Category Archives: Tony Broadbent

Well, You Say That I’m an Outlaw*

Criminals as ProtagonistsIn crime fiction, we usually think of the protagonist as ‘the good guy’ – the one who catches ‘the bad guy.’ But people who break the law can also be really interesting protagonists and even sleuths. Having a criminal as a protagonist gives a really interesting perspective on a crime. It also allows for some solid depth of character.

One of G.K. Chesterton’s well-drawn characters is Hercule Flambeau, who is a master jewel thief and criminal. He’s usually able to outwit the police, but when he encounters Father Paul Brown in The Blue Cross, Flambeau finds he’s met his match. In that story, Father Brown is en route to a large gathering of priests. With him he’s brought a silver cross set with turquoise – a very attractive prize to a thief such as Flambeau. The story of how the two men interact and of how Father Brown deals with Flambeau is interesting and certainly from Flambeau’s perspective, unusual. We meet Flambeau in other stories too where he is at least the co-protagonist and although he has a criminal past, he’s painted quite sympathetically.

Agatha Christie takes an interesting look at the criminal-as-protagonist in And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians). Ten very different people receive invitations to stay as guests at a house on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. For different reasons, each accepts. On the night of their arrival, the guests are shocked when each is accused of being a criminal, specifically of causing the death of at least one other person. Then, one of the guests dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night there’s another death. It’s soon clear that they are trapped on the island with a murderer. As more guests begin to die, the survivors have to find out who the killer is while at the same time staying alive themselves. As we learn the backstory of each person on the island, we also learn why their un-named host considers them criminals. But they’re not entirely unsympathetic people and we can feel for them as they try to decide who can be trusted and who not.

Robert Pollock’s Loophole: Or, How to Rob a Bank is the story of a group of criminals led by professional thief Mike Daniels. The team decides to try for a very big prize: a theft from the City Savings Bank. Their bold plan is to use the sewer system to tunnel under the bank. For that though they’ll need the help of an architect. They find their man in the person of Stephen Booker, an unemployed architect who’s taken to driving a night cab to put food on the table. He’s desperate for money so against his better judgement he falls in with the thieves. The group makes elaborate preparations and as they do, Pollock shows the thieves in a sympathetic light. Here for instance is Daniels’ description of thieves:

 

‘Thieves. You might just as well say salesmen or clerks in an office. It’s their business. It’s what they do. There’s nothing strange about it, not to them anyway…They do what everybody does. They have girlfriends or wives and children and hobbies. They build shelves in the kitchen and clean their cars on Sundays.’
 

The day of the robbery arrives and at first everything goes well. Then a storm moves in, bringing a lot of rain with it. Now the thieves face a literal life-or-death struggle as they try to go for their prize.

In Tony Broadbent’s The Smoke, we meet Jethro, a professional cat burglar living in post-World War II London’s West End.  He tries to convince the world that he’s ‘gone straight,’ so he takes a job in the theatre district. His real goal though is easy access to the wealthy homes in nearby Mayfair and Belgravia. At first, he’s able to go fairly un-noticed even though most people in the criminal world are convinced that he has no intention of living an ‘upright’ life. Then Jethro decides on a real coup: emeralds belonging to the wife of the Russian Ambassador. That break-in gets the interest of MI5 and Jethro soon finds himself facing off against them, the police and fellow criminals. While it’s quite clear that Jethro’s a criminal, it’s easy to feel sympathy for him.

In Jeffrey Stone’s historical novel Play Him Again we are introduced to Matt ‘Hud’ Hudson. Hud has dreams of becoming a film-maker in the growing world of Hollywood. But at the moment he’s a ‘rum-runner’ – a smuggler of then-illegal alcohol (the novel takes place in the 1920’s). Hud is devastated when his friend Danny is murdered, Hud wants to find out who killed him and get revenge. There are plenty of suspects too. For one thing, a very nasty criminal gang has moved into the area and wants to take over Hud and Danny’s operation. There are rival smuggling groups too whose members would be all too happy to have the field cleared as the saying goes. As Hud searches for answers, it’s clear that he and several of the people he deals with are criminals – thieves, con men and smugglers. But Stone presents a lot of them sympathetically and it’s not hard to wish Hud well as he tries to find out what happened to his friend.

Even when criminals aren’t ‘official’ protagonists, they can play important roles in novels and be depicted sympathetically. For example, Andrea Camilleri’s series featuring Inspector Salvo Montalbano includes a very interesting ‘regular’ character Gegè Gullotta. He’s a drug dealer and local criminal leader who runs a notorious area of the town of Vigàta. This area, called The Pasture, is a meeting place for prostitutes and their clients and for small-time marijuana and other drug deals. Gullotta and Montalbano went to school together and they’ve maintained a cordial relationship since then, although both of them find it more expedient to keep their friendship discreet. Gullotta wants to run a trouble-free operation; as he sees it he’s a businessman, nothing more. In his way Montalbano helps Gullotta by not making public examples of the people involved in Gullotta’s ‘enterprises.’ Gullotta appreciates being able to run a peaceful trade and he does his part by not letting things in The Pasture get out of control or trouble people who don’t want to be involved in what goes on there. He’s also quite tuned in to the Vigàta criminal community so he hears a lot of what goes on. More than once Montalbano benefits from what Gullotta finds out.

It’s always interesting to see stories from different points of view. When criminals are portrayed as protagonists, it’s important for authors to acknowledge that they’re lawbreakers. But at the same time, a criminal with a sympathetic character can make for an effective perspective in a crime novel. Which ones have you enjoyed?

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Woody Guthrie’s Pretty Boy Floyd.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, G.K. Chesterton, Jeffrey Stone, Robert Pollock, Tony Broadbent

London Calling to the Faraway Towns*

This weekend, Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her Diamond Jubilee. Whether or not you’re interested in the doings of that royal family, it’s quite a special occasion. I thought it also might be a good time to take a look at crime fiction that takes place in her hometown of London. London is so full of atmosphere, stories and legends, rich diversity, history, and all sorts of different neighbourhoods that it’s actually a terrific setting for a crime novel. There’ve been a lot of them so today’s post won’t by any means mention them all. Hopefully you’ll get an idea of what I mean though.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes of course makes his home in Late Victorian London at one of crime fiction’s most famous addresses – 221B Baker Street. Holmes is thoroughly familiar with London. In fact, one of his particular skills is that he can recognise both accents and clay or mud from all of London’s different neighbourhoods and the surrounding area. For example, in The Five Orange Pips, Holmes and Watson get a late-evening visitor John Openshaw who consults Holmes about what seems to be a curse on his family. Both his father and his uncle died unexpectedly after receiving a mysterious letter containing five orange pips. Now Openshaw has received a similar letter and is frightened that he may be the next victim. When Openshaw arrives at the Baker Street residence, here is Holmes’ reaction:

 

“‘Give me your coat and umbrella,’ said Holmes. They may rest here on the hook and will be dry presently. You have come up from the south-west, I see.’
‘Yes, from Horsham.’
‘That clay and chalk mixture which I see upon your toe-caps is quite distinctive.’”

 

Holmes takes this case, but he’s unable to prevent Openshaw’s death. In the end though he finds out what the five orange pips mean and who is responsible for the deaths and strange events in the Openshaw family. Holmes knows London better than any taxi driver and what he doesn’t know, he learns from The Baker Street Irregulars, a group of young “street boys” who go everywhere, see everything and can find out anything without being noticed. The Holmes novels and stories are full of the atmosphere of Victorian London.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot makes his home in London at another crime-fictionally famous address, Whitehaven Mansions. While he doesn’t have the deep knowledge of all of London’s neighbourhoods that Holmes does, we do get a sense of the city in the novels and stories that feature him. For instance, in Lord Edgware Dies, Poirot and Hastings are at a performance given by a new American sensation Carlotta Adams. Afterwards they go to supper at the Savoy where they meet another American “success story,” famous actress Jane Wilkinson. She wants Poirot to help her convince her husband, 4th Baron Edgware, to give her a divorce so she can marry the Duke of Merton. Poirot reluctantly agrees and he and Hastings make an appointment at the Baron’s home in the Regent’s Gate neighbourhood of London. To their surprise, Edgware says he has already written to his wife, agreeing to the divorce. Poirot begins to wonder whether there is more to this case than a straightforward divorce situation and he is proven all too right when Edgware is stabbed to death. His wife is the prime suspect but twelve people – guests at a dinner party at the home of Sir Montagu Corner in Chiswick – are prepared to swear that she was at that party. Edgware’s nephew Ronald is also a suspect since he is set to inherit both his uncle’s title and his fortune. But the new Lord Edgware claims that he was at the opera at Covent Garden at the time of the murder, and the people he was with are prepared to support that alibi. Then there’s another murder. And another. In the end, Poirot and Hastings find out what connects the murders and who really killed the victims, and it takes them through several parts of London.

Tony Broadbent’s The Smoke is an historical crime fiction novel set in post-World War II London. In that novel we meet Jethro, a cat burglar who saw service in the Merchant Navy during the war. He’s trying to convince the world that he’s gone straight and wants to make a decent life for himself. So he takes a job as a stagehand in London’s West End theatre district. That, he thinks, will prove a good cover for his real goal, which is access to London’s wealthy Mayfair and Belgravia homes. Most of the criminals in London’s underworld are quite sure that Jethro has no intention of staying away from crime and they’re right. But he’s working right out in plain view, so to speak, so nothing can really be connected to him. It’s a perfect situation for Jethro until he decides on a real coup – breaking into the Russian Embassy and stealing jewels that belong to the wife of the Russian Ambassador. That theft gets the attention of MI5, and soon Jethro faces off against them, fellow criminals and Scotland Yard as he plays a deadly game of “catch me if you can.” This novel takes readers all over post-war London and shows the real diversity of wealth and poverty as well as the “underside” of the city.

P.D. James’ Commandar Adam Dalgliesh is a member of the Metropolitan Police (the Met) and works at New Scotland Yard, so many of the stories featuring him take place in London. A Taste For Death, for instance, concerns the murder of Crown Minister Paul Berowne, whose body is found in a church in the Paddington area of London. Also discovered is the body of Harry Mack, a local tramp. Since Berowne’s death will cause a great deal of media interest, Dalgliesh and his specially-organised team DCI John Massingham and DI Kate Miskin have been assigned to this delicate case. There are several suspects too since Berowne had political enemies, a dysfunctional family and several secrets he was keeping. As Dalgliesh, Massingham and Miskin investigate, we go along and the route takes us from Dalgliesh’s Whitehall headquarters to the world-class Campden Hill Square area near Kensington Palace, to Holland Park, to Kate Miskin’s working-class roots in one of the not-so-nice areas near the Notting Hill part of London.

Contemporary London is more diverse than ever and we really see both its cultural/linguistic diversity and its variety in James Craig’s Never Apologise, Never Explain. In that novel, Inspector John Carlyle of the Charing Cross station is assigned to investigate the murder of Agatha Mills, a seemingly inoffensive elderly woman who lived with her husband Henry on Great Russell Street near the British Museum. At first, her husband is the most obvious suspect. He can’t reliably account for himself during the time of the murder, and his explanation for his wife’s killing is too fantastic for the police to believe. Henry Mills claims that his wife was killed by political enemies. Mills is soon arrested for his wife’s murder. Then Carlyle gets a critical clue. He’s at the Mills residence when he sees local tramp and drunk Walter Poonoosamy, who was actually at the building on the night of the murder. Poonoosamy gives Carlyle something that proves Henry Mills’ story about his wife’s death. Now Carlyle and his sergeant Joe Szyskowski start digging more deeply into this murder. Then there’s another death. And in the end, Carlyle finds out what connects the deaths and how the Mills family history relates to those murders. In the meantime, Carlyle is working on another case, this one less formally. An acquaintance of his, former prostitute Amelia Jacobs, now works as a housekeeper/maid for Sam Laidlaw, who’s still “in the business.” Jacobs is worried because she thinks Laidlaw’s son Jake is at risk of being snatched by his father, local thug Michael Hagger. Carlyle agrees to warn Hagger off but before he does so, Jake disappears. Now Carlyle has to search for both Hagger and his son, and as he searches we see the side of London that the tourists don’t generally visit. Throughout this novel, the London setting is a major focus. Readers visit Charing Cross, 10 Downing Street, Russell Square, the Chilean Embassy and a lot of other places too. And Craig shows us clearly what daily life is like in modern London.

London even finds its way into novels set in other places. For instance in Helene Tursten’s The Glass Devil, Göteborg police Inspector Irene Huss and her team investigate the murders of three members of the Schyttelius family. One night, schoolteacher Jacob Schyttelius is killed while on his way into his parents’ winterised cottage. A few hours later, both of his parents are killed in their home. At first it looks as though the murders might be the work of a Satanist cult but soon, the evidence proves that theory wrong. Now the investigation team has to face the possibility that someone is targeting the family itself for more personal reasons. Since the Schyttelius family also had a daughter Rebecka, the team is concerned for her safety and wants to know as much about her as possible. But Rebecka Schyttelius no longer lives in the area; she’s moved to London where she works with a computer development company. So Huss makes a trip to London where she tries to interview Rebecka Schyttelius. Her visit there gives us a fascinating “visitor’s eye view” of London as she tracks down Rebecka Schyttelius, interviews her work partner and her doctor and works with DCI Glen Thompson on this case. In fact (no spoilers here as to why this happens ;-)) Huss even convinces her boss Sven Andersson to take a holiday in London.

And it’s easy to see the appeal, really. London is crowded, expensive and in some places, dangerous. But it’s got a compelling and fascinating history, a rich and vivid diversity and some beautiful places to visit. Little wonder it’s such a popular place for crime fiction!! Got any favourite “London novels” to share?

 

I wish all the very best to Her Majesty and her family as they celebrate her Diamond Jubilee!

 

ps.  The ‘photos are of the Russell Square neighbourhood near the British Museum and of the British Museum itself.

 

 

 

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from The Clash’s London Calling.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Helene Tursten, James Craig, P.D. James, Tony Broadbent

Longing For Shelter From All That We See*

As I’ve often mentioned on this blog, being a sleuth is really difficult. Apart from the obvious physical and mental toll the job takes, there’s the added fact that most people don’t have a really clear idea of what the work is like. Among the few people who really do “get it” – at a deep level – are other cops and law enforcement professionals. So it’s no surprise that a lot of “office romances” spring up. For one thing, investigating cases usually involves an awful lot of time, so people working on them spend quite a lot of time together. And then there’s the adrenaline “rush” that comes during an intense investigation; that, too, adds to the mix. Add in the empathy factor and you’ve got a very ripe atmosphere for romance. A quick look at crime fiction shows what I mean.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a hard-working member of the Navajo Nation and the Navajo Tribal Police. In the course of the novels that feature him, Chee has three serious relationships. The first two are not with fellow cops. But in The Wailing Wind, Chee meets rookie Tribal Police Officer Bernadette Manuelito. In that novel, she finds a dead man in a truck in the desert. At first, she thinks the man was drunk and the death accidental. But the case proves to be murder. Unfortunately, by then, Manuelito has compromised the crime scene and gets into trouble for it. Sergeant Jim Chee suspects there’s something particularly strange about this murder and he and “The Legendary Lieutenant” Joe Leaphorn begin to look for answers. For Chee, the motivation is that he doesn’t want the FBI taking over his case and he likes Manuelito (and he respects her, too). For Leaphorn, the case reminds him of another, unsolved case from two years earlier. As the case gets more dangerous and the hours longer, Chee and Manuelito spend more time together and find they’re mutually attracted. To add to this, Manuelito is in many ways a traditional Navajo; she and Chee share a strong bond in that way. In the end (and after a few novels), we see a happy ending for Chee and Manuelito. One of the things that’s most appealing about this “office romance” is that it develops very believably and naturally. It doesn’t feel contrived at all.

Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks finds himself swept up in an “office romance,” too.  In In a Dry Season, the once-buried Yorkshire village of Hobb’s End has become uncovered due to a drought. A young boy exploring the ruins discovers that a skeleton’s been buried, too. Banks and his team begin the work of finding out who the woman was and how and why she died. One of his team members is DS Annie Cabot. Cabot’s far from perfect, but she’s a hard-working and skilled cop, and Banks finds her attractive, too. To add to that, Banks and his wife Sandra have separated, and he’s still dealing with the fact that she was unfaithful to him. So it seems only natural that Banks and Cabot would be drawn to each other and they are. They begin a relationship that certainly has its ups and downs, but shows clearly how “office romances” can start when the ingredients are there. Again, this relationship makes sense and adds to the story because it falls out naturally from the plot. It’s not contrived just to add “spice” to the series.

The romance between Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson and her boss Måns Wenngren is also natural.  When we first meet them in Sun Storm (AKA The Savage Altar), Martinsson is a tax attorney working in Stockholm. She and Wenngren have an icily polite relationship; Wenngren thinks that Martinsson is cold and distant, and Martinsson is smarting because of Wenngren’s management style as well as what she sees as Wenngren’s lack of respect for her. Martinsson returns to her hometown of Kiruna to help a former friend who’s been charged with murder. In the course of that case, Martinsson herself gets into a very traumatic situation from which she’s just beginning to recover when the events of the next novel The Blood Spilt take place. Throughout that novel and The Black Path, Wenngren and Martinsson get to know each other better even though they don’t spend a lot of time together at first. The more they learn about each other, the more they respect and come to love each other. What’s appealing about this relationship is that it takes a very natural course. It develops over time (three novels) and we can really imagine people like Martinsson and Wenngren pursuing a relationship in the way they do.

And then there’s the relationship between P.D. Martin’s Sophie Anderson and Darren Carter. Anderson is an F.B.I. profiler whom we meet in Body Count. She and her team are on the trail of a vicious killer nicknamed “The D.C. Slasher.” That trail leads to Tucson, Arizona, where it seems the killer has struck before. In the course of working that part of the investigation, Sophie meets Carter, with Arizona Homicide. The two begin a friendship as they work this case; later it blossoms into more. Again, this is a realistic relationship. Anderson and Carter don’t magically fall in love and get whisked away, as the legend goes. They have their awkward moments and difficulties, one of which is that it’s often a long-distance romance. But that’s what makes this relationship work in terms of character development; it’s authentic.

The relationship between Deborah Crombie’s Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid is authentic, too. When we first meet them in A Share in Death, they work together as colleagues. Over time they come to like and trust each other and they build a life together. But there’s nothing contrived or “magical” about this couple. The stress of their jobs takes it toll, and they each have personal issues to deal with as well. That’s part of why this “office romance” works in this series. It’s natural and believable, and it develops between two people who are human.

It’s just as interesting to see how incipient “office romances” don’t happen as it is to see how they do happen. Plenty of people notice those with whom they work, but don’t pursue a relationship. Sometimes it’s because they’re committed to other people. Sometimes it’s because they realise the pitfalls of an “office romance.” That sub-plot can be add an interesting layer to a story as well. For instance, Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett is the leader of the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review team. Her second-in-command in the first few novels of Edwards’ Lake District series is Nick Lowther. Scarlett and Lowther work well together and there are hints – just hints – that under other circumstances they might become more than friends and colleagues. But the novels wouldn’t be as effective as they are if this couple did explore a relationship. In this case, the faint hints are far more effective and add some depth to both characters.

The same is true of Carolyn Graham’s Tom Barnaby. Barnaby is happily married to his wife Joyce – has been for a number of years. But in A Ghost in the Machine, Barnaby acknowledges the risks of police work when it comes to “office romances.” He’s noticing that Sergeant Gavin Troy and WPC Abby Rose Carter are mildly flirting. Here’s his reaction:

 

“The physical and emotional closeness police work often entailed made such situations especially hazardous. Barnaby himself had never been unfaithful, although there had been one or two very close calls. The second so close it had led to a request for a transfer.”

 

This is just my opinion, so feel free to differ with me if you do, but the series is stronger because Barnaby admits to not being immune, as it were, but doesn’t completely slip.

“Office romances” can fall out very naturally in a plot. When they do, that thread can add some character depth, especially if it’s done over time. When it’s contrived, though, or not done subtly, an “office romance” can spell disaster for a novel or series. What’s your view on this? Do you think authors ought to steer clear of this plot point? Or do you think it makes sense as a plot point?

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger’s We’ve Got Tonight.

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Filed under Åsa Larsson, Caroline Graham, Deborah Crombie, Martin Edwards, P.D. Martin, Peter Robinson, Tony Broadbent

>Right in Plain View…

>Murderers often take great pains to “hide their tracks.” After all, most of them don’t want to be caught. So it’s up to the police or other detectives to find those sometimes-very-subtle clues that lead to the killer. The trouble with that is that sometimes, at least in crime fiction, the sleuth is looking so hard for a subtle clue that he or she overlooks an obvious clue – the clue that’s hiding, so to speak, in plain sight. Some murderers even take advantage of this, and leave clues, or even the bodies of their victims, where they think the sleuth is least likely to find it – right out in the open.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes often solves cases that the police find it hard to solve, because he’s able to make sense of a clue that’s right there for everyone to find. That’s what happens in The Boscombe Valley Mystery. James McCarthy has been arrested for the murder of his father, Charles McCarthy. There’s evidence against him, too. He and his father were seen quarrelling on the day of the murder, and he was the last person anyone saw with his father. His fiancée, Alice Turner, doesn’t believe that James McCarthy is guilty, though. So she begs Inspector Lestrade to take another look at the case. He doesn’t think there’s much to be done about it, but he asks Holmes to investigate. Holmes makes note of one clue – a significant thing that the victim said – that leads him to the real killer and clears James McCarthy’s name.

Over the years, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has learned not to overlook the obvious clue, but even he doesn’t always remember that a clue can sometimes be easy to see. For instance, in Dead Man’s Folly, Poirot visits Nasse House, the home of Sir George Stubbs and his wife, Hattie. Poirot’s been invited there ostensibly to give away the prizes for a Murder Hunt that his friend, Ariadne Oliver, has planned. The Murder Hunt is to be a kind of scavenger hunt as a part of a fête that’s to be held at the house. Poirot’s real reason for being at the fête is that Oliver thinks that there’s something going on at Nasse House. Poirot trusts her judgment and agrees to investigate. Sure enough, on the day of the fête, there’s a murder. Marlene Tucker, who was to play the part of the victim, is strangled. No-one can imagine a reason for her death. She wasn’t wealthy, she hadn’t made enemies, and she doesn’t seem to have come from a violent home. Poirot does learn, though, that Marlene Tucker was in the habit of finding out people’s secrets. That gets him thinking about whose secrets she might have known. He doesn’t discover the murderer, though, until he realizes the value of something obvious that Marlene had said to him. In fact, he’s upset that he didn’t realize the significance of it at first:

“I should have guessed. Guessed long ago. The child practically told me.”

Once Poirot realizes what he’s overlooked, he’s able to identify the murderer.

In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle, there’s also a very obvious clue to the murderer of Sheila Grey. She’s a well-known clothing designer whose fashions are all the rage. While she’s discreet, Sheila’s had many lovers. Her current lover is wealthy Ashton McKell, who lives in the same apartment building. When McKell’s son, Dane, finds out that his father has a mistress, he’s determined to find out who this woman is. When he meets her, Dane McKell becomes smitten, too, and it’s not long before he’s also involved with Sheila Grey. Then one night, she’s shot. Inspector Richard Queen is put in charge of the case, so his son, Ellery, gets involved, too. At first, their suspicions fall on Ashton McKell. When he’s cleared, suspicion moves first to his wife, Lutetia, and then his son. Then, Ellery Queen discovers a clue that’s been there all along. Sheila Grey had a particular way of identifying her killer, and once Queen figures out what that was, he’s able to figure out who really committed the murder. Of course, in true Ellery Queen style, it’s not until the end, when Queen discovers something about that clue, that he makes the right deduction.

Sometimes, fictional murderers use the obvious to “hide in plain sight.” For example, in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Poirot and Hastings investigate a series of murders. The only thing the killings have in common is that before each murder, Poirot receives a cryptic note telling him when and where the murder will take place. Also, an ABC railway guide is found beside each body. Because of these clues, it looks as though a serial killer is at work, and that’s how the police investigate the case. In fact, Scotland Yard appoints a specialist to work on these killings, because it’s thought that they are the work of a madman. The truth is, though, that the killer isn’t a madman at all, but has used the deaths as a “cover.” In other words, the killer has “hidden” a victim in plain sight, so to speak.

That’s also what happens in Ellis Peters’ One Corpse Too Many. In that novel, the ongoing civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud has resulted in a win for the king. Ninety-four of those who were loyal to the empress have been hung for treason, and it’s Cadfael’s sad responsibility to bury the dead. When he prepares to get the bodies, though, he finds that there are actually ninety-five bodies. The “extra” body belongs to an unidentified young man who was strangled and whose body was placed with the others to “hide it.” Before long, the young man, Nick Faintree, has been identified. He’s a squire for the leader of the rebels against King Stephen, and had been entrusted to help spirit the rebel leader’s treasure to safety. Now, Cadfael is determined to find out who killed him and what happened to the treasure. In the end, he discovers who the murderer was, and finds out about the betrayal that led to Faintree’s death.

In The Smoke, Tony Broadbent offers very interesting historical crime fiction about a thief who hides in plain sight, so to speak. Jehtro is a former cat burglar who saw service in the Merchant Navy during World War II. Now, in 1947 London, he’s trying to convince the world that he’s gone straight. He gets a job as a stagehand in London’s West End theatres and music halls, and does his best to get everyone thinking that he’s left his life of crime behind. The reality is, though, that Jethro is using his stagehand work as a cover. He’s really got his eye on some of London’s wealthy Belgravia and Mayfair homes, among others. Most of London’s underworld is sure that Jethro hasn’t gone straight, but because he’s right in plain view, so to speak, nothing can really be traced to him. Then, he breaks into the Russian Embassy and steals some jewels that belong to the Ambassador’s wife. Now, he comes to the attention of MI5, who wants him to break in again and retrieve a secret code for them. MI5 is not the only group interested in Jethro, either. In the end, Jethro has to play a deadly game with Secret Service members, Scotland Yard, and local gangsters, among others, if he’s going to stay alive.

On one hand, clues that hide in plain sight can be fascinating and engaging, especially if the reader looks back later and thinks, “It was there all the time!” On the other, that plot point can easily fall flat if the clue is so obvious that the sleuth would have to have noticed it – but doesn’t. The same is true of murderers where the killer “hides” the body among others. Still, if it’s done well, the “in plain sight” plot point can be effective. Have you enjoyed this kind of crime fiction? Which novels have you liked?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Ellis Peters, Tony Broadbent