Category Archives: Michael Connelly

Hello Old Friend*

Renewing RelationshipsHave you ever renewed a relationship with someone you hadn’t seen in years? In some cases it seems as though no time at all has gone by, and people pick up the relationship just where it left off. But we all change over time, and we all have life experiences that affect us, sometimes deeply. So sometimes those reunions can be awkward. And it doesn’t make it any easier that we often have mental images, left over from the past, of how the people in our lives ‘should’ act, speak and think. It can be difficult to accept it when someone doesn’t fit that image. Whether they’re easy, even joyful, or awkward, those reunions are full of history, character and so on. And that means that they’re also interesting plot points for stories. There are plenty of them in crime fiction too; let me just give you a few examples. I know you’ll be able to think of many more than I could.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we meet Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. He and his wife Gerda are invited for a weekend visit to The Hollow, the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. During their visit, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage nearby, and gets involved in the case. In one of the related sub-plots, we learn that fifteen years earlier, Christow had been involved with now-famous actress Veronica Cray. Their romance ended with Christow getting a broken heart, and he’s never really been able to leave it all completely in the past. When he and Gerda get to The Hollow, he’s shocked to learn that Veronica has taken a cottage in the area, and is eager to renew their relationship. When the two reunite, Christow has a sudden awareness that they’ve both changed and that he has moved on. Here’s what he says to Veronica:

 

‘I’m a man fifteen years older. A man you don’t even know – and whom, I daresay, you wouldn’t like much if you did know.’

 

Veronica has her heart set on Christow though, and her rage at his rejection makes her a suspect in his murder.

There’s an interesting case of reunion in Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town. Famous Hollywood director Peter Alan Nelson hires PI Elvis Cole for a delicate domestic case. Years ago Nelson was married to Karen Shipley and they had a son Toby. The marriage fell apart and Karen disappeared, taking Toby with her. Now, Nelson wants to begin to be a father to his son, so he engages Cole to trace Toby and his mother. At first Cole is reluctant. After all, a lot of people disappear precisely because they don’t want to be found, especially in cases like this one. But eventually Cole is persuaded to look into the matter and he and his partner Joe Pike start the investigation. It doesn’t take long to find Karen and Toby; they’ve moved to a small town in Connecticut. But it turns out that a reunion with her ex is the last thing on Karen’s mind. She’s got major problems of her own, including trying to get free of a Mob trap into which she’s fallen. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that there is a reunion, and Crais shows how awkward such experiences can be. Nelson has a mental image of the wife he knew and of his son as a baby. The reality of course is quite different. For her part, Karen has an image of the self-involved man she left, and has to adjust to the fact that perhaps her ex really wants to try to be a father.

In Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess, we are introduced to biographer (later crime writer) Erica Falck. She’s returned to her parents’ home in Fjällbacka to sort through their things after their deaths. Then she learns of the sudden death of her former friend Alexandra ‘Alex’ Wijkner. The two were best friends during their childhoods, but hadn’t really been close for twenty-five years. Erica wants to know the sort of person Alex became, so she decides to write a biography of her former friend. In the process, she learns that the adult Alex is quite different to the friend she knew as a girl, and that a lot happened in the meantime. She also begins to get a sense of who might have wanted to kill Alex. At the same time, police officer Patrik Hedström and his team are officially investigating the death. It’s been made to look like suicide, but of course, it isn’t. In one plot thread of this novel, Erica discovers that the friend she remembers from childhood turned out to be a different person in adulthood. In another, Erica and Patrik, who knew each other years ago, re-discover each other. And that becomes the basis for the relationship that develops between them.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch has more than one reunion with the love of his life Eleanor Wish. Early in the Bosch series, she’s an FBI agent. For several reasons, she leaves her position and becomes a professional poker player. When Bosch reunites with her in Trunk Music, they decide to marry. As fans of Angels Flight will know, the marriage doesn’t last and you might say that Eleanor disappears. A few years later the two meet up again in another case, and Bosch learns that he is the father of (then) four-year-old Maddie. Eleanor figures again in 9 Dragons. In all of these reunions, we see how both people have to re-adjust their images of each other. We also see how Bosch has to adjust his mental image of Maddie as she grows up, since she doesn’t live with him until 9 Dragons.

Ian Vasquez’ Lonesome Point also features a reunion of sorts. Brothers Leo and Patrick Varela were born and raised in Belize, but have since moved to Miami. Now, Leo is a poet and a mental health care worker. Patrick has gotten involved in politics and is poised for real success that could lead to a career on the national level. Everything changes when they get a visit from an old friend Freddy Robinson. Robinson grew up in Belize with the Varela brothers and he knows all about their former lives. In fact, he tries to use something he knows about them as leverage when he asks Leo for something. Robinson is working for some very dubious ‘employers’ who want information on Patrick Varela’s political strategy. One person who may know the truth is in the care of the facility where Leo works, and Robinson wants Leo to arrange for that patient’s release. When Leo refuses, Robinson threatens to tell what he knows. Seeing no other option, Leo agrees. And that’s when the real trouble starts. In this novel, it’s interesting to see how Robinson has a mental image of the Varela brothers from their years in Belize, and how different that is to the reality of the brothers’ lives in Miami.

And then there’s Wendy James’ The Mistake. During their girlhoods, Jodie Evans Garrow and Bridget ‘Bridie’ Sullivan became close friends. Then Bridie moved away and each girl went on with her life. Jodie married successful attorney Angus Garrow and is now the contented mother of two children. Her life seems just about perfect on the surface. Then, her daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child Elsa Mary. Jodie never told anyone, not even Angus, about this baby, but a nurse at the hospital remembers her and asks about the child. Jodie tells the nurse that she gave the baby up for adoption but the overcurious nurse can find no formal records. Now the questions begin. What happened to Elsa Mary? If she’s alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with it? The gossip evolves into an all-out attack on Jodie, who becomes a social pariah. Then, unexpectedly, she has a reunion with Bridie. Both women have changed over the years of course. And at first, there’s a little awkwardness. But gradually, they renew their friendship and we can see how they get past the mental images they had of each other and re-establish their relationship.

When people who haven’t seen each other in years try to pick up the pieces, there’s often that kind of awkwardness when the mental image they had doesn’t fit the person they see in front of them. But sometimes those relationships can be re-established, and that can provide a welcome continuity in life. Or they can be very dangerous. I’m thinking for instance of Gail Bowen’s Murder at the Mendel. When academic and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn finds out that a former friend Sally Love is having an exhibition of her art at the Mendel Gallery, she decides to attend, and try to re-establish the friendship. That decision has drastic consequences and ends up getting Kilbourn involved in a very sad murder investigation.

These are just a few examples. Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Eric Clapton.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Camilla Läckberg, Gail Bowen, Ian Vasquez, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Wendy James

Watcha Gonna Do When They Come For You*

PoliceProceduralsFor many people, there’s something fascinating about what police do, and how they go about their jobs. Perhaps it’s the huge number of cop shows on TV, or perhaps it’s the image of the cop making things safe and putting the ‘bad guys’ away, so to speak. Or it could be the chance to get a look ‘behind the scenes’ of a unique setting. Perhaps it’s something else. Whatever it is, police procedurals have become a popular staple in crime fiction.

Interestingly enough, the police procedural as we think about it now is newer than some of the other sub-genres in crime fiction. For example, the private detective novel has been around since the days of Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. But that makes sense. Modern police forces weren’t really put together until the 19th Century and it took even longer for them to become the kinds of police forces we think of today. If you want to know more about 19th Century police forces, check out K.B. Owen’s terrific blog/website. She’s an expert on the era.

Certainly there’ve been police officers mentioned in many classic/Golden Age novels. There Agatha Christie’s Chief Inspector Japp, there’s Stuart Palmer’s Oscar Piper and there’s Josephine Tey’s Alan Grant, to name just three. There’s also of course Ellery Queen’s Inspector Richard Queen, and Rex Stout’s Inspector Cramer. But the police procedural novel as we think of it now really started a bit later.

There isn’t universal agreement about which book counts as the first police procedural, but Lawrence Treat’s 1945 novel V as in Victim is often brought up. This is just my opinion, so feel free to differ if you do, but for my money, the series that that really established the police procedural as a sub-genre was Evan Hunter/Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels. Beginning with 1956’s Cop Hater, the series went on for decades, almost until Hunter’s death. In that series, we see quite a lot more of life at a police station/precinct than we’d seen in previous kinds of crime novels. What’s more, this series doesn’t just follow one cop going after one criminal or criminal gang. There’s an ensemble cast in this series, and we follow not just the individual cases they investigate, but also their personal lives. The 87th Precinct series has had a profound influence on the genre in general and of course on the police procedural.

Another set of groundbreaking police procedurals is Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s ten-book Martin Beck series. Those novels follow Stockholm-based Martin Beck and his police colleagues as they investigate murders, robberies, and more. They also highlight a variety of social issues such as unequal distribution of wealth, corruption and other issues. Like the 87th Precinct series, this one also addresses the personal lives of the characters. For many people, the Martin Beck series is the quintessential police procedural series.

In the last few decades, the police procedural as a sub-genre has gotten very diverse as it’s been taken in new directions. For instance, some police procedurals still feature an ensemble cast of characters. Fans of Fred Vargas’ Inspector Adamsberg series and Arnaldur Indriðason’s Inspector Erlendur series, for instance, will know that those novels follow the lives of several of the characters, both in and outside working hours. So does Frédérique Molay’s Nico Sirksy series (I hope more of them will be translated into English soon).

Other series focus more on one or a few cops. For instance, in Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, the spotlight is mostly on Bosch. We certainly learn about other characters, and there are several story arcs involving them. But the primary emphasis is on Bosch. You could say the same thing about Karin Fossum’s Konrad Sejer series. We do learn about other characters, but the focus in that series is on Sejer’s professional and personal life. Another example of this is Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series. While there are story arcs and scenes involving other characters, it’s Rebus who’s the ‘star of the show.’

One major development in the police procedural series is that it’s gone worldwide. And that means that the different series have taken on the distinctive atmosphere of their settings. I’m thinking for instance of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip’s David ‘Kubu’ Bengu series, which takes place in Botswana and which they write as Michael Stanley. There’s also Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen Cao series, and Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series. And that’s just to name three of the many police procedural series that are seasoned by their cultures.

Another development is the diversity in the kinds of people who feature in police procedural series. Women, for instance, are quite frequently police protagonists now. That’s what we see in Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi series, Martin Edwards’ Lake District series and Anya Lipska’s Natalie Kershaw/Janusz Kiszka series. Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan series is another example. That increasing diversity shows up in other ways too. There are gay cops, disabled cops and cops with all sorts of eccentricities.

Despite all of this variety, though, you could argue that there are still some basic things that define a police procedural series. One is that it focuses on police stations, bases or precincts and the people who work there. There are often sub-plots and story arcs that show us the cop’s off-duty life, but there is an emphasis on the investigation and on life as a police officer. Another, at least to me, is that the police procedural features a certain kind of investigation style that involves interpreting evidence, interviewing witnesses and suspects and so on. In that sense it’s quite different to the amateur sleuth, who doesn’t have the power of the law, or the PI sleuth, who goes about investigations in yet another way. Police culture, policies and the like have a strong impact on the way cops go about their jobs, and that makes their investigations distinctive.

What do you think? If you read police procedurals, what is their appeal to you? Which ones do you like the best (I know I’ve only mentioned a few of them) What, to you, makes a police procedural series a good one? If they put you off, why? If you write police procedurals, what made you choose that sub-genre?

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is line from Inner Circle’s Bad Boys.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Arnaldur Indriðason, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ed McBain, Edgar Allan Poe, Ellery Queen, Evan Hunter, Frédérique Molay, Fred Vargas, Ian Rankin, Jane Casey, Josephine Tey, K.B. Owen, Karin Fossum, Katherine Howell, Lawrence Treat, Louise Penny, Maj Sjöwall, Martin Edwards, Michael Connelly, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Per Wahlöö, Qiu Xiaolong, Stanley Trollip, Stuart Palmer

I Am the Entertainer, the Idol of My Age*

FangirlThere’s something about rock stars, film stars and other idols. People sometimes almost hero-worship them. Now, personally, I can’t imagine being obsessed about, say, a rock star – ahem. ;-) – But there are a lot of people who are. Just check Twitter, Instagram or other social networks and you’ll see that those kinds of stars get a lot of attention. And if you check news stories, that attention can quickly turn to obsession and more. That happens in crime fiction, too.

For instance, there’s a classic example of that kind of obsession in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Cracked From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d). Heather Badcock and her husband Arthur have moved into the new council housing that’s come to the village of St. Mary Mead. Heather is extremely excited because her idol Marina Gregg has bought Gossington Hall, right nearby. She and her husband Jason Rudd are planning to carry on the tradition of an annual charity fête, and Heather can’t wait for the opportunity to speak to Marina Gregg in person. The big day comes and to Heather’s delight, she actually gets the chance to have a short conversation with the film star. Shortly after that though, Heather is taken ill and later dies. It’s soon shown that she was poisoned, and at first, everyone believes that the intended victim was Marina Gregg. But Miss Marple and her friend Dolly Bantry discover that Heather was the target all along. Now they have to figure out why.

In Michael Connelly’s The Overlook, LAPD cop Harry Bosch and his new partner Ignacio ‘Iggy’ Ferras are investigating the death of a physicist Stanley Kent. He was killed on an overlook on Hollywood’s Mulholland Drive, and of course Bosch and Ferras want to talk to anyone who might have been in the area and seen something. That’s how they meet twenty-year-old Jesse Milford. Milford came to L.A. as so many people do, to ‘make it’ in the film business. He’s obsessed with entertainer Madonna, and was actually on her property at the time of the murder. He wanted a photograph or some sort of memento to send to his mother to let her know he was all right. He may not be a major character in the novel, but he shows how obsessed we can be with our stars.

In Peter Lovesey’s Stagestruck, rock star Clarion Calhoun is getting a little older, and losing some fans. She wants to stay on top, so she decides to make a move from rock music to theatre. Her choice is a production of I Am a Camera, and everyone is counting on her ‘name draw’ to ensure a long run. When rehearsals start though, the cast and crew discover that Clarion has little acting talent. She insists on keeping her role though, and the production goes on. Then on opening night, Clarion is attacked by what turns out to be tainted makeup. Her makeup artist/dresser Denise Pearsall is the first suspect, but when she’s found dead, it’s clear that something more is going on.  Superintendent Peter Diamond investigates the attack and the murder and when he starts digging, he finds out that as cliché as it sounds, appearances here are deceiving. In the end he discovers that it all has to do with someone’s past.

Peter James’ Not Dead Yet looks even more closely at how obsessed a fan can be. Rock star Gaia Lafayette has decided to do some film acting. She will be starring in a film about Maria Fitzherbert, mistress to King George IV. Everything’s set for the filming to take place in Brighton, where Gaia was born and raised. There are some security concerns though, because Gaia has received a death threat. Then there’s an attempt on her life. Superintendent Roy Grace is assigned to ensure the star’s security during the filming, but he’s got other issues he’s dealing with at the moment. One is a dead body found in a chicken coop. When that body turns out to be tied in with the threats on Gaia’s life, Grace knows that he’s going to have to take this protection case seriously. One of the characters in this novel is Anna Galicia, Gaia’s biggest fan. Anna is obsessed with her idol, and is more than excited when she finds that Gaia is actually coming to Brighton. It’s an interesting psychological portrait of a person who is consumed by her devotion to a star.

And it’s not just rock stars who are the focus of this kind of obsession. For instance, in Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell’s Gallowglass, a troubled young man named Joe is saved from suicide by a man named Sandor. Sandor convinces Joe that he is destined to ‘serve the chief.’ It’s all part of Sandor’s plan to kidnap one of the world’s most beautiful women, supermodel Nina Abbott. Sandor’s been obsessed with her for some time, and is determined to, as he sees it, free her from imprisonment in the heavily guarded home in which she lives, so she can be with him. Of course, things don’t work out as Sandor intends…

As you can see, there are a lot of obsessed fans out there, both in real life and in crime fiction. I’ve only given a few examples here. And of course, obsession can certainly go too far. But there’s nothing wrong with some posters, t-shirts, memorabilia, music, right? What!?   ;-)

 

Happy Birthday, Mr. Joel!

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Vine, Michael Connelly, Peter James, Peter Lovesey, Ruth Rendell

Ah, Yes, I Remember it Well*

Strong Memories of BooksA recent comment exchange with Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery has got me thinking about what we remember when we read. And speaking of reading, you’ll want to visit Bitter Tea and Mystery often. It’s a terrific place to read excellent book and film reviews.

Once you’ve read a lot of crime novels, it’s easy to forget the details of what happens in them. There are just too many characters, events and other things for anyone to remember it all. So our memories become necessarily selective and even somewhat fuzzy. But some things simply stay in the memory. Sometimes it’s a scene, or a conflict. Sometimes it’s a character or an ingenious plot twist. We all have different ‘standout’ memories of what we’ve read, and there are a host of reasons for which one or another aspect of a novel stands out for us. Here are just a few examples. I hope you’ll share your own.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot has retired (or so he thinks) to the small village of King’s Abbot. He gets drawn into a murder investigation though when retired magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed one night. The most likely suspect is Ackroyd’s stepson Captain Ralph Paton, and there is solid evidence against him. But his fiancée Flora is convinced he’s innocent, so she asks Poirot to look into the matter. There are of course lots of detective novels in which a character protests a loved one’s innocence and persuades the sleuth to investigate. The standout in this novel (at least for me) is the plot twist at the end. It’s ingenious. There are other aspects of the story that are memorable but the plot twist is especially so.

Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice is the second in his Harry Bosch series. In it, Bosch hears of a suicide that took place on his ‘watch.’ What’s worse, the suicide is a fellow cop, Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore. It looks like an open-and-shut case of suicide, and the reason seems straightforward too. There’s evidence that Moore had ‘gone dirty,’ and could easily have committed suicide out of regret or if he thought he might be caught. But Bosch isn’t sure that this is a suicide. Some aspects of the case just aren’t consistent with that explanation. So he starts asking questions. That immediately gets him into trouble with the Powers That Be, who want this case kept quiet because it’s an embarrassment to the department. That doesn’t stop Bosch, though, and he continues to investigate. There are a lot of things that Connelly fans like about this series and this novel. One major thing that makes it memorable though, at least for me, is the finely drawn thread of conflict. There’s the conflict between Bosch and Moore’s killer. That conflict adds quite a lot of tension to the story. There’s also the conflict between Bosch and his superiors. That too adds to the story’s suspense. These conflicts are important parts of the story, but they are at the same time not so overdone as to be implausible.

Sometimes the most memorable aspect of a novel is one of its characters. In Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost for instance, the character of ten-year-old Kate Meaney stands out. She wants to be a detective and in fact, has started her own agency Falcon Investigations. Together with her partner Mickey the Monkey, who travels in Kate’s backpack, she looks for suspicious activity and crimes to solve. And no place seems a more likely spot for suspicious activity than the newly-opened Green Oaks Shopping Center, where she spends a good deal of time. Kate’s quite content with her life. Her grandmother Ivy though believes that she’d be better off away at school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate doesn’t want to go, but her friend Adrian Palmer persuades her, promising to go along with her for moral support. The two take the bus to the school, but only Adrian comes back. Despite an exhaustive search, no trace of Kate is found, not even a body. Twenty years later, Adrian’s sister Lisa is working at Green Oaks when she meets Kurt, a security guard there. The two form an odd sort of friendship and each in a different way go back to Kate’s disappearance. In the end, we find out what happened to Kate and part of what makes the truth so memorable is that Kate herself is unforgettable. She has a unique perspective, she’s interesting, and a look at the other characters in the novel shows how much a part of their lives she’s been.

For some books, setting and lifestyle stand out the most. That’s the case for me anyway with M.J. McGrath’s White Heat. Edie Kiglatuk is a very skilled High Arctic hunting guide. She gets mixed up in a case of multiple murder, greed, theft and political intrigue when she takes a client Felix Wagner and some friends on an expedition. Wagner is shot and the first explanation is that it was a tragic accident. Kiglatuk isn’t sure that’s true though, and begins to ask some questions. So does Derek Palliser, the senior of Ellesmere Island’s native police officers. Each in a different way, he and Kiglatuk investigate what’s going on and in the end, they find out the truth. One of the truly memorable things about this novel is its depiction of life in the High Arctic. Eating customs, living arrangements, daily life, etc., are all portrayed authentically.

That’s also the case with Adrian Hyland’s novels featuring Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest. The mysteries themselves hold the novels together and so does Hyland’s writing style. But one of the real standouts of these stories (at least from my perspective) is their depiction of the Outback setting and the lifestyle there. Readers get a real sense of the cultures, the daily life and the physical landscape. Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte novels are a bit similar in that way.

And sometimes it’s one scene in a novel, whether it’s a dramatic scene, a funny scene or a poignant one, that stays in the memory. For example, in Donna Leon’s About Face, Venice Commissario Guido Brunetti and his team investigate a murder that’s tied in with illegal waste dumping. The Venice setting is distinctive and the mystery moves along. But for me at any rate, one of the standout memories in this novel is a scene between Brunetti and his wife Paula Falier. Early one morning, Brunetti wakes to find that it’s snowed. He can’t resist making a handprint in the fresh coating and then decides to put that snow-covered hand on Paola, who he thinks is sleeping.  She’s not, though:

 

‘’If you put that hand anywhere near me, I will divorce you and take the children.’
‘They’re old enough to decide themselves,’ he answered with what he thought was Olympian calm.
‘I cook,’ she said.
‘Indeed,’ he said in acknowledgment of defeat.’’

 

It’s a funny scene, but it also serves to highlight the importance of Brunetti’s family life in this series.

There are also several memorable scenes in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Tom Robinson, who is Black, has been accused of raping a White woman Mayella Ewell. And in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, just the accusation is enough to put Robinson’s life in danger. Well-known attorney Atticus Finch defends Robinson, and as he looks into the case, he comes to believe that Robinson is innocent. He almost doesn’t get the chance to make his case though. On the night before the trial, he’s visiting his client at the jail when a group of angry men arrive. Their plan is to drag Robinson from the jail and pronounce their own kind of sentence. Finch’s children Jean Louise ‘Scout’ and Jem, and their friend Dill, have come to the jail in search of Atticus. When they see the men arrive, Scout runs towards her father and she, Jem and Dill end up facing down a lynch mob with Atticus. It’s one of the more powerful scenes in the novel. In part that’s because it isn’t violent, yet the tension is high enough to make it unforgettable.

We all have a different way of remembering what we read, and different things resonate with us in different ways. We may not remember everything about what we’ve read, and some of it may be a little fuzzy. But we all have those ‘standout’ memories that can be quite clear. So now it’s your turn. What are some strong memories you have from the crime fiction you’ve read?

 

Thanks, Tracy, for the inspiration!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s I Remember it Well.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Upfield, Catherine O'Flynn, Donna Leon, Harper Lee, M.J. McGrath, Michael Connelly

You Were Just a Face in the Crowd*

CrowdsThe conventional wisdom is that most murders take place in deserted areas, where’s there’s not much of a crowd around. And that makes sense: the fewer witnesses to a murder, the easier it is on the killer. And there are many, many crime novels where a killer takes advantage of the fact that someone’s alone. But a crowd can actually provide a good ‘cover’ for a murderer too. That’s especially true if it’s an anonymous sort of a crowd, where it’s hard to tell exactly who’s in the group. Of course, for that kind of murder, the killer needs a weapon that’s not obvious. But if you have that, and you don’t have a distinctive appearance, a crowd can give quite a good alibi if I can put it that way. Let me show you just a few examples from crime fiction and you’ll see what I mean (well, you probably do already).

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot works with Scotland Yard and local police to find out who’s committed a series of killings. The only apparent things that link the deaths is that Poirot gets a cryptic warning note before each murder, and that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. One of the things that make this case difficult is that the murderer takes advantage of crowds. One of the murders, for example, takes place at a cinema. A lot of people come and go, and don’t give their names to the ticket seller. It’s a perfect setting if you think about it for a murder. Another victim, a young woman, is killed on the beach. In that instance, the killer takes advantage of the fact that a lot of young women are out that evening walking with their dates. No-one pays much attention to the individual people, so the killer finds it easy to hide.

There’s a very clever use of a crowd in Josephine Tey’s The Man in the Queue. One evening, a large group of people is waiting at the Woofington Theatre to see a performance of Didn’t You Know?, starring the sensation of the moment Ray Marcable. The doors open and the crowd surges forward, and that’s when someone stabs small-time bookmaker Albert Sorrell, who was waiting with the others. Inspector Alan Grant takes charge of the investigation, and starts by trying to find out who was near the victim at the time of the murder. As you can imagine, that’s not easy. And matters are made even more difficult since the people near Sorrell claim that they’d never seen him before – he was just another person waiting for the show. In the end, Grant finds out who killed Sorrell and why, but his job is not made any easier by the fact that the murder happened in a large crowd of people.

Dona Laura Sales Ribeiro finds that being in a crowd doesn’t help her very much in Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Alone in the Crowd. One day she goes to Rio de Janeiro’s Twelfth Precinct police station and asks to speak to Inspector Espinosa. When told that he’s busy, she says that she’ll come back later and leaves. A short time afterwards she’s waiting with a group of people at a bus stop. Many other people are walking by on the street. Then a bus arrives and Dona Laura falls, or is pushed, under it. There were a lot of people nearby, and no reason for anyone to provide identification or a reason for being at that place at that time. So it’s very difficult at first to figure out who would have had the opportunity to commit this murder. Too many anonymous people did. In the end, Espinosa finds out who killed Dona Laura, and how it connects with another death that occurs in the novel. But it’s not an easy task.

A similar thing happens in Katherine Howell’s Web of Deceit. New South Wales Police Detectives Ella Marconi and Murray Shakespeare are called to the scene of a tragic death at a train station. A man has been pushed into the path of an oncoming train. Also arriving at the scene are paramedics Jane Koutofides and Alex Churchill. To their shock, they discover that they’ve already met the victim. He is Marko Meixner, a man they took to a nearby hospital earlier that day after a car accident. At the time he said that he was in danger, and they would be too if they spent any time with him. They didn’t pay a lot of attention to Meixner’s words, since he seemed to have mental problems. But now it’s clear that he really was in danger. One major problem that Marconi and Shakespeare face is that it’s very difficult to tell who could have killed the victim. There was a large crowd near the platform, and even with CCTV footage, there’s no clear picture of the person who committed the crime. And the presence of the crowd meant that the killer was able to fade away without calling attention to him or herself.

And then there’s Michael Connelly’s The Black Box. The verdict in the 1992 Rodney King case has ignited Los Angeles, and there are crowds and riots everywhere. The police do their best to keep order but it’s impossible to track down every criminal and solve every case. This means there are several cases left unsolved. Twenty years later, the chief of police orders the LAPD’s Open-Unsolved Unit to go back over the unsolved murders from the 1992 riots. Harry Bosch, who’s now in that unit, takes the case of Anneke Jesperson, a Danish freelance journalist/war correspondent who was covering the riots. Bosch was one of the two cops who discovered her body in the first place, and now he wants to find out who killed her and why. At first the case seems hopeless. There were so many crowds surging through the city and so much looting and killing that tracing one death to one murderer seems impossible. But bit by bit, Bosch finds out about the weapon that was used. That puts him on the trail of the person who used it. And that pits him against some people who used the riots to cover up something much bigger than just a journalist who was killed because of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In Anthony Bidulka’s Date With a Sheesha, Pranav Gupta hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who killed his son Nayan ‘Neil.’ Gupta tells Quant that his son was in Dubai as a part of a larger trip to the Middle East, where he was giving guest lectures. He was also researching antique carpets and making some selections of carpet to be placed on display at the University of Saskatchewan. Shortly before his return to Saskatchewan, Neil Gupta was in an open-air market at an impromptu party when he was attacked and killed. The official police report is that he was killed by thugs – a tragic but not targeted murder. But Neil’s father doesn’t believe that’s the case. He thinks his son was murdered because he was gay. So he wants Quant to travel to Dubai and find out the truth. It’s not an easy task. Not only is Quant unfamiliar with Dubai, but also, there’s not at first a lot of helpful evidence bearing on the case. Open-air markets are crowded, with many entrances and exits. And they have lots of little narrow passages where it’s easy to waylay someone and then disappear without being noticed. So it’s no wonder that this murderer wasn’t caught at first.

And that’s the thing about crowded places. You might think that with all those people around, there’d be less chance of a murder. But that’s not always how it happens. Which ‘murder in a crowd’ novels have you enjoyed?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Petty’s A Face in the Crowd.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Josephine Tey, Katherine Howell, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Michael Connelly