Roadside Assistance

The heat prickled the back of Jessica’s neck, and coiled the hair at her temples into little curls. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be much longer. This wasn’t really a busy road. There were trees, bushes and fields on both sides of it, but not many houses, and no businesses. It was hard to say how long she’d have to put up with the sweat and the bugs before someone came along.  Wait – was that dark blue Acura slowing down? Yes, it was! Finally! Jessica waved her arms frantically.

Phil saw the young woman staring ruefully at her car’s engine. It wasn’t safe, being stranded by the side of the road. Especially if you were a woman. And it looked as though she was going to be there for a while. He slowed down a little to get a closer look at what was going on. When the woman saw him, she waved to get his attention. She didn’t look hurt, just upset and frustrated. Her engine must have died or something. Whatever it was, she was stuck. He slowed down more and pulled his Acura to a stop behind her Honda. Then he rolled his window down a little and called out, ‘You OK?’

‘Thank God you stopped!’ Jessica stepped closer to the Acura’s window. ‘I stopped to make a call, and I couldn’t start my car again. I think its battery died. Do you by any chance have some jumper cables?’ She brushed the damp hair out of her eyes and watched the driver anxiously. He looked clean and seemed friendly enough. Maybe this would work out.

After a moment, the driver nodded. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I have some cables. Let me turn my car around so we’re nose to nose. By the way, I’m Phil.’
Jessica nodded. ‘I really appreciate this, Phil!’ she said. She walked back towards her car as he started the Acura’s engine and slowly turned the car around. Roadside gravel crunched under the wheels as he made a tight, careful U-turn. Fortunately, traffic wasn’t a problem as he jockeyed the car into position.

Travis stood less than sixty feet away from where the two people were fiddling around with the cars. He was hidden behind some bushes, waiting until the right moment. The man got out of the Acura. Step One. Travis watched as he pulled a set of jumper cables out of the back of his car. He carried them over to the Honda, and the two drivers talked for a moment. No, not quite time yet. It was tempting, though. He was going to have to teach himself to be more patient. It was better to wait. Timing was everything. Do anything at the wrong moment, and you were finished.

Within a few moments, the cables were attached. ‘Let me check the connections real quick,’ Phil said.
Jessica nodded, ‘OK.’
He turned towards his car and started to bend over the battery.

Now! Travis’ brain screamed. He rushed out from behind the tree and sprinted towards the Acura. Jessica screamed and ran behind her car as the hammer hit Phil in the head. He staggered a moment, and then collapsed onto the ground.

Travis glanced around and went through Phil’s pockets, pulling out a wallet and a telephone. He stuffed them into his own jacket pockets and looked around again. Then, he opened up the Acura’s doors. Bingo! A laptop in the front passenger seat. He grabbed the computer and slammed the door shut with the end of his jacket. He unhooked the jumper cables from the two car batteries, tossing them on the ground near the Acura. After another look to be sure nobody was paying attention, he called out, ‘Let’s go.’

Jessica came out from behind the Honda, hopped into the driver’s seat and effortlessly started the motor. Travis jumped into the passenger seat as the car pulled away. He glanced into the rearview mirror and watched the blue Acura and the man on the ground beside it grow smaller.

‘Let’s get back to the hotel,’ Travis said after a minute or two. ‘Then tomorrow we hit the other side of town.’
‘Sounds good,’ Jessica agreed ‘What’d we get?’
‘A laptop, a phone.’ Travis opened Phil’s wallet and rifled through it. ‘Fifty bucks and a couple of credit cards in here. Not too shabby.’
‘You didn’t hit him too hard, did you?’
‘Nah, he’ll have a hell of a headache when he wakes up, but he ought to be OK.’
‘You sure?’
‘Yeah, I’m sure. And there’s nothing we can do about it, anyway. You want to wait around and get the cops involved?’
Jessica shook her head. ‘No, it’s just…Why’d you have to use a hammer? What if he’s dead?’
‘Stop worrying, OK? I didn’t hit him that hard. He’ll be fine. And we got some decent stuff.’
Jessica looked over at Travis and gave him a sideways smile. ‘Yeah, guess we did. You know, you’re pretty good at this for just starting out.’
‘You aint seen nothing.’

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In The Spotlight: Sam Wiebe’s Invisible Dead

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. The noir PI novel has become a staple of crime fiction over the decades. Today, let’s take a closer look at one of them, and at the underside of life in Vancouver, and turn the spotlight on Sam Wiebe’s Invisible Dead.

As the novel opens, Vancouver PI Dave Wakeland interviews convicted murderer Ed Nichulls. One of Wakeland’s clients, Gail Kirby, believes that Nichulls might have killed her daughter, Chelsea Loam, eleven years earlier, and she’s hired Wakeland to follow up. Nichulls claims not to even know Chelsea, let alone have killed her. But he hints that there are some ‘real bad people’ out there who might have done so. This particular tip hasn’t panned out, but Wakeland’s client insists he stay on the case and do whatever it takes to find out what happened to Chelsea.

It’s not going to be an easy task. Chelsea was a sex worker who was estranged from her family. So, there was no-one to really know who her friends were, where she spent her time, and so on. What’s more, she wasn’t from a privileged background, so her disappearance didn’t really make the news. And the police aren’t exactly racing to find ‘just another dead prostitute.’ Still, Wakeland starts following the trail as best he can. He tracks down a former boyfriend, a social worker, and a few other people who might be able to help.

Soon, Wakeland discovers a solid lead in the form of Terry Rhodes, a member of a gang called the Exiles. If Rhodes was involved in Chelsea’s disappearance (and, presumably, death), it’s not good news. He’s ruthless and well-connected, and he won’t hesitate to be brutal if he thinks anyone has betrayed him. He’ll likely get away with it, too. Still, Wakeland finds enough links to Rhodes that he arranges a meeting. Suffice it to say that things don’t go well, and he’s warned in no uncertain terms to drop the Chelsea Loam case completely.

But Gail Kirby is still Wakeland’s client. And he still wants to find out the truth. So, he continues to look into the matter. In this, he is helped by Chelsea’s diary, which her former boyfriend has kept. And that diary suggests links to some highly-placed people who likely want very much to steer clear of any connection with a missing-probably-dead sex worker. Still, Wakeland persists, and, in the end, finds out the truth.

This is a noir story. So, finding out what really happened to Chelsea doesn’t make anything any better. Also consistent with the noir tradition, there are several characters who aren’t what they seem.  There’s betrayal, there are setups, and more. The novel is also consistent with the modern noir story in that there is violence, some of it ‘onstage,’ and explicit language. Each reader has a different perspective on how much of both is ‘too much.’

The story is told from Wakeland’s point of view (first person, past tense), so readers get to know his character. He’s absolutely not perfect. He has his issues and some memories that aren’t good. But he isn’t a stereotypical demon-haunted sleuth who drowns in a bottle. Twenty-nine years old, he’s unmarried, and has a solid relationship with his mother and half-sister.

Wakeland also has a mostly-good relationship with his business partner, Jefferson ‘Jeff’ Chen. Chen’s the one who handles the firm’s higher-end clients and its security systems business. He’s concerned about the bottom line, and often serves as a sounding board for his partner. The two don’t always agree; in fact, their relationship is tested in this novel. But they do complement one another.

As I’ve mentioned, the novel takes place in Vancouver, and Wiebe sets the story there in several ways. The geography and local culture in the novel reflect the setting and context. But it’s not all the Vancouver you might see in tourist brochures. The trail leads through strip clubs, seedy restaurants and bars, run-down housing, and the local needle exchange service. But there are links to some very highly-placed people. So, readers also get a look at some of the city’s wealthier clubs, restaurants and housing, too.

And that leads to another element in this novel: class and race differences. Wiebe shows clearly that there are stark differences in Vancouver between what the wealthy have and can do, and what others have. The rules really are different. And more than once, it’s made clear to Wakeland that no-one’s going to do too much to solve the disappearance of a part-Indigenous, drug-addicted sex worker with no money and no connections. While it’s not a major theme in the story, there are a few places where we see how race and ethnic background can impact the way someone is regarded.

Invisible Dead is the story of a young woman whose disappearance isn’t supposed to matter (hence, the title), but it does. It has a distinctive Vancouver setting, and features a PI who is determined not to let this victim’s life go unnoticed. But what’s your view? Have you read Invisible Dead? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 23 July/Tuesday, 24 July – The Book of Memory – Petina Gappah

Monday, 30 July/Tuesday, 31 July – The Choirboys – Joseph Wambaugh

Monday, 6 August/Tuesday, 7 August – Funeral Sites – Jessica Mann

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And We’ll Come to Find the Key to it All*

As this is posted, it’s 219 years since the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. That stone unlocked the meaning of several Egyptian hieroglyphics and allowed linguists and historians to interpret them. It proved to be a key to understanding a lot about the culture and the people.

Thinking about the Rosetta Stone has got me thinking about keys to crime-fictional mysteries. I’m not, strictly speaking, talking about encrypted messages or codes. A crime-fictional ‘Rosetta Stone’ could be something as simple as a list or a diary page. Whatever it is, it shows the sleuth how the pieces of a mystery fit together.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Five Orange Pips, John Openshaw brings a strange case to Sherlock Holmes. It seems that Openshaw’s Uncle Elias, with whom he lived, was found dead in a pool on his estate. Prior to his death, there’d been a strange series of events that began when he received an envelope containing five orange pips. Now, the victim’s brother, John, has also received five orange pips. He’s terrified, but he won’t go to the police about it. As it turns out, a page from a diary proves to be the key to unlocking the meaning of the pips. Once Holmes knows that meaning, he’s able to solve the mystery.

In John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, it’s a poem that holds the key to the mystery of the death of Martin Starberth. For two generations, Starberth men served as Governors of Chatterham Prison. The prison is now in disuse, but Starberth men still follow an old ritual connected to is. Each Starberth male spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. While there, he opens the safe that’s in the room, and follows the instructions written on a piece of paper kept in that safe. When it’s Martin Starberth’s turn, he agrees to go through with the ritual, even though he’s reluctant. He dies of what looks like a tragic fall, but Dr. Gideon Fell isn’t sure the death was an accident. Once Fell understands what the old poem means, he’s able to find out who killed Starberth and why.

The focus of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is the murder of Samuel Ratchett, a wealthy American businessman who is stabbed on the second night of a three-day trip across Europe on the famous Orient Express train. The only possible suspects are the other people in the same carriage, so Hercule Poirot, who’s on the train as well, concentrates his efforts on them. One important question, of course, is what the motive might be. Who would want to kill Ratchett? The key to this mystery turns out to be a note that the killer never intended to be found. Once Poirot understands what the note says and what it means, he’s able to discover the motive for the killing. And that leads him to the truth about Ratchett’s murder.

Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil begins when Laurel Hill asks Queen to help her find out who’s responsible for the death of her father, Leander. It seems that Leander Hill died of a heart attack after receiving a series of macabre ‘gifts.’ His business partner, Roger Priam, has also been receiving ‘packages.’ Laurel is convinced that her father’s heart attack was deliberately triggered, and she wants Queen to find out why and by whom. Queen’s reluctant at first; he’s trying to get some writing done. But he is intrigued by the puzzle. So, he agrees to look into the matter. The motive for everything lies in the past. And, once Queen is able to unlock the meaning of the ‘gifts,’ he’s able to find out why Hill and Priam have been targeted. He also discovers who’s behind everything that’s happened.

There’s also Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal. In that novel, high school principal Hilary VanBrook is directing a local production of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. On the night of the final performance of the play, VanBrook is found dead in his car on the property of journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. Qwill (who is Braun’s protagonist) works with local police chief Andrew Brodie to find out who killed VanBrook and why. And it turns out that there are several suspects. VanBrook had plenty of enemies, and it’s not going to be easy to narrow it all down. One important key to solving the mystery turns up when Qwill pays a visit to VanBrook’s personal library. In it, there’s a hollowed-out book that contains a list of other books, some of which have red dots next to the titles. The meaning of that list and those red dots turns out to be essential to finding out who killed VanBrook.

There are, of course, plenty of other crime novels in which there’s a list, a diary entry, or something else that holds the key to understanding a mystery. Once the sleuth finds that key, the pieces of the puzzle start to come together. These are only a few examples; I know you’ll think of more.

ps. I know I’ve shown this ‘photo before, but I thought it was worth sharing again. What a privilege it was to see the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marillion’s Tumble Down the Years.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Lilian Jackson Braun

Perfect Isn’t Easy, But It’s Me*

We all know that people aren’t perfect. Most of us do some things well (perhaps even very well), and some things not very well. And, yet, there’s a myth that we ought to be perfect. We’re ‘supposed to’ do our work with no mistakes, always look perfectly ‘put together,’ and so on. There are even more myths around raising children (our perfect children are supposed to be raised perfectly).

Everyone knows that human make mistakes. Still, lots of people want to be perfect. On the one hand, there’s nothing wrong (and a lot of things right) with setting goals, wanting to improve, and so on. It’s when perfectionism takes over that it can present a problem. I got to thinking about this after reading a really interesting post by Elizabeth Spann Craig. By the way, if you haven’t read Elizabeth’s mystery series (she’s got several), you want to try them. You won’t regret it.

Elizabeth’s post had a focus on perfectionism in writing (in case you’re wondering, it’s not possible.). But perfectionism isn’t just confined to writers. And it’s not confined to real life, either. There are plenty of crime novels in which perfectionism plays a role. Here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, we are introduced to sixteen-year-old Linda Marshall. She goes with her father, Captain Kenneth Marshall, and her stepmother, Arlena Stuart Marshall, to the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercomb Bay for a holiday. But this isn’t a happy time for Linda. She is very much dissatisfied with her physical appearance, for one thing. She’s also got that teenage awkwardness that makes it hard for her to feel confident. Linda wishes she were perfect in appearance, grace, and so on, but she knows she isn’t. And that makes life very hard for her. It doesn’t help matters that her stepmother is a famous and beautiful actress, with all of the looks, confidence, and grace you’d expect. Linda has a lot of resentment towards Arlena, and that’s part of what makes her a ‘person of interest’ when Arlena is murdered one day. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel, and he works with the police to find out who the killer is.

Talmage Powell’s short story To Avoid a Scandal features a banker named Horace Croydon. He has what he sees as the perfect life. He does his job perfectly, he has a perfect little place to live, and he’s never done anything to raise even the merest hint of a scandal. Then, he meets his boss’ cousin, Althea. After a very respectable courtship, they marry. Almost immediately, Horace sees that he’s made a dreadful mistake. Althea doesn’t serve meals on time, she doesn’t do the shopping in the ‘right’ way, and she’s made several changes to his perfect home. She doesn’t even dress properly to appear at the breakfast table. All of that’s bad enough, but one day, she goes too far. When she destroys some ciphers that Horace is working (it’s his hobby and passion), he decides he’s going to have to act. And he comes up with his own plan to solve the problem.

Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal is the story of Eva Wirenström-Berg. She’s always wanted the ‘perfect’ suburban life, complete with white picket fence. And she thinks she has it. She and her husband Hendrik have been married for fifteen years, and they have a six-year-old son, Axel. For Eva, it’s very important to have the perfect home, the perfect marriage, and so on. Then, she discovers to her shock that Hendrik has been unfaithful. She’s devastated by this and decides to find out who his lover is. When she does, she decides to take revenge. In the meantime, we meet Jonas Hansson, who’s got his own issues. One night, he’s in a pub when Eva stops in for a drink. The two get to talking, and, soon enough, things spiral out of control for both of them. In this case, perfectionism has a very dark side.

It does in Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? too. Yvonne and Gerry Mulhern and their newborn daughter move from London to Dublin, so that Gerry can take advantage of a very good job opportunity. It’s hard for Yvonne, because she doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin. And, while she’s not stupid or gullible, she has been subjected to the myth of the ‘perfect mother.’ As anyone who’s ever had a newborn knows, babies are exhausting. There’s little time to eat properly, clean the house, put together the right outfits, and so on. And there’s no magic way to get them to stop crying when you want them not to cry. Yvonne doesn’t really have a support system and feels very strongly that she doesn’t ‘measure up.’ Then, she discovers an online forum called Netmammy. It’s a chat group for new mums, and there, she finds the camaraderie and support she so desperately needs. Then, one of the other members of the forum goes ‘off the grid.’ Yvonne’s concerned enough to go to the police, but there’s not much they can do. Then, the body of an unknown woman is found in an empty apartment. It could very well be Yvonne’s missing friend. If it is, what does this mean for Netmammy? Could the other members, including Yvonne, be in danger?

And then there’s Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me. Devon Knox has rare gymnastic talent. Her parents, Katie and Eric, want to nurture that talent, so they are only too happy to listen when gymnastics coach Teddy Balfour invites them to place her in his gymnastics coaching program. Then, a tragic hit-and-run accident (if it was, indeed, an accident) changes everything. The question is now: how far does a family go to reach the Olympics? There’s a great deal of pressure in the program to be the best – to be perfect. And that plays its role in the novel.

We all know we’re not perfect. We’re messy, flawed, nuanced human beings. But it can be easy to ‘buy’ the myth that perfect is possible. And when that happens, it can lead to trouble.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Barry Manilow, Jack Feldman, and Bruce Sussman’s Perfect Isn’t Easy.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Karin Alvtegen, Megan Abbott, Sinéad Crowley, Talmage Powell

Where Do You Start*

A recent conversation with Brad at ahsweetmysteryblog has got me thinking about reading a series in order vs picking and choosing in a series (and, perhaps, going completely out of order). Now, before I go any further, let me strongly encourage you to pay Brad’s blog a visit, and follow it if you aren’t already. It’s a treasure trove of rich, knowledgeable discussion about classic and GA crime fiction (with some more contemporary crime fiction here and there for added volume).

If you think about it, there are plenty of arguments for starting a series at the beginning and working one’s way through it chronologically. One is that many series have story arcs. They begin in earlier novels and are resolved as the series goes on (often, to lead to more story arcs in a longer series). Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series is like that. I won’t spoil those arcs by being really specific about them here. But there are several that involve Gamache’s private and professional lives. And, as fans can tell you, the stories in this series feature the residents of the small Québec town of Three Pines. As the series goes on, there is more than one story arc that involves those characters. Reading a series like this one in order allows the reader to follow those arcs in a logical way, and to see how they are resolved.

Another argument for reading a series sequentially is that later books in a series sometimes refer to earlier novels/plot points/etc.  For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the murder of Miss Emily Arundell, who had a fortune to leave, and several relatives who are desperate for money. That, of course, means several suspects. At one point, Poirot and Hastings are discussing the personalities of the people involved. Poirot mentions the names of four fictional murders from previous Christie novels. To be fair, people who haven’t read those earlier novels wouldn’t know they were the killers (Christie doesn’t, strictly speaking, say that they are). But if a reader happens to remember one of the names, and then goes back to an earlier novel, it’s a major spoiler to know the name of the killer.

There’s also the fact that, in a longer series, changes happen in the characters’ lives. They marry, break up, have children, move house, and go through other changes. For example, many life changes happen to Steve Carella, who features in Ed McBain’s long-running 87th Precinct series. As the novels go on, he marries, has children, and so on. Those life events aren’t always the central focus of the novels, but they are part of the story. So, a reader who starts later in the series might have a mental representation of Carella that includes his wife, older children, and so on. If the reader then goes back to the first novel, Cop Hater, that mental representation doesn’t fit quite so well. Certainly, a reader could easily make the adjustment. Still, those changes in perception can mean a reader has to stop and take stock, so to speak, even if it’s not really confusing for the reader to go back. The same is true of series in which the protagonist has one partner in the early novels, and then moves on to someone else as the series goes on.

All of that said, though, there are also good arguments for starting later in a series. For one thing, it takes many authors a few novels to really find their voices and do their best work. If I may speak personally, I think my more recent novels are better-written and more mature, if I can put it that way, than my first one. At least, I hope I’ve learned as I’ve gone along. It’s a natural part of the evolution of a writer. So, a reader who chooses an author’s later work may get to see the best that author has to offer. That can invite the reader to go back and try something else by that author. And, even if the author’s earlier work isn’t as good, the reader knows that the potential is there. So, the reader won’t be as likely to be put off by a less-than-great first novel.

Another – and probably related – thing about series is that the major characters often grow, change, evolve, and become more interesting as the series goes on. That’s certainly true of Ellery Queen. In the first novels in which he features, he’s certainly not a multi-dimensional, nuanced character. He’s smart and solves the mysteries, but many people wouldn’t consider him a warm, sympathetic character. As the series goes on, though, Queen evolves. He becomes more fully fleshed out and multi-dimensional. And that (speaking strictly for myself) makes him more appealing. So, there’s a solid argument that it makes some sense to start later in the Queen series than earlier.

There’s also the issue of availability. Sometimes, an author’s more recent books are more easily available in a library or bookshop than are earlier novels. Better-known titles are also often more easily available than are lesser-known titles. That doesn’t mean, of course, that you can’t find that first novel. But it sometimes takes more digging. And if your goal is to try an author’s work to see what you think, you may not want to make as much effort (or spend as much).

This isn’t a settled question. There are some solid arguments for starting at the beginning of a series, but there are also solid arguments for not doing that. What do you think? Are you strictly a ‘begin at the beginning’ person? If you’re a writer, how do you feel about readers beginning at different points in your work?

Thanks, Brad, for the inspiration!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Johnny Mandel and Alan and Marilyn Bergman.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Ellery Queen, Louise Penny