Category Archives: Peter Robinson

Closed the Shop, Sold the House, Bought a Ticket to the West Coast*

Midlife Crisis MaleTransitions through adulthood are often challenging. Adjusting to a new phase in one’s life can be stressful and people have all sorts of different kinds of reactions to that stress. That’s arguably part of the reason people sometimes have what’s often been called mid-life crises. An interesting post from Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write has got me thinking about how often we see that crisis in fiction in general and crime fiction in particular.

Marina Sofia’s post dealt with male mid-life crises, so that’s what I’ll focus on in this post. But women are by no means immune; that’ll be the topic for another post soon. For now, here are just a few examples of what can happen at that pivotal point in adulthood.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we are introduced to Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. He has a thriving career, a wife Gerda who adores him, and two healthy children. By all accounts he should be completely contented with his life; most people would call him very successful. But he’s restless. His mind keeps drifting back to an affair he had fifteen years earlier with Veronica Cray, who’s since become a famous actress. He’s in this state of flux when he and Gerda are invited to spend the weekend at the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. To his shock, he is reunited with Veronica during the visit; it turns out that she’s taken a getaway cottage nearby. Because they have a history together, she becomes a suspect when he is shot on the Sunday afternoon. Hercule Poirot has also taken a cottage in the area, and he works with Inspector Grange to find out who killed John Christow and why.

Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal is the story of Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik. They’ve been married fifteen years and as far as Eva’s concerned, they’ve had a contented life. But lately, Henrik has been distant and obviously unhappy. He’s restless and seems to have built a proverbial wall between them. Eva is hoping that a holiday might help them re-discover each other but then, she learns to her shock that Henrik has been unfaithful. She’s devastated at this and soon becomes determined to find out who the other woman is. When she does, she plots her own kind of revenge that has consequences she couldn’t have imagined.

In Geoffrey McGeachin’s Fat, Fifty and F***ed, banker Martin Carter faces this kind of crisis. His marriage is ending, which would be bad enough. Then he finds out that he’s being retrenched. With all of the things that had identified him being taken away, he’s reaching out for something new anyway. So on his last day at work, he can’t resist helping himself to a million-dollar payroll. Then he makes his escape in a police-issue 4WD and takes off. His plan is to meet up with an old friend and start over, but things don’t work out that way. First, he meets Faith, a librarian who’s got her own problems. Then there’s the matter of the bike gang. And that’s just the beginning…

Jodi Brett and Todd Gilbert are a successful Chicago couple whom we meet in A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife. They’ve never formally married, but they’ve been together twenty years and have built a solid home. Then, everything changes. Todd’s feeling restless, and begins an affair with Natasha Kovacs, a college student and the daughter of his business partner. This isn’t the first time he’s strayed, but what makes this time different is that Natasha wants it to be a permanent relationship. She becomes pregnant and tells Todd that she wants to marry and be a family. At first, Todd promises her that’s what he wants too; he even leaves Jodi and moves in with Natasha. But as time goes on, he begins to see that he doesn’t want a wife and family. He feels ‘hemmed in’ enough as it is. Besides, the realities of living with a woman so much younger have set in. Then, Todd is murdered in a drive-by shooting. At first, it looks like a carjacking gone wrong. But then, the police begin to suspect that someone hired the shooters. And given Todd’s business and personal decisions, there’s no lack of suspects.

Sometimes sleuths go through mid-life crises too. That’s what happens in Peter Robinson’s Watching the Dark. In that novel, DCI Alan Banks is faced with the murder of DI Bill Quinn. Quinn was a patient at St. Peter’s Police Convalescence and Treatment Center, and that’s where his body is discovered early one morning, pierced with an arrow from a crossbow. The case turns out to be very delicate, because compromising ‘photos are found in Quinn’s room that suggest he’s been having an affair with a much younger woman. Obviously the police Powers That Be don’t want to cast aspersions on the badge, so Banks will have to tread lightly. In the meantime, he’s got his own personal issues to face. His former wife Sandra has married again and started a new family. He’s no longer involved with his lover Annie Cabbot, either, although they work together professionally. His children are grown and starting their own lives, too, and although they love him, it’s a different sort of relationship. So Banks is facing the sort of restlessness that often goes along with periods of change in life. It adds another layer to his character.

Fans of Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano series will know that he’s at a point of flux in his life. He feels himself getting older, but at the same time, he still has plenty of energy and good detective skills. He’s torn about his relationship with his long-time lover Livia, too. He does care about her, but at the same time, he’s just as well pleased that she lives in Genoa, and not in Sicily. He also sees himself changing as he gets older, and that’s not always comfortable either. Camilleri depicts that internal conflict as a series of debates between ‘Montalbano One’ and ‘Montalbano Two,’ and it’s an interesting way to show the way the mid-life crisis can feel.

The changes that middle age brings aren’t always fun. The question, ‘Is this all there is?’ can hit hard. So can the recognition of one’s own mortality. People generally make their way through the transition intact, but not always. And it certainly can add character depth and plot points to a novel. Which ones have stayed with you?

Thanks, Marina Sofia, for the inspiration. Now, may I suggest your next blog stop be Finding Time to Write. It’s a treasure trove of book reviews, poetry and beautiful visuals too.
 
 
 

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

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Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Geoffrey McGeachin, Karin Alvtegen, Peter Robinson

Well, There’s Just an Empty Space*

MissingPeopleSome of the hardest cases that professional detectives face concern missing persons. In part that’s because some people go missing because they want to leave. And even in modern times with modern technology, it can be difficult to trace a person who doesn’t want to be found. Besides, adults are legally allowed to go where they wish; in most cases it’s not a crime to go somewhere and not tell anyone. There’s also the fact that the police are reluctant to spend department resources on a case that has a perfectly logical explanation (e.g. someone simply wanted to spend a few days away). This means among other things that there may not be an immediate search for a person who’s gone missing. It also means that except in the case of children (a topic in its own right), professional detectives don’t always immediately devote the energy to a missing person report that they might to, say, a murder. It’s not that they don’t care; rather, it’s that those cases are much more ‘slippery.’

In Agatha Christie’s Third Girl for instance, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from a young woman who tells him that she may have committed a murder. But before she goes into any detail, she abruptly changes her mind, telling him that he’s too old to help her. She leaves without even giving her real name. With help from his friend detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, Poirot establishes that the young woman is Norma Restarick, who shares a London flat with two other young women. Between them, Poirot and Mrs. Oliver visit both the flat and the Restarick family home. Norma’s flatmates make it clear that they really don’t keep tabs on her and that she’s probably either spending a few extra days with her family, or has gone off on a tryst. Certainly they’re not overly concerned about her. Norma’s father and stepmother say that she’s gone back to London, and that they don’t really follow everything she does there. They’re willing to admit that she’s had a difficult time with her family lately, but at the same time, they’re not afraid for her. Poirot begins to dig a little deeper. After all, if there was a murder and Norma committed it, she needs to be found. And even if that’s not true, she certainly seems troubled and may be in danger. Poirot and Mrs. Oliver continue to search for answers and in the end, they find out what happened to Norma. They also discover the truth behind the murder she says she may have committed.

In Peter Robinson’s Cold is the Grave, DCI Alan Banks gets an unusual request from his boss Chief Constable Jeremiah ‘Jimmy’ Riddle. Riddle’s daughter Emily has had a bad relationship with her parents and has left home. She’s of legal age, so the police can’t look at it as a runaway case. But then her younger brother Benjamin discovers pornographic pictures of her online, and this frightens her parents. Riddle wants Banks to look for Emily, the idea being that if Banks goes as a civilian, he’ll draw less attention to this very private and difficult case. Riddle and Banks haven’t exactly had a good relationship in the past; in fact, it’s been more animosity than amity. But Banks is a father himself and he can understand Riddle’s concern. So he agrees to see what he can find out. His search for Emily takes him into some of London’s seamiest places – certainly places her parents wouldn’t have wanted her to be…

Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle concerns the disappearance of Andreas Winther. His mother Runi becomes concerned when he doesn’t come home as he usually does, and she goes to the police to report him missing. At first the police aren’t very worried, and they do their best to reassure her that all is probably well. There are, after all, any number of reasons for which a young man might take off for a few days and not tell his mother about it. But when more time goes by and Andreas still doesn’t return, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer begins to suspect that something might have happened to him. So he and his assistant Jacob Skarre start to investigate. One of their first stops is Andreas’ best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. Zipp spent the day with him on the day he was last seen, and knows more than he is saying about what happened on that day. As Sejer and Skarre try to find out where Andreas Winther is and what happened to him, we see how difficult it is to look for an adult. Lots of people simply don’t worry about someone they haven’t seen lately. I know, I know, fans of Calling Out For You/The Indian Bride.

In Peter James’ Dead Simple, Ashley Harper contacts the police in the form of DI Glenn Branson. She’s worried because her fiancé Michael Harrison hasn’t been seen since his ‘stag night’ party. She doesn’t know what his friends were planning, and as it turns out, the police can’t ask them. Tragically, three of them were killed in a car crash and the fourth is in a coma. The only person who might know is Harrison’s best-man-to-be and business partner Mark Warren. But he was out of town and didn’t go out with the group. At first, Branson and his boss Superintendent Roy Grace think that Harrison might have changed his mind about the wedding and gone off. But by all accounts, he’s very much in love with his intended, and looking forward to the wedding. So the detectives dig a little deeper and soon find that Harrison might be in a great deal of danger. Now they’ll have to work as quickly as they can if they’re to have a chance of finding him.

Anthony Bidulka’s Amuse Bouche introduces readers to Sasktoon PI Russell Quant. As the story begins, successful businessman Harold Chavell hires Quant to find his fiancé Tom Osborn. According to Chavell, Osborn disappeared just before their planned wedding, and has gone alone on the honeymoon trip to France that they’d mapped out together. Quant wonders whether Osborn might simply have changed his mind about getting married, but he takes the case and travels to France. He goes to each place the couple had intended visiting, and finds some evidence that Osborn has been there recently and is fine. Then he gets a note saying that Osborn does not want to be found. When Chavell learns of this, he calls off the search and prepares to get on with his life. A short time later, Osborn’s body is found in a lake near a house the two owned. Now Chavell becomes the prime suspect in a murder case and asks Quant to help clear his name.

Not all police agencies are well-enough funded to have missing person departments. Some of them in fact hire missing person experts such as Donna Malane’s Diane Rowe. Rowe lives and works in Wellington, where she’s occasionally hired by the police to help search for people or match unknown remains to past reports of missing people. That’s what happens for instance in Surrender. In one plot thread of that novel, the remains of an unknown man are recovered from Rimutaka State Forest. Forensics evidence suggests the age (in his mid-to-late twenties) and the approximate time he disappeared (the mid-1970s), but nothing much else about him. So Rowe uses all of the resources at her disposal to trace the man’s identity and find out how and why he died. In My Brother’s Keeper, former prison inmate Karen Mackie hires Rowe to find her fourteen-year-old daughter Sunny, who’s been living with her father Justin. Justin has custody of the girl, but Mackie has no idea where he’s living or if he’s even using the same name. Rowe agrees to find Justin and Sunny if she can. But this isn’t just a case of a mother who wants to be reunited with her daughter. The reason Mackie was in prison in the first place was the murder of her son and the attempted murder of Sunny…

Except for people on parole, adults are generally legally free to go where they wish without necessarily letting anyone else know. So missing persons cases are very often complicated. They can use up a lot of resources, including time, and don’t always result in a ‘joyful reunion.’ But they can make for suspenseful and interesting crime novels. Which ones have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Phil Collins’ Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Donna Malane, Karin Fossum, Peter James, Peter Robinson

Tough Kids, What Can I Do?*

Juvenile CrimeOne of the hardest challenges for law enforcement, social service and other professionals to face is working with young suspects and young people who are actually guilty of crimes. On the one hand, a crime is a crime regardless of the age of the culprit. On the other, there are real psychological and other differences between younger people and adults. What’s more, there are many people who argue that if you don’t give juvenile criminals genuine opportunities to make lives for themselves (as opposed, let’s say, to putting them in prison, especially with adults), you create repeat offenders who will probably be criminals for the rest of their lives.

There are no easy answers to these questions, and I don’t claim to have the solution. But young people’s involvement in crime is an important social reality, and so naturally, it comes up in crime fiction too. Space permits me only a few examples, but hopefully they’ll suffice.

In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall takes a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. With her are her husband Captain Kenneth Marshall and her stepdaughter Linda. Shortly after they arrive, Arlena begins a not-very-well-hidden affair with a fellow guest Patrick Redfern. One day she’s strangled and her body is discovered on the beach at Pixy’s Cove, not far from the hotel. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel and works with the police to find out who the murderer is. One of the people they interview is sixteen-year-old Linda Marshall. She disliked her stepmother intensely and as it turns out, doesn’t have a real alibi for the time. So she is a very real suspect for this crime. It’s interesting to note how the police (and Poirot) view her in light of her age. Saying a lot more would give away spoilers, but it’s an interesting treatment of a young suspect.

In Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, we meet Trevor Sharp, an Eastvale, Yorkshire teenager who’s having trouble fitting in at school and getting along. To his father’s dismay, he takes up with Mick Webster, who’s been in and out of trouble for a very long time. Although Trevor’s father warns him to stay away from Mick, Trevor doesn’t listen. He and Mick start getting involved in several ‘adventures’ that get them into real trouble. DCI Alan Banks encounters them in the course of a few cases he’s investigating: a voyeur who’s making the lives of the local women miserable; a series of home invasions; and a murder. As Banks and his team slowly follow the threads of these cases, we see how what starts as an adventure, a rebellious act, or an ‘I want to make my mark’ act can spiral out of control.

Kate Morgenroth’s Jude tells the story of a fifteen-year-old boy’s who’s been living with his drug-dealer father. Jude is a witness when one day, someone shoots his father. So he’s taken away for his own safety. Later he goes to live with his mother, who’s the local District Attorney. Jude is placed in an exclusive private school. He remains under suspicion for his father’s murder, but the police don’t have enough evidence to arrest him. He knows more than he’s telling, too, but his life depends on his not saying anything. Then one day his new friend Nick dies of a heroin overdose and Jude is implicated. He’s not guilty, but he’s persuaded to plead guilty so as to shore up his mother’s campaign for re-election on an anti-drugs platform. Jude is promised that as soon as the election is over, his name will be cleared. Instead, he’s tried as an adult and convicted. Then, a school friend David Marshall, who’s now a reporter, gets wind of the story. Together he and Jude work to find out the truth about Nick’s death – and about Jude’s own past.

There’s also William Landay’s Defending Jacob. In that novel, fourteen-year-old Ben Rifkin is stabbed to death. Before long, his schoolmate Jacob Barber is suspected and in fact arrested. At first, his father, Assistant District Attorney Andy Barber, doesn’t believe his son had anything to do with the crime. But little by little, pieces of evidence begin to suggest that things are not what they seem. Is Jacob guilty of the crime? If so, what led to it? If not, who’s trying to frame him and why? This novel takes a look at juvenile crime from the legal and the personal perspective.

And then there’s Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal is in prison for a horrific crime. One night, thirteen members of her family were poisoned, and some stabbed as well. Then the house was set on fire. Only Durga survived, and the evidence suggests she may have been a victim as well, as she was tied up and possibly raped. But the police can’t get very far on the case because Durga hasn’t spoken about that night. The Inspector General for the State of Punjab knows that this is an extremely delicate case. Durga is not an adult, so she can’t really be treated as one. And yet, she obviously knows more than she is saying. So he asks an old friend, social worker Simran Singh, to come to the village of Jullundur to interview Durga, work with her and perhaps get her to open up. Simran agrees and makes the trip from Delhi, where she lives. As Simran slowly gets to know Durga, we see that applying the ‘usual rules’ to certain juvenile cases can do more harm than good. We also see that this is definitely not a case of a teenager who ‘just snapped.’

In Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police is called to the scene of a home invasion. With him goes probationer Lucy Howard, who’s hoping to get some experience. Tragically, White is stabbed to death at the scene of the crime. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in and out of the juvenile justice system for a long time. Since one of their own has been killed, the police are determined to catch the killer. But they know that to do that, they’ll have to ‘play by the rules’ no matter how much they’d rather not. It complicates matters too that Rowley is part Aboriginal, so the media will be very alert to any perceived discrimination. In this novel, there are some really interesting discussions of the protection provided by the juvenile justice system. There are also interesting questions raised about what kinds of crime young people commit, and at what point one considers them adults.

It’s challenging enough to decide what the best way is to deal with criminals. It’s even harder when alleged or actual criminals are (at least legally) children. I honestly don’t have all the answers. I don’t even know if there is just one answer. But it is a very real issue in real life, and it’s raised in crime fiction too. Which novels that deal with this issue have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pete Townhend’s Rough Boys.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Kate Morgenroth, Kishwar Desai, Peter Robinson, William Landay, Y.A. Erskine

I Feel Like Letting My Freak Flag Fly*

Living Other LivesIf you pay attention in Las Vegas casinos, restaurants, shops and so on, you see an interesting phenomenon: lots of people dress and act in ways that they probably wouldn’t at home. I’ve seen Elvis impersonators, people walking around wearing balloon hats, people dressed in costumes, and people wearing scanty, spangled clothes that I doubt very much they’d wear to work. Nobody seems to mind very much; after all, as I’ve been told more than once, ‘It’s Vegas.’

For many people, visiting places such as Los Vegas gives them an opportunity to live out fantasies in ways they can’t do in their regular lives. I don’t mean just sexual fantasies although of course, that happens too. Rather, I mean adopting a persona that one can’t ‘wear’ at home. Not being a psychologist, I don’t know exactly why people sometimes feel the need to do that, but it seems to be a human need, for at least some people. You sure see it in Los Vegas, and you see it in crime fiction.

For instance, In Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, we are introduced to Anne Beddingfeld. She’s recently lost her professor father and now finds herself as the saying goes alone in the world. She decides that, since there’s nothing much holding her in London, she’ll have some adventure in her life:

 

‘I wound a black garment tightly round me, leaving my arms and shoulders bare. Then I brushed back my hair and pulled it well down over my ears again. I put a lot of powder on my face, so that the skin seemed even whiter than usual. I fished about until I found some lip salve, and I put oceans of it on my lips. Finally I draped a red ribbon over my bare shoulder, stuck a scarlet feather in my hair, and placed a cigarette in one corner of my mouth. The effect pleased me very much.’

 

Anne finds that ‘wearing a new self’ is more dangerous than she thought. One day she witnesses a terrible Tube accident in which a man is killed. She ends up with a piece of paper he had, which turns out to mention the upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. On impulse she books passage, deciding to live out what it’s like to be an adventuress. That choice gets her mixed up in murder, international intrigue and jewel theft.

Peter Robinson’s Bad Boys also touches on this theme. DI Alan Banks is away on holiday. So when Juliet Doyle comes to the police station to make a report, it’s Annie Cabot who takes the information. Juliet has found out that her daughter Erin has a gun. The gun belongs to Erin’s boyfriend Jaff, who is most definitely not the kind of person people want their children to date. As it turns out, Banks’ daughter Tracy is Erin’s best friend, and she knows exactly the kind of person Jaff is. When Jaff invites Tracy to run off with him, she’s excited at first. This will give her the chance to be someone she simply can’t be at home. But the excitement soon fades off when things start to spin completely out of control. Banks comes home from his holiday to find that a colleague’s been shot, there’s been a fatal accident, and his daughter has been taken hostage. Not the sort of homecoming one would wish for…

Jodie Garrow’s daughter Hannah wants to break free and be someone new in Wendy James’ The Mistake. She’s recently recovered from an accident that left her injured (that’s a story of wanting to break free in itself). But all is not well with Hannah’s family. She learns to her shock that her mother Jodie had a child several years before she, Hannah, was born – a child Jodie’s never mentioned to anyone. What’s more, there are rumours that Jodie herself may be responsible for the baby’s disappearance. Hannah’s never really felt completely comfortable with the quiet, middle-class life her family leads, and when her mother becomes a social outcast things are even worse. Then, Hannah learns something else that upsets her even more. She decides to ‘put on’ the life she fantasises about: a life moving around with her boyfriend, with no other ties. She imagines herself as a free spirit, and that’s the life she tries to ‘wear.’ So she runs off with her boyfriend only to find that an unsettled life with no boundaries isn’t exactly what she thought it would be. This sub-plot of wanting to be someone else is an interesting thread through the novel.

In Kerry Greenwood’s Earthly Delights, accountant-turned-baker Corinna Chapman helps to solve a few mysteries. One has to do with the deaths of several local junkies. Another is the question of who’s been sending threatening notes to several residents of the building where Chapman lives and has her bakery. There’s been vandalism to the building, too and Chapman and her lover Daniel Cohen look into the matter. The key to the deaths of the junkies seems to be a Goth club called Blood Lines. Getting into the club isn’t easy though, so if they’re going to see what’s going on there and figure out what connects it with the deaths, Chapman and Cohen will have to play roles. Chapman’s friend Pat, who goes by the name of Mistress Dread, owns a leather shop and creates the perfect Goth dominatrix outfit for her. That night, Chapman and Cohen go to Blood Lines and Chapman gets the chance to experiment in ways she doesn’t get to do in her regular life.

Jill Edmondson’s The Lies Have It has as a backdrop Toronto’s fetish club scene. In that novel, PI Sasha Jackson agrees to help her friend Jessica tend bar at Bound For Glory, a fetish club that’s planning a big event. When one of the club members Ian Dooley is murdered, Jackson gets involved in investigating the death. To do that, she gets to know some of the members and some of the things that go on ‘behind the scenes’ at Bound For Glory. In the meantime, she’s also working on another case: the disappearance of runaway teen Marcy Edquist. In this novel, it’s interesting to see how lawyers, accountants, doctors, and others who live what most people would consider ‘ordinary’ lives use the opportunity to live out some of their fantasies through the club.

Experimenting with another ‘self’ gives people the chance to do things they couldn’t normally do. Even wear a feathered costume. As you can see though, it doesn’t always go as planned…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Almost Cut My Hair.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Jill Edmondson, Kerry Greenwood, Peter Robinson, Wendy James

He Met a Girl Out There With a Tattoo Too*

TattoosIn the past few decades, tattoos have become more and more ‘mainstream.’ Of course as we’ll see, they’ve been around for a very long time, but it wasn’t really until more recent years that a lot of ‘regular’ people have been getting them. One of the things about tattoos is that they can be distinctive. Whether you like them or you don’t, they can give very clear clues as to a person’s identity, so it’s no wonder that when someone goes missing, one of the first things the police ask is whether that person has a tattoo or some other distinguishing mark. That’s also the case when someone is attacked; the cops almost always ask whether the assailant had a tattoo. Because tattoos have been woven into our culture for quite some time, it’s no surprise that we see them quite a lot in crime fiction. And sometimes they can be very useful.

For instance, a few of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories hinge on Sherlock Holmes’ knowledge of tattoos. In The Red-Headed League, we meet Mr. Jabez Wilson, a pawn-shop owner who’s had some odd things happen to him. He decided to earn a little extra money by responding to an advertisement for an open position. The job, as he found out, involved copying the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and it was easy enough. Then one day he found his new employer’s business had abruptly closed. He wants Holmes to find out what’s going on, and Holmes is intrigued enough to agree. It turns out that Wilson has been used by a group of thieves who wanted to use his shop as a base for digging a tunnel into a nearby bank. In the scene where we meet Wilson, Holmes notes that Wilson has been in China. He knows that by the look of a tattoo just above Wilson’s wrist – it’s made in a way that Holmes knows is distinctively Chinese. There are other stories too (I’m thinking, for instance of The ‘Gloria Scott’) in which Holmes’ knowledge of tattoos comes in handy.

In Michael Connelly’s 9 Dragons, liquor store owner John Li is shot and LAPD cops Harry Bosch and Ignacio Ferras are called to the scene. Li’s wife doesn’t speak English, and Bosch and Ferras are not thoroughly familiar with the Chinese culture of that part of Los Angeles. So Detective David Chu, who’s associated with the LAPD’s Asian Gangs Unit (AGU) is called in to assist. He proves to be very useful in helping Bosch and Ferras make sense of the culture and of the payments that Li had been making to a member of a triad – a ‘protection’ group. When Bosch shows Chu a video of one of Li’s payoffs to the triad member, Chu notices something else about the man: a tattoo. The tattoo gives Chu some interesting information that leads the police to suspect that Li might have been shot by a member of a particular triad with connections in Hong Kong. Then everything changes when Bosch gets a call from his daughter Maddie, who lives in Hong Kong. She says she’s been kidnapped and Bosch is sure that it has something to do with his current investigation. He goes as quickly as he can to search for his daughter. In the end, Bosch finds out what happened to John Li and to Maddie, and how the two are connected.

Inspector Salvo Montalbano makes effective use of a tattoo for identification in Andrea Camilleri’s The Wings of the Sphinx. A young woman is found dead near a local landfill. She has no clothes or other identification, so no-one knows who she is. The only identifying feature that’s really distinctive about her is the tattoo of a sphinx moth on her left shoulder. Montalbano doesn’t recognise the tattoo, but he asks his friend Nicolò Zito, who works for Vigatà’s Free Channel, to help. Zito broadcasts the picture of the tattoo and before long, Montalbano and his team are able to link the victim to a group of young Eastern European women who’d come to Sicily to find jobs. He also links the case to corruption in a social service agency and to some odd thefts.

Peter Lovesey’s Bath CID chief Peter Diamond has a similar challenge in The Tooth Tattoo. The body of a young woman is found in a canal in Bath. Oddly enough, there’s a sense of déjà vu for Diamond; he and his partner Paloma Kean have recently been in Vienna where they saw a memorial to another young woman who was also killed and dumped in a canal. Both were Japanese music students, too. The second victim – the one found in Bath – has only one identifying feature: the tattoo of a musical note on one of her teeth. It’s also discovered that she was a fanatic ‘groupie’ of Staccati, a string quartet. Bit by bit, Diamond and his team trace the relationship between the string quartet and its mysterious history and the deaths of the two victims.

In Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos, we learn that tattoos can also tell stories. This one is about a woman who’s recently been released from prison after serving time for murder. She and her dog Sully are settled into an apartment not far from a child care facility where one day, she gets into an argument with one of the parents. When a complaint is later lodged against her for keeping a restricted-breed animal (Sully is a pit bull), the woman blames her antagonist at the child care facility and plots her revenge. As she does so, we learn exactly what happened that sent her to prison. We also learn what the meaning is of her teardrop tattoos.

Peter Robinson’s Cold Is the Grave is the story of what happens to Emily Riddle, daughter of Chief Constable Jeremiah ‘Jimmy’ Riddle. Emily has left home, and her parents become alarmed when her younger brother Benjamin discovers pornographic ‘photos of her on a website. Riddle is now desperate to find his daughter and he asks DCI Alan Banks to help. The idea is that if Banks goes as a civilian, he’ll draw less attention to a personal matter that Riddle wants very much to stay private. Riddle and Banks have had a rancourous relationship in the past, but Banks is a father too. So he reluctantly agrees to look into the matter. Banks’ search for Emily takes him into some very seamy parts of London and one of the things that helps him find out what happened to her is the fact that in the ‘photos Benjamin saw, she has a spider tattoo.

And that’s the thing about tattoos. They can be very helpful in identifying a person. So they often cut down on the time it takes to find out who an unknown victim is. And they can be very interesting personal statements. That’s part of why sleuths such as Robinson’s Annie Cabbot and Patricia Stoltey’s Sylvia Thorn have them. No wonder we see them in crime fiction.

Oh, did you notice one very famous tattooed sleuth I didn’t mention? Oh, come on –  too easy! ;-)

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Petty’s Into the Great Wide Open.

   

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Filed under Andrea Camilleri, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Michael Connelly, Patricia Stoltey, Peter Lovesey, Peter Robinson