Category Archives: David Whish-Wilson

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

‘Cause When It’s All For One, It’s One For All*

Individualist and Collectivist CulturesCrime fiction arguably says a lot about the culture from which it comes. This is a very large topic, so I’ll just focus on one aspect of culture. One of the important ways in which cultures differ is in the extent to which they’re collectivist or individualist. Of course, very few cultures are what you’d call entirely collectivist or entirely individualist. But most cultures lean towards one or the other.

Individualistic cultures tend to value individual achievement and efforts. In those cultures, one’s identity comes from individual experiences, choices and the like. In collectivist cultures, on the other hand, individuals’ identities come from their memberships in the larger group. Group goals and achievements have priority over individual goals, and members of the group rely on each other for child and elder care, financial support and the like. The point here isn’t to argue the merits of one type of culture or the other. Rather, it’s to point out that individualism or collectivism really does impact cultures.

We certainly see it in real life, and we see it in crime fiction, too. For example, one aspect of individualistic cultures is an emphasis on individual effort. And that’s arguably reflected in the kinds of sleuths and stories that come from US authors (the dominant US culture is considered highly individualistic). If we look at characters such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Bill Pronzini’s Nameless, or Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, we see examples of sleuths who generally work alone, and certainly don’t get their sense of identity from membership in a particular group. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have friends, don’t value what they learn from others, and so on. But their individual efforts are really the main point of the stories that feature them.

Another characteristic of a lot of individualistic cultures is what’s often called low power distance. In just about every culture, some people have more power than others. Power distance refers to individuals’ willingness to accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. So, lower-ranking individuals from low power distance cultures are less likely to be comfortable with the unequal distribution of power. To see how this plays out, we can take a look at David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, the first of his Superintendent Frank Swann novels. These take place in 1970’s Perth, in a culture that’s generally considered to be quite individualistic. In Line of Sight, Swann investigates the murder of a former friend, brothel owner Ruby Devine. To get to the truth, he has to go up against a very powerful group of top police brass known as the ‘purple circle.’ The novel shows, among other things, the view that titles and power don’t necessarily equal the respect of others. Certainly they don’t guarantee obedience from others. And that’s not surprising, considering that this is an individualistic culture.

Fans of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels will probably find that perspective familiar, and that’s not surprising, either. These stories take place mostly in Scotland, which is also considered an individualistic culture. The cultural values of low power distance and an emphasis on individual effort and achievement come through very clearly in the series.

These aren’t the only examples of individualistic cultures and the novels that come from them, of course. There are many, many more. And as we look at novels from individualistic cultures, we see how those perspectives and cultural values come through.

That’s also arguably true of collectivist cultures and the novels that depict them. For example, we can take a look at power distance from the point of view of Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen series. Chen lives and works in late 1990’s Shanghai, a culture that’s considered very collectivist. High power distance (or, the acceptance and expectation of unequal distribution of power) is an important aspect of that culture. And we see that reflected in this series. It is expected that those of higher rank – those considered more important – have more power and make the rules that they see fit to make. That’s not generally questioned very much. You might argue that, in his way, Qiu does question that power structure, since the murders Chen investigates often lead to very high places. But at the same time, there is an acknowledgement of that characteristic of this society.

Another collectivist characteristic that we see in Qiu’s novels is the emphasis on group, rather than individual, goals. One important political goal is social harmony (that’s a main plot point of Enigma of China). The greater good, so the belief goes, is served when nothing disrupts the order and harmony of the group. Fans of this series will undoubtedly be able to think of examples of how this plays out in the novels.

Because collectivist cultures place a high value on group membership, members are responsible for the welfare of other members. Group effort is therefore a very high priority. This is reflected in Swati Kaushal’s Niki Marwah series, which takes place in northern India. There are, of course, many different cultures in India; it’s a large and diverse country. But in general, it’s considered collectivist. Marwah is Superintendent of Police in Shimla, and as such, makes the final decisions. But she’s not really out for personal gain and achievement. And she knows very well that without the efforts of her team members, crimes won’t be solved. Each team member has something to contribute, and each team member is responsible to the others.

This series (and Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri series, too, among others) also shows the vital importance of family in many collectivist societies. Marwah may be an independent and successful police inspector. But she’s also a member of her family, and takes her responsibilities seriously. She attends family events, she listens to what the older members of her family say (even if she doesn’t end up taking their advice) and so on.

These are just a few examples of the ways that culture impacts stories and characters. And of course, collectivism/individualism is just one dimension of culture. There are many, many more. But even with this small peek at the topic, it seems clear (at least to me) that we can tell a lot about a culture from its crime fiction.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bryan Adams’ All For Love.

15 Comments

Filed under Bill Pronzini, David Whish-Wilson, Ian Rankin, Qiu Xiaolong, Raymond Chandler, Sara Paretsky, Swati Kaushal, Tarquin Hall

You Had to Open Up Your Mouth*

LooseLipsThere’s wisdom to the old wartime saying, ‘Loose lips sink ships.’ A person may mean well, and may even agree to keep quiet about something. But the right setting, the right atmosphere and the right confidant can get people to say things they otherwise might not. And there are those who enjoy the feeling of seeming important – to whom boasting might come naturally.

In crime fiction, anyway, saying too much can get a person into real trouble. For the police, it can put an investigation in jeopardy. For a criminal, it can lead to getting caught. And in any case, it can lead to murder.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, we are introduced to twelve-year-old Joyce Reynolds. She and several other people are at the home of Rowena Drake one afternoon, getting ready for a Hallowe’en party to be held there that night. One of the others at that gathering is detective story writer Ariadne Oliver, who’s staying locally with a friend. When Joyce finds out who Mrs. Oliver is, she boasts that she herself saw a murder. Nobody believes her, and at first everyone hushes her up. But Joyce continues to insist that she’s telling the truth. Many people there put those remarks down to the efforts of a young girl to get the attention of a famous writer. But that evening, during the party, Joyce is murdered. Mrs. Oliver asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and he travels to the village of Woodleigh Common to do so. It now seems clear that what Joyce said got someone frightened enough to kill, and that the peaceful town may very well be hiding a murderer.

In Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City, Reykjavík police inspector Erlendur and his team investigate the murder of a seemingly harmless older man named Holberg. At first, the case looks like a home invasion gone very wrong. But a few clues suggest that this was a deliberate killing. If that’s the case, then the more the team members know about Holberg, the more likely they are to find his killer. So they start to dig into the victim’s past. What they find is not at all pleasant, either. It turns out that Holberg has a history that includes multiple rapes. To check up on this, they have a conversation with a man named Ellidi, who’s been in regular trouble with the law and is currently in prison. Ellidi has this to say about Holberg:
 

‘Holberg liked talking about it [one particular rape incident]. Boasted. Got away with it.’
 

It soon turns out that more than one person could easily have wanted Holberg dead.

Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring features her sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn, who is an academician and political scientist. In one plot thread of this novel, she is concerned about a student of hers, Kellee Savage, who has missed several classes lately. The last time anyone saw Kellee was one night when several students were at a local bar. The evening ended in disaster when someone noticed that Kellee had secretly been recording everyone’s conversation. Kilbourn follows up on what happened that night, and what was said. It turns out that Kellee had been drinking heavily, and said some things that would have been far better left unsaid. Later, those comments have their consequences.

Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas concerns Fred and Maggie Blake and their two children, ex-pat Americans who have moved to a small town in Normandy. As we learn, though, the Blakes are not the people they seem. Fred Blake is really Giovanni Manzoni, a former member of the New Jersey Mafia. In return for testifying against his fellow gangsters, Manzoni was placed in the US Federal Witness Protection Program, along with the members of his family. Because of the sensitive and dangerous nature of what’s happened, it’s vital that all of the ‘Blakes’ keep quiet about everything related to that part of their lives. And at first, all goes well enough, although there’s plenty of ‘culture shock’ as they get used to living in Normandy. Then, the ‘rule of silence’ is broken, and word of the family’s whereabouts gets back to New Jersey. Now, getting along in a different country is the least of the family’s troubles.

In Donna Malane’s Surrender, missing person expert Diane Rowe learns of the murder of James Patrick ‘Snow’ Wilson. This death has special significance for her, because it’s suspected that Snow killed Rowe’s sister Niki a year earlier. Before his death, that suspicion was confirmed. Snow confessed that he’d been hired to commit that murder; he even boasted of his skill. Now he’s been killed in the same way. Rowe reasons that if she can find out who hired (and, presumably, killed) Snow, she’ll also learn who paid Snow to kill her sister.

And then there’s David Whish-Wilson’s Zero At the Bone, the second of his novels featuring former Perth Police Superintendent Frank Swann. It’s the late 1970’s, and Swann is dealing with the fallout from events in the first novel (Line of Sight  – recommended, by the way). One of the consequences of that fallout is that he’s not working as a copper. In one plot thread of this novel, another former police officer, Percy Dickson, hires Swann to help him get to the truth about a series of robberies. Dickson is head of security at one local department store, and consults with several others, and with some local jewelers. So for him, a series of robberies like this will mean the end of his job. Swann agrees to look into the matter, and in fact, finds out the truth about the thieves. This particular truth is very dangerous, though, and Dickson is under strict orders not to say anything to anyone about how the stolen merchandise was recovered, or even that the case has been solved. Unfortunately for both Dickson and Swann, Dickson makes mention of it to the wrong people…

And that’s the problem with unguarded words, whether they’re casual comments, boasts, drunken remarks, or things said in anger. They can get people in a lot of trouble. These are only a few examples; over to you.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Big Shot.

22 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, David Whish-Wilson, Donna Malane, Gail Bowen, Tonino Benacquista

No One Messes With My Girls*

Brothel OwnersThe sex trade can be very dangerous, especially for those who work independently. Brothels can be a safer and healthier alternative to going it alone, especially if they’re owned and run by skilled and caring owners. Brothel owners have a vested interested in making sure their employees are healthy and safe. And in places where prostitution is illegal, they’re very helpful in terms of keeping the employees out of trouble with the law. Some of them are very particular about clients, too, so that their employees are at less risk. For the client, brothels can offer a more comfortable atmosphere. And if the brothel owner is doing the job well, there’s less risk of STDs.

Of course, real and fictional brothels run the gamut from elegant, upmarket places to seedy, very dangerous places where the employees are treated horribly. Either way, brothel owners can make very interesting characters in crime novels and series. On the one hand, what they are doing is illegal in a lot of places. On the other, they can be very helpful sources of information, and the police find that it’s often better all round to work with them than to make life too difficult for them.

Ed McBain’s Steve Carella knows that. In Cop Hater, he and his team are looking for a suspect they believe might be responsible for killing two of his colleagues, Mike Reardon and David Foster. They’ve traced this suspect to a local brothel owned by Mama Luz. Carella and Mama Luz have a very amicable relationship. Here’s how she greets him when he and his rookie assistant visit her establishment:
 

“You come on a social call?’ she asked Carella, winking.
‘If I can’t have you, Mama Luz,’ Carella said, ‘I don’t want anybody.’’

 

She’s helpful in directing him to the room where the suspect is, too.

In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Nag, Hamish Macbeth has been having a difficult time lately. He’s been demoted from the rank of sergeant, and his engagement to Priscilla Haliburton-Smythe is now off. At loose ends and fed up with everything, Macbeth decides to take some time away. He stays at the Friendly House, a beachside inn. It’s not exactly the peaceful respite he’d hoped for, though. Many of the guests are at the very least annoying, and the innkeepers aren’t exactly the stuff of travel fantasy. Then, Bob Harris, who’s one of the residents, is murdered. Macbeth finds himself drawn into the investigation, and begins to trace Harris’ last days and weeks. That includes a follow-up on an incident in which he himself saw Harris leave a brothel. The brothel’s owner, Mrs. Simpson, is both candid and co-operative. It’s clear from their exchange that she’s used to being on what’s technically speaking the wrong side of the law, but at the same time working with the police. It’s also clear from this scene that she cares about the welfare of her employees.

So does Candace Curtis, whom we meet in Jill Edmondson’s Dead Light District. In that novel, she hires Toronto PI Sasha Jackson to find one of her employees, Mary Carmen Santamaria. The young woman’s gone missing, and Curtis is concerned that something might have happened to her. Jackson takes the case, and as she investigates, she learns quite a bit about the Toronto sex trade. She also gets to know her new client, and her client’s way of running her business. Curtis takes the well-being of her employees very seriously, so she’s quite particular about accepting clients. She insists, too, on ensuring her employees’ dignity and self-esteem. She’s also smart when it comes to business, and has done well for herself and the women who work for her.

In David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, which takes place in 1970’s Perth, we meet Superintendent Frank Swann. He’s been away from Perth for a few years, but returns when he learns that a friend has been murdered. The victim is brothel owner Ruby Devine, whose body has been found in her car on a golf course. The official police explanation is that she was probably killed by her partner Jacky White. But the case is flimsy and Swann is sure that more is going on here than a case of domestic violence gone horribly wrong. He’s not going to get much help from his work colleagues, because he’s already a marked man, as the saying goes, for requesting a Royal Commission hearing regarding police corruption. The police he’s accusing are members of what’s known as ‘the purple circle,’ a group known for graft, corruption, and vicious brutality if they are crossed. The word on the street is that they are responsible for Ruby’s murder, so lots of people are afraid to speak up against them for fear of a similar reprisal. Swann perseveres, though, and we learn the truth about Ruby’s death. In the meantime, the Royal Commission hearing goes on, and there’s testimony from several witnesses. One of them, Pat Chesson, is, like the victim, a brothel owner. Here’s what she says about the relationship between the owners and the police before the ‘purple circle’ moved in:
 

‘When I first arrived to set up my business here, there was understandings between myself and the police. We kept our part of the bargain, they kept theirs. We made sure all our girls was clean and well behaved. We kept a quiet profile. You wouldn’t know, walking past one of my businesses, what it was. And anyone who went outside the rules was run out of town.’’
 

Among other things, this shows the role that brothel owners play in making sure their businesses fit into the community without causing the police a lot of trouble.

In Jussi Adler-Olsen’s The Purity of Vengeance, Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck gets a visit from an old nemesis, Børge Bak. Bak is a former colleague who has since transferred, and Mørck is none too pleased to see him. This time, Bak has a request. His sister Esther, who owns a brothel, has been attacked with acid, and Bak thinks he has the right man in custody. He wants Mørck’s help in getting a confession. He’s also brought along another case: the 1987 disappearance of another brothel owner, Rita Nielson. Mørck’s secretary/researcher Rose Knudsen is sure that the Nielsen case was more or less passed over – ‘shelved’ – because of the woman’s profession, and at her insistence, Mørck looks into it. He and his team discover that this disappearance, and that of several others on the same weekend, all have to do with one woman, Nete Hermansen, and her desire for revenge, especially against a doctor who horribly abused his medical privileges.

We also see plenty of brothel owners – mamasans – in work like that of John Burdett and Timothy Hallinan. In Southeast Asia (although not in all of Asia), these are women (there are also papasans – the male equivalent) who manage bars that also provide prostitution services. Their roles aren’t identical to the roles played by Western-style brothel owners, but they bear some similarities.  Mamasans and papasans ensure that customers pay the ‘bar fine’ – the price for leaving with one of the bar’s employees. They also make sure that the bar runs smoothly, and, where necessary, they pay off the police and other authorities.

There are many cases of brothel owners who are vicious and predatory, both in fiction and in real life. But plenty of them are business people who make a living providing a service. And some of them care a lot about their employees, and want to make sure that they’re safe and that their clients have a good experience, too. They can also make very interesting characters in a crime story.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carol Hall’s A Lil’ Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place.

18 Comments

Filed under David Whish-Wilson, Ed McBain, Jill Edmondson, John Burdett, Jussi Adler-Olsen, M.C. Beaton, Timothy Hallinan