Category Archives: Henning Mankell

Passes on Her Painful Information*

Dying CluesIt would make murder investigations much easier if victims were able to tell the police who killed them. Of course, today’s technology means that DNA and other evidence can often provide lots of information. But it would save a great deal of work if the victims could speak. In crime fiction anyway, they sometimes actually do. One of the plot points that we see in crime fiction is the dying clue. The victim says something, is grasping something or in some other way implicates someone in the murder. That’s a tricky plot point because of course, if the sleuth understands the clue straight away, there’s not much of a plot. But if it’s done well, the dying clue can add to a story.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery, James McCarthy is arrested for the murder of his father Charles. There’s plenty of evidence against him, too. For one thing, his father objected to his choice of fiancée. For another, father and son were seen quarreling loudly just before the murder. McCarthy claims that he is innocent, and his fiancée Alice Turner believes him. She begs the police to look into the matter more closely. Inspector Lestrade thinks he has his man, but he agrees to look at the case again. He asks Sherlock Holmes to go over the evidence and Holmes and Watson investigate. When they question McCarthy, he says that his father said something just before he died. At first it sounds like the rambling of someone who’s losing consciousness. But Holmes is able to deduce that in fact, the dead man gave his son a dying clue.

Agatha Christie used dying clues in several of her stories. In Five Little Pigs, for example, Carla Lamerchant hires Hercule Poirot to find out who killed her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time, his wife Caroline was the most likely suspect and in fact, she was arrested, tried and convicted. She died a year later in prison. While she was alive, she claimed to be innocent, but never put up much of a fight to defend herself. Now, sixteen years later, her daughter wants the truth. Poirot interviews the five people who were present on the day of the murder, and also gets a written account from each one. In the end, he finds out from those accounts who killed Crale and why. Interestingly enough, he also finds that Crale left a dying clue. It wasn’t as obvious as saying or writing the killer’s name, but it’s clear from the clue that Crale was identifying his killer.

Several Ellery Queen mysteries also make use of the dying clue. To take just one instance, in The Last Woman in His Life, wealthy jet-setter John Levering Benedict III invites Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, to use his guest house for a getaway weekend. Also present for the weekend are Benedict’s three ex-wives, his attorney and his attorney’s secretary. They’re all staying at the main house, and as you can imagine, the atmosphere is ripe for murder. One night, Queen gets a frantic call from Benedict, who says he’s been killed. Queen rushes over from the guest house but by the time he gets there, it’s too late. Benedict is dead of a blow from a heavy statuette. The only physical clues are a wig, an evening gown and a pair of gloves. In the end, Queen does discover who the killer is, but it turns out that Benedict told him from the very beginning. During the telephone call, he started to tell Queen who his killer was. Had he finished, or had Queen understood the meaning of what Benedict did say, it would have led straight to the killer.

There’s no doubt as to the dying clue Maria Lövgren leaves when she and her husband Johannes are murdered in Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers. Ystad police detective Kurt Wallander and his team investigate when the Lövgrens are brutally attacked in their rural farmhouse. Johannes doesn’t survive the attack, but Maria does – barely. She’s rushed to hospital, but medical care can’t save her. Still, she lives long enough to say the word foreign. That word ignites the simmering resentment many locals feel against immigrants. Now the team is up against two murder cases, media hype and an ugly undercurrent of anti-immigration sentiment. Then there’s another murder. The team pieces together what happened, and Maria Lövgren’s dying clue has its role to play.

There’s also an interesting dying clue in Shona (now writing as S.G.) MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. Seaton is undermaster of the grammar school in 17th Century Banff, Scotland. He is shocked one morning when he hears that the body of local apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson has been discovered in his classroom. Davidson’s been poisoned and the most likely suspect is his romantic rival Charles Thom. But Thom insists that he’s innocent and asks Seaton, who’s a friend, to clear his name. Seaton has no experience in murder investigations, and he has his own reasons for not wanting to call a lot of attention to himself. But for the sake of the friendship he agrees. It turns out that someone else did indeed kill Davidson, and bit by bit, Seaton finds out who it was. Along the way, he discovers that Davidson left a dying clue, something he said just before his death. Although the clue’s not understood correctly at first, when Seaton figures out what Davidson actually said, it’s a clear pointer to the killer.

Most killers know their victims, so it makes sense that a victim who’s thinking clearly could leave a helpful dying clue. But in a lot of cases that’s not possible. And even where it is, dying clues can be garbled, misunderstood or otherwise not be as useful at the start as you’d think. And after all, how interesting would a crime novel be if the clue was clearly understood from the beginning? But in the end, dying clues can be very helpful, and they can certainly add an interesting plot point to crime fiction. Which ‘dying clue mysteries’ have you liked? If you’re a writer, do you use dying clues?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Laura.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Henning Mankell, Shona MacLean

As the Torch is Passed From Hand to Hand*

PassingtheTorchRight now my third Joel Williams novel is in the hands of a publisher, and I’m waiting to hear whether it’ll be a go. In the meantime, I’m thinking about the direction that the series might eventually take. At some point (and I don’t yet know when that point will be), Williams will realistically retire, both from his professional position and from the series. Or at the very least, his role in the series will change if he’s to age in something like real time. And that’s fine; to me that’s realistic. The question is: how would that process affect the series? 

One possibility (and it’s got real appeal for me actually) is to ‘bring up’ another character who will eventually take the lead. I already actually have one in mind. That, to me, is realistic too. Younger detectives learn their job, become good at it and then lead investigations in real life. Why shouldn’t they in crime fiction too? And there’s no reason that can’t happen with amateur sleuths as well. 

But what does that do to a series? Obviously the series has to change as the characters evolve and develop. That’s all to the good. And there are some series where this kind of change has been successful. For instance, as Håkan Nesser’s Maardam series begins, Inspector Van Veeteren leads the investigation team. The other characters certainly play important roles, but he’s the one in charge. As the series has gone on though, Van Veeteren has left the police force and now has a different life of his own. In the most recent novels, he’s hasn’t supervised the investigation. Instead, other police detectives have started to take the lead. Both Intendant Münster and DI Ewa Moreno have had the opportunity to take charge of investigations and the results have been successful. Of course, Van Veeteren is still a part of the series, but it’s clear that the torch is being passed if I can put it that way. 

We see a similar transition in Arnaldur Indriðason’s series. Many of the novels feature Inspector Erlendur in the lead, and those stories have been both highly regarded and successful. But recent books have featured other team-mates more or less heading up investigations. Both Detective Elinborg and Detective Sigurdur Óli have taken ‘starring roles,’ and that’s been very successful too. It will be very interesting to see whether there will be any new novels featuring those detectives again, even if Erlendur doesn’t appear in them. 

Colin Dexter’s series featuring Inspector Morse ended with The Remorseful Day. As of that novel, Morse’s second-in-command Sergeant Lewis was still that: second in command. But Dexter fans will know that on television anyway, Lewis became the lead character in his own series. He was promoted, he got his own team and they pursued new investigations. That’s realistic. Lewis is smart and skilled and it makes sense that he’d move along in the ranks so to speak. I wonder what it would be like if Dexter wrote some Lewis novels… 

Fans of Louise Penny’s Three Pines novels have become accustomed to Chief Inspector Armand Gamache as the leader of the investigations in that series. I don’t want to give away spoilers for those who haven’t read these novels, but I can say that Penny has laid the groundwork for a new direction in the series It will be very interesting to see what happens as some of the other team members who’ve figured in the series continue to develop and as Gamache makes some choices too. 

Henning Mankell’s The Troubled Man is, so far as I know (so correct me if I’m wrong please), the last of his Kurt Wallander series. But what if that torch were passed to Wallander’s daughter Linda? What sort of series might that make? What about a series featuring Ian Rankin’s Siobhan Clarke, whom fans will know as Inspector John Rebus’ second-in-command. What if she featured in her own series? What about Karin Fossum’s Jacob Skarre?  In one way, it would be very realistic to have those characters assume leadership roles. They’ve evolved and developed and matured over time so it’s only natural that they’d feature in their own series. 

On the other hand, part of all of this is the author’s vision. That’s the ‘spark’ behind many series and without it characters can become flat and dull. If the author’s vision of a series doesn’t include passing the proverbial torch, then the series may not have its original appeal.  It’s also a matter of the characters themselves. They may be excellent characters in certain roles, but not as effective if they’re protagonists. So building a new series around one of them is a risk. 

What do you think? Does it make sense for a second-in-command or other character to take the lead in a new series? Or should a series end when the original protagonist stops investigating? If you’re a writer, what’s your vision for your work? Have you thought about where you’ll take your series when your protagonist no longer investigates? 

As for me, I’m thinking about it, but it’s not something I have to decide today. Joel Williams still has some good years ahead of him. ;-)

 

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dan Fogelberg’s Forefathers.

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Filed under Arnaldur Indriðason, Colin Dexter, Håkan Nesser, Henning Mankell, Ian Rankin, Karin Fossum, Louise Penny

I Was Thinking About Something Else I Must Admit*

UnexpectedCluesWe usually think of detectives as solving cases by tirelessly tracking down clues and solving crimes by putting them together. And detectives do indeed work very hard as they’re looking for clues. But sometimes, clues and important leads come not from the hard work that sleuths do but from chance remarks or observations that happen when the sleuth is thinking of something else. And the wise detective is open to those things and fits them, sometimes subconsciously, into the puzzle. When that puzzle piece falls into place we can see how detectives work on cases even when they’re not working on cases, if I can put it that way.

In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies for instance, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the stabbing death of the 4th Baron Edgware. All of the evidence points to his wife, actress Jane Wilkinson. But at the time of the murder, she claims she was attending a dinner party in another part of London, and all of the other people at the party are prepared to swear that she was there.  So Poirot and the police have to look for the killer elsewhere. And given that Lord Edgware was a very unpleasant person, there’s no lack of suspects. Then there’s another death. And another. Poirot is sure the deaths are connected, and so they are, but at first, he doesn’t know how, nor can he figure out exactly who the killer is. He has a lot of the clues, but they don’t really fit into place. Then one night he and Hastings go to the theatre to take his mind off the case. On the way out of the theatre afterwards, Poirot overhears a remark that gives him the key to the whole case. And when he follows up on the idea that the comment gives him and finds out who is behind the events in the story.

Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers is the story of the murders of Johannes and Maria Lövgren, who lived on a farm not far from Ystad. At first it looks like a robbery gone wrong, but the murders were a lot more brutal than would be expected from a robber who panicked and killed. Nothing of value has been stolen, and the couple wasn’t wealthy anyway. So although Inspector Kurt Wallander isn’t convinced that this was a chance murder, there isn’t much to go on at first. The Lövgrens didn’t have any known enemies or a fortune to leave a desperate relative, so there doesn’t seem to be a personal motive for the murder either. The only clue that the police have to go on is that Maria Lövgren said the word foreign just before she died. There’s a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment at the moment, so if the killer is a foreigner, there are likely to be real repercussions and in fact, when the news of that dying word gets to the media, it does spawn a backlash. Wallander and his team have to deal with that as well as with the original case that doesn’t seem to be getting far. Bit by bit the team finds out about the victims’ lives, and that gives them some leads. But they really can’t put the pieces together. Then a chance but crucial clue gives Wallander a vital piece of the puzzle and after months of effort, he and the team find out who killed the Lövgrens and why. Since that clue comes up while Wallander is thinking of something else, it’s interesting to see how he fits it into that puzzle.

In Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, it’s not the police but someone else who makes sense from what you might call a casual but important clue. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team have been working on the case of the murder of Eva Ringmar, whose body was found in her bathtub. Her husband Janek Mitter is the most likely suspect; he was in the home at the time of the murder and he was so drunk that he has little memory at all of what happened. He’s arrested, tried and convicted, but since he doesn’t remember the murder, he’s remanded to a mental institution instead of a regular prison. But he’s always claimed that he was innocent, and Van Veeteren has had doubts about the case. Then, bit by bit, Mitter’s memory returns. Before he can tell anyone what really happened though, he himself is killed. Now Van Veeteren and the team know that Mitter was telling the truth, and they re-open the Ringmar case. Bit by bit the team gets a picture of what Eva Ringmar was like, and they slowly figure out who the killer might be. But one person they want to talk to seems to have disappeared. Without that person the case can’t really move along. And then a hotel night clerk who’s subconsciously been following the case gets a piece of information. Without doing so consciously, he puts together that information and what he’s heard about the case. And that gives Van Veeteren and the team just what they need.

Karin Fossum’s He Who Fears the Wolf  tells the story of the murder of Halldis Horn, whose body is found in the front yard of her home. There isn’t much evidence as to who’s responsible, since the victim lived alone in a remote area. But there are witnesses who claim that the killer is Errki Johrma, a mentally ill young man who was seen in the area. Inspector Konrad Sejer wants to interview Johrma, but he’s disappeared. The police get a few pieces of evidence from the crime scene, but not enough to really pursue a case. Then the team gets involved in investigating a bank robbery. In this instance, it’s more than just trying to retrieve the money; this robber has taken a hostage. So the police have to move as quickly as they possibly can to try to make sure no harm comes to the hostage. The team is looking at the bank’s surveillance footage when one of them notices something about it that gives a vital clue to the Halldis Horn murder. That’s the first real key that those two events are related, and it starts to point the team in the right direction.

And then there’s James Craig’s Never Apologise, Never Explain. Charing Cross Station Inspector John Carlyle and his assistant Joe Szyskowski are called to the scene when Agatha Mills’ bludgeoned body is discovered in her home not far from the British Museum. Her husband Henry is the first suspect, but he claims that he was sleeping and didn’t hear anything. What’s more, he claims that his wife had enemies who were out to get her and that they are responsible. As you might expect, the police don’t believe Mills and he is promptly arrested. At first the crime seems to be solved, but Carlyle isn’t really completely sure. The police haven’t turned up any motive for Mills to kill his wife, but if he didn’t, there seems to be no good lead to the person who did. Then, Carlyle happens to see a homeless person digging through the rubbish near the Mills home. From that casual encounter, when he wasn’t even ‘officially’ looking for evidence, Carlyle gets a vital clue that puts him on the beginning of the right trail.

It’s interesting how we sometimes get our best ideas and the best clues for dealing with what we face in life when we’re not really actively looking for them. The same’s true of detectives. These are only a few examples; I’ll bet you can think of lots more…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Waifs’ Attention. 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Håkan Nesser, Henning Mankell, James Craig, Karin Fossum

I Make Such Pretty Speeches*

SpeechesDo you feel comfortable speaking in public? No? Well if you don’t, you’re not alone. The most common fear, so we’re told, is the fear of speaking in public. But the fact is that nearly all of us have to make a presentation, give a speech or in some other way speak in public at least sometimes. You might think that sleuths, both real and fictional, wouldn’t have to do this but they do. In fact, the ability to speak comfortably in public can make a real difference in a case even if it doesn’t lead to major clues.

In Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers for instance, Ystad police inspector Kurt Wallander and his team have a very difficult case on their hands. Johannes and Maria Lövgren have been brutally attacked on their rural farm. Johannes is dead, but Maria lives long enough to say the word foreign before she too dies. There’s a lot of simmering resentment against foreigners in Sweden and this lurid case will not help matters at all. In fact it leads to another death. So Wallander has to do the best he can to put out the proverbial flames in all of his public comments. He doesn’t relish the prospect of making public speeches; he’d rather be solving the case. But if he doesn’t talk to the press, the anti-immigration hysteria will only get worse, and so will the perception that the police aren’t doing anything to solve the murders. So a couple of  times in this novel, Wallander has to update the media on what the team is doing and at the same time discount the theory that the only solution to the case is to go after foreigners and immigrants.

We see a similar use of public speaking skill in Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs.  When the gruesome discovery of a left foot clad in a training shoe is made near the Norwegian town of Stavern, Inspector William Wisting and his team are put on the case. Soon afterwards, another foot is discovered. Then there’s another discovery. Soon, there are several theories about the deaths. One is that a twisted kind of killer is at loose, and that of course makes the locals very uneasy. So one of the jobs that the police have to accomplish is to reassure everyone that people are safe, and that the police are doing everything possible to find out what happened to the victims To that end, Wisting has to give more than one public speech to the press. He’s hardly frightened of doing so, but he is concerned about giving the right impression. So he thinks carefully about what he’s going to tell the media, and he considers his presentations before he gives them. In order to try to find out whom the feet might belong to, Wisting’s team looks at all of the people reported missing in the last year. As it turns out, most of them come from the same elder care home, so the team starts to focus its investigation there. What’s more, most of the people have a connection that goes back to the days of World War II, so there is a possibility that these deaths are connected to some long-ago events. Wisting’s public speaking doesn’t solve the crimes, but it does keep people calm enough to let the police do their jobs.

There’s quite a lot of public speaking in Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn series. Kilbourn is a political science expert and an academician. So of course as a professor she does her share of public speaking in class, at conferences and so on. But it goes further than that. As the series featuring her goes on, she gets a position at NationTV on a political discussion show. And in A Killing Spring, it’s that forum that allows her to unsettle the killer of a colleague Reed Gallagher enough for that person to admit guilt. She arranges to make it clear to the killer that she knows what happened to Gallagher, and it’s very interesting to see how she uses the very public nature of NationTV to do so. This series also shows how dangerous public speaking can be. Perhaps I shouldn’t mention this in case some of you are really nervous about speaking to an audience but in Deadly Apperances, the first of the Joanne Kilbourn novels, her friend Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is poisoned during an important political speech. Trust me, though; poisoning isn’t common during speeches. Really. It’s not.

One of the hardest things to do – even harder really than simply speaking in public – is to be funny in public. Standup comedians have to do ‘double duty.’ They have to be comfortable speaking in public and they have to think of material that will keep people laughing. That’s what Alan Orloff’s Channing Hayes faces in Orloff’s Last Laff series. The Last Laff is a comedy club in Northern Virginia that’s co-owned by Hayes and Artie Worsham. In Killer Routine, one of the comics Heather Dempsey disappears just before she’s supposed to do her routine. At first it looks as though she got too nervous at the last moment and simply fled. But Hayes doesn’t think so. Heather is the sister of Hayes’ fiancée Lauren Dempsey, who was killed in a tragic car accident, so he feels a special need to find Heather and see that she’s all right. It turns out though that he’s not the only one looking for Heather. She’s been keeping some secrets of her own, and Hayes will have to look more closely into her life if he’s going to find out what happened to her. At the same time, he’s been battling back from that same car wreck that killed his fiancée. He’s had to deal with guilt, grief, physical wounds and more, so he’s been very uncomfortable about going on stage again. This novel gives an interesting look at what it’s like for a nervous comic to take (or re-take) the stage.

Even mystery novelists have to do their share of speaking in public. Just ask Martin Canning, whom we meet in Kate Atkinsons’s One Good Turn. He’s a crime fiction writer who’s scheduled to appear as part of a panel at the Edinburgh Arts Festival. Canning isn’t much of a one at all for public speaking. He’d rather live in the dream world he’s created with his novels than in the real one most of the time. But his agent has convinced him that he’ll benefit greatly from the publicity that comes from making public speeches. So he agrees to go. When he gets to Edinburgh, Canning witnesses a car accident between a blue Honda and silver Peugeot. Both drivers get out of their cars and within seconds they’re arguing. Then, the driver of the Honda wields a baseball bat and tries to attack Paul Bradley, the Peugeot driver. Canning, who’s never done a courageous thing in his life, throws his computer case at the Honda driver and saves Bradley’s life. Feeling duty-bound to be sure Bradley is safe, Canning accompanies him to the local hospital. That’s how Canning gets drawn into a case of murder, deception and theft. In the light of the rest of the story, joining in a panel of crime writers, even in public, is not so scary…

But many people do find public speaking quite difficult. Do you? Which novels have you read where it plays a role?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from James V. Monaco and Mack Gordon’s I Can’t Begin to Tell You.

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Filed under Alan Orloff, Gail Bowen, Henning Mankell, Jørn Lier Horst, Kate Atkinson

Well, Life on the Farm is Kinda Laid Back*

FarmsErm… Not always. I didn’t grow up on a farm, but I did grow up near some of the most fertile land in the U.S. so farms were a big part of the scenery. And if you stop to think about it, farming is a fairly important part of life whether you live anywhere near farm country or not. Besides the delicious fresh food, one of the best things about farms from my perspective (I have never claimed to have a psychologically well-adjusted view ;-) ) is that they make terrific settings for murder mysteries. They are filled with good hiding places for bodies, and farm communities tend to be smaller and more close-knit than some other communities, so there are all kinds of opportunities for murder motives. And then there’s the fact that some farms are isolated, so all sorts of things can happen there…

The farm belonging to Rowley Cloade figures in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide). Cloade is trying to manage the farm in the financially straitened years during and immediately after World War II and he’s just getting by. He’s not as worried about money as some farmers are though because his wealthy uncle Gordon Cloade has always promised to take care of the family financially. Then, to everyone’s shock, Gordon Cloade marries a young widow Rosaleen Underhay. Before he can alter his will to protect his family, Cloade is tragically killed in a bomb blast. Now Rosaleen is set to inherit all of her husband’s considerable fortune, leaving his family with nothing. Then a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden comes to the area. He drops hints that Rosaleen’s first husband didn’t die as she’d always said but is alive. If that’s true then she can’t inherit. So the Cloades have every interest in finding out whether Arden’s story is true. When he is killed one night, Rowley Cloade and the rest of his family are caught up in both a family squabble and a murder investigation. Hercule Poirot has already heard the story of Cloade’s marriage and of Rosaleen’s first husband, so when two members of the Cloade family approach him to investigate, he’s interested in doing so.

In Ngaio Marsh’s Died in the Wool, New Zealand MP Flossie Rubrick finds out just how deadly farms can be. She goes to an isolated sheep pen on her husband’s farm to prepare an important speech, but doesn’t return. Three weeks later, her body turns up inside a bale of wool. Rubrick’s nephew writes to Inspector Roderick Alleyn asking him to investigate and since this could very well involve matters of national security Alleyn travels to New Zealand to look into the case. When he arrives, Alleyn gets to know the various members of the victim’s family and he finds out that more than one member had a good reason to want her dead. In the end, the murder turns out to be related to an important secret that Rubrick had discovered about one family member in particular.

Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers also shows how deadly farms can be. Johannes Lövgren and his wife Maria have a small farm not far from Ystad. One night they are brutally murdered. Ystad detective Kurt Wallander and his team are called in immediately. It’s too late to save Johannes, but Maria lives for a short time. She recovers consciousness just long enough to say the word foreign before she too dies. There is already simmering anti-immigration sentiment in the area and when the press learns what Maria Lövgren said just before she died, the situation gets even more inflamed and another murder is committed. Now Wallander has to deal with multiple murders as well as the threat of more violence. This case turns out to be simpler than it seems on the surface and one of the clues to the case turns out to be on the farm.

Linda Castillo’s series featuring police chief Kate Burkholder takes place in and around the Amish farming community of Painters Mill, Ohio. In Sworn to Silence, we learn that Burkholder was a member of the Amish community herself until she left it, for very good reasons, sixteen years earlier. Shortly after her return, the body of a young girl is found in a snowy field on a farm belonging to Isaak and Anna Stutz. Then another body is discovered. And another. These murders turn out to be connected to the reason that Burkholder left Painters Mill in the first place, so if she’s gong to catch the killer, Burkholder is also going to have to confront her own past. Besides the murder investigation, this series also gives readers a look at Amish farms and life in an Amish community.

Still interested in Amish farms? I don’t usually discuss films very much on this blog, but do see Peter Weir’s 1985 film Witness. It’s a suspenseful mystery and much of it takes place in the Amish community of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. In my opinion (so feel free to differ with me if you do), it’s an excellent portrayal of the Amish lifestyle as well as a solid mystery. Oh, and did I mention it features both Harrison Ford and Viggo Mortensen?? ;-)

Oh, right. Farms. ;-)   Farmland turns out to be very important in Patricia Stoltey’s The Prairie Grass Murders. Former Vietnam veteran Willie Grisslejon pays a visit to the Illinois farming community where he grew up. He discovers the body of an unknown man in a field and tries to notify the local sheriff. That’s when he’s locked up as a vagrant and ordered to have a psychiatric evaluation. Willie calls his sister Sylvia Thorn, who at the time of this novel is a Florida judge, and she travels to Illinois to arrange for her brother’s release. When Willie insists on returning to the site where he found the body, they find that it has disappeared and there’ve been obvious attempts to cover up any trace of the dead man’s existence. Now Sylvia and Willie get involved in a mystery involving land disputes, corruption and greed – and a farm that seems to be the focus of a lot of what’s going on. Much of the novel takes place in the beautiful prairie farmland of Illinois.

In Martin Edwards’ The Hanging Wood, we meet Orla Payne, who works at St. Herbert’s, a residential library in the Lake District. Twenty years earlier, her brother Callum disappeared and was never found, but Orla has always believed he was murdered. She wants DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team to investigate, but at first Scarlett doesn’t take her request seriously. And it’s hard to blame Scarlett for her reluctance. Orla Payne is unstable at the best of times and when she contacts Scarlett she’s been drinking so Scarlett doesn’t make it a priority. Then, Orla Payne’s body is discovered buried in a silo on Lane End Farm. There’s no way to tell at first whether she was murdered or committed suicide, so now, Scarlett and her team have a very new case to solve as well as the cold case of Callum Payne’s disappearance. With help from Oxford historian Daniel Kind, Scarlett discovers the truth about the farm, the history of the area and its families, and what really happened to Orla and Callum Payne.

Farming is a way of life for a lot of people and farms are an important part of the economy. They’re also really interesting settings for murder. I know I haven’t mentioned all of the great farm-related mysteries out there (for instance, I’m only getting acquainted with Nelson Brunanski’s Saskatchewan prairie/farmland novels, so I’m not really equipped to comment on them yet). Which ones have you enjoyed?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Denver’s Thank God I’m a Country Boy.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Henning Mankell, Linda Castillo, Martin Edwards, Nelson Brunanski, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Stoltey