In The Spotlight: Maureen Carter’s Working Girls

>In The Spotlight: Ian Rankin's Exit MusicHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Many people put commercial sex workers into a separate, and lower, social category. And there are dozens of stereotypes associated with that line of work, so that it’s easy to forget that these people are individuals with their own stories. Let’s take a look at some of the individuals behind the mini-skirts and makeup today, and turn the spotlight on Maureen Carter’s Working Girls, which takes place in Birmingham.

The real action in the story begins when the body of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas is found by a school caretaker. Under the supervision of Detective Superintendent Bill Byford, DS Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss and her team begin an investigation. They soon discover that Michelle was a sex worker who’d been in care since the age of twelve. With not very much else to go on, Morriss gets clearance to start with the other sex workers who do their business on Thread Street, near the school where Michelle’s body was discovered.

It’s not long before Morriss connects with Michelle’s best friend Vicki Flinn. Vicki doesn’t know for sure who killed her friend, but she does start to give Morriss some background information. It seems that both girls have been working for a pimp named Charlie Hawes. The more Morriss learns about Hawes, the more contempt she has for him. But that doesn’t mean Hawes is the killer. What’s more, even if Hawes is responsible, Vicki can’t give a reliable description of him, and doesn’t know anything about where he lives or does business. Putting him at the scene of the crime is going to be a challenge.

Then, another of Hawes’ employees, Cassandra Swain, is badly beaten. Morriss tries to connect again with Vicki, but she’s gone missing. As far as Morriss is concerned, whether or not Hawes is guilty, he has a lot to answer for, and she wants to catch him. That’s not going to be easy, though. He’s earned his nickname ‘Mad Charlie,’ and no-one is willing to risk getting on his bad side. In fact, it’s not spoiling the story to say that more than one person lies to Morriss out of fear, putting her and her team on the wrong path.

Morriss is not without resources, though. She gets to know some of the other sex workers in the area, and learns quite a lot from them. And she and DC Ossama ‘Ozzie’ Khan track down other leads as well. In the end, and after another murder, they’re able to find out the truth about this case.

And the truth is more complicated than it seems on the surface. There is more than one possible explanation for what’s happened. For example, there’s a local group that’s determined to rid the area of sex workers, so that ‘respectable’ people can go about their business. They’ve been protesting and threatening, and it’s possible that one of them could have crossed the line between words and action.

Their protests reflect one important element in this novel: stereotyping of sex workers. The activist group has, of course, a very low opinion of ‘those kinds of girls,’ and their views are shared by many others. Even the police, who are supposed to protect everyone, are not as quick to rush out when the victim is a sex worker. As Morriss tells her boss,
 

‘‘…you know as well as I do, there are blokes in this place who wouldn’t piss on a prostitute if she was on fire.’’
 

The sex workers themselves know this, and their opinion of the police isn’t much better.

There are other kinds of prejudice too that we see in the novel. For example, Khan has to deal with plenty of people who stereotype him because of his ethnic background. And Morriss has to cope with her colleague Mike Powell.
 

‘She knew it was a cliché: young female cop on shite terms with sexist, senior male officer. She knew it. Only trouble was, Mike Powell lived and breathed it.’
 

Powell’s opinion of women in general and sex workers in particular is made clear in the novel.

At the same time, though, another element in the book is the debunking of a lot of these stereotypes. For instance, Morriss’ boss Bill Byford is supportive, and by and large respects her and the work she does. He calls her out when she’s wrong, but he regards her as the equal of her male colleagues. Readers who are tired of stereotypically awful bosses who are out to sabotage their subordinates will be pleased.

As Morriss gets to know the other sex workers involved in this case, we see that they’re a complex and diverse group of people. Some are quite young – students who want to be ‘in the game’ long enough to earn some money, so they can go after their dreams. Others do it because that’s what they know. Still others see that it’s quite lucrative. One of them puts it this way:
 

‘‘My sister, Mand. She’s eighteen. She works in an ‘airdressers five days a week. Brings home fifty-five quid. I make twice that in an hour – and I ain’t on me feet all day.’’
 

They have their own kind of dignity and pride, and they really don’t see themselves as victims. They’re resourceful, too, and they have their own kind of wit. One, for instance, has a large collection of stuffed pigs – one for every time she’s been pulled in by the coppers.

Another important element in this novel is its working-class Birmingham setting and context. The lifestyle and culture of that city are woven throughout the story. So is the ‘Brummie’ dialect.

It’s also worth saying a word or two about the character of Bev Morriss. She is smart and capable without at the same time being invulnerable. She’s managed to carve out a place for herself at the Highgate station, and she has the makings of a very good cop. She and Khan make their share of mistakes; neither is perfect. They do their jobs well, though.

Working Girls shows what life is like for Midlands sex workers, and for the police who are supposed to protect them – and arrest them. It features an intelligent and resourceful group of coppers who are up against a dangerous enemy, and has a distinctive Birmingham setting. But what’s your view? Have you read Working Girls? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 10 August/Tuesday 11 August – Massacre Pond – Paul Doiron

Monday 17 August/Tuesday 18 August – Seneca Falls Inheritance – Miriam Grace Monfredo

Monday 24 August/Tuesday 25 August – Bitter Wash Road – Garry Disher

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Filed under Maureen Carter, Working Girls

Starting Over Again*

Rejoining the worldWhen people have been isolated, too sheltered or in some other way kept apart, it can be very hard to adjust to life in ‘the real world.’ Ask anyone who’s spent time in prison and then had to re-adapt to life ‘outside’ (that’s actually a separate topic in and of itself!) Things most of us take for granted, such as making our own decisions and connecting with others can be very much more difficult for those who are just entering (or re-entering) the world.

Certainly that adaptation is a challenge in real life. It is in crime fiction, too. And that sort of plot point can make for some interesting character development and tension in a story.

For example, Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death introduces readers to the Boynton family. They’re Americans who are on a trip through the Middle East. When newly-minted doctor Sarah King meets them for the first time, she gets the sense right away that something is ‘off’ about the family. And she soon discovers how right she is. Mrs. Boynton, the family matriarch, is a tyrannical mental sadist who has her family so cowed that none of them dares cross her. In two interactions (one with Carol Boynton and one with her brother Raymond), Sarah tries to help, but her efforts come to little. Sarah heads off to Petra on a sightseeing tour, thinking that’ll be the end of her encounters with the Boyntons. To her shock though, when she arrives at Petra, she sees that they’re on an excursion there as well. Surprisingly, she even gets the chance to interact with Carol and Raymond a bit. Then, on the second afternoon there, Mrs. Boynton dies of what looks like a heart attack. Colonel Carbury, the official investigator, isn’t satisfied that her death was natural, though, and asks Hercule Poirot, who’s in the area, to look into the matter.  As he does, he finds that one challenge he will face is working with Mrs. Boynton’s family. Carol, Raymond, and their two siblings have been isolated for so long that they simply don’t know how to operate in the larger world. It makes for an interesting plot thread to see how they learn.

In Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, Queen is staying in a house in the Hollywood Hills, hoping to get some writing done. His plans are interrupted by nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill. She wants Queen to investigate the death of her father Leander, who recently died of a heart attack. Laurel claims that his heart attack was deliberately induced by someone who sent him a series of macabre ‘presents.’ Queen is finally persuaded to investigate, and starts to ask questions. One of the people he tries to speak to is Leander Hill’s business partner Roger Priam, who’s also received ‘gifts.’ Priam refuses to get involved, although his wife Delia takes the matter more seriously. Bit by bit, Queen puts the pieces of the puzzle together, and we learn how Hill’s and Priam’s past has impacted their current lives, and how it led to Hill’s death. One of the unusual characters in this story is Delia Priam’s son (and Roger Priam’s stepson) Crowe ‘Mac’ McGowan. Mac is convinced that the world is on the brink of destruction from nuclear bombs, and he wants to survive The Bomb. So he lives in a tree. He only emerges for food, and in general, interacts as little as possible with anyone else. In the course of the novel, he makes the choice to come out of his self-imposed exile and rejoin the world, and it’s interesting to see how he does that. Queen fans will know that Queen is also involved in helping Paula Paris join the world, as the saying goes. She’s a well-known Hollywood gossip columnist whom Queen meets in The Four of Hearts. She is also agoraphobic. While she’s by no means entirely disconnected from everyday life, she doesn’t leave her home. At least, not until Queen helps her to do so.

Catherine Aird’s The Religious Body touches on the interesting case of a nun who has re-entered the larger world. In that novel, Inspector C.D. Sloan and Constable William Crosby investigate the murder of Sister Mary St. Anne, who is a member of the Convent of St. Anselm’s. In order to find out who might have had a motive, Sloan and Crosby want to talk to anyone who knew the victim both before she joined the convent, and after. One of their interviews is with Elieen Lome, who left the convent fairly recently. In fact, she’s still getting used to things such as comfortable chairs and modern clothes. She admits that to her, everything is very different. The interview with Miss Lome doesn’t solve the case, but it sheds some interesting light on what it’s like to re-join the world if one’s been in a religious enclave like a convent.

Betty Webb’s Desert Wives addresses a different sort of rejoining the world. In that novel, PI Lena Jones works with her PI partner Jimmy Sisiwan to protect Esther Corbett and her thirteen-year-old daughter Rachel. Esther is a former member of Purity, a polygamous sect that lives in a compound straddling the Utah/Arizona border. Her thirteen-year-old daughter Rebecca, who is still living at the compound, has been ‘given’ to the sect’s leader Solomon Royal as a bride, and Esther wants to rescue the girl. Jones agrees and she and Sisiwan duly return Rebecca to her mother. But that’s just the beginning of the trouble. When Royal is shot, Esther becomes a suspect. It turns out, though, that there are plenty of other possibilities, and Jones goes undercover at the compound to find out who really committed the crime. Along the way, she meets Leo and Virginia Lawler, who own West Wind Ranch. On the surface it’s a tourist attraction. But it’s also a safe house for women who want to leave Purity. The logistics of escaping Purity are difficult enough (it’s rough terrain and at least twenty miles to anywhere). Along with that, the women and girls who leave have no money or credit cards, no transportation and almost no possessions. The Lawlers help them to rest up and get some of the things they need to re-join the larger world, and that is a difficult task.

And then there’s Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks, which features fourteen-year-old Adam Vander. He’s finally summoned up the courage he needs to flee his abusive father Joe. The problem is, though, that Adam has been locked away so successfully that he has no connections in the larger world, and knows little about managing on his own. As he’s leaving the house, he meets Billy Benson, a young man who’s there at the time. The two spend the next week together, with Billy providing a lot of streetwise knowledge. They find shelter and food, and Adam begins to learn a lot that he’s never really known. They also find a great deal of danger. It turns out that Billy and Adam have a connection from the past, and that link comes back to haunt them. Throughout this novel, it’s interesting to see how Adam starts to adjust to life ‘on the outside.’

That process of adaptation is never easy. But it can add an interesting layer of suspense to a story. It can also be an effective way to add character depth.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Peter Criss’ By Myself.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Betty Webb, Catherine Aird, Ellery Queen, Honey Brown

Nothing Really Matters to Me*

ApathySome people respond to life’s stresses and strains by becoming completely apathetic. They give up, if you want to put it that way, and just don’t seem to be passionate about anything. Sometimes it’s due to a particular trauma. Other times it’s the result of a gradual wearing down of that ‘spark of life.’ Either way, those people ‘go through the motions’ without really participating in life. It’s not easy to create characters like that, actually. It’s hard to make them interesting and memorable. But there are plenty of them in real life, and we see them in crime fiction, too.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), for instance, we learn about Caroline Crale. Sixteen years earlier, she was convicted of poisoning her husband, famous painter Amyas Crale. A year later, she died in prison. Her daughter Carla Lemarchant has always been convinced her mother was innocent, and now she wants Hercule Poirot to clear her name. Poirot agrees, and interviews the five people who were present on the day of the murder. He also gets written accounts from them. His interviews also include a few people such as attorneys and law clerks who attended the trial. From those interviews and accounts, Poirot deduces what really happened to Amyas Crale. Throughout the story, we learn a lot about Caroline Crale. She was lively and passionate, with a strong personality. But after her arrest, everything changed. As one character puts it,
 

‘…she retreated into her world of half lights and shadows.’
 

At that point, nothing much seemed to matter any more, and one character even mentions how difficult that made things in court. She wouldn’t defend herself or ‘come alive’ for the jurors.

K.C. Constantine’s The Blank Page is the story of the murder of Janet Pisula, a student at Conemaugh County Community College. Rocksburg (Pennsylvania) Chief of Police Mario Balzic gets a call from Cynthia Sumner, who owns the rooming house where Janet lives. She hasn’t seen Janet lately and is concerned about her. When Balzic checks into the matter, he finds that Sumner’s concerns are more than justified: Janet’s body is found on the floor of her room. Oddly enough, there is a blank sheet of paper on the body. As Balzic begins to investigate, he finds out that the victim was rather detached from life. She didn’t make friends, didn’t date, and wasn’t involved in the college social scene. She struggled with her schoolwork, although one of her instructors thought of her as having a bright and original mind. Not much about this murder makes sense – especially not the motive – until Balzic checks into Janet’s background. He discovers that she lost her parents in a terrible car accident when she was young. After that, she had little interest in life and simply disengaged herself from it. And in the end, the effect of that trauma led to her murder.

In Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water, Inspector Salvo Montalbano and his team investigate the death of up-and-coming politician Silvio Luparello. His body is discovered in a notorious place outside of the town of Vigàta. Called ‘The Pasture,’ it’s a place where prostitutes meet their clients and small-time drug deals are made. At first, Luparello’s death looks like the result of a massive heart attack that happened at a very inopportune moment. But Montalbano isn’t so sure, and wants to investigate further. He’s given two days to ask some questions. At one point, Luparello’s widow contacts Montalbano, asking to see him. She is neither broken up and devastated nor relieved, really, about her husband’s death. She’s more detached than that, and certainly objective about her husband. While she’s not apathetic in the sense of being withdrawn, she is disengaged from any sense of grief. But she’s interested in the investigation, and provides Montalbano with some valuable information.

In Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone, Dorchester (Massachusetts) PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro take on a heartbreaking case: four-year-old Amanda McCready has gone missing. As you can imagine, there’s a massive effort to find her, with dozens of police, all sorts of media attention, and lots of public interest. But so far, no trace of the child has been found. Amanda’s uncle, Lionel McCready, and his wife Beatrice, ask Kenzie and Gennaro to investigate. At first, the PIs are reluctant; after all, what can they do that the police and media can’t? But Beatrice McCready, especially, is insistent. So Kenzie and Gennaro agree to at least meet with Amanda’s mother Helene. From the very first, she gives an unfortunate impression. She seems strangely apathetic about the whole thing, although at one point, she does give way to a tear or two when Amanda’s smile is mentioned. Eerily, her next conversation – almost immediately afterwards – is about whether O.J. Simpson was guilty of murder. In fact, Kenzie and Gennaro are so put off by Helene that they turn to leave. Beatrice blocks their way, begging them to stay for just one more hour. Here is Helene’s reaction:

 

‘‘Patrick, right?’ Helene looked up at me. ‘That’s your name?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Think you could move a little to your left, Patrick?’ Helene said. ‘You’re blocking the TV.’’

 

Only the thought that Amanda may be in grave danger or worse keeps the detectives going after they’ve met Helene.

And then there’s Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall.  Early one morning, Gurdial Singh is on his regular rounds, delivering the Globe and Mail to his regular customers in Toronto’s exclusive Market Place Tower condominiums. When he gets to the home of popular radio host Kevin Brace, he notices right away that something is different. The door is half-open and Brace himself is not there as usual to get the paper and say hello. Singh knocks on the door, and when Brace gets there, he says,
 

‘‘I killed her, Mr. Singh. I killed her.’’
 

After that, he says nothing else. Shortly afterwards, Singh discovers the body of Brace’s common law wife Katherine Thorn in a bathtub, and alerts the police. Brace goes quietly when he’s arrested, doesn’t try to defend himself, and seems to stop caring completely. The only thing he does do is request that solicitor Nancy Parish represent him. She takes the case, but almost immediately finds that her client isn’t going to be much help. He doesn’t even deny his guilt or offer any explanation for anything. Parish has her work cut out for her as she tries to clear Brace and find out what really happened to his wife.

There are other characters, too, who simply don’t seem to care. Creating them and making them interesting isn’t easy, but they can add to a story.

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Dennis Lehane, K.C. Constantine, Robert Rotenberg

This is the End*

Books with Great EndingsNot long ago, Moira at Clothes in Books did a terrific post on crime books that she felt had the best endings. And that got me to thinking about which crime novel endings I’ve liked best. It’s actually not easy to write a good ending to a book. On the one hand, most readers want an ending that falls out logically from the story. ‘Out of the blue’ endings, or endings that are too far-fetched, are annoying. And readers want a sense that the important plot points (in the case of crime fiction, that’s usually the solution to the mystery) have been resolved.

On the other hand, an ending that is too ‘pat,’ where everything is tied up in a neat little ‘package,’ is annoying as well, and isn’t realistic. Life is usually messier than that. And an ending that’s too anticlimactic leaves the reader wondering, ‘Is this all there is?’

Nonetheless, there are some crime novels that have very powerful, memorable endings. They stay with the reader, and they encourage the reader to think about the book long after it’s finished. Of course, your idea of what sort of ending falls into that category is going to differ from mine. But, keeping in mind that this is just my opinion, here, in roughly chronological order of publication, are…

 

Margot’s Choices For Crime Novels With the Best Endings

 

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie

In this story, Hercule Poirot is asked to solve the murder of retired magnate Roger Ackroyd, who’s been found stabbed in his study. In some ways, the novel is reflective of the Golden Age style. There’s a wealthy dead man, several likely suspects in the household, the ne’er-do-well most likely suspect whom the police have targeted, the young lovers, and so on. It’s clear that Christie had mastered the art of the Golden Age whodunit. But then she turned it on its head and broke the rules with this novel. It’s got one of the most famous dénouements in crime-fictional history.

 

Presumed Innocent – Scott Turow

This novel introduces Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich, who at this point is a Kindle County prosecuting attorney. When one of his colleagues, Carolyn Polhemus, is murdered, Sabich is assigned to the case. His boss has made it clear that that case must be handled both delicately and openly, with no hint of cover-up. Sabich gets started on the investigation, but there’s something he hasn’t told his boss: up until a few months before her death, he was involved with the victim. When that fact comes out, Sabich is removed from the case and replaced by a rival. That’s only the beginning of his trouble, though. Soon, evidence is found that suggests Sabich is the killer. In fact, the evidence is so compelling that he is arrested for the crime. Now on the other side of the table, so to speak, Sabich asks his friend and colleague Alejandro ‘Sandy’ Stern to defend him, and Stern agrees. This ending is particularly powerful for me because not only does Turow provide a strong ending to the court case, but also, the truth about Carolyn Polhemus’ death is, in my opinion, brilliantly done.

 

Gone, Baby, Gone – Dennis Lehane

If you’ve read this novel, then you’ll probably already guess why I chose it. For those not familiar with the story, the real action in it begins when Dorchester, Massachusetts PIs Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro get a visit from Lionel McCready and his wife Beatrice. They want Kenzie and Gennaro to investigate the heartbreaking disappearance of their four-year-old niece Amanda. Both PIs are familiar with the case, as the media has made much of it. After all, it’s a missing child. And that publicity is part of why Kenzie and Gennaro are reluctant to take the case at first. They don’t see what they can do that dozens of police and all sorts of media outlets can’t do. But Beatrice McCready is insistent and determined, so the PIs agree to at least speak to Amanda’s mother Helene. Before they know it, they’re drawn into a gut-wrenching case of a missing child, and are faced with several difficult choices as they investigate. The ending to this story is, for me, one of the more powerful endings in crime fiction. It raises some important and fascinating topics for debate and discussion, and is surprising without being so completely impossible that it’s not credible. I can’t say more without spoiling it, but if you’ve read it…you know what I mean.

 

What Was Lost – Catherine O’Flynn

This novel begins in 1984, when ten-year-old Kate Meaney is a fledgling detective. In fact, she’s even started her own detective agency, Falcon Investigations. She doesn’t have much of a life otherwise; she lives in a rather grim English Midlands town with an ageing High Street and more struggling families than people of means. But she is content planning and operating her new company. She spends a lot of time at the newly-constructed Green Oaks Shopping Center, where she is sure she’ll find plenty of crime to investigate. Everything changes when her grandmother Ivy decides that Kate should go away to school. Kate refuses, but Ivy is convinced she’ll have a better chance for a ‘real’ life if she goes. Finally, Kate’s friend, twenty-two-year-old Adrian Palmer, agrees to go with her to the exclusive Redspoon School to sit the entrance exams. Only Adrian returns, and then the alarm is given, there’s a massive search. But no trace of Kate is found – not even a body. Everyone thinks Adrian is responsible, although he flatly denies it. In fact, he is harassed so badly that he leaves town, vowing not to return. Twenty years later, his sister Lisa is Assistant Manager at Your Music, one of the stores at Green Oaks. One night, she meets Kurt, one of the mall security guards. Kurt’s been seeing some strange things on his CCTV cameras lately: a young girl who looks a lot like Kate. Each in a different way, Kurt and Lisa go back to the past, if you will, and we learn what really happened to Kate Meaney. The answer to that question, and the way it has impacted everyone, makes the ending to this book one of the more emotionally powerful endings I’ve read.

 

Confessions – Kanae Minato

This novel, which shows the ugly side of middle school, begins as Yūko Moriguchi addresses her class. It’s her last day at the school, and she has a powerful message for her students. Her four-year-old daughter Manami died not long ago, and she is convinced that it wasn’t the accident the police thought it was. In fact, she knows Manami was murdered, and she knows by whom: two of her students. What’s more, she knows exactly which students are responsible, and she makes that clear in her speech. Then, she duly resigns. She’s not convinced that the justice system will mete out an appropriate punishment, because the killers are juveniles. So she’s made her own plans. Still, a new teacher is assigned to the class, and life seems to go on. But it’s soon clear that things are not at all ‘normal.’ Before long, life begins to spin out of control for three students in particular. As matters get worse, we see exactly what Yūko Moriguchi planned to do, and we learn the truth about Manami’s death. The tension that’s built in this novel comes to a head at the end, and as the final pieces fall into place, Minato provides a powerful dénouement that raises questions and invites debate.

 

Traces of Red – Paddy Richardson

Connor Bligh has been incarcerated for several years in Rimutaka Prison for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan, and their son Sam. Only their daughter Katy survived, and that was because she wasn’t home at the time of the tragedy. Now there are new little pieces of evidence that suggest that Bligh may not be guilty. When Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne hears of this, she thinks that the Bligh story may be just the story she needs to ensure her place at the top of New Zealand television journalism. So she decides to investigate the case more deeply. In the process, she finds herself more deeply and dangerously drawn in, and closer to the case, than she ought to be. The end of this novel is particularly memorable to me because it shows not just the truth about who killed the Dickson family, but also what the consequences are of the choices that journalists make. And Richardson does so in a way that is unexpected, but still credible. It’s a very powerful ending, for my money.

 

Other Books With Great Endings

Exit Music – Ian Rankin – A terrific end-of-book scene regarding a story arc.

The Half Child – Angela Savage – OK, not as much related to the mystery at hand, but one of the most lovely scenes between two characters that I’ve read. It’s just…great.

Lord Edgware Dies – Agatha Christie – One of the most telling, and unsettling, final lines from a killer:  Do you think they will put me in Madame Tussaud’s? Love it!

What about you? Which crime books have the best endings you’ve ever read?  Now, do please visit Moira’s excellent blog, and check out her fine choices.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doors’ The End.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Catherine O'Flynn, Dennis Lehane, Kanae Minato, Paddy Richardson, Scott Turow

The Wise Old Owl, The Big Black Crow*

Bird WatchingAn interesting comment exchange with Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about birds and bird watching. It’s a delightful pastime, really. It gets you out into nature, it doesn’t have to be expensive, and it can be really interesting. You might think of it as peaceful, too, but if you read crime fiction, you’ll soon see that it isn’t at all. There are plenty of examples of ways in which bird watching can get you into a lot of danger.

The novel Moira and I were discussing was Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage, in which Miss Marple has quite a hand in solving the killing of Colonel Protheroe. Miss Marple isn’t an avid bird watching enthusiast in the sense of belonging to the local Society, or going on lots of bird-watching excursions. But she does find bird watching to be a very handy explanation for the binoculars that she uses to see what some of the other characters are doing. And those binoculars give her useful information.

In Colin Dexter’s The Way Through the Woods, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis ‘inherit’ a cold case. Swedish tourist Karin Eriksson went missing a year ago during a trip to Wales. She was on her way through Wytham Woods when she disappeared, and as you’d expect, a thorough search was conducted there. The only useful discovery was a rucksack belonging to the young woman. In it was a small book called A Birdwatcher’s Guide and a list of birds with some names checked off. Now Morse and Lewis are tasked with tracing her movements and, hopefully, finding her body, so that they can learn the truth about what happened. As they do so, we see just what trouble you can get yourself into by taking an interest in birds…

Martha Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace sees Inspector Richard Jury called to the small town of Littlebourne when a local dog discovers a human finger. Jury’s friend Melrose Plant soon joins him there and, each in a different way, start to investigate. They don’t get very far when another grim discovery is made. Ernestine Craigie is a bird-watching fanatic, who’s happy to get up at all hours in hopes of completing her list. That’s how she discovers the body that belongs to the finger. The victim turns out to be Cora Binns, who worked for a London temporary secretary agency. Jury and Plant eventually find that her death is related to a brutal attack on another Littlebourne resident, as well as to a robbery that occurred in the area about a year earlier.

And then there’s Holger Eriksson, whom we meet in Henning Mankell’s The Fifth Woman. He’s a retired car dealer who’s taken up poetry and bird watching. One night, he goes out to watch some migrating birds, and is brutally murdered. Inspector Kurt Wallander is sick at the moment, and really didn’t need an extra case. But when Eriksson is reported missing, he has to respond. When the victim’s body is discovered, Wallander and his team have to find out who would have wanted to kill a seemingly inoffensive elderly man who just wanted to be left alone with his poetry and his birds. In the end, they discover a connection between this murder and the murder of a local florist. And they learn how those deaths are related to five murders in Africa a year earlier.

Several of Ann Cleeves’ stories feature bird enthusiasts, bird sanctuaries and bird watching. For example, in A Bird in the Hand, we are introduced to Tom Porter, a Norfolk ‘twitcher’ – bird watching fanatic – who works as a vegetable chef/kitchen porter. One morning he keeps a promise to himself to get up early and head for the marsh on a bird watching excursion. He’s found later face-down in a pool on the marsh, with his binoculars still on his neck. George Palmer-Jones is a twitcher himself, and a retired Home Office investigator. So naturally he takes an interest in the case. One thing that he notices immediately is that no-one seems to be especially upset about Porter’s death. And the more Palmer-Jones and his wife Molly look into the case, the more suspects they find. I know, I know, fans of Blue Lightning and The Crow Trap

And then there’s D.S. Nelson’s One For the Rook. Blake Heatherington is a milliner who’s getting ready to retire. He’s got his beloved allotment in the village of Tuesbury, and is no longer interested in the increasingly annoying commute to his London shop. Hoping for a peaceful autumn, he’s getting ready for a local harvest festival. Then, he discovers the body of Peter Kürbis in his pumpkin patch, killed, it would seem, by Heatherington’s own prize pumpkin. The police are looking into this murder when another Tuesbury resident is killed. In the meantime, there’s another strange occurrence. A rookery that’s been in the area for some time seems to have disappeared. It’s a traditional sign of bad luck when rooks leave a place, and that’s certainly what happens here. One of the suspects in these murders is Dennis Nyeman, former member of the local caged bird society, and strident (and aggressive) proponent of those who want right of way through all of the local allotments. No, the rooks aren’t the killers here. But there’s certainly interest in birds in this story.

So do be careful, please, if you decide to spend some time contemplating our feathered friends. It’s important to connect with nature. But it’s not always good for the health. Little wonder a group of crows is called a ‘murder…’

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Leon René/Jimmie Thomas’ Rockin’ Robin, made famous first by Bobby Day and later by Michael Jackson.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Colin Dexter, D.S. Nelson, Henning Mankell, Martha Grimes