Category Archives: C.J. Box

For I Found Release in a Lost Loophole*

Any good lawyer will tell you that defending clients sometimes means looking for loopholes and technicalities of law. And skilled police detectives know that they won’t as likely get a successful prosecution unless everything is carefully done ‘by the book.’ Loopholes can also be used to catch criminals.

Because they’re so important to the real-life criminal investigation process, it’s little wonder that loopholes and technicalities play a role in crime fiction, too. Whether it’s in the courtroom, in gathering evidence, or something else, loopholes can make a big difference. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of others.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Hercule Poirot is living in the village of Styles St. Mary. He is drawn into a murder investigation when Emily Inglethorp is poisoned. Poirot is especially determined to catch the killer here, because Mrs. Inglethorp was responsible for helping him escape wartime (WW I) Belgium and sponsoring him in England. When he works out who the killer probably is, Poirot is faced with a particular loophole that the killer is planning to use. And once he knows what that technicality is, Poirot is able to use it against the murderer.

In David Dodge’s Death and Taxes, we are introduced to George MacLeod, a San Francisco tax accountant. He’s been very successful, and a big part of the reason for that is that he’s skilled at finding all sorts of loopholes to save his clients money. One day, he gets a new client, Marian Wolff. She wants him to help her avoid charges of tax evasion, and get a tax refund, although she hasn’t filed the necessary paperwork. She offers MacLeod an irresistibly high fee if he’ll take on the job, and he agrees. But it’s going to be a major challenge. So, MacLeod asks his business partner, James ‘Whit’ Whitney, to come back early from a trip to Santa Cruz and help in this client’s case. Whit comes back as asked, but by the time he gets there, MacLeod’s been shot. Now, Whit is going to have to figure out who killed his partner if he’s going to stay alive himself.

In John D. MacDonald’s Pale Gray For Guilt, ‘salvage expert’ Travis McGee gets involved in the case when an old friend, Tush Bannon, is killed. Before his death, Bannon was under a great deal of pressure to sell his small marina/motel business to make way for a large new development. He resisted, and his opponents did everything they could to ‘convince’ him. Now, he’s dead, and McGee wants to know why. The trail leads to land speculator Preston LaFrance, and high-powered businessman Gary Santo. Both of these men are highly skilled at taking advantage of all of the legal technicalities and loopholes that will allow them to do what they want to do. So, McGee’s up against formidable opponents. But he has his economist friend Meyer on his side, and together, the two of them come up with their own scheme…

There’s a different sort of loophole in C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. Jack McGuane and his wife, Melissa, are, among other things, the loving adoptive parents of baby Angelina. Everything in their lives is working until one day, McGuane gets a shattering call from the adoption agency trough which they adopted Angelina. It seems that her biological father, Garrett Moreland, never waived his parental rights. And now, he wants to exercise them. At first, it seems like just a horrible mix-up. But it isn’t. Moreland really does want to take advantage of that loophole. What’s worse, his father is a powerful judge who is in full support of what his son is doing. Together, the Morelands visit the McGuanes. They start by asking for Angelina, and soon move to trying to bribe the McGuanes. They even offer to pay for another adoption. But the McGuanes are unwilling to give up their daughter. Soon enough, Judge Moreland uses his position to get what he and Garrett want. He issues a court order requiring the McGuanes to surrender Angelina within twenty-one days. They refuse and resolve to do whatever it takes to keep their child. That decision leads to all sorts of consequences that neither had anticipated.

And then there’s Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case. Caspar Leinen is a newly-qualified Berlin lawyer who’s taking his turn on standby duty for legal aid when he gets a new case. It seems that Fabrizio Collini, who’s lived quietly in Germany for many years, went to the Hotel Adlon, found the suite occupied by Jean-Baptiste Meyer, and shot him. This isn’t going to be an easy case for Leinen. For one thing, there is no question of Collini’s guilt. He even admits as much himself. For another, Collini does nothing to defend himself. In fact, he even says he doesn’t want a lawyer. But German law requires that all persons accused of crimes have legal representation. So, Leinen gets to work. As a part of his research, he goes back into history, and to finer points of the law. There, he finds a technicality of German law that he is able to use.

Loopholes may be small and obscure. But they can make all the difference in a court case or an investigation. It’s interesting to see how fictional sleuths (and criminals) use them.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from UB40’s Everything is Better Now.


Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, David Dodge, Ferdinand von Schirach, John D. MacDonald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Could’ve Been Me*

Readers often get drawn into a story by identifying with particular characters or situations. That feeling of ‘That could be me!’ can add suspense to the reading experience. It can also help readers understand characters and their motivations. And plenty of authors use this approach.

For example, the real action in Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!) begins as Elspeth McGillicuddy is on board a train on the way to visit her friend, Miss Marple. She gets comfortable and drowses just a bit, as anyone might do. She happens to wake when another train passes her train, going in the same direction. As the train goes by, Mrs. McGillicuddy happens to glance into the windows of the other train. That’s when she sees a man strangling a woman. We’ve all been in situations where we were on trains, buses or planes, half-asleep and not paying much attention. So, it’s easy to relate to Mrs. McGillicuddy’s shock when she sees the murder. She tries to get the conductor and police to believe her, but no-one has been reported missing, and there’s been no report of a body on any train. The only person who really does believe Mrs. McGilicuddy is Miss Marple. She does her own experimentation to find out where the body might be, and soon enough, it’s discovered.

Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Soul Murders starts when Bowen’s sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, gets a call from her daughter, Mieka. It seems Mieka was getting rid of some dirty rags that had gotten soiled from cleaning up at the catering business she owns. That’s how she found the body of seventeen-year-old Bernice Morin in a nearby trash dumpster. Kilbourn goes to help her daughter and ends up getting involved in a case of multiple murders that has its roots in the past. We’ve all taken trash out, probably without thinking much about it. It’s one of those ordinary things that can make a reader think, ‘That could’ve been me.’

Peter Robinson’s Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Banks series begins with Gallows View. In the novel, Banks has recently moved with his family from London to the Yorkshire town of Eastvale. He’s not there long before he finds himself confronted with several cases. One of them is the case of a voyeur who’s making the lives of Estvale women miserable. In a couple of scenes related to that sub-plot, a character is changing clothes, and gets a creepy sense of being watched. It’s easy for readers to identify with that feeling. If you’ve ever started to change your clothes, and then suddenly checked to be sure the curtains or shades were drawn, you know that feeling. Readers can identify with hat eeriness, and it draws them in.

C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye isn’t part of his Joe Pickett series; it’s a standalone. In it, we meet Jack McGuane, a Travel Development Specialist for the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. His wife, Melissa, works at a local hotel. They are also loving parents to eighteen-month-old Angelina. Then, one day, their world is shattered. They get a call from the agency through which they adopted Angelina, and it’s very bad news. It seems that the baby’s biological father, eighteen-year-old Garrett Moreland, never waived his parental rights. Now, he’s decided to exercise them, and he wants Angelina back. At first, it seems like a terrible mix-up. But then, the McGuanes’ adoption lawyer refuses to get involved, saying there’s nothing much that can be done. It’s clear now that there’s something more here than a change of mind. To make matters worse, Garrett’s father is powerful judge John Moreland, and he intends to do whatever it takes to support his son. In fact, the McGuanes receive a court order to surrender Angelina within twenty-one days. This they refuse to do. And before he knows it, McGuane finds himself doing things he never would have imagined. And it’s not hard for readers, especially readers who are parents, to identify with what it might be like to have your child taken from you. That connection adds to the suspense of the novel.

If you’ve ever taken a baby or a very small child on a plane trip, you can understand how Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson feel at the beginning of Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. They’re on the way from Scotland to Robertson’s native Victoria, a trip of some 24 hours or sometimes much more, depending on stopovers. With them is their nine-week old son, Noah. Even under the best of circumstances, Noah isn’t an ‘easy’ baby. And a long airline trip is not the best of circumstances. Any parent who’s been on a long flight like this will likely identify with the parents’ exhaustion and frustration as the baby refuses to stay settled and sleep. Several of the other passengers lose their tempers, and it’s an awfully difficult experience for everyone. The tension doesn’t ease up when the plane lands, either. On the drive from the airport in Melbourne to their destination, the couple faces every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of their son. There’s a massive search, and a lot of help and sympathy, too. Then, there start to be whispers (and then gossip, and then full-on accusations) that the parents, especially Joanna, might have been involved in this case. Matters get worse and worse, but in the end, we find out the truth about Noah.

These are only a few examples of the way authors can use events to draw readers into a story. When readers can connect with the characters (i.e. ‘That might have happened to me!’), they’re more likely to stay engaged in the story. And that’s what any author wants.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by John Martyn.


Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, Gail Bowen, Helen Fitzgerald, Peter Robinson

They’ll Be There Calling Me ‘Baby’…Maybe*

When a young person’s parents can’t or won’t provide a safe and appropriate living environment, that child is sometimes made a ward of the state. This often means the child goes to a foster home or series of foster homes, and is supposed to be monitored by a social services agency. It’s not at all an ideal solution, but it can be better than living with a parent who’s addicted to drugs, or who abuses the child, or who needs intense and ongoing mental health care. Young people who spend time in ‘the system’ need to develop a tough exterior, and things can be difficult for them. Sometimes, their lives work out well; sometimes they don’t.  Either way, such children can make interesting characters.

There are plenty of them in crime fiction, too. For instance, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is a product of the ‘the system.’ He’s the son of a prominent lawyer and a prostitute. Since his father wasn’t a part of his life until he was an adult, he spent his early childhood with his mother. Then, when she was murdered, he became a ward of the state, and spent much of his time in foster care, orphanages, and other institutions. Those experiences have definitely impacted Bosch’s life, and given him a different outlook on life to the one he might have had if he’d grown up in a stable home.

In C.J. Box’s Open Season, we are introduced to Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett. Shortly after the novel begins, he has an encounter with a local poacher, Ote Keeley. It doesn’t go well for Pickett. A few months later, Keeley’s body turns up near the Picketts’ own woodpile, and Pickett is drawn into the mystery of who killed the victim and why. When Keeley’s daughter, April, is abandoned by her mother (that story arc appears in a few of the novels), the Pickett family takes her in. Officially, she’s a ward of the state, but the Picketts see her as their adopted daughter. She adjusts to life with her new family, but, as fans of Winterkill and Below Zero know, things do not magically turn out all right for her.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe is the owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Botswana’s only female-owned private investigation agency. At the beginning of the series, her focus is on her work. Everything changes when her then-fiancé, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, takes in two foster children, Motholeli and her brother Puso. They’ve lived at the local orphanage as wards of the state since their parents died, and are doing well enough. But Mma Silvia Potokwane, who runs the orphanage, wants them placed in a good home. She persuades Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to take the children, and at first, Mma Ramotswe isn’t too pleased that all of this happened without her knowledge. But she takes to the children, and they to her. And in the end, these children find a safe and caring new home.

So does former Bangkok street child Miaow, whom we meet in Timothy Hallianan’s A Nail Through the Heart. Ex-pat American Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty has taken Miaow in as a foster child, and his doing his best to care for her, with the help of his partner, Rose. It’s not always easy, because Miaow has her own trauma and ‘baggage.’ But she’s doing well – much better than she would if she’d stayed on the streets. Rafferty wants to adopt her legally; and, as the series goes on, we see what it’s like when children who are wards of the state go through the adoption process.

And then there’s Caroline Overington’s Sisters of Mercy.  In one interesting plot thread of this novel, we learn about a woman named Agnes Moore. Born in England, she was sent to an orphanage as a ward of the state when her parents were believed to be among the war dead (of World War II). After the war, she and many other British children were sent to Australia. Agnes stayed at a place called Fairbridge Farm, where she had a good experience. Later, she grew up, returned to England, and married and had a family. What she was never told, though, was that her parents weren’t dead. They were listed as dead in error, but they survived the war. When they found that Agnes had been sent to Australia, they went there, too, and had a second child, Sally ‘Snow.’ Agnes later discovered she had an Australian family, and the novel begins as she goes back to Australia to try to connect with her sister and, if possible, her parents. Instead, she goes missing. Her daughter, Ruby, wants the truth about what happened to her mother. Journalist Jack ‘Tap’ Fawcett is covering the story in a professional but not particularly interested way. His curiosity is piqued, though, when he learns why Agnes was in Australia. He starts to write stories about the family, and begins receiving letters from Snow, who’s now in prison for a crime that is revealed as the story goes on. She, too, has had experiences with the fostering system, ‘though from a very different perspective. Now thoroughly interested, Fawcett follows the history of both sisters, and it’s fascinating to see how differently they turned out.

Being in foster care – in ‘the system’ – doesn’t have to sentence a child to a miserable life. But it is a difficult situation, and many authorities try to avoid it if possible. It does make for some interesting plot points and characters, though.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Charles Strouse and Martin Charinin’s Maybe.



Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, C.J. Box, Caroline Overington, Michael Connelly, Timothy Hallinan

It’s the Spirit of the Underdog*

For a lot of people, there’s just something about the ‘underdog.’ You know the sort of character I mean. Outgunned, as the saying goes, but not willing to give up the fight. Sometimes we cheer for the underdog because we want a fair fight; we want everyone to have a sporting chance. Other times, it’s because the underdog happens to be right, and we want right to prevail. There are other reasons, too, that people seem to love underdogs.

That’s just as true in crime fiction as it is anywhere else. And having a character in the role of underdog can add a layer of character development. It can also invite readers to invest themselves in a story.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, we are introduced to Anne Bedingfield. Her father has recently died, leaving her with practically nothing. Still, she’s young and somewhat adventurous. One day, she happens to witness a tragic death at an underground station when an unknown man falls under an oncoming train. Naturally, she’s upset at the death, but she gets curious about a piece of paper that falls from among the dead man’s possessions. After a short time, she works out that the writing on the paper refers to the upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. Impulsively, she books passage on the ship, and is soon drawn into a web of international intrigue, stolen jewels, and murder. She’s up against considerable danger and a powerful enemy. But, although she’s far from perfect, she does have appeal. And part of that comes from the fact that she’s the underdog.

John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee knows all too well what it’s like to work with underdogs. In fact, he prefers them. McGee is a self-described ‘salvage consultant’ based in Lauderdale, Florida. He works with people who’ve been robbed and need to get their property back. They don’t have anywhere else to turn, and they don’t generally have money to spend on expensive PIs. McGee doesn’t charge a fee per se. Instead, he takes half of whatever he recovers for his clients. And for those down-and-out clients, it’s a bargain at twice the price, as the saying goes. And McGee is scrupulous about letting his clients know his terms before he goes to work for them. He has a soft spot for those who’ve been ‘taken’ by the corrupt, the dishonest, and the powerful. And that adds a layer to his character. It also invites readers to invest themselves in what happens to his clients.

The same might be said of the clients we meet in Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee series. Lee is a Toronto-based forensic accountant. Her specialty is finding money that people want to keep hidden. She works for Chow Tung, who owns a Hong Kong based company that recovers stolen money. This company’s clients have been swindled, often of large amounts of money, and are desperate to get their money back. Most have no other options. And, much of the time, those who’ve stolen the money are well-heeled, well-protected, and formidable opponents. So, Lee is quite familiar with taking the underdog’s side against a strong adversary. But, she’s no slouch herself…

Fans of C.J.Box’s Joe Pickett will know that he’s often a sort of underdog. Pickett is a Wyoming game warden who often goes up against dangerous and powerful opponents. He does have the force of law on his side, but he’s also learned the law can be for sale. So, he sometimes finds himself very much on his own, going against wealthy developers, well-armed drugs and animal traffickers, and so on. His status as the underdog arguably adds to his character, and invites readers to care what happens to him, especially readers who don’t care much for big business and corruption.

Fans of legal mysteries and courtroom thrillers can tell you that the ‘underdog lawyer’ is a very popular plot point in such stories. There are lots of examples; I’ll just share two. I know you can offer lots more examples than I could.

Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed isn’t really, strictly speaking, a legal novel. But it does have an important legal dimension to it. Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan has been arrested and convicted for the abduction and murder of a young boy, Rory Hutchinson. He’s scheduled to be executed in a matter of weeks. But he claims he’s innocent, and asks his former friend Douglas Brodie to try to help clear his name (Brodie is a former police officer who’s now trying to start a career in journalism). Brodie’s not sure what he can do, but he travels from London, where he’s been living, to Glasgow to see if he can help. That’s when he meets Donovan’s lawyer, Samantha ‘Sam’ Campbell. She lost her court case, but is still convinced her client was framed, and is working to appeal his conviction. In this novel, she’s very much the underdog. For one thing, the prosecuting attorneys are skilled and experienced. Sam’s got the skills, but not a lot of experience. For another thing, she’s a woman in what is very much a man’s world (the novel takes place in 1947). What’s more, once she and Brodie find out who’s really responsible for Rory’s murder, they learn that they’re up against money and power. The underdog status adds tension to the plot as the two try to save Donovan.

And then there’s Ferdinand von Schirach’s Der Fall Collini (The Collini Case). Italian immigrant Fabrizio Collini has lived peacefully in his adopted Germany for decades. Then one day, he abruptly travels to Berlin’s Hotel Adlon, where he finds, shoots, and kills Jean-Baptiste Meyer. He’s promptly arrested and taken into custody, where he says almost nothing. German law requires that all defendants be represented by an attorney, but Collini doesn’t have one. So, Caspar Leinen, a newly-fledged lawyer who’s on stand-by duty for legal aid, takes the case. To Leinen’s frustration, Collini doesn’t try to defend himself. He admits to the shooting, but gives no motive. Leinen does his best, though, to prepare for the trial; and in this case, he’s the underdog. The prosecution has the confession, witness testimony, the weapon, and more. The only thing they don’t have is motive. Nor do they have any evidence that Collini is deranged or otherwise a threat. If he’s going to win his case, Leinen will have to go back to the past to find out the truth behind this murder.

There are plenty of other novels that feature underdogs. And that plot point can add a great deal to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Europe’s Spirit of the Underdog.


Filed under Agatha Christie, C.J. Box, Ferdinand von Schirach, Gordon Ferris, Ian Hamilton, John D. MacDonald