Category Archives: David Whish-Wilson

I’m Shackled and Sentenced to the Ball and Chain*

There’s a good reason most people don’t want to go to prison. A prison record damages one’s job prospects (as well as other life prospects). And prison is not a pleasant place, even if it’s got decent living conditions, food, and so on. In fact, some prisons can be downright eerie.

Whatever you think of prisons and prison systems in real life, fictional prisons can be effective settings for novels, or for scenes in novels. For one thing, it’s realistic that a crime novel would have prison scenes. After all, crime and prison go together, if I may put it that way. For another, prison scenes allow for tension and suspense, as well as interesting interactions among characters.

Prison scenes play a major role in John Grisham’s The Chamber. The State of Mississippi is about to execute Sam Cayhall for the 1968 murder of Marvin Kramer. His case is taken pro bono by a Chicago law firm that sends one of their attorneys, Adam Hall, to handle the matter. Hall is actually Cayhall’s grandson, and he works as hard as he can to get a stay of execution. For him, Cayhall is a living link to the family history that Hall doesn’t know. As Hall visits his grandfather in prison, we get a look at what life on death row is like. And we also learn, bit by bit, the Cayhall family history.

There are some very eerie prison scenes in Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs. Dr. Hannibal Lecter is a noted, gifted psychiatrist who is also a dangerous serial killer. He’s imprisoned in Baltimore’s State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, which is a prison in its own way. When another killer, whom the FBI has dubbed ‘Buffalo Bill,’ starts claiming victims, trainee agent Clarice Starling is sent to the hospital to interview Lecter. It turns out that ‘Buffalo Bill’ was once a patient of Lecter’s so it’s believed that he might be able to shed some light on this killer. There are some very eerie scenes as Starling goes into the prison and starts to talk to Lecter. He agrees to help in the search for this murderer, but he imposes a condition. For everything he tells Starling, she will have to share a personal secret. It becomes a dangerous psychological game, and adds to the stress of hunting for ‘Buffalo Bill.’

In Angela Makholwa’s Red Ink, we are introduced to Lucy Khambule, a Johannesburg publicist. She’s at a sort of crossroads in her job, and is trying to decide what her next steps will be when she gets a call from Napoleon Dingiswayo. He’s in a maximum-security prison after being convicted of a series of horrific murders. At first, Lucy is surprised to get this call. But then, she is reminded that she had written to Napoleon when he was first imprisoned (at the time, she was in journalism and wanted a story). Now, Napoleon wants to meet her, and asks her to consider writing a book about him. The opportunity to do a book proves irresistible, and Lucy agrees to the meeting. Things don’t go as planned, though, First, it’s soon clear that Napoleon is falling for her, which makes Lucy extremely uncomfortable, although she can see how he would be attractive to women. Then, soon after they start working together, some horrible, violent things start to happen. Napoleon is behind bars in a maximum-security facility, so there’s no way he could be responsible for what’s happening. But if he’s not, then who is? And what might he know that he’s not telling? There are several prison scenes as Lucy slowly starts to get to the truth. And some of them are eerie.

In Alison Joseph’s Line of Sight, Sister Agnes Bourdillon has been seconded to Silworth, a London women’s prison, where she’ll work in its Roman Catholic chaplaincy. She’s gotten settled in, and is getting to know several of the inmates and work with them. Then, one of her charges, Cally Fisher, gets the news that her father, Cliff, has been shot. The most likely suspect is her boyfriend, Mel, and there’s evidence against him. But Cally believes that he’s innocent, and asks Sister Agnes to help her clear his name. Sister Agnes agrees, and starts to ask some questions. She soon learns that there are several people who might have had a good reason to want to kill the victim. Throughout the novel, readers get a look at what a modern UK women’s prison is like. There’s the inevitable paperwork and bureaucracy, including the process for gaining access to the prison as a visitor. There are alliances and conflicts (some of them serious) among the women, and so on. It’s not a nice place to be, and Joseph makes that clear.

There’s also John Burdett’s Bangkok 8, the first of his Sonchai Jitpleecheep novels. Sonchai is a member of the Royal Thai Police, and a devout Buddhist. In the main plot thread of the novel, he and FBI agent Kimberly Jones search for the killer of a former US Marine named William Bradley. It all starts when Sonchai and his police partner, Pichai Apiradee, tail a Mercedes. When they catch up to it, Bradley is already dead, most likely from the bite of poisonous snakes locked in the car with him. When one of the snakes also kills Pinchai, Sonchai is determined to find Bradley’s (and his friend’s) killer. At one point, Sonchai goes to visit the man who comes closest to a father figure to him. This man, Fritz von Staffen, is in Bang Kwan prison, which is,
 

‘A fortress with a watchtower and guards armed with machine guns, surrounded by double perimeter walls, the stench of rotten sewage as we passed through the first gate, and the spiritual stench of violence, sadism, and rotten souls as we passed into the inhabited part of the prison.’
 

And the prisoners, including Fritz, are deeply impacted by the environment.

David Whish-Wilson has experience teaching in prisons, and that comes through in Line of Sight. In that novel, Perth Superintendent Frank Swann searches for the murderer of an old friend, Ruby Devine. He finds the job difficult, though, because he’s called a Royal Commission hearing into corruption on the police force. So, he’s a ‘dead man walking’ as far as the police are concerned. And plenty of civilians don’t want to help, either. Still, bit by bit, Swann gets answers. At one point, he pays a visit to a prisoner named Ray Hergenhan, who he hopes will give him some ‘inside information. The prison Ray’s in is a very grim, hopeless sort of place. But Ray’s survived so far. He provides some useful information to Swann, too.

Prisons can be eerie and grim, but they are a part of the justice system. So, it makes sense that they would be a part of crime fiction, too. These are only a few examples. Over to you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Dropkick Murphys’ Prisoner’s Song.

21 Comments

Filed under Alison Joseph, Angela Makholwa, David Whish-Wilson, John Burdett, John Grisham, Thomas Harris

In Loyalty to Our Kind*

In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot solves the stabbing murder of wealthy American businessman Samuel Ratchett. The victim is killed on the second night of a three-day trip across Europe on the famous Orient Express, and the only possible suspects are the other passengers in the same car. One of those passengers is Princess Natalia Dragomiroff, a formidable elderly lady whose strength is in her personality. At one point in the story, she has this to say:
 

‘‘I believe…in loyalty – to one’s friends and one’s family and one’s caste.’’
 

She’s not alone. Being loyal to the members of one’s group is a highly-valued trait, and that makes sense if you think about it. People depend on other group members for a lot, including, at times, survival. So, it’s important that groups stick together, as the saying goes. And there are sometimes very severe penalties for breaking that rule. Loyalty matters, but it can sometimes go too far, and that can make for an interesting layer of character development in a crime novel. It can also allow for plot points.

For example, one of the cardinal rules of the Mafia and of other criminal groups is what the Mafia has called omerta – silence. Every member is expected to keep quiet about the group’s activities, or about anyone else who might be involved. That’s how one proves loyalty to the group. We see that, for instance, in Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas. In that novel, Fred and Maggie Blake and their two children move from the US to a small town in Normandy. The four settle in and begin the process of getting used to an entirely new culture.  But all is not as it seems. ‘Fred Blake’ is really Giovanni Manzini, a former member of the New Jersey Mob, who testified against his fellow mobsters in court. Now, he and his family are in the US Witness Protection Program, and have been resettled in Normandy for their own protection. The plan is successful enough, until word of the Manzini family’s whereabouts accidentally gets back to New Jersey. Now, Manzini could very well pay a terrible price for his disloyalty.

Police officers depend on each other, sometimes for their lives. That’s one reason why there’s such a premium placed on loyalty to other officers. In many cases, that’s part of the ‘glue’ that holds the force together. But this loyalty, too, can be taken too far. In Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, for instance, we are introduced to Sergeant John White of the Tasmania Police. One afternoon, he is called to the scene of a home invasion. With him, he takes probationer Lucy Howard. They’re investigating at the house when White is stabbed to death. The most likely suspect is seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who already has a history with local law enforcement. The other officers are loyal to White, and want to mete out their own kind of justice. But the media is paying very close attention to this case, and everyone knows that if they don’t do everything exactly ‘by the book,’ there’ll be a lot of trouble. It’s all complicated by the fact that Rowley is part Aboriginal. All of the police know that the least misstep on their part will lead to accusations of racism. It’s clear throughout the novel, though, that loyalty to each other and to White impacts all of their choices. There are many other crime novels, too, where loyalty to other police officers comes into play (I’m thinking, for instance, of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential and David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight). This is part of the reason for which so many police officers are biased against Internal Affairs and other internal investigation groups.

There’s also the tendency for people in elite groups to protect themselves and one another. We see this, for instance, in the work of Qiu Xiaolong. His Chief Inspector Chen Cao lives and works in Shanghai at the end of the 1990’s/beginning of the 21st Century. Chen is respected, and has an important position within his police department. However, he isn’t at the very top of the proverbial tree. That place is reserved for the elite of the Party – the High Cadre people. Those individuals make all of the important decisions, and displeasing them can lead to the end of a career, or sometimes worse. High Cadre families are loyal to each other and protect one another, and would far rather police themselves than have independent investigators look into their business. Chen is very well aware of the power the High Cadre people have, and their tendency to be loyal to their sociopolitical group. So, when his investigations lead to high places, as they often do, Chen has to move very carefully.

And then there’s family loyalty. Most of us would agree that being loyal to one’s family is a highly valued trait. In crime series such as Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty novels, we see this loyalty in action. Rafferty is a ‘rough travel’ writer who lives and works in Bangkok. He also happens to be very good at finding people who don’t want to be found. That’s why he’s in demand when people are looking for someone in hiding. Rafferty’s married to Rose, a former bar girl who now owns an apartment cleaning company. Rose loves her husband and adopted daughter, Miaow. But she is very loyal to her family of origin. Here’s what she says about it to Rafferty:
 

‘She [Rose] turns to face him. ‘We have ten dollars left,’ she says. Her voice is so low he has to strain to hear it. ‘Miaow is hungry. My little sister up north is hungry. Who gets the ten dollars? … I would send the money to my sister,’ Rose says. ‘Without a minute’s thought.’’
 

Of course, family loyalty can create all sorts of obstacles to criminal investigation, too. In many crime novels, people don’t want to talk to the police about their siblings/parents/cousins/etc., because those people are family members.

But that’s the thing about loyalty. Like most other human traits, it’s a proverbial double-edged sword. It’s valuable to an extent, and in many situations. On the other hand, it can also be tragic.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jefferson Airplane’s Crown of Creation.  

12 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, David Whish-Wilson, James Ellroy, Qiu Xiaolong, Timothy Hallinan, Tonino Benacquista, Y.A. Erskine

I Know I’ll Never be Forgiven*

Everyone makes mistakes, and plenty of people do things they shouldn’t do. That’s part of being human, really. And often, those mistakes – those ‘sins’ if you want to call it that – are forgiven. You pay that speeding ticket, and watch your driving, and you’re forgiven. You pay the overdraft fee on your bank account, and don’t let it happen too often, and you’re all right.

But every profession has certain ‘sins’ that aren’t forgiven. For instance, responsible news journalists report the truth and only the truth. That profession doesn’t easily forgive a person who makes up news stories, or who reports something that isn’t true.

Those ‘unforgiveable sins’ can make interesting contexts or plots for crime fiction. They can create a motive for murder, add character development, move a plot along, and build suspense. They also do happen in real life, and this can add to a story as well.

For instance, in the world of banking and finance, embezzlement is unforgiveable. People caught doing so are often ‘blacklisted’ and not able to work again within the field. It’s a serious enough sort of crime that those committing it will sometimes do whatever it takes to avoid getting caught – at least in fiction. In John D. MacDonald’s Nightmare in Pink, for instance, Travis McGee is drawn into a dangerous case involving embezzlement when an old military friend, Mike Gibson, asks for his help. Gibson’s younger sister, Nina, has just lost her fiancé, Howard Plummer. On the surface of it, Plummer’s murder looks like a mugging gone wrong. But she suspects otherwise. Plummer worked for an investment company called Armister-Hawes, and had begun to suspect that there were irregularities in some things happening at the company, including embezzlement. And, as McGee finds out, there are some well-connected people at the company who do not want him to find out the truth.

In the field of academia, one of the ‘unforgiveable sins’ is plagiarism. Presenting someone else’s work as one’s one can constitute grounds for failing a course, and later, for losing (or not getting) a job. And once word gets around that it’s happened, it usually means that the guilty party is unlikely to get another job, a speaking invitation, or a publishing contract. Plagiarism is part of the plot of Janice MacDonald’s Another Margaret. In the novel, sessional lecturer Miranda ‘Randy’ Craig makes ends meet by teaching courses as needed for Grant McEwan University, in Edmonton. Her friend, Denise Wolff, asks her to work on an alumni event to coincide with the University of Alberta’s Homecoming (Craig got her M.A. at that institution). Craig agrees, and the planning begins. Then, Wolff tells her a disturbing piece of news. A new novel by Margaret Ahlers is about to be published. What’s unsettling about this is that Craig did her M.A. thesis on Ahlers, and knows for a fact that the author has been gone for years. And it’s very, very unlikely that an unpublished manuscript would have turned up after all this time. If it’s not a genuine Ahlers novel, then someone is a plagiarist. All of this brings up a mystery that Craig was involved when she was working on her thesis; that mystery ties into the present-day mystery, and puts Craig in a great deal of danger.

In the world of sport, one of those ‘unpardonable sins’ is fixing games or matches. It can be very tempting, though, especially if a lot of money is involved. Just ask rugby player Mark Stevens, whom we meet in John Daniell’s The Fixer. He’s a former star of New Zealand’s legendary All-Blacks team, who’s heading towards the end of his career. Now, he plays for a French professional team, and doing well enough. Everything changes when he meets Rachel da Silva, who works for a Brazilian magazine. She’s been sent to France to do an in-depth piece on rugby, and wants to interview Stevens. He’s happy to do the interview, and before long, the two are working together on the article. Soon, da Silva tells Stevens about a friend of hers named Philip, who’s made a lot of money betting on rugby. And it’s not long before Philip’s very generous gifts, and da Silva’s very personal attention, draw Stevens into a web of providing ‘inside information,’ so that Philip can make even more money. That’s one thing, but then Stevens discovers that what Philip really wants is for him to fix matches. Now, Stevens faces a serious dilemma. He’s as opposed to fixing matches as any real athlete, or fan of sport, is. On the other hand, he’s in deep, as the saying goes. And there will be real danger for him if he doesn’t do as he’s asked.

The police are entrusted with a great deal of power and authority. Abuse of that power is grounds for, at the very least, disciplinary action. It can be grounds for much more, including termination or even imprisonment. There are many novels that feature corrupt police and those who try to bring them to justice. One of those is David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, which introduces Perth Superintendent Frank Swann. He’s been away from Perth for a few years, but returns when he hears about the murder of an old friend, Ruby Devine. He starts asking questions about the death, but soon runs into a proverbial wall of silence. One reason is that he called a Royal Commission hearing on corruption in the police department. That alone makes him a ‘dead man walking.’ What’s more, the police who are the target of this investigation – a group called ‘the purple circle’ – are powerful. No-one wants to run afoul of them. So, Swann gets very little help. Even so, he finds out the truth about his friend’s murder, and about its connection to the ‘purple circle.’

Nurses work with sometimes very vulnerable people. So, they’re held to what you might call a higher standard when it comes to caring for their charges. For a nurse, causing harm to a patient is a very serious matter. Even if it’s unintentional, it can get the nurse fired. Neglect or intentional harm is an even more serious ‘sin.’ We see how that plays out in Caroline Overington’s Sisters of Mercy.  This novel tells the story of Sally Narelle ‘Snow’ Delaney. As the story begins, she’s in prison (for reasons which are revealed in the novel). In one plot thread, she begins to write letters to New South Wales journalist Jack ‘Tap’ Fawcett. Her purpose is to set the record straight about some things he’s written. Through those letters, we learn a great deal about Snow’s childhood, her training as a nurse, and the experiences she’s had in that profession. We also learn about the events that led to her imprisonment. As the story unfolds, we get an ‘inside look’ at a system that’s supposed to protect the most vulnerable, and about what happens when it doesn’t.

Each profession has its standards, and when members violate those standards, the consequences can be especially severe. Among other things, there’s a sense of, ‘you’re supposed to know better, so it’s doubly wrong when you break this rule.’ These are only a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Echo and the Bunnymen’s Forgiven.

17 Comments

Filed under Caroline Overington, David Whish-Wilson, Janice MacDonald, John D. MacDonald, John Daniell

No One Dare Disturb the Sound of Silence*

One of the major challenges that police and private investigators face is people’s reluctance to talk to them. Sometimes that’s because those people have their own secrets, and they’d rather the police didn’t find them out. Many times, though, it’s because they’re afraid of what will happen to them if they do co-operate.  If there’s a lot of what I’ll call peer pressure not to be involved in an investigation, people find that hard to resist.

For instance, in William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, Glasgow Detective Inspector (DI) Jack Laidlaw is faced with a very troubling case. Eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawson has been raped and murdered, and her body discovered in Kelvingrove Park. In that part of the city, there is a lot of pressure not to talk to ‘the polis.’ Everyone knows who co-operates with the authorities, and those people are not made to feel welcome. Laidlaw knows this, so he takes a different approach to finding information. He and his second-in-command, Detective Constable (DC) Brian Harkness, pay a visit to John Rhodes, who is unofficially in charge of the part of Glasgow where the victim was found. If Rhodes wants something to happen, it will happen. Laidlaw also knows that Rhodes has a certain ethic. He’s not going to be pleased about the rape and murder of a young woman on ‘his patch.’ So, Laidlaw and Harkness appeal to that ethic, and Rhodes agrees to put the word out for anyone who knows anything to come forward. Sure enough, that strategy turns out to be successful, and Laidlaw gets some useful information.

In Friedrich Glauser’s Thumprint, we are introduced to Sergeant Jacob Studer of the Bern Cantonal Police. He is responsible for the arrest of Erwin Schlumpf on the charge of murdering his sweetheart Sonja’s father, travelling salesman Wendelin Witschi. Studer decides to visit Schlumpf in prison, and arrives just in time to prevent the man’s suicide. He’s developing a liking for Schlumpf, so he decides to investigate Witschi’s murder again. There was certainly enough evidence against Schlumpf to arrest him, but Studer finds that there are other possibilities when it comes to the murderer. He faces a major challenge, though: very few people are willing to talk to him. It’s not so much that they dislike Schlumpf. Rather, they have to live in the small town where the murder occurred, and don’t want to upset the proverbial apple cart, especially considering that some suspects have quite a lot of local power.

There’s a similar sort of concern in Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel. In that novel, Amsterdam police detective Piet van der Valk is seconded to the small town of Zwinderen. There’s been a spate of anonymous ‘poison pen’ letters, and the matter has gone far beyond annoying. The letters have been responsible for two suicides and a mental breakdown. The local police haven’t been able to find out much information, chiefly because Zwinderen’s residents are close-mouthed. They have to live in this town, where everyone knows everyone’s business. If anyone is seen as helping the police, there’s immediately talk as to why. Van der Valk and his wife, Arlette, travel to the town, and settle in. Because of the natural suspicion, van der Valk pretends to be a bureaucrat conducting a study for the Ministry of the Interior. In that guise, he slowly gets to know the residents; and, in the end, he finds out who wrote the letters and why.

Maureen Carter’s Working Girls introduces readers to Birmingham Detective Sergeant (DS) Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss. The body of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas has been found by a local school caretaker, and the police begin their investigation. One of their first tasks is, of course, to find out as much as possible about the victim. When they learn that she was a sex worker, a natural next step is to talk to other local sex workers and find out about any enemies she’d made. That proves more difficult than it might seem. These women have to live in town and do their jobs. If they’re seen as helping the police, they’ll alienate some of the very people who are their support system. That’s not to mention that several of them work for Charlie Hawes, a dangerous pimp who’s not afraid to use violence to keep ‘his girls’ under control. He’s happy to use the same tactics against anyone else who crosses him, too, so people are inclined to keep quiet. Morriss knows how difficult it’s going to be to get Michelle’s friends and co-workers to talk, so she slowly develops a rapport with some of them, outside of the police station. Little by little, they learn to trust her, and she learns quite a lot of useful information.

Harry Bingham’s DC Fiona Griffiths faces the same challenge in Talking to the Dead. When part-time sex worker Janet Mancini and her six-year-old daughter, April, are killed, Griffiths joins the team that investigates the murders. She tries to make contact with some of the other sex workers in the area, but few of them are willing to talk. They still have to earn their livings. Besides, there are some very dangerous people who might be involved in the killings. It makes no sense to put their own lives in peril if anyone suspects they’ve been co-operating with the police. Still, Griffiths slowly finds out some of Mancini’s background. And she gets some important information about the killings.

And then there’s David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, which takes place in late-1970s Perth. Superintendent Frank Swann’s been away from the area for a few years, but returns when he learns of the death of a friend, Ruby Devine. He soon finds that almost no-one is willing to talk to him about her death, though. For one thing, Swann has convened a Royal Commission hearing to look into possible corruption among a group of police known as the ‘purple circle.’ That’s already made him a marked man. And the people who might know something sill have to live in and around Perth. They have to deal with the consequences if it gets around that they helped Swann. It’s a difficult situation for everyone, but Swann eventually finds out the truth.

And that’s the thing about getting people to talk. The police need to get answers, but the people who could help them still have to go on with their lives, perhaps next door to someone they’ve accused. Or perhaps the next target of someone who doesn’t want to be ‘known to the police.’ Either way, this can make it very challenging to get information.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is line from Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence.

20 Comments

Filed under David Whish-Wilson, Friedrich Glauser, Harry Bingham, Maureen Carter, Nicolas Freeling, William McIlvanney

Will You Give All You Can Give*

risking-to-helpWe’ve all read and heard stories of those who risked everything, including their lives, to right a wrong and/or to help others. While some of them are well-known, others are not so well-known. For instance, do you know who Miep Gies was? She was a secretary for the Dutch offices of the German firm, Opekta. She was also one of those who helped to hide Otto Frank (who worked for Opekta), his wife, Edith, and their daughters, Margot and Anne, among others, from the Nazis. Miep and her husband Jan (who was a member of the Dutch Resistance) took grave risks to help the Frank family and the others who hid with them. What makes this story especially remarkable is that neither Gies was what you call a ‘superhero.’ They were ordinary people who did extraordinary things.

They aren’t the only examples of such courage, of course. We’ve seen them in real life, and we see them in crime fiction, too. It’s a bit tricky to create such a character, because it’s so important that the character be believable. But when they’re well-drawn, characters who risk everything to help others, or to do good, can add much to a story. They can be interesting in and of themselves, and the risks they take can add tension to a plot.

In Agatha Christie’s short story, The Theft of the Royal Ruby (AKA The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding), Hercule Poirot is persuaded against his better judgement, to spend Christmas at Kings Lacey, the home of Colonel Horace Lacey, his wife, Em, their grandchildren and great-niece, and some other house guests. Poirot is ostensibly there to experience an old-fashioned English Christmas. But the real reason for his visit is to recover a valuable ruby that was stolen from an Eastern prince. On Christmas Eve, Poirot finds a note on his pillow, warning him not to eat any of the Christmas pudding. He’s puzzled, but doesn’t ignore the note. The pudding becomes important in the recovery of the jewel, and Poirot discovers that the author of the note is the family maid, Annie. It’s not spoiling the story to say that she didn’t steal the ruby. But she does take quite a risk, especially considering her position, in warning Poirot of what she sees as real danger to him.

Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series takes place mostly in Berlin, just before and during the Nazi era. As the series begins (with A Trace of Smoke), Vogel is a crime reporter for the Berliner Tageblatt. The Nazis are rising to power, and it’s getting more and more dangerous to oppose them. This makes it challenging enough for Vogel (and for many other Germans). But she’s got another challenge. She and her brother Ernst lent their identity papers to two Jewish friends who needed them to escape Berlin. Those friends have promised to return the papers, but the Vogels took a real risk. When Vogel discovers that her brother has been murdered, she has to be extremely cautious in finding out why and by whom. If she’s caught without papers, her doom is sealed. As the series goes on, she takes other risks, too. Fans of the novels will know that, more than once, she goes up against the Nazis as she finds out the truth of what they’ve been doing.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack introduces Buenos Aires police detective Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano. He lives and works in the late 1970s, a very dangerous time for most people in Buenos Aires. With the military government firmly in control, any whisper of dissent is brutally put down, and anyone who is considered to have ‘the wrong’ sympathies simply disappears. Against that backdrop, Lescano is called one morning to a riverbank where three bodies have been dumped. Two of them look like regular ‘army hits,’ and Lescano knows better than to question them if he can possibly avoid it. The third, though, is a little different. It turns out that this is the body of a moneylender named Elías Biterman, and Lescano doesn’t think he was killed in the usual way. So, very quietly, he begins an investigation. The trail leads to the very highest levels, and Lescano himself takes risks as he looks into the matter. He’s not the only one. When a court office boy named Marcelo discovers some very incriminating documents, he risks his life to get them to Lescano, and they play an important role in the case. Lescano is also helped by the medical examiner, Dr. Fusili, who risks his life to get to the real cause of Biterman’s death.

Malla Nunn’s DS Emmanuel Cooper has to take real risks, as well. This series takes place in the early 1950s, not long after South Africa’s apartheid laws were enacted. In the first novel, A Beautiful Place to Die, Cooper (who is white) is sent from Johannesburg to the small town of Jacob’s Rest to investigate the murder of Willem Pretorius. During the course of this investigation, we see the way the apartheid laws impact every aspect of life. Breaking any of them causes trouble; opposing them can be a fatal decision. Cooper, though, is determined to find out who killed the victim and why. In the course of doing so, he finds himself up against some very dangerous odds. And anyone who helps him faces risks, too. As the series goes on, we see that Cooper risks his life more than once to do the right thing.

So do several characters in David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight. This novel, which takes place in late-1970s Perth, features Superintendent Frank Swann. Swann left Perth several years earlier, but returns when he learns that a friend, Ruby Devine, has been murdered. He’s taking a risk looking into the case, as he’s already a ‘marked man.’  That’s because he convened a Royal Commission investigation into the activities of a group of corrupt police known as the ‘purple circle.’ They’ve got plenty of power, and aren’t afraid to use it, as brutally as necessary. Going against them can amount to a death sentence, so not many people are willing to help Swann. But a few brave people are. And in the end, we learn what happened to Ruby.

It takes a great deal of courage to risk everything in order to help others, or to right a wrong. But those who do make all the difference in the world. And they can serve as interesting characters in a crime novel.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Do You Hear the People Sing?

28 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, David Whish-Wilson, Ernesto Mallo, Malla Nunn, Rebecca Cantrell