Category Archives: Donna Leon

(More) Things You’ll Never Hear These Sleuths Say… ;-)

Things Sleuths Don't SayA few years ago, I did a post on things you would never hear certain fictional sleuths say. And if you think about it, you can learn as much from what sleuths wouldn’t say as you can from what they would say, especially when it comes to character development. Of course, one post never allows enough space to mention all the sleuths out there, so I thought it might be fun to take a look at a few more sleuths. Now, if you’ll be kind enough to park your disbelief in front of the TV for a bit, here are…

 

(More) Things You’ll Never Hear These Sleuths Say

 

Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple

Really? He did? I hadn’t noticed.
Bugger the garden! There’s a great football match on.
I’m so tired of this boring village. I’ve been thinking of getting a place in Camden Town.

 

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe

Fine, but it’s going to cost you. Five grand and I never saw anything, never met you.
God, you’re beautiful! Of course you’re innocent.
Oh, no, thanks. Never touch the stuff.

 

Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel

None for me, thanks. Watchin’ the blood pressure.
Sorry, did that upset you?
(To Pascoe) Go on, then. Aren’t you and Ellie going to that book signing tonight? This’ll wait.

 

Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano

No, thanks. I just don’t feel like eating.
You know what, Livia? Let’s set a wedding date.
What a beautiful morning! The sun’s shining, the birds are singing. It’s going to be a great day!

 

Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher

Oh, I couldn’t! Ladies don’t do that.
I’ll need to check with Inspector Robinson first. He’s in charge of the case.
Not another dinner dance invitation! I hate those things!

 

Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti

So what? Everybody takes a cut, don’t they? Why shouldn’t I?
Signorina Elettra? She’s just a glorified secretary. Who cares what she says?
I have so much respect for Vice-Questore Patta. He’s my role model.
Bonus: Brunetti’s wife, Paola Falier (In a very meek tone of voice):  Yes, dear. 

 

And there you have it. Things you will never hear these sleuths say. What about you? What things do you think your top sleuths would never say? If you’re a writer, what would your sleuth never say?

 

And Now For a Few Things You Will Never Hear Margot Say

Oh, no, thanks. I can’t stand the taste of coffee.
I couldn’t care less who wrote that stupid book.
Billy who?

 

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Donna Leon, Kerry Greenwood, Raymond Chandler, Reginald Hill

Say What You Need to Say*

SubtletyIn many cultures, it isn’t the custom for people to come right out and say certain things. To do so is considered abrupt, even rude. So, members of those cultures have developed subtler ways to say what they want to say. That can be a challenge to understand if you’re someone from a culture where directness is valued. But it’s an important form of communication.

In real life and in crime fiction, police need to understand this kind of subtle communication. Otherwise, they may miss out on important information. The same is true of PIs and other professional investigators. Not only do such people need to pay attention to what’s really being said, but also, they need to learn how to communicate in subtle ways themselves. Otherwise, they risk alienating the very people whose information they need.

There are plenty of examples of this kind of subtlety in crime fiction; space only permits a few of them. I know you’ll be able to come up with plenty of instances yourself, anyway.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell host a weekend gathering. Two of the guests are Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife, Gerda. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage nearby, and is invited to the house for lunch on the Sunday. When he arrives, he finds what looks like a macabre tableau set up for his ‘amusement.’ Christow has been shot, and his body is lying by the pool. It only takes a moment for Poirot to see that this scene is all too real. Once it’s clear that Christow has been murdered, Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find out who the killer is. One of the important sets of clues in this novel comes from very subtle communication. Christie ‘plays fair’ with the reader, but it’s easy to miss on first reading.

In Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone, Commissario Guido Brunetti has to use and understand subtlety to solve the murder of an unidentified Senegalese man who is killed, execution-style, in an open-air market. The victim was in Venice illegally, so it’s going to be enough of a challenge to find out who he was, let alone who killed him. Brunetti guesses that the man might have been helped by Don Alvise Perale, a former Jesuit priest who is very active in the community. Brunetti knows that asking Don Alvise outright for the name of the victim will be pointless. Either he won’t know the name, or he won’t tell, at least at first. Saying too much could be dangerous for other people who are in the country illegally. So Brunetti settles for asking Don Alvise to find out whatever he can and let Brunetti know. This Don Alvise agrees to do, after he gets Brunetti’s assurance that the Immigration police won’t be involved. It turns out that Don Alvise’s cooperation is very useful as Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello investigate.

In Laura Joh Rowland’s Shinju, we meet Sano Ichirō, a police investigator in 1687 Edo (Tokyo). When the bodies of Niu Yukikko and Noriyoshi are discovered in a river, it’s assumed that they committed suicide by drowning. That’s not an uncommon choice in the case of a forbidden love affair, and that’s what everyone wants to believe. But Sano begins to wonder whether the two actually did commit suicide. Little by little, evidence suggest that at Noriyushi was murdered. If so, perhaps Yukiko was as well. But the Niu family is powerful and influential, and Sano’s supervisor, Magistrate Ogyu, doesn’t want the police to do anything to offend them. So he makes it clear to Sano that the investigation is not to proceed. At one point, Sano tries to persuade him otherwise. Here is Ogyu’s response:
 

‘Instead of replying to Sano’s impassioned speech, Ogyu changed the subject. ‘I am sorry to hear that your father is unwell,’ he said….
‘A man of his age deserves a peaceful retirement and the respect of those closest to him. It would be a pity if a family disgrace were to worsen his illness.’’
 

It doesn’t take much skill to understand that Ogyu is threatening Sano’s employment if he disobeys orders and continues to investigate.

In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney travels to Pattaya to investigate the death of Maryanne Delbeck. The police report is that she committed suicide, but her father believes otherwise. He wants Keeney to find out what really happened to his daughter, and Keeney agrees. To do that, though, she’ll need some support. She knows she can’t just show up in Pattaya, asking questions, without cooperation. So she asks for help from Police Major General Wichit, who has family connections there. Wichit owes Keeney a large debt, but it’s as important for her not be direct about that debt as it is for him to remember it. So when they meet, they simply greet each other. She does ask after his family, but,
 

‘Wichit assumed this was just politeness on her part and not a subtle reminder of the debt he owed her.’
 

He’s right, as Keeney understands the need for circumspection. It’s an interesting exchange which acknowledges their history without actually referring to it.

And then there’s Qiu Xiaolong’s Enigma of China. In that novel, Shanghai Chief Inspector Chen Cao and his team are assigned to investigate the death of Zhou Keng, head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee. The official police theory is that he committed suicide after becoming the subject of a corruption investigation. But Chen suspects he may have been murdered. Either way, the case will have to be handled delicately. Zhou’s corruption was brought to light by an online group that posted pictures of expensive items he owned, so Chen wants to find out more from that group. But the government has an interest in severely restricting who gets to post online and about what. So the group is extremely wary about interacting with anyone official. Chen knows this, and has a very careful and subtle conversation with one of the group’s leaders. He begins with a reassurance:
 

‘‘Once the case is solved and everything comes out, I don’t think the netcops or any of the others will waste their time on you.’
The hint was unmistakable. Given Chen’s position and connections, it wasn’t impossible for the chief inspector to help.’
 

That subtle reassurance goes a long way towards building the rapport Chen needs to get the information he wants.

And that’s the thing about subtlety. When you know how to be subtle and respond to others’ subtlety, you can often get useful information.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mayer’s Say.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Donna Leon, Laura Joh Rowland, Qiu Xiaolong

And His Future Was Doomed*

DoomedCharactersSome crime plots are structured so that the murder (or the first murder) is discovered right away. That’s got the advantage of inviting the reader’s interest from the very beginning of the story. Other plots, though, build up, at least a little, to the murder. In those stories, we get to know the victim before she or he is killed.

Once you’ve read enough crime fiction, you can even start to get a sense of who the victim is likely to be. That’s because authors frequently offer little hints, so that readers know a character is doomed. I’m not talking here of the stereotypical ‘person goes alone into basement’ sort of hint. Rather, the author sets the victim up, and the savvy crime reader can sometimes sense it.

Agatha Christie used those clues in several of her stories. For instance, in The Mystery of the Blue Train, we are introduced to Ruth Van Aldin Kettering. Daughter of an American millionaire, she is unhappily married to Derek Kettering. She decides to take the famous Blue Train to Nice for a holiday (or at least, that’s what she tells her father. Really, she has other plans). Against her father’s advice, Ruth takes with her a valuable ruby necklace that contains a famous stone, Heart of Fire. All of the personal drama in Ruth’s life, plus the fact that she has that priceless necklace, sets Ruth up neatly to be the doomed victim in this novel, and so she is. Hercule Poirot is aboard the same train, and helps to find out who killed the victim and why. You’re absolutely right, fans of Death on the Nile!

In Ellery Queen’s The Last Woman in His Life, John Levering Benedict III invites Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, for a getaway weekend. The plan is that they’ll use Benedict’s guest house as a retreat. Also present for the weekend, and staying in the main house, are Benedict’s three ex-wives, his attorney, and his attorney’s secretary. That premise sets Benedict up to be the victim in this story, and, indeed, he is. One night, Queen gets a frantic call from Benedict, who says he’s been murdered. Queen rushes over to the main house, but doesn’t get there in time. He discovers that his host has been killed by a blow to the head from a heavy statuette. The only clues to the killer are an evening gown, a wig, and a pair of gloves, each owned by a different character. Queen works through the clues and eventually learns that the victim himself all but identified the killer – if Queen had only understood what he meant.

Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly takes place mostly in the world of the Venice glass-blowing industry. Giorgio Tassini works as night watchman in a glass-blowing factory owned by powerful Giovanni del Cal. He’s claimed for some time that the factories dispose of toxic waste illegally and dangerously. In fact, he blames his daughter’s multiple special needs on that dumping. Naturally, his accusations are not popular with del Cal or the other factory owners, but in general, he’s not taken too seriously. Then one night, he dies in what looks like a terrible accident. That’s the theory that the police are expected to endorse, too. But Commissario Guido Brunetti is not so sure that this was an accident. So he and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello look into the matter more deeply. It’s not hard to tell, though, that Tassini is a doomed character…

Very often (‘though certainly not always!), when a fictional character goes missing, that person ends up being a victim. So, even though it’s hardly foolproof, crime fiction fans often take a disappearance as a clue that a particular character is not long for the world. And that’s exactly what happens in Anthony Bidulka’s Amuse Bouche. Saskatoon PI Russell Quant gets a new client in the form of wealthy businessman Harold Chavell, whose fiancé Tom Osborn has disappeared. Chavell believes that Osborn may be following the itinerary (a trip through France) that the two had planned for their honeymoon, so he asks Quant to follow the same itinerary to try to find Osborn. During the trip, Quant gets a note that says Osborn doesn’t want to be found. That’s enough for Chavell to call off the search. After Quant returns to Saskatoon, though, Osborn’s body is discovered in a local lake. Chavell, naturally enough, is suspected of the murder, and he asks Quant to find out the truth and clear his name.

As Keigo Higashino’s Salvation of a Saint begins, Yoshitaka Mashabi and his wife Ayane Mita are having a very tense conversation. They’ve been married for a year, and have no children. Now Mashabi wants to divorce his wife, since starting a family is a crucial part of his life’s plan. They can’t finish the conversation, though, because they’re expecting dinner guests. But it’s clear that the matter isn’t settled. Two days later, Mashabi is dead – killed by arsenous acid. His widow is, naturally, the most likely suspect. But it is soon proven that she wasn’t in Tokyo at the time of the death. And, since the poison was found in a cup of coffee, it’s unlikely that she could have put it there. And, as it turns out, there are other suspects. Detective Shunpei Kusanagi and his team have to first establish how the poison got into the coffee before they can settle on the person mostly likely to be the killer. For that, they get help from mathematician and physicist Dr. Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa. Once he is able to show how the poison was administered, the police figure out who murdered Mashabi. But from the very beginning of the story (a tense conversation, an awkward dinner party, etc..) it’s not hard to guess who the victim will be.

Of course, crime writers know that readers can often spot the son-to-be victim, and some manipulate those expectations. But even so, there are stories in which one can tell fairly soon who the doomed character is. All sorts of little (and sometimes not-so-little) clues are there for the spotting.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Rolling Stones’ Blinded by Love.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Donna Leon, Ellery Queen, Keigo Higashino

Was I So Unwise*

Unwise ChoicesI’m sure you’ve had those moments. Someone you know, who’s otherwise an intelligent person, is doing something really foolish. You may even think (or say), ‘How can you be so stupid?’

There are lots of reasons why smart people do stupid things. All sorts of factors (denial, greed, and fear being a few) play roles in what we do; intelligence is only one of them. We all have those ‘blind spots’ though. And in crime fiction, when smart people make foolish choices, the result can bring real trouble. This sort of plot thread has to be done carefully; otherwise, it takes away from a character’s credibility, and can pull a reader out of a story. Still, when it’s done well, it can make for a solid layer of suspense and character development.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Red-Headed League, we are introduced to pawn shop owner Mr. Jabez Wilson. One day he visits Sherlock Holmes, bringing with him an unusual story. His assistant showed him a newspaper advertisement placed by the Red-Headed League, inviting red-headed men to apply for membership in the group, and for a job. Wilson went along to apply, and was chosen for the job. It turned the work was easy, too: copying the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The only stipulation was that he was not to leave his work during ‘office hours.’ Then one day, Wilson went to his new job only to find the building locked and a sign indicating that the Red-Headed League was disbanded. He wants Holmes to help him solve the mysteries behind these weird occurrences, and Holmes agrees. Wilson isn’t a particularly stupid person (although he could be accused of being a bit credulous). But he seems to have had a sort of ‘blind spot’ about this job, which turns out to be connected to a gang of robbers who wanted to use his pawn shop to tunnel into a nearby bank.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot retires (or so he thinks) to the village of King’s Abbot. He is soon drawn into a case of murder, though, when retired manufacturing magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study. The most likely suspect is his stepson Ralph Paton. Not only had the two quarreled about money, but also, Paton went missing shortly after the murder and hasn’t been seen since. But Paton’s fiancée Flora Ackroyd doesn’t believe he’s guilty, and she asks Poirot to investigate. Ackroyd was a wealthy man, so there are plenty of suspects, one of whom is his widowed sister-in-law (and Flora’s mother). It turns out that each of these suspects is hiding something, and in the case of Mrs. Ackroyd, it’s a stupid decision on the part of an otherwise smart enough woman. She was eager for money, and Ackroyd wasn’t exactly a generous person. She ran up bills she couldn’t afford to pay, and became a victim of some unscrupulous moneylenders.

There’s a chilling example of smart people doing very unwise things in Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. George and Jacqueline Coverdale are well off and well educated. You wouldn’t think they’d do a lot of foolish things. But when they decide to hire a housekeeper, Jacqueline does a very stupid thing indeed. She hires Eunice Parchman without doing any real checking into her background, her previous experience, or much of anything else. Still, Eunice settles in and at first, all goes well enough. But Eunice has a secret – one she will go to any lengths to keep from her employers. When that secret accidentally comes out one day, the result is tragic for everyone. And it all might have been prevented if Jacqueline had done a little background checking before making her hiring decision.

In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, we meet science fiction writer Zack Walker and his journalist wife Sarah. Walker is concerned about the family’s safety, and decides that they’d be better off moving from the city to a safer, suburban home. The cost of living is lower, the amenities are better, and so he convinces his wife to make the move. All goes well enough at the very beginning, although the children aren’t happy. But then one day, Walker goes to the main sales office of their new housing development to complain about some needed repairs to the home. During his visit, he witnesses an argument between one of the sales executives and local environmentalist Samuel Spender. Later, Walker finds Spender’s body in a nearby creek. He calls the police, who interview him – a wise enough decision. But then, one day during a shopping trip with his wife, Walker accidentally discovers a handbag left in a supermarket cart. He thinks it belongs to his wife, and takes it, only later discovering that it doesn’t belong to her. Instead of taking it back to the supermarket or to the police, Walker keeps it, hoping to return it to the owner himself. And that gets him more and more deeply involved in a tangled case of fraud and murder. In the end, his family gets in much more danger in the suburbs than they ever did in the city.

And then there’s Donna Leon’s A Question of Belief. In one plot thread of that novel, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello has gotten concerned about his aunt, Zia Anita. An otherwise intelligent woman, she’s been behaving oddly lately. For one thing, she’s taken what Vianello thinks is an unhealthy interest in astrology. As if that’s not enough, she’s been withdrawing money from the family business and giving it to a man called Stefano Gorini. The money is hers to do with as she wishes, so she’s not stealing it. But the family is worried about the choices she’s making. Vianello asks his boss, Commissario Guido Brunetti, to look into the matter, and Brunetti agrees. He does some background checking on Gorini, and finds that the man has been in trouble with the law before. In fact, he lost his medical license. Now he’s back in business again, promising ‘miracle’ cures that he can’t deliver. In this case, Zia Anita wants so badly to believe in Gorini that she’s made some very unwise choices.

And that’s the thing. Even the smartest of us sometimes have ‘blind spots,’ and make some very foolish choices. The consequences aren’t always drastic, although they can be embarrassing. But sometimes, they’re devastating.

ps. You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the many crime novels in which otherwise intelligent people make really stupid romantic choices. Too easy.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ The Night Before.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Donna Leon, Linwood Barclay, Ruth Rendell

Another Scandal Every Day*

corruptionTransparency International has released its 2015 Global Corruption Perception rankings. That’s an annual ranking of nations based on transparency of government activity, press access, independence of judiciary, and other factors. On the one hand, it’s sad, but not surprising, that no country is corruption-free. On the other, there are countries that, based on these factors, have much lower levels of corruption than others. Want to see where your country ranks? You can check it out right here.

Government corruption is a very, very common topic in crime fiction, and that’s not surprising. There’s a lot of money involved, and very important people whose careers and reputations are at stake. All of that makes for suspense and for an effective context for a crime novel. In fact, there are so many such novels that I only have space to mention a very few. I know you’ll be able to think of lots more.

Many of the novels in Maj Sjöwall and Per Whalöö’s Martin Beck series address the topic of corruption in the Swedish government and members of the Swedish business community. And that series isn’t, of course, the only one that does so. Those who’ve read Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon novels know that they also feature plot threads where Bengtzon, who’s a journalist, investigates government corruption.

Ernesto Mallo’s Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano novels also address high-level corruption, this time in 1970s Argentina. At that time, and in that place, the military is very much in power. Anyone perceived as a threat to that power faces imprisonment or worse. The government is not answerable to the press or to the people, so all sorts of crimes go uninvestigated and unpunished. In Needle in a Haystack, the crime is the murder of a pawnbroker named Elías Biterman. His death is made to look like an Army ‘hit,’ the same as many others at that time. And Lescano knows better than to question what the Army does. But there are some things that are different about this killing, and that piques Lescano’s interest. He begins asking questions that several powerful people, including government officials, do not want asked. Throughout the novel, we see how extensive the corruption is.

There’s a look at high-level corruption in Australia in Peter Temple’s Black Tide. Sometime-lawyer Jack Irish gets a visit from Des Connors, one of his father’s friends. Connors wants Irish to help him make out a will. In the course of that conversation, Irish learns that Connors’ son Gary has ‘gone to ground’ after borrowing (and not paying back) sixty thousand dollars. Now Connors is in real danger of losing his home, so Irish decides to help try to find Gary and get the money back. The search for Gary leads to some very high places, and a record of vicious ways of dealing with journalists or anyone else who might want to expose the wrongdoing. Irish is mostly concerned about making sure his client gets his money back and doesn’t lose his home; but in the end, he finds that that’s just the proverbial tip of a very dangerous iceberg.

Qiu Xialong’s series featuring Chief Inspector Chen Cao includes several plot lines involving corruption at high levels of government. For example, in Enigma of China, Chen is asked to ‘rubber stamp’ an official theory of suicide when Zhou Keng, head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, is found dead. And there is reason to support that theory. For one thing, the victim was found hung in a hotel room, with no-one seen going in or out. For another, he was in that hotel room because he was under police guard after having been arrested for corruption. It’s believed that he took his own life rather than face the charges. But Chen isn’t completely convinced that this was suicide. So, very delicately, he and his assistant, Detective Yu Guangming, begin to look into the matter. They soon find that there is definitely more to this death then the suicide of someone who was about to be publicly humiliated for corruption. This isn’t the only novel, either, in which Qiu addresses the way corruption can work, at least in late-1990s Shanghai.

One of the plot points in Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night is the way in which corruption can link the very wealthy and powerful to police and government officials who will co-operate for a price. Social worker Simran Singh travels from Delhi, where she lives, to her home town of Jullundur, in the state of Punjab. She’s there to help the police unravel the truth behind a terrible crime. Thirteen members of the wealthy and powerful Atwal family have been poisoned, and some of them stabbed. The only family member left alive is fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal. She hasn’t said anything, really, since the crime, so police don’t know whether she is guilty, or whether she is also a victim, but just happened to survive. It’s hoped that Singh will be able to get the girl to talk about what happened that night, so that police can complete their investigation. Singh begins to ask some questions, and in the end, uncovers much more than just a young girl who ‘snapped.’

Ian Rankin also explores the way corruption links up wealthy and powerful people with the government leaders who can get them what they want. In several of his John Rebus novels, Rankin looks at the impact that that corruption has on everyone. Here’s what he says about it in Black and Blue:
 

‘Corruption was everywhere, the players spoke millions of dollars, and the locals resented the invasion at the same time as they took the cash and available work.’
 

Rebus himself sometimes feels corrupt as he finds himself having to make deals and work with all kinds of people in order to get the job done.

There are plenty of novels that explore government corruption in the US, too. Margaret Truman’s series featuring Georgetown University law professor Mackensie ‘Mac’ Smith deals with this topic quite frequently. Murder at the Kennedy Center, for instance, is the story of the killing of Andrea Feldman, a campaign worker for Senator Ken Ewald’s bid for the US presidency. Smith knows Ewald, and in fact, supports his candidacy. So he’s willing to help when Ewald’s son Paul is suspected of the murder. Paul was having an affair with the victim, so he’s the most likely suspect, too. But it turns out that he’s by no means the only one. Smith discovers that there are several powerful people who want nothing more than for Ewald’s campaign to be de-railed, and are willing to go to great lengths to do just that.

And no post on government and high-level corruption would be complete without a mention of Donna Leon’s series featuring Venice Commissario Guido Brunetti. Many of the cases he and his team investigate involve corruption in very high places, and people who may or may not ever ‘face the music’ for what they do.

Government corruption is a continuing global problem. It’s not going to go away quickly. So it’s no surprise that so much crime fiction deals with it. Hopefully if people keep talking and reading about it, this will keep our attention on the problem…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Third World’s Corruption.

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Filed under Donna Leon, Ernesto Mallo, Ian Rankin, Kishwar Desai, Liza Marklund, Maj Sjöwall, Margaret Truman, Per Wahlöö, Peter Temple, Qiu Xiaolong