Category Archives: Dorothy Gilman

Somewhere in the Swamps of Jersey*

As you might (or might not) know, I spent several years of my adult life in Philadelphia before moving to where I live now. At this time of year (just about summertime in the Northern Hemisphere), a lot of people in that area look forward to going ‘down the shore.’ For them, ‘down the shore’ means the Jersey shore.

Of course, New Jersey isn’t all shoreline. It’s a varied sort of state, with large cities, rural areas like the Pine Barrens, suburban developments….and crime. At least, fictionally speaking. Anyone who’s seen the US TV show The Sopranos can tell you that. The New Jersey Mafia certainly figures in the genre (right, fans of Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas?).

But New Jersey-based crime fiction is much more than Mob-related stories. Here are a few examples to show you what I mean. I know you’ll think of lots more than I could.

Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum is a fugitive recovery agent – a bounty hunter – who lives in the Trenton, New Jersey, area. Of course, fans can tell you that she didn’t start out in that career. Plum married early and was working in a department store as a lingerie buyer. Then, she discovered her husband was being unfaithful. She left him, ended up losing her job, and had to find other work. Her cousin, Vinnie Plum, owns a bail bond agency, and agrees to hire her to do clerical work. But before long, she starts doing fugitive recovery work, and gets her license. It turns out that she’s good at finding people who don’t want to be found.

Chris Grabenstein’s Danny Boyle starts out as a temporary ‘summer cop’ in his hometown, the mostly-tourist town of Sea Haven, New Jersey. Here’s how Boyle describes the place:

‘My hometown is best pictured on one of those perky placemat maps dotted with squiggly cartoons of buildings like The Shore Store, Santa’s Sea Shanty, and King Putt Golf.’

His job is mainly to manage traffic, issue parking tickets, and give directions to lost tourists. But, in Tilt a Whirl, Boyle and his boss, John Ceepak, are drawn into a case of murder when a real estate mogul’s body is found on an amusement park ride. As the series goes on, Boyle joins the regular police force, and he and Ceepak get involved in several different murder investigations.

In David Rosenfelt’s Open and Shut, we are introduced to Paterson, New Jersey, attorney Andy Carpenter. His father is a prominent District Attorney (DA) who leaves Carpenter a large fortune when he suddenly dies. He also leaves Carpenter with a strange request: to take the case of death-row prisoner Willie Miller. At first, Carpenter isn’t sure why his father would want so badly for him to defend Miller. But, before long, he discovers that Miller was framed. And the truth about the case goes to some very high and dangerous political places. Carpenter’s irreverent, and he doesn’t always play by the ‘usual’ rules. But he’s a very smart lawyer, and he finds ways within the law to get his job done.

James W. Fuerst’s Huge, set in the 1980s, is the story of twelve-year-old Eugene ‘Huge’ Smalls. Huge lives in a small town in Central New Jersey with his mother and his older sister, Eunice ‘Neecy.’ He’s extremely intelligent, but he has trouble in school, mostly because of his lack of social skills and his anger issues. But he doesn’t care much. Huge wants to be a detective, just like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. He gets his chance when his grandmother hires him to find out who defaced the sign at the elder care facility where she lives. Huge takes the case and starts to consider possible suspects.  And that runs him up against a local bully, among other people. The case isn’t as simple as Huge thinks it is, though, and he makes several discoveries as he searches for the truth – including some things about himself.

And then there’s Eoin Colfer’s Daniel McEvoy, a former peacekeeping solder who moved from his native Ireland to Cloister, New Jersey. When we meet him, in Plugged, he’s working security at a sleazy bar/casino called Slotz. He gets involved in a case of murder when one of his fellow employees, Connie DeLyne, is found murdered in the street near the club. She was a friend (and, briefly, more than a friend), so McEvoy wants to find out who killed her. That’s not to mention the fact that he doesn’t want to be under the police microscope himself. In Screwed, McEvoy is now the owner of Slotz, and he’s trying to make the place cleaner and more successful. Instead, he ends up tangling with the New Jersey underworld.

While many of Dorothy Gilman’s Emily Pollifax novels don’t really take place in New Jersey, she considers it home. In The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, we learn that Mrs. Pollifax is a New Brunswick, New Jersey, widow, living a comfortable suburban routine. She’s a little tired of the Garden Club, though, and her children are grown and on their own. So, she decides to serve her country by joining the CIA. No-one at the agency takes her seriously. In fact, she’s chosen for her first job exactly because she’s about as far from a CIA agent as her handlers think is possible. But Mrs. Pollifax turns out to be much better at espionage than anyone imagined…

See what I mean? New Jersey has more than its share of fictional crime. So, if you do head down the shore, be careful. You never know what might happen…


ps. The ‘photo is of Alstede Farms, in Chester, New Jersey. After all, New Jersey is called ‘The Garden State.’ Thanks,, for the lovely picture!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Rosalita (Come Out Tonight). Oh, come on, you can’t say you’re surprised I chose Springsteen!


Filed under David Rosenfelt, Dorothy Gilman, Eoin Colfer, James W. Fuerst, Janet Evanovich

The Spy Who Loved Me is Keepin’ All My Secrets Safe Tonight*

The spy thriller doesn’t really fit neatly into the crime fiction genre. Certainly there are crimes committed in spy stories; but those novels generally aren’t ‘whodunits,’ or even ‘why/howdunits.’ Their suspense comes from the ‘cat-and-mouse’ plot, or sometimes from the question of which characters can be trusted and which can’t. There are other ways, too, in which spy novelists add tension and suspense to their stories.

The spy novel can take a number of forms, too. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford have done their share of espionage. In novels such as By The Pricking of My Thumbs and N or M?, they find ways to outwit highly placed and well-funded spies. By no means are they bumbling amateurs, but they’re also not the sort of people we usually think of when we picture a ‘typical’ spy. And that’s part of what makes them successful.

It is for Dorothy Gilman’s Emily Pollifax, too. As fans can tell you, at the beginning of the series, she’s a widowed New Jersey woman with grown children. She’s looking for a new purpose when she sees an advertisement from the CIA. She’s selected for what’s supposed to be a very easy mission: a simple delivery to Mexico. No espionage or other spy activity is involved. But things don’t work out that way, and Mrs. Pollifax is soon in much deeper than anyone thought. As the series continues, she shows the advantage she has in not looking threatening. She’s simply a late-middle-aged woman going about her business. This series is cosier than a lot of spy series are; and in that sense, it’s not, strictly speaking just a set of spy novels. But it does show the diverse ways in which fictional spies find their way into the genre.

The Cold War between the UK, USA, and their allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies provided a very effective context for some memorable fictional spies and spy thrillers. For instance, it would be hard to discuss fictional spies without discussing the work of John le Carré. His George Smiley (and some of this other characters) have become iconic. And the stories are as much about the characters as they are about the espionage and the ‘thriller’ aspects of his novels. Novels such as Call For the Dead and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold take readers into the lives of the people in the various spy agencies. That makes them more human, and it’s one reason for which many people argue that he’s the best in the spy/espionage genre.

But there are plenty of others. Authors such as Len Deighton, Robert Ludlum and Jack Higgins have also created memorable stories. The Cold War has frequently been the context for those stories, but so has World War II and its aftermath.

Today’s world, of course, is a changing landscape in terms of geopolitical realities. And authors such as Daniel Silva and Tom Clancy have addressed those changes. So has le Carré, among others. And we can see in both this changing landscape and the sorts of spies and other espionage artists that there isn’t only one way to be a spy.

But in popular culture, perhaps the most memorable spy is Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Whether you’ve read the books, seen the films, or both, it’s hard to deny that character’s influence. And it’s not hard to see why. Bond is suave, sophisticated, and smart. He has all sorts of gadgetry at his disposal, and he travels in some of the highest circles. He’s got plenty of skills, too, from baccarat to boating. And there are the women…

Several actors have portrayed Bond over the years, and we could certainly debate about which one was the best Bond. One of them, Sir Roger Moore, left us yesterday, and he will be missed. In the years between 1973 and 1985, he took the role of Bond in films such as Live and Let Die, For Your Eyes Only, Moonraker and Octopussy. He may not have originated the role, but he definitely left his mark on the franchise.

I know, I know, fans of The Saint; he left his mark there, too.

What about you? Do you read espionage/spy novels like Fleming’s, Deighton’s, Ludlum’s or Clancy’s? Which spy characters have stayed with you?


In Memoriam

This post is dedicated to the memory of Sir Roger Moore, who brought Bond to life for many people.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager’s Nobody Does it Better.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Daniel Silva, Dorothy Gilman, Ian Fleming, Jack Higgins, John le Carré, Len Deighton, Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy

There Ain’t Nobody That Spies Like Us*

EspionageNot long ago I got a request to take a look at spy/espionage crime fiction and I can see why there’s such an interest in it.  Well-written spy thrillers have lots of suspense and tension, and there’s plenty of room for the author to add in plot twists. Some spy novels sacrifice rich and well-developed characters for the sake of a fast-moving plot and plenty of action. But the best espionage fiction shows us the human side of the characters involved. And it’s interesting how even novels that aren’t generally thought of as ‘spy fiction’ actually could be labelled that way, and several authors who aren’t usually thought of as ‘spy novel’ authors have written novels like that.

Spy fiction has been around for quite a long time. Arthur Conan Doyle’s last Sherlock Holmes story His Last Bow features an espionage plot. In that story, which takes place just before World War I, Holmes and Watson investigate a German émigré named Van Bork. Van Bork has quietly been gathering information on the British government for a few years and plans to turn over what he has gotten to his own government. Holmes and Watson come up with a brilliant plan to stop Van Bork before he can do any damage and the end of this story is really (in my opinion) quite effective.

Agatha Christie mentions spies and spying quite frequently in her stories, even those that don’t focus on espionage. And fans of her Tommy and Tuppence Beresford novels will know that they’ve dabbled in espionage more than once. In N or M? for instance, the Beresfords are middle-aged and considered too old for regular active espionage duty. But then, Tommy gets a new mission. A British agent has discovered that a pair of German spies has landed in England and that one of them is likely staying at the Sans Souci, a hotel/guest residence in Leahampton. Tommy is asked to go to the Sans Souci and find out whether one of the other guests is the spy. This mission doesn’t include Tuppence, but of course, that doesn’t stop her. When Tommy arrives at the Sans Souci, she’s already there under the name of Mrs. Blenkensop. The Beresfords work to find out who the spy is and soon find that they’re in quite a bit of danger themselves. In the end, a chance discovery in an unexpected (and therefore, quite effective) hiding place puts the Beresfords on the right trail.

The Cold War between the US, the UK and their allies, and the USSR and its allies lasted for decades and gave rise to some of the best-known spy/espionage thrillers. Authors such as Robert Ludlum have created memorable spy novels that have the Cold War as their backdrop. Perhaps the best-known (and in my opinion, one of the most talented) of these authors is John le Carré. He’s written (among others) several novels featuring British agent George Smiley. Two that stand out (at least for me; your mileage, as the saying goes, may vary) are Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Tinker, Tailor… is the first of the Smiley novels. In it, George Smiley has been forced into early retirement and a new crop of agents has gotten into power. Everything changes though when it’s learned that a Soviet mole has penetrated the highest levels of British Intelligence. It’s soon clear to Smiley that his old nemesis Karla, a mysterious Soviet spy leader, is behind this breach of British security and he goes back on the job to catch the mole and stop Karla. Smiley plays a smaller role in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. In that story British agent Alec Leamas is recalled from East Germany when several of his team members are killed on his watch. Then, when his best agent is killed, he’s asked to take on one last assignment: the murder of Hans Dieter Mundt, who’s responsible for the killings. Want to know more about le Carré? Sure you do. Check out a superb post on his work at Mrs. Peabody Investigates, an excellent crime fiction review-and-news blog that richly deserves a place on any crime fiction fan’s blog roll.

The Cold War isn’t the only backdrop for spy thrillers. After the end of World War II, there was a great deal of speculation about Nazi plots to re-establish themselves as a world power, and plenty of spy fiction deals with that prospect. For instance, there’s Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil, in which Yakov Liebermann, a Nazi-hunter, discovers a frightening plan to re-create the Third Reich. And there’s Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File in which journalist Peter Miller happens to be covering the suicide of Holocaust survivor Solomon Tauber. A diary he finds eventually leads to a top-secret worldwide organisation dedicated to re-establishing a Nazi regime.

There are also plenty of spy/secret agent stories in which the ‘targets’ aren’t just Cold War or Nazi enemies but different sorts of international criminals and crime rings. For instance, Victor Banis’ The Man From C.A.M.P. introduces us to LA secret agent Jackie Holmes. In the first of those stories, Holmes works with an agent from the US Department of the Treasury to catch a gang of counterfeiters. And there’s Len Deighton’s ‘Harry Palmer,’ whom we meet in The Ipcress File. In that novel, ‘Palmer’ and his colleagues in a special department known as WOOC(P) investigate the case of several scientists who’ve disappeared. There’s also Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon, who works for a special Israeli Intelligence department called The Office. He’s gone after international arms traffickers, terrorists, and other groups as well.

Spies and spy novels come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, as the saying goes. For instance, there’s Dorothy Gilman’s Emily Pollifax, who in The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax decides to give up her middle-class suburban widhowhood and become a CIA agent. As an elderly ‘grandmotherly’ type, she hardly looks like a spy, but she’s quite resourceful and gets quite good at her job.

And of course, no discussion of spy thrillers or espionage stories would be complete without a mention of Ian Fleming’s Bond. James Bond. Dashing and ever-resourceful, Bond epitomises the fantasy intelligence agent. The Bond novels and films were many people’s first introduction to spy fiction.

Feel free to differ with me if you do, but in my opinion, the best espionage thrillers are those that develop the characters of the people involved. They do have action and suspense. There might even be a gun battle or explosion or two. And there’s that little matter of the escapism they offer. But they are also stories about believable people. What do you think? Do you read spy fiction? What about it appeals to you? If you dislike it, what about it puts you off? I promise; I won’t blow your cover…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s Spies Like Us.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Daniel Silva, Dorothy Gilman, Ian Fleming, Ira Levin, John le Carré, Len Deighton, Robert Ludlum, Victor Banis

So I Don’t Mind Masquerading With all Those Other Fools*

It’s the time of year when people put on masks and pretend to be someone quite different. Of course, fictional sleuths do this all the time. When people know they’re suspected of a crime, especially something like murder, they’re on their guards. They’re very careful about what they say, and certainly not much help to the sleuth. And most sleuths know that “strong-arming” a suspect isn’t going to result in the truth. So sleuths sometimes adopt guises that encourage people to drop their guards and say more than they think they’re saying.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes has been known to use physical disguises. For instance, in The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, he and Watson have taken the case of Lady Eva Brackwell, who’s fallen prey to a notorious blackmailer named Charles Augustus Milverton. Milverton has some compromising letters that Lady Eva wrote and has threatened to give them to her fiancé unless she pays dearly. Holmes determines to get the letters back, but he doesn’t know where Milverton keeps them. So he disguises himself as a plumber and strikes up a courtship with one of Milverton’s maids, from whom he soon learns the layout of the house. In the end, he and Watson get the letters, but while they’re there, one of Milverton’s other victims finds her own way to get compromising evidence back.

Not all fictional sleuths use physical disguises. Here are just a few of the other sorts of guises that sleuths adopt when they’re trying to get to the truth of a case.


The Buffoon

When suspects believe they’ve got the upper hand, especially if the sleuth doesn’t seem particularly clever, they relax their guard and often say things they didn’t intend to say. So some sleuths adopt a guise of being dull-witted or at the very least unsophisticated. They want suspects to be condescending and contemptuous of them; that’s the way they put suspects off their guards.

For example, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot does that quite effectively. In After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), Poirot investigates the death of wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie. At first it seems that Abernethie died a natural death. But at his funeral, his younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that her brother was murdered. No-one believes her; in fact she quickly retracts the remark. But the next day, Cora herself is murdered. Now it seems that she was right; someone murdered Richard Abernethie and then murdered his sister to keep her quiet. The Abernethie family lawyer Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. At one point, he attends a family gathering in the guise of a representative from an organisation that wants to buy Enderby Hall, the family home. He adopts his most foreign manner and pretends he doesn’t understand much English. Soon enough, everyone relaxes around him and more than one person says something unguarded – including the murderer. It’s the family’s contempt for him as “just some foreigner” that makes them comfortable enough to say things they wouldn’t otherwise say.

Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel uses the guise of the buffoon, too. He doesn’t have “company manners,” he doesn’t use educated speech and when he wants to, he can play “the stupid boor” as well as anyone. And that’s exactly how he gets people to let their guards down. Underneath that boorish exterior is a brilliant detective. That guise is part of how he gets to the bottom of the five-year-old murder of Alison Girling in An Advancement of Learning, for instance. That novel takes place mostly on the campus of Holm Coultram College, where Girling had been president until she disappeared five years earlier. It was presumed that she had lost her life in a freak avalanche during a skiing holiday, but when her body turns up on campus, it’s clear that she was murdered. Dalziel and Sergeant Peter Pascoe are sent to investigate. From the start of the case, no-one on campus has a lot of respect for Dalziel, even though he’s a cop. And that’s precisely what Dalziel uses to get to the truth. Not being highly educated, he’s not comfortable in the intellectual atmosphere of the campus, but he still manages to get people to drop their guards; he even gets things by Pascoe, who is no mental slouch himself.


The Harmless Elderly Lady/Gentleman

Some sleuths, such as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax, use the fact that they’re not  – er – twenty anymore to their advantage. In novels such as Christie’s The Body in the Library and Gilmore’s The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, these two sleuths go up against some formidable opponents. In both cases, though, they manage to put people off their guards. They’re elderly women who aren’t physically strong. They adopt an almost scatty manner that makes their conversation non-threatening, too. So people say more than they think they’re saying. They reckon, too, without these sleuths’ sharp wits and deductive abilities. And in the end, that assumption that these sleuths are not a threat proves to be the culprits’ undoing.

The same thing is true of Chris Wells’ Earl Walker. Walker is a retired schoolbus driver who was left paralysed by a gunshot. Walker isn’t naturally an outgoing person, and since he’s confined to a wheelchair, he doesn’t seem to present much of a threat. But Walker’s injury was only physical. His wits are as keen as ever. suspects and witnesses, though, sometimes see only an elderly man in a wheelchair who doesn’t present much of a threat to them. So they let their guard down around him.


All Friends Here – It’s Just Us

It’s not easy for a police officer to get witnesses and suspects to relax and let down their guards. For most people, their first instinct – especially if they’re hiding something – is to say as little as possible to the police. But some fictional sleuths are good at adopting guises that make them seem so sympathetic that witnesses can’t help relaxing. For example, in Donna Leon’s Suffer the Little Children, Commissario Guido Brunetti is investigating a possible baby-trafficking ring. The case starts when the eighteen-month-old adopted son of Dr. Gustavo Pedrolli is taken form his home in the middle of the night. It turns out that the Carabinieri was conducting a raid on the ring and discovered that Pedrolli’s son might have been illegally adopted. Slowly, Brunetti gets to the truth about this ring; as a part of his investigation, he has an interview with Pedrolli’s father-in-law, who has some strong reactionary views. Brunetti pretends to go along with those views and prompts the man to say much more than he otherwise would have said.

Rhys Bowen’s Constable Evan Evans is skilled at using that strategy, too. He’s constable in the small Welsh town of Llanfair. Since he “belongs” there and is himself Welsh, the locals know him well. They know he’s a cop, but he’s frequently able to put people at their ease and find out what he wants to know simply because he’s “one of them.”

Of course, underneath that guise are detectives who are bent on finding out the truth. They want to find out whodunit and they use their skill at adopting guises to do just that. What guises do your favourite sleuths use?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s When in Rome.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Chris Well, Donna Leon, Dorothy Gilman, Reginald Hill, Rhys Bowen

Well, She Was an American Girl*

One of the great things about crime fiction sleuths is that no two sleuths are exactly alike. Sleuths may have similarities to one another but each well-drawn sleuth is distinctive. Today (or tomorrow, depending on where you live and when you read this) it’s Independence Day in the U.S., so I thought it might be interesting to take a look at just one kind of character – the American female sleuth – and see just how diverse that category really is. It’s one reason for which those “If you like….” book stickers can be so misleading…

Some of the ladies of American crime fiction are tough, hard-drinking, even gritty. Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski’s like that. She’s no-nonsense and quite independent, and can hold her own. Those qualities serve her well in her “home turf” of Chicago, which can be a rough-and-tumble city. Warshawski needs that “hard shell” because some of the people she goes up against are very nasty. That doesn’t mean, though, that she has no compassion. For instance, in Indemnity Only, she’s hired by a man claiming to be banking magnate John Thayer. Thayer wants her to find the missing girlfriend of his son Paul. Warshawski agrees and begins her search at the apartment where Paul and his girlfriend live. When she finds Paul Thayer’s body there, Warshawski knows that this is far more than a simple missing-persons case and gets herself involved with fraud, union racketeering and murder. She also meets John Thayer’s fourteen-year-old daughter Jill, for whom she feels a great deal of compassion and whom she tries to keep safe through it all.

But of course, Warshawski is not the only no-nonsense, tough PI out there. If you like V.I. Warshawski, you’ll love Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone ;-). In all seriousness, Millhone, too, is not afraid to take on “the big boys” when she’s on a case. She “backed into” private investigation after she decided that a career in the military wasn’t for her, and after a few years with a larger firm, she struck out on her own. Millhone lives and works in Southern California, where her cases range from clearing an innocent person’s name, to “white-collar crime” to police corruption and more. For instance, in N is for Noose, Selma Newquist asks Millhone to investigate the death of her husband, Tom. Tom Newquist was sixty-five and not in the best of health, so no-one is surprised at first when he dies of a heart attack. But his widow thinks there was more to it. So Millhone visits the town of Nota Lake to follow up on an investigation Tom Newquist had been conducting when he died. It turns out that he believed one of his law-enforcement colleagues was responsible for two murders in Millhone’s town of Santa Teresa. As Millhone tries to look into the case, she finds that nobody in Nota Lake is eager to help her, and that more than one person wants her dead. The interesting thing is that Millhone and Warshawski are quite distinct. Yes, they are both what you might call “hard boiled” PI’s. But they have distinct personalities and backstories. For instance, Millhone’s family history is more troubled than Warshawski’s is. They speak differently, they act differently and they have different approaches to solving cases.

There are also sleuths who aren’t the “no-nonsense, tough-as-nails, hard-hitting” type. For instance, there’s Tony Hillerman’s Bernadette “Bernie” Manuelito. She’s a member of the Navajo Tribal Police and the Navajo Nation, and a former member (albeit briefly) of the U.S. Border Patrol. She’s courageous and independent, as we see in The Sinister Pig, which takes place during her stint with the Border Patrol. In that novel, Manuelito takes some photographs of suspicious construction activity at the Tuttle exotic game ranch. She brings this activity to the attention of her superiors, who inform her that the Border Patrol “looks the other way” with regards to the Tuttle ranch in exchange for assistance from Tuttle ranch employees with patrolling the border and reporting illegal immigrants. Manuelito accepts this explanation until it turns out that some very nasty criminals along the U.S./Mexican border have targeted her. Manuelito discusses the situation with her former boss, Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee and with retired Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, who work with her to find out what’s going on at the Tuttle ranch and how that’s connected to an unidentified dead man who’s been going by the name of Carl Mankin.

If you like Tony Hillerman’s Bernie Manuelito, then you’ll like Margaret Coel’s Vicky Holden ;-). In all seriousness, like Manuelito, Holden is a Native American. But there, the resemblance ends. Holden is an attorney who’s also a member of Colorado’s Arapaho Nation. She’s the ex-wife of an alcoholic, and works closely with Father John O’Malley, himself a recovering alcoholic. O’Malley’s been assigned to the Wind River Reservation, and that’s the scene of many of the sleuths’ cases. For instance, in The Eagle Catcher, their first pairing, Holden and O’Malley find out who murdered Harvey Castle, the Arapaho Tribal Chairman. The evidence points to his nephew Anthony Castle. But Holden and O’Malley don’t believe Anthony Castle is guilty. So they investigate and find a connection between Harvey Castle’s death and a very old case of land theft and murder.

And then there are sleuths who seem non-threatening, even gentle, on the outside, but who are forces to be reckoned with when they’re on the case. For instance, there’s Dorothy Gilman’s Emily Pollifax, a New Jersey widow who makes her debut in The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax. In that novel, Mrs. Pollifax applies for a job as a CIA agent when she decides her garden isn’t enough to occupy her. Through a case of mistaken identity, she’s assigned to what seems at first like a very easy “delivery job.” Instead, she gets involved in a complicated case that ends up landing her in an Albanian prison. Mrs. Pollifax is unassuming and non-threatening on the surface, but “bad guys” cross her at their peril.

Fans of Mrs. Pollifax are sure to love Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Lulu Taylor ;-). Like Mrs. Pollifax, Lulu Taylor is a widow with an unassuming demeanor. But that’s about all they have in common. Lulu Taylor’s quite appealing in her own right. She lives in Memphis, where she owns Aunt Pat’s Barbecue, a restaurant that’s been in the family for generations. In Delicious and Suspicious, Rebecca Adrian, malicious food scout for the Cooking Channel, is poisoned just hours after having eaten at Aunt Pat’s. And in Finger Lickin’ Dead, an anonymous restaurant critic who goes by the pen name of Eppie Currian, starts writing horrible reviews of area restaurants including Aunt Pat’s. In both cases, Aunt Pat’s (and therefore Lulu Taylor) get drawn into the mystery and Lulu Taylor determines to find out who the real killer is. Lulu Taylor has a strong sense of family and a true love of good food. She doesn’t get involved with international espionage as Mrs. Pollifax does, and she has a completely different approach to solving the puzzles she faces.

There are a lot of other examples of the ladies of American crime fiction; you can probably think of more than I could. As I’m sure you know, they’re as diverse a group as there is. So don’t believe those book stickers ;-). They’re older, younger, and middle-aged. They have good families and tragic families. They’re married, divorced, in relationships and determinedly single. They’re rich, poor, middle-class and everywhere in-between. They’re of all races and live everywhere. And yup, they’re all American girls. Here’s to ‘em! Which ones do you like best?


To all of my American friends, have a happy and safe Fourth of July celebration!!




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Petty’s American Girl.


Filed under Dorothy Gilman, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Margaret Coel, Riley Adams, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Tony Hillerman