Category Archives: Alan Carter

I Knew You When*

Most of have things in our past that we would just as soon forget. That’s understandable, really; after all, we all make mistakes and do foolish things. And for some people, those things are very serious.

What happens, though, if we run into someone we knew back then – someone who remembers our past? Or someone who finds out about it? Even if one’s past sins aren’t criminal, it can be awkward. And if they are, it can be downright dangerous. It can even be a motive for murder. And in a crime novel, it can serve both as a plot point and as a source of character development.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny to investigate the murder of a charwoman. Everyone thinks she was murdered by her unpleasant lodger, James Bentley, but Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence isn’t convinced. He asks Poirot to look into the matter and Poirot agrees. It turns out that Mrs. McGinty was more curious than was good for her and found out things about someone’s past. In fact, that’s a theme throughout the book, as more than one character has an identity or involvement that’s best kept in the past.

In Robert Barnard’s Death of an Old Goat, renowned Oxford Professor Belville-Smith has planned a tour of Australia. One of his stops will be the University of Drummondale, in rural Australia. It’s a major event, so Professor Bobby Wickham and the rest of the faculty in the Department of English get ready to play hosts. From the beginning, the visit doesn’t go well. For one thing, Bellville-Smith is condescending and contemptuous of the university and its faculty. For another, his lectures are not exactly scintillating. In fact, at one point, he loses focus, beginning with one lecture and ending with another. Then, one afternoon, he is found murdered in his hotel room. Inspector Bert Royle has never investigated a murder before, but he’s got one now. At first, there doesn’t seem much motive. But Royle slowly finds that Bellville-Smith knew one of the characters in the past, and that character couldn’t risk him telling what he knew.

In Ian Vaquez’ Lonesome Point, we meet brothers Leo and Patrick Varela. They grew up in Belize, but they’ve since moved to the Miami area. Patrick has a promising career in politics, poised for real national attention. Leo is a poet who works at a care home for those with mental illness. All goes well enough for the brothers, although they don’t have much contact with each other. Then, an old friend, Freddy Robinson, pays Leo a visit. He remembers Leo from Belize, and now he wants to renew their acquaintance. What he really wants, though, is for Leo to release Herman Massani, one of the patients in his care. Leo refuses at first. Not only is the man in need of medical and other attention, but Leo also doesn’t want to have anything to do with Freddy, who’s become a convicted felon. Freddy insists, though, saying that some of his ‘associates’ want some information about voter fraud that Massani may have. If that information is true, then it could implicate Patrick and ruin his career. Leo continues to demur, so Freddy turns from ‘old times’ sake’ to threats. Freddy knows about a dark secret in the Varelas’ past, and he threatens to reveal it if Leo doesn’t help him. Before long, things spin out of control for both brothers, and it all leads to a very dangerous game.

Sometimes, people get witness protection because of their pasts. Those are people who know too much, and would likely be killed if the wrong people knew where they are. For those people, keeping the past in the past can be literally a matter of life or death. We see that, for instance, in Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas. Fred and Maggie Blake and their two children move from New Jersey to a small town in Normandy. They slowly make the adjustments to the new language, culture, and so on. But this isn’t just any American family ‘Fred’ is really Giovanni Manzini, a member of the New Jersey Mafia who testified against his fellow mobsters in court. Now, the family is under witness protection. But, the Manzinis being the family they are, and modern social media/communication being the way it is, it’s not long before word of the Manzinis’ location gets back to New Jersey…

And then there’s Alan Carter’s Marlborough Man. In it, we meet Sergeant Nick Chester. He and his family have moved from Sunderland, in the UK, to the Marlborough area of New Zealand’s South Island. They’ve had to relocate because Chester was involved in an undercover operation that went wrong. Now, he’s working for the local police department, and trying to stay as inconspicuous as he can. Very few people know who he really is. Then, the body of six-year-old Jamie Riley is found. The boy had been missing for almost two weeks, and it’s a heartbreaking end to the search. This case turns out to be connected to another murder, and to a disappearance. And with modern media the way it is, it’s not long before Chester’s old ‘associates’ find out where he is. Now, Chester has to help solve the murders if he can, and stay alive.

Most of us have things in our pasts that are best left there. And in crime fiction, that can mean all sorts of trouble. These are just a few examples. Over to you.

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Carter, Ian Vasquez, Robert Barnard, Tonino Benacquista

Oh, OK, I’ll Leave*

Most of us respect and admire someone who doesn’t back down from challenges. I know I do. At the same time, it’s important to use resources carefully and choose our battles wisely. And sometimes, doing so means a carefully chosen, wise retreat.

Backing off when it’s the wisest thing to do has several advantages. It allows one to conserve (or gather) resources for a more important challenge. Sometimes it even prevents more challenges. And, it can put someone in a position to reach a larger, more important goal. That’s true in real life (as when, say, the police let a minor drug dealer off with a light ‘slap on the wrist’ in hopes of getting the ‘bigger fish.’). It’s also true in crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, for instance, famous actress Jane Wilkinson asks Hercule Poirot to persuade her husband, Baron Edgware, to agree to a divorce (she’s fallen in love with the Duke of Merton and wants to marry him). Poirot and Hastings pay a visit to Edgware and are treated icily. In fact, the only thing he will tell them is that he already withdrew his objection to the divorce. When Poirot tries to ask their host a few questions, he and Hastings are unceremoniously dismissed. Poirot knows that he isn’t going to get any more information during that visit. So, instead of continuing to ask questions, he and Hastings leave quickly. Hastings sees it as a defeat; and, in a way, it is. But it also allows Poirot slightly easier access to the house to investigate when Edgware is stabbed that night. At first, the victim’s wife is the most likely suspect. But she says that she was in another part of London at a dinner party, and there are twelve other people who are willing to swear that she was there. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have to look elsewhere for a suspect.

In Megan Abbott’s historical (1950s) Die a Little, we are introduced to Pasadena, California schoolteacher Lora King. She and her brother Bill are especially close, so he wants her to be happy for him when he meets and falls in love with Alice Steele. Lora want that, too, but something about Alice makes her uneasy. Still, she tries to be nice to Alice. And, when Bill and Alice marry, it seems even more important that Lora get along with her new sister-in-law. Little by little, though, she learns things about Alice that unsettle her even more. Still, she doesn’t want to rupture her relationship with Bill; it’s not a hill she wants to die on, as the saying goes. Then, there’s a murder. And Alice might be mixed up in it. Telling herself she’s protecting her brother, Lora starts to ask questions about the death, and finds herself drawn into Alice’s life, even as she is repulsed by it.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack takes place in late-1970s Buenos Aires, at a time when the military government is firmly in control. No dissension of any kind is permitted, and everyone knows that the penalty for seeming disloyal is ‘disappearing,’ or worse. Against this background, Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano works as a police detective. He has to be very careful, but he does try to do his job the best he can. One morning, he’s alerted to the discovery of two dead bodies. When he arrives on the scene, he sees that they bear the hallmarks of an army ‘hit.’ He’s not willing to go up against the army – at least not at that moment. So, he simply ‘rubber stamps’ those deaths as he is supposed to do. There is, though, a third body. And this one seems a little different. Suspecting that this victim might have been murdered by someone in a separate case, Lescano begins to very carefully and very quietly ask some questions. Little by little, and one step at a time, he gets to the truth. And the outcome of this case is that more than one character has to escape the country and be willing to lose that proverbial battle in order to stay alive and, perhaps, do some good for the country elsewhere.

Alan Carter’s Nick Chester has made a similar choice. In Marlborough Man, where we meet him, he and his wife, Vanessa, and their son, Paulie, have been relocated from Sunderland, in the UK, to the Marlborough area of New Zealand’s South Island. Chester is a police detective who was involved in an undercover operation that went wrong. Rather than staying in the UK and testifying (and, possibly, losing his family and his own life in the process), Chester decided it was better to leave, at least for a time. Now, he works with the local police. In this novel, he investigates a series of murders. He also has an ongoing conflict with his UK nemesis, Sammy Pritchard. In both that conflict, and a rough patch he has in his marriage, Chester learns that there are hills not worth dying on, and that, sometimes, the bigger picture is more important.

John Mortimer’s Horace Rumpole has always known that. He’s a barrister who does his job very well, in part because he knows when to pick fights. He sometimes does so in court when conventional wisdom might suggest otherwise. But he never does so at home. Any fan of this series can tell you that Rumpole knows better than to go against his wife, Hilda, ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed.’ It’s not worth the consequences…

There are certainly times when it’s worth seeing something through to the finish. But sometimes, it’s wiser to retreat strategically, regroup, and focus on larger challenges more worth the effort. And it’s interesting to see how that plays out in crime fiction.

 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone’s Tomorrow is a Latter Day.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Carter, Ernesto Mallo, John Mortimer, Megan Abbott

And None Shall Ever Harm Cosette as Long as I am Living*

One way that crime writers ramp up the suspense in their novels is to put the sleuth’s loved ones in danger. The challenge with that plot point is to make the situation believable (and not melodramatic). This strategy has been used quite a bit in the genre, so authors who use it also run the risk of their stories seeming stale.

All of that said, though, it can be a useful plot point, and when it falls out naturally from the plot, it can work well. Here are just a few examples. I know you can think of many more than I can.

Agatha Christie’s The Big Four sees Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings pitted against a syndicate of four super-criminals who are bent on world domination. They’re responsible for several murders and abductions, and Poirot and Hastings know that, if they don’t catch and stop all four of the members, there will be more havoc. At one point, Hastings himself is abducted, and his wife (whom readers will remember from The Murder on the Links) is threatened. All of this spurs both Poirot and Hastings to even more action against the criminals, and Poirot, especially, uses some innovative strategies to stop them.

In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, science fiction writer Zack Walker decides that his family would be safer living in the suburbs than in the city where they currently live. So, he buys a house in a new suburban development called Valley Forest Estates. Everyone tries to settle in and adapt to the changed environment. But soon enough, things start to go wrong. First, Walker notices several repairs that need to be made to the new house. He goes to Valley Forest’s sales office to complain, only to witness an argument between one of the sales executives and an environmental activist. Later, he finds the activist’s body near a local creek. Before long, Walker finds that all is not as it seems in peaceful Valley Forest Estates, and he gets drawn more and more into a web of fraud and murder. At one point, his family is threatened, and placed in real danger. And that’s part of the tension that drives the plot (and Walker).

C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye isn’t a part of his Joe Pickett series; it’s a standalone. In it, we meet Jack McGuane, a Travel Development Specialist for the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. He and his wife, Melissa, are the loving adoptive parents of baby Angelina, whose teen mother chose to give her up for adoption. Then one day, everything changes. McGuane gets a call from the adoption agency through which he and Melissa found Angelina. It seems that her biological father never waived his parental rights and has now chosen to exercise them. At first, the McGuanes hope that the matter can be resolved. But that’s not to be. The baby’s biological father is eighteen-year-old Garrett Moreland, whose father, John Moreland, is a powerful local judge who’s squarely on his son’s side. The Morelands pay a ‘friendly visit’ to the McGuanes, during which Judge Moreland tries to bribe the McGuanes to give up custody of Angelina in return for the money to finance another adoption. The McGuanes refuse this, and the Morelands go from cajoling and bribes to threats, including a crude threat against Melissa. When that doesn’t work, Judge Moreland issues a court order requiring the McGuanes to relinquish custody of Angelina within twenty-one days. The McGuanes decide to do whatever it takes to keep their daughter, and ‘whatever it takes’ turns out to be more than either had imagined.

Michael Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin is a London psychologist who sometimes gets involved in very dark murder investigations. And some of the people he goes up against are very dangerous threats to his family. For instance, in Shatter, he is called to a bridge where Christine Wheeler is prepared to commit suicide. He tries to intervene but isn’t successful. Then, the victim’s daughter, Darcy, visits O’Loughlin. She tells him that her mother was manipulated into committing suicide. O’Loughlin doesn’t see how that could happen, but he does agree to look into the matter. Then, there’s another death. It’s now clear that a vicious killer is at work, and once O’Loughlin gets close to the truth, the killer prepares to strike very close to home. It’s a terrible situation for O’Loughlin and for his family.

And then there’s Alan Carter’s Marlborough Man, which features police detective Nick Chester. He and his family have been moved from England to the Marlborough area of New Zealand’s South Island for their own protection. Chester was involved in an undercover operation that went wrong, and now some of the people involved are determined to kill him. They settle into their new home, and Chester starts working on the disturbing case of two child abductions and murders, five years apart, that seem to have been committed by the same person. Then, there’s another abduction. Now, the investigation team know that they only have a limited time to catch the killer. And the killer has targeted Chester’s family. That’s not to mention the danger they face from Chester’s former ‘associates’ in England. He’s going to have to work fast and effectively if his family is to stay alive.

There are many other examples, too, of plot points where sleuths’ family members are in danger. Sometimes, that element of suspense and tension works very successfully. Other times, of course, it can be overdone and pull the reader out of the story. These are only a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Fantine’s Death (Come to Me).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Carter, C.J. Box, Linwood Barclay, Michael Robotham

I Don’t Know if I Can Stop It*

You’d think that, if the police knew about a murder ahead of time, they’d be able to prevent it. But it’s not always that easy. For one thing, there’s not a lot the police can do about a crime until it’s been committed. For another, knowing there’s going to be a crime doesn’t always mean one knows exactly where or when it’s going to happen.

A quick look at crime fiction shows that knowing there’s going to be a crime – sometimes even when and where that crime will take place – doesn’t always prevent it. That plot device can push the limits of credibility, so it does have to be handled well. But when it is, it can be interesting, and can add tension to a story.

For instance, the real action in Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced begins when this announcement is placed in the local newspaper of Chipping Cleghorn:
 

‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks, at 6.30 pm. Friends accept this, the only intimation.’
 

It’s hard to get more obvious than that. Various members of the village community see this announcement, and find reasons to drop by Little Paddocks, which is owned by Letitia Blacklock. Sure enough, at 6:30, the lights go out and a man bursts through the door saying ‘Stick ‘em up!’  A shot is fired and the man, whose name is Rudi Scherz, is killed. Inspector Craddock investigates, and he suspects that this is not some sort of strange accident or weird joke. Miss Marple happens to be staying at the hotel where the victim works, and she and Craddock work together to find out who the killer is.  You’re absolutely right, fans of The ABC Murders.

Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal is the story of a plot to kill French president Charles de Gaulle. A far-right French group wants him assassinated, but their members are well-enough known to police that it would be difficult for one of them to get close enough to de Gaulle to commit the crime. So, they decide to hire a paid killer. They know almost nothing about the man they choose – only that he’s English and that he goes by the name of the Jackal. No-one even knows what he looks like, and this is seen as all to the good. When the police find out about this plot, Detective Claude Lebel is given the thankless task of trying to prevent a murder by someone whose name he doesn’t know, and appearance he’s never seen.

In one of the cases in Alexander McCall Smith’s Morality For Beautiful Girls, Mma Precious Ramotswe gets a visit from an important Government Man. He is convinced that his new sister-in-law is trying to kill his brother, and he wants Mma Ramotswe to prove it, and to stop her. Mma Ramotswe agrees to at least visit the family and see what she can find out. So, she goes to the Government Man’s family home, where she meets his brother, his sister-in-law, and other members of the household. Mma Ramotswe’s been warned that there could be a murder, but that doesn’t prevent an unpleasant poisoning attempt one afternoon. Everyone who eats lunch gets sick, including Mma Ramotswe. Now, she has to find out who’s responsible, and what the truth is about this family.

In Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs, we are introduced to the family of Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco. They travel from Italy to make their home in New York City during the first years of the 20th Century. Ben finds a job at a shoe repair shop, works hard, and in a few years, has his own shoe sales and repair shop. The family prospers, and on the surface, it seems to be a case of ‘The American Dream’ coming true. But one night, Ben gets into a bar fight and kills man. Unfortunately, the man happens to be Luigi Lupo, son of notorious gangster Tonio Lupo. The elder Lupo visits Ben in prison, and curses his three sons, saying that they will all die at the age of forty-two, the age of his son at his death. As the story goes on, we follow the lives of those three sons: Alessandro ‘Al,’ Niccola ‘Nick,’ and Leonardo ‘Leo.’ As the years go by, we also learn that those loyal to Tonio Lupo have not forgotten his curse and are taking steps to make sure it comes to pass. And we see how knowing about a murder in advance doesn’t always prevent it.

And then there’s Alan Carter’s Marlborough Man. Sergeant Nick Chester, his wife, Vanessa, and their son, Paulie, have been relocated from the UK to New Zealand, because Chester was involved in an undercover operation that went wrong. It’s a big change, but everyone’s getting used to their new home in the Marlborough area of New Zealand’ South Island. Then, six-year-old Jamie Riley, who’s been missing for nearly two weeks, is found dead. Chester and his assistant, Police Constable (PC) Latifa Rapata, begin the work of finding out who was responsible. The discover another, similar murder from five years earlier, and follow the leads to see whether the same person might have killed both victims. Then, another young boy goes missing. Chester, Rapata, and their team know that the boy will likely be killed if they don’t find the killer quickly. Even knowing what they know about the case may not be enough to prevent that murder.

Sometimes, a fictional detective may know there’s going to be a murder – may even know something about where and when that murder may take place. But that doesn’t mean the murder can necessarily be prevented. And that possibility can add tension and suspense to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Neil Young’s Crime in the City.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Carter, Alexander McCall Smith, Apostolos Doxiadis, Frederick Forsyth

In The Spotlight: Alan Carter’s Marlborough Man

Hello, All,

Welcome to a very special edition of In the Spotlight. Today, and for the next few weeks, I’ll be spotlighting the finalists for this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel, New Zealand’s most prestigious award for crime fiction. Let’s start with this year’s winner, Alan Carter’s Marlborough Man.

Sergeant Nick Chester, his wife, Vanessa, and their son, Paulie, have been relocated from Sunderland, in the UK, to the Marlborough area of South Island, New Zealand. They’ve had to move, because Chester was involved in a dangerous undercover operation that went wrong. It’s taking time to get used to their new home, but all three are settling in.

Then, the body of six-year-old Jamie Riley is discovered. He’d been missing for nearly two weeks, and there were no firm leads on his whereabouts. Chester and his assistant, Constable Latifa Rapata, now have the thankless task of searching for the killer and working with the victim’s parents. Detective Inspector (DI) Marianne Keegan is brought in from Wellington to supervise the operation. Not long afterwards, they learn of another boy, Prince Hararu, who died five years earlier. His murder has enough similarities to Jamie Riley’s murder that the killer could very well be the same person.

The original investigation into Prince’s death wasn’t botched or neglected. But there is evidence that wasn’t noted carefully at the time, and there are leads that weren’t followed up. So, Chester and Rapata go back over that case, and try to find out what, if anything, might link the two victims. Then, another child goes missing. Now, the team will have to work fast to link everything and catch the killer if they’re to save this boy.

In the meantime, Chester’s got other problems. Sammy Pritchard, who led the gang that Chester’s undercover operation targeted, has found out where Chester is. And he’s sent some of his people to New Zealand to settle old scores. In fact, the title of the book comes from the nickname that the gang’s given him. Chester and his family are in real danger once Pritchard’s men arrive. And Chester has to find a way to deal with this threat in a way that won’t cost him his job, his life, or his family.

This novel has several elements of the thriller. There’s plenty of action, there are unexpected dangers and there is a very real sense of ‘the clock ticking’ as Chester and Rapata try to put the pieces of this puzzle together. There is violence, too, and not all of it is ‘offstage.’ Readers who don’t care for violence will want to know this. There’s also quite a bit of explicit language. The pacing and timing move quickly, too. That said, though, this isn’t the sort of thriller where there are a lot of gun battles and car chase scenes.

Most of the story takes place in the northern part of New Zealand’s South Island, and Carter places the reader there. The Chesters live in a rural area, and there are several scenes that depict the wild beauty of the place. There’s also a sense of the local culture. Rapata, for instance is Māori, and so are the members of Prince Hararu’s family. So, readers get a sense of that culture, as well as New Zealand’s unique blend of indigenous and imported cultures.

Another important element in this novel is the fact that Chester is a police officer. So, there are aspects of the police procedural in the story. There’s been extra paperwork and bureaucracy to transfer Chester to the local police department, and it’s had to be done in a way that doesn’t reveal too much about him, since he has to protect himself and his family. Still, he functions as a ‘regular’ police officer. He and Rapata find out the truth by going over evidence, following up leads, talking to people, and so on. And they are bound by the limits to police conduct. Sometimes, Chester pushes those boundaries. But when that happens, there are consequences for him. Readers who are tired of ‘maverick’ police officers who can’t function as a member of a team will be pleased to know that Chester isn’t dysfunctional in that way.

The story is told from Chester’s perspective (first person, mostly present tense). He does have his issues, and he’s not perfect. He and Vanessa have hit a rough spot in their marriage. And, although it’s clear that they love each other and care about each other (and they love Paulie), life in hiding and under so much stress has taken its toll on both. They have real differences that have to be mended. Neither is ‘all right’ or ‘all wrong,’ and both would like things to be patched up.

Marlborough Man is the story of what happens to a community when young and vulnerable people are killed. It depicts the toll that that sort of investigation takes on everyone, including those doing the investigating, and shows the human side of loss, if I may put it that way. It takes place in a distinctive New Zealand setting, and features a detective who very much wants to be a part of catching a killer – if he can stay alive long enough. But what’s your view? Have you read Marlborough Man? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 24 September/Tuesday, 25 September – See You In September – Charity Norman

Monday, 1 October/Tuesday, 2 October – The Sound of Her Voice – Nathan Blackwell

Monday, 8 October/Tuesday, 9 October – The Hidden Room – Stella Duffy

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Filed under Alan Carter, Marlborough Man