Category Archives: David Whish-Wilson

Reality is Dual, Walking With Good and Evil*

As this is posted, it’s 132 years since the first publication of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Among other things, this story explores human nature and our capacity for both good and evil. Stevenson uses two separate characters (although, of course, the same physical person) as representations of those two extremes. The fact is, though, that the capacity for both good and evil exists in all of us.

Crime fiction addresses this issue a lot. Not all crime novels get particularly philosophical, but the question does come up: what moves an otherwise law-abiding, possibly generous, loving person to commit murder? And if you read enough crime fiction, you learn that any one of us might do the same, given the right circumstances.

Here, for instance, is how Hercule Poirot puts it in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
 

‘‘Let us take a man – a very ordinary man. A man with no idea of murder in his heart. There is in him somewhere a strain of weakness – deep down. It has so far never been called into play. Perhaps it never will be – and if so he will go to his grave honoured and respected by everyone. But let us suppose that something occurs…And then the strain of weakness tells. Here is a chance at money – a great amount of money…He becomes greedy. And in his greed he overreaches himself.’’
 

It’s an interesting discussion of how a person who’s perfectly law-abiding and well respected – a good person – could do something like commit a murder. Several of Christie’s other stories also touch on the fact that all of us have a capacity for good or evil.

We certainly see that happening in James M. Cain’s novella Double Indemnity. Walter Huff is what many people would think of as a good person. He’s an insurance agent who decides to visit one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger, one day when he happens to be in the area. He’s hoping he can get a policy renewal if he makes a personal visit. Nirdlinger isn’t home, but his wife, Phyllis, is. She and Huff start talking and it’s not long before Huff finds himself attracted to her. She does nothing to discourage him, and they’re soon having an affair. Then, she tells Huff her plan: she wants to kill her husband to get as much insurance money as she can. By this time, Huff is so besotted by her that he falls in with her plan, even writing the double-indemnity policy she has in mind. The murder takes place, and Huff finds himself drawn into a web of coverup and conspiracy. He wouldn’t have thought of himself as a bad person, and most people would have agreed that he wasn’t. But as the story goes on, we see his capacity for criminality.

Of course, this all can arguably work the other way, too. People can show an unexpected capacity for good. For instance, in Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos, we are introduced to Fabio Montale. He, Pierre ‘Ugo’ Ugolini, and their friend, Manu, grew up together on the proverbial mean streets of Marseilles. They were involved in all sorts of petty crimes and other trouble with the law. But then, a tragedy made Montale re-think his lifestyle and priorities. He left Marseilles, joined the military, and then returned to Marseilles as a police officer. He’s been living on the right side of the law, and has made a sort of life for himself. But then, Manu, who never left Marseilles, is murdered. Ugo returns to Marseilles to avenge his friend’s death, only to be killed himself. Now, in one plot thread, Montale feels driven to find out who killed Ugo and Manu. Among other things, this novel raises some interesting questions about who is good and who isn’t, and what is ‘moral’ and what isn’t.

David Whish-Wilson’s historical (late 1970s) series features Frank Swann. As the series begins, with Line of Sight, he’s a police superintendent who’s just returned to Perth after several years away. He’s come back because a former friend, Ruby Devine, has been murdered. Along with this main plot line, we learn something about Swann’s background. As a young person, he got into more than his fair share of trouble, and it looked very much as though he’d be headed for prison before many years had passed. But then, he met Marion Monroe and the two began to date. That’s how Swann met her father, George Monroe, who was a police officer. And that relationship led to Swann’s decision to join the police force himself. Swann’s certainly no angel. But he’s learned to do the right thing, if I may put it that way.

And then there’s John Clarkson’s Among Thieves. In that novel, we are introduced to James Beck, who owns a bar in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. What a lot of people don’t know is that he bought the bar, and the building next door, with money he won in a wrongful conviction lawsuit after serving eight years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. His co-owners are Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Guzman, Demarco Jones, and Ciro Baltassare, all people he met in and through prison. Unlike Beck, these men are guilty of various crimes, but are trying to put their lives back together. The bar gives them a chance for a legitimate income, and they’re mostly staying on the right side of the law. Then, Manny’s cousin, Olivia Sanchez, comes to him with a problem. She says that she’s been fired from her position at an upmarket investment firm, because she was ready to ‘blow the whistle’ on some dubious transactions. She claims that one of her colleagues threatened her, broke two of her fingers, and is responsible for ‘blacklisting’ her so that she can’t get another job in the industry. What looks at first like a ‘he said/she said’ dispute turns out to be much more complicated and dangerous than it seems. And Beck and his friends are up against some very nasty people. One thing that we see in this novel is that these men all have quite a capacity for good, despite the fact that they’d done really reprehensible things.

And that’s the thing about humans. We all have a capacity for great good – and for the opposite. And it’s interesting to see how crime fiction treats that.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stereolab’s Naught More Terrific Than Man.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, David Whish-Wilson, James M. Cain, Jean-Claude Izzo, John Clarkson, Robert Louis Stevenson

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.

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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.  

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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.

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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.

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