Category Archives: Donna Malane

Well, There’s Just an Empty Space*

MissingPeopleSome of the hardest cases that professional detectives face concern missing persons. In part that’s because some people go missing because they want to leave. And even in modern times with modern technology, it can be difficult to trace a person who doesn’t want to be found. Besides, adults are legally allowed to go where they wish; in most cases it’s not a crime to go somewhere and not tell anyone. There’s also the fact that the police are reluctant to spend department resources on a case that has a perfectly logical explanation (e.g. someone simply wanted to spend a few days away). This means among other things that there may not be an immediate search for a person who’s gone missing. It also means that except in the case of children (a topic in its own right), professional detectives don’t always immediately devote the energy to a missing person report that they might to, say, a murder. It’s not that they don’t care; rather, it’s that those cases are much more ‘slippery.’

In Agatha Christie’s Third Girl for instance, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from a young woman who tells him that she may have committed a murder. But before she goes into any detail, she abruptly changes her mind, telling him that he’s too old to help her. She leaves without even giving her real name. With help from his friend detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, Poirot establishes that the young woman is Norma Restarick, who shares a London flat with two other young women. Between them, Poirot and Mrs. Oliver visit both the flat and the Restarick family home. Norma’s flatmates make it clear that they really don’t keep tabs on her and that she’s probably either spending a few extra days with her family, or has gone off on a tryst. Certainly they’re not overly concerned about her. Norma’s father and stepmother say that she’s gone back to London, and that they don’t really follow everything she does there. They’re willing to admit that she’s had a difficult time with her family lately, but at the same time, they’re not afraid for her. Poirot begins to dig a little deeper. After all, if there was a murder and Norma committed it, she needs to be found. And even if that’s not true, she certainly seems troubled and may be in danger. Poirot and Mrs. Oliver continue to search for answers and in the end, they find out what happened to Norma. They also discover the truth behind the murder she says she may have committed.

In Peter Robinson’s Cold is the Grave, DCI Alan Banks gets an unusual request from his boss Chief Constable Jeremiah ‘Jimmy’ Riddle. Riddle’s daughter Emily has had a bad relationship with her parents and has left home. She’s of legal age, so the police can’t look at it as a runaway case. But then her younger brother Benjamin discovers pornographic pictures of her online, and this frightens her parents. Riddle wants Banks to look for Emily, the idea being that if Banks goes as a civilian, he’ll draw less attention to this very private and difficult case. Riddle and Banks haven’t exactly had a good relationship in the past; in fact, it’s been more animosity than amity. But Banks is a father himself and he can understand Riddle’s concern. So he agrees to see what he can find out. His search for Emily takes him into some of London’s seamiest places – certainly places her parents wouldn’t have wanted her to be…

Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle concerns the disappearance of Andreas Winther. His mother Runi becomes concerned when he doesn’t come home as he usually does, and she goes to the police to report him missing. At first the police aren’t very worried, and they do their best to reassure her that all is probably well. There are, after all, any number of reasons for which a young man might take off for a few days and not tell his mother about it. But when more time goes by and Andreas still doesn’t return, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer begins to suspect that something might have happened to him. So he and his assistant Jacob Skarre start to investigate. One of their first stops is Andreas’ best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. Zipp spent the day with him on the day he was last seen, and knows more than he is saying about what happened on that day. As Sejer and Skarre try to find out where Andreas Winther is and what happened to him, we see how difficult it is to look for an adult. Lots of people simply don’t worry about someone they haven’t seen lately. I know, I know, fans of Calling Out For You/The Indian Bride.

In Peter James’ Dead Simple, Ashley Harper contacts the police in the form of DI Glenn Branson. She’s worried because her fiancé Michael Harrison hasn’t been seen since his ‘stag night’ party. She doesn’t know what his friends were planning, and as it turns out, the police can’t ask them. Tragically, three of them were killed in a car crash and the fourth is in a coma. The only person who might know is Harrison’s best-man-to-be and business partner Mark Warren. But he was out of town and didn’t go out with the group. At first, Branson and his boss Superintendent Roy Grace think that Harrison might have changed his mind about the wedding and gone off. But by all accounts, he’s very much in love with his intended, and looking forward to the wedding. So the detectives dig a little deeper and soon find that Harrison might be in a great deal of danger. Now they’ll have to work as quickly as they can if they’re to have a chance of finding him.

Anthony Bidulka’s Amuse Bouche introduces readers to Sasktoon PI Russell Quant. As the story begins, successful businessman Harold Chavell hires Quant to find his fiancé Tom Osborn. According to Chavell, Osborn disappeared just before their planned wedding, and has gone alone on the honeymoon trip to France that they’d mapped out together. Quant wonders whether Osborn might simply have changed his mind about getting married, but he takes the case and travels to France. He goes to each place the couple had intended visiting, and finds some evidence that Osborn has been there recently and is fine. Then he gets a note saying that Osborn does not want to be found. When Chavell learns of this, he calls off the search and prepares to get on with his life. A short time later, Osborn’s body is found in a lake near a house the two owned. Now Chavell becomes the prime suspect in a murder case and asks Quant to help clear his name.

Not all police agencies are well-enough funded to have missing person departments. Some of them in fact hire missing person experts such as Donna Malane’s Diane Rowe. Rowe lives and works in Wellington, where she’s occasionally hired by the police to help search for people or match unknown remains to past reports of missing people. That’s what happens for instance in Surrender. In one plot thread of that novel, the remains of an unknown man are recovered from Rimutaka State Forest. Forensics evidence suggests the age (in his mid-to-late twenties) and the approximate time he disappeared (the mid-1970s), but nothing much else about him. So Rowe uses all of the resources at her disposal to trace the man’s identity and find out how and why he died. In My Brother’s Keeper, former prison inmate Karen Mackie hires Rowe to find her fourteen-year-old daughter Sunny, who’s been living with her father Justin. Justin has custody of the girl, but Mackie has no idea where he’s living or if he’s even using the same name. Rowe agrees to find Justin and Sunny if she can. But this isn’t just a case of a mother who wants to be reunited with her daughter. The reason Mackie was in prison in the first place was the murder of her son and the attempted murder of Sunny…

Except for people on parole, adults are generally legally free to go where they wish without necessarily letting anyone else know. So missing persons cases are very often complicated. They can use up a lot of resources, including time, and don’t always result in a ‘joyful reunion.’ But they can make for suspenseful and interesting crime novels. Which ones have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Phil Collins’ Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Donna Malane, Karin Fossum, Peter James, Peter Robinson

There Doesn’t Seem to Be Anyone Around*

Remote LocationsCrime fiction fans like their stories to be believable. And in a real-life murder, one of the challenges the killer faces is what to do with the body of the victim. In some cases, the body can be left at the scene of the murder. But in other situations, doing so could point the proverbial finger right at the murderer. For example, if the victim is killed in the murderer’s home or office, suspicion usually falls fairly quickly on the culprit. So the body has to be moved. Modern police forensics testing can determine whether a body’s been moved, but even so, moving a body can make it more challenging in a lot of ways to catch a killer. So of course, fictional murderers take this into account too.

When it’s possible, a lot of killers (at least fictional ones) like remote and inaccessible places. Even if the body is discovered at some point, enough time usually has gone by to make the detection process very difficult. That’s what the killer counts on in Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow. In that novel, Algonquin Bay (Ontario) police detectives John Cardinal and Lise Delorme investigate when the body of thirteen-year-old Katie Pine is discovered in an abandoned mine shaft on Windigo Island. She’s been missing for five months by that time, and as we learn in the novel, the trail has gotten cold. So Cardinal and Delorme face a difficult challenge in connecting her with her killer. In fact, it’s not until there’s another murder that they can really get some of the leads they need to find out the truth.

Donna Malane’s Diane Rowe is a Wellington-based missing persons expert. So she is consulted when the body of an unknown man is discovered in Rimutaka State Forest. The place where the body was found is in remote part of the forest, so it’s not surprising that it’s been there for a very long time. In fact, Rowe learns that the body has been there since the mid-1970s. At this point there’s vey little evidence to go on, but Rowe uses the little bits of information she does have to try to find out who the man was. The fact that the body was found in such an inacessible place certainly doesn’t make her task any easier, but Rowe eventually learns the truth about this ‘John Doe.’

In Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe Mma. Precious Ramotswe meets a new client, American ex-pat Andrea Curtin. Ten years ago, she and her husband were living in Botswana with their son Michael. When his parents returned to the US, Michael chose to remain behind and join an eco-commune. Not very long after joining that community he disappeared and was presumed killed by an animal. Now Andrea has returned to try to get some closure and find out what really happened to her son. Mma. Ramotswe agrees to find out what she can. Little by little, she traces Michael’s last months and weeks and in the end, she discovers the truth. Throughout the investigation though, her efforts are made all the more difficult by the fact that the community is in such a remote area that just about anything could have happened, and no-one would know.

Some fictional killers opt for bodies of water as places to leave bodies. The advantage of that is that lots of evidence gets washed away or at the very least considerably altered. That can often include evidence like time of death. That’s what happens for instance in Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective: Introducing Superintendant Peter Diamond. One evening, the body of an unknown woman is found at Chew Valley Lake, near Bristol. It’s difficult to discover who the victim is at first, in part because of having been submerged. After a few false starts, the woman is identified as TV personality Geraldine ‘Gerry’ Jackman. Because the body’s been left at the lake, it’s very difficult to trace the body back to the scene of the actual murder, and thus to the killer. Superintedant Peter Diamond and his assistant John Wigfull start of course with the victim’s husband. But there’s no clear evidence against him; nor is there an obvious motive. And there turn out to be other suspects too. As it turns out, the fact that the body was left in the lake add several complications to the case.

The first of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck novels, Roseanna, begins with the discovery of the body of an unknown woman in Sweden’s Lake Vattern. By the time the body is discovered, it’s been several months since the murder, and that’s one reason for which it’s very difficult to find out who the woman is. But after some time, she is identified as Roseanna McGraw, an American who was visiting Sweden when she was killed. The water has not just hidden the body, but also obliterated obvious evidence. So it takes a great deal of time and effort for Stockholm police inspector Martin Beck and his team to connect the victim with her killer. In the end though, and after a lot of perseverance, the team solves the case. There are of course lots of other examples too of fictional killers who use water as a place to leave a body (I know, I know, fans of Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase and of Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach).

For a different and darkly funny take on moving bodies, you may want to check out Rob Kitchin’s Stiffed. When Tadgh Maguire wakes one more morning after a night of drinking, he has much bigger problems than just his hangover. The body of local gangster Tony Marino is next to him in his bead. Maguire knows how short his life span will become if it gets around that he killed Marino, so he decides that the only thing to do is move the body. And that’s when the real trouble begins…

The less evidence there is, the harder it is for the police to link a murder victim to a killer. And the harder it is to find a body, the more time goes by and the less evidence is available. So it’s little wonder there are so many fictional examples of bodies left in remote areas or iin water. Ther are dozens of examples in crime fiction; which ones stand out for you?

 

ps. The ‘photo is of the Mojave Desert of Eastern California and Western Nevada. Lots of likely places there…
 
 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ritchie Cordell’s I Think We’re Alone Now, made famous by Tommy James and the Shondells.

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Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Donna Malane, Dorothy Sayers, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Peter Lovesey, Rob Kitchin

It’s a Light and Tumble Journey*

Wildlife SanctuariesI’ve been fortunate enough to visit animal preserves and sanctuaries on three different continents. They can be breathtakingly beautiful places, and certainly give one a perspective on a lot of things. At least they do me. And it is fascinating to see all sorts of animals that you can’t see anywhere else.

But animal preserves and sanctuaries have a dangerous side to them too. There are all sorts of political and economic issues around them, and that’s to say nothing of the animals themselves. So it’s no wonder that this setting comes up in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples; I know you can think of lots more than I could.

Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon is a US National Park Service Ranger. In that capacity, she is sent to a variety of different US parks and preserves, and she knows first-hand how dangerous those places can be. For instance, in Track of the Cat, she’s been assigned to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. There she discovers the body of a fellow ranger Sheila Drury one morning. At first, it looks as though Drury was killed by a mountain lion, and there’s the local outcry about it that you’d expect. It doesn’t help matters that the locals have never liked the fact that mountain lions living within the boundaries of the national park are off limits to hunters. They resent what they see as the damage caused by the animals and the government’s unwillingness to protect their land. Pigeon isn’t so sure that the culprit was a lion though, and she certainly doesn’t want mountain lions to become the targets of hunters. So she begins to ask questions. In the process she discovers that the victim’s death had a very human cause…

Banff National Park, Canada’s oldest national park, features in Vicki Delany’s Under Cold Stone. In that novel, Lucy ‘Lucky’ Smith and her partner Paul Keller (Trafalgar, British Columbia’s Chief Constable of Police) have decided to take a trip to Banff, in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. Their plan is for some relaxing ‘just the two of us’ time. But that’s not how it works out. Keller’s estranged son Matt disappears. And since he’s experienced at camping and living in the outdoors, he could be anywhere and it would be very hard to find him. What’s more, he may very well be guilty of murder. Banff isn’t within the jurisdiction of Lucky’s daughter, Trafalgar Police Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith. But she travels there to be of whatever support she can to her mother. Then Matt’s girlfriend begs her to clear his name, claiming that he’s innocent. So Molly begins to ask some questions. And you thought bears, cougars and wolverines were the biggest living threats in the park…

In Michael Sears’ and Stanley Trollip’s (AKA Michael Stanley) A Carrion Death, Professor of Ecology Benani Sibisi has taken a trip to Dale’s Camp, on the verge of Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve. He’s out in the field one day when he discovers the body of an unknown man. At first it looks as though the man was killed by wild animals; certainly hyenas have already paid the body a visit. Botswana CID Assistant Superintendent David ‘Kubu’ Bengu is called to the scene and supervises sending the remains for forensics testing, mostly to try to identify the victim. Results of that testing suggest that the man was murdered. Now it’s even more important to find out who he was and what he was doing at the Reserve. So Kubu and his team begin to look more closely into the case. They find a connection between the dead man and the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC), a powerful voice in the country’s economic and political arenas. That connection makes this case delicate, since the Botswana government has a major interest in making sure that the company remains a going concern. In the end, though, Kubu is able to find out who the dead man was and how his murder is related to events and interactions at BCMC.

Much of Michael Allan Mallory and Marilyn Victor’s Killer Instinct takes place at the Minnesota Wolf Institute (MWI), which in part functions as a preserve for wolves. Zookeeper Lavender ‘Snake’ Jones is invited to the MWI to film an episode of her television documentary series Zoofari. When she arrives, she finds herself in the middle of a dangerous controversy. Her friend Gina Brown, a biologist associated with the MWI, is a passionate defender of wolves and their preservation. That pits Brown against several locals, led by Ivar Bjorkland, who want to see the wolves exterminated. In fact, they have a very public dispute about the matter when four wolves are illegally killed. Then, Bjorkland is found murdered. Jones is worried that her friend might have been involved in the killing, although she doesn’t want to think so. Then there’s another murder. And another. Now Jones has to help clear her friend’s name and stop the killer before there’s another death. Wolves are by no means the most dangerous species in this novel…

In Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari, Emma le Roux hires professional bodyguard Martin Lemmer to accompany her from Cape Town to the Lowveld to find out the truth about her missing brother Jacobus. He disappeared twenty-five years earlier in what everyone thought was a skirmish with poachers. But now Emma thinks he’s still alive. So she wants to trace his history from Kruger National Park, his last known whereabouts. She and Lemmer arrive in the area only to find out that this is much more than the case of a man who was killed by dangerous poachers. In the end, they find out that the truth about Jacobus le Roux is related to coverups, corruption and ugly realities about politics and environmentalism. Along the way, they visit more than one animal preserve, and it’s interesting to read the different perspectives and views on taking care of South Africa’s unique ecosytems while at the same time nurturing the economy.

New Zealand’s Rimutaka State Forest is the scene of some of the action in Donna Malane’s Surrender. Wellington missing person expert Diane Rowe is hired by Inspector Frank McFay to trace the identity of a ‘John Doe’ whose body has been found in the forest. There isn’t much to go on at first, but with the help of pathologist Grant ‘Smithy’ Smith, Rowe slowly learns that the man was in his twenties when he died, and that he died sometime during the early1970s. Bit by bit, Rowe puts the pieces together and finds out who the man was. At the same time, she’s on another case of her own choosing. Her sister Niki was murdered a year ago. Now, the man who claims he was paid to kill Niki has himself been murdered in the same way. Rowe believes that if she can find out who killed the ‘hit man,’ she’ll find out who’s responsible for her sister’s murder. Although the wildlife in the forest doesn’t hold the key to Niki’s death, the forest does have its role to play in the events in the story.

And that’s thing about animal preserves and sanctuaries. They can seem like peaceful places, and their natural beauty is practically unmatched. But safe? Erm – possibly not. I’ve only had space here to mention a few examples (I know, I know, fans of Ann Cleeves’ The Crow Trap and Blue Lightning). Which stories with this context have stayed in your mind?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s At the Zoo.

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Filed under Ann Cleeves, Deon Meyer, Donna Malane, Marilyn Victor, Michael Allan Mallory, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Nevada Barr, Stanley Trollip, Vicki Delany

You’re in My Mind All the Time*

AnzacDayToday (or tomorrow, depending on when you read this) is Anzac Day. It’s a day set aside to thank and commemorate the men and women of Australia and New Zealand’s armed forces. They have served, and continue to serve, with distinction and bravery.

I’m neither an Australian nor a New Zealander. So why am I setting time aside for Anzac Day? One reason is that I am a world citizen. I know (at least a little) about the role the ANZAC forces have played in world history since WWI. Their bravery and sacrifice has helped keep me and my countrymen and women safe. There is no way to properly express gratitude for that. But you can at least learn a bit about it.

You can learn about the ANZAC forces here and here.

 

There’s another reason for which I set time aside for Anzac Day. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to both NZcountries. During my travels I’ve met some truly fine people. They’ve hosted me generously and treated me kindly, and I’ve made some good friends. I’ve had some memorable conversations about everything from politics to sport to film to education to social issues. And books. Of course, books. I’ve learned a lot and I’ve seen some amazing things. I’ve petted kangaroos, ‘toured’ Auckland from 328m up in the air, and seen some spectacular scenery. And that’s just the start!   All of this has been courtesy of people who wouldn’t want a fuss made about how kind they’ve been. But I remember.

AusRoosI’ve made some good online Australian and New Zealand friends too – friends I’ve not yet met in person. I hope that will change. We’ve had wonderful conversations about writing, books, and lots of other topics, too, and I’ve learned an awful lot. To all of you, thanks for reaching out.

So yes, I take some time on Anzac Day. I owe a lot, on many levels, to the good people of Australia and New Zealand. Here’s to you all!

 

 

Have you read these Australian authors?

 

Y.A. Erskine

Sulari Gentill 

Robert Gott

Katherine Howell

Adrian Hyland

Wendy James

Geoffrey McGeachin

Andrew Nette

Michael Robotham

Angela Savage

Peter Temple

David Whish-Wilson

Felicity Young

 

Australian Blogs You’ll Want to Follow

 

AustCrime

Australian Women Writers Challenge

The Crayon Files

Fair Dinkum Crime

Mysteries in Paradise

Reactions to Reading

Reading, Writing and Riesling

 
 

Have you read these New Zealand authors?

 

Cat Connor

Neil Cross

Donna Malane

Ngaio Marsh

Paddy Richardson

Bev Robitai

Grant Shanks (Andrew Grant)

Vanda Symon

Paul Thomas

 

New Zealand Blogs You’ll Want to Follow

 

Beattie’s Book Blog

Booksellers New Zealand

Crime Watch

The Crayon Files

NZ Book Lovers  

 

Give a little back. Support an Australian author. Support a New Zealand author. And let’s all of us be grateful for the way the Anzac forces have supported us.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Snapper’s Gentle Hour, also recorded by The Clean. Later, Yo La Tengo recorded a version of it too. Listen to all of the versions and see which you like best.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Andrew Grant, Andrew Nette, Angela Savage, Bev Robitai, Cat Connor, David Whish-Wilson, Donna Malane, Felicity Young, Geoffrey McGeachin, Grant Shanks, Katherine Howell, Michael Robotham, Neil Cross, Ngaio Marsh, Paddy Richardson, Peter Temple, Robert Gott, Sulari Gentill, Vanda Symon, Wendy James, Y.A. Erskine

Some Fairly Safe Bets…

Sure BetsAn interesting comment exchange with Moira at Clothes in Books and another with Sarah at Crimepieces have got me thinking about the way savvy crime fiction fans pick up on clues and patterns in crime fiction. Oh, and one other thing savvy crime fiction fans do is follow both Clothes in Books and Crimepieces. If you’re not familiar with those excellent blogs, do go pay ‘em a visit. G’head, I’ll wait.

Right. Patterns. When you read enough crime fiction, you get to the point where you can often make some fairly accurate predictions about what sort of thing will happen in a story. Some things just become fairly safe bets. Part of the reason for this is of course that crime fiction fans are intelligent and observant people. Part of it is also that certain things just seem to lead logically to certain consequences in crime fiction. If you see that pattern often enough, you get to know it and be ready for it. In a well-written story it’s not generally a problem if the reader recognises a pattern. A strong plot and well-written characters draw a reader in even if s/he can make accurate predictions about what’s going to happen.

 

Blunt Force Trauma and ID

 

This is the pattern that Moira mentioned. Her point was that when you have a novel where the victim’s had blunt force trauma to the face, there’s a pretty good chance that there’s going to be a question of the real ID of the victim. She’s right. That’s especially true in classic and Golden Age crime fiction, where DNA and other forensic evidence weren’t accessible.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot investigates the shooting murder of his dentist Henry Morley. The Home Office takes a special interest in this case since one of Morley’s other patients is well-known powerful banker Alistair Blunt, who has plenty of enemies. So it may be that Morley’s murder was an attempt to get to Blunt. But then another of Morley’s patients disappears. And another dies of an overdose of adrenaline and Novocain. Time goes on and Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp are not much closer to solving this mystery. Then, the body of a woman is discovered. Her face has been so disfigured by a bludgeon that any savvy crime fiction fan will know that ID is going to be at issue. Is it the missing patient? Is it the body of her friend, whom she visited shortly before her death? Is it someone else? The question of ID proves very important in this case.

Identity also proves very important in Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors. In that novel, Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet Mervyn Bunter are stranded on New Year’s Eve near the East Anglia village of Fenchurch St. Paul. They are rescued by Rector Theodore Venables, who takes them back to the rectory and arranges for them to stay there while their car is being repaired. While they’re in the village, the local squire’s wife Lady Thorpe dies of influenza. Wimsey and Bunter attend her funeral and then go on their way when their car is ready. A few months later Venables writes to Wimsey. Lady Thorpe’s husband Sir Henry has died, and preparations are being made for his burial next to his wife. But when the gravediggers opened the grave to prepare it, they found another corpse – an unknown man. The face of the corpse has been battered beyond recognition and the hands removed, so it’s impossible to tell who the dead man is. Venables asks Wimsey to return to Fenchurch and find out who the victim is and why the body has been buried in the Thorpe grave. Wimsey acquiesces and he and Bunter make the trip. It turns out that the unknown man’s death is related to a long-ago robbery and a stolen necklace, and that his identity was deliberately disguised.

 

The Fate of the Blackmailer

 

This was Sarah’s idea. She reminded me of an episode of Midsomer Murders in which a girl attempts to blackmail a killer when she’s seen a murder and as Sarah wisely said, we all know what happens to fictional blackmailers when they try to profit from what they know. Any crime fiction fan knows that a person who sees a murder and tries to blackmail the murderer is marked. That’s a fairly safe bet.

There’s a deliciously eerie instance of this pattern in Matthew Gant’s short story The Uses of Intelligence. Eleven-year-old twins Patty and Danny Perkins are particularly gifted intellectually and quite arrogant about it. That’s part of what makes them not exactly popular. One of the few people who like them is the local banana peddler Aristos Depopoulos. When he is killed one day by a brick, the Perkins twins decide to find out for themselves who is responsible. They trace the crime back to the culprit with very little difficulty and then decide to blackmail the killer. Well….you can figure out what happens next, I’ll bet.

A blackmailer also pays a heavy price for greed in Caroline Graham’s A Place of Safety. Charlie Leathers is out one night walking his dog when he witnesses a dramatic scene. Carlotta Ryan, a troubled teen staying with the local curate and his wife, runs out onto a stone bridge over the Misbourne. Running after her is her hostess, curate’s wife Ann Lawrence. For a short time it seems that Ann is trying to convince the girl not to jump off the bridge. Then, Charlie hears the girl tell her hostess not to push, and before he knows what’s happened, Tanya has gone over the bridge and disappeared. When she doesn’t turn up, it seems as though Ann Lawrence has committed a murder, however unintentionally. Charlie Leathers is not a nice person and it occurs to him that he could make a good living by blackmailing Ann. As you can guess, it’s not long before he’s murdered – in this case garroted. Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby and his assistant Gavin Troy investigate and find out the truth about Carlotta Ryan, Ann Lawrence and her husband, and the murder of Charlie Leathers.

 

Danger For the Sleuth

 

‘Bad guys’ are generally not stupid. And they usually don’t want to be caught. So it’s a pretty safe bet that if a sleuth goes anywhere alone during an investigation, she or he is bound to get into trouble. Smart sleuths know this and take precautions, but the safe money’s still on trouble for the sleuth.

For instance, in Donna Malane’s Surrender, missing person’s expert Diane Rowe has just learned that James ‘Snow’ Wilson has been murdered. This death has a real impact on Rowe because Snow was responsible for murdering her sister Niki a year earlier. Before his murder, Snow admitted – boasted even – that he’d been paid to kill Niki. Rowe believes that if she can find out who paid Snow, she can find out the truth about her sister’s death. So she begins to ask questions. Once word gets out that she’s looking into this case, you know that she’s going to run into trouble. And she does. But in the end (and honestly, with none of the traditional ‘damsel in distress’ stereotype), Rowe finds out who wanted her sister dead and why. And fans of Sara Paretsky’s V.I Warshawski and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone will know that those two sleuths frequently get into trouble.

This kind of danger doesn’t just happen to female sleuths. In Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant gets into trouble almost from the start when he takes the case of Daniel Guest. Guest is being blackmailed by someone who knows about his secret relationships with other men. He wants Quant to find the blackmailer and stop that person. In the course of his investigation, Quant runs into all sorts of dangers including a near-car crash, an abduction and a too-close-for-comfort encounter with a gun.

The funny thing is, in well-written crime fiction, it doesn’t really matter so much that you can make those bets. The stories are still good and they still draw the reader in. What about you? Which predictions have you learned are pretty safe bets? Thanks, Moira and Sarah for the inspiration!

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Caroline Graham, Donna Malane, Dorothy Sayers, Matthew Gant, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton