Category Archives: Helene Tursten

Take These Tables, Take These Chairs*

FurnitureYou can tell a lot about people by their furniture. People who can afford to do so usually buy furniture that suits their tastes; so, for instance, minimalists will tend to have spare furniture with very clean lines. Those who like a particular style (e.g. rustic, art deco, Victorian, Colonial) will choose that sort of furniture if they can. And those who like creating and refinishing furniture will reflect that in their choices. You can also tell some things about people’s economic situations by their furniture too. Because of the way furniture reflects the owner, it’s an interesting way for an author to give characters some depth without too much narrative. For the same kind of reason, it’s worth it to a sleuth (real or fictional) to pay attention to witnesses’ and suspects’ furnishings.

There’s another reason too: furniture can sometimes hold some valuable clues to a case. That’s part of the reason that detectives do thorough searches of furniture. You never know what you’ll find. Let me just give you a few examples of what I mean.

Agatha Christie uses this plot point in several of her stories. In Third Girl for instance, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from a young woman who seems both troubled and interested in hiring him. In fact, she says she may have committed a murder. All of a sudden though, she changes her mind and says that he’s too old. Then she leaves without giving her name. When Poirot shares what happened with his friend, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, he learns that the woman’s name is Norma Restarick. With Mrs. Oliver’s help he finds out where Norma’s family lives, and tries to find her. But by that time, she’s disappeared. Now, Poirot and Mrs. Oliver are faced with the tasks of following up on the possibility of a murder and of finding Norma. At one point, Mrs. Oliver visits the London building where Norma shares a flat with two other young women. She finds that removal men are taking furniture out of another flat where the resident apparently committed suicide. A piece of paper falls out of a desk drawer, and Mrs. Oliver picks it up. That paper turns out to be an important clue in this case. There’s another Christie story in which the location of a piece of furniture turns out to matter quite a lot…

In Harry Mulheim’s short story The Dusty Drawer, we meet botany professor Norman Logan. He knows that William Tritt, one of the tellers at his bank, has cheated him out of money. But he has no way to prove it, and Tritt has such a sterling reputation at the bank that Logan knows no-one would believe his story. One day he’s sitting at a table in the bank, waiting to cash in a bond. That’s when he discovers that the table has a half-hidden drawer. A little experimentation shows Logan that the drawer is never used; most people likely don’t even know it’s there. That drawer gives him the perfect idea for getting back at Tritt, and he carries out his plan. It turns out that the plan works perfectly, and all because of a stuck, hard-to-find drawer…

Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair is the story of Gilbert Hand, who works for a small publishing firm. He’s recently lost his wife Rachel in a terrible shipboard accident and is dealing with the grief and loss that you might expect. Partly at his doctor’s suggestion, Hand sells the home he and Rachel shared and moves to London. There he takes a room in a respectable, quiet hotel, hoping to settle in and find some peace. Instead he finds something quite different. The room he’s been given has a davenport with a storage area that Hand wants to use. When he opens it though, he discovers a bundle of silk wrapped around a long coil of dark hair. Very curious about his find, Hand starts to ask some questions. He learns that the last occupant of the room was a man named Freddie Doyle. Once he learns the man’s name, Hand decides to find out more about him. In the meantime, Doyle returns to the room, saying he ‘left something behind.’ Hand knows what it is, but finds ways to prevent Doyle from getting the coil of hair back. As the story goes on, Hand becomes more and more obsessed with Doyle, and is convinced that there’s some sort of eerie chess game going on between them. The more deeply involved he gets in this ‘chess match,’ the more his life starts to fall apart as he becomes determined to ‘win’ over Doyle.

In Helene Tursten’s The Glass Devil, Göteborg police detective Irene Huss and her team investigate the murders of schoolteacher Jacob Schyttelius and his parents. The parents are shot in their home, and their son is shot in the family’s summer cottage. At first it looks as though a group of Satanists might be responsible, and that’s logical since the elder Schyttelius was a minister. But there are enough inconsistencies with that theory that the police have to reconsider it. Another possibility is that someone has a vendetta against the Schyttelius family. If that’s the case, then Jacob’s sister Rebecka, who now lives in London, may be in danger. So Huss travels to London to try to ensure her safety and learn as much as possible from her. Rebecka, though, is in a fragile mental and emotional state and can’t be much help. Despite that, the team gradually puts the pieces of the puzzle together. And one important source of information is a cupboard hidden inside a wall at the summer cottage. Perhaps a wall isn’t, strictly speaking, furniture, but this one’s used quite cleverly.

One of Timothy Hallinan’s protagonists is ex-pat American travel writer Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty. Rafferty lives in Bangkok, where he’s gotten the reputation for being able to find people who don’t want to be found. That’s why, in A Nail Through the Heart, Clarissa Ulrich wants to hire him. She’s visiting from Australia, hoping to find her Uncle Claus. She’s always felt close to him, but hasn’t heard from him in a few months, and now she’s worried. So she wants Rafferty to track him down. As you’d expect, Rafferty goes to Claus Ulrich’s apartment to see if he can find any clues as to the man’s whereabouts. At first search he doesn’t find much – certainly not anything that would indicate where the man is. He does find a possible lead though, because Ulrich’s maid has disappeared too. Perhaps by tracking her, he’ll find the key to the mystery. That trail leads Rafferty to the other main plot thread: the search for a man who allegedly took something from an enigmatic elderly lady named Madame Wing. But still Rafferty can’t find Ulrich. So he returns to the apartment, hoping he’ll find something he overlooked the first time. This time his efforts are rewarded. He forcibly opens a filing cabinet that turns out to hold a vital clue.

One of the characters in Peter James’ Not Dead Yet is Anna Galicia, who is utterly obsessed with entertainment superstar Gaia Lafayette. Anna is thrilled when the news comes out that her idol will be coming to Brighton and Hove to do a film called The King’s Mistress. Anna’s obsession is reflected in the way her home is furnished:

‘She sat in the gilded, white velour upholstered armchair that was an exact copy of the one she had seen Gaia lounging back in, in a Hello! magazine feature on her Central Park West Apartment. Anna had had the replica made by a firm in Brighton, so that she could lounge back exactly the same way Gaia did, unlit cigarette gripped louchely between her forefinger and middle finger.’

Anna isn’t the only one obsessed with Gaia. When the superstar’s life is threatened, Brighton and Hove authorities decide that she’ll need extra protection during her stay in the area, so Superintendent Roy Grace is asked to provide enhanced security and do whatever is possible to ensure her safety. Grace isn’t any too thrilled about this task, since he’s already involved in other cases, including the bizarre discovery of an unidentified torso in an unused chicken coop. But orders are orders, as the saying goes, and Grace takes up his new responsibility. Gaia’s visit to Brighton and Hove turns to be much more dangerous than anyone imagined.

Desks, sofas, beds, cabinets and so on may not always exactly solve mysteries. But they can give sleuths a lot of information about the people involved in them. And sometimes, they contain valuable clues…

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Go-Betweens’ Second-Hand Furniture.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Charlotte Jay, Harry Mulheim, Helene Tursten, Peter James, Timothy Hallinan

Hans Plays With Lotte, Lotte Plays With Jane*

CollaborationThis year marks the hundredth anniversary of the start of WWI, a time when a host of countries, many of them (but of course, not only!) European countries who fought against each other. We’ve seen what that kind of strife can do. But the fact is, there’s also been some genuine co-operation amongst the countries of Europe as well. It’s not always easy, but it happens. It’s clear in real life, and we see how that sort of co-operation plays out in crime fiction as well.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, for instance, French and English authorities work together to solve the murder of Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, who’s strangled during a trip on the famous Blue Train. The first likely suspect is Count Armand de la Roche. He was known to be having an affair with the victim, and has a reputation for bilking his wealthy lovers out of their fortunes. But there’s not enough hard evidence to link him to the crime. Hercule Poirot was on the train when the killing occurred, so he’s on hand to work with the police to find out who the criminal is. In this case, there isn’t just co-operation as the murder is solved; there’s also co-operation involved in tracking down the missing jewels. Of course, not all of Christie’s stories feature such successful collaboration (I know, I know, fans of The Murder on the Links). But it’s evident here.

It’s also evidence in Bartholomew Gill’s McGarr and the PM of Belgrave Square. In that novel, Garda Chief Superintendent Peter McGarr and his assistant O’Shaughnessy investigate the shooting death of Dublin art and antiques dealer William Craig. The team starts with those closest to home: Craig’s wife, business partner and son. Any of them might have had a motive, and they aren’t the only ones. Then it’s discovered that one of the paintings Craig had in his shop is missing. This of course adds another dimension to the murder as well as an interesting clue. McGarr’s wife Noreen has a background in art history, so she follows up on that lead. The trail takes her to France, where she makes an important discovery about the painting. And that discovery helps to lead to the killer. In this case, French and Irish authorities have to share information in order to solve the murder.

Helene Tursten’s police detective Irene Huss lives and works in Göteborg. But murderers cross borders, and sometimes killings are related to things that have happened in other countries. So more than once, Huss works with other police authorities to solve murders. In The Glass Devil for instance, the murders of three members of the Schyttelius family lead the members of Göteborg’s Violent Crimes Unit to believe that someone has a personal vendetta against that family. If that’s the case, then Rebecka Schyttelius, who’s living in London, may be in grave danger. Huss travels to London and works with Inspector Glen Thompson of the Met to track down Rebecka and find out who might want to kill her family. This case has its roots in the past, in Sweden. But it takes co-operation between Swedish and UK authorities to solve it. In The Torso, Huss works with Danish authorities to solve the murder of Marcus Tosscander, whose body is found one day on a beach. Although he was originally from Göteborg, he’d moved to Copenhagen. So Huss travels there to follow up on the victim’s life and find out who would have wanted to kill him.

Stefan Tegenfalk’s trilogy Anger Mode, Project Nirvana and The Weakest Link feature Stockholm County CID police detectives Walter Gröhn and Jonna de Brugge. In Project Nirvana, German police authorities ask for help from Swedish authorities to find a Swedish national, Leo Brageler, who is suspected of murdering four German scientists. There seems to be no motive for the killings, and it’s hoped that if Swedish police look into Brageler’s background, they’ll be able to provide that. Gröhn and de Brugge and their team begin the task of tracing Brageler, but he seems to have disappeared. If they’re going to find the link between Brageler and the murder victims, they’ll have to find him as soon as possible. In the meantime, they’re faced with other crimes including a dangerous hostage situation. This case has far-reaching implications, and solving it involves German, Swedish and UK authorities.

Anya Lipska’s novels feature Janusz Kiszka, who is Polish, and DC Natalie Kershaw, who is English. Kiszka lives in London, where he is known as a ‘fixer’ among the members of that city’s Polish community. Kershaw works with the Met. Both Where the Devil Can’t Go and Death Can’t Take a Joke involve murders where both Polish and English people are concerned. In them, we see that crime isn’t just limited to one country. So authorities and civilians from different countries often have to work together to solve it.

There are also, of course, many thrillers that involve Interpol, the EU and other pan-European groups. And series such as Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Nina Borg novels also show how European authorities negotiate and work together to solve crime.

And I don’t think a discussion of that sort of international co-operation would be complete without a mention of the television series The Bridge/Bron/Broen. In those series, Danish Inspector Martin Rohde and Saga Norén, who is Swedish, work together to solve cases of murder that occur on or near the bridge between the two countries.

International co-operation like that isn’t always easy. But when it happens, the result can be far greater success than any one country could have on its own.
On Another Note…


This post is in celebration of the amazing achievement of the European Space Agency (ESA). Yesterday the ESA succeeded in landing the probe Philae on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. We will all learn an incredible amount from this venture, and everyone involved in its success is to be congratulated. See? Co-operation can do wonders!

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Peter Gabriel’s Games Without Frontiers.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Anya Lipska, Bartholomew Gill, Helene Tursten, Lene Kaaberbøl, Stefan Tegenfalk

You’ve Got a Friend in Me*

BuddiesOne of the more popular kinds of films is the ‘buddy film.’ In that sort of film there are two protagonists, and the film explores their friendship while at the same time featuring a separate plot. Some ‘buddy films’ are cop films (e.g. Walter Hill’s 48 Hours). Others are ‘road films’ (e.g. Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise). There are other variants on the theme too of course. Over the years it’s been a successful premise for a film, and we see it a lot in crime fiction too.

You’ll notice in this post that I won’t be talking about series such as Reginald Hill’s Dalziel/Pascoe series, where the two protagonists are superior/subordinate. I’m also not going to focus on novels where there’s a possible or budding romance between the two protagonists. To me, that’s a different dynamic. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some ‘buddy’ crime fiction.

One of the earlier examples of this sort of dynamic is G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown and Hercule Flambeau. When they first meet in The Blue Cross, Flambeau is a master jewel thief. In that story, Father Brown is en route to a large gathering of priests. He’s carrying with him a large silver cross set with sapphires, a most attractive prize for a thief like Flambeau. Father Brown finds an interesting way to deal with Flambeau and as the stories go on, we see how the two men form a friendship. They respect each other and later, they solve cases together. It’s an interesting dynamic, and readers can see how that dynamic evolves as the stories go on.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp on several cases. As we learn in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, they’ve known each other for some time, too – since before Poirot left his native Belgium for England. Poirot is certainly not modest when it comes to his own abilities, but he respects Japp. And he knows Japp has access to resources and information that he, Poirot, doesn’t have. So he doesn’t really treat Japp as a sidekick. For his part, Japp pokes fun at Poirot’s ‘tortuous mind,’ and he isn’t blind to Poirot’s faults. But he respects Poirot’s brilliance as a detective. The two do develop a friendship over the course of the novels, and they depend on each other’s expertise.

Another interesting ‘buddy series’ is Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delalware/Milo Sturgis novels. Delaware is a forensic psychologist with a former career as a psychotherapist. Sturgis is a cop with the LAPD. Beginning with When the Bough Breaks, the two work together on cases where Delaware’s expertise is needed. In that novel, psychiatrist Morton Handler and his lover Elena Gutierrez are found murdered. The key to the murder may lie with seven-year-old Melody Quinn, who was a witness. So Sturgis asks Delaware to work with Melody to help her remember as much as she can. The murders turn out to be related to some of the characters’ past histories, and to some things going on at an orphanage. Over the course of the novels, Delaware and Sturgis maintain their friendship although it is tested at times. They rely on one another and they trust each other.

There’s also Craig Johnson’ Walt Longmire and Henry Standing Bear. Fans of this series will know that Longmire is the sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming. Henry Standing Bear is a member of the Cheyenne Nation, and also the owner of The Red Pony, a local bar/restaurant.  The two men have been friends for a long time – since both served in Viet Nam. There are times when they don’t agree, and sometimes they annoy each other. But underneath, they trust each other, quite literally, with their lives. They get in more than one extremely dangerous situation together, and as the series goes on, we also see how they depend on one another.

We see an interesting case of the ‘buddy’ theme in Helene Tursten’s The Glass Devil. Göteborg police inspector Irene Huss and her team are investigating the bizarre multiple murders of Jacob Schyttelius and his parents. At first, it looks as though the murders might be the work of a Satanist group. But that theory is soon disproved. Another very real possibility is that the murders were committed by someone with an animus against the whole family. If that’s true, then Jacob’s sister Rebecka may be in danger. So Huss travels to London, where Rebecka Schyttelius works with a computer development company. While there, Huss works with Met police inspector Glen Thompson. Thompson has local connections, local authority, and access to information that Huss needs. For her part, Huss has particulars of the case at hand. So the two complement each other as they combine forces. It turns out that that co-operation is important, since the key to this case is in the Schyttelius family’s past as well as Rebecka’s life in London. In the course of the novel, Huss and Thompson do develop a friendship, and we can see how they learn to work together.

There’s also an interesting case of a ‘buddy’ crime novel in Anya Lipska’s Where the Devil Can’t Go. Janusz Kiszka is an unofficial ‘fixer’ in London’s Polish community. So when Father Piotr Pietruzki hears of some disturbing news, Kiszka is the man he trusts. It seems that a young woman named Weronika, who hasn’t been in London very long, has recently disappeared. So Kiszka agrees to ask some questions and see what he can learn. Weronika was last seen with a boyfriend Pawel Adamski, so Kiszka and his friend Oskar begin to trace the couple. In the meantime, DC Natalie Kershaw and DS Alvin ‘Streaky’ Bacon are investigating two murders that turn out to be related to Weronika’s disappearance. In the course of the investigation, Kershaw meets Kiszka, first considering him a suspect, and then as a sort of ally, as she investigates. And that relationship is in itself interesting. So is the ‘buddy’ relationship between Kiszka and his friend Oskar. The two have known each other for some time. They’re drinking and card-playing buddies, and in the course of this novel, they also work together on Weronika’s disappearance.

There are of course lots of other solid ‘buddy’ series and novels (I know, I know, fans of Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury/Melrose Plant novels). Which ones do you like best?



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Randy Newman


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Craig Johnson, G.K. Chesterton, Helene Tursten, Jonathan Kellerman, Martha Grimes


RitualsHuman beings are remarkably resilient. A lot of us can manage quite a lot of stress and unhappiness and survive. A lovely post from Lesley Fletcher has got me thinking about how we make sense of the unpleasant things that happen to us, so we can go on. Now, I’ll stop for a moment so you can visit Lesley’s excellent blog and see for yourself what a skilled writer she is.

Right. Making sense of the sorrow that happens to us. Lesley’s post dealt with ritual (in this case religious ritual) as a way to help a person contemplate and deal with the sorrow that loss causes. She’s right; rituals can be really helpful. They don’t have to be religious, either. And since crime fiction so often includes characters who’ve suffered great loss and have had their lives upended, it makes sense that we’d see a lot of those comforting rituals in the genre.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, the family of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell is rocked when a weekend guest Dr. John Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot was invited for lunch on the day of the murder, so he arrives on the scene just after the killing. He and Inspector Grange work together to find out who killed Christow and why. And as Poirot gets to know the various members of Christow’s circle, he finds that more than one of them had a motive. One of the interesting things about this novel is the way little rituals are still maintained, and seem to help people deal with the murder. Luncheon is still served, although it’s a modified, subdued meal. Plans are made for the evening meal. Newspapers are still read. And it’s those small reminders that there is a sane world somewhere that help everyone to deal with the reality that someone everyone knows has just been killed.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe, we meet American ex-pat Andrea Curtin. She and her husband and their son Michael lived in Botswana for a few years while her husband was there on business. Michael fell in love with the place and decided to stay behind when his parents returned to the United States. He joined an eco-commune and all went well at first. Then, his parents got the terrible news that he’d disappeared. The official police report was that probably he lost his way and a wild animal got to him. It’s not an unlikely scenario either. Now, ten years on, Andrea has returned to Botswana. She wants to find out what happened to Michael and let go if I may put it that way by being able to lay him to rest. So she hires Mma. Precious Ramotswe to help her find the truth. Mma. Ramotswe agrees and slowly works her way through the history of the members of the eco-commune. It’s interesting how in this novel, greeting rituals and later, the simple ritual of a cup of bush tea help both women to deal with the case. And it’s easy to understand why Andrea wants the closure that a burial ritual can offer. She wants to make sense of what happened to her son.

Very often, witnesses are uncomfortable about talking to the police, even if they are completely innocent of any wrongdoing. Sometimes they feel more relaxed and able to think matters through if they have some ritual to fall back on while they’re thinking. There’s an example of what I mean by that in Helene Tursten’s  Detective Inspector Huss. Göteborg police detective Irene Huss and her team are investigating the death of wealthy financier Richard von Knecht, who was pushed (or jumped, or fell) to his death from his penthouse balcony. It’s not long before forensic evidence establishes that he was murdered, so Huss and her team want to talk to any witnesses who might have seen something. One of them is Fru Eva Karlsson. She happened to be on the street near the scene of von Knecht’s death, so she may have valuable information. Huss definitely wants to interview her and makes an appointment to come to Fru Karlsson’s home. But she knows that rushing Fru Karlsson or intimidating her won’t be productive. For Eva Karlsson, the ritual of providing coffee and pastry (lots, and lots of pastry) is an important part of sorting out her thoughts and telling her story reasonably. Huss leaves the interview a little overstuffed with food, but the ritual is worth it for her because it’s the way she is able to connect with this witness. 

In Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back, Oslo police detective Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate the murder of fifteen-year-old Annie Holland, whose body is found by a tarn near her village. Annie was well-liked in the village, and there are no defensive wounds or signs of rape. So the conclusion is that she was killed by someone she knew and probably trusted. That means that Sejer and Skarre have the thankless task of going through everyone in the village to find out who would have wanted to kill Annie and why. In the meantime, Annie’s father Eddie has to deal with the sudden, awful loss of his child. He exists in a mental haze in a way as Sejer and Skarre go through their investigation, but he tries to help. And in the end, he finds comfort in the ritual of preparing for Annie’s funeral. Those preparations help him to make what sense he can of her death and imagine himself going on.

In William Kent Kreuger’s Ordinary Grace, thirteen-year-old Frank Drum and his younger brother Jake are growing up in 1961 New Bremen, Minnesota. One awful summer, they come face to face with death as a boy they know is killed on a railroad track. Everyone thinks it was an accident, but there are some things that suggest it wasn’t. Then there’s another death. And then another death strikes tragically close to home for Frank. His world begins to more or less turn upside down as he has to cope with the terrible reality of sudden death. It doesn’t help matters that he’s also coping with the changes that accompany the beginning of adolescence. In the end though, part of what keeps the Drum family going on is the ritual of saying grace and making music. It’s those rituals in part that allow Frank to focus, make sense of what’s happened and put his world back together a little.

And it’s not just religious ritual or even a lengthy formal ritual that helps us make sense of things. In more than one novel in Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series, the Navajo ritual of introducing oneself helps everyone make sense of who people are and where they fit in. And Chee uses that more than once as he investigates cases. And in Angela Savage’s series featuring Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney, it’s the wai, or Thai greeting, that establishes relationships among people and helps them make sense of things.

Whether it’s as simple (but important) as a greeting, or as complex as planning a religious service, rituals help us impose a little order on what can sometimes seem like a very chaotic situation.

Thanks, Lesley, for the inspiration!



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Journey.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Helene Tursten, Karin Fossum, Tony Hillerman, William Kent Krueger

Talk That Talk*

Code SwitchingOne of the important skills that sleuths need to develop is the ability to communicate effectively. That seems like a blatantly obvious point to make, but if you think about it, communication is a key part of what sleuths do. They have to communicate with witnesses, suspects, the family of the crime victim, colleagues, superiors and more. The challenge of course is that we all speak differently and many of us speak different languages. So a sleuth who can speak more than one language and switch languages when necessary has a real advantage. In linguistics, moving from one language to another is called code switching, and we see it in crime fiction more than you’d think. I’ll just give you a few examples; I’m quite certain you’ll be able to give me many more than I could suggest.

Fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot will know that he is multilingual. His first language is Belgian French, but he is also fluent in English. And in several novels that feature Poirot, he code switches as it’s necessary. In Murder on the Orient Express for instance, he is traveling back to London on the famous Orient Express train when he gets caught up in a murder investigation. A fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett has been stabbed and Poirot and M. Bouc, a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits, have to search among the passengers for the killer. Interestingly (‘though not surprisingly) the passengers speak a number of different languages including English, French, Swedish, German and Italian. So Poirot has to code switch frequently as he interviews them. In the end, it’s what the witnesses tell him and what the evidence shows that helps Poirot figure out the truth. 

In the case of Poirot, he code switches in order to be comprehensible to others. But there are other reasons we might switch codes. One of them is to identify with or express solidarity with one or another group.  We see that in M.J. McGrath’s White Heat. One of McGrath’s protagonists is hunting guide Edie Kiglatuk. She’s half Inuit and for the most part, that’s how she self-identifies. She speaks English and uses that language with people who don’t speak Inuktitut, but she is also a native speaker of Inuktitut, and uses that language too. Edie gets embroiled in a case of multiple murder and greed when one of the men she’s leading on an expedition is shot. At first the police and the council of Elders puts it down as a tragic accident, but Edie isn’t sure of that. She’s even more convinced it was murder when there’s a second death. Throughout this novel we see her code switching as she talks to various people. She finds that skill quite useful when her investigation takes her from her own Ellesmere Island community to Greenland.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee also code switches and quite frequently it’s to express solidarity as much as anything else. A member of the Navajo Nation, he is a native speaker of that language and he self-identifies that way. So when he is investigating cases, he speaks to other members of the Navajo Nation in Navajo. Using Navajo in those situations also makes Navajo-speaking witnesses more comfortable speaking to Chee, so he’s able to learn more from his interviews than would a cop who only spoke American English. At the same time, Chee, like most Native Americans, is a fluent speaker of English. He uses that language when he communicates with non-Navajo witnesses, suspects and colleagues, and it proves very useful of course in novels such as Talking God, where Chee travels off the Reservation.

Travel is also the reason for which Helene Tursten’s Inspector Irene Huss code switches. She is based in Göteborg, so her first language is Swedish. But she code switches when the situation calls for it. For example, in The Torso, Huss makes use of her Danish when a lead on an unknown dead man takes her to Copenhagen. In this case, Huss finds that code switching is very much worth the effort, but effort it can be:


‘It was unbelievably tiring always having to strain to understand Danish…Up to now, she had managed pretty well, but it wasn’t always easy. Especially when people spoke Danish quickly.’


Huss also makes use of her English from time to time. In The Glass Devil for instance, she travels to London to track down a member of a Swedish family that seems to be targeted by a killer. In Huss’ case, it’s a matter of code switching for the purpose of being understood, and it’s interesting to see how she accomplishes it.

And then there’s Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney. Keeney is an Australian ex-pat who lives and works in Bangkok. She’s also spent time in France. So besides her native Australian English, Keeney is fluent in Thai and also speaks French. Being able to code switch sometimes turns out to be extremely useful for her. As an example, in The Half Child, Keeney has tracked down a lead in the investigation of an untimely death. Maryanne Delbeck was an Australian volunteer in a Pattaya children’s home when she jumped (or was pushed, or fell) from the roof of the building where she lived. Keeney’s been hired by Maryanne’s father Jim to find out what really happened to his daughter. Her search leads to a bar where she ends up playing pool with some American soldiers, one of whom has important information she needs. For that encounter she uses her English. But shortly thereafter she needs to make a hasty retreat. She escapes to another part of the bar, where some young Thai women are getting ready to do a show. She quickly code switches to Thai, and that allows her to hide herself just long enough to get out of trouble.

There are a lot of other examples too of fictional sleuths who find that code switching can be a very effective tool for solving cases. And as a side note, I think it’s worth mentioning that code switching is (at least in my opinion) best integrated into a novel when the author refers to it without using a lot of words in another language that readers may not understand. In other words, code switching that doesn’t interrupt the pace and flow of the story, or pull the reader out of it.  See now? Don’t you wish you’d paid more attention in your foreign language classes??  ;-)



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Van Morrison’s Walk and Talk.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Helene Tursten, M.J. McGrath, Tony Hillerman