If You Look the Part You’ll Get the Job*

20151126_092844-1The conference name badge and backpack you see in this ‘photo serve a couple of important purposes. The backpack is, of course, handy for carrying notes, a pen, the conference handbook, and the many other little things conference delegates need when they go to different sessions. And the name badge makes it easy for people to introduce themselves or discreetly check if they really do remember that person from the last conference.

But name badges, backpacks and the like serve another purpose too. They identify a person as belonging to a group. If you walk into a conference venue with your name badge, you’re immediately accepted (and forgiven for any  ‘I’m a foreigner – sorry!’ blunders you may make.)  No-one questions your presence. It’s quite different if you walk in without the name badge, backpack or both.

Those sorts of identifiers show up a in crime fiction, too, and they can mark a person as ‘belonging’ or ‘not belonging.’ They don’t always take the form of a name badge, but they can play a role. To give you one very general example, medical mysteries and thrillers (e.g. Michael Palmer’s work, Robin Cook’s, and so on) often have a plot point that includes a character who ducks into a hospital changing room and dons a lab coat. No-one really takes notice of a person in a lab coat in that environment. It’s a symbol that identifies someone as belonging there. There are more specific examples, too, of the way this works in crime fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, Jerry Burton and his sister Joanna move to the village of Lymestock so that Jerry can recover from a wartime injury. On the surface, Lymestock seems to be an idyllic small town, peaceful and just right for recuperation. It doesn’t turn out to be that way, though. One day, Joanna and Jerry receive a vicious anonymous note that suggests they are not siblings, but lovers. Then, they learn that other villagers, too, are getting such notes. When one of those letters results in a suicide, and another death follows that, the police investigate. But, as the local vicar’s wife knows, Miss Marple is far better suited than are the police to find out the truth in a small, closed-mouth village like Lymestock. One of the interesting side issues in this novel is the local perception of Joanna. She’s a very smart dresser who wears makeup. This identifies her immediately as not belonging. And there are plenty of people who think that she shouldn’t wear makeup and should dress more ‘village.’

Kerry Greenwood’s Earthly Delights introduces readers to Melbourne baker Corinna Chapman. In one plot thread, a local drug user nearly dies right near Chapman’s bakery, and she finds herself slowly getting drawn into the mystery of how it happened. There’ve been several overdoses in the area, some of which have led to death. The trail leads Chapman and her lover Daniel Cohen to a Goth club called Blood Lines. A person can’t just walk into the club, so Chapman and Cohen are going to have to look as though they belong. Chapman gets some help from her friend Pat, who goes by the professional name of Mistress Dread. The dress she wears, and the boots, make her look exactly right for the club, so that no-one questions her presence there. This allows her and Cohen to find out the truth about the drug deaths.

In Maureen Carter’s Working Girls, Birmingham DS Beverly Morriss and the team she works with investigate the murder of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas. A search into the victim’s background reveals that she was a commercial sex worker, so Morriss wants to talk to anyone else in that profession who might have known her. When one of Morriss’ contacts disappears, and another is badly beaten, it’s clear that Morriss will have to dig deeper. She wants to talk to other sex workers, but of course, they wouldn’t be exactly open to talking to a police officer. But she finally persuades one of her contacts to let her join a group of ‘the girls.’ Morriss knows she’s going to have to fit in, and that includes thinking about how she identifies herself. Her final choice of clothes isn’t perfect, but,

‘…at least it wasn’t blue and no one would ask her to read the meter.’

In this case, wearing anything like a badge or other identifier would immediately have marked Morriss as ‘not belonging.’

Betty Web’s PI Lena Jones needs to find a way to look as though she belongs in Desert Wives. She and her PI partner Jimmy Siswan have a difficult case. Esther Corbett has hired them to rescue her thirteen-year-old daughter Rebecca from a secretive polygamous religious group called Purity. They succeed, only to learn that the cult’s leader, Solomon Royal, was shot and killed on the same night that they got Rebecca. What’s worse, Esther is implicated. If she’s going to rescue her client, Jones will have to find out who really shot the victim. But she won’t be able to enter the community without seeming to belong. So she borrows a

‘…long-sleeved, high-necked, ankle-length calico…’

that serves as an identifier for the women who live at Purity. Suffice it to say, the clothes Jones wears during this assignment are not at all like her usual choices.

Barbara Neely’s sleuth, Blanche White, works as a domestic. She’s a Black woman in a world where the rich and powerful are very much White. But nobody questions her presence if she wears a uniform. It’s a badge that marks her as an employee; in that sense, it makes her invisible. She’s part of ‘the help,’ so very few people pay any attention to what she does as she investigates.

And that’s the thing about name badges, lab coats, uniforms and so on. They give a person a certain kind of group membership (e.g. conference delegate, ‘the help,’ hospital employee, and so on). And that means that people don’t always think to question what that person is really doing.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Bragg’s To Have and Have Not.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Neely, Betty Webb, Kerry Greenwood, Maureen Carter, Robin Cook

I Wanna Show My Gratitude*

2015-11-25 11.55.54

As I post this, it’s Thanksgiving in the US. If you know that tradition, then you know it’s usually associated with big family meals (especially with turkey as the main course) and travel. Well….I’m doing the travel thing this year, but I’m not celebrating the way I usually do, since I’m out of the country.

Still, there are lots of things I’m grateful for this week, and this seems like a good time to mention some of them. Besides my family…..


I Am Grateful For…



That’s right, you. You folks are a constant source of support, inspiration and friendship, and I am grateful for that. This year in particular I’m grateful for you, because of your kind help with my research. If it weren’t for your help, I couldn’t have done the study that brought me to this conference; so really, I’ve brought you with me. Thank you for that, and for being friends with me.


The University of Auckland

The University of Auckland has done a terrific job of playing hosts to us delegates from all over the world. Friendly, helpful people, lovely surroundings, and generosity about the use of facilities, have made the conference a real success.


Paardekooper and Associates

These consummate experts at events and conferences have made sure that everything ran smoothly. Questions? Answered. Lost? Found. Timing? Spot on. Delegates? Fully informed about everything. Attitude? Always professional and friendly. Every time. Food? Erm – let’s just say I’m not weighing myself for at least a month after I get back…


The Language, Education and Diversity Conference Organising Committee

The Committee did a fantastic job of inviting interesting plenary speakers, including a wide variety of perspectives, and creating a well-structured conference that allowed for a lot of learning. I’m returning to the US with plenty of new ideas. The committee chose a group of informed and interesting presenters. And they chose me, too.


P.B. Technologies

This is a great computer sales and service company. Picture this: you’re in another country at a conference when your laptop crashes. By crashing, I mean not even a welcome screen. What do you do? I was lucky to find P.B. Technologies. High-quality customer service, fair prices, quick solutions, problem solved. Easy as. My computer still needs some more work, but if it weren’t for the good people at P.B., I’d probably have to buy a new laptop.


Hotel Pullman Auckland

Top-notch, friendly, professional service, even when you’re bedraggled, dirty, exhausted and cranky after twenty hours of travel. Terrific online connectivity centre, comfortable, quiet rooms with nice little touches of luxury. The professionals there do more than just their jobs. They make real efforts to ensure that each guest’s needs are met. And they do it without fanfare.


Often enough we’re quick to complain when things don’t go right. I’m guilty myself, at times. But it’s just as important, to me anyway, to say ‘thanks’ when things go very well.

To all my US readers, Happy Thanksgiving! To all of you, wherever you are, whatever you celebrate, my best to you!


*Note: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s Gratitude.


Filed under Uncategorized

Halfway Down Dominion Road*


The building in this ‘photo is Auckland’s Supreme Courthouse. It’s even more beautiful and impressive in real life than it is in the photograph. It’s also a great reminder that crime happens everywhere, including New Zealand. You wouldn’t think so, but crime happens even in a beautiful place like this. Certainly crime-fictional sorts of crime happen.

If you want a thorough, rich discussion of Kiwi crime fiction, you’ll want to go and visit Crime Watch, which is the source for all things crime-fictionally Kiwi. It’s also your stop for updates and information on the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, New Zealand’s highest award for crime writers. For now, though, let me just make mention of a few New Zealand authors who set their novels and series here.

Perhaps the most famous of New Zealand’s crime writers is Ngaio Marsh. Her Roderick Alleyn novels take place in different countries, often England. But she also wrote stories that take place in New Zealand. For example, Died in the Wool is the story of the murder of MP Florence ‘Flossie’ Flossie Rubrick. One day, she goes to one of the sheep pens on her husband’s farm to rehearse a speech she’s planning to give. She doesn’t return until three weeks later when her body turns up in a bale of wool. The victim’s nephew asks Inspector Alleyn to investigate, and he travels to New Zealand to do so. In the process of looking into the matter, he finds out that several members of Rubrick’s family had very good reasons for wanting her dead. This murder turns out to be related to espionage, and to one family member in particular.

Another crime novelist who’s gotten quite well known is Paul Cleave. In fact, Cleave won the 2015 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel for Five Minutes Alone. His debut novel, The Cleaner is set in Christchurch, where Joe Middleton works as a janitor at the police station. Unbeknownst to everyone, he is also a serial killer known as The Carver. The story is that The Carver has killed seven victims. But Middleton knows that’s not true, because he’s only killed six. He wants to find out who the ‘copycat killer’ is, so that he can frame him for the other killings, and punish him for pretending to be The Carver. It’s not going to be as easy as it seems, though…

Paddy Richardson’s novels are also set in New Zealand. Her novels Traces of Red and Cross Fingers feature Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne. In the first, Thorne begins to suspect that Connor Bligh, who is in prison for murdering his sister, her husband, and their son, might be innocent. If he is, this is the story that could ensure her place at the top of New Zealand TV journalism. So she starts asking questions and looking into the case again. As time goes on, she finds herself getting closer to the case than is safe. In Cross Fingers, Thorne investigates the thirty-year-old death of a man who dressed up as a lamb and entertained crowds during the Springboks’ 1981 tour of New Zealand. That tour was controversial, and there were many, many protests and reports of police abuse of power; so at the time, not a lot of attention was paid to the death of one person. But Thorne finds it an interesting angle, and uncovers an unsolved murder. Richardson’s standalone novels, Hunting Blind and Swimming in the Dark, are set on New Zealand’s South Island.

So is Vanda Symon’s series featuring Constable Samantha ‘Sam’ Shephard, who works with the Mataura Police. Along with the crimes she investigates, she has to deal with a difficult boss, family strain, and, in Overkill, being suspected of murder. But she has plenty of grit and determination; and, despite the fact that she doesn’t always play ‘by the book’ she’s a skilled detective.

Paul Thomas’ Tito Ihaka novels are mostly set in Auckland. Ihaka is a Māori police detective with his own way of solving cases. In Guerrilla Season, his first outing, Ihaka wants to investigate a series of deaths claimed by extremists called Aotearoa People’s Army. Ihaka isn’t sure they’re responsible, though, and starts to dig deeper. This gets him into trouble with his superiors, though, and he’s taken off that case and put onto a case of suspected blackmail. When that proves to be related, it’s clear that Ihaka has uncovered something much more than he’d suspected.

Bev Robitai’s Theatre Mysteries are also set in Auckland, at the Regent Theatre. In Murder in the Second Row, and Body on the Stage, Robitai combines murder with a look backstage at the way stage productions are planned, created, rehearsed and executed (yes, pun intended ;-) ) Readers also get to know some of the people outside the theatre who make those productions possible.

Under the pseudonym of Alix Bosco, Greg McGee has written two novels, Cut and Run and Slaughter Falls, featuring Auckland legal researcher Anna Markunas. In the first, she helps defend a young man accused of killing a rugby star. In the second, she investigates a series of deaths among a New Zealand tour group that’s visiting Brisbane. It’ll be interesting to learn if another Anna Markunas novel will be released.

And then there’s Donna Malane’s Diane Rowe novels. Rowe is a Wellington missing person expert who’s called in to identify twenty-five-year-old remains in Surrender. In My Brother’s Keeper, ex-convict Karen Mackie hires Rowe to find her fourteen-year-old daughter Sunny. As Rowe learns, Mackie was in prison for trying to kill Sunny, so the dilemma in this case is a real one.

There are plenty of other New Zealand writers, such as Cat Connor and Andrew Grant, who set their novels elsewhere. For a small country, Kiwi crime fiction leaves quite a footprint…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Mutton Birds’ Dominion Road.


Filed under Alix Bosco, Andrew Grant, Bev Robitai, Cat Connor, Donna Malane, Greg McGee, Ngaio Marsh, Paddy Richardson, Paul Cleave, Paul Thomas, Vanda Symon

Checking in With Your Special Reporter ;-)


Filed under Uncategorized

In The Spotlight: Barbara Neely’s Blanche on the Lam

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There’ve been many crime novels that feature the wealthy and privileged. But not as many are written from the point of view of their employees. What’s interesting about this is that those people often know quite a lot – usually more than their employers may think they know. Let’s take a look at one such story today and turn the spotlight on Barbara Neely’s Blanche on the Lam, the first of her Blanche White series.

Blanche is a Black woman who makes her living as a housekeeper/cook. She works for a temporary agency, but is trying to build up her clientele. That’s not an easy task in the North Carolina town in which she lives. As the novel begins, Blanche is facing serious consequences for having written a bad check. She can’t face the thought of being imprisoned and unable to care for her sister’s children, Taifa and Maliq, whom she has more or less adopted, so she tricks the bailiff who’s supposed to be watching her and leaves the courthouse. She decides that the best way to get out of this situation is to go to the most recent temporary housekeeping job she’d accepted, but cancelled. She doesn’t expect anyone to know that she wasn’t planning to show up. Her thinking is that this job will give her the opportunity to hide out for a bit until she can solve her money problems.

When she arrives at her assignment, Blanche is met by her new employer Grace, who gives her instructions and tells her to plan to join the family on a trip to their country house. Meanwhile, Blanche also meets Grace’s husband Everett, and cousin Mumsfield, as well as her Aunt Emmeline.  Blanche is not overly impressed with Grace or Everett (more on that shortly), but she settles into her job.

Soon enough, Blanche begins to notice some strange things going on. For one thing, there’s obvious tension within the family. And although she’s naturally curious, Blanche can’t find out exactly why. Mumsfield has a mild form of Down’s Syndrome, so although he could be a valuable source of information, it’s hard to communicate with him at times. The gardener, Nate Taylor, knows more than he’s saying, but doesn’t really reveal very much. There are also questions about Aunt Emmeline; she hasn’t been herself lately, and it sometimes seems that Grace wants Blanche to have as little to do with her as possible.

Then there’s the matter of Sheriff Stillwell, who seems to spend a lot of time at the house. Blanche is especially concerned about him, because she’s afraid he may remember her from her court disappearance. All seems well enough on that front, though, until one night when the sheriff dies of what’s put down to suicide. Blanche begins to be very concerned that his death might be blamed on her, since she’s Black, the sheriff was White, and she has a history with the court. What’s more, he was at the house often enough that it’s quite plausible she could have reason to want him out of the way.

Then, to make matters worse, Nate dies in what’s called an accidental fire. But Blanche knows full well that it wasn’t an accident. Now she is sure that both Nate and Stillwell were killed, and probably by the same person. Nate’s death, in particular, upsets Blanche. As much out of anger over that as over self-protection, she works to find out who the killer is. In the end, Blanche has to uncover some dark family history and past secrets to find the murderer.

One of the important elements in this novel is the social structure Neely depicts. In Farleigh, North Carolina, Whites, especially those with money, make the rules. Whites from poorer backgrounds are lower in this caste system, but they are still higher on the social ladder than Blacks. In several places in the novel, we see examples of the way that social structure plays out. It’s not the reason for the murders, but it is the context within which Blanche moves. For example, Grace and Everett are dismissive of Blanche, make a lot of assumptions about her, and treat her with autocratic disdain. At the same time, there are moments when they almost seem to be confiding in her. It’s a very interesting – and revelatory – look at the relationships that have developed through the years between White employers and their Black employees. And Blanche sometimes has to work to remind herself that no matter how kind one or another might be at any given moment, or how much sympathy she may feel, there is still a gulf between her and those for whom she works. She can only remain independent as a person if she sees the arrangement as a strictly business affair.

In one way, that social gulf serves her needs. Since she is Black, she is more or less invisible to Whites. So she is able to listen and find out a great deal. She also ‘plugs into’ the communication network of supportive friends and relatives who themselves hear things and know things. She learns quite a lot of the past history she needs to learn by doing that.

Despite the fact that Blanche is part of a very rigid system, she’s made it work for her. She’s  got a set of close friends, and has developed a way of communicating with her employers that reveals only what she wants to show, and leaves her free to listen and learn from what she hears. She is a strong character, too, who is determined to create and maintain her own identity within this system. That said, though, Blanche isn’t perfect. She makes mistakes, draws wrong conclusions at times, and doesn’t always make the choices we might make. But she is independent, very resourceful, and quick-thinking. Blanche is a smart woman who makes the best of a difficult situation.

The solution to the mystery is sad, and things are not all right again just because the case is solved. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that this isn’t really a case of the police leading the culprit away in handcuffs. But we do get the sense that life will go on. Certainly Blanche will. And the novel is made less bleak as Blanche makes some very witty observations about the people she works for, and some of the other people she encounters.

Blanche on the Lam shows the power of social structure, and the ways that people find to work around it. It tells the story of murders that tie past to present, and features a woman who refuses to be a victim of her situation. But what’s your view? Have you read <emBlanche on the Lam? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 30 November/Tuesday 1 December – Death In Breslau – Marek Krejewski

Monday 7 December/Tuesday 8 December – Blue Monday – Nicci French

Monday 14 December/Tuesday 15 December – White Heat – M.J. McGrath


Filed under Barbara Neely, Blanche on the Lam