Category Archives: T.J. Cooke

If You Only Knew*

OmnicientReaderSome crime writers build suspense in their novels by making the reader privy to information that the sleuth doesn’t yet have. The reader knows something’s going to happen, or knows a certain fact, but the sleuth hasn’t worked it out yet. On the one hand, that approach can add tension and invite the reader to find out how the sleuth will handle whatever it is she or he doesn’t yet know. It can also make for interesting perspectives on other characters. On the other hand, if it’s not done effectively, that strategy can make the sleuth seem incompetent, especially if it’s information you’d expect the sleuth ought to have or try to get. That said though, it’s used in a number of crime novels. Here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence asks Hercule Poirot to look into the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was murdered by her lodger James Bentley. There’s evidence against Bentley, and in fact he was convicted of the crime and is soon to be executed. But even though Spence himself collected the evidence, he’s begun to think that perhaps Bentley isn’t guilty. Poirot agrees to investigate and travels to the village of Broadhinny, where the murder takes place. He soon discovers that Mrs. McGinty had found out something about one of the villagers that it wasn’t safe for her to know. There are several suspects too; Broadhinny is full of ‘very nice people,’ but they all have their secrets. Then, there’s another murder. Now Poirot has to find out how the two deaths are connected, if they are. At one point, there’s a conversation between Edna Sweetiman and her mother, who runs the local post office. It turns out that Edna saw something on the night of the second murder. Poirot isn’t privy to that piece of information, but it’s a very interesting clue.

Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle is the story of the disappearance of Andreas Winther. One day, he meets up with his best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe as usual. By the end of that day, Andreas has disappeared. His mother Runi is concerned, and goes to the police. At first, Oslo police detective Konrad Sejer isn’t too worried. There are many legitimate reasons why a young man might take off for a few days without telling his mother. But when time passes and he still doesn’t return, Sejer begins to share Runi Winther’s fears. He starts to ask questions and interview people, beginning with Zipp. By this time in the novel, readers know much more about what happened to Andreas than Sejer does. Fossum uses that fact to build tension as Sejer tries to find out everything Zipp knows. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that Zipp didn’t kill his friend. But there is a lot that he knows, and that adds a thread of suspense to the interviews between Sejer and Zipp. Sejer of course is convinced that Zipp knows more than he is telling, and he’s determined to get the truth. For his part, Zipp has his reasons for not sharing everything that he knows.

T.J. Cooke takes a slightly different approach in Defending Elton. The body of an enigmatic young woman Sarena Gunasekera is found at the bottom of a cliff at Beachy Head near Eastbourne. In a very short time it’s established that she was stabbed to death and her body thrown over the cliff. Soon enough, the police have a suspect: Elton Spears. Spears is a mentally troubled young man who’s had brushes with the law before. He’s not particularly likeable and there’s evidence against him. But his solicitor Jim Harwood knows Spears, and takes on his case. This isn’t a traditional ‘whodunit’ kind of novel. Rather, the reader knows who the killer is early in the novel. The suspense in this novel comes from the question of whether the murderer will get away with the crime. In a way too the suspense comes from the question of motive. It’s not clear at first why the victim was killed; that’s revealed as the story evolves.

Several of the novels in Peter James’ Superintendent Roy Grace series also take the approach of giving the reader more information than the sleuth has. For instance, in Dead Simple, Grace and his team launch a major search when Michael Harrison disappears just days before his wedding to Ashley Harper. All the police know at first is that Harrison had gone out with some friends for a ‘stag night.’ Later that evening, their borrowed SUV was hit by another car, killing nearly everyone on board. Only one man survived that crash, but he is in a coma and dies without regaining consciousness. Harrison’s best friend and best-man-to-be Mark Warren was out of town on business and wasn’t with the group, so he doesn’t add much to Grace’s store of knowledge. Neither does Ashley, who says that she didn’t know what sort of prank the groom’s friends were planning. The reader is privy from the first few pages to what happened to Harrison. As the novel goes on, the reader also learns several things about some of the characters that Grace doesn’t know, at least at first. So part of the suspense in the novel lies in whether and how quickly Grace and his team can get that information.

In James Craig’s Never Apologise, Never Explain, John Carlyle of Charing Cross Station, and his assistant Joe Szyskowski are called to the scene when Henry Mills discovers the murdered body of his wife Agatha. There are no signs of home invasion, and nothing is missing. So the police make the logical deduction that Mills is responsible. His account of the killing is that his wife had enemies who were out to get her, but that’s a very thin alibi and he’s soon arrested and imprisoned. However, it’s not long before Carlyle finds a piece of evidence that adds considerable weight to Henry Mills’ story. So he and his team begin to look into the victim’s background to see who might have wanted to kill her. In the meantime, the reader has already learned, in a general sense, the answer to that question. We are given important background information that Carlyle doesn’t yet have. So part of the suspense in this novel is the ‘cat and mouse’ game between Carlyle and the person involved in the murder.

Gene Kerrigan uses a similar approach to building suspense in The Rage. Dublin DS Bob Tidey and Detective Garda Rose Cheney investigate when banker Emmet Sweetman is murdered in the hallway of his own home. Little by little they learn that Sweetman had been involved in some dubious ‘business transactions’ during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years. When the ‘boom years’ ended, Sweetman was in debt to some very nasty people who wanted their money back. In the meantime, we follow the story of Vincent Naylor, who’s recently been released from prison. He meets up again with his brother Noel and his girlfriend Michelle Flood, along with some other trusted friends. Together they plan a major heist: the armed robbery of a cash transfer vehicle. Their target is Protectica, a security company that moves cash among banks and businesses in the area. Tidey doesn’t know about these plans, and he doesn’t know at first that the group do in fact steal the money. But then everything falls apart for the thieves, and Vincent Naylor decides to take his own kind of revenge. Tidey doesn’t know that either at first, and Kerrigan builds tension as the reader learns about the robbery and its aftermath from the thieves’ point of view and, later, from Tidey’s.

Sleuths can’t know everything, so it’s logical that there would be some things they wouldn’t be privy to, at least at first. And it can work very effectively to have the reader know more than the sleuth, at least at first. That way the reader gets a broad perspective on a given story. At the same time, this approach needs to be handled carefully so that the detective isn’t made out to be too incompetent for credibility. What are your thoughts on this strategy? Do you enjoy novels where you know more than the sleuth does, at least at first?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Arlo Guthrie’s Someday.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Gene Kerrigan, James Craig, Karin Fossum, Peter James, T.J. Cooke

Introducing: T.J. Cooke

TJ_CookeHello, All,

If you’ve been kind enough to read this blog in the past, then you may remember that I had a feature for a while called Introducing…. The purpose of that feature was to spotlight authors who may not get a lot of recognition, but who write solid crime fiction. It’s not easy getting one’s name ‘out there’ if you’re an author, and this is my effort to do my part as you might say.

I was lax about Introducing… this past year, so now is the time to remedy that. This month I’d like you all to ‘meet’ Devon-based T.J. Cooke. Cooke’s had a very interesting career as a legal executive and advisor to the BBC’s Eastenders. He’s also done copywriting, freelance writing, journalism and of course, writing novels.

Kisss and Tell CoverThus far Cooke’s had two novels published. In the first, Kiss and Tell, London attorney Jill Shadow gets a new client Bella Kiss. Bella’s been arrested at Heathrow for smuggling drugs into the U.K. She admits to having the drugs, but won’t say who paid or coerced her into bringing them in. Still, it’s obvious that she’s terrified of someone. So despite Bella’s uncooperative attitude, Shadow decides to do what she can to help. She begins to ask questions that lead her into a much more complicated case than it seems on the surface. Then there’s a murder. That murder turns out to be related to an earlier death. And it’s soon clear that some very ruthless people don’t want Shadow to find out the truth about Bella. Shadow is going to have to do what she can to keep herself and her daughter Hannah safe until the people behind the drugs ring are caught.

Cooke has also written Defending Elton. That’s the story of the murder of an enigmatic young woman named Sarena Gunasekera. She was stabbed and her body found at the bottom of a cliff at Beachy Head near Eastbourne. Some of the evidence points to a troubled young man named Elton Spears. Not wpid-DefendingEltonKindleCovonly is there physical evidence against him but also, he has a history of inappropriate (‘though hitherto nonviolent) behaviour towards women. Solicitor Jim Harwood knows Spears and has worked with him before. Since Spears can’t assist much in his case, Harwood and barrister Harry Douglas will have to do the work in finding out the truth about this murder.

In both of these novels Cooke gives readers a look at the British legal system from several different perspectives. He also raises some interesting larger questions about how the legal system fits into the larger society, and how it does (or doesn’t) serve certain people.



Want to know more about T.J. Cooke? His website is here.


Want to know more about Kiss and Tell? It’s right here (US) and here (UK).


Want to know more about Defending Elton? Check it out here (US) and here (UK).


Filed under T.J. Cooke

For United We Stand, Divided We Fall*

InfightingYou’d think that when people have either a common goal or a common opponent that they’d stick together. And sometimes that happens. After all, as the saying goes, unity brings strength. But it’s surprising how often stress leads to fragmented relationships and in-fighting. In fact, police use that fact when they’re investigating what they think is a ‘conspiracy of silence.’ If you pit one person/group against the other, then the conspiracy breaks down and you find out the truth about a crime. Crime fiction is full of that kind of in-fighting. There’s only space here for a few examples, but they should show you what I mean.

One of the classic examples of how in-fighting sabotages co-operation is in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians). Ten people are invited for a stay at Indian Island off the Devon coast. On the evening they arrive, each is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Then, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night there’s another death. Very soon it’s clear that someone has lured everyone to the island and is killing the guests one by one. You’d think that under those circumstances, the survivors would work together, co-operate and catch the guilty person. And that’s sort of what they agree to do. But the murderer has found ways to foment mistrust among the members of the group. That mistrust eventually leads to in-fighting and that in turn leads to… well, I won’t spoil the story for those who’ve not read it.

In Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are called in when Nicholas Quinn, the newest member of Oxford’s Foreign Examinations Syndicate, is poisoned. The Syndicate is responsible for overseeing examinations in non-UK countries with a British education tradition, so it’s held in very high regard. Quinn was not a universal choice for membership, and a little digging soon turns up more than one motive for murder. But the members of the Syndicate aren’t very helpful to the detectives. Morse guesses correctly that everyone in the group has something to hide, but he doesn’t get very far at first. Then, he’s able to get the members to turn against each other and that process gives him information he needs to find out who killed Quinn and why.

Michael Dibdin’s police sleuth Aurelio Zen uses in-fighting to his advantage in Ratking. He’s seconded from Rome to the Perugia questura to help in a high-profile kidnapping case. Wealthy magnate Ruggerio Miletti has been abducted, and although there’s no word that he’s been killed, the police haven’t been able to find him or his kidnappers either. Zen begins work on the case by talking to Miletti’s family members as well as other members of his ‘circle.’ And it’s not long before he suspects that there’s more to this case than it seems, and that most people aren’t telling him everything they know. He’s right too as each member of the Miletti family has a personal agenda. Part of Zen’s strategy for finding out the truth is turning the superficially close-knit family members against each other, and that leads to just the in-fighting that gives him vital information to solve the case.

Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear is the story of the murder of Paul Fowler. He and some friends are at a park tossing a football around one afternoon when Fowler is shot. New South Wales Police detective Ella Marconi and her partner Murray Shakespeare take the case and begin to interview Fowler’s friends, former business associates and ex-wife Trina. It’s soon clear that some of the witnesses are not telling everything they know because they’ve agreed to stick together and keep their mouths shut. But when Marconi and Shakespeare manage to foment disharmony in the group, they’re able to fragment that unity and find out some critical information about the case.

In T.J. Cooke’s Kiss and Tell, London attorney Jill Shadow agrees to take on a new case. Hungarian national Bella Kiss has been arrested at Heathrow Airport for smuggling drugs into the UK. She admits that she had the drugs, but she won’t reveal anything about who paid or coerced her into smuggling them. She is at the same time both uncooperative and terrified, so at first Shadow tries to find out the truth about the case herself. And she does in fact put some of the pieces together. But she soon finds that without her client’s co-operation, she’s not going to be able to be of much help. Then, there’s a murder. Now Shadow tries to get more information from her client by arguing that there’s no sense being loyal to people who won’t be loyal in return. At first Bella remains closed-mouth. But when Shadow drops her case, Bella re-thinks her position. Eventually Bella tells Shadow what she knows, and that leads to important information about the drugs traffickers and the murder.

And then there’s Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson face the most awful nightmare any couple can imagine:  the loss of their nine-week-old son Noah. They’ve just arrived in Australia after a long trip from Scotland when they report Noah missing. At first the Australian media and the public are very sympathetic. A massive search is undertaken and there is a lot of support for the couple. But then, questions begin to be raised. Soon enough, people begin to wonder whether the truth about Noah is more awful than anyone knew. It’s not unheard-of of course for couples to be responsible for the death of their child and then cover it up.  The police are aware of this and in one interesting plot thread they interview both Joanna and Alistair, but separately. And during the interviews, the police try to turn the couple against each other. In the end, we do learn what really happened to the baby and those interviews form a solid layer as the police try to get answers.

In-fighting can fragment even a strong relationship or committed agreement. The police count on that when they’re investigating, and very often, they’re right about its usefulness.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tony Hiller and Peter Simon’s United We Stand, made popular by The Brotherhood of Man.  


Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Helen Fitzgerald, Katherine Howell, Michael Dibdin, T.J. Cooke

And That’s Why You’ll Need the Best Lawyer in Town*

Unpopular CasesIn many countries’ legal systems, a person accused of a crime is considered innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. That concept may be phrased differently in different systems, but the basic idea is that the prosecution has to prove that the defendant is guilty. Most people would tell you that that assumption is a good idea as it makes it less likely that an innocent person would be ‘railroaded’ into prison. It also helps ensure that everyone gets a fair trial.

It also means though that lawyers sometimes defend very unpopular clients and get involved in very difficult cases. As a wise attorney I know has said, the job of defending counsel is to defend, not to judge. But that job is a lot harder when a defendant has already been found guilty in the ‘court of public opinion.’ Let me just offer a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.

We see a bit of this in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs. Hercule Poirot takes on a sixteen-year-old case of poisoning when Carla Lemarchant hires him to find out who killed her father Amyas Crale. Crale was a famous artist who was painting a portrait of his mistress Elsa Greer when he was murdered. At the time, his wife Caroline was arrested, tried and convicted. And there was plenty of evidence against her too. But Carla is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants to clear her name. One step that Poirot takes is to discuss the matter with Montague Depleach, defending counsel in this case. Depleach explains that there was a lot of sympathy for Caroline as her husband had been unfaithful to her. But even he admits that he’s always thought she was guilty. And so, as it turns out, has everyone else. Depleach is a skilled attorney with a good reputation, but that wasn’t enough to make people question their assumptions about Caroline Crale. You could say he was fighting a proverbial uphill battle against the presumption of her guilt.

In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Queen travels to the small town of Wrightsville to get some peace and quiet for writing. He takes a guesthouse on the property of town leaders John F. and Hermione ‘Hermy’ Wright. That’s how he gets involved in their family drama. The Wrights’ youngest daughter Nora was engaged to Jim Haight when he jilted her, leaving town with no explanation. Now he’s back and against everyone’s wishes, he and Nora resume their relationship and marry. Then, Nora becomes mysteriously ill. She recovers, but then becomes ill again. Then, Haight’s sister Rosemary, who’s come for an extended visit, is killed at a New Year’s Eve party when she has a poisoned drink intended for Nora. Now Haight is arrested for murder and the evidence is against him. So is the town. The Wrights are not just powerful, but popular. Eli Martin takes on the task of defending Haight, and it’s not easy. For one thing, there is convincing evidence against Haight. And that’s to say nothing of motive, as Haight stands to inherit if Nora dies. In the end only Nora’s sister Pat and Ellery Queen really believe that Haight could be innocent and it takes all of their efforts to prove that they’re right.

One of the best-known (and in my opinion, most powerful) examples of a lawyer taking on an unpopular client is in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Maycomb, Alabama is a small Southern town where racism is more or less an institution. Certainly it’s deeply ingrained in the culture. So when Mayella Ewell, who is White, accuses Tom Robinson, who is Black, of rape, the town is up in arms against him. In fact, he’s nearly lynched before his case can even be tried. Well-known lawyer Atticus Finch takes Robinson’s case and prepares to defend him, a decision that puts him and his children in some danger. But that doesn’t stop Finch from carrying through on his commitment to defend his client as vigourously as he can. That commitment drives Finch to find out the real truth about what happened.

John Grisham’s A Time to Kill deals with a very difficult case for attorney Jake Brigance. Ten-year-old Tonya Hailey, who is Black, is viciously attacked and raped by two White men Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard. The small town of Clanton, Mississippi is shocked at the incident and there is a great deal of sympathy for the girl and her family. But Tonya’s father Carl Lee Hailey is determined not to let Cobb and Willard escape justice. So he lies in wait for them and as they go into the courthouse, he murders them. Now the town is tragically divided and Brgance walks a proverbial minefield as he does his best to defend his client. And he’s up against a considerable force too, since there are some powerful people who want Hailey found guilty or worse. And after all, there’s little doubt that Hailey committed the killings.

In Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, we meet attorney Andy Woods. He has the thankless task of defending seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been accused of murdering Tasmania Police Sergeant John White. Rowley isn’t exactly a ‘misunderstood, nice young boy.’ He’s been in trouble with the law numerous times, and he s both rude and cocky. But he is still entitled to counsel. Besides, he’s part-Aboriginal, and nobody much wants the legal and political repercussions of giving the appearance of racism. So Woods is reluctantly given access to his client, the necessary reports and so on. Still, he is not in the least popular with the police:


‘..when he announced his reason for being there [at the police station]…any pretence of civility disappeared quicker than you could say ‘Aboriginal Legal Service.’  Announcing that you were not only a criminal lawyer, but a criminal lawyer subcontracted to the ALS was tantamount to announcing that you were a paedophile with a rampant case of swine flue who’d recently returned from a baby-seal-bashing expedition around the Arctic Circle.’


As it turns out, not even Woods’ client is particularly helpful or grateful to him.

In T.J. Cooke’s Defending Elton, the body of a mysterious young woman Sarena Gunasekera is found at the bottom of a cliff at Beachy Head near Eastbourne, She was stabbed before being thrown over the cliff, and blood and other evidence suggest that her murderer is Elton Spears. He’s a troubled young man with a history of mental illness. He isn’t exactly a likeable client and can’t do much to defend himself. But his solicitor Jim Harwood knows the young man and agrees to take the case. He briefs barrister Harry Douglas, who will defend the case in court, and the two go to work to try to find out what really happened to the victim. As the reader learns, it’s a very tricky case for Harwood…

One of the more difficult things attorneys do is defend clients who are unpopular, especially in heated and controversial cases. But it’s part of the job and it happens a lot. And I haven’t even mentioned novels where it’s the prosecuting attorney who has to take up an unpopular side…


On Another Note….


My sincere thanks to Rebecca Bradley, who invited me to stop by her blog today. I’m really honoured. Please come pay me a visit there and find out some background stuff about In a Word: Murder that you only thought you knew. And no, I’m hopeful I won’t need my lawyer… ;-)

While you’re there, you’ll want to soak in Rebecca’s terrific blog. It’s a wonderful resource for crime fiction readers and writers. Oh, and Rebecca hosts a great online book club.

Thanks, Rebecca, for your support of this project!



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Irving Gordon’s Allentown Jail, made popular by The Seekers and The Kingston Trio.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Harper Lee, John Grisham, T.J. Cooke, Y.A. Erskine

And Then? And Then?*

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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