Must Have Been the Right Month*

januaryA lot of people see January as the time to start anew. It’s the beginning of the year, it’s a chance to ‘do it right this time,’ and it’s a time when many people set positive goals for themselves. You’d think it’d be an optimistic time of year, right?

Not exactly. For one thing, there’s the weather. In some places, it’s the dead of winter, with freezing temperatures, bad weather and little light. In others, it’s mid-summer, with intolerable heat and the onset of wildfire season. And there are plenty of crime novels that take place in January, too.

For example, Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train begins in January. In one plot thread, we are introduced to Katherine Grey, who has served as paid companion to wealthy Mrs. Harfield for ten years. When Mrs. Harfield dies, Katherine unexpectedly inherits a large fortune. One of her decisions, now that she has money, is to do what many other people with money do at that time of year: escape the January winter weather and head for a warmer climate. She decides to accept an invitation from a distant relative, Lady Rose Tamplin, to stay with her in Nice for a while. Katherine arranges to take the famous Blue Train to Nice, and that turns out to be a fateful decision. On the way, she gets drawn into a case of theft and murder. Hercule Poirot is also on the train, and Katherine works with him to help find out who the murderer is.

One focus of Sarah Ward’s In Bitter Chill is a case from 1978. One January day, Sophie Jenkins and Rachel Jones walked to school together. Only Rachel returned. A massive search was undertaken, but no trace of Sophie was ever found. Now, years later, there’s another death, this time of Yvonne Jenkins. At first it looks like a tragic, but straightforward case of suicide. But DI Francis Sadler suspects it might be more than that when a discovery is made that links this death to the 1978 case. With help from Superintendent Llewellyn, who investigated the original case, Sadler and his team look into the 1978 disappearance again, and discover how it is related to the present death.

Bitter January weather sets the scene for the end of a difficult case for Martin Beck and his team in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna. One summer day, the body of a young woman is dredged from Lake Vättern. At first, the police find it hard to identify her, since she wasn’t Swedish. But in time, they learn that she was twenty-seven-year-old Roseanna McGraw, an American who was on a cruise tour of Sweden when she was killed. Little by little, and after several false starts, Beck and his team trace the victim’s last days and weeks, and they find out who was on board the cruise ship when she died. It takes months of hard work, and some lucky breaks, but they finally narrow down the list of suspects, and discover who was responsible for the murder. Then, they set up a ‘sting’ operation to catch that person. The operation takes place during bitterly cold January weather, which adds to the atmosphere. In the end, the team solves the crime, but it takes a lot of time and effort.

In some places in the world, January is the middle of summer. But that doesn’t make things any safer. For instance, Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood takes place in January. In that novel, Tasmania Police Sergeant John White goes to the scene of a home invasion. With him is Probationer Lucy Howard. She’s at the front of the house, and White goes to the back, where he’s stabbed to death. The suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been in trouble with the law before. The police are more than eager to avenge the murder of one of their own, but they’ll have to tread lightly. For one thing, the suspect is a juvenile. For another, he may be able to claim Aboriginal identity. If he and his lawyer choose to do that, then the media will put everything the police do under very close scrutiny. It isn’t usually particularly hot in Hobart in January, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of tension in this novel…

There is in Geoffrey McGeachin’s St. Kilda Blues, too. That novel takes place in January, 1967 – the ‘Summer of Love.’ Melbourne police detective Charlie Berlin has been shunted aside, so to speak, in the police hierarchy because he doesn’t ‘play politics.’ But he’s pulled into action when fifteen-year-old Gudrun Scheiner goes missing. Her father is a wealthy and well-connected developer, and is desperate to get his daughter back if possible. So, the police are motivated to get to a solution quickly. As Berlin soon comes to believe, this isn’t an isolated case. Gudrun is one of nine girls who’ve disappeared, and it could be that Melbourne is up against a serial killer. With summer in full swing, and young people not in school, it’s even more difficult to track people’s whereabouts, but Berlin and his partner/former protégé Rob Roberts search for the truth. And the truth turns out to be very unexpected…

And then there’s Wendy James The Lost Girls. This story’s focus is in part the murder of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. It’s January, 1978, and Angela’s been given (reluctant) permission to spend the summer with her aunt and uncle, Barbara and Doug Griffin. There isn’t much to do, so Angela, her cousin Mick, and Mick’s friends spend plenty of time at the local drugstore, playing pinball. Then, one horrible day, Angela goes missing. She’s later found dead, with a scarf around her head. At first, the police concentrate on family and friends, as is only logical. But they don’t have enough evidence to charge anyone. Then, a few months later, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor is also found dead, also with a scarf around her head. Now, it looks as though the same person committed both crimes, and the press begin to dub this killer, ‘The Sydney Strangler.’ The case is never solved, and it leaves the family with lasting scars. Years later, documentary filmmaker Erin Fury decides to do a film on families who’ve survived the murder of one of their members. She wants to include the Griffin family, and interviews the various members. Little by little, and partly through these interviews, we learn the truth about Angela’s fate, and about Kelly’s.

See what I mean? January is not really a safe month. Perhaps it’d be best to follow the lead of Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman and shut up shop for the month, as she does in Cooking the Books


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s January.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Geoffrey McGeachin, Kerry Greenwood, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Wendy James, Y.A. Erskine

33 responses to “Must Have Been the Right Month*

  1. Better snuggle down under the duvet with a good book for this entire month!

  2. Brrrr. If you are going to murder me, make it in September. I picture horrible endings in the dead of winter!

  3. I’m so glad you gave us a coupe of days to savour the optimism of the New Year Margot 😉 Joking aside you’ve featured some cracking sounding reads here – I really did enjoy In Bitter Chill, and love that you’ve given us some set in a summery January too.

    • Well, Cleo, I thought everyone deserved at least a few days of peace before I struck 😉 . I agree with you that In Bitter Chill is fantastic. Folks, if you haven’t read it, please do so. You won’t regret it. And yes, January is no safer when the weather is warm than it is during a winter storm…

  4. Keep those ‘duvets’ (we call them ‘doonas’) away! We’re in the middle of a heatwave here in Melbourne: six days in a row of 30+°C weather. And when the hot, dry northerly wind blows up, I for one feel like killing someone…

    • I’ve been hearing about the heat wave, Angela! It’s one of those times where you just wish it would rain – just for a bit – to cool things down. And those are times, I think, when people are definitely on edge, and a lot more likely to get involved in the sorts of conflicts that lead to murder. I hope the weather breaks soon. Until then, G&T’s, cool salads, and poolside for everyone.

  5. I chuckled at the thought of any criminal/killer being out in the bitter cold as we have in my town right now, wading through inches or snow to do their dirty work. I suspect in some parts of the country, crime statistics show a definite downtrend in frigid January.

  6. Margot: Fictional murder is rare in Saskatchewan. In real life one of our most infamous murders took place in January of 1969 in Saskatoon when a nursing student, Gail Miller, was raped and murdered. Unfortunately, David Milgaard was wrongfully convicted and spent 23 years in prison before being exonerated. Subsequently, DNA analysis identified the actual killer. It was a terrible miscarriage of justice concerning Milgaard.

    • What a horrible situation, Bill. Awful for Gail Miller and her family, and awful for David Milgaard. While I am glad that he was later exonerated, that doesn’t take away the horror as though it’d never happened.

  7. On the whole, I’d rather be freezing in January than melting but that’s my Northern genes talking. Of course, freezing weather also helps the poor forensics pathologists – natural refrigeration… 😉

    • Well, that’s true, FictionFan 😉 – And it’s interesting how we have preferences for cold or heat. I don’t know if it’s genetics or not, but but I think people do have those inclinations. I do have to say I’m very much accustomed to the Northern Hemisphere rhythms of the year, too.

  8. That must mean that our years all begin at different times… mine starts with the first green shoots. I think I tread water until then…

  9. I tend to agree with Marina Sofia – January is a great time to snuggle in and read.

  10. The Girl In the Ice comes to mind.
    Here in NH we’re in the midst of one snow storm after another, but it’s a great time to write by the fire. 🙂

    • Oh, yes, Sue. That bitter, ‘stay inside’ weather really is perfect for writing, isn’t it? 🙂 And thanks for mentioning The Girl in the Ice . It’s a great example.

  11. January is the cruelest month. Great reading, though. I like the duvet idea and a stack of these books. 🙂

  12. Is Agatha Christie’s Sittaford Mystery set in January, or just unspecified winter? I don’t have a copy to hand to check. Anyway, it’s a good wintry mystery: snowed up villages, the lonely frozen moors, seances on cold afternoons….

    • Oh, absolutely, Moira. As far as I recall (but, please, someone put me right if I’m wrong), January isn’t specifically mentioned. But it certainly could take place then, couldn’t it? and I do like that sense of claustrophobia that the wintry setting brings.

  13. Great summaries. I have read St Kilda Blues but will need to track down The Lost Girls for some summer reading here in Australia ☀️😊

  14. I don’t remember specific timing but the one book by Giles Blunt that I read (Forty Words for Sorrow) was in very cold, brutal weather, and I felt sorry for the detectives when they had to go outside. Same for some of the Craig Johnson books.

    • That’s quite true, Tracy. In both of those books, the authors really evoke the difficulties of being outdoors during the worst of winter. I’m glad you mentioned them.

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