As this is posted, it’s 40 years since the death of Elvis Presley. Whatever you think of his music, Presley was a worldwide phenomenon, and millions of people still make the pilgrimage to his home at Graceland. Oh, and by the way, you’ll want to check out Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Memphis Barbecue series, which takes place in Memphis, and which has plenty of mentions of (and even a big event at) Graceland.
Presley’s passing left his legions of fans grief-stricken. There are even those who swear that he’s still alive; that’s how much he meant to them. But it’s often that way when someone you’ve put on a pedestal dies. If it’s a famous person, there’s a wide outpouring of emotion. If it’s someone you’ve personally had as an idol (say, a colleague or friend or mentor), the grief may not be as public, but it’s no less there. Certainly, that’s true in real life, and it is in crime fiction, too.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we are introduced to Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. He and his wife, Gerda, are among a group of people invited to spend a weekend at the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot by the swimming pool. Hercule Poirot, who’s in the area and has been invited for lunch, arrives just after the shooting; in fact, at first, he thinks it’s an ‘amusement’ staged for his benefit. Very soon, though, he sees that it’s all too real. Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find out who the murderer is. As he does, we see just how many people put Christow on a pedestal. And even for those who didn’t do that, we see clearly that his death has left a gaping hole, if I can put it like that.
In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, Oslo police detective Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate when eighteen-year-old Andreas Winther disappears. When Andreas’ mother, Runi, first reports him missing, Sejer isn’t overly concerned. There are, after all, plenty of reasons why a young man might take off for a few days without telling his mother where he’s going. But when more time goes by, and he doesn’t return, Sejer begins to look more seriously into the matter. He begins with Andreas’ best friend, Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. I can say without spoiling the story that Zipp didn’t kill his friend. But he does know a lot more than he’s saying about their last day together, and about what might have happened to Andreas. And, as the story goes on, we see that, in a way, Zipp hero-worshipped his friend, and is dealing with his own kind of grief and sense of loss.
Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm) is the story of the murder of Viktor Stråndgard. His body is discovered in a Kiruna church called the Church of the Source of All Our Strength. The victim was an up-and-coming church leader who was sometimes called The Paradise Boy. He had many, many followers, so his death makes national news. In fact, that’s how Stockholm tax attorney Rebecka Martinsson hears about the murder. It’s especially shocking to her because she grew up in Kiruna, and knew the Stråndgard family. Then, she gets a call from the victim’s sister, Sanna, a former friend. Sanna says that the police suspect her of the murder, and she needs Martinsson’s help. At first, Martinsson refuses; she had her own good reasons for leaving Kiruna in the first place, and has no desire to return. But Sanna finally persuades her to go. Martinsson hasn’t been there long when Sanna is actually arrested for the murder and imprisoned. Now, if she’s to clear her former friend’s name, Martinsson will have to find out who the real killer is. As she looks into the case, we see how Viktor Stråndgard’s death has impacted the church, his followers, and plenty of other people as well.
Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine is the first in his series featuring Shanghai police detective Chief Inspector Chen Cao. One morning, the body of a woman is pulled from a canal not far from Shanghai. Very soon, she is identified as Guan Hongying, a national model worker. That means this investigation is going to have to be done very delicately. The victim was somewhat of a celebrity, and her death has been reported widely, leaving many people upset. What’s more, she had high political status, and moved in circles with some important people. So, it’s going to be critical that the case be handled as carefully as possible.
A similar thing might be said of William Ryan’s The Darkening Field (AKA The Bloody Meadow), which takes place in the then-USSR in the years just before World War II. It’s the story of the murder of Maria Alexandrovna Lenskaya, a dedicated Party worker and up-and-coming actress. When she’s found dead at a filming location, it looks at first as though it might be a suicide. But there are enough questions about it that Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev is seconded to Odessa to find out the truth. And that’s going to be a problem. If the victim died by suicide that’ll be put down as a tragedy, but no more. If it’s a murder, though, the matter could turn very ugly for some important people. And, since the victim was a celebrity, albeit a minor one, there’ll be news reports, and word will get out. So, Korolev will have to tread very, very lightly as he investigates.
And then there’s Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. The real action in this novel begins in 1978, when fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan goes missing and is later found dead, with a scarf round her head. At the time, the police concentrate heavily on her family, especially her aunt, uncle and cousins, with whom she’s staying during the summer. Then, a few months later, another girl, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor is killed. She, too, is found with a scarf. Now, the Sydney police seem to be dealing with a mass killer that the press has dubbed the Sydney Strangler. No-one is ever arrested for the crimes, though, and the cases go cold. Years later, journalist Erin Fury wants to do a documentary on the families of murder victims. She approaches Angela’s cousin Jane Tait, who gives very reluctant permission to be interviewed. She also interviews Jane’s brother, Mick, and their parents, Barbara and Doug Griffin. As the story goes on, we learn the story of that summer, and we learn what really happened to both Angela and Kelly. Admittedly, Angela is not a film or music idol. But Jane put her up on a pedestal, in a way, and her loss struck a devastating blow from which the family still hasn’t really recovered. It’s an interesting case of a person who isn’t famous, but who is still someone’s idol.
The loss of an idol can have a profound impact on a person. And that can make for an interesting crime plot or layer of character development. Which examples have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Elvis Presley Boulevard.