Category Archives: Lawrence Block

How Could You Tell Me That I Was Wrong*

Blaming the VictimSocietal attitudes play a major role in the way we perceive people who are involved in crime. In some cases, people are even held responsible for crimes when really they’re the victims if you think about it. ‘Blaming the victim’ has a long history in society, and of course we see plenty of it in crime fiction too. When that plot point is done well, it can really hold a mirror up to a way of thinking.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, for example, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the murder of Enoch Drebber, an American visitor to London. One possibility is that his secretary and travel companion Joseph Stangerson is the killer. But when Stangerson himself is murdered, it’s clear that something else is behind these murders. Holmes traces the murders back to past events and a history that Drebber and Stangerson shared. One key point in this plot is that the murderer could very well be described as a victim who’d been blamed for what was really more of a societal wrong.

Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Fathers is the story of the life and death of twenty-four-year-old Wendy Hanniford. Her father Cale Hanniford finds out that she’s been stabbed and approaches ex-NYPD cop Matthew Scudder to help him find out why. Hanniford knows that Wendy’s room-mate Richard Vanderpoel has been arrested for the crime, and for good reason. He was found with the victim’s blood on him, and he can’t give a satisfactory alibi for the time of the crime. What Hanniford really wants to know is what led to the crime – what Wendy was like as an adult and how she ended up dead. Scudder agrees to ask some questions and begins looking into Wendy’s past. The closer he gets to the kind of person Wendy was, the more it seems that the story of her murder is not as simple as it seems. In the end, we find that Wendy’s death is a solid case of ‘blaming the victim.’

There’s another example of ‘blaming the victim’ in Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep. When Dr. Everett Seeley is forced to give up medicine because of his cocaine habit, he decides to go to Mexico for the time being. He sets up his wife Marion in a Phoenix apartment and arranges for her to have a ‘safe’ job as a filing clerk/typist at the exclusive Werden Clinic. He’s hoping that she’ll be all right until his return, and at first, all goes well. Then, Marion strikes up a friendship with Louise Mercer, a nurse at the clinic, and her room-mate Ginny Hoyt. As Marion gets drawn more and more into their dangerous lives and lifestyles, she finds herself getting closer and closer to the proverbial edge. To make matters worse, she meets businessman Joe Lanigan, a ‘friend’ of Mercer’s and Hoyt’s. The relationship they strike up leads to tragedy for everyone and raises the question of who the victim really is. This novel is based on a real-life case, and in both instances we can ask the question of whether the victim is being blamed.

Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly begins with the arrest of Marco Ribetti, an activist who ‘s been protesting against several of the glass-blowing factories in the Venice area. He believes they’re illegally dumping toxic waste and are polluting the environment. When he and his group protest against a factory owned by powerful Giovanni de Cal, he’s arrested. De Cal makes quite a scene, blaming Ribetti for causing trouble. Ribetti asks his friend Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello for help in his case and Vianello agrees to see what he can do. He and his boss Commissario Guido Brunetti look into the question of how the glass-blowing factories get rid of toxic waste; that search leads them to Giorgio Tassini, a night-watchman for de Cal’s factory. Tassini has always believed the factories were illegally dumping toxic waste and is only too happy to share his theory with the police. Then one night he’s killed in what seems on the surface to be a tragic accident that occurred because he was working on his own glass project when he should have been attending to his duties. But Brunetti isn’t so sure that’s what happened, and he begins to investigate further. In the end, he finds out the truth about Tassini’s death and we see that the strategy of ‘blaming the victim’ has been used to cover up murder.

In John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, ten-year-old Tonya Hailey, who is Black, is brutally raped by two White men Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard. The small Mississippi town in which she lives is shocked at the incident and there’s a lot of sympathy for her family. Her father Carl Lee Hailey is determined that Cobb and Willard won’t get away with what they did. So he lies in wait for them and shoots them as they go into the courthouse. As attorney Jake Brigance prepares to defend Hailey, he’s up against considerable odds. For one thing, there’s little doubt that Hailey shot Cobb and Willard. For another, there are some powerful local people who want to ensure that Hailey is convicted or worse. On the one hand, you can argue that Hailey is a murderer. On the other hand, one can certainly ask the question of who the victim really is.

There’s a clear case of ‘blaming the victim’ in Wendy James’ Out of the Silence. This is a fictional retelling of the story of Maggie Heffernan, who was imprisoned in Melbourne in 1900 for the drowning murder of her infant son. In the novel, Maggie first meets Jack Hardy while she’s still living at home with her parents in rural Victoria. She falls in love with Hardy and he seems to reciprocate. In fact, they become engaged, although he asks her to keep it secret until he can make a life for them. Shortly thereafter, Hardy leaves for New South Wales to find work. Then, Maggie finds out that she’s pregnant and writes to Hardy with the news. He doesn’t respond, but she continues to try to reach him. Knowing that her parents won’t accept her given that she’s unwed and pregnant, Maggie goes to Melbourne where she finds work in a Guest House. Baby Jacky is duly born and mother and son are both healthy. At first, they go to a home for unwed mothers. But then, Maggie learns that Hardy has moved to the Melbourne area. She finally tracks him down, only to have him outright reject her and the baby, even saying that she’s crazy. With very little money, Maggie goes from one lodging place to another that night and is turned away from six of them. That’s when the tragedy with the baby occurs. She’s arrested and tried for murder, and then imprisoned. Throughout the novel, the question of who is really to blame forms an important theme.

It does in Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, too.  Ex-pat American travel writer Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty has made a life for himself in Bangkok with his wife Rose, a former bar girl who now owns her own cleaning company. Also sharing Rafferty’s life is Miaow, a former street child he’s hoping to adopt. One day he gets word that Australian tourist Clarissa Ulrich is looking for him. She’s heard he has the reputation of being able to find people who don’t want to be found, and she wants to find out what happened to her Uncle Claus, who seems to have disappeared. Rafferty agrees to ask a few questions and finds some leads to follow. The trail leads him to an enigmatic and intimidating elderly woman Madame Wing who, it turns out, has another case for him. She agrees to give Rafferty the information he wants if he’ll help her. He takes on that case and ends up getting drawn into a tangled web of murder and revenge for the past. In this novel, it’s clear how people can be blamed for things when actually, they are victims.

Using the plot point of ‘blaming the victim’ allows an author to explore societal issues in the context of telling a story. It also allows for character depth. These are just a few examples; which ones have stayed with you?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Kander and Fred Ebbs’ Cell Block Tango. 

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Donna Leon, Lawrence Block, Megan Abbott, Timothy Hallinan, Wendy James

Don’t They Know It’s the End of the World*

RebuildingFor obvious reasons, a lot of crime novels include characters who are dealing with a great loss or trauma in their lives. Sometimes those characters are protagonists; sometimes they’re not. Either way, the author has to choose how to depict that coping process. And it is a process. On the one hand, most people understand that it takes time to pick up the pieces of life when something awful happens. On the other, there’s also pressure to move on and start living again. Sometimes that pressure is internal (e.g. ‘I really shouldn’t feel this way. I need to get on with my life.’). Other times, the pressure comes from well-meaning family members, friends, co-workers, etc. (e.g. ‘Come on, you really should start dating again/get back to work/etc.’). That process and the tension that comes with it can add much to character development in a novel, and it does reflect reality. Here are just a few examples. I’m quite certain you can think of many more than I could.

Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder is a former member of the NYPD. His career with the police ended after he targeted two armed thieves who murdered a bartender. In the process of going after them, he accidentally shot a young girl Estrellita Rivera. The shot was ‘clean,’ and no-one really blames Scudder. Even the victim’s family members understand that it was a terrible accident, but an accident. Still, that incident has permanently altered Scudder’s view of himself and of life. Despite pressure to move on and see the shooting for what it really was, Scudder has his own way of dealing with it, and it’s not a quick, easy process.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve has had to endure her share of life’s blows. As the series featuring her begins, she’s living with the loss of her husband Ian, who was murdered one night when he stopped to help two young people whose car had broken down. In the course of the series she continues to pick up the pieces and work out a new kind of life for herself and her family. It’s not always easy, either, particularly as she forms new intimate relationships. But that process adds to her development as a character.

Peter Temple’s Jack Irish is a Melbourne PI/sometimes-lawyer with his own share of sorrow to bear. He was a full-time attorney when a disturbed client shot his wife Isabel. Irish knows he wasn’t at fault for the murder, but it left him devastated all the same. At first he drowned his sorrows in far, far too much drink. But in Bad Debts,as the series begins, he’s begun to climb out of the proverbial bottle and get back to being alive. As the series moves on, we see that on the one hand, the process of living with what happened to Isabel is not easy. Irish grieves in his own way, and people have sympathy for him. On the other hand, life has not stopped. There are people in Irish’s life who care about him and who don’t want to see him completely disintegrate. They don’t pressure him with comments such as ‘You really ought to start dating again,’ or ‘Snap out of it!’ But they do encourage him to be a part of the human race again if I may put it that way. It’s interesting to see how they influence Irish.

In Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm), we first meet Stockholm attorney Rebecka Martinsson. She’s originally from Kiruna and although she had her own reasons for leaving, she puts them aside and returns for the sake of an old friend Sanna Stråndgard. Sanna’s brother Viktor has been murdered, and it isn’t long before the police begin to suspect that Sanna might be the killer. She claims she’s innocent, and asks Martinsson to act for her. In the course of the investigation, Martinsson goes through a traumatic incident that continues to affect her after the end of the novel. As the series goes on, she slowly starts living again. On the one hand, the people around her do have sympathy for her, and their first response is concern for her well-being. On the other, there is pressure for her to return to work and pick up her life again. There’s even awkwardness because she’s not ‘back to normal,’ whatever that means. Martinsson knows that coping is not going to be that simple, if it’s even possible, and it’s interesting to see how she slowly builds a new life in her own way.

Anthony Bidulka’s PI sleuth Russell Quant lives and works in Saskatoon, although he also travels quite a lot. On two levels, Quant deals with personal loss and tragedy as this series goes on. First, of course, there’s the fact that his cases bring him, and sometimes those he cares about, up against real danger. Quant is not superhuman, and some of his experiences leave him with real emotional trauma. Then there’s the matter of his personal life. On that level, Quant has to cope, as we all do, with the ups and downs of relationships and the deep sadness when they end. In some ways, he’d like very much just to pick his life up and move on. But as he learns, life’s not that simple and it can leave lasting scars. In this series, Quant’s friends and family members find ways to help him pick himself up and go on. So in that sense they do put what you might call pressure on him. But it’s not the uncaring, ‘Get it together!’ sort of pressure that often just makes things worse. Instead, they remind him that life is generally a very good thing, and rely on him to take their cue.

In Split Second, Cath Staincliffe explores the way families move on after tragedy strikes. One day, Luke Murray is riding a bus when three fellow passengers begin to bully him. Jason Barnes, who’s also on the bus, intervenes and for a time the harassment stops. Then Luke gets off the bus, and so do the bullies. Jason does, too, and the bullying starts again. Jason continues to stay involved and the fight escalates all the way to Jason’s front yard. When it’s all over, Luke’s been gravely injured and Jason is dead of a stab wound. As the police work to find out who the bullies were and what the story is behind the incident, Jason’s parents Andrew and Val have to cope with the worst thing that can ever happen to any caring parent. Everyone is sympathetic, but as time goes by, we can see how they begin to feel pressure to pick up their lives. It’s not overt pressure and you could argue that they bring most of it to bear on themselves. But there is tension as they struggle to find a way to re-build themselves. In the meantime, Luke’s mother Louise faces that sort of pressure too. Her son is in a coma from which he may not recover, and everyone understands her deep sense of sorrow. At the same time, her daughter Ruby has a life ahead of her, and Louise still has to be there for her. That tension between accepting that dealing with grief is a process, and the pull to pick up the pieces, certainly plays a role in this novel.

It does in real life too. Life doesn’t stop just because a horrible thing has happened. And sometimes balancing that with the very normal and healthy need to grieve is difficult. OK, over to you.

 

 
 

*NOTE:  The title of this song is a line from Arthur Kent and Sylvia Dee’s The End of the World, made popular by Skeeter Davis.

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Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Åsa Larsson, Cath Staincliffe, Gail Bowen, Lawrence Block, Peter Temple

Don’t Care If It’s Chinatown or on Riverside*

NewYorkCityIf you’ve ever been to New York City, then you know that it defies easy description. It’s a city with a long and rich history, and today, it’s a mix of so many cultures and different kinds of people that the word ‘diverse’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. What’s interesting about New York, too, is that you’ll find some of the wealthiest areas of the city just a few blocks from some of the poorest. It’s an intense, fascinating place, and there are plenty of people who couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. There are famous museums, top musical artists, Broadway shows, world-class restaurants, and lots more there. Oh, and Billy Joel was born there, too.

Ahem – right – back to New York City. It shouldn’t be surprising that lots of crime fiction is set there. It’s just a natural context for a murder mystery, especially if you consider the number of real-life famous murders that have occurred there. There’s a long list of authors who’ve set their novels or series in New York. Here’s just a small smattering.

Any dedicated crime fiction fan will be able to tell you that Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series has a distinctive New York City setting. Although Wolfe does travel a few times, the vast majority of the books are set in Manhattan, where Wolfe has his famous brownstone home/office. His employee/business partner (sometimes it’s hard to tell, really) Archie Goodwin does the ‘legwork’ on Wolfe’s cases, and his travels take him all over New York. Through his eyes, we get to see many of New York’s different ‘faces,’ from ‘society’ homes and mansions to tenements, and just about everywhere in between. Want to explore Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin’s New York? Check out your options with the Wolfe Pack, the Official Nero Wolfe Society.

Fans of Evan Hunter/Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series will know that although he called his setting Isola, it’s a thinly disguised New York City. Beginning with Cop Killer, these novels focus on murders in all sorts of different New York City settings. And what’s especially interesting about this series is that it looks at crime among all socioeconomic classes, too. Because the series is enduring (it lasted from 1956 to 2005), we also get to see how the city changes through the decades, and how factors such as immigration, technology and so on have affected it.

Lawrence Block’s PI series featuring Matthew Scudder is also set in New York. Beginning with The Sins of the Fathers, the series follows Scudder as he begins life as a PI after leaving the NYPD. Since most of Scudder’s contacts are informal, we also get a look at New York’s local restaurant and bar scene. I don’t mean necessarily trendy ‘popular’ places, although New York certainly has more than its share of them. I mean the smaller places that are popular with the local people. And New York City has plenty of those, too. Scudder has clients from several different socioeconomic strata too, so this series also gives readers a look at the different kinds of lives New Yorkers have.

Margaret Maron’s Lieutenant Sigrid Harald series is also set in New York City. Harald is a member of New York City’s Police Department, so she investigates all sorts of different kinds of cases. Beginning with One Coffee With, she takes on murders at university campuses, high-priced apartment buildings, attorneys’ offices and Greenwich Village ‘arty’ places, just to name a few.

Mary Higgins Clark has set some of her novels in New York City as well. For example, While My Pretty One Sleeps features murder in the world of fashion when a client of boutique owner Meeve Kearny is murdered. Loves Music, Loves to Dance follows jewelry designer Erin Scott and decorator Darcy Scott as they move to New York to pursue their careers. Then, they place personal ads in local newspapers to do some research for a TV producer friend who’s planning a feature on the topic. The research proves fatal when Erin disappears and is later found murdered. And in I’ll Be Seeing You, reporter Meghan Collins is following up on the story of the mugging of a US senator. When he’s rushed to Manhattan’s Roosevelt Hospital, she goes along with other members of the press to learn of his condition. That’s when an ambulance team rushes in with a woman who’s just died – a woman who looks exactly like Meghan…

And then there’s S.J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series. Chin and Smith are both private investigators who sometimes partner up in their cases. Chin is a member of New York’s Chinese/Chinese-American community, so she is especially in demand for cases that require some knowledge of that culture. In China Trade for instance, she is hired to track down some rare and valuable Chinese porcelain items that were donated to a local museum. The trail leads to the Chinatown underworld of gangs and in this case, shady art dealers. While not every novel in this series features the Chinatown setting, it’s the area of New York that Chin knows best.  Readers who are interested in Chinatown can also read Henry Chang’s Jack Yu series.

There are of course many more novels and series that take place in New York. Just a few examples are Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme novels, Ellery Queen’s New York-set novels (most are, some are not), Robin Cook’s Laurie Montgomery/Jack Stapleton novels and several of Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers/Oscar Piper novels. And those are only a few examples. I’ll bet you could think of many more.

 

Now if you’ll excuse me, that’s my train. Time to head uptown…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s New York State of Mind. Really? You were surprised? ;-)

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Filed under Ed McBain, Ellery Queen, Evan Hunter, Henry Chang, Jeffery Deaver, Lawrence Block, Margaret Maron, Mary Higgins Clark, Rex Stout, Robin Cook, S.J. Rozan, Stuart Palmer

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