Category Archives: Stephen J. Cannell

Little to Win and Nothing to Lose*

Nothing to LoseMost people weigh the consequences of what they’re going to do, at least a little, before they do it. And that’s what can make it so dangerous when people feel they have nothing to lose. That belief can push people to do some awfully dangerous and sometimes terrible things. In crime fiction, characters who feel they have nothing to lose can add to the suspense of a story, though.

For instance, in Donald Honig’s short story Come Ride With Me, a man named Gannon goes into the Quick Stop diner with a specific purpose in mind. He’s just committed a robbery that ended in a murder and now he needs to ‘borrow’ a getaway car. He waits at the diner until he sees exactly the kind of car he wants. The driver is Lee Carstairs, who’s doing well financially and who drives a fast, late-model car. Carstairs uses the telephone and while he’s doing so Gannon takes his chance and hides in the back seat of the car. But as he soon finds out, he’s picked the wrong car. As it turns out, Carstairs has other plans with his car and we learn that he has nothing to lose by carrying them out.

In Stephen J. Cannell’s The Tin Collectors, we meet LAPD homicide cop Shane Scully. One night he gets a frantic call from Barbara Molar, wife of Scully’s former partner Ray Molar. Barbara says that Ray is trying to kill her and begs Scully to help. Scully races over to the Molar home in time to save Barbara, but Molar shoots at him. Scully shoots back to defend himself. Molar’s bullet misses; Scully’s hits its mark. At first Scully thinks that what happened will be dealt with in a routine Internal Affairs investigation. After all, it was a ‘clean’ hit. But soon Scully finds himself a pariah on the force, since Molar was a beloved cop. Then it becomes clear that this is not going to be a routine investigation. The Internal Affairs authorities are planning to take Scully’s badge and perhaps charge him with murder. Scully knows now that this is far bigger than just a questionable shooting. He starts to ask more questions and finds himself targeted by some very powerful and corrupt people. Now, with little left to lose professionally, Scully goes to great lengths to try to find out who is targeting him and why.

In Robin Cook’s Seizure, we are introduced to U.S. Senator Ashley Butler. He’s been a strong force against stem cell and other kinds of controversial medical procedures and research. But everything changes completely when he is diagnosed with Parkinson ’s disease. He knows that unless he gets some kind of medical miracle, he’ll never be able to achieve his goal of becoming president. In a professional sense he has much to lose. But he has nothing to lose at all by pursuing a cure and for that he contacts Dr. Daniel Lowell. Lowell’s been conducting promising research and has pioneered a controversial surgical procedure that may be exactly what Butler needs. So together, Butler and Lowell go to extraordinary (and very, very dangerous) lengths to perform the surgery. One of the dangers for instance is that the clinic chosen for the procedure is the Wingate Clinic, located in the Bahamas. The owners of that clinic are guilty of several legal and ethical violations and when Lowell and his co-worker Stephanie D’Agostino discover that, they also find that they are in real danger of their lives.

In C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye, Travel Development Specialist Jack McGuane and his wife Melissa are the proud and happy adoptive parents of beautiful baby Angelina. Everything changes though when they learn that Angelina’s biological father Garret Moreland never waived his parental rights. Now he wants to exercise them. The McGuanes are devastated by this news and they decide to do what they can to keep their daughter. They face difficult odds though. First, Moreland’s father is a powerful local judge who is determined that Angelina will be given to his son. In fact he starts off by basically trying to buy the McGuanes’ co-operation. When that doesn’t work he uses his authority and orders the McGuanes to relinquish custody of Angelina in 21 days. With nothing much to lose, Jack McGuane decides to do whatever it takes to keep his child. ‘Whatever it takes’ turns out to be more than either McGuane bargained for but to them, there is no real choice.

We also see get that sense of ‘nothing left to lose’ in Åsa Larsson’s The Blood Spilt. In that novel, Kiruna police inspector Anna-Maria Mella and her partner Sven-Erik Stålnacke investigate the murder of local priest Mildred Nilsson. Attorney Rebecka Martinsson works with Nilsson’s widower to arrange for the return of their house to the Swedish Church so she gets involved in the investigation too. Nilsson had some controversial views and was not at all afraid to share them. So there’s more than one suspect in this case. But slowly, Martinsson and the police get to the truth. In this novel, the murderer is a person who has nothing left to lose, or so it seems to that person. That sense of desperation is part of what drives the killer on instead of stopping before the murder is committed.

Lindy Cameron’s Redback is the story of a crack team of Australian retrieval specialists called Redback. They’re called in when people need to be rescued from extremely dangerous situations and that’s exactly what happens on the Pacific island of Laui. The island is hosting the Pacific Tourism and Enviro-Trade Conference when a group of rebels disrupts the meeting and takes the delegates hostage. Team Redback, led by Bryn Gideon, is called in and rescues the conferees. It’s not long before that incident is connected to a terrible train explosion, two murders and an explosion on a U.S. military base. As it turns out, a shadowy group of terrorists is using a video game called Global WarTek to recruit members and give instructions. Several local terrorist groups with nothing to lose and a lot of fanaticism are only too happy to follow those instructions. So Gideon and her team have their proverbial work cut out for them as they go up against a group that’s not supposed to even exist.

Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’’s Some Kind of Peace tells the story of Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman. She is dealing with the horrible trauma of having lost her beloved husband Stefan in a diving incident. Otherwise, though, she’s managing her life – more or less. Then one day she gets a chilling letter that makes it clear she’s being stalked. Other incidents happen too, all of them designed to frighten and discredit her. Then one day she discovers the body of a patient Sara Matteus in the water near her home. As if that’s not bad enough, the death is made to look like a suicide for which Bergman is responsible. When the evidence shows that Matteus was murdered, the police even wonder whether Bergman might have committed the crime. In order to clear her name and save her own life, Bergman has to find out who is responsible for the murder and for stalking her. It turns out that the killer acted out of a sense of desperation and the belief that there was nothing to lose. While that’s not precisely the killer’s motive, it does drive the killer ‘over the edge.’

And that’s the thing about having nothing to lose. It can also mean one has nothing to keep one from pushing the limits and doing things that can turn tragic.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from  Strawberry Alarm Clock’s Incense and Peppermint.

28 Comments

Filed under Åsa Larsson, Åsa Träff, C.J. Box, Camilla Grebe, Donald Honig, Lindy Cameron, Robin Cook, Stephen J. Cannell

I’ll Stand By You*

Most of would probably say that loyalty is a good quality. Certainly we want our friends to be loyal to us; we want to know that there are certain people who can be counted on no matter what happens. And loyalty really is important in a lot of ways. But is it possible for loyalty to be taken too far? Are there times when one should not be loyal? It’s a tricky question actually, which makes it also a very interesting one. Little wonder it’s explored in crime fiction as much as it is.

Loyalty plays an important role in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett is stabbed on the second night of his journey across Europe on the famous Orient Express. Hercule Poirot is on the same train and agrees to look into the case. He soon finds that Ratchett has a hidden past that has, as the saying goes, came back to haunt him. Poirot also discovers that the only possible suspects are the other passengers whose compartments are in the same coach as Ratchett’s. So Poirot gets to know the different passengers and in his own unique way, gets them to talk about themselves and their backgrounds. As the novel goes on Poirot finds out how much of what the suspects tell him is true and how much is not. Here’s a bit of the conversation that ensues when Poirot confronts one suspect with the fact that that suspect has lied:

 

“‘In fact, you deliberately lied to us…’ [Poirot]
‘Certainly. I would do the same again…I believe, Messieurs, in loyalty – to one’s friends and one’s family and one’s caste.’”

 

As it turns out, that sense of loyalty has everything to do with this particular murder.

In Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger, Inspector Cockrill is called to Heron’s Park military hospital when postman Joseph Higgins dies there during what’s supposed to be routine surgery. At first it looks as though Higgins’ death was a tragic accident as sometimes happens during surgery. So everyone thinks Cockrill’s main role will be to file the official “accident” paperwork. But then, Sister Marion Bates has too much to drink at a party and blurts out that she knows Higgins was murdered and that furthermore, she knows how it was done. Later that night she herself is murdered. Now it’s clear that Higgins’ death was no accident, so Cockrill looks more deeply into the case. He finds that there are only six people who could have killed both Higgins and Bates, so his focus is on those suspects as he investigates. When Cockrill discovers exactly how Higgins was murdered he also finds out who the killer was. In this novel, you could argue that in a sense, Higgins was killed partly out of loyalty. It’s also fair to say that loyalty plays a role in hampering Cockrill’s investigation.

In Margaret Truman’s Murder at the FBI, we meet special agent Christine Saksis. When fellow agent George Pritchard is murdered at the FBI’s Washington DC headquarters, Saksis and her partner Ross Lizenby are tapped to investigate the murder. They have to move very carefully on this case because one of the most important things that the FBI drums into its employees is “Don’t embarrass the bureau.” One theory of the case is that Pritchard was murdered by a terrorist group whose membership he was going to reveal. It’s a credible explanation too and Saksis and Lizenby are under an awful lot of pressure to pursue it. But little by little other possibilities arise, including the fact that Pritchard was going to reveal some ugly secrets at the agency itself. As the investigation goes on Saksis finds herself with very conflicting loyalties. She is proud to be an FBI agent and is loyal to the agency. At the same time the more she learns about this case the more she questions that loyalty. It’s an interesting look at the role loyalty plays in the way people think.

Stephen J. Cannell’s The Tin Collectors also gives readers a look at loyalty within a group; in this case it’s the L.A.P.D.  Homicide detective Shane Scully gets a call one night from Barbara Molar, the wife of Scully’s former cop partner Ray Molar. Barbara is frantic because she’s afraid her husband is about to kill her. Scully rushes to the Molar home where he confronts Molar. Molar fires at Scully but misses. Scully’s return bullet hits its mark and soon enough Scully finds himself the target of an internal investigation led by prosecutor Alexa Hamilton. Although Ray Molar was in reality a brutal man who abused his wife and his authority as a cop, he was also beloved on the police force; he was considered a “cop’s cop” who mentored several of the newer cops. So right away Scully becomes a pariah. It’s soon clear too that the “Powers That Be” are not going to treat Molar’s killing as a “typical” internal investigation. Scully learns that the department is angling to have him charged with murder. In order to protect himself, Scully starts asking questions to find out why he’s becoming the department’s fall guy. He soon learns that Molar was involved in several things that the department “higher ups” want kept quiet. In this novel, there’s quite a lot of discussion of loyalty, both to the force and to Molar.

Loyalty to the force is also a major theme of Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. The Tasmania police force is rocked when one of its members Sergeant John White is stabbed while he’s investigating a break-in/robbery. The most likely suspect in the case is Darren Rowley, a part-Aboriginal teenager who’s been in and out of trouble with the law for a long time. Everyone says that John White was a true “good guy” – a dedicated cop who stayed “clean” and mentored many, many younger officers. Everyone loved him and all of the other members of the force are devastated by his murder. We see this murder and its after-effects from several perspectives, including those of White’s friend DI Richard Moore, who’s investigating the death; probationer Lucy Howard, who was with White at the break-in scene when he was killed; police commissioner Ron Chalmers, who has to handle the investigation at the “higher-up” level; and Constable Cameron Walsh, for whom White was a mentor. Loyalty plays a critical role in the way these people see both White and Darren Rowley, and in the way people on the force deal with the investigation, with Rowley’s lawyer, with the press and with the public.  We also see it in the way the various members of the police force see the justice system that seems to them to be rigged in favour of criminals.

Family loyalty is another important kind of loyalty and we see that in action if you will in Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit. In that novel, brothers Gates and Mason Hunt are coming home after a late night one night when they encounter Gates’ romantic rival Wayne Thompson. Gates Hunt already had a confrontation earlier in the day with Thompson and now the argument heats up again and almost before anyone realises what’s happening, Gates Hunt has shot Thompson. Mason feels a strong sense of loyalty to his brother because of the way his brother protected him from their abusive father when they were younger. So he helps his brother cover up the crime. Life goes on for both brothers and Mason Hunt becomes a successful commonwealth prosecutor for Patrick County, Virginia. Then Gates Hunt is arrested for cocaine trafficking and given a long sentence. He begs his brother to help him get out of prison but Mason refuses. Gates Hunt has squandered every opportunity he had, and Mason refuses to bail him out any more. So Gates threatens to implicate his brother in the Wayne Thompson shooting if Mason won’t use his “pull” to free him from prison. When Mason refuses again, Gates makes good on his threat and Mason Hunt finds himself charged with murder. Now he’ll have to find a way to clear his name and outwit his brother’s legal team if he’s to avoid being imprisoned himself.

Loyalty can be a powerful and positive trait. It colours our perceptions and often, our actions. It’s not always a clear-cut force for good, but it’s most definitely a force to be reckoned with, as the saying goes.

 

 

 

 

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

18 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Christianna Brand, Margaret Truman, Martin Clark, Stephen J. Cannell, Y.A. Erskine

Los Angelenos All Come From Somewhere*

If you’ve ever been to Los Angeles then you know that it’s vibrant, beautiful (in some places), and has one of the most inviting climates anywhere. It’s physically gorgeous, it’s home to some of the wealthiest people in the U.S., it’s got world-class restaurants and fashion houses and of course, it’s home to the U.S. television and film industries. The music industry is a giant there, too. It’s also got desperate poverty, and the terrible economic and racial divisions that continue to plague the nation have played themselves out there. And with the city’s incredible wealth has also come some really deep-seated corruption, exploitation and more. With those factors, it’s not surprising at all that Los Angeles is the setting for an awful lot of crime fiction. One post doesn’t give nearly enough space to talk about all of the Los Angeles-based crime fiction out there, so here are just a few examples.

Beginning with The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler’s iconic Philip Marlowe showed readers the seamier side of the wealthy and powerful of Los Angeles. In that novel, Marlowe is hired by General Guy Sternwood to stop a blackmail attempt. It seems that bookseller Arthur Geiger is blackmailing Sternwood’s daughter Carmen; this isn’t the first time Carmen’s been blackmailed either as she’s not exactly a demure young woman. What starts as a simple investigation of a blackmail scheme ends up dragging Marlowe into a very complicated web of backstabbing, a pornography scandal and exploitation. Chandler’s work helped shape the modern “hard-boiled” novel and the wealth, self-entitlement and shallowness of several of the characters in this novel are a good match for the setting and the sub-genre.

Attempted blackmail is the starting point for The Case of the Velvet Claws which features another Los Angeles sleuth, Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason. Mason is a Los Angeles attorney who is absolutely and completely committed to his clients. He finds that commitment hard to keep though when he is hired by Eva Griffin. Griffin tells Mason that Hollywood tabloid reporter Fank Locke has proof that she’s having an affair with up-and-coming politician Hamilton Burke. If Griffin doesn’t pay up, Locke will publish the story in his tabloid Spicy Bits. Mason agrees to take this case and tries to get Locke to stop blackmailing his client. Things get complicated though when Mason finds out that Locke’s boss – and Griffin’s husband – is George Belter, owner of Spicy Bits. Now Mason realises that Griffin hasn’t been telling him everything, not even her real name. Then one night George Belter is shot. His widow is of course a prime suspect, and Mason continues to represent her interests even though he doesn’t trust anything she says. He’ll have to find out the truth about Belter’s murder, despite his client, if he’s going to clear her of murder.

Several of Ellery Queen’s novels are set in Los Angeles too. In fact, The Devil to Pay, The Four of Hearts and The Origin of Evil are sometimes called The Hollywood Murders because of their setting. The storyline for these novels is that Queen has been hired to work as a screenwriter for Hollywood “wonder boy” Jacques Butcher. He’s not given anything to do though and is bored, restless and increasingly frustrated with Butcher. So he’s willing to help out when in The Devil to Pay, Walter Spaeth asks him to serve as proxy at an auction of the personal property of Rhys Jardin. Jardin is the father of Spaeth’s love interest Valerie Jardin, and Spaeth wants to do what he can to take care of her without embarrassing her.  When Spaeth’s successful father and Jardin’s business partner Solly Spaeth is murdered, the Jardin family is under suspicion and so is Spaeth’s mistress Winnie Moon. In the end, Queen figures out who the murderer is, while still waiting to start work as a screenwriter. He gets his chance in The Four of Hearts, and gets involved once again in murder when the two lead actors of the film he’s screenwriting are murdered. In The Origin of Evil, Queen’s no longer working as a screenwriter; he’s taken a house and some quiet time to write. That’s how he gets involved in the death of Leander Hill, co-owner of a successful jewel business. Hill’s daughter Lauren believes that her father was murdered and that his business partner Roger Priam may be the next victim. Queen finds out this case has everything to do with the business partners’ history.

We get quite another view of Los Angeles through the eyes of Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins. Rawlins was laid off from his wartime job at an airplane manufacturing plant. With no source of income, he accepts an offer in Devil in a Blue Dress to help find Daphne Monet, the missing girlfriend of DeWitt Albright. Albright knows that he’ll stand out too much as a white man in the black community of Watts, where Rawlins lives. But Rawlins knows everyone in that community and agrees to start asking questions. That’s how he gets involved in his new career of “doing favours for friends.” This series gives readers a vivid portrait of life in Watts during the postwar years and a look at Los Angeles from a different cultural perspective.

Megan Abbott’s Die A Little, which takes place at about the same time, shows us what life was like in the Los Angeles/Hollywood suburbs of the early 1950’s. In that novel, Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King begins to worry when her brother Bill falls in love with and then marries former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant Alice Steele. For Bill’s sake Lora tries to get along with her new sister-in-law. As she does so, she finds herself both put off by and drawn to Alice’s life.  And the more drawn to Alice she is, the more King learns about the seamier side of Hollywood, including drugs, prostitution and physical abuse. Then there’s a death that could very well have involved Alice. Now, King decides to go even more deeply into Alice’s enigmatic life to find out what really happened, telling herself that she wants to protect her brother.

So what’s today’s Los Angeles like? Just ask Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller. Bosch is a cop who’s been with the L.A.P.D. on and off for a long time. Bosch’s half-brother Haller’s a defense attorney who’s been known to use his car as a “traveling office.” In the novels that feature these sleuths we see all of the sides of this complex city. We also see some of the trends and changes that have affected people’s lives. The two sleuths investigate mortgage fraud, poverty, racism, child pornography, police and civil corruption, drug trafficking, gang activity, and of course, the film industry among many other things. Neither sleuth would really be happy anywhere else, but neither is blind to the city’s many problems. Oh, and these novels also include natural disasters that Los Angelenos have to cope with such as earthquakes, wildfires and mudslides.

You can also ask Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole and Joe Pike what today’s Los Angeles is like. Together they’ve investigated spoiled Hollywood directors, “behind the scenes” television and film power brokers, the drug and prostitution scenes, Japanese mafiosos and police corruption among other things. Pike owns a gun shop where he’s seen more than his share of gun trafficking and gang activity. Cole’s been hired by all sorts of clients so he too has seen all sides of Los Angeles. And let’s face it; only in L.A. would a detective who has a Mickey Mouse clock in his office be taken seriously.  ;-)

There are other authors such as Stephen J. Cannell, Daniel Depp (yes, Johnny Depp’s brother), Marshall Karp and Pamela DuMond who’ve shown us the ups and downs, the funny and tragic, the beautiful and the ugly sides of Los Angeles. It’s far too big, complex and diverse a city for one author to tell it all.

 

City of Angels? Um…..not really ;-)

 

ps. The top ‘photo is of just one street in just one part of Los Angeles. The other ‘photo was taken on Hollywood Boulevard, on the Walk of Fame. Oh, now come on! Do you have to wonder whose star I would actually make the effort to find and photograph? ;-)

 

 
 

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

15 Comments

Filed under Daniel Depp, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, Marshall Karp, Megan Abbott, Michael Connelly, Pamela DuMond, Raymond Chandler, Robert Crais, Stephen J. Cannell, Walter Mosley

Would I Still See Suspicion in Your Eyes?*

One really effective way for building tension and suspense in a crime fiction story is to create an atmosphere in which no-one can really be trusted. Of course a wise sleuth doesn’t trust any of the murder suspects. But there are some novels in which that atmosphere of suspicion – even paranoia – goes beyond the detective not trusting the suspects. When it’s done well, an atmosphere of suspicion can build suspense very effectively without resorting to gore, and in some cases, that atmosphere can lend a dose of realism to a story, too.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians), ten people receive invitations to spend a holiday at a house on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. For different reasons, all ten accept the invitation. When they arrive, they’re surprised that their host isn’t there to greet them, but they settle in nonetheless. After dinner on that first night, one of the guests dies of what turns out to be poison. Another dies later that night. And then there’s another death. Now it’s clear that they’ve all been lured to the island deliberately. It’s also clear that one of them is a murderer. The survivors now have to find out which of them is the killer while they also do their best to stay alive. As the story moves on, we see how the characters suspect each other and the tension builds as the characters realise that no-one can be trusted.

There’s also a very effective atmosphere of background suspicion in Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel. In that novel, someone’s been sending out anonymous letters to several of the residents of the small Dutch village of Zwinderen. The notes have accused the recipients of all sorts of immoral behaviour, and in two cases, the notes have led to suicide. One recipient has had a complete mental breakdown. No-one in the town has been willing to speak out very much to the local police, so Inspector Van der Valk of the Amsterdam police is sent to Zwinderen to find out who’s been sending the notes. He and his wife Arlette arrive in the town and settle in, and it’s not long before they discover why the townsfolk are so unwilling to get to the bottom of the matter. Zwinderen is the kind of town where everyone knows everyone’s business; even the most personal details of other people’s lives get around. No-one trusts anyone and it’s against that backdrop that Van der Valk has to find out who has wreaked the havoc in the town. Van der Valk does find out who wrote the letters and why. He also discovers another, even more important secret. In this novel, the atmosphere of suspicion lends a real air of tension to the pace of the story.

We also see that atmosphere in Stephen J. Cannell’s The Tin Collectors. Shane Scully is an L.A.P.D. homicide detective who gets a frantic call late one night from Barbara Molar, wife of Scully’s ex-partner Ray Molar. Barbara is terrified that her abusive husband is about to kill her and Scully rushes to the rescue. When he gets there, Molar fires at him, but his bullet misses; Scully’s doesn’t and he soon gets involved in an Internal Affairs Division (IAD) investigation. Soon enough, though, it’s clear that the top brass are not going to treat this as they do other IAD investigations. Instead, they are planning to charge Scully with murder. IAD officer Alexa Hamilton is put on the case and soon, Scully is in deeper than he could have imagined. He begins to ask questions about why he’s been made a department pariah and learns that he’s stumbled onto something bigger and more corrupt than a case of an accidental shooting. In this novel, we learn that nobody in the department trusts anyone else, really. As the novel goes on, we see that that atmosphere of mutual suspicion causes many people to turn their backs on Scully or at the very least refuse to help him openly. That suspicion adds a solid layer of suspense to this novel.

Sometimes, the tenor of the times means that no-one really feels safe, and that’s enough to make people suspicious of just about everyone. That’s the case, for instance, in Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel novels, which take place in pre-World War II and World War II Berlin. In A Trace of Smoke, for instance, crime reporter Vogel discovers that her brother Ernst has been killed. As she begins to look for answers, readers discover that he kept many secrets and had many “companions,” among them top officials in the increasingly powerful Nazi party. Because of the dangers of falling afoul of the Nazi authorities, very few people are willing to help Vogel, and she encounters a great deal of fear and suspicion, even at the very top of the Nazi echelon. The fear, suspicion and mistrust of the times are woven through this novel and add not just suspense but realism to it.

That’s also the case with William Ryan’s The Holy Thief, which also takes place just before World War II. In this novel, Captain Alexei Korolev of the Moscow CID is assigned to investigate the brutal murder of Maria Ivanovna Kuznetsova, whose body has been found in a former church. As Korolev begins to ask questions, we see just how much mistrust and suspicion there is in Stalinist Moscow. Since Korolev is a member of the police, people who don’t know him personally do their very best not to say anything to him. And even people who do know him don’t want to be seen talking to the police. What’s worse, the NKVD takes an interest in this murder, especially as it may be related to a smuggling operation that’s of interest to them. The NKVD doesn’t trust the Moscow CID, and the feeling is quite mutual. There’s also the fact that this murder may be related to the work of the Moscow criminal underworld, and that adds yet another layer of suspicion. Korolev has survived because he knows better than to trust anyone, and he knows that anything he says could mean imprisonment or worse. As Korolev tries to solve this murder, and later murders that occur, we see the powerful effect of that atmosphere of suspicion on the action in the story. It really adds tension and interest.

And then there’s Åsa Larsson’s The  Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm) in which Stockholm tax attorney Rebecca Martinsson returns to her home town of Kiruna to help a friend who’s been accused of murder. The victim is Viktor Strångard, who was a powerful leader in the Church of the Source of All Our Strength, and it’s among the church members that Martinsson thinks she’ll find the answers she needs. But the church itself is cloaked in mystery and no-one really trusts anyone else. Certainly the church members do not trust outsiders, and that atmosphere of suspicion adds to the tension as Martinsson works with Inspectors Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke to get to the truth about the murder.

When there’s an overall atmosphere of suspicion in a novel so that none of the characters trusts anyone, this can add a very effective layer of tension and suspense if it’s not made melodramatic. It can also add a solid layer of realism. Which novels have you enjoyed that use this suspense-builder?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elvis Presley’s Suspicious Minds.

16 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Nicolas Freeling, Rebecca Cantrell, Stephen J. Cannell, William Ryan

Bad Company, and I Can’t Deny it*

“Better no company than bad company” is a very old saying. Similar to it is the saying that we’re known by the company we keep. There’s some real truth to that line of thinking, actually. We do tend to pick friends and associates who are similar in at least some ways. And it always seems that people who spend a lot of time in the company of nasty people just tend to get themselves in trouble. We see a lot of that in real life, and it’s true in crime fiction, too.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter, for instance, Dr. Watson hears an odd story from Holmes. A Greek interpreter named Mr. Melas has more or less been kidnapped by Harold Latimer and compelled to go to a remote house and help Latimer and an associate named Wilson Kemp communicate with a young Greek man who seems to be their prisoner. Latimer and Kemp want this young man to sign some papers, and Melas immediately senses that all is not well. The young man is not convinced to sign the papers, and Melas is taken away from the house and abandoned. He manages to make it back home, and the next day tells his story to Holmes’ brother Mycroft, who belongs to the same club. Mycroft asks his brother to investigate, and Holmes and Watson get involved just in time to save Melas’ life. As it turns out, the young man had come to England to rescue his sister Sophy, who’d gotten mixed up with Latimer and Kemp, both of whom are very nasty people. They tried to get Sophy to sign over all her property and money to them, and when she refused, they kept her as a prisoner. At the end of this story, we find out that Latimer and Kemp meet a very appropriate fate.

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, we meet Alec Legge, a young scientist who’s taken a cottage in the village of Nassecomb with his wife Peggy. He’s been under a great deal of stress lately, and the getaway is designed to give him a rest. They’ve only been in Nasscomb for a few months when Legge’s peace and quiet are shattered. He had gotten mixed up with a radical political group, but when they went too far for him, he tried to extricate himself. Now, the group’s made it clear that they have no intention of making it that easy for him to leave them. As if those worries weren’t enough, Legge gets mixed up in a murder case when a local girl, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, is strangled during a fête at the local estate Nasse House. Hercule Poirot’s been invited to the fête to present the prizes for one of the events. So when Marlene Tucker’s body is discovered, he works with Inspector Bland to find her killer. It turns out that she was murdered because of a secret she’d learned, so Poirot looks into the lives of everyone who was a part of the preparations for the fête. One of those people is Alec Legge. Now, not only is Legge in great trouble because of his past political associations, but he’s also a murder suspect.

In Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise, Lord Peter Wimsey goes undercover to find out who killed copywriter Victor Dean. Dean fell to his death down a spiral staircase at his workplace, Pym’s Publicity, Ltd. At first, his death looks like a tragic accident but he left behind a half-finished letter in which he mentioned that someone at the company was involved in illegal activities. Pym’s top managers are worried about the company’s pristine reputation, so they hire Wimsey to take Dean’s place and find out what he can. Wimsey agrees and soon enjoys success as “the new copywriter.” He also begins his investigation. He learns that someone in the company has been getting paid to use company advertising as a tool for a powerful drugs gang to set up meetings with local drug dealers. When Dean found out about this agreement, he began to blackmail the killer, who struck back by murdering Dean. In reality, it was the killer’s involvement with very much the wrong sort of people that got that person involved in murder.

Getting mixed up with the wrong kind of people is a serious problem for Trevor Sharp in Peter Robinsons’s Gallows View. Trevor is a teenage boy who’s somewhat of a misfit. His father’s concerned about him because lately, Trevor’s been mixed up with Mick Webster, who’s already been in a lot of trouble. Mick himself is mixed up with some fairly unsavoury people, so his friendship with Trevor just draws Trevor into a bad situation. When a series of break-ins begins to happen in the Yorkshire town of Eastvale, newly-arrived DI Alan Banks slowly comes to the conclusion that Trevor Sharp knows more than he’s saying about it. Then, there’s a murder. As Banks and his team work to figure out what’s really happened in Eastvale, we also see more than one person try to warn Trevor Sharp that he’s in with bad company and needs to re-think what he’s doing. Tragically, he’s got other plans…

In Stephen J. Cannell’s The Tin Collectors, L.A.P.D. homicide detective Shane Scully gets an unusual request. Sandy Sandoval is a prostitute who also happens to be an excellent and effective L.A.P.D. informant. She’s been asked to work on a very dangerous undercover assignment, and doesn’t want to put her fifteen-year-old son Charles “Chooch” at risk. So she asks Scully to look after Chooch while she’s working her case. Scully’s not very comfortable with the idea, but he agrees. Soon enough, he finds out that Chooch has been in a lot of trouble, and not just at school. He’s been mixed up with some very dubious people and using drugs. Scully tries to help Chooch see that he’s headed for extremely serious trouble if he doesn’t make some wiser choices, but Chooch isn’t interested in hearing much of what Scully has to say. It doesn’t help matters that at the moment, Scully’s in a serious mess of his own. In response to a late-night frantic call, Scully went to the home of his former partner Ray Molar to try to protect Molar’s wife Barbara from her own husband. Molar shot at Scully, but his bullet missed. Scully’s self-defense bullet did not. Now, Scully faces a review of his conduct that quickly mushrooms into a possible murder charge when he discovers that Molar was mixed up with very much the wrong people. Before long, but Scully and Chooch are in real danger unless Scully can find out who’s been sabotaging him and why.

There’s a really interesting case of getting mixed up with a dangerous group in Tana French’s The Likeness. In that novel, Dublin detective Cassie Maddox is recovering from the effects of a former case, and has been transferred from Dublin’s murder investigation squad to the domestic violence team. Then, she gets a call that changes everything. The body of a young woman has been found, and what’s particularly eerie is that she looks exactly like Cassie. What’s more, her identification carries the name Alexandra Madison, which is the alias Cassie used in her last assignment. At the urging of her former supervisor, Cassie assumes the Lexie Madison identity once again to penetrate this unknown woman’s world and find out who the woman really is and who killed her. As Lexie, Cassie joins an eccentric and strangely close-knit group of housemates at Whitethorn House, outside Dublin. They’re not “bad company” in the usual sense (e.g. gang members or members of a crime ring), but they aren’t a “typical” group of people. Once she becomes a part of this group, Cassie finds the members both strange and appealing, and before she knows it, she’s mixed up in a very dangerous game. She also finds out who the young woman really was and why she was murdered.

Getting mixed up with the wrong people can get a person into very big trouble. As crime fiction shows us, minding the company we keep can be pretty important. Which “bad company” novels have you enjoyed?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bad Company’s Bad Company.

16 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Peter Robinson, Stephen J. Cannell, Tana French