Category Archives: Belinda Bauer

Can’t be Controlled, it is Mad*

As this is posted, it’s 201 years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. One of the things that makes this story suspenseful is Victor Frankenstein’s frightening discovery that he cannot control what he thought he could control. In fact, that’s given rise to the idiom of ‘creating a monster.’

We also see this sort of suspense in crime novels. And that makes sense. How often have we thought we had something under control, only to find the exact opposite was true.?

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, we are introduced to the enigmatic (and somewhat eerie) Mr. Shaitana. He invites Hercule Poirot to a dinner party to which he also invites seven other people. Four of the guests are sleuths of some form or another (Colonel Race, Superintendent Battle, and Mrs. Ariadne Oliver). Four are people who Shaitana suspects have gotten away with murder. During the dinner, Shaitana drops hints about the crimes involved, which turns out to be a very dangerous thing to do. Afterwards, while everyone is playing bridge, Shaitana is stabbed. The only possible suspects are the four people Shaitana believes are murderers. The four sleuths work, each in a different way, to find out who the killer is. In the process, they learn the truth about the original murders. Shaitana thought he could control the situation, but it turns out that it controlled him.

Beryl Bainbridge’s Harriet Said begins as the thirteen-year-old unnamed narrator is waiting for her friend, Harriet, to return from a trip to Wales. While she waits, she feels a little restless, and strikes up a friendship with a local man named Peter Biggs. He is middle-aged, unhappily married, and lonely. The narrator feels that first rush of adolescent hormones, but she’s unwilling to do anything about it until Harriet returns. When she does, Harriet says that Biggs must be treated more objectively, and should be observed, and the experiences recorded. So, the two girls start spying on the Biggs household. Then, they see something they weren’t meant to see, and this experiment, if you will, that the girls thought they could control goes very, very wrong. It all ends in tragedy.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit is the story of brothers Gates and Mason Hunt.  The two grew up in an abusive home, but they turned out very different. Gates squandered all of his considerable natural athletic ability, and now lives on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments, and on money he gets from his and Mason’s mother. Mason, on the other hand, has taken advantage of all of the opportunities he’s gotten, and has gone to law school. One day, Gates gets into an argument with his romantic rival, Wayne Thompson. The argument simmers down, but flares up again later that night, when the Hunt brothers encounter Thompson again. It all ends tragically, when Gates shoots Thompson. Mason knows that Gates can be wild, but he thinks he can control the situation. What’s more, he has a sense of filial loyalty. So, he helps Gates cover up the crime, and life goes on for the brothers. Years later, Gates has turned to drug dealing, and is arrested and convicted for cocaine trafficking. Meanwhile, Mason has become a prosecutor for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Gates asks his brother to get him out of prison, but Mason refuses. Then, Gates threatens that, if Mason doesn’t help, he’ll implicate him in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. Mason calls his brother’s bluff and ends up facing a murder indictment. Now, Mason will have to clear his name.

In Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands, twelve-year-old Steven Lamb decides he needs to help his family. He lives with his younger brother, Davey, his mother, Lettie, and his Nan, Gloria, in a small, working-class house in the Exmoor town of Shipcott. But this isn’t a happy family. Nothing has been right since Steven’s Uncle Billy (his mother’s brother), went missing nineteen years earlier. A man named Arnold Avery, who’s in prison on murder charges in another child murder case, has always been suspected of killing Billy. But no body was discovered, and the family has never gotten any real answers. Steven believes that if he contacts Avery and gets him to say where the body is, this will help the family to heal. So, he writes to Avery in prison.  Steven thinks he can control what happens, but Arnold Avery is a very dangerous man…

There are also medical thrillers, such as Robin Cook’s Acceptable Risk, that have a similar plot point. In Acceptable Risk, neuroscientist Edward Armstrong is working on research into anti-depressants. He’s hired by a pharmacaeutical company to create a new psychotropic therapy and is soon busy with the testing and experiments that go with developing a new drug. Then, he learns that ergot is growing under the basement of a home belonging to the woman he’s dating. Ergot has certain psychotropic properties, so Armstrong decides to use it in his research. The results of initial research are very exciting, and the research team sees this as a major breakthrough. But then, some disturbing things begin to happen. And it’s soon clear that the team doesn’t have the sort of control that they think they do over the research…

One of the lessons that we learn from Frankenstein is that we can’t always control what we think we can. And that’s a very scary lesson to learn. Little wonder we see it in crime fiction…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice‘s Eva and Magaldi/Eva, Beware of the City.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Belinda Bauer, Beryl Bainbridge, Martin Clark, Mary Shelley, Robin Cook

With a Little Bit of Luck*

If you’ve ever had a very lucky thing happen to you, then you know that sometimes, luck really does happen. And lots of people believe in luck, too. They carry ‘lucky’ charms, wear ‘lucky’ clothes, and so on. And there are many people who are just waiting for that one lucky break that will make all the difference to them.

In reality, of course, luck doesn’t really work that way. Sometimes, lucky things happen; sometimes they don’t. And it can be extremely frustrating – and limiting – for people who are just waiting for their break. The way people feel about luck can add to a story. It can provide interesting layers to a character, and it can increase the tension in a plot. We can see how this works, just from a quick look at crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds, we are introduced to Lady Cecily Horbury. She’s a former chorus girl who’s married Lord Stephen Horbury, and now lives a life of luxury. The problem is, though, that she is fond of gambling – very fond of it – and has run up a great deal of debt. It doesn’t help matters that she is also a cocaine user. She’s convinced that all she needs is one lucky break, perhaps a huge win at the tables, to set things right. Still, her husband has made it clear that he will no longer be responsible for her debts, so she is desperate for money. She borrowed from a French moneylender who does business as Madame Giselle; and, at first, that worked out well. But everything went wrong when she couldn’t pay what she owed. Madame Giselle’s form of ‘collateral’ is to collect compromising information on each of her clients, and reveal it only if the client doesn’t pay. And she’s got evidence that Cecily Horbury has been unfaithful – evidence that she’s planning to send to Lord Horbury. One day, Madame Giselle happens to be on a flight from Paris to London. At the end of the flight, she suddenly dies of what looks like a heart attack, but turns out to be poison. Since she is on the same flight, Lady Horbury becomes a suspect, and a ‘person of interest’ to Chief Inspector Japp and Hercule Poirot.

Gene Kerrigan’s The Rage is, in part, the story of Vincent Naylor. He’s recently been released from prison, but he’s been in and out of trouble with the law for some time. Now, he’s determined that he’s not going to take a big risk any more unless the payoff is worth it. But he and his girlfriend, Michelle Flood, want to get out and start over. And for that, all Naylor needs is a bit of luck – a payoff that will set them up. So, he, his brother Noel, and a few friends, plan an armed robbery. Their target will be Protectica, a security company that transfers cash among banks. The robbery goes off as planned, but then, things start going very, very wrong, and the whole thing ends in real tragedy.

There’s a different sort of luck needed in Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands. Twelve-year-old Steven Lamb lives with his mother, his brother, and his grandmother in a small Exmoor town. But it’s not a happy family. The family hasn’t really been whole since Steven’s Uncle Billy Peters went missing nineteen years earlier. He was never found, and the family is suffering. Steven wants to help his family heal, so he decides to at least try to find Uncle Billy’s body. All he needs, he thinks, is a shovel and some luck. But, of course, it’s a large area, and he finds nothing. Then, he gets another idea. The man long suspected of killing Uncle Billy is Arnold Avery, who’s in prison on other child murder charges. Steven decides to try to get Avery to tell him where Uncle Billy’s body is. So, he writes to Avery. Avery responds. Thus starts an increasingly dangerous game of cat and mouse between the two.

In Patricia Melo’s The Body Snatcher, we are introduced to the unnamed narrator, who is a former telephone salesman. He’s recently moved from São Paulo to the town of Corumbá, not far from the Bolivian border, where he’s settled down. What he and his girlfriend, Sulamita, would really like is a chance to move away, get their own land, and start their lives together. But neither has the money to do that. All that’s needed is some luck, but neither has had much of that. Then, one day, the narrator happens to witness a small plane crash. He rushes to the site, and discovers that the pilot has been killed. But, he’s left behind a backpack and a watch. The narrator takes those things, and returns home, where he discovers to his shock that the backpack contains cocaine. He decides to sell the cocaine – just this once – to get the money he and Sulamita will need to start over. And that’s where the trouble starts. Before long, everything spirals very badly out of control.

That’s also what happens to Gary Braswell in Blair Denholm’s Sold. He’s a car salesman who lives and works on the Gold Coast. He’s gotten himself into some debt to a dangerous (and illegal) bookmaker, and now needs money desperately. All he needs is some luck – some big sales – and he’ll be all right. It seems that al will be well when a Russian land developer arranges for some expensive cars for himself, his wife, and his daughters. And, in fact, Braswell gets the money he needs to pay off his debt. But then, things start to go very, very wrong. He gets drawn into an illegal drug deal, a money laundering scheme, and more. And now, he will need an awful lot more than luck if he’s going to survive and get out of the mess he’s in.

Sometimes, all you need is a little luck. And there are plenty of people, both real and fiction, who are just waiting for that lucky break. But, as crime fiction shows, it doesn’t always work out that way…


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Belinda Bauer, Blair Denholm, Gene Kerrigan, Patricia Melo

Show a Little Faith, There’s Magic in the Night*

Most of us like to have some sense of security. And that means, perhaps, a certain amount of predictability. That makes sense, too, since humans like to impose some sort of order on our worlds. But sometimes, there are decisions we take, or new ventures we start, that require having some faith.

In those situations, we give up at least a little of our sense of security in exchange for what we hope will be a better situation. If you’ve ever moved house, started a new job, gotten married or opened your own business, you know the feeling. On the one hand, there’s the anxiety that comes with the unknown. On the other, there’s the faith that things will work out.

That mix can add some interest and tension to a story. And as we see characters dealing with the unknown, and relying on their faith that things will be all right, we can identify with the mixed feelings that come with change. So, it’s no surprise that we see this plot point in crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, Anne Bedingfield has recently lost her father. And, since he wasn’t wealthy, she’s going to have to earn her living. She doesn’t want to become a typist or work in an office. But she knows she’ll have to do something with her life. One day, she happens to witness a terrible accident (or was it an accident?) at an Underground station. A man falls or is pushed under an oncoming train. Anne doesn’t know the victim, but she ends up with a piece of paper that the man had in his pocket. After a short time, she learns that the note on the paper refers to the upcoming sailing of the HMS Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. On impulse, she books passage on the ship, and finds herself drawn into a web of international intrigue, jewel theft, and murder. It requires some faith to book that passage (which isn’t cheap), but Anne gets past her anxiety, and certainly does have adventure to show for her decision.

Claire McGowan’s The Lost introduces forensic psychologist Claire Maguire. As the novel begins, she’s living and working in London, mostly with missing person cases. She’s good at her job, and her work gets noticed. In fact, she gets an invitation to return to her home town of Ballyterrin, in Northern Ireland, to help set up a cold case review team. Two girls have recently gone missing, so there’s finally enough interest to fund a team. Maguire had her own reasons for leaving Ballyterrin in the first place, so she’s in no great hurry to go back. But, her father, who still lives in the area, has recently broken his leg, and could do with some assistance. Besides, there are the missing girls. So, with a mix of anxiety and faith that things will work out, Maguire goes back to Ballyterrin. And what she finds is a complicated case that turns even more tragic when one of the girls is found dead.

In Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands, we meet twelve-year-old Steven Lamb. He lives with his mother, his grandmother, and his younger brother in the Exmoor town of Shipcott. This isn’t a particularly happy family, though. Nineteen years earlier, Steven’s uncle, Billy Peters, went missing and was never found. Everyone’s always believed that a man named Arnold Avery was responsible, but he was never brought to justice on the matter. He’s in prison, though, on charges relating to other child murders. Steven wants to find a way for his family to heal. So, he decides to look for Uncle Billy’s body. He searches the moor but doesn’t have much success. Then, he has another idea. He’ll write to Avery, and to try to get him to tell where the body is. Steven’s anxious about the whole thing, but he also  has faith that he can find out what he wants to know. So, he and Avery begin a correspondence that turns into a dangerous game of cat and mouse.

Ian Sansom’s The Case of the Missing Books is the first in his Mobile Library series. Israel Armstrong dreams of being a librarian, maybe even a curator in the British Library someday. But for now, he’s working as a bookseller’s assistant. Then, he gets the opportunity to start his library career. Tumdrum and District Library, in Tumdrum, Ireland, is looking for a librarian, and Armstrong gets the job. He knows that it’s a small place without any real reputation. But, he thinks, it’s a start. So, he pulls up stakes in London, and goes to Ireland. He’s got faith in himself as a librarian, but he’s unprepared for what he finds. When he arrives, he discovers that the library has closed, and that, in fact, he’s been hired to drive a mobile library bus. He refuses the job at first, but then is practically shamed into going through with the contract. That’s when he finds that the bus is broken down and in need of repair, and that the entire collection of books has gone missing. Now he’ll have to find the books and get the library going if he’s to have any success.

And then there’s Mick Herron’s Down Cemetery Road. Sarah Tucker is at a sort of crossroads in her live. She’s not happy in her marriage, but she doesn’t have a real career or direction. Then, one night, an explosion destroys a house not far from where she lives. The home’s owners, Thomas and Maddie Singleton, have died. But there’s no sign of their four-year-old daughter, Dinah. Worried about the child, Sarah starts to ask questions. But she soon finds that no-one wants to answer them. So, she hires a private investigation company, Oxford Investigations, run by Joe Silvermann and Zoë Boehm. It’s not long before Silvermann lets her know that she’s getting into something much more than she thought. But Sarah persists. When Silvermann is murdered, Sarah knows that she’s gotten into something very dangerous. It’s all very new to her, and she has plenty of very well-founded anxiety. But she also has faith that she can do this. In the end, and after several deaths, she finds out the truth about the Singletons. And it all leads to some very dark truths in some very high government places.

Doing something new and different, especially if there’s danger involved, can cause a lot of anxiety. But there’s also often a sense of faith that things will come out all right. And that mix is both very human, and very effective in a story.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Belinda Bauer, Claire McGowan, Ian Sansom, Mick Herron

Over the Moor, Take Me to the Moor*

For many readers, the setting of a story is an important part of the appeal. And when it comes to crime fiction, a setting can add to the suspense, and even create its own particular challenges and conflicts. Case in point: moors.

Moors are beautiful, and they are unique in terms of the plant and animal life. But they are also potentially hazardous. The weather is frequently unreliable, and there are bogs and other dangers. They can be lonely and deserted, too. So, it’s little wonder that plenty of crime fiction is set on moors.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles is set on Dartmoor. As fans can tell you, it’s the story of the Baskerville family and a curse that seems to have been laid on its members. For generations, a phantom hound has been said to haunt the family since the 1600s, when Hugo Baskerville sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he was infatuated. And there certainly have been some strange deaths in the family. Most recently, Sir Charles Baskerville was found dead in the park of Baskerville Hall, the family estate. Now a new Baskerville is coming from Canada to take over the home and family leadership, and Dr. James Mortimer is concerned that this new Baskerville will also fall to the curse. He goes to Sherlock Holmes with his concerns. Holmes can’t get away from London immediately, so he sends Dr. Watson in his stead. It turns out that the explanation for the family curse is quite prosaic. In this novel, the wild, dangerous moor is an important part of the story.

It is in Gil North’s Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm, too. In that novel, Sergeant Caleb Cluff is called to the village of Gunnershaw when Amy Wright is found dead. It looks on the surface like a suicide, but Cluff isn’t entirely convinced. The victim’s husband, Alfred, was much younger than his wife, and it’s not out of the question that he would have killed her for her fortune. But Cluff can’t question Wright, as he’s gone missing. So, Cluff decides to try to find him. His search takes him across the Yorkshire moor where Gunnershaw is located, and it’s a very dangerous place. Cluff knows the area well, since he grew up there. But that doesn’t mean he’s entirely safe…

Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn takes place mostly on Dartmoor, where Mary Yellan has gone to stay with her Uncle Joss and Aunt Patience Merlyn. They own Jamaica Inn, which Mary soon learns is a depressing, foreboding place that gets no visitors. She also soon learns about some things going on at the inn. As she gets closer to the truth about the inn, she also finds herself in danger. Then, there’s a murder. Now, Mary’s life is in peril, because she’s found out some things she wasn’t supposed to know. Now, she’s going to have to get to safety if she’s to stay alive. And it won’t be easy. The moor is dangerous, and there are very few people around who could help her. It’s not spoiling the story to say that there are some tense scenes involving the moor in this novel.

Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands takes place mostly in the town of Shipcott, on Exmoor. Twelve-year-old Steven Lamb decides to help his family. Nineteen years earlier, his Uncle Billy Peters went missing and never returned. The family hasn’t recovered, and Steven wants to help with the healing. So, he decides to find Uncle Billy’s body, so that at least the family can bury him properly. He can’t, though, and isn’t sure what he’s going to do, until he gets another idea. A man named Arnold Avery, who’s in prison for another child murder, was always suspected of Uncle Billy’s murder, too, and Steven decides to find out from him where the body is. So, he writes to Avery. Avery answers his letter, and before long, the two are engaged in a very dangerous game of cat and mouse. There are some important scenes that take place both on Exmoor and on Dartmoor, where Avery is imprisoned. They add to the tension, and they add to the sense of atmosphere.

And then there’s Steve Robinson’s In the Blood. Genealogist Jefferson Tayte has been commissioned by business executive Walter Sloane to trace Sloan’s wife’s ancestry. The trail has led to England, where one of her ancestors, James Fairborne, went with his family during the American Revolution. There are several mysteries connected with the family, including the fact that Tayte is warned quite strongly to leave the genealogy alone, and go home. This he refuses to do, and he continues his search for the truth. At the same time, Amy Fallon is in search of some truth of her own. The house she lives in has a secret room in which she has found an old writing box containing a love letter. Her search for its writer takes her to previous owners of the cottage, and to the Prison Museum in Dartmoor. It turns out that Tayte’s search has led him to the same place, and the two end up searching for the same history from two different perspectives. The Dartmoor scenes are not the most important scenes in the novel. But the atmosphere there is evocative and adds to the suspense.

And that’s the thing about moors. They are beautiful, peaceful at times, and full of distinctive wildlife. But they can also be extremely dangerous and even eerie. Little wonder we see them in crime fiction.

The ‘photo is of Dartmoor. I was ‘sentenced’ there once, when I was visiting the UK. It’s magnificent, but it’s easy to see how perilous it could be.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Smiths’ Suffer Little Children.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Belinda Bauer, Daphne du Maurier, Gil North, Steve Robinson

Find Out the Truth*

As I’ve often mentioned on this blog, most criminals aren’t eager to be caught. And there’s not always enough evidence to bring charges against someone. So, at least in crime fiction, the sleuth sometimes has to use some creativity to get the criminal to confess.

There are limits to what fictional police sleuths can do. For instance, entrapment – enticing someone to commit a crime she or he would not otherwise commit – is not allowed. And there’s a very fine line between a ‘sting’ operation (which is permissible) and entrapment. And even if the sleuth is not a cop, there’s still the credibility factor. Still, sleuths can be innovative, and sometimes have to be.

In Ellery Queen’s The Roman Hat mystery, for instance, Inspector Richard Queen investigates the poisoning death of an attorney, Monte Field, who was also a blackmailer. He was killed in a theatre, so it’s hard a first to narrow down the list of people who could have committed the crime. And, even when the Queens do work out who was responsible, they don’t have the sort of evidence needed to pursue the case. So, they devise a ruse that, today, might be considered entrapment. They entice the killer into attempting another murder in the same way, using the same poison.

Fans of Agatha Christie will know that, more than once, her sleuths find creative ways to catch killers, even without a lot of evidence. For instance, in The Moving Finger, Miss Marple helps to solve the mystery of who’s been writing a series of vicious anonymous letters to the residents of the small town of Lymstock. Several of the villagers take those letters very seriously; there’s even a suicide (or was it a suicide?) associated with one of them. Then, there’s an obvious murder. Miss Marple works out who the killer is, but there’s not a lot of proof. So, she sets up what you might call a trap, and ‘baits’ it with another character, to flush the killer out. Fans of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series will know that Beck and his team use a rather similar sort of ‘trap’ in Roseanna. They know who the killer of twenty-seven-year-old Roseanna McGraw is, but they don’t have the proof they need. So, they lure the killer into trying for another victim. And it works.

Lawrence Sanders’ The Anderson Tapes introduces readers to John ‘Duke’ Anderson. He’s recently been released from prison, and has a legitimate job working in a print factory. But, then, he gets a chance to visit an exclusive Manhattan apartment building. Impressed by the luxury he sees, Anderson can’t resist the opportunity to set up a heist – and not just of one apartment, either. His scheme is to rob the whole building. For that, he’s going to need some help. So, he contacts several people he knows to get supplies, a getaway truck, and so on. What he doesn’t know is that the FBI and various other agencies have been interested in several of Anderson’s contacts for some time. And they know full well that those criminals are not going to be easy to catch. In order to get the proof they need, these agencies have gotten clearance for wiretapping and other surveillance. They’re hoping this will get the evidence they need to convince the people they’ve targeted. So, much of what Anderson says to these people is recorded. The question is: will they learn of Anderson’s scheme before he and his team have the chance to pull it off?

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Mma Precious Ramotswe gets a new client, Happy Bapetse. Like other members of her culture, Happy has been taught that caring for elderly relatives, especially parents, is her responsibility. So, when a man shows up at her home claiming to be her father, Happy welcomes him and starts to take care of him. But she slowly begins to suspect that the man is not her father at all, but someone who wants to take advantage of the fact that she’s done well in life. So, she goes to Mma Ramotswe to get some help. Mma Ramotswe soon sees that she isn’t going to get this man to admit his scam. So, she sets up a ruse that forces his hand, as the saying goes. And it works.

And then there’s Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands. In it, twelve-year-old Steven Lamb takes a very risky decision. His family has been devastated for a long time by the loss of his uncle, Billy Peters, who went missing nineteen years earlier. Steven wants his family to heal, and he believes that finding his uncle’s body, assuming he’s dead, will at least allow his family to start that process. It was always assumed that a man named Arnold Avery, who’s currently in prison for another child murder, killed Billy. So, Steven decides to write to Avery, and try to find out from him whether he killed Uncle Billy, and if so, where the body is buried. It’s a very daring ploy, since Avery has never admitted to that murder. And it begins a dangerous game of ‘cat and mouse’ between the two. And the stakes get higher as time goes on.

It can be very risky to try to get a criminal to admit wrongdoing, especially if it’s a serious crime like murder. But, few criminals are eager to tell what they’ve done. So, sometimes, a fictional sleuth has to come up with a different approach to getting the truth.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Love and Money’s Axis of Love.  


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Belinda Bauer, Ellery Queen, Lawrence Sanders