A 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.