Category Archives: Åsa Träff

And What Could Ever Lead You Back Here Where We Need You*


Lots of people feel a sort of bond with their school, whether it’s secondary school or university. And that’s logical too, since so many important life experiences happen during those years. Alumni groups rely on that bond for donations, and it makes for good ‘networking’ too for recent graduates. It can be just the thing that tips the proverbial scales for a job applicant if the prospective employer finds out that they share an alma mater.

That bond is often the reason alumni return to their schools for visits. It can also be what draws a fictional sleuth into a mystery. And school/university connections and ‘networks’ can play an important role in those stories. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen series takes place for the most part at Oxford, and several plots involve alumni returning to the university. In The Case of the Gilded Fly for instance, journalist Nigel Blake returns to Oxford when the Oxford repertory theatre schedules a run of Robert Warner’s new play Metromania. Blake is a bit of a hanger-on among the cast and crew because he admires one of the actors Helen Haskell. He’s also interested in renewing his acquaintance with his former mentor Gervase Fen. In fact, he’s visiting Fen’s rooms one night when they hear a gunshot. It turns out that actor Yseute Haskell, Helen Haskell’s half-sister, has been murdered. Fen is a friend of Chief Constable Sir Richard Freeman, so he gets involved in the investigation as Sir Richard looks into the case. And when Blake finds out that Helen has become a suspect, he gets involved too.

Crispin fans will also know that The Moving Toyshop concerns an almunus returning to Oxford. This time it’s poet Richard Cadogan. He returns to Oxford for a rest, but finds his trip anything but peaceful. Late one night, he’s taking a walk when he sees a toyshop. The door’s unlocked and mostly out of curiousity, he goes in, only to find the body of an old woman. Before he can do anything about it, Cadogan is hit on the head and knocked unconscious. The next morning, he tries to tell the police what happened, but they don’t believe him. They say there’s never been a toyshop in that place. But Cadogan’s university friend Gervase Fen believes him. Fen works with Cadogan to try to find out what really happened, but his work’s made more difficult when Cadogan gets himself in trouble for an entirely different reason…

In Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, mystery novelist Harriet Vane gets an invitation to visit her alma mater at Oxford for its annual Gaudy Dinner and festivities. She’s not inclined to attend, mostly because she has no idea of the reception she’d receive after being accused of murder (see Strong Poison for the details of that). But when a former classmate particularly asks that she go, Vane changes her mind. The bond she feels with her classmates and the faculty convinces her to travel to Oxford, and she gets a very warm reception there. But things soon start to turn ominous. First, Vane gets an anonymous note accusing her of murder. Then, she gets a letter from the dean of her college, saying that there’ve been other incidents too, including vandalism. The dean wants Vane to come back to Oxford and investigate. This Vane agrees to do, under the guise of doing research for a novel. It turns out that what’s happening at Oxford is more dangerous than just a nasty note, and has everything to do with a past incident.

Val McDermid’s Report For Murder also concerns returning alumni. Derbyshire House Girls’ School is desperately in need of funds. So teacher Paddy Callaghan uses the ‘old girls’ network’ to contact Perspectives and persuade them to do a piece on the school and its fundraising efforts. Callaghan’s friend Lindsay Gordon will do the piece, and although a school like this is against Gordon’s principles, the money from the commission is not. So she travels to the school. There she meets TV personality Cordelia Brown, who’s also there to do publicity for the school. One of the big fundraising events will be a Gala and concert featuring famous cellist and alumna Lorna Smith-Couper. But everything goes wrong when Smith-Couper is murdered. School authorities know that the media will descend on the school after the killing and there’ll be all sorts of terrible publicity. So Gordon and Brown agree to do what they can to keep the story as quiet as possible. If they’re going to do that though, they’ll need to find out who the killer is…

Amateur detective Charles Lenox returns to his alma mater Oxford in Charles Finch’s historical mystery The September Society. It’s 1866 in London, and Lady Annabelle Payson is concerned because her son George has disappeared from his rooms at Lincoln College. Lady Annabelle wants Lenox to visit Oxford and see if he can trace George’s whereabouts. Lenox agrees, thinking that this is going to be a straightforward case. But the weird clues left behind suggest that there’s more to the disappearance than a young man who wanted to take off for a few days. One of the clues is a card with a cryptic reference to a secret group called The September Society, and Lenox follows up on that. Then there’s a murder. Now it’s clear that this will be a very complex and possibly very dangerous case.

Very often that university/school bond allows alumni to stay in touch and help one another. This is what happens in Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace. Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman is slowly (and not yet really successfully) coming to terms with the death of her beloved husband Stefan. One day she gets an anonymous letter making it clear that she’s being stalked. The stalker even seems to have access to her case files. Then she’s set up for a drink-driving incident. Other things too occur that seem designed to sabotage her professional reputation. Then the body of a client Sara Matteus is found in the water on Bergman’s property. It’s set up to look like a suicide; there’s even a note blaming Bergman. But the police soon establish that the victim was murdered. Bergman own name is cleared soon enough, but it’s now obvious that someone is out to ruin her life – or even end it. To try to find out who that person might be, Bergman and police officer Markus Stenberg visit a former classmate from Stockholm University Vijay Kumar. Bergman, Kumar, and Bergman’s best friend Aina Davidson were in graduate school together and still have a bond. Bergman is hoping that Kumar, who’s become an expert in profiling, will be able to give them some insight into the kind of person who may be stalking her. The information Kumar offers doesn’t solve the case. But it does provide a very useful perspective, and we can see how the ‘university bond’ works.

The school/university years can have a powerful impact. So it’s no surprise that one’s alma mater can draw one back. Where have you seen this plot point?


ps. Oh, the ‘photo? Yes, I’m a proud alumna.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Sebastian’s Welcome Back.


Filed under Åsa Träff, Camilla Grebe, Charles Finch, Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, Val McDermid

Thanks For Watching As I Fall*

Tailspin and FallingOne of the ways that crime writers build up tension in a novel (and I admit, it’s not very fair in a way) is for otherwise solid, stable people – even people with strong reputations – to go on a downward spiral. Of course, bad things can happen to just about anyone, but there are some crime novels in which that plot point is a main focus. In those stories, the criminal may try to discredit someone else in order to frame that person and throw off suspicion. Or, the criminal may have personal reasons for wanting to ruin someone’s reputation or life. Either way, it can make for an interesting layer of suspense, especially when that downward spiral is the work of someone else.

In Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, for example, Elinor Carlisle has the sort of life many young women of her era would envy. She’s attractive, she’s well-off and she’s engaged to marry Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman, who’s a catch, as the saying goes. Things begin to fall apart for her when she gets an anonymous letter suggesting that someone may be trying to angle for her wealthy Aunt Laura’s fortune. It’s not that either Elinor or Roddy is particularly greedy, but they are accustomed to a comfortable life, so they pay a visit to the family home Hunterbury, where Aunt Laura lives. Matters begin to get worse when it’s clear that Roddy has become infatuated with Mary Gerrard, the lodgekeeper’s daughter. Then, Aunt Laura dies of complications from a stroke. Not long afterwards, Mary is poisoned. All sorts of circumstantial evidence suggests that Elinor might be the murderer. She has motive, too, since Aunt Laura wanted to provide generously for Mary, and since Mary is the cause of Elinor’s broken engagement. Local GP Dr. Peter Lord wants to clear Elinor’s name and asks Hercule Poirot to do it, whether or not Elinor is guilty. The whole experience takes a terrible toll on Elinor and it’s interesting to see how she copes with it.

Michael Robotham’s The Suspect is the first of his series featuring pscyhologist Joe O’Loughlin. In that novel, O’Loughlin has a contented life with a wife he loves and a daughter he absolutely adores. Everything starts to change though when he gets involved in a case of murder. One afternoon the body of a nurse and former patient Catherine McBride is found near London’s Grand Union Canal. At first Inspector Vincent Ruiz of the Met is only interested in O’Loughlin’s professional expertise and whatever he may be able to offer about the victim’s history. But soon, pieces of evidence turn up that implicate O’Loughlin. Then there’s another murder. And another. As the story goes along, O’Loughlin’s life starts to fall apart as he tries desperately to find the killer and clear his own name. In this case, I don’t think I’m spoiling the story to say that the things that happen to O’Loughlin are very carefully planned.

David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight introduces readers to Superintendent Frank Swann, a police detective in 1970s Perth. Swann’s been away from Perth for several years, but returns when he learns that a former friend brothel owner Ruby Devine has been killed. There aren’t really many suspects in the case except for Ruby’s lover Jacky White, but there’s not enough evidence there to go for a conviction. Swann soon begins to suspect that Ruby was murdered by one of the ‘purple circle,’ a group of corrupt cops who have any number of dirty secrets they don’t want revealed. When Swann calls for a Royal Commission into the corruption, his enemies on the force do everything they can to discredit him, including accusing him of corruption. That’s why, in Zero at the Bone, we learn that Swann has left the force and is now a private investigator. In that novel, he’s hired to look into the suicide of Max Henderson, a highly-respected geologist. He finds that Henderson had gotten involved in some very dirty dealings with corrupt politicians, mining executives and greedy local business executives. As Swann gets closer to the truth about what’s really been going on in Perth’s mining industry, he learns that some very powerful people are willing to do everything they can to discredit him even further, both personally and professionally…

We also see that in Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace. Siri Bergman is a successful Stockholm psychologist who’s managed to start putting her life back together after the tragic death of her husband Stefan. One day she gets an anonymous letter that makes it clear she is being stalked. As if that’s not enough, she finds that someone’s gotten access to her private client files. Then, she is set up to be arrested for drink driving. And to make matters worse, the body of a client Sara Matteus is found in the water on her property. There’s a suicide note that makes it look as though Bergman is responsible for her client’s death. When it’s proven that the victim was murdered, Bergman is briefly considered as a suspect. Her name is cleared, but there’s still someone out there who is willing to do whatever it takes to thoroughly ruin her career, and possibly kill her. If she’s going to salvage her professional reputation and stay alive, Bergman will have to find out who her enemy is.

And then there’s Will Thomas’ Fatal Enquiry, which takes place in Victorian London. Scottish private enquiry agent Cyrus Barker and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn have built a solid business for themselves and all’s going well. But then an old nemesis from Barker’s past returns to London. He is Sebastian Nightwine, whom Barker exposed as a criminal years ago. Now he’s back and Barker knows trouble is about to follow. And it does. Barker and Llewelyn soon find themselves the object of a massive manhunt when Barker is accused of murder. This means, among other things, that they have to go into hiding. What’s worse, all of Barker’s available funds have been frozen, so he has no access to money. Then there’s another death that turns out to be murder. Barker and Llewelyn will have to best Nightwine and get the police to believe them that Nightwine is behind all of the incidents if they’re to survive. But Nightwine is no easy prey, and he has a very long and unpleasant history with Barker. He also has plans that include getting Barker permanently out of his way.

Life can start to fall apart for any one of us of course. But it’s a bit different when that tailspin is the work of someone else. And that feeling of paranoia and suspense can add a solid layer to a crime novel, especially when the character has what seems to be a stable life. These are just a few examples (I know, I know, fans of Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent). Over to you.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Avril Lavigne’s My Happy Ending.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Träff, Camilla Grebe, David Whish-Wilson, Michael Robotham, Will Thomas

What’s Inside Your Mind?*

Psychology and PsychiatryAs we’ve come to understand the human mind a little more over the last hundred years, we’ve learned how much of a role psychology plays in the way we interact with others, behave, and react to life. And an interesting comment exchange with Sergio at Tipping My Fedora has got me to thinking about what an important role psychologists and psychology play in crime fiction. There are sleuths who are psychologists or psychiatrists and there are many novels now where characters who’ve been through trauma get mental/emotional help and support as well as whatever other medical help they may need. And that all makes a lot of sense; as psychology and the study of the mind have matured and become an important part of medicine, it’s logical they’d work their way into crime fiction too.

We see an example of psychology in action so to speak in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death. In that novel, Hercule Poirot is touring the Middle East. There, he encounters the Boynton family, a group of Americans who are on holiday. Family matriarch Mrs. Boynton is a mental sadist who’s had her family cowed for years, so when she dies of what seems to be heart failure, no-one feels any great sorrow. Colonel Carbury is in charge of investigating sudden deaths in that area and at first glance, it seems an easy case. The weather was hot and Mrs. Boynton was elderly and not in good health, so it all seems clear enough. But then Dr. Theodore Gerard, who was on the same tour as the Boynton family, suggests that something more might be going on. Gerard is a well-known psychologist who has noticed the severe dysfunction in the family. He suspects that Mrs. Boynton may have been murdered, and that psychology may be the key to the mystery. Colonel Carbury decides to pay attention to what Gerard has suggested and asks Poirot to look into the matter. As he investigates, we get an interesting look at the way our understanding of psychology was progressing at that time (the novel was published in 1938). It was quite Freudian in nature and it’s interesting to see how those views affect the way Gerard sees the case.

One of the areas in which psychology has developed in the last four or five decades has been in our understanding of the way children think. Child psychology is now a respected sub-discipline of psychology, and we see how professionals in that field work in the novels of Jonathan Kellerman. One of his two main protagonists is Alex Delaware, a former child psychologist and expert at working with young people who’ve suffered trauma. In Blood Work for instance, Delaware has testified in the case of the divorce of Richard and Darlene Moody. Richard Moody has some severe emotional problems which make him unable at the moment to look after his children. So the judge orders him to get psychiatric help and medication before he is allowed even supervised visits with his children. At first Delaware thinks that will be the end of the case. But then Moody decides to take his own approach to seeing his children and starts to stalk his ex-wife and children as well as Delaware. In the meantime, a former colleague Raoul Melendez-Lynch asks Delaware’s help on another case. He has diagnosed five-year-old Heywood ‘Woody’ Swopes with a form of lymphoma, but the parents have refused the chemotherapy regimen and other recommendations he’s made. They insist that holistic medicine will cure Woody and they won’t consent to treatment. Melendez-Lynch wants Delaware to work with the family, but instead, the parents suddenly pull their son from the hospital and disappear with him. Now, Delaware sets out to track the boy down before his condition worsens. He talks to his friend LAPD cop Milo Sturgis about it but Sturgis can’t do much. No real crime has been committed. So Delaware slowly puts together the pieces himself. In this novel, we see several sides of Delaware’s practice as a psychologist. He consults, testifies, works with children and their families and interacts with his colleagues.

Sometimes even the hardiest police sleuths can be pushed ‘over the edge’ and find themselves in need of professional mental help. Today that’s not seen as a cause for shame, and it shows up in a lot of crime fiction. For instance in Michael Connelly’s The Last Coyote, Harry Bosch has hit his limit you might say for a number of good reasons, and ends up pushing his supervisor through a window. For this he’s ordered off duty for an indefinite amount of time until he gets a psychiatric evaluation and some professional help. He is assigned to work with Dr. Carmen Hinojos to get to the root of his psychological ‘baggage’ and unwillingly goes to see her. While he’s off-duty, Bosch is eager for something to occupy him so he decides to look into an old case – the murder of Marjorie Lowe, a prostitute who was killed thirty years earlier and who happens to have been Bosch’s mother. As he works through this case, he also faces some of his own childhood sadness and we see through his meetings with Hinojos how psychology professionals can help their clients face things they don’t even admit exist.

Michael Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin is a psychiatrist who is accustomed to working with people who have all sorts of mental illnesses and difficulties. In Lost (AKA The Drowning Man), for instance, he is faced with a particularly challenging case. O’Loughlin’s friend DI Vincent Ruiz has wakened in a hospital bed, his leg badly injured form a bullet wound. He has no memory of what happened to him or how he came to be rescued. The only facts that seem to be clear are that he was pulled out of the Thames after nearly drowning, and that he had been working a ‘cold case’ when he was injured. O’Loughlin works with Ruiz to help him put the pieces of his memory together. Little by little Ruiz begins to recall what happened. Seven-year-old Mickey Carlyle disappeared three years earlier and was assumed to have been killed by known paedophile Howard Wavell. In fact, Wavell’s in prison for the crime. But Ruiz thinks Wavell might be innocent and that Mickey may still be alive. He was pursuing leads on this case when he was injured and as soon as he recovers, he takes up the investigation again. In the end, after help from O’Loughlin, Ruiz finds out the truth about Mickey Carlyle.

Psychologist Sara Struel proves to be very helpful in Karin Fossum’s He Who Fears the Wolf. Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre are called in to investigate the murder of Halldis Horn, who’d lived by herself since her husband’s death. One very likely suspect is Errki Johrma, a young man with mental illness who is one of Struel’s patients. The police want to interview him, since he was seen in the area on the day of the murder. But he’s disappeared. As the police look for Johrma, Sejer gets help from Struel about the kind of person the young man is, what is causing his mental illness and whether he might be the killer. One of the interesting things about her role in this novel is that it allows us to see how mental health professionals have to balance their obligation to confidentiality with their obligation to protect society from potentially dangerous people (and to assist the police). It’s a delicate balance and Fossum addresses it here.  

In Camillla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace, we meet Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman. She shares a practice with a few colleagues and professionally at least, things are going well. However, she is struggling personally with grief over the death of her beloved husband Stefan and is emotionally fragile. One day she receives a strange letter that makes it clear she is being stalked. Then other eerie things happen and it seems that someone is trying to discredit her. What’s worse, whoever is stalking her has access to her private patient records. Then the body of one of her patients Sara Matteus is near Bergman’s home. There’s also a suicide note that suggests Bergman is responsible for the victim’s decision to kill herself. But it’s not long before the supposed suicide is shown to be murder. Bergman is briefly suspected, but soon enough it’s clear that she has an enemy who is getting more and more dangerous. Throughout this novel, along with the mystery and the investigation, we also see the day-to-day realities of psychologists’ professional lives.

Our knowledge of human psychology has improved dramatically in the last decades so it makes sense that we’d also see psychology playing an important role in crime fiction. I’ve only had space to touch on it briefly here. Which crime-fictional psychologists have made an impression on you?

Thanks, Sergio, for the inspiration. Now, may I suggest that you include Sergio’s fantastic Tipping My Fedora as one of your next blog stops? It’s a terrific resource for classic crime film and book reviews. While you’re there, I’m sure you’ll agree it’s well worth adding to your blog roll.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Handheld’s What’s Inside.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Träff, Camilla Grebe, Jonathan Kellerman, Karin Fossum, Michael Connelly, Michael Robotham

I Can Read the Writing on the Wall*

HandwritingOf the things that distinguish people from each other is their handwriting. Perhaps it’s not as unique as a fingerprint or DNA sample, but handwriting is sometimes quite distinctive. That’s why handwriting analysis plays the role it does both in real life investigation and crime fiction. And that’s why, for instance, people may print in block letters or take other measures to disguise their handwriting if they feel they need to. Of course, handwriting experts don’t always agree on whether, say, two samples of writing come from the same person, but handwriting can matter in a criminal investigation. There are an awful lot of examples of the importance of handwriting in crime fiction and only room in this post for a few, but hopefully they’ll suffice to give you a sense of what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesoptamia, famous archaeologist Eric Leidner hires a nurse Amy Leatheran to help look after his wife Louise. Louise Leidner has been having anxiety attacks, seeing faces at windows and hearing hands tapping. A short time after Leatheran arrives, her patient confides to her that she is afraid of her former husband. She’d always believed he was killed after World War I, but she’s been getting threatening notes from him. Leatheran reads the notes and at first she can’t tell much about the handwriting. But then she sees an envelope written in Louise’s handwriting and notices the striking similarities between that writing and what she saw in the letters. Is it because Louise wrote the letters? Did someone else write them and forge the handwriting? This becomes an important question when Louise is murdered. Hercule Poirot, who happens to be in the area, is persuaded to extend his stay and investigate. He finds that the letters, and their writer, play an important part in the murder.

In Elly Griffiths’ The Crossing Places, DCI Harry Nelson is investigating two abductions. One is the ten-year-old disappearance of Lucy Downey. The other is the very recent abduction of four-year-old Scarlet Henderson. Among other things, the two cases are related by the fact that Nelson receives notes, most likely from the girls’ abductor. The notes make references to ancient mythology, the Bible and certain works of literature and on the surface of it they don’t give straightforward clues. So Nelson decides to ask archaeology professor Ruth Galloway what she makes of the references, especially the references to ancient mythology. He’s hoping that she’ll be able to interpret what the notes mean. Most of the notes are word-processed, but a few are not. Galloway is helpful in terms of what the references may mean but she can’t tell much from the handwriting at first. But  those handwritten notes prove to be critical when Galloway later makes a connection between the handwriting on the notes and other handwriting she’s seen.

In Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace, Stockholm psychiatrist Siri Bergman has done her best to put her life back together after the sudden death of her beloved husband Stefan. She’s more or less functioning until she gets a letter that makes it clear she’s being stalked. That letter in and of itself doesn’t give her much information about the stalker but soon, several frightening things happen that convince her she’s been targeted. Whoever is stalking her seems determined to discredit her and ruin her reputation. Then matters worsen. The body of Sara Matteus, one of Bergman’s clients, is found in the water near Bergman’s home. A suicide note has been left behind that claims Bergman is responsible for Sara’s decision to take her own life. At first, Bergman is naturally devastated. But then it’s discovered that the handwriting isn’t Sara’s. That’s how the police determine that Sara was murdered. The murderer faked the suicide note to further discredit Bergman and to psychologically manipulate her. Now Bergman and the police have to try to track down the stalker/murderer before Bergman becomes the next victim.

There’s an interesting use of questions about handwriting in T.J. Cooke’s Kiss and Tell. London lawyer Jill Shadow agrees to take the case of Bella Kiss, who’s been arrested at Heathrow Airport for drugs smuggling. Shadow does her best to help her client but Bella refuses to reveal who has paid or coerced her to bring drugs into the country. At first, Shadow decides she’ll have to drop the case because her client seems to be obstructing her efforts. But she changes her mind and ends up involved in a complicated case involving a drugs ring overseen by some very dangerous people who have powerful connections. Shadow and her daughter Hannah are targeted too; in fact, Shadow gets a text message that threatens Hannah. That’s when it’s decided that she and Hannah should go to a safe house. But before Hannah can be safely picked up from school and brought to the safe house, she disappears. The special team that’s been investigating the drugs ring and trying to protect Shadow does all it can to find Hannah but at first there’s little success. Then Shadow gets a letter from Hannah saying among other things that she’s safe. But there are several questions about the letter. Is it really from Hannah? Is it her normal handwriting? If so, is she really safe or could she have been abducted and then coerced into writing the letter? The question of who really wrote the letter and what has happened to Hannah adds a real undercurrent of tension to this novel.

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, most people know that handwriting can be quite distinctive. That’s why forgers (a topic worthy of a separate post!) work very hard to copy handwriting, and that’s why many people who write threatening letters, ransom notes or blackmail letters often use block letters or word processors. For instance, in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Quilt or Innocence, we meet Beatrice Coleman, who has recently retired from her position in an Atlanta art gallery and moved to Dappled Hills, North Carolina. She wants to be closer to her daughter Piper and she is looking forward to the peace and quiet (or so she thinks) of retirement. In order to fit in with the local culture, Beatrice joins a quilting guild Village Quilters and begins to get to know its members. Then, one of the guild members is murdered. Beatrice begins to ask questions and very soon afterwards she starts receiving threatening notes. The notes are written in a very careful print style of writing in order to disguise the writer’s identity so at first Beatrice doesn’t know who’s threatening her. But as she keeps asking questions and finding out more about the other guild members and their backgrounds, Beatrice figures out who the note-writer is and how that person is tied in with the murder.

I know I’ve only just touched on this topic of handwriting; there’s a lot to it and when you add in things such as forgery, psychological profiling and other related topics, the issue gets even more involved. I’m going to have to write notes to myself to keep all of this in some order – that is, if I could only read my own handwriting. ;-)

OK, your turn…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Kodachrome.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Träff, Camilla Grebe, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Elly Griffiths, T.J. Cooke

Every Step You Take I’ll Be Watching You*

Violations of PrivacyOne of the facts of life about modern technology is that we arguably have a lot less privacy than we used to have. Today, when you sign a lease or apply for a job (at least in the U.S.) it’s not uncommon to include a credit and criminal background check in the process. And computer and Internet technology has made it increasingly easy to get very private information without waiting weeks or longer. Even if you move from one country to another, it’s still fairly straightforward to find out if, for instance, you have a criminal history. And with so many people using social networking such as Facebook and Twitter, it’s not hard to find out private things about people – who their friends are, where they eat, how they vote in elections and lots more.

On the one hand you can say that having less privacy has benefits. It’s easier for police to catch criminals because they have access to information that they didn’t used to have. People who are not guilty of crimes can more easily support their claims, too (e.g. travel and credit card records that show someone was in another place at the time of a crime). On the other hand, a lot of people see this trend as a violation of their privacy. Whose business is it really what you buy, where you go (so long as you don’t commit a crime) or how you vote? And today’s ability to track people makes it frighteningly easy to follow someone – ask anyone who’s been stalked. Identity theft and fraud are scary realities too now that today’s criminals can find ways to get credit card and ID numbers. In that sense, we have to be more careful than we used to be.  For better or for worse, we do seem to have less privacy and it shouldn’t be surprising that this trend shows up in crime fiction.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from the King of Bohemia, who is planning to get married soon. The king is worried because his former lover Irene Adler has a compromising photograph of them and he’s afraid of the scandal that would get around if that photograph is ever published. He hires Holmes to get the photograph and return it so that his reputation will be protected. Holmes fans know of course that Irene Adler is a formidable opponent. In fact, she manages to elude Holmes and ends up keeping the photograph, promising never to use it unless she is forced to do so. The science and art of photography were relatively new at the time of this story; it’s interesting that if it had been written just a few decades earlier, there might not even be a compromising photograph. As it is, we can see how the limitations of technology meant the king was only worried about that one photograph. He had no worries about members of the press or his fiancée’s family getting hold of private telephone conversations or other communication between the two lovers. The limitations of technology also make it difficult for Holmes to track Irene Adler. In part it’s because he decides not to, but it’s more than that. The technology of the time meant that there were very few fingerprint records and the records that were available were not easily accessible. And of course there were no credit cards, no telephone records or other ways to track Adler. So she was able to maintain her privacy a lot more easily than she would be able to do in today’s world.

By the time Agatha Christie was writing, people already had less privacy because technology had evolved. In Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) for instance, Hercule Poirot investigates the poisoning death of Marie Morisot, a well-known French moneylender who did business under the name of Madame Giselle. The only possible suspects are the other passengers with whom she shared a flight from Paris to London. As a part of the investigation, Poirot and Inspector Japp look into all of the other passengers’ backgrounds. They also find out as much as they can about Madame Giselle’s past. Part of what they learn comes from personal interviews, which were not new. But part of what they learn comes from police and other contacts in other countries. By the time of this novel, photographs could be sent by cable from place to place, and the telephone had made communication easier. So it was beginning to be much harder for people to hide their pasts and that is what puts the proverbial nail in the coffin for the killer in this novel.

In Cat Connor’s Killerbyte, FBI special agent Gabrielle ‘Ellie’ Conway and her lover Cormac ‘Mac’ Connelly track down a vicious killer through the use of modern technology among other things. Conway and Connelly are both members of an Internet chat room called Cobwebs, which is devoted to poetry. When one of the members Carter McLaren is banned from the chat room, he tracks Conway down and threatens her. He’s arrested but disappears after he makes bail. When he’s later found dead in the trunk of Conway’s car, it’s clear that this is more than just a chat room member who took revenge too far. Then there’s another death. And another body is found. At each crime scene, police find a Post-It note with a poem, and before each murder, Conway and Connelly get cryptic taunting emails. It’s soon evident that the killer is targeting chat room members and that the killer is someone who knows Conway personally. As Conway and Connelly slowly put the pieces together, they and the FBI use modern computer surveillance and other high-tech equipment to track down the killer. In the end, it’s a simpler clue that leads the two sleuths in the right direction, but technology plays an important role in stripping away the killer’s privacy.

But this novel also shows the negative side of that loss of privacy. It turns out that the killer is technologically very adept at covering up ‘footprints’ and tracking down victims. Individual computer IP addresses, bugging devices and even tracking software are all part of what this killer uses to follow Conway and Connelly and to stalk victims.

We also see that kind of electronic violation of privacy in Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal. Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik have been having marital difficulties, but so far they’ve stayed together. Then, Eva discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful. When she finds out, she takes a decision that turns out to have consequences she couldn’t possibly have imagined. At first her decision doesn’t seem so fateful though and she continues her life with Henrik and their son Axel. Then she learns the identity of Henrik’s mistress. Eva decides on a particular plan for revenge that also has consequences she hadn’t imagined. This plan involves a real violation of privacy. I can say without spoiling the story that it involves breaking into an email account, which Eva is able to do with frightening ease actually. In the end, you could say that Eva and Henrik have betrayed each other and their choices end up causing real tragedy.

There’s an interesting and chilling case of violation of privacy in Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace. Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman is still coping with the death of her beloved husband Stefan, but she’s functioning if not exactly functional. Then she gets a letter that makes it clear that she’s being stalked. What’s worse, someone seems to have gotten access to her private client information. That violation puts not just her but her clients at risk. There are other incidents too that seem designed to damage her credibility. Then the body of one of Bergman’s clients Sara Matteus is found in the water on her property. The death is set up to look like a suicide; there’s even a suicide note implicating Bergman in this client’s decision to kill herself. But it’s soon proven that this was a murder. Bergman herself is briefly a suspect until she’s able to show that she’s not guilty. Now the threats from this stalker become even more ominous and it’s clear that Bergman’s life is in danger. She’ll have to find out who the killer is in order to re-establish her credibility, protect her clients’ privacy and stay alive.

Today’s technology has made it easier than it ever was to catch criminals, and harder to avoid getting caught if one is a criminal. But it’s a double-edged sword as you might say. It’s also easier than ever to violate an innocent person’s privacy. Information is easier and easier to find, and today’s crime novels reflect that. Dozens and dozens of crime fiction stories (there really isn’t room here for me to list them) include cases where cops or private investigators trace criminals through their emails and social networking, even if the criminal leaves the country. Others depict people who’ve had their emails and banking accounts compromised. So do we have less privacy than we did? I’d say so. Is it a problem? For a lot of people, yes. For cops and private investigators, I’m not so sure.  What do you think?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Police’s Every Breath You Take.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Åsa Träff, Camilla Grebe, Cat Connor, Karin Alvtegen