Category Archives: Katherine Howell

While the Roadies Rig the Video Surveillance Van*

SurveillanceDetectives know that it’s not enough to just ask questions of witnesses and suspects. After all, people lie, or they don’t remember things accurately, or they find it convenient not to mention certain things. So detectives sometimes engage in surveillance. That might involve watching a certain place to see who comes and goes. Or it might involve following a certain person or people. Surveillance is time-consuming and it can be tedious, especially if there are a long periods of inactivity. But it’s a part of many real-life investigations. And it’s a part of crime fiction too. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that he frequently does surveillance. That’s part of the reason for which he keeps somewhat odd hours. Dr. Watson does his share of surveillance too. In one instance, The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist, Violet Smith hires Holmes to help her solve an odd mystery. She is employed as a piano teacher at Chiltern Grange and lives there during the week. On Fridays she goes to London to visit her mother and on Monday mornings she returns to Chiltern Grange. All goes well enough until one Friday when Violet notices that a man is following her as she rides her bicycle to the train station. On Monday when she returns, the same man follows her from the station towards Chiltern Grange. The man doesn’t get close enough to be physically threatening but Violet is understandably worried. Watson travels to the Chiltern Grange area and takes up a stakeout near the part of the road where Violet has reported seeing this strange man. Sure enough, she is telling the truth. He and Holmes look more closely into the matter and find out that Violet is in a great deal more danger than she might have thought. Surveillance plays a key role in this story.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot generally eschews surveillance, preferring to use his ‘little grey cells’ to solve cases. Besides, as he will admit, he doesn’t have the resources to be everywhere at once. So as a rule, he leaves surveillance to others. Yet it still crops up in Christie’s work. For instance in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Marie Morisot, who does business as Madame Giselle, is on a flight from Paris to London. During the flight she suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on the flight, one of whom is Hercule Poirot. He works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who killed Madame Giselle and why. One of the other passengers is London hair stylist’s assistant Jane Grey. She’s not a very likely suspect but of course, being mixed up in a murder case does impact her. One evening she and another passenger Norman Gale are having dinner when they notice that yet another passenger is at the same restaurant. He is detective novelist Mr. Clancy, whom the police already suspect (after all, we know that mystery novelists are quite suspicious ;-) ). On impulse Grey and Gale decide to follow Mr. Clancy and see where he goes after he finishes his meal. It’s a funny set of scenes as they practice the art of discreetly following someone. And Mr. Clancy certainly acts suspiciously…

Sue Grafton’s PI Kinsey Millhone occasionally does investigative work for California Fidelity Insurance Company, in exchange for which she has the use of office space in their suite. One of the sub-plots of A is for Alibi concerns a California Fidelity case that Millhone takes on. Marcia Threadgill is claiming disability related to a fall, and the insurance company wants Millhone to follow up on that claim. The idea is that Millhone will ‘rubber stamp’ the insurance company’s approval of the payout. So Millhone follows Threadgill, takes ‘photos and observes her carefully. What she finds is that Threadgill is committing insurance fraud. The original claim was credible enough for the company to be prepared to pay; it takes surveillance to prove that it was fraudulent.

Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series features Mma. Precious Ramotswe, a private detective who does her share of surveillance in her way. But in The Good Husband of Zebra Drive it’s her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni who does the surveillance. Much as he loves his work as the owner of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, he’s been looking for something a little different to do from time to time. He gets his chance when a new client Faith Botumile wants to hire Mma. Ramotswe’s agency. She believes that her husband has been unfaithful and wants to know who the other woman is. Mma. Ramotswe happens to be out when Mma. Botumile arrives, and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni takes down the information. Since he is the one who had the first contact with the client, Mma. Ramotswe thinks it makes sense for him to follow up on the case. Mma. Botumile is rude, harshly critical and unpleasant, and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni can well understand how the husband of a woman like her might stray. But she is a client so he takes up working on the case. Part of his task is following Mr. Botumile to find out what he does after work. So Mr. J.L.B. Matakoni does that, and turns up some surprising results.

It isn’t just private investigators who conduct surveillance. The police do their share of it too. Let me just give two examples. In one plot thread of Jane Casey’s The Burning, DC Maeve Kerrigan and her colleagues at the Met are on the trail of a killer whom the press has dubbed the Burning Man because he tries to destroy his victims’ bodies with fire. At one point the police catch a man they think is the murderer, but then another body is discovered. So they have to start over again. After more time goes by with no real leads, it’s decided to set up a surveillance operation in a local park – the sort of place that has so far appealed to the killer. Kerrigan joins one of the surveillance teams and everyone settles in for a long night. With one of the cops serving as ‘bait,’ everyone watches and waits. It’s a really interesting depiction of how cold, uncomfortable and frustrating surveillance can be. And how dangerous it can be. It’s little wonder that the cops don’t generally set up large-scale surveillance operations on a whim.

In Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear, New South Wales Police Detective Ella Marconi and her team investigate the murder of Paul Fowler. He’s tossing a football around with a few friends one afternoon when he’s shot. Part of the process of finding out who killed Fowler is talking to everyone in his life, including his ex-wife Trina. The police duly interview her, but although she talks to them, it’s soon clear that she’s hiding something. It could be something relatively innocent, but the police can’t risk the chance. And Trina is good at keeping her own counsel. So it’s decided to follow her, to find out where she goes and whom she sees, and to follow up on any of her ‘phone calls. That surveillance proves to be very useful in solving the Fowler case.

And that’s the thing about surveillance. It can be frustrating and time-consuming, even with modern CCTV cameras. But it can also yield important information. These are only a few examples (I know, I know, fans of Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin, Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather). Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from They Might Be Giants’ Working Undercover For the Man.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jane Casey, Katherine Howell, Rex Stout, Sue Grafton

Ev’rything Was So Well Organized*

Organized and Planned MurdersIn Arthur Upfield’s Death of a Swagman, Queensland Police Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte travels to the small town of Merino to investigate the murder of stockman George Kendall, whose body is found in an isolated hut. Bony’s working on that case when another body is found. This time it’s a transient worker John Way, who seems to have committed suicide. It’s a strange case, but Bony puts the pieces together. At one point, he’s talking to Sergeant Richard Marshall about the sort of murder case this is:

 

‘Very often the crime of murder is the effect of thought extended over a lengthy period. In other words, the actual act of a crime is the effect of long and careful planning, following an idea which has become an obsession.’

 

It’s an interesting point. There are of course plenty of real-life and fictional murders that are ‘heat of the moment’ type killings. But there are also lots of very calculated murders too. And those murders can be chilling. We can understand how someone might kill in the heat of rage or fear, for instance. But a planned, carefully orchestrated murder is a different sort of thing. But as you already know, there are people who commit such murders and they show up in crime fiction just as they do in real life.

Agatha Christie wrote about such murders in several of her works. I’ll just mention one. In The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot works with Scotland Yard and the local police to solve a series of murders. The only things that seem to link all of the killings is that Poirot receives a cryptic warning before each one, and that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. On the surface of it, the crimes look like the work of a deranged serial killer. But as Poirot discovers, these crimes are far more calculated than that.

In Anthondy Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas, wealthy meat company heiress Charity Wiser believes that someone in her family is trying to kill her. She hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who the would-be murderer is. Her idea is that Quant will join the family on a cruise so that he can sleuth each member. Quant agrees and everyone boards the ship. As Quant gets to know the different people in the Wiser clan, he finds out that beneath the ‘happy family’ surface there’s a lot of tension, resentment and dysfunction. In the course of the cruise there are two attempts at murder. Then there’s a successful murder. Quant finds that behind everything that happens, there’s cold calculation and careful planning.

Private detective Dandelion ‘Dandy’ Gilver finds the same thing in Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains. She gets a letter from Walburga ‘Lollie’ Balfour, claiming that her husband Philip ‘Pip’ is trying to kill her and asking Dandy’s help. The only problem is, Lollie doesn’t want Pip to find out she’s hired a detective. So, Dandy goes to the Balfour home under the guise of a maid seeking a job. Using the name Fanny Rossiter, Dandy settles into her new position. Late on the night of Fanny’s arrival, Pip is stabbed. Superintendent Hardy takes the case and after Dandy explains who she is and why she’s there, he starts to listen to what she has to say. Besides, as a member of the staff, Dandy’s in a good position to hear things that might not be said in Hardy’s presence. Slowly Dandy finds out the truth about who really killed Pip and why, and it turns out that this has been a very carefully calculated and planned murder. There was nothing spontaneous about it.

There’s nothing spontaneous about the murder of Reginald Hart in Chris Grabenstein’s Tilt a Whirl either. Sea Haven, New Jersey police officer John Ceepak and summer hire Danny Boyle are faced with an ugly killing when Hart is shot early one morning. His daughter Ashley is the only apparent witness. Her description of the killer matches a local vagrant nicknamed ‘Squeegee’ so a search is made for him. But there are other possibilities. For one thing, Hart made his money through (often) illegal and (usually) unethical property acquisition. More than one person has good cause to hate him for that. And then there’s his personal life. It could also be that one or another of Hart’s dubious ‘business associates’ hired Squeegee to kill him. Ceepak and Boyle are busy following up leads when Ashley is kidnapped. Now there’s an even greater sense of urgency to solve this case and track down the killer before anything happens to Ashley. In the end, Ceepack and Boyle discover that this was a very carefully orchestrated crime.

The main plot in Katherine Howell’s Violent Exposure is the murder of Suzanne Crawford. She is killed the day after a domestic dispute with her husband Connor, so the first theory is that he murdered her. But Connor has disappeared. So New South Wales police detective Ella Marconi and her partner Dennis Orchard have two mysteries to solve. They soon discover a third: Connor Crawford seems to have no personal history. Background checks on him reveal nothing. Then Emil Page, a teen volunteer who worked at the Crawfords’ nursery, also disappears. If they’re going to find Connor and Emil, Marconi and her team will have to work quickly. They discover that those disappearances are related to the Crawfords’ complicated personal histories, and that everything that’s happened was carefully planned. Suzanne’s murder was far from a ‘heat of the moment’ case of tragic domestic violence.

There’s a very interesting case of a calculated crime in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing. Dr. Suresh Jha is stabbed one morning while he is attending a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club. According to many witnesses, the goddess Kali appears at the meeting and murders Jha in retribution for his campaign to expose religious chicanery. Jha was determined to stop people from mindlessly believing in so-called ‘spiritual leaders’ who take advantage of the need for spiritual connection. In fact, he was the founder and head of the Delhi Institute for Rationalism and Education (D.I.R.E.). So for a lot of people, murder by goddess is not a far-fetched explanation for Jha’s death. But private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri is not convinced. He takes an interest in the case since Jha is a former client, and he begins to ask questions. In the end, he and his team find that the Suresh Jha case is not what it seems on the surface. Certainly it’s not a case of a goddess suddenly killing someone in the heat of anger.

Although a lot of murders are committed without much planning, there are plenty also that are carefully orchestrated. Those calculated murders are perhaps even creepier than the other kind. I’ve only had space here to mention a few. Which ones have you thought were well-written?

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Upfield, Catriona McPherson, Chris Grabenstein, Katherine Howell, Tarquin Hall

A Plot Begins to Take Shape*

Story ShapeNot long ago, graphic designer Maya Eilam suggested a fascinating way to look at the shape of a story – through a graphic pattern. She based her ideas on Kurt Vonnegut’s theories about archetypal story patterns (e.g. ‘boy meets girl,’ and ‘creation stories,’ among others).

I got to thinking about story patterns for certain kinds of crime fiction novels and thought it might be interesting to see what those patterns look like pictorially. Now of course, each story is a little bit different. Still, let’s take a look at some basic story patterns.

Keep in mind as you read that a) I am not a graphic designer, so the graphics are not professional; b) this is all just my take on story shapes; c) there’s only space on this post for a few examples. I’m sure that you’ll be able to think of a lot more than I could.

 

The Classic/Golden Age Novel

GA

In many (‘though certainly not all!) classic/Golden Age crime novels, we meet the characters. Then something untoward happens and then, there’s a murder. The sleuth begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together, only to have to deal with a second murder or other setback. Then the sleuth puts more pieces of the puzzle together, to arrive at a resolution. There’s very often a hint of romance in such novels too (although again, certainly not always).

That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow. The story starts as we get to know the various members of the Angkatell family. They’re preparing for a weekend gathering that will also include Harley Street specialist John Christow and his wife Gerda. The weekend begins and we see the tensions among the characters rise. Then, John Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot is staying at a nearby cottage he’s taken, and he and Inspector Grange work to find out who the killer is. At first Poirot gets to some of the truth about the murder but of course, there are setbacks. Then, Poirot finds the other pieces of the puzzle. There’s a bit of a romance angle too for two of the characters. Of course, the novel has other depths too, but you can see how it’s consistent with this pattern.

There’s also John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook. That’s the story of the murder of Martin Starberth. The Starberth family were Governors of Chatterham Prison for several generations, and it’s still the family custom for each Starberth heir to spend the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the Governor’s Room at the now-ruined prison as a sort of initiation rite. When Martin Starberth takes his turn, he’s found dead the next morning. The story is told through the eyes of Tad Rampole, an American who’s visiting Dr. Gideon Fell, who lives not far from the prison. First, we meet the characters. The tension rises as we learn the story of the Starberth family, and then Martin Starberth is killed. There are some clues to the puzzle, but there are setbacks as this seems to be one of those ‘impossible crimes.’ It isn’t of course, and Fell finds that the key to the mystery is a cryptic poem. Again, parts of the story don’t strictly follow this story shape, but in general, it fits. Oh, and there’s a romance in this novel too.

 

The Police Procedural

PP

There are of course a lot of variations on the police procedural theme. But in general, the real action in them starts when a body is discovered. Then the police interview witnesses and those who were involved with the victim. Sometimes the detective gets a clue or even several pieces of the puzzle. Then there’s often a setback as clues don’t pan out, more victims are killed, or the police detective is warned off a case for whatever reason. Then comes the break in the case. There’s also sometimes a confrontation between the detective and the criminal. Then, even if the criminal isn’t always led away in handcuffs, we know the truth about the case.

That’s what happens in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, the first of their Martin Beck series. The action in the story begins when the body of an unknown woman is pulled from a Swedish lake. After a lot of effort she is identified as Roseanna McGraw, an American who was touring Sweden when she was killed. Martin Beck and his team talk to people who might be witnesses, and there’s a parallel investigation in the victim’s hometown in Nebraska. But there are setbacks as the detectives really can’t find a viable suspect. Then there’s a major breakthrough in the case and the killer is identified. There’s a confrontation with that person and the case is solved. Of course there’s more to the novel than that, but you can see how it’s consistent with this pattern.

We also see this pattern in Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear. New South Wales police detective Ella Marconi and her team are called in when Paul Fowler is killed. He was with a group of friends tossing a football around when he suddenly collapsed. When it’s found that he was shot, the team begins to talk with the people on the scene as well as with other people in Fowler’s life. There are setbacks as several people involved in the case keep things back. There are other deaths, too. But then there’s a breakthrough, and Marconi and her team find out the truth. Again, there are other layers to this novel and there are subplots. But in many ways it’s consistent with the basic story structure.

 

The Cosy Mystery

CM

The characters in a cosy mystery are often very important. So lots of cosies start with an introduction to the characters. Then something happens that raises the tension level. Then there’s a murder. The sleuth (who’s usually an amateur, ‘though of course, not always) is drawn into the case. She or he often has a love interest or something else that brings some hope (cosies tend to be optimistic). But there are setbacks. Either the sleuth is suspected of the crime, or there’s another murder – sometimes both. However, there is support from the sleuth’s real friends and sometimes from the sleuth’s love interest. The sleuth puts the pieces of the puzzle together, sometimes having a confrontation with the killer. Then the story comes together when the case is solved. 

Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal is like that. In that novel, a local theatre group has been doing a production of Henry V under the direction of local high school principal Hilary VanBrook. On the night of the last performance, VanBrook is murdered. Since the murder was on his property, and the suspects are people he knows, Qwill investigates the case. As he does so, he gets support from his friends in town and of course there’s his love interest Polly Duncan. There are also setbacks as there is another murder. Some of the clues don’t pan out either. But in the end, Qwill finds out who killed VanBrook and why.

We also see that sort of pattern in Dicey Deere’s The Irish Village Murder. Professional translator/interpreter Torrey Tunet has just returned to her European ‘home base’ in the Irish village of Ballynagh. She’s soon drawn into a murder case when her friend Megan O’Faolain is accused of shooting noted history writer John Gwathney. Tunet doesn’t believe her friend is guilty, so she begins to ask questions. As she does so, we get to know the various characters and we also learn about Gwathney’s personal and professional lives. In the end, and with help from her lover Jaspar Shaw, Tunet finds out who really killed the victim and why. In one sense, this novel varies just a little from the overall story structure I’ve depicted; we get to know the characters after Gwathney’s body is discovered. But in most ways it’s quite consistent.

 

The Noir Novel

Noir

Noir stories are, by their nature, not happy stories about well-adjusted people, and you can see that reflected in the story structure. In many of these stories, the main character is not overly happy to begin with. Then, something happens that propels that character on a downward spiral. The character gets involved in a murder investigation in one way or another and things don’t get much better. There are setbacks that draw the main character further down. There may sometimes be some sort of possibility for optimism as the main character finds out the truth. But in the end, solving the case doesn’t make for a happy ending, and the protagonist doesn’t come out of things ahead of the proverbial game.

That’s the case with Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, which takes place in 1950’s Southern California. Lora King is a Pasadena schoolteacher whose brother Bill has just become married Alice Steele. Lora’s not happy about this. For one thing, she doesn’t know much about Alice, and something about her is disturbing. Still, she tries to make the best of things for Bill’s sake. But as Lora slowly learns out more about Alice, she sees that her new sister-in-law has a very murky past and is hiding a lot of her life. The more Lora finds out though, the more drawn into Alice’s life she becomes. Then there’s a death that turns out to be murder. Is Alice involved? If so, Bill could be in real danger. So Lora begins to investigate and finds out that she’s pulled more and more into the case. She risks everything to try to find out the truth and save Bill, and I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that knowing what really happened doesn’t make life any better.

Ken Bruen’s The Guards is also fairly consistent with this sort of story shape. Jack Taylor has recently been separated from the Garda, mostly for drinking that led to a very unprofessional encounter with a speeder. Now he’s hung out his PI shingle in Galway, and Ann Henderson hires him. Her daughter Sarah recently died in what police say was an incident of suicide. But Ann doesn’t believe that. Taylor agrees to take the case and starts asking questions. He soon finds out that he’s not going to get much help from his former Garda colleagues. And it doesn’t help matters that Sarah’s death may be connected to the deaths of some other young girls – killings that some highly placed people do not want solved. But Taylor has begun to care very much for Ann Henderson. Besides, he doesn’t much like it when obstacles are put in his way. So he persists. He even stops drinking for a time and starts to put his life together. He finds out the truth about Sarah Henderson, but it doesn’t change the sadness of this case. And it doesn’t really make life better for Taylor.

One thing about well-written novels is that there’s much more to them than just their overall shape. There is a richness of character, plot and so on that keeps the reader engaged. So a story map only goes so far in describing a given novel. What’s more, each author has an individual way of approaching story shapes and structures, and many authors play with the structure deliberately. So not every novel falls neatly within one or another structure. Still, I think it’s an interesting way to think about crime novels. Thanks to  Maya Eilam for the inspiration and to author and fellow blogger Rob Kitchin for sharing the article.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Belle and Sebastian’s Storytelling.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dicey Deere, John Dickson Carr, Katherine Howell, Ken Bruen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Maj Sjöwall, Megan Abbott, Per Wahlöö

Everybody Needs an Education*

Cop as TeacherA lot of learning to be a good detective comes from on-the-job experience. Even police detectives, who presumably go through police academy, don’t really learn how to be detectives until they actually do the work. So among many tasks that fall to more senior detectives is teaching new arrivals. Sometimes the teaching is very informal. The new detective simply starts working with the more senior sleuth and observes and gradually learns. Sometimes the process is more formal. Either way it’s interesting to see how more senior detectives fit into their roles as teachers. It’s certainly part of the job in real life and it is in crime fiction too.

For instance, Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is a veteran investigator. He’s therefore expected to help coach new arrivals and he has a good reputation as a teacher. So when Yvette Nichol is named to the Sûreté du Québec in Still Life, she is determined to make a good impression. Gamache and his team are looking into the murder of former schoolteacher Jane Neal, and being assigned to the group is Nichol’s chance to make her mark. Gamache tries to coach her in his own way, and makes several attempts to teach her how to think and act like a detective. But unfortunately, Nichol isn’t an apt pupil. She’s intelligent and observant, but she is also smug, arrogant and defensive. She refuses to pay attention when Gamache gives her advice and hints. He tries to be patient with her but that doesn’t work. Even his second-in-command Jean-Guy Beauvoir, who respects his boss, says that Gamache is putting forth too much effort. Gamache tries to use the opportunity to coach Beauvoir too in how to supervise in difficult situations. But it doesn’t work very well because Beauvoir turns out to be all too accurate in his estimation of Nichol. And as fans of this series know, Nichol plays an important role in a story arc. It’s an interesting look at Gamache-as-teacher.

As Katherine Howell’s Violent Exposure begins, paramedics Carly Martens and Aidan Simpson are dispatched to the scene of what seems like a case of domestic violence between Connor Crawford and his wife Suzanne. Carly much prefers working with her usual partner Mick Schultz. However, she’s a training officer and Simpson’s been paired with her to complete his training. Both Crawfords claim that all’s well, and with no other option, the paramedics leave. The next day Suzanne is murdered and Connor disappears. New South Wales police detective Ella Marconi and her partner Dennis Orchard are assigned to the case. When they try to trace Connor Crawford, they find no records at all on him. So as well as solving the murder, they’ll have to find out who Connor Crawford really is or was. In the meantime, Carly and Mick have problems of their own. Aidan Simpson is overconfident and arrogant. He’s got a lot to learn and refuses to take any advice or pitch in when he’s needed. He’s defensive too and can be sneaky. He’s certainly not ready to be a full-fledged paramedic and both of his training officers are fed up with him. It adds a layer of interest in this story to see the two veteran paramedics cast as coaches.

As we learn in Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police takes seriously his role as coach and teacher. That’s one of the reasons that the members of his team have a lot of respect and liking for him. It’s also why probationer Lucy Howard is eager to make a good impression when she and White are called to the scene of a home invasion one afternoon. It ends in tragedy when White is killed. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who has a police record and a bad reputation. But it may not be as clear-cut a case as it first seems, and matters are not made any better by the team’s grief at the loss of their sergeant. One of the people who are deeply affected by White’s murder is Constable Cameron ‘Cam’ Walsh, whom White mentored. In fact, that’s part of what Cam remembers best about his boss – the skilled way he had of teaching new arrivals how to do their jobs.

In Jean-Pierre Alaux and Nöel Balen’s Treachery in Bordeaux, well-respected winemaker and oenologist Benjamin Cooker takes on a new role – that of teacher. He’s been joined by a new assistant Virgile Lanssien. Lanssien is eager to make a good impression on his new boss/teacher, and it’s clear that he’s open to learning. For his part, Cooker soon finds that Lanssien is quick, interested, and quite knowledgeable himself. The two soon get involved in a mystery when fellow vintner Denis Maissepain discovers that four barrels of his wine have been contaminated. Massepain is a careful and scrupulous winemaker so it’s unlikely he would have been careless enough to allow his own wine to be spoiled. The most likely other possibility is that someone else sabotaged the wine. So Cooker and Lanssien investigate to find out who would have wanted to ruin Massepain. Throughout the novel, we see several moments where Cooker takes some time to do some coaching. To his credit, Lanssien is fully aware of the opportunity he has and takes advantage of it.

Sarah Caudwell’s Hiary Tamar has an interesting opportunity for teaching. Tamar is a law professor who still keeps in touch with former student Timothy Shepherd, who now works in London with a group of other young attorneys. Shepherd and his co-workers have also become friends. In this four-book series, the group of lawyers gets involved in a series of murder cases and Tamar helps them to find out the truth behind the killings. The young people all have solid professional skills and they’re competent. But it’s interesting to see how, in their own ways, they have a teacher/pupil view of their relationship with Tamar even though none of them is in law school.

And then there’s Jean Pierre ‘J.P.’ Taine, whom we meet in Anthony Bidulka’s Dos Equis. Saskatoon PI Russell Quant is taking what you might call a leave of absence from life (Read Date With a Sheesha to find out why – I don’t want to spoil anything). He’s spending time at a friend’s home in Mexico when he gets a call from another PI Jane Cross, who works in Regina. She says that she needs his help, presumably on a case, so he goes to her office. By the time Quant gets there though, it’s too late. Jane’s been murdered. And that’s how he meets Taine, who’s had his brushes with the law, but who wants to be a detective. Quant doesn’t trust Taine at all at first, but they work together on this murder and on the case that Jane was working when she was killed. Throughout the novel, we see how Quant has to develop some teaching skills (he’s not very patient with Taine’s inexperience at first). Among other things it’s an interesting development to Quant’s character.

Many professional detectives don’t think of themselves as teachers too, but as crime fiction clearly shows, they are. Oh, and you’ll notice that I’ve not included a lot of partnerships such as Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe (It would probably be quite an experience to have Dalziel as a teacher!), or Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis. Too easy. ;-)

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ Education.

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Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Colin Dexter, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Katherine Howell, Louise Penny, Nöel Balen, Reginald Hill, Sarah Caudwell, Y.A. Erskine

I Am an Innocent Man*

Web - InnocentsAll sorts of people are affected when there’s a crime, especially a crime like murder. And sometimes the people caught up in the investigation are completely innocent. Perhaps they were at a certain place at a certain time. Or perhaps they had the bad fortune to be friends with/married to/doing business with a murder victim or a suspect. In those kinds of cases, even people who are innocent may be drawn into a case of murder. They may be questioned by the police, have their things searched or worse. That can happen in real life, and if it’s done believably, it can add an interesting thread of suspense and tension to a crime story.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Hilton Cubitt, a respectable ‘country squire’ type who’s very concerned about his wife Elsie. Elsie is originally from Chicago, where she made some very dubious associations. But as she tells her husband, she has nothing of which she need be personally ashamed. Now it seems as though one of those associates has found her. She’s been receiving cryptic messages and won’t tell her husband what they mean. Whatever else they mean, they seem to present danger to her, and Cubitt wants to help his wife if he can. Then one night there’s a tragedy. Cubitt is murdered and his wife left badly wounded. Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate and discover the connection between that night and the cryptic clues. Throughout this adventure readers can sense that Cubitt is an innocent person caught up in something dangerous. That fact adds suspense to the story.

The focus of Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death) is a hostel for students. It’s managed by Mrs. Hubbard, the sister of Hercule Poirot’s super-efficient secretary Felicity Lemon. Lately Mrs. Hubbard has been concerned about some odd events that have taken place at the hostel, including some strange petty thefts. Poirot agrees to look into the matter and goes to the hostel for dinner and to get the proverbial lay of the land. While he’s there, one of the residents Celia Austin admits to being responsible for several of the thefts. The matter then seems to be settled until two nights later when Celia is murdered. Now Poirot and Inspector Sharpe do a thorough investigation to find out who wanted to kill Celia and why. They discover  the truth, but not before there are two other murders. Throughout this novel, we learn that some of the residents are hiding things. Others though are perfectly innocent and are shocked at what’s happening. That sense of being innocently drawn into something horrible adds real tension to this story.

We also see this in Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn. Martin Canning is a mystery novelist who’s always led a more or less safe life. Even his novels avoid gore and a lot of violence. His literary agent convinces him to participate in an upcoming Arts Festival in Edinburgh and Canning makes preparations. He’s waiting to buy tickets to an afternoon show when he witnesses a car accident. A blue Honda hits a silver Peugeot being driven by Paul Bradley. The Honda driver gets out of his vehicle and he and Bradley quarrel. Then the Honda driver brandishes a bat. Now Bradley’s life is in danger and without thinking about it, Canning throws his computer case at the Honda driver. The case knocks the driver down and saves Bradley’s life. Canning insists on accompanying Bradley to a local hospital to be sure he’s all right and that’s when the real trouble begins. It turns out Canning has innocently gotten himself mixed up in a case of fraud, theft and multiple murders. Part of the suspense in this novel comes as we see how Canning gets ever more deeply drawn into a case he had little to do with at first.

That’s also what happens in Carl Hiaasen’s Lucky You. Features writer Tom Krone is assigned to do an in-depth story on JoLayne Lucks, who has just won US$14 million. Her plan is to use her winnings to buy a piece of Florida land and keep it as a reserve – safe from the hands of some greedy developers who’ve had their eyes on it. It’s a terrific human interest story and it’s supposed to be a straightforward one too. But everything changes when a group of neo-Nazis steals JoLayne’s winning ticket. Their plan is to use the money to fund an armed militia. Krone just wants to get his story, but he’s soon drawn into JoLayne’s plot to get the ticket back. And then there are the developers who are also very much interested in the fate of that ticket. It’s an example to show that you never know where a story will lead.

Katherine Howell’s Violent Exposure is the story of the murder of Suzanne Crawford. Paramedics Carly Martens and Aidan Simpson are called to the Crawford home in a case of what seems to be domestic violence. Suzanne doesn’t want to press charges against her husband Connor though, and she insists that she’s going to be fine. The paramedics can’t really compel her to take any other action so they leave. The next day Suzanne is murdered. New South Wales Police detectives Ella Marconi and Dennis Orchard are assigned to the case. As you would imagine, they want to talk to Connor Crawford, but he’s gone missing. One possibility for getting information is a local volunteer organisation called Streetlights. This group works with at-risk young people, helping them to find work, set goals and stay out of trouble. A few of the young people involved in Streetlights worked in the nursery that the Crawfords owned. So Marconi and Orchard hope that one of those young people will be able to give them some information about the couple. One of these young people is Emil Page. Just as the cops start to focus on him though, Emil disappears too. As it turns out, Emil has been more or less innocently drawn into this case of murder, He may not be exactly ‘the boy next door,’ but he’s gotten involved in this case unwittingly.

And then there’s Stewart Macintosh, whom we meet in Malcolm Mackay’s  The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. He’s at a club called Heavenly one night when he meets an attractive young woman Zara Cope. She came to the club with her partner Lewis Winter. As the evening goes on, Winter gets more and more drunk and Stewart and Zara get more and more friendly. He sees no reason to object when Zara invites him back to her house ‘for drinks,’ and helps her steer Winter into a cab, into the house and upstairs to bed. Then he and Zara get on with their own plans for the night. That’s when the door bursts open and two professional hit men burst in. One goes upstairs and shoots Winter; the other guards Stewart and Zara. When they’re done their work they leave. Now panicked, Stewart sees that he’s gotten himself into something very much more than he’d imagined. But he’s attracted to Zara and when she asks him to keep something for her for a short while, he finds it impossible to refuse her. That’s how he gets drawn into a case of gangland ‘patch wars,’ drug dealing and murder-for-hire. He may not be exactly a ‘choir boy,’ but Stewart is a basically innocent guy who’s gotten himself into a serious mess.

And that’s how it often happens. A basically innocent person meets someone at a club, or works with someone, or sees something and before you know it, is drawn into a deadly situation. It’s hard to write such characters credibly. There has to be an authentic reason for the character to be pulled into the case. But when it’s done well it can add a really interesting layer of suspense to a story.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Carl Hiaasen, Kate Atkinson, Katherine Howell, Malcolm Mackay