Category Archives: Donna Leon

And You’ve Gone Too Far ‘Cause You Know it Don’t Matter Anyway*

Self-EntitlementThere’s a certain phenomenon that seems to go along with having influence and power, or at least with having wealth. It’s what I call the culture of entitlement. Of course, there are plenty of self-entitled people who aren’t extremely wealthy or powerful. Teachers and university-level educators have rafts of stories about students and their parents who want ‘an exception made in my (or my child’s) case.’ And I’m quite certain that police officers in just about every country can give you long lists of examples of people they stopped who didn’t see why they should have to drive safely. But it often seems that the culture of entitlement is especially associated with those who have money, power or both. We can all think of lots of examples from real life. And perhaps that’s a bit of why people are often especially glad when the rich and powerful are held accountable for what they do (e.g. ‘See? You have to live by the rules just like the rest of us do!’). There are plenty of cases of the culture of entitlement in crime fiction too. Here are a very few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), French moneylender Madame Giselle is en route from Paris to London when she suddenly dies. At first it looks as though she had heart failure resulting from an allergic reaction to a wasp sting. But it’s soon shown that she was poisoned. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on that flight, so Hercule Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp concentrate on those people. As it turns out, several of them could have had a very good motive for the murder. One of the suspects is Cecily Horbury, a former chorus dancer who married Lord Stephen Horbury and is therefore now a member of the ‘upper class.’ When she and the rest of the passengers are informed that they’ll have to wait at the airport after landing so that they can be interviewed, she takes a very self-entitled attitude. She’s incensed at being expected to wait like everyone else, and even asks the all too common question,
 

‘Don’t you know who I am?’
 

Lady Horbury’s self-entitlement isn’t the reason for the murder, but it reflects that view clearly. Christie addresses this in other stories too (I know, I know, fans of Five Little Pigs, Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express).

We also see the culture of entitlement in P.D. James’ A Taste For Death. Crown Minister Sir Paul Berowne and a local tramp Harry Mack are murdered one night in a church. Given his position, Berowne’s murder is likely to attract a lot of media attention, so a special team is dispatched to investigate the case. The team consists of Commander Adam Dalgliesh, DCI John Massingham and DI Kate Miskin. One of the first places they look for motive and suspects is of course within the Berowne family. There’s plenty of history and several secrets to be found there too. But the team doesn’t unearth them very easily. This is a wealthy and powerful family, and several members of it see no reason why they should have to co-operate with a police investigation the way everyone else does. That entitlement is also reflected in the high-handed way they treat the investigation team. The family attitude doesn’t stop the team finding out the truth, though…

In Peter Corris’ The Dying Trade, insurance investigator-turned-PI Cliff Hardy takes a case for wealthy and powerful Bryn Gutteridge. He and his twin sister Susan are the children of a wealthy business tycoon, so they’ve been insulated more or less from having to wait their turns like everyone else, so to speak. And that self-entitlement comes through from the very beginning, when Gutteridge first calls Hardy. Instead of asking Hardy to meet to discuss the case, Gutteridge summons him. Needless to say, that’s not exactly to Hardy’s taste, but a fee is a fee. So Hardy goes to the Gutteridge home to learn more about the case. Gutteridge tells him that his sister is being harassed and threatened, and he wants it stopped. Hardy doesn’t care much for his client, but he goes to work. Throughout this novel, we see how the culture of self-entitlement has impacted Bryn and Susan Gutteridge. Their family may have some dark secrets in the past, but they’ve never been held to the same standards as ‘the rest of us.’

Neither have the members of the powerful Miletti family, whom we meet in Michael Dibdin’s Ratking. When family patriarch Ruggerio Miletti is abducted, the Perugia police are notified, but don’t seem able to make much progress in finding out who is responsible. Aurelio Zen, who’s been working in the Ministry of the Interior in Rome, is seconded to Perugia to help out in the case. It’s going to be difficult too. The abductors have told the Milettis not to involve the police in any way. And they have enough power and influence that the police are inclined to stay out of their way. On the other hand, it won’t look good if the police appear to be in the family’s pay. So Zen has to negotiate a very difficult situation. Little by little, as he gets more information about what happened and what the reality of life in Perugia is, Zen learns just how entitled the Milettis really are. They are, all of them, accustomed to having the rules laid aside when it’s convenient. It doesn’t mean that any of them is happy, but it’s a fact of their lives.

In Peter James’ Not Dead Yet, Superintendent Roy Grace has a difficult situation on his hands. Along with other cases he’s investigating, he’s told that superstar Gaia Lafayette will be spending time in her home town of Brighton to do a film that’s being shot there. There’s already been an attempt on her life, so there’s a lot of concern for her safety. What’s more, the Powers That Be have no interest in the bad publicity that would result if anything happened to her. So Grace is told that he will be responsible for ensuring her safety. On the one hand, Grace certainly doesn’t wish the star any harm. On the other, he has to face the reality of limited budgets and staff. Still, he’s been given an assignment and intends to meet his obligations. There are several examples of the self-entitlement of ‘superstars’ in the novel. Here are just two. In more than one scene there’s a discussion of the differences between firearms laws in the US and firearms laws in the UK. And several members of Gaia Lafayette’s entourage simply don’t see why they should have to abide by UK laws. Also, there’s a negotiation about how to arrange for the superstar’s safety. Given the logistics, the Brighton people want her to stay at the hotel, where they can arrange for careful monitoring. But that’s not how she and her people see it. She wants to visit the city, take her son out for pizza and so on. The cost of providing all of that extra protection is more than the Brighton team can afford, so they insist that the star pay for it. Her top people though see no reason why she should. She, after all, is Gaia Lafayette, the famous singer/actress. She’s doing Brighton a big service by ‘coming home.’ That self entitlement runs throughout the novel.

And I don’t think I could do justice to a post on the culture of entitlement without mentioning the work of Donna Leon, who explores that in several of her novels. Her sleuth Commissario Guido Brunetti lives and works in Venice. In several of the cases he investigates, it turns out that people who are rich, powerful and influential have committed crimes including murder. Brunetti’s boss, vice-questore Giuseppe Patta is quite happy to go along with the culture of entitlement. He’s a toady to those with influence, as he wants to advance his own career. Brunetti doesn’t let that stop him, though. He’s willing to take risks to solve cases, even if the culprit turns out to be someone who is self-entitled.

I’m sure you’ve met up with plenty of self-entitled people in your own life. They’re out there. And they make realistic and sometimes interesting characters in crime fiction too. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must make a few ‘phone calls. It seems there’s this ridiculous policy about where I can park my car and someone left a ticket on it. I don’t see why I can’t park where I want. I shouldn’t have to pay a fine! ;-)
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Daryll Hall and John Oates’ Rich Girl 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Michael Dibdin, P.D. James, Peter Corris, Peter James

Hooray and Hallelujah, You Had it Coming To Ya*

Bursting Bubbles and BalloonsMost of us don’t take pleasure in others’ misfortune. Every once in a while, though, we do like to see certain people being ‘taken down a peg.’ That’s especially true if the person being humbled is arrogant or annoyingly officious. It can be satisfying to see people like that put in their proverbial place. That’s certainly true in real life, and we see it in crime fiction too.

There’s a incident like that in Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links. Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to Merlinville-sur-Mer in France at the request of Paul Renauld. He’s written to Poirot claiming that he is in possession of a secret that some very nasty people want to know. Because of that, his life’s in danger. By the time Poirot and Hastings get to France though, it’s too late. Renauld has been stabbed and his body found by a golf course that abuts his home. The Sûreté has sent M. Giraud to solve the murder, and almost from the moment they meet, he and Poirot are at odds. Poirot is not known for his humility about his detection skills, but Giraud is far worse. He’s arrogant, rude and condescending, and Poirot soon has enough of him. It gets to the point where Poirot decides to put Giraud in his place. He bets the Inspector five hundred francs that he can solve Renauld’s murder before Giraud does. As you might expect, Poirot wins the bet, pulling Giraud down more than one peg, as the saying goes. And what does Poirot do with his winnings? He buys a model foxhound to adorn his mantel. Here’s what he says to Hastings about it:

 

‘Is he not a splendid fellow? I call him Giraud!’

 

It’s not hard to fault him for that…

I think we all have our particular favourite quote or ‘zinger’ that puts a character in her or his place. One of mine comes in Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, the first of his Van Veeteren series. Eva Ringmar has been found murdered in her bathtub. Her husband Janek Mitter is the most likely suspect, and it doesn’t help his case that he was so drunk on the night of the murder that he remembers very little about anything. He’s put on trial and cross-questioned by an officious prosecutor who quickly gets everyone annoyed. When the prosecutor asks Mitter how he knows he didn’t kill his wife (since he was so drunk), here’s what Mitter says:

 

‘I know I didn’t kill her; because I didn’t kill her. Just as I’m sure that you know you are not wearing frilly knickers today, because you aren’t. Not today.’

 

Truly an inspired response…

In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Cad, Colonel Halburton-Smythe and his wife Mary plan a weekend house party, mostly for the purpose of ‘showing off’ up-and-coming playwright Henry Withering, who’s become engaged to their daughter Priscilla. One of the guests is Captain Peter Bartlett of the Highland Dragoons. He may be ‘important,’ but he’s unpleasant, arrogant and lecherous. Needless to say he doesn’t get on well with the other guests. The weekend begins, and Bartlett makes a bet with fellow guest Jeremy Pomfret that he can bag a brace of grouse before Pomfret does. Early the next morning, Bartlett sneaks out before the agreed-upon hour, so he has more time to get his grouse. He never makes it back to the house and is later found killed, apparently the result of a terrible shooting accident. At least that’s what DCI Blair thinks. And that’s what the Haliburton-Smythes think too. But local bobby Hamish Macbeth isn’t so sure of that. Fans of this series will know that Blair is arrogant, pushy and sometimes rude, especially to Macbeth. So it’s with great pleasure that Macbeth presents Blair – in the presence of the ‘well-born’ Haliburton-Smythes and their guests – with evidence that Bartlett’s death was murder. Blair’s consternation is quite satisfying…

In Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, sometimes-attorney Jack Irish is investigating the murder of a former client Danny McKillop. That murder is very likely connected to the hit-and-run killing of citizen activist Anne Jeppeson, so Irish ends up looking into both deaths. The trail leads him to a charity group, the Safe Hands Foundation, and he goes to see one of its executives. However, the security guard is both officious and implacable and refuses at first to telephone up to announce Irish’s arrival. Here’s how Irish handles it:

 

‘Then he wanted my driver’s license.
‘I’m not trying to cash a cheque here, sonny,’ I said. ‘Just phone the man.’
Tight little smile. ‘The body corporate lays down the security proceedings.’ Flat Queensland voice. Pause. ‘Sir.’
‘This isn’t Pentridge,’ I said. ‘Didn’t they retrain you for this job? Just phone.’
He held my gaze briefly but I’d got him in one. ‘I’ll check,’ he said.’

 

Irish wastes no time whatever bursting this security guard’s proverbial bubble.

Fans of Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series will know that Brunetti is supervised by Vice-Questore Giuseppe Patta. Fans will also know that Patta is self-important and arrogant, unless he’s in the company of the well-to-do and powerful, in which case he’s a toady. Whenever an investigation may lead to someone who ‘matters,’ Patta does everything he can to dissuade Brunetti from pursuing it. So it’s always especially satisfying to Brunetti when he can burst his boss’ bubble, so to speak, with irrefutable proof that someone important is guilty of murder. That’s what happens in Through a Glass, Darkly, when Giorgio Tassini is killed. Tassini is night watchman at a glass blowing factory, and at first, his death is put down to a tragic accident. But Brunetti isn’t sure that’s true, and starts to dig deeper. He discovers who the killer is, and when he finally gets the proof he needs, it gives him great pleasure to be able to

 

‘…ruin the Vice-Questore’s lunch.’ 

 

Fans of these series really can’t blame Brunetti for that attitude…

Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges is chief of police in the small French town of St. Denis, in the Périgord. The area is known for its cuisine; for centuries, residents have taken pride in the way they prepare and serve food. But since the advent of the EU and EU policies, there are new rules about the way food is to be stored, handled, prepared and served. On the one hand, the residents of St. Denis don’t want to make or eat tainted food any more than anyone else would. It’s not that they object to food safety. On the other, the EU inspectors are not local and don’t understand local traditions and customs. What’s more, they’re officious and obdurate, and they refuse to accept that the locals may have their own legitimate ways of ensuring food safety. So although Bruno is sworn to uphold the law, and is generally law-abiding himself, he does take pleasure in taking the EU inspection team down a few notches. When he learns that they’re paying a visit to St. Denis in Bruno, Chief of Police, he helps to let everyone in town know, so that code violations can be covered up. And it’s not hard for him (or the reader) to feel some sympathy for some locals who slash the tires on the inspectors’ official car. Bruno certainly doesn’t want violence, and he can’t condone breaking the law. But seeing the inspectors taken down a notch has a real appeal.

I think that’s probably a common feeling. We may not like embarrassing people publicly. And we may not condone violence. But sometimes we do get some real satisfaction when officious, arrogant people, especially if they are powerful, have their proverbial balloons burst. These are just a few examples. Which have I left out?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Matty Malcek and Johnny Mercer’s Goody Goody. This song has been recorded several times, including by Ella Fitzergald, Frankie Lymon and Chicago. Check out a few versions and see which one you like.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Håkan Nesser, M.C. Beaton, Martin Walker, Peter Temple

Come See About Me*

Character DetailsI’m very honoured and excited that Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…  has been awarded the Very Inspiring Blog Award by Moira at Clothes in Books and by Rebecca Bradley. This means a lot to me, especially since those two blogs are a rich source of inspiration for me. Do please visit them and have a look round. They are both worthy of prominent places on any crime fiction fan’s blog roll.

7-things

One of the things that come with this award is the request to share seven things about yourself. I’m not going to do that, as I’ve already overloaded this blog with things about me. And besides, this is a blog about crime fiction, not about me. But these generous awards have got me thinking about fictional characters, and how much we learn about them.

It’s a delicate balance for an author, deciding how much to share about the characters in a novel. On the one hand, characters who are too ‘flat’ simply aren’t interesting. They don’t ‘feel’ like real people and that’s off-putting. On the other hand, is it really important that a given character once slipped and fell in mud during a rainstorm? Depending on the story, probably not.

And that’s what’s arguably the most important factor in sharing information about characters: relevance to the story. Character information that matters to the story is important. So is information that makes a character distinctive and human. If it’s not as relevant, perhaps it doesn’t need to be there. Let me if I may give you a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie is not generally as well known for depth of character as she is for other aspects of writing. But in some of her novels, she does provide some rounded, ‘fleshed-out’ characters. Five Little Pigs is one of them. In that novel, famous painter Amyas Crale is poisoned one afternoon. The most likely suspect, and for very good reason, is his wife Caroline. She is duly arrested, tried and convicted, and dies a year later in prison. Sixteen years later, the Crales’ daughter Carla asks Poirot to re-investigate the case. Carla is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants her name cleared. Poirot takes up the challenge and interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ on the day of the murder. He also gets written accounts from each of them. From that information he figures out who really killed Crale and why. One of those people is Cecilia Williams, who was governess to Caroline Crale’s half-sister Angela Warren at the time of the murder. One fact about Miss Williams is that she is an ardent feminist. Her feminism and resentment of most men comes through in quite a lot of what she says and the way she behaves. It’s important to the story, too, as it gives her a possible motive for murder. Crale was having an affair when he was murdered, and didn’t do much to hide the fact, and Miss Williams thought that her employer was deeply wronged. Christie doesn’t tell us everything about Miss Williams. We don’t know for instance whether she has a good head for heights; it doesn’t matter to the story. But her feminism is important, so we learn about it.

We don’t know every detail about the childhood of Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano. We don’t know for instance which teachers he liked best and which ones he really disliked. That isn’t really important to understanding his character and motivations. But we do know that one of his school friends was Gegè Gullatto. This is important because it explains the relationship the two men have now. Gullatto is a local crime boss and drug dealer who has several ‘business operations.’ Since they’re on opposite sides of the law, you’d think that he and Montalbano would regularly come into conflict. But that’s not what happens. They have a long history, and each respects the other. Besides, co-operating from time to time is helpful to both. For Gullatto’s part, he knows that as long as he keeps his ‘enterprises’ more or less under control, the police won’t give him a hard time. And Montalbano knows that he can depend on Gullatto to make sure that his employees don’t cause real trouble, and Gullatto is often a source of helpful information about what’s happening in the underworld.

You could say a similar sort of thing about Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti. We don’t know all of the details of his childhood. We don’t know which toys he liked best or who his very first girlfriend was. But we do know that his father was in the glass-blowing industry. That information helps us understand the way Brunetti goes about investigating the death of a glass-blowing factory night watchman in Through a Glass, Darkly. Giorgio Tassini dies one night while he’s on duty at the factory that employs him. At first it looks like a terrible accident, but there’s soon reason to believe that he was murdered. And that’s not far-fetched, since he’d been very vocal about toxic waste dumping on the part of the glass blowing industry. As Brunetti and his team investigate, we see how he uses what he knows about the industry, and how his memories of his father’s work play a role in his thinking.

In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn is preparing for her daughter Mieka’s engagement party. The party will be a weekend-long affair, hosted by Lorraine Harris, the mother of Mieka’s fiancé Greg. Matters get complicated when Christy Sinclair, the ex-girlfriend of Kilbourn’s son Peter, comes back in the family’s life and travels to the Harris home with the family. Christy has several issues to deal with, and Kilbourn had thought that Peter was well rid of her. But that doesn’t seem to be the case; in fact, she even says that she and Peter will be getting back together. Then one night during the party, Christy dies in a boating incident. At first the death looks like suicide. But it turns out that this was a case of murder, and that it’s connected with other recent deaths. We don’t learn every detail about Christy Sinclair. We don’t know which bands she likes best or what size shoe she wears. Those details aren’t really key to this mystery. But we do know that her home town is Blue Heron Point, and that matters a great deal. Bowen tells us the things we need to know about this character without ‘overload.’

Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas begins when wealthy heiress and business executive Charity Wiser hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who is trying to kill her. She suspects that it’s one of her family members, but she doesn’t know which one. Quant agrees to take the case and joins the family for a cruise. The idea is that he’ll ‘vet’ the various members of the family and then tell his client who’s guilty. The cruise turns out to be disastrous, with more than one death. In the end though, Quant finds out the truth about what’s been going on. As the novel goes on, we get to know several of the members of the Wiser family. We don’t know every detail about each one; that would be ‘information overload.’ But what does matter is that as Charity’s grand-daughter Flora puts it, the family is not, ‘physically adventurous.’ That’s important because it plays a role in the resentment the family feels towards Charity, who’s spent years putting together family holidays designed not to appeal to them (e.g. white-water rafting, cattle-herding at a dude ranch, and Formula One driving). The members of the family have only gone along with these plans because they’re all desperate for their share of the Wiser fortune. That piece of information about the family, and the fact that Charity takes advantage of it, matter to this plot.

And in the end, that’s arguably the key to what the author decides to share with readers. Some details about characters matter if they’re important to the plot – if they move it along or add to it. Others help make a character distinctive, and that adds to a story too. Sometimes it’s hard to choose which details serve those purposes and which don’t, but when an author gets it right, it makes for memorable characters.

 

Thanks, Moira and Rebecca.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Lamont Dozier and Brian and Eddie Holland, made popular by the Supremes.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Anthony Bidulka, Donna Leon, Gail Bowen

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

She’s a Highly Specialized Key Component of Operational Unity*

SecretariesSecretaries and office assistants are often essential to the success of just about any business. The more competent they are, the better the business runs. If you’ve ever had either a very competent or a very incompetent one, you know what I mean.

We see secretaries quite a lot in crime fiction too. Where would Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot be without his secretary Felicity Lemon? Where would Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason be without Della Street? And where would Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti be without Signorina Elettra Zorzi?

The thing about competent secretaries is that very often, they know a lot more about what goes on in a firm than you’d think. And that can make them very vulnerable. There are plenty of examples of this in the genre; here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s The Clocks, we meet Sheila Webb, who works for the Cavendish Secretarial and Typewriting Bureau in the town of Crowdean. One afternoon she is sent to Wilbraham Crescent, where her services have been specially requested. When she arrives at the house, she finds that there’s a dead man in the sitting room. Badly shaken, she rushes out of the house – straight into the arms of Colin Lamb, a special agent who’s in the area working on a case of his own. There are some odd things about this particular crime, so Lamb thinks it will interest his father’s friend Hercule Poirot. Poirot and Lamb, together with DI Richard ‘Dick’ Hardcastle, are looking into what happened when there’s another murder. Now Sheila Webb is mixed up in much more than she thinks…

In Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, PI Nick Charles and his wife Nora are visiting New York City when Nick gets reluctantly drawn into a case. Businessman Claude Wynant seems to have disappeared, and his daughter Dorothy wants to track him down. At first, Nick is unwilling to get involved, but the next morning there’s a shocking new development. Wynant’s secretary Julia Wolf is found murdered. There are several suspects, too, including Wynant himself. Even Nick falls under suspicion, since the Wynant family members, Wynant’s business associates and other suspects seem to use Nick and Nora’s home as a gathering place. In the end, Nick untangles the web of secrets and lies and finds out who killed Julia Wolf and why.

Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s  The Silence of the Rain begins with the death of Richard Carvalho, an executive at the mineral exploration company Planalto Minerações. His body is found in his car, apparently killed by a thief who stole his briefcase and wallet. Inspector Espinosa of the Rio de Janeiro police is called to the scene and begins the investigation. One of the people he wants to interview is Carvalho’s secretary Dona Rose Chaves Benevides. But that turns out to be much more difficult than you’d think. First she’s out sick; then she abruptly disappears. It’s now clear that this death is much more than a case of a robbery gone wrong.

Margaret Maron’s  One Coffee With is the first in her series featuring NYPD Lieutenant Sigrid Harald. In this novel, murder strikes Vanderlyn College’s Department of Art. One morning, department secretary Sandy Kepler goes to the college cafeteria to get coffee for the various faculty members with whom she works. She puts the tray of cups on the top of a filing cabinet and soon, various people come into the department office to get their coffee. Not long afterwards, deputy department chair Riley Quinn dies of what turns out to be poisoning by potassium dichromate. As Harald and her team investigate, they learn that more than one person had a very good reason to poison the victim. Even Sandy herself is a suspect. At the very least, she’s now mixed up in a murder case, just when she was hoping to get her life settled.

In Qiu Xiaolong’s The Enigma of China, Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police finds himself in an extremely difficult situation. He is a rising cadre in the Party with a bright future. He’s also a very well-respected detective, with a reputation for being ethical. So the Party is eager to have him as a consultant when Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, apparently commits suicide. Zhou became the subject of a Party investigation when evidence that he was corrupt was spread on the Internet. He had been placed in extra-legal detention and was at a secure hotel when he apparently hanged himself. That explanation makes sense considering Zhou was a high-level official who was about to be severely punished. Chen comes under a great deal of pressure to sign off on the suicide explanation, but he isn’t quite convinced. As he investigates, Chen finds that his role as a cop comes up against the realities that he discovers, and he has to make some difficult choices. One of the people he interviews is Zhou’s former secretary Fang Fang. She had a very responsible position and could have been privy to quite a lot of information. Even if she knows nothing about her boss’ fate, she may very well be helpful. That’s especially true given that she was also, by all accounts, Zhou’s ‘little secretary,’ which implies that she did more than just make his appointments and manage his office. As Chen interacts with Fang, we see just how vulnerable this case makes her. The same powerful people who want this case handled in a certain way are just as interested in keeping Fang quiet…

And that’s the thing about being a secretary/assistant. You often get to know a lot about what goes where you work. So when there’s shady business or worse, you get mixed up in it, no matter how innocent you are (or aren’t). These are just a few examples. Over to you.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Frank Loesser’s A Secretary is Not a Toy.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Donna Leon, Erle Stanley Gardner, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Margaret Maron, Qiu Xiaolong