Category Archives: Donna Malane

Halfway Down Dominion Road*


The building in this ‘photo is Auckland’s Supreme Courthouse. It’s even more beautiful and impressive in real life than it is in the photograph. It’s also a great reminder that crime happens everywhere, including New Zealand. You wouldn’t think so, but crime happens even in a beautiful place like this. Certainly crime-fictional sorts of crime happen.

If you want a thorough, rich discussion of Kiwi crime fiction, you’ll want to go and visit Crime Watch, which is the source for all things crime-fictionally Kiwi. It’s also your stop for updates and information on the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, New Zealand’s highest award for crime writers. For now, though, let me just make mention of a few New Zealand authors who set their novels and series here.

Perhaps the most famous of New Zealand’s crime writers is Ngaio Marsh. Her Roderick Alleyn novels take place in different countries, often England. But she also wrote stories that take place in New Zealand. For example, Died in the Wool is the story of the murder of MP Florence ‘Flossie’ Flossie Rubrick. One day, she goes to one of the sheep pens on her husband’s farm to rehearse a speech she’s planning to give. She doesn’t return until three weeks later when her body turns up in a bale of wool. The victim’s nephew asks Inspector Alleyn to investigate, and he travels to New Zealand to do so. In the process of looking into the matter, he finds out that several members of Rubrick’s family had very good reasons for wanting her dead. This murder turns out to be related to espionage, and to one family member in particular.

Another crime novelist who’s gotten quite well known is Paul Cleave. In fact, Cleave won the 2015 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel for Five Minutes Alone. His debut novel, The Cleaner is set in Christchurch, where Joe Middleton works as a janitor at the police station. Unbeknownst to everyone, he is also a serial killer known as The Carver. The story is that The Carver has killed seven victims. But Middleton knows that’s not true, because he’s only killed six. He wants to find out who the ‘copycat killer’ is, so that he can frame him for the other killings, and punish him for pretending to be The Carver. It’s not going to be as easy as it seems, though…

Paddy Richardson’s novels are also set in New Zealand. Her novels Traces of Red and Cross Fingers feature Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne. In the first, Thorne begins to suspect that Connor Bligh, who is in prison for murdering his sister, her husband, and their son, might be innocent. If he is, this is the story that could ensure her place at the top of New Zealand TV journalism. So she starts asking questions and looking into the case again. As time goes on, she finds herself getting closer to the case than is safe. In Cross Fingers, Thorne investigates the thirty-year-old death of a man who dressed up as a lamb and entertained crowds during the Springboks’ 1981 tour of New Zealand. That tour was controversial, and there were many, many protests and reports of police abuse of power; so at the time, not a lot of attention was paid to the death of one person. But Thorne finds it an interesting angle, and uncovers an unsolved murder. Richardson’s standalone novels, Hunting Blind and Swimming in the Dark, are set on New Zealand’s South Island.

So is Vanda Symon’s series featuring Constable Samantha ‘Sam’ Shephard, who works with the Mataura Police. Along with the crimes she investigates, she has to deal with a difficult boss, family strain, and, in Overkill, being suspected of murder. But she has plenty of grit and determination; and, despite the fact that she doesn’t always play ‘by the book’ she’s a skilled detective.

Paul Thomas’ Tito Ihaka novels are mostly set in Auckland. Ihaka is a Māori police detective with his own way of solving cases. In Guerrilla Season, his first outing, Ihaka wants to investigate a series of deaths claimed by extremists called Aotearoa People’s Army. Ihaka isn’t sure they’re responsible, though, and starts to dig deeper. This gets him into trouble with his superiors, though, and he’s taken off that case and put onto a case of suspected blackmail. When that proves to be related, it’s clear that Ihaka has uncovered something much more than he’d suspected.

Bev Robitai’s Theatre Mysteries are also set in Auckland, at the Regent Theatre. In Murder in the Second Row, and Body on the Stage, Robitai combines murder with a look backstage at the way stage productions are planned, created, rehearsed and executed (yes, pun intended ;-) ) Readers also get to know some of the people outside the theatre who make those productions possible.

Under the pseudonym of Alix Bosco, Greg McGee has written two novels, Cut and Run and Slaughter Falls, featuring Auckland legal researcher Anna Markunas. In the first, she helps defend a young man accused of killing a rugby star. In the second, she investigates a series of deaths among a New Zealand tour group that’s visiting Brisbane. It’ll be interesting to learn if another Anna Markunas novel will be released.

And then there’s Donna Malane’s Diane Rowe novels. Rowe is a Wellington missing person expert who’s called in to identify twenty-five-year-old remains in Surrender. In My Brother’s Keeper, ex-convict Karen Mackie hires Rowe to find her fourteen-year-old daughter Sunny. As Rowe learns, Mackie was in prison for trying to kill Sunny, so the dilemma in this case is a real one.

There are plenty of other New Zealand writers, such as Cat Connor and Andrew Grant, who set their novels elsewhere. For a small country, Kiwi crime fiction leaves quite a footprint…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Mutton Birds’ Dominion Road.


Filed under Alix Bosco, Andrew Grant, Bev Robitai, Cat Connor, Donna Malane, Greg McGee, Ngaio Marsh, Paddy Richardson, Paul Cleave, Paul Thomas, Vanda Symon

I Know You Don’t Know Who I Am*

Making IdentificationOne of the first things police do when a body is discovered is try to identify the dead person. There are, of course, lots of reasons to make identification a priority. One of them is that most (certainly not all!) murders are committed by people known to the victim. If the police know who that person was, they’re likely to narrow down the list of suspects. Even when it’s not a case of murder, identifying the victim allows loved ones and friends the closure that comes with knowing the fate of the person who’s died.

Modern DNA and other forensics technology has moved the process of identification forward considerably. And a lot of cop shows present this as a quick and easy way to find out the victim’s name and so on. But in real life, it’s not that simple. For one thing, DNA testing can be very expensive. Most police departments don’t have in-house DNA testing facilities, either, so they have to send any remains elsewhere. This can mean many weeks of delay in identification, and more opportunities for contamination of the evidence. It’s an important part of identification when there’s any doubt; but it’s not the ‘be all and end all’ that it might seem from cop shows. So police and other sleuths, both real and fictional, use other means of identifying bodies when there’s no obvious evidence such as a wallet with a driver license in it.

One means of identification is through dental records. Dental records are not, of course, foolproof. Still, they are useful. That’s what we see, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Clocks. In that novel, the body of an unknown man is discovered in the home of Millicent Pebmarsh. It’s very unlikely that she is the killer, since she was not at home at the time of the murder, and since she is blind. She claims not to know who the victim was, and what’s left with the body is no help, either. There’s no identification except for a business card that turns out to be bogus. What’s interesting (and one thing that puts Hercule Poirot on the right path) is that the victim has had dental work done; but it’s not the work of an English dentist. This means the man is probably a foreigner, and so he proves to be. When his records are finally located, it turns out that he is Canadian. There’s another Agatha Christie novel, too, in which dental records turn out to be key to the story. Even the title of the novel would be too close to spoiler-land for me, though, so I won’t give it. If you know the story, you know which one I mean, anyway…

One step the murderer takes in The Clocks to prevent identification is to remove the laundry and tailoring tags from the victim’s clothing. This makes sense, too, because victims can be traced by their clothing sometimes. That’s especially true for clothes that are custom-made. We see that, for instance, in Peter James’ Not Dead Yet. Superintendent Roy Grace of the Brighton and Hove police is faced with a puzzling case when the torso of a dead man is found in an unused chicken coop. It’s obviously no use looking for a dental records match or even a fingerprint match. But the police do get one lead: some material from the victim’s clothing. Grace’s second-in-command Glenn Branson, who’s more sartorially sophisticated than his boss is, suggests checking with various manufacturers and tailors, and that proves to be a fruitful avenue of exploration.

There’s another very effective use of clothes to make an identification in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. In that story, Commissionaire Peterson brings an interesting case to Sherlock Holmes. Peterson interrupted a fight between an unknown man and some hooligans. The man ran off, but dropped his hat and a goose he was carrying. Peterson gave the goose to his wife to cook; as she prepared it, she found a valuable gem in its craw. Now Peterson’s intrigued, so he’s brought the hat with him to Holmes. After a few moments of examining the hat, Holmes deduces an awful lot about its owner. That information allows him to trace the man who dropped it and the goose; from there, we learn how the gem got into the goose’s craw.

Donna Malane’s sleuth Diane Rowe is a missing person expert, so she is skilled at using all sorts of clues to identify people. In one plot thread of Surrender, she’s been hired to help the police find out the identity of a man whose remains were found in New Zealand’s Rimutaka State Forest. There’s little to go on, as the man has been dead for several decades. Pathology results can only establish his gender, his probable age (twenties), and the likely time of his death (1970s). But bit by bit, Rowe gets closer to identifying the victim. One important piece of evidence proves to be a boot that was found near the remains. Looking at information from boot manufacturers helps Rowe discover the man’s name, and bring some closure to one person for whom he was important.

Diane Rowe’s work is just one example of how useful missing person reports can be. The police use them quite frequently when an unknown body is discovered. It’s no guarantee of identification, of course, but if a body is similar in age, weight and so on, and is of the same sex, there is at the very least a better likelihood of identifying that person. Those reports turn out to be very useful in Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs, when Inspector William Wisting and his team use them to solve a bizarre case. A series of feet clad in trainers has washed ashore near the Norwegian town of Stavern, and the media is only too happy to add to the speculation that a serial killer may be at work. That doesn’t turn out to be the case, and missing person reports help establish that fact.

There are other ways, too, that are used to find the identity of ‘John/Jane Doe’ victims. Some are more successful than others, and none is foolproof. But when used in conjunction with DNA and other testing where appropriate, they can be quite valuable.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Wesley Harding’s To Whom it May Concern.



Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Donna Malane, Jørn Lier Horst, Peter James

You Had to Have the Last Word Last Night*

WisecracksThere’s a great deal of sadness in a lot of crime novels, even those that don’t count as ‘bleak’ or noir. And that makes sense, since there’s nothing amusing about murder. So it can come as a welcome lift when one of the characters has enough of a sense of wit to make wisecracks. Those ‘wiseacre remarks’ have to be handled well, or they can be off-putting. But when they are deftly done, they can add a ‘lift’ to a story. Here are just a few examples to show what I mean. Oh, and you’ll notice that I haven’t included ‘screwball’ novels: too easy…

In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), wealthy Emily Arundell knows very well that her relatives would love to get their hands on her fortune. She tells them that they’ll have to be content to wait for her death, and a frightening fall down a flight of stairs convinces her that someone is willing to hurry her along, as the saying goes. That’s when she writes to Hercule Poirot. She doesn’t specify exactly what she wants from him, but Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to the village of Market Basing to investigate. By the time they get there though, it’s too late: Emily Arundell has died of what seems to be liver failure. When it becomes clear that she was poisoned, Poirot looks among her relatives and employees to find out who the murderer is. One source of information on the history of the Arundell family and their home Littlegreen House is Caroline Peabody, who’s known the family for years. Miss Peabody may be elderly, but she’s alert and intelligent, and not afraid to speak her mind. Here is a bit of a conversation she has with Hastings:

‘‘You are his secretary, I suppose?’
‘Er – yes,’ I said doubtfully.
‘Can you write decent English?’
‘I hope so.’
 ‘H’m – where did you go to school?’
‘Then you can’t.’’

Hastings can’t really come up with the right rejoinder to that.

Fans of Andrea Camilleri’s work will know that it’s infused with wisecracks. Those remarks lighten up what are sometimes very sad stories. And those quips come from several of the characters. For instance, in The Wings of the Sphinx, Inspector Montalbano and his team investigate the murder of an unknown young woman whose body is found near a local landfill. Here’s a bit of the conversation Montalbano has with his second-in-command Mimì Augello shortly after he’s roused early in the morning when the body is found:

‘‘Mimì, couldn’t you have scratched your balls by yourself?’
‘Salvo, I’m not going to play your game anymore.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean that if I hadn’t had you come here, later you’d be driving me crazy saying, ‘Why didn’t you tell me this, why didn’t you tell me that…’’
‘What’s the corpse like?
‘Dead,’ said Augello.’

There’s not much Montalbano can say in response to that…

Martin Edwards’ Lake District series features DCI Hannah Scarlett, who heads up the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. That’s not of course the only team at the constabulary, and Scarlett’s made friends with Fern Larter, who heads a team of her own. In The Serpent Pool, the two work together to connect a six-year-old drowning death that Scarlett’s investigating with two recent murders that Larter’s investigating. One of those is the killing of book collector George Saffell. At one point, they’re discussing the Saffell case, in particular the Saffell family background:

‘‘For good measure, there’s a villa in Spain, but so far I haven’t managed to wangle a trip out there to hunt for clues.’ [Larter]
‘You’re slipping.’ Fern’s ability to persuade the top brass that trips overseas were vital to her latest investigation were the stuff of legend. ‘How about a trip to New Zealand, for a word with the daughter? They say it’s a beautiful country.’
‘Lynsey came back to England for the funeral,’ Fern pouted.’

Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series takes place mostly in Absaroka County, Wyoming, where Longmire is sheriff. Some of these stories are very sad, but there’s also a dose of wit. And some of that wit comes from exchanges between Longmire and his deputy Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti. In Death Without Company for instance, Longmire has assigned her to wait outside a local supermarket to ‘collect’ a group of shoppers to serve as talis jurors, so they can fill out the local jury pool. Here’s a bit of their exchange about that:

‘I watched as my…deputy accosted a middle-aged man…copied down information from his driver’s license and informed him that he needed to get over to the courthouse pronto or be faced with contempt of court. ‘Well, there’s another notch on my Glock.’
…‘Hey, there are worse places for stakeouts. At least we’ve got plenty of supplies.’’

Then, Moretti asks what a talis juror is.

‘‘It’s from the Latin. Meaning bystander. You’re Italian, you should understand these things.’
‘I’m from Philadelphia, where we vote early and often, and everybody on the jury has a vowel on the end of his name.’’

Fans of this series will also know that there are plenty of wisecracks between Longmire and his friend Henry Standing Bear, who runs the Red Pony Inn.

Peter Temple’s Jack Irish is a sometimes-lawyer who also has a knack for finding people who don’t want to be found, and for finding out secrets people would rather keep. As a way of keeping his sanity, he’s informally apprenticed himself to master cabinetmaker Charlie Taub. Irish richly enjoys working with the wood and creating new things. He also enjoys the interactions he has with Taub. For his part, Taub is absolutely not one to gush. But he does like having Irish around. Here’s a bit of an exchange they have in Bad Debts, when Irish pays a visit after not having been there for a bit:

‘‘So,’ he said without looking at me. ‘Man who finds the scum of the earth. Man who breaks his parents’ hearts. Horses and criminals. That’s his life.’…
‘I gather you missed me a lot then?’
Another snort ‘What I miss, I miss someone finishes little jobs I give him. Like little tables. Day’s work for a man who actually works.’’


There’s not much Irish can say to that…

There’s also Donna Malane’s Surrender, in which missing persons expert Diane Rowe gets involved in the murder of James Patrick ‘Snow’ Wilson. A year earlier, Rowe’s sister Niki was murdered, and Snow admitted being hired to do the job. But he never gave the name of the person who hired him. Now he’s been killed in exactly the same way. Rowe believes that if she can find out who killed Snow, she’ll find out who killed her sister. So she looks into the case. Niki was an exotic dancer at a club, so Diane starts there to find out what her sister’s connections were, and who might have wanted her dead. One possibility is club regular Richard Brownlee, who paid quite a lot of attention to Niki. Brownlee’s crude, arrogant sexism does not exactly endear him to Diane. Here’s a bit of the conversation they have:

‘One of the girls at the club told me you had a bit of a thing for my sister.’…
‘What kind of a thing would that be, babe? No offence, but she was a whore.’
I was determined not to let him get to me. ‘She said you didn’t like other guys spending time with Niki. That you liked to have her all to yourself. I heard you were jealous.’
Richard barked a laugh. ‘Now that would be pretty stupid, wouldn’t it?’
‘Yep,’ I agreed pleasantly. ‘But then, you see, that would fit nicely with my assessment of you so far.’

Needless to say, everyone has a good laugh at Brownlee’s expense.

And, at the risk of making this post go on too long, here is my top wisecrack, from Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate the murder of Eva Ringmar, whose body is found in her bathtub. Her husband, Janek Mitter, discovers the body when he wakes up hung over after a long night of drinking. As you can imagine, he becomes the chief suspect and in fact, is arrested for the crime. He claims he’s innocent, and at his trial, an officious prosecutor asks how he knows he didn’t kill his wife, since he was so drunk at the time of the murder. Here’s Mitter’s reply:

‘I know I didn’t kill her; because I didn’t kill her. Just as I’m sure that you know you are not wearing frilly knickers today, because you aren’t. Not today.’ 

That, to me, is priceless. And it helps to spur Van Veeteren on to investigate the murder more thoroughly.

There are of course a lot of other great wisecracks in crime fiction, even in very sad stories (I know, I know fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series). Which ones have stayed with you?

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


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Craig Johnson, Donna Malane, Håkan Nesser, Martin Edwards, Rex Stout

Well, There’s Just an Empty Space*

MissingPeopleSome of the hardest cases that professional detectives face concern missing persons. In part that’s because some people go missing because they want to leave. And even in modern times with modern technology, it can be difficult to trace a person who doesn’t want to be found. Besides, adults are legally allowed to go where they wish; in most cases it’s not a crime to go somewhere and not tell anyone. There’s also the fact that the police are reluctant to spend department resources on a case that has a perfectly logical explanation (e.g. someone simply wanted to spend a few days away). This means among other things that there may not be an immediate search for a person who’s gone missing. It also means that except in the case of children (a topic in its own right), professional detectives don’t always immediately devote the energy to a missing person report that they might to, say, a murder. It’s not that they don’t care; rather, it’s that those cases are much more ‘slippery.’

In Agatha Christie’s Third Girl for instance, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from a young woman who tells him that she may have committed a murder. But before she goes into any detail, she abruptly changes her mind, telling him that he’s too old to help her. She leaves without even giving her real name. With help from his friend detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, Poirot establishes that the young woman is Norma Restarick, who shares a London flat with two other young women. Between them, Poirot and Mrs. Oliver visit both the flat and the Restarick family home. Norma’s flatmates make it clear that they really don’t keep tabs on her and that she’s probably either spending a few extra days with her family, or has gone off on a tryst. Certainly they’re not overly concerned about her. Norma’s father and stepmother say that she’s gone back to London, and that they don’t really follow everything she does there. They’re willing to admit that she’s had a difficult time with her family lately, but at the same time, they’re not afraid for her. Poirot begins to dig a little deeper. After all, if there was a murder and Norma committed it, she needs to be found. And even if that’s not true, she certainly seems troubled and may be in danger. Poirot and Mrs. Oliver continue to search for answers and in the end, they find out what happened to Norma. They also discover the truth behind the murder she says she may have committed.

In Peter Robinson’s Cold is the Grave, DCI Alan Banks gets an unusual request from his boss Chief Constable Jeremiah ‘Jimmy’ Riddle. Riddle’s daughter Emily has had a bad relationship with her parents and has left home. She’s of legal age, so the police can’t look at it as a runaway case. But then her younger brother Benjamin discovers pornographic pictures of her online, and this frightens her parents. Riddle wants Banks to look for Emily, the idea being that if Banks goes as a civilian, he’ll draw less attention to this very private and difficult case. Riddle and Banks haven’t exactly had a good relationship in the past; in fact, it’s been more animosity than amity. But Banks is a father himself and he can understand Riddle’s concern. So he agrees to see what he can find out. His search for Emily takes him into some of London’s seamiest places – certainly places her parents wouldn’t have wanted her to be…

Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle concerns the disappearance of Andreas Winther. His mother Runi becomes concerned when he doesn’t come home as he usually does, and she goes to the police to report him missing. At first the police aren’t very worried, and they do their best to reassure her that all is probably well. There are, after all, any number of reasons for which a young man might take off for a few days and not tell his mother about it. But when more time goes by and Andreas still doesn’t return, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer begins to suspect that something might have happened to him. So he and his assistant Jacob Skarre start to investigate. One of their first stops is Andreas’ best friend Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. Zipp spent the day with him on the day he was last seen, and knows more than he is saying about what happened on that day. As Sejer and Skarre try to find out where Andreas Winther is and what happened to him, we see how difficult it is to look for an adult. Lots of people simply don’t worry about someone they haven’t seen lately. I know, I know, fans of Calling Out For You/The Indian Bride.

In Peter James’ Dead Simple, Ashley Harper contacts the police in the form of DI Glenn Branson. She’s worried because her fiancé Michael Harrison hasn’t been seen since his ‘stag night’ party. She doesn’t know what his friends were planning, and as it turns out, the police can’t ask them. Tragically, three of them were killed in a car crash and the fourth is in a coma. The only person who might know is Harrison’s best-man-to-be and business partner Mark Warren. But he was out of town and didn’t go out with the group. At first, Branson and his boss Superintendent Roy Grace think that Harrison might have changed his mind about the wedding and gone off. But by all accounts, he’s very much in love with his intended, and looking forward to the wedding. So the detectives dig a little deeper and soon find that Harrison might be in a great deal of danger. Now they’ll have to work as quickly as they can if they’re to have a chance of finding him.

Anthony Bidulka’s Amuse Bouche introduces readers to Sasktoon PI Russell Quant. As the story begins, successful businessman Harold Chavell hires Quant to find his fiancé Tom Osborn. According to Chavell, Osborn disappeared just before their planned wedding, and has gone alone on the honeymoon trip to France that they’d mapped out together. Quant wonders whether Osborn might simply have changed his mind about getting married, but he takes the case and travels to France. He goes to each place the couple had intended visiting, and finds some evidence that Osborn has been there recently and is fine. Then he gets a note saying that Osborn does not want to be found. When Chavell learns of this, he calls off the search and prepares to get on with his life. A short time later, Osborn’s body is found in a lake near a house the two owned. Now Chavell becomes the prime suspect in a murder case and asks Quant to help clear his name.

Not all police agencies are well-enough funded to have missing person departments. Some of them in fact hire missing person experts such as Donna Malane’s Diane Rowe. Rowe lives and works in Wellington, where she’s occasionally hired by the police to help search for people or match unknown remains to past reports of missing people. That’s what happens for instance in Surrender. In one plot thread of that novel, the remains of an unknown man are recovered from Rimutaka State Forest. Forensics evidence suggests the age (in his mid-to-late twenties) and the approximate time he disappeared (the mid-1970s), but nothing much else about him. So Rowe uses all of the resources at her disposal to trace the man’s identity and find out how and why he died. In My Brother’s Keeper, former prison inmate Karen Mackie hires Rowe to find her fourteen-year-old daughter Sunny, who’s been living with her father Justin. Justin has custody of the girl, but Mackie has no idea where he’s living or if he’s even using the same name. Rowe agrees to find Justin and Sunny if she can. But this isn’t just a case of a mother who wants to be reunited with her daughter. The reason Mackie was in prison in the first place was the murder of her son and the attempted murder of Sunny…

Except for people on parole, adults are generally legally free to go where they wish without necessarily letting anyone else know. So missing persons cases are very often complicated. They can use up a lot of resources, including time, and don’t always result in a ‘joyful reunion.’ But they can make for suspenseful and interesting crime novels. Which ones have stayed with you?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Phil Collins’ Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now).


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Donna Malane, Karin Fossum, Peter James, Peter Robinson

There Doesn’t Seem to Be Anyone Around*

Remote LocationsCrime fiction fans like their stories to be believable. And in a real-life murder, one of the challenges the killer faces is what to do with the body of the victim. In some cases, the body can be left at the scene of the murder. But in other situations, doing so could point the proverbial finger right at the murderer. For example, if the victim is killed in the murderer’s home or office, suspicion usually falls fairly quickly on the culprit. So the body has to be moved. Modern police forensics testing can determine whether a body’s been moved, but even so, moving a body can make it more challenging in a lot of ways to catch a killer. So of course, fictional murderers take this into account too.

When it’s possible, a lot of killers (at least fictional ones) like remote and inaccessible places. Even if the body is discovered at some point, enough time usually has gone by to make the detection process very difficult. That’s what the killer counts on in Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow. In that novel, Algonquin Bay (Ontario) police detectives John Cardinal and Lise Delorme investigate when the body of thirteen-year-old Katie Pine is discovered in an abandoned mine shaft on Windigo Island. She’s been missing for five months by that time, and as we learn in the novel, the trail has gotten cold. So Cardinal and Delorme face a difficult challenge in connecting her with her killer. In fact, it’s not until there’s another murder that they can really get some of the leads they need to find out the truth.

Donna Malane’s Diane Rowe is a Wellington-based missing persons expert. So she is consulted when the body of an unknown man is discovered in Rimutaka State Forest. The place where the body was found is in remote part of the forest, so it’s not surprising that it’s been there for a very long time. In fact, Rowe learns that the body has been there since the mid-1970s. At this point there’s vey little evidence to go on, but Rowe uses the little bits of information she does have to try to find out who the man was. The fact that the body was found in such an inacessible place certainly doesn’t make her task any easier, but Rowe eventually learns the truth about this ‘John Doe.’

In Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe Mma. Precious Ramotswe meets a new client, American ex-pat Andrea Curtin. Ten years ago, she and her husband were living in Botswana with their son Michael. When his parents returned to the US, Michael chose to remain behind and join an eco-commune. Not very long after joining that community he disappeared and was presumed killed by an animal. Now Andrea has returned to try to get some closure and find out what really happened to her son. Mma. Ramotswe agrees to find out what she can. Little by little, she traces Michael’s last months and weeks and in the end, she discovers the truth. Throughout the investigation though, her efforts are made all the more difficult by the fact that the community is in such a remote area that just about anything could have happened, and no-one would know.

Some fictional killers opt for bodies of water as places to leave bodies. The advantage of that is that lots of evidence gets washed away or at the very least considerably altered. That can often include evidence like time of death. That’s what happens for instance in Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective: Introducing Superintendant Peter Diamond. One evening, the body of an unknown woman is found at Chew Valley Lake, near Bristol. It’s difficult to discover who the victim is at first, in part because of having been submerged. After a few false starts, the woman is identified as TV personality Geraldine ‘Gerry’ Jackman. Because the body’s been left at the lake, it’s very difficult to trace the body back to the scene of the actual murder, and thus to the killer. Superintedant Peter Diamond and his assistant John Wigfull start of course with the victim’s husband. But there’s no clear evidence against him; nor is there an obvious motive. And there turn out to be other suspects too. As it turns out, the fact that the body was left in the lake add several complications to the case.

The first of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck novels, Roseanna, begins with the discovery of the body of an unknown woman in Sweden’s Lake Vattern. By the time the body is discovered, it’s been several months since the murder, and that’s one reason for which it’s very difficult to find out who the woman is. But after some time, she is identified as Roseanna McGraw, an American who was visiting Sweden when she was killed. The water has not just hidden the body, but also obliterated obvious evidence. So it takes a great deal of time and effort for Stockholm police inspector Martin Beck and his team to connect the victim with her killer. In the end though, and after a lot of perseverance, the team solves the case. There are of course lots of other examples too of fictional killers who use water as a place to leave a body (I know, I know, fans of Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase and of Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach).

For a different and darkly funny take on moving bodies, you may want to check out Rob Kitchin’s Stiffed. When Tadgh Maguire wakes one more morning after a night of drinking, he has much bigger problems than just his hangover. The body of local gangster Tony Marino is next to him in his bead. Maguire knows how short his life span will become if it gets around that he killed Marino, so he decides that the only thing to do is move the body. And that’s when the real trouble begins…

The less evidence there is, the harder it is for the police to link a murder victim to a killer. And the harder it is to find a body, the more time goes by and the less evidence is available. So it’s little wonder there are so many fictional examples of bodies left in remote areas or iin water. Ther are dozens of examples in crime fiction; which ones stand out for you?


ps. The ‘photo is of the Mojave Desert of Eastern California and Western Nevada. Lots of likely places there…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ritchie Cordell’s I Think We’re Alone Now, made famous by Tommy James and the Shondells.


Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Angela Savage, Donna Malane, Dorothy Sayers, Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö, Peter Lovesey, Rob Kitchin