Category Archives: Craig Johnson

At the Gate Are All the Horses Waiting For the Cue to Fly Away*

Have you ever ridden horses? Even if your family never owned a horse, you might have taken riding lessons. Horses have a long history with people, for farm work, for racing, and as forms of transportation. And that’s to say nothing of the way they’ve been bred for showing.

The horse business is a very lucrative one, and it’s got its own culture and language. Because it’s a small world, so to speak, and because of the money involved, the world of horses is an interesting context for a crime story. There are a lot of them out there; here are just a few.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson travel to Dartmoor to investigate the disappearance of a famous racehorse, Silver Blaze. The horse has been abducted, and his trainer, John Straker, has been murdered. Some of the evidence points to a London bookmaker, Fitzroy Simpson. In fact, Inspector Tobias Gregson has already arrested him for murder. But, for all of his faults, Gregson doesn’t want an innocent man to be convicted. So, he asks Holmes to investigate. Of course, Holmes and Watson want to know who Straker’s killer is, too. But there’s also the intriguing question of what happened to Silver Blaze. It’s not easy to hide a horse. But Holmes works out where Silver Blaze is.

In Ellery Queen’s short story, Long Shot, Queen is under contract to Hollywood’s Magna Studios. They’ve tapped him to do a crime film that takes place in the horse racing world, but he knows nothing about horses, or racing. His love interest, gossip columnist Paula Paris, takes him to meet with well-known breeder John Scott. Queen gets some useful information, but he also gets drawn into a difficult mystery. It seems that Scott is being threatened by a man who wants to buy up his whole stable. If Scott doesn’t acquiesce, his best horse, Danger, is at real risk. And, on the day of an important race at Santa Anita, tragedy strikes. Danger is badly wounded, and Scott’s daughter, Kathryn, is abducted. But, as Queen discovers, this isn’t as straightforward a mystery as it seems…

Fans of Dick Francis’ work will know that many of them feature the horse breeding and racing world. For example, one of his series features former jockey Sid Halley. His racing career has ended in injury, and Halley now works as a racetrack investigator. And there are all sorts of nefarious things that can go on in that world, There’s a lot of money in racing, so there’s quite a lot at stake. And that means that some people will do whatever it takes to sabotage competition and ensure their horses will win. Of course, there are watchdog groups to make sure that races are run fairly. But, as Halley learns throughout the novels, there are plenty of insidious ways to ‘work the system.’

Fans of Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series will know that Irish is a Melbourne-based sometimes-lawyer, who also has a knack for finding people who don’t want to be found. One of his interests is horse racing, and he and a group of his friends have a sort of betting ‘syndicate.’ In Dead Point, for instance, one of the plot threads follows the syndicate as their horse, Renoir, can’t finish an important race, and has to be put down. Then, one of the group members is mugged, and the group’s winnings from another race are stolen. Now, Irish has very personal reasons for finding out who’s behind it all.

If you’ve ever been to the US state of Virginia, you know that horses and horse breeding are integral to the culture. There are some horse bloodlines that go back many generations, and races, shows, sales, and even fox hunts, are important social events. Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen series takes place against this backdrop. As the series begins, she is the postmistress for tiny Crozet, Virginia. Later she steps away from that position and does other things, such as winemaking and concentrating on her farm. Throughout the series, readers get a strong sense of the local culture, and that includes horses. In more than one novel, Harry investigates mysteries that have to do with horse breeding, racing, and so on. Fans can tell you, too, that her ex-husband, Pharamond ‘Fair’ Haristeen (who later returns to her life), is a much-in-demand veterinarian whose specialty is horses.

Horses also play important roles on ranches. Good horses are an essential to a successful operation. We see that in work like Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte series. He is a police investigator for the Queensland Police. His work takes him to some far-flung places, and to more than one ranch. In works such as The Bone is Pointed and The Bushman Who Came Back, we see how a ranch relies on its horses. We see that in Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series, too, as well as several others.

As you can see (but you knew this), horses and people have a long and varied sort of relationship. Whether it’s racing, farm work, transportation, or something else, horses have been integrated into our lives for millennia. So, it’s really little wonder at all that we also see them in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples. Your turn.


ps. Oh, the ‘photo? That’s a ‘photo of my daughter taking her first pony ride.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Ascot Gavotte.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Craig Johnson, Dick Francis, Ellery Queen, Peter Temple, Rita Mae Brown

You Don’t Have to Go to a Private School Not to Pick Up a Penny Near a Stubborn Mule*

There are several different kinds of knowing and understanding. Some of that knowledge, of course, comes from what we learn formally. That’s why people with a lot of education are often thought of as especially ‘smart.’

The fact is, though, that there’s plenty of wisdom that has little to do with schooling.  It’s not that people with such ‘down home’ wisdom disparage formal education; rather, their knowledge comes observation, experience, and the reflection. That ‘down home’ sort of wisdom can be extremely valuable. And in crime fiction, it can make for a very interesting sort of character.

For instance, Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s sleuth is Asa ‘Asey’ Mayo. Known sometimes as the ‘codfish Sherlock,’ Mayo is a former sailor who’s settled in Cape Cod. He’s a general assistant at Porter Motors, and there’s not much he’s not able to fix. He doesn’t have a lot of formal education, but he’s got quite a lot of his own kind of wisdom. He knows the area very, very well, and he knows the people, too. He’s shrewd and quick-thinking, and he has a lot of what people call common sense. He may not speak with an educated accent, but people underestimate him at their peril.

They do Gil North’s Caleb Cluff, too. Cluff is a police inspector who lives and works in the fictional town of Gunnershaw, on the Yorkshire moors. He doesn’t have a lot of formal education, but he does have a lot of ‘down home’ sort of common sense wisdom. He knows the people of the area, their histories, and the way they’re likely to behave. And he knows the moors as well as anyone could. It’s that sort of wisdom that helps him put the pieces together.

Eleanor Kuhns’ Will and Lydia Rees have that same sort of ‘down home’ common-sense wisdom. This historical series takes place at the very end of the 18th Century. Rees is an iterant weaver who’s settled in Maine. In the course of the series, he meets and marries Lydia Farrell, and develops a bit more of a ‘home base.’  But he still does plenty of ‘wandering.’ For instance, in Death in Salem, Rees travels to Salem, to look for a gift for Lydia, who’s expecting a child. He wants to get a few yards of well-made cloth, so she can have something special to wear. As it happens, he sees a funeral procession for Mrs. Antiss Boothe, wife of a very prominent shipping magnate. The next day, Boothe himself is found dead, and it’s clear that he was murdered. Rees’ old friend, Twig, is worried because the woman he loves is very much under suspicion. So, he asks Rees to find out the truth. Rees isn’t educated, but he has his own sort of wisdom, and so does Lydia. Even with a group of wealthy and prominent suspects, he finds out who the murderer is, and what the motive is.

Craig Johnson’s series features Sheriff Walt Longmire, who lives and works in Durant, Wyoming. As sheriff of Absaroka County, he’s learned quite a lot about the local area and the people. And he has a lot of common sense. That ‘down home’ understanding and wisdom help Longmire make sense of his investigations. For example, in The Cold Dish, the body of Cody Pritchard is discovered not far from town. Longmire knows the victim’s history, and has a good sense of the sort of person he was. A few years earlier, Pritchard and three other young men gang-raped Melissa Little Bird, who was sixteen at the time. Longmire doesn’t need a lot of formal education and scientific deduction to guess at the motive for this murder. There are aspects of the case that aren’t clear at first, and the solution isn’t the one that it seems to be on the surface. But throughout the novel, we see how Longmire uses his every wisdom and common sense to solve the case. Fans of this series can tell you that Longmire’s good friend, Henry Standing Bear, has a similar sort of ‘everyday wisdom’ about things.

And then there’s Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe. She’s smart, and did well in school, but she doesn’t have a lot of formal education. What she does have, though, is a great deal of wisdom. She learned some of it from her beloved father, Obed Ramotswe. She’s also a natural observer, so she’s learned to watch and make sense of what she sees. It’s interesting, too, to see how Mma Ramotswe’s common sense and ‘folk wisdom’ sometimes contrasts with more ‘book learning’ approach of her assistant, Mma Grace Makutsi, especially at the beginning of the series. Mma Makutsi is very proud of having graduated the Botswana College of Secretarial and Office Skills with a 97% average, and she is good at the clerical skills she was taught. But it takes her a little time to develop a bit of the sort of ‘down home’ wisdom that her boss has.

There are plenty of other characters, too, who have that sort of common-sense, ‘down home’ wisdom that doesn’t come from books or classes (right, fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon Bonaparte?). These sleuths may not have university degrees, but they have a great deal of understanding of how the world and the people in it work. And that can be extremely helpful when solving a case. Which common-sense sleuths have stayed with you?

ps. Oh, the photo? Dogs may not have an education, but they have the wisdom to find the sunniest spot for a warm, cuddly afternoon nap when they’re sleepy.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Irving Berlin’s Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly.


Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Arthur Upfield, Craig Johnson, Eleanor Kuhns, Gil North, Phoebe Atwood Taylor

Fall in Philadelphia*

As this is posted, it’s 335 years since William Penn founded the US city of Philadelphia. As you’ll know, Philadelphia played a major role in early US history, and it’s still an important city, both culturally and in other ways. Did you know, for instance, that Le Bec Fin, one of the world’s top restaurants, is there? So are lots of other wonderful places to eat. And that the ‘Philadelphia sound’ had a powerful influence on popular music? And that the US Postal Service got its start there, when Benjamin Franklin set it up?

If you’re kind enough to read my blog on anything like a regular basis, then you’ll know that I spent most of my adult life in Philadelphia before more moving west, and I consider Philadelphia home. I’ve even set my next Joel Williams mystery mostly in Philadelphia. A standalone I’m writing is also set there.

And that’s the thing. Philadelphia is a great city in many ways, but it’s certainly not peaceful and crime-free! Just a quick look at crime fiction should show you that plenty of (at least fictional) mayhem happens there.

For example, Jane Haddam’s series features Gregor Demarkian, a former FBI agent who lives in an Armenian section of Philadelphia. He often gets drawn into mysteries through his association with the local parish priest, Father Tibor. The cases he gets involved in take him to many of Philadelphia’s different sections, and into its suburbs, too. In that way, Haddam shows clearly the diversity in the city. Each different part has a different ‘feel,’ and many of them are almost their own little worlds, where everyone knows everyone.

Gillian Roberts set her series featuring Amanda Pepper in Philadelphia. Pepper teaches English at Philadelphia Preparatory School (AKA Philly Prep), and gets drawn into more than one murder mystery. In Caught Dead in Philadelphia, for instance, Pepper gets an unexpected visit from Philly Prep’s part-time drama coach, Liza Nichols. Nichols asks if she can rest at Pepper’s home for a bit before going to the school later in the day. Pepper agrees, but when she gets home after her own work day, she finds Nichols dead. As you can imagine, she’s the first suspect, but Detective C.K. McKenzie is soon able to establish her innocence. This means, though, that someone else is guilty – someone who was in Pepper’s home. So, there’s a real sense of urgency about finding the killer.

Lisa Scottoline’s series is also set in Philadelphia. The Rosato and Associates/Rosato and DiNunzio novels feature the high-powered law firm, Rosato and Associates, owned by Benedetta ‘Bennie’ Rosato.  The series ‘stars’ various different members of the law firm in the different novels. The first, Everywhere That Mary Went, introduces Mary DiNunzio, who’s on track to become a partner in the firm. She soon finds that someone is stalking her. As if that’s not enough, her secretary is killed by a car that’s been following DiNunzio around.  Now, the firm is dealing with the murder of one of its own, as well as the very real risk that someone has targeted one of its junior attorneys.

Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel shows what life in Philadelphia was like in decades past, especially for those with means. The story begins in the late 1950’s. Evelyn ‘Evie’ Hobart grew up with little in the way of money or privilege, but she is beautiful and seductive. She is also acquisitive, and has always wanted ‘things.’ One night at a dance, she meets Hank Moran, who comes from a family with money and reputation, and it’s not long before they’re married. Now, Evie lives among the ‘better’ people in one of Philadelphia’s wealthy suburbs. It’s the sort of community where women take day trips into the city to shop, belong to clubs and societies, and focus on their well-appointed homes. Evie’s not really happy with her new life, though, since for her, the ‘spark of life’ comes from getting and having things, especially when she hasn’t paid for them. She’s caught more than once, but at first, everything’s kept quiet because of the family’s reputation and money. Finally, though, it becomes too much, and she is sent to The Terraces, an exclusive ‘special place’ where she can be ‘cured.’ Not much changes, though, and her daughter, Christine, grows up in that toxic environment. Evie does whatever she has to do to take what she wants, whether it’s money, jewels, men, or anything else. Christine can do little to stop her mother, until she discovers that her three-year-old brother, Ryan, is being drawn into the same dysfunctional web. Now, she resolves to free herself and her brother from their mother.

Most people think of Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire series as distinctively Wyoming. And it is. But as fans can tell you, Longmire’s deputy, Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti, is a native of Philadelphia, and a former police officer there. She still has connections to the city, too. In fact, the third Longmire novel, Kindness Goes Unpunished, actually takes place there. At one point (in Death Without Company), here’s what Moretti says about herself:

‘‘I’m from Philadelphia, where we vote early and often, and everybody on the jury has a vowel on the end of his name.’’

Moretti is nothing if not unvarnished…

And I wouldn’t want to do a post on crime fiction in Philadelphia without mentioning Jerry Bruckheimer’s TV series, Cold Case, which aired in the US between 2003 and 2010. The show features a team of Philadelphia homicide detectives whose specialty is re-opening and investigating murder cases that have ‘gone cold.’ There are also, as you can imagine, story arcs about the detectives’ own lives. Admittedly, the show isn’t always – ahem – completely true-to-life. But it has a distinctive setting, and explores several of the different cultures in the city, as well as aspects of the city’s history.

See what I mean? Philadelphia is a vibrant city, rich with history, art, music, good food, top universities and medical facilities, and more. But peaceful? Crime-free? Well, perhaps not…


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of song by Daryl Hall and John Oates.


Filed under Craig Johnson, Gillian Roberts, Jane Haddam, Jerry Bruckheimer, Lisa Scottoline, Patricia Abbott

With All the Force of a Great Typhoon*

Age often brings with it a certain amount of self-confidence and strength of character. That’s arguably why so many fictional characters we think of as indomitable are also no longer young. They have whatever wisdom experience brings, and they’re no longer overly concerned with what people think of them or their opinions.

Those characters can add a lot to a crime novel. Sometimes they serve as mentors; sometimes they simply add to a context. Either way, they can be very interesting in and of themselves. In some cases, they even steal the limelight, so to speak, from the sleuth or other protagonist. Space won’t permit me to mention all of them; here are just a few. Oh, and you’ll notice I’m specifically not mentioning indomitable sleuths who are no longer young. Too easy.

Agatha Christie included several indomitable characters in her stories. One, for instance, is Princess Natalia Dragomiroff, whom we meet in Murder on the Orient Express. In that novel, Hercule Poirot is en route across Europe on the famous Orient Express train. On the second night of the journey, fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett is stabbed. Poirot is asked to investigate, and he starts looking into the case. The only possible suspects are the other passengers in the same car, and one of those people is Princess Dragomiroff. Here is how one character describes her:

‘‘She is a personality…Ugly as sin, but she makes herself felt.’’

And she does. She cooperates with the investigation, but it’s clear throughout that she isn’t in the least bit – at all – intimidated by Poirot or by the process.

Tarquin Hall’s sleuth is Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri.  He owns Most Private Investigators, Ltd., and supervises several employees. He’s not easily threatened or intimidated. But even Puri has learned that it’s often best to defer to his indomitable mother, Mummy-ji. It’s not that she’s particularly autocratic (she’s not), or overbearing. But she has a strong force of will, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind. She’s smart, too. For instance, in one plot thread of The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, Mummi-ji and her daughter-in-law (Puri’s wife), Rumpi, attend a kitty party. Every guest brings a little money which is pooled. Then one guest’s name is drawn, and that guest wins the money. This party is different, though, because a thief breaks in and steals the money. The quick-thinking Mummy-ji finds a way to scratch the thief, though, and insists that DNA samples be taken of her hand, and prints lifted from her purse, where the money was, so as to identify the robber. And she’s not at all intimidated by the lab attendant who tells her she’s been watching too much crime television.

Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant is a Saskatoon PI who’s lucky enough to have several people in his life who care about him. One of them is Anthony Gatt, owner of an extremely successful upmarket men’s clothing company. Gatt isn’t domineering or high-handed. But he has a way of making his presence felt. And he knows everyone who is anyone, especially among Saskatchewan’s gay community. In one scene in Flight of Aquavit, for instance, Quant stops in at one of Gatt’s stores, and Gatt happens to be there. At one point, Gatt says,

‘‘I can’t have you in here like that…or at least I can’t have you leaving like that.’’

Before Quant knows it, he’s got new clothes. Gatt makes his personality felt in other ways, too, including to mentor Quant.

There’s also Lucian Connally, who features in Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire series. Connally is the former sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming. He’s elderly now, but he is still very much a force to be reckoned with. He lives in an elder care home, but he’s by no means intimidated by the staff there. And he’s one of the few people who can get away with telling Longmire what to do, if I can put it that way. He’s got his own past and his own secrets, as we all do, and they come out in a few story arcs. In some ways, he serves as a mentor for Longmire, and he has a good memory. So, he also is a sort of living history of the county.

Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay introduces her sleuth, Victoria-based PI Caleb Zelic. In the novel, Zelic and his business partner, Frankie Reynolds, investigate the murder of Senior Constable Gary ‘Gaz’ Marsden. He and Marsden have a long friendship, and he was found with Marsden’s body. So Zelic is very much a ‘person of interest.’ He knows he didn’t commit the murder, and he wants to find out who did. So, he and Reynolds start asking questions. The trail leads to a very dangerous person known only as ‘Scott.’ And the closer he gets to Scott, the more dangerous things become for him. Zelic and his ex-wife, Kat, may be divorced, but they still communicate, and they still do care a lot about each other. This means that Kat, too, is in danger, and that plays its role in the novel. But Kat is not easily intimidated. Nor is her mother, Maria. Both are indomitable people, with powerful personalities. Maria in particular has a way of exerting her personality, although she’s not pushy or rude.

There are plenty of other characters, too, who have that quality of being indomitable. They can add to a story in many ways, and they can certainly be interesting characters. These are just a few examples. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Matthew Wilder and David Zippel’s I’ll Make a Man out of You.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Craig Johnson, Emma Viskic, Tarquin Hall

Lost in the Supermarket*

As this is posted, it’s 101 years since the opening of the first self-service market (a Piggly Wiggly store located in Memphis). Since that time, of course, supermarkets have become fixtures in many places, and there is a good reason for that. It’s a lot more efficient to buy all of one’s food products (and often a lot more, too) in one place. Supermarket chains can buy in bulk, too, and that can reduce prices for the consumer.

Because they’re such integral parts of today’s shopping landscape, we shouldn’t be surprised that there are a lot of supermarkets in crime fiction. They’re really effective settings for meetings between characters, for creating a sense of setting and atmosphere, and more. And they can even be suspenseful.

But they haven’t always been welcome. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, Miss Marple investigates the murder of Heather Badcock, who is poisoned during a fête. The victim and her husband live in the then-new council housing in the village of St. Mary Mead, and the that’s only one of the changes that’s come to the town. The supermarket is another. Here’s what Miss Hartnall, one of the villagers, says about it:

‘‘All these great packets of breakfast cereal instead of cooking a child a proper breakfast of bacon and eggs. And you’re expected to take a basket round yourself and go looking for things – it takes a quarter of an hour sometimes to find all one wants – and usually made up of inconvenient sizes, too much or too little. And then a long queue waiting to pay as you go out. Most tiring.’’

Admittedly, the new supermarket isn’t the reason for Heather Badcock’s murder. But Miss Hartnall offers an interesting perspective on this major change in shopping.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives takes place mostly in the fictional small town of Stepford, Connecticut. Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their two children have moved there from New York City, in order to take advantage of lower taxes, less expensive housing, and better schools. All goes well at first. But Joanna soon notices that none of the other women in town seem to have outside interests; they all seem to be completely involved in their homes and domesticity. One day, for instance, she’s at Center Market, the local supermarket:

‘Joanna looked…into the cart of another woman going slowly past her. My God, she thought, they even fill their carts neatly. And she looked at her own: a jumble of boxes and cans and jars. A guilty impulse to put it in order prodded her, but I’m damned if I will, she thought…’

At first, it just seems like an oddity. But slowly, Joanna and her new best friend, Bobbie Markowe, begin to suspect that something is very, very wrong in Stepford. And they turn out to be right.

In a similar vein, science fiction writer Zack Walker decides to move his family to the suburb of Valley Forest Estates in Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move. Walker’s convinced that the suburbs are safer, and persuades his wife, Sarah, to fall in with his plans. Things don’t work out as he thought, though. For one thing, the new home they’ve bought needs several repairs. When Walker goes to the sales office of the housing development, he witnesses a loud argument between one of the sales executives and local environmentalist Samuel Spender. Later, he finds Spender’s body near a local creek. Now, he’s unwittingly mixed up in that murder. As if that’s not enough, he and Sarah go to a grocery store one day. They’re leaving the store, when he sees a handbag left behind in a shopping cart. Thinking it’s his wife’s, Walker takes it and stashes it in the car. Then, Sarah produces her own handbag. Walker’s decisions about what to do next draw him even more deeply into some dark things going on in Valley Forest Estates.

Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire finds an innovative use for a local supermarket in Death Without Company. In one small plot thread of the novel, he needs to find enough people to serve as jurors for an upcoming series of hearings. So, he instructs his deputy, Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti, to wait outside the supermarket and ‘collect’ shoppers to serve as talis jurors:

‘I watched as my…deputy accosted a middle-aged man…copied down information from his driver’s license and informed him that he needed to get over to the courthouse pronto or be faced with contempt of court. ‘Well, there’s another notch on my Glock…’’ ‘Hey, there are worse places for stakeouts. At least we’ve got plenty of supplies.’’

It’s a very practicable solution to the jury-pool problem, even if it does interrupt the day for several shoppers.

And then there’s Håkan Östlundh’s The Intruder. In that novel, Malin Andersson, her husband Henrik Kjellander, and their two children, Ellen and Axel, return to their home on the Swedish island of Fårö after a two-month absence. When they get to the house, they see that the tenants who’ve been staying there have made a huge mess. What’s worse, several family photographs have been deliberately disfigured. It’s unsettling, and Malin calls the police. There’s not much they can do at first, other than take down the details, but police detective Fredrik Bronan and his team promise to look into the matter. Then one day, Malin is in the local supermarket, when she gets the strong feeling that she’s being followed. She looks around quickly, but doesn’t see anyone. And the store employees aren’t much help. But this seems related to the damage to the house, and to a previous incident in which Malin noticed a stranger watching her as she dropped her children off at their schools. Then, other, more ominous things happen. Now, Bronan and his team take this threat seriously. They’ll have to find out who’s targeted the family and why before anyone is seriously hurt or worse.

See what I mean? Supermarkets are woven into our lives. So it’s little wonder they’re also woven into crime fiction.


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


Filed under Agatha Christie, Craig Johnson, Håkan Östlundh, Ira Levin, Linwood Barclay