Category Archives: Betty Webb

Evil Woman*

Malicious CharactersMarina Sofia, who blogs at Finding Time to Write, offered a ‘sneak peek’ at the novel she’s writing, and I was glad to read it. You’ll want to check it out yourself as you do your blog rounds. The character Marina Sofia depicts is malicious and cutting, and I have it on good authority that she was fun to write.

It all has me thinking about the way those malicious characters are portrayed in crime fiction. They may be first wives, office ‘queen bees,’ fellow club members, or something else. But they can make one’s life miserable. Still, they can add a layer to a crime story, and they can be fun to create.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, for instance, we are introduced to Louise Leidner. She and her husband, noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, are staying with the other members of Leidner’s dig team near an excavation site a few hours from Baghdad. Louise hasn’t really had an easy time of it at the site, though. She’s begun to have real fears about seeing faces at windows and hearing hands tapping and so on. Her husband has hired a nurse, Amy Leatheran, to stay with her and help allay her fears. It works well enough until the afternoon that Louise is found bludgeoned in her room. Hercule Poirot is in the area on business, and is persuaded to take some time to investigate. He soon learns that the victim was not a much-loved, angelic person.  While she could be polite, even charming, when she wanted, she could also be quite rude. In fact, more than one character admits that Louise could get anyone angry, and that sometimes, she did so deliberately. It’s an interesting psychological portrait, and it gives Poirot plenty of suspects.

Louise Penny’s A Fateful Grace (AKA Dead Cold) features celebrated ‘life coach’ C.C. de Poitiers. Her book, Be Calm, has gotten a lot of notice and interest, and she’s parlayed that into a series of successful businesses. In private, she’s far from the supportive, kind coach that people see in her public persona. She’s rude, malicious and greedy. So when she decides to move her family to the small Québec town of Three Pines, it doesn’t take long for her to alienate just about everyone. On Boxing Day, she is murdered during the traditional curling match that takes place in the area. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec and his team investigate the murder. They find out that there are plenty of people who were upset at the victim’s rudeness and malicious treatment of others.

In Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night, Delhi social worker Simran Singh returns to her home town of Jullundur in the state of Punjab to help with a troubling case. Thirteen members of the powerful and wealthy Atwal family have been poisoned, and some stabbed. The house has been set on fire, too. The only survivor is fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal, but she hasn’t said anything about what happened. And it’s not clear whether she is guilty, or is a victim who survived the attack. The police hope that Simran will be able to get the girl to talk about what happened.  This case means a return to Simran’s home town, and it’s not exactly a happy occasion. Still, she resolves to try to find out what she can. That will mean talking to several people whom she knew as a child. One of them is her school friend Amrinder, with whom she used to compete academically. Both Amrinder and her mother, Ma Sukhhi, remember Simran very well, and although Ma Sukhi is now older and quite ill, she is still more than happy to ‘put Simran in her place’ with plenty of rudeness and reminders of her social position. That reunion doesn’t solve the case, but it does give the reader a sense of what social life is in towns such as Jullundur.

In Betty Webb’s Desert Wives, PI Lena Jones goes undercover at a strange religious compound called Purity. She’s there to find out who killed its leader, Solomon Royal. The most likely suspect is one of Jones’ own clients, and she wants to clear her client’s name if possible. As a part of her cover, Jones adopts the guise of a new arrival, and is assigned to work with the other women of Purity. Soon enough, she encounters Sister Ermaline, the victim’s first wife, who runs Purity’s large kitchen operations. In her position, she is in charge of just about everything the other women do, and is quick to establish both her authority and her power. She’s unpleasant and bossy, and it’s easy to fall afoul of her. So Jones finds it a challenge just to speak with her, let alone find out anything useful. It’s an interesting example of the ‘pecking order’ in the place.

We get a slightly different perspective on such characters in Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. Alistair Robertson and his partner Joanna Lindsay take a very long trip from Scotland to his home near Melbourne. With them is their nine-week-old son, Noah. The trip itself is a disaster, but they finally arrive in Melbourne, and begin the drive from the airport to Alistair’s home town. The idea is that if they move there, he’ll be in a better position to get custody of his teenaged daughter Chloe, who lives with her mother (and Alistair’s ex-wife) Alexandra. During the drive, Joanna and Alistair face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of Noah. A massive search is undertaken, and at first, there’s a lot of public support for the couple. But then, questions arise, as they often do in such cases, and people begin to wonder whether the parents, especially Joanna, might have had something to do with Noah’s disappearance. Some of the chapters in the novel are written from Alexandra’s perspective, and a few include interactions between her and Joanna. In those, it’s interesting to see that on one level, Alexandra is the bitter, rude ex-wife you might expect. On another, though, there is more to her character than you might imagine. It’s an interesting look at what might be going on in the mind of what seems like a malicious character.

Interestingly, it’s not always female fictional characters who are portrayed in this way. For instance, in Laura Joh Rowland’s Shinju, which takes place in 1689 in what is now Tokyo, we are introduced to Sano Ichirō, the city’s newest senior police commander. He is assigned to write and submit a report on the deaths of ‘well-born’ Niu Yukiko and a peasant artist named Noriyoshi. At first, the deaths look like a double suicide, and the official theory is that the couple were secret lovers who committed suicide because they couldn’t be together. But Sano soon comes to believe that there was more to these deaths than that. Very soon, though, he runs up against several obstacles. One is that his supervisor insists that he not do any personal investigation, as that sort of work is for police who are lower in rank. Another is that any suggestion of bothering or offending Yukiko’s wealthy and powerful family will mean serious trouble. It doesn’t help matters that Sano doesn’t have the support of his fellow senior investigators Yamaga and Hayashi. They both see themselves as superior since they’ve been there longer, and since they were born into families of higher social status. So they never hesitate to insult Sano and treat him rudely, sometimes subtly and sometimes quite overtly. Still, Sano has a sense of duty to his position, and continues looking into the case. He finds that these deaths are much more complex than a case of desperate lovers.

Malicious, rude characters can add a lot to a story, particularly when they offer insight into a social structure or character. And they can be fun to write. Which ones have stayed with you?

Thanks, Marina Sofia, for the inspiration!

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by ELO (Electric Light Orchestra).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Betty Webb, Helen Fitzgerald, Kishwar Desai, Laura Joh Rowland, Louise Penny

If You Look the Part You’ll Get the Job*

20151126_092844-1The conference name badge and backpack you see in this ‘photo serve a couple of important purposes. The backpack is, of course, handy for carrying notes, a pen, the conference handbook, and the many other little things conference delegates need when they go to different sessions. And the name badge makes it easy for people to introduce themselves or discreetly check if they really do remember that person from the last conference.

But name badges, backpacks and the like serve another purpose too. They identify a person as belonging to a group. If you walk into a conference venue with your name badge, you’re immediately accepted (and forgiven for any  ‘I’m a foreigner – sorry!’ blunders you may make).  No-one questions your presence. It’s quite different if you walk in without the name badge, backpack or both.

Those sorts of identifiers show up a in crime fiction, too, and they can mark a person as ‘belonging’ or ‘not belonging.’ They don’t always take the form of a name badge, but they can play a role. To give you one very general example, medical mysteries and thrillers (e.g. Michael Palmer’s work, Robin Cook’s, and so on) often have a plot point that includes a character who ducks into a hospital changing room and dons a lab coat. No-one really takes notice of a person in a lab coat in that environment. It’s a symbol that identifies someone as belonging there. There are more specific examples, too, of the way this works in crime fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, Jerry Burton and his sister Joanna move to the village of Lymestock so that Jerry can recover from a wartime injury. On the surface, Lymestock seems to be an idyllic small town, peaceful and just right for recuperation. It doesn’t turn out to be that way, though. One day, Joanna and Jerry receive a vicious anonymous note that suggests they are not siblings, but lovers. Then, they learn that other villagers, too, are getting such notes. When one of those letters results in a suicide, and another death follows that, the police investigate. But, as the local vicar’s wife knows, Miss Marple is far better suited than are the police to find out the truth in a small, closed-mouth village like Lymestock. One of the interesting side issues in this novel is the local perception of Joanna. She’s a very smart dresser who wears makeup. This identifies her immediately as not belonging. And there are plenty of people who think that she shouldn’t wear makeup and should dress more ‘village.’

Kerry Greenwood’s Earthly Delights introduces readers to Melbourne baker Corinna Chapman. In one plot thread, a local drug user nearly dies right near Chapman’s bakery, and she finds herself slowly getting drawn into the mystery of how it happened. There’ve been several overdoses in the area, some of which have led to death. The trail leads Chapman and her lover Daniel Cohen to a Goth club called Blood Lines. A person can’t just walk into the club, so Chapman and Cohen are going to have to look as though they belong. Chapman gets some help from her friend Pat, who goes by the professional name of Mistress Dread. The dress she wears, and the boots, make her look exactly right for the club, so that no-one questions her presence there. This allows her and Cohen to find out the truth about the drug deaths.

In Maureen Carter’s Working Girls, Birmingham DS Beverly Morriss and the team she works with investigate the murder of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas. A search into the victim’s background reveals that she was a commercial sex worker, so Morriss wants to talk to anyone else in that profession who might have known her. When one of Morriss’ contacts disappears, and another is badly beaten, it’s clear that Morriss will have to dig deeper. She wants to talk to other sex workers, but of course, they wouldn’t be exactly open to talking to a police officer. But she finally persuades one of her contacts to let her join a group of ‘the girls.’ Morriss knows she’s going to have to fit in, and that includes thinking about how she identifies herself. Her final choice of clothes isn’t perfect, but,
 

‘…at least it wasn’t blue and no one would ask her to read the meter.’
 

In this case, wearing anything like a badge or other identifier would immediately have marked Morriss as ‘not belonging.’

Betty Web’s PI Lena Jones needs to find a way to look as though she belongs in Desert Wives. She and her PI partner Jimmy Siswan have a difficult case. Esther Corbett has hired them to rescue her thirteen-year-old daughter Rebecca from a secretive polygamous religious group called Purity. They succeed, only to learn that the cult’s leader, Solomon Royal, was shot and killed on the same night that they got Rebecca. What’s worse, Esther is implicated. If she’s going to rescue her client, Jones will have to find out who really shot the victim. But she won’t be able to enter the community without seeming to belong. So she borrows a
 

‘…long-sleeved, high-necked, ankle-length calico…’
 

that serves as an identifier for the women who live at Purity. Suffice it to say, the clothes Jones wears during this assignment are not at all like her usual choices.

Barbara Neely’s sleuth, Blanche White, works as a domestic. She’s a Black woman in a world where the rich and powerful are very much White. But nobody questions her presence if she wears a uniform. It’s a badge that marks her as an employee; in that sense, it makes her invisible. She’s part of ‘the help,’ so very few people pay any attention to what she does as she investigates.

And that’s the thing about name badges, lab coats, uniforms and so on. They give a person a certain kind of group membership (e.g. conference delegate, ‘the help,’ hospital employee, and so on). And that means that people don’t always think to question what that person is really doing.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Bragg’s To Have and Have Not.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Neely, Betty Webb, Kerry Greenwood, Maureen Carter, Robin Cook

Take Me Down to My Boat on the River*

HouseboatsThere’s something about living on a boat that has a lot of appeal for some people. Living on a houseboat means a certain amount of mobility and flexibility. And although it’s far from free, living on a houseboat means you don’t pay property taxes, municipal water/sewage fees and so on, because you don’t own land. If your boat’s paid for, it can be a lot less expensive to live on a houseboat than to live in a conventional ‘nice area.’ Depending on your finances and priorities, you can have a very nice boat, too.

There are houseboat communities all over the world. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we see a lot of houseboats in crime fiction, too. Houseboat communities are interesting contexts, and living on a houseboat can give the sleuth an interesting character dimension.

Perhaps the most famous crime-fictional example of a houseboat dweller is John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. He’s a ‘salvage consultant’ who lives on a boat he calls The Busted Flush (he won the boat in a poker game). McGee helps clients who’ve been robbed to get their property back; he charges half the value of the property, which keeps him in boat paint and canned goods. The Busted Flush is moored in Lauderdale, Florida, but McGee also travels on his boat at times. Life on the boat suits McGee, as he doesn’t want to be overly encumbered with things.

Fans of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux will know that when we first meet him in The Neon Rain, he’s living on a houseboat in Lake Ponchartrain, and working for the New Orleans Police Department. He’s an avid fisherman, and that’s what draws him into this particular case. He’s fishing on Bayou Lafourche when he discovers the body of a young woman who turns out to have been a prostitute. He starts investigating only to find that a very powerful drugs gang does not want him to stick his nose in, as the saying goes. And he finds out soon enough that the New Orleans Police Department seems no more eager than the criminals for Robicheaux to learn who the woman was and why she was killed. Certainly Robicheaux doesn’t find the serenity he thought he would find when he got the houseboat.

Daniel Pembrey’s Henk van der Pol is an Amsterdam police detective who features in Pembrey’s Harbour Master trilogy. As van der Pol puts it,
 

‘We Dutch remain at heart a seafaring people: a small but proud collective who once traded with the farthest reaches of the globe…’
 

He carries on that history in his way. He and his wife Pernilla live on a houseboat, and he has a morning ritual of looking out over Amsterdam Harbour before he starts his day. That’s why he’s on the scene when a dog walker notices something one morning and gives the alert. It turns out to be the body of a young woman. There is no identification on her except for a tattoo on her ankle, which van der Pol discovers is the insignia of a dangerous Hungarian gang. The ‘higher-ups’ among the police force want this case to go away; and in fact, van der Pol is removed from it. But that doesn’t mean he’s willing to give up. There’s a scene in this story in which we are reminded that houseboats are not always safe places.

There’s also Betty Webb’s Teddy Bentley. She works at the Gunn Zoo in Northern California, and lives on the Merilee, which is moored at Gunn Landing Harbor. She loves her boat, but one of the running conflicts in this series is that her mother would like nothing better than for her to give it up and find a ‘real’ place to live. In the first novel, The Anteater of Death (OK, can we pause for a moment and appreciate that title?), the body of Grayson Harrill is found in the anteater enclosure at the zoo. At first, Lucy the Anteater is blamed. But when it’s discovered that Harrill was shot, it’s clear to Bentley that Lucy was not responsible. Then there’s another murder. Now Bentley has to find out who is using the zoo as a murder site.

But it’s not just sleuths who live in houseboats. In Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery (AKA Münster’s Case), Intendant Münster and his team investigate the stabbing death of Waldemar Leverkuhn. He and some of his friends went in together on a lottery ticket, and have just found out that they won. So they go out to celebrate. Later that night, Leverkuhn is murdered. Of course the police look close to home (Leverkuhn has left behind a wife and some children). They also talk to the people who live in the same apartment building. But there isn’t much in the way of useful information. When they learn about the lottery ticket, they think they may have found the motive. So they interview the other people who in were with Leverkuhn on the lottery ticket. One of them, Bonger, hasn’t been seen since the night of the murder, so naturally the police are particularly interested in him. He lives on a houseboat, so the Münster and his team interview some of the other members of that houseboat community. They are quirky and interesting, but really can’t shed much light on Bonger’s whereabouts. This aspect of the plot sheds an interesting light on some of the people who choose to live in houseboats.

And then there’s Barry Maitland’s The Raven’s Eye. There are plenty of people who live in houseboats moored in London’s canal system; one of them is Vicky Hawke. One day, one of the other houseboaters finds Vicky dead in her bed, apparently of carbon monoxide poisoning. The first, and most likely, explanation is that the boat’s heating system wasn’t properly ventilated, and the victim succumbed while she was sleeping. But Kolla has her doubts, and begins to ask some questions. That’s when she finds that ‘Vicky Hawke’ wasn’t the victim’s real name. That discovery opens up all sorts of possibilities for killer and motive. It all goes to show that houseboats can be dangerous.

But they do have an appeal, especially for people who want to get away from conventional apartments or houses. Just…don’t think of them as peaceful…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Boat on the River.

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Filed under Barry Maitland, Betty Webb, Daniel Pembray, Håkan Nesser, James Lee Burke, John D. MacDonald

He’s Adept at Adaptation*

AdaptingWe all have to adapt to new circumstances. If you get a new job, you need to learn the way your new employer does things. When you move to a new place, you have to find out where the library, the grocery store and the banks are. You also need to learn the local culture and fit in, if you want to settle in. The fact is, humans are a social species, so most of us want to be part of a group. The way to do that is…adapt.

Some adaptation makes a lot of sense. New employees need to learn company policies. Moving in with a new partner or spouse means that both parties have to adapt if the relationship is going to be successful. But how far does adaptation go before it means giving up too much? It’s not always an easy question, and crime fiction makes that clear. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll be able to add lots more than I could.

Some adaptations aren’t really all that difficult. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), we meet Jane Grey. She’s a hairdresser’s assistant in an upmarket London salon. She isn’t what you’d call poor, but she’s certainly not well-off. When she has a very unexpected win in a lottery, Jane decides to have a taste of ‘the good life.’ She takes a holiday at Le Pinet, as many of her clients have done. It’s not the fantasy trip it might have seemed, as she has quite a losing streak. But Jane is practical, and never really expected to spend the rest of her life in the lap of luxury. She does have to make some adaptations, so as to mix effectively with those who can go to Le Pinet whenever they want:
 

‘Jane, like most London girls employed in smart places, could produce a miraculous effect of fashion for a ridiculously small outlay. Nails, make-up, and hair were beyond reproach.’
 

The efforts that Jane goes to don’t cost her that much. But they do get her involved in a murder investigation when a fellow passenger is murdered on the flight back from France to London. I know, I know, fans of The Mystery of the Blue Train.

Adaptation (and lack thereof) takes on a more deadly cast in Talmage Powell’s short story To Avoid a Scandal. Horace Croydon is an up-and-coming bank official who is neat, quiet, and utterly respectable in every way. He’s always led a rather staid life, and as he moves up the bank’s proverbial ladder, he makes sure to only hire people who, like him, are completely respectable, preferably quiet, and with no hint of scandal anywhere in their families. Then one day, he meets his boss’ cousin Althea. When they first meet, she strikes him as quiet and respectable, just as he is. After a tasteful amount of time, they begin seeing each other seriously. Finally they’re married. That’s when Horace begins to see that Althea is not the person he thought he’d married. From his point of view, she is not a meticulous enough housekeeper, she has sloppy habits (she even shops without a list!) and is too ebullient for good taste. He keeps hoping she’ll adapt if he ‘corrects’ her, but she doesn’t. Then one day, she destroys a set of ciphers he was trying to work. They’re his passion, so this pushes him too far. Now Horace decides there’s really only one way to solve his problem. In this story we might very well ask, ‘who didn’t adapt?’

In Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, Walter and Joanna Eberhart move with their two children from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. They’re looking forward to more space, lower taxes, and good schooling for the children. From the very first, Joanna finds it a bit difficult to adapt. She’s a semi-professional photographer and a feminist who’s now living in a town where all of the women seem preoccupied by their homes and taking care of their families. In one scene, for instance, she’s in the supermarket, and notices that,
 
…they even fill their carts neatly!’
 

She tries to adapt, but finds it difficult to be,
 

‘…deeply concerned about whether pink soap pads are better than blue ones or vice versa…’
 

After a short time, she makes a friend in Bobbie Markowe, who shares Joanna’s frustrations. Neither of them wants to make the adaptations that it seems they’re expected to make. And that has consequences for both.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little introduces us to Alice Steele, a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant. She meets Bill King, a junior investigator for the district attorney, and the two fall in love. Bill’s sister Lora, a Pasadena teacher, is not at all impressed with Alice, and becomes concerned for her brother. But even she understands that it might just be a bit of jealousy on her part. So she doesn’t interfere when Bill and Alice get married. Alice soon settles into married life in the suburbs, and adapts very quickly. She becomes the social leader among their friends, and Lora tries to be friendly with her, mostly for Bill’s sake. But Lora wonders just how much Alice has adapted. The more she learns about Alice’s past, the more she wonders just who Alice really is. As she finds out, Lora is repelled, but at the same time drawn in, by Alice’s world. Then there’s a murder, and a good chance that Alice might be mixed up in it. So Lora starts asking questions, mostly (as she tells herself) to protect her brother. That choice turns out to have real consequences for everyone.

The question of how much you give up of yourself when you adapt comes up in Betty Webb’s Desert Wives. PI Lena Jones and her business partner Jimmy Sisiwan investigate the murder of Solomon Lord, leader of a very reclusive polygamist sect living on a compound called Purity. The members of the community are not willing to talk to ‘outsiders,’ so it’s decided that Jones will go undercover as a new member of the community. To do so, she has to make a lot of adaptations. It’s not just a matter of dressing in a particular way, either. Everyone’s activities are circumscribed, even non-verbals such as eye contact. Every new member has to make those adaptations, and they can be difficult. Jones does discover who killed the victim; she also uncovers other very dark secrets at Purity. But doing so requires almost more adaptation than she finds possible.

And then there’s Tonino Benacquista’s Badellas, which introduces readers to Fred and Maggie Blake and their children, who move from the US to the small Normandy town of Cholong-sur-Avre. The family finds it a challenge to make the adaptations they have to make to fit in in their new home; there are cultural differences, language differences, and food differences. Matters aren’t made any easier by the very high stakes involved.  Fred Blake is really Giovanni Manzoni, former member of the New Jersey Mob, who testified against the group. Now he and his family are in the US Federal Witness Protection Program, with new names and identities, and many adjustments they have to make. And when word of their whereabouts gets back to New Jersey, life gets even more complicated for them…

Adapting is often challenging, especially when it involves major adjustments. And those changes can be highly stressful. But they are part of life for a lot of people. And they can make for interesting plot points in a novel.

 

ps. There is little better adapted for life in the semi-arid climate where I live than a cactus. Unless it’s a lizard, but they’re harder to photograph…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rush’s Digital Man.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Betty Webb, Ira Levin, Megan Abbott, Talmage Powell, Tonino Benacquista

It’s All About the Same Thing Underneath the Disguise*

Same Underlying Plot, Different BookIn Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, Hercue Poirot works with Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race, and detective story writer Ariadne Oliver to solve the stabbing death of the enigmatic Mr. Shaitana. There are only four suspects, and each one could have committed the crime. What’s more, each one has, or so Shaitana hinted, killed before. The sleuths look into the background of all of the suspects to see what kind of murders they committed, and whether those crimes bear the same hallmarks they see in the Shaitana case. When Mrs. Oliver says that she wouldn’t commit the same kind of murder twice, here’s the conversation that ensues:
 

‘‘Don’t you ever write the same plot twice running?’ asked Battle.
‘The Lotus Murder,’ murmured Poirot. ‘The Clue of the Candle Wax.’
Mrs. Oliver turned on him, her eyes beaming appreciation.
‘That’s clever of you – that’s really clever of you. Because of course those two are exactly the same plot, but nobody else has seen it.’’
 

And she’s not the only author to use plot points, or even entire plots, that have been used before.

The fact is, there aren’t that many plausible reasons to commit murder. So if you look beyond the outer trappings of setting and so on, you’ll see a lot of books that bear similarities to other books, even if you might not think so at first. Moira at Clothes in Books got me thinking about this, and I’m glad she did. It’s an interesting topic, so I am grateful for the inspiration.

Some books’ similarities are quite clear, because they have such a similar context. For example, Ngaio Marsh’s Enter a Murderer and Caroline Graham’s Death of a Hollow Man both feature on-stage murders during the performance of a play. And in both cases, the sleuth has to look among the people who had access to the stage props to find out who would have been able to commit the crime. There are some differences (e.g. in one, the death looks like a suicide, but in the other, it’s a more obvious murder). But the underlying nature of the plot is strikingly similar.

Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair is the story of Gilbert Hand, who has recently moved to a very respectable London hotel. He’s settling into his room when he discovers that the ottoman he wants to use as a storage space has something hidden in it. Hand pulls out the silk-wrapped package and discovers a coil of long dark hair. He begins to wonder about the person who owned that hair, and it’s not long before he discovers that that person is Freddie Doyle. When Doyle tries to reclaim the hair, Hand refuses. Now he begins to be obsessed with Doyle, and that obsession leads to tragedy. It might not seem on the surface that this would bear a lot of resemblance to Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, which features a Pasadena schoolteacher named Lora King, and her relationship with her new sister-in-law Alice. But underneath the very obvious differences, there are some real similarities. Like Gilbert Hand, Lora King makes some unsettling discoveries about a person (in this case, Alice). And, like Hand, King finds herself becoming obsessed. She is both repelled by and drawn to Alice in the same way that Hand finds himself both repelled by and drawn to Doyle. And in both these novels, disaster strikes. Of course there are important differences between the books. Those differences set them apart and make each a unique read, with different characters and so on. But the core of the plot in the two books is very similar.

That’s also true of James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos and Walter Mosley’s A Red Death. One takes place in modern-day Louisiana; the other takes place in 1950’s Los Angeles. One features a police detective, and the other an amateur/soon-to-be PI. And the books focus on different kinds of contexts, too (a New Orleans crime syndicate v a Black church and the people who volunteer there). Different kinds of people are murdered, too. But underneath those major differences, we see some very strong similarities. In both cases, the sleuths are pressured by government authorities to bring down someone regarded as a ‘bad guy.’ In both novels, the sleuths are reluctant to do so, but are persuaded. And both sleuths face a serious internal struggle when they find themselves sympathetic towards the person they’re supposed to be targeting. These aren’t by any means alike. Each author has a unique way of telling the story, of developing the characters, and of resolving the story’s conflicts. But the underlying cores are quite similar.

They are in Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City and Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart, too. These stories are unlike each other in many ways. They take place in different settings, feature different kinds of murder victims and murderers, and ‘star’ very different kinds of sleuths. You might not think of them as having anything in common. And yet, they do. In each case, we have a sleuth who has to find out why someone who seems innocent enough on the surface would be targeted. We also have some very, very ugly past history that plays an important role. And the solution for each case has to do with the past coming back, if you will. Saying more would bring me closer than I like to spoiler territory. But if you’ve read both books, you’ll know what I mean.

Betty Webb’s Desert Wives and William Ryan’s The Twelfth Department might not seem to be similar stories at all. And in a lot of ways, they are not. One features a PI; the other ‘starts’ a police detective. They take place in very different time periods (the former takes place is a modern-day story; the latter takes place in pre-World War II Moscow), and the murder victims are very different sorts of characters. But look closely and you’ll see these stories have more in common than you might think. Both involve penetrating a closed community; in one case it’s a compound owned by a fundamentalist sect, and in the other a group of scientists working on a top-secret project. And in each instance, the original murder – the reason the sleuths look into things – hides a much deeper, uglier truth.

There are many more examples of crime novels that tell similar ‘core stories,’ even though they are quite different. And if you think about it, that’s logical, considering that there are only so many credible reasons for murder, and only so many believable kinds of plots. What’s your view on this? Have you ever had that sense of déjà vu as you see that two quite dissimilar novels actually have a lot in common?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. And speaking of inspiration, may I suggest your next blog stop by Clothes in Books. It’s a rich resources of fine book reviews and informative discussion of clothes, popular culture, and what it all tells us about ourselves. I learn every time I visit.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joe Walsh’s Over and Over.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Betty Webb, Caroline Graham, Charlotte Jay, James Lee Burke, Megan Abbott, Ngaio Marsh, Timothy Hallinan, Walter Mosley, William Ryan