When most of us think of crimes, especially those featured in crime novels, we think of murder, rape, and other serious wrongdoing. And those are horrible things. But there are other crimes, too; and, although they’re usually considered less serious, they can be annoying at the least, and frightening at worst. One of those crimes is vandalism. If you’ve ever had your home or car spray-painted, you know what I mean. There are other forms of vandalism, too, that I’m sure you’ve seen, even if they haven’t happened to you.
Vandalism plays a role in crime fiction, too. Sometimes it’s meant to serve as a warning to the sleuth (or a victim). Other times, it’s separate, but related to the overall premise of a book. Either way, it can add tension (and sometimes clues) to a story.
For instance, in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, mystery novelist Harriet Vane returns to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, Oxford, at the request of the dean. It seems there’ve been some disturbing incidents of vandalism at the school, among other events. The school administrators don’t want to call in the police, but they do want the person responsible to be stopped. So, Vane agrees to see what she can do, and goes to the university under the pretext of doing research for a new novel. What she finds is that someone has a serious grudge, and is determined to commit sabotage. With help from Lord Peter Wimsey, Vane discovers who the person is, and how these incidents are connected to the past.
Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring features her sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn. At the time this novel takes place, she’s an academician and political scientist. In one plot thread of the novel, someone has spray-painted anti-gay slogans and slurs on part of the campus of her university. Those areas have to be closed off so that they can be cleaned and repaired. And that means that some of the faculty members have to take up temporary residence elsewhere. So, Kilbourn agrees to share her office with her colleague Ed Mariani for the time being. That makes some real tension when both get caught up in the mystery surrounding the murder of another colleague, Reed Gallagher.
In Tony Hillerman’s The Dark Wind, Navajo Tribal Police officer Delbert Nez has been trying to catch the person responsible for a spate of spray-painting. He thinks he has his perpetrator one day and goes on the hunt. While he’s out on the road, he’s shot, and his car is burned. The most likely suspect is Ashie Pinto, who’s found nearby with the murder weapon and a bottle of alcohol (presumably used in the burning). Sergeant Jim Chee, who was a friend of Nez’, is determined to catch his killer, and sees no reason not to arrest Pinto. And in fact, Pinto does nothing to defend himself. But, he does have the right to a fair hearing, and Janet Pete, of the Navajo People’s Legal Service (Dinébe’iiná Náhiiłna be Agha’diit’ahii (DNA)) is sent to be sure that’s what happens. As it turns out, there’s much more going on here than it seems on the surface. Fans of Hillerman’s novels will know that The Dark Wind also includes some episodes of vandalism that end up being linked to a case that involves smuggling and murder.
In Christopher Fowler’s Seventy-Seven Clocks, a strange man dressed in Edwardian clothes visits London’s National Gallery. While he’s there, he throws acid on John William Waterhouse’s The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius. It seems to be a deliberate choice of painting, too. To make matters worse, the damaged art was on loan from the Australian government, so the very tricky matter of international relations is also involved. It’s certainly a strange crime, so it’s handed to the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) run by Arthur Bryant and John May. And it turns out to be connected to an equally strange murder they’re investigating.
In one plot thread of Peter James’ Not Dead Yet, Brighton and Hove Superintendent Roy Grace learns that a man named Amis Smallbone is about to be released from prison. He’s not too happy about it, because Smallbone is,
‘…the nastiest and most malevolent piece of vermin he had ever dealt with.’
But there’s not much he can do. Then, Grace’s partner, Cleo Morey, finds that her car has been sabotaged, and a taunting sign left on it. Grace assumes that Smallbone’s responsible, and he acts on that. But is he right?
Meg Gardiner introduces science fiction author and legal researcher Evan Delaney in China Lake. In that novel, Delaney goes up against a fanatic religious group called the Remnant. She’s shocked to learn that her former sister-in-law, Tabitha, is now a member of the group. She left Delaney’s brother, Brian, and their six-year-old son, Luke, and the loss was devastating for the whole family. Now, she’s back, and she wants Luke. And the Remnant is prepared to do whatever it takes to help her get the boy. The group tries to intimidate the Delaneys with threats and vandalism. When that’s not successful, they get more dangerous. And Delaney soon learns that they have plans that go far beyond taking Luke away from his father.
And then there’s D.S. Nelson’s Model For Murder. Blake Heatherington has retired from his London millinery shop to the village of Tuesbury, where he still makes the occasional special-order hat. One of the sources of pride in town is a model village that depicts the various businesses and other buildings. One day, newsagent Harold Salter is killed, and his body found in a local wood. Strangely enough, there’s a cross marked on the model newsagent’s, and figure that represents Salter goes missing. Then, there’s another murder, also of a local business owner. Again, the model business is marked with a cross, and the figure goes missing. It seems that these murders might be connected with the Vodou beliefs of many people from Haiti and Jamaica. But Heatherington learns that the killings have nothing to do with religion or spirituality. Instead, they’re linked to a past event.
Vandalism can take many different forms, and it’s distressing, no matter what sort it is. But in crime fiction, vandalism can add an interesting ‘wrinkle’ to a story. And it can serve as a clue or ‘red herring.’
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stevie Wonder’s I Wish.