Category Archives: H.R.F. Keating

I’m Going Back to the Start*

PrequelsSome fictional detectives become so popular that we don’t want to let them go, even when the series clearly ends. And let’s be pragmatic: if a publishing company sees financial mileage in a detective, it’s natural to want to create more stories about that sleuth. The same is true of filmmakers. Authors too are not blind to the value on many levels of continuing to write about a particular detective. So it shouldn’t be surprising that publishing companies, filmmakers and authors have turned to prequels.

It makes sense, really. Fans are interested in knowing more about their beloved sleuths. There’s definitely a market out there too. And a well-written story is a well-written story.

On other hand, to a lot of fans, the stories are the stories. Prequels, especially if the author isn’t the character’s original creator, just aren’t the same as the ‘real’ stories. And it can be annoying for readers who prefer to enjoy a series in order if a prequel pops up. This really isn’t a settled question and I suppose that’s what makes it an interesting one.

At the end of its run, H.R.F. Keating wrote a prequel to his popular Ganesh Ghote series. Inspector Ghote’s First Case takes readers back to the beginning, when Bombay Police Inspector Ghote had just been promoted to that rank. In the novel, his boss Sir Rustom Engineer asks Ghote to travel from Bombay to Mahableshwar to investigate the suicide of Iris Dawkins. Her widower Robert Dawkins wants to know what drove his wife to suicide and he’s a friend of Engineer’s. So Ghote makes the trip despite the fact that his wife Protima is about to give birth to their first child. When he gets to Mahableshwar, Ghote asks routine questions about what happened. Gradually he begins to suspect that Iris Dawkins didn’t commit suicide. If she was murdered of course, the obvious questions are why and by whom? So Ghote begins the process of looking into the victim’s background and relationships to see who would have wanted to kill her and why.

Liza Marklund wrote Studio Sex (AKA Studio 69) as a prequel to her novel The Bomber. In the prequel, Annika Bengtzon has just started her career as a crime reporter. She’s working as a summer hire for Kvellspressen. When the body of a young woman is found in Stockholm’s Kronoberg Park, Bengtzon is eager to join the media ‘feeding frenzy,’ hoping that her angle on the story will give her a good chance at a full-time job. The body is identified as that of nineteen-year-old Hanna Josefin Liljeberg and at first the case seems straightforward enough as Bengtzon slowly starts to find out bits and pieces about the victim’s life. But before long Bengtzon discovers that she’s been misled about the case and that someone is trying very hard to discredit her. In the end, the case is connected to a coverup that leads to highly-placed people in the Swedish government.

Sometimes a prequel is only a prequel for those who read translated editions of a series. That’s because some series are translated out of order, as in the case of Jo Nesbø’s very popular Harry Hole series. The Bat is the first in that series, originally published in 1997. But it wasn’t translated until 2012, so for English-speaking readers, you really could call it a prequel as we get to know the Harry that came before The Redbreast. In The Bat, Hole travels to Sydney to help investigate the murder of Inger Holter, a Norwegian woman whose body’s been found in Gap Park. It shouldn’t surprise fans of this series that Hole soon makes a connection between Inger’s death and other murders. It’s an interesting example of how some of the ‘vintage Harry Hole’ trademarks have their origins.

There’ve also been hints that Arnaldur Indriðason may write a prequel to his very popular and well-regarded Inspector Erlendur series. It’ll be very interesting to see if that actually happens.

Not all prequels are written by the characters’ original creators. For instance, there’s Spade and Archer, which chronicles the meeting of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Miles Archer. In this novel, Spade hangs out his shingle in San Francsico soon begins getting all sorts of clients. He’s working on a case when he happens to run into Archer, who, we learn, moved in on Spade’s girlfriend Ivy. The two of them develop an interesting partnership that turns official as the book goes on. This novel was written by Joe Gores, with the support and consent of the Hammett estate, and lots of people think it’s an excellent story.

Television and film executives have not been blind to the possibilities of prequels. Two series that have become quite popular are Endeavor and The Young Montalbano. Endeavor tells the story of the young man who would later become Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. With Shaun Evans in the title role, the series began with five episodes that were popular enough that a second series was commissioned.

The Young Montalbano chronicles the early career of Andrea Camilleri’s popular sleuth Salvo Montalbano. Starring Michele Riondino, we learn how Montalbano got started as a cop, and we follow his first cases. The first series of The Young Montalbano was successful enough that a second series has been planned. Both this one and Endeavor were scheduled to start filming their second series in late 2013, so it’ll be interesting to see what the new episodes are like.

Prequels can give readers a chance to really get to know their beloved sleuths better. And the potential for financial success with prequels is undeniable. Besides, they can make for interesting stories. But for lots of people, prequels just aren’t the same as the originals, and they aren’t keen on them.

What about you? Do you like prequels? If you’re a writer, would you do a prequel for your protagonist?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Coldplay’s The Scientist.

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Filed under Andrea Camilleri, Arnaldur Indriðason, Colin Dexter, Dashiell Hammett, H.R.F. Keating, Jo Nesbø, Joe Gores, Liza Marklund

Walkin’ the Tightrope Between Wrong and Right*

TightropesIn real life and in crime fiction, detectives sometimes get put into some morally very ambiguous situations. In those cases, there’s no easy answer as to what the right thing is to do. And no matter which choice the detective makes there’s some moral consequence if you like to put it that way. It can be very difficult for a sleuth to walk that proverbial tightrope without giving up on doing the right thing. Situations like that can be challenging, but in fiction, they can also show that the sleuth is human and therefore, more believable.

One of Lawrence Block’s sleuths is former NYPD cop Matthew Scudder. Scudder left the NYPD after the tragic accidental shooting of a young girl Estrellita Rivera. One the one hand, this was a ‘clean’ shooting in the sense that Scudder had targeted two armed thieves who murdered a bartender. On the other of course, the child was innocent. Scudder copes with the ‘tightrope’ of what counts as doing the right thing throughout the series, and it has the effect of making him less judgemental about others. Here for instance is what he says about it to one of the other characters in The Sins of the Fathers:

 

‘Ah, and what about you, Mr. Scudder? Are you a force for good or evil? I’m sure you’ve asked yourself that question.’
‘Now and then.’
‘And how do you answer it?’
‘Ambivalently.’

 

It’s an interesting reflection on what counts as right and wrong.

Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen gets into morally ambiguous situations more than once. In Ratking, for instance, he’s been seconded from Rome to Perugia to work with the Perugia Questura on a kidnapping. Wealthy business leader Ruggerio Miletti has been abducted and the little progress has been made on the case. As Zen soon finds out, none of the people involved is exactly a model citizen. He’s got to work his way past a dysfunctional and corrupt family, equally corrupt police and government officials and of course, the people behind the abduction. Zen does find out who’s behind the events in the story but in order to catch the culprit, he has to do some things that are morally ambivalent. For him, getting to the truth is worth the difficult choices he makes. And he knows that if he ‘plays dirty,’ his opponents ‘play dirtier.’

Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari introduces readers to bodyguard-for-hire Martin Lemmer. Emma la Roux has recently discovered that her brother Jacobus, whom she thought dead for many years, may very well be alive. She hires Lemmer to protect her on a trip from Cape Town to the Lowveld to find out if Jacobus is alive and if he is, what happened to him. For his own personal reasons, Lemmer keeps a very tight rein on himself. He’s not a drinker and he works hard to manage his anger. For him, the right thing to do is to stay in control of the situation and protect his client. Then, he and Emma are attacked and Emma is left badly wounded. Once she’s safely under medical supervision, Lemmer goes on a morally ambiguous search for the people behind the attack. On a professional level, he wants to respect his commitment to keeping his client safe and he feels guilty that he hasn’t been able to do that. On a personal level, there is vengeance involved. In that part of the novel Lemmer walks a proverbial tightrope as he tries to balance those motives with his determination to manage himself.

There’s an interesting case of walking a moral tightrope in Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Diggers Rest Hotel, which takes place in 1947. Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin has recently returned to Australia after spending time in a European POW camp. He’s settling into life again when he’s seconded to Wodonga to help the local police catch a motorcycle gang that’s been committing a series of robberies. Their latest heist ended up in serious injury to a railway paymaster, so there’s increased pressure to catch those responsible. Berlin settles into the Diggers Rest Hotel and begins investigating. Then, the body of sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee is found in an alley. At first there’s a possibility that her death might be connected to the robberies. But when Berlin finds out that’s not true, he sees that he really has two cases on his hands. When Berlin learns exactly what’s behind the robberies, he is faced with a very difficult choice. Both options have consequences and Berlin has to decide which one is really, when it comes down to it, the right thing to do.

David Whish-Wilson also deals with this question of what the right thing is to do in Line of Sight. It’s 1975, and Perth brothel owner Ruby Devine has been murdered and her body left in her car. Superintendent Frank Swann’s been away from Perth for seven years, but he returns when he hears of Ruby’s death. Although they were on opposite sides of the law they were friends, and Swann wants to know what happened to her. The official theory is that Ruby’s partner Jacky White is responsible, but Jacky claims she’s innocent and Swann believes her. Besides, the investigation has been conducted by certain members of the police force who can’t be trusted. They’re members of the ‘purple circle’ of corrupt and bullying cops, and no-one wants to risk getting on their wrong side. What exactly counts as the right thing to do isn’t always clear as Swann investigates, but what is clear to him is that murdering Ruby Devine was wrong. Swann isn’t exactly an ‘end justifies the means’ kind of cop, so it’s interesting to see how he makes his choices as the story goes on.

And then there’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau, whom we meet in Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine. He and his assistant Detective Yu Guangming investigate when the body of national model worker Guan Hongying is found in Baili Canal near Shangahi. On the one hand, there is pressure of course to make an arrest and punish the wrongdoer, especially since the victim was a celebrity and was held up as a role model. On the other hand, because of her status, she was involved with some very important people whom it would not be a good idea to embarrass. So this case has to be pursued very, very carefully. That’s especially true when Chen and Yu discover who the killer probably is. In order to bring the killer to justice, Chen has to make some difficult choices. On the one hand, he is committed to finding out who killed the victim and catching that person. On the other, he’ll have to do some things that he considers morally questionable at best. That aspect of the novel adds an interesting layer to the story.

There’s also of course H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay Police. He feels very keenly the need to do the right thing and because he’s reflective, ‘the right thing’ isn’t always clear to him. In The Iciest Sin for instance, Ghote is uncomfortable because he’s been assigned to find out if Dolly Daruwala is an extortionist. To do that, he ends up hiding in her apartment (not exactly a moral thing to do for Ghote). That’s how he witnesses her murder. And that event draws Ghote into a case of blackmail, extortion and of course, the murder. It also forces on him some very morally ambiguous choices.

Not all cases are straightforward. Some of them involve some extremely difficult choices and morally ambiguous decisions. Negotiating those choices without losing one’s ‘moral compass’ is a challenge for real-life detectives and it can add a solid layer of interest to a novel. I know I’ve only mentioned a few examples here. Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stevie Ray Vaughan and Doyle Bramhall’s Tightrope.

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Filed under David Whish-Wilson, Deon Meyer, Geoffrey McGeachin, H.R.F. Keating, Lawrence Block, Michael Dibdin, Qiu Xiaolong

You Tried to Reconstruct the Crime Scene With a Handful of Clues*

ReconstructionPolice detectives and other sleuths use a lot of different strategies and techniques for solving cases. And of course, each case is a bit different and requires a different approach. One of the approaches detectives take is reconstructing the crime. By that I don’t mean just going to the crime scene. I mean replaying the events of a crime, sometimes with the suspects and witnesses reprising their roles. It’s a staple of classic and Golden Age crime fiction, but you even see it in some modern novels. 

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has said more than once that it’s possible to solve a crime by simply sitting in one’s chair and thinking. But he’s not averse to going to the scene of a crime and reconstructing the events of it. For example, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study one evening. In the Golden Age tradition, there are several suspects, each of whom had the motive and opportunity. But the most likely suspect is Ackroyd’s stepson Captain Ralph Paton, who had a serious quarrel with Ackroyd over money, and who disappeared shortly after the murder. Paton’s fiancée Flora Ackroyd is convinced that he’s innocent and wants to clear his name. So she asks Poirot to investigate. At one point, after learning that Flora went to her uncle’s study to say goodnight just before he was murdered, Poirot asks Flora and family butler Parker to replay that incident:

 

‘‘One moment,’ cried Poirot, raising his hand and seemingly very excited. ‘We must have everything in order. Just as it occurred. It is a little method of mine.’
‘A foreign custom, sir,’ said Parker. ‘Reconstruction of the crime they call it, do they not?’ He was quite imperturbable as he stood there politely waiting on Poirot’s orders.
‘Ah! he knows something, the good Parker,’ cried Poirot. ‘He has read of these things. Now, I beg you, let us have everything of the most exact. You came from the outer hall – so. Mademoiselle was – where?’
‘Here’ said Flora, taking up her stand just outside the study door.
‘Quite right, sir,’ said Parker.
‘I had just closed the door,’ continued Flora.
‘Yes, miss.’ agreed Parker. ‘Your hand was still on the handle as it is now.’
‘Then allez,’ said Poirot. ‘Play me the little comedy.’’

 

As we learn, Poirot has a very specific reason for wanting to reconstruct this scene. 

In Ngaio Marsh’s Death in Ecstasy, journalist Nigel Bathgate is feeling restless one rainy evening and on impulse, visits a local religious group House of the Sacred Flame. While he’s there, he witnesses an unusual ceremony. At the height of it, one of the participants Cara Quayne suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison that’s been placed in a chalice used in the ceremony. The only likely suspects in the case are the other participants and their religious leader Jasper Garnette. Bathgate calls in his friend Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn and Alleyn puts the machinery of law in motion. One of the questions raised is how anyone could have poisoned the chalice from which the victim drank. So Alleyn has several of his people, including Inspector Fox and Bathgate, take the places of the worshipers to reconstruct the murder. That exercise shows Alleyn how the crime could have been committed without anyone seeing. And in the end, it helps him to figure out who would have wanted to kill the victim. 

Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger is in part the story of the murder of a postman Joseph Higgins. He accidentally breaks a leg and is taken to Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for wartime military use. During what’s supposed to be a routine operation, Higgins suddenly dies. At first his death is put down to tragic accident and Inspector Cockrill is assigned to handle the investigation and routine paperwork. But Cockrill isn’t satisfied that Higgins died accidentally, and Higgins’ widow insists that he was murdered. So Cockrill begins a more thorough investigation. Then another patient, also with a fracture, is scheduled for surgery. One of the medical staff Esther Sanson has gotten very attached to this particular patient and is worried about what will happen to him. Cockrill assures her that he’ll be attending the surgery so that he can see that all goes well. The surgery turns out to be very close to a complete reconstruction of Higgins’ murder, since this patient also nearly dies on the table. Cockrill is able to see exactly what happens in surgery and he uses that knowledge to find out who killed Higgins and why. 

In Rex Stout’s Champagne For One, Archie Goodwin is persuaded to take a friend’s place at a dinner dance hosted by powerful socialite Louise Robilotti. The not-very-hidden agenda is that the evening will provide an opportunity for some of the young women of Grantham House, a home for unwed mothers and their babies. It’s hoped that by mixing with members of the ‘better class,’ these women will learn how that class does things, and perhaps even meet young men. During the evening, one of the Grantham House guests tells Goodwin that another guest Faith Usher has brought cyanide with her and intends to use it to commit suicide. Later, Faith does in fact die of cyanide poisoning and everyone is convinced that she followed through on her threat. But Goodwin isn’t. So despite a great deal of pressure to let the case go, Goodwin and Nero Wolfe investigate. Part of that investigation is a reconstruction of the last few moments of Faith Usher’s life. In typical Wolfe style, he has several people who were there come to the famous brownstone, where things are laid out the way they were on the fatal evening. The reconstruction is very helpful in showing exactly how the victim was poisoned. 

Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay police force uses reconstruction of the crime in H.R.F. Keating”s Inspector Ghote’s First Case. He’s just been promoted to the rank of Inspector when he gets an odd assignment. Sir Rustom Engineer, head of the Crime Branch of the police force, asks Ghote to do him a personal favour. He’s had a letter from an old friend Robert Dawkins, whose wife Iris recently committed suicide. Dawkins wants to know why she would have taken her life, and Engineer asks Ghote to go to Mahableshwar and investigate. Ghote isn’t happy about leaving his wife Protima, who’s about to give birth to their first child, but he doesn’t feel he has a choice. So he travels from Bombay to Mahableshwar to look into the case. It’s not long before Ghote begins to suspect that Iris Dawkins was murdered. If she was, the question of course is who killed her? Finding the answer to that question is difficult, since no-one very much wants to cooperate with Ghote. But in the end he finds out the truth. And part of what leads him to the answer is a reconstruction of the crime. He goes to Dawkins’ home and quite literally walks through each step of the crime, taking different people’s roles as he goes. It’s a very interesting approach to finding out whodunit. 

And then there’s Margaret Maron’s One Coffee With, the first of her NYPD Lieutenant Sigrid Harald series. Harald and her assistant Detective Tilden are called to Vanderlyn College when the Art Department’s deputy department chair Riley Quinn is poisoned. Quinn had made his share of enemies in and out of the department, so there’s no lack of suspects. And part of the process of investigating this crime is looking into each suspect’s background and tracing each suspect’s movements. But that doesn’t completely answer the question of how the killer managed to poison Quinn. The poison was administered in a cup of coffee that department secretary Sandy Kepler brought from the cafeteria back to the department’s main office. That cup was among others that were left together within easy reach of a number of people. Because there were several people in the office at the time the poison was put into the coffee, Harald and Tilden decide to reconstruct the crime to see where everyone was and who could have put the poison into the coffee cup. That reconstruction makes it possible for Harald to see exactly how the deed was done. 

And that’s really the main purpose of reconstruction. Reenacting a crime can help the sleuth to see clearly how one or another person could commit a crime without being noticed. These are only a few examples (I know, I know, Sherlock Holmes fans), but hopefully they’ll help you reconstruct what I mean.

 
 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Stephen Bruton’s Dogs May Bark.  

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christianna Brand, H.R.F. Keating, Margaret Maron, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout

We Figured it Out!*

Figuring out the killerThe other day I had an interesting comment exchange with Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery. Our exchange was about crime novels in which the reader can identify the killer before the author reveals who that person is. Sometimes that happens, but it doesn’t always mean that we stop enjoying the novel. There is, after all, more to a crime novel than just the whodunit aspect (not that that doesn’t matter of course). If you’ve ever really enjoyed a crime novel even though you spotted the ‘bad guy’ before the author revealed all, you know what I mean. Not all of us identify the murderer in the same novels, so I can only speak for the novels where it’s happened to me. But in those novels, there were other things that held my interest even though I’d worked out who the killer was, and that’s what kept me reading. Here are a few examples to show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) is the story of the murder of Marie Morisot. a French moneylender who does business as Madame Giselle. One day while on a flight from Paris to London, Madame Giselle suddenly dies of what turns out to have been poison. The only possible suspects are the other passengers so Hercule Poirot, who was on the same flight, works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out which of the passengers is the killer. I don’t want to give away spoilers, so I won’t say what tipped me off to the killer, but I will say I figured out who it was before the answer was revealed. But a few things kept my interest throughout the novel. One was the motive, which I’ll admit I didn’t work out for myself; the motive is believable but it’s not obvious right away. Neither is the exact method of murder. This isn’t really an ‘impossible murder’ but it takes some figuring out, and I stayed along for the ride, so to speak, to find out how exactly the thing was accomplished.

In Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, Lord Peter Wimsey attends the murder trial of mystery novelist Harriet Vane, who is accused of having poisoned her former lover Philip Boyes. There is evidence against her too. She had arsenic in her possession, the two had quarreled, and she was the last person known to give Boyes anything to eat or drink. So the prosecution thinks it has an ‘airtight’ case. But the jury can’t agree on a verdict, so she is given another trial. Wimsey has fallen in love with Vane, so he determines to clear her name during the month before her new trial. Little by little and with help from some friends and his valet Mervyn Bunter, Wimsey traces Boyes’ last days and weeks. In the end, he’s able to work out who really killed the victim and why. I admit I was able to identify the murderer before Wimsey did. But there’s more than just ‘whodunit’ in this novel. There’s the sub-plot of Wimsey’s interest in Harriet Vane, and her reaction to it. There are also some well-drawn characters in the story that keep readers (well, this one anyway) interested. For instance, there’s Katherine Climpson, who owns a temporary services agency. She and her employees prove to be very helpful to Wimsey; they’re quick-thinking, capable and interesting. There’s also a thread of humour throughout the novel. So at least for me, working out the killer’s identity didn’t stop me enjoying the novel.

Peter Robinson’s A Dedicated Man introduces us to Harry Steadman, an archaeologist who left his position at Leeds University when he inherited enough money to set him up for life. His passion is the Roman ruins in Yorkshire, so he and his wife Emma moved there to allow him to excavate them. One day, Steadman is found bludgeoned. DCI Alan Banks and his team begin the investigation with a close look at Steadman’s personal and professional lives. As they do so, they discover that there are several possible suspects, including people in Steadman’s professional circle as well as his friends. Then, sixteen-year-old Sally Lumb disappears and is later found dead. It turns out that Sally knew more than was safe for her to know about the murder of Harry Steadman, and when she put what she thought was the final piece of the puzzle together, she ended up paying with her life. I’ll confess I worked out who was behind the murders, but that didn’t stop me staying involved in that story. That’s in part because at first I didn’t know how the whole thing had been accomplished. I was really interested also in untangling the complicated set of relationships that we learn about in this novel. They all play a role in what happens, and they kept me wanting to know more.

And then there’s H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote’s First Case. In that novel, Ganesh Ghote has just been promoted from Assistant Inspector to Inspector in the Bombay (now Mumbai) police force. No sooner does he receive word of his new status than he is summoned to the office of Sir Rustom Engineer, who heads the Bombay police’s Crime Branch. Engineer wants Ghote to travel to Mahableshwar to follow up on a request from an old friend Robert Dawkins. Dawkins’ wife Iris recently committed suicide and Dawkins wants to know what led up to it. Ghote’s wife Protima is about to give birth to their first child, but he doesn’t see how he can refuse this request, so he reluctantly makes the trip. When he gets to Mahableshwar, he makes contact with Dawkins and his household staff, as well as with some of the people in Iris’ past. Soon enough Ghote begins to believe that Iris Dawkins was murdered. Although the local police are unwilling to upset someone with as much power as Dawkins has, Ghote persists and in the end, he finds out that he was right about Iris’ death. Part of the appeal in this story comes from the well-crafted setting, so even though I worked out who the killer was, I stayed engaged on that score. What’s more, although I had guessed who committed the crime, I wasn’t sure how that person managed to create an alibi. So I followed along eagerly as Ghote solved that part of the puzzle.

Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly takes Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello into Venice’s glass-blowing industry. Giorgio Tassini is night watchman at Giovanni de Cal’s glass-blowing factory; late one night he is killed in what looks like a terrible accident. But Tassini had been quite vocal in his belief that that factory and others are guilty of illegal toxic waste dumping. In fact, he blames that waste for his own daughter’s disabilities. So Brunetti and Vianello have to consider the possibility that he was murdered. They begin their investigation with Tassini’s colleagues and bosses and soon find that more than one person could have had a motive for murder. I did work out who the killer was but the suspects in this case have alibis, and it was hard to break the killer’s. I didn’t feel too badly about that though, as Brunetti doesn’t break it either at first. And even if I had worked that one out, Leon’s depiction of Venice, and her portrayal of Brunetti’s family life are ‘draws’ for me. So are the ‘regular’ characters such as Signorina Elettra Zorzi, assistant to Brunetti’s boss, and one of the very interesting characters in this series. I had no trouble remaining engaged in this one even though I had guessed the ‘whodunit’ part.

Of course, your reading experience will be different to mine. Have you worked out whodunit before the author told you? Does that put you off a story? I’d be really interested in your input on this one. If you’re a writer, what do you add to your stories to keep readers turning/clicking pages even if they do figure out whodunit?

Thanks, Tracy, for the inspiration. Folks, I encourage you to add Bitter Tea and Mystery to your blog roll. It’s an excellent source of thoughtful and informed crime fiction reviews.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Adler & Jerry Ross’ Seven-And-A-Half-Cents.

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Filed under Donna Leon, Dorothy Sayers, H.R.F. Keating, Peter Robinson

I Got My Hands on a Miracle*

MiraclesCrime fiction can get rather sad and bleak at times, and that makes sense. Murder is a horrible and violent thing, and stories about murder wouldn’t be realistic if they weren’t at least somewhat sad. It’s also nice though when there are, if you will, little streaks of daylight – little miracles if you want to call it that – in crime fiction too. Those little miracles are a nice antidote to the sadness in a story. Little miracles keep us going in real life, too – like finding something you thought you’d permanently lost, or the first rain after a long drought. So readers can identify with those things in novels too. Of course, as with any plot device, it’s possible to overdo the ‘sunshine.’ That can make a story cloying and not realistic. But a few doses can make the difference between an unbearably sad story that’s too hard to read, and an utterly absorbing one.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow for instance, famous Harley Street specialist John Christow and his wife Gerda are invited to spend the week-end at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. The Angkatells have also invited a few of their relations for the week-end, and the plan is that Hercule Poirot, who’s taken a cottage nearby, will join the group for lunch on the Sunday. When he arrives, Poirot is dismayed to find what looks like a tableau arranged for his ‘amusement.’ Christow’s body is lying by the pool and his apparent killer is holding the gun. Within a moment though Poirot sees that this scene is real; Christow has been shot. Inspector Grange and his team are called to the scene and he and Poirot work together to find out who Christow’s killer is. In one sub-plot to this story, two of the other guests Midge Hardcastle and Edward Angkatell begin to develop a relationship. At one point a misunderstanding threatens that relationship and Angkatell attempts suicide. Midge finds him just in time and the two heal the rift between them. It’s a refreshing antidote to the sadness of Christow’s murder and the fact that everyone ‘on the scene’ is a suspect.

In Helene Tursten’s Night Rounds, Göteborg detective Irene Huss and her team are investigating a series of murders and other strange events at a local private hospital. But Huss is also preoccupied by the fact that her daughter Jenny has decided to become a vegan. Not only does this set up a conflict between Jenny and her father Krister, who’s a chef, but it also leads to Jenny spending time with a very militant vegan group. One night Jenny goes out with her new friends for what she thinks is just a session of putting up vegan posters. It turns into something far more dangerous though when the group’s leaders decide to throw a gasoline bomb at a refrigerator truck belonging to a meat and deli company. Huss, whose ‘mother instinct’ has already told her Jenny might be getting herself into trouble, has followed Jenny and witnesses what the group is doing. The bomb goes off and fire breaks out, but in one of those little miracles, Jenny is not hurt in the explosion. Huss gets her away from the rest of the group and both of them escape.

We also see one of those special moments in H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote’s First Case. Newly-minted inspector Ganesh Ghote’s boss Sir Rustom Engineer asks Ghote to take on a new case. Engineer’s friend Robert Dawkins was recently widowed when his wife Iris committed suicide. Now Dawkins wants to know what drove her to take such a drastic measure. Ghote agrees to look into the matter and travels from Bombay to Mahableshwar where Dawkins lives. Although he sees this investigation as his duty, Ghote is torn about leaving his pregnant wife Protima, who is only weeks from giving birth to their first child. Protima isn’t too happy about it either but they agree that Ghote should make the trip. As Ghote beginst to ask questions about Iris Dawkins’ death, he begins to suspect that she may have been murdered. With that new possibility, he re-considers all of the people in her life to see who would have wanted to kill her. Throughout his search for answers Ghote remains concerned about his wife and her health. He’s able to concentrate on the case well enough to find out the truth about Iris Dawkins though, and when he knows what really happened, he returns to Bombay to report his findings. I don’t think it’s spoiling this story to say that the novel ends with the joyful news that Protima has given birth to a healthy son. Despite the sadness of this case – and it is a sad case – there is that little miracle and it adds to the story.

In Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Smelled a Rat, Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere’ is in the grip of a long and dangerous drought. The drought has had some terrible effects, and everyone is hoping for The Big One, the first major snowstorm of the year, to bring desperately needed moisture to the area. A series of fires breaks out at local mines and journalist Jim ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran begins to suspect arson. Then there’s an explosion that’s been rigged to disguise a murder. Now it’s clear that something sinister is going on and Qwill investigates. It turns out that these tragedies are all related and Quinn and local police chief Andrew Brodie slowly put the pieces together to find out who’s responsible. At the very end of the story, the much-awaited Big One finally makes an appearance and ends the drought. Qwill celebrates the first snow and it’s not hard to see why.

There’s also one of those ‘little miracles’ in Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ The Boy in the Suitcase. That’s the story of volunteer nurse Nina Borg, who one day gets an unusual request. Her friend Karin asks her to pick up a suitcase at Cophenhagen’s main railway station. When she gets the suitcase, Borg is shocked to find that inside it is a little boy. He’s drugged and in a daze, but he is alive. Borg tries to reach Karin to let her know about the boy and to find out why he’s there and who his family is. But Karin seems to have disappeared and now Nina is being targeted by some ruthless people who have their own reasons for wanting the boy. In the meantime we meet Sigita Ramoskiene, a young Lithuanian mother whose three-year-old son Mikas has been abducted. She tries frantically to find out what happened to him and to bring him home if she can. Her path and Nina Borg’s cross and as you might suspect, the little boy in Borg’s care turns out to be Mikas. In some ways this is a very sad book that addresses some ugly issues. As the two women try to find out who abducted Mikas and why, though, there is a streak of daylight in that Mikas is found alive. All too often in real life children disappear and are not seen alive again.

And then there’s Wendy James’ The Mistake. Jodie Evans Garrow has what anyone would probably say is a good life. She’s married to a successful attorney who’s even being talked about as the next mayor. She’s got two children who are healthy and not in trouble, and she herself is doing well. Everything falls apart though when Jodie’s fifteen-year-old daughter Hannah is injured and is taken to the same hospital in which Jodie gave birth years earlier to another child. She’s never told her husband or children about this first baby but when one of the nurses remembers Jodie, the truth begins to come out. Jodie claims she gave the baby up for adoption, but no adoption records have been found. So what happened to the baby? If she wasn’t adopted, is she even alive? And if not, was Jodie responsible for her death? All of these questions begin to dog Jodie, who soon becomes a local pariah. Her family life falls apart and there is talk that she may be the subject of a police investigation. In the midst of all this unhappiness, though, there is a little miracle if you want to call it that. Jodie’s good friend Bridie comes back into her life after a very long absence. As the two re-establish their friendship, each finds herself a little healed if you will by the other.

Little miracles happen all the time, and they are part of what keeps us getting out of bed in the morning to face the next day. It’s nice that they show up in crime fiction.

 

 

On Another Note…

Chanukah2012

I’d like to take a moment and wish a Happy Chanukah to all of those celebrating it. May you enjoy the warmth of friends and family and may we all remember the little miracles that happen to us every day.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Foo Fighters’ Miracle.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, H.R.F. Keating, Helene Tursten, Lene Kaaberbøl, Lilian Jackson Braun, Wendy James