Category Archives: Craig Johnson

Stranded on an Island Alone*

As this is posted, it’s 299 years since the publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Among other things, this novel explores the relationship between humans and nature as Crusoe works to find shelter, food, and so on after he is stranded. It’s also, of course, his personal reflection.

And being stranded can be very scary, even if you have some survival skills. After all, lots of different things can happen, and plenty of them are not good. That’s part of why that plot point can add a lot to a crime story. There’s an extra layer of tension that can be very powerful. And the physical setting can add interest to the story, too. There are lots of novels that include that element of being stranded, or close to it. Here are just a few; I know you’ll think of others.

Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is the story of ten people who accept invitations to visit Indian Island, off the Devon coast. They all arrive and settle in, and at first, all seems well enough. Then, that night, each person is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Then, one of the guests dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, there’s another death. Soon, a storm comes up that cuts off access to the island, so these people are stranded. And, now that it’s clear that one of them is a killer, no-one feels safe trusting anyone else. These characters don’t really have to make shelter or forage outside for food. But they are trapped, and they don’t trust each other enough to work well together. Against that backdrop, the survivors are going to have to find out who the killer is if they’re going to stay alive.

Dick Francis’ Second Wind features BBC meteorologist Perry Stuart. In one plot thread, he crashes in the Caribbean after flying a plane through the eye of a hurricane. He thinks he’s about to drown, but instead, washes up on an uninhabited island. He manages to survive, and uses the resources he can find for shelter, food, and so on. Then, he is found by four visitors to the island. At first, it seems that they want to kill him for intruding. Instead, they return him to Grand Cayman. He’s blindfolded, so he doesn’t know where the island he discovered is. But apparently, someone thinks he knows too much for safety. Once he returns to England, Stuart becomes the target of some dangerous people whose plot he slowly uncovers.

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River is the story of London-born William Thornhill, his wife, Sal, and their children. In 1806, Thornhill is sentenced to transportation to Australia for stealing a load of wood. He and his family arrive in Sydney and have to start all over. On the one hand, they are not stranded in the sense of there being no-one else there. On the other, they have to make do as best they can for a lot of things. Still, they slowly start to build a life. Thornhill finds work with a man named Alexander King, who wants him to transport casks of liquor to nearby coves, where they won’t be seen by customs inspectors. Sal puts together a makeshift pub. It’s all rudimentary, but it’s a start. Then, Thornhill gets a job delivering goods on the Hawkesbury River. That’s where he discovers the perfect piece of land that he’s been wanting. But, of course, there have been people in this area for many thousands of years. So, there are bound to be clashes between them and the newcomers. And soon enough, that’s exactly what happens. Thornhill wants no part of the bloodshed and crimes that ensue. He soon learns, though, that if he wants to hold on to his land, he’ll have to get his hands dirty. As the Thornhills get settled on their land, we see how they have to learn to use creatively the things they find there.

Fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series will know that, in more than one novel, Longmire ends up more or less stranded in the mountains. He’s the sheriff of fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming, and that means his jurisdiction includes some very rough terrain. He knows the land, and he knows how to make do. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy for him to stay warm, find food, and take shelter. It’s a good reminder not to take the elements for granted.

And that’s a lesson that Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte knows very well. He’s a Queensland Police Inspector, who is also half white/half Aborigine. He is thoroughly familiar with, as he calls it, the Book of the Bush. And that helps him to survive when he’s out in the ‘back of beyond.’ He knows what’s safe to eat and what isn’t, what sorts of places will offer safe shelter, how to find potable water, and how to spot an oncoming storm.

All of those skills are useful, especially if one ends up as Robinson Crusoe did. That plot line – where characters who are isolated have to make what they can from what’s available – can add suspense to a novel. And it’s interesting to explore the dynamic between people and their surroundings in those situations. Which examples have stayed with you?

 
 
 

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

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Upfield, Craig Johnson, Daniel Defoe, Dick Francis, Kate Grenville

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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