Category Archives: Caroline Graham

Look at This Stuff, Isn’t it Neat?*

CollectionsDo you have a collecting hobby? Whether it’s T-shirts, antique hurricane lamps, books with skeletons in the cover art, or something else, collecting can be really enjoyable. It can be fun to hunt for additions to your collection, and it puts you in contact with others who share your interest. And it provides those who love you with no-fail ideas for birthday gifts.

Collecting can, of course, be expensive (depends on your particular interest). And sometimes collections are really valuable, which makes them tempting targets. There are also people who are so obsessed with their collections that they become dangerous. There are other risks, too, when you’re a collector. Little wonder collections come up so often in crime fiction. Here are just a few items; there are a lot more.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp and local police forces to solve a disturbing series of crimes. The murders have in common that Poiroit receives a cryptic warning note before each one, and that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. One of the victims is retired throat specialist Carmichael Clarke. He always had a passion for Chinese pottery and porcelain; and, when he inherited a fortune, he was able to devote much more time and money to that passion. Clarke’s love of collecting isn’t the reason he is murdered. But it is an interesting aspect to his character. I know, I know, fans of Cards on the Table

Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil also includes a character with a collection. In that novel, Queen has taken a house in the Hollywood Hills as a writing retreat. His plans change, though, when he gets a visit from nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill. She’s recently lost her father Leander to a heart attack which she’s convinced was deliberately caused. Queen is reluctant to get involved in the case at first. But he’s persuaded to look into the matter when Laurel tells him that her father’s death was preceded by a series of macabre ‘gifts.’ Her claim is that someone wanted him dead, and probably wants his business partner Roger Priam dead too, since Priam also has received ‘gifts.’ Priam doesn’t want Queen to get involved, but Laurel insists. As Queen looks into the matter, he learns more about Priam. The man’s not particularly educated, and not interested at all in literature or reading. But he does have a collection of ‘great books’ in expensive bindings. He owns the books more because rich men are supposed to have a library of fine books than because of any interest on his part. Still, the books do play a role in solving this mystery. I know, I know, fans of The Adventure of the One-Penny Black.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, we are introduced to financial consultant Dennis Brinkley. He has a very unusual collecting hobby: antique war machines. In fact, he’s got a special room set aside for his acquisitions. One night, he’s killed by one of his devices. The police theory is that this was a tragic accident, but Brinkley’s friend Benny Frayle doesn’t think so. She tries to persuade DCI Tom Barnaby to look into the matter, and he agrees to review the case file. He sees nothing untoward in it though. The police did a thorough and careful job, and there’s no reason to believe they were wrong. But then, self-styled medium Ava Garrett dies of poisoning not long after a séance in which she revealed some details about Brinkley’s death. Now Barnaby and his team have two suspicious deaths to investigate.

Art collecting is very popular, especially among people with means. Art can be intrinsically quite valuable, so some people collect it as an investment. But others do so because of their passion for art or for the work of one particular artist. Crime fiction fans will know that there are many novels that feature art collections, art theft and forgery and so on. One of them is Aaron Elkins’ Loot. This story features Boston art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere. Experts such as Revere provide extremely useful services when a museum or a private collector wants to establish whether a piece of art is authentic. So when pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky gets a painting he thinks is valuable, he calls Revere. When Revere gets a look at the painting, he immediately suspects it might be a priceless Velázquez that disappeared after it was ‘taken for safekeeping’ by the Nazis. Revere wants to take the painting with him while he researches it, because he’s concerned about Pawlovsky keeping an item like that in his pawn shop. But Pawlovsky refuses and Revere reluctantly leaves the painting there. When he returns a few hours later, Pawlovsky’s been murdered. Revere feels responsible, so he wants to find out who killed his friend. His view is that if he can trace the painting from the time the Nazis took it, he can find out who the culprit is. As he investigates, we learn how some of that art got into the hands of private collectors and museums after World War II. And in the end, we learn how the painting ended up at the pawn shop.

S.J. Rozan’s China Trade introduces Chinese American PI Chin Ling Wan-ju, who usually goes by Lydia Chin. In this story, she is hired by the Chinatown Pride (CP) Museum to find a collection of stolen Chinese porcelain. The porcelains were donated by the widow of wealthy private collector Hamilton Blair, and if they’re not found, the museum’s reputation will suffer. So Chin is urged to trace them as quickly and discreetly as she can. Chin and her PI partner Bill Smith look into the case and soon settle on a few possibilities. One is that a local gang, the Golden Dragons, took the porcelains because the museum wouldn’t pay protection money. Another gang, the Main Street Boys, might also be responsible. They ‘rented’ space from the Golden Dragons, and could have had access to the loot. Still another possibility is that one of the staff took the porcelains. As Chin and Smith get closer to the truth, the case turns from theft to multiple murders. And they’ll have to get answers quickly before one of them becomes the next target.

I admit I’ve not (yet) read Donald Westlake’s (as Richard Stark) Firebreak. But I couldn’t resist mentioning it here. This story sees Stark’s anti-hero Parker with a new job. His mission is to get his hands on a collection of priceless stolen artwork that dot-com millionaire Paxton Marino has secured at his Montana hunting lodge. Parker’s got enough to deal with before he even tries to get to the art. And things don’t get any easier once the heist is put in motion. Want to know more about Westlake’s Stark novels? Check out this interesting reference to them from Col at Col’s Criminal LibraryAnd as you’ll be there anyway, check out that great blog.

Collecting can be fulfilling, fun and sometimes lucrative. But it can also be very, very risky. Which novels with this theme have you enjoyed?

 

On Another Note…

Margot's Bookshelves

Talking of collecting, today’s your chance to see some of my collection…of books. Patti Abbott has kindly welcomed me to her excellent blog Pattinase to share what’s on my bookshelves. Do come pay me a visit there. And since you’ll be there anyway, have a look round the blog. Book reviews, music, great ‘photos, and of course, Friday’s Forgotten Books await you there!

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s Part of Your World.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Ellery Queen, Aaron Elkins, S.J. Rozan, Donald Westlake, Richard Stark

They Just Found Your Father in the Swimming Pool*

DiscoveryofBodyNot long ago, I did a post on joggers and runners in crime fiction. One of the interesting ideas I got from you folks as a response to that post is that there are a lot of joggers and runners (and dog walkers) who discover fictional bodies. The whole conversation got me to wondering just who does discover fictional murder victims. So I decided to do a bit of research.

I chose 200 fictional murders committed in books that I’ve read. My choices weren’t confined to just one era or sub-genre. For each of these murders, I made a note of who finds the body. Here’s what I found:

 

DiscoveringBodies

 

I was actually really surprised to find that 55 murder victims (27% of the total) were discovered by people in the course of their work. Just to give one example, in Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains, a maid brings morning tea to the victim’s room, only to find him dead. There are a lot of examples too of milkmen finding bodies on their rounds, cops on the beat finding bodies, commercial fishermen who find bodies in lakes, or renovators and builders who unearth bodies, that sort of thing.

The next most common way in which a body is discovered (in my data set anyway) is that people are witnesses to a murder. Among these fictional murders, 35 (17%) of the bodies don’t really have to be discovered, because there’s at least one witness to the killing. An example of this is in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), in which a group of passengers is present when one of their fellow passengers is poisoned. Interestingly enough, only the killer notices that it’s happened until it’s too late…

Some authors use the strategy of having a passer-by find a body. In my data set, that happens in the case of 32 murders (16% of the total). For instance, in Ed McBain’s Cop Hater, police detective Mike Reardon is shot. A passer-by sees the body and alerts police.

Family members discover bodies in 20 (10%) of the fictional murders I considered. In the case of James Craig’s Never Apologise, Never Explain, for instance, Agatha Mills is killed late one night in her Russell Square home. The next morning, her husband Henry discovers her body. Naturally the police suspect him, but it turns out that he’s as innocent as he says he is…

Among the fictional killings I looked at, 16 (8%) are discovered by visitors to the victim’s home or workplace. For instance, in Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, Benny Frayle pays a visit to her friend Dennis Brinkley, only to discover his body. At first it looks like a tragic accident, but in the end, it turns out to anything but.

Fifteen of the fictional murders I looked at (7%) are discovered after someone doesn’t come home, and a search is made. That’s what happens, for example, in Ruth Rendell’s Simisola, when a search for twenty-two-year-old Melanie Akande seems to lead to a body found in a forest. When it turns out not to be Melanie’s body, Inspector Wexford and his team have a very puzzling mystery on their hands.

The biggest surprise to me was that of all of the fictional murders I included here, only 5 bodies were discovered by runners/joggers and dog walkers! This is probably an artifact of the data as much as anything else, since I know there are more mysteries out there that include that plot point.

As with all of the data I share here, this set of data is limited by the fact that it only includes books I’ve personally read. There are of course many thousands of books I’ve not read. That said though, it’s interesting how often simply doing your job can put you right in the path of a dead body…

What do you think of all of this? Have you noticed who finds the body in the books you read? Who is it, usually?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Captain Jack.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Catriona McPherson, Ed McBain, James Craig, Ruth Rendell

How on Earth Did I Get so Jaded*

HurriedChildhoodDuring the 1980’s, Tufts University Professor David Elkind wrote a groundbreaking book The Hurried Child. In it, he made the powerful argument that many of today’s children are put under an untenable amount of pressure to grow up too quickly. One example of this pressure (and we’ve all seen this I think) is media hype that presents children as ‘little adults’ and sometimes even sexualises them. Another is the tendency (although this certainly isn’t the case all the time) for parents, especially single parents, to treat their children more as confidants than as children. All of this, Elkind argues, can do real damage to children, and serves to rob them of those crucial years of childhood development. The book’s been through several editions and is still widely read, which suggests among other things that these problems haven’t gone away.

It’s not always easy to clearly define the boundary between responsibility that helps a child develop important skills, and responsibility and pressure that isn’t appropriate for children. I think we’d all agree that it’s beneficial for young people to learn to, say, be responsible for their schoolwork or their spending money. But, Elkind argues, pre-teens aren’t ready for adult pressure such as sexual attention, and they’re not served well by the enormous pressure that’s sometimes put on them to ‘be the best,’ such as you sometimes see at sport events. There are plenty of children too who are expected to help provide family income and this, Elkind argues, also hurries children.

This issue crosses socioeconomic lines too. Whether or not you agree with each of Elkind’s arguments (and I do recommend the book), it really does seem that many children in all social classes are pressured to grow up quickly. It’s true in real life, and we see that plot thread in crime fiction too.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes relies on a group of such children: the Baker Street Irregulars. Led by a boy named Wiggins, they’re a group of street children who help him with his investigations. They know London very, very well, and can often observe and get information without calling attention to themselves, so they’re quite useful to Holmes. Conan Doyle doesn’t portray them as living very unhappy lives, but it’s interesting to see how even in this more ‘clean scrubbed’ picture of pressured childhood, the boys respond very positively to Holmes’ leadership and interest in them.

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River tells the story of London bargeman William Thornhill. In 1806, when he’s caught stealing a load of wood, he, his wife Sal and their children are transported to Australia. There, they do their best to make lives for themselves. Thornhill comes to love the land he’s moved to, and therein lies the problem. Other people of course have been living on that land for millennia, and there are real cultural and other conflicts between the new arrivals and the people who’ve always been there. Thornhill would like to resolve matters peacefully, but that view is by no means uninanimous, so some terrible crimes are committed. The first part of this novel tells of Thornhill’s early life in London. Born to a very poor family, he soon learns that the family will not survive if the children don’t do as much as they can, as early as they can, to earn money. In that society, it’s taken in a matter-of-fact way, and allowing children to actually be children is a luxury that the poor simply cannot afford.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, DCI Tom Barnaby and his assistant Gavin Troy look into the murder of financial advisor Dennis Brinkman. At first Brinkman’s death was thought to be a terrible accident, as his body was found under one of the ancient machines he collected. But his friend Benny Frayle is sure that he was killed, and won’t rest until his death is investigated. At first Barnaby and Troy aren’t convinced that this is a murder, but then there’s another death. Self-styled medium Ava Garrett dies of poison after a séance in which she saiid things about Brinkman’s murder that only the killer would be likely to know. Now Barnaby and Troy are faced with two murder cases. In one of the sub-plots of this story, we meet Ava Garrett’s pre-teen daughter Karen, who has had to grow up far too fast. They live in a not-too-well-kept council house along with Ava’s lodger Roy Priest, who’s also seen too much for his nineteen years. Ava is not a physically abusive parent, but she is self-absorbed and irresponsible. So it’s left to Karen and, when he can help out, Roy, to do the ‘adult work’ of managing the household. That’s not the reason for the murders, but it’s a clear example of a hurried child.

We also see one in Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory. Gideon Davies has always had a rare musical ability and has become a world class violinist. One terrifying day though, he finds that he can’t play note. So he begins to work with a psychotherapist to get to the bottom of his musical block. In the meantime, his mother Eugenie is killed one night in what looks like a hit-and-run accident. But as Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers soon learn, this was no accident. As the novel goes on, we see how that death is related to Gideon’s inability to play, and how both are related to a long-ago family tragedy. Part of the novel shows what the Davies family has been like, and how Gideon was pressured from a very early age to grow up because of his musical ability. And that pressure has a lot to do with the kind of person Gideon is now.

Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series, which takes place mostly in Bangkok, features American ex-pat Rafferty, a travel writer who is also fairly good at finding people who don’t want to be found. He’s married to Rose, a former bar girl, now the owner of an aparment cleaning company, who herself had to grow up too fast. He’s also in the process of adopting Miaow, a former street child who’s seen more during her childhood than anyone should have to see in a lifetime. Being forced to grow up too fast has had a profound effect on Rose and on Miaow and through them, on Rafferty. Although he does his best to provide a good life for both, there’s a hardness to them, especially Miaow, that comes from not having had the chance to be a child.

In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we are introduced to fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. She is academically gifted, and her dreams go far beyond the limits of her home in Alexandria, on New Zealand’s South Island. Her teacher, Ilsa Klein, has high hopes for her as well, and considers her a very promising student. Then everything begins to fall apart. Serena stops coming to class regularly, and when she is there, she doesn’t participate. It’s clear that something is wrong, and Ilsa wants to help, so she alerts the social welfare authorities. That turns out to be a mistake, as Serena’s mother is deeply resentful of that ‘interference.’ Then Serena disappears. Her sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington, where she lives, back to Alexandria to help in the search. To her it’s shocking that three weeks have gone by and nothing has been done to find Serena. As the story moves along, we see that Serena has had to grow up too fast, and so have her siblings. In part it’s because of the family’s dysfunction; in part it’s because of the family’s socioeconomic situation. There are other factors too. And they play a role in the events that happen in the novel.

There are a lot of other crime novels in which we meet children who are forced to grow up before they’re ready. It’s very hard on them, and certainly doesn’t aid in helping them to become fulfilled, productive adults. There’s an eloquent commentary on it in Denise Mina’s Garnethill, which takes place in Glasgow. In this scene, protagonist Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell is visiting her friend Leslie. Here’s what Leslie has to say about a neighbour’s child:
 

‘‘That’s wee Magsie,’ said Leslie. ‘She’s three and a half. Aren’t ye, wee teuchie?’
Wee Magsie kept her skirt over her face and giggled shyly, rocking from side to side.
‘Yes,’ said the biggest girl, who could only have been seven. ‘I’m her big sister and I’ve to look after her today.’…
‘See that?’ said Leslie. ‘They’re wee mammies before they stop being kids.’’

 

Which novels with hurried children have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Caroline Graham, Denise Mina, Elizabeth George, Kate Grenville, Paddy Richardson, Timothy Hallinan

Won’t You Listen to Me Now*

Police CarNot long ago, I was on a bus where I saw a sign encouraging riders to report suspicious activity. ‘If You See Something, Say Something’ was the tag. And most police do want to know about suspicious activity; they want citizens to feel comfortable reporting crime.

But the police have limited resources and finite amounts of time to investigate. This means they have to establish priorities. So, for instance, more resources would be devoted to a report of a murder than to a report of a purse-snatching. The police want both crimes solved, but they can’t do it all at once. Besides, there are people who report suspicious activity or even crimes when there isn’t really a crime involved, and the police don’t want to waste time and resources on so-called wild goose chases. What’s more, if the police really are satisfied that everything possible is being or has been done, they’re not likely to keep going over a case.

That’s part of the reason for which the police sometimes don’t follow up carefully, at least at first, on everything that gets reported to them. That happens in real life, and it also happens in crime fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddingtion (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!), Elspeth McGillicuddy takes a train to visit her friend Jane Marple. At one point, another train going in the same direction passes by and Mrs. McGillicuddy happens to look in the window of the other train. To her shock, she sees a woman being strangled. Of course she summons the conductor and the railway authorities, but there is no sign of a murder. There’s no body, and no-one has reported a missing person who fits the victim’s description. When Mrs. McGillicuddy arrives at Miss Marple’s home, she tells her friend what happened and Miss Marple insists on going to the police. They duly take down the information, but they don’t do much about it since there is no evidence that anything happened. In fact, the suggestion is made that perhaps Mrs. McGillicuddy imagined or dreamt something. Neither woman is happy at all about this dismissal, so Miss Marple takes matters into her own hands. She takes a ride on the same train and deduces where the body would be if it was thrown from the train. And that’s how she settles on Rutherford Hall as the likely place. With help from professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow, Miss Marple shows that there was indeed a body and therefore, a murder. She also finds out who the murderer is.

In Carolyn Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, the body of financial advisor Dennis Brinkley is discovered in his home. The police respond quickly and an investigation is made. The evidence suggests that Brinkley was killed accidentally by one of the antique war machines he collected. Nothing suggests anything else. But Brinkley’s friend Benny Frayle doesn’t believe Brinkley’s death was an accident. So she goes to the Causton police station to ask for a further investigation. DCI Tom Barnaby agrees to at least look into the matter, mostly because Benny seems so distraught. And he does re-read the original reports. But nothing seems out of order and it’s clear that investigating officer DS Gresham was scrupulous. Besides, Benny is eccentric and was a good friend of the deceased: her views are not likely to be objective. There seems to be nothing further to investigate and Barnaby sends Benny Frayle a note to that effect. Then there’s another murder that could be connected to the first death. Now Barnaby and DS Gavin Troy re-open the Brinkley case, and in the end, they find that Benny was right: Dennis Brinkley was murdered.

In Karin Fossum’s When The Devil Holds the Candle, Runi Winther pays a visit to the police. She’s concerned because her son Andreas hasn’t been home for the last few days. It’s not that Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer is unfeeling or not willing to listen to citizens. Neither of those things is true. But as he tells Runi, there are many reasons that a young man might take off for a few days without telling anyone where he’s going – especially not his mother. Sejer encourages his visitor to patient for a bit, and he reassures her that her son will most likely be in touch very soon. More time goes by though, and Andreas Winther is still missing. Now Sejer too begins to wonder what’s happened, so he and his assistant Jacob Skarre start to ask questions. One person who is of immediate interest is Andreas’ best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. So Sejer has several conversations with Zipp. As it turns out, Zipp knows more than he says at first. No, he didn’t kill his friend. But he does have some important information about the mystery.

In Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Alone in the Crowd, Dona Laureta Sales Ribeiro goes to the local police station one afternoon and asks to see the chief. As it happens, Inspector Espinosa is in a long meeting, so the receptionist invites her to either wait or speak to Espinosa’s assistant Detective Welber. Dona Laureta doesn’t stress that the matter is urgent, and she won’t speak to anyone else but Espinosa. So the receptionist doesn’t interrupt the chief. On the one hand, nobody pays an awful lot of attention to Dona Laureta or to the matter that brought her to the station. On the other, it isn’t a case of laziness or refusal to listen to a citizen. Dona Laureta herself even says that she’ll come back later and leaves. Before she can return though, she falls, or is pushed, under a bus. The death is put down to a tragic accident at first. But when Espinosa finds out that this victim actually came to see him, he takes an interest in the case. Then there’s another death. This time the victim is Dona Adélia Marques, a friend of Dona Laureta’s. Now Espinosa and his team take an urgent interest in both cases and as it turns out, the deaths are related.

And then there’s Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, the second of his Delhi-based Vish Puri series. In one plot thread of that novel, Puri’s wife Rumpi and his mother Mummy-ji attend a kitty party. Each guest adds money to the kitty at the beginning of the party. Later, one guest’s name is drawn and that person wins the money in the kitty. On this day though, robbers break in and steal the money. Mummy-ji is not one to ‘go quietly,’ and she finds a creative way to get hard evidence against the thief. When she tries to tell the police about it, though, they are dismissive and even joke to each other about her:

 

‘Seems Miss Mar-pel is here.’

 

Mummy-ji doesn’t give up though, and in the end, she and Rumpi find out who the thief is.

In most cases, it’s not that the police don’t want to solve crimes or hear what citizens have to say. But they are often overworked and understaffed. And sometimes, people who come to the police station aren’t (or at least don’t seem) credible. But as crime fiction shows, sometimes it pays to pay attention.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Tarney’s Hold On, recorded by Barbara Dickson.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Karin Fossum, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Tarquin Hall

When the Sun Comes Up on a Sleepy Little Town*

Small TownLook at any picture postcard and you’ll see that the image of the village or small town is supposed to be peaceful, quiet and inviting. But beneath the surface of small-town hospitality and pleasantness can lurk an awful lot of nastiness. In a way that’s not surprising. After all, people in small towns tend to know each other well. That means all sorts of resentments can build up. And small towns and villages can be insular – outsiders not welcome at all. Add to that the history that small-towners can have together and it can make for a very effective context for a murder. There are many examples of the ‘creepy small town’ sort of crime novel. I’ll just give a few of them here.

Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger takes place in the village of Lymestock. Jerry Burton and his sister Joanna have recently moved there so that Jerry can recover from a wartime injury. They’re not there long when they receive a vicious anonymous note that suggests that the Burtons are not siblings, but lovers. Soon, they discover that they’re not the only victims. Several other villagers have gotten awful anonymous notes, and soon, some very ugly rumours begin. Then, a letter to the local solicitor’s wife results in a suicide. Then there’s another death. The police investigate, but the local vicar’s wife thinks Miss Marple will be far better suited to find out what really happened. Miss Marple is very familiar with village histories, animosities and so on, and is in a good position to make sense of what she hears. It turns out the network of relationships among the villagers has a lot to do with the letters and the deaths.

Central City, Texas is the setting for Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. It’s a quiet, peaceful town on the surface, but there’s a lot going on underneath that bucolic tranquility. When a local prostitute Joyce Lakeland is badly beaten, deputy sheriff Lou Ford investigates. He’s what most folks think of as the ‘nice but dull,’ plodding sort, but he’s not stupid. And he’s hiding something most people don’t know about – something he calls ‘the sickness.’ He’s looking into the attack on Joyce Lakeland when there’s a murder. Now it’s clear that something sinister is going on in the town and that things are not nearly as peaceful and pleasant as it seems.

Caroline Graham wrote seven Inspector Barnaby novels, but as anyone who’s watched Midsomer Murders knows, those few novels inspired a television series that’s been on the air since 1997. In the novels, Graham takes a look at the hidden lives of villagers and the sometimes ugly things beneath the surface of an ‘ordinary English village.’ In The Killings at Badger’s Drift for instance, Emily Simpson suddenly dies of what looks on the surface like a heart attack. But her friend Lucy Bellringer thinks otherwise. In fact, Miss Bellringer is so insistent that this is a case of murder that the police make an investigation. It turns out that the victim was poisoned with hemlock. As Inspector Tom Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy investigate, they discover that there is a lot going on beneath the surface of the quiet village of Badger’s Drift, and that Miss Simpson found out more about it than was safe for her to know.

Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin takes place in the Peak District near the village of Rakedale. A skeleton is discovered at Pity Wood Farm not far from the village, and DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper begin the investigation. Then another skeleton is found, and the investigation moves into high gear. The current owner of the farm is Manchester attorney Aaron Goodwin, but he bought the land for development and doesn’t know much about the farm or the area. So Fry and Cooper try to get information about the farm’s former owners, brothers Derek and Raymond Sutton. Derek Sutton has died, but Raymond Sutton is still alive and in a nursing home. He claims to know nothing about the bodies and in fact, forensic evidence suggests that the remains were buried after Sutton sold the farm. As a part of the investigation, Fry and Cooper try to talk to the people who live in the area, but the Rakedale villagers are not interested in talking to outsiders, especially if they’re police. In fact there’s a very telling scene in which Fry goes into the local to try to get some answers. It’s very clear that Rakedale keeps itself to itself as the saying goes. That insularity adds a layer of tension to the novel, and so does the set of old traditions, beliefs and superstitions that the detectives uncover as they find out the truth about the deaths.

In P.J. Parrish’s Dead of Winter, police detective Louis Kincaid takes a new job in the small town of Loon Lake, Michigan. Loon Lake is popular with hunters, anglers, and those who like ice fishing, so there are lots of ‘getaway’ cottages and homes in the area. But the town itself is small and on the surface of it very peaceful. Soon after he arrives, Kincaid discovers that he was hired to replace Officer Thomas Pryce, who was recently murdered in his own home. Kincaid has some questions about the official police theory, and his boss Brian Gibraltar gives him permission to pursue the investigation. Bit by bit, Kincaid finds that Pryce was keeping some secrets; finding out what they are will be critical to solving his murder. But there are several other people in this supposedly peaceful community who also aren’t telling everything they know. So Kincaid doesn’t get much help on the case, even from people in whose interest you would think it would be to find the killer. Along with Kincaid’s sense of increasing isolation as he investigates, there’s also a sense of lingering racism in this community. Certainly anyone who’s ‘different’ is considered odd. That atmosphere adds a layer of tension to this story.

And then there’s Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, which features the lives of the residents of Chabot, Mississippi. After twenty-five years of absence, Silas Jones returns to Chabot to serve as its constable. Soon, he finds himself investigating the disappearance of Tina Rutherford. Everyone assumes that local ‘oddball’ Larry Ott is responsible and in fact, he’s attacked in his own home by a vigilante. Ott’s the most likely suspect because years earlier, he took Cindy Walker out on the only date he’s ever had, and she never returned. No-one could prove what happened to her, but everyone thinks Ott’s guilty of murdering her. Jones finds that as he investigates the Tina Rutherford case, he also has to face the town’s (and his own) past and find out what really happened to Cindy Walker.

There are other series too that uncover the hidden layers of nastiness in small towns and villages. For instance, Ellery Queen visits the small town of Wrightsville in three Queen novels: Calamity Town, Ten Days Wonder and The King is Dead. There’s also Rebecca Tope’s Thea Osborne series, and Linda Castillo’s Kate Burkholder series. There are also lots of small-town series for those who prefer cosy mysteries. Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Southern Quilting series is just one example. Who said small towns are the safest places to live??? ;-)

Thanks to Keishon at Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog for the inspiration. Go pay that terrific blog a visit; you’ll find some excellent crime fiction reviews there.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Doobie Brothers’ China Grove.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Caroline Graham, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ellery Queen, Jim Thompson, Linda Castillo, P.J. Parrish, Rebecca Tope, Stephen Booth, Tom Franklin