Category Archives: Carol O’Connell

Tryin’ to Make a New Start*

Reformed CriminalsThe police, of course, are supposed to uphold the law. And most real and fictional police try to do just that. That’s why it’s interesting to see how many PIs and police have actually been on the other side of the cuffs, so to speak. They may have different reasons for ‘switching teams,’ but they do it; and their experiences can give them a unique insight into the way criminals think. They’ve been there. And they can use that hard-won knowledge.

The idea of the reformed criminal becoming a police officer or PI has a long history. For instance, Émile Gaboriau’s L’Affaire Lerouge (The Widow Lerouge), which was told in serial form in 1864 (put together as a novel in 1900) features Monsieur Lecoq, a reformed criminal who has become a police investigator. Interestingly enough, Lecoq is modeled on a real-life police investigator, Eugène Vidocq, founder of the Sûreté. Like Lecoq, Vidocq was a criminal who turned informant, then became a police officer. He’s regarded by many as the founder of modern criminology. And it seems he was in a good position to know his field…

G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown is often assisted by private enquiry agent Hercule Flambeau. They call on each other when one or the other has a particularly difficult or interesting case. But as fans of these stories know, Flambeau wasn’t always on the right side of the law. When we first meet him in the short story The Blue Cross, he’s a notorious thief who’s on his way to London to steal a valuable religious artifact. The French police are after him, but Father Brown proves more than a match for both. And as the Father Brown stories continue, Flambeau proves to be just as skilled at working for ‘the good guys’ as he is at stealing. It’s interesting, too, to see the influence Father Brown has on Flambeau. He doesn’t suddenly become an avid churchgoer, or begin observing religious traditions regularly. But he does re-think his purpose, and it’s not hard to see Father Brown’s role in that process.

Carol O’Connell’s Kathy Mallory also has what used to be called a ‘checkered past.’ At six, she witnessed her mother’s murder and ended up running off from her native Louisiana to New York, where she lived on the streets for a time. Then, she was caught trying to steal by New York City police detective Louis Markowitz. Mallory, as she’s usually called, faced the not-very-optimistic prospect of juvenile detention, foster homes, and possibly worse. But Markowitz took her in instead, and became her foster father. In Mallory’s Oracle, Mallory has become a police officer herself, and is hoping to make some sort of decent life. Then, her adoptive father is murdered in the course of an investigation. Mallory determines to find out who the killer is, and works with Markowitz’ partner Riker to learn the truth. Readers of this series know that Mallory isn’t what you’d call a ‘typical’ police officer. Her history still has a profound impact on her.

There’s also David Whish-Wilson’s Frank Swann. As a teenager and young adult, he did his share of lawbreaking. He was influenced in another direction, though, by his wife Marion’s father George Monroe. When he and Marion were dating, Swann had the opportunity to spend some time with her father, and
‘…George Monroe saw something in him that nobody else had, even encouraged him to join the force. In contrast with his stepfather, Monroe was a man Swann could admire.’

Under Monroe’s influence, Swann decided to join the police force. In Line of Sight and Zero at the Bone, we see that he’s a good cop, too. He’s not afraid to get tough if he has to, and he doesn’t always exactly follow the policy book. But he’s on the honest side of the law.

And then there’s Peter May’s Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod. When we first meet him in The Blackhouse, he is a police officer who lives and works in Edinburgh. He is seconded to the Isle of Lewis to help investigate the murder of Angel Macritchie, whose death closely resembles another case that Macleod’s been working. Macleod’s originally from Lewis, so for him, this case represents a sort of homecoming, ‘though not one he would have chosen. As the novel goes on, we learn that this case will force Macleod to face his own past. And it’s not an entirely happy one. Before becoming a police officer, Macleod wasn’t exactly a model child. He got into trouble more than once. For him, joining the police force was a way to escape the mistakes he’d made and start over. So it’s hard for him to return. And it’s interesting to see how he’s viewed once everyone on Lewis knows he’s with the force. It’s also interesting to see how he comes to view himself.

Law enforcement is a lifelong career goal for some people. But for others, it becomes a way to do something more productive with their lives than crime. And sometimes it works out quite well.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Rodgers’ Heartbreaker.


Filed under Émile Gaboriau, Carol O'Connell, David Whish-Wilson, G.K. Chesterton, Peter May

You Can Always Depend on Me*

Enabled DetectivesNot long ago, I had an interesting comment exchange with FictionFan at FictionFan’s Book Reviews and Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books. Both blogs, by the way, are excellent resources for honest, interesting and thoughtful book reviews. If you love reading, you’ll want those blogs on your blog roll.

Our conversation was about what I’ll call fictional police enablers: supervisors who enable maverick cops. In real life of course, there are limits to what a police officer is allowed to do in the course of an investigation, and there are rules that govern how police are supposed to get evidence, deal with suspects and the like. And while those policies aren’t always followed, there are real consequences for cops who don’t.

In fiction though, it doesn’t always work out that way. There are plenty of fictional maverick cops, and although their supervisors don’t always like what they do, they usually keep those police officers from getting in real trouble.

We see this for instance in more than one of Arthur Upfield’s Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte mysteries. Bony works for the Queensland Police, and is often sent out to crime scenes in remote towns and rural areas. He knows very well that official police policy doesn’t always work in those places, and he knows even better that they don’t work among the Aboriginal people who are sometimes concerned in his cases. And Bony would rather solve cases than stick strictly to the letter of the law. So in that sense he’s a maverick. His unorthodox ways do get him into trouble with the ‘higher ups’ at times, but they don’t cost him his job. One reason for that is that he’s a brilliant detective. He gets the job done. Another is that despite the fact that his supervisor gets exasperated with his refusal to go along with policy, he knows that Bony’s the best at what he does. So he protects him.

Carol O’Connell’s NYPD homicide detective Kathy Mallory is another example of a maverick detective. She’s had a very dark, troubled background and matters were made worse when her surrogate father, police detective Louis Markowitz, was killed in the line of duty. Mallory is arguably a sociopath and has little regard for departmental policy. In many ways, you might call her a supervisor’s nightmare. But she is good at catching ‘bad guys’ and she is unafraid to go up against some very nasty people. What’s more, she’s protected by her mentor (and Markowitz’ former partner) Detective Riker. Riker knows about her past, and he has his own share of issues, so he has some sympathy for her. And that’s part of why he enables her, if you want to put it that way.

Fans of Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole will know that he’s broken just about every policy there is. He’s gotten too close to cases, done patently illegal things, and more. And that’s not to mention his struggles with alcohol and drugs. Despite all of that, he’s a brilliant detective. In fact, he’s about the best there is when it comes to serial killers and other ‘unusual’ sorts of murders. That’s part of why his boss Bjarne Møller protects him as much as he does. Møller knows that Hole will get the job done if he can just stay on a somewhat even keel (and sometimes, even if he can’t). What’s more, he knows that Hole’s colleagues respect his ability.

Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest seldom follows policy. As it is, she’s independent and sometimes rash. Add to that her knowledge of the part of Australia’s Outback where she lives, and it’s easy to see why she’s not much of a one to do what she’s told to do if it makes no sense to her. When we first meet Tempest in Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs), she’s just returned to the Moonlight Downs Aboriginal encampment after some time away. She gets involved in a murder case when the group’s leader Lincoln Flinders is murdered. In the process of finding out who killed the victim and why, she meets Superintendent Tom MacGillivray. He sees that Tempest has a lot of practical knowledge and that she’s smart and gutsy. That’s part of the reason he protects her, even enables her, when he can. There’s also the fact that she has a fairly strong instinct for tracking down leads. But MacGillivray can’t do much to enable Tempest in Gunshot Road. He’s been sidelined by injury, so Tempest comes temporarily under the command of Bruce Cockburn. She quickly finds out that Cockburn won’t enable her at all when the team is called to the scene of a murder at Green Swamp Well. Cocburn is satisfied that the death was the tragic result of a drunken quarrel. Tempest isn’t sure that’s true. And in this novel, she learns among other things that being a maverick can be costly.

And I don’t think it would be possible to discuss maverick police detectives without mentioning Ian Rankin’s John Rebus. Rebus fans will know that he is much more interested in finding out the truth about the cases he works than he is about following policy. There are plenty of instances in which he takes his own approach to dealing with ‘bad guys,’ tracking down leads and so on. Sometimes he’s enabled, mostly because the people he works with know he’s a very good detective, and that he won’t give up on a case. But even the legendary Rebus isn’t enabled all of the time. When he lets his temper get the best of him in Resurrection Men, he’s sent off to Tulliallan Police College as a last-ditch effort to ‘reform’ him. And he’s certainly not enabled in Black and Blue when he turns up some unpleasant truths about a ‘bent’ senior officer. He’s sent off to investigate the murder of an oilman instead of being assigned the more prestigious case of a killer who seems to be copying a serial killer from years earlier. That doesn’t stop Rebus though…

I know I haven’t mentioned all of the fictional police mavericks there are (I know, I know, fans of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch). But just from these few examples, we can see that some are more enabled by their superiors than others. Some push the limits of what they’re allowed to do more than others. And of course some stretch credibility more than others. But they arguably have in common that someone in authority sees that their detective skills and their integrity outweigh their unwillingness/inability to play by the book, so to speak. And as challenging as it can be, that’s reason enough for some people to protect a cop who doesn’t always ‘mind the manners.’

What do you think of the premise of the maverick cop who’s protected by someone in charge? Does it make sense?

Thanks, FictionFan and Cleo, for the inspiration!



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lamont Dozier and Brian and Eddie Holland’s Reach Out (I’ll be There), made popular by The Four Tops.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Arthur Upfield, Carol O'Connell, Ian Rankin, Jo Nesbø, Michael Connelly

But I Would Not Be Convicted By a Jury Of My Peers*

I’ve been summoned for jury duty. In the U.S., a jury summons means one has to appear at one’s local courthouse and make oneself available to serve on a jury. If one gets called, then attorneys for each side in a case work with the judge to select the jury from the pool of people whose names have been called. I don’t know if I’ll actually be placed on a jury, but it’ll be interesting to find out. In the meantime, my jury summons has got me to thinking about the important role that juries and jurors play in crime fiction. And just to make things interesting, I’m not going to focus on novels such as Philip Margolin’s or Scott Turow’s, which have the legal system as their main context. That would be too easy.  ;-) You can find juries in a lot of other crime fiction, too.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Hercule Poirot is traveling by air from Paris to London. On the same flight is Marie Morisot, also known as Madame Giselle, a well-known French moneylender. Madame Giselle uses as “collateral” information she has learned about her clients, and so far, she’s had to write off very few “bad debts.” During the flight, Madame Giselle is poisoned. The only possible suspects are the other people who were on the same flight, so Poirot works with Chief Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp to find out who killed Madame Giselle and why. A very incriminating piece of evidence is found behind the seat Poirot occupied on the plane, so when the inevitable inquest is convened, the jury brings a verdict of willful murder against Poirot. But the coroner won’t accept the verdict and insists that the jury return another verdict. The jury brings back another verdict, this time of willful murder against a person or persons unknown and frees the police and Poirot to find the real killer.

There’s another Christie novel too where the soundness of the jury system and its use in a crime are essential but…no spoilers.  If you know this novel, you know which one I mean.  ;-)

In Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, Lord Peter Wimsey is attending the murder trial of mystery novelist Harriet Vane. Vane’s been charged with the poisoning murder of her former lover Philip Boyes and there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence against her. She had arsenic in her possession, she and Boyes had been quarreling, and the last thing Boyes had to eat or drink was a cup of coffee that Vane gave him. Wimsey is smitten with Vane and wants her name cleared. One of the jurors is Wimsey’s friend Katherine Climpson. She isn’t convinced that Vane is guilty and her commitment to her position ends up in a hung jury and another trial for Vane. That’s all that Wimsey needs to begin asking questions and looking into the case. With Inspector Parker, Wimsey finds out that Vane is by no means the only one who might have wanted Philip Boyes dead, and in the end Wimsey finds out who the real killer is.

Carol O’Connell’s Dead Famous gives a central role to a jury. In that novel, a Chicago jury delivers a controversial acquittal of an accused murderer, and everyone thinks the verdict was wrong, maybe even somehow rigged. A killer known as The Reaper takes the verdict very seriously and one by one, the members of the jury begin to die. What makes matters worse is that New York “shock jock” Ian Zachary is playing a ghoulish on-air game for its shock value. He’s challenging listeners to find the members of the jury in a game of “spot the juror.” In the meantime, Detective Sergeant Riker is recovering from a series of bullet wounds from a line-of-duty incident. During his “down time” he spends time with the family business, an agency that cleans up scenes of crimes. One of the employees Johanna Apollo turns out to be much more important than it seems at first, especially when it comes out that she was one of the jurors in the original case. As Riker struggles to heal, protect Johanna Apollo, Detective Kathleen “Kathy” Mallory is trying to catch The Reaper before there’s another murder and get Riker back to work for her own reasons. In the end, we find out the truth about what happened in the jury room that led to the acquittal, and how it relates to the current deaths.

What happens on a jury and with jurors plays an important role in Michael Connelly’s The Brass Verdict. In that novel, attorney Mickey Haller is left with several cases when a colleague Jerry Vincent is murdered. Haller starts to work on Vincent’s cases and his focus turns to one in particular. Film producer Walter Elliot has been charged with murdering his unfaithful wife Mitzi and her lover Johan Rilz, and Vincent had been Elliot’s attorney. L.A.P.D. cop Harry Bosch is working on the Vincent murder case, and he begins to think that Vincent’s murder has something to do with the Elliot case that Haller has “inherited.” Each with a separate kind of expertise, Bosch and Haller slowly begin to unravel what’s really going on and what the truth is behind the murders. No spoilers here, but the behaviour of the jurors is closely related to what happens in this novel.

The behaviour of one juror in particular is the focus of Ian Rankin’s short story Not Provan, which appears in his collection A Good Hanging. As an aside, I really do love the title of this story. :-)  In that story, Inspector Rebus is attending the trial of Willie Provan, a thug and gangster whom he’s never liked. Provan is a member of Tiny Alice, or T-Alice, an Edinburgh gang that has staked out its turf and defends it in any way they can. Provan has been charged with murdering a football fan who strayed onto T-Alice’s patch, and the prosecution has an extremely good case against him. In fact, Rebus is certain Provan will be convicted easily. But then Provan’s counsel surprises everyone, including Rebus and the jury, with a strategy that just may get Provan acquitted. Rebus knows very well that Provan committed the crime, so he decides to do some of his own investigation to see if he can poke a proverbial hole in the defence’s strategy. To Rebus’ surprise, he discovers that one of the jurors is just as convinced that Provan is guilty and is doing his own sleuthing. Rebus follows the juror and finds that this man has come to exactly the same conclusion about what to do. The juror actually finds out a key piece of evidence, giving Rebus the clue he needs. The way in which Rebus handles the new evidence, the juror and the possible risk of jury tampering and mistrial may not be what everyone would do, but it is innovative.

It’s fascinating and unsettling to think about how many technicalities there are in a trial, and where juries fit in. The jury system may be imperfect, as any legal system is to at least some extent, but it’s an entrenched part of many societies’ ways of handling criminal justice. So it’s not a surprise that it’s woven into lots of crime fiction.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Carol O'Connell, Dorothy Sayers, Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly

You’re Brokenhearted From a Long, Long Time Ago*

We’re all affected by things that happen to us during our childhoods. Since the early days of psychoanalysis psychologists, psychiatrists and other researchers have explored the way that early experiences shape the adults we become. There are, of course, lively debates about the effects of those experiences, but just about everyone agrees that those effects are real. And when those experiences are difficult or even traumatic, they can have a dramatic impact on one’s later life. It’s true enough in real life, and we see it in crime fiction, too. In fact, it’s interesting to note the number of fictional sleuths who’ve had difficult childhoods or traumatic experiences in their youths. When that kind of backstory is done well, it can add to a sleuth’s character and help to explain why certain things affect the sleuth as they do.

Agatha Christie was fairly reticent about the backstories of her most famous sleuths Jane Marple, Hercule Poirot and Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. So we don’t really know much about their histories. But Christie does touch upon the effects of a troubled childhood in some of her work. For instance, in Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), we meet Oliver Manders, who works in a law office. One night, he’s invited to a cocktail party at the home of famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. The party is no sooner underway than one of the other guests, Reverend Stephen Babbington, suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. At first, no-one can imagine why anyone would want to kill the beloved clergyman, but Hercule Poirot, who was also at the party, begins to investigate the matter. Manders is a suspect, since he was at the party and since he’d had more than one disagreement with Babbington on the subject of religion. He’s even more suspicious when he turns up suddenly at the Yorkshire home of Sir Bartholomew Strange, a noted medical specialist, on the very night when Strange also dies of poison. And Manders isn’t exactly a pleasant person. He’s got a world-weary, blasé manner and a sometimes sharp way of speaking. And we find as we get to know him better that he’s been rather unpleasant since childhood. We also find out that his childhood was a very unhappy one. His parents weren’t married (at that time, a cause for shame and disgrace), and he didn’t really have a stable home environment. In the end, although Manders is still not the most likeable of characters, we do feel some sympathy for him.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch has also been deeply affected by traumatic childhood experiences. When he was eleven, his mother was murdered, and he didn’t know who his father was. So Bosch spent a lot of his childhood in orphanages and other institutions for children. He carries a lot of anger about his situation and it’s not until he’s older that he confronts that trauma and starts to deal with it. In The Last Coyote, he has an argument with a superior that ends with Bosch shoving his superior through a window. That’s enough for the L.A.P.D. to put Bosch on indefinite leave while he undergoes psychiatric evaluation. Bosch isn’t eager for the process, but he knows it’s his only chance to get back on the job. So he begins to work with Dr. Carmen Hinojos to try to make sense of his past. He also decides to look into a thirty-year-old murder case – that of his own mother. At the time, no-one paid much attention to the death; Bosch’s mother was “only a prostitute,” after all. But as Bosch looks into the case a little more, he finds that there were other reasons that no-one did much about the case, and that there are still people who don’t want it solved.

Carol O’Connell’s Kathleen “Kathy” Mallory is also deeply affected by her difficult childhood. As a ten-year-old, she ran away from a terrible home situation in New Orleans and ended up in New York City. For a time, she was homeless, living by her wits as the saying goes. But then, N.Y.P.D. officer Louis Markowitz found her and took her in. Markowitz becomes a father figure to Mallory and provides for her the only stable, caring home she’s ever had. Then, in Mallory’s Oracle, Markowitz is investigating a series of killings of elderly suburban women when he’s murdered himself and his body found near that of one of the victims. Mallory, by then on the police force herself, determines to find Markowitz’ killer. She works with his former partner Riker to discover the truth about what happened. Throughout this series, we can see the effect on Mallory of the trauma she’s endured. She’s a skilled detective, but completely untrusting and what some people call sociopathic.

And then there’s Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, whom we meet in his Millennium trilogy. Molested and otherwise abused since childhood, she’s become what some people call near-feral. She’s a brilliant computer expert, and she’s both smart and shrewd. But her experiences (and the fact that she has Asperger’s Syndrome) have crippled her emotionally and socially. She trusts no-one, she does not respect the “social rules,” and she’s quite honestly a very difficult person. But she’s just the partner that journalist Mikael Blomqvist needs in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo when he is hired by Henrik Vanger to find out the truth behind the disappearance of Vanger’s great-niece Harriet. Blomqvist takes the case because he’s in desperate financial need if his publication is to survive, and he and Salander begin to look into the history of the Vanger family. They find a number of dark secrets in the Vanger family’s past, and in the end, they discover what really happened to Harriet Vanger.

Louise Penny’s Detective Yvette Nichol has also been shaped by her difficult past. Her family is originally from Eastern Europe, but has settled in Canada, and her father Ari is determined that the family will be accepted there and that his daughter will make them proud. Yvette has grown up with a parade of relations coming and going, speaking in a language she doesn’t understand and basically hijacking her home. Life has also been difficult for her because she’s been put under a tremendous amount of pressure to do well. So she’s learned to do anything, including lying, backstabbing and more, to move ahead and “look good.” What Nichol wants – what she’s always wanted – is to belong, and to fit in. She’s very much her own worst enemy, and when Chief Inspector Armand Gamache tries to include her on the team and take an interest in her, she sabotages that chance to belong. To be honest, she’s not a particularly nice person, nor a trustworthy one. It’s understandable that her colleagues don’t want much to do with her. But as we learn about her background, we can at least see what made her the person she’s become, even if we don’t like that person very much.

P.D. Martin’s Sophie Anderson has also been shaped by childhood trauma. In her case, her brother was abducted and killed when she was a little girl. At the time of her brother’s disappearance, Anderson had troubling nightmares that were put down to coping with what happened. But as she’s gotten older, she’s realised that those nightmares are actually psychic visions – flashes of what’s going on in killers’ and victim’s minds. Anderson’s decision to become an FBI profiler was heavily influenced by what happened to her brother, and she continues to learn how to use her visions to “get into the minds” of killers and catch them.

There are other examples of sleuths who’ve been shaped by troubled childhoods (Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone comes to my mind). On one hand, this kind of backstory can be overdone and become melodramatic. On the other, if it’s done well, it can add to the depth of the sleuth’s character, provide interesting plots for stories-across-stories, and make the sleuth more interesting. But what do you think? Do you get tired of sleuths who’ve had troubled childhoods? Or do you think it’s an interesting plot point?


Many thanks to Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan for the idea for this post. Folks, do please check out Bill’s terrific blog.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Through the Long Night.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Carol O'Connell, Louise Penny, Michael Connelly, P.D. Martin, Stieg Larsson, Sue Grafton

>Welcome To My Life*

>It’s almost 2011, and lots of people are reflecting on the year that’s gone by and the year to come and making their plans. I think that’s a great idea. So I’ve used the terrific My Life As a Book idea created by Pop Culture Nerd and tossed together a set of sentences to help us all think about the year to come – crime fiction style ;-).

Here’s the way I’ve used crime fiction stories to complete the sentences:

I plan to spend my New Year’s Eve (or I spent my New Year’s Eve): At Bertram’s Hotel – Agatha Christie

I’ve made a resolution to: Write to Kill (Daniel Pennac)

I plan to quit my habit of: Love, Lies and Liquor (M.C. Beaton) ;-)

I hope I’ll get to visit: The Hanging Valley (Peter Robinson)

One project I didn’t finish last year but want to finish this year is: The Murder Book (Jonathan Kellerman)

I want to learn: Killer Routine (Alan Orloff)

I’m not looking forward to: Hard Time (Sara Paretsky)

My biggest dream for the year is: Temporary Sanity (Rose Connors)

I hope I don’t end up: Dancing for the Hangman (Martin Edwards)

I’ll probably spend a lot of time: Killing Critics (Carol O’Connell) – Um – If you’re a writer, you probably really understand this one…

Now it’s your turn… Wanna play? Just copy and paste the sentences in your own blog and complete them with your own crime fiction choices. I’d sure love to read your answers!! You can put as many restrictions (e.g. only books you read in 2010, or only books on your 2011 TBR list, etc.) or as few (like I did) restrictions on your answers as you want. Oh, and feel free to use the image if you want to. C’mon, let’s play! It’ll be fun…..

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Simple Plan song.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Orloff, Carol O'Connell, Daniel Pennac, Jonathan Kellerman, M.C. Beaton, Martin Edwards, Peter Robinson, Rose Connors, Sara Peretsky