Category Archives: Lawrence Block

She Climbs a Tree and Scrapes Her Knee*

Gender RolesFrom birth, boys and girls are placed into different social categories. Much of the way we dress, behave, and even speak has a lot to do with gender. Of course, gender’s by no means the only factor that affects us, but it has a significant impact, and it’s one of the first things people notice about us. Each culture has its own views of the way males and females are ‘supposed to’ behave, and it can be a little disconcerting when someone doesn’t follow those prescribed roles. But there are a lot of girls who’d rather play baseball or go fishing than play with dolls. There are a lot of boys who care about cooking or fashion and nearly nothing at all about sport. They’re a part of real life and we certainly see them in fiction too.

I’m not talking here about gay and lesbian characters. Sexual orientation is a different topic. Rather, I’m talking about characters who don’t fill traditional gender role expectations. There are plenty of them in crime fiction; I just have space for a few here, and I’m sure you’ll be able to think of lots more than I could anyway.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder) is the story of the Lee family. Simeon Lee is an unpleasant tyrant who decides that he wants to gather his family round him for Christmas. None of his children really wants to accept the invitation, but each one sees little alternative. So plans are made to go to the family home Gorston Hall. On Christmas Eve, Lee is murdered. Hercule Poirot is staying with a friend in the area and he works with Superintendent Sugden to find out who the murderer is. One of the suspects is Lee’s son David. David Lee has always been a disappointment to his father, as he is sensitive artist and not at all his father’s idea of what a man ‘should be.’ Matters between them aren’t made any better by the fact that David blames his father for his mother’s death. It’s an interesting character study of a man who doesn’t fit the image of what people of the time might have thought a man ‘ought to be.’

In Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police is assigned to search for a missing teenager Margaret Billy Sosi, who has disappeared from the residential school she attends. Of course Chee wants the girl found and safely returned, but at the moment, he’s working on another case: the murder of transplanted Los Angeles Navajo Albert Gorman. Still, he begins asking questions about the girl. Then it’s discovered that Margaret Billy Sosi and the dead man are distantly related. Now Chee comes to believe that the two cases are connected, and so they turn out to be. The trail leads Chee to Los Angeles, where he finds out some important information about why Gorman might have been killed. He also finds the missing girl – that is, until she disappears again. In the end, Chee finds out who killed Gorman and why, and he discovers how Margaret Billy Sosi figures into the case. One of the interesting elements in this novel is the teen’s character. She certainly doesn’t fit the stereotype of the ‘girly girl.’ She is unmistakeably female, yet she doesn’t fit a lot of preconceived notions of how a girl ‘ought to’ behave. And that adds to her character.

Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Fathers tells the story of Wendy Hanniford. When she is murdered in her own apartment, the most likely suspect is her room-mate Richard Vanderpoel. He had the victim’s blood on him, and he can’t account for himself during the time the crime was committed. Wendy’s father Cale Hanniford wants to know what led to her death. More to the point, he wants to know what kind of a person she’d become and how that resulted in her murder. He’s been estranged from his daughter for some time, and this is his way of trying to connect with her. So he approaches former NYPD cop Matthew Scudder. Scudder isn’t sure what he can do to help, but he does agree to ask some questions and find out what he can. He soon discovers that Vanderpoel won’t be of much assistance, as he’s committed suicide in prison. Bit by bit though, Scudder pieces together both young people’s lives, and comes to the conclusion that Vanderpoel might have been innocent. As Scudder learns more about Richard Vanderpoel, he discovers that the young man wasn’t a ‘typical boy,’ if there is such a thing. Certainly he wasn’t the sport-loving, active, assertive type that’s very often associated with the stereotypical conception of what a ‘boy’ is. As Scudder gets to the truth about Wendy Hanniford’s life and death, he discovers that for both young people, the past has played an important part in their characters and the lives they chose.

Gideon Davies, whom we meet in Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory isn’t the ‘all boy’ type either. He is a world-class violinist who’s always been more passionate about his music than about anything else. That’s why it’s so frightening to Davies when one night, he finds himself unable to play. He decides to get some psychiatric help to find out what’s blocking him mentally and why he can’t play. In the meantime, his mother Eugenie is killed one night in what looks at first like a hit-and-run car accident. It turns out though that there was nothing accidental about her death. Now Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers dig into the Davies family background. As they do, we learn how this death is related to Gideon’s inability to play the violin, and how both are related to the long-ago drowning death of Gideon’s younger sister Sonia.

Alan Bradley’s sleuth is eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, who lives in the English village of Bishop’s Lacey. Flavia is not at all what you’d think of as a ‘typical’ girl. She’s passionately interested in chemistry – much more so than in dresses, dolls, or other ‘girly’ things. In fact, she has nothing but contempt for her older sisters’ interest in such things. She’s not much of a one to worry about her looks or about what boys might think of her when she’s older. She’s most definitely female, but she certainly isn’t stereotypical.

Neither is Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson. Martinsson is an attorney who, as the series featuring her begins, works in Stockholm. She’s originally from Kiruna though, and moves back there as the series goes on. Martinsson is unmistakeably feminine. At the same time though, she’s hardly ‘girly.’ She lives close to nature, she catches her own food, and she certainly isn’t preoccupied with wondering whether her clothes are fashionable.

Just from these examples, it’s easy to see that strict interpretations of what males or females ‘should’ be like or ‘should’ care about is really limiting. Some of the most interesting characters in crime fiction, anyway, aren’t ‘all boy’ or ‘girly girl.’ They’re individuals. I’ve only had space to mention a few here; which ones do you like best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Maria.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Åsa Larsson, Elizabeth George, Lawrence Block, Tony Hillerman

Walkin’ the Tightrope Between Wrong and Right*

TightropesIn real life and in crime fiction, detectives sometimes get put into some morally very ambiguous situations. In those cases, there’s no easy answer as to what the right thing is to do. And no matter which choice the detective makes there’s some moral consequence if you like to put it that way. It can be very difficult for a sleuth to walk that proverbial tightrope without giving up on doing the right thing. Situations like that can be challenging, but in fiction, they can also show that the sleuth is human and therefore, more believable.

One of Lawrence Block’s sleuths is former NYPD cop Matthew Scudder. Scudder left the NYPD after the tragic accidental shooting of a young girl Estrellita Rivera. One the one hand, this was a ‘clean’ shooting in the sense that Scudder had targeted two armed thieves who murdered a bartender. On the other of course, the child was innocent. Scudder copes with the ‘tightrope’ of what counts as doing the right thing throughout the series, and it has the effect of making him less judgemental about others. Here for instance is what he says about it to one of the other characters in The Sins of the Fathers:

 

‘Ah, and what about you, Mr. Scudder? Are you a force for good or evil? I’m sure you’ve asked yourself that question.’
‘Now and then.’
‘And how do you answer it?’
‘Ambivalently.’

 

It’s an interesting reflection on what counts as right and wrong.

Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen gets into morally ambiguous situations more than once. In Ratking, for instance, he’s been seconded from Rome to Perugia to work with the Perugia Questura on a kidnapping. Wealthy business leader Ruggerio Miletti has been abducted and the little progress has been made on the case. As Zen soon finds out, none of the people involved is exactly a model citizen. He’s got to work his way past a dysfunctional and corrupt family, equally corrupt police and government officials and of course, the people behind the abduction. Zen does find out who’s behind the events in the story but in order to catch the culprit, he has to do some things that are morally ambivalent. For him, getting to the truth is worth the difficult choices he makes. And he knows that if he ‘plays dirty,’ his opponents ‘play dirtier.’

Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari introduces readers to bodyguard-for-hire Martin Lemmer. Emma la Roux has recently discovered that her brother Jacobus, whom she thought dead for many years, may very well be alive. She hires Lemmer to protect her on a trip from Cape Town to the Lowveld to find out if Jacobus is alive and if he is, what happened to him. For his own personal reasons, Lemmer keeps a very tight rein on himself. He’s not a drinker and he works hard to manage his anger. For him, the right thing to do is to stay in control of the situation and protect his client. Then, he and Emma are attacked and Emma is left badly wounded. Once she’s safely under medical supervision, Lemmer goes on a morally ambiguous search for the people behind the attack. On a professional level, he wants to respect his commitment to keeping his client safe and he feels guilty that he hasn’t been able to do that. On a personal level, there is vengeance involved. In that part of the novel Lemmer walks a proverbial tightrope as he tries to balance those motives with his determination to manage himself.

There’s an interesting case of walking a moral tightrope in Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Diggers Rest Hotel, which takes place in 1947. Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin has recently returned to Australia after spending time in a European POW camp. He’s settling into life again when he’s seconded to Wodonga to help the local police catch a motorcycle gang that’s been committing a series of robberies. Their latest heist ended up in serious injury to a railway paymaster, so there’s increased pressure to catch those responsible. Berlin settles into the Diggers Rest Hotel and begins investigating. Then, the body of sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee is found in an alley. At first there’s a possibility that her death might be connected to the robberies. But when Berlin finds out that’s not true, he sees that he really has two cases on his hands. When Berlin learns exactly what’s behind the robberies, he is faced with a very difficult choice. Both options have consequences and Berlin has to decide which one is really, when it comes down to it, the right thing to do.

David Whish-Wilson also deals with this question of what the right thing is to do in Line of Sight. It’s 1975, and Perth brothel owner Ruby Devine has been murdered and her body left in her car. Superintendent Frank Swann’s been away from Perth for seven years, but he returns when he hears of Ruby’s death. Although they were on opposite sides of the law they were friends, and Swann wants to know what happened to her. The official theory is that Ruby’s partner Jacky White is responsible, but Jacky claims she’s innocent and Swann believes her. Besides, the investigation has been conducted by certain members of the police force who can’t be trusted. They’re members of the ‘purple circle’ of corrupt and bullying cops, and no-one wants to risk getting on their wrong side. What exactly counts as the right thing to do isn’t always clear as Swann investigates, but what is clear to him is that murdering Ruby Devine was wrong. Swann isn’t exactly an ‘end justifies the means’ kind of cop, so it’s interesting to see how he makes his choices as the story goes on.

And then there’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau, whom we meet in Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine. He and his assistant Detective Yu Guangming investigate when the body of national model worker Guan Hongying is found in Baili Canal near Shangahi. On the one hand, there is pressure of course to make an arrest and punish the wrongdoer, especially since the victim was a celebrity and was held up as a role model. On the other hand, because of her status, she was involved with some very important people whom it would not be a good idea to embarrass. So this case has to be pursued very, very carefully. That’s especially true when Chen and Yu discover who the killer probably is. In order to bring the killer to justice, Chen has to make some difficult choices. On the one hand, he is committed to finding out who killed the victim and catching that person. On the other, he’ll have to do some things that he considers morally questionable at best. That aspect of the novel adds an interesting layer to the story.

There’s also of course H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay Police. He feels very keenly the need to do the right thing and because he’s reflective, ‘the right thing’ isn’t always clear to him. In The Iciest Sin for instance, Ghote is uncomfortable because he’s been assigned to find out if Dolly Daruwala is an extortionist. To do that, he ends up hiding in her apartment (not exactly a moral thing to do for Ghote). That’s how he witnesses her murder. And that event draws Ghote into a case of blackmail, extortion and of course, the murder. It also forces on him some very morally ambiguous choices.

Not all cases are straightforward. Some of them involve some extremely difficult choices and morally ambiguous decisions. Negotiating those choices without losing one’s ‘moral compass’ is a challenge for real-life detectives and it can add a solid layer of interest to a novel. I know I’ve only mentioned a few examples here. Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stevie Ray Vaughan and Doyle Bramhall’s Tightrope.

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Filed under David Whish-Wilson, Deon Meyer, Geoffrey McGeachin, H.R.F. Keating, Lawrence Block, Michael Dibdin, Qiu Xiaolong

It Still Gives You Pain and It Still Brings Tears*

Later Effects of TraumaThe trauma of a murder investigation, or even an investigation into a death that doesn’t turn out to be murder, is hard on everyone. In fact, it can affect people for a very long time, sometimes permanently. And very often, the most vulnerable people – children – are the most profoundly affected, even much later in life. Just a quick look at crime fiction and you’ll get a sense of what I mean. Oh, and before I go any further, I promise – no mentions of serial-killer novels where the murderer was traumatised as a child. It’s been done. ;-)

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from Carla Lemarchant, who wants him to investigate a sixteen-year-old murder. Her father, famous painter Amyas Crale, was poisoned one afternoon by what turns out to have been spotted hemlock/coniine. At the time, his wife Caroline was arrested, tried and convicted, and died a year later in prison. There was plenty of evidence against her, and no-one has really doubted her guilt except for her daughter. Now Carla is preparing to marry, and she wants her mother’s name cleared. Poirot agrees and interviews the five people who were present when Crale died. He also gets written accounts from all of them, and from that information, finds out who really killed the victim and why. Even though Carla was only a little girl at the time, and was quickly taken away from the scene of chaos, she has still been affected by the crime and years later, it plays a part in her life.

That’s also true of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. He was eleven when his mother was murdered. Since she was a prostitute, not much was done about the murder. Although Bosch isn’t the stereotypical ‘cop with demons,’ he has been profoundly affected by that tragedy. Even he isn’t really aware of quite how much until The Last Coyote, in which he is forced to face the trauma. In that novel, he is sent for mandatory psychiatric counseling after an incident in which he attacks a superior officer. As a part of that process he explores what happened to his mother and even re-opens the case. When he does, he finds that there are several people who are not exactly pleased at having it all brought up again.

Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Fathers is the story of the murder of Wendy Hanniford. Her roommate Richard Vanderpoel is assumed to be guilty. He was seen covered in her blood, and even had the murder weapon. So it’s not difficult to trace the crime to him. But Wendy’s father Cale Hanniford wants to know what really led up to the murder. He’s become estranged from his daughter and would like to know the sort of person she became. So he asks Matthew Scudder to investigate. Scudder isn’t (at this point in the series) a licensed PI, but he is a former cop, and he sometimes does ‘favours for friends.’ So he agrees to ask a few questions. He tries to interview Vanderpoel in prison, but the young man is either quite ill or under the influence of powerful drugs, and he isn’t really coherent. Shortly after that interview, Vanderpoel commits suicide. Now Scudder is left with more questions than ever and he continues to dig into the case. He finds that Vanderpoel’s mother was murdered when he was a boy and that fact played an important role in his life. I don’t think it’s giving away spoilers to say that Vanderpoel isn’t the stereotypical ‘traumatised kid who grows up to be a killer.’ But that trauma does figure into the case.

Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph introduces us to the residents of the town of Winslough. Deborah and Simon St. James take a trip there after Deborah meets local vicar Robin Sage. He impressed Deborah and she feels drawn to him, so she persuades her husband to take a holiday at Winslough. By the time they get there though, Robin Sage is dead. He’s been poisoned by water hemlock, which local herbalist Juliet Spence claimed that she mistook for wild parsnip. Since she was the last one who gave him anything to eat or drink, the talk is that she’s guilty of murder.  Simon asks his friend Inspector Lynley to look into the matter and see whether this was accidental or someone deliberately poisoned the vicar. Juliet’s thirteen-year-old daughter Maggie has to deal with the trauma of having her mother suspected of murder and it’s not easy. And I think I can say without spoiling the story that there is more that Maggie will have to deal with, and anyone who’s read the novel would probably agree that what’s happened will affect her for the rest of her life.

In Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes), Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck and his new assistant Hafez al-Assad re-open the five-year-old case of the disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynggaard. She disappeared one day during a ferry trip, and it was always thought that she tragically fell overboard during a quarrel with her brother Uffe. But little pieces of evidence suggest that Merete may still be alive. If she is, there may not be much time left to find her, so Mørck and Assad begin an urgent search for any information they can find. One of the people they want to talk to is Uffe, but he is uncommunicative. He hasn’t spoken since an awful car crash claimed his parents’ lives when he was thirteen. That trauma plays a powerful role in the novel and in Uffe’s personality and way of thinking. As Mørck  interacts with Uffee, we see clearly how it still affects him. Once Mørck is able to find a way to get through to Uffe, he gets a key piece of information to help him find out the truth about Merete.

In Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden, DCI Hannah Scarlett and her team re-open the ten-year-old murder case of landscaper Warren Howe. At the time, everyone thought his wife Tina was responsible, and she had good reason. But the police could never really make a case so no arrest was made. Now, anonymous tips suggest that Tina really was guilty, so the police take another look at the murder. In the process, they get to know Howe’s two children Kirsty and Sam. They were young at the time of the murder, but even so, and even though it’s been ten years, they’ve been deeply affected by it. The family was very dysfunctional to begin with, so Sam and Kirsty have had their share of troubles. And having the case re-opened just makes things more difficult for them.

And then there’s Taylor, the adopted daughter of Gail Bowen’s sleuth Joanne Kilbourn. When we first meet Taylor in Murder at the Mendel, she is tragically involved in a murder case. Since then, Kilbourn has adopted her and now she and her husband Zack Shreve make it a priority to give Taylor as normal a life (whatever that means) as possible. And Kilbourn ought to know if anyone how to do that. Her other three children Mieka, Peter and Angus had to deal with the murder of their father Ian Kilbourn when they were children. In this series, we see how children can grow up, can have decent lives and find happiness, but how they can also be burdened when they are a part of a murder case.

Those are only just a few examples. Your turn.

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George, Gail Bowen, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Lawrence Block, Martin Edwards, Michael Connelly

What’s it All About?*

Making Sense of LifeIt seems to be human nature that we want the things that happen to us to make sense. We don’t want to think that it’s all random. Perhaps that’s because humans seek ways to organise things in their minds, and it’s hard to make a pattern if everything that happens to us is random. That’s arguably one reason for which people study science; they want things to have an explanation. That’s also arguably why people look to spirituality for life’s answers; they want explanations too. That quest for things to make sense is an important part of what it is to be human, and it governs quite a lot of behaviour, so it isn’t surprising that we find it in crime fiction. Just the fact that fictional detectives want to solve mysteries is an example of that. There are a lot of others.

We see that search for things to make sense in Betty Webb’s Desert Wives, which features a polygamist group that lives in an isolated compound called Purity. PI Lena Jones and her investigation partner Jimmy Sisiwan are hired to rescue thirteen-year-old Rebecca Corbett from the group after her father Abel promises her in marriage to the group’s leader Solomon Royal. The rescue comes off and Rebecca is returned to her mother Esther, who is divorced from Abel. In the process of retrieving the girl, though, Jones sees that Royal has been shot and badly wounded. She calls the police anonymously, thinking that’ll be the end of her involvement. But the next day Jones finds out that Royal has died, and that Esther is the prime suspect. In order to clear her client’s name, Jones goes undercover, posing as a new member of Purity. As she learns more about the sect, she finds that women there are treated as, at best, third- or fourth-class citizens. She makes other discoveries too, some of them very disturbing. So one of the questions Jones asks herself is, ‘Why don’t the women just leave?’ One answer to that is that several of them have been raised in the group and believe that things make sense as they are. They’ve been given explanations for life by the group leaders and that’s how they see life. Others joined the group after leaving difficult or dangerous lives in the ‘outside world.’ For them, becoming a part of the group was the product of their own search for what it all means and why they ended up in the situations they faced. Of course, not all of the group’s members feel that way, but it’s an interesting undercurrent in the story.

Colin Cotterill’s The Coroner’s Lunch introduces readers to Dr. Siri Paiboun, who’s been ‘volunteered’ to serve as Laos’ chief medical examiner. The novel takes place in the 1970’s, and Laotians are expected to serve the new revolutionary regime. But Paiboun is already in his 70’s and ready to retire. What’s more, he no longer believes the revolution’s explanations for everything; he’s gotten cynical. But he’s pragmatic enough to know that he doesn’t have much choice but to go along with what he’s told to do, so he takes up his duties. Then he’s faced with two puzzling cases. One is the case of Comrade Nitnoy, who is poisoned during an important luncheon. At first her death is put down to a severe allergic reaction to some seafood she was eating but it soon turns out that she was murdered. The other case is even more delicate. Two bodies are discovered in the Nam Ngum Reservoir in Khamuan; a third soon joins them. The victims are Vietnamese, so there’s the difficult question of whether they were spies. At the same time as Paiboun is negotiating this political land mine, he faces an even more difficult set of questions. He’s a doctor and a person of science. He wants things to make sense scientifically. And yet in the process of this investigation, he has some experiences that have no scientific explanation. The process of making sense of it all – of figuring out how it all fits together – is an interesting part of Paiboun’s character development as well as an interesting thread through this novel.

Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing has as one of its major themes people’s attempts to make sense of life.  Dr. Suresh Jha has made a career out of exposing religious charlatans – he calls them ‘the Godmen’ – and showing them for what they are. In fact, he is the founder and head of the Delhi Institute for Rationalism and Education (DIRE), a group dedicated to promoting scientific explanations for life and debunking religious myths. One morning, Jha is killed in a bizarre incident. According to witnesses, the goddess Kali appears and murders Jha in retribution for turning people away from her worship. Jha was once a client of Delhi private detective Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri, so he takes an interest in this unusual case. At one point, the trail leads to an ashram run by spiritual leader Maharaj Swami. His spiritual group has become increasingly popular as people look for answers, and in the voices of some of the group members we see that human desire for things to make sense. Swami may be regarded as a cult leader, but that doesn’t mean he murdered his nemesis Suresh Jha, so Puri sends one of his team members, who goes by the name of Facecream, undercover at the ashram to find out what she can. It’s a fascinating look at the way people seek explanations.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series often takes a look at people’s desire for things to make sense. Chapman is a Melbourne baker who lives and works in a large Roman-style building called Insula. One of her neigbours is Miriam Kaplan, who usually goes by her Wicca name of Meroe. Meroe has a lot of wisdom, and answers life’s questions through her knowledge of traditional lore, an understanding of human nature, and Wicca spiritualism. Chapman isn’t at all a religious person and she doesn’t study Wicca or attend Wicca events as a rule. But she does respect Meroe’s wisdom and often relies on it when she’s trying to make sense of a case. There’s another perspective on making sense of life in the case of Chapman’s parents, hippies who live in a commune in Nimbin:

 

‘My parents had believed in going back to the land, and that meant candles. And an earth closet…And no shoes, even in winter.’

 

Chapman’s parents, who go by the names of Starshine and Sunlight, have answered life’s big questions by rejecting formal religion and living, so to speak, at one with nature. Chapman has a difficult relationship with them and part of the reason for that is that she wants life to make sense in a much more practical way. Besides, she prefers to wear shoes, especially when it’s cold.

Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder has seen plenty of things in life that don’t make sense and might lead a person to despair. Although he acknowledges that those things happen, he still tries to make sense of them – to put it all in perspective. He’s not a religious person but he does have a sense of spirituality in his way. He has come to believe that things have a way of coming back to a person, if I can put it like that. It’s one of the reasons for which he has a habit of visiting churches and lighting candles for people who have died. In the way Scudder processes the things he experiences, we see that human urge to make sense of sometimes terrible things – to impose some sort of order on the otherwise random.

This is a fairly big theme, and it’s treated in an awful lot of crime fiction. I’ve only the space to mention a few examples here. So now it’s your turn…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s I Don’t Know How to Love Him.

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Filed under Betty Webb, Colin Cotterill, Kerry Greenwood, Lawrence Block, Tarquin Hall

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Knives

KnivesWhat a kick – the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme has arrived in exciting K City, our eleventh stop on this jitter-filled journey we’re taking. One of the big attractions here is K & K’s Bar and Grill, where you can get some delicious food. Right now though everyone’s posting their ‘photos to Facebook and Twitter, so I’ll take this time to offer my contribution for this week: knives.

Knives are one of the more common weapons in crime fiction and that makes sense when you think about it. They’re easy to acquire, they don’t require any special preparation or background and when they’re sharp enough, just about anyone can use them. There are far, far too many examples for me to mention them all in this one post, so I’ll just offer a few.

One of the most famous knives used in crime fiction appears in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett is en route through Europe on the Orient Express train. On the second night of that journey he is stabbed. Hercule Poirot is on the same train and he is persuaded to look into the case before the official police come on board at the next frontier. Poirot discovers who killed Ratchett and why, and there’s actually an interesting postscript, so to speak, about the knife. It’s mentioned later in Cards on the Table. In that novel Poirot investigates the murder (also with a knife, as it happens) of the eccentric Mr. Shaitana during a dinner party. There are only four possible suspects, so it’s a very interesting psychological puzzle. At one point, one of the suspects Anne Meredith and her roommate Rhoda Dawes pay a visit to Poirot. While they’re there he invites Rhoda to see the knife and in that invitation, Christie gives a major spoiler to Murder on the Orient Express. So if you haven’t read that one, read it before you read Cards on the Table

In Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Fathers, Cale Hanniford pays a visit to former NYPD cop Matthew Scudder. Hanniford’s daughter Wendy was brutally stabbed in her apartment and Hanniford wants to know what led to the murder. The police have caught the most likely suspect, Wendy’s roommate Richard Vanderrpoel, so Hanniford believes the case is solved. But he’s been estranged from Wendy for a long time and wants to know what kind of person she became. Scudder agrees to ask some questions, starting with an interview with Vanderpoel. That conversation doesn’t help much as Vanderpoel is either mentally unhinged or under the influence of drugs. Still, he says some things that make Scudder wonder whether he is really guilty. Shortly after that, Vanderpoel commits suicide. Now Scudder is even more curious about what exactly happened to Wendy Hanniford and he keeps digging for answers. As it turns out, both young people’s deaths have everything to do with their pasts.

Martin Edwards’ All The Lonely People features Liverpool attorney Harry Devlin, and begins when Devlin gets a surprise visit from his ex-wife Liz. He’s still in love with her, so his first hope is that she wants to patch things up. Instead, she says that she’s run away from her current lover Mick Coghlin because she’s afraid of him. She wants to stay with Devlin for a few days until she decides what to do next. Devlin agrees, still hoping he and Liz can get back together. The next night though, Liz is stabbed and her body left in an alley. It’s not long before the police begin to suspect that Devlin is guilty. So in part to clear his name, and in part to deal with his feelings for Liz, he begins to investigate. To find out the truth, he’s going to have to learn an uncomfortable about Liz’ complicated life.

In Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, former prospector Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins is stabbed one night after a drunken quarrel. The police, including Aboiginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest, are called to Green Swamp Well where the murder happened. Tempest’s boss Bruce Cockburn believes that John ‘Wireless’ Petherbridge, with whom Ozolins had quarreled, is guilty. But Tempest sees little signs that something more might be going on than a drunken fight that ended tragically. So she begins to ask questions. Eventually, she finds that Ozolins was killed because he’d stumbled onto something that some very dangerous people wanted to keep secret.

T.J. Cooke’s Defending Elton tells the story of the stabbing death of the very enigmatic Sarena Gunasekera. When her body is found at the bottom of a cliff at Beachy Head near Eastbourne, the police find evidence that the killer is Elton Spears. Spears is a troubled young man with a history of mental problems and of inappropriate conduct towards women. There’s enough strong evidence against Spears that he’s held over for trial and in fact, the police think it’s an open-and-shut case. But some of the Spears’ comments suggest that he isn’t the murderer. Besides, under British law, Spears is considered innocent until proven guilty. So, solicitor Jim Harwood begins the work of representing Spears, with whom he’s worked before. Together with barrister Harry Douglas, Harwood intends to do everything he can to ensure that Spears is acquitted. That includes looking deeply into the victim’s life to see who else might have wanted to kill her. As it turns out, there are several hidden layers to Sarena and as we find out about her past, we also learn that more than one person could have wanted her dead.

And then there’s Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second. That novel begins on a bus, when three young people begin bullying Luke Murray. The harassment keeps up until Jason Barnes, who’s on the same bus, tells the others to stop. He gets off the bus, as does Luke, but so do the bullies, and the fight escalates. When it’s over, Luke has been gravely injured and may die, and Jason has been stabbed to death. The police investigate what happened, interviewing everyone and slowly getting to the truth about who the killer was. In the process we learn how the incident affects both boys’ families as well as how it affects Emma Curtis, who was on the bus when the tragedy started.

Of course, knives can also be handy for self-protection, as we also find out in a lot of crime fiction novels. I don’t want to give away titles because I think it has more impact when the reader doesn’t know that knife is going to be pulled out just in time to save the day, so to speak. But if you’ve read novels where that happens, you know what I mean.

Still, knives are extremely dangerous, mostly because they’re so accessible and it doesn’t take much for them to do a lot of damage. Now, I’m sure you’re ready for a good meal. How about we go to K & K’s Bar & Grill with the others and watch the staff chop up the steaks and the veges?  ;-)

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Cath Staincliffe, Lawrence Block, Martin Edwards, T.J. Cooke