Category Archives: Alan Carter

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).


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.


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


Filed under Alan Carter, Marlborough Man

Taking My Thoughts Back to You Across the Sea*

There’s a lot of excitement here at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…. I’m privileged and humbled to announce that I’m on the judging panel for the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Awards – the top prize for New Zealand crime fiction.

Among lots of other things, it means that I’m reading some fantastic crime fiction from and about New Zealand, and I couldn’t be happier. The longlist for this year’s award has just been announced. Here are the contenders:


Marlborough Man by Alan Carter (Fremantle Press)

Baby by Annaleese Jochems (Vitoria University Press)

See You In September by Charity Norman (Allen & Unwin)

The Lost Taonga by Edmund Bohan (Lucano)

The Easter Make Believers by Finn Bell

The Only Secret Left To Keep by Katherine Hayton

Tess by Kirsten McDougall (Victoria University Press)

The Sound of Her Voice by Nathan Blackell (Mary Egan Publishing)

A Killer Harvest by Paul Cleave (Upstart Press)

The Hidden Room by Stella Duffy (Virago)


It’s a diverse group of writers and stories, and I’m looking forward to diving into these waters!  The shortlist will be announced in July, and the awards will be presented during the writers’ festival, WORD Christchurch, in late August.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, surf’s up and the water looks fine!!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ruru Karaitiana’s Blue Smoke.


Filed under Alan Carter, Annaleese Jochems, Charity Norman, Edmund Bohan, Finn Bell, Katherine Hayton, Kirsten McDougall, Nathan Blackell, Paul Cleave, Stella Duffy