Category Archives: Linwood Barclay

Well You Only Need the Light When It’s Burning Low*

Blown-out candleIt just seems to be human nature that we sometimes don’t value what we have until it’s gone. If you’ve ever had to scramble to get to work because the car you always depend on wouldn’t start, you know what I mean. It’s very easy to take things, places or people for granted, but as Benjamin Franklin wrote, ‘When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.’ It’s a very human reaction, so it’s not surprising that we see this plot thread in crime fiction too. After all, well-written crime fiction reflects realistic people.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide), we meet the Cloade family. They’ve always been able to depend financially on wealthy patriarch Gordon Cloade and in fact, he’s encouraged that. He’s promised the family members that they could rely on his financial support and on expectations from his will. Then everything changes. First, Cloade falls in love and marries a young widow Rosaleen Underhay. Then, he is tragically killed in a bomb blast. Since he married before his death, and since he never made a will, Rosaleen is set to inherit Cloade’s considerable fortune. Now the other family members are faced with not having the money they had always taken for granted. When a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden hints that Rosaleen’s first husband may still be alive, the Cloades are eager to find out if that’s true. If so it would mean that Rosaleen was not legally married to Gordon Cloade and therefore cannot inherit. When ‘Enoch Arden’ is killed, Hercule Poirot gets drawn into the case. The investigation is of course an important thread in this novel. But so is the Cloades’ reaction to having to plan life without the money they had been so accustomed to having.

In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, science fiction author Zack Walker, his journalist wife Sarah, and their children move from the city to a new suburb named Valley Forest Estates. The idea is that the lower cost of living in the suburb will make it possible for Walker to write full time. What’s more, suburbs are safer than cities, and Walker wants his family to be safe. It turns out that Valley Forest Estates is far from a peaceful, quiet place to live. For one thing, there are plumbing and other problems with the house. For another, some of the Walker family’s new neighbours are not what they seem. One day, Walker goes to the main sales office for the development, hoping to get a resolution to the house’s ongoing maintenance problems. Instead, he witnesses an argument between one of Valley Forest’s sales executives and local environmental activist Samuel Spender. Later that day, Walker finds Spender’s body at a nearby creek. Now, despite his best efforts to stay out of it all, Walker finds himself drawn in to what turns out to be a case of multiple murder and theft. As the novel goes on, Walker learns just how much he misses the city that the family had taken for granted.

In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Soul Murders, political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn meets Keith Harris, who is also a political scientist. The two don’t agree politically but they do ‘click’ personally, and are soon romantically involved. Then, Harris gets an irresistible job offer in Washington. At first, the two have a long distance relationship. But gradually they drift apart and Harris meets someone else. Kilbourn knows that the decision to end the romance was mutual, but that doesn’t stop her thinking about what she’s lost and trying to figure out how she feels about Harris with someone else. It’s an interesting story arc.

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant doesn’t have a spouse or children. But he does have a group of close friends who are supportive of him. One of them is his next-door neighbour, the enigmatic Sereena Orion Smith. As the series moves on, we learn that she has a mysterious past, and she has a habit of turning up unexpectedly. Quant likes her, and it’s not that he really discounts her. But he does get used to having her in his life. So in Tapas on the Ramblas, he’s shaken when she doesn’t return from a Mediterranean cruise. What’s more, her house is up for sale, so she obviously doesn’t intend to stay there. Sereena’s disappearance forms a plot thread in Stain of the Berry, as Quant resolves to look for Sereena. It’s a very interesting case of not really being aware of how much a person means to one until that person is gone.

That’s also an important plot thread in Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost.  The novel begins in 1984, when the Green Oaks Shopping Center opens. Ten-year-old Kate Meaney is a budding detective; in fact, she’s opened her own agency Falcon Investigations. She spends a lot of time at the mall, hoping to find evidence of suspicious activity. She’s quite content with her life but her grandmother Ivy thinks she should go away to school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. At first Kate refuses but then her friend Adrian Palmer convinces her to at least try the exams. He even arranges to take the bus with her to the school for moral support. When Kate never returns from the school, Palmer is the most likely suspect in her disappearance. He claims he’s innocent but his life is made so miserable that he leaves town. Twenty years later, Palmer’s sister Lisa works at a dead-end job at Green Oaks. One night she meets Kurt, a mall security guard. He’s been seeing some strange images on his cameras – a young girl who looks a lot like Kate. Each in a different way, Lisa and Kurt look into the past and the reader learns what really happened to Kate. In the process, we see that several of the characters in this novel weren’t really aware of the role Kate played in their lives until she disappeared. Among other things, the novel is a powerful look at one person’s impact on others, and at our tendency not to be aware of what we have until it’s gone.

Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind introduces us to Stephanie Anderson. One summer day when Stephanie is fourteen, she and her family attend a school picnic at Lake Wanaka. For Stephanie, the picnic is a chance to get noticed by a boy she likes. She certainly doesn’t want to spend time with her twin brothers or her four-year-old sister Gemma. Stephanie loves her family, but like a lot of people, she doesn’t really think about how much they mean to her. Then, Gemma disappears. A massive search is undertaken, but no trace of the girl is found – not even a body. The family is devastated and Gemma’s loss has permanent effects on everyone. But the members of the Anderson family, including Stephanie, carry on as best they can. Then seventeen years later, now a fledgling psychiatrist, Stephanie hears of a haunting case from one of her patients Elisabeth Clark. Elisabeth’s younger sister Gracie was abducted in the same way that Gemma was, and the story brings back all of the pain of Gemma’s loss. The case is eerily similar too. So Stephanie decides to face her own ghosts and find out who is responsible for the girls’ abductions. As she does so, we see how the losses of both girls have impacted their families. It’s a haunting case of having to get along without someone you thought would always be there.

But that’s what we humans do. We don’t always think about what we have until we don’t have it any more. These are just a few examples from crime fiction. Your turn.

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michael David Rosenberg’s (AKA Passenger) Let Her Go.  

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Catherine O'Flynn, Gail Bowen, Linwood Barclay, Paddy Richardson

Raise Up a Multiplex and We Will Make a Sacrifice*

Land DevelopmentAn interesting comment exchange with Col at Col’s Criminal Library has got me thinking about land development. As the population increases and becomes ever more mobile, there are more and more land development projects. In a way, it makes sense, since bringing new people and new industries to an area means a stronger local economy. But a lot of people believe that too often, that economy grows at a devastating price: the loss of the land, the local wildlife and the ecosystem. That’s to say nothing of people who object to the changes that development brings to their small towns and their quality of life. That conflict between land development advocates and opponents is ongoing and has sometimes flared up into violence. So it’s little wonder we see it in crime fiction too.

A few of Agatha Christie’s stories touch on land development in a tangential way, (I’m thinking for instance of The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side and Death on the Nile). In those stories, there’s some dismay for instance at the coming of council housing and the uprooting of people so that a personal piece of property can be developed. But that theme isn’t a central part of the mystery.

In Peter Temple’s Bad Debts though, land development plays a major role in the story. Sometime-attorney Jack Irish gets involved in a case of greed, corruption and land development when a former client Danny McKillop is murdered. Irish had unsuccessfully defended MicKillop in a drink-related hit-and-run case in which Melbourne activist Anne Jeppeson was killed. When McKillop was released from prison after serving his sentence, he contacted Irish, trying desperately to reach him, but by the time Irish returned McKillop’s calls it was already too late. Now Irish feels a sense of guilt over not getting to McKillop sooner and over not doing a better job of defending his client. So he decides to look into the Jeppeson case again. He soon discovers that McKillop was framed for Jeppeson’s murder.  Before her death, Jeppeson had been spearheading a protest against the closing of a public housing estate in Melbourne’s Yarrabank district. And the more Irish looks into this planned closing, the more he sees that it’s motivated by greed, land development planning and corruption. In the end, Irish and journalist Linda Hillier trace the murders to very highly-placed people with much to lose if the planned closing doesn’t go through.

Science fiction novelist Zack Walker and his family get caught up in a fight between land developers and local eco-activists in Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move. Walker and his family move from the city to Valley Forest Estates. There, Walker hopes that life will be safer (and less expensive) for his family. He soon finds out how wrong he is though when he witnesses an argument between local environmental activist Samuel Spender and one of Valley Forest’s sales/development executives. Later that day Walker discovers Spender’s body in a nearby creek. Then, Walker is trying to return a handbag he’s found to its owner when he discovers the owner’s body. It’s now clear that something very serious is going on at Valley Forest. And even though the one thing Walker wants more than anything else is to have a safe, quiet life, he finds himself more and more involved in the murders, which have everything to do with greed and development schemes.

Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage tells the story of the conflict that arises over a planned road that will cut through Framhurst Great Wood. Many of the residents of Kingsmarkham, including Inspector Reg Wexford and his wife Dora, are not happy about this road. In fact, Dora’s joined a local citizens’ group that is actively opposing this development. But matters turn ugly when several groups of activists come to town. They end up taking hostages, including Dora Wexford. Then, there’s a murder. Now Wexford and his team have to work the murder case as well as try to rescue Dora and the other hostages before there’s any more death. The land development people aren’t exactly Citizens of the Year in this novel, but Rendell doesn’t oversimplify the issues and it’s interesting to see how she portrays what is sometimes the darker side of activism.

Vicki Delany’s In the Shadow of the Glacier has land development as one of its major themes too. Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith has recently joined the Trafalgar (British Columbia) police. One night while making her rounds, she finds the body of wealthy developer Reginald Montgomery. Sergeant John Winters is assigned to investigate the case and he and Smith begin to look into Montgomery’s professional and private relationships to find out who would have wanted to kill him. There are several suspects too. One important angle to this case is that Montgomery was co-owner of the soon-to-be opened Grizzly Resort, an upmarket resort/spa/holiday destination. Many people feel that Grizzly will bring in desperately-needed money and will provide jobs for several of the local residents. Others feel at least as strongly that the resort will ruin the natural beauty of the area and will be hard on the local ecosystem. They don’t want the influx of tourists either. That conflict adds an underlying layer of tension to the novel as Smith and Winters work to find out who killed Montgomery and why.

In C.J. Box’s Open Season, newly-appointed game warden Joe Pickett has an embarrassing encounter with local outfitter and poacher Ote Keeley. Shortly afterwards, Keeley’s body is found on Pickett’s property. What’s more, Pickett’s daughter Sheridan discovers something else – a family of endangered animals living in the woodpile near the post where Keeley’s body was discovered. Now that Pickett and his family are personally involved, he works to find out who killed Keeley. What he discovers is a long-simmering conflict among oil developers, a poaching ring and independent locals who do not want a game warden telling them what they can and cannot do. This isn’t the only novel in this series in which Box addresses issues of land development and what it may mean.

That’s also true of Carl Hiaasen’s work. In several of his novels (I’m thinking for instance of Lucky You and Tourist Season), we meet characters who want to develop the land. And it’s Hiaasen’s work that actually got Col and me ‘talking’ about the way land development is portrayed. As Col pointed out, Hiaasen uses a lot of humour in his stories but there’s a strong underlying urgency about protecting the land from over-development.

There are plenty of mentions of land development in cosy mysteries too. For instance in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Prretty Is as Pretty Dies, retired English teacher Myrtle Clover is ‘volunteered’ to work with her local church’s women’s group. She goes to the church for a meeting of the Altar Guild where she finds the body of Parke Stockard. Myrtle wants to prove, especially to her overprotective son, that she’s not ready to be ‘put out to pasture’ yet, so she decides to investigate the murder. As it turns out, there are several suspects. Parke Stockard was a malicious real estate developer who used all sorts of unethical and illegal tactics to ensure her place in the community and to get the properties she wanted. Myrtle sifts through what she finds, what people tell her and what she overhears (deliberately and otherwise), and figures out who killed the victim and why.

The question of whether, how and for what purpose land ought to be developed is not an easy one. That’s why it’s been such a contentious issue for such a long time. Little wonder we see so much crime fiction that touches on land development.

Thanks, Col, for the inspiration. Folks, please do pay Col’s blog a visit; it’s a nicely focused set of crime fiction reviews well worth following.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s No Man’s Land.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, Carl Hiaasen, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Linwood Barclay, Peter Temple, Ruth Rendell, Vicki Delany

It’s a Mixed Up, Muddled Up, Shook Up World*

ScrewballAuthor and fellow blogger Rob Kitchin’s new standalone Stiffed has just been released and I couldn’t be happier about that. Kitchin’s very talented. I’ll get back to Stiffed in a moment, but for now, let me if I may start with the kind of novel it is. Kitchin describes it as ‘screwball noir,’ and that got me to thinking about that sort of novel. Some novels do combine screwball, sometimes even downright implausible plot points with wit to take a very different approach to a crime story. That sort of story may not be everyone’s first choice, but for people who enjoy black humour and screwball situations in their crime novels, a screwball crime novel, whether or not it’s noir, can be a refreshing treat.

Rather than launch into a description of what ‘screwball crime fiction’ is and isn’t, let me offer you a few examples of what I think of when I think of that sub-genre. I’ll start with Kitchin’s new release Stiffed. Tadhg Maguire has just started sleeping off a night of too much beer when he’s jolted awake by a shriek from his girlfriend Kate. He wakes up only to find that there’s a dead man in his bed. What’s worse, Maguire knows who the man is; he is Tony Marino, ‘right hand man’ to powerful gangster Aldo Pirelli. Maguire knows that if he calls the police, Pirelli will assume he killed Marino and that will considerably shorten Maguire’s lifespan. That’s to say nothing of his chances of being arrested for murder. So instead, he calls his friend Jason Choi and asks him to help get rid of Marino’s body. But getting rid of Marino’s body is just the beginning of their troubles. First, two unwanted ‘visitors’ charge into Maguire’s home, obviously looking for someone or something. When one kills the other, Maguire and Choi are left with not one, but two bodies to hide. That’s when they bring in some other friends to help. Along with the bodies and the fact that a couple of Maguire’s friends get kidnapped, there’s the matter of the million dollars that some very nasty people think Maguire has. And there’s the matter of evading Pirelli – if it’s possible. And all of this without Maguire knowing (at least at first) why this has all happened in his home. The story is noir in the sense that there are some ugly situations – murder, kidnapping, and more – and there is some ugly violence (although given the context, it’s not gratuitous). And there are certainly people in the novel who seem trustworthy…and aren’t. But there is a great deal of dark wit, too. For instance, here’s Maguire’s reaction to the scene in his bedroom after it’s been gone through by the late-night ‘visitors’:

 

‘Whoever went through the place enjoyed throwing things around and ripping stuff up. The outline of a dead body made with shaving foam, sketched in the middle of my bedroom floor with my bed used to be, is a particularly fetching touch.’

 

The humour in this novel comes partly from that wit and partly from the way that ordinarily-impossible situations keep piling up.

Tom Sharpe has also written some very well-regarded screwball crime novels. For example, Wilt is the story of Henry Wilt, an Assistant Lecturer at the Fenland College of Arts and Technology. Overworked, underpaid and unappreciated, he is married to the overbearing, overenthusiastic and insecure Eva. His marriage has gotten to the point where Wilt’s favourite mental occupation is imagining ways in which he could kill her. Then one day, Eva runs off with Gaskell and Sally Pringsheim, Americans who are taking a sabbatical leave in the UK. In a drunken burst of ‘creativity’ Wilt decides this is the perfect opportunity to rehearse murdering her. So he makes use of a blow-up doll and a wig, and puts the doll down a 30-foot hole at a nearby building site.  The only problem is, he is witnessed by someone who thinks the victim is real. That’s when Inspector Flint takes charge of an investigation into Henry Wilt. The more Wilt tries to get out of the increasingly bizarre trouble he’s in, the worse things get for him. And the more Inspector Flint tries to get at the truth, the stranger and more frustrating things get for him, too. This is as much a comedy of errors as it is anything else, and the wit from it comes from that and from the sparring dialogue.

Some of Linwood Barclay’s novels might well be considered screwball. Bad Move for instance tells the story of science fiction author Zack Walker and his journalist wife Sarah, who move with their children from their home in the city to the ‘safe’ suburb of Valley Forest Estates. Walker thinks that life in the suburbs will be perfect: time for him to write, a safe school for his children and a nice place to live. Things start going wrong when he happens to witness an argument between a sales executive from the Valley Forest real estate office and Samuel Spender, a local environmental activist. When Walker later finds Spender’s body in a creek, he knows there’s going to be trouble, especially when he becomes a sort-of suspect. Then, he finds a handbag left behind at a supermarket. Thinking it’s his wife’s, Walker takes the handbag only to find that it’s not Sarah’s. It belongs to the sales office secretary and it’s very full of money. Walker tries to return it without letting Sarah know, only to discover another body. Before he knows it, Walker is up against a crime ring, a murderer who’s hiding out in the suburb, and a snake.

Carl Hiaasen’s novels have also been called screwball and I can’t disagree. For instance, in Lucky You, JoLayne Lucks buys a lottery ticket that turns out to be worth US$14 million. Her plan is to use the money to buy some Florida land and turn it into a preserve. Her plans are scuttled when her ticket is stolen by a group of neo-Nazis who want to use the money to field a militia. In the meantime, features writer Tom Krone of The Register has been assigned to do a story on JoLayne’s ticket and her plans for her winnings. All he wants is his story, but he’s soon drawn into a plot to get the ticket back from the thieves. As if that’s not enough, there’s a group of ruthless land developers who are determined to make sure that land stays available. Before he knows it Krone has gotten himself into one impossible situation after another..

In Donna Moore’s Go to Helena Handbasket, we meet PI Helena Handbasket. She is hired by Owen Banks to find out his brother Robin. Owen believes Robin might have been killed by his former boss, crime boss Evan Stubezzi. It seems that Stubezzi and his gang had pulled off a jewel robbery only to discover that the jewels had disappeared, and so had Robin. Helena isn’t exactly eager to take on the ‘untouchable’ Stubezzi, but it’s a starting place and she needs the fee. Shortly after she begins her search, a handless dead body is discovered in a nearby wood. Might it be Robin’s? Helena doesn’t think it is, so she keeps on pursuing different leads and getting herself deeper into trouble as she goes. The wit in this novel comes partly from the situations Helena gets herself into, and partly from her crazy attempts to straighten up her personal life as she works on the case.

And then there’s also of course Declan Burke, whose screwball novels have gained him quite a lot of fans. In The Big O for instance we are introduced to Karen King, a receptionist who is also an armed robber. She’s been doing fairly well living those two lives but a person can’t go on forever in the stickup business. Then she learns that her ex Rossi Callaghan has been released from prison. Callaghan is after Karen because she still has some of his prized possessions, and he is not going to be kind once he finds her. So she’ll need to pull off a major job to get the money to escape him. She enlists the help of the new man in her life Ray, who happens to be pretty good at kidnapping. In fact, Karen’s boss Frank decides to hire Ray to kidnap his almost-ex Madge, who is also Karen’s best friend. As Ray, Frank, and Frank’s lawyer (whose idea the kidnapping was in the first place) put the final touches on their plan, Rossi gets closer and closer to ruining everything. Needless to say, what starts out to be a simple (if there is such a thing) kidnap plan turns out to be anything but…

Screwball novels do tend to make use of the absurd – even the impossible. So there has to be a willingness to suspend disbelief. And to be honest, they’re not always for everyone. But they can be hilarious and they allow the author the chance to play around with crime fiction plot points. They can allow the reader some real fun, too.

Do you agree? Do you enjoy the screwball novel? Which have you liked in particular?

 

Congratulations, Rob!

 

 

 

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

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Filed under Carl Hiaasen, Declan Burke, Donna Moore, Linwood Barclay, Rob Kitchin

Honesty is Hardly Ever Heard*

PinocchioMost of us keep certain things to ourselves. Lots of times it’s because they’re private, and sometimes we keep things to ourselves because they are embarrassing or could cause hurt and a rift in a relationship. So it may not always be such a bad thing to keep certain things quiet. But there also comes a time when not being forthright does a lot more harm than good. We definitely see plenty of that in crime fiction. If you’ve ever had the urge to shake a character and say, ‘Well if you’d only told ___ about everything, none of this would have happened!’ you know what I mean. It’s not easy to add that plot point to a novel without making a character either not credible (i.e. Really? You’re hiding that?) or not likeable. But when it’s done well, those points where characters aren’t honest when they should be can add tension to a crime novel. And in some cases, there really wouldn’t be a solid plot without those moments.

For instance, in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone, George and Jacqueline Coverdale hire a new housekeeper Eunice Parchman. Jacqueline doesn’t bother to check her new employee’s references particularly well but at first, it doesn’t seem to matter. Parchman does her job well enough and the busy Coverdales don’t really notice a problem. But Eunice Parchman has not been honest with the Coverdales. She is keeping a secret that she’s desperate for them not to discover, and goes to great lengths to avoid telling them. When her secret is accidentally found out, this seals the Coverdales’ fates although they don’t know it at the time. And what’s tragic about it all is that if she had simply told the Coverdales the truth from the outset, a lot of tragedy could have been avoided.

In Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, Kindle County’s chief deputy prosecutor Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich is assigned to investigate the murder of a colleague Carolyn Polhemus. There is a lot of pressure to solve this case quickly and Sabich gets to work right away. What he doesn’t tell his boss is that he had a relationship with Polhemus that ended just a few months before she was murdered. On the one hand, one can understand why Sabich might not exactly trumpet the news of his affair. On the other, it’s not surprising that the news of it comes out anyway, and when it does, Sabich is in far more trouble than he might have been had he simply been honest at the beginning. Soon, pieces of evidence begin to turn up that implicate Sabich in the murder and before long he finds himself arrested for the crime. Now he’s on the ‘other side,’ so to speak, and hires attorney Alejandro ‘Sandy’ Stern to defend him. Together they work with Sabich’s friend detective Dan Lipranzer to find out the truth about Carolyn Polhemus’ death and clear Sabich of the charges against him. In this novel, the fact that Sabich isn’t honest with his boss at first doesn’t change the fact of who killed the victim. But it does add a really interesting and believable layer of tension to the story.

Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move is the story of science fiction writer Zach Walker and his family. Walker believes that his family isn’t safe in the city so he moves everyone to a new home in a suburb called Valley Forest Estates. They’re not there long when they learn that their house has all sorts of problems with it, so Walker goes to the housing development’s sales office to get someone to make repairs. While he’s there, he witnesses a loud argument between a Valley Forest sales executive and environmental activist Samuel Spender. Later, Walker finds Spender’s body in a local creek and gets drawn into finding out who killed him. And that’s where Walker begins to cover up too much, especially from his wife Sarah. For instance, at one point he and Sarah are shopping when he notices a handbag left in a shopping cart. Thinking it’s his wife’s he grabs it and puts it in the car. When he sees that it’s not hers, instead of telling her he took the wrong handbag, Walker says nothing and tries to secretly return the handbag (in which, by the way, he finds quite a lot of money) to its owner. Without telling his wife what he’s doing, he goes to the owner’s home where he finds another body. The more Walker tries to stay out of trouble, the more his dissembling and hiding things gets him into trouble. Still, he finds out who committed both murders and he finds out some other interesting secrets about the housing development. On the one hand, simply telling everything right from the start would have saved Walker an awful lot of trouble. On the other, his less-than-honest choices make for some funny moments in the books and Barclay handles them well (at least in my opinion).

There’s a much less humorous look at lack of honesty in Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal. Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik have hit an unhappy point in their marriage. Eva thinks it’s temporary until she discovers that her husband has been unfaithful. Instead of openly and honestly discussing what’s happened, both Eva and Henrik hide things. Henrik won’t be honest with his wife about his new lover and Eva isn’t honest about the course of action she takes after she finds out about her husband’s infidelity. Their choices, and most importantly their decision not to be honest with themselves and with each other, lead to real tragedy. First, Eva’s course of action leads her in a direction she never could have anticipated. Then, Henrik too makes a choice that has an unhappy and unintended consequence. The result is devastation that could have been prevented if this couple had only been honest in the first place.

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri learns from news broadcasts and newspapers that a former client Dr. Suresh Jha has died in a bizarre incident. According to witnesses, the goddess Kali appeared and killed Jha in revenge for his ongoing efforts to debunk spiritualism. Jha was the founder of the Delhi Institute for Rationalism and Education (DIRE), a group committed to unmasking scams committed in the name of spiritualism, and he had dedicated his life to convincing people not to believe ‘the Godmen.’ The doctor’s report, witness statements and other pieces of evidence seem to suggest that Jha’s death has a supernatural cause and a lot of people believe that. Puri, though, is not convinced. It’s not that he’s not spiritual, but he is quite certain that Jha died at very human hands. So he begins to investigate. The trail leads to a famous magician, a cult leader and other members of Jha’s organisation. Then, two more murders happen. Little by little, Puri finds out what really happened to Dr. Jha. And when he does, we learn of a few people who could have prevented the murders if they had just been honest from the start, when Puri began his investigation. Their reasons for not doing so are believable, but one still wants to ask them why on earth they didn’t simply tell Puri the truth in the first place.

And then there’s Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear, in which Sydney police detective Ella Marconi and her team investigate the shooting death of Paul Fowler. One of the first paramedics on the scene is Holly Garland, who sees to her dismay that her brother Seth is among the people who were with Fowler at the time of his death. Holly has several reasons to keep as far away from Seth as she can but when Marconi interviews her, Holly isn’t completely forthcoming about why. Holly has a past that she doesn’t want to share with anyone, least of all the people with whom she works. So she’s taken to saying nothing. The problem is that her silence begins to cause her serious trouble when one of her colleagues remembers her from another time. At first Holly dissembles, hides things and does everything she can not to tell the truth to anyone. At the end though, she finds that if she had simply told the truth, she’d have saved herself a lot of stress and trouble. Holly’s secret isn’t the reason for Paul Fowler’s murder, but it makes for an interesting and tense sub-plot.

All of us keep things to ourselves; it’s a fairly natural impulse. But there comes a time when not being honest has much more serious consequences than simply telling the truth in the first place. In real life that can cause heartache and worse. In crime fiction it can spin things deliciously out of control and cause fascinating tension.

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Karin Alvtegen, Katherine Howell, Linwood Barclay, Ruth Rendell, Scott Turow, Tarquin Hall

She Came in Through the Bathroom Window*

BandEMost of us would probably agree that breaking into someone’s home is a crime. That’s for instance one reason why police aren’t allowed to enter someone’s home unless that person invites them in or they have a warrant. In most places, evidence they get from illegal activity such as breaking and entering isn’t admissible in court anyway, so many cops don’t do that. Licensed private investigators are also limited in the searches they’re allowed to make. And having had my home broken into twice (this was years ago – not in the home I live in now), I can say that it’s a very good thing there are laws against breaking and entering. And yet, despite the fact that B & E is illegal with good reason, that doesn’t always stop sleuths from doing it at least sometimes. It’s not easy to write such a scene convincingly because as I say, real-life police officers who break and enter face serious consequences for it and so do PIs. But when it is written well, a B & E scene can add some tension to a plot.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, Sherlock Holmes’ new client Lady Eva Brackwell is being blackmailed by Charles Augustus Milverton. He has some compromising letters she wrote and has threatened to send them to her fiancé unless she pays a very large sum of money. Holmes has nothing but contempt for Milverton, so he has no qualms about planning a way to get those letters. He learns the layout of the Milverton home and one night he and Watson break into the home to find the letters. They do get them but not before another of Milverton’s victims finds her own way of getting compromising evidence back from him.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot isn’t above B & E when he needs to make use of that strategy. In Christie’s short story The Adventure of the Cheap Flat, Captain Hastings learns of a young couple named Robinson who seem to have pulled off a fait accompli. They’ve found a nice flat at a very low rent in a nice part of London. When Hastings mentions the matter to Poirot, Poirot begins to wonder whether there’s something more going on here than just a very good piece of luck. So he takes a flat in the same building as the Robinsons’ new home. Poirot soon learns that the Robinsons have been made pawns in a plot that involves international crime and jewel theft. But he knows very well that the people involved in the plot are not going to stand by meekly and let the police arrest them. So he and Hastings break into the flat late one night and find the evidence that they need to lure and then catch the criminals.

In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, science fiction writer Zack Walker moves with his journalist wife Sarah and their two children to Valley Forest Estates. Walker is convinced that the city where they had been living is no longer safe and wants to give his family a safe, secure suburban place to live. The family hasn’t been in their new home long when Walker begins to notice some things that are wrong with the house they’ve bought. So he goes to Valley Forest’s sales office to complain and arrange for some repairs. That’s when he witnesses an argument between a Valley Forest sales executive and local environmental activist Samuel Spender. When Walker later finds Spender’s body in a nearby creek he knows that something must be very wrong at Valley Forest. Not long after that, Walker and his wife are doing some shopping when he spies a purse that he thinks belongs to Sarah. It doesn’t, so now Walker has to find a way to return the purse – which has quite a lot of money in it – to its owner Stefanie Knight, who works in the Valley Forest sales office. He goes to her home intending to return the purse but no-one comes to the door. Walker gets into the home only to find Knight’s body. Despite his best efforts to keep out of dangerous situations, Walker finds himself more and more mixed up in what turns out to be a case of greed and corruption leading to murder.

There’s a funny example of B & E in Donna Malane’s Surrender. Missing Person’s expert Diane Rowe finds out from her cop ex-husband Sean Callum that James Patrick ‘Snow’ Wilson has been found stabbed to death. That murder has special meaning for Rowe. A year earlier her sister Niki was murdered and everyone, including Callum, has always believed that Snow was guilty. In fact just before his death Snow admitted his guilt and said that he was paid to murder Niki. Rowe thinks that if she can find out who paid Snow, she’ll find out the truth behind her sister’s murder so she begins to investigate. She happens to be passing near the house Snow shared with his sisters when she decides on impulse to go in and see if she can find any clues as to who else was involved in her sister’s killing. She breaks in through a window only to be stopped cold by a deftly-wielded cricket bat. It turns out the house wasn’t as empty as it seemed and Snow’s sisters caught Rowe red-handed as the saying goes. When she explains why she was there, the Wilson sisters suggest that they might be able to help each other. They want to find their brother’s killer as much as Rowe wants to find her sister’s killer. So they decide to exchange what turns out to be useful information.

Paddy Richardson’s Stephanie Anderson, whom we meet in Hunting Blind, isn’t the ‘typical’ (if there is such a thing) ‘B & E type.’ She’s a beginning psychiatrist who’s lived a very careful life for the last several years. Then she begins to work with a new patient Elizabeth Clark who has a tragic past. Years earlier Clark’s sister Gracie was abducted and no trace of her was ever found. This story resonates deeply with Anderson, whose own younger sister Gemma was abducted seventeen years earlier. Anderson decides to lay her own ghosts to rest and find out who was responsible for both abductions. So she makes the journey from Dunedin where she lives and works to Wanaka where she grew up. Along the way she gets more and more information on the person who wreaked so much havoc on her life. She wants to get proof of this person’s culpability but can’t easily find hard evidence. So one day she decides on impulse to break into that person’s home and look for the evidence she needs. It’s a very tense scene and I don’t think it’s giving away spoilers to say that Richardson shows us what it’s like to get into someone’s home when one’s absolutely not supposed to be there.

There’s an interesting case of breaking into one’s own home – well, in a way – in Patricia Stoltey’s The Prairie Grass Murders. Sylvia Thorn is a Florida judge who gets an upsetting call from her brother Willie Grisseljon. Willie was visiting the family’s former home in Illinois when he discovered the half-buried body of a man in a field not far from the house. When he tried to alert the police, he was arrested for vagrancy. So Thorn travels to Illinois to arrange for her brother’s release. Once that’s accomplished, she’s ready to leave but Willie wants to return to where he found the body. When they get there, they find that the body has disappeared and the ground nearby has been disturbed as if to hide evidence. It also turns out that the dead man may be a local businessman who’s gone missing. Thorn and Grisseljon get drawn into a case of corruption and greed tied to murder. At one point Thorn goes to her old family house which is now a focal point for those behind the crimes. She breaks in and ends up trapped in a hideaway under the house when the ‘bad guys’ discover that she’s been there.

Of course any B & E scene has to be done carefully. Real-life cops and PIs know they’re not supposed to just sneak into people’s homes, so it would stretch credibility too far to have them do that on a whim. But when it’s done deftly, a B & E scene can add an interesting layer of tension to a story.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Beatles song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Donna Malane, Linwood Barclay, Paddy Richardson, Patricia Stoltey