Category Archives: James Lee Burke

On a Long, Lonesome Highway*

Deserted RoadsIf you’ve ever taken a long drive, you know how empty and lonesome a road can be. There are certain stretches of road where it’s very unwise to drive unless you have a car that’s in dependable shape, and plenty of fuel. But even those things don’t always keep a person out of trouble when the road is long and fairly empty. That sort of setting is tailor-made for a crime fiction story for obvious reasons. So it’s little wonder we see it an awful lot. Here are just a few examples; I’m sure you’ll be able to come up with a lot more.

In Agatha Christie’s The Kidnapped Prime Minister, Hercule Poirot gets a visit one evening from the Leader of the House of Commons and a member of the War Cabinet. Prime Minister David MacAdam has apparently been kidnapped while en route to Paris for an important speech he was scheduled to make. World War II is in the offing and MacAdam had planned a ‘rally the troops’ speech. But there are many important people who want to bring down MacAdam’s government and move England in the direction of appeasement. So this particular speech is of critical importance. Poirot and Captain Hastings are given one day to find MacAdam and catch his kidnappers, since the speech is supposed to take place the next evening. They get started immediately and in the end, they find out what has happened to the prime minister. They discover that a certain stretch of lonely road played an important part in the story’s events.

In James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos, New Iberia, Louisiana cop Dave Robicheaux and his partner Lester Benoit are assigned to transport Jimmie Lee Boggs and Tee Beau Latiolais to Louisiana’s state prison at Angola. Both men have been convicted of murder, but Tee Beau’s grandmother Tante Lemon claims that he’s innocent. She says he was with her at the time of the murder for which he’s been convicted, but that no-one will listen to her. She’s asked Robicheaux to help her clear Tee Beau’s name, but Robicheaux doesn’t think there’s much he can do about it. He does get drawn into the case though. While he, Benoit and their two prisoners are en route to Angola, Boggs and Tee Beau escape, leaving Benoit dead and Robicheaux badly injured. Here’s how Burke describes the place where the escape happens:


‘The rain struck my face, and I rolled the window up again. I could see cows clumped together among the trees, a solitary, dark farmhouse set back in a sugarcane field, and up ahead an old filling station that had been there since the 1930s. The outside bay was lighted, and the rain was blowing off the eaves into the light.’


Not a place where one wants to be injured. Still, Robicheaux survives. He gets his chance to go after Jimmie Lee Boggs, too. An old friend Minos Dautrieve, who’s now with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) asks Robicheaux to go undercover to bring down New Orleans crime boss Tony Cardo. Robicheaux isn’t willing to do the job until he finds out that Boggs has been working with Cardo. When he learns that, Robicheaux sees his chance to get Boggs.

In Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances we meet political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn. In this, the first in this series, we learn that Kilbourn is mourning the loss of her husband Ian, who was murdered one night on the way back from a colleague’s funeral. Both Deadly Appearances and A Colder Kind of Death tell the story of how Ian Kilbourn was returning to Regina when he stopped to help a young couple, Kevin Tarpley and Maureen Gault, who were having car trouble.  They were on a lonely stretch of road, apparently on their way to a party, when their car gave up the ghost. When Kilbourn refused to take them to the party, Tarpley killed him. That murder has several consequences beyond the obvious grief that it cases the Kilbourn family. The story arc concerning Ian Kilbourn’s murder plays an important role in a few of the novels in this series, and it adds to the interest.

Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are introduces readers to TV presenter Phil Smedway, who worked for a regional series until he ‘hit it big’ and went national. Then one day he was tragically killed in a hit-and-run incident while he was jogging on a more or less deserted stretch of road. His successor Frank Allcroft (whom Smedway also mentored) feels drawn to the place where the accident occurred. Oddly enough, it’s a straight length of road, so even an impaired driver would have been able to see Smedway and swerve to avoid him. What’s more the weather was dry and clear at the time of Smedway’s death. So Allcroft can’t see how this could have been an accident. He decides to find out what really happened to Smedway and in the process, finds out some unexpected things about his mentor.

And then there’s Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson have just arrived in Melbourne from Scotland with their nine-week-old son Noah. Then they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of their son. Immediately the Australian media begins to make much of the story, and a massive search is undertaken. But there is no sign of Noah. Gradually some questions come up about, especially, Joanna. Did she or Alistair have something to do with Noah’s disappearance? Gradually, and through a few people’s points of view, we learn what happened to Noah. One of the places that play a role in the story is a lonely stretch of road on the Tullamarine Freeway that links Melbourne to the airport. Here’s how Fitzgerald describes it:


‘Were there really no towns or buildings in sight? Just the straight road behind them and the straight road ahead with black, ominous sky looming over its horizon?’


As this is Joanna’s first trip to Australia, it’s not exactly a warmly welcoming bit of scenery…

Of course, you never do know what’s going to happen on a long stretch of road. That’s what bank manager Martin Carter finds out in Geoffrey McGeachin’s Fat, Fifty and F***ed!  Carter finds out that he’s being retrenched, and it doesn’t help matters that his marriage is ending too. On his last day at the bank, he can’t resist the chance to get his hands on a million-dollar payroll and start all over. With the aid of a stolen police 4WD, Carter takes off. His plan is to meet up with an old friend, but the trip certainly doesn’t go as planned. Along the road he meets up with a librarian who’s got her own problems, a group of New Age bikers, and lots more interesting sorts of people. It’s certainly not a peaceful drive through the country.

As I say, you never do know what’s going to happen on a long, deserted stretch of road. Perhaps best keep the windows closed and don’t stop. For anything. ;-)



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger’s Turn the Page


Filed under Agatha Christie, Catherine O'Flynn, Gail Bowen, Geoffrey McGeachin, Helen Fitzgerald, James Lee Burke

I’ve Found a Paradise That’s Trouble Proof*

RetreatsLet’s face it: life gets a bit much sometimes. When that happens, it’s nice to have a sort of retreat – a special place to go to get away from it all. An interesting post from author and fellow blogger D.S. Nelson has got me thinking about how many fictional characters have those kinds of special places. Pop culture fans will know for instance that Superman has his famous Fortress of Solitude. And if you look at crime fiction, you see that there are plenty of characters who have special retreats like that. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, we meet James Sheppard, doctor for the village of King’s Abbot. Even in a peaceful village, life can get busy, especially for a doctor, so Sheppard has a special retreat in his house. He’s built a workroom where even the maid


‘…is not allowed to wreak havoc with a dustpan and brush.’


Sheppard gets drawn into a case of murder when his friend, retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd, is stabbed in his study one evening. The prime suspect is Ackroyd’s stepson Captain Ralph Paton. Paton’s fiancée Flora Ackroyd is convinced that he’s innocent, so she asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot is impressed with Flora’s sense of conviction so he agrees to look into the matter. In the end, Poirot finds that Ackroyd knew more than was safe for him to know about one particular villager.

Scott Young’s Murder in a Cold Climate is the story of the shooting murder of Native activist Morton Cavendish. Matthew ‘Matteesie’ Kitologitak of the RCMP is a witness to the killing, and happened to know Cavendish anyway. So he’s determined to find the killer. He’s even more fixed on the investigation when it turns out that Cavendish’s death could be related to another case Matteesie’s working on: the disappearance of a Cessna with three men aboard. One of the people of interest in this case is Cavendish’s son William. William may or may not be involved in either or both incidents. But it’s likely that he has a lot of information no matter how innocent he may be. So Matteesie wants to find him. It turns out that William has a special place – a retreat he’s had since adolescence – where he goes sometimes just to be by himself. That retreat turns out to play a key role in the story.

In Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn is shocked and in grief when her friend Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is poisoned during a political speech at a community picnic. It’s bad enough that Boychuk was a friend, but what makes things worse is that this brings back the murder of Kilbourn’s husband Ian, whose loss she still mourns. As a way of dealing with her loss, Kilbourn decides to write a biography of Boychuck. As she gathers material for her book, Kilbourn also finds herself investigating the murder. As it turns out, Boychuk’s death had nothing really do to with his political views, and everything to do with his past. Kilbourn’s home has a ‘granny flat’ above the garage, and she uses that both as an office and as a retreat. She spends her share of time in the granny flat and in this book, that fact plays an important role in what happens.

Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice introduces us to retired school principal Thea Farmer. She bought what she intended as a retreat in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, and was planning it as her dream home. She’s not much of a one for people, and what she wants most of all is to be away from as many of them as possible. But financial issues and poor decisions mean that she has to give up her dream home and settle for the house next door, a house she calls ‘the hovel.’ To add insult to injury, Thea’s perfect retreat is soon purchased by Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington. Thea refers to these new neighbours as ‘the invaders;’ not only have they purchased the home she considers her own, but they have also taken away her sense of retreat and privacy. Despite her intentions to have nothing to do with ‘the invaders,’ Thea finds herself getting involved in their lives when Frank’s niece Kim moves in. Thea reluctantly warms up to Kim and sees that she has real promise as a writer. So when she comes to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for Kim, Thea decides to do something about it. Special places and retreats play an important part in this story.

Many other sleuths also have retreats and special places they go when they want to get away. Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe will know that he spends his share of time in his orchid room. And everyone in his life knows better than to disturb him when he’s communing with his plants. He does love the orchids, but he also uses to the time to get away.

James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux has his share of difficult times and trauma, both because of his personal life and because of his job as a New Iberia, Louisiana cop. He gets away from it all by taking his boat out and going fishing. It’s his escape – his special place.

And then there’s Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman. She has her home and bakery in a large Melbourne building called Insula. Although she doesn’t go looking for mysteries to solve, they seem to find her. And even when they don’t, she’s kept quite busy with her business, her relationship with her lover Daniel Cohen, and her duties as servant to three cats. So sometimes Chapman likes to get away and relax. When she does, she doesn’t have far to go. Insula has a lovely rooftop garden where Chapman takes a glass of wine or a drink and enjoys the view. The rooftop is also the scene of some terrific get-togethers of the building’s residents.

And of course, there’s D.S. Nelson’s own Blake Heatherington. As the series featuring him begins, he’s a milliner whose family has been in the business for a long time. He understands hats and the kinds of personalities that are best suited for different kinds of hats. You might say that hat-making is in his blood. So even when he’s no longer involved in the day-to-day business of millinery, Heatherington enjoys creating hats. And he’s got a special retreat for just that purpose. He goes there to try new creations, to think over his cases and to be alone with his thoughts.

Do you have a special sort of retreat like that? If you’re a writer, does your protagonist?

Thanks, D.S., for the inspiration! Folks, now that you’ve been kind enough to stop here, please consider making your next stop D.S. Nelson’s terrific site. It’s got good conversation about writing and some terrific collaborative short stories, among lots of other great things.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s Up On the Roof, made popular by the Drifters.


Filed under Agatha Christie, D.S. Nelson, Gail Bowen, James Lee Burke, Kerry Greenwood, Rex Stout, Scott Young, Virginia Duigan

I Can Show You the World*

Rose ReadsResearch shows fairly conclusively (at least to me) that early exposure to a lot of reading supports children’s literacy development. But the research doesn’t always convey the way love of reading and appreciation of the magic of a book can be passed along. It can though, and it is.

If you remember being read to as a child, you know what I mean. If you’ve experienced what it’s like to read to children or grandchildren, you know what I mean. Passing the magic along is a very special experience. And it gets even better when your child/grand-child reads to you. Trust me. There’s nothing like it.

If you look at the world of crime fiction, you can see clearly how one generation’s love of books and writing can be passed on. For instance, fans of Dick Francis’ work will tell you that he created some memorable mystery standalones and series. The ones I like best are the Sid Halley novels, but that’s just my opinion. Fans will also tell you that his son Felix also became a writer. He co-authored some work with his father, and has continued the tradition of sport/racecourse mysteries under his own name.

Patti Abbott is a highly skilled writer. Her short story collection Monkey Justice is well-written, compelling and with a nice touch of noir. And her novel Home Invasion takes a fascinating look at a family over the course of fifty years. It’s told in a series of stories, all related by the overall family history. She is also the author of a number of fine short stories that have been published in lots of different contexts. Abbott is also the mother of Megan Abbott. Yes, the Megan Abbott, author of Die a Little, Bury Me Deep, The End of Everything and, well, you get the idea. Certainly the love of reading and writing and the magic of a good story have been passed along in that family.

There’s also James Lee Burke, author of the highly-regarded Dave Robicheaux series. Fans will know that Robicheaux is a cop with the New Iberia, Louisiana Police. Burke has also written the Billy Bob Holland series. Holland is a former Texas Ranger who has become an attorney. There’s also Burke’s Hackberry ‘Hack’ Holland series about a Korean War veteran who’s also been in politics and is now a Texas sheriff. He’s written other novels and short story collections as well. Besides all of this, Burke is the father of crime writer Alafair Burke. Her series include the well-regarded Ellie Hatcher novels (there’s a new one coming out in late June/early July!) and the Samantha Kincaid series. Fans will know that Kincaid is a deputy District Attorney, while Hatcher is an NYPD cop. These two authors have different styles, but it’s clear that the love of books, reading and writing has been passed along.

Jonathan and Faye Kellerman are both highly regarded authors. Readers of their series will know that Jonathan Kellerman is the author of, among other things, the Alex Delaware/Milo Sturgis series. Faye Kellerman is the author of the Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus series, along with other work she’s done. They’ve also passed along the love of reading, writing and books. They are the parents of thriller author and playwright Jesse Kellerman, whose work includes Potboiler, Trouble, and The Executor.

And you don’t have to confine yourself to crime fiction to see how the magic can be given to the next generation. Laura Ingalls Wilder is famous as the author of the Little House series. Those novels ‘hooked’ generations of young people on books. Wilder was also the mother of Rose Wilder Lane, who became a journalist, novelist and travel writer in her own right. She also wrote biographies and other books as well. Even in a place and time when it wasn’t as easy to get books as it is now, the love of reading and writing was passed along in the Wilder family too.

‘That’s all very well,’ you may be thinking, ‘but I’m not a famous writer.’ Doesn’t matter. You can still pass the Lelah Readsmagic along. On this World Book Day, let’s remember that one of the finest gifts you can give the next generation is literacy and love of reading. Read with your children and grand-children and you’re leaving a priceless legacy. It doesn’t take an awful lot of time, and passing on the love of reading is free, healthy, and enriching for everyone. Talk about making memories! Don’t have children or grand-children? Don’t have nieces or nephews? Doesn’t matter. Lots of local schools, libraries and other groups would love to have your help in bringing reading to children who might not otherwise be exposed to it. Find out what’s happening in your area to bring the magic of books to children and be a part of it. You never know which young person might end up writing about the next school for wizards…

On top of everything else, writers everywhere will appreciate your assistance in creating the next generation of book junkies. ;-)




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tim Rice and Alan Menken’s Whole New World.


Filed under Alafair Burke, Dick Francis, Faye Kellerman, Felix Francis, James Lee Burke, Jesse Kellerman, Jonathan Kellerman, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Megan Abbott, Patti Abbott, Rose Wilder Lane

Got a Job With a Company Drillin’ For Oil*

OilEver since the automobile became a commercially viable form of transportation (and really, even before then) oil has been a valuable commodity. As I know I don’t have to tell you, oil has made incredible fortunes for people. And as we’ll see, it’s become pretty much a necessity for modern infrastructures, at least until other forms of energy become feasible. With oil being such a critical part of life, it’s not surprising that it’s also the source of a great deal of conflict. So of course, it’s a natural as a theme for crime fiction.  Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In James Lee Burke’s Black Cherry Blues, former blues singer Dixie Lee Pugh finds himself in a serious situation. His music career ended in a haze of drugs and alcohol, and a prison sentence didn’t help matters. Now he earns a legal living as a leaseman. One of his jobs takes him to Montana’s Blackfoot Reservation, where a deal is underway to lease some of the land for oil drilling. One night Pugh happens to overhear two men discussing two murders they’ve committed. Pugh doesn’t want to call attention to himself because of his past history. So he asks his old college friend Dave Robicheaux, who’s now a police officer in New Iberia, Louisiana, for help. Robicheaux is reluctant to get involved but when Pugh finds himself arrested on a major drugs charge, Robicheaux gets involved. He soon finds that the murders were all too real and that he’s gotten drawn into a major case involving greed and corruption around the oil drilling.

Bartholomew Gill’s McGarr and the Sienese Conspiracy (AKA Death of an Irish Consul) also deals with oil drilling. In that novel, Chief Inspector Peter McGarr gets involved in a case with international implications. Former SIS agents Browne and Hitchcock are murdered and both of their bodies left in the same place. McGarr believes that someone is targeting the SIS, and that the next victim may be newly-appointed British ambassador to Italy Sir Colin Cummings. Hoping he can prevent Cummings’ death, McGarr accompanies him to Italy. But that’s not enough to keep Cummings safe from a sniper’s bullet. Slowly, McGarr works his way through the connections among the three men and finds out that the deaths are related to high-level corruption and a bitter fight over valuable North Sea drilling rights.

In one plot thread of Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue, we meet Allan Mitchison. He saw a video of a North Shore oil rig as a child and immediately knew what he wanted to do for a living. Now he’s an oilman out of Aberdeen and all’s well – until the night he’s brutally murdered. Evidence leads to Anthony Ellis Kane – Tony El – who most likely committed the murder on behalf of someone else. So DI John Rebus starts to investigate to find out who would have wanted to murder a seemingly inoffensive oil driller. For that he looks into the connections between the people who work on the oil rig and the kind of person who’d know about Tony El. It turns out that Mitchison found out more about something than was safe for him to know and as is so often the case, died because of it.

Sarah Andrews’ Em Hansen is a forensic geologist who in Tensleep starts her career as a mudlogger for an oil company. Her job is to collect and analyse mud samples, which isn’t glamourous as it is. But matters are made worse by the fact that most of her male colleagues do not think an oil rig is any place for a woman. Then, Hansen’s mentor Bi ll Kretzmer is killed in what looks like a car accident. At first Hansen is willing to accept that explanation. But then co-worker Willie Sewell is killed too, apparently crushed by a horse. Hansen no longer thinks either death was an accident and starts to ask questions. As she investigates, we learn what life is like in the oil-drilling life. It may pay well, but it’s not exactly easy and fun.

To get a real sense of why people are willing to steal, lie and kill over oil, it’s important to remember just how integral it is to modern life. Just imagine a world with no oil. Think about everything that depends on the energy that comes from it. Although your mileage may vary on this as the saying goes, in my opinion, Alex Scarrow’s Last Light describes that kind of life as well as any crime novel could. The world’s oil supply is suddenly and deliberately cut off. The people behind that act are fairly nasty and the main plot concerns the reason the oil has been stopped. But far more interesting (well, at least in my opinion) is the story of Andy and Jenny Sutherland and their family, who are caught up in the chaos that follows. Andy is an oil engineer who happens to be in Iraq when the crisis begins. Jenny is in Manchester where she’s had a job interview. Their daughter Leona is at university and their son Jake is at a London boarding school. When everything falls apart, the Sutherlands try desperately to re-unite. It’s that story that really keeps the reader (well, this one anyway) engaged.

We see more of the power of oil in Scarrow’s follow-up novel Afterlight, which takes place ten years after the events in Last Light. At this point, Jenny Sutherland is the leader of a small group of people who’ve survived the catastrophe and are making a life for themselves in an abandoned oil rig. Their more or less orderly world begins to fray when they rescue a badly wounded stranger who was found in a nearby town. Matters get even more complicated when it’s discovered that another group of survivors, who live in London’s Millennium Dome, may have oil. When Jenny’s son Jake decides to go with a group to see if they can get the oil, Jenny is against the idea. But the group goes anyway and this leads to tragic consequences.

At least at this point in history, we’re awfully dependent on oil. It’s important in a million different big and little ways that you probably don’t think about until you really reflect on it. No wonder it plays such a role in crime fiction. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to fuel up…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Dingoes’ Way Out West.


Filed under Alex Scarrow, Bartholomew Gill, Ian Rankin, James Lee Burke, Sarah Andrews

Well, There’s Two Sides, There’s Another Side of Me*

Two SidesOne of the major appeals in any well-written novel is the set of characters. If they’re not well-drawn, they soon become boring and they lose credibility. That’s one reason for which skilled authors add some texture to their characters. In the best crime stories, even unpleasant characters have human sides too, and the author lets us see that. Those moments when we see another side of an unsympathetic character can add a layer of depth and even tension to the story.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, the Boynton family is taking a sightseeing holiday in the Middle East. Also on the tour is newly-minted psychologist Sarah King. She’s taken an interest in the family and a particular interest in one member, Raymond Boynton. But it’s nearly impossible to strike up a friendship with him as the family is under the tyrannical rule of its matriarch Mrs. Boynton. She is a mental sadist who delights in keeping her family members cowed. One morning at a Jerusalem hotel though, we get a slightly different view of Mrs. Boynton.  Everyone’s getting ready to leave the hotel for an excursion to Petra and on impulse King goes directly up to Mrs. Boynton and speaks to her. At that point, she suddenly sees Mrs. Boynton for the pathetic person she is and actually has some pity for her. During the trip to Petra, Mrs. Boynton is murdered and Colonel Carbury, who’s in charge of the case, asks for input from Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same trip. Sarah King’s feeling of pity is not really the reason Mrs. Boynton is killed. But it does give us a glimpse of another side of the victim’s character.

In James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos, New Iberia, Louisiana police officer Dave Robicheaux is reluctantly persuaded to help target New Orleans crime boss Tony Cardo. Robicheaux’s friend Minos Dautrieve is a member of the Presidential Task Force on Drugs, and on the task force’s behalf, he asks Robicheaux to go undercover as a ‘dirty cop’ and get close to Cardo. Robicheaux agrees mostly because this operation will give him a chance to go after Jimmie Lee Boggs, who killed Robicheaux’s cop partner Lester Benoit. Cardo is a dangerous criminal and in many ways a very nasty person, and Burke doesn’t make light of that. But one day Robicheaux sees another side of him. He’s visiting Cardo’s home when he happens to see Cardo interact with his son Paul, who has special needs and is in a wheelchair. That gives Robicheaux a glimpse of another, much more human side of Cardo and makes it very much harder for him to continue the operation.

Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back is the story of the murder of fifteen-year-old Annie Holland, whose body is found by a tarn near her village of Granittveien. Oslo police inspector Konrad  Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre take charge of the investigation and begin to interview the various people in Annie’s life. One of those people is Axel Bjørk, who was previously married to Annie’s mother Ada. He’s bitter and resentful about their divorce, and he has a reputation for drinking and trouble-making. So it’s not at all out of the realm of possibility that he might have killed Annie to spite his ex-wife. He’s really not a very pleasant person in a lot of ways. But then we get to see another side of this character. He very much misses his daughter Sølvi, who lives with her mother and who is forbidden to spend any time with her father. He’s been badly hurt by the way his ex-wife has treated him too and in his conversations with Sejer, we see that although he’s a sometimes-violent, surly drunk, he’s also got a different side to his character.

We also see some humanity in the character of Count Kolya, who features in William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series. Korolev is a member of Moscow’s CID in the Stalinist days just before World War II. As he does his job he has to negotiate the very dangerous social and political landscape of the time. Angering the wrong people is both easy and often fatal, and it’s not always clear who exactly can be trusted. In the course of his work, Korolev comes into contact with Kolya, who is a leader of the Thieves, the members of Moscow’s criminal underworld. As such, Kolya is a very dangerous man. He is not in the least afraid to kill or have someone killed, and some of his methods of getting things done are far from legal. He’s tough too and he can be unpleasant. But we do see glimpses of another side of Kolya at times. In The Twelfth Department for instance, Korolev and his assistant Nadezhda Slivka have been assigned to investigate the murder of eminent scientist Boris Azarov. His work was considered top secret, so the NKVD wants the case handled very carefully, and that’s why Korolev and Slivka have been assigned to it. They’ve just begun to investigate when there’s another murder, this time of a person they considered a suspect. The Powers That Be want their theory to be the official one that Korolev reports, but he and Slivka don’t believe it’s the truth. Bit by bit, they find out what Azarov was really working on and how that could have led to his murder. Kolya also finds out what’s been going on and offers his help to Korolev. When Korolev asks him why, we get to see a really human side of a character who doesn’t always seem to have one.

In Andrew Grant’s Death in the Kingdom, British agent Daniel ‘Danny’ Swann is assigned to travel to Thailand to retrieve a black, lead-covered box from the Andaman Sea. It’s been there since the ship on which it was stowed was sunk many years earlier. Swann’s not told what the box contains nor why his bosses want it, but he gets started on his mission. In order to get the box, he’ll need help, and Swann’s bosses want him to work with Bangkok-based crime boss ‘Tuk-Tuk’ Song. Song’s got the clout to keep other gangsters at bay, and he’s got the personnel and resources to back up Swann’s mission. What’s more, he’s powerful enough so that the Thai police are unlikely to get in the way of anything Swann might have to do. But working with him will be extremely risky. Song is a dangerous, well-connected and wealthy crime boss. And he has every reason to bear a grudge against Swann, who had no choice but to kill Song’s son Arune in another operation. Nonetheless, Song owes Swann a debt and the two begin the difficult process of working together. Swann’s authorised to offer Song a fortune in gold that was also on the ship, as well as a particular golden Buddha that was stolen from a temple. The money of course is alluring but for Song, the chance at redemption by returning the Buddha to the temple is even more irresistible. And as he reflects on the chance to die a respected citizen, we can see a more human side to him. We also see it in the relationship between Song and his mistress Sakura. Tuk-Tuk Song is a complicated person, and those ‘human’ moments make him more appealing as a character.

Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos tells the story of a woman who’s recently been released from prison for murder. In her dress, attitude and opinions, she’s not exactly a nice person. And she has committed murder. And yet we see a very human side of her too. Her only companion is her pit bull Sully, to whom she is devoted. When there’s a complaint made against her for having a restricted-breed pet, she is forced to give Sully up, and her reaction to that news makes her very human. So does what the reader learns about the reason she was in prison in the first place.

And then there’s Annie Hauxwell’s In Her Blood. London investigator Catherine Berlin has been gathering information on an illegal moneylending racket run by Archie Doyle. The informant who’s been helping bring Doyle down goes by the name of Juliet Bravo, but Berlin doesn’t know much about her. Then Berlin’s informant is murdered and her body found in Limehouse Basin. Berlin feels responsible for ‘Juliet’s’ death, as she put the woman at risk. So she wants to find out who’s responsible. Then disaster strikes. First, Berlin is suspended from her job for not following protocol in the case. There’s more too. Berlin is a heroin addict who’s supplied by Dr. George Lazenby under the registered addicts’ program. When she goes for her regular appointment early one evening, she finds Lazenby murdered and herself a possible suspect. She also realises that her supply of heroin is going to be cut off unless she finds a new doctor quickly. Berlin is sure these two events are probably related, so she keeps on trying to find out the truth. One of the keys to this case is Archie Doyle. He’s dangerous, corrupt and ruthless and there are several good reasons people fear him and stay out of his way. But we see a very human side to him when he learns who the dead woman really was. Doyle’s reaction gives readers a glimpse of another side of his character. The discovery of ‘Juliet Bravo’s’ identity adds an interesting plot twist too.

It can add to a plot to see those flashes of humanity in otherwise unpleasant and sometimes very dangerous characters. The more sides we see of characters, the more ‘real’ they come to be. I’ve only given a few examples here. So feel free to fill in the gaps I’ve left.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Carpenters’ Two Sides.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Grant, Angela Savage, Annie Hauxwell, James Lee Burke, Karin Fossum, William Ryan