There’s an App For That ;-)

AppsOne of the big developments in today’s technology is the advent of apps for all sorts of different things. From dating to exercise to reading to cooking and a lot more, there’s a relevant app for nearly everything. All of the apps out there have got me thinking about what it would be like if some well-known fictional sleuths got hold of some of them. What might they think?

If you’ll send your disbelief out for a sandwich (Restaurant Finder can help), let’s take a look at what happens….


When Fictional Sleuths Use Apps… 


I   Inspector Morse (Colin Dexter)

Morse is sitting in his office using his tablet computer.
Morse:  Lew-is!
Lewis walks quickly into Morse’s office. Lewis: Sir?
Morse: What is this? He points to a logo on his list of apps.
Lewis: Oh, that’s Twitter, sir. It allows you to communicate with people all over the world. It’s quite a handy little tool. You can even join interest groups.
Morse: But what does this mean? Points to one particular tweet that says ‘LOL! YOLO!’
Lewis (Bending over slightly and looking at the tweet): Well, sir, that means, ‘Laughing out loud. You only live once!’
Morse: But that’s not even in English!


II   Nero Wolfe (Rex Stout)

Wolfe picks up his telephone and sees something new on it.
Wolfe: Archie, what have you done to my telephone?
Archie (Looking up from his desk): What do you mean?
Wolfe: Confound it, Archie, you can’t see it from over there!
Archie gets up and goes over to his boss’ desk. He follows Wolfe’s impatiently pointing forefinger.
Archie: That’s called S-Health.
Wolfe: I can see that. What is it?
Archie (Grinning maliciously):  It’s a fitness app. Lets you track your steps, manage your diet, and even count how many calories you’ve eaten in one day. Pointed look at Wolfe’s girth.
Wolfe: Pfui! Remove it!


III    Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie)

Poirot is looking at himself in the mirror, making sure his moustache is perfect. He turns around when Hastings enters the room.
Poirot: Ah, Hastings. Are you ready to go? I hear that this play, it is excellent.
Hastings: I’ve heard the same thing. Oh, look here, Poirot, you’ve almost forgotten your ‘phone.
Poirot: Merci, Hastings. He takes the ‘phone and looks closely at the screen. But, what is this? It is not familiar to me.
Hastings steps over and looks at the app Poirot is indicating.
Hastings: That’s the McDonald’s app, Poirot. It shows you the nearest McDonald’s, lets you choose from the menu, and lets you download all sorts of offers. You’ll love it.


IV    Kurt Wallander (Henning Mankell)

Wallander is having lunch with his daughter, Linda. He picks up his ‘phone to set it to ‘silent,’ and notices something.
Wallander: What is this, I wonder.
Linda: Let me see. She reaches for the ‘phone and Wallander hands it to her. Oh, that’s a new app I just downloaded for you. It’s called Tinder.
Wallander: What the hell is ‘Tinder?’
Linda: It’s a great way to meet new people. You see people’s online profiles and you can swipe right if you like the profile, and left if you don’t. Then you can meet people you like. I put your profile in there, too!


V     Inspector John Rebus (Ian Rankin)

Rebus and Malcolm Fox are sitting in a conference room at the police station.
Fox: So, I think we both know what’s next for this case then?
Rebus: Aye, I think so. Picks up his ‘phone to put it in his pocket, and notices something on it.
Fox: Something wrong, John?
Rebus: Just wondering what this is. I’ve not seen it before. Passes the ‘phone to Fox, who looks at it.
Fox: I think you’ll like it, John. And I know you can use it. It’s called the ‘Living Sober’ app. Time you thought about giving up the stuff. Looks over at Rebus’ cup. That’s not tea in there, is it?


VI    Sergeant Barbara Havers (Elizabeth George)

Havers is at an O2 store, looking at the ‘phones.
Shop Assistant: Something in particular you’re looking for?
Havers: Well, I like this one. Can you tell me about it?
Assistant: You’ll love it. Great reception – all the time. And it’s loaded with apps.
Havers: Yeah?
Assistant: Absolutely. It’s got Facebook, Twitter, and more. (Lowers her voice) It’s even got the Makeup Tutorials app. You know, just for us girls. Once you try that app, you’ll never want to be without it.


So what do you think? Would our top fictional sleuths enjoy the world of apps?


Just a reminder…..

Wanna get creative? You know you do! A week ago I posted a few 50-word mysteries – they’re called Dribbles – and invited you to try your hand at them. I’d love to read yours! You can send ‘em to me at margotkinberg(at)gmail(dot)com, and I’ll post them in about a week. C’mon! Sit with the cool kids!


Filed under Uncategorized

And He’s Stealing the Scene*

Scene StealersMost crime fiction novels have a protagonist or protagonists who are the ‘stars’ of the story or series. The other characters are, hopefully, well-developed, but they don’t have top billing, as the saying goes. And yet, there are some secondary characters who can steal scenes very effectively. They have a way of calling attention to themselves, whether it’s because of a strong personality, an interesting background, or a way of serving as a foil to the protagonist. They can certainly add to a story, and if they’re well drawn, they can do so without taking away from the protagonist’s role.

For example, the protagonist in Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit is Anne Bedingfield. After her professor father dies, Anne is left alone in the world without a lot of money. But she does have a sense of adventure. One day, she witnesses a terrible accident in which a man falls (or is pushed) from a train platform to the tracks below. She happens to notice a piece of paper that fell out of his pocket, and later, gets her hands on it. The message on the paper seems cryptic until she works out that it’s a reference to the upcoming sailing of the HMS Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. On impulse, Anne books passage on the ship, and ends up getting mixed up in a case of international intrigue, stolen jewels and murder. One of the other passengers on the ship is Suzanne Blair, a wealthy woman a little older than Anne is herself. Suzanne is independent and knows exactly what she wants. She gets it, too. She becomes Anne’s friend, but is really quite a strong character in her own right. And she is most helpful in getting Anne out of trouble.

In Reginald Hill’s An Advancement of Learning, Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant Peter Pascoe investigate when a body is discovered at Holm Coultram College. Renovations are being made at the school, and part of the work involves digging up a statue and moving it to another place on campus. That’s when the body of the college’s former president, Alison Girling, is found. It was assumed she’d died as a result of an avalanche during a skiing trip, so everyone is shocked to find her body so close to home. And it turns out that several people at the school might have had a good reason to want the victim dead. One of the characters we meet in this novel is Franny Roote, who leads a revolutionary student activist group called the Student Union. He’s not what you’d call a nice person. And his fellow activists do their best to disrupt the normal goings-on of life at the campus. And yet, he does have a certain magnetism, and he’s a very interesting (i.e. not one-dimensional) character. As fans of this series know, he makes return appearances, too, in later books (Dialogues of the Dead and Death’s Jest-Book come to my mind). He may be a major thorn in, especially, Peter Pascoe’s side. But Franny Roote can steal a scene.

The setting for most of Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is the small, rural Québec town of Three Pines. One of the people who lives in that town is poet Ruth Zardo. She is brilliant and observant, but her wit is caustic and she doesn’t really let people close to her. There are a few characters with whom she has what you might call a friendship. At least, she has a sort of back-and-forth/give-and-take repartee with them. But she keeps a very close guard on herself, keeping others away with her prickliness. And yet, she knows a lot about what goes on in town, and she herself is more complex than it seems. She really shares her soul in her poetry more than in any other way. In A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold), Ruth wins the Governor-General’s Award for her work, and her name begins to get around more than it has. So she launches her newest book of poems at a Montréal bookshop, and several of Three Pines’ residents go to the event. On the one hand, the book launch doesn’t draw crowds. On the other, we see that despite her manner, Ruth is important to the people of Three Pines.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins series mostly features Rawlins, a PI living in post-World War II Los Angeles. He’s originally from Louisiana, and still knows people from that time in his life. One of those people is his friend Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander. Mouse is a complex and interesting character. On one level, he’s dangerous. He has a hair-trigger temper and few boundaries. On the other, he is brave and loyal to Easy. In Little Green, for instance, we learn that he rescued Easy from certain death after a car accident. Mouse tells a compelling story, too. In one scene (also from Little Green) we learn how he survived being shot in the back. In that scene, Easy is recovering from his near-death experience as Mouse tells his story, and even in that short space, we can see how Mouse is able to steal that scene. And in the novel, it’s Mouse who asks Easy to help locate a missing young man named Evander, who seems to have disappeared after getting mixed up with some hippies (the story takes place in the late 1960s). Mouse may be violent at times, but he is also fascinating.

In Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water, we are introduced to Vigàta Inspector Salvo Montalbano. In that novel, he and his team are looking into the sudden death of up-and-coming politician Silvio Luparello. One of the ‘people of interest’ in this investigation is Luparello’s political rival, Angelo Cardemone. In fact, there’s evidence that his son Giacomino was near the scene on the night Luparello died. That’s how Montalbano meets Giacomino’s wife, Ingrid Sjostrom. Originally from Sweden, she’s a race car driver who lives life exactly as she wants. She’s very much her own person, and that adds ‘spicy’ to her character. She and Montalbano become friends, and she can be very helpful. She can steal scenes, too. For instance, in this novel, she and Montalbano test one of his theories about Luperallo’s death. The test involves having Ingrid drive her car down a certain difficult path. She’s quite in control of that scene.

And then there’s Count Kolya, whom we first meet in William Ryan’s historical (late 1930s) novel The Holy Thief. Kolya is Chief Authority of the Moscow Thieves, and as such, lives life on the wrong side of the law. But he has his own code, and he is a complex character. As the series goes on, we learn bits about Kolya, and we see that there are depths to him. What’s interesting about this is that the series actually features Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev. He, too is an interesting character, and the well-drawn protagonist of the series. But when Kolya is ‘on screen,’ he is compelling. And he has a habit of popping up unexpectedly. Korolev finds him an unlikely but sometimes very helpful ally.

It all just goes to show that a character doesn’t have to be the protagonist to steal a scene (or more). Which scene-stealing characters have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ellis Paul’s River.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Louise Penny, Reginald Hill, Walter Mosley, William Ryan

Man, What a Ride*

Car DangersSometimes, news stories are stranger than anything writers dream up. For instance, a Florida man has been arrested for allegedly throwing a live alligator through the window of a drive-through fast food restaurant. And yes, that’s a real story; you can read about it right here.

As I was thinking about that story, it occurred to me that this would mean that the man in question had to transport that alligator in his car. I’m no zoologist, but my guess is that that in itself was a dangerous thing to do.

And it all just goes to show that you never know what might happen when you get into a car. There are all sorts of crime-fictional examples of what I mean. Here are just a few of them.

In William Brittain’s short story Yellowbelly, two bank robbers, Bryce and Augie, are on the run after holding up the Royson Bank. They’re planning to hide for the night up in the mountainous desert of the US Southwest, but instead of emptiness, they find a small roadside café and garage called Yellowbelly’s. They stop to get some fuel and to get the car’s faulty air conditioning repaired. They stay as calm as possible, hoping that Yellowbelly Dobkins, the owner of the place, and Pete Muggeridge, who works there, won’t have heard the news about the heist they just pulled off. All goes smoothly enough at first. Then, while Bryce and Augie are in the café eating, the restaurant’s radio broadcasts the news of the robbery and complete descriptions of the thieves. Pete acts precipitously and is wounded; now he and Yellowbelly are more or less at the mercy of their visitors. Yellowbelly repairs the car, and in the morning, the two thieves leave. But there’s one thing they hadn’t planned on: Yellowbelly’s knowledge of the desert and its inhabitants. When Bryce and Augie drive off, they turn on the newly-repaired air conditioning, only to find that the more comfortable environment has lured out of hiding a rattlesnake that was left in the car. Here’s what Yellowbelly later says about it to a police officer:

‘‘…a snake ain’t very lively when it gets too hot…I figgered that thing’d stay down below the seat in the shade.
Course when the air conditioning brought the temperature down to his likin’, first thing old snake wanted to do was come out to see what was going on.’’

The snake’s curiosity certainly changes plans for the bank robbers.

And that’s not the only example of snakes in crime-fictional cars.  As John Burdett’s Bangkok 8 begins, Sonchai Jitpleecheep and his partner Pichai Apiradee of the Royal Thai Police are on a surveillance assignment. They’ve been following a grey Mercedes and, for a few moments, lose sight of it. By the time they see it again, it’s too late: the occupant, William Bradley, is dead. A closer look at the scene shows that the car is full of poisonous snakes, and that the victim probably died from their bites. And when Pinchai investigates a little further, one of the snakes bites him, too. Sonchai is determined to avenge the death of his police partner and ‘soul brother,’ so his interest in this case is as personal as it is professional.

Sometimes what’s found in cars is quite a different kind of animal. For example, in Donald Honig’s short story Come Ride With Me, a man named Gannon stops at the Quick Stop diner. He has a specific purpose in mind: to ‘borrow’ a car. He’s just committed a robbery that ended in murder, and needs a getaway vehicle. Gannon waits at the diner until he sees exactly the sort of fast, late-model car he wants. When the car’s owner, well-off Frank Carstairs, uses the diner’s telephone, Gannon sees his chance and hides in the back of the car. Carstairs gets in his car and Gannon takes him hostage. But as he soon learns, he’s picked the wrong car. Carstairs has an entirely different purpose for it.

In one plot thread of Ruth Rendell’s The Veiled One, DCI Reg Wexford learns that his daughter Sheila has been caught cutting wire fencing on government property as a part of a protest against nuclear development. She stays with Wexford and his wife Dora for a short time after the incident’s made public. One evening, Wexford goes outdoors to move Sheila’s car so he can put his own away. That’s when a bomb rigged underneath the car goes off. Wexford is thrown clear, injured but alive. There’s heavy damage to the house, too, but no-one else is hurt. Wexford spends some time recovering, which means his assistant Mike Burden takes on the ‘lion’s share’ of another investigation, this one of a woman whose body is found in a shopping mall’s parking garage.

And then there’s Fred Vargas’ Ghost Riders of Ordebec. In one plot thread of that story, Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and his team investigate a car fire. Wealthy and well-connected Antoine Clermont-Brasseur has been killed in what authorities discover is a case of arson. The official theory is that the victim was killed by a local firebug named Momo, who has a record of torching cars. But Momo claims he’s innocent, and there’s evidence to support him, too. Commissaire Adamsberg comes to believe Momo, and takes a very unusual course of action to try to prevent an innocent man from being convicted. In the meantime, Adamsberg’s team learn that there are several other people who had a motive for murder.

As you see, most of us don’t drive around with alligators in our cars. But that doesn’t mean that a car ride is always smooth and easy. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take a drive myself. Care to join me???


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Charlie Ryan’s Hot Rod Lincoln. Listen to that version and the other popular version, recorded by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, and see which you prefer.




Filed under Donald Honig, Fred Vargas, John Burdett, Ruth Rendell, William Brittain

Crime Fiction News Break


Links You’ll Want

D.S. Nelson

Live and Let Bee

Marshall Karp


Dean Street Press

Agatha Award Nominees

Malice Domestic


Filed under Uncategorized

In The Spotlight: Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Like all wars, the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina left deep and lasting scars. More than twenty years later, it still does. Let’s take a look today at the repercussions of that war. Let’s turn the spotlight on Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead, the first of her novels featuring Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty of the Community Policing Section (CPS) of the Canadian federal government.

One day, Khattak gets a call from Tom Paley, of Canada’s Department of Justice. A man named Christopher Drayton has died after a fall from Scarborough (Ontario) Bluffs. On the surface, there seems to be no reason for which the CPS should be involved in this case. That group is more concerned with anti-bigotry and community relations issues. Then, Khattak learns the reason this case is so delicate and needs the CPS’ attention.

It is possible that Christopher Drayton may actually have been Dražen Krstić, a notorious war criminal known as the butcher of Srebrenica. If that’s the case, then there will be real trouble for the government. Why was a war criminal allowed in the country? Why was he never prosecuted? Khattak himself can’t be entirely objective; as a student, he volunteered in Bosnia, and knows first-hand what happened there. What’s more, he is a Muslim. So he brings his assistant, Sergeant Rachel Getty, in on the case, telling her very little about it at first. The idea is that she’ll bring a fresh pair of eyes, as the saying goes, and can be more objective.

Part of the team’s task is to establish who Drayton really was. The other part is to determine the truth about Drayton’s death. There is some evidence the victim may have been Krstić, so one lead is the local Bosnian mosque. Someone there might have remembered him from the war, and decided to mete out personal justice.

There’s also the victim’s personal life. He was engaged to marry Melanie Blessant, and the plan was that she and her two daughters, Hadley and Cassidy, would move in with him after the wedding. She claims that she had no motive, and that she was eager for the wedding. But I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that Melanie Blessant is malicious, greedy, and thoroughly dysfunctional. How much can anyone rely on what she says? Her ex-husband Dennis is also a possibility. He argued with Drayton about who would have custody of Hadley and Cassidy, insisting that they should live with him. He claims that Drayton was worth much more to him alive than dead, since it would mean an end to Melanie’s endless demands for money. But he could certainly be lying.

And then there’s the Andalusia Museum, a project designed to celebrate the art, music and culture of Moorish Andalusia. Drayton had taken an interest in the project, and in fact, wanted to be named to its board of directors. Not everyone was happy about that, though, and that could also be a motive for murder. Little by little, Khattak and Getty peel away a layer of lies and uncover some very dark secrets. Some are related to the Bosnian War; some are personal.

The events of the Bosnian War play an important role in this novel, and we learn the stories of several people caught in it. Khan has also added several notes to the end of the book, that give further information. The war stories are harrowing, and they are not ‘sugarcoated’ here. Just as harrowing – perhaps more so – is the callous, almost casual, attitude towards the violence on the part of some of the perpetrators and enablers involved. Readers who find such stories disturbing will notice this.

The story also raises some important moral/ethical questions. If the victim was Krstić, and his murder was committed by a former victim (or victim’s family member), is it right to prosecute someone who’s already suffered so much? On the other hand, is ‘vigilante justice’ ever appropriate? And what about the police? Are there times when certain cases should be ‘buried,’ in the interest of the peace and healing of everyone?

This book does not provide easy answers to those questions. What’s more, it doesn’t have a traditional ending, where the killer is led away in handcuffs. Readers who prefer that sort of ending will notice this.

There are several sub-plots to the novel, and they form another element. One has to do with Getty. She lives with her extremely dysfunctional parents, mostly because she wants to ‘mend fences’ with her brother Zachary ‘Zach,’ who left home several years earlier. She’s been trying to find him, and hopes he’ll return. Her search for Zach and its consequences is one story thread. Another has to do with Khattak and Nathan ‘Nate’ Clare, a writer who lived near Drayton and who knew him. Without spoiling the story, I can say that they have a history which is revealed to the reader as Getty discovers it.

There’s also the relationship between Khattak and Getty (and no, for those who may be concerned about this, it’s not romantic). Each has personal ‘baggage’ and prefers to keep that ‘baggage’ private. They are both imperfect people, too, who’ve made their share of mistakes. But Getty admires Khattak and wants his approval. For his part, Khattak relies on Getty and knows that she can be trusted to tell the truth as she understands it. And she isn’t afraid to sometimes say things he might not want to hear. They respect each other, and learn to trust each other.

The Unquiet Dead is the story of one death. But it’s also the story of thousands of other deaths, and the stories of the many people who survived the war, but who will never be the same because of it. It is not an easy read, and raises difficult moral and ethical questions. But it also introduces two sleuths who are willing to try to get some answers. But what’s your view? Have you read The Unquiet Dead? If you have, what elements do you see in it?



Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday, 15 February/Tuesday, 16 February – Bullet For a Star – Stuart Kaminsky

Monday, 22 February/Tuesday, 23 February – The Lying-Down Room – Anna Jaquiery

Monday, 29 February/Tuesday 1 March – The Cold, Cold Ground – Adrian McKinty


Filed under Ausma Zehanat Khan, The Unquiet Dead