Category Archives: Agatha Christie

Speak Your Mind*

Political DissentEven the best-intentioned people don’t always agree on the choices their countries should make. There are a lot of issues, too, that don’t have easy solutions. That’s part of the reason for which there is political dissent. That dissent takes different forms, depending on the kind of government that’s in power, and the issue. But whatever form it takes, political dissent and debate can move a society forward when it’s productive.  That aspect of it is essential. And of course, political dissent can make for a very effective context for crime fiction; after all, there’s plenty of conflict and tension to be had in political debates and dissent.

In Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder, Sir Derek O’Callaghan has written an Anarchy Bill, specifically directed against leftist revolutionaries and their activities. It’s not a settled matter whether the Bill will be accepted, and it’s interesting to consider the question of whether such legislation squelches freedom of expression or keeps society safer. One day during a speech in the House, Sir Derek collapses due to a ruptured appendix and is rushed to a nearby nursing home run by his longtime physician Sir John Phillips. He survives the surgery, but dies later of what turns out to be an overdose of hyoscine. Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn and Inspector Fox investigate and soon determine that this death was not accidental. As they sift through the evidence and consider all the possibilities, they certainly can’t ignore the fact that the victim had written a controversial bill…

Agatha Christie’s short story The Kidnapped Prime Minister begins when Hercule Poirot gets a visit from the Leader of the House of Commons and a member of the War Cabinet. Prime Minister David MacAdam was on his way to Paris to make an important speech when he was apparently abducted. At this time, World War II is imminent, and there’s a real question as to what Britain’s stance out to be. You’ll know from your history that there was a debate between those who wanted to avoid war, even if it meant appeasement, and those who wanted to oppose Hitler, although it would mean war. MacAdam’s speech is crucial in this debate. He intends a ‘rally the troops’ speech in the hope of cementing support for his anti-Hitler stance. But plenty of his political opponents want to move the country in the other direction. Poirot and Captain Hastings get to work right away; in the end, they find out exactly what happened to MacAdam.

Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men is set against the backdrop of the Great Depression. Millions of people are out of work, and times are desperate. The question of what to do is not an easy one, and there’s a lot of debate. There’s also a lot of interest in political factions that promise solutions. Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair and his brother Wilfred are members of a wealthy ‘blueblood’ New South Wales family, so they haven’t personally suffered as a result of the Depression. But they’re certainly aware of it. When their uncle is murdered, Rowly gets involved in the political dissent about what Australia’s future should be. He comes to suspect that an ultra-Right group called The New Guard might be responsible for his uncle’s death. This group, led by Colonel Eric Campbell, believes that Australia will do best with a government run by ‘right thinking men’ who maintain traditional ways of life and the current class order. Rowly infiltrates this group, hoping to find out who, exactly, committed the murder. This puts him in real danger from the Left (among which group he has friends), who will consider him a traitor if they find out he’s joined the New Guard. At the same time as he’s trying to find out who killed his uncle, Rowly also has to negotiate the various political factions who want to further their causes.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a political scientist and, before retiring, an academician. So she’s no stranger to political debate, and steps into the political fray more than once in the series. She’s frequently involved in Saskatchewan (and national) politics. In fact, in one story arc in this series, she becomes a panelist on a NationTV show called Canada Today. The show features debate on current issues, and includes commentators from across the political spectrum. It figures in a few novels in this series.

Alan Orloff’s Deadly Campaign has as its backdrop Edward Wong’s campaign for a seat in the U.S. Congress. His opponent in the upcoming election will be the incumbent, Sanford Korbell. One evening, a group of thugs disrupts a celebration event at a restaurant owned by one of Wong’s uncles, Thomas Lee. Rather than call in the police, Lee asks his friend Channing Hayes, co-owner of a nearby comedy club, to ask a few questions and find out if anyone local is responsible. When other members of Wong’s family find out about this, they warn Hayes to leave the matter alone. But Lee is determined to find out what happened, and Hayes feels he has little choice to go along. One distinct possibility is that Korbell arranged the attack at the celebration, so Hayes visits Korbell’s headquarters as a part of his search for the truth, and we learn a bit about his political positions as opposed to Wong’s. I can say without spoiling the story that the answer to what is right for Northern Virginia (which is where the novel takes place) isn’t the reason for the attack, or for the murders that take place later in the novel. But it does form an interesting thread of tension in the novel.

And then there’s Ian Rankin’s Saints of the Shadow Bible, which takes place during the debate leading up to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. Rebus fans will know that he’s not at all a political animal. In fact, in one funny scene, he turns off his car radio during a broadcast about the Yes/No debate, preferring to listen to a CD of the band Spooky Tooth. But the debate is woven throughout the story. In one plot thread, for instance, Justice Minister Patrick McCusky, ‘the face of the Yes movement,’ faces embarrassment as his son may have been responsible for a car crash from which he later fled. Matters get worse when the Justice Minister is found dead, apparently as the result of a housebreaking gone wrong. The ‘No’ campaign is facing its own problems. Prominent business leader and ‘No’ advocate Stefan Gilmour could very well have been involved in obstructing a murder investigation against Billy Saunders. That case is more than thirty years old, but it could still come back to haunt Gilmour. It will if internal affairs copper Malcolm Fox has his way. He wants to re-open that case, and he won’t lose any sleep if Rebus, who was a young constable at the time, gets caught in the net. The debate about independence certainly isn’t Rebus’ focus, but it forms a fascinating backdrop to the novel.

Political debate and dissent aren’t always pleasant. In fact, they can be polemical. But that clash of ideas can be the basis from which we move forward.

 

On Another Note…

I’d like to wish a Happy Canada Day to all Canadians. Erm – sorry if there’s extra noise from down here. We’re gearing up for a major election next year, and the rhetoric/polemic/name-calling/mudslinging debate has already started…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The Toasters.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Alan Orloff, Gail Bowen, Ngaio Marsh, Sulari Gentill

Tearful Nights, Angry Dawns*

DomesticNoirAn interesting post from Carol at Reading, Writing and Riesling has got me thinking about what many people call domestic noir. It certainly isn’t a brand-new kind of crime story, but it’s gotten an awful lot of press in recent years. I thought it might be interesting (I hope it will!) to have a look at some examples and see how it’s evolved. Now, before I go on, please pay a visit to Reading, Writing and Riesling. Lots of great reviews, recipes and fabulous ‘photos await you there.

Domestic noir mostly concerns itself with intimate family relationships (sometimes friends are involved too). And that dynamic is an effective backdrop for a crime novel, since such relationships are complex. What’s more, the complexity and conflict aren’t always obvious on the outside. All of this means (at least to me) that it’s not surprising at all that those relationships are featured in so much crime fiction.

As I say, threads of domestic noir have been woven through crime fiction for a long time. For example, Agatha Christie’s The Hollow is in part the story of John and Gerda Christow. He’s a successful Harley Street specialist; she’s his frumpy, adoring wife. One weekend, they’re invited to the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell, who’ve put together a house party. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage nearby, and was in fact, invited for lunch that day. When he arrives, his first thought is that the scene of Christow’s murder has been staged for his ‘amusement.’ Soon enough it’s clear that this is a real murder, so Poirot works with Inspector Grange and his team to find out who the killer is. There’s a network of relationships here that matter in the course of this novel. There’s the Christows’ relationship, the relationship Christow has with his former lover Veronica Cray (a famous actress who’s also taken a cottage nearby), and the relationship Christow has with sculptor Henrietta Savernake, who is a member of the Angkatells’ house party. And (also in the tradition of domestic noir), this story doesn’t end happily for most of the characters. Admittedly, most people wouldn’t call this a ‘pure’ example of the sub-genre, but it’s an interesting take on it.

Both under her own name and as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell wrote several novels you might argue are examples of domestic noir. One of them is her first Barbara Vine novel, A Dark-Adapted Eye. In that novel, journalist Daniel Stewart decides to do a story on the execution of Vera Longley Hilliard. Years ago, she was hung for murder, and Stewart wants some background on her life and on the events that led up to the killing for which she was convicted. He approaches Vera’s niece Faith Longley Severn, hoping he can persuade her to help him write his story. As the two begin to collaborate, we learn the background of the proud, ultra-respectable Longley family. There’s a very complicated network of relationships in the family; and as they are explored, we see how they’ve led to murder.

Wendy James’ The Mistake offers readers an intimate look at the various members of the Garrow family. Angus Garrow is a successful attorney, and is being put forward as the next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. His wife Jodie is beautiful and intelligent, and a good mother to their two healthy children, Hannah and Tom. On the surface, they’re a family to be envied. Then one day, Hannah is rushed to a Sydney hospital after a car accident. It turns out to be the same hospital where, years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another girl – a baby she never mentioned to anyone. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby, and Jodie says she gave the child up for adoption. But when the nurse checks, she finds no records of a formal adoption. Now all sorts of ugly questions begin to surface. Where is the baby? If she’s alive, can she be contacted? If not, did Jodie have something to do with her death? As the stories get worse and worse, the Garrow family begins to splinter, and we how complex and sometimes difficult those relationships really are.

A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife introduces readers to a successful Chicago couple, Todd Gilbert and Jodi Brett. He’s a developer; she’s a psychotherapist. Although they’ve been together for twenty years, they’ve never formally married. Everything changes for the couple – or better to say, a lot is revealed – when Todd begins an affair with Natasha Kovacs, the daughter of his business partner. Todd’s strayed before, but this time things are different. Natasha becomes pregnant, and wants marriage and a family. Todd says that’s what he wants, too, and moves in with her. Under the advice of his lawyer, Todd arranges for a letter to Jodi, evicting her from the home they’ve shared for years, and making it clear she has no claim to it, since they were never married. With her options getting more and more limited, Jodi begins to withdraw from life. Meanwhile, Todd has his own problems. He’s finding that life with Natasha isn’t at all what he imagined it might be, and is missing Jodi. Then, he’s murdered in a drive-by shooting. At first, it looks like a carjacking or burglary gone wrong. But it’s not long before the police discover that the killers were paid. The question of who paid them and why is of course an important aspect of this novel. But so is the slow peeling away of the layers of Todd and Jodi’s relationship, and their relationships with the other people in their lives.

Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry begins when Alistair Robertson and Joanna Lindsay make the long trip from Scotland to Victoria, where Alistair was born and raised. The idea is to be closer to Alistair’s daughter Chloe, who lives there with her mother Alexandra. Alistair wants to get custody of Chloe, and he knows his changes are better if he lives near her and re-establishes his relationship with her. The journey to Melbourne is nightmarish. Alistair and Joanna have with them their nine-week-old son Noah; and as anyone who’s ever been on a long flight with an infant knows, it’s difficult under the best of circumstances. And Noah is not an ‘easy’ baby. But, they finally arrive and begin the trip from the airport to their destination. That’s when they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of baby Noah. The police are alerted and a massive search is undertaken. The Australian media make much of the case, and there are all sorts of fundraising and other efforts in support of the family. But then, questions begin to come up about, especially, Joanna. There are certainly cases where parents are responsible for the loss of their children, and many people begin to wonder whether that’s happened here. As matters spiral out of control for both Alistair and Joanna, we get an ‘inside look’ at their relationship and the relationships they’ve formed with others. As is the case in a lot of domestic noir, not much is as it seems on the surface.

Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel explores another sort of relationship: the mother/child dynamic. Eve Moran is driven by her desire to acquire – money, things, men. And she’s toxic enough to do whatever it takes, including killing, to get what she wants. Her daughter Christine depends on her mother, as children do, and is drawn into Eve’s web because of that dependency as well as an unwillingness or inability to see her mother for what she is. It’s a very complicated relationship and it grows more and more dysfunctional. Then Christine begins to see that her three-year-old brother Ryan is being drawn into the same unhealthy, devastating pattern. This compels Christine to try to find a way to break free (and free Ryan) from Eve. In this novel, Abbott shows how the intimate relationships among parents and children can be at least as damaging as partner relationships.

There are a lot of other novels, too, that you could argue are examples of domestic noir (I know, I know, fans of Pascal Garnier, Minette Walters and of Karin Alvtegen). What do you think of this sub-genre? Why do you think it’s gotten so popular?

 

ps. The ‘photo is a reminder that lots of relationships aren’t noir at all. Happy anniversary, Mr. COAMN, and thanks for so many good, good years.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jacob Brackman and Carly Simon’s That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard it Should Be.

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Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, Barbara Vine, Helen Fitzgerald, Patricia Abbott, Ruth Rendell, Wendy James

You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)*

Police in Supporting RolesFor obvious reasons, police characters play critical roles in crime fiction. Even when the main character is a PI or perhaps amateur sleuth, we see a lot of police presence. It’s a bit tricky to write a story where the police play an important role, but aren’t main characters. On the one hand, the author wants the protagonist to be the main focus of attention, which means that character needs to be featured and developed. On the other, readers know that it’s the police who have the authority to make arrests, and who have the resources and government sanction to go after criminals. Most readers want their crime fiction plots to reflect that. And they want their police characters to be more than caricatures. It’s interesting to see how different authors have integrated police character when they are not (co)protagonists.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s police characters are arguably often used to highlight just how skilled his Sherlock Holmes is. Holmes fans will know that he has, in general, little respect for the police. He works most often with Inspector Tobias Gregson and of course with Inspector Lestrade, and refers to them as,
 

‘…the pick of a bad lot.’
 

To Holmes, the police of Scotland Yard are thick-headed and miss obvious evidence. Gergson and Lestrade are, perhaps, less guilty. At least they notice when things don’t add up. But even so, they certainly don’t save the day. That’s Holmes’ role.

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are definitely the ‘stars’ of his series. But Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Purley Stebbins also play roles in the stories. Rarely does Wolfe approve of what they do, although both he and Goodwin depend on them for actual arrests. And as fans will know, Cramer, Stebbins and Lieutenant Rowcliff aren’t always happy about what Wolfe and Goodwin do, either. In this series, the police play a more integral role than just making Wolfe, Goodwin and their team look good. And that makes sense, given how important police are to crime detection. They’re not bumbling imbeciles, either (‘though Wolfe might beg to differ at times). Rather, they add tension and sometimes conflict to the stories.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot gets ‘top billing’ in most of the novels and stories that feature him. But the police certainly play integral roles, although not as ‘co-stars.’ And although Poirot is not at all modest about his own powers of deduction, he does have respect for police detectives whom he considers to be good at their jobs. And he often says that the police have more resources at their disposal than he does; in fact, he frequently suggests that his clients go to the police. Chief Inspector Japp is perhaps the best-known of Poirot’s police associates. But he’s not the only recurring police character. There’s also Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence. And of course, other police characters make one-time appearances. In just about all of those cases, the police play a supporting role, but an important one. We may not get much of a look at their home lives or what it’s like at the police station, but they do matter in the stories. It’s interesting too that Christie created a mix of skilled detectives (such as Japp) whom Poirot respects, and detectives for whom he has little liking (Am I right, fans of The Murder on the Links?).

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels feature Wimsey, and later, Harriet Vane, as protagonists. But Inspector Charles Parker is an important supporting character. In Clouds of Witness, where we first meet him, Parker is called in to help the local police find the killer of Dennis Cathcart. The victim was the fiancé of Lady Mary Wimsey, Lord Peter’s sister; and at one point, the evidence seems to implicate her. Luckily for both her and Parker (who has fallen in love with her), it turns out that Cathcart’s murderer was someone else. As the series goes on, Parker marries Lady Mary, and he and Wimsey become friends. That makes things a bit awkward in Strong Poison, when Parker gets solid evidence that mystery novelist Harriet Vane has poisoned her former lover Philip Boyes. Wimsey has fallen in love with the accused, and is determined to clear her name so that he can marry her. And Parker’s made out the case against her. Still, they do work together, and in the end, Parker helps Wimsey find the truth about the murder. In this series, Parker plays the role of friend, sometimes-confidant, and professional resource for Wimsey.

The protagonist of Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… mysteries is newspaper columnist James ‘Qwilll’ Qwilleran. Circumstances have placed him in Pickax, a small town in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ The stories are told from Qwill’s perspective, and he’s the one who often puts the pieces of the puzzle together. But one of the important supporting characters in the series is Police Chief Andrew Brodie. Qwill respects Brodie as an intelligent police professional, and he lets Brodie and his team do the evidence-gathering and arresting. Brodie may not be a main protagonist in this series, but he does have a key supporting role. Especially in series such as this, where the protagonist is an amateur sleuth, the presence of a recurring police-officer character adds realism.

It does in K.B. Owen’s series, too. These historical mysteries, which take place at the very end of the 19th Century, feature Concordia Wells, a teacher at Hartford (Connecticut)’s Women’s College. She herself is, of course, not on the police force. And during the era in which she lives, it’s considered unseemly for ladies to be interested in crime and detection anyway. But she is insatiably curious, and does get drawn into murder as it touches those she knows. She’s made a friend of Lieutenant Aaron Capshaw, who is married to her best friend Sophie. Capshaw isn’t the main character of this series. But he plays an important role, since he has access to information that isn’t available to civilians. In that sense, his presence in the stories makes the series more realistic.

You’ll notice I’m not mentioning series such as Stuart Palmer’s, Elly Griffiths’ or Martha Grimes’, which feature recurring police characters. That’s because in those cases and cases like them, the police character really is one of the protagonists. That dynamic can be highly effective. But it’s also interesting to look at cases where the police are supporting players. Which ones have stayed with you?
 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Elly Griffiths, K.B. Owen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Martha Grimes, Rex Stout, Stuart Palmer

Looks Like Another Suicide*

Faked SuicidesOne way in which real and fictional murderers may try to hide their crimes is by setting the scene to make it look as though the victim committed suicide. After all, we never really know what’s in someone’s mind, so it’s plausible that someone might commit suicide without giving a hint of suicidal thinking. That certainly happens in real life, and thanks to Carol at Reading, Writing and Riesling, I’ve been thinking about how it can happen in crime fiction too.

Agatha Christie used that plot point in several of her stories. In Dead Man’s Mirror, for instance, Hercule Poirot receives a summons from Gervase Chevenix-Gore to the family home at Hamborough Close. Chevenix-Gore believes that someone in his family may be cheating him, and he doesn’t want to call in the police. Poirot is none too happy about being summoned in such an autocratic way, but he goes. Shortly after Poirot’s arrival, Chevenix-Gore is killed, apparently the result of suicide. And several signs point to just that explanation. But Poirot has already concluded that the victim was most assuredly not the kind of person who would kill himself. So he investigates further and finds that someone set the scene up to look like suicide.

Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus begins when Milan-based Dr. Luca Lamberti is hired by wealthy engineer Pietro Auseri to help with Auseri’s son Davide. It seems that Davide has developed a severe depression coupled with a serious drinking problem. Nothing seems to have helped, and now Auseri simply doesn’t know what to do next. Lamberti agrees to at least meet Davide and see if he can be of assistance. After a time, he learns the reason for Davide’s troubles. A year earlier, Davide met a young woman, Alberta Radelli. After spending a day out of town together, Alberta begged Davide not to take her back to Milan. In fact, she threatened suicide if he did, and tried to persuade him to take her along wherever he was going. Davide refused. Not long afterwards, Alberta’s body was discovered in a field outside Milan, an apparent victim of suicide. Now Davide blames himself for her death. Lamberti comes to believe that the only way to help his patient is to find out what really happened to Alberta. So he begins to look into the matter. Davide soon takes an interest too. In the end, Lamberti discovers that Alberta did not commit suicide; she’d gotten involved in a very dangerous business with some very dangerous people, and paid the price.

Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss introduces Göteborg Inspector Irene Huss. She is part of the Violent Crimes Unit supervised by Sven Andersson. When the team hears of the death of wealthy businessman Richard von Knecht, they go into action. The victim apparently committed suicide by jumping from the balcony of his upmarket penthouse. But soon enough, forensic and other evidence suggests that von Knecht was murdered. What’s more, he didn’t seem despondent enough to have taken his own life. What’s more, von Knecht was afraid of heights. If he’d decided to commit suicide, he wouldn’t likely have used that means to do so. Now that it seems clear von Knecht was murdered, Huss and her team look more closely at the people in the victim’s life to see who would have had a motive to kill him. It turns out that there’s more than one possibility.

Domingo Villar’s Death on a Galician Shore begins with the discovery of the body of local fisherman Justo Castelo. At first it looks as though Castelo committed suicide; and he kept to himself so successfully that no-one really knows whether he had a motive. But little pieces of evidence suggest to Vigo Inspector Leo Caldas that perhaps Castelo was murdered. So Caldas and his team begin to look a little more closely into the victim’s life. They find that his death is related to a tragic incident in the past.

Suicide by drowning also seems to be the verdict in Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool. DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team have re-opened the six-year-old case of the death of Bethany Friend. Scarlett isn’t entirely satisfied that the victim committed suicide. For one thing, she didn’t seem to have a motive. For another, she was very much afraid of drowning; so, even if she had decided to kill herself, Scarlett doubts she’d have chosen that method. As the team finds out more, Scarlett comes to believe that this death may be related to two more recent deaths. And so it proves to be. The three deaths have a link that Oxford historian Daniel Kind helps to discover.

And then there’s Katherine Howell’s Web of Deceit. One morning, Sydney paramedics Jane Koutofides and Alex Churchill go to the scene of a one-auto crash. The driver, Marko Meixner, refuses to let them take him to a local hospital at first. In fact, he says that he is in danger and they will be, too, if they spend any time with him. Koutofides thinks Meixner needs a psychiatric evaluation, so when she and Churchill finally get their patient to the nearest hospital, she requests a workup. But Meixner leaves before that can be done. Later that day, he is killed in what looks like a suicide when he falls under a commuter train. In fact, he’d attempted suicide before. But when New South Wales Police Inspector Ella Marconi learns what Meixner said to the paramedics, she begins to wonder whether this was a case of murder. So she and her police partner Murray Shakespeare look more closely at the case. They find that Meixner’s murder was engineered.

There are a lot of other cases, too, of fictional murders ‘dressed’ as suicides. Which ones have stayed with you? Thanks to Carol for the inspiration! Now, may I suggest your next blog stop be her excellent Reading, Writing and Riesling? You’ll be rewarded with great book reviews (with a focus on Australian writers) as well as terrific recipes and stunning ‘photos.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Close to the Borderline.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Domingo Villar, Giorgio Scerbanenco, Helene Tursten, Katherine Howell, Martin Edwards

If You Think That I Don’t Know About the Little Tricks You Play*

Faked EvidenceIt’s very difficult to commit a crime without leaving any evidence behind. So police look carefully for anything that can link a crime to its perpetrator. Most criminals know this, too. And sometimes, they fake evidence, either to confuse the police or to implicate someone else.

Admittedly, in a ‘heat of the moment’ kind of crime, the criminal may be more interested in covering her or his own tracks, so to speak, than in taking the time to fake any of the evidence. But it can still happen. And it happens in pre-planned crimes too. Faked evidence figures into a lot of crime fiction, too – much more than I can mention in just this one post. But here are a few examples.

Arthur Conan Doyle used this plot point in more than one of his Sherlock Holmes adventures. In The Adventure of the Priory School, for instance, Holmes gets a visit from Thornycroft Huxtable, head of the exclusive Priory School. He wants Holmes’ help in finding one of his pupils, ten-year-old Lord Saltire, son of the Earl of Holdernesse. Saltire has disappeared, and Huxtable is afraid he’s been abducted. Holmes takes the case and immediately begins to trace the boy. The case turns out to be more complicated than kidnapping for ransom, but Holmes discovers the truth. At one point, they see a great number of cow tracks out on the moor as they investigate. But they never see any cows. As if that’s not strange enough, the tracks indicate that the cows are behaving in ways that are very unusual: galloping and cantering. Holmes follows up on this clue and learns, not much to his surprise, that the evidence of the cow tracks was faked.

Agatha Christie also uses faked evidence in several of her stories. In Murder on the Orient Express, for instance, Hercule Poirot is en route across Europe on the famous Orient Express train. On the second night of the journey, fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on the same coach, so Poirot investigates each one to find out who would have wanted to kill the victim. In this novel, there are lots of pieces of evidence, including a pipe cleaner, a handkerchief and smashed watch. Part of Poirot’s task as he searches for the truth is to sift out which clues are genuine, and which have been faked. I can say without spoiling the story that there are some of each.

Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water introduces his sleuth, Inspector Salvo Montalbano. In this novel, Montalbano and his team are called to the scene when the body of Silvio Luparello is discovered in a car in The Pasture, a notorious area just outside the Sicilian city of Vigatà. At first, it looks very much as though Luparello died of a massive heart attack during a sexual encounter. But little pieces of evidence just don’t add up for Montalbano. He requests, and is given, two days to see if he can find out what really happened. As it turns out, some of the evidence is deliberately faked, and Montalbano has decide which evidence that is in order to get to the truth.

There’s a very interesting case of faked evidence in Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent. Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich is a Kindle County prosecuting attorney who gets drawn into a very complex case when fellow attorney Carolyn Polhemus is murdered. This case will have to be handled carefully and transparently, but Sabich’s boss believes he’s up to the task. What Sabich hasn’t mentioned to anyone is that he has a personal stake in this case: he was involved with the victim until just a few months before she was killed. When that fact comes out, Sabich is replaced by a rival. Then, evidence begins to build up that Sabich himself may have committed the crime. Now he finds himself on the other side of the law as he faces a murder trial. With help from his own counsel Alejandro ‘Sandy’ Stern, Sabich works to clear his name. And part of doing so will involve looking through the evidence and determining which is genuine and which has been faked.

Sometimes, evidence is faked when a killer wants to disguise a murder as the work of another killer who’s already known to the police. Such ‘copycat’ murders can be very difficult to difficult to distinguish from the ‘real thing.’ That’s what happens, for instance, in Jane Casey’s The Burning. DS Maeve Kerrigan and her Met team are on the trail of a multiple murderer whom the press has dubbed The Burning Man, because he tries to incinerate his victims’ bodies. When the body of Rebecca Haworth is discovered, it looks as though she, too, was killed by The Burning Man. But little clues suggest otherwise to Kerrigan. Although she wants to keep working the case, her boss directs her to focus on the Haworth murder. It may be the work of The Burning Man, who’s simply changed his methods a bit. Or, it may be a ‘copycat killer.’ In either case, if the Met gives the appearance of not paying attention to this murder, there will be serious consequences. As Kerrigan and her team look at the Haworth murder, we see how evidence can be manipulated.

Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing is a very clear example of the way evidence can be faked. Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri discovers that a former client, Dr. Suresh Jha, has been killed. According to reports, he was attending a morning meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club when the goddess Kali appeared and stabbed Jha. The story goes that the murder was punishment for Jha’s denouncement of ‘godmen,’ people who prey on others’ need to believe in religion. There are a great number of people, too, who are convinced that that’s exactly what happened. However, Puri thinks that the murder has a more prosaic solution. So he begins to investigate. And as he does, we learn quite a lot about how evidence can be used to create whatever impression someone might want.   

Wendy James’ The Lost Girls concerns the 1978 murder of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan, who was killed during a holiday stay with her aunt and uncle. At first, as you’d expect, the police concentrate on the victim’s family and friends. But they can’t get enough clear evidence to prosecute. Then, a few months later, another body is discovered. This time the victim is sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor. Like Angela, her body is found with a scarf wrapped round her head and neck. Now the police and press begin to suspect a serial killer, whom they dub the Sydney Strangler. The killer is never caught, though. Years later, documentary journalist Erin Fury is preparing a piece on the impact of murder on the families of the victim. When she takes an interest in the Buchanan case, we learn just what evidence means, and doesn’t mean.

And that’s the thing about evidence. It is important, and crime scene and forensics specialists are critical to criminal investigation. But wise police detectives and attorneys know that evidence doesn’t always tell the whole story, or even the truth.

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Who’s I Can See For Miles.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jane Casey, Scott Turow, Tarquin Hall, Wendy James