Category Archives: Katherine Howell

Thank You For Opening Your Door*

HouseguestsOne of many things people have to prepare for at this time of year is house guests. People often take time to visit friends and relatives, and those visits can be wonderful. But they also involve lots of logistics, from food, to where everyone will sleep, to things such as extra towels and bedding, and many other details. And then there’s the dynamics of people sharing a home when they’re not accustomed to it. With all of that going on, it’s no surprise that house guests can make a terrific backdrop/context for a murder mystery.

You’ll notice in this post that there won’t be a mention of the traditional ‘country house murder,’ where a group of people are gathered and one of them becomes a victim – too easy! And there are lots of other ‘house guest’ contexts. Here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, detective fiction writer Ariadne Oliver accepts an invitation to visit Judith Butler, a woman she met on a cruise of the Greek islands. During her stay, she helps out at a local children’s Hallwe’en party at another home. On the afternoon of the party, one of the guests Joyce Reynolds boasts that she’s seen a murder. Everyone hushes her up and no-one believes her. But that night at the party, Joyce is murdered. It’s certainly clear to Mrs. Oliver that there probably was a murder and that the killer overheard Joyce’s comments. Mrs. Oliver asks Hercule Poirot to travel to Woodleigh Common, where Judith Butler lives, and investigate. Poirot agrees and looks into the case. He finds that this murder and another that occurs are linked to the town’s history. At one point, Poirot asks Mrs. Oliver if there is space in her London home to accommodate guests. Here is her response:
 

‘I never admit that there is…if you ever admit that you’ve got a free guest room in London, you’ve asked for it. All your friends, and not only your friends, your acquaintances or indeed your acquaintances’ third cousins sometimes….say would you mind just putting them up for a night? Well, I do mind. What with sheets and laundry, pillow cases and wanting early morning tea and very often expecting meals served to them, people come.’
 

In this case, though, Mrs. Oliver ends up making an exception.

One plot thread of Alexander McCall Smith’s Morality For Beautiful Girls concerns an important Government Man who consults Mma. Precious Ramotswe on a private matter. He believes that his new sister-in-law is poisoning his brother and plotting to kill him. He wants Mma. Ramotswe to look into the matter and stop his sister-in-law before it’s too late. Mma. Ramotswe agrees to take the case, and travels to the Government Man’s home village, where his brother and sister-in-law live. There she gets to know the various members of the household. She feels a little uncomfortable exploring her client’s suspicions and still being treated as a guest, and matters are not made easier by the tension in the household. Then one afternoon, everyone, including Mma. Ramotswe, is sickened by what turns out to be poisoned food. As soon as she recovers a bit, Mma. Ramotswe pieces together what happened. She finds out some surprising truths about the household too.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack introduces readers to Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano, a Buenos Aires police officer at a time (the late 1970s) when it’s very dangerous to live in Argentina. One day, he and his team raid a brothel. They make a few arrests, but several people get away because they have ties to people who are in power. Lescano is making a final walk-through when he discovers a young woman Eva, who’s been hiding in the house. She looks eerily like Lescano’s dead wife Marisa, so almost as a reflex action, he shelters her in his home. Eva is grateful to be rescued (we learn as the story goes on why she was hiding). But she has no reason at all to trust Lescano. He’s a police officer and in her experience, the police are brutal and sadistic. But he asks nothing of her. Lescano finds himself drawn to Eva, at first because of her resemblance to Marisa. As time goes by though, he gets to know Eva just a bit (she is not forthcoming), and finds her own personality appealing too. Eva’s stay with Lescano certainly has its awkwardness. Neither really trusts the other, especially at first. But they become allies.

In Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, fledgling psyciatrist Stephanie Anderson meets a new patient Elisabeth Clark. After several sessions, Elisabeth begins to open up just a little. She has had mental and emotional problems since the abduction of her younger sister Gracie several years earlier. Gracie was never found, and the experience still haunts the family. It also haunts Stephanie, who lost her own younger sister Gemma in a similar way seventeen years earlier. Little by little, Elisabeth starts to put her life together again, and Stephanie decides to lay her own ghosts to rest and find out who wrought this havoc on both families. She travels from Dunedin, where she’s been living and working, to her home town of Wanaka. As one of her stops, she is invited to stay with Elisabeth’s father Andy, who is deeply grateful for his daughter’s returning mental health. In fact, he’s so grateful to Stephanie that he insists she stay as long as she wants at the lodge he owns, free of charge, as his guest. Although she doesn’t really even know Andy, Stephanie finds herself beginning to relax for the first time in a long time, and the visit prepares her to face the devastation her family suffered.

One of the ‘Charles Todd’ writing team’s series features World War I nurse Bess Crawford. More than once, Bess becomes a guest in someone’s home as she investigates mysteries. In A Duty to the Dead for instance, she is invited to visit the Graham family at Owlhurst in Kent. She nursed Arthur Graham before his death from battlefield wounds; in the process, he came to know and trust her and the feeling was mutual. So he gave her a very cryptic message, insisting that she commit it to memory and that she deliver it in person to his brother Jonathan. Bess is reluctant, but an injury of her own gives her the opportunity to pass along the message during her convalescence in England. The visit to Owlhurst is a very difficult one. For one thing, there is a great deal of tension in the family. For another, Bess learns that this family has many secrets. Having delivered Arthur’s message, Bess would actually just as soon end her visit, but she’s drawn into an emergency situation. Before she knows it, Bess is also drawn into a larger case of past murder and present death, all relating to that message.

And then there’s Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear. One afternoon, Paul Fowler and some friends are tossing a football around when he suddenly collapses. It’s soon determined that he was killed by a sniper’s bullet, and New South Wales Police Inspector Ella Marconi and her partner Murray Shakespeare investigate. They look into the lives of Fowler’s ex-wife Trina as well as the lives of his friends, and make some interesting discoveries. One of them is that Fowler had been laid off from his job, and was staying with a friend Seth Garland. When the team visits Garland’s home, they find a stark difference between the two men’s lifestyles. Garland is neat and orderly; Fowler…was not. I can say without spoiling the story that that difference isn’t the reason Fowler was killed. But it’s that sort of thing that can make being (or hosting) a house guest a challenge.

Whether you’ve been one or had them, the house guest situation can be delightful. But it’s also got lots of logistical and other challenges. I’ve only mentioned a few examples here because I’ve got to go count towels and sheets and plan food shopping. Your turn…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Wiggly Tendrils’ Song of the Grateful House-Guests.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Paddy Richardson, Katherine Howell, Charles Todd, Ernesto Mallo

Somebody Help Me Tame This Animal*

Creating a MonsterOne of the things that crime fiction teaches is that we’re never quite as much in control as we might like to think we are. And that’s an unsettling thought. But it can make for solid suspense and tension in a crime novel. There are lots of cases for instance where characters think they can manage a situation or even another character, only to find they’ve created a monster as the saying goes. Here are a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Michael Stanley’s A Carrion Death, Botswana CID Assistant Director David ‘Kubu’ Bengu is called to the scene when a body is discovered not far from Dale’s Camp. It’s hard to determine the cause of death at first, since hyenas found the body before humans did. And on the surface it looks as though the victim simply strayed too far from camp and was attacked by animals. But Kubu isn’t so sure, and forensic evidence supports the idea that this may have been murder. The trail leads to the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC), and that creates its own problems. The Botswana government considers BCMC essential for its economy, and there’s no desire to embarrass anyone who works there, especially not those at the top. But then there’s another murder, also with company connections. And another. In the end, Kubu and his team find out who’s behind the murders and how it all relates both to past history and to BCMC. And it turns out that someone’s ‘business arrangement’ has created a monster.

There’s also a sort of arrangement that leads to a monster being created in Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack. Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano is a Buenos Aires cop in the Argentina of the late 1970s, a time and place when it’s very dangerous to navigate life. Early one morning, he gets a call about two bodies that have been found by a river bank. Both murders bear the hallmark of an Army hit, and Lescano knows the consequences of speaking up about them. But he also finds a third body – one that wasn’t reported. It turns out that this dead man is Elías Biterman, a successful moneylender and pawnbroker. Lescano soon learns that some very important people do not want the truth about this murder to come out, and there is a great deal of pressure on him to leave it all alone. But he perseveres and we learn the truth about what really happened. This murder and others that occur in the novel are in part the tragic consequence of someone who didn’t have nearly as much control of a situation as was thought.

That’s also true in Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm). Very late one night, Sanna Stråndgard discovers the body of her brother Viktor in the Church of the Source of All our Strength. Stråndgard was a very popular, almost cult-like figure among the locals of Kiruna and outlying areas, and he was becoming very well-known in the rest of Sweden too. At first, there doesn’t seem to be much motive, since he had so many devotees. Sanna is distraught, and turns to her former friend, Stockholm attorney Rebecka Martinsson, for help. Martinsson has no desire to return to her home town of Kiruna, but for Sanna’s sake she reluctantly does so. Then, the police get some evidence that Sanna herself may be the killer. She claims that she’s innocent though, and begs Martinsson to defend her. For various reasons Martinsson would really like to have no part in this. But Sanna has two daughters and Martinsson doesn’t want them turned over to the state. So she agrees to represent Sanna. That’s how she meets police investigators Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke. At first uneasily, but later willingly, they work find out who the killer is. In the end, we see a clear example of how proverbial monsters can be created.

In Sulari Gentill’s  A Few Right Thinking Men, we meet artist Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair and his brother Wilfred. They’re very different people and often don’t get along. Both are devastated though when their uncle, also named Rowland, is bludgeoned one night. At first, the police suspect that the victim’s housekeeper may have had something to do with the killing, but Rowly is certain she’s completely innocent. So he begins to ask questions. He soon learns that his uncle’s murder might be connected with a far-right group called the New Guard. This group seeks to stamp out communism and any left-leaning sympathy and create a new society run by ‘a few right thinking men.’ Rowly decides that the only way to learn the truth about the murder is to infiltrate the group, so he contrives a commission from the group’s leader, Colonel Eric Campbell, to paint his portrait. Little by little, Rowly learns the truth about what happened to his uncle. And as he gets closer to the group’s top members, he also learns the group’s ultimate plans. This too is a case of a monster being created.

Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer is the story of poet Tapani Lehtinen and his wife Johanna, who is a news reporter. In their world, climate change has wreaked havoc on the world, leaving millions of climate refugees. Little is done to maintain order and society is quickly descending into anarchy. Against this backdrop, Johanna is pursuing a story about a man who calls himself the Healer. He claims to be responsible for the murders of several CEOs of corporations that he believes are guilty of the ongoing destruction of the planet. The idea of the murders is to avenge those affected by this devastation and to call attention to it. When Johanna disappears, Lehtinen decides that the best way to trace her is to follow the story she was working on, and he begins to do just that. Little by little he learns the truth about the Healer and as he does so, he also gets closer to knowing what happened to his wife. In the end we see that someone created a monster, which led to some tragic and unintended consequences.

Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear introduces readers to Paul Fowler. One hot afternoon, he and some friends are tossing a football around in a local park when he suddenly collapses and dies. Soon enough it’s established that he was shot, sniper-style, and New South Wales Police detectives Ella Marconi and Murray Shakespeare investigate. They begin with Fowler’s ex-wife Trina and his friends and business associates. As they interview and follow up with these people they learn that Fowler had a hidden side to his life and that some people aren’t telling everything they know about it. When the police finally find out who killed Fowler and why, we see that sometimes, when you create a monster, it turns on you…

There are a lot of other examples of this plot point in crime fiction. It’s an effective one for the genre, and I’ve only had space here for a few instances. Your turn.

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Three Days’ Grace’s Animal I Have Become.

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Filed under Antti Tuomainen, Åsa Larsson, Ernesto Mallo, Katherine Howell, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Stanley Trollip, Sulari Gentill

But Times Have Changed and Things are Not the Same, Baby*

TimesHaveChangedToday’s savvy crime fiction fans want stories that reflect real life. I don’t just mean characters who behave in believable ways, although that’s important of course. I’m really referring here to other kinds of credibility. Here’s just one example. Suppose for instance that a character travels. It would be very difficult to do that, especially internationally, without that travel being documented. And if a character is a suspect in a crime, the police will at some point have access to those records. So a plot in which the police couldn’t find that information wouldn’t be credible. To take just one more example, consider the process of obtaining and showing identification. Of course it’s possible, if one has the right connections, to get forged documents. False documents are also given to certain top-secret government operatives and to people who participate in witness protection programs. And there’s the whole issue of identity theft, especially online identity. But for most of us, it would be difficult, perhaps even impossible, to go through our daily lives pretending to be someone else.

In some ways, this adds to the challenge of modern crime writing. In Sherlock Holmes’ A Scandal in Bohemia, for instance, Sherlock Holmes is approached by the King of Bohemia, who is about to be married. He’s concerned because his former lover Irene Adler has a compromising ‘photo of them. If it comes to light, the marriage plans will be scuttled. Holmes finds out where Irene Adler is and although she ends up, if you will, with all of the proverbial cards, the king is able to go ahead with the wedding. This story arguably couldn’t really happen today. For one thing, the king is only worried about getting that one ‘photo. With today’s online digital photography and online social media, the king would have no hope of keeping that ‘photo secret.

The major premise of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians) is that a group of people is visiting Indian Island off the Devon coast, stranded by a storm. They’ve each been invited under a different pretext but as they soon find out, they were brought there deliberately. And when, one by one, they begin to die, it’s clear that there’s a murderer among them. As it’s written, it’s a very suspenseful story in part because there seems no escape from the danger; the people on the island really are cut off. Today’s crime writer would have some challenges writing a story with that scenario. After all, almost everyone has mobile ‘phones. It’s harder to be completely stranded than it was. It’s certainly possible, but today’s author would have to work to make it plausible.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna concerns the murder of Roseanna Mcgraw, a young woman from the US state of Nebraska. She is murdered during a cruise of Swedish cities, and one of the first challenges the police face is identifying her. It takes quite some time to connect the dead woman with the woman who was reported missing in Nebraska and then more time to establish the victim’s itinerary. After several months, Stockholm homicide detective Martin Beck and his team get their answers and are able to focus on the right suspect. Today’s crime writer would have to account for a few things in order to sustain a story like this. For example, today, there’s instant communication among police forces, even internationally. What’s more, computer databases give police easy access to the kind of information that Martin Beck and his team need. And then of course there’s the reality of email, texting and the like. A crime writer would have to explain a disappearance like Roseanna’s in more depth.

It might seem then that today’s crime writers have a much harder task in terms of making stories realistic than did crime writers of the past. But I’m not sure it’s that easy. Here are just a few examples of what I mean. In Karin Fossum’s The Water’s Edge, Oslo homicide detective Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate the death of seven-year-old Jonas August Løwe. When a couple out for a Sunday walk discover Jonas’ body, they call the police and an investigation is started immediately. Modern technology means that the police are notified quickly, the body is identified very soon thereafter, and Sejer and Skarre can begin the process of finding out who killed the boy. What it also means is that Fossum can focus on the investigation and on the characters involved rather than take a lot of time to explain how the boy is identified and so on.

Today’s realities can also add to a story’s interest. For example, in one plot thread of Katherine Howell’s Violent Exposure, New South Wales Police detective Ella Marconi and her team investigate when Suzanne Crawford is murdered. In part because of a previous incident of possible domestic violence, her husband Connor is the obvious suspect. But he seems to have disappeared. What’s more (and this is adds to the story’s suspense), when the police look into his background, it turns out that they can’t find anything. There are no records that he ever existed. Given today’s documentation, that doesn’t make much sense. But that’s just what makes the case more interesting and for Marconi and the team, more challenging. In the end though, we find out the truth about both mysteries. In this case, Howell takes advantage of the realities of today’s world to add to the storyline.

There’s also Anthony Bidulka’s When the Saints Come Marching In, which introduces us to CDRA (Canadian Disaster Relief Agency) agent Adam Saint. Saint is a part of a top-secret agency that provides assistance anywhere in the world when wars or other disasters affect Canadians or Canadian interests. Saint travels to Magadan, in the Russian Federation, when his boss is killed during the investigation of a plane crash. There’s more to it of course than that, but Saint drops the investigation and returns home to Saskatchewan when a personal emergency ends his career with the CDRA. As you can imagine, though, the story doesn’t end there. This novel and others like it depend on modern realities. Saint travels on very little notice, something that couldn’t happen without today’s realities. He has access to the very latest in modern technology too. And there are other aspects of the plot that wouldn’t be credible at all without modern realities.

Developments such as DNA testing, modern identification documents and procedures, and global communication mean that some kinds of stories that we used to take for granted wouldn’t be credible today. So in some ways, today’s writers have more considerations than ever if they’re to sustain credibility. At the same time though, new realities have made possible all sorts of new kinds of storylines.

What about you? Are you bothered by lapses in credibility (e.g. ‘You know she had a mobile; why didn’t she call for help?’). If you’re a writer, how do you address the issue?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Modern Woman.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Karin Fossum, Katherine Howell, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö

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