Category Archives: Emma Lathen

It’s All About an Image to Uphold*

ImageWe all know that image sells. If a company doesn’t look financially sound, or if it seems to engage in shady business practices, it won’t attract investors. If a retirement community isn’t presented as lovely, safe and affordable, with easy-maintenance homes, it’s more difficult to get people to turn over their savings to buy in. And when a company’s image is tarnished, the result can be disastrous. So most companies, whether large or small, care a great deal about their public image. Since the stakes are very high, it’s not surprising that people are willing to go to great lengths to build and preserve an image. Just a quick look at crime fiction should give you the idea.

Company image figures strongly in Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise. Copywriter Victor Dean dies from what looks like an accidental fall down a flight of stairs at the offices of Pym’s Publicity, Ltd., where he works. He left behind a partially-written letter though in which he alleged that someone at the company has been using company resources for illegal purposes. The company management is extremely concerned for Pym’s reputation, so it’s decided to hire Lord Peter Wimsey to go undercover at the company and investigate. This he does, posing as Dean’s replacement. He soon discovers that Dean was right: a company employee has been using company advertisements to arrange meets between local drug dealers and a dangerous drugs ring. Dean had found out who the guilty person was and was engaging in some blackmail – not a habit very conducive to long life. Now Wimsey is faced with tracking down the killer and going up against some ruthless people who don’t want their trafficking to be stopped.

In Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their two children are lured from their New York City home to the suburban community of Stepford, Connecticut. The town presents itself as a wholesome, friendly place to live, with low taxes and good schools. At first, everything goes well; the children make new friends and settle in at school, and Walter gets used to the commute to his office. Joanna’s content too, and even resumes her interest in photography. Then, slowly little things begin to suggest that Stepford is not what it seems. Together with her friend Bobbi Markowe, Joanna becomes suspicious that something terrible is going on in the town, and the two women are proven all too right…

Emma Lathen’s Murder to Go features a look at the fast-food industry; to be specific, a company called Chicken Tonight. The company’s leadership and franchisees are all excited about the newest Chicken Tonight recipe Chicken Mexicali. It’s launched with great fanfare and quickly becomes popular. The timing works very well too because there is talk that Chicken Tonight may merge with Southeastern Insurance. Anything that makes the company look good boosts its ‘clout’ in this merger, so everyone’s pleased about the successful debut of the new recipe. Then, everything changes. Several people are sickened after eating Chicken Mexicali. One customer even dies. Now the company’s reputation is in jeopardy, so every effort is made to find out what happened. Suspicion falls on former delivery truck driver Clyde Sweeney, who likely poisoned the new recipe before it was shipped out of the warehouse. But when Sweeney disappears and is found dead, it’s clear that someone else is behind the sabotage and murder. Sloan Guaranty Bank is brokering the merger, so vice president John Putnam Thatcher gets involved in the investigation. He finds out that Sweeney was a pawn for someone who wanted to ruin Chicken Tonight’s image.

Jean-Pierre Alaux and Nöel Balen’s Treachery in Bordeaux is the story of Château Les Moniales Haut-Brion, the last vineyard actually in Bordeaux. To his shock, owner Denis Maissepain finds that four barrels of the estate wine have been contaminated with brettanomyces, which is a yeast-like spore that can ruin wine. It’s also contagious, so Maissepain has a serious problem on his hands. His winery’s image is now at stake; after all, who’s going to promote or recommend bad wine? So he asks renowned oenologist and vintner Benjamin Cooker for help. Cooker knows that Maissepain is both thoroughly knowledgeable and painstaking, so he would have taken every precaution to protect his wine. That means that someone else has likely sabotaged the wine and Cooker determines to find out who it was. He and his new assistant Virgile Lanssien look into the matter. With help from biological testing expert Alexandrine de la Palussière, they find out exactly how the wine was contaminated. That helps them figure out who was responsible.

The reputation of a children’s home is at stake in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. Jim Delbeck hires Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. She was a volunteer at New Life Children’s Centre in Pattaya when she fell (or jumped, or was pushed) from the roof of the building where she lived. There is no obvious reason why Maryanne should have been murdered, but her father is sure she didn’t commit suicide as the police report indicated. So Keeney decides to look a little more deeply into what’s going on at the children’s home since Maryanne’s death could have been connected with her work there. New Life prepares Thai babies who’ve been abandoned or relinquished for new lives with adoptive families. Its reputation is therefore extremely important to director Frank Harding and to the Thai government. So Keeney has to be very careful as she looks into what’s going on there. And it turns out she’s wise to be cautious, as there’s more going on at New Life than most people know…

In Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers, journalist Rebecca Thorne is investigating dubious property developer Denny Graham, who’s cheated several people out of their savings. His scam has been selling them images of ‘dream properties’ and luxurious retirement. He uses so-called testimonials, gorgeous ‘photos and videos and well-catered ‘selling evenings’ to present his clients with the image of the perfect life. And a lot of people have believed him to their detriment. Thorne uncovers stories of people who’ve lost all of their life savings, or who’ve had to scale down their lifestyle dramatically just to get by. She’s in the middle of preparing this exposé when her boss asks her to switch her focus to the upcoming 30th anniversary of the protests against the Springboks’ 1981 rugby tour of New Zealand – ‘The Tour,’ as it’s called. That tour created quite a lot of controversy and had a real impact on New Zealand, so Thorne is asked to find a new angle on the story. Thorne doesn’t want to let the Denny Graham story go, since she’s afraid of losing some of her sources. But she does as her boss asks. That’s when she uncovers an unsolved murder that happened during one of the protests…

Image is everything when you’re selling. So it’s little wonder that many companies will do whatever they have to do to create and sell their image. And that theme can make for an interesting plot point in a novel.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doobie Brothers’ 45th Floor.


Filed under Angela Savage, Dorothy Sayers, Emma Lathen, Ira Levin, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Nöel Balen, Paddy Richardson

Some are Mathematicians, Some are Carpenters’ Wives*

OccupationsAs any crime fiction fan knows, murder can happen just about anywhere and can affect just about anyone. So in crime fiction, people in all sorts of professions can end up being sleuths – even professions you might not think are all that, well, dangerous. And the fact is, more and more often, the police rely on experts from different fields to give them background information. So it’s realistic to believe that someone who’s, say, an insurance claims adjuster could be a fictional sleuth. And after all, a talented writer can make just about any profession interesting.

In Agatha Christie’s Endless Night, we meet Michael ‘Mike’ Rogers, who drives for a car hire firm. Driving people around isn’t exactly what you’d call a glamourous profession, but Rogers is a bit restless anyway and doesn’t intend to drive cars for the rest of his life. When he meets wealthy Fenella ‘Ellie’ Guteman, he soon falls in love with her and she with him. They have what seems to be the perfect home, Gipsy’s Acre, and all seems well. But a local woman Esther Lee has already warned them that Gipsy’s Acre is cursed, and that terrible things will happen. And soon enough, death strikes. Then there’s another murder. And another. You wouldn’t expect a driver for a car hire company to be mixed up in a set of murders, but that’s exactly what happens here…

In Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise, Lord Peter Wimsey goes undercover in the kind of job you wouldn’t really normally associate with murder. Copywriter Victor Dean has died suddenly from a fall down a spiral staircase at Pym’s Publicity, Ltd., where he works. At first his death is put down to an accident, but he left behind an unfinished letter in which he said that someone at the firm had been using the company’s resources for illegal purposes. Pym’s is determined to maintain its respectability, so instead of calling in the police, they want Wimsey to investigate. He finds that Dean was correct; someone in the company had been using the company’s advertisements to arrange meetings between drugs rings and local dealers. Dean blackmailed the person responsible and paid for that decision with his life. Now admittedly, Wimsey isn’t by profession a copywriter but still, you wouldn’t think a copywriter would be at the heart of a murder mystery but it happens here.

Does being a ‘man of all work’/handyman sound like the kind of job that would involve you in a lot of murders? Does it sound exciting? No? Well ask Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s Asa ‘Asey’ Mayo and you just might get a surprising answer. When we first meet him in The Cape Cod Mystery, he is employed by Cape Cod local Bill Porter. When Porter is arrested for the murder of visiting writer Dale Sanborn, Mayo is pretty certain that his boss isn’t guilty. So with help from Porter’s friend Prudence Whitsby, he looks into the matter more deeply. Mayo’s not on the surface of it the kind of guy you’d expect to be hot on the trail of a killer. But he knows the locals and the area, he’s an observant person and he’s quite philosophical in his way.

You wouldn’t think that people who work in finance would get involved in the kind of tension and danger that a murder investigation brings, but you’d be wrong. Just ask John Putnam Thatcher, Senior Vice President at the Sloan Guaranty Trust, and the creation of the writing team, ‘Emma Lathen.’ Thatcher may spend his share of time working over numbers, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t get involved in crime. In Murder to Go, for instance, the Sloan has financially backed Chicken Tonight, a fast food enterprise that’s suddenly becoming very popular. Then, a group of people are poisoned by one of the company’s recipes, and now it looks as though the company may have real financial trouble. As if that weren’t enough, Clyde Sweeney, one of Chicken Tonight’s warehouse delivery drivers, disappears and is later killed. In order to protect its investment, the Sloan has to find out what’s going on at Chicken Tonight, so Thatcher starts asking question. In the end, he finds out that it’s all related to behind-the-scenes greed and intrigue.  What’s interesting about accountancy is that in recent years, forensic accountancy has become a respected branch of the profession, and is quite useful to the police. With today’s computer programs and expertise in accountancy, it’s possible to learn an awful lot about a victim or suspect’s financial doings and that can provide a lot of valuable information to an investigator.

Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski doesn’t exactly have the kind of profession you’d connect with murder either. He and his wife Rosie own Stuart Lake Lodge, a fly-fishing lodge in northern Saskatchewan. They live, however, in the small town of Crooked Lake, further south in the province. Sounds peaceful and certainly not glamourous or full of danger or tension, right? But danger and tension are exactly what Bart runs into in Frost Bite. Agribusiness CEO Lionel Morrison had recently spent some time at Stuart Lake Lodge. Then, Bart finds him frozen to death under a pile of wheat at the Crooked Lake Wheat Pool elevator. As it is Bart’s involved in the case since Morrison was staying at his lodge and since he found the body.  But since Morrison was a ‘heavy hitter,’ there’s a media ‘feeding frenzy’ and Bart’s drawn even deeper into the case. Not something you’d expect from a peace-loving fly-fishing lodge owner who’s preparing for his daughter’s upcoming wedding and facing a health issue.

See? You don’t have to be a cop, a PI, an attorney or a journalist to be a sleuth. You don’t have to be in the medical profession either. Sometimes murder involves people in professions that you’d think would be the furthest removed from violence or the suspense of a police investigation. It takes a talented author to make sleuths like that believable and interesting but when it happens, that sort of sleuth can add innovation to the genre.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Emma Lathen, Nelson Brunanski, Phoebe Atwood Taylor

Money Makes the World Go Around*

Banking – and I don’t mean only high finance – is such an integral part of our lives that we don’t really think about it unless there’s some sort of problem. And with today’s direct deposit, ATMs and electronic banking transactions we really don’t even need to go into a bank very often. And yet our financial lives are a part of who we are. So when there’s a crime, especially if the crime may have a financial motive, the police waste little time going into victims’ and suspects’ banking histories. And it’s surprising what they can find there. In fact there’s even a forensics specialty in accounting and banking. Detectives and attorneys use things such as ATM transactions and debit card purchases to marshal evidence for and against people too. With the prevalence of banking in our lives it’s no wonder it shows up so much in crime fiction. The topic of banking in crime fiction is quite broad so this post only gives me the space to touch on a few aspects of it. But a quick glance is all you need I think to really see how important banking and finance are to the genre.

Starting from the days of Arthur Conan Doyle and even before, bank robberies have been the subject of crime fiction stories. That’s what’s behind Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Red-Headed League. In that story pawnbroker Jabez Wilson is offered an opportunity that seems to good to be true. He is hired for good pay to copy the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The only proviso is that he cannot leave his new place of employment while he is ‘on duty.’ Happy enough to comply with that rule he begins his job. All goes well until the day he goes to work only to find that his employers seem to have disappeared. Wilson asks Holmes to look into the matter and Holmes begins to investigate. He finds that Wilson was being manipulated by a gang of thieves who wanted to use Wilson’s pawn shop as a base from whence they would tunnel into the nearby City and Suburban Bank.

Bank robberies are also integral to the plots of Robert Pollock’s Loophole or, How to Rob a Bank and Michael Connelly’s The Black Echo. In both of those novels there’s a plan to use underground tunnels as a way to break into a bank. For those who are interested, I recommend reading Pollock’s novel first, since it takes place about thirty years before Connelly’s does, and it’s really interesting (or maybe it’s just me) to see how technology and bank security changed over time.

A bank robbery also plays an important role in Karin Fossum’s He Who Fears the Wolf.  In that novel, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre are investigating the murder of Halldis Horn, who lived alone after the death of her husband. The evidence seems to point to Errki Johrma, who has mental illness and a very troubled personal history. But Sejer isn’t sure at all that Johrma is the killer. And since Johrma has disappeared, there’s no way to question him about the crime. Then, there’s a bank robbery to which Sejer is a sort of eyewitness. He’s passing by Fokus Bank, where he has an account. Not far from the bank he sees a young man who for several reasons makes him uneasy. When the man goes into the bank Sejer goes in too but then chides himself for being overly suspicious. Sejer leaves the bank but he’s only a few blocks away when he hears a shot. He returns to the bank to find out that the man he observed robbed the bank and has escaped. That robbery ends up being related, ‘though in an unexpected way, to the murder investigation.

Bank transactions themselves can provide clues to the motive for a crime and to the person who committed it. We see that all through crime fiction. For instance, under the name Emma Lathen, the writing duo of Mary Jane Latsis  and  Martha Henissart created a very popular series featuring banking vice president John Putnam Thatcher. He is employed by international banking giant Sloan Guaranty Trust. In that capacity, he oversees many of the bank’s transactions and gets involved with banking clients. And because of his knowledge of the way banking works, he’s often able to find financial clues that solve murders. For instance in Going For the Gold, the Sloan has been selected as the official bank of the 1980 Winter Olympics. Thatcher travels to Lake Placid, New York where the games are to be held to oversee the bank’s handling of the myriad transactions the games will generate. When one of the athletes is murdered, Thatcher discovers that the victim was involved in a traveller’s cheque counterfeiting scheme. Another athlete who works at a bank gives Thatcher important information as to exactly how the scheme worked in individual bank branches and he is able to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Financial transactions are important, even if only mentioned briefly, in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett is on his way across Europe on the world-famous Orient Express train when he is stabbed late one night. Hercule Poirot is aboard the same train and his friend M. Bouc, a company director, persuades him to investigate. It’s soon discovered that Ratchett is not who he appears to be. In his real identity he’s hiding a dark secret that has everything to do with his murder. Ratchett’s past catches up with him in part because his murderer has discovered through his financial transactions exactly how he managed to escape it, so to speak.

Peter Temple’s Bad Debts introduces us to occasional lawyer and private investigator Jack Irish. When he gets a series of messages from a former client Danny McKillop, he doesn’t take them seriously at first. Then McKillop is murdered. Partly out of a sense of guilt for not paying closer attention to the messages, Irish begins to look into what happened to the victim. Eight years earlier McKillop had gone to prison for the hit-and-run killing of Melbourne activist Anne Jeppeson. Irish’s investigation raises the strong possibility that McKillop was framed for Jeppeson’s death and that she was, in fact, deliberately murdered. With help from journalist Linda Hilliard, Irish discovers through financial and banking transactions exactly what the motive was for Jeppeson’s killing. Those transactions are also part of what leads him to the real killer.

A trip to the bank proves to be of vital importance in Henning Mankell’s  Faceless Killers. Johannes Lövgren and his wife Maria are brutally murdered one night and Inspector Kurt Wallander and his team on the Ystad police force investigate the killings. It doesn’t look as though robbery was the motive; the couple was not known to be wealthy and besides, the murders are more brutal than one would expect in a case of robbery gone wrong. Just before she dies, Maria Lövgren says the word foreign, and that raises all sorts of suspicions, to say nothing of controversy. But a thorough investigation turns up nothing to connect the couple to any foreigners living in the area. Meanwhile the team looks in to Lövgren’s bank statements and financial records and uncovers some facts about his past that no-one knew. But Wallander still cannot make a direct connection between the killer and the victims. Then he visits the Union Bank, where Lövgren had a safe-deposit box. During his trip there he gets an unexpected clue and the same person later provides him with the conclusive evidence he needs to catch the killer.

There are plenty of other novels out there where the police trace bank transactions, debit card use and other financial clues that lead them to a criminal and a motive or that exonerate someone. It’s a realistic approach to getting evidence too since virtually all of us use banks in one way or another. When financial detail isn’t overly burdensome, it can add much to a story.  Do you find that kind of investigation interesting? If you’re a writer, do you include banking when you plan motive or clue-gathering?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fred Ebb and John Kander’s Money Song.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Emma Lathen, Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum, Michael Connelly, Peter Temple, Robert Pollock

>I’m a Fool to do Your Dirty Work*

>We all end up doing things we don’t want to do. We may be persuaded, paid, threatened or “guilted” into doing things that go “against the grain” for us, or it may just be “a favour for a friend.” Either way, we’ve probably all been in the situation of being pressured to do things we didn’t feel good about doing. That pressure to do someone else’s “dirty work” can add an interesting layer to a crime fiction story. First, it’s realistic. Most of us understand that feeling and can identify with it. Second, it can add tension and suspense. It’s also an interesting motivation.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Clocks, Special Services agent Colin Lamb is in the town of Crowdean on the trail of a spy ring. He gets caught up in a murder investigation when he quite literally bumps into a young woman who’s rushed out of a house screaming that there’s a dead man in the house. Lamb goes in the house to see for himself and sure enough, there’s an unidentified dead man inside. The murder seems like a complicated one with all sorts of strange clues, so Lamb takes the case to his father’s friend Hercule Poirot and challenges him to solve it. Poirot takes up the challenge and begins to sort through the case. Matters are made even more complex when another character in the story agrees to “do a favour for a friend.” When that character finds out that the “favour” was actually “dirty work” done to hide a murderer, there’s another death. In the end, Poirot and Lamb work together, each in his own way, to find out who the killer is and it turns out to be, as Poirot says, “a very simple crime.”

In Christie’s Hickory Dickory Death (AKA Hickory Dickory Dock), Poirot’s frighteningly efficient secretary Miss Felicity Lemon asks him to help her sister Mrs. Hubbard get to the bottom of a strange series of thefts at the student hostel she manages. Poirot agrees and pays a visit to the hostel. On the night of Poirot’s visit, Celia Austin, who’s one of the residents, says that she’s been responsible for most of the thefts. At first, it seems that the matter has been cleared up, although Poirot still feels there are some things left unexplained. Then, two nights later, Celia dies of what looks like suicide. It’s soon proven to be murder, though, and now Poirot and Inspector Sharpe look into the lives of the hostel residents to see who would have wanted to murder Celia and why. It turns out that Celia knew too much about someone’s doings, and, as the saying goes, signed her own death warrant by revealing what she knew to the killer. Later in the novel, we discover that someone at the hostel has known all along who killed Celia, but felt that there was no choice but to do some “dirty work” for the murderer. After another death, though, that character (who’d never banked on murder, anyway) no longer chooses to stand in with the killer and tells all.

Emma Lathen’s Murder to Go features some “dirty work” by Clyde Sweeney, a disgruntled delivery truck driver who works for Chicken Tonight, a fast-food restaurant company. Chicken Tonight’s franchisees are excited at the premiere of its newest recipe, Chicken Mexicali, and the dish is launched with fanfare. The timing is good, too, since there’s a pending merger between Chicken Tonight and Southeastern Insurance. Then, several customers are sickened after eating the new offering; one even dies. It’s soon discovered that Sweeney may have poisoned the ingredients before transporting them from the warehouse to the franchise restaurants. The case seems settled until Sweeney disappears and is later found killed. John Putnam Thatcher, vice president for Sloan Guaranty Bank (the company brokering the merger) investigates what’s been happening since it will likely affect the merger. What he finds is that Sweeney was doing “dirty work” for someone who wanted to scuttle the merger.

Janet Pisula pays the ultimate price for getting someone to do her “dirty work” in K.C. Constantine’s The Blank Page. She’s a shy, quiet student who’s found strangled in the room she’s taken at a rooming-house near the local community college. At first, there seems to be no reason for her to have been killed. She had, so it seems, no enemies; in fact, no-one really knew her well at all, including her house-mates. She was so shy that she almost never spoke up in class and certainly hadn’t attracted any attention. Because Janet Pisula was the kind of quiet, retiring person she was, it takes Rockford Police Chief Mario Balzic quite a while to find out enough about her background to discover why she would have been killed. In the end, he learns that she’d paid someone to do some “dirty work” for her at the cost of her life.

In Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit, we meet successful Patrick County, Virginia commonwealth attorney Mason Hunt. He and his brother Gates have in common that they were raised by a violent alcoholic father and a mother who tried her best but was frequently victimised herself. Gates tried to protect his brother as best he could, but both brothers were frequently abused. The two brothers make completely different kinds of choices: Mason takes every opportunity he can get, goes to college on a scholarship, and becomes a successful attorney; Gates, on the other hand, wastes his athletic ability and lives on petty drug dealing, his girlfriend’s Welfare check and money he gets from his mother. One afternoon, Gates Hunt gets into an argument with romantic rival Wayne Thompson. Wayne leaves after a shouting match, but later that night, the Hunt brothers encounter Thompson again. Before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates Hunt has shot Thompson. Mason Hunt’s sense of filial loyalty leads him to do some “dirty work” for his brother; he covers up the shooting and life goes on for both brothers. Years later, Gates is arrested and convicted of cocaine trafficking. He begs his brother to get him out of prison but Mason refuses. When he learns of his brother’s decision, Gates accuses Mason of the long-ago shooting of Wayne Thompson and now, Mason faces an indictment for a murder he didn’t commit.

Sometimes, of course, sleuths have to do others’ “dirty work,” too. For instance, in Rhys Bowen’s Evanly Bodies, Constable Evan Evans is named to a new Major Incident Team, which is part of an initiative designed to get police from different geographic areas to work together. Evans’ team, under the leadership of DI Bragg, is called into action immediately when the body of Martin Rodgers is found. Then a second death occurs, and a third. Now, the team has to try to find out the link between the three victims. By chance, Evans discovers what that link is and sets up a plan to catch the killer. The only problem is, there are very good reasons to feel sympathy for the murderer, and when Evans discovers the real truth about the killings, the last thing he really wants is to imprison the culprit. But Bragg wants the case wrapped up in order to give the new initiative credibility. Besides, as Bragg points out, the team’s job is to catch criminals, not interpret the law. So Evans ends up having to do the “dirty work” of being a part of the arrest.

Walter Mosley’s A Red Death also involves some “dirty work.” Former airplane mechanic Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins has settled into a post-World War II life in the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles. All’s well until he gets a letter from the Internal Revenue Service claiming that he owes thousands of dollars in back taxes – money he can’t pay – and threatening jail unless he pays immediately. Rawlins assumes that he’ll end up in jail for a long time; then, he’s contacted by an FBI agent who offers him a deal. In exchange for taking care of Rawlins’ tax problems, the FBI wants Rawlins to help bring down someone they believe is a Communist. Rawlins isn’t comfortable with the idea, but he’s even less comfortable with the idea of going to jail. So he reluctantly agrees to “get close to” the FBI’s target. The better he gets to know the target, though, the more complicated the situation gets. Rawlins has a lot of sympathy for the man and feels that he’s betraying a friendship by continuing to spy on him. Besides, a few attempts on his own life, plus three other deaths, convinces Rawlins that he’s become a target himself. In the end, Rawlins figures out what’s really going on and who’s behind all of the events.

Having to do someone else’s “dirty work” can add a solid layer of suspense and interest to a novel. But what’s your view? Have you enjoyed novels that feature this theme? Which ones?

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


Filed under Agatha Christie, Emma Lathen, K.C. Constantine, Martin Clark, Rhys Bowen, Walter Mosley

>Nowhere to Run to, Baby*

>As I’ve often mentioned on this blog, suspense is a crucial part of a good crime fiction novel. One way that authors can build that suspense is what I’ll call the “boxed in” phenomenon. If you’ve ever been trapped at an airport or waited on the tarmac for a long time, or if you’ve ever been snowed in overnight at a hotel, you know what I mean. That feeling of being unable to leave can add quite a lot of tension and suspense to a story. Of course, it’s tricky, too; in today’s world, with mobile ‘phones and wireless Internet, we could ask just how isolated people really are. That said, though, when it’s done well, that plot point can be very suspenseful.

Agatha Christie uses it quite effectively in some of her novels. For instance, in And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians), ten people receive invitations to Indian Island, off the Devon coast. For different reasons, each accepts the invitation. Everyone is shocked when, after dinner on the first night, each person present is accused of causing the death of at least one other person. Shortly after, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Late that night there’s another death. It’s soon clear that there’s a murderer on the island and as, one by one, other deaths occur, the survivors work frantically to stay alive and catch the killer. One thing that adds a lot to the suspense of this novel is that a storm cuts everyone off from the mainland. There’s no way to leave the island, and the storm has cut off communication as well. That feeling of being trapped adds an important layer of tension to the story.

There’s also that sense of claustrophobia – of being cooped up – in Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia. In that novel, Nurse Amy Leatheran is hired by noted archaeologist Dr. Eric Leidner to look after his wife Louise. Mrs. Leidner’s been suffering from anxiety and Dr. Leidner believes that Nurse Leatheran may be able to ease his wife’s fears. All seems well at first, and Amy Leatheran moves into the expedition team’s house a few hours from Baghdad. She senses immediately a certain amount of tension among the team members but optimistically puts it down to the very natural conflicts that arise when a group of people are, as she puts it, cooped up together. Then one afternoon, Louise Leidner is murdered by a blow to the head. Hercule Poirot, who’s traveling in the area, is persuaded to look into the case, and he begins to ask questions. It’s soon apparent that nobody from the outside came into the house or onto the property on the day of the murder, so the only other possibility is that one of the expedition team members committed the murder. As the investigation goes on, the team gets more and more on edge, and that sense of “nowhere to run” adds suspense as Poirot searches for the killer. In the end, he discovers that the whole key the murder is in Mrs. Leidner’s personality, and in her past.

In Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead, Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, are summoned to Bendigo Island, the private property of eccentric munitions tycoon “King” Bendigo. He’s been receiving threatening letters, and he wants the Queens to find out who’s responsible. With Bendigo on the island are his wife Karla, his brothers Judah and Abel and his staff and factory workers. Although the Queens have come to the island voluntarily, we still get the strong feeling of being “boxed in,” as both men some come face-to-face with Bendigo’s security team. Nevertheless, they settle in and begin to investigate. Then one night, Bendigo is in his hermetically-sealed private office when he’s shot. At first, there seems no way he could have been shot, since no weapon has been found in the office, the door remained sealed and the gun actually used to shoot Bendigo is later proved never to have been in the office. As the Queens search for answers about the letters and the shooting, there’s an increasing sense of being isolated. Finally, Queen deduces that the answer to the puzzles lies in the Bendigo brothers’ past. He makes a convincing argument about that tie-in and travels to the Bendidgo brothers’ hometown of Wrightsville. When he gets there, Queen finds out some unexpected things about their pasts, and gets the clues he needs to solve the mysteries.

In more recent years, mostly because of today’s communication technology, it’s harder than it was to create a believable “boxed-in” scenario. But several authors have done so. For instance, in Emma Lathen’s Going for the Gold, everyone’s gathered for the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. Among the spectators is John Putnam Thatcher, vice-president for the Sloan Guaranty Bank. Thatcher’s there because his bank has the contract for Olympic Village and the surrounding area and he’s making sure that all goes smoothly. One afternoon, French ski-jumping star Yves Bisson is shot by a sniper in what looks at first like a terrorist attack. That explanation is soon ruled out and evidence is found that Bisson might have been involved in international counterfeiting. Thatcher’s exploring this possibility when a storm hits the area. The snow cuts the town and Olympic village off, makes travel impossible and more or less isolates everyone. That claustrophobia adds a lot of tension to the novel, especially as it frustrates the killer’s escape plan.

We get a similar sense of isolation and the claustrophobia that can bring in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s My Soul to Take. Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdótti has been hired by Jónas Júlíusson, the new owner of a posh spa and resort. Jónas has hired Thóra to act for him in a lawsuit he’s filing against the former owners of the land where the spa is located. He claims that the area is haunted, and the owners never informed him about it. Thóra doesn’t believe in ghosts, but she does want the fee, and the all-expenses paid trip to the spa. Within a very short time of Thóra’s arrival at the spa, Birna Hálldorsdóttir, who’s also staying at the spa, is found murdered on the beach near the resort. When Jónas is suspected of the crime, Thóra is faced not only with her original commission, but also with defending her client against a charge of murder. What’s interesting about this novel is that the characters aren’t isolated in the classic sense (i.e. a storm that traps everyone, cutoff of power, etc.). And yet, with the murder investigation going on, the air of suspicion, the possibility that there might be another murder and the creeping question of whether or not the place is haunted, we do get a sense of isolation.

Ann Cleeves creates a sense of isolation in Blue Lightning. Detective Jimmy Perez plans a visit to his family’s home in Fair Isle to introduce his family to his fiancée Fran Hunter. Everyone knows it’ll be a little awkward, since outsiders to Fair Isle are not trusted. But then, the body of Angela Moore is found in the Fair Isle bird observatory. The tension rises and tempers flare as Jimmy begins to ask questions. Autumn storms have come, and Fair Isle is basically cut off from the outside world, so Jimmy and Fran are more or less on their own as they investigate Angela’s murder. Then, there’s another death. Now, with no way off the island, the two sleuths have to contend with not only the murder investigation but also the claustrophobia that the storm brings.

And then there’s Alex Scarrow’s Afterlight, in which Scarrow follows the lives of a community of people who’ve survived a global oil crash and the end of the kind of lives most of us take for granted. This rather isolated community, led by Jenny Sutherland, has managed to create a life on an oil rig off the coast of Norfolk. Since there is no communication as we commonly think of it, the group is cut off from any other survivors of the crash, but all’s well until they decide to rescue Valerie Latoc, who was discovered badly wounded in a nearby abandoned town. Including Latoc proves to have serious consequences for the group on the oil rig, as he slowly begins to play members off against one another. It’s an eerie look at what happens to a group of people when they are really cut off.

There are a lot of other examples of this “no-where to run” plot point. I’ve only had the space to mention a few. Which have you enjoyed?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ Nowhere to Run.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alex Scarrow, Ann Cleeves, Ellery Queen, Emma Lathen, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir