Category Archives: James Craig

Never Heard Nothin’ but Bad Things About Him*

FatherhoodNot long ago I did a post about bad mothers in crime fiction. There are plenty of them in the genre. But never let it be said that I am sexist; there are plenty of equally dysfunctional fathers in crime fiction too. Now, in real life and in crime fiction, the majority of fathers love their children deeply. They would do anything to protect them and they would never dream of causing them harm. But there are some truly awful fictional fathers out there – the kind that will make you dads feel much, much better about your own parenting, even if you’ve made mistakes, as we all do. Let me just give a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday for Murder and Murder for Christmas) we meet Simeon Lee. He’s an unpleasant and tyrannical patriarch who made a considerable amount of money in the mining industry. He invites the members of his family to spend Christmas at the family home Gorston Hall and although no-one wants to go, no-one dares to refuse. As everyone arrives and Lee interacts with his guests, we see what a deeply dysfunctional and abusive person he is, and how that’s affected everyone. On Christmas Eve, Lee is murdered in his private room. Hercule Poirot is spending the holiday nearby and when news of the murder gets out, he works with Superintendent Sugden to find out who killed Simeon Lee and why. The better Poirot gets to know the Lee family and the kind of person the victim was, the more motives he sees for murder.

We also meet a dysfunctional father in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. General Guy Sternwood hires private investigator Philip Marlowe to stop book dealer Arthur Geiger from blackmailing him. Geiger had sent Sternwood an extortion letter that mentioned Sternwood’s daughter Carmen, and Sternwood wants the man to leave the family alone. By the time Marlowe tracks Geiger down though, it’s too late. Geiger has been killed and it seems that Carmen Sternwood is a witness. Marlowe doesn’t want her mixed up in the case and does his best to protect her. With Geiger dead, Marlowe thinks he’s done with the Sternwoods but when their chauffer is found dead of an apparent suicide, everything changes. Throughout this novel, we can see how dysfunctional the Sternwood family is, and Guy Sternwood bears quite a share of the responsibility for that. He’s aware of that too, as we see when he says this about Carmen and her sister:

 

‘Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat. Neither have I. No Sternwood ever had.’ 

 

It’s certainly not the story of a caring father who raises his daughters with love.

Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden begins with the murder of landscaper Warren Howe. At first the police suspect his wife Tina. That makes sense too as Howe was abusive and adulterous. What’s more, he was a very dysfunctional father to their children. The police can’t get the evidence they need to arrest Tina though, and the case is left to go cold. Ten years later, anonymous notes suggest that Tina really was the killer. So DCI Hannah Scarlett, who’s recently been named to head the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team, decides to re-open the case. As the team slowly sifts through the case, they discover that Tina might be the murderer, but so might several other people as well. One important key to this case comes from Oxford historian Daniel Kind. He’s trying to make sense of the curious shape of the garden at the cottage he’s recently taken, and discovers that the landscaping company who did the garden was Howe’s employer. As the threads of the case come together we see how past incidents have affected an entire group of people.

In one plot thread of James Craig’s Never Apologise, Never Explain, Inspector John Carlyle of Charing Cross Station gets a request from an acquaintance. Amelia Jacobs is a former prostitute who now works as maid for Sam Laidlaw, who’s still in the business. Jacobs is worried about local gangster Michael Hagger, the father of her employer’s son Jake. She thinks Hagger is a threat and wants Carlyle to warn him to stay away from Laidlaw and their son. Carlyle agrees and makes plans to do so. But he’s busy on another case, so by the time he turns his attention to Hagger it’s too late. Hagger has disappeared and so has Jake. Now Carlyle has to find them before something terrible happens to Jake – if it hasn’t already. I won’t spoil the book for those who haven’t read it yet, but I can say this. Hagger is far from a loving, caring and supportive father.

And then there’s Annie Hauxwell’s In Her Blood. In that novel, London investigator Catherine Berlin has been building a case against loan shark Archie Doyle. One day one of her informants, who goes by the name Juliet Bravo, is found dead in Limehouse Basin. Berlin feels that she put ‘Juliet’ at risk, so she feels a sense of responsibility for the young woman’s death. She decides to look into the matter and see if she can find out who’s responsible. But then she’s suspended for not following protocol in the process of dealing with her informant. This means she no longer has official access to any information about the murder. As if that’s not enough, Berlin faces a personal crisis. She is a registered heroin addict who’s been getting her supplies from Dr. George Lazenby under the registered addicts program. When she goes to Lazenby’s office for her regular appointment one afternoon, she discovers that he’s been murdered, and she becomes a suspect. With only seven days’ supply of heroin left, Berlin will have to find a new supplier before she goes into withdrawal and is no longer able to pursue either case. But she believes Archie Doyle may be the key to the whole thing. As we learn more about Doyle, we see that he is more complex than just a loan-sharking thug. He has a complicated family life and fairly awful fathering has been a big part of it. It’s a thread that runs through this novel.

There are lots of other cases too of truly dysfunctional, bad fathers. I won’t mention some of them because it’d give away spoilers. But I’ll bet you have a few examples of your own to share. And even these few examples should be enough to satisfy all of you fathers that you’re doing a pretty fine job.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong’s Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone. Listen to both versions – by The Undisputed Truth and The Temptations – and decide which one you like better.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Annie Hauxwell, James Craig, Martin Edwards, Raymond Chandler

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

These Are the Things I’ll Remember*

Extra TouchesThe main point of a well-written crime novel is usually to tell the story of a crime or crimes and the investigation that follows. There are of course myriad ways to go about telling that story, but when you get down to it, that’s at the core of most crime novels. But sometimes, other things about the novel – little incidents, minor characters, even a particular description – make a real impact on the reader too. An interesting comment exchange with Moira at Clothes in Books got me to thinking about those smaller flourishes that can add ‘flesh’ to a novel. It can be tricky to put them in because of course there’s the risk of taking away the focus from the plot and main characters. There’s also the risk of making the novel unwieldy. But when they’re done well, those flourishes and extra touches can stay in our minds and make a novel even more memorable. Of course, everyone’s different, but here are a few of those extra touches that have made an impact on me, to give you an idea of what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d), Miss Marple takes a walk one day to explore St. Mary Mead’s new council housing. That’s where she meets Heather Badcock, who lives in one of the new houses with her husband Arthur. Heather is very much an admirer of famous actress Marina Gregg, so she is especially excited that Marina and her husband Jason Rudd have bought Gossington Hall and will be hosting a charity fête there. On the day of the fête, Heather gets to meet her idol, who is kind enough to spend a few moments with her. Shortly afterwards, Heather sickens and dies of what turns out to be a poisoned cocktail. At first, the theory is that Marina Gregg was the intended victim and Heather took the poisoned cocktail by mistake. If that’s true, there are certainly suspects. But soon enough, it turns out that Heather was the target all along, Now Miss Marple works with her friend Dolly Bantry to find out who would have wanted to murder Heather Badcock and why. At the beginning of the novel, Miss Marple is recovering from a bout with illness and her nephew Raymond West has arranged for Miss Knight to stay with her. Miss Knight is well-intentioned, but she’s condescending and overprotective, and Miss Marple feels more than a little smothered. Her successful ruse to get rid of Miss Knight for a morning so she can go out exploring is a minor, but memorable scene in this novel. It’s funny and readers can sympathise with Miss Marple’s wish to be treated as a competent, capable adult.

In her comment, Moira mentioned Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. In that novel we meet wealthy and well-educated George and Jaqueline Coverdale, who share their home with George’s daughter Melinda and Jacqueline’s son Giles. The Coverdales hire a new housekeeper Eunice Parchman. At first, all goes well enough, although the family does think that Parchman is a little eccentric. The truth is though that Eunice Parchman is hiding a secret. She is determined not to let anyone find out that secret and practically pathological in her fear that someone will. When one of the family members accidentally finds out what the housekeeper has been hiding, the family is doomed, ‘though everyone is tragically unaware of it at the time. One of the minor characters in the novel is Jonathan Dexter, who is in a relationship with Melinda Coverdale. Dexter doesn’t play a critical role in the novel, but his reaction when he finds out what happens to the Coverdale family is memorable. It’s not dramatic, but it stays with the reader.

Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water begins in a notorious area of the Sicilian town of Vigatà called The Pasture. The Pasture is a meeting place for prostitutes and very small-time drug dealers and their clients. One morning, two workers who are paid to clean up The Pasture make a ghastly discovery. The body of powerful businessman and politician Silvio Luparello is in a car left abandoned the night before. Inspector Salvo Montalbano and his team are called in to investigate the death. On the surface of it, it looks as though Luparello died of heart failure. But Montalbano is not completely convinced, and requests two extra days to investigate. He soon finds that among Luparello’s family members, political allies and enemies, and business contacts there are several suspects. In the process of this investigation, Montalbano has an interview with Baldassare ‘Saro’ Montaperto, one of the clean-up workers who discovered the body. Saro has a secret to hide, and although it is relevant to the story, it’s not a major point. He’s more or less a minor character, but he is memorable. Saro and his wife earn very little money, but they have a sick son who needs special treatment. Saro’s desperation, a decisions he takes because of it, and Montalbano’s response stay with the reader (well, this one anyway).

In Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, Aboriginal Community Police Office (ACPO) Emily Tempest is called with the rest of her team to the scene of the murder of Albert ‘Doc Ozolins. The case looks on the surface like a drunken quarrel gone horribly wrong, and that’s where Tempest’s boss Bruce Cockburn wants to leave matters. In fact, John ‘Wireless’ Petherbridge, who’d had the quarrel with Ozolins, is arrested for the murder and there’s evidence against him. But Tempest is fairly sure that Wireless isn’t guilty. So she starts asking questions. It turns out that she was right. Ozolins had uncovered something that threatens some powerful people who want the case left alone. In the course of her investigation, Tempest talks to Ozolins’ brother Wishy, who gives her some interesting and important background information. While she’s there, she meets Wishy’s daughter Simone ‘Simmie.’ Simmie isn’t a major character in the novel, nor is she instrumental in solving the case. But she and Tempest discover they have in common a love for Emily Dickinson’s poetry and they forge a sort of bond. Simmie and Tempest’s interactions with her may be minor parts of the novel, but they are memorable.

And then there’s James Craig’s Never Apologise, Never Explain. Inspector John Carlyle from Charing Cross Station is called to the scene when Henry Mills reports the murder of his wife Agatha. Mills claims he was asleep at the time of the murder, and doesn’t know who killed his wife. He does say though that she had political enemies who wanted her dead. At first, neither Carlyle nor his assistant Joe Szyskowski believes Mills. In fact he’s arrested for the crime. But then Carlyle gets a clue that suggests very strongly that Henry Mills was right. So he begins searching into Agatha Mills’ past to find out how she would have made dangerous political enemies. In the meantime, Carlyle is working on another case as well, this one informally. One of Carlye’s acquaintances is Amelia Jacobs, a former prostitute who now keeps house and cleans for Sam Laidlaw, who’s still ‘in the business.’  Amelia is concerned because of Michael Hagger, a local gangster who’s the father of Sam’s son Jake. She believes Hagger may take Jake and she wants Carlyle to warn Hagger to stay away from Sam and their son. By the time he tries to contact Hagger though, it’s too late; Hagger has snatched Jake and disappeared. Now Carlyle will have to track them both through London’s underworld and try to find Jake before it’s too late. There’s a small scene during which Carlyle has a conversation with Amelia and Sam at their home, and it stays with the reader. It’s not essential to solving the mystery but it is memorable in its quiet way. It also shows the friendship between the two women – again, not key to the plot, but it adds to the story.

And that’s the thing about those well-done extra flourishes. They may not be important plot points or provide key clues to a mystery. But they add to a story and they are often the things we remember. Which of those little extra touches do you remember from your reading?

Now, let me suggest that your next blog-round stop should be Moira’s wonderful Clothes in Books. Talk about extra touches that can make a story memorable…  Moira has an expert eye for the way what we wear defines a character, an era, and a novel. Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration for this post!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Nik Kershaw’s The Bell.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, James Craig, Ruth Rendell

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Blunt Force Trauma

Blunt Force TraumaThe Crime Fiction Alphabet meme has reached the second stop of this year’s treacherous journey and I’m pleased to say that so far, we’re all safe. Thanks to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for tending to all of our travel details.

Today we’ve reached B’s B & B and as soon as I’ve settled in I’m going to put my hard hat on because my contribution for this stop is blunt force trauma. Not all crime fictional murderers are skilled with guns, have knives, or are strong enough to overpower a victim. But add in a heavy rock, a cricket bat or another such weapon and someone can commit murder with no special background. That’s possibly why so much crime fiction involves blunt force trauma. Here are just a few examples; I’m quite sure you can think of lots more than I could.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, Hercule Poirot is on his way from the Middle East back to London when he is persuaded to change his plans and investigate the murder of Louise Leidner. She and her husband, noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, are with a dig team a few hours from Baghdad. Louise herself is not much interested in the actual dig although she’s certainly intelligent enough to follow the team’s progress. Still, all goes more or less smoothly until she starts to see hands tapping at her window and strange faces peeking in. Leidner hires a nurse Amy Leatheran to look after his wife and allay her fears. Soon enough, Leatheran finds out that there are solid reasons for those fears. Louise Leidner was married before, and always believed that her first husband died, shot as a spy after World War I. But she’s been receiving threatening letters that seem to come from her first husband. Now she’s in fear of her life, and her worst fears are realised one afternoon when she is bludgeoned in her bedroom. As Poirot looks into the case, he discovers that Louise was a much more complex person that it seemed on the surface, and that more than one person had a good motive for murder.

Peter Robinson’s A Dedicated Man also deals with a case of blunt force trauma. Harry Steadman is an avid historian and a skilled archaeologist. When he can manage it financially, he and his wife Emma move to Yorkshire where it is Steadman’s goal to excavate the Roman ruins in the area. He’s excited about this possibility and waiting for all the necessary permissions. Then he’s bludgeoned to death one night and his body is found the next morning. DCI Alan Banks and his team begin their investigation. They’re slowly finding out what sort of person Steadman was, who his friends, rivals and so on were and what his life was like when there’s another murder. Now the team has to find out who would have wanted or needed to kill both victims. It turns out that both incidents are related to events in Steadman’s past and to relationships among the people in his life.

There’s also an effective use of blunt force trauma in Reginald Hill’s A Clubbable Woman, the first in his Dalziel and Pascoe series. In that novel, local rugby player Sam Connon takes a beating during a match and comes home with a concussion. He makes his way upstairs and falls into a deep sleep. When he wakes, he discovers that his wife Mary’s been bludgeoned in their own home. Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant Peter Pascoe investigate the case. The first and most likely suspect is of course Connon himself. He can’t really account for his time and as it turns out he had a motive. But Dalziel isn’t at all sure the case is that simple. So he and Pascoe continue to look into it. They find that matters are indeed a lot more complicated than it seemed on the surface, and that several other people, including members of Connon’s own rugby club, could have killed the victim.

Vicki Delany’s Winter of Secrets begins with a car accident during which Jason Wyatt-Yarmouth and Ewan Williams’ rented SUV skids on some ice and plunges into the Upper Kootenay River. Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith of the Trafalgar City Police takes the assignment and goes to the scene. When the SUV is pulled out, it’s immediately clear that both young men are dead and everyone thinks at first that both died in the plunge into the river. But forensic results tell a very different story. Wyatt-Yarmouth did indeed die as a result of the accident. But Williams was dead for several hours by the time the SUV went into the river. What’s more, his body shows evidence of blunt force trauma. Now Smith and Sergeant John Winters have to deal with a case of what looks like murder. As they search for answers, they discover that the two young men were lifelong friends. They were part of a group of wealthy young people who had come to the area for a skiing holiday. All of them were staying at the same B & B, so the investigation begins to focus on the young people who stayed there. Little by little, the evidence shows what really happened to Ewan Williams.

Inspector John Carlyle and his assistant Joe Szyskowski face a blunt force trauma murder in James Craig’s Never Apologise, Never Explain. They are called to the scene when Henry Mills discovers the body of his wife Agatha in their home in Russell Square. She’s been bludgeoned and Mills himself is the most likely suspect. He claims that he was asleep when the murder occurred, and that his wife was killed by political enemies. Carlyle and Szyskowski don’t believe Mills’ story at first and he’s arrested. But soon afterwards, Carlyle gets an important clue that Mills was telling the truth. So he and Szyskowski investigate the case more thoroughly. They find that Agatha Mills’ death had everything to do with political history, UK relations with Chile and diplomacy.

And then there’s Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Progressive Dinner Deadly. Retired teacher Myrtle Clover has joined a local book club and is hoping to change the book club’s ‘reading diet’ from just best-sellers to some richer, more enduring books. To her great annoyance, her suggestion soon morphs into an idea to change the club to a progressive dinner club. Members of the club decide to do a group dinner once a month, with the members moving among each other’s houses as the meal progresses. One member hosts appetizers, another hosts main dishes and so on. Myrtle isn’t at all happy about this, being not known for her gourmet cooking. But she grumpily agrees and the first progressive dinner is planned. To everyone’s shock, when the club members arrive at the home of Jill Caulfield, they discover that she has been killed by a blow to the head with a heavy pan. Her husband Cullen is the first suspect, but as Myrtle soon discovers, he’s far from the only one. The victim was a house-cleaner who had a habit of finding out people’s secrets, and that’s not the only motive Myrtle uncovers. Then there’s another death. Now Myrtle tries to find out how the two murders are related.

I know I’ve only mentioned a few examples of the way blunt force trauma is used in crime fiction. There are many, many more and it’s easy to see why. Picking up the nearest heavy object doesn’t require a lot of special skill or background, it does the job, and lots of different items can be used for the purpose. So, yeah, crime fiction is definitely a ‘hard hat area.’ ;-)

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elzabeth Spann Craig, James Craig, Peter Robinson, Reginald Hill, Vicki Delany

One Step Up and Two Steps Back*

Two Steps BackThere are some criminal investigations that move along in a straightforward way. They may not go very quickly but they move along. Others though are hampered by all sorts of snags and challenges. In those investigations it’s very often a case of ‘two steps forward and one step back.’ In crime fiction, either sort of investigation can make for a good story depending on how it’s handled. Straightforward investigations can have a solid pace and plenty of suspense. But investigations that are hampered can be realistic and those hurdles to overcome can add conflict and interest to a novel.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The A.B.C. Murders, Hercule Poirot gets drawn into the investigation of a series of murders that begins with the killing of an elderly shopkeeper Alice Ascher. The victim’s husband is the most likely suspect. The two had been estranged for a long time and he had a well-known habit of trying to get money from her. But when the second victim, twenty-three-year-old Betty Barnard, is found, the case doesn’t seem so simple. And then there’s another murder. And another. Before each murder Poirot gets a cryptic note warning him of when and where the next murder will be. But even that doesn’t help the investigation at first. None of the murders gives Poirot or the police much in the way of clues so the investigation stalls. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that all of the murders occur during the summer holiday season when there are crowds of tourists that make it easy for the murderer to disappear amongst them. Finally there’s a break in the case and Poirot finds out who the murderer is and what the motive is. But not before the case is stalled several times.

Some investigations are hampered by powerful players who don’t want the case solved. We see that for instance in Michael Connelly’s Angels Flight. In that novel, Harry Bosch investigates the murder of Howard Elias, a prominent attorney who’s gone up against the L.A.P.D. in several cases. Elias recently took on the case of Michael Harris, who was convicted of the rape and murder of twelve-year-old Stacey Kincaid. Harris has since said that the police coerced (and that’s putting it kindly) his confession and that he’s not guilty. Before Elias can present Harris’ case at trial though, he’s found shot. The more closely Bosch looks into the Elias shooting, the clearer it is that Michael Harris was telling the truth; he did not kill Stacey Kincaid. So now Bosch has to find out not only who shot Howard Elias but who Stacey’s real killer is. To do that, Bosch has to go up against the powerful L.A.P.D. top brass, who don’t want stories of their mishandling of the case being made public. Bosch is also hampered by some highly-placed people who don’t want the truth about Stacey Kincaid’s murder to come out. But he doesn’t let those ‘backward steps’ stop him and in the end, he learns who’s behind both killings.

In James Craig’s Never Apologise, Never Explain, London police inspector John Carlyle and his assistant Joe Szyskowski are called to the scene of the murder of Agatha Mills. The victim, who lived quietly with her husband Henry, wasn’t wealthy or powerful. With a lack of other kinds of motives, the police focus on Henry Mills as the most likely suspect. He insists he’s innocent though and that Agatha had political enemies. At first the police don’t believe him but then Carlyle gets a very important clue that shows Mills was telling the truth. So Caryle and Szyskowski look into the matter more deeply. They find that Agatha Mills’ murder is tied up with international relations and politics so that finding out the truth will be very difficult. And some important and highly-connected people do not want the facts about the murder to come out. So the detectives face all sorts of setbacks as they work their way to the truth.

Of course, there are lots of other things that can set an investigation back. For instance, sometimes key witnesses or other people involved in a case simply won’t tell what they know. There are a lot of reasons that might happen. When it does it can set a case back. For instance, Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle sees Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer investigating the disappearance of Andreas Winther. He hasn’t been home for a few days and his mother Runi has gotten concerned about him. At first the police don’t do much because it’s not that uncommon for a young man to go off for a few days without telling his mother about it. But when more time goes by with no sign of Andreas, Sejer begins to ask questions. Winther was last seen with his friend Sivert “Zipp” Skorpe, and from the moment Sejer meets Zipp, he’s sure that the boy knows more than he’s saying. But none of his efforts to get Zipp to talk are successful. Zipp has his own reasons for not telling everything he knows (and no; without spoilers I can tell you that Zipp did not kill Winther). The case is set back in this novel by the fact that people who could tell Sejer what he wants to know – won’t.

Sometimes an investigation is set back because the police follow up on the wrong leads, either because they’ve been lied to or because they don’t make the right deductions from the evidence. It takes skill to do that well; if it’s not handled deftly the investigator can look inept. But it does happen. For instance in Ian Rankin’s Exit Music, Inspector John Rebus and his  team investigate what looks like a mugging gone wrong. Russian dissident poet Alexander Todorov has been killed and his body found in a very bad section of Edinburgh. But Rebus doesn’t think it’s quite as simple as a case of mugging. Then there’s another murder that may be related, so Rebus continues to ask questions. It turns out that Todorov had attracted the attention of some powerful Russian businessmen, émigrés to Edinburgh, who didn’t like his politics. It also turns out that those people might have been closely associated with Rebus’ old nemesis ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty, a local crime boss. Following up on those possibilities leads Rebus in exactly the wrong direction – and sets the case back – until he finally gets the clue he needs to put him on the right path.

We also see that sort of plot device – following up on wrong leads – in several of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse stories. Very often Morse makes brilliant deductions about the cases he works, but they don’t always lead him in the right direction at first. In my opinion (so feel free to disagree if you do), Dexter handles those (mis)leads quite effectively. It’s hard to have the sleuth follow the wrong path without making that sleuth look bumbling.

There are also cases in which the investigation is set back when the prime suspect becomes a victim. That’s actually a common plot point in crime fiction so it has to be handled carefully or it becomes cliché. But when it’s done well it can be effective. For instance in Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate the death of Eva Ringmar, whose body is found in her bathtub. Her husband Janek Mitter is the chief suspect. Not only had they had difficulties recently, but he was very drunk on the night of the murder and can’t account for himself. In fact he doesn’t remember much at all about that night. So nobody believes he’s innocent. In fact he’s tried for and convicted of the murder. But even at the trial Van Veeteren wonders whether Mitter might be telling the truth. Because Mitter remembers nothing about his wife’s murder, he’s placed in a mental institution instead of a conventional prison. Then he’s murdered himself. Now the case, which seemed to have been solved, takes on a completely new cast and Van Veeteren and his team have to start all over. They find the key to both murders in Eva Ringmar’s past.

There’s an innovative approach to integrating ‘one step back’ into an investigation in Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, in which political science expert and academic Joanne Kilbourn investigates the murder of her friend rising political star Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. Boychuk is poisoned during a public speech and at first there are no strong leads, although the murder happened in full view of the audience. As a way of dealing with her grief Kilbourn decides to write a biography of Boychuk. In the process of learning about his life she finds that there was a side to her friend that no-one knew. And it turns out that the key to the murder is in Boychuk’s past. Not long after the investigation begins, Kilbourn contracts a mysterious illness that leaves her weakened and unable to eat very much. Although there are times when she feels better, the illness begins to take its toll and more than once she has to make up lost ground as the saying goes.

Having a case go ‘one step back’ is realistic and can add to the tension in a story. It can also be tiresome if it’s done too often or not effectively. What about you? Do you think this kind of plot point works? If you’re a writer, do you use this as a way to add tension and suspense to your stories?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s One Step Up.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Gail Bowen, Håkan Nesser, Ian Rankin, James Craig, Karin Fossum, Michael Connelly