Category Archives: Lynda Wilcox

Tell Me What the Papers Say*

True Crime and NovelsAs we all know, there’s at least as much real crime out there as there is fictional crime. And writers can’t help but be influenced by those crime stories. After all, crime writers follow the news like a lot of other people, and sometimes those true crime stories can be fascinating enough that they catch the writer’s interest. Something about them gets the writer thinking.

For example, the 1888-1891 Whitechapel murders – the so-called ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders – have caught the imagination of lots of writers. These eleven murders of women have never been officially solved although there has been a lot of speculation about who ‘Jack the Ripper’ was. Possibly because the murders weren’t neatly solved, and because there was so much interest in them at the time, those killings have inspired many novels; I’ll just mention a few. In R. Barri Flowers’ historical thriller Dark Streets of Whitechapel, Dr. Jack Lewiston has been captured New York and arrested for the ‘Jack the Ripper’ crimes. But before he can be brought to trial, Lewiston escapes to London. Former New York City detective Henry Marboro comes out of retirement and travels to London to try to track Lewiston down before he can claim more victims.

Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger is also based on the Whitechapel murders. In this story, we meet Robert and Ellen Bunting, highly respectable middle-class Londoners who let rooms. They’re particular about the people they admit, but they are also facing financial difficulties. So when a man calling himself Mr. Sleuth agrees to pay in advance for one of the rooms, Mrs. Bunting is more than willing to have him lodge there. Besides, he speaks and acts like ‘a gentleman.’ All goes well enough at the beginning but soon, the Buntings begin to get an eerie feeling about Mr. Sleuth. After a time Ellen Bunting begins to suspect that he might be a mysterious and vicious killer known as The Avenger, who’s been making headlines in all of the newspapers. The more time goes by, the creepier Mr. Sleuth seems and the more danger the Buntings feel. But at the same time, Mr. Sleuth hasn’t threatened them and they desperately need the money he pays them. Part of the suspense in this novel comes from the dilemma of whether the Buntings will report what they suspect to the police (and give up that rent), or whether they’ll keep quiet.

And then there’s Glynis Smy’s Ripper, My Love, which tells the story of Kitty Harper, a seamstress who lives and works in Whitechapel at the time of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders. This novel’s been called romantic suspense and it is in the sense that the novel follows Kitty’s life and the way she deals with three young men who are vying for her. But at the same time there’s a strong thread of crime and danger as the Whitechapel murders are seen from Kitty’s perspective – and the murderer may be closer to her than anyone knows. There are dozens and dozens of other novels that refer to, are inspired by or are retellings of the Whitechapel murders.

Another murder that has generated a lot of interest (and inspired other crime writers) is what’s often called the Crippen case. American homeopathic physician Hawley Harvey Crippen was hanged in 1910 for the murder of his wife Cora. There was significant evidence against him too. A torso which could have been hers was found buried in his basement. He’d purchased hyoscine, a quantity of which was found with the remains. He had a new love, too, Ethel ‘Le Neve’ Neave and in fact, they were captured as they landed in America after leaving England together. There was other evidence too that Crippen had killed his wife. Although the verdict against Crippen has been disputed in the last few years, most people at the time thought him guilty. The story made a sensation and has influenced more than one crime writer. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead is the story of the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger James Bentley. Superintendent Spence doesn’t think so though and asks Hercule Poirot to look into the case. Poirot agrees and travels to the village of Broadhinny to do so. He finds that Mrs. McGinty had learned more than it was safe for her to know about one of the ‘nice’ people who live in the village; that’s why she was killed. One of the clues in this case is a story about four old murders, one of which is the murder of a woman by her husband. Like Crippen, this ‘Craig case’ features a body found in a basement and a man who was hanged for the crime while his lover left the country.

Martin Edwards’ Dancing For the Hangman is a fictionalised account of the Crippen case told from Crippen’s own point of view. The story begins just after Crippen is convicted for murder, and follows his thoughts as he awaits execution. Interspersed with reports and newspaper stories of the time, the novel tells of Crippen’s life in America, his move to London and his marriage to Cora. It then details how Crippen met Ethel Le Neve and tells the story of their plans to go to America together. In this novel, Edwards gives an alternative account of what exactly happened to Cora and why.

One of the most famous novels based on true crime is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. That novel is a re-telling of the 1959 murders of Kansas farmer Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie Mae and his children Nancy Mae and Kenyon. Richard Hickock and Perry Smith were arrested, tried and convicted of the crimes. The motive for the murders was money; Hickock and Smith had been in prison before the Clutter murders and heard from a fellow inmate that Herb Clutter had a lot of money at his farm. That wasn’t true but it didn’t stop Hickock and Smith from committing four murders and then going ‘on the run’ until the end of that year when they were caught. Capote’s novel tells the story of the victims’ lives, the relationship between Hickock and Smith and the devastating effects of the Clutter murders on the community. You could call this ‘untrue crime,’ as it is fiction but tells the story of a real crime.

So does James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia. That novel’s focus is the still-unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short, who was killed in Los Angeles in 1947. LAPD detectives Dwight ‘Bucky’ Bleichert and Lee Blanchard are on a stakeout when they discover Short’s body. The case starts to overwhelm the LAPD and becomes a media sensation. Bleichert becomes more and more obsessed with the case, especially when he meets the enigmatic Madeleine Sprague, who closely resembles the victim, and begins to have an affair with her. Blanchard too is obsessed with Elizabeth Short, in large part because his sister was also murdered. This case takes a heavy toll on both officers as they get more and more deeply involved in finding out who Elizabeth Short really was, what her life was like and why she died. Ellroy presents a fictional solution to the case but the real focus in this novel is on the way the murder case affects the cops who investigate it.

There are many other novels that are based on real crimes. For example, there’s Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep, which is based on the 1933 ‘trunk murders’ in which Winnie Ruth Judd was found guilty of murdering two of her friends. Abbott looks at the relationships and history that might have been behind those murders. Some crimes just take hold of the imagination and it can be fascinating to explore different aspects of them. And unlike journalists, novelists can create their own versions of how a crime might have happened and that can make for an absorbing story. In fact, that’s how Lynda Wilcox’s fictional crime writer Kathleen ‘KD’ Davenport gets her inspiration. As we learn in Strictly Murder, KD’s assistant Verity Long researches old cases and KD uses those as the basis for her novels. It’s not hard to see how they might inspire her.

But what do you think? Do you enjoy reading true-crime books or ‘untrue crime’ stories? If you’re a writer, do you use real crime for inspiration?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an Elton John/Bernie Taupin song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Glynis Smy, James Ellroy, Lynda Wilcox, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Martin Edwards, Megan Abbott, R. Barri Flowers, Truman Capote

And These Are the People I Work With*

Co-workersIf you work outside the home, chances are that you have co-workers. Since you can’t always choose co-workers, it’s a very lucky thing when you have friendly co-workers you can depend on. On the other hand co-workers can also turn out to be the bane of one’s existence. Either way, they often have a valuable perspective so when there is a murder, detectives usually talk to the victim’s co-workers. The way someone’s perceived at work can give a lot of insight into that person’s personality, habits and even state of mind. So it makes a lot of sense that co-workers’ views and behaviour play a role in crime fiction too.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot re-opens the investigation in to the death of a charwoman. Everyone is convinced that she was killed by her lodger James Bentley but Superintendent Spence, who did the original investigation, has begun to suspect that Bentley might be innocent. So he asks Poirot to look into the case. One of the first things Poirot does as a part of this investigation is to talk to Bentley’s co-workers at Breather & Scuttle, the realtor’s office where he’d been employed before he was let go. From Bentley’s former boss Poirot learns that Bentley wasn’t unpleasant, but he simply didn’t produce enough results to keep his job. This makes Poirot wonder whether Bentley would have had the faith in himself and audacity to carry off a murder. Then one of Bentley’s co-workers Maude Williams give Poirot surprising insights into the kind of person Bentley is. This is also extremely helpful in giving Poirot perspective on the man. In the end in fact Williams proves to be useful in solving the case.

In Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise, copywriter Victor Dean has a fatal fall down a staircase at work. His employer, Pym’s Publicity Ltd. is an advertising agency that counts among its clients some top companies and the management of Pym’s wants to keep things that way so discretion and respectability are very important. Dean left behind an unfinished letter in which he claimed that someone in the firm has been using the company’s resources for illegal purposes. That letter raises the possibility that Dean was murdered. Instead of calling the police in (which might bring unwelcome attention to this utterly respectable place), Pym’s hires Lord Peter Wimsey to go undercover at the company and find out whether Dean’s allegations are correct. Wimsey does so and in the course of his investigation, he gets to know Dean’s co-workers. From them he gets a perspective on the victim. He also finds out that Dean was right about the company’s resources. Someone who works at Pym’s has been using the company’s advertising to arrange meetings between a drugs ring and local drugs dealers. Dean found out who that person is and was taking advantage of that through blackmail. Because he’s undercover as Dean’s replacement, Wimsey gets to hear some very interesting unguarded remarks and conversations as he goes about finding out the truth about Dean’s death and catching the person responsible for it. 

Peter Robinson’s A Dedicated Man  is the story of former academic Harry Steadman, who used an inheritance to move with his wife Emma to Yorkshire to indulge his passion for excavating the Roman ruins in the area. When Steadman is found murdered, DI Alan Banks and his team investigate. Before he and his wife moved to Yorkshire, Steadman was a member of the faculty at Leeds University, so Banks travels there and gets to know some of Steadman’s former co-workers. They provide some interesting insights into Steadman, his reputation and his character. They also give Banks an important clue as to Steadman’s killer.

In Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate the murder of Eva Ringmar, whose body is found in her bathtub. Her husband Janek Mitter is the most likely suspect; they had been known to quarrel and what’s more, he was very drunk on the night of the murder and doesn’t remember much of anything. So although he claims he is innocent, he really can’t provide an account of himself nor any other plausible suspects. In fact, he’s convicted of the murder and remanded to a mental institution since he cannot remember what happened. When Mitter himself is killed Van Veeteren knows for certain that Mitter was telling the truth. He and his team begin to dig more deeply into both victims’ pasts to find out who the killer is. And part of that is a set of interviews with co-workers at the school where both taught and where they met. After all, people at the school knew them both and could have had a motive for murder. From those interviews, Van Veeteren gets an interesting perspective on both people; he also gets an interesting clue about who the killer is.

In Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear, Sydney police detective Ella Marconi and her team investigate the death of Paul Fowler. At first it seems that Fowler collapsed, possibly due to the heat, during a casual football game with a few friends. But when it’s found that he was shot, Marconi and her team begin to look into the death more carefully. The team learns that Fowler had been managing a carpet franchise called Carpet Planet until a few weeks before his death. So one of the avenues they explore is his reputation at work and his reasons for either quitting or being fired. Marconi and her police partner Murray Shakespeare interview Fowler’s employees as well as the franchise owner and discover that something had happened a few months before his death that changed Fowler’s disposition and that shortly after that, he’d left abruptly. Although no-one at work really knows what happened, that’s enough for the team to dig a little deeper. As it turns out, Fowler had taken a decision that got him into deeper trouble than he ever could have imagined and ended up costing him his life.

Co-workers turn out to be crucial to finding out who killed TV celebrity Jaynee ‘JayJay’ Johnson in Lynda Wilcox’s Strictly Murder. Verity Long is the assistant to well-known mystery novelist Kathleen ‘KD’ Davenport. Usually she does research for fictional murders but she gets involved in a real one when she goes house-hunting and discovers Johnson’s body in a supposedly empty prospective home. Long falls under some suspicion since she’s the one who found the body. But even after she’s cleared, she continues to ask questions. One of the first places she goes for answers is the television studio where Johnson worked. There, she learns that Johnson was hardly the beloved-by-all personality she appeared to be. Little by little, Long follows up on the leads she gets at the studio and finds out more about Johnson’s personal life. It turns out that what Long learns from Johnson’s co-workers is instrumental in solving the case.

It’s surprising how much co-workers know about each other. For detectives, co-worker interviews can be a proverbial gold mine when it comes to learning about a victim. And for a writer, there’s lots of potential for personality conflicts and character development. Kind of makes you think about your work-mates in a different way doesn’t it? ;-)

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Blur’s Yuko and Hiro.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Håkan Nesser, Katherine Howell, Lynda Wilcox, Peter Robinson

In The Spotlight: Lynda Wilcox’s Strictly Murder

In The Spotlight A-LHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Not all crime fiction has to be dark and bleak. But crime fiction that’s too light and ‘frothy’ also isn’t very believable. It can be a real challenge for an author to write a lighter murder mystery while at the same time making it engaging and authentic enough to keep readers interested. To show you what I mean about this balance, let’s turn the spotlight today on Lynda Wilcox’s Strictly Murder.

Verity Long has been assistant to famous mystery novelist Kathleen ‘KD’ Davenport for six months. She does some secretarial things (answering mail, co-ordinating her boss’ schedule, etc.) but her job also involves looking up the details of real-life ‘cold case’ crimes. KD uses those details as the bare bones of her best-sellers, adding her own fictional details. So far the arrangement has worked well for both of them, to the point where Long is ready to move to a nicer place than the one she has now – one that’s closer to the center of Crofterton. She and a house agent visit a prospective home one afternoon and that’s where Long discovers the body of TV celebrity Jaynee ‘JayJay’ Johnson.

Since Long found the body, she’s one of the first people the police interview and she comes in for her share of suspicion since her presence at the scene is a little too convenient. But even after DI Jerry Farish no longer considers her a suspect Long takes an interest in the case since, as she puts it,

 

‘But I am involved…I found her body.’

 

Long begins to investigate and soon finds that JayJay Johnson was not the beloved co-presenter that she seemed to be. So there are several suspects in Johnson’s personal life and among her colleagues and other studio employees.

In the meantime, Long’s gotten information on a ‘cold case’ that her employer might be able to use for a future novel. Fourteen-year-old Charlotte Neal was on her way home from a friend’s house in 1990 when she disappeared. No trace of her – not even a body – was found, and the police never got solid leads on what happened to her. So while she’s trying to find out what happened to JayJay Johnson, Long also follows up on the Charlotte Neal case. She interviews the investigating officer, she searches for friends and family members and she puts ads in local papers. As she looks deeper into this case, Long discovers that there were actually two Charlotte Neal cases. The second involved a girl who was killed in a hit-and-run incident. This case was never solved either. The more Long learns about these cases, the clearer it becomes that someone doesn’t want her to find out what really happened. As it turns out, the past and present cases do have a connection and in the end Long finds out who killed JayJay Johnson and what happened to both Charlotte Neals.

Verity Long is more than anything else a research assistant. So we get an interesting look at the way people go about researching novels. Long reads newspaper articles and other media reports and interviews police officers, witnesses, family members and other people, and we get the chance to see how someone who doesn’t have the force of law gets people to talk. And her personality is well-suited for the job. She’s smart, curious and tenacious. And while those qualities do get her into danger in a few places in the novel, they also help her get to the truth. We can see why KD hired her.

Long’s appeal as a character also comes from the fact that she’s neither perfect nor blindly devoted to her work. She enjoys good food and good wine. She can be stubborn and she sometimes takes more risks than she should. Readers who are tired of the ‘female protagonist in distress’ theme in mysteries should take heart, though. Long is certainly human and therefore vulnerable. But she isn’t foolhardy and she does a fairly good job of taking care of herself. It’s not hard to be on her side as she tries to unravel these mysteries.

Another element that runs through this novel is the story of both Charlotte Neals. As Long finds out bits and pieces of information about the two girls, we learn what they were like. Their stories are woven into the novel through the research Long does and those stories are at least as interesting as the case of JayJay Johnson is. Although KD plans to use some of the details in an upcoming novel, it’s clear that both she and Long respect the girls’ memories.

There’s also an element of romance in this novel. Long and Farish are attracted to each other and they develop a relationship as the novel goes on. But to Wilcox’s credit, their relationship evolves naturally, and it’s not without its challenges. First, neither is perfect. What’s more, Farish finds it hard as a cop to balance his personal and his working life. Long feels shut out when Farish can’t or doesn’t wish to discuss his work. And both are wary of relationships in any case. Refreshingly, this romance is woven into the novel without being such a major part of it that it takes over, and without being too ‘glossy.’

There’s a solid thread of humour woven through the novel too. Both KD and Long have a somewhat sarcastic way of looking at life and that comes through in the story. Here, for instance, is a scene during which Long and her boss are at a benefit fête where it’s hoped that KD’s ‘celebrity author’ status will draw in money:

 

‘I wandered around, my pace leisurely, my mind occupied not with the fun on offer but with darker thoughts. Determined not to open my purse, I relented and tried my luck at a bottle stall, run in aid of MacMillan Nurses. Naturally, from a large trestle table filled with every type of brandy, whisky, wine and liqueurs, I came away with nothing more than a bottle of nail polish. Green nail polish! Still, I didn’t really mind, at least my money had gone to a good cause.’

 

Long’s sense of humour is dry and refreshing and makes sense given her personality. There are some funny scenes too. For instance, at one point Long is doing some snooping in an office at the television studio. She hears someone coming and dives into the rest room attached to the office. The two people who come in intend to use the office for some ‘extracurricular activity’ and Long’s trapped in the rest room until they leave.

The working relationship between KD and Long is also an interesting element in the story. They are employer and employee, and yet they’re friends too. KD cares about Long and more than once is very helpful to her. And although even KD admits she’s difficult to work for, Long respects her boss’ intelligence, commercial savvy and ability to craft a good mystery. They have a similar outlook on life, too.

The mysteries themselves make sense and Long finds out the truth in believable ways. And after all, how can you not want to read more in a novel that begins this way:

 

‘I had been on the job only six months when my employer pulled a gun on me.’ 

 

Truly an attention-getting first line.

Strictly Murder is a light but not ‘frothy’ crime novel featuring a down-to-earth, practical sleuth, a believable set of mysteries and some humour. But what’s your view? Have you read Strictly Murder? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 

 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday 28 January/Tuesday 29 January – Kiss and Tell – TJ Cooke

Monday 4 February/Tuesday 5 February – Louisiana Bigshot – Julie Smith

Monday 11 February/Tuesday 12 February – The Coroner’s Lunch – Colin Cotterill

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Filed under Lynda Wilcox, Strictly Murder

There Was Fifty-Seven Channels and Nothin’ On*

TVAn interesting comment exchange with Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan has got me thinking about television. Bill did a very interesting post about the fact that fictional sleuths don’t really watch a lot of TV. Actually, all of Bill’s posts are really interesting. If you’re a crime fiction fan, you really should be following his blog if you’re not already doing so. And he’s right about TV, too; it doesn’t seem to be a major part of life for most fictional sleuths. They’re either too busy or quite frankly not interested. And yet TV is a pervasive presence in our lives. Even if you’re not a TV watcher, chances are that something on TV is going to be discussed at work, family gatherings and so on. So it seems to me only natural that there’d be plenty of TV in crime fiction, even crime fiction that features sleuths who really don’t watch much of it.

A television news story is part of what gets Sergeant Barbara Havers involved in a murder case in Elizabeth George’s Deception on His Mind. Haytham Querashi has recently emigrated from Pakistan to the British seaside town of Balford-le-Nez. There’s already an immigrant community there and Querashi’s plan is to marry Salah Malik, whose family has already gotten established. When Querashi is found dead on a beach near the town, the case makes the television news, mostly because of the already-simmering rift between the immigrant community and the locals. Havers happens to see a news broadcast about the case and learns that DI Emily Barlow, who is one of Havers’ idols, is leading the investigation. Havers arranges to be assigned to the case in part so that she can work with Barlow. Havers hardly spends all day sitting in front of the television, but in this case she happens to be watching at the right time.

So does Emma le Roux in Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari. She is watching a news story about a man named Cobie de Villiers who is wanted in connection with the murder of a traditional healer and three other men when she notices that one of the men looks exactly like her brother Jacobus. Jacobus le Roux disappeared twenty years earlier from South Africa’s Kruger National Park. At the time, everyone assumed he’d been killed in a skirmish with poachers, but if that’s not true, Emma wants to find out where he is. Shortly after she contacts the police about the news broadcast, Emma is attacked in her home. Now she knows that there’s more to her brother’s disappearance than everyone thinks, and she hires bodyguard Martin Lemmer to go with her from Cape Town to the Lowveld to get some answers. What they find is that the murders and Jacobus le Roux’s disappearance are all connected to greed, international business intrigue and politics.

Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano is not an avid TV-watcher. But he knows the value of TV in getting and passing on information. One of his good friends is Nicolò Zito, who works for Vigatà’s Free Channel. The two men often co-operate on cases and with Montalbano’s access to exclusive and valuable information, and Zito’s connections, each benefits the other. In The Wings of the Sphinx for instance, the body of an unidentified young woman is found near a local landfill. The only distinguishing mark on her is a tattoo. Montalbano knows that it will be very hard to find out what happened to the woman and who would have killed her if she can’t be identified. So he has Zito broadcast a picture of her and a picture of the tattoo. It turns out to be a very good thing that he did, because that’s how Montalbano learns that the victim was a member of a group of Eastern European girls who had come to Italy to find work. It’s through that thread that he’s able to find out who killed the girl and why.

In Gail Bowen’s A Colder Kind of Death, political scientist and television commentator Joanne Kilbourn has to revisit the tragedy of her husband Ian’s murder when his killer Kevin Tarpley is shot in the prison yard. When Tarpley’s wife Maureen, who was with him on the night of Ian Kilbourn’s murder, is killed too, Kilbourn needs to clear her own name. She also wants some resolution. So she looks into the circumstances of both murders. In one thread of the story, Kilbourn’s son Angus, who’s fifteen at the time of this novel, finds out that Tarpley’s been killed and asks his mother for more details about that murder and about his father’s death. She reluctantly agrees and the two go to the local offices of Nationtv where Kilbourn works. It’s through recorded television broadcasts that Angus learns more about his father’s death, the trial of Kevin Tarpley and the impact Ian Kilbourn had. The recordings also give Kilbourn a hint as to the truth about the murders of Tarpley and his wife.

In Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are, we meet regional television presenter Frank Allcroft. He’s happily married and has a strong bond with his eight-year-old daughter Mo. But he’s at a crossroads in his life and he’s dealing with the loss of his mentor and predecessor at the network Phil Smethway. Smethway was killed in a hit-and-run incident while he was out jogging. When Allcroft is drawn to the scene of the death one day he sees that the road is straight and clear. It should have been easy to see Smethway and avoid him. Although the driver was never located, Allcroft begins to suspect that this death is more than a simple case of tragic miscalculation or drink driving. So he begins to ask questions about Smethway’s life and finds out there were sides to his friend that he never knew. As Allcroft searches for answers, readers get a look at the power of TV. Viewers feel they know Smethway and Allcroft and speak and write as though both men were close acquaintances instead of strangers who simply present on TV. And some viewers’ reactions and suggestions really are funny.  We also see how being on TV has affected both Smethway and Allcroft.

Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red features TV journalist Rebecca Thorne. A successful presenter, her show Saturday Night has been a popular New Zealand show for some time. But it’s hit a proverbial plateau and Thorne knows that in the TV business, there’s always someone new coming up who can easily supplant the people ‘on top.’ So she’s eager for the story that will cement her position. She thinks she’s found it in the case of Connor Bligh. Bligh is in prison for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. Only their daughter Katy survived because she wasn’t at home at the time of the killings. New hints have come up though suggesting that Connor Bligh may be innocent. If he is, then this is a really important case of justice gone wrong. So Thorne eagerly pursues the case. As she searches for the truth, we see the impact of TV in the way people react to her, in the way viewer ratings matter, and in the public reaction to this new investigation.

There are also novels in which TV ‘personalities’ are murdered. Lynda Wilcox’s Strictly Murder and Liza Marklund’s Prime Time are just two examples. And there are fictional sleuths such as Elizabeth Spann Craig’s  Myrtle Clover who do watch TV (her never-miss-it show is called Tomorrow’s Promise).

TV is woven throughout a lot of other crime fiction too – much, much more than I have space for here. Love it, hate it or don’t care about it, TV is a big part of life. Bill Selnes is right that fictional sleuths don’t usually watch a lot of it – they can’t if they’re going to investigate crime. But the rest of us seem to…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s 57 Channels (and Nothin’ On).

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Filed under Andrea Camilleri, Catherine O'Flynn, Deon Meyer, Elizabeth George, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Lynda Wilcox, Paddy Richardson

Just Another Reason For Another Lie*

AlibisWhere would the world of crime fiction be without the alibi? Alibis can range from the very specific forensic kind of detail (e.g. a person who was not physically tall enough to fire a gun from a specific angle) to the more nebulous (e.g. ‘I had no motive to kill him – hardly knew the guy’). Of course, not all modern crime fiction novels really feature alibis because they’re different sorts of crime novels. But a lot of crime fiction still puts an emphasis on sorting through alibis. I’m not a cop, but my guess is that checking alibis is probably one of the most time-consuming parts of any investigation. So it makes sense that they’d play a major role in crime fiction too.

Golden Age and classic detective fiction places quite a lot of emphasis on people’s alibis and very often, those alibis are what I’d call physical alibis. For instance, a person couldn’t have committed a crime because she or he was in a different place at the time of the murder. In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), Hercule Poirot is persuaded to look into the death of wealthy entrepreneur Richard Abernethie. At first his death is put down to natural causes, but when his younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered, everyone begins to wonder whether she was right. That seems even more likely when she herself is murdered the next day. The family lawyer Mr. Entwhistle does a little checking on his own to find out what everyone was doing on the day of Cora Lansquenet’s murder and in true Golden Age fashion, each suspect accounts for her or his time – and most of them aren’t telling the entire truth. In the end Poirot finds out the truth about both deaths and gets the various suspects to tell him what they were actually doing at the relevant times. Alibis feature in a lot of other Christie novels, too, of course.

One of the most interesting treatments of the alibi (at least in my opinion, so please feel free to differ with me if you do) is in Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train). In that novel, Guy Haines takes a cross-country train journey to visit his estranged wife Miriam. Also on the train is Charles Anthony Bruno, who has an insufferable father. The two fall into conversation, as fellow passengers sometimes do, and as the journey continues, each shares his unhappy personal life. Then Bruno suggests that each man should commit if you will the other man’s murder. That way, each man will have what Bruno thinks of as a watertight psychological alibi: no motive. Why would the police investigate a total stranger who has no motive?  At first Haines thinks that Bruno isn’t serious. But then, Bruno kills Miriam. He insists that Haines follow through with his side of the bargain and kill Bruno’s father. Haines refuses, but then Bruno makes it clear that he doesn’t have much choice. Haines finally reluctantly agrees and commits the murder. And that’s when the real trouble begins…  In this novel, we see how the concept of the alibi has broadened and evolved to include psychological alibis.

Modern novels still focus on alibis, both physical and psychological.  For instance, in Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery (AKA Münster’s Case), Intendant Münster and his team investigate the stabbing death of Waldemar Leverkuhn. Leverkuhn is a seemingly inoffensive elderly man who went in with some friends on a lottery ticket. To everyone’s surprise, they win and go out to celebrate. By the time Leverkuhn’s wife Marie-Louise gets home a few hours later, he’s been brutally murdered in his bed. Once the crime is reported, the police start to investigate, beginning with Leverkuhn’s widow and with the other people who live in that apartment building. As the team talks to the various residents, we learn what each person’s alibi was. The team also talks to Leverkuhn’s children, who are grown and no longer live with their parents. They, too, give alibis that have to be checked. When it’s discovered that Leverkuhn and his friends won the lottery, those friends are also interviewed and their alibis checked. That process of getting and looking into alibis is an important part of this novel. As each alibi is discussed, we also get an increasingly clearer picture of the kind of person Leverkuhn was and that’s an important factor in the mystery too.

Amateur sleuths don’t have the force of law behind them, so it can be more of a challenge to find out what people’s alibis were. But even in those situations, alibis can play a very important role. For instance, Riley Adams (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) makes very effective use of alibis and alibi checking in her Memphis Barbecue series. In Hickory Smoked Homicide for instance, restaurant owner Lulu Taylor investigates the murder of Tristan Pembroke, an arrogant and malicious beauty pageant coach. Tristan is murdered during a large charity auction at her home, and because quite a few people attend the event, it’s not easy to tell who was exactly where when the murder was committed. Lulu wants to find the real killer because her daughter-in-law Sara is the prime suspect and she wants to clear Sara’s name. Lulu isn’t a cop, so she has to get people to give her their alibis in a less direct way. She uses a ‘chattier’ approach to find out where people say they were and it turns out to be effective. Bit by bit she finds out whose alibi is faked, and discovers who the killer is.

Lynda Wilcox’s Verity Long has to use her wits to learn and check alibis in Strictly Murder. She is the personal assistant to famous mystery novelist Kathleen Davenport; among other things her job is to find promising true crime stories so that Davenport can adapt them and use their essentials for her crime plots. In her personal life Long is looking for a new place, and as a potential home buyer she goes with a house agent one day to visit a candidate home. That’s when she discovers the body of television celebrity Jaynee Johnson. As the person who found the body, Long comes under her share of suspicion although she has no motive. So partly for that reason she decides to investigate. As the story evolves she has to talk to Johnson’s co-star, her producer, her agent and other people who might have wanted to kill Johnson. And from all of these people Long manages to get alibis. Slowly she puts the pieces of the puzzle together but not before the murderer finds out she’s investigating and targets her. In this novel, finding out where everyone was and how everyone really felt about the victim plays an important role in solving the mystery.

And that’s the thing about alibis. They can be faked or real, and they can be physical or psychological. They take all forms and the detective has to follow all of them up sometimes to find out who the killer is. But they have to be written with care. Plots that involve very complicated alibis can confuse or at least put off the reader. What about you? Do you pay a lot of attention to alibis when you read?  If you’re a crime writer, what’s your strategy for integrating everyone’s alibi?

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eric Clapton’s No Alibis.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Håkan Nesser, Lynda Wilcox, Patricia Highsmith, Riley Adams