Smokin’ Cigarettes and Writing Something Nasty on the Wall*

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.


Filed under Christopher Fowler, D.S. Nelson, Gail Bowen, Meg Gardiner, Peter James, Tony Hillerman

23 responses to “Smokin’ Cigarettes and Writing Something Nasty on the Wall*

  1. I know our local police here try to keep a lid on vandalism as they are often a precursor for the more serious stuff but it is somewhat easier here – love your examples as always!

    • Thanks, Cleo. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And your local police are not alone in believing that vandalism can lead to far worse things. Our local police have the same view, and they do work hard to keep control of it (doesn’t always work). I’m not surprised that your police try to clamp down on it.

  2. This reminds me of a rather good Finnish thriller I read a year or two ago, about taggers, as graffiti artists call themselves: Jari Järvelä: The Girl and the Bomb. The police are determined to crack down hard on them but outsource the ‘catching of criminals’, which leads to a fatal accident.

    • Oh, that sounds interesting, Marina Sofia! The premise sounds good, and it’s a perfect example of what I had in mind with this post, so thanks. *Makes note to check out that novel*

  3. In Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair, a very respectable mother and daughter are accused of a crime: the local villagers turn against them, believing them guilty, and there is horrible vandalism at their house. (But justice will prevail of course)

    • Interesting (and sad), isn’t it, Moira, how that sort of thing happens. The minute people begin to believe someone’s guilty, regardless of any evidence, that sort of thing can happen. And that’s a great example, too, of how vandalism shows up in the genre. Thanks.

  4. I have no examples so here’s a true story instead. As you know, I used to work at a school for boys with behavioural problems. Often they could barely read or write, due mainly to having missed so much schooling. One of the teachers had been working hard with one particular boy who came to us unable to write anything at all. A few weeks after he arrived, the police came to the school to tell us he had vandalised a wall in the local graveyard. When asked how they knew it was him, they told us he had graffitied his name! We didn’t know whether to punish him for the vandalism or praise him for mastering how to write his name… 😉

    • What a story, FictionFan! No jokes here: it speaks to the skills of that teacher that he did learn to write his name. So many of those kids stop believing that anyone at the school cares about them, and it’s good your staff showed that boy otherwise. Yes, of course, he picked a really bad place to write. But breaking through like that really does matter. It’s a bit like being thrilled that a child wants to draw, but still having to coach the child that walls and tables and sofas are not the best surfaces for drawing…

  5. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this interesting post on vandalism in crime fiction writing from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog

  6. An interesting review of books where vandalism is part of the story, Margot. 🙂 — Suzanne

  7. And vandalism is probably one of the crimes we most often witness. In Amsterdam the graffiti on those beautiful 16th century buildings was heart breaking.

  8. Col

    Great post, Margot and another nudge to get back to Tony Hillerman’s books!

  9. kathyd

    I’m not sure how to define vandalism. It’s obvious if it’s robbery. And it’s obvious if it’s any type of slur against any group of people.
    But what about graffiti? In New York, teenagers used to paint graffiti on old abandoned buildings and subway cars. I liked it. And today, there are beautiful murals on buildings and walls around construction sites around the Lower East Side and uptown. Some of the murals are famous.
    I think it adds art to an area, and wish some of it was in my neighborhood.
    In fact in the nonprofit civil liberties law office I worked in, one whole, long wall was painted in graffiti deliberately. When later under another administration, the wall was painted over dark gray, the whole staff groaned.
    Angela Savage has written about street art in Australian cities, which is beautiful.
    I’d certainly like to see it around here.
    For some young artists, they don’t have money to rent studios, go to art school, etc., but they have talent. Certain buildings or areas should be available to them for their art.

    • You raise an interesting question about graffiti, Kathy. When is painting vandalism and when is it art? Certainly painting slurs and slogans and so on is vandalism. But I’ve seen the sort of graffiti art you’re talking about, and it’s beautiful. Some cities (I’ve been in a few, actually) have graffiti murals that I think nearly anyone would describe as art.

  10. kathy d.

    Yes, lots of beautiful murals in NYC. I recently saw a photo of a big apartment building uptown with a gorgeous mural painted on one side.
    And there are well-known murals on building son the Lower East Side.
    City administrations should plan on allocating certain spaces for street art and for community gardens.

    • I’ve seen ‘photos of some of those Lower East Side murals, Kathy; they really are gorgeous. And I can certainly see how a well-done mural can add to the appeal of a building.

  11. Thanks again as always for your support, Margot. A very interesting post and I can safely say that Blake does not like blatant vandalism!

  12. Excellent piece, thank you. One of the things that fascinated me as a boy and young teenager about detective fiction and noir was the way that things that were not murder could be fascinating and provide such a sense of mystery. To take the classic example, the Sherlock Holmes stories would have never had the impact they did if they’d all been formulaic ‘body in a mansion’ narratives.

    Contrary to some of your other commenters, I don’t necessarily see vandalism as wrong. It is often a – relatively – peaceful statement by people who are denied the chance to be heard (or read) any other way. The mega-rich have newspapers; the homeless have spraycans and sharpies.

    • It’s true that the poor don’t have the means that the wealthy do for making change, Nosuchthingasthemarket. So, whether one thinks graffiti is a bad thing or not a bad thing, it expresses people’s views. And it is a real paprt of life, so it makes sense that it would show up in crime fiction.

      You make an interesting point, too, about the Sherlock Holmes stories. Conan Doyle used all sorts of strange occurrences (I’m thinking, for instance, of The Adventure of the Dancing Men and of The Red-Headed League) to keep the reader’s interest. Thanks for the kind words.

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