses the full force of his legal authority and orders them to relinquish custody of Angelina within three weeks. The McGuanes are not willing to do this, and resolve to do whatever it takes to keep Angelina. ‘Whatever it takes’ turns out to be more than either of them could have imagined. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that the last section of this novel includes McGuane’s depiction of prison life:


‘I’m in the general population. The guards protect me because they…are sympathetic. I have my own cell with a bed, a washstand and toilet, books, and this laptop computer. There are books in the library and decent medical care. I am pleasant but not friendly with all the rest of the population. The only time I see the truly dangerous inmates is across the room at mealtimes.’


McGuane then goes on to reflect on what happens in the novel and on the fact that anyone is capable of anything and that once a person ‘crosses the line’ it gets easier to do things one wouldn’t have considered:


‘Which is why I’m here and why I should be.’


It’s an interesting look at imprisonment as a tool for social and personal discipline.

Wendy James’ Out of the Silence gives a very different look at prison, although the notions of reform and reflection are present. In that novel, we follow the life of Maggie Heffernan, born and raised in Victoria, who was imprisoned in 1900 for the murder of her infant son. The story is based on a real-life case, but takes a fictional look at the circumstances that led to her trial and imprisonment. In the novel, Maggie meets and falls in love with Jack Hardy, who seems to be in love with her too. They get engaged (although not publicly) and then Hardy leaves for work in New South Wales. When Maggie becomes pregnant, she writes to Jack about it, but he doesn’t respond. At first, she tells herself that he will respond when he can and besides, she has the very real problem of finding a new place to live, since she doubts her family will accept her living with them. She moves to Melbourne where she continues to search for Jack and where she gives birth to their son. Shortly after the baby is born, Maggie finally finds Jack, who says that she’s crazy and pretends not to even know her. Distraught, Maggie goes looking for lodging and is turned away from six different places. That’s when the baby’s death occurs. Maggie is arrested, tried and imprisoned, but soon enough, women’s suffrage activist Vida Goldstein takes an interest in the case and she and her friend Elizabeth Hamilton begin to work for Maggie’s release. And as we learn the circumstances of the baby’s death, we see why there is so much sympathy for Maggie. It’s a real example of the way society’s limitations and views of women at that time placed many women in terrible positions. The women’s prison to which Maggie is remanded is not cruel in the sense of featuring torture or forced feedings or some of the other barbarities some prisoners have known. It’s designed to help the prisoners do useful work, embrace religion and basically repent. At the same time, the assumptions made about the women who are there show the institutionalised sexism of the times.

Jøern Lier Horst’s Dregs also takes a look at the purpose of prison and its effects.  Stavern, Norway police inspector William Wisting and his team investigate when a left foot, encased in a shoe, is washed up on the shore. The team is just beginning to look into the matter when another foot is discovered. Then another appears. As the case continues, the team learns that these macabre findings may be related to the disappearances of several people from a nearby retirement home. As that angle is explored, we learn that the old men who have disappeared had another connection going back to the post-World War II years, so one possible explanation for the disappearances may lie in the past. In the meantime, Wisting’s journalist daughter Line is working on a feature story about former prison inmates who have been released. Her main question is whether imprisonment serves any purpose. She even suspects that imprisonment may do more harm than good, and she wants to tell the stories of people who have been there. A few of her interviewees live not far from where her father lives, so Line stays with him while she’s conducting them. As she talks to her participants, we get the sense of how prison changes people. At one point, for instance, Line asks one of her interviewees,


‘Are you a better person now than before you went to prison?’…
‘No,’ he finally answered. ‘On the contrary.’


Line comes to really question the value of prison, and this forms an interesting sub-plot in this novel. The story Line is working on turns out to be related to the missing men and the discovery of the feet.

Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red tells the story of Connor Bligh, who has been imprisoned for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. At the time of the murders, everyone was convinced that Bligh was guilty and there is evidence against him. But there are also hints that he may be innocent. So when television journalist Rebecca Thorne learns of this case, she decides to pursue it. She is granted an interview with Bligh (who usually doesn’t agree to speak to visitors) and visits him in Rimutaka Prison:


‘The mass of buildings and acres of land are barricaded by a six-metre fence topped with barbed wire and razor blades.’


When she first meets him, Thorne believes that Bligh will be eager to have her take up his cause so he can get out of prison. But here is what he says:


‘I’ve got a shower and a TV in my room and I can go outside every day for exercise so I can walk further now than from one wall to the other. I’m deemed responsible enough to work in the gardens where I earn somewhere between a dollar fifty and two dollars an hour. That plus free board makes this a reasonable deal.’


At the same time, he also tells Thorne that he wants to get out of prison. Thorne tells him she’ll pursue the story and she does – vigourously. The question then becomes, is she right? Is Bligh innocent? If so, it’s the story of Thorne’s career. If not, she’s in real danger. It’s an interesting portrait of a person who has managed to make the prison system work for him, and of a journalist who may (or may not) be getting far too close to a story.

Angela Savage’s The Teardrop Tattoos tells the story of a woman who’s recently been released from prison after serving time for murder. She’s been given a small place to live not far from a local child care facility. She settles in there with her pit bull Sully and all is stable until a complaint is filed against her for having a dog of a ‘dangerous breed.’ Sully is her only companion so the woman makes plans for revenge against the person who filed the complaint. As she carries out her plans, we learn why she went to prison and about the hard shell that being in prison has given her. Although her time in prison is not the main focus of this story, the imprisonment has left its mark on her.

And that makes sense. Prison has a strong effect on people. And whether that effect is a good thing or not continues to be an unsettled question. Perhaps the fact that we don’t have all of the answers about this one is part of what makes it such an interesting topic in crime fiction. What do you think?


ps.  The ‘photo is of a cell in the old Knox County (Illinois) Jail, now preserved as an historical site. It’s located on the campus of Knox College.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Johnny Cash’s San Quentin.


Filed under Angela Savage, C.J. Box, Gail Bowen, Jøern Lier Horst, Paddy Richardson, Wendy James