I Wasn’t There But I Heard it All*

As this is posted, it’s 103 years since Thomas Edison invented the telescribe, a device for recording telephone conversations. Since that time, of course, technology has dramatically changed the way conversations are recorded. But the basic idea – that someone can record and later listen to one’s telephone conversations – hasn’t.

The notion of recording private telephone conversations without consent is controversial. On the one hand, wiretapping can lead to valuable information that catches criminals. On the other, there are serious issues of privacy and civil rights when telephone conversations are recorded. So, in general (not to say this always happens!), the police need a warrant in order to be allowed to record someone’s conversations without that person’s consent.

As you can imagine, there are plenty of mentions of wiretapping in crime fiction. And it doesn’t just happen in spy thrillers. Space only permits a few examples; I know you’ll think of many more than I ever could.

In Lawrence Sanders’ The Anderson Tapes, we meet professional thief John ‘Duke’ Anderson. He’s recently been released from prison, and is trying to live a legitimate life, with a legitimate job. Then, he gets the chance to visit a luxury Manhattan apartment building. The visit gives Anderson the idea for a major heist: robbing the entire building. To do that, he’ll need materials and support, so he begins to enlist both from his contacts. What he doesn’t know is that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have been wiretapping several of those contacts. So, most his conversations with those people are being recorded. In fact, plenty of the story is told through transcripts of those recordings. As Anderson begins to make final plans, the question becomes: will the police find out about the heist in time to be able to stop it?

James Ellroy’s Blood’s a Rover is the third in his Underworld USA trilogy. The novel takes place between 1968 and 1972, and it follows the political and other machinations of those years (e.g. J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with civil rights leaders, the Mob’s behind-the-scenes development of casinos, and Nixon’s political ambitions). Three people – Wayne Tedrow, Jr. (who is a drug runner), Dwight Holly (an FBI agent whose father was a member of the Ku Klux Klan), and Don ‘Crutch’ Crutchfield (who does menial PI work) – are caught up in all of the complexity. The plot involves several ‘backroom deals’ and more than one betrayal. And it features quite a lot of wiretapping, which shouldn’t be surprising to those who know what the US political situation was during that era.

In Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion, Anna Travis joins the Murder Squad at Queen’s Park, London. At the time, the squad is facing a perplexing case. Seventeen-year-old Melissa Stephens has been murdered, and the profile of her death fits that of six other women who’ve also been killed. But there are major differences. For instance, the other victims were older sex workers, but Melissa was young, and not a sex worker. Still, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) James Langton believes that the same killer is responsible. After a time, the team settles on a suspect: up-and-coming television/film star Alan Daniels. But it’s going to be difficult. He is beloved, wealthy, and well-connected. What’s more, there’s very little evidence that conclusively links him to the crime. He may, in fact, be innocent. As the story goes on, the team uses recordings and ‘wires’ to find out the truth, and it’s interesting to see how those fit in.

Ed McBain’s Criminal Conversation (he wrote this one as Evan Hunter) features an ambitious assistant district attorney named Michael Welles. He has a particular loathing for the Mob, so when a thug named Dominick di Nobili is ready tell what he knows about Mob operations, Welles is only too happy to listen. It seems that de Nobili owed a big gambling debt to a loan shark, and the result is that he’s now caught between two major crime families: the Colottis and the Faviolas. As he sees it, he’s safer in police custody than he is on the streets. Welles arranges for all sorts of telephone tapping and other surveillance, thinking he finally has the opportunity to bring down these crime groups. But what he doesn’t know is what the wiretapping will actually reveal. When he finds that out, he learns that it’s all much closer to home than he imagined.

And then there’s Michael Connelly’s The Closers. In that novel, Harry Bosch is working in the Open-Unsolved Unit of the LAPD. And, in one plot thread, he re-opens the murder of sixteen-year-old Rebecca Verloren, who was taken from her parents’ home and shot. Bosch finds that there’s a possible DNA match between evidence on the gun used in the crime, and a man named Roland Mackey. Now that his interest in Mackey is piqued, Bosch wants to trace Rebecca’s last few days and weeks, to see if there’d been any contact with Mackey. More than that, Bosch wants to record Mackey’s telephone conversations. As he says to his colleague, Kiz Rider,

‘‘…since Nine-Eleven and the Patriot Act it’s easier for us to get a wiretap.’

And she agrees:

‘The word’s sort of gotten around that this is a tool we can use now.’’

That said, though, approval for recording telephone conversations isn’t usually given capriciously.

And there’s good reason for that. Recording and listening to someone’s telephone conversations is an invasion of that person’s privacy. But at the same time, it can yield valuable information. So, it’s little wonder that tactic is used in some criminal investigation. An, of course, that means it shows up in crime fiction.


*NOTE: the title of this post is a line from the Undertones’ Listening In.


Filed under Ed McBain, Evan Hunter, James Ellroy, Lawrence Sanders, Lynda La Plante, Michael Connelly

You’ve Got Forensic Evidence That Never Lies*

A recent interesting post from Rebecca Bradley has got me thinking about how important it is to handle a police investigation as carefully as possible. Bradley, a retired police officer, has been sharing her experience and wisdom in a fascinating feature called Writing Crime. In that feature, she writes about aspects of a police investigation such as securing a crime scene, collecting evidence, and interviewing witnesses and suspects, among other things. If you write crime fiction, or are thinking about it, that feature is well worth your attention. And even if you don’t, Rebecca’s blog is a treasure trove. And she’s a talented crime writer, so you’ll want to try her work.

Rebecca’s right, too, about how important those details (such as collecting evidence) really are. Carelessness can destroy evidence, or at the very least, corrupt it. Among other things, that means that a case won’t hold up in court. It also means that crimes may not be solved. That’s one reason why every police trainee is thoroughly drilled on the rules about collecting, preserving, and using evidence.

It matters just as much in crime fiction as it does in real life. If a crime novel is to be credible, then the evidence is supposed to be handled in a specific way. This gives the author some flexibility, actually. Authors who want to create a plot based on mishandled evidence can do that. Authors who want to use properly-preserved evidence to make a case can do that, too. In either case, it’s an important and interesting aspect of crime fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings visit the small French town of Merlinville-sur-Mer at the request of Paul Renauld, who’s made his home there. He’s written to Poirot, claiming that his life is in danger, and asking Poirot to go to France immediately. By the time Poirot and Hastings arrive, though, it’s too late. Renauld has been murdered. Monsieur Giraud of the Sûreté is assigned to the case, and one of his first priorities is to find clues. Admittedly, he is insufferable, rude and arrogant. But he does have a point about preserving the crime scene. Here’s his comment to M. Bex, who has been supervising the local police.

‘‘Is it your police who have been trampling all over the place? I thought they knew better nowadays.’’

To Giraud, getting physical evidence and preserving it is the key to solving the crime.

Small bits of evidence prove very important in Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion, the first of her Anna Travis novels. In it, Travis has recently joined the Murder Squad at Queen’s Park, London. She’s joining at a critical time, too. The body of seventeen-year-old Melissa Stephens has been discovered, and her murder bears several similarities to six other murders, all of women. But there are some differences. For one thing, the other victims were older sex workers; Melissa was young, and not a sex worker. There are a few other little differences, too. Still, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) James Langton, who leads this team, believes that the same killer is involved. This is a smart murderer, though, who is neat and careful, and doesn’t leave evidence. Still, no-one is perfect. And, in the end, a small piece of evidence that hasn’t been destroyed ends up implicating the real killer. And it’s interesting to see how Travis (who happens to think of where that evidence might be) is able to get it properly collected.

Angela Marsons’ Silent Scream also features the importance of handling evidence carefully. Detective Inspector (DI) Kim Stone and her team are called in when high school principal Teresa Wyatt is found murdered in her bathtub. Then, there are two other murders. All of the victims were, in some way, connected to Crestwood, a former home for girls. That in itself piques Stone’s interest. But then, Professor Milton, who’s gotten approval for an archaeological excavation on the site, is cruelly threatened, and told to halt his plans. Now, Stone and her team are more interested than ever in what happened at Crestwood. There are several points in the story where evidence comes to light. And Stone has to go through the correct procedures to get approval to look for the evidence, to collect it, and to preserve it properly. She doesn’t always like doing things ‘by the book,’ but she does understand that those rules are there for a reason.

Because the handling of evidence is so important, it’s a serious problem if that evidence is lost or in some way compromised. And that’s what’s suspected in Reginald Hill’s Recalled to Life. Cissy Kohler has recently been released from prison, where she served time for the 1963 murder of Pamela Westrup. There’s talk that she was innocent. Worse, there’s talk that the investigating officer, Wally Tallentire, hid evidence that pointed to her innocence. In fact, a new investigation into the case is launched. This upsets Superintendent Andy Dalziel, who considered Tallentire a mentor. Determined to clear Tallentire’s name, Dalziel looks into the Westrup murder again. And it’s interesting to see how the matter of evidence plays such an important role here.

And then there’s Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, in which Tasmania Police Sergeant John White is stabbed as he is investigating a home invasion. The novel shows how this murder impacts everyone involved, including White’s colleagues, subordinates, and even the suspected killer. Without spoiling the story, I can say that the handling of certain evidence adds a layer of character development and plot to the story.

Handling evidence appropriately is key to any police investigation. So it’s no wonder that the way evidence is gathered and stored plays such an important role in crime fiction. One post is not enough to do justice to the topic, so tell me – what have I forgotten?

Thanks, Rebecca, for the inspiration!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stiff Little Fingers’ Forensic Evidence.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Reginald Hill, Y.A. Erskine, Lynda La Plante, Angela Marsons

Taking My Thoughts Back to You Across the Sea*

There’s a lot of excitement here at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…. I’m privileged and humbled to announce that I’m on the judging panel for the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Awards – the top prize for New Zealand crime fiction.

Among lots of other things, it means that I’m reading some fantastic crime fiction from and about New Zealand, and I couldn’t be happier. The longlist for this year’s award has just been announced. Here are the contenders:


Marlborough Man by Alan Carter (Fremantle Press)

Baby by Annaleese Jochems (Vitoria University Press)

See You In September by Charity Norman (Allen & Unwin)

The Lost Taonga by Edmund Bohan (Lucano)

The Easter Make Believers by Finn Bell

The Only Secret Left To Keep by Katherine Hayton

Tess by Kirsten McDougall (Victoria University Press)

The Sound of Her Voice by Nathan Blackell (Mary Egan Publishing)

A Killer Harvest by Paul Cleave (Upstart Press)

The Hidden Room by Stella Duffy (Virago)


It’s a diverse group of writers and stories, and I’m looking forward to diving into these waters!  The shortlist will be announced in July, and the awards will be presented during the writers’ festival, WORD Christchurch, in late August.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, surf’s up and the water looks fine!!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ruru Karaitiana’s Blue Smoke.


Filed under Alan Carter, Annaleese Jochems, Charity Norman, Edmund Bohan, Finn Bell, Katherine Hayton, Kirsten McDougall, Nathan Blackell, Paul Cleave, Stella Duffy

In the Spotlight: Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. The post-World War I years were a time of great change and transition. One of those changes was the increasing challenge to the British Empire. We see this clearly in the history of India, during the last years of the British Raj. Let’s take a look at that era today, and turn the spotlight on Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man.

It’s 1919, and Captain Sam Wyndham has just arrived in Kolkata/Calcutta from England to take up his duties with the police. He’s trying to get used to the different way of life and, most especially, the heat, when he gets a new case to investigate. Alexander MacAuley, head of Indian Civil Service (ICS) finance for Bengal, has been murdered, and a note found stuffed in his mouth. The note threatens that ‘blood will run in the streets,’ and warns, ‘Quit England!’

This is a delicate matter for a few reasons. One is that the victim was a high-ranking official. Another is that his body was found in an alley behind a brothel. And then there’s the politics involved. If there’s a terrorist group involved, then Section H, the anti-terrorist unit, will be responsible for the investigation. They’re well-known for ‘shooting first and asking questions later,’ and will be only too happy to saddle a convenient pro-independence protestor with the crime, regardless of who is actually responsible. That’s not to mention that relations between Indians and the British are hardly cordial. This investigation could touch off serious trouble. So, Wyndham and his assistants, Sub-inspector John Digby and Sergeant Surendranath Banerjee, will have to move carefully.

Wyndham and his team begin by tracing the victim’s last days and weeks. They find that MacAuley had ‘gotten religion,’ given up drinking, and so on. But then, more recently, had started drinking heavily again. This gives the sleuths one avenue to explore. So does the fact that MacAuley had a lot of influence with the Lieutenant Governor. More than one person might have wanted him dead for some private business reason. And, of course, there’s the terrorist angle.

That possibility seems even more likely when a well-known activist named Benoy Sen, a hero of the independence movement, returns to Calcutta after an absence of a few years. In fact, that’s the account that both the police and the Section H people want to believe. But there’s also evidence to suggest that Sen wasn’t responsible for MacAuley’s murder. Wyndham wants to catch the person who killed the victim, and not just find a convenient scapegoat. So, he, Digby and Banerjee start over. They’ll have to work carefully, because there’s a great deal of pressure to lay the blame on Sen. And it’s soon clear that someone wants very badly for Wyndham and his team to leave the case alone. And whoever it is will do whatever it takes to make sure that happens.

There are elements of the thriller in this novel. There is real danger for Wyndham as he and his team get closer to the truth, and it’s not spoiling the story to say that several people are not who they appear to be. It’s very hard to tell who can be trusted and who can’t.

Another important element in the novel is its context and setting. There’s been an independence movement in India for years, but relations have gotten especially tense recently. The British are clamping down on India to forestall any further rebellion. This, of course, causes resentment and worse. For their part, there are Indians who believe in committing violence if that will get the British out. Matters have come to the point where neither side really trusts the other. And in some cases, that’s with good reason.

Wyndham himself isn’t particularly political. His main goal is to catch the ‘bad guys,’ whoever they are. He is white, but he sees how some of his fellow whites treat Indians, and he has no patience with it. He doesn’t agree with terrorist tactics; at the same time, though, he can understand what has driven some Indians to this point. As he gets to know Calcutta a little, he sees just how complicated the racial and social (and economic) issues really are. Wyndham is neither gullible nor stupid, but he isn’t prepared at first for just how deep the racial tensions really go. And there’s the fact that he simply wants to solve crimes. For that, race shouldn’t matter. But it does, in just about every aspect of life in this place.

The story is told from Wyndham’s point of view (first person, past tense). So we do get to learn about him. He’s still dealing with the loss of his wife, Sarah, and with the aftereffects of his wartime experience. He isn’t a stereotypical haunted detective, though. He does use opium once in a while, and he doesn’t say ‘no’ to a drink. But he’s also not drowning at the bottom of a bottle; nor does he obsess about his next opium pipe.

We learn the truth about MacAuley’s death, and about another death that occurs. But that doesn’t mean all is right again. This isn’t the sort of novel where the culprit is led away in handcuffs. Readers who prefer ‘neatly sewn up’ endings will notice this. But Calcutta in 1919 is a complicated place without neat explanations, so there is an argument that the solution fits that context.

A Rising Man is the story of life in Calcutta during the last years of the Raj, and of what happens there when a prominent white man’s murder stirs up already-simmering tensions. It’s set against the backdrop of a fascinating place, and it features a detective who’s just trying to do his job the best he can. But what’s your view? Have you read A Rising Man? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday, 29 May/Tuesday, 30 May – Into the Shadows – Shirley Wells

Monday, 4 June/Tuesday, 5 June – Tenant For Death – Cyril Hare

Monday, 11 June/Tuesday, 12 June – The Lost – Claire McGowan


Filed under A Rising Man, Abir Mukherjee

And What a Time it Was*

The end of the Victorian Era didn’t, of course, mean the end of Victorian-Era beliefs, customs and so on. But there were some major changes just on the horizon, and, of course, World War I was only a little over a decade away.

It’s interesting to see how crime fiction from and about those first ten or so years of the 20th Century depicts that time. Just a few examples show what a time of transition it was. And that’s part of what makes it such a memorable time.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s later Sherlock Holmes stories highlight one important change, especially in the area of crime and its detection. As you’ll know, Holmes is a man of science. He brings that viewpoint to criminal investigation.  Fingerprint science was already being used by the time the 20th Century began. But the new century brought more developments in what came to be forensic science (more on that in a moment). In several ways, the later Holmes stories show the blend of more traditional Victorian views with emerging science.

The case of Hawley Harvey Crippen, who was executed for murder in 1910, shows the way in which forensic science was becoming more and more important in criminal cases. At the time that Crippen was arrested, tried and convicted of murdering his wife, Cora, forensic pathology was a new science. And Sir Bernard Spilsbury was one of the first pre-eminent forensic pathologists. Although he is associated most closely with the Crippen case (he gave evidence that showed the body found in Crippen’s home was Cora’s), Spilsbury was also connected with several other prominent cases of the time. So was Sir Sydney Smith, also a well-known medico-legal expert. His autobiography, Mostly Murder is, in my view, an interesting look at the times and at the developments in forensic science. Martin Edwards’ Dancing For the Hangman is a fictional account of the Crippen case, told from Crippen’s point of view. It, too, offers a fascinating look at the times.

Felicity Young’s Dr. Dorothy ‘Dody’ McCleland series begins in 1910 with The Anatomy of Death, as McCleland is returning from Edinburgh to London. She’s just qualified in forensic pathology, and now wants to work with Spilsbury in the Home Office. She settles into London, and soon becomes involved in the investigation of three deaths. All three of the victims were women who died during a suffrage march in Whitechapel. The march turned very ugly, and, along with the deaths, several women were wounded. McCleland finds that two of the victims’ deaths have straightforward explanations. But the third is more complicated, and McCleland soon suspects murder as a possibility. As she investigates, readers learn about the growing use of forensics during these pre-WW I years.

There’s also a close look at another major change of the time: the push for women’s suffrage and other women’s rights. Women already had the vote in New Zealand, but not yet in many other places. And there were several groups dedicated to changing that. There was also a push for women to be accepted as professionals. That’s one challenge, for instance, that McCleland faces in Young’s series.

Another novel that addresses some of these issues is Wendy James’ Out of the Silence: A Story of Love, Betrayal, Politics and Murder. This is the fictional retelling of the story of Maggie Heffernan, who was convicted of murdering her infant son in 1900 (she was nineteen at the time) and scheduled to be executed. As the story evolves, we learn that Maggie is from rural Victoria, where she meets Jack Hardy. They begin a secret romance, and end up becoming engaged, although Hardy insists on keeping the engagement secret until he can provide for a family. He then leaves to find work in New South Wales. Meanwhile, Maggie discovers she’s pregnant. She writes to Jack several times but gets no answer. She knows her own family will not accept her, so she moves to Melbourne and finds work in a Guest House. When baby Jacky is born, Maggie moves to a home for unwed mothers. Then, she learns that Jack is in Melbourne, so she goes to visit him. He rejects her utterly, calling her ‘crazy.’ With nowhere else to go, Maggie goes looking for lodging, but is turned away from six different places. That’s when the tragedy with Jacky occurs. Vera Goldstein (the first woman candidate for Parliament in the British Commonwealth) finds out about Maggie’s plight, and determines to free her. As she works towards that end, we learn about the fight in Australia for women’s suffrage (it was granted at the national level in 1902). We also see clearly the differences among social classes that still persisted after the end of the Victorian Era.

We also see that difference reflected in Marie Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger. Ellen and Robert Bunting have recently retired from being ‘in service.’ Ellen was a lady’s maid, and her husband was a ‘gentleman’s gentleman.’ The Buntings are in real financial need, so they’ve had to open their home to lodgers. But Ellen Bunting, especially, is very particular about the sort of person she’ll have. She wants only the ‘right’ sort of people. One day, a man who calls himself Mr. Sleuth stops in, asking about rooms. He dresses well, and acts ‘like a gentleman.’ More to the point, he is well able to pay for his room. So, the Buntings welcome him. He’s eccentric and keeps very odd hours. But he’s a paying guest. And he’s not loud or otherwise ‘difficult.’ Little by little, though, the Buntings begin to be uneasy about him. There’s been a rash of murders committed by a killer who calls himself The Avenger, and the Buntings slowly come to wonder if their lodger has something to do with these deaths. Among other things, the story highlights social class distinctions. The Buntings are respectable ‘serving class’ people, who hold their ‘betters’ in high regard. This doesn’t mean they’re blind to the foibles of the people they’ve served. But they do respect those social barriers.

We also see social barriers in Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy series. Murphy, an immigrant from Ireland, lives and works in New York City at the very beginning of the 20th Century. She’s a private investigator who inherited her business from her mentor. As she looks into her cases, she encounters members of several different social classes, from ‘sweatshop’ workers and tenement dwellers to those who live on estates. Society is changing (Murphy, for instance, is a woman pursuing what is very much a man’s career). And in New York, there is now a generation of people who started with very little and have made quite a lot of money. But there are still certain views, customs, and so on, that are distinctly Victorian.

And that’s the thing about those first ten years or so of the 20th Century. The Victorian Era was over, and no-one was quite sure what was coming. That time of change can make for a fascinating context for a novel or series.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Felicity Young, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Martin Edwards, Rhys Bowen, Sir Sydney Smith, Wendy James