Category Archives: Wendy James

People Put Me Down ‘Cause That’s the Side of Town I Was Born In*

Wrong Side of TownWe may not be entirely comfortable admitting it, but social class plays a role in the way some people treat one another. What’s even less comfortable to discuss is that it can play a role in the way people are treated when they go to the doctor, when they need legal representation or when they need police assistance. This is, I admit, a rather broad topic, so one post won’t be nearly enough to do it justice. Let me if I may just give a few examples from crime fiction where social class plays an important role in people’s interactions. I’m sure you’ll think of many others.

In Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, Elinor Carlisle stands accused of murder. The allegation is that she poisoned Mary Gerrard, daughter of the lodgekeeper at Hunterbury, the family estate. She had quite a good motive, too: her fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman was infatuated with Mary. What’s more, her wealthy Aunt Laura was devoted to Mary and many people thought she would leave most, if not all, of her considerable fortune to her instead of to Elinor. The family physician Dr. Peter Lord has fallen in love with Elinor and wants her name cleared. So he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. Poirot agrees and begins asking questions. As he does, we learn about the way Mary was viewed because of her social class. More than one person thought she was ‘above herself’ for associating with Roddy Welman. And it’s not necessarily seen as a good thing that Laura Welman took an interest in the girl and had her educated ‘above her station.’

In Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders, political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn is drawn into a case of multiple murder when her daughter Mieka discovers the body of seventeen-year-old Bernice Morin in a trash bin. At first it looks as though she is the most recent victim in a series of killings that the police have dubbed the ‘Little Flower’ murders. So that’s how the murder is handled. The police don’t ignore her murder, but Bernice was not exactly born into a wealthy and powerful family so they also don’t focus all of their energy on that case. In the meantime, Kilbourn has other concerns. For one thing, her son Peter’s ex-girlfriend Christy Sinclair comes back into the family’s life. She even claims that she and Peter are getting back together. When Christy tragically drowns in what looks like a suicide, Kilbourn starts to wonder whether something more is going on. She is soon proven right. Christy’s death, and some other incidents that happen in the novel, have everything to do with her upbringing on the ‘wrong side of town’ in Blue Heron Point. Social class and background do play roles in this story.

They also play roles in Wendy James’ The Mistake. Jodie Evans has been born and raised on ‘the wrong side of town.’ She doesn’t exactly have a happy life or live in a functional family. But she manages to steer clear of real trouble, work hard and move along in school. Then she meets Angus Garrow, a promising attorney-to-be from a well-to-do family. The two fall in love, marry and have two children, Hannah and Tom. Everything seems to finally be going right for Jodie, until the day that Hannah is involved in an auto accident and is rushed to a Sydney hospital. It turns out that this is the same hospital in which years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child – a child she’s never mentioned, even to Angus. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption, but the nurse does some checking and finds out that there are no formal adoption records. Now some ugly questions start to be asked. Where is the baby? If she’s alive, why aren’t there adoption records? If she’s not alive, did Jodie have something to do with it? Jodie soon becomes a social pariah and her upbringing just makes things worse. In fact, her mother-in-law, who’s always looked down on her, becomes one of Jodie’s loudest critics. I can say without spoiling the story that the truth about the baby isn’t really related to Jodie’s ‘wrong side of town’ background. But social class issues are woven through this novel.

In Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage, we meet brothers Vincent and Noel Naylor. They’ve been raised on the ‘wrong side of town’ and Vincent’s been in trouble with the law more than once. In fact, he’s just recently been released from prison. He’s become convinced that he’s not going to get anywhere in life just by working hard; he’s seen too much evidence that that’s not how things work. Instead, he dreams of the perfect crime: a real payoff that’s worth the risk involved and that will set him up financially. So in one plot thread of this novel, he and his brother and some friends plan an armed robbery. The target is Protectica, a company that transports cash among banks. Everything is carefully arranged and the heist is pulled off. But then things fall apart quickly and end tragically. Now Vincent makes other plans, this time for revenge. And it’s interesting to see how social class affects everyone’s perception of this case.

And then there’s Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. In that novel, Tasmania Police Sergeant John White and probationer Lucy Howard respond to a break-in one afternoon. When White is fatally stabbed, his death hits everyone hard, especially those with whom he worked. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who comes from one of Hobart’s ‘wrong side of town’ districts. He’s been in trouble with the law before, and his family is one of those families about whom people say ‘Well, what could you expect from them?’ For a number of reasons, the police are inclined to handle this matter in their own way, without paying attention to the niceties of policy. But they don’t want to be branded as bullies by the media. What’s more, their suspect is part Aboriginal and there could be all sorts of accusations of racism if the police don’t handle this matter carefully. So the cops are told to do everything strictly ‘by the book.’ This novel addresses all sorts of challenging questions about social class, poverty, its effect on people and its effect on perceptions.

Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark also treats the question of how people from certain social classes are perceived. In one thread of this novel, we follow the story of fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman, who comes from a very dysfunctional family on the ‘wrong side’ of Alexandra, on New Zealand’s South Island. She’s determined to do better though, and make something of herself. She works hard in school and shows real academic promise. Then she disappears. Her older sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington back to Alexandra when she learns of Serena’s disappearance, and begins to search for her. As she does, we see how powerful the effect of social class and people’s perceptions are. And when you combine that with dysfunction, the impact is even greater. Lynnie is shocked, for instance, to find that Serena has been missing for three weeks, and almost nobody has done anything about it. And she is well aware that that wouldn’t be the case if the missing girl were from a wealthy family from the ‘right side of town.’

Not all murders, fictional or real, are committed because of social class and a person’s upbringing. But where you live does make a difference, and that’s woven all through crime fiction. Which examples of this plot thread have had an impact on you?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joe South’s Down in the Boondocks, made popular by Billy Joe Royal.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Gene Kerrigan, Paddy Richardson, Wendy James, Y.A. Erskine

This is a Dangerous Liaison*

Dangerous LiaisonsIf you read enough crime fiction, you get to the point where you can almost give advice to the characters. Just as an example, there are plenty of novels where there’s a ‘boy meets girl’ situation that you absolutely know is not going to go well. If it’s handled deftly, that kind of scene or plot thread can add real tension and suspense to a novel. If it’s done poorly it gets predictable and therefore, just pulls the reader out of the story. Let me offer a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.

In Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, General Guy Sternwood hires private investigator Philip Marlowe to help him solve a delicate family problem. Book dealer Arthur Geiger has sent Sternwood an extortion letter that makes reference to Sternwood’s daughter Carmen. Marlowe’s job will be to make Geiger leave the Sternwood family alone. By the time he gets to Geiger’s place of business though, it’s too late: Geiger’s been murdered. What’s worse, it seems that Carmen Sternwood was a witness. Marlowe does his best to protect Carmen and thinks his business with the Sternwood family is done. But it’s really only beginning, as soon enough the Sternwood chauffer is killed. Then there’s another blackmail threat. It turns out that this is a very complicated case, but Marlowe manages to find out the truth. At one point in the novel, Carmen Sternwood tries to seduce Marlowe. It’s definitely one of those, ‘There is no way this can go well’ moments and it’s interesting to see how Marlowe handles it.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, Eva Wirenström-Berg has recently discovered that her husband Henrik has been unfaithful. She’s devastated of course, and even more so when she finds out who the other woman is.  One evening, she goes out with no particular purpose in mind. She ends up at a pub where she meets Jonas Hansson, who has his own personal tragedy. The two strike up a conversation and by the time they leave the pub together, the reader has learned enough about both to know that this is not going to work out well. And it doesn’t. Instead, the situation spirals more and more out of control and ends tragically for more than one person.

Jane Casey’s The Burning introduces DC Maeve Kerrigan of the Met. She and her colleagues are on the trail of a killer that the press has nicknamed the Burning Man because he tries to destroy his victims by fire. At one point, they think they have their man, but while that suspect is in custody there’s another death. This time, PR professional Rebecca Haworth is the victim. At first it looks as though the Burning Man has struck again. But there are enough inconsistencies that this could also be a ‘copycat’ murder. For various reasons Kerrigan is asked to focus her attention on the Haworth case instead of the larger Burning Man investigation. She’s not thrilled about it, but she knows the consequences of not ‘playing by the rules.’ So she begins to dig into Haworth’s past. It turns out that there’s more than one possible suspect. Soon it’s clear that this is a separate investigation. Kerrigan and her team do get to the truth about both Rebecca Haworth’s murder and about the Burning Man murders. And without spoiling the novel, I can say that dangerous liaisons play a role. There are several moments in the novel where the reader is tempted to shout out a warning. There are enough plot twists though that it isn’t predictable.

In Out of the Silence, Wendy James offers a fictionalised account of a real-life case. In 1900, Maggie Heffernan was convicted in Melbourne of killing her infant son. James uses the novel to tell Maggie’s story, which begins in rural Victoria. There, Maggie meets Jack Hardy, who’s in from Sydney visiting relatives. The two soon begin a romantic relationship. At first, all seems fine. Then, Maggie begins to hope for a marriage proposal. The two do become secretly engaged, but Jack tells her that they’ll have to keep things private until he can earn enough to provide for a family. Instead of being alerted by this, Maggie agrees. Then Jack leaves for New South Wales to find work. Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant and writes to Jack. There is no answer, even after several letters. In the meantime, Maggie’s about to give birth and she knows that her own family won’t have her back. So she goes to Melbourne where she finds work in a Guest House. Baby Jacky duly arrives and for a short time, Maggie and her son stay in a home for unwed mothers. Then she learns that Jack may be in Melbourne and decides to go in search of him, sure that he’ll be overjoyed to have a family. Instead, Jack rejects her harshly, saying that she’s crazy. Devastated and desperate, Maggie takes the baby to six different lodging homes and is turned away from each one. That’s when the tragedy occurs. Savvy readers see it coming, but at the same time, the story is deftly told, so it keeps the reader’s interest.

And then there’s Jane Risdon’s short story The Honey Trap. In that story, a British agent spends the evening with a beautiful woman. You know immediately that something bad is going to happen. Such evenings have a nasty habit of going very, very wrong. I don’t want to spoil the story, so check it out to see how this one works out.

In Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, Stewart Macintosh is out one night at a Glasgow club called Heavenly. There he meets a beautiful woman Zara Cope. She seems attracted to him and the two become quite friendly. By the time this happens, the reader has learned that Zara is the girlfriend of drug dealer Lewis Winter, who’s been targeted for murder. As it happens, he’s at the club too, but he’s quite drunk, and Macintosh is besotted. He’s so besotted in fact that he agrees to help Zara get Winter back to the house and into bed, the idea being that he and Zara will then have the rest of the night together. You know this isn’t going to end well and it doesn’t. Two professional hit men burst in and Macintosh finds himself caught up in a web of murder, conspiracy and drug ‘patch wars.’

Agatha Christie uses that plot point in a few of her stories too, but since specific examples would give away too much, I’ll refrain from mentioning them. Sometimes, you just know that nothing good is going to come from a ‘boy meets girl’ situation, but when it’s done well, the suspense and interest help carry it off. Which examples have you thought worked really well?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jason Mraz’ The Remedy (I Won’t Worry).


Filed under Jane Casey, Jane Risdon, Karin Alvtegen, Malcolm Mackay, Raymond Chandler, Wendy James

Around the Corner the Skies Are Blue*

Rays of HopeWhether it’s fictional or real, murder is of course a horrible crime, and well-written crime novels don’t make light of that. But on the other hand, a novel in which there is no ray of hope or reason to be positive can be awfully depressing. That’s why it can add much to a novel if there is a character with a positive outlook on life: one who can make us see that everything will work out somehow or other. I’m not talking here about comic relief; that’s another topic entirely. Rather, I mean characters whose overall positive outlook on life can lighten an otherwise dark story.

One such character is Robert Crais’ L.A.-based PI Elvis Cole. Part of Cole’s appeal is that he has a sometimes wisecracking sense of humour and he isn’t overly pessimistic. He knows how horrible murder is and he doesn’t look at investigating as a fun, happy pastime. But at the same time, overall, he has the sense about life that it will be all right. For example, in The Monkey’s Raincoat, Ellen Lang hires Cole to find her husband Mort, who’s disappeared and taken their son Perry with him. Cole knows that plenty of people disappear because they want to disappear. Still, he is concerned about the boy’s safety, so he agrees to look into the matter. The situation becomes urgent when Mort is found dead, with no sign of Perry anywhere. Now Cole has to find out who killed the victim if he has any hope of finding his son. Throughout the novel, Cole does his best to support Ellen Lang and give her as much hope as he can while still being truthful. He doesn’t make light of the situation but he does take a positive attitude.

So does Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe. She is no stranger to life’s sadness. The former wife of an abusive husband, Mma. Ramotswe has lost a child and her father, so she knows that life often brings sorrow. But she has an overall optimistic and positive attitude that provides a great deal of comfort and solace for her clients. For instance, in Morality For Beautiful Girls, Mma. Ramotswe is hired by an important Government Man to find out whether his sister-in-law is, as he believes, trying to poison his brother. Mma. Ramotswe travels to the Government Man’s home village, where she begins to get to know the people in his family. One afternoon, everyone, including Mma. Ramotswe, is sickened by what turns out to be poisoned food. As soon as she is able, Mma. Ramotswe has conversations with everyone, and uses her own recall to piece together what happened. She learns how and by whom everyone was poisoned, and she uses her positive outlook on life to help resolve some issues within the family.

Teresa Solana’s Barcelona PI Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez also has an overall positive attitude about life. When he and his brother Eduard take on their first murder investigation in A Not So Perfect Crime, Eduard isn’t sure they’re prepared to look into a crime like that. He tends to be cautious and would rather focus the brothers’ efforts on cases that are more similar to what they’ve done before. But Borja has an upbeat, ‘It’ll all work out’ view of life. Besides, the client Lluís Font is powerful and wealthy. When he is accused of murdering his wife Lídia, it’s in the Martínez brothers’ interest to clear his name and build their reputation. And they do discover who the murderer is, despite some (sometimes very funny) setbacks. Throughout the novel, Borja’s positive outlook on life may be a bit on the ‘happy-go-lucky’ side, but it does serve to keep the investigation going and to complement his brother’s occasional pessimism.

It’s not always the sleuth whose positive attitude can really serve a crime novel. Sometimes other characters do that too. For instance, Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series features a group of people who live in a large Melbourne building called Insula. Chapman herself owns a bakery in that building and through her eyes we get to meet the other residents. One of them is (retired) Professor Dionysus ‘Dion’ Monk. He’s getting on in years and at times he’s hurt or laid-up with illness. But even then, he has a more or less optimistic attitude about life. He’s an expert in the classics and often uses references from those writings to make sense of life. He’s had his own sorrows, but he proves a solid source of overall optimism and steadiness that proves a real comfort. And he has old-fashioned manners and courtesy that remind the other residents of the way it is possible to treat others.

Karin Fossum’s Inspector Konrad Sejer sometimes has very difficult and ugly cases to solve. And although he has a close relationship with his daughter Ingrid and his grand-son Matteus, he has his own share of life’s sorrows. He’s a widower who still misses his wife Elise, and he has seen some terrible things in the course of his work. But there is also optimism and hope if you will in his life. Beginning with He Who Fears the Wolf, Sejer develops a relationship with psychiatrist Sara Struel. She helps him to understand some of the people who figure in that novel. That understanding helps Sejer as he investigates the murder of Halldis Horn, whose body is found in her front yard. Since she lived alone in a remote place, there aren’t many witnesses. But one likely suspect is a troubled young man named Errki Johrma who was seen in the area. The case isn’t that simple though, and Sara provides helpful insights. She is realistic and doesn’t shy away from life’s sadness. But she is also a generally optimistic, sometimes-spontaneous person who adds a bright note to Sejer’s life.

And then there’s Bridget ‘Bridie’ Sullivan, whom we meet in Wendy James’ The Mistake. That story features Jodie Evans Garrow, who meets Bridie during their childhoods. Jodie hasn’t had a lot of happiness in her life, but Bridie is positive and optimistic, with big dreams. She brings a proverbial ray of sunshine to Jodie and the girls become inseparable. Then Bridie moves away and life goes on for both of them. Later, Jodie marries Angus Garrow and settles down to what seems like an enviable life. Angus is a successful attorney, Jodie has a comfortable home and upper-middle-class lifestyle, and they have two healthy children. One day their daughter Hannah is involved in a car accident and is rushed to a Sydney hospital – the same hospital where years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another baby girl whom she’s never discussed with anyone. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie claims she gave the baby up for adoption, but the over-curious nurse can’t find any formal records. Now the whispers start and soon the media gets hold of the story. If the child is alive, where is she? If not, what happened to her? Did Jodie kill her? Before long the accusations become very public and Jodie is made a social pariah. Then by chance, she meets Bridie again at a book club meeting. Bridie proves the same source of support she was during the girls’ childhood and her basically positive outlook on life provides real solace for Jodie.

And that’s the thing about people and fictional characters who offer hope and have positive outlooks on life. They don’t deny that life can be hard, but they firmly believe that things will get better. Which ones do you like best?


In Memoriam…


ShirleyTemple and SidCaesar


This post is dedicated to the memories of two people who gave much hope and ‘sunshine’ when people needed it. This past week we lost both Shirley Temple Black and Sid Caesar. They both had private troubles, but kept on going and offered the world a hopeful look at life. For that, I am grateful. They will be much missed.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Roger Edens’ and Earl Brent’s Around the Corner.


Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Karin Fossum, Kerry Greenwood, Robert Crais, Teresa Solana, Wendy James

I’ve Been Moved By Some Things That I’ve Learned*

Lessons From ReadingOne of the real pleasures of reading, at least for me, is the things that I learn about when I read. My guess is, that’s true of most book lovers. Of course a good plot and believable, interesting characters matter. Otherwise a novel becomes a textbook. But a well-written story can also offer readers insights and information that they didn’t know before. And perhaps it’s just my perspective, but I think that knowledge is a good thing. We all know different things and read different books, so for each of us, what we learn will also be different. But, speaking strictly for myself, here are a few things I’ve learned from the crime fiction that I’ve read.


Different Communities I Didn’t Even Know Were There


Of course people migrate all over the world. But I’ve still been surprised to learn about some of the communities there are in some unexpected places. For instance, in Craig Johnson’s Death Without Company, Absaroka County, Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire is faced with a very difficult crime. Mari Baroja, a resident of the Durant Home for Assisted Living, is found dead of what turns out to be poison. Longmire, his deputy Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti, and new hire Santiago Saizarbitoria begin sifting through the evidence, starting with the members of the victim’s family. Bit by bit, we learn about Mari Baroja’s past, and how incidents from fifty years ago have influenced what happens in the present day. One of the interesting things about this novel is that the victim is a member of Wyoming’s Basque community. It turns out that Wyoming has a large Basque population, something I hadn’t known before. But Johnson weaves that into the story so that it comes up naturally, rather than feeling forced.

Another community I learned about through crime fiction is the Ukrainian community in Canada’s prairie provinces. We get a look at that community in Gail Bowen’s first Joanne Kilbourn mystery Deadly Appearances. Up-and-coming politician Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is poisoned during a speech that he’s giving at a Sunday School picnic. Kilbourn was a friend of Boychuk’s as well as being one of his political campaign workers. So she’s devastated at his loss. She decides to write a biography of Boychuk to help her deal with her grief. In the process of finding out about Boychuk’s life, she also finds out who murdered him. And readers find out about Saskatchewan’s Ukrainian community, to which Boychuk belonged. Anthony Bidulka’s PI Russell Quant is also a member of that community since his mother is Ukrainian, and readers learn about Saskatchewan Ukrainians in the novels that feature him. In those series and in Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski series, readers learn about the Ukrainian influence on the Canadian prairie. There are even Ukrainian language programs in some schools in that part of the country.

I’ve learned about other communities I hadn’t been aware of too. There just isn’t room to mention all of them.


Things About the Legal System


One of the things that I enjoy about well-written legal mysteries is that sometimes, they turn on an important point of law that isn’t always widely known. So besides solid characters and plotting, I’ve also learned some interesting legal precedents and facts.

For example, in Perri O’Shaughnessy’s Breach of Promise, the case of Lindy Markov hinges on what’s been called ‘palimony’ in the United States. Lindy and her common-law husband Mike have been together for twenty years when Mike has an affair with his company’s vice-president for financial services Rachel Pembroke. Very soon Lindy finds herself removed from the company position she’s held and ordered to evacuate the home she’s shared with Mike for their entire relationship. She hires Tahoe attorney Nina Reilly to sue Mike on her behalf for her share of the profits from the company she helped him build. In part, this case has to do with the rights that a common-law spouse has. The answer isn’t clear-cut, and it varies by jurisdiction. This novel also taught me a lot about the process of jury selection and the work involved in preparing for a major trial.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit features Virginia brothers Mason and Gates Hunt. The two share an unhappy childhood, but that’s about all they have in common. Gates squanders his athletic ability and ends up living on his girlfriend’s Welfare money and money he gets from his mother. Mason on the other hand makes use of every opportunity he gets, wins an academic scholarship to university and then goes on to law school. One night, he’s with his brother when an argument flares up between Gates and his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. Before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates has shot Thompson. Out of a sense of duty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime and the Hunt brothers move on. Years later, Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking and begs his brother, now a Virginia commonwealth prosecutor, to help get him out of prison. Mason refuses, and Gates then threatens that if his brother doesn’t co-operate, he’ll implicate him in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. Mason calls his brother’s bluff and soon enough he’s indicted for a murder he didn’t commit. With the police targeting him and Gates willingly lying about the murder, Mason doesn’t have many options. But there’s one point of law that may be exactly what he needs. It’s a fact of law that I didn’t know until I read this novel. With help from his deputy prosecutor Custis Norman, Mason uses that legal point to his advantage.

Those are of course just two examples of novels where an important aspect of the law is explored. When they’re done well, such novels make points of law not just comprehensible to a non-attorney, but really engaging as well.


Politics and History That I Didn’t Know Before


Some political history makes international headlines, but there’s a lot that I didn’t know about before I started reading crime fiction. And sometimes, politics can be really interesting. For instance, in Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors, readers learn about Australia’s 1972-1975 Gough Whitlam government. In that novel, Australian Federal Police (AFP) officer Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen and his team investigate the murders of former Whitlam government official Alec Dennet and the editor of his memoirs Loraine Starck. Then it comes out that the manuscript they were working on has disappeared. Now it looks as though someone was afraid that Dennet might reveal some uncomfortable things about high-ranking people in the Whitlam government. The truth is both more complicated and simpler than that, but it leads to some interesting background on that government.

I also learned a lot about Australia’s women’s movement in Wendy James’ Out of the Silence. That’s a fictionalised account of the 1900 trial of Maggie Heffernan for the murder of her infant son. As the novel makes clear, it’s much more complicated than a mother who simply ‘snapped.’ As James gives readers the background on Maggie’s life and the circumstances that may have led to the death of her son, we also learn that her cause was taken up by leading members of the Australian movement for women’s suffrage. One character in the novel for instance is Vida Goldstein, the first woman to run for Parliament in the British Commonwealth. I didn’t know that. The novel also gives some really interesting background on the women’s movement that had a powerful effect on the Heffernan trial. I also didn’t know before reading this novel (and afterwards, doing a bit of looking on my own) that South Australia was the first state to grant women’s suffrage (in 1895). Australian women were given the vote at the federal level in 1902, nearly twenty years before it happened in the U.S.  The things crime fiction teaches you!

Those are just a few of the many things that I’ve learned about that I never knew before reading crime fiction. What about you? I’m not talking here of things like recipes or names of places, as interesting as those can be. Rather, I mean things going on, perhaps even in your lifetime, that you never knew. If you’re a writer, has something you learned inspired you to write a story about it?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bill Staines’ River.


Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Craig Johnson, Gail Bowen, Kel Robertson, Martin Clark, Nelson Brunanski, Perri O'Shaughnessy, Wendy James

I Want to Smile Again, Smile in Melbourne Again*

melbourne-tourist-information-cityI’m visiting Andrew Nette at Pulp Curry at the moment, and having a fabulous time. Since Nette is based in Melbourne, I thought it might be a good time to look around that great city for a bit. And why not? Melbourne’s got a lot going for it. There’s Flinders Lane, the National Galley of Victoria, several racecourses, the Melbourne Football Club, the beautiful Yarra Valley, and lots more. There’s world-class wine and delicious food too. There’s also some excellent crime fiction that takes place in Melbourne. There won’t be space for me to mention all of it, but hopefully you’ll see what I mean.

If you want to get a sense of Melbourne’s history, I recommend Wendy James’ Out of the Silence. This fictionalised account of a true story features Maggie Heffernan, who was convicted in 1900 of killing her infant son. James’ account begins in 1898, when Maggie Heffernan meets Jack Hardy. Maggie’s been raised in rural Victoria, and not long after she’s introduced to Hardy, who’s visiting from Sydney, the two begin a secret relationship. They become engaged, but Hardy says he wants to keep it private until he can afford to take care of a family. Shortly afterwards he leaves for New South Wales to find work. Then Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant. She writes to Hardy several times, but doesn’t hear from him. Knowing that she won’t be accepted in her family’s home, she makes her way to Melbourne, determined to track Hardy down. She finds work in a Guest House where she remains until baby Jacky is born. After a brief stint at a home for unwed mothers, Maggie hears that Hardy is in Melbourne. She finds his home and takes the baby there. When they arrive, Hardy claims not to know who she is and calls her ‘crazy.’ With nowhere else to go, Maggie searches for lodgings for herself and the baby and is turned away from six places. That’s when Jacky’s death occurs. After her arrest and imprisonment, Maggie’s case is taken up by Vida Goldstein, the first woman to run for Parliament in the British Commonwealth. Also interested is Elizabeth Hamilton, who moved to Australia after the death of her fiancé and now lives with cousins. In this story, we get to see several sides of turn-of-the-20th-Century Melbourne life, as well as rich discussion of social issues and politics.

Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series takes place not many decades later, in the 1920’s. Fisher was born in Melbourne but moved to London. She returns to Melbourne in Cocaine Blues when Colonel Harper and his wife ask her to look into the well-being of their daughter Lydia. Lydia’s been in poor health and, not trusting their son-in-law, her parents suspect that she’s being poisoned. That case draws Phryne into all sorts of adventures in Melbourne and fans will know that she makes quite an impression. On a side note, I think Essie Davis does a terrific job of portraying Phryne in the television series based on these novels. I hope they continue.

Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders takes place in 1943 over the Christmas holiday. It’s summer in Melbourne and not exactly a restful time for DI Titus Lambert and DS Joe Sable. As the story begins they’re called to the scene of a brutal double murder. John Quinn and his son Xavier have been killed and Lambert and Sable begin their investigation. They haven’t got very far when there’s another terrible murder. In the meantime, there’s a resurgence of Nazi sympathiser activity in the area and there’s a possibility that the murders may be connected with that group. But that’s hardly the only possible explanation, so there’s plenty of work to do. What with wartime privation, the team is stretched thin as the saying goes. But Lambert, Sable and Constable Helen Lord get to the truth about the murders.

We first meet Geoffrey McGeachin’s Melbourne cop Charlie Berlin in The Diggers Rest Hotel, which takes place in 1947. That novel has Berlin going to Wodonga to track down and stop a motorcycle gang that’s been responsible for several thefts. When a railroad paymaster is injured, there’s even greater pressure to solve these crimes. While Berlin’s in Wodonga, a murder is committed. Sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee’s body is found in an alley. At first it seems that the motorcycle gang must be responsible. But when Berlin learns otherwise, he’s got two cases to solve.

Berlin returns to Melbourne in Blackwattle Creek, which takes place in 1957. In that novel, he’s asked to look into an oddity surrounding the funeral of a family friend’s husband. What begins as a simple few questions leads to a high-level conspiracy, international intrigue and some very shady dealings. There’s plenty of police politics in this novel as well. And we get the chance to see post-war Melbourne.

More recently, Peter Temple has shown us what modern-day Melbourne is like. His series features Jack Irish, a sometimes-attorney who also has the knack of finding people who don’t want to be found. Beginning with Bad Debts, Irish shows us the grittier side of life Melbourne life with a black sort of humour:


‘Melbourne hated success. It didn’t match the weather. Melbourne’s weather suited introspective mediocrity and suicidal failure. The only acceptable success had to involve pain, sacrifice and humility.’


Irish really couldn’t imagine living anywhere else though, and certainly couldn’t imagine supporting any team but Fitzroy.

Temple fans will know that his novel Truth also takes place in greater Melbourne. This one features Victoria Police Inspector Stephen Villani, who’s investigating the murder of a teenage prostitute whose body is found in an exclusive apartment. Then, three more brutal murders are discovered. As if this isn’t enough, bush fires are threatening Melbourne, so there’s a real thread of tension in the novel as Villani and his team work their cases.

And then there’s Kerry Greenwood’s other series featuring former accountant turned baker Corinna Chapman. Chapman lives and has her business in a large Roman-style building called Insula, and has formed a real community with the other residents of the building. Among other things, this series shows the diversity of Melbourne. In the course of the series Chapman goes to several different parts of the city and interacts with all sorts of different people. Until you think about it, it’s easy to forget how diverse Melbourne is, but it really is.

And of course, there are Melbourne-based authors whose stories take place elsewhere, but who’ve been ‘seasoned’ by the city. For instance, Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money takes place mostly in Cambodia. But his Max Quinlan is a Melbourne ex-cop and the novel begins there, when Madeleine Avery hires Quinlan to find her brother Charles.

Angela Savage is also Melbourne-based. Her PI sleuth Jayne Keeney is based in Bangkok, but is originally from Melbourne. She’s more comfortable living and working where she is, but that doesn’t mean Melbourne has had no effect on her.

See what I mean? Melbourne’s a terrific city. There are lots of interesting things to do and see, great food and wine, and some fine, fine people. But – erm – do be careful…  ;-)

ps. Thanks very much to for the lovely image!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Lucksmiths’ Welcome Home.


Filed under Andrew Nette, Angela Savage, Geoffrey McGeachin, Kerry Greenwood, Peter Temple, Robert Gott, Wendy James