Category Archives: Josephine Tey

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

Puzzle Pieces in the Ground*

ArchaeologyBy now you’ve probably heard of the discovery of the bones of England’s King Richard III in Leicester. And as it happens, today (or yesterday, depending on when you read this) would have been Mary Leakey’s 100th birthday. So it seems like the perfect time to dig up some crime fiction that has archaeology as its focus. There’s a lot of it too and that makes sense. Archaeologists have added much to our knowledge of history, they’ve answered a lot of questions and they’ve given us a fascinating perspective on ourselves as a species.

Agatha Christie fans will know that she was married to an archaeologist, so several of her stories and novels have that science as a theme. I’m only going to mention one. In Murder in Mesopotamia, Hercule Poirot is returning home after a visit to the Middle East when he is asked to break his journey and investigate a murder. Louise Leidner, wife of prominent archaeologist Eric Leidner, has been found bludgeoned in her room. As Poirot gets to know the excavation team he discovers that there were several members of the team who had a good motive for murder. Besides the mystery itself, this novel gives readers a look at the way archaeologists go about what they do – or at least the way they did so at the time the novel was written. There’s information on digging, cleaning pottery and other finds and storing antiquities.

Peter Robinson’s A Dedicated Man is the story of the murder of Harry Steadman. Steadman is an archaeologist with Leeds University when an inheritance frees him to pursue his own goals. His passion is the set of Roman ruins in Yorkshire so he and his wife Emma move to that area. He begins to work on a large excavation project which he hopes will yield some fascinating material. When Steadman is murdered, DI Alan Banks and his team investigate the death. And there are several suspects too, including those who are opposed to a potentially valuable piece of land being set aside for an archaeological dig. As the novel moves along we learn something about the politics of getting permission to dig, starting the process and dealing with the egos involved.

Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear’s Anasazi Mystery trilogy features archaeologist William ‘Dusty’ Stewart. As a young man, he was mentored by Dr. Dale Robertson and has learned from his role model not just the scientific elements of archaeology but also its nuances. Stewart has a real feel for the Sonoran desert in which this trilogy takes place and a real respect for the people who live there. In The Visitant, the first in this series, he and his dig team discover the remains of eight women who seem to have been murdered. Robertson convinces him to work with Dr. Maureen Cole, a forensic anthropologist, to find out who these women were and why they were buried where they were found. Cole and Stewart have very different approaches to going about their research, but they complement each other and in the end we learn what happened to the victims. Throughout this trilogy (The Summoning God and Bone Walker are the other novels), readers get an ‘inside look’ at what it’s like to live and work on a dig site. The life is not at all romanticised but it’s easy to see its appeal.

Jessica Mann’s Tamara Hoyland is an archaeologist who, in the course of the series that features her, also becomes an agent for British Intelligence. In Funeral Sites, the first in this series, she works with Rosamund Sholto, who travels to England to attend her sister Phoebe Britton’s funeral. Sholto soon begins to believe that Phoebe’s husband Aiden had something to do with her death. He is blindly ambitious as well as shady and Sholto wouldn’t put it past him to have committed murder. But Aiden Britton is also powerful and well-connected. So Sholto soon finds herself on the run as she tries to get the evidence she needs. She’s helped in this case by Hoyland, whose lover is a member of British Intelligence. When Hoyland proves herself if I may put it that way, she too is invited to join the intelligence community. This series strikes an interesting balance as Mann explores not just Hoyland’s skills as an archaeologist but also her skills as an intelligence agent. Hoyland has a solid enough reputation to use her archaeology credentials in her travels so her profession serves as a useful cover for her ‘other life.’

And no discussion of archaeology in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway. Galloway is a Head of Forensic Archaeology at the University of North Norfolk. Because of her background and skills, she is often called to the scene when a skeleton is discovered. That’s how she meets DCI Harry Nelson, the father of her daughter Kate. Their relationship and her role as Kate’s mother form important threads through this series. But so does the professional work she does. In The House at Sea’s End for instance, she works to discover the identity of six people whose remains are found when a piece of rock crumbles into the sea. The victims do not seem to be English. What’s more, they seem to have been there since the time of World War II. As Galloway is working on this mystery, another death occurs, this time the death of a man who was writing a story on the victims. Now it’s clear that someone is desperate to make sure that no-one finds out the truth about those victims.

I know that Josephine Tey’s Inspector Alan Grant is not an archaeologist. But as I’ve mentioned the new discovery of King Richard III’s body, I couldn’t leave out Tey’s The Daughter of Time. In that novel Grant goes on the trail of a very cold case. He is in hospital with a broken leg when he gets interested in a portrait of King Richard III. As he muses on the portrait it occurs to him that the king may not have been the murderer he was always thought to be. So Grant takes it upon himself to find out what really happened in the case of the Princes in the Tower.

I wish I were better schooled in archaeology but I’m not. It’s fascinating to read about though. Want more? Sure ya do. Check out this interesting post about archaeology in crime fiction by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading. Her top-notch blog is more than worth a prominent place on any crime fiction fan’s blog roll anyway.

 

On Another Note…

 MC

 

I can’t help but think that the news about King Richard III would have really interested the late and sorely-missed Maxine Clarke. She was a real fan of The Daughter of Time too so my guess is that she’d have appreciated this interest in the king. Somehow I hope she knows…

Maxine was an ardent supporter of crime fiction and an avid reader. She was also a friend. So I’m honoured to be a part of Petrona Remembered, an exciting new blog that celebrates her passion for crime fiction. Please visit Petrona Remembered and consider contributing to it. Honestly it’s quite simple to submit your post on your favourite crime fiction and crime fiction topics. Check out the blog and help us to keep alive her love of the genre. See ya there!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jack Johnson’s Traffic in the Sky.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elly Griffiths, Jessica Mann, Josephine Tey, Kathleen O'Neal Gear, Peter Robinson, W. Michael Gear

How Can You Just Walk Away From Me*

TurningawayMost of us would like to think we’d step in to help if someone were in danger or worse. And yet, it’s not that simple. We’ve all read of cases where bystanders do nothing to try to save someone in peril and it’s easy to say that the bystanders should have done something. In some cases it’s true that bystanders are at least partly to blame when someone is hurt or killed. In other cases though, it’s more complicated than that. It’s another example really to show that snap judgements aren’t always accurate. A quick look at crime fiction shows that that sort of thing happens in stories just as it does in real life, and the picture can be just as complex in fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), French moneylender Marie Morisot is en route from Paris to London when she suddenly dies. At first, her death is put down to heart failure. But it’s not long before it’s proven that she was poisoned. Hercule Poirot, who was on the same flight, works with Chief Inspector James ‘Jimmy’ Japp and Scotland Yard authorities to find out who the killer is. They already know that the only possible suspects are the other passengers on that flight, so they begin to look into each suspect’s background. And in the end, it’s that background and history that prove to be the key to the murder. What’s interesting here is that only one suspect is guilty (I think I can say that without spoiling the story). The other suspects are innocent. And yet, they do nothing to help the victim. It’s not that they’re cold or unfeeling. Several factors are at work here. First, no-one except the killer is aware that Madame Giselle, as she is known professionally, is in danger. And when she is actually poisoned, no-one can easily hear what’s going on. Air travel at the time Christie wrote this was louder than it is now, so it was harder to hear ambient noise. And the process of killing the victim doesn’t take long. So although you might wonder why in the world nobody stepped in to help, when you think about it, it wouldn’t have been easy to do so.

There’s a sort of similarity in Josephine Tey’s The Man in the Queue (AKA Killer in the Crowd), in which Scotland Yard inspector Alan Grant is given a most unusual case. Small-time bookmaker Albert Sorrell is one of a large group of people waiting at the Woofington Theatre to see a performance of Didn’t You Know?, a very popular play. The crowd is restless and when the doors finally open, everyone surges forward to take seats. In that rush forward, Sorrell is stabbed from behind and killed. The murder happens in front of dozens of witnesses, none of whom tries to prevent the murder or grab the killer. These people aren’t all heartless folks who refuse to help. For the most part, they’re quite absorbed in what they’re doing and not even aware that Sorrell’s been stabbed until the killer’s gotten away. And they remain self-absorbed as Grant begins to investigate. A few of them are more concerned about being dragged into an investigation than they are about finding the person who killed Sorrell. But most of them simply didn’t pay attention to what was going on until the victim was already dead. The killer chose a moment when everyone was concentrating on getting into the building.

Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn is the story of a car accident in Edinburgh and the events that led up to it and follow from it. Paul Bradley is at the wheel of his silver Peugot when he comes close to hitting a pedestrian. He brakes suddenly to prevent that from happening and is hit from behind by a blue Honda. The two drivers get out of their cars and begin to argue. The Honda driver brandishes a baseball bat and begins to attack Bradley. The accident happens on a busy street at a busy time of day, so there are plenty of witnesses to what happens. But only one person, crime writer Martin Canning, does anything about it. Canning throws his computer case at the Honda driver and knocks him down, saving Bradley’s life. The police respond to the accident and the fight and Bradley is taken to hospital. Canning goes along out of a sense of obligation and thereby gets drawn into a web of theft, fraud and murder. As the novel moves on we learn about several of the witnesses to the accident and the argument. None of them is a thoroughly bad or uncaring person, so why don’t more people do something? In some cases it’s because the Honda driver looks threatening and people don’t want to be his next victim. In a few others, it’s lack of awareness of what was really going on. It’s an interesting case too of being people being ‘frozen on the spot’ and not able to act right away.

There’s a death witnessed by several people in Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Alone in a Crowd, too. Dona Laura Sales Ribeiro makes a visit to Rio de Janeiro’s Twelfth Precinct and asks to see Inspector Espinosa. She is told he’s in a meeting and can’t be disturbed, so she agrees to come back a little later. Shortly after her visit to the police station, Dona Laura falls – or is pushed – under a bus. When Espinosa learns that the woman who wanted to talk to him has been killed, it doesn’t take much time for him to conclude that she was murdered. So he and his team trace her last days and weeks to find out who would have wanted to kill an inoffensive elderly woman. Dona Laura’s death is witnessed by people waiting for the bus and by people in the bus. So why doesn’t anybody do anything to prevent it? One reason is of course the physical danger. Most of us don’t want to be killed. Another reason is that it happens too quickly to give anyone time to react. And like most of us, the witnesses are minding their own business right before Dona Laura is killed. They aren’t paying much attention to her. So they don’t notice what happens until it’s too late.

Sometimes people don’t do anything to help someone in real danger because of the risk to themselves. They are very much afraid of what will happen if they step in. For instance, in Roger Smith’s Dust Devils, former journalist Robert Dell, his wife Rosie and their two children have gone out to a restaurant to celebrate Dell’s birthday. They’re taking a drive afterwards when they’re ambushed. Their Volvo is sent over a ridge, killing Rosie and the children. Dell survives and tries to flag down help. Another family passing by has witnessed what happened, and Dell tries to wave them over for help. But they drive right past although they’ve seen him. Why?

 

‘This was South Africa where Good Samaritans were gunpointed at fake accident scenes.’

 

Dell manages to survive and the police investigate the ambush. Then Dell finds himself accused of the murders of his family members. He knows he’s been framed, but no-one will believe him. His father Bobby Goodbread, from whom he’s been estranged for years, engineers his escape from prison and the two go in search of the real killer. Throughout this novel there are other points too where witnesses see things they could have prevented – but don’t. And it’s all for a very similar reason. Getting involved like that can get you killed.

Most of us don’t want to believe that we’d turn away and do nothing if someone were in desperate need of help. And those who do step up and help are, in my mind, to be admired and respected. But sometimes the decision of whether and to what extent to get involved isn’t an easy one.

For another really interesting perspective on bystanders who witness a crime and don’t act, check out this terrific post by Les Blatt of Classic Mysteries. It deals with the 1964 real-life murder of Kitty Genovese, and the controversy her death raised. Go ‘head, check it out. Oh, and follow Les’ blog while you’re at it. It’s worthy of being on every crime fiction fan’s blog roll.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Phil Collins’ Against All Odds.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Kate Atkinson, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Roger Smith

You Just Might Find You Get What You Need*

Have you ever been in a situation that started out badly, but ended up putting you right where you needed to be, either figuratively or literally (or both)? You know, like getting lost and stumbling onto a great restaurant you’d never known of before or having your flight delayed only to have one of your fellow passengers turn out to become a really valuable and helpful business contact? Part of dealing with life’s “curve balls” is having an optimistic attitude about them; part is the simple twists of luck or fate that can make things work out all for the best. I love when that happens to me in real life; it’s a tonic. It’s also interesting when it happens in crime fiction. It can be a nice “lift” in an otherwise sad story, and it can show an interesting side to a sleuth’s character (i.e. how does she or he cope with those bad situations?).

For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d), Miss Marple decides to take a walk one afternoon to look at the new council housing which has come to the village of St. Mary Meade. During her work, she stumbles and twists her ankle badly. At first it seems like a very bad situation and just a little scary for an elderly woman in a neighbourhood she doesn’t know. But Heather Badcock, who lives in the nearest house, comes to Miss Marple’s rescue and invites her inside for a cup of tea and a rest. Miss Marple turns that bad situation into a chance to indulge her interest in human nature and gets to know a bit about Heather Badcock and her husband Arthur. During that conversation, Heather tells Miss Marple something that turns out to be a clue later in the novel. It’s also through Heather that Miss Marple learns that famous actress Marina Gregg Rudd and her husband have bought Gossington Hall, the home of Colonel and Dolly Bantry (and the scene of plenty of the action in The Body in the Library). There’s to be a charity fête to celebrate the famous couple’s move to the area and all the locals attend, including Heather Badcock, who’s a particular fan of Marina Gregg Rudd. On the day of the big event Heather is poisoned by a cocktail originally meant for Marina, so at first the police assume that Marina was the intended victim. It turns out though that Heather was meant to be the victim the whole time and now Miss Marple works to find out who would have wanted to kill her and why.

Josephine Tey’s Inspector Alan Grant faces a bad situation in A Daughter of Time when he falls through a trap door while chasing after a criminal. One of his colleagues catches the criminal but Grant ends up in hospital with a broken leg. While he’s recuperating, Grant becomes obsessed with a reproduction portrait of England’s King Richard III. The portrait doesn’t strike Grant as the likeness of a horrible man, as Richard III was always made out to be. So Grant decides to find out the real truth about Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. He makes the best of that unfortunate and embarrassing situation to look into the case and comes to the conclusion that Richard III was quite likely framed, and not the evil killer he was assumed to be.

In James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos, New Iberia police officer Dave Robicheaux and his partner Lester Benoit are assigned to transport two prisoners to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. One of them, Jimmie Lee Boggs, manages to free himself and the other prisoner and they escape, killing Benoit and leaving Robicheaux for dead. Robicheaux survives though and spends the next few months healing. He gets well physically but he’s haunted by nightmares and by Benoit’s death. Then he gets a visit from Minos Dautrieve, a friend who now works on a special Presidential Task Force on drugs that is planning a major “sting” operation. Dautrieve wants Robicheaux to go undercover as a cop who’s “gone dirty” and get close to New Orleans crime boss Tony Cardo. At first Robicheaux refuses. It’s a bad situation and he’s barely getting himself together anyway from nearly being killed. But then Dautrieve tells Robicheaux that this operation could also get him Jimmie Lee Boggs. Now Robicheaux sees that this situation could turn out after all, and agrees to the assignment. As he gets closer to Cardo though, Robicheaux realises that this “sting” operation isn’t nearly as clear-cut as it had seemed.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman also finds that a situation that starts out badly ends up with her being where she needs to be, both literally and figuratively. Chapman is a former accountant who came to the conclusion that she’s just not interested in accountancy any more. It has no meaning for her. Along with that, her marriage has ended. And although Chapman is refreshingly free of wallowing or ruminating about her problems, she doesn’t have a close relationship with her parents either. Finding herself at loose ends, Chapman takes an apartment in Insula, a Roman-style building in Melbourne. She opens a bakery which is what she’s always loved doing, and starts again. She and the other residents of Insula form a kind of family and they all take care of each other. Her business is successful too. Chapman’s situation, which started out badly, has put her exactly where she needs to be. And even though Chapman is hardly what you would call an enthusiastic sleuth, at least at first, her willingness to ask questions and help those who need it make her new situation that much better in the end.

Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes) gives us an excellent example of a bad situation turning out to be a good thing. Copenhagen detective Carl Mørck is recovering from an injury he got in a line-of-duty shooting. He’s still dealing with the trauma of what happened, not least because one of his colleagues was killed in the incident. He’s been struggling too, so much that his colleagues find him impossible to work with any more. There’s been a lot of political and media pressure lately to solve crimes, especially “cold cases,” so Mørck is “promoted” to the head of Department Q, a newly-organised department set up to investigate “cases of special interest.” Everyone, including Mørck, knows that this is really a thinly-disguised attempt to get rid of him, but this bad situation actually places Mørck exactly where he needs to be. Once he realises that, he turns the situation to his advantage quite cleverly. He uses the leverage he has to get office space and an assistant Hafez al-Assad. And despite the fact that everyone expects him to do nothing, Mørck gets to work. The first case he and Assad investigate is the five-year-old disappearance of “rising star” politician Merete Lynggaard, who was believed drowned in a ferry accident. Mørck makes his new situation work for him and he and Assad slowly uncover the truth about Lynggaard’s disappearance.

Sometimes a situation that looks bad or at least unpleasant on the surface ends up being, in an odd way, the best thing that could have happened. It takes the right attitude and, let’s be honest, the right circumstances, but it does happen.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, James Lee Burke, Josephine Tey, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Kerry Greenwood