In The Spotlight: Christine Poulson’s Murder is Academic

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. For many people, there’s just something about the academic setting that lends itself particularly well to a crime novel. First there’s the physical setting, often lovely and full of history. Then, there’s the fact that university campuses bring together all sorts of diverse people with their own backgrounds, conflicts and so on. There’s also the fact of campus politics, which often have a role to play in university life. Put these together and you have quite a context for a murder mystery. Let’s take a closer look at one today. Let’s turn the spotlight on Christie Poulson’s Murder is Academic (AKA Dead Letters)

The novel begins with the death of Margaret Joplin, head of the English Literature Department at St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge. Her colleague Cassandra James finds the body in the swimming pool when she goes to Joplin’s home to collect some final exam papers. At first, it looks as though the death was a terrible accident. But it’s not long before certain hints begin to suggest otherwise.

One possibility is that Joplin committed suicide. There doesn’t seem to be much motive, though, and James doesn’t really believe it. If it was murder, James now has to face the possibility that someone she knows could be a killer.  And soon enough, it’s clear that the killer may be targeting her. As she gets to know more about her former boss, James sees that there’s more than one suspect. For one thing, Joplin had a complicated personal life. For another, there’s reason to believe someone from the department might have been responsible.

In the meantime, James has other matters on her mind. She’s been named Acting Head of the English Literature Department, which means increased administrative responsibility. It also means she will be responsible for getting the department ready for the next Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The department’s funding depends critically on how successful it is at passing the exercise. It will be James’ responsibility to get everyone’s scholarship, including her own, up-to-date and impressive-looking.

As if that’s not enough, she discovers that she’s pregnant. She loves her partner (and the baby’s father) Stephen Lawton, but neither was ready for such a major change and permanent commitment. The pregnancy puts everything into a different light.

It also makes James more vulnerable as she tries to get everyone ready for the RAE and find out who killed Margaret Joplin before the killer gets to her first. In the end, and after another tragedy, James finds out the truth about how everything is connected. She also finds out some other surprising truths.

This is an academic mystery, so we get a close look at what life is like at a Cambridge college. There are papers to read and mark, plenty of campus politics and the inevitable student issues. And there is the never-ending pressure to publish, as well as the jockeying for funding. Life at Cambridge is certainly far from peaceful, even when there aren’t murders.

For all that, the novel also shows us the positive side of the academic life. There is a sense of camaraderie in the department, although everyone is shaken by the events in the novel. And of course there’s the beautiful Cambridge setting. There’s also the enjoyment these scholars get from their own literary interests. It may not be easy to be in academe, but these characters couldn’t really imagine not living the academic life.

And characters are an important element in this novel. First, there’s Cassandra James. An expert in Victorian literature, she’s independent and intelligent, and she enjoys what she does, despite its stresses. She isn’t overly keen to become a sleuth. At the same time, though, she feels the need to deal with her own sense of grief and loss at her boss’ death. There’s also the fact that discovering the body was a very traumatic experience for her. Part of looking for answers arguably has to do with her need to get closure for herself. As the novel moves on, and it’s clear that someone could very well be targeting her, we also see that James is as vulnerable as any of us would be, all the more so as her pregnancy progresses. She doesn’t take implausible chances, but at the same time, she wants to go on with her life and not give in to her fears.

There are other interesting characters in the novel as well. For instance, there’s Alison Stirling, the department’s specialist in 16th and 17th Century literature. And there’s Adien Frazer, the department’s newest hire, who has an Edwardian kind of look about him, and a real appeal for the female (and some of the male) students. There’s also her colleague Merfyn, who’s interested in séances and believes that he’s been channeling Arthur Conan Doyle as he writes. Each of them has a share of eccentricities, if you want to call it that, but they all contribute to the department. And they all contribute to the sense of atmosphere in the novel. Also, without spoiling the story, I can say that some of the situations involving them add some solid humour to it.

The mystery itself is a ‘whodunit,’ and when we learn the answer to that question, the ‘whydunit’ part is logical. And James discovers what really happened in a way that fits both her background and expertise, and the university setting. It’s also worth noting here that, while this isn’t a really light novel, there is a minimum of violence. The tension and suspense in the novel (and they certainly are there) are more psychological than they are dependent upon violence.

Murder is Academic is a uniquely ‘university’ academic mystery, with a distinctive Cambridge setting and characters who will be familiar to those who know the university context. It features a protagonist who fits into that context, and a close and sometimes wryly humourous look at life in the world of higher education. But what’s your view? Have you read Murder is Academic? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 

 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday 28 July/Tuesday 29 July – The Collini Case – Ferdinand von Schirach

Monday 4 August/Tuesday 5 August – The Anatomy of Death – Felicity Young

Monday 11 August/Tuesday 12 August – Salvation of a Saint – Keigo Hagashino

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Millions of Hearts Were Lifted, Proud of the Human Race*

Moon LandingWhen you read a lot of crime fiction, it’s easy to get caught up in how awful human beings can be to each other. After all, crime fiction is about, well, crime – mostly murder. Some fictional characters are horrible people.  And yet, human beings are also capable of truly remarkable achievement. That may sound odd, coming from someone who writes crime stories. Don’t believe me? A quick look at crime fiction shows us it’s true.

There are some gifted musical artists in crime fiction – the kind that can lift one up to great heights. For instance, Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory introduces us to Gideon Davies, a world-class violinist whose work is transcendent. He’s passionate about his music, which is why he’s so devastated when one night, he finds that he can’t play. His search for answers leads him back to his family’s past, the dynamics among its members, and the awful effect of the death of his younger sister many years earlier.

Some people achieve greatness in their acting. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death. Seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Ginny’ Boynton has real potential as an actress, but no-one really knows it at first. Her mother is a tyrant – a ‘mental sadist,’ as Hercule Poirot puts it – who has the entire family completely cowed. When she is murdered during a sightseeing trip to Petra, Colonel Carbury asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Once he discovers who killed Mrs. Boynton and why, Ginny is finally free to pursue her acting career, and her ability is transcendent.

And then there are other characters who transcend human limits through their art. In Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve series for instance, we meet Joanne’s daughter Taylor. She is a gifted artist who, even at the young age of fourteen, is already poised for real greatness in her career. Her passion for what she does is evident in the books that feature her, and her parents have to balance their desire to nurture that potential with their equally strong desire to give Taylor a ‘normal’ childhood.

Some people find great achievement in medicine and science. In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), for instance, we are introduced to Dr. John Christow. He’s a Harley Street specialist who is passionate about medical science. His goal is to find a cure for Ridgeway’s Disease, and he’s made some real inroads into the process. Tragically, he is shot one weekend while he’s staying at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage in the area, and he works with Inspector Grange to find out who killed Christow and why.

I’m sure that you could list many more books in which we see how much greatness people can achieve. In just about every endeavor, we see examples of people who prove that we can go far above and beyond the kind of human frailty that’s so often the focus of crime novels.

And it’s not just in crime novels that we see that kind of achievement. As I post this, it’s the 45th anniversary of 1969_moon_landingone of humankind’s greatest achievements, the first landing on the Moon.

Do you remember that incredible moment? If you do, then you know what excitement there was all over the world. Those famous lines ‘Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,’ and ‘That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind’ still resonate after more than four decades. They are a reminder that when we put our energy and minds to a task, we are capable of just about anything.

That Moon landing took years of hard work, dedication, failure and recouping lost ground on the part of a lot of people. And that’s another thing that made this achievement so spectacular. Thousands of people worked together to make it possible. And it depended on the previous work of many others. Before then, and since then, people gave their lives in the pursuit of human greatness. There were long lists of mistakes, some of them tragic. We still have a long way to go. But at that moment, when Apollo 11 touched down on the Moon and those astronauts walked on it, we were reminded of what people can achieve.

Whether it’s in the fields of science, politics, law, social justice, education, the arts or something else, it’s a good thing to look to the Moon and stars sometimes, and imagine what is possible. Humans are capable of unimaginable ferocity, even evil. But we are also capable of equally unimaginable greatness. I know. I’ve seen it. It may be naïve of me, but I still believe in it.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Byrds’ Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George, Gail Bowen

There Were Incidents and Accidents*

So-Called AccidentsSome deaths are quite obviously murders. In those cases, at least in crime fiction, the killer doesn’t try to hide the fact that it was murder. Rather, the murderer may work hard at an alibi, or may work hard to prove there was no motive. But really, it’s much easier to disguise the murder as an accident if it’s possible. And sometimes, that makes it awfully difficult to prove that a death was murder.

Examples of murders made to look like accidents run all through crime fiction, possibly because it’s really credible that someone would want to cover up a murder that way. Whatever the reason, there are a lot of examples – many more than I could list in one post. But here are a few.

Agatha Christie uses the so-called accident in several of her stories. To take just one example, in Cards on the Table, Hercule Poirot is invited to a very unusual dinner. The enigmatic Mr. Shaitana gathers four sleuths (including Poirot) and four people that he hints have gotten away with murder. After the meal, everyone settles in to play bridge. During the evening, someone stabs Mr. Shaitana. The only possible suspects are the four people who were in the room at the time – the very four people Shaitana more or less accused of murder. Now the four sleuths are faced with the task of figuring out which of these equally-plausible suspects is guilty. One of them is Anne Meredith. At one point, she’d served as companion to a Mrs. Benson, who died tragically of poisoning by hat paint. Apparently, she confused the hat paint with her medicine, a very plausible accident. Or was it?

In Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow), a young boy Isaiah Christiansen tragically dies after a fall from the roof of the Copenhagen apartment building where he lives. Isaiah had befriended fellow Greenlander Smilla Jasperson, and she is upset at his death. She’s drawn to the scene of the accident, and when she gets there, she sees signs in the snow that lead her to believe that the boy’s death was not accidental. She begins to ask questions and soon discovers that some dangerous people are determined to hide the truth. She persists though, and her search for answers takes her back to her homeland, where she finds the connection between Isaiah’s death and some secrets hidden in Greenland.

Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House introduces Arthur Bryant and John May of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). The novel actually tells two stories, one of which is a recounting of the PCU’s first case. In 1940, the Palace Theatre is set to do a production of Orpheus. Then one of the dancers Tanya Capistrania dies in what some say is a freak accident. The police are investigating that death when Charles Senechal, who was to play the role of Jupiter in the production, is killed by a piece of scenery. Again it’s regarded as a terrible accident, but an accident nonetheless. Still, it’s beginning to look very much as though someone is determined to stop the production. When another death occurs, and then a disappearance, Bryant and May and their team come under intense pressure to solve the case before there are any more tragedies.

Louise Penny’s Still Life is our introduction to the small rural Québec town of Three Pines. One of its residents Jane Neal is killed during the Thanksgiving holiday in what looks like a hunting accident. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is called to the scene, and he soon finds that this death was actually a murder. The question though is who would have had a motive. The victim was a beloved former teacher whom everyone seemed to respect. Gamache and the team get to know the town, though, and some of its history. And it’s in the past that they find the motive and therefore, the killer.

In Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip, Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone thinks he’s found a great new way to make money. He’s a marine biologist (well, in name at least) who’s hired by agribusiness owner Samuel Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut. Hammernut’s company has been accused of pouring toxic waste into Florida’s Everglades, and Hammernut needs proof that his company doesn’t pollute. Perrone offers that in the form of a way he’s developed to fake the results of water testing so the water looks clean. The two begin to do business and all goes well enough at first. Then, Perrone’s wife Joey begins to suspect what’s going on, and threatens to report it. Now he needs to get rid of her, so he tells her they’re going on an anniversary cruise of the Everglades. While they’re on the trip, he pushes Joey overboard, thinking that’s the end of his problems. At first everyone, including the police, thinks it’s a terrible accident and there’s much sympathy for Perrone. What he doesn’t know though is that Joey didn’t drown, and she’s made her own plans for revenge…

And then there’s Dawn Harris’ Letter From a Dead Man. In the late 18th-Century Lady Drusilla Davenish lives on the Isle of Wight with her Aunt Thirza and Thirza’s daughter Lucie. The family is excited about Lucie’s upcoming wedding to Giles Saxborough. Everything changes though, when Giles’ father (and Lady Drusilla’s godfather) Cuthbert Saxborough dies in what looks like a tragic riding accident. But things don’t quite add up for Lady Drusilla. Her godfather was an expert horseman. It’s highly unlikely that he’d have died in that way. So she starts to ask questions. Not long afterwards, Giles’ older brother Thomas and his son Tom are both killed in what’s put down as a horrible yachting accident. But Lady Drusilla is convinced that it’s more than that. And there’s more than one possible explanation. It might be connected to a smuggling operation she’s recently discovered. Or it might be someone with a vendetta against the Saxborough family. Or it might be something else…

In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney is hired by Jim Delbeck to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. She was a volunteer at the New Life Children’s Centre in Pattaya when she fell from the roof of the building where she was living. The police report suggests it might have been suicide, but Delbeck doesn’t think so. It could also have very well been an accident. Whatever the cause, Delbeck wants to know the truth about his daughter’s death. Keeney takes the case and travels to Pattaya. As a part of her investigations, she decides to learn more about at New Life, going undercover as a volunteer. As she gets closer to the truth about Maryanne’s life and death, she finds out that some people do not want their secrets revealed…

At least in fiction, murders designed to look like accidents can serve a lot of purposes. They can give murderers effective ways to hide their crimes. They can also give the author a way to build suspense and interest. And they can allow the author the chance to lead the reader up the proverbial garden path. After all, sometimes an accident is just an accident. There are so many other examples of this plot point in crime fiction – many more than I could name. So…what gaps have I left?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Carl Hiaasen, Christopher Fowler, Dawn Harris, Louise Penny, Peter Høeg

The Turnover

The TurnoverIt was Ramón who saw it first. He and Mateo had been sent to replace the carpet and do the painting in Apartment 1305 to get it ready for the next resident. Their company was always called in to turn over apartments at Mission Heights Estates; it was a steady source of income and the boss made it clear he wanted it to stay that way. Anyone sent there had to do the job right the first time.

They pulled up in front of the building and got their equipment out of their truck. It took a while, what with having to haul down the stepladder, painting materials and plastic-sheeted rolls of carpet. Finally they were ready to go in. Ramón unlocked the door and pushed it open, using a heavy can of paint as a doorstop.

Then he and Mateo went in. They decided to start by pulling up the bedroom carpet and headed in that direction. As they passed down the hall, Ramón noticed that the hallway closet door was slightly open. When he leaned over to shut it, he saw the foot. He pulled the door open and saw the rest of the body. Then he turned back to Mateo.

One look at his partner’s face was all Mateo needed to know that something was very wrong. ‘What is it?’ he asked.
Ramón pointed at the body. ‘There’s a goddamned dead body in there!’
Mateo looked over Ramón’s shoulder. ‘Holy shit! That’s the resident! The guy who was supposed to move out. His name’s Saunders. Him and his wife lived here. They got a kid, too.’
‘You know them?’
‘A little. I’m here all the time.’

They looked back at the body: at the dark hair covered with dried blood, at the tan polo shirt liberally spattered with brown patches, and at the other brown patches on the carpet around the dead man.
‘We better call the cops,’ Ramón said shakily.
‘Yeah, we will.’
‘Thank God you didn’t bring Carlos with you today.’ Carlos was Mateo’s sixteen-year-old son, who went along with his father whenever he could. He wanted to own his own apartment turnover company someday and right now he was learning how to do the job.
‘Yeah, well, Carlos is spending a couple of weeks with his grandparents. Good timing.’

The moment of almost normal conversation calmed both men down and Ramón started to pull his ‘phone out of his pocket to call the police.
‘Wait a sec,’ Mateo held a hand up. ‘That’ll be Graciela. We need to tell her. I don’t want her finding this.’ He waved his hand at the body.
‘I don’t, either,’ Ramón said. He put his ‘phone away and the two men went to the door of the apartment

From the doorway they could see Graciela coming towards them. Part of the apartment community’s housekeeping/maintenance staff, she was lugging a large rolling bucket full of cleaning supplies and a pile of folded towels. Her glossy black hair was pulled into a ponytail that fell across one shoulder. She smiled when she saw them. Ramón dreamed of that smile at night, and of those golden-brown arms around him. He’d do anything for Graciela. One day he’d work up the courage to ask her out. He’d already found out she wasn’t married; he just had to find the words to say what he wanted to say. Now he swallowed hard as she came up to them.

‘Wait,’ he said when she got to the door.
‘What’s wrong?’ she asked as her smile morphed into a puzzled frown.
‘You can’t go in there right now,’ Mateo said. ‘We gotta take up the carpet.’
‘I’m starting in the kitchen,’ she said, ‘I won’t be in your way.’ Then she tried to push past them.
‘Seriously, Graciela, you need to wait,’ Ramón insisted.
Now she glared at both men. ‘What the hell is going on?’ she demanded.

Mateo and Ramón looked at each other. Finally Mateo stepped aside and Graciela walked in. She’d only gone about two steps when Ramón stopped her. ‘You don’t want to go back that way,’ he said, pointing towards the hallway.
‘Why not?’
‘There’s a body in the closet. The guy who lived here. He’s been killed.’
‘Saunders? He’s dead?’
Mateo nodded.
‘Oh, thank God!’

For a moment, neither man could think of anything to say. Graciela watched them both and then said, ‘Saunders was a bastard. He wouldn’t leave me alone. He kept pestering me to work for him.’
‘Work for him?’
‘The guy was a drug dealer. Very careful about it. Not a lot of people knew. He wanted me to get involved. My daughter Ynéz, too. Said we’d be good for business. It got too much for Ynéz. She – she had to go. I sent her to stay with my sister. I haven’t seen her for a year.’
Ramón finally found the words he’d been looking for. ‘I didn’t kill him, Graciela, but now I wish I had.’
She smiled a little. ‘Doesn’t matter now. Whoever did it deserves an award. Now I can tell Ynéz it’s safe to come home.’

Mateo had been silent, but now he said, ‘Bastard!’ startling Ramón and Graciela. Then it hit Graciela. ‘You, too?’ she asked gently.
Mateo nodded. ‘Carlos,’ he said. ‘He stopped wanting to come here. He wouldn’t say why at first, but then one day I finally got him to tell me. That’s why I sent him to his abuelos for a while.’
‘What about the cops?’

Three hours later, Brenda Saunders pulled into the parking lot near the apartment building. Part of her knew she shouldn’t come back; it was only asking for trouble. But she had to. What if Lucy had dropped something? She’d been hysterical as she ran out of the apartment, so she could have, and one tiny piece of evidence would be all the cops would need. They wouldn’t care that Dave had tried to get Lucy to ‘work’ for him. Scum! Why Brenda had ever married him in the first place, she couldn’t even remember. Some dream about a father figure for Lucy, probably. What a laugh! And then Dave telling them that the family was going to move. No, not telling them – ordering them. Well, they were free of him now.  And the way she saw it, Brenda was just doing her job as a parent to make sure Lucy would be safe.

She glanced around to make sure the parking lot was empty. Then she saw it. The cleaning company’s truck. What the hell were they doing there so soon? She broke into a sweat. There were no cop cars around, but it wouldn’t be long. Oh, God, what if Lucy had dropped something? They’d thrown the hammer into a nearby creek, so that was all right, but what if there was something else? Her mind whirling, Brenda stepped out of the car. She was going to have to think of something to say.

She’d just started towards the building when she saw the two guys from the cleaning company come out of her apartment. Not hers any more. They were carrying a load of trash towards the dumpster when one of them saw her. He nudged the other one, who started in her direction. She’d seen that guy before. Damn! He’d remember her. When he got closer, he said quietly, ‘Mrs. Saunders, right?’
‘Yes.’ Then she felt the need to add something. ‘I – I came back because I think I left something behind. In the apartment.’
‘Don’t worry,’ he said, looking straight into her eyes. ‘Our company has the best reputation in the business. We clean everything, and we do it right the first time. Nothing gets left behind.’
‘But – I – ’

Then the other guy joined them. ‘It’s OK,’ he said. ‘We cleaned the whole apartment very carefully. It looks like new.’
It slowly dawned on Brenda that she and Lucy might actually be safe. She looked from one to the other of the two men, watching their faces, watching them nod reassuringly.
‘Thank you,’ she finally said.
‘No,’ the taller one said. ‘Thank you.’

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There Ain’t No Easy Way Out*

HardChoicesHave you ever faced the sort of dilemma where neither choice was really a good one? Sometimes these are called ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situations. If you have, then you know how stressful it can be to have to choose what to do. But those dilemmas happen quite a lot in real life. And they can add suspense and character depth to a crime novel. That’s why we see them in crime fiction as often as we do.

For example, in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, General Guy Sternwood hires Los Angeles-based PI Philip Marlowe to help him stop an extortionist. Book dealer Arthur Geiger has sent Sternwood a blackmail letter that makes reference to Sternwood’s daughter Carmen, and as you can imagine, Sternwood wants Geiger stopped. Marlowe agrees to work the case and goes to visit Geiger. When he finds Geiger though, it’s too late; his quarry’s just been murdered. What’s more, Carmen Sternwood is a witness. She’s either been drugged or has had a mental breakdown, so she can’t really tell Marlowe what happened, but she saw it all. Now Marlowe faces a difficult choice. His obligation to Sternwood is complete; Geiger won’t be a problem any more. On the other hand, Carmen Sternwood faces the very real possibility that the police will arrest her on suspicion of murder. If Marlowe washes his hands of the case, he is free of the disagreeable Sternwood family, but leaves Carmen in grave danger. If he helps Carmen, she may be spared, but he’ll get even more entangled in the Sternwood family drama and more trouble. Marlowe decides to help Carmen…

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik have hit a rough spot in their marriage. Still, as far as Eva is concerned, she has the sort of life she’s always wanted: husband, son Axel, house with the white picket fence, etc. Then she discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful. Now she faces a difficult choice. If she stays with Henrik, of course, she has to live with his infidelity and learn to cope. But she still has her settled, suburban life and the home remains stable for Axel. If she leaves Henrik, her dreams of that life are shattered, and so is Axel’s world. But she no longer has to live with an unfaithful partner. Eva decides to take her own kind of revenge, and that decision leads to some terrible unexpected consequences.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit features brothers Mason and Gates Hunt, who grew up in Patrick County, Virginia. They’ve had a difficult start to life, being the sons of an alcoholic, abusive father. But they’ve made it to young adulthood. Mason has taken advantage of every opportunity and is now in law school. Gates has squandered his considerable athletic ability and now lives on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments and money from his mother Sadie Grace. One day, Gates gets into an argument with his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. The fight’s temporarily put ‘on hold,’ but later that night, the Hunt brothers are on their way home from a night out when they encounter Thompson again. The fight starts anew and before anyone really knows what’s happening, Gates has shot his rival. Out of filial duty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime and life goes on for both brothers. Then, years later, Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking and convicted. He asks his brother, now a commonwealth prosecutor, to help get him out of jail. Mason refuses. Gates threatens that if Mason doesn’t help him, he’ll implicate him in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. This presents Mason with a true ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation. If he goes along with his brother, he’ll be responsible for freeing a criminal and violating the ethical requirements of his job. If he doesn’t, he’ll be under indictment for a murder he didn’t commit. Mason’s decision not to arrange for his brother’s release puts him up against an incredibly difficult legal challenge.

In Gail Bowen’s The Gifted, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her attorney husband Zack face a very challenging dilemma. Their fourteen-year-old daughter Taylor is a gifted artist who is passionate about her work. Two of her pieces are selected for inclusion in a high-profile art auction that will benefit a redevelopment project for the community of North Regina. If Taylor’s parents allow her to be a part of the auction, this will change everything for her. On the one hand, that will be a very good thing, as it will pave the way for Taylor to pursue her art. There will be scholarships and all sorts of other support for her. She’ll also get important recognition. On the other hand, Taylor is still a child. Her parents want to her to have as much of a normal childhood, whatever that actually is, as possible given her talent. Still, they don’t want to deny Taylor opportunities, so they somewhat reluctantly allow her to participate. That decision has dramatic unforeseen consequences when Taylor’s work is revealed at the auction.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack features Buenos Airies police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano. Early one morning, he’s called to a crime scene, where he finds two bodies dumped by a riverbank. They bear the hallmarks of an Army ‘hit.’ This is late 1970s Argentina, when it’s extremely dangerous to say or do anything that might be interpreted as questioning the military-ruled government. So Lescano knows better than to raise comment about those bodies. But he finds a third body, too. This one is of moneylender and pawnbroker Elías Biterman. Someone’s gone to some trouble to make his death look like another Army ‘hit,’ but Lescano doesn’t think it is. He’s not a medical expert though, so he seeks help from his friend Dr. Fusili, who is a medical examiner. Fusili now faces a terrible choice. If he helps Lescano, he’s putting his own life in jeopardy. Certainly he’ll lose his job. On the other hand, if he doesn’t help Lescano, he’s betraying a friend. He’ll keep his position and perhaps even enhance his reputation, but he’ll be sacrificing his friendship and possibly sentencing Lescano to death. When Fusili decides to help Lescano, that choice puts him grave danger, but it gives Lescano badly needed support.

Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne faces a very difficult decision in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. She’s hit a sort of plateau in her career, and she knows that there are plenty of hungry journalists out there who are all too eager to grab headlines and ratings. So she needs the story that will secure her place at the top of the proverbial tree. Then she hears of just such a story. Connor Bligh has been in prison for years for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. Only their daughter Katy survived because she wasn’t at home at the time of the killings. There are now hints that Bligh might be innocent and that’s what he himself claims. If he is, that’s exactly the story Thorne needs. However, there are plenty of people, Katy among them, who swear that Bligh is guilty and whose lives will be upended if Thorne goes after this story. Whichever choice Thorne makes, she’s taking risks. When she ultimately decides to pursue the story, she finds herself getting much closer to it than a professional normally should. Her choice has serious consequences for a lot of people.

It’s never easy to know what to do about a dilemma, especially when neither choice is really an outright positive one. But that tension makes for a real layer of interest in crime novels. Your turn.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne’s I Won’t Back Down.

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Filed under Ernesto Mallo, Gail Bowen, Karin Alvtegen, Martin Clark, Paddy Richardson, Raymond Chandler