The Law Won*

Not all fictional coppers play ‘starring roles’ in their series. But they can still add character depth, a police perspective and sometimes tension to a plot Here’s a salute to them, with some help from Sonny Curtis’ I Fought the Law, from whence the title of this post.  Enjoy!
 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, Jonathan Kellerman, Kerry Greenwood, Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler, Rex Stout, Sara Paretsky, Stuart Palmer, Tess Gerritsen

I Leave a Big Tip With Every Receipt*

ReceiptsIf you look among your things, you’ll probably see random receipts and cash slips for things. They can clutter up a pocket or handbag. And when it’s something simple like getting fuel, it may seem a waste to get a cash slip. But those little pieces of evidence can be very useful.

Anyone who’s on an expense account or who gets reimbursed can tell you that keeping receipts is important. Detectives use those pieces of information too. A cash slip, newspaper clipping or even a passport stamp can either support or refute what a witness or suspect says. So that kind of ‘paper trail’ can be of real value when the police are investigating a crime, or when a PI is looking into a case. Little wonder then that we see things like receipts and stamps all throughout crime fiction.

Agatha Christie uses these details in more than one of her novels. For instance, in Sad Cypress, Hercule Poirot investigates the poisoning murder of Mary Gerrard. The most likely suspect is Elinor Carlisle, who had more than one motive for murder. In the first place, Elinor’s fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman had become smitten with Mary, which ended their engagement. What’s more, Elinor’s very wealthy aunt, Laura Welman, had taken a great interest in Mary, and might very well have altered her will to leave Elinor out of it entirely. Local GP Peter Lord has fallen in love with Elinor and wants her name cleared. So Poirot looks into the matter more deeply. And in the case of one character, he finds that passport stamps put the lie to what that character claimed.

In Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the poisoning murder of Nicholas Quinn, the only Deaf member of Oxford’s Foreign Exams Syndicate. This group is responsible for overseeing exams given in other countries that follow the British education model. The detectives start with those closest to the victim, and soon find that several members of the Syndicate might have had a good reason to want Quinn dead. For one thing, his appointment to the Syndicate was by no means universally supported. For another, he’d learned some secrets about some of the different members. One aspect of this investigation is finding out where each person was on the afternoon of Quinn’s death. As they piece together what happened that day, Morse and Lewis find that ticket stubs from an adult cinema are very informative.

Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly is among other things, the story of the death of Giorgio Tassini, night watchman at one of Venice’s glass blowing factories. At first it all looks like a terrible accident. He’d been working independently on a glass project and the evidence suggests that an accident with the oven caused his death. But Commissario Guido Brunetti is not so sure. Tassini had been a very vocal critic of the glass blowing factories’ procedure for getting rid of toxic waste. He claimed that they were illegally dumping it, putting everyone at risk. Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello discover who is responsible for Tassini’s murder, but they’ll find it very hard to prove what they know. Then one evening, Brunetti gets exactly what he needs: a receipt from a canal boat. That piece of paper puts the lie to what the killer said to the police, and allows for an arrest.

The Michael Stanley writing duo introduces us to Botswana police detective David ‘Kubu’ Bengu in A Carrion Death. He is drawn into an investigation when the remains of an unknown man are found on the property of the rural Dale’s Camp. At first, it looks as though the man was attacked by hyenas. But soon enough, forensics tests suggest that he was murdered. Forensics experts also provide a very important clue: a cash slip found by the body. It turns out to be a receipt from the Number One Petrol Station, and for Kubu, that’s a valuable lead. When he follows up on it and finds the station, he learns that the vehicle in question was a Land Rover painted a garish shade of yellow. Such vehicles are owned by the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC). And that information puts Kubu on a trail that eventually connects someone associated with that company to this murder and to another that occurs.

There’s also Tess Gerritsen’s Vanish, which follows two major plot threads. In one, Boston medical examiner Dr. Maura Iles discovers to her shock that one of the body bags in the mortuary contains a young woman who’s still alive. Iles gives the alert, and the woman is taken to the nearby hospital. The unidentified woman recovers quickly, and rushes from her hospital room after killing a security guard. Then, she goes to the hospital’s Diagnostic Imaging Department, where she takes a group of people hostage. One of them is Boston police detective Jane Rizzoli, who’s there for a sonogram. The police, a SWAT team, and hostage negotiators now have to figure out what the hostage-taker wants, and how to rescue her captives. In the meantime, the other plot thread concerns seventeen-year-old Mila, who left her home in Belarus, lured by promises of a good job in the US and a better life. To put it mildly, things haven’t worked out as planned. The two plot threads are related, ‘though not as you might think. One of the leads that the police get on this case is a credit card receipt for a fuel purchase. That information helps them to piece together at least part of the mystery.

Receipts and odd pieces of paper might just seem like so much junk. But they can prove absolutely invaluable to detectives. They’re also very useful to attorneys on both sides of a case who want to establish a person’s whereabouts or purchases. That oft-repeated bit of advice about saving receipts is actually fairly solid…

 

On Another Note…

There’s still time to vote for the Jo Nesbø novel you’d like to see me spotlight. If you’d like to let your voice be heard, check out my poll right here.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Big Man on Mulberry Street.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Donna Leon, Michael Stanley, Tess Gerritsen

I Heard it on My Radio*

RadioAn interesting post on podcasting from crime writer Elizabeth Spann Craig has got me thinking about broadcasting. Her excellent writing blog inspires me; it’s a must-visit for writers and anyone interested in the process of writing. Podcasts are a very new form of broadcasting, but radio has been around for a very long time. In fact, it was arguably the first real-time medium of mass communication. And even with the advent of television and the internet, radio is still a popular and powerful tool. It’s not surprising then that radio plays a role in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of dozens more than I can.

In Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are on a holiday in Cornwall. There they meet Magdala ‘Nick’ Buckley, who has a house there. Poirot soon comes to suspect that someone is trying to kill Nick, although she herself doesn’t believe him at first. Then, she has a few ‘near misses.’ Poirot doesn’t want her staying in the house by herself, so Nick invites her cousin Maggie for a few weeks. Tragically, Maggie is killed during her visit. She was wearing one of her cousin’s shawls at the time of the murder; and this obvious case of mistaken identity convinces Poirot that Nick is in imminent danger. He arranges for her to be safely cared for at a hospital, where she’s told to eat nothing from ‘outside.’ When the murderer tries to strike again, Poirot has to act quickly. In this case, a radio broadcast is key to what the killer chooses to do.

The police have their own radio frequencies; and police radio plays a role in Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice. One Christmas night, LAPD cop Harry Bosch is ‘on call,’ and has his police scanner running in the background. That’s how he hears that a body has been discovered at a seedy hotel in his district. To him, it’s surprising that no-one called him to let him know, since he’s on duty. He goes to the scene only to find that the dead man is Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore, a fellow police officer. The death bears all the hallmarks of suicide, but a few things don’t add up for Bosch. The official explanation is that Moore killed himself because he’d ‘gone dirty’ and was involved in drug smuggling. In order to protect the department’s reputation, Bosch is told to leave the case alone and accept it as a suicide (in fact, that’s why he wasn’t called). Bosch fans will know that leaving things alone is not his style, so he keeps asking questions. In the end, and after a trip to the US/Mexico border area, he finds out the complex truth behind this death.

Even with the popularity of television and the Internet, there are still plenty of successful and well-known radio celebrities. Some of them are quite controversial, too. We see an example of the rise of the ‘shock jock’ in Robert B. Parker’s High Profile. In that novel, we meet celebrity radio personality Walton Weeks. His politically-charged broadcasts have made him a host of fanatic followers and enemies; his private life has been just as full of drama. So when he is found shot and hung, Paradise, Massachusetts Police Chief Jesse Stone has his pick of suspects. For one thing, Weeks’ broadcasts had inspired strong passion on both sides, so to speak. For another, his ex-wives and his current wife all had good reason to want him out of the way. Stone is working on this case when there’s another murder. This time, the victim is Weeks’ pregnant mistress. Stone finds that there were a lot of secrets in Weeks’ life, and that those secrets turned out to be fatal.

In one plot thread of Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, we are introduced to comic Richard Mott. He’s been invited to headline a lunchtime radio comedy show, and arranges for his housemate, crime writer Martin Canning, to get tickets. On the day of the show, Canning and several other characters in the novel are waiting for the doors to open when they witness a car accident. A blue Honda hits the back of a silver Peugot driven by Paul Bradley. Both men get out of their cars and are soon arguing bitterly. Then the Honda driver wields a baseball bat and attacks Bradley. Mostly by instinct, Canning throws his computer case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. A sense of obligation drives Canning to ensure that Bradley gets safely to the nearest hospital; before he knows it, he’s far more involved than he wants to be in a case of multiple murders, fraud and theft.

Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall introduces readers to Toronto radio personality Kevin Brace. He and his common-law wife Katherine Torn are both successful, and have an upscale lifestyle which includes a home in the exclusive Market Place Tower condominiums. Everything changes one morning when Torn is found dead in one of the bathtubs. Brace is quickly arrested, and indicates that he wants to be represented by Nancy Parish. Acting for the Crown will be Albert Fernandez. While the attorneys prepare for the legal aspects of this case, Police Detective Ari Green and his team investigate the crime. One possible explanation for the seemingly airtight case against Brace is that he was framed. If that’s the case, then one likely suspect is Donald Dundas, another radio personality who stands to become a broadcasting star with Brace out of the way. And Dundas might have had his own reasons for wanting Torn dead. As the police and attorneys fallow this trail, we learn some interesting things about the modern big-city radio business.

Domingo Villar’s Leo Caldas is a detective with the Vigo police. He also has a radio call-in show. The goal of the show is closer ties between the police and the community, so callers get to ask their questions (or lodge their complaints) in direct conversations with Caldas. The show is so popular that when people are introduced to Caldas, they invariably say something like, ‘Oh, from Patrolling the Waves?’ He’s actually better known for the radio broadcast than he is for anything else.

And that just goes to show that radio still has an important impact. People do listen to audio broadcasts. These are just some instances. You’re now on the air to offer more.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Radio Ga Ga.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Domingo Villar, Kate Atkinson, Michael Connelly, Robert B. Parker, Robert Rotenberg

Obeys All the Rules*

Unwritten RulesEach social group has its own ‘code of conduct.’ The rules may not be written anywhere, or even clearly articulated, but they’re there. If one’s going to belong to a given group, or have anything to do with anyone in that group, one has to follow those rules. And depending on the group, there can be severe consequences for anyone who doesn’t.

When those rules are woven into the plot of a crime novel, the result can be an interesting layer of tension. There are also lots of possible directions the story can take (e.g. a broken rule as the motive for murder). So it shouldn’t be surprising that we see those rules a lot in the genre.

One of the deep-seated traditions among the police is the rule of staying loyal to fellow cops. And that makes sense at one level. Police have to work together and trust each other implicitly if they’re to do their job well. Speaking out against another officer is therefore often seen as disloyal or worse. There are several novels that include that plot point. One is Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood. Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police goes to the scene of a home invasion with probationer Lucy Howard. While they’re there, White is stabbed. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in and out of trouble with the law for a long time. The police have to do everything ‘by the book’ in this case; since Rowley is part Aboriginal, the media will be watching closely for anything that may smack of racism. As the novel evolves, we see how the death of one of their own impacts the force. It permeates everything the police characters do.

We also see this rule against speaking out in David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight. Superintendent Frank Swann returns to Perth after an absence when he learns that a friend, Ruby Devine, has been killed. The police theory is that Ruby’s partner Jacky White is responsible, but there’s no real evidence. Swann believes there’s another explanation: a corrupt group of police known as ‘the purple circle.’ They’re powerful and dangerous enough that no-one has spoken out about them; and their fellow cops obey the ‘loyalty’ rule. Swann has made the dangerous choice to convene a Royal Commission hearing into their activities, so he’s a ‘dead man walking.’ But he is determined to find out who killed Ruby. Throughout the novel, we see how deeply-engrained this rule is, and what the consequences are for breaking it.

In the LGBT community, one of the long-held rules is that you don’t ‘out’ anyone. Coming out is an intensely personal and sometimes very difficult decision, not to be made by anyone else. That rule is touched on in Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit. Successful accountant Daniel Guest hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who’s been blackmailing him. He’s been publicly married for several years, but has also had trysts with other men. Someone has apparently found out about those relationships and is threatening to ‘go public.’ One of Quant’s first reactions is that Guest could settle matters in a straightforward way by coming out. But Guest doesn’t want to do that, and Quant respects those wishes. Perhaps a small part of the reason is the fee; the most important reason, though, is that Quant abides by the ‘no outing’ rule. It’s too important not to, and the loss of trust that results from breaking it has serious consequences.

The Mob and other criminal groups have their own rules, like any other social group. Perhaps the most important one is that you don’t discuss the group’s activities with anyone, especially not with law enforcement. Informing on the group usually carries a death sentence. That rule is brought up in a lot of novels; one of them is Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas. Fred and Maggie Blake and their children have recently moved from the US to the small Normandy town of Cholong-sur-Avre. There are a lot of adjustments to be made in order to adapt to the new culture, but everyone makes an effort. They have to. As we soon learn, this is no ordinary family. Fred Blake is really Giovanni Manzoni, a former member of the New Jersey Mafia. He informed on the group, so he and his family were placed in the US Federal Witness Protection Program. At first, it seems that the move to Normandy will be successful. Then, word of the family’s location gets back to New Jersey. Now, the ‘Blakes’ have to face the fact that their lives are in imminent danger.

In many social groups, there’s a rule against marrying or even having strong social bonds outside one’s caste. It’s expected that the different socioeconomic strata will stay separated and people will keep to their places. We see that, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress. In that novel, we meet Mary Gerrard, daughter of the lodgekeeper at Hunterbury. She’s found a patron in wealthy Laura Welman, whose family owns the property. In fact, Mary’s been educated ‘above her station,’ and there are plenty of people who question the wisdom of that. When she suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison, local GP Dr. Peter Lord asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. The most likely suspect is Elinor Carlisle, whose fiancé Roddy Welman had fallen in love with Mary. But Lord wants her name cleared. So Poirot looks into the matter more deeply. In the process, he gets to know the local opinion of Mary and of Laura Welman. With few exceptions, it’s believed that it was a mistake to try to move Mary out of her station in life. Here’s what her admirer Ted Bigland says about it:
 

‘Mean well, people do, but they shouldn’t muck up people’s lives by interfering.’
 

Mary also comes in for criticism for ‘going after’ Roddy Welman, who is in a very different social group.

There are a lot of variants on that rule about relationships with people in other groups. Malla Nunn explores the issue of relationships among members of different racial groups in South Africa in her Emmanuel Cooper series. And it’s referred to much earlier than that, too, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Yellow Face.  Many other novels also address the social rule against mixing of castes/races/ethnic groups.

In many social groups, there’s also a rule that you don’t turn your back on family, no matter what. Any crime fiction fan can tell you that there are countless novels where people feel compelled to do things (or overlook things) because someone is a sibling/parent/child/cousin/ etc… And in some cultures, that family bond is more important than anything else. For instance, in Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, we meet ex-pat American travel writer Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty. One of the plot threads in this novel concerns his relationship with former bar girl Rose, who’s started her own apartment-cleaning business. The third member of Rafferty’s family is Miaow, a former street child Rafferty is trying to adopt. Rose is Thai, with that culture’s view about family. At one point, they’re discussing getting married, and Rose wants to make sure Rafferty is clear about what he’d be getting. Here’s how she puts it to Rafferty:
 

‘She [Rose] turns to face him. ‘We have ten dollars left,’ she says. Her voice is so low he has to strain to hear it. ‘Miaow is hungry. My little sister up north is hungry. Who gets the ten dollars? … I would send the money to my sister,’ Rose says. ‘Without a minute’s thought.’
 

On the one hand, matters would be entirely different if Rose and Rafferty get married. On the other, she wants him to know that in marrying her, he’s marrying her family, as the saying goes.

Those rules by which different social groups live are different for each group. They’re not always codified, but everyone in the group learns them. And they can make for compelling plot points and layers of interest.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Depeche Mode’s Shouldn’t Have Done That.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, David Whish-Wilson, Malla Nunn, Timothy Hallinan, Tonino Benacquista, Y.A. Erskine

Same as the Old Boss*

Bad BossesAs I mentioned yesterday, having a supportive, competent boss can make all the difference in your professional world. But not everyone is so fortunate. If you’ve ever had a terrible boss, you know what a nightmare that can be. That kind of work stress can be intolerable.

There are of course plenty of crime-fictional examples of incompetent, non-supportive and even downright malicious, sadistic bosses. Creating these characters can be tricky, since most crime fiction fans don’t want unidimensional characters. Most people, even awful bosses, have at least some redeeming quality. But an annoying (or worse) boss can give the author lots of opportunity for conflict, sub-plots and so on.

Michael Connelly’s LAPD cop Harry Bosch has a boss who certainly makes his life difficult. In The Black Echo, we are introduced to Irvin Irving, then a Deputy Chief. In more than one of the books in this series, Irving shows that he’s self-protective and highly political. He’s also not in the least bit above squelching any honest investigation that may make him or the department look bad. So even those not deeply familiar with this series will be able to guess that he makes life very difficult for Bosch and sometimes represents a real threat to him. Connelly doesn’t give Irving’s character only one facet though. He is competent, and people loyal to him will tell you that he stands up for the police force. But to Bosch, for whom integrity is essential, Irving is part of what’s wrong with the department.

Fans of Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series will know that he is saddled with a dreadful boss, Vice Questore Giuseppe Patta. Patta is a toady to the rich and well-connected. More than that, he’s an ambitious man who’s not above ‘glory-grabbing’ to make his mark. In several novels he interferes with investigations, pulls Brunetti from cases, and in other ways impedes work. Most of the time it’s because he’s being protective both of his own reputation and of those of the rich, powerful people he thinks can do him some good. Brunetti is no fool, though; more than once, he and Patta’s assistant, Signorina Elettra Zorzi, use Patta’s vanity, arrogance and ambition against him.

Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett has a boss, ACC Lauren Self, who isn’t much better. Self is also ambitious, and well aware that moving up into the higher echelons of police power is still easier for men than for women. So she does everything she can to improve her political position. Even Scarlett, who has little but contempt for Self, admits that her boss is very good at getting influential people on her side. She manages the social aspect of police politics quite well. But underneath that exterior, Self can be very malicious, even backstabbing. Certainly she’s not respectful of the people who work for her; nor does she listen to what they tell her about what’s really going on as they investigate. Again, Edwards doesn’t depict Self as one-sided. She does have skills. But she certainly hasn’t endeared herself to her team members.

Sometimes, even when you have a boss you like and respect, things can change if that boss leaves, transfers or is temporarily away. That’s what happens in Katherine Howell’s Web of Deceit. New South Wales Police Detective Ella Marconi likes and respects her usual boss Dennis Orchard. But he’s on a temporary assignment elsewhere, so Brad Langley steps in as acting head of homicide. On the one hand, he knows and follows police procedure, and is competent at what he does. It’s no surprise that he’s been tapped to head this team. On the other hand, he is, as Howell tells us,
 

‘…a numbers man.’
 

He doesn’t use department resources wisely, and he doesn’t listen to the people who work for him. What’s more, he can be publicly rude to his team members, especially when they suggest anything other than what he outlines for them. It’s little wonder Marconi misses Orchard.

Adrian Hyland’s Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest also has a very bad experience with a temporary boss. In Gunshot Road, we learn that she’s just begun her duties as an ACPO, and is hoping to work with Tom McGillivray, whom she likes and respects. But when he is badly injured, Tempest is assigned to work with Bruce Cockburn. From the very first, they dislike each other. Cockburn is brusque and disrespectful. He’s sometimes rude and not one to pay much attention to what Tempest says. For his part, Cockburn finds Tempest too much of a maverick and too tactless. So when they investigate the shooting death of former prospector Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins, they butt heads almost immediately. Matters worsen between them as the novel goes on. Hyland doesn’t depict Cockburn as all bad. Some of the things he says are right, and the points he makes well-taken. He’s not completely incompetent, and Tempest makes her share of mistakes. But Cockburn is certainly not skilled at supervising with any kind of respect.

Camilla Läckberg’s Fjällbacka police detective Patrik Hedström also has an insufferable boss. Bertil Mellberg. Especially in the earlier novels in the series, he is rude, lazy and disrespectful. He is also ambitious, and considers his current assignment to be a ‘backwater.’ His only goal is to be transferred ‘up the pole’ to the bigger and more prestigious police department in Göteborg. Admittedly, as the series evolves, it becomes a little easier to work with Mellberg. He gets a little more responsive to his team and actually does some work on his own. But he’s hardly ‘boss of the year’ material.

If you’ve ever had a ‘nightmare boss,’ you know what an impediment it is. But perhaps some of the really unpleasant fictional bosses will make the ones you’ve had seem a bit better by comparison…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again. I couldn’t resist the symmetry…

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Camilla Läckberg, Donna Leon, Katherine Howell, Martin Edwards, Michael Connelly