Category Archives: Josephine Tey

The Crowd Went Crazy*

Crowd EnergyThere’s something about excitement that seems to be infectious. Think for instance about the difference between the way you feel when you get online tickets to see a favourite musician in concert, and the way you feel when you’re in line to get in, sharing that excitement with a lot of other people who are also fans. The energy level, if you want to put it that way, is fed by everyone’s enthusiasm, so that the excitement can reach almost a fever pitch. That much energy can be a real jolt of adrenaline. It can also lead to conflict and worse, as all high-energy moments can. You see that in real-life situations (e.g. fights at sporting events or concerts), and it’s definitely there in crime fiction. That kind of mass excitement can make for a real layer of tension in a story.

For instance, Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers explores the way group energy works. Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne is working on an exposé of dubious developer Denny Graham. She’s gathering her interviews and background material, and is getting ready to put her piece together. Then her boss asks her to turn her focus on the 30th anniversary of the 1981 Sprinboks tour of New Zealand – ‘The Tour,’ as it’s often called. At that time, apartheid was very much in place in South Africa, so a lot of people deeply opposed the Sprinboks’ visit. On the other hand, dedicated rugby fans (of which there were many) wanted to watch the tour matches. They were excited about the upcoming competitions and didn’t really care as much about the politics involved. The Springboks duly toured, but their visit led to a lot of ugly protests and the police reaction was sometimes violent. Thorne knows the story was important, but she believes it’s already been done enough. Still, at her boss’ request, she looks for a fresh angle on what happened and she soon finds it. In the midst of the fever-pitch excitement about the actual rugby and the equally strong passion rising from the protests, there was a murder. It was never solved, and Thorne thinks that looking into it will be the new angle she needs.

That’s not by any means the only novel in which we see that level of fever-pitch energy about a sporting event. Peter Temple’s Melbourne PI Jack Irish is a Fitzroy supporter, and whenever he stops in to his father’s old haunt The Prince of Prussia, he shares his love of the team with others. Some of his father’s old friends still go there, and football is everyone’s favourite topic of discussion. Here’s a scene for instance from Bad Debts. Irish has just returned from a trip out of town:
 

‘‘I had to go to Sydney,’ I said. ‘Work.’…
‘What kind of work does a man have in Sydney on Satdee arvo?’ said Norm O’Neill in a tone of amazement. These men would no more consider being away from Melbourne on a Saturday in the football season than they would consider enrolling in personal development courses.’

 

For most of these men, a good part of the excitement they get from football is the shared energy that comes from spending time with other Fitzroy fans.

It’s not just sport either of course that generates that kind of crowd-fed-frenzy. Film and theatre stars and events do too. In Josephine Tey’s The Man in the Queue, for example, a large crowd is waiting outside the door of the Woofington Theatre. They’re all eager fans of acting sensation Ray Macable, and they’re anxious for the start of the evening’s performance. Everyone’s excitement and shared energy builds until the doors are finally opened. Then people begin to push forward in the way that crowds do. That shared excitement is part of the reason for which no-one notices that a man waiting in the group has been stabbed. When he falls forward, dead, the police are summoned and Inspector Alan Grant takes over the investigation. One of the challenges he faces is that everyone was so excited about the play that they paid little attention to anything else going on.

Sometimes, religious or spiritual gatherings can generate that kind of shared excitement too. There are a lot of examples of this in crime fiction; I’ll just mention one. In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, we meet Dr. Suresh Jha. He is the founder and leader of the Delhi Institute for Rationalism and Education (D.I.R.E.). His mission is to expose people – he calls them the godmen – who prey on others’ need for spiritualism in order to cheat them. To do that, he and his group try to debunk every spiritual myth they can. One morning, he attends a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club. The group is going through their laughing exercises when according to witnesses the goddess Kali suddenly appears and stabs Jha. Certainly there’s evidence that he was stabbed to death. Many people say that the goddess actually did appear and killed Jha in retribution for his lack of faith. But PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri doesn’t think so. So he and his team look into the matter. They find that more than one person might have wanted the victim dead, and could have had the necessary knowledge to create the illusion that Kali was responsible. One of those suspects is Maharaj Swami, a spiritual leader who has his own ashram. Puri and his team decide to do a little undercover work to find out more about this man. One of Puri’s associates is a young woman who goes by many names, but is usually nicknamed ‘Facecream’ because she blends in anywhere. She pretends to be drawn to Swami’s spiritual message and joins the ashram as a new recruit. At the various group meetings and spiritual events, it’s easy to see how religious and spiritual fervor can spread. That excitement causes a lot of behaviour that you wouldn’t likely see if the group weren’t gathered together, all sharing the event.

Political rallies and other gatherings can also bring out this group energy that leads almost to frenzy. We see that in several crime novels. For instance, in Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men, which takes place in 1932, Rowland Sinclair and his family are some of the few wealthy and powerful people who’ve escaped the worst of the Great Depression. Their lives are drastically changed though when Sinclair’s uncle, also named Rowland, is found bludgeoned to death. At first, the police wonder if the victim’s housekeeper Mrs. Donelly might know more than she’s saying about the murder. But Rowland is sure she’s completely innocent. He decides to ask some questions and find out the truth for himself. The trail soon leads to a far-Right group called The New Guard, and their leader Colonel Eric Campbell. So Rowland goes undercover as a new recruit to this faction, hoping he can get close to Campbell and get the answers he wants. In the end, we do learn the truth about Sinclair’s death. We also see the fervor engendered by some of the New Guard’s rallies. There’s at least as much frenzy there as there is at any rock concert.

That sort of shared excitement can make people who ordinarily behave sensibly do all sorts of things, like yelling, hugging complete strangers and more. It can even make you ‘camp out’ most of the night during a near-blizzard to get tickets to an event. Wait, what? There’s something wrong with that? Hey, I got third-row centre seats to that concert! ;-)
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Who’s Sally Simpson.

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Filed under Josephine Tey, Paddy Richardson, Peter Temple, Sulari Gentill, Tarquin Hall

Watcha Gonna Do When They Come For You*

PoliceProceduralsFor many people, there’s something fascinating about what police do, and how they go about their jobs. Perhaps it’s the huge number of cop shows on TV, or perhaps it’s the image of the cop making things safe and putting the ‘bad guys’ away, so to speak. Or it could be the chance to get a look ‘behind the scenes’ of a unique setting. Perhaps it’s something else. Whatever it is, police procedurals have become a popular staple in crime fiction.

Interestingly enough, the police procedural as we think about it now is newer than some of the other sub-genres in crime fiction. For example, the private detective novel has been around since the days of Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. But that makes sense. Modern police forces weren’t really put together until the 19th Century and it took even longer for them to become the kinds of police forces we think of today. If you want to know more about 19th Century police forces, check out K.B. Owen’s terrific blog/website. She’s an expert on the era.

Certainly there’ve been police officers mentioned in many classic/Golden Age novels. There Agatha Christie’s Chief Inspector Japp, there’s Stuart Palmer’s Oscar Piper and there’s Josephine Tey’s Alan Grant, to name just three. There’s also of course Ellery Queen’s Inspector Richard Queen, and Rex Stout’s Inspector Cramer. But the police procedural novel as we think of it now really started a bit later.

There isn’t universal agreement about which book counts as the first police procedural, but Lawrence Treat’s 1945 novel V as in Victim is often brought up. This is just my opinion, so feel free to differ if you do, but for my money, the series that that really established the police procedural as a sub-genre was Evan Hunter/Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels. Beginning with 1956’s Cop Hater, the series went on for decades, almost until Hunter’s death. In that series, we see quite a lot more of life at a police station/precinct than we’d seen in previous kinds of crime novels. What’s more, this series doesn’t just follow one cop going after one criminal or criminal gang. There’s an ensemble cast in this series, and we follow not just the individual cases they investigate, but also their personal lives. The 87th Precinct series has had a profound influence on the genre in general and of course on the police procedural.

Another set of groundbreaking police procedurals is Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s ten-book Martin Beck series. Those novels follow Stockholm-based Martin Beck and his police colleagues as they investigate murders, robberies, and more. They also highlight a variety of social issues such as unequal distribution of wealth, corruption and other issues. Like the 87th Precinct series, this one also addresses the personal lives of the characters. For many people, the Martin Beck series is the quintessential police procedural series.

In the last few decades, the police procedural as a sub-genre has gotten very diverse as it’s been taken in new directions. For instance, some police procedurals still feature an ensemble cast of characters. Fans of Fred Vargas’ Inspector Adamsberg series and Arnaldur Indriðason’s Inspector Erlendur series, for instance, will know that those novels follow the lives of several of the characters, both in and outside working hours. So does Frédérique Molay’s Nico Sirksy series (I hope more of them will be translated into English soon).

Other series focus more on one or a few cops. For instance, in Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, the spotlight is mostly on Bosch. We certainly learn about other characters, and there are several story arcs involving them. But the primary emphasis is on Bosch. You could say the same thing about Karin Fossum’s Konrad Sejer series. We do learn about other characters, but the focus in that series is on Sejer’s professional and personal life. Another example of this is Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series. While there are story arcs and scenes involving other characters, it’s Rebus who’s the ‘star of the show.’

One major development in the police procedural series is that it’s gone worldwide. And that means that the different series have taken on the distinctive atmosphere of their settings. I’m thinking for instance of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip’s David ‘Kubu’ Bengu series, which takes place in Botswana and which they write as Michael Stanley. There’s also Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen Cao series, and Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series. And that’s just to name three of the many police procedural series that are seasoned by their cultures.

Another development is the diversity in the kinds of people who feature in police procedural series. Women, for instance, are quite frequently police protagonists now. That’s what we see in Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi series, Martin Edwards’ Lake District series and Anya Lipska’s Natalie Kershaw/Janusz Kiszka series. Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan series is another example. That increasing diversity shows up in other ways too. There are gay cops, disabled cops and cops with all sorts of eccentricities.

Despite all of this variety, though, you could argue that there are still some basic things that define a police procedural series. One is that it focuses on police stations, bases or precincts and the people who work there. There are often sub-plots and story arcs that show us the cop’s off-duty life, but there is an emphasis on the investigation and on life as a police officer. Another, at least to me, is that the police procedural features a certain kind of investigation style that involves interpreting evidence, interviewing witnesses and suspects and so on. In that sense it’s quite different to the amateur sleuth, who doesn’t have the power of the law, or the PI sleuth, who goes about investigations in yet another way. Police culture, policies and the like have a strong impact on the way cops go about their jobs, and that makes their investigations distinctive.

What do you think? If you read police procedurals, what is their appeal to you? Which ones do you like the best (I know I’ve only mentioned a few of them) What, to you, makes a police procedural series a good one? If they put you off, why? If you write police procedurals, what made you choose that sub-genre?

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is line from Inner Circle’s Bad Boys.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Arnaldur Indriðason, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ed McBain, Edgar Allan Poe, Ellery Queen, Evan Hunter, Frédérique Molay, Fred Vargas, Ian Rankin, Jane Casey, Josephine Tey, K.B. Owen, Karin Fossum, Katherine Howell, Lawrence Treat, Louise Penny, Maj Sjöwall, Martin Edwards, Michael Connelly, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Per Wahlöö, Qiu Xiaolong, Stanley Trollip, Stuart Palmer

You Were Just a Face in the Crowd*

CrowdsThe conventional wisdom is that most murders take place in deserted areas, where’s there’s not much of a crowd around. And that makes sense: the fewer witnesses to a murder, the easier it is on the killer. And there are many, many crime novels where a killer takes advantage of the fact that someone’s alone. But a crowd can actually provide a good ‘cover’ for a murderer too. That’s especially true if it’s an anonymous sort of a crowd, where it’s hard to tell exactly who’s in the group. Of course, for that kind of murder, the killer needs a weapon that’s not obvious. But if you have that, and you don’t have a distinctive appearance, a crowd can give quite a good alibi if I can put it that way. Let me show you just a few examples from crime fiction and you’ll see what I mean (well, you probably do already).

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot works with Scotland Yard and local police to find out who’s committed a series of killings. The only apparent things that link the deaths is that Poirot gets a cryptic warning note before each murder, and that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. One of the things that make this case difficult is that the murderer takes advantage of crowds. One of the murders, for example, takes place at a cinema. A lot of people come and go, and don’t give their names to the ticket seller. It’s a perfect setting if you think about it for a murder. Another victim, a young woman, is killed on the beach. In that instance, the killer takes advantage of the fact that a lot of young women are out that evening walking with their dates. No-one pays much attention to the individual people, so the killer finds it easy to hide.

There’s a very clever use of a crowd in Josephine Tey’s The Man in the Queue. One evening, a large group of people is waiting at the Woofington Theatre to see a performance of Didn’t You Know?, starring the sensation of the moment Ray Marcable. The doors open and the crowd surges forward, and that’s when someone stabs small-time bookmaker Albert Sorrell, who was waiting with the others. Inspector Alan Grant takes charge of the investigation, and starts by trying to find out who was near the victim at the time of the murder. As you can imagine, that’s not easy. And matters are made even more difficult since the people near Sorrell claim that they’d never seen him before – he was just another person waiting for the show. In the end, Grant finds out who killed Sorrell and why, but his job is not made any easier by the fact that the murder happened in a large crowd of people.

Dona Laura Sales Ribeiro finds that being in a crowd doesn’t help her very much in Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Alone in the Crowd. One day she goes to Rio de Janeiro’s Twelfth Precinct police station and asks to speak to Inspector Espinosa. When told that he’s busy, she says that she’ll come back later and leaves. A short time afterwards she’s waiting with a group of people at a bus stop. Many other people are walking by on the street. Then a bus arrives and Dona Laura falls, or is pushed, under it. There were a lot of people nearby, and no reason for anyone to provide identification or a reason for being at that place at that time. So it’s very difficult at first to figure out who would have had the opportunity to commit this murder. Too many anonymous people did. In the end, Espinosa finds out who killed Dona Laura, and how it connects with another death that occurs in the novel. But it’s not an easy task.

A similar thing happens in Katherine Howell’s Web of Deceit. New South Wales Police Detectives Ella Marconi and Murray Shakespeare are called to the scene of a tragic death at a train station. A man has been pushed into the path of an oncoming train. Also arriving at the scene are paramedics Jane Koutofides and Alex Churchill. To their shock, they discover that they’ve already met the victim. He is Marko Meixner, a man they took to a nearby hospital earlier that day after a car accident. At the time he said that he was in danger, and they would be too if they spent any time with him. They didn’t pay a lot of attention to Meixner’s words, since he seemed to have mental problems. But now it’s clear that he really was in danger. One major problem that Marconi and Shakespeare face is that it’s very difficult to tell who could have killed the victim. There was a large crowd near the platform, and even with CCTV footage, there’s no clear picture of the person who committed the crime. And the presence of the crowd meant that the killer was able to fade away without calling attention to him or herself.

And then there’s Michael Connelly’s The Black Box. The verdict in the 1992 Rodney King case has ignited Los Angeles, and there are crowds and riots everywhere. The police do their best to keep order but it’s impossible to track down every criminal and solve every case. This means there are several cases left unsolved. Twenty years later, the chief of police orders the LAPD’s Open-Unsolved Unit to go back over the unsolved murders from the 1992 riots. Harry Bosch, who’s now in that unit, takes the case of Anneke Jesperson, a Danish freelance journalist/war correspondent who was covering the riots. Bosch was one of the two cops who discovered her body in the first place, and now he wants to find out who killed her and why. At first the case seems hopeless. There were so many crowds surging through the city and so much looting and killing that tracing one death to one murderer seems impossible. But bit by bit, Bosch finds out about the weapon that was used. That puts him on the trail of the person who used it. And that pits him against some people who used the riots to cover up something much bigger than just a journalist who was killed because of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In Anthony Bidulka’s Date With a Sheesha, Pranav Gupta hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who killed his son Nayan ‘Neil.’ Gupta tells Quant that his son was in Dubai as a part of a larger trip to the Middle East, where he was giving guest lectures. He was also researching antique carpets and making some selections of carpet to be placed on display at the University of Saskatchewan. Shortly before his return to Saskatchewan, Neil Gupta was in an open-air market at an impromptu party when he was attacked and killed. The official police report is that he was killed by thugs – a tragic but not targeted murder. But Neil’s father doesn’t believe that’s the case. He thinks his son was murdered because he was gay. So he wants Quant to travel to Dubai and find out the truth. It’s not an easy task. Not only is Quant unfamiliar with Dubai, but also, there’s not at first a lot of helpful evidence bearing on the case. Open-air markets are crowded, with many entrances and exits. And they have lots of little narrow passages where it’s easy to waylay someone and then disappear without being noticed. So it’s no wonder that this murderer wasn’t caught at first.

And that’s the thing about crowded places. You might think that with all those people around, there’d be less chance of a murder. But that’s not always how it happens. Which ‘murder in a crowd’ novels have you enjoyed?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Petty’s A Face in the Crowd.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Josephine Tey, Katherine Howell, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Michael Connelly

Today I Saw Somebody Who Looked Just Like You*

ImpersonationIt’s surprising how little attention we sometimes pay to other people – even people we know. That’s why impersonation can sometimes be quite successful. An impersonator who learns to mimic someone’s basic appearance, mannerisms and the like can often get away with living that other life for quite some time. Impersonation can be a really interesting plot point in a crime fiction novel, too. It allows for an interesting plot twist when the impersonation is revealed. It also allows for some fascinating backstory (Who is the impersonator? Why does s/he agree (or plan) to impersonate?). And it allows for character development.

On the other hand, impersonation can be contrived if it’s not done credibly. It’s an all-too-convenient device to fill up a ‘plothole,’ too. So the author has to handle the plot point carefully. But that said, it can be an interesting thread in a novel.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Violet Hunter. She’s been offered a job as governess to Jephro Rucastle’s six-year-old son. She’s not sure if she should accept the offer and asks for Holmes’ advice. He has some serious doubts about the job, especially when she tells him some of the unusual things that Rucastle has asked of her. At first she listens to Holmes’ counsel and refuses the position. But when Rucastle increases the salary offer, she can no longer resist, and she takes the job. As it turns out, the Rucastle home is hiding some strange and unhappy secrets, and by the time Violet Hunter realises even a bit of what’s going on, she is in real danger. She writes to Holmes asking him to come, and he and Watson oblige – just in time to save her life. Impersonation plays an important part in this story, and once Holmes deduces its role, he’s able to find out the truth about Copper Beeches.

Several of Agatha Christie’s novels and short stories feature impersonation. One of those stories is Jane in Search of a Job. Jane Cleveland is out of work and her financial situation is getting more and more serious. The she sees an odd advertisement in The Daily Leader. The notice gives very particular requirements for physical description and insists that the applicant be able to speak French. Conscious that this could be dangerous, but at the same time desperate for a job, Jane goes to the address mentioned in the notice. After a thorough ‘vetting,’ she’s offered the job, and told that she will be acting as a ‘double’ for the Grand Duchess Pauline. Pauline tells Jane there have been rumours that a group of terrorists is going to try to kidnap her, and Jane’s role will be to impersonate the Grand Duchess at public events until the threat is over. Jane takes the job and when she is kidnapped, she learns that very little is really what it seems. Want another take on this story? Check out this post at Clothes in Books. And while you’re there, consider following that excellent blog if you’re not already doing so. It’s a terrific resource for discussions about how clothes figure into our personalities, our lives, and novels.

Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar also features a character who agrees to be paid to impersonate someone else. In that novel, we meet the various members of the Ashby family, a once-proud ‘better’ family that’s come upon very hard times. But for twenty-year-old Simon Ashby, things will change on his twenty-first birthday. He’s slated to come into a fortune left to him by his mother. He’ll also get the land and the Ashby title. Into this family situation comes Brat Farrar, a down-on-his-luck American who’s come to England to start over. One day he’s approached by out-of-work actor Alec Loding, who has mistaken Farrar for Simon Ashby. That striking resemblance gives Loding an idea. He knows the Ashby family and its history very, very well, and decides to use that information. The plan is for Farrar to impersonate Simon Ashby’s twin brother Patrick, who everyone thought committed suicide by drowning years earlier. Since Patrick was slightly older than Simon, if Farrar can pull this off, he’ll get the fortune, the title and the land. In return for helping him, Loding wants a share of the money. Farrar agrees, and Loding spends a few weeks coaching the young man in his part. They even figure out a plausible tale for Patrick Ashby’s long absence. At first all goes well enough, but Ferrar soon learns that he is in great danger. It seems that Patrick Ashby did not commit suicide, as everyone had thought. Instead, he was murdered. Now the same person wants to try again…

In Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee is on the trail of the person who killed Albert Gorman. Gorman was a Los Angeles Navajo who’d recently moved to the Reservation. When his body is discovered not far from the home of one of his kinsmen, Chee starts to follow the trail. It takes him to Los Angeles, where he discovers a connection to a dangerous car theft ring. That trip gives Chee some vital information he needs to solve the case and tie it in with the disappearance of a teenage girl who is distant kin to Gorman. In the process of solving the case, Chee finds out that one of the people he’s been talking to about it is an impersonator. That person has taken on another identity to move the killer’s plan forward. Once Chee makes that discovery, he’s able to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Tana French’s The Likeness offers a different kind of twist on the impersonation plot point. In that novel, Dublin detective Cassie Maddox has recently returned to the Murder Squad after taking some time away. One day she’s called to a very unusual crime scene. A young woman has been stabbed in an abandoned house not far from Trinity College. What’s especially eerie is that the woman is identified as Alexandra ‘Lexie’ Madison, an alias that Maddox used once in an undercover operation. The victim looks very much like Maddox, too. Now there are two questions: who killed the victim, and who was the victim? Since there never really was a Lexie Madison, the victim has to have been someone else. A reluctant Maddox is persuaded to impersonate the victim, using the cover story that she survived the stabbing attack. As ‘Lexie Madison,’ Maddox will move back into the house that the victim shared with four other people, and try to find out who killed her. As time goes on and Maddox continues to live as the other woman, she gets more and more drawn into the lives of the small group of people who share the house. In the end, we do find out the truth about ‘Lexie Madison,’ but not before Maddox comes close to losing herself.

The impersonation plot point isn’t easy to pull off successfully. But it can add a strong layer of tension and interest to a story. Do you ‘buy’ that plot thread?

 

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Thom Bell and Linda Creed’s You Are Everything, made famous by The Stylistics.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Josephine Tey, Tana French, Tony Hillerman

Nobody Paid Attention*

MindYourOwnBusinessMost people get very skilled at minding their own business. It’s not always selfish self-absorption so much as it is being focused on one’s own life. If you watch people in an airport, a shop, the cinema or the lobby of a hotel, you see that most people are intent on their own concerns. And a lot of people think that minding one’s own business, especially in public, is a positive quality. It’s certainly useful if you’re a crime-fictional murderer. That human tendency to be absorbed in one’s own business means a lot of people don’t pay attention to what others are doing. And that gives a murderer very valuable anonymity.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) for instance, a group of air passengers is en route from Paris to London. Among them is Marie Morisot, a French moneylender who does business as Madame Giselle. During the trip, Madame Giselle suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are the other passengers, but each of them is wrapped up in personal concerns and well-schooled in the unwritten rule that you don’t stare at other people or get too inquisitive about them. So no-one has noticed anything helpful. Even Hercule Poirot, who was on the same flight, has to confess that because of airsickness, he didn’t notice anything at all. That tendency to put proverbial blinders on gave the murderer the perfect opportunity to commit the crime. Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp look into the lives of the other passengers and find that more than one of them might have wanted to kill the victim. In the end, they learn who the killer is.

Josephine Tey’s The Man in the Queue also shows how intent people can be about their own business. In that novel, a large group of people is waiting outside London’s Woofington Theatre to see Didn’t You Know?, starring acting sensation Ray Marcable. The doors finally open and the crowd begins to surge into the building. That’s when small-time bookmaker Albert Sorrell falls over, dead of a stab wound. Inspector Alan Grant is assigned to the case, and one of his biggest frustrations is the fact that no-one saw anything. Everyone was so intent on personal concerns and on getting into the theatre that nobody paid any attention to other people. Once the dead man is identified though, Grant learns about his background, his flat-mate and his other associations and he’s able to find out who killed Sorrell and why.

In Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water, Vigàta Inspector Salvo Montalbano and his team investigate the death of up-and-coming politician Silvio Luparello. Luparello had previously been a ‘behind the scenes’ political player, but had recently begun to get more public notice. One morning, his body is found in a car in a notorious area of Vigàta called The Pasture. The Pasture is a popular meeting site for local prostitutes and their clients as well as for small-time drug dealers and their customers. Montalbano is hoping that someone who was in The Pasture at the time of Luparello’s death will have seen something, but no-one has. Even with help from Gegè Gullotta, who is ‘in charge’ at The Pasture, Montalbano can’t seem to find any witnesses. In part that’s because a lot of what goes on at The Pasture is not exactly legal. But most of the reason is that everyone there was intent on personal business and not inclined to pay attention to what other people were doing.

Copenhagen police inspector Carl Mørck faces a similar kind of frustration in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes). He’s recently been named to head ‘Department Q,’ which is set up to investigate crimes of ‘special interest.’ One of them is the five-year-old case of the disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynggaard. She and her brother Uffe were on a ferry between Rødby and Puttgarden when she went missing. Everyone else on the ferry was minding personal business, so nobody paid attention to that particular passenger. The only thing anyone can remember is that she had an argument with her brother. Because of that, the police have always assumed that Uffe pushed his sister overboard off the ferry, although they don’t have definite evidence of that. Again, that’s mostly because people were too intent on their own concerns to pay attention. Little by little, Mørck and his assistant Hafez al-Assad begin to find some clues that Merete Lynggaard is still alive. So very slowly, they trace her movements in the last days and weeks before she disappeared. In the end, they’re able to find out what really happened to her and why.

Martin Edwards’ All the Lonely People introduces us to Liverpool attorney Harry Devlin. One night, Harry is surprised by a visit from his ex-wife Liz, whom he’s never stopped loving. At first he’s hoping that this will mean Liz wants to patch things up. But instead, she asks his help. She tells Harry that she’s run away from her current lover Mick Coghlin and needs a place to stay. Harry agrees and Liz settles in. The next night, Liz is found stabbed in an alley. Because of their history, Harry becomes a suspect in her murder. He knows he’s not guilty so for that reason and because he still loves Liz and wants to know what happened to her, Harry begins to investigate. He starts with The Ferry Club, a pub that was the last place Liz was reliably seen alive. The only problem is that the regular patrons were intent on personal business and didn’t pay much attention to what Liz did and where she might have gone. And people who might have seen something aren’t exactly interested in telling a stranger. But Devlin slowly pieces his wife’s recent life together and is able to find out what happened to her.

The murder of Marko Meixner is the main focus of Katherine Howell’s Web of Deceit. We first meet Meixner when paramedics Jane Koutofides and Alex Churchill are called to the scene of a motor accident in which Meixner is the driver. He’s not hurt, but the paramedics insist on getting him evaluated at the hospital. Meixner warns them that he’s in danger and so will they be if they spend any time with him. At first they blame his paranoia on psychological problems and in fact, they want him to have a psych evaluation when they get to the hospital. Meixner slips out though before anyone can really evaluate him. Later that same day, he is pushed from a train platform and killed by an oncoming train. New South Wales Police detectives Ella Marconi and Murray Shakespeare are called to the scene and begin to investigate. At first it looks very much like Meixner has committed suicide. A few witnesses remember him mumbling to himself and acting a little strangely. But when Marconi and Shakespeare learn about the earlier accident, things seem less clear-cut. There’s now every possibility that Marko Meixner was murdered. The only problem is that nobody saw very much. All of the other people on the platform were busy minding their own business, and no-one noticed one perfectly normal-looking person. Even the video recordings of the activity on the platform don’t show much. It’s not until the detectives learn more about Meixner’s history that they learn what the motive for the murder was and who committed it.

It’s possibly human nature and definitely social custom in a lot of places to mind one’s own business and focus on one’s own concerns. But it’s that very custom that allows murders to be committed in public places. On the other hand of course, it can be dangerous to mind other people’s business too…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michael Reich’s Century Man.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Josephine Tey, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Katherine Howell, Martin Edwards