Category Archives: Carl Hiaasen

I Am an Innocent Man*

Web - InnocentsAll sorts of people are affected when there’s a crime, especially a crime like murder. And sometimes the people caught up in the investigation are completely innocent. Perhaps they were at a certain place at a certain time. Or perhaps they had the bad fortune to be friends with/married to/doing business with a murder victim or a suspect. In those kinds of cases, even people who are innocent may be drawn into a case of murder. They may be questioned by the police, have their things searched or worse. That can happen in real life, and if it’s done believably, it can add an interesting thread of suspense and tension to a crime story.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Hilton Cubitt, a respectable ‘country squire’ type who’s very concerned about his wife Elsie. Elsie is originally from Chicago, where she made some very dubious associations. But as she tells her husband, she has nothing of which she need be personally ashamed. Now it seems as though one of those associates has found her. She’s been receiving cryptic messages and won’t tell her husband what they mean. Whatever else they mean, they seem to present danger to her, and Cubitt wants to help his wife if he can. Then one night there’s a tragedy. Cubitt is murdered and his wife left badly wounded. Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate and discover the connection between that night and the cryptic clues. Throughout this adventure readers can sense that Cubitt is an innocent person caught up in something dangerous. That fact adds suspense to the story.

The focus of Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death) is a hostel for students. It’s managed by Mrs. Hubbard, the sister of Hercule Poirot’s super-efficient secretary Felicity Lemon. Lately Mrs. Hubbard has been concerned about some odd events that have taken place at the hostel, including some strange petty thefts. Poirot agrees to look into the matter and goes to the hostel for dinner and to get the proverbial lay of the land. While he’s there, one of the residents Celia Austin admits to being responsible for several of the thefts. The matter then seems to be settled until two nights later when Celia is murdered. Now Poirot and Inspector Sharpe do a thorough investigation to find out who wanted to kill Celia and why. They discover  the truth, but not before there are two other murders. Throughout this novel, we learn that some of the residents are hiding things. Others though are perfectly innocent and are shocked at what’s happening. That sense of being innocently drawn into something horrible adds real tension to this story.

We also see this in Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn. Martin Canning is a mystery novelist who’s always led a more or less safe life. Even his novels avoid gore and a lot of violence. His literary agent convinces him to participate in an upcoming Arts Festival in Edinburgh and Canning makes preparations. He’s waiting to buy tickets to an afternoon show when he witnesses a car accident. A blue Honda hits a silver Peugeot being driven by Paul Bradley. The Honda driver gets out of his vehicle and he and Bradley quarrel. Then the Honda driver brandishes a bat. Now Bradley’s life is in danger and without thinking about it, Canning throws his computer case at the Honda driver. The case knocks the driver down and saves Bradley’s life. Canning insists on accompanying Bradley to a local hospital to be sure he’s all right and that’s when the real trouble begins. It turns out Canning has innocently gotten himself mixed up in a case of fraud, theft and multiple murders. Part of the suspense in this novel comes as we see how Canning gets ever more deeply drawn into a case he had little to do with at first.

That’s also what happens in Carl Hiaasen’s Lucky You. Features writer Tom Krone is assigned to do an in-depth story on JoLayne Lucks, who has just won US$14 million. Her plan is to use her winnings to buy a piece of Florida land and keep it as a reserve – safe from the hands of some greedy developers who’ve had their eyes on it. It’s a terrific human interest story and it’s supposed to be a straightforward one too. But everything changes when a group of neo-Nazis steals JoLayne’s winning ticket. Their plan is to use the money to fund an armed militia. Krone just wants to get his story, but he’s soon drawn into JoLayne’s plot to get the ticket back. And then there are the developers who are also very much interested in the fate of that ticket. It’s an example to show that you never know where a story will lead.

Katherine Howell’s Violent Exposure is the story of the murder of Suzanne Crawford. Paramedics Carly Martens and Aidan Simpson are called to the Crawford home in a case of what seems to be domestic violence. Suzanne doesn’t want to press charges against her husband Connor though, and she insists that she’s going to be fine. The paramedics can’t really compel her to take any other action so they leave. The next day Suzanne is murdered. New South Wales Police detectives Ella Marconi and Dennis Orchard are assigned to the case. As you would imagine, they want to talk to Connor Crawford, but he’s gone missing. One possibility for getting information is a local volunteer organisation called Streetlights. This group works with at-risk young people, helping them to find work, set goals and stay out of trouble. A few of the young people involved in Streetlights worked in the nursery that the Crawfords owned. So Marconi and Orchard hope that one of those young people will be able to give them some information about the couple. One of these young people is Emil Page. Just as the cops start to focus on him though, Emil disappears too. As it turns out, Emil has been more or less innocently drawn into this case of murder, He may not be exactly ‘the boy next door,’ but he’s gotten involved in this case unwittingly.

And then there’s Stewart Macintosh, whom we meet in Malcolm Mackay’s  The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. He’s at a club called Heavenly one night when he meets an attractive young woman Zara Cope. She came to the club with her partner Lewis Winter. As the evening goes on, Winter gets more and more drunk and Stewart and Zara get more and more friendly. He sees no reason to object when Zara invites him back to her house ‘for drinks,’ and helps her steer Winter into a cab, into the house and upstairs to bed. Then he and Zara get on with their own plans for the night. That’s when the door bursts open and two professional hit men burst in. One goes upstairs and shoots Winter; the other guards Stewart and Zara. When they’re done their work they leave. Now panicked, Stewart sees that he’s gotten himself into something very much more than he’d imagined. But he’s attracted to Zara and when she asks him to keep something for her for a short while, he finds it impossible to refuse her. That’s how he gets drawn into a case of gangland ‘patch wars,’ drug dealing and murder-for-hire. He may not be exactly a ‘choir boy,’ but Stewart is a basically innocent guy who’s gotten himself into a serious mess.

And that’s how it often happens. A basically innocent person meets someone at a club, or works with someone, or sees something and before you know it, is drawn into a deadly situation. It’s hard to write such characters credibly. There has to be an authentic reason for the character to be pulled into the case. But when it’s done well it can add a really interesting layer of suspense to a story.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man.

35 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Carl Hiaasen, Kate Atkinson, Katherine Howell, Malcolm Mackay

You Picked a Real Bad Time*

Bad TimingReading and reading experiences are often very subjective. Of course, no matter who’s doing the reading, ‘flat’ characters, stilted dialogue and cumbersome detail are signs that a book isn’t well-written. But the fact is, our impressions of a book are also affected by things such as personal taste and preference. What we think of a book is also arguably affected by when we read that book. Let me just offer a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean about the way timing can impact our impression of a book.

A lot of people prefer lighter reading during holidays. Somehow, lighter, cosy mysteries such as Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles series or comic caper novels such as Carl Hiaasen’s just seem to ‘fit’ when you’re beach reading or curled up by the fire. There are many, many examples of this kind of lighter reading, and of course, personal taste is going to figure into which novels one chooses. But there’s something about holidays and vacations that seems to invite one to read a lighter novel.

What’s interesting is what happens when you pick up that kind of novel at another time, say, when you’ve just been reading about an important social issue and you want to mull it over. Suddenly, the Bev Robitai or Simon Brett theatre-based novel that seemed so absolutely perfect…doesn’t seem that way anymore. Nothing at all has happened to the quality of those novels (I recommend both authors, by the way). They’re still interesting stories with appealing characters. What’s happened is that the timing isn’t right for them.

The same kind of thing happens with novels such as Unity Dow’s The Screaming of the Innocent or Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Those are both difficult novels to read in that they deal with important but harrowing social issues. And there are times when one’s open to those more challenging stories. You might just have read an article about a certain topic, or you might have just come back from a holiday and be ready for a challenge. At those times, books like these can feel like the perfect choice. You can appreciate the message and you’re willing to invest yourself in the harder parts of the story.

But suppose you decide to try something such as Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second when you’re off on a fun trip. The same book that you might have thought of as difficult, even harrowing, but exceptionally well-written and worth reading, now becomes far too difficult to read. Now this kind of book is unutterably depressing and hard to finish. The fact is (and you already know this of course) nothing’s happened to the book’s quality at all. It’s still an excellent story with a lot of ‘food for thought’ and some compelling characters. The timing’s just wrong for the book.

Did you ever notice that when you’re planning to travel somewhere, you get quite interested in reading books that take place in your destination? I know that’s happened to me. So if you’re planning a trip to Spain you might be especially interested in Teresa Solana’s, Antonio Hill’s or Domingo Villar’s work. I’ve only mentioned a very few examples of Spanish crime fiction but you get my point. As you read those books you try to get every nuance of culture and geography you can, since you’re attuned to it.

But what if you choose a book like Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X when you’re having ‘one of those weeks’ and you’ve only got small amounts of reading time? Then, the very nuances of culture and geography that you love at other times can seem burdensome, or you might not pay attention to them and really appreciate them. That feeling might not have much to do with the quality of a given book. Rather, it’s the timing of your reading.

There are times when the action and suspense of thrillers such as Lindy Cameron’s Redback are exactly right. Thrillers like that can be the perfect accompaniment to a quiet evening when it’s fun to imagine what it would be like to be up against international terrorists. But maybe it isn’t the best choice if you’re not feeling well and not ready to deal with edge-of-the-seat ‘roller coaster rides.’

A ‘quieter’ sort of mystery such as you find in Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski series might be really appealing for those times when you have a few days to follow along and appreciate the subtler approach and more slowly-evolving story line. At those times, you can see the real appeal of character development and nuance. But pick that sort of book up when you’re waiting in an office or when you’re anxiously awaiting word on whether you got that job, and you could easily find such a novel too slow. Those details of character development that so draw you in at other times now just seem irritating. The series hasn’t changed (by the way, I recommend Brunanski’s series – I really like Bart’s character a lot). The fact is, it’s the kind of series that’s best enjoyed when you’ve got the time to ‘slow the pace down’ a bit.

And I think we’d all agree that mood plays a role too in what we think of a book. Grumpy or feeling crotchety? Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice might be the perfect fit. Need a good, irreverent laugh? Christopher Brookmyre has done some very funny novels. You get the idea.

So as we all start to plan what we’re going to read in 2014, do you think about this timing issue? Do you plan your reading so that you’ll take the lighter stuff with you on holiday for instance? Or do you adapt yourself to the book you’re reading?  What about when you start a book and then realise it’s the wrong time for that novel? Do you give up or pick it up at another time?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Billy Joel song.

30 Comments

Filed under Antonio Hill, Bev Robitai, Carl Hiaasen, Cath Staincliffe, Christopher Brookmyre, Domingo Villar, Keigo Hagishino, Kishwar Desai, Lindy Cameron, Nelson Brunanski, Simon Brett, Susan Wittig Albert, Teresa Solana, Unity Dow, Virginia Duigan

I Feel Good*

WinningThere’s a special sense of satisfaction that fictional detectives (and I would guess real-life ones, too) get when they solve particular cases. Of course there’s always the sense of a job completed. But when the culprit is highly-placed (and so, protected), for instance, or the case has been especially difficult, there’s an even greater sense of satisfaction about solving it. And detectives are human. It’s hard not to feel that sense of ‘Gotcha!’ It makes detectives just a little more human when we see that side of their personalities.

In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, for instance, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are approached one evening with an unusual request. Famous actress Jane Wilkinson wants to be rid of her husband, the 4th Baron Edgware, because she wants to marry the Duke of Merton. She says her husband won’t consent to the divorce and asks Poirot to try to convince him otherwise. Poirot agrees and he and Hastings pay Lord Edgware a visit. Oddly enough, he says that he’s withdrawn his objection and won’t stand in the way of a divorce. Poirot tells his client as much and there the case seems to end. But that night, Lord Edgware is stabbed. Chief Inspector Japp is assigned the case and of course, Jane Wilkinson is the prime suspect. But twelve people are prepared to swear that she was at a party in another part of London on the night of the murder. So Poirot and Japp have to widen their net, so to speak. In the end, and after two more deaths, Poirot finds out who killed Edgware and catching the person gives him special satisfaction because the killer

 

‘…dared to make me, Hercule Poirot…cat’s paw.’

 

He does not take kindly to that role.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna introduces readers to Stockholm police detective Martin Beck and his team. The body of a young woman is dredged from Lake Vättern and at first no-one knows who she is. There’ve been no reports of missing people who fit her description and she had no identification. After a great deal of work and a lot of time, the young woman is finally identified as twenty-seven-year-old Roseanna McGraw, an American tourist who was on a cruise when she was killed. It takes an even longer time to slowly put together the pieces of the puzzle to find out exactly who killed her. But even then, there’s not the kind of conclusive evidence that will hold up in a court case. So Martin Beck and the team lay a trap for the killer and that trap proves especially risky for one member of the team. But after more than six months of work, a lot of ‘brick walls,’ and some very dangerous moments, the killer is brought to justice. Add to that the fact that the killer is not a particularly appealing person with an understandable motive for murder, and you can see why Martin Beck feels such satisfaction:

 

‘Here comes Martin Beck and it’s snowing on his hat. He walks with a song; he walks with a sway! Hello friends and brothers; it squeaks underfoot. It is a winter night. Hello to you all; just give a call and we’ll go home to southern Stockholm! By subway. To my part of town.
He was on the way home.’  

 

It’s clear that this is more than the usual catharsis that a detective feels at the end of a case.

Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip is the story of Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone and his wife Joey. Perrone is at least nominally a marine biologist. He’s been hired by Samuel Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut, who owns a large commercial farm in the Florida Everglades. Hammernut’s farm has been dumping toxic waste in the water and he’s been threatened with lawsuits and harassed by environmental activists. He needs proof that his farm doesn’t pollute the environment and Perrone is the right person to get that evidence. Perrone has come up with a way to make water test results look ‘clean,’ and his services are most definitely ‘for sale.’ So he and Hammernut make a fairly good team. That is, until Perrone’s wife Joey begins to suspect what’s going on. When she threatens to go to the authorities, he pushes her overboard during a cruise they’re taking. But Joey Perrone is a champion swimmer who survives and ends up being rescued by former cop Mick Stranahan. Together they come up with a plan to make Perrone believe that someone saw him push his wife overboard, and is now blackmailing him. In the meantime, local police detective Karl Rolvaag is investigating what he thinks is Joey Perrone’s untimely death (since he doesn’t know she’s been rescued). As he gets closer and closer to catching both Perrone and his wealthy employer, it’s easy to see why both he and Joey get an immense amount of satisfaction from what happens to Perrone.

In Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly, Commissario Guido Brunetti and his team investigate the sudden death of Giorgio Tassini, who worked as night watchman at a glass-blowing factory. At first, his death looks like a tragic accident with one of the glass-blowing ovens. But it’s not long before Brunetti begins to suspect that this was not an accident. One of clues he starts with is that Tassini claimed that the local glass blowing factories violate the laws against toxic waste dumping. In fact, he blamed that dumping for the fact that his daughter has several special needs. Brunetti does find out who Tassini’s killer is, but that person is highly-placed and has a lot of ‘clout.’ Brunetti’s own boss Giuseppe Patta, who likes to toady to the rich and powerful, is very reluctant about this investigation. What’s more, there isn’t a lot of clear evidence to support Brunetti. So it’s going to be very hard to bring the culprit to justice. But then, a casual conversation gives Brunetti exactly the evidence he needs to prove that the killer is responsible. Nothing gives him greater satisfaction at the end than to

 

‘…ruin the Vice-Questore’s lunch.’

 

Now he’s got what he needs to catch even a very well-protected criminal. 

In Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney travels north to Chiang Mai to visit her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. While she’s there, Didi’s partner Nou is murdered. The police theory is that de Montpasse is responsible. When they come to question de Montpasse, he ends up dead and the police claim that he violently resisted arrest and they had no choice but to shoot him. Keeney believes none of this and, mostly to clear her friend’s name, resolves to find out what really happened to the victims. Slowly, Keeney finds that there is a connection between these deaths and the Thai human trafficking and sex trades. The people involved are protected, so it’s hard to believe that an arrest will be made. But Keeney is determined to make it clear that de Montpasse was innocent. All wrongs are not righted in this novel, but it’s clear that Keeney gets a great deal of satisfaction when she confronts the person who has been protecting the criminal. The outcome of that confrontation is also quite satisfying.

And then there’s Andrea Camilleri’s The Dance of the Seagull. In that novel, Inspector Salvo Montalbano’s colleague Giuseppe Fazio disappears while he is investigating illegal activity. When Montalbano realises that Fazio may be in great danger, he and his team start to pick up the investigation trail Fazio left. The case involves the Mob, smuggling and some ruthless people, and Montalbano knows that the team’s only chance of finding Fazio is to catch the criminals he was chasing. Then, one of their primary witnesses is murdered. Now there’s even more pressure on the team. It doesn’t help matters that the group is up against a well-protected and highly-placed enemy. But in the end, Montalbano does catch the criminal. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that the arrest is most embarrassing for the criminal and most satisfying for Montalbano.

Very often the work of solving crimes is thankless, and even though there is satisfaction in a job well done, the endings are certainly not always happy. So it’s nice once in a while when the detective can get a special satisfaction from catching a culprit.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from James Brown’s I Got You (I Feel Good).

28 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Angela Savage, Carl Hiaasen, Donna Leon, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö

So Just Let Be Myself*

Author's VoiceA very interesting post on Elizabeth Spann Craig’s terrific writer’s blog has got me thinking about author voice. Elizabeth makes the well-taken point that it’s important for an author to find her or his own natural voice and use it. She’s right. Readers can tell when authors are using their own natural voices; the work reads more authentically and the story flows more smoothly. And that makes sense. Think for instance about how much more comfortable and less ‘forced’ you sound when you’re just speaking naturally than you do when you’re, say, in front of an audience or a piece of recording equipment. It takes time and confidence for an author to find that voice, but when it comes through, it can add immeasurably to the quality of a book.

Agatha Christie fans will know that she began publishing in the early 1920’s. And some people argue that her earliest works don’t all show her at her best. But as time went on, her voice became more and more confident and authentic, and we see that in several of her best works. For instance, many people (‘though certainly not all readers) think of Ten Little Indians (AKA And Then There Were None) as one of Christie’s finest novels. Part of the reason for its high quality is arguably that she had really found her ‘author’s voice.’ In that novel, ten people receive invitations to spend some time on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. For different reasons, each accepts the invitation and everyone travels to the island. On the first evening at the island, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Late that night another person dies. Then there’s another death. It’s soon very clear that someone has lured these people to the island and seems to be killing them off one by one. As the surviving guests come to realise this, they also see that they’ll have to find out who the killer is if they’re to stay alive themselves. The language in this novel isn’t stilted, the characters interact in believable ways, and we get a very clear sense of setting and context. In other words, the novel isn’t self-conscious, and it reflects Christie’s own voice effectively. It’s not the only example of the way her voice comes through in her work, but hopefully it suffices to show you what I mean.

Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy (Garnethill, Exile, Resolution) is also arguably a strong example of an author’s voice coming through effectively. The trilogy follows the life of Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell, a Glasgow ticket-taker (at first) who in Garnethill gets involved in a murder case when her former lover Douglas Brady is found murdered in her home. In Exile and Resolution, we see what happens to Mauri as she finds out who killed Brady and later, gets involved in other cases as she moves along in her own life. Throughout this trilogy, the style is clear and confident, and it’s very authentically Glasgow. Mina’s voice comes through without being stilted. These novels are stronger (well, to me anyway, so feel free to differ if you do) because Mina wrote these novels in her own voice, not by writing ‘the way you’re supposed to.’

Carl Hiassen’s writing also features a strong author voice. He has a background in journalism and a necessarily cynical outlook on a lot of what large corporations and powerful politicians do. He also has a strong sense of humour. We see all of that come through in his novels. Books such as Lucky You and Skinny Dip feature the South Florida ecological and environmental issues he is concerned about, the skewering of corrupt and greedy stakeholders and real wit too. And the novels are not at all self-conscious. Hiaasen’s voice is confident and clear throughout the stories, and his approach to storytelling makes it clear that he’s not writing the way someone’s told him ‘people ought to write.’ He has a unique voice and it’s evident in his work.

I’ve only recently (well, this year) been reading Nelson Brunanski’s rural Saskatchewan novels, and at least for me, part of the appeal of them is that Brunanski’s authentic voice comes through. The protagonist in this series is fishing lodge owner John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. He’s a ‘regular guy’ with a wife, two children and a home to keep up as well as his lodge. There’s nothing superhuman or ‘official’ about his investigations. In Crooked Lake for instance, he gets drawn into a case of murder when his friend Nick Taylor is accused of killing Harvey Kristoff, a board member at the golf course where Taylor works. Taylor claims he’s innocent and asks Bart to help clear his name. Throughout this and the other novels in this series, it’s easy to ‘hear’ Brunanski’s strong Saskatchewan voice coming through. The dialogue isn’t forced, the characters are authentic and the mysteries unfold naturally. And part of the reason for that is that Brunanski uses his own voice.

That’s also the case with Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski novels. As Paretsky fans know, Warshawski is a Chicago PI who has a special attachment to cases involving the disenfranchised. She’s lived and worked in Chicago all of her life and it’s easy to see both her and her creator’s attachment to the city. We also see Paretsky’s voice coming through in this series in terms of the cases that Warshawki investigates. They reflect Paretsky’s views about several human rights and other political and social issues. But it’s more than just the themes of the novels in this series. Paretsky’s voice also comes through in the real-life dialogue, the distinctive Chicago atmosphere and culture, and the true-to-life characters. And Paretsky started this series at a time when ‘everybody knew’ that PI’s were ‘supposed to be’ tough-guy males. She used her own voice though and didn’t write ‘what everybody thought she should write.’ The result has been one of the more popular and enduring modern crime fiction series.

Deon Meyer’s novels also reflect a very strong author’s voice. His standalones feature different protagonists (although some, like bodyguard Martin Lemmer, appear more than once), but all of them are distinctive South African characters with distinctive South African voices. Rather than following a ‘prescription’ for what a thriller ‘ought to’ be like, Meyer uses his own voice to tell the characters’ stories. Or rather, his voice comes through as they tell their own stories. And that, to me anyway, allows for deep character development, solid plots and a uniquely South African atmosphere. Oh, and in Meyer’s case, it’s hard to overestimate the value of K.L. Seeger’s translation. It’s challenging enough for a translator to convey a story’s elements, let alone the author’s unique voice. Seeger does so very effectively.

Of course, there are a lot of other superb examples of novels and series where the author’s voice comes through loudly, clearly and confidently. And that can add immeasurably to one’s reading experience. I’ve only mentioned a few; which are your favourites? If you’re a writer, how do you focus on telling stories in your own voice? Thanks, Elizabeth, for the inspiration.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Madera and David White’s You Don’t Own Me, made famous by Lesley Gore.

24 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Carl Hiaasen, Denise Mina, Deon Meyer, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Nelson Brunanski, Sara Paretsky

It’s a Losing Proposition But One You Can’t Refuse*

DealWiththeDevilIf you read enough crime fiction, you might wonder why so many people make agreements or get mixed up with people they would otherwise never consider. ‘Wouldn’t a person have more sense than that?’ you might ask. But sometimes people feel they have no choice but to make a ‘deal with the devil’ as the saying goes. And when a person feels caught between a rock and a hard place (yet another saying!), there sometimes feels no way out of this kind of arrangement. Those ‘deals with the devil’ certainly happen in real life, and they can add a suspenseful and intriguing layer to a crime novel. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) we meet Cecily Horbury. She is married to Stephen, Lord Horbury who is very anxious to protect both his family home and his family name. What Cecily hasn’t told her husband is that she’s gotten far too fond of gambling and is now in debt. Rather than ask her husband for yet more money (thereby generating some very awkward questions) she makes a ‘deal with the devil’ and borrows money from Madame Giselle, a French moneylender who uses private, potentially scandalous, information about her clients as ‘collateral’ for loans. At first all goes well. But then, Cecily begins to lose heavily at gambling and is unable to pay back what she owes. She gets out of her situation, or so she thinks, when Madame Giselle suddenly dies of what looks like heart failure while en route between Paris and London. But when it’s proven that she was poisoned, the police look among the passengers for the killer. Since Cecily was on the same flight, she becomes a prime suspect. Hercule Poirot, who was also on that flight, works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who murdered Madame Giselle. It turns out that Cecily Horbury is only one of several suspects.

Walter Mosley’s A Red Death is the story of a ‘deal with the devil’ between Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins and the FBI. Rawlins gets a letter from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agent Reginald Lawrence stating that he owes thousands of dollars in back taxes to the government. The letter threatens Rawlins with jail if he doesn’t pay what he owes. Just when Rawlins thinks he has no option but to serve time in prison, a way out appears. He is contacted by FBI agent Darryl Craxton, who offers to make Rawlins’ tax problems go away if he’ll do something in return. Craxton wants to bring down suspected communist Chaim Wenzler (this novel takes place during the ‘Red Scare’ era of the early 1950s). His plan is for Rawlins to get close to Wenzler by volunteering at the First African Baptist Church where Wenzler also volunteers. Then, Rawlins will be in a position to gather the information the FBI needs to get Wenzler. Rawlins has no desire to get involved in what he sees as a very ‘dirty’ game. But he also sees no other option. So he reluctantly agrees to the arrangement. He begins to do volunteer work and slowly builds a relationship with Wenzler. In the process he finds that he actually likes his target and doesn’t want to sacrifice him. Now he’s torn between the arrangement that he know he can’t break and his growing liking for Wenzler. That’s when two murders are committed at the church and Rawlins finds that he’s a suspect. Not only does he have to resolve his dilemma, but also, he has to try to clear his name and find out who the killer is before he’s arrested.

In James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos, New Iberia police officer Dave Robicheaux is recovering from a line-of-duty incident in which he was shot by a prisoner Jimmie Lee Boggs. His partner Lester Benoit was killed in the same incident. Just when he’s beginning to really heal, Robicheaux gets a visit from an old friend Minos Dautrieve, who now works for a US government anti-drug task force. This task force wants to bring down New Orleans drug smuggler and crime boss Tony Cardo and Dautrieve wants Robicheaux’s help. The plan is that Robicheaux will go undercover as a cop who’s ‘gone dirty’ and get as close to Cardo as he can. Then he’ll be in a position to give information to the government. Robicheaux is not interested in being a government ‘tool.’ Besides, he doesn’t trust that he’ll be protected if something goes wrong. But Dautrieve sweetens the proverbial pot with an irresistible (to Robicheaux) offer. This arrangement will allow Robicheaux to go after Jimmie Lee Boggs, who’s been associating with Cardo’s people. Robicheaux finally agrees and puts the plan in action. It’s not long though before he finds Cardo a much more complicated and even sympathetic character than he thought. He also finds that he was right about the government’s trustworthiness when it comes to protecting him. Now he has to stay alive, catch Boggs, and do the best he can to keep his ‘handlers’ satisfied without giving Cardo away.

Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone makes his own kind of ‘deal with the devil’ in Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip. Or perhaps he’s the ‘devil…’  Perrone is a marine biologist (at least nominally) but isn’t exactly getting wealthy. Then he gets an offer from Samuel Johnson ‘Red’  Hammernut, who owns a large commercial farm in Florida’s Everglades. Hammernut’s company is guilty of polluting the Everglades with toxic waste, but he has no desire to face off against environmentalists or the government. So he hires Perrone to make sure that the mandatory water samples drawn near the Hammernut farm show no pollution. Perrone is happy to comply since he has very little conscience and is eager for the money he’ll get. Then his wife Joey begins to suspect what he’s doing. In order to keep Joey from going to the authorities, Perrone takes her on a cruise of the Everglades and pushes her overboard. The only hitch to his plan is that Joey doesn’t die. She survives and finds a way to strike back at her husband by making him believe that someone saw him try to kill her. As Perrone becomes more and more unstable, Hammernut begins to trust him less and less. Now Perrone has the police, an angry Hammernut and a vengeful not-dead wife on his hands…

Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town introduces us to famous Hollywood director Peter Alan Nelson. Nelson has decided that he wants to track down his ex-wife Karen Shipley, who left him several years earlier and seems to have disappeared. With her she took their son Toby who’s now twelve. Nelson wants a relationship with his son and hires PI Elvis Cole to find the boy and his mother. Cole is reluctant; after all, Karen may have had very good reasons for not wanting to be found. But in the end he agrees and tracks Karen to a quiet Connecticut town where she is vice-president of a local bank. Before long, Cole is threatened by some very nasty thugs who want him to leave Karen Shipley alone. When he confronts her, she tells him her story: as a newly single mother, she had very little money, but she wanted to make a life for herself and Toby. So she made a ‘deal with the devil’ and agreed to co-operate with the Mafia in a money laundering scheme. Now she can’t get free of them. Together with his partner Joe Pike, Cole tracks down the Mafiosos who are threatening him (and Karen) and plans a way to stop them. In the process, he also re-unites Nelson with his son.

There’s a truly heartbreaking example of a ‘deal with the devil’ in Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective. As the novel begins, we meet Preeti and Basanti, two teens from India’s Bedia group. They are both attractive and their families are financially desperate. So the two girls become part of the dhanda – India’s sex trade. The plan is that they’ll work as prostitutes, saving their money and sending everything they can back to their families. When they’ve gotten their families financially secure, the girls will leave the trade. This ‘deal with the devil’ comes at a devastating cost when the girls are spirited off to Scotland. The people who paid their families turn out to be abusive and worse. The two girls are separated and when Basanti manages to escape from the place where she’s being held, she tries to find Preeti. Her frantic search leads her to the home of Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill, an Edinburgh Ph.D. student in oceanography. McGill has his own worries. For one thing he’s in trouble with the authorities for his way of calling attention to climate change. For another, he’s trying to solve the mystery of his grandfather’s disappearance on a sea voyage many years earlier. The two stories are woven together when Basanti learns that McGill may hold the key to her finding out what happened to her friend. She’s proven to be right when he uses his knowledge of oceanography and his connections in the field to track down the people who brought the girls to Scotland, and find out what happened to Preeti.

‘Deals with the devil’ may seem like bad ideas. And objectively speaking, it’s easy to say that one shouldn’t make them. But for people in certain cases those kinds of arrangements may seem to be the only way out of a terrible situation. And they can make for compelling plot points in crime fiction.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Glenn Frey’s Smuggler’s Blues.

14 Comments

Filed under Carl Hiaasen, James Lee Burke, Mark Douglas-Home, Robert Crais, Walter Mosley