Category Archives: Colin Dexter

I Leave a Big Tip With Every Receipt*

ReceiptsIf you look among your things, you’ll probably see random receipts and cash slips for things. They can clutter up a pocket or handbag. And when it’s something simple like getting fuel, it may seem a waste to get a cash slip. But those little pieces of evidence can be very useful.

Anyone who’s on an expense account or who gets reimbursed can tell you that keeping receipts is important. Detectives use those pieces of information too. A cash slip, newspaper clipping or even a passport stamp can either support or refute what a witness or suspect says. So that kind of ‘paper trail’ can be of real value when the police are investigating a crime, or when a PI is looking into a case. Little wonder then that we see things like receipts and stamps all throughout crime fiction.

Agatha Christie uses these details in more than one of her novels. For instance, in Sad Cypress, Hercule Poirot investigates the poisoning murder of Mary Gerrard. The most likely suspect is Elinor Carlisle, who had more than one motive for murder. In the first place, Elinor’s fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman had become smitten with Mary, which ended their engagement. What’s more, Elinor’s very wealthy aunt, Laura Welman, had taken a great interest in Mary, and might very well have altered her will to leave Elinor out of it entirely. Local GP Peter Lord has fallen in love with Elinor and wants her name cleared. So Poirot looks into the matter more deeply. And in the case of one character, he finds that passport stamps put the lie to what that character claimed.

In Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the poisoning murder of Nicholas Quinn, the only Deaf member of Oxford’s Foreign Exams Syndicate. This group is responsible for overseeing exams given in other countries that follow the British education model. The detectives start with those closest to the victim, and soon find that several members of the Syndicate might have had a good reason to want Quinn dead. For one thing, his appointment to the Syndicate was by no means universally supported. For another, he’d learned some secrets about some of the different members. One aspect of this investigation is finding out where each person was on the afternoon of Quinn’s death. As they piece together what happened that day, Morse and Lewis find that ticket stubs from an adult cinema are very informative.

Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly is among other things, the story of the death of Giorgio Tassini, night watchman at one of Venice’s glass blowing factories. At first it all looks like a terrible accident. He’d been working independently on a glass project and the evidence suggests that an accident with the oven caused his death. But Commissario Guido Brunetti is not so sure. Tassini had been a very vocal critic of the glass blowing factories’ procedure for getting rid of toxic waste. He claimed that they were illegally dumping it, putting everyone at risk. Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello discover who is responsible for Tassini’s murder, but they’ll find it very hard to prove what they know. Then one evening, Brunetti gets exactly what he needs: a receipt from a canal boat. That piece of paper puts the lie to what the killer said to the police, and allows for an arrest.

The Michael Stanley writing duo introduces us to Botswana police detective David ‘Kubu’ Bengu in A Carrion Death. He is drawn into an investigation when the remains of an unknown man are found on the property of the rural Dale’s Camp. At first, it looks as though the man was attacked by hyenas. But soon enough, forensics tests suggest that he was murdered. Forensics experts also provide a very important clue: a cash slip found by the body. It turns out to be a receipt from the Number One Petrol Station, and for Kubu, that’s a valuable lead. When he follows up on it and finds the station, he learns that the vehicle in question was a Land Rover painted a garish shade of yellow. Such vehicles are owned by the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC). And that information puts Kubu on a trail that eventually connects someone associated with that company to this murder and to another that occurs.

There’s also Tess Gerritsen’s Vanish, which follows two major plot threads. In one, Boston medical examiner Dr. Maura Iles discovers to her shock that one of the body bags in the mortuary contains a young woman who’s still alive. Iles gives the alert, and the woman is taken to the nearby hospital. The unidentified woman recovers quickly, and rushes from her hospital room after killing a security guard. Then, she goes to the hospital’s Diagnostic Imaging Department, where she takes a group of people hostage. One of them is Boston police detective Jane Rizzoli, who’s there for a sonogram. The police, a SWAT team, and hostage negotiators now have to figure out what the hostage-taker wants, and how to rescue her captives. In the meantime, the other plot thread concerns seventeen-year-old Mila, who left her home in Belarus, lured by promises of a good job in the US and a better life. To put it mildly, things haven’t worked out as planned. The two plot threads are related, ‘though not as you might think. One of the leads that the police get on this case is a credit card receipt for a fuel purchase. That information helps them to piece together at least part of the mystery.

Receipts and odd pieces of paper might just seem like so much junk. But they can prove absolutely invaluable to detectives. They’re also very useful to attorneys on both sides of a case who want to establish a person’s whereabouts or purchases. That oft-repeated bit of advice about saving receipts is actually fairly solid…

 

On Another Note…

There’s still time to vote for the Jo Nesbø novel you’d like to see me spotlight. If you’d like to let your voice be heard, check out my poll right here.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Big Man on Mulberry Street.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Donna Leon, Michael Stanley, Tess Gerritsen

I Know That I Will Kill Again*

Second MurdersMany crime novels feature more than one murder. And if you think about it, this makes sense. For one thing, there’s an argument that once you’ve crossed the line and taken a life, it’s easier to do it again. Here, for instance, is what the murderer in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile says about it:
 

‘It’s so dreadfully easy – killing people. And you begin to feel that it doesn’t matter!’
 

This fictional killer even acknowledges that it could happen again.

There’s also the fact that second murders in novels can be very effective plot devices. Second murders can add to the suspense and keep the reader engaged. They can also make for effective plot twists (e.g. the most likely suspect in a fictional murder becomes a victim).

Like just about any other element in a novel, second murders have to be handled carefully. They have to fall out logically from the plot (i.e. not be included just for shock value). Timing matters, too. If the second murder happens too abruptly, it can jar the reader. If too much time goes by, the reader’s interest lags. There has to be a logical reason for the second murder as well. After all, most of us are not habitual killers, so something credible has to drive a character to that act.

Perhaps the most frequent motive for the second murder is to keep the second victim quiet. Most murderers don’t want to be caught, and if they suspect that someone knows what they’ve done, it’s easy to believe they’d kill to prevent that person from speaking out. That’s what happens in Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger. Postman Joseph Higgins is admitted to Heron Park Hospital for a fractured femur. It’s supposed to be a routine operation; tragically, though, he dies during the procedure. At first it’s put down to a terrible accident, and Inspector Cockrill begins what’s expected to be a routine investigation. But Higgins’ widow is convinced he was murdered. Cockrill takes her very seriously when there’s a second death. This time, it’s a nurse, Sister Marion Bates, whose body is found only hours after she blurted out that she knew Higgins was killed, and by whom. There are, of course, myriad other stories where the killer strikes more than once to keep someone from going to the police.

Sometimes, killers strike more than once because their first victim is accidental. For example, in Colin Dexter’s Death is Now My Neighbor, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are assigned to investigate the shooting death of physiotherapist Rachel James. They don’t make much progress on the case at first, since there seems no obvious motive. Then, journalist Geoffrey Owens, who lives near the first victim, is murdered. Now it looks as though someone may have a grudge against the people who live in that particular area. But Morse and Lewis soon find differently. As it turns out, Owens was the intended victim the whole time; Rachel James was murdered accidentally.

There are also fictional cases where the murderer has more than one target. There’s a second victim (or more) because that’s part of the killer’s plan. That’s what happens in Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House. Stockholm DCI Conny Sjöberg and his team are called in when the body of realtor Hans Vannerberg is discovered in the kitchen of a temporarily-unoccupied home. The homeowner, Ingrid Olssen, claims not to know the victim, and in any case couldn’t have killed him. So the team has to look elsewhere for the murderer. Then there’s another killing, this time of a prostitute who’s murdered in her seedy apartment. There’s another murder, too. In this novel, the second murder happens because the killer targeted a particular group of people.

There are also fictional cases where the murderer kills more than one person so as to ‘hide’ one particular death. The idea here is that that one murder will point more or less directly to the killer. It won’t be so easy to find the real murderer if there are several victims. That’s a plot point, for instance, in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman. In one story thread, a gunman holds up a public transit bus and shoots eight people. At first it seems that a madman has struck. But it’s not that simple. It turns out that one victim, a cop named Åke Stenström, was investigating the murder of a prostitute on his own, and that someone doesn’t want that case solved. Homicide detective Martin Beck and his team learn that in this instance, the killer really only had one target. The other deaths were used, if I may put it this way, as a disguise. There’s an Agatha Christie novel too that has that premise.

Sometimes, the fictional second murder is committed because the killer is after something that isn’t obtained after the first murder. In Aaron Elkins’ Loot, for instance, art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere gets involved in the case of a valuable Velázquez that was ‘safeguarded’ by the Nazis during World War II. When it turns up, decades later, in a Boston pawnshop, the store’s owner is murdered for it. Revere was a friend of the victim’s, and hopes that if he can trace the painting from the time it disappeared during the war, he can find out who the murderer is. As it turns out, more than one person is killed for this valuable artwork.

There are also plenty of cases where there are (at least) two murders that are committed by different people. I won’t give authors and titles, so as to avoid spoilers. But here’s one example. I read a novel where A kills B. Then C (who is in love with B) finds out that A is the murderer and kills that person. That sort of plot is tricky, because it’s a bit more of a challenge to keep everything coherent and keep the focus on the main plot. But it does happen in real life, and it does in crime fiction too.

You’ll notice I’m not mentioning any of the many novels where the second murder indicates a serial killer. It’s not that those stories can’t be well-written. There are certainly high-quality ‘serial killer’ novels out there. But there are also a great many that, well, aren’t of high quality. And in real life, the true serial killer – the psychopath or sociopath – is comparatively rare.

Whatever the motive for a second fictional murder, it has to be credible if the story is to hold up. It also has to fall out naturally from the plot (i.e. not be included merely for interest). When the author does that though, a second murder can add to a story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jarvis Cocker’s I Will Kill Again.

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Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Carin Gerhardsen, Christianna Brand, Colin Dexter, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö

And They Sit at the Bar and Put Bread in My Jar*

Bar and Pub ScenesBars and pubs come in all shapes and sizes. There are very posh bars in resort hotels; and seedy places where only the locals go, and then only when they don’t have enough money to go anywhere else. There are very dangerous drinking places and places that are quite safe. And of course there’s an endless variety of bar/pub themes, too.

When it comes to crime fiction, bars and pubs make for near-ideal backdrops. One reason is that they are so varied. Wherever the author sets a novel, in whatever context, there’s probably some kind of licensed establishment. And all sorts of scenes can take place at a drinking place. Business deals, romantic trysts, meetings between old friends…well, you get the idea. There’s nothing like a bar or pub for interactions among characters. That’s probably why there are so many scenes in crime fiction that take place in bars and pubs. I couldn’t possibly name them all, so I’ll content myself with just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, wealthy heiress Ruth Van Aldin Kettering is murdered during a trip on the famous Blue Train. Hercule Poirot is on the same train, and gets involved in the investigation. One of the more likely suspects is the man the victim was going to meet, Armand de la Roche, who calls himself a Count. Another suspect is the victim’s estranged husband, Derek Kettering. At one point, the Comte de la Roche hears of evidence against Kettering and thinks he can make a profit by charging for his silence. He waits in the salon/lounge of the hotel where Kettering is staying. When he tries blackmail, Kettering lets him know in no uncertain terms what he thinks of him. It’s a taut scene that also shows some interesting character traits of both men.

Perth Superintendent Frank Swann uses pubs for quite a different purpose in David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight. He’s investigating the murder of a friend of his, Ruby Devine, who owned a brothel. He faces several challenges in this investigation, not the least of which is a group of corrupt police officers, called ‘the purple circle.’ They’ve marked Swann because he called for a Royal Commission hearing into their activities. And now, he’s convinced that somehow, one or more of them is behind the murder. Few people will talk openly to Swann because most fear ‘the purple circle. But he finds ways to meet up with people who have information. In one scene for instance, he goes to the Grosvenor Hotel, which,

 

‘…looked like a shaky drunk under escort.’

 

Despite its less-than-inspiring exterior, it’s an upmarket place that professionals use to discuss business they don’t want to deal with in the office. That’s where Swann goes to look for a lawyer named Cooper, who handled Ruby Devine’s business. The meeting is tense, because in this case, they’re on opposite sides, so to speak. He is, in fact, a suspect in the murder. But as Cooper says, they were both Ruby’s friends. And he figures into the story in a few places.

There’s another case of a bar being used for a business deal in Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart. Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty is an ex-pat American travel writer who now lives in Bangkok. He’s got a reputation for being good at finding people who don’t want to be found, and he speaks both Thai and English. So when Clarissa Ulrich visits Bangkok to find someone who can look for her missing uncle, Rafferty is a natural choice. She leaves word at the Expat Bar, one of Rafferty’s regular stops, and he gets the message that she wants to talk to him. When they meet at the Expat, she tells him that she hasn’t heard from her uncle in a few months and is worried about him. Rafferty agrees to look into the matter, and is soon drawn into a case that goes far deeper than a man who simply wanted to take off for a bit.

Angela Savage’s Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney also finds bars to be good places to follow up on leads and find people. In The Half Child, for instance, Jim Delbeck hires her to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. The police report stated that she committed suicide by jumping from the roof of the building where she lived. But Delbeck doesn’t believe it was suicide. Keeney looks into the case, which at one point leads her to a place called the B-52 Bar. Her skill at playing pool turns out to be very useful as she goes after the information she wants. And so, in another bar scene, are her skill at speaking Thai and her understanding of the Thai culture.

Of course, bars and pubs are also effective settings for romantic meetings. But not all of them work out well. In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, for instance, Eva Wirenström-Berg is devastated when she learns that her husband Henrik has been unfaithful. One night she goes out just to get away for a bit, and ends up at a pub. That’s where she meets Jonas Hansson, a man who has his own serious issues. Their meeting ends up having disastrous consequences, and as the story goes on, things spiral out of control for both of them.

Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House introduces us to Petra Westman, junior member of an investigating team that’s looking into a strange group of murders. One night, she and a colleague Jamal Hamad go out for a friendly drink. While they’re at the bar, she meets Peter Fryhk. A conversation leads to several drinks and to flirting. The next morning, she wakes up in a house she doesn’t know. Very soon she concludes that she’s been ‘date raped.’ She manages to get home, and one of the plot threads in this story is her search for the proof she needs to have her attacker brought to justice.

And of course, I don’t think I could do a post on bar and pub scenes in crime fiction without mentioning The Red Pony. That’s a bar/restaurant/poolroom owned by Craig Johnson’s Henry Standing Bear. It’s one of Durant, Wyoming’s few gathering places, and it’s a regular haunt of Johnson’s sleuth Sheriff Walt Longmire. It may not be upmarket, but it’s comfortable and ‘down home,’ and lots of scenes, both funny and tense, take place there.

There are of course lots of other bar and pub scenes in crime fiction (I know, I know, fans of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus). And it’s not at all surprising. They’re perfect for all kinds of meetings that can end in all kinds of ways. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Piano Man. Oh, come on, was there ever any doubt? ;-)

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Carin Gerhardsen, Colin Dexter, Craig Johnson, David Whish-Wilson, Ian Rankin, Karin Alvtegen, Timothy Hallinan

When Sleuths Buy Gifts ;-)

When Sleuths Buy GIftsHave you ever taken part in a ‘Secret Santa’ gift exchange? Sometimes it’s called a ‘Kris Kringle,’ and sometimes a ‘Pollyanna.’ There are other names for it too. Whatever you call it, the way it generally works is that a group of people put their names into a hat, a box or some such thing. Each one draws the name of someone else and gets a gift for that person.

It sounds like a wonderful idea, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t always work out as planned. Don’t believe me? Let’s see what happens….
 

When Fictional Sleuths are ‘Secret Santas.’
 

I. Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie)

Hastings: Whose name did you draw, Poirot?
Poirot: I have drawn…(Glances down at the slip of paper) Mlle. Kinsey Millhone (Sue Grafton).
Hastings: Any idea what you’ll get for her?
Poirot: I think, mon ami, that I will have Georges make an appointment for her at a dressmaker’s shop. Les femmes, they all love beautiful dresses, do they not?
Hastings: Er…well…I suppose so.
 

II. Rebecka Martinsson (Åsa Larsson)

(Having a coffee with Inspector Anna-Maria Mella)
Rebecka: So I got talked into this Secret Santa business.
Anna-Maria: Well, it might be fun. Whose name did you get?
Rebecka: Her name’s Corinna Chapman (Kerry Greenwood).
Anna-Maria: So what will you buy?
Rebecka: At this time of year? A heavy parka. If I rush it, she’ll get it before Christmas too. Hmm…. I don’t know her size. Well, I’ll just get her an average-sized coat – one I might wear. That ought to be safe. Can’t miss!
 

III. John Rebus (Ian Rankin)

Rebus: Shiv, you doing this Secret Santa thing?
Siobhan Clarke: Yeah, sure. You?
Rebus: Don’t have much choice, I don’t think.
Clarke: Who’d you get?
Rebus: His name’s Inspector Morse (Colin Dexter).
Clarke: Ah, fellow copper. What are you getting him?
Rebus: Everyone loves music, right? Think I’ll get him tickets to a Rolling Stones concert.
Clarke: (Looks down at her cup of tea) Maybe you ought to find out what kind of music he likes first?
Rebus: Who doesn’t love the Stones?
 

IV. V.I. ‘Vic’ Warshawski (Sara Paretsky)

(Having a glass of wine with Lotty Herschel)
Vic: So I’ve been thinking about this whole Secret Santa thing.
Lotty: That’s good. It’s coming up soon.
Vic: I know, and I think I have just the thing. I got this guy Nero Wolfe (Rex Stout). He’s never been to Chicago. So I’m going to take him bar-hopping! Really show him a Jack Daniels night. Then we’ll go to the Maxwell Street Market for some kielbasa. Ha! I might even get him a Cubs hat! What do you think?
Lotty: If you really think he’d like it.
Vic: Can’t go wrong!
 

V. Armand Gamache (Louise Penny)

(Having breakfast with his wife Reine-Marie)
Reine-Marie: So, have you decided what to do about this Secret Santa name draw?
Armand: Actually I think I have. I drew Lisbeth Salander’s name (Stieg Larsson). She’s from Stockholm, so I thought it would be nice to give her a real Québec welcome, with Christmas right here in Three Pines.
Reine-Marie: What a lovely idea! I’m sure she’d love a small-town holiday after living in the city. We can ask them to give her a room at the B&B, we’ll make sure she meets everyone, and she can come to Midnight Mass with us.
Armand: Good thinking. No-one does gourmet bistro better than Olivier and Gabri. She’ll love it!
 

VI. Nick and Nora Charles (Dashiell Hammett)

Nora: I’ve got it, Nick!
Nick: Got what?
Nora: The perfect idea for the Secret Santa draw, of course.
Nick: Oh, that. Who’d we get anyway?
Nora: His name’s Walt Longmire (Craig Johnson). He’s from Wyoming.
Nick: So what’s your brilliant idea?
Nora: Well, we’re going to be in New York for the next couple of months. Why not get him the best Broadway tickets we can? We’ll put him up at the Plaza for a few days.
Nick: Sounds great! I’ll bet he’s dying to get out of whatever one-horse town he lives in.

Perhaps after all it’d be just as well for these sleuths to stick to solving crime… ;-)

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Colin Dexter, Craig Johnson, Dashiell Hammett, Ian Rankin, Kerry Greenwood, Louise Penny, Rex Stout, Sara Paretsky, Stieg Larsson, Sue Grafton

Take Out the Papers and the Trash*

clutterMost of us have been taught (well, I have, anyway) that it’s important to be tidy and keep things where they belong. And there is logic to that. If your things are tidy and in their proper places, you’re less likely to lose them. And for a lot of people, there is something reassuring, even restful, about an uncluttered room.

But the reality of keeping things tidy isn’t always fun. And sometimes it’s not logical if you think about it. After all, why put something away if you know you’re going to be using it again very soon? So there are plenty of people, both real and fictional, who don’t exactly keep their things neat and uncluttered. And that can add an interesting layer of character depth in a novel.

For instance, consider Mr. Clancy, the detective story novelist we meet in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air). He’s on a flight from Paris to London when one of his fellow passengers Marie Morisot suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Unfortunately for Mr. Clancy, he’s been doing research on similar kinds of poisons, so Chief Inspector Japp takes a particular interest in him. Hercule Poirot was on the same flight, so he works with Japp to find out who killed the victim and why. Since the only possible suspects are her fellow passengers, Poirot pays Mr. Clancy a visit:
 

‘The room…was in a state of chaos. There were papers strewn about, cardboard files, bananas, bottles of beer, open books, sofa cushions, a trombone, miscellaneous china, etchings, and a bewildering assortment of fountain pens.’
 

Those familiar with Poirot’s own habit of neatness can probably imagine his reaction…

In Colin Dexter’s The Daughters of Cain, we meet Eleanor ‘Ellie’ Smith, a prostitute who gets involved in a murder case when one of her clients Dr. Felix McClure is murdered. At first, his former scout Ted Brooks is suspected of the killing, since McClure had found out he was dealing drugs on campus, and was about to reveal it. But then Brooks disappears and is later found dead. So now Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis have two murders to investigate. Ellie Smith is definitely a ‘person of interest’ as the saying goes, so Morse interviews her. He also finds himself attracted to her, and the feeling is mutual. Each is keenly aware that she’s a suspect in a murder case that he’s investigating, and that makes things awkward. Here’s a bit of what Dexter has to say about Ellie’s rooms:
 

‘The young woman turned back the grubby top-sheet on the narrow bed, kicked a pair of knickers out of sight behind the shabby settee, poured out two glasses of red wine…and was sitting on the bed, swallowing the last mouthful of a Mars bar, when the first knock sounded softly on the door.’
 

There’s a lot to like about Ellie as a character, but tidiness is not one of her personality traits.

In Minette Walters’ The Breaker, PC Nick Ingram investigates when the body of Kate Sumner is found on the beach near Chapman’s Pool in Dorset. At the same time, her almost-three-year-old daughter Hannah is found wandering around in the nearby town of Poole, and WPC Sandra Griffiths works to find out where the child’s family is and why she’s wandering around all alone. Ingram and Griffiths work with DI John Galbraith and Superintendent Carpenter to put the pieces of the puzzle together. They narrow down the list of suspects to three people: the victim’s husband William Sumner; schoolteacher Tony Bridges; and Bridges’ roommate Stephen Harding. At one point the police visit the home that Bridges and Harding share:
 

‘The house gave the impression of multiple occupancy with a couple of bicycles leaning against the wall at the end of the corridor, and assorted clothes lying in heaps about the furniture and floor. Dozens of empty lager cans had been tossed into an old beer crate in a corner – left over…from a long-dead party – and overflowing ashtrays reeked into the atmosphere.’
 

The untidiness isn’t the reason for the murder, but it’s an interesting look at these two characters.

Gail Bowen’s Murder at the Mendel introduces readers to artist Sally Love. She is a former frined of Bowen’s sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn. So when the news comes that some of Love’s work will be exhibited at the Mendel Gallery, Kilbourn decides to see the show and perhaps even renew her friendship with the artist if that’s possible. At one point, Kilbourn visits the house/studio where Love is living:
 

‘There were canvases stacked against the wall and a trestle table with brushes and boxes of pencils and rags and lengths of wood and steel that looked like rulers but were unmarked. In the corner farthest from the window were a hot plate, a couple of open suitcases and a sleeping bag.’
 

Kilbourn gets involved in a murder investigation when the gallery’s owner is murdered and Sally becomes a suspect.

Christopher Fowler’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) series featuring Arthur Bryant and John May begins with Full Dark House. In that novel, the PCU is devastated when a bomb blast goes off, destroying its office. Shortly before the blast, Bryant was working on his memoirs, including a discussion of the PCU’s first case. May suspects that the blast may have something to do with that first case, so he decides to take another look at it. In the process, he reminisces about his first meeting with Bryant in 1940. At the time, he was new on the job, just transferred to the PCU. Bryant had already been working there. May’s first impression of Bryant’s office is one of chaos, and Bryant himself is a bit eccentric:
 

Peculiar Crimes Unit, isn’t it frightful?’ I think their perception of the word ‘peculiar’ and mine differ somewhat. I’ve got some bumph here you can read through.’ He rooted around among his papers, sending several overstuffed folders to the floor, but failed to locate anything specific.’
 

Bryant may not be an orderly, tidy, conventional thinker. But as fans of this series know, he’s brilliant and he and May make a good team.

And then there’s Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Ashes to Dust. An excavation at the Westmann Islands reveals a set of bodies in the basement of one of the houses. The bodies were buried there during a devastating volcano eruption in 1973 and hadn’t been disturbed since then. At the time of the eruption, Markús Magnússon was living in that house. He was only a teenager, but it is possible he might know something about the murders. Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir agrees to represent him, and tries to find anything that might exonerate him. At first Markús says his childhood sweetheart Alda Thorgeirsdóttir can corroborate his story that he knew nothing about the killings. But soon after the bodies are discovered, she herself dies. The police call her death a suicide, but whether or not it is, this means that Thóra will have look into the case more closely to find out what really happened on the day of the eruption. She and her secretary Bella travel to the Westmann Islands to talk to people who were there at the time. One of them is Kjartan Helgason, the harbourmaster for the island where the explosion occurred. Thóra and Bella visit him at his office to see what he recalls from that day:
 

‘It seemed to Thóra from the piles and scraps of paper covering the room that the man’s accomplishments were scarcely exemplary, despite his view of the sea. ‘I live by the sea, too, and I know the feeling,’ she said, lifting a strange-looking device from the nearest chair. ‘Can I put this somewhere else?’ she asked, looking around to find a secure place…’
‘Just throw it on the floor,’ replied Kjarten as he took his own seat.’
 

Kjarten may know a great deal about the eruption, and Thóra wants to learn as much as she can. But his surroundings certainly don’t bode very well for her search for the truth.

Untidiness doesn’t always reflect a cluttered mind. And lots of very interesting characters don’t exactly dust every day. And sometimes that clutter can tell a lot about a person, whether real or fictional. Which ‘cluttery characters’ have stayed with you?
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s Yakety Yak.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christopher Fowler, Colin Dexter, Gail Bowen, Minette Walters, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir