Category Archives: James Craig

If You Only Knew*

OmnicientReaderSome crime writers build suspense in their novels by making the reader privy to information that the sleuth doesn’t yet have. The reader knows something’s going to happen, or knows a certain fact, but the sleuth hasn’t worked it out yet. On the one hand, that approach can add tension and invite the reader to find out how the sleuth will handle whatever it is she or he doesn’t yet know. It can also make for interesting perspectives on other characters. On the other hand, if it’s not done effectively, that strategy can make the sleuth seem incompetent, especially if it’s information you’d expect the sleuth ought to have or try to get. That said though, it’s used in a number of crime novels. Here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence asks Hercule Poirot to look into the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was murdered by her lodger James Bentley. There’s evidence against Bentley, and in fact he was convicted of the crime and is soon to be executed. But even though Spence himself collected the evidence, he’s begun to think that perhaps Bentley isn’t guilty. Poirot agrees to investigate and travels to the village of Broadhinny, where the murder takes place. He soon discovers that Mrs. McGinty had found out something about one of the villagers that it wasn’t safe for her to know. There are several suspects too; Broadhinny is full of ‘very nice people,’ but they all have their secrets. Then, there’s another murder. Now Poirot has to find out how the two deaths are connected, if they are. At one point, there’s a conversation between Edna Sweetiman and her mother, who runs the local post office. It turns out that Edna saw something on the night of the second murder. Poirot isn’t privy to that piece of information, but it’s a very interesting clue.

Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle is the story of the disappearance of Andreas Winther. One day, he meets up with his best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe as usual. By the end of that day, Andreas has disappeared. His mother Runi is concerned, and goes to the police. At first, Oslo police detective Konrad Sejer isn’t too worried. There are many legitimate reasons why a young man might take off for a few days without telling his mother. But when time passes and he still doesn’t return, Sejer begins to share Runi Winther’s fears. He starts to ask questions and interview people, beginning with Zipp. By this time in the novel, readers know much more about what happened to Andreas than Sejer does. Fossum uses that fact to build tension as Sejer tries to find out everything Zipp knows. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that Zipp didn’t kill his friend. But there is a lot that he knows, and that adds a thread of suspense to the interviews between Sejer and Zipp. Sejer of course is convinced that Zipp knows more than he is telling, and he’s determined to get the truth. For his part, Zipp has his reasons for not sharing everything that he knows.

T.J. Cooke takes a slightly different approach in Defending Elton. The body of an enigmatic young woman Sarena Gunasekera is found at the bottom of a cliff at Beachy Head near Eastbourne. In a very short time it’s established that she was stabbed to death and her body thrown over the cliff. Soon enough, the police have a suspect: Elton Spears. Spears is a mentally troubled young man who’s had brushes with the law before. He’s not particularly likeable and there’s evidence against him. But his solicitor Jim Harwood knows Spears, and takes on his case. This isn’t a traditional ‘whodunit’ kind of novel. Rather, the reader knows who the killer is early in the novel. The suspense in this novel comes from the question of whether the murderer will get away with the crime. In a way too the suspense comes from the question of motive. It’s not clear at first why the victim was killed; that’s revealed as the story evolves.

Several of the novels in Peter James’ Superintendent Roy Grace series also take the approach of giving the reader more information than the sleuth has. For instance, in Dead Simple, Grace and his team launch a major search when Michael Harrison disappears just days before his wedding to Ashley Harper. All the police know at first is that Harrison had gone out with some friends for a ‘stag night.’ Later that evening, their borrowed SUV was hit by another car, killing nearly everyone on board. Only one man survived that crash, but he is in a coma and dies without regaining consciousness. Harrison’s best friend and best-man-to-be Mark Warren was out of town on business and wasn’t with the group, so he doesn’t add much to Grace’s store of knowledge. Neither does Ashley, who says that she didn’t know what sort of prank the groom’s friends were planning. The reader is privy from the first few pages to what happened to Harrison. As the novel goes on, the reader also learns several things about some of the characters that Grace doesn’t know, at least at first. So part of the suspense in the novel lies in whether and how quickly Grace and his team can get that information.

In James Craig’s Never Apologise, Never Explain, John Carlyle of Charing Cross Station, and his assistant Joe Szyskowski are called to the scene when Henry Mills discovers the murdered body of his wife Agatha. There are no signs of home invasion, and nothing is missing. So the police make the logical deduction that Mills is responsible. His account of the killing is that his wife had enemies who were out to get her, but that’s a very thin alibi and he’s soon arrested and imprisoned. However, it’s not long before Carlyle finds a piece of evidence that adds considerable weight to Henry Mills’ story. So he and his team begin to look into the victim’s background to see who might have wanted to kill her. In the meantime, the reader has already learned, in a general sense, the answer to that question. We are given important background information that Carlyle doesn’t yet have. So part of the suspense in this novel is the ‘cat and mouse’ game between Carlyle and the person involved in the murder.

Gene Kerrigan uses a similar approach to building suspense in The Rage. Dublin DS Bob Tidey and Detective Garda Rose Cheney investigate when banker Emmet Sweetman is murdered in the hallway of his own home. Little by little they learn that Sweetman had been involved in some dubious ‘business transactions’ during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years. When the ‘boom years’ ended, Sweetman was in debt to some very nasty people who wanted their money back. In the meantime, we follow the story of Vincent Naylor, who’s recently been released from prison. He meets up again with his brother Noel and his girlfriend Michelle Flood, along with some other trusted friends. Together they plan a major heist: the armed robbery of a cash transfer vehicle. Their target is Protectica, a security company that moves cash among banks and businesses in the area. Tidey doesn’t know about these plans, and he doesn’t know at first that the group do in fact steal the money. But then everything falls apart for the thieves, and Vincent Naylor decides to take his own kind of revenge. Tidey doesn’t know that either at first, and Kerrigan builds tension as the reader learns about the robbery and its aftermath from the thieves’ point of view and, later, from Tidey’s.

Sleuths can’t know everything, so it’s logical that there would be some things they wouldn’t be privy to, at least at first. And it can work very effectively to have the reader know more than the sleuth, at least at first. That way the reader gets a broad perspective on a given story. At the same time, this approach needs to be handled carefully so that the detective isn’t made out to be too incompetent for credibility. What are your thoughts on this strategy? Do you enjoy novels where you know more than the sleuth does, at least at first?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Arlo Guthrie’s Someday.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gene Kerrigan, James Craig, Karin Fossum, Peter James, T.J. Cooke

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