Category Archives: Martin Clark

There Ain’t No Easy Way Out*

HardChoicesHave you ever faced the sort of dilemma where neither choice was really a good one? Sometimes these are called ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situations. If you have, then you know how stressful it can be to have to choose what to do. But those dilemmas happen quite a lot in real life. And they can add suspense and character depth to a crime novel. That’s why we see them in crime fiction as often as we do.

For example, in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, General Guy Sternwood hires Los Angeles-based PI Philip Marlowe to help him stop an extortionist. Book dealer Arthur Geiger has sent Sternwood a blackmail letter that makes reference to Sternwood’s daughter Carmen, and as you can imagine, Sternwood wants Geiger stopped. Marlowe agrees to work the case and goes to visit Geiger. When he finds Geiger though, it’s too late; his quarry’s just been murdered. What’s more, Carmen Sternwood is a witness. She’s either been drugged or has had a mental breakdown, so she can’t really tell Marlowe what happened, but she saw it all. Now Marlowe faces a difficult choice. His obligation to Sternwood is complete; Geiger won’t be a problem any more. On the other hand, Carmen Sternwood faces the very real possibility that the police will arrest her on suspicion of murder. If Marlowe washes his hands of the case, he is free of the disagreeable Sternwood family, but leaves Carmen in grave danger. If he helps Carmen, she may be spared, but he’ll get even more entangled in the Sternwood family drama and more trouble. Marlowe decides to help Carmen…

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik have hit a rough spot in their marriage. Still, as far as Eva is concerned, she has the sort of life she’s always wanted: husband, son Axel, house with the white picket fence, etc. Then she discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful. Now she faces a difficult choice. If she stays with Henrik, of course, she has to live with his infidelity and learn to cope. But she still has her settled, suburban life and the home remains stable for Axel. If she leaves Henrik, her dreams of that life are shattered, and so is Axel’s world. But she no longer has to live with an unfaithful partner. Eva decides to take her own kind of revenge, and that decision leads to some terrible unexpected consequences.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit features brothers Mason and Gates Hunt, who grew up in Patrick County, Virginia. They’ve had a difficult start to life, being the sons of an alcoholic, abusive father. But they’ve made it to young adulthood. Mason has taken advantage of every opportunity and is now in law school. Gates has squandered his considerable athletic ability and now lives on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments and money from his mother Sadie Grace. One day, Gates gets into an argument with his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. The fight’s temporarily put ‘on hold,’ but later that night, the Hunt brothers are on their way home from a night out when they encounter Thompson again. The fight starts anew and before anyone really knows what’s happening, Gates has shot his rival. Out of filial duty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime and life goes on for both brothers. Then, years later, Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking and convicted. He asks his brother, now a commonwealth prosecutor, to help get him out of jail. Mason refuses. Gates threatens that if Mason doesn’t help him, he’ll implicate him in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. This presents Mason with a true ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation. If he goes along with his brother, he’ll be responsible for freeing a criminal and violating the ethical requirements of his job. If he doesn’t, he’ll be under indictment for a murder he didn’t commit. Mason’s decision not to arrange for his brother’s release puts him up against an incredibly difficult legal challenge.

In Gail Bowen’s The Gifted, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her attorney husband Zack face a very challenging dilemma. Their fourteen-year-old daughter Taylor is a gifted artist who is passionate about her work. Two of her pieces are selected for inclusion in a high-profile art auction that will benefit a redevelopment project for the community of North Regina. If Taylor’s parents allow her to be a part of the auction, this will change everything for her. On the one hand, that will be a very good thing, as it will pave the way for Taylor to pursue her art. There will be scholarships and all sorts of other support for her. She’ll also get important recognition. On the other hand, Taylor is still a child. Her parents want to her to have as much of a normal childhood, whatever that actually is, as possible given her talent. Still, they don’t want to deny Taylor opportunities, so they somewhat reluctantly allow her to participate. That decision has dramatic unforeseen consequences when Taylor’s work is revealed at the auction.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack features Buenos Airies police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano. Early one morning, he’s called to a crime scene, where he finds two bodies dumped by a riverbank. They bear the hallmarks of an Army ‘hit.’ This is late 1970s Argentina, when it’s extremely dangerous to say or do anything that might be interpreted as questioning the military-ruled government. So Lescano knows better than to raise comment about those bodies. But he finds a third body, too. This one is of moneylender and pawnbroker Elías Biterman. Someone’s gone to some trouble to make his death look like another Army ‘hit,’ but Lescano doesn’t think it is. He’s not a medical expert though, so he seeks help from his friend Dr. Fusili, who is a medical examiner. Fusili now faces a terrible choice. If he helps Lescano, he’s putting his own life in jeopardy. Certainly he’ll lose his job. On the other hand, if he doesn’t help Lescano, he’s betraying a friend. He’ll keep his position and perhaps even enhance his reputation, but he’ll be sacrificing his friendship and possibly sentencing Lescano to death. When Fusili decides to help Lescano, that choice puts him grave danger, but it gives Lescano badly needed support.

Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne faces a very difficult decision in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. She’s hit a sort of plateau in her career, and she knows that there are plenty of hungry journalists out there who are all too eager to grab headlines and ratings. So she needs the story that will secure her place at the top of the proverbial tree. Then she hears of just such a story. Connor Bligh has been in prison for years 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. There are now hints that Bligh might be innocent and that’s what he himself claims. If he is, that’s exactly the story Thorne needs. However, there are plenty of people, Katy among them, who swear that Bligh is guilty and whose lives will be upended if Thorne goes after this story. Whichever choice Thorne makes, she’s taking risks. When she ultimately decides to pursue the story, she finds herself getting much closer to it than a professional normally should. Her choice has serious consequences for a lot of people.

It’s never easy to know what to do about a dilemma, especially when neither choice is really an outright positive one. But that tension makes for a real layer of interest in crime novels. Your turn.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne’s I Won’t Back Down.


Filed under Ernesto Mallo, Gail Bowen, Karin Alvtegen, Martin Clark, Paddy Richardson, Raymond Chandler

I’ve Been Moved By Some Things That I’ve Learned*

Lessons From ReadingOne of the real pleasures of reading, at least for me, is the things that I learn about when I read. My guess is, that’s true of most book lovers. Of course a good plot and believable, interesting characters matter. Otherwise a novel becomes a textbook. But a well-written story can also offer readers insights and information that they didn’t know before. And perhaps it’s just my perspective, but I think that knowledge is a good thing. We all know different things and read different books, so for each of us, what we learn will also be different. But, speaking strictly for myself, here are a few things I’ve learned from the crime fiction that I’ve read.


Different Communities I Didn’t Even Know Were There


Of course people migrate all over the world. But I’ve still been surprised to learn about some of the communities there are in some unexpected places. For instance, in Craig Johnson’s Death Without Company, Absaroka County, Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire is faced with a very difficult crime. Mari Baroja, a resident of the Durant Home for Assisted Living, is found dead of what turns out to be poison. Longmire, his deputy Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti, and new hire Santiago Saizarbitoria begin sifting through the evidence, starting with the members of the victim’s family. Bit by bit, we learn about Mari Baroja’s past, and how incidents from fifty years ago have influenced what happens in the present day. One of the interesting things about this novel is that the victim is a member of Wyoming’s Basque community. It turns out that Wyoming has a large Basque population, something I hadn’t known before. But Johnson weaves that into the story so that it comes up naturally, rather than feeling forced.

Another community I learned about through crime fiction is the Ukrainian community in Canada’s prairie provinces. We get a look at that community in Gail Bowen’s first Joanne Kilbourn mystery Deadly Appearances. Up-and-coming politician Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is poisoned during a speech that he’s giving at a Sunday School picnic. Kilbourn was a friend of Boychuk’s as well as being one of his political campaign workers. So she’s devastated at his loss. She decides to write a biography of Boychuk to help her deal with her grief. In the process of finding out about Boychuk’s life, she also finds out who murdered him. And readers find out about Saskatchewan’s Ukrainian community, to which Boychuk belonged. Anthony Bidulka’s PI Russell Quant is also a member of that community since his mother is Ukrainian, and readers learn about Saskatchewan Ukrainians in the novels that feature him. In those series and in Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski series, readers learn about the Ukrainian influence on the Canadian prairie. There are even Ukrainian language programs in some schools in that part of the country.

I’ve learned about other communities I hadn’t been aware of too. There just isn’t room to mention all of them.


Things About the Legal System


One of the things that I enjoy about well-written legal mysteries is that sometimes, they turn on an important point of law that isn’t always widely known. So besides solid characters and plotting, I’ve also learned some interesting legal precedents and facts.

For example, in Perri O’Shaughnessy’s Breach of Promise, the case of Lindy Markov hinges on what’s been called ‘palimony’ in the United States. Lindy and her common-law husband Mike have been together for twenty years when Mike has an affair with his company’s vice-president for financial services Rachel Pembroke. Very soon Lindy finds herself removed from the company position she’s held and ordered to evacuate the home she’s shared with Mike for their entire relationship. She hires Tahoe attorney Nina Reilly to sue Mike on her behalf for her share of the profits from the company she helped him build. In part, this case has to do with the rights that a common-law spouse has. The answer isn’t clear-cut, and it varies by jurisdiction. This novel also taught me a lot about the process of jury selection and the work involved in preparing for a major trial.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit features Virginia brothers Mason and Gates Hunt. The two share an unhappy childhood, but that’s about all they have in common. Gates squanders his athletic ability and ends up living on his girlfriend’s Welfare money and money he gets from his mother. Mason on the other hand makes use of every opportunity he gets, wins an academic scholarship to university and then goes on to law school. One night, he’s with his brother when an argument flares up between Gates and his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. Before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates has shot Thompson. Out of a sense of duty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime and the Hunt brothers move on. Years later, Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking and begs his brother, now a Virginia commonwealth prosecutor, to help get him out of prison. Mason refuses, and Gates then threatens that if his brother doesn’t co-operate, he’ll implicate him in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. Mason calls his brother’s bluff and soon enough he’s indicted for a murder he didn’t commit. With the police targeting him and Gates willingly lying about the murder, Mason doesn’t have many options. But there’s one point of law that may be exactly what he needs. It’s a fact of law that I didn’t know until I read this novel. With help from his deputy prosecutor Custis Norman, Mason uses that legal point to his advantage.

Those are of course just two examples of novels where an important aspect of the law is explored. When they’re done well, such novels make points of law not just comprehensible to a non-attorney, but really engaging as well.


Politics and History That I Didn’t Know Before


Some political history makes international headlines, but there’s a lot that I didn’t know about before I started reading crime fiction. And sometimes, politics can be really interesting. For instance, in Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors, readers learn about Australia’s 1972-1975 Gough Whitlam government. In that novel, Australian Federal Police (AFP) officer Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen and his team investigate the murders of former Whitlam government official Alec Dennet and the editor of his memoirs Loraine Starck. Then it comes out that the manuscript they were working on has disappeared. Now it looks as though someone was afraid that Dennet might reveal some uncomfortable things about high-ranking people in the Whitlam government. The truth is both more complicated and simpler than that, but it leads to some interesting background on that government.

I also learned a lot about Australia’s women’s movement in Wendy James’ Out of the Silence. That’s a fictionalised account of the 1900 trial of Maggie Heffernan for the murder of her infant son. As the novel makes clear, it’s much more complicated than a mother who simply ‘snapped.’ As James gives readers the background on Maggie’s life and the circumstances that may have led to the death of her son, we also learn that her cause was taken up by leading members of the Australian movement for women’s suffrage. One character in the novel for instance is Vida Goldstein, the first woman to run for Parliament in the British Commonwealth. I didn’t know that. The novel also gives some really interesting background on the women’s movement that had a powerful effect on the Heffernan trial. I also didn’t know before reading this novel (and afterwards, doing a bit of looking on my own) that South Australia was the first state to grant women’s suffrage (in 1895). Australian women were given the vote at the federal level in 1902, nearly twenty years before it happened in the U.S.  The things crime fiction teaches you!

Those are just a few of the many things that I’ve learned about that I never knew before reading crime fiction. What about you? I’m not talking here of things like recipes or names of places, as interesting as those can be. Rather, I mean things going on, perhaps even in your lifetime, that you never knew. If you’re a writer, has something you learned inspired you to write a story about it?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bill Staines’ River.


Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Craig Johnson, Gail Bowen, Kel Robertson, Martin Clark, Nelson Brunanski, Perri O'Shaughnessy, Wendy James

Well I’ll Be Loyal to You in Every Way*

Loyalty1One of the more valuable qualities humans can have is arguably loyalty. If we can’t count on loyalty from family, friends, co-workers and so on, then it’s easy to start wondering whether we can really trust anyone. And that’s unsettling, to say the least. Of course, like most things about humans, loyalty is a proverbial double-edged sword. Loyalty can be an important part of simple safety and security. On the other hand, loyalty can be tragically misguided. It’s an important aspect of human interaction though, so it’s no wonder that we see it in crime fiction.

Agatha Christie addresses loyalty in several of her stories. I’ll just mention one example. In Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot travels across Europe on the world-famous Orient Express train. On the second night of the journey, fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed to death. Poirot is persuaded to investigate and try to find out who the killer is before the train is stopped at the next border. That way, the solution (and presumably, the killer) can be handed over to the police. Poirot has a limited number of suspects since the only possibilities are the other passengers in the same car as Ratchett. As Poirot interviews the passengers and gets to know the background of the case, we learn that loyalty plays an important role in this mystery. Here is what one passenger, Princess Natalia Dragomiroff, says about it:


‘I believe, Messieurs, in loyalty – to one’s friends and one’s family and one’s caste.’


And as the story evolves, we see how much loyalty determines what people do and say.

A bright thread of loyalty adds much to Wendy James’ The Mistake. In that novel, we meet Jodie Evans Garrow, who seems to have the perfect life. She’s married to a successful attorney, she’s got two healthy children, and her own life seems content and ordered. Then her daughter Hannah is involved in a traffic accident and is taken to a Sydney hospital. It turns out it’s the same hospital where years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child Elsa Mary – a child she’s never told anyone about, not even her husband. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie from that other time and asks about the baby. Jodie says she gave the child up for adoption, but when the overly curious nurse does some checking, she finds no records of an adoption. That’s when the questions and later the accusations begin. What happened to Elsa Mary? If she’s alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with her death? It’s not long before Jodie becomes a social pariah, with everyone she thought was in her circle turned against her. Then one night, Jodie is invited to a book club gathering. The gathering itself is a disaster, but through it Jodie is re-united with an old friend Bridget ‘Bridie’ Sullivan. The two were very close when they were younger but hadn’t seen each other in years. When they re-establish their friendship, Jodie finds that Bridie is truly loyal to her. And that loyalty proves to be a real source of solace.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit also has a theme of loyalty.  In that novel, brothers Mason and Gates Hunt come from an abusive and unhappy background. But they’ve dealt with it in very different ways. Mason has made the most of every opportunity he’s gotten and has become a lawyer. Gates on the other hand has squandered his considerable athletic ability and now lives on money he gets from his mother and from his girlfriend’s Welfare payments. Then one day, Gates has an argument with his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. Later that night, the Hunt brothers are coming home from a night out when they encounter Thompson again. Before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates has shot his rival. Out of a sense of loyalty to his brother, Mason helps cover up the crime. Years later that loyalty comes back to haunt him when Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking. He begs Mason, who’s now a Commonwealth of Virginia prosecutor, to help get him out of prison, but Mason refuses. Gates then threatens to implicate his brother in the still-unsolved murder of Wayne Thompson unless he co-operates. When Mason calls his Gates’ bluff, Gates makes good on his threat. Now Mason is indicted for murder and has to find the best way he can to clear his name. When this happens, we see the positive side of loyalty as Mason learns just how loyal his deputy prosecutor Custis Norman is to him.

Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood explores loyalty within the police force. One tragic morning, Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police Force is stabbed when he and probationer Lucy Howard investigate a home invasion. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who comes from a poor neighbourhood of Hobart and who’s been in trouble with the law more than once. As the police look into this case, some evidence turns up that suggests that White may not have been the sterling cop everyone thinks he was. And one of the plot threads in this novel is the way in which the other police rally round his memory out of a sense of loyalty to him and to the police.

Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money introduces us to Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan. He’s turned out to be fairly good at finding people who don’t want to be found, which is part of the reason Madeleine Avery hires him to find her brother Charles. Charles Avery’s last known residence was Bangkok, so Quinlan starts his search there. When he gets to Quinlan’s apartment, he finds the body of Avery’s business partner Robert Lee. He also finds evidence that Avery has gone to Cambodia, so he decides to pick up the trail there. In Phnom Penh, Quinlan meets journalist’s assistant Heng Sarin. He also finds out that there are several ruthless and very dangerous people who don’t want him asking any questions. Gradually though, Quinlan finds out that Avery went to Northern Cambodia, so he decides to follow that lead, and that’s where the answers to the mystery turn out to be. Through it all, Sarin proves to be a very loyal friend and colleague. The two go through some frightening situations together but Sarin remains a steadfast companion.

Loyalty is also a theme in Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective. Two young girls Preeti and Basanti have become part of the dhanda – a term used to refer to India’s sex trade. The girls’ families were paid money for their services with the idea that the girls will work in the trade for a certain amount of time and then return to their villages. Preeti and Basanti are taken to Scotland together to meet client demand there. On the trip, they become close friends and promise to be loyal to each other. They’re separated soon after their arrival though, and Basanti doesn’t know what’s happened to her friend. So as soon as she can, she escapes from the people who’ve been holding her and goes in search of Preeti. That’s when she discovers that the body of an unknown girl has been found in the sea and that it’s most likely the body of her friend. Basanti finds out that Ph.D. student Caladh ‘Clad’ McGill is also interested in the body. He’s an oceanographer who’s an expert in tides and water-based movement so he may be able to help Basanti find out how Preeti’s body ended up where it was found McGill and Basanti form an unlikely and strange kind of partnership and together, they find out what happened to Preeti. Throughout that thread of this novel, we see how Basanti’s loyalty to her friend has kept her strong throughout everything that’s happened to her, and how it motivates her to find Preeti’s killers.

There are, of course, a lot of other examples of loyalty and the role it plays in what we do. And I haven’t even touched on the myriad examples of sleuths and partners who are loyal to each other – too easy…


ps. Oh, the ‘photo? I rarely see an expression of loyalty quite like a dog eagerly watching and waiting for the human it owns…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Brendan Benson’s The Pledge.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Nette, Mark Douglas-Home, Martin Clark, Wendy James, Y.A. Erskine

And Then? And Then?*

Keeping the TensionIn a lot of crime fiction, part of the reason for investing oneself in a story is to try to work out who the culprit is. It’s a bit like a matching of wits between author and reader. But there are plenty of crime novels where we know who the killer is right from the start or soon after the story begins. In those cases, the author has to find some other way to keep the reader interested and wanting to know what happens next. That’s not easy to do, as it means one’s got to keep the tension level strong and add interest. But when it is done well, that sort of story can be an interesting alternative to the more traditional whodunit approach to telling a story.

Some authors keep readers engaged by exploring the background of a crime. And that approach can be very powerful. That’s what Ruth Rendell does in A Judgement in Stone. The very first sentence of the novel tells us who the murderer is, and even a bit about the motive:


‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’


And yet, the story stays strong throughout as Rendell explores Eunice Parchman’s background and psychology, and describes how the well-off and educated Coverdales hire her as housekeeper. The story of Eunice’s tenure in the household and the events that lead up to the murders takes a psychological approach that explains how and why someone like Eunice Parchman would kill people like the Coverdales. And that’s part of what keeps the tension and interest strong.

Sometimes, especially in thriller-type crime novels, the author builds the tension and keeps readers interested by putting the focus on the battle of wits between the criminal(s) and the protagonist(s). That’s what Frederick Forsyth does in Day of the Jackal. A far-right French terrorist group Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) plans to have French president Chales de Gaulle assassinated. The group’s members are already known to the police because of a prior attempt at assassination, so none of them will be able to get close to the president. That’s why they decide to hire an outside killer – an Englishman known only as The Jackal. The contract is agreed on, and The Jackal starts to prepare. The French government becomes aware that there’s a plot, but no-one knows who the assassin will be or where and when the killer will strike. Against those odds, French detective Claude Lebel is assigned to track down the killer and stop him before he can carry out his end of the contract. In this novel, the details of the preparation for the assassination, and the battle of wits between Lebel and his enemy add interest and tension to the story.

Martin Clark takes a slightly different approach to that battle of wits in The Legal Limit. Brothers Mason and Gates Hunt have grown up in rural Patrick County, Virginia. They’ve had a terrible childhood with their abusive alcoholic father, but the two brothers have responded to life in very different ways. Mason took advantage of all the opportunities that came his way. He went to university on a scholarship and has become a lawyer. Gates on the other hand squandered his athletic ability and now lives mostly on money he gets from his mother and from his girlfriend’s Welfare benefits. One day Gates gets into an argument with his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. Thompson ends up leaving but that night, the Hunt brothers are coming home from a night of drinking when they encounter Thompson again. Before anyone really knows what’s happening, Gates has shot Thompson. Out of a sense of loyalty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime and life goes on for both. Years later, Mason has become a commonwealth prosecutor. When Gates is convicted of cocaine trafficking, he begs his brother to help him get out of jail. Mason refuses and Gates threatens him with implication in the murder of Wayne Thompson. Mason calls his brother’s bluff as the saying goes, and Gates follows through. In this story, we know who the killer is. We know what led up to it too. The tension is built in part through following the legal battle between the brothers and their lawyers. It’s also built through Clark’s exploration of the complicated relationship between them.

Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle is another interesting example of how authors keep the tension and interest going even when we know the truth about a crime. Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer gets a visit from Runi Winther. She’s worried because she hasn’t seen or heard from her son Andreas for a few days. At first, Sejer doesn’t do very much about the case. He sees no cause for great concern, and he reassures his visitor that her son is probably just fine. But when more time goes by with no sign of Andreas, Sejer starts to look into the matter. The last person to see Andreas seems to have been his best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. The two young men spent the day of Andreas’ disappearance together, and Sejer is sure that Zipp knows something about what happened. But Zipp claims he doesn’t. Sejer has reason to think that Zipp’s not telling everything he knows and he’s right. We know from early in the novel exactly what happened to Andreas and the events that led up to it. And no, Fossum avoids the obvious: Zipp didn’t kill his friend. But he does indeed know the truth and part of the interest in this novel is the conflict between him and Sejer as Sejer tries to find out the truth while Zipp is just as determined to keep quiet about it all.

Sometimes it’s the ‘whydunit’ aspect of a crime or set of crimes that keeps the reader’s interest. That’s what happens in Håkan Nesser’s Woman With Birthmark. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team are called in when Ryszard Malik is shot twice and killed in his own home. They’re just working on that case when there’s another murder. And another. Now the police have to figure out what the three victims have in common. When they do, they learn that there will be a fourth unless they can catch the killer first. What’s interesting about this novel is that we know who the killer is very quickly in the novel. But at first, we don’t know what the motive is. The slow reveal of that motive is part of what keeps the interest alive. Another element that keeps the reader engaged is the ‘chess game’ between Van Veeteren’s team and the killer.

T.J. Cooke takes a slightly different approach to building tension when we know the killer’s identity in Defending Elton. The body of an enigmatic young woman Sarena Gunasekera is found at the bottom of a cliff at Beachy Head near Eastbourne. Some pieces of evidence point to Elton Spears, a troubled young man with mental problems and some deficiencies. And yet, there is the principle that under British law, an accused person is considered innocent until proven guilty. What’s more, the evidence isn’t entirely conclusive and there are hints that Spears may not be guilty. Since Spears can’t be much help in the case, solicitor Jim Harwood works with barrister Harry Douglas to investigate what really happened. We know soon after the novel begins who the killer is. Instead of using the ‘whodunit’ approach to keeping the tension and interest, Cooke takes a ‘Will the killer get away with it?’ angle on the story. The answer to that question is not a given…

A lot of crime fiction fans (myself included) like to match wits with the author in the ‘whodunit’ kind of novel. But there are lots of other approaches to keeping the reader engaged in a novel, even if we know who the killer is. Oh, and did you notice that I’ve not mentioned novels where we follow a serial killer’s thought processes throughout the novel? Maybe it’s my own bias, but that’s just not my thing. And it’s my blog, so there! ;-)



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s Along Came Jones, made popular by the Coasters.


Filed under Frederick Forsyth, Håkan Nesser, Karin Fossum, Martin Clark, Ruth Rendell, T.J. Cooke

It’s Just Another Ordinary Miracle Today*

PregnancyThere’s nothing quite like the announcement of a pregnancy (and no, no big family news to share – promise). For many people that news is about as joyful as it gets. Of course it gives people the jitters, too. After all, pregnancy changes everything. And sometimes it’s not easy news to give or hear. But it’s always powerful news, and there’s something about pregnancy that changes the way we feel about the expectant mother. With the strong feelings associated with pregnancy, it’s not at all surprising that we see it in crime fiction. There are many, many examples of this in the genre; I only have space here for a few. So I’ll be counting on you to fill in the gaps I leave.

Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime is a collection of short stories featuring Thomas and Prudence ‘Tuppence’ Beresford. As the collection begins, the Beresfords have taken over the International Detective Agency. As its new proprietors, they investigate several different cases, with Tuppence doing at least as much of the detective work as her husband does. Tommy isn’t always happy about the dangers for his wife, but he knows what an independent thinker she is and what’s more, how valuable she is to the agency’s work. It all changes at the end of The Man Who Was No. 16. Here’s what passes between Tommy and Tuppence:


‘‘I say-we’re going to give it up now, aren’t we?’ [Tommy]
‘Certainly we are.’
Tommy gave a sigh of relief.
‘I hoped you’d be sensible. After a shock like this-’
‘It’s not the shock. You know I never mind shocks.’
‘A rubber bone-indestructible,’ murmured Tommy.
‘I’ve got something better to do,’ continued Tuppence. ‘Something ever so much more exciting. Something I’ve never done before.’
Tommy looked at her with lively apprehension.
‘I forbid it, Tuppence.’
‘You can’t,’ said Tuppence. ‘It’s a law of nature.’
‘What are you talking about, Tuppence?’
‘I’m talking,’ said Tuppence, ‘of Our Baby. Wives don’t whisper nowadays. They shout. OUR BABY! Tommy, isn’t everything marvellous?’


Of course, as fans of the Beresfords know, becoming a mother doesn’t stop Tuppence from investigating…

Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City gives readers another kind of look at the changes that a pregnancy brings. In that novel, Reykjavík police inspector Erlendur and his team investigate the murder of a seemingly inoffensive old man named Holberg. At first, it seems like a robbery gone terribly wrong, but that doesn’t explain the cryptic message that the killer has left behind. So the team looks more deeply in the case. They find that Holberg had a somewhat questionable past that included several accusations of rape, although he was never brought to trial on any charges. At the same time as the team is investigating this murder, Erlendur is facing a personal issue. His daughter Eva Lind has unexpectedly come back into his life. She has a long history of drug use and other problems and this is not really a joyful reunion. She asks Erlendur for money, then breaks the news that she’s pregnant. At first, she doesn’t really intend to change her ways, but as time goes on, she decides to keep the baby. And although neither she nor Erlendur is demonstrative, the news adds to their relationship, and gives Eva Lind added motivation to try to stop using drugs and to build herself a life.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit tells the story of Commonwealth of Virginia prosecutor Mason Hunt. Hunt and his brother Gates have the same traumatic family background, but have dealt with it in different ways. Gates has squandered every opportunity that’s come his way and makes money by small-time drug dealing and helping to spend his girlfriend Denise’s Welfare checks. Mason on the other hand has gotten scholarships, stayed in school and become an attorney. One day, Gates is at Denise’s home when he gets into an argument with his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. Thompson leaves, but later that evening, the Hunt brothers encounter him again. The argument flares back up and before anyone knows what’s really happened, Gates has shot Thompson. Out of a sense of duty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime. Years later, Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking. He asks his brother, who is now a prosecutor, to help him, but Mason refuses. That’s when Gates threatens to implicate Mason in the Thompson killing if he doesn’t help. Now Mason is going to have to find a way to clear his own name. In the meantime, Mason’s fifteen-year-old daughter Grace is struggling in school and having disciplinary problems. Then she tells him that she’s pregnant and wants to keep the baby. Now she’s going to have to grow up fast, as the saying goes. Her news is shocking, but it creates a stronger bond between her and her father.

John ‘Bart’ Bartowski faces a similar challenge in Nelson Brunanski’s Crooked Lake. He and his wife Rosie own a fly fishing lodge in Northern Saskatchewan. When they’re not at the lodge, they live in the small town of Crooked Lake. He and Rosie are the loving parents of Annie, who’s at university, and Stuart, who’s twelve years old. Their more or less peaceful life changes when Bart’s friend Nick Taylor is arrested for murder. Taylor was Head Greenskeeper for the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course until he was summarily fired. He blames Board of Directors member Harvey Kristoff for ‘railroading’’ him, and when Kristoff is found murdered on the golf course, Taylor is the natural first suspect. He claims he’s innocent though, and asks Bart to help clear his name. Bart agrees and starts to ask questions. In the meantime, Annie has come home from university for a visit. But it turns out that this isn’t just a social call. She’s brought the news that she’s pregnant. At first, both Bart and Rosie are shocked, but gradually, they get used to the idea of Annie and her boyfriend Randall becoming parents. And it’s interesting to see how knowing his daughter is expecting gives Bart an extra surge of protectiveness about her.

It’s not so easy for nineteen-year-old Maggie Heffernan to share the news of her pregnancy, as we learn in Wendy James’ Out of the Silence. In this fictionalised retelling of true events, Maggie grows up in rural Victoria. There, she meets and falls in love with Jack Hardy, who seems to reciprocate her feelings. The two become secretely engaged, and Hardy leaves for New South Wales to find work. The plan is for him to get settled and then publicly announce their engagement. When Maggie realises she’s pregnant, she writes to Hardy to tell him the news, but gets no response. Knowing her own parents will not take her in, she goes to Melbourne where she finds work. She continues to hope for news of Hardy and after the baby is born, she finally tracks him down. When she finds him, Hardy’s rejection of her touches off tragic consequences. The events told in this story took place in 1899 and 1900, and it’s interesting to see how our views of announcing a pregnancy have changed. For Maggie, it was more or less a shameful thing to be pregnant without a husband.

In Liza Marklund’s Prime Time, crime reporter Annika Bengtzon investigates the shooting murder of TV reporter Michelle Carlsson, star of Summer Frolic at the Castle. The only suspects are the twelve members of the cast and crew of the show, so it’s a matter of finding out which one had the most to gain by killing her. In that novel and in Vanished, we learn about Annika’s unusually challenging experience of breaking the news when she learned she was pregnant for the first time. At the time, she was having an affair with Thomas Samuelsson, who was married to someone else. When Annika discovered she was gong to have his baby, she ended up telling Thomas – in his wife’s presence. It’s interesting that Thomas immediately felt differently about Annika after learning he was going to be a father. He left his comfortable home and his wife to be with Annika – not something that always happens in that circumstance. Of course, fans of this series know that Annika and Thomas have their ups and downs. And ups. And downs…

Frédérique Molay’s The 7th Woman is the story of the investigation into several murders in Paris. Nico Sirsky, who heads Paris’ CID La Crim’, works with his team to find out who the killer is. The team tries to find the common link among the victims but it’s not easy at first. Then, they discover that the victims were all in the early stages of pregnancy and seemed very much looking forward to being mothers. No, pregnancy isn’t the reason these women were murdered. But it adds a special poignancy to their deaths.

The news of a pregnancy is an extremely emotional time. Very often it’s also a time of joy, but even when it’s not, there’s no denying its humanness or power. I’ve only mentioned a few examples of how this plays out in crime fiction.  Your turn.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sarah McLachlan’s Ordinary Miracle.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Frédérique Molay, Liza Marklund, Martin Clark, Nelson Brunanski, Wendy James